15 May 2008

Gaijin Times

Like a depressed man who has finally decided to commit suicide, I am today quite happy and relieved that I have committed to leave Tbilisi tomorrow. Staying in one place for too long, however much I am enjoying it, makes me nervous. It is time to move on. To make up for my recent lack of succulent and satisfying posts, I will offer on this occasion a brief recount of my year in Japan. Naturally, it is going to be impossible for me to go into much detail, but I will do my best, through tortured and elliptical language, to give you some sense of that strange place and the strange life I led there. As always, I apologize in advance--in particular to my beloved Japanese readers--for being the horribly tactless and offensive person that I am. Be assured, yuujin-san, your country will always have a special place in my heart, but, for the sake of cheap laughs, I cannot forbear to gibe, jeer, and jest.

I blasted off from planet Earth on July 29, 2006, bound for a strange, new world, where people look different, behave in the most peculiar way, eat food which is often bizarre and disgusting, and whose heavily-accented English is hard to understand: Minnesota. Eager to escape this non-descript nowhere the natives call "the midwest" (does this word describe anything?), I and my group of fellow future English teachers (sorry, "teachers") hurriedly boarded a connecting shuttle to an even more remote, more exotic place: Nihon, or Nippon, or, to you and I, Ja-pan. At the arrival facility in Ja-pan, we were, in quite every way exhausting the sense of the word, ushered from our flight craft, through immigration ("Nihon de, dono gurai tomaru tsumori desu ka?" "What?"), through customs, through baggage claim (the airline lost mine), through long, tidy and quiet corridors lined with smiling, identically T-shirted white people showing us the way (like something out of the Albert Brooks movie, "Defending Your Life"), and onto one of a long line of waiting mega-personnel transport vehicles. And off to a five-star hoteru we went.

At the hoteru, which is located steps away from the heart of downtown Tokyo's gay district, we were receptioned, feted, and congratulated for being the chosen few thousand to have been accepted (bam! perfect passive participle in the house!) into the prestigious (!) JET Programme. "JET" stands for "Just Entertain us, Thanks." The keynote address is a good example of every speech I heard from a Japanese official the whole time I was there, and went something like this:

"Hello. I don't speak English well (ha ha). You are all great. Ja-pan is great, too. Let's all be great together. Don't forget that your country and Ja-pan are very different, but we don't care what you do, so don't worry about fucking up. Now, please drink something."

The smart JETs evacuated the hoteru as soon as possible, going off to explore the city. Dumbly, and although my friend Ryoko (see Cambodia post) awesomely met me the first night, I stuck around the rest of the time to attend the mandatory (HO HO!) orientation sessions run by current JETs who had not yet become (bam! pluperfect tense!) cynical and listless. The quality of these sessions ran the gamut from pointless and absurd through to suicide-inducing waste of time, though I did find "Dating in Ja-pan" to be provocative and fascinating (also highly attended, as you can imagine). Don't take my supercilious condescension too seriously, though. I had just come out of an M.A. program in English literature, where, if it taught me anything about the enduring virtues of the Western humanist tradition, I at least learned to adopt an unattractive but quite self-satisfying sense of overweening superiority toward everyone and everything around me. By the way, if you want to strike fear into the heart of any Japanese student of English, ask them to spell the words "supercilious" and "condescension."

You must excuse the detail into which I am going (never end a clause or sentence with a preposition!) about the first few days of my annus incredibilus in Ja-pan. You see, though these events remain vivid in my memory, most of the rest of the time is a blur of: an endless parade of boring days at school with nothing to do; occasional "business trips" to compare shock-notes with fellow JETs (your teacher did what?? your student ate what?? your Japanese girlfriend/boyfriend put her/his fingers where??); nights out drinking in the local izakaya, in Tokyo, with colleagues, wherever; & cetera.

No, there was really so much more to it than that. I kid, I kid. Really. In my first week, the JETs in my prefecture, Ibaraki (north of Tokyo, jokingly referred to, along with Chiba prefecture, as "Chibaraki" by the cool, countryside-disdaining Tokyoites), were invited to participate in a bank-sponsored parade through the humidity-drenched streets of downtown Mito, Ibaraki's tiny little capital (aside: I love Mito). This was the Mito Komoun festival, a celebration of the city's founder and popular TV drama character. We were taught the dance procedure very quickly, and so none of us mastered it (except the Japanese bank employees, who all appeared to be professionals at this sort of thing). It didn't matter, though, because a booze-car followed us the whole way down Mito's long central boulevard and we fueled up during each interlude. When I found out this dancing routine was actually a competition, my American spirit fired up, and I demanded that my fellow drunken JETs help me to construct a human pyramid in order to wow the judges. Naturally, they agreed to this ridiculous request, and up they piled. For the top, I asked (by gesturing) a petite Japanese girl (that's redundant, I suppose) if she'd like to volunteer for the job. Once she figured out what I was talking about (I tried not to use the word "mount"), I never saw such an enthusiastically positive response. I did this twice. I never saw any judges or found out if we "won," but I ended up making some Japanese friends and did my part to demonstrate to the Japanese what morons foreigners are, so I counted it as a personal victory, at least.

That was August. The rest of the month, I had no work to do, because school was out for summer. Most days, I came in for an hour or two, bowed to everyone, and went home to sweat. Japan is really hot in the summer. I never thought it could be hotter than any of the other hot places I've been, but it really is the most uncomfortably hot place I've ever been. The Japanese never tire of pointing this out.

In September, I finally got the chance to teach. For the entire month, this consisted in a "self-introduction" lesson in which I told each of about 15 classes (over and over I had to do this) about my boring life. I tried spicing things up with a Powerpoint presentation featuring the famous manga character Doraemon and Darth Vader. Later, I realized that they probably understood only about 5% of what I said. I smiled as much as possible. In September, the school also took me to Tokyo Disneyland. I have to admit, my friends, I was ALL OVER THAT.

In October, the realities of my new job began to, as they say, dawn on me. The school I was teaching at, Hitachiota Daiichi Senior High School, was fairly high level, which means the students spend most of their time preparing for university entrance exams, which means their primary English instruction (which I cannot provide) is in grammar (taught in Japanese, by the way), which means my teachers had often to cancel my "conversation" classes, which means I often, sometimes for weeks or months at a time, had nothing to do except wander the dusty halls causing havoc wherever I could. I tried not to be too critical about Japanese culture while I was there (smarmy sarcasm notwithstanding), but I do have a special disdain for the way English, at least, is taught. In many ways, I respect the Japanese style of education. For Japanese arts like calligraphy, pottery, archery, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, martial arts, etc. (the list goes on indefinitely), I find the slow, detail-oriented, perfectionism-over-time, respect the teacher approach appropriate. But in the case of foreign language study, I think it doesn't work. Teaching English as a series of patterns to memorize and repeat is ineffective and stultifying.

This was not the teachers' fault. They were just doing their job and usually regretted not being able to "team-teach" with me or teach in more productive and innovative ways (though I am hardly an expert in such things). In fact, I loved my colleagues. They were all easy-going, approachable, and kind. My then-supervisor, Takahashi-sensei, bent over backwards to accomodate my every request (and I tried to make as few as possible, though living in a country where you are functionally illiterate when you are used to being sophisticatedly over-literate is a difficult transition to make). He even invited me over for dinner. Kozawa-sensei, who is probably reading this, also invited me over for dinner with his family, and I got to experience one of those funny moments when you suddenly meet someone's twin brother when you didn't know he had one. Kusachi-sensei taught me the ins and outs of the Japanese game "Go", which I love, though he kicked my ass every time. Go is more complicated than Chess--there are more possible arrangements of pieces on a 13x13 Go board, apparently, than there are stars in the universe (I think Chess only goes as far as the galaxy or something). That's complicated! Seki-sensei took me hiking. Morita-sensei took me out drinking and helped me (unintentionally) perfect my karaoke-avoidance techniques. Ouchi-sensei and I together coached a student for an English speech contest, and I am proud to say she hasn't given up participating--a brave attitude for the typically shy Japanese! Outside of the English department, Kikuchi-sensei provided a refuge for me in the sick bay, where she served me tea and sweets and helped me learn Japanese. She also introduced me to Tomoko-sensei, my tea ceremony instructor (more on that later). Miyamoto-sensei, though she didn't speak English, eventually acquiesced to my persevering desire to learn shodo, Japanese calligraphy. I just kept showing up, each time able to converse in Japanese a little bit more. Now, she's like a second (or third, or fourth at this point) mother to me. Namekawa-sensei, the art teacher, had unlimited patience for me, though she too spoke little English, and we ended up having some of the most interesting and beautiful conversations about art and life. I often tell people about how difficult it is to break down personal barriers in Japan and really engage people there. I like to think I took some steps in this direction, though, and that I might have been somewhat more successful than most. Don't give up, prospective Japanophiles! Ja-pan is probably not what you think, but it's not worth giving up on, either. You just have to learn to be as patient as them. Not so easy for a Westerner, perhaps, much less an American, much less a New Jerseyan.

I have gotten ahead of myself, describing events and relationships that occurred over time or took time to develop. So back to the chronology: in November, I did nothing at school but started attending Urasenke tea ceremony classes regularly for about five hours every Saturday afternoon. This may sound boring to most of you, but I found it to be a fascinating, if subtle, way to gain insight into the "mysterious Japanese mind" (in quotes, because I try not to be a reverse-racist). I won't go into too much detail, because this post is already getting long enough, but I learned to appreciate the close attention you pay to your immediate situation and circumstances during a tea ceremony and also the art's core values: purity, harmony, tranquility, respect. Couldn't we all use a little more of that in our lives? See, I can be as saccharine as I can be sarcastic. I attended this class loyally, three times a month until I left Ja-pan the following July. Tomoko-sensei, who spoke English (another mother-figure in the end), was a wonderful teacher and even invited me along to several (expensive!) tea events, where I got to see the real thing and hundreds of kimono-clad women. Although I could not afford to pay for it at the time, I am now technically certified in tea ceremony by the Urasenke Foundation. Sugoine?

In December, I started attending a free Japanese class in Mito on Saturday mornings before tea, though I was already staving off countryside-induced boredom by attending another free class in my own town, Hitachiota, on Thursday evenings. Wonderful teachers and new friends found in both!

At the end of December, my school closed for a New Year's break (like Christmas in the West), and I took off for South Korea with my friend Neil. From Tokyo, we ripped across Honshu by bullet train to Fukuoka and, the next day, took a ferry to Pusan--this was the sort of interesting adventure I like. On board the ferry, I saw a really cool Korean film about an emperor and a circus clown performer guy he falls in love with or something. Touching. Later, I visited the traditional folk village theme park where it was film, much to my delight. Getting out of Japan at this point was like escaping a bubble, to be honest. As sentimental as I can be about my adopted country number four, sometimes it drove me insane. Korea seemed more, ah, normal. Maybe more Western? I don't know. But I loved the hell out of it. First, it was MUCH cheaper than Japan, where I basically denied myself all pleasures so I could be sitting here in Tbilisi, Georgia today writing this. The food was fantastic, I liked the people, the World Heritage temples and fortresses in wooded areas were just as I expected and enjoy, and Seoul turned out to be a marvelous place, too, though some may disparage it as just another giant Asian megacity. Whatever, the vegetarian Buddhist temple food is outstanding, the handicrafts are affordable, and I had a great time attending their raucous New Year's Eve celebration (by contrast, in Tokyo, I heard the affair is usually quite underwhelming--though I maintain a healthy regard for Japanese reserve, I prefer to be whelmed, at least on that day, thank you very much). I drank green tea latte after green tea latte, too. Oh, yum. Neil and I also did a temple stay in the center of the country, which was sort of OK, but would no doubt have been more interesting if we'd stayed longer (or somewhere else, to be honest--just very quiet at that time). We also found a number of hot baths, naturally. Those who love me know I love those. Most interestingly, we visited, on a USO-sponsored tour, the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. At a village called Panmunjeom (I actually remembered how to spell that without looking it up!), the two sides have built "welcome centers" just across the border from one another (a few hundred feet) that constantly eye one another unwelcomingly. A few low buildings, where negotiations often fail to get anywhere, are built across the line itself, and our group was allowed inside. Technically, I have been in North Korea, because I crossed the line inside the building. Not sure if that really counts for much. Near Panmunjeom are both a North and South Korean village. The South Korean village, not technically part of South Korea, I guess, is a real village that receives massive subsidies from the South Korean government. I think most of its inhabitants live on this largesse in Seoul, only spending the requisite 10 days a year actually in their village homes. The North Korean village, on the other hand, is a total fake. The side facing South Korea is done up to make the North look prosperous and happy. But it's really a ghost town with nothing more than a few forced laborers forced to look unforced and a loudspeaker that used to loudly broadcast propaganda across the border. The South had one of these, too, so they amicably decided (surprisingly) just to turn them both off. The flag-pole competition is not over, however, both sides continually upping the ante; North Korea is currently winning, with the largest flagpole in the world topped by the largest flag--so big and heavy, there's hardly ever enough wind to stir it (luckily, there was when I visited). All of this you view from a kind of amphitheatre at the US Army base. It's very weird and maybe the last place of its weird kind in the world. The soldiers who gave the tour were very funny, too, making numerous witty remarks about the "glorious society" on the other side. Ha ha!

In January, I don't remember doing much. Maybe I taught. I did eventually produce dozens of so-cool (so-called) lesson plans, but I only got to deploy them sporadically. I think I started my Tuesday night pottery lessons at this time, though, adding yet another hobby to my growing and groaning list. Well, I sucked at it, but the teacher was happy to have me there, and I eventually dragged my English neighbor, Catriona, along, too. Best part: he didn't charge us! I love the special treatment foreigners get in Ja-pan. Most of the time. Thanks, Maki, for bringing me there, and thanks Nakagawa-sensei for putting up with us! You know, he never did understand this bizarre concept known as "vegetarianism." I believe Catriona is still trying to explain.

February was still cold. Did I mention that Ja-pan is as cold in the winter as it is hot in the summer? And they don't heat their buildings. Or they use kerosene, like in the 19th century, or it's expensive. To save money, I bought a cheap electric blanket and wrapped myself in it from November to May. Emma, if you're reading this, don't worry: I washed it before I left, though it may still be full of residue of emotional essence wrought by months of pining and frustration, from various causes, that you will no doubt understand. Also started helping out random other Japanese people I met with their English. Anything to pass the time of day, and it gave me an excuse to visit my favorite "English" tea room in Mito, where I was a beloved regular customer.

In March, it was cherry blossom time, and I have to say, though I am a Western male who could normally give a shit about flowers, I was stunned by how beautiful they indeed turned out to be--and ubiquitous. Toward the end of March, during another school break, I finally took a long trip down to Kinki (hee hee) to see Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, and Himeji. En route, I stopped at Nagoya to visit my Aikido sensei, who was sick, but met and stayed with Joe, one of his resident American students. Joe is now my best friend, and even though I am filled with a spirit of peace after countless hours of martial training, tea ceremony, and Buddhist reflections, I'll kick any of your asses if you say a thing against him. In Kyoto, I stayed at a hotel called the "Kyoto Cheapest Hotel." As advertised, I only paid around $10 a night for a tatami-mat bunk bed (sleeping bag required) in an open room. Fine with me: how about $5 for a spot on the laundry room floor? I can't describe, in this already overlong post, the wonders of Kyoto, but it's easily the most beautiful city in Ja-pan, though it's easy to be a beautiful city in Ja-pan, because most of them aren't so beautiful (we sort of bombed them all, but not Kyoto, which maintains its traditional charms). Kyoto is a city of temples which all cost $5 to enter, and though I was grouchy about having to pay so much so often, I couldn't say that any one of them wasn't worth the price of admission: they are all lovely, lovely in ways that defy easy description, since I have no room to detail all their details. I liked best the moss gardens and some of the raked-stone Zen gardens. I also enjoyed the famous "Philosopher's Walk", waking up really early every day with a tatami-induced sore-back, encouraging me to get out into the quiet mist of a Kyoto morning, walking from downtown Kyoto to the top of Mount Hiei (famous for its famous monastery (Engakuji?) of famous monks) and back, etc. etc. etc. I just can't do it! I can't tell you about everything I did there without boring you with lists! OK, quickly, I visited Osaka for an evening, Himeji for a day to see the really-awesome, totally-worth it "White Egret" castle and nearby mountain monastery (Engyouji?) where part of Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai" was filmed, the ancient capital of Nara with its largest-oldest-wooden-buildings-in-the-world temples, famous forest, a sake factory, and, uh, sacred deer (free guided tour by two university students), and Uji, the green tea city (all varieties, every kind of food product made from it, my idea of heaven). I stopped at Nagoya again on the way back, but still no Sensei. Got really drink with Joe. While I was in Kyoto, the cherry blossoms appeared, and I managed to follow the "front" back north to Hitachiota, stopping in several places along the way and enjoying them for about two weeks altogether (normally they last up to five days max in most places). And, in front of my school, there is a massive cherry blossom tree that was in full bloom when I got back. Now you understand, perhaps, why they are deliberately planted everywhere in the country. The Japanese love celebrating the ephemerality of all things in life represented by the beautiful but short-lived cherry blossoms. And drinking under them. Me, too.

Still there? In April, the new school year began. I don't think I did much. Other activities as usual.

In May, I turned 29, and I don't even remember what I did to celebrate, which means I probably paid a visit to the old woman in my town who adopts all foreigners living there and allows them to drop in whenever they want for food and drinking with half the neighborhood. If I didn't do this then, I certainly did it more than once during the year. Someday, I'm really going to nail Japanese, so when I go back, I'll actually be able to have a conversation with her that entails more than just grunting attempts at exchanging good will, enough at the time, I suppose.

In June, I probably taught more than average or went to watch the archery club after school a bunch. I certainly didn't travel any more. I was trying desperately to save money for this year's trip, and I'd even gotten rid of my car, since keeping it would have entailed paying a multiple thousand dollar inspection fee. Ja-pan is expensive!

In July, it finally got hot enough that I stopped going to my local onsen every Friday, which I had long since adopted as my weekly attempt to avoid remembering that where I was, there was nothing to do on Friday night. Probably, I did some other stuff, too.

July was the end of the school year and the end of my year in Ja-pan. I gave a speech, received bunches of flowers, had multiple going away parties, received more bunches of flowers, and felt both sad to be leaving and excited to be embarking on my next adventure. I can't say the job was terribly satisfying, as I'm sure my colleagues will understand, but I did have an enriching experience I will never regret in the land of the rising sun. I intend to return as soon as I am able, and I tend not to return to countries I've already visited. But I want to visit my friends, some of the best, most sincere friends I've ever made, and I want to see more of the country I couldn't afford to travel around much while I was there, and that 88 temple pilgrimage on Shikoku island has my name all over it. In more than one way, my heart will always remain, in part, in Ja-pan.

I hope I didn't leave out anything, or anyone, important. That should hold y'all for awhile, anyway.


Hye-Yoon said...

May I leave a message?
(I'm sorry if a private message is not allowed here.)
Hi~ I'm Hye-Yoon from Seoul.
I sometimes visit your blog when memories of my travel comes to my mind.
I'm wondering how you're going these days. I like your blog name "my smooth world". It's really nice!
I hope you enjoy your life & bless of the earth anywhere you are.

Anonymous said...

but on tuesday there is five lari rigoletto! and 3 lari hamlet tonight! a week of 1 lari art house cinema starts tomorrow and i'm sure you still have 30% liver function...


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