Sunday, July 3, 2011

Supermarkets 2: Produce 「スーパーマーケット2:農産物」

When I made my first trip to the supermarket after coming back from Japan, I was immediately thrown off by the produce section.  There was counter after counter of fruits and vegetables, and by the counters was a set of plastic bags and a few scales.
That's right, I thought. How could I have forgotten?  Produce here is sold by weight.

It's the kind of thing that you may all take for granted, but it is something that had I had not thought of in ages..  In Japan, bananas and oranges and heads of lettuce are, for the most part, sold in units.  One bunch of bananas (pre-bagged) might be 388 yen, or a bag of five clementines may be 298 yen.  Cucumbers may be 98 yen each. Prices vary widely by season (in the off season, greenhouse-clementines, for example, climb to nearly 600 yen).  No weighing, no calculating.
Simpler, yes, but it certainly makes people pickier about which fruit they choose.  Do I take this bunch of three large bananas, or this other bunch of four small bananas?  Do these five apples amount to the same size as those five apples?  There was many a day in which I bought a bag of five clementines, only to find that one of the mix was in less than ideal condition.
I prefer the American system: choose the volume and weight that's right for you, and pick everything individually.  Perhaps I only want one apple today.  Maybe I want one each of several varieties of apple.  Perhaps today I only care to take home a small bunch of grapes.  If this leek is a few grams lighter than that one, then I want to pay a little less for it.  Sure, limiting those options means that you don't see many people hanging around the produce sections in Japan thumping melons, but if I'm going to be eating it, then I want to be able to choose the produce that's right for me.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Supermarkets 1: Access 「スーパーマーケット1:アクセス」

After a few days in the United States, it came time to go stock up on groceries.  As I had only just arrived, I was still living with my parents, and so we bundled into the car and went off to the supermarket.  I had forgotten just how far we had to drive to get food!

In Japan, supermarkets were very convenient.  In the last apartment that I rented in Japan, I could walk to two different supermarkets in less than five minutes!  I also had two 24-hour convenience stores and over ten restaurants that were equally close.

And no, I did not live in the city center.  Easy access to food was not limited to my suburb, either.  For my first five years in Japan, I lived in what Japanese people call 田舎 (inaka, literally "countryside," but used in conversation to mean "the middle of nowhere").  Even there, I lived a five-minute walk away from one supermarket and a twenty-minute walk away from another.

With food being so convenient, people usually don't buy a carload of groceries at a time.  Instead, they usually only buy a few days' worth, a small enough amount that the food can be carried home easily.  The mentality behind bagging groceries is, therefore, very different between the United States and Japan—but more on that another time.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Thirty 「三十歳」

Today is my thirtieth birthday.  A big milestone, of course.  In Japan, people would now be whispering, saying that something must be wrong with me for being thirty and single.  Here in the United States, people tell me that thirty is the new twenty.

This time, at least, I hope that the American opinion is correct.

Most of what has been going through my mind on this day is, perhaps fortunately for all of you readers, not within the scope of this blog.  I do, however, have something to say about turning thirty relative to my life in Videoland.

I spent the majority of my twenties in Japan.  Now I face my thirties in what is still, in some ways, a foreign country to me.  On to the next decade!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Health Insurance 「健康保険」

Coming back to Massachusetts in the middle of April, I had a heck of a time getting Health Insurance.

I'm sure that just about anyone can agree that medical costs in the US are insane.  At some point, all of the various interests involved hammered out some sort of agreement in Massachusetts that requires everyone to have health insurance--and limits enrollment opportunities to certain periods of the year.  The closest enrollment period to my arrival, it seems, begins on July 1st.  There is, of course, public health insurance available for people, but my eligibility for that insurance is open to question (my application is currently pending).  Now, to all of you reading this who think "Of course you can get insurance; I know plenty of people who have done so," and to all of you who have already said that to me, I say: try it yourselves.  Go live in Japan for a few years with a respectable salary, leave your job voluntarily and move back to Massachusetts, then call up and ask for health insurance.  Go ahead; see what they say to you.  Then you can talk to me.

Yes, I'm a bit sharper than usual on this point, but it got a bit irritating to have people say "oh, it's such a so simple, just do such-and-such," right after I did exactly that such-and-such and had the representative say "You're not eligible."  So, in the end, I went down to the Community Health Center and met with a very helpful person who helped me to fill out an application.  I then had to wait a week to hear whether my application was accepted.

Soon after, an envelope arrived telling me that I was eligible and could now choose a plan.  The letter encouraged me to enroll online, but when the website soon proved to be more opaque and confusing than Myst, I decided to make a phone call.  After hearing all of the different options of plans and learning that only one of those options was recognized by my choice of hospital, I made my selection and then waited for my enrollment card to arrive.  I soon found myself in possession of a number of different cards and a large book detailing my plan, along with one more piece of surprising information.  My coverage wouldn't begin until the first of June.  That's right: I set about getting health insurance as soon as I set foot on native soil, but the soonest I can be covered is a month and a half after my arrival at home.

So, why this someone uncharacteristic rant on a culture shock blog?  Because health insurance is so much easier in Japan.  When I had a month in which I wasn't working, I simply went to the town hall and asked for one month of private health insurance.  I paid the fee (about $150 dollars) and was insured.  Fully insured, by the way--no talk about various plans with varying benefits.
Which was good, because that was the month that my appendix burst.

Of course, even without health insurance, medical care in Japan is quite affordable.  Case in point: I went to the dentist and had my teeth cleaned, got an x-ray taken, and had a flouride treatment.  The hygenist apologized profusely when handing me the bill, saying that I would probably be shocked because the treatment cost so much.  I looked at the bill and laughed.  Thirty dollars.

Oh, and that's not just dental work.  My burst appendix (which, by the way, is quite a story in and of itself—perhaps I'll tell it sometime)?  What would my medical bill have been for invasive surgery, lots of medicine, and 15 days in the hospital, had I not had any insurance whatsoever?


Needless to say, with my insurance, it was much, much less.

Say what you will about nationalized health insurance.  I've had it, I liked it, and, for the record, I never had trouble getting treatment or seeing the doctor I want to see.  Granted, the workings of Japan's health program extend far beyond simple national health insurance.  But it's a system that I liked quite a bit.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Measurements 「標準単位」

Ask me how long a foot is, and I'd have to look at my shoe before I gave you an answer.  I have no idea how heavy a pound is, and when people tell me that they live two miles away, I can't estimate how long it would take me to walk there.
For my first few years in Japan, I had the opposite problem.  I simply could not visualize one meter.

The imperial system of measurement is so ingrained in the United States that I doubt that the metric system will ever be successfully adopted.  After using both, however, I must say that the metric system is much easier for me to use.  I can understand why the scientific community is so fond of it: it is logical and concise.  No 12-inch feet or 16-ounce pounds, just good old base ten.  Imagining how different types of units relate to one another is easy, too.  What is one kilogram?  It's the mass of one liter of water, that's what.  I've gotten so used to giving lengths in meters and weights in kilograms that pounds and feet have completely dropped off of my radar.  I can't even give my own weight or height without calculating them from the metric system (thus the parenthetical in my last post).

Even Centrigrade has become second nature to me.  Tell me that it's 26°C outside, and I'll break out my T-shirt.  Centigrade, also known as Celsius, took me a while to get the hang of, however.  For a long time, I was doing the old C = (F-32) * 5/9 equation in my head after seeing the weather report each morning.  Good mental exercise, by the way.
Fahrenheit, however, has been easier to reaccustom to than some of the other Imperial measurements.  Perhaps it's simply because I pay so much attention to the weather.

Japan hasn't entirely gone over to the metric system, however: the floorspace in rooms is measured in using Japan's own system, 畳 (tatami, pronounced jou when used as a counting suffix).  Almost every home in Japan has at least one room that is floored with bamboo mats: tatami.  (The bamboo floors are, incidentally, a significant factor in Japanese people's distaste for wearing outdoor shoes in the house—even wearing indoor slippers on the bamboo mats is extremely rude.)  The size of tatami vary slightly by region, but they are generally slightly less than 1m x 2m, or just about 3'x6'.  When I was shopping for apartments in Japan, the realtors all gave me room sizes in tatami: (the standard size of a room is 6畳, six tatami mats).  And, yes, that measurement is used for rooms whether they are floored with bamboo or not.  After having lived in Japan for several years, however, I became able to visualize a 6畳 room without any problem, and so shopping for apartments in Japan was a breeze.  Even square meters became easy for me to understand.  Tell me that a room in a house has 35 square feet, however, and I'll have absolutely no idea what you're talking about.

The only measurement that remains easier for me in the imperial system than in the metric system is speed.  MPH still comes to mind much more readily than km/h.  Perhaps it's a side-effect of driving in the U.S., but not in Japan.
Oh, yes, driving.  Now THERE'S culture shock for you... but perhaps I'll save that for another time.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Girth 「メタボ」

I've often heard that about fifty percent of Americans are overweight.  Perhaps you think, "Oh, it really doesn't seem that bad."

You want a shock?  Go live in Japan for a few years, then come back to the United States.

People in Japan are fit.  And I don't just mean moderately well-shaped.  I mean FIT.  That's not to say that there are no overweight people in Japan—I did see quite a few heavy people—but concave abdomens were much more the exception than the rule.

And I don't mean that people were unhealthily skinny, either.

I was a high school teacher, and almost all of the boys had pecs and six-pack abs.  Don't get me wrong, it's not like I went around looking at my students, but when kids change for gym in the classrooms and have swimming classes and sports days and school festivals and what not, and when you're assistant coach of a track and field club, you see the occasional bare chest.  And they were in shape.  Even the kids in the art club and the computer club had muscles that most American high schoolers would kill for.

Now, why are they in such great shape?  The sports clubs certainly have something to do with it: clubs in Japan are serious business.  But that doesn't explain the computer club kids.  Well, as far as I can tell, it's simply diet and exercise.  Food is generally healthy and portions are small.  92% of kids at one of my high schools came to school by bike, and I'm sure that other schools post similar numbers.  Gym class in Japan is serious business.

Oh, and just in case you're wondering, it's not just something that can be passed off as Japanese genetics, either.  Take me as the example, if you will.  I graduated from college struggling to keep my weight from rising above 169 pounds (76kg).  After seven years in Japan, I weigh 142 pounds (64kg) with eleven percent body fat, and can run a 5k road race in under 20 minutes.  Now, of course, I have to try to keep it that way.  I'm not optimistic.

So, you want a good dieting tip? Live in Japan.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Restaurants 3: Tips 「レストラン3:チップ」

When I went to that sit-down restaurant with my father the other day, I looked at the bill and was suddenly faced with something I had forgotten about: tips.

Restaurants in Japan do not use tips.  Neither does any part of the service industry, for that matter.  You won't find anybody tipping bellhops or hairdressers or chartered bus drivers in Japan.

Wait; perhaps I'm being hasty: I once saw someone tell a taxi driver to keep the change.

In general, however, good service in Japan is expected.  Tipping your server is actually perceived as an insult, something that I was unfortunate to discover on my first trip to a restaurant in Japan.  You see, tipping the waiter for good service in Japan implies that you were surprised with the quality of the service—that is to say, you weren't expecting to be treated well when you walked in the door.  It also cheapens the service by suggesting that the waitperson only worked so hard because he or she was hoping for a good tip.  Think about it: have you ever been treated exceptionally well by a waitperson or a taxi driver, and thought, "Wow, that person must really want a good tip."?  I'm willing to bet that you have.

Well, consider this: The best waitservice that I've encountered in the United States pales in comparison to some of the service that I saw in Japan.  There, good service is a matter of course.

Does that mean that I think that tips should be abolished in the States?  Not necessarily.  I've worked in the service industry before (as a theatre usher), and I know how demanding—and rude—some customers can be.

"I'm sorry, sir, but drinks are not allowed inside the theatre" seem to be fighting words for some people.  It's amazing the lengths some people will go to in an effort to take their diet cola inside a theatre, only to spill it on the hundred-year-old seats and have it run off the mezzanine onto the head of some poor customer below.  And, yes, that really happened.

What does that have to do with tips?  Well, I didn't get tips for that job, and I didn't need them, because I was paid well by the theatre.  Restaurant waitstaff is not.  Many employers count tips as part of the wage in the service industry, and reduce their own contributions accordingly.  When I compare the wages that I saw advertised in Japan to what people get in most of the United States, I understand why people in Japan don't need tips.  Which brings to mind another question: do you think that perhaps waitpersons in Japan are so courteous because they're paid decently?