Thursday, April 30, 2009

Happy (Vietnamese) Independence Day.

It's April 30th, the day the Americans pulled out of communist Vietnam. It's a strange day to be in Vietnam, but we're still in Hoi An, the strange little resort town that doesn't seem much like the Vietnam you'd imagine. It's almost like...I don't know, what I'd expect the south of France to feel like, only with more tourists. We're taking a round-the-clock "sleeper bus. Our last experience with a sleeper bus was a trip, with the soundtrack provided by some strange Cambodian pop show on VHS. The speaker was literally 3 inches from my head, blaring what sounded like a cat mewling amplified, backed by a litany of pots and pans being thrown down the stairs. Also, there were a shitton of foreign tourists who had met in Hanoi and formed a clique of 16, who were incredibly noisy. Also, the "sleeper bus" driver insisted on honking at everything on the road - all night. 2 am? No problem. 3am? You got it, dude.
The only respite during the bus trip was Mr. Bean on tape. Two episodes on VHS. I have never been happier in all my life to see Mr. Bean.
And that bus was only 14 hours. The next will be 24, with a two hour stop in Nha Trang.

But, I'm holding my head high, trying to keep a smile on my face and enjoy it all while I can. Though, I'm feeling a bit strange today - bumped into an Aussie birthday group last night (with one sour Winnipegger) at a trendy bar, the Before and Now. Stayed out a bit later than I should and woke up at 7.30 to get onto a tour bus for the local ruins of My Son.

We've definitely been living large in Hoi An, and the truth is, I almost want to just put my feet up and drink fruity drinks. It's a bizarre realization for me. I get anxious about carrying my baggage through foreign cities, or worry about making a bus connection, or what have you. Really, I'd just like to take it in one chill day at a time. The initial plan was adventure, and we're having plenty of it, but after a taste of the sweet life, a 24 hour ride into the sweaty, and from all accounts anticlimactic Ho Chi Minh City seems like a tiny bit of a chore.

Christ, I just need to drink a little more coffee and enjoy myself, huh? Until next time.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An.

We're almost halfway through Vietnam. I wish I had time to relate everything to you or a journal before I forget everything. We took a local bus yesterday, because our bus south failed to show up at all. We took a local bus south of Hue, and that was an awesome experience. We pissed on the side of the road, and people were getting on the bus with shopping bags full of homemade foods, someone brought their dog (for food or companionship, I don't know), and we had a good time. But, once we got into Danang, we had a miserable time. Our last bus had already left, so we had no choice but to rent a private car, and we were hounded by touts for a while.
Hoi Anh is a pretty cool place, but it's incredibly touristy and expensive. Incredibly. I mean, we ate at an amazingly high class restaurant (a far, far cry from the street stalls in Hanoi), for only about 10 dollars a person. Still cheap by American standards, but incredibly pricey by Vietnamese. It's basically a resort town, and the people here are used to having rich Europeans come through for vacation.

There was a pretty okay bar down the street, though, called "Before and Now." Pop art all over the wall and shit. felt like Conrad's "Burmese Days." A bunch of Europeans paying the locals crazy prices for alcohol, a closed-club for the whites. *shrug* I've always known that I was one of the upper class, comparitavely speaking. But, I've never felt it so accutely. I suppose it's disturbing that I'm not TOTALLY repulsed. Disturbing.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Good Morning, Vietnam!

Well, I didn't think I'd have the time or energy to update this thing at all, but I'm in Hanoi - I think I'm totally in love with the old district - at 7 in the morning. The companions are still sleeping in, but I wanted to go out into the rain, find a nice cafe and have some coffee and read a while. So, you understand, I don't have much time at all.

But, the trip so far has been a comedy of errors. Allow me to elaborate.

I stayed at Bryan's house because he lives near a trainline into Japan. We woke up at 5.30 (after going to bed at 2) to catch our six o'clock train. Trains in Japan are incredibly reliable, often arriving no later than thirty seconds after scheduled time (and they consider that LATE!). Anyway, our train was ONE HOUR late. This never happens in Japan, but of course, the one time a year that it does, I'm depending on it.
The trainride was excrutiating. Inhuman. It was the first time I was on a train that needed people pushers - people standing outside the train doors to physically shove everyone on. I couldn't even stand, so I just relied on my fellow passengers for support. For over an hour. I thought I would puke, pass out, cry, etc. all at the same time. We were one huge ball of humanity, and I'm pretty sure that I accidentally penetrated 2 or 3 people. I definitely had like, 18 weiners touching me throughout the ride. Including Bryan's. Uncomfortable.
When we arrived at the airport, we were rushed through security and led directly onto the plane. I was actually running football-style, with one piece of luggage tucked under on arm, juking around obstacles and people. We made our flight with two minutes to spare.
Once we landed in Bankok (not Phuket as I had stated in the last post - sorry), we had a little time to walk around the airport. I tried to withdraw money from my Japanese account to exchange it into dollars, and guess what? It's the damndest thing. Guess what? Japanese cards only work domestically. Because we were late on the way, I couldn't get a large wad of yen, as planned. And my American account is practically wiped out, because I've just recently made a student-loans payment (my education spoils it again!). So, I have only the money that I usually carry around with me into the local currency - dong.
Yeah. I'm going to write a whole paragraph about dong. It's awesome. I have many thousands of dongs in my pants right now. I've been holding dongs, counting dongs and giving my dongs to strangers, in exchange for goods and services.
Anyway, I have enough dong to ... maybe make it to Saigon? But, it's a far cry from the living-large trip I had planned in my mind.

But, Hanoi is really wonderful. It's raining cats and dogs right now, but I need to duck out and find an indoor cafe somewhere. The old quarter is all the old french archetecture (that wasn't destroyed in the wars), a million mopeds and a lot of friendly people. My first day in Vietnam, despite whatever setbacks we had, had been a wonderful one. And now, for round two.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I'm off.

In 24 hours, I'll be boarding an airplane bound for Phuket and routed from there to Hanoi. We're taking the exact opposite approach of the American military, starting in the communist stronghold of Hanoi and working our way south, toward Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). I'm oscilllating between excitement and nervousness, possibly because this is my first real adventure-trip. I mean, coming to Japan was an adventure and a trip, but in a lot of ways, it's not so different from home. I suspect Vietnam will have more in common with America than, say, the surface of the moon, but I'm still expecting more of an adventure than spending a few days in Tokyo. You know what I mean?

Last night, I went to a nearby city to purchase travel insurance. Travel insurance. I don't know why that phrase sounds so strange to my ears. I suppose I never really thought seriously about travelling, and I've never really had much insurance experience. Anyway, the staff was nice enough. My Japanese progressed to the point that I could tell someone what I want, and ask questions ... I just couldn't understand the whole of their answers without the help of a travel dictionary. But, an English-speaking attendant came to the rescue and began to explain the forms and formalities to me.
It was a peculiar experience, discussing the coverage in morbid, broken English. There can be no euphimisms, no beating around the bush. It's all dismemberment this, and knife-wounds-from-robbery that. I had quite a chuckle on my way home.

I realize that's a poor way to leave the blog before this trip. I assure you, it's going to be an awesome time. Paying for insurance is almost certainly going to mean paying for nothing. ...That's how they get ya.

Monday, April 20, 2009

BBQ and Asamayama.

I don't feel like I can give a good update right now. I'm feeling quite stressed, planning and packing to travel to Vietnam at the end of this week. It's not all that bad, but my mind is reeling, and I can't seem to get any of the gears to stick. I'll just give a little update about my excellent weekend, in order to help explain some of the new pictures on my photobucket.
A new, young, female teacher invited Nigel and I to her parents house to have a barbecue on Saturday night. She's just graduated college, and is only one year older than I am. According to traditional Japanese standards, she's still living in her parents' house with her siblings. I think it's a little old-fashioned myself, but in a country that really puts a premium price on space, it does make a huge amount of fiscal sense.
In any case, the food was great, the people were extremely friendly, and beside having an awkward experience with a grilled shellfish (It was really gross; huge and chewy, and I thought I could handle it, until I bit into a pouch full of...shellfish bile? shellfish poop? I don't know...sick...I spit it out, much to everyone's dismay), things were really wonderful. And Nigel and I got to meet some other ALTs, and get to know our new teacher in a friendly way. I've begun to call her ____-chan, rather than _______-sensei, which is a good sign of building a friendly, social-equal relationship. I'm always a little nervous about attaching the familiar "-kun" or "-chan" to my Japanese friend's names, but I'm getting the hang of the practice, and am happy to use it correctly. For those of you not in the know, -chan is attached the to surname of female close friends (and really close male friends), while -kun is attached to social inferior males (in the workplace, etc.) as well as to young male friends, while -san is the formal "Mr." or "Mrs." that you're all familiar with.

And the next day, I was off the Gunma-ken and Nagano-ken (the home of some winter Olympics or other) with S-Lan (my friend, and polar opposite of the horrible L-San), Big Tree Lady (Her name is Japanese is basically "Big Tree" and she's really nice), and Nigel (my British arch-nemesis/comrade). I kept getting car sick, though I never barfed. Just the horrible sick-stomach feeling, rising and falling in my throat.
But, we headed to Big Tree Lady's cabin, which was modern yet tradiationally Japanese in style and size. I've grown to really enjoy Japanese archetecture, from the rural to the urban, from the mountain to the seaside. It's all different and all really interesting. It's very clean, airy and spacey on the inside (the more tatami mats, the better!), yet from the outside, it's often very stuffy and boxy-looking. I guess it's the dichotomy that interests me. And maybe it is symbolic of my experience in Japan; something can look so rigid and unaccomadating from the outside, but once inside, it's open and comfortable even if a little aesthetically different.
Well, anyway, we ate more barbecue for lunch on a porch overlooking a steep mountainside, and afterward went to a national park, where a volcano (Asamayama) had created a lava field in the 18th century. The lava-field was an incredibly surreal place, and there was, of course, a Buddhist temple at the summit of the lava-field, overlooking the surrounding valley. It was a little touristy, but I really enjoy any kind of temple and the placement seemed pretty nice.
The coolest part was that Asamayama just erupted two weeks ago! All day, I was wondering why things looked so foggy, but it was smoke and ash still being emitted from Asamayama into the valley. I took pictures!

This Friday, I'm off to Vietnam. I might have time to update once before then, but I make no promises. If not, Au Revoir. I will take photos.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Names and Places.

I was thinking the other day about how confusing Japanese names can be within an English-speaking context. It's an interesting fact that Japan's English-speaking skills are among the lowest in Asia, despite the American influence since the post-World War II era. If you look at an itemized list, Japan ranks just above Mongolia and just under every other country in Asia in terms of average English level. Despite ALTs like myself in Japan for more than 20 years, the level is still lower than other major Asian countries. And I began to wonder ... maybe it was because of the names?

Take for example a few common female names: Ai, Yuu, Mi, Mai. Ai (I), Yuu (You), Mi (Me) and Mai (My) are pretty common among the girls I'm teaching in Jr. High. In Japanese, you don't conjugate verbs for person or gender, so encountering a linguistic system that does has got to be difficult in the first place, but with these specific names, it can be near impossible to conjugate correctly, or get a sense of the English system.

For example: Mai's dog likes Yuu. Yuu is a Dr. Yuu is Mi's father. Mi likes Ai. Ai is Mai's dog.

Exactly. No wonder we have students saying "You's likes Me's shoes?" and other such nonsense.

On another note altogether, Big-Mouth-sensei is quite the character. I'm not sure that I've properly introduced him, however. Apparently, he's very wealthy, and he loves to tell everyone about it. If I ask him how his lunch was, he'll reply "IT WAS VERY CHEAP! I DIDN'T LIKE IT!" Of course, if it was expensive, it was delicious. Such is the mind of Big-Mouth-sensei.

The fact that he is constantly yelling (many theories have been bandied about; some say he is partially deaf, others claim that he enjoys the sounds of his voice so much that he thinks everyone else in shouting-range must, too) is funny enough. But, he's got a wonderful store about a former student that always leaves me in stitches.

There was a former student who used to have a fondness for other people's weiners. By a few accounts, he always managed to sneak a handful of manhood from the former ALTs or Japanese teachers. Luckily, I've mostly escaped such behavior during my tenure in and about my town, but this particular student was notorious for it. Anyway, Big-Mouth-sensei was trying to describe it to me in his peculiar way of speaking English, and could only manage to say "HE BEAT MY PENIS! HE ... WOULD ... BEAT IT!" at a volume that all in the teacher's room could hear. And, while the average level of English is fairly low, there were a few English teachers around. In addition, the word "penis" has been transliterated into Japanese, and everyone is aware of what it means. Granted, Big-Mouth-sensei meant to say that this student was a little rough with the equipment in his perverted attempts, but sometimes, rather than something being lost in the translation, sometimes a little something can get picked up; it often makes for a good laugh.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Young Americans in Saigon, Old Souls in Shinjuku.

In less than one month, Japan will be celebrating Golden Week - a string of national holidays through a week, not counting weekends. Something like, Tuesday, Wednesday Friday off one week, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday off the next. So, with some crafty use of personal days, one can score a long trip without much hassle from one's workplace.

I have an announcement to make. I am going to Vietnam during Golden Week. It's something that I've always wanted to do since I've been aware of the American war there. It's not the war that motivates my trip - though it will be rather interesting for me to go there, since some of my family served during the war - it's something else. The strange blend of South-East Asian culture and French influence, the communism, the long strip of land united by a N-S railway.

There's something specifically about it's linear N-S orientation to piques my interest; the trip is so clear to me. Into Hanoi, train to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), cross into Cambodia, and fly back to Japan from Phnom Penh. It's a vacation and an adventure and a linear narrative all at the same time. I'm very excited, and I will take lots of pictures, which I will post after I return in early May. That said, there will be a probable hiatus during my trip, as internet may be hard to find. Even if we find it, I may eschew it. I need a break from the internet as much as I do from my day-to-day life, if the two can be separated. I'm going with some good friends, and it should be an excellent time. My goals are flexible and my mind is open; I'm very excited.

Now, onto something completely unrelated. If you know much about Tokyo, or Japan in general, the name Shinjuku probably means something to you. Yes? No? Well, click to refresh your memory, anyway. It is the busiest train station in the entire world, serving 3.64 million people in a single day. Every day. If you've read the Wikipedia entry, you'll know that it also has more than 200 exits.

I've had several adventures around Shinjuku, and I've heard many horror stories. I've only recently experienced my own, which has led me to forever swear off using Shinjuku station. It appears to have a supernatural ability to confuse and disorient all who are not frequent visitors. I was supposed to meet me friend at the West exit of Shinjuku station during the tail end of rush hour, which meant that I was at all times (on the train, on the platform, in the exit hallways) touching at least one other human being, and sometimes as many as four or five. Not out of choice, mind, but simple lack of space. As I pushed my way through the crowd towards the West Exit signs, it became less and less clear which way was the West Exit. Instead of a simple West Exit sign, I began to see West Underground Exit signs, West Skyscraper District signs, Northwest Exit, etc. Everything but a West exit sign. One corridor was labelled as JR Lines West Exit, only when I proceeded through the gate, all the signs pointed toward the East Exit.

It was a Kafka-esque nightmare world.

I would ask for directions from an attendant, to discern which was the true West exit, only to be pointed in a different direction every time. After thirty minutes, I had a bit of a mental breakdown, and retreated to a corner to call my friend and find out how he managed to find his way through the disorienting and Byzantine corridors of the station to the West Exit; only to find that he was indeed at a different station altogether (due to a miscommunication or misunderstanding that I maintain was on his part), and that there was no "West Exit" at Shinjuku station at all.

Usually, I would have been a little peeved at wasting my time wandering through a mass of humanity and running the risk of losing my mind. But, I was just so pleased that the horror I encountered was really just a miscommunication, and not a M. C. Escher painting from which there was no real escape. I heaved a sigh of relief and arrived, more than an hour late, from my own personal Hell; Shinjuku station.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Spiders from Mars

Quick update. Spring is definitely back. The HUGE spider-family that was living directly outside my front door are back. Totally back.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hanami, Penis Festivals and Me

It's beautiful. It's iconically Japanese. It's more season-specific than going to the beach or going skiing, much to the dismay of every Japanese poet, ever. It's Hanami.

Hanami (hana = flower, mi = viewing) is a solely Japanese past time. And it's an enjoyable one at that. For a week or two every spring, the sakura (cherry tree) offers up it's momentary bounty of wonderful light-pink/almost-white flowers. In a park area with hundreds of sakura trees, it can turn the low horizontal band of the sky a pinkish white, completely altering the park, turning it into a surreal, cartoon-Heaven-like atmosphere.

The cherry blossom stands in for Japan as an international symbol, as well as a poetic metaphor, and it is rivalled only by the chrysanthemum, the imperial flower, in these capacities (though, imperial regalia has lost most of it's national importance after WWII). Poets have focused on the temporal nature of the surreal atmosphere which heralds the official defeat of winter. The flowers fragility, transient nature and light colors clearly illustrate the Japanese aesthetic of appreciating the full beauty of nature; in both it's apex and decline. The keshiki (view) is wonderful, but so is the idea that hanami exists in a specific moment in time, and must be enjoyed on its own time; often blooming for only a week to ten days.

For hundreds of years, hanami has served as a kind of seasonal picnic for the Japanese. And if hanging out in a warm, Heaven-like environment doesn't sound good enough, add alcohol. Sometimes, I love the Japanese way of doing things. I've heard stories about the rookies in corporate offices staking out the best places in Yoyogi Park (akin to New York's Central Park), in the early hours of the morning, and simply staying on a tarp all day until their bosses and coworkers come to drink after work. It's that important. And while that story was told to me with an air that such expectations of social inferiors are unreasonable ... it would be hard for me to be angry about being ordered to sit in a beautiful park all day, waiting for the booze to arrive and enjoying nature in the meantime.

My Tokyo friends and I did hanami Saturday night, and it was wonderful. Although I couldn't really see very far because of the darkness, we were underneath a tree whose white flowers contrasted with everything else around us. It's strange for me to describe, because there's nothing similar back home. It's as if everything is covered in snow, but it's not cold, and all the snow smells like cherries, and sometimes the breeze will send some of the petals showering down on us.

Of course, there were a lot of other Gaijin doing the same thing; quite a lot of tourists, too, which provided some cringe-worthy reminders of what Americans can be like on vacation. It was still wonderful, though. Someone was throwing a techno dance party 50 yards away, there was all kinds of carnival food, and plenty of beer. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera, though I suspect I can get my friends' shots of the night.

And then the Penis Festival. Masturi (festivals) are incredibly important for Japanese cities. Every Japanese city is "famous" for something, and it usually has a seasonal festival. My city prides itself on it's strawberries, and the shinto shrines probably put on some kind of strawberry festival to bring a few tourists into the city, but also to have a banner of some kind to unite the city under; to give it some kind of identity.

And the city I went to you prides itself on it's penis identity, I suppose. There is an old story about the origins of the Penis Matsuri, which, though I'd love to relate to you in my own words, is probably best for you to read on Wikipedia ... just so you believe me. Wiener. There you are. I particularly liked the transexual men carrying the giant pink penis up and down the street while dolled up in drag. Man, if I knew it was gonna be that kind of party, I would've shown up drunk.

In any case, it was a really wonderful day, full of (extremely predictable) dick jokes, and phallus-shaped novelty foods. "Would you like a sausage?" "Can I get you some meat on a stick?" "Would you care for a penis-shaped lollipop?" I bought several of each. The only trouble with eating a lollipop shaped like a penis is that ... it's shaped like a penis. So, I can't really eat it in public, and I feel a little awkward about eating it in private; it's like I'm doing something dirty! I ate one at the festival, because hey, the atmosphere was pretty accepting. It was extremely off-putting, however, to see small children eating them. I understand that kids like suckers, and I understand that, as Freud could claim, "sometimes a sucker is just a sucker," but it made me uncomfortable.

In any case, I have a handful of penis-shaped lollipops. I affectionately call them cocksuckers.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

I Don't Know Why You Say Goodbye, I Say "Herro"

Last night, I went to an enkai (a Japanese work-related drinking function. I think I've made it clear in the past, but just to be sure...), and had a lot of fun. Enkais have been an amazing way for me to build a personal relationship with the teachers. It's a little bit of a bummer, but it seems that Japanese people don't really like to open up unless they've had a few drinks in them. I believe I've written about the important social function enkais serve in Japan; without them, people would just bottle things up and never let them out. In a country with a suicide rate as high as Japan's ("We're number one! We're number one!"), it's wonderful to let off a little steam every now and again.

The highlights of last night's enkai were numerous: I got to try my hand and Japanese conversation more-or-less successfully, I got to given a drunken farewell to many of my favorite teachers, I got to record some funny video of a Japanese guy telling me why he really likes Kevin Costner movies, etc. But, the most memorable moment was when the retiring Kochou (principal) gave his parting words to everyone assembled there.

He told us about how his mother had died in a hospital four years ago, and how at the time, he felt that was too busy with his work to go to see her in the hospital right away. She died before he got the chance. He said that there wasn't a day that went by that he didn't regret his having chosen his profession over his family, and reminded the teachers that working should not be the highest priority in their lives. This is a statement which strikes me as particularly against the Japanese character. Blanket statements are always lies, but working 14 hour days is a virtue in Japan, and I've heard from many younger Japanese people that they don't really know their father because he hardly came home while they were growing up. If you don't believe me, you can check the stats on how many people die from exhaustion due to overworking in Japan. Like suicide, I believe they're number one in the world.

In any case, after shedding a few tears (again, fairly uncharacteristic), the Kochou said "My mother is gone, and I cannot bring her back. But my father is still alive. Tomorrow, I retire. And I will spend all day with my father. Please consider this, in the future." I'm really going to miss him.

Today was the first day of the new staff's arrival. Of course, I thought today would be a little relaxed, consider that everyone at the enkai last night was getting pretty hammered. As usual, my assumptions proved incorrect. I made it unfortunately obvious that I am a slacker. Wearing a hoodie, slightly worn trousers, and a three-day beard, I sauntered into the office, nursing a slight hangover, at 11am. ...To be greeted with all the new faces. But, hey, I guess I am a slacker, and you get what you see. No lie.

It was a bit like stepping into Bizarro World, though. All the same desks, same positions, occupied by all these new faces. To the occasional visitor, it would appear that nothing is changed at all. But, they had. It's strange, because Japan is a very title-based society. You can call someone "sensei" instead of their real name. The principal is never referred to by name, but by "kochou". So, for me, hearing someone ask the kochou something, and having a stranger reply - as if he is the kochou ... which he now is - is a bit unnerving. In a way, those positions served as the names of all the people I work with. And now the names and functions are the same, but the faces and personalities have all changed.