Sunday, 27 April 2008

Stop! Police! and Ramblings on Cultural Identity

Three nights a week I have class until 9pm. After class we often go out for dinner and a round or two of drinks with my advisor. I normally get home close to midnight, but I'm not the only one exiting the station and walking home at that hour.

The other night it had gotten suddenly chilly and was raining. Not a very nice night. I just wanted to go home and go to bed as I had to be up and in class early the next morning. I left the station and started walking towards the dorm (a 20 minute walk), passing the police box, as I always do. As I walked by I thought I heard a voice call out, so I looked back. The man standing in front of the police box, with a police hat (protected by a plastic shower-cap) and plastic rain poncho didn't appear to be looking at me, so I kept walking. The voice called out again, and again, so I looked back over my shoulder through the rain. The guy hadn't moved and again didn't appear to be looking at me so I kept going. When I heard the voice again, however, I stopped and lifted my umbrella, and while the officer still didn't appear to actually be looking at me he had left the limited shelter of the police box's overhanging roof and was standing right beside me. The young officer bowed his head to me and asked me if I was carrying my foreigners registration card. He then quoted a certain law or something that allowed him to stop me and ask me for my card. I have been told numerous times that this could potentially happen, but had never actually had it happen, nor heard of it happening out of the blue like this.

I acknowledged that I had my card on me, and the officer asked to see it. I reached into my bag and took out my wallet, opening it to show him my card. He asked me to remove the card from my wallet however, which proved to be a bit difficult. Juggling my umbrella, my school bag and another bag I had trouble getting the card out of the small pocket in my wallet. The officer watched me and waited patiently. I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the situation, however, especially since I couldn't actually see his uniform except for his hat. He was also rather young and the darkness didn't do anything to ease my discomfort. He must have sensed this, as he tried to reassure me that the situation was not dodgy - only making me more uncomfortable! I held onto the corner of my card as I showed it to him. He stared at it intently, reading it multiple times and questioning me about the information on it.

Officer: "Hmm.... So, you are a foreign student?"
Me: "Yes."
Officer: "Hmm.... So, you live in the area?"
Me: "Yes, in the foreign student dorm."

He finally released my card, bowed to me and wished me a good evening, and then he was gone into the night, back to the police box.

I continued walking home, and as I went over the situation in my mind I started getting really upset about it. I realize that the officer in question was polite, that nothing happened, and that plenty of others have had experiences that are actually seriously unpleasant to say the very very least (Korean and Chinese students in Japan have some unpleasant stories of being hassled by police, and visible minorities in North America - especially young black men can tell horror stories of being the victims of racial profiling). In comparison, my brief encounter is really nothing, and I am no longer upset by it, but that evening, walking home in the cold rain, I felt very much singled out because of my skin colour. I felt as if I was being reminded that I am a foreigner, and being made to feel unwelcome in the country in which I choose to make my life.

It did get me to thinking... I talked with a number of different people, about the incident itself and about cultural identity in general. Here are some of my ramblings...

As a tall white female in Japan I stand out. When I first went to the island of Tanegashima in the south of Japan 8 years ago I just about caused car accidents every time I walked down the main street in town! Living in Tokyo these days is different, but I still get looked at. I'm used to it, however, and it doesn't bother me most of the time. Some of the time it ends up being a positive - like when my friends remark about how easy it is to meet me anywhere, they can immediately pick me out of a crowd! And yet, for all that I stand out, I feel that I fit in. While I am sure that my professors treat me somewhat differently from other students, I am a regular student, not an exchange student. My friends tease me that I must have been Japanese in a previous life, and one of my friends has a couple of times, out of the blue in the middle of the conversation, suddenly remarked "huh? Ohhhhh... right, I forgot, you're a foreigner!!" Not that I think I'm "turning Japanese" a la Vapors, but I have chosen to make my life here, not just for a year, but for the foreseeable future. This is where I study, where I work, where my friends are, where my life is.

In one instant, however, I was reminded that however much I may feel that I belong here, and however much those who know me may agree with that and treat me in the same way, I am and always will be a foreigner. Not that that is a bad thing, nor a good thing, it just is. I accept it. I feel that it is something that every non-Japanese person has to come to terms with to live happily in this country. Japan is a country with a strong sense of identity, a strong idea of what it means to be Japanese and who the Japanese are. This is historical, cultural, and linguistic. I don't think you can say it is a purely bad thing, or a purely good thing either. As a Canadian girl, despite the fact that I also have a British passport, I grew up without a sense of cultural identity. Growing up I remember attending the annual Toronto multi-cultural festival and seeing children my age up on stage dressed in traditional clothing and performing traditional dances at the Latvian or Cuban or Greek or Hungarian community centres. I was always jealous, I wanted to have that "culture," that specialness of identity. I thought we were boring, without culture.

It has taken living outside of Canada for the past 5 years to help me appreciate what it means to be Canadian. When asked to dress up in national costume and cook traditional dishes for an international event during my exchange to Japan, I joked that we Canadians don't have clothing or food. Eight years later, however, when asked about Canadian food I will describe poutine, or talk about my uncle who makes maple syrup in his backyard, or mention the delicious fish and fruit plentiful in BC. When asked about national identity I will now proudly talk about official bilingualism, about the Canadian mosaic and the multiculturalism of large Canadian cities, about the range of cultures and languages that make up the average elementary school class.

My name is Sarah. And I Am Canadian! (grin!) Follow the link if you don't know what I'm talking about, and watch a video clip that made it cool to be Canadian...

I'm alive...

With two full weeks of classes under my belt now I'm beginning to realize just what I've gotten myself in for, and it is rather overwhelming! I have been taking classes at my university for a year, but being an actual student changes it all, especially since I have a thesis to write! But let me backtrack...

This term I am taking four graduate level courses - sociology, social education, museum management theory, and a general thesis-related course (plus a few other random credits). I am also taking two undergrad level courses for the curatorial certificate - basics in education, and introduction to lifelong learning. I am also TA-ing (which means assisting the professor with the hands-on portion instead of actually teaching myself) the 4th year curatorial certificate course. In addition, I am still working at the museum. They are currently keeping me busy with updating part of the archival database and translating documents for a special exhibit this summer, as well as working on various tasks related to the meetings 4 of us will be attending in the US at the end of May. My life would, of course, not be complete without Girl Scouts. My Brownie troop meets roughly twice a month, our latest meeting was our year-end (the Japanese school year runs April-March) event, when we went to see a Japanese production of the musical "Anne of Green Gables" (or rather "Akage no An."

So that is my life in a nutshell. Busy. Full. Exciting. Great fun. Challenging. I love it, and about once a day find myself questioning why the heck I ever thought I could do it in the first place. Little things - like not being able to properly express myself on the weekly response sheet for my education class, or watching the discussion of Foucault rapidly go over my head in the sociology class. And yet, those times are balanced with the other times when I realize I can get most of my reading for the social education class WITHOUT MY DICTIONARY, or am able to get through my self-introduction and thesis outline presentation in front of the entire department without making a fool of myself. I really appreciate being part of a community again. I miss not having other students around me studying similar things (I'm the only museum studies person, there are three M1 students in education, 13 in psychology, and none in sociology, add to that another 15-20 M2s in ed/psych/soc and a couple of doctoral students and you have the entire graduate population of my department, the name of which I translate as Psychology, Sociology and Education). But, I am still finding I belong to a community, as I get to know the other grad students in my department and run into my friends in other departments on campus. For somebody who has moved around as much as I have, this feeling of belonging, to a place and to a group, is one to be truly appreciated!!

As far as classes themselves go, undergrad courses are lecture-based. Most seem to have no assigned text, although some of my courses have had them. Some professors take attendance (with slips of paper where you fill in your name, student number, etc) and include this in their grading, while in other classes grades are based on a combination of short essays, response papers and/or exams. My graduate courses are all small, the largest having 5 students. They are more discussion based, but differ from the general discussion type courses I took in my previous graduate incarnation. The norm here is that one student will be assigned to make a presentation each week, based on a reading that the entire class will have read, or something read only by the student presenting. He or she will then talk for about 30 minutes (normally reading from prepared handouts, my father was amazed to hear nobody uses powerpoint here), before opening it up for discussion which is normally dominated by the professor. I have presentations coming up in three of my four graduate courses, and I'm more than a little nervous about it all...

And then there is my thesis... I presented my initial proposal at a department-wide meeting a week ago. In a few days I will be meeting with my advisor to decide on a schedule for the next year, and to discuss a more detailed version of my proposal. It is all very exciting, but it looks more and more like I'm going to be writing in Japanese, which is a little bit daunting!

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Colourful Scarves

Knitting scarves for friends has become rather fun. I go to the yarn store (in itself a fun outing) and wander around touching yarn until something jumps out at me for a particular person on my list. My sempai has apparently gotten numerous compliments on how well the colours suit her. That is what I am aiming for.

The first of my most recent projects was a difficult one to pick out. The friend in question and I had gone shopping together in the early fall and actually each bought two scarves. So I knew she wasn't exactly freezing for want of neck warmth (not that she would be this time of year anyways, but...). So her scarf had to be special. It took me a long time to decide on the yarn, but I fell in love with some gorgeous variegated mohair in what I would call Easter colours (green, orange, purple, yellow). Once I had the yarn I thought about it for a long time, and ended up starting and finishing a number of other projects because I couldn't decide on a pattern. I eventually decided I wanted to make her a shawl instead of a scarf, and cast on with a pattern I thought I liked. After a few rows, however, it became apparent that the yarn colouring wasn't working with the pattern so I ripped back and went back to the drawing board (aka Ravelry and my 365 Knitting Stitches book). Finally I found something I liked and that I felt worked well with the yarn, and this is how it turned out...

The friend in question took me shopping before term started to buy shoes for my enormous feet. (I still hear echoes of the infamous Indian call of "big size! big size!!") There happened to be a yarn store in the neighbourhood, so of course we went there too. My friend really liked one of the scarves on display and, without knowing I was currently working on a shawl for her, pointed at the small and largely white scarf and said "Sarah, will you make me something like this?" Since the shawl is neither small nor white I pretty much lost all confidence in my yarn and project choices. I was almost finished, however, so I figured I should give it to her anyways. I'm still not sure she was completely thrilled with it, but she did say all the right things when I gave it to her.

More so than the intended recipient, however, one of my coworkers at the museum loved the yarn and the shawl. I show her my current project every week, and every week she oohs and ahhs and fingers the wool. The shawl, however, particularly caught her interest. She insisted that I take it in to show her once it was done. When I was left with nearly two balls of wool after finishing and fringing the shawl I decided to see how much of a scarf I could make for her. The finished product was quite small...

But was a huge hit nonetheless. When I gave her the tissue-wrapped scarf the look in her eyes made it clear she thought she knew what was inside, although she wasn't quite sure she should hope so...

April is the start of the new school year in Japan. This year that meant officially entering my university. I had been worried about what this new school year would bring as the only other student in my area of the major (and my closest friend at the university) graduated last month. I shouldn't have worried too much, however, as I had a couple of friends also entering the grad school this year, and have been getting to know others in my new program. (more on that once I've organized my thoughts a bit...) One of the former is a girl who was in my professor's study group as an undergrad last year. She graduated and is back again, entering the graduate school in the geography department. She is a wonderfully warm and friendly person, and never fails to cheer me up with her bone crushing hugs (a very uncommon trait among Japanese). The scarf I made for her is rather too bright and colourful for my taste, but I (and a number of others who know her) felt that it represented her sunny and offbeat nature perfectly!

And she seems to agree, obligingly posing for a photo despite the warmth of the day!

I have another scarf that I just finished but it will wait for my next post, as will my gorgeous birthday yarn (I'm going to be selfish and keep it for myself, I'm thinking a nice shawl?).

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Wordless Wednesday - Photos from my Cellphone

Being a full-time grad student again is proving to be a busy business. Of course, I'm not content simply taking graduate courses, as I'm also taking undergrad courses towards the Japanese curatorial certificate, TA-ing, and continuing to work one day a week at the museum. Oh, and of course I'm still doing Brownies twice a month...

Which is why I decided to jump on the Wordless Wednesday blog bandwagon and pass along some photos I've taken over the past few weeks. They were all taken on my cellphone, so aren't the greatest of photos, but they are of things that amused me, so I hope they amuse you too!


1) First is a doll for sale in the 100 yen shop (Dollar Store) down the street from me. I walked by her on the shelf and thought "hey, that looks like the CN tower... hey! A maple leaf... hey! She's supposed to be Canadian!" Maybe this is why most people in Japan seem to think that I am blonde (despite my brown hair!)

2) I was walking along when I came upon this sign. I thought to myself "huh, those look like teeth or something strange." I kept walking. Then I saw the second sign in the store and the rows of photographs on the wall behind. I kept walking as the thoughts trickled down through my mind. "Yikes! Those were teeth... with jewels?! Wha?!" I had to go back and take another look, and surriptitiously snap a photo or two.

3) This is a restaurant near the station I use daily. I have long giggled about the sign when I walk by. I have never seen many people in the cafe, however, so I guess the kick backs aren't good enough?

4) Um... so this one is a little... well... It isn't graphic, but it is... well... It is a "pee pole." Yup, the name says it all. The new school year in Japan begins with health check-ups for students. No longer do you have the bother and mess of peeing into a large and easily spill-able paper cup or a large plastic container with a screw top lid. Now there is a new option, a smaller, slimmer and easier solution. Simply slid out the inner tube, pop the top in as a handle, and position to catch the flow. But you don't need my explanation with such cute cartoon caracters! Equal representation too.

5) In case any of you were grossed out by the previous pictures, here is something to pretty to leave you with happy thoughts. My favourite study space at school is an open area between offices and classrooms. One part of the area is open to the massive skylights 10 or so flights above. Hung from the skylights are huge prisms, and the late morning light streaming through them threw beautiful rainbows all over the walls, floors and tables. With study space like this I shouldn't mind being cooped up inside!