Sun Aug 20 02:20:50 2000
To: chris, dad, yoko
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: The further adventures of...
School still hasn't started, but I've just completed my second and third days of work. I went to an English-language "summer camp"--two days, one night at a youth center--for a local high school's International Program. They have a very good English program. I showed up in front of a train station in a town about 40 km south of here to be picked up by the school's tour buses, which had left from the town I lived in and could have easily have taken me all the way there (they later paid me for my train fare, as well as for the two days, despite the fact that I'm already receiving my regular pay for these days--in fact, since the morning after I arrived in Japan). This seems to be the way things work in the JET program--mostly well organized, often with incomprehensibly bureaucratic and counterintuitive ways of doing things, but in the end we get paid well. Once at the youth center, I was issued a futon, linens, and a nonmatching set of three teenaged girls. Apparently English isn't as cool among the guys--among the 10th graders, there are 72 girls and 6 boys, and including the juniors also along for the trip, there were 84 girls and 6 boys. My students were: Snotty Girl (known more politely as Tomoko), Snotty Girl's flunky (Mariko), and Sweet Eager Girl (Namiko). Namiko was quite eager to speak English as much as possible and learn about America, asking me questions constantly and always the first to reply to whatever I said. Snotty Girl was just too important to bother with all this English stuff and resisted all but my most direct attempts to engage her in conversation; when forced, she asked Mariko what to say. Mariko seemed to want to talk and pay attention, but only when Tomoko couldn't see her. She really seemed torn between two impulses. The two of them would have let Namiko do all the work of preparing a little play they had to put on (and cleaning up our section of the dining room, etc.) if I hadn't kept forcing them to take part (when forced, they revealed that their English was not bad). Mariko seemed happy and relieved when I forced her to talk, because she really seemed to want to but needed the "he asked me a direct question so I have no choice" excuse when Tomoko was around. I got along very well with Namiko and with the girls in the other groups--the boys were pretty quiet. To give an idea of what it's like to be a kid here, I found out that Namiko has spent her summer doing kendo (martial art like vigorous fencing with a bamboo stick) for three hours straight every morning with just two ten-minute breaks, ending with strength training consisting of push-ups and running up and down the stairs of the three-story school three times--with another student on her back. And yet this girl has arms like matchsticks. I tried to spend as much time talking to kids as I could when we had free time. By the end, I think a few of them were afraid of me--"Oh, no, that blond guy's going to make me speak English!"--but most really seemed excited and happy for every opportunity to interact with a real live foreigner. We had a "disco" Thursday night, and the boys spent the whole evening smoking outside or standing by themselves in the corner, resisting my attempts to encourage them to dance, including sending some of the female ALTs ("assistant language teacher": my job title) I knew to grab their hands and pull them out onto the floor. Once the music started, I did a lot of the work of pulling girls onto the dance floor (usually not physically), mingling, chatting them up, etc., which was creepy at first because it was so like the dances I used to attend to meet girls but now I was 32 and the girls were all 15 and 16. However, I was, I must say, quite lively (by the end of the evening, I was one of two ALTs whose names the students chanted over and over to get us out into the middle of the dance floor). At one point, two girls ran by me, and I felt two distinct pats on my fanny! Not all Japanese are so shy! Much fun was had by all. The only hard part was the heat. It was well into the 90s in the gym, with very high humidity, and I never went more than half a minute without wiping my brow with the dishtowel around my neck. I found I could stretch it out and buff my forehead in time to the beat. Even the littlest girls (some of these high school kids could pass for 9 in America) were carrying towels and soaking with sweat. After that, it was time for showers (well, squatting in front of spigots to wash before swimming in the insanely hot bathing pool [sento]) and then lights out for the kids, but I don't think many of them made it to bed before 3. All night, I saw the girls sneaking around trying to avoid the real teachers--a bunch of them burst into the male ALTs' room about 1 am, and I saw them peeking through the doors of the boys' room next door several times (the boys stayed put, mainly, I think, for fear of the girls). The ALTs and teachers got together for sushi and beer (I don't know how these kids stay so active on the minimal amount of food the place provided--my girls all complained about how tiny the portions were) once the kids were theoretically in bed. The next day, we practiced some more; then the ALTs did a skit (I was in a troupe of "kohl girls" dancing the Para Para--these are Tokyo's weirdest fad followers, girls who go out dancing wearing a mix of Frankenstein and Malibu Barbie make-up--I'm still peeling off my glitter nail polish); then the students did their skits; then teachers, the principle, some students, and the day manager of the youth center made speeches (have I mentioned how much the Japanese like giving speeches?); the official pictures were taken (Shashi, you would like this: the photographer made a big production of using a 4X5 view camera with about six flash heads for one shot, then took a few quickies for "insurance" with his Leica 35 mm--but he didn't really take a picture with the big view camera! The song and dance with such complicated expensive equipment lets him triple his bill and makes him look professional enough to impress the school into hiring him again; this is also standard practice in America); finally every girl I talked to or danced with ran up to me, threw her arm around me, stuck her other arm out in front of us with a camera, and took a picture (sometimes the flash hit before I realized she was there and I was completely blinded), then we all went home. It took us a while to get out, though, because the youth center, designed for large groups, is cleverly located several miles up a steep mountain road that buses can't fit on, so we had to shuttle down to the buses in five trips in the one mini-bus. Back in Takefu, I went out with some friends to a do-it-yourself okonomiyaki (sort of a cabbagy cross between a pancake and an omelet) place and then a coffee shop. Tonight (Saturday 8/19), I drove some friends out to what claims to be Japan's biggest otaiko drumming festival, which is in the next town (I'm coming to be very skeptical about claims to be the biggest anything here unless it's backed by an official government ranking--the local mountain is claimed to be the highest in the prefecture, but it's clearly not even the highest in sight, and indeed many mountains in the prefecture are more than twice as tall--rankings from the government ["one of Japan's seven pure spring waters," "Japan's third nicest rock garden," "fifth nicest seaweed-covered rock," etc.] must be taken at face value--don't you dare say the garden in Kanazawa is the second nicest in Japan if the government says it's the third). Nevertheless, it was a very impressive drumming festival. The garment of choice for the performers is a black shirt front held in place by several thick black straps across the back, often combined with black leather pants, so that a lot of these guys look like the crowd waiting to get into the Manhole Club back in Chicago's Boys' Town. These drums are mostly quite large, from barrel-sized to Volkswagen-sized, and these guys (and a few women nowadays) beat the hell out of them. While we were waiting for two of us to come back with food for the group (I was mildly disappointed that my squid-on-a-stick had been taken off the stick and chopped into pieces for easy eating), I heard someone saying, "Pee-tah! Pee--tah!" right behind me and saw two of the girls from the camp. We were the only non-Japanese we saw in the crowd of a couple thousand, so I suppose we were easy to spot. Earlier, I had been sitting behind a family with my friends (all women), and the grandfather handed a beer to Erin and asked her to pass it down to me--very friendly, and I thanked him, but it was amusing to us that he offered a beer only to me. Ah, to be on the right side of the patriarchy is a nice thing indeed!