Mon Oct 09 01:31:51 2000
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
I've received several emails from people wondering if I felt the earthquake south of here. Sadly, the answer is no; I was in a bus coming back from a school field trip to Kanazawa (about a hundred miles north of Takefu) when it hit, so I didn't feel anything. I'm also pretty disconnected from news, so I hadn't even heard about until Yoko told me on the phone Saturday afternoon and then the email inquiries started coming in. No damage here that I can tell, but my friends who were in town said they felt it quite strongly--not a little tremor but real shaking in some buildings (though one friend said she was the only one in the teacher's room at her school who noticed it, so maybe some buildings or some locations are less vulnerable), enough to make walking difficult. No damage in this area at all, fortunately. I've never felt an earthquake, and I've been looking forward to at least a little one, and here I am in a plushly suspended bus when one finally hits. I'm sure you all know more about it than I do; all I've heard is that it was strong and that no one was killed (the Sea of Japan coast is mostly sparsely populated, especially south of here). Someone also told me that the epicenter was on land, so there was no tsunami (does it automatically follow that no earthquake on land can cause a tsunami? this doesn't sound right to me).
What else? The Junior High School English Speech Contest was Thursday; I had two students competing, and I'm very proud of both of them. One girl won third prize; the other didn't win, but her English was much worse when she started out and her improvement was impressive--I'm almost more proud of her because it was so much harder for her and yet she put in so much effort and spoke so well.
On the field trip to Kanazawa, (pictures) I was surprised when we arrived and, after a five minute round of speeches, the students were simply dismissed to wander the city on their own for five hours. By the time I figured out what was going on and decided to join a group of students (they were in groups of six), there were only a couple of groups of laggards close enough for me to catch, so I went from group to group until I found one that seemed reasonably happy to have me along. Since I was more in their care than vice-versa, it wasn't like having a teacher along to spoil their independence, so we had a lot of fun, communicating more as the day wore on. Kanazawa wasn't bombed during the war (the second largest city, after Kyoto, to survive intact), so it has a lot of beautiful old neighborhoods. It also has, unusual for Japan, a lot of trees--it's actually a much prettier city than Kyoto, on the whole, and has a lot of cultural and historic things to see, though not on par with Kyoto, of course. First, we went to Kanazawa Castle, skirting the 70-80 foot stone walls for quite some distance before finding the entrance, then plunging in under the huge and impressive gate and battlements. It's a huge area, a small town with various levels of moats and higher walls within it. We looked at one end--just a couple of nondescript buildings. At the other end, the same. Finally, the kids asked a park ranger, who went on at length telling them that all of this, describing the defensive earthenworks and walls, was the castle, and about all the times the castle buildings burned down and were rebuilt (again of wood and paper, as the learning curve here isn't always steep), until finally there wasn't a need for a military castle anymore so it wasn't rebuilt the last time, but there are these ruins here, that wall there, this dig site here, etc. After listening patiently, one kid then reduced all this to, "so there is no Kanazawa Castle." Not interested in exploring ruins (grassy fields and tremendous walls and moats, mostly), we charged off to Kenrokuen garden, one of the top three gardens in Japan (according to the government's official ranking--they love these lists), which we went around for the minimum respectable time, 45 minutes--it is gorgeous, and I'm going to go back every time I come to the city to see it in every season--before we trotted down to the bus stop to seek out what was really the top attraction for the kids: Mosburger. Mosburger is the native competition to McDonald's, and as Takefu is the boonies, we don't have one. Our group of six ran into another group there, and several others came in while we were eating. We spent more time in the burger shop than anywhere else. Then back onto a city bus, and I asked again, "where are we going?" The answer: kashibunka keikan. I understood some of the parts: "bunka" is "culture"; "kashi?" I asked, miming eating. Kashi is a sweet or small cake, but "cake culture museum" seemed odd--but of course I'm in Japan, so if it seems implausible chances are I'm right on track. Indeed, the English on the sign outside said, "Ishikawa Prefectural Confectionery Museum." If you go to Kanazawa, check this place out--it's free, it won't take you more than ten minutes (fifteen if you read all the English information available), and it's a hoot. There are a couple of silly sculptures made out of candy, but the main display is simply a series of nice looking rice cakes each in its little glass display case. Frankly, these don't look any more special than what you'd see in any better sweet shop, including the museum's own gift shop, which was the nicest I've seen. Maybe these were to illustrate techniques described in labels I couldn't read rather than being presented as especially high examples of the art. There are also a bunch of old molds for making these and for making sakanayaki ("fried fish"), a fish-shaped cake that actually has no fish in it and doesn't taste at all like fish (amazing in a country where absolutely anything can turn out to taste like fish). For me, the best part is a series of drawings showing paleolithic Japanese cave men pounding out rice flour and baking cakes over fires just outside their caves, producing molded mochi sweets that look just like some of the less elaborate sweets on sale today. Somehow this seems completely ridiculous, that subsistence hunter-gatherers would have gone through so much effort to make delicate sweet little rice cakes (as if their economy were sophisticated enough to support a full time confectioner). Reading this, I see I don't seem to have captured it, but if you see it, I don't think you can miss the absurdity of it. The museum gift shop was, of course, a confectionery shop, several very impressive confectionery shops, in fact, including one that smelled strongly of fish. Then off again, this time to "Ame Towaraya"; noting the blank look on my face, one of the students said, in English, "candy store." I noted a theme developing here. I guessed that after the cultural sweets experience (I was the only one who bought anything in the gift shop), they just wanted to go to some huge candy shop and stock up on favorites. We stopped several times to ask directions, confirming my earlier discovery that asking directions from individual Japanese is a doomed project, as it took about six sets of conflicting instructions before we found the place. To my surprise, we came to a very old building in a very old neighborhood--the shop had been in the same place since 1870 and the goods were made right there. Also to my surprise, there was little merchandise on display--several jars of honeyish goop, two cakes of what looked like the same stuff hardened a little, and two bags of hard candy. The shop was almost completely bare. The woman behind the counter handed us all little lollipop sticks with thick glops of honey-like stuff them, and after one of the kids explained that I was their teacher and didn't know anything (and in fact I don't really even know what she said), she handed me a small sheet in English. The shop, begun in 1870, produces exactly two products, the sweet honey-like goop made of only malted barley and rice, and the same stuff congealed into hard candy. And yet they stay in business! I bought some hard candy, the kids all bought jars of goop and other things, and we left. I suspected they were filling orders from parents and relatives, but they did seem interested in the place.
On a side note, though, the group decision-making dynamic that I have often found so frustrating worked beautifully on this trip--because there were six kids striving for consensus on every decision, we used a small amount of time discussing, but we never got seriously lost, and at the same time no one felt left out or ignored in deciding where to go. Harmony was preserved. My school turned 120 unsupervised eighth graders loose on a large city far from home, and the worst that happened was that one group was four minutes late returning to the bus. Next year, these kids will be turned loose for seven or eight hours a day for three days in Tokyo, a city that daunts their teachers (especially me). This would be a disaster with American 14 year olds. Sometimes this group-oriented culture seems insane to me because it is so different from what I know and understand, but every once in a while I get a little glimpse of the fact that, for the most part, it works very well.
Nonsequitor: the girls in junior high school always where their uniform gym shorts under their skirts. I don't know if this rule was made to compensate for the fact that the kids are so unladylike, or if they know they can get away with not being ladylike because of the shorts. I find them hilarious as they sit around in their skirts, their knees as far apart as possible (the shorts are bright blue), often with their legs up on their desks if it's not during a class, and often in hot weather they spread their knees and flap their skirts to fan their legs. It always reminds me of a Rockwell painting of a tomboy. I think of this because, after we assembled in park to go to the buses at the end of the day, Sakashita-sensei was about to take a picture of a bunch of girls, and just as I was thinking, "oh, now that's a ladylike pose" he shouted to a girl in front to please close her skirt, causing just about all the students and most of the teachers to howl with laughter. He got the picture with her knees pressed tightly together, all of her friends laughing, and her face bright red. She is one of the livelier ones, so this wasn't really traumatic for her (some girls here this would have killed), and she was laughing at herself even before her cheeks faded.
Sometime on the bus ride back, the earth moved, and I missed it. When we got back, though, the fun was not over, because there was still a party with the other second-year teachers and the principal, who also accompanied us. I should add that the principal and all the other teachers were dressed more formally than normal, all in suits and ties or businessy dresses. My supervisor had told me the night before to dress casually, which I took to mean to dress more casually than I usually dressed, because we would be walking all day. I showed up in jeans and a T-shirt. Therefore, at the end of the day, I had to go home to change before meeting the others, and after that I promptly hustled off on my bike to... an empty restaurant. "Um, are the Manyo JHS teachers coming here tonight?" No. Flash of inspiration (theirs)--there is a restaurant with a similar name across town; the chef called them and, yes, my colleagues were arriving. He drew me a map, and I humbly realized it was my favorite Italian restaurant, where my friend Emi had worked, and where I had eaten a couple of times before. I finally got in twenty-five minutes late, but the owner had relayed my call to the principal, and the chef of the first place later called to see if I got there OK, so they knew why I was late. How do you know you've been Japan for a while? You look down halfway through a plate of spaghetti and realixe that, like everyone else in your party, you are using chopsticks, even though there are a perfectly good knife and fork next to the plate. AND you don't change because you realize it's easier to eat spaghetti with chopsticks then with a fork (I've never felt comfortable eating spaghetti with a fork--I've just never found it an easy food to eat). I mentioned that I had been there before and knew a woman who used to work there, but she was in Chicago now. Someone asked (after asking if she was my girlfriend--you cannot use a woman's name without being asked this) if I had known her in America, and I answered, using the wrong word, "no, I didn't understand her in America." Puzzled looks all around. I caught myself and clarified, "no, I didn't know her in America; I didn't understand her in Japan." I think that's the most sophisticated joke I've managed yet in Japanese.
(Note: from here on, if a name doesn't seem likely for a Japanese teacher, it isn't--I've substituted common American names to protect the guilty, but the names are consistent so that maybe you can get an idea of the indicidual personalities)
The principal left early, and the mood changed immediately. Some of the teachers (there were seven of us) had had a lot of wine with dinner. After we followed the principal out (in some measure, I think, to be sure that he was really gone) and returned to the table, Scarlett-sensei immediately told me that the principal is "abnormal." The word for this, "hentai," is a real insult here (as one would imagine in a culture that values homogeneity so highly) . I immediately understood-kocho is definitely hentai, a slightly stiff, odd fellow, but he is a great boss and a nice guy. I made a very large "shhhh" gesture and noise as a joke, and he immediately started backpedaling, telling me how Jeffreys-sensei was the best principal in town, how he respected him very much, etc. Everybody else seemed to get a little uncomfortable at what Scarlett had said, too, and started to praise the principal (it was the first time I had heard anyone say his name--everyone addresses him and refers to him by his title, kocho-sensei). As more wine went around and we moved on to dessert, my esteemed colleagues lost any sense that some conversation could be appropriate. Practicing his English (which got better as he drank more and became less shy), Scarlett started calling Jones "hentai" and telling me Jones had "big dick." Shy-sensei, the school nurse and a woman who does not drink, looked horrifed when someone translated for her, but the other two women didn't seem at all embarrassed. Jones then demeaned Scarlett's equipment. Conversation turned to Binoche-sensei, the beautiful (and I mean beautiful) first year teacher out with her colleagues in the place next door. Robinson-sensei, two months married, joked about being in love with her, others joked about how he was already planning his divorce, and finally Collins-sensei (a woman) asked me if I was in love with Binoche-sensei. I said something like, "she's beautiful, but I'm not going to say any more." Then someone suggested I fight Robinson for her (I have maybe seven inches and 65 pounds on this guy, who is my closest friend at the school), and I mimed boxing him.
Then we moved next door to join the first-year teachers, a much quieter crowd (I felt like part of a wave of drunks rolling into the place, although I wasn't drunk myself). To my horror, either Scarlett or Jones started teasing Robinson about his crush on the shy and embarrassed Binoche right in front of her--I'm all for inappropriate conversation, but these guys seemed completely insensitive to the fact that they were making her uncomfortable. Of course, her role as a very young woman in a Japanese organization is to sit through this and smile shyly, which she did. Someone also threw my name into the ring, at which point I said Robinson was disqualified (I'm sure I said something much simpler, really) because he was already married, so that Nelson pronounced me the winner and tried to take my hand and force it across the table to take Binoche's. Scarlett then insisted that I have a drinking contest with Smith (another English teacher), who is known as the heaviest drinker at the school (he is also precisely one centimeter taller than me, which is very unusual here, but must weigh well under 140 pounds). I said no ("what are we, 18 years old?"), and then he said that I had to and offered Binoche as the prize for the winner. This poor woman is 23 and she's out with all these old lechers. The funny thing is that I get the impression she's really not all that shy and demure, that this is just the face she puts forth at these things because that's the role of a young woman at the bottom of an organization. Anyway, I kept asking if Scarlett was really 14 instead of 42, and finally just said, "I'm not listening to you." Very simple stuff, but people seemed happy that I was staying in the conversation and they laughed at my jokes. I'm still at that stage of bad Japanese where I'm the talking monkey-what he says isn't important, but damn it isn't it funny that he can speak at all. I have to watch myself to keep from taking too much advantage of this and button-holing myself as a complete idiot. As we left, this kept up, and I said to Binoche that Japanese men are a lot like junior high school students--she laughed. Finally, I moved to a third place (after making sure the standing-challenged Smith-sensei was not going to drive home in his car, which he was leaning on--here they send a cab out with an extra guy to drive your car home when you're drunk) with just Robinson (English teacher), Scarlett, and Jones (both whom also speak English reasonably well), who proceeded to teach me some VERY BAD Japanese. Even in this setting, pretty drunk and informal, we kept to the use of honorifics, but I had not picked up on the fact that they had shifted from "-sensei" ("teacher") to "-san" ("Mr."), until I asked Jones-sensei, who had been using some very large and obviously dirty gestures, a fairly coarse question (trying out my new vocabulary), and Robinson-sensei said to me quietly in English, "the next table is very close; please when we are saying such things do not say "sensei"; say "san." We do not want people to know we are teachers." Interesting cultural lesson--teachers are highly respected here, but with that comes the expectation that we will behave decorously, so when we're not behaving decorously, we try not to call attention to that fact that we're teachers.
The worst thing I heard, though, is that Binoche-sensei is leaving the school at the end of October to study for the test to become a fully licensed teacher. I will offer to help her with English if there's any English on the test, but I don't imagine she'll take me up on it. I really want to improve my Japanese so that the next time I have time to get to know someone like her I'll be able to. Also, Scarlett, before he got really drunk, seemed to be very funny from the way people were responding to him, and I get the sense that he has a cutting wit and might be very interesting, but when these conversations are flowing around me in Japanese I sometimes understand less than 10% of what is said. I don't feel left out because someone will usually say something to me in simpler slower Japanese or toss in a word of English to keep me involved, and even when I have no idea what's being said, I'm not bothered or feeling excluded because I don't expect to always be the center of attention, which I am by definition if people are reducing the entire conversation to a level I can follow or speaking English (which most of the teachers don't speak, so I try to avoid using it as much as I can--I also don't want to make my English-speaking colleagues feel like they have to cater to me and take care of me by acting as my translators). Good motivation.
Today (Sunday) I climbed a decent-sized mountain with friends--it's about 1600 feet tall, and the base is about 300', so it's a good, steep 1300' climb. I barely made it, but I wouldn't have made it all a few months ago. Tomorrow, a holiday, I'm having lunch with friends at my Japanese teacher's house, then the bunch of us are going to an onsen (hot spring bath) in the next town--it's a nice one, with an outdoor garden with different temperature pools and an almost scalding waterfall.