It's starting to get sad around my main junior high school. The third years are graduating tomorrow, so today I was talking to a lot of them for the last time. The kids I have been talking to all year--the ones who aren't bored by or afraid of me--were a little emotional (well, just the girls--the guys give me a manly handshake and tell me they'll miss me; the girls say things like, "sniff... Please remember me" and, in one case, "I love you!" [she was joking--or maybe not]). One girl wouldn't let go of my hand, and a lot of kids asked me to sign their yearbooks and pose for pictures with them.
Most of them found out only Tuesday where, and if, they will be going to high school next year. I was really surprised when one of the smartest students, at least in English, told me that she failed the test and isn't going to high school next year. Of course, she's smart enough to get into almost any high school in the area, but she wanted to go to Takefu High School, which is very selective (acceptance rate is about 7%), so she'll stay home and study all year and take the entrance test again next year. I am sure she'll get in then. There are rounds and rounds of entrance exams, and generally if a student continues to fail at her first choice, she'll take the test at a second choice, and if she fails there, then the next round she'll take it at a third choice. It's unusual but not unheard of for an ambitious student to take a year off to study and try again to get into a top school rather than go elsewhere, but I was surprised to see one of the kids I know well do that. It's also possible, I suppose, that faced with the last round of exams, she decided to gamble one more time on getting into the best school rather than take the test for the second best, where she'd have certainly passed. It is telling about this girl that she explained this to me with a big and almost completely convincing smile.
For the last two months, I've been asking students which high school they want to attend, and I've been surprised at how many, even many kids who seem pretty smart and who speak English well, have set their sights on nonacademic high schools. They've pretty much decided at 15 to close the door on going to college and lock themselves into a career path. I can't say I admire this aspect of the Japanese educational system; it forces people who are still children really to give up ambitious and sustaining dreams in favor of realistic but uninspiring plans (they are going to high school programs for data entry, low-level computer tech stuff, hair dressing, cooking, welding, sewing, of course farming, etc.). I'm more than twice as old as these kids and I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up--my dreams are as grandiose as any teenager's.
I'm starting to think that the second year girl who's been organizing her bandmates to put on little concerts for me might also have a small crush on me. Small groups in her English class had to put on little plays about the environment (not my choice). The students have been too busy to work on the projects very much, so all of the groups either wrote 10 line plays or cobbled them together by rearranging lines from the textbook, and all read their lines from little bits of paper--all except Moe's group. Moe had put together an all-original three page opus pretty much on her own, and I watched her cajole her unfortunate partners into memorizing their lines and practicing their pronunciation. At her level of English, this was a tremendous effort, and it seemed that all of this was to impress me. Quite touching--and I can see this kind of thing really improving her English. These kids are great!
From innocence to its opposite (I hate to even put these episodes in the same letter): I finally made it down to Osaka last weekend, to meet up with Curtiss. While it feels great--comfortingly familiar--to be in a big city again, frank Osaka makes my inner Chicagoan--and Bostonian--blush. How can you recognize a hooker in the streets of Osaka? She's wearing a price tag. Brothels have menus with pictures outside, just like the noodle restaurants. Even in Tokyo, the approach was subtler--the fellow who approached me whispering "You like Japanese girls?" seemed like he didn't want the whole world to see him. Osaka is Bangkok, but with more tasteful women and higher prices (though far lower than I'd imagined). I'll add that I was NOT in an exclusively red light area--all around these women and their male hustlers there were decent restaurants, vegetable and fish mongers, tea shops, families in grocery stores, all manner of everyday life. All we were really looking for was a place to sit down and have a couple of beers.
And back to innocence: Curtiss came into school with me on Wednesday, and the English teachers I was working with that day thought it would be fun to just have the kids ask him questions. The best: "What color underwear are you wearing?" Mr. Omori told me later that he was also embarrassed that one of his students asked, "Are you Mr. Bean?" For those of you who haven't met Curtiss, he looks nothing like Rowan Atkinson ("Atkisson"?), one of the ugliest men alive. He also got the perennials, "(giggle, giggle) Do you like me?" and "Which do you like better, Japanese girls or American girls?" I jumped in to say that I like both Japanese and American WOMEN, but I don't go out with girls.
Anyway, that's life on Mars for now. I get used to it, but it never stops being strange. Oh, yes, I shared with Curtiss a little delusion that's been entertaining me in all those English-free meetings I sit through without understanding. Now that the secret's out, I might as well broadcast it. Sometimes, this whole place puts such a strain on my credulity that I find myself thinking that it isn't real at all. I got on an airplane that flew out of O'Hare, circled the Midwest a few dozen times, and finally touched down at an artificial habitat somewhere west of the Mississippi. Actors still trying to master the bizarre accent they'd been taught guided me through elaborate movie sets, finally settling me into the ones I now think are my home and schools. Most of all, Japanese itself is a myth. At first, people would all gibber at me in that same accent--out of my earshot, they would congratulate each other on how authentic they sounded. Now, as Mitsuko teaches me more every week, making it up as she goes along, they struggle to keep ahead of me, incorporating little snippets of what I've learned into their gibberish to keep it believable, if not comprehensible. The rituals of the culture, the daily activities of the school, have been scripted by Dadaists, who watch me closely for signs of disbelief. At the end of the day, my colleagues and students go home, rinse the black out of their hair, and complain to their families how hard it is to pretend to speak a nonexistent language all day; at the same time, my neighbors and the people I will see on the streets and in the stores and restaurants are arriving on the set, getting into character, and preparing for the hard work of sustaining the myth of "Japan." If they continue to succeed, I will call my family and write to my friends many more times, and eventually I will "return" to the US and tell my stories; by convincing the other JETs and me, the "Japanese" will have created credible witnesses to support the hoax, and people all over America will never even suspect that there is no such place as "Japan." Well, I suppose they're monitoring my email, too, so if I do manage to drop dead tomorrow, perhaps you should start wondering a little more about what really lies on the other side of the "Pacific Ocean."
O genki de,