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: "'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.