15 July 2009

The Art of Leaving

One of the more interesting things I've noticed about leaving a place where one has a strong identity is how one meets new people and makes new, sudden, strong connections at the end. At the end of high school, I started hanging out with a different group of people than I'd spent the previous 6 years with. At the end of college, I started dating a guy knowing I'd be moving to Japan in short order.

At the end of my time in Japan, new people have been popping into my life with alarming frequency.

Some of these people are foreigners. I met a fun group of people just a few weekends ago, many of whom have been in Ota for as long as I have, if not longer. It's frustrating to think we could have been hanging out all this time.

Some are Japanese. I was invited to a tea ceremony by the tea lady (/female groundskeeper) at my junior high school and met her daughter, a girl my age who speaks beautiful English. The two of us clicked instantly and we both bemoaned the fact that we only met recently. I had my last dinner with her (for now!) last week and we had a blast, though it took three hugs for us to say goodbye.

Some are completely and utterly random. I've been going to the local grocery store, Brace, regularly for the past two years. In the past two weeks, the cashiers there seem to have taken an extraordinary interest in me. The most memorable was the lady who, seeing that I was buying cat food, said, "Oh, you have a cat! How nice!" and began asking me where I live, work, and so forth.
I went to the travel agency to buy bus tickets to the airport. The lady there asked me if I was flying home, and I said, "Actually, I'm returning home..." She looked really surprised and actually seemed sad that I was leaving. Considering I've only been in that place four times, I found it to be a more emotional response than I was expecting.
There are more, but I'll not bore you.

I guess it's a lesson - no matter how long you've been in a place and how comfortable you are, there's always more to find, be it places, things, or people.

Catching Up

It's been a long time since I've written here. A combination of growing increasingly busy and the way in which I dealt with the stress of leaving (namely, with a surprisingly intense bout of depression) made writing blog entries rather low on my list.

So, let's catch up. The past month has been Japan's rainy season, which certainly didn't help with my already-depressed mood. As of this week, the rain seems to be over - we instead have constant heat and humidity.

Today is my last day of work at my elementary school. I said a short goodbye speech to the students after radio exercises in the morning (more on this later). The students sang the school song to me, and thank God it was only the school song or I would have started crying. The teachers gave me flowers before class, which really wasn't helping me with not crying. I taught four classes, in all of which the students were better behaved than usual and a lot of fun. It's been a good day. I just have to make it through the afternoon ... I've already accepted that I'll be crying for most of it.

My last day of school and work, period, is on Friday. I'll give a speech to my junior high students, rather longer than the one for the elementary school kids, and will cry, cry, cry.

Katherine arrives on Saturday and the two of us will travel Japan for a week before setting off for Vietnam. We'll spend 5 days together there before Kat goes home; I'll spend another 4 or so days in Saigon and then head to Cambodia to meet with Laurel. The two of us will visit Angkor Wat and then go to Thailand together.

I'll be home on August 15th, exactly a month from today.

In the end, though, the past month can be boiled down to one, main thought:
I still don't know how to deal with all of this.

02 July 2009

On Bullying

In the staff room, I've gained a reputation for being a bully.

Not to say I've been taking teachers out back to steal their milk money. My sense of humor, when added to a frequent use of the word "ijime" (bullying) in my banter with Saito-sensei, has earned me the title. It doesn't help that I've teased some of the more vocal teachers on this score, especially my vice-principal. He's a wonderful man who nevertheless responds to any comment I make in two ways: either I'm sucking up to/flattering someone, or I'm bullying him. Sometimes, I get accused of both; I suppose I'm just efficient.

Two conversations today highlighted this pattern with my vice-principal.

[Set-up: walking back from an observed class]

Vice-principal: *to Board of Education Supervisor* Leslie bullies me all the time!
BOE Supervisor: Really? Leslie, is that true?
Me: *super politely* I don't think that to be the case at all.
Vice-principal: Of course, that's just what a bully WOULD say!
Everyone: *laughs, somewhat at my expense*

[Set-up: I was invited to a dinner hosted by my BOE earlier this week but said I couldn't go, not because I have anything specific to do but because the timing is bad.]

Vice-principal: Leslie, I just got a call from [BOE supervisor 2]. He wants to see if it's at all possible for you to go to that dinner on the 17th.
Me: Sure, it's fine.
Vice-principal: Really? OK, I'll call him back and let him know. *calls* Hello, [Supervisor]-sensei? Yeah, I bullied Leslie into going.
[a few minutes later]
Vice-principal: *hangs up* When I told him I bullied Leslie into it, he told me to not be mean to her or I might make her cry. Ha! And she's the one that bullies me all the time! But he didn't believe me! He said, "I can see [different female staff member] bullying you, but not Leslie!"
Teacher 1: It's true, she doesn't seem the bullying type.
Teacher 2: Doesn't that just make her bullying all the scarier?
Teachers, general: Hahaha, it's so true...

A different teacher of mine, Arai-sensei, never accuses me of bullying straight out; instead, he says, "Leslie's Japanese used to be so nice and polite! NOW listen to her. *resigned sigh*"

All of these instances are, as with my "bullying," a joke, but it has become a seemingly knee-jerk reaction from the staff. As with any stereotype, I can't help but want to say to them that it isn't my full character; that I have other aspects to me, things I can't adequately express in Japanese; but in the end, I comfort myself with the fact that the staff on the whole feel comfortable with interacting with me in such a casual manner. After all, isn't it more important to focus on what one has than what one lacks?

22 June 2009

My name is Leslie, and I love karaoke.

[Seriously. Love karaoke. ]

A few karaoke stories:

1. I made plans in June to go to karaoke with a Japanese friend of mine. The night before, she had an interesting request: her grandparents had overheard that we were planning to go singing together and asked if they could join us. Would that be OK with me?

Well, how many times can you say you've been to karaoke with the 60+ generation?

In the end, our party was made up of 5 people: my friend, her younger sister, their grandparents, and yours truly. We had a wonderful time. The grandparents sang mostly enka, an older Japanese song style. It was my first time hearing enka sung live and not on TV, so I rather enjoyed it. They were also very complimentary of the songs I sang in Japanese, which is always a plus.

2. The past month, I've been to karaoke every weekend. One weekend, I sang with a group for around 5 hours. Just as an FYI: "Semi-Charmed Life" and "Achey Brakey Heart" are hilarious via karaoke. Also, Weird Al does, in fact, have a song or two in the systems here.

3. The term "karaoke" is made up of two words in Japanese - "kara" means empty (karate = "empty hand," a style of fighting with no weapon), and "oke" is short for "okesutura," or "orchestra." I love the idea of karaoke being, in and of itself, an "empty orchestra," one that must be filled with the addition of our own voices.

4. The most recent round of karaoke I've enjoyed was with a large group of my teachers, which was a rather interesting experience. One was really excited at my knowing Billy Joel songs, and spent three of his turns on Joel songs and demanding my assistance with them. Another teacher assisted me in singing the Sailor Moon theme song, something I never thought I'd find useful after my middle school years. Still, nothing can top the principal of my school demanding, rather drunkenly, that I pay close attention while he belted out "We are the Children." There is only one word for such a thing, and that word is "epic."

18 June 2009

Reverse Culture Shock

A few days ago, I popped in a DVD from the second season of the Chappelle Show. The episode opened as it normally does - Chappelle comes out on his carpeted stage to waves of applause from his audience. As Chappelle walked out, my eyes were drawn to his feet, and I thought to myself, "He must have a ton of indoor shoes to have them match his outfit like that."

It was a few seconds before I remembered that most people don't have indoor shoes.

Coming back is going to be "interesting"...

I had a meeting last Friday in Maebashi, the prefecture's capital. It was for JETs, to talk about things we have to do before we leave.

In short, it was one big ball of >STRESS<.

I had a meeting last Monday in Ota, the city I live in. It was for Ota ALTs, to talk about how to teach effectively. It was fun to meet all the new ALTs in my town for the first time, the people who came in April ... but it was also sad, knowing this would be the first and last time I would see them. It felt like I was watching my town speed past me; not waiting for me to leave it, it decided to leave me first.

I went to dinner with several of the older ALTs, though, and had a really wonderful time. We hung out for some two or three hours before making our separate ways home. The rain even waited until I got home before starting to fall.

Now I'm officially done with ALT meetings. I don't have time to feel much about it; I'm too busy preparing for the move. I alternate between stress and loneliness, all against a backdrop of the constant drizzle of the rainy season.

This isn't the way I wanted to leave Japan.

04 June 2009

Walks in the Evening

Sometimes I take walks in the evening, just as the sky is darkening. My favorite places to walk by at those times are the rice fields. Now that the weather is warmer, it's a somewhat dangerous place to be; the standing water produces masses of bugs, many of which seem to enjoy eating foreign food (aka: me). The pay off is worth it, though, because that mixture of bugs and open air allows for the most amazing stunts of bats at feed I've ever seen.

The area I usually pass on these walks has a large set of fields, so I am guaranteed to see at least three or four bats flying around every time I go. The way their silvery forms bank turns, suddenly change directions, flap frantically to gain altitude again ... all of it gives a strong impression of chaos, and yet, in watching longer, I can't help but notice the grace of it every time. 

I could try to make this into an analogy of something here - either of something Japanese or my own experiences here - but, in truth, I just like watching bats fly in the evening. 

31 May 2009

Things About Japan: Cleaning

When the bell rings at the end of the last class of the day, my students barely wait for dismissal (a "goodbye, class" from the teachers and a responding "goodbye, Mr./Ms. So-and-so" from the students) before shoving their desks to the back of the classroom and then rapidly dispersing. I can almost hear the announcers saying, "Aaaaaaand they're off! Another exciting start to today's daily Cleaning Time."

Each homeroom is split into five or six groups which handle a set of cleaning areas on a weekly rotation. Everything is cleaned by the students: homerooms, hallways, bathrooms, and even the sidewalks at the front of the school. Teachers, too, are assigned to various areas of the school as overseers, telling the students what to do and, at times, how to do it. One of my more amusing cleaning times involved the vice-principal, a vacuum cleaner, and a very clueless 8th-grade boy. Individual talents aside, this group effort means that there are only two people on staff who could even claim the title "janitor," and it is one of the more minor aspect of their varied duties on the board. (I find "groundskeeper" to be the better claim, if not simply "office staff.")

That being said, the quality of the cleaning isn't quite the same as what a professional cleaning service would render. An ALT in a neighboring town once described cleaning time as "a ritual pushing-around of dirt" - I don't think one could find a more apt summation of the fifteen-minute ritual every afternoon. Cleaning products outside of water and elbow grease seem to not be often used (though bathroom detail may be different - I avoid the area in general for fear of being drafted). The two groundskeepers often do seem to touch up during the day or week on things the students have not entirely accomplished on their own. Still, on the whole I find the method to be effective in areas, such as the hallways and classrooms, where daily attention is more than enough to fight off filth. In places requiring a little more effort, like the bathroom, the cleaning is at the very least serviceable.

The result of these activities is not only that the school is cleaned at a fraction of the cost ("Let me do the math here...nuthin' into nuthin'...carry the nuthin'..."), but that the students learn about the process of cleaning. One of my male students has learned recently the difference between proper sweeping and windmilling a broom about, for example - hopefully he'll be able to show of his skills once he moves out on his own. It also makes a habit of setting aside time for cleaning every day, something to which I wish could adhere. There is even the hypothesis that this activity makes students respectful of public places; I will say that, especially in comparison to America, Japan is a clean place overall. In the end, I can't help but think that many American children could benefit from similar cleaning duties.

30 May 2009

Things About Japan: Time

Telling the time and date in Japanese makes a lot of sense, for the most part.

Lesson 1
The kanji for hour is 時.
The kanji for minute is 分.
If you want to say it's 11:35, you say it's 11時35分.
Japan uses military time, so there's no a.m./p.m. confusion; after 12時 comes 13時.
If you want to say you did something for a length of time ("I studied for an hour"), you add a kanji meaning "length of time, period of time" to this number - 間 - turning the whole thing into an amount of time instead of a specific time-of-day. (This applies to days, months, and years as well, so as not to confuse "I have lived in Japan for 2 years" with "I have lived in Japan since the year 2." An important distinction to make, I feel.)

Let's review:
6:45 is 6時45分.
Doing something for 6 hours and 45 minutes is 6時45分間.
5:12 pm is 17時12分.

Lesson 2
The kanji for day is 日. (This also means "sun.")
The kanji for month is 月. (This also means "moon.")
The kanji for year is 年.

So, when you write the date, you use these kanji to separate the different numbers. Thus, when written with kanji, it's impossible to mistake which is the day and which is the month - they're clearly written out. The order tends to be year, then month, then day. In addition, the names are the months are the same as each number; March is literally called "3rd month" / "Month 3." There are old, traditional names for each month, but these are largely unused at this point.

Let's review:
Today is May 30th, 2009.
The Japanese would write this 2009年5月30日.

Lesson 3
Only one thing makes telling Japanese dates really confusing. While some times you will see the date written as it is above, many times it is written like this:
Or, more specifically, like this:

This is because the Japanese calendar counts years not only on the Gregorian scale, but also through the reign of their emperors. The two kanji before "21" in the second example read "Heisei" - that is the name of the current emperor, who is currently in his 21st year of reign. Before Heisei was Showa, whose reign was for 64 years (technically 63 and some change.)
How does the change-over count? The year in which Showa died and Heisei took over started as Showa 64 and then became Heisei 1.

As middle schoolers, the Japanese learn these dates and years. After school, though, it's similar to learning the order and years of each of the presidents - it's regular use is fairly limited. Everyone knows the current year. Most people know the year of their own birth, and maybe the year their children, spouse, or other important people to their life were born. Outside of that, it seems to not matter all that much in everyday life.

Let's review:
My birthday is March 27th, 1985. The Heisei reign started in 1989, so I was born 4 years before the end of the Showa reign. That means my birthday is written as:

Today's post was brought to you by the ever observant hannah d. Thank/blame her accordingly. Also, if you can't see Japanese characters on your computer, you're missing out! You should've fixed that long ago, anyway.

29 May 2009

Tea Ceremony

AKA: Why didn't I meet you people earlier??

Since last December we've had a new tea lady at our school, a woman by the name of Kurihara. Some time in February or March, she asked if I'd ever been to a Japanese tea ceremony. When I said I hadn't, she promptly invited me to come with her to a tea ceremony in the future. It wasn't until the 12th of this month that I was able to make good on that offer.

At the time she invited me, Kurihara-san told me that her daughter would come as well. Chika studied abroad in Canada and her English is first rate. On top of this, Chika had been studying with Clarissa, one of the other ALTs in my town with whom I was particularly close - thus, Chika and I were practically friends already by default. So I wasn't surprised when the car that pulled up at my apartment held two women. I was surprised, however, when we stopped to add Kurihara-san's mother to our party ... and then again when Kurihara's mother-in-law joined us at the ceremony. Her mother-in-law is herself a tea ceremony instructor and was known by many of the people at the ceremony, making me feel as though I were in the presence of particularly esteemed and great company.

The ceremony itself was fascinating - the gestures of the server were precise and exact, each move having meaning. Chika later told me that, in her studying of tea ceremony, she often found herself very frustrated by these complicated and rigid rules, but as she learned more she realized just how important each movement was. I, for my part, was dumbfounded by the sheer amount of effort required to learn the art. 

In addition to the precise movements of the server, the attendants, too, had specific parts to play. In order to be respectful to both the server and the other guests, a dance of movements had to be followed. Apologize to the person next to you for partaking of the snack or tea ahead of them. Lift the snack or tea tray slightly and bow (yes, you're sitting - do it anyway). Take one for yourself carefully. Scoot the tray toward the person next to you so they can avail themselves of it with ease. Wait for all to be served before partaking. The most interesting part of the ceremony, I thought, was after the tea was drunk; it is considered polite to then take the cup from which one had drunk and examine it carefully, turning it upside down to see the maker's mark, admiring the designs and the shape of the cup itself, and so forth. This applies for any other items that go along with the cup (saucers, for instance). After the ceremony, the materials used in preparing the tea, as well as the decorations, can be examined. It's an interesting mixture of what seems to be extreme propriety and a dropping of all pretenses in genuine curiosity and praise. 

We went to two different ceremonies. One was what tends to come to mind for Japanese tea ceremonies: macha tea, bamboo whisks, and big bowl-like cups. The former, though, was somewhat different. The tea was bitter and the desserts differed, as well as the serving method. Both were fascinating, though, and, were it not for the cold I had at the time, I would have loved to stay for more. 

My hosts were brilliant - they asked if pictures could be taken and then insisted on placing me here and there, first with the ceremonial items and then with the decorations, and snapping many photos of the ceremony itself as well. I've yet to get access to these photos, but I hope to be able to post them soon. They also invited me to join them again, an offer I hope to make use of soon. I somewhat regret not making use of their invitation sooner, as they are clearly wonderful people. Chika, I later found out, is older than me by only a few months - I wish I had gotten to know her months ago! Instead of regretting this, I'm doing my best to make up for lost time. With only a couple of months left in Japan, I have a lot left to do.

28 May 2009

The Swine Flu

The swine flu outbreak started shortly before my trip to Hong Kong, and the evidence of it was clear - many people wearing masks, the airports requiring extra paperwork, and hand sanitizer becoming more and more available. When I came back from my trip and my teachers discovered I'd been to Hong Kong, they all worried that I might have brought it back with me. (Catching a severe cold a few days later did not help with that impression!) It was an interesting experience, though, to see what the people were doing in response to a new "biological terror." 

This poster, found at Po Ling Temple, was also made into a flier and handed out to each person who went through the airport.

This was in the elevator at my hotel, and they really did sanitize the buttons and other often-touched areas of the elevator every 2 hours.

At my own school, soap bars have been restocked in every bathroom and at every sink, and students are encouraged daily in the pursuit of good hygiene. There is a regular update on where the swine flu has been found; my teachers are always telling me of how it is creeping closer and closer to Ota. In addition, the student trips to Tokyo (for the 2nd years) and Kyoto (for the 3rd years) were cancelled, a move taken by most schools at this point for fear of the disease. It was disappointing for the students, but, as the flu appeared in Tokyo some two days before the 2nd years were supposed to go there, it was generally considered by my teachers to have been a great move.

The biggest impact of the flu in Japan (other than the flu itself)? Face masks have become extremely hard to find. The government sent a big shipment of masks to Mexico to help with their prevention efforts, but stores are now finding it hard to keep their shelves stocked. As masks are used widely in any case (my school, for example, requires the kids involved with serving lunch to wear them), it's beginning to be a problem for more than just the paranoid of the population. 

My biggest issue with the swine flu, other than the intense, the-Apocalypse-is-nigh reaction to it, is having to explain what the name is in English. 
"Aren't you scared of the ... pig flu?" 
"We call it 'swine flu.' " 
*confused look* "...'Swine'?"
Cue a 5 minute discussion of what the word means / how difficult English words for animals are.
(It's gotten old rather quickly, let me tell you.)

27 May 2009

Things About Japan: Photos

It's the popular stereotype of Japanese tourists: traveling in packs, they each have a huge camera, bigger than their heads, and are constantly taking photos of everything that comes their way. Look, a bird! Clickity-clickity-click! Look, a car! Clickity-clickity-click! Here, let's get in the way of everyone and take a group photo! Clickity-clickity-click! 

The only thing I can say to this stereotype is that younger generations are using their cellphones to take pictures instead of huge cameras, but those cameras are still easily found at each site to visit. I've seen people taking pictures of everything from trains and train signs ("Look, we took a train to Kusatsu!") to squirrels (to be fair, they aren't native to Japan and can only be found in one or two areas). Still, if a picture can be taken, rest assured that a Japanese person is taking it.

After getting over my astonishment at just how true the stereotype could be, I found myself feeling freed by this practice. Who cares if it's embarrassing to jump out and take that picture - a Japanese person has done it and will do it again, rest assured. It also means that I'm finding my own picture taken more and more often by colleagues and friends. I naturally tend to hide from photos, a knee-jerk reaction because I find myself to be less than photogenic. In Japan, though, it's a meaningless battle - you can't escape from those huge cameras, and they WILL have your picture. (They will also make sure you have a copy of it by the end of the week, if not sooner.) 

I've begun carrying around my camera with me at all times, and I can't say how often this has afforded me the chance to take a shot I would otherwise lose to all time. These moments have convinced me of the value of freedom-of-photography. Still, at times I begin to wonder how much of the places I truly see, or whether I'm so caught up in photographic them that I don't take time to see them myself. The lyrics to John Mayer's "3x5" come to mind on most of my trips: "Today I finally overcame / Trying to fit the world inside a picture frame" and "Didn't have a camera by my side this time, / Hoping I would see the world through both my eyes." As with most things, I suppose, it's about finding a balance - the balance between taking that perfect shot, no matter what others will think, and taking a moment to reflect over what one is seeing. I hope all of us can achieve it, but for me ...  when the balance tilts to one side, I hope I'll be getting good photos out of it instead of regretting the lack of it.

26 May 2009

Things About Japan: Souvenirs

Long, long ago, when roads were rough and travel was not only expensive, but dangerous and hard, villages used to gather funds to send one of their own out into the world. That person went as a representative of the village, and as such would come back with souvenirs, called "おみやげ" (omiyage) from the trip. Omiyage, at that time, were often items with the name of his destinations inscribed on them. As these trips were generally pilgrimages to temples or shrines, these souvenirs tended to have religious significance - mirrors, temple beads, and even pieces of paper with the shrine name and written blessings on them. These items would be given to those who had invested in the trip, proof not only of the traveler having reached his destination but of funds well-spent. 

In the modern day, travel is much easier and is done by most people; despite this, the omiyage culture survives. Instead of being for investors, these souvenirs tend to be for those who have helped the person or were "troubled" by the trip, as well as close family and friends. For example, if a person takes vacation time to travel, more work is put on others during his or her absence. As a somewhat apology for this, the traveller brings them omiyage. The general idea of apologizing for being a bother applies to other instances, as well - for example, people often bring visiting gifts to homes they are visiting, a way of apologizing for the burden it must be putting on the hosts.

With as many people traveling now as there are, bringing back objects as in the olden days would only cause extreme amounts of clutter and, thus, be a bigger burden than the person's absence. Instead, people tend to bring back local foods. At some point, I should write about the obsession I see with food here - for now, suffice it to say that most every town, no matter how small, has a local specialty, and this becomes a common food for omiyage. These items are sold at train stations, airport boutiques, and even in stores near the popular destinations themselves, each item individually-wrapped for easy distribution and with the name of the destination written somewhere on the packaging. 

I've fallen in love with this practice, though it can be an expensive one - depending on how long I'm gone and what days I miss, I can find myself needing to buy souvenirs for around 100 people (for which I would devote some $50 of my travel budget). Still, it's a great way for a foreigner like myself to start conversations with my staff - "Thank you so much for the omiyage! It was delicious. Where did you go?" It's especially gratifying when they say, "Even though I'm Japanese, I've never been there. Did you like it?" 

So far, my most popular omiyage has been manju (a steamed, bready bun with sweet-bean paste inside) from Obama. The wrapper had the town's Obama logo on it - the back of the president's head, with "Obama for Obama!" written at the top. Most of the staff thought the whole thing was hilarious, and I still see this wrapper saved by some of my teachers at their desks. 

The next time you go traveling, consider bringing back a food omiyage for your friends. I guarantee it will go over well, and if you pick wisely, you can make it a cheap but enjoyable aspect of your return. For my part, I'll be doing my best to continue living an omiyage life. 

25 May 2009

Final Impressions of Hong Kong

AKA: A Wrap-up

There are three more things I'd like to say about Hong Kong before I abandon this trip for other topics. 

1. Religion
One of the biggest things I find when I travel here is that the approach to religions are completely different. The Japanese religious setting is fairly subdued compared to her Asian brethren. Red (either true red or an orange-red), black, and white find their way into many religious settings, but most other colors are not to be found. In their place is natural wood, oxidized bronze, and various metallic finishes. In South Korea, though, green was very prominent, as well as the aforementioned colors found in Japan. In Taiwan, yellow and orange make a fabulous display ... again, in addition to those found in Japan.  

In Hong Kong? As long as it was bright, most anything could (and did) go. Yellow was most prominent, as, I've been told, it is the color of royalty and of good fortune. This aside, what seemed important was the brightness. My final impression was that the Japanese religious settings are very subdued, but reverent; the Hong Kong ones felt like a celebration of faith, an expression of love through joyful atmosphere. It is analogous, in my mind, to the difference in atmosphere felt in a Catholic cathedral and a Pentecostal revival tent. 

I would say that the people are, at surface level, the same - the Japanese seem very subdued, the Hong Kong citizens seemed much more lively and buoyant. Still, it's a skin-deep examination, and one I've only lightly considered; don't take it as an expert reading of two cultures!

2. Cantonese
My brother lived in Taiwan for two years and studied Mandarin during his time there. He once said to me that Cantonese sounded like "pots banging together" in comparison to the fluid tones of Mandarin and, after my time in Hong Kong, I fear I have to agree. The percussiveness of the language caught me at every turn. While in Taiwan, I fell in love with the melody I heard in Mandarin, a lyricism that brought to mind my short studies of Italian. "I could love this language," I thought at the time. On the other hand, though I fell deeply in love with Hong Kong itself, I know I could not live there - I couldn't stay for a long time without learning some of the language, and speaking Cantonese would irritate me continually. 

3. The World in an Island
I really did fall in love with Hong Kong. I could see myself living there very easily (outside of the language issue). It had everything I needed, and within short distance - a beautiful beach 30 minutes outside of downtown, forests and hills within an hour, Asian and Western influences blended together most everywhere. I found myself thinking of Hong Kong as its own world, an island that, though it would always rely on imports from the outside world, nevertheless seemed to contain everything necessary for me to live a happy existence, even happier than in Japan. While both are island communities, Japan has a love-hate relationship with the West that makes finding most tastes of home nigh impossible. Hong Kong, though, was perfectly balanced. 
If only it weren't for Cantonese ... ;)

With this, I'll leave my Hong Kong adventure behind and begin writing about other things. I can only close by saying that, if you ever have a chance, please do visit. You won't regret it!

17 May 2009

English and Japanese, At It Again.

In a world where I feel I'm always playing catch-up, trying to get up to speed and learn as much Japanese as I can, it's fun to see when, instead of being influenced by my world, I influence it.

My best example of this is the exclamation "Nice!" Over the past year, I've watched this creep into my teachers' vocabulary through my own, repeated use of it. It's not too surprising that it's caught on - it's short, easy, and a word that all of them recall from their own English classes, however long ago. (I've yet to meet a Japanese person who can't remember, "Hello, my name is ~~. Nice to meet you.") Still, it is funny to hear two teachers conversing (in Japanese) and have one suddenly say "Nice!" in response to the other. Of course, I'm not the only one influencing my teachers - TV is also a great help, where words like "lucky," "bad," and even "very, very good" are frequently used. But "nice," I know, I can claim for my own.

Still, my own English is falling under the influence of the Japanese around me - just wait, friends, till you hear me say "See you!" upon parting, as the Japanese have quite a special lilt of their own for the phrase. And, of course, there's Janglish (Japanese English). My new favorite is really an old classic here. "Cho" is a slangy sort of "very," and is often used in the same way teenage girls use "so" - "He's sooooooooooo cute!" (In Japanese, "Choooooooooo kakkoi!") For some reason, I recently used "cho good" with an English teacher, and we both giggled at the strange phrase. "I'm bringing this back to the US with me," I told her at the time. I don't think she quite believed me.

One of the best things about learning a language is finding out those little quirks - the words that somehow say more than their native-language counterparts. I have a feeling many of my friends and family will find my random Japanese quips and responses to be annoying (or, rather, the ensuing explanation of them), but please be patient. Just think - at least you're not the ALT walking into the "Nice!" staffroom.

15 May 2009

My Very Busy Day (part 2)

The Tale Continues!

5. Victoria Peak (originally visited Saturday night)
Victoria Peak was disappointing in the afternoon compared to what it was like at night. The view of Hong Kong at night is spectacular - the view of it during the day is impressive, but not nearly as beautiful. Still, I was glad to know that I had seen it at its best, even if my pictures didn't survive. (Not to mention it was a million times easier to get up there during the day - it took me 2 hours just to get on the tram on Saturday night, whereas it took me about 5 minutes on Tuesday!)

6. The Golden Bauhinia Square and the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center (originally visited Monday evening)
The HKCE was where the British passed control of Hong Kong back to China after 100 years of "ownership." The Golden Bauhinia statue was built to honor this occasion, and is the new symbol of Hong Kong. Truth be told, it's a pretty site ... but that's about it.

7. The Star Ferry (used multiple times throughout the trip)
The Star Ferries were some of my favorite ways to travel. Instead of riding under the channel, one can cheaply take a ferry over it instead. It was relaxing and cool, as a calm breeze blew off the water and through the open deck. Plus, it's a great way to see both the Kowloon and the Hong Kong Island parts of the city.

8. The Clock Tower / The Avenue of the Stars (originally visited Monday evening)
The Clock Tower is the only remaining part of the original Kowloon train station, built in the early 1915. It's gained 3 more clock-faces since then, but it's still a nice addition to the area.

The Avenue of the Stars is a short walk from the tower and is home to star-plaques of famous Hong Kong actors and actresses. My camera battery was beginning to die again, so I wasn't able to finagle all the pictures I wanted from the place. Still, here is one I did manage to get clearly of Bruce Lee's star.

Jackie Chan's star had his hand prints with it - my hands are roughly the same size as his. Hilarious side note: his hands are much bigger than most Asians hands, as was frequently pointed out while I was trying, unsuccessfully, to get a picture.

9. The Symphony of Lights (originally seen Monday evening)
Every night at 8 o'clock, the city puts on a light show using the buildings on the Hong Kong Island side of the bay. It's accompanied by music and a beautiful sight to behold - I'm glad I got to go twice. Plus, the second night I met a pair of retirees who were absolutely wonderful. They made my evening, no, my day, and it was worth losing my pictures to meet them. (I'm fairly positive I wouldn't have met them had my pictures not forced me into this crazy day of travel.)

After this, I checked out of my hotel room and made my way to the airport. My flight was at 1:50 am - can you imagine, after a day as busy as mine, staying awake that long? It was a challenge, to be sure! Still, I managed it and had most of Wednesday to recover from my intense, but wonderful, Hong Kong day.

There were three places I didn't revisit, due to time constraints.

1. Hong Kong Heritage Museum 
This place was amazing. It's made me extremely interested in Cantonese Opera, and that's an impressive feat indeed! It also had a good exhibit on Hong Kong's history that helped me appreciate the places I visited. 

2. The 10,000 Buddhas Temple
This was a place where the only word that continues to resound in my mind is "garish." Look up photos of it online and you'll find what I mean. The 10,000 Buddhas were hardly what I would call "reverent" ... they were much closer to "hilarious."

3. The Bamboo Temple
This temple was nice, but hard to get to and really similar to the Po Lin monestary, so in the end I wasn't too sad about missing the pictures of it.   My camera battery also died on me that day, so I didn't have many good pictures from there in the first place.

All in all, I'm pretty proud of my achievements! Not something I would like to repeat by any means (I had one solid meal that day), but a good day nonetheless.

14 May 2009

My Very Busy Day (part 1)

AKA: Conquering Hong Kong

On the eve of my last day in Hong Kong, I accidentally deleted all 680+ photos I had taken since my arrival three days prior.

Let me just give you a moment to let that sink in.

  .  .  . 

I take great pride in admitting that I did not cry, throw a tantrum, or even break anything after this happened. Instead, after about 10 minutes of mental panic, I resolved to re-do Hong Kong, visiting as many of the sites I'd seen (as well as one new one) in my one, last day.
So, here's what I did:

1. Kowloon Walled City Park (originally visited Sunday morning)
Kowloon Walled City was originally a small bit of China in the middle of British-owned Hong Kong. As such, the place was practically lawless - China wasn't exactly sending in a whole lot of assistance. It continued on this way for decades, growing up when it could no longer grow out and unstable in more than just a few ways, until it was torn down in 1993. It's a fascinating story, and I highly encourage all my readers to delve further into its history.

After it was torn down, it was made into a beautiful garden area. I had a lot of fun wandering around, watching the older people exercise, and enjoying the scenery. It was fun to see how different it was on Sunday morning (around 9:30) and Tuesday morning (around 7) - amazingly enough, it was more crowded the second time around!

2. Fung Ying Seen Koon (originally visited Sunday afternoon) 
Fun Ying Seen Koon is a Taoist temple for the dead - it's a large and colorful complex, housing not only shrines for various deities but row after row of memorials for the dead. These memorials are, and forgive me the sacrilegious tone, like cubby-holes, each displaying not only the name of the deceased and his/her dates of birth and death, but a picture as well. I imagine, too, that in each cubby is an urn of the deceased's ashes, but that's all assumption on my part.

The difference between Sunday afternoon and Tuesday morning was fairly noticeable. Tuesday morning hosted many tai chi practitioners, working on various forms in the front courtyard. Sunday afternoon, though, showed more worshipers - family members making offerings to their dead relatives. Lesson learned - going back to a place at a different time makes a huge difference, and isn't a bad thing.

3.  Tian Tan Buddha and Po Lin Monastery
This was my one new place for the day, and I'm still in love with it. I was sitting on the bus, watching the scenery of Lantau island pass by, when in the distance I saw a Buddha statue rise up above the hills immediately around me. As we got closer, his size grew and grew, and at our arrival I could only marvel at his calm-yet-towering presence.

Po Lin Monastery, the sponsors of the Tian Tan Buddha, was a short walk away. It was quite similar to a different temple I had seen earlier in the week but wouldn't get to return to, which, for the sake of my pictures, made me happy. Similar to Fung Ying, the colors were bright and beautiful. It was a completely different sensation than the quiet reverence Japanese temples inspire, but I liked the celebratory energy of it.

I took the bus in, but snagged the cable cars back to the station. This ended up being perfect - I got a car all to myself and got to run around like a giddy 12-year-old, taking pictures and movies. It gave me an energy boost, which I needed as I headed to my next destination.

4. Repulse Bay and the Kwun Yam Shrine (originally visited Monday afternoon)
Repulse Bay is on the opposite side of the main island from Kowloon and the New Territories - in short, it's significantly less busy there during the day and has a laid-back feel in general. It's still touristy, though, as it's one of the better beaches in Hong Kong, and definitely the closest to the downtown area. Of course, this proximity doesn't mean it isn't beautiful. 

Still, my main reason for visiting was the Kwun Yam Shrine, a place that I love despite the fact that the first descriptor that comes to mind of it is "folk artist's garage-sale back yard." The place is filled with statues of deities covered in colorful mosaic tiles. The site is named for Kwun Yam, a deity of good luck, though she is paired with Tin Hau, a male deity. The two together are known for their protection of those at sea. 

And, of course, the site is famous for the Longevity Bridge - every time you cross the bridge, it will add 3 years (or 3 days, as another source said) to your life. Sweet deal!

My camera battery, which I fully charged the night before, began to die on me at this point. I decided to take a break to recharge both my battery and myself, so went to the hostel for a half-hour break.

(to be continued in part 2...)

08 May 2009

North Korea and Other Difficulties

Two more anecdotes from my trip with my parents:

My parents' flight was at 3 pm on Sunday, so the plan was to see them off on an express train to the airport at 10:30 that morning. We were just getting our luggage out of our hotel rooms when my phone began to buzz. It was an email from my brother: "Mom and Dad's flight has been delayed until 7 pm."

Dad was furious, Mom concerned. We got online and tried to reschedule an earlier flight, or at least find out why ours had been delayed. At this point, Dad asked the front desk at the hotel to call the airport so we could talk to a person rather than struggle with uninformative websites. The answer we got back was surprising, as we hadn't been watching the news: "North Korea is planning a missile launch, so NO plane is leaving until after 5, their cut-off time for the launch."

Dad calmed - the delay was unavoidable. Mom went from fairly calm to agitated - the airports would be hell because every flight was delayed, and then there was the danger presented by the launch itself. And we all agreed that, while it is blissful to ignore the world at large during a vacation, it really can come back and bite you sometimes.

Segue into anecdote 2: this delay was a problem for me because I was torn between wanting to stay with my parents as long as possible and with my original plans...to go to the 
Kanayama Shrine's Phallus Festival. 
(It's worth bolding for effect.)

The rest of this post may fall under the category of "Not Safe for Work" as it contains many fake penises. That being said, I encourage you to continue reading and to tell any dissenters to chill and enjoy - it's all cultural, baby. 

It was a hard decision, but I decided I would resent my parents if they prevented me from seeing this once-in-a-lifetime festival. I hopped on a train and set off for the Kaneyama shrine.

The festival is one to celebrate fertility. While the ceremonies have largely stayed the same over the years, the attending masses have changed quite a bit over the years. Foreigners make up around half of the crowd, and a crowd it always is. While people mass to see the portable (penis) shrines being lifted and carried around the town, merchants sell penis memorabilia. Towels with penis dyed patterns, penis statues, penis and vagina lollipops ... if it has a penis on it, it's welcome in the merchant stalls. 

There are two main events at this festival, as I understand it. One is the parade where the phallus shrines are carried around town by volunteers. The practice of carrying around shrines is fairly common - it's an act to entice the spirits/gods into the portable shrine and then bring them back to the main shrine to act as protectors, wish-granters, and so forth. Granted, they generally don't have cross dressers as the shrine-bearers. 

The second event, though, was one not to be found at your usual festival - girls of all ages would straddle a large, wooden penis so as to add bonus points to their "fecund" skill set. (Wow, I just made a gaming/penis combo reference. I can hear the boys falling in love already.) Yes, ladies - if you want to ensure that you or your daughter is "ripe for the picking," just come on up and sit on this wooden penis. Yes, it's as easy as that - no hidden games or gimmicks. Step right up for your own fertility blessing.

Bringing a whole new facet to the "wood" euphemism...

In the end, I didn't stay long - the place was too crowded for my tastes, I'd taken the photos I wanted, and if I returned promptly I could spend another hour with my parents. Still, it certainly was worth seeing. There's something about walking along under beautiful cherry blossoms and seeing a mass of penis paraphernalia that just made me smile. It was a pretty wonderful day.

(And yes, for anyone who's wondering - I did get back in time to spend another hour or so with my parents and properly send them off, and North Korea hasn't killed us all ... yet.)

07 May 2009

"It's a hug, man. A hug."

One of my favorite TV shows here is called Hanazakari Kimitachi E (Ekimen Paradise) ["For You in Full Bloom - Hottie Paradise" - HanaKimi for short]. It's about a girl who enters an all-boys high school so as to be able to help Sano Izumi, a skilled high-jumper who had suddenly abandoned the sport. 

(Sound ridiculous? Welcome to Japanese TV.)

In order to get in the school, the girl, Ashiya Mizuki, disguises herself as a boy. Sano quickly figures out that Ashiya is a girl, but almost all of the other characters remain blissfully (read: impossibly) unaware. One of these other characters is Nakatsu, a loudmouth from Osaka who finds himself falling in love with Ashiya despite the fact that Ashiya is a "boy." He struggles with his sexual identity through most of the show. 

One of the best scenes of this struggle is when Nakatsu confronts Sano about some of his behavior towards Ashiya. That is to say, Nakatsu saw Sano give Ashiya a hug. 
Nakatsu: Um... Actually, I saw the whole thing. You... that.... You and Mizuki...
Sano: And?
Nakatsu: 'And'?! What do you mean, 'and'? Could it be that you're ...
:Sano hugs Nakatsu just as he did Ashiya:
Sano: This is common. "Friendship between men." It's a hug, man. A hug.

OK, it's ridiculous, but it really is funny. I giggle every time I watch that scene. It's so, so very Japanese. PDA (Personal Displays of Affection) are out of the question here. Girls talk about wanting to walk down the streets holding hands with their boyfriends, and how romantic that would be - that is to say, it's a major turning point in the relationship for them. In short, a public hug really is a big deal here. 

Last week, I was teaching an English class with Itabashi-sensei, one of my better English teachers. This particular class was a display for the parents, so we not only had 36 kids in the class but some 15 or so parents in the back of the room. My teacher, for some reason, was talking about hugging. She used English, so she wanted to make sure the students understood. While she asked them what "hug" is in Japanese, I mimed hugging in her direction some 5 feet away. Either due to a misinterpretation of the gesture or her wanting to take it a step further, Itabashi-sensei also put out her arms and took a step closer to me. We both inched toward each other, arms outstretched, waiting for the students to respond. As the silence dragged on, an actual hug started to become a reality to this situation, and my teacher said in a strained and embarrassed voice, "Hurry up [and say it]!!" 

The desperation in her voice was too much - I broke the impending hug and doubled over with laughter. It took me a good 15 seconds to recover, and all the while the parents in the room watched me with ... mostly confusion, but some amusement. It was a moment fueled by my rapport with my teacher and my distance from Japan's romantic restrictions; I didn't expect them to understand. 

It's all just a lesson in laughing. I could rant and rave about the romantic situation here, all the rules and general practices; as a matter of fact, I often do rant about these things. (If you personally aren't inflicted with these diatribes, consider yourself lucky.) Still, in some moments I am able to laugh, and that makes all the difference. From now on, when I get a hug, I'll think of Sano's words - 「ハーグ、だ。ハーグ。」("Haagu, da. Haagu," or "It's a hug, man. A hug.") 
And it will bring a smile to my face.

Cutting Japanese Men Down to Size

An anecdote from my trip with my parents:

I was in the hotel lobby, checking my email at the computer bank, when a couple of guys sat down at a table behind me. They were clearly at least a few drinks into their evening and left no doubt as to the fact that they were just getting started. It also quickly became apparent that they were talking about me.

My parents came down to check their email and the news, and as they did so I sat and listened to these guys talk about checking me out, then about picking up foreign girls, then launching into a long how-to discussion. I say "discussion," but in truth it was mostly one man lecturing the other, instructing him the ways to work it over. I somehow managed to keep my countenance and not laugh at them. After 20 minutes or so, my parents said they were ready to head out to dinner. "OK," I said. "Just give me a sec."

I turned to the boys and said, in Japanese, "Excuse me, but ... all that's really sketchy."

Cue 3 seconds of silent, wide-eyed staring. For a moment, I wondered if I'd made a mistake in what I'd said, somehow been unintelligible, began reviewing what I'd said in my head, when ...

"Oh my God, sorry, sorry, oh God, so sorry..." I know now why people call it a "flood" of words, as these two were gushing from the mouth, horror clearly showing on their faces. I said, "Sure, OK, whatever" in a light way, smiling, and walked over to the desk to turn in my key. The front desk lady was clearly enjoying my telling these boys off. Then, the "instructor" of the pair said loudly, in a tone pitched to ensure I heard it, "So, like I was saying, when the girl is really cute and smart and clearly studies Japanese ..." 
"Enough already," I said, laughing. 
"She said, 'enough already!' " said the learner of the pair, clearly enjoying that his lecturer just got his butt handed to him.

I managed to make it out of the door ... barely ... before I nearly doubled over with laughter. Even better, though, was the confused look on my parents' faces; as everything had happened in Japanese, they hadn't a clue of my triumph. Explaining it was like reliving the moment of victory. 

I laughed all the way to dinner. The world, at that moment, was perfect.

01 May 2009

Office Politics and The Big Switch

When I was in college, I spent a little over a year in the student government, working as a member of the Treasury. Our student government was rather more cut-throat than most, from the descriptions I hear of other organizations. (Not many school governments have coup de tats.) The politics within the Student Union,  or SU, were much worse than anything the student body saw. Long story short, the whole thing left rather a bad taste in my mouth for inner-organization politics. Sadly, this kind of politics is a way of life, and even running as far away as Japan has not spared me.

Before I get into the heart of the matter, let me explain a few things about teachers and Japanese school systems.

  1. The school year runs from April to April.
  2. Teachers are hired by the Board of Educations in their cities, not by the schools themselves.
  3. Teachers are moved from school to school within their designated areas. This is to spread around good teachers, though it also means bad teachers can stay in the system purely because everyone says, “Eh, he’ll be traded away soon anyway, why bother firing him?”
  4. “Designated area” can cover a lot of ground – my prefecture has only 4 areas, which means teachers may be forced to drive well over an hour or two to their job every day.
  5. The BOE decides when and where to move a teacher. On the whole, teachers are moved after their third year at a school but before their eighth. Thus, most teachers only spend around 5 years at any given school.
  6. The teachers find out about the switches a couple of weeks before they actually happen, sometime in mid-March. 
It’s an interesting system, one that I think works in some ways and doesn’t in others. Still, it does throw the staff room into a bit of a fit. All of the roles have to be reassigned every year to accommodate established teachers leaving and new-to-the-school teachers taking their place. This year, the head teacher of the 3rd year students (from now on, I’ll refer to him as Mr. X) left. Thus, a new head teacher had to be picked. And here was where office politics raised its ugly head. 

There is a teacher in my staffroom (from now on, I’ll refer to her as Ms. Y) who gets along with practically no one. Everyone plays nice in the staff room, of course, but behind the scenes, this woman receives more bad press than I thought possible. I knew that I wasn't 100% inclined toward her, but I didn't realize just the amount of trouble she caused. It's pretty astounding.
Anyway, back to my story. Mr. X and Ms. Y got along well, so there were no concerns with her placement last year. However, with Mr. X leaving, no head teachers were willing to put up with Ms. Y in their group. It honestly threw the staff room into a flurry of behind-the-scenes chaos. For example, while my parents and I were visiting Saito-sensei’s house, he received two calls from other high-ranking teachers to discuss the matter. Both times, it took him around 10 or 20 minutes to complete the call.

This is already an overlong story, especially when one doesn’t know the players and when I can’t reveal the details on so public a forum as this. So let me get to the important part, that being, of course, how all of this affected me:
An issue was raised by this troublesome Ms. Y that the balance of male and female teachers in each year was off. As she was willing to make a stink about it, everyone gave in. Between this and all of the fuss caused over Ms. X's placement, it became clear that I would be passed to a new group. Yes, the group of teachers with whom I have sat, had numerous drinking parties, and even traveled, during my first 20 months were forced to pass me off to another year.

For the past year, I’d had the perfect arrangement; sandwiched between Saito-sensei and one of my most enjoyable English teachers, Takayanagi-sensei, I always had someone with whom I could talk, joke, and be silly. As it stands now, they are on the opposite side of the staff room from me, as far away as is possible. My new teachers, while fun and nice people, don’t know me well and are always busy. I find that I often feel lonely now. It's not just me, either - when I mentioned my loneliness to Takayanagi-sensei, she turned to Saito-sensei and said (in Japanese), "If that's the case, why the heck can't she come back over with us?" I suppose I can take some misery-loves-company consolation in that. 

It’s not the fault of my new group of teachers that I'm left-out; it’s an extremely busy time of year, only one (my English teacher) speaks English well, and it’s hard to invest in someone who will be leaving in a few short months. Even just now I had a nice conversation with my new head-teacher about the students. Still, I feel sorry for the next ALT, especially if he or she doesn’t speak Japanese. While that ALT will still be surrounded by wonderful, friendly, smiling teachers, he or she won’t be able to experience the same security I had all last year. In the end, I guess I can only be thankful that I had a chance to experience such a warm staff room myself. 

28 April 2009

100th Post!

That's right, this post marks the 100th post of this blog! 

Let's celebrating!

I've learned a lot since I first started writing here - about this culture and, in comparison, my own; about others and, in comparison, myself. In fact, when I read past entries (especially the first five), I am amazed to find how much I've changed. It's only been a couple of years, but I feel I've grown more here than I did in most of my years at college.  

While I started this blog with the pretense of passing on my experiences to my friends and family back home, I'm finding that I value it more and more as a chronicle. It's a concrete sign of my own development and life. 

So here's to 100 posts! May there be 100 more*!

*highly, HIGHLY unlikely! *wink*

20 April 2009

Dinner with the Saitos

AKA: Speechless, much?

I have mentioned Saito-sensei countless times here - he truly is my Papa-sensei in the office. He brags about me at enkai to other teachers, he keeps an eye on me, and he laughs at my stupid jokes. It was clear that he would want to be apprised of my parents' visit.

As I expected, Saito-sensei wanted to meet them. The unexpected turn of events was when Saito-sensei offered to host us at his house for dinner. While this is hardly a big deal in America, it's rarely done in Japan. Hosting here requires one to be prepared for all of one's guests particular whims, as if the guest were ordering a meal instead of being treated to one. It's a heavy burden, and as such many Japanese forgo hosting at their own places and instead plan to meet at a restaurant, where the burden is on the wait staff and not the host or hostess.
In short, Saito-sensei's offering to have us over for dinner was a very, very big deal.

I knew we were in for a good time when Saito-sensei drove up to meet us at the hotel. He was grinning such to put the Cheshire Cat to shame - I've never seen him look so pleased. We got into the car and he and I chatted about school in Japanese. For once, he seemed shy to use his English, yet another sign of how much this meeting meant to him.

When we arrived at his house, two things jumped out at me. The place was amazingly clean, something Saito-sensei was quick to bemoan ("I'm exhausted from cleaning this place!"). There was also a wonderful spread already out on the table - handmade sushi, tempura, tofu salad, and a number of other options. I can't tell you how much preparation had gone into this dinner, not to mention the fact that it was soon followed by nabe, a kind of hot-pot stew.

After we sat down and were served drinks, the ritual began. I asked my parents to bring souvenirs for the family, and I handed those out and explained them. All were well received, to my relief. The reception of the whiskey for Saito-sensei was particularly hilarious - he was so engrossed with reading the label that he responded to my mother's asking "do you like whiskey?" with little more than a grunt. I can't explain why this is so funny except to say that, for someone who was displaying an extreme amount of deference to my parents, it was a surprisingly informal response. It's as if he were so pleased, he forgot to be polite...and that takes a lot, here.

Gifts were also given to us, as though dinner weren't enough. They gave my parents sake cups from a local sake maker, and we sampled his sake during dinner. We were also presented with the chopsticks we'd used that night after dinner was over, washed and wrapped in cloth cases. I was given a Totoro hand-towel (the kind I mentioned in a previous post), a nod to my complete adoration of Miyazaki.

It was at this point that the Saitos surprised me with a birthday present - the complete, boxed set of Nausicaa comics. The last and only other time I went to the Saitos, Saito-sensei showed me his own set of these comics, well-worn and well-loved. The Japanese was then (and is still) beyond me, but I spent a lot of time pouring over the images. It's also hardly what I'd call an inexpensive gift; I've been a good girl and haven't looked up the exact price, despite my temptation, but I know it cost a lot. I wasn't expecting anything, much less a gift like that. This gift, more than anything, woke me to the amount of affection Saito-sensei has for me. I was, and continue to be, amazed and moved by both the gifts and the feelings behind it.

We ate, drank, and drank some more. Saito-sensei's elderly mother watched my parents, my father especially, like a hawk, always pressing more sake or beer on him and encouraging him to eat. At one point, she asked if she could touch my mother's hair, and ran her fingers through it in wonder, as if she couldn't understand how it got to be so white. My mother loved her; my father somewhat feared her, I think, by the end of the night. And, of course, we took pictures - to my mother's delight, we got a group picture in front of Mari's Hina Matsuri doll set, and it's officially one of my favorite pictures.

From left to right: Ms. Saito, Saito-sensei, me, Mom, Dad, and Saito-sensei's mother. Not pictured: Saito-sensei's daughter, Mari.

When we were all doing our best to stay awake, some 4 hours after we were picked up from the hotel, I dropped a hint to Mrs. Saito and we soon found ourselves being escorted to a taxi. It then occurred to me that we had ALL been drinking, and, as Japan has a zero-tolerance law in regards to alcohol and driving, we couldn't be driven home by our hosts. Instead, we were sent home in a taxi prepaid by the Saitos, something all arranged without our noticing. I am fairly sure they paid around $40 for this, just to clarify how generous this was - just another sign of how far the Japanese go to treat their guests.

Along the ride home, my parents were near speechless at the display of hospitality. I was a little bit more aware of what would happen, but even I wasn't nearly prepared enough for all of this. It was an amazing night, and one that impressed on me just how much Saito-sensei values our friendship.

As my father said on our ride home, "I don't even know how to begin thanking them, muchless how to return the favor." I find I'm rather still in that state.

16 April 2009

The Snack Bar

There are some essential things I keep in my desk - without them, I don't know how I could make it through the day. No, I don't mean my copies of the textbooks, or my notebooks of worksheets for class, or even the cute little cup-cozy I made last year; they're all necessary, of course, but "essential"? No, I mean, of course, my stash of tea and snacks.

It's not the first thing I thought of needing when I first established myself at my desk, I have to say. Still, over time, I found that the pick-me-up of a small candy here, a little bit of pastry there, or an extra cup of tea went a long way to improving my ability to make it through the day. 

A lot of choices are available for individually-wrapped, "fun sized" snacks in Japan. Most of this is because the Japanese, from my observations, are a food-loving, germ-hating culture. Most cities have some sort of assigned specialty food, and these options are listed quite frequently in travel guides and brochures. There's also a strong tradition of giving food as a souvenir from ones travels, so having small, individually-wrapped portions readily available for purchase is an important aspect of this habit.

Two things result from this: one, it's rare that a week passes and some new treat doesn't arrive on my desk, either as a souvenir from someones travels or as a gift given to the school to curry favor in some way or another. Two, grocery stores often have these sorts of things for sale, so it's easy to invest in your own at-desk snack bar. 

The best reason to have a snack bar, however, is not for your own use, but for the bribery of other teachers. If an English teacher is particularly busy, for example, I will leave him or her a note, saying whatever it is I need to ask them (generally about what to do for upcoming classes). This is made a thousand times more effective with the occasional addition of a candy or two from the snack bar. Tea, though, is easily the best way to bribe a teacher for his or her time. If you offer to get tea for a teacher, it means that said teacher will have to spend at least a few minutes with the tea. This opens a prime opportunity for asking about an upcoming class.  As my class schedule changes every week, requiring continual checking-in with my teachers, this method of bribing a few minutes out of their schedules here and there is one of the best in my arsenal. 

I can't help but think that these tricks will help me immensely in my future in America. Practically-invisible TA? A note with a fun-sized Snickers to force a materialization. Particularly uptight boss? A smile and a cup of coffee to smooth out the rough edges. I can't think of an instance where homemade cookies won't solve at least some problems. Of course, these methods require some attention before use - it'd be unfortunate if you brought coffee to someone who doesn't like it, or chocolate to someone with an allergy. But just think of the power you may wield for your efforts!

09 April 2009

A Failed Trip

AKA: Thoughts of Katherine

Immediately after my afore-described staff trip, I took my own trip around Japan. Now, when I say "immediately after," I mean it: I said goodbye to my teachers in the Tokyo train station, waving as they set off to return to Ota, and stayed in Tokyo overnight.

It was a sad evening - the original intent of this week-long break was to spend time with my best friend from high school, Katherine, who would be visiting during her spring break. Unfortunately, the world at large had other plans. Various things prevented Katherine from coming, so I went on the trip "一人ぼっち" - all alone. The trip itself ended up being miserable overall, in part due to Katherine's absence, but mostly because of outside circumstances. It was to the point that I spent most of my time thinking how wonderful it was that Katherine wasn't there to share in my misery.

The first part was spent in Tokyo, where it was cold, cold, cold. I spent the days investigating several must-see places I'd yet to visit, considering it research for future visitors. Did I mention it was cold? I spent half of my last day there huddled in my heated hostel, attempting to not freeze and playing my DS. (Yes, I am a nerd.)

On Wednesday morning, I hopped on a plane to Okinawa, the Hawaii of Japan. I'd long intended to go there and, with Katherine's interest in marine biology, I figured it was a good opportunity for us to enjoy the place together. Soon after my arrival, though, I yet again felt it was better Katherine wasn't there. Between the near constant rain (so much for paradise!) and the attitude of the locals, I felt ill-at-ease.

I should say that the locals that made me feel most uncomfortable were mostly the other people (read: men) at my entirely-Japanese hostel. They took my presence as an opportunity to be lewd, a thing I don't think is particularly Okinawan by any means. Of course, there were also the store owners that looked at me and, due to my being a foreigner, had one of two reactions:
  1. grimace with ugh-do-I-have-to-deal-with-this feelings (which is not wholly undeserved - most foreigners who come to Okinawa probably can't speak Japanese, and Okinawa has suffered a lot at the hands of Americans, both during and after the war), or
  2. look at me as if I were a walking yen note.

I did have some wonderful interactions with natives, though - I had a long conversation about Okinawan history with a woman from the historical society there, for example, and I ended up buying a book (in English) about Okinawan's part in the second World War on her recommendation. Another shop keeper asked me several questions about studying languages when she found out I speak Japanese and teach here. At the end of our conversation she gave me a discount on my purchase for having talked with her so long, a double-win in my book.

In the end, I fear, my conclusion is one well-established by both history and myself: trips are made or broken based on the people one meets and one's own attitude. The cards were stacked against me this time, but I have higher hopes for my solo travels in the near future.

Travels with Parents

AKA: Who's the Parent Now?

My parents recently visited me here in Japan, and I have to say that it was one of the best trips I've had yet. We all had fun, we accomplished a lot, and only a few things went wrong during the 9 days they were here. 

Rather than go into detail of all the places we visited, as that would be a long entry indeed, I'll
just write a quick list.

 - Sanjusangen-do
 - Kiyomizudera (Kiyomizu Temple)
 - Fushimi Inari 
 - Nijo Castle
 - Maruyama Park
 - Daikakuji
 - Ryoanji
 - Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion)
 - Sensouji
 - Studio Ghibli Museum
 - Ueno Park
 - Imperial Palace
 - Harajuku
 - Yoyogi Park
 - Meiji Jingu (Meiji Shrine)

We also visited Ota briefly, and my parents were able to visit both my middle and elementary school, meet my teachers, and even meet some of the Japanese families who have been helping to take care of me here.

One of the most striking things of traveling in a country where I was the one best able to communicate was the way in which our normal roles were reversed - instead of being their child, it was as if I was their parent for the nine days they were here.  I ordered food, I checked us in to hotels, I figured out where we were going and how we would get there. I think it was a fun change of pace for all involved. 

I have three main stories from our travels that I think are worth chronicling in detail:

1. Dinner with the Saitos
2. Cutting Japanese Men Down to Size
3. North Korea and Other Difficulties

Look forward to these entries in the near future!

19 March 2009

Things About Japan: Bathrooms

A Primer

With my parents impending arrival in Japan, I find myself constantly trying to think of things they need to know before they arrive. Bathrooms certainly fall under this category.

1. The Toilets
Unless you're in an urban area, the toilets will most likely be squat instead of "Western style." What does this mean? Well, basically, there's a porcelin-lined hole in the ground. 

They're easy to use, albeit slightly frightening at first. Straddle the porcelain, facing toward the deeper depression where the pool of water is - in the picture above, one would face toward the left side of the image. This is generally where the flushing pipes are, but the above is of a nice toilet that has a flush button on the wall. In any case, once you're properly oriented, you can drop your pants/lift your skirt, squat (don't sit!) down, and have at. 
While these bathrooms can be ... distasteful ... I can't help but prefer these to Western toilets when it comes to less-than-clean, public bathrooms, as there's no skin-to-toilet contact. 

2. Flushing
Japanese women are embarrassed by sounds made while in the bathroom (in short, the sound of pee). I really don't understand this. It's like being embarrassed that you can hear your footsteps while walking down the street; what other sounds would you expect? In any case, because of this embarrassment, Japanese women will flush while they're making use of bathroom facilities - one, two, sometimes even three times total. It's an awful waste of water.
In an effort to get women to stop wasting water, Japan did a wonderfully astute thing. Knowing that people are loathe to change their ways, they didn't encourage women to stop flushing. Instead, many places have installed motion-sensitive speakers in the bathrooms. When you sit down, these speakers automatically play a water-sound to cover up any noise you yourself might be making. Sometimes it's just white noise, but if you're lucky it's a flowing-river soundtrack, complete with the occasional bird chirp. These are usually to be found in more urban areas, of course - out in the boonies, expect to hear constant flushing. I find them hilarious and have a hard time not giggling whenever I come across them. 

3. Washing Up
Once you're done with the toilet, there's washing up to consider. Two things are inevitably missing from the sink area: something to dry your hands with and soap. There are exceptions, of course, but it's generally assumed one won't find these things. The Japanese tend to carry a small towel or handkerchief for drying purposes (a green practice that I hope will spread), but the absence of soap continues to confuse me. There seems to be an opinion that water is enough, which it isn't. Antibacterial hand gel, anyone?

And there you have it! The interesting life of Japanese-style bathrooms.

18 March 2009

Vision Test

Earlier this week, I was washing cups for the regular, afternoon cup of tea when one of my teachers approached the kitchen-nook. I saw him out of the corner of my eye, noticed the cup in his hand, and figured that he wanted to rinse out his cup.  Not wanting to make him wait through my washing 8 cups, I stepped back from the sink and gestured him forward, saying, "Please, go ahead." He laughed, began washing his cup, and commented that I "must have eyes in the back of [my] head to have noticed [him]."  When he first said this, I wondered if my peripheral vision has improved recently, but fairly quickly laughed this off. Visual acuity probably had little to do with it.

Sherlock Holmes says in "A Scandal in Bohemia" the following gem:
"You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear."
I feel that Japan has trained me to be more observant. I was so caught up in not making mistakes when I first arrived that I forced myself to attend to small details. Apparently, I've successfully accomplished this training of my attention. It wasn't the quality of my eyesight, but instead the attention to what I saw that was important in my kitchen-nook interaction. In the moments like this one where my work pays off, well ... I can't help but be a little proud of myself.

It's interesting that what we see seems more influenced by our attention to such details than the quality of our eyesight. Of course, several psychological studies have noted this trend; my own observations are hardly pioneering opinions. If you doubt me, visit this site and read the directions carefully. (It's important that you read the follow-up link.)  It just seems a greater reality now that I've experienced it so powerfully in my own little world.