Candy Button Conveyor Belt

Well I’m back in my favorite $5 coffee cafe again today. Ah the coffee tastes a little burnt today…that’s a shame. I thought I would get here sometime mid-afternoon while it was still sunny through the cafe’s wide windows and might even be warm enough to sit outside for a bit, and I’d settle in for several hours. But through a series of lazy decisions earlier today it’s now 5pm and I just arrived, and I have to head out again in just 2 hours. Tonight one of my new favorite bands is playing at the Ruby Room. They’re the only live act in this event series called “Berlin.” I’ve never actually gone to the event before but it seems like my friend who organizes it puts it on about once a month; there’s free entry, some live music but mostly DJs, it goes until 4am, and (and this is what really pulls the crowd in honestly) free burritos. Also I use the term “friend” here a little loosely. I think most foreigners living in Tokyo probably know this guy. Well okay actually “most foreigners” is probably hundreds of thousands of people so that’s insane. But if you met a random foreigner around my age living in Tokyo there’s a better chance, statistically, he knows this guy than anyone else I know. Anyway I’ve never been to this event before because I don’t know if it’s exactly my scene. It’s amazing how the face of Ruby Room changes so much from night to night. I know this sounds impossible or like a figurative exaggeration but I think I literally feel more comfortable sometimes at Ruby than in my own apartment. I mean for one thing I’ve technically known the Ruby room longer– I’ve been going there for about 10 months longer than I’ve lived in my current apartment. And while (as attached as I really am to my apartment) my apartment is always a good 20 minute bike ride at least from the people I love, there’s always at least one of them within a few feet of me at Ruby. But, that being said, it’s amazing how the tiny place can transform. I’ve seen it brightly lit and weirdly naked the times I’ve gone there before an event starts to help set up. I’ve seen it in its cool red-hued lazy vibes on the Tuesday open mics. And then I’ve seen it at 1am on a weekend night, Japanese techno screaming from the speakers, strobes and oppressive black radiating from the hidden walls. I think the scene tonight will fall somewhere between the latter two, if such a midpoint between those worlds even exists. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Open mic red vibes

In my last entry – I don’t know if “entry” is the right word here actually, that makes this sounds like a diary. Although I guess this “entry” has about the look of a diary so far… Oh well I’ll just stick with “post.” In my last post I mentioned how disconnected I’ve started to become from the Japanese world around me. It’s kind of a queer concept isn’t it. I’ve started watching random Japanese people as I pass them on the streets, ones who looked busy in a very solitary fashion, and I wondered how connected they feel to the world around them. Or is it just as simple as, being Japanese, they feel implicitly connected? Connected isn’t even the right word. It’s like there’s this conveyor belt with the positions of each person riding it perfectly and fixedly arranged– like those awful candy buttons. Those on the belt live in a sea of other perfectly aligned humans, so there seems nothing remarkable in the fact that they have a carefully ordained place just for them– after all, every other person, as far as they can see, has the same. They’re so fixed in that perfect farm of people that they’re not even aware that the ground beneath them is moving, and, in fact, to them it isn’t. But I, on the other hand, am on solid ground watching this belt swirl around me. But actually I didn’t come here to drift into that same bleak tone again. I came to remark on some progress I’ve made lately to get back into the Japanese world.

As I mentioned before, I’ve started Japanese classes every Friday morning. These classes are run by volunteers at a center near the school where I used to work. That’s how I learned about it– from a teacher at that school who used to be a volunteer. It’s a great deal, really– for ¥6000 you get 10 2-hour classes. In my Friday morning class there’s about 15-20 students, all of whom (except myself, obviously) are married to a Japanese person (I might as well say man, since the class is all women except a single man who’s a video freelancer, married to a Japanese woman). The 20 person “class” is broken into 4 or 5 groups based on  Japanese level. For my first class, the volunteers weren’t quite sure where to put me. I had been to this place before, but that was almost 2 years ago now, when I first got to Japan. So before the tea break they placed me with an American, Italian, and Korean who at least had all the basics under their belt. Everyone in the group was very kind and friendly, but I was very flattered and delighted when the volunteers moved me up to the most advanced group after tea. So now my group is all Asian women who seem to speak with a completely flawless Japanese, except that some of their pronunciations are a bit odd and very Chinese-sounding. But honestly it does seem a bit like a waste of money that they’re here at all– I really can’t see how they expect their Japanese to improve beyond what is it now, almost indistinguishable from fluency. It can be a bit hard to insert myself into a group of this nature, obviously, but I usually can understand the conversation and I try not to let myself feel embarrassed when I speak.

But probably noticing that I was getting overshadowed in this group, the volunteers also arranged private lessons for me (for free). So my private tutor is a woman named Takahashi-san with an 11-year old daughter who loves Harry Potter. We meet once a week on Wednesday mornings at a Starbucks that’s about halfway between our houses (walking distance for both of us, since we live quite close). Takahashi-san told me at our first lesson that her daughter asked her to describe me and she told her I looked like Luna, which completely delighted her. So at our second lesson Takahashi-san asked to take my picture because her daughter had insisted she take a picture of “Luna-chan.” Our first lesson was a little awkward– it really had been such a long time since I sat across from a Japanese person and one-on-one delved into a long conversation. Plus neither of us had a plan or knew what to talk about. So we talked about Harry Potter, the newest movie, and my many different freelance jobs. And our next lesson was much smoother. She brought a Harry Potter magazine with her this time, so we started by flipping through it together. I learned there is actually a word for “spell” in Japanese that isn’t just a phonetic representation of the English word, and from there we talked about weird Japanese myths and magic and then somehow about Trump. I learned how to say “executive” “legislative” and “judiciary” in Japanese and then asked her if, for a Japanese person, seeing on the news the executive and judiciary branches of our country fighting with each other makes us look childish. God that really is something I could’ve talked about for hours– I really seized on it when she brought it up. And it was really nice talking about it in a completely non-incendiary fashion. I just calmly laid out all of my concerns, and she nodded, agreed, and laughed.

After leaving her on Wednesday and walking back to my apartment I still had Japanese ringing in my head– and for at least a few minutes I carried on thinking in Japanese, until I pulled out my iPhone and turned on an English song. Fortuitously, and yet unrelatedly, I’ve also landed a new freelance job in the past week or so that helps connect me back to Japan. A friend of mine works at a translation company in Chicago, so she set me up with a project manager over there to do some Japanese translation and transcription. I’ve gotten 2 jobs from them so far, with 2 more coming up this week. Basically, the PM sends me an audio file and a transcription that a Japanese native linguist transcribed, and my job is to check the English against the Japanese audio. I thought this would be an insanely easy job, almost feeling guilty for taking about $150 per assignment. But actually it takes me hours and hours. The Japanese voices are almost impossible to hear sometimes, and I find myself playing the same 15-second bit over and over again 10 times trying to catch the meaning. But I can’t complain because it pays well and it’s excellent practice.

So I guess all in all I’m feeling better connected– maybe running alongside the conveyor belt at a perfectly matched pace. Of course I do know that the best and most effective way to solve this issue is simply with a Japanese koibito (lover). But that’s really a whole new conversation…




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