31 August 2007

Saito-sensei and the Bento Box

AKA: "No, this isn't the 8th Harry Potter book."

One of the hardest things about Japan, for me, is preparing my own food. This is for two reasons:

1. It’s often hard to know what I’ve bought at the store, or how to prepare it.
I’m lazy.

What this usually means is that I cook something in the morning for lunch, run out of time to do things like put on make-up and eat breakfast, and then eat the leftovers from my cooking in the morning for dinner. This is less than conducive toward my presentation abilities, which, in Japan, is a pretty major failing of my lunches.

Japanese food presentation is an art. It is expected that the food will look as delicious as it tastes, if not more so. When it comes to lunches brought from home, called ‘bento,’ this is no exception. I recently heard a Japanese teacher confess that she got up at 4:00 every morning to prepare her daughter’s lunch. That is about 2.5 or 3 hours devoted to cooking one (rather compact) meal. Add to this that the aesthetic of the bento box, or lunch box, itself is almost as important as the presentation of the food inside of it, and you begin to realize how time consuming the venture of making a lunch can be. (And to think, all I got for years on end was PB&J and celery sticks in a paper bag…)

Because I am a foreigner, I am not held to the same standards in my bento-making as a Japanese person would be. The art of food presentation isn’t in my blood; I can’t help my inabilities. Thus, the mere fact that I cook my own food amazes my fellow teachers. Plus, I am doing my best to make Japanese foods, as the materials are cheaper to buy at the store, making the total level of surprise at my bento jump dramatically. My rushed cooking and presentation, then, does not really matter.

Enter Saito-sensei, stage right. Saito-sensei sits next to me in the staff room. This must be strategic fate, as he is very paternal in nature and goes out of his way to take care of me. For instance, he found out that I liked an anime called “Cardcaptor Sakura,” and within a few days he brought me the entire set of the Cardcaptor Sakura comic books as gift. (His daughter had the series, but no longer read them, so ‘she’ gave them to me.) I have many stories like this, but let it suffice to say that Saito-sensei is one of my favorites.

Now, back to bento. Saito-sensei thinks, like many of the other teachers, that the fact that I make my lunch is amazing. Unlike the other teachers, however, he makes sure to get a good look at my lunch every day. He usually will then brag about it to the other teachers: “Hey [so-and-so]-sensei! Did you see that Leslie brought udon to school today?”

I won’t lie; at first, this really irked me. “Yes, I can make stir-fry. Yes, I eat rice. Gasp! … GET OVER IT.” were my general thoughts at his regular interest. Since the first few days, however, Saito-sensei has become the inspiration for my lunch-creation schemes. His interest is a challenge to me to cook something interesting. Once I get a better feel for cooking Japanese food (more on this to follow), I hope to churn out better bentos. And, when I become a world-class lunch-creation queen, and my children’s lunches are the envy of all the other children, I’ll be sure to send a postcard Saito-sensei’s way.

10 August 2007

Settling in...

みさしぶり! (Long time, no see!) Yes, I'm still alive and doing well. It's been an intense (almost) 2 weeks since I arrived in Japan.

... was intense. I didn't get to see much of the city because I was constantly in meetings during the day, and too tired to venture out at night. The few times I did go out, however, impressed me with one thing: Tokyo is a big and scary city. Everything is of concrete, everything is packed in as tight as possible...it is the epitome of the Japanese stereotype. I'm glad to no longer be there.

We left Tokyo on the Wednesday before last (the 1st of August) and were sent out to our prefectures. Some thirty of us were going to Gunma, my prefecture, so the bus ride was interestingly enjoyable. There was a short ceremony to introduce us to our supervisors, and then we were off to our individual towns.

I am one of three new JETs to be arriving in Ota; one has yet to arrive, and another arrived with me. That being said, there are many ALTs (assistant language teachers) here...about 20. These others are privately contracted, and apparently think that the JETs are stuck up brats. I'm going to do my best to change this opinion of us... Nevertheless, what this effectively means is that I'm not the only English speaker around, though I am still very much in the constant presence of Japanese people. I hope to learn Japanese quickly, and think it very possible.

Ota is a fairly large city, as far as things go - it's the third largest in the prefecture. I feel very much at home here. I sometimes forget that I am in Japan, as my surroundings are very comfortable. Then again, as of late, I've been treading the same path again and again: to school, to the store, and back home. It's easy to feel comfortable when your world is that small.

I'm already going to school on a daily basis. Teachers do not get breaks when the students do, so the fact that the students will not be starting class again until September does not prevent us from coming in. I rather like being at school, however, if only because the staff room is air conditioned (unlike the rest of my school), which is a great luxury for the teachers and, more importantly, for me, as it is cool air that I don't have to pay for. A/C is mostly provided through a window unit here, as the idea of central air is a complete novelty, and is rather expensive. This not only means that my apartment is always hot, but that the rooms are not connected by vents in any way. If a room is closed, it is CLOSED.
So, Georgia-esque heat and humidity and a general inability to run the A/C? Of COURSE I want to be at school!
If the fact that this is a break does not prevent the teachers from being at school at all hours, it most certainly does not prevent the students from being here, either. There is a big emphasis on sports teams here, with nearly all students being involved in some sport, so they are always here for practice. Also, the school is cleaned by the students, so every morning has a troope of students coming through the staff room and taking out the trash, vacuuming, etc. It's wonderfully adorable. (Especially when they walk past the windows to the staff room, or come in to talk to a sensei, and freak out at seeing me instead of a redheaded guy.)

That's already a lot of information, and my lunch break is almost over, so I need to get back to work. More after this weekend!