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“People seemed to like (my) essay, but they were also uneasy about it. ‘I don’t think you’ll be able to publish this in an academic journal,’ someone said. He thought it was more like something you’d read in a magazine.” –Joshua Rothman, “Why is Academic Writing So Academic?”, The New Yorker

Nicholas Kristof’s recent New York Times column on the need for more academics to engage in non-academic discourse struck a nerve with more than a few of his targets, who quickly pointed out that there were, in fact, plenty of “engaged academics”–many of whom wrote for Kristof’s own newspaper. What struck me most about the whole debate was the issue of “academic writing,” a category and a style that has always been a little difficult for me to pin down. What, in fact, qualifies as academic writing? Does it simply have to use a lot of unfamiliar words, or do they have to be certain kinds of unfamiliar words? Who is its audience? What are the main characteristics that distinguish it from “something you’d read in a magazine?” Are its authors deliberately attempting to confuse and frustrate those outside the world of academia?

Joshua Rothman addressed these questions beautifully in a piece for the New Yorker blog. It’s worth a read in its entirety, but here are a few key points:

  • On the strange personal / impersonal dichotomy of academic writing: “Ordinary writing—the kind you read for fun—seeks to delight (and, sometimes, to delight and instruct). Academic writing has a more  ambiguous mission. It’s supposed to be dry but also clever; faceless but also persuasive; clear but also completist. Its deepest ambiguity has to do with audience. Academic prose is, ideally, impersonal, written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds. But, because it’s intended for a very small audience of hyper-knowledgable, mutually acquainted specialists, it’s actually among the most personal writing there is.”
  • Academic writing is part of the academic world, and those who live in that world don’t see it as strange (or, as Kristof described it, “gobbledegook”). But every now and then an outsider will sample some of it and declare it unintelligible or ridiculous and will blame academics for writing in a way that is intended to confuse and frustrate the reader. Rothman argues, though (and I agree), that no academic or group of academics ever sat down and consciously decided to make academic writing unintelligible to outsiders. It developed into its own style and language over time, and it continues to develop within the very insular system that produces it.
  • In the past decade journalism has been moving in a more populist direction, embracing (for good or ill) social media, listicles, short videos, gifs, and a writing style that’s designed to be understood and appreciated by as many people as possible. Academia, on the other hand, has been moving in the opposite direction, becoming more and more insular. “…since the liberal-arts job market peaked, in the mid-seventies, the audience for academic work has been shrinking. Increasingly, to build a successful academic career you must serially impress very small groups of people.”

My own views on academic writing have shifted repeatedly over the past ten years. In the beginning of my studies in literature, critical theory, and film, I was, like a lot of outsiders, suspicious of and incredibly frustrated by academic writing. It seemed to say in twenty words what could be said in five. It used endless jargon and didn’t bother to translate a host of German and French words. It assumed an intimate knowledge of a seemingly endless list of philosophers and theorists. I read what I was required to read, but I rolled my eyes a lot.

Then, a year or two in, something changed–I became an insider. Some academic writing would remain impenetrable to me, but much of it became clear. Challenging, and requiring a level of focus that a magazine article or some novels didn’t quite demand, but clear. More than that, it became a thrill. I felt like I was part of a secret society, one of a fairly small number of people who understood concepts and arguments that others wrote off as gibberish simply because they didn’t have the tools to understand them. I got a high from reading, understanding, and then debating the finer points of certain academic arguments. At some point I stopped paying any attention to “outsiders” who would dismiss this kind of writing. Clearly they just didn’t get it.

I still get this high occasionally, even though I no longer read academic writing on a regular basis. It’s still a thrill to discuss certain films and books with people that you already share a certain baseline knowledge with, skipping the small talk and the explanations and jumping right into analysis. But as Kristof points out, this club is tiny. It was tiny even when I was in graduate school–I shared a certain knowledge base with a few other grad students, but at times we all seemed like islands unto ourselves. As Joshua Rothman observes, our intended audiences were getting smaller and smaller, as was the number of people we could forge a true intellectual connection with.

I don’t mean to imply that we were all super-smart, though I certainly worked with some brilliant people. Rather, I always thought of myself as possessing a wealth of knowledge about a very, very specific subject, and it was nice to engage with other people who shared that super-specific knowledge base. We weren’t geniuses, we just knew a lot of things that other people didn’t about one particular, small corner of the intellectual world.

I also remember the dizzying feeling that I got when, after almost a solid year of reading nothing but academic writing, I had to read a “mainstream” magazine article for a grad seminar. It was disorienting, like suddenly careening down a hill on a bicycle where before I’d always been struggling upward. Why were these sentences so short? Why did this author take the time to EXPLAIN things that anyone with half a brain should already know? Where was the thrill in reading something that you could understand instantly, that didn’t require copious note-taking and conversations with your peers?

When it comes to academic writing versus mainstream writing, it’s rare to have a foot in both worlds. Insiders are fairly quick to ignore or dismiss any criticism of the seemingly impenetrable nature of academic writing. Outsiders frequently lack the tools to provide a more informed judgment–and ironically, the moment they GET those tools, they’re likely to lose their objectivity. The result is a seemingly endless stalemate between increasingly insular academics who don’t value or care about the judgments of outsiders,  and outsiders who accuse them of snobbery and deliberate obfuscation.

Ultimately, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing for specialists in your field. Biologists don’t publish articles on stem cells that are meant to be understood by the general public. In academia, though, there seems to be an undercurrent of frustration directed particularly at academics who study literature and film, because these are subjects that are seen as accessible to all. If the details of quantum theory are beyond us, so be it. But we should all be able to talk about books and movies without referencing a whole library of critical theorists, dammit.

(We can, of course, and we do. It’s just that for some people that extra knowledge of theory and history makes the conversation a lot richer.)

I’ll concede that, while I don’t think most academic writing is purposefully jargon-heavy or unintelligible, there’s plenty of it that is just plain bad. Some academics are brilliant thinkers and terrible writers. More than a few are guilty of complicating simple ideas with endless run-on sentences and using academic-sounding words where plain words would suffice. On the whole, though, when I’ve been unable to understand or appreciate a work of academic literature, I’ve attributed that more to my own lack of expertise than the author’s poor prose skills.

I’ve lived outside of the academic world for almost two years now, and my years of being surrounded by academic writing still exert a profound influence on how I think and read. The writing I value most these days tends to straddle the academic and the mainstream. If it’s a novel, it’s one that’s layered and complicated enough to keep me on my toes. If it’s non-fiction, it’s non-fiction that assumes I’m reasonably knowledgeable and doesn’t spend too much time explaining basic concepts. Bonus points for any work that really engages with complicated ideas and occasionally leaves me scratching my head.

This, ultimately, is one thing I genuinely miss about being immersed in academic writing–constantly being in over my head. Sure, it’s frustrating and at times depressing enough to make you want to cry, especially when you’re new to it all and are sure that you’ll never catch up. But it’s an amazing feeling to read something that twists language and thought to the point that you’re sure it can’t possibly make sense…and then suddenly, either through the guiding hand of a professor or a class discussion or just hours of note-taking and inner dialogue, the light shines in and all is revealed.

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being moves back and forth between a remote island in British Columbia and the urban blight of Tokyo, telling a story so heartbreaking that it borders on melodrama (and occasionally crosses that border). But the story itself is gripping and immediate enough that I found myself utterly drawn in, even as voices in the back of my mind quibbled with the details.

Ozeki’s novel begins with a woman named Ruth discovering a diary in a plastic bag on the beach. In the diary is the story of Naoko, a miserable teenage girl who is ready to kill herself after being uprooted from a pleasant life in California to a hellish existence at the hands of bullies and indifferent parents back in Tokyo. Ruth’s own situation is hardly ideal–she lives on a damp, cold, and isolated island with her artist husband, Oliver (the lives of these characters clearly mirror Ozeki’s own–her husband is an artist named Oliver, and they live in Cortes Island British Columbia). Struggling with writer’s block and her feelings over the recent death of her mother, novel-Ruth dives into Naoko’s story.

It’s the sort of tragic story that we’ve grown used to hearing about Japan. There’s sadistic bullying, multiple suicide attempts, attempted rape, and teenage prostitution. Reading Ozeki’s work and the work of many other English-speaking authors writing about Japan (Karl Taro Greenfeld, Sara Backer, Sujata Massey), I can’t help but wonder if we have come to fetishize Japanese suffering. Must all stories feature utterly beaten-down victims and sadistic abusers as though they were the norm? Must sex always be depressing? Do spouses always have to hate each other? Does everyone have to attempt suicide?

Another aspect of Ozeki’s work that I find troubling is that her victims, it seems, can only be saved by leaving Japan. Without giving too much away, I can say that in Ozeki’s previous work, My Year of Meats, and in A Tale for the Time Being, her female characters’ only hope for a decent life seems to lie in the U.S. or Canada. This is a refrain that I hear again and again in novels, in the words of Japanese friends who’ve lived abroad, and from foreign nationals who’ve spent a long time in Japan: just leave. (Which, of course, is not an option for the majority of Japanese.) Is there no happiness to be found for a Japanese person within Japan’s borders?

I was moved by Naoko’s story–by its unreliable narrator, by the ambiguous ending, even by the somewhat abrupt way in which she and her suicidal father may find a way out of their misery. But I’m conflicted by these seemingly endless stories of Japanese suffering crafted for an English-speaking audience. Why do these stories speak to us? Do they reinforce a narrative of the suffering, downtrodden Other that we’d do better to abandon?

I’m not sure what to make of A Tale for the Time Being or the fact that I deeply enjoy Ozeki’s work. It’s good work.  She’s a gifted writer with a wonderful eye and ear for the details of Japanese life. I just wish there was a space for other stories of Japan–stories with less of a focus on sadism and horrific suffering, for example. Stories that reflected the reality of my own existence in Japan a little more closely (though as a foreign national, I realize that my life here will never really mirror that of a native). But maybe my own life here, like anyone’s, is full of more than a few illusions, and any story that dug a little deeper would inevitably venture into dark places.

Sao Paulo Journal

12/28
I’m flying to Sao Paulo from Tokyo via Abu Dhabi, which sounds insane, and it is–it’s a chunk further than flying via the U.S., but significantly cheaper. The entire trip will take 30 hours–one twelve-hour flight, a three-hour layover, and then another fifteen-hour flight.

I don’t remember much about the first flight. I think I slept for ten hours of the twelve-hour trip, which is incredible given that I almost never sleep on planes. It was a late night flight. I woke up starving and just in time to wolf down the curried chicken sandwiches that the flight attendants were passing out. We landed in Abu Dhabi before sunrise.

Abu Dhabi airport was surreal. I kept reminding myself that I was further from home than I’d ever been, in a country I never thought I’d set foot in, but in the airport you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a midwestern mall. It was a sort of liminal space, everywhere but nowhere, where most of the travellers looked European or North American and the shops served pizza and falafel and accepted currency from ten different countries (just not Japan or Brazil). When the sun came up I could see very little beyond the airport. I could have been anywhere.

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Plane number two. Before falling asleep yet again I looked out the window for at least an hour just to stare at the Sahara. It was never-ending. There wasn’t even a wisp of a cloud in the sky, so I felt like I could see every grain of sand. Even the ocean never looked so vast and unbroken. Every now and then I would see a few dark circles, but no other signs of human habitation. Time went by and the desert just kept going. And then suddenly when I looked out my window before drifting off everything was bright green. I remembered descriptions like “sub-Saharan” from geography textbooks, but never were they so vividly revealed to me as on this plane.

Landing in Sao Paulo the evening air feels surprisingly cool. My partner, who’s been there with his family for a week now, laughs and says it won’t stay that way, and he’s right–sleeping will sometimes be a challenge. We drive through surprisingly empty streets–it’s just after Christmas, which means I will miss any real experience of Sao Paulo’s infamous traffic. I don’t complain.

12/29
We eat bread, cheese, endless fresh fruit, yogurt, and tea for breakfast in a cheerful living room. I am starving, and I will be starving for the rest of the trip. Later I wonder if it’s because my ability to communicate has been compromised, so I’ve replaced speaking with eating.

We go for a walk down the road to a park. I had no real impression of Sao Paulo before I arrived. I imagined it would be crowded and dirty and run-down. A lot of the buildings are run-down, but the streets are fairly empty (again, probably because a few million people have traveled outside the city for the long holiday). There are botecos, little shops selling pastries and snacks that double as informal bars and hangout joints, on almost every corner. It feels cheerful, maybe because it’s almost always sunny.

The park is full of trees. This is a detail I remember–despite being a huge city choked with concrete, Sao Paulo has much more green than Tokyo. And much more color–even the run-down buildings are painted in facades of bright pink and blue. There’s graffiti everywhere, but sometimes there are beautiful paintings and quasi-photographic artworks on the sides of buildings. In the middle of the park is a little “reading room,” a building with large windows where anyone can walk in and read one of the books on the shelves. There are “pay what you can” book vending machines scattered throughout the city, usually containing classics and religious texts.

12/30
I begin to fully comprehend what it means to not really be able to communicate with people. I am afraid to be left alone with my partner’s mother and sister, not because they’re unkind (they’re sweet and accommodating), but because they talk to me, and most of the time I can only nod or smile or gesture, and I’m terrified that they think I’m rude or dull-witted. (Which is worse? Rude. Definitely rude. I could live with people thinking I’m a bit dim, but I *really* don’t want anyone to think I’m rude, unless I’m being rude on purpose, which is rare.) I don’t mind not being able to communicate with store clerks or restaurant staff (I usually don’t have as many problems there), but given that this is my first time to meet a significant other’s family in (my God) 13 years, I want to make a good impression. And it’s hard to do that when you basically have the communicative abilities of a five-year-old.

Mom and sister take me shopping for a bathing suit since I forgot to bring one. It’s nice to have even the smallest bathing suit fit me, where in Japan I struggle to find any suits that fit. I buy a bright blue bikini, the first bikini I’ve bought in seven or eight years. They buy me the bathing suit as a Christmas present and I’m touched. I also look good in it, which makes me really happy.

12/31
We drive to the countryside for a family New Year’s Eve party. The landscape reminds me of Texas, but much greener. It could almost be the English countryside. There’s a pool at the house and we go swimming with lots of children and adults and I’m given copious amounts of caipirinha and batida de coco. There’s wonderful food for lunch, polenta with tomatoes and roasted chicken with rice. I sit with a group of children, one of whom practices his English with me. “Does she understand English?” one of the younger children asks his father. “Yes, she only understands English. Just like you only understand Portuguese.” I can tell this blows his mind.

Other than the occasional bit of English practice, in Brazil I never have conversations that center around my foreign-ness. Visually I’m not exotic, and there doesn’t seem to be any assumption that I’m fundamentally different from my hosts. It’s a nice change from Japan, where conversations that frequently come back to “What do Americans think of…?” can get tiresome.

Apparently everyone wears a white shirt on New Year’s Eve. I didn’t know, and I’m wearing black. But no one seems to care.

At midnight we count down the seconds and then the fireworks start. They last for fifteen or twenty minutes, just fireworks from people’s private homes. They’ll continue intermittently for the next 24 hours or so, sometimes so loud that I could swear bombs were going off.

1/1
There are long stretches of this trip where the two of us just retreat somewhere quiet and read, occasionally reading something aloud to each other. I love this, because so often trips are over-planned. I like the opportunity to just do nothing. He’s reading books on Hebrew and programming, and I’m reading a trashy romance novel called Mr. Impossible. I’ve sort of developed a tradition of reading trash literature when I travel. Unfortunately the stories have become a little dull and repetitive, so I might need to switch to pulp sci-fi.

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There is very little for tourists to do in Sao Paulo. It may be the first foreign city I’ve visited where I never line up to buy tickets for some historical attraction and never encounter large tour groups or tour buses. Still, we manage to find things to do. We go to a large cathedral with huge, vaulted ceilings, the kind I haven’t seen since I visited Westminster Abbey as a teenager. There’s the faint smell of incense. The place is quiet, especially compared to the rest of the city. Though I don’t have much use for church these days, it reminds me that I did once enjoy the somber, meditative quality of some Catholic services.

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1/3
We go to Ibirapuera Park, which might be my favorite place in Sao Paulo so far. It’s huge and green and incredibly well-maintained, and it’s free! I could sit in it for hours and just enjoy the breezes coming off the lake.

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After that we gorge ourselves on really good burgers and Ovaltine milkshakes at a popular restaurant in the tony neighborhood of Jardins.

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Much of Jardins looks like Beverly Hills–huge houses hidden behind enormous walls, lots of trees, wide boulevards, high-end shops and restaurants. It’s shocking to think that just the day before I was passing by a slum where goats were tethered to metal poles that held up flimsy pieces of plastic that passed for roofs.

1/4
On our last day we go to Embu das Artes, a craft village just outside the city. It’s ridiculously hot, and while I don’t expect places to be air conditioned, it’d be nice if there were more fans. With cousins we go to a restaurant with truly wonderful food–fresh pasta, coxinhas, and grilled vegetables and meats, which more than makes up for being drenched in sweat.

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At the airport that night we have one more thing to check off our list–boyfriend wants to get a “cheddar melt,” a special McDonald’s burger that’s only on offer at McDonald’s in Brazil. Luckily there’s a McDonald’s in the airport, so we wait in a rather long line and pay for some overpriced burgers, fries, and milkshakes. I have to admit, they taste really good.

There are long hugs and farewells. As we move through the security line I can see family still waving and blowing kisses at us right up until we turn the corner out of sight.

The trip threatens to end on a sour note when a group of truly obnoxious men boards the plane to Abu Dhabi shouting about how drunk they’re all going to get. But through some sort of divine intervention (or, I like to think, a spiked drink delivered by a calculating flight attendant), their ringleader passes out only an hour after take-off and spends the next fourteen hours curled up in a silent little ball.

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Four Walls

There was the four-foot-by-eight-foot space that a neighbor lived in that was crammed with piles of magazines and newspapers, all neatly tied with string. When I saw Miyazaki’s Mimi wo sumaseba, a simple and beautiful movie about life in a Tokyo suburb, I noted that level of attention to detail–the old apartments with the metal doors and the piles of magazines and newspapers. I still don’t know why so many people in Japan never seem to throw away their magazines and newspapers, especially given the tiny size of most apartments and houses.

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There was the time I was invited to what I thought was a casual dinner party at an embassy apartment, only to be buzzed in and discover a top-floor space that could have housed nine or ten of my own apartments, with massive double doors that stretched several meters over my head, enormous glass windows with a drop-dead view of the city, and uniformed staff passing out drinks to everyone. I had brought a plastic convenience store bag full of juice and canned cocktails and felt utterly mortified.

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There was an old friend’s apartment where the walls were so thin that we could hear every word his very lonely neighbor said to his family over the phone. “I’ll see you at Christmas, I’ll see you at Christmas…gotta show you all these pictures I got of these pretty Japanese birds…”

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There was the time I missed the last train after a World Cup match in 2002 and had to sleep on the floor at a guy friend’s apartment, and I was terrified because I was only 23 and had never slept in a guy friend’s apartment before. But he was kind and gave me some oversized clothes to sleep in and even though it was strange to be sleeping in a floor space so small that we were practically spooning, I got some sleep and headed out to work early the next morning.

My experiences with Tokyo apartments have been as varied as my experiences with Tokyo food. There’s a sameness to a lot of them, but they vary so much that I never know what to expect when visiting someone’s home for the first time.

As a general rule, I rarely see the inside of my Japanese friends’ homes. The Japanese are not known for entertaining at home–people are self-conscious about messy houses, and spaces can be so small that entertaining more than two or three people at a time is often a challenge (this isn’t so much the case in rural areas, where spaces are bigger). But foreigners, perhaps less embarrassed given that most of us, generally, live in the same tiny, ratty apartments, are happy to share.

Many Japanese apartments are bizarrely designed. Part of this is simply that they’re old, and they were built during a time when most of their occupants wore kimono regularly, slept and ate on the floor, and didn’t own furniture like bookshelves or high tables. But even to my Japanese friends many of the design choices are questionable. I lived in one apartment, for example, that had two entrances. Right next to each other. Perhaps it had once been divided into two apartments. It was weird to sit in my living room and stare at two front doors and two genkan (small entryways), right next to one another. I ended up covering one of the entrances with a screen. The poor postman was always confused when he knocked on one door and I opened the other one.

Many apartments (including the one I live in now) have no closet space higher than three or four feet. Closets are separated by thick boards, meaning that it’s impossible to hang dresses or long coats. Said closets also often have hooks affixed to the back, but I still haven’t figured out how one can access those hooks when there are clothes hanging in front of them. This seems to be a relic of another time, when most clothing (especially kimono) was stored in wide, flat drawers. And many of these closets were (and still are) used not for storing clothes but for storing futon during the day.

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Plenty of apartments are full of dead space and sharp angles, the result of trying to build on a miniscule plot of land. There never seems to be a space against which to put a bed or a sofa–in place of walls there are often sliding doors, meaning that furniture ends up blocking entrances. Cable outlets, phone jacks,  and electrical sockets are placed in very random and inconvenient locations.

Long-term foreign residents of Tokyo usually go through apartment stages, beginning with a guesthouse / gaijin house, where they’ll likely live in a tiny room with a bed or futon and a desk, plus a kitchen and showers that they share with fifteen or twenty other people. How long you last in these places can depend on your age (young’uns last longer), your tolerance for noise and messiness (it needs to be high), and your need for privacy (it needs to be low).

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After gaijin houses come gaijin apartments, or at least cheap apartments. These will be a small step above gaijin houses–you’ll have your own toilet and shower (often crammed next to each other in a tiny space that can be challenge for foreign-sized men to navigate). If you’ve managed to escape the dreaded up-front costs, the building will probably be old and poorly insulated. But you’ll feel a bit more like an adult.

The big jump to a “real” apartment doesn’t usually happen for foreigners who stay in Japan less than two years, with good reason–it’s expensive and demoralizing. Numerous landlords simply won’t rent to foreigners (this is perfectly legal, and they’ll tell you “no foreigners” with a smile on their faces). You’ll also have to find a guarantor–a person who will pay your rent in the event that you can’t. A guarantor usually has to be a Japanese family member, and if you don’t have one of those, you’ll probably need to shell out even more cash for a guarantor agency. Finally, there are the ridiculous “key money” and agency fees, sometimes totalling three to four months’ rent. You’ll probably only get 20 or 30% of that back when you move out.

But oh, what a feeling it is to finally have a “real” apartment. I moved into my first (and only) real apartment in 2004, with a Japanese roommate. We had an actual kitchen with space for a dining table. There was a living area with a sofa. We had a separate bathroom area with a bathroom sink and a mirror, a separate toilet and shower, and even a deep bathtub with a little control panel for heating the water. My large tatami bedroom looked out onto a yard with a tree. (A yard with a tree! A yard with a tree! It’s hard to imagine now.) We had people over for dinner. My mother and aunt stayed with me when they came to visit. It was beautiful.

Sadly, it all came apart in the last five months, when my elderly landlady revealed herself to be demented and paranoid. Her constant phone calls and (false) accusations of unpaid rent drove me to such a level of panic that I eventually moved out..and back into a gaijin house. From Level 3 back to Level 1 in the Great Tokyo Apartment RPG. But it was worth it for the peace of mind.

To this day I get a thrill out of visiting other people’s apartments. Sometimes they make me want to weep, because yes, this person has what I have always dreamed of having. It’s neat, it’s cozy, there’s art on the walls, it doesn’t smell funny, it’s warm enough or cool enough, it’s compact but not so small that it’s uncomfortable.

Sometimes I walk through the door and heave a sigh of relief, because some people’s places are sad and cluttered and I feel this momentary glee that at least SOMEONE’s apartment is smaller / older than mine.

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Sometimes I’m just in awe. This usually happens in expat apartments, spaces that seem to have been spirited straight out of Texas or Ohio and plopped down in the middle of Tokyo. Huge five-bedroom houses, condos that take up two or three floors. I don’t even feel jealous in places like these, because they represent an entirely different planet of apartment living.

In Tokyo, there are questions that everyone wants to ask about everyone else’s apartment. How much are you paying? (Will I be shocked at how little? Or how much?) Was there key money / an agency fee? How much? How’s the landlord, is he gaijin-friendly? Did you look for a long time? Was finding this place easy, or was it agonizing?

Even the apartments that I’m incredibly jealous of are usually only perfect on the surface, though. They’re beautiful, but the neighbor is psychotic. Or it’s a really, really long walk from the station. Or it’s at the top of a hill (I checked out one apartment that was quite literally a five-minute hike up multiple steep staircases–that, and the fact that I would be sharing the apartment with three self-described “messy” Japanese men, were deciding factors in opting out). Or the rent is crazy high. Or there are two bedrooms, but one of them is through a hole in the floor and is only six feet high. (This is true of a friend’s apartment. She uses the second room for storage and occasionally for get-togethers–people can sit but their heads brush the ceiling when they stand. She doesn’t drink much, so she doesn’t have to worry about falling through the hole when she comes home.) Or the rent is cheap and the location is fabulous, but the building is slated for demolition in two years, so don’t get too comfy. (Also true of another friend’s apartment.)

For the moment I live in a “level 2″ apartment, and it’s not feasible for me and my partner to move for a while. But that doesn’t stop me from apartment-dreaming. I look at available apartments on various search engines, where the pictures always make places look newer and more spacious than they actually are. I imagine a space big enough to have more than two guests for dinner, or to at least have two guests sleep over for a few days. I drool over pictures of new shower fixtures. I grow misty-eyed at images of shiny wood floors. (Some people love tatami. I don’t. I think it’s a pain to clean and uncomfortable to sit on. And after thirteen years on both beds and futon, I am definitely in the bed camp.)

Yet even as I dream, I dread. Because searching for a new apartment in Tokyo is horrible. There’s the blatant racism that I can sometimes forget about on a day to day basis, only to have it wallop me on the nose when landlord after landlord refuses to even meet me. There are the costs that balloon. There are the inevitable disappointments when the apartment you had your eye on gets snatched up, or isn’t nearly as nice in person, or the agency won’t accept your non-Japanese-relative guarantor.

Much as I want to move, I’m also shocked to discover that I’m happy in my forty-year-old gaijin apartment. I hate the bathroom, and I hate that I don’t have a bathroom sink. I hate the gaping hole in the oven-fan in the kitchen which basically makes it feel like we’re living in a tent. I hate that the circuits blow whenever I use the heater and pretty much any other appliance at the same time (or just whenever the circuits feel like blowing). I hate not being able to have more than two people over for dinner. I hate telling overseas friends that I want them to come see me, but unless they’re coming solo they can’t stay with me.

And yet this place is home, and I get fucking pissed off when people disparage it (as a co-worker did after seeing some photos). I can bitch about this place, dude, but don’t you DARE.

This is where I get creative with cooking, because I have to, with limited space and tools. This is where my bookshelves just fit. This is where the air always feels so much warmer as soon as I walk in the door, even if it’s a challenge to get the temperature up beyond 19 degrees Celsius. This is where I eat meals on a folding table that we store in a corner most of the time, because otherwise we’d be tripping over it. This is where I have just enough closet space for my clothes and his, and for a few random boxes of notebooks and machines and things that couldn’t be thrown away. This is where I crank the hot water heater manually and relish the feeling of a hot shower in winter and a cold one in summer.

This is where I live. And I’ll miss it when I finally do upgrade.

Try Again, ANA

So this ad’s been generating a lot of discussion.

(If the link isn’t working or it’s been taken down, here’s a brief summary. Two Japanese men speak in English about how ANA (All Nippon Airways) now has flights to many international destinations. One guy says “You wanna hug?” The other guy says “no,” and the first guy says that this is a very “Japanese reaction.” First guy says “Let’s change the image of Japanese people.” Cut to second guy wearing a blond wig and and an oversized nose.)

A bit of background. This “gaijin (foreigner) costume” is commonplace on Japanese TV. The person wearing it will usually affect a thick accent and speak Japanese poorly (or just speak gibberish). You can buy the “gaijin costume” in costume shops in Tokyo like Tokyu Hands and Don Quixote. It almost always consists of a big nose and large ears, plus maybe a blond wig.

ANA apparently got enough complaints about the ad that they’re planning to change it. I’d just like to address a few of the more common reactions I’ve seen:

“It wasn’t intended to be racist.”

Putting aside the issue of whether or not the ad is racist, when was the last time ANYONE–other than a few grand dragons of the KKK–actually INTENDED to be racist?

With a tiny number of exceptions, no one ever INTENDS to be racist / sexist / homophobic. But people are, some more often than others. It’s not a capital offense. Most of us are guilty of it at some point, and we all tend to dig in our heels when people accuse us of it–”But that wasn’t what I MEANT!” It really doesn’t matter what you MEANT–what matters is how it’s received. The point isn’t what this ad INTENDED–it’s  the effect that it had on its audience. In this case, plenty of people were offended, and plenty of people weren’t. But if you’re ANA, and the WHOLE POINT of your ad is to show how “international” you are, you might want to rethink the use of an old, tired trope that more than a few people don’t care for.

For me, that’s the main point of all this. If I see a Japanese person wearing a “gaijin” costume on a silly talk show, I tend to just roll my eyes. But when that same image appears in an ad from a company that was actually trying to tout its international-ness,  I get a little more frustrated.

“You’re overreacting. Don’t be so sensitive, just laugh it off.”

The last time I checked, saying publicly that you don’t like an ad, criticizing the choice of the people who made it, or even judging it offensive hardly counted as “overreacting.” It’s a public ad–people can be offended or not. Being offended doesn’t mean that you think the ad’s creators should be strung up by their heels and flogged, it just means the ad had a negative impact on you. And in this case, enough people were offended that ANA decided to change the ad.

As for sensitivity, sure, if you’re foreign you can choose to handle stuff like this however you want. On a regular basis in Japan and in the world at large, I have to make decisions about when I’m going to speak up about something and when I’m just going to roll my eyes or laugh it off. In this case, I was just sad to see that even when they tried to get it right, they got it wrong. That even when a Japanese company is apparently trying to re-brand itself as being inclusive and “global,” it still falls back on tired, stereotypical images. Which shows, yet again, that attitudes are really, really slow to change.

“I thought it was funny.”

I thought it was kind of funny, too–right up until the end (I loved the “You wanna hug?” bit.) Yet another reason to be disappointed–it was so close to being good, and then it went lame. But funny’s subjective. I’ve laughed at plenty of stuff that others might have found offensive. This time around I wasn’t laughing at the end, though.

“Come on. White people are hardly an oppressed minority.”

No, we’re not. But this ad wasn’t just about “whiteface” or making fun of white people–it was about the Japanese idea of what it means to be an “international” (non-Japanese) person. Which apparently still means blond hair and a silly-looking big nose. Goofy. Different.

Little things like “gaijin” costumes and repeatedly seeing foreign nationals portrayed as clownish / weird contribute to the mindset that foreigners should be treated differently, and that foreign nationals and Japanese are essentially separate species. And this mindset has real-world consequences–if you’re foreign in Japan, it’s still hard to get an apartment, get a bank account, get a housing loan, get a job in a Japanese company that “doesn’t hire foreigners” (even if you were born here and have a Japanese passport), or in some cases even get into a bath house. In the grand scheme of things, the ANA ad might not be a big deal, but it’s a symptom of a bigger problem.

I’ll actually be really curious to see the revised ad, and to see if ANA takes any of the feedback to heart. I’d love to see an ad that really does follow through on a message of inclusiveness while still being funny.

Best of 2013

Yeah, I’m way late with my “best of” list, but I’m usually reading these well into February. Incidentally, I think my favorite “best and worst of” list so far is this wonderfully random film one from Reverse Shot (with categories like “Worst Dissertation in a Film” and “Worst Font”).

Movies

As usual, some of these are old, but they were new to me.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. Herzog’s look at Siberian trappers who live a life mostly unchanged from a hundred years ago. I think I would have enjoyed it even if there’d been no speaking, because the visuals are so beautiful, but the quiet little stories from all the trappers make it extra special.

The Heat. I was iffy on Bridesmaids, Paul Feig’s other foul-mouthed-as-the-boys comedy, mostly because I’m tired of movies about women who constantly fight and compete with each other. But The Heat was just hilarious. Sure, Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy are at odds for about five minutes, but then they quickly become friends and feed beautifully off of each other’s very different comic energy. I just laughed and laughed.

Gravity. Enough’s been said about this one. I loved it. Admittedly I could have done without the “I’m gonna rise up and meet the challenge!” speechifying at the end, but even that didn’t spoil it for me.

Kaze tachinu. Not a perfect Miyazaki film, but complicated and beautiful to look at, with plenty of prickly questions that stay with you.

Before Midnight. Like its predecessor, this one was a gut-punch. It’s remarkable how much we care about these two characters, and how much (for me, at least) they seem to reflect certain phases of our own lives.

Lelo and Stitch. Why hadn’t I ever watched this? It was adorable, and not in that cloying, manipulative way that old-style Disney films can be. Funny, smart, pretty to look at, and a great sense of place (Hawaii).

Star Trek: Into Darkness. Hey, I thoroughly enjoyed this, ridiculous as it was. Maybe it’s Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice. I could seriously listen to him read the ingredients on a cereal box.

Stoker. Say what you will about Stoker–and there’s plenty negative that could be said–I thought it did an amazing job of achieving a very specific, deliciously chilling tone. From the cinematography to the music to the very similar styles of not-quite-realistic acting, it was never less than true to its vision. That’s rare these days, when more than a few movies can’t resist giving in to cliches or gimmicks.

Books

The Steel Remains & The Cold Commands, Richard K. Morgan. For pure fantasy / sci-fi, these were fabulous, with the added bonus that they subvert sci-fi norms by featuring gay characters. Not for the squeamish–the sex and the violence are pretty graphic–but I adored them.

Seraphina, Rachel Hartman. Another beautiful work of fantasy that features a delightfully prickly and realistic female heroine. The formula might seem old–dragons, princes, court intrigue–but it feels very new.

Kindred, Octavia Butler. Octavia Butler’s story of a black woman who is forcibly transported back in time every few hours / days / weeks to a plantation in the 19th century is a harrowing look at slavery.

A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn. Admittedly I still haven’t finished this one, it’s taken me like six months to read. But it’s not the sort of thing you flip through. One of those books that I’d been promising to read for a long time, and that really everyone should read. It’ll probably get its own post eventually.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. As I wrote before, it reads like great science fiction. It makes you kind of queasy to realize that it’s not.

The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing, Taylor Larimor, Mel Lindauer, Michael LeBoeuf, and John C. Bogle. If you’re thinking about saving for that (maybe not so) distant day when you’re old and feeble, or if you just want to re-think your relationship with money, spending, and saving, this no-nonsense book is great. There are no gimmicks, no get-rich-quick schemes, no selling of particular brands, just simple advice.

Colin Dickey’s Zone of Wasteage: An Arctic Journal, June 2013. Sorry, not available to the general public, only to those who funded the Kickstarter project–which is a shame, because it’s great!

Food

Jerusalem. This cookbook made my year and made me re-discover why cookbooks (over online recipes) can be a wonderful thing. Fattoush is probably still my favorite go-to recipe, but I also love the lamb meatballs with figs, zucchini burgers with yogurt-sumac sauce, and lamb stew with white beans.

Beijing food. If I go back to Beijing anytime soon it’ll be for two things: the Great Wall and the food. Peking duck, loofah leaves, giant fifty-cent steamed pork buns, sweet and savory pastries from Uighur food stalls…I want more now.

Rainbow burritos. Oh thank heaven for this little piece of California in Shinjuku-nichome.

Viral Things

Porta dos Fundos. This sketch comedy group from Brazil are kind of hit or miss, but when they hit they’re awesome. I think this one might be my favorite. (English subtitles available)

Tom Hiddleston dancing and being a velociraptor.

Cats stealing dog beds.

Patrick Stewart & Ian McKellan.

Discourse on the Otter

The stolen pony story from Denmark.

This time-lapse map of every nuclear explosion since 1945. This one is really haunting.

WTF Evolution

The 17 best failed tv shows of the 80s. It’s kind of embarrassing how much I loved this.

San Francisco Batkid

Longform Journalism

Planet Money’s “Travels of a T-Shirt” podcast series and website

The Village Voice’s chilling story of how R Kelly is essentially a serial sexual predator who’s never been punished…and nobody seems to care.

Retro Report–fascinating new perspectives on old news stories.

The God of SNL Will See You Now

Christy Lemire’s movie reviews and film commentary on “What the Flick?!”

Emily Nussbaum on Sex and the City

Uproxx on Sharknado

Sarah Kessler on Girls

Patton Oswalt on rape jokes and joke thievery

The Extroardinary Science of Addictive Junk Food You will never look at Lunchables the same way again.

There was a bunch of other stuff I wanted to include–scary animals, positive news events–but this thing’s already pretty long, so I’ll just leave it there. Happy 2014!

Questionable Theater: Swift!

Image(image courtesy of skappa.org)

When I walked into the theater and saw that it was at least 80% small children, my heart sank.

This was going to be rough, I was sure. This show was artsy, or at least it looked that way. It was in an invented language that the children (and really, anyone except the show’s creator) would not understand. These kids were going to be whining and fidgeting the whole time.

I was wrong. They were riveted.

The show they watched was French theatre company Skappa!’s Swift!, a forty-five minute visual and auditory meditation on “absurd proportions,” strange journeys, and the blurred lines between the fantastical and the real. It was pure magic, and not just for the kids. Several times I found myself almost moved to tears, so caught up was I in the sheer theatricality of it.

It took me back to my own early childhood experiences with theater. I was lucky enough to grow up in a school district where creative, original theater was regularly performed in our schools or at the local theater, Zachary Scott, which also hosted all-day workshops for children. These plays were not the saccharine, watered-down morality shows that so often fall under the heading of “children’s theater.” Like Swift!, these were challenging, thought-provoking plays put on by serious artists who could just as easily have been presenting their work to an audience of adults.

This thought struck me again as I watched Swift! These performers were not presenting a “children’s play,” even if the show had been marketed at audiences of all ages and (amazingly in an expensive city like Tokyo) children under twelve got in free. There was nothing in the set, the music, or the style of performance that immediately screamed “children’s theater.”

Watching Swift! was like watching two plays: the action unfolding in front of me and the running commentary around me. The children weren’t whining or asking to go to the bathroom–they were engaging with the work in that utterly unselfconscious way that children do. They asked questions of their parents about the action. They commented on what was happening, often with amazement. Initially, several of them said that they “couldn’t understand” the invented language that the lead actor was speaking. But after a few minutes it was clear that they could. We all could.

We are so quick to talk down to children, to present them with inferior entertainments that leave nothing uncertain or ambiguous. Swift!, which sadly ran for only three days in Tokyo, is a powerful argument against that line of thinking. I wish more children in Tokyo could have seen it, if only to have that rarest of chances to be swept up in something bigger than themselves, and to be inspired to ask questions that their parents can’t answer.

Thoughts on life after the PhD

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