Category Archives: Expat life

Lions Purr and So Do I

It’s true I have been dragging myself around, knuckles and jaw scraping the floor, dust bunnies under my fingernails and between my teeth. And then I came across this…

MGM Lion…and it shook my world, or at least knocked me part of the way out of my coma.

The picture is the MGM boys recording Leo’s voice. The more I thought about it, the more it gave me perspective. I spend a LOT of time in studios watching people pour their voices into microphones, but never once has there been a lion on the other side of the glass. And look at him, so elegant and poised, mane brushed, teeth polished, right forepaw turned slightly outward in a pose worthy of GQ.

I started to wonder, would you say Leo was narrating or voice acting? He wasn’t saying any actual words, at least not English ones, so I guess you’d say voice acting. But on the other hand, he was speaking fluent Lionese, so maybe it counts as narrating. I don’t know that much about lion vocabulary, so I couldn’t vouch for what he might be saying.

Shimajiro speaks Japanese and English but I couldn’t vouch for his Tigerese.

080407_1039And thinking about Shimajiro reminded me of a day we were filming in a zoo. We were by the lion enclosure, where a whole pride of females were wandering back and forth under some trees. I heard a low rumbling sound and thought it was odd because we were nowhere near a highway or railway line. Then then I realized the lions were purring.

How many people get to say they’ve heard lions purring? And how many people get to film in a zoo? And how many people are friends with Shimajiro? And how many people get to hang out with narrators and voice actors? How many people get to be long term foreign residents of a city as much fun as Tokyo?

So instead of ‘down’, I will focus on ‘up’. I will scrape my knuckles and jaw off the floor, dust them off and smile. I will hold my head up like my friend Leo. I will look up at the sky and the stars and the birds and the butterflies and all the other pretty things that go flitting by. If work people decide they don’t want to treat me decently, I will tell them to go eat worms. (So there!) I will try not to focus on the things that are making me sad because there is nothing I can do about them.

I am told that my guardian angel spent a very pleasant Friday evening sipping wine with Aunt Gerri and is now ready to return to her duties looking after me. This is good. And ten hours of sleep didn’t do any harm, either. Purr.


I just learned a new word: Gun-Tama-Chi-Bara-Gi. It refers to Gunma, Saitama, Chiba, Ibaragi and Tochigi Prefectures, and infers that while those areas are included in the Great Kanto Plain, they are Japan’s unsophisticated outback and the people who come from there are yokels and hayseeds. The cool kids all come from Tokyo; a few from Yokohama are also acceptable.

FYI, I have lived in Tokyo for all of my many years in Japan, but of course, that goes without saying.

MapofkantoThe irony here is that when I was small, I lived in a big old farmhouse five miles from a tiny town in Pennsylvania. When I was nine, we moved to Pittsburgh, which for me was a big step up in the world. In case you don’t know, as image and reputation go, the only thing worse than Pittsburgh is New Jersey.

On top of that, I hate crowds and am slightly claustrophobic. You can’t begin to grasp the concept of crowded until you’ve ridden a Tokyo morning commuter train or attended the annual Tamagawa fireworks. And everything is smaller here, the houses, the food, the people. There’s an elevator at a studio I work in that I can’t ride because it’s only slightly larger than a pair of coffins. I’d rather climb the four flights of stairs, even when my knees are hurting.

There was an elevator that small in my hotel in Venice, where my room was on the sixth floor, but after getting crammed into it with an over-sized German couple, I took the stairs. And I nearly had a panic attack when I went into the tomb chamber in the great pyramid at Giza.  The chamber itself is big enough, but the passage to get to it is terribly narrow and one has to maneuver past over-sized tourists both coming and going.

So how did a Pennsylvania yokel end up in Tokyo? Or Italy, or Egypt? Or any of the dozens of other countries I’ve been to?  I guess I just decided to go. I think I’m part cat; I always have to see what’s around the next corner.

What really baffles me is people who don’t–and don’t want to–go anywhere.

Blown Away

Yesterday, we went to a shakuhachi concert held in a Catholic church during a typhoon.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAOur friend Alec, the one in the middle, invited us. The church was surreal, with a Japanese priest and a primarily Philippine congregation.  We arrived in time to catch the tail end of the afternoon mass and I realized I had never been inside a Catholic church before, except as a tourist, but we duly stood and sat as instructed and it was over soon enough.

I’ve always been fond of wind instruments in general, and the shakuhachi in specific. It’s just a bamboo tube with some holes drilled in it, and it’s played using only the five tone Chinese scale, yet by varying the angle they blow across the mouthpiece, wiggling their  heads around in weird ways and partially covering the finger holes, players can achieve variations of sound that are quite astonishing. A lot of it is based on sounds existing in nature, so if you close your eyes you can hear the wing flaps of soaring birds, the cajoling flow of water over rocks in a shallow river, the haunting, lilting cries of small animals in pain or fear, the wailing of high winds through mountaintop trees. The tones range from bottom-of-the-ocean deep to make-you-cringe shrill. Alec managed to create the sound of a nesting crane using the way you roll an R in Spanish.

They played a variety of songs. Some were traditional, although I wouldn’t be able to tell you if this is sheet music or a restaurant menu.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAThe tall guy, Chris, is a composer and arranged this somewhat less traditional piece.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAYup. Look closely. That’s I Feel Good by James Brown, highly stylized. I didn’t recognize it beyond “gosh, that sounds familiar”, until I saw the sheet music.

The only negative was the two little girls sitting two pews ahead of us stuffing their faces with potato chips and shrimp crackers all the way through the concert. They should consider themselves lucky that there was an old lady in the intervening pew, because otherwise we might have clunked their skulls together. Their mother was too busy playing with her phone to notice so we probably could have gotten away with it.

Otherwise, it was a pretty groovy way to spend a blustery Sunday afternoon. And when was the last time anyone got to use the words “shakuhachi”, “Catholic church” and “typhoon” all in one sentence?

A Samurai Tale

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAAllow me to introduce Tony and Scott, two wild and crazy Canadians living in Osaka. They were in town to record songs for a kids’ show. One of the songs was Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree. Tony kept singing Christmas Tree instead. After the 4th or 5th take, he got rather frustrated and said quite clearly and directly into the mic, “F*ck!” Everyone in the control room seemed to understand but we were cool about it.

Later during a break, Tony told us studies have been done that show just how powerful that word is. In pain studies, people who said it loud and proud felt less pain than people who didn’t. Then he wondered if there are any words in Japanese that have the same power. Nobody could think of one. Scott suggested that maybe that has to do with the high value traditionally put on stoicism in the face of adversity.

“Right, ” said I. “Can you imagine a Samurai plunging his dagger into his belly and yelling, ‘F*ck! That hurts!'”

“No,” said Scott. “He just leans forward and patiently waits for his pal to chop his head off.”

“Unless this happens,” said I. “Tony, you idiot! You missed! F*ck!”

And Scott replaced his missing scalp with a leftover lettuce leaf.

Amy and Me

Back in December, my old friend Amy was in town, however briefly. We had been roommates freshman year in college, and lived together pretty much all the way through school after that, except for junior year when I was abroad. Sophomore year, a group of us shared Pine Tree House. Pine Tree House 1983 That’s Amy at the upper right.

I’ve since lost touch with most of these people, except for Darrell. He’s sitting next to Amy.

After college, Amy went on to become a lawyer and then some kind of big cheese with the United Nations. She jets around the world doing her part to make it a better place.

She had flown in from Doha or some such and was supposed to be in town just for one night, but arranged to stay an extra day so she could hang with me, then fly three quarters of the way around the world in the wrong direction to get back home. That made me feel pretty special indeed.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAShe was staying at The New Otani, a posh hotel in a business district. The only time I’d ever been there before was when a wealthy student of mine took me to a hotel restaurant called La Tour D’Argent and I got the menu without any prices on it. Oh, my.

The first day, Amy and I spent a couple of hours just wandering around the neighborhood, catching up. We’d both been through some similar challenges in recent years and had a lot to say. I can’t tell you how good it felt to be able to open up like that. I’ve had wonderful friends here over the years, but one problem with being an expat is that people leave, and as you get older, it gets harder and harder to replace them.

The day after her meetings, Amy wanted to do some shopping, so I suggested that she come to my neighborhood, and when she got here, she said she’d really like to have a massage. “Sure,” I said, “there’s a place by the station that’s quite reasonable.” I hadn’t been there but had wanted to try it. The place was on the third floor, and as we were climbing the steps, she suddenly stopped, turned to me and asked, “This isn’t going to be one of those…sex kind of things, is it?” I just laughed and said, “Nah. This isn’t that kind of neighborhood.” I liked that she didn’t have any way of knowing that.

An hour later, both semi-comatose, we were re-arranging ourselves, and she said, “That goes on the list of one of the best hours of my life.” Yup. It really was.

After a Really Great bowl of noodles for lunch, we hit a couple of stores. She started running out of cash and asked where there might be an ATM. “No problem,” says me, “there’s a Post Office around the corner.”

One of the oddly third world things about Japan is that the banks are not on the international banking grid, but the Post Office ATMs are. That still amazes me. I’ve gotten cash from my US bank account at ATMs in Luxor, Egypt, and the Middle of Nowhere, Cappadocia, Turkey, but in Japan, an otherwise (sort of) fully developed first world country, you have to go to the Post Office. (I’ve heard they’re thinking of rectifying that in time for the Olympics, so they’ve still got six years to dither about it.)

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAI promised I wouldn’t tell the umbrella story, so I won’t. Let’s just say that Amy was inadvertently naughty, and it didn’t occur to either of us to give it back.

Amy wanted to buy a Really Great Knife, so I took her to the Really Great Knife Store, but on the way warned her that my knife vocabulary is rather limited.

“Suck it up, kiddo,” she said. “You know more than I do.” So I did, and we managed to procure a Really Great Knife as well as some other stuff. Amy has always been a fan of tools.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAHaving had about all the shopping either of us could take, and still having some time before her flight, we came to my house. Here in the study, I noticed her looking at this shelf. “That’s my vanity shelf,” I said. “It’s all stuff I’ve published.”

She stared at me for a moment and then said, “So you’re kind of famous?”

That one surprised me. “I guess, in a very small way and a very small world, I am kind of famous. But you can’t begin to compare what I do with what you do.”

And then she was gone, but it was wonderful to get a fresh perspective on my life by sharing it with someone I’ve known so well for so long. I loved that I could use my language and experience to make things happen for someone I care about. Sharing memories of people we both knew, and things that we did together, and all that’s come between then and now, and the people that we’ve become isn’t something I get to do very often. Most likely, neither of us will ever cure cancer or invent a better mousetrap, but I think we both turned out pretty well.

Thanks, Amy. It was a great day.

Amy and Me, December 2013
Amy and Me, December 2013

A Tale of Money (ATM)

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAI was at the ATM yesterday, about to beg my woebegone account to share its meager holdings with me, when the little old lady at the next machine tugged on my sleeve and said she couldn’t get the machine to take her money. Usually you just drop it in the slot and the little door closes automatically but it wasn’t working. So I reached over and jiggled the money, mumbling “Maybe you need to jiggle it” in English because I don’t know how to say “jiggle” in Japanese. That didn’t work so I tried flipping it over. That didn’t work either. So I jiggled it some more, all the while mumbling in English. Eventually the little light went on, the door closed and I went back to my business. I’m not sure the woman even said thanks, but it doesn’t matter. She was probably frustrated and a bit alarmed when the machine didn’t work–she had a whole stack of passbooks, probably a couple thousand yen each for a handful of grandchildren–and I was pleased to be able to help in my limited, low tech way.

I smile every time I think of that tug on my sleeve. So often, people hesitate to reach out to me because of my foreignness, but in this case, I think maybe she didn’t even notice it; she just needed help and tugged on the person at hand.

Sometimes the littlest things can be the most charming.

A Tale of Peace

Years ago, I went on a bus tour of Nagasaki with a group of Japanese friends. One of our stops was at the Atomic Bomb Museum and surrounding Peace Park. The museum was unexpectedly moving and I found myself rather shaken as we strolled around the park after our visit.

A couple of high school girls came up to me armed with pens and paper. They were on a school trip and had been instructed to find a foreigner and ask for a peace message. Considering where we were and where I’m from, I smiled and wrote a couple of words. Unfortunately, there were about six busloads of kids there that day, all armed with pens and paper, and I was the only foreigner in sight.

Word traveled fast.

In no time, hundreds of thundering feet were headed my direction, pens waving, paper flapping in the breeze. My friends made a human circle around me and whisked me, doubly shaken, back to our bus.

I am reminded of this because Kate Elwood writes a brilliant column for the Japan News called Cultural Conundrums. In it, she recently wrote about the term “gaijin” (literally, “outside person”) and how the Japanese “proclivity to cultural pigeonholing” (love that expression!) leads to expectations that we foreign types behave in a certain way, and there is discomfort when we don’t.

I understand this phenomenon. I can’t count the number of awkward times a Japanese person has tried to shake my hand when I’m trying to bow, or when I get a joke I was not expected to understand, or worse, make one myself.

Kate gave the example of some middle school students asking her, “How many days will you stay in Japan?” When she answered, “I live here,” the students understood her words but could not process that information.

And it can happen the other way around, too. Japan used to be much less foreigner-friendly that it is now.  There was a time when even at places where you’d expect English, there wasn’t any. This has changed. I was at Narita Airport not long ago, waiting in line to board a plane, when an official approached and asked for my passport, then in perfect English asked, “How long have you been in Japan this time?” It was so unexpected that I stammered, “Um…uh…twenty-six years.” We stared at each other for a moment, both flummoxed, then she walked away.

And once I was at Kaminarimon, a very touristy place, waiting for some people with my niece. A man in a suit approached and asked, “Do you mind if I speak to you?” I smiled politely and said, “Yes, I do,” and walked away. My niece was appalled, but I was annoyed. “There are a gazillion tourists around and I’m not one of them. I live here. Let him pester them and leave me the hell alone.”

How’s that for a peace message?

A Tale of Health and Visas

Today was a day for GETTING THINGS DONE.

I hadn’t had a check-up in nearly two decades, and since I became officially aged, the ward office sent me a stack of tickets for nearly-free medical checks. Rochi has to go with me on these escapades—I still can’t fill out the forms and unless it concerns knee ligament reconstruction, my medical vocab is still woefully lacking.

So we went to an internist, I was duly poked and prodded by a nurse, and then we met with the sweetest doctor ever, who asked why I had finally decided to do it. I said, “Well, my age…” And she didn’t believe me. She asked what was really wrong and I told her, “Nothing. Honestly. He was concerned about me.” (Cue the tiny violins–that may be the best valentine ever.)

Turns out everything is hunky-dory. My heart is strong, lungs are clear, blood pressure normal, nothing in my blood or pee that shouldn’t be there, and I’m nearly four centimeters taller than I thought I was, although I didn’t feel the measuring thingy touch my head, so maybe the nurse was being generous.

And off to immigration to deal with the new passport. That place is still the same appalling zoo it was last time I went there, crowds of worried faces milling around trying to figure out which bit of red tape to gnaw on.

Finally finding the right line to wait in, my turn came and the nice immigration man explained the new rules. I can keep my current Certificate of Alien Registration and get a multiple re-entry permit, which is now good for five years instead of three and costs $60, or I can ditch that card and instead get a Residence Card, whereby re-entry permits will no longer be required and it’s free. You do the math. Besides, who wants to be an alien if they don’t have to?

I am now armed with a shiny new passport and Residence Card as well as a clean bill of health. And I am again free to travel.

The invitations will start rolling in, right?

The Tale of the Passport Elves

Well, paint my barn green and call me Mathilda! My shiny new passport arrived last night, and it only took two weeks, which is pretty amazing if you consider that I mailed the old one to the Embassy, and they sent it to Philadelphia where the Passport Elves made me a new one, then the Elves sent it to the Embassy, and then the Embassy sent it to me.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAI take back all the mean things I thought, said and wrote about embassy people.

I am now at liberty to leave the country, just as soon as someone invites me somewhere and sends me a plane ticket to get there.

Oh, wait. I forgot. First I have to go to immigration and register the new number…and have my visa transferred…and apply for a new re-entry permit…and then register the new number with the ward office….

Never mind the invitations. This is going to take a while.

A Passport Tale

During this past WWW (Work Widow Weekend) I finally dove into the boxes of old letters. Well, one of them anyway, and then one thing led to another and I got rid of a bunch of old junk I’d been keeping simply because I’m a pack rat.PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAOld bank books, expired frequent flyer cards, traveler’s check covers (seriously?) all in the bin. And then much to my dismay, I discovered that my passport had expired six months ago.

It used to be that you could just go to the Embassy and apply for a new one. But noooooooo. Now you have to make an appointment, and according to their online calendar, no appointments are available until the end of February.

I understand. It’s tough for embassy personnel. Between taking all Japanese AND American national holidays off, they also have to make time for long lunches, not answering the phone, and the occasional mani/pedi.

OK, plan B. You can apply by mail. All you need to do is download the application, provide a photo in a size that doesn’t exist here, and get a prepaid return envelope and money order in dollars from the post office. (Catch 22: The embassy will take cash, but won’t give you an appointment to fork it over.) The new passport costs $110 and when the photo, envelope and postage are thrown in, this adventure cost nearly $150. Doesn’t it seem like a new passport should be a right rather than a privilege?

It took an hour and a half to get the money order, with two post office ladies helping me get the paperwork right, but while I was waiting, one of them gave me some lemon drops. That kind of took the edge off.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERASo now I will entrust my expired passport to the Japanese postal system, the American embassy, the US passport office in Philadelphia, and possibly the Postal Fairy (see May 24 last year).

In the meantime, I can’t leave the country. And when all of that is done, if it ever is, I get to go to immigration, which is conveniently located three trains and a bus ride from here, to have my visa transferred.

I knew I was having too much fun lately.