Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The ubiquitous Thai/Mexican fruit stand

The ubiquitous Thai/Mexican fruit standI went to Bangkok for five days during Christmas. I was surprised at how Thailand is in many ways similar to Mexico.

It's hot:
The weather was almost exactly like Japan during the summer, but after a few months of cold here, I was unbelievably happy to be sweating in the humidity. T-shirts and sandals.

Cheap, delicious food:
Meals at real restaurants for less than $3, food off the street for less than a dollar.

You can't drink the water:
Only bottled water or beer, all drinks no ice.

People are devout believers:
Thailand is perhaps the most Buddhist country in the world; the average person seems genuinely content despite their situation.

Rampant poverty:
Giant department stores and expensive restaurants that only foreigners and a thin upper caste of Thais seem to be able to frequent

A country almost entirely based on tourism and cheap labor:
Thailand is a third-world country that functionally exists solely for the first-world. Thai schools require either English or Japanese language study - which you pick determines who you're going to serve, I suppose. Whether you're working in a hotel, a restaurant, or a sweatshop sewing wallets, you are serving some foreigner. Contrary to popular belief though, Thais themselves are the most frequent customers of brothels, not foreigners.

Almost everyone you meet is warm-hearted and helpful, except that the few that rip you off:
Kids approach us on the street to give us directions, the guy directing traffic in front of our hotel dances all day, the shop-keeper thanks you with a sort of elegant tranquility, the waitress in the restaurant asks how you are doing because she really does want to know. Then some guy tries to tell us a temple is closed to lead us into some back-alley trap, a taxi driver attempts to take us somewhere entirely different, and I catch another eyeing Maiko's bag. Suddenly I suspect these four little 13 year old girls that approach us to talk are just running some scam to distract me so another person can sneak up and pick my pocket. But then I notice they are all carrying English phrasebooks and just want to meet us and take pictures with us, and I feel terrible.

I really enjoy visiting and yet feel somehow guilty:
I am laying back in a recliner having my feet massaged for one hour by a squat, middle-aged Thai woman while sipping a fresh banana shake. This will all cost me less than $10, so I've been going every day. Rolling my neck, looking down and watching her brown, weathered hands kneading my deathly pale white feet, untouched by a day of hard work, I can't help but feel like I'm living some colonial fantasy. Though this amuses me greatly, I also feel guilty. Perhaps she is content in her work, something safe and easy that provides her with a stable income. Or maybe this is a great symbol of our relationship with poor nations; a white man sits in luxury tossing a sum of money literally at his feet to a servant that is but a pittance to him but her entire livelihood.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Conduct befitting an instructor

Being only 22 years old, I am at the most 6 years older than the students at school, something that I think makes them more comfortable in approaching me outside of class or opening up to me. The danger, of course, is that just as they can look up to me as almost an older brother, I can forget they're my students and start treating them like younger siblings. There is - I think, at least - a certain obligation that comes from being a teacher in which I have to act slightly different in my role at school than I would outside class, since it is a dual role that includes modeling correct behavior for the kids in the class. This mostly takes the form of pretending I don't still find gay jokes and scatalogical humor amusing. I can't think of a worse role model for not making fun of other people than myself.

For example, a few days ago I was teaching a class about Christmas and each of the students was writing a letter to Santa about what they wanted for Christmas and why. Afterwards, I asked if any of the students wanted to volunteer to tell the class, in return for points. This was Duck Boy's class, which is 21 boys and one girl, a class that is always quite rowdy. Him and his two buddies sit together and are constantly trying to joke around in class by volunteering funny answers to all the questions - which is in itself amusing because their attempts at diversion are really making them by far the most active and best participants out of all my classes. In this class, the first boy announces, "I want Power for Christmas, because I want to rule over Akira (another kid in the class)." This gets a laugh out of me, though I explain to Nietzsche that usually Santa can only grant objects, not metaphysical qualities. The next says, "I want a hot girlfriend. Because I want a hot girlfriend." I laugh again, while explaining that Santa is also not running some sort of dating or mail-order bride service.

The last kid, the Duck Boy, points at a kid to the left of him, let's call him Y., and says, "Hey, Mr. Adams. Yes, yes! I know what Y. wants for Christmas!" I wonder where he's going with this, but since it really does involve an even more advanced use of English to make a joke about someone else, I'm kind of impressed and let him go on. He continues, "He asked Santa for a deep voice!"

This is funny, because it is so true. The Y. kid really does sound pre-pubescent to a ridiculous extent; he squeaks out all his words in a voice that always seems on the verge of breaking but never quite gets there. Sometimes, hearing him ask a question from across class, I really do mistake him for a girl. I feel sorry for the kid, but not so much that I wouldn't laugh at him, which I start doing, very hard. After the few seconds it takes the other kids to process what he said, they start laughing too. The rest of the class laughing is what shocks me back into the realization that I am teaching this class, not in this class, and I really cannot be laughing at this joke. This is hard for me because I love to laugh at other people, especially when accurately characterized. I tell the kid that he's being a jerk. He defends himself, looking up at me, his eyes wide with sincerity, pointing repeatedly at the other boy, "But listen. Listen to him! Yoshimura, talk! He has girl voice. So he wants more manly voice!" I bite my lip hard as the class erupts again.

Changing gears, I point out that while Y. might have a higher voice, he is in fact taller and bigger than the Duck Boy, who is in fact, rather tiny (I use the word "chibi" or shrimp), so overall, they're about equal as men. Yoshimura gets his chance to laugh back, the class joins in, and I figure at this point that this is really the only way to deal with these sort of situations.

After class, both kids come up to me and Duck Boy reiterates that Y. has a woman's voice to me, while Y. calls him a shrimp. Both are being playful about it though, so I figure no harm is done as long as the barbs are evenly spread. The whole serious disciplinarian angle just isn't going to work for me here, so perhaps I will have to be the one to supply wit or comebacks to those kids in need instead.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Profiles of the only students I am sure can talk

Like I said, there are only around 10 kids at the school that will regularly speak to me. Those ten as well could more aptly be divided into pairs and groups of three students, since students here seem unable to even visit the office or go to the bathroom alone. Not to say that students in the US - especially girls - don't travel in groups for protection, but I'd like to believe I was capable of completing basic tasks in my day without the support of an entourage. Students come up to me or other teachers almost always in groups, even if only one is going to speak to me. The office is filled with about 20 kids during the breaks between class, though maybe as few as 5 actually have reason to be in there. As the representative says his or her piece, his or her friends will mill around to the side, or simply stare at me, beaming.

I felt like writing about some of these kids because one might be left with the impression from previous posts that the students exist mostly to irritate me. On the contrary, usually the 10 kids with one comment easily outweigh any frustration I experience during the day dealing with their classmates. They are geniune, sweet, and often hilarious, even if unintentionally. Talking to kids here is usually the best part of my day, because I don't feel like they are putting up any sort of cynical or apathetic front. (As for example, many American students, like me, did in high school) So here are some student profiles, today just of some of the boys:

One of the strangest is this student who seems to make a point of asking how I am everyday. Just "How are you?". He has a keen sense as to when I am leaving for the day, and often abruptly materializes in front of me around 5 to say, "Hey, How are you!?" Sometimes he comes up from behind me, racing down the hallway after me until he reaches the proper position from which to yelp "How are you?!" The best is when I have my headphones on and I can't see him until he leaps in front of me, halfway bent over out of breath, and I realize he has just come from sprinting across the entire school just to get my attention so he can ask his one question. I've tried to engage him in some extended conversation but he just smiled and nodded his head continuously until I finally just edged around him and went home. I guess he just believes it is his solemn duty simply to find out every day if I'm doing alright. That done, he's fulfilled some self-assigned bond.

Another awesome student is this spry kid with that goofy hair that only Japanese boys have, the kind that inexplicably can stand up in all directions. This kid somehow reminds me of a duck. He has two buddies that are always shadowing him from his homeroom class. He often catches me passing him on the stairway between class and stops me to chat very briefly. Briefly as he usually has only some prepared statement for me that he reveals without warning. He reveals a certain enthusiasm in his conversations with me that I'm not sure he is even aware of, perhaps because he doesn't always seem to understand the denotation or the connotation of the words he uses.

Duck Boy: Hi Adams Sensei, how are you?
Luke: I'm a little tired.
Duck Boy: Oh! (very concerned) I am very sad! [He means "that is very sad"]
Luke: (Solemnly) Yes, yes you are. Anyways, what's up?
Duck Boy: Yes, well...(Nodding his head and looking at me appraisingly)...You are very handsome, I believe.
Luke: (Laughing) Well, thank you.
Duck Boy: I am very surprising! [He means, "I am surprised"]
Luke: Yes, you certainly are.
Duck Boy: Okay... (Nods one last time and continues on to class)

And I have learned to just laugh and shake my head after this sort of interchange, because it's just too hard to figure out what exactly he is getting out of our dialogue, but he at least seems to be happy with it.

Last week I began to get visits from a new group of three third year boys. They were the ones that accosted me in the library some time back, during the summer. Last week, they suddenly approached me at lunch and asked if I was free to talk. I was, and they sat down. I was rather bemused as they took seats at the desks of the surrounding teachers and began to pepper me with a series of entirely random albeit pre-prepared questions:

"What sports do you play?"
"What do you think of Bush?"
"How much do you weigh?"
"Do you listen to Eminem?"
I answer these and a few more, they seem satisfied, and finished with their inquiry, rise from their seats. I turn back to my work at my desk. One of them says, "See you tomorrow then Mr. Adams"

And it turns out he really meant it, because they came the next day. And the next. And the next. On Friday they waited almost a half an hour at my desk for me to return from the store where I was buying my lunch, just to ask:

"Do you have any brothers?"
"Do Americans think all Japanese are samurai?"
"Do you know that Washizu Sensei is a famous soccer player?"
"How tall are you?"

Then, "See you tomorrow Mr. Adams." And it seems that I will.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Tired ape

Most kids at school don't ever talk to me outside of class. Really, there are probably less than 10 that ever do talk to me on their own. 10 out of 400 of students I teach, or 10 out of 1200 total. There are however a lot of kids who yell "HELLO!" in hideously accented English at me every time they pass me in the hallway, at least 10 a day. But that doesn't count.

One, I don't think it counts because it isn't really a word at all since it sounds an awful lot more like "HARROW!" (rhyming with "borrow") Also, I don't like to count this because it depresses me deeply that after 3-6 years of English education, nigh every student in the school is incapable of pronouncing the absolute first word you should learn in an English class. I mean, that's the first day. You shouldn't be able to get through that day without being able to say "Hello". I just get the feeling the class went more like this:

Teacher: "Hello class"
Students (in unison): "HARROW!"
Teacher: "Hello!"
Students: "HARROW!"
Teacher: "No, no, no...He-llo"
Students: "Harrow?"
Teacher: "(sigh)...Alright, fine, "Harrow", whatever."

Then everyone gave up on pronunciation forever.

Anyways, this isn't just me making fun of kids for not being able to pronounce English words. While every greeting is a bold declaration of the failure of the educational system and a great blow to any confidence I have towards making a difference, I think we all know from years of stereotyping that Japanese people have problems with L's and R's. What really disturbs me about the kids yelling the word at me is the way in which they act saying it. I am not sure exactly what this signifies. The simple explanation is that they are just so pleased at themselves for saying something in English that they are just giggling with a mixture of pride and embarassment for taking the chance. But, I also question whether they are really trying to communicate at all.

Sometimes, I watch a group of girls draw near, and as a single one approaches me to yell "Harro!" and wave frantically in my face, running back to the safety of the group, watching my reaction with supreme fascination and anticipation, I wonder if this greeting is really not more akin to people yelling at a some great ape in the zoo, except this ape curiously can be found loping around the hallways of the school. I am the orangutan that students notice while walking with their friends, the gorilla with almost-human expressions and features. For the amusement of said friends, one intrepid student imitates noises to try to draw the beast out. Of course, they can't mimic the sounds exactly, but perhaps one comes close enough that the simian recognizes in the mockery a echoing of its own language (which is, of course, a mystery to this student and his or her friends), and - this is almost too much for them to bear - it evens attempts to reply in this mysterious primate tongue! Having accomplished their goal and all having had a good laugh, the students move on, leaving the ape where they found him, waiting for a conversation that will not come.

After about 10 of these a day, the ape often feels like pounding his head on the glass a bit. He understands why the gorilla at the San Diego Zoo liked to sit with his back to the glass; so he could ignore the people outside gesturing and yelling widly in an attempt to provoke him into acting like the dumb animal that he surely is.

Saturday, November 05, 2005


Maiko's birthday was a few weeks ago and I decided to treat her to a night at one of the hot springs resort towns all over the Izu Peninsula, both because they're a popular vacation spot and because they are conveniently about halfway between here and Tokyo. After consulting with teachers at the school and actually, a New York Times article, I ended up choosing the town of Shimoda. Maiko and I met at the top of the peninsula and then took the train down the coast together.

Shimoda is a quiet little fishing port town, only famous because it happened to be the place where Commodore Matthew Perry decided to arrive and force Japan to open itself to the oustide world back in 1854. Shimoda was one of two ports then originally opened for use for trade with Americans and afterwards the home of the first US Consul General to Japan, Townsend Harris. Harris was also the first American to live in Japan for any length of time, at a local temple. Now, it's rather hard to believe that this town, out of so many possible others, was chosen by Perry or by fate to be the site of such a momentous historical event. It's not a busy port, nor a large one, and the town itself is quite quaint.

It makes a nice little getaway precisely for the reasons that it does not make a good major trading port,of course. There is no shortage of places in Japan where you can be surrounded by millions of people and be swept up in some surging lifestream; here it was nice to walk along narrow streets in a little neighborhood with enough space and distance from other people to actually harbor the illusion that you were alone. This is a rare luxury in Japan; I've spent hours walking around in Tokyo looking for a place where one might have privacy only to be immediately interrupted by some random person. This was good for both of us, since Maiko is stressed out with her graduation thesis and I'm a little sick of kids yelling "HARO!" at me and laughing hysterically.

We walked through the city, which was small enough to cover in just a day, and ate sushi at a local place. Hardly a restaurant, really, more accurately just a part of some family's house (while we were eating, the kids came running down the stairs on their way out to school and a soccer game) where the mom got us tea and the dad sat behind the counter and cut and rolled fresh sushi for us. There were a couple other locals in the place, and it was a real friendly, casual atmosphere. The fish was excellent, extremely fresh. We also stopped at a German coffee shop that had been built in the early 1900's. We sipped rich German chocolate drinks while a mysterious Japanese man also around since the early 1900's sat in the corner cross-legged, counting coffee beans endlessly as if a sort of rosary.

We visited "Perry Road", one of many things named after the erstwhile Commodore of the Black Ships. I thought it was interesting how an event that was both likely frightening on a personal level - these villagers had never seen anything past fishing and shipping vessels using sails or oars and suddenly a full group of modern gunships appeared in their little harbor - and rather humiliating on a national level - basically being confronted with the irrefutable fact that their country was hopelessly outmatched and antiquated - has been transformed into both a symbol of pride for the village and for the country. Shimoda is sold now within the village as the place where the relationship between Japan and the West began, and by the government as the place where the strong US-Japan alliance was forged. So you have here several monuments, (including this one of Jimmy Carter I posed next to with my best Jimmy Carter slack-jawed hick smile) and a whole bevy of restaurants, souvenirs, posters etc, commemorating what was really not a happy day for Japan. It was the catalyst for the eventual emergence of the country as a modern power, sure, but that was an evenuality born out of shame and vulnerability. I amused myself greatly by talking about my plan to reveal myself to the villagers as a descendent of both Perry, Harris and William Adams (the real inspiration for the character anjin-san from Shogun) taking advantage of their celebrity status in the town as a way of bilking the people out of whatever I could.

Anyways, my pontificating aside, we ended up back at the Tokyu Hotel, where we had a beautiful view of the bay and surrounding coastline. The water was a beatiful blue-green color, enhanced by the rugged coastline, mountainous and lined with Japanese pines. The next day we went down to the shore and saw one of Shimoda's several white sand beaches. I was really surprised at both the beach and how crystal clear the water was. It really appeared tropical, except for the trees running down to the water's edge that are unmistakably Japanese. We had a nice dinner and then went to the hot spring baths. There were two baths with each set aside for a sex for one night and then reversed in the morning so a guest can sample both in a one night stay at the hotel.

The men's bath for that night was an outdoor bath on a deck, all of white cedar. I washed and went out to sit in the main bath for a bit. Usually, you sit for a while, get out for some air, maybe retire to the sauna or to the indoor bath that is slightly cooler. Japanese baths are very, very hot, so the rule is basically that you just try to sit there as long as you can, but that is not usually more than 5 minutes or so. After a bit I had gotten a little hot so I thought I'd stand up and go lean against the railing to see the view of the ocean below. I stood up and stepped out of the bath in one motion and walked to the railing. I felt a rush from standing up too quickly, and I steadied myself by grabbing the railing.

Then, I passed out.

I woke up probably only a few seconds later to the frantic yelling of several elderly Japanese men. This did not help me orient myself. Only after a few more seconds did I realize that I was hanging partly over the railing - naked - being supported and pulled back by a couple of Japanese grandpas - also naked. I realized - to an extent - what was going on and sat down. My head was swimming for a minute or so. As my wits returned to me I felt the double shame of acting like a jackass and of being a foreigner who acted like a jackass in Japan, this second shame always acting to enhance the first because of the special attention I receive and a certain responsibility placed on my every action here which is always endued with the immutable distinction as me being a foreigner acting. It is entirely possible that to many people, I will be the first and last foreigner they will ever have any direct contact with, which means that I am essentially all foreigners to them. So I don't have the benefit of just being a moron who doesn't know that you shouldn't stand up fast after sitting for a long while or make the blood rush to your head quickly when you've been in a hot bath, I am an emblem of how all foreigners are too stupid to take baths properly.

This whole thing however, occuring in my mind, might have been occuring there alone, as the three old guys all remarked, "You drank too much tonight right? Watch out for that and go take a cold shower to wake yourself up." So perhaps my imagined humiliation was easily subsumed and therefore forgiven under the perfectly acceptable Japanese tendency to do unbelievably juvenile and ridiculous things while intoxicated. All I was really sure I was left with was a set of strange railing bruises on my inner thighs and a silent prayer of gratitude that the railing was not a few inches lower.

After doing several math problems in my head, composing some philosophic arguments, and speaking and translating between Japanese and English, I decided there wasn't any permanent brain damage and called it a night.

Other than that, it was a very relaxing and romantic weekend. Maiko and I had a great time together. Unfortunately for you, if you're interested in that kind of thing, I only write about things here that are funny, annoying, or unjust.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Luke and the Ewok

A couple weeks ago one of the third year English teachers came up to me and asked if I would be willing to tutor one of his students. The girl wants to get a part time job working at the airport, but the job requires an English interview and she's only studied English at middle and high school in Japan, which is to say that while she is adept at English the science of taking English written exams she doesn't know English the language. You know, the one that some use as a form of communication between human beings. (Interesting sidenote, one of my teachers argues that English education in Japan is just a way for colleges to judge by a grammar test the basic diligence of an applicant, it being only indicative of the amount of time a student spent studying the subject in high school. So English isn't a subject so much as it is an aptitude test)

So I agreed to have a tutoring session with this girl and quickly realized that if she wanted to have any chance of getting this job - the interview is at the end of November - we were going to have to meet several times a week for both interview coaching and just basic conversation practice. We meet for 40 minutes or so after school, which means, as my day is officially from 8:10-4, that I am staying overtime several days a week. This leads to some of the teachers - those who lament having to stay later even though they aren't getting paid more - to make fun of me for turning into another overworked Japanese teacher, and for the rest of the teachers - those who lament having to stay later but enjoy the suffering or have nothing better to do regardless - to profess their admiration for my strong Japanese-esque work ethic. I would allay both of the camps with the admission that I take at least an hour nap every day hidden in the English teacher's room in a nice big chair, but my current position allows me to kind of chuckle silently at both their misunderstandings.

And to take nice long naps.

But, since they are very much concerned about protocol here, I am really only supposed to be here for 8 hours, and any additional time has to be compensated with time off. This being the case, I regretfully requested to come in late in the mornings in which I had after school lessons with the girl. This request was put forward in the standard way; I tell the teacher assigned to look after me, she talks to the vice-principal, the vice-principal confers with the principal and a decision is reached, this decision then passes down the same channel back to me. (The office hierarchy is quite immutable, and as a result, I have never actually talked to the vice-principal) The next morning my babysitter teacher came over to tell me the results. My request had been granted, all I had to do was inform the teacher (who would then tell the VP) the days on which I would tutor and the days on which I wanted to come in late.

I thanked the teacher, but she wasn't finished. She pursed her lips, looked around for a while, drummed her fingers on her desk, and seemed generally uncomfortable.

Luke: "Well, was there something else?"
Teacher: "Yes...I really hate that I have to tell you this. It's so stupid and embarrassing..." (Looks down)
L: (A bit concerned) "Okay...Is it about me being late on Monday this week?"
T: "No, it's about something else...the vice principal told me to tell you this..."(shuffles papers on desk) "...but I really don't want to, because it's so embarrassing."
L: (Relieved, now leaning in with a preemptory trademark smirk) "Oh yeah? C'mon, what is it?"
T: "Okay...it's about the girl you are tutoring after school." (Trails off)
L: "Yes?"
T: "The vice principal told me to tell you..."
L: (Eyebrows raised and head tilted forward)
T: (flushing slightly and leaning back)"...not to make the girl fall in love with you." (Now completely flushing)
L: (Triumphant, laughing, stamping feet while sitting and clapping my hands against my knees in disbelief) "No way! That's so awesome! Were those her exact words!?"
T: "Yes, that's what she said."
L: "Oh my god, that's so great!
T: (Rolling her eyes) "Yes, but can you please not give me a hard time about this? The whole situation is embarrassing for me."
L: "Sure sure, I totally understand. But can I clear something up now?"
T: (Guarded look) "Yes..."
L: (Feigns serious look of concern) "What if, despite my best efforts to the contrary, she falls in love with me anyway? Am I still liable for that?"
T: (Head hanging) "Please Adams-sensei..."
L: (Huge grin) "Okay okay, so I'm not allowed to make this girl fall in love with me, but what about other girls at the school? Are they all fair game then?"
T: (Still hanging head but trying not to laugh) "Oh just shut up already."
L: "Where do you think this is coming from, really? Does she think I'm just some sort of out-of-control lothario?"
T: "I just don't think she knows anything about foreigners."
L: "But why would she worry about the student falling for me? Wait, wait! Do you think maybe the vice principal herself is in love with me?
T: "Hmm....possibly."
L: "Too bad she looks like an Ewok."
T: "What's that?"
L: "Yeah, it's probably better that you don't get that one."

Friday, October 07, 2005

Tailgating with kami-sama

Though it happened only a few days after the sports festival, it has taken me nigh 2 weeks to work up the energy to write about this. Not for lack of enthusiasm about the topic, but more for lack of energy. Immediately after the festival I was rather incapacitated for the next few days due to the pairing of an enormous amount of concentrated drinking with surprisingly strenuous physical activity that the event entailed. After I recovered from that however, I had to prepare midterm examinations for my classes, which meant writing a test and recording all the parts. On top of this, I've been tutoring students after school, so I've found myself staying until around 6 every day lately. (the other teachers get a big kick out of me becoming "Japanese" in this way) So, I've actually been rather busy at school, and after biking home find myself rather exhausted.

Anyways, on the night of the welcoming party that I wrote about previously, one of the teachers - a really hilarious guy that sits next to me at school, (the older teacher in his 60's who does kendo) - invited me to participate in a yearly festival of his local shrine. I readily accepted, because though I've been to several festivals, he was actually inviting me to be part of one, which would be quite a different experience, I imagined. According to the other teachers, he's never asked any of the other previous ALTs at the school (there have been about 5 before me), and actually, according to some other teachers, he never really likes to talk to anyone, be them ALT, Japanese or otherwise. For some reason, I made a good impression on him. (Probably the drinking)

So I took the train out to Iwata City, about 15 minutes away from Hamamatsu, and met the teacher at the station for a day of "real Japanese culture". He lent me his brother's happi coat, gave me a big woven straw hat, and we were dropped off at the shrine by his wife. My basic information about what we would be doing is dragging the 神輿 (mikoshi) or large portable shrine around town along with other community members, from about 9 am until maybe 9 at night. The teacher also had mentioned there might be drinking involved.

When we arrived at the shrine there were about 30 or so people milling about; old men standing together, joking around and speaking gruffly, younger men leaning against the walls smoking cigarettes, women chatting and yelling at the children chasing each other around the area. I was introduced to the guys, eliciting cries of what is surely my most common description here, でっかい!(dekkai) - "HUGE!" (which sounds kind of insulting in English, but I have been assured is meant only in an impressed, complimentary fashion here) With those pleasantries finished with, one of the younger guys helped me get suited up in my happi coat, tying the belt up for me. I was then handed a beer immediately, and, though it was 9am and I hadn't really eaten anything yet, I thought, what the hell. I chugged it down, the teacher and I walked up to give a short prayer to the god at the shrine, (this was amusing in that the praying involves clasping your palms together and clapping, so I had to put my beer down right in front of the platform) and we all headed out back to where the mikoshi was set up.

The mikoshi was about 3 stories tall. They are held between two poles and carried on the shoulders of the participants, or, as in this case, placed on a wheeled base and pulled with heavy ropes. Inside, ringed around the actual object ostensibly containing the kami, there are some kids playing the drums accompanied by a couple adults playing Japanese flutes. In the front, a masked and costumed person conducts a fan dance of sorts, insomuch as wild gesticulating with all four limbs while sitting down can be rightly considered a dance. The outside is lined with paper lanterns and decorate with elaborate wooden carvings. A railing running down both sides is manned with guys pushing, while a rope arcs out for about thirty feet from one side in front then back to the other, with people pulling (or, in most cases, merely carrying) the rope, distributing the work of a couple pack horses among 20 or 30 humans.

Despite the picture, which makes it look like some sort of child labor or Sisyphean endeavor, the whole procession is quite lively and fun. The music is going continuously and often the group breaks into some different chants that are, while not really understandable to me, gutteral and ambiguous enough that I can merely yell out unintelligible syllables along with the rest of the group. The people involved are all in good spirits; different members of the troupe coming up to chat with me the whole day. In fact, all I had to do was move further up or down the line to hang out with the different sections, since it was basically oldest at the back and youngest at the front. I talked with gruff old guys, the younger men and their girlfriends in the middle and the little kids at the front. This little girl and I walked for a half hour or so together while she showed me the different magic tricks she had gotten earlier as prizes. I feigned amazement and worry that she had really lost her finger, made her promise not to scare me with the trick again, and lifted her up into the air by lifting up the rope.

Basically, we dragged the big shrine through the whole neighborhood, soliciting donations from locals. When someone who wanted to make a donation heard us coming by, they would walk outside and wave us down. At that point, the guy in charge of collecting donations would run over and stand next to the person in question, holding up a paper lantern. As we drew up to him or her, they would hand over whatever - either money, sake, or food - and their donation would be announced. The crowd would yell thank you, the music would restart, and we'd be back on the road. Sometimes instead of a donation, a house would have laid out tables with snacks and beer, and we'd sit down together for a break.

Otherwise, from the shrine, roughly located in the center of town, we fanned out to the south, returned and took a break, hit the east, then came back, and continuing in this way covered the whole area. This meant we had to navigate a lot of narrow streets and sometimes avoid overhanging telephone wires that would get snagged on the top of the mikoshi. Fortunately for us, we had a man behind the wheel - more accurately, crank - who did a stellar job of steering, despite the fact that he spent most of the trip making calls to his girlfriend on his cell phone. I got a little worried when he started steering while talking and drinking a beer, two things that would be a bad idea driving a car, let alone several tons of antique wood and a GOD, but he, and the rest of the crew, were unfazed.

At the breaks we had meals and enjoyed performances of traditional dance and music. Another great event held at lunch was a sort of Halloween-esque candy free-for-all. Basically, hundreds of bags of candies, treats, and toys were loaded up into the mikoshi. Several people climb up into and on top of the portable shrine (including me) while children gather around with their bags. Then it's just a free for all for about 2 minutes as we throw out everything inside in every direction. The kids were waving widly at me to try to get me to toss something their way, but every time I tried to give it to one kid or throw it into someone's bag, I ended up inadvertantly hitting another in the face with a little cake. Then that fat kid who earlier ruined one of my pictures pushed his way to the front and lifted his pudgy arms up with his bag, demanding I feed his obsession. Trying to throw one into his bag, I instead plant one right in his face. Finding this hysterical, my new game was to throw 5 candies or cakes in rapid succession at this fat kid who, overwhelmed with his greed and hunger, grasped feebly at them all only to catch none, instead being pelted all over his bulbous form while his friends collected the candy (literally) on the rebound that should rightfully have been his. I am pretty sure I was laughing maniacally while doing this, but luckily nobody really knows what I'm thinking as a foreigner or how I am expected to behave, so they really have no basis for judgement or comparison.

Did I mention the enormous amount of alcohol? First, every time we returned to the shrine for a break we were drinking beers or sake. Drinking also occured every time we stopped along the way at someone's house. In addition to this, the portable shrine had cases of beers stashed all along the railings as well as a giant cask of sake strapped to the side for us to take from freely. When I wasn't getting myself something to drink, someone was forcing something on me or filling up my glass without my notice, making it nearly impossible for me to gauge in any way how much drinking was really going on.

But, my guide being the older teacher from my school, I spent a majority of the day hanging out with the old guys, so I couldn't slouch off when it came to the drink. These guys loved to joke around and have a good time; they weren't uptight salarymen from Tokyo but normal working-class guys. Really, I was a bit nervous at first, not knowing anyone but the teacher and suddenly barging into a local festival, but these guys made me feel totally welcome. It wasn't just the normal conversations about where I'm from or how I like Japan, they actually just treated me like one of them, which, I realize, is the sort of community I have sometimes felt the acute lack of here (well, probably anywhere).

In the end, the shrine or religion aside - noting that in most cases the people involved don't fully know the historical or religious significance of the traditions here for Shinto or Buddhist festivals - this seems mostly to me to be a form of community building. The old Shinto religion was really the belief in different animistic gods which were centered in ones own particular village. There was no unifying belief system or nation-wide dogma. The gods were the property of each village or town, and, therefore, served as a way of branding the villagers as part of the same group. What I saw in this festival was the continuation of that idea, in which the god enshrined in this mikoshi is not as important as the fact that the townspeople pull the shrine together, the rope being a very obvious symbol of this interconnectivity. All the people who might otherwise not meet each other come out, don their same outfits and are unified under their god and town. The little kids walk side by side with the village elders. By pulling the mikoshi, donating, or just by coming to watch, everyone confirms their place as part of this group. And, for all my intense individuality and isolation from others, it was nice to be allowed to pull my way in too, if just for that day.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

State-sponsored binge drinking

On the Friday night after the sports festival was a party held in my honor by the other teachers in the English department. These sort of parties - usually not for any specific purpose - are a fairly common occurence throughout the academic year, I suppose as a way to build friendly relations among teachers. This is encouraged to the point that part of my pay is automatically deducted every month to go towards these parties; about $30 a month. In my reckoning, this means that they are basically taxing me to buy me alcohol later. Another way to look at it is that it mandates that a certain amount of my paycheck is put aside for alcoholic beverages. Anyhow, this amuses me.

We meet up at a local western-type bar where we've got a whole section covered. There are the 12 teachers and 3 college students who have been undergoing teacher-training at the high school for the last couple weeks. One teacher stands up and gives a brief thank you for coming and let's welcome the new teacher bit, then the nomihodai begins. A 飲み放題 (nomihodai) is an all-you-can drink deal where you pay a set rate, usually around $20, for 2 hours of unrestricted drinking. This makes sense in Japan from a business perspective, since most people are unable to really have more than a couple drinks anyways. Being an American though, I have always felt it is my obligation to try to really make the place lose money on the deal. In this particular case, I feel a certain bond placed on me as both a foreigner and as the new guy to really drink more than in any way necessary.

So, I order drink a couple beers along with the other teachers and then up the ante by ordering an entire pitcher for myself. Then I am invited by one of the teachers to drink sake, so I polish off a bottle with him. At this point, going back to the menu, I notice they also serve scotch, and I start getting a little obnoxious, as I am want to do when I am a bit tipsy. I order a scotch and water and then nonchalantly ask the Beach Boys Sensei if he'd like to join me in a glass. He feigns reluctance, so I make the decision for him and order two. This becomes two more and two more. By the end of the night he goes home hanging on the shoulders of me and another teacher, while they make fun of each other like two frat guys. I retire, dignity intact, though in a sense not so much since I essentially goaded a guy into drinking too much. Anyways, it's just harmless drinking, but it's interesting that they can still get away with this kind of thing while fully adults, if not nearing retirement age.

The main interesting thing was seeing how the teachers behave outside of class. Other than the aforementioned lack of restraint, I managed to get into political discussions with a few teachers that I would never have expected could have occured in school. I also saw that some teachers, alcohol or not, are just as boring and lame as I imagined, whether in English or in Japanese. The best part of the night, however, was when one of the teachers cornered me at a table set aside - seemingly the designated representative from the group - and said, "So...I hear you have a girlfriend." Once I confirmed it and offered him a picture of Maiko, he snatched it and an over to the rest of the teachers, saying "Look look look!!! It's a picture of Adams Sensei's girlfriend!" Two of the teachers that are usually so exhausted during the day that their vocabulary consists entirely of sighs leapt to their feet and cried out "OOOOOOOO Let me see let me see!" The pictures were passed around for the inspection of the entire department, and my reward was a serious of winks and smiles for the rest of the week. Still, every time I mention going to Tokyo to see Maiko, I get a comment like "Ohhhh, tell Maiko-chan 'hi' for me! (heeheehee)" The hilarious thing about this is that most of the teachers reacted, to a degree that is almost uncanny, exactly like their students did when I told the students about my girlfriend. People at the school really love gossip, it seems.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Sports Festival

So last Thursday was the yearly 体育大会 (taiiku taikai) "Sports Festival". Wow. I knew the students had been preparing for it since the beginning of the semester, but I never expected it to be quite this big of a deal. Basically the entire school is split into ten teams identified with ten different colors, with every student participating. Each team is made up of students from a particular home room - three to a team - meaning they are all from different grades. Though each of the ten teams has the same basic color, each of the three teams making up the ten have their own designs for the t-shirts of each homeroom; 30 different t-shirt designs. All this adds up to is a huge mix of kids from different homerooms and social groups thrown together in the spirit of team work and a developing of a sense of community within the school between students who might not otherwise meet. That and a lot of girls wearing colorful, cute t-shirts. (Guess which part I enjoyed the most?)

The event began, as most every one seems to here in school, with a long drawn out speech from the principal that none involved - including the principal himself - paid any particular attention to. Finishing his address, he stood on the elevated platform as the students aligned themselves in orderly rows based on colors and began a marching procession with flags aloft. This performance culminated with the flag-bearers from each color converging on the principal and raising their flags in a sort of triumphal salute to his august countenance, as he smiled down at them, bowing to their obsequious display.

Then the competition began with a series of 1000 meter relays. I was invited to participate but respectfully declined, unsure if I could in fact still complete a full lap running. It's one thing for me to enter an event I can dominate - thereby winning the respect of my students and peers in the faculty - but I had no intention of being publicly emasculated by a bunch of kids. Instead I watched the action in the ample shade of the three tents erected on the sidelines for the teachers and parents to sit and watch from. Apparently the teachers used to compete as well, but now they just sit back and watch for the entirety of the 6 hours. So I made the most of a tough situation, sitting back in my chair and being brought tea by a few girls in charge of keeping the teachers and parents adequately refreshed with hot and iced tea during their strenous sitting.

After the relays was a fun-run of sorts, with students competing based on their clubs. Each club ran at one time, with the members all dressed up in their uniforms or holding their equipment. So the soccer club wears their uniforms, the basketball their jerseys, but the science club wears white lab coats and carries levels, the music club runs with acoustic guitars, and the tennis club wears ski masks and runs around hitting tennis balls at each other.

Before the event, I asked several people why the hell there was a giant pile of 10 foot long logs next to the tents, but couldn't get a satisfactory explanation. For some reason, nobody else seemed to have noticed. It turns out, they were for the next - my favorite - event, what I'll call the log war. So these logs are placed in the center of the field, lined up parallel to one another, side to side stretching across the width. The colored teams send 20 representatives at a time, and these are lined up to face each other across the field with the logs in the middle. Basically, like a battlefield.

The ref shoots the starting gun and the kids race for the logs, the point being to take as many logs back for your team as possible in a certain amount of time. However, with a limited amount of logs, maybe 20, after each team takes their first log, they have to struggle to try to bring the others back, sometimes five on five, sometimes 1 on 7, just trying to slow them down. This was the most exciting event for me, especially the beginning. With the two large groups bracing themselves and staring across the field at each other, the tension was always palpable. With the sound of the gun came the thundering of kids racing into the center at full speed, where they basically crashed into a great, seething mass of total chaos. Again, basically like a battle. There were even kids suffering from mock-shell-shock, who came up to the teacher beforehand: "Sensei, I just don't think I can take it anymore! I'm not made for this!", only to be shot down by this general's rejoinder, "You have no choice, get in there and make your team proud!" I couldn't help wishing I were able to participate, but it was probably better I didn't have the chance. I know I would have gotten carried away, started throwing some Japanese kids around, and before you know it we'd have a real battlefield after all.

The next event was the tug of war, with some thirty students on each side pulling for their lives and the rest of each team on the side cheering wildly, jumping up and down and yelling through bullhorns. Even the other teams came over to urge one side or the other on. Sitting in the tent, I jokingly asked a couple teachers how many Japanese kids they thought I could defeat in a tug of war, with my bet on "at least two boys and one girl, maybe two girls." They however, without the cultural prism of sarcasm to separate sincerity from humor, took this up as a serious point of discussion, and the idea was bandied about at length. I'm going to get myself into real trouble with the teachers here sometime with sarcasm.

The most interesting part of the event though, and this was a thing brought home to me again and again in every event, was the way in which all these kids really pulled for each other. I mean, they took these games seriously and they wanted to win each one, but they wanted to win for their team, not for themselves. When they watched other teams, they cheered on their peers as much as they did their own. Several teachers that day asked me whether they had this sort of thing in the US, and I had to admit that this is the kind of thing I only remember having in elementary school. One, I can't really see disaffected American kids participating in something so wholeheartedly. Two, I can't see them giving a shit about the idea of these groups. Well, maybe replace "disaffected American kids" with "me" - I couldn't imagine me in high school participating. This is exactly the kind of thing I would have scoffed at; "What's the point of all this community building?" I would smirk. "This is gay, and so is anyone who wants to do this crap."

But maybe that's the reason I never felt part of anything at school. Sure, there was debate, and the occasional sports team, but did I ever feel really connected to all the kids at school? Did I at UCLA? Does anyone, really? Maybe at the football or basketball games you yell at Torrey Pines or USC or whatever, but I don't feel like it carries past there in any significant way. Anyways, this is one of those situations in which the community first - individual second way of thinking in Japan really shines through, and it makes me kind of wish I harbored any like sentiment for any group larger than myself, my family, or my immediate friends.

After a while, I hit upon an even more enjoyable exercise than actually watching the events when I decided to document all the different t-shirt designs.

This involved me going around asking girls if I could take pictures of the backs of their shirts. Often the shirts had not just the original design, but each girl had drawn more herself or had her friends sign the back.

Another fun thing to point out is that I asked them to look back when I took the shots so I could get their faces, but some of the girls were too embarassed and just stayed turned around. The fun thing is that despite not looking at the camera, they still made the peace sign in front of them.

This picture I Iove because this girl on the right was acting so embarrassed and feigning reluctance to have her picture taken, making a big fuss right up until before I snapped the shot, when she suddenly pulled this demure, come hither look.

However, after I took a few pictures, I didn't have to even ask, since girls started coming up to me on their own. The girls with the matching headbands too were just too cute.

After a few more pictures, I didn't even have to leave the tent, since girls started coming all the way up to my chair and asking me to take pictures of them. The girl on the far left in this picture asked if I would take a picture of her, and when I told her I had already taken one of her color, seemed on the verge of tears. So I relented and took one of her and her friends.

So to counteract the image of me as some sort of stalker here, all these pictures were taken with the consent, if not the insistence, of those involved.These two, actually, came up behind me at the tent and stood there for 5 minutes until I noticed them and asked them what they wanted. Struggling for the English words, finally they just handed me the camera.

I took a picture of them, but they kept waiting around. Finally, I just asked them in Japanese what was up, and, relieved, they asked for a picture with me too. The girl with the dandelions in her hair then followed me around for the rest of the day and now goes into hysterics of waving every time she seem me in the halls. Fun job, this.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

I'm a genuine excellency!!

Wait a minutes, comming soon

Major themes:
Alienation from other people, alienation from reality, Attempt at communication with nature to reach true meaning in life, loss of self, fear of black male sexuality, sexual insecurity

Part 1: The calm sea

The narrator visits the sea, but though he finds the sea calm, the "billow" is rough. The weather and his spirits are also fine, yet the "billow" is not. Again, it is rough. Still, the narrator explains, he likes the billow. He wonders how the reader feels about the subject, apologizing for not knowing without asking. However, he admits it's a given that the reader will like the sea, or at least likely. The narrator lists the reasons he likes the sea.

"billow" - a Japanese-English word that can refer to any one or none of the following: "billow" "billowing" below" "blow" "buy low" "by row"

The writer presents the reader with a common image of the calm sea only to abruptly set the reader foundering with the introduction of the "billow". The term remains ambiguous throughout, defined only in terms of what it is not (ie: not calm, not fine, not the sea, not the weather, not his spirit). The reader is further thrown off-guard by their sudden inclusion into a dialogue with the narrator himself as he asks conversational questions in a rhetorical fashion, presuming to know already the mind of the reader. However, the narrator reveals himself as, despite his rhetorical swagger, not entirely sure of even what he himself thinks; he "believe[s]" he likes the sea. His very thoughts seek outside confirmation. From this one could presume that the questions he asks of the reader are really just offshoots of this modern individual grasping for definite meaning in a world stripped of God and His Word.

Part 2: The dialogue with the sea

The narrator begins to stare at the sea itself when suddenly he hears the voice of the sea calling out to him. It asks him "Why don't you do your best?" He is somewhat confused by the experience, but the sea consoles him, telling him "Don't be afraid."

The "mysterious things" of the sea foreshadowed previously are revealed in this section. One cannot read this passage without being reminded of Camus' The Stranger, when a man walking along a beach with the hot sun burning down on him suddenly commits a senseless murder. However, in this Stranger-esque experience, this sea does not urge the narrator to kill, but just to "do your best." The previous passages alienation from self is found here along with a need to find answers outside oneself in nature - even to the extent of an imaginary dialogue with the sea - rather than to confront the enormous responsibility of defining one's own life. There is a suggestion that this might even lead to a sort of madness; one is left unclear on whether the narrator realizes this as an imaginary or actual situation.

Part 3: The Negro and the many slender body of suntanned woman

The narrator, on the same beach with the calm sea (presumably with the "billow" as well) spots a large (African-American) male. The man stares at nearby women suntanning. The narrator watches the man pick up a straw hat caught in the wind and return it to the owner. Picking up a shell, the narrator catches the man as he "shined up" to the lady. The narrator, and others watching, are shocked at the nerve of this "Negro".

"a big part of body"- a man with a large, muscular frame
"Negro" - relating to or characteristic of or being a member of the traditional racial division of mankind having brown to black pigmentation and tightly curled hair, from the Spanish word for "black".

The narrator suddenly shifts from himself to a description of an apparently licentious "Negro" at the beach. This shift can only be intentional, to shift both the focus and the blame for his problem onto someone else. This "impudent" African-American makes a convenient scapegoat - as he has so many other times in history. The narrator, if he is to be believed, is a passive observer of the ravaging of women on the beach by this "Negro", which leaves him shocked, exclaiming "MY LORD" along with the other onlookers. However, as often the case, this overt sexualization and fear of the black man really is a sign of both the sexual frustration and repression of the narrator himself. Why else does this anger or shock him so if it is not that this black man is willing to both openly seek and indulge passions the narrator cannot even admit to wanting, let alone satisfy? Rather than dealing with his dark desires, he simply projects them onto this other man, seeking to fool himself and draw the reader as well into propping up his fragile psyche. The final statement of "I'm a genuine excellency" just strikes the reader as a desperate cry from the narrator out into this emptiness of personal denial and existential meaningless as if to overpower and fill it up with bravado; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Hanging with Ants

I am in the midst of grading the summer homework of all my students, which amounts to me reading over paragraphs about what all 400 of them did this last summer. One thing that stands out is most of them live awful lives. At least half of the papers are something like:

"This summer I had practice for the (insert name of club or team) every day. Practice was very long and very hard. And at the end of the day I was very tired. I did not have time to see my friends. But we went on a training camp and that was fun. I want to train hard to get better. But I hope I can see my friends next vacation."

At first I felt a terrible sympathy for these kids, but after reading 200 of the same ones I am about tapped on empathy. Right about then though, when you just feel like you've had enough, is when you get one of the money essays. They are either:
1. Unintentionally funny due to grammar mistakes, often misuse of pronouns like "it".
2. Unintentionally funny because they are crazy and you are incapable of extracting what the hell the writer actually wanted to say.

So here is a great example of #1, an innocuous tale of training camp that gets rather racy. My mind had started to dull after grading for an hour or so when suddenly my listless eyes ran over the second paragraph. Then I just started chuckling as I imagined the scene, not just of someone loving taking cold showers with her friends but the look on her face if she realized what she was actually writing. Even worse, these are part of a show-and-tell assignment, so if I left it uncorrected, this girl would stand up in front of the whole class and declare her love for cold showers with teammates.

These, however, result mostly in just juvenile snickering. The next essay category is so baffling it is just fantastic. This is where I get to read stories like this one a kid wrote about catching a catfish at the river and then bringing it home to raise as a pet. Great lines there, like "The catfish, as you know, has a hearty appetite." He fed it whole goldfish and crayfish, and plans to bring it in for show and tell.

This one though, both amuses me and frightens me. I love how this essay begins with a normal description of day - getting up, talking about the weather, eating a meal - and then all of a sudden, he just says casually, "After, I hang out with ants." Oh, yeah, hanging out with ants, sure. So I get this picture of the kid finishing his lunch and tramping outside to stand hovering over an ant pile for hours at a time. Then, it takes a turn again and I imagine him sitting over the ants like some future serial killer, enthralled with his chance to finally exercise control over a world that has left him out, coldly dealing out death, all the while cackling wildly. And, the kicker, is the closing sentence. He can't wait for next summer because, to this kid, summer=hanging with ants.

I get at least one of these for each class of 20 kids. Now I've just got to make a list of students to watch out for.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Cock of the walk

Last Thursday was the first day of the Fall term, so they held an opening ceremony to welcome me to the school. Most other JET teachers have a similar event on their arrival, in which they are expected to stand in front of all the students and give a short self-introduction, in English usually. Anticipating this, I wasn`t too worried about the event. However, mine was a little different because of my (reputed) Japanese ability. The vice-principal approached me a week or so earlier and told me he was really looking forward to my speech in Japanese. I, a bit confused as to the idea of giving an actual "speech" asked him how long they expected me to speak. He explained that, considering my level of langauge study, they were planning on at least 5 minutes. He shrugged his shoulders and said casually, "surely a graduate of UCLA who studied at Waseda would have no problem giving a speech like that."

Basically, the vice-principal called me out.

So I wrote a real speech over the next week, occasionally consulting with my personal tutor (Maiko). I finished it the day before the ceremony and handed in a copy to the vice-principal.

Thursday morning was also a fire and earthquake drill, so I was to give my speech at after the students had evacuated out onto the athletic grounds. Fun thing about the emergency drills here, every student and teacher has a white helmet to wear. I have a helmet too, but since I have a freakishly large head even for a white person, the helmet is too small to protect me entirely. So I have to decide, when the time comes, whether I want to protect the front or back of my skull(I actually consulted with the biology teacher about which lobe of the brain would be more vital; whether I would choose basic functions over higher thought). Even more awesome than the helmets are the great blue jumpsuits that the principal and vice-principal put on in emergencies. They look either like a garbageman or a spaceman, depending on which you find more amusing. The idea of there being an earthquake and the principal running off to throw on his jumpsuit is just fantastic. Maybe he stands in front of the jumpsuit, housed in a glass case, wondering whether the situation really warrants it - is this really a "jumpsuit worthy" emergency? Anyways, like we don't know who the principal is already. Japanese people don`t look that similar.

The students and teachers tramp out to the athletic field - more accurately the big, open dirt space that passes for a field here - and line up in neat, orderly rows. The students are all wearing their uniforms, accompanied by their white helmets. A teacher stands in front on an elevated platform and barks orders at them through a loudspeaker. There is a definite fascist air to the proceeding. I amuse myself by imagining having a friend here who doesn't understand Japanese and wildly mistranslating the speech about earthquake safety into some deranged rant about the need to raze the corrupt bureaucracy to the ground and seize power in a wave of bloodshed, the only way to restore the honor of this ancient nation which has lost its way, in the name of the true Japan and its eternal symbol the holy Emperor! Actually, let me attach a great picture taken shortly after the ceremony from the preparations for the big sports festival. This needs even less fake explication to invite images of fascism/communism.

Anyways, I stand in the sun with the other teachers until I see the old kendo teacher standing by himself over in the shade. I have already been outside in the 90 something degree sun and awful humidity for 15 minutes, which is 15 minutes more than my pale sickly skin can stand, so I go join the old guy in the shade. Emboldened by my rash, individualistic decision, several other teachers who were planning on suffering silenly join us under the trees nearby. We watch the continued ranting of the man on the platform while cooling off, both pitying and amused at the students who remain roasting in the hot sun. I wonder what effect this will have on their excitement about listening to my speech. I show my speech to the Beach Boys teacher, he finds it very amusing, but in a nice little stab right before I go on stage, warns me that Japanese students probably won't laugh when assembled as a group, even if they do find it funny. I imagine 1200 students staring at me when a joke falls flat, and his comment cuts me like the experts who bleed the bulls before they are sent out to meet the matador.

The rant ends, the principal takes the stage and I am introduced. The eyes of all 1200 students turn to me as I stride up to the podium. I look up at the students, take a deep breath and start my speech in Japanese:

おはようございます。("Good morning")

A rush of murmurs breaks over the students like a wave as they realize I am going to give the speech in Japanese. It occurs to me that none of them knew beforehand that I could speak Japanese.

"Nice to meet you. My name is Lucas Adams, I'm from San Diego, California, in the United States. I'm 22 years old and I just graduated from UCLA. Having majored in Japanese at UCLA and studied it at Waseda last year from January until September, that I am still this poor at speaking the language is really quite embarassing, isn't it? Really, I'm quite sorry."

The students, over their initial shock, laugh at this obviously false modesty, giving that I have just said all this in perfect Japanese. I, over my initial apprehension, fall back into my usual comfortability with public speaking, and feel totally in control again. I start by talking about the difficulties in speaking a second language, joking that I am glad I was born in the US just so I never had to learn English in school. I tell a fun story - one oft repeated on any occasion I can find, really - about mixing up the words "okoru", to become angry, and "ogoru", to treat to a meal when out on a group date last year with several Japanese. The punch line is, of course, me accidentally offering to pay for everything and ending up out of some $150.

"Perhaps you all have been told before, 'One learns from their mistakes'. Well, I learned quite well from that one. $150 is a an expensive vocabulary lesson, ne?"

The students eat this up.

I then shift the speech to something a bit less funny, but being given a chance to actually address all the students and teachers at once, I felt it was too good to pass up. Also, it being the beginning of my time at the school, I wanted to make plain my beliefs about education. So, if I strangely had to translating my own writing from Japanese back to English, it went something like this:

"Of course, in today's Japan English study is important for both entering a good university and future success in the work force. However, when studying, there is something you should not forget. English is not a subject just like math or science. If you study physics or math, you will come to understand the laws that govern the world around you, and cause and effect in the world will become clear to you. However, studying English is not studying the world. English is purely a tool of communication. If you don't use it, it will rust. But, if you use it correctly, it can open up a new world previously closed to you. I feel this has happened to me with Japanese. You can make friends, you can travel, you can have new experiences. But it can also lead you into new awakenings within your own mind. Languages do not overlap exactly. English is more analytical and direct. Japanese is more subtle and intuitive. Learning more languages opens up more modes of communication of our emotions. Language is something that lives outside of the classroom, but if you treat it purely as an academic subject it will lose its meaning and die. If you treat it as a living thing, it will improve your life. Thank you."

I bow to the students, walk off the platform and bow to the principal, who smiles broadly. Rejoining the teachers in the shade, they are somewhat shocked. I realize again, that most of them didn't know I could speak any Japanese either. The Beach Boys teacher gives me a pat on the back. I walk off feeling like a politician fresh off a stump speech with my shirt and tie; another teacher compares me to a dictator riling up the crowd. I feel as if it was successful above all my expectations, though, to be fair, my main wish was just not to totally die on stage in front of 1200 students. For the rest of the day, teachers come up to me separately to tell me they enjoyed my speech greatly and agree with what I said about the nature of language.

The students, on the other hand, seemed to only absorb certain parts of the speech. My library buddies from the previous story (I made $150 today), pictured here, run up to me afterwards to giggle about dating girls. Students come up to me all that week to laugh about the stories. One girl in class looks up at me, dreamy-eyed, hands on her cheeks, leaning her elbows on the desk, sighs and swoons, "I wish you would take me out, Mr. Adams."

Ah well...I should have learned in debate to play to my audience.

Monday, August 29, 2005

This water not be good to drink

The level of annoying background noise in Japan is somewhat unbelievable, especially for a nation that is known for its politeness and civility. I'll break it down for you by outlining what you might have yelled at you or blared at you in an average day in Tokyo:

You wake up to the sounds of some ridiculously loud traditional song being broadcast over the local loudspeaker for reasons unknown OR to some sort of earthquake / fire siren, which happens so often that people just basically pretend like it's not happening because they know it's just a drill. Walking to the train station, you pass a Pachinko parlor (Pachinko is roughly equivalent to slots, for all intensive purposes in the awful noise, smoke, and generally dehumanizing effect it has on participants), which is not only decorated with outlandishly garish, giant posters and banners of giant-breasted cartoon women and hugely muscular manga action heroes, but emits an wave of cacophonous bells and rattles every time the automatic doors slide open, which - since people are going in and out all day - happens continuously.

Arriving at the train station, you have the general rush of people and the ticket machines, but, knowing that the Japanese passengers on a train are almost invariably totally silent and the train ride itself smooth, one might be tempted to relax a little; it seems you might be safe for a moment. But the noise isn't coming from the passengers, it's from the near-constant announcements over the PA system. Just on the platform, you'll hear the grating, high-pitch, recorded voice of a Japanese woman informing you when the train is arriving, that it will arrive soon, that it is arriving now (at this point you can see the train), that it is right in front of you (so you know that the train you are looking at is, in fact, a train, that you are not in some sort of non-Cartesian world of illusion), that the doors are about to open, that the doors will soon close, that the doors are now closing (oh, and there's a delightful song accompanying the process). And she will remind you to be careful to stand behind the giant yellow lines, because it turns out that you don't want to be over those, because then you'd fall off the platform and be standing on the tracks, which is, seemingly, a bad place to wait for the train.

Once you are in the train with the doors close and you have been told that the doors are closed, the train conductor begins his dialogue with you about every goddamn stop. Which wouldn't be so bad except that he has to add three sentences of meaningless polite gratitude for your gracious choice in honorably riding the train today, which - be assured - he, as well as the train service, Japan as a country and really, all of its people, feel tremendously blessed to receive. Then he'll list the names of all the connecting lines available at the next stop, tell you all about which door will open when you stop (just in case you are unable to figure that out or need a running start to the door) and affix another blessing on you and your child for having continued riding the train since he started speaking a minute earlier. This usually starts about 10 seconds after getting on the train and ends about 10 seconds before you get off, meaning that the message basically extends from each stop, so you hear it as many times as you are passing stations on your ride. (For me last year, think 10 stations a ride, twice a day, for 9 months)

When you get off the train and out of the train station, you might be in the mood for something to eat. You exit the station but trying to cross the street suddenly are forced to literally cover your ears because someone has pulled up in a van and is yelling directly into your face about your desperate need to oppose the crazy militants who would threaten the perfect peaceful society of Japan that is a beacon of hope to all nations by re-militarizing OR to get those pussies out of power that are dishonoring Japan and its rich history by standing in the way of it re-militarizing.

Entering a restaurant, there are several waiters conveniently situated around the place who immediately begin yelling いらっしゃいませ!(irasshaimase! - "welcome!") at you repeatedly from all directions until you are guided to a table, where you can enjoy hearing them yell that at each new patron as well. Finishing your meal, you are rewarded with everyone in the restaurant now yelling "thank you!" at the same time as you scuttle out the door.

If you choose to go shopping, the shop people will first yell "WELCOME!" at you and "PLEASE HONORABLY LOOK AROUND AND TAKE YOUR HONORABLE TIME ABOUT IT!" everytime they see you, and, strangely enough, every time they see each other as well. I suspect that the job training for stores in Japan requires a sort of Pavlovian training in which the employee is trained to respond to any and all stimuli with a knee-jerk "WELCOME!" (ex: New customer? "WELCOME!"; Another employee? "WELCOME!"; Stray dog? "WELCOME!"; Errant bag floating into shop on gust of air? "WELCOME!")

Deciding to just go home (after going through the train ordeal again) you might stop at the local supermarket for something to cook for dinner. Somebody is going to yell "WELCOME!" at you while walking in the door, make no mistake. And somebody is going to yell it at you while you walk the aisles. But the most insiduous thing about Japanese supermarkets (computer stores and electronics chains are the same way) is the store jingle. Some of them are full songs, but the worst are those that are only 5 seconds, as they repeat endlessly and burrow into your mind until you find yourself walking down the street singing "Bi-ku bi-ku bi-ku Bic Camera!" Case in point, I just sang that aloud unintentionally after typing it. I can also still remember the song from my local supermarket chain, Seims, from a year ago ("Everyday~ Seims, for your body and your mind...")

There are two alternatives to this: One, like me, you simply wear your headphones anywhere you go, insulating yourself completely against the outside world. Two, like most Japanese people, you are conditioned by this level of noise to develop the ability to basically block out all of the outside world. The problem seems to be, however, that this only pushes the people involved - whether it be advertisers or people demanding you hear their gratitude for your patronage - to new heights of shrill annoyance to compete for your attention. But, like my supervisor said when we were in the electronics shop for an hour listening to the jingle for the 1000th time, it's not that people aren't bothered by it, it's just that nobody ever complains.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Kandou shita

A girl took me totally by surprise today and almost broke my heart.

I was sitting at my desk ramping up to go home for the day, it being shortly after 3pm. Which meant I had succesfully passed 6 hours at the office, quite an accomplishment considering I have no work and only three other teachers were in today (Side note: it often seems like all the teachers get some bulletin I miss about when to come to school, so it's like just me and two other people there in the morning and I always imagine they have some sort of early warning system I don't get, like everyone else knows the school is going to be hit by a tsunami that day or something. Side note to that note: If the Tokai earthquake hits, the school will be hit by 10 meter tall tsunami waves). So I just had to kill time for another half hour or so, then I could start slow preparations to leave. Then I could brace myself for immediate exit at 4 pm sharp, muscles tense for another 5 minutes, watching the slow revolutions of the clock.

BUT, instead I was interrupted from my vigil by an English teacher, who presented to me one female student who was apparently working on a speech for the English speech contest to be held next month, and instructed to correct it for her. Interestingly enough, though it came right before the end of my day and would make me stay late, I was somehow so touched by the idea of having actual work to do that I took it and started through it.

The girl had just returned back from a summer studying abroad in Australia, and her speech began with a conversation between her and her host father, who asked, "Don't you feel homesick for Japan?" At first, the story seemed clear, it's going to be all about her experience in Australia; she found out we're all just people, the same though appearing different, she ate vegimite and saw koalas, blah blah blah Australia. I just start correcting the grammar and explaining the problems to her.

Then I get to the end of the paragraph about her host father. Suddenly the speech shifts from "my host father was a really great guy because even though he worked hard he also did chores and talked to me" to "when I came home and compared him to my father I realized that we don't really have any sort of relationship." It was clear this was a very different kind of speech.

At this point I skip ahead and quickly read the rest of the speech, which is a single, handwritten page on notepaper. This girl explains that her father, who works for Honda, was sent abroad to Ohio when she was only 9 years old. She quickly became used to not having a father around, and didn't really feel any connection to him any more. Even when he returned, they rarely spoke, and though her mother would tell her how her father worried about her, "they had no relationship."

Upon talking to her mom about this recently, her mom remembered a letter the father had written home to the girl and her sister 9 years ago while in Ohio. In the letter, he explained that he was working hard to set up a new factory, and though he was tired, he knew he would become more successful through this work. When the girl read this letter from her father, she felt that he was "maybe a good person, perhaps the word that describes what [she] felt was 'respect.'" She respected her father for working hard to improve himself, and recognized her own work to go to Australia or to study as similar in intention as a form of self-improvement.

The end was what killed me though. Even though she felt more gratitude towards her father for allowing her to go to study abroad, she has never been able to tell him. She confessed she doesn't know what would happen with their relationship in the future. She only hoped that someday she could too become a person worthy of her father's respect, and they could sit across from each other and talk as adults. She had never been able to talk to her father about how she felt. But she invited him to the speech contest, and is hoping that by giving this speech she might somehow break through to him.

She told me this, and I was in kind of in shock. I tried to get back to correcting her paper for her. I walked her through each sentence, but the whole time I was basically trying not to get too emotional, even not to cry. We finally made it to the end of the speech. She asked me what I thought of it, and I told her, 感動した。(I was deeply moved)

She says she just wants them to respect each other, but I thought, why should that be all she can have? Is that really the most she should be able to expect from her relationship with her father, the admiration existing among peers?

I'm not trying to say this is a problem solely of Japan - clearly it is a problem that occurs in every culture and every time - but it is something reinforced or exacerbated here by murderous work hours that make it nearly impossible for even the most devoted father to spend enough time with his children and a culture that discourages any sort of open communication of emotion by men to others. It's a harrowing situation to live in, and likely part of the reason Japan has as many suicides as the entire United States despite having less than half the population; the suicide rate is more than double that of the US or most EU countries.

The point is that this lack of paternal involvement is something I have read about, even told people who asked me about the work environment in Japan. I even speculated about the effect it would have on the lives of my host family; the two young kids were only 4 and 8 but still didn't seem to see enough of their father. But hearing a 17 year old basically confess to me that everything I had heard was true...to personalize this loneliness for me and stand in front of me at once both meekly and bravely...it was hard to be so glib about the topic. To speak summarily on a topic or treat it academically always involves a sense of distance, but there was no distance from this girl. She was there, and she was so goddamn honest and open about how she felt that I had no way of not dealing with it.

I told her that this is common in the US as well, that it happens everywhere. She was not the only one who felt distance from her parents. Hers was not the only parent who could not tell their child how they felt. That I too once felt distance from my father, but we found a way to communicate with each other and now can actually tell each other how we feel. That there could be something better for her, that it doesn't have to just be too successful workers sitting across a coffee table from each other. That he's not your colleague, he's your father, and I'm sure he wants you to be his daughter as well, not his peer.

I was there until nearly 6, and today I felt like I actually might have earned my money for once.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Politics at the bus stop

When placed in a foreign land, at first the cultural and political landscape appears rather impermeable. One must follow the mindset of the people to understand their chosen avenue of expression, but this can be daunting without a guide. Navigating the world of Japanese society is a path fraught with difficulties, so I will explicate this particular instance of protest speech for the uninitiated.

This young man makes a rather cogent argument in t-shirt form, suggesting that it is the "public" that hates minorities, for "human" are relieved to "exist in majority." It is this characteristic of humanity writ large that makes them "such weak life." The sheer size of "PUBLIC" serves as a cry out against the immolating forces of conformity, and the desperation expressed in the final statement, "human is such weak life", should be viewed as embodied in the bold type itself. Taken as a whole, the shirt serves to both shock and inform, and performs admirably in both respects.

One only wonders, however, if this young man has anything to offer to this discussion besides criticism, and whether his cynicism might actually alienate others and contribute to the problem rather than allieviate it.

Monday, August 22, 2005

I made $150 today

Today began late, with me arriving at school at around 9:30.

The teacher who invited me over to his house for dinner comes over to thank me for the two Beach Boys cds I burned for him, Pet Sounds and Smile. We have an hour-long conversation about our favorite Beach Boys songs (he loves "Sloop John B" and I love "God Only Knows") and discuss the possible causes for Brian Wilson`s breakdown (I explain the rivalry between Brian Wilson and the Beatles and he expounds upon his theory of the "tangled" quality of the Smile songs hinting at the confused nature of Brian Wilson`s mind).

The young female PE teacher who sits next to me notices me listening to music on my laptop and comes to look at my music. She gets really excited suddenly and runs out to her car to get two cds she has recently bought, returning with the new Gwen Stefani cd and the new Babyface album. She then plays me her favorite Babyface song and I dutifully transcribe and attempt to translate the lyrics for her on her request. This takes an hour, Babyface lyrics proving more obtuse than you would expect when you have to explain expressions like "the grass is always greener" or "sometimes you don't know what you have until it is gone". The cliches and awful wordplay seem to attain a certain profundity in translation.

Lunch. I walk to the 7-11 near the school to buy a drink and eat some spaghetti a teacher cooked for me the other day. I watch an episode of Late Night with Conan O`Brien on my laptop. Laughing aloud, I am prompted by the teacher across from me to repeat this funny joke: "A recent survey conducted in Mexico found that 40% of adults in Mexicans would move to the US, given the opportunity. Researchers explained that the numbers would have been higher, but the other 60% is already living here." Said teacher likewise found our immigration problem most amusing.

A Chemistry professor approaches me tentatively and introduces himself in better English than any of the English teachers. Apparently he has listened to English broadcasts on the radio for nigh on 10 years and is entirely self-taught. He shows me a book of English sonnets he is reading and we talk about our favorite British Romantic poets (He likes Browning and I like Shelley). I show him one of my favorite poems, "To My Coy Mistress" by Marvell.

I wander the halls for a while listening to music on my ipod, stopping some students dead in their tracks who apparently have not heard about the existence of a new ALT. Dropping by the library to check out a book of Japanese poetry, I am suddenly accosted by three first year boys. Blocking my exit, they interrogate me in Japanese about the finer points of American culture, like whether people really have parties at their house like in "American Pie" (and to a lesser extent, "American Pie 2"). I assure them that not only do people have these parties, but it is so common as to be rather passe. They are suitably impressed.

I come back to the teacher`s room to use the internet and write my blog.

I will be paid $150 for today.