Monday, January 31, 2005

the other side of the pond

There is an advertisement that has been frequenting Tokyo trains recently. Despite its muted tones and simple layout it popped out at me amid all the ads for fashion magazines, cram schools, beer and laxatives. It is a photograph of a New York art studio, fashionable but not unrealistic, with two young women, a Caucasian and an Asian, working intensely on some pottery. They're both wearing no nonsense loose clothing, no trace of feminine appeal or obsequious fashionability about it. Although I can't be 100% sure, the photograph stands out from all the other hyper-real images in Tokyo advertising of air brushed and CG'd models hawking canned soup and skin products in that it seems to be a real situation, no touching up or even dramatic framing or angles. Overlaying the photo is the text, "I discovered the real me in New York City"; the internship linkup agency's contact info runs along the bottom edge.

Interestingly enough, there is an article and a photo essay in today's New York Times about the recent wave of young issei, first generation Japanese immigrants who flock to New York City as a place where they can freely pursue careers in the arts and find a better sense of themselves. The article is very well done, but didn't address one issue that I'm sure a lot of the issei are worried about: visas. I have met a string of young Japanese who have lived abroad for a significant period of time, but what with the US cracking down on foreign visas (particularly student visas), many of them were cut short and came back to a Japan they could barely relate to.

I used to work with one young Japanese chef who had gone to culinary school in Manhattan, had worked and interned at some of the best French and fusion restaurants in NYC, and was just getting settled in when her visa extension was denied and she flew back to Japan, her culinary credentials worth very little. Loyalty and seniority counts for a lot in Japan, and while moving around within the restaurant world and stacking up a list of internships is fairly common in the US, in Japan it's morecommon to get the Yoda treatment: intense and extensive training in a single kitchen. I met a young guy about my age the other night who works in a small kaiseki restaurant, Japan's haute cuisine. He has been working in the same three person kitchen for six years, and he told me that "I'm only just beginning to understand proper kaiseki."

Anyway, you could tell the girl was pure New York at one glance; she came to her interview on one of those mountain bikes you only see in the city, headphones snaking out from a pocket in her windbreaker, sporty sunglasses and her knife set tucked into a bike messenger bag. She didn't gel well with Japan at all; too gregarious, opinionated, and tough. One of the excellent details the NY Times article picks up on is how the Japanese femininity that squeezes voices higher loosens up in New York, with expat women speaking in deeper and more natural voices. There are a thousand little social cues like this that bind Japanese girls, from the prevalence of high heels and short skirts to a personality that avoids asserting itself too strongly. My friend was lucky enough to work for an American owned restaurant, but even then she was socially stranded, her quirks and aggressive personality just bowling over Japanese coworkers. She lasted a few months, but she's currently back in New York at a small fusion place in SoHo, working in three month visitor visa chunks, flying back to Japan every ninety days for a renewal.

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