Apr 11, 2007

Springtime Snowblood: In Which I Lose All Feeling In My Legs

In John Dower's Embracing Defeat, Dower describes how during WWII, the sakura was appropriated as a propaganda image. The Japanese government extolled their citizens to die like gracefully falling cherry blossoms, likening carnage to a gentle spring.
Riding around on sunday I couldn't help but think that this was a wholly ridiculous image. Cherry blossoms are about as threatening as marshmellow peeps. Damn pretty, though. The flurries and waves did sort of resemble a bloodstained snow, though- a storm of capillaries and veins.
Monday, a student invited me to a Japanese tea ceremony. I was actually sort of leery about this- I was worried about whether or not I'd commit some huge breach of etiquette at the tea ceremony. and also about the professionalism of consorting with students outside of class. My company doesn't care about this sort of thing, but while I want to be friendly, I don't want to be too friendly- I always want it to be a teacher/student relationship.
The particular student who invited me along was an older lady who's learning English because both of her kids speak it. I also suspect that she just sort of likes foreigners. She was very "buddy-buddy" with my predecessor and I think she wants to find something like that again. She also seemed to be trying to foist her daughter on me, but more on that in a bit.
I met my student, her friend, and her daughter on monday morning, and was initially surprised to see that they were all wearing kimonos. Then I thought- of course they're wearing kimonos. If you own a kimono, I think, then you probably crack that sucker out whenever you get a chance- such as going to a tea ceremony.
My student's friend spoke no English, however her daughter was very high level. I have to confess that when I meet new people, I unconciously start gauging their English abilities. She was quite good- I'd put her in a high level class if given the option.
Then she asked me my most hated question here in Japan-
"Do you have a girlfriend?"
"No, I don't."
"Really?"
"Really."
This was followed by second most hated question-
"Do you like Japanese girls?"
"Sometimes."
Oh how I loath this question. Loath it. Loath it on an HunterSThompsonian scale, in fact. I usually want to respond with something like "Do you like American boys? How about Chinese boys? What about boys from Portugal or Mozambique? How about them? How about Mongolian, Egptian, or Brazilian boys? How about them? Let's fetishize nationality more! Yeah, baby- that funny passport totally revs my engines! Oh yeah! Your cultural background is different from mine- HOT!" Such sarcasm would probably be lost on most Japanese people, and in the interest of politness I usually just say "sometimes."
But, I digress.
My old lady student and her friend were doing the whole "let's hang back several feet and let them talk to each other alone" thing, leaving me with the daughter. She kept asking me all about America, and I kept telling here stuff. I sort of got sick of the whole "Woooo! You're from America!" conversation, but tried my best to be pleasant.
When we got to the garden where the tea ceremony was to be held, I was surrounded by several very short old ladies in kimonos, sort of milling about and chatting with each other. So, picture this: A bunch of short old ladies in kimonos milling about in a pleasant little garden. Sticking out of the geriatric, silken-clad throng is a six foot tall white dude in a leather jacket with dark stubble. I was really, really intimidated and self concious. I asked my student if it was okay that I wasn't wearing a kimono or a suit or anything and she just laughed at me and told me it was fine. We milled about in the garden for a while, and evntually went into the tea house.
Now, try this-
Get on your knees. and make surt that your feet aren't crossed. Now, sit back so your ass is directly above your feet. Try to keep as upright as possible. Put your hands in your lap. Try to look all calm and whatnot. That is how one has to sit during a tea ceremony. It's called seisa, and it's quite painful over a long period of time.
So, I was sitting there with all sorts of interesting pain going back and forth in my legs, and I can say pretty confidently that the only thing that kept me from changing my posture was pride. Pure, stupid, pride. The Pride that Marcellus Wallace described as a "sting."
Surrounded by little old ladies who seemed quite comfortable sitting that way, there was no way I was going to change my position. If lots and lots of tiny grey women could endure that, then sure enough, I could, too.
So, I just let my skewed sense of pride do it's work while I sat there in a bamboo-matted house bowing a lot while various tea bowls were passed around. The tea itself was actually quite tasty. In fact, it was incredibly tasty. I want to learn how to make green tea like that, such was its niftyness.
The tea ceremony itself was neat, though I didn't know what was going on as it was all in Japanese. My student's daughter explained to me later that it was all about spring, and the wonderfulness thereof. The teahouse was a quite nice space- it used a lot of polished branches in its timbers rather than worked beams, which was nicely naturalistic. There was also a heavily stylized calligraphic banner that was written in such rapid-seeming brushwork that I couldn't pick out even the radicals (i.e., component parts) of the Kanji.
When the ceremony was over, my student' daughter asked me if my legs were in any pain. I said yes, I couldn't feel them at all. It was a weird mixture of pain and non-feeling. My student and her daughter laughed and, much to my surprise. Immediately started massaging my feet and calves. I was sort of taken aback by this- it's not every day that one gets a leg massage from a mother and daughter simultaneously whilst in a tiny, traditional Japanese tea house. It was sort of weird, but they seemed to think that it was the most hilarious thing ever. I struggled to get up with my non-feeling legs, and sort of wondered what all the old ladies in kimonos were making of the scene.
I had a Japanese lesson later, so my student and her daughter were sad to see me go. It was fun, definitely the sort of cultural experience that I wanted to have. Now I just need to find a good gree tea recipe...

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1 comment:

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

your pictures are beautiful! oh how I love cherry blossoms.

today I heard one of the most disturbing examples of racism in Japan. it's right in line with fetishizing nationality.

a Japanese woman gets knocked up by a Western man, on purpose, because she feels she will love her baby more if it isn't all Japanese.

got the creeps yet!?!?