Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Shinjuku Police...

Are astoundingly polite. Friday night, while having one of our "crazy nights on the town," I was made personally aware of the above-mentioned fact. I'll elaborate.

We stayed out past the last train in Shinjuku, and took to marching through the streets, going from bar to bar. At one point, we even just bought whiskey from a convenience store, split it into the Coke bottles, and stood outside of a petshop, watching the puppies and kitties sleep away their night. We found a rock bar, roughly about the size of the average American closet. Beers were cheap, and you could play any music for free. The other guys in the bar had a pretty poor taste in music, and we immediately instigated a rock battle. I'll see your Oasis, and raise you Black Flag. Once we started playing CRASS at max volume, I think it became clear who was the winner. Josh and I danced (by which I mean jumping around and putting various objects over our heads), before we were asked to leave.

But, as the night became morning, we ended up tucked into some small bar, spending the last of the money in our pockets. And, at some point, perhaps while in the bathroom, I fell asleep. Josh looked for me, but was so drunk that, as the bar was closing for the night, he assumed I must've headed back home on my own. The police were called, and they carried me to the nearest police station and showed me to the drunktank.

And, I have to tell you, it wasn't half bad. I was in there alone, sleeping on a nice vinyl mat for a few hours. The police were incredibly courteous to me, all things considered. When they woke me up, they had me sign myself out, but I felt so hungover, I just asked to be put back in the drunk tank for a couple more hours. They laughed really hard, bought me a water, helped clean me up, and sent me on my way.

Needless to say, I felt pretty nasty for a long time afterward, and I'm laying low today to try to expedite my progession to wellness before heading off to work tomorrow morning. I bet the kids have no idea what their teacher can be like in his spare time. They'd be shocked, I'm sure.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Quick Addendum

Upon re-reading my last post, I realize that it sounded like a paranoid, anti-government rant. And really, it shouldn't have been. I should've laughed some laughs and breathed in deep and restrained from writing about it. Because now, it looks like I'm a bit of a nutter.

I called the IRS, got some help and, though they aren't sure why I was rejected, the lady on the phone sounded confident that it was a bureaucratic mistake on their part.

I've just had a long history of getting ridiculous bills in the mail that actually need to be paid; school loans, for one. And, in my first real dealings with the IRS, I wondered if one could take things too seriously. My family put a deep-rooted fear of the IRS in me since I was a young 'un.

In any case, I apologize for the crazy talk. Next time, I'll do a little better.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I Ain't Got no Home in this World Anymore.

I had a long day of teaching at the biggest elementary school in town. The kids are mostly great, and the working situation has definitely improved since the teacher-shuffling of April and new-scheduling of May. I even had help from S-Lan, the psuedo-homestay-mother friend/helper that I'm ever so grateful for. Even though things are better (or is it that I've just finally successfully adapted to the requirements of the profession?), it was still a struggle to pull myself through the sixth-period class to be told immediately after that I'm to teach a "Special Day" next Friday, being monitored by other teachers and parents throughout all of my classes. Some days, one can only heave a heavy sigh, continue trudging along, and occassionally give thanks that you find yourself wearing a smile.
Geez, I make it sound like a deathmarch! Christ, it's not all that bad, to be sure.

Honestly, on the way home from work, I was thinking to myself (while riding my bike through the brilliant weather - overcast and cool, a nice respite from the heat or rain) that real life, when I find myself really enjoying it, can bear a striking resemblance to playing videogames. At first Punchout, with it's varying cast of characters, seems impossible - after defeating Glass Joe, that is. There are so many series of punches, dodges and blocks to memorize, a whole new set of attacks to guard against, and new weakness to exploit. And when I find myself enjoying life, it's because I know what sorts of challenges in the day-to-day to expect, and what I need to do when they arise. When a bill arrives, no matter what language it's in, I know how and when to pay it now. When I feel crushed by a thousand chores, I just have to take them one by one and sort them out. The list goes on.

But, of course - and this appears to be some kind of punishment for thinking things aren't so bad, or that maybe I have things figured out for a while - new complications always arise. And inevitably, as I scramble to meet them, I get so nervous and pessimistic. So, as I came home, confident that I know how to shuck and jive this crazy Japanese world of mine, who should reenter to fuck it all up but Uncle Sam; the very man whose company I'm beginning to fear.

That's right, dude. The IRS is after me. Apparently, they've rejected my request to be viewed as a Japanese tax payer, even though it was my primary residence over the last year. Now, it is probably just a misfiling of misunderstanding, but the sheer numbers have me shitting my pants. I owe the U.S. government something in the ballpark of $7,726.72, as of June 8th. Frankly, it's like skipping Piston Honda just to get totally stomped by the man himself, Mike Tyson.

So, now I'm panicking like usual, viewing all my problems at once and feeling overwhelmed. I would be terribly worried about such a large sum of money (which I honestly have no hope of repaying), if it weren't so terribly funny. Things like this always seem to happen to me, and it's a true family trait to be able to shrug it off with a laugh. I mean, do these people honestly think that they'll get that kind of money from me? I knew the government was corrupt and inept, but I didn't realize they were so stupid. So, for once, the joke is on them. ...I wonder if they'd make me do jailtime.

If shit comes to shit, though, I could always just duck into a country like Vietnam for a few months, waiting to extend my period outside the country to whatever limit would satisfy their ridiculous demands. Anyway, for the time being, "Ha-ha-ha."

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Swine Flu, Elementary Schools and Me.

Let's kick this off on a personal note: I'm sorry I haven't been updating like I know I should. It seems that since I got back from Vietnam and Cambodia, I hit the ground running and haven't stopped to rest until now. Last night, I slept 13 hours. Today, my plans are to finish reading a book, possibly take a bath, and if I'm feeling extremely productive, I'll do a little laundry. I anticipate a full recovery.

Speaking of illness and recovery, have you guys heard about this Pig Flu thing (please read irony into that comment, as I realize how poorly irony can travel in print)? Well, if answered that you had heard of it, you're in step with everyone in Japan. It seems to be the only thing people can think about lately. I heard yesterday that Japan is suffering from unprecedented shortages of facemasks (commonly worn when sick or to defend against infection) around Tokyo. The emphasis was initially placed on quarantining Japan from the outside world at the airport, involving screening people for potential symptoms and placing them into quarantine rooms. Since quarantine failed (several cases were reported around Osaka), they've moved the emphasis to domestic prevention. Hence the mask sell-outs. But, there's another possibly-unintentional effect; the fear of gaijin. As Swine Flu is seen as a foreign illness brought into Japan by foreigners, every gaijin is under suspicion of carrying the disease. So, I've been asked at least once every day, at every school, not just if I had the flu, but how it was going. A friend of mine came back from a trip to India and brought with her a stomach ailment, and her school forced her to take an entire week off from school! Yesterday on the train, when I sat down, the two people on either side of me put on the surgical masks.
It's a hard time for the gaijinl; once universally loved, now universally distrusted. We shall overcome.

Nigel and I have progressed through two weeks of the new elementary school schedule, and initial findings would indicate that it's not as terrible a plan as they could force upon us. For instance, Minami was notorious for a five-class schedule every time paired with an extremely critical English liason. This teacher, Ms. Frowny had a personal grudge against one specific game, the "basket game" and if one so much as mentioned it, it illicited a quick response of "That is a bad game. Think of a different one." Well, Ms. Frowny got knocked up a few months ago and is away on maternity leave now. Of course, personal differences are nothing compared to bringing a new life into the world, and I wish her nothing but good health and good luck.
But, holy shit, I am so glad she is gone! We're only teaching three classes a day, which is much more up my alley, as I have time to plan and enjoy everything rather than just run from one class to another all day. And guess what my first lesson plan was? Fuck yes! The basket game!

Of course, there are still problem schools, but they seem few and far between. And in fact, the new principals seem just as upset at the BOE for not communicating to us or giving us our teaching supplies as I am, which is wonderful news. One new principal even rolled his eyes, and said he'd call one of the Big Boys to arrange for us to get the 6th grade English book. So, everything is looking up with just one exception: I'm leaving soon.

As the weeks of elementary school are flying by, and I'm managing to be so busy while standing still, the list of things I have to do before coming back home isn't getting any shorter. But that stack of To-Dos is going to have to wait, at least until tomorrow. For on the 24th day of constant activity, he rested.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Back in the J-A-P-AN.

You don't know how lucky you are, boys.

So, I'm back. In Japan. And it's been hard to get back into the swing of things here. Visiting Vietnam and Cambodia re-opened my mind to what other countries in the world are like. To be totally honest, when I felt like I was in a particularly sketchy part of town, I would often think "Hey, this is just like Chicago," a thought that really never occurs to me in Japan. It's just so ... safe.
For instance, it's the fashion for young men to have really long, leather billfold wallets, and have these wallets hang out of the back of their back pocket a few inches. In America, that is an open invitation to get pickpocketed. But in Japan, even Tokyo, you can rest assured that your wallet is safe - any hour of the day. It's crazy, really.

But, life hasn't been all relaxing and adjusting since I got back from my trip. My friend Eric came from the states to visit for about two weeks, and I've been keeping busy making sure he's got what he needs to have a good time in Japan. In a way, it's been really great having him around, because I'm keeping busy and I have someone to hang out with more days than not (it's definitely helping me ease out of my vacation "I'm-with-my-travel-partners-24-hours-a-day" mindset). So, it's been awesome. And also, it's been hella good to see him - it seems like years since I saw him last, actually. He's still the same old Eric, and I'm glad he's having a cool time here. Yesterday, we spent all day around Tokyo and made a good day of it, hanging around Harajuku and Shinjuku mostly. I'm glad to spend time with someone who can make me laugh so hard with regularity.

But, oh, work has not been so great lately. I mean, I've started the new schedule and things aren't horrible. But, my workload at the Jr. High has doubled every day, because I'm spending only Monday and Friday there. Which means, all the classes on Tuesday-Thursday I used to teach have been finagled into Mondays and Fridays. And Tuesday-Thursday is just laughable. It's actually really hilarious. I've succeeded into losing all the anxiety associated with my job at the elementary schools - because I had to.

For instance, Monday afternoon at the Jr. High, I still had no idea which school I was going to the next day, let alone what the schedule would be like. I had to stay late to wait for the schools to fax me some schedules, and only 4 of 6 elementary schools even bothered to send one. So, the next day, I arrive at Miniami-Sho (south elementary) with no idea what I'm expected to teach. And, unbelievably, the 6th grade teacher pulls out a book I've never even seen before! Of course, it's in Japanese as well. Apparently, my Board of Education, on top of being just total assholes, are also just simply incompetent. Every step along the line, when the BOE has bothered to communicate anything to me, it's always last minute. And when they fail to inform me of changes in my job, the elementary schools are always surprised that someone's not doing their job, but unwilling to tell the BOE what they've forgotten to do. So, with little recourse, I just had to laugh and work with the teachers there, and roll with the haphazard classes. ...Which is what I'll be doing at every school, since no one will even let me borrow the new textbook outside of school.

So, I succeed in doing what I said I would in January and February. I merely shrug my shoulders, try to have a laugh, and do what I can do teach. But, I'm not sweating this one. Not at all.

On a final note; today was an incredibly strange day, as far as poor student behavior goes. I had mentioned previously that the new 3 grade students (with the Whitney Huston mullets!) were pulling fire alarms and generally being poor company. Today, a group of 5 or 6 other 3rd grade kids pulled some prank involving toilet paper, and two teachers went absolutely apeshit. When teachers start yelling at my school, other teachers crowd around and look angrily at the student offenders, to create a "wall-of-shame" effect (much like Spector's "Wall-of-Sound"). When I took my place in the shame-line, I saw a teacher knock two desks over, on his way to yell at a student. When he got here, he was shoving him around, and generally going nuts. And then, another teacher that had showed up with me started screaming and yelling, holding a fistful of toilet paper, and going to each of the offending students (now standing and receiving full doses of verbal abuse), and shoving it in their faces! It honestly looked like he was punching them in the face, actually. One kid was knocked off his feet.

To be honest, the whole thing definitely shook me up. I'm not sure that what happened was within legal boundaries, on the one hand. On the other, the behavior is really disruptive, and there aren't any tools at the teachers' deposal like suspension, detention or expulsion. I guess it's humiliation and threat of violence that they're using to keep kids in line, and both of those sit poorly with me. But, then again, I can't fully understand what the situation was, so ... I guess I'll just keep out of it, and see what happens. What do you guys think?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Holiday in Cambodia.

First, let me say that when I was robbed, it was not a violent or malicious act. Someone merely reappropriated my possessions for their own enjoyment - I now understand that, despite the crafty means employed, it more closely resembles an individual's attempt to correct the imbalance between the haves and have-nots with a little crafty handiwork. Of course, I'll miss my iPod (affectionately named Rolling Thunder), and my camera. But, especially the photos, and the reason is because my personal photos and videos fall nowhere within the spectrum of outlaw attempts at social justice.

Whatever the cause, my attempts to get money from the insurance company look really promising (It's totally sweet that I had foresight, for the first time in my life), despite the lack of any official documentation. It's actually a funny story that bears repeating. I was robbed during the bus trip south towards Ho Chi Minh City. I was robbed between Hoi An and Nha Trang (where we stopped for a one hour lay-over), but the man at the office in Nha Trang told me I didn't have enough time to file a complaint, and I couldn't place an international call except from the Post Office, closed for the Vietnamese National Foundation Holiday. Once I got into Ho Chi Minh City later that day, it was too late to do anything about it. But the next day, I tried to contact the police, and was told that because of the Holiday, the police were on vacation. A man on the street told me "It's the holiday. There is no crime now, so the police take vacations." ...No crime. Right.

Cambodia was quite the trip, though Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) had it's charms. For real. By the time we hit Saigon, we had accrued a large crew of people who all knew each other from travelling in the same direction down Vietnam. Though it's much more than 1,000 miles long, it's a pretty narrow place, and the one major highway leading south tends to put us back into contact over and over again with the same people. We had a few days of falling into and out of touch with each other, and somehow, always ending up at the same bar. Not a bad deal at all, really. I've now got a few Norwegian friends, something I've always aspired to, but never managed to realize until recently.

On to Cambodia, however. In some ways, it was the most depressing thing we could've attempted, short of a tour of the the European concentration camp circuit. Pol Pot is the name on the tip of everyone's tongue, and it can be read in the eyes of many of the older generation. Combine 1 part Killing Fields with 2 parts abject poverty, combine with a steady stream of alcohol and you'll add it all up into a bit of a soul crisis. Again, all I have to say about this is that ... for me, this trip wasn't about what I was looking at; whose corpse, what building, what food. It ended up being about finding mirrors in a place I've never been, and sneaking glimpses at the person I am deep down, that changes everytime I look. Like a shadow on the water, it's not the same image for more than a second.

But, I will say, of the physical places I've been to, the temples near Siam Reap, Cambodia ranks higher than the rest. It was simply breathtaking. At Angkor Wat (linked for your pleasure), we watched the sun rise, then went to all the lesser-known temples through the rest of the day, until we watched the sunset from the highest point of a temple built on a hill. A considerable feat for anyone, but especially so considering the fact that we drank 4 beers at lunch. Also, I totally traveled someplace I was WAY not supposed to go, in the most ruinous of the ruins. I saw a big sign that said "Absolutely No Entry" ... but right next to it was a window that didn't say anything at all. So, I jumped in, walked around in the restricted area for almost 15 minutes without seeing or hearing anyone else! There were bats and snakes and rats everywhere, some hallways were crumbled so badly, they were totally closed up. Real Indiana Jones shit, actually. If only I'd stolen some priceless artwork to sell to a European museum, I would've gotten the true Colonial explorer experience.

It's time that I accepted something about myself. I take bad vacations. I always get a funny illness, break my glasses, end up totally penniless, wake up half-naked in strange places, etc. I'm bad at vacations, but I suppose it all depends on your perspective. I'm shit at vacations, but I rule at adventures. I like that.

(Oh, and since my camera was stolen, that means hiatus on photos. Potentially a long hiatus.)

Friday, May 1, 2009

I've been robbed.

That's right, dudes. I've been robbed. Someone lifted my iPod and my camera, stealing all my future memories of Vietnam as well as my super-awesome PSP game scores.

I'm really not all THAT bummed out, though I did have a minor flip-out. I guess I just have poor lucky traveling. But, I'm meeting nice people, and besides running out of money and losing everything of value, everything else is going super well.

I sometimes can't believe that I can maintain a smile and a positive attitude through things that other people might find upsetting.

I'm working with a travel-buddy to try to work something out with my Japanese insurance company. She's Japanese, and super-friendly. I helped her look online to renew her Australian Visa and she's helping me through my insurance stuff.

I'll let you know how it all works out. For the moment, not well. ...but, I'm having a good time, anyway. Don't worry about me, I'm sure I'll get home safe and sound and with a few more stories to tell. I still love Vietnam.