Culture Shock #96: Valentine’s Day & White Day

I am going to be doing some posts about my experience as a Kenyan in Japan. I’ll count down from 100 but in no particular order. Of course I expected Japan to be different so when people asked me if I experienced culture shock, I’d say no. But opon further reflection, there are so many things that have me asking, Japan, what the hell! That would never happen in Kenya! (and vice versa!). If that isn’t culture shock, then I don’t know what is. As an English-speaking nation and a former British colony, we are heavily influenced by the West (Europe and the USA) so there is little in our media/entertainment from Far East Asia .. for instance, not many Kenyans know much about The Far East and many confuse Japan for China or vice versa. So this has been literally, an eye-opening experience. Click on the hashtag for all the posts so far.

Valentine’s Day in Japan is just like Valentine’s Day in Kenya: a non-official, largely commercialized day for celebrating love. But there is one key difference! In Japan, it is the women who give men chocolates (and any other gifts)! So come this Sunday, the Kenyan woman in a relationship with a worthy man will wait to be treated like a queen. She will expect flowers, preferably red roses, chocolates, several other gifts -or at least one expensive gift, and then dinner at a romantic restaurant. For the luckier ladies, they will be whisked away by helicopters or by other vehicular means to romantic locations such coastal or lakeside resorts or even exotic safaris. For instance, the Villa Rosa Kempiski in Nairobi has a 5 Million Kenyan Shillings (about $5,000USD) Valentine’s Offer that includes roses, champagne, helicopter rides, and the presidential suite etc.

The Villa Rosa Kempiski in Nairobi, Image from http://www.nabiswa.com/

The Villa Rosa Kempiski in Nairobi, Image from http://www.nabiswa.com/

Now, I am not sure how Kenyan couples split their Valentine’s Day bills, but I can bet the man foots the bill on this particular day. He is also encouraged to come up with creative gifts (in addition to the chocolates and flowers) and ideas for the “surprise” dinner at favorable restaurants. When Valentine’s Day falls on a weekday, at least the man can get away with the bare minimum but since this year it falls on a weekend, men in relationships have to put in more effort to impress or prove their love or whatever reason couples celebrate Valentine’s.

The Japanese woman on the other hand, can’t afford to sit back and relax. She has to present chocolates to the man in her life, preferably prepared by themselves “as many of them think it is not true love if they just buy the ready made chocolate at shops”. That is not to say commercially prepared and packaged chocolates don’t have a market, they do! Read more about it here. Apparently, this practice may have started as a way for women, who are traditionally shy(are they?) to express their feelings. I shall now inform you that yours truly has also joined the bandwagon and bought some chocolates to ahem, express feelings with!

japan-valentines

Lots of commercials and guides showing women who to make chocolates for this special day. Image from tastymiso.com

If you are a Kenyan man thinking of immediately applying for a visa and permanent residence in Japan, know that there is also White Day. On this day, the men reciprocate the gifts they received to the women they received gifts from on Valentine’s Day. It comes exactly a month after, on March 14th. Oh, there is no special day for the man to receive gifts in Kenya, I think White Day only exists in Japan. Where is the justice in this?

P.S. While this post is not about the need to celebrate Valentine’s Day, allow me to say that there is nothing wrong with celebrating romantic love. There are always those couples newly in love, or forever in love, who don’t mind a special day to celebrate their love. That this can be done every other day of the year is besides the point. Of course, it has increasingly become commercialized, just like Christmas (and maybe soon Easter as well as other holidays), but it’s not going to go away any time soon.

Happy Valentine’s Day Everyone! What plans do you have with your loved ones?

Culture Shock #97: The Onsen Experience

I am going to be doing some posts about my experience as a Kenyan in Japan. I’ll count down from 100 but in no particular order. Of course I expected Japan to be different so when people asked me if I experienced culture shock, I’d say no. But opon further reflection, there are so many things that have me asking, Japan, what the hell! That would never happen in Kenya! (and vice versa!). If that isn’t culture shock, then I don’t know what is. As an English-speaking nation and a former British colony, we are heavily influenced by the West (Europe and the USA) so there is little in our media/entertainment from Far East Asia .. not many Kenyans know much about The Far East and many confuse Japan for China or vice versa. So this has been literally, an eye-opening experience. Click on the hashtag for all the posts so far.

So your boyfriend has a better handbag than you, yet he walks around with his wallet sticking out of his back pocket. Meanwhile, you are glad you have double eye-lids and have recently been utilizing a small-face corset so your face may have now shrunk to acceptable standards. But just in case it hasn’t, you have been wearing a surgical mask daily even if you’re not in danger of catching a fatal disease. But you’re not yet fully integrated into the Japanese culture until you are comfortable going to have a shower in a public bathhouse, after which you get into a giant bathtub, fully naked, with other strangers.

Okay, so there are onsens and then there are public bathhouses. (This is my understanding/categorization). Onsens are/were (natural)hotsprings, set in a backdrop of beautiful scenery. Sometimes they’d be in the mountains overlooking a beautiful valley, or the scenic view of snow etc. The main bath would be outside as you soak in the view and relax in hot water which is luxurious especially in winter.

An onsen in winter. Image from http://www.japan-guide.com/blog/schauwecker/111231.html

An onsen in winter. Image from http://www.japan-guide.com/blog/schauwecker/111231.html

To soak in the above inviting onsen, anyone can overcome any shyness or reservations they have about public bathing.

Then there are bathhouses. I didn’t understand why anyone would leave their bathtub at home to go bathe and soak in public. Most people do this on a daily basis or on several days a week.

Men bathing at an onsen. Image from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/464926361502378098/

Men bathing at an onsen. Image from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/464926361502378098/

Before getting into the bath, you must first wash yourself. The shower area has these plastic stools where you are supposed to sit so as to properly scrub yourself. After which you can enter the pool of sometimes scalding water, which you get used to after a few minutes.

Apparently, “‘Sento’ or public baths have long been part of the Japanese culture and dates back to the time when not all houses have their own bathrooms and some want to experience the soothing feeling hot springs water gives.” But actually, even if you have your own bathtub, it is just not possible to maintain the temperature as well as the bathhouses do, and of course you have plenty of room to stretch and relax at the bathhouse instead of a cramped bathtub.

No, there are no onsens or bathhouses in Kenya. That would seem a strange idea indeed.

I thought it made sense to go to bathhouses in winter and I have been going at least once a week with J. It is very relaxing afterwards and you sleep like a baby. So J and I like to go after dinner.

However, Japanese people go to onsens/bathhouses even in summer, when temperatures are in their late 30s! They say they feel very refreshed afterwards, but I am yet to muster the courage to enter a scalding hot bath in the summer heat!

Most onsens (I think over 95%) have separate sections for men and women. There are some mixed gender onsens but I am yet to go to such (although I hear they be mostly full of men hoping to catch a glimpse of any women joining them). Girls and boys under 8 years old are allowed to go either way! So it is not strange to see 7 year old boys, who of course understand the physical difference between the genders, bathing and soaking with their mothers in the women’s side. Young girls of up to 8 may go with their grandfathers to the men’s side. It’s a little bit unnerving at first because in most Kenyan communities, gazing upon the nakedness of your mother/motherly women is probably a curse-inviting offense. But really, there should be no shame in or any need to hide the human body. I think it is okay now that J is almost 3 and still young, but I am not sure I can still take him with me after he’s turned 5 and over. We’ll see.

In the meantime, we are loving the bathhouses and can be seen there at least once a week. It’s one of the things I am sure we will miss about Japan if and when we return. Never mind there is no winter in Kenya.

Culture Shock #98: The Mask Revolution

I am going to be doing some posts about my experience as a Kenyan in Japan. I’ll count down from 100 but in no particular order. Of course I expected Japan to be different so when people asked me if I experienced culture shock, I’d say no. But opon further reflection, there are so many things that have me asking, Japan, what the hell! That would never happen in Kenya! (and vice versa!). If that isn’t culture shock, then I don’t know what is. As an English-speaking nation and a former British colony, we are heavily influenced by the West (Europe and the USA) so there is little in our media/entertainment from Far East Asia .. not many Kenyans know much about The Far East and many confuse Japan for China or vice versa. So this has been literally, an eye-opening experience. Click on the hashtag for all the posts so far.

I have only worn a “surgical mask” once in my life. That was last week when I had a minor cold and was sneezing all over the place. I felt like a doctor ready to perform surgery. Move over everyone, enter Dr. Savvy.

Dr. Savvy, ready for surgery!

Dr. Savvy, ready for surgery!

(Stretches left hand out): scissors *cuts something*
(Stretches left hand out again): scalpel *cuts something, again*
(Stretches left hand out again): needle. Dammit, we’re losing the patient. Apply the defibrillator, 100 cc, stat. Stand back everyone, stand back! 1, 2, 3..

Back to reality.

In Kenya, only doctors performing surgery wear surgical masks. I have never seen anyone in Kenya put on a mask and walk about freely. If I were to do that, people would assume I have some deadly disease (like SARS or Ebola – never mind Ebola is not a respiratory disease and is not spread through the airborne route). Matatu conductors wouldn’t want me in their vehicles and no one will want to touch me with a ten-foot pole! At least that’s what I imagine would happen.

In Japan, eeeeeveryone wears masks.

surgical-mask

Scenes like these are not uncommon. Image from http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/

I was worried at first that maybe there is some deadly in the air and perhaps I should rush to get one. So I asked my Japanese and Chinese friends why they wear masks.

The most common reason why Japanese people wear masks is because they have a cold and they don’t want to pass it to others. It is a culture where it is important to maintain harmony with others, where “it will disturb others” is reason enough to do/not do something. It is considered polite to get a mask to stop spraying your germs around whenever you cough, sneeze or blow your nose. You would then think that infection rates are near 0 and no one gets a cold but the business of new cold infections goes on as usual, masks or no masks!

If you are wearing a mask to stop yourself from getting infected by those around you, it doesn’t work really as it is not a disinfecting mask. There is no germ filter.

If you have a cold though, there is another reason you should wear a mask apart from infecting those around you. My tutor (who’s Japanese) told me that it helps with keeping the air your breathe moist and warm so it reduces your coughing. This made sense and when I got a cold last week (actually the first time I was getting a cold since coming to Japan), I put on the mask.

It was totally uncomfortable. I am one of those people who never cover their heads with blankets when I sleep because I feel like I am suffocating. The mask made me feel the same if not worse, and it also fogged my glasses. I spent the day with the mask hanging from my ears but leaving my mouth uncovered which was totally pointless. To help my cold heal faster, I resorted to the classic Kenyan treatment: dawa. A potent brew of lemon, ginger, garlic and honey. I discarded the mask the next day. I must add though, that my 2 year old son J, has taken a liking to the mask and has no problem putting one on the whole day.

I was talking with an Egyptian friend whose kids spent several years in Japan and are now back in Egypt. His son had a cold and went to school in a mask to stop spreading it to his classmates. The teacher however, was having none of that. It was too disruptive and he (the teacher) would rather have the kid infect all others but he was not allowing a surgical mask in his class.

Perhaps different masks designs, not the typical white surgical mask, might help sell the appeal of the mask outside of East Asia?

Different styles of masks. Image from http://puu.sh/kFlU5/4c0a613f4b.jpg

Different styles of masks. Image from http://puu.sh/kFlU5/4c0a613f4b.jpg

In China too, they wear masks because the air pollution in some cities is just too much. However, I don’t know if they are scientifically effective as they are just pieces of fabric with no chemical filters included. It would perhaps work on dust but not for much else.

Some people in Japan wear masks as an accessory, even if they aren’t sick. Perhaps if you have allergies to pollen, cat fur etc, a mask would come in handy.

In Japan, people are polite enough and care about others/society to not spread a cold when they get sick so they will definitely wear a mask. In Kenya, it seems sometimes that people GO OUT OF THEIR WAY to disrupt others/society so I think a mask will be a hard sell! As a Kenyan reading this, would you wear a mask? (Where would you even buy one?!)

Culture Shock #99: Japanese Beauty Standards

I am going to be doing some posts about my experience as a Kenyan in Japan. I’ll count down from 100 but in no particular order. Of course I expected Japan to be different, so when people asked me if I experienced culture shock, I’d say no, but on further reflection there are so many things that have me asking, Japan, what the hell? That would never happen in Kenya! (and vice versa!). If that isn’t culture shock, then I don’t know what is. As an English-speaking nation and a former British colony, we are heavily influenced by the West (Europe and the USA), there is little in our media/entertainment from Far East Asia .. not many Kenyans know much about The Far East and many confuse Japan for China or vice versa. Here is the previous post, #100 and the hashtag for all the posts so far.

  • Small Head, Small Face

I was in the bus with my Ethiopian friend who’s married to a Japanese guy and she has been living here in Japan for over 15 years. I was of course, actively avoiding eye contact with a few curious people who stole glances at me. I couldn’t however, avoid eye contact with my Ethiopian friend whom I was chatting with, even if she was looking at me a tad too intensely before remarking:

“You’re very pretty. And you’ve got a small head, and a small face..”

I was puzzled.

Here is a picture of me wearing an Ethiopian dress. Is my head small? What about my face?

Here is a picture of me wearing an Ethiopian dress. Is my head small? What about my face?

She then explained to me that Japanese people usually have big heads (her words, not mine) and that they desire small heads and small faces. Up until that point, and really even up to now, I had and have never given a thought to the ratio of the size of Japanese heads to their bodies. It’s simply ridiculous but perhaps that’s the Kenyan in me talking. No one gives a thought about the size of your head, and width of your face as a standard of beauty in Kenya.

I thought maybe it is just something foreigners observe. Until another time I was in the car with a Japanese friend who was dropping me off in campus. He spent a year in the US and is obsessed with basketball, rap and basketballers. He remarked wistfully, “They are so tall and they have such small heads.” So I turned to look at him and earnestly told him, “Hey, your head is small too.” He was like, “really? thanks!”
Now you know what compliment to give next time you’re talking to a Japanese guy. “You’ve got such a small head, and your face is small too!”. Say that to a Kenyan at the risk of being thought insane.

Oh look at the size of LeBron's head.. so small!

Oh look at the size of LeBron’s head.. so small!

In my opinion if you ask me, I think having a big head would imply a big brain and that’s a good thing, no?

Perhaps nothing can be done about the size of the head but fear not if you’re a broad-faced Kenyan woman wanting to look beautiful in Japan, there is an invention called the facial corset that promises a tiny face. You might think I am joking but this product is available on Amazon from as low as $10 and has a 3.6/5 star rating..

The Absolute Tiny Face Corset from Amazon

The Absolute Tiny Face Corset from Amazon. Image from Amazon

  • Small, Straight Nose

As an African, my nose is probably on the broader, flatter side.. Here I would terribly fail the Japanese beauty test for the desired small, straight nose. Being in a land of technological innovation, there is a list of gadgets available to help shape my face, including The Hana Tsun Nose Straightener (see image below), The Eye Slack Haruka, The Eyelid Trainer, The Rhythm Slim Chin Exerciser, The Face Slimmer Mouthpiece etc..

The Hana Tsun Nose Straightener

The Hana Tsun Nose Straightener. See link above for source

  • Double Eyelids

Let’s not even get started on this one. I had no idea what “double eyelids” were until I got to Japan. 100% of the Kenyans I know have double eyelids so it’s not something you’re “aware” of until you meet people who want it. You can read an article about it on gaijinpot.com.” Blepharoplasty, also known as the double eyelid surgery is one of the most popular cosmetic surgeries in Japan. The surgery is performed to transform the Asian “monolid” into a Western-style [edit African-style too!] “double lid” thereby making the patient’s eyes look bigger.”

Source: gaijinpot.com

Source: gaijinpot.com

  • Crooked Teeth

There are reports of Japanese women getting surgery to make their straight teeth crooked because it is seen as more attractive. But it’s not crooked teeth per se but slightly longer, vampire-like canines.. I don’t think it is a very popular trend among the general population. However, I have made one interesting observation: all the women I’ve met so far with (naturally) crooked teeth are beautiful. I don’t know if there’s a correlation there.

Japanese twins

I met the Japanese twins above at the Tokyo Sevens, they were supporting the Kenyan team. They’re beautiful and coincidentally they also have slightly crooked canines. I hope they’re okay with me using their photos, I don’t remember their names/contact!

Physique
Ah.. let’s not go there today! But a definition of “slim” by Kenya standards is “average” here.

Culture Shock #100: Japanese Men and Their Wallets, Manbags

I am going to be doing some posts about my experience as a Kenyan in Japan. I’ll count down from 100 but in no particular order. Of course I expected Japan to be different, so when people asked me if I experienced culture shock, I’d say no, but on further reflection there are so many things that have me asking, Japan, what the hell? That would never happen in Kenya! (and vice versa!). If that isn’t culture shock, then I don’t know what is. As an English-speaking nation and a former British colony, we are heavily influenced by the West (Europe and the USA), we watch lots of Western shows and yes, we also do watch lots of South American and Filipino soap operas .. but the point is, not many Kenyans know much about The East and many confuse Japan for China or vice versa. Anyway, without further ado, presenting post #100. Here is the hashtag for the posts

The first time I saw someone with a huge wallet popping out of his back pocket was in a crowded bus on the way to campus. I couldn’t believe it. Just like below:

This would never happen in Kenya. When in Nairobi, I keep my wallet inside a smaller bag inside my handbag, which I walk with under my armpit while always on the lookout. If you see someone with an exposed wallet in Nairobi, I am sure even thieves wouldn’t pinch it. It’s clearly a trap! Even with our wallets hidden deep inside our bags/bodies, pickpockets still manage to get at them or just take the entire bag with them. Japan would be a goldmine to them (pickpockets).

Now China is more like Kenya where they have this anti-theft shoulder strap bag thing for men.

This Anti-Theft-Hidden-Underarm-Shoulder-Bag-Holster is available on Alibaba

This Anti-Theft-Hidden-Underarm-Shoulder-Bag-Holster is available on Alibaba

Manbags
They are everywhere in Japan. They are such a big deal almost every guy you encounter will be carrying a bag ranging from a formal briefcase to a casual, as feminine-as-can-be handbag. Most of the manbags are more stylish than any bag I own! Very few men in Kenya carry manbags and some people think it is gay to be seen with one!

The images below are sourced from the web but they are everyday scenes.In fact, there is a pininterest page just dedicated to Japanese men and their fashionable manbags. Here is another blog talking about the same thing.

The stylish manbag

The stylish manbag

The stylish manbag

The stylish manbag

Nairobi men would rather be dead than carry their girlfriends’ handbags, let alone their own. This thing about men being too macho to carry handbags is just in the mind guys, it’s a culture thing. A culture shock thing? Haha I live for the day the stylish manbag will be a common scene in Nairobi.