To: Newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: Waxing poetic


      Well, I mentioned that we were going to wax the floors today, and we did. I finally found the point at which you have laugh openly at an entire country, even when that country has paid a fortune to bring you halfway around the world and given you a great job, taken good care of you, etc. First, the students and teachers washed the floor more thoroughly than usual, actually scrubbing it. In order to keep me near a teacher who speaks English, I was assigned to scrub a stairwell with a group of first-year girls, and most of them had scouring sponges of about 1X2 inches (2.5X5 cm, for you metric types). This is to scrub the floors of an entire school. They couldn't even understand why I was laughing--I had to explain between gasps for breath: "The school (expansive gesture) is huge but the sponges (helpfully, the word is "suponji") are very small. It's very crazy." Some had regular-size kitchen sink scrub sponges, and after my reaction, they made sure I got one of them. Imagine my surprise when, after the kids left early for the day, the teachers broke out large push mops for the actual waxing. I did not actually wax myself into any corners (one teacher was in charge and had carefully mapped out a plan for us to wax ourselves back to the first floor door to the gym), but I came very close to leaving my clothes (and wallet) in the locker room before that was waxed, and I did completely forget to take my backpack off of my desk until after the teachers' room was inaccessible. I'm going to my other school tomorrow, so I'll have to swing by in the morning to pick it up. The teachers are much more relaxed when the kids are gone. I was surprised that we didn't go out drinking en masse to celebrate a job well done (I've found out that this is an especially social school--some others party much less than we do), but I suppose that would have negated the savings of doing this all by hand. The waxing wasn't too hard, and of course student labor, on which this place runs, is free. I wouldn't be too shocked to find out that this place was actually built by students (maybe I wouldn't lean against any of the walls, though).
      I did chance into discovering some of the ethnic diversity at Manyo. One of the girls in my group told me she is Canadian, and another then added that she is Chinese. The Canadian girl doesn't speak English any better than any of the other smarter first-years (and is obviously Japanese), so she must have been born there while her father was posted abroad by his company. I don't know how it works now, but it used to be that when these kids turned a certain age, they had to choose between foreign and Japanese citizenship--one of my Japanese friends was born in the US but had to give up her US citizenship. Funny, but the Chinese girl pointed to her eyes when she said she was Chinese--I know there used to be some racist belief at home that Chinese people's eyes slanted one way and Japanese the other (I don't remember which is which; I could tell she looked a bit Chinese, but not outside the normal range of variation for Japanese, which seems to be lot bigger than for other Asian peoples). I guess they have some similar thing here. Any Japanese or Chinese people care to fill me in? Anyway, I asked her Chinese name, but will stick with her Japanese one, as I can pronounce it. I also asked the other girl her Canadian name--she had to think for a while while she made one up ("Kim"). I also asked her if she speaks Canadian. After about two seconds looking really puzzled and then giggling, she said "yes." I wonder if my kids think all Americans are this corny.
      An aside to an aside: everything everyone tells me about Japan is wrong--especially everything Japanese people tell me. They always tell me the students are shy--some are, but most are really curious about me and very many are eager to talk to me, and a few have slapped me on the butt. Not so shy. The big story is the value the Japanese place in conformity. I don't at all call it a "myth," but there are much bigger holes in it than people would have me think. I've often been told that every student will do everything he can to avoid sticking out. Indeed, the Japanese version of the "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" is "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down" (I've been told this many times, as if it explains everything, but it really is a proverb here). From what I'd been told, kids would never stand up and say, "I'm not a typical Japanese." But today, just to make conversation, in a group of kids, two came up to me and said, "I'm different." I suppose I should modify the first sentence of this paragraph--a lot of what I'm told is true, but there is a lot more variation here and a lot more individualism than even the Japanese seem to realize. I'm not sure if they hear about American individualism and think that anything short of strapping on a six-shooter and living 3 miles from your closest neighbors isn't really individualism. Maybe it's just that the exceptions stand out, but the important things are that there are a lot of exceptions, many of them are very happy to stand out, at least a little bit, and that they are, for the most part, not at all ostracized for it. (Or this could all be BS [note added later]: in January I found out the "Canadian" girl was teasing me--she'd never even expected me to believe her and was stunned that I had for so long).
      Of course, of all the truisms about Japan, the biggest and the truest is that the popular music is abysmal. Imagine western music if there was nothing but the Spice Girls and N'Sync. Like the other truisms, this one has a few holes--though it's the most reliable of the bunch. Japanese radio makes you doubt for the future of the human race. I've been telling kids that I like the band Yellow Monkey, largely because it always gets a laugh and because someone's description of them made them sound interesting (the woman who told me, "I am a Yellow Monkey"). Well, I finally rented one of their CDs, and it's actually pretty good. There're a lot of snatches of English in the songs, and the liner notes are in English--my favorite lyric is "Lady Madonna/Take me to unpleasant Sixth Avenue." The music itself isn't revolutionary, but it's interesting and intelligent. Don't rush out and buy a copy unless you really like Japanese stuff (or understand Japanese a lot better than I do), but be assured that there are signs of intelligent life in the Japanese music industry, even outside of the promotions departments, which must be staffed with geniuses to move the drivel they usually turn out. On music, I haven't heard any Japanese rap, but there is a taste for the American stuff--and divorced completely from meaning for most people, it has become a pleasant background music. In stores, I hear deeply offensive (even to me) music that would never make it onto the air in America, and little old ladies will be bopping their heads to the beat. Of course, these are also the same little old ladies who buy "Fuck Queen" sweatshirts for their nine year-old granddaughters. I like this place.
      Oh, yes, and will you people kindly get this Bush/Gore stuff over with so people will stop coming up to me to ask about my erection?

O Genki De

Peter

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