Thai curry: a love poem

The road to making Thai curry — my one true culinary love — in Japan has been long and arduous.

It took me weeks to collect all the spices, the coconut milk from various import stores. The tamarind paste I bought at the Asian market in California and brought back with me (yes, it’s easier to buy Thai ingredients 8,000 miles away from Thailand than 2,800). I found the limes — mysteriously not available in Japanese supermarkets — at the little Brazilian market near the train station. I have to open the coconut milk in this star pattern (I should submit it to a museum as modern art) because Japanese can openers simply don’t work. Some things, like fresh lemongrass, are simply not available and I have to improvise.

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I guess I love that it’s been a project that has crossed national and cultural borders and required not a small amount of creativity and patience. That’s the beautiful thing about cooking, right? — like literature, it takes you to far-away places, challenges you, teaches you.

The way I make Thai curry is messy and haphazard. It was always this way (past roommates will remember the war zone that was our kitchen on curry nights), but in my little apartment here I really have no other option anyway. With one burner and a counter space about the size of my small cutting board, there’s just not room to assemble all the ingredients beforehand.

As garlic and ginger — the first step — sizzle on the stove, time is of the essence: I reach for whichever spices I feel like that night, shake them into the oil until things look and smell right. Later, when it’s time for ingredients like lime juice, fish sauce and tamarind paste, I once again go by instinct, barely thinking as I reach for this bottle or that one. It’s the same with the vegetables and the meat, tofu or fish, of which curry seems to accommodate an infinite number of combinations. There’s no logic to my choice of fresh ingredients for each curry besides “whatever sounds good and is on sale.”

I may be doing something right with this slapdash style: The writers at Thai Table describe how Thai culinary philosophy eschews measuring cups and places a premium on personal taste, freeing you from following recipes to the letter.

I think of each curry as organic, living, in a constant state of change from when I first turn on the stove to when I spoon the steaming meal into a bowl and take that first bite. It’s the whole process and experience of cooking, not just the taste, that makes curry worth every bit of frustration with my tiny kitchen; worth the nuclear fallout of ingredients everywhere; worth the time and effort and cost of obtaining all those ingredients in a country that frankly can’t handle the spice and strong flavors of Thai food.

And that’s why, this Valentine’s Day, I’ll most likely be alone in my apartment making Thai curry. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Sometimes, the tough nuts do crack

Last term I taught the same four classes of 6th graders every Friday at my weekly visiting school, and many of you know that I was saddened to learn that I wouldn’t be teaching them this term. Luckily, the 5th graders that I’m working with now are adorably enthusiastic. 🙂

This week, however, the 5th graders are on a ski trip, so the other JTE, who’s now working with 6th grade, asked me to come in just for today. I got to see the 6th graders for the first time since early December, and it was a shock to see how they’ve changed. Maybe the class psychology has shifted now that it’s their last term at elementary school, or maybe simply having a new JTE has changed the way they behave in English class (even though the same homeroom teacher is still ostensibly in charge of discipline. Keyword, ostensibly…).

The most surprising change was in fourth period. This class was always the most stressful part of my Fridays last term: there were 4 boys in particular who were unruly and disruptive, and the homeroom teacher was explosive and borderline abusive, in my opinion. So I was apprehensive as they filed in today.

Not only was the class pretty well-behaved, 2 of the 4 boys in particular seemed to have transformed! Last term, they had chatted with each other and the other 2 boys, wandered around the classroom and often didn’t participate in activities (indeed, actively sabotaged them on occasion!). Today, by contrast, both of them seemed really engaged and focused.

One of them — let’s call him Okada-san — especially stuck out to me. He knew all the answers, participated enthusiastically in the games, and had this big smile on his face the whole period. I had always known that he was sharp (the disruptive kids are often the ones who are best at English and consequently bored out of their skulls) but it was still so inspiring to see the change that this 12-year-old kid had undertaken in less than 2 months.

Of course I felt a little sad that all this had taken place after I left — could I have done something differently to make it happen sooner? was there a way I could have better gotten through to the disruptive boys? — but still, it gave me all kinds of warm fuzzies. And I’m more optimistic than before about seeing how these kids will have grown up when they enter my middle school as first years in April.

An open letter

To my friends on JET,

Recontracting is all anyone can talk about these days. For a while, I had been considering writing a post explaining why I’m not recontracting, why I’m doing one year on the JET Program. But I feel that, through so many different conversations — both with many of you here and with friends and family back home — I’ve actually expressed it pretty clearly already.

What I want to write about instead is the reception of my news that I’m leaving in August, and how much it disappoints me, saddens me, stresses me out. Explaining my decision to my supervisor a few days ago was certainly a somber occasion, but after just one question she accepted my decision and that was that.

The reactions of some of my fellow JETs, on the other hand, have all too often been accusative, pitying, and altogether lacking in understanding and support. People have nagged me about all the great stuff happening after August that I’ll miss; they have insinuated that they know better than I how I should spend my youth (many other JETs are older than me) and that it is a waste to leave the program after one year.

A wise fellow JET told me a while ago that the root of people’s negative and unsupportive reactions is their insecurity at knowing I and others will be leaving while the recontracting JETs stay behind in Japan: they become afraid to grow too close with me because soon I won’t be around. I understand this feeling of uncertainty and fear. I also understand that JETs who have been here longer than I, but have decided to return home this year, experience similar misunderstanding and guilt-tripping from their friends here. But I think the pressure on me and the other one-year JETs is harsher and is patently unfair.

Let me first say that I had absolutely no inkling when I applied to the Program that not only was staying for more than one year the norm, but there would be such intense pressure to stay — not from my workplace, but from other JETs! In fact, part of why I chose to apply to and then to accept a position through JET was that it began with a one-year contract; other well-known programs like Teach for America and the Peace Corps have a minimum commitment of two years.

My plan from early in university, maybe even from high school, was to spend a year abroad after graduating, and that plan did not change throughout the JET application and acceptance process. So I feel like I’m being punished, by people who just met me a few months ago, for having my own expectations and ideas for the near future. Had I arrived in Japan and chattered constantly about my glowing plans to stay for three years, and then backed out, I could better understand people’s disappointment and judgment. But I have known myself and my goals since the beginning.

  • [Note: There are many other facets to my decision to leave: it’s not as simple as “I made a plan and I’m sticking to it.” For a while after I had begun to settle into life here, I was seriously considering staying another year. If you’re interested in the other factors in my decision not to recontract, I’d love to talk about it online or in person!]

Here’s the simple truth: I am not you. Every single person here on JET comes from different circumstances and accordingly has different plans and values. To presume that you can discern or even prescribe my goals and priorities insults me.

Maybe this post has begun to sound like I resent everyone who signed the “Yes” box on our recontracting papers. Far from it! I’m calling you out on your treatment of my decision not because I dislike or disrespect you — it’s the opposite. Many of you have become my closest friends already. I love that I have the privilege of getting to know such different people from so many parts of the world. I am so honored to be a part of this program; I know my time here will be a fond memory for the rest of my life. And having had such an amazing time so far, I completely understand why many of you want to continue your experience for another year or more.

However, I feel that my friends’ obsession and unease over my “imminent” departure (six months! The blink of an eye!..) harms our relationships. I can’t connect with you if you see me as a calendar date rather than a person. I want to settle this point of misunderstanding so that we can enjoy more comfortable friendships for the remainder of my time here.

Please remember also that this focus on my leaving tarnishes my experience. As a one-year JET, I am working extra hard to pack in as much fun, travel, work experience and friendship as I possibly can, and it is difficult to live in the present when I’m constantly being reminded of my departure.

For everyone except the few JETs who will end up living in Japan long-term, this is a temporary situation. Mine is more temporary than many of yours, but we will all have to deal with departures and goodbyes at some point. So I’m asking you to do me the great service of accepting that I will leave you in August, for reasons that are legitimate and my own, and moving on to enjoy the significant amount of time we still have together.

I want to hear from everyone out there, too: What is on your mind as the recontracting deadline approaches? What are some communication difficulties between leaving and recontracting JETs, and how do you approach them? Should JET change its minimum contract to two years?

One last thing: this post certainly does not sum up the behavior of all the JETs I know, and I want to thank many of you for being incredibly supportive, respectful and understanding. I already feel that I’ll look back on JET as a time of significant personal growth, and it’s in large part to do with the really quality people with whom I’ve had the good fortune to become friends. Stay classy, Toyama. 🙂

防犯教室: Crime prevention assembly

I wonder if my every-other-week visiting school is a cool place all the time, or if I just happen to visit on days when interesting things are going on. In October or November, there was a special daily schedule waiting on my desk but I couldn’t read the kanji. Later that day, the principal invited me to come with her to whatever the event was (I didn’t understand it out loud either), so we headed with the rest of the school to the chilly gym for what turned out to be a visiting theater troupe. They put on an adorable play with lots of acrobatics, silly costumes, singing, musical instruments, and all kinds of kid-friendly themes from the importance of self-confidence to the precious bonds of friendship. Because the play was geared towards kids as young as 6, I could basically understand it. 😀

This last week there was another special schedule on my desk, and this time I knew all but one of the kanji so I had a general idea of disaster/crime/prevention/preparedness. And when the principal tried to explain it to me, I caught that the kids would learn about what to do “if a strange person comes to the school.”

Naturally, as with anything in Japan, it was all done with a lot of formality. I was sitting at my desk waiting for the principal to summon me, when people started making all kinds of announcements over the loudspeaker and coming to deliver to the principal reports of the simulated threat. There was a lot of “Anzen deshou ka?” [Is it safe?] delivered in this dramatic tone; I could not help but think of bad black-and-white samurai movies.

So then I was whisked away to the gym, which, in mid-January, was FREEZING. (The disaster drill couldn’t be held in May, or September, or pretty much any other month?) The kids all filed in by class and lined up in perfect columns while their teachers approached the principal and all gave the exact same speech confirming the safety of their classes.

It was time for the crime prevention assembly. A school crossing guard, the local mall security guard, and two people with the police (in full uniform with bullet-proof vests, juxtaposed with the dainty visitors’ slippers they had put on upon entering the school) spoke to the kids about how to deal with strangers. They pretended to be creepy strangers and preyed upon volunteer students. One of the policemen produced a decibel meter and had some students yell “Tasukete!” [Help!] as loud as they could into it.

Finally, the policeman asked the entire school to measure their yelling volume. This moment was the entire reason I’ve written this post. I don’t think I will ever forget the sound of 173 high child-voices screaming “TASUKETEEEEE!!!” in that freezing gym. The whole thing was steeped in that classically Japanese mix of the serious and the completely absurd.

New Year’s Eve at the supermarket

A whole section of the store has been reduced to empty cardboard boxes — they must have held the big omiyage (gift) boxes that everyone should have bought by now for family, friends and coworkers. There are all kinds of specialty foods hiding in amongst the normal goods — slabs of octopus, deep red and pure white, in the fish section; colorful snacks next to the tofu; every variety of mochi, in jumbo sizes, filling out an ordinarily minor sweets section.

The atmosphere is not that different from an American supermarket on Christmas Eve: people are excited, maybe a little guilty for leaving this shopping to the last minute. Whole families are more numerous than usual — maybe dad or the kids were recruited to help for this special occasion, or maybe the kids asked to tag along, excited for tomorrow without quite knowing why (although if you take my students’ writing as any indication, it’s mostly anticipation for the special foods on New Year’s Day).

I had gotten sick over Christmas from spending so much time with my ill best friend (thanks, M!!), so I buy myself citrus and ginger teas. Then, because it’s a holiday and I’m all alone, I treat myself to a sashimi plate and some confection that says sakura (cherry blossom) on it. The snow is light outside but the wind is strong; my grocery bag gets a light coating of snow on the unprotected walk from the tram stop to my apartment.

English and perception: a new perspective

This post has been brewing for a few weeks, and tonight I feel ready to write it. I’m writing in response to a post by none other than myself, written a little over a year ago when I was studying abroad near Tokyo. It was about a young stranger’s passing use of English to me and the prejudice that, at the time, I thought that incident highlighted. I feel differently about this topic now, and I’d like to explore why.

I still agree in large part with some of the arguments I made — in particular, that code-switching (switching to another language, dialect, accent, etc.) is a linguistic strategy that’s powerful and makes statements about the speaker, the listener, and their linguistic and cultural environment. Language mediates every single human connection, and any linguist, anthropologist or sociologist will tell you that even the most casual linguistic joke “speaks” to us at a deeper level about how people see and relate to one another.

But being a teacher and working closely with teenagers here has really changed my view on the motives and emotions at work behind kids’ (and adults’) use of English in Japan. I suspect that if last October’s situation happened to me today — if a high school student passed me on the street and said two words to me in English — I’d smile and maybe even respond in English. I’ve certainly had practice by now: every day in the halls of my junior high school, I field “Hallo” after “Hallo,” as well as the occasional “How are you?” or just my name said in an incredulous tone (maybe the kids forget that I exist, or they’re perpetually amazed by my non-Japaneseness).

It was when two girls shyly spoke English to me in the bathroom between classes today that I realized what I’ve been figuring out on JET, and the reason I’m writing this post: using a foreign language is exciting and terrifying. Speaking that foreign language with a native speaker is an electrifying experience for many students, a chance to take part in cultural exchange without leaving the familiar spaces of their halls and classrooms. Like my students, I’ve felt the awareness of myself as a “global citizen” (however limited or temporary) as I’m conducting a conversation in another language.

But I think the experience is more thrilling for these teenagers than it is for me. I’m an adult who’s had the privileges of a college education, studying abroad and traveling to different countries; for kids like the high school kid last year, seeing a foreigner on the street may well be the most exotic, global experience they’ve had. It seems natural to me now that students here would jump at the chance to use English, even if it’s just a passing politeness to a stranger who looks funny.

The other facet of English in Japan that my old post doesn’t take into account is the unique position of English in the world as compared to any other language. I drew a comparison to English speakers using Spanish in the United States, but these two situations are not equal. We can’t deny that English really is a “global language,” a language charged with political and economic power. A connection between an English speaker and a speaker of another language involves two distinct positions that aren’t interchangeable; there’s a global privilege that all English speakers possess, whether we are comfortable with it or not. (Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying that English speakers are in any way better than other speakers, nor that we somehow have control and agency with respect to this privilege; it’s institutional, part of an overarching structure.)

So what do we do with this privilege that chance or design has granted us? Hold up a measuring stick and stoically demand total linguistic equality (as I’m afraid I flirted with in my old post)? I no longer think that’s the best course of action. I think we should dive in alongside English learners and experience the joy of foreign language and “cultural exchange,” as vague and cheesy as it sounds. We can strive to be more aware of the systems that put English speakers and Japanese speakers, for example, in different positions. Maybe we can even set our sights on freeing languages from a political and economic hierarchy. But to start with, I’m letting go of my pride and accepting that being a native English speaker abroad involves a whole lot of greetings and niceties. And that these “Hellos,” while empty of literal meaning, are a big deal to the shy teenagers who utter them.

Four hours of speaking practice and free food

Two weekends ago was busy: I helped celebrate two other ALTs’ birthdays, which involved a lot of free food, and then I went to a barbecue for my Japanese classroom, which involved a lot more free food. The latter was a pretty crazy experience: so cool and yet so stressful and uncomfortable!

My Japanese classroom is run by the city as opposed to a private company, which means that it is affordable and attracts a really diverse group of people. I’m the only English-speaking student. In fact, almost everyone else who came to the barbecue was Chinese. And they talked to each other a lot… in Chinese. Combine this fact with the information that I am awkward at parties to begin with, and you can begin to picture the steaming silence in which I sat for most of the event.

It wasn’t all that bad, though. People brought wayyy too much food, of incredible variety, from all my favorite Japanese foods to tandoori chicken to mysterious Chinese or Thai dishes that other students made themselves. And people did talk to me. Of course, that’s part of what made things so stressful; everything was in Japanese, my command of which has suffered severely since I returned from studying abroad. By far the most surreal experience was my conversation with an Iranian classmate, who’s a really nice and approachable guy, but who asked me a difficult (understatement of the century) question:

“I have to ask you: what is Americans’ image of Iranian people?”

So I’m simultaneously trying to figure out his angle with this question, form a tactful, diplomatic and honest response, and express it in Japanese. Plus, as many people — from immigrants or second-generation Americans in the US, to foreigners abroad — can attest, it’s extremely difficult to act as a cultural ambassador when you don’t know that much about certain issues to begin with. (Last weekend, people at an English talking salon were grilling me about Obamacare and American foreign policy…) Anyway, I ended up saying something ineloquent but succinct along the lines of “The problem is our two countries’ governments, not the people.”

It was a really interesting and kind of poignant thing, though, to find something as huge as international politics affecting my acquaintance with someone — to reach across that vast political tension and create a small connection, using a language that’s foreign to both of us.

I came home from the four-hour barbecue with my brain completely fried, my introverted self in dire need of some “refueling” alone time (I guess the enervating effect of social functions is multiplied when they’re in another language). I was also laden with various food gifts that people kept pressing on me throughout the afternoon: persimmons and mandarin oranges from people’s gardens, bread, homemade Thai curry, et cetera. Like I’ve said, it was an experience at once amazing and terrifying. That contradiction pops up a lot when you’re living abroad, I think. 🙂