To: newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: Two Weeks


Konnichi wa,

       Hello, friends. I haven't written in a while, but I'm still here. I've been either too busy or too lazy to write lately, so I've accumulated a few interesting stories, or at least, a few that are interesting to me.
       Last week, on Wednesday--a week and a half ago, now--I was hanging out with some of the girls in the band. I had been jogging and running around with different sports teams, so I found the cross breeze in the band room really refreshing (the percussion section, who were using the room, found my workout togs, especially the bright pink dish towel tied around my head as a sweat band, somewhat entertaining). Anyway, the girls were asking me about girlfriends, so of course I asked them about boyfriends--Japanese junior high school girls theoretically don't have them, but one girl was teased about having a boyfriend who's a senior in high school. I strongly hope that was only teasing, since this kid seems really innocent (hey, of course I'm deceiving myself). Anyway, one girl asked if I liked Japanese girls, a perennial favorite question here, and I replied for the umpteenth time that I go for women, not girls, but I don't care if they're Japanese, American, European, whatever. So I came back by asking them if they wanted to marry Japanese or foreigners. Of course, they all said Japanese, but I was surprised at how shocked they seemed by the question, as if I'd asked if they might consider marrying a tree or a rock. Conversation moved on, and the girls started talking among themselves about how many children they wanted to have (I was almost asleep at this point, just lying in the breeze). I woke up, and asked them that question in English. For whatever reason, I became curious about those two questions, so I went next door to where the brass section was not really practicing and asked them--all said "Japanese" and 2 or 3 kids. Then I decided to get some input from boys and headed out into the halls, but the first group I ran into were floutists and thus girls ("Japanese" and 2 or 3 kids). The final result: none of the boys would consider marrying a non-Japanese, and most wanted 2 or 3 kids, with a few who joked that they wanted a hundred or a thousand kids (sex education is sufficiently advanced here that none of the girls said more than 4). With the boys, I was more comfortable asking why they wouldn't marry a foreigner, and some of my favorite responses were because foreigners are "far away" (I didn't press further, but there seemed to be some failure of imagination working there), because he didn't speak English well so it would be hard to communicate, and because foreign women are too tall (from several vertically challenged boys). Two boys simply said they found the idea frightening. Among the girls, exactly three of about fifty I asked thought they might consider marrying a foreigner. Yuki, a really clever girl who's been flirting with me lately (just as a joke) and who looks just like Charlie Brown's friend Lucy, said she wanted to marry a Japanese but "a handsome American is OK." One girl responded very enthusiastically and very positively that she wanted to marry an Indian guy, which surprised her friends as much as it surprised me (just that it's so particular). A third thought it would be exciting to marry a foreigner and live outside of Japan. A few days later, a fourth girl, whom I had (intentionally) not asked, volunteered that she wanted to marry me. Chiaki is the cut-up who made me blush in class a few months ago when she responded to a question about a three wishes story by shouting, "You!! I want you!!" I very strongly get the sense that Japanese teachers do not going around school asking weird questions (a couple of boys had even given me really strong "what the hell is wrong with you" looks before they started to laugh). This activity had pretty limited educational value, especially since I asked most of the kids in Japanese, but maybe it could be seen as "internationalizing." Whatever--I was still getting paid for it.
       The next day after school, I took a turn through the computer room and watched a kid demonstrating all sorts of weird and amusing wallpaper from a CD he'd brought in (variations on the dancing hamster theme seem to be a worldwide favorite; I wish I'd remembered that there is a "Dancing Jesus" version available on the web--I'll show them that next time). Yukari showed me a program she was writing, but of course I couldn't understand it and the amount of language we shared made explanation impossible. However, when I was leaving and everyone was saying good-bye to me, she not only waved and shouted "Have a nice day" really enthusiastically, but she actually started jumping up and down with excitement as she was saying it. The crowd of boys behind her chuckled a little bit, but they didn't seem to tease her about it. Again this week, I saw a few smirks behind her but no overt teasing when she greeted me with her usual completely charming overenthusiasm. Really, I sometimes have trouble suppressing a chuckle with Yukari, albeit an affectionate chuckle, so I can't blame the boys, as long as they don't make her feel bad.
       Friday was a lousy day. First, I had to have the "don't touch me there" conversation with another student, this time in front of the regular English teacher, who thought it was hilarious (although she didn't show it until the kid was out of sight). I don't like that conversation. It's only the one class of first year students at Go-chu--none of the older kids and no one at Manyo would dream of doing that. Also, earlier in the week Mrs. Sugimoto had asked me if I'd like to go out for drinks with Ms. X, a teacher who'd seemed interested in me, and because of the way she'd put I'd taken it as a casual friendly outing with a couple of teachers, but in retrospect it seemed wise to make sure. This was also not the kind of conversation I enjoy. I asked Mrs. Sugimoto if I could talk to her outside of the teachers' room when she had a chance, but before she had a chance someone called the principal, and he then asked the secretary to turn on the TV by her desk. This was the first news story I understood almost completely (I got maybe 20% of the actual words, but that was enough to get the gist and the important details), but the story itself was so horrifying that I kept hoping I was misunderstanding, so I asked Mrs. Sugimoto for confirmation several times. This was the mass murder of first and second graders in Osaka. At this time, just as the story was breaking, the murderer was identified as a junior high school teacher, and four children were dead (in the end, he was a former groundskeeper at a junior high school, and eight children died). Although we've had these killings in America, somehow it affected me much more here, perhaps because like everyone else here I feel so absolutely safe, or perhaps because I teach elementary schoolers just like the ones who died and so can picture them too well. When the TV listed the four dead children, somehow it was seeing the suffix "-chan" at the end of each name that really moved me. While I was having a hard time containing my emotions, though, the teachers were actually joking. I still don't understand their reaction. I understand that strong emotions are not shown here, and I'm sure they must have had emotional reactions, but their joking seemed so casual, so free of tension, that I'm still puzzled by it. Even other Japanese people I've asked about it have been mystified by the way the teachers reacted. The principal even joked that, Jeez, he's glad he's not that guy's (the murderer's) principal. While I was still reeling from this news, Mrs. Sugimoto freed herself long enough to have the talk I'd asked for, and it just seemed so ridiculous at that moment to have an awkward conversation about making sure Ms. X didn't think we were having a date or that I returned any romantic interest she might have.
       There is a general feeling in Japan that the country is going to hell in a hurry. There have been sensational violent crimes around the country for the past few years, and everyone is sure that Japan is going to become a dangerous, chaotic country like the US--or like the US was 10 or 15 years ago. Even so, this crime has shocked everyone. In most of the school crimes in America, I could understand how and why someone could commit them. I can understand persecuted and misguided teenagers and other people with deeply personal grudges and desperate feelings of persecution. This crime, a stranger walking into a school and stabbing wildly at such young children, I can't understand at all. I can't even understand how it can be possible--it seems so far beyond what a human being could be capable of.
       For the Japanese, though, it's all a part of the pattern of their society falling apart. Just in this area lately, we've had a number of elementary schools vandalized (the size 24 footprints found at the scenes suggest a sixth grader or maybe a junior high school student--but fortunately rule out a certain foreigner as a suspect). This hasn't gotten (I don't think) a lot of press, though. What has dominated the press in central Fukui is that the principal of the junior high school in the next town over stole a TV from a store near me. Civil servants are held high here, among them teachers are held even higher, and of course principals are quite exalted. Obviously, the guy has some sort of psychological problem, but people talk about the case as part of this pattern of deterioration. The Japanese tend to see every big event, of course, not in terms of what actually happened but in terms of what it means about Japan. The Japanese studies variant of an old joke holds that a group of scientists, an Englishman, a German, a Frenchman, etc., are led to an elephant for the first time. The German wants to dissect it, the Englishman wants to have it stuffed and mounted, the Frenchman wants to know its mating habits, and the Chinese wants to know how to cook it. The Japanese scientist, though, wants to learn what the elephant thinks about Japan. I'm sure if you've read much about Japan you've run across this proverb--I've seen it in a dozen different commentaries and analyses--but it gets repeated so often because it's absolutely true.
       And, finally, a lighter note. We've just received a crop of student teachers from Fukui University, one of them a future English teacher. She's observed several of my classes, and she's asked me to team teach with her in a demonstration class, for which she'll be evaluated. She's already consulted me about the lesson plan she's developed. Looking at her very well thought-out lesson plan made me (and one of the regular English teachers) realize how lazy we've become. Two things about her have amused me quite a bit. First of all, the whole bunch of student teachers are extremely nervous and effacing when approaching teachers--including me!! To me, of course, this is ridiculous--I know these people: I know that that guy's a putz, that that woman's a passive-aggressive mouse, and I've seen that guy when he could barely stand up--and, of course, I know all too much about myself, and anybody acting intimidated by me is just hilarious. She's also nervous about standing up in front of a class for the first time (well, the second time--I drafted her to help me out for a couple of minutes Friday when the regular teacher was late, and found out later that that had been her very first classroom experience, and that it had been a big moment for her), mainly because she hasn't realized what a bunch of goofs the kids are, and how the kids will see her as much higher than themselves on the plane of being simply because her last name is "Sensei." She's also amusing because of another lesson she hasn't learned. Even after she'd been here a few days, I found myself wondering at one point why the hell that boy at the back of the classroom didn't sit his ass down with the rest of them when the bell rang. Simply put, a slimly built very young woman with short hair should not choose an outfit that looks too much like the boys' uniforms.
       Of course, this telling-girls-from-boys problem continues to be bigger than I'd imagined. At my elementary school, the kids spend most of their time in their gym uniforms, which are the same for boys and girls, and since even a lot of the young adults hereabouts could pass for either, in most cases it's impossible to tell a seven year old boy from a short-haired seven year old girl, so a couple of weeks ago I made the mistake of illustrating the word "boy" by picking up a little girl and saying, "this is a boy." Fortunately, she thought this was just hilarious; her attitude indicated that she thought the mistake was not only inoffensive but quite understandable. One of my colleagues just had a visit to a kindergarten, and the kids there spend the whole day (at least when it's warm) wearing nothing but a pair of shorts--the pictures of her surrounded by all these tiny mostly naked little kids are great. When they have to go to the bathroom, the teacher strips them naked outside the bathroom door in front of the whole class, apparently to keep them from tripping themselves up in their clothes when they try to use the squat toilet (I don't know how often a kid has to be fished out of the appliance). This explains the comfort level that schoolkids here have with being undressed. I've mentioned that even at junior high school the kids change from their gym uniforms to their regular uniforms and back right in the classroom; the girls wear their shorts under their skirts and somehow do that amazing trick of changing upper garments inside their uniform blouses, but the boys will strip to their shorts right in front of the girls, and fairly frequently boys will still be pulling up their pants or fastening their belts when I begin class. Last Tuesday, back in elementary school, I complimented one boy's particularly flamboyant boxers when he was changing into his full uniform for the walk home--I just said "Pretty" in Japanese. Big mistake. Immediately afterward, a second grade girl walked up to me, pulled out the waistband of her gym shorts to show me her pink panties and asked, "Pretty?" I'm pretty sure it's the same kid who showed me most of a cheek the last time and said "Sexshy." All of seven years old. Very sexy.
       Last story: Wednesday night I went shopping with one of the other ALTs, a woman named Max. We ran into and chatted very briefly with a couple of my students, and apparently we were spotted by another kid, too. The next day, after consulting with Mr. Omori, one of the English teachers, and practicing a couple of times, she came up to me and said, "I saw you and your girlfriend last night." I asked, "Oh. Where did you see us?" Puzzled look. I asked a different way: "Where were we?" She ran up to Mr. Omori again, then came back. "In front of Kunitaka supermarket." She looked at Mr. Omori again, and he fed her the line they'd practiced before, "She is very pretty," and then she repeated the line. At this point, she was trying very hard but had developed the rhythm of looking at Mr. Omori and repeating whatever he said. I said, "She is not my girlfriend." The girl looked at Mr. Omori again, he whispered to her, and then she asked me, "How about me?" I chuckled, she thought for a moment and realized what she'd said, and then of course immediately turned red and ran over to punch Mr. Omori. The whole thing was very cute because this girl doesn't normally talk to me and was obviously very nervous about trying to, but she wanted to so much that when she had some excuse she went through a lot of effort and steeled up her nerves to do it. From now on, when I see her, I'll say more than just "Hello," but of course I'll keep to very easy things since she doesn't have a lot of confidence yet.
       That's all for now. I've got a full weekend on tap. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to take a cooking class focusing mainly on sushi (I know, I know: "Preheat oven to 350°; don't put fish in oven"), then I'm filling in for another teacher with the English discussion group I normally lead once a month, then going out with the group for dinner and drinks. I'm hoping that the one younger member of the group, a twenty-something woman who's lived in Australia and speaks with a perfect if Australian accent, will come, too. Sunday, I'm going to climb Mt. Hino, the 800 m biggest mountain in the city, just opposite Manyo, with a group from a local elementary school, mostly parents and teachers but also a few kids, and my friend Tammy, who is the ALT for that school.

O genki de,

Peter

ps--Having the student teachers around has been good for my ego--certainly, they treat me like a superior, but I'm also like the littlest brother in the story of the family with three kids: Mom yells at the oldest kid, who torments the middle kid, who in turn gives baby brother hell. The baby, of course, doesn't have anyone beneath him, so when the family gets a cat he feels like he's been bumped up a notch in the social order.

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