5. What do you know about Japan, Japanese culture and language?
What do you know about Japan? If your thoughts are something along the lines of, “I love anime!” or “Sushi is delicious!” but without any depth, or real knowledge, seriously reconsider. Yes, anime is fantastic and there is an innumerable amount of merchandise to find, your love for anime can be satisfied by just visiting Japan. How about sushi? Yep, also amazing. The sushi, sashimi, yakitori, tempura, and every other food is outstanding. Japanese food is probably the best food I’ve ever eaten, yet that can also be experienced by simply being a tourist. In fact, probably better experienced as a tourist since working here with minimal pay means largely cooking your own food and not eating amazing food every day. Suffice to say, if you truly want to live in Japan, your knowledge of Japanese culture and language should be exceptional. You need to be more than adequately prepared.
4. Do you like children?
Do you absolutely love being around children? Have you worked extensively with children before? If you haven’t worked with children previously or even feel somewhere in the vicinity of neutrality towards children – think again. While it’s assumed from an Anglo-Saxon point of view that Japanese children must be as polite as Japanese adults, the opposite is true. Japanese children are terrors. I’m not making this up. Why is that, you may ask. Well, the culture of raising children in Japan means believing babies are basically gods, and they can do no wrong. Hence, Japanese children are allowed to do whatever they like without being reprimanded. Yes, they are spoiled. They lack discipline. So how do they turn in to intensely polite adults? Through rampant passive aggressive shaping to invisibly force each child into eventually learning that being part of the group is the most important aspect of their lives. They acclimatize to the notion around the time they reach the age of majority.
3. What do you know about the company?
You should very carefully pick the company you’re going to work for. While it is incredibly difficult to know what the company is going to be like from purely perusing their website or visiting rambling reviews or blogs on the matter, I would make a couple of suggestions. Don’t believe all the propaganda the company sells – they can and will exaggerate for their benefit. Most companies will have you believe they are doing great things for you, but the fact of the matter is, you’re doing them a favour and not the other way around. English teaching companies are big in Japan and highly competitive, they’re all looking for fresh meat to put through the grinder. The biggest problem with private companies is that they are unmistakably profit driven. That means employees are put on the back burner, especially in Japan. Customer service is of the highest significance, and expect no reward for going the extra mile – it’s simply expected. It can be incredibly stressful when dealing with finicky parents and undisciplined children. I would suggest finding a company that teaches adults, or one that hires for the public board of education. Less pressure, more time with fellow employees and never having to deal with parents. (Want my advice? Check out Interac or JET. Avoid ECC or iTTTi.)
2. How well do you deal with isolation and being away from home?
As a Gaijin, you will always be an outsider. After having spoken with many other Gaijins from various nations, and living here for various amounts of time – they all report the same. If you appear anything other than Asian, expect to be treated like a perpetual alien. Japanese people are notoriously xenophobic. I cannot stress this enough. There will be times when people will be afraid of being near you, or you’ll receive judgemental stares. You can feel the cold aura all around you. Be prepared to feel isolated and alienated. This is even truer if you happen to be female. It takes a long time to develop friendships with Japanese people, and sometimes their intentions are only to be friends with someone non-Japanese, like a novelty. That’s not to say there aren’t Japanese people interested in having authentic friendships, but you’re more likely to find like-minded people in a metropolis. Rural areas can be unwelcoming at times.
1. What are your expectations while living in Japan?
My last point ties in with my first point again, since I believe it is once again the most important. Before I arrived in Japan, I perceived Japanese culture to be one aligned with beauty, and simplicity. While Japan is beautiful and clean, the only type of simplicity that exists is perceived simplicity. Japanese society does its very best to appear uncomplicated and consistently beautiful. It is however, the exact opposite. Honesty does not exist in Japan. I’m not trying to be callous or inconsiderate, but brutally truthful. No one in Japan will tell you the truth, and if they do, you would never know it. Everything is hidden and veiled behind thick curtains and multiple walls of civility. The only aggression that exists here is passive. If someone doesn’t like you, they’ll never reveal their true feelings or intent. Instead, they’ll continue to be dishonest and passive aggressive.
Perhaps I sound intensely cynical or jaded. You could argue that my experience is singular and I’m largely affected by my placement with this particular company, in this particular area. That might be true. I might be an irregularity. In that case, here’s my closing statement. If you do choose to go to Japan despite my warnings, please keep the following in mind. Choose the area you want to be placed in – I recommend near or in a large city. Do some research and find out what interests you the most about Japan, then aim for living near that area. If crowds are not your thing, and you would prefer a smaller area, consider that it will be infinitely more difficult to make friends and communicate (unless you’re fluent in Japanese).
Ultimately, I would suggest just being a tourist in Japan. Touring and sightseeing will satisfy all of your casual needs like delicious food, interesting cultural oddities and tonnes of awesome shopping. Living here will drain the life out of you. You slowly conform to the robotic culture of work, sleep, work, sleep, work, sleep, drink heavily, and work some more while pretending that it’s your favourite thing to do. What’s different from any other place? Trust me, the Japanese work ethic is intensely different. You’re expected to work as hard as possible without any sort of praise, (or for that matter overtime) and be grateful for it. If you even raise your voice to mention the possibility that you’re at all unsatisfied (even if you’re prompted), you will be judged extremely negatively. Expect to be reprimanded.
Japan is a fascinating nation with a truly bizarre and magnificent culture. There are many things I’ve enjoyed while living here, but the things I’ve enjoyed most about Japan have come from my brief times spent while behaving like a tourist. Time off is usually spent trying to unwind from a stressful work week, so when vacation time finally rolls around, it’s the best time in the world. I had the chance to visit Hakone, Tokyo and Nikko. Beautiful and quintessentially Japanese locations – but only appreciated off work.
That being said, living in Japan has had some truly positive outcomes. I’m more confident and self-assured than I’ve ever been. A lot of my fears have dissipated – although not entirely, I’ve experienced a noticeable difference. However, I don’t think that travelling to Japan is necessary in order to achieve these kinds of positive results. I think living in other countries would be just as satisfying, if not more. If I could recommend somewhere else that is similar to Japan but friendlier, I would say South Korea. It had been suggested to me numerous times but I was stubborn and insisted on Japan (for numerous reasons). Regardless, I can only offer my personal experiences and advice. Decide on your own if Japan is right for you – if not, please visit! It’s worth it to have an adventure – see the sights, eat the food, and enjoy the culture.
May 7, a Wednesday afternoon, I arrived at the Toronto Airport (Pearson). Then I took a $60 cab ride to my hotel in the Church-Wellesley Village - a celebrated gay neighbourhood. I was wondering what I should do for my brief time in the city. I only had one night and I would be gone the very next day. I don't know anyone in Toronto, although I do have some relatives - we're not close. It would have been awkward to contact them after so many years.
So I called up the front desk after checking in, and asked about nearby restaurants. A nice one over here, a decent burger place over there, but his first mention piqued my interest the most - a restaurant where you dine in the dark. I had heard about the Montreal location before, on tv and in magazines, but I never thought I'd have the opportunity to visit one. Well, one night in Toronto with the likelihood of never returning, pushed my decision to a clear one. I would make a reservation at this unusual restaurant and take in a whole new experience.
What is this restaurant I speak of? A place called O.Noir. You sit completely in pitch black while blind servers bring you your meal. When I called the restaurant to make the reservation, they asked me for how many. I said, "Just me," to which he replied, "Just you? Are you sure? Are you afraid of the dark? Will you be alright?" I laughed easily at his response and reassured him that I would be just fine. So he tentatively made the reservation. I thought this restaurant was the perfect idea - not only is it a truly unique experience, but I also spent all day on a plane and didn't care to dress up. No one would see me! It doesn't get any better!
The time came around and I headed down to the restaurant, literally - it's underground. Which makes sense if they wish to create a completely pitch black experience. They would need absolutely no chance of natural light. The restaurant entrance features a long, dimly lit corridor that opens into a dead end with a bar and a few tall tables and a couple of low benches against the wall. It's quiet, a bit dark, and the ornate carvings around the bar along with the library wall make the place feel classier. On another wall there are large painted circles representing the alphabet in Braille. A nod to what the restaurant really features - a blind experience.
Upon entry, a hostess checked my reservation by memory and handed me a menu. You can choose either 2 courses (appetizer/entree, entree/dessert) or all 3 (appetizer, entree, and dessert). There were just a few selections for each course. I ignored them altogether. I noticed you could pick a surprise item instead, so when I ordered, I inquired about having all 3 courses be a surprise. I made one important note: I'm allergic to shrimp. Then I ordered a glass of Malbec and waited for my table.
I didn't wait very long before my table was ready. I was escorted to a door by the hostess where she released the name of my server and told me to wait. A small, brown man appeared from behind the door and stood erect before me. He repeated his name and made friendly banter. He asked if I was staying in the nearby hotel, I said "yes". He then said, "I thought I saw you in the lobby". I was dumbstruck for a moment, not really getting the joke until I realized that he was indeed blind and made it impossible for him to see me. I laughed and he smiled. I could tell he was a good server.
He asked me to put my left hand on his left shoulder and he would walk me inside. He knocked, then opened the first door. We entered a little alcove of complete darkness. Then he mentioned another door, knocked again and opened it. A waft of laughter and smells hit my senses as my sense of sight was completely cut off. He carefully navigated me through the dark maze and put my hand on the back of a chair. At first I attempted to sit down, but noticed I tried to sit on the wrong side. Then I tried again, but realized it wasn't pulled out. If it wasn't so dark, I might have been embarrassed. Finally, I pulled out the chair and sat down successfully. He asked, "safe landing?" I replied with a happy "yes".
That's when he introduced me to my close surroundings. There was a place mat, a fork, a spoon and a napkin. He told me to align my place mat with my chair. I then noticed the place mat was off center and quickly fixed that. The server disappeared and returned with my glass of wine which I carefully placed near the wall. I sat and waited in the dark. I could hear the chatter and hum of nearby conversations but struggled to make out the words. I noticed that the tables were separated by large gaps - so there would be a enough room to maneuver. I also noted that there must have been only 7 or 8 tables in the section. How could I tell? I listened to the different areas conversation emanated, I paid attention to noteworthy outbursts, and who left.
I know a few things about perception and sensation (due to my time in university). One of them is that it takes 8 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark. After 8 minutes, there was no difference. I waved a hand in front of my face, I blinked, and saw nothing - no difference. I have never been swallowed by that amount of darkness before. I've never known what it's like to sit in true pitch black. I didn't feel afraid - and I think it was in large part due to the fact there were so many happy voices. Although, I must admit, if I had to spend an eternity living in a place with darkness and muffled voices, it might be a little too much like hell. I suddenly have a new understanding and empathy for the visually impaired.
Now for the meals - as I mentioned earlier, I ordered all surprises. The first course was set in front of my plate and my server commented, "I hope you like it alive and kicking". I laughed and heard him shuffle away. I stabbed my fork in to the plate and brought it to my mouth - I took the bite and discovered it was leafy. I kept eating and put my palate to the test. What did I think I was eating, exactly? Since I have quite a lot of experience with flavours, I thought I was up to the challenge. My best guess is that it was a spinach, arugula salad with kale sprouts, dried cranberries and a drizzle of lemon/raspberry vinaigrette. I had a difficult time getting all of the salad on to my fork, so there were a few times I assisted with my fingers. Thank goodness there was a napkin and no one could see.
Whenever I felt the need to quench my thirst, I would have to reach blindly in front of me, carefully feeling for the wine glass. I would sip just a little at a time, and take time to consider the weight sloshing around in the chalice. The next meal was the entree. I once again blindly stabbed at my plate in the dark before bringing the fork to my curious lips. My tongue greeted the bite with new found excitement. My teeth chewed the seared animal flesh with delight. The texture, the savoury taste, the warmth tickled my senses. Each bite brought me closer to knowledge. I finally decided that it was braised pork tenderloin medallions with wild rice, roasted potatoes, and tomatoes. The tomatoes were probably the most frightening aspect. I'm not a fan of any kind of cooked tomatoes. The texture is unappealing. I pierced my fork into one and brought it to my mouth. Much to my chagrin, the thing burst inside of my mouth like a polyp. I immediately spat it out. Something I've literally never done before in my life. Eating in the dark caused me to behave with a little less discrimination. After my unfortunate bite, I avoided the tomatoes altogether. Then I heard a shrill scream, and an exclamation about an eyeball. I knew immediately that the girl meant the tomatoes. It was like an eyeball. I reiterate, cooked tomatoes are unpleasant.
I was quite satisfied with the meat choice, however the potatoes were boring, the tomatoes were frightening, and the rice was very difficult to eat with a fork. I felt like it was a poor choice for eating blindly. I certainly used my fingers a little. I would have used a knife to push food on to my fork, however they only provided a fork and spoon. Probably a wise decision in the vast scheme of things.
I sat in the dark for long stretches of time between meals and sips. I tried to eavesdrop, however most of the talking was muffled by space and other conversations. There was a couple who sat behind me, I met them briefly in the foyer before entering the dining space. They were my closest conversation, and from the pieces I could hear, they were there for their anniversary. What made me a little frustrated was the lack of attention from my server. Not his fault, I understand his priorities, but I felt neglected. The mix of muffled conversations, doors closing, and shuffling feet, left my with a fuzzy silence. I sat in contemplation, letting my mind wander over every topic. Mostly, eating alone in the dark is not ideal.
Before dessert even arrived, it was brought to the couple behind me - they eagerly proclaimed that was it cheesecake. I waited until they had finished their dessert and were escorted out of the dining room, before I received my dessert. It was cheesecake. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy cheesecake. It just wasn't a surprise after all. Despite that, I dug into the cake indiscriminately. I savoured each thick, squishy bite. It was a little heavy, but it was still good. It was covered in a berry and chocolate drizzle, which I licked greedily from my fork.
After I finished, I sat there and listened. There were all sorts of people coming and going. Each time I would want to leave, someone else would ask the server's help. Eventually, I was able to ask the server for his assistance. He escorted me out of the restaurant and I thanked him for his help. He was a sweet, short man with a nice smile. He departed with a little head nod before slipping back in to the darkness beyond the door. I squinted, suddenly grateful for the dim lighting. After a brief, friendly chat with the hostesses and clearing up my bill, I headed back to my hotel room.
O.Noir is probably the most memorable, strangest dining experiences I've ever had. The food was honestly a tad mediocre. There wasn't any real flavour, and the meals were too simple. I was desperately hoping for food that made my senses jump for joy. Although I wasn't blown away by the dessert or salad, the pork tenderloin in the entree was delicious. Out of all the meals, it was the one saving grace. Despite the food being average, the experience is so unique and mind bending, that nothing can compare. You're forced to rely on everything but your eyes. I've never experienced darkness like that before, and I doubt I will again. I'm grateful for that experience, I'm glad that I had the opportunity to step in someone's shoes. I would definitely recommend dining at O.Noir (or any similarly themed restaurant) for the chance to share some true privacy. It's a world unexplored by most.
I haven't baked anything for dessert in awhile since it usually takes up quite a bit of time but recently my partner mentioned off-hand that I had never used my cake pan. Well, that was it! Obviously I was the perpetrator of this great injustice and knew right there that it had to stop or rather, "start". So I went online like I usually do for a really great recipe and found a few that caught my eye. I conferred with my partner and we both concurred that there can be only one.
Well actually, I think I said I was only making one. They thought I should "BAKE ALL THE CAKES!"
We picked, "Tropical Carrot Cake with Coconut Cream Frosting". Sounds delicious, doesn't it? If only I could share a piece with you through the monitor, alas I cannot.
Although the photo of mine is not terrific I can assure you it's truly delicious. It took a long time for me to make since I only have one cake pan and it's larger than the one they mention in the recipe. So instead of a three layer cake I made a two layer cake, baking the layers separately. There were a few other exceptions such as using different pineapple but all in all I think it turned out great! The taste is phenomenal! I'm not just saying that! I would definitely use this recipe again.
Meanwhile my partner and I are forced to eat all this cake. How terrible! I can't wait until the next cake. I'm thinking chocolate.
Today I finished the book The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais. I so lovingly titled this blog post as "The Hundred-Foot Read" since I finished this book while walking on my treadmill.
The Hundred-Foot Journey is the story of a man from birth to success named Hassan Haji. Hassan is born in Mumbai from humble beginnings where his family is well known for their excellent and memorable food. As his family hovers in the disparity between poor and wealthy they are forced out all at once by raucous protesters. The Haji family moves to England and soon becomes lost in dreary repetition. Eventually the father sees fit to move his family around Europe, experiencing the delight of food all over again. This brings them to the sleepy little alpine town, Lumiere.
It is in Lumiere that Hassan finds his true calling after he is forced to cook for his father's restaurant. A 2 star chef (3 stars being the top ranked) takes Hassan under her wing after she discovers that he has a natural gift only found once in a generation. Under her instruction and guidance Hassan becomes uniquely skilled in French cuisine and soon makes his way to Paris. As the years roll by Hassan discovers his passion growing in leaps and bounds, eventually opening his own restaurant. With dedication Hassan eventually achieves the goal of a lifetime.
This book is truly a delicious read. Most of the time while I was reading I found myself hungry and desperate to try all the wonderful food. It's sweet and endearing while maintaining a wonderful simplicity. It's a book anyone could read and enjoy.
Last night I finished a book entitled, "Cinnabar" by Robert B. Oxnam (1989). It was on my long list of books to read. My mother gave it to me on my birthday a year ago, so it was about time I picked it up.
The book centers around a mysterious lacquer puzzle box made out of cinnabar. On top of the box is a Chinese character "Dream". It's rumoured to hold the key to a a priceless collection of Chinese art. The box begins in Boxer China with a father gifting it to his son, wishing for him to be filial. The box is passed down again and again until it ends up in the hands of an American professor and marathon runner named Roger.
Roger spends the rest of his time chasing the "dream". This takes him through a whirlwind of danger and a long adventure trying to find the collection. Through the turmoil and grief he ends up finding more.
On his journey to discovering the true meaning of the box, Roger meets Christina, a Chinese calligrapher. Through an unpredictable series of events Roger ends up moving to Taipei to live with Christina's father. In order to protect himself and the family, he's forced to transform into a different person by literally adopting a new identity.
"Cinnabar" is a great book, filled with fascinating details about Chinese history, philosophy and politics. In large part this is a political book that examines the many revolutions and political turmoil. There's a large focus on Tiananmen Square and the brave protestors that suffered an unjust death. The author chooses to write into the future, predicting an optimistic outcome for China. Unfortunately for the author his optimistic prediction does not occur in reality.
I enjoyed the book but in my opinion I would have preferred to read a book about China from a Chinese author. The author's opinions are valid but to me the story felt less genuine. His biases were made clear and I was tempted to believe that the main character, Roger, is probably very similar to Robert B. Oxnam. This has been said before but I think it remains true, a book reveals a lot about its author. All in all, it was a good read.
On September 9 I wrote on Twitter, "@rjellory It's sad that you felt the need to disgrace yourself and the entire literary community with your deception on Amazon". R J Ellory was caught using a false identity to write positive reviews about his own books and negative reviews about his colleague's books. If you're wondering what I'm talking about, please feel free to check out these links to different articles.
After I wrote my reaction on Twitter I received a private message on my Facebook account from the author himself. I was initially taken aback since he didn't message me on Twitter and he felt the need to respond privately but now I feel that I should share it with the rest of the world.
The author admitted to writing the reviews but points fingers at other authors, their families and friends. I thought that was a strange and pathetic defense but I suppose he didn't really have a defense at all. The way I see it, he did shame the literary community. Of course he would disagree because that's a strong accusation but in my humble opinion, that's the way I feel. If you read the articles, I'm not the only one either. It's deceitful. Friends and family members writing rave reviews is bound to happen just as parents brag about children to their friends but it is an entirely different thing to assume a false identity and praise yourself. Then on top of that get angry at a stranger for judging them. Those are the consequences.
The only reason this came to light was because he got caught. It's true Amazon can't prevent this from happening but I think readers need to learn from this and be more diligent when it comes to choosing a book. I would suggest not reading the reviews at all. You never know where they're coming from.
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