Where were you when I needed you?  

Saturday, 30 August 2008

I’ve finally found the source of information and support I have so desperately sought over the last 4 years in the shape of a guide book to Japanese women. Kind of an owner’s manual, if you like. The 160-page booklet has done so much to explain the odd behaviour of the wife, and put my mind at rest that I am not alone in experiencing these difficulties. But more than that, it has given me an insight into the relationship from the Japanese perspective, which I’m sure will prove invaluable.

The interesting part is that I can now see much more clearly which of the problems we experience can be attributed to cultural differences and which are just her (or me, for that matter). For example, the gender roles differ greatly in Japanese society – seemingly very antiquated from our modern Western standpoint. And yet, they are not so dissimilar to the standards of behaviour which were the norm here in perhaps the 1950’s. The man is expected to be a man; strong, silent and capable of handling problems with no complaints. The women rely almost entirely on the men to protect and provide for them: there is very little shared responsibility of the sort we’ve grown accustomed to here. Men are expected to take the lead in everything outside the home and act decisively when making arrangements. Looking back over the early part of our relationship, I can remember quite a few occasions where I was far too “Western”; doing what I thought was the gentlemanly thing and allowing the lady to make the arrangements for visits or things like that.

One really interesting example of how the cultural differences can easily be misinterpreted is our habit of holding doors open for ladies to enter. This seemingly genteel behaviour is viewed as anything but in Japan, where the custom is exactly the opposite: Men go in first always. To our Western eyes, images of swaggering bigots barging into restaurants while their demure wives struggle along behind appears extremely sexist. But not so. In reality, this custom dates from Samurai times, when potential danger lurked behind every doorway. The men would enter first so as not to expose his wife and family to any risks which lay beyond. Far from being the act of a chauvinist, it is in fact an act of selfless courage and love. Interpreted in this way, our seemingly quaint custom of holding open doors for ladies appears utterly cowardly and the act of a total cad. This is the perfect illustration of just how complicated things can get when crossing cultural boundaries.

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The possibility of time travel has long been a topic of speculation by sci-fi writers. Will it one day be possible? Well, your humble scribe is thrilled to confirm that time travel is indeed a reality. Venturing out for a quiet pint in Rye, I appear to have inadvertedly travelled through a time warp back to about 1950.

Either that, or I've walked into the most ill-conceived theme pub in the history of licensed hostelry.

All this makes games night at the Phoenix seem positively normal

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The Last Supper  

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

26082008174 Tonight is my last night in Randolph Close. Tired though I am, this was not a night to go unmarked. A trip to the Phoenix was essential, and a very pleasant evening it was too. Now back home, I’m lying on a mattress on the floor of our bedroom, listening to Radio 4, eating Marmite on toast and drinking sake. I can’t think of a more fitting cross-cultural culinary tribute to our time here.

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A lesson learned  

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Another day of toil; a bigger pile of rubbish and more problems. It’s looking increasingly likely I’m going to have to just give away some expensive items like the tumble drier and Little M’s bed because I can’t find any takers. My mum said to just do it and forget about it; “You’ve done your best so you can’t do any more.” She is right.

Although she doesn’t know it, she’s reminded me of one of my most important philosophies – that of letting go of things that don’t matter anymore. In Wing Chun, the striking fist contains energy only at the moment of impact: Too soon, and strength is wasted and the blow becomes slow and cumbersome; too late and the energy contained in the striking limb can easily be turned against you and your whole body unbalanced. Life is a bit like that sometimes. Everything has it’s right time for action; a right time for energy to be focused into it. Like the striking limb that’s too tense, putting energy into things at the wrong time can actually work against a successful conclusion. Holding on to something – expending emotional energy on something - that is no longer of use is just as damaging. I think there is a passage in the Hagakure of Yamamoto Tsunetomo that says something like “Waste no time on useless things.” This is sound advice.

A central tenet of Zen Buddhist philosophy is that all human suffering derives from our attachment to things that are impermanent. Possessions, money – even life itself – are impermanent constructs and will one day slip through our fingers like water. Perhaps a lesson from today is that rather than expending energy on trying to hold onto things that can’t be held, I should be celebrating and be thankful for the good things that they represented when they were part of our lives here in Canterbury.

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A new day brings no relief  

Monday, 25 August 2008

Another day dawns over the wreckage of our home. I was pretty down last night when I went to bed, and now in the cold light of day I’m even more demoralised by the mountain of problems that still have to be overcome. Just 3 minutes with pen and paper has filled an A4 sheet with tasks that must be completed within the next 24 hours. This marathon is taking every ounce of courage and fortitude I possess to endure. Last night I found a picture of me from 2004, slim fit and glowing with health. You wouldn’t recognise me now – burnt-out, haggard, decrepit and out of shape. I must be crazy to put myself though all this. And, I keep asking myself, for what?

I am still really fuming with Big M over her attitude. I have resolved to cut her out of my life until I get everything sorted out. She’s bloody useless anyway, so nothing lost.

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The wrong trousers  

Another exhausting and demoralising day in limbo draws to a close, and I’m sitting here beer in hand trying to make sense of the day and formulate a set of objectives for tomorrow. All this against a backdrop of sniping and criticism from “’Er indoors”. Today’s moral-sapping exchange involved the arrangements for the disposal of our dishwasher. Sorry, I meant Big M’s dishwasher. In our marriage, everything that I own is hers and everything she owns is her own. Seems fair.

Our, sorry, her dishwasher got roasted in an incident with the central heating boiler in our old house. It is the Simon Weston of dishwashers; perfectly functional but a little odd to look at. Consequently, it has a resale value of around £0. Actually rather less than that, as you’d probably have to pay someone to take it away. In that kind of situation, I’d rather it go somewhere where it will do some good. We met a young couple a little while ago. The guy has just finished training as a teacher and is trying to get his first posting. With a young child as well, a financial situation that must be a little challenging. So I thought they’d be able to give our dishwasher a good home. The offer was gratefully received. That was until the news reached Japan.

Now apparently “she will never speak to them again”. And of course, it’s all my fault. Apparently, I was not authorised to get rid of “her” dishwasher, even though she has done nothing to assist in its disposal. Nor with any of the other significant consumer durables that have to be out of this house by 9am Thursday morning. Her parting shot was that, apparently, she has such a hard life, thereby making it impossible for her to take a more active role in the moving process.

Yeah, right.

Apart from preparing three meals, I struggle to comprehend what she actually does all day: But after several days with my hand in the Flash bucket, I can personally attest that whatever it is, it’s not housework. Without putting too fine a point on it, this place is absolutely filthy. The bathroom, the cooker, the cupboards have obviously not been touched for most of the time we’ve been here. This has led me to question the role of the Japanese wife in the marital home; specifically – have I just got a duff one or are they all this bloody useless?

It appears that they are.

Over the last few days – and today in particular, I’ve been privy to some quite frank exchanges with Westerners married to Japanese women. It appears that I am not alone. Many people concede that their Japanese wives are invariably demanding, often dissatisfied, moody, critical, unsympathetic, selfish, lazy around the house and just bloody hard work a lot of the time. Now, I found this quite shocking: Whereas on one level, I was quite relieved that I’m not alone in experiencing feelings of exasperation, on another was the chilling realisation that this bunny-boiling behaviour might actually be considered the norm in Japanese society. It would certainly explain the high number of suicides and drunken salarymen on the late night trains in Tokyo – too scared to go home to face “She who must be obeyed”.

However it doesn’t explain why on Earth such women apparently crave the open-minded Western-style marriage.

And of course the same us true of us; What did I – and do I – expect from my Japanese wife? From my perspective, I am not expecting the values and demeanour of a Western woman, and I’m certainly not expecting the mythical demure and submissive Japanese wife of legend. As a fair-minded, easy-going sort of character, I couldn’t think of anything worse, actually. But by the same token, there’s no way that I intend to live my life as a Salaryman doormat, and it’s really unfair for them to expect us Westerners to do so.

Our attitude is, I think, one of equanimity: we expect to have to adapt our ways to that of our host culture, and we do so out of respect. We, as husbands, expect the same courtesy. We don’t want to become Japanese, not do we expect our wives to become Europeans. But it would be nice if – sometimes – we could just meet in the middle. This can’t happen without effort on both sides. At the moment, this cordiality doesn’t seem to be happening in my marriage.

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Tired and tested  

Sunday, 24 August 2008

I am currently lying on my bed, trying my best to keep a positive mental attitude to the trials and tribulations that lay in the immediate future. For despite Herculean efforts from everyone involved – especially my mum who has really bust a gut to help out – there remains a mountain of problems to solve and very little time left to do so. The pile of trash in the yard has grown to Alpine proportions, with still more stuff to go on tomorrow. Yet I still have a tumble drier, a dishwasher, a sofa and Little M’s ‘Princess’ bed to get rid of. I’m pretty worried that I’ll just have to throw them away. That would seem a criminal waste.

I feel a strong sense of déjà-vu; the same empty despondency that I felt when I had to walk away from my house and all my beautiful furniture in 2001. I know it’s not quite the same this time around, but the feeling of having worked so hard and achieved precisely nothing is extremely, and depressingly familiar. I feel I’ve just travelled in a huge and expensive circle just to end up where I started. I just hope it will all make sense in the end.

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Completely stuffed  

Saturday, 23 August 2008

If they were giving out Olympic medals for packing storage units, we’d have definitely struck gold yesterday. !cid_54D3A5F5F7BC4FBE97101B32CDC71B3E@AdrianPC

More or less the entire contents of a three bedroomed house condensed into a mere 35 square feet unit with not even a fag-paper’s width to spare. Even the guys from the moving company didn’t think we’d do it. But all those years packing trucks on the road clearly weren’t wasted!

There is no way any of that stuff is coming out anytime soon. In fact I think that given the density with which it’s packed, the biggest danger is a black hole forming in the middle!

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The world’s dimmest bank (staff)  

Friday, 22 August 2008

There’s nothing quite like the level of irritation that can be achieved when the thin veil of marketing bullshit is ripped asunder to reveal a reality of total incompetence. Such was the case today with my experience at HSBC – the one that likes to portray itself as the “world’s local bank”. 

The wife has an HSBC account. She is in Tokyo and needs to get some money from her account. Japan has cash machines that work with UK cash cards. Tokyo has a branch of HSBC. You’d be excused for thinking that, in such circumstances, the withdrawal of a few Yen from a local cash machine would present few problems for a customer of ‘the world’s local bank’. You’d be wrong, of course.

It appears that HSBC is only the world’s local bank for people within the UK. Travel beyond the borders of Great Britain and HSBC immediately blocks your card from being used unless you have informed them in advance. How convenient.

Especially if, like my missus, you don’t speak English that well. So it now appears that the world's local bank is only local if a) you are in the UK and b) you speak English.

So basically, the situation is this: The wife is in Tokyo with a bank card she can't use. The Tokyo branch if HSBC can't deal with UK accounts and the wife can't understand HSBC's outstandingly obscure and utterly ridiculous automated phone banking service. And when she does eventually get through to a human being..."Hello, my name is Gupta...." - an imbecile who can barely speak English himself. So, basically, that's the end of the conversation.

I really didn't want to get involved in this, but I felt duty bound to try and get somebody within HSBC to carry out the simple task of unblocking the wife's card so she can get her money. Given that we have between us 4 bank accounts at HSBC, and that I've been a customer for over 10 years, you'd think that would be easy. Wrong again. I hadn't reckoned on the potent combination of the Data Protection Act as administered by the inept pillocks that HSBC refer to (without a trace of irony) as “customer support executives”.

I knew I was in trouble as soon as I walked into the branch: I counted at least six vacant-looking junior bank staff hovering around the “customer support desk” like a bunch of lobotomised vultures. My objective was to carve my way through this cannon fodder as quickly as possible in the hope of reaching someone with a brain. The first idiot was dispatched easily enough: The glassy, uncomprehending gaze that greeted my query showed that with one telling blow I had taken this doorstop well beyond her comfort zone. “I’ll get my supervisor”, she stuttered. Next up was the 20 year old expert. “I’m a customer services advisor, actually”, he sneered as he stood arms folded in front of me. “That’s nice”, I retorted. “Now run along and find someone who knows about banking, there’s a good boy.” Ego crushed, he skulked away muttering. I was ushered into a cubicle, wherein sat a girl of perhaps 24 years, with an IQ to match. “You want to draw some money out in Japan?” enquired the animated vegetable. My eyes turned skyward as I uttered a silent prayer for strength in what promised to be an epic – and as it turned out, pointless – quest to get someone to empathise with my predicament. “No, you don’t quite understand,” I said as quietly and as gently as my rising tide of irritation would allow.

What followed was 40 minutes of pure Victor Meldrew-style mayhem, eventually involving the branch manager (IQ 30) and various drones from the HSBC call centre (with a collective IQ in minus figures). I won’t go into the various tortuous paths my arguments took as I tried to illuminate what was clearly a difficult concept for them to grasp. But essentially, my point was this: My wife would like to get her money;she can’t because you’ve blocked her card. She can’t unblock her card because she can’t understand the instructions that Gupta in your call centre is giving her. As well as effectively being robbed by the bank, this means of course that she also can’t tell them about a change of address, meaning that all her bank statements will now be seen by whoever ends up living here next. They won’t talk to me, citing Data Protection as justification, while completely failing to grasp the fact that their actions will inevitably result in exactly the situation the Data Protection Act was intended to prevent. 

In other words, they are plain bloody stupid. The kind of wooden plank, arrogant stupidity that denies any possibility of responding to a reasoned argument. You’d have more luck talking to the desk. I even tried that at one point, but to no avail.

I find it hard to understand how every one of these morons has probably got a zillion A levels and yet they are functioning at the intellectual level of a turnip. What happened to initiative? Empathy? An appreciation of the fact that rules sometimes need to be relaxed? Why can’t they just do what is obviously the right thing to do instead of repeating the rule book parrot-fashion? The answer is; education, education, education – or lack thereof.

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Freak night at the Phoenix  

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

I popped along to the Phoenix last evening to drop some rosemary and bay leaves in to Auntie Lynda -the product of yesterday afternoon’s gardening frenzy. I was not prepared for what I found.

Monday night is Games Night at the Phoenix.

Now, at its best the Phoenix is an odd pub; An entry on one pub listing website simply notes, “Odd clientele”. But Monday night is clearly when the real hardcore oddballs come out to play.

“One half of lime and lemonade please”, ordered one reckless maverick. Easy tiger. One of his game-playing compatriots went crazy and ordered half of bitter and nearly a whole glass of wine for his wife. Clearly we weren’t going to set any records for wet sales this evening. More misfits gradually slipped into the bar until there were eight or so grouped around the table; warily eyeing each other over their shandies like a bunch of ineffectual, limp-wristed cowboys gathered around a poker table.

As the ginger beer flowed, tongues were loosened, and in that peculiar high-pitched, droning monologue of the terminally dull, the sad, empty existence of these less-than-colourful characters stood starkly revealed. One couple had apparently travelled from as far away as Ashford to chance their luck in the cut and thrust world of Scrabble. That’s what I call living on the edge.

I think if that was me, alarm bells would be ringing if I had to drive 20 miles just to find another couple to play Scrabble with.

Each to his own, and I have no right to criticise what others do for fun. Yet even so I found it hard to fight the rising tide of hysterical giggles prompted by this Python-esque gathering. So with good grace, I retired for the evening and left these hard-bitten gamblers to their devil-may-care entertainment.

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Difficult decisions  

Sunday, 10 August 2008

I have been tortured with indecision about what to do with our cat, Van. The choice of whether to try and take him to Japan or not has been a very difficult one to make. On the one hand, he is a really important part of the family and is much loved. Also, I really wanted the company of another English “boy” in Japan. Sounds daft, but he is the most attentive listener and incredibly conversational. He would be great company.

But this has to be weighed against his welfare: Japan is very hot in the Summer. Van is a Norwegian Forest Cat, and not really designed for that kind of weather. He is fond of the outdoor life and spends most of his time here outside – a lifestyle that would be all but impossible in ‘Joji. Finally, as an extremely conservative character I’m sure he would be greatly distressed by the loss of familiar surroundings and his many cat friends.

Add to that the stress of the journey, and I am forced to conclude that he is better off staying here. So now I need to try and find another home for him, preferably with a neighbour so he doesn’t have to travel far. I feel really sad to have to say goodbye to my boy, but I have to put is welfare first. I would be extremely selfish to do otherwise.

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Winning the cat food stand-off  

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Here’s a tip for anyone with a cat who is a fussy eater. In other words, all cat owners. Anyone who’s ever owned a cat will have experienced the cat-food stand-off: Tiddles’ takes one mouthful of food, then turns around to give you one of those baleful cat stares that says “I’m not eating this slop”. It’s then a battle of wills: Man against beast; a titanic struggle between you and a bolshie little pest with a seemingly iron resolve to starve to death rather than subject himself to your will. You know full well who will win.

As much as you decide to stick to your guns, as much as you refuse to be bullied into it, you know that eventually you’ll end up chucking away a perfectly decent tin of cat food, all the time cursing yourself for giving in. But, not anymore. I have discovered a secret weapon in this primordial battle between the species. Dashi powder.

Dashi is a kind of clear stock that’s used in a wide variety of Japanese dishes. It has an extremely delicate flavour, reminiscent of seafood but not overtly fishy, if that makes sense. Traditionalists make their own, using konbu seaweed and a dried fish called bonito. But most people use the dried version for convenience. 

Basically, if cats could manufacture cat cocaine, I’m sure it would taste something like dashi. The delicate fish flavour really floats their boat; and the effect on the fussy feline diner is dramatic. Dashi sprinkled onto the cheapest cat food instantly transforms it into feline haute cuisine, sending Tiddles into culinary raptures and saving you a fortune in the process. Dashi can be purchased from any Asian food store. Try it next time Tiddles throws a Michael Winner-style wobbler over the catering arrangements in your house.

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The Chinese raise the bar  

I took a break from work today to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing. Normally I’m not that interested in sporting events, but there has been so much speculation and hype about the opening ceremony that I felt compelled to watch. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Olympics is a significant global event, but this one has a particular importance, as I’m sure it will be seen by history as a watershed in China’s relationship with the world. The day that China truly strode onto the world stage. And what a fitting entrance they made: It was an incredible show. I was genuinely – and unexpectedly – moved by the sheer scale of it; the colossal effort that had clearly been put into it by each and every person involved. As I marvelled at the spectacle, I felt uplifted by the humanity of it all; what a remarkable race we humans are to be able to work together on such a vast scale and with such precision to achieve great things.

Then I had a thought that brought me back to Earth with a bump: Remember Tony Blair’s “Rivers of Fire”? Let me remind you – it was the huge firework display that was supposed to have lit up London on Millennium Night? The one that – with no explanation - just didn’t happen. Not even a sparkler.

The Chinese have laid an enormous challenge for London to rise to in 2012. If this pathetic government couldn’t even organise a firework display, what hope do they have of delivering something on such a vast scale as the Olympics. I have a deep sense of foreboding that just as the 2008 Olympics will be remembered as heralding China’s triumphant renaissance, 2012 will be seen as the event that marked UK’s shambling exit from the world stage.

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Not sorry to leave...  

Monday, 4 August 2008

These are difficult times for your humble scribe. There are a lot of things to organise in the last few weeks I have left here. It's an awesome task to tackle single handed, especially as I also have to keep the business afloat at the same time. But that's all part of the plan so it's not exactly a surprise. What has surprised me has been my feelings about my impending departure.

Basically, I can't wait. Now this has taken me a little by surprise. By now, I had expected to be in the grip of a full-body panic about leaving the familiar surroundings of the the UK. But far from it. The reality is actually quite the reverse. The reason for my keenness is mainly down to just one thing: Everyone is so bloody rude here. People have seemingly completely lost the concept of consideration for others. From the braying pillocks who invaded the Phoenix on Friday night, spoiling everyone's evening, to the screaming children running unchecked around the Miller's Arms (where I am at present) there seems to be no end to the irritations. You just don't get that in Japan. Like I said, I can't wait

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