28 February 2009

Things about Japan: Brushing Teeth

When the bell signifying the end of lunch chimes, several things happen all at once. The quiet staff room suddenly becomes a bustling thoroughfare for teachers returning from their homerooms, students searching for So-and-So-sensei to ask about the homework for tomorrow, and staff members trying to both remove the food and start the tea in the lunch/post-lunch change-over. Still by far the strangest activity to me is this: within five minutes of the lunch being over, the kitchen sink is one of the hardest places to access in the staff room. Why?
Teachers are brushing their teeth.

As soon as the lunch trays are whisked away, toothbrushes appear from within desks and purses, often in small cases and accompanied by small tubes of toothpaste. These kits can be purchased in most dollar stores and convenience stores. Even funnier, though, is when lunch is had outside of the school - rather than brushing at the restaurant, a mass movement to brush occurs once everyone has returned to the school. While part of me is impressed by their dedication, the feeling is undercut by the fact that the toothpaste with which they brush, as well as the water from the tap, are both lacking entirely in fluoride.

27 February 2009

"Call me!"

We interrupt your regularly scheduled blogging for this stupid story these stupid stories (updated to include the second story).

Story 1
I was "signing in" at the front of the staff room around 3 when one of the 2nd year boys, a nice kid and good student, opened the door. The following all took place in English (his rather accented):

Boy: "Leslie!"
Me: "Yeeees?"
Boy: "Call me! *jiggles hand like a phone near his ear*"
Me: " ... "
Boy: "Joke, joke. Give me a break!"

Cue me to die laughing.

Story 2
Right at 4, another of my 2nd year boys who is nice and a good student opened the door to the staff room. Normally, when students enter the staff room, they say "excuse me" in Japanese - しつれいします (shitsureishimasu). They say this again, in past tense, when they leave - しつれいしました (shitsureishimashita). This student, however, decided to say it in English instead:

Student: "Excuse me!"
Me: "Yes?"
Student: "..."
A Teacher: "[in Japanese] HA! Thought you'd be cool and come in using English, but you didn't think about what you'd have to say after 'excuse me,' did you?"
Student: "Uhhhhhh..."
Teachers: *chortle*
Student: "..I can't speak English, but I can speak Japanese. 田中先生, 来てください! (Tanaka-sensei, please come here!)"
Teachers: *burst out laughing*

You may now return to your regularly scheduled program.

Travels with hannah IV

My Reunion with Kyoto

When I first visited Kyoto last March, I wrote of it as being an old love, a place with which I felt a relaxed and comfortable connection. Still, as I afforded at the time, we were visiting Kyoto at the height of its splendor, and that a great deal of my love for the city was because I considered it such a gorgeous place. January, surely, would show me a drastically different city.

Somehow, even in the midst of a barren backdrop, Kyoto maintained its beauty. Perhaps my eyes were blinded by familiarity (or, worse, general travel exhaustion), but on the whole I found the city to please me as it had last year. I still find myself unable to talk about Kyoto in specifics. For some reason, the city eludes my ability to discuss it properly to this day. Perhaps the third time will be the charm, and I will finally write a substantial post on it after my trip there with my parents in late March. The two of us had only a day there, so we hit three of what I considered to be the most important places (by which, of course, I mean my favorites): Kiyomizudera temple, Kinkakuji, and Fushimi Inari.

Kiyomizudera temple is beautiful, a description it earns from me due almost entirely due to two things: the trees surrounding it, which alternate between being laden with cherry blossoms in spring and shedding beautiful leaves in fall; and the materials of structure itself. The wooden buildings are a rich brown, but with a tinge of gray from the weather - it's warm, old, and comforting. In some areas of the complex, stone replaces wood, and the moss-encrusted stones give as much character and appeal to the structures as the gray of the tinged wood. It's truly a beautiful place.

Kinkakuji, the "Golden Pavilion," is gorgeous on first glance but is somewhat lacking in substance as far as I'm concerned. It is perfectly situated and striking, but the fact of the matter is that it was made to be a vacation spot for an emperor long ago, and is in fact a replica due to the fanatically-jealous acts of a monk in the '80s. It's a place to walk at, ooh and ahh, and then move on.

hannah and Kinkakuji - which is more super-special awesome? No contest; it's clearly hannah.

Fushimi Inari is first impressive and then soothing. The sheer number of red torii gates is enough to intimidate, but the feeling of walking past gate after gate, the seeming rhythm they make as they pass by ones peripheral vision, is wonderfully relaxing. It really is one of my favorite places in Japan.

We spent the evening relaxing in our hostel, the Hanakiya Inn - I recommend it to any of my readers should they ever find themselves in the area. And the next morning we were up early and on our way to our celebration of hannah's 24th birthday...

24 February 2009

Things about Japan: Mayonnaise, Corn, and Tabasco Sauce

When eating in Japan, three ingredients will often make a surprising appearance:

1. Mayonnaise
This is on everything, be it a Western dish or a Japanese one. I have had pizza with mayonnaise on top, rice balls with chicken-and-mayo centers - even sushi isn't safe from mayo's greasy grasp. In addition, Japanese mayonnaise is somewhat heavier and more ... "fragrant" ... than its American cousin. I avoid it whenever possible, which isn't nearly as often as I should like.

2. Corn
Though it is often paired with mayonnaise, corn is most commonly found as a staple topping for pizza. As my mother would say, "Why, we do not know." It is often the sweeter version than I'm used to finding in the South, to add insult to injury.

3. Tabasco Sauce
If you order a food that is somewhat Italian in nature (as in, pasta or pizza), be prepared for a small bottle of Tabasco sauce to accompany the meal. The Japanese are not as fond of spicy things as its being the home of wasabi would have one imagine, so I often find this quite amusing. Still, having suspended my belief long enough to add it to a pasta dish long ago, I do find the addition a pleasant one on both pasta and pizza.
What of the Mexican food with which one normally imagines Tabasco sauce? The cuisine is often passed over for several reasons - Mexico is too far, and most of the regular ingredients have to be imported at great expense. On top of this, as I mentioned before, the Japanese are not too fond of spicy foods. That being said, Mexican and South-Western restaurants can be found here, and even outside of Tokyo - one only has to be willing to search. Though be warned: the creamy sauce with your nachos, tacos, and burritos is neither cheese nor sour cream.

... It's mayonnaise.

20 February 2009

Stories from the Staff Room

I have a random memory from 3rd grade: I was walking down the halls and went past two teachers. It was either before school, after school, or during class, as there were hardly any students in the hall, so the teachers were talking fairly freely. What were they doing? Gossipping about a student. I realized, with a start, that teachers might just be the worst gossips ever, having not only the camaraderie of there being many teachers in a school but also the rich fodder of students lives to fuel the flames.

Earlier this morning, the groundskeeper found a pencil bag while doing his rounds. As it was outside of the entrance the 1st and 2nd year (7th and 8th grader) students use, he showed it to the 1st and 2nd year teachers in the staff room, saying, "If any students say they've lost their pencil case, the one I found is here."

Saito-sensei took the bag and looked inside to see if there was anything to identify the owner. He fairly quickly stated it was owned by "a boy, and a suspicious one at that." This started a flurry of comments on the case - maybe it's a girl's; no, it's too big and manly; look at the inside, what's inside; it's definitely a boy, a girl would have cuter things; there are cartoon girl charms on the outside, couldn't it be a girl's? ...

And then Saito-sensei gave his assessment: "It's definitely a boy's. The charms just show he's got some perverted thoughts." He looked around at the male teachers in the room for support, who chuckled and nodded. Not being able to resist an opportunity to tease Saito-sensei, I told him he must be hoping to see the boy come to get it so he could point and say, "Ah! There's the suspicious boy!" He laughed, some others laughed, and the staff room's conversation flowed on to other things.

It all took about 3 minutes, but it's so indicative of how teachers interact and gossip in the staff room here. Students make up most of the conversation - so-and-so was acting the fool in class today, these students are causing trouble, I don't know what so-and-so's parents are thinking, this kid is a total pervert... the list goes on. I can't imagine that it's any different from the States. If anything, it's probably worse here, as the teachers here don't have their own rooms and thus always spend time in the "teacher's lounge" / staff room, affording them greater opportunities to swap tales.

When I was younger, the idea of gossipping teachers horrified me because I feared being the subject of their talk. In the end, though, it's probably unavoidable - we spend so much of our time interacting with students who will inevitably do stupid, immature, and funny things. I will say one thing for it, though: teachers being gossips certainly is an unanticipated bridge across the culture gap!

Travels with hannah III

Castles, Nakedness and Okonomiyaki

Our first morning in Osaka was a dreary one, unfortunately, but we braved the drizzle and made our way out to Osaka-jo, or Osaka Castle. It's a recreation, the original castle having been destroyed long ago, and the entire inside is devoted to enlightening the general public of the history of the castle and of the wars for the unification of Japan. Still, as English explanations were rare, hannah and I found ourselves making quick rounds, admiring the art and artifacts and passing over the plaques.

Osaka castle was interesting in that tourists were shuffled to the top level of the castle first, where one is afforded a view over the city, and then slowly make their way down, floor by floor, to the base again. It must be a way to encourage people to see the exhibits, although I found it to be somewhat anticlimatic due to my inability to read the history presented there. Oh well. At least we had ice cream outside!

After the castle, we made our way to an onsen, or "hot spring/pubilc bathing area," that had been recommended to us by the owner of our hostel. Now, when I say "we made our way," what I really mean is "I got us horrendously lost and we did about five times as much walking as we should have, for I am an idiot." Now, I've written a little about onsening before, but this time, things were a little different. On the one hand, I am now an onsen veteran - I've been onsenning with other ALTs, with teachers, and even once with an ex-student and her mother. My level of Japanese is also higher, so I'm fairly well able to navigate on my own. On the other hand, hannah has a tattoo.

Tattoos seem innocuous to most Westerners, I imagine. In Japan, howerver, tattoos have long been owned by the Japanese mafia. Even now, few people outside of the mafia get tattoos, and the gangsters flaunt their monopoly over the form with full-body coverings of dramatic art. It's beautiful in the same way coral snakes are - colorful, bright, and a sign of danger. Anyway, as there is nakedness involved and tattoos can be seen there, most bathing houses have a "no tattoo" rule in place as a way to keep out gangsters. (A cynical view of this would be that it is also to keep out foreigners.) I don't know why the gangsters would follow the rule, to be honest, because they know no one is going to fight them, but the rule is there in any case. I talked about the issue of hannah's tattoo before the trip with teachers and some Japanese friends, and the general consensus was that, as the tattoo is on her hip, she could "just hide it with the towel - it'll totally be fine." It was with that vote in mind that we headed to this onsen in the first place.

I've been to several bath houses, but never before have I seen such full plastering of a place in "no tatttos!" signs. They were in English, Japanese, and Korean if I remember correctly, and were not only displayed at the entrance, but also on every single shoe locker and as a sign at the front desk. My fears began rising dramatically, and I couldn't help but whisper "You've GOT to keep covered" and "Man, we need to be careful" under my breath to hannah, a reminder she probably didn't need to hear.

We anxiously made our way into the changing room, got lockers on the far side of the room where hannah could hide her tattoo against a wall while changing, and undressed. The elaborate schemes continued throughout our entire time in the baths - getting a showering seat where hannah could hide a little, seating in the baths themselves...it was almost like we should be humming the Mission Impossible theme. Still, we spent some hour or so there without any incidents, and in fact were able to relax quite well despite the fear over her tattoo. We celebrated quietly when hannah put on her jeans again, having completed our onsen mission fully and with flying colors. We spent a little time relaxing in the lobby with a bowl of noodles and cold milk in traditional, Japanese style, and then made our way outside.

We were still a little snacky, so we found an okonomiyaki-ya ("ya" means "shop" or "store") at which to enjoy the local favorite. People all over Japan talk about Osaka okonomiyaki - in fact, the wikipedia page for okonomiyaki says that the dish is referred to as "Osaka soul food." The place where we went was smoky, dark, and a little dirty, which is just the way you want your okonomiyaki-ya - it's like how the best diners have to be a little dingy. We ate, drank beer, and chatted under the watchful eye of the owner and cook who clearly didn't expect a pair of foreign women in his store. Then, with full bellies and relaxed bodies, we made our way back to our hostel to prepare for our trip to Kyoto the next morning.

12 February 2009

Cute and Frightening

In Japanese, the words for "cute" and "frightening" can be easy to mix up. "Kawaii" (cute) and "kowai" (frightening) are mostly differentiated by emphasis; "kawaii" holds out the final "i" sound slightly longer than "kowai," giving it an added syllable. Otherwise, the two words are, despite the "o" and "a" difference, fairly similar in sound. It was hard for me, in the first month or so that I arrived, to make this distinction while using the words to others, though I could hear it easily enough myself. In any case, it's long been amusing to me that there is so little distinguishing the difference between these denotatively-opposed words.

Then again, maybe that isn't something limited to semantics.

Today, at the end of class, one of my 2nd graders asked me for my signature. This isn't uncommon - the kids like to watch me sign and like to see how crazy (and long) my signature is compared what they're accustomed to seeing. I later was eating lunch with this same class, and the same girl came to me with her notebook, opened to the page I'd signed at the end of class, and said, "Could you fill this page with your signature, just like that one?" Odd, but OK, why not? I signed the page an extra 9 times. (As I did so, I commented that it was like I was having "signing practice." As others laughed, the girl said without missing a beat, "You're an adult, so it's OK." I'm still not sure why my being an adult has anything to do with my signature practice, but her assurance that it mattered was pretty cute.)

After I finish signing, the girl excitedly took her notebook back and started showing it off to other students at her lunch table. Their responses of "wow, that's a lot of signatures" got her even more excited and, being revved to the max and in need of a new audience, the girl went running across the room, yelling "IT'S LESLIE POWER!!"

That's right - having 10 of my signatures is equivalent to being bitten by a radioactive spider, being male and having imbibed the Water of Life, or being under the influence of a sun different from the one of your home world.

While I was trying my best not to laugh too loudly at this (resisting laughing all together would require a piece of paper with 10 of my signatures on it), the skin on the back of my neck crawled just the slightest at this exuberance. It's somewhat strange to be that special to a kid when you don't know their name, don't have any strong or personal connection with them, and only see them once a month. It was clear to me that the only saving grace of this encounter is the girl's youth and gender - I would have been significantly more disturbed were she a boy, or were she older than 7 or 8. And yet, I have to admit that it was still pretty adorable.

Cute and frightening? The evidence is in. It comes in the form of a Venn diagram, and the overlapping territory is broad. If you go looking, I'm sure you'll find several things from Japan: Goth versions of Hello Kitty, Harajuku Lolitas, and a little 7 year-old with her notebook.

11 February 2009

Travels with hannah II

A Night in Tokyo, Turn Left at Nara, and Straight On Till Osaka.

We got into Tokyo late on Friday night and checked in to our hostel, one of the cutest places I've seen in a long time. I love a hostel that takes itself less than seriously.

A battle between an Octopus Samura and an Octopus Ninja raged up the stairwell.

Neither hannah nor myself being big city girls, we made our way out of Tokyo early Saturday morning. We were on a shinkansen (bullet train) by 10:30 and on our way to Nara, the first of our stops.

Nara is famous for a particular area, Nara Park, which is home to a number of well-known temples, pagodas, and even natural formations. As with all cities, there are more things to see than one can take in a day, and our time was even more limited than this - we were staying only a few hours. With this in mind, our main goals* were limited to seeing Daibutsu, a large statue of Buddha, and deer.

Yes, deer. Nara park is home to a number of deer made tame from years of being fed by tourists. The deer wander the park freely, impeding traffic and wandering without any apparent cares or woes. Street vendors sell "deer crackers" for those wishing to feed the deer, and any impression the deer have that you might be in possession of such treats will lead to them crowding around you in hopes of your patronage.

Daibutsu is housed in Daibutsu-den, which takes claim to being the largest wooden building in the world. Daibutsu himself is nothing to sniff at, measuring in at over 49 feet in his sitting splendor. He really was beautiful. I wouldn't mind visiting him again, sitting with him, letting the tourists wander by while we understood through silence.

We were soon on the train again and heading to Osaka, our last destination for the day. After unintentionally making the rounds of the city via the Osaka loop, we found our hostel and settled in for a few moments before heading out again. The hostel's landlady was adorable and more than happy to recommend a karaoke place to us. We walked, and walked, and walked, and after several mishaps (and a run in with a very drunk bunch of sexagenarians), we found ourselves settled in to a room.

If you've ever the chance to karaoke while in Japan, I highly recommend you do so, if only for the entertainment value in selecting songs like Justin Timberlake's "Sexy Back," middle school sentimentals, and, of course, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." I have to credit Caitlin with finding this last one, and ever since I've been using it as one of the more entertaining surprises on the karaoke list. (I'm also a fan of Rick Rollin' the proceedings. Shhh, don't tell anyone.)
Doubt my sincerity? Well, Doubting Thomas, stick your finger in this!

Victory is mine.

Another trick for those who wish to win at Japanese karaoke - bring your own drinks. By the end of the night, hannah and I were giggly, happy, and entirely enjoying our "suurou daun" ("throw down") of an evening. We made our way back to the hostel just in time for curfew and slept as only one can after a full and fulfilling day.

* Now, I say "our main goals," but in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that hannah was being used as an excuse for me to finally visit Nara and, later, Osaka. Still, hannah was an ever compliant guest and allowed me these liberties.

10 February 2009

Travels with hannah I

AKA: Ota at Large - The first of five posts on my 10 days with hannah

Visitors are always an occasion for joy, but I was especially excited about seeing hannah. Having lived together for 3.5 years, we always seem to refer to the other as "my roommate," despite the distances between us. Having been separated for 1.5 years after having lived together for so long, we were more than overdue for a long visit.

TUESDAY (13 January)
I was distracted all day, counting down the hours and minutes until hannah's arrival and worrying about a variety of concerns - space in my apartment, the cold, etc. Once I saw hannah at the station that evening, however, my built-up worries about the trip began to dissipate and were quickly replaced with school-girly joy. We squealed and giggled and stayed up talking entirely too late that night.

WEDNESDAY (14 January)
I ran on caffeine the next day, Wednesday, and rushed home after school to prepare hannah and Ian for our first activity - dinner with the Saito family.

The Saitos are some of my favorite people. The eldest daughter was one of my middle school students last year; now that she is in high school, I tutor her once a week. Her younger sister is a first year (a 7th grader) at my middle school. The mother, Ms. Saito, is amazing - she truly treats me like one of her own, bringing me soup when I'm sick, offering to drive me places whenever I have need - in fact, she took me to the station to pick up hannah - and in general tries her best to make me feel comfortable and happy while here in Japan. I had few interactions with the husband, but they were all cheerful and warm - in short, they are an amazing family.

The week before hannah arrived, I told the Saitos that she would be coming and, if they liked, my weekly tutoring session with the eldest could be with hannah as well. Within moments, Ms. Saito turned my offer into a dinner party, inviting my brother to join the fun. By the time the dinner actually arrived, even more had been invited - the dinner party ended up having 7 people.

Armed with flowers as a gift, the three of us went to the Saitos that night. As the food was brought out, our eyes popped. There was a sushi-rice dish that was large enough on its own to feed us all, but of course there were another three or four courses at least, each of similar size to the first. In addition to this were three large cakes of different flavors, each some 3 layers tall. We were encouraged to take much of this home, more than the three of us were likely to eat in the coming days.

The conversation, despite my earlier hopes of encouraging my students to use English, was largely in Japanese. Still, one of the guests, a retired physics professor at the elite Tokyo Univeristy, was well-versed in English, so the conversation switched languages fairly frequently. We covered a variety of topics, enjoyed pleasant food and company, and in general had a blast.

THURSDAY (15 January)
The next day was another one that encouraged the use of caffeine on my part. I once again rushed home after school, this time to hurry hannah and myself off to the bus stop. We made our way into Ota and met up with several other ALTs (Bob, Clarissa, and Mia) for dinner. Ah, finally - English reigned over the dinner table. I was able to give hannah a view of my life here as well as give my ALT friends a view of my past and someone who was very influential in making me the (wonderful!) person I am today. All in all, we had fun, ate delicious Indian food, and enjoyed ourselves.

Clarissa and Mia went off to teach an English class, while Bob, hannah, and I went to the local arcade. Arcades in Japan are near polar opposites from those in America - they're smoke-filled, for starters, and crowded with adults as well as children. They're also much, much louder, to the point that yelling becomes the only way of communication. Still, the draw is there, and Bob and I introduced the Taiko drum game to hannah. If you haven't seen this game yet, please watch this youtube link - the game is more fun than I can say.

After an hour or so at the arcade, mostly spent at the Taiko game, we all made our respective ways home. hannah and I took a taxi back, and I spent nearly all of the 15 or 20 minute ride in an intense conversation with the driver. My triumph of that ride was recognizing the Japanese word for "compulsory education." (Go me.) hannah's triumph was not screaming out of boredom and language frustrations.

FRIDAY (16 January)
Friday was a wonderful day, as hannah joined me at school! She came with me my two classes, met my teachers, and suffered the suppositions of my students ("Is she [hannah] your sister?" "Is she [hannah] your daughter?" "Does she have any boyfriends?"). We played a board game in my classes and hannah helped, getting to enjoy the confusion my students had with things like "jumping jacks" and "high-fives." I also showed her around the school and explained as we went. All in all, it was a fun day.

That is, it was until that evening. We were gathering our things, preparing to leave for Tokyo, when disaster struck. I had, sometime in October, agreed to be a judge for a speech contest but had forgotten to write down the date. As (bad) luck would have it, the contest was to be the next day, Saturday, when hannah and I were planning to be in Kyoto. A half hour of scrambling and praying later, I had a replacement and was given the OK to be absent at the proceedings. With a lighter heart and mind, hannah and I made our way to Tokyo.

09 February 2009

Top 10 Questions

AKA: Things I'm Asked Regularly, and the Reactions.

1. Do you have a boyfriend?
Answer: No.
Reaction: *disappointed sigh*
Who Asks: students, generally female

2. Is HE your boyfriend?
My Answer: No.
Their Reaction: *disappointed sigh*
Who Asks: students, generally female

3. How old are you?
Answer: 23 (or "22" last year).
Reaction: You're so young!
Who Asks: EVERYONE. Including students who are a decade younger than I am at least.
Reaction 2: That's my mom's age!
Who Asks: 1st and 2nd grade students.

4. Where do you come from?
Answer: America.
Reaction: Oooooh, America! (and, as of late) Obama! Yes, we can!
Who Asks: Everyone, students included.

5. What is your favorite Japanese food?
Answer: Onigiri (rice balls), umeboshi (sour, pickled plum), curry, sushi ... the list goes on.
Reaction: Whaaaaaa...? You like umeboshi?
Who Asks: Students, generally, though new acquaintances are often curious about this, too.

6. What's this ring on your right hand?
Answer: My college ring.
Reaction: General disappointment/"Do you have a boyfriend?" (Wearing a ring on the right-hand ring finger here means that you have a boyfriend, and he's serious enough to give you a ring.)
Who Asks: Students, though teachers are interested when they hear the response.

7. How long have you been in Japan?
Answer: Under 6 months / Under a year / a year / a year and a half (depending on when the question was asked).
Reaction: Did you study Japanese before you came here?
Answer 2: Not really. (I watched a lot of anime with subtitles...?)
Reaction 2: Wow, your Japanese is really good! (I think this generally means that my accent is good.)
Who Asks: New acquaintances and, surprisingly, waiters/waitresses at small restaurants and taxi drivers.

8. Are you related to *point at other foreigner* him/her? (Alternatively, "Is he/she your brother/sister/mother/father/daughter/son/... ?)
Answer: No...
Reaction: But you look so much alike!
Who Asks: Students. My teachers don't actually verbalize the question, but their eyes show they want to know the answer.

9. How are American schools different from Japanese schools?
Answer: Well, there are no cram schools, and...
Who Asks: Adult acquaintances and teachers. And the one taxi driver that one time.

10. So really, no boyfriend?
Answer: *in my head* ...Goddammit.
Reaction: Disappointment.
Who Asks: Everyone in this nation, it seems. Why does everyone want me to be dating someone??

07 February 2009

Lasting Impressions

At the end-of-year enkai, or drinking party, in December, I sat in a group largely made up of teachers with whom I'm not so familiar. This is desired at a drinking party, as mixing is encouraged. For example, drawing lots for one's seat is fairly common; it breaks up the cliques that naturally group together. Still, for an ALT, it tends to be an awkward experience. If the teachers around you can't speak English, they often feel they can't communicate with you. If you're not comfortable with Japanese, you feel you can't communicate with them.

Still, this was fairly soon after the JLPT, so my confidence in my Japanese was higher than ever. I was ready to do my best. Unfortunately, the teachers around me weren't so excited, especially the one sitting to my left. Fujii-sensei, one of the younger teachers in my office, always has an energetic, magnetic air - it's no surprise the students like them as much as they do. Still, he was tense as he sat down next to me, and his thoughts were as clear as if he had spoken them: "Why did I have to draw this seat?"

I took his stiffness as a challenge. As the party progressed, I listened carefully to the conversation and jumped in when I had something interesting to add. It took several tries, but in a discussion about languages, Fujii-sensei reacted to my comments with excitement and began speaking directly with me. (さつが国語の先生! - That's a Japanese [language] teacher for ya!) By the end of the night, Fujii-sensei was completely comfortable around me, even to the point of asking if I'd be going to round two of the drinking party. My mission was successfully completed.

My goal at the time was rather short-term: make the party more enjoyable for both myself and those sitting around me. I've since had the distinct pleasure in realizing that the impression I made has been much longer lasting than expected. Just this past Friday, I was walking with a teacher to class and along the way, we ran into Fujii-sensei and two students in the hall. The students said "hello" to me in English, as is the regular way of it when I run into students outside of class, but weren't sure whether to greet the natively-Japanese English teacher with "hello" or "konnichi wa." As they giggled over this, Fujii-sensei spoke up. "You know, Leslie speaks amazing Japanese. It's better than mine!"
"That isn't so," I responded in Japanese. The students laughed.
"No, it really is great. In fact, do you want to teach this next class in my place?"
I smiled slightly. "That's OK."
Language mistake! I meant to imply "Thanks, but no thanks," but instead ended up saying, "Sure, sounds fine." Fujii-sensei laughed and perked up.
"She said it's OK! Excellent!"
I backpedaled. "My Japanese lesson would be pretty short, though. 'OK, so...Bye bye!' "
"Only that much?" He laughed again. By this point, we had reached our respective classrooms, so he and the students went to theirs and my English teacher and I went to ours.
It may not seem like much, but it's leaps and bounds above my previous (read: non-existent) interactions with Fujii-sensei.

As the year progresses, I become more and more frustrated with my students and their antics. It's at these times when my good relationship with my staff buoys me above the classroom idiocy and keeps me afloat; it's as if, every time I enter the staff room, I'm on an island of sanity amidst the sea of struggle that is my school. It's nice to know that this island extends past my department and my deskmates. There's a sense of accomplishment too, as if I annex each teacher with whom I have a good relation, adding him or her to my island territory. (I guess I'm just a dictator at heart. <3) Making friends is hard; making friends in a foreign language is harder; making friends in a foreign language when they've already made up their mind about you is harder still.

...I should make myself merit badges for this. ;)

06 February 2009

Korea, part five - Things About Korea

AKA: *sings* These are a few of those cultural things...

1. Couples
Christmas is a huge dating holiday in Asia, so we had plenty of opportunities to observe the Korean couple in their natural habitat while we were in Seoul. One of the things that we noticed rather quickly was the number of couples with matching hats, matching clothing, or, worst of all: matching Christmas sweaters. You know, the kind your mother would give you or make for you every year with a goofy reindeer or something of the sort on the front, the kind you hope will disappear in the back of your closet and never come back?
Those. Matching.
Cue stomach evacuation.
I asked Chantelle who in the couple pushed this matching fashion, guessing that it was the sort of thing the girl forced on the guy, and to my surprise she said that the originator could be either of the couple, but was most likely something both wanted to do. Different strokes...

2. Hats
Outside of the matching couple hats, there were two kinds that made me laugh a lot every time I saw them. The first was a fuzzy cap with ear flaps, all of which was made to look like the top part of the face of famous, cute characters, like Hello Kitty and Doraemon (wikipedia). The end result, however, was to make it look like someone had gone on a Hello Kitty safari hunt and turn their kill into a nice, skinned-Kitty hat. It was somewhat dreadful. Even more dreadful, in my book, were the not-small-children people who would wear these...people who were, many times, older than me.
The second was the Atlanta Braves cap. I saw a couple of men wearing them on the subway and got really excited before Chantelle explained that a celebrity in Korea has recently begun wearing the hat and talking about "A-town." I still somewhat chuckle when I think of the Braves being "supported" in this fashion.

3. Eating utensils
In Korea, chopsticks are not rounded but flat, and are made of metal rather than of lacquered wood. They take a little time to get used to and require a bit more manipulation with the fingers to get them comfortable, but are nice in their own way. In addition, meals are either eaten with chopsticks or with spoons - you will always be brought these implements, whether or not you will need to use both, but will be given no other options unless you're in a restaurant serving Western food.

4. PC-Bongs
This sounds interesting, I imagine, to an English-speaking community, and I hate to be the bearer of un-fun news. "Bong" is the Korean word for "room," and PC-Bongs are just that - rooms filled to the brim with computers, the Korean version of an internet cafe. If you need to print, to scan, to surf the internet, all can be done from a PC Bong. An hour of time on the internet costs around 1,000 won, which is a little less than a dollar at present.
This being said, PC Bongs aren't used for internet surfing so much by the Korean populace, but instead for online gaming. At any point, a PC Bong will be half filled with gamers playing everything from World of Warcraft to Everquest, all of which are already loaded on the computers. These games are extremely popular, and PC Bongs are equipped to encourage the long stays of their guests: snacks and drinks are sold, and there is often a smoking section, which will allow those with a nicotine craving to maintain their play time rather than leaving the sanctity of the Bong.

5. The Won
The won is fairly weak against the dollar and the yen right now, being around 1300 won to the dollar. This was a wonderful thing for us, as travelers, and I was excited about the prospect of getting more for my buck than in Japan. However, there are only three denominations of bill in Korean currency at present: 1,000 won, 5,000 won, and 10,000 won. Roughly $1, $5, and $10 respectively. In short, traveling with any amount of money is uncomfortable, but probably safer - if you're less likely to have money stolen from you if you're not always carrying it with you.

6. Military Service
South Korea has a required military service of two years. These two years can be taken within a certain period of time, so you don't notice a certain age range missing so much. What this meant at Christmas, though, was that there were soldiers on trains coming home all the time. Probably didn't mean much to the Koreans, but I kept expecting one of them to come and try to arrest me for something...

05 February 2009

Korea, part four - Jeju Island

December 31st- January 2nd

Jeju Island is often described as "the Isle of the Gods." Perhaps this is easily seen in the middle of summer or autumn - there are beautiful beaches and lofty mountains, but all of these wonders would best be experienced in the height of good weather these seasons bring. We, instead, were there at the very start of a new year, attempting to see the sights despite the cold wind, the rain, and the occasional sleeting. It was ... trying.

On top of this, transportation around the island was difficult. This was probably due to the fact that we had, up until this point, been dealing within small, taxi ride-able cities, or within larger cities that had a subway system. Jeju was instead the size of a large city that functioned only by bus and taxi. Just in case you're curious - bus systems in a language you can't read, much less understand, are rather daunting.

Fortunately for us, the staff at our hotel were wonderful and helpful. When we checked in, the man helping us was delighted to see we were from Japan and spoke Japanese. As he explained to us in beautiful Japanese, "I feel much more comfortable with this than with English." I have to say that there's something wonderful in knowing that you're able to communicate effectively with someone in a language that neither can claim as his mother tongue. For the rest of the trip, this man was our go-to guy whenever we needed help, helping us above and beyond the call of duty with a smile.

We only spent one day really sightseeing. What we saw - the lava tubes and Sunrise Peak- were wonderful, despite the weather and my own personal attitude throughout most of the day. (I hate to say that the cold, the wear of travel, and a set of unfortunate circumstances combined to form an awful, sullen, and despondent version of the Leslie we know and love.) The lava tubes are just what they sound to be - caves through which lava traveled, or "vertical volcanoes" as Wikipedia describes them. The illumination is low, provided mostly through electric lights spread throughout the caverns. The caves are slight variations in black, but just in the same way that oil spilled at the gas station can harbor a rainbow of colors, the solidified lava displayed beautiful, subtle patterns. Plaques along the uneven walk explained various formations along the walls and ceilings, and even those like myself who have little geological interest couldn't help but be fascinated by the caverns.

After the tubes, we made our way to Sunrise Peak. The peak is named or being a beautiful (and popular) spot for seeing the sunrise, though I have read that the view is often cloudy. When we went, a New Year's celebration was preparing at the base of the peak, allowing us to hear the dress rehearsals as we climbed. The peak itself isn't too tall - we climbed it in under an hour, thanks to the stairs the entire way. However, the mixture of the cold, the wet, and the wind made it seem much more daunting. We didn't have long to think on this, however; the view from the top was more breathtaking than all of the stairs we took to get there. I happily snapped shots all over the top, my spirits taking a complete 180 from the morning's sullenness the longer we looked out over the island.

We stopped by a folk museum on the way home, and I feel that I must admit the whole place gave me the creeps. The whole place was filled with mannequins and stuffed animals that, on the scale from "realistic" to "fake," fell somewhere between "zombie" and "Chuckie doll."

There are two more notable stories from Jeju:

1. The Karaoke Adventure
Our first full day in Jeju was New Year's Eve, so we thought we would bring the new year in with style. Brendon had noticed a sign in Japanese for a karaoke place, so we figured we would have good luck there.

I should have known something was wrong as soon as we walked in the store. In the entry area were several men, stylishly dressed, and one middle-aged woman, dressed stylishly but not as flashy as the men. We established that they spoke Japanese and then asked how much the rooms cost per hour. The main man looked at us in confusion. "We don't charge that way." Huh? All Japanese places charge by the hour or the half hour. "You get a room and an all-you-can-drink bar all together."
"Oh. But some of us don't drink alcohol. Do you have sodas or juice?"
" *confused looks from the men* "...Don't you like whiskey?"
"No, he's allergic." (This was technically a lie, but easier to explain than the truth of not liking the taste.)
"Ohh. *some conferring with the woman in Korean* If you were to go by time, 30 minutes would be around 3,000 yen (roughly $30) per person."
Note: I've spent less than that on 2.5 hours of singing and a soda-fountain bar for two people. The four of us looked at each other in alarm, trying to figure out what the deal with this place was.
"So, let's get you started!" The first man tried to usher us back into a room.
"Uh, well, we have to go get dinner first, so we'll come back."
"OK, when will you be coming?"
"I'm not sure when we'll be done with dinner, so we'll just come back when we're ready." We bolted out the door before they could say anything more and decided to retreat to the safety of our hotel rooms, playing random card games until midnight.

In retrospect, considering the stylish dress of the men and the one woman who seemed to be in charge, I think we had stumbled into a host club by accident. Yikes.

2. A Plague on Your Vacation!
The new year did not start well for us. Brendon got food poisoning from the shell fish in his dinner the night before, which kept him bedridden for the day. We had seen most of the things we had wanted to see the day before, so the rest of us did our own things for the day, occasionally checking in to see if Brendon needed anything. We went to a Nepalese restaurant for a delicious dinner, but by the time we had returned to our rooms it was apparent that Glenn and Jenn had both caught colds of some sort. Our last night in Jeju was a rather morose one.

We left by plane for Busan the next morning and spent most of the day as we had in Jeju - recuperating and doing our own things. It seemed a little bit of disappointing end to our sightseeing-driven trip, but I think it was probably for the best as far as everyone was concerned. By the time we were in the airport on the morning of the 3rd, we were all rested, in manageable levels of health, and ready to be back in Japan.