Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Re-Entry Shock (not a pornographic term)

When I first came to Japan it was like a dream for quite a while, to the extent that I became a bit uneasy that my life was going to feel like Inland Empire for an entire year, which, while the film is quite lengthy--a year is a long time to more or less not have your head attached to your body. But the unfamiliarity-induced depersonalization wore off gradually until I realized I woke up crabbily to my alarm each morning and dragged myself down the familiar route to the train station just like any American working stiff (albeit an American working stiff with a regard for the environment that prevents car ownership.)

What I'm saying in an extremely overwritten (or maximalist, for DFW fans) way is that even though I still can't say much more in Japanese than "Cold, eh?" I got used to Japan. Which also means used to bowing for pretty much everything, ranging from "thanks for selling me that gum" to "I'm deeply sorry for killing your child." (I haven't killed a child.) Used to (actually, quite fond of) the massive black crows that fly overhead in the morning, cawing, "HEY! I'M A BIG FUCKING BIRD!" Used to politeness to the extent that true feelings are rather pleasantly unreadable... as far as I can tell, everyone thinks I'm just great! And so on.

So the first thing that happened upon my brief return to America, literally, in LAX, was that someone was really rude to me--an airport worker, who just could not deal with my confusion about which line to wait in at customs. And then, in the airport waiting room, I looked around at the overweight, tired, mostly-recent-immigrant crowd waiting for flights to come in from Mexico and the Philippines, and I thought: "This is a country that does not take care of most of its people." That's not new information, and though the Japanese do look uniformly more healthy and purposeful than Americans, they also have one of the highest suicide rates in the world, so, but I was able to see things through more Japanified eyes than before, and the scene was quite jarring. Also, filthy--this also is a country where people don't care much about clean public spaces, either.

Basically, things run less smoothly, something I unthinkingly tolerated before, like for instance when the 7 train would just stop between stations and sit there for like 15 minutes, which was a bit nervewracking since its an elevated train bobbing in the wind over Queens Boulevard, etc etc. It makes sense that that's what happens in a country with a much more individualistic, every-man-for-himself, murder and devour the person on the ladder rung above you and don't feel guilty about it because you must be your own first priority in this cutthroat society, live the dream ethos. Whereas Japan is all about the group harmony--for example, when people go on vacation they statistically spend far more money on omiyage for their office mates than they do on souvenirs for themselves. And that's just one instance among, like, infinite ones. I'm not even saying Japan's way is better--like I said, pretty high suicide rate, because what do you think happens if you don't fit in with the group and don't at least have recourse to a culture that actually admires and venerates outsiders, outlaws, rebels without causes, etc.? It's just noticeably different, that's all.

Also, the food in America is embarrassingly huge. Exhibit A:

My stomach, for the extent of the trip, kept screaming "WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO ME???"

Not to say it wasn't a nice time. Well, it was a weird time, because, L.A., and I yearned a bit for New York and its precarious and inefficient subway system.

Upon returing to Fukuoka (route: LAX to Narita, airport bus from Narita to Haneda, Haneda to Fukuoka, subway from Fukuoka airport to Hakata, train from Hakata to Futsukaichi station, cab from Futsukaichi station to home sweet squalid home) I was aware in a strange way that everything had been continuing to happen as usual in my small Japanese town all along, and that despite the hellish travel the world is actually pretty small. It seems obvious but I think one of the benefits of travel is how it reminds you in an immediate and hard-to-define but very sharp way that life goes on.

Monday, December 7, 2009


So, it's been a while and I have about a month's worth of anecdotes to share, which I may do in separate blog segments because I am lazy. First up, we must contend with...

THE COLD. Fukuoka is not actually that cold, relatively speaking--so far temperatures have been hovering around the low 50's most of the time, 40's in the morning and at night. Problem is, Japanese housing does not have central heating or insulation. The reasoning behind this, from what I've read, is that homes are designed with the blazing Japanese summers of death in mind, to let air and breezes in, since one can always just bundle up in winter. But anyway what happens is, it's the same temperature indoors as it is out. 50 degrees may not sound so bad, but come talk to me once you realize YOU CAN NEVER GET WARM.

There are inventions that deal with this: one is the kotatsu, which is in fact delightful. It's a table with a heating unit underneath and a space to put a heavy blanket that traps the heat. So people kind of burrow under it and get nice and toasty. There's also clothing you can buy at Uniqlo called Heat Tech (pronounced "heat-o tech") that supposedly is made of magical fibers that keep you warm. There are also kerosene heaters, which I've decided not to go for since I'd probably burn down the building if I used one.

Luckily, my air con unit also functions as a heater, and keeps my living and bedroom warm enough. Unluckily, if I get up in the night to pee, there's a thirty degree drop once I leave the bedroom, and the toilet seat is without fail freezing to the point that I'm afraid my butt cheeks will stick to it, like Jim Carrey's tongue to the pole in Dumb and Dumber. Waking up and noticing a need to urinate leads to an inner battle of wills, as I try to ignore the urge and go back to sleep, knowing that if I don't, it will be some time upon returning to my futon before I warm up again enough to drift back off.

Another issue is that Japan is so annoyingly environment-conscious (or perhaps stingy with electric bills) that the prefectural Board of Education would not let Fukuoka public schools turn on their space heaters until December 1st. Because we know it's cold by the date, not the temperature. And, my vice-principal insisted on leaving the windows in the staff room open because the Japanese are morbidly afraid of influenza (more on that some other time, maybe) and think that, I guess, uncirculating air will lead to mass infection and the school shutting down, and, horror of horrors, A DROP IN PRODUCTIVITY. So before I left for a trip to L.A. (more on that later, maybe) working hours were sort of like being a nomad living in a yurt on the snow-covered Mongolian steppe, or something. No amount of heat-o tech could save me.

But now it's December 7th, so we know it's cold, and the heat is on.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Favorite quotes so far

OK, I must introduce this with the disclaimer that I am NOT making fun of my students. I think learning a language is incredibly hard, and I understand how nerve-wracking it is for them to be tortured with English questions by me. I just find their English to be often really endearing, and sometimes, kind of poetic. So here are some of my favorite quotes from students so far--I post this not so we can all be like HAHA WHAT MORONS but more so that you can see how cute and funny my daily life here can be.

"Thank you for your every ESS action." --A note from one of the students in ESS (English speaking society), the club I run two days a week.

"I want to make love." --A girl from my cleaning group

Me: "What did you do last week?"
Student: "Yes, I what."

"What do you like Japanese food?" --I've been asked this by multiple students AND teachers, with this specific sentence structure

Me: "Americans think Japanese, Chinese, and Korean people all look the same..."
Japanese student: "Ahhh! Stereotype!"

"I would like to visit Kyoto. I hear the area is abundant in natural resources." --This is funny because of its flawlessness

"First, I sleep all the morning, awake after, I lay motionless on the floor for thirty minutes." --From an answer to test question, If you were given a one-week holiday, what would you do?

"Club activities enable students to have joy." --Answer to question about why clubs are necessary to school life

Me: "How was your holiday?"

Student: "It was enjoy." 

And the winner...
"If I could use magic, I want to eat jewel meet. This meet is the best meet of the world's meet. This meet contains various energy that we need to grow healthy. But we cannot get this meet because this meet is fancy." --Answer to test question, If you could use magic, what would you do? I have no idea what jewel meat is.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Last night our Japanese class went out together for 和食 (AKA washoku, tradish Japanese food.) One of the teachers taught us etiquette, which was kind of hard to keep in my brain considering there are like 500 rules for chopstick use alone. I could get into it, because it's pretty interesting, but instead let's just move on to what everyone really wants to see: the food porn...

This was our starter. Look how beautiful the presentation is! The food was very seasonal, from the garnishes (maple leaves!) to the produce and fish. With something like this, you are supposed to eat consistently in one direction, whether it's right to left or left to right. Also, if something is too big for one bite, turn the bite mark side of the food toward you when you put it back, because apparently looking at someone else's bite is gross.

This came next. I'd describe it as kind of a Japanese ceviche, i.e. raw fish with some citric element. With bowls this size, you should pick them up in one hand and eat out of it with chopsticks in the other hand. If the bowl is large you must leave it on the table.

Shrimp, eggplant, and something else delicious but not identified to me with a really awesome miso paste at the bottom.

I'm skipping the soup we got after this because while it was delicious, it was not very photogenic.

Some kind of creamy deliciousness with pork in it. The ginger stick was a garnish, which I discovered when I briefly attempted and failed to eat it. (Not very biteable.)

I am also skipping a meat course and a rice and miso course because again, very good, but they didn't make for interesting photos.

Dessert: persimmon (called かき, kaki here) and a sweet potato cake. Like I said, very seasonal.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Viv emailed me some questions about life in Nihon  to answer on this blog, and since I love talking about myself, I dutifully (though perhaps occasionally, obnoxiously) responded:

Q: Okay, let's jump into everyone's favorite topic: food. What are the best and grossest things you have eaten in Japan so far?
A: The ramen here is out of control awesome... I also really like yakitori. On the weekends the supermarket near me has a nice bento selection and also pretty good sushi and sashimi, so one of my great pleasures so far is buying bento and eating it while watching some illegally downloaded episodes of Mad Men. I also like going to izakayas, which are pubs that have little Japanese tapas--everything from fried chicken to raw horsemeat (seriously). As for gross, there are occasional mystery objects in my school lunch with soft or gummy textures that don't really do it for me. I have yet to try the notorious natto, made from fermented soybeans, which apparently tastes rotten.

Q: Besides Catticus, who or what do you miss most about the U.S.?
A: I miss bagels. I would murder a small Japanese child for an everything bagel with cream cheese and lox right now. Oh yeah, and my family and friends.

Q: Do you constantly feel like a character in a Murakami novel? If so, which one do you most resemble?
A: I should hope not, because all Murakami character seem to me to have some form of low-grade autism and/or find themselves in horrific situations, like watching a man get skinned alive. But I guess I most resemble the talking cat from Kafka on the Shore.

Q: How is the dollar doing over there? Are the Japanese as obsessed about the Recession as we are?
A: The dollar is almost historically weak against the yen, which makes it nice for me when I transfer money home. I can't really tell how concerned people here are about the economy because I don't understand anything they say on the news, and everyone I talk to is a co-worker, thus employed. They do seem to think Americans have it worse right now.

Q: Do you have cable TV over there?
A: Nope, just five basic channels I get for free. I often leave the TV on in the hopes I'll absorb Japanese knowhow through osmosis, but it's not working. I do have a favorite children's show--Zenmai Zamurai, about a boy who spreads peace and averts crises by throwing dango into people's mouths.

Q: Why won't Jonathan join Facebook?
A: It's a time suck, and his time is better spent watching NBA highlights.

Q: If you had to categorize your overall experience in Japan as "working" or "vacation," which would it be?
A: Well, I definitely go to work every day, but the pace is so easy for me I feel a little guilty to even call it work. I think what ends up being draining is the constant feeling of being vaguely on edge, because I attract attention wherever I go, and never know when a seemingly small task is going to become a huge hassle because of the language barrier. So in that sense, I don't feel like I'm on holiday. On the other hand, I have way more free time and money than I'm used to having.

Q: What's the deal with those used underwear vending machines? Has anyone explained this phenom to you? Is this an aspect of Japanese culture that just gets highly exaggerated in Western media or is this brand of "interest" explicitly common?
A: I'm guessing it's super exaggerated because I haven't seen anything of the kind. The Japanese are definitely obsesssed with cuteness, and no one's cuter than schoolgirls, but I can't imagine a sexual attraction there because they are SO immature. The teenagers here, generally speaking, seem a lot younger and even less physically developed than the teenagers in America. Blame it on the hormones in our food or our Puritanical/oversexed culture, I guess, but the schoolchildren here are more like... children.

Q. Given the opportunity, would you live in Japan 4-EVA?
A: Definitely not. I love it so far, but I also know that I could NEVER be considered an insider, no matter how long I lived here or how fluently I spoke the language, and I think that would get super lonely after a while. On the one hand I enjoy my outsiderness, but on the other I'm sure I'd get sick of relating to people at a more superficial level than I could do with even just a select few at home.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

I finally get my act together and update

I realize I haven't written yet about the school for the blind where I teach once a week, so I thought I'd take you through my day there, which is a strange combination of busy, boring, and super interesting...

I take the bus for about 15 minutes to get there and then walk a ways off the main road--the Fukuoka Blind School is actually two schools, a high school and a combination elementary and junior high school. The schools are surrounded by small farms and mountains. Sometimes during breaks from classes I just stare out the windows, because it's really gorgeous there.

My first class is just one student, a first year JHS. My supervisor, who is also blind, and the student seem to spend most of the class arm wrestling! The student is stubborn and will just refuse to say things in English until the supervisor like, physically bests him. It's the kind of thing that wouldn't go down in American schools, of course, and probably also in regular Japanese schools, but I think because of the students' blindness, a lot of physicality is OK. I often find myself doing a lot of tactile things with them, too, to help them understand new words or phrases. And actually, the role of teachers in Japan is a lot more like that of parents. Students spend more time at school than they do at home, and the personal and educational spheres are not separated. If students are seen acting out in their communities, there are repercussions at school. My role ends up being a bit more like a friend, since I'm an assistant teacher and not responsible for any discipline, and students know that when I'm in class they'll be doing less studying and more fun, interactive activities. Hence, the warm reception whenever I'm there.

My second class is two students who are not only blind, but also have mental retardation. It blows my mind that despite this, they are learning English. They're also the most enthusiastic students and are pretty much beside themselves with excitement whenever I talk to them. Nothing delights one of the students more than telling me, when class is over, "SEE YOU AT LUNCH TIME!!" Haha. He loves that he can communicate a bit in English.

The next class has two first-year JHS's. The girl, I swear to God, pops out her glass eye during class to freak me out. Seriously. I look over and hey, there is an empty eye socket! Awesome! I try not to react since that's clearly what she wants, and it probably also wouldn't be helpful to make her feel like a freak, but damn. The boredom comes in because these students, since they're new to English, have a VERY limited vocabulary and need my supervisor to explain a lot in Japanese, so I just end up kind of zoning out when that happens. Unless of course I'm confronted by a removed glass eye.

After that is a class for two students who supposedly have "social problems." They don't exhibit this, really, except they both are extremely quiet and shy, but also very sweet. I should mention that the students who are completely blind use Braille typewriters, on which they type both Japanese and English Braille, which is super impressive to me. Some students have limited vision--I suppose they are "legally blind"--and use large print textbooks. I help them with their writing since my supervisor is totally blind. He also has an absolutely gorgeous seeing eye dog, a black Lab named, of all things, Taft (after the U.S. president) who makes me miss Smokey!

At lunch time I eat with the other teachers and students. My supervisor is the only one who speaks good English so he ends up translating for me and the other teachers so we can talk a bit.

Fifth period is two second year JHS boys with limited vision, who both seem to have massive crushes on me, haha. One is an incredibly talented pianist and plays "air piano" all class.

My last period is the most fun. I teach two elementary students with a young woman who is not blind. They are ridiculously adorable. A recent lesson was teaching them the names of body parts, playing Simon Says, and singing Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. The boy student is so serious. If I ask him, "How are you today?" he stops and thinks really hard about it so he can answer honestly. So cute. The girl student apparently went blind as a result of brain cancer not long ago, but amazingly is a sweetheart and is always in really good spirits. It sounds cheesy and maybe condescending to talk about these kids as inspiring, but I am so fascinated by how well they navigate the challenging aspects of their lives that most people take for granted (e.g., something as simple as getting up and opening a window can, of course, be treacherous for them). They even play blind table tennis!

After classes, I have about forty-five minutes before it's time to go. I go to the staff room, where an English conversation class has somehow developed between me and some other teachers. They bring snacks and English-Japanese dictionaries, and I try to teach them new phrases. This week we were talking about Halloween and then different monsters, and I was explaining werewolves and how they only change during the full moon. One of the teachers says, "Some of the people here--always werewolf!!" Hahaha.

So, overall, being at the blind school is pretty damn awesome. It's something I never imagined doing and wouldn't ever have if not for JET.

And now, I leave you with a picture of me and some ninjas, taken last weekend when Jonathan and I took a day trip to Kumamoto Castle, one prefecture south of us.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

I don't know what my point is

Happy October! The weather is becoming a bit more reasonable, by which I mean wearing long sleeves would not be a completely batshit insane thing to do. We had a week of nonstop rain but today was about 75 and sunny. I have to say I'm a bit homesick for New York autumnal detritus, i.e. sweaters and thick fuzzy socks (I call them "woobies") and crunchy leaves and a new television season. Jeanette and I had a tradition of having a Fall Night where we'd eat Greenmarket pumpkin pie and carve a pumpkin and watch Nightmare Before Christmas, because we were pretty much gay old cat ladies when we lived together. Actually I was a lot like Jack from that movie when I first came to Japan, running around and singing, "What's this? What's this???" Sometimes I still react that way to the contents of my lunchtime bento, except I say "Kore wa nan desuka?" (これ は 名 ですか)

I've been taking Japanese language classes for a couple hours every week and it's made me remember how dorkily thrilled I get at being a student. Seriously, I'm an overachieving brownnoser who gets super excited whenever Yumi-sensei says, Ii desu ne (いいですね)(roughly, "It's good, isn't it!) at my hiragana . It's been satisfying to some previously-neglected area of my brain to learn a new alphabet, even though I still read and write it at the painstaking speed of a kindergartner. I think it's the same feeling of small, tangible accomplishment I get after I successfully cook something (it happens!), having an effort yield immediate visible results, which of course is the opposite of what happens when I complete a writing project and send it out into the ether to be judged. A form letter rejection received months later doesn't yield much of a sense of, Yes! I made something!

On the other hand, whenever it begins to dawn on me how distant the ability to communicate in Japanese some approximation of what I'm actually thinking at any given moment is (and it's hard enough in my native language), it can be tough to not wonder what the point of all this expended energy is when the most I can do at the end of it is say something like, "I take the train to school," or "It's very hot and humid today." Which also leads to the aforementioned pleasant ability to indulge in greater solitariness, or let's face it, just plain laziness, when it comes to talking to people.

I also can't even begin to explain the weirdness of communicating in slow, belabored English at school all day and then coming home and reading, like, Virginia Woolf or Don DeLillo, as I've done recently, or work on a story of my own that I know I'll never be able to share in any way with the people I spend the majority of my time with. The copious free time at work (it's midterm time for the students so I have no classes), the linguistic isolation, and the sense of tremendous distance from everything known may add up to writing that may never have come about otherwise. It's strange--I've known a couple struggling writers now who've abruptly come into success, as though they just flipped a switch, shortly after they left the States. We'll see...

Sunday, September 27, 2009


The other night, we were settling in to dinner at an izakaya in Hiroshima (which we visited when we had a few days off for Respect for the Aged Day and the Autumnal Equinox, which are, awesomely, national holidays) and I announced for not the first time how much I love Japan.

"I think I know why," Jonathan said. "I think you like feeling like an outsider."

I'm aware it's pretty tired and possibly narcissistic to talk about how I've just always known that I was Different. Like yeah, you are totally the ONLY PERSON IN THE WORLD who has experienced feeling out of sync with her surroundings. It's the same as the people at Sarah Lawrence who'd tell you, they just had that gut feeling ever since they were pooping their diapers in front of Fraggle Rock that they were meant to be writers. YOU DON'T SAY.

But anyway, yes, I've long been, at least in my head, a visiting alien who no one else seems to realize is an alien, and therefore really unfairly expects to function as efficiently and stoically as the natives. Probably this is partly self-mythologizing; if you ask me, middle school was two years of hellfire and torment, but Viv has told me she thought I seemed to her kind of socially successful.

Travel allows people who feel this way, I think, to have the surprisingly fulfilling experience of having their inner impressions of themselves, maybe for the first time ever, confirmed by the way they are perceived and treated by others: they are quite clearly running along a separate plane, minus the risk of being punished in some way by the dominant society for their failure to just suck it up and do what they're supposed to. It's really liberating but I wonder how much one really "grows." I'm not sure I buy the idea of using travel as a vehicle for self-expansion.

For instance, in Japan, I can (in fact, I really have no choice but to) indulge my frequent desire to be completely antisocial and standoffish. I don't have to interact with store clerks, waiters, the mail man more than through a few gestures and an arigatou gozaimasu. There's even a JET-coined phrase for the way foreigners can wantonly disregard rules: gaijin smash. As in, Oh, were we supposed to buy the train ticket back there? Well, I'll just gaijin smash my way through the turnstile! Looking so obviously different from everyone else (seriously, two children stopped what they were doing today to point and stare at my hair) means I'm not expected to know ANYTHING, and in fact, this cluelessness seems to qualify as fulfilling the JET Programme's goal of "grassroots internationalization." It's why they're reluctant to accept people who have spent a significant amount of time in Japan before: they want you to be as AMERICAN (or Australian, British, whatevs) AS POSSIBLE. And then when you do something culturally appropriate, like give omiyage after a trip, they're all like, "HOLY SHIT! YOU KNOW A JAPANESE THING!!!!!"

So, I'm not sure how much intrapersonal development is happening when I can basically just be as weird as I feel like being, since Differentness is already expected. It feels a bit like when you have a pint of Haagen Dazs or something that's calling to you despite the fact that you're kind of getting to be a fatass, and you tell yourself you can have a few bites and be satisfied, because you're an adult, you totally have self-control, and then you realize you're already halfway through the carton and then you're just like, Fuck it, I've gone this far, why not just KILL IT?

Anyway, here's a photo of us gaijin smashing our way across Miyajima island:

Monday, September 14, 2009


Yesterday I took Jonathan to a park in our town that I'd visited before, and we went for an impromptu hike.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Safety of Objects

For someone who supposedly fiercely objects to materialism of the Long Island variety (e.g., BMWs as sixteenth birthday presents {not to mention Sweet 16s and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs that rival society weddings in scale}, constant additions to the house because God forbid we don't have a sunroom, the plasma TV, the Victoria's Secret heart charm bracelet even though {or I guess because} everyone in the ENTIRE WORLD has one, etc. etc.) I seem to place a lot of stock in particular objects. Really, I find myself imbuing them with a near-mystical status.

For instance, everyone in Japan has something called an inkan (or a hanko, why there are two names for this I don't know) which is a personal seal, embossed with the kanji for your family name. This is used every day, for everything from official documents to signing in at work. Jonathan and I both got inkan with the katakana for our first names, but with his he got a nifty little inkan holder as well, whereas I got the small paper bag it came in and soon became ridiculously self-conscious of it, as though it were shouting to the world "HELLO I BELONG TO A CLUELESS GAIJIN WHO WILL PROBABLY USE ME WRONG-SIDE UP BECAUSE SHE DOESN'T EVEN KNOW WHAT KATAKANA ARE SUPPOSED TO LOOK LIKE." Hence my mission to find the most lovely inkan holder in all the land, because surely that will make me blend in! It's not like I'm the only person in a 100-mile radius with huge blond hair, right??

So, I found one, and it is quite pretty and all, but really. I still don't know how to speak Japanese. It's not like now I understand what the hell anything at the supermarket is. And yet I forge on in my Japanalia-collecting mission, because a part of me really believes that as soon as I have all the stuff people have here, particularly the stuff they don't even think of as being unique cultural touchstones that comprise the quotidian rules that are completely baffling to a foreigner, I will cease to be a foreigner.

Which is extra silly because most of the time I don't even mind being a foreigner. It's actually pretty fun. I was reading the Jet Journal, a publication seemingly designed to convince current program participants that there is something seriously wrong with them if they are not THRILLED with the world intercultural exchange 100% of the time, and in one of the entries a teacher was complaining about all the special treatment. I KNOW. He just wanted to be regarded as another member of the staff.

This might indicate something really gross about me, but I uh... don't at all mind special treatment. I was treated unspecially often enough in the past, oh, 25 years to really relish the fact that students start grinning wildly when I enter a classroom (even if it's just because jeez, my boobs are WAY bigger than what they're used to.) I like that at the party for teachers after sports festival, I could totally hang and smoke cigarettes with the P.E. teachers even though it's ordinarly considered unladylike, because I'm a foreigner and we Do Things Differently. I like that a random old man stopped me yesterday and asked where I'm from, and then told me in Japanese "New York" kind of sounds like the term for "taking a bath." I definitely like that other teachers take me out to lunch and give me treats and stuff, because very few things make me happier than free food. I'm sure the novelty will wear off soon, so for now, bring on the red carpet, Nihonjin.

This completely non-sensical post was brought to you by Suntory Coffee.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Watashi wa eigo no kyoushi desu!

I finally began teaching this week! This was a relief--even though before I had no classes, I was still expected to be at school every day, and it was a struggle to keep busy, to say the least. I also felt pretty awkward and useless, stationed cluelessly at my desk while all the other teachers rushed around. So I feel more a part of the school now, although I'm certainly not treated like an ordinary teacher. The students make me feel like a rock star! Now I know what it's like to be a certain male professor at Sarah Lawrence College, only this attention is for like, being blonde as opposed to offering piercing literary insight into the human condition. I'll take what I can get.

So for this first week, I had to give a self-introduction lesson to all the first-year high school students (the equivalent of American tenth-graders.) By Friday, I'll have done more or less the same lesson nine times. (Remember Ferris Bueller? "Nine times?" "Nine times.") The benefit is that it allows me to get a strong sense of what works and what doesn't, but it also means the first class' students are guinea pigs and the last are TOTALLY LUCKY because by then my lesson is PERFECTION.

I structured the lesson as a Q&A session, putting the students in groups and having them come up with questions to ask me. Please enjoy a sampling of their work:
  • How many dates do you go on in a week?
  • How long is your skirt? (I really didn't understand this one, since the length of my skirt was visible to everyone.)
  • Do you love me?
  • Who is the most handsome in the class?
  • Has anyone told you that you look like Hermione from Harry Potter? (I have been asked this, seriously, in EVERY class. I have no idea.)
  • Is your hair natural?

So, pretty adorable so far. The cutest thing, though, happened outside of class. In Japan, high school students have a brief period every day in which they are expected to clean the school. (Imagine a school proposing this in America: can't you just hear the outraged screams of the parents already?) Today, three girls approached me and asked if I knew where the Language Lab is. I do, but I let them lead me there because they clearly wanted me to go with them. I followed them into the room to see no less than thirty third-year girls excitedly waiting for me. I made small talk with them for a bit until one girl with excellent English, who was clearly the planner of this event, asked me if I would come every day.

"Sure," I said.

"Tomodatchi!!!!" she cried, (it means friends) and everyone started clapping.

Oh man.

Though the difficulty of getting through each day through a combination of the slowest spoken English possible, excessive smiling, frantic flipping through Japanese dictionaries, and mime has been challenging to the point of making my eyes twitch involuntarily (yes, really), if moments this hilarious keep happening, I'm going to love teaching in Japan.

Oh, and I've trained more or less the entire school to yell "Peace out!" at me whenever I leave a classroom.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

First shrine evahhh

Click to enlarge...

Street leading to the shrine in Dazaifu

Before you enter the shrine, you wash your hands here



Prayer service in the shrine

Making some treats!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Common Ground

Communicating with Japanese people who speak very little English is at once a nervewracking and elating process. You find yourself desperately trying to follow their questions by tone, body language, and the few words that happen to be familiar to you. When you finally encounter something known, some shared experience, no matter how mundane, you're thrilled--"You like basketball?!? No way, I also like basketball!" It's the most simplistic form of interaction, but also somehow fulfilling.

Today the principal invited me to his office to eat figs he had just picked from his garden. The English-speaking office lady popped in to assist us occasionally, but it was definitely a struggle to communicate. So when I heard him say "daigakko," I was like college! That means college! And probably overzealously rushed to tell him I went to American, then Sarah Lawrence. He and the office lady didn't seem to understand that I went to grad school to study creative writing. Which is fine, because I don't really understand it either.

When he asked me about my family I attempted to explain that Julian is trying to join the Secret Service. He associated that, like most people do, with the guys who guard the President, and from there we somehow wandered into a discussion about the movie The Bodyguard, and then Whitney Houston. Turns out the principal is a big fan of "I Will Always Love You." Or maybe not--like I said, you find yourself becoming strangely excited about things you don't ordinarly care about, just because someone from a different culture speaking a different language also knows about it.

Which is why I was quick to name drop basically every Japanese thing I know when I first met the principal--everything from Hayao Miyazake movies to Haruki Murakami to the Sapporo snow festival. Just to be like, I know you think I have really weird hair and I am always sweating because I'm not acclimated to your country's ridiculous humidity and I still don't really get the whole indoor-outdoor shoes thing, but hey! I've seen My Neighbor Totoro!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Making friends...

Oh man, I am so blown away right now by the kindness of the Japanese people I've met. I don't mean to generalize--I hate it when someone says, "Oh, I love (insert here) people," since it's about as ignorant as saying you hate an entire group, and gushing over a whole population makes me sound like an idiot, basically. I've definitely experienced Japanese people who seem straight-up frightened and weirded out by me for no reason. But the majority of the people I've spent time with here have been warm and tolerant and friendly to an extent with which I'm totally unaccustomed.

Yesterday I met the school nurse, who excitedly told me her daughter loves America and would be coming in that afternoon to meet me. At 2 pm I was led into a small room where I spend the next two hours drinking coffee and chatting with the nurse and her super cute daughters, in my slowest English sprinkled with the few random Japanese words I know (read: sugoi, kawaii, atsui, arigatoo), aided by their electronic Japanese to English dictionary. It was my first time interacting with Japanese people in a non-professional/non-drunken setting, and it was exciting for me in a way I usually don't feel about human interaction. I often find unfamiliar social situations really draining, since frankly, I don't like people very much, but this was so fun! And sort of hippie-dippie in a "we're all just people, no matter where we're from" way... it's amazing how much communication can occur between people speaking different languages.

Today I went to lunch with them and the Japanese history teacher here, and the nurse treated me. This is another thing--I've lost count of how many times people insisted on paying for me as a "welcome to Japan!" At lunch, I learned some slang and how to tell students to shut up, which will probably come in handy once classes start. I also tried to teach them as many English phrases as possible, but people keep giving me the feeling that my presence alone is enough. At first I wondered if everyone was sort of taking pity on the hapless foreigner, but I don't think that's the case--they're truly interested in getting to know me and acquainting me with their culture.

And as soon as I got back to school, another teacher brought me to her aunt, who is a tailor specializing in yukata. Yukata are slightly less formal kimono that are worn at Japanese festivals and holidays--I saw quite a few at a fireworks festival I went to last week. Being dressed in a yukata is quite the process, with lots of layers and wrapping in an extremely precise way to create perfectly straight lines down the body. It took probably 15-20 minutes, and then I was photographed inside and outside in the yukata, with the aunt, the teacher, two cousins, and a cousin's baby (who was wearing a baby-yukata!) I'll post the photos as soon as I get them. Again, throughout I felt nothing but warmth from the aunt, and even though she spoke no English we kept laughing and--it felt like--conversing through gestures and random phrases. I don't think I can do justice to how fascinating the experience was, not just for cultural value, but for the fact that all these people took all this time out of their day to share honored customs with a complete stranger.

A cynical person might say that the reason the Japanese are so curious, tolerant, and kind to foreigners is that their country is under no threat from them--Japan has essentially a homogenous monoculture, and no worries that I know of about immigrants stealing jobs away or diluting traditions. This is probably partly the case, honestly. But I think patience and generosity are also valued here in a way specific to Japan--there's this universal understanding of preserving "group harmony" as essential, far more important than prioritizing individual needs. The American idea of individual freedom often is interpreted as every man for himself, which doesn't exactly lead to a co-worker taking time out of their busy schedule to make sure you have nice towels and things for your apartment when you move to a new place. And again, maybe that's just because there's less urgency here to compete, because everyone has more or less the same sort of cultural background and value system. I'm not sure. I'm not even saying this way is superior--but so far, I have to say that from a selfish perspective, it's been amazing for me.

Example of a yukata

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Living sitch

Sooo, my apartment. This has been a comedy of errors so far. Japan has blindingly fast internet, cell phones with the technology to build a new race of humans, and... showers with heating systems that require hand cranking. Or at least my apartment does, as its part of a group of buildings called kyo-something (I forget) jutaku, or teacher housing, seemingly inspired by the movie The Lives of Others. That is, vaguely East German and at least twenty years old (without having been updated once!)

So, for hot water, I have to put on the gas and then turn a hand crank. Then, since my shower head is not mounted to the wall, I sit down in my deep, narrow tub and try to evenly spray myself with it. The water temperature choices are Siberia and ninth circle of Hell.

The washing machine is on the balcony and doesnt so much agitate the clothes as grind them against the sides, wantonly shredding them to bits, in cold water. Also all the controls are in Japanese so I just guess. Theres no dryer so I hang the clothes from a line on the balcony. I put them out last night--wish me luck that theyll dry some time in the coming weeks, since the humidity makes life here sort of like walking through caramel. Sweaty caramel.

But seriously, pretty fun so far. I owe my firstborn to Grace and Karl, our neighbors and members of the considerable Pineapple Mafia (that is, people from Hawaii) that lives here. Without their cars, their Japanese skills, and their know how on setting up a Japanese apartment, Id be dead of starvation, dehydration, and not knowing how the hell to sort the garbage here.

Im also pretty delighted with the food so far, and got to try Fukuokas signature dish--ramen, which is made from pork bones, which leaves eaters with a distinctive smell that Ill call, uh... pork bones. Very OISHII though!

OK, Im at school right now so I feel a bit weird being ironic about Japan from a Japanese teachers lounge. SEE YOU!!!!

Friday, July 31, 2009


I cant even begin to explain all the weirdness. I may still be jet-lagged, because I sort of feel like Im in a dream. Also, Im at school using a Japanese keyboard that doesnt have an apostrophe key. Please rest assured that my basic punctuation skills have not deteriorated.

Here are a few hilarious mistakes I have made.

-I went to have my photo taken and I was told I shouldnt show my teeth when I smile, so they had to re-take the photos. Apparently teeth in photos is a no-no! Thanks Mom for always chiding me to smile bigger in photos; you have offended the Japanese by proxy.

-There are indoor shoes and outdoor shoes. I change into different shoes when I get to my high school, which are what I therefore wear for most of the working day. So, I figured outdoor shoes dont really matter and I wore some flip flops to walk to school today... very bad. A teacher took me to the bank to set up an account and was basically like, you better not do that again. Seriously.

-There are no discernible street signs and towns are definitely not neatly gridded. And since everything is in Japanese, its nearly impossible for me to remember how to get anywhere... Ive been too scatterbrained and overwhelmed to recognize landmarks much at this point. This is to say, both days so far I have been clueless as to how to get to school from the train station. Today I wandered long enough to get the courage to go back to the station and ask, and I bumped into a student who took me to the school, haha. In broken English and Japanese I learned he liked the Yankees, so as a thank you I gave him this baseball keychain I brought from New York as an omiyage (souvenirs people returning from vacation or arriving for the first time give to their co-workers). It was pretty cute.

-I did not bring enough omiyage for all the teachers. With the help of my desk neighbor, Tanaka-sensei, Ive been sneakily trying to give omiyage to some of the teachers without alerting others to the fact that theyve been snubbed. OMG everyone is going to hate me.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Why Japanomie?

1. Because I like making up fake compound words.

2. I previously thought "anomie" meant a sort of dissociative depressive state, but thanks to I discovered it can also mean

a state or condition of individuals or society characterized by a breakdown or absence of social norms and values, as in the case of uprooted people.

which sounds a lot like what I'll be going through upon arriving in Japan. Not in a bad way necessarily, though the unfamiliar etiquette concerns me. Everyone says the Japanese will be understanding of the cultural faux pas I will most certainly commit, but honestly: if you were serving a Japanese guest dinner, and they were very loudly and ostentatiously slurping their soup, wouldn't your reaction be more, "What's the deal with THAT guy?" than "Oh, it must be because they have some sort of custom in Japan in which slurping your soup is a compliment to the chef," the latter actually being the case?

That is to say, I am worried about the limits of folks' open-mindedness with regard to my inevitable brash American trampling all over their way of life. But! I'm sure my humiliation will be tempered by the ensuing comical blog posts I get out of these experiences, for your (all my hundreds of readers, har har) benefit.

Wish me luck!