Wednesday, June 30, 2010

My Brain It Does Not The Working

Something about summer turns me into an idiot. I've been racking my brain trying to come up with a new post, but said brain keeps rolling over like a bloated goldfish. So here are some things I've been thinking a lot about lately, interspersed with pictures of my struggling gardening attempts (when I get home and upload them, that is).

My apartment: It takes a long time to settle anywhere, and I've had to work around some terrible furniture and a giant television that I never use. The humidity has ruined my wallpaper in the living room. This isn't a surprise; I made it myself using 100 yen shop duct tape and white construction paper. It seems that my apartment is not only in need of a thorough cleaning, but some rearranging and redecorating as well. I will be getting rid of a table, a desk, that TV, and an old yucky carpet within the next couple of weeks. This could be an exciting simplification of my possessions.

Foreigners: I paid a visit to the JET Programme Forums to promote the Ganbatte Times to incoming JET participants. One of the more active newbies was excited about her placement in one of the most remote locations in Kyoto (which doesn't seem to hold ALTs for long). She wrote the following.

My boyfriend lives in Kyoto city. I think I may go into the city once a month, but I think for the most part he will visit me. For one thing, my apartment is bigger LOL. I'm excited about my placement... especially with it being isolated. Gaijin tend to ruin my Japanese experience :p

Gaijin is a shortened, casual (or rude, depending on context) version of gaikokujin, which means "foreigner." At first I thought, You pretentious little chit. Japan can ruin your Japanese experience. You are gaijin. And no matter how fluent your speech, how Japanese your boyfriend, or how comfortable you may be in the countryside, at some point you'll want nothing more than to talk to someone who shares your home culture and language.

I felt justified in this superior indignity for a couple of hours. What a thing to write on a forum for foreigners in Japan, that foreigners ruin your experience. Then I got on a bus, watched a bewildered white couple carrying tourist maps board, and mentally shook my head. Lordy forbid if someone mistook me for one of them.

Turns out that I understand that girl's comment to some extent. I mentally distinguish myself from gaijin, who are tourists and loud or rude or who wear spaghetti-strap tops. A Japanese person may use the same word for us both. On realizing my prejudice, I proceeded to ponder whether or not I've ever ruined someone's Japanese with my foreignness.

Movies and The Future: The long-awaited world premier of my silent film, Pistachio Thief, is close at hand. On Sunday morning I filmed another short movie (untitled, but based on muppets, Sesame Street, an old commercial for Mercury, and sitting in the office with Kim-Chi and Paulette). I'm working on scheduling the film date for the silent movie sequel, Pistachio Thief in Love.

What does this mean for my life? I have no idea. I'm secretly hoping that someone bored and important stumbles across it on YouTube, thinks I'm brilliant, and gives me tons of money to do stupid stuff like that for forever. I may have worried in a previous post that I wouldn't be able to do stuff like this once I have to get a serious, no-clowning-around-in-your-pantsuit-missy job in the states. Then again, when would I ever surround myself with a bunch of fuddyduddies who wouldn't be willing to take part in my film-making? Let's be real, here. Also, when would I ever get a job that requires daily pantsuits?

My Body: I think my body registers stress before my brain does. This is probably common for a lot of people, but when my brain is fighting to accentuate the positive (Doris Day) my body compensates by hibernating. I lost my weekends to Japanese classes and travels (church doesn't count as a loss, but that transit time, oy) way back at the beginning of May. The beast of a Spring/Summer holiday schedule means that between May 6th and July 17th there is no vacation whatsoe'er. In addition my teaching schedule has intensified, as has sexual harassment from 1st graders and my tolerance thereof. Not sure if those are related.

In a nutshell, my brain is skipping like a squirrel on crack made of bubblegum and cotton candy. It cheers "Yay yay yay yay only a month before I'm on my way to Trinidad yay yay I can do it I can survive yay! Nooooooo meltdown!" My body flips my brain the bird and sleeps through four alarms, three days in a row. I made it to all my schools on time, but that one day at the office when I walked in at 10:30, that was not a good day. How am I still employed?

Books: I'm writing one, with pencil and paper. I'm not saying anything more because just admitting it embarrasses me, which is due to a long association of the open love of creative writing with pretention and d-baggery. Also, I almost deleted this part when I remembered that sometimes people in Japan read this. That's just how badly I do not want to talk about it.


This took me three days to compose. My brain is starting to cave in.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Bleeding Japanese

I resumed taking Japanese classes in May. The plural indicates correctly that I am attending more than one class. Good friends and neighbors, I am taking two classes on the same day. The morning class is a conversation course at the Kyoto Prefecture International Center in the Kyoto Station building. The other is a Nihongo Bible Class at my church, which uses the Bible (shoulda seen that one coming) as a text for learning vocabulary and grammar. Goodbye, weekends.

When I talk about my Saturday schedule the reaction from my audience is usually the same. It’s something along the lines of Wow, your Japanese must be [getting] really good! Though I usually laugh and say no, no, no, I do admit that I can tell my listening comprehension is getting better. Being in two classes with foreigners who are better at this language than I puts me right in that Zone of Proximal Development on which Vygotsky placed so much importance (yeah, still using that education degree for something). Listening to them speak and, just as importantly, listening to the teacher explain their mistakes (nonexamples. Ed. degree comes into play again) both reminds me that I have a long way to go but encourages me to at least open my mouth once in a while.

When I’m at school or the office the adults who speak to me are usually eager to try out their English. Ergo, although I drop phrases in Japanese here and there I rarely use conversational speech. Two classes means that I’m being forced to practice inviting people to my apartment for a party, to convince a reluctant friend to go mountain climbing with me, and to tell a waiter politely that he messed up my order. While I’ll likely never try to convince someone to go hiking with me, at least now I know how to say “it’s good exercise and the air is fresh.” Actually, what I’d say is more along the lines of, “body becomes good and air is good,” but it transfers nicely to explanations on why I bike to certain schools.

My favorite part of taking classes is learning idioms, slang and colloquialisms. That and proper inflection are the best ways to fool a listener into thinking that I’m good at his/her native language. I did it when I was in France; after being told that the use of franchement (frankly) was very natural, I threw it in everywhere. Franchement, I prefer the Romantic and Classical periods in music over the Baroque. Franchement, Americans are not as fat as your television makes them out to be. Franchement, I’d like a croissant.

I’ve said before that I speak Japanese with a Kyoto accent, which already gives me a leg up on sounding natural to the folk here. Still, when I can tell students to quit zoning out in Japanese their little eyes get all saucer-like I feel very, very good about myself. It also helps when an elementary-school first grader repeatedly commands me to show the class my underwear, and I can say, “Eh? Eh? Ears are far,” which means I have selected deafness. That buys me enough time for the teacher to come back in the room and tell the boy to cut it out; he’s being very rude.

It’s clear that the benefits of actively studying Japanese far outweigh passively waiting for my brain to absorb the chatter around me. Still, every time I get on that train to go home on Saturday evening, I feel like my brain has dissolved into a puddle of Japanese and question marks. Kim-Chi mentioned that the movies romanticize learning a language as an adult; it always seems so easy for the foreigner to just pick up whatever they hear. I’m looking at you, Russian Dolls. As though if one just studies for a year, one can form complete sentences and not miss on all the subtle parts of speech between noun and verb. Now, I ain’t no dummy like Dale Peterson’s political opponent, but I feel downright ignorant compared to them folks in the talkies.

The benefits of not being a movie character is that I understand what a gross misrepresentation that “I learned Russian in a year” baloney is. I can remember that it takes a child just as long to learn how to speak its native language properly; even if taught proper grammar children make natural mistakes through age eight or nine. After that most of the improper speech is from habit, which is correctable. I’m still a child in the Japanese language, not even two years old yet. Yes, my brain capacity is much greater than a toddler’s, our levels of comprehension are probably similar. I can say with confidence that I have a larger vocabulary than a two-year-old.

Stormy Weather

I love approaching storms on sunny days. The looming power rolls in on the horizon, slowly and steadily pushing back the the blue sky in sumo style. Thunder follows, rumbling a gentle warning, telling the people scurrying below to quit playing around; it means business. I like how the wind goes before it, curling around trees and bones and chilling the air just a little, just enough to let you know that the tongues of wind come from a gaping mouth of rain. Those invisible tongues shake leaves and rattle wind chimes, sound so cheerful that they're nearly ominous, they clink "Take cover! Enjoy the sun while it lasts!"

I love being able to look into the heart of a storm and see where it drips and moans on the hills miles away; I can say to myself, "Ah, that'll hit here before too long," and feel smug when I have found shelter just before the rain pounds on doors and windows and those unfortunate people who didn't check the weather report or bother to look up.

I love the fresh smell of rain in the distance. It smells like water in a clean glass bottle. It smells like a glockenspiel sounds. It's a smell in the absence of scent, tinged perhaps by whatever collected to form the storm clouds. There's no water whose fragrance is as clear and nonexistent as rain; creek water smells like a creek, seawater smells like salt and everything that used it as bathroom, dew smells like grass. When I smell the rain I anticipate the smell of wet earth and flora, and I inhale again and again to purge my lungs of all the city smells collected within.
I love the darkening sky, how it tints everything a vivid grayish blue, and how it makes colors pop from their concrete backgrounds instead of fading in the sunlight.

There's no sky that affects my psyche like a heavy daytime storm. If I'm seated under fluorescent lights it makes me sleepy and a little grumpy. In the states when driving I used to feel an exaggerated sense of anticipation; would I be braving floods in the near future? Would a tornado form? Would it rain so hard that I'd only be able to see a few feet in front of my fender, and strain my eyes for the white lines on the road and tell stories on the way home of how everyone went 30 miles per hour on the interstate highway? In Japan when I'm walking or biking I get a little adrenaline rush. Can I outrun a storm? Am I faster than the angry gathering of clouds that flooded parts of China and lost little speed on its way to swell the rivers of western Honshu? Can I defeat the sky by finding shelter before the storm catches sight of me and throws wet wrath on my head?

I love marvelling at the awesome power of a storm. It's evocative. It overpowers the senses. It is beautiful and terrifying all at once. Still, common sense snorts at all my purple prose as I stand at the bus stop and stare at the clouds, saying, "Wax poetic all you want, but you should have at least brought an umbrella. Idiot."

Nothing In Vain

This is a long one. There is much hypothesizing and rhetorical questioning, that's why.

What Are You Going To Do After JET has been a hot topic of coversation recently. News of layoffs, other former JET participants going jobless for a year or more, and the threat of getting stuck teaching for real (because I have no other marketable skills) all make staying in Japan an attractive deal. One morning I read this article by a former ALT on reverse culture shock. She says that her years in Japan sometimes seemed like they were from an alternate reality, largely because no one around her could relate. This frightened me.

I like it here. No matter how much I complain about the price of Mac&Cheese or the frustrating cultural differences or the seeming impossibility of this language, I'm glad that I'm here. I've met some wonderful people. I'm learning how to be an adult, and what that means. The importance of maintaining a strong relationship with Christ has never been so clear to me as it has in Japan. Would I lose all of these defining years of growth if I were to move "home" to America?

My two worlds don't connect. My friends and family on the eastern side if the Pacific don't know my friends here and vice versa. Save for the people Hannah met, Facebook pictures and the rare Skype session when I'm in someone else's apartment, there remains a disjointedness that I have no idea how to fix. There are people who care for me here; what can my parents know about the two different men who have claimed to be my Japanese dad? Or about Yoko-sensei, who makes me curry and lets me play her piano? It's tough to compare my relationship with these men and women to those I have with my aunties and uncles in the states (who've known me since birth), but the roles are very similar.

My friends in the States are irreplaceable and I miss them daily. However, God has given me a fantastic social group here, who understand why I whip out my mobile phone whenever I see foreigners wearing backpacks and/or hiking boots. These folk will miss me when I leave, and I'll miss them. If I leave, who's going to make me laugh so hard I almost fall off my bike, just by saying "gay anal region"?Anyone who isn't Margaret will have no idea [why that's even funny]. With whom will I be able to sing that song about eating worms in turn-of-the-century voice? For whom will I write screenplays about pistachio thieves or muppets? Oftentimes at church I intend to leave immediately after the service, but end up staying for nearly an hour extra, chatting with the goodly folk there. I don't regret a second of the time I "lost." When I leave I'll miss them terribly.

As of July 2011 I will have lived in Japan for three years. Sure, in the grand Circle of Life (HIMEELLAMAWEEMELAMAWAAAAY!) it's not that long. I could have had three babies in that span of time. Four babies, if I pushed it. I'm not sure why the number of possible offspring is my measurement for time passed, but it is. Anyway, if I return to the U.S. after Japan, that's all I'll have to talk about unless relating tales of my youthful folly before age 23 (and a half). I've been told before that it sounds pretentious when I begin every sentence with "In Japan..." At first I thought it was a logical complaint. Now I don't know how else to talk to people who've never lived here. If I were to make a visit home and someone asked what I usually do for lunch, would it make sense for me to say, "I usually just have an onigiri and some cheddar Jagabees, unless I eat kyuushoku at an elementary school" without explaining the jibberish coming out of my mouth? I don't know what's happening in pop culture and barely keep up with politics. I may be following 30 Rock faithfully, but I thought that the reference to Hot Tub Time Machine was a poorly-titled joke that they made up for an episode of the show. Not until I glanced at a list of recent movies did I realize that it was real. And I thought, fantastic. Now everyone's going to be quoting a bunch of movies I've never even heard of when I get back. No one's going to care that I know which member of SMAP was once arrested for screaming in a park while nude and intoxicated. It was Kusanagi, by the way.

How the aich am I going to relate to people? Should I refrain from sharing stories or perspectives because talking about living overseas is annoying? i see myself apologizing at the start of every conversation. "I'm sorry if I sound pretentious, but my only frame of reference for the past three years is my life, which happened to be in Japan. Forgive me if I talk about it."

Already I converse in a strange kind of Japanglish (it happens to every foreigner at some point), throwing commonly-used words like taihen and ganbatte into English phrases. It'll be a hard habit to break, but I know I'll end up sounding like a pompous windbag to the people at home. Here, you look like an insensitive idiot if you pronounce manga or karate improperly. Back in Tulsa people think you're a know-it-all if you pronounce Tokyo or Kyoto with two syllables, i.e. correctly and without an American accent. Is living in Japan dooming me to be seen as some vainglorious cosmopolitan wannabe, waving a brandy snifter in the air while pontificating on when I was in Japan?

Thinking about the future rarely fails to bring a writhing knot of anxiety to my belly. What'll I do if I leave Japan? I thought I'd go to France in the near future, but after spending over three years without studying the language, how will I be qualified for any decent job? Will employers think that I was just playing around, since I stuck with a job that offered no opportunity for advancement in pay or position? If I go "home" to the U. S. where will I live? Where I live, how will I find people who won't tire of me talking about my life abroad? What will spending three or more years in Japan have meant in my life? Am I just wasting time?

A couple of weeks ago there was a guest speaker at church. The man was a missionary from the Philippines to Afghanistan. He told us about how he felt when grenades exploded near his house, how life was constantly interrupted by the international troops' hunt for Taliban members. He told us about the toilet an sewage situations, how there's no guarantee that the nan they buy at the market isn't flecked with dried waste that the wind blew from the gutters that run down the middle of the street. He told us about how he has nothing--no retirement plan, no house of his own, no assurance of safety--and his wife and children, one of whom has special needs, are in just as much danger as he is. Then the missionary reminded us of 1 Corinthians 15:54, which tells us that nothing, absolutely nothing that we do for Christ is in vain.

Ah, yes. God brought me over to this land. I have a purpose now, and I'll have a purpose wherever He takes me next. I may be a stranger in my own country, but I'll be a stranger with a purpose. I may be adrift for a while as my future unfolds, but I can know that God will be guiding me to what's best for me, because that's how much my creator loves me. What a restful realization.