Friday, November 28, 2008

arigato gazaimasu: Thank you

Last year while I was home for Thanksgiving break I did the same thing that most college students do--slept, spent quality time catching up with my family, and went out partying with my friends back home. Along with two of my closest friends, Jocelyn and Mallory, I went out to the most happening bars in Pittsburgh, hoping to run into old friends who I hadn't seen since high school graduation. Rather than seeing old friends, we had awkward encounters with ex-boyfriends which led to a stressful series of bar hopping, at which point I lost track of whether we were trying to run away from them or run into them. The three of us spent the next night at Mallory's apartment curled up together discussing how we only needed each other, and that is what we were thankful for.

This year Jocelyn is teaching English in South Korea, and Mallory is doing the same in Costa Rica. This morning we had a 3-way Skype conversation, where yet again, we spoke of how lucky we are to have each other--despite the oceans that separate us. Jocelyn spent her Thanksgiving eating ice cream and potato chips from her local convenience store. However, tonight she is cooking a somewhat traditional menu for eight of her Korean co-workers. We'll see how eating mashed potatoes with chopsticks goes...
Mallory celebrated the holiday over pancakes while watching Schindler's List on TV.

In Japan, decorations jump straight from Halloween to Christmas because no one seems to care about the holiday wedged in between. However, I did not completely turn my back on the American tradition.
Thursday night my little apartment came alive when Caitlin and two of my friends came over to eat pumpkin soup and lasagna. We were so distracted by good food and company that we forgot to go around the table to say what we were thankful for.

During our intercontinental conversation this morning, the three of us decided that so many people our age are in a rush to grow up too fast, yet we acknowledged that everyone has different causes of happiness. Mallory reminded me that what makes me happy is when all of my students yell "hello" to me on my bike ride home from school. Jocelyn finds peace going on hikes and during her nightly yoga class. As for Mallory, she is happy to be able to eat three meals a day and have an apartment to call her own.

I am thankful that the world is full of possibilities, and that I always have someone to share my stories with.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hisashiburi: It's Been a While

Friday evening after a full week of work, Caitlin and I boarded the shinkansen (the fastest train in the world, found only in Japan) bound for Tokyo. About four hours later, consequentially smelling like smoke from our poor choice of seats, we left the country air behind us and stepped out into the wonderland that is Tokyo. It had been a while.

In actuality, I spent three days in Tokyo just months prior. Constrained by the day-long JET orientation meetings and my harsh bout of jet lag, I barely made it out of the hotel. I knew I would be back, so I allowed myself to succumb to the comfort of a bed, as opposed to forcing all-nighters and adventures upon my tired body.

Just as I suspected, things were different this time. Moments after checking into our hostel in an unfamiliar neighborhood, Caitlin and I left our sleeping roommates behind and ventured out in search of Karaoke. The man at the empty karaoke joint with bad teeth and worse braces spoke to us in English. He explained that for 830 Yen we could get an hour of singing but no drinks. Our agreement was followed by sober renditions of Ashley Simpson, Carly Simon, and Weezer. When the time ran out, we called it a night, headed back to the hostel, and drifted into sleep on the top bunks of relatively comfortable beds.

The following day was spent shopping, showing Caitlin around my old neighborhood, and catching up with my friends who never left the city. In Harajuku we observed a line that stretched for blocks leading to a brand new H&M. We briefly joined it, until the security guard pointed down the street to a sign that signified the beginning of the crowded wait. We opted for second hand stores instead.
After only a few purchases, we sat down for cake and wine at an outdoor cafe I had been to twice before. We talked about how we were lucky to have each other in Japan. I felt less alone in the big city sitting across from family. Everything seemed so different this time around.

The night continued as we ate dinner with old and new friends, won a carebear from an arcade, and boarded a bus to one of the greatest night clubs in Tokyo. Yurie, my friend who likes to watch movies and go to bed early, suggested that we go to Ageha, a guaranteed all-nighter. Yurie dropped off the dance floor around 2am, I lasted until 3:30, and Caitlin went all night. Yurie and I caught up on a stained couch next to a sleeping man. Our conversation was sporadically interrupted by drunk men mumbling in our direction, and once by Caitlin offering me a drink that some guy had bought her. As it neared dawn, we left the club in pursuit of first train. I hugged Yurie goodbye, making her promise to visit me in Shikoku.

Caitlin and I cuddled up with the carebear on the train ride back to my friend's classy apartment

where we were greeted by a view of Fuji from his hallway window.

Our final day consisted of a trip to a museum, browsing the streets of Shibuya, and eating an unexpectedly fancy dinner. After finding our impossible to find overnight bus back to the island, we melted into seats that allowed us a front row view of the city. I drifted into sleep as the outside lights faded into the distance. I realized that the city I once knew well felt distant and foreign to me. Eleven hours later, I woke up on familiar land. I left the bus feeling as if the previous days' events could have all been a dream. I was back in the inaka.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Futobaru: Football

I was fixing myself a cup of instant coffee at work. I poured in some milk that I had not finished from my school lunch a few days prior in an attempt to make the Japanese version of my favorite drink somewhat pleasant. Back home where there is good coffee, I almost always drink it black.

As I stirred the liquid, hoping that I had achieved the proper ratio of hot water, coffee powder, and milk, another teacher entered the small pantry-like space. We had only talked once before when he asked me where I was from. It was in August before classes had begun. I told him that I was from America. He said that he spoke Russian. I told him that my mother's side of the family was from Russia. He asked where. I told him I did not know exactly, and then, I assumed, he wrote me off as stupid.

We smiled and said good morning to each other. I rinsed my spoon off and smiled again, signifying that I had finished preparing my drink and was heading back to my desk. He then began to speak, and the words that poured from his mouth were not wasteful or annoying. They were poignant and purposeful. He brought up a topic that I ached to talk about. He asked me how the Pittsburgh Steelers were doing.

Fifteen minutes or so later, after our football talk came to a close, Ms. Katanaga came running into the staff room looking for me because I had not shown up for class.
There is a first time for everything.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Nan sai desu ka: How old are you?

At my main junior high school, there is a very special student who is quite fond of me. Before I met him in September, I was warned to always dress very conservatively for his class. My first encounter with him was one of utter shock and disgust. The novelty of his extreme inappropriateness has worn of, and his English is greatly improving.

A fellow English teacher described him to me once as a three-year-old trapped in a sexually frustrated man’s body.

Today I ate lunch with his class. He demanded that I sit next to him, and I reluctantly obliged. I asked him what American movies he likes, and he told me that he loves Mickey Mouse. Our small talk led me to believe that he is sweet and civilized. I thought the English teacher had not given him enough credit. His mental age might be hovering around seven or eight. Three seemed too young.

Suddenly during our peaceful lunch he stood up and began yelling penis and demanding that I tell him my bra size. As the chatter in the room came to a sudden halt, the other teachers looked horrified, yet did nothing to silence him.

Maybe the English teacher was right after all.

Yosomono: Outsider

Today, at an elementary school that I have only been to twice before, I ate lunch with a class of first graders. They swarmed around me, unzipped the pockets of my jacket, tugged at my hair, clung to my legs, and begged me to answer their inquisitions in a language that they could understand. Their homeroom teacher smiled and looked on from her desk. What else should I have expected from a group of six-year-olds who presumably had never met an American woman before?

I have observed that at the end of the school day, Elementary school teachers distribute snacks, usually little cakes or fresh fruit, and tea to one another in preparation for the day's informal closing meeting.

What do you make of this picture that I took?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Himitsu: Secret

Caitlin and I first learned the meaning of hitmitsu when a young, terribly overworked, Japanese doctor spontaneously joined us for dinner one night. Over a bottle of wine and okinawan cuisine he explained, in nearly perfect English, that his job was very stressful, and on that particular evening he was sipping his sake in an effort to escape the haunting reality of a patient who had died that day. Somewhere in our conversation he introducted the word hitmitsu to us. Although the context is now blurry, I remember the nemonic device that we thought of to remember the useful vocabulary word. He-meets-you. It's a secret.

A few nights ago I was drinking with the teachers from my main elementary school, not to extinguish bad memories as the doctor had done; but rather to celebrate the success of our English demonstration lesson earlier that day. I was somewhat the guest of honor because I had put a great deal of energy into making the school's English department look successful to the 100 guests who observed my class. The gratitude from my co-workers was lovely, but I humbly explained to them that it was no problem at all, considering that all I had to do was speak my native language.

As the night carried on and the teachers got more and more red in the face, my co-workers and I had entered the special zone where all lines of appropriateness had vanished, and the secrets began to pour out.

At a previous work party with the teachers from my main junior high, I had learned all sorts of juicy information from the head of the English department at that school. The gossiping was followed by karaoke--a secret behavior in itself.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at the situation, karaoke did not happen the night of my elementary school party. However, I did show one teacher (who I had never spoken with before) how to take a sake bomb. I confessed my reasons for not being so into Japanese guys to the office ladies, and listened to stories that I only half understood, but nodded as if I was fluent in Japanese. I bonded with the girl around my age who is responsible for preparing school lunches. She explained to me that she plans to quit her job come April to run off to Osaka to live with her boyfriend that her mother does not know about.

Of course, it was all a big hitmitsu.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Abunai: Dangerous

(a sign warning that something is dangerous)

There are certain things that are not abunai in Japan that sure as hell would be abunai where I come from.
The other day I got held up lesson planning at my main elementary school and missed my bus that comes once every three hours. A fellow teacher took on the responsibility of driving me home. As I stepped into his minivan, bracing myself for the inevitably awkward fifteen-minute drive, I found that he had decided to be proactive in the situation by turning on the television so conveniently placed on his dashboard. I told him I thought driving while watching TV was dangerous. He replied that it hasn't caused him any problems in the past six years.

Multiple times in Japan I have encountered stair cases so steep that they might as well be ladders. I have hiked up mountains swinging from branch to branch in an effort to not stumble to my death. On one such occasion, I was greeted by an elderly Japanese couple at the summit. They looked far less frazzled than I, hinting that the hike was not so abunai.

This is a rock wall that led to the entrance of a hike. Far steeper than it looks.

Narrow, winding roads that unquestionably would be one-way in the States allow cars from either direction to pass, as little children bounce around in the front seat because seat belts are generally considered unnecessary in this country. Although it seems that there are no road rules apart from the zero-tolerance policy regarding drinking and driving, abunai is a term that I often here in regards to my apparently careless behavior.

Recently I was pulled over by the police. I was biking up a quiet hill while towing my friend along who was comfortably gripping my shoulder as she glided on her skateboard. The flashing lights came at us almost as quickly as the two young officers who were sporting trendy glasses and shy smiles. Fearing that we understood no Japanese, they simply pointed at my shoulder and repeatedly stated abunai, until we nodded strongly enough to signal that we understood.

Furthermore, abunai is regularly heard throughout the halls of my Junior High School. In preparing for my Halloween lesson last month, I carved a pumpkin with my JTE (Japanese Teacher of English). She stood behind me, exuding nervous energy for fear that I would slice my fingers off with the butter knife that I was using to cut through the thick skin of the miniature pumpkin. Upon successfully giving the little guy a face, I asked my JTE if I could light a birthday candle inside of the Jack-o-Lantern, only for a moment, so that I could demonstrate that the symbol's original purpose was to serve as a lantern. Immediately she looked horrified and explained that candles are very abunai. Some things are just not negotiable.

Inaka: Rural Japan

The front wheel of my bike had deflated again, so I figured it had a hole in it. I left school a bit early, wishing I could go straight home to hook up my internet, but I had to deal with my bike problem first. It was mid-October and I only then received my modem in the mail—a package that granted me connection to the world outside of Takuma. In pursuit of a quick fix, I went to the local bike shop that I had been to once before. The last time I was there the shopkeeper was friendly and helped me pick out a light considering that my previous one was broken. He attached it to my bike, ensuring that I would be able to ride safely after 6:30, just around the time that darkness settles over my town.

I parked my rusty and worn-out bike out front alongside the new ones asking to be sold. Gripping the script explaining that my tire had deflated, as if an explanation was necessary in such a case, I approached the shop keeper hoping for an easy interaction. He looked up from his magazine, and in a playful tone, muttered the English words: “may I help you?” I found his smile endearing, and in an effort to take the pressure off of him, answered in Japanese.

Minutes later the man was lying on the ground beside my bike, as if he were a mechanic working on a car. I commented that the light he previously picked out for me has been working well, and then he explained to me that earlier that morning as I crossed the street on my ride to school, he had stopped me to turn it on. I was confused because I was aware that I had such an interaction with the crossing guard, but I had no idea that the bike shop owner was the same person. Every morning I smile and greet that crossing guard hidden behind his hat and face mask; unknowingly greeting the man who so kindly ensures that my battered bike lasts the duration of yet another JET participant’s stay in Japan. I laughed and told him I was surprised and apologized for not recognizing him.

As he patched the hole on my front wheel, his wife came downstairs and chatted with me in Japanese about their honeymoon, thirty years ago, when they went to Disney Land. She then asked where I lived, said that she had indeed heard of Pennsylvania, and guessed that it was about two hours by plane to California. I explained that America is a lot wider than Japan. She seemed surprised.

After the man fixed my bike he chatted with me a little bit more and then ran to the back of the store and brought me a bag of oranges, grown right here in Takuma. I then asked him how much I owed because it seemed that he had no intention of charging me. He was pleased that I paid him, as if I expected him to fix my bike for free. He returned to the back of the shop in pursuit of further gifts for me. He emerged with a small sculpture of a tiger that he had purchased at a local festival the previous weekend. He handed it to me as a token of Japanese culture; a gift welcoming me to my new life in his town.

He stopped the cars as I crossed the street on my ride to work the following morning, and I stopped to show him that my wheel was holding up well. He smiled, as did I, and I continued on my way.