Nov 28, 2006

Unrespectable Mythology: The Htichhiker, Cursed Kleenex, and Hanako-San

You know the story of the Vanishing Hitchhiker, right? Today, I did what I thought was impossible- I scared someone with it. I thought that everyone and their dog had heard that story, but today I actually frightened one of my students with it. It's nice to know that if you haven't heard that story a million and a half times, the tale really does have a bit of ghostly "oomph" to it.
There's a lesson in our textbooks all about the past simple and past continuous, and urban legends are the topic of conversation. So, for one brief moment the textbook becomes much less like a staid english text, and more like The Transitive Vampire.
My student walked in, sat down, and looked at me. "I want to tell you a story," I said.
"Ok," she said.
"I was driving one night through a dark forest- there are plenty of those in Oregon -and was far away from town. It was raining a little and off to the side of the road, I saw a young woman with her thumb out." I mimed thumbing a ride.
"She wanted a ride?"
"Yes. I let her in. She didn't talk ver much, and I let her off at a house in town. But, when I got home, I noticed she'd left her jacket in my car." By this point, my student was fully able to tell that I was telling a "scary" story. I'd let my voice drop a little, let my left hand splay out on the table, and gestured broadly with my right. I might as well have had a flashlight under my face.
"What happened?" she asked with obvious anticipation.
"I went back to the house where I let her off the next day, and rang the doorbell. An old, old woman answered the door."
"An old woman?"
"Yes. I told her the jacket belonged to a young woman who lived there. 'there's no one like that here,' said the woman."
"What?" said my student.
"I was surprised, too," I said, maintaining my role as narrator, "But I saw woman's picture above the fireplace. 'Her,' I said, 'this is her jacket.'
"'There must be some mistake,' said the old woman, 'that's my daughter-" and here I looked my student directly in the eye and let it be known that I was pronouncing the zinger, "'she was killed twenty five years ago while hitchhiking!'"
"NO!" My student grabbed the ends of the table, and looked at me, startled.
"YES!" I said emphatically, "SHE'D BEEN DEAD THE WHOLE TIME!"
"YOU SAW A GHOST!" My student panted, and here eyes were approximately the size of dinner plates.
"No," I said, "I didn't. That never happened to me. That's an urban legend, a type of story, and it's the topic of today's lesson about the past simple and past continuous..."
In the prepared materials there were several other urban legends incorporated into the lesson, such as the Stolen Kidney Legend, the Hookhand Legend (one I've always found curious- If you had a hook for a hand, why would you try to open a car door with it?), the Man In the Backseat, and the ever-creepy Tale of the Babysitter.
I love urban legends,folklore itself is a fascinating area of study, and urban legends demonstrate that it's not just a hoary academic field exclusively about old German stories. Mythology is actually happening right now. And they have a weird creepiness to them- they come from nowhere, they star no one but stock roles, and the twists are as inevitable and often obvious, but they've got something to them.
So, I've yet to find a good website on Japanese Urband Legends, but I asked Hip-Hop about them, and he told me a few good ones:

A man was cleaning up one night around his restaurant, and found a stray dog rummaging through the garbage. The dog was mangy, dirty, and stank. The man hit the thing with his broom handle and said, "shoo, shoo." The dog turned to him, revealing a filthy human face, "don't bother me," it said, and went back to eating.

Apparently, this commercial is cursed, a la the video in The Ring. Admittedly, it's sort of creepy and weird, but the story goes that everyone who worked on it found only hideous tragedy, and that those who see it will face misfortune or death.

A husband and wife were on vacation in Paris, and the woman was in a dressing room in a boutique trying on clothes. The husband waited outside, and after some time, she didn't come out. He went inside, but she wasn't there. The dressing room was a blank square space, and he couldn't find her anywhere. He asked the boutique's staff, the police, everyone. No one could find his wife.
The man returned to Japan, and five years passed. One day, just as he'd finally gotten used to life without his wife, he saw her- in a carnival freakshow, missing her arms and legs.

And of course, Hanako-San.
Hanako-San is a very prevalent urban legend in Japan, and reminds me of Bloody Mary. The story goes that she was a small girl, one bullied and teased by all the other girls in her school. One day, she locked herself in the fourth stall in the girl's bathroom (the number four has negative connotations in Japan) and killed herself. Or she was murdered, the story changes.
Anyway, if you go into a school restroom at night, you can hear her crying. If you knock on the door of the fourth stall, you'll hear a faint voice give a small, cold "hai." She'll come if you simply say "Hanako-San" in a darkened bathroom, and she's rather curiously inspired a series of movies. Apparently, lots of little schoolkids are terrified of her and it seems that J.K. Rowling culled a bit from Japanese pop culture when she made Moaning Myrtle.

So, yeah. I got a fair amount of kicks today off learning about some Japanese urban legends. Incidentally, the lesson went great, with me and the student using all sorts of grisly and creepy examples to illustrate the past tense. More grammar lessons should have ghosts and such, methinks. Now, maybe I should go learn some respectable mythology while I'm here.

Nov 27, 2006

In The Korakuen Garden

Yesterday I took a bit of time to see Okayama's major landmark, the Korakuen garden. It was the sort of day that I'm freakishly fond of- one in which the clouds envelop the landscape like this great silent blanket. There was a breeze and a slight chill as I headed to the island in the middle of the city where the garden resides.
I have a fairly good impression of Japanese garden styles. Even though everything is all planned out in the broad scheme of things, it tends to look more naturalistic. The planning seems to be more along the lines of "we'll have a grove of cherry trees here," rather than "look at these neat little rows of plants." According to the handy-dandy English language brochure that I got at the entrance, the place is seasonal, so the best views tend to switch up around the year. Apparently, the maples are the big thing for autumn. They are pretty, but we've got Japanese maples in Oregon, so the tree wasn't anything too new for me, and the moisture on the floor of their grove tended to literally and figuratively dampen their showyness.
What I enjoyed more than the maples was the sheer size of the place. The garden, if anything, is big, with large lawns of grass stretching out in the middle around a central pond. I'd forgotten how calming it is to simply walk around for a long time while surrounded by plants. It's something irrationally stimulating, like petting a cat or playing fetch with a dog. Maybe it's somehow evolutionarialy linked to our persistent fascination with setting things on fire.
On the far side of the garden's large, central lake I saw the koi. The fish were something. Each of them was probably larger around than my own thigh, and with their moustache-like tendrils and mail-style scales they looked a bit like finned swashbucklers. One of my old coworkers at the bookstore had koi fish in his backyard, and told me about how he'd trained them to eat from his hand. I watched the fish for sometime, their mouths opening and closing constantly (I wondered if it was part of their breathing process, or if they were ingesting some tiny organisms) and thought about that, wondering if any tourists ever tossed them bits of something from the stone steps.
Towards the end of the path, there was a rocky hillock with uneven rocky stairs leading up to the top. I imagine that the small Kanji sign said "watch your step," or something to that effect. I stood there for a while, looking out onto the interior lake and the grass fields, at Okayama castle and at the swollen clouds. There were a few small children there, laughing and climbing on the rocks, and a mother worried over them that they might fall. Processions of umbrellas worked their way along the paths, and I sat on a rock for several minutes.
It began to rain in earnest. I told myself that I didn't mind, and for a while I didn't. But, my camera was getting wet, and I felt the sodden collar of my leather jacket rest uncomfortably on my neck. I would have sooner stayed another hour, but walked home in what became a pouring rain.

This album is powered by
- Add to my blog

Nov 25, 2006

Experiment Update

So I mentioned earlier that I want to track the effects of culture shock (handily illustrated-along with reverse culture shock- on the accompanying graph) on myself. According to the conventional wisdom, I should be in the "honeymoon" or "euphoria" period right now. I don't know if I am or not. To be honest, I'm kind of wondering if I'm too negative-minded to experience something like euphoria or a honeymoon period. Well, that's probably not true, but I don't think that I've experienced anything that could be called euphoria yet.
I'm having a good time here, of course, and am obviously taking active enjoyment of the experience, but my time here and my enjoyment thereof is generally tempered by a nagging thought at the back of my head that perpetually reminds me that I don't really belong here, that I'm taking a sojourn that I'll return from. The journey may be the destination, but the journey has an ending as well. This is all brought to mind, of course, by the practical considerations of not knowing the language, culture and general "feel" of where I am. So, I'm constantly giving myself these mental caveats when I have fun- that everything will always be at arm's legnth.
Make no mistake, I'm not trying to be cynical or give the impression that I'm having a bad time, but I don't think that at any point my enjoyment will overtake my reason.
On the other hand, though, I'm constantly recognizing that this whole venture is something singular. This is something that I'll probably talk to people about the rest of my life, as in "well, when I lived in Japan..." Thinking about that still gives me a nice little fuzzy feeling, so maybe that's all the honeymoon or euphoria that I'll be feeling.
I'm a little worried that I'm going to crash into homesickness rather hard. There have been a few moments where I've really, really missed home, and while they tend not to be overly strong, I'm worried about full-on incapacitating emo loneliness in the future. You know, the kind where you turn up the Joy Division really loudly and messily write "I AM SO ALONE!" in your own blood on what used to be a clean white wall. In other words, I have anxiety about the possibility that I'll have anxiety in the future. How dumb is that?
For the most part, things have seemed more or less normal. Not euphoria, not honeymoon, but good. Let's hope that persists.

Nov 21, 2006

My Reviews of Japanese Stuff, Part II

Those Creepy Noodle Babies
I saw someone link to this randomly a while back before I arrived in Japan, and didn't think much of it. "Haha," I thought, "it's a weird Japanese ad." Well, these things aren't exactly cultural icons, but they're definitely a well-recognized logo. They're on stickers, key chains, signs, everything. They freak the shit out of me.

69 by Ryu Murakami
Ryu Murakami is apparently friends with (but not related to) Haruki Murakami, and his novel 69 is a fun, lightweight, high school story that takes place in late sixties rural Japan. You won't find any deep revelations or existential yearnings here, but the narrator is an amicable high-schooler who walks a fine line between pretentious and precoutious. He talks about movies that he's never seen, books he's never read, and philosophical ideas that he doesn't really understand, all the while having no idea what he's actually talking about. I think I met this guy at every speech and debate tournament or model U. N. conference that I went to. I think I might have also been this guy a few times.
Anyway, it's a lot of fun. And it has an art film, political stuff, and an amusing little conversation where two of the characters discuss something that never has any sort of ideology. There's a yakuza, some graffiti, and at one point a character plaintively and sincerely wonders what Che would do. Admit it, you've been there, too.

My Allergies
Since moving out of Eugene, my allergies have pretty much vanished. Nifty.

Japanese Style Curry
How come no one told me this stuff existed? I was familiar with Indian style curry (fun stuff to make) and Thai curry (mmm... Thailand...) but until I got here I didn't realize that there was a Japanese variant of one of my favorite spicy things. This stuff is awesome! Seriously! It's thick, hearty, spicy, full of lots of different stuff, and you can get it pretty much everywhere. Also, people put everything in this stuff. Chicken, tofu, cheese, sausage, fish, pineapples, veggies- everything. I'm now on a mission to find the most outre curry admixture out there and devour it with great voracious relish.

Sitting in a Bar and Arguing Semantics With A Bunch of Drunk Australians
This is loads of fun. Try it sometime.

Nov 20, 2006

I Heart Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs are awesome. Dinosaurs are way better than dragons or Cthulu or Godzilla or anything. I mean, that stuff is all pretty cool, too, but dinosaurs are even cooler because they were actually real. Of course, they're not around any more so they now only exist in our imaginations, so when we think about them they can be almost anything we want. But we've got proof that they existed at one time, so we're not just dealing with amorphous fancies here. So, dinosaurs have just enough reality and just enough fantasy to be the sweetest things ever.
When I was a kid, I loved those wooden dinosaur bone puzzles. You know, the one's where the kid punches out the bones from a balsa wood template and then assembles the skeletons? I had tons of those. So, I was extremely pleased yesterday when I saw a giant-sized cardboard t-rex staring me in the face. The t-rex was made by "Fujidan," and I'm somewhat unsure as to whether that's a guy or a company, but it's basically a bunch of cool looking cardboard artwork. Have a look! 'Tis nifty!
Anyway, I was out with two of the girls that I met during karaoke the previous night, (the Iliad reading one and her friend) and we were hitting various art places and such. We first went to the Okayama Prefecturial Art Museum which was... well, it was ok. It was an exhibition of local artists, and while some were rather interesting most of it was precisely the sort of thing that you'd expect stuff by "local artists" to be like. Though there was this crazy psychedilic art film, which was cool.
After the museum, we hit this place which was a combo jean shop/gallery place, and I was extremely pleased to find out that such a place existed. Until I walked in, I hadn't realized that I was getting ever so slightly starved for a place that was full of pretentious artsy stuff. I think I spent almost an hour just looking at the graphic design books (some of which were in English) and the weird alternative comics that they had.
It was on the top floor of this place that I saw the big cardboard t-rex, as well as sundry other pieces of nifty. There were some cool looking abstract prints, a bunch of t-shirts (almost all of which were too small for me) various wooden sculptures, and some paintings of cartoon rabbits. Iliad Girl bought a couple of prints, and I got a small cardboard dinosaur kit from Fujidan. After seeing the big t-rex I couldn't resist.
While I was there, I learned my first Kanji pun. Apparently the group calls themselves "Kurashiki" which is phonetically identical to the nearby town, but also means "creative types." So, apparently if you speak Japanese, their logo is cutely humorous. Yay for pictographic puns! Yay!
Later that night we ended up at the apartment of this Turkish linguist studying at Okayama University. Yes, it was just sort of a "go with the flow" sort of day. If you're open-minded enough and just willing to go down the rabbit hole, you end up talking to this skater-looking linguist guy who has very strong opinions about beer.
Cool dude. Showed me how to write one of the readings of my name in Kanji, and made these awesome stuffed peppers. Also, he went on and on about how much he loved the Blues Brothers, which is an absolutely wonderful bad 80s movie.
So, anyway, here's my little cardboard triceratops that I got at the gallery place. Kawaii!

Nov 19, 2006

In Which I Drink, Think, and Sing a Sex Pistols Song

You know, a tie makes a great sleeping mask in a pinch. I can hardly sleep in the light, but tying up my fashionable neckware into something useful allowed me to actually sleep until 11:30 this morning.
I woke up in Kurashiki in British Girl's guest room feeling something between groggy and unconcious, the result of a sudden pull out of R.E.M. sleep. I wondered what the noise was, and realized that it was the South Park theme music. I pulled on my various garments, and stepped into a living room larger than my whole apartment where British Girl was watching cartoons.
"Thanks for letting me crash here."
"No problem. It's what having a huge place is for." British Girl's apartment is huge. She had a very rich student who moved to England for a while but didn't want to sell her place. So, instead, the student agreed to rent it to her favorite teacher for next to nothing. I thought that British Girl was kidding when she said, "don't worry about missing the train, you can crash in my guest room." Nope. She honestly has a guest room. And a wine closet. And two balconies. I seethe with envy. (And yes, I just crashed at her place. That was it. Now wash your dirty minds.)
"How are you?" I asked.
"I shouldn't have bragged about how I never get hung over," she was curled up in a chair clutching a blanket, "because I've got a bad one now."
"Ha-ha," I said, "I'm fine."
"Well, that's because you cheated."
"Yes. Pacing oneself is cheating. I wasn't going to get trashed after what happened with the night before last. Which South Park is this?'
"The one where the elephant makes love to the pig."
"Cool. Mind if I watch?"
"Go ahead." I hadn't seen South Park in years. Not since I was a sophomore in college and had cable, actually. It's still funny.
I left and made my way to the train station, the rain coming down in a way that made me feel oddly at home. I was still in my suit, and I could feel rivulets of moisture seep into my open collar. I quite liked it, actually. It reminded me of the countless other times in Oregon that I'd been stuck somewhere without an umbrella. The rain was a sort of balm, and I realized as I walked to the now-familiar stairways of Kurashiki Station, that I no longer felt "threatened," so to speak, by Japan. Even though it is decidedly an alien environment in which I do not speak the language, I suddenly realized that I had momentarily lost my anxiety about my situation, that I was suddenly comfortable being in a strange place.
I stepped on the train, and went home.

Two nights prior I had a horrible and embarassing experience. Mr. Ecaudor, who seems to have a very "gambatte" personality, wanted to introduce me to another gaijin bar here in town, this one a sort of Latin-themed affair. He mentioned that they were having "Retro Night" that night, and asked if I liked 80s music. Of course I like 80s music. 80s music is the universal guiltiy pleasure that everyone has, whereby it's kind-of-sort-of not a guilty pleasure anymore.
We got there around eleven or so, and began mingling nicely. I didn't really know what to expect, and spent the first hour or so sipping gin and tonics (my drink of choice) and talking to whomever walked in. "Hi, I'm new in Japan!" etc., etc. You know, bar banter.
The music was somewhat disappointed. Apparently the D.J.'s idea of "Retro Night" was playing the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. I longed for extended New Order remixes, but, alas, it was not to be.
After about an hour more people showed up, and the proprietor (a huge Japanese guy in a leather coat and tiger-stripe t-shirt) began walking about with a bottle of tequila in one hand and a double shot glass in the other.
You can probably see where this is going.
He began working the floor, and eventually came to me, pouring me a shot. "What is this?" I asked.
"Tequila," he said. The glass was substantial. I looked into its seemingly harmless transparent depths, glass and liquid bending the light. I should not drink this, I thought. Every single time I've ever had tequila, bad things have happened. A single shot is unpleasant enough. A double shot after two g&ts could make me puke. I knew this.
And I threw it back anyway.
In addition to the burning pain of Jose Curevo's rapier-like stabbling through my throat, I immediately felt my bodily system's approbations of my lack of reason. I began to feel all the wheels and workings of human digestion suddenly screeching into a dramatic reverse. The one upshot is that I was able to exert enough will actually swallow most of the vomit, forcing my noontime yakisoba back down into my guts where it belonged. However, during the process of swallowing, a small quantity of vom managed to escape into my mouth proper. It was too large a quanitity for me to retain in my mouth, and I was already engaged in the process of swallowing, so I ended up spraying it onto the dance floor like a chunky plant mister. (Two days prior I'd told two of my friends that I would never puke in Japan. They both said "yeah, right.)
The proprietor thought this was hilarious.
He grabbed a towel, cleaned stuff up, and directed me to the bathroom. When I got out, he was still laughing. He put his arm around me, ordered the bartender to get me another gin and tonic.
"Don't worry," he said, "that happens here all the time."
But I did worry. Even though no one seemed to care, even though everyone seemed to forget about it, I felt like a complete loser for the rest of the evening. Later, while we sobered up whilst eating pork fried rice, Mr. Ecaudor tried to cheer me up by telling me about all the stupid stuff he's done. It worked a little, but I still felt like a fool well into the next day.

The next day, fortunately, I didn't have a class until 1:00, and a fairly light schedule. I actually had time to go home in the middle of the day and have a nap, which was highly useful. British Girl mentioned that a bunch of people were getting together in Kurashiki for dinner and karaoke that night, and asked me if I wanted to come. I said yes. We went to the station straight from work, and met at a restaurant with thickly carved wooden benches. It was a substantial crowd. My manager (whom I'll refer to as Manager) was there, as well as his girlfriend British Girl Factor Two, Ghost Face (but no Catgirl), and another company worker whom I'll call Innocent for reasons I'm not going to go into here. There was also a flock of other people who worked for various schools around the area crammed into the place.
I ordered oolong. There would be no puking on this night. I also ordered Curry, which was delicious. We finished up, and made our way to a karaoke parlour where there turned out to be quite the wait for a box. I began to talk with a few people I didn't know. There were two other teachers who'd only been in Japan for a short time, and we started chatting.
"One thing that I wanted to do here," said a hipster-looking girl in a trucker hat, "is take some time to read cool books while I'm here, since I figured that I'm going to have a limited access to English language stuff." This was cool. This is the exact same thing that I'm doing. "So right now I'm reading the Iliad," she said.
"That's awesome, I said, I'm doing the same thing. I just started on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."
"I love James Joyce! That's so cool! You need to tell me what you think of it, when you're done."
"I'll do that."
"You know what's funny," said Ghost Face, "is that you can actually get English Language stuff here really easily." We just sort of looked at him.
"Yeah," I said, "but it's expensive."
"Yeah," he replied, "but you can still get whatever you want. And shipping from Amazon isn't that bad." We continued to just sort of look at him. I don't care, I'm still reading James Joyce and Laurence Sterne and stuff while I'm here, despite the easy access to other things.
We got a booth, and proceeded to sing our hearts out. I continued to order oolong. Ok, so I had two beers, but I stayed obstinantely sober whilst everyone else got trashed. I belted out Bullet With Butterfly Wings and Anarchy in the U.K. (with some backing vocals from the actual Brish people), tried my best to sing Fake Plastic Trees, and joined in a rousing rendition of Like a Prayer. At some point, someone decided that Mr. Roboto would be a good idea. They were wrong, though. Mr. Roboto is never a good idea, not even during karaoke. Fortunately, Love Shack is always a good idea.
While I sipped tea and listened to gleeful mutilations of pop music, I realized that a lot of these people were remarkably similar to myself. It seemed that lots of them had a sort of "quarterlife crisis" and thought "Well, why not go to a foreign country?" It was a room full of twentysomethings who had all almost impulsively shipped themselves to another country, with little clear idea as to why they wanted to abandon the familar for a time. Knowing this, I was much more at ease. The night before, I'd felt like quite the idiot and social failure, but all the foreigners here seemed to be in the same "place" as me. I'll only be here for a year, so I doubt that I'm going to make any lasting friendships (yes, I'm cynical about things like that) but I don't have any anxiety about finding people that I can at least temporarily connect with.

I missed the last train, of course, and hence had to stay in British Girl's guest room. When I got back to what I suppose is called "home" I took a shower and cracked open Portrait of the Artist. It's odd, getting comfortable without becoming familiar.

Nov 15, 2006

Knife Fights and Motorbikes

"Do you like martial arts?"
Well, yeah. I took fencing and Aikido in college, and thoroughly enjoy hitting people with swords. Though in this case it turned out to be knives, but those are cool, too. Mr Ecaudor it, turns out, is a total martial arts geek, and is constantly on the lookout for other guys to train with. There's another guy that he normally fights with (whom I met at the gaijin bar a while back) but he'd stepped on a nail, and was unable to join up. So, last night we went out to the darkened courtyard of Okayama Castle, and I learned all about Indonesian knife fighting.
It's a lot of fun, and both similar and different from fencing and Aikido- it seemed to have the stabby/cutty feel of fencing and the dodgey/movey feel of Aikido. And some other stuff. I didn't get all of it.
Anyway, Mr. Ecaudor was teaching me all this the Huge Geek segment of my brain started firing off- "This is so cool," it said, "I'm in a castle courtyard by night doing martial arts! Squeee!" Yeah. Doing martial arts in a gym is fun, but doing it next to the giant stone foundations of a Japanese castle in the middle of the night? Pretty badass. In situations like this, one can't help but mentally edit themselves into old grainy Bruce Lee footage. "You must die! I alone am best!"
Ok, to be fair, Okayama Castle-pictured here- isn't really all that great. Like the rest of Okayama, it was bombed in WWII, and most of it was destroyed. Some of the foundations and walls are original, but for the most part it's mostly a museum that happens to look like a castle.
Of course, I learned that if I ever did get in an actual Indonesian knife fight, I'd probably be short a few feet of intestines, maybe a lung, and probably a spleen. Still fun, though.
After a while, we decided to ride out to the 24 hour cheap food mart to acquire provisions. In the parking lot, I saw probably the single most hilarious thing that I've seen here in Japan.
There were these two kids on a motorbike, revving their engine to all hell. It's the noise that I like to call the "I have a penis" noise, and these kids were screaming it all over the place at 12:30 A. M. They had black ski masks on, and were promptly followed by a cop car.
Now, the cop cars here aren't the boxy land boats of the U.S. Back in the states, those things are basically mobile gun-laden mini-tanks of speedy of intimidation. Japanese cop cars look more like go-carts. Or something out of Pixar's latest movie. They're all dimunitive and light and stuff. Kawaii!
So, these two kids are on this bike zooming in loops around the parking lot all the while making the "I have a penis" noise. They zig and zag around cars and shopping carts, between signs and lamposts, and through the various gates. In the meantime, this cop car is on their tail. Now, this light little cop car can angle really, really well. It was actually sort of impressive how manueverable this thing was. But, the kids had them beat for speed. The bike was way faster than the cop's go-cart could ever hope to go, and as soon as they pealed out of the parking lot (whilst flipping the cops the bird, mind you) they were gone, leaving the cops in the dust like chumps.
Apparently, this happens all the time here. A year ago, the cops killed some kids here when they pulled them off their bike, and as a result they're no longer allowed to actually pull them over. So, they just follow them and try to manuever them into roadblocks, which apparently never happens. Because of this, the kids just get on their bike more now.
So, especially in the summer, Okayama is aswarm with high school and college students who pull up black ski masks, hop on bikes, and piss off the cops. It's like they're a bunch of juvenile motor-ninjas, and the cops are extras from the Blues Brothers. It's a bad 80s movie come to life.

Nov 12, 2006

"Je ne parle pas de Japonais."

A few days ago I went into a video game store. Whilst the titles were in Roman script, the rest was Greek to me.
Yesterday, British Girl showed me where the manga is. Of course, I could read none of it.
I must learn Japanese.
Sure, there's practical considerations. I'd like to be able to, say, interact with the world around me on a daily basis and do all sorts of practical stuff, but having lots of sweet looking comics and video games dangled in front of me is quite the carrot. You here that? "Awesome video games" is more of a motivator to me than "going to the post office without an interpreter." Watashi wa huge geek.
So, I'm diving into studies. Japanese doesn't actually seem that difficult. The spoken language is fairly straightforward, none of the bajillion rules and exceptions that we have in English, and all of the phonetic sounds in Japanese also occur in English, so pronunciation is a breeze.
But the written language is a little daunting.
The two phonetic alphabets don't seem that bad. I'm picking up the hiragana and katakana fairly quickly, but the fact that there are two completely redundant phonetic systems seems a little weird to me. Ah well.
And then there are the Kanji.
The Kanji are also completely redundant. All of the phonetics of the Kanji can be made using just the Hiragana (and sometimes are), but there are a number of homonyms in Japanese that apparently the Kanji clarify is written language. Personally, eye love homonyms, and don't sea how this is much of a problem. But people tell me that the Kanji have all kinds of subtleties, so I'll just take their word for it.
One weird thing, that's happening, though, is that the latent part of my brain that knows some French has started to become active again. I suppose that French is what I think of when I think of "crazy non-English foreign talk," and thus it's started to surface.
Now, I hated French in high school. Not because of the subject matter, mind you, but because my teachers were real chiennes. They hated me. I hated them. I gained a subconcious hostility to learning foreign languages for quite a while. In fact, my antipathy towards foreign languages is part of the reason why I've got a B.S. in Political Science rather than a B.A.- I decided that calculus was far more bearable than ever having to take a foreign language course again.
I blame my evil French teachers.
Hip-Hop speaks a little French (about as much as me), and we've sometimes interpersed it with English and Japanese, mostly to drive our manager crazy. The Manager is actually a really cool guy, and speaks pretty good English, even though he's always putting himself down. Partly because of my bubbling up memories, and partly because of banter with Hip-Hop I've started mixing in French, sometimes unconciously, when I've tried to say stuff in Japanese. I think I've said "pardonnez moi," on the street instead of "sumi ma sen." I've actually said "bonjour" to people, and I think that a "c'est vrai" came out once. As you can see, I don't even speak that much French. We're talking bare-bones high school remnants here, but they're reappearing anyway. I thought that I'd left French on the regrettable slag pile of high school memories, but it's come back, somehow. I'm interested in it again, along with Japanese.
So, I had an hour or so between classes a few nights ago, and was out walking. I looked at the various signs, and tried to pick out the kana and kanji that I could recognize (not very much of it) and I was suddenly struck with a sort of epiphany: I will not die monolingual. I'm in Japan for a year, living in a different language environment, and you don't really get a better learning opportunity than that. I'm going to learn Japanese, dammit. And I'm going to take another look at French. Hey, if two year olds can learn languages, I can to.
I figure I'm 26, so I've got plenty of time to practice. And English, Japanese, and French would be a pretty wicked trifecta of languages to know. English and French together can get you almost anywhere in Europe, and there's no shortage of cool stuff in Japanese.
I can do this.

Nov 11, 2006

Yukio Mishima: Beautiful Whackjob

Disclaimer: This post is long, unfunny, and about books. You've been warned.
One of my side projects here in Japan is that I've pretentiously decided to read Big Important Books. I have no idea why I think reading Ulysses in Japan is a good idea. Maybe I want to be confused by the English language, as well as Nihongo. Maybe I'm a huge nerd. Maybe my ego is insufficiently inflated. I don't know.
Anyway, I've decided that some of the stuff I read over here should probably be by Japanese authors. You know, since I'm in their country and stuff. Two of my Japanese coworkers recommended Yukio Mishima to me. Both of them, though, were quick to emphasize that he was "crazy." Well, one of them said he was "crazy and kind of fucked up." But crazy nonetheless.
And he was! He was a totally unhinged whackjob who killed himself with a sword. Fun stuff. But, when not kidnapping government officials or disemboweling himself, he wrote books.
Anyway, I picked up Confessions of a Mask, which is considered his Big Famous Book and read it this past week. The book is a semi-autobiographical account of a young man growing up gay in Japan before, during, and slightly after WWII. He is constantly alienated from his environment, as his sexuality continually mismatches him with the other boys at his school, with women, and with what various friends and family members expect of him. He desperately tries to decieve himself, to be attracted to women, to carry on an affair with one, to trick himself into heterosexuality. He fails. He fails to conform to the social standards around him, fails to complete his self deception, and fails to make peace with his nature. The book, if anything, is a splendid example of the effects of alienation.
One of the things that especially liked about it was that Mishima definitely makes alienation something sensual. In one of the book's most cringe-inducing scenes, he describes how his legs shake hopelessly as he tries to have sex with a prostitute (after improperly kissing her, mind you). He talks about how he stares at a woman's legs and feels nothing, yet is continually drawn to men's armpits. A hopeless relationship is summed up in a description of a perfectly penned letter, and he again and again gives us descriptions of how he conflates sex with violence, beginning with the narrator masturbating to painting of the dying St. Sebastian.
So, Mishima does something that I admire quite a bit; he deals in abstracts by way of the substantial. T. S. Eliot called this the Objective Correlative. He maintained that simply mentioning an emotion or idea was not enough to call it forth in the reader, there must be something that elicits it.
Mishima does this very well. Even his use of the passive voice I can forgive, as it adds to the distance and alienation omnipresent in Confessions of a Mask. As to his ideas, though, I have a number of criticisms.
First off, what's with the constant conflation of sex and death? I don't know if Mishima really understood his own "deal" or not, but both he and his semi-fictional narrator constantly knit together sexual desire and the desire to die or kill. I think I have an good idea about this, one that I got from, of all places, Phillip K. Dick.
In The Man in the High Castle (another novel where WWII and Japan figure prominently) Dick offers probably the best description of a Nazi that I've ever encountered. The Nazi he describes is an iconic one, a blonde German youth painted garishly on a propaganda poster, gazing off into some distant something. This particular image, says Dick, bespeaks an illusion of power. The Nazi is one who does not build some endeavor or create meaning. Instead, he fools himself into what he thinks is a sort of universal power- he imagines himself an agent of entropy and oblivion, and seems to think that he is somehow contributes to the inevitable. He thinks that because he contributes to and somehow aides that which is inevitable, he as achieved meaning. In reality, though, this is just a different sort of resignation and nihlism.
It is quite the opposite of what Camus (my favorite existentialist) called a "rebellion against absurdity." Camus says that even though entropy, death, oblivion, etc. will all come, that does not mean that we should embrace them or wish for them. He says that existence can be validated and made meaningful as a thing in the present. Death or an afterlife do not validate or invalidate the meaning that we create now.
If both of the summations above sound facile, it's because Dick and Camus were better writers than I'll ever be, and I'm just summing them up while drinking tea. Go read The Man in the High Castle and The Myth of Sisyphus. They're both short and highly worth it. Do it!
Anyway, back to Mishima...
Mishima seems to take the attitude that Dick describes with regards to his own sexuality. Never in Confessions of a Mask does Mishima long for love or understanding. He longs for sex and death- death of both his lovers and himself. Honestly, I think that the idea of real love with another man (you know, the kind where they'd go to Sunday brunch together, or pick out curtains) was something too enormous and sad for him to really want. I think that such an idea seemed such an absurd possibility to him (at least at the young age when he wrote Confessions of a Mask) that he resigned himself into becoming an agent of entropy and oblivion like Dick's Nazi, one who persues an ephemeral meaning by allying with one's destroyer.
Mishima also continually asks if love can exist without sex. "Yes, yes, yes," I wanted to shout at him. Such a question, based upon my own experience, seems naive and obvious to me, yet Mishima seems obsessed with it. In the second half of the book he attempts a heterosexual relationship with a woman whom he seems to love but does not desire. Yet that is my own interpretation. He wonders, constantly, whether he "loves" her or not. "You do indeed," I wanted to say at the narrator, "even if you don't desire her." However, neither Mishima nor his narrator inhabited a society where such a relationship (i.e., a friendship between a gay man and a straight woman) would be usual. The narrator seems to think that their relationship must be sexual or nonexistent, and thus the relationship is duly doomed.
A curious thing that I thought about Confessions of a Mask, though, is that there is no point in which the mask is ever removed. There is one self-critical section in the middle of the book where the narrator comes very, very close to being honest with himself, but he does not accept himself. Nor does he ever ask for acceptance. Nor does it occur to him to even desrire it.
I find this unusual. My personal opinion is that a cry of despair should also be a cry of "what is to be done?" Things Fall Apart, for instance, is not only a great book because of its storytelling, but also because it is demonstrative of the dehumanizing legacy of colonialism, and implicity (well, almost explicitly) it is a plea for cessation of barbarism.
Confessions of a Mask, though, is not a "gay liberation" book. Mishima does not raise his fist or voice in the air to ask for acceptance. He does not long for social or political change regarding his desires, and does not seem to think things could be different. (Perhaps this resignation explains Mishima's later desire for oblivion as he advocated militarism.) To my modern liberal sensibilities, this is bizzare. Why wouldn't you demand your society to change? Why wouldn't you protest? Why wouldn't let loose your barbaric yowp to the world? Because of this, Mishima and his narrator seem tragic beyond the scope of his fiction, and Confessions of a Mask seems to become the testament of a crying, troubled man.
At the end of the day, though, the book is brilliant. Mishima's writing style is something that I immediately took to, and even if he didn't intend to be so, Confessions of a Mask is, I think a great object lesson. Mishima is what happens when human love and desire is stunted and malformed, a tragedy of deception and unacceptance. The narrator's troubles existential troubles and self-hatred in Confessions of a Mask are wonderful arguments (even if they are unintended arguments) for liberalism regarding sexuality. Even if Mishima does not ask for acceptance, I will happily grant it to him.
I don't believe in an afterlife, but if there is one I hope that Yukio Mishima is in some gay S&M version of the Islamic heaven, surrounded by all sorts leather restraints and hot young studs. Maybe they could have some exotic piercings. I think he'd like that.
And don't worry- there will be more drunken ramblings, karaoke beltings, linguistic adventures and cultural mix ups to come. Not everything here is going to be a long literary ramble.

What it is I Do

So, I feel like I should give some explanation as to what I do here in Japan, and clarify the title of this blog- I work for an Eikaiwa, a conversational English school. All Japanese people get at least two years of formal English training in primary school, and many study beyond that into secondary school and university. However, most of the English education that they get emphasizes formal and grammatical aspects of language, and actual conversational skills are usually lacking. So, there are plenty of Japanese people who can tell you what the present perfect continuous is, but can't tell you how their weekend was.
This doesn't surprise me. I remember taking French in high school, and I spent quite a lot of time conjugating verbs and other such busy work, and much less time talking. Likewise, I can read french decently well, but can't speak it worth a damn. It seems that many Japanese people can also read and write English pretty well, but speaking is a totally different matter.
So, there are schools like mine that are all about teaching conversational English, stuff that's actually used by native speakers. I actually taught a whole class on using things like "um,""uh,""oh," and "hmm..." last week. It was way more difficult to teach than I initially thought.
Most of my students are college types and professors, which is nice. They're eager and interested and generally have a better grasp on English than most of the older people that I've talked to. Also, they're fairly easy to relate to. One of my students, whom I will henceforth refer to Mr. Hardcore, is an engineering student who is perpetually wearing the insignia of some dozen bands at any given time. Yesterday we spent a good while talking about how it was way too bad that Rage Against the Machine broke up (I know, that was a while ago) and that Audioslave is somewhat poor substitute. I've also got this married couple who are both doctors, and are just brilliant. They seemed very reserved at first but they "get" whatever I'm talking about very quickly. Smart ones, those doctors. So, my students are mostly very cool. (Drunk and Violent seems to be a nasty exception.) Some of them stare at me and say "What mean?" a lot, but mostly I think they have a good time.
And then there are the kids. More on them later.
A few of my coworkers, though, have mentioned that this place isn't about the language. "It's Dancing Monkey Time," said Mr. Ecuador, "I seriously think that a lot of people come here to hang out with Westerners, or to just be exposed to American culture. It's considered cool to say to your friends, 'I'm taking English lessons.' So they're here for the Dancing Gaijin Monkey." British Girl said pretty much the same thing, refering to classes as "Happy Gaijin Time." "Don't fall into the trap of thinking that you're a real teacher," she said, "if you help them learn English, great, but remember that this job is just a means to an end to be in Japan." I don't know if they're right about this or not. Not yet.
Now, there are a fair amount of students who are studying for English language qualifying tests, and Mr. Hardcore and others seem pretty intent on furthering their career goals by becoming fluent. I've told my students that they can ask me about whatever they want regarding English, and a few have taken me up on the offer, which has been cool. But I think that both of them may be partly right, that some people do just come here for the "OMG! Gaijin!" factor.
I've yet to become cynical about this. On the other side of the equation, I'm working for this company simply becaus of the "OMG! Japan!" factor, so I think that there's a sort of balance there. I am fascinated by Japanese culture, and if they wish to be fascinated by mine, then I think that's quite the fair trade.
In the meantime, I actually kind of enjoy getting paid to talk to people, hence the title of this blog, I am a Hired Tongue. I'm in Japan, selling my language to fund the venture. And a language, unlike a kidney, is something that you can keep when you sell.

Nov 8, 2006

My Reviews of Japanese Stuff, Part I

Well, that last post was sort of negative. I'm actually having a great time here, and to lighten the mood just the little, I'd like to unveil the first in what I'm hoping to be a series of installments which I call My Reviews of Japanese Stuff. Aren't I a clever title-maker? Well, let's start off with...


So, I'm basically addicted to coffee. Since about sixth grade, actually. I've tried to kick the habit, several times, but always coffee comes back, like some coquettish old flame. Or like a chemical dependency. Take your pick.
Anyway, I was kind of hoping that going to Japan would be the one thing that finally allowed me to spurn my old love- A dramatic departure that once and for all banished my fiendish addiction, simply because coffee would not be available here. But it was not to be. Coffee was waiting for me here in Japan, albeit in a neverbeforedreamed location.
See, you can get most anything from Japanese vending machines.
At first, I was kind of dubious. Holding the small circular (and heated!) can before me, I steeled myself for something that I was sure would taste something almost, but not entirely, exactly unlike coffee. How wrong I was. It was actually damn tasty. Had it been presented to me by a barrista in cup form, I would have had no complaints.
Now, almost every day, I invest a paltry 120 yen into readily available vending machine coffee. Sure, it's not like the fresh brewed stuff that you'd drink during sunday brunch, but it's decently tasty, easy to find, and cheap. I'm hooked.
Oh yeah, and there are lots of Starbucks here. Imagine that.

Trains in Japan are almost always on time, easy to use, and reasonable cheap. Also, they go very fast. I like that.

It's sushi. It's awesome. Duh.

Okonomiyaki is like this kind of Japanese pancake thing made from chopped cabbage and other stuff, fried up right in front of you, and doused in sauce. You can get it with squid, pork, beef, whatever. It's crispy and sizzly, probably bad for you, and best of all there's a great place for it right by my apartment.

Schoolgirl Uniforms
So, I went to a Catholic school for elementary school. It was not pleasant, and I actually had to wear one of those stupid uniforms. Since then, I've been somewhat mystified by the whole "schoolgirl" fetish thing. I remember seeing girls in those uniforms. They were not sexy. At all. They were dumb looking and plaid. And the skirts? Way past the knees. There was not even the suggestion of thighs.
Short plaid and/or pleated skirts (thought me) were purely the province of things pornographic. Actual schoolgirls (thought me) wouldn't ever don such revealing attire. So, to review, my mental layout looked something like this-

Long pleated and/or plaid skirt: "I am the recipient of a parochial education."
Short pleated and/or plaid skirt: "I am so badly wanting 'it.'"

Hahahahaha! Silly me! Schoolgirls here prance around all the time those little sailor-esque uniforms, and all of them seem to don legwear that has heeded MAD Magazine's oft-repeated call of "Up with miniskirts." However, my mental signifiers haven't really adjusted yet. It's like they're some huge cast of a "barely legal" porno, I thought. Don'tlookattheirlegsdon'tlookattheirlegsdon'tlookattheirlegs, I continued to think. But I did. I'm now going to hell when I die. I swear, Charles Bukowski's ghost really is haunting me.
Ok, this wasn't really a review of anything, but it kind of fit here.

More unfounded opinions to come! Wheee!

Nov 7, 2006

Fun With Racism!

Ok, so I don't want prejudice, ethnic tensions, linguistic differences, or world politics to become the gimmick of this blog. I just want to have an outlet to talk about my travel experiences with people who care enough to read it while they drink coffee or something. So, between the mocking of various accents and the following post, I really don't want this to become a pattern. That said...
Last week I was chatting after class with a student that several other teachers have warned me about. "Don't ever get drunk with her," they said, "she gets really violent." Apparently I've yet experience this phenomenon (and I'm weirdly non-curious about ever doing so) but I'll refer to her as Drunk and Violent anyway.
So, Drunk and Violent has travelled quite a bit. She's been the United States, to Europe, to Australia, to Korea. You'd think that a person like that would have their eyes opened up, would be sort of liberalized by seeing lots of different peoples, cultures, languages, etc. Right? Those gallivanting world traveller types have to be pretty liberal, because they've seen how we're all one, big, happy world family, right? You know, like from some UNICEF promo material. Well, no.
We were looking at the map in my classroom, and she was telling me all about her travels in Europe. "Italy," she said, pointing to Italy, "France, Spain, Portugal. Latin countries, right"
"Yes," I said, smiling, "their languages all came from Latin." I thought, for a moment, that we were going to have a nice and interesting conversation about the evolution of the Romance languages or something to that effect.
"I HATE Latin countries!" she almost spat on me when she said it.
"Latin countries! I hate them! ITALY," she pointed at Italy again, "Italy is the worst! All Italians are thieves!" Now, one likes to think that when confronted with prejudice or ignorant shit like this, one would whip out some sort of verbal judo that will expertly disarm and shame one's opponent. No. Instead I just sort of stood there for a moment with my mouth open.
"My mother's family was from Italy," I eventually said.
"Oh. Well, some Italians are nice people, but most are thieves."
So, even though I have to teach her, Drunk and Violent is not on my "cool person" list. I'd hate to meet her when she's actually liquored up.


I've seen and heard lots of trucks buzzing around Okayama carrying big, annoying loudspeakers blaring things at the general public. These trucks generally have lots of guys in either suits or pseudo uniform-things riding on them, and are often adorned with a few Japanese flags. This is actually kind of odd- in the U.S., the flag is on everything. Cars, t-shirts, dogs, everything. In Japan, the flag isn't really on anything, so the fact that these trucks have flags is unusual.
"What's with the really annoying trucks?" I asked Hip-Hop.
"Fucking assholes," he said.
"Nani?" said me.
"Some of them are politicians, but most of them are crazy right wing groups who want to kick out the Koreans."
"You're kidding."
"Nope. They're a bunch of ignorant shits who disturb the peace. I think they should be banned. Okayama's got a lot of them, unfortunately."
For a few moments, I thought it was kind of unbelievable that a bunch of people would get in trucks every day, put on uniforms, a spout xenophobic rhetoric to people while everyone was walking to work and getting coffee. But back in the good ol' U.S. of 'Merica, we've got a bunch of self-appointed guys with guns and trucks who hang out on the southern border and watch for immigrants.
It's weird to think of racism as contemporary, even when faced with it. I've always thought of it as something that "happened" as opposed to "happening." That opinion is quite wrong, I'm afraid.
Ok, I'm ever so slightly depressed after writing that. Here's a nice picture of some koi! Pretty koi! Koi like everyone- Latins, Koreans, whoever! Right, guys? Pretty koi.

Ninety Pounds of Pure Terror

You know what are scary? Not zombies. Zombies are all lumbering and beheadable.
No, cops are scary.
That distinctive blue woven fabric is more a banner of terror than any pustulating flesh will ever be... even if the cop wearing it is a tiny woman about a foot shorter and seventy pounds lighter than you. Prior to my departure, one of the trainers went out of his way to warn us about the Japanese police. I remember him cocking his head in question and saying that "They," and here he paused. It was a pause long enough to let us know that he wanted to say something rude, but was searching for a diplomatic alternative, "enjoy what they do," he finished.
Later, another trainer was not so circuitous. "Japanese cops are assholes," he told me, "have your papers on you. They can hold you for up to sixteen days without charging you of anything, and even after that apply for an extension. And, because your foreign, they'll get it. I've heard stories."
So, a few days ago, I was to meet one of my managers outside of the school. I was a few minutes early, and standing there with my bike, and this tiny woman with a badge on her hat walked up to me.
"Konichiwa," she said.
Oh shit, I thought, don'tfreakoutdon'tfreakoutdon'tfreakout, I continued to think.
"(something in Japanese that I didn't understand)"
I gave her a blank look.
"Card please," she said en Anglais, now, the paperwork for my alien registration card had not all gone through yet, so I just handed her my passport.
"Your bike?" she said?
I realized suddenly what this was all about. Bikes in Japan have to be registered in the same fashion of cars. However, I acquired the bike in question simply by inhereting it from the teacher whose job I took over. (You remember this bike- the wimpy bike I took to the Inland Sea.)
The bike wasn't registered in my name. My passport (which she had taken hostage) was demonstrably different from the regsistry that she was presently contacting on her little cop-radio. I suddenly had images of myself hauled off to some sterile metal cell, where I'd languish alone under pale, green flourescent lights shouting "I demand to see the American Consul!" at the top of my lungs, only to be ignored and forgotten by a heartless Kafka-esque beauracracy.
"Choto matte kudasai," (one moment) I said and reached for a phrasebook that I hoped would have some magical ass-saving phrase buried within it's covers.
"So," she said, "you know Chris?"
"Huh?" I looked up. "Hai."
"This is Chris's bike."
"Hai. He gave it to me."
Then she just laughed at me. I was, after all, a six foot tall guy, fumbling with a phrasebook, visibly frightened of a tiny woman in a hat. "Ok, ok," she said.
"Ok, ok." She was smiling, and laughing her ass off. Like, loudly. I'd heard all this stuff about the Japanese being all reserved and introverted, and here was a case-in-not-point. A few people were also looking at us, and seemed amused.
"Ok," she said again, and walked away.
I met up with my manager a few moments later and told him about. "Well," he said, "she was probably just bored, and thought you'd be fun to fuck with."

Nov 6, 2006


So, here I am at a traditional Shinto shrine. Did I say "Shinto shrine?" I meant "Icon of mass consumerism and camp." Sorry.


I think I'm a pretty liberal person. Very liberal. I'm all tolerant and progressive. I like NPR and vote Democratic, I enjoy tofu, eat healthy foods,and listen to moody indie rock. I want to save the Earth and be able to see gay people get married. You know, all that progressive stuff.
Anyway, nice, tofu-eating, indy-rock-enjoying, Democratic-voting people are a pretty tolerant lot, right? We're above doing dumb, culturally insensitive stuff, like, oh, I don't know, making fun of people who are different than us. You know, like the dirty, stinking, tea-swilling British.
One of my coworkers, the already mentioned British Girl, is, as you can probably figure out, is from that northern island. She's got those adorable little "Union Jacks" along with a "Map of the British Isles" hung in her classroom, where she teaches naive Japanese folks the mongrelized dialect that she laughingly refers to as "English." Ha-ha! Silly English! Don't they know they actually speak British?
Anyway we both had a lot of time on our hands at the end of the day on saturday, so we were just chatting outside our respective classrooms, and we got to discussing our various linguistic differences. I think it began when she attempted to correct my pronunciation of the word "leisure," which I pronounced (correctly, I might add) "lee-sure." She, though, insisted that the One True Way of intonating Mr. Suit Larry's first name was "le sure." Now, while "le sure" would be a great name for an ironic French music magazine, it is not how one pronounces leisure.
C'mon, Yanks. Are you with me?
Anyway, I decided to just sort of roll with it initially, and attempted to take her "corrections" in stride. "Le sure," I said, "but that just sounds like I'm mocking a British accent."
"No it doesn't," she said, "you just sound normal when you say it like that."
"Oh?" I asked, "So I sound all correct and British?"
Now, I knew that at this moment I could have simply let things slide and changed topics. I didn't do that. I conjured up my best memories of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins and...
"Pip, pip!"
"Stop that. No one actually says that."
"Pip, pip, Guvn'or! Bob's yer uncle?"
"British people don't actually talk like that, you know."
"What's all this, then?"
"Ok, that one was not funny!"
"Bugger me bobbins, Guvn'or! Right-O! Jolly good! Blimey!"
This was about the point where she started hitting me.
"Bloody 'ell! She's 'ittin me, she is! Pip, pip, gel!"
"Yeah, meaner British people would be hitting you in the face instead of the arm!"
"Lay off, old gel! Lay off!" Yeah, she was a bit amused, but she was pissed. And I thought it was hilarious in a sort of twisted, international sociopathic way.
"How would you like it if I made a fake Southern accent?" She asked.
"Well, ah reckon ah'd be right amused by that, ma'am. Shore would. Yee-haw!"
We actually ended up having a long, nerdy conversation about the evolution of English, the migration of various dialects, and such. She's not pissed at me, and I don't hate British people, but damn was it fun exploiting cultural stereotypes.


Ok, not meanwhile, but actually the day before that, another coworker (A Japanese guy who speaks flawless American English, and whom I will henceforth refer to as Hip-Hop, given his musical tastes) and I were sitting around Ye Olde Conversational English School, and he asked me if I wanted to do some prep work for interviewing prospective students. When a new student comes in, I've got a series of questions of progressive conversational difficulty that I ask them and see how good they are with it. It's like "Blade Runner," but without the robots and mood lighting.
Anyway, Hip Hop sat down and said, "Ok, I'm going to pretend to be a new student, and you try to guess my level of English."
"Ok," I said, and the role-play began.
"Hello," said me.
Hip Hop leaned forward, his hands folded and his eyes ever so slightly wider. "He-ROH!"
Do not laugh, I thought, don't be a dick. Do. Not. Laugh.
I laughed.
"What you laugh? What? My Engrish funny? Funny Engrish?" damn if he didn't milk the rs for all they were worth. He did it with a totally straight face. Now, I've hear plenty of Japanese people with not the best English, and it's fine. I'm not some chauvanistic dick who laughs whenever someone drops an article. Hell, they're bilingual and I'm not. I respect that. But, seeing a perfectly fluent guy deliberately fake the worst, bad, stereotypical Japanse accent was not something I could not laugh at, and I kind of hated myself for it even though Hip Hop was reveling in exploiting the stereotype. Japan will ruin me.


Last night in a bar with some other teachers, one of them, a Japanese woman, said "I just love it when Westerners try to speak Japanese! You guys have the most adorable bad accents. It's just so cute!"
"Oh?" said I.
"Yeah! You need to learn Japanese so I can make fun of you."
Aren't stereotypes fun? I think we all learned a lot today.

Nov 3, 2006

In Which an Old Lady Shows me the Sandals

So, some of the coworkers and I went out for Korean barbecue last night, and I've got say that the stuff is absolutely brilliant. Here's the setup: You and your friends sit around this metal-topped table with these holes in the middle of it. The holes are resceptacles for these mini-barbecue pit things that are inserted into your table. So, this guy who looked more like a welder than a chef in his leather apron and gloves came by and gave us two of these mini-firepits that sizzled away right in front of us.
The fun part is that you can order big plates of raw meat (and the occasional veggie) and roast them yourself right there. It's awesome! Seriously- you get to sit there, eating meat and drinking beer, and experience the ever-stimulating activity of setting things on fire. No matter how advanced our various forms of entertainment ever become, I don't think that anything will ever be able to truly replace watching something go *Foom!* as it's licked by flames. I'm sure there's some atavistic evolutionary principal at work here, some serious Clan of the Cave Bear thing going on. I have no complaints.
I also got the opportunity to try some new and different meat foods, which was cool. In addition to traditional (well, traditional by Western standards) cow body parts, we also had tongue and stomach, which were actually quite tasty, especially with this Korean hot sauce stuff. It was organ-liscious.
Anyway, at some point I got up to go to the bathroom. I even got to used a basic Japanese phrase: "Toire wa doko des ka?" I asked? The old lady who seemed to be the manager pointed me at the door, and I proceeded to open it. And, naturally, began to walk in.
Now, I'm not wearing shoes at this point. I've doffed them before sitting down as one does over here.
And out of nowhere, the old lady is suddenly grabbing my arm, saying something in Japanese, and gesturing at something on the ground. I have no idea what's going on. Why is this old lady trying to manhandle me? Am I going into the women's room by mistake?
Nope. I forgot the sandals. Apparently one puts on sandals before going to the bathroom. Makes sense, when you think about it. So, this old lady is still clutching my arm, talking in Japanese, and gesturing at the sandals. My coworkers are at our table, laughing uproariously. As are the guys in suits at the next table. As are the couple across the room. And the guy who looks like a welder.
"Sumi ma sen," (I think that means excuse me or sorry or something, haven't figured it out yet) I said as I put on the sandals, and went into the lavatory.
When I got back, my coworkers were still giggling, and British Girl (the one whom I went to Kurashki with) said "We were wondering if you'd do that."
"Everyone forgets the sandals," said Mr. Ecaudor, "she thought you might notice them, but I was all like, 'nah, he'll forget them like everyone does.'"
So, yeah- between my lack of drinking tolerance and my ignorance of local footwear customs, and who knows what else, I'm in store for all sorts of cultural snafus. It's like I'm Balki from Perfect Strangers. You know, the "Hi-larious Immigrant Character" type who says things like "I love America! Is wonderful for the living in!" That's me right now, except not as patriotic or Eastern European, but just as culturally deluded, overstimulated, and amusingly alien.

Nov 1, 2006

The Inland Sea by Night

It's twenty four hours later, and I still can't feel my legs all the way.
I inhereted this p.o.s. bike from the teacher I replaced, a complete aged clunker with all of three gears and no breaks. This thing isn't any sort of street bike or mountain bike, this is one of those big-tired things that are meant to be leisurely ridden around genteel urban areas on Sunday afternoon. Also, it's designed for someone who wears a dress. It's not at all like the sturdy and dependable hybrid I left behind in Eugene (which is on sale on Craigslist, hint, hint). This thing is what you would get if someone were to be able to metaphysically transform one of Cole Porter's less witty numbers into vehicle form.
Last night, a coworker (whom I will here on refer to as Mr. Ecaudor for reasons that will become apparent) asked me if I wanted to ride out to the Inland Sea (the stretch of water between Honshu and Shikoku) with him, and I said "sure." Now, my initial inclination was to go home after my first full day of teaching on my own, sit in front of a computer, write on this blog, eat a bento box, read, and fall asleep. I did none of those things. I figured that I'm here in Japan to do stuff, experience things, and get all edified, so I really ought to go out and see the picturesque oceanic marvel that I'm so near. So, I hopped on the wimpy bike, and we were off.
"It'll take about an hour," said Mr. Ecaudor. Ok, I thought, that didn't sound so bad. The wimpy bike, at least, is very agreeable. It goes forward in a genail and leisurely manner, and has this agreeable little light that's powered by the rider's own pedaling. I can do this for an hour.
I was technically correct. I was, obviously, able to make it there and back on this thing. However, it was quite the ordeal. After a while I realized that the bike was not actually big enough for me, so my legs did not extend all the way, and that it's three gears, though obliging and delightful, sadly lacked the grit and expertise necessary to get us where we were going in an optimally efficient way.
Note to self-get new bike. Riding this thing any serious distance over any real elevation gain is not a good idea.
But anyway, a lousy bike isn't that interesting.
What's more interesting is that we left Okayama and the surrounding cities behind. The landscape became sparser and darker around us, first docks and factories, closed for the night, and then country houses and rice paddies, all hugging the coast. The rice paddies had all been harvested at that point, and we stopped for a bit to look at the drained rows of cut crops, the bushels piled at regular intervals. The houses, also, were not the cramped affairs of the urban Japan that I've seen so far, but larger examples of traditional architechture, wood buildings with the sloping roofs of circular tiles.
All the while, Mr. Ecaudor was talking about his philosophy regarding martial arts and his time in the Peace Corps in Ecaudor. I actually like the guy quite a bit so far, he's been very friendly and helpful, but between the excruciating pain of pedaling the wimpy bike and the fascinating terrain, I wasn't really listening to him.
We got to the Inland Sea at perhaps 12:30 at night, and everything was still. We walked out to this stone dock type thing, a finger of rock extending into the water. Standing there, covered in sweat from the trip, I looked for waves and ripples in the water and found nothing other than the minor flurries lapping under my feet. Near the shore was a sort of glowing plankton, hard to see at first, but once I noticed their luminescence I couldn't stop seeing their small, glowing forms.
I know it sounds extremely trite to say this, but I was weirdly comforted by finding similar constellations in the sky. Yeah, cue up "Somewhere, Out There" from an American Tail and start going on about how "we're all just citizens of one big world" and crap like that, but I was seriously pleased to see Orion as bright as ever astride a foreign sky. I'm serious here! It was all Hallmark and shit. Had not some other guy been going on about his Latin American adventures (which, admittedly, did sound pretty neat) I would have gladly laid flat on my back and just picked out the stars that I know.
Now stop laughing. Not all of my posts will be able to have catgirls and drunkeness in them.
The whole thing, though, did sort of drive home to me that I've come a great deal of distance. Literally. I mean, when you sit in an airplane you just sort of sit on your ass and sleep and whatever until you're somewhere else. Physically and painfully taking myself out to the silent rural coast drove home the obvious point that I am very much somewhere else now. I still don't know what to think about that.