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.