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.