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!