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!!!!