Friday, December 31, 2010

Holiday Update

I type while seated in my childhood room. There's a quilt over my legs that was made in 1932 (which I know because the quilters embroidered their names and the date on their individual squares). The clock reads 10:01 but I haven't moved from bed since I awoke two hours ago. A slick hip hop beat slides from my brother's room through the library and under my door. I imagine it's either Jurassic Five or Collective Effort, perhaps Johnson & Johnson. He might be working on his own beats; our cousin Shara gave him a few tips on mixing songs in different genres. Barron has sat me down a couple of times to show me exactly what she meant by one technique or another. I like to think that all three Ryan children have equal musical talents, but Barron has a patience for learning the technique that I don't possess. He's also perfectionist enough to stay with something long enough to get it right.

My mother is in the kitchen. I know it's her and not my father because everything is open and shut with a little extra force. If my mother were a cartoon character, she'd be a small creature like a rabbit, or a squirrel, or a terrier, something energetic and quick. She's in the process of reorganizing and cleaning. My grandmother passed away on December 19th, the very reason why I'm here rather than in Kameoka, and had been living in the master bedroom downstairs. My parents moved back downstairs, fumigated the entire house yesterday, and my mother washed every scrap of linen. Mom is a multitasker, which means she and I don't always work well together, and always has a To Do list. Correction: she always has multiple To Do lists, and if her children are at home we get a list of our own. My mother has her own kind of grace and sophistication, but it wasn't until I was in college that I'd heard her described as "cute." "You're mom's so cute," a friend told me after my parents visited me, I think in reference to the way my mother sat on the couch with her legs tucked beneath her. I come by it honestly, I guess.

I can hear my father's voice. Oral Roberts University is on break right now, so Dad's usual daytime commitments are at a minimum. He told a family friend last night that he works like a dog until Christmas, then takes it easy through New Year's. We call the room where all my father's stuff is the studio. I'm only just realizing how rare that is; my father doesn't have an office. He has a studio. I think the only delineation, though, is that there's a keyboard. If I walk past the room, Dad's either practicing with his headphones on—the only sounds are the fleshy plunk of the keys—or he's working on the computer. When my father isn't working he's running errands or doing the manly things around the house. He relaxes occasionally, both of my parents do, but it looks so different from what I do to relax that sometimes I can't tell the difference between leisure time and work.

My sister is back in Washington D.C. now. She and I reached Tulsa on the same flight from Dallas. I got home and took a long nap. She went to meet some former coworkers and got a new job in Tulsa. My mother was so excited that she jumped around the house for a good twenty minutes. I have never, ever seen my mother behave like that. Safe to say that it put a different spin on what would have otherwise been a solemn reunion. Gillian has been away longer than I have. Sure, she didn't move countries, but she was in San Antonio for college, Kentucky for grad school and promptly moved to D.C. afterward. That's about 8.5 years away from Tulsa, plenty long enough to get worldly and decided that home isn't all that terrible. I'm excited because she'll be living on her own in a place that I can easily visit. I'm making a list of decorating blog articles to send her.

It's 10:55 now. I was going to write a list of everything I've done since being home, but that would take too long and I don't have any pictures to add. I need to go get ready for ice-skating outdoors in 70 degree weather.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Bat and The Bear: The Bear

Yes, the Bear hibernates. You saw that coming from across the Pacific.  All I’m doing in this post is defining “hibernation.” My version makes me friendless and fat.

This was a month ago, when the cold was just playing
When it is so cold within my home that I can see my own breath, I have the option of turning on the heating unit and paying about 100 dollars to warm a one-room apartment. Though this method may feel worthwhile at the time when I’m all the way over in my kitchen, cleaning, it rarely feels very efficient to hand over such a huge chunk of my change to the electric company every month. The sun seems to be in hibernation mode as well, given that it is in hiding by 5 p.m.  Not only does this mean a colder life for us in the Northern Hemisphere, it makes me feel like I shouldn’t be awake. I start yawning at 3:45, looking forward to the time when I can go home and settle in a cave of blankets.
Even an hour-long bus ride was okay if the sun was shining.
Naturally the solution to both the heating bill and the long night is to sleep. It’s the only time when I can’t feel the cold. During my first Japanese winter I was sleeping on a futon on the freezing floor. I had set the kotatsu (the heated coffee table) over it, placed an extra comforter at the foot to trap the heat, another to pull over my head, and had an electric foot-warmer tucked in the bottom. The rest of my apartment was usually unbearably cold. My routine became the following: (1) Come home from work. (2) Shed materials and clothes. (3) Pull on sweat pants if not already wearing knit tights. (4) Wriggle backwards under the kotatsu and pull computer within reach. (5) Stay there until I had to a) leave for an evening class or b) I fell asleep. On my free evenings, Tuesdays and Fridays, I usually could be found asleep by 8 or 9 p.m. The only things that changed the 2nd winter were that I had a bed (on which I’d placed the foot-warmer, comforters and an electric blanket) and my rabbit had chewed up the kotatsu cord. I slept a lot.
See how relaxed, happy, and double-chinned I am? Bear: Early stages.

Given that my bed was the always the warmest place in the house, I’d usually eat my meals there. Cooking involved being the farthest distance from the heat, shivering and chapping my hands with frequent washing. It was far easier to buy frozen foods or things that come in convenient portion-sized packages, like cookies. Then I could eat while lying down and freeze my fingers only during that short trip from a blanket-covered snack food bag to my mouth.
That day when I took the wrong bus and alit in Lordy Knows Where
If I wasn’t eating at home then I could be found ordering the most calorie-packed items on the menus of various restaurants. Katsudon—a breaded pork cutlet on a bowl of rice topped with egg, onions, and a special sauce—has just as many calories per serving as the worst foods I consumed in the states. It’s my winter standby here. The warmth of the food and fullness in my belly made my bones feel a little less frozen and comforted me on the walk home.

It rained on me a little, and my extremities were freezing.
I think we all have a little bit of the winter Bear in us. We use the cold weather and holidays as an excuse to eat hot, filling foods, then we go to sleep and don't exercise. Unlike the bear, we don’t fill our bellies and then go to sleep for a few months. There’s no time to let our bodies use all those calories (not advocating binge-eating and anorexia, by the way). No, we repeat this eat-sleep cycle every day, packing on more and more fat cells because some basic instinct tells us that we’re going to need it when the sun has set. Wonder why we never seem to keep New Year’s resolutions about losing weight? I blame the winter.

It was a beautiful walk nonetheless. And then I remembered the real bears.
The Bear is not skilled at multitasking. The Bear lives for immediate priorities and comforts, but with the vague, uneasy sense that there are other things to be done. I’ve been studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). That period consisted of six or seven-hour sessions at the local Mr. Donut because it’s the only place to study and drink coffee that’s open after 7. On weekends I could be found at a Starbucks in Kyoto, usually spending between seven and ten hours eating carbohydrate-laden foods and drinking fattening drinks. I kept forgetting to ask for soy; sue me.
These leaves are mostly gone now. 
If not holed up at a coffee shop with an equally disgruntled study buddy, I was cocooned in my blankets at home. If I had prepare for scheel then I would slide from my bed to the heated pad on my floor, shove all of my body under the kotatsu that would fit without lying down, and wrap my upper body in blankets. My immediate priorities were staying warm, passing the JLPT, getting the ALT Team Teaching Seminar over and done with and not sucking at my job. I won’t find out if I succeeded at my second goal until March, but the others were taken care of. The downside was that everything else that is important, like staying in touch with friends and family, got shoved to the back burner. I apologize, friends and family to whom I never responded. I got your emails and letters, and I read them and felt good, but I was deep in Bear mode.
My favorite part: SNEAK

Just click on it.

Bears may not be completely solitary, but they nevertheless regard social obligations as irritating and exhausting. A Bear will complain about the best friend’s birthday party he “has to” attend. He will tell you later that he had a splendid time, but thinks energy he expended on getting out of bed and being congenial merits him at least four subsequent days of not talking to anyone. A Bear will stop attending an activity that she usually loves during winter. If asked why, an honest Bear will tell you she’s just too cold to leave the house, and that interacting with people is just too draining. All that smiling she has to do, you know.

The combination of ignoring anything but face-to-face contact and shirking of social events makes Bears unpopular. We appear self-absorbed and uncaring; the blunt reality is that we can’t think anywhere past what is happening now or what we can’t avoid. I’m writing this on an empty stomach, because even though I was awake early enough to Skype with my sister and eat breakfast, and didn’t think far enough ahead to remember that I’d need to bring my own lunch today. I can barely concentrate on finishing this post before catching the 3:11 bus home (the earliest one I could take) because my brain is occupied with planning what to shove in my maw once I get home. That, and wondering how early I can get to sleep tonight without waking up at five o’clock tomorrow morning.
A rare moment of fun: watching my friend Tamon's taiko group.
Speaking of bears, there had been some real bears venturing out of the mountains all over Japan. Most elementary students walk to school—some have up to a 30-minute trek—so they’re all wearing school-issued jingle bells on their backpacks. There’s nothing more off-putting to a bear than an adorable child in a yellow hat with a matching backpack that sounds like a Christmas song.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Bat and The Bear: The Bat

 It’s cold. It’s wear-tights-under-my-pants cold. It's runny-nose cold. I have a long grudge against cold weather. In October when all the folk at home were celebrating the advent of sweater season, I was grumbling as I dragged out my heavy blankets and switched my sheets to jersey.

This will be my third winter in Japan. Anyone who talks to me has heard me bemoan the lack of insulation and the inescapable frigidness. I was discussing this with a teacher the other day. I had decided that maybe I was being melodramatic. The new ALT is a Minnesotan, and she once went trick-or-treating in a blizzard. In Oklahoma a foot of snow stops life for a week.

My teacher said, “My friend from Hokkaido—you know Hokkaido, the farthest north prefecture in Japan?”

Japan’s Minnesota. “Sure,” I replied.

“My friend said that Kyoto winters are worse than Hokkaido’s!”

“What?” I exclaimed.

“Because you say, the buildings in Kyoto are built, not for winter,” he explained. “The houses are not warm. Kyoto and Kameoka, we call them bonchi. It means they are low cities surrounded by mountains, so the cold air stays. So winter is easier in Hokkaido.”

I responded with some noise and facial expression reminiscent of an angry housecat. No wonder.
We have had some beautiful sunsets. This was even more vibrant from my kitchen window.

Among the municipal ALTs in Kameoka, Kim-Chi and I seem to be most adversely affected by the cold. We talk about it at great lengths, and by “talk about” I mean “complain.”

Kim-Chi and I have discovered that we hold similar postures when we’re at our schools in winter. We pull our sleeves up to cover our hands or (despite what well-meaning teachers tell us) wear our fingerless gloves in the office. We sit or stand with our elbows in and our hands clutched to our chests. We hunch over our desks, writing with crabbed hands. Our expressions are sour—upper lips curled, brows drawn, runny noses wrinkled. Kim and I have termed this “bat face” because it clearly says, You want to talk to me? I’ll give you rabies.

The Bat is a crabby soul. The sour mood brought on by Seasonal Affective Disorder is pervasive and subtle, and the Bat is the unwitting result of not recognizing how severely being cold affects one’s psyche.

I was at an elementary school a couple of weeks ago, and I was pissed off. The object of my wrath was the English supporter, a Japanese woman who does my job but at only five schools and only with the 5th and 6th grades. I should preface with that I’ve had a couple of issues with this woman in the past. It has never been anything big, just small things like hearing her teach incorrect English. Or that the teachers who used to try to talk to me directly now wait for the supporter to show up and translate. Or how she seems convinced that I can’t communicate with Japanese teachers on my own. The previous Friday the supporter, who shall from henceforth be known as Mrs. Westmouth, had deemed it necessary to explain BINGO to me. It went something like this:

I have italicized the parts that were originally in Japanese.
W: Okay, Ryan, okay.
Me: Yes?
W: Today’s lesson, sixth graders, play a BINGO game.
Me: Yes. It’s lesson 7.1 in the manual.
W: Okay, Ryan. Mm. Um, sixth graders cut the cards. Have cut cards. Student have cut the cards, and put on.
Me: Yes. Just like regular BINGO. We played this last year. I often play BINGO in class.
W: Okay. Students a put on card, on the paper, and Ryan say a card. Ah, pyramid!
Me: Yes. We have played this before.
W: Students, ah, [in growly voice] “pyramid” and put the card. Take off card.
Me, glancing at the sixth grade teachers watching us: Yes. I know. I understand
W: And Ryan, “Germany,” say “Germany,” and students [in gravely voice] “Ah, okay, Germany.” And, take off Germany’s card.
Ms. Miyoshi, 6th grade English coordinator: Er, the students haven’t cut those cards out yet.
W: Ah, Ryan, sixth graders, have—
Me, to Miyoshi-sensei: That’s okay. We have a lot of [those] country [flag] cards.  Please using just those. Those only are fine.
            For the record, I did mean to say, “we can use” instead of “please using,” but I am not good at this language.
Miyoshi-sensei: Ah, okay. Thanks. Is it okay if the students just write the country names into the BINGO blanks?
W: —not cut cards. So, Ryan, ah, what should we do, I wonder?
Me: Yes, to write also okay.
W [to Miyoshi-sensei]: What should we do? We could use the country cards. There are a lot of those.
Miyoshi-sense, gesturing at me: Oh, uh, yes. We’ll just use those and write the country names in the blank.
W: Okay, in Japanese?
Ms. Miyoshi looked at me.
Me: In Japanese is okay.
Miyoshi nodded.
W: Okay, Ryan, okay, Ryan will use country card. Westmouth made, country cards, do you remember?
Me: Yes, we used them last year. Thank you.
W: Mm, not so (translation: Oh, no problem). Okay, Ryan will use Westmouth’s cards. Germany, Ghana, Swiss, Canada, Ryan will use BINGO’s game.
Me: Yes.
W: Students not use, will not use cards. Students will write name, country name, in BINGO sheet. Ryan will…

I shan’t recount the rest. Westmouth proceeded to tell me in what way a student might achieve a BINGO, and how to play a game called “What’s this?” which involved me showing the students part of a picture and asking them to guess what it is. The whole conversation, or whatever you call it when two people talk but one doesn’t listen, lasted for at least five minutes. My part was mostly saying “Yes, I understand. I have done this before,” and “Yes, it’s right here in the teacher’s manual.” Westmouth did a lot of gesturing to the cards that hadn’t been cut and country flag cards, confirming with Miyoshi-sensei, and demonstrating how I should call BINGO cards.

Woman, I wanted to say, BINGO is an American game. I know how to play it. I’ve been playing BINGO in classrooms for the last two and a half years. Don’t presume I need a crash course in BINGO For Dummies, especially in front of the other teachers. I may be smiling, but Imma bite yo face off.

Some of my outrage might be merited. It’s never fun to be treated like a stupid child. However, Westmouth is an incredibly nice woman, and she bends over backward to make sure that her schools have everything they need for English classes. She often drives me home, and once when I was going to bike home and back during recess (I’d left some materials at home) Westmouth followed me home in her car, and then drove me back to the school. Still, this BINGO explanation drove me nuts. I grumbled about it all weekend.
A portable shrine featured in the Kameoka Festival

When I woke up the following Tuesday, I was cold. I didn’t want to put my feet on the cold floor. I didn’t want to get out of my warm bed. My nose was frozen and my fingers were stiff. I dragged myself out of bed and made sure I got on a bus on time. I had reviewed the plan for the day’s lessons (the school had given me a detailed outline of when each grade would be studying what part of the textbook) so I walked into the elementary school feeling prepared.

I entered the teacher’s office, said a cheery Ohaiyo gozaimasu, and sat down. The office manager came to my desk. She held a clear plastic file that contained one piece of paper. She said something like “The other teacher, what’s her name again, left this note for you.”

“Westmouth?” I suggested, taking the file.

“Yes. She left this for me to give you.”

I thanked the lady and resisted crumpling that note in my hands. I won’t retype what Westmouth had written. Let is suffice to say that it was information that I already had available, and without which I would have done just swimmingly. This note really bothered me. I fumed the whole day. At one point I sent Kim-Chi a text message that simply said, “I’m like to murder some folk.”

She replied, “Is it the coming of the cold? I’ve been like to kill people all week.” Then she inquired after the potato soup I’d made the previous night.

I pshawed. The cold? What would the cold have to do with the idiocy with which I was surrounded? It was that woman’s fault, what with her micromanaging and her notes. And the teachers who walked out of the room when I was teaching. And those dumb kids with their yapping and telling me that my hair was weird and making fun of me. And the stupid school lunch sitting on my desk until it got cold while I waited for the students to get their act together and come get me. And the stupid school with its open windows in the staff room that made my nose was cold and runny…Ah. Maybe I was cold.

The Bat. It is an ugly creature.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Costume

I was so lazy, it turned into "The Broadway interpretation of a lion." I bought materials to make a tail, but never made one. It was all in the makeup.

From L to R: Teresa (new ALT), Jen (new JET Prefectural Advisor), Kim-Chi

I've been in a funk when it comes to blogging or leaving Kameoka, so maybe I'll just transfer some of my school notes here to give you an idea of what live has been like these past couple of weeks.

Also, I planned an entire Thanksgiving menu. I feel like I may be living up to my mother's legacy of Incredible Hostess, save for that Turtle Hill's Thanksgiving is more of a cultural exchange event, it's not at anyone's house this year, and we may not even have tables. More about that as I learn the details.

And I'm off.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Help Me Chose A Halloween Costume! Do It!

For the record, many of the children attending will be students of mine, and they've already seen my hair at its wildest. So, if you would be so kind, please find a better reason than "awesome hair" for me to chose a costume.

P.S. If you look up at the top right of the blog, there is now a poll. You can vote on my Halloween costume. Everyone loves voting, right?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Nothing Says Japan Like A Camel

Saturday, September 25th I was scheduled as the guest speaker for a Global Session at the Kameoka Exchange Center (if you want to know more about it, click here). Margaret and I woke up early on a Saturday (travesty) to get a champion’s breakfast of donuts and hop on a bus to the Center. I spent the next two hours reading and aiding discussion of my paper, the subject of which was adult language learning and learners. We never really got to what I’d wanted to talk about, which was improving the ways we learn as adults, but at least the group talked a lot. Seriously, click on the link and read my paper. It's gold.

After the Global Session I headed home to pack, deal with a sick creature in my house, and then hopped on a train. The Kyoto Association of JETs had put together an overnight trip, and as dorky as I felt for signing up to travel around with a pack of foreigners, I was determined to go. It was my first tourism-based travel in Japan since Hannah visited last year, and I was going for only one reason: camels.

Tottori-ken is the only prefecture in which lies an expanse of sand large enough to be labeled dunes. It’s a tiny desert, or a giant beach, on the west side of Japan. I was warned that the dunes are completely unimpressive, and were disappointingly small. This doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but in keeping with the desert theme they offer short camel rides. Camel rides! As a casual fan of equestrianism and an avid fan of piggyback rides, I am always up for sitting on a sizeable beast and hanging on while it lumbers this way and that. Had I the time and money I would pull a City Slickers move and be a cowboy for a month or two. I just like riding things.

Safe to say that I could care less about the rest of Tottori Prefecture (which is rumored to have some of the best and cheapest steaks in the country. Screw you, Kobe). I just wanted to hand someone five thousand yen and sit/hyperventilate with joy on a camel for five minutes while it walked around. It’s a small dream, but some dreams do come true.

I met Kim-Chi and J.S. to catch a bus over to Tottori. It was about a three-hour drive, but the round trip was less than one way on a train that would have taken us there in half the time.  We needed to save our money for the camels.  That day of the trip was rather uneventful. We met up with six other ALTs in Tottori-shi, checked into our hotel, ate at a mediocre Italian restaurant and had donuts for dessert. Then we went to bed.
View from my 11th floor hotel room in the morning.

This is where I hide my crusty face
On Sunday morning we all met up to catch an 8:40 a.m. tourism bus to the dunes. Tourist buses are great for letting us see what we’re missing on the way to our destination. For the most part Tottori City looked like Kyoto, though Kim-Chi pointed out a larger number of buildings with western-style roofing. There were old buildings, new buildings, run-down areas and some beautifully kept parks. I almost wished we’d arrived earlier on Saturday to take a look at some of the sites. Almost.

Finally we arrived at the dunes. There was a huge group of volunteers with barbecue tongs and plastic bags receiving instructions on removing the encroaching grass from the dunes. We shrugged and figured we might as well look around until it was time to ride a Bactrian or dromedary. Not to call the unnamed sourpuss who told me the dunes sucked a liar, but he was wrong. No, they weren’t mind-bogglingly large. I’d seen the Planet Earth section “Deserts,” and Tottori had never been mentioned. Nonetheless the weather was perfect and it had rained the night before, so it was as though no man had ever set foot on the striated beauty of the sands. You know, aside from the dozens of people picking up trash and yanking weeds out of the sand with metal tongs. Here are thirteen thousand words’ worth to back it up:
See that encroaching grass?

I like a shadow.

Cross this expanse and you can…

watch Kim look at the ocean! There's a really steep drop off right there, by the way.

J.S. lagged behind to take a picture or ten.

I like three shadows.  Guess whose.

Our traveling party.


By the time we finished frolicking in the surf and crawled back up the dunes it was about noon. There was a kite festival scheduled going on, so the camel rides didn’t start until 2 p.m.  We settled for shaking the sand out of our shoes, discussing camel care, the ethics of camel rides in Japan as compared with elephant rides in Thailand, picking the camels we wanted to ride, imitating camels noises and noting their influence on creatures in Star Wars, remarking on each other’s growing sunburns (just because it ain’t summer don’t mean you don’t get sun), and watching the kites dance in the sky. We were a thoughtful bunch.

Perusing the souvenir shop informed us that Tottori is also famous for the apple-shaped Asian pear, the origins of one of Japan’s most beloved manga/anime, and rabbits, which may or may not have been associated with a type of historical figure, or whatever the Buddhist or Shinto version of a saint is. Pear frozen yogurt, or “soft cream,” is one of the best flavors in the world. We went to a nearby restaurant called Sukato, or maybe it was Sukkato, or Sukatto for lunch.  Here are some more pictures to prove that we were having fun.

After lunch we all signed up for camel rides. I paid my 1800 yen and ended up riding last like a loser, but by golly I was on a camel. Who gives a newt poo if I was the only one of the group/only person who rode that day to go by myself? I was sporting the boots I’d worn specifically for a photo shoot on a camel. I was sitting on a white-ish Bactrian camel named Cherry, which is the closest I’ve gotten to touching a yak (another dream of mine). You know, what with them sharing the desolate parts of central Asia and all. Learned that from Planet Earth “Deserts,” too. The following pictures are worth at least two thousand per.
Dromedary, dames.

Bactrian, b— oh, just kidding.

About the time I was trying to explain why a large group of foreigners could speak Japanese.

After the camel rides we all went souvenir shopping. I came away with a lot of pear-flavored things, and finished off the last of the pear dango yesterday. That stuff was dang good. See what I did just now? You see? Wordplay. Kim-Chi, J.S. and I indulged in our second pear soft cream cones of the day before catching a bus back to Tottori station. We had an hour before our bus left, so we napped and chatted outside. Or we tried to, at least, though there was a man yelling nonsense, and then some sense, across the way from us.

The return bus ride was over an hour longer than the first due to traffic. I went through most of Season 6 of The Office and made a list of wistful and melancholic songs to create a playlist for writing. For when I have real free time again. Fauré’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” and “Griet’s Theme” from the Girl With a Pearl Earring soundtrack are high on that list, for any potential copycats. I didn’t get home until after 9 p.m.  To give you an idea of how this affected me, here’s the beginning or Monday’s journal entry/school notes:
Praise God for self control, praise Him for preparation.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Days of My Life

Want to know how my life has been since the last real update (when I was freaking out about my belt test)? Just remember you asked for it.*

Thursday, September 23rd
In interest of saving time, I’ll reproduce my journal entry.
10:40 p.m.
Things I did today:
·      Skyped w/whole  family
·      Cleaned
·      Hosted okonomiyaki party for Nanami, Kim and Margaret
·      Filled out aikido and JLPT forms
·      Made short video for blog
·      [Went to aikido and took the test. I’ll tell you how it went someday.]
o   learned the word for armpit—waki
o   realized that I forgot to eat dinner in my nervousness
·      Ate pie chez Margaret and discussed art with her and Atsushi
·      Wrote this, debated whether or not to eat something.
I’m hungry.

Friday, September 24th
I went to Ansho Elementary. I taught two classes of 6th graders, spent morning recess talking to the English Supporter about why American moms don’t wake up at 5 to make lunch for their kids (teaching independence, that’s why), then taught two more 6th grade classes. By the end I was a little worn out (the games we played were loud and exciting), and for the second time in my life I yelled at a group of students “Oh, my gosh. Shut! Up!” In fairness, they understand “shut up,” but not, “be quiet” or “listen,” and I wasn’t ready to resort to using Japanese. Also in fairness on the kids’ part, I did overreact.

I spent lunch and recess with class 6-4, a friendly bunch, and ran my toosh off playing tag with them. After lunch there was a brief fifteen minute respite during which I drank some coffee, updated my notes on the day’s classes, and wrote this:
Praise God for today. Praise Him for will power, praise Him for patience. Praise Him for stamina.
Which should give you a pretty good idea of how I was feeling about getting out of bed, waiting for the English Supporter (who is supposed to be good at English) to put a coherent sentence together, and teaching five classes in a row.

The fifth class was with the Hikari Special Needs class. We read Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, reviewed colors, and made our own                         what do you see? pages. I used to have a lot of trouble teaching this class because I was so accustomed to basing lessons on conversation practice and interactive games. Now that I no longer expect these students to repeat after me, or their full attention, it’s much easier to feel satisfied with a lesson. For example, the two students with Down Syndrome like to pretend that they’re afraid of me, which makes helping them difficult. However, when they watched me show an older student how to write “Green frog” on her paper by herself, one of them allowed me to write “Blue dog,” on hers. And the student with autism, who used to put her hands over her ears and hide her face when I attempted to talk to her, is now repeating after me (mimicking, really, but it’s still awesome). Victory.

After wrapping up at school I headed out a little early. My right wrist had been hurting badly since a gung-ho kid at aikido decided to get his revenge during a sparring session when I dominated him. He got excited and used his full strength during a move that involves twisting the wrist to reduce any attackers to a weeping puddle of pain. I just said “Ow,” and shook it off. The injury, however, seemed to get worse and worse with every practice, to the point where I tried to tell the group not to touch my wrist. “It’s, how you say, soft wrist,” I said. “Somehow, hurts.” They tried to be careful, but often forgot which wrist was soft, and put the hurt on me anyway. It started to hurt when I wasn’t at aikido, though only if I bent it a certain way. Eventually I decided to be an adult and go see a doctor.

Margaret, the doll baby that she is, came with me to a clinic to translate. The x-ray showed damage where my inner wrist bone and one or some of the tendons in my hand. The doctor informed me that had I come in when the injury first occurred, he likely would have put me in a hard cast. As it was he advised I wear a brace for a couple of weeks. The people who sell braces weren’t there at the time, so we were told to return next Friday.

 Then came the weekend, which was enough to merit its own entry with many pictures. I'll post that later, when I'm not in the middle of cooking steak bites.

* You didn’t really ask for it. I just wanted to quote Bugs Bunny. I hope you know this means war.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Stuffed Mushrooms

Normally I don't like mushrooms, but I was hungry at the office today. Sarah R-T had talked about making stuffed mushrooms when she stayed with me on Saturday. Kim-Chi had made some recently. Though I couldn't recall the last time I'd eaten a stuffed mushroom, but I was inspired. The recipe I found online looked delicious. 

I realized today that I can't cook when I'm hungry. I bought a package of fresh fried oysters ("Imagine the po'boys these would make," Kim said) and ate them all before I got the energy to get off my couch and start chopping onions and the like. I put them in the oven for about ten minutes before I had to shut everything off and go to taiko. When I returned, I entered a home filled with the savory aroma of cream cheese, mushrooms, Italian spices, and Parmesan. I was so excited when I finally popped one of the mushrooms in my mouth. It was like eating a piece of heaven, at least it was until I noticed something rubbery against my teeth.

It was then that I remembered—it's not the taste of mushrooms that I hate, it's the texture. That slimy, uncomfortable chewiness, the way it sounds against my teeth, I hate it all. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it feels like I'm masticating the sound of a squeegee on a window. So there I stood in my kitchen, senses of taste and smell overcome with one of the most delectable things I've ever eaten, and simultaneously ready to gag at the slug-like texture of cooked mushroom sliding over my tongue.

Swoon in delight or vomit? It's the most complicated bundle of emotions I've ever had about food.

And, son of a ponce, that has to be my lunch tomorrow.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Nerves Like A Heifer

If I never write on this blog again it's because I have died in the throes of my black belt test in aikido. I loved you all. Please burn my journals, because I never really meant any of that stuff.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I Can't Grow Up

The Ryan family video collection consisted largely of animated features, animal movies, and musicals when I was a child. Peter Pan was one of our favorites, despite having been filmed on a stage rather than as a film in its own right. One song that made a firm impression on me was "I Won't Grow Up," and I remember dancing around in my room, chanting "I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow uuUP! Not me!" That, along with the current Toys 'R' Us campaign (I don't wanna grow up; I'm a Toys 'R' Us kid…) must have affected my psyche much more than just getting stuck in my head on the occasion. Most days I masquerade as a quasi-responsible adult, but some days I think I have the brain of an adolescent boy.

1) At Takada Junior High I was teaching the first grade. We were covering the "How many ____ do you have?" The students had a sheet with various items on it, and they were to ask each other how many of this or that their friends possessed. Each student also had to create their own question, as well. The teacher had written a couple of options at the bottom, such as stuffed animal, ball, pen, and video game. Pretty standard stuff, but every time a student asked me "How many balls do you have?" I'd giggle. Then, with all sincerity I would answer, "I have no balls." And then I would snicker some more. Eh heh eh heh eh heh. Balls. Here's what's worse: I was tempted to explain why I thought the question was funny. Don't do it, Laurel. Just don't do it.

2) I can't wake up on time. Maybe I should say that I can't go to sleep on time. Yesterday I slept all the way through every single one of my seven alarms, including the really loud irritating buzzer that supposedly can be heard in the upstairs apartment.

If I were able to ready myself in only three minutes I would have been on the bus. As it was I biked to the school instead. I'd never done this before, as it was one of the schools that I'm only visiting until Paulette's replacement arrives. First I got a little lost. I didn't turn when I should have, and so ended up on a minor highway. The sidewalk ended and I rode with the fear that I wasn't going to be able to turn off, and that I would be run over. So, when I saw up ahead that the sidewalk started again I pedaled a little faster. The dip in the curb, made for cyclists by myself, was unusually high; it was between two and three inches high. About this time my bike and I had an argument.

"Get on the sidewalk," I ordered it.

"Screw you and your business capris," it retorted, and as soon as the front wheel hit the curb the bike slide out from under me, dumping me and my stuff onto the sidewalk it so detested.

Now I don't remember falling. The memory is of the oh, no sensation, of the knowledge that I was about to be in pain, and the stomach-twisting fear that my bike or I would end up in the path of an oncoming car. I hit the ground high on my left thigh, smacked my right palm hard against the pavement in efforts to break my fall, and rolled.

"Ugh," I huffed, and flopped on my back. I wasn't broken, and I wasn't in the street. Okay. I briefly debated crying a little, just for stress release, but I didn't have time and I wasn't broken. I stood, brushing myself off as best I could, and dragged my bucking bronco bike onto the pavement. Thank you, God, for watching over me, because I wasn't bleeding anywhere and all of my school stuff was on the sidewalk close by.

Notice the tear, same height as the couch arm
Of course, you must think, this dope couldn't have fallen so hard and gotten off without a scratch. You'd be correct. I have three small scrapes on my right knee, my right hand is bruised, the inside of my right ankle is bruised from hitting the bike as I flew off, and there is a huge bruise on my left thigh. Also, my pants were torn. Yep, because I didn't go to bed on time, because I woke up late, and because I can't make my bicycle follow orders, I had to teach in dress pants that were torn at the knee and inappropriately high on my thigh. I am one classy broad.

3) My last bit of evidence is last week's visit to Betsuin Junior High. Though this may be just as indicative of my mindset as an English teacher as immaturity, I feel like a more mature person would have handled this differently. I was with the first-years, and had just finished class. They had just learned "do you like/have/want~" and so were full of questions such as "Do you like baseball?" "Do you like soccer?" "Do you like Japan?" It was super-duper cultural exchange-y.

I guess they got bored with sports-related questions. In the middle of answering a question about Japanese baseball players one boy hurried away and came back with a bookmark. "Do you like?" he asked knowingly, pointing to it.

Upon closer inspection I discovered that it was a yaoi bookmark. Yaoi, for those out of the know, is a type of manga that is usually written by women for a female audience, and features two male romantic leads. Gay comic book porn for girls, basically. The first question that sprung to my mind was Whose is this? but decided not to ask. After all, I didn't want to think any ill of my Betsuin angels, who would surely not be bringing sex-based comics to school. So I hemmed and hawed while the boys pointed emphatically at the man embracing rather than the one embraced.

"Kakkoi?" they asked. "Cool? Cool?"


In the meantime one boy, Shouma, was prompting his friends in a whisper. "Do you like sex?" he wanted them to ask me. "Do you like sex?"

I ignored him. One boy finally took pity on me and suggested bimeo. "Yes, bimeo," I said, indicating the gay bookmark. It's delicate. I really can't say.

Then they dragged me over to see an optical illusion that was hung in the classroom, and to further interrogate me on wants and likes. They pointed to pencils, to characters on folders, and to each other. Do you like Yuki? Do you like Taichi? Do you like Ryuusei?

Shouma, however, wasn't finished yet. I was talking to another kid when I heard him.

"Do you like pehneesu?"

I turned and gave him a look.

"Do you like pehneesu?" he repeated, stupid grin affixed.

I smacked him lightly on the head with my notebook, because I can do that in this country. "That's bad," I said sternly. "Don't ask me that."

Shouma's friends all started laughing and slapping his head. Hah hah, the English teacher got on to you.

Maybe because I felt sorry for inciting the slap-fest, or because I was in teaching mode, I couldn't let it lie. "And it's not peh-NEE-su," I added, making sure to speak so he understood. "It's PEnis. You mean 'Do you like penis.'"

And then I helped them translate kareshi ga imasu ka, because "Do you have a boyfriend?" totally fit in with the day's grammar point.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ohashi Jouzu/Good with Chopsticks

I went to Chiyokawa Elementary School today. Until the new ALT comes Kim-Chi and I are splitting Paulette's old schools; it's only one visit per school, two for a junior high, and then the new ALT will take over whenever s/he arrives. The good thing about Chiyokawa is that it was one of my schools when I first arrived; I "lost" it to Paulette when we were switched around. I knew some of the staff already, and some of the sixth graders I taught recognized me. Good start.

When lunchtime came around I ate in the staff room, which smelled like Pitch Lake (T-dad shout out, holla) a.k.a. old egg. The principal was helping to set food on staff members' desks, and when he was distributing chopsticks he dropped the question most likely to irritate foreigners.

As he placed the chopsticks on my bowl of rice, he asked, "Ohashi daijobu desu ka?" (Chopsticks okay is it?/Can you use chopsticks?)

I nodded and laughed a little. This from a man who knew me when I wouldn't have even understood that question. "N, daijobu desu yo." (Yeah, they're fine.)

"Eh, Japanese ohashi? Okay?" Now he was just being a little silly, trying to use what English he knew and make the other staff laugh.

"Okay," I said, nodding vigorously while debating whether or not to try saying something about having figured chopsticks out two weeks after arriving. I opted not to.

On a bad day this might have made me angry. I've been here for two years, and you think I might not be able to use chopsticks? Do you think I'm completely inept? I will cut you. However, remembering back to when I first came, I didn't know how to use chopsticks. Having inadvertently stabbed my right thumb with an Epipen complicated the situation, but I do remember dropping things a lot. Even after I learned how to hold them I often looked at something I was supposed to eat with chopsticks and thought, You people are nuts. Foods like slippery things and large pieces of fish, for example, or all noodles. Now that thought only applies to cake and corn on the cob (and there's almost always a fork with cake, anyway).

I concluded that I appreciated the principal's thoughtfulness. He chose not to assume that I was ultra-skilled with the two pointy sticks. Japanese courtesy is all about anticipating a guest's needs; it would have been much embarrassing for the both of us if I'd had to ask for a different utensil. That would have resulted in a flurry of get the ALT a fork, get her a fork! instead of a casual request to the kitchen lady. It's a little like asking dinner guests if they prefer a plate or bowl for their salads. Far less awkward to be asked and to chose, than to be the barbarian pushing vinaigrette-soaked lettuce onto her fork with her finger.
This was my breakfast today. The yogurt says "It's irresistible I just can't help it."

That wasn't the end of it. Before lunchtime was over I got the other ire-raiser from the groundskeeper. He and a couple of other teacher were seated at the end of a long row of desks, his being the closest to the cart where we were to put our dirty dishes. Even that thirty seconds of silence while I got up, walked down the aisle, and reached the cart were awkward. I needed to say something, anything, that would be relevant. I was being watched (I was the only thing moving. It was understandable). The three teachers seemed to be struggling just as hard to think of a lighthearted comment that I could understand.

I tried first. "Oishikatta desu," I said, smiling. (That was delicious.) It was an overstatement, but I didn't know how to call the meal "satisfying." Five more steps until I reached the cart. I gave a contented sigh. "Ippai desu yo." (I sure am full.) Was I being too casual? Was that considered too much information in Japanese? This was turning into an ordeal.

The three staff smiled at me. I reached the cart and stacked my bowls and plate.

The groundskeeper recovered. "Ohashi sugoku jouzu desu ne," he said seriously. (You're awfully good with chopsticks.)

Here's the deal: to most foreigners, having one's chopstick skills complimented can often come across as extremely patronizing. After all, no one says, "Hey, Japanese person, good job with that knife and fork. Really super." When I was reading up on this country in the summer of '08 I ran across this very phrase a lot. Ohashi [ga] jouzu desu ne. One article claimed that it was because Japanese people think that no one outside of Asia can use chopsticks. They might compliment you, but it's because in their minds a non-Asian foreigner using chopsticks is like a horse that can count—just a neat trick. Many expats found this to be one of the most irritating parts of meeting people, because no matter how long they'd lived in Japan they'd still be complimented on their chopstick skills.

After a quick search I found this online:
This reminded me of my second biggest annoyance: chopsticks.
PROBLEM: It doesn't matter if you've been eating Chinese takeout with wooden chopsticks since you were four. It doesn't matter if you've been eating with chopsticks for years. If a Japanese person sees you pick anything up with chopsticks and not drop it, you're in for: "Aa! Ohashi ga dekimasu ne!" or, "Aa! Ohashi ga jouzu desu ne!"What this means:

  1. I thought foreigners only ate with forks and spoons!
  2. Nice weather we're having, don't you think?
  3. Wow! You didn't drop what you were eating! Takashi and I were in the corner laying bets.
How to respond (depending on how polite you want to be and degrading to how sick you are of hearing this):
  1. Ie, ie, sonna koto wa nain desu yo! [Or other somesuch denial--the degree of self-deprecating humbleness is up to you.] Laurel's note: it literally means "No, no, that thing is not!" but in this case is more like an "Aw, shucks. That ain't true."
  2. Aa, domo. [Thanks.]
  3. Anata mo jouzu desu ne. [You too.]
  4. Yahari dekinakattara tabenai deshoo! [If I couldn't, I wouldn't eat, right?]
  5. Ara. (Said as you drop whatever you were holding with chopsticks into the speaker's lap.) Laurel's note: "Ara" is kind of an old lady-ish way to say both "oh my" and "oops!"
  6. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!! [Said before you either run from the room or fling your hot tea at the speaker.
In retrospect, I wish I'd laughed a little more.

It's from a little something called "Coping With Being Jouzu ("Skillful")" by one Wendy Dinsmore, who doesn't know I'm quoting her. It's pretty much at the center of the bell curve about how most people I've talked to feel about the subject.
I'l give you four guesses as to what this is.  People who know, no spoilers.

Rather than choose any of the above reactions I opted to tell the truth. I responded in Japanese, "Really? Two years…uh…ago, all bad. [made chopstick hand motions] Now, somehow I do." The staff chuckled, I felt pleased as saying something amusing or at least interesting, and I went to wash my hands. All happy.

Sure, I could have been insulted, or said something sarcastic like, "I'm pretty good with knife and fork, too." That woulda shown him, right? But I haven't been using chopsticks since I was weaned from the bosom. I don't know the ins and outs of Japanese table manners like I do American. If the groundskeeper thinks I'm good with chopsticks and says so without an ounce of insincerity, without even a smile, then I take it that I'm not doing anything off-putting or offensive.

In reality my chopstick skills were as much in question as the weather. Who says, "Hot, isn't it?" and expects a shocked reaction? omg. hot, in september? is *that* why im sweating? i srsly had no idea. It's like telling any NBA player except for Muggsy Bogues, "Wow, you're tall," or telling me I'm short. We know how tall we are in relation to other people. We know it's hot. And I knew I was skilled with the chopsticks. Comments like ohashi [ga] jouzu desu ne can get old, but they are a conversation starter.

These thoughts and getting out of bed are just a couple of things I did today with the help of God's grace. So the next time I get irritated with a jouzu comment, feel free to remind me of this post.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Things I Did Today

  • Sent emails on behalf of the Ganbatte Times.
  • Replied to emails on behalf of the Ganbatte Times.
  • Sent personal emails.
  • Planned website improvement.
  • Drank coffee.
  • Went home for lunch.
  • Returned in a foul mood.
  • Complained about lack of response to emails.
  • Got onto the subject of paludariums.
  • Google searched paludariums.
  • Decided to get a newt.
  • Researched newt breeds.
  • Discussed newt care.
  • Thought about it, and decided to not get a newt.
  • Signed up for a trip to Tottori-ken, Japan's only desert, with KAJET. Determined that it is not dorky to go with a group, and that I will not feel like a loser for not knowing anyone who wants to go.
  • Drew a detailed rendering of a lycanthrope village's pretty princess.
  • Gave picture to Kim-Chi.
  • Google searched "history of princess cone hat"
  • Secretly reconsidered newt ownership.
  • Wrote this.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hard Time for Ryan

One of the English Supporters with whom I work likes to hear how busy I am all the time. I tell her my schedule, how I'm always at a different school and only have two weeknights free. She responds by shaking her head and saying, "It's hard time for Ryan. Ryan has a hard time." Usually I wave my hands and say, "No, no, it's not so bad." Today I don't feel that way at all.

I'm currently sitting outside of Margaret's apartment. It's 4:46 p.m. and I have to catch a train to a marimba concert at 5:32. I'm stealing Margaret's WiFi (she pre-approved, never fear) to access the Ganbatte Times FTP so that I can back up the site before updating to the new Wordpress system. Also, I have to backup the MySQL database through the phpAdmin on my cPanel, just in case something goes wrong during the update and I crash the site. No pressure, especially since I'm not even sure what half the words I just typed mean.

5:02 p.m. and the FTP backup is 35% finished. I'm sweating in this 94 degree shade and am watching swallows flutter overhead in fear than they will excrete on my computer. I honestly can't tell if the MySQL database downloaded yet.

5:11 p.m. means 10 minutes until I need to leave for the station. I figured out the MySQL, but the FTP backup is only at 54 percent. I haven't eaten yet. I am thus far safe from birds. I am anxious. It's hard time for me.

Edit: Now it's 11:05 p.m. and I've been home for about 30 minutes. That marimbist I watched was fantastic, and proved to me just how lyrical a percussion instrument can be. I did get the site all backed up and I just updated it without any problems. Now I just have to figure out a) how I accidentally squashed the header, and b) if the Arras theme (the site design) I'm currently using is worth updating. I'm frigging tired, and all I had to eat was a "sea chicken" onigiri, a packet of M&Ms and two thingies of drinkable multivitamin gel. Whatever. I'll eat in the morning, after I get up from my couch because I'm too tired to fold all the clothes on the bed now. Later, kids.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Out of the Deep

have I called unto thee, O Sleep. Sleep, hear my cry.

It's 4:14 a.m. right now. Sure, by the time I actually post this it will be way after 4:14 a.m, but the important part is that it is currently the middle of the night and I am not asleep.

I'm writing this because, well, what else would I be doing while completely jetlagged? In spite of last night's effort to keep normal waking hours I was unable to last past eight o'clock, and lay my weary head to rest. At about two this morning my body made a grand imitation of my cousin Nigel's son, shouting at my brain "Wakey wakey!" This is right in the middle of a dream about holding my brother at sword-point so that he would fetch me a glace of juice and make me a sandwich. Beleaguered and disgruntled, I relented and pulled my computer from the floor into my lap. On a side note, my Softbank Yahoo BB modem has once again failed, and so I'm connected to a neighbor's WiFi. I hate my internet and am debating a switch to a pocket mobile device. That's a story for another day.

I suppose that for those of you who were not with me in Trinidad want a saga of the trip. You'll get it in pieces.

The first piece is the journey. On Thursday, July 29th Kim-Chi Do and I set out from sleepy Kameoka on the 5 a.m. train without much trouble. In efforts to throw my sleep schedule off and possibly better prepare myself for the Trinidadian time zone I had stayed up the entire night. Sometime in the wee hours of the morn I'd taken a trip to the nearby convenience store and picked up some energy drinks and a bag of pistachios for the trip. It looked like this:
Clearly I am generous and a cool friend. See how I have given to Kim-Chi a Red Bull? This was in part out of concern for my health and safety if I were to consume two of those drinks within an hour. I still fell asleep on the train, but by the time Kim and I had checked in I was all nervous and jittery on the inside. Thanks, taurine.

After an hour-and-a-half flight spent listening to a disillusioned and bitter private ALT who had quit his job, Kim-Chi and I arrived at Narita Airport. I followed her around until she got on her flight to Oklahoma, then spent rest of my eight hour layover sleeping on a bench with my feet propped on my luggage and eating an underwhelming sandwich.

You know what Narita Airport has? Amenities for showering and "dayrooms." Not sure what a dayroom is because I was a fool and did not make use of these facilities. That thirteen hours from Narita to JFK is pretty brutal. I watched movies, put up with the toddler kicking the back of my seat until she fell asleep (then her infant sister woke up and practiced screaming), tried to sleep, and forced myself to eat nasty airplane food. By the time I reached New York I was exhausted, disheveled, and extremely disoriented. I was ready to smack the lady at customs who was being discourteous with the many Korean passengers who were confused about the forms. Quit being so rude to them, I wanted to snap. They aren't stupid. You're talking too fast and with a thick accent. Slow down, for the love of Sweet Peter. Culture shock. Also, humanity.

I wandered around trying to find internet facilities and a shower. If Narita has showers, surely JFK has showers.
Or perhaps not outright lies, but deception nonetheless. Sure, if you are a qualifying member of an airline or its partners you may use the showers in the airline lounge. If you are not then you must pay for access. I chose the first one that was recommended to me by an airport employee, which happened to be the lounge associated with Middle Eastern airlines. I just wanted a shower, people. Just to shower. And I was willing to fork over the $40 for four hours of respite. This would have been much more worth my money if I had gone earlier (place closed at 10 p.m.) and visited the restaurant area. As it was I paid forty American dollars for a shower (with complimentary mint shampoo. Ahhh, my scalp), use of a disappointingly old computer, a banana, a bottle of juice and some finger foods. Whatever. I'd do it again.

Sometime after 11 p.m. I got a treat. This treat was company in the form of my dear friend Nina Badoe. For the uninformed, Nina and I have been friends since high school and attended Wesminster together. She's the other best friend. There's Hannah, and there's Nina. Since Nina relocated to the East (D.C. and then New Jersey) I hadn't seen her much over the last three years, and to be able to spend at least seven hours of uninterrupted time with her was just superb. Then she caught a train home and I went through security.

It's now 6:01. After puttering around on the web, writing this, and sighing a lot while watching the dawn break outside my window, it's time to get ready for the day. Wish me luck.