水曜日, 11月 25, 2009

The Tame Article (written for January)

My Hiroshima Winters
By Greg Beck

This marks my fourth winter living in Hiroshima, and being an American raised in the hot, dry, desert, what an evolution I’ve experienced! I’ll never forget when I bought my first sweater. Probably because that happened only four years ago! Tucson, Arizona, where I have spent most of my life, is located in the Sonoran Desert, near the Mexican border. In the winter, after the sun sets, the temperature drops quickly and there is often frost on the windshields and lawns of dead grass. But if you own one jacket and drive everywhere in a car with a heater, you will never notice this nocturnal-only season.
I moved to Ondo, Hiroshima in August 2006, and it was hot, muggy, and beautiful. Fall flew by with amazing island views of deciduous trees, mixed with green pines and grey skies on deep-blue ocean, and jutting, mountainous backdrops. Then, all of the sudden, I was freezing. Not just at night either, the mornings, evenings, even most of the mid-days, I was cold, miserable, and wrapped in the same four or five layers of what warm clothes I bought that month. It wasn’t until late January when my friend came over and showed me my air conditioner had a heater mode that I started thinking positively. Before that, I worried and wondered every day how people can live in these conditions! It was also in January on a chance visit to Uniqlo that I discovered Japanese long-johns. These thin, warm pants and shirts provided me a desperately needed extra layer of warmth that helped me go outside, and stay out later, be more active and social, and all around start loving life again. Of course there were other factors; my friend Brian would drive me with him to Kiyomori Taiko practice, and I bought an electric heater and a kotatsu. I also took a trip to Hokkaido where I learned to snowboard, but that played more of a factor the next year.
My second winter started out completely different. I lived in Kure City. I knew exactly when it would start to get cold and I had my finger ready on the danbou heater button. I also bought clothes and a board for snowboarding so I was actually looking forward to the coming of winter! I was also jogging every night, by then, so the cooler air of fall was a welcome prelude to cold winter nights. Also, if you’ve followed my previous articles, this winter came just after the formation of Kure City’s touch rugby team. With all these things keeping me moving and enjoying my free time, winter quickly went from my worst, to my favorite season! I still needed to wrap myself in a hundred layers before going outside usually, but I happily put those layers on just to peel them off as I exercised.
Last winter was my third, and my first living in Hiroshima City. Surprisingly, it was both better, and worse, in many different ways. My new job here at the International Center meant I was warmer at work, but working weekends meant missing out on half the snowboarding trips I took my second year. We have a lot of fun events in the winter like our upcoming snow-experience in Kita-Hiroshima, as well as the exchange party every December. On the down side, my new neighborhood doesn’t have a track nearby like on Kure, so I stopped jogging, although that is probably just an excuse for being lazy. Lastly, I went home to the desert for Christmas. It was great to go outside again wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but when I came back to Hiroshima for New Years, I got the flu for the first time in my life!
This year, I feel like a winter warrior. I have adjusted my schedule and stayed in Hiroshima. No running away from the cold this year! I have sweaters, jackets, coats, and thermal clothes. I am taking multi-vitamins, working out at home, snowboarding every weekend, and next month my friends and I travel to Nagano for a snowboarding trip! I can’t stress enough how much Japan has helped me learn to love winter. But more importantly, Hiroshima has given me something more, the ability to see the bright side of something I misunderstood for so long.

火曜日, 11月 24, 2009

Life as a Gaijin

Here is an article I just wrote for the Hiroshima International Center's newsletter. In the end, I think I will write a new article that has more to do with Hiroshima, on a less sensitive subject. But I would like to get my opinion out there...

Life as a Gaijin
by Greg Beck

I am a gaijin. I accept it. I am not trying to create any debate or start a social revolution in Japan, but here is a brief description of my life in Japan, and my thoughts on the concept of the word, “gaijin”.

First and foremost, are you aware there is a huge debate over the word gaijin? There are two main sides to this argument. Many people feel offended by the word. They believe there is no linguistic relation to the word “gaikokujin”, meaning “a person from a foreign country”. They argue that because the origin of the word means “outsider”, that calling a person gaijin is divisive, condescending, and even hostile! With this group, using the word “gaijin” can cause problems quickly for both parties. The other side of the debate centers on the Japanese shortening of words. Gaijin, to them, is short for gaikokujin. By this definition, if you are from a foreign country, there is nothing wrong with being a gaijin.

I have always tried to stay above the fray. I believe both parties can be right. Your intent matters more than the words you use. However, some people interpret what they hear differently, so someone can still take offense regardless of the speaker’s intentions. But I believe how a word “should” be used and how people actually use it often differ. A third group deserves mentioning; there are people from foreign countries who have become Japanese citizens. These people spent incredible amounts of time and effort to become Japanese citizens and feel both “gaijin” and “gaikokujin” no longer apply to them. But in Japan’s traditionally homogenous society someone who does not look Japanese is automatically assumed to be a gaijin.

I do not fit into any of these groups. Everyone has the right to say and think what they want. When I first came here in 2004 to study at Konan University, I was oblivious to this issue. As my Japanese improved, I started hearing the word gaijin more and more. I learned it meant “foreigner” and to this day sometimes use the word in that context myself. Since those first months here some of my friends complained of hearing “Gaijin” immediately followed by utterance “Abunai” (dangerous). Also, on many occasions, a few of my foreign friends and I will go to a restaurant and a Japanese couple will enter and comment on there being “many gaijin” there, as if there is some deeper meaning to their observation. In addition to this I noticed people on trains and buses hesitate or avoid sitting next to me. This isn’t always the case, of course, but it continues to happen, even after living here for years. On a rational level, I don’t care if someone does not want to sit next to me. There are many reasons why they might decide not to. Still though, when I notice it, I can’t help imagining a voice saying, “Gaijin. Abunai.” and feeling a little insulted.

Being asked by total strangers where I’m from and how long I’ve been in Japan is another part of being a gaijin. I understand they are expressing their curiosity and an interest in me, which is nice. Also, because my physical appearance is different, I’m sure I stand out, but sometimes I do not want to act as ambassador of my home country, I just want to be another member of the community I live in. Also, these questions sound cold. When they come without a greeting like “Hello, how are you?” or even, “Nice weather we’re having”, it seems like I am being interrogated.

Let’s assume gaijin means “foreigner”, nothing good or bad, just a basic adjective. Calling me “gaijin” would be, technically, correct. But having grown up in America, with white, black, Asian, and Hispanic friends – all “American” with unique ancestry, I cannot remember one time in my life I’ve ever referred to another person in English as “foreign”. To me, even saying someone is American, or Japanese, does not say anything about whether they are short, tall, friendly, mean, greedy, or generous. So to describe a person as “foreign” seems so vague it is pointless.

As I learned more Japanese and traveled the world, I noticed “gaijin” really does not mean “foreign”. “Foreign” is a relative term. For example, if a Japanese person went to Guam, they would become the “foreign” person. But that same Japanese person could still refer to everyone in Guam as “gaijin”. So gaijin’s meaning is probably better expressed as “not Japanese”, and I do not appreciate being referred to by what I am “not”. I know I am not Japanese, and that suits me just fine. My nationality seems as relevant and important as the color of my shirt. A tourist here for the weekend, or someone fluent in Japanese, and living in Hiroshima for 30 years, being reduced to the same, simple term “gaijin” seems dismissive. It also fails to describe what they are.

I am often asked if I would like to live in Japan for ever. I love Japan, and I feel lucky for day I spend here. But if I lived here until I was old and gray, people would still probably call me “gaijin” and ask what country I am from. I don’t know if this problem exists in other countries. I don’t know if Japan will change, or if it does, how quickly. But it would not be easy to call this “my home” when people from the same town call me “gaijin”.

水曜日, 11月 18, 2009

Heading toward Decemburr

So, winter is most definitely here in Hiroshima.
The most awesome aspect of this is the mikan (mandarin orange). Mikan are proof that value is derived from scarcity. Since mikan are the very definition of abundance this time of year, they are completely worthless and handed out as gifts by everyone, to everyone. I have lived in an apartment since the day I moved here, so clearly I have no trees, yet even I have given people mikan, because I received so many! Delicious? Yes. Healthy? Yes! And yet, no one gets excited when you bring home a huge bag of them (for free) because it becomes a challenge to eat them all before they start going bad! Still, it is a very nice problem considering the alternate end of the spectrum: scurvy.

I just got over a cold too by the way. Where were you a week ago mikan?!? But remarkably, it was the first time I've been ill since January, when i caught the flu for the first time in my life. Good streak yeah? I have to attribute it to multi-vitamins, since that's the only thing I've changed since last year.

Next week is Thanksgiving and the DSK SNOW PARTY pre-season Kick-Off party! Woooo! Soon I will be slapping on my snowboard and shredding the snowy mountains of Mizuho!

Last but not least I just read a great article about the origin of modern Japanese people.
check it out!

金曜日, 11月 13, 2009

Hiroshima News

In case you were interested, the governor of Hiroshima Prefecture (my boss) is retiring this month after 16 years. His successor, independent Hidehiko Yuzaki, was elected by a landslide of 200,000 votes more than the runner up in the 5 way election last week. He is 44 years old, and an energy consultant. I'll let you know more when I meet him.

土曜日, 11月 07, 2009

A (not-so?) quick catch up

Okay, so I've decided to give this "blogspot" a try, mostly because i can use my google log-in for it. Very disappointed "Yogafire" was taken for a a URL. I will leave a comment on their blog afterwards.
I'm guessing you are all on different pages in the book of Greg, so this should be your cliff notes so you can skip ahead:

I'm 25, living in Hiroshima City, Hiroshima Prefecture (not the same) and working as a Coordinator of International Relations (CIR) for the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme (British spelling, sorry). This means I work for the Prefectural Government (think "State House") in the International Affairs Division, helping with many tasks, bust mostly translating Japanese documents into English, and trying to talk them into sending me on international business trips. So far, no luck. Also, as part of my job i spend afternoons and the occasional weekend, working at the Hiroshima International Center, where I do much of the same work as well as plan, and host events, and guide people on the occasional field trip. Several times a year (including yesterday) I get to go to an elementary school and talk to the children (in Japanese) about American culture. Because I taught at Japanese elementary schools for 2 years in Kure, Hiroshima, this is an awesome perk. I love Japanese children. My normal schedule is Tuesday through Saturday, but sometimes I work Sunday or Monday meaning I get a three day weekend of my choosing that month.

I live in a small one bedroom apartment on the sixth floor of my building. My landlord Mr. Nakaura and his family live above me and he is a friendly old dude. Next to my apartment is Honkawa park, a small park with no grass, but some playground equipment and open space. During the day it is often used by the school next to that, in the afternoon old people hang out there, and at night drunk people smoke cigarettes while high school students practice their dance routines to a boom box; no joke! Running alongside the park is the river, Honkawa (lit. "Main River") and on the other side is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. As in "where we dropped the bomb, UNESCO World Heritage Site - The Atomic Bomb Dome, the Peace Memorial Museum, dozens of smaller memorials, tons of tourists from Japan and all over the world, hordes of park benches, Cherry trees, and old men playing Shogi, Igo, and Majong"...all 30 seconds walk across the bridge from my apartment! And no, the level of radiation in the area is no different than Tucson, Arizona. I have a bicycle and the nearby street car lines taking care of all of my transportation needs. I love my neighborhood.

My girlfriend Sachie and I have been together almost two years now, and everything's great there. She lives in Kure, but has been working/studying/staying in Hiroshima City for the past 6 months, so I still get to see her almost everyday. Last night they turned on the "Dreamination" lights on Peace Boulevard, I think as a test run, but it was a cool, beautiful evening out so we took a stroll down and back together which was lovely. Dreamination, by the way, is thousands of Christmas light displays strung all over both sides of the street which is actually a 100-meter-wide road including parallel side streets separated from the main road by park paths with towering trees, sculptures, and dry, decorative streams.

Winter is upon us, and the artificial snow will hit Mizuho Highlands at the end of the month, where my friends and I snowboard every season. My left knee STILL kinda hurts from when I came down Mt. Fuji last September, but I had it x-rayed, my bones are good, and I'm taking it easy until I hit the snow.

My Japanese language skillz are still slowly progressing as well. I study kanji, though not as seriously as I should, but I can read more and more everyday. lately my team-leader at the Prefectural Building, Mr. Yahata, has been helping me read though an editorial article once a week during our lunch break, which hopefully will improve my overall reading comprehension too. Most days I learn at least one new word, and just while writing this I learned tsutsuga-mushi, which is Japanese for chigger (the bug).

Oh, and "Prefectural Building" is super annoying to write because in Japanese it's just "kencho", so please remember that for my sake.
love peace and chicken grease!