Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Answers from a trivia quiz

How old is Kevin?
twenty three
24 28 I am Jack Bowou
34 (!)

What is tako? (octopus)
octopas hould

Who wrote Romeo and Juliet?
AK-69 a.k.aka
sye-ku supia

What fruit is in umeboshii? (plum)

Best Team Names

fack porice
I don't know

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Next, tell me about fireworks.

A teacher showed me how to use chopsticks today. I don't know if this is more or less surprising than when a teacher asked if I knew about the animals of the Zodiac.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Once In A Lifetime

Well, the results are in. I didn't win the annual JET essay contest. I didn't even place. With that ringing endorsement, here is my essay unrevised and in full. If some of it sounds familiar, it expands upon an earlier post about playing soccer against our rival school's teachers. Warning: It gets cheesy. I was going for the nacho takedown. Dozo.


At my first enkai, I bit into a fried oyster expecting a sweet persimmon. This, undoubtedly, is what happens when you begin to feel slightly comfortable with a foreign language in a foreign land. The teachers told me it was kaki, and it surely was. It just happened to be the other kind.
I suppose this could have been some form of linguistic payback. A few weeks prior, I had put my students through the rigorous turns of distinguishing their L's and R's, their TH's and S's, their V's and B's. I laughed at their confusion between a bowl of rice and a bowl of lice. No, you cannot make a light at the next right. Please call me Kevin, not Kebin.
As I chewed down my surprise oyster and the teachers looked on, I was reminded of lyrics from one of my favorite songs.
“And you may find yourself in another part of the world,” David Byrne sings in “Once In A Lifetime.” “And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’”
What ended up defining my time in Japan thus far began as a simple misunderstanding. The school soccer coach approached my desk and rattled off a series of dates in Japanese.
“Sakka,” he then said.
I had attended practice before, and I assumed, for whatever reason, that he wanted me to show up on these specific days. I obliged, he smiled, and we carried on as usual.
A few weeks passed, and the first of these dates arrived. In the middle of the day, the soccer coach asked if I would be at practice. I confirmed, he smiled, and I thought nothing more of it. After sixth period, I walked back to the teachers’ room alongside a JTE.
“I hear you will play soccer with the teachers,” she said.
“What?” I asked.
“On Wednesday you will play in the teachers game against Nirasaki High School, right?”
“Oh. Yes. Yes, I will.”
Whether it was lost in translation or just never said (likely the former and likely my fault), that afternoon and the next would be spent practicing for our annual rivalry match. And if you know a little about the history of soccer in Nirasaki, you may have heard of a certain alum named Hidetoshi Nakata, arguably the best soccer player to ever come out of Japan. When you exit the train station in Nirasaki, you’ll notice a floral, common area adorned with soccer ball statuettes. Every year, Nirasaki High and Nirasaki Technical produce strong teams living up to the storied tradition within Yamanashi Prefecture. Needless to say, soccer is a big deal around here. And even though this was merely a friendly match between teachers, I could sense the unstated importance. I was unprepared.
But the best way to prepare is to do just that. On Monday and Tuesday we would hone our skills by losing to our students; our students with their precise passing, one-touch volleys, their unending stamina. We would improve by looking foolish in front of our kids, who took pleasure in becoming our teachers. Any team comprised of high school faculty would be a cakewalk after these two days of training.
Then Wednesday came. I arrived just as the game started due to working at another high school that day. I ran from my car to the sidelines and began to lace my boots. I wouldn’t play until the second half, but a teacher immediately removed his jersey and handed it to me. He literally gave me the shirt off his back. The chanting had already started, and it reminded me of the Ventforet J-League game I had recently seen in Kofu. It reminded me of my own high school days playing under the stadium lights in Norcross, Georgia.
Then it happened. They scored. I felt something that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I felt something that I thought was lost. It’s the sublime pain that only exists when you are caught off-guard by your own concern. This moment really mattered. So I yelled. I motivated my teammates. I was certain that with enough “ganbatte”s I could simply will a goal into the back of Nirasaki High’s net.
It took more, in fact, than plain will to even the score. It took a great pass from the assistant soccer coach, which I gladly accepted before scoring the equalizer a few minutes into the second half. 1-1. I was lifted into the air and carried up-field. Chants came from the sidelines. Shouts of “Nice shoot!” encircled me. I was tempted to correct the English, but I didn’t. It just wouldn’t be right.
Both teams would get a few more chances to score, but the game remained tied 1-1 at the end of regulation. We gathered in a large circle to decide who would take penalty kicks. Or that’s what I thought was happening. No, the winner of this game would be determined by janken. Each school selected five female teachers. The women lined up face to face and bowed. The first to claim three wins would keep the trophy until next year’s game. We lost in three straight bouts.
I felt terrible. It was just a fun game between teachers, but it seemed like much more. I was reminded of my own high school rivalries, how an otherwise great season could feel ever-so diminished if you didn’t beat that one rival each year. But then I realized something, and it had to do with that sublime pain. I cared because I actually belonged. I was responsible. I don’t know exactly when or how it happened, but I was now a part of Nirasaki Technical. And we lost.
As I unlaced my cleats on the bench, teachers and students crowded around to give their congratulations. “Nice shoot!” I heard. “Otsukaresama deshita!” they said. Students lingered around and tried their best English. I wanted to extend that moment for as long as possible, but the carpools were leaving for the enkai. We’d continue another time.
So I ask myself, “Well, how did I get here?” How did I get to this tatami mat in a private room on the second floor of a quaint izakaya off a narrow street in Nirasaki? How did I come to be treated so well by people I met only a few months ago? I’m eating exquisite sushi and houtou, and I never see the bottom of my glass. Kocho-sensei tells me we would have won the game if I had played in the first half. He refills my drink. Kyoto-sensei thanks for me for effort. He refills my drink. Teachers ask if I’m married and if I will stay for another two years. I have never heard so much English from fellow teachers. I have never spoken this much Japanese in my life.
As the night progresses, I learn more and more about the interesting people I see every day. One teacher’s true passion is rugby, but there’s no rugby team at our school. He hopes to start one. Another teacher is a high-ranking kickboxer. He does some quick shadow boxing for proof. An office worker my age is already married and has a two-year-old daughter. The funniest moment arrives when a few teachers ask me to hand my glasses to the assistant soccer coach. It’s apparently been a long-running joke between all the teachers that we look exactly alike. These minor details mattered to me. So I ask myself, “How did I get here?”
As it turns out, I actually like the taste of oysters. Fried oysters are even better. Biting into one expecting a persimmon hopefully won’t become a hobby of mine, but it’s telling of my time in Japan as a JET. It’s not always what I expect, it’s never what I’m thinking, but it’s a once in a lifetime event. Before those three days in November, I had lukewarm feelings about my experiences in Japan. I expected students to be fascinated by my cultural lessons, but they weren’t. I thought I would be a celebrity figure around school, but I wasn’t. All this would take time.
It would take time like talking to students after the loss to Nirasaki High. It would take time like seeing Sayaka, the girl who never says a word in class, act in a play. It would take time to figure out why Ayana, who seemingly despises English class, is still happy to see me at the konbini. It would take time for Yuji to understand why I like to call him “referee” instead of his actual name. It would take time to start a pick-up soccer game in Dragon Park with guys who turned out to be alumni from my school. It would take time to realize that the JET Programme was never supposed to be about me.
No, it’s about the space between people, the subtle commonalities and differences of culture. It’s about combining the Japanese you’ve learned with the English your students have learned to say what you really mean. It’s about the best loss you’ve ever suffered. It’s about biting into the saltiest fruit you’ve ever tasted and smiling until you swallow.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Like Jeff Goldbloom, only more annoying.

As I already knew from a handful of trips to Taiwan, the bugs out East are bad. Bad to their bone-like exoskeletons. On one of my first days in the office, a large praying mantis appeared from behind my computer. I left my desk, hoping that patience would send her non-secular, spousicidal claws home. Instead, her dead carcass rested atop my monitor stand the following day, withered yet still terrifying. The winter months seemed to keep the bugs at bay, but here we are now. It's June. Sure, there are region-specific critters such as mukade (I'll leave the Google imaging up to you), but the real scare for me comes from fellers I thought I knew. Like a common house fly.

The other night, I opened my backporch screen for five seconds to adjust some hanging laundry. In, umm, flew a fly. As I would come to realize over the course of the next hour, this was no ordinary fly. I grabbed the thick JET Program manual from my desk. The problem was that I could no longer see the fly. But I could definitely hear it. Loud. The Doppler shift was in full effect as it came toward me and away from me. Toward me and away from me. It was going in a circle. After a few more pathetic swipes in the air, I thought about that saying: "Like a moth to a flame." Japanese lightbulbs are shaped like rings. I opened my screen door and turned off the light. Phew. The buzzing was gone. I closed my screen door and flicked on my light. The fly was back, buzzing and flying in that crazy circle. I repeated the whole process. Door open, light off = fly gone. Door closed, light on = crazy circle. And again. And again. And then I saw it. Him. He that is larger than acceptable must be personified. More swipes in the air. I switched to the lighter, more flexible kerosene heater manual. Rolled it up.

I'm not gonna lie. Things got messy. I cursed. I threw the manual. This was the largest, fastest, smartest fly I had ever encountered. I tried to let him go. I sat in the dark. Defeated.

I like to think that I'm not an animal. I like the taste of meat, but I run from a fight. I can protect myself, but I'm not peeing to mark territory. So when I say I felt bloodlust after landing the deathblow, don't be alarmed. I am a reasonable man. He should have known when to fly away.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I can see clearly now. Sort of.

With two months left before I return to the States, it might be a good time to reflect on what I've learned in the realm of teaching. There are no hard/fast rules for success, but maybe that's a rule right there. Some of the best students can have days where they'll put their heads down and sleep to avoid answering "Do you want money?" while I hold open a briefcase full of unmarked, sequential yens in front of their faces. On other days, students who normally give me the death stare if I even glance in their direction will say something along the lines of, "Good day, Mr. Lo. Is that a Brooks Brothers button-down that you're sporting today? Aren't you quite the fanciful character?!" The point is that some things work, many things don't, and the best you can do is get better at making uneducated guesses. I think that made sense. Here's a list of things that have a high probability of inciting interest and/or laughter.

-Mimic student actions
If a kid in the back of the room is, for some reason, pumping his arms like a looney, ambidextrous train conductor, do the same thing. He will laugh and then suddenly become very self-conscious.

-Change the volume of your voice
If you normally talk like this, try talking like this! This worked wonders during a game of review Jeopardy whenever I would announce the discovery of a "Typhoon!" (the equivalent of a Daily Double). Throw in a Tiger Woods fist pump for added laughs.

-Certain English words are better than others
If you say "date," everyone will look around trying to figure out what you just said. "Did he say date? He went on a date!? He's asking me out? We must know!" There's a collective sigh if you are merely asking for today's date.

-Name names
Lucky for me, there is a general assumption that ALTs will not be able to learn names. I teach roughly 500 students between two schools, and they all changed when the new year started in April. Still, a handful somehow slip into this mass inside my skull. The other day, I called on Ms. Saito, and her neck nearly spun around owl/Exorcist style. "Who is Ms. Saito? Is that me? I'm raising my hand, but did he call on me? Is he asking me out on a date? I must know!"

Continuing with the theme of reflecting, having the end in sight has turned me into a sponge of introspection. Everything reminds me of something (like the current smell of summer taking me back to my first days in Japan) and nothing means nothing (I mailed an international letter AND got my tire pressure checked in the same day! I am Superman!). Here are some things that I won't forget:

In my first 3rd year elective class of the new year, a student started rattling off to my co-teacher after seeing me. She turned and translated: "He said he often sees you standing outside a convenience store in Kofu around midnight." She paused. "Bad boy." He then pointed at me and said "Bad boy."

We had an international day a few weeks back where about 18 JETs visited a small school with only 36 students to get them more interested in English. I told one of my classes about the day, and one student mentioned how scared he'd be with the ratio of foreigners to Japanese being 2:1. My co-teacher countered by asking if he thought foreigners were attractive. There was a minute of murmuring/sidebar-ing/Algonquin table-ing with other students before he answered. Some of the class thought so, but he was certain he'd still be scared.

I've mentioned having "rappers" in my class before, and I was sad to not be teaching a particular one after the school year ended. He saw me the other day in the hallway, and before even saying hello, he started moving his arms around and rapping "Business" by Eminem and then pointing at himself as if to say, "Remember me? I'm the guy who raps in class! You like when I rap." I said, "Oh! Eminem is at Norin HS?" He laughed it up. Then he went to class.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Thursday, May 8, 2008

All that glitters is golden week.

I went to Yokohama for Golden Week. Golden Week is three consecutive national holidays. I did not know three days equaled a week.

Yokohama, from what I've seen, is the most international city in Japan. When I say international, I mean that I can have fried chicken one night and then fajitas the next. Yokohama is very international, like the food court at the mall.

Near Yokohama is Kamakura, home to Japan's largest outdoor Buddha. We, along with what seemed like all of India and Japan, took the same train to get there. This hurt my personal space and lungs. The Buddha was large, but not as large as I expected. Seth took photos of people taking photos of it. We saw white people and wondered if they were or were not JETs.

We took the Sealine (train over water) to a man-made island. There was a dog petting zoo. On the second floor, there was a cat petting zoo. The aquarium had 100,000 types of fish, but we didn't see any types of fish. We didn't go into the aquarium.

We stayed at the Hostel Village. Hostel is a funny word to me because it sounds like hostile. Different things can be hostile, like two homeless men fighting over a computer motherboard with wires hanging out from it. Hostile is the suspicious abundance of one-armed men who look as if they would like to take your arm so that they have two and you have one. Hostile is a man pointing, gibbering, then yelling "Sayonara" at you.

Other funny things happened. Here they are:

1. Lauren accidentally put 100 USD on her Denny's card. She may or may not have sold this card to a Denny's waiter to fix the problem.
2. Seth went to Yokohama just to see "Iron Man." It's not out anywhere in Japan.
3. We ate at TGI Friday's. Twice.
4. We spent over 100 USD at TGI Friday's. Once.
5. We encountered tax and tip for the first time in Japan.
6. Seth had water in his gimlet.
7. Seth's staircase was blocked by a mattress.
8. We saw "New York Style" bagels on the train. We asked the woman where they came from. The woman NEXT to her (who she didn't know) walked us all the way to the bagel shop.
9. A U.S. Navy man spent a full ten minutes giving us directions. We didn't find what we were looking for. He should have walked us there.