Monday, March 26, 2007


Last June I traveled to Israel on a Birthright Israel program that sends first-timers for free. Here are two articles I wrote that were recently published in Japan about Israel.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Teacher, Can You Spare A Coin?

Spit hit the curb with a smack outside of 7-11. It was 8:06. My eyes moved up from the ground to the source of the guttural noise. I knew that kid. A 16-year-old with a freshly shaved head, his white shirttail peeked out the back of his black uniform jacket. Matching trousers hung low on his slim thighs. He wasn’t my student, but I’m sure we had talked on occasion, probably about coarse rather than course subjects.

His arm amorously wrapped a classmate as he initiated a private moment in a public place during morning rush. One of the great things about Japan is the taboo on P.D.A., which he was flouting while spitting on the road (much more acceptable).

We both reached the door at the same time.

“Oh, sensei [teacher], ohayo!” he greeted with a devilish grin.

“Hey, how are you?” I asked what’s-his-face.

“Oh, sensei,” he cocked his head and repeated, unable to muster the simplest answer in English.

We headed for the same aisle, he for breakfast bread and I for fruit juice. Selection was good. Bread shelves were stocked with all of your favorites like chocobread and peanut butter cream Danish.

“Whaddaget?” I asked.

Corn bread. And by corn bread I mean yellow kernels embedded in white stuff on a Danish.

“That’s disgusting,” I said in Japanese.

“Nah, it’s delicious,” he countered.

I turned back to scan the juices and make a final selection.

Sensei” he called. “I forgot my lunch.”

“OK, well, here you are,” I said, waving to microwavable pasta with hot dog slices and egg salad sandwiches stuffed with the yolks of those hard boiled.

This morning I felt like apple juice.

Sensei” he called again. “I forgot my money.”

It was the quiver in his voice that turned me around. I stared into his drooping eyes for clues on how to react. His girlfriend stood in his shadow. Wasn’t she less forgetful? Whether the kids like it or not (and most do not), I get paid to be their teacher. Yet here was a chance to do something more than that. Here was a chance to play dad. I moved closer. I didn’t have to think for long.

My hand intuitively dipped into the outer pocket of my bag. I felt the raised edges of a ¥500 ($4.25) coin and fished it out. His eyes were trained on my bag, waiting to see how much I’d pull out. I felt like everyone in 7-11 had also paused to witness charity in slow motion.

Compared to the rest of Asia, there aren’t a lot of needy kids in the world’s second largest economy. Yet here I was giving the gift of lunch money – enough to make Sally Struthers proud.

Sensei, arrigato. Arrigato, sensei!” he thanked while cupping his hands to receive the oversized golden gift.

He said it would cover him for both today and tomorrow. Then he grew silent. It was my turn. To foster some sense of responsibility, I told him in which teachers’ room I sat.

“Tomorrow,” he cried in Japanese.

“OK,” I smiled.

“Or the next day!” he added, heading to the register.

N.B. Hey kid, “tomorrow’s” been three months and counting. Sensei wants his gold coin back.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Interview with the Foreigner

I’m more used to writing about others than being written about, but Shin Gakko’s in-school magazine included me in their quarterly issue (click picture to enlarge). Don’t mind my photo, although at least my tie matches my flag. In case you are like me and those pesky kanji are like Greek to you, here’s what I had to say in plain English. Questions are listed exactly as I received them. Answers, however, may deviate slightly from the Japanese printed.

1. Where are you from?
Brooklyn, biotch. You steppin’?

2. What good things about your country?
A lot of space for living and the freedom to live the life you want comfortably.

3. What makes you come to Japan?
Fresh sushi, jinsei-keiken(life experience), schoolgirls in short short skirts.

4. How long have you been in Japan?
20 months. Time fliesね!

5. What makes you attract about Japan?
Good food, healthy portion sizes, reliable trains, and interesting culture.

6. What’s your favorite Japanese food?
Sushi (salmon, salmon roe, eel, tuna).

7. What’s your least favorite Japanese food?
(N.B. green perilla leaf also known as shiso used as a garnish in sushi and other dishes.)

8. What’s your favorite place you have visited in Japan?
Daytime, Kanazawa. After dark, the neon (red) lights of 歌舞伎町.

9. What’s your hobby?
Traveling, photography, writing.

10. Have you ever experienced any jobs (excluding teaching job)?
Sports instructor in Guam. Paralegal in New York. The usual.

11. What’s your motto?
If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Harder.

12. Do you speak any other languages?
Español, which despite not using for almost a decade is still light years ahead of my Japanese. (Sigh).

13. Please give our students to your message.
The world is big. Go discover some of it. Learning English can be your passport to new places.

Monday, March 12, 2007

B.J. Play

Being a foreigner in Japan has its ups and downs. So although I wouldn’t normally pay $35 to see “professional” basketball in Japan, I made the most of free tickets for foreigners to attend international day at the arena. I upgraded to better free seats walking to the will call window – only in Japan do fans give away premium tickets. After tipoff, I wondered if anyone in Ariake Arena had actually paid to watch the last place Tokyo Apache battle suburbia’s Saitama Broncos in a match up of B.J. League rivals (the unfortunate acronym stands for Basketball Japan).

Banners in Engrish were scattered throughout the arena: “BS Freaks,” “Try Our Best,” “Our Way. Our Will. Our Win.” and – my favorite – “No basket. No life.” Indeed, the scoreless Apache looked dead as the Broncos stomped all over them in the early going and never looked back. Although the Apache logo is a bird, some boosters wore headdresses that would have made the University of Illinois’ recently retired Chief Illiniwek blush.

C-list celebrities on the court included Apache coach Joe Bryant, Kobe’s dad; Broncos forward David Benoit, one of my favorite former reserves on the Utah Jazz; and a Michael Jackson. A mix of races and sizes squared off as small Japanese guards swished threes from the perimeter while African-Americans like Benoit muscled inside for driving layups.

Not having an affinity for the home team’s garish purple uniforms or a suburban team in kelly green, I rooted for Benoit, who played well despite limited minutes. The contrast, however, saddened me. Once a substitute for Karl Malone, the NBA’s greatest power forward ever, Benoit now came off the bench in a country that has sent just one player to the NBA, which was a short-lived experience for Mr. Tabuse.

As for the game itself, I bet Kobe’s dad wished he had his son on the court, or any other Laker past or present for that matter. Even though the game was out of reach, I felt self-conscious about being the only one to pack up early. With less than a minute to play fans from both sides were still glued to their seats.

Score one for the suburbs, Their way. Their will. Their Win.
Final: Saitama 91, Tokyo 75.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Tohoku, We Have A Problem

Within the first two weeks of my new commute to Shin Gakko, I was delayed more times than in the previous year combined. I can thank the Keihin-Tohoku line for that. It’s one of Tokyo’s busiest, and as I’m learning, most breakable.

One morning the train stalled in the station for 10 minutes, rattling my confidence in Japan’s to-the-minute timetables. However, as this line also serves the 2,000 students at Shin Gakko, I felt safety in numbers showing up late.

Two weeks later it got worse. Much worse. Ascending the platform at fun-sounding Okachimachi station, I saw a blue train stuck halfway in the station. The doors were closed, but some passengers were inside. Concern crossed the face of the young conductor poking his head out of the window. After an unusually loud horn, the train lurched forward 15 feet and halted. On the opposite side, a green Yamanote line train glided into the station. I smirked to the suckers stuck inside the blue train, and hopped aboard.

Blue and green lines run parallel before green splits off to loop around central Tokyo. I thought I’d be clever to bypass the disabled blue train by riding the green one to the last of their shared stations, and catch a blue train further down the line.

Four stations later, I joined the throngs at Tabata station. I had outsmarted myself. There were no blue trains here. Everyone was waiting for the one stuck at Okachimachi. And when it did get moving, that train would be packed with four stations of stranded commuters.

Long overdue, the blue train arrived to an agitated swarm of commuters jockeying for inside position. I laughed to myself. They would never all fit. I didn’t join the fray because I had chosen a poor day to shed my laptop’s bulky carrying case in favor of an unpadded messenger bag.

As only the Japanese can do, everyone squeezed aboard. Except for me. Alone on the platform, I felt their stares drawing me inside. I scanned their pained expressions and noticed a woman smiling at me. I returned her smile with a shake of my head. I was waiting for the next one, which would be almost empty. Had I outsmarted myself again?

The doors never closed, and passengers were gasping. Embarrassment turned to satisfaction as riders rethought their decision, and began lining up behind me. An incomprehensible announcement (at least to my ears) led more to switch sides until the train was less full than when it arrived. That’s when I went in.

I spotted two of my students standing inside. Now with enough space to safeguard my laptop, I joined them. They became my lifeline for what qualified as a serious delay, but one that was seriously refreshing.

Some locals gathered along the fence watching the empty tracks. The silence was deafening. Today, the rails shined brighter. Concrete buildings looked a little more charming. The unpredictable had tossed routine on its head. Fretting commuters checked their wrists while I rocked back on my heels.

I spotted the same youthful conductor, and took an interest in his increasing exasperation. No one confronted him, but he could feel the scorn of hundreds of grumbling commuters. I wanted to buy him a beer after this run. It was Friday for me, but his weekend (career?) was ruined. He announced alternative routes to reach destinations, including mine. It involved transferring three times when all I wanted to do was take this train directly there.

If you’re late, you might as well be really late. I wasn’t in the mood to move, and of course the lazy junior high kids weren’t either. Service resumed after 20 minutes, and despite a reverse commute, plenty of people were now waiting to go to the suburbs. I staked out a corner and stood facing the wall to shelter my bag in front of me.

The conductor announced stops with his eyes closed. He looked 22, and was breaking out around his temples. The microphone trembled in his white-gloved hands. His voice remained composed over the P.A. system, but speaking from the back of his mouth and not his diaphragm, it sounded like each word would be his last. The burden of everyone’s lateness was suffocating him.

And then it suffocated me. Passengers flooded in at the next station. I saw one of my students get carried away in the human tide. Uniforms, briefcases, and backpacks crunched together. I got thrown face-first into the wall, and the safe zone for my laptop vanished. I elbowed the bag above the masses, and cradled it on my shoulder like a baby in rising floodwaters. Toes tingled and my arm tired; I rested the bag on a schoolboy’s back, his cheek smeared against the glass.

When the doors opened at my station, it was like pulling the stopper out of a bathtub drain. Train etiquette in polite Tokyo doesn’t include waiting for passengers to exit before boarding. I waited until the flow had reduced to a trickle to make my move, but once again misjudged. The tide reversed itself before everyone had cleared out, and commuters – backed up into the stairwells – rushed in.

I punched into work 30 minutes late, but was hardly the last to arrive. Quadruple suicide? I asked the other teachers the cause of the delay.

“Nah, they can hose that down in five minutes,” another foreign teacher said. “It must have been a signal problem.”

On the way to first period, I mechanically asked a high school girl, “Hi, how are you today?”

“I’m surviving,” she said with a smile. Surprised at her skillful English expression, I couldn’t have agreed more.