So there’s a Japanese slang term, ‘chuunibyou’, that roughly translates to “Middle School 2nd Year Syndrome.” It is used to describe the stupid phases people go through when they are 14, like pretend to be really hardcore, act like they know everything, say they have mystical powers, etc.
Today I finished both my first 5kg bag of rice and my personal challenge of watching every single episode of Daria before November. I don’t know who’s in charge of sending the trophies for these kinds of things but I’m really just in it for the fans.
When I worked at summer camp, they told us about FOMO, or “fear of missing out”. Allegedly, it was to keep us from burning out by trying to do everything - for fear that something epic might happen if we chose to take a night off - but we all knew it was their way of keeping us from flipping our shit every time our friends got different nights off from us. That being said, there is something to not feeling compelled to do everything and just taking a night off sometimes.
Unfortunately, that seems to be a little harder here in Japan. You see, one of the oft repeated warnings from both orientations was that we should not feel obligated to go to everything we are invited to by our Japanese colleagues, but that if we refuse too often (especially early on) that the invitations may stop coming as they come to assume you’re just not interested in chillaxin with the work crew. Now this is certainly not unique to Japan, but it seems to be more prominent here, especially for marginal groups (i.e. the 3 foreigners for 50 miles).
So today, when one of the guys at work came up to ask me if I wanted to come play soccer with them tonight I was torn. Everyone at the office is super nice and I really want to get to know them, but after developing a heavy limp from the pain in my foot (acquired during my long night wandering Nagoya) I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of both running on and kicking with it with so little time to recover.
However, I’m happy to say that today I took the long view, sucked it up, and went.
Do my feet hurt like fucking hell? Yeah, they do. But at least now they both hurt fairly evenly, so you could argue that’s an improvement?
Was it fun? It was fucking great, despite how badly I suck. We’ll have to work on that latter part….
Did I get in some good male bonding with the guys from work and their cohorts? Duh! Just bros bein’ bros in knee socks.
Did we stop for ice cream at the convenience store on the way back? Oh yes we did.
Was it cute? Obviously
Will they invite me again? Hopefully.
I love hanging out with other JETs, but I do feel like some of them don’t really form bonds with the Japanese people around them and I don’t want to be like that. In their defense, many of them are new to the language and it’s hard to make friends when you can barely communicate. But I regret not reaching out to the Japanese students and dorm residents I became acquainted with during my time in Tokyo more than I did. I was scared and I had the safety net of the other foreigners to fall back on, and despite the Japanese students’ consistent openness and kindness, I let mostly myself be more of a tourist than a part of their world and I think that is my deepest regret from my time studying abroad. I’m super happy to have my JET friends to fall back on now and they are hoenstly some of the coolest people I’ve ever me, but even if my ability in Japanese hasn’t gone up too much, my willingness to try has, for no better reason than that’s how I live and work for 80% of my time now. I’m finally getting over the apprehension of a Japanese student too afraid of mistakes to just blurt out what’s on his mind and I’m hoping that will help me learn from my mistakes and really get to know the people here as much as possible. And if it comes at the cost of my feet for now, so be it.
A few days ago, I dragged my futon out of my Japanese-style tatami room and into what I’ve been using as a living room to listen to the rain at night like the 12 year-old girl that I am. I left it there to listen to the typhoon that roared over our small town this weekend and have found that, while it makes the tatami room feel like an abandoned husk, it is a pretty nice set up. In particular, I loved that this morning I woke up feeling cold, rolled over to turn off the AC and found that I had never turned it on. The only down side is that in order for the relative coolness of the night to permeate my house, I have to leave the storm shutters open. You would think that would be fine, since the typhoons we’ve had so far haven’t been too frequent, but unfortunately the view from my apartment is not great and I have taken to being half-dressed when I’m home. Lastly it is blinding in the mornings, which not only wakes me up rather rudely but also makes me feel as though it’s far past noon, leading me to wake up panicked about being late.
This morning in particular was rough and rushed, which was not totally unrelated to my inability to fall asleep last night. I threw my stuff together while making breakfast and skipped the shower altogether since I had showered after trimming my beard last night. Not that there is really a point to showering in the morning anyway since I bike to work, get there sweaty, and then just sweat throughout the rest of the day despite the fact that I’m usually as unmoving as a person can be without others beginning to worry that he may have died sitting up.
In any case, today was going to be a big day. It was the day I taught the first lessons I had made 100% on my own. Ok well, not quite. I drove to Seiwa JHS last Thursday after teaching four classes at Taki JHS to consult with the teachers about the coming lessons. This process turned out to be somewhat harder than it sounds however, as when I got to the Board of Education, I discovered that none (0) of the five (5) office-owned cars had gas in them. While this might have been a minor hurdle back in America, here it was a serious obstacle as I found myself trying to turn the cogs of the oh-so-famously slow/redundant/ gratuitously burdensome bureaucracy of Japanese life.
At first I asked if I could just stop on the way to Seiwa and be reimbursed. Of course not. Well could I just fill it half way on my own dime because I was in a hurry? That’s not really how it works. No, there was only one gas station where we are allowed to fill up town vehicles. Realizing that all of the town cars are kept near the town office, one might suspect that this single acceptable gas station would be one of the numerous place nearby, particularly because the state of needing gas does not usually encourage one to travel great distances. But, of course, this being Japan and such, one of the BOE office workers was dispatched to drive me and the car to the approved gas station, which was around 20 kilometers away. Even worse, the route to get there was all but impossible to remember, so it is certain that at some point in the future they will expect me to go fill up the car myself and I will get lost with 1/10th of a liter and end up pushing said car up some rural mountain road in search of the distant hole in the wall gas station.
Ok, moving past that digression, the meeting with the teachers at Seiwa was fortuitous, as having neglected to tell me that the week I spent at Taki JHS was spent doing tests at Seiwa JHS, I had assumed they would be well into the first chapter of the textbook and had planned classes for each grade accordingly. However, having learned of my error, I hunkered down with the teachers, offering ideas which they were too polite to dismiss directly until finally we found a few winners to fill the class periods. So, if you can really call that me planning the class, then there you have it. In any case, I had pushed to meet before Thursday but apparently that had been their day to meet with my predecessor and they have seemingly become very attached to doing things this way. This would have been (and will be) fine normally, except that the coming Monday (a day usually reserved for reviewing lesson plans with teachers and doing material prep) was a vacation day, meaning that preparation of materials for all three grades would have to be done all on Friday. Any other day of the week, I could have done all that work in a single day without problem, but Fridays are half days for me and the other JET in our office. While this sounds like a cushy benefit at first, it is actually compensating for the fact that we work an hour longer than other JETs for the other four days of the workweek. And even with our half day, I still work an hour and a half of unpaid overtime each week. “A quirk of working at the BOE” is how my predecessor posed it. I’d have gone with a goddam nuisance, but that’s just me…
Ok, time to focus up, man, we keep losing the story. So I have to make an immense amount of classroom materials – we’re talking laminated game cards, worksheets from scratch, Paul Simon lyric sheets in Japanese as well as English, typing up new lesson plans, printing out handmade cheat-sheets of Pikachu demonstrating prepositions, and more. The whole nine yards, the kit and caboodle, and the kitchen sink all in one – on my well-earned half-day. And of course, it was never going to be possible to finish on time. So I stayed late, as a good teacher would. And I didn’t think it was a big deal really, it’s what you have to do sometimes. But everyone in the office was confused as all hell. Normally I’m gone the instant that lunch bell rings but this time I just sat still, typing furiously. My supervisor kept timidly coming up to me and casually mentioning that it was odd for me to still be there, as though I might have forgotten that I was free to go. Others just seemed worried about me, asking if I was ok or trying to subtly cheer me up by showing me the shockingly well-made projects students did on nature over summer-vacation. It probably didn’t help that I had chosen that day to wear contact lenses, meaning that I squinted more, something the rest of the office probably took as an intense glare betraying my inner-turmoil when really my eyes were just dry. I ended up staying another two and a half hours before everything was done, and even then, I had still left myself some work that I could do back at my apartment, just so I could get home and take a nap.
Now this is not a particularly interesting narrative, I know, but it leads up today. To this very moment in which I am typing this story. You see, it is Tuesday now; what was to be the first day of teaching with these lessons which I had wrought through blood, sweat, and over-time. The thing is, I should be teaching right now instead of typing this lament. But upon arriving at school today, I was greeted by one of the two English teachers at Seiwa JHS. We sat at our relative desks for a little, before she came over with a schedule of my classes for the week, a schedule I had greatly anticipated. However, unlike the last one, this one had several corrections and markings. I couldn’t tell why until she quietly explained that they would be returning tests today (the tests they had neglected to tell me about before when I had been planning my lessons the first time) and so I would not be able to teach today. So let’s sum up for a second. I drove to meet with them on Thursday, stayed late on Friday, brought work home for Saturday, and in general over-worked myself for the past half-week and now I’m sitting at my desk in the teacher’s room with not a damn thing better to do than write this dull and whiney tirade for the rest of the day. The thing is I’m 100% more annoyed at having nothing to do for the next nine hours than having worked over-time, but one is a symptom of the other and both could have been totally avoided if someone in the chain of command had given me like two sentences of information on Thursday or the week before. I don’t think the teachers knew they wouldn’t have normal classes today, as it appears from the revised schedule that they had planned on me teaching today (although maybe they could have told me more specifically which lessons to focus on since they didn’t mention the tests, which would have at least made Thursday a lot simpler).
The thing is, while I didn’t see this coming, they totally warned us about this at Orientation in Tokyo; it’s practically textbook based on what they said. So I guess I can’t really be mad, it’s just a part of being a JET. And it’s certainly better than the opposite, and having a class sprung on you without any heads-up or time to prepare. But now I have nothing to do today but doodle and hope no one looks over my shoulder for the rest of the day. Or at least until after lunch, when I can drive back to the BOE and see if they have anything I can help with.
At least it’s reached a livable temperature out here in the boonies so I’m sweating less than usual. Apparently it only takes a lethal typhoon that shuts down half the country to make this corner of Japan comfortable place to live. Or I guess you could at least partially blame the changing of the seasons if you believe those weird heliocentric nuts. In any case, I’m off to blankly stare at my feet for a few hours, so that’s all for now.
This can't be the first time you've seen a computer
Living in japan is going well but as in any situation, there are differences that can be frustrating. At present, I’m particularly perturbed by the fact that anytime I suggest using technology in a class room the teachers around me act like I’ve suggested using live animals or human body parts as props. It’s like, how hard is it to use a projector? And they have the basic equipment but no one knows how to use it because it never gets touched. The worst part is I told them I was going to use a PowerPoint a month ago (and again several times since) but each first class with a new teacher, we always end up wasting 15 minutes on figuring out how to use these things because its somehow a new concept to them. Even worse, I worry that because we waste so much time those first classes getting things to work that they form the opinion that using technology in the classroom isn’t useful, and then I’m only reinforcing the trend. Plus, on a more selfish note, I feel like it makes ME look ridiculous for trying something so “outlandish” and having it screw up the limited time for class activities.
Sigh. Ok, I’m done ranting. I guess I’ll just keep at it until the teachers are forced to become more proficient with multimedia and maybe at that point I won’t feel like everyone thinks I’m crazy for wanting to use a video or slide show in class…
Despite this being my first day spent at a school, I find myself once again without much to do. Both of the english teachers are out administering midterms and since they are the ones who ultimately have the answers to my questions and the ideas which will guide my work, I am more or less stranded without them at this point. Hopefully that will change once I get a little more information which, will then get me on the right page to start preparing for future classes.
For now however, I want to talk about the enigma which is driving in Japan:
Today was the first time I drove by myself here and it was exhilirating. You would think it was my first time in a car based on the stupid grin i couldn’t manage to wipe off my face. Driving to Seiwa JHS, I kept thinking about the previous times I had made this trip with my supervisor and how he would, each time without fail, say 自然 （shizen), which he would then unneccesarily translate for my benefit into his rough english to “all natural”. Honestly, it sounds more like “Oru nachuraru” but his english pronounciation is getting better and I just appreciate that he tries in spite of the fact that I’m clearly the most annoying part of his job. Yet, despite my appreciation of his effort, my American sensibilities demand that I disagree with his repeated claims that Seiwa is “all natural”; first of all because to me that phrase seems more suited for shampoo bottles, and secondly because while Seiwa is a beautiful area with plenty of plantlife, I wouldn’t consider the farms and well groomed fields (not to mention the large sewage processing center) that make up the sceneray as “natural”. Still, it’s certainly a beautiful area and the morning traffic I had been warned about turned out to be only a few cars, all of which were moving considerably faster than I had any of intention of going on my first trip out on my own. And look at that, we’ve come full circle back to today. A happy accident, trust me.
Anyway, getting used to driving on the left side of the road and sitting on the right side of the car continues ot be an ongoing process. But even more difficult than that is my habit of hugging the left side of my lane, which in America made me feel more secure in my spacial understanding, since I was closer to the edge with which I was flirting. Here however, all this habit does is scare the shit out of my supervisor when he drives with me.
It proved an especially challenging issue this morning when, illegally, a motorcycle passed me on the left while I was stopped at a light, and took off ahead of me by anticipating the light changing and running the last second of the red. You would think this would be a heinous sin here in Japan but it seems like red lights are treated more like yellows in America and here yellow just means speed up. In fact, one of the most repeated warnings I’ve gotten since coming here is to wait a few seconds after the light turns green to avoid being t-boned by some moron in a hurry. To be fair, the traffic authorities have compensated for this by having a solid 3 second stretch of time between one light turning red and the other turning green, but even this does not appear to be enough for some. I guess the lights out here in the country can be pretty slow, but as I’m still in the honeymoon phase with driving here, I don’t really get the inclination.
Back to the motorcycle. So he flies by me and takes off, little realizing that he has made a terrible terrible mistake. Now, most cars in Japan, and in particular the yellow plates, are built like those boxy scions with a go-cart engine, but even so they usually have more power than the mini-motorbikes people ride here. So he has a massive lead and then all of a sudden there is an enormous hill, as there are want to be in the weird mountain/foothill area of central Mie, and suddenly I’m gaining on him at an alarming rate. Now clearly the motorcycle just wanted me to pass him as he had passed me, but before I had been stationary at the time and he was the one doing the passing with his wealth of experience of driving on narrow Japanese roads. On top of all this, I couldn’t - despite my best efforts - manage to keep the car close enough to the middle line on the right to create a margin large enough on my left to pass him. His attempts at getting me to pass were futile, because though he didn’t know it, any attempt on my part to surpass him would have undoubtedly meant his imminent and untimely demise. So as his tiny motorbike engine failed to accelerate up the hill, I slowed behind him and soon we accrued a decent caravan of cars trailing us wondering why they were suddenly going 40k/h on an otherwise empty country road. Thankfully we reached the top of the hill after a few minutes and he turned off and out of sight, letting me drive the remainder of the trip unimpeded.
Now before I conclude this entry, I wanted to add a few other foibles of Japanese driving which while lacking in narrative , I believe should be recorded in this fine journal for posterity.
People back into parking spots far more than in America, but do it not at 90 degrees, but at a wide obtuse angle which manages to block both lanes of traffic while not improving their parking abilities whatsoever
When coming to a stop sign, cars do not role to a stop but rather give indication that they plan on powering into the coming intersection without heeding the signs, before suddenly jerking to a halt just short of traffic. It’s very unnerving and I always feel as though one of these times they just aren’t going to stop. Even more alarming, the worst of these offenders tend to be old grandmother types who are already required to have special stickers on their cars to warn fellow drivers of their impaired senses and their lack of a sensible of fear of death due to their looming mortality
Japanese drivers never (ever ever ever) yield to pedestrians. This, and the fact that they don’t normally hold the door for each other was a surprising challenge to my over-generalized preconceptions
The color of the center lines alternate between yellow and white without rhyme or reason, causing me to suddenly partially feel as though I am driving in America but just in a Japanese car
People leave their cars idling when they do errands, meaning that whenever you go to the post office, bank, or even the grocery store, a large number of cars will be unattended, putting out untold amounts of exhaust into the air. Part of me wants to understand their motivations, because it truly is hotter than the pits of hell most days and it’s nice to have the AC cooling your car for when you get back into it. As it is, my supervisor refuses to even step into the car with me until I’ve turned on the engine and begun blasting the AC. That being said, going back to those American sensibilities, leaving a car idling for more than a minute is practically criminal in my mind. Particularly since gas is about $8 per gallon here.
People don’t honk horns because they are angry or frustrated here, but reserve the horn exclusively for thanking people for letting them pass or merge. What a bunch of weirdos…
Lastly (for now at least), the hazard lights in Japan are not for warning other drivers or for calling for assitance, but are actually magical lights which turn any where you can get your car into a parking spot. On the non-existent shoulder? Check. In a firelane? Why not? On top of a pedestrian? Probably. For me, it’s reminiscent of the cars on Newbury Street boldly parked so as to block one of two only lanes, flashing their hazards as though to say “I know traffic here already sucked, but just hold on while I run into Starbucks. It’s really important (to me).” I don’t know if these lights will in any way disuade a cop from giving you a ticket, but out here in the country where cops are few and far between, people tend to treat the world as though it was their own private parking lot
“Mrs. Joe was a very clean housekeeper, but had an exquisite art of making her cleanliness more uncomfortable and unacceptable than dirt itself. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, and some people do the same by their religion.”—Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Day Two at the office (More dull still but thankfully even shorter)
I stood outside my apartment on my second day of work waiting for my CIR to pick me up and watching the Junior High students riding by towards school on their bikes for club events and sports held during the summer break. Once at the office we all did the same morning ritual as before and got to the day’s work. Throughout the day people would stop by my desk for a quick chat and I was overwhelmed with everyone’s kindness. It meant so much to me that despite my obvious limitations and my strangeness that they would make such an effort to make me feel at home that I could feel tears thinking about welling up behind my eyes. I blame the Jetlag.
In any case, I wrote an email to my adviser at Seiwa JHS asking if there was anything I could do to help prepare before meeting her and inquiring about the missing materials I was supposed to copy and laminate before the first classes. At the time I had no idea that it was Obon, a Japanese holiday, meaning I wouldn’t hear back from her for at least a week but I was set straight before I could start worrying that I had somehow offended her already. Around 10 I was whisked away to a Japanese version of Sears/ Target where my supervisor bought me a bicycle to use until I got a car. It’s a clunky kind of bike that weighs more than I do but it has a basket and a built in lock and it was free for me so I’m pretty thrilled with it. Besides, it was the only one with a frame big enough for me, which is strange considering one of our other Japanese coworkers came with us and he is actually considerably taller than me.
Back at the office, I turned on the desk fan I had borrowed (stole) from my CIR and decided to spend my time reviewing the JET language textbook, looking at old grammar and vocab that had been in one ear and out the other when I was in school. Never before this year had I ever dreamed that I would actually need to know the word for town hall or vice-mayor but today, just after skimming over them in the textbook, I was asked to go back to town hall to introduce myself to the Vice-mayor and the rest of the town council. It was strange having just memorized them and having them be suddenly super important but it made me realize that even the basic textbooks I had received from CLAIR had vocab which I had just skipped before that would be essential to my day to day life.
It’s been very interesting seeing how English is present throughout Japan and how it is still barely understood by its people. While studying I was taking notes in my own chicken-scratch cursive and I realized that no one, besides perhaps my CIR, would have any idea what I was working on whenever I wrote by hand. For all they know I could be writing a novel or mean things about them. English is so prevalent -on signs, advertisements, buildings, appliances, it’s required to use the internet (my teaching supervisor’s email ended with @edu.taki.mie.jp which is both gratuitously long and based in a language that most people emailing her would hardly understand. It must look like gibberish to them, especially since edu and jp are not transliterated or phonetically Japanese but are just shortened versions of English words) - and yet it is so little understood (even when legible) by most of the population. My previous comments about my manager make more sense in this context, but unfortunately Facebook is pretty big here so I can’t get away with that in the office.
Since it was only a half day, at noon my CIR took me to nearby Seiwa where his friend, an older gentleman from Yokohama, runs perhaps the most insanely gorgeous restaurant I’ve seen in Japan. It was a small place perched on the edge of a cliff looking down on a picturesque sparkling green-blue river ravine with pelicans and cranes flying by. The restaurant featured new looking high-end wood tables with the little holes where knots used to be and a menu that included Japanese food, Bibimbop, and select American choices such as Jambalaya. I had a truly delicious order of beef curry that was large enough for two meals and was severely under-priced at 7 dollars. It seems like it’s only a few minutes from the school I will be teaching at in Seiwa and I plan on being a regular customer. Oddly enough, the place was entirely empty besides us, the owner, and his sweet wife, and he sat and chatted with us while she prepared the food. Which is to say he and my CIR talked in rapid Japanese and I understood as much as I could. He was an extremely nice person and very welcoming, inviting us to visit his house (which he apparently built by hand from a Swedish set) for dinner in the near future. I still can’t believe how inexplicably kind and happy everyone seems here but I’m such a huge fan of it. On the way back, the CIR played his iPod on the car stereo and I had another surreal moment (I know I’ve already had like ten billion and it’s not very interesting any more but get over it. Reality is surreal) when I realized there I was, tearing down a country road in the middle of an isolated Japanese mountain range, passing ancient shrines and people picking rice in massive fields, and I’m just sitting there singing my heart out to “Sweet Home Alabama”. It was somehow perfect and I hope that perhaps when I do eventually have a hard day I can think back on it and remember the strange moments when my own bizarre position here as a foreigner forms the most fantastic and irreplaceable moments of absurd beauty and joy.
After getting back to Taki, my CIR showed me the local dump and explained the convoluted process of how to sort my garbage (which I still only sort of understand) before we drove out to Matsusaka city to shop at a wholesale grocery store where I finally was able to purchase perishables to put in my new refrigerator, thank god. After heading home to unload groceries, we drove to the other ALT’s home to invite her to dinner at his house the following evening and while at her door step I saw tiny frogs merrily bouncing along her porch and a large grasshopper on her stairs. I know that sounds not that interesting but after having lived in Tokyo for a semester it is so amazing to see a part of Japan more hospitable to wild life. Taki is the kind of rural that houses large numbers of field mice, wild boars, deer, and even Macaque monkeys although apparently they rarely come down from the mountain tops. Out here I’m incontrovertibly in the country side and the smell in the morning reminds me of Wisconsin and I love it. After a quick chat to set plans for the next day, he dropped me off at the office so that I could finally check Facebook and email without getting in trouble. After an hour or so there I located my bike, which we had left there earlier and had the most pleasant 2 minute bike ride of my life, the humidity not so tesrrible with wind pushing by, before setting out to cook my first meal in my finally well-furnished home.
First Day at the Office (Probably even more boring than the last but less long)
I woke up this morning at 6AM, only an hour before my alarm. I’ve decided to call that progress. I used the time to further unpack the mountain of home appliances left to me by my predecessor since the apartment had finally reached a nearly livable temperature sometime in the night. However, I was soon startled from my task as the sounds of Big Ben’s bells (apparently Taki’s version of the call to prayer) chimed off in the distance. Set for 7AM, 11AM, and 5PM, these bells have what my CIR described as a “Stepford Wives feel”, as though the entire town was automated and synced to their booming call. During my unpacking I found a great deal of useful items and more chinaware than I could have ever imagined would fit into this apartment, but even more interesting is what I didn’t find: mainly toilet paper and hot water. Having only had cold showers by choice, it was a shock to have my illusion of free will so unequivocally shattered when I tried for a lukewarm shower this morning.
My CIR, who has been forced to be my chauffeur thus far, has a knack for showing up just before I’m fully ready to go and this morning was no exception as he showed up to whisk me off to work halfway through my breakfast. Even walking to the car was brutal in the heat but the ride in his air-conditioned box low-rider was divine in comparison, interrupted only for a can of coffee at a convenience store on the way so as not to be too early. Once there, I finally got a tour of the community center which will be my home base for the next year or more. A large, poorly lit monster of a building just across from the bustling town hall, the cultural center mostly stuck to the utilitarian 1950’s motif of the majority of buildings constructed in “modern” Japan. The education department is situated in the front of the building to the left of the entrance with a customer service type window for people to come and drop off forms or ask questions. The room is fairly typical looking for Japanese companies and organizations, with everyone in one large room but separated around a number of islands. Each cluster is made of 3 tables organized with 4 people looking across at a partner and the “boss” facing everyone with twice the desk space. I was at the island closest to the head of our department, who I have heard is somewhat cantankerous, with my back facing him, meaning I could feel his stare on the back of my neck. Whether it was real or merely imagined I will never know as I have been too afraid to check so far.
After a quick look around the rest of the building and a stop at the supply closet, we sat down for less than a minute when even more bells (set for employees and students to 8:15, noon, and 5:15) and a following standardized announcement signaled that it was time for one of the most bizarre experiences I have yet to encounter in Japan: the morning Radio Calisthenics. At the chimes, the entire office stood up, quietly walked out of the mildly temperature controlled office in the front of the building, out the door into the sweltering heat where to the sound of what can only be described as a “waltz punctuated by rhythmic grunt/ commands” they did the most ineffective and indecipherable daily warm-up I have ever witnessed. Even better, thanks to our proximity I was able to watch the entire city hall staff doing precisely the same just across the street. It was as though the entire town had just stepped outside, not for a smoke or fresh air, but rather to sway and swing their arms in an archaic and repetitive dance that had a sort of odd religious feeling to it. One particular move called for the participants to lean back as though doing the limbo while swinging their arms up, producing for a brief second a stance which invoked the image of King Lear screaming to the heavens, and seeing the mayor gesticulating intensely towards the quiet, empty morning sky walked the thin line between hilarious and utterly insane.
After returning to our desks, we sat while each cluster’s head took turns making morning announcements and finally it was time get down to business. Figuring out what that business might actually be turned out to be the real challenge. I don’t really seem to have a boss here; I have an advisor at both of the schools I will be teaching at; a supervisor who is apparently on the same level of the organization as me but is basically the poor sucker in charge of making sure I have everything I need for my house and that I fill out all the forms required for me to do things like get paid or open a bank account. He’s known around the office for his refusal to eat anything resembling vegetable but he is a very nice and accommodating person. However, like most of the office workers, has very little understanding of English. While I really do my best to find creative ways of figuring out what he needs from me, it’s unsurprisingly difficult for him to explain the details of my contract or the process for turning my gas on in the kind of vocabulary I’ve learned in Japanese classes to this point. Luckily my CIR is more or less a Japanese genius and whenever I get the glazed look of complete and total stupidity in our interactions he is called over to ask the Gaijin if he understands that his insurance is taken from his salary through direct deposit or some other important but difficult to understand facet of my job. Most of my interactions with my supervisor consist of him talking at me slowly with pleading eyes and me nodding knowingly while understanding literally none of the words the words that are coming out of his mouth, wondering if I accidentally studied Korean all this time by mistake. Besides my supervisor, I do have a “manager” who sits at the head of my island, but besides picking me up the day before, it seems like my interactions with him are pretty much limited to small talk and asking for paid vacation days. Besides, he speaks even less English then my supervisor so I could literally be doing anything on my office computer and he and the rest of the office would have no clue whatsoever if it was actually work related, making me pretty much impossible to manage. Good thing I’m feeling pretty self-motivated still… All of this is my horribly long way of saying that I had come to realize that no one was going to tell me what to do for the next six weeks and with an immediate 8 hours of work to go, I was just sitting there thinking “what the hell do I do now?”
Finally, after a few minutes of aimlessly shuffling my mountain of paperwork, I looked through the desk and found the materials for the “self-introduction bingo game” that my predecessor had arranged for my first lessons. Without much else to do I began to flip through them. They all read nearly exactly like this:
I’m so and so
I like baseball
I have a sister
Truly profound stuff. I kept looking though them though, noting a few spelling errors and some more interesting facts about a few of the students when I came across one that, from the first two lines, seemed more or less par for the course but ended with the line “I am not alone”. Now I’m sitting in a Japanese office surrounded by people who are busy at work answering phones in hushed towns and frowning at important looking documents while I’m imagining this poor 7th grade student in the midst of some terrible alien abduction. And I’m trying to hide my sudden outburst of giggles, not because it’s entirely inappropriate and really not that funny, but rather because I could already see the uncomprehending expression of my colleagues (if I am so bold as to call them that) as I try to explain the cultural significance of that phrase in my broken Japanese and their inevitably disappointed faces as they realize this new weird sweaty American is a complete fucking idiot. I’m not sure if the kid who wrote the card is an only child or if he’s lonely or what but he’s already managed to get on my good side and I’m excited to find out.
A few minutes after my secret fit, my CIR (see: “lifeline to the world”) came over and asked me to help set up for a night English class he holds every two weeks for elementary school students. This class is held in what I first thought was ominously called “The Hole”, but despite its spelling and pronunciations is meant to correspond to the English word “the hall” or what most Americans would know as an auditorium. We went back to the supply closet in the hallway (not to be confused with The Hole) and made our way to the large room where I had my second amazing cultural experience of the day when I saw one of our Japanese coworkers press a button which then caused the enormous bleachers (which took up at least 2/3s of the room) fold down two rows at a time and then recede back and under the rows above them like a massive metal wave washing up on shore but in reverse. It was both a gratuitous use of engineering and a painfully slow process but it was also just weirdly amazing.
Just as we were wrapping up our set up, my advisor (the poor bastard) came to fetch us so that we could drive the 6 blocks to my house to turn the gas on. My apartment was the kind of hot that drives people to discover a passion for ice fishing, and I stood there in a pool of my own sweat while the maintenance man performed some convoluted tasks to check for leaks. Even worse, I hadn’t yet discovered my garbage bags so the remains of my breakfast sat slowly cooking in the center of my kitchen when we first arrived. Luckily, after enduring the apartment’s unbearable climate we moved on to the electronics store which seems to sell exclusively Sharp appliances made at the nearby factory. There we picked out a few minor items which I might use from time to time, like a refrigerator and a gas stove, as well as a TV and a vacuum. Having still not managed to get the signature-stamp or “Inkan” required to sign certain contracts I still hadn’t opened a bank account or gotten a phone, but this at least was a step in the right direction.
Returning to the office I spent the next hour filling out forms and looking at the materials my predecessor had left behind, when I and my CIR were invited out to lunch by two of the more friendly office workers who we had sat with at the izakaya the previous night. Unfortunately I was desperately dehydrated and the conversation quickly turned from things I am yet capable of comprehending in Japanese, so I sat in the corner of the booth guzzling Japanese iced tea like Robinson Crusoe, worrying that they would take my non-participation as disinterest or impoliteness. Instead, I turned my attention to the TV screen behind them featuring a variety show, which at that time was showing that children’s cup-phones could also be made without any tension of you used a slinky. I did my best to be friendly but I’m sad to say that the Jetlag, dehydration, and a temporary fog of annoyance at my own lack of fluency made it somewhat trying despite the deeply sincere kindness of my coworkers.
After driving back to the office I discovered that my desk (an ugly sheet metal relic of post-war Japan that had likely been there for 50 years and would remain there for at least 50 more), like all the others, included a company laptop which was probably the best model available 4 years ago but had been so badly worn down by the BOE network restrictions that it moved at a timid crawl, not to mention the internet. I had my CIR log on to my laptop with his password since I haven’t yet received one and I checked my email before updating my online schedule. The laptop runs a version of Internet Explorer which is so old that each time I opened it I got a small warning at the top saying that my version would not be supported in the near future and that I should upgrade to a “modern browser”. That’s how old we’re talking. Often, webpages would simply stop working when left idle too long or if I tried to drag and drop something, forcing me to refresh over and over and over whenever I wanted to do anything. During this time I did a quick check to see if the head of our department was at his desk and when I saw he was out I briefly snuck on to Facebook, not for personal reasons but to get information about my prefectural orientation from another ALT and ask about staying at their apartment. Also, I updated my job status, because why not, right? While a seemingly easy task, the speed of the internet combined with the strangely placed punctuation and the fact that every button on the keyboard seemed to be an inch too far too the left made it particularly challenging. Even worse, no matter what I was typing, any time I accidentally pressed a key that wasn’t a letter or number (which happened a whole lot thanks to the aforementioned positioning of the buttons) it switched the language I was typing in to Japanese, meaning I would phonetically spell out my message in whatever kanji and hiragana the computer generated until I noticed and started over again
When that was finally done I was back to not knowing what to do for the next 5 hours so I just started reading the immense amount of orientation material they had saddled us with. While in the midst of the extremely important task of reading the section of my handbook which deals with mind blowing revelations such as “it’s important to form a good relationship with your Japanese English instructors” I was interrupted to be interviewed. Again. I think more than anything, this really indicates how sleepy a town Taki really is. One interview with the new useless white kid wasn’t enough. There were follow up questions to ask and details to clarify. The people want to know. Once more, I was sitting there wondering why anyone would print an article which included detailed information about my hobbies and things like where in Japan I want to go, as I did my best to make it seem like my Japanese aptitude was in fact slightly above that of a preschooler. After a few more pictures and some final remarks I was left to my “work” once more.
Skimming the rest of the ALT manual disinterestedly before throwing it aside, I figured that maybe I could start working on the various self-introductions for my eventual classes, but should probably look at the textbooks the students are working from to get a sense of how much vocabulary and grammar I should use. Flipping through the textbooks, I had a strange inverse sense of déjà vu that comes from being on the other side of these materials. No longer a Japanese language student but an English language instructor. This déjà vu was multiplied tenfold when I discovered that not only every Japanese language textbook I’d ever read, but also the Japanese English language textbook featured the most depressing non-fictional account of the slow and miserable deaths of Ueno Zoo’s three elephants during WWII. Just as my own textbooks did in the US, these Junior high English books told in great detail how the government ordered the zoo to murder all potentially dangerous animals in case a bomb set them loose in the city. They couldn’t get up the nerve to just shoot them so they tried poison them but the elephants were too smart so instead they just let them starve to death inch by inch, their eventual passing coming just days before the Japanese surrender. This book in particular even added the fun fact that later they cut the elephant corpses open and found that their stomachs were so empty that not even a drop of water remained inside. What the actual fuck, guys? This is for middle school students! I don’t know what it is with Japan and this story but whatever it is, it needs to be over. And fast.
An hour or so later after discovering that the material in the textbooks was more or less the same as the ones I had worked with in previous years, I got a fax from my schools telling me which days not to come and I started to put together a draft of a schedule for the rest of the calendar year. Finally, I had a task that seemed like it might actually be relevant to my job, and it lasted all of 15 minutes. Luckily the end of the work day was approaching and I spent the last half hour of my time brainstorming tasks I could accomplish the next day, which as a Friday was thankfully only a half-day. When finally the bell rang at 5PM for the whole town and then again 15 minutes later in the office to signal the end of the work day, my CIR and I drove to the supermarket to buy some premade dinners to eat at the adjoining café. After a long pleasant dinner, we drove back to the community center to find that most of our coworkers were still chugging along at their desks. Their work ethic is beyond me, but then again they actually probably have something important to do.
Together we finished prepping for the evening class (cleverly named “Hello 英Go!”, read as Hello Ei-Go, meaning Hello English) just as the first few adult Japanese volunteers began to filter in, soon followed by parents and their children. The kids were unbearably adorable and unlike some of the schools classes I’ve been warned about, my CIR kept a tight ship. Even better the kids were both eager and well behaved. That hour and a half was probably the best I’ve had since I’ve arrived in Japan, a fact I find somewhat heartening. After the kids had left, we packed everything up and returned to the office around 9PM where I was treated to a vending machine coffee can by one of the more friendly of the older staff and we sat around making small talk until it was communally decided that it was time for everyone to go home. Considering the rest of the workers had been there for the last 13 hours straight, I would say that wasn’t unreasonable.
We stopped at another market on the way home for some cold drinks and I realized I probably would have been a dry husk on the inside were it not for C.C. Lemon, a carbonated lemonade drink that has a nice balance of slight sweetness and sour bite that is refreshing but not overwhelming. After that, I sat down to relax in front of my fan and an episode of the West Wing which featured the actors who currently portray Peggy Olson of Mad Men, Ron Swanson of Parks and Rec (which I may have to start actually watching considering its apparent relevance to my current occupation), and Ted from Scrubs all in one short but inspiring 42 minute block. After that I sat up to write this 3500 word tome and now that I will be waking up 7 hours it’s time to call it a night. A long first real day at work but despite my lack of direction, still a useful and rewarding one.
Getting to Taki (be prepared for these written posts to be long and not very interesting)
I never really woke up this morning. Which is not my way of saying that I stayed drowsy all day but rather that I didn’t actually truly fall asleep last night. Which makes the fact that I’m writing this at 11PM when I full well know I need to be awake at 7AM more than a little masochistic. Checking out of the hotel went relatively smoothly despite the preceding sleepless night, and despite that fact that I’d lost my ipod at some point in the last 4 days I was in high spirits. I was finally heading to Taki. This is what I came here for after all.
Walking to Shinjuku station was miserable but I chatted with my fellow Mie JETs along the way and we made it to Tokyo station, bought lunch, and boarded the shinkansen without mishap. On the ride there I sat between two guys from the UK and guzzled the various drinks I’d bought to avoid having heatstroke before 10AM.
Getting off the bullet train at Nagoya was like stepping out of a dream and into water just over my head. I was no longer in familiar Tokyo where everything was readily available, other foreigners included. Boarding the express Kintetsu train heading south my ribs were humming to the thrum of my hammering heartbeat. The dehydration, combined with jetlag and my growing excitement/anxiety, put my entire system into overdrive and I my shoulder was throbbing from where I’d hurt it a year and a half ago. The girl sitting next me from North Carolina and one of the guys from the UK were the first to get off and suddenly even the last few connections I had to Tokyo Orientation were beginning to slip away. At the next stop two more people disembarked. At the third three. And at the fourth everyone but me collected their stuff and headed down the aisle and out the doors. All lined up on the platform, they waited for the train to start moving to give what felt to me like the waves of parents sending their children off to war. I mostly felt sheepish at the attention but when the car slid past the end of the station I was suddenly extremely aware of two things: First, this was the first time I had been the only white person for miles and miles in my life and secondly, I was freaking the fuck out. I sat in my seat doing breathing exercises and trembling to the beat of my blood pressure, watching orthodontist signs featuring Waldo without his signature hat or turtleneck and something called “U.S. Land”
When I say that Taki is in the countryside, I mean that Taki is the kind of place where the roads are lined with irrigation ditches instead of shoulders and where people burn their trash in their fields instead of putting it outside their house to be picked up. I was not quite ready for this. When the train finally pulled to a stop at Matsusaka Station, I was met by the CIR who I would be working in the office with and my supervisor. My supervisor seemed like a nice guy but he didn’t talk much and I only really understood a third of what he aid anyway so it’s hard to be sure. Arriving in my suit, it was apparent to everyone, myself included, that I was severely over-dressed. Apparently, in the hotter areas of Japan, summer work fashion is all about “Cool Biz”, which amounts to a polo and khakis at its most formal. After getting to our car (borrowed from the town office) I was informed I’d be getting lunch with the two new acquaintances. Afraid to offend, I had a second lunch within a two hour period, which was actually very tasty despite being entirely gratuitous.
From there we went to go get me an “inkan”, a Japanese personal stamp that serves in the stead of signing documents here. Unfortunately, the place we had planned to go had gone out of business and since it would be a while before I would be in a city large enough to make them it would be a long while before I would be able to do things. Important things. Like open a bank account. Or buy a phone. Fuck.
After turning around, we drove to the Taki Cultural Center where I was shown into my future office and was forced to introduce myself to 20 people in a row. I never stood a chance of remembering any of their names and I just accepted the fact that I was going to make an ass of myself with them later one. From there we walked across the street to the townhall where I filled out residence paperwork with my CIR’s great help and was then brought to the back to meet the mayor and the school district superintendent. They both turned out to be extremely nice, easy going people and managed to dumb down their Japanese to my level better than anyone else I’d spoken to thus far. After about 20 minutes of chatting a reporter showed up and asked some questions. Luckily, when I didn’t feel I could express my answers eloquently enough in Japanese, the CIR thankfully stepped in and used his considerable Japanese abilities and translated for me. The reporter snapped a few photos of me and the mayor talking on our couch and of me smiling at the camera and then we were done.
Finally, from there I was taken to my apartment which smelled like a farm I had stayed at in Wisconsin due to the floor of the tatami room and the rice fields out front, but it was enormous. I had a few hours there to myself to melt in the heat and begin unpacking the stuff left behind by my predecessor but before I got really into the task I was swept away again to have a dinner with the younger employees at the Board of Education. Now when I say “younger” I mean they’re all under 40, but in fact the youngest of them was 29, making me feel like such a baby. Despite the age difference, dinner was fantastic. They were all so nice and welcoming and I was just happy that I had finally started to retain a few of their names. Afterwards, I drove with the CIR to a local onsen located in his gym and after a quick soak we stopped at a nearby grocery to pick me up my first batch of groceries (all non-perishable since I still didn’t have a fridge….) before he dropped me off with plans to pick me up the following morning. It all happened in a rush but no panic attack yet, so that’s probably a good sign.
So as I sit here watching the Travel Channel it occurs to me that it’s been almost half a year since I went abroad and ever since I got back I haven’t been able to stop thinking about my experiences and about finding ways to make more. And all this time I’ve been trying to understand what it is about travelling that I found so satisfying and appealing when, after all, I’m the kind of guy who could happily go weeks without leaving my home so long as the refrigerator is stalked and the wifi doesn’t give me any trouble.
Then, recently it occurred to me that travelling is in fact the most liberating experience of my life to date. It hit me because I’ve been thinking about jobs a lot as graduation looms ever closer and I have tried to approach this riddle in the most cliched and perhaps useless manor ever: by asking myself what I would do if I had all the money I’d ever need and was left to do only what tickled my fancy in order to fill my time. Ideally, this approach would lead me to something that could be both rewarding and profitable enough to survive (given that not only do I not have enough money to spend the rest of my leisure but that I don’t have enough money to spend even a few months unemployed once I’m cut off from the parental umbilical cord) and I could begin searching for job opportunities in said area. That might be the ideal outcome but it’s given me nothing but dreams of being the world’s first professional lazy asshole.
After I got home from Japan I started thinking that my positive experiences travelling mean I should find a job in tourism or something travel related. However, beyond that very specific area I’ve had trouble thinking of anything else I truly enjoy doing besides reading, surfing the web, and watching television. Then suddenly, while in the shower (where else?) I realized that travelling is in fact the perfect method for discovering what kind of things you find fulfilling beyond the modern, escapist entertainment of mass culture. Travelling takes you out of the trenches you’ve worn into the floor in your home, your school, and your job and places you somewhere entirely unfamiliar and in doing so it breaks the natural order that usually rules our lives. (And I highly emphasize the importance of escaping regularity, as I sit here having squandered 90% of my three weeks of winter break on my couch in Seattle. For me TV and the internet are traps that cannot be avoided whilst home. The flawed logic which guides my priorities that there is no reason to leave the house without a purpose when in fact I realize that leaving the house is a purpose within itself. Still, without a friend to visit or a place to go it is hard for me to motivate myself out the door.)
Furthermore, because travel takes places outside of “real life” the burdensome and yet comforting presence of “things you have to do” in your daily life are incapable of following you to this new and exciting place. You have essentially freed yourself from need and placed yourself in a situation in which what you do with your time is entirely dependent on what you desire. Do you want to go to fancy restaurants or would you prefer to eat where the locals go? Would you like to walk the city on your own or would you prefer to take a guided bus tour? Would you like to spend your day in a museum or would you like to relax on the beach and listen to the waves? Vacations are yours to design in a way which allows for far more variety and room for personal preference than the daily grind.
Now it is more than possible that any given person would love to do any and all of those things as we crave variety and doing the same thing over and over can detract from its novelty. But in general it seemed to me that there were certain patterns which can be discerned from my choices in activities while abroad; mainly while abroad I chose to write, be active (both through walking everywhere as well as finding specific things to do), and to meet new people either on the street or in the hostel I was residing in at a given time. Looking back I see how I condescendingly scoffed at people on tour buses and people who chose to stay in luxurious western resorts and people who spent their time abroad going to tourist traps and amusement parks. However it’s clear to me that my snobbery is at least partially (if not entirely) misguided as these people were simply doing what appealed to them and that there is nothing wrong with that. My point is that vacation is perhaps the only time in our high-pressure strictly-regimented lives in which we are faced with the challenge of finding something that is both appealing but still beyond the comfort of our couch.Yes I loved travelling and would enjoy finding a way to make a living doing it but more than just an answer to the question of what makes me happy, it is a light illuminating a great number of other possible answers.
Everyone hates that stupid bitch who gets back from her abroad smug and full if stories about how transformative her experience was. We all know she’s a vapid moron who would be far more palatable with a sock shoved down her throat but perhaps her pompous claims of self-discovery aren’t just a way of seeming interesting. Perhaps they reflect the kind of self-assessment that naturally arises from encountering a whole new set of opportunities, lacking only in the demands and comforts of daily living. Then again, maybe not.
In any case what I’m trying to get at is that it doesn’t really matter where you go - you could drive 15 minutes out of town or you could fly to another continent, you could stay in a Hilton or a motel 6 or a tent, it doesn’t matter - but when you escape from that couch, that narrow track which you trod each and every day you become free in a way which is all too rare for most people. And in turn this freedom provides a new level of insight into your own desires because it’s far easier to know what you would do if you didn’t have go earn a living when you don’t have to anything at all. Essentially, while a “stay-cation” may save you some money and a pre-planned trip can save you energy, they can never afford you the kind of opportunities for self-discovery and utter freedom; opportunities that arise only when you arduously pull yourself up and out of your hobbit hole to find that there is no path to happiness laid out before you but only the tools necessary to discover your own.
So yes, I want to travel and I’d be doubly happy if I could make a living at it. I’d do damn near anything to become Anthony Bourdain, getting payed to travel places just to eat good food and get drunk on camera. Hell, I’d be ecstatic writing for Lonely Planet too. But back in the realm of reality, neither of those options are likely to present themselves to me. In fact, it might just be that I can’t find any kind of job that allows me to travel right out of college and I’ll have to learn to be ok with that. But if I could get a job doing something that I love to do, something I chose to do when I was free to do just about anything, then “dayenu” that would be enough. If I could find work leading something active (that doesn’t involve large numbers of children) or doing something with writing or history or if I could just do something that involves meeting interesting people then I think I could go to work each day without dragging my feet, if not always with a smile.