Tuesday, October 16, 2007

the earth's sighs

I know the bad-English-in-Asia thing has been done to death, but I find it FUNNY, damn it.

I took the following two examples from my China trip in August. Apologies for the crap photo quality.

Here's the room service menu from the Fengtai International Hotel in Fengtai City, Anhui Province, China (you'll probably need to click on the photo to make it large enough to read):

And here's a sign in the bathroom of my room at the same hotel:

And, no, I would NOT make the same mistakes if I wrote in Chinese, thank you very much.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

rice, people. rice.

The agricultural journalists' congress (the reason I was in Japan) was fun. Very few seminars, workshops etc – mostly visits to agricultural sites, organizations, farms etc. After 2 days in Tokyo, we headed northeast to Sendai City. From there we went on a 2 day agricultural tour the surrounding Southern Tohoku region.

I met some great people, but was also surprised at the narrow attitude of some of the participants. Most people were from Western Europe* and North America; for many, it was their first time to Japan (or, for that matter, Asia). I didn’t expect people to understand every nuance of Japanese culture (god knows I don’t, and I lived there for a year), but I thought at the very least they’d expect things to be a bit different to home. But on several occasions, I overheard conversations that implied that people were getting pissed off because things weren’t working as they expected (schedule changes, for example). We’re in a VERY different country, relying on translators, and there were a few hiccups. Who would’ve thought? And others whinged about the food, sneaking off to Starbucks and McDonalds when they had the chance.

Again – I don’t expect everyone to love all Japanese foods, and wanting some home comfort food is fair enough. But the attitude I sensed among some (and this was a small minority; most people had a ball) was not “Japanese food is very different, I’d like some more familiar food.” It was “Japanese food is shit, rice at every meal sucks, I want some REAL food.” Disappointing, people, disappointing. Thanks to MC, an ag journo from back home in Oz, with whom I discussed such things over late-ish night izakaya beers.

It was interesting too, seeing people start to understand the place of rice in the Japanese national psyche. Without viewing rice through a social/cultural/historical lens, it’s almost impossible to understand Japanese rice policies – e.g., paying farmers to keep 30% of their land out of rice cultivation but not really encouraging them to grow other crops on that 30%; 7-800% tariffs on imported rice (which is only imported because of obligation due to a trade agreement). But rice really is so ingrained (pun intended! HA! In-GRAINed! Geddit!?!) in the traditions and culture of Japan – and most other Asian countries – that if you simply view it in economic terms as an agricultural commodity, you can’t understand it. By the end of the week, people were starting to get it though. That’s not to say that they agreed with the policies, or that things can’t change. But in Japan, the “culture” component of agriculture should really be underlined, bolded and italicised - especially compared to, for example, Oz, which only has a couple of hundred (as opposed to thousands) of years of agriculture.

And, as always -- because I care -- here are some photos...

*There were a few Eastern Europeans too, and my hat goes off to the fattish, balding, moustachioed Ukrainian bloke who wore a skin-tight, shiny muscle shirt over his considerable torso. Fair play, fella:

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


One of the things I love about Japan is the inherent honesty of the Japanese. I know one should be wary of painting an entire people as exhibiting one or the other characteristic. But I’ve never

been anyplace else where, if you forget something – a phone, a camera, a wallet – you’re almost guaranteed to get it back.

In Kochi, D, who I met through TR, told me how she and group of friends went to the Fuji rock festival. Two of her friends lost mobile phones during the event. Tens of thousands people, music, mud, booze…DANCING!...etc. By the end of the festival, both of them had their phones back. One was taken to lost property; the other was returned after the finder called a couple of numbers in the phone and found the owner’s friends. I once left my address book on a public phone in Kochi City train station. I had no mobile phone; all my friends’ details were in there. A week later, I was passing through the station again, checked lost property and, sure enough, it was there.

So I was talking to E, one of the Australian participants at the congress, telling her about how honest Japan was. Half an hour later, being the thorough, scientific type I am, I decided to test the theory. I found a public phone in a street near my hotel (demonstrating my razor intelligence by walking past the three public phones in the lobby) and made a couple of calls. I sat the little conference bag we’d got at dinner on the phone-box shelf and put my camera* in it, saying to myself “don’t forget that, you big KRAZY idiot ha ha ha!”

So I forgot it.

Left the phonebox, went to a shop to buy a drink, wandered back to my hotel room. As soon as I entered the room, I realised what I’d done. Rushed back to the phone box. Bag + camera gone, young woman on phone. Entered SEVERE self-flagellation mode. Hung around phone waiting for woman to finish so I could ask her if she’d seen anything. Woman took AGES – surmised she’d seen a big dodgy foreigner hanging around outside the box and was too scared to leave. Entered restaurant next to phonebox, asked if anyone had brought the bag in there. No. Went and checked shop where I bought drink. No. Went back to phone, woman still in phonebox. Probably calling police by now.

Next, a guy who was in the restaurant emerged and, speaking decent English, told me there was a police station a couple of minutes down the road; I could go and report the loss to them. At that moment, three policemen were cycling up the footpath (I get the feeling they don’t have all that much to keep them busy in Japan). Restaurant guy explained what happened and the police led me back to the station. Still self-flagellating, I filled out a form, giving my contact details and a description of what I’d left. I finished this, handed the form to one of the cops. He thanked me, walked into the back of the station and returned with the bag, camera still in it. Somebody had already found it and taken it to the police. Very happy.

Footnote: the next night, I forgot the fucking camera again. This time I left it at the conference venue, so was confident from the outset I’d get it back (which I did), but I managed to waste a taxi ride and be late meeting MW, with whom I self-deprecated over beer and sake in a very nice little izakaya, randomly chosen as we walked along the street:

*camera = camera I bought 4 weeks earlier in Hong Kong airport on way back to the Phils from China. I paid about US$480; the same camera in Japan cost $300. Clearly, I had a subconscious desire to lose the camera and re-buy it at the cheaper price, thus saving myself $180. It’s a fucking wonder I’m not rich.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, October 01, 2007

life's a peach

This is the peach I paid almost US$5 for in Japan (480 yen, to be exact), when I was there a couple of weeks ago. I went for work – the annual congress of an international agricultural journalists organization.

I’m not an agricultural journalist. Some of what I do borders on agricultural journalism. But the main reason I got a guernsey was that the people who would’ve ordinarily gone were unavailable. It’s the first time the congress was held in Asia, and the organisers wanted my employer to sponsor the event by way of sending a delegate to chair a seminar session on rice. Their first choice was the chair of work’s board of trustees, an internationally renowned agricultural economist, from Japan. He couldn’t go, so they asked my boss. He couldn’t go, so he suggested me. It’s a bit like trying to organize a tennis exhibition from, say, Pat Rafter, and getting a guy who had a 50% record in his high-school team instead. But the participants didn’t know that…

Anyway. It was a good excuse to, on the weekend preceding the conference, pop down to my old stomping ground, Kochi Prefecture, and catch up with the indomitable TR, still there since we first arrived in July 2000.

I feel incredibly at home in Kochi, almost to the same extent as I feel at home in Oz. TR maintains a direct connection to the glory days of 00/01; I guess if he headed home to Eng-er-land, Kochi wouldn’t feel quite the same. My 13 months in Japan marked me for life, though. I have a tremendous affection for the country. As a foreigner, I probably escape, to some extent, the more trying aspects of culture (the pressure to work excessively springs immediately to mind). But I associate Japan in general and Kochi in particular with perhaps the most delightfully surprising, eye-opening and fun year of my adult life.

Why did I stay for only 1 year? Career anxiety. I was 28, had no career, knew that teaching English in Japan wouldn’t be my career, and my feet itched to get home and get something going. Which I did, but I know now that another year wouldn’t have made a jot of difference. It might have changed the precise direction I took, but not the progress.

Anyway. The peach. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t dream of paying $5 for a peach. But Japanese peaches tend to be good and I don’t get stone fruit in the Philippines. I wandered back and forth between a couple of fruit shops before I bought it, formulating the justification. Then I bought it, snuck off to a public bench and devoured it in all its succulent gorgeousness. It occurred to me it was one of those instances that speaks of understanding the price but not the value of things. It was a substantial peach, it was fucking delicious, and it was a hell of a lot healthier than any number of $5 snacks I could have bought without having to justify the price. But, in Oz, peaches just don’t cost 5 bucks, so I had to talk myself into it.

This is the stage where TR’s band headlined a local music festival, Local Motion, on the Sunday I was in Kochi. TR, his bandmates and a few others organised the whole thing to showcase and promote Kochi music. The typhoon that hit Taiwan and Shanghai last month threatened to dump enough rain to kill the event. The BMX and skateboard stuff was cancelled, but, almost miraculously, the rain held off for the music. Despite the weather keeping the numbers down, the atmosphere was sweet and the music worked really well. Brilliant weekend.

(A tragic footnote – the next day, around the time I was boarding the plane to head back to Tokyo, R, an American guy I’d met a few times when I lived in Kochi, who was still living there, headed out into the typhoon swell to surf the local river-mouth break, not far from the festival venue. He wasn’t so experienced, got into trouble and never made it back. A group of schoolkids who saw the commotion on the beach came out to look; one of them fell into the river, was washed out and drowned also.)

Labels: , , ,