Last month, twice, I put a list here of things I thought I might miss after leaving Japan for the warmer shores of California. Today I revisit that list mostly to verify that no, I do not miss most things in Japan. I do miss our dog’s friends and their owners (our friends), and JALT people. Kids playing tag in the supermarket, not so much.
Varieties of tofu – sure, if I remind myself of these I miss them. There are ridiculous amounts of vegetarian choices in the US – I made a great chili last week with something like $4 of ingredients – but a good rule of thumb for finding tasty vegetarian food in the US is to avoid the word “tofu”, which many restaurants seem to take as a synonym for “bland”. Better choices are usually pasta or salads (which, mysteriously, are usually not vegetarian in their default form).
Service, when I’m in a hurry. I haven’t had a bad service experience here yet, except when we’re waiting behind someone the cashier knows and they really want to catch up. It hasn’t been the case though that Americans in the service industry are uniformily rude and sarcastic; they just don’t disappear into their roles as completely as folks in Japan. When you’re the person that the cashier wants to talk to, you sometimes find out interesting things. Sometimes you also find out quite a bit about your cashier’s religious beliefs!
People generally maintaining a minimum standard of hygiene in public. Not generally a problem, except for some reason in the city of Barstow, where we visited a Starbuck’s that was apparently brewing something highly experimental in the toilets, and wrappers of instant ramen packages blew down the streets like so much tumbleweed.
Natto. Not so far. I instinctively looked for natto-maki along the back wall when I visited a 7-11, but found a craft beer section instead. Fermentation seems to be the rule for the back wall at 7-11s internationally.
Kurumipan, or “walnut bread”. No, but I do miss pastries being smaller than my head. We stopped by Erick Schat’s Bakkerÿ (interesting use of umlauts) on a road trip up north and spoiled ourselves with all manner of baked goods. These were of high quality to match their enormous size, but many others (thinking mostly of donut shops and supermarket bakeries) replace quality and uniqueness with just more of every ingredient.
I repeat that Japanese folks overplay the “foreign cake is too sweet” stereotype, but it is true that if you pay $1 for a donut here you get roughly twice the amount of sugar as in Japan, if only because the donut is twice as big.
Cheap paper. For some reason. Ditto white board markers. Toilet paper and paper towels are both expensive here (partly because Americans seem to prefer higher-ply TP and they sell it by the truckload: a little math confirms that per ply, this TP from Japan is actually more expensive). I’m not sure why I said I would miss cheap office supplies, as I don’t plan to be self-employed here and presumably my workplace (unlike public non-tertiary schools) won’t make me buy them myself.
The feeling that when you buy food you’re paying more for quality than for quantity. I’m continually surprised at how much extra stuff any food purchase comes with here. I’m pretty sure at least half of my calories since moving here have been from things I hadn’t planned to eat and was surprised to find on my plate in abundance – collateral calories, if you will. This doesn’t mean the main dish is made with any less care, but it does speak to a certain expectation on the part of the restaurant and the customer that you will leave the establishment only slightly ambulatory, whether it is from things you actually ordered or low-cost fried starches surrounding them.
Citrus. There is a lot of citrus from Asia which is yet unknown or less common in the US. I do miss these. I also miss the jumbo Fuji apples lovingly swaddled in styrofoam, so you can get some of the environmental damage of fast food without leaving the produce aisle. Fruit here is abundant but you can’t simply fill a bag with random selections from the pile; half of them are bruised and a few look like someone has already taken a bite. The rule of thumb when buying fruit in the US is that some fraction of what’s on the market shelves won’t be edible, but the fruit costs that fraction less.
The steady stream of subject-verb agreement and literal translation mistakes that I can instantly identify and that have little room for interpretation. I’ll get back to this after I start working. The demo lessons I gave had few of the problems derived from bad (but common in Japan) translation, but plenty of issues that plague EFL/ESL learners worldwide- common stops on the interlanguage highway. Unexpectedly, my recent online essay job proved useful as I was able to advise a student during a demo on just how long a quote can be before you should make it a block quote in MLA. Look it up.
Predominance of shiba inus, a generally smart and independent kind of dog (I have one!). Not only are there not many shibas here, but most people seem never to have seen one before. Contrary to the Missionary Japanist concept of the shiba as one of many objects of Orientalist fascination ’round the world, most people on seeing our dog simply say, “He looks like a fox!” or “Is that a Basenji?” The people who know what our dog is are often shiba owners themselves, although they have some rather heterodox ideas of what is allowed in shiba-dom. We’re not sticklers for purebreds at all, but the multicolored, skinny, wiry-haired dogs many people call shibas here wouldn’t be recognizable as such in Japan.
The relative lack of the politics of personal affiliation and aggressive anti-elitism. Perhaps this says something unflattering about me, but I’ve been cut off quite a few times already on freeways by large pickups and SUVs that I can only assume are driven by Trump supporters. Off-topic, but I had to say it.
Mini Stop. On our road trip through central and northeastern California, we passed through towns of all sizes, from 300 people to however many live in Los Angeles. We noticed something interesting about the types of business that are typically the first to spring up when a town crosses a certain population threshold. In California, Subway is usually the first sign of nascent growth in a small town, the equivalent to your first Temple in a game of Civilization. Soon to follow are Motel 6, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, CVS (seller of drugs/sweatpants), possibly Carl’s Jr., and Starbucks. When every burger chain is present, you can start building your first Settler and look towards expanding. In Japan, first to arrive is invariably the convenience store chain that is prominent in your corner of Japan (7-11, ポプラー popuraa “Poplar”, ローソン rooson “Lawson”, など nado “etc.”), followed by a “family restaurant” like Denny’s, followed by pachinko. If you have all of these plus a Mini Stop, congratulations, you presumably have lots of pachinko to occupy the hand that is not holding ice cream.
Shocking students with root beer candy. I would consider replacing this with Hi-Chew or Mitsuya Cider candy for students here, but both are already sold at stores, or at least at Daiso (which had proliferated in my absence). Anything really shocking probably would cost a prohibitive amount to import. If I see any kinako-flavored Kit Kats I’ll probably get those for a few lucky students at the end of the semester.
Indian food. We actually live near a “Little India”, but we haven’t gone yet. I guess Indian has been pushed out by Mexican, at least for the time being.
The feeling of being able to surprise people with something I know about Japan or the US that they didn’t. The level of curiosity between the US and Japan is not exactly symmetrical. Japanese people often harbored intense curiosity about what Americans thought (of Japan), while Americans, if they wonder at all, mostly wonder about rather obscure but bizarre points of popular culture like Babymetal. Not many people care about the kinds of thoughts on modern Japan that vitiate this blog. No one acts either surprised or interested when I can name the current Prime Minister.
On a related note, the feeling that one doesn’t need to have an opinion on everything or to stick with it as a matter of principle. I have been in the captive audience for a bit of pro-gun lobbying from a car dealer, but aside from that most people have actually kept their political opinions to themselves (except Bernie fans, on their rear bumpers). I’m sure when I start having deeper conversations with people I’ll find that the instances of “oh, really?” I used to hear have been replaced by “no, actually…”.
Since we’re moving to California, the cold. Well, this was short-sighted. Orange County is as warm as ever, but many places north of the grapevine are below freezing at night, and during the day as well in Owens Valley. Our dog did a bit of playing in the snow on our recent trip there, and I had the very nostalgic experience of snapping frozen grass by stepping on it on our morning walk.
Hwameis, garrulous birds that make fall walks in our neighborhood extra fun. Yes, I miss the birds and even the deer. There are both here, or so the road signs would tell us, but not exactly the same types. Actually in some cases the birds are almost exactly the same as the ones where we used to live, but still our house is bigger here and so we see less of them. Also, no hwameis at all, but for some reason we do have flocks of parrots.
A few beers. Nope, not really. Beer has really come along in the US since the days of Bud Ice.
The kind of job security that comes with belonging to an ethnic group designated Japan’s English Teachers. No, I don’t think I’ll miss that at all. Of the people I’ve interviewed for so far, at least 3 of them have warned me that I will soon be hired full-time somewhere else and have pressed me for verbal guarantees that I will at least see out the semester. I don’t think I’m showing off since I haven’t started at any of those places yet (and no full-time jobs have been offered, let alone to start RIGHT NOW), but it looks like I won’t be looking back wistfully at being considered qualified merely for my semi-caucasian looks.
In the classroom, the overwhelming focus on motivation as opposed to more nuts and bolts aspects of language teaching. Why did I think I would miss this? It’s unambiguously better to have students who want to learn. Part of being a professional teacher is motivating people, like part of being a professional wrestler is coping with injury. It’s still better not to be injured.
Having the time to blog like this. When I get random views nowadays, they tend to be of the posts that took hours or days to write, ones that took legitimate (if non-academic) research. It’s quite possible that most of my posts from here on will be “light” ones like this. Also, because I no longer live in my complaint-muse (Japan), I feel I have less to rant about. I can’t say I miss having all that extra time and indignation, but evidently it provided some entertainment and insight for some people. I’ll be on the lookout for further opportunities to be underemployed for extended periods and sitting on simmering pools of discontent.
I also don’t miss the constant mixed feelings of “I have to tell them what their shirt means” and “but they will never talk to me again if I tell them”.