Wed Sep 06 21:42:29 2000
To: chris, dad, anne
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: More stuff
Just to start off with a few random notes on the culture. I saw a TV show last week showing three-year old kids being left alone in an American-style haunted house. The kids were terrified and alone, their faces twisted with screaming, while the host and audience watched through hidden TV cameras and laughed uproariously. It was the most horrifying human behavior I've ever seen. And then it was repeated for another pair of three year olds. This went on for half an hour (I was in a restaurant; I couldn't turn it off). This is a seriously weird country.
At a barbecue Sunday (every try to eat a steak with chopsticks? wanna see a big steak-shaped stain on my shorts?), I saw an eleven year old girl wearing a T-shirt that said, in fancy letters with lots of shiny stars, teddy bears, and glitter, "STAR FUCKER." Her mom probably bought it for her.
Helped kids at my school build something (I have no idea what) for a culture festival in a couple of weeks. Construction process is typical--the kids have vastly inadequate tools (tiny brushes to paint weak glue onto 10'X4' sheets of plywood, for example) and use them as inefficiently as possible (under the strict guidance of their teachers, I might add) in order to achieve the least effect with the most possible effort. This school is brand new and expensively equipped, and yet they use the same wood over and over (which is OK), use inadequate wood (which isn't), use the same nails over and over, banging them straight with hammers and rocks (which, after a few times, is insane), and use far too many of the wrong nails (4" nails to join two 1" thick pieces of wood--yes, they had to figure out what to do with the extra 2" of nail, too--but they use small brads to join the plywood to the frame, and it gets windy here). I guess the goal is to teach hard work and teamwork, to do what is asked without comment or complaint in order to preserve the harmony of the group (5 kids working hard for an hour to do what one could do easily in ten minutes with proper guidance) rather than to teach them how to do something well, and this seems to be a consistent theme in how things are done in the schools here (watching the kids wash the floors on hands and knees with filthy torn ancient hand-towel--sized rags is hilarious if a bit sad).
I'm now working regularly--yesterday was the junior high school track meet, so I just sat around under my visiting (2 day a week) school's tent watching children exercise under the hot sun. Seriously, I had nothing to do--I just sat around talking to people. The students had been assigned (as part of their homework) to talk to me at least a little bit, but at first, the one English teacher really had to corral individual kids and force them to talk to me--they were that scared. One tiny girl conferred with the teacher, practicing her question over and over, but literally scampered away every time I looked at her. Some of the littlest kids really are like mice. Finally, I cornered her and said the dreaded words: "Hello, my name is Peter" (pause waiting for reply--none forthcoming); "what is your name?" All of the students are taught two basic conversations:
A: Hello my name is....
B: My name is...
A: I am pleased to meet you
B: Thank you. I am pleased to meet you too.
A: How are you?
B: I am fine, thank you. How are you?
A: I am fine too, thank you.
You can have, word for word, one of these two conversations with any junior high school kid in Japan. I do it about eighty times a day. This girl is a second-year student, so she should at least be up to this kind of conversation. Once I jump-started her with the "what is your name" question ("My name is Asuka"--later in the day, "please call me Ass"), she was able to get the rest of the way through the conversation without difficulty, which emboldened her to try other formulaic questions, such as "How old are you?," "Do you like natto" (you will be asked this by kids and adults all over Japan; if you don't know what natto is, just say "no"--you won't be wrong), and "what is your favorite color." After all this, she was bold enough to ask questions she was really curious about, and continued to talk to me the whole day. Most of the other girls followed the same pattern, but with less extreme fear in the beginning and less enthusiasm in the end. The boys were as scared to talk to me at first, but were much bolder once they saw they could kid around with me, but were less interested in asking about me and America than in kidding around. Much fun. The visiting school has only 85 kids (total), so I will teach them all at least once a week, and most of them twice a week. They live in a fairly isolated village about 20 kilometers outside downtown, up in the mountains, so they all know each other very well. When they go to high school in the city, most of them will go by bike except in winter--the trip into town in the morning is one long glide, but the trip home must be a killer.
At my main school, I've been doing a self-introduction with pictures of family, etc., in each class. I close by saying that I really enjoy living in Takefu, but that I have one very good friend in America that I miss very much, and then into the projector I slide a photo of... (admit it--you're wondering if it's you) Honey the Hedgebeast. The kids are expecting a girlfriend, so this always gets a laugh and a lot of interest. The kids all love her. The picture of an American supper (big steaks, corn, beans, and milk) also gets a big response from students. Then the students ask questions. One chunky (for Japan) kid asked about ten different questions about steaks, and you could tell his mouth was watering for one. Most of the questions are "Do you like _____," "what is your favorite _______," and "what _______ do you like/hate." Once students' confidence in themselves and comfort level with me has been built up by a round or two of simple questions, they ask more interesting questions, although the first year students have so little English they ask most questions in Japanese. Common and favorite (of mine) questions are "do you like me/do you think I'm pretty?" (girls only, so far), "do you like Japanese girls?" (which I find kind of a creepy topic to discuss with junior high school kids, especially girls), "do you have a girlfriend?" (girls and boys), "what alcohol do you like to drink" (the teachers don't discourage this question at all, so I answer), "do you have a gun?" (from students and teachers), and, my favorite, "you are very handsome; which of us (two girls, obviously) do you think is prettier?" I'm always hesitant to tell teenage girls I think they are attractive (American reflex), but their teacher helped me understand them (they asked in Japanese). No man is dumb enough to give an honest answer to this one. "I think you are both very pretty" ("kawaii"--it has the same range of meanings as "cute" in English). And whenever I walk around school, students giggle and shout out "hello," "good morning" (at any hour of the day), "good bye," "how are you," etc., often running to the windows as I walk by ("Petah-sensei! Herro!") or shouting from a distance. So far two girls (separately) who turned around expecting to see someone normal walking behind them have shrieked in terror when they saw it was me. I imagine this "rock star" phase will wear off as they become more familiar with me, but it's fun for now.
Greetings from Mars,