Happiness is a mask worn in public

themask_jim02

Recently, I’ve heard so many first- and second-hand accounts from people in unhealthy relationships here in Japan. Some of them are intercultural like mine, but some are two ‘typical’ Japanese people. It amazes me what constitutes a marriage or relationship here; certainly not what I grew up learning.

Here, relationships can be a thing of convenience, power, prestige, etc. It’s not that uncommon to hear of a woman marrying or chasing a man based solely on his job/salary, marrying a guy or getting pregnant so she can quit her job and lounge about at home in PJs and play mobile phone games (while totally ignoring the man, except for his paychecks), or hear of a married man tolerating his wife’s infidelity, lies, and sexual withholdings just to keep the benefits that come along with being married. Interestingly, I’ve witnessed the latter point directly as prospective job-seekers are grilled during interviews about their intentions with a significant other, and some partially overlooked because of the perception that single people are somehow less trustworthy.

Internally, so many people here are unhappy because they have compromised what western people might idealize (true love) when settling into a relationship, in exchange for a family name, a title, an income bracket, etc., yet in public, you’ll see one or both people present the most enviable kind of happiness; a mask they both wear, because to show the opposite invites gossip, distrust, and shame.

It’s just my opinion, but I find the idea repulsive. We only get one chance at our one life, and then we’re done. Our pursuit of happiness is our only real purpose, and as a social species, that pursuit often includes others. Compromising or eschewing altogether our happiness for something else–especially of material value–seems akin to self-mutilation or prostituting oneself.

Not that long ago, especially here in Japan, many unions were more or less arranged; young men and women were tossed into situations their families deemed beneficial. It seems certain aspects of that outlook on marriage have managed to survive where the obvious (and more controversial on the world stage) parts have not.

I certainly don’t have intentions of upending any of the local customs, but when I see, hear, and live on the receiving end of it, it’s incredibly hard to sit idle. Japanese people are generally known for their suppression of feeling, or at least the outward expression of it; is it better to trade one’s happiness for something else, and lie to the world from behind a mask and a fake smile?

Single-serving friends

Fight Club image
You are by far the most interesting single serving friend I’ve ever met

If you’ve ever seen the movie Fight Club (1999), AND saw it in English, you might remember this idea from a conversation early in the story.

The narrator (Edward Norton’s character) is talking to Tyler Durden, his seat mate on a trip, when he mentions the concept of “single-serving friends”. For anyone who travels with any regularity, they are likely familiar with single-serving experiences…hotels and airlines typically provide patrons everything from toiletries to dining condiments in very small doses intended to be completely exhausted after just one use.

In this situation however, the narrator extends the concept to include the people one meets while traveling as well; equating the temporary acquaintances we share the intimate space around us for several hours—space typically reserved exclusively for only our closest friends, families, or significant others—with so many tiny vials of shampoo; almost certainly a brand we’ve never tried, are reluctant to open, yet are nudged by the forces of circumstance to sample anyway.

I can’t speak for Japanese culture, but it’s quite common in America that strangers occupying adjoining seats on a bus, train, airplane, or even roller coaster to make use of their temporary closeness to strike up a friendly conversation…no strings attached. Of course while common, not all people choose to exercise this opportunity, but for those who do, they can make single-serving friends whom they discard once the physical proximity is severed.

Since Fight Club was released, this phrase’s connotation has evolved to include a longer stretch of time than just the couple hours while in each other’s immediate presence. For example, the doorman at your hotel, a recurring face at a weekend conference, etc. As it turns out, being a foreign student (or teacher) exposes one to lots of these experiences, for better or worse. Other teachers, other students, are all essentially single-serving relationships that are all fated to last only until one of the parties reaches their predetermined departure date and returns to their home country. Of course this isn’t always the case and a certain small percentage of people can become long-term friends, but the vast majority we will cease to communicate with, think about, or sometimes even remember once the experience and environment binding us ends. As we say in English, “out of sight, out of mind”.

It’s a sobering kind of reality I wasn’t prepared for when I first began teaching Japanese and Korean students in San Francisco. At that time, I was mainly working pro-bono as a kind of hobby and to gain experience with other cultures, but also to make friends. After the first few months, I was pretty taken aback when in one month all but one of my friends/students left, most of them rather suddenly. All of the people with whom I’d built personal relationships or quasi-professional rapports evaporated overnight like moist footprints on the marbled floor of a business lobby. While I connected via email or Facebook with many of them, as any avid user of social-media comes to realize, they are excellent tools for passive, spectating interpersonal relationships, but awful at generating meaningful discourse or fostering healthy bonds. Within days or weeks, despite being digitally connected, our immediate lives took priority, pushing aside those things and people who were no longer a part of our daily routines.

So too has this been my reality as both a student and teacher here in Sapporo. Throughout my first year as a student at a Japanese language school making a good number of friends and even more casual acquaintances, nearly all of them reverted to strangers once they—or eventually I too—left the school. As a teacher, I prepare many of my students for international experiences: living, working, or traveling abroad; a special presentation; a job promotion; etc. Once the time comes for each student to fly (literally and figuratively), our brief time together instantly becomes a collection of memories, not a real, living connection with another person.

This introspection came after the last of my remaining classmates and one of my closest friends in Sapporo—someone I met on my very first day here—recently returned to his home country. Most of my daily encounters are professional, making a circle of friends a very finite clique indeed. So to realize that I have in fact come full circle (I arrived in Japan with no friends, and have in some ways regressed to that same ‘tabula rasa’ state) is another of those sobering moments, courtesy of the revolving-door that is intercultural living.

As everyone ages, we all eventually come to understand the impermanence of everything in life, but it has nevertheless been interesting comparing the relative rates of change an average person experiences solidly planted in their own, native culture with that of an internationally-affected person. It seems not only do all things change, but at relative paces. As I turn 35 this weekend, I feel particularly aware of this phenomenon, and find greater appreciation in the more stable aspects of my very volatile existence.

ジャンボ (Jumbo)

Jumbo Dogs: Habañero and Mustard/Ketchup
Jumbo Dogs: Habañero and Mustard/Ketchup

So last weekend, I was presented with several dining options, all seemingly derived from American origins.

First, as shown above, are corn dogs. At this particular 祭り (matsuri), or festival, were hundreds of small selling stands, each with their own offerings: desserts, trinkets, grilled meats, etc.; and of course there were several stands with corn dogs…curiously, sometimes named “French Dog”, others “American Dog”. Both sell completely identical food; essentially the same as corn dogs in the US.

But the one stand that interested me was one labelled “Jumbo Dogs”. Not only are they noticeably larger (roughly 50%), but the added girth requires a heavier-duty skewer as well. In this case, the stick was almost beefy enough for billiards use.

I was interested in this stand not because of the size…in fact during my past year-plus here, I’ve noticed my eating habits changing to appreciate smaller servings, versus the American method of eating giant helpings with big mouthfuls. No, I was interested in this because of the sweat-inducing habañero sauce applied generously instead of ketchup or mustard. It makes my fingers, lips, and tongue burn like almost nothing else in this country can. It’s a special treat I get but once a year, and only at this festival.

The second “American” food laid before me was KFC. It’s no secret that in the US, I don’t eat fast food or anything like it. KFC is an especially notorious restaurant, not only for their frequent quality control issues, but also for ranking as one of the most unhealthy places to eat in America. So you can imagine my lack of enthusiasm for sampling whatever they serve in this country.

As it turns out, the Japanese are much more strict and keen about quality and safety when it comes to their food; the same dodgy tricks and ingredients food companies get away with in America simply don’t cut it here. That’s not to say they have a clean record; recently some things like HFCS have been slowly filtering into the processed foods, especially breads/carbs.

The healthier aspects of food here and numerous online accounts vouching for it were at least encouraging. And after reluctantly trying a bit, I can say that KFC in Japan is: totally edible.

But that’s as far as I’ll go. I prefer the native friend chicken, 唐揚げ (karaage), by a very wide margin. I will also say that KFC is really just a name; the taste, recipe, and indeed preparation are very, very different from its Kentucky origins and shares almost nothing in common, just the “FC” part…no “K”.

I don’t anticipate ever eating any more of it, but it is an interesting experience/experiment nonetheless. If you’re a KFC fan, you have nothing to lose by trying it for yourself should you land in Japan someday.

怠け者、僕は (lazy bastard)

Right down the rabbit hold: a never ending cycle.
Right down the rabbit hole: a never ending cycle.

Ok, so I am a bit lazy when it comes to updating this.

Part of that comes from being overly busy doing things like job hunting, job working, establishing a life and family in a foreign country, etc.; but part of it comes from the sizable mountain of content that I’ve already accumulated…it’s a bit overwhelming even knowing where to begin. Literally thousands upon thousands of photos.

As part of my job-seeking, I will inexorably need to update this site and its content in the very near future. Stay tuned.

富良野と旭岳 (Furano and Asahidake)

Both famous Hokkaido locations for different reasons, this was an awesome weekend trip. Plenty of dessert and other good food, relaxing twilight hot springs, and some really incredible views. I’m not sure I could choose any one thing as the best.. it was all incredible.

Enjoy a few photos and “my first short film”, which is really just something I shot on the gondola ride down the mountain, and then swapped in some elegant music. In fact the scenery is majestic, the music elegant; the only thing out of place in that equation was me, in a U2 t-shirt, jeans, and mountaintop, wind-swept hair.