Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Yasumi: Holiday

I am sitting in my highly disheveled tatami room. My non-functioning kotatsu*, demoted to a coffee table, is carrying the weight of my laptop, a watched DVD, lotion and nail polish remover, muffins, a kiwi, a glass of water, an empty can of a vitamin C drink, a permanent marker, my notebook with important phone numbers, and a few dirty tissues.
This is evidence that I have not left my apartment in two days.

Let me back up a bit.

On Tuesday I went to the hospital where I was diagnosed with the flu (which according to my nurse came from China--nothing is Japan's fault), given an iv as my concerned teacher talked to me about Obama, and was told that I was not to return to work until the following Monday. My teacher then insisted on driving me the three blocks back to my apartment. I explained that I needed to return a video and pick up my laundry (both along the way). She followed me into the video store insisting that I did not rent another movie because I needed to sleep, and then looked on as I stuffed my clean underwear and sweatpants into my laundry basket.

The following morning she called to check in on me and voiced the concern that my co-workers (including the principal) had for my health and recovery. I assured her that I would be fine.
I am under strict orders to not leave my apartment until I am fever free for three days. This is what I have been up to:
-I watched the game that led Heinz Field to break out into Pittsburgh's favorite song.
-I video chatted with my mom's side of the family when I could not be with them in person.
-I watched Obama's inaugural address--duh
-I fixed my broken TV because surfthechannel.com stopped working. It is amazing how technologically savvy I can become under such dire circumstances.
-I downloaded vuze, an application that allows me to watch new releases, and just as my friend suggested, I was blown away by Slumdog Millionaire.
-I inevitably ran out of food. The fear of infecting others instilled in me by the doctor caused me to ask a friend to go grocery shopping for me. My bizarre food requests led to a series of picture text messages from my confused friend unfamiliar with my tofu, sashimi, and nabe** sauce preferences.
Is this the right tofu in a bag, she asked.

Throughout all of this I have learned a lot about myself.
-I can spend disgusting amounts of time on the internet and be okay with it.
-I believe that video chatting is just as good as face-to-face communication.
-I can go four days in Japan without drinking coffee.
And most importantly...
-Whenever again I have the flu, I will expect to be given a week off from work and ridiculous amounts of sympathy.

If you would like to send me get well soon cards or flowers it would be much appreciated.

*A kotatsu is a table with a built-in a heater. If you do not understand why one would need a table with a built-in heater, you have obviously never been to Japan.
**Nabe is a traditional Japanese winter dish that literally means "pot".

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sumimasen: Excuse me/I'm sorry

The ping pong table that I grew up with was moved aside years ago to make room for my dad’s putting green. It is rolled into its prior spot in the basement once or twice a year to host a beer pong or flip cup match when both my brother and I have all of our friends over—usually on New Year’s Eve or for my birthday.

I always liked playing ping pong with my brother and dad. I seldom won against them, but I could kill any of my friends. My mom, however, never even tried to play with us. I was lucky to have inherited functioning eye-hand coordination genes from my dad’s side of the family.

Today, for the second time in Japan, I put those years of practice to use when I joined the table tennis after-school club at my Junior High. I played a boy who paused to say sumimasen every time he hit a shot that I could not return. He really felt bad about it. In an effort to step up the competition, I suggested that we play a game. He agreed, and I told him not to take it easy on me. The sumimasens continued as I hit the ball into the net, and I could not help but think back to the brawls that my brother and I would get into when arguing over the score, or when I accused him of taking cheap shots. The game against my student lost its vigor as I could see he had no interest in beating (thus embarrassing) me. I was all warmed up though. Ready for a real match; ready to feel my heart race towards a win. Anti-climatically the student said that it was break time and rested his paddle on the table. That was that.

The coach offered to play me next, and again hoping for a good match I consented. He was more interested in seeing how many times we could hit the ball back and forth (147—he kept count) than trying to hit a winning shot. I even found myself saying sumimasen when I hit the ball too hard.

I guess club activities in Japan are not about winning or losing. I will just have to get used to playing for fun.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia (possibly in that order)

On my last day of work before winter vacation I tried to write a really reflective blog entry on everything I learned about teaching middle school students over the past four months. I wrote a draft that referenced various educational philosophers and how my idealist expectations were squashed by the paradigm of English education in Japan. However, I could not capture the resiliently optimistic tone that I was going for, so I watched the letters fade from the computer screen as I held down the backspace key in frustration.

I spent that evening filling a simple black backpack with everything I would need for the next two weeks in Borneo--a huge accomplishment in not overpacking.

Then I went to Malaysia to meet my cousins Annie and Caitlin, Caitlin's friend Brad, and Jocelyn, who came a week into our stay.
First Caitlin got sick, then Annie, then me. Brad fell asleep to the sounds of vomit crashing against the toilet bowl and Annie's hallucinations of rats crawling in her brain.
We lived off of room service for a week.
After we were well enough to escape the waterfront Hyatt, Caitlin, Brad and Annie took on Mt. Kinabalu, as Jocelyn and I did this
and this and saw the biggest flower in the world,
and made friends wherever we went.
On January 1st, Jocelyn and I went to the gorgeous islands one last time. We were supposed to catch the 5:00 boat back to the city along with all of the other tourists, but with a flirtatious boat driver's number in my sandy purse, I made a call that alloted us three extra hours on the island. After watching the magnificent sunset, darkness settled over us, and our driver appeared in a rickety boat with his brother. Apprehensively, but with little choice, Jocelyn and I boarded the boat with the strange men that took us across the South China Sea. We held onto each other as we gazed at the breathtaking sky full of stars. Upon exiting the boat we thanked the two men, wished them a happy new year, and then parted ways all the more faithful in the good in mankind.

This brings me back to the beginning of this post--keeping the faith as a teacher.

Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh sums up my world philosophy in two simple sentences: "When you grow a tree, if it does not grow well, you don't blame the tree. You look into the reasons it is not doing well."
My students just need a little bit of water and sunshine. Hopefully I brought enough back from Malaysia.