Sunday, August 31, 2008

So it begins . . .

September 1st, the big one, is now here. The official first day of my school experience. But wait - you would think that the first day would entail teaching of some kind. Not so, the single, white gaijin is surprised to find out. Instead, a short speech in front of 700 junior high school kids, lunch with the teachers, and more time reading in the office.
My short speech was...really, quite short and, truth be told, not very eloquent. Something like "Hi, my name is _____. I come from the United States of America, close to the city of _______. I am excited to meet all of you in the coming year. Hopefully I will teach you some English. Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu."
...Then I got a bouquet of flowers. That`s right. Flowers. First time in my life to ever get flowers (factually inaccurate; I received flowers from my girlfriend, though they were picked, not bought, regardless...), and they were from a little boy named Raimu. I admit, I was smiling huge as he shook my hand and said "Let`s enjoy learning English together." Yes, Raimu. Let`s.

Later, as I was helping with cleaning time (cultural note: in Japan, it is the student`s job to clean the classrooms and hallways. The teachers help. So...despite janitorial work not being in the contract, I`m gonna get dirty every now and again. Anyway...), and a student walked past me in the hall. He started at me feet, looked me all the way up, stared into my eyes before he muttered "....Superman"

...It`s nice to know that these kids have a sense of humor.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Just a quick one...

Just a few quick notes, some cultural, some personal.

What`s up with Japanese groceries stores? They are, all of them, hilariously named. I wish I had photos. Let`s see, there`s the Blooming Bloomy at the Kounoso station and the GigaMart (which sounds like some kind of Power Rangers villain) in Metsuyama. Those are just the two that I go to regularly. There are all sorts of Headias and Welcias around as well.

Speaking of photos, I don`t think I brought my battery charger for my camera. I`m incredibly bummed out about this, obviously. I distinctly remember packing it when I had used it in Tokyo...but, it was probably lost somewhere along the way. It`s hard enough to get something like that to replace a lost one in the states. I might give it a shot and just bring in my battery itself, learn a couple of vocabulary words for charger and lost, and see if they can figure it out. The photos that I have already taken, however, will be online as soon as I get the internet at my house. Monday makes week 5, and I can`t imagine it lasting longer than the 3-6 week estimate I was given.
Since we`re on the photo tip, I`m gonna mention the personal photo experiences. Before I left Japan, I let some people leave videomessages for me on my laptop that I could watch when I was lonely. I watched them all for the first time last night. My older brother`s was by far the most touching of them all - I don`t believe anyone believes in me as much as he does. For someone who used to hit me often and with gusto, he`s certainly changed his tune in the last couple of years. And his sentiment just seems to grow stronger. I hate to I feel like I may have taken his lesson overt encouragement for granted in the past. I just won`t take it for granted anymore. My mother left a message just as meaningful and deep as my brother, but it`s different to get such a message from my mom. I always joked when I was younger that I may be an emotional mess, "but my mom thinks I`m a real catch." My friend Eric left a really great message, too. He said that Japan has a lot of history - and now I`m part of it. And it`s true and amazing, even for just one year.
There was another video, one that I will probably watch hundreds of times in the coming year. Laying on a couch with someone, kissing her forehead, and her kissing my shoulder. Brief, silent, but simultaneously disheartening and emboldening. Geez, I miss her sometimes.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

August nearly done...

Well, it`s been about a month now. What am I saying? It`s been a month exactly. One month ago today, I came to my quiet, little town without any idea of what would be waiting for me. Here I am, one month later, with just the slightest inkling of what my `real life` here will entail.
School will start here on September 1st, as it does all over Japan. I expected to teach then, but apparently, I just need to hang around the office for two or so weeks until my schedule is finalized. That means I still have time to figure things out, but at this point I feel like the only way out is through. The only way that I will learn what is waiting for me within the elementary and Junior High school walls is by going there, dealing with it on the fly and with confidence.
This whole trip has perhaps become a confidence-building mission for myself. No man is an island, but I certainly feel like I`m on the lonesome side of a drawbridge.
Today, I returned the town hall where I had left a bad first impression on everyone that I met. I went there to teach a conference about team teaching (newsflash: I`m new at this, and am certainly not certified to discuss it with any type of authority). I am a little upset at the teacher that was supposed to help me with this, whom we can call `Lupin`. Lupin asked me if I could help him with this presentation, as Nigel would be on vacation in Hawaii, and I said that would it be fine, I just needed a little help to know what was expected. The help never really came. Yesterday, he asked what I had planned, what games I had invented, boards and cards I had made, etc. He was not very helpful and seemed to not be listening to what I was saying. I would say "I need your help with this project. I`ve never been a teacher before, I`ve never invented any games, and I don`t know how to teach a room full of adult teachers kids` games without it being very boring. Can you help me?" to which he replied "Tomorrow is your first day as a teacher. Good luck!". ...Thanks, Lupin.
Anyway, I got a few activities down, worked hard yesterday to do some planning, and today worked just fine. Where I failed and insulted a month ago, this time I laughed and talked casually. Of course, I made mistakes, but I never panicked and kept on going. Lupin was still not very helpful, with directions such as "Go ahead and do the activity." Oh well.
Anyway, I feel like I can do this now. I feel like I`m ready to get some kids screaming "APPLE, BANANA!" as loud as they can. ...I`m pretty much Barney without a costume.

But Goddamnit, I will be the best costumeless Barney I can be. One month at a time.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

All-nighter in Kyoto.

That's right. I'm down in the Kansai region of Japan. It took me about 4-5 hours to get here from my tiny town farther north. I came to visit my really good friends Josh and Shannon in the town of Hikone. They live across the street from an old castle. It is really amazing. The moat is wide and deep, and just across the street.
It's been great and rejuvenating to be able to spend time with old friends on the other side of the earth. Josh is easily one of my closest and best friends. We were remarking last night how we can just take for granted that we'll understand each other's off-the-cuff joking. He's easily one of the funniest people I've ever met. And he really encourages me, as a professor once advised me, to "follow my weird." Shannon has always got a smile and an encouraging word for me. Which is incredibly meaningful here in Japan, as I'm more often than not left to my own self-motivation.
It was also good to see them because we really had a great time going out drinking. The first night here, we went to one of the best bars in town, Yab's (the slogan is "Let's Get Shit-Faced!"). It was really cool and I met some of Josh and Shannon's friends. We....well, got pretty shit-faced and then karaoke'd nearby. I am really getting better at the karaoke thing. I even have pictures. Last night was by far the best night of the trip, though. We decided to take a trip to Kyoto, and just walk around and do whatever we wanted. I bought a couple of books (some study, some pleasure) at an English bookstore. Awesome. As the night progressed, we were laying on the banks of the Kamogawa River, drinking "American Taste" beer from a nearby convenience store, just watching the skyline and making each other laugh. Pretty great, really.
Then we got takoyaki. Takoyaki is squid balls, like squid tenticles in a doughball, with a lot of sauces on it. It was my first time, and although squidballs sounds perhaps a little gross, it was actually really delicious.
After that we went to a bar with 200 yen ($2.00) cocktails. I drank maybe half of them on the menu, from the Peach Princes (Josh ordered it for me) to the Dirty Mother. It was a weird scene in the bar, sort of. We met some Swedes and a couple of Canadians and just kept drinking til early in the morning. Apparently, bars don't really have to shut down in Japan. So, we stayed until 5 am, got some breakfast, and caught one of the first trains home......that was full of salarymen and schoolchildren off to their respective Monday morning activities, while I tried not to look too much like a bad gaijin, slyly sipping chuu-hai and looking a bit disheveled, trying unsuccessfully to avoid the collective Japanese ire.

I feel like I can cross something off my things to do before I die list. "I just pulled an all-nighter in Kyoto, getting drunk in a $2 cocktail bar" sounds way too cool to not make a big to-do over.

Consider it to-done.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lesson One

Today was an important day for me as a teacher. I have learned something invaluable: don`t read something, or teach something that is very emotional for you.

I had to hang with L-San today at the library. She has roped me into it as a last-ditch effort to get me to spend time with her. The plan is to read books in English to children, although she has plans all day. I left halfway through, much to her displeasure, because I had other business to attend to. She has, however, called my boss and asked him to fill any slots left in my schedule with her plans. I negotiated it down to one more day of reading to kids...which, God willing, will not spill over into any kind of hang-out time with the L-San. Time will, of course, tell.

But, back to lesson one. I picked out The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. As a young boy, this particular book taught me the bittersweet pleasure of unrequited love, and the million different shades of suicide that selfless love can lead to. It has done more for me in understanding real world relationships than the Berenstein Bears can shake a stick at.

Anyway, none of these poor kids could follow what I was saying anyway. My voice began to shake as the boy asked for money and sold the apples. My hands began to shake when he used the branches to build a house. I had to cough intermittently to keep my composure once he cut the tree down to build his boat. And when the old man sits on the stump, I barely uttered the words `The tree was happy. The end.`

Now, hopefully, the kids don`t think that I`m a weiner cry-baby. Hopefully they just think I get nervous while publicly speaking (I do). I suppose I could fret over it, or worry, but it was too touching a moment for me to not experience, and now it seems to funny to worry over.

If I can laugh at myself and almost simultaneously cry, I think I`m ready to be a teacher.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Chotto hen, ne?

August 15th marked the day that Japan surrendered to the Allies, bringing World War II to a close. Japan admitted a full defeat and a full surrender. The emperor denied that we was a God, and the Japanese began to follow Western rule of law, bowing the military control of the United States. They still do to this day, as military bases are the only legally military institutions allowed in Japan.
One interesting and little-known fact about modern Japan. Yasukuni shrine lies in Tokyo. It is dedicated the emperor and his cabinet and as such glorifies, at least according to the leftists, war-criminals. It has been a point of criticism for Shinzo Abe, who prayed once a year at the shrine for `guidance`. It had greatly erroded foreign relations with China and Korea, the two major victims of the war crimes. Every year on August 15th, the right-wing pro-emperor nationalists form a defensive ring around Yasukuni shrine, and every year the japanese and international leftists march toward the shrine to protest. I`ve heard differing things; it`s as close to rioting as Japan gets, the streets are full of angry protestors wrestling with nationalists. Or, alternately, the violence is all staged, the `riot` is controlled by police and kept under their supervision and control, etc. It appears the August 15th is still an important day here.

On August 15th, last week, Nigel and I were walking back from a nearby city after we had missed the last bus on the way home from Tokyo. It was a long walk, about an hour and a half. On the way, we realized what amazing changes have swept through Japan in the last 60 years. Sixty years and a handful of days before our night walk home, we would not have been welcome. Our visit would have hinged solely upon our silence and ability with a rifle, two Gaijin walking through the quiet nighttime countryside. An American and a Brit in the modern era, we rely more on our wit and willingness to be embarrassed than our martial skill. In fact, rather than a military imposition, we are revered and even employed because of our nationality and language.

Things truly change here, despite all the history and tradition.

It`s very nice to be welcome, even if I am welcome as an outsider.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Okay, it`s been a little while since an update. Things are the school are getting a little tighter. Have to come in earlier, stay later, etc. totally fine with me. Just a quick personal update now;

I spent last Sunday in Tokyo with the other ALT in town, whom we`ll call Nigel, because he`s British - like, drinking tea and watching cricket British. He`s also, incidentally, a very nice guy. He`s very interested in the Olympics, and specifically how well Great Britain is doing in relation to Japan. Aaanyway, Tokyo was really cool. It got very rainy, and we stayed inside coffee shops and all sorts of stores and things, but it was very cool. We even went to a Mexican restaurant that night! Mexican. In Japan.
It wasn`t exactly El Norteno (which I am now missing terribly), but it was good enough, if perhaps a little too expensive. We even went out for a drink at a British style Pub. Good scotch, what else do I have to say?

The teachers here are all really crazy people, it seems like. There`s a really effeminate male teacher, an (according to himself) uber-rich large man who I`ve taken to calling Mr. Big, a faux-feminist stickler, the lazy and irreverent Principal, etc. All really funny people. I just have to take some deep breaths and try to just have fun this year, and not be worried about what these people think of me, or whether each lesson plan goes over well. I`m getting nervous lately, but I really have nothing to be nervous about . . . besides faiing as a teacher. But, I`m stubbon and determined enough to not let that happen.

This Friday is my day with L-San again. Then next week, Tuesday. I can`t wait for those days to pass by, because they`ll look a lot better in hindsight than they do now, I`m sure. And this weekend, I`m going down near Osaka by shinkansen (bullet train!) to hang out with Josh and Shannon. For those who don`t know, they`re two of my favorite people in the world. It should be a good weekend, even if I have to use up a sick day Monday to make it worthwhile. That`ll propel me through L-San`s `lessons,` I`m sure. ...I hope.

I have very few funny anecdotes or stories on the edge of my mind right now. I would`ve updated many times this last week, but still no internet at home and my access here in the office is getting increasingly limited. I`m actually calling my internet provider today after school to ask if they can expedite the process. I don`t want to be a jerk, but I feel like I just need to say `I am American. I will drop a bomb if I have to. Hook me up to the interwub, dude. Be quick about it.`

Next time, I`ll try to write something interesting...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Return of L-San

That`s right! Today, I had a meeting with my boss (hereafter named Honcho) at the office at 9. Luckily, a great translator had come with me to help me navigate the meeting. Once I got there, Honcho informed me that we had to head over to L-San`s place of employment to continue our meeting. I was horrified. I was then informed, before headed to L-San`s, that I would need to go to her place of employment every day until Sept. 1st, for her to give me `japanese lessons`.
... I grew faint.
I pleaded with my translator to inform them that I didn`t want to study japanese with her. I tried to think of nice ways to get around it, without being too rude or forward (thought of as rude in Japan). I started by saying that her English was hard to understand, and it made me feel a little ... stressed. I then said that I had majored in another foreign language (which you should all know, but again ... for anonymity`s sake) by studying on my own, and that such a style was more conducive to my way of learning. I think people were a little offended that I would so blatently refuse an offer to have something to do, especially as I spend most of my days at work just reading or being on the internet, at least until school starts.
Anyhow, we went to L-San`s place anyway. Although, we went simply to say that I would be handling my own study habits, and would continue reporting in to the junior high. I consider it a major success. However, I do have to go to her place of residence to run a private book-reading session. At least...that`s what she said in English. I think I will read like...the hungry caterpillar, or something. ...I can`t imagine that it will take all day. Things during the meeting with L-San were a little tense...but, I stuck to my guns, tried to be as polite as possible and managed to retain my sanity.
On a bizarre note, however: After all this rudeness and awkwardness throughout the day, I went to get some lunch from a local convenience store only to find, quite to my surprise, L-San standing next to the sandwiches. It was, to say the least, awkward.
Rude American though I may be, I intend to study japanese harder on my own than L-San could prod me to. I`m off to do just that. Ganbarimasu!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Things change for the Gaijin

That`s right. I`ve now got a keitai (cell phone). That means whole new corridors of Japan are now open to me. Fast communication with my friends near Osaka, or the other JETs in the area will now replace the quiet nights at home in isolation. Speaking of other JETs, we had a prefectural meeting yesterday, which...was perhaps not very helpful. But, it was good to hang out with people and get a chance to cut loose afterward. We went to a British Pub and I had a few drinks before we went on the karaoke til the night wore on. Unfortunately, since I have to catch a train then a bus, I had to leave earlier than others. And, to top it off, I missed my bus on the way home! Luckily, My one great japanese contact in my city, we can call her Ms. Awesome, came to the rescue and picked me up from the train station. Ms. Awesome is almost the polar opposite of L-San (though their names are almost weird is that?). She`s helpful, not controlling, not patronizing, and generally nice to be around. I`m certainly thankful that I`ve got such a nice person on my side.

Now for the real update:
I never thought I would say this, but I am pretty upset at the Olympic coverage here in Japan. Japanese television is, of course, horrible. I was excited to watch the Olympics, maybe feel a spark of jingoistic patriotism as I watched the Americans take medal after medal. ...Or at least, due to the simplistic narrative of the Olympics games (bunch of people compete, some of them win), understand what is happening on the television for once.
...But, no. In Japan, they are only showing events that Japan is competing in (and have a good chance of winning). And, if Japan wins something, they`ll just show the last seconds over and over and over again, all day. I think I`ve watched the female judo winner like, 13 times in the last two days. And to top it off, the commentary is really bad. ...Not that I can understand it too much. But, in the states, we would have like, former Olympic medal winners talking about events. Again, in Japan, things are different. They just have Paris Hilton-style TaRenTos (talents) from reality television comment after events, saying things like `Such a shame!` or `They did it! Great!`
Anyway, WTF Japan? Way to crush my blossoming patriotism. ...Oh, actually ...seriously, thanks, Japan. I almost lost it there for a moment, in the monotonous mental chanting of `USA! USA! USA!` It has been replaced by `Let the best (wo)man win ... and let me read about it on the BBC days after the fact`.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Some things are universal

Ah, today is blessedly cool compared to the last couple of days. Japan can be quite enjoyable, when you`re not sweating your ass off.

It`s really quite funny. Here in Japan, the emphasis on the workplace is how busy you LOOK, not how busy you ARE. It`s a nation full of paper-shufflers and desk-rearrangers. As I said previously, this place may have birthed Bureaucracy. Apparently, the private sector is very efficient and the public sector (like, oh...public school) is very inefficient.
So, because we have to look busy, it`s required that the teachers come into the office even when school is not in session, such as is the case now). Only...where are all the other teachers? Apparently, the other ALT and myself are required to come in (even though we have literally nothing to do), and the other teachers can take off and do whatever they want. fine with me. Internet is nice! Also...what else have I got to do? It`s just unfortunate that, as one of the two white guys in the city, I am pretty high profile. Anyway...I don`t really mind at all. But the other ALT does. Alot!

On a really funny note...

The other day, I was being transported to get my keitai (cellphone) by a nice japanese guy who works for the school department. Only...he doesn`t speak hardly any English at all. So...I knew the word for music and listen, so I asked what kind of music he listens to. And, all the sudden, the floodgates of communication open. It was hilarious! He was like `American Hip-Hop!` And we had a whole conversation by just naming bands and indicating whether they were good or bad. It was like `Eru Eru Kooru Jei (L L Cool J.) *laughing*` `Shai Pu Resu Hiru (Cypress Hill) *more laughing*` `Ennu Dabyu E (N.W.A)` etc. Then I was recommending bands like `Beastie Boys? ...Bi su ti bo i su?` `hai! Kakkoi (cool!)`, and then, the best, I was like `Wu Tang? Wu Tan gu?` and this guy, out of nowhere was shouting in bad English that he probably didn`t understand `Wu Tang Clan ain`t nothing to fuck with, Wu Tang Clan ain`t nothing to fuck with!...Dorra dorra biru yaru! (dollar, dollar bill y`all). ...Priceless.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Goodbye, L-San!

It is hot here. 37 degrees Celsius. Which is around 100 Fahrenheit. Needless to say that the bikeride here left me one soggy American. I now realize why it is totally socially acceptable to have a towel tied around your neck/head out here (often with kawaii cartoon characters all over them). Because, without a `sweatmop` (as I have dubbed it), you look like a `tard when you arrive anywhere. I had sweated through the knees of my jeans. ...It sounds gross, doesn`t it? That`s because it is very gross.
On a related note, allow me to tell you about my sweet ride. It`s called a `mama-cherri`- An old woman`s bike. Everybody has them here, and there`s a standard model and everything, parked outside of every grocery store. Not...quite like my road bike back home (that spruced up Murray!), but it seems extremely dependable. And...scoff if you will, but the front basket, while making you look like a fool, can carry some groceries. ...Which brings me back to point 1 - the heat. It`s nice to keep all that junk off your back, while you`re pedaling around rural Japan.

My sole bane in Japan now is a certain woman. I will call her, for the sake of anonymity, L-San. L-San is not related to my position here at all. Her English is not very good (not that I`m saying everyone`s must be! This is Japan afterall, not London...but it would be nice if my `translator` could tell me what was going on), but she insists on becoming my `host mother`. She actually told me, on the first day that I`d met her, that I should call her `mom`. ...I politely refused.
Anyway...she keeps telling me that I need to go to her workplace, rather than my workplace, and spend the day with her. Only...I don`t like hanging out with L-San at all, and she treats me like a child. When I was paying for something in a shop yesterday, L-San reached into my hand and took my money to pay the cashier. She is in no way related to my job, or my time here in Japan, but she keeps making plans for me without asking, which is very frustrating. On top of that, she forces me to parrot out japanese in front of people so that she can boast about how good of a teacher she is. My predecessor had warned me against her, and I`ve heard some horrifying stories that I won`t repeat here.
I almost feel bad about it, but I`ve told her that I`m not going to spend more time with her. I was brought here to teach kids, not to entertain L-San. And, as far as my time in Japan is concerned, I can get to Tokyo on my own. I`m not a child, and I don`t appreciate being treated like one.
(Also, the horrors of my first day here in town were compounded [possibly caused] by L-San. She was the one that picked me up and brought me to the mayor`s office and things. And, if it had been someone else, like the other ALT in town, there would never have been any cause for alarm. My entire negative first experience was directly impacted by L-San`s insistence to be in control of my situation.)

Geez, that was a little bit of a rant. Or, as we call it in the blogosphere, an `update`...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

I feel like a salaryman.

I`m sitting the staffroom of the Junior High School. I have just a few quick things to say.
1) I cannot believe the internet in Japan. It`s probably the most ridiculous thing about the whole country, nevermind the pervo-porn, raw squid snacks, etc. I talked to someone from Yahoo BB about getting internet in my apartment, and he told me I have to wait 4-6 weeks to find out if I`m eligible for the internet. WTF? Seriously? Like...what if, God forbid, I wait 6 weeks to be told that I`m ineligible, and have to seek another provider? Then I have to apply with them, wait another 4-6 weeks to find out from them, etc. For a single, white gaijin a long way from home, 3 months without free contact home seems a bit like torture.
2) I`m adapting much better now. I`m picking up like, 10 vocab words a day, and even some kanji. With any luck, a little determination, I might have passable japanese whenever I finish my JET contract. That`s something to be excited about, I think.
To be totally honest, it would make me feel like a badass. It`s gonna be really funny to be that guy who can decipher both arabic and japanese...let alone whatever languages I can accumulate later. It`s gonna be TIGHT, and that`s a fact. Sorry for the self-indulgence.

4-6 weeks? Honestly. I thought this was the land of giant fighting robots and instant access to information. What I`ve slowly been realizing, however, is that Japan is actually just the birthplace of bureaucracy. It`s funny how similar Japan can be like home.