Dec 30, 2006

Anecdotical Little Bits

I have plenty of amusing little conversations here in Nihon. "Do you have X in America," seems to be a perennial conversation topic. Here are a few of them:

Happy Birthday to That Guy

The 23rd was the Emperor's birthday, and therefore a national holiday. We had the day off. The day before, I was talking about this with Hip-Hop and asked him, "What's the Emperor's name again?"
He stared off into space for a while.
"Uh... Oh shit."
"You don't know?"
"It's not like the Emperor matters," he said.
"This is your country, you should know stuff like this!"
"Sorry, dude."
We had to look it up on Wikipedia. The Emperor's name is Akihito.

OMG! You Can Eat! Part I
I was eating an octopus salad for lunch, when the Lady Manager looked at me in sudden astonishment.
"You're eating octuopus?!" she said, her eyes bugging out of her skull.
"Do you like it?"
"Yeah. It's chewy and stuff."
She was still surprised, "I thought that only Japanese people liked octopus."
I was slightly put out by this.
"Nope," I said, "I like it. Especially fried. Squid's good, too."
"Do you eat octopus in America?"
"Yeah. Not all the time, but we have it."
"Wow," she said, her eyes still enormous. I'd have been less surprised by this if I didn't know that she'd lived abroad for two years in Australia and Canada.

"Do you have Street Fighter in America?" asked my Guy Manager.
"The video game? Yeah."
"You do!" He looked at me as if this was the best thing ever.
"Yeah, I love Street Fighter!" I said.
"SONIC BOOM!" He shouted, making Guile's hand gesture.
"HADOUKEN!" I replied.
This went on for a while. I guess you had to be there.

OMG, You Can Eat! Part II
I was out with some other teachers and a few students and...
"You're using o-hashi!" (chopsticks) said a student.
"Wow! When did you learn?"
"I don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know?"
"I don't know, I've just always used them."
"What? You mean in America?"
"You have o-hashi in America?"

Dec 28, 2006

Otsukaresamadessu: In Which I Pity the Managers

"It's an honorable, tired person."
That's roughly the meaning of "otsukaresamadessu," a common salutation/farewell here in Nihon. It's what you say to someone whom you work with when you see that they've been doing a good job, trying hard, and generally being productive. At work, we say this a lot.
Well, just to be funny, I sometimes say "Wow, look at that honorable tired person!" in English in a way over-enunciated fashion. This is funny only to me.
In particular, I say it to my two managers, both of whom put in an absolutely obscene amount of hours, in my alien gaijin opinion.
Now, Mr. Ecuador and Hip-Hop have explained to me that the work ethic in Japan is somewhat different. Quantity itself matters. Overtime and staying late on a regular basis is sort of expected, regardless of how much work you actually have to do. So, I regularly see the two managers sitting in their office late, doing all manner of emailing and paperwork, skulking blearily over computers and papers.
(I should point out here that they aren't managers in the sense that we use the term "manager" in the States, i.e., they don't have hiring of firing power. They basically manage the school and take care of clerical work, getting students to pay tuition, putting up with stuff from the head office, etc. So, they're not really my bosses so much as they are coworkers. If they could actually fire me I doubt I'd be nearly as sympathetic to them.)
I like both of them. One of them, the guy, belts out Nirvana's Lithium every single time we go out for Karaoke. Every time. After the Christmas party, while everyone else was singing seasonal stuff, he sang Lithium. I have the sneaking suspiscion that he wants the song to assume tactile, anthropomorphic form so he could hungrily make love to it and subsequently have it's baby. He loves it that much.
The other, the lady, is a bit more removed. I've been out drinking with her, but not really socializing. We get along alright, though.
Anyway, when I see these two, late at night, exhausted and covered in paperwork, I'm overcome by the urge to give them hugs and coffee. I don't- that would be unprofessional -but I want to. I do have the sneaking suspicion that they could probably get everything done in a reasonable amount of time and then go home with the rest of us. But, given the demands of Japanese business culture, I think that they would catch no amount of shit from the higher-ups if they did that, and must therefore "stretch" the work they have to do to last until eleven or so at night.
Poor managers. Poor paperwork swamped managers. You guys are awesome, but overworked. Otsukaresamadessu, guys.

Dec 26, 2006

Does Your Cerebral Cortex Need Glucose? No? Well, Too Bad!

I feel compelled to bring this most whimsical bit of "moving picture art" to your attention. I would like to stress that despite the name and the opening bubble bath scene this is not porn. Totally not porn. Sure, it's gratuitous in the way that Japanese pop culture seems to be perpetually gratuitious, so it's not really work safe, but all the naughty bits are covered. Stick around until you see the bad guy. He rocks. Also, she scarfs down a bunch of onigiri, which has rapidly become my favorite snack in the whole world.

Cutie Honey 01

This, I have decided, is why God made YouTube. This thing has everything! It's like a bit anime/sentai/slapstick/cop movie/superhero remix! Pure brain sugar.
This appears to be the start of a series or a movie or something, and I want more. More brain sugar. I can even make the excuse that watching this stuff qualifies as "studying Japanese," given that it's in Japanese. Whoo-hoo! Hooray for ADD style entertainment!

Update: So, I've just wasted a good portion of my life watching all of this. The middle part drags a little with a silly attempt at "plot" wherein the characters do dumb things like "talk to each other." Methinks they blew most of their sfx budget on the beginning and end of the movie. The middle does however, have more gratuitous semi-nudity, binge drinking and karaoke, a Ju-On parody, and the Chief tells Cutie Honey to stay out of her monologue.
So, that's less engaging. But damn, at least watch part eight. Part eight has fireballs and a musical number.
I am now painfully aware of my incurable geekyness. It kinds of stings.

Dec 25, 2006

The End of the Beginning

It's Christmas day, and also the two month mark for me.
This is the first Christmas that I've ever been away from my family, and I'm happy to report that it's by no means the depressing, lonely, suicide-inducing experience that one generally expects that sort of thing to be. I'm going to a get-together with some other westerners tonight, we're going to sing Christmas songs and bond over our mutal estrangements. Fun times.
At two months, I think it's time for a bit of reflection. I feel like I've settled into things, like the initial shock has subsided, and like I've adjusted a bit. It is the end of the beginning.
I remember when I was in SFO, having to transfer from Portland. I remember seeing a whole mass of Japanese people waiting for the plane, and hearing annoucements in both English and Japanese, and I remeber feeling weird and disoriented by suddenly being a minority. I'm serious. Being an English-speaking white American who had been inside the country his whole life, I was jarred by the fact that I was suddenly not linguistically or ethnically "normal."
I hardly notice it now, though. Walking around, I've come to be accustomed to being a stranger. I do miss being able to speak well, or being innocuous. But, generally, I've become used to being what I think of as the opposite of Ellison's invisible man- I am a visible, glaring other.
Now, I think I might step into pretentious territory here.
I'm a linguistic and ethnic minority here. I'm not trying to conjure up any pathos with that description, I'm merely stating a fact. This is underscored by the fact that I'm paid to basically be American at people- my language is my marketable skill here. At the risk of sounding trite, I think that this whole experience has liberalized me a great deal. I think I know, just a little now, what it's like to be a minority. Granted, I have it good. I have my own apartment, an alright job, and don't have much difficulty with things. But, I still have that whole "Visible Man" thing going on. It's not a bad thing, but it's not like I could ever get rid of it or put it down.
I'm sort of wondering how, if at all, it will change me when I get back to the states. I'm curious if I will think about things such as immigration and race in a different fashion. Already, I think that Spanish on ATMs is a great idea. Finding English language stuff in Okayama isn't that easy, so I am somewhat grateful when I see something that I can understand. I think I can identify, a bit, with non-English speakers in the States, and how they are probably quite relieved to see their own language on something.
So yeah- There's something. Spanish on ATMs, and on customer service lines. I used to never see it, but now that I'm here surrounded by different alphabets and innumerable pictographs, I'm all for making things easier for people with different languages. I didn't wholly "get" that until I got here.
So- Yay for bilingual education! Hooray for cultural immersion! Hell-yeah for multilingualism! Merry Christmas!

Dec 17, 2006

My Reviews of Japanese Stuff, Part III: A Book, a Point of Etiquette, and a Transportation Phenomenon

Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto
Oh, Banana Yoshimoto. You're adorable.
Back in my bookstore days, I remember shelving/hearing about Yoshimoto quite a bit, but never read anything by her. So, in my quest to delve into Japanese literature, I picked up Kitchen, her best known book. I liked it. Ok, it's not great literature. It's light and fluffy, much like an amicable cat or the delightful holiday film Love, Actually. Not super great, but fun and smile-making.
That said, I'm now going to way overthink the book's sexual politics.
I picked up Kitchen right after I finished Confessions of a Mask, and was surprised that I'd yet again stumbled on another big, gay, Japanese book. Kitchen, though, isn't the sex-hell that Mishima describes.
The two stories in the book both feature men who dress as women- the first has undergone full-on sexual reassignment surgery, the second dresses in women's clothing. I find it curious, that in both stories the men's sexual different-ness is construed as a reaction to grief. And it seems, that because she presents transgenderism as a dramatic reaction to grief, Yoshimoto tacitly justifies it for the given circumstances of her characters.
But, that's not good enough, methinks.
I don't doubt Yoshimoto's sincerity. Like I said, she's adorable. She seems to have genuine empathy for her queer characters, but perniciously portrays alternative sexuality as something arising from extraordinary circumstances, not as something that's part of (that big, pretentious term) the human condition. I know that she wrote Kitchen as a young woman, and I wonder if her views have matured in the past twenty some years.
Japan is a much less sexually liberal contry than the U.S. So, I'm wondering if maybe I should have a "take what I can get" sort of attitude when it comes to any gleaming of sexual liberalism. Yoshimoto is a happy, pluralistic utopia compared with the brooding stylings of Mishima, so maybe instead of being annoyed at her for not being liberal enough, I should just be glad she's basically on my side philosophically. Hmm.
The book is fun, though. It's not the "new voice of young Japan" that people have proclaimed it to be, but if you want to be distracted for an afternoon, then I'd recommend it.

Being Expected To Slurp
Ramen, that is. This one requires somethign of a story-
One night, at the local gaijin bar, I was speaking English with a bunch of people, when all of a sudden this rather colorful dude walks in with a girl at his side. The guy was maybe in his sixties, gray hair, lined face, but wearing a pair of shiny leather pants with an enormous rhinestone buckle. It was like Texas had invaded his abdomen. This guy was what the word "jolly" was made for. He was old, his face lined, but he was active and outgoing, and was promptly able to charismatically dominate the bar, even though he spoke practically no English.
Beside him, was a girl maybe a third of his age. At first I thought it was a sugardaddy/armpiece arrangement, but I figured out that they were just friends. She was obviously in "going out" wear, but nothing of her's really matched her geriatric companion's cow-made culottes or shiny belt bling. She, too, spoke practically no English.
So, this old leather pants dude starts giving the gaijin there improptu Japanese lessons. It's incredible. He speaks very slowly, is happy and laughs a lot, and and everyone likes him. Meanwhile, the girl is hitting on me, and asks me if I like ramen. "Yes," I say. "I really want some ramen," she says as a pretention of getting us out of the bar. However, the leather pants guy managed to overhear us, and happily invited himself to ramen with us.
So, me, her, and the old guy in leather pants all go out for ramen at about one thirty in the morning. We sit there, and with their sparse English and my bare-bones Japanese, we actually managed to have a conversation. Apparently, he is an architect, and she is a geography student. And, while eating ramen, they told me all about slurping.
"In Japan," he said, "you slurp." He made a long, loud wet sound as he ate the ramen, and looked at me with the universal expression for "now you try."
I did, and forsaking all instinct and ingrained behavior patters, slurped up the noodles.
This was very weird for met. I sort of get this. I mean, slurping means you enjoy it, right? Which is good. But, for me, the slurping motion seems wholly unnatural. I try to do it, to fit in, but I'd much rather just simply swallow my ramen and be efficient about it rather than tacking on a superfluous slurping step.
But, now whenever I'm in a restaurant and eating some liquid-intensive food, I just think back to meeting the leather pants dude and the girl, and how they said "good job" to me as I got on my bike to bid them adieu. "Now you can slurp," they said, each giving me the thumbs-up sign in the moonlight. I rode home. I didn't make it with the girl, but I was quite happy with my new culinary knowledge.
And I do slurp. Loudly. The other gaijin think it's disgusting.

Maybe this is just an Okayama thing. I've heard that in big cities, traffic is quite regularized. But, out here in the "definitely-a-city-but-there's-lots-of-country-and-rural-stuff-around" land of Okayama, the street traffic is maddening. I'm not talking about driving (I don't have a car here) I mean biking and walking. I'm serious. Walking is confusing.
Except for one glorious street, Okayama doesn't have any bike lanes. So, everyone here just rides their bikes on the sidewalks. You'd think that this wouldn't be too big a deal. The sidewalks are very, very wide, so you'd think that the bikes would be consigned to one side, and pedestrians another. No, this is not the case.
I'm going to digress for a moment.
I have a friend back in Eugene, K, who is absolutely maddening to ride bikes with. Maddening because she's extrodinarily slow. When I ride my bike, I don't actually sit in the saddle. I stand up, so I can extend my legs all the way, only ever sitting when I'm stopping or going extremely slowly. K actually sits down. She sits in the saddle and leisurely pedals forward. When I asked her about this, she told me that bike riding should be "relaxing." I don't understand this. I mean, it can be relaxing sometimes, but mostly I think of bike riding as a form of rapid transit/exercise, neither of which you get leisurely sitting in the saddle, slowly pedaling forward.
Everyone in Okayama seems to ride like K. Everyone. Old ladies hunch over handle bars going the approximate speed of a peg-legged chihuahaua. Business guys chatting on their cell phones, their personal transport a secondary task. Short-skirted schoolgirls creeping across sidewalks like some great, gradual uniformed mob.
Not only that, but Euclidian geometry is oftentimes merrily discarded by the populace of Okayama, and instead of walking in straight lines, folks seem to have this sort of meandering mosey that they do everywhere and anywhere. They zig, they zag, the stop for a moment or two. I don't get it. There are plenty of times, when I'm walking in a perfectly straight line, and I'll almost run into someone. How does this happen? How? I'm getting better at it. It's like it's a giant game of Frogger.

(For the record: I loves ya, K! Even with the slow-bike stuff. Seriously! You rock, and such.)

Dec 13, 2006

Meet My Students

So, this post is one of the reasons that I have yet to divulge my the name of my company or real name on this blog, as I could probably get fired or at least reprimaned for describing my students like I'm about to, if my superiors ever found out about this little project of mine.. But, whatever. The veneer of anonymity should be enough to "cover my ass," as we say in the parlance of our times.
For the record, I really like most of my students. If you are the type of person who has "foreign language" as a hobby, then you're probably a smart, nerdy sort- my kind of people. So, my opinion for the most part of the people I teach English to is generally very positive. Seriously, they're good people, all smart and interesting and such, and it's a pleasure to teach them.
On that note, meet...

Snuffles is retarded.
I don't mean "retarded" in the way that people say, "Oh, that's so retarded," or in the way that kids say, "No, you're retarded!" No, I mean that he has an actual mental disorder. It took me a while to realize this. He is mercifully signed up for private lessons.
Confusingly enough, the teacher before me just talked up how brilliant this guy is. Snuffles was my predecessor's favorite student, for some reason. I eventually found out that they just spent the entire time each lesson talking about video games and baseball, and barely touched on the textbook. So, it was just hang-out time for them, not lesson time. The result of this, is that my predecessor has gave me a highly distorted view of this guy, and Snuffles had different expectations as to what would be in a lesson.
So, when I've attempted to actually teach him something, I've failed miserably. I can't get the man to talk. He stares off into space, and makes this weird breathing noise, hence his nom de blog, "Snuffles."
He has no job, does not go to school, is maybe thirty or so years old, and lives with his parents, who pay for his lessons. He enjoys video games and baseball, and not much else. I've had to edit lesson material for him, because the textbook has lots of prompts like "talk about your job or school" or "talk about your girlfriend or boyfriend" that are utterly meaningless to him.
One of the things that's ironic about this, is that his English is actually quite good. When he does talk, he sounds perfect, albeit with a stutter. He even avoids virtually all of the common mistakes that Japanese speakers generally make with English. So, his English isn't a problem, his behavior is. The man's a linguistic Rain Man, but I haven't been able to connect with him yet. I might just give in and try talking to him about video games and baseball for a lesson. I don't even have an ESL certification, which is hard enough. Lacking special ed training makes this especially daunting. In the meantime, I'm going to keep trying new things with Snuffles. Something has to work.

Team Hyper Destructo Squad
This is a group of three kids, all young boys. They enjoy hitting each other.
I've frequently had to pry them apart or peel them off the floor, or separate whatever given two are beating up on a given one at a given time. The weird paradoxical part, is that they all actually seem to like each other. They laugh, talk, and play together, and then, for no reason that I can discern, start beating each other up. I'm sure a child psychologist could tell me why this makes sense.
They also enoy throwing things at each other. Now, I've got lots of games in my kids classes that involve tossing balls, but these guys are not content to simply do an underhand pass to each other. No, each one stands up, points at another, and makes some shouting pronouncement before they toss a ball. I'm pretty sure that they're imagining themselves as anime characters charging up, and shouting the name of, various projectile attacks, and are probably imagining the background as filled with motion lines.

Superkid rocks. He's a really smart, bright guy whose parents have made sure that he grows up bilingual. I think he's maybe fifteen or so, but the kid is one of my most advanced, fluent students. He constantly doubts his English abilities, and has a definite accent, but he has a vocabulary that's probably larger than some native speakers. He does his homework! He takes notes! He has interesting opinions! Yay, Superkid!

Team Genius Beginner Types
I have one class that's two doctors and an engineer. Technically, they are all very low level students, but they're making enormous progress. For instance, when I tell them something, they write it down, and then do it right from then on. It's incredible! They actually say "I don't have any questions," rather than "nothing," a very common Japanese-to-English mistake that even some of my higher levels (and managers) still make. It's sort of incredible how fast they're going- they do not speak very much English, but are rapidly, rapidly adding to their repetoir. They, like Superkid, also rock.

Drunk and Violent
Everyone hates Drunk and Violent. I first mentioned her back in this post, where she told me all about how she does not like people from "Latin countries." I've never actually seen her drunk or violent, but apparently she's been both with some frequency in the past. At school functions she proclaimed various students to be her "enemies" and apparently enjoyed hitting my predecessor quite a bit. So far, I haven't had very many problems with her. I suspect it's because I sort of scare the shit out of her, being significantly less of a pushover than my predecessor. Here's hoping she stays a little off balance.

The Twin Whirlwinds of Death
Two more kids, a boy and a girl. This week, the first thing they did when they came to my room was dump the wastebasket onto the floor. It didn't even enter into my conciousness that someone, kid or no, would do that. I mean, it's a garbage can. Who on earth dumps over a garbage can onto the floor of a classroom? Apparently the Twin Whirlwinds of Death do.
Then they screamed a lot. After that, they got in a fight and then there was some more screaming. "Let's use our words," I said as I tried to calm them down, "remember words? Those are what we used before we turned into howler monkeys." This, of course, was lost on them. And I ended up junking all pretentions of actually teaching them, and just kept them distracted enough so that they didn't destroy the school/each other. They seem to enjoy jumping.

I'm constantly trying to get better at relating to my students. I'll be honest- I want them, all of them, to like me. Well, I could care less about Drunk and Violent, actually, but I really do want to like and be liked by the rest of them. I'm even including the kids here. A lot of it is probably just time, really, but I've found something else that has really helped. Being able to say a little bit of Japanese to my students after class has helped immensely. When they see that I'm trying to learn their language, just like they're trying to learn mind, it helps with establishing a link. It's a sort of linguistic/academic empathy thing, and it does wonders towards gaining their trust.

Dec 12, 2006

The Hideous Joy of Teaching Children: "Oh boy, it's phonics time!"

So, I mostly teach adults. Well, mostly college students, actually, but every weekday I also have either one or two kids classes. I think that the phrase "love/hate relationship" was coined precisely to describe my relationship with these classes. I love them because, really, they are quite simple. But my job as a Hired Tongue For Kids is pretty straightforward. I hate these classes for reasons that I'm about to elucidate.
I had no idea what to do with the kids when I first got here. No idea. I think my forehead alone sweated a good quart when I realized that I supposed to teach the writhing mass of prepubescence before me, and that I would have to do it on my own. There was a very small voice in my head that said "run," and a very large feeling in my gut that said "ow," and I strode into the classroom and decided to just sort of wing it. You know in School of Rock when Jack Black tries to act like a real teacher? It was kind of like that, but without guitars or Jodie Foster.
Initially, the kids had two reactions to me- utter brattiness, and sheer terror. I remember, very clearly, meeting one of my meekest students, a rather small girl who I think is younger than the other members of her class. Her English is not that good, and I remember saying "Hi," to her the first time.
"Hi," said me.
"Hi!" I told her my name, "What's your name?"
Silence, but this time with shirking into a corner. Also, attempts to become much smaller.
"Hi!" I said again.
It was here that I noticed that big, wet tears were welling up into her eyes, and that I should probably just back off and move on before I had a screaming, crying child on my hands. Still, she said a grand total of nothing the first lesson. I thought about how her parents had paid a goodly sum of money for their child to sit there and be scared witless.
Another little boy actually did cry, loudly, when he saw me. I asked the mom into the classroom with him, and he spent most of the time curled up in his mother's lap while she tried to get him to let go and talk to me. The mother spoke barely any English, but I managed to make some smalltalk with her for a while, and the kid eventually disentangled himself himself from his parent. In the remaining time, we counted to five, played with a ball, and learned that "R is for Rabbit."
For the most part, though, the little 'uns have learned that I am not, in fact, some sort of hideous tentalcle monster which slimily desires to force their squirming and screaming forms into one of my several teeth-betstrewn maws. They've warmed to me, and even if some of them are still very shy, I don't think tears are a problem anymore. Brattiness, however, is.
Last week one of my students (a boy) kicked another (a very small girl) in the face. The week before, three rather rambunctious boys got in a three way punch fest with each other. The week before that, this one girl decided that it would be fun to empty my bookshelf.
Now, in my initial training in Vancouver, we were given this nice little primer on How Japanese Culture Is Different From Ours. The two trainers went on and on about collectivism vs individualism, and all sorts of stuff that would probably make Samuel Huntington grin like a Cheshire Cat.
One thing in particular that they mentioned was how Japanese kids are instilled with a sense of behavior and duty from a very young age. The man who talked about this (and, funnily enough, was Canadian) described how in Japanese schools kids as young as three all line up in neat rows and bow to their teachers, are obedient, etc. This man (who, by the way, was from Canada- a country well know for not being Japan) was full of what I like to call "shit." Japanese kids, methinks, are just as self-centered, rambunctious, violent, and shrill as children anywhere else. Not that that's a bad thing, mind you. In a way, it's sort of comforting to know (in a sort of We-Are-the-World/Kumbaya sort of way) that kids are nasty little snots no matter what country or culture they're from.
But I digress, ever so slightly.
As they've gotten used to me, and as I've settled into a teaching routine, things have gotten much, much better. I think I give a pretty stern "No!" face when I want the kids to knock a given thing off, and I've come to love, absolutely love, phonics time. Phonics time is when they listen to a CD which sounds things out and they try to spell words. It usually takes up about 15 or so minutes of class, and during that time, my brain goes somewhere else. It's a good mental health moment, something that thoroughly de-irony-izes my somewhat tongue-in-cheek exhortations of phonics.
It's not great. I prefer teaching adults to children, and I prefer teaching high level students to low. But, the kids are no longer the daunting pile of expecations that they were when I first got here. In fact, I think that some of them might even start to like me. Last week I got a hug from the little boy who at first wouldn't stop crying. It was cute. So, it's nice to see something that seems initially unmanageable and daunting sort of unravel itself and become routine.
It certainly is (as I said) simple once you get the hang of it, but the whole enterprise does require a fair amount of focus for me. I'm sometimes winded at the end of a kids class, and have to fight the urge to undo my tie. Sometimes, I have tell myself to be very, very patient in class, and to mentally check out for a moment or so. Sometimes I need an extra coffee before I start a class. But it's good, it's workable. I'll probably talk plenty more about kids here in the future.
Yay for phonics time.

Dec 9, 2006

In Which I Become Ridiculously Attired, But Am First Haunted by the Hungry Ghost of Perry Como

Yes, that's me in a Santa Costume. I've worn a lot of silly things in my life- a kilt, beret, a tuxedo, various capes and cloaks, an altar boy's alb, an executioner's hood, a nun's habit, pirate garb, a Boy Scout uniform, chainmail, a pith helmet, etc. But I thought that I had some sort of autobiographical immunity to ever dressing up as Santa. Hahaha! How wrong I was! Japan has seen to it that I must now "Santa Suit" to this list of Silly Things I've Worn. I was kind of hoping to give that one a pass. More on this later...

My parents have this horrible tape that they play every year. It's called Perry Como Sings Merry Christmas Music. This thing is awful. Pure waves of scholck and non-ironic kitsch radiate from the speakers when this thing plays. In my set of mental signifiers, the stress and travails of holiday travails are summed up nicely in the crooning cadences of Perry Como wandering through an insufferable rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas.
Wait, what I am I saying? That's totally redunant. All renditions of The Twelve Days of Christmas are insufferable. That repetetive, banal ballad is possibly the worst song ever. Even worse than Abracadabra by the Steve Miller Band. And who really wants a bunch of lords-a-leaping anyway? And when are the twelve days of Chirstmas? Boo this song!
So, there's this Perry Como Chrstmas tape that I can't stand. I thought that being in Japan would be a good opportunity to miss out on all the things that I don't like about Japan- the family stress, the horrible songs, the consumerism, etc. I was somewhat wrong about a few of these things.
You see, they have Christmas over here in Japan. Granted, it's different than in the States, but it's still very much here. The stores and malls are decked out with red and green, there are lights everywhere, and when you walk through any public space, you can hear hideous, hideous Christmas music.
Like Perry Como.
I was in Okayama station, and suddenly noticed the music on the PA system. It was familiar- very familar. It was something that I'd heard before, something familar in a strange way. It was, of course, Perry Como singing his hideous and saccharine version of The Twelve Days of Christmas.
Even with a Political Science degree, I hated American cultural hegemony more then than ever at this moment. No amount of intellectualizing can match the visceral disgust of audiophonic repulsiveness making its way across the vast Pacific. (Of course, I basically owe my job to American cultural hegemony, but that's another rant.)
Why couldn't it have been Tony Bennet or Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin or somthing? Those guys were cool. They were suave, well dressed, charismatic, and smooth and stuff. If Tony or Frank or Dino belted out some kitschy Christmas music, even they could probably make it sound nifty and sexy. But no. It was Perry Como, their insufferable imitator.
I cringed as I made my way to Kurashiki.

Every year my school has a Christmas party. And, every year, some poor sap has to dress up as Santa. The students and teachers all bring a small gift (nothing more than 500 yen) and everyone puts it in a bad, and Santa (this year, me) randomly gives everyone a present.
I basically got stuck with the Santa job because I'm new and everyone else said "not it" before I could. One of my managers approached me earlier this week and told me that I would have to be Santa, and that I had be be "genki" about it. "Genki" in Japanese literally means "healthy," but it's also used to mean happy, enthusiastic, and nifty and such.
Mr. Ecaudor obligingly dressed up in a reindeer hat to help me hand out the presents, and I must say that I do belt out a damn genki "ho ho ho!"
It was fun. Lots of fun, actually. Us teachers and a bunch of the students went to karaoke afterwards, for lots of Christmas karaoke action. British Girl and I sang a duet of Fairytale of New York by the Pogues, which is basically the best Christmas song ever, but the humor, irony and slight mournfulness of the song was lost on our Japanese audience.
However, a good time was had by all, and I returned home feeling downright festive. I'm missing Christmas this year- no friends, no family- but at least I got trussed up in fake beard and silly hat for the first time.
Ho ho ho.

Dec 8, 2006

Is this post emo? God, I hope it isn't emo. It might be. Oh well.

I'm starting to feel it- I'm starting to feel the first pangs of homesickness.
I'm not writing in despair or anything, well, not yet, but I'm definitely missing Oregon. It's weird. It's not really an all-pervasive thing- it's more like every so often, for a period of about fifteen or twenty minutes I will intensely miss home.
I was in a 100 yen shop (100 yen is just under a dollar, and 100 yen shops have basically everything in them) and this Marvin Gaye song started playing on the PA system. I don't know which song it was, but I recognized the voice. It had been Japanese pop a moment before, and suddenly it switched to Marvin Gaye. I was looking at plastic containers to use as classroom organizers, and stood far back enough so that I could only see the Arabic numerals on their labels. I squinted a bit, lost sight of the Japanese script below the numbers, and listened to Marvin Gaye for a few moments. For a few moments I thought about what it would be like if one of the salespeople came up to me and said, "excuse me, is there something I can help you find."
And that was it- that was my momentary fantasy and reverie for a period of about one minute in store. My fantasy had no weirdness, no sex, no outlandish things such as dinosaurs or UFOs- just a momentary daydream about being able to speak, however prosaically, to a stranger. I think that's when I knew that it was starting, that I was dropping ever so slightly down the curve of the chart, that I was about to find out what it was like to miss home.
Since then, I've had moments- nothing traumatic, but moments where the awareness of my incredible situation is eclipsed by my awareness of my separation. For a few moments I seem struck by a bizzare blindness wherein I no longer am curious about where I am, where I do not try to figure out Japanese speech, where I do not attempt to learn new things. Instead, I simply want something familiar.
After the fact, these moments are frustrating. I'm here to learn, and to have moments where I occasionally rebel from my ambitions seems emotionally and intellectually cowardly. However, I know that those after-the-fact reflections are in themselves immature, that homesickness is something natural and expected, an extension of one's love for family, friends, home, etc. It would be pathological in its absence.
I know that I will adapt. I know that I will develop something like a simulacrum of a "life" here (I'm already doing that, really) and put my mind at ease. But for now twenty minutes of sadness surprise me every so often. It will not lasts, but it pangs while it persists.

Dec 5, 2006

An Open Letter to a Cyclopean Modernist

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with Japan. Instead, it's about a book. Ok, there's a little about Japan. But it's mostly book stuff.

Dear James Joyce,
I'm sorry. I'm very, very sorry. I take it all back. Ok, most of it. There's probably some stuff I don't remember. Anyway, sorry about that.
The point is, I've talked a lot of shit about you in the past. Unjustified shit. Shit that I wish I could unshit. I'm very sorry. For some godunknown reason, I thought that it would be "cool" or "hip" to make blanket judgements about you. You see, lots of people really, really like you. "Hey, that James Joyce is really revered and respected," I thought, "that probably means he sucks!" And knowing what I did about the incomprehensibility of Finnegan's Wake, I thought that was probably true, that the only people who actually read you were musty literary professors and pretentious guys with beards.
I decided that I needed some justification for hating you so much, so I did end up reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And you know what? I hated it. I felt so justified. "Yeah," I thought, "this does suck!" Now, I'm not taking that back. The first time I read Portrait, I did hate it. I'll explain why.
I identified with it far, far too much. Stephen's struggle with and subsequent rejection of Catholocism, his musings about aesthetics, and his longing to leave Ireland cut way, way too close for me. I disliked to book because it made me uncomfortable, like a stranger who can give you an overly accurate description of your situation. I was also in a somewhat bad position then- for a variety of reasons I thought that I was "done" growing up, that I'd put aside fancies and ambitions. Both I and my girlfriend at the time had convinced ourselves that we wanted stable, ordinary jobs. Reading about Stephen and his ambitions was too cutting. Here was a book about someone whom I related to far too much, who resolved to do the sort of thing that I longed for but had shirked from. The idea was disturbing, and so I said, "I hate this book."
I've recently reread Portrait here in Japan, and the experience was entirely different.
I did not approach it from a standpoint of frustrated longing this time. Rather, it was from a standpoint of doing. Here I am, now, in Japan, and instead of resigning myself to a life that I do not want, I feel I'm now "encounter[ing] for the millionth time the reality of experience." Here in another country I am no longer the shirking, guilt ridden Stephen who walks sullenly down the streets of Dublin demonizing his own desires. Instead, I feel much more akin to the later Stephen, the invoker of the "old artificer" who has gone forth to actually do something with his life.
So, Mr. Joyce, I loved the book. Loved it. When I put aside my cynisim and pretentions, when I approached it with a new perspective and an open mind, I thought it was excellent. Admittedly, I didn't think that it was necessarily the third best book ever written in English, but I believe that it was Tolstoy who said that "Shakespeare is actually quite good, despite all of the people who say he's quite good." I think the same could be said about you.
Something that I did not catch when I first read the book was that the writing style very clearly mirrors Stephen's mindset at the time. This is stupidly obvious, in hindsight, but from the first page with the baby-talk to the end parts which are reminiscent of a Socratic diologue, the novel does not describe Stephen, it is Stephen in a way. It seems to me that the very ending of the book, where the third person narration ends and the reader is suddenly plunged into Stephen's journals, represents a sort of epiphany and maturity on the part of the main character. It is as if, through the use of epistolary, he has gained the ability to be self-representative.
Quite frankly, the book left me feeling what I like to call "jazzed." "Yeah," I'm thinking to myself, "I want to have aesthetic epiphanies and do stuff! Whoo-hoo! Fire up the smithy of my soul, yo!" I admit it, Mr. Joyce. You make me feel all fuzzy and artsy inside.
SonicLlama, The Hired Tongue

I made a note of this passage when I came across it. Here, Stephen is speaking with an English priest and realizing that English was exported to Ireland, and that for his ancestors it was a borrowed language. This is a great passage (if a little unsettling) for one teaching or learning a new language:

"The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay."

Of course, when viewed in context of later events this passage actually takes on a hopeful tone. Not only does Stephen "accept its words," he does grand things with them. Here's hoping, then, both for me and my students.

Dec 2, 2006

Myst as Metaphore

I'm going to geek out in this post. A lot.
In Mark Haddon's most diverting yarn, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, the prepubescent autistic narrator must travel alone to London. He's never done this before, and his youth and autism both make the task something very difficult for him. To make the task easier for himself, he thinks of the whole thing like a video game, a video game he calls Train to London. He thinks of all the things that he needs to do to "solve" the video game- buying a ticket, figuring out the schedule, finding his platform, etc. He likens it all to Myst, a game where the player is simply dropped into an unfamiliar environment and must figure out what the hell to do simply given cues around them.
That's kind of where I'm at right now. Not speaking Japanese or understanding various conventions is a little like being bewildered and autistic, and the whole thing is a bit like a video game called Living in Japan. Every day I go out and try to "solve" bits of this game. Language puzzles mostly, but also exploring my environment and deducing social and cultural conventions by watching people do things.
I'm playing the fourth Myst game right now. At once it is quit nice to have something familiar- I've been following the series since the first game was released- but at the same time I'm sort of struck with the absurdity that I go out all day and puzzle things out, study Japanese and try to puzzle it out, and then pop a DVD into my computer wherein I try to puzzle out fictional things. Maybe I'm some sort of brain masochist.
But, the whole process is both frustrating and rewarding. It's frusrating that I can't fluently read hirigana and katakana yet, and it's frustrating that I get stuck on the "turn on the power" puzzles in Myst (because every Myst has at least one "turn on the power" puzzle). But, at the same time, both sort of experiences constantly yield intellectual rewards. Last night I saw "sareda" in katakana on a menu, and thought "yeah, salad." I was quite happy that I was able to read something so prosaic and utilitarian. Likewise, in Myst there is always the rewarding experience of making one more thing happen. More often than not it's not something big, it's more along the lines of "oh, so that's what this button does." Small "salad" moments.
Certainly, I will never get to the point with regards to the Japanese language or Japanese culture where I have dramatic moments. The moments in Myst where a bunch of gears grind together, the power turns on, and a bridge dramtically lowers. No, in the real world I'm going to have to content myself with "what does this button do?" Little things. "Salad" moments.
Incidentally, the fourth Myst game (Revelations, it's called) is as mind-bending as ever. It doesn't have the feeling of creepy alone-ness that made the earlier ones so good, but the puzzles are fun- there's even one where you have to work out the phonetics of a fictional alphabet.
Yay fictional alphabets! You're what I have fun with when I'm tired of working on real alphabets!
Yup, total brain masochist geek type here.