Saturday, March 29, 2008

Critical Mass 3

When I got home after eighteen hours of traveling, just as I was getting my mail out of my mail out of my mailbox, Maisie called to ask if I was coming to the mass.

I was long passed exhaustion but since they were riding by my place, I figured I would join the ride for a bit. It was a small group again with a few different riders.

After I joined them, we rode around Osaka Castle. It was good to see everyone and kind of jarring to be thrown back into Japanese with so little sleep. Since neither of us had eaten, Shoko and I dropped out to grab a bite. After dinner, Shoko went to rejoin them but I was too beat, so I went home and slept until 3:oo AM, when I mysteriously woke up and couldn't fall back asleep.

When I was out walking today, I got a different kind of welcome back to Japan. On Midosuji, there was a long procession of right-wing nationalists broadcasting hate speech on megaphones. There were cops lining the streets, watching them.

I said to my friend Yuka, who was getting lunch with me, "hey, it's those guys who don't like foreigners." She seemed to be totally oblivious to the situation, so I told her to listen to what they were saying. She listened for a bit, and then said, "Oh, that's really weird... I'm sorry."

Sunday, March 16, 2008


So, I'm back in Vancouver for two weeks, to see friends and family, take care of some business and to obtain my official status as a Permanent Resident.

This is apparently called a Landing and, as you can imagine, the Immigration people take it pretty seriously, but they're also kind of excited about it. The girl who processed me at the first counter was originally from Pakistan and told me she still remembered her landing when she was a little girl. When she saw my immigrant visa, she said, "Oh wow, you're landing today. That's Awesome!"

In the back offices, there was were some complications because, of course, I had forgotten one of my forms. But, they guy who was dealing with it was pretty chill and he took care of everything. He was a young, cheerful Ismaili guy who kind of reminded me of Amyn, except his favorite line was, "Fair enough," which was his responce to everything. The conversation went something like this.
"That's a protected document. It's like really important for this whole process."

"I meant to bring it, and I had various lists and stacks of papers, but I just got back to Japan from Europe and I was really tired. I don't know what happened."

"Fair enough. But without that I'm not sure what I can do."

"Well, I don't know... somehow I forgot it. I'm not really sure what else I can do at this point."

"Fair enough. Do you have any idea where it is? Is there anyway you can get it?"

"I live alone in Japan, so... no there isn't."

"Fair enough. Well, I'll go talk to the guys in the back and we'll see what we can do."
It took a bit of time, but he got it all sorted out. Sitting around the back immigration room in Vancouver really brought out the difference between Canada and Japan, when it comes to foreigners. The room was full of people who were immigrating and since I didn't see anyone who was clearly Native, all of the Immigration Officers were immigrants or the decedents of immigrants. There was one guy who was pretty clearly Sikh, I knew my guy was Ismaili because we were talking about it, although she spoke Canadian English with no accent, the girl at the front counter was originally from Pakistan, and there were two Asian officers who still spoke with non-Canadian accents. Canada is a country of immigrants.

Japan, on the other hand, has a statistically negligible number of immigrants. In Japan, I have to have to carry my Foreigner Registration Card (gaikokujin-touroku-shoumeisho, 外国人登録証明書) with me at all times. This is just an identification card, but it clearly marks me as a foreigner. When I was a foreigner in Canada, on the other hand, I just carried my Canadian driver's licence. But it's a bit different, because, for one thing, you can use it to drive, and for another, it doesn't other you as a non-Canadian.

I have a friend in Japan who's of Korean decent. She was born in Japan and speaks no Korean, but only has a Korean passport, because Japan doesn't automatically grant citizenship under these circumstances. There are actually 600,000 ethnic Koreans, born and raised in Japan and excluded from the rights of citizenship. They are called the Zainichi Kankokujin (在日韓国人). In Japan, less than 1 percent of the population is made up of immigrants, and these are almost all people of Chinese and Korean decent who's families have been in Japan for generations. I asked my friend why she doesn't apply for citizenship and she said she just never really felt welcome. I guess I can see her point.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Briefly back in Osaka

I'm back in Osaka for one day before I fly to Vancouver.

The trip back was a typical airline fiasco. At the Charles de Gaulle Airport, I was told that I could not be issued a boarding pass for my connecting flight for some reason. As the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport is huge, and I had a fairly short layover, I realized this might be a problem and protested. The Air France attendant told me that it would be impossible to issue a connecting boarding pass at this time. I was assured with the utmost confidence that everything would be fine, that I would be met by an airline employee with my boarding pass when I got off the plane in Amsterdam. Of course, this didn't happen. Instead, in Amsterdam I was told that I would have to go to a transfer center to get my new boarding pass. As our plane was 15 minutes late, and many other plans had also been delayed, there was huge line. I took a number from the box and discovered that there were over 50 people in front of me. I went to talk to an employee, who told me to go directly to the gate. As the gate was on the opposite side of the airport I asked for a lift but was told this was impossible.

At this point I ran to the gate, and made it with 5 minutes to spare before take off. There was a security check, however, and the lady at the check told me that I was too late and it would not be possible for me to board the plane as I didn't have a boarding pass. I explained the situation, of which she was apparently already aware, and was told again that it was impossible to board the plane. I pointed out that that was absurd as the plane was right there at the end of the gate, that I could probably hit it with my bag. Then we had a discussion about the nature of impossibility.

I've noticed that the French and the Italians use the expression "it's impossible" with a range of meanings such as "it's not going to happen," "it's unlikely," "it's inconvenient for me," "bah (with a dismissive wave of the hand)," and maybe occasionally, "it's actually impossible." I don't know how the Dutch use the phrase, but none of them seem to understand that in English the expression "'it's impossible" is understood rather literally. Whatever the case, it was no use arguing with an airline attendant about such matters. I went back to the transfer station and took my place in the massive line.

Besides me was a Japanese girl, named Shiho, who had missed the same flight as me and had somehow been traveling around Europe although she could speak no language besides Japanese. I took the opportunity to brush up on my Japanese. When she was called up she asked me to help translate a bit and she was promptly issued two boarding passes for the next flight to Osaka, by way of Seoul.

When I was called up a bit later by a different attendant, I was told I would have to spend the night in Amsterdam. Normally, I would have gone for it, but I have to make my flight to Canada. I pointed out that they had just issued Shiho a ticket by way of Seoul. The attendant told me that this was because she was going to attend the death of a family member. I knew for a fact, however, that she had just quit her job and had taken the opportunity to come see her sister in Germany and travel around a bit.

I told the attendant so and asked her if the airline told them to lie to the customers. She stormed off in a huff and returned fifteen minutes later with one boarding pass and a piece of paper on which was written the information for a flight leaving Seoul after a four hour stopover on some no-name airline, for which, of course, she could not issue me a boarding pass. Again, I pointed out that there was a better option, and again she threw a small fit and eventually returned with the boarding pass. (I wonder what they pay these employees to take their jobs so personally.)

The most absurd thing is that when I eventually took those two earlier flights, there were a fair number of empty seats on each of them.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Eastern Manuscripts

The eastern collection is housed in a fairly small, third story room accessed from a different part of the quad. The whole experience is much more pleasant than Western Manuscripts. Because the collection is smaller and fewer people work on the material, the procedures are more relaxed.

They only assign one plate, in one color, a deep, blood red. They will bring you a stack of microfilms at a time that are organized by collection number with about five MSS per reel. The walls are lined with the essential reference works, which one can pile up on one's desk. Throughout the course of a workday one can come and go as need be by simply telling the librarian at the front desk that you're stepping out for a bit, without putting everything away.

I'll be in this room for the next few days.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Bibliothèque Nationale

Paris has been a major contrast with Holland. I'm staying in a scuzzy little hotel near Châtelet les Halles on Rue Saint Denis, a narrow, cobbled, pedestrian street full of panini vendors, sex shops and crowds of young guys doing street pick-up. The only advantages to my hotel is that it's cheap, so I save a substantial chunk of my per diem, and it's located in the middle of the city, walking distance from the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Louvre and the museum of modern art.

The city is loud, busy and dirty. So far, I've spent all day in the library and only wandered around a bit at night. I've been pretty tired, so I haven't gotten to see to much.

The situation at the BnF is a classic example of French bureaucracy. My library card was issued fairly painlessly, and I went first to the Western Manuscripts. They are housed in an inner sanctuary, a large beautiful room with high ceilings and books lining every wall. Behind the front door, you give your card to an attendant who scans it an gives you a key. You then stow your all but your essential belongings in the box in the outer hall that your assigned key opens. You then return the attendant who confirms that your remaining belongings are permitted in the manuscript room and assigns you a work station designated by green plastic plate about 4x6 inches. No photos are allowed.

Once you're set up at your work station you can begin requesting manuscripts. The policy is that, if a microfilm exists - and they generally do - you first have to examine the microfilm at one of the microfilm stations. After you've looked at the microfilm, you can request to view the original document. If you request a microfilm, your green plate is exchanged for a bright orange one of the same size and number. About 30 minutes later, when the manuscript arrives you exchange your orange plate for the manuscript itself. The whole system is so involved that if you don't understand it well, it's easy to make a mistake. At one point the lady in charge of the microfilms assigned me an orange plate somewhat arbitrarily of a different number, which cause quite a stir later on when the confusion was realized and of course I was scolded for not realizing that something was amiss, despite the fact that I had never even seen this incorrect plate.

Although it was intense to see the room and the microfilms, the text that I was looking at are all ones that I have read many times and are very well known, so in that sense it was a little boring. For the rest of my time here, I'll be in Eastern Manuscripts, looking at Arabic texts, were there's more opportunity to make original discoveries.

But today the library is closed, so I'll go to the modern art museum and wander around the city.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Leiden University Library

I've spent the last few days looking at manuscripts in Leiden University Library. This is my first time in Holland and it's been good. I flew into Amsterdam and I'm staying with Diana in The Hague. A lot of the Netherlands still has the feeling of the early modern period, when so much of the country was developed.

Getting around so easily, getting access to the manuscripts with so little hassle, drinking coffee with real pastries, having good bread with my breakfast, everything about being here makes it obvious that I'm not in Japan anymore.

I've never been to Holland before, but I feel much more at home here than I ever do in Japan - this may not be my country, but it is still my culture. I don't know the language, but I can still read all the signs and I can guess what half of them mean.

Strangely, some of my favorite food has been the most comforting thing about being back in the West - Fresh squeezed orange juice, real bread made out of real grain, fresh fruit with breakfast, good cheese everywhere.

For the last three days, I've gotten up early, taken the train to Leiden and walked down the brick streets by the canals to the library. I spent all day in the library examining medieval manuscripts a few of which I knew from microfilms but most of which I had never seen before.

It a bit unreal. I would just hand them a piece of paper with my request and a few minutes later the librarian would bring the document to my station in the reading room. Some of the texts I looked at were as old as the 13th century. I looked at 15 to 20 a day. (Below is a detail of the oldest Arabic translation of Ptolemy's Almagest. It's the part where he uses iteration to approximate the relative size of the orbit of Mars.)

I also had a chance to go into Amsterdam a bit and wander around, but I've been pretty tired from jet lag, so I haven't had too much time for much besides work.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Critical Mass 2

Well, so far Critical Mass here has been unlike anywhere I've ever been before. This month we had about the same number of people, although mostly different people, which should give us hope for the future. Maybe they'll all come next time.

We just rode around for about an hour stopping at bike shops and whatnot.