The Rat / ねずみさん/鼠さん

February 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

The rat lives in the roof. When our Scottish guest came she suggested Ratticus Finch for a name. But the rat is no hero to us and the name didn’t stick. Partly, also, to name the rat is to acknowledge its existence.

I’ve estimated the rat to be somewhere in the vicinity of 30cm-2m long, and between 2 and 200 kg on the scales. We’ve never seen it and are left to imagine these things (a sight to dream of/not to tell). Unwilling to accept any blame for its existence, I trace its birth back to the time when the hippies occupied the house. But who knows? It might have lived up there since the war.

During the summer there was a time when I simply accepted that the abominable cockroaches and I would share my apartment. We reached a similar agreement with the rat. It can have the roof for all I care. While we pass the snowy Kyoto evenings cuddled up under the kotatsu, we hear our rat up there scuttling loudly back and forth between its festering nest and the other side of the ceiling. It’s very busy. It probably trades in stocks and bonds. I imagine  the nest to be something a little like the paper-mache and bile construction that the stretchy liver eating monster built in that long-ago and truly great episode of the X Files (“Squeeze” from season 1).

I suspect the rat of wanting to eat out my liver. At night, running to the toilet, I try to stamp my feet loudly so that the rat knows I’m coming. But probably, it couldn’t give a damn. It’s nothing like the respectful cockroaches. It accepts no boundaries. It comes down into our territory and picks through our things, nibbling here and there at the food we try so desperately to keep hidden.

I sense your disgust and horror but reader, this is no ordinary rat. Once, I left my hefty canvas tote of teaching junk out on the kitchen table. I made the mistake of forgetting that the bag contained a slightly blackened banana that I’d been lugging around for a day or two. When I woke the next morning something with big teeth had chewed a wide hole through the canvas bag, and through the side of the banana. Inside the yellow and brown skin, the fruit was hollowed clean out. It ate through a thick tea towel to get to a pastie I’d left cooling on the kitchen counter. It once chewed a hole through a foil bag.

I couldn’t figure out how it kept getting into our fiercely guarded lentils until I discovered a large hole chewed into the back of one of the plastic draws. Yes. It chewed through thick plastic – either with its teeth or a small, rat sized chainsaw. Lentils are not so cheap or easy to come by in Japan. They’re not like they are back home. They’re precious commodities here. This was an act of war.

P put out the bright pink poison while I hung around in the bedroom trying to sound busy.  I have nothing to do with wanting it dead. If I could just sit down and talk to it and explain that it needs to move on that would be fine. But I can’t. Even if the rat could speak I doubt it’s bilingual. And if it is, it probably speaks German or Spanish as a second language. I could motion it away with gestures but humans have been doing this to rats for centuries and they don’t get it. They want a logical explanation for why we can’t share what we have with them. They are logical creatures.

If The Fridge is a horrible lingering sign of everything we cannot achieve in Japan, then The Rat is the symbol of what we have come to accept. At first, we accepted that we live in an old part of the city, in a very old, very rickety shack of a house. Rats come with the territory. After some time the rat got too comfortable. I accepted that it needed to go. There are things I am willing to do to guard my home and my bananas – even if by “guard my home” I mean make my girlfriend kill something for me.

But the rat is not dead. Last week we were having dinner at home with our landlord and official guardian and while we sipped our bourbons neat, we heard the old thing making its usual racket up there above us. Ever the consummate hostess, I tried to cough and laugh loudly over the sound but it could not be helped. Everyone could hear it. So we set about making explanations and excuses for it. It’s just up there. It’s an old house. What can it do to us? What can we do? It simply IS. The landlord only seemed amused.

The seemingly immortal rat, unflinching in its desire to occupy our home, represents then my ever present anxieties. The rat is something small I imagine to be larger and wider and scarier that it really is. I cannot touch the rat. I don’t particularly want to confront it. I’m not even certain that it is a rat based on the size and shape of the damage it does. But I admit and have come to accept that it’s there and might always be there, living above us, keeping us on our toes at night.

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Setsubon: Probably The Most Empowering Festival Ever

February 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

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In one version Dads get dressed up as “oni” or demons and lurk in the garden banging on windows and doors. The kids stand in the house throwing soy beans at them and yelling: oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi! (demons out, good fortune in the house). In the version I saw, kids at the local kindy put brown paper bags over their heads and ran around scaring each other until a bunch of teachers came out of the classrooms dressed as demons. Wild bean throwing followed.

I think I have some variations for when I celebrate this one back home in NZ. I’ll be making it an annual out-with-the-crap bean throwing event regardless of whether there are any kids around. It’s quite therapeutic. Some ideas as follows:
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It’s so versatile. Your suggestions welcome.

Lost Girl vs. Coffee Prince

February 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Part One: Coffee Prince

Fellow troglodytes (and those among us that are struggling and failing to transcend our troglodytacism) let us now collectively meditate on the sore fact that almost everything we consume is available to us because an English-speaking person either created it or translated it for us.

But first let’s take a moment to peacefully meditate on the androgyny of G-Dragon.

   

I’ve acknowledged outright that I am underinformed when it comes to queer representation in Japanese and Korean culture. This has mostly to do with a lack of access and a communication barrier. Fortunately for us all, on the umpteenth day science created the internet. And after some patchy evolution an internet user created poorly translated copies of Korean soapies. Specifically, the queerest Korean telly drama this side of Istanbul: Coffee Prince.

We got to watching the show one Saturday afternoon. Within days P was exhibiting feverish cravings and could not be parted from it. The extent of her addiction was shocking. At rock bottom, she watched an episode of it on the cracked screen of her iPhone while riding the train home from work and then tried desperately to get me to watch the same episode again with her when we arrived home. It was the TV binge equivalent of snorting something up off the floor of a London public toilet, lying about it, and then insisting that our relationship would be stronger if we could get high together just this one last time.

The show involves the romance between Go Eun-chan, a young hardworking head of her family, and Choi Han-kyul, a playboy running away from his responsibilities.

When they first meet, because of her tomboyishness and general bad-assery, Eun-chan is taken for a boy by Han-kyul. She doesn’t bother to correct him. Things get a little more complicated when he asks her to pose as his boyfriend. He’s trying to rid himself of the long line of suitable-future-wife type girls his grandmother is trying to marry him off to, so he needs to spread a rumor that he’s “not the marrying type”. Eun-chan happily puts on an expensive suit and gets paid by the hour to act as his young toyboy.

As per the rules of disguise, they fall in love and it’s complicated. She’s in love with him but she’s working as his employee at his coffee shop. The shop is staffed entirely by young good looking men and she can’t possibly reveal to him that she’s a girl or she’ll lose her job. He’s also in love with her, of course, but he can’t bring himself to admit that he’s in love with a boy so he struggles to come to terms with his sexuality. They romp back and forth in the coffee shop yearning for one another with comedic, sexually loaded results.

The show was so successful it’s been remade in Thailand and the Philippines.

The question on everyone’s camp, pursing lips is whether we can argue that this show either reflects (or invites us to reflect on) a culture that perceives gender and sexual identity as fluid, as performative, as unstable….if it does, than everything I thought I knew about conservative South Korea (and the large Japanese K-drama audience)  is unsurprisingly wrong.

Here are my three R’s of queerrr: Is it referential? Is it restorative?  And is it representative?

I want to apply some R-rated questions to Coffee Prince, and then I want to apply them to the Canadian series Lost Girl, and then I want to ask some comparative questions about what these texts are serving up. And I want then to draw some garish and under-informed conclusions loosely disguised as rhetorical questions.

1: Referential: Where and how does the text plug in to a wider tradition? What audience expectations and familiarities underpin the mechanics that create narrative momentum?

I know, right? This just smacks of Shakespearean Comedy. Lee Jung Ah – the series writer and creator of the novel on which the show is based –  has said that the story is at heart, a love story about a boy and a girl.  The unfortunate twists – the complications and crises of self that each of the characters go through –  are simply The Conflict; the gender-play scenario is a Device and the implied audience is presumed to be longing for a resolution that delivers a normative Happy Ending.

These expectations have to do with some presumptions about the audience’s familiarity with certain ready narratives:

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  • The story of the lover in disguise who is unable to reveal him or herself, but for whom the disguise provides a new form of freedom from social expectation.
  • The story of the “test” by which the lover must prove their love is capital-T True by persisting with their desire despite some or other obstacle. (Here the obstacle is the small matter of gender, but it might just as easily be a wicked stepmother, a prickly tower, or parents that hate each other.)

These ye-olde narratives make certain demands of the audience as they move toward closure and resolution. They set up expectations. The audience, familiar with how things ought to go, derives pleasure from the anticipation of witnessing an ending they have already accepted.

In this particular version of The Story the boy must prove that he loves the girl despite the fact that he thinks she is a boy (and not because of that fact that he is a boy). The girl must shed her masculine bravado and reveal that she is after all a girl.

From the outset then, the show creates momentum by demanding knowledge of a set of narrative standards that are actually pretty conservative. The show also creates humour by exploiting what is pitched as a comical and resolvable confusion. In Coffee Prince the audience is safely aware that neither Eun-chan nor Han-kyul are actually gay. The audience is invited to enjoy a dramatic irony executed at the expense of two characters who fumble around believing themselves to be embarking on an “unnaceptable” or at least unfamiliar relationship. This irony is executed within the understanding that to be gay in this society is to be confused. There’s an expectation that a certain crisis of identity will take place once Han-kyul confronts his desire for Eun-chan as a boy. And it’ll be fun to watch because we know all along that the crisis isn’t real.

The story relies on the presumption of heterosexuality in order to create comedy, tension and narrative momentum.

2. Restorative: Does the text ultimately unite the heterosexual lovers? Is satisfactory closure dependent on “straightening” out the queer situation? 

Spoiler: Yes. Yes of course.

3.  Representative:  Does the show offer any ‘representation’ of queer people or relationships?

Let’s get at least one thing straight: neither Eun-chan nor Han-kyul are gay. There are no gay people on this show. The mechanics of the show dictate some fairly solid hetero-normative boundaries. How could we ever consider this show to offer any form of representation. And yet…..and yet…..

We Viewers Can Do Anything, Right Korean Drama?  (with apologies to Erica Rand) 

Yes. The show has a conservative arc. Yes, there are no gay characters. But –  just as we can’t circumscribe the ways in which people play with their Barbie dolls once they take them out of the box –  we can’t presume that an audience is going to react the way The Story implies. The series creator has come over as surprised and embarrassed by the show’s significant gay fan base. But we queers are not surprised (you’ve heard of fan-fic, right?). For this audience, delight and pleasure is not taken from a love story between a boy and a girl, but rather from the recognition of another scenario in which the lines of sexual tension are not drawn in a straight connect between guy and girl.

When Hyan-kyul says he wants to be with Eun-chan even if she is a boy Eun-chan can’t bring herself to reveal that she is a woman.  In part because this is because she feels desired as a man. A large portion of the show’s sexual tension is down to her being desired as a man, and Han-kyul’s desire for her body while she performs as male.

“I’ll say this just once, so listen to me. I like you. Whether you’re a man, or an alien…I don’t care anymore. I tried getting rid of my feelings, but I couldn’t. So let’s go, as far as we can go.” (ep 10)

The show’s dramatic irony might rely on the presumption of heterosexuality but in so doing it acknowledges the existence of this presumption. As soon as we understand how the irony works – as soon as we enjoy the dramatic irony – we acknowledge that it is the heterosexual presumption that drives the comic executions. The characters perform gender roles in order to establish certain narrative expectations but they also invite us to skew the boundaries of attraction and desire; neither the characters, the series creator, nor the audience can circumscribe the manner in which their desire is experienced, performed, received. The show is about longing and here longing is made unfamiliar to the heterosexual lovers whilst feeling altogether too familiar to the queer fans. How enjoyable!

It’s the inevitable resolution that feels disappointing. There’s an undoing that goes on when all the queer lines are ironed out and the lovers get together the old fashioned way.  But underneath this the audience and all the characters do play out a recognisable semblance of a gay love story, complete with the fears and emotional turmoils that go with the coming out narrative.

  • The story where a person is attracted to another person of the same sex and decides to act on this attraction (often followed by the death of one or both lovers).

Hey supposedly conservative Korea, did you just get away with telling a gay love story all the while pretending to be telling a straight old love story? And hey supposedly liberal Canada, just how superior is your sex-positive, hyper-queer sci-fi drama Lost Girl?  Is it the case that my utterly under-informed perception of South Korea needs an overhaul? I say probably.

Next week: Part two: Lost Girl and some other thoughts.

Note: I’ve used the terms gay and queer here rather than LBGTI simply because I like these words and they scan better. But I’ve no intention of obscuring the L’s, B’s, T’s and I’s.

Three Places in Okinawa

February 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

TRAPPED IN NAHA

It was going to be tropical. We were going to sip drinks from fruits the size of our faces. We would be new: unfamiliar to ourselves and to one another. We would not hover, guilty, in second-hand bookshops searching earnestly for copies of Decolonising The Mind. No. We had packed swimming costumes. Towels. An optimistic tube of sunscreen. I had shaved my legs.

But when we arrived I already had the vomit on my pants and the glamour was going out of it. As we crossed the  tarmac outside the LCC Terminal in Naha, gale force winds lashed our waterproofs. I held my glasses, splattered with rain, and hugged my scarf to my chest.  I could just make out the sign saying something like: “TAKE CARE. STRONG WIND. DO NOT CHASE HATS/ SCARVES”.

We couldn’t get off the main island that day. It would be a holiday of black clouds and winds and the sense, always, that it was raining somewhere not too far from us.

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On that first day, accepting that we could not escape ourselves, we walked over the hill to the Okinawan Prefuctural Museum and Art Museum and poked around. The delicate exhibitions skirted the edges of political discussion. The people of Okinawa – or what were once the Ryukyu Islands (before Japanese rule and American occupation) have been pushed in so many waves back to the periphery. From the periphery they have tried to maintain some kind of undertow: their own language, their music, their power to decide how their land will be used and how their rare ecosystems will be preserved.

The understated museum  – despite being one of the best I’ve been to in Japan – seemed to mask this undertow and the associated anger I was looking for. I got the sense that I was walking through a museum designed to avoid causing offence to an American tourist, or to a Japanese family on their annual holiday away from Honshu. We went and sat in the museum cafe and watched the rain. Who am I – I thought –  to be looking for somebody else’s anger? We hadn’t slept since the Christmas turkey incident. P fell asleep right there in the black leather chair.

The next day we were trapped in Naha again; ferries to the remote islands were cancelled. Waves broke against the concrete pier beside the ferry terminal. Foregoing our plans of island camping, we checked into a hotel and made plans to visit the Former Japanese Navy Underground HQ . On the way there we passed a bustling anti-Osprey/anti base-relocation protest. We tried to avoid getting caught in the lenses of any of the news cameras.

During WW2 – in the Battle of Okinawa – a quarter of the population of Okinawa were killed in the space of less than three months. Visitors can stand underground in the tunnels the navy built.

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There are holes in the walls marking the explosion of grenades.

You were a soldier. You dug yourself into a warren of tunnels and waited. When you were ready to admit defeat you took up your grenade, pulled the pin, held it to your stomache, and paused in the moment before your death.

I didn’t take many photos. Just two, in fact. What does one do in a place like this, standing around with their camera, capturing what?

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Minoru Ota  – Japanese Naval Commander – sent a telegram to the mainland before he shot himself with his revolver. The telegram asks that the people of Japan take note of the situation of the Okinawan people and how they have suffered and fought:

Ever since our Army and Navy occupied Okinawa, the inhabitants of the Prefecture have been forced into military service and hard labor, while sacrificing everything they own as well as the lives of their loved ones. They have served with loyalty. Now we are nearing the end of the battle, but they will go unrecognized, unrewarded. Seeing this, I feel deeply depressed and lament a loss of words for them. Every tree, every plant life is gone.

Even the weeds are burnt. By the end of June, there will be no more food. This is how the Okinawan people have fought the war. And for this reason, I ask that you give the Okinawan people special consideration, this day forward.

INSIDE THE IZAKAYA

As in a classic romantic comedy, I wasn’t in love with my cruel captor – Naha City – and then suddenly, without warning, I was infatuated. While P went out alone I lay in the hotel room and –  like every other New Zealander on holiday in 2013 – read the Luminaries. We met later that night in a small wine-restaurant. They had bottles of Old Coach Road lined up along the windowsill. From there we ventured to the busier part of town and found YUNANGI (ゆうなんぎい)- an izakaya serving home cooked Okinawa-style food: champuru (bitter melon fried with pork and tofu); umibudo (fresh salty seaweed or ‘sea grapes’); whole grilled fish; Orion beer; tofuyo; awamuri (a strong local spirit made from rice). Okinawan food is unlike other Japanese food – it’s richer and homelier with, I feel, more emphasis on flavor than immaculate or delicate presentation. It also has a strong Chinese influence. Sometimes the food incorporates odd bits and pieces from American food – fried noodles with Spam, for example.

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We sat next to a professor of computer science who’d found out about the restaurant in a book listing Japan’s top 100 izakayas. He explained all the dishes to us and talked about his love of food. He travels a lot for work, and whenever he goes anywhere he uses his downtime to seek out the best food. P spilled her Orion beer down his pants. He said it would make him happy. “I will treasure these pants. Tomorrow, after I return home, I will suck the beer out of these pants and remember this meal.” He mimed holding up a pair of pants and sucking at the fabric. We exchanged emails and promised to keep in touch. We were on an island at the edge of the world eating the best food we’d ever eaten with the best company.

ON THE ISLAND

We sailed to Zamami on the good ship がんばろう。I sat still and looked to the horizon, trying hard not to vomit on my freshly laundered pants. We looked for Whales.

Instead of camping we spent the first two nights nestled in a tatami room on the second floor of a small guest house, staying out of the rain. There were two general stores on the island. Bread and fresh food came in on the ferry every day and sold out rapidly. We got to know the ten or so other foreigners on the island: a family with three blonde, bored daughters  (The Danes). Two Spanish speaking travellers we never talked to (Those Two), a couple of Brits living in Tokyo (we knew them by name, eventually), and an Austrian man who worked as a history teacher at a university. We were all holidayers in the off-season, roaming between the two or three open bars on the tiny island – exchanging pleasantries and drinking Orion.

Leaving P to her own devices I spent one lonely day hiking the empty streets, looking out to sea for signs of mating whales. I wore gloves and a scarf and hat and coughed endlessly into my jacket sleeve. The wind was heavy. The island felt abandoned. I was in love with the place.
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After some investigating we relocated to the campsite, renting a small tent, sleeping bags and a floor mat. All up it was costing us less than 1000 yen a night to stay put on the island. I went snorkeling. Under the impossibly blue surface I saw a sea turtle and swam away from her, not wanting to disrupt the delicacy of a turtle’s breeding patterns. There were electric coloured fish darting about or hovering beside the coral. I saw a starfish bigger than my face and blue like royal velvet. I kept popping my head up and looking toward the far away beach, wanting to tell somebody over there to come and have a look. I kept talking to myself. Oh my goodness, I said. My goodness me. I was like a stunned older lady at a burlesque show – alarmed, but pleased with myself.

On New Years Eve the owner of the one of the local dive shops – the one who’d rented us our snorkel gear – invited us along to make mochi (a sticky sweet confection made by pounding freshly cooked rice into a paste) in the centre of the small village. The other off seasoners were there, loitering. At midnight, a far stretch from last year’s massive Chion-in bell, we rang in the new year by striking an old scuba tank strung up from a tree. We ate buckwheat soba and watched the Austrian hand out sparklers to the local kids. We were on an island off and island off the coast of Japan, in a place I can’t imagine I’ll ever go back to again. P1100318 P1100356

The photographs aren’t much chop I’m afraid. I was busying myself with the business of being on holiday. The hard part, looking back on our time out there in Okinawa, is reconciling my political interest in the current situation in Okinawa – my hard-thinking politically minded self – with the daily reality of people’s lives on the islands and all the joy and excitement of being there. Of course there is the constant question of independence, the state of the American military presence, the place that Okinawans hold in relation to the rest of Asia and the pacific. But there’s also the sleepy island, the tourism industry, the little old lady in an apron working ten tables all by herself, speaking a few words in so many languages, and never missing an order. All these spaces co-existing, out to sea.

The day we left the weather changed abruptly. We took off our jackets and scarves and layers and packed down our tent. The temperature hit 22 degrees and the sky went clear and blue. Tropical. I got this one last, obscured photograph of me standing barefoot in the water – perhaps the most nonchalantly tropical I will ever be. On the flight home we ate Blue Seal ice-cream and watched the sun shining in through the windows of the plane.

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