Wednesday, January 31, 2007

What the #@$&?

is my usual reaction as it sputters to a halt, beeping twice and flashing lights red with anger.

So far, the most challenging aspect of this job has not been learning student names, adjusting to team-teaching methods, or working full-time in a Japanese environment. It’s been making photocopies.

For a country that exports cutting-edge Cannon and Konica products, this private school (not short on endowment from 2,300 students) uses off-brand machines without a paper feeder. If you thought finicky office machinery in America was frustrating, try your hand at making copiers cooperate that are fluent only in Japanese.

One of the three machines is often out of order. When errors arise, the pictorial diagrams popping up on the LCD screen are just as incomprehensible as the message…usually something about door A on the front of the copier.

The most dreaded encounter is with the toner, which magically runs dry whenever I step up to the machine. Spent toner rolls must be unraveled like an inky accordion, rubbing off on hands and clothing. It’s a dirty job, so rather than messing with it, I switch to the next machine.

When that, too, fails, my technical know-how springs into action. The best solution to get the gears whirling is also the simplest. In fact, it’s sort of like playing pinball – rock the machine while blindly pushing buttons until you hit the jackpot. Observe:

Step 1: Open door A.
Step 2: Yank random lever.
Step 3: Slam door A.
Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3
Step 5: Kick machine where it hurts. If no response within 15 seconds, kick again harder.

To further get out aggressions, I turn on Mac – my name for the guillotine of a paper cutter that gathers dust by the window. This thing could slice through a Redwood. It, too, is vintage, yet is smartly designed (activating the cutter button requires both hands after turning a key).

If office machines could date, Mac would be the meathead boyfriend of Ms. Shredder. That’s the actual name of a dainty lil’ thing unable to shred more than three sheets at a time. She’s so temperamental that she’s better left unplugged, just like some of the girls in my homeroom you’re about to meet.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Traditional Takayama

I never got around to blogging about my trip to Takayama (高山) last summer, but here's my recently published article about the city.

Additional photos here.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Supplies & Demand

Face it. The best thing about going back to school was shopping for supplies. Roaming the wide aisles of Office Mart, the whole year seem so fresh, so organized, so possible. Five-subject notebooks and three-ring binders were staples of students. Stocking up on supplies was a motivational exercise despite knowing full well that a month later you’d be searching for incomplete homework in a folder bursting with papers across five subjects.

When you’re a teacher in Japan, however, the supplies come to you. Two days following the footwear misstep on my first day, I was inventorying inherited junk in the desk drawers. I’ll list last year’s leftovers from most useful to most disturbing:

  • Scotch tape

  • Chopsticks

  • Pliers

  • Burberry-patterned scarf

  • Old batteries

  • Frisbee

  • Coloring book of the 50 states

  • “Fifty-Fifty” English learning cassette

  • Biology for Dummies

  • Martial arts gloves

  • Punctured ping-pong ball

  • Soiled socks

  • Empty box of Durex
A supply guy was making the rounds in the teachers’ room. 1 folder, 1 glue stick, 1 binder clip, 1 tiny box of paper clips, 1 black pen, 1 red pen, 1 unsharpened pencil, 1 eraser - item after item he delivered to the desktops of new teachers. Veterans presumably had enough ink and clips from last year, or were on their own for foraging. Despite my looking green, my desk remained empty as yellow plastic chalk cases found new masters. Possession of a chalk case is the ultimate accessory to feel part of the teacher’s circle.

Not confident to speak up in Japanese, I looked around to see if anyone else was witnessing the injustice. Across from me, another new foreign teacher smirked while twirling his unsharpened pencil. Missing out on the correction fluid pen, however, was the last straw. I had to have it.

The metallic clinking of the ball inside was the sound of productivity. Sort of like a mating call in the jungle, shaking the pen announced something authoritative – that you were perfecting the details of an important project.

Sumimasen,” I said softly to the man as he was in mid-delivery over a neighboring desk. I didn’t know what else to say once I got his attention. I just pointed to my desk and put on a face that pouted, “Yeah, I’m new here too – just like the three other foreigners receiving supplies.”

He apologized (profusely), and caught me up to stock. I waved the white out pen at my co-worker with a celebratory rattle.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Drinking in the New Year

For an all work and no play culture, the Japanese make exceptions to let loose in December and January. That’s when bonenkai (忘年会) and shinnenkai (新年会) parties give co-workers and friends reason to forget the old and celebrate the new.

January 14th’s shinnenkai was with Kensuke (last seen on the blog saving my life) and some of his buddies (last seen barbecuing in the park – click on the “Kensuke” label link at right for a refresher). I anticipated an evening of struggling to speak in Japanese and relying heavily on hand gestures oiled by sake, shouchu, and draft beer.

Kensuke and friends seemed subdued, maybe because everyone was off to a shaky start. Kensuke was set to lose February’s income because Master was closing the izakaya and taking a month’s rest – in Hawaii. Working Mondays at a pachinko parlor wouldn’t make ends meet.

Tak, fighting a cold, looked depressed underneath his wool hat. He didn’t even have part-time prospects after his long hair got him bounced from an interview at another pachinko parlor.

After talking about jobs, or the lack thereof, conversation switched to girlfriends, or the lack thereof. Kensuke and Tomo recounted their foray into Kabukicho, Tokyo’s red light district. After 10 minutes of perusing photos, about $125 got them 15 minutes with the Japanese girl of their choice. Except that when the door opened, in walked a Korean, they said with a trace of buyer’s remorse.

The affable grill master from the summer BBQ was noticeably absent, but checked in a few times via cell phone from home where he was studying for a college exam. Such obligations, however, didn’t stop Tomo from extending Sunday’s shinnenkai until 2:30 a.m. Monday. The slim tae kwon do fighter (below) tied a ponytail on top of his head and cursed off a Chinese test looming later that day.

“Not pass,” he said, gritting his teeth. I didn’t disagree, as his Chinese vocabulary was about the same size as mine – four words.

Around the table, lighters sat perched on cigarette packs like poker chips. Kazu blew rings from his mouth. Ailing Tak dragged on a cigarette and blew mucus into a wet wipe. The table began to clutter with empty glasses, discarded edamame pods, and bare plates as fried chicken, raw octopus, and other shareable snacks were attacked upon arrival. I dipped slender shishamo (ししゃも, smelt fish) into mayo and savored its scaly texture. The Japanese have caught on: mayo makes everything taste better.

Quiet Kazu was wearing a long sleeve shirt imprinted with a map of New York City’s subway. I pointed to the dot on his chest where I was born. A barrage of “New York life” questions followed, which were mostly contorted fantasies picked up from watching too many B-movies.

The guys were most interested in black people and junkies; needle in forearm gestures accompanied their questions about the latter. How many black friends did I have? How did I greet them on the street? Were cops not strict about marijuana? Did I use in high school? Did all junkies use wheelchairs? Did the one junkie per block ratio hold true in the City? So as not to completely disappoint them, I pointed to Kazu’s shoulders and said that in those outlying areas you could find what you were looking for.

I might have misinterpreted, but Kensuke then shared a factoid that for every 100 meters between a NYC police station and his hotel, there was a 150% chance that a Japanese person would get mugged twice.

We later moved into a private booth equipped with a karaoke machine. Earlier, sniffling Tak had been eager to know if I could rap. Something about wanting me to do so at his band’s show. In denial that I couldn’t, he queued “Lose Yourself.” I reluctantly picked up the mic, and by the time I put it back down I had new respect for Eminem’s speed. Hopefully I convinced Tak to keep searching for a performer.

We took turns thumbing through a song book the size of a state telephone directory. I knew just where to flip. With sporadic practice over the months, I’ve assembled a repertoire:

Bon Jovi – Livin’ on a Prayer
Zager and Evans – In the Year 2525
America – Horse With No Name
Javine – Surrender
Linkin Park – Numb
Celine Dion – My Heart Will Go On

It’s a nice mix of oldies, rock, and pop that won’t push my limited vocal range. Celine is a shattering exception, but by that point nobody will remember anything anyway.

Despite my spirited first-time rendition of Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie,” quiet Kazu turned out to be the most talented. While the others stuck with Japanese hits, he handled the Red Hot Chili Peppers on key and in clear English.

Aside from memorized lyrics, however, their collective English ability was quite limited. The five of us nevertheless connected. Cell phone dictionaries bridged gaps, such as for gesture-defying words like entrance examination, conscription, and sperm bank.

Although they kept complimenting my Japanese, it hadn’t improved since the BBQ six months ago. I still only know about 10 verbs, half of which I can use correctly. Instead, I spit out a steady diet of nouns and hope people get the picture. Kensuke made an interesting point. Despite not studying, my living in Japan for less than two years has made me more proficient than their six years of compulsory English education.

Kensuke (center) and Tomo

By 10:30 p.m. Kazu and Tak called it a night, but Kensuke, Tomo, and I moved on to a yakitori place that could become my next neighborhood hang out. Staff welcomed me like a regular, and I pulled up a padded beer barrel stool among the lively locals growing louder after every glass. Kensuke kept the sake flowing and ordered skewers of torikawa (とりかわ, grilled chicken skin), tiny bird eggs, liver, and pork slices.

Around 1:30 a.m. a female friend from their junior high days joined us for a final round of sake and skewered entrails. We then parted ways into the chilly January night, 2007 having been initiated Japanese style.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Opening Ceremonies

To kick things off in the Year of the Boar, I’ll start at the beginning, which happens to be nine months ago when I began a new job. More demanding hours combined with an increase in paid freelance writing have hampered leisure blogging, so I have a lot of catching up to do.

Rotating among four schools last year, I found it hard to develop friendships with students. I was there solely to assist the Japanese English teacher, and felt awkward asking to eat lunch with the kids or being caught clowning around during recess, often as party to the mischief.

Then along came Shin Gakko, a private school that actually encouraged foreign teachers to be active in the lives of its learners, which included junior high and high school. On top of English lesson planning, my other roles were to be an assistant homeroom and gym teacher. Shin Gakko seemed like the perfect match to grow with the same set of students in various settings around school.

Head first I went to day number one with plenty to cover my feet. Changing footwear is an ingrained habit of Japanese life. For example, in my new, shared apartment, I check shoes at the door and change into one of three pairs of slippers depending on if I’m showering, doing laundry on the porch, or walking through the living-dining-room-kitchen.

At school, here’s what you’ll find in my locker and bottom desk drawer:
1. outdoor shoes – what I wear when I come to work
2. indoor shoes – what I change into to wear inside school
3. ground shoes – what I change into if gym class is outside in the dirt lot
4. gym shoes – what I change into if gym class is in the hardwood gym
5. slippers – for carpeted classrooms

Upon arrival, most teachers change out of their dress shoes they wear to work. Apparently dirt from outside of school isn’t to mingle with dirt on campus. The result is comedic. Teachers look business from head to ankle, but covering their toes are mismatching sneakers or el cheapo sandals with off-colored socks. Assimilating to the strict footwear code of conduct, however, doesn’t have to be difficult. Other foreign teachers here have streamlined the system by wearing a universal pair to cover all surfaces.

I wish I had done so on opening day. That morning I traded black dress shoes for “indoor” white Pumas, which – shhh! – on weekends I wear out to bars and clubs. I had no idea what to expect that first day, but it turned out a little like the Olympics’ opening ceremonies, but with only one country competing.

Lined up in their gym clothes for Sports Day practice.

Convocation was held in the dirt schoolyard with a baseball diamond. Students in linear formation endlessly marched in class by class, and used military-like maneuvers to evenly space themselves out – no small feat considering that there were 2,200 of them. With so many pupils, the high school feels more like a factory churning out students packaged with the same school crest lapel pin.

High school boys wore cadet-like black blazers with a dozen gold buttons fastened from waist to collar. Girls paraded in navy sailor tops and pleated dresses. Middle schoolers were outfitted in tiny grey jackets and trousers or dresses. Black shoes clomped all around. They looked like a uniformed fighting force of a small nation. Standing silently at attention, they awaited word from their commander-in-chief.

The principal faced a microphone on a raised podium over first base. Aged and important-looking men (retired generals?) flanked the platform while rank and file teachers fanned out around the perimeter of the yard. Like the rest of the Japanese workforce, teachers wore shades of black. The overcast weather also dressed for the occasion. I had not.

New teachers entered last. We followed the third base line, touched home, and lined up along first base near the principal. The five foreign teachers were the last of the last. Scanning the group of new Japanese teachers in black shoes, panic swept over me. Mine were white, and for indoors.

“Those are nice shoes, but I’m not sure if I’d necessarily be wearing them right now,” the American behind me said. It was too late to change. My stomach knotted as I faced the crowd standing one teacher away from the end (home plate). Maybe if I stood on the white base line nobody would notice. They did. The foreign teachers cracked jokes as we applauded the entrance of the junior high, the final troops to deploy.

Speeches began without my comprehension. Bowing seemed to be the theme because we did it before, many times during, and at the end of each speech, which were mercifully brief. Then it was time for new teacher introductions. Three by three, newbies ascended the platform to have the chief announce their names before bowing down.

I secretly wished for a sudden downpour. Once the main ingredient for my popularity last year, my snow-colored Pumas would now trigger an avalanche of embarrassment. Three of us foreign men were the last to go up. Walking past the other teachers I also noticed that I was the only one not wearing a white dress shirt, but luckily had a black spring jacket to mask the sky blue underneath.

The sea of bored faces suddenly rippled to life. I’ll never forget the sequence of noises as we assumed the stage. Dead silence, followed by murmurs loudening into laughter. Never mind the feet; it was the face. Three tall, pasty white foreigners (one with shoes to match) were just too much of a contrast from everyone who had bowed before.

Retreating to ground level, I reflected on how my first day could have been worse. That morning I almost pulled beige slacks out of the closet.