On Water and Belonging

All water has perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. – Toni Morrison

1) When driving from Kingston to Montego Bay, for a long stretch there’s nothing but fields, hills and trees. Green, green, green everywhere. Then, there are towns: churches, bars, people, and stray dogs running or limping across the street. Flashes of white and brown. You wonder, “If this is a small island, where is the sea?” Then, as you drive along, suddenly, around a bend, an expanse of the deepest blue. The Caribbean Sea warm, glimmering and waiting.

2) My mother loves to tell me the story of when I was three on a drive to Negril how giddy and excited I was to see the sea around the bend. She claims that I insisted we pull over and get into the water. I think I remember this day, but I’m not sure if it’s an actual memory or just that I’ve heard this story about seventy times seventy.

The story rings true though, because a similar incident happened when my mother and I visited Delphi on vacation in 2005. We were driving along a never-ending road in Greece, and as we descended the hill, the most gorgeous sight greeted us– the Mediterranean Sea. There was an audible gasp in the tour bus. When the driver pulled over to an eatery by the side of the road, I immersed myself in the very cold water. My mother briefly dipped her feet in, and no one else joined us because we were all without bathing suits. How could I let something as inconsequential as the lack of a bathing suit leave me dry?

3) On Friday night, I met up with LD and his friend AW for dinner at Hatos in Naka-Meguro. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the restaurant was fully booked and had a ninety-minute wait, so barbecue ribs, cole slaw and mac and cheese weren’t to be had. The only available table was outside. The waitress offered us the use of a heat lamp that we could rest beside the table, but there were no heat lamps above the table; basically, our knees and legs would be nice and toasty, but the rest of our bodies would be subjected to thirty-six degree weather. In all seriousness, the guys looked at me and said “Let’s sit outside,” to which I responded “I’m from the islands, it’s not gonna happen.”  AW said I probably say that I’m from the islands when it’s convenient, but that I should open myself to new experiences, which made me think “Opening myself to new experiences is never a problem, but I’ve lived long enough to know what I can absolutely do without.” Being cold and enduring misery (voluntarily) is an experience I’ve had and one I can do without. They told me that though “I’m one of the guys,” I’m definitely “not one of the guys.”

One of the guys: Listening to their stories about an array of porn, sexual experiences, enjoying a good hook up story, thinking women can be a bit ridiculous at times.

Not One of the Guys: Being a ridiculous woman at times, complimenting a woman on her skirt and not because I’m desiring anything under the skirt, refusing to sit outside in the winter. I’m okay with all of that.

4) We wound up walking for a bit until we found Colosseo, an Italian restaurant near the train station. We sat there for close to five hours talking about expat life in Tokyo (they told me to give it two or three years before the shine wears off), eating four-cheese gnocchi, spare ribs cooked to perfection, fried fish and calamari, octopus salad drizzled in olive oil, and roast beef with slightly salted, roasted potatoes. We washed our bounteous feast down with bottle after bottle (and a few other bottles of wine– my wallet’s reeling a little from the night).

5) AW said something to me that I had to write down; you know when you’re tipsy everything seems profound, and then you read your notes when you’ve sobered up and realize that half the things you wrote down really need a drunken lens/gaze to make sense. However, this comment still hits me, “Valerie, your core values are based in Jamaica, but you don’t belong there or you’d still be there. You don’t belong in NY or you’d still be there.” Both he and LD made it clear that we’d also always be outsiders in Tokyo, that as much as I love it, it would never fully take me in.

I feel more comfortable, as an outsider, on this island nation than on the island of my birth (Manhattan) and the island of my childhood (Jamaica). This island or another… it’s all about finding my way.

I’m a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl… wet your beak in the stream. – Bjork (Bachelorette)

… It Only Gets Better

Dear Friends,

Earlier today, I commented to a friend from my Berlitz orientation class that although we’ve only been in Japan for four months, it feels like I’ve been in Tokyo forever. She agreed and said that she’s also settled quite comfortably into the lights, late nights and beer, and “it’s amazing how quickly time goes.” Tokyo is like a favorite sweater that was in the back of the closet wedged between two coats for months, and once found seems brand new again. Tokyo, where have you been?

According to Jeff Mohammed, “The Honeymoon Stage” for expats ends after three months, only to be followed by contempt and hostility for the new country (http://lettersfromval.com/2011/10/03/letter-from-tokyo-the-honeymoon-stage/). However, my experience in Tokyo disproves not only Mohammed’s analysis, but everything I’d heard would be true. Before I came, I ravaged blogs and Youtube to get an idea of what my new life in Japan would be like. I read so many other people’s negative opinions and personal experiences about life as a Westerner and/or a black woman in Japan that I put an end to that, and decided to just see for myself. My experiences in this city prove to me how important it is when making major decisions to quiet background noise and unhelpful comments, and allow oneself to just enjoy/experience/discover a moment.

I’m not sure if it’s the fact that I’m a native of a large city, or that I’ve lived and taught overseas before, or that my age (which will never be revealed) and desire to be in new places makes me open, but the big adjustment period that was supposed to happen never happened. The subway was easier to navigate than I’d imagined; I was able to buy clothes with no problems; and despite the language barrier, Tokyo felt familiar, but better. It felt like other cities I’d been to, only cleaner/more efficient/better maintained/with better food/ and better-dressed, more polite people. Oh yes, and 99% of the people were Japanese.

These last few days have been quiet as life is at times, and I received a few emails asking me if everything’s okay. Things couldn’t be more okay; as I told my mother on Skype, I’m happy/comfortable/content. So, though nothing’s happened lately, let me share a few things of the past week:

1) Every time I meet someone attractive, interesting or funny I invite them to a party at my house. A party that hasn’t been planned, spoken about in the house, or even firmly decided anywhere but in my mind. Last night, I said to Yi that we must plan a party, because I’ve already invited quite a few people (all strangers mind you). I went to SoftBank in Shibuya yesterday (finally got my phone) and the guy who helped me was so ridiculously good-looking that I invited him to my house party (the party that my housemates don’t know about but needs to happen). I thought he’d be perfect for my housemate Yi— sweet, good age, nice height, a world traveler (and did I mention hot?). If she doesn’t like him, another woman at the party will snap him up. Two days ago, I invited one of my students to the party for my housemate S, because the first thing he told me was that he’s single and shy. He’s a cute pilot who blushes with every sentence and is just ridiculously nice, so how could it not be a match?

2) Yesterday afternoon, I met up with the editor of a new magazine that addresses the African and Caribbean experience in Tokyo. He asked me to write an article for the magazine addressing either fashion, travel or music. I know next to nothing about fashion and little about the music scene in Tokyo, but what I can write about are my experiences thus far as an Afro-Caribbean woman prowling the streets of Tokyo (I don’t really prowl). Unfortunately, he has my blog address, so he may see that I’m writing this blog post instead of the article. (It’s coming AN).

3) My last post triggered something in some people, because I received quite a few messages that secret crushes had been revealed. Unfortunately, many of the stories didn’t have the anticipated jump-up-and- down-from-joy endings, but it’s better to have tried and move on, than to not have an answer at all, isn’t it? I haven’t seen my crush in a few days, so my adoration is safely hidden underneath my turtleneck, dress and undershirt.

* Gimme, gimme, gimme a man after midnight – Abba (Gimme, Gimme, Gimme)

4) Speaking of multiple layers, it’s finally really snowed in Tokyo. This winter has been the mildest I’ve experienced since 2007. If I were in NY, by late January, I would’ve been cursing the sky, my birth, and the winter season, as I peeled my butt from the sidewalk I just slipped on.

* Heavily falling snow= slush and ice= a bruised behind.

Friends, I’ll leave you now, letting you know that as familiar as this all seems, at the same time everyday feels new and special. I marvel at this life.

Love,

Val

Letter from Tokyo: “Rejoice, Rejoice!”

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. – Isaiah 43:19 (The Bible)

Dear Friends,

Two minutes ago while I was eating a juicy, delicious grapefruit (Hi DB!), the fullness of this life hit me. Maybe when your belly’s full your life seems full(er)?

Reasons to Rejoice:

1) My housemate told me that 2012 is the last year of existence. I haven’t seen the movie, nor have I paid any attention to why 2012 is supposed to be the last year for the world, but if it is, even more reason to rejoice. Now, we can really live everyday as if it’s our last. Now, we can really appreciate every breath/every loved one/every carnal pleasure/every bite of life. I love the urgency behind the thoughts of the last days.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. – R.E.M

2) How easy life is with so many teachers/gurus/prophets to  guide the way. We’re not stumbling in the dark, are we? The path has been laid out; the rules of the universe are there. So simple really: Love, Kindness, Forgiveness, Empathy, Compassion. What can we do? Let’s do it.

A few years ago, a few close girlfriends and I went on a “Positivity Diet.” For one week, there was to be no complaining/bitching/bellyaching/griping. It’s difficult, but once we got into the swing of it, we could feel the rewards. We were centered, focused, on the way… then we stopped. Life has a way to bring you down if you let it. Let’s start the positivity diet again (let me know how it works for you).

3) What did Charles Darwin say about survival of the fittest? Just being here means that we made it; we’re the survivors. My friend V recently sent me an email about a breast cancer marathon that she’s participating in. Now, there’s a serious life curveball. (What an understatement). However, when others are fighting for their lives physically or psychologically, it really puts things into perspective, doesn’t it? Let’s get involved. (V, my donation’s coming!).

4) We are each other’s gifts, aren’t we? I’ve met so many wonderful people virtually and otherwise. A few I’ll meet soon, and some never, but there’s a network of good-feeling spreading everywhere. When I went to the temple the other day with RT, we waited for about twenty minutes to get to the front so we could offer our prayers for the new year. He told me the best way to pray is not to ask God for anything, but to simply say “Thank you.”

I’m off to work now, but just wanted to say “Thank you!”

Love,

Val

Letter from Tokyo: “Wake Up and Live”

Dear Friends,

This morning, I skyped with DB who told me that his greatest disappointment with his move to Washington, D.C is the lack of close friends nearby. We reminisced about when we lived in Jersey City how we’d pop over to each other’s apartments to cook (well, he’d whip up scrumptious Southern dishes and I’d watch), have ridiculous conversations, write papers together at the kitchen table, or make lethal vodka and mango slushies. This man’s humor, ability to apply Brandy lyrics to any situation, and his exaggerated Southern drawl make him special. Special is a gross understatement.

In our conversation, he told me that I’m living in a happy bubble at the moment. Folks, it’s true. I’m living in a happy bubble.

1) I had linner (lunch/dinner) with M in Omote-Sando.

* My entrée. (Wipe the drool from the side of your mouth).

* Do you see M‘s face? Friends, that’s what contentment looks like.

When I’m struggling to fit into my clothes, I certainly won’t be able to say, “How did this happen?” I’ll know how it happened, and I’ll have loved every minute of it. (I’ll draw the line when I pick up my first pair of sweatpants).

3) I have a friend who’s dangerous for my waistline. He’s a “foodie,” who cares about getting a good bite; he’s also 6’2, slim and active, so he doesn’t have to worry about every delicious bite that he puts into his mouth. For some reason, in the past few months, I’ve started worrying a lot less about calories and the foods that I eat, even though I’ve failed to start my exercise routine. My newfound love for food may be dangerous for my waistline and my wardrobe.

Just this week, this is what B and I did:

* We went back to Brozer’s. I proposed to the burger, then devoured it. Then, I proposed to the cook. (No, I didn’t, but should’ve).* I have an insane passion for Belgian waffles, always have and always will. Last week, I mentioned to another friend, LD, that the one thing I miss about New York is diners. Breakfast at anytime, eggs at 9p.m., pancakes at midnight. He told me that he didn’t know where I could find waffles, but that pancakes and diners are in Ebisu. Then two nights ago, B introduced me to the café on the top floor of Maruzen in Nihonbashi. Are you kidding me? Waffles were less than five minutes away this whole time. Thanks B.

* This was at Muji… we ate so quickly, I only got a shot of the last bite.

DB has said, and repeated today that I don’t have a palate that can appreciate great food, since I’ll call an apple “delicious,” but trust me, the food here is ridiculously good/scrumptious/heavenly/delightful/more than satisfying/sublime.

2) The community that DB feels is lacking in D.C, I’ve found in my house. I can’t explain to you how un-alone I feel. Though my room situation is less than ideal, when I was looking for another place to live, my recurring thought was “I don’t want to leave the others.”  Let’s take a look at yesterday. It was a holiday, so my housemates were home. R skyped me at 12:30p.m, and asked me what the plan was for the day. Plans had rolled around my head the night before, but I was still in bed after going to bed quite late. He forced me to get up, take a quick-ish shower, and get my act together (as my father would say).

While I was getting ready, he prepared a delicious bowl of granola, yogurt, bananas, and cranberries for me. (Could there be a better guy?). Then we walked to Kinshicho where we had some overpriced lattes at Starbucks, sat for awhile, he caught up with a friend, and I left them to do a little shopping. Really lovely afternoon in Tokyo: “The sun (was) shining, the weather (was) sweet.”

Everyone in Tokyo’s sniffling, hacking up a lung, or about to get sick; so for dinner, R fixed a super spicy cup of soup for me to knock the cold off my chest. Hm, reading this you may get the impression that I never cook for myself, which is completely untrue. I make a wicked plate of spaghetti and olive oil.

Later in the evening,  after watching a movie, I was full of energy and ready to walk…. to Kinshicho for a gin and tonic. I went upstairs to see who was gonna come with me, who was down for a bit of fresh air… and a cocktail. Ah. RT and Y were in the living room watching some celebrity show, and RT told me that there was no need to walk to Kinshicho for a drink, because he had a bottle of vodka that he’d brought back from his trip to Uzbekistan under the counter. I still took a walk. I went to the corner store for lemons, tonic water and a bag of ice and we a good time. Yi came home from work at about 10p.m and joined us in our Saltines and cheese, miso, potato chips and edamame fest. Yi and I stayed up quite late, and even contemplated taking a stroll… today, for sure.

The people in my life are what’s making my Tokyo experience so special. Yes, I love the food, the city itself, the culture, the teaching, and having “foreign” experiences, but it’s the community that DB spoke about that makes all the difference. (Even the friends who pull knives on me).

See you soon,

Val

p.s My brother sent me a live Bob Marley concert on youtube this morning that’s making my whole world! They’re both fantastic– my brother and Bob (every time).

Already A Year of Contradictions

Happy 2012 Friends!

I must tell you that the first day of this year has already proven that 2012 is going to be the year of contradictions. For New Year’s Eve, some friends and I went to Jiyugaoka to eat soba. M informed us that eating soba will bring financial luck… I eat noodles everyday and have had little financial success; hopefully, soba, spaghetti’s twin sister, will bring me millions… or at least hundreds of thousands.

We had a nice, albeit quiet time, at the restaurant; they kicked us out promptly at 10p.m. It seems the few Japanese people that stayed in Tokyo for New Year’s wanted to go home and watch television. and J decided to head to a temple and ring in the New Year, while the rest of us, excluding R, headed to Roppongi to create some havoc. However, the clubbing was also a bit tame.

We went to two places, the first of which I can’t remember the name, and Propaganda closed out the night. Can I tell you all that I was peeing when the clock struck twelve? Do you know how horrible that is? I could hear the five, four, three…. and though I tried to rush, it proved futile. The experience was almost as bad as when I was stuck on the A train hovering over Broad Channel when the clock struck twelve (none of my resolutions were realized that year– that’s not a coincidence). The deejay in Propaganda thrilled me when he got on a Bob Marley jag and played about seven of his songs in a row (I hadn’t even noticed all the Bob Marley posters on the wall up until then). The reggae was the most memorable part of the night for me, especially since I did not get a New Year’s kiss… (well, only from a drunk Sri Lankan who wouldn’t stop kissing my cheek). What a disappointment.

We got home after six, and I made some more noodles. (I should be very rich this year). We tried to head to MacDonald’s after the club, but the lines were in the streets. Really. After eating and talking to my housemate for a minute, I fell asleep thinking “How uneventful.” Nature shook me out of my delusions and provided me with an earth-shaking experience. I experienced my very first earthquake in Tokyo this afternoon, and let me tell you it was scary as hell. It didn’t last very long, but it’s just not cool for the earth to be shaking/quaking for so many minutes. The thoughts running through my head: “How long is this gonna last?” “Oh shoot, I need to take a shower, I can’t run into the streets like this.” “I need an emergency bag for these moments, I must get an emergency eyeliner and set of tweezers.” “This is why people always have to wear the “good underwear” in Tokyo.” “I need to get down off my too high bed… and onto Facebook.”

All in all, the first day of the year hasn’t been so uneventful after all. I spent the first day in my present/future reflecting and looking at past photos from my friend’s album. It put everything into perspective… life shouldn’t be taken that seriously. Enjoy yourself.