I'm sporting a new, very Japanese fashion. When I got here, I noticed a lot of people, especially older people, wearing gauze surgical masks. I finally shocked the hell out of my boss by asking if TB was really so prevalent here, and she explained that Japanese wear these to prevent spreading germs when they have colds (I think I've mentioned the Japanese horror of colds). Oh. Of course, I'd always been told that by the time you knew you were sick, you were no longer contagious. Anyway, today, with a bad sore throat, I otherwise felt marginally well enough to head off to my Japanese lesson. Although I think it's pointless, I didn't want to upset my teacher by coming into her house sick and appearing to spread germs, so I bought a mask on the way. When I asked about it, since I feel really silly walking around in public with this thing on, even though it's no more unusual than wearing a scarf in winter here, she told me that now only old people believe that it prevents the spread of disease, and that doctors say it doesn't help. However, it's custom, and it may help the wearer by keeping the throat from drying out (it did seem to help me a little). My kids wear these to school when they're a little sick, so maybe I'll wear mine tomorrow and see what reaction I get. A side note: these things were not designed for my very Caucasian nasal appendage; the fit is less than ideal. I don't think this custom would have taken root in a nation of people with outie noses.
Yesterday, I had an exceptionally successful afternoon of bothering students during their club activities. Having trouble staying awake and yet not wanting to actually be cold (my cold starting to affect me), I decided the percussion room, both warm and loud, was the place to be (very few of the other rooms are heated). After I'd been in there a while, chatting with the students, Moe-chan, one of my favorites (not that I have favorites, of course--that would be unprofessional) again organized the percussion girls to play something for me instead of just practicing independently. "O bra di, O bra da?" she asked. "Desmond has a barrel in the market place, Molly is a singer in the band," I sang in reply ("O bla di, O bla da" is a Beatles song). To my surprise, she opened the door and snagged a passing saxophonist to join the group, and they did an all-percussion-and-one-sax version of the song--and a pretty good one at that. OK, that was nice, I thought, but then Moe pulled the girls together, chatted with them a minute, and announced, "Proud Mary." "Wow, this is really my day," I thought. For "Proud Mary," Moe went into the adjoining room and returned with all of the horn players who were there. There was a flurry of setting up music stands, uncovering vibraphones and xylophones, rearranging drums (no bamboo on "Proud Mary"). This was all impromptu, just for me. As the final preparation, one of the other girls came up and handed me a pair of maraccas. Oh, boy, a chance to showcase my musical gifts. Without even trying to be out of sync or funny, I had the group in stitches, two of them on the floor with laughter, a minute into the song. How can you play maraccas wrong? They didn't take them away from me, though, and I made sure to keep my playing much more subdued when we started again. From time to time a couple of girls would look at me out of the corners of their eyes and chuckle, and if I looked back we would all crack up a little bit. Then, the girls consulted again, and there was another song, and another, and another. The funny thing is that you look at these kids and you think, gee, little Japanese schoolgirls with pigtails and neat little uniforms, one of them holding a sax as tall as she is and another playing a tuba she could easily climb into... well, they don't look soulful, but then you hear the music come out of them. One of the sax players at the school is fantastic--soulful and free as well as proficient (she wasn't part of yesterday's concert, though). Moe herself and one of the other girls take turns on the rock-band style drum kit, and they're both really good. I also found out that Moe is a great piano player (when you start junior high here, you generally have to start at the beginning of something new--if you have a skill, you're supposed to do something else--so she's in percussion now). Anyway, after a few of the brass players had to leave, the percussion girls and the remaining brass players decided to sing for me. The tuba player, apparently a shy girl, didn't want any part of this, but two of the other girls dragged her back--literally, by the ankles, with her hands clawing at the carpet, and when she almost escaped and the other girls grabbed her wrists, she was able to drag both of them almost out of the room before they got the upper hand by lifting her skirt over her head and thus distracting and horrifying her (I'll remind you again that junior high girls wear their uniform gym shorts under their skirts, so I think a lot of the screaming embarrassment is just for effect, but of course I very theatrically turned away and pretended to also be embarrassed). Once they had roped her in, they would sing a western song in Japanese, and I would then sing it in English. Oddly enough, they sing "Happy Birthday" in English here, even in houses where nobody speaks any English. They also sang a few Japanese songs for me. I usually wander from place to place and talk to many groups of students after school, but I spent almost two hours with these kids, and we had a great time (I think even the tuba player). I am curious about what the other kids thought of Moe orchestrating all this for me.
The most amazing thing about all this is that in just goofing off like this I'm doing my job, and the more fun I'm having, the better I'm doing it. I had those kids communicating with a foreigner and trying to say things in English because they really wanted to. In my actual job description, teaching kids English is the third most important part. The most important part is called "internationalization," to get kids interested in the rest of the world, used to being around a foreigner, and excited about learning English--to see English as a way to communicate what they want to say instead of just as a difficult subject they have to take a test on. Number two is to improve the Japanese English teachers' English. I teach each kid three times a month on average for the year or two I'm at Manyo (twice a week, though, at Go-chu); most ALTs are stretched much thinner and may teach each kid once a month. However, the English teachers now speak English quite a bit every day to talk to me, so their ability improves a lot, and they teach the kids every day for the rest of their careers. My schools have had ALTs for years before me, and the English teachers all speak superb English. This is far from the norm where the JET program is more limited and from the norm before the program began. Number three is teaching kids. Number four is internationalizing other teachers and people outside the schools--to some degree, I'm being paid to integrate my neighborhood, to get the old ladies and young working people used to seeing a foreigner on the street, taking away some of the apathy and apprehension about the outside world. This is also an important goal of the program, and I can really see it happening around me. For most people around here, meeting an honest-to-god foreigner is still a big deal (Toto, I don't think we're in Chicago anymore). In the smaller villages, a lot of old people get a look like they've just been hit upside the head when they see me--they freeze, their mouths fall open, and if nothing bad happens (like me coming up to speak to them), they run to the neighbors to tell them all about it. If I open my mouth to speak, some really cringe--they react as if I'd raised my hand to strike them. Once I get something out in mangled Japanese, though, and appear to be friendly and slightly capable of communication, they generally burst out in relieved and then fascinated smiles--some get quite gregarious. I think America, and the foreign world in general, suddenly become a lot more real to people when they've talked to an American. You think of the benefits of an international exchange program being somewhat esoteric, but in such a homogeneous society it really has an immediate and observable effect. Somewhere in the list of priorities is also the knowledge of Japan that I'll take back to America and hopefully share as widely as possible--hey! How about that! I'm doing my job even right now!
Your hard-working civil servant,