To: Newsletter
From: Peter Rivard
Subject: Random notes


Hello, all,

       More random notes from out east, with some more plagiarism thrown in for free. I've been amused recently by a second year girl at Manyo who was too shy to speak to me last year but who now greets me whenever she sees me. The thing is, she over-greets me. Even when we're just passing in the hall, she comes to a full stop, squares herself to me, and bows deeply from the waist. Even in polite Japanese style, the walking nod is sufficient for a casual greeting (unless you're greeting the emperor). At least 300 kids a day greet me at Manyo; if they all did this, I'd never get anywhere. I had thought it was a nervous reaction to having to address a big wierd foreigner, so as a friendly tease, I started replying in kind, which did make her smile, and in fact she started laughing and bowing even more deeply every time she saw me. However, I found out there's nothing so special about me, at least not for her. I was walking with Mr. Yamaguchi yesterday, and, seeing him first, she bowed quite deeply, then laughed nervously and bowed slightly more deeply to me. After we'd passed her, he said she was a very polite girl and did that to all the teachers; everyone thinks it's a bit funny, but she must just come from an old-fashioned family.
       Of course, all the kids bow a little bit, and I usually bow a little in return--just a nod of the head, really--though I'm trying to teach them not to act Japanese when they speak English, it seems I'm picking up their habits instead. As long ago as spring of last year, a visiting American noticed that I had begun to bow when speaking Japanese even on the phone. I may be hopeless. A more embarrassing habit to carry over into American culture would be my lack of discomfort holding hands with fourteen-year old boys in public. It took a long time before I stopped uneasily shaking off kids' hands; now I don't even notice it until I need to use a hand for something.
       On a perhaps related topic (I rather hope not), Shoko-chan, a first year girl at Go-chu, came up to me after class and said, "Excuse me, Peter-sensei. Question OK?" First years have been studying English regularly for only two months now, so this much English, for a kind of question they won't study for months yet, was pretty good, and of course I said "OK." She then asked, "Japanese OK?" I said "yes," though my "yes" to this question is always more optimism than confidence, and of course the one word key to the whole question was the one I couldn't recognize--"What ???????? is Peter-sensei?" When she saw my confused expression, she asked again, a different way: "Is Peter-sensei Christian? Catholic?" Ah, I thought--Shoko-chan reads the newspapers! Below is a list of vocabulary words accompanying an article in the adult learner's section of a Japanese paper's English edition (5/4/02 Mainichi Weekly).
      priest
      hold a responsibility for ~
      technician
      (be) set apart from
      spiritual mission
      devoted
      sacred figure
      gospel
      alleged
      pedophilia
      front-page
      vulnerable to
      celibate
      lust after
      offender ....
You get the idea. These stories are big news and frequently top the international or US headlines here; nowadays, Bernard Law is probably the only cardinal most Japanese--and most non-Catholics everywhere--can name.
       Shoko's question didn't phase me--I thought her asking it showed some real interest in what's going on in the world. Another girl asked me a question a few weeks ago that did leave me without a ready answer, though. I'd addressed Hisako by name in class, and after class she came up to me to ask why I'd remembered her name! Rather a sad question, I thought. Although she's a plain girl, at least in her own eyes, I'd spoken to her a few times and thought she was interesting to talk to, that she had something interesting in her personality, so, after a truly bewildered pause (as is often the case, "Why is she asking such a question?" is automatically considered before the brain goes on to formulate an answer to the question itself), I replied, "Because I think you are a nice girl, and I like to talk to you." Someone who asks a question like that needs all the encouragement I can give. I know about 40% of the kids in her year at Manyo by name, so it's not unlikely I'd know anybody's name, and she must hear me addressing kids by name all the time (I know all the second and third years at 5-chu, but 5-chu's a fifth the size of Manyo, so there are fewer kids and I have a lot more individual contact with each of them). At first, when I found learning names quite difficult, this might have been a loaded question (or at least had a loaded answer, were I foolish enough to be honest), since it was of course the distinctive kids whose names I memorized first, and "distinctive" can mean not only things like "outgoing" and "smart" but, more often, things like "funny-looking" and "weird." Now, I try to remember names of anyone with whom I've had several conversations (beyond "How are you?") or interesting conversations. What've I learned? Boys' names are often longer and seem to use bigger interchangeable chunks; girls' names ending in "ko," a syllable meaning "child" that used to be almost universal in female names, are becoming less common every year; boys' names seem to have more variety in general, but fewer truly unique names (names that make Japanese think, "Zuzu's parents must be hippies"); the country is drowning in little girls named Ayumi, Yuko, and Yuka; and you better take a good look at anyone named "Yuki" before deciding on a pronoun (I defy you to find a JHS ALT who hasn't gotten in trouble on this one). The real answer to her question: in my first fit of enthusiasm for learning Japanese characters, I'd started reading students' name tags, and her family name is quite easy to read, so I noticed it quickly; it's also the same as that of a very big girl who'd graduated last year, and since Hisako is also slightly bigger than average, I wanted to be sure not to call her by the other girl's name. She also looks like a feminized version of a very boyish girl with a similar name, Hisayo. With all these answers in my head, I thought it better to give the response I did, which, as far as it went, was also true. I make fun of the impenetrable processes going on in kids' heads, but in truth I suppose my own mental processes are equally inscrutable.
       Lastly, I received a great gift the other night: a heavy handmade tea mug with a nice design: characters spelling out "Kurayazushi," the name of the best sushi shop I've ever been to. The freshest sushi in Fukui, which is itself famous for fresh sushi. It's near my school, and, although all the other customers at the bar were past the age of having kids in junior high school, the local schools are the centerpieces of the community, as in any small town, so people were quite friendly to me. The master gave me the mug to remember my visit, and to remind me to come back (as he put it). I have yet to discover how much it actually costs to eat at one of these places if you pay for absolutely everything you eat and drink. I'm not such a cheesy SOB that I bike all the way out to the area near Manyo just to have people buy me food and sake, but I am cheesy enough to enjoy the attention and the friendliness of people, especially when some of the people around are parents of my kids.
       Ooooh, ooh--the plagiarism! I almost forgot the plagiarism. At 5-chu, we had the kids come up with their own invitations to made-up events, following the pattern in the textbook:

This is what we got:

I asked for some examples; "Yurie Language" is a lot like Rochellian: mostly weird exclamations.

       This last is my favorite, but what makes it special is unintended (I am sure of this). It has a little more accidental meaning because Chino is the girl most of the boys in the class are in love with.

While I didn't explain "sleep with" to Haruka, I did direct her to someone who would, a third year girl who last year during a similar exercise encouraged all the girls around her to write about "sleeping with" someone--without telling them what it meant, resulting in the obvious pattern of several innocently smiling girls thinking "slumber party" but writing things like "I like to sleep with many friends" sitting in a a circle around Ayaka, who was writing something completely innocent but couldn't hide her proud, devilish grin.
       I love these kids!

O genki de,

Peter

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