“When in Rome…” Needs to Die

Few things are as ubiquitous to the travel experience as the phrase, “when in Rome, do as the Romans.” It’s not bad advice. Experiencing how people on the other side of the world do things — whether that’s communal bathing or getting together to tell bad jokes to foreigners — is the whole point. Why bother going to China, if you’re just going to hang out at McDonald’s instead of expanding your waistline with the wholly sexual treasure that is the soup dumpling.

If you’re about to hit the road, do so with an empty, open mind. Strip off the tighty whities and relax in the onsens of Yamanakako, with strangers’ dangly bits presented in panorama; stuff yourself with one more stick of the starchy debauchery that is La Banquise in Montréal; black out for a spell with some new friends in Osaka and almost miss your train. Take whatever you can from the local way of doing things. Please, though. Please don’t feel guilty when you need a taste of home. Continue reading →


Learning Japanese Business Culture the Hard Way

On its surface, Japanese business culture is easy to understand. You do the work assigned to you, and then you try to help out your team. Whatever you do must be directed toward the good of the ecosystem, the greater organism that you’re a part of.

Up until recently, the consequences of living and working within such a system were only positive. When I was sick, my bosses took me to the hospital — where I embarrassed myself by placing a thermometer in my mouth, instead of in my armpit, as is the local way of doing things. They filled my refrigerator with electrolyte drinks, rice gruel, and easy to prepare noodle dishes.

Likewise, when coworkers were sick or buried in work, I offered vitamin-rich snacks and offered to help shoulder some of the load. The result? This is the only job I’ve ever had that makes me feel like I’m not just part of some corporate entity. To offer a tired cliché, we feel like a cohesive family unit. A recent blunder, though, is showing me the –well, darker side is a bit melodramatic — less desirable side of working within a more symbiotic, less individual body.  Continue reading →

Travel and My Multiple Personalities

Vapid: there’s no other word that better describes the way I talk. It’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time. I’m a big believer that you shouldn’t say anything unless it means something. Still, I have a hard time making sure that when I speak, each word is worth breaking the silence. It seeps into my writing, too — if you read my really early blog work, I somehow managed to be even more long-winded.

That all changes when I speak Japanese. I’ve reached a point where I can hold good, meaningful conversations. Gone are the days when talks with friends and co-workers start with “How are you?” and end with “I’m fine.” I can communicate, but I am so far removed from any level of fluency that vapidity — my default mode of English — simply isn’t possible. I’m forced to really think about what I’m about to say if I don’t want to sound like a baby who mistook dad’s bottle of Glenfiddich for mother’s milk.

Continue reading →

You Mean, the Snow is Just Going to Stay There?

I have a long history with snow. Growing up in Western New York, it was something of a tradition to expect to mourn summer and fall in one go, as winter would often grab hold at the beginning of October. More often than not, the icicle shaped tendrils of the coldest season wouldn’t let go until March.

When I went to college, I moved into an area where the snowfall was even worse. The State University of New York at Fredonia was only a few short miles away from Lake Erie. When lake effect season rolled around, you could bet on weather cancellations or outright campus closures reliably each year. All this to belabor the point that I know winter well; I know snow, and I know how to deal with it. Hell, most of the time I love it.

Sabae's snow fall makes it feel like home.

Sabae’s snowfall makes it feel like home.

When I got word that I was assigned to Sabae in Japan’s Fukui prefecture for my 18-month tenure as an English teacher, my employer tried to stress that this wasn’t like most of the country. Winter in the Hokuriku region, an area west of Tokyo that encompasses Fukui, Ishikawa, Niigata, and Toyama prefectures, isn’t the sort that simply brings cold temperatures and a token snowfall. What I’ve learned very recently, in fact, is that this region receives the highest volume of snowfall of any inhabited and arable part of the world. That is, it’s a lot like home. Continue reading →