Gaijin Smash... In a Good Way.

Today is one of those days where I plaster a smile on my face but wish I could just be invisible and disappear. I wasn't ready for today.

I'm that foreigner who's dressed all wrong, but really can't put the blame on being a foreigner, I guess, I'm just out of the loop... I guess because I didn't ask; I didn't ask to be put into the loop, I didn't know the right questions to ask. But oh well. Gaijin smash. Think wrong things about me, OK, can't do anything about that...

But this morning's bus right to work was more interesting than usual. I hopped onto the bus, was thankful to grab an empty seat (because my legs are still pretty sore). By the time we reached that next stop, though, a (very) old man got onto the bus. I stood up to give him my seat because 1.) he's old and 2.) everyone single other person seated around me was hella old, too. No big deal.

So he sat down, and next thing you know, he and all the old people seated around him start clucking and twittering about how "mezurashii" (unique) I was for getting up for an elderly person. He insisted on carrying my backpack for me on his lap for the rest of the ride. They really just made the biggest deal out of me standing up for him. They asked me what stop I'd be getting off, asked if I'm a student, and so on... I explained that I am an American and an English teacher. "Wakaranakatta," one of the old ladies said. She didn't know I was a foreigner. That was oddly nice to hear, actually. I also hoped that it helped explain to her why I couldn't understand everything they were saying as they were clicking and clacking about me, though I doubt it did. They were crazy old.

And then I arrived at school and saw the same lady I see every day walking her dog. She said that she saw me eating ramen "near the station" the other day with a guy (Brian). Pretty crazy that this lady I don't really know recognizes me off the street like that. I greeted her dog and went the rest of the way to school.

Sigh, all these new people to meet today; my anxiety is abuzz with all the people who I want to make a good impression on.

I think my survival tactic will be to not care at all and just let them think whatever they want. And then hide at my desk and nestle myself in my little comfort nest.


Hai, Daijoubu Desu

"Daijoubu?" Are you OK? a young, smartly woman asked me as I stepped out of a taxi in Tokyo. She must have seen that no more than 30 seconds earlier, I was just climbing into the same taxi and was now resentfully climbing back out.

"Hai, daijoubu desu." Yes, I'm OK, I replied. Though my backpack, American "style" of clothes (ahem, shorts, flip flops, a T-shirt, and a hoodie), and perhaps my face (depending on who you ask) may have given away my non-Japanese identity, I still tried to be as convincingly non-foreigner as possible. Given the Japanese practice of stoicism in the face of hardship, though, I was failing in my I'm-Japanese-enough fakery.

I started to cry.

She and her three guy friends took pity on me immediately. They surrounded me, asked me where I was trying to go, lamented at not being able to speak English (how did they know I speak English?), and immediately climbed into the taxi I was just in to confront the driver.

Moments earlier, I was tiredly asking that taxi driver to take me to a nearby capsule hotel (very, very nearby) and was showing him the address of where I needed to go. He took one look at me and claimed to not know of the hotel--quite forcefully, in fact. I kept pointing at the address on my reservation paper (written in Japanese), and spoke to him only in Japanese so as not to worry him about taking on a non-Japanese speaking foreigner. I eyed his GPS, but was too meek to demand that he use it to plug in the address and drive me the one kilometer that it took to get to this place. At last, he said something that I didn't catch. "Sumimasen... mou ichido itte kudasai..?" Sorry, can you say that again one more time? I asked. He looked at me, seemed to think something over to himself, repeated that he didn't know where this hostel was, and denied very firmly for the last time to take me there. He gestured for me to get out of the taxi. That's when the kind young woman and her friends found me.


"See All of Sydney in One Weekend" Mission: Impossible

Day 1: Arrive Sydney International Airport at 6:30 A.M. Get picked up by my dad's high school best friend, my godfather, and his wife. They've lived in Sydney for over 20 years now.

We wind our way toward downtown; we stop at a hillside park to take a picture with the iconic Sydney Opera Theater from across the bay. Meanwhile, a flock of tagged cockatoos feast out on the grass.


From Shanghai to Beijing and Around and Between

Day 1-2: Shanghai

Day 3: Hangzhou

Day 4, 5, 6: Beijing and the Great Wall

Day 7, 8: Suzhou 

Day 9: Shanghai


Charm Story Challenge: The Letter

Now, after years of scraping by in high school in a drug-induced haze, getting yelled at and nagged by his mom who was already tired enough from her two part-time jobs and watching over his three younger brothers, nearly getting kicked out of college and getting thrown into jail twice for being drunk in public; after a pregnant scare with his high school sweetheart whom he's since stopped hearing from, three years of instant ramen noodles and coffee for dinner, 206 rejection letters, and only one drunken fight involving only one broken bottle with his childhood best friend, he didn't feel that he'd deserved this. He reread the opening sentence of the coffee-stained, crumpled letter in his hands a third time. "It would be our honor at The New Yorker to publish your submission entitled, '12 O'Clock Shadow' in our next..."

Charm Story Challenge posts are original works of fiction 3 sentences, 2 sentences, or 140 characters long. Got a submission? Share it with A Traveler's Charm! Tweet me @April_Isabel.

Charm Story Challenge: Red Telephone

Shaking, she picked up the shrieking red phone, her hands sweaty, expecting the worst. "Hello?" she managed between sobs; next to the telephone sat a framed photo of her with him at the beach cabin last summer, when they went to celebrate his last round of chemo. After a pause, the voice on the other end spoke: "We're sorry, we did all we could."

Charm Story Challenge posts are original works of fiction 3 sentences, 2 sentences, or 140 characters long. Got a submission? Share it with A Traveler's Charm! Tweet me @April_Isabel.

Charm Story Challenge: 21 Years Old

He loved the way she swayed when she walked, how she looked standing over the stove in the kitchen when he came home from work, the way she chewed thoughtfully on her hair when he told her about his stressful day at work, and the way her reddish hair framed her her wide, brown eyes. He'd loved her in the old-fashioned way: falling in love young--he, only 7, she, even younger--and remaining by her side two decades later, through her pain and suffering and eventual death at 21. Now, he stood over her shoe box coffin next to her tombstone that read: Rest in Peace Fluffy.

Charm Story Challenge posts are original works of fiction 3 sentences, 2 sentences, or 140 characters long. Got a submission? Share it with A Traveler's Charm! Tweet me @April_Isabel.


A Peak Down Under: Western Australia

Day 1: Get settled in in Perth, Australia. Am met right away by an awesome new friend, Paddy. Paddy picks me up from the Perth International Airport. It's freaking hot out--it's February and summer is just winding down.

Drop off my things at a somewhat grungy hostel. I seem to be the only tourist; everyone else seem to be internationals on work holiday and on long-term stay at the hostel. The guy who met me at reception is a comically helpful, sweet, tiny bit creepy, pale, middle-aged, skinny, medium-height man with an Eastern European accent. He reminds of me of a well-meaning assistant of a villainous scientist in a dank laboratory.

Have dinner in Freemantle with Paddy, Caitlyn (his girlfriend, and a friend of a friend who has also lived in Iwaki!), and their friends (who have all also been to Iwaki...! The world just keeps getting smaller and smaller...).

(See more photos after the jump)


Rottnest Island... Well, The Hope of Getting There, Anyway.

The beautiful streets of Perth, Western Australia.
I would like to just take a moment and recount the time that I was met by the trifecta of bad luck on my first morning traveling solo in Australia.

It was an early February morning, hot and sticky, as it was just nearing the end of summer. I woke on the top bunk (because I got last dibs on beds) of my dorm room in a hostel, a solid three hours before it was time to catch previously purchased ferry ride to a nearby island called Rottnest, off the coast of Western Australia.

I woke up early because I'm an early riser and I love morning adventures more than late nights and because I was ready to see some quokkas on Rottnest. I fiddled with my phone for a bit, got dressed, chatted with my roommate, had leftover french fries for breakfast, and, at 7:15, set off for the port where I needed to be by 8:30. It was supposed to be a 25 minute walk.

Supposed to be.

I stepped out the front gate of the backpackers hostel and turned right (...or was it left? whether I turned left or right would end up being very important later), paper map in hand. I walked and I walked and I walked. I searched for a familiar street name matching the street names on my previously uploaded city-wide Google map. Street signs were few and far between; whenever I did find a street name, said street name was then nowhere to be found on my freebie tourist map. I combed the fold-able map for a street corner or store that matched the ones around me. None. I 180'ed and walked some more. And then 180'ed and did it again. And then turned a corner. And maybe another corner. But mostly, I did the only thing that seemed right to do at the time: I walked and walked and walked.

After what felt like 6 hours (but was probably 6 minutes), I passed a snappy looking business man on the street. I approached him to ask for directions... but too late--he stepped onto a bus before I could reach him.

So I walked and walked and walked. Finally, I spotted a young guy wearing headphones, sunglasses, and a backpack walking towards me up ahead. I smiled, waved to get his attention, and gestured at my map. He took off his headphones.


A Shoestring Traveler's Basic Arithmetic

When you're young and free (read: broke and on the road), this kind of math makes perfect sense to you:

-Spend $2 and 6 hours on a train (instead of $20 and two hour on a bus)
-Spend $30 and 4 hours on a local train (instead of $60 and 2.5 hours on a high speed train)
-Spend $400 on a 15-hour each way trip Tokyo <-> Kuala Lumpur <-> Perth, Australia (instead of twice the price for half the travel time)
-Spend ___ on a 12-hour each way overnight train Beijing <-> Shanghai (instead of ___ on a ____ highspeed train)
-Spend $600 on flights for a trip intended for Tokyo -> Bali -> Kota Kinabalu -> Tokyo (even though with transfers, it includes Tokyo -> Osaka -> Taipei -> Singapore -> Bali -> Jakarta -> Kuala Lumpur -> Kota Kinabalu -> Kuala Lumpur -> Tokyo, and 48 hours of that 1-week vacation is spent in an airplane, on a bus, or at an airport)
-Spend $100 on a 10-hour overnight bus to Kyoto instead of ___ on a highspeed and bullet train to Kyoto
-Spend 6 hours and $0 overnight at an airport (many, many times) to save on a hotel and catch that god-awful early bird flight
-Spend 5 hours researching blogs, travel sites, and tour agencies to save $200 on a trip up and down Mt. Kinabalu
-Spend ____ on public transportation and shared rides to see the Great Wall of China on your own instead of ___ with an organized tour 
-Spend $27 on a night sleeping like a vampire in its coffin in a capsule hotel instead of $50+ at a hotel
-Spend $2 on a meal on street food in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Singapore, or Korea instead of ___ at a restaurant.
-Spend $7-20 per night in a crowded, noisy, less-than-clean, hostel instead of $30+ in a hotel.

14 Shok-King-Gu Things About Japan

Brian and I in our hostel room in Yokohama, Japan. The room was listed as "for two", but the two twin sized futon (behind us) did not fit side-by-side when laid out.
Last week, I attended an 宴会 (an enkai, or fine dining and unlimited drinks party) with my coworkers.
Co-worker: April-sensei, when you came to Japan, what was the ichibanshokinggu thing for you?
Me: Uh... sorry, what's ichibanshokkinggu?
He looked troubled for a moment as he looked around for another co-worker to help translate for me. When he couldn't find anyone, he pointed to the menu on the wall, then his chopsticks, then soy sauce, then the raw chicken sashimi on our tiny fancy dinner plates.
Me: Oh! Ichiban "shocking"?
Co-worker: Yes, yes! Most shok-king-gu about Japan.Me: Uh... everything.
I really didn't have the heart to tell him all the shok-king-gu things about Japan that have been on my mind lately. If I did, he'd be getting a healthy dose of Culture Shocked, Debby Downer-framed Japanese culture observations... in the form of the following (let's call this list Why, Japan, Why??):

Why, Japan, Why??: 14 Gripes of a Foreigner in Japan
1. Rules posted f*cking everywhere. I counted 35 different rules posted at various train stations on a trip to Tokyo. Alongside the usual caution (or rather, common sense) notices for your own safety were warnings against putting on makeup in public, chatting annoyingly to your friends, public displays of affection with your S.O., music playing too loudly on your headphones, how to hold your backpack correctly while standing on the train, and on and on. So many rules..! 
Why, Japan, why?! 
The Upside: If you want peace and quiet nearly everywhere you go, you've got it.


Being Bored in Berkeley is More Fun than Being Bored Anywhere Else

In my five years and change as a Berkeley resident, every once in a blue (and gold) moon (go bears) there'd be a glitch in my overstuffed schedule--somewhere between a PACS106: Peace and Conflict Studies and Applicable Theories in the United Nations in the Global South class and a Student Coalition General Meeting for Protest for Oppressed Workers Planning Meeting (something like that), I'd have a couple of hours to kill, to roam, to be free.

Here are 8 things I miss doing in my downtime in Berkeley:
1. Smelling books. I mean, reading books. 
I miss going to one of the twenty-three (!!!) libraries of the university to investigate obscure titles, thumb through math books filled with paragraphs and whose only numbers are the one at the bottom of each page, flip pages of art history books full of glossy photos and no text, or browse rice-paper-paged books decorated in mysterious foreign scrawl. 
Off campus, I could go to one of the dozen new and used book stores and reminisce on old titles I'd read as a kid. I'd grab a literary magazine with works by local authors, camp out in a cozy corner of the store, and sample some Berkeley strangeness in the form of haikus and prose. Often, I'd make a spontaneous purchase on a super-duper-you've-got-to-be-kidding-me-this-is-so-cheap discounted hardcover bestseller book and build my personal library faster than I could ever possibly read. 
2. Being a lazy obstruction to Ultimate Frisbee-ers. Aka sunbathing at a park. 
As disgustingly cliche as it was, I do miss lounging about campus as though I were posing for a college brochure as a token student of color, relaxing on a grassy knoll or sitting cheerfully on the front steps of a Grecian campus building. 
I miss warm, sunny days scattered throughout the year. I'm not a fan of temperate weather being reserved for solely to four months of the year . I miss having parks to choose from--where shall I go today: skater park, grove of trees, hilly mound, or stretch of green? I miss going for walks and passing by other people enjoying the little pockets of nature nestled between academic buildings, shops, and cafes.