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.