Saturday, October 31, 2009

Welcome to College

Hi-ya from Dublin!!

I think all of you know that this is where I am calling home for the next few years since Japan had enough of my loud, egocentric American ways, not to mention that the world thought that I would better fare in a country where English was widely spoken (although, in Ireland, that's debatable), so that I stop making lude advances towards innocent business men and then excuse those advances by saying that I didn't speak the language. Please, everyone knows that English is the only language that should be spoken around the world! Get with the program foreign people!!

Also, most of you know that I just finished my first semester of medical school, and the rumors are right about it. It's hard! The fact that I have to memorize, like, so many body parts is ludicrous! What is Wikipedia for anyway?

Joking aside, med school is crazy stressful. You can pretty much kiss any delusions you have of keeping your normal life good-bye. You know, normal, human things like sleeping, eating, conversing with people about things other than cystic fibrosis or transamination reactions. During finals week, I slept for 14 hours from Monday to Thursday, and even that was probably too much. But as much as it is stressful and all the moments I have contemplated jumping out of my 4th floor window, I love it. I recommend it to anyone who is as much of a masochist as I am, and loves the daily reminder that you really are an idiot. It is exhilarating.

So, what's it like to be back in college, you might ask? Here is a list that may help you feel as if you are there with me;

How you know you are back in College:

1) You are invited to a toga party
2) You have a 20 year old roommate who wears a sequined halter top as a skirt on her way out the door singing a song by Miley Cyrus
3) You are surrounded by a whole different species: 18 year olds
4) You see two girls taking a stance against society and making out in the hallway of the school
5) Your vocabulary expands with words like "mind-blowingly drunk"
6) You are aroused from bed due to a fire alarm that someone thought would be funny to set off at 1am and then questioned by the college warden if you have seen a blue smurf running through the courtyard
7) You are lulled to sleep at night with statements like "We're gonna get pissed!" or "Take your pants off!" that take place in the courtyard below your room
8) The following morning, you step over a prostrate body in the hallway who made true to his word the night before, sans pants
9) A new species of tree emerges in the courtyard made of beer cans and Christmas balls
10) You are viewed as an exotic and potentially dangerous zoo animal at the age of 31

Other than my obnoxiously childish roommate who truly believes that Peru is a mythical place, that "vicariously" is a word I used to insult her, and that Miley Cyrus is actually talented, college is pretty good. Dublin is a cool city and I am enjoying living there. Unfortunately, since it is a Western country that is fairly civilized (sorry, Eoin), I don't have any real haphazard cross-cultural experiences. I do, however, have a cross-generational experience with my previously mentioned roommate who accused those of us living with her that we were "bullying" and "intimidating" her on a daily basis. She even went so far as to say that she "can't live with the abuse anymore!" If, by abuse, she means that we are constantly in our rooms, behind closed doors, studying our brains out and seeing her once a week, if at all, then yes, we are guilty as charged. One day, her claims were emphatically performed with hyperventilation and tears of sheer agony for the warden when he was called up to our room by her panicked phone call. He told us later that the phone call was so hysterical that he thought "we were beating her with a rolling pin." I hope I don't have to tell anyone that these claims were outlandish. Come on, locking her in her closet for a few days hardly constitutes abuse! Besides, it gave her time to plan her outfits for the next month (this, she informed me one day, was the hardest part of her morning. I wish I was joking).

After meetings with the warden, welfare officers, and crazed roommate it was decided that she was in fact a lunatic and it would be in everyone's best interest for her to move out at the beginning of the year. I don't think we will be BFF or Facebook friends anymore. Shame, really. I was beginning to enjoy the song "Party in the USA" (If you don't know this song, look it up so you can empathize with my pain, and if you do know this song, you should be ashamed of yourself).

Other than the roommate drama, med school is med school. Dublin is Dublin. I am doing my best to fit in, but naturally there are some things I can't hide, like my overall New York attitude. This came out on one occasion where I was supposed to meet my assigned family for a class that I am taking. The class requires us to spend some time with a new born baby and mother and monitor the normal development of the child. My family happens to be from an area that is on the lower socio-economic scale and therefore the area is a little on the sketchy side. It is no East Harlem, but nonetheless, it is a place to be careful in. Anyway, the day I am to meet with my family, Dublin does what it does best, it pours. It was raining so hard, my umbrella was an utter disappointment and fired immediately. I arrive to the address I was given, looking literally like I decided it would be far more appropriate to swim there, fully clothed. There was no way around it, I was a mess. But, duty calls, and with as much professionalism I could muster, I rang the bell. An Irish man answered the door and sees me standing there, looking like an orphan pulled out from the gutter, excited and smiling radiantly. He looked a little less excited.

Man: Yes?

Andrea (attempting to step into his house): Hello, I am here for my appointment.

Man (blocking my attempt): What appointment?

Andrea (slowly putting one soaked leg past the door): My appointment to meet the baby. Is (we'll call the mother, Sarah) Sarah home?

Man (beginning to close the door and shaking his head): Sarah? You have the wrong address, miss.

Andrea (slowly and more discreetly putting my second soaked leg into the closing door): No, impossible. Isn't this (address)?

Man (eyes widening in disbelief and maybe slight panic): Yes, but there is no Sarah here.

Andrea (suspicious and putting one arm past the semi-closed door): Are you sure?

Obviously, in my mind, he must be mistaken and I began to scan the house.

Man (slightly annoyed and probably beginning to fear for his safety): Uh, yeah, I am sure. This is my house.

Andrea (sensing his innappropriate hostility but going for my second arm past the almost-closed door) Hmm. I see. Well, do you have a baby in there?

Man (really annoyed): No, miss, I don't!

Andrea (encouraged by my four limbs now past the door, and attempting my torso): Are you sure?

At this point, I showed him the paper with the address on it trying to convince him that I was in the right place and that he was not. I am still not sure why he didn't just slam the door in my face by now, but he didn't so I kept trudging on and moving more body parts into his house.

Man (extremely annoyed): YES! There is NO BABY here!!

Andrea (completely non-plussed by this irrational outburst and disappointed that I was still getting wet and that my torso was still not past the threshold): Hmm. Well, what is your name then?

The door closed. All four limbs and torso now outside of the door. Still wet.

As any rational person would do, I went to the next house and asked the same series of questions. Again, to no avail. Deciding that it was probably better to leave the community of Tallaght in peace, I called the family I was supposed to see. It turns out, the man was in the right place after all. The address I had included an extra number. Damn! I hate being wrong.

I decided to make my family visit as quick as possible so I could leave the area and avoid questions from the Dublin police. I thought that it may be hard to explain in my American accent, with my cheeks streaked with black mascara, nose dripping with more than water, hair completely slicked down across my head, and my clothes taking on a new form-fitted, yet misshapen look as to why I was trying to prove to a man in his own house that he didn't in fact live there. I thought that maybe the police would take his side, especially since he did live there. After all, I can't very well learn how to treat patients if I am fitted for a white jacket and become one myself.

Ah, Dublin. I have arrived!

Miss you all!


Sunday, August 2, 2009

The mysteries of Japanese hospitality

As many of you know I have concluded my year in Japan. I am finally back in good old New York City, anxiously awaiting my next world tour (to Europe this time) commencing in September. However, it would have been very un-Andrea like to leave Japan without incident and, true to form, I managed to kick up something.

The last weekend I was in Japan, I was wined and dined by my students. One thing Japanese people know how to do is provide hospitality, and they do it perfectly. One of my most hospitable evenings was with a student who is a successful liquor importer. I always enjoyed teaching him because he was a gentleman and a pleasure to have in my class. Anyway, this evening he outdid himself. He treated my co-worker, Stephen, and I to a dinner at a traditional Japanese restaurant, fully equipped with a private room, a full vegetarian dinner for me (which is extremely difficult in Japan-yes, believe it), a sushi and sashimi menu for Stephen, and bottle after exquisite bottle of wine. Given that he imports the stuff, the wine we had was the premium of premiums running about a quarter months rent in NYC (probably a studio on the lower east side). By the end of the evening, we had eaten and drank our fill and decided it was time to part ways. Since my student and I (I will name him Toshi) lived near each other, we shared a cab.

The cab ride was fairly long which gave us plenty of time to say our goodbyes and make small talk. However, the small talk that I was trying to make was becoming increasingly difficult since the Louis Latour was now swimming through my head and the exhaustion of my last week at work was finally catching up with me. Needless to say, I was not in the best form and becoming rather careless with my words. Since Toshi was taking my class to learn English, he still tip toed through the language and very often had difficulty understanding parts of our conversation, therefore I was using my minimal Japanese in order to facilitate our small talk. The combination of being slightly tipsy, extremely tired, and two people with a shaky grasp on each others language is a recipe for some serious miscommunication.

Andrea(in English): So, what are your plans for the rest of the year?

Toshi(in Japanese): Ah, I don't understand.

Andrea (in English): Um, ok, what will you do for the rest of the year, you know, August, September, October, November, December? What will you do?

Toshi (in Japanese): What? One more time please...

Andrea (in Japanese and I have translated the literal meaning to English): From now, what you are going to do?

Toshi (in English): Um (long pause) my wife. She very important to me...

Andrea (in English): Oh, o...k. (and then the horrible realization) OH!

Toshi (in halting English): Yes, she is very important to me. My wife.

Taken completely off guard, and cursing myself for not adding the simple word of "this year" to my sentence, I didn't know what to say and instead stared out of the window of the cab, eyes wide open and my tongue glued to the bottom of my mouth. I said nothing, most likely incriminating myself further in my own adulterous advances. A few minutes passed, and still we sat in complete silence. The cab that seemed to go on forever. The cab that never, ever seemed to stop. I briefly contemplated opening the door and jumping out, such was my embarrassment, but given that I had no idea where I was, I chose to not to do that. Finally, the awkward silence was broken when Toshi began to discuss his dreams of coming to New York (with his beloved wife) to visit me. I nervously replied that he was more than welcome to come visit me and my boyfriend who was most likely going to become my fiance and that we were going to get married and have many children and that we were totally happy and that he was wonderful and that I was so glad to see him and that he took care of my cats and, and, and....and then I took a breath.

Granted, I surely made the situation worse with what probably seemed like my "disappointed" silences followed by my incessant babbling about Nick and our imaginary future. Very likely Toshi will forever remember me as the home wrecker who he turned down. He will probably pat himself on the back for being faithful and conscientious of his wife's dignity. He will remember some American girl who semi-graciously accepted his rejection by prattling on about some guy named Nick who was simply a figment of her broken heart's imagination. But such is my life.

Toshi was a gentleman to the end and walked me to the door (after what seemed like the eternal cab ride), gave me a brief hug of farewell and a bottle of MOET champagne, and was off back into the night headed home to his champion wife. I think I even saw him congratulate himself on this defining moment as he sat back in the cab.

I suppose it could have been worse. He could have taken me up on my subtle and inadvertent offer, in which case I definitely would have opened the door and jumped out of the moving taxi, with or without the ability of finding my way home.

Japan proved to be an interesting and perplexing place. I am sure that almost every day something strange happened. Something that I could never explain. For example, when I tried to leave Japan, they rudely (for the first time in a year, someone was rude) informed me that my visa was expired by 2 days. Since overstaying your visa is considered a crime in Japan (I think in most countries), I was in trouble. After some negotiating, running through the airport, filling out paperwork, paying 40 bucks, running back through the airport and being ushered through security without being able to say goodbye to my friends who took me to the airport, I was put on a plane to Korea. As I sat in the Korean airport, contemplating my mad rush to get out of Japan without being arrested, I kept going back to the rude airline attendant. She was fairly nasty to me, but then when I asked for an aisle seat after my visa cleared with 15 minutes remaining before my flight left, I fully expected her to put me somewhere in cargo, but instead she changed her demeanor to slightly less rude. I couldn't help but wonder why.

Unfortunately, I do not have an answer and most likely I will never know why she changed her attitude, but I do know this. From Korea to JFK, a 14 hour flight, I sat, fully reclined in a seat in business class, being served my vegetarian meals with real silverware and wine, and with my choice of toothbrushes and hot towels. I don't know why she put me in business class, but I do know that when I boarded the plane, and when the lovely flight attendant ushered me personally to my seat, I quickly closed my mouth which had fallen open in bewilderment. When the same charming flight attendant offered to take my $10 Old Navy hoodie, I automatically gave it to her, and when this same endearing flight attendant offered me a drink as soon as I sat down, I said, but of course. I stopped wondering why and simply enjoyed the last remnants of Japanese hospitality, that is, showing guests of Japan good service even as they fly home on a slightly illegal extended visa. Japan is a very perplexing place indeed and I will miss its mysteries sorely.

To all my Japanese friends, thank you so very much for everything. You made my year unforgettable. I will miss you tremendously. And Toshi, if you ever change your mind, call me....

It's good to be home :)


Sunday, May 17, 2009

The sweetness of oranges

I recently found myself on an airplane, once again, lacking sleep. So much of my whirlwind life is actually living in a whirlwind. Funny how that works. Anyhoo, I was flying to Narita to catch a plane back to New York, when I found the soothing voice of sleep beckoning my name. I don't know about you guys, but I NEVER sleep on planes. I think it's because if anything ever does happen (like the engine blows or the wing falls off) I will be perfectly awake and prepared to practice my escape plan that I have been working on for years. If you are ever on an airplane with me and things go awry, do not fear. I have it all under control.

So it was to my surprise that I found myself actually getting drowsy and slowly drifting off to a dreamy place far, far away. It was in this world of pure imagination that I felt a tapping on my shoulder in a rather insistent way. In my dream I attributed it to a unicorn, lost and looking for directions, and I happened to be the only one who spoke her language, however, in reality this couldn't be further from the truth.

As the tapping continued and as I was begrudgingly drug out from REM, I woke with a start to yes, you guessed it, a half peeled orange staring back at me. At this point I was unsure which scenario was reality, the unicorn or the orange. On the one hand, unicorns are mythical creatures, but on the other hand, oranges are not that where was....

"Here, try this."

Orange trumped unicorn. Damn.

Blinking multiple times in hopes that the orange would go away, I finally was able to make sense of my current situation. Well, sort of.

"Here, take the orange. It's very sweet."

This is the deal. Across the aisle from me was this tiny, elderly Japanese woman, offering me a peeled orange with her small, but tenacious outstretched arm that was very close to the tip of my nose. Naturally. This happens all the time.

"Oh, no thanks. I'm OK." I replied.

"No, you must take it. They are very sweet."

"Really, I'm OK. But thank you."

I didn't want to break it to her, but what the .....? First, I don't know you. Second, you peeled this orange with hands that have been God knows where, and third, YOU WOKE ME UP!!!! It wasn't like we were engaged in a pleasant but trivial conversation, or that you caught my attention from across the aisle, or I had glanced over at you peeling this orange with a look on my face of pure starvation. You woke me up from a deep sleep to offer me an orange? I don't want your frickin' orange!!!!!!

"But, they are delicious. You must try it!"

Realizing rather late in the conversation that she and her orange would not go away, I took it and under her watchful stare, ate it. Every last bacteria laden piece. I will admit, it was delicious.

After the plane touched down in Narita (Tokyo), I thanked her again for the orange, picked up my bags, and went my separate way. I was planning on doing some sightseeing in Narita since I had 10 hours to kill in a preposterous layover. I was sitting in the airport, studying my map and the Tokyo subway system, when yet again a familiar voice rung in my ears.

"Oh, it's you again! What a coincidence!"

I didn't have the heart to tell her that being in the same airport after disembarking the same plane hardly constituted a coincidence, so I politely nodded my head and smiled.

"What are you doing?" She asked me.

When I explained the layover situation she smiled a huge smile, grabbed my bags, and said to me.

"Let's go."

Now, it is not lost on me the strangeness of this situation, nor was I unaware that I could be in a potentially dangerous situation. As I followed her through the airport, her leading the way with my bags, and we began to approach her husband, small red flags were starting to go off in my head. But, curiosity overcame me, and I decided to see where this was going. As she explained to her husband who this tall, white, American stranger was with orange pieces in her teeth, he stared at me with a mixed look of confusion, exasperation, and defeatism. I simply stood there wondering how all of this was about to play out. My small, new found friend informed her husband that we would all three be going to Narita shrine today. He looked at his wife, back at me, than at his wife again with an expression I call, "How and why is this happening to me?" then said, "OK."

Off we went.

Strangely enough, they had a car in Narita. They were actually from Fukuoka, but said that they had a daughter in Narita and a car. We would be driving to the shrine. They asked me if I would like to see their daughters house as we got into the car, and trying to stave off a panic attack that stems from a fear of being kidnapped, I declined and said that the shrine would be enough.

I realize that many of you would not have done the same thing, and perhaps you are all smarter than I am, but I figured if things truly did begin to get even stranger than they already were, I could take these two. They were both in their 70's, the woman came up to my waist, and if pushed I can be pretty feisty. So I figured, what's the worst that could happen? Don't answer that.

As you may have guessed, things worked out fine and these two were not serial kidnappers. They were, in fact, a lovely couple who just wanted to show me around. Once the husband warmed up to me, we all three had a pleasant conversation. We did indeed go to the shrine, had lunch, and afterwards they drove me back to the airport so I could be on my way to New York. I couldn't have been luckier or more shamed from my initial reaction of "Oh my God, I am going to die."

The shrine itself was impressive. Aside from the enormity of it, it also happened to be Buddha's birthday, and all of the monks were celebrating. No, not with a keg and a spit-roast pig, but with chants, incense, and a colorful display of hierarchy depicted in their robes. It was beautiful. However, after the monks went back into the shrine for further prayer, a Japanese high school band concluded the ceremony with the ancient song sang by renowned Buddhist, Sir Mix-A-Lot. Yes, Buddha's birthday celebration was concluded with "Baby Got Back." I am not sure I could have chosen a better song.

It was perhaps the best layover I have ever had. Much better than my overnight layover in Miami as I was coming back from Ecuador, when I fell asleep on the floor in what seemed like a desolate part of the airport, only to wake up with hundreds of people stepping over my prostrate body and having no idea where I was or why I was face to face with a German Shepherd. Apparently, airport security does not look highly upon unconscious people in the middle of the walk way. It turns out, I was inconveniently sleeping in one of the busiest parts of the airport. Oops.

The moral of this story is, never trust a stranger. Unless they wake you up to offer you a very sweet, half-peeled orange. This simple fruit, my friends, is the bridge that connects all of humanity.

I miss you all!

The Facts of Life:

Did you know that livestock is pumped with 10-12 different kinds of antibiotics in order to make the animals larger? Livestock are fed 25 million pounds of antibiotics each year. Any guess what that means for those of you who eat that livestock? Here's a clue: superbug.
Eat organic, grass fed meat if you must get your flesh fix-and no, McDonald's is not organic!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Lost in Translation

I know, I know. It has been too long since my last blog. I blame it entirely on my laziness. I should have found time in between applying to med school, teaching 60 hours a week, flying to multiple countries for interviews, moving apartments in New York, getting accepted to medical school, applying for loans, blah, blah, blah. There really is no excuse....

Anyway, a few events have occurred over here that I wanted to share with you. The first one is a perfect moment of miscommunication. This is not to say that this is the only moment of miscommunication (there have been too many to count and remember), but it was so funny and horrifying (for my student, not me) that I wanted to share it. The minor moments that I do remember are listed below followed by their translation.

I was really boobed (I was really moved).

I want to be a cock (I want to be a cook)!

You have a very small face (You are very pretty).

Can you ride my cigarette? (Can you light my cigarette?)

I heard you fell ill of your digestive organs (you had a stomach virus).

You have nose disease (Um...not really sure. The doctor told me this one and I was a little freaked out-luckily, it wasn't flesh eating).

Oh, the list goes on and on and on...but here is the main event:

Meet Ken (we'll call him that anyway). Ken is a business man, who works hard, drinks hard, has a wife and two young kids, and takes his life very, very seriously. He is a dedicated student of my class who really does try hard. But, his pronunciation is, well, bad. For the most part, I am pretty good at deciphering the bizarre and very confusing pronunciation of L's and R's, but tonight, I met my match....

Andrea: So, what is one of your goals in life, Ken?

Ken: I want to go Australia.

Andrea: Cool! What do you want to do there?

Ken: I want touch coral.

Andrea: Coral? (well, everyone has their dreams, right?) Uh, ok. But, you do know that you are not supposed to touch coral.

Ken: No? You can't touch coral?

Andrea: Well, no. For two reasons. One, it is very fragile and breaks quite easily, therefore damaging the ecosystem (and right there, I have lost him), and second, because its very dangerous.

Ken: Dangerous?

Andrea: Well, yeah. It can kill you.

Ken (horror stricken then using his index finger to touch the tip of his nose to emphasize that he meant himself and no other): Kill me?

Andrea: Well, not only you. Everyone.

Ken: Why?

Andrea (Yes! I get to talk about bacteria!): Because it has very old bacteria in it.

Ken: Bacteria? Like a virus?

Andrea: Well, not exactly (or at all), but in the way that they can both make you sick, yes.

Ken (His face is completely crestfallen): Oh. So, I can't touch coral?

Andrea: Well, no (what is the friggin' deal with coral?).

Ken: But, I thought...

Andrea (Ok, this is exasperating): It's too dangerous, Ken! When it scratches you, you get an infection, and sometimes that infection can kill you (leave the coral alone, already).

Ken (now actually looking frightened and quietly asks): Really?

Andrea: Yeah. When I was swimming, I accidentally got scratched by coral, and it was a very bad infection. I had a fever.

Ken (looking incredulous and horrified): When you were swimming?

Andrea: Yeah, there is coral everywhere in the ocean.

Ken: There is?

Andrea (deciding a visual aid may help and therefore began to draw an ocean on the board): Of course (duh!). It looks like this...

Ken: Coral is in ocean?

Andrea: Um yeah (what, are you an idi...) wait, are we talking about the same thing?

Ken: Coral, like bear.

Andrea (guess not): Oh, you mean a koala. K-O-A-L-A!!!

Ken: Yes, coral. They are in ocean?

Andrea: Um, no. They live in trees that are not in the ocean.

Ken (still wary and again, out comes the index finger): But they kill me?

Andrea: Um, no. Not usually.

And with that, the rest of the lesson was dedicated to pronunciation. I can only imagine the images that were floating around in Ken's head. Koala infested oceans with great big claws laden with bacteria, slashing around looking for their next victim to infect and kill, particularly people like Ken. I couldn't understand what his fascination was with touching coral, and even after my extremely thorough explanation of why it's bad to touch it, he managed to still look more horrified than appreciative of this bit of survival advice. Obviously, when you put the word koala in place of coral during this conversation, you can see why. After reassuring him that koalas were in fact quite docile creatures (albeit really smelly), perhaps his dreams are not completely dashed. Although, he may never look at a koala quite the same way again-especially those crazy ones that lurk in the ocean.

Ah, the joys of teaching English....

On a completely separate note, my friend Rachel and I recently had the thrilling opportunity to watch huge men in mini thongs (that was redundant) slap each other around in a tiny, tiny circle. You guessed it, we were watching SUMO!!!!!!!!! Let me just say that it had to be one of the most spectacular things I have seen. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it was pretty cool. First of all, the fact that these men have made a sport out of bitch-slapping is pretty phenomenal. They are, after all, about 896 lbs each, and could easily crush a monster truck with their left thigh and right pinkie toe, but instead they slap each other with an open palm. Or, better yet, they push each other around for awhile until someone steps out of the circle. My favorite maneuver was when one sumo man picked up the other sumo man by his thong-diaper thingy, giving him the ultimate wedgie, and then threw him out of the ring face-first! Each match only lasts at most 2 minutes, but man, are they exciting. Of course, we had no idea what was happening the entire time. We simply cheered when the everyone else cheered, yelled when we deemed appropriate, bet on the wrestlers based on the color of their mawashi (the thong-diaper thing they wear), ducked when pillows were thrown, then cheered again. It was a blast!

Unfortunately, to my bitter disappointment, I did not get to touch a sumo wrestler. This was not for lack of trying on my part, however. We did follow one, but he ducked into the staging area before I got a chance to grab him. I did hesitate a bit since on the back of his leg there was a bruise the size of another human being (some things you don't ask about) and he easily could have wrapped my own legs around my own torso about 7 times, slapped me silly, then picked me up by my thong and thrown me across Osaka. The other lost opportunity was when we saw a wrestler sitting outside the stadium on a bench, hunched over his gigantic belly and wrapped in nothing else but a soft, floral, lavender robe. The whole image was so devastating and against my preconceived notion of these monster men that I couldn't bring myself to do it. My friend Yoko told me that it was good luck to touch one, but I am pretty sure she was not referring to the ones in floral, lavender robes. O'well. I guess I will have to still cash in on my two trips through the nostril of Buddha.

I miss you all!!


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present the manzeer?

If the pink charms on the end of men's cell phones and the floral fans that they carry in the summer weren't enough to make me wonder about the masculinity of this male dominated country, then the "manzeer" has succeeded. That's right, ladies and gentlemen, the men are now wearing bras in colors such as black, white, and yes, pink. I have asked if they also come in lace and the answer is no. I guess a lacey model would be weird....(??)

And, no this is not some underground sub-culture that I have discovered where this sort of behavior is to be expected and encouraged, but instead in board rooms, amongst high executives in top Japanese companies. It was the latest news on a major news channel in Japan, NHK. The bras have been selling out each and every week. According to the men themselves, they feel more "secure" and "confident" while they wear their pink bras under their pinstripe suits and ties. But apparently, not so secure as to admit that they are wearing them as the interviews blanked out their faces. Seinfeld truly had something here....and here I thought the used-pantie vending machines were strange. Yes, you read that correctly.

This country is never boring, I will give it that.

My students definitely add to the interesting experience that I have here, but also the visitors that my school gets of people who want to sign up for English lessons. I have two very memorable visitors that I would like to share.

The first was a woman in her 50's who walked into the school. From the start I had my suspicions in part because I have a sense for these things, but also the turquoise sweatpants, purple coat, and hot pink scarf was a slight give-a-way. Japan is very fashion-forward, but even this was a bit over the line. To top off the ensemble, she had on some over sized, red boots. She was also carrying a violin case, very carefully, and almost lovingly. Anyway, she walked in the door, and immediately her eyes met mine. Many of you know, I am a magnet for crazy people. I have been offered emphatic advice from Vietnam Vets ("never get stuck in a rat hole-NEVER!") and have been given coupons for restaurants that no one has heard of from toothless old men (at least that one is logical). I even had one women tell me her entire life story on the bus (colorful and racially offensive), then all of the sudden ask me if I was the Eliot Spitzer girl (no comment). I don't know what it is, but for some reason, they gravitate towards me and try to lure me in. But since I feel I have had the monopoly on crazy for awhile, I decided to let my co-worker, Paul, have this one. I couldn't help but listen to Paul and Rainbow Brights conversation, and it went something like this:

Paul: Hi, I'm....

RB: I like you.

Paul (starting to blush): Uh, thank you. So, my name is Paul, and I am from England. Where are you from?

RB: I really like you...

Paul (The blush had turned into full crimson): Uh, thank you. So, I see you have a violin case there...

RB (fondly touching the case): Yes.

Paul: How long have you played violin?

RB (confused and a little haughty): I don't play violin. I can't play violin.

Paul: Oh, uh...I thought the case...

RB (a little agitated): I don't play violin. Why do you think I play violin?

Paul(with a sweaty brow): I'm sorry, I misunderstood...I thought....

RB: I don't play violin. But, I do like classical music...

Paul: Right, Ok then. It was nice meeting you.

Paul, a little shaken, quickly walked out of the room, and told me to stay far away from that woman. Part of me wanted to know what was in that case, since obviously it wasn't a violin, but the other part of me hopes for the sake of humanity that she never opens it. Ever. Unfortunately, she didn't sign up for English classes at my school.

The second one I had the pleasure of talking to. She was a pretty woman, 30 years old, and spoke some English.

Andrea: Hi, I'm Andrea. What's your name?

Mio: My name is Mio.

Andrea: Nice to meet you, Mio. So why do you want to learn English?

Mio: I like Navy boys.

Andrea: Uh, ok. That's a good reason. What do you do?

Mio: Go to clubs and look for Navy boys. Where are you from?

Andrea: The U.S.

Mio: Do you like Navy boys?

Andrea: Uh...

Mio: I have a picture on my phone.

At this point she fishes her phone from her bag. Flips through what seems like a million pictures while I waited in fear that it was going to be some picture of Mio and a "Navy boy" doing things that nobody wants to see.

Mio: Here. Look.

Dear God. I brace myself.

Andrea (relieved-for now): Oh, is this your boyfriend?

It was a picture of some jack-ass "Navy boy." How I define a jack-ass is up to your imagination.

Mio: No. He got married yesterday.

Andrea: Oh. Uh....well, there are many, many guys out there....

Mio (voice a little raised): NO! I WANT THIS NAVY BOY!!

Andrea (maybe a compliment will soothe her-I was wrong): Don't worry. You will find another one. You are a beautiful girl.


Andrea: Uh...

Mio (suddenly calm): You have beautiful eyes...

Andrea: Thank you...

Mio: I want to be American.

Andrea (unsure how to respond to this impossible wish): Well, if you find another Navy boy, maybe you can be.

Mio: NO! I WANT TO BE AMERICAN! I WANT YOUR SKIN!! (At this point, she reached out and touched my hands then reached for my face)

Andrea (a little scared at this point): No you don't. I, uh, I sunburn!


Andrea: Ok, well Mio, good luck. It was nice meeting you.

Mio: Ok.

I left quickly, skin and eyes intact, but with a supreme sense of sadness for poor, misguided Mio.

On a different note:

I recently went to Nagasaki to see the Lantern Festival. It is actually a celebration of Chinese New Year, and they do so with an amazing abundance of beautiful yellow, orange, and pink lanterns hung all over the city. It is quite spectacular. Nagasaki was the only port in Japan that allowed foreigners into the country during a period (around the 1860's) when foreigners were prohibited to enter Japan. Because of this, Nagasaki still remains one of the most culturally diverse cities in Japan, hence the Chinese New Year celebration. Anyway, this festival was a magical experience. Hundreds of thousands of lanterns are strung alongside the canal that runs through Nagasaki and at night are all lit up. In conjunction with the lanterns are hundreds of over sized and glowing animal lanterns, such as mice, carp, tigers, and horses. It is step into an evening in Alice in Wonderland. As I happily moseyed through this haze of colors and brightness, clicking away with my camera, creating the "Lantern Collection," I came across the China Town Gate. Intrigued, I walked through it, wondering what delights I would find. The dream of Alice and Wonderland quickly turned into a nightmare of Lord of the Rings as I came face to face with 30 bodiless pigs. That's right. There were 30 pigs heads blankly staring at me with their vacant, dead eyes. To add insult to injury, they had their tails woven through their foreheads. Um...I think you're missing something. Like, YOUR BODY!!!!!!!!!

What the ....?

Of course, I had to be the one to find this little shrine of slaughtered, massacred pigs. Me, the vegetarian, who goes out of her way to buy "against animal testing" products, who is traumatized by butterflies getting stuck on windshields and gets misty-eyed during "The Dog Whisperer." (How does he get through to all those troubled dogs?)

Now, I was faced with pig heads with their own tails pierced through their foreheads. I was so stunned with horror that my friends had to drag me away from the horrendous sight. I have had 12 nightmares since Monday.

Keep in mind, this was for CHINESE New Year (apparently, the pigs represent wealth. But, hey, guess what? So do inanimate objects, like MONEY!), and every Japanese person I have told about this has shared my horror. Now, I am all about celebrating and accepting different beliefs and cultures, but I guess I prefer celebrations that don't involve tails woven through faces on heads that don't have bodies! But, hey, that's just me.

Despite the bloodshed, the lantern festival was surreal, and I would go again, but definitely avoid the pig-head-with-tail shrine.

Anyway, I am sure there are more curiosities yet to come. I will share as many of them as I can. Meanwhile, I want to say that it was so great to see everyone over Christmas and New Years while I was in NYC, especially Nick who had our apartment decorated beautifully for Christmas. I only "gently" suggested that he get a Christmas tree, and he delivered quite spectacularly, so thank you. As usual, he was a trooper with my New York City sightseeing extravaganza, which included The Statue of Liberty (much smaller than I expected), the MOMA (totally worth the 20 bucks!), and the Nutcracker (a beautiful performance!). It was a blast!!

I miss you all so much!!


Saturday, December 6, 2008

One ticket to Nirvana, please!

Some of you know that I took a trip to Kyoto and Hiroshima in early November, and man, was it BEAUTIFUL! If you don't have it on your list of things you must to before the inevitable, then please put KYOTO-AUTUMN on it right now. Seriously, put it on your list right now. It is an absolute must see. I did not know that trees had so many colors, and the intensity in which they display them is hard to describe, but is truly spectacular. I took about 250 pictures of leaves changing colors, and yes, they ALL look different. I learned from my Costa Rica sunset collection that even though at the time the sunset may look different, once the pictures are developed, not so much. About 100 sunset pictures later, they all are pretty, pink sunsets that sort of look like the previous 98 pictures. Anyway, this time, I really nailed it, and I am pretty sure that even to the most experienced picture observer, they epitomize variety!

Anyway, Kyoto is full of shrines, temples, geishas, obnoxious tourists, and a history so ancient, it's hard to believe. We walked on wooden floors that were constructed in 710 AD, stood in gardens that were manicured for Emperors, and fed free roaming deer that are supposed to be messengers from God. We even crawled through a hole that promises us Nirvana. Oh, believe it skeptical ones!

Behind the largest bronze Buddha in the world there is a wooden pillar with a hole in the bottom that is the same size as the aforementioned Buddha's right nostril. If you can fit through it, and boy is it SMALL, then you are guaranteed Nirvana. Much to my fellow Japanese tourists shame, I crawled through twice for good measure. You can never be too sure in this life. Nirvana, here I come!!

I also tried to pet at many deer as possible which is actually a lot harder than it sounds. They are not so much interested in being pet as they are being fed, and since I had no food on me, I spent most of the time chasing the damn deer around while everyone else was trying to get rid of them! All I wanted to do was pet them, and perhaps give them a message to take to the man upstairs. They are messengers from God after all, so I figured what the Hell! Between my crawl through Nirvana (twice, no less), and grabbing as many deer as possible, I am pretty sure I am covered-either that, or I have contracted Lyme Disease.

Hiroshima was also amazing in its own right. A city that was completely devastated by a human atrocity is now a flourishing, beautiful place that I highly recommend to anyone looking for history, peace, and good food. I think everyone should take a trip to the museum and peace park so you can see for yourself what detonating an atomic weapon really means. It was a shocking look at what humans are capable of doing to each other (twice, no doubt), but also of our resilience to survive. Both human and plant began to resume life about 3 months after the attacks. There is one picture in the museum that shows Hiroshima leveled to complete rubble, and amongst the dust and the wreckage, there is a plant with its leaves pushing through the rocks, beginning its life all over again. It is a moving and inspiring photograph. The picture was taken in the fall of 1945.

Next we went to Miyajima, an island off of Hiroshima that was a small piece of Heaven. Here you can find Itsukushima Shrine which was founded in 593 AD! These peopled were constructing incredibly beautiful and ornate structures and putting on Noh theater productions in 593 AD! What can you say you were doing in 593 AD?

The torii gate that provides the entrance to the shrine is built in the sea of the Sanyo coast. When the tide is in, it looks as if it is floating on the water. It is ethereal! The cool thing about Miyajima, aside from floating gates and really old stuff is that nobody is permitted to be born or to die on the island. The entire island is considered sacred, and sanctity has no room for the miracle of life or eternal sleep. The elderly that I did see living on the island did look fit as a fiddle I will say, even though they were probably 205 years old. They are doing all they can to not die just to save themselves from being evicted. That is dedication!

As in Nara, the ever important messengers of God, the deer, are roaming at will. This was obviously the high light of my trip. The whole experience was truly breathtaking.

Overall, our trip went off without a hitch. I was forced to use my shaky Japanese and managed fairly well, and as far as I know I did not insult anyones mother. Finally, our last day was upon us and we had to get up early, to get to the train station, to catch our bus, to get to the airport, to catch our's exhausting just writing that!

There is no airport in Kyoto, so you have to fly to Osaka and take a bus from there. Anyway, we woke up late and ended up in a mad dash to the train station. As we jumped out of the cab, I was a little panicked, but managing to keep my cool. I was feeling fairly confident, however, that my message sent via deer up to Heaven would prevent us from missing our flight.

We ran to the bus depot, and found the machine to buy our bus tickets, but everything was written in Kanji!! The founders of the Japanese language decided for some reason to not have 1, but 3 alphabets. Convenient? I think not. Anyway, I can read 2 out of the 3 and usually can manage with that, but this time, I was at a complete loss. The bus ticket machine was written entirely in the one alphabet that I cannot read. I found some attendant and asked him which ticket I needed for the airport and he showed me. We bought the tickets, but already something was strange. They had miraculously gone up in price since 4 days ago. But since our bus was leaving in about 15 seconds, we had no time to speculate and bought them.

To add insult to injury, it was pouring down rain, and the bus was moving slowly. We had about 2 hours to get to the airport which I thought was more than enough time, since it only takes one hour by bus, but with the weather like this, I was starting to get nervous. Finally, an hour goes by, and we are nowhere near the airport. Soon enough an hour and a half go by, and I am fairly certain we are about to miss our flight. Damn deer!

Finally, we pull up to the airport at 11:05am, for our flight that leaves at 11:15am. We run in, go towards the counter, and throw our itineraries on the counter, explaining that our flight is about to leave. The woman (let's call her Yoko),notices our turmoil, and speedily does whatever it is the people at airline counters do. After furiously typing something into her terminal, Yoko stops abruptly and stares at me. I stare at her. She then says:

Yoko: Why are you here?

Andrea: Um...we have to catch our flight.

Yoko: Yes, I know, but why are you HERE?

Andrea (looking around, briefly wondering where HERE is): Isn't this the airport?

Yoko: Yes, but why are you HERE?

Andrea (I don't have time for an existential debate on why anyone is here-I need to catch my flight lady!!): Um....

Yoko (staring at me like I am a particularly daft zoo animal): You are in the wrong airport.

Andrea: Wrong airport? We are in Japan, right? (Did I fall asleep on the bus for hours?)

Yoko (patiently): Yes, but you have to go to Osaka airport!

Andrea: Where am I now?

Yoko (less patiently): Kansai airport!

Andrea: Isn't that in Osaka?

Yoko (heavy sigh as if explaining things to a 3 year old): Yes, but there are 2 airports in Osaka, and you are in the wrong one.

Andrea (sheepishly): Oh. So where is Osaka airport?

Yoko: About an hour away from here.

Andrea (trying to lighten the situation): Hmmm, that will make it difficult to catch my flight then that leaves in 3 minutes, ha ha.

Yoko (the light hearted attempt failed-then her very serious response): Yes, it would.

Andrea (sheepish tone returned): What should we do?

Yoko (very large sigh): Just a moment, please.

Yoko then walks off. Most likely, to either hit her head against the wall, or to laugh uncontrollably at my complete and utter stupidity. But let me put this into perspective for a second for all of you judging me at this moment. First, my itinerary is written completely in Japanese and in Kanji no less, making it impossible to read. It does say the Osaka airport on it, but I can't read it! My friend booked my tickets and she speaks Japanese, so this is an irrelevant point to her. Second, I had no idea that there were two airports in Osaka. It didn't even occur to me to ask about it. As I am pondering this dilemma, thinking that we are going to have to buy new tickets, get to Osaka airport which is God knows where, spend more money than I even have, I see Yoko come running over to us with a huge smile on her face. From bitter experience, I have learned about this smile, and my stomach drops.

Yoko (sighs, pauses, then sighs again): Why are you here again?

Am I in the twilight zone? Didn't I just have this conversation?

Andrea(exasperated at my own mental weakness, and the incessant, pointless questions) : Um, I don't know. I have no idea why I am here. I can't read the damn Japanese, and I didn't know that there were two airports in Osaka, and I don't know. I just don't know why I am here, I don't KNOW!....

Yoko (triumphant): Well, we will let you fly out of Kansai on a flight that leaves in one hour.

Andrea (shocked): Oh! Thank you so much!! So, so much!

Yoko: But, on one condition.

Uh-oh. I am going to have to hand over my left kidney, or my pinkie finger, or relinquish my trip to Nirvana, or....

Yoko (like a school teacher scolding a child): You can never do this again. Never, never again.

Andrea(smiling and laughing a little): Uh, don't worry. But really, I can't believe we are the first people to have done this, I mean...

Yoko (with no trace of the huge smile that she had a second ago): Yes, you are.

Andrea (with that familiar sheepishness I recently adopted): Oh, well OK. We're off then. Thank you again, really...

With that, we quickly walked away before she could change her mind. I am pretty sure that my picture is up in the Kansai airport next to pictures of wanted terrorists and infamous hijackers. Most likely under the heading of "Japan's most dim witted gaijin."

Overall, it was a great trip. I took close to 700 pictures in 4 days and wore poor Nick out. I give him credit for keeping up with me, as it is no easy task. I put the energizer bunny to shame when I am on vacation, as I truly believe in leaving no stone unturned, no shrine unseen, no deer unpet, and no second wasted on silly things like eating and sleeping.

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday this year. Be safe, silly, and adventurous, and if you get the chance, climb through the nostril of Buddha. It will serve you well-even if you do end up in the wrong airport!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Buon Natale, Feliz Navidad, Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu, etc. HAPPY NEW YEAR to EVERYONE!!!!!!!!!!


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On a Sunday afternoon, in the mountains...

I do realize that blogging is supposed to be done with some frequency, and I am clearly not living up to the typical blogging world standards. I started this blog a month ago, and finally finished it tonight. It is from October, so I am no longer sick. Thank you for your concern if there was goes...

I have been sitting at home for the last couple of days due to a nasty little virus that has invaded my body. Being sick is no fun in any country, but it is a tad worse in a country that is not yours. You don't know what to buy, where the doctor is, AND I have no television to simply absorb myself in. But I will say kudos to my Japanese friends here because they have been incredible.
It all started last Tuesday. I tried to be a hero and went into work, but the damn virus won, and sent me home packing. Before I retreated however, Yoko, saw the pale look on my face, and instantly ran out and bought me hot green tea, something for my upset stomach (God knows what it was), and udon. She then sent me home.
The next day, I thought I was better and once again went into work. I made it through that day and the following, only to be brought to me knees again on Friday. I texted Yoko and told her that I didn't think I could leave my apartment, and within 5 minutes, she texted me back telling me to stay where I was (Uh, don't worry), and that she was sending someone to take me to the doctor. I hadn't even gotten out of bed yet, and already there was a personal ambulance on the way over. This epitomizes Japanese efficiency.

Within the hour, my friend Tomoko appeared at my door, and escorted me to the doctor. I want to mention that everywhere in Japan, you must take off your shoes before you go inside somewhere. Even the doctors office was equipped with slippers to change into. In my delirious state, I found this endearing, and thought I would share.

Anyway, the doctor was brief, efficient, and an ambitious student of medical English. It was limited, but correct. During the ultrasound, I think he enjoyed pointing out my organs just so he could say them in English. Every time he found something new, he would say "gallbladder!" then look at me and smile. "Kidney!" then smile. "Liver!" then smile...until he found my "small intestine!" no smile. Instead he simply said "not normal."
After the "not normal" comment he spouted off a whole bunch of Japanese, which naturally I didn't understand, and made my "stomach!" lurch, but as it turned out I was only afflicted with acute viral gastroenteritis. In other words, my small intestine was "not normal."

He gave me some medication along with a bill. I was very nervous about the whole payment thing, since I am living on a shoestring. So as they wrote up the ultrasound, the consultation, the English lesson, and 3 types of pills, I cringed. As they handed the bill over to me, I sucked in my breath and looked down.
2,940 Yen-the equivalent of $30. He told Tomoko as we left that he gave me a big discount...Why? I am not sure. But I'm pretty sure I heard him say as we walked out the door, "large intestine!" but I can't be certain.

It just goes to show that the Japanese hospitality does go above and beyond. I have had numerous phone calls to see if I needed anything, or if I am feeling better, etc. It is very nice considering there are still so many things that I don't know how to do. At least I know that I am not alone.

The week before I was "virusized" I went driving with two friends, the aforementioned Yoko, and another friend named Tomoko (yes, its a very common name here). Yoko was all excited about driving to the sea shore, and wanted me to come along. I needed a break from med school apps, so I went. I was a little surprised that Yoko wanted to drive, since she has a fear of cars. My previous conversation with her about driving was before my Mt. Aso trip and it went something like this: (in no way is this an exaggeration)

Andrea: So, how are we going to get to Aso?

Yoko: We should drive.

Andrea: Ok. Do you have a car?

Yoko: Yes.

Andrea: Great! That's settled. You can drive us.

Yoko: No, I can't drive!

Andrea: Ah, OK. Mikuru can drive then.

Yoko: No, she can't drive. It's too dangerous.

Andrea: OK, then we should take the train.

Yoko: No, we can't take the train.

Andrea: Um....then I guess you should drive.

Yoko: No, I can't drive.

Andrea: But, Yoko..isn't it your car? Can't you drive it?

Yoko: Yes.

Andrea: So, then you can drive us, right?

Yoko: No.

Andrea: Then, we'll take the train.

Yoko: No, we can't take the train.

Andrea (looking for the candid camera somewhere and wondering quite seriously if I was in the Twilight Zone): Then, Mikuru can drive.

Yoko: No, she can't drive.

Andrea: So, let me get this straight. You have a car, but won't drive it. And Mikuru can't drive it. I can't drive it. But, we also can't take the train. Is that correct?

Yoko: Yes.

Andrea: Uh-huh. So, how are going to go to Aso?

Yoko: We'll drive!

And so it went on for about another 10 minutes of complete and utter nonsense which left my head spinning, and to this day I still have no idea how I ended up in such a backwards conversation. In the end, we (she) deemed that driving was too dangerous, despite her ambition to drive, or not to drive, I am still not sure, and we all ended up taking the train.

Anyway, we took another road trip to the coast this time. A beautiful little jaunt to who-knows-where. I was told that we were going to drive into the mountains and then along the coast. This sounded wonderfully serene.

So here we are in Tomoko's car, eating rice balls and strange potato chips (at least, I think that's what they were), and I notice that we have veered off the main road. When I asked where we were going, the answer was simply, "into the mountains."

Sure enough, the road became thinner, the trees became more abundant, and little by little, we left civilization. I didn't ask too many questions because I was enjoying the peace that comes with sitting idle in a car that you are not driving, but when the road became one lane instead of two, and the traffic had decreased to us and us alone, I started to wonder. As we drove further and further into isolation, I finally decided to ask again, fearing the pointlessness of my question beforehand.

Andrea: So, where are we going exactly?

Yoko: To the mountains!

Andrea: Ok, far into the mountains?

Yoko: Not too far.

Andrea: This sort of looks like the mountains now, Yoko. Do we have a destination?

Yoko: Yes, but we are not there yet.

Andrea: Yes, I figured as much, given that we are still driving.

Yoko: Yes, ha, ha.

Andrea: (again) So, where are we going?

Yoko: To a salt shop!

Andrea: Uh....Did you say a salt shop?

Yoko: Yes!

Andrea: (shaking my head, because obviously I had misunderstood) A salt shop, in the mountains. A place that sells salt?

Yoko: Yes!

Andrea: Salt that we eat?

Yoko: (a little exasperated with my dim wittedness) Yes...

If any of you think that this is in any way a normal conversation, or a normal destination, please enlighten me. I think I was too stunned to bother asking the futile question of why. At the same time however, it all made sense. Of course we were going to a salt shop, on a Sunday, in the middle of the mountains, in Japan, at four o'clock in the afternoon. What else should I, or anybody else for that matter, be doing at that exact moment? It almost seemed too logical....

Ah, Japan. It is a country where yes means no, no means yes, the mountains mean a salt shop, and the bigger the smile, the worse the news. A land of contradictions. Of many, many contradictions.

I miss you all!!