Friday, December 30, 2005

Blind Dates

Hair neatly parted? Check. Nostrils and teeth free of debris? Check. Plentiful supply of invigorating Frisk peppermints? Check. It was time for my first goukon.

Satoshi’s friend had arranged everything. I would meet them outside of Shinjuku station, exit A13 (there are, after all, about 50). I had traded mangled text messages with Satoshi for the past two weeks, but forgot what he looked like. We only met once in passing at a party and exchanged numbers. Now we and two other guys were going to meet four girls for drinks, dinner and a possible first step towards lifelong romance.

Goukon is a Japanese-style group date involving equal numbers of guys and girls, often the type that struggle to find their own dates beyond a structured invitation from an equally desperate friend.

Maei, Maki, Mariko and Eriko were waiting in the basement-level restaurant’s private booth. I removed my shoes and climbed in. We began introductions as our drinks arrived. Aside from names, I understood and said very little. One of the guys spoke some English, but other than that I could only express common interests with Eriko by repeating hip-hop stars on her Sony mp3 player.

Maki had the looks and the piercings – 19 of them, in fact. Not all were visible. “I want to see them later,” I blurted out in Japanese. Sometimes I forget my audience is not always adolescent males. She looked older than the other girls, perhaps early 30s, but I wasn’t one to guess. I was surprised to learn that Satoshi, who looked 23, was actually 33.

He was also on his third glass of shochu (whisky and water) before I had broken apart chopsticks to sample the appetizing raw tuna slices drizzled with peanut butter and clover sauce, or that’s what it looked like.

Perhaps impairment caused Satoshi to call Maei “Maria,” who grunted at the affront. She was a piggish girl with an attitude, and scowled at him all night. She also divulged that her mother owned a restaurant in Tochigi prefecture where horsemeat was the specialty. It was apparently very cheap. I double-checked to make sure I interpreted correctly. Yes, the horsemeat came with egg and ginger sauce. I’m not sure if the eggs were on the side or in the sauce, but I was glad we weren’t eating in Tochigi.

While Japanese flew all around me, I dove into buta no kakuni ni boi, or boiled pork squares, which don’t sound much better than horsemeat, but were heavenly. With the girls nothing special, at least I had an endless supply of pre-ordered food arriving at the table.

Later in the evening a woman slid open our booth’s shoji, a paper door with wooden frame. She dropped off promotional cigarettes in green and pink packs. A nicotine-like rush came over me as I thought about owning my first pack. While I would never buy one based on principle, I’ll take anything free and targeted at me, even cancer sticks.

Satoshi, who smoked as much as he drank, had other ideas. He gave all of the pink packs to Maria, and kept the green ones for himself. He knew the American didn’t smoke, but where was his Japanese sense of obligatory hospitality?

The best part of the goukon was periodically changing places. This clever twist ensured a mixing of the group in case you initially sat next to Mariko, who had less to say than I did. Changing places also enabled me to devour the untouched plate of pork squares at the other end of the table.

Although all seven of us except Satoshi started off with beer, by the end of the evening I was one of only two such drinkers left. The others had switched to shochu or mixed concoctions. Warned about last call, Satoshi ordered an extra round. This happened twice more, with drinks coming before the previous ones were finished. Maria hoarded three full glasses, and was talking loudly across the table at Satoshi.

I was stuffed, but slid chocolate cake onto my plate. You can’t eat and drink this well for ¥6000 ($51)/person in New York.

When I returned from the restroom, I asked Satoshi where the girls had gone. I struggled to understand that they had left without saying goodbye. Satoshi wasn’t ready to call it a night, and in his thirst hailed us a cab to an Irish pub.

Students were keen to know of my Japanese experience. Perhaps next time I should listen to their suggestions. As one 9th grade girl advised, “Don’t go on a goukon. The girls are pathetic.”

Monday, December 26, 2005

Jam-Packed Road Trip

Japanese mass transit is predictable to the minute, and its workers don’t have pension issues (right, New York?). However, cattle cars are a predictably boring and hectic means of movement. I was eager to trade darkened tunnels with unpleasant odors for the freedom of an automobile with fresh air on the open road.

Shuichi, the English student of my American friend Michelle, would chauffeur with his own wheels. Would our getaway vehicle be one of the 10 I cited as having head-scratching names? The side door automatically rolled opened on the white 2003 Honda Stepwgn, which might hve mde my tp 20.

Michelle packed typical Japanese road trip fare: squid jerky, octopus bits, and sweet potato soft chew sticks. I had the foresight to bring two “international-style” CD mixes of top 40 hits. Otherwise, Michelle and I were poised to commit double suicide in the back seat as O-zone’s hit single “Ma Ya Hi” was stuck on repeat during the 45 minutes were circled around trying to find the Shuto expressway out of Tokyo.

The confusion was in spite of a GPS system onboard, an indispensable gadget for anyone daring to drive to an address in this city. While such systems in American cars display the nearest Six Flags or Burger King, Japanese GPS pinpoints soba noodle shops and ubiquitous convenience stores.

I quickly grew nostalgic for being pressed up against dark-suited strangers. Monday was a holiday, so you’d think that by Sunday morning people would have already headed for the hills. Not the case in a country where 7pm is early to leave work, even on a Saturday. I learned a new word on this trip: jutai. It means traffic, of which we faced 24 kilometers (15 miles) worth.

Not even purple Etc. toll lanes (think E-ZPass) could speed up the trip. Two mixes proved insufficient, and O-zone came back on with a vengeance. I love Romanian dancepop just as much as the next guy, but it’s best in small doses. Really, really, really small doses.

Traffic snarled again at the gateway to the Izu Peninsula, a popular getaway for its onsen, or thermal hot springs. Route 135’s one-lane roads hugging the coast were illuminated with red brake lights.

After a sumptuous feast (click right for a yummy close-up) and relaxing night on futons in a traditional ryokan inn and scenic sightseeing the next day, I anticipated a long haul back to Tokyo Monday night.

Night fell on the Shuto expressway, but all was not dark. Brake lights shined 40 kilometers (25 miles) towards Tokyo.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Very Jewish Christmas

At Kanokita, where the kids have no appetite for learning, Mr. Mochizuki passed the buck to me to answer more interviewing-the-foreigner questions to eat up class time. “How to celebrate Christmas in your home country” was first on a handwritten ditto entitled: “Let’s Enjoy!!! Mr. Jef retraces himself.”

Mr. Jef introduced the subject with skilled drawings in colored chalk. Students recognized the ornamented Christmas tree and gift-wrapped presents beneath it. So far, so good. But confusion ensued when they identified sleigh-riding Santa as a snowman. To clarify, I sketched a chimney and fireplace, and added directional arrows showing Santa’s path from the sleigh down the chimney to deliver presents under the tree. But further explanation was needed. The fireplace mantle was not adorned with a plate of rice crackers or pizza. The glass was not filled with coffee, juice, champagne, shochu or sake.

One dark Tuesday, I regurgitated this 50-minute lesson four times in a row. My holiday spirit soured by the fourth class. I lit the fireplace logs and redrew a cross-section of the chimney with a bulge and dangling legs. Poor Santa. While Mr. Mochizuki translated, I fanned the flames, which shot up and singed Saint Nick and ignited the “Christmas socks” hanging from the mantle. Soon, tree tinsel was ablaze. Some boys were giggling. I wasn’t taking any prisoners this holiday season.

I drew a reindeer. The girls whimpered upon learning that I had eaten one (yes, a kebab in Finland). Shock turned to horror as I drove home the point by sketching Rudolph’s forehead with a bite removed. I sliced open the body to add entrails spilling out in hastily rendered chalk. The bell shook me from my trance. The boys were still giggling. The girls hung their heads. I hung mine. What had I turned into?

That the day has religious roots was news to some. A few were surprised to learn that it marks Christ’s birthday, not Santa’s. One asked, "how old?" While Christmas is secularly celebrated in Japan, I sensed an opportunity to convert young minds to the joys of a new holiday. Not just one day of presents – but eight!

“Happy Chanukah!” I wrote on the board, emphasizing the guttural “ch.” Giggling resumed. “Hadaka?” one snickered. My religion’s holiday unfortunately sounds like the Japanese word for “naked.” I handed out a printout with images of menorahs, gelt and dreidels.

“Chocolate money [gelt] is delicious!” I cried, rubbing my tummy, hoping to jumpstart the class. Okay, Plan B: break out the games. “Do you know dreidel?” Someone echoed “jello,” another “judo.” For the 7th graders, I simplified the lesson into a Christmas dreidel game, dispensing with the whole Jewish thing altogether. The capacity of 13 year-olds to absorb a foreign topic in a foreign language is quite limited.

I divided each class into five groups, and distributed a dreidel to each. Familiar with Japanese koma counterparts, they only needed about 30 seconds of practice. Advanced dreidelers spun them upside down or on their foreheads.

I quickly switched to the competition phase where one member of each group spun his or her dreidel on the floor. The last one standing earned a pencil. Everyone gathered around to watch; students instantly took a liking to the Jewish koma game.

The release from textbooks, excitement of competition and promise of prizes turned class into a festive atmosphere. After the games, we merrily sang the dreidel song until time expired. Hook, line and sinker.

Monday, December 19, 2005

A Complaint

“Hey Jeff, do you have a sec?” It was Todd, the grey-haired jovial Australian head of my teaching placement agency. We were walking from our monthly teachers’ meeting to the company Christmas party at a nearby izakaya.

Meetings are a chance to compare notes, which for me means verifying that my students are indeed the worst in the ward. “Wow, none of my schools are like that,” Jon said upon hearing selected stories. “The craziest questions I get are marriage proposals.”

“Great, let’s walk ahead,” Todd suggested. Singled out, I tensed up. This wasn’t about a Christmas bonus or teacher of the month honors (both nonexistent at the agency). Thoughts raced as to what I had done wrong at school.

Masturbation sprung to mind. As the kids test out their adolescent vocabularies, I’ve worried that Japanese teachers have detected the dirty words and blatant hand gestures students greet me with, much to my embarrassment yet subtle encouragement.

For example, while checking on progress of blackboard copying, I moseyed over to one bad boy in the back of the room. “How big?” he said, pointing to my groin. Two erasers sat on his desk. I pointed to the jumbo one and said “American.” Then I pointed to the mini eraser and said “Japanese” before turning my back on the laughter and pacing down the aisle.

A class at Nubata the week after created more of a stir. It featured school pervert Ryoki, who has previously caught me off guard. Once morning bows were exchanged, the Japanese teacher, only two years my elder, asked me to recap Thanksgiving activities in New York.

I also had taught at this school the week of my departure. Once I passed pervert & co. in the stairwell.

“When are you going to New York?” Ryoki asked.
“I want a gift.”
“Okay, what?”

Pause. “Strawberry condom.”
His friends then clamored for lemon, grape, orange and Christmas (?) flavors.

Two sentences into my Thanksgiving shpiel, we made eye contact. Ryoki – sitting in the second row – flashed me the hand gesture for you know what. A snot ball flew out of my nose. Basting the turkey is one thing, but masturbation? I wheeled around to hide my laughter and use my sleeve as a tissue.

I regained direction and continued with less than perfect pronunciation while biting my tongue. “What did you eat on Thanksglivling Day?” the teacher asked in his normally mangled English.

“Pussy, pussy,” Ryoki whispered in Japanese. The teacher must have heard it, but didn’t react. Meanwhile, I was struggling to keep a straight face while listing the four kinds of pies I ate. “Oppai,” Ryoki moaned, deliberately confusing dessert with the Japanese word for breast.

The teacher quizzed comprehension about the pies’ names, and then asked if there were any questions. Ryoki’s hand shot up. He wanted to know what I had done in my house at night. In case I couldn’t take the hint, he made the gesture. I paused, falsely smiled, and said that I watched TV, which played right into his trap. “Oh, what kind of TV do you watch?” he snickered. The news. And no, not the Naked News. After class this brash boy approached me with one last question: where was his souvenir?

I digress.

“Jeff,” Todd began, “We’ve gotten an e-mail from a school saying that you’ve fallen asleep during class. Twice.” I shot him an are-you-kidding-me? look. “I know,” he continued, “I’ve been there in those over-heated rooms standing by waiting to be played as the human tape recorder.” Kenichi, the company co-head, caught up with us and flashed a nervous grin of stained black teeth.

“Honestly, Todd, I don’t know what they’re talking about.” Sleeping in class conjured up images of student heads buried face down in their arms on the desk. “I mean, I might have zoned out for 30 seconds, but I never fell asleep in class,” I added, leaving out the part about propping myself up against the back wall while fighting the weight of my eyelids. Damn gravity.

Todd’s tone was friendly; he was just checking up. Not that I’m worried if it happened. I’m confident I’ve been a good sensei and friend to the students in spite of the part-time salary and rent-an-English-teacher treatment I get from my Japanese counterparts.

On the other hand, who bothered reporting such a thing? Students get away with it all the time here. I narrowed suspicion down to two schools, and chose Ms. Shomatsu at Omiyada as the tattletale. Beneath superficial kindness lurks a history of her sweating the small stuff.

At the beginning of one such class, students nervously got her attention. This was unusual because they rarely break the mold and initiate dialogue with the teacher. But today they had something to show her. Something urgent. She walked over to where they were pointing at the floor and scowled in Japanese. My first thought was a mouse.

No, she returned to the front of the room holding a mini straw at the end of which was a hardened piece of chewing gum covered in dust. Back in the teachers’ room, she showed off the catch of the day as if it were a drug syringe. Somewhere, a report was written. Perhaps another e-mail.

I’m not here to make pals with the teachers. So long as the students are on my side, I’m happy. And if I did nod off, it goes to show just how boring teachers’ lessons really are.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Joys of Englisex

You know students are getting comfortable with you when they begin asking questions beyond the realm of grammar or “life in America.” Lately, hormones are at high tide in the 8th grade hallway of Nubata Junior High.

A wide-eyed boy ran over to me with two uniformed friends in tow. “Ohh Jefferee! Oh, ahh…do you know a masturbation?” I didn’t raise an eyebrow. I’ve now been asked this question more times than if I like natto.

It all started weeks ago. After lunch with the 9th graders, I followed some boys (see photo) onto the breezeway that connects the school to the gym. This is where the cool kids congregate to avoid post-lunch cleaning chores and kill time before fifth period. They just sit around, occasionally putting a shorter kid in a headlock.

A punky looking boy first popped the $25,000 question among middle schoolers. Immediately, all eyes were on sensei. How exactly was I supposed to respond? The line between mentor, friend and pervert is a slippery slope when you’re teaching minors. My response would set the tone for future interactions, and I didn’t want to open the flood gates of impropriety. So, how to respond without responding? Two years of legal assistant work had prepared me well for such a challenge.

Shiko-shiko?” I smiled. I simply translated “masturbation” into the vernacular. The boys fell over laughing. They couldn’t believe I had mastered the finer points of their language. “Yes, yes…can you do?” one asked. “Everyday?!” another piped up. “Sen-zuri manichi?” I fired back (literally, 1,000 rubs everyday?). Hysterics ensued. One boy demonstrated the international gesture with a jerk of his fist.

Unfortunately, addressing the subject in any form was grounds for further questioning — “Can you have sex?” “Is American wiener large?” “How big, how big?”

Also unfortunate was that three 9th grade girls had been drawn to the doorway by the noise. One girl wearing an eye patch and a toothy grin innocently imitated the gesture. “Oh, no, no no!” I said rushing over. Enjoying the attention, she pumped more vigorously while my mind raced for Japanese words to string together to convince her to stop.

Her friend – privy to its significance – shook her head, but left me to do damage control. Students were finishing up their cleaning. Another teacher might show up. I grabbed a broom and pumped it while sweeping the floor. “See, it’s a way to clean,” I said blushing with desperation. “Now cleaning time is over, so stop it.”

Although the 9th graders were the first to mention it, the 8th graders are the most inquisitive. A gang cornered me (see photo and hand placement of pervert on the right) in the hallway and tested out the English they didn’t learn in school. Behind their cherubic grins, Nubata School boys have dirty, curious little minds.

“Do you have any sex friends?…When do you watch adult video?…Sex machine!…Black penis man!…Do you have Christmas sex?…Christmas condom!” I swatted away the questions, but began to crack with laughter. A pimply-faced kid with a chipped tooth said, “My mom has a big penis!” I cracked. “Too young, too young!” I protested.

Another began, “Your mom….” I clenched a fist above his head in anticipation, but didn’t understand a word, and neither did the other boys crowding around me. The questioner scattered to the back of the group in embarrassment.

Another boy stepped up to face me. “Do you girl virgin, girl no virgin?” I lunged for his collar, but he ducked. A different one popped up like in that arcade game where you bop rodents with a padded mallet. He pointed to the one who had just disappeared: “He hair has just now.”

ENOUGH!” I roared, fighting my way out of the crowd that continued tagging along at my hip.

They’re a tough bunch to shake. One day a group of 8th graders were leaving school just as I was. It didn’t take long for the topic to come up. Their smiling faces were brimming with questions. I let them entertain me while refraining from becoming the uncomfortable educator.

I seek refuge from oversexed middle school minds on the fourth floor. The 7th graders don’t know enough English to verbalize adolescent sentiments. Or so I thought. The normally mild-mannered Subaru (the boy, not the car) approached me with one thing on his mind: “Ehh, do…ehh…you know ahh masturbation?” Send help. Word is spreading.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Mr. Nishono

Familiar shuffling approached my desk in Omiyada School’s teachers' room. I didn’t look up from my book. I knew what I’d see. Mussed salt-and-pepper hair crowning a man with a wrinkled work shirt two sizes too big for his wiry frame. Stringy hair failing to conceal the bald spot creeping forward. Bifocals sliding off the end of a freckled nose. If after lunch, forgotten crumbs clinging to the corners of his mouth. It was time for class with Mr. Nishono.

A fellow English teacher didn’t even know his given name when introducing me on my first day. The students don’t either; they call him hage (bald) behind his back. The hair that remains reminds me of a frayed steel wool pad.

I’m handed a “teaching plan.” It reads, “This class is full of underachievers.” However, Mr. Nishono adds that they are not all “in bad condition” like the class he once abruptly cancelled my services because of their misbehavior the day before. He always does his best to shield me: “First, you wait here while I prepare the lesson.” I read for 10 more minutes while he attempts to subdue the eighth graders.

No such luck. Once permitted to enter the room, I’m instructed to make “daily conversation to each student.” I ask them basic questions like the date, weather or favorite color. These warm-up exercises prove too complex for some.

First up is a boy with a grating voice whom I try to avoid. When we pass in the corridor, he yelps monkey noises loud enough to disturb teachers down the hall. In response to “Hello, how are you?” he recited a list of fruit juices. His writing is no better. I pointed out that his a’s look like u’s. “Yes very much fine thank you!” he boomed.

The rest of Mr. Nishono’s lesson plan leaves less margin for student creativity:
“You Read (P 32) when I ask you to (students listen).
You Read new words when I ask you to (students repeat).
You Read (P. 32) when I ask you to (students listen).
You Read (P32) – students repeat (Phrase by Phrase).
I teach.
(Ending reading)
You read (P 32)”
I leave class knowing P 32 by heart.

Another week’s teaching plan is also prefaced with a warning: “They are very mischievous class.” I couldn’t wait. The textbook pictured an overweight, unmistakably American lacrosse high school player. Not being a lacrosse sportsman myself, Mr. Nishono decided that I should “please relax” on the sidelines.

I observed the girls paying some attention, but the boys didn’t even have their books open, except for one – a Japanese novel. Behind him a kid fiddled with rounded magnets to form a snake that slithered across his desk with polar attraction.

Others were fashioning fighting sticks out of rolled paper featuring a girl with an anti-drug message. They passed around tape and scissors, with one crafting a ball out of tape. I sat at an empty desk in the back jotting everything down.

Then suddenly sensei stepped out for a few minutes. I assumed control, and plucked a sword off a student’s desk. I turned from the protesting boy to face the student patching together the tape ball. “Batter up!” I cried, managing several swings before Mr. Nishono returned with dittos he had forgotten.

Recently, absent-minded Nishono embraced the holiday cheer with a class sing-a-long to “Wish You A Merry Christmas.” Heavily accented British children caroled on CD. The words completely stumped the Japanese children, whose vocabularies didn’t include “good tidings to you and your kin.” Figgy pudding stumped me. Mr. Nishono blindly hummed along, and pushed repeat to extend everyone’s confusion.

By the fourth go-around, a girl cranked up the volume and positioned her ears next to the stereo. I gasped as one boy jabbed a blunt box cutter blade into another’s uniform. On autopilot, Mr. Nishono just kept humming, his bifocals glued to a page of lyrics he couldn’t articulate. I moved away from the blasting Christmas music to spy on a boy drawing. It was a cartoon caricature of me.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

I Don’t Know What You Did Last Summer

Last year an unfounded rumor that Douyoto school was going to close spooked off parents who can send their junior high school aged children to any school in the district. As a result, half the usual number of seventh graders matriculated. Although the student body of 280 is the smallest of my four schools, it felt overwhelming when faced with correcting their English compositions about “My Summer Vacation.”

This was the first writing I’ve seen students do beyond copying down the board. The result was amusing on first read, but painful thereafter to correct. Sometimes the Japanese English teacher couldn't figure out what the students were trying to say in the accompanying Japanese. Here’s the best of the worst:

I was Yoyogi Park Festival play the drum.
Many people was Festival come.
I was rest yakisoba eat.
Last all play.
Play the rice eat.
Come back was confectionary.
I can tense a well good fine.

I was going to look the Festival
My friend a strike drum a festival
My friend a drum strike figure very fashionable.
After that going a stand food buy a lot of things.
I have very good time.

I was went to Hakone in July.
I was arrived at Hakone noon.
I was lurch at the lesterant.
After that going Hakone Sekisho.
After that a music box museum
I was a very have a good time.

I went to Aichi Expo on our school trip. The most impressive pavillion was Mitsubishi Future Pavillion.
It was a place, the earth without a moon. The place I can’t imagine, all day long was eight times end even hard wind blow even not forest’s and oxygen almost pass away, even human being wasn’t born. So the moon is very important.

I wasn’t able to go to the famous pavilions. Because Aichi Expo was filled with people. There wasn’t more interesting than I imagined. It was very interesting for me to play with my friends whole night. Hiroki, Tatsunari and Sachioweje my room. We knew whole night isn’t allow but we did it. We drank coffee, watched TV, talked about each other’s secret and made a noise. This trip made me happy, and it made my precious memories too.

Friday, December 02, 2005

’Tis the Season

for warm butts. On the way to work, I snagged a seat when the doors opened at Kinshicho station’s outdoor platform. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. And then one stop later, I noticed a pleasant sensation. My buns were roasting. The carriage’s air wasn’t noticeably heated, but the padded seats sure were.

But they weren’t yesterday, and I sat on the same train, in the same car. Outside highs remained mild – 50s and low 60s F. What had changed? The calendar. Now that it’s December and officially winter, heating is switched on in trains and in classrooms. School hallways and bathrooms, however, remain out of bounds, and freezing. The open windows don’t help either.

Outside temperature is irrelevant. The calendar guides dress code and indoor climate control. According to the government, summer starts on June 1. In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the “Cool Biz” initiative mandated that office air conditioning not be turned below 28 C (82 F), and suggested that suit jackets and ties be left at home. Summer ends September 30, and in October “Warm Biz” kicks in. Heaters are not to be cranked above 20 C (68 F).

Once the October page is torn off, Burberry-inspired scarves come out in force, coiled around the necks of schoolgirls despite it not being cold enough for a jacket (or pants – as the girls continue to trot around with exposed shins in their all-season skirts). Although an accessory, scarves have become an all but mandatory part of the fashionable winter work uniform for schoolchildren and many adults.

Inside the train, warmth radiated from my seat. I felt like cuddling with the two OLs (office ladies) flanking me, locking my arm underneath their elbow, nodding off on a shoulder, and riding the rails out to Chiba prefecture.