Book Review: Living Abroad in Japan

Aside: This post has been long in coming. Also, I should really try to do these when I have the book in my hands or when it is super fresh on my mind.

End aside. Cue review.

Living Abroad in Japan is the second culture book I read in preparation for my departure. With a length of around 320 pages, it is quite a bit bigger (in length and dimensions) than Japan Culture Smart! and therefore more extensive in terms of the information it offers. Like Japan Culture Smart!, Ruth Kanagy’s book outlines important aspects of Japan’s culture, such as bathing and omiyage, and provides key statistics like population and current. Kanagy’s qualifications (25 years of living in Japan) are listed in the introduction, which provides her with more credibility. In addition to containing valuable cultural information, Living Abroad in Japan contains immense amounts of information about finding apartments, costs of living in different prefectures and cities (my favorite example of this was the table comparing the costs of common goods in New York City and Tokyo), and challenges pets and children face when transitioning to another country. Since my company set me up with an apartment and I have no children, I mainly skimmed portions dealing with such matters, but I did find it interesting that some apartment companies would not rent to gaijin and that Kanagy briefly emphasizes the unavoidable discrimination one could encounter.

In addition to extensive information about living conditions, Kanagy provides information dealing with specific regions of Japan and lists approximate figures for rent, as well as popular restaurants in the area (and their costs). Each regional section contains a map of trains and main roads running through the city. The maps in this book are spectacular; kanji is listed alongside the romanized versions of location names in most instances. Two color maps precede the table of contents, one a geographic map, the other highlighting regions that are ideal to live in (these are described in greater detail in the aforementioned chapters). The book wraps up with an extensive list of contacts (embassies and the like) and a phrase book that includes information on how to tell time and how to count.

Despite these strong points, there are a few things missing in this book. First, I remember noticing early on that the boxes containing bullet-pointed information were sometimes oddly placed, either in the middle of a paragraph or even mid-sentence, which at times made reading challenging because I would want to finish reading a paragraph before flipping back to the text box on the previous page. There are two important points of inconsistency which may have appeared earlier than I noticed them. The first deals with the order of units. At one point in the Kansai chapter near the end of the book, I noticed that the order of units appeared in the following order: metric (standard). However, several pages later, the order was reversed. Staying consistent would have made this easier for me to read. Another inconsistency I noticed occurred in terms of romanization. Initially, Kanagy romanized the Japanese word for “convenience store” as conbini. However, I later saw the variant combini. Again, staying consistent would sustain a greater amount of clarity; although most careful readers would likely make the connection, others may not. My last gripe comes with the ending. It may be the academic in me, but for me, the very end of the book was a bit abrupt. There was no conclusion; it simply shifted from a section dealing with the final region covered in the book to the contact list with no summary of the important information presented before that, no wrap-up chapter (perhaps something about the culture shock experienced upon reentering America).

Living Abroad in Japan has provided me with some invaluable information and some information that I simply find interesting. The depth of the information contained in this volume, as well as its numerous maps, will prove useful once I make the move, in part to help me adjust to the cultural things and to enhance my language skills. Although I bought my copy at Barnes and Noble, used copies are available on Amazon for a fraction of what I paid, and there is also a Kindle edition for those seeking to save valuable suitcase space.

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Pre-Departure Misadventures Volume 2: Yenly Woes and Shipping Throes

Today, my bank account suffered the detriment of… you guessed it… yen.

Ordering the yen itself was surprisingly easy. Apparently, it ships to most banks in three to five days. I just went to the bank where I’ve been keeping my little nest-egg (originally for a house or car; now for my trip to Japan and for whatever else I can buy with the spare change) and, after asking for it, was sent to the nearest available banker, who punched some numbers in and let me know exactly how much the yen would cost me. At the request of the company, I took more than the minimum recommended amount. I don’t foresee any major issues since I arrive in Japan on August 18 and should get my first full paycheck on September 20 or 21. I was happy that the banker was friendly and patient since I am (already) treading on new ground (though not as new as Japan is going to be).

I’ve also reconsidered my initial plan to cram everything into suitcases and am now planning to mail myself a single box. The easiest would be the USPS’s international flat rate boxes, since the largest one ships for about $65. Nonetheless, I decided to weigh my options. Since there is a UPS store in town, I checked their website before I left and found that they offered international shipping services with delivery confirmation and tracking. What’s more, I got really excited when I saw that they delivered door-to-door, meaning my box would not sit uselessly at Nara’s post office but could be delivered directly to the branch school. Of the things I plan to ship, toothpaste, panty hose, deodorant, peanut butter, and perhaps a simple Japanese cookbook top the list. The practical reasons are as follows:

  • Japanese toothpaste does not contain fluoride, so I figure I should ship enough to last me at least a year.
  • Although I’m sure that I could find panty hose to fit me somewhere in Japan, the fact remains that it may be difficult to find. If I order online after arriving, I may wind up paying more than I should (aside: I am more than prepared for Japan’s prices). Shipping some extras will just be easier.
  • According to paperwork supplied by my company, some Americans find that Japanese antiperspirants are not as powerful as American ones. To be on the safe side, I’m shipping some over and plan to order more as needed. After all, no one wants a smelly teacher. 🙂
  • Graduate school taught me just how much I could survive without. I lived two years without an electric mixer or a rolling pin, using elbow grease and the side of a glass instead. However, one thing I cannot live without is peanut butter. When I crave sweet things, chocolate and/or peanut butter usually appear somewhere in the mix. I just figure that peanut butter is more versatile.
  • Although I have gotten pretty good at winging food preparation, I like to have some guidelines that I can adjust as necessary when I’m cooking in an area I haven’t really explored. Since I have never prepared fish in my entire life, I feel like a Japanese cookbook will give me something to be work with.

I went to UPS to get some pricing estimates. I foolishly forgot to grab a postal code before leaving, but I did provide the woman looking up prices with the city name. After crunching some numbers, she estimated that my shipping cost would be between $200 and $250 for a single package. FedEx is no better. I crunched similar numbers for a package valued at $50, and the total wound up being $285.

My current hopes are that the company e-mails me back with some information about Nara’s post office policies or that I completely overshot my weight of 17 pounds and that the actual weight comes to about 5 or 6. I plan to update this post again when I get some information back from the company. Until then, I think this matter may be up for reconsideration.

Feeling the Heat

I am feeling the heat in more ways than one this morning because I anticipate another hot, humid day today.

Last night, I went to dinner with Kristin, a friend of mine, and she asked me the question that almost everyone has been asking me lately. “Are you getting nervous yet?” Of course, I anticipate getting nervous, having never been out of the country in my entire life and having never taught before.

I provided the same response as I always do. “Of course I’m nervous, but I’m also really excited.”

This morning, I think I would say something more like, “Nervous? That doesn’t even begin to cover what I’m experiencing right now! Panic, more like. Wave after wave of it. I have three weeks to departure. I haven’t started packing. I haven’t bought anyone gifts. I haven’t decided if I need to ship a box or what I need to ship. I know almost four chapters of a beginner’s Japanese book, and even those chapters are a little muddled because I haven’t touched it in so long. I really hope I know enough English grammar for this. I need the bank and a souvenir store and… jeez, do we even HAVE a map of my hometown floating around anywhere? Family… pictures of my family over the next two weekends, and I still have boxes in the garage to unpack so I can find my camera charger. I need to get to the bank before rush hour. Where the heck are my keys?”

And so it goes.

In moments like this, I find it’s best to pause and enjoy the little things. Mozzarella sticks for breakfast? Yes, please. I doubt I’ll be getting many of those in Japan.

After calming down and finishing some reading this morning, I was relieved to learn that the business provides business cards, that I could purchase tea or candy for my branch school (I’m opting for tea), and that I have a pretty good grasp of the grammar point I reviewed this morning.

Japan is happening. It’s happening, and all the preparing in the world will never make me feel ready (that is just my personality, I suppose), so the best I can do is to keep calm and do everything I can now to make the transition easier. That includes (as the company’s paperwork recommended) keeping an open mind and enjoying every moment of things, the good, the bad, and the downright panicked. That also means studying Japanese, reading another culture book, and reducing my 600-page grammar book to bullet points for a nice review. No matter how hard my heart is hammering, I won’t let it slow me down.

Let the preparations continue!

Pre-Departure Misadventures Volume 1: Shoe-Shopping, Crafting, and Scary Movies, Oh My!

Whew! The past few days have been full of a ton of misadventures, but not nearly as many as today. I need to take my mind off The Woman in Black, which I just watched and which will probably give me nightmares. For the record, I blame my affinity for horror films on Japan. If it weren’t for Ju-on, I never would have watched a horror film in my entire life.

This week’s misadventures started with shoe-shopping early in the week. Normally, finding dress shoes that fit me is like finding an unbroken glass in a china shop full of rambunctious, screaming, caffeinated children. Perhaps I have grotesquely misshapen feet. Or perhaps the shoe companies just make misshapen shoes. In either case, my fortune was nonexistent when I bought heels for my interview in March. After two hours of shopping, I finally had to settle for something that was just a little too tight, and by the end of the trip, my feet despised me. However, in one day, I managed to find three pairs of shoes that not only fit well in width and length; I also avoided paying exorbitant amounts of money because of all the sales. Not horribly exciting… until you consider the fact that I drove from one JcPenney’s to another one (about 15 minutes further away) just to get a pair in my size. They all have about one-inch heals on them, but I find them all very comfortable, and when you anticipate being on your feet a lot while at work, it is important to have comfortable, good-fitting shoes that also fit the dress code (must have a back, cannot be too casual, black or brown preferred, etc.). I also needed more than one pair since Japanese feet usually run smaller than mine. If worse comes to worse, the digital cornucopia of Amazon.com will undoubtedly provide…

Tuesday also featured a trip to the Japanese Consulate to retrieve my visa. Having my passport and visa back in my possession is a relief, and my family and I ate dinner out at an amazing Mexican restaurant before coming back home. Perhaps I pride myself too much in being able to navigate the GM Renaissance Center on my second trip there, but I feel like it is a navigational achievement. If my skills stick around until I get to Japan, I might actually have a chance at finding more than one route from my apartment to the school where I’ll be teaching.

Wednesday, I read a whole culture book, albeit a brief one. You can find my review and more details here. The best part was that I read it while listening to a radio station that plays a lot of J-Rock and stumbled across some things that I liked. In addition to drowning out the noise, it provided some good listening practice. I hope that it will also help me get used to hearing Japanese spoken everywhere, at least a little bit. It’s not quite the same since I can turn off the music whenever I want to and hear English spoken, but hey… it’s a step in the right direction.

Today, instead of studying Japanese language/culture and English grammar like I was supposed to, I decided to spend the entire day (yes, 9 to 5) deciphering instructions for and constructing a padded iPad case. I wanted to make sure the Kindlenook (the nickname I gave to the iPad, as I use it primarily for reading) traveled as safely as I did. It literally took the entire day, and when I was finished, I wanted nothing more than to relax. Curling up in a chair and watching The Woman in Black was probably not my best decision, but the movie was fun, and it eased the frustration of having to guess at directions. I expect I’ll experience more of the same once I land in Osaka, but like the cryptic and convoluted iPad cover, I plan to face them with a calm demeanor… and I’ll probably do my swearing on the inside so I don’t offend anyone!

It’s trite, but I’ll say it anyway: It just goes to show that even crafty things can provide insight on how (not) to act in an unfamiliar culture.

Even so, perhaps I did more studying today than I thought.

Book Review: Japan CultureSmart!

Shortly before I signed a contract with my company, they sent me an envelope containing information about company protocol, the contents of my apartment, my various duties as a teacher, the contract renewal process, and last but not least, a little volume on Japanese culture. At the time, I didn’t have time to pick it up since I was still deep in the throes of my Master’s thesis, and while I confess that I should have read it sooner, I’m almost glad I waited as long as I did to read it because the information will still be pretty fresh in my mind when I get on that plane August 16.

The book is part of a series called Culture Smart!, which offers similar books on at least twenty other countries, and its objective, as stated in the introduction, is “To broaden your perception and understanding of the Japanese people, to equip you to avoid the pitfalls of cultural understanding, and to make your visit… a rich and mutually rewarding experience” (9).

The prose in this book is accessible and straight-forward with a vocabulary level that would not confuse the average reader. A table outlining the basic information about Japan (language; government; population; currency, which included a list of bills and coins; and even current and voltage) appears at the very front of the book. Although only around 160 pages in length, it covers a wide variety of topics from history and climate to restaurant and bathing protocol. For me, one of the most helpful sections of the book was the chapter on お土産 (omiyage, or gift giving). Most chapters include a two-page spread of bullet points for the pertinent cultural topics, including those mentioned above. Additionally, at the very end, a list of basic Japanese phrases appear in romanized form for readers who are unfamiliar with the kana and kanji. In addition, while the section on language explains Japanese pronunciations, the Japanese words themselves appear only in their romanized forms, which prevents readers from becoming overwhelmed with unfamiliar characters. Instead, Japan Culture Smart! adheres to its objective of helping people deal with cultural encounters.

Although much of the information presented in the book was both interesting and necessary, I do have a couple of issues with the presentation. First, despite being a culture book, there is no map of Japan included. This feature would be helpful for those wishing to see the geography rather than read a description of it.* I do realize that maps are readily available on the internet, but the recruiters who interviewed me, as well as a friend of mine who has been to Japan, both told me that wi-fi is not as readily accessible as it is in America, so a map would be a good addition, even if it is just a small one. The other issue I have is, despite noting early on that Japan uses the metric system, standard measurements always appear first in statistics. Switching the numbers and presenting the metric units first would not only reinforce the Japanese use of the metric system but may also help readers begin getting used to the comparison between the two.

Despite these shortcomings, I plan to put this volume with a list price of US$9.95 (cheaper copies are available online, and Amazon.com even offers a Kindle edition) to good use. I have flagged all of the important points with post-it notes, including most of the bullet lists. It serves as a nice introduction to my next cultural read, and its small size makes it easy to slide into my pocket. Because of its focus and format, I recommend it as a starting point for anyone traveling to Japan for the first time, even if their planned stay is brief. It is also a nice book for people who simply want to know more about Japanese culture.

*Edit: Hikari (one of my reviewers) has notified me that there apparently is a map of Japan located just behind the table of contents. However, her review notes that its readability is somewhat confusing, as Nara is listed in two places. My suspicion is that one is for Nara-shi (the city) and one for Nara Prefecture, but I would have to see it to make that call. I will be sure to update this information once I have my copy back in my possession.

T-Minus One Month

In one month, at 5:50 am, I will climb on an airplane heading for Osaka, where I will receive my initial training for a teaching job in Nara-shi. Having only flown twice before, once cross-country as an infant, once to and from Disney World, I can only hope for a smooth flight with as few delays as possible. I’ve never flown alone, so it comes as no surprise that I’m practically illiterate in airport procedures.

But I have much greater things to be nervous about. I have never left the country. I live one hour from Canada’s border, and not once in all that time have I ever taken advantage of it. Most people my age flocked to Canada to drink before they were twenty-one, but that was before the drinking age changed. I personally never saw the appeal. With the navigational skills of a blind ADD mouse, I figured it was best to stay stateside to avoid winding up in Alberta.

Japan is sort of like Canada, except smaller geography-wise. I also have a personal and professional interest in going to Japan that does not involve bending America’s drinking laws by crossing borders. Although English is common in older cities, most people speak Japanese. Their culture is completely different. The only similarity is that I’ve never been there and therefore anticipate getting lost quite a bit, only I’ll probably wind up more lost because most of the signs are written in kanji. Nonetheless, I’ve resolved to stay optimistic.

I’m feeling more positive about the teaching aspect of my life, which I probably won’t discuss a lot in this blog because of confidentiality, or if I do, it will be more of a self-evaluative thing. Having four years of Writing Center experience more than likely gave me a competitive edge at the interview in many ways, not just in regards to grammatical knowledge but also interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, leadership skills, and written communication skills (my specialty was working online; students would send a paper in, and the Writing Consultant would write comments back using the comment feature in Microsoft Word). However, I still expect to make mistakes: big ones, little ones, some as big as your head, as the old song goes. I’ve learned not to let such things stop me from trying, however.

With a month left, I have to seriously think about studying more Japanese and read the culture books on my shelf (I’ll be sure to review them for anyone interested). I also recently ordered a grammar book, which I also plan to review. Aside from that, I still need to see my old professor Beth, my relatives in Ohio and Kentucky, and my friend who lives in Illinois. I have to finish reading and watching couple of things I won’t be able to take with me on the plane. Most of all, I need to get my passport back from the Japanese Embassy.

As with all things new, I find myself facing the trip with an anxious, excited sort of anticipation. I know I’ll have moments of homesickness, frustration, mortification, and panic, but I also expect a lot of fun and exciting things to happen. Knowing there will be both going into things will hopefully make the transition easier.

It took me almost two months for me to realize that I was really going to Japan. My interview seems like it only happened yesterday. With one month left, I can only do my best to stay both optimistic and realistic. That means preparing. Preparing means reading.

Reading is what I thrive on.

Let the page-turning begin.