Saturday, May 6, 2006

Lessons in Math and More

Today I went to pay my cleaning bill at the mama-san'’s office. They cleaned twice this month, and I don'’t know what happened after 2 ½ years, but suddenly I came home last Friday and my house looked clean. Really clean. Usually the only way I can tell that my mama-sans have visited is that my shoes are lined up in a very straight row in the entrance area (genkan). This time everything was clean and fresh and sparkly and yummy. Just the way LSL likes it.

So I went into the office (wishing I knew how to say in Japanese, "“Whatever they did last week, can they please do that every time?"”) armed with my Yen and two boxes of American cookies. Every time I go to pay my bill I take the group some American treats. I don'’t know why that started, but I get excited each month thinking about what new sweet I can introduce to them. (The biggest hit by far is peanut M&Ms, although marshmallows in different shapes and colors always draw a crowd.)

I handed over my Y9,800, and while the clerk was writing my receipt I noticed an accountant in the corner flipping beads around furiously at his desk. I've seen this before (always in my favorite pottery store) and immediately recognized the sound of someone using an abacus. (By the way, if you want to feel like you're living on Mars, go into a store where someone is using an abacus.) I tried so hard not to stare, but it'’s fascinating to see how fast and effortlessly they work on it. I was thinking, how do I get a picture of this for my blog? There'’s just no way. Suddenly the guy turned and smiled at me and brought the abacus over to where I was standing. He wrote on a piece of paper, "20 + 22 = 42"” and then, like magic, ran his fingers over the . . . machine? . . . and showed me how to do that problem. I said, "“It'’s so interesting! And difficult!"” (My Japanese vocabulary is very limited.) He laughed and then slowly showed me each number, "One . . . two . . . three . . . "” up to ten. He did this a few times, and he had me try to imitate what he was doing, but it just made him laugh because I couldn't get it right.

I often wish I could explain to friends and family exactly what it feels like to live in Japan. No matter what I come up with, I'm never able to convey what it feels like to live here. It'’s a mixture of total calm and peacefulness mixed in with low-grade confusion and a little bit of weird. Maybe three parts tranquility and one part WTF? Life in Japan feels easy. And calm. There's an element of simplicity to it. Everything that happens is predictable and expected. And the response to whatever is happening is equally as predictable. Peaceful. Life in Japan is peaceful.

I applied for a job in Seattle today. And although I think it'’s likely that I won'’t get this one, it is possible that I will get a similar position soon. I worry that if I go back to the US it means I have to start saying things like, "“Time is money"” or endure conversations where people tell me what they have on their TiVo. I don'’t want to know about Brad and Jen. Not ever again. I don'’t think Seinfeld is funny anymore, and I can'’t stand two seconds of 95% of what is on American television. I don't want to know what commercials were the best from the Superbowl. I can'’t be held responsible for what I'’ll do if someone answers a cell phone while I'’m speaking. And I want to sign a contract that I can live in the US without using the word "“ginormous".” I already feel like a fish out of water, and I'm still in water now.

Anyway, the sound of the abacus relaxed me and felt like a uniquely Japanese sound. That sound is how it feels to live here.

Wikipedia article here with a picture of the exact abacus/soroban that he was using. (Image from

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