Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Day

Today is remarkable only in the fact that it's the first Christmas in my life that I didn't wake up and immediately sneak myself into my brothers' rooms, issuing hushed calls for them to wake up. I'm not a celebrator of Christmas in almost all senses. But, I do miss my family today, and especially my brothers, because I know that in a matter of hours, they'll wake up to feel as strange as I did today. They'll wake up without me standing over them, prodding them with my foot, so we could all share the quiet of Christmas morning together. But, what's a gaijin to do about it?

I suppose listening to all of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on repeat isn't helping matters much.

Although, in two days' time, my girlfriend will come into Japan. So, I have little room in my heart for sadness today, when I keep things in perspective.

On a funny Japanese-style note, I was invited to the annual Bounenkai, or End-of-the-Year-Party. I had a really great time, and my co-workers were more than accommodating to my lack of Japanese skills (Nigel had decided not to come this year, so I was the lone gaijin). I ate a lot of Japanese winter foods, hot pots and stews and things. The most notable thing, however, was a big bowl of magenta-colored wide noodle-looking things. I asked the only English teacher what I was about to eat, and he thought for a moment, smiled, and replied "Guts! You're about to eat guts!" ...Oh, really? You have my internal gratitude, thank you.
Actually, the guts were fine. It's only in retrospect that my stomach jumps at the memory of the texture. Rubbery on one side, mushy on the other. And on that note, I'm off to read awhile before seeking "Christmas Dinner" at an English-style pub in nearby Omiya with a few pals. It's not exactly Christmas morning, but it's better than sitting around and reading Engels all day.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


This is not related to my life in Japan. This is about my frustrations with humanity and the country I am from (which, in a way I suppose, ties in to my experience in Japan as an American abroad).

This economic bailout thing is totally destroying my faith in humanity. I'm totally baffled about the whole thing. How can a "conservative" government start two wars, put the country billions of dollars into debt and recommend a 700 billion dollar SOCIALIST (I'd like to add that I don't think there's anything wrong with socialism, in the abstract. I'm against socialist help for corporations, but complete for socialist plans to help the lower classes) bailout plan for private loan companies? And people call Obama a socialist. Jesus Christ, look at where the money is going. They had 8 years to build a fascist state, but luckily the were just plain incompetent, otherwise we'd be worse off. Still, it bothers me to think that by finger pointing and name-calling, Americans can be deceived so easily into thinking that Obama poses some kind of Socialist threat because he wants to "spread the wealth around," while Bush is giving 700 billions dollars to the owners of productive capital to ensure that they stay on top of the dogheap. It's socialism in the worst way! Not only are we expected to morgage our homes and take student loans from these people to pay for the rising cost of living, but they're getting even MORE out of us through our tax money because of these bailouts.
Which effectively means that not only do I owe Sallie Mae 30,000 dollars, but I'm paying something like an extra 4,000 dollars to make sure that they stay in business so that I stay in debt. ...What kind of fucked-up sense does that make? Seriously?

The worst thing isn't the debt; it isn't the misdirection of the American people. The worst thing is that our tax dollars are so easily mobilized for private handouts to giant corporations. The worst thing is that all the funding to stop AIDs, genocide, rape, starvation, homelessness, etc. is not even a drop in the bucket compared to the money they're throwing at private corporations, headed by millionaires. So, I'm ashamed to be part of the race that kills for possessions, and I'm ashamed that we (or at least our tax dollars) can be so easily mobilized in defense of global capitalism (despite it's cost in human life, and repression of human rights in America and elsewhere including healthcare and education), but we can't stand up and declare that every human being deserves humane treatment. Rather, we're up in arms to throw all the taxes we haven't even collected yet at this economic problem.
Rather than spend this money to build the infrastructure in America, that would create American jobs, to increase the standard of living, we're giving it to people so they can build more Escalades, and continue collecting our debt-money. The worst thing is that we're being taxed, and the economy is doing so poorly that we won't be able to buy the Escalades we're giving them money to build a year down the road, either. Hell, even if we can afford them, we can't afford the poison they put in the enviornment.
I'm just incredibly outraged. I can't believe how disappointed I am, really. The human race is capable of great things, but most of our work and hard earned money is being spent to make sure that the great goal of mutual humanity and prosperity and cooperation will never be reached. What is it about us that makes us so opposed to helping other people?
If "Democracy" means starting a war for no reason, spending billions in the war effort,and giving an additional and almost inimaginable amount in billions of dollars to failing private corporations, then Democracy sucks. If "Socialism" means that we make every effort to take care of the poor and disenfranchised and grant them their human rights, look for international cooperation in our efforts against Global Warming and Genocide, and ensure a quality education for our children so that they can participate in the future of the world, then I don't see what the problem is.
Anyone can wrap themselves in a flag. One in a million can uphold the values that make that flag anything more than a empty symbol. ...And frankly, those odds suck.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A certain future makes an less certain man

I was part of the meeting today. It was not was I was hoping for to say the least.

Nigel and I walked into a room with one teacher from every school, and our supervisor, codename: Moneychild (it's a reference to the kanji in his name, not just a random moniker). The Jr. High teacher that was supposed to assist with translation couldn't make it today, so it was down to Nigel and my own abilities of comprehension...not, that the teachers made it easy on us. They wouldn't pause to give Nigel time to translate, and were talking fast, of course.
In short, the understood my complaints and wished me luck on my month-long journeys into Hell. I'm surprised the new textbook they handed me wasn't branded with a large "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here," or that that phrase didn't feature prominently on the new schedule or something. The teachers paid quick lipservice to the complaints that had been communicated to them through the aforementioned absent teacher previously, so there was no need for my explaning them again.
The new textbook, well that's worth a barrelfull of laughs, actually. The textbook that I use now is in Japanese (for the benefit of the teachers, despite the fact that I handle ALL the planning at 3 of 5 schools). At least it has pictures.
That's right. The new textbook, the textbook that I have no teaching materials for, is 90 percent Japanese. Complicated kanji, no pictures, Japanese.
And by waiting so long to give me this information, I can't even begin to have someone translate the chapters for me, and next Wednesday is my last day until I begin teaching at the Elementary school, after my girlfriend heads home.
They still want me to plan everything. New. For every lesson. In Japanese. While teaching the legal maximum of classes every day. After riding my bicycle up a small mountain. Five days a week.

Everyone who knows me back home knows how extremely lucky I am. I'm extremely fortunate because I have never encountered a problem or issue that I couldn't surmount alone, with a bit of elbow grease and the good ol' college try. I've never accepted something as outside of my ability to change it. And, this of all things is making me wrestle with this issue. ...And I put myself through college almost entirely alone ... in America!
It's a strange paradox for me. If I sacrifice my time off and work my ass off to study japanese enough to read the book, stay after work to make new materials, go into work early up a mountain in winter (I sound like my grandfather!), I'll be a good teacher; my ultimate goal. BUT, the downside is that my employers won't even appreciate it. They'll just come to expect it from me and everyone else that works here. So, by succeeding to myself and my students, I encourage the irrational treatment that will likely ruin my life for a whole month.
If, on the other hand, I only work during work hours, expect teachers to help me with translation, explanation and materials production (which they certainly won't), and basically try to shrug off the anxiety, I will fail my students. Employers be damned, these kids want to learn and I can teach them! But, if I teach them, my employers will all chuckle and know that they can work me this hard as long as they like, and expect me to carry on this way until I leave.

So, the best thing that could happen for me is illustrating how stupid and untenable this plan is, though I do so only at the expense of the kid's education.

On the plus side, this is a "Trial Run," to last only two months; one month I'm at elementary, and the next, it's Nigel. So, it's not like their education would be "ruined," just postponed. After two months, we'll have another meeting. If I can clearly prove that the plan is not succeeding, and is fact making me a much less effective teacher, they'll be more willing to cooperate.
I suppose I shouldn't feel so torn about it, but I do. I don't give a damn about the people I work for; in fact, they've proven themselves to be a bunch of stupid assholes. But, I can't look the kids in the eye and not try my best. I'll have to think it over over vacation.

Goddamn it, you guys. Goddamn it.

Monday, December 15, 2008

An uncertain future makes an uncertain man

Well, it's not all that dramatic. The meeting is tomorrow. That's right; the meeting. After two months or so of fretting and worrying, tomorrow decides (as Virgil may render it, "The Meeting Decides All"...or that's the hope, in some dreamlike democratic Japanese school system protocol) what next year will hold for me, as early as Jan. 15th.
Now that it's gotten to this point, I find that most of my frustration and anger are gone - squandered in waiting and blog-bitching. So it goes. With a level head, I can represent my worries and hope that they take all things into consideration. I'm still quite mad at the way in which I've found out about the whole deal, though, as well as the great reluctance to inform either Nigel or I about the plan. Demo shoganai ne?

I have a long list of things I want to say here about my weekend; I should be heading to bed, getting all the beauty rest I need for tomorrow.
...And yet I remain.
I spent Saturday night in Kabukichou with Josh - one my oldest and best friends. We've known each other since college, and he cracks me up harder than anyone else. Kabukichou is a notorious district of Tokyo. It's full of prostitutes and no-good yakuza and other undesirables. ...It's also full of vintage arcades. That's right. Awesome arcades. When I moved to Japan, I was actually quite upset at the lack of state-of-the-art arcades here. They have arcades, sure...but they suck. It's mostly like, 70 percent UFO/claw machines full of either Dragonball Z or Hello Kitty peraphernalia (depending on gender of the crane operator). Needless to say, I was more than a bit disappointed. I thought this place thrived on stuff. Well...myth busted, much to my dismay.
Anyway, Josh and I went to this arcade and I almost got the highscore on a 1943 machine! And this is an otaku arcade! People go here to practice and to break world records and stuff. I was pretty proud of myself. I might even go back and try to break that record.
It was a really crazy night, in quite a few ways. After the arcade, we went to a nearby pub-style bar, and met some cool Japanese people. Unfortunately, one of them got so drunk, he was thrown out of the bar. On his way out of the bar, he decided to put his hand through a plate glass window of a nearby karaoke bar. Needless to say, the police picked up our new friend and whisked him away to whatever the Japanese equivalent of a drunk tank is (I bet it's a drunk tank!).
Well, somewhere walking around Kabukichou, my keys fell out of my pocket. So, Sunday morning, when I got back from Tokyo, in the cold winter rain, I discovered I was locked out. So, I had to contact my boss and see about getting the spare from the town office. Only...there wasn't a spare! So, I hung out with my boss on a Sunday from 9.45-12.00 trying to get a locksmith to let me in to my apartment. I was drunk AND hungover at the same time, and I know that I looked/smelled that way. Needless to say, I'm a bit embarassed over the whole ordeal...and my wallet's about 150 dollars lighter for having met a locksmith. I'm trying to not let the whole thing weigh me down. Money's for spending, and I like to spend it in better ways than repairing the effects of my stupidity. ...But, then again, sleeping soundly in my warm bed at will is worth a whole lot more than 150 dollars.

Anyway, I'm off to bed. Wish me luck on the meeting. I just may need it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cultural Relativism

I realize I've just updated moments ago. Already I feel poorly about the update; far too whiny to be any good, to just about anyone but me. I'll actually apply a little intellect and discuss a topic I've encountered while in Japan.

I have heard it said many times, by many different JETs teaching in Japan for a handful of years, that the "smart people in Japan speak English," or something to the same effect - the point being that English ability is a necessity to have a broad world outlook, or understanding.
The statement is, of course, ridiculous. I fear that it's linguistic (to follow the political) hegemony, especially as much of Japanese culture is immersed in English. It's on the products I buy, with decent translations. It's on the clothes I see, with horrible translations. It's on the television, it's in the movies (though they are subtitled in Japanese). Post-war Japanese culture is immersed in English. Students are forcefed it from elementary school as a required subject, and foreigners are shipped in by the thousand to aid in this endeavor (hey, ma, look at me! I'm employed to vindicate cultural empire overseas!).
I think statements like that assume the cultural and linguistic supremacy of English-speaking countries, which is more than a bit offensive, however. By virtue of our creating a bomb and blowing up civilian targets, we gain the ability to turn our nose up at those poor creatures who cannot understand English?

It is true, however, that foreign language acquisition does amazing things for a person's understanding of the world. It offers them an outside outlook on their own cultural habits, as well as offers them a window on the cultural habits of foreigners. In learning how a foreign language operates, we better understand the mechanics of our own language, with obvious merits for literacy and eloquence.
It is true as well that English is the most widely studied foreign language in Japan. Therefore, by a slight stretch of the imagination, and a willingness to forgive the poor turn-of-phrase, I can see the point of the English speakers; as a rule, people who are forced to examine their language and culture are sharper than those who aren't. After all, how many bilingual Republicans are there (Ohhhh, diss!).
...No, seriously. Think about it.

Though the culture is already immersed in English, and it's taught from gradeschool, the level of English IS low where I live. Which is okay with me. How much algebra do you remember from elementary school through high school? How much chemistry? After all, this area is a lot closer to Tokyo than it is to New York. It makes sense that people speak the national language, and not cater to the few thousand English teachers here every year.

I guess I got worked up about this because of its implications. Only English speakers are smart, only people who understand foreign customs are smart, only people who can have a laugh over Japanese customs are smart, only people who would rather be white are smart, etc. I hate the slippery slope argument. That's not exactly my point. It's just...that we can't force these people into our preferred shape. Cultural relativism is important. It's absolutely vital to foster cultural understanding - both ways - rather than ridicule those who don't already understand my way of thinking and speaking.

*deep breath* Thank you.

A little personal...

I'm getting depressed. The last few days, things have just been hanging heavy on me. Of course, I'm quite schizophrenic when it comes to these things, and it seems like I'm always slingshotting back and forth between joy and despair. In some ways, it's the natural progression of the winter, and it's effect on my outlook. In other ways, it's the feelings of isolation I sometimes can't get rid of.
I'm guessing that it's the meeting next week, about my job in the Spring, that's weighing me down extra. I'm gonna be clear and honest, and get through it. It won't be so bad, I'm sure. But...just knowing that on the other side of my girlfriend's visit and my winter vacation (which I am really pumped and grateful for, don't get me wrong!) is the hellish workweek of elementary school every day ... kind of ruins my day. Also, and this is probably indicative of the type of person I am (and whatever deep emotional flaw I have) that I'm already upset that my girlfriend's leaving, and she hasn't even gotten here yet. But, I should just take some deep breaths and take it one day at a time. I'm liable to lose my mind (in this, or any other endeavor) if I don't.

It's just a combination of a lot of things. Everyone who knows me knows how much I rely on my friends and family, as well as a flexible and understanding worklife. Being in absentia of all those things is just something I need to quit thinking about and start living through.
This was surprisingly cathartic. Thanks for the outlet.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


Just a kernel of interest, that had me laughing to myself earlier. The first few days I was here, and I couldn't do anything on my own, speak any Japanese, etc. and I didn't have the internet or anyone's phone number or anything, and I was supremely unhappy, for various reasons, with no outlet. I will always remember this moment and the concurrent emotion distinctly. I was searching the apartment for something I could watch/listen to/read in English, and the only two movies in the entire house were Encino Man and Major Payne. So, I made spaghetti, and eagerly watched every minute of Major Payne. Twice. I seem to have lost that desperation in the ensuing months. ...Then again, that is probably a good thing.

I'll keep it short and sweet.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Lagoon

Have you ever seen a badly translated Japanese T-shirt? Something like "Everyday can be refreshed. Believe in hope" or "Just this one chance. Dragons." Well, in Japan, they're everywhere. Despite a culture that is totally mired in English logos and words, the average Japanese person probably can't understand an English T-shirt (from my own personal experience, in my area of Japan. I don't like to make generalizations). Or, if they can understand them, the company that writes and presses them has no ability to write coherently. And really, who writes them? I've seen shirts with up-to-date slang, though totally misused. How can Japanese companies be so clued in, and so clueless? This is my story...

The friends that I've made in the nearby town of Higashimatsuyama all hang out at a bar, that I frequent once every one or two weeks. Lately, I've been hanging out with many of the Japanese locals there, when the other English teachers aren't around. They're all really great people, fixed-gear bicycle enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. There's a bar owner, a norwegian furniture importer and salesman (as well as his staff) and they collectively own a T-shirt company. Can you guess where this is going?
One night, after a few too many drinks, I was giving bad English lessons in exchange for some Japanese tutoring. I taught my friend a "scale of cool" with Awesome, Sweet, Cool, Sucks, Shitty, etc. all on the list. Seperately, because they are all bike enthusiasts, I taught them the phrase "to eat shit," meaning to fall off your bike and hurt yourself. Well, I guess they had a few too many drinks, or I wasn't so good at explaning. In any case, I come back three weeks later, and another friend of mine is wearing a shirt that says "Religion, Eat Shit" with a star of David in mid star-swipe across his chest.

I'll give you a moment to think about this.

Finished? Okay ... so, I immediately complement him on his shirt. Honestly, it does look awesome. So, I ask him what it means, and he launches into a pretty bizarre explanation about how all religions are the same, and help people and they need to recognize their common beliefs and such. Then he mentions something about how Japan was founded by Jews...but, I chose not to probe that comment too far. In any case, I told him what it really means, but I'm not sure that he fully understood. there's a couple crates of these shirts around.

Where do these shirts come from? I'm not sure if I should be pleased or disappointed in myself, but I can say with the utmost certainty that they (sometimes) come from me. I am prepared to take my spot in the Japanese history books.