Yes, life here is still what we westerners would call "strange," but I've had a few reminders lately that much of American culture is as alien to me as anything here. These have been in the form of letters my third years at 5-chu have been exchanging with fourth graders in Oklahoma. The first thing I noticed was that none of these kids had familiar--or even vaguely familiar--names. Several times, after reading the names, I had to ask my kids if their pen-pals were boys or girls. In this one class in Oklahoma, there are two Tarins. One of my favorites is Taelon--what the hell is that? Weren't they the bad guys in some 80's sci-fi series? These were all little white kids with mostly English last names, so it wasn't some sort of cultural difference. In the whole class, there was one name I recognized. I really think that despite the numbers in the last election, the Bush victory was truly complete--the trailer park set have taken over American culture. I picture all of these kids going out in public every day in their sweat clothes, maybe dressed up for their fundamentalist Sundays in matched sweat suits, with piping along the seams and maybe some sort of gold logo.
Worse yet, my kids sent along a bunch of small gifts they thought their American pen pals might like, and after consulting the internet (they really cared about making sure to choose something American ten year olds might like), quite a few chose Pokemon cards. Several of the American kids graciously (thank God) thanked them for the cards, but noted that their parents didn't allow them to keep the cards. This completely baffled my kids, but since I had already stumbled through several Christian websites in my endless search for self-amusement, I was able to explain, though really I was too sad to do so in any detail. Pokemon, of course, like Halloween and most of the fairy tales we grew up with, is Satanic--by encouraging kids to imagine using magic or the existence of magic, it is part of a worldwide plot to lead them unwittingly through witchcraft to Satan (silly me, I'd thought we'd gotten that out of our system on a hill near my high school in 1692). Of course, there will be fruitcakes scattered throughout any culture, but to discover that parts of America are so rife with them that several will turn up in the same public school classroom discouraged me tremendously. It made me happy that earlier, when some kids had overheard me saying "Jesus Christ" when a step had given out under me and they'd asked me what I had meant, I had explained it using the Japanese term for "Oh, shit."
What else has been happening? Needless to say, I've continued to indulge my taste for inappropriate conversations with small children. One first year kid asked me in English after school, after very carefully practicing the "How do you say" phrase from his textbook, "How do you say unko ["feces"] in English?" Fortunately, I'd learned this word myself just a week earlier, when I'd asked the kids with whom I was cleaning the balconies (we have a lot of big birds around Manyo, so it's a natural question). I ostentatiously read the nameplate on the front of his desk, then replied, "In English, unko is 'Koki.'" He answered, in Japanese, "No, no, no. That's my name. How do you say unko in English?" I came back, "In English, the word for unko is 'Koki.'" It took him a while to realize that I wasn't misunderstanding him, just teasing him. He even drew a picture of a steaming pile and asked me, "What is this in English?" ("In English, we call this 'Koki'.") After holding out for about three minutes, I wrote the word "poop" on the blackboard and pretended to think that his name was "Poop-kun." He was delighted with the attention (obviously, I wouldn't do this to a shy kid), and about an hour later, he chased me down (he must have been looking all over for me), and told me in English, "Unko in English is 'feces.' 'Feces.' 'Defecate.'" He pronounced "feces" and "defecate" perfectly; I haven't figured out yet which teacher taught him how to say those difficult words properly--it's probably either Mr. Omori, the youngest English teacher, or Mr. Sakashita, who teaches social sciences but whose knowledge of impolite English is encyclopedic. Great kid--what could I do but praise his pronunciation and his effort? When a kid tries that hard to say something in English, I can only be delighted. Besides, he had used the polite Japanese term for "feces" at first, and he had that adorably wicked look little kids get when they think they're being naughty but are missing real naughtiness by a mile.
What's sad is when an older kid, who by all rights should know how to misbehave, can't even succeed at that. A couple of weeks ago, a second-year student I'm not particularly fond of whispered to me before class, "Do you know 'pennis'?" I didn't even look up. "No, I don't." The kid was completely deflated. Even my elementary school kids can pronounce that one word, and some associated terms, perfectly. This eighth grade putz (and not a little one, either, but a big bully of a kid) was trying to get my goat with fifth grade material, and even then not putting enough effort into it to carry it off. After freezing him out a couple of more times, but playing it up enough to make it seem like friendly teasing, I corrected his pronunciation, then helped him practice the word (hey, you can't discourage anybody in this job).
O genki de,