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The Hammering Heart

Still beating.

Month

April 2009

Places That Rock or Don’t: Za Meshiya

Let’s say you live in Japan and you’re one of the millions of people who’ve been feeling the tug of this economic crisis. OR, let’s say you have terrible, terrible taste in cuisine. Where do you go for breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Za Meshiya, that’s where. “Za Meshiya” translates to “The Meshiya”, or “The Food Store” if you want to go all the way, but with an even humbler kick, so I guess you could even call it “The Grub Shack” or something like that. Also, Za Meshiya is huge, so you can’t miss it. It’s even got an enormous sculpture of a chain out front, presumably because it’s a chain store, but possibly because it’s run by the insane.

Za Meshiya offers a variety of traditional Japanese dishes, served at unpredictable temperatures ranging from ice cold to warehouse crate warm, and all for unprecedentedly cheap prices. I don’t believe I’ve seen anything there that was above the two-hundred yen range. The way it works is similar to a school cafeteria, in that you pick up your desired items, each labeled with a price tag, off a counter which is attended by a woman who is your grandma. But if you should find yourself at one of Za Meshiya’s many locations one day, be sure to note that those low price tags and humble decor bear on themselves a bit of foreshadowing; Za Meshiya is the school cafeteria of Japanese food.

I went there today (whenever that was) for the second time (so it’s not that bad). Boy was I hungry. “Meshi time!!!” I exclaimed as I burst through the door, terrifying my own grandma. I picked up a few items, and then cast my glance upon the bean sprout stir fry.

“Gee,” I said loudly, “I could eat that.”

The portion was large but it looked appetizing. And I’m no rookie when it comes to bean sprouts, I can tell you that. But then I saw the fried rice.

“Hmm, but maybe the fried rice is the safer option,” I announced. After all, it’s fried rice. There’s no way to mess it up. But is there any health value to it? At least bean sprout stir fry is mostly vegetables, with just that little bit of protein in what looked like pieces of beef.

Bean sprout stir fry it is.

With that decided, I took my seat, took my chopsticks, and took a bite. Awful. I could’ve stirred a better fry in my toilet. What spices did they use, oxygen and broken refrigerator condensation? It certainly tasted like oxygen and broken refrigerator condensation. Were they bean sprouts or long, slender strips of dirt?

I gurgled a bit as I choked down the first mouthful of disappointment. A table of hungry salarymen glanced over at me, smirking. Not good. Cheap, shitty food is like milk to these people. I can’t afford to show them any weakness. I’ll be the laughingstock of the Grub Shack. I choked down another bite. Okay. Maybe I can get into a comfortable rhythm. Bite, bite, deny reality. Bite, bite, deny reality. Luckily, there was a giant pitcher of tea on the table, which, though also dirt-flavored, was tea, so I didn’t even notice. I occasionally washed the horror out of my mouth with a cup of tea, trying not to look too desperate.

I just had to be the big man and pick up the largest entree available. Now I was responsible for dealing with a virtual mountain of excrement, with people’s leering gazes upon me from all sides. I knew just how Obama felt.

A group of high school boys watched me gleefully as I struggled. The seconds went by like centuries. “Look at that guy with the fully in-tact eyebrows. What a doofus! Snicker!” one of them said, actually pronouncing the word “snicker”.

“Totally radical!” another added.

A bead of sweat trickled down my face, cascading into my cafeteria dirt. Ah, some salty water ought to up the flavor a bit. Bite. Nope. Bite, bite, deny reality. Bite, bite, deny reality.

The whole lunch went more or less like this, for about three excruciating decades. I’m an old man now, but I’ve come here today to tell you that Za Meshiya is not a great place to eat lunch, especially when there’s an Indian restaurant a block away where your girlfriend works and you can probably get free chicken soup or something like that.

Too much moral fiber gives you the moral runs. BUT….

Heyyy, let’s talk morality.

I’m no Jeffy of Family Circus, but I have at least enough moral fiber left in me that I know when I smell foul play, and its stench amongst the gaijin population is overwhelming. I recall a certain odiferous Quizno’s customer from my time working there one vivid summer.

I’ve shed a lot of my childhood prejudices about right and wrong ever since the world got so much bigger, but I find that there are two possible truths–that most people are immoral, or that they are able to arrange and rearrange their morals to suit their current interests, but that in itself contradicts the very nature of morals, so I guess the only possibility is the former.

Continue reading “Too much moral fiber gives you the moral runs. BUT….”

K says K-K-Keiko!!!

Sigh. You’ll think me a terrible person for this, but this is the first I’ve really vented after a whole year of bottled-up rage. Considering, it’ll probably come off pretty soft. Here we go.

One of the most wretched examples of human failure I’ve ever had the fortune of knowing on a personal level is our school’s teaching assistant, Keiko. There are three assistants at our school, two of whom are lovely and very helpful. The other, Keiko, is a superficial, self-important mummy who spends each day encased in a glittering sarcophagus of denial. Her age is her deepest, darkest secret, though evidence suggests she is well into her 50s. To preserve her youth indefinitely, she takes a number of elaborate but futile measures, including weekly boxercising lessons, cakey gobs of makeup (usually smeared on haphazardly as if to directly illustrate her wild, groping desperation) as well as a vast arsenal of other cosmetic products, expensive “passive exercise” machines like her mechanical horse seat, constant blasting of Beyonce music, shunning of enka music (which is mainly popular among people above fifty), a wardrobe of scanty, inappropriate clothing, and most importantly, absolute denial of the existence of her kids and, by relation, grandkids. Yes, I’ve seen people ask her point blalnk, “Do you have kids?” and she has denied it with a stone, makeup-caked face. This is a breed of loathsome hag you’ve only read about in dark fairy tales.

She also keeps herself in a suspended state of airheaded joviality, also presumably a symptom of self-denial. As you might have guessed, this is quite popular with the children, who never seem to see through it, but her bubbliness combined with an utterly vacuous grasp of her surroundings or even basic human emotion will, without fail, wrench each class she “assists” off the rails of progress. Ultimately the problem comes down to chemistry. The compound known as Keiko is a volatile, poisonous mixture of three basic components–too much Japanese, terrible, English, and a constant desire to be the center of attention, even if the next oldest person in the room is only halfl her age. When her noxious Keiko fumes breach the nostrils of a normal human being, you can bet your fuckin’ ass an explosion is imminent. Don’t bother asking her politely not to use Japanese or teach the kids how to say stuff wrong, because in Keiko’s foul tongue, “Okay, sure thing” is just a code for “Well I’m older than you and this is my brother’s company, so I’ll feed these children whatever rubbish I can if it means making them adore me.” Sure enough, she’ll go on without so much as a courtesy break, snatching away the kids’ attention so she can teach them useless phrases like “I have a [sic] hay fever!” and “It can be helped!” (actually “It can’t be helped.” Not that anyone ever says that either). She’ll teach these phrases to the kids over and over, regardless of their relevance or lack thereof, simply because she’s not actually teaching, but showing off her amazing vocabulary, which she has no idea how to apply in any sort of intelligible way.

She also interrupts me constantly during lessons to vomit out scripted explanations of grammar points, which she does in such an overbearing, whizzing hurricane of a performance that no student could possibly absorb the meaning of it, especially the three-year-olds who don’t even understand the Japanese she’s using. She has zero faith in the kids’ ability to piece things together themselves, and yet she tries to explain things to kindergarteners in textbook terminology. This is a common classroom scene.

Me: “Okay, Hiroshi! What food do you like?”
Kindergarten kid: “I like apple!”
Keiko: “I like appleSSSSSS!!! When the vocabulary has an ‘a’ before it, that denotes singularity, and means ‘one such-and-such’. If there is more than one such-and-such, you have to add an ‘s’ and use the plural form. You got it?! You got it?!”
Kindergarten kid: (inserts finger into nostril)

She even randomly inserts the English word for “plural” sometimes. That’s sure to be effective. As far as I can tell, she’s just being lazy. It’s easier to just hurl out the same spiel to every single student than to try and think of an effective way to match the lesson to their specific needs. Not that she’s supposed to be teaching in the first place. Obviously she has no faith in me, either. And for someone who can barely communicate in English, it’s awfully picky to bully a three-year-old for forgetting to pluralize a noun, which is a concept that doesn’t even exist in Japanese.

Nobody’s perfect. I’ve broken enough of my teeth in public to learn that the hard way. Also, when I went to the sixth grade dance, a speaker fell on my head and I didn’t dance with anyone the whole night because I was a shy, cynical bastard. As such, there are a lot of things about Keiko that would be overlookable–and I am trying–if only she wasn’t constantly reporting on how great she is and asking you to confirm these reports. Example:

Keiko: “Today I went to boxercising for an hour before coming to work! Isn’t that amazing? And I made my own rice balls for lunch. Don’t they just look delicious? Anyway, that said, I’ll be too tired to be of any actual assistance today, but allow me to continue ranting about all the amazing things I do that are a basic part of the average person’s routine.”

She even interrupts class to tell the kids, in Japanese, about the events of her day. And since she’s always doing so many amazing things, she’s ALWAYS “tired”, which she feels the need to tell me before, after, and during EVERY class. EVERY DAY. She must be the fucking President.

You might think her constant boasting is supposed to be facetious at first because she doesn’t even attempt to fake humility, but this is all too real. In America, complimenting yourself a lot and inviting everyone else to join in is a good way to see a person’s bitchiest facial expression, but if you do it in Japan, you may as well just explode a big ol’ busful of grannies, because it’s just about as taboo. This is a country where the phrase “I am rude” is a greeting, and you have to say it both when you show up somewhere and when you go away; the only way to not be rude is to sit perfectly still. The culture has veins that bulge with humility and self-deprecation. It used to be that if your superior died, or even if he just did something dishonorable (which was most things), you had to kill yourself. And even doing that involved a strict form of etiquette. As such, Keiko stands out like an unsheathen boner, appalling people left and right as she demands praise for each and every one of her day’s activities.

Reading this, I suppose it sounds like Keiko and I don’t get along very well, but in fact I’m the person who gets along with her best in the entire company. The other two teachers are self-proclaimed assholes–a proclamation I’m more than happy to echo–and they will take every opportunity they can to publicly disparage her. Though I’m venting now, I tend to hold my tongue about stuff like this when I’m around the person in question, if only to preserve a serene atmosphere for the kids. This, by default, has made me the “nice guy”. It’s also made Keiko like me a whole lot, and after a whole year of childish bickering between her and the other two teachers (which has led to more than a couple students quitting or almost quitting), my boss decided to pair me up with Keiko every single day for the new school year. Yes, my silent disdain for her has earned me her constant presence. We’re two weeks in now, and I feel like I’ve run a marathon through slap-happy Hell. She becomes more and more insipid each day. She fails to listen when I’m instructing the kids, and then in an unnecessary attempt to echo me, tells them to do something that she just made up.

Me: “Okay, let’s play a game. Everybo…”
Keiko: “Haaaaai~! Everybody stand up, it’s the touch game!”
Me: “No no, a different game.”
Keiko: “Haaaai~ tatte kudasa~i (stand up)! Touch game!”
Me: “Anybody wanna loan me a mortar shell so I can burst this bitch?”
Keiko: (grins vacantly)

Yesterday (as of the time I wrote this), she failed to copy the textbook pages for the kids (which is her job) and then blamed me for the pages not being ready. “I just gave them to you,” she said, growing irritable. “Why’d you lose them?” I told her in the most kid-calming voice I could muster that any materials I had were sitting on my desk right in front of me, and that no such pages were among them. “Fine,” she said, “I’ll just copy them again.”

The instant she returned to the classroom, she discovered the pages had been by her stuff all the while. “Oops!” she said, holding a mountain of fresh copies. “I guess we won’t need these after all!” And then she did it again. Our boss has asked us numerous times to conserve paper at the copy machine since our company is at risk of shutting down. Nonetheless, Keiko continues to make dozens of erroneous copies every day instead of just counting how many students are in the class.

Well, the good news, and perhaps the real reason I’m writing this, is that Keiko has recently found a man rich enough to marry, and next Monday is her last day at the company after more than ten years of employment. I just want to let it be known that I fucking hated working with her, before she’s gone and I’ve purged all memories of her from my brain. Good day.

The Secret Korean

There’s a sweet young girl in one of my Wednesday classes called Rifa, and her parents are Korean. Her name is a mystery to me, since neither Japanese nor Korean traditionally have an F sound. That aside, though, I’m delighted to have a Korean girl in my class since I’ve had so many significant personal encounters with Korean people in my life. But much to my upset, which I’m using as a noun here, Rifa herself apparently feels the need to keep her non-Japanese background a secret, calling herself Rika at school (but not at juku). I suspect she does this under the advisement of her parents, and with good reason, since Japanese people immediately gawk at anything that isn’t Japanese. But think about how different that is back home. With all due respect, have you ever met a Korean person in America who wasn’t essentially a walking flag? The very notion of a Korean person who is secretive about his or her nationality seems like an oxymoron to me.

She’s such a sweet girl that sometimes I want to hoist her up onto the desk and say “This chick is Korean, and that’s cool, so everybody gaze up at her for a moment.” Not that being Japanese or American or a self-important bitch (see post about my assistant which I haven’t actually posted yet) isn’t cool. I just think she ought to have a sense of pride about her roots, rather than shame. Then again, the whole idea is not to make a spectacle of a thing that shouldn’t be remarkable enough to be made a spectacle of. I don’t blame her, really. Even looking back at America, I doubt most kids would have made much of a fuss over a classmate being Korean, but they might have over a German. I can picture their jeering, leering faces in my head. “Is your name HANS, you GERMAN?! Your name is probably HANS, you stupid GERMAN. What’s the matter HANS, too much chocolate to keep pace with the rest of us? Why don’t you go eat a strudel, you sauerkraut-eating Commie.”

But American kids can be pretty stupid.

Technically not too late yet!

Happy birthday, Sarah!

April Fool’s in Japan

Well, another April Fool’s Day has come and gone without incident. I still feel like I’ve never really experienced this holiday the way it’s supposed to be experienced. Where do you have to go to find people who are all fooling the shit out of each other all day, only to stick out their tongues, slap their asses and head for the hills?

Obviously not Japan. I was surprised to learn today that April Fool’s Day does indeed exist in Japan. You’d think that with all the bowing and needless apologizing they do here, a holiday dedicated to the act of making people look foolish wouldn’t vibe so well with the people. And to an extent, you’d be right. The second thing I learned today was that in Japan, April Fool’s Day is “the day when it’s okay to lie.”

I guess that’s sort of right, in the sense that lying is essentially the simplest type of prank one can pull. Example:

Sally: Hey Billy. Today I had sex with another man.

Billy: What? But I…I l-l-love you…Sally. Don’t you…I mean don’t you love me anymore? Oh my god, this is crazy. This is so crazy. How could you? Was he better than me? I mean did he have a bigger cock? Who was it? It was Harold from the office, wasn’t it? I KNEW you and him were fucking, I KNEW IT!! I KNEW IT!!!! HOW COULD YOU DO THIS?!!?!? HOW??!?!?!?! COULD YOU!!!!

….DO THIS!?!?!?!?!

Sally: April Foooool’s!

But that’s so lazy. Japanese people don’t understand that the beauty of April Fool’s Day lies in devising the ultimate prank, which may, but certainly doesn’t have to, involve lying. You don’t have to lie to put spider eggs in someone’s handkerchief or wrap their child’s daycare center in police tape.

Besides, I would’ve thought it was okay to lie EVERYDAY in Japan, considering all the bullshit I hear flying around at every turn. Isn’t that what a tatemae basically is, anyway? Look it up, dammit.

Fraud at City Hall

I went to the city hall today to update my Proof of Being a Foreigner Card, which is convenient to have in case people mistake you for a Japanese person (which in actuality has happened to me about twice). The process of updating your Proof of Being a Foreigner Card consists of going to the city hall, waiting around for awhile, and then having somebody write your visa details on the back of the card with a ball-point pen.

In reality, you’re supposed to do this within two weeks of updating your visa, which I knowingly failed to do. Being late presents no actual problem, but in the end they made me fill out a multiple choice form explaining my reason for being late. The choices were all things like “I didn’t know I had to do this” and “I was too busy”. My question is, does this form have any kind of impact on anything? I circled the “busy” option. I wonder if I’ll be snatched up by a couple of suits in a few days.

MOORE, GREGORY DANIEL
Offense: Fraud
Details: Claimed to be “too busy” to have city official write single line of ink on back of Proof of Being a Foreigner Card when granted a full two weeks to do so.

I guess they’d be right.

More About the Strange American Girl

Note: First referenced a long time ago in the post about going to play in Nagoya and seeing a fist fight.

The strange American girl was petite and called herself “Bernice”. I think she was trying to size me up and compare herself to me, which is behavior you sometimes see in gaijin, especially ones who are studying Japanese. Until we both played our open mic sets, everything she said felt mildly condescending. “I’m from near Philly. Probably closer than you really are to D.C.” That’s a funny thing to guess.

We had a dialogue like this:

Bernice: “So how many songs have you prepared?”
Greg: “Prepared? Just however many they let me play.”
Bernice: “…Oh. So you write your own songs then?”
Greg: “Well sure, who else would?”
Bernice: “…Oh. So I guess you’re a teacher?”
Greg: “Yeah, at a cram school.”
Bernice: (Makes inexplicable yuck face) …Oh. A ‘juku’, eh?”
Greg: “Yeah. Actually it’s a much nicer gig than my old gig–working at Nova.”
Bernice: “…Oh. How long have you been in Japan?”
Greg: “Two years.”
Bernice: “…Oh.”

Well, maybe it’s lost in the text, but every question she had seemed laced with this sort of competitive prejudice, and every answer I gave elicited a caught-off-guard reaction, only to be followed by another calculated question.

Then after we played, it was like I had proven myself, and her attitude was completely different. Her questions didn’t cease, but became more of the advice-asking variety, and she also kept resting her hand on me, which I actually didn’t notice until she pointed out that she was doing it and then explained that it wasn’t flirting, but how if it had been flirting, her boyfriend, who she had just performed with, would “kill” her. Thinking this a rather grave situation, I waved to her boyfriend, Shinji, who had prior been doing a terrible job of making himself look aloof in the corner. He came over. He was mild-mannered enough. Stoic, even. He also didn’t seem to like the girl, per se, just possess her. He didn’t seem to care for me much either, and he certainly didn’t possess me, although he did stand and listen to us.

She asked if I was studying Japanese, and I said yes, it was my college major and everything.

“And then you came to Japan and realized all that studying wasn’t worth jack,” she replied.

“Actually, I think I have all that studying to thank for just about everything good that’s happened to me here.”

“…Oh.”

P.S. Her singing was pretty dreadful.
P.P.S. Did I mention I don’t like when people make assumptions about the kind of guy I am?

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