Thursday, October 7, 2010

October already?

I can't believe I've already been living in Japan for over two months! It really doesn't feel like that. It feels more like...a couple weeks. I was expecting that my language ability would be spectacular by now. But really, it still feels like it's plateaued, though I know that I've gained a few things, like new vocabulary, a bit of new grammar, some local dialect, and new kanji. So I guess I have improved a bit. But I suppose I'm just frustrated about not being able to understand everything that people are saying around me, or even directly to me.

Today, one of the teachers was asking the other teachers what he should do or where he should go for this three-day weekend. After some discussion, he was excited to have decided to go to Tokyo Tower. But besides those main parts, I couldn't understand what they were talking about. And just a few minutes ago, I got back from the convenience store, having purchased some food. When I was buying the siopao (a Chinese pork bun; I forget what they call them here), the clerk was asking me something. I had no idea what she said. The only thing I caught was the "-masu ka" at the end of the sentence, indicating that it was a question. So I quickly explained that "I had just moved to Japan (so my language skills suck)...", so she said "ah" and pulled out a plastic bag. I didn't even hear the word for bag (fukuro)! Maybe she was asking something along the lines of, "For here or to go?"

Then there's my students...I don't understand half of what they say. Especially the little ones, 'cause they mumble or they're so quiet or they're asking me something using little-kid vocabulary. Don't talk about bugs, ask me something about the embassy or the library! Speaking of students, I keep forgetting that one of my junior high kids (3rd year, so, equivalent to a 9th grader in the US) lived in the US for five years! The reason I keep forgetting is because whenever I see her, she rarely ever speaks English to me. Even when I grade her homework, she is always one of the top students, but not significantly better or more creative than the others.

Change of topic; I've discovered something that's baffling, amazing, and after further thought, a little troubling: I can drink the milk here. For those who don't know, I suffer from adult-type hypolactasia, also known as lactase non-persistence. Or, in layman's terms, lactose intolerance. Because I am lactose intolerant, I cannot drink a normal glass of milk without having intestinal discomfort. I won't go into detail, but lactose intolerance SUCKS. Especially because I love milk and dairy products: ice cream, cream sauces, cheese, milk-based drinks (including my awesome White Filipino). It's not very severe, so I can actually enjoy the foods without too much of an issue, but it's when I drink a glass of milk that I really feel the effects of lactose intolerance. So, to get around this problem, I take lactase enzyme supplements when I eat or drink dairy products. They work fantastically well.

At school, in both the JHS and ES, milk is provided as the drink that accompanies the school lunch. I made sure to pack a two-month supply of lactase enzymes in my suitcase before I moved to Japan. Welllll, it's been two months, and my supply is incredibly low. So I searched online if it was possible to buy lactase enzymes (or Lactaid brand milk) in Japan; and I even looked at various stores, including a large pharmacy (like a big CVS or Rite Aid), but it was a no go. One of the things I found online, though, was that someone had mentioned that a friend of theirs who was lactose intolerant didn't have problems in Japan. I pondered this. And I needed a solution to my problem of running out of lactase enzymes. I wanted to test it. So, I did.

I drank a tall glass of milk, into which I added this coffee mix (turning it into "coffee milk," a delicious drink you can find at any convenience store or supermarket). After having finished it, I didn't feel a thing! Normally, I would feel the effects within 15 minutes of drinking it; sometimes even before I finished the drink. But no, nothing. So, I tested it again the next day, and drank another coffee milk drink from a carton. Again, no issues. Hmm... Okay, the best way to test it is to use the real, pure, genuine milk that we get at school. During my first week of eating school lunch, I actually had to run to the bathroom after having drank the milk, even though I took a lactase enzyme tablet. The stuff was so thick that I could swear it's cream. (Japan loves its whole milk.) So, the day of reckoning came.

Two days ago, I drank the carton of milk at the ES. I accidentally left my lactase in my bag downstairs, too, so I had to drink it straight. I was a little nervous, because I had to teach classes in the afternoon. I didn't want to feel discomfort or have to run to the bathroom during class. Well, thankfully, the test provided good results! Again, I didn't experience any problems! I was happily surprised (or rather, relieved for the lack of "surprise"). I tested it again today, at the JHS. Again, good news.

So what's the deal? Why am I lactose intolerant in the US, but seemingly, not in Japan? What's the difference between the milk in the US versus the milk in Japan? Is it 'cause it's so damn creamy? No, that can't be it... Oh, I know.

The milk in the US is pasteurized.

What does this have to do with anything? And how can stopping a drink from being made safer possibly improve its drinkability? Well, I heard from my Canadian and American friends this past weekend that the milk here in Japan is not pasteurized. Having heard this, I was a little troubled. I know of a man in Pittsburgh who was hospitalized because his family drank a batch of bad unpasteurized milk. Not that it had "gone bad," but rather, it still contained microbes which were responsible for making his entire family get sick. So, I am well aware of the dangers of unpasteurized milk. For those who don't know, the process involves heating the milk to a certain temperature to kill all of the bacteria and other microbes that might be inside. Well, if milk is left unpasteurized, placed into a milk carton, and is consumed by someone, then that person is also drinking whatever microbes may still be present in the milk.

Now, keep in mind that not all microbes are bad. We use bacteria to make many products, including yogurt. So I speculated that perhaps the milk here in Japan contains a certain microbe that metabolizes the lactase sugar in the milk and produces very little or no bad waste products that would make us experience discomfort. If it metabolizes the lactase, then the bacteria in our intestines can't use the lactase. Normally, if the bacteria in our intestines eats lactose, the process of metabolizing it produces waste products that lead to the symptoms of lactose intolerance. But lactic acid bacteria will turn the lactose into fatty acids and other useful things without creating any troublesome products. So yeah...I'm thinking that perhaps because the milk in Japan is not pasteurized (so I've been told), then maybe it contains the wonderful lactic acid bacteria that allows me to drink milk without any gastrointestinal problems! Yay!

Now, this is all just speculation, and the only proof I have to back this up are my own experiences. There is no true scientific evidence. And I still believe that the risks of drinking unpasteurized milk outweighs the satisfaction, and if I had a choice, I would rather drink pasteurized milk with a tablet of lactase enzymes.

Speaking of scientific evidence (and such), I want to wish Richard Heck, Eiichi Negishi, and Akira Suzuki a huge congratulations for winning the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry today! Dr. Heck lives in the Philippines (Professor Emeritus, Univ. of Delaware), and the two other winners are Japanese; one is from Purdue University and the other is from Hokkaido University.

Word of the day: 牛乳 「ぎゅうにゅう」 "gyuunyuu," or "milk." Literally, "cow milk."


  1. yo hbag, there is a farm out in kempton called the "bad farm" that sells unpasteurized milk, yogurt, icecream, and cheese. it could present a unique test upon your return.

  2. Haha! Nah, I think I'll pass. And actually, I just did some more research this week, and I discovered that milk in Japan IS pasteurized. It undergoes a slightly different process than milk in the US, so it experiences what's called a "browning effect" that ends up affecting the taste of the milk. The milk gets heated to a temperature of 130 degrees Celsius for two seconds, versus the other process of heating it up to about 75 degrees Celsius for fifteen seconds. According to what I learned in Microbiology, it is actually better to increase the heat as fast as possible to kill microbes before they are able to migrate or otherwise create some sort of defense against the heat. This includes cooking hamburgers.

    Now, what this means is that 1) the milk here is healthy and 2) I still haven't figured out why I can drink it and not feel discomfort when I would in the US. Have I magically cured my lactose intolerance? The only thing I can think of is that something was added to the milk after pasteurization, like some lactic acid bacteria to metabolize the lactose; or perhaps lactase enzyme was added to the milk? It really makes me wonder, because something like 90% of the Japanese population is lactose intolerant. And yet they all drink the milk here. (or drink) for thought...