Tuesday, March 22, 2011


What do Alexander the Great and Winnie the Pooh have in common?

They have the same middle name.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Our Lady of Lawson

Pico Iyer writes about a Japanese convenience store

To live in Japan without eating Japanese food seems an advanced kind of heresy. My sushi-loving friends in California regard me as a lost cause; my housemates in Japan simply shrug and see this as ultimate confirmation - me dragging at some lasagna in a plastic box while they gobble down dried fish - that I belong to an alien species. I grew up in England, I tell them, on boarding school food, no less; I like Japan at some level deeper than the visible (or edible). They look away and try not to scream.

Yet the habit that has won me complete excommunication on both sides of the world is my readiness to eat (twice a day) from Lawson, my tiny local convenience store in Nara, the old Japanese capital. A convenience store speaks to many of us of all that is questionable in modern Japan: a soulless, synthetic, one-size-fits-all lifestyle that the efficiency-loving country has perfected to the nth degree. It marks, most would say, the end of family, tradition and community as well as the advent of a homogenized future that has many people running for "slow food."

The convenience store is a model of Japan in miniature: the triumph of function over fuss and of ease over embarrassment. Just as you can buy whiskey, eggs, pornography and even (it is said) women's underwear in vending machines, so you can all but live in convenience stores. I pay my phone bills and send my packages through the local branch of the national Lawson chain (named after the defunct American Lawson); I buy my bus cards there and tickets for Neil Young concerts. I make the convenience store my de facto office, lingering by the photocopier for hours on end and then faxing an article, say, to New York. Yet the first law of Japan, even in Lawson, is that nothing is what it seems, and that you can find all the cultures of the world here, made Japanese and strange. Here, in the four thin aisles of my local store, are the McVitie's digestives of my youth - turned into bite-size after-thoughts. Here are Milky Bar chocolates, converted into bullet-size pellets. Here are Mentos in shades of lime and grape, cans of "Strawberry Milk Tea" and the Smarties I used to collect as a boy, refashioned as "Marble Chocolate." Were Marcel Proust to come to Lawson, he would find his madeleines daily but made smaller, sweeter and mnenomically new.

It's common to hear that Japan has created a promiscuous anthology of the world's best styles. And the convenience store is the center of this. Tubs of Earl Grey ice cream, sticks of mangosteen chewing gum, green-tea-flavored Kit Kat bars; they're all here in abundance (though, in fashion-victimized Japan, no sooner have I developed a fondness for KissMint chewing gum "for Etiquette" than it has been supplanted by ice creams in the shape of watermelon slices). And even the smallest chocolate bar comes with an English-language inscription that, in the Japanese way, makes no sense whatsoever, yet confers on everything the perfume of an enigmatic fairy tale: "A lovely and tiny twig," says my box of Koeda chocolates, "is a heroine's treasured chocolate born in the forest."

In modern Japan, the convenience store is taken to be the spiritual home of the boys in hip-hop shorts and girls with shocking yellow hair and artificial tans, who try with their every move - eating in the street, squatting on the sidewalk - to show that they take their cues from 50 Cent and not Mrs. Suzuki. The door of my local Lawson has badges to denote police surveillance, and where the great twentieth century novelist Junichiro Tanizaki praised shadows (nuance, ambiguity, the lure of the half-seen) as the essence of the Japan he loved, Lawson speaks for a new fluorescent, posthuman - even anti-Japanese - future. And yet, in the twelve years I've lived on and off in my mock-California suburb, the one person who has come to embody for me all the care for detail and solicitude I love in Japan is, in fact, the lady at the cash register in Lawson. Small, short-haired and perpetually harried, Hirata-san races to the back of the store to fetch coupons for me that will give me ten cents off my "Moisture Dessert." She bows to the local gangster who leaves his Bentley running and comes in the store with his high-heeled moll to claim some litchi-flavored strangeness. When occasionally I don't show up for six or seven hours, she sends, through my housemates, a bag of French fries to revive me.

The Japanese are so good at keeping up appearances that few signs are ever evident of the series of recent recessions. But over the years, I have seen poor Mrs. Hirata's husband (the store's manager) open his doors around the clock and take the graveyard shift himself. The place stared to stock tequila-sunrise cocktails in a can, and little bottles of wine. Soon even the Hiratas' two high-school-age sons were being pressed into service (unpaid, I'm sure).

It's no easier to understand Japan in Western terms than it is to eat noodles with a knife and fork. Yet it has been evident to me for some time that the crush of the anonymous world lies out in the temple-filled streets; the heart of the familiarity, the communal sense of the neighborhood, the simple kindness that brought me to Japan, lies in the convenience store.

Early last year, writing an article on paradise, I surmised that my modest neighborhood could be improved only by the addition of a cinema, but given the laws of human longing and limitation, such an arrival would probably mean the end of my favorite convenience store. Be careful of what you write. Days before my article came out, a sign appeared on my local Lawson, announcing it was going out of business. Almost everyone in the neighborhood was shaken, but no one knew what to do. (How to express your gratitude to a convenience store?) We'd watched the owners' sons grow up while their parents served up bags of chicken nuggets in three spicy flavors.

I went home, found a set of elegant bowls I'd bought in case of a sudden need for a wedding present, and returned to the store. They were being transferred to a far-off shop in the countryside, Mrs. Hirata said; she feared for her kids. She was even afraid of going out there herself. Then I handed over the box, and she realized why I had come. She began to waver for a moment, then turned away from me and put a calzone in the microwave. A true Japanese to the end, she wanted to protect me from her tears.

(This article was published in 2005 in the New York Times Magazine.)

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Dong Gwai Soup

I walked up the stairs of my house and unlocked the door. It swung open. Immediately a familiar, sickening odor swept over me. It was the smell of dong gwai, a medicinal soup that I drink every certain "time of the month." The smell made me sick to my stomach. I walked toward the kitchen, ready to face my fate.

My mother was occupied with preparing dinner. I said, "Hi, Ma wo hui lai le." (I'm home, mother.)

She still had her back turned to me. She said, "Kuai dian he tang kua liang le." (Drink your soup or it'll get cold.)


My mom is the most ignorant person in the world. And she's very traditional. She wants to do everything the old fashioned, Chinese way. During dinner, if one person is missing, nobody gets to eat. We're not allowed to lift or move the dishes of food off the table until everyone's done, because that's considered rude. And even though my mother knows I'm allergic to flower pollen, during the Chinese New Year she covers the house with flowers and I end up sneezing my brains out onto a tissue. Then there are the "lucky things" she buy, like the monthly case of fifty oranges - "because it brings us luck." I highly doubt a fruit will bring me any more fortune than a pencil sharpener can give me joy, but my mother was born and raised with these beliefs, and she plans on conserving them. I'm guess I'm OK with most of it, except for the "specialty fruits will bring good health and fortune" thing. And pretty much all that Eastern Medicine stuff.

When it comes to medicine, my mother will believe anything an Eastern doctor says. If any Eastern doctor told her to slaughter a pig under a full moon and stuff cow dung into it, promising her that any person who ate it would be immune to all cancers, I would have pork that night. If a Western doctor recommended Flonase or Claritin for my allergies, my mother would instead drag me kicking and screaming to the nearest Chinese herbalist. All my doctor appointments at clinics and hospitals are either close to or in Chinatown.

I hate seeing Eastern doctors. It's not because I'm afraid of them; it's because they are so fake. All the doctors do is look at my face, take my pulse, prescribe locust soup, and tell me I'm going to feel better in a few months when the allergy season is over. But out of respect for my countrymen I don't call it fake.

A few years back, I sprained my finger and my mom took me to an Eastern doctor. As usual, they asked me questions that were completely irrelevant to my condition, like "So how many times do you use the bathroom a day?" I sprained my finger, and they asked me how often I used the bathroom? I left the office with a week's supply of tree bark and a bottle of brown rubbing oil. I spent the following two weeks with a swollen middle finger that I couldn't bend.

I know that my mother means well, but sometimes it's ridiculous. I've been prescribed the most bizarre things, such as a root that tastes horribly bitter, and the ever-so-popular tree bark.

When one walks into any Eastern medicine store, the first things that one sees are the giant shark fins, usually hung on the wall like some prestigious trophy. Then there are hundreds of abalones packed into jars, which sit right next to the jars of seahorses. There are always antlers (from God knows what kind of animal) hung over the counter. Usually there are things piled in big barrels which smell exactly the way they look: disgusting. Sometimes I say to myself, "There must be some kind of law against this sort of practice."

Everything in these shops is done the old-fashioned way. The measuring, weighing - and sometimes even the calculating - are done the same way my ancestors did it. Believe it or not, one time my mother and I were about to pay for some medicine and as we put our purchases on the counter, the ancient-looking man took out abacus from behind the counter and started clicking away. I thought, My goodness, I can't believe we're not paying this guy with livestock.

Besides, Western medicine is very easy to take - they invented the pill. And you get to choose a flavor, like cherry or grape - a lot tastier. In Eastern medicine, you're lucky if you get to drink a pound of black thingy instead of green thingy. But because this is the old-fashioned, Chinese way of medicine, and what my mother was taught, this is what I have to put up with. It's all about tradition.

My family is a lot like any typical first-generation family; there is a gap between my belief and my mother's. We just don't think the same way. But I do respect what my mother believes in.

Through the years, I have learned to tolerate her absurd belief in strict tradition and Eastern medicine, even though I've never enjoyed or really appreciated it myself. I just grin and bear it. Maybe I'm over exaggerating, it's not really as bad as it seems. Possibly some day I'll even realize the importance of keeping traditions. But the most important thing is keeping this bond between me and my mother strong.


She pointed toward the bowl of soup on the kitchen counter. This was the moment I'd feared, but I had it coming for getting home so early. I walked to the counter, where my fate awaited. The soup was as black as could be. I brought it to my face and thought, "Maybe if I drink this really quickly I won't be able to taste any of it." I downed the whole bowl in one gulp. I felt myself make a disgusted face. But it wasn't as bad as I'd thought it would be. At least it didn't kill me.

I turned to my mom and asked, "Ay, what's for dinner?"

- excerpted from Home Wasn't Built In A Day. The author of this piece, Ellen Gong, was a student at the Galileo Academy of Science and Technology in San Francisco when this was written. Ellen was born and raised in San Francisco and, at the time of writing, wanted to grow up to be the future owner of a McDonald's or a Niketown. She described herself as the ultimate consumer.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Finding A Voice

Kathy Evans writes about her experience with WritersCorps, a San Francisco-based initiative that places professional writers in community settings to teach writing to youth:

"WritersCorps got me out of the suburbs. I was in the inaugural WritersCorp, the San Francisco 1994-95 group, and Clinton had just been elected president. He had pledged money and energy to revive AmeriCorps, and WritersCorps was one of its tributaries. There were about twenty of us from all over the United States, diverse in age, background and skin color. I crossed the bridge four times a week to teach in the inner city, a world apart from the one I had come from, the world of Volvos, little league baseball and pressure for high SAT scores. My first assignment was in San Francisco's Tenderloin District, where I worked in a center for community resources and development, teaching immigrant children poetry, which was a way of also helping them to learn first-time computer skills. I loved those kids, the ones who lived in small apartments, sometimes ten to a family - or no family at all - some with very limited English, others, wise beyond their years because of what they had witnessed on the streets. One student, Alan Nyguen, had no concept of what poetry was or meant. Every time I mentioned "poetry," he thought I was talking about a "Poet-Tree." One day he typed this poem:


Today I went to the park.
I saw a tree.
I like the tree.
It's a different tree.
It spells words.
One day it grew my name.
Birds come on it.
I always come to that tree.

I just loved that little poem. It was selected not only for the first WritersCorps anthology, Flavors of the City, but also was made into a giant poster and placed all over San Francisco inside the fancy new kiosks that decked the city streets. Alan was about seven years old -I'm sure Alan was not his Vietnamese name - and had moved to San Francisco from outside of Saigon. He was so proud of the poem that he carried it around in a small window in his wallet next to the family pictures.

A few months after the WritersCorps assignment had ended, while I was working at a routine office job down on Folsom Street for a consultant firm, Alan's mother tracked me down and asked through an interpreter over the phone if she could come to the office. She showed up at the office at noon - Alan a step behind her - with dishes and dishes of home-cooked Vietnamese food. She wanted to say thank you from her heart, her hands and her kitchen for the poem. I told her that Alan wrote the poem, that there was no need to thank me. Nevertheless, her generosity was not forgotten."

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