Sunday, November 29, 2009
Except for one single turn around the circuit when I glided with the wind in the smooth invigorating coolness.
Apart from that very brief interlude I had a dreadful day.
Usually I enjoy my outings with the kids. I think I was extra tired today, I certainly had very little tolerance for stares and stupid comments. I wanted to pack it all in, stay home, and fiddle about with various computer job I have to do while ignoring the mess in the kitchen.
First, lots of stares. That always happens when you leave the confines of the big city and head into the hills. The skating rink is in a small village, where, despite my going skating every year, no-one seems to have seen a foreigner before. I'm usually very good with kids staring, I just start to talk to them, and having someone talk to them in normal Japanese and ask them the usual questions (what school do you go to? What grade are you in?) puts them immediately in the position of answering politely like they know they are supposed to do and treating me like an other adult who asks them the same boring questions! But today, I just wanted to poke my tongue out at them. I only just managed to restrain myself.
Worse, one of them asked Amy if she was a gaijin (foreigner). Amy looked at her like she was an alien and just said NO, and we skated off.
Then the staff annoyed me. I always forget to buy the boot hire tickets at the vending machine, no problem there. The guy even came out to help me press the right button for chair hire (see photo). I dutifully took my two tickets back to the counter, only to be told I had to put on my skates first THEN come back with the ticket to get the chair. God knows why, it's MUCH harder to walk to the rink gate holding the chair while on skates than it is to do it with your shoes on! That didn't annoy me too much as the guy who told me I had to do this had this kind of half-laughing look on his face like he KNEW how ridiculous a request it was! But this is Japan, and you gotta follow the rules.
I finally got my skates on, got the chair and got Erica loaded into it and took off. Just as I was half way round the circuit, I noticed that Erica didn't have her gloves on and stopped to put them on her. At that precise moment another staff member approached me and told me to put gloves on. I look up at him, rather dumbfounded as that was quite obviously exactly what I was doing, and anyway, why was HE telling me to put gloves on?? 'I'm already putting them on' I said, and he continued to stand there.
I was getting annoyed, so I did something I don't usually do and confronted him,
"What is your problem?"
he said, clearly conflicted between his fear of me, fear of communicating, and fear of not doing his job properly and policing gloves on the rink. Well, tell me how I am supposed to slip woolen mittens on a baby's hands with gloves on? Hello? Do we have a brain in there? NOT TO MENTION surely as an adult I have the right to decide whether, and when I will wear gloves. OF COURSE I want to wear them - landing on ice is damn cold and hurts bare hands, I know that, I don't need you to tell me, so SHUT UP AND GO AWAY! I just forgot for ten bloody seconds!!!
Okay I didn't say any of that but you can see why I was getting mightily pissed off. Not wanting him to 'win' I took out my camera to take a photo of Erica, another thing I clearly could not do with gloves on. He finally went away.
A few more turns around the rink and another staff member approached me. Not the same one, I had obviously scared him off speaking to any foreigner ever for the rest of his life. THIS one came bearing a gift, a little wee pair of skate boots for Erica. 'Just to wear' he assured me - she could stay seated on the chair, but obviously someone, somewhere, had devised the rule that all people, even those on a chair, had to be wearing skates.
I was confused, but this is Japan, you gotta follow the rules. So back I go to dit down and struggle getting them on her wee feet. Of course she had no interest in sitting down on her chair once they were on, so quite inadvertently she ended up having her first go at skating! At least they didn't charge me for them, but it made my job a whole lot harder having to support her all the time - I'm not all that great a skater myself!
She wouldn't sit down, but she was happy to hang on to the back of the chair and get dragged along! Lena taking a tumble
Rules, rules, rules. One of the things I hate about Japanese society is the rules. Sometimes I feel like fun itself is outlawed, in case someone is hurt or there is a 'problem'. It's never clear what that problem might be.
That's the problem of course - Japanese like to do things by the book, so they can be sure they are doing the exact right thing, because to do it differently would be wrong and would show you to be arrogant and careless. So they are terrified of unspecified possible problems that would put them in the position of having to deal with a situation without a script. Hence the need to have clear rules about everything.
Knowing the reason for the rule is not necessary. Westerners need to understand the reason a rule exists, then they will follow it. They need to agree to the rule and approve of it. If they don't, they won't follow it. Japanese have no such need. Following the rules of a certain situation or establishment is par for the course. Even if they secretly disagree or think a rule is stupid, they still eagerly and energetically follow it, no-one would want to stand out from the pack and be seen as stupidly and arrogantly insisting on special treatment for oneself.
Exceptions such as speeding on the expressway or illegal parking are explained by the fact that EVERYONE does it, so the person doing it doesn't feel like they are leaving the safety of the pack.
When I want the freedom to follow a rule or not, I don't consider it selfish of me because I would extend that same freedom to everyone. Of course, no Japanese would join me in my bid for freedom.
The desire to move with the group is a powerful motivator. Often when I DO question the reason for a rule in Japan, I'm told that 'everyone has to do it'. This functions on two different levels - as a justification and as a warning. Both 'It's okay, it's not anything about you, it's just the rule' and 'watch out - if you don't toe the line you'll stand out and be embarrassed!'. I KNOW that if I'd asked why I had to wear gloves, I'd have been told 'everyone has to wear gloves'. That that just prompts me to ask once again 'But WHYYYYY' like a two-year old!
'The Way' also feeds into this. There is ONE way things are done in Japan. This is true of the arts, driving, writing a letter, anything really. There's ONE way things are done, and you had better find out what that way is and do it, or you'll be in danger of, yes, sticking out of the crowd looking stupid and arrogant again. Westerners of course, think that there's several 'ways' for different situations and types of people, none of which are necessarily superior, so questioning a certain method doesn't imply that you think it's wrong or stupid. However it can have that nuance in Japan, like you have no respect for whoever it is who created the rule (and surely they are experts and know more than you).
I realize this isn't true all the time that other people will think you are stupid and arrogant when you decide to do something different. Often they are fine with it, even silently cheering you on, but they fear what other's might think of themslves if they stick out from the crowd. Add in a dollop of Respect for Authority - better people than humble old you have set their minds to thinking about this, who are you to question them?
I don't know if being here so long and really understanding why makes it any better either. Newcomers exist a bubble of lovely positivity, surrounded by polite and helpful Japanese people. It's only with time and better language skills that you begin to realize how much of a lie it is, and realize what people are really thinking, all the internal cultural dynamics going on under the surface.
Phew. You can see why this kind of situation can really bother me. On a good day I can laugh it off as another mad 'Only in Japan' moment, but like I said, I was tired and couldn't be bothered with the crap.
But back to the skating, honestly this wasn't meant to become a rant!
I finally had enough of trying to coordinate two kids, one very slippery toddler and my goddam gloves and called it a day. Amy and Lena wanted to continue, and since I'd promised I let them go and took Erica for a walk around the complex. The rink is part of a community recreation centre. There's a cafe, indoor seating, a museum, a theater and a library. I found a small playroom upstairs near the library, and a ball!
And I encountered my final annoyance for the day, a girl outside the theater who approached me with the brochure of the movie she was promoting, 'Birth of Buddha', in very broken English. Other foreign residents in Japan will vouch for how annoying it can be to spoken to in very bad, broken English. I agree that it's totally unreasonable to feel annoyed, as they are only trying to be helpful and wouldn't it be nice if people in other countries made such efforts to communicate with foreigners? But it IS nevertheless very annoying! I pointed out the toddler toddling along beside me, and pointed out that it was quite impossible for me to watch a movie. 'Oh she can't see a movie' she answered, happily switching to Japanese.
Erica had already started to move on. The young woman then asked me where I am from. This is another immensely annoying question, which I also agree is unreasonable to get annoyed at because it is so innocent. I usually try to pretend I'm in a play and I'm acting and this is the FIRST time I've had this conversation, not the 1000th, and act like I'm really interested in answering it....
...but not today. Today I gave the answer 'Nakatsu'. Now I know fully darn well that she meant 'Which country', but the fact it, I consider 'Nakatsu' or 'Takajo-machi' to be a more appropriate answer anyway, in many circumstances. Answering with your country pegs you as a tourist visiting. Answering with your town or suburb implies you are just here for the same reasons as everyone else - come to skate, not to 'visit Japan'. I really think Japanese people need to start thinking of foreigners as people who are living here, for various reasons and not just tourists or cultural ambassadors on exchange.