What you'll find on Storybook Days

The Home page displays all my musings on life in Japan and a few other things (baseball and children's books are distinct possibilities). For highlights only: "A Day in the Life (edited)." "Tabemono (Food)" is exactly that. "Big in Japan" is my completely biased and oversimplified list of what is popular in Japan, and "Kimono Count" is a day-by-day record of the people I see in traditional dress. "Editor's Delight" catalogs the unintentionally amusing and apparently quite complicated world of Japanese-English translation. "Uncle Tucker" tracks our sightings of a certain cat following us around Japan.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Cutting Edge

In Japan, the Hand as Used Like a Knife  

or Bring Me the Big Knife

While we were in the gorgeous, mythical, and unbelievably muggy city of Kyoto, I was busy counting kimonos and shrines and whatnot, but not my man.  He was scouting sushi shops and knife shops.  And boy did he ever find a knife shop.  Not just any knife shop, either.  It was a super-duper, hand-forged, made-in-Japan, a-special-knife-for-each-kind-of-sushi knife shop.  A mortgage-your-house to buy a knife kind of store.  But, he's not a demanding guy.  There's not much he really wants (though he does love watches), so when he said he wanted a knife, I said, "Sure.  Go for it, but I'll never use it."  He scoffed.  "OF COURSE you'll use it!  That's why I am getting it.  To use it."  But "Nope," I said, "I won't.  Too sharp and too expensive."  I have a hidden super-talent:  ruining knives.  I dull the edges of serrated blades; I break the tips off of knives for chopping.  I resolved to never go near the knife.

After about 30 minutes in the shop guy and some interesting back-and-forth with the English-challenged sales guy, Frank got his knife:

The knife maker even put Frank's name on it for him in katakana letters:

The sales guy gave Frank a lesson on how to use and care for the knife, then wrapped it up and we were off.  The knife has been buried in the suitcase ever since.  It won't see the light of day until we reach New York.  And that is a damn good thing.  Here's why:

Our Tokyo kitchen comes "furnished."  It's awesome.  However, using the kitchen is a bit like a food network challenge.  He's what I've got to work with (and I say "I've" not "we've," because I do most of the cooking):
Whisk, "The big knife" as I like to call it, Spatula, corkscrew (the hardest working tool), kitchen scissors, and a ladle.
 In addition to these babies, I've got a super-cool righty/lefty fridge:

A smallish space, but definitely serviceable

An unbelievably limited assortment of pots and pans

So, this summer has been an unending lesson in ingenuity.  Adding Frank's "big knife" was tempting, but no.  I did not.  I knew better.

Which bring us to last Friday night.  Frank was away on business and not expected back until late.  Though the boys and I considered going out, I decided to stay in and make a healthy salad and a light dinner.  The kids had the Mets game on, and I was busy chopping away with the big knife.  I had a few huge carrots to cut up for the salad.  (At home I buy the "baby" carrots, so I don't have to cut them.)

So, chop, chop, chop.  Slice.  Carrots don't slice.  I had missed the carrot, but not my left thumb.  I sucked in my breath, grabbed my thumb, and stood there.  Here's my thought process, pretty much beginning to end:

"Shit.  Shit.  Shit.  Frank is not home.  Shit.  Frank is not coming home for hours.  Shit.  Damn it.  Fucking carrots.  Shit."  And then I calmly walked to the bedroom, past the boys who were watching the game and had (thankfully) noticed nothing.  I had to lie down.  I am a fainter.  The only thing worse than cutting my finger would have been fainting in front of the kids.  I gave myself a pep talk, and then went into action.  The boys helped me make a few calls.  First, to  Frank's Blackberry: broken; voicemail only.  Fucking Blackberry.  Then to the landlord, Kato-san, who helps us with everything:  no answer.  Called again, no answer.  Without Kato-san, I wouldn't even know where to buy carrots.  Damn it.  I was on my own.  We would have to venture out on a Friday night at 7 PM to a local hospital.  The boys and I.

I had the kids pack a backpack full of stuff to do (I was anticipating hours at the ER, NYC style), had AH send and email and write a note to his dad explaining where we were, and then we set off on foot to hail a cab to St. Luke's Hospital, where I knew they spoke English.  (They took care of Dad 60 years ago, and he was in dire shape back then, so I knew they could take care of me now.)  Two blocks away we hailed a cab, but the driver could NOT understand what I was asking.  No matter how many ways I said it.

We were actually standing in front of a police station, so I decided to ask an officer to help me communicate with the driver.  Then things got a little wacky.  The language barrier was still pretty bad (one officer spoke broken English), but they wanted specifics (just like in the U.S.):

Sumimasen. (I'm sorry to bother you.)  Where is your husband? "Yaizu" (He was out of town in Yaizu for work)
Sumimasen. Is your husband Japanese? "Ie" ("No")
Sumimasen. Can we see the cut? "Ie!" "Ie!" (HELL NO!)
Sumimasen. Is your husband Japanese? (This was a favorite question) "Ie" (What I really wanted to say is "Take a look at my kids--do you still  think my husband is Japanese?")
Sumimasen. Where are you from? "New York"
Sumimasen. Where do you live now? I pointed down the street and said, "Two blocks from here."
Sumimasen. Where is your Japanese ID card? "ID zya nai." (I don't have one.  I gave them my subway pass instead.  At least it had my name on it.)
Sumimasen. Is your husband Japanese? "Ie. AMERICA-JIN." (No. AMERICAN.)
Sumimasen. Where is your passport? "Passport ga arimasu."  (I have it.)
Sumimasen. Can we copy your passport? "Hi." (yes)
Sumimasen. When do you go back to New York? "Two weeks"
Sumimasen. Have you been taking "the drugs" or drinking? "Ie."

This went on forever.  About 20 minutes later, we were STILL in front of the police station, and I could see one police officer making a long phone call.  Apparently, the police had decided that I needed an ambulance and they were busy making arrangements for me with the hospital giving them all my details.  Every now and then a different officer would ask "Where is your husband?" "Is he Japanese?"  It was like something out of a Monty Python movie.

Suddenly I began to feel faint.  VERY faint.  And nauseous.  The whole scene was too much.  Eventually an ambulance arrived, which I tried to send away, proclaiming that it was unnecessary and too expensive ("takai").  I only need a cab.  But they insisted.  And so it was that I ended up in an ambulance for nothing more than a thumb that needed a few stitches.  Ridiculous.  The boys, instead of being excited, were freaked out.  It was not fun for them.  The good news was that the hospital the police officers chose was Tokyo University Hospital, and it was only about 5 minutes away.

So, we got to the ER about about 8:30 on Friday night, and I thought:  "Here we go.   Where's the waiting room?  How many hours until they get to me?"  But let me tell you:  THERE WAS NO ONE IN THAT ER!"  I mean NO ONE.  I was the only patient in the whole wing as far as I could tell.  The nurses took the boys and their backpack full of tricks to the waiting room.  Within 5 minutes, the plastic surgeon (yes, plastic surgeon, not an ER doctor like you'd get in the U.S.), Dr. Takeshi Todokoro, was there and fixing me up.  And his English was impeccable.  HOORAY!

It was the best worst experience ever.  I told Dr. Todokoro that I am an embarrassingly squeamish person--I faint and puke at the sight of blood or when I get a shot.  He was nonplussed and unbelievably kind:  "But that is okay," he said without a hint of sarcasm.  "I am a doctor."  He worked so quickly that I didn't even have time to get upset.  We were done, and he set me off with instructions of how and when to come back to get the stitches out.  He only gave me two, though he said I needed four.  I managed to slice pretty much half-way through the tip of the thumb.  He used stitches and then a little surgical tape instead of more stitches because, he said, "You don't like needles; I don't want to have to give you another shot."  Can you imagine that from a U.S. doctor?  Me neither.

"Can I tell you a funny story?" I asked him.  "Sure," he said.  "I am supposed to be taking a Japanese cooking class tomorrow.  We're making umbeboshi (pickled plums) and other pickles."  He laughed.  "No cooking for you for a few days," he said.  "And no knives."

When the doctor was done, I asked if I needed to worry about infection.  (Because we all know that U.S. hospitals are the number one place to get a serious infection.)  Dr. Todokoro almost seemed offended.  "No," he said.  "I have never seen an infection from a kitchen knife cut.  Kitchens are very clean, and the cuts bleed a lot, which cleans them out.  You don't need antibiotics, unless you want me to give them to you."  I thanked him and turned down the offer for antibiotics.  Japan is the cleanest country on earth--people walk around wearing surgical masks when they have colds to keep the germs to themselves--I could probably eat off the floor in the ER.  If the doctor says the cut is clean, then it's clean.

Dr. Todokoro gave me instructions on how to make an appointment to come back to get the stitches out, and I was off to pay.  I had remembered to leave the house with as much cash as I could find (lots of places in Japan only take cash), and I braced myself for the bill.  Turns out it was much like my experience at the police station:

Sumimasen. (I'm sorry to bother you.)  Where is your husband? "Yaizu"

Sumimasen. Is your husband Japanese? "Ie" ("No")
Sumimasen. Where does he work?  "A Japanese company."

Sumimasen. Do you have insurance? "Hi. American insurance."
Sumimasen. Do you have Japanese insurance? "Ie."  (This answer caused lots of confusion.  It was impossible for them to believe that my husband could work for a Japanese company without us having Japanese insurance.)
Sumimasen. Is your husband Japanese? "IE." (NO!)
Sumimasen. Where are you from? "New York"

Sumimasen. Where do you live now? "Yushima"

Sumimasen. Where is your Japanese ID card? "ID zya nai."
Sumimasen. Is your husband Japanese? "Ie. AMERICA-JIN." (No. AMERICAN.)

Sumimasen. Where is your passport? "Passport ga arimasu."  (I have it.)
Sumimasen. Can we copy your passport? "Hi." (yes)
Sumimasen. When do you go back to New York? "Two weeks"

Finally a nurse arrived who could help with translating.  After much discussion, it was decided that I would not have to pay for the whole visit, because surely I would be able to come up with Japanese insurance in the next two weeks.  (NOT.)  Instead, I could just make a deposit of 5,000 yen (roughly $65.00)  If, in the next couple of weeks, I could not come up with Japanese insurance, I would have to pay the entire amount:  15,000 yen (roughly $190).  And the kicker:  the ambulance ride was FREE.  The staff was rather upset about me having to pay anything at all and was very apologetic.  I was trying not to laugh.  If only I could have translated this:

"In the U.S., I would have spent 10 hours waiting in the ER while watching people die in front of me from gunshot wounds, car accidents and the like, coughing up a lung with TB, etc., only to find that I have an hour of paperwork to fill out and a medical school intern going on 24 hours without sleep to sew me up.  Not to mention a long string of surly admin. people giving attitude.  And certainly no apologizes from anyone for anything.  Then my insurance company would get billed thousands for the ambulance, ER, doctor, etc., and I would spend the next year sorting out how much my copay really is."

Instead, I just said "Diajoubu desu.  Domo arigato gozaimas."  (It's okay.  Thank you very, very much for all your help.")  A mere two hours after all the drama started in our little Tokyo kitchen, the boys and I were in a cab on the way home.  Through it all, the police, ambulance workers, doctors, and nurses were the nicest people you could ever meet.  (All the questions notwithstanding.)  They all kept apologizing that I was hurt.  They were super-attentive and really wanted to help.

I had our cab driver drop us off in front of the police station on the way home.  "Konichiwa!"  I said to the officer on duty, while holding up my thumb.  "Daijoubu desu!"  (Good evening--it's all okay!)

I walked over to the police officer and with a deep bow said, "Domo arigato gozaimsu."  ("Thank you so very much for all you have done for me.")  And the police officer?  He bowed deeply and apologized over and over for my unfortunate accident.  The boys and I turned to walk home, and there was Kato-san, walking home from an evening out with friends.  "Kato-san!" I said, "Boy, do I have a story for you!"

Lessons learned

1.  It could have been worse--Frank's new knife would have taken off much more than the big knife did.

2.  The next time I have an ER experience in the US, I am grabbing my passport and hopping a cab to JKF for a flight to Japan and a trip to Tokyo University Hospital.  I figure the flight time and expense will come out to be about the same as the time I would have spent in the ER in NY and my out-of-pocket insurance costs, but this way, I'll get a trip to Tokyo and no infection.

3.  There is no three.  But, there is your bonus for reading to the end!  Yippee!  One of my favorite scenes from "Moonstruck."  "Bring me the big knife, Chrissy."

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