Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Atomic Guilt

Looming borough-wide tests helped sour last week at Nubata, previously my favorite school. Aside from a few games of hangman, classes were all listen-and-repeat drills. Now, what’s worse than playing human tape recorder for a morning? Sitting through an assembly in a steaming gymnasium for two hours that afternoon. This annual "Students' General Meeting" is a student-run forum to voice their concerns and requests. Of course, those voices commented only in Japanese, leaving me staring off into the choking humidity.

Students sat in rows according to grade and class section. Tables for various committee members flanked a central podium where student moderators called representatives to the floor mic. Each section rep waived a placard in hopes being selected next to speak.

The floor plan resembled a political caucus, but the proceedings had the solemnity of a tribunal, save for a few seconds of comic relief. One student sent the microphone crashing to the hardwood floor, and little Hideki from section 1-4 forgot his lines. An unruly special ed. student was dragged out of the gym by the seat of his pants.

Teachers lined the perimeter of the room slumped over in folding chairs, alternating between keeping an eye on students and closing their own. Japanese speeches anesthetized English-only eardrums. I drifted in and out of consciousness, fighting to stave off inevitable embarrassment. When would the foreigner conk out, everyone peeped over to look? Monitoring my condition was more interesting to some kids than reports from the cleaning and lunchtime broadcast committees. Eyelids sagged under their own weight. A few sympathizers winked, waived, or flashed peace signs. I smiled back before surrendering to sleep.The next day featured further discomfort. Mr. Nakamura caught me off guard before class: “Do you know something about the atomic bomb?” What did this have to do with English class? Like how we dropped two on you, I resisted saying. “You dropped one on Hiroshima and one on Nagasaki.” “Yeeeeeah, gomen-ne,” I apologized from the corner of my mouth.

The lesson plan for ninth graders included textbook characters Kumi and Mukami’s discussing World War II. Mr. Nakamura sincerely asked me to share what I had learned in school about these events. I mentioned studies of the War in the Pacific, and felt obligated to point out the “you started it” Pearl Harbor defense. Japan also overran Guam, Saipan, and even Alaskan islands Kiska and Atka. The teacher pressed me for reasons on why the bomb was dropped. “Well, some theorists say that the bombs ultimately saved lives by ending the war sooner.” I felt like Rummy’s spinning modern day U.S. blunders. “But I still don’t think that justified America's use of the atomic bomb against innocent civilians,” I added. That prompted Mr. Nakamura to flash poster-size images of Fat Man and Little Boy bombs and a scene of Hiroshima carnage. Some stared at the images while others watched the squirming American.

“Okay, onto the lesson. Please, can you now read the dialogue on page 18?” I recited Kumi and Mukami’s lines ad nauseam. Students repeated until perfection.

"Terrible" was a new vocab word, but I wanted to introduce a stronger one. Civilized minds can only hope history won’t repeat itself, but a recent report estimated up to a 70% chance of an attack with a weapon of mass destruction within the next 10 years.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

The English You Didn't Learn in School

My usual four hours of sleep interrupted by a 5.6 earthquake, I wobbled into work pooped, and plopped down at my assigned desk in the teacher’s office. Constipation. Feces. Two words scrawled on a piece of paper had the same effect as a can of iced coffee from the vending machine.

Ms. Kimura approached me. “Today’s lesson we are going to learn about sickness. I wanted to know some other words for these.” Synonyms for shit. 8:35 a.m. Wasn’t it a little early to have our minds in the toilet?

Well, if you must know, stool and bowel movement are also polite ways of saying feces. I noted the primary furniture meaning of stool, and how bowels have significance beyond the intestines. Kids say poopy. Animals excrete turds. Humans take a crap; they take a number two. I decoded the difference between numbers one and two. Ms. Kimura was eating this up. Grinning gave way to snickering. I couldn’t contain myself any longer. ESL had hit a new low. What about the “s” word, I wondered? The final fecal frontier. I shouldn’t, should I? “Shit.” I did.

Later in class we repeated G-rated afflictions like stomachache, broken leg, and insect bite. Role-playing involved asking and answering, “What’s the matter?” But student curiosity transcended textbook ailments. I acted out scatterbrained to peels of laughter.

“A student wants to know how you say…when you are sick…and you blahhh.” “Vomit?” “Yes, can you write some words for this on the board?” Synonyms for throw up. Upchuck, hurl, spill my guts. Lose my lunch got giggles after translation. “Wow, you have so many words. In Japan, we have only two.” “Oh, I can keep going, shall I?” I delved into euphemisms like pray to the porcelain god and regional Dartmouth slang like boot. I taught Japanese middle school students how to boot. What’s next, substitute beer pong for gym class table tennis? I’ll go rack the Asahi. “Class, do you know what is ‘rack’…?”

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Popular in Pumas

My return visit to Douyoto School this week was much improved from my initially disappointing reception in May. Perhaps students felt my three-week absence. Perhaps they felt more comfortable around me the second time around. Or perhaps they felt the power of the Pumas.

This has to be the single hottest brand here. Youth wear Puma shirts, tote Puma umbrellas, and store writing implements in Puma pencil bags. In Japan, each student has a cloth pencil case holder, and Puma has about a fifth of the market. But few locals sport Puma footwear. So, while in New York, I snagged myself two pairs to serve as trendy “indoor” shoes.

The entire school took notice. As I paced around class pronouncing numbers one through 21 or the vocab du jour, heads turned down to my feet with magnetic attraction as the mountain lion logo over my toes navigated aisles cluttered with uniform backpacks. Kakoii they call me. Cool guy.

My rising popularity became official when the lunch bell rang and three eighth grade boys asked me if I’d eat lunch with their section. Honored, I instantly accepted. This touched off squabbling as to who would sit next to me. With precious lunchtime minutes ticking away, as a compromise, I ate at the front of class facing everyone.

Lunch ended, and clean up (read: chaos) began. A bully hoisted the teacher’s swivel desk chair and turned it sideways. Legs spinning, it resembled a giant drill press pulverizing a student into the blackboard.

With the trays cleared, the lunch cart doubled as an arm wrestling arena. I’m quickly chosen. The first opponent put up a fight, but the sensei 12 years his senior triumphed. I felt pretty good about upholding my tough guy image.

Then, from the back of the room, Nebiko emerged. A sumo-in-training, he already surpasses my size 12 foot not to mention my 32” waist. Reluctant to take on this predator for fear of losing face (or a finger), I’m strong-armed by peer pressure. The bout began. Size was on his side. Half my age, Nebiko is one-and-a-half times my weight. Our strength equalized into a stalemate. But slowly I gained the upper hand, and defeated the favorite to a chorus of “ooohs.”

After using my weaker left arm to topple a rightie, I’ve averted humiliation at the hands of eight graders. I wiped my brow. Challengers exhausted, 15 minutes remained before class. “Do you want to play some soccer?” someone asked. “Of course, ikimashoo!” I slipped into my “outdoor” dressy Rockports and trotted onto the clay field also used for track and baseball. Whether he liked it or not, Nebiko played goalie, but for the other team.

The crowd roared as I took the field. Girls in the upper deck raced to fourth floor windows and shouted “Jefu!” The window girls waved down to their teacher who last played soccer during his own junior high days. Nevertheless, I registered two impressive, but wholly accidental blocks. A shot on our team’s goal glanced off my hip, and later my groin suffered the brunt of a Nebiko kick; a sumo always gets revenge. The game ended in a 1-1 draw, but I sensed victory in becoming one with the students.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Flag Day

Tuesday, June 14 was just another day at the office for you, but in this school district it was reason enough to break from lesson plan routine and educate unsuspecting Japanese students about Flag Day. I chalked up Betsy Ross’ first flag for the 13 Colonies, and explained how America has grown since 1776 by adding 37 more stars to form our current banner. And just like America’s flag, its states come in two colors. The blue states are good and the red states are bad. New York is a good state, okay class? Okayokay, they said.

What better way to celebrate Flag Day than to bestow on foreign students my mother lode of pencils and erasers (see previous post) bearing Old Glory? Winners of games had a choice between pencil and eraser. After all, class, democracy is about choice. One smart aleck, however, wanted a grander prize: a plane ticket to New York. Sasahara, not even five feet tall, was the last man standing after a heated game of Simon Says. He chose the eraser. Another student piped up, saying that they sell those in Japan. Maybe he had a point; they are made in Taiwan.

The free prize also came with gratuitous political commentary. “The eraser is so you can help erase America’s mistakes in the world,” I quipped. Ms. Kimura laughed and translated. Blank stares for fifteen seconds. “Like Iraq,” I added, thinking of how I wanted to air mail a carton to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Some smiles of recognition. “Too deep,” Kotomi, an active girl in the front row, said. She just as well could have meant America’s blunders committed in the name of the war on terror, but it turns out she only was referring to the double meaning of my eraser comment.

Meanwhile, a delighted Sasahara was counting the stars on his prize. I braced myself to hear him shout nijuu-hachi. 48. He was only going to find 48 stars on the Taiwanese-made American flag. Much to my chagrin, I admitted that the eraser was incorrect. But this was a Taiwanese mistake. Nevertheless, so much for the finer points of today’s lesson on Flag Day stars.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Something to Confess

I orchestrated my re-entry into Japan with the precision of an espionage training mission.

Objective: Penetrate Japan’s border as an illegal worker through hoodwinking immigration and customs officials.

Preparation: Obtain two different tickets for the same flight to Narita. Under the guise of a tourist, hide the one with my actual November return to NY, and create a bogus itinerary showing the same inbound flight, but with a July return, a date within the three-month tourist visa window. (I accomplished this with a $3,674.71 full-fare but fully refundable e-ticket, which I refunded just before I left.)

Methodology: Denials, lies, broad smiles, and quick speech to confound officials with a shaky grasp of English.

Handicap: My baggage weighed a ton. 79.5 lbs. to be precise, exceeding Northworst’s 72 lb. limit, and incurring $500 in excess fees. In the concourse of JFK’s Terminal 4, I transferred 1 lb. glass jars of Trader Joe’s peanut butter and 1 lb. bags of dry roasted almonds to my carry-on, and checked in without penalty.

Other contents hinted at my long-term, non-tourist intentions. I rehearsed responses for my ultimate fear: hand search of luggage. Feigning chronic halitosis could excuse my 1 liter tub of Listerine, which cost the same as an 8.5 oz. travel bottle in Japan. Love of carbohydrates surely necessitated importing three boxes of Kelloggs’ Smart Start cereal, two bags of Rold Gold pretzels, and three packages of Swedish fish – a nice change of pace from daily discount sushi dinners. I’d rather get cavities than parasites.

But just how was I going to explain three month’s worth of prescription pills? Or a nose hair clipper the shape and diameter of a vibrator. It’s true function would be lost in translation. I envisioned a demonstration for wide-eyed customs officers.

Having left most clothing in my Tokyo apartment, would anyone notice that I packed the same number of socks as jars of lightly salted crunchy peanut butter? I also would be at a loss to explain the 432 unsharpened pencils and 48 erasers emblazoned with American flags. To be used as student prizes, their boxes read ForTeachersOnly.com. “Of course I’m not a teacher, officer. Flag Day is this Tuesday!”

At Narita, I cringed when immigration stamped my passport on the same page as my initial April entry, which might induce questioning as to multiple trips. Therefore, I approached the weakest looking customs officer, a lady half my size, who true to form lobbed softball questions, including if I had anything to declare. “Of course not,” I lied through my best smile. Patriotic pencils and jars of peanut butter rolled in undetected. Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

New York State of Mind

For my sister’s graduation from Harvard, I returned to the land of big portions and bigger automobiles just five weeks into my Japan stint. Familiar sights and smells greeted me on outings in Manhattan. I relished mundane details that symbolize the essence of NY. New Yorkers take such things for granted, but having been starved of the American way of life, I gloated while nibbling a hot pretzel while walking on wide sidewalks flanking wider avenues.

Every block comes with a trash can or two. If not, there’s always the street. Rebellious. Carefree. I didn’t give a second thought to tossing my soda can and foil pretzel wrapper into the same receptacle. Where was the bin for cans? Eh, recycling is a hassle anyway. I didn’t clean the mustard from the foil, nor did I fret whether this material is classified as burnable or not.

I enjoyed a cityscape where I don’t climb three flights of stairs to enter a bookstore or bar; store signs make me feel literate. NY is synonymous with ease and accessibility. Every product, service, or foodstuff conceivable is at your fingertips, never more than a subway ride away.

As I descended into the bowels of the MTA, reverse culture shock paralyzed my senses. Sterile stations in Tokyo these were not. Instead, filth and diversity were in full bloom down here. Rats scurried around the graveyard for AA batteries and spent Metrocards. So while I stared at the tracks and waited, wondering if and when the N train was ever coming, I smiled at the slime coating the wall tiles. How NY. Platform air, humid and stale, smelled…like diversity. On one bench sat men in a yarmulke, turban, black do-rag, and red bandana. NY is where differences blend in; heterogeneity intersects with urban sophistication. Worlds collide harmoniously.

NYC seems like a National forest when compared to nature’s penetration of Tokyo’s concrete. Nonetheless, retreating back home in the suburbs titillated my nostrils with the scent of fresh mulch. Irises bloomed, chickadees chirped, and a dozen friends feasted on grilled meats, shrimp, and vegetables in my backyard bbq homecoming.

Click here for pictures of my father’s mouth-watering cooking and a competitive croquet game.

The hardest thing about NY was leaving. The hardest thing about going back to Japan would be fooling immigration to let an illegal alien in as a tourist.