Thursday, January 14, 2021

Cross cultural influences during childhood: paying cash

 A long running joke in my marriage is how I always like to put cash payments in an envelope.  Greg has rolled his eyes soooo many times as I hunted around the house for an envelope to pay someone, from a delivery guy to a nanny.  "Just give them the cash, they don't care!" And yet, still I just couldn't do that.  

One of our kids is now editing videos, also called "making Fortnite montages" in modern parlance.  He's gotten pretty good, occasionally winning "shout outs" on YouTube in small competitions.  His friends at school think this is really cool -- as you can tell, I'm still learning about this new world, but he's passionate about something that's creative and productive so that's great.  Productive as in, apparently kids actually pay him money to make these clips that they can then post on their social media.

Based on this reputation, one of his friends at school asked him to make a montage.  Our son came home today and said, "Look!  He offered to pay me $10 for the video! And he put it in this envelope he gave me at recess labeled 'For Fortnite Montage.'  It feels so much more official than getting passed cash!" 

Immediately... Greg burst out laughing. "Now I know why your mom always has to pay people cash in an envelope!" 

Incidentally, I never have to hunt for an envelope here because the stationary stores in Tokyo sell inexpensive envelopes just the right size for yen bills.  So, I simply bought a pack and keep it in my desk - so handy for operating in a society still so cash-based.

Friday, December 4, 2020

On English

So many foreigners are surprised at the lack of English in Tokyo, despite mandatory English classes in secondary school.  This topic came up during my koto (Japanese zither) music lesson the other week.  My koto teacher had an interesting take, which I hadn't heard before. 

She admitted to me that she can speak English - but she's more comfortable in Japanese, so she's happy to have our class in Japanese.  (and, anyway, I'm happy to continue in Japanese since this is my year to focus on language acquisition.)  This was funny, because I had had about three classes before she even told me she could speak English.  I commented that, when I lived in Vietnam, if someone spoke even a tiny bit of English he or she would always try to practice with me.  And, though I was trying to learn Vietnamese and wanted to practice with them, it was really hard to find people willing to talk in my middling Vietnamese skills.  

On the other hand, everyone in Japan seemed happy to start out in Japanese.  I wasn't sure if it was because they were more used to hearing foreign-accented Japanese, or perhaps because lack of English-speaking confidence on their part.  

She offered a different possible idea.  She noted one of her friends has a shop, and started speaking English to a foreign customer who walked in.  But, that person didn't speak English.  And then commented how it was tiring to him that everyone assumed he could speak English because he was Caucasian, but he couldn't - however he could speak Japanese.  Thus, the friend now speaks Japanese to all customers, until the customer asks if she can speak English -- because the friend doesn't want to offend customers by assuming all Caucasians speak English.  

I have no idea how widespread this thinking is, but it is interesting to step out of my American-centric viewpoint to think about how English prevalence might be viewed by others.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

The same, no matter what culture or language

 I was walking back from some errands today, and saw a scene play out that was so familiar, though the dress and language was different.  I'm sure any parent of three kids - particularly three boys - can relate.

Our residential compound is near two shrines.  November is the "shichi-go-san" (7-5-3) festival month, when boys who are 5 years old and girls who are 3 and 7 years old go for a blessing.  The children dress up in fancy Western clothes or traditional Japanese clothes.  Brothers usually wear a dark suit (with shorts for the younger boys), and sisters a pretty dress.  Dads/grandpas in dark suits and moms/grandmas in either a dark dress or a seasonally appropriate kimono.  It's super fun seeing these family groups walk by.  

Today I was walking home and saw to boys, maybe 7 and 9 years old, chasing each other up the street.  The younger one in a short pants suit and the older one in slacks/tie/button down/v-neck sweater.  Then a dad popped around the corner and yelled along the lines of, "stop running! this is a street with cars.  Please walk nicely back here."  I chuckled, having been in that situation so many times. 

Then I got to the top of the block, and a little 5 year old in traditional Japanese dress was crying as his mom in her kimono wiped her tears.  As the now chastised two older brothers stood looking at their feet, the mom scolded them again for running in the street -- and also for running around and goofing off when their little brother, on his special day, couldn't run around because he was in the fancy clothes.  

And then the mom apologizing to the grandparents for the boys being crazy. 

And then all three of the boys being kind of upset and what was supposed to be a happy day, ending up being stressful. 

Oh, how many times have I been there?  I'm pretty sure every parent in any culture can imagine that scenario.  But yet, a bit more beautiful when kimonos are involved.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

All for a chicken katsu

 It's fall break for the boys, but not for the parents.  And I'm studying from home right now, so this week is a mix of planning activities out of the house for the boys to do with our nanny and having small excursions when I have breaks in my class.  

Monday we went to try takeout from Taco Rico, a Chipotle-inspired restaurant.  It wasn't bad - we've been in Tokyo long enough that the taste was close enough to be enjoyable.  (I've often found I shouldn't eat my favorite American foods within three months of being in America!)  On the walk to Taco Rico, we passed a lunch spot cooking up tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), and one kid declared it smelled so good, we had to go back.  

Tuesday the boys explored Tokyo Dome City and ate at Shake Shack (yes, that's here - with local flavor such as a Japanese mushroom burger or a black sesame milk shake, in addition to the more "normal" American options).  So, today became tonkatsu day.  

Two boys opted to make their own lunch from left overs rather than go walk out and about for lunch.  What a treat to (a) have kids old enough now to stay home on their own and make their own lunch and (b) spend an hour with just one of the three! 

As we walked toward where we had smelled that delicious smell on Monday, I warned that some Japanese lunch places have a rotating menu, so maybe the tonkatsu wouldn't be there.  Which sparked an interesting conversation about would the restaurant have, say, five menus (every Monday is tonkatsu?), 20 menus, or 365?  Or maybe it would have tonkatsu every day and only do that.  Sadly, today's choices were spicy chicken curry or a "hambagu" (hamburger patty with other sides).  The boy said usually those would be ok, but he really wanted tonkatsu, soo.... 

We went on a hunt as I was fairly sure I remembered a chicken restaurant had yakitori, chicken curry, and chicken katsu for their daily takeout options.  Thankfully it did.

But, then, we arrived at 11:15 ... and the restaurant didn't open until 11:30.  AND it only took cash, but I didn't quite have enough not having checked my wallet when we left.  After all the walking hunting for katsu, his little legs were a bit tired - and he didn't want to have to walk all the way back home to get cash and then go back.  

But, this being a family-run chicken place, I knocked on the door and of course the wife who doubles as the hostess and order taker opened the door, even thought it was a little early.  I apologized for being early, but explained we were looking for chicken katsu for my son, but I had forgotten my cash.  And would it be too much trouble for him to wait in the entry way while I ran back for some money?  She of course said it was no problem for her to watch him, and off I went while her husband prepared our take out. 

I returned with the payment, and I doubt while I was gone my child even looked up from my phone which I left with him :)  In any case, off we went, chicken katsu in hand.  And said child declared, "next time I want it, I can walk here myself and order myself, because I can point to what I want on the picture paper and easily give her 1,000 yen.  That's good to know!"  So, I guess I don't have to worry about him ever going hungry :) 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Wondering what else is hidden

Every country has its own financial system, but in my experience so far, Japan's is quite unique.  It relies significantly on bank transfers to pay bills - credit cards are used (though not to the extent as in the US) and, aside from PayPal for some online purchases, I haven't really discovered yet other e-payment systems.  ATMs often only function during business hours (pro-tip: most 7-11 convenience stores are 24/7, so if you need to get cash at odd hours, that's my go-to.)

Anyway.  Though we usually try to avoid setting up a local bank account when we move, it seemed inevitable here.  Even if we didn't have, say, soccer team payments, the highway EZ-Pass equivalent can only be linked to a domestic Japanese credit card... which can only be paid by a domestic Japanese bank account.  Thus, as we do hope to take some road trips with our new-to-us Honda Odyssey, no choice but to open a local account.  One of my Japanese teachers dubbed this the "Galapagos Mentality" -- as an island nation, they keep things locally-specific.  

With the post office bank account all set up, we ventured out today to attempt two bank transfers.  The ATM had a "English" button, but no options looked promising.  On the Japanese screen there was a "EZ Pay" button, but clicking that then required a "payment code" which wasn't in any of the bills I had received.  After a few minutes of staring at the other Japanese and English options, I asked the post office employee for some help.  

She showed us which button to push and walked us through the Japanese menu choices - needless to say, it wasn't too hard once we knew what to push and learned the Japanese banking words (not really something taught in diplomatic Japanese classes or in my university literature and culture focused classes).  After she left, we even paid the second bill on our own with only one incorrect button.  Yay. 

Then out of curiosity, we went back to the English menu to see what we had missed.  Only to find that the option choices under the English menu really were completely different.  We never found a way to pay an account in another bank.  

Which makes me wonder, as we go about daily life here, what else might be hidden when using the English version of things rather than the Japanese one?  Thankfully my Japanese is good enough that, with not too much effort, we can power through in the Japanese versions.  But if Greg or Lea are trying something on their own - or if I'm just feeling tired - I think there will definitely be things we will miss.  

I'm 100% sure this probably happened in Vietnam, too, but my Vietnamese was never quite strong enough to be so aware of it.  All the more reason to try and operate as much as possible in Japanese, so we don't get an edited version of what might be out there.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

"What is it like, all that moving?"

I spent about 20 minutes on the phone today with an Amica representative, finally closing out all our US-based insurance policies  I really lament that Amica doesn't have policies for people living overseas, because they really have fantastic customer service.  They've been so patient and responsive - from quickly handling a fender bender we had days before we moved to explaining what we should close when based on what situation we were in.  Anyway, that is a different story.  

Today, wrapping up the lose ends, as the agent was reading through the notes in our file over last last two months while we were waiting for the systems to confirm everything was closed out, she said, "wow, Japan. That's really exciting.  What's it like, all that moving?"

I gave her my usual anodyne answer, as that's what people expect to hear: "It has its challenges, but overall is exciting and enjoyable for us."  Then I paused and added, "This move was a little weird, since we don't know when we can visit home next."  She commiserated on the COVID-induced travel restrictions (I mean, even when we were in MD, we didn't visit family in TX, so at some level it doesn't matter where we are).  But, she really wanted to know what it was like to move especially overseas.  

We do it so often, I couldn't really encapsulate it for her well.  But, after I hung up the phone, the perfect example presented itself. 

Moving so much is - having two drawers full of cords and constantly rearranging which ones you are using where, hoping you don't have to buy yet another one, to try and adjust the outlets to fit the way you'd like to set up your house.  In other words, trying to use what you have and know, but also knowing when to let go of the familiar and embrace the new and present.

When you live in one house, you don't really think about the outlets.  Lamps, TVs, gadgets -- all have their proper place.  Maybe an occasional furniture rearrangement or introduction of a new gadget will necessitate a review of what is where, but in general, those sorts of things stay put.  

But over the moves, we've had such oddly placed outlets, and such a variety of plugs, sometimes necessitating transformers, we've accumulated quite the collection. And we try things out and have to adjust when we figure out what does or doesn't work (like after this morning's near meltdown when one child realized, again, he plugged his school laptop into the plug that was attached to the light switch and the switch was off over night... So, what extension cords did we have to enable him to plug in his laptop in that corner of the room rather than another? And praying as we sort through the box that we can use something we have and don't have to buy yet another cord!).  

Thankfully this time, with adjusting a few cords from other rooms, we could use what we had.  

Monday, September 7, 2020

Considering posting again

We started this blog, in January 2009, on moving to Hyderabad.  Since then, so much has changed in how we (as a society) use the Internet.  How we think about posting kids' information.  How much we share as privacy concerns expanded.  

Then in 2016, we (a family) moved to Vietnam, where blogging has an entirely different meaning.  For sure, many blog about vacations and food ... but some also use it for political dissidence.  

So, between sorting out what my personal privacy guidelines were and observing first hand restrictions on others' Internet freedom, it just wasn't the right time to blog.  At all.  

Now, though, I find us in Tokyo.  And I have some fun experiences I'd like to share with family back home - experiences that would be way too long for a Facebook post.  

Like today.  I had an hour break in my Japanese class, so I decided to go and try and mail something to my sister in Colorado.  I wanted to be able to track it, so figured FedEx would be good.  But a little online research showed Japan Post's express mail service was only $20 to FedEx's $60.  OK, fine, off to Japan Post I went. And then this conversation ensued (in Japanese):

    Me: Hi, I'd like to mail this EMS to the United States
    Her: EMS. Yes... To the United States.. Well...
    Me (thinking EMS wasn't an abbreviation used in Japanese): Yes, by EMS I mean quickly and with a tracking number and signature required on delivery.  Maybe "EMS" isn't a Japanese abbreviation.
    Her (looking in a book): Yes, we use "EMS" in Japanese. But, if you would like EMS, maybe you should use FedEx or DHL or (she lists three other companies)
    Me: Oh, so Japan Post doesn't do EMS.  I thought it did.  But, OK.  I understand.  I'll go to another place then.  Do you know where the nearest one is?  I only have about 45 minutes.
    Her: Yes, I could show you.  But you could also mail it here.
    Me: But, I thought I couldn't do EMS here.
    Her: That is correct, you cannot do EMS to the United States. 
    Me: [.....]
    Her: But, you could do registered mail.  It has a tracking number and receipt notification.  
    Me: Oh, ok.  But that is not EMS?
    Her: No, for EMS Japan Post would guarantee delivery within three days.  But we cannot do that right now because of Corona Virus.  However, you could use registered mail if it is OK for it to take 7-10 days and you concern is the tracking number and not the speed.  So, please let me know. 
    Me: OK, registered mail it is, then.  [2 minutes, and $6.50 later, letter is off]

Then, feeling proud of myself for having navigated the unsaid and still managing to mail a letter, I stopped off at the Starbucks on the first floor of the building on my way out for a bit of a treat.  And another conversation one would never have in America took place:

    Me: I would like a tall iced latte and one of the strawberry frozen drinks. (I used ichigo the traditional Japanese word for strawberry)
    Her: Do you mean this peach one? (her using pee-chee the English version of peach)
    Me: No, not peach.  The strawberry one please.  (using sutorobehri, the English version)
    Her: Oh, I am so sorry, but strawberry season has passed already.  
    Me: Oh really? I didn't realize the strawberry season in Japan was so short.
    Her: Yes, it really is hard to find strawberries in Japan right now, even though it still is hot. 
    Me: OK, thank you, well, the peach one please. 
[I pay, etc etc]
    Me: Oh, what is this "autumn blend" coffee? (reading the English version on the menu, automu)
    Her: That is for the fall season.  It is a special blend with beans roasted with (she says some things I can't understand....)
    Me: Oh, that's interesting.  I guess it is getting to be fall. 
    Her: Yes, in two weeks it will be the fall equinox.  So, it is a good time to drink this coffee.  Would you like to try it?
    Me: Oh, no thank you. I have already paid and the order was made.  Next time is ok.
    Her: But she hasn't started making your coffee yet.  I am very sorry the strawberry season is over.  But now that is is fall, why don't I just let you try this new fall flavor.  maybe you will like it. 
    Me: Oh really, could you change it?
    Her: Yes, please allow me to.  And please enjoy the autumn season. 

So much cultural context wrapped up in a 30 minute excursion across the street!  Though, I must say, my coffee palette is not refined enough.  Or maybe the autumn blend is better with a spot of coffee instead of as a latte.  I didn't really taste much of a difference :)