27 September 2008


AKA: Four days really isn't enough.

There was a national holiday this past Tuesday, so I decided to make the most of it - I took Monday off and had a 4 day weekend in Taiwan. It wasn't nearly enough time, but I did see a lot and, of course, buy a lot.

Why Taiwan? Well, my brother currently lives there, as well as a friend from WashU, Jocelyn. Now, Jocelyn and I met at WashU and were friends, but casual ones; we had rarely spent long periods of time together, but were well-disposed to one another. As I already had two incentives to visit Taiwan, outside of its own attractions, I thought it would be a shame to not see them and the country.

I got in late Friday night and was whisked off to Jocelyn's house. We walked around in the neighborhood a little, popping in to a local grocery store and buying some snacks for me, as I was peckish. This was interesting to me as Taiwan rather likes Japan a lot, so I found a lot of familiar products in the grocery store. "I could make it here if I had to," I actually thought to myself at one point.

The Chaing Kai-Shek Memorial

The next day, Jocelyn took me on a whirlwind tour of several sites. We saw Liberty Square (home of the Chaing Kai-Shek memorial), ate lunch with Ian and his lovely girlfriend, visited Danshui (a beautiful, boardwalk town on the coast), and went to the Shi Lin night market (which was bustling, a state it seems to continually aspire to).

Dan Shui

Sunday saw us to the Jade Market and the Flower Market, both of which were wonderfully fun. I bought a lot of jade, and, being selfish, most of it was for me. The flower market allowed me to try a lot of different kinds of tea, all of which were tasty; chrysanthemum and plum were my two favorites. We also visited Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taipei, though we didn't stay for long; we soon left with Ian and his girlfriend, having a meal together again and taking some time to visit a coffee shop he frequents. I don't like coffee, but I have to admit that he has found a place that serves quality stuff. Afterward, Jocelyn and I went to Ximending, a place often frequented by young people, and did some window shopping, some silly picture-taking, and a lot of talking.

My brother, his girlfriend, and me

Monday was a school day for Jocelyn, so I went to the college campus with her and rested for the two hours she was in her Chinese class. We then went to lunch afterward, but, due to upset tummy issues, I forced our sightseeing time to be cut back abruptly. We rested in the afternoon and then went out to dinner with her mother and two of the family's friends.

Tuesday morning started off bright and early as I said my goodbyes to Jocelyn's family at 6:00 am. Her dad drove me to the airport and I hopped on a plane, starting my long trip back home.

I had an amazing time, and I'm so glad I had Jocelyn around to show me around and speak Chinese on my behalf. It was also good to see my brother, and see that he is thriving in his environment. And, of course, it's good to have new experiences, new pictures, and new souvenirs. I'm more excited about my chances to travel internationally than ever before. Watch out, Asia - I'm comin' for ya!

Catching Up

I have a lot to discuss, as I've been lax in updating about my life here.

1. Clubbing in Tokyo
The weekend before I went home, I went clubbing in Rippongi (Foreigner Central of Tokyo, as well as the home of one of the best night spots in Japan). The problem with going to Tokyo for the nightlife is that you have to abandon hope of getting home that night. The trains stop at midnight, but for those of us who live out in the boonies, the last train out of Tokyo leaves around 8:30 - well before most of the clubs open. There are, in short, three options for those who want to go dancing and drinking:
A. Don't go clubbing.
B. Go clubbing and rent a hotel as close to your clubbing spots as possible. (Taxis here cost a small fortune.)
C. Stay out at the clubs until the trains start running again ... at 6 in the morning.

The last option is the most cost-effective and the least sane - in Leslie speak, it means "all sorts of fun."

I can't describe to you the feel of a Tokyo club at 3 in the morning; rather, I could try and fail. Nor could I tell you what Tokyo looks like under the early morning sun. In fact, a large portion of why I have hesitated so long in writing this entry is due to the fact that there are so many things about a clubbing all-nighter that can't be put into words. Trust me with this - should you ever have the chance to visit Rippongi and stay from sunset to sunrise, do it. If I'm still in Japan when you go, you can be assured that I'll keep you company!

2. Me, as I am.
When I went home, several people commented that I had changed a lot in my time in Japan. Fortunately, they described these changes as being good things - that I have grown more into myself, that I have realized the potential in personality, character, and confidence I showed before I left. At first, I thought these were the sorts of things one says to a person who has been gone for so long, but I recently was reminded strongly of who I was as a senior in college, and I was amazed to find just how much I had changed in the year since I'd left WashU. Again, this is something I can't describe all that easily, so I will have to abandon the idea there. I will say one more thing, though: I've faced a lot of my fears by coming out here, and have grown strong because of that. It's ... a really good thing.

3. My job
Now, to bring it down a notch, I'm afraid. Work has started again and, as of late, I've become really frustrated with my life at school. As it is the second trimester, the students have lost their "I'm going to be good this year" resolutions and are falling into their worst habits. It frustrates me greatly, which is stress on me that is close to breaking my back. I don't enjoy teaching - I'm not a great teacher, one that these kids will remember for the rest of their lives. I'm just a warm body that repeats at command and plays stupid, sometimes-entertaining games. My teachers value me for my work ethic, but the students ... well, they appreciate that my presence means they won't have to have yet another regular class. I can't inspire students the way good teachers do, and, while that doesn't mean I'm a bad teacher, I really hate doing a job that I know I can't do well.

That being said, developments in the States make me wary of returning. The economy is shot, and the trend of politics has me worried. The prospect of doing this job for another year may become more appealing as 2008 draws to a close.
I suppose there's not much of a point in worrying over it excessively now, but I have to admit that changes are in the works.

18 September 2008

An Alien by All Accounts

AKA: I've effectively been called a monster, and I can't even get mad about it.

Every foreigner in Japan has had it happen. You see a small child staring at you on the train or in a store; you smile and say "hello" in Japanese. The child's eyes go wide in shock. You begin to pray that it won't happen, not again, but it's too late - the child begins crying, scared witless, while his/her parent consoles him/her, occasionally giving you an apologetic look. Yet again, you've scared a child senseless with a wave and a greeting.

By the time they're first or second graders, Japanese children seem to be over this phenomenon. However, if a foreigner happens across a child who looks as though he/she may not yet be in school, said foreigner has to be rather careful in interacting with said child. Now, I have to tell you that this is insanely hard for me. In America, it's common to play* with a baby that's looking at you, even if you're a complete stranger; I'm somewhat trained to smile, wave, and baby-talk at children with whom I make eye contact. On top of this, Japanese children are easily 100 times cuter than American babies, thereby making the aforementioned interacting seem all the more appealing.
In Japan, this kind of interaction between children and strangers is much, much less common. Not only that, but you're a foreigner; it certainly adds to your strangeness and your scare factor.

Surely, being a foreigner isn't that scary to a small child, you may be thinking. It's a social phenomenon that makes foreigners "outsiders," not an innate system. Tabula rasa, Leslie!

Well...not quite.

Developmental psychology has studied the way that newborns and young children identify and differentiate people's faces (Babies have rather poor eyesight.) One study used sensors to trace where the children look while viewing a face - they tended to follow the outline of the face and then focus in on the eyes and mouth. This makes sense - these things are good, general indicators of the object being a human, as well as being good markers for identifying whose face it might be.

Now, people of different ethnicities have different facial structures, as well as different points of reference for differentiating between people. Anyone who says "I just can't tell Asians / African-Americans / Whites / etc. apart!" is suffering from an inability to identify these points of reference. I'll go on ahead and say that Japanese people look very similar to me; I can tell them apart, but not as easily as I can with people from my own ethnicity.

Now, take babies in Japan. They've been introduced almost exclusively to their own ethnicity due to the minimal number of other ethnicities in the country. They are also very aware of the facial markers for their own ethnicity.
Suddenly, they see a creature - the face is bizarre; its features, on the whole, are wrong. And then this monster speaks to you ... in your own language.
As someone in my town said, "It'd be a lot like an alien walking up to you and saying, 'Hey, how's it going?' instead of speaking in blips and clicks."

So, moral of the story, foreigners: adorable Japanese babies think you're scary as hell. (Get used to it!)

* By which I mean "interact in a platonic manner" - pedophiles and other seedy types aren't generally encouraged. Get your mind out of the gutter.

01 September 2008

There and Back Again

AKA: I don't belong anywhere anymore!

Today marks the start of a new school semester, and I find myself thinking of the least original prompt known to man for a post-summer essay: "What did you do during your summer vacation?" All things told, I spent my summer quietly. I went to school, worked on lesson plans, visited with friends and played with my cat. Still, there was a little excitement: Unbeknownst to many, I made a visit back to the States.

That's right, I kept it a secret (a fact that may be more shocking than the secret itself). So as to waylay any offense to those who weren't "in the know," this secrecy was because I was coming for my parents; they had maded it clear that a visit back home was overdue. I wanted to be in control of my schedule and couldn't afford to spend a lot of time running around and visiting everyone.

The trip itself was rather quiet, all things told. I spent 28 hours total traveling from my apartment to my parents' house, which was quite the experience; it would have been unbearable were it not for the involvement of an awesome plane (Air Canada is my new favorite airline) and many, many energy drinks. I stayed awake most of that time, adjusted quickly to my new time zone, and was all set to go the next day.

I had a couple of gatherings in various locations, all of which were fun - I missed my family and friends more than I had realized. This really came to light when the odd and awesome food I brought with me was brought out for everyone's *cough* enjoyment. That being said, I still don't think I can forgive my friends for their lack of appreciation for really, really good sake. (My family's praise of it made up for it, fortunately.)

I did a ridiculous amount of shopping. It's amazing how easily won-over one can be by clothes that fit, an excess of available books, et cetera when one is unused to those situations. My suitcases almost couldn't handle all of the clothing, books, and food I brought back. In fact, I think my carry-on was just as heavy as my much larger, checked bag; considering the difference in size, I find this to be a rather impressive feat. (I blame most of it on the 5 pound bag of grits and the 2 pound, trilogy-in-one book.)

I did and didn't sleep. 2 pm and 6 pm were my worst times, and I occassionally fell prey to a zombie state that could only be fixed by a long nap. There were some days where my sum total of sleep reached double digits, while there were other totals that reminded me strongly of college right around midterms.

There were lots of things that seemed weird to me. The first thought I had when I got off of the plane in Atlanta went along the lines of "Wow, there are a lot of overweight people! And a lot of black people!" The next (notable) thought was, "Huh, none of the guys are dressing fashionably." (Young men and women in Japan are almost always dressing to the nines, and Americans just looked sloppy.) I also felt like I was drowning in all of the green - my house is surrounded by trees, something that I normally love, but I am so unused to it now that I felt I couldn't breathe the first few days I was home.

On the other hand, I adjusted fairly quickly to life back home. The worst thing was hearing myself say, "In Japan..." every time I opened my mouth. It was reminiscent of my return from GHP, and I can't say that the memory of being an annoying, can-only-talk-about-one-thing teen is overly encouraging.

The return trip was long, made all the longer by my having to leave my home at 3 in the morning. I slept a lot on the way, but I still find myself exhausted today. Fortunately, today is the first day of school, so the schedule is very laid back - an assembly, lunch, and a staff meeting. Tomorrow are the post-vacation tests, so another day of relaxing in the staff room for me. Wednesday is when the real work will begin.

I'm glad I went home, but I'm also glad to be back in many ways. While Japan is weird and foreign, it's a weird and foreign I'm now accustomed to, and changing back will be hard. I'm glad I've another year to prepare for that eventuality.