25 November 2008

Here's to You.

In Japan, any individual's absence from work, when it is not work-related, requires some sort of apology to the group. If one travels, for example, one should (read: must) bring back "omiyage," loosely translated as souvenirs, for those at the work place. In other cases, an announcement of what one was doing and throwing in a short "I'm sorry I've been gone lately" at the morning meeting seems to suffice.

Earlier last week, the school nurse's father died. She disappeared from school in the middle of the day, and the whispered explanation of her absence spread through the staffroom like a plague. Only the students were immune to it, not being privileged enough to hear such personal information. She was gone for several days, only reappearing today.

With puffy eyes and a tired demeanor, Sato-sensei apologized for her absence. She spoke for a few minutes, explaining her father's prolonged illness and the reason for her sudden disappearance in the midst of a school week. During the 2 minutes that she spoke, I thought of how I, as a 6th grader, burst into tears when a fellow student made a generic jest about my grandmother - both of mine, unbeknownst to my classmate, had died within the 3 days prior. I would not have had the strength then to stand up in front of my peers and state, calmly and coolly, that my mother's mother had been in a coma for a week or two due to a sudden stroke, or that my father's mother had been on a slow decline from disease for 5 years, a subject so taboo that I was not even aware of it until her condition had her knocking on Death's door. I don't know that I would have the ability to do so even now. I greatly admire Sato-sensei's strength.

So, here's to you, Sato-sensei.
Here's to you, her father, who has now been released from a 3-year struggle.
And here's to you, Anne and Mary, who passed away 13 years ago this week.

21 November 2008

Ol' Man Winter

The first cold snap surprised everyone in Nitta. Teachers and students like rushed through the cold halls, repeating the mantra of the day: "It's cold! It's cold!" I, too, took to saying it, or agreeing vehemently with it when I heard it from others. Saito-sensei, one of my neighbors in the staffroom, found my dislike of the cold amusing. "Winter is coming," he responded in Japanese every time the word "cold" escaped my lips. I, too, had a stock response: "Don't say nasty things" in Japanese, paired with an icy glare.

For a while, the warm weather returned, and we could at least pretend that fall was going to last a while longer. Saito-sensei took to informing me of the season every day when I arrived, saying things like, "Today's winter, but tomorrow will be autumn." Friday, however, he informed me that we would be seeing nothing but winter from now on, laughing at my response of a groan.

It's not that I hate the cold; I hate the constant, inescapable nature of the cold here. Due to the lack of insulation in Japanese buildings and the expense of running the heaters, one never really feels warm. Those moments when one does get warm are soon followed by extreme cold - taking a bath is wonderful until one has to leave the bath water and stand, dripping wet, in the cold air of the apartment. It almost makes the moments of warmth not worth the shock of cold afterward.

At school, the individual classrooms are heated with kerosene - I find myself having a constant headache throughout the day from the fumes. Worse are the unheated hallways, though, whose cold is so intense that teachers often wear an extra jacket when leaving the staffroom.

Gunma also lays claim to a strong, fierce wind that makes traveling difficult for those of us without cars. I'm not the only one who has noticed that, often, it is quicker to walk than it is to attempt biking; walking is, at the very least, easier.

Of course, winter has its highlights. The onsen, or hot springs, are heated such that being half exposed to the cold is the perfect balance for those who are soaking. Winter fruits are delicious and sweet - manderine oranges, strawberries, and persimmons. The kotatsu, one of my favorite ways of staying warm, plays a prominent winter role. I've been told that the stereotypical image of winter is of huddling at the kotatsu, drinking green tea and eating mandarine oranges while a cat lies curled up at one's feet, a scene I can (and do) recreate on a regular basis.

Having survived one winter here, I feel better prepared to face the cold. In the end, though, I have to admit that this preparedness is also somewhat of a disservice; unlike last year, the hope of it not being able to get worse is instead replaced with the solid knowledge of just how bad it can (and will) get. In short, send me your warmest thoughts the next few months!

10 November 2008

Getting Dressed (and What It Does)

AKA: Leslie Can Walk and Think at the Same Time!

I like to walk to the places near my house - to school, to the grocery store, to the nearby mall. It takes longer, but there's something relaxing in the slowness of it. The benefits are numerous, but now isn't the time or place to go into my exercise-and-general-wellness plan, so I won't. I will say instead that spending an hour or so walking every day gives me a lot of time to think.

As of late, I've been thinking about clothes. It's recently become cold, so I've retired my summer wardrobe and have been rearranging my closet to best fit my winter wear and trying to figure out what is missing before it gets much colder. In doing so, I realized just how much I've changed since I arrived here over a year ago.

Fashion was my enemy. Anyone who has seen "Mean Girls" may understand my dislike for fashionistas. (Imagine the Plastics being, not a group of 3 girls, but 90% of the school population.) I ran from the idea of being fashionable, which to me amounted to spending insane amounts of money on clothing only to find it out of style in a month. After going to a school for 6 years which required a uniform, I found myself at college with little more than t-shirts and jeans to wear. By the time I left WashU, I had shed my dislike for skirts and anything even slightly feminine, and even had a few cute outfits I wore entirely too often.

As soon as I arrived in Japan, however, I realized that I was playing a whole new game and on a completely different field. In the year I've been here, I've become immune to femininity, and my idea of what colors match has drastically changed. I've experimented with clothing in a way with which I never felt comfortable before, as I stand out no matter what I wear. It's been an interesting learning experience.

The result is that I no longer think of clothing like a checklist of things I need in which to be appropriately attired, as though there were a sign on my door similar to those at gas stations, saying, "No shirt, no shoes, no pants, no leaving!" Instead, clothing is like music, or a composition, or spices for cooking - getting dressed involves combining various parts into a cohesive, attractive whole. I no longer find myself thinking, "How long do I need to wait before I wear this outfit again?" ("How long until I have lemon-pepper chicken again?"*) I don't have set outfits anymore; I have, instead, the pieces to a self-expression puzzle.

My mom once told me the story of her meeting my godmother, Del Rae. A group of doctors and their significant others were on a skiing trip in Colorado, and my mom felt out of place among the women who had spent large sums of money on lavish, Southwestern wardrobes. Del Rae, a true Southwestern woman, offered to help my mom with her outfits. "All she did," my mom said, "was take what I had and rearrange it, adding a Southwestern embellishment here and there, but that in and of itself was enough. I was the best dressed there."

The moral of the story - "it's not what you have, but how you use it" - is something I've understood in many aspects of my life. It's just taken me this long to realize what it means for clothing, as well as what it doesn't mean. Being fashionable doesn't mean being rich and vapid; it means expressing oneself in a way everyone can see and comprehend. I must say that I rather like the change in connotation.

*I feel obligated to note that my roommate, hannah, would say that it is never too soon to have lemon-pepper chicken. (And, for anyone who wonders why I still refer to hannah as "my roommate" though we live in different countries, I offer you this bastardized Holmes quote: "To Leslie, she is always 'the roommate.' I have seldom heard her mention her under any other name.")

05 November 2008

The Election as Seen from Japan

AKA: A few thoughts on a historic day.

I sat down for lunch in the staffroom and refreshed the BBC news page on the election - a map showing the results, both popular and electoral, of the voting as the news came in. As I ate, I stared at the map. So, I was watching as the results from California, Oregon, and Washington state pushed Obama over the 270 mark and fully into the Winner's Circle.

Being a Democrat and a supporter of Obama, I eagerly looked around for someone with whom I could share my joy. I squealed and bounced on the balls of my feet. I felt like screaming, running laps around the school and yelling "Obama won!" at the top of my lungs. When the art teacher came in to the staffroom, she took one look at me and said, "Did something happen?"
"Obama!!" I said. She gave me a strange look.
"He won! Obama won!" I was near squealing at this point.
"Oooh, so Obama won..." she said, almost more to herself than to me, continuing to walk to her desk.

Another teacher walked in - one of my English teachers. "Obama won, Obama won!!" I said, actually jumping up and down at this point. My excitement was beginning to draw attention. Murmurs of "what happened?" circulated the room. "Obama won," someone said in Japanese. "Oooh," the murmurers responded as they went back to their lunches, to work, to whatever was waiting them on their desks.

Don't you see, I wanted to say, that this is a historic day? That, no matter who you follow or want to be elected, it's amazing to be alive on the day when a minority figure not only wins the White House, but wins it by a landslide?

The Japanese don't have a say in the election of the Prime Minister. While the news programs note such events, the general populace cares little. On top of this, the Prime Minister rarely makes it through a full term - he does something that angers either his party or some other group of politicians and steps down as an apology. (I sometimes wonder if our system could maybe use a little of this apologizing.) In short, they don't understand how an election of one person over another can truly change a country like the United States, nor do they understand the personal involvement many Americans have with our elections, and especially this one.

I channeled my energy into teaching my last class of the day, which helped, but I find myself excited to end my day in this uncaring atmosphere and rejoice fully at home. Here, I see the shades of what America could be - politics being the barest of acknowledgment of a thing well beyond an individual's power or say. We're already fairly far down that road. Let's not only take these next four years to change our nation, but to change ourselves as well. I, for one, am scared by the blank face of apathy.

Edit: midnight, 6th November

The news has been constantly reporting on Obama's win, to the point that some of my acquaintances are "getting tired of seeing his face." (They say it with a smile, so I allow them the comment.) All of Japan may know about the election results, but I think only those in the city of Obama, Japan are celebrating quite as much as most Americans are. A friend proposed visiting Obama on Inauguration day, and, while her comment may have been tongue-in-cheek, I'm already looking into making reservations.