Sunday, February 25, 2007

Dinner with the Fam (Part III)

It’s been a while since I’ve chronicled life with my Japanese family (Part I here, Part II here). Their drinking house (izakaya) Daruma is the one place in this megalopolis where I truly feel at home.

It’s 9 p.m. Friday night in Monzen-Nakacho. Izakaya are bustling along the narrow streets of this Edo-era neighborhood as salarymen celebrate the end of the work week (well, at least those who get Saturdays off). Chatter and the sound of clinking glasses resonate from small shops with glowing red lanterns. Despite an empty stomach, I see red as a warning, not a welcome. I dare not intrude into unfamiliar territory, and remain on the cold side of wooden doors and frosted glass.

Daruma is different. A large front window makes patrons (and seat availability) easily visible, and friendly owners keep an eye out for regulars passing by. That’s how I met my parents almost two years ago during my second week in Japan.

I slowed as I passed by Daruma, hoping to catch the eye of the older gentlemen who bowed to me the evening before while I was walking the streets on a nightly food-finding mission. From the safety of the sidewalk on the opposite side, my eyes instead connected with a woman shaped like a turtle.

I made a spoon-fed mouth gesture to gauge if I, a foreigner, was welcome to eat there. Poking her head outside and spouting off Japanese, the turtle of a woman waved me in with enough fanfare to attract the attention of her husband and nearby diners. I walked into the wood-paneled room filled with men dressed in dark suits. On my way to the expat nightlife enclave of Roppongi, I radiated color from inside a DKNY shirt.

Tonight I blended better in a black hoodie and sweats, fresh from a Friday evening basketball game that I still attend despite moving across town. Then, like now, I take the stool closest to the door. A committee greets me the same way they do for regulars who have been dining there nightly for decades.

Aya, the married older daughter (above right), hands me a yellow washcloth to wipe my hands. Her mother, turtle-shaped Ma-san, welcomes me in Japanese. Kitchen hand Nao brings over a tab and nods. This is code for my ordering the usual – deep-fried river shrimp and a big bottle of beer. The cook couldn’t hear Nao’s placing my order above the din, so Nao acted out his best river shrimp impersonation that looked like a swimming dog. We both laughed. The scene inside here is how it was, is, and always will be.

The most effusive of greeters is Dad (Otosan), who was noticeably absent. One of the dozen 50-year-old salarymen took it upon him to slip in a Dean Martin CD from the rack of disorganized albums of Jazz greats like John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

Simply saying “hai” (yes) in response to Nao’s nodding was enough to get a rise out of the salaryman next to me. His oversized glasses rested on a forehead wrinkled from crunching 40 years worth of data – probably by hand. Super-sized moles had sprouted in the valleys of his wrinkles. His head bobbed in and out of consciousness. He closed his eyes while swiveling a toothpick around his gums before tossing it in his plate of soy sauce. He then raised his glass halfway before gravity pulled it back to the warped counter.

Nao delivered an omelet filled with natto (stringy, stinky fermented soybeans), and placed it next to the man’s half-eaten plate of whale sashimi.

“I don’t want it,” he said with a wave of the hand.

“Really?” Nao asked.

“I don’t want it!” he repeated with the defiance of a kid being force-fed broccoli.

The exchange brought Ma-san over from the other end of the counter where she was toasting a red-faced patron and nibbling fried chicken off his plate.

“Half, how about half?” she pleaded.

He would have none of it, so the once model-sexy Aya was brought in for feminine coercion. She slid onto the stool next to him and consoled him. After cutting the omelet with a spoon, she fed it to him “here-comes-the-airplane” style. My nose twitched at the fumes. Natto’s pungent odor is one almost all foreigners in Japan detest, and I’m no exception.

He took one spoonful but refused more, and instead swallowed Aya whole with a bear hug. Unfazed, Aya fed herself, and then passed the plate to Nao, who took a bite and let Ma-san finish the dish.

Just then Otosan arrived. He didn’t see me at first, so I patted him on the back as he was hanging up his jacket next to the CD rack, and got the welcome I missed.

“Ah, Jeff-er-e, my son,” he called out in English, and then leaned on my shoulder.

Yakeddo,” he cried, wincing.

I knew that word! Or I once did. My brain quickly scanned the archive of Japanese words that have gone in one ear and out the other...Archery! No, that couldn’t be right. He rolled up his trousers, and a bandage appeared around his leg.

“Burn. Burn! You burned yourself!” I said.

“With oil,” Aya chimed in Japanese while picking at a block of ice and sending crystals flying like fireworks.

“With water,” Ma-san added with a gesture of pouring a pot onto herself.

The doctor told him not to work, but a leg burn wasn’t gonna sideline this super grandpa battling liver cancer. Ma spooned the last of the omelet into her mouth before rising up to greet new guests with her high-pitched “Irasshaimase!” Miles trumpeted in the background. Otosan rubbed my back. No matter how mediocre of a basketball game (this one ended with my blowing three put-backs – all on one play), Daruma lifts my spirits.

Otosan moved from behind me to introduce my new neighbor, who had replaced the drunken mole man. I was told that he was “a comedian,” which I soon figured out was a joke meaning fool. The computer programmer ordered raw tuna for the two of us.

I asked Nao for atsuage, fried tofu garnished with horseradish and scallions. Nao tried pushing natto, but like the mole man before me, I’d have none of it. “It smells like my shoes,” I cried, taking one off to demonstrate.

The fool and I talked in a mix of languages, mostly about names and traditions of Japanese food. I was able to understand some of what he was saying, and could even weigh in on Tokyo’s current events, like the stoppage of several north-south train lines during morning rush.

“…Saikyo line…this morning…” I overhead two men discussing.

“Me too, me too,” I butted in Japanese. I had been on that line. “Unbelievable, wasn’t it?” For Japan it was. Operations had halted for almost 10 minutes while I was changing to the Kehin-Tohoku line, reducing a roaring Akabane station to an eerie silence one might find in a cemetery without any birds.

Transit woes are rare here, but when they happen, they are cause for a blog. Stayed tuned for “Tohoku, We Have a Problem.”

Monday, February 19, 2007

Where’s the Love?

Not that I needed any hard evidence, but Valentine’s Day at Shin Gakko confirmed what I already suspected: I’m less popular with junior high school girls than Bush is with Europeans…Americans…or anyone for that matter. Speculation into my plummeting popularity will be revealed in blogs to come. Meanwhile, Valentine’s Day was a reversal of fortunes from last year when I was showered with cookies and chocolates. This year I was nearly shut out.

Only at the eleventh hour (3:55 p.m.) did adorable Ayana with her jack-o-lantern grin (seen on the right in her school uniform) offer me sweets, and even this transaction had to be done on the down low and after school. Gifts of affection to the opposite sex are an embarrassment for 13-year-olds, and with me as the recipient, Ayana risked her own popularity for this overture.

Expectations weren’t high that morning after checking my class schedule. Afternoon lessons were cancelled, and one of my three morning classes was with all boys, busy collecting chocolates of their own. I immediately ruled out munificence from the sour seventh graders (Ayana is in the other section). That left first period with more mature eleventh graders as my best chance, but only two girls delivered, and they were from the afternoon section that got cancelled.

Were it not for the generosity of a gym teacher, I would have left school with an empty heart while some colleagues needed shopping bags to haul home their loot. Truth be told, I don’t care about chocolate – it makes my skin break out. Most of the sweets I received were redistributed to other classes as prizes to reward student effort on the cheap.

Despite the disappointment, not all was lost that day, as I carried out a special lesson plan hatched purely for my own amusement. In addition to the vocabulary-building word puzzles, for Valentine’s Day I was going to make them sing. Or at least follow along. I printed out the lyrics to the most embarrassingly romantic song I could play for a class of 39 high school boys, many of whom were jocks.

Ballplayers with crew cuts dutifully recited “I Will Always Love You” at my command. After each stanza the Japanese English teacher translated. Once they were well versed, I hit play on the CD player and grinned. Words are one thing, but sound is another.

A few eyebrows arched in muted disbelief as Whitney Houston filled the room with high notes and heaving sighs. English grammar may be a hard slog for these guys, but eternal affection is an international emotion, right?

While a classroom of American boys would have revolted at music from “The Bodyguard,” their Japanese counterparts were totally mellowed out. That is, until my impassioned lip-syncing and heart pounding coincided with Whitney’s hitting those impossibly high notes at the end, which got them in an understandable uproar. Without any girls to wink at, I tilted my head and outstretched arms at the ceiling while I mouthed the song’s title for the fifth iteration.

Sensei, sensei,” one begged me to stop. But that was part of the fun. In my class, the “E” in English stands for entertainment, otherwise they don’t stay awake.

After no one fessed up to having a valentine, I gave the boys a homework assignment. One good thing about teaching is that it gives me a platform to preach – quite literally, as each classroom has a raised step behind the teacher’s desk designed for my shorter Japanese colleagues.

“OK everyone. Today go home and tell your mom that ‘I will always love you.’ Class dismissed.”

A teacher should practice what he preaches, so Mom, if you’re reading this, Happy Valentine’s Day and I will always love you.