I had a great day today. I suppose I've been feeling a bit out of sorts at school lately. I've been helping a pair of kids (one per school) practice for an English speech contest, so I haven't been seeing as much of the rest of the students, including the usual bunch who entertain me every day. I've enjoyed helping the two kids and getting to know them better, especially the girl, whom I hadn't had much contact with before (I already knew the boy, a really great kid, pretty well--in fact, just before I left for home this summer, the little putz asked me to bring him back a present). Now that I think of it, I think I've become addicted to the celebrity of being the goofy token foreigner, and I must have been suffering from withdrawal. Anyway, the contest was yesterday (Satohiro, the boy from Manyo, won third prize, and Marie, the girl from Go-chu, didn't win anything but improved her English quite a bit while preparing for it), and today I went with the third years from Manyo to a barbecue in the mountains.
Japanese barbecue is a little different. To start with, of course, you cook Japanese food--small pieces of meat and vegetables grilled, then pulled from the fire with chopsticks and dragged through Japanese barbecue sauce on the way to the mouth; yakisoba, a fried noodle and cabbage dish; and Japanese pears (sometimes called "apple pears" in America--if you see them in a store, you must try them if you haven't already) for dessert. A more subtle difference is in the mechanics of the barbecue itself. The charcoal is actually still shaped like the small branches and pieces of wood it started out as. It's in much bigger chunks than ours. Also, there's no lighter fluid (at least there wasn't today); with no lighter fluid and bigger pieces of charcoal (less surface area), lighting the stuff might be a challenge, but Japanese technology is up to almost any challenge. In this case, Japanese technology means an industrial-sized blowtorch (the mouth is about 3" diam.), which a teacher takes from barbecue pit to pit to light each flame (each group of six kids has their own pit, and is completely responsible for feeding themselves, everything from buying and carrying the food to cleaning up at the end--except that, while American junior high schools install metal detectors to take knives away from the students, our junior high school gives out 12" chef's knives for the day [complete text of safety lecture: "Be careful with the knives"]). Another key difference between a Japanese jr. high school barbecue and an American one is that the Japanese teachers bring beer (to be fair, though, no one had more than one can).
On the hike to the picnic grounds (in Japanese: "bahbecue housu"), I talked and joked with a lot of kids and generally had a lot of fun while devoting several brain cells to making sure none of the ones near me walked in front of any buses or trucks. They kept themselves entertained by trying to stick as many sticky seed pods to their friends' clothes as possible, and I entertained myself by trying to surreptitiously stick three-foot long weeds in the zippers of as many kids backpacks as I could, while occasionally grabbing a kid's shoulders, shoving him/her toward the irrigation canal beside the road, and shouting "Be Careful!" while pulling him/her back (I pride myself on my professional demeanor). Another favorite game was to junken (rock, paper, scissors) among a group of five or six; the eventual loser had to carry everyone else's packs and bags for the next five minutes or so, until the next junken. After lunch, the kids had time to just hang around and devise their own entertainments, so I wandered from group to group, sampling all the different kinds of candy that had suddenly appeared--which brings me back to the subject line above. Unfortunately, "the most disgusting Japanese food" isn't strictly accurate, because this is something that we in the States were as likely to have come up with as the Japanese; it's certainly not traditional cuisine. If they beat us to it, it's only due to luck, not to any cultural difference. You remember "Boogers," the Gummi snot candy that came in a nose-shaped dispenser? Yes, the natural evolution of the product has finally come. In Japan (I'll try to find out exactly where), you can now buy Gummi Poop. Student line of the day: "Peter-sensei, how about some [poop]?" Anyway, beyond the candy, I had a great time goofing around with kids, especially Yukari and a group of her friends, who asked me to stay and play some games with them (I have now played my first word game in Japanese). Once we got back, we had a long time to hang around in front of the school with nothing to do, so I again wandered from group to group, making jokes, asking dumb questions of the more English-challenged or shy kids (anything to get them talking). When the kids come back from a trip, they all line up by homeroom in front of the school, listen to a closing speech from one of the teachers, and then thank and bow to all of the teachers who helped out. Today, each grade went to a different place, so after the third-years' little assembly broke up, I ended up with a bunch of really outgoing girls (if you saw the videotape I made of my schools, you saw these girls), and had more of a conversation with them than I've had with students in a while. They were really interested to ask questions and express their ideas, so they tried very hard to come up with what they wanted to say in English (always warms the heart to see that), as well as to make themselves understood in very simple Japanese when their English failed them (a couple of them got a lot further in English than I would have expected from how well they do in class). I even had to quiet them a couple of times during the closing assemble of the first years, who'd come back a little later than us, so we wouldn'd draw a dirty look from one of the other teachers. After the serious conversation was out of the way (through a misunderstanding compounded into a rumor, they had thought I was engaged to someone who's just a friend; then everyone told me what their favorite classes were and how those related to their dreams for the future), we got back to the more usual jokes and teasing:
Chiaki: Do you think I'm cute?
Peter: I think you're strange.
Maki: She is crazy girl, and not cute-o.
Chiaki: Radish leg! [This killed me--it's a literal translation of a Japanese expression for "fat," based on the idea that a fat person's calves are shaped like daikon, the inescapable Japanese radish. Maki is not at all fat, so the comment wasn't really mean; I imagine Chiaki must have come up with that some time ago and been waiting eagerly for a chance to try it out in front of me.]
* * *
Chiaki: Peter, I love you.
Peter: Chiaki, you scare me.
Kana: Me, too. I love Peter, too.
Peter: You are also very scary.
Kana had earlier run up to Mr. Omori, one of the English teachers, and shouted in front of about fifty people "I am married to him," and Chiaki has a look on her face, every minute of every day, that can only be described as "the cat that swallowed the canary," so neither of them is really too frightening (though they both scare the hell out of the boys in the school, one of whom they can be seen tormenting on my videotape--I'll have to look at that again and see if he's the same kid I just realized has a crush on their best friend). Anyway, I really love the kids here.
O genki de,