Saturday, January 31, 2009

About Last Night...

One of my best friends, Josh, came over to my neck of the woods last night. He left bustling Tokyo for a night in the middle of the inaka, just past the miles of rice fields. It was a way good call.

My life is so much more enjoyable after his visit that it's even a little difficult to express. I mean, I love going into Tokyo and going to weird bars and strange clubs and things; it's all well and good and fun. But, somewhere inside of me is a 12-year-old boy who really enjoys the prospect of a sleepover. We played Nintendo games, argued about Nietzsche, argued about fashion (and the reason I refuse to enjoy or participate in it), and then to top it all off, we drunkdialed and pranked places all over America. Some of our friends, some of our nemeses, former workplaces and I even called Noam Chomsky's office! His secretary said she was shocked that I thought I could just call and get a direct line without an appointment. I suppose, in sober-mind, it was a bit much to ask or expect.

But, then I woke up at 5 pm. And my stomach hurts. And, though I was planning on going out with Josh to Tokyo tonight, I called it off, because I can't do much besides watching tv or reading today. But, oh, what a night!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Barack, Paper, Scissors...

I'm pretty exhausted. Things at the elementary schools (shougakkou) are going very well, all things considered. I'm building a rapport with teachers and students, and though it's fallen off a bit lately, the teachers are more or less involved in preparation and navigating the class through the day. It's not the horrific nightmare I imagined before...but, it IS extremely demanding. My back hurts, my feet hurt, I spend most the day yelling over kids so my throat is sore, and I feel genuinely run-down.

I guess what I'm trying to say, as well is that...well, I'm failing myself, in a strange way. In a previous blog, I swore that I would put in the minimal effort at these schools as a kind of boycott to keep myself sane and illustrate a clear break between my job and my life, and so that, when we have the upcoming meeting in April to talk about this plan's success or failure, I would be able to cite evidence (besides my aching body, and diminishing spirit) as to why the plan simply asks too much.
And instead, despite my plan to care less about my job and let myself fall short as a teacher for these kids, I'm working harder than ever. I'm giving them more evidence as to why I should spend the rest of my time here working this hard at the shougakkou. I swore I wouldn't care, and instead I'm putting more energy into every class and every day. And all because I can't look kids in the eye and not try my hardest. ...Damned kids, anyway...

So, there you go, Japan. You're getting one year of 100 percent, I guess.
I am very happy that I decided to only remain for one year, because they'd come to expect this level of exertion all year next year - and I really don't think I could stand it.

All that said, there are a few anecdotes from today worth retelling:

-While telling students to copy my gestures and tone of voice while saying "I'm hungry, sad, happy," etc. I said "Woo! Yay!" after happy. The students copied so well that I made a little song out of their contributions. I broke into beatbox, and in between beatboxing went very oldschool by saying "When I say 'Woo!' you say 'Yay!' Woo! *Yay!* Woo! *Yay!*" The students complied enthusiastically, and I was happy to make a little music with them.

-An activity we did today, called the "Key Word Game," required some call and response. When I shout a word, the students shout it back and clap twice. Out of boredom and perhaps a bit of frustration, I just started saying "Jake's Great!" as a way to make myself laugh at my situation. I'm a little ashamed when I tell you that I became a little drunk with power, and perhaps was a little carried away. I made them continually chant "Jake's Great! Jake's Great!" for about thirty seconds . . . before it was earnestly taken up independent of my goading. I had a brief moment of Kurtz' madness, as detailed in the Heart of Darkness, and wondered about the possibility becoming a like God to these tiny devotees, sitting atop a throne while leading them in chant as they build me a great temple as well as beating them at basketball without really trying. I shook the dream from my clouded mind and returned to the menial chore of teaching.

-Lastly, this is something I should've written about a long time ago. "Rock, Paper, Scissors" is incredibly popular in Japan; among children, adolescents and adults. Here, they call it "janken". The chant goes "Saishou gu, janken pon!"

[There have been many jokes made by foreigners about the cultural relevence of the janken. It solves all manner of social issues, such as squabbling over a parking space, or an extra hamburger patty (as evidenced by my previous adventures), etc. There are some gaijin among us who go so far as to postulate that the Japanese government bases most of their decisions on the will of the janken . . . which, while ridiculous, would explain why this country has gone through 4 or 5 prime ministers in as many years. You can't throw a brick in Japan without hitting a resigning politician. ...God, if only it were that easy in America. We couldn't have been any clearer to Bush, really . . . Annnnyway, I digress, but only slightly.]

Today, I saw children janken-ing, and they asked me to join them. Instead of the chant of "Saishou gu, janken pon!" I adlibbed "Saishou-bama, Yes-We-Can!" which was immediately mimicked by the students. The rest of the day, I heard laughter in between the new call.
...I sincerely hope it gets taken up, if only for a while. I could call it "Barack, Paper Scissors"!

Here's hoping that the Obama presidency is guided by higher principles than Rock, Paper, Scissors. On the other hand, I think the Bush presidency could've benefitted from a higher success rate of it's policies if they would've adopted such about 33%?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A moment of private reflection

The other day, when I wasn't working my ass off in one of the 6 elementary schools I work at daily (that every day more closely resemble death camps...only kidding), I poked around on Wikipedia, as is my usual wont. I swear, if I would've known about Wikipedia 5 years ago, I never would've gone to college. Why bother when you have an absolutely bottomless, free hypertext website to continue your own private study? I honestly think Wikipedia is one of the greatest inventions of all time; free information that is democratic in all the best ways. Each link leads to new ideas, every complex term links to an explanation, and lists several sources either online or off to further your research. Let alone the fact that it is, within reason, reader-controlled content. People like to rag on Wikipedia for relaxed fact-checking, but I think it's very heavily patrolled for factual accuracy, on the topics that matter; because the topics matter to the specialists and researchers posting about them. Of course, stoned slackers will always mess around with the internet, but even so, Wikipedia rectifies their mistakes in less time than it takes me to talk about it, for the most part.

Aaaaanyway, while I was clicking around about arabic and linguistics, I discovered a term I was unfamiliar with - "calque". I'm sure you'll click the link, but the overview is that calques are not loanwords, but rather direct translations of words/phrases/compounds from other languages. Pretty neat, really.

But, one thing totally stopped me in my tracks.

"English Milky Way calques Latin via lactea, which is itself derived from the Greek root galaxias [γαλαξίας], meaning "milky."

This seems so self-evident, I wonder why I hadn't wondered about it before. A couple of smart Greeks used to lay around and look at the stars, and before all the light-pollution, they could see out into space. Sure, they thought a lot of what they saw out there were constellated divinities, but when they saw the Milky Way, they used a rough, down-home adjective to describe this undescribable hugeness. They couldn't possibly understand what they were staring at, and they called it milky because it gently radiated light from a vast area, not just a few points.

We still use the Greek-derived root. Lactose intolerant (after it's modification into Latin), Lactation, etc.

But, this has mind-blowing implications for me. The same substance lovingly issued from the breasts of mamalian mothers, such a free, organic life-giving substance shares the same origin as all galaxies, everything far away beyond our horizons. To have such a domestic term labelled on all inconceivable expanses of stars and planets is very humbling and simultaneously aggrandizing experience.

Also, it means that, by a manner of tweaking, Galactus' (of Marvel's
Fantastic Four fame) name essentially means something like "Milk," as it's the normal Greek root taking the latin nominal -us case ending. I suppose it's closer to lactus or lactae in the latin, and "Galactus" probably has no meaning. ...But, still. Such a huge presence, one of the few major forces of the Universe, the devourer of planets, essentially shares a communal moniker with the issue from a tit. What a blow to his pride.

Lastly, it makes me think about every deep, philosophical conversation that has ever transpired in English about the nature of the universe. Essentially, every "Galaxy," seen or unseen, is just another blot of milk to the human eye, and all the high-minded rhetoric boils down, as it inevitably does, to common human issues (no pun intended), and sexual body parts.

Just a few thoughts. Did you come across any while reading? Post!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Happy Obama Day!

Though I won't be awake while Obama is being inaugurated, or for most of the time that he's up and about presidenting around, rest assured that I've been totally pumped about it today.

Except when I was riding my bike all over a mountain, trying to find the school I was posted at today. You see, every other time I had gone, I had gotten a ride, as well as day-long teaching help, from my good friend S-Lan (L-San's arch-nemesis/polar opposite). Today, however, because of the new schedule, I was all alone, and guess what? When you're pedaling a bike the side of a mountain, and panting out of breath, things look a little different I guess. I rode over the damned mountain. I started coming down the other side, and turned around, began to head down again, before I just rode to another school to ask for directions.

And, happily I didn't have a first period class! So, I wasn't technically late. Well...not really. But, because I was riding on a 10 percent grade one way or another for an hour and fifteen minutes, I got in just in time for 2nd period to start. Lucky me.

There was nice part. At the top of the mountain, though it was a cloudy morning, I could see the snowy cap of Mt. Fuji silhouetted on the horizon. I can't really describe how it felt.
I took a picture with my cellphone, but of course it can't capture the photo really, can't capture the sweat and out-of-breath wonder at the place I find myself in those brief gaps when I realize how truly far away from home I am, and what a lucky man I am to see the things I've seen.

Then in school, I just relaxed and took it easy.

Highlight of the day? In one of the classes, we had to make two teams. Without consulting anyone, I went ahead and named them "TEAM ZOMBIE" and "TEAM DRACULA"
...And guess what? TEAM DRACULA won by two points. Booyakasha!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Damned gaijin...

Hey, I just saw this, and it pissed me off pretty bad. Tourists can be such assholes in Japan, for real. I mean, it sounds really dumb for me to complain about it, because I'm little better than a tourist. Hey, it's fun to get drunk and see new things, but Christ, try to control your crazy western selves and appreciate culture - don't outright mock it/ruin it for us...jeez.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Pulling it together, sucking it up...

Decidedly, we've had enough content about sadness and bummers. It's time to discuss some of the funnier aspects of elementary school education in Japan.

Day three went well enough, surprisingly. I was even allowed to leave early! Granted, they wanted me to leave so I wouldn't disrupt the teacher's meeting (at first I was a little upset that I wasn't considered a "teacher," but then I remembered that I couldn't follow 1/4 of the conversation in Japanese, and getting out early is it's own reward). Some of the students were classically causing trouble: shouting "Eigo wakaranai!" (I don't understand English!) in a funny voice rather than participating in class, getting mocked with nonsense words in a condescending voice (by a loud 9 year old, for Christ's sake!), etc.

One of the worst things about the elementary experience in general, however, HAS to be the lunch period. It's almost uniformly horrible. I'm given the same portions as the students, some of whom are 1/3-1/2 my size...the younger ones probably even smaller. And if I want anything more, I have to compete with the students! What's up with that? I'm on the same wrung of the foodchain as students?

(sidenote: lunch in Japan is WAY different than lunch in America. There are no lunchrooms or lunchladies. Lunch is prepared somewhere offsite, then delivered to school, where it is dished out by the students to themselves, in their classroom. All in all, I think it's a marvelous system, as it teaches children about food preparation and social responsability [if some kid is misbehaving, or slacking in his duties, everyone has to wait to eat] and it saves money because no lunchroom/lunchstaff are needed. Anyway...)

When lunch started, many students got up to get more soup, and I got in line. But so many students cut in front of me, that there was nothing left when I got there. So, I grabbed my plate and headed to the entree, some kind of terriyaki hamburger patty, and took an extra one - to be met with the horrified faces of all of the students. I was told that it was explicitly "Dame!" which means "taboo" or "unacceptable," for me to take the patty without playing ROCK PAPER SCISSORS against other students for it. Pfft. Whatevs, dude. I ate it, and it tasted fine, and I ain't never playing for my food. Not while portions are what they are.

Meanwhile, after the social humiliation (can you even be socially humiliated in front of a bunch of foreign children? I can't understand most of what they're saying about me, and they're possibly the farthest social group from my "peers," that I don't think I can get any more humiliated in front of them than I could a pile of rocks), the child next to me was pulling out the hairs on my wrist to show off to his friends. "Gross!" they'd say and laugh. Well, that shit hurts, dude. I started pinching him back until he looked like I really hurt him, but he quit.
I wish I could say something cool about dissuading a child using the threat of violence...but nothing's coming to me. Maybe..."Damn, it feels good to be a gangster"? ...Dunno.

Anyway, after getting out of school early, I made coffee in my new gift of a French Press/To-Go Thermos, took it outside to the dog park near my apartment, and sat in the fading sunlight while I read. The Brothers Karamazov. I don't know why I would try to try to enjoy the sunshine and be happy while reading Russian literature. ...It's so self-defeatist!

Tomorrow marks the halfway mark of the my "tour of duty," as well as Barack Obama's Inaguration speech. Coincidence? Doubt it. Bring on the change, in all ways.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A few days on...

Sorry about the sad post. In a vacuum without friends or family around me, I'll be prone to emotionally venting on my blog. So, thanks for reading, sorry for bumming you out.

I'm two days into the marathon-style elementary school schedule. But, two days in a row is nothing compared to the next three weeks, of five-days-straight Japanese kids and lessons. Riding my bike up a long, steep hill on my way to two of the four schools, wasn't impossible, as previously assumed...but, it wasn't exactly a pleasure cruise, either.
On the plus side, the teachers have apparently actually researched the lessons. So, it comes to pass that my greatest fears about the new plan have been assuaged. ...At least for the first day, at 2 of the 4 schools I'm supposed to go to.

Honestly, after the emotional body-check I got last week, I'm just happy to get out of the house, on occasion. It's not a cakewalk, but it isn't far. By the middle of next week, I may feel differently, but right now, it seems manageable.

I've had hard classes, and I've had great classes. It all depends on the mood of the students, and how active the teacher is being. Strangely, the worst class I've had so far was when I was teaching a lesson from the old books, when the teacher just left class at the beginning. She came back after around 10 minutes, but the class was unruly and unwilling to focus on the task at hand.

Explaining to teachers that since the textbook is all in Japanese, I don't understand the activities is still pretty funny to me. I'm glad I can approach it like that, and not twist my stomach up in knots about how to conduct class, as each school wants to emphasize different aspects of different chapters. I know I'll have some rough days, but my basic approach is to give a laugh and try to appreciate the humorous nature of my position - and not focus on the bad transit and exhausted state of my body at the end of each day.

As much as there are great things to enjoy about Japan, I can't kill the yearning I have for home. This is the longest I've been away from my parents' house, and certainly away from all my friends all over. Gah. I know I've written this all time and time again, and really I need to refocus the blog and write about new things I've doing/experience. It's just hard when you hit a bit of a snag like this; I don't think my desire to come home, though I am balancing it with my desire to stay in Japan, will decrease in the next six months. If anything, it'll just keep rising and rising until that wish is satisfied.

I'm confident that I can reacclimate myself to the isolated position I've chosen to put myself into .

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The sound of silence...

I feel like my heart is broken. And I can't help but wonder how that can be. I just finished spending two and a half weeks of vacation with someone very close to me, traveling and living it up as best as we could. It was like a dream to see someone you remember from your "old life," that faint outline of who you used to be and what you used to do, step off the plane and ride home with you, and remind you that the world around you really is vastly different from the world you used to be a part of. And now that dream is gone from me.
I know this sounds really melodramatic. That's part of the problem. For two and a half weeks, my house was full of laughter, and conversation and playful teasing. I could just vent or let loose on a silly tangent, and it was met by a caring friend and lover and responded to. I didn't have to let it build until this point; I had a pressure valve, in the form of a lover.
Such therapy worked better than expected on my lonesome moods, and for two and a half weeks, my experience in Japan crested. Things were infinitely better with partnership and conversation. About a million times better. Cooking wasn't depressing (we were cooking together, for each other!), neither was transit (we always had each other, and we could talk and tickle to our heart's content!), and the house never wanted for warmth.

It hit me after saying goodbye at the airport. We talked and held each other through the three-hour trip to the airport. I welled up at the coffeeshop, as we started to sift through our goodbyes. We hugged and then, like a gunshot, I returned to the lonely world that I'd been in every other moment I'd spent in Japan. After two and a half weeks of half-thought out comments and caresses, it stopped all at once.

And I rode home for three hours without saying a word to anyone. I was moving through and with thousands of commuters all on their separate agendas around Tokyo and beyond, and I was totally alone.

It's painful to feel that way. I often feel the most alone when I'm surrounded by people, but this was totally different. It was one of the most depressing moments in my whole life.

And tomorrow, I wake up early and begin the elementary-intensive plan that has been worked up for me. I know I'm overreacting, and in three weeks, I may see this entry and laugh it all off; but right now, I've received those parts of me that I thought I'd left back home. And I have to go through the pain of learning how to be lonesome again. I want to talk to her just as much; even more, really.

But, when I walked into my door, I was greeted only by the cold silence of my house. The things we ate from this morning are still dirty in the sink, our towels hanging wet in the hall. For now, I really can't bear to move anything around, because if I clean up, I can't pretend that she's just in the other room, and that I don't really have to return to this daily silence.
I can't do that tonight. I might take a few days.

I'm sorry if this sounds really depressing. I know I'm really fine, but I'm just having a bit of a hard time right now. I'll be fine. Like always, it just takes time.

Friday, January 2, 2009

I guess it's a vacation

Sorry about the lack of posts. I'm staying really busy. (...With my vacation. Irony much?)

So busy, in fact, that any kind of serious post is postponed (postpwned!) until I get back into routine.