To: newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: I get paid for this


Hi, all,

      Greetings from the other side of the planet. I can't call this the end of the world because Erik is right now at the end of the world, or at least the bottom of it, and so would have every right to contradict me. It certainly tickles my ego to know that my readership (you people are still reading this, aren't you?) extends from Japan all the way around the northern hemisphere to Europe and both coasts of North America and all the way south to the south of souths, the pole (at least for another week or two). Ego building is very important when your job consists largely of having teenagers laugh at you (I like to think it's friendly).
      I'll need to keep my ego intact tomorrow because I'm being given a huge opportunity to rupture it. Tomorrow is Manyo's school ski trip (Monday is Go-chu's), and yesterday we had our staff planning meeting. As we filed into the principal's office, Yamamoto-sensei asked me if I would be able to understand anything--I said "no." She laughed, but I wasn't lying. I did understand I was asked to do a demonstration, and of course I agreed (really one doesn't have the option to not agree), and afterwards I asked the one other English teacher who was present what exactly I had agreed to demonstrate--assuming, quite reasonably, that what was said was that I would teach my nine charges by demonstration since that would be the most effective communication. No. The 278 students on the trip, the 20-odd (and, yes, it's an old joke, but some are indeed quite odd) teachers, and forty or so members of the PTA will gather at the base of the hill to listen to the principal speak, after which a handful of PTA members and I will shoot down the hill demonstrating different techniques. As I have been designated instructor for one of the "high level" parallel turn groups, my first run of the day, shaking off the rust and the sleep, will be carving parallel turns for an audience of 350. Fortunately, between the time I was named to the parallel turn group (without telling me--the entire consultation consisted of the gym teacher asking me if I was a skilled skier, and me saying "not really") and tomorrow morning, I've actually learned to execute a reasonable if not graceful parallel turn. Still, it takes me a few runs to get going, so performing on the first run--and quite probably on camera--is a bit nerve-wracking.
      It should be a great day. Somehow or other Inoue-sensei (the gym teacher, great guy) decided to put me in charge of nine girls. Why the high level group, and why only girls, I don't know. He committed this to print before he ever saw me ski. Anyway, it should be fun. I always enjoy opportunities to get to know individual students better. I'm going to try to work out their names with me kanji dictionary tonight and remember them so that I will be able to learn their names more quickly tomorrow. Also, I expected this to be expensive, but not only is the school buying us all ski tickets, it's also giving each of us ¥1200 yen (about $11) for lunch. Not a bad deal at all, especially since this will be a work day and I'll still be on the clock. I'm hoping it will be the same Monday, but if I have to buy my own ticket I can't complain.
      Cultural note: many people hold that the Japanese are insincere because they are very quick to praise and don't always mean exactly what they say--you say "good night" at ten in the morning and someone will act surprised and tell you how skilled you are in the language, or you get a bite of food into your mouth without poking your eye out and someone will be shocked that you are so skilled with chopsticks (this might be genuine--there's a belief that white people just can't figure out chopsticks). Indeed, one of my Japanese friends explained it in so many words, saying Japanese praise you but don't really mean much by it, when I was in a bar and a gorgeous drunk woman started praising me up and down--you're sexy, you're cool, etc. The proper response to any sort of praise is not to thank the speaker but to contradict her--no, I'm not a good athlete, don't speak well, am kind of deformed looking, etc. Such flattery is really despised in the west, and because of it some westerners find it hard to trust Japanese. However, with both the flattery and the self-deprecation, something else is going on. What the speaker is communicating is perfectly honest, but what he is communicating isn't necessarily what he is saying. Think of the English question, "do I look fat in this dress?" A person who says this (and I'm not accusing any specific gender) really means, "I need a little reassurance here." A literal interpretation and response are not in order. The mandatory response, "you look gorgeous tonight, honey," doesn't have anything to do with the speaker's assessment of his partner's weight. It means simply, "I care about how you feel." Language is being used to communicate, but not at the level of literal meaning--instead, its role is social, communicating information about the relationships among people, and indeed establishing the terms of a relationship when they are not clear. In Japan, one's position in a web of relationships--in society--is often much more a part of one's self-image than in the west, so this social, nonliteral use of language is much more common and important than it is for us. Simply put, much of the time it's not what you say but the act of saying it that has real meaning. It's a level of subtlety that English lacks--I can imagine this being why, if I'm still here in ten years, I will speak perfectly and still feel like I'm missing a lot of what's going on around me. It's amazing how not just a language but the idea of language itself can be so different.
      Of course, this is a part of the language, but for the most part Japanese works just the way English does--you string the words together and that's what it means. Other than all the formulaic speech, the different levels of polite grammar, and this manic-seeming praise of others and deprecation of the self, it is possible to have a conversation without every sentence requiring interpretation and cultural analysis--a lot of the business of any speech is going to be things like, "where's the toilet" (the most important words in any language), "two beers," "open your books to page 71," and "we're leaving tomorrow at 8." I don't mean to make it sound harder than it is--it's only when you start to ask "why" that you begin to see if not penetrate the complexity.
      Sorry for the digression--I'm sure the idea's not original, but it's part of what makes getting to know the people here so interesting. On a lighter note, I got a bit of teasing today about my "love notes"--one of the other teachers noticed Moe very furtively--indeed, noticeably furtively--slipping me a note and found it very cute, though I was sure to let the teacher know, so as not to embarrass Moe if the teachers keep talking about this, that it's not a love note by any means, just very friendly and curious and good practice. It is very cute, though, and these notes always warm my heart. Now, she writes about every two weeks or so, and she includes little photo booth stickers of her and her friends or her and her family. One of my other letter writers has tapered off a bit, but she just lights up so much whenever she talks to me that it really makes me smile, and one of the third year students (most of the third years are in exam hell for the foreseeable future) gave me her first note in months last week, telling me she wants to write and talk more when all of the high school entrance exam stuff is over. Speaking of which, all three of the girls I was coaching for the entrance interview to the prestigious English program at a local high school were accepted--that also made me happy for a whole day. One of them (Rie) gave me a thank-you card with the promise, "I will revenji"--"revenji" is the Japanese word for "revenge," and I've promised they can sit me down and make me answer tough questions in Japanese as revenge for what I put them through.
      That's all from the Land of the Rising Sun (it's interesting that such an inward-looking society should take as its name and symbol a description of Japan from a foreign perspective--Japan is where the sun appears to rise from if you happen to be in China). I'd joke that it's also the Land of the Falling Yen, but I get paid in that currency and it's just too heartbreaking. Maybe with new hands at the tiller the prosperity of the last eight years in America will fade and the economy will weaken--which is good for me, as my debts are all in dollars. You all might feel differently about that, of course.

Peter

home

Home

For information on copyright and your license to use images on these pages, please click here.