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three weeks since impact

weill in japan: day 22

It has been three weeks since I arrived in Japan, and the focus has shifted from initial culture shock to staying afloat and awake in class.

Class remains as boring as ever, although it is now compounded by a cold that is going around. Many students are coughing and sneezing in class, and a few are even taking days off. On the other hand, even a slight cold provides a nice excuse for missing class, since the material is still boring even though the pace is fast enough to be challenging.

One of our professors constantly corrects our diction, something that I haven't experienced before in Japanese. Unlike Chinese, with its tonal system that can take a year to learn all by itself, Japanese is an atonal language. Still, although tones are not crucial to the meaning of a word, inflection is still important to be understood. I've found that when I start speaking in Japanese, the person listening will often come unusually close to minimize outside noise. This distance is much shorter than when two native speakers are conversing. Although words do not have accents explicitly stated as in many European languages, there are still two pitch levels commonly acknowledged to exist. Going up in pitch between the two syllables of "hana" implies a different meaning than going down in pitch between them. (One of those words means "flower," while the other means "nose." I forget which is which, but context also plays a big part in recognition.) Some words are also meant to be spoken in monotone, something that seems difficult for the native Chinese speakers in the class who have to force the pitches in line.


Now that classroom issues have largely been resolved and everyone's settling into their respective ruts, now is time for the fun part: weekend plans. Homestay students like myself are at a disadvantage when it comes to weekend planning, as we only get to see classmates in class. People in the dorms see each other constantly, and so they can plan large-scale trips like a massive excursion to Mount Fuji in the works for this weekend. I still have a lot to see in and around Tokyo, so I think I'll stick to the railroads and a smaller group of people. Money is also a concern. The courses are halfway done, but many students have already spent more money than they anticipated. The strong yen, which is now weakening against the dollar despite all the U.S. economic woes, has also driven prices up slightly during these first few weeks. There are still plenty of free and low-cost things to do in Tokyo, like see all those zany cosplay characters in Shibuya on a Sunday.

Staying in touch with other students is much harder than at Carnegie Mellon. Without an ADSL connection at home, I have to limit my home Internet access to brief dial-up connections to avoid driving up the phone bill and tying up the phone line. Instead of instant-messaging my friends to make plans, I have to give out my home phone number. That provides a slightly larger barrier to communication, as IMs tend to be a much more impulsive means of communication that talking on the phone.

life at home moves on

Much as it was in the beginning, food has ranged from mediocre to bad so far this week. I haven't eaten too much in the past few days, opting to skip the food at the dining hall in favor of take-out places closer to the train station. Today, for the cost of a meal at the dining hall (¥525, or about $4.50) I got 16 sushi rolls at a take-out place near Ogikubo station. I had to eat it standing up, but that wasn't too challenging. The ubiquitous noodle shops around town also provide a substantial amount of food for a reasonable price. The only problem is that once I leave campus, I don't get to eat until about 2:00 PM.

Since my adventure with Kei on Monday That left me exhausted for most of yesterday, I haven't seen much of my older brothers. Nori is back in Kyoto where he lives and works full-time. Toshi works late and parties later. Kei studies for medical school prep when he's not working his full-time job five days a week. In a departure from the typical schedule, Kei has no work on Monday and Thursday instead of Sunday and Saturday. Those two days are usually spent with friends and catching up on sleep.

I'm still not too fond of dogs. Nene, our big golden retriever, is always pushing into doors and getting in my way. Fortunately, I've learned the two basic commands -- "Kite!" (kee-TEH) for "come here!" and "Osuwari!" for "sit!" -- and the proper way to shout them to be recognized. Our cat, Cheri, is much more quiet and lazy. The turtle and bantam live outside in cages, so they don't bother me at all.


Don't believe everything you see on "The Simpsons." Despite what Mr. Sparkle would have you believe, "ro-go" is not widely understood as "corporate logo." My dictionary even uses that translation, but the clerk at the library today didn't understand it. Instead, "guraffiku" for "graphic" was understood, particularly because I was asking about a computer graphic file.

Weill's First Rule of International Cuisine: There are few foods that can't be saved by enough soy sauce or Tabasco. Today, my negi (spring onion) rolls were not too tasty, but they were greatly improved by the addition of soy. Thank you, soy!

Instead of signatures, most Japanese people use circular stamps to certify documents. These stamps are about 1 cm in diameter, and can be purchased for common surnames at any 100-yen store. Given the common nature of many Japanese names, as well as the ease with which someone can buy a stamp with someone else's name on it, I have to wonder: is misrepresentation a big problem in Japan?

My family has a scale, so I weighed myself for the first time since I arrived. After my recent light appetite spell, I weigh 69.0 kg (152 lb). That's a drop of roughly 2.3 kg (5 lb) from my pre-departure weight without shoes on.

Today I passed by no fewer than six people handing out packets of tissues at train stations, and nobody gave me anything besides a confused look. If I want to increase my stockpile of tissues, I'll have to walk right up to these xenophobic drones and stare them down. Perhaps saying "tisshu, onegaishimasu" ("tissues, please") with the right intonation will change their mind.

Homework reprieve: thanks to a quiz tomorrow, we have no short-term work due on Thursday. This means I can hopefully study thoroughly enough to do better than a C overall on the quiz.

My second individual conference with a professor is tomorrow after class. As I've done with professors at Carnegie Mellon, I plan to be completely honest about how unfulfilled I feel after spending four hours mindlessly parroting written passages about surveys conducted 20 years ago.

That's all for today. Time to get some sleep.