Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Saying Sayonara

I find that sayonaras are difficult in Japan, and I’m not talking about the etiquette of bowing or the tongue-twisting nature of polite Japanese. The sayonaras I have seen have always been rather formal, especially ceremonies like graduation where even the tears appear to be on cue. Formalizing the sayonara process has its benefits: there’s no room for gaffes or awkward displays of affection and such a ceremony can be impromptu if needed because everyone knows how it should go.

Such an impromptu ceremony was held for a part-time teacher who left shortly after winter break. She had been at my junior high school for two years, filling in for a teacher who was taking care of her dying father. The father passed away and the day after the funeral the part-time teacher was out, farewell ceremony and all, and the next day the grieving daughter was back at work. The transition was seamless. And utterly jarring. It felt strange and even a little wrong that death can be so meticulously organized and seem so natural.

The third years need a PE teacher but it seemed of little matter who the PE teacher was from one day to the next. In itself this experience is noteworthy given its stark contrasts to similar transitions of personnel back home. But as a JET who’s not re-contracting, seeing this transition made my heart drop a little. In the hierarchy of teachers, I am the most forgettable, my role the most ornamental. How much less fanfare am I to expect in my transition out?

My time in Japan was been amazing and amazingly frustrating, invigorating and exhausting. Certainly impacting. And as my time draws quickly to an end I am a bit disturbed to think how little my leaving will be noticed. I have fostered relationships that are bound to last well after I say my last sayonara but just as many or more that surely will not.

For my own sanity I thought I’d compose a list of my sayonaras, things I will miss and ones I will not. Of moments great and small. I will create my own fanfare, damnit! But mostly because I know these last weeks will be rushed and it’s not just Japan’s fault that my good-byes may be incomplete.

So without further pontification, I say sayonara:

to the Docomo man who would not sell me a phone charger without calling my supervisor beforehand to make sure I knew what I was doing. I will NOT miss you.

to the Dalmatian next door whose constant barking I rarely notice these days and who has replaced his policy of growling with one of tail-wagging. I will miss you.

to school lunch, with your fish heads, unidentifiable vegetables and obscene proportions. I will NOT miss you (though I will miss curry and pumpkin doughnut days).

to playing cricket in winter on the bank of a river. I will miss you, Australia Day Cricket!

to the Kyoto-Sensei at my junior high school who cleans the staffroom with me and laughs with his shoulders. I will miss you.

to face masks during cold/flu season. I will NOT miss you. You are ridiculous.

to speaking tests when students exhibit moon-walking skills, tell Japanese folk tales in English, and ask about my love life. I will miss you and the opportunity you always provide for laughter.

to simultaneous road construction on all the roads leading to my house. I will NOT miss you.

to maps from road construction crews delivered to all the mailboxes in the neighborhood, displaying alternate routes and asking for our patience during construction. I will miss you.

to extremely helpful and enthusiastic sales people. I will miss you!

to the teeth-sucking textbook salesman that visits school three or four times a month. I will NOT miss you. You seem good at your job but, for the love, you are obnoxious!

to my granny bicycle with its glorious front basket and cheery bell. I will miss you.

to riding to and from school in pouring rain. I will NOT miss you and your day-ruining properties.

to my kotatsu. I will miss you more than words can say.

to my unheated shower room in the winter. I will NOT miss you.

to the yakitori stand couple who ask me about my country and always remember I prefer salt to sauce. I will miss you and your husky irrashaimase.

to Mt. Misen in Miyajima. I will NOT miss your fiasco-causing capabilities.

to Mt. Misen in Miyajima. I will miss your monkeys and the view from the ropeway.

to Kobe, with your Chinatown and Harborland attractions and glorious night view from Mt. Rokko and general grooviness. You rock and I will miss you.

to the rugby, soccer, and baseball fans I’ve seen at games. I will miss your impressively coordinated and dedicated cheering sections.

to crutching around a school without ramps let alone elevators. I will NOT miss you.

to Sanfrecce Hiroshima FC. You changed my mind about soccer. I will miss you.

to being packed like sardines on the second-to-last train home. I will NOT miss you.

to the amazingly efficient and user-friendly public transportation. In two years, I can recall only three times that my train was so late that it was inconvenient. I will miss you!

to the Shinkansen. I will miss you!

to paying 6 sen ($60) for a Shinkansen ticket from Osaka and standing the whole way back. I will NOT miss you.

to getting a hearty “Good morning!” from the PE teacher who’s English skills more or less start and end with that greeting. I will miss you.

to delicious restaurants and friendly staff: Manao (Thai) in Hiroshima and Pizza King in Wake. Oh how I will miss you!

to vacations to Arima Onsen, Kyoto and Nara, Nagasaki, and the Philippines. I will miss you.

to the confusion and awkwardness of taking leave to go on vacation. I will NOT miss you at all.

to Henry, the mangy stray that lives in the stairwell of Stephen’s place that we give food to. I will miss you. Take care of yourself old girl!

to my drafty and impossible to heat/cool house that is prone to dust bunnies the size of my head. I will NOT miss you.

to the first place that lived in by myself; you’ve kept me safe as I cried and never complained when I cursed you and you’ve kept me alert by having lots of creaks in the night and you’ve kept me busy by not cleaning yourself up and you’ve been great to my company since you’re so roomy. I may actually miss you in the end.

to Okamoto Sensei who is the perfect teacher, encouraging participation and excitement by her own insatiable enthusiasm. I will miss you.

to another Sensei who told me my hair isn’t blonde because blonde hair is more brilliant than mine and who looks disapprovingly at me anytime I don’t finish my lunch. I can’t express how much I will NOT miss you, at all. I may throw a party.

to the students that break teachers’ fingers and noses and classroom windows and the ones that say mean things to me in Japanese that they think I can’t understand and the ones that deliberately move far away from me when I am seated next to them at lunch. I will not miss you, mostly because I wish I could have done more to reach you.

to the students that smile brightly as they greet me in the morning and the ones who tell sex jokes and the ones who draw me pictures and the ones who tell me they miss me and the ones that dare to ask questions and the ones that talk to me outside of class. I will miss you!

All the things I will miss I might forget and the things I will not miss I may remember forever. Either way, how wonderful and sugoi (great/terrible depending on context) it is to have lived and taught in Oku, Okayama for two years.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Blessing Spoken Too Early in the Morning

This is from my running blog but it's mostly about things other than running. About being foreign, and being too friendly for my own good. But mostly just about life happening, simple things.

This is the end of week four, 1/4 of the way through my 16-week training program. Wow. Time is a funny thing. Hours drag as I'm sweltering in this heat with no A/C at work and yet weeks just fly by.

I wanted to run 8 miles today.But at 92% humidity and 80 degrees out frankly I am happy with how far I made it. I walked the last two miles and completed the 5-mile outing in about an hour.

I had a really weird start to the run. I will preface it with this verse from Proverbs 27:14 "A loud and cheerful greeting early in the morning will be taken as a curse!"

At 5:15am I was later than I should have been but still thought I might be able to finish the run. I saw an old lady trying to make eye-contact with me and also checking her watch. As I got closer I realized I'd run into her before and it was unpleasant so I kept my eyes glued to the ground and barely replied as she said good morning to me. That was enough encouragement for her and 30 minutes and a bewildering conversation later I was finally starting my run.

The first time I had a run in with this woman was as I was trying to hurry along to work. She stopped at my house as I was packing up my bike and commented that my tree needed cutting. I was in no mood to be reprimanded by a stranger who apparently had nothing else better to do than make her neighbors late for work.

I do cut my tree, but I can't reach up to the power lines, obviously, and so there are some very long branches up there. I replied with the Japanese equivalent of, "Yeah, but it's not like I can do it!" I don't normally start conversations off rudely, especially in a language I have a minimal command of. But for the love! Monday mornings are not the time to be told you're not doing a good job. She, however, was undeterred and continued chatting with me as I mumbled responses and slowly peddled my bike and checked my watch. She got the hint and I made it to work just in time for the morning meeting, sweating profusely.

This time she asked me if I knew what Tanabata is. It's the Star Festival. You tie wishes to a bamboo shoot and the next day, July 8th, you burn the whole thing sending your wishes to the other world. I have been living in Japan for two years; I know the major holidays.

She then took me to her house to see her bamboo shoot. I took a photo of it on my phone after she leadingly noted that I had my phone with me. And then she said, "Tanabata isn't a holiday in other countries, is it?" Like many people throughout the world, this woman has a misunderstanding of what unique means in a global context. As Stephen has frequently remarked when we run into comments like this, "Yes, Japan is a unique country. In world of unique countries." No, we don't celebrate Tanabata, with it's bamboo wish shoot. Much like you don't celebrate Easter, with it's egg hunts and chaotic iconography, Ms. Meddler.

Was she trying to be friendly, if simultaneously patronizing? Of course, sweet thing. But even a cheerful greeting spoken too early in the morning will be taken as a curse. I just wanted to run.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Marathon in 109 Days!

I will be running The Quad Cities Marathon on Sunday, September 26th! Read my running (mis)adventures here :)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

When You Leave Your Only Set of Keys on the Train

Sunday night I was getting home from visiting Stephen in Hiroshima. I had several bags in my hands and so wanted to make the whole process easier by carrying my keys with me instead of rummaging for them in the darkness once I got to my house. I set my house keys on the seat next to mine. And promptly forgot them as I left the train.

I stopped in my tracks five minutes later when I realized my plan went horribly awry and instead of being slightly inconvenienced at my doorstep I was majorly inconvenienced given that my keys, now heading to Himeji, are in fact the only set of keys I have to my house which I dutifully lock.

Thankfully, due to the recent temperature drops and hikes I had left one of my sliding glass windows unlocked and so was able to burgle my house.

Though people in the inaka might be nosey they are not thieves so leaving my door unlocked Monday wasn't too much of a concern. I was loaned a key from my BOE that owns the house I live in.

"Be careful" I was told. I wasn't about to remind them that's exactly what they told me when I first arrived and was given only one key to my house. "There is no copy. Be careful."
Fortunately I happen to live in Japan. As difficult as Japan made my sprained ankle recovery, it has made the return of my lost keys incredibly easy.

I was fretting over asking my co-workers to call the train station and inquire. They're busy people. They don't need another task. Then I saw a wonderful poster in the train station with graphics and happy-looking people with a number to call in case you left something behind on the train.

And I realized though it wouldn't be perfect, I could certainly call and explain what I needed. I prefaced my conversation with explaining my limited Japanese. I spoke to two station staff people. The one in Himeji was far more exasperated with my Japanese (he referred to me as a gaijin to his co-workers which is short for gaikokujin and is the difference between saying "foreigner" and "person from a foreign country"). But in the end I was able to confirm my lost keys were in Himeji.

What came next surprised me. I was expecting to me be making a trip to Himeji to pick them up.
Nope. This is Japan and in Japan though you might be referred to as a "foreigner" your lost item will be delivered right to your home.


So when you leave your only set of keys on the train in Japan, don't worry too much. But it helps to have left a window open to facilitate the burgling of your home in such a case.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Fish Heads Aren't Even the Worst of It!

I have a piece of paper with 500 written on it stuck to my fridge. It reminds me of this unbelievable statistic: the average American consumes the same quantity of food as do 500 Ethiopians. It's not meant as a guilt-laden diet plan; “make yourself so depressed about the state of the world and you won't want to eat!” Rather, it is a reminder of a principle that has long since vanished from our doorsteps in the West: moderation. Our society encourages thoughtless consumption, from Hummers that end up in the driveways of cookie-cutter homes in the suburbs to pasta dishes for children that contain more saturated fat that an adult should consume in four days. If someone is selling it, we think it must be a good idea to buy it.

With this cultural heritage, I was thrilled to be making my way to Japan in 2008. Known as a society heavily influenced by it's religious and artistic aestheticism, Japan could be the poster-child of “less is more” and “quality not quantity.” What I couldn't anticipate was the wreckage that the principle of motainai wreaks on school lunch at my junior high school.

Motainai is kinda like “waste not, want not.” In a conversation you'd use it to explain why you'd saved the scraps of fabric from a sewing project just as much as you could use it to explain why you stayed up late watching the Olympics. Applied to school lunch, this principle forsakes wisdom and pushes the boundaries of sanity.

Our school lunch company is, from what I can tell, incapable of counting or reading a calendar of events. If half the teachers will be away for a sports conference the company does not give us less food; we simply eat twice as much. Why? Motainai. The lunch company also keeps track of the food we didn't eat and sends my school a report card.

Class competitions are held to see what class leaves the least amount of milk bottles behind. Variables like chronically absent students and those with allergies are not taken into account. Allergies in general are not considered by the company; there was a student at my school last year who is allergic to seafood, all seafood. Almost everyday we eat fish, especially in the summer, and he simply went without. No meat replacement was ever offered.

So I was not surprised, really, when after informing one of my teachers that I didn't eat today's soup because I'm allergic to clams, she said “Motainai.” Not a command, necessarily, but certainly a sentiment that expressed as much or more disappointment in me having an allergy than in the school lunch company for not providing me an alternative.

Any principle, even moderation, observed entirely for it's own sake loses all meaning. Motainai is a good idea when it encourages students to try foods they don't like or aren't familiar with. And it's a good idea when it encourages us to soak in every last moment of an event. And it's a good idea when it makes us appreciate the labor that's gone into our food manufacturing, making us thoughtful in our consumption. But at junior high schools all across Japan motainai has gone terribly wrong.

I have become an expert at force-feeding myself and ignoring my gag reflex all to satisfy a principle that is, in the meantime, rendered meaningless.

Monday, April 5, 2010


What started as just curiosity has now become a new obsession. Almost a hobby. I've gotten purikura in almost every city I've visited. This is purikura:

Purikura is the Japanese version of photo booths. You slip coins into a slot, and several small photos are taken. Usually friends and lovers take them together. And that's where the similarities end.

In purikura you have a choice of several different booths, sometimes over twenty. They're often in multistory arcades but just as often they are attractions in and of themselves. They are most popular with young crowds but even college graduates will get some purikura with their friends to celebrate the occasion.

Once you insert the coins the madness begins, and quickly. You need to select how you want to be tinted and if you want your eyes to be colored/sparkled. Then you decide which 4-6 backgrounds you want out of about 100. Some are just plain colors or patterns but others have cute images like on my example of purikura.

Once you decide how you're gonna pose (before each shot you're shown models posing in your selected background in case you can't come up with anything on the spot) and the photos are taken it's only half over.

Then you go to a smaller, adjacent booth with two chairs and a screen with two "pens" attached. Now you go about decorating your tiny photos. There's tons of hearts and stars, cutesy sayings in Japanese and English (the one above is, "Suki, suki, daisuki: Like, like, love"), date stamps, pen color choices for writing your own message, and hoards of cute images like puppies and cakes and smileys.

It's incredibly overwhelming at first but the more you go to the purikura dens the more you're used to what they offer and pretty soon you're purikura-ing just like a giddy group of high school girls.

Purikura is probably not a legitimate hobby nor is it probably what the JET Programme has in mind when it recommends getting involved in cultural activities. But it is fun, really, really fun. And, as if it couldn't get better, you can peel off the backing and your purikura becomes a sticker!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On the Scooping Up of Night Soil

Over the last year and a half in Japan I have been reminded again and again, by both my blunders in Japanese and my students' in English, that language usage can be a tricky thing.

When you look up sumimasen in a dictionary, you're given "excuse me" as the translation. And "thank you" when you look up arigatou gozaimasu and "I'm sorry" for gomennesai. However, that does not mean that you are now ready to insert them into conversation. Not by a long shot! Sumimasen seems to be rarely used in formal/business settings to mean "excuse me." The more apologetic and polite gomennasai is more appropriate. Situations that warrant a quick sumimasen in my office--passing next to or overtaking someone in the hallways, for example--wouldn't need the English equivalent back home.

And "thank you?" Well, it has it's place I'm sure. But in daily interactions I use sumimasen and gomennasai just as often. For example, if I'm still at my desk instead of helping with lunch preparations when I'm given my lunch tray, it's most appropriate to say "excuse me" not "thank you" since it lets the listener know I appreciate their effort and am about to join in as well. And then if someone goes out of their way especially, like bringing presents from a trip, a hearty gomennasai will almost always be paired with the most polite thank you, domo arigatou gozaimasu.

Cultural understanding goes a long way to aid dictionary translations, or mistranslations. A few months ago one of the teachers I am paired with was telling me a story about why she was so flustered. She pointed to the hallway we were walking through and said, "I coach this road." She is an incredible teacher and super friendly but, obviously, her English vocabulary is somewhat limited. However, I had been at the school long enough to know there are teacher-led student teams that clean certain areas of the school after lunch. And I knew the schedule enough to know that we'd just finished this cleaning time. Understanding the culture, and not the words, what was what facilitated our successful communication.

Unfortunately, such was not the case when it came to the scooping out of night soil. My newest Japanese word: kumitori. It is the "scooping out of night soil." Apparently, my toilet is not connected to a treatment plant or communal septic system but is kinda like an outhouse. One that gets scooped out from time to time. But of course I have to give the go-ahead before these kinds of things happen to my house and so it falls on the English teachers at school to explain the scooping out of night soil to me.

"Your toilet tank needs to be emptied." "Your sewage system is bad. You need a new one." "Can you empty your toilet tank tomorrow?" Oh damn, I thought. I really don't understand anything you're saying. The dictionary entry of kumitori as "scooping out night soil" wasn't much clearer so I couldn't blame my teachers for the confusion.

Eventually, I came to know that the kumitori company was coming to empty my septic tank in preparation for the reconstruction of my entire sewage system. This took place over a weekend. The preparations were the weekend before. Unfortunately these were unannounced, giving both me and the workers a bit of a shock. Especially the woman who woke me up at 9:00am on a Saturday to bang around my house and remind me that they'd be doing the construction next weekend. Yes, I thought, next weekend! When I'm not here. Not this weekend...at nine in the morning! Too bad the majority of my Japanese is rather formal and polite and so I was unable to convey such sentiments.

When it comes to things like the digging up of night soil, no translation will explain it enough. You just have to experience it.