Monday, May 24, 2010

Hazukashii III

Still Friday, May 21, 2010

This is actually a twofer post. Part three of the hazukashii series results from the embarrassment which results from the Japanese gift-giving culture.

After teaching 2nd period with the special needs class (pretty easily rearranged when there are only five students) I went back to the office. The special ed. teacher was filling her drip coffee filter when I went to wash out my cup for some gourmet caramel praline hot cocoa that I'd purchased from the foreign foods store in Kyoto station.

"Do you drink coffee?" the teacher asked.

"Sometimes," I replied.

"Japanese tea?"

"Sometimes. I like sweet things." I showed her the packet of hot chocolate mix.

The teacher tried to ask me something about milk and sugar in my cocoa, to which I replied no, I just used the packet contents and water. I held up the cocoa for her to smell. "Very sweet," I repeated.

The teacher retrieved a packet of Japanese cocoa. I sighed a little inside. This was one of those times when I would have to accept this gift of cocoa, even though I already had a mug full of it. I would also have to pretend that I'd never know that Japan, too, had sweet cocoa mix packets so as not to make the teacher feel that her gift was commonplace or unnecessary. Then, before I could return to my desk the teacher handed me a sweet from Ishikawa prefecture.

Admittedly, my first thought was, Crap, now I'm going to have to give her one of my cookies. I only have two. When one gives a gift in Japan, no matter what the size, a gift of equal value is returned. They are wrapped nicely, too; no funny-looking burnt cookies in Ziploc bags get exchanged here.

As I was debating how to apologize for ugly cookies the teacher pulled out a map of Japan to show me where Ishikawa Prefecture was located, then gave me another sweet from Okinawa (and pointed it out on the map), and explained to me how certain cities were famous for local sweets. Yes, I knew. That's why souvenirs are usually sweets or snacks that are exclusive to the area visited. I asked the teacher if she traveled, she tried to explain the process of ordering sweets from a catalogue, I tried to tell her that I understood in English, and we ended up saying the exact same things to each other in our respective mother tongues.

Since she had given me two sweets and taken the time to show me the map and what have you, I pulled the ugly cookies out of my lunch bag and handed them to her. I said in Japanese, "Not pretty, but…" She asked if she could share them, and I said of course, figuring that she'd do so at lunch, and only with the three other teachers who sat at her section.

I stopped paying attention until I heard a discussion on how to say, "handmade" in English, and "from Ryan-sensei." I turned my head to see that the special ed. teacher had broken those moist, ugly cookies into tiny pieces and was offering them to everyone in the office, including the vice-principal. Crap.

I apologized, the staff ate their cookie bits and lied about how scrumptious they were, and then the awkward, embarrassment set it for real. They had been given a gift, you see. Ergo they were obliged to return in kind. So, for two flat, unattractive chocolate chip cookies I received a package of instant café au lait, hard candies, and a package of instant mushroom potage. It was entirely disproportionate to those cookies. I don't even like mushroom soup, but because it was offered as thanks for my crumbly burnt mess I had to accept. And listen to the teachers nag each other to say "thank you" and "delicious" in English. And pretend not to understand, because to indicate that I recognize when I'm being discussed would have embarrassed them. Then how could they talk about me when I'm in the room?

If this doesn't strike you as awkward and a little embarrassing, give one person in a group of Japanese people some crappy food, and see what you get in return. Then you'll know. Oh, the social guilt. I will never bring cookies in a Ziploc bag again.*


*This is a lie. I will do it frequently, but I will eat them myself.

Hazukashii II

Friday, May 21, 2010

I will be humming this day out of my head for years, and it's not even noon.

I awoke on time, made fried rice with kimchi, and packed a nice lunch for myself, complete with fresh chocolate chip cookies. I ironed my pants, wore a little makeup, and left nothing behind. I walked leisurely to my bus stop. My only concern was that I had no paper money with me, and would have to find a vending machine to change one of my 500 yen coins in order to have the afternoon bus fare. Vending machines are everywhere in this country. My concern was mild.

I relaxed on the long bus ride to Betsuin Junior High. After transferring from a city bus to a furusato bus (which I translate as "boonies bus") it's a good forty minutes into the hills of western Kameoka. The bus comes infrequently and takes even longer to return to civilization than to leave it. Still, I was alert, nicely dressed, and en route to my favorite junior high. When I walked into the staff room I greeted the teachers with enthusiasm and vim. They didn't seem quite so wowed at my presence, but there were only three of them there at the time and one I had never seen before.

I sat down and began to unpack my things. The new teacher, a young lady likely only a couple of years my senior, came and introduced herself. She was the substitute English teacher; the regular teacher was out sick for the month. I indicated my understanding and made a mental note to pray for Mr. Yamashita. Then new teacher shattered my morning.

"I think you come to this school next week," said she.

Twice in a row? Lucky me, but I wasn't sure this was the case. I looked at my schedule and realized what she meant with a sinking heart.

"So we were shocked when you walked in," the teacher continued.

No matter how hard I wished for it, the ground beneath me did not rise up and swallow me whole. I was at the wrong school. How had I missed it? Sure, all I had done was switch two Fridays in my brain, likely because Betsuin's plan had already come and I had only received Takada's the night before. But had I not gotten that email alert from Google calendars, telling me that I was to visit Takada Jr. High on Friday, May 21, 2010? Did my iPod not tell me that it was Takada this week? Did I not look at my school schedule the night before? Had I been so set on going to Betsuin that I completely ignored all signs pointing to the contrary? Answer: yes.

 "You don't have a car?" the vice-principal asked.

I nodded. "That's right, it does not exist."

"What's the bus schedule?"

I pulled mine out. "Next's bus eleven hour twelve minutes is," I replied.

"I don't even know," the secretary chimed in. "Will she be able to get back in time?"

The vice-principal of Betsuin asked when I started classes at Takada. I pulled the lesson plan out of my bag. The first class was the first period with the special needs students. Crap. I didn't even get to Betsuin until five minutes after first period started. To prevent complete panic I answered from the next class. "Fifth period, sixth period," I replied.

"Okay," the vice-principal replied. "I'll give Takada a call and let them know that you're here, but you'll be coming."

Sometimes I wish I couldn't understand any Japanese, like when I have to listen to one side of an our-little-ALT-is-stupid-today conversation. The principal of Takada must have responded that my first class would begin at 9:45, because Betsuin's vice-principal gasped and exclaimed "Nijikamen?" (Second period?). The new teacher had class third period and the vice-principal had to (wo)man the school. The secretary would have to drive me over there, as though she had nothing better to do with her time. 

Lord Jesus, if you wish to take me now it's fine by me, I thought. I repacked my bags and left with the secretary. "See you next week!" the vice-principal called after me. Yeah.

My boss sent me a text message. It said in English "call me" with a little image of a phone beside it. Her number was underneath. I called her on the way to Takada, and pulled out the mother of all apologies: moshi iwake arimasen. Literally it means "I have no excuses," and when I see it on TV it's usually accompanied by a long, low bow, or even by getting on one's knees and pressing one's forehead to the ground in shame. My boss laughed and was very sweet about it, fitting with her love for Hello Kitty paraphernalia and lace trim. She could hate me and I'd never know. Still, when one cannot fully explain why one would board a bus going in the opposite direction of the day's scheduled school, one cannot help but to appear very, very stupid.

When I finally reached the school I met Takada's vice-principal in the hall. Since there were a class of students passing by I didn't apologize as heavily as I had to my boss, but I injected as much heartfelt abashment into the one I gave. Then I walked into the staff room with my head hung low. You know that nightmare people have, when everyone's laughing at them and pointing and talking about them? Well, it was like that, but real. Oh, hah hah, you made it! You were at Betsuin?! That's so far! How do you even get there? The secretary brought you here? Chortle and guffaw!

One of the English teachers told me that another one of the teachers (whose name I didn't even recognize) was really worried, because I'm usually at the school before the 8:15 morning meeting. Which was the teacher who had been so concerned? Who knows; probably one of the ones laughing at me.

It was all good-natured teasing, and well-deserved at that. Plus it broke own some barriers, I guess, because some teachers who had never spoken to me congratulated me on getting to Takada in one piece.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Hazukashii I

The word hazukashii means both shy and embarrassed. I realized that I hum when trying to stop thinking about something embarrassing. Every so often there are things I can't get out of my brain (the humming intensifies), so I'll set them free here. This is the first installment from an incident over two years ago.

One day at Chiyokawa Elementary I needed some sturdy cardstock for the students to use. I didn't know how to describe that to the staff in the office, so I went into the supply room and did some searching. The closest thing to cardstock was some smooth, thick, cream-colored paper. It was a little big for my purposes, but Ifigured that if I cut it in half It would be perfect.

I took a stack of the paper back to the teacher's office, to the back table where the paper cutter was located. The vice-principal, the secretary, and the office guy just watched me for a bit as I cut this paper in half. They started talking amongst themselves, so I went about my business of preparing for class.

When I was about halfway through the office guy stopped me. He asked me what sized paper I needed, so I explained the lesson and what I wanted. He took me back to the supply room and showed me where the printer paper was kept. He pulled out a stack of B5 sized paper, which happened to be the exact size I needed. He took back the paper I had cut/been about to cut, I thanked him again, and that was the end of it.

Not much later I was at another school, watching some sort of awards ceremony. Imagine my dismay when I recognized the paper on which these official, sealed and stamped awards were printed as the exact same stuff that I had cut up at Chiyokawa. I had taken the most expensive paper in that supply room and rendered it completely unuseable.

P.S. I, too, look forward to being able to put pictures in my posts again. Text alone is boring for the eyes.

P.P.S. Apologies for my occasional spelling errors. I'm writing from my iPod and the application I use doesn't use portrait mode. So sometimes my thick thumbs just hit the wrong key.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Material Girl: a Four Hour Journey

4:33 pm, on a train to Osaka by way of Kyoto. I have been without a home computer for nearly six days. It hasn't been as life-changing as I thought it would be. I do spend less time ruining my eyesight for the numerous tv shows that I follow. I've cooked for myself three times this week, which is already twice more than usual. Having no money to eat out also encouraged my volition to use the food in my fridge.

By the grace of Kim-Chi, I made an appointment at the Apple Store's Genius Bar in Shinsaibashi, Osaka. I was nervous, and not only because I would be traveling to Osaka alone, maneuvering through unfamiliar railways. I hadn't been able to specify that I needed the Apple Store to speak some English.

After a nerve-wracking trek to the Apple store I got a professional's confirmaton that God was watching out for me. Not only did I make ALL of my trains and arrive right on time, but the young guy dealing with me can speak the English. This was after telling me that he didn't speak English, but could understand a little. "First I'm going to check the hard drive. Do you have a backup? Okay, it will be five or ten minutes" qualifies as speaking English, in my opinion. I would know, you guys. I teach the language.

Right now it's 6:33 and I'm sitting at the Apple store. Typing this helps me look busy and not so pathetic. I was hearing an old school robot voice and thought that someone was playing with the word processor function that reads text aloud. It recurred at uneven intervals, so eventually I turned around. It was a man with one of those voice boxes. He barely looks to be fifty years old; it makes me wonder what might have happened (assuming his condition is not related to tobacco).

The lady next to me is learning how to use her iPod Touch properly. If I understand correctly, she was saying that it wasn't working properly. The store employee basically went through all the iPod functions and told her why nothing was wrong with them. It reminded me of my mother, who also refuses to read manuals. She's never had to go to a store to lean that she wasn't using a device properly, so that's one up on the lady customer. My mother is blessed with quasi-patient family members who read manuals and answer her questions.

Ingen, my personal Genius Bar staff member, just told me that there is no damage to the hard drive and the expensive buy-a-new-computer mechanisms seem to be fine. The problem likely deals with the logic board. I nodded like I knew exactly what that meant, but the only part I cared about was how a logic board by itself would otherwise cost upwards of $700. For a flat repair fee of about 450 American greenbacks I can get my computer fixed within one week. If it turned out that dear Ingen-san was wrong and the repairs would be more expensive, I can simply cancel the repairs.

Then he turned my computer over to take the battery out again and something flew out of it, skittering over the counter. "Eh?" said Ingen-san. He peered into the laptop's underside. "What was that?"

"Er, rice," I replied in Japanese, pinchng the offending grains between my fingers. There was no waste basket nearby, so I dropped them in my purse. Ingen laughed at me.

7:56 pm and I'm on the train back to Kyoto.I entrusted my computer to dear Ingen, and will return sometime next weekend to retrieve it. Despite the lure of being in the heart of Osaka's shopping district and in the proximity of a Krispy Kreme I opted to head home. I am exhausted, friends. Given my workload this week (and how I had a jam-packed weekend), not having a computer to keep me up late was a blessing. The blessing masqueraded as a terrible, expensive disaster, but in retrospect I'm not sure I would have survived the week otherwise. Going to bed by 10:30 every night save one has left me enough energy to teaching five classes per day and play with students during all of my breaks.

The title of this post should tell you that I had originally prepared to tap out a diatribe/expose on how this experience has taught me that I need to simplify my possessions. You know, something about how I was going to get rid of half my stuff and take better care of what I keep. As I close this post I'm aware that maybe it's more about the lengths to which I'm willing to go for my own comfort (Internet in my own home) and the stress I'm willing to endure for one of those possessions whose hold on my life I'm supposed to resent.

8:34 Now I'm going home from Kameoka station. I'm going to cook the steak I have thawing in the fridge, which I purchased on a whim back when I had money.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Computer Murderer

I had about three blog posts typed up and ready to post yesterday . It would have been glorious. One of these posts was about how unsteady my life has been recently. I have terrible mornings, then teaching is great, then something goes wrong in the afternoon. A day starts off wonderfully, then something terrible happens, then it ends well. For example, I had written about when I went to my alternative junior high only to realize that the library was closed. I thought that meant I had a day off, so I went home. Then I learned that though the library was closed, the school had been open on its third floor. In the original post there was a lot more wit and self-deprecating humor, along with a transcription of my thoughts (goig home had made sense at the time) and the conversation I had with my supervisor on the matter. Up and down, up and down. Don't worry, I still have a job. 

You may wonder why I'm telling you about a blog post rather than post it. The reason, good friends not only explains why I wasn't able to call my mother on Mother's Day, but also is related directly to that rollercoaster ride of emotions, the battle of Good Day, Bad Day. Yesterday started off well. I went to Paulette's shakohachi performance, I had TGIFriday's for lunch, church was great, then I learned I had won a "color changing fiber light" in a raffle at the morning's performance. Much needed for my home disco parties, to go with my lava lamps, glowsticks, and supply of Hallucinogens. Then, in an accident of devastating proportions, my laptop got wet last night. I was carrying the device while attempting to multitask (wash dishes, do laundry, bathe, make lunch for today) in preparation for a busy week. I got too close to a tub of water. In a nightmarish, fumbling, slow-motion moment of horror I lost my grip on my laptop and dropped it into that tub. It shut off immediately. I haven't cursed like that since I pursued the guy who stole my purse, back in college. Thank the Lord that I had just backed everything up on my external hard drive.

I did not give up, friends. I happened to have my blow dryer and a vacuum with a hose nearby, so I suctioned and heated and prayed. I remembered that Margaret had not yet returned from her trip to Australia, so I used the spare key to break in (I felt like such a creep) and use her computer to search the term "save waterlogged laptop." The internet told me it could be done by popping all the keys off the keyboard, drying it as best I could, and packing it with desiccants. Another suggestion for waterlogged iPods and iPhones suggested immersing the device in uncooked rice, which would absorb the moisture trapped inside.

I had both rice and desiccants. I spent about thirty minutes removing the keys from the keyboard, vacuuming at every step. Then I grabbed some bubble wrap and dumped rice into a pile. I smushed my laptop into that grainy bed, scooped more rice around the sides, put desiccants packets on the naked keyboard and put rice over that, then sealed the whole thing up and left it overnight.

Perhaps this technique only applies to computers that haven't been dropped into water. As of 7:00 this morning there was no sign of life. I spent another thirty minutes standing outside of Paulette's apartment to access her WiFi through my iPod, just to make sure that no urgent emails awaited, and to find out if it was going to rain or not.

To top it off, I left my pencil case with all of my flash drives inside on the bus this morning. I have one green pen on my person. There's a chance it will turn up at the lost and found, but I need to research how to ask for it, first. Basically, Bad Day has been winning since 10:24 p.m. on Sunday, May 9.

1st Addendum: I just read a testimony from someone whose laptop revived, slightly handicapped, after drying for three days. I've decided to see if I can Lazarus my computer. There maybe hope.

2nd Addendum: About two hours after I had finished writing this, my junior high got a visitor. While this wasn't unusual I was nevertheless startled to hear my name. The pricipal of the elementary school next door had brought my pencil case, which the bus driver had left with her in case one of her students had dropped it. Yes, I ride a schoolbus to work sometimes. Though the event was embarrassing it seems as though Good Day hasn't given up fighting just yet.