Thu Sep 28 22:21:08 2000
To: newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: Life goes on

Hello, all,

      I mentioned briefly that, at a karaoke gathering of teachers and PTA, a guy wanted to fight me. I figured, oh, too much drink, and nothing came of it--he was ushered out before he got violent and he came back and apologized sincerely before being sent home, but today I found out that it has been the topic of some discussion at school. My supervisor came by my apartment after work today (I had been home for some time) and she had just heard about it--apparently, the principal and vice-principal were worried that I might have been bothered or upset by the incident. My supervisor apologized (on whose behalf I'm not sure: the town's, the school's, Japan's?) several times. Fortunately, I hadn't done anything wrong to piss this guy off, and this was also widely noted. I am now known as calm and mature. To tell the truth, I didn't even realize things were that bad until after the guy had been led away, so I didn't have anything to get flustered about--I could tell he was getting mad, but I couldn't understand him and didn't realize how mad he was. I did understand something about going outside together, but it didn't occur to me at the time that it was even possible he wanted to fight. It's funny to be right there and yet understand so little of what's going on. I am curious to find out whose father this guy is, just to see what the kid's like.

      Anyway, that same night, another parent in the PTA had invited me to tour his miso (sort of fermented bean and rice paste, usually dispersed into broth to make soup) factory, which his family had started in 1774. I readily took him up on it, and we agreed that I'd come by on Monday at 5. Monday (a day off), I was strapping my bike into my car (I'd left it at the first restaurant Saturday night) when my supervisor pulled up. I still haven't asked how she knew to look there for me, but maybe it was coincidence. The factory was only 500 yards away, but I would not have found it myself from the directions I'd been given at the party. Yamada-sensei also proved very helpful as a translator, because my Japanese was not up to a factory tour, and this fellow was one of the people I seemed to have a harder time than usual communicating in Japanese with. The tour was interesting--the factory is three small buildings, one attached to his house, and it was just after closing, so his ten-year old daughter was tearing around the ground floor on her bike. There are 60 3 ton wooden vats of miso aging for 10 months to a year, so the smell is rich. The factory is not very old, and though the house looks old (I asked if it were the original 1774 factory) it is just barely prewar, but built in the same style and with the same materials and techniques used for hundreds of years before--it would be impossibly expensive to recreate today; the vats may well be the only things on the property (aside from a beautiful samurai sword the owner showed me) that are old. Indeed, they also can't be recreated today, and there's a much less romantic stainless tub holding the newest batch. I was also surprised to see food on the table when he showed me around his house; I thought I was delaying their dinner, but the food was for me. Very fresh chirashi sushi, local specialties, an odd dish exactly like fish chowder but with the consistency of a solid custard, an odd, sweet seaweed concoction, and of course miso soup. His wife served, but did not join us at the table; she kneeled about 6' away when she wasn't serving us, and occasionally entered the conversation. They were about 45 years old. I still have yet to learn how to make a graceful exit in Japan, or how to read the signs to know when to do so. I tend to leave things like this fairly early to avoid overstaying my welcome, but I don't want to appear in a hurry to go. This is a subtle art, and it will take me some time to master.

      The next day, I taught elementary school for the first time. I had twenty minutes of assembly (the whole school, all 29 kids) and three whole 45 minute classes to run--completely daunting. The assembly was surreal--the kids all greeted me, individually, then they ran off to the back of the gym and mounted unicycles! They raced around the room and the four fourth graders did tricks to entertain me. It was like a midget circus. I'd seen racks of unicycles in several youth centers and elementary schools I've toured, but I had no idea that all Japanese children learn to ride unicycles. Later, between classes, I had to walk through the gym to get from anywhere to anywhere else, and I was always mobbed by tiny children on unicycles and stilts. To digress to a previous topic, I'll mention that although unicycles are standard equipment, helmets are not, and the first and second graders have learned how to ride but not how to stop; their technique is to crash headlong into a wall near anything they can hold on to. Class was fun, but exhausting. The one teacher who spoke a tiny amount of English was out sick that day, so I had no help in explaining what I wanted students to do. I had planned thoroughly, so that wasn't a problem, but I realized that teaching the first grade to sing "Old MacDonald" was going nowhere, and I ended up running out of things to do, so I had the kids ask me questions (in Japanese, of course). I had a few minutes between classes to adjust my second grade lesson plan (there are five second graders, so it's pretty hard to get any kind of group activity or game going, but they're starting from scratch, so there's only so much actual English teaching they can sit through). Aside--I realized at one point that it's quite possible that I outweigh the entire second grade--at one point later, I found myself carrying 60% of the second grade without any strain. The second grade and combined third (nine kids) and fourth (five) grade class went well. It was a lot of fun--the kids are so cute, and some of the first graders are incredibly tiny--little kids at that age really are a lot like little monkeys. One second grade girl (note added later: I found out she's really a tiny fourth grader) reached way up and taped a handmade origami Pikachu (cutesy Pokemon cartoon show creature) to my shirt--I kept it on all day, and I'm going to put it on when I go back to her school next month. The atmosphere, with 29 kids and four teachers, is very much like a big family, much more casual than my junior high schools. The next day, my junior high school students looked big for the first time.

      What else do I do at work? Well, yesterday I spent an hour helping Go-chu's representative in the English speech contest practice her speech, which I had also helped her write. She is a very pretty girl of 14 or so, but when she opens her mouth to speak English, the ugliest sounds come out. She is so nervous about the contest that all I can really do is help her sound a bit more natural and encourage her. I really feel bad for her--she clearly doesn't want to do this, but the English teacher asked her, and she couldn't say no. I had picked her written speech as the best, but I had urged the teacher to pick a boy whose topic was less serious but whose spoken English was much more comfortable. Next year, I'll push a bit harder--it's easier to spruce up a speech than to teach someone to speak English well in two weeks, and I don't want to see anyone tortured like this girl again. (note added later: she spent the week after the speech contest in the hospital, ostensibly for the flu but I don't doubt that the stress contributed significantly.) She will work very hard, following the tape I made for her and practicing my rhythm and intonation cues, but I'm horrified that she'll freeze on the podium in front of a thousand people and it will scar her. At best, she'll do her best, listen to the other kids, and know she sounded awful, and she seems like a very smart girl who does not deserve to be made to feel stupid. (note added later: actually, she did very well, but at the cost of spending the following week in the hospital.) I'll have a similar adventure next week at my main school, Manyo.

Well, that's life here. Be well.

Peter

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