I'm still here--I'm almost recovered from the beginning of the week. Once again, both my schools sent me along on ski outings. I love this job! These are officially called something like "ski learning outings," so they are really all-day lessons for the students. Parents and some teachers who've been trained to teach skiing (that training was another adventure) lead groups of five to ten students all day long. On Monday, I went with Go-chu, my smaller school (just the first and second years; in September the third years "retired" from extracurriculars and all fun activities to concentrate on studying for high school entrance tests); I wasn't assigned to a group, so mostly on my own I went from group to group, sticking with each for one to three runs (fun to switch back and forth between 3 mph snowplow and 30 mph carving turns). Go-chu isn't normally a party school, so I was a little surprised that there was an after-party for the teachers and the parents--I held back from drinking since I had to drive home but it still kept my tired body out of bed a little longer than I would have liked, especially since I'd had to come to school at 6:30 that morning and had not been able to sleep on the bus; I'd ended up on the small bus with all the first year girls, and there is no country in the world (now that the Taliban are gone) where a group of thirteen year old girls can be remotely tolerable to an adult who wants to sleep. The next morning, bright and early at Manyo, I found I'd been assigned to work with the same ski instructor as last year (not a parent, but a genuine professional ski instructor, a friend of the head gym teacher, who seems to be friends with every remotely athletic person in the prefecture). Last year, she really turned my skiing around, and this year, she helped me even more. Our group this year wasn't the top-level group, but it was high enough that the lesson she gave them was useful to me--usually, she'd watch the group ski down, yelling at everyone to drop their butts down, bend the knees, etc., then after a long pause I'd go down about six times as fast as the students but in essentially the same style, with her following me telling me to drop my butt down and lean forward more. I didn't understand some of what she said, of course, so at first I was a little frustrated--and frustrating, I'd guess, but at one point just after lunch I suddenly "got it," and from there on I became a less frustrating student. I didn't pretend to have anything to teach the kids--I just stayed behind them to pick up the occasional pieces and stayed out of her way. I really had a wonderful time talking to (and playing with) the girls in the group (I don't know why they gave me all girls for the second year in a row). One of them was Kazu, one of the two first years who delighted in telling me I had a big ass a few weeks ago (little charmers they are), and then made it worse by telling me every time I saw her after that that "Peter is very, very, very cute!" The other girls were also great; whereas some of the Go-chu students can be a little uncertain around me--one or two even avoided going on the chairlift with me--the Manyo kids kept asking me ahead of time to ride up with them, trying to reserve me before anyone else could. Good for the ego, that. Kazu and another girl, Tomoka, got so interested in asking me questions and trying to tell me things in English that I had to keep reminding them to listen when the teacher was talking. Most of the girls are pretty cute (and often "pretty cute" can simultaneously be the opposite of "pretty"), but I can't even begin to describe how sweet their smiles can be. Kazu and Tomoka, especially, are quite pretty and have smiles that could warm a small city (I'll have to find a picture of Tomoka to post--now, she doesn't look any older than what she is, a little girl, but I can't imagine her not growing into a heart-stopping beauty in another ten years). Another girl, Yuko, who I mentioned in a couple of letters last year as the girl with an inordinate fondness for hitting her friends on the head and in turn letting them hit her on the head (traditionally favorite activities of Japanese children), has matured a lot since then, but she's still a card, and she really likes to tease adults. At the beginning of the day, she was in the group lined up for the chair ahead of me, and the fifty-fivish men standing next to me were teasing her a little bit (I was thinking to myself that she must get a lot of that, because she's very small and fairly cute and looks a lot younger than her age ). Suddenly, she turned around and said to the guy next to me, "Crazy old man!" ("Henna ojiisan"). I was stunned--the guy hadn't said or done anything too inappropriate, and for a kid here to say something like that to an older person is incredibly disrespectful--the more so since "Henna Ojiisan" is the name of a popular comedy routine featuring a completely decrepit, senile, incontinent, perverted old gummer (the accompanying song and dance routine, which I've been taught by Japanese from the ages of 8 to about 40, ends with the old man Bobbittizing himself with scissors). I shouted at her in Japanese, "Yuko, that's rude!" Fortunately, the man himself seemed to find her remark cute, so I didn't make any more of a scene; on the lift up with him, I found out he was one of our volunteer ski instructors and the father of one of her friends, so all was well.
Anyways, after two full days of skiing and sun and the party the night before, I was ready to go home, but I'd promised long before to go the after-party, which was a much more formal affair than the one for Go-chu, since the group is so much larger. I'd arranged for my boss to call a driver to drive me and my car home afterwards so I could drink (this is a regular service here, and a damned good idea--costs about one and a half times as much as a regular cab, I've been told, but when I've done it it seemed the rates were actually about the same or even less). I was exhausted, so I didn't actually drink that much (though I ate like a horse), and I also failed utterly in my duty to schmooze with the parents and PTA, approaching no one and talking only with people who actively summoned me over or came over themselves to pour for me, and with the other teachers sitting around me. However, near the end, the president of the PTA waved me over, so I smiled and approached, and, in English, invited to come to his house "after obon" with the vice-principal and gym teacher. Obon is a holiday in the summer, so I thought it was strange, but drunken invitations are common and meant to be forgotten, so of course I said, "yes." I even thought I'd enjoy it if it came about, six months hence, though my only concern that night was to get home as soon as possible. Unfortunately, "oban" seems to have been a way of referring to the banzai, the cheer at the end of the party. Soon people were making plans for me to get to the next place and then home afterward (with me still lobbying for calling a driver, since I'd need to get my car home in order to get to work the next day). I was assured that it would all work out somehow. I was herded into an SUV that pulled up--I think Mr. Fukushima, the PTA head, had called his son-in-law out to chauffeur us--and dumped us not at Mr. Fukushima's house but at a very small family-style bar and roasted-meat-on-a-stick (yaki niku) place just down the road from it. Very neighborhoody, and crammed to the gills. I was exhausted and starting to nurse a headache. Nevertheless, in the smaller and much more tightly pressed gathering I couldn't be antisocial, and in fact soon I was having a great time. I managed to have a very long conversation with one man, despite understanding at best about two-thirds (with occasional dips to 2--3%) of what he said. Everyone was very friendly; since I'd met most of them before, too, there was more actual conversation (as opposed to just a barrage of questions about America). At one point, one guy's high school age daughter came in (the place seemed to be his and thus likely part of his house, so the bar may well have been, in effect, her living room), and as the conversation had briefly turned to the most popular question for foreign men, the inescapable "Do you like Japanese women?," one of them asked me what I thought of her. Really creepy! I just said I thought she was a high school student, and that the vice principal (across the table) had forbidden me from dating high school students. I guess if you're going to get someone truly inured to constant low-grade sexual harassment, you really have to start in the home. I told them I was looking for someone over 24 and preferably over 28 or 30, because most women younger than that act too much like my junior high school students (this is also true of the men, including some teachers I've met--what's cute in a 13 year old isn't in an adult).
Around midnight (astoundingly late for one of these parties--usually people are being squeegied off the streets and into their wives' cars or cabs by 8 pm), I left with the vice principal, and his wife drove me home. I staggered in, promptly set an alarm for 7:15 and an emergency one in the bathroom for 7:40 so I could be out the door by 8, and forgot my usual practice of drinking a quart of water or sports drink before going to bed. At exactly 7:14, awakened by nature's alarm clock (located just downstream from nature's kidneys) to a pounding headache, I suddenly remembered that the vice principal was going to pick me up at 7:20 so he could take me to get my car before school. A miracle. It would have been horribly embarrassing if he'd had to wake me up. After he dropped me at my car, he waited for me to follow him back to school; feeling that hydration would be wise, I flashed my lights and dropped out from behind him to stop at some vending machines just around the corner from school. After I got out of my car and waved him on, I realized I'd signalled my boss to let him know that I was stopping at a row of beer and whiskey vending machines at 8 in the morning. Just can't face those fresh young faces without a good couple o' belts in me. I made another stop ten or fiteen meters farther on, and when I walked into the office, I was careful to make an ostentatious display of my bottles of nice, nonalcoholic sports drink.
And it was all worthwhile, because in a third year class, when Ms. Yamada and I were guiding groups of students through a demanding writing assignment, I saw that Saki-chan, the girl who'd told me in a practice high school interview that she didn't like foreigners because Chinese in Takefu were eating people's pets, had indicated in her outline that a major problem in Japan was "Chinese" and her explanation, in progress as I watched, was that "Chinese people are eating Japanese...." "SAKI!" She's a sweet kid, not a virulent racist, so I was amused more than offended, but I made it clear that I was laughing because I thought it was a pretty dumb thing to say (teasingly, so as not to embarrass her, but still getting the point across--and she laughed and took it as gentle teasing, since we've become friends, but she did change her topic), and I told her that people often tell stories like that about groups of people they don't like, but that the stories usually aren't true. Unfortunately, when I asked Ms. Yamada about the stories later, she said that, in fact, there's some basis to them; there'd been a well publicized row in a neighboring ward when a Chinese group planning a barbecue asked a Japanese family for the remains of their road-killed pet. I apologized to Saki the next day, but I told her not to stereotype from a few incidents--that most of the Chinese in town are not menacing beloved Akitas and their owners. (I didn't add that since most of the Chinese in town are pretty much slaves--working 72 hour weeks in dangerous sub-legal apparel factories for $400 a month--some of them might need all the protein they can find.)
In another class, one group chose as its problem to write about our own Mr. Tanaka--they say he talks so much about his infant son that they can't get any studying done. However, he fared better than Mr. Omori, the teacher of the class we were in (and the class' homeroom teacher). A group of girls said that a big problem is that Mr. O "won't make a baby with his wife." The results of this disaster are "poor Mr. Omori's wife" and "she will get a divorce." The suggested solution: well, they had an idea in Japanese, and they were able to find the first word in their dictionary, but the second word just didn't seem to be in the junior high school dictionary (I can't imagine why they even thought it would have been worthwhile to look), so they asked me for my help. "How do you say..." (pause, pointing at the first word, which is "artificial"). Yes, I taught a bunch of junior high school girls to spell "insemination" in an essay about their regular English teacher's marital difficulties. And, as if to prove to me that I was still on Mars, the teacher thought it was fantastic. In the best mix of innocence and knowledge, another group had decided that the problem was that Doraemon, a robotic blue cat from the future, had an ordinary cat for a girlfriend, so they can't "make babies." They suggested that he dump her and find another robotic cat (though they didn't go into the mechanics of how this would solve the problem). I love these kids!
I still haven't caught up on sleep or rest since the start of the week. After work yesterday, I drove up to Fukui City to meet a couple of guys I'm working with to prepare a seminar for the next conference. I parked, but soon found I'd been thinking of the wrong place. I was in such a foul mood that when a man I started to ask for a simple direction (not to a specific place but to a well-known part of town) blew me off without even waiting to listen--just a dismissive wave, not even the minimal mandatory politeness, although I'd addressed him in polite and reasonably competent Japanese--I saw that he was heading in the direction I thought most likely and followed fifteen feet behind him for half a mile, matching his speed as he slowed and quickened his pace and got more and more nervous. If he wanted to scare himself with what he thought of me, I was in exactly the mood to help him. Finally, after following him through a dark tunnel under a major road, I saw a sign for the neighborhood I'd asked him about, read it out loud "to myself," and went off in that direction. In the neighborhood, though, I couldn't find the bar, even after asking five or six hookers, two cab drivers, and a store clerk (it occurred to me later that the cold reception I got after asking one person if there was a police box nearby where I could ask for directions was probably just because "do you know where I can find a cop" isn't the best question to ask a hooker). I finally just happened by the bar.
That's life here. Best wishes for all of you back in the real world (and the even more distant planet of the South Pole).