A Slice of Americana

The Prize-winning steer

Yesterday I had the fortune to get to the Montgomery County Fair.  We are staying in North Potomac with Ellie and Steve Kahan, who are my parents’ best friends from college, but have been my other set of parents for my while life.  It’s a wonderful relationship because they’re parental toward us, but the element of guilt is removed since we’re not technically their children.  We all get to enjoy the other benefits of family, though, and I think going to the fair together highlighted the fun togetherness that family defines.

The fairgounds are a huge, grassy lot in Gaithersburg.  There is a huge parking lot beside it and of course, there is a fee to park.  The whole thing is a major moneymaker for the city and the county.  People enter the fair through one, designated entrance, which of course, leads them right onto the boardwalk-like area of games and rides with the accompanying onslaught of sights and sounds that could overwhelm even the most steel-stomached fair-goer.  Luckily, simply by turning left, we were able to get to the simpler pleasures of the day.

The fair is a chance for groups like the 4-H clubs of the area to show off their

Bailey and Sydney pat the bunny!

wares.  Prizes are given for large and hearty pigs, cows, steer and goats.  There is a rabbit barn and a bee-keeper.

Ellie and Steve were very pleased that they were able to take my city kids to the farm!  We went through the goat house, saw big, huge sheep, petted rabbits, admired the steer, saw the prize-winning cow and then Sydney had a pony-ride.  It was a terrific experience for all of us.  Of course, my darling daughter held her dainty, little nose as we went through the various animal areas lest she get a whiff of something unsavory!  We laughed at her until she stopped.

Then it was time for the rides and games.  Both kids earned a small prize by throwing basketballs into a hoop, and that was enough of that.  (Frankly, we can’t fit bigger prizes into our luggage back to Tokyo!)  I allowed the kids two rides apiece.  My daredevil son chose this huge thing that was simply a circle on its side and went upside down.  Of course I had to do it with him!  Forward upside down is one thing – backward is quite another!  Then the kids went on a race-car ride and I took Sydney on the tilt-a-whirl.  After we were all properly dizzy, we left!

On the race-car ride - it went backward and forward too!

It really was quite an experience.  The sights, the crowds, the various walks of life that populate the fair – it all comes together to form a whole, which if you ask most Americans, makes up the image they have in their heads of a county fair.  It’s like an American archetype – THE FAIR.  Certain images just appear in one’s head when someone mentions it.  Thusfar, the Weinstein kids haven’t had those images and I was so glad to give them to them.  I feel like our American visit is complete.

Family

Uncle Stuart kisses his "piece of work" on her "sweet spot!"

As summer is winding down for me, I’ve been reflecting on all of the people we’ve seen and been with over the past few weeks.  The kids and I have been in the U.S. for nine weeks now, and we still have five days to go.  We’ve noted that the definition of family has really expanded.  I don’t want to say “changed” because there’s nothing different about our family, it’s just that we’ve figured out the people who are important to us are not necessarily related by blood.  It’s a good lesson for the kids and me about love and the many shapes and flavors of affections and care.

Time Time Time

Sunset in paradise - a.k.a. Southampton, NY

Scheduling is always an issue, as is the summer.  It seems as if I run from one activity to the next, from one family member to the next.  I am having lunches and dinners and coffees and snacks with friends – both old and new – who I haven’t seen in a year or more.  My kids have been moving from camp to camp seamlessly and without complaint.  My various rental cars have held up beautifully and at this point, five weeks into the summer, my GPS device that I carry around with me asks, “are you going to the airport again?”

Of course that is a function of how I arrange my time when I’m in the U.S. I enjoy the people, but not the travel.  Airports and cars and trains, oh my!

The biggest problem is that it leaves little to no time for the real work of life: my writing.  I realize I should take advantage of these summer days and just let it go, but that’s a hard thing to do when striving for discipline in life.

But perhaps summer is not for discipline.  At least that’s what I’m telling myself today.  Now pardon me while I go jump in the pool!

Suburbia

There are days when I miss living in the American suburbs.  Today is one of them.  As I write, I am sitting on the back deck at my aunt and uncle’s house in Port Washington, NY, out on Long Island.  I can hear a thousand different birds making varying tweets and calls, and there are even cicadas humming away in a unison siren song.  Their deck faces west, so the enclosure of the trees and the bent of the generous house shade the back yard throughout the morning.  It’s about 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 C) with a light breeze.  All this, and we are a mere thirty minutes into “THE” city – New York City.  In a word, it’s perfect.

As an aside, my favorite all-time movie line comes from the flick “Keeping the Faith” – the one where Ben Stiller is the Rabbi and his best friend the Priest is played by Ed Norton.  Jenna Elfman plays the love interest.  One day, the Priest and the girl are strolling through Central Park and the Priest says, “True New Yorkers know that anyone who lives anywhere else must somehow be…. Kidding.”  This I believe.

But how do I reconcile this feeling with my love of Tokyo? Luckily I don’t have to.

When I’m away from Tokyo, I miss it.  I miss the throng of people on the street.  I miss the cleanliness.  I miss walking from my home to my favorite Peacock grocery store.  I miss onigiri.  I did an entire blog posting about six months ago about the top ten things I miss about Tokyo when I’m not there, most of it centering around food!

Staying in the U.S. means something entirely different.  I have my extended family all around me.  I get to see aunts, uncles, and cousins who I haven’t seen in a year or more. I can be involved – or not – in the drama that is common to all families.  I can eat as much grilled meat as my stomach – and cholesterol level – can handle.  I can relax out on a deck surrounded by trees, in multiple places.

It all has to do with the idea of home.  Right now, and for the next few years, Tokyo is home.  It’s where my family lives and it’s where my life happens.  I have my work and my activities in Tokyo.  My kids go to school in Tokyo.  My husband’s work is in Tokyo.

I have the best of all worlds now.  I can come into the U.S. and visit my family and friends to enjoy all the things suburbia – and America – have to offer.  And then I can go back to my city-mouse life in August.

But right now I’m going to close my laptop, then close my eyes, and listen to the quiet.

Walmart – OMG!

This week I have had the occasion to go into Walmart not once, but twice.  The first time I had to buy a cheapie cell-phone into which I placed my SIM card because my regular cell phone is broken and the new one will be delivered on Tuesday.  The second time, I agreed to buy my daughter a Barbie Doll after she did some particular difficult tasks.  (Hey, bribery works – but that’s a comment for another day…) Both times, the experience was a cross between wickedly scary and awe-inspiring.

Walmart is the world’s largest retailer, according to their own hype.  They do own a majority stake in the Japanese supermarket, Seiyu, the purchase of which caused it to be delisted from the Tokyo Stock Exchange in 2007. Walmart, as in every country in which it exists, has a huge commitment to giving back to the community in the forms of various charities and charitable networks.

But what Walmart is still learning, from my point of view, is that every country, every culture is different.  The big-box store does not fly in Japan.  Costco loses money there and Walmart is not having luck with bringing its American model to the country.  Japan continues to be the land of the mom-and-pop shop, where personalized service still outweighs the perceived value of the large, one-stop-shopping style-store.

When I went to Walmart today, I bought bread, milk, coffee, a set of bed-sheets, two t-shirts for my son, and a Barbie Doll.  Talk about variety!  Each section of the store is well-marked with bright signage hanging from what feels like a thirty-foot ceiling.  Fluorescent lighting beckons shoppers in to spend money, and leaves them blinking furiously when they emerge back into the natural light outside.    The merchandise is organized by color and style, in appealing displays and designs.  Everything is light, airy, open, and simply humungous.  When my daughter was pushing the cart around in the spacious store, we overheard a lady complaining about the narrow aisles.  It was on the tip of my tongue to shout, “you ain’t seen nothin’ ‘til you’ve been to Tokyo, lady!”  But I didn’t.  The lady wouldn’t have cared.

In Japan, stores are small, aisles within stores are small, and the staff is kind, friendly, omnipresent, but never pushy.  Come to think of it, I don’t think I saw a staff member beyond those behind registers at Walmart.  Shopping in Japan and shopping in the U.S. are totally different experiences, as illustrated by my Walmart extravaganza.  In Japan everything is on a smaller scale and in the U.S. it is the opposite.  It’s illustrative of the culture of the people.  And that is perfectly fine

I find Walmart totally overwhelming these days, and perhaps I will never be able to fully appreciate a big-box store again, even after I move back to the U.S. in a few years.  Hm, perhaps that’s not a bad thing.  It’s all about perspective and perception, and perhaps mine is changing.

What is a Vacation?

My question of the day is: is a writer really ever on vacation?  More than a job or even a career, writing is deeply ingrained in the heart and mind of those who take on the task.  Of course, this is my opinion.  Perhaps lawyers feel as passionate about the law as I, and other writers I know, feel about the written word.  I don’t just write for a living; I am a writer.  I write more because I have to not because I want to.  Whenever I see something, I think about how I would describe it in words.  Perhaps the old saying is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I can easily evoke an image in a thousand words that I think would rival a picture.

But I digress.  It is summer, and I am on holiday with my children.  We are in the United States for ten entire weeks.  The kids will go to camp on and off and we’ll be staying with various grandparents so they’re taken care of, but I still have to arrange time every day to write.  It’s not like when we’re at home and it’s automatically part of my regular routine.

This is going to be a summer of wonderful things – and I will make the time for writing because that is who I am.  I need to remember that and actually make the time because a writer is never truly on vacation.  A writer takes a change of scenery now and then.  My scenery will be changing every two weeks and I will make the most of it instead of worrying about it.

Happy Summer everyone!!

The Mani-Pedi Experience

Yesterday I got a mani/pedi (that’s a manicure and pedicure for those of you who don’t speak “girl-talk”).  In and of itself, that’s nothing remarkable, but given the fact that I am in the United States right now and not in Japan, it’s something on which I can comment.  This is just one of the myriad of things that is different between the U.S. and Japan.

Generally I don’t get mani/pedi’s in Tokyo.  There is one reason and one reason only: the cost is prohibitive.  In the past three years, I have gotten perhaps eight, total.  They have only been for special occasions or right before beach trips when I cannot stand my feet.  My saving grace has been Aya, a manicurist who caters to expats and makes house-calls.   In general, Aya charges ¥10,000 for the complete, yet basic manicure and pedicure, which equals about $114 given the exchange rate today.  She also charges about $11 for transportation costs.  This is approximately comparable to any salon cost, and you’re in the comfort of your own home.

My mani-pedi at the small salon in Laurel, Maryland, including callous removal, cost $50 including the tip. (Don’t forget – as I’ve mentioned before, there’s no tipping in Japan.  None.  None at all.)

The time consumption is different, too, though.  I was out of the salon in MD in just about an hour.  That included picking the polish and signing in and getting into the big massage/pedicure chair.  The entire process takes at least 90 minutes in Tokyo, without the time for Aya to get set up in my house.  (As an aside, Aya has been providing this in-home service for ten years at least.  She has it all down to a science, even her compact suitcase with which she travels through the city is neatly packed with her carefully folded and stored essentials.  The rest of what she needs, she borrows from her clients.)  But this is not just Aya – I have been to two different salons for mani-pedi’s.  In Japan, things take longer.  People in Japan are methodical and interested in getting things exactly right and perfect.  The hand massage is an art form, as is the foot massage.  When the manicurist massages, it’s a process that cannot be hurried.  Rapt attention is paid.  It’s a different experience.  I always feel like I’m the only person who has mattered all day, and I’m sure every customer feels that way.

On the quality of the mani-pedi, well, I’m loathe to say.  If I discuss it honestly, people will call me snobby and tell me that I’m never going to be able to move back to the U.S.  I do not get gel-nails or acrylics or silk wraps or any of the extras that can make nails hard and strong.  I just have plain ‘ol nails.  Let’s just put it this way: my polish, which is regular OPI polish, just like in any American salon, lasts up to a week in perfect condition in Japan.  I never get hangnails and I my cuticles shine.  This doesn’t happen in every salon in the U.S.  I hope it happens in yours and I would love to be proven wrong, but I’ve never had a mani/pedi in the U.S. that can rival the ones in Japan for quality and effectiveness.

If I can bear the cost – which I cannot most of the time, then the mani-pedi in Japan is the way to go.  However, that cost thing is a big barrier. Look for me to be writing more about that issue in relation to various things I’m doing while I’m in the U.S. this summer.

Japan and the U.S. are two completely different cultures and those differences are to be celebrated.  I am delighted to be in my native culture for the next two months and I’m sure that when the two months are up, I will be delighted to go home to my adopted culture as well.  Vive la difference.

Sneak-Peek Sunday – Control Issues!!!

Photo Courtesy of Nancy Koritz

Holy Moly – it’s an out of control toilet!  Gee, and I thought this is where you went when you were feeling out of control!!!

Look for my book in the fall, tentatively titled Lost With Translation and published by Discover 21 Publications.

Hope this gives you the same giggle it gave me!!