By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
February 8, 2009
I wrote this a couple years ago, while I was working in Hiroshima. A friend asked me for information about teaching in Japan, and I figured I'd try to go into enough detail that it might be useful for posting on the web. Time has made this guide less useful — NOVA, one of the two schools I described in detail, has gone belly-up. While working there, we always said they had an implausible business model, and as it turns out, they did. But I think the NOVA sections still apply in a general sense to many of the fast, cheap, and out of control English jobs one finds in Japan. (You could probably apply most of what I've said about NOVA to GEOS. Dunno what the situation is with G-COM, the company that assumed NOVA's trademarks.)
I haven't updated the text from what I wrote in early 2007, save for HTML formatting and some photos. The first half of the guide is mostly technical and would only be of interest to someone considering doing the same, but the second half has a fine selection of photos, anecdotes, and gripes that should amuse general audiences, so skip ahead if you like.
TEACHING ENGLISH IN JAPAN: A GUIDE
In the first half, I'll outline the basic facts about teaching in Japan, with links to the various schools and some other web resources. In the second half, I'll discuss my own experiences with two of the major schools in Japan and try to give you a sense of what to expect in terms of the work life.
I should note that I don't consider myself a teacher. I was always a pain in the ass when I was in school, and I'm sure that every one of my old teachers would have laughed (or growled) if they knew I was spending my days trying to coax English out of a bunch of blank-faced students. From the beginning, I saw teaching in Japan as a means toward traveling in Japan. Simply put, it's a lot of fun to travel in Japan, and it was worth any peace of mind I had to sacrifice (by teaching) in order to do it. If your main interest is beginning a career as a teacher, teaching in Japan isn't really worth your while - at least not as described here. This isn't teaching as you remember it from school. You'll get some sense of how to manage a classroom, but that's about it.
So, without further ado...
You don't need to speak any Japanese to teach English in Japan. You don't need any teaching experience, either. All you need is a university degree, in any subject at all. I've worked with art majors, English majors and computer science majors. As long as you've graduated — and you're a native speaker of English — you can teach English in Japan. Don't worry about age, either. Although most of the teachers are somewhere in their twenties, I've never detected any kind of age bias coming from any of these schools. As long as you're well-kept and you can convince them that you'll take direction and you'll stay at least a year, they'll be satisfied. There was a grandmother at one of our schools, and it was great to have her in the teachers' room.
English schools in Japan are big business. They're called eikaiwa, which translates to "conversation school". The theory behind eikaiwa is that Japanese students have studied English grammar and vocabulary in high school, but because of the memorize-and-recite / test-based style of the Japanese school system, they never really learn to speak the language. So they have the pieces, but they've never used them — kind of like memorizing an instruction manual without ever having played the game. And that's where eikaiwa come in. Eikaiwa supply a Real Native Speaker, who conducts the lessons entirely in English — no Japanese is supposed to be used in class — and the student knows they're getting Real English, as opposed to the cocked-up stuff their high school teacher tried to pass off on them.
This works better in theory than in practice, of course. Students may or may not remember any English from high school, and they may or may not put in any time outside of the eikaiwa classroom studying what they've learned. They have a lot of different goals: to escape boredom, or to get a better test score for a promotion at work; to use English while traveling, to hang out with or date or procreate with foreigners, to do better on their college entrance exams, because their parents told them to, because their psychiatrist told them to, because they use English at work or they'd like to use English at work. (And yes, those are all based on real people I met.) Above all, they're sold a flashy, glamorous Exciting Foreign Life experience that just happens to come in the form of a school — and you.
So, in practice, you'll have several classes of students of different ages whose goals are at cross-purposes, you'll have faintly ridiculous textbooks that may or may not have been written for these purposes, and you'll churn out lessons like McDonald's churns out burgers. If you're laid-back, you're patient, you have a sense of humor and you don't mind improvising (or, less gracefully, making shit up off the top of your head), then you'll be fine. There will be days when you want to throw a brick through the window, but there will be more days when you wonder why you're getting paid for something so easy.
GETTING A JOB
There are a few big eikaiwa and a lot of small ones. The big ones hire from overseas, so that's how most people start. It's possible to arrive in Japan, find a job with a small eikaiwa, and get your new employer to sponsor your work visa, but it's expensive and risky. You can run out of money fast, and if you're already in Japan when you get the work visa, you have to leave the country and then come back in to activate it. (The upside, however, is that the small schools often have better work conditions than the big ones. So that's the trade-off.)
If you're hired by one of the big schools, they'll take care of the paperwork and walk you through the visa process while you're in your home country. You'll be on a one-year contract, which can be renewed upon mutual agreement by you and the school. Generally speaking, you have to be a pretty big fuck-up not to be offered renewal. It saves the schools a lot of hassle not to have to train a new teacher every year.
Contracts in Japan are a little different from what you may expect, though. The contract can be broken by you, at any time, with no legal penalty. The school, on the other hand, cannot fire you without paying you a huge severance bonus, no matter what you do. (At worst, they'll transfer you to a really crappy branch to wait out the rest of your contract.) Some schools build in an end-of-contract bonus to keep you locked in for the whole year. Other schools don't, though, and plenty of teachers leave after a couple of months to find a job with one of the smaller schools that can't afford to hire from overseas. The main hassle is getting that work visa. Once you have the work visa, it doesn't matter who first sponsored it; you can work for anyone with it.
Right now, work hours are in flux at the various schools. Some are on a 29.5 hour schedule, and others are at 36.5 or 37.5, which are essentially standard 40 hour work weeks. (Schools cook the numbers for legal reasons. It's all to do with Japan's archaic pension system and who's considered a full-time worker.) In practice, you work eight hour days, five days a week. You're not likely to have Saturday and Sunday off, although it's not inconceivable that you would have Sunday and Monday off. Most people work from 1-9pm, with enough time set aside for lunch. If you're on the 29.5 hour schedule, then you'll have some break time in there as well, and you can use that as you please. Some schools give you 'office hours' for prep time, and others say they don't require prep, so they don't give you time. It's Japan, so inevitably, you'll wind up doing a bit of work outside paid hours. How much depends on how hard you hold the line with your staff.
Japan is a good place to make money, as long as you're not supporting a family. You can either live like a monk and save a ton or go out every night and still save a bit. You learn ways to save money pretty quickly; even in Tokyo, cheap meals and furnishings are easy to find. The private schools described below pay a standard base rate of Y255,000. Some tack on extras: NOVA, for example, has to pay you a little extra if you work on a Sunday, and if you live in an expensive area like Tokyo, you'll get a small cost-of-living bonus. Other schools might subsidize the cost of your apartment. If you have to commute to your school, then the school will pay for your bus / train pass. If you're from the US, Japanese income taxes are gentler than those at home, and you won't have to pay income tax on what you make. (Unfortunately, I don't know about the tax rules for other countries.) If you're paying off debts back home, it's fairly easy to send money back to a bank account. There are a few ways to do it. GoLloyds (http://www.golloyds.com) is the easiest.
Travel within Japan was my priority during my first tenure, and I did plenty of that. Travel outside Japan was my priority for the second tenure, and I've managed that as well; budget properly and you can pull off two or three overseas trips during a year.
If you're getting hired from overseas, the school will hook you up with an apartment. And that's a good thing — getting an apartment by yourself can be a weird, byzantine process involving multiple deposits (some refundable, others not) made to various parties and a lot of rent paid up-front. ('Key money' is a dread term.) There are landlords who are comfortable dealing with foreign residents, and decent apartments are sometimes passed from one teacher to another. But it takes some time to ask around, and you wouldn't want to have to deal with it upon arrival in the country.
So you'll start in a school apartment. You might have it to yourself, or you might have roommates. It'll be furnished with a TV, VCR, basic kitchenware, a new futon and whatever has accumulated from the teachers who preceded you (often a few old futons). Some schools let you move out of the apartment with one month's notice, and other schools build the apartment into your contract. They're not necessarily company apartments, though. It's likely that most of your neighbors will be Japanese people who have nothing to do with the school. Your bedroom might have tatami floors, or it might not. I've seen a wide range of nice-to-crap apartments. Schools provide varying levels of support, but it's in their interest to get you settled in, so they're at their most helpful in the first couple of weeks. Teachers are also pretty good about helping each other find the grocery store, the transportation, and all of those basic amenities.
If you're hired, the school will ask you for a wish list of locations within Japan, and they'll try to accommodate you based on that. I got my first choice the first time I worked in Japan. For the second time, the interviewer just asked me about places I'd been in Japan and liked, and then he offered me a placement based on that conversation. It worked out fine. I've heard stories about people asking for Tokyo and getting the middle of nowhere (and vice versa), but it didn't happen to me or anyone I knew.
You can get by with very little Japanese in your daily life. Of course, it helps to learn — and there are plenty of relatively cheap classes and tutors — but there's no pressure. Some employers might compliment you on it, and others will have no interest whatsoever. Plenty of people survive the whole year (or two) by pointing, grunting, and placing the burden on the friendly Japanese waitress to understand them. In major urban areas, it's pretty effortless to live without knowing any Japanese. In a rural area, it'd be tougher. I knew a fair amount of the language, but I was far from fluent, and I never had an obstacle of any significance.
Schools want people who are friendly, patient, confident with speaking and genki — meaning that you have a good attitude, you can put people at ease, and you seem eager, happy, cheerful and fun. (When in doubt, err on the side of being a Muppet.) Personality goes a long way. It's not necessary to have a strong knowledge of English grammatical terms, although some schools will make a show of testing you during the interview with a quiz. It's just a show. During training for my first job, another trainee asked me in total seriousness what a 'verb' was. (She was hot, and I am smart. Hey, fair enough.) As I said, you need a college degree, but it doesn't matter what the degree is in. Former art students were among the best teachers I met.
The schools also want to know that you're not going to flip out when you're living in a foreign country, away from your friends and family. There are some people who really struggle with that. Most are fine, but the small handful of flame-outs are spectacular enough to keep the recruiters on edge. The recruiters get hammered if they send over a bad recruit, so they have a lot at stake with their choices.
If you're determined to get the job, drop these points in the interview:
1. You enjoy meeting new people;
The above should seal the deal. But if you're desperate and you want to absolutely guarantee you'll get the job at any cost:
7. Tell them you love teaching kids. Kids classes make a ton of money in Japan. I would never, ever teach one myself, but...
Here's the spread of schools that hire from overseas, as I know them:
There's a school called Interac whose website I won't bother to dig up because their reputation is so bad. Berlitz is a dying breed, but they're in a few cities, too.
The JET Programme (http://www.jetprogramme.org) places applicants in public high schools around Japan to serve as teaching assistants (in practice, the Japanese teacher points at you, and you say an English sentence out loud, and the students repeat after you). I know very little about it. The JET teachers have kind of a parallel existence to the eikaiwa teachers; we don't see much of each other. They get paid better and have more vacation time, and often do less work. However, they have to apply over a year in advance, and they're far more likely to be placed way out in the boondocks. Their web forum is called Big Daikon (http://www.bigdaikon.com).
The only country that compares to Japan in terms of ease of arrival is Korea. Their schools are called hagwon. They pay a little better than Japan, but the quality of life is widely agreed to be lower, and there are more shady schools over there — foreign workers aren't as well-protected as they are in Japan under labor laws. Still, it's possible to find a reputable employer and do the same deal there as I described in Japan.
I've seen at least one school with the same set-up in Indonesia, but I don't know anything about life there. Most teaching jobs in China are through universities. I was offered a job at a rural university in China before I came back to Japan for the second time, but I decided against it. A lot of the China jobs seem to cover room and board at 100% but pay only a small wage outside of that, and I didn't like that level of dependence. In Europe, teaching jobs seem to go exclusively to EU citizens who have teaching certificates.
If you want to investigate teaching opportunities in a specific country, check the forums at Dave's ESL Cafe (http://www.daveseslcafe.com).
When you go home, you'll discover that your public speaking skills have improved. You'll be able to make engaging conversation with absolutely anyone you meet. (Good for parties.) You'll be better-equipped to handle weird and stressful situations as well.
When you're looking for a job, however, you might as well have been traveling for a year. Future employers won't hold working in Japan against you, but the experience in Japan won't mean anything much in professional terms, unless you come back fluent in Japanese and you want to be a translator or something like that. I eventually managed to spin the experience from my first school in a business-training direction and got a training job that way, but it took a long time, and it was as much a matter of being in the right place at the right time as anything else.
The adjustment back home again can be hard. For me, it was harder than the adjustment to Japan. Make sure you have some money saved when you leave. Being stuck at your parents' place will only make it worse.
I'm better at complaining than I am at praising, so the list of problems will be longer than its positive counterpart. Take it all with the proverbial grain of salt.
I had an amazing time in Japan. Again, the experience was more than worth the trials and tribulations. Many of the best memories I have are from Japan. There's just so much more that you can do when you're living in a country as opposed to just passing through — a whole new side of the culture opens up to you. I would recommend against thinking strictly in terms of one year, though. It does take about six months to hit your stride. Go, play it by ear and see how you feel after six months or so, then decide whether you're going to stay any longer. One of my few regrets is that I left too early the first time I was there.
I've lived in Japan twice. The first time was for a job with NOVA. I was teaching in a suburb of Kyoto called Katsura. My NOVA apartment was in Osaka, about 35 minutes from my school by train. It was a three-bedroom apartment, with about the same amount of total living space as you might expect from a one-bedroom apartment in America. I shared the apartment with two guys who worked at different NOVA schools. In bigger cities, those apartments tend to have a revolving door — because the apartments are kind of a rip-off and people can't live in them after they quit NOVA, there's someone new moving in every couple of months. I can imagine that would get old after a while.
Some NOVA apartment photos:
My bedroom in my first apartment.
The sink between the shower room (left) and the toilet room (right).
Our living room (fridge/kitchen off to the left).
View from the balcony. The washing machine (no dryer) was out here.
After a month, I moved to a house in Kyoto. "Gaijin houses" can vary in quality, but it's easy to get a sense for one if you just stop by. I found a great one, and that's where I spent the rest of my first trip to Japan. Again, people were coming and going, but not quite as often, and they were carefully screened by the landlord. There was a lot more space and privacy. (Cheaper, too.) A handful of photos:
View from my first bedroom window.
Our front door.
My first bedroom.
My second bedroom.
Also from my second bedroom.
Talking shit in the living room with Adam and Alex.
When I came back for the second time, it was with AEON in Hiroshima. I had a one-bedroom apartment within a short from my school. Since the apartments are not as revolving-door as the NOVA ones, teachers occasionally leave some decent stuff behind for each other. I got more kitchenware than I have any use for, and also a Casio keyboard. Others have picked up microwaves, ovens, Western-style beds and other furniture. The apartment was nicer than the first set of pictures posted above, but in the same range:
The Sarlacc Pit. Water from the shower exits through one pipe, and water from the sink through the other. It's supposed to have a cover, but the cover was missing, and we could never find one that fit.
AEON and NOVA have their good points and bad points. In the final estimation, I think they probably even out. If you apply to any of the other schools, ECC is likely to fall closer to AEON in terms of benefits and drawbacks, and GEOS aligns closer to NOVA. In sum, I had more work and less responsibility at NOVA, less work and more responsibility at AEON. I go back and forth on which one I preferred. Draw your own conclusions...
Because they're the biggest school and they have the most locations, they're most likely to be able to place you where you want to go. NOVA will provide you with an apartment and deduct the rent from your salary, but you can move out with one month's notice. (That's a good thing, because they are notorious for overcharging for rent.) You teach classes of 1-4 students, 40-45 minutes each, from pre-planned lesson scripts that range from semi-adequate to awful. You won't know your schedule until you walk in on any given day. You'll have 10 or 15 minutes between classes to find the files for your next group and choose a lesson that works for all of the students (or as many as possible). The students are separated into eight ability levels. They don't take the lessons in sequence, and while some have regular days when you can expect to see them, others call up to book lessons whenever the thought occurs to them. Since they don't know what lesson they'll be doing, there's not a lot they can do to study outside of class.
You'll have anywhere from 2 (rare) to 30 (extreme) foreign co-workers. (I had 11-13 at my branch.) They don't give you a completion bonus or airfare, so you can leave whenever you like. Turnover at NOVA is quite high. To make them happy, give one month's notice that you're leaving. They do write decent recommendation letters if a future employer goes to the trouble of asking for one.
Among NOVA's good points:
1. The lessons require no preparation or thought — you can just read a script, basically, nod and praise at the correct intervals, and you never have to notice you're teaching a lesson. You may need to put in a little extra time during your first couple of weeks to familiarize yourself with the lessons — because from day one, you're expected to be ready to teach every lesson for every level — but there's nothing else to do. There's a little bit of paperwork between lessons, but you can always clock out on time at the end of the day. All you do is teach. Students don't turn in any kind of homework to you, either.
2. Since NOVA is the biggest school, they attract the widest range of students. Whatever your interest, you're likely to find a few students who share it. I've already been back to visit my old students once, and I'm sure I'll do it again in the years to come.
3. Similarly, you'll have a lot of foreign co-workers, and that gives you a better chance of meeting people you really like. There were a couple of idiots at my school, but for the most part, the group we had was amazing — creative, smart, funny, awesome people, interested in music and art and sports and plenty else. I learned a lot from my friends at NOVA. It does make me sad to think that group will never be completely re-assembled, but now I have places to stay and people to visit in countries all over the world. And that's cool.
4. It's easy to transfer to another location at NOVA, either temporarily or permanently. If things aren't working out at your school — or you want to try somewhere new — it's not hard to arrange. I spent most of my time at one school, but there were a few other schools that I did occasional days at, and I enjoyed the new scenery and students. Overtime is often available at other branches, should you want to make extra cash. Some people make a ton of money through overtime.
5. NOVA is actually pretty good for traveling. You don't get any public holidays off, because those are busiest times for lessons (e.g. people who've chosen to spend their vacation studying English). But you do get ten days to use at your discretion and an additional week off just after Christmas. And you don't have a set schedule, so it's easy to swap shifts with co-workers, since any teacher is interchangeable with any other teacher. You work one of his or her days, he or she works one of yours — and then you've got a three-day weekend (and a six day week to make up for it). I took a week's vacation using shift swaps spread out over the course of a couple months and only used one of my ten paid vacation days. You can get anywhere in Japan within 3-4 days, and airfare to other countries is cheap during non-holiday periods.
6. It's the easiest place to get hired and the easiest place to leave. There's less pageantry. Everything you need — vacation time, health problems, transfers, etc — has a form associated with it. You fill out the form, fax it on, and an answer comes back some time later.
7. Unlike some other schools, you don't wear a suit while working — only a shirt and tie. I kept my tie at school, and wore the same tie every day for several months in a row. That amused me.
Among NOVA's bad points:
1. NOVA has a bizarre "no-socialization" rule. Basically, you're not allowed to see or talk to students outside of the school. It's a weird rule and people break it all the time, but it has to be done away from the eyes of the Japanese staff (who may fear that you're giving away free lessons, and therefore costing them money) and the Western management (who are pricks, and will report you for anything they can). It's more of an irritant then a prohibitant, since we still had barbecues with the students and even climbed Mt. Fuji with a few of them, but it's just obnoxious in principle. When I visited my friends from NOVA, we had to have two parties: one the students could attend, and another the staff could attend.
Empty school lobby, with pink bunny arse.
2. Because NOVA attracts the widest range of students, that includes the best and the worst. There's a social theory in there somewhere. Because the schedule is done randomly every morning, you don't know until you walk in whether you'll be spending 45 minutes alone with someone you detest. (Similarly, there's a pretty good chance at least one of your co-workers will be a total idiot.)
3. If you're popular with the students, nobody can cause any real trouble for you — basically, if you're good for business, that's all the Japanese management cares about, and they trump the Western management every time. Unfortunately, it's the Western management you deal with face-to-face, and they are, by and large, creeps. Inside your school, there will be one 'AT' for every seven or eight teachers. The AT is a teacher just like you, but they're also the liaison with the Western area manager (AAM). They don't have any real power of their own. They exist to get shit on by the AAM, and then to take the same shit on you. They're expected to fill out a log book with wardrobe faults, negative statements and things they (silently) observed teachers doing wrong. I had one AT, Paul Koch, who was notorious for acting like "one of the boys" in the teachers room and then heading around the corner to write up the whole conversation, leaving out his own participation, of course. The AAM comes in every so often to check the log book and deal with the complaints. You're never shown the charges, of course. The whole idea of the log book really got under my skin, personally. There are some ATs who aren't bad and do their best to create a good work environment. But it's like what they say about being the President of the United States — it's a job that attracts people who are psychotic, because only people who are psychotic could possibly want the job.
4. The new textbooks really are shit. Nobody likes them, and even though they're only a couple of years old, they're already dated. They're basically colorful phrasebooks. Some of the lessons flat-out don't work. I don't have a lot of experience with them, though. There were older, more grammar-based textbooks while I was there. But I didn't have time to prepare lessons, damn near half of the lessons in the textbook were unusable and I frequently didn't have enough material to fill out the time. That was stressful. I don't know how much that has changed.
A NOVA teachers' room will kill people with claustrophobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and any phobias regarding the need for cleanliness.
5. The classrooms are tiny — in any other country, they'd be called booths. There's a table with some folding chairs. You crowd in with your students and try to tune out the lessons taking place in the booths all around you. A guy comes in reeking of smoke, booze and his coffee breakfast. He hasn't showered or slept since his bender last night. Thanks to the booth, you'll get to know him really well. Or there are people who come in sick as hell, coughing and wheezing, and you can see the germs dancing before your eyes. The staff would never think to discourage anyone from attending their lesson, no matter how sick they are. It's a tough job for anyone who's claustrophobic and / or needs a lot of personal space. Saturdays are hell. Everyone's working, every class is full, the teachers room is cramped and the hung-over salarymen are out in force. My stomach still turns when I think about Saturdays at NOVA.
6. Everybody is interchangeable. Some of the students will miss you, but the business will not miss a beat if you're gone. Some people are bothered by that, and others like it, because it means very little responsibility. Teachers are always coming and going, which can get wearying after a while. Every newbie has the same questions. Fair enough — I did, too. But you do get sick of hearing people right off the plane do shitty sub-Seinfeld routines about the toilets and the Engrish on the bakery sign next to the school.
Clocking out on my last day (photo by Tianni).
7. Takeshi is a moron. He has sucked in every class he's taken, and he's taken every lesson in the book several times. He won't buy a new lesson package unless he gets moved up to the next level. Everyone in the teachers room agrees that he is abysmal and will ruin lessons for the other students if he's moved to the next level. Who do you think wins? Takeshi, of course. It's not a school with a business side — it's a business that has taken on some trappings of a school in order to increase the profit margin. Again, some people don't care as long as they get paid, but it really bothers people who think of themselves as teachers.
8. The sheer number of classes meant that my head was ringing at the end of most days. I was fairly useless by the time I left work. Any intellectual hobbies are best pursued in the morning or on weekends.
AEON is more selective than NOVA, since they hire far fewer teachers (2-3 foreign teachers per school, plus a few Japanese teachers). As a result, turnover is much lower. You teach fewer classes than at NOVA and have more break time. Teachers at AEON prepare materials for their own lessons using the school textbooks and optional lesson plans, but office hours are provided for prep time. Classes can be 1-5 people or 1-10 people, depending on the type of lesson. Teachers get public holidays off, although that's a bit deceptive, because most public holidays fall on Mondays, and AEON is closed on Mondays. But there is a whole week of vacation at the end of April, another week in August, and another week after Christmas. There are also five at-large vacation days. AEON provides a furnished single apartment for teachers, with the reasonable amount of Y42,000 deducted from every paycheck for rent. (I believe this has been raised slightly.) You're tied to that apartment for the whole contract — you can move out, but you have to keep paying rent on it. They're decent apartments, though, since they haven't had as many people passing through them. Unlike NOVA, where the Japanese staff can go their whole career without saying a word to you, the AEON staff work closely with the teachers.
They provide airfare home and a bonus upon completion of the contract. The size of the bonus depends on how long you were there. AEON presses you for an answer on renewal after five or six months of being there. It's nice to have the security, but it's also pretty hard to forecast how you'll feel about being there for eighteen more months.
Among AEON's good points:
1. Socialization with the students is fine, encouraged and will get you in the staff's good graces. There are school-plus-students parties every so often, organized by the staff. Attendance is mandatory, which is lame, and you have to pay to attend just like the students do, which is lamer, but at least there's always an open bar included in the price.
Chiyumi's awesome poster for my sayonara party.
The Halloween mob.
Chiyumi was a pirate, and Ron was Sun Wukong.
2. Because the teachers have a set schedule, the work environment tends to be more stable, you get to know your students better, and there's more of a chance that you're being given a set of classes that fits your specific skills. I did, and so did my two co-workers. Also, there's more personal space, and you may have your own classroom to decorate as you like.
3. You might get used in your school's advertisements, which is fun and weird and fun and creepy. Makes for good souvenirs, anyway.
I was, in fact, very much capable of waiting to meet everyone.
Ron's interviewee on the bottom was apparently a bandit. Mine just went to Germany. (I was working on my Winter Lincoln Beard at the time.)
4. The Japanese staff work closely with you, which can be nice - in that you have more idea what's going on at the school, and they consider it part of their job to help you with anything related to your life in Japan. (I had one of them write a note in Japanese explaining how I wanted my hair to be cut.)
5. Unlike NOVA, the Western management at AEON were terrific, in my experience — helpful, fun people with useful advice and a genuine interest in your own satisfaction with the job.
6. Japanese teachers handle the low-level students. By the time a student reaches you, they already have a couple of classes under their belt. That makes a huge difference. And the staff at my school showed admirable integrity when it came time to decide whether a student should move to the next level. If the student needed to repeat the course, they told him that, and didn't pressure me to recommend him to move up. And if he doesn't want to repeat the class, they'll find an alternate course he can do until he's ready to move up. I never had a problem with students whose ability level wasn't high enough for their class. That made my work day a lot easier.
7. The textbooks are decent, all things considered. And they're willing to use textbooks they didn't produce, which opens up a lot of other options to meet students' specific needs. (NOVA only teaches one kind of course from one kind of textbook.) I almost always had enough material to fill out the lesson, and enough time to prepare it.
8. AEON's schedule will be changing to 36.5 hours soon. I don't know how that will change things. I was on the 29.5 hour schedule. I've never worked less at a full-time job. There were days when I had a three hour break in the middle of the day to go home and watch a movie. There were days when I taught two classes. My busiest day, Saturday, ranged from four to six classes depending on whether my private students were on the schedule. Contrast that to NOVA, where you've got a solid eight to teach. It's possible that one might be empty, every so often. On a truly miraculous day, you might only have six classes to teach. At AEON, you have the same schedule week-to-week. I only had three classes on Wednesdays, four on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If there were cancellations, you might teach two classes and call it a day. Almost too easy.
Among AEON's bad points:
1. The staff's raging desire for you to socialize with students can get weird sometimes. One advertisement about me bragged that I took students bowling every weekend. (Fortunately, students only asked about it once every couple months or so.) At our Christmas party, the staff was bugging one of my co-workers because he was sitting near me and there was a table of students who hadn't been talked to yet. They wanted to spread the foreigners out to maximize value and student happiness...at a Christmas party, that he was paying to attend.
The staff often try to micro-manage your performance and your persona. That, more than anything else, is why I left AEON. I honestly felt like teaching was the least important part of my job, as far as the staff were concerned. In their eyes, if I was in the office preparing lesson materials, I wasn't working. I was only working if I was out in the lobby chatting up prospective students. My staff would have been more satisfied with a functional illiterate who loved introducing himself to strangers with chunks of broken English and American surfer slang.
2. You have a smaller group of co-workers — one or two foreign teachers at most. That means fewer people to find something in common with. You work the same days as they do, and you probably live in the same building as they do. As a result, if someone arrives who sucks, that has a huge effect on things. I liked my two co-workers, but it's harder to avoid an asshole at AEON than it is at NOVA.
3. The dynamic with the Japanese teachers can be strange. They're not completely connected to what goes on — they rarely attend the business meetings, they teach different classes and they're usually only part-time. I became close friends with the Japanese teachers at my school, but that pissed off the staff, because the staff thought I was wasting friendliness that belonged exclusively to the students. The staff at my school hated the Japanese teachers and vice versa, for ancient, long-festering reasons that nobody even remembered, and the foreign teachers were caught in the middle. That was annoying.
4. Teachers are not interchangeable, so it's difficult to take your vacation days, because they're not actually bringing someone in to teach your classes — the classes for that day are being cancelled or rescheduled. The staff will inevitably put on a big show about how difficult that particular day is, and they'll wring their hands and moan and whine and wait for you to withdraw the request. It's really obnoxious.
5. Despite the public holidays, AEON is not all that great for travel. Prices for both airplanes and the shinkansen (bullet trains) skyrocket during the three week-long vacation periods. So you can go abroad or check out another region of Japan, but you'll pay dearly for the ticket, because everyone in Japan is traveling at the same time.
6. The worst thing about AEON — and everyone agrees about this — is the pressure to do sales. Twice a year, there is a "self-study campaign" (SSC). AEON has a bunch of books, CDs, books with CDs, and other crap that students can buy to improve their English — because the huge amount of money they're already paying for the lessons isn't enough, apparently. The school leverages your credibility as a teacher to sell these to the students. You make a "recommendation" and keep the student cornered as you give them the sales pitch, and if you're a "good" teacher, you pressure them until they agree. The students have already had this stuff pitched at them in their lower-level classes, the ones with Japanese teachers, so by the time they reach you, they've heard it all before. I had a really good relationship with my students. I knew their strengths and weaknesses, and I had a good memory for their personalities and the stories they'd tell in class. I felt like we had a natural rapport, and I considered a lot of them friends. So the way some of them would wince when they saw the sale coming just fucking killed me. Meanwhile, the head office has raised everyone's sales expectations because the campaign is on, so the staff are frantic and high-strung to get this crap sold. They ignore the Japanese teachers and focus all of their why-aren't-you-trying-harder on the foreign teachers. Similarly...
7. In the weekly business meetings, the staff moan and wail about how far below the month's sales expectations they are. (Should the expectations have been met, they move on to wailing about how far behind they are for the next month.) Only the foreign teachers attend these meetings. The staff ask for suggestions from the teachers about how to pull out of this dire situation. If any teacher is actually dumb enough to give a suggestion other than "we should work twice as hard and sell more", the suggestion is rejected. Business meetings were my fifty least favorite minutes of the week. (There may have been other schools that were different, but I've talked to enough other teachers to know that our meetings were not unique.)
That's about all I've got. I hope it doesn't come across more negatively than positively. I have skills and faults that make me, in equal turns, perfectly suited and utterly ill-suited for working in Japan. I'm glad I did it, and I think my employers were glad I did, too. (In the final balance.)
I open the floor to your questions.
Friend and AEON co-worker Sara sent this response:
"I just read your blog entry about teaching in Japan. Very well written, sir. I still get asked about the experience, by those thinking of doing it, and I think I'll start giving them the link to this. I'd honestly forgotten about SSC (or pushed it to the back of my brain, whatever) and how horrible it was to have to put the salesperson face on for these people that trusted me. My first SSC was a month after I'd started at AEON and I seem to remember putting my foot down a bit because my students were just getting to know/trust me. SSC was going on just as I was leaving, and I scheduled a bunch of "counselings" for it, but ended up just chatting it up with my students for 10-15 minutes and giving them a half-assed recommendation in the last 2. Sure looked like I was working hard though!"
January 18, 2009
This is from a brief journal that I wrote four years ago.
Off the coast of Vladivostok, 2004
The ride from Kyoto to Takaoka was extremely stressful. I missed the 12:10 train due to a fiasco at the post office, trying to ship my possessions back to the U.S. As a result, I could only catch the 2:10, which would make me 1h33m late for the immigration formalities at Fushiki Port. Having already deactivated my JPhone, I called Yoshida-san from a pay phone in Kyoto Station. Yoshida-san is the representative of the United Orient Shipping & Agency Co. Ltd. who has been given the unfortunate duty of dealing with foreigners like me. He ran through train timetables with a muted desperation matching my own, and agreed that there was no faster way for me to make it to the port than the 2:10 train. However, the Japanese immigration inspector would be long gone by the time I arrived. Yoshida-san was not sure if he could convince the immigration inspector to make a trip back to the port for me. He gave me a phone number to call once I arrived at Takaoka Station, and pleaded with me to hurry.
I had to stand for all but the last half hour of the train ride, close to three hours in total, and was stared at by toddlers, whose mothers did nothing to dissuade them from thinking that this was a strange sight, indeed. I made the requested phone call from the squat, orange pay phone on the platform at Takaoka Station, after a quick consultation with a stranger to confirm that it was, in fact, a phone. The recipient of the call was a cool, calm, collected sort of fellow, not easily ruffled by not knowing why he was being called or how to speak the caller's language. I told him my name, Yoshida-san's name, and the name of the United Orient Shipping & Agency Co. Ltd. That done, I raced to a taxi and tried to give evidence of my panic to the driver; he performed admirably, tearing through the streets of that small Japanese town. I hurried through the fence and down to the edge of the water, where bored-looking Russians stood in small groups, smoking, clutching boxes of Japanese electronics. A short, young man in uniform led me up the gangway to the ship with urgency; I was, apparently, expected. Once aboard, however, total calm fell over the proceedings. The Japanese inspector asked if I intended re-entry to Japan, took my gaijin card, and had me fill out the disembarkation card that had been stapled inside my passport for the last year and a half. That was all. I smiled and gave him my thanks in Kansai-ben, which never fails to crack up Japanese people. The Russian captain collected my passport and tossed it into a plastic tub, the only blue passport visible among dozens of red ones.
A tall woman led me through the halls of the ship to my cabin. She carried herself with a dignity that stood in stark contrast to her discomfort with the English language. The cabin had two berths, 'a' and 'b', but 'b' was mercifully unoccupied. (I noticed immediately a box on the wall that said 'CCP', meaning 'SSR', meaning Soviet-era. The photos of Putin on the main deck served as reassurance that the rest of the ship has moved on, though.) I thanked her with a spa-si-ba. She seemed surprised and delighted, and responded with a sultry pazhalsta as she closed the door.
When I was alone in my cabin for the first time, I began running, jumping, and cheering Public Enemy lyrics — for a couple of minutes, at least, before I collapsed and slept for a little over 14 hours. I awoke briefly as the ship was leaving port, about two hours after I'd arrived, and briefly again as the ship was out to sea, and there was only darkness through my porthole.
According to documents that I received with my ticket, the RUS — our ship — was built in 1986 in Poland. Its maximum speed is 18 knots, its maximum capacity is 400 passengers, and it has three decks. The amenities were significantly fewer than what the floor plan sent by the United Orient Shipping & Agency Co. Ltd. described. The duty-free shop and barber shop did not appear ever to have been open. The pool had cars in it; there was no sign of the sauna or the table tennis, and I didn't really want to find the casino, whether it was there or not. As I walked past on Saturday afternoon, a man was giving a speech with paper and markers in the Night Club Bar (described as the Night Disco Club in the floor plan).
In another room, there were instruments set up, and glittery letters read "Bis Band". Late on Saturday night, there was the sound of live music, and Russian men and women head back and forth in that direction. After all of my time in Japan, I am floored by the presence of so many tall women, so many of them wearing very short skirts.
I spent Saturday afternoon studying Russian and then exploring the ship. Cars were crammed into every space possible above deck; smaller things with engines, like motorcycles, occupied the spaces left over. There was nobody around. You could steal a car, but where would you go with it?
The crew all seemed to know that I was the one and only American on board — they recognized me by sight. For dining purposes, I was seated with the three Japanese passengers, which was fine — we hit it off immediately. Our first waitress, a dour woman, did not respond to our pleasantly proferred spa-si-ba. Another waitress, a young girl whose blonde hair had a purple tint, went from dour to happy upon receipt of our spa-si-ba, and shouted a cheery "thank you" my way when cleaning our table later.
Food has been surprisingly favorable from a vegetarian perspective. I slept through dinner on the first night, but a phone call alerted me to breakfast on Saturday morning. (I missed the call twice while trying to get the receiver free of the metal frame. Fortunately, there was a third call.) A pleasant, spongy bread was in plentiful supply for all three meals. Breakfast included a few thin slices of something that may have been sausage, warm oatmeal, and eggs with small diced tomatoes. (In my disorientation, I initially believed it to be a slice of grilled fish.) Lunch had a small salad, soup with onions, potatoes, and some kind of meat. Dinner was a different small salad, different soup, and mashed potatoes (quite yellow, but quite good) along with some mixed greens and chicken. My stomach suffered little ill effect from separating out the greens. There was tea for breakfast and dinner, with iced tea for lunch.
Etsuko is a chatty young nurse from Kobe. She has traveled to an immense number of countries across the world and knows scraps of many different languages. Her English is okay, although she denies it. (She has particularly good command commend of the simple future and past progressive tenses.) Mitsuo is a taxi driver from the countryside. He is also traveling, although his English is too basic to talk about his plans in detail. Tomohiko is young, 20 or so, and wishes to become a baker. He is traveling to Europe to study from master bakers in France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and others. He has a fair vocabulary but no grammar or fluency (which is overrated for international communication anyway). He speaks with pride of Japan's recent victory (over America) in the Baking World Cup.
We sat in the "cinema room" on Saturday night — closer to the TV, people watched a Russian variety show, some music videos, and a dubbed version of "The Full Monty". No one laughed or made a sound, but many people stayed for the entire film. Behind us, there was a bar. Mitsuo gave me $6 to buy two bottles of Sapporo beer, specifying "four glasses". (The Japanese entrusted all negotiations with the Russians to me.) The purchase economy on this ship accepts yen, dollars, and rubles. Prices are rounded evenly for each currency. Hence, a bottle of Sprite is 100 yen, the two bottles of beer are $6 — no calculations of each day's precise exchange rates are done. (One is at the greatest advantage paying by yen.)
In a companionable mood, I drank one glass of beer, as did Tomohiko and Etsuko, and Mitsuo polished off the rest as we talked about where we'd been and where we were going. There were occasional glances from the silent Russians toward our direction, but no comment. After the movie, some other Russians began a card game; the table had an empty bottle of Absolut Vodka and a full bottle of something called "Red". These Russians were amused by Etsuko's comically exaggerated threats to steal their whiskey. Mitsuo and Tomohiko bid Etsuko and I goodnight and headed back to their cabins.
On Sunday morning, after a halting translation of the other Cyrillic letters on the 'CCP' box, I realized that one of the two metal knobs was for volume. I turned it up and heard, of all things, "Your Woman" by White Town, released by Parasol Records of Urbana, Illinois. Over the next half-hour, Russian pop songs were alternated with English ones, until someone apparently grew impatient and switched radio frequencies in the middle of a song, bringing us to a Russian-language cover of "Here Comes the Sun". It did, in fact, look brighter through the porthole of my room. Seeing another cargo ship was an almost dizzying burst of color, clouds aside.
And that's where it ends.
March 9, 2008
(I started writing this a while ago, but then I sold all of the jokes to gypsies, so now I must furnish the entry with new ones.)
An old friend of mine won an Oscar recently, which is excellent, and much like the crafty Ms. Passion, I had an influx of traffic on this here website due to a link on said friend's old blog. Given the, uh, adult nature of the traffic, I am feeling a certain amount of pressure to adopt an intriguing pseudonym like "Lorenzo from Accounting" or "Lunch", and posit scenarios which might better fit the expectations of these new visitors.
I never thought it would happen to me! Despite his incorrect and shameful choice of headgear, the professional affiliation of great service toward our corporation was overwhelming! Together, we searched very much to achieve bare financial milestones established with great knowing by the regional management for whom effortless brilliance of leadership and strategy is infinitely disappointed by our meager abilities and profound inadequacy. But yet we both felt great seriousness toward our professional responsibilities!
There is an article coming in a local newspaper about the travel book, so I am looking forward to that. In the March edition, upon much consideration, we decided to change "Birdgeport" to "Bridgeport" on the map for that part of the city. One bar on the south side closed, so that came out, and a Neapolitan pizza place on the north side went in. But we haven't done anything about the somewhat daffy computer-generated index, which has to be seen to be appreciated.
Reports have it that Cheeta was featured on Episode 350 of This American Life. I haven't listened yet, but I am always excited for the old fellow to get some of the recognition he so richly deserves. His masterwork "Green, Brown, Yellow" recently had its first formal exhibition in my living room during a party, and I think everyone was very impressed. (I should note that I had it framed at The Practical Angle in Chicago and they did a fine job.)
I never thought it would happen to me! I was just sitting there on the mountain, on the lookout for peanuts or old fruit, when...
July 14, 2007
June 21, 2007
It is almost time to return to the websites of our youth, almost time to speak again of the early summer crazy. I am back from Hiroshima, back from Australia and Thailand and Cambodia and Vietnam, back in Chicago. I have some things to post from the back-log before I really get caught up, though.
Below is an entry that I started last July and never finished. It's about bowling and some of the students from Hiroshima. I can't remember how much more I planned to add, but it has a narrative and establishes some suspense, so I think it's worth passing on.
There was another school bowling event a couple weeks ago. This was the second of its kind; in an earlier entry, I described how the first one began with frustration and ended with delicious maple cream cookies. Evidently, I had talked up these maple cream cookies so much they ascended from third prize to first prize this time around. Second prize was a jar of some kind of seaweed jerky, and I didn't get a good look at third prize; the "good effort" prize, which as far as I can tell was given to the bowler with the worst score who was the biggest spaz about it, was a can of Hanshin Tigers coffee. I wasn't on the prize committee. It's the sole province of a demented, cheerful old lady who enjoys failing to learn anything about pronunciation from me on Saturday afternoons.
(She respects my authority as teacher and would never contradict me, but I have to keep an eye on her during class, because she is fond of instructing the other students on any points that I do not specifically cover. I had to dedicate like half a class to un-learning to make the 'you' in 'thank you' high and squeaky because of her. She had taught them that your intonation should go up really sharply on 'you', and they're all terrified of her, so they do what she says. Meanwhile, this woman doesn't even know how to introduce herself.)
The second time was bigger than the first; the students who organized the event had so much fun last time that they drew up rosters, diagrams and flow-charts for this one. (That's how the Japanese show they are having a good time.) There were to be three games. Each teacher was made captain of a team, and the team rosters changed every game in order to give all of the students a chance to flourish under their favorite foreigner's leadership. That, also, was not my idea. I'm paid to be a pleasant, encouraging figure in a classroom. I'm not paid to be that way at a bowling alley. The rules are different in a bowling alley. Nobody gets congratulated for anything less than a mark, and a score of less than 100 is cause for great shame and embarrassment; if there are nihilists in the parking lot, we fight them, and if you throw two gutter balls in a row, you are banned from bowling in the presence of other human beings for at least one year. I don't think any of that is unreasonable. Unfortunately, the other teachers were being model cheerleaders for their charges, making me look like a sullen mope instead of the figure of unimpeachable integrity that I actually was. When my "team members" jumped around and squealed with delight over making contact with the pins - and looked at me for approval - I didn't know what to do, so I stuffed eight Ricola tablets in my mouth and abdicated the ability to speak. (I'm not totally positive whose Ricola tablets those were. There was a bag of them, so I helped myself.)
Predictably enough, I started slowly. The Ricola tablets were down to a relatively manageable blob by the middle of the second game, and I began rolling well. I only registered an 8 in the first frame of the third game, but then a zen state descended upon me and I reeled off eight marks in a row. It was, perhaps, some manner of Ricola-induced derangement; I don't know. My memories are fuzzy. I remember a lot of chest-bumping with a Japanese guy who was bowling well at another lane. I've forgotten his name - I do remember that he only knew one English preposition, 'near', and he had discovered that people thought it was hilarious if he just kept using 'near' instead of learning any other prepositions, even though his teacher was annoyed at everyone for encouraging him, so there was a lot of chest-bumping and yelling "near!" - but when I emerged from the zen state, it was the tenth frame, and a huge crowd of people had been watching me for some time, and I didn't pick up the spare, leaving me just barely short of 200. I hadn't looked at the score since the beginning of the game, so I honestly didn't even know I was close. Someone told me, and I crumpled to the floor.
I should explain that I want that 200. I want it like I used to want to be president, like I used to want to be an astronaut; I want it like I used to want to be published. I really want that 200. The thing about bowling - what separates it from almost every other sport - is that the circumstances never change. It's always you, your arm, and a ball with three holes in it - always ten pins at the other end of a long, wooden lane. In basketball or soccer, one game may be drastically different from another because of the opponents, or your overall physical fitness, or even the conditions of the place where the game is played. Each game is its own, independent entity. But bowling exists outside of time and history. When I bowl, I am bowling in that moment, but I am also bowling in every game I have ever bowled. I am still with my friends at the Diversey Rock 'n Bowl in Chicago on a Tuesday night, and I am still alone at JJ Club Ichi Maru Maru in Kyoto, waiting for the rain to pass. Nothing is past. Every game is a response to every other game; everything is everything. (And that's why 300, a perfect game, is not something I like to think about; it represents transcendence, but it also represents death.)
I picked myself up off the floor, now aware of my failure. At the prize ceremony, I was awarded first place, and the delicious maple cream cookies. I had been far and away the winner of the total pin count and three-game average. Everyone congratulated me. But I could think only of the failure. I didn't know how to say "I want to die" in Japanese, so I did the best I could, which was to say "I am going to a grave", which confused everyone.
So there is that; we are back in the present day, in 2007. We all went bowling several more times in the months that were to come, and had a grand old time doing it. I still haven't bowled 200, and haven't really come any closer than I did then, but I've had some respectable games. My friend and frequent correspondent Arden emailed me a few weeks ago about a book he was reading where a Japanese general, Shoichi Yokoi, returned from his second tour of duty in the war and said, "It is with much embarrassment that I have returned alive." I guess that's what I was going for with the end of that entry. Well, now it's published.
I keep forgetting how much I enjoy this sort of thing. Jesus! I haven't even written on here about the monkey painting that I bought. That will be the next topic.
January 25, 2007
Shinzo Abe, there is trouble between us:
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese students need to work harder, spend more time in school and face stricter discipline, advisers to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Wednesday in a report the premier described as "wonderful."
Japanese students need to spend more time in school? Six days a week, twelve to fourteen hours a day is not enough? In the time I have spent bitch-slapping Kim Jong Il back and forth - and it has been a fine time, with strange, incongruous beards - have I overlooked the real monster in our midst?
Don't make me welcome you to the English world, Abe. It a medical fact that I have no qualms.
July 24, 2006
Oh my! Why is your web browser so excited? Well, probably because it's time for another edition of...
NEW! LET'S ENJOY: PEPSI RED
In light of the overwhelming love of all humanity for Pepsi Blue, that fine carbonated beverage which has now replaced water in most faucets across the world, it seems only natural to introduce Pepsi Red. Or it did, about a month ago. According to reports, "Contents of "Pepsi red" are "Strange balance for the stimulation of the carbonic acid only of the spice flavor and cola to exceed. "Moreover, it is a feature that the impact is large because of red impressive the beverage of contents."
American beverage companies have an odd habit of test-marketing new soft drinks here. It doesn't make a lot of sense - Japanese people don't like soda very much. You can find Coke almost anywhere, and any bar or restaurant will be perfectly happy to serve you "cola" and charge you the same price as they would for "biru", but there isn't really any room for anything else. If Suntory has an extra space in one of their Suntory Boss vending machines - e.g. no new flavors of canned coffee this month - they might have a can of Pepsi Twist available, although "lemon" means something different to Japanese people than it does to everyone else. I see Melon Fanta in certain convenience stores as well, and there are a few generic bubble-gum flavored sodas. But that's about it. So why would you treat Japan as a representative sample population for a prospective American launch? When I lived in Osaka, Vanilla Coke was beating a slow, shameful retreat from vending machines in advance of its upcoming failure in the American market. The version of Coke that was supposed to bring joy back into the bloated hearts of all those Atkins fuckers debuted with a gigantic advertising campaign and thoroughly embarassed its ancestors back in summer 2004 shortly before doing the exact same thing in the USA. (I should ask someone if they tried Coke Blak here before I arrived.) So I don't know if Pepsi Red will ever make it to to the US. It's already gone from stores and nobody liked it except for me and one of the Canadians, so it was hardly much of a financial success, but that hasn't stopped them before.
Yes: I liked it. It was kind of weird, but it retained the better characteristics of a caramel-based soda while incorporating a cinnamon taste that was enough to stimulate the taste buds without being too strong. At least I think it was cinnamon. Someone else thought it was ginger. According to another source, "I hear that Suntory Limited newly puts "Pepsi red" on the market, this power is accelerated, and the activation of the carbonic acid market was attempted this time. Do you feel a still pungent sharp taste until guessing from the image of red though "Cola of the spice flavor" cannot imagine very much?"
So that's something that should be considered as well. Speaking of things that are beyond imagination:
NEW! LET'S ENJOY: UNBELIEVABLY PAINFUL DORITOS
I've mentioned odd packaging decisions by Doritos Japan before, but this is really something special. As anyone who has taken a marketing class will tell you, the conventional approach would be to disassociate your brand from the sensation of having your nuts squashed by a strange man in an orange bodysuit, let alone a strange man in an orange bodysuit who has grabbed your ankles for extra leverage while squashing your nuts. But Doritos Japan is not bound by the tired old conventional wisdom that the promise of excruciating pain is not a selling point, or that sadomasochist latex enthusiasts do not represent a large enough target market for a major product launch.
According to the back of the bag, these fellows have a blog, where you can see the guy in the orange suit fantasize about naked women while he tries to work, and you can also see the guy in the yellow suit hover indecisively over conveyor belts of food. (Sex, presumably, is no longer much of an issue for him.)
July 13, 2006
I made it rain in my apartment! This is my greatest achievement yet. As you can imagine, being in Japan and all, I live in fairly small quarters. Last night, I left the air conditioner on at a shamelessly cold temperature. I meant to turn it off, but I didn't remember until I was already in bed, warm in my blanket, and I wasn't about to sell out my sleepy contentment by standing up. I had the fan going all night, too. In the morning, I opened my balcony door to check the conditions outside: hot and humid as fuck, actually. I pondered the outdoors for a few seconds and then closed the door. Then I turned up the a/c, which hangs over the balcony door, with the fan a few feet away, blowing in the direction of both the hot air and the cold air. A few seconds later, a few drops of rain fell on me. Obviously, I have become some kind of weather god. This is a remarkable development. I will accept requests for use of my powers from desert nations of good, upstanding character. My rates are reasonable. All proceeds will be used for research and development, specifically:
And they're all coming to Pyongyang with me. Oh, yes. Increases the number of Canadian passports I need, but every one will be worth it.
So, as I mentioned a few entries ago, the school has been doing a lot of advertising lately. Yesterday, one of the staff asked if I would mind chatting with a student while being photographed. I said fine, because I was in a cooperative mood. She showed me pictures of some of the poses and hand gestures that they would like, and said that I should talk about summer. Out in the area set aside for the photo shoot, there was a pleasant looking Japanese guy I'd never met before. I sat down, introduced myself, and started the conversation about summer. He mentioned swimming, so we talked a little about beaches, and that led to barbecue, so we talked about various foods you can barbecue for a while, and then we went back to beaches until the photographer had everything she needed. They seemed pleased with the results. Later, though, I discovered that a transcript of the conversation was going to be included with the photos, in Japanese and English, and because the person doing the transcription did not speak much English, it went something like this:
MASAHIRO: Often I am my friends swimming! It is Yamaguchi Prefecture. Also we eat the food.
So I begged them to let me do a quick touch-up on the transcript. There wasn't much I could do other than a rough fix on the grammar, unfortunately. The structure of the conversation, as understood by the transcriptionist, really turned on my passionate love and praise for hamburgers and giant sausages. They pretty much have me exhorting every man, woman and child in Japan to eat a giant sausage in the summer. (Which, as long-time readers know, is exactly the sort of thing I do. It's my own unique spin on being a vegetarian.) I didn't even get to see the whole transcript. I bet they have me totally renouncing every method of eating corn other than with soy sauce, because that came up, too.
This, by the way, is part of a recent ad:
Why is my disembodied head floating next to a koala?!?! Why are the advertising departments at these schools never, ever on speaking terms with the education departments?
June 30, 2006
We played charades with the weather; humidity chose poison gas, and everyone guessed on the first try. I don't think I've ever lived anywhere that wasn't humid in the summer, but for whatever reason, Hiroshima-style has me reeling.
Let's get back on track with some exhilirating product reviews:
NEW! LET'S ENJOY: GRILLED CHEESE FLAVOR PRINGLES
I have never met one, but I suspect that Japanese flavor scientists are a bunch of cocky bastards. They routinely set ridiculous tasks for themselves, and they have no sense of their own limits. I remember being faintly astonished to find a bag of Ozack baked-potato flavored chips during my first trip to a convenience store in Japan. I mean, here were potatoes that had been flavored to taste like...other potatoes. And it worked. There are failures, too, of course. Calbee makes these pizza-flavored chips that have the pizza flavoring caked into the ridges of the chips; they are disgusting. You'll have to get someone else to tell you how the shrimp and crab chips taste.
This, though, has to be the apotheosis of flavor science. Everyone makes cheese-flavored chips. But using only the medium of powder dusted on Pringles, can these guys communicate the difference between cheese and grilled cheese? This is no small matter of variation. They are trying to express changing states of matter through taste. It's absurd. It can't be done. Can it?
Well, no, actually. I sat in the park, up in the hills, eating my can of Grilled Cheese Pringles in the shade on a sunny day. Every can comes with a free giveaway make-up compact mirror. You flip the lid, look at yourself and think, well, I don't look any fatter, so why not polish off this can? Alternately, if you are me, you slip the mirror into your messenger bag, finish reading your book and feed the rest of the chips to the feral cats who frequent the park. Imagine that a Hollywood executive wanted to make a really classy Oscar-winning picture, "Cheese", but he has no idea how to do it. He gets in touch with this fellow named Uwe Boll, who, within an hour of the meeting, has a script and a budget ready. The executive is thrilled to have met such a go-getter, and "Cheese" goes into production. One day, however, just before shooting was scheduled to begin, Uwe Boll disappears. Nobody knows where he went. After much hand-wringing, the executive goes with a new director, Alfred Hitchcock. A few line changes are made here and there, but they're on a tight schedule, so Hitchcock has to direct "Cheese" from the budget Uwe Boll negotiated, as well as the basic story Boll came up with. The resulting film, bearing little resemblance to the snazzy Oscar-winner originally envisioned, is re-titled "Grilled Cheese" and marketed as a genre flick to avoid competition with Ron Howard's forthcoming somewhat more faithful production of the original idea.
(See, these seductively witty celebrity metaphors: they massage your sense of cleverness without passing on any message to your senses. Fuck 'em, right? It was fun to write, though. Did your great-grandmother ever set out a platter of old Sociables and similar crackers with thick cheese paste in the middle? Did you ever open one up and eat it like an Oreo? That's sort of how these taste, but more faintly, of course. Not awful, but I don't think I'll buy them again.)
NEW! LET'S ENJOY: GRAPEFRUIT FLAVOR AIR
You can buy iPod Nanos and Shuffles at 7-11 next to cans of air that cost about $5.50. Yeah, it's Japan. I always expected it would be this way, but it wasn't until recently.
They don't give you anywhere near enough air for it to be worth the price, but it is kind of fun. There are flavor strips that you fit into a slot in the oxygen mask. I chose grapefruit. (I forget what the other option was.) Just a little assembly required; then you sit back, relax and huff oxygen. It's not immediately apparent whether it's working or not, but then all of a sudden you realize you're getting weirdly emotional about this episode of "Doctor Who", and, hey, you're high on oxygen. Thanks, Japan!
I think we all know that canned air is the future.
June 23, 2006
Today, I began the delicate process of negotiating with the Canadians to get them to loan me their passports so I can go to North Korea and call Kim Jong Il a little bitch to his face. Although we are from the land of the free, United States citizens are not allowed to travel to North Korea or Cuba. (I'm not sure if we can still go to Iran. I'm not really up for that, anyway.) I am totally aggravated that all of the other foreigners here are allowed to go to North Korea, and I'm not. (My friend Adam, who is an English citizen but has a US green card, can't go either - the terms of his green card prohibit it. I already asked him.)
Initial results were promising:
"Give me your passport," I said to the first Canadian.
The second Canadian walked into the room, searching for a textbook.
"Give me your passport," I said.
So the groundwork was laid. Later, one of the Canadians had the school radio tuned to some 70's and 80's rock hits station, and Rush came on. In a brilliant strategic manuever, I complimented Neil Peart's drumming. I reckon I'm wearing them down. It'll be New Year's in Pyongyang for me! Here's a suggestion about a hundred times better than the Juche idea: wear a bucket around your neck, Kim, you little bitch, because I am going to make you cry.
We got paid today. I managed to spend my entire paycheck last month; I had to pay double rent for the apartment, and the rest went to video games, ice cream, bowling, massages and a new suit. It's a hell of a life I'm leading over here. I'm going to be more responsible this month. (Kim Jong Il is reading this, and he's going, "Typical decadent American capitalist." Yeah, well, I produced like twice as much agriculture as you last month, and that was just from the week I didn't wash the dishes and something funky was going on at the bottom of the sink. Sorry, Kim, you little bitch. I'm always going to win.)
Wait, what the hell was I talking about? The students want to go bowling again this weekend, so that's what we'll be doing on Sunday. The school encourages us to go out with students. I am leery of this practice, because every minute I spend with students outside of work is a minute in which I am not calling Kim Jong Il a little bitch, but it's bowling, right? The first school outing to the bowling alley was about a month ago. At that point, it had been literally two years since last I bowled. I love the fair pastime of bowling, and I don't think I've been obscure about that, but it had been awhile. All I really want out of life is some peace of mind and a bowling team. I used to want more - to be president, to be an astronaut, to be a famous artist - but now I'd be totally content with peace of mind and a bowling team. Well, things weren't going that well for me, and I wasn't bowling. Alternately, I wasn't bowling, and things weren't going that well for me.
My form was abysmal during the first game. I couldn't place the ball where I wanted it, and even threw a couple of gutterballs. I grew sullen and refused to talk to anyone, bewildering the students; fortunately, the Canadians picked up the slack. I improved slightly for the second game, rolling a 115, but I still got into an argument with an old lady who told it was a good score.
"[[It's not good]]," I told her.
For the third game, I dropped a 168 and had bowlers from several lanes over gathered around to watch my last three frames. Shit was working in that third game; I couldn't throw a strike, for some reason, but I was picking up some remarkable spares, earning peals of applause from the crowd. One of the students had brought prizes for the best performances. First place got a nice leather wallet, but I was the real winner, because I was third, and that warranted a huge box of delicious maple cream cookies.
June 20, 2006
I'd appreciate if readers using Internet Explorer would email me about anything that doesn't appear to be working correctly on this site. I designed it using Firefox and tested it with Safari and Lynx, but I don't have access to a copy of IE. In this day and age, shouldn't the browsers agree on what an HTML tag means? Oh, but they don't.
It's too bad about the Carolina team winning the Stanley Cup. The Canadians in my office really had their hopes up. Neither of them are from Edmonton, but it's kind of a national concern for Canadians. (It's like Jesus said about taxes. "Render unto God what is God's. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's." Well, shit, render unto the Canadians the Stanley Cup.) I'm the only one with an internet connection, so I took it upon myself to provide them with updates. They asked if I wanted to split the difference between the Canadian and American versions and have a Thanksgiving dinner in early November. I made reference to my nuts in my reply. I am interested in alternately confirming and confounding stereotypes of imperialistic American behavior.
OMG SCARY MOVIE
Written and Directed by Marc Heiden Produced by Marc Heiden Cinematography by Marc Heiden Starring Marc Heiden and a giant crab
I think I am establishing a reputation as an intense and uncompromising filmmaker.
BACK TO THE PART WHERE I AM RUDE TO CANADIANS
"If you want me to lend legitimacy to your little event, you'll hold it on the proper day," I said. "Canadian Thanksgiving. What are you guys even celebrating?"
This is all a bluff, of course. I can't cook and, if they've been paying attention, they know that. I have nothing to bring to this dinner except a general willingness to eat, and possibly bread, if I make it to the bakery before it closes. And smallpox blankets. Who has smallpox? Do I want to spend money on blankets? Will napkins do? I'm going to sleep now, and when I awake, I hope to see advice from Lewis Cass in the comments section for this post.
June 15, 2006
I've been drifting between "bearded" and "not quite bearded, but clearly can't be arsed to shave" ever since I arrived back in Japan. But I shaved on Wednesday morning for reasons now obscure to me, and the staff at my school pounced upon it like a pack of hyenas on holiday, snapping promotional photos for the school website. This was a pragmatic decision for them: I have sideburns at the moment, and I have made it known around the office that I am headed toward Wolfman Jack, pedal to the metal, not looking back, so I think they had a meeting and decided that this might be the best chance they'll have for months to catch me looking presentable. Before I started working here, I actually had to sign a waiver formally authorizing them to use my image for advertisements and promotional purposes, and apparently they're serious about it. They chose one of my most photogenic students and had us pose together in front of the white board, my arm draped condescendingly around his shoulders, according to their direction. (He is my Buddy. I am Supporting him on his Climb up Mount English. We are Together in This. What, exactly, are the semiotics here?) The results should be pretty weird. In retaliation, I conducted an entire class in an Irish accent. I need to get scruffy fast.
TWO VIDEOS, BECAUSE MULTIMEDIA IS TEH HOTT
Look! It's YouTube. Click on them, and they play for you, right here, without leaving this page. Jesus, the web, it's still fairly shit, isn't it? I mean, you used to be able to log on to a BBS and the ANSI would play for you right away without you clicking some button. I set the bar at "telekinetic mind control rays" and I urge you all to do the same. (But let's be ready to compromise on "jetpacks". Trust me, I am fucking good with strategy.)
So, that was during Golden Week, which is a string of national holidays at the end of April, comprising about a week's worth of vacation, depending on how much humanity resides at your corporate level. The weather was beautiful for most of the week, so we said, "Let's go to a baseball game," and it finally rained. Well, that's how it goes. You can buy bowls of ramen or udon at the game, along with the usual snacking and drinking options, so it's not hard to keep warm. (And, if you are a foreigner, everyone is always giving you weird Japanese snack food.) At that point, the Hiroshima Carp were down 4-0, had played terribly all game, and it had just started raining. They finally, barely pushed through a run. How do the fans react?
(At the end, I had to put the camera down because a random guy wanted to hug me.)
And that's the seventh inning stretch, complete with jet balloons. We were privileged to be sitting in the (intensely packed) bleachers next to the Carp oendan, music / chant-leaders. They reminded me a lot of the yakuza in Kyoto, and I mean that in the best possible way: masters of their universe, unapproachable to those who live under their direction, inexplicably down with foreigners. I have some good photos that I'll post another time.
I think we all know that "Carp" is the best nickname in any major professional sports league.
June 13, 2006
Yes, there are occasional reminders that, although I've lived here before, I am not at home. Tonight, after work, I went running by the river. I usually run at night, away from the crowds. Hiroshima is run-down and tropical along the banks of the rivers that don't flow downtown; it makes for a pleasant course, if not quite as nice as the Kamogawa in Kyoto. After I'd run about half my usual route, I thought I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. I couldn't tell if it had fallen or been kicked up by my cross-trainers. It was dark, though, and I wasn't carrying anything that I would care about dropping; anyway, my attention was immediately occupied by a curiously large, cool bead of sweat I could feel making its way down my right leg. I puzzled over it for a while and assumed that exhaustion was playing tricks on me. Finally, turning away from the river, I came to an intersection and had to stop for a moment to let cars pass. That's when I noticed that there was a thin, slimy snake on my leg.
I kept my cool and dealt with it. Look, though, this isn't Kyoto - surrounded by a ring of mountains, well away from the sea, complete with ancient cultural treasures to attest to the fact that nobody has gone stomping through there recently. This is Hiroshima. Flying reptiles are a serious concern here - this is where it all began. If Godzilla's parents were a celebrity superstar couple, they would have named him "Hiroshima".
It's wise to keep wary.
A FEW VARIATIONS ON THAT BIT ABOUT GODZILLA'S PARENTS, OR, KAIJU N THE HOOD
When Godzilla talks about something that happened back in the day, this is where it probably happened. When Godzilla surveys the young monsters and wonders when all these scenesters showed up, muses about how much better it was when it was D.I.Y., this is where they did it. When Godzilla needs to salve his coke-scarred sense of self-worth by claiming some exclusive awareness of where they lead a simple, honest life, far away from the cynical star-fuckers on the coasts, this is where he's talking about. The first time Godzilla lifted a shop, this is where he lifted it from; when Godzilla gets released from the volcano and the judge says he has to live under house arrest at his mom's house, this is where Ghidorah shows up at all hours and this is where the backyard gets fucking destroyed but nobody is all that bothered because they're just happy to see him doing well again, and they hope he'll stay clean this time.
I could keep going.
Following on from yesterday:
FIVE SONGS I WOULDN'T HAVE EXPECTED TO BE AVAILABLE AT A JAPANESE KARAOKE BOX
1. Death From Above 1979, Romantic Rights
Obviously, my rendition of My Way was note-fucking-perfect. Damn! I have raised Nancy Spungen from the dead and now I have no idea what to do with her.
June 12, 2006
There was an earthquake this morning. I was asleep, although not soundly: I'd only been out for an hour, and in the creeping humidity of the Hiroshima summer, and in the unsettled stomach of a man who'd eaten things he couldn't identify at some horrifically expensive Japanese restaurant the night before, sleep had taken the form of flight, with one of those small, bounce-several-times-until-you-get-some-air-under-you prop planes and a cracked jungle runway as the means of take-off. It wasn't coming easily. I was wracked with guilt as well. Earlier that day, I'd sworn that I'd go find some wild monkeys on Monday (there might be some on an island near Shikoku, reachable within two and a half hours), and it was now clear that I wasn't going to get enough sleep to do it. I was also consumed with thoughs of revenge upon a drunken co-worker who babbled non-stop through what everyone else agreed was an achingly gorgeous (my adjectives, but the point remains) rendition of "No Surprises" at karaoke.
Fuck! Everything shook. Naturally, it took me a while to understand that I wasn't asleep. I tried to remember what I'd been taught to do when everything started shaking. We had fire drills and tornado drills at my grade school, but I couldn't remember if there had been any drills for this sort of thing. I thought about safety drills and how unlikely it seemed that the building could stand much longer, given how much it was shaking, and whether, when it fell, it would fold evenly and without a cloud of dust, like a deck of cards - I had decided that it would, when the earthquake finally stopped. I heard a television go on in the apartment below me, and someone in another apartment swore in English. I stumbled to my computer to confer with the internet. I figured the news wouldn't have anything yet, but it seemed totally irresponsible of the weather not to mention the earthquake. I made it out to the balcony to clear my head; I could hear the television, and a telephone conversation next door. The first few cars after that sounded like furtive escape attempts.
Announcements began on previously-unseen loudspeakers outside. I remember a jingle before the voice began, because there usually is a jingle, and then a firm voice said, "Hiroshima," and a few more sentences after that. I had to marvel at the fact that I couldn't understand a single word, other than "Hiroshima". My Japanese isn't terrible, but I couldn't even pick a preposition out of there. The announcement was repeated three times. I studied the tone of the voice carefully. It was saying that nothing had been broken, I decided. It listed some places that hadn't been damaged, and described several respects in which there wasn't any trouble. I went back to sleep and slept pretty soundly.
When I woke up, I discovered that a bottle of olive oil had fallen from a shelf in my kitchen and broken on the floor. Also, a few dishes that had been drying on the rack above the sink had fallen back into the sink; they'd have to be washed again. I muttered angrily, pulled on a pair of jeans and went for a massage instead of dealing with it.
(news) A strong earthquake rattled southern Japan early Monday followed by a milder temblor in the north, but there was no danger of a tsunami from either, the nation's meteorological agency said.
At least five people were injured from the magnitude-6.2 quake in the south, but no one died, Kyodo News agency reported. No injuries or damage were reported from the second quake, Kyodo said.
The first quake occurred at around 5 a.m. 87 miles underground in Oita Prefecture (state) on the southern island of Kyushu. It struck wide areas of southern and western Japan, Kyodo said.
As it turns out, my neighbor swore because he realized that his fish tank - and his two turtles - were perched directly above his computers (and his video game systems, and his external drives, and his router, et cetera), and the entire thing was shaking pretty hard. He lunged for the fish tank and held it tightly, wondering if he should try to lift it from the shelf and away to safety, or if that was too risky. In the end, the turtles were fine. Nobody saved my goddam olive oil, though. Jesus, I still need to clean that.
(news) A woman in her 60s was hospitalized in stable condition after hitting her head on a pole in the city of Matsuyama on southwestern Shikoku island, the fire department said.
In the city of Hiroshima, a junior high school student was injured by a falling object, a 56-year-old man hurt his arm and a man in his 40s was scratched on his face by his frightened cat, officials said.
In Hatsukaichi city of Hiroshima prefecture, an 82-year-old woman fell and broke her right leg after her dog was surprised by the quake and dragged her on the ground, a fire department official said.
In another case, a man staying at a campsite in southwestern Miyazaki prefecture "hit his elbow hard against a wall when rushing to turn off the heat, but the injury was very mild," a prefectural official said.
The junior high school student was still up from the night before, studying. I'm fairly certain about that. I'd be curious to know how the cat developed an association between that guy's face and earthquakes, though. "I can stop this," the cat thought. "That's the face. It's all on my shoulders now. I've been waiting for this. By God, this is what I was put here to do. And now, I'm going to stop the world from shaking. I'm going after that face."
After the World Cup match that night, we compared notes. A few people had caught different pieces of the announcement. Evidently, it had been quite detailed (and not pre-recorded), with notes on the epicentre, the force of the quake, and the fact that no tsunamis had been created. We talked about what had fallen in our apartments, how disorienting it had been to wake up during an earthquake, and how this never happens back home.
May 23, 2005
I know that a lot of people are pissed off because I haven't covered the walking panda story yet. What you have to understand is that I am battling a number of firmly entrenched financial interests in my ongoing crusade to expose the panda porn once and for all, and while nothing escapes my notice, it doesn't necessarily get written up right away, because there is a strategy at work here. I don't have the kind of resources that the panda sex industry does. In all honesty, I did mean to cover this last week, but then I got side-tracked with the Oregon Trail thing. I'm here now, though, and here it is:
TOKYO (AFP) A lesser panda is proving a hit at a zoo near Tokyo as it can stand on two legs like a human being for about 10 seconds, an unusual feat for the species, zoo officials said. The two-year-old male panda named Futa stands up several times a day when "it sees something interesting", said Hiroyuki Asano, an official of Chiba Zoological Park, southeast of the capital. "We have kept lesser pandas for nearly 20 years at this zoo, but I have not seen one like Futa, which can stand for such a long time," Asano said. "Futa is like an idol to his fans."
I remain doubtful that even a panda can make walking upright "cool", but if these fans really are driven to imitate their idol, it can't be a bad thing. Seriously, though, what does a lesser panda have to do to stop being lesser? The poor bastard is walking upright for ten whole seconds and has legions of devoted fans, and he's still a lesser panda. At some point, Futa has to begin to wonder why he even bothers.
The furry, seven-kilogramme (15 pound) animal, whose natural habitat are the mountains of China and the Himalayas, was born in another zoo in central Japan. Unlike the black-and-white giant panda, the lesser panda has brown fur with a stripe on its tail. Futa, fed fruits and bamboo every day, has a female mate, and the zoo hopes they will have a baby panda in the near future.
A PANDA'S LAMENT
FUTA: Look! I'm walking!
Apparently - and I'm not making this up - Futa has a grandfather named Ron who is also good at walking upright. Way to go, Ron. But nothing in the world matters less than a panda who's too old to make more babies.
Every once in a while, I feel a responsibility to put something on here that absolutely nobody other than myself is going to find amusing. This photo gallery is fairly old - it's from my second day in Russia, when I was scraping the bottom of the barrel for things to do by myself in Vladivostok on a rainy day. There was a museum built in mounds overlooking the bay with decommissioned chain guns and missiles sitting around, and I don't even know if I was supposed to be walking around up there, and I guess technically I don't even know if any of them were actually decommissioned, but eventually I wandered into a cave-like museum dedicated to the Russians who had, throughout history, kept Asians out of this particular area. And, as it so often does, a certain madness set in, and I started trying to photograph the little army men in the museum's many dioramas in dramatic ways. The lighting was very bad (I believe there were proles on treadmills at the power station), but I did my best, and I really do think the last few are nice. I could make this one available as a print. It's even more pleasant at three times the size.
February 25, 2005
Some people have written to ask if I knew the Killer Japanese Seizure Robots. Actually, I did. I cannot pretend that their English showed much improvement while I was there, but I miss them all the same. I go to their webpage rather often and feel nostalgic, and also epileptic.
Last week, in the midst of discussing my own impending birthday, I delivered a powerful oration on the nature of holidays in North Korea, noting that, as far as I could tell, St. Patrick's Day was the only one that had not been revealed by the North Korean media to be Kim Jong Il-related in origin. Following up on that, we have the following from our sideline reporter, Arden:
I really am as shocked as anyone about the failure in coalescence of Kim Jong Il and St. Patrick's Day. One upside of flunking out of U of I was my opportunity to study "The History of China and Japan" at the substantially less politically correct Parkland College, where you learn things like, "Korea is known as the Ireland of the Orient, because they also have a history of alcoholism." With a shared culture like that, how could these countries not be attending each other's parties?
I thought about that, and I suppose one reason might be the hair issue. We know, from science, that all Irish people look like this, while the government of North Korea has set clear guidelines for hair and attire. How, then, might a drunken North Korean socialist fanatic judge the Irish?
1. The hair of the Irish is too long in the back, and it is unruly. Although men aged over 50 are given allowed two extra centimeters of hair to cover balding, that is clearly intended for use toward comb-overs. Irish people allow their excess hair to spill out of their hats, and it provides no aid towards concealing their baldness.
2. The nappy ends of the hair and beards of Irish people tends to suggest that they do not get a trim once every fifteen days, as prescribed. That leaves them with undue amounts of free time in which to be infiltrated by corrupt capitalist ideas.
3. There are, the North Korean media reports, civic advantages to wearing smart shoes. Irish people, however, choose to wear long, yellow shoes that are pointy and bent upward at the end. By no reasonable measure are the shoes of the Irish smart. In fact, as one representative from the goverment argued, "No matter how good the clothes, if one does not wear tidy shoes, one's personality will be downgraded." It is a sensitive issue, even among fellow drunks, when one's personality has been downgraded.
4. If there is a link between a person's clothes and appearance and their ideological and emotional state, one is hardly encouraged by the inability of the Irish to put their hats on straight. Are Irish people perpetually drunkenly challenging the world to fight because they favor pointy clothing over smoother, less angular ensembles, or do they favor pointy clothing because they are drunkenly challenging the world to fight?
The sad fact is that while North Korea and Ireland may be able to overlook those differences before the wine starts flowing, it is inevitable that, by the end of the night, someone will have accused someone else of falling short of ideals in accordance of a socialist lifestyle, and someone else will suggest loudly that certain parties appear more interested in socialism than girls and are, therefore, gay. None of that is likely to be taken well; fisticuffs will probably ensue. So maybe that's why.
The skill with which I settle things has to be admired.
(news) But U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci told reporters Wednesday that he was perplexed over Canada's apparent decision to allow Washington to make decision if a missile was headed toward its territory. "Why would you want to give up sovereignty?" he said. "We don't get it. We think Canada would want to be in the room deciding what to do about an incoming missile that might be heading toward Canada."
Fucking hell! Yes, you might think they would...but they don't. That is the central enigma of the Canadian psyche and I cannot believe we have such a hopeless incompetent as this Paul Cellucci contending with it. The Canadians are going to eat him alive, metaphorically of course, there is no telling what they will actually do, but it is not going to turn out well for any of us. God damn. Get him out of there!
To answer your next question, yes, I am willing to take over as Ambassador to Canada. Holy shit! I will be so good at it.
My life has been quiet for the last week or so. Tonight, I will get my car back. My mother went joy-riding in it a few weeks ago and some guy rammed into the back left corner while it was parked, so his insurance is paying for the entire rear bumper to be re-painted. That's nice, I guess, but there is really no point to having a freshly-painted bumper when you live in the city and park on the street. Like moths to flame, degenerates without any semblance of parallel-parking ability will be hypnotized by its bright, unscarred green, given over to the irrational notion that they have plenty of room to fit their rusted-out Oldsmobile behind my car. I will be lucky if the bumper lasts two days before returning to its previous state, or worse. Really, what's the point? Every time I see one of those stupid gee-whiz-so-fast DSL commercials, I shake my fist. Fuck the internet! Where is my rocket-pack? I was led to believe there would be rocket-packs! I am increasingly irate, and a disturbance even to myself.
There is one more thing that I should mention - you have no idea how thoroughly these entries encapsulate everything that is on my mind at the time they are written, so I can't leave anything out - and that is the death of Hunter S. Thompson, the noted American lion-tamer. It's hard to write anything about Hunter S. Thompson because you must constantly check yourself to be sure you are not trying to write like him; perhaps it's not a problem for the old folks, the hardened professionals, but we young'uns have to watch out for it. You either wind up sounding like a pale, mis-shapen imitation of the man or a colorless version of yourself. (Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, and Raymond Carver: read them, but not while you are writing anything of your own.)
There have been many tributes, summations, epitaphs and reflections over the last week or so, and nearly all of them have had a palpable self-consciousness about them in some way, shape or form. You can't be unfair about that, though. Nobody was expecting to have to write these things; everyone was caught off guard, and only the worst among us were glad to have the chance. When it comes to memorials for Hunter S. Thompson, all you can really ask is that they leave you with something. Compare, for example, this one, by Alexander Cockburn, to this one, by ESPN writer Eric Neel. One writer is far more skilled than the other, far better-versed in history and politics and literature, and the other is more or less exactly what I wrote about, timidly placing words next to each other until a column has been formed. And the interesting thing is, the first one leaves you with less than cat shit, and the other one leaves you with this:
The only time I ever spent with Hunter Thompson took place on one strange night at his home outside Aspen. I read aloud from his latest book that night -- Hunter liked that kind of thing, liked to hear his words come alive, he said. I held a number of weapons, the names of which I can't even remember, because he would just hand them to you and say, "Here, feel that." (My friend Daniel carried a sword around for more than an hour for fear of offending the good doctor.)
I was taken on a tour of photographs on the walls (not framed, just tacked up there in little collages), some of the young, fit journalist, some of the baggier, more weathered writer, some of the headlong madman, and all with a half-remembered story. I ate some kind of crackers and cheese and nursed a glass of gin, praying he wouldn't peg me for the lightweight I really am. And for a stretch, I sat next to him on a low-slung leather couch watching the Kings and Lakers go head-to-head in the fourth quarter. Hunter had money on the Lakers. They were winning but not covering, so every missed shout was a wincing blue streak and a chance for him to ask me what the hell they were doing and why wouldn't Kobe feed the Big Daddy?!
Everyone hates on Hunter S. Thompson's Page 2 columns, but I liked them. It was fucking cool when he wrote this, about the 2001 Bears:
"I owe the Bears an apology. I called them "phony," but I was wrong. They are a gang of Assassins and I fear them. They will croak St. Louis in the playoffs."
Even after the Bears got killed in the playoffs, we fans still had that, not the Lombardi Trophy but not that bad either. More than anything else, I liked the Page 2 columns because most of them were evidence that someone to whom I felt a deep sense of gratitude was now enjoying himself with friends watching sports. I liked the Eric Neel column because I wanted to watch football in that room, even though there was no way that it was not going to be awkward as hell for a non-drinker (non-smoker, non-drug user, non-meat eater!) like me. Possibly, I would have been shot. Well, Eric Neel told me what it would have been like, a little.
(Does anyone else remember how, in the days after September 11, 2001, every fucking so-called celebrity in the country solemnly pressed Their Take against our chests, hoping that Theirs would be the One that Was Remembered, that History would Say, This One Commemorated It, This One Defined the Moment? Well, unlike basically all of them, Hunter S. Thompson's column doesn't look like shit when you read it today.)
One thing the man had absolutely mastered as a writer - there were many things, of course, but I'm just going to identify one of them, because this is only a weblog, after all, and you people don't even provide me with an expense account - was the full range of synonyms for the verb 'to say'. Read something he wrote with that in mind. I always enjoyed that about his writing. But, again, be careful about doing it while you're writing something, or you'll wind up having to print out a list from some online dictionary to avoid feeling like a brick-layer every time you settle for 'say'. He opened up one of his books with this quotation from Mark Twain:
The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.
Yes. That, exactly.
I keep straying. Here is my entry into the eulogy-stakes:
Hunter S. Thompson could tame lions, fierce motherfuckers with sharp teeth. I saw him do it. He's gone now, but you can bet those lions still see him when they go to sleep, here and forevermore.
February 10, 2005
Let me briefly explain the circumstances that led to my silence. I started a new job, temporary but indefinite, working on a two-man Project. One of the two people was responsible for training me, and the other was intended to take the lead once she was gone. The Project is nebulous, with many regulations and procedures, pockets of arcana in scattered locations. Well, fine, I thought. I am just the sort of man you want to deal with that. But my training was about 30% complete when the first day was over and my predecessor left. Then the second team member called in sick, leaving me alone to attempt to make sense of things. Then he called in sick again. Then they fired him, leaving me alone on the Project. In an attempt to make good, they brought in someone to take his place and asked me to train the new guy, mid-way through my own first week, with none of my own questions answered. The new guy arrived and, upon first glimpse of the Project, more or less shut down. He will only handle simple tasks as I assign them to him. I am alone at the front of the Project. I do not fully understand it, but I must manage it as best I can. I am, at times, overwhelmed. I try to visualize a game of whack-a-mole to give order to what I am doing, but frequently the vision changes to one of a dark chamber, with tentacles emerging from the holes in the box, rising until the box can no longer hold the writhing mass within - the only thing that never changes is that I am still holding the same foam mallet, ill-equipped. That is the nature of what I face. This is the first quiet moment I have had to gather my thoughts about the Project, so it is now that I am writing, after all of that silence.
It pays okay, but I probably gotta get some more money at some point.
North Korea announced that they have nuclear bombs today. The first AP article that I read this morning mentioned that Bush had referred to them as part of the Axis of Evil as part of an attempt to get them to cooperate, but later drafts appear to have clarified that he hasn't called them Evil lately and that was the attempt to get them to cooperate. Which makes a bit more sense, although it is still based on flawed reasoning. Generally, in situations where I have told someone that they are evil, I have not had a good reaction from them, even after initiating another conversation wherein I do not make explicit reference to their evil; moreover, in situations where I have told someone that they are evil and that the guy standing next to them is evil, too, and then I have punched the guy standing next to them in the face, I have received extremely poor reactions. I can assure the Bush administration that my clinical trials on this issue were performed with the greatest attention to scientific integrity. I don't know if they will look upon that as a positive, though.
It makes me feel bad for the Japanese, though. They are very nervous about North Korea. An old English teacher told me once about how students would always say they were afraid of going to the beach because North Korean submarines would get them, and the English teachers would make fun of the students, making all sorts of hilarious riffs in the teachers room. Apparently, everyone felt pretty bad when those fears turned out to be well-grounded. I wasn't there at the time, so I was permitted the righteousness of the recent, which is always nice.
Let me describe a little bit more about what we do at the Project. I gave my co-worker a list of people to contact about some classes they had been taking. He went through the list and complained.
"I don't want to contact her," he said. "She failed this Conflict Resolution class she took."
I moved into my new apartment last week. It is a very nice one bedroom apartment in Chicago, in the neighborhood that they call Ukrainian Village. By the time I left Japan, my spatial schema had been re-adjusted to the point where I found shoeboxes perfectly acceptable and always remembered to keep my head down when going through doorways, so my new apartment has what appear to me as vast, untamed areas of wilderness and ceilings that must scrape the very surface of the stars, even though I can clearly hear some guy walking around on the third floor. (Is he God?) But this is America, and we must have places to put the things we are surely going to buy. I am happy in my new apartment. It is relaxing and peaceful there, and I can afford the rent, at least so far.
My birthday is on a Saturday this year (February 19th), which is really more pressure than I am prepared to handle right now.
Oof! Back to work.
January 25, 2005
And now I am back in Chicago. I was in Japan, and then I was in Russia, and then I was in Las Vegas, and then I was in Connecticut, and now I am here, again, in Chicago. I will write until this album is over, and then I will go for a walk, because it is sunny outside and it makes me kind of crazy to sit up here in this spare bedroom all day surrounded by my handful of possessions and the adjunct thousands of my stepfather's video collection.
"Did you know that you have two copies of Desperate Journey?" I asked.
I will do a brief job taking notes on a focus group on Wednesday, and then I will start working in a longer-term position on Friday. Over the weekend, I will move my stuff into a new apartment, and on Tuesday, I will move my self into that apartment. After that, I don't know. I have to go ahead and turn 27 in a few weeks. At some point, I should put together the Lego set of the Mos Eisley cantina scene that I bought on sale at a Target on New Year's Eve, allowing Lego Han Solo to shoot Lego Greedo first. I'll have to make a few phone calls and see if they offer memberships for discounted admission at the Division Street Russian Bath House, whose walking-distance proximity to my new apartment will be frequently exploited if they're willing to drop below $22 per visit. The yakuza baths in Kyoto only charged 300 yen. Even with the falling dollar, that's still pretty cheap. I miss the yakuza baths. I'll never know if that one guy got the yellow added to his full-back dragon tattoo. You could see where it was going to be, but...
(news) BASRA — As Iraq’s election campaign enters its final stages, most candidates are more worried about staying alive than canvassing for votes. Even the few like Shia politician Mansour Al Tamimi who have openly joined the electoral race are avoiding debates and rallies at all cost. Fears of assassination loom so large that most of the 7,500 candidates taking part in the January 30 poll are keeping their names secret, denying voters information normally considered fundamental to the democratic process.
Do you have to be a born or naturalized Iraqi citizen to run in their upcoming elections? If Nader had any kind of foresight, he would have ditched the U.S. presidential election and run in Iraq. He could have diverted all of his money from campus copy-shops to security and then won debate after debate just by showing up. He'd have achieved all of his purposes. Sure, there is the risk of getting blown up, but since when was that a concern? Come on. I am the only person who has vision.
Below, you will find a new set of photos, rather a large bunch, taken on my way up and down Mount Fuji in Japan over the summer. I discovered some interesting things on the trip, such as the fact that you should not attempt to climb a mountain in old basketball shoes, and also that my fear of heights, previously so slight as to be nothing more than an amusing footnote, becomes a major issue when it's dark and there are no lights or fences or handrails and I'm coming down a steep, smooth slope at an elevation of over 3000 meters, in old basketball shoes. But, really, it was fucking awesome, so please enjoy the photos. I didn't photograph the way that life-saving chocolate bars kept getting more and more expensive at each shack I passed, or that Coke and cans of hot corn cost about five dollars each at the summit. I had been in Japan for more than a year at that point, and the omnipresence of vending machines had ceased to be in any way remarkable by then.
January 9, 2005
My New Year's resolution is to quit signing my own name on my credit card receipts. I've had it with that; it is a sham and I renounce it. Leon Trotsky, Jean Valjean, Mookie Blaylock, Dingus McGee and Batman have recently made purchases that were charged against my account, and none of them were challenged. Come on, Trotsky (a diner) believed in the revolutionary overthrow of the entire system on which the card is based. Valjean (Citgo) is a convicted criminal and parole violator. Batman (Citgo), I can understand. Maybe he needed some gas to drive across town and stop the Joker, and you didn't want to stand in the way of that. But Mookie (Toys R Us)? Do I look like I never averaged more than 5.3 rebounds per game? Frankly, that's insulting.
That is my only resolution. I believe in keeping things modest.
The new photo gallery below is from Japan. Although only one of the two castles is found on the Osaka map of Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters, the presence of ninjas at Himeji-jo make it a more than acceptable substitute for its lesser counterpart in Osaka, which can be picked up and thrown by any monster worth its sea-salt.
December 30, 2004
One of the things that I really missed about America was quarters. They are a bomb-ass form of currency and life in other countries is poorer for not having them. The 100 Yen coin in Japan is shaped much like a quarter, but it is dangerous for Americans when the dollar-unit is not represented by a paper bill, because we are not taught to be serious about how we spend our coins, and therefore they can go pretty quickly. Japanese money doesn't involve paper until you get up to 1000 Yen. I have a special fondness for the Y1000 bill, because it features Soseki Natsume, a novelist from the Meiji era whose most famous book was a 650 page epic called I Am A Cat in which the narrator is a cat, written long before college rhet class students were writing stories from the perspective of a spoon. I wound up at Natsume's summer house once, by accident, and found a life-size black-and-white cardboard cut-out of him kneeling on the porch, racking his brain for ideas, and I thought of the words of another of his narrators, Botchan:
"Ever since I was a child, my inherent recklessness has brought me nothing but trouble."
One of my students quoted that to me once, in their own translation.
No! I am talking about quarters. I don't need to tell you why they are good: they make arcades come to life, two of them buy you a can of pop, one of them buys a fine gumball, or at least it should. It's the phone-call coin. I have never felt completely without options as long as I am in possession of a quarter. The fifty-cent piece tried and failed to subordinate the quarter. Any coin that is called a 'piece' is not a coin that I trust. God damn! I found a dime on the street in Osaka once and was understandably perplexed. How can a coin that small expect to compete? On one hand, you could always swindle my brother into swapping a big nickel for a small dime. On the other hand, when you did, you'd earned five extra cents. Way to go. What are you going to get with that? And the little bastard holds a grudge.
When I returned to the USA, I was excited to see the progress that had been made in the State Quarters series since I'd been gone. I used to enjoy a good evening sitting around the fire, talking shit about the quarters of different states. (In case any readers of this webpage have ever thought that it might be fun to hang out with me, that should set you straight about what you could expect.) Ohio has and continues to be the best, as it prominently features a moon-man; Indiana was generally acknowledged as the next best, owing to their use of a giant race-car. The quarter of my current home state, Connecticut, is for shit, which is, in that way, much like the state slogan. But what are you going to do? They elect Joe Lieberman to the Senate here.
As for quarters introducted after I left, everyone knew Illinois was going to go with Lincoln, but at least it was Action Lincoln. Wisconsin probably has a valid claim to best quarter now, which must be something nice to talk about on those cold, wintry nights. The one that interested me the most, however, was Florida:
Has anyone else noticed how interesting that is? I know what they think they're going for with that design, or at least what they think you think they're going for. But has anyone noticed the order of events there? The Spanish galleon is arriving just after the space-ship has left. They are saying that the space-ship was there first. In other words, the Florida quarter argues for a retrograde interpretation of history - either that, or it's suggesting that human beings were planted on the earth by aliens. That's a pretty fucking provocative thesis for a state quarter, especially considering their electoral history.
It is a lazy Thursday afternoon at the consulting company. For all of my bluster about keeping their expectations precisely modulated to ensure the perfect nexus of slack and paycheck, it turns out that I finished the first draft of my project too early, so I had to take an unpaid holiday on Monday until they had the revisions ready. I was much more careful with the revisions, leaving thirty minutes' worth of work to be accomplished today, so that I could not be left at home again while they catch up. This is a nice consulting company, though, and I wish them no harm. I do good work for them. In a show of school spirit that surprised even me, I used orange-and-blue as the dominant color scheme for the presentations I worked on. The presentations are all about building teams and being a leader. Interestingly enough, counter to the notions of some of my colleagues, they do not appear to recommend punching people in the face. I'm wondering if I should just go ahead and put that in there for them. They seem wise, though, and perhaps they do not need my counsel. For example, there are always snacks in the kitchen. They keep a basket stocked with chips, peanuts and chocolate. Why do more businesses not realize that the loyalty earned with free food far outweighs the actual cost to purchase it? If Beelzetron had kept me stocked with cookies they'd have saved a fortune on white-out.
December 22, 2004
I am trying to get my sea legs back with this whole web-page thing. It's been a while. I did my best to keep it current while I was in Japan, but the fact is, to me, weblogs are all about being stuck at work. I don't really understand people who blog from places other than work. What is the motivation? If you weren't chained to a keyboard, only able to half-concentrate among the piercing hum of a hundred office machines, why wouldn't you just go outside and play, or read a book? For all of the goofy talk about digital content revolution, it has always seemed to me that weblogs are just the new media scheme for caged birds to sing. Or talk shit, as the case may be.
Poo-too-weet. There will be new photo galleries added over the next few weeks and they will be tremendously exciting, each bringing vivid illumination to some fascinating corner of the world. Below, you can already find a link to one such visual journey, in which monkeys run wild over a sleepy Japanese suburb and the police are helpless to stop them. There is a story that goes along with that gallery, and now seems like a good time to tell it. The suburb in question is in the northern part of Kyoto, near the mountains. My friends Tianni and Travis lived there. One warm summer night, not long before I left, they had me over to their place for dinner, and we had a grand time. Travis told me that one of his co-workers had talked to someone who claimed to have seen monkeys running through the streets in that area once, a long time ago. The monkeys had come down from the mountains for whatever reason, and then the police had chased them away. We talked about how great it would be if that were true. Monkeys in a city, I thought. Holy shit. When it was time to catch the last train, I walked back to the subway by myself, calling out "monkeys!" along the way in that way that I do when I'm walking around and looking for something I don't really expect to find. (Friends of mine will know the tone of voice.) Then I boarded the train and went home. Tianni had the next day off, so I didn't see her until Tuesday. When she came into work, she pressed her digital camera into my hands without a word. The photo gallery below records what had happened the next morning.
Honestly, if you are not standing on your feet and cheering by the last photograph, I do not know you.
I went to the Mark Twain House on Saturday. Let me tell you, Mark Twain had a fucking awesome house. His wallpaper was 84% better than the best wallpaper I had ever seen before. They had the house all decked out for Christmas, which was nice. The tour guide said they hoped to have the kitchen restored by May, so maybe I'll go back and check out the kitchen.
July 28, 2004 Suddenly my house was full of Japanese people barely able to express their fervent wish for cargo shorts from Abercrombie & Fitch. The web-site was confounding to them; when they sent a party to solicit my help, the rest were gathered around the house computer downstairs, mucking about on the investor relations page. Why are these people in my house? I thought. I do not know most of them. Who are they? Which one of them intends to wear these shorts? A representative pressed a scrap of paper into my hands with a mailing address almost a hundred miles away. I set up an account for the leader, who identified herself as Goki, and then found the shorts they wanted: men's cargo shorts, on sale. Their credit card was no good, and they sent me away while they called the bank. Twenty minutes later, I was summoned to finish the transaction and promised watermelon. I thought, well, might as well see this one through, and also watermelon is good. I ordered the shorts and they spent the next five minutes thanking me and bowing to me. Now I am enjoying some watermelon, and it's just another summer day.
Last night I was at the public baths when a yakuza captain walked in, flanked by a few lieutenants. The unaffiliated Japanese people scrambled out of there, but I had only just arrived, and frankly they did not seem bothered by my presence. The captain took a while stripping down while the hastily-naked lieutenants ran around clearing the sit-down shower stalls and setting up a cascade of bowls with warm soapy water. One of them disappeared with my soap and soap-dish, which I had left in the shower stall I had used, as per local custom. "Watashi no desu," I muttered. The bright green dragon on his back sneered in my general direction as he disappeared with my soap.
I was writing that, and the Japanese returned with another emissary. Apparently, in their enthusiasm, they had attempted to repeat what I'd done and had ordered another pair of shorts, which they did not want. Also, Goki was spelling her name differently now. I went downstairs and fixed everything to the usual outsized amount of praise.
So, I was sitting there in the steam room, watching helplessly through the window as the lieutenant disappeared with my soap, and finally the captain walked in. A lieutenant turned on a shower for him, and he sat under the water long enough to get went. Then a lieutenant held open the door of the steam room while another walked in and set a white cushion on the bench next to me. The first lieutentant kept the door open - you're letting all the steam out, idiot - while the second grabbed a bowl and splashed water from the baths on the floor in a trail from where the captain sat to the door of the steam room. The captain stood up and followed the path. When he was inside, the first lieutenant closed the door and stood by his side while the second, joined by a third, continued scooping water out of the baths and splashing it all over the floor. The captain looked at me and I nodded. He nodded back. After less than a minute, he headed outside and sat back down at the shower stall. The three lieutenants went into formation around him. One began barking military-like signals and another began dumping the bowls over the captain's head, one-by-one, while the third refilled them. Several bowls later, they made an abrupt departure and I was alone.
I swear this is all happening in real-time: the Japanese just sent another emissary to ask what kinds of fruit I like, because they intend to buy me a great deal of fruit for what I've done. I still don't understand who these people are, but let me press on with some recent events.
On Father's Day, I was given the following cookie by the grocery store:
I kept it for a few days, and then I went ahead and ate it. Should those who are not fathers be given cookies intended for those who are? Well, the cookie was all right, and as has always been my policy, I apologize for nothing when it comes to cookies.
My friend Andrew did a special lesson - open to any student - on jazz and blues music. Tadashi showed up. He is a deranged little man, the least-successful son in a family of successful businessmen, perhaps because he forms half-cocked plans such as working as a bag-boy at a grocery store subsidiary of a corporation he admires, believing it sent a message to the executive board about his respect for them. I had him in a lesson I did once on language for buying gifts. While the other students decided to buy jewelry, setting up purchasing roleplays nicely, Tadashi gave his hypothetical mother the gift of some groceries. I yelled at him and he acknowledged his mistake. He announced one day that he was getting fat and began chain-smoking to help him lose weight - which he did, although now his clothes are too big. He spends his weekends doing volunteer palm readings at bookstores. One day, I did not feel like teaching a lesson, so I told him to read my palm instead. He gasped with astonishment and said that I had two emotion lines, whereas most people have only one; I had an extremely hot emotion line and an extremely cold one. That figures, I thought. Tadashi also said that I was moving in the right direction to meet my destiny, which should arrive around the time I am 35, and that my 22nd year had been very significant for me. I did nothing when I was 22; I did less that year than any year since perhaps my infancy. But that's what Tadashi said.
Anyway, Andrew had some madlib blues lyrics ready for the students, and here are Tadashi's:
Woke up this (time of day) NIGHT and I crawled right out of (uncomfortable place) JAIL.
It was true on the day those lyrics were written and it is true today that the line "Yeah, I ain't had no salary since World War 2" causes me to lose my shit.
June 13, 2004 ONE OF MY STUDENTS RECAPS THE NBA FINALS FOR YOU
I love basketball: playing it, watching it, talking about it. Mayumi is a student who used to come to my school regularly, and if there were no other students in the class, I would toss the book lesson and just teach her basketball terminology. She played basketball when she was in high school, and she was tall for her age, so her coach started her at power forward. Because this was before the current generation of 7-foot European finesse players who play in the low post and are equally capable of shooting from the perimeter, the coach yelled at her whenever she shot three-pointers, which is what she really wanted to do. And so, a promising basketball career was stifled; Dirk Nowitzki came too late for this poor woman.
Now Mayumi is too busy with work and her family to come to class, so we correspond by email every once in a while about the NBA playoffs. Being a devotee of Mike Bibby and the Sacramento Kings, she was heartbroken to see her team fall just short once again. We agreed that we were hoping for an Indiana vs Minnesota match-up in the Finals, which did not come about either. But we're both solidly behind the Detroit Pistons and their heroic efforts in the struggle against the creeping miasma of the Los Angeles Lakers. Because I thought it was excellent writing and because I wanted to know if readers could see my influence as a teacher in the writing of my students, here is Mayumi's recap of Game Three:
I watched Game 3 of the Finals yesterday. I was so excited about the Pistons. Pistons was back to defense that is quick, and their rebounds were stronger than Lakers. Shaq and Kobe couldn't get points as usual. I think Defense is the best Offense. And if it gets many rebounds it will be able to control of the game! Beet L.A. !! I'm sorry I'm difficult to explain...
I think that is damn fine analysis.
June 12, 2004 Oh, early summer crazy, I am your victim again. How many summers must I feel your wrath? This is the fourth since I have been out of college. Let me be free of you! Let me become accustomed to working full-time during the season of warm weather! I make such poor, irrational decisions when you are coursing through my veins. 'Trouble' ceases to be my middle name and becomes my first. I had to spend most of last summer in a temple to ensure I didn't do anything I would regret. I have spoken to the Buddhist masters about the early summer crazy, and they have assured me that I am just going to have to deal with it. Fuck those guys! I wish to be free! On the plus side, apparently I became invulnerable to the weapons of mortal men midway through last month. It's possible that the Buddhist masters were just telling me that to get me out of their office. I'm not sure. Well, either way, it was nice of them to say.
Oh, that's enough. I'm all right. I had about the best week ever, so I have no reason to complain. The only serious problem I have right now, other than patience, is finding a place to shoot a summer monkey photo series, which will complete the year. The best unexplored frontier is way down south, in the mystical forests of Yakushima, but I don't think I'll have the resources to make it down there. I remember mention of monkeys over-running a city called Totsukawa that's not too far away, but I haven't been able to turn up any more information on that story. Awajishima is a possibility - it's an island not far from Kobe, and there is apparently a monkey park there. But I kind of prefer the 'monkeys in mystical forests' and 'monkeys over-running a city' angles. Don't worry, I won't let you down. I am very serious about these things.
Here is sadness, though: Lost In Translation has finally received limited release in Japan, but it is only playing in Tokyo and Kanagawa right now, with no assurances that it will ever come to Kyoto or Osaka. Obviously some powerful observations could be made whilst watching it with a Japanese audience. I have some notion that I ought to take up a collection to pay for the bullet train ticket up there with the pledge that I'll write up the results into the kind of serious fucking journalism for which I am known, but those bullet train tickets are really rather expensive. I've seen it, anyway, thanks to Mr. Internet. (People think he is only good at porn and weblogs, but he is also good at movies, bless him.) A few people emailed last fall to ask what I thought about the movie, being in Japan and all. "It is as it was," I reply. So there's that.
There is a new version of Coke in the vending machines here. It's called 'Coca-Cola C2'. Supposedly, they are test-marketing it in Japan before it is released in the United States. Of course, the packaging is of little help when attempting to discern the intent or angle behind this formula. It tastes like regular Coke with something-or-other missing. It might be the no-carb soda that idiots across America have been demanding, or perhaps it's sodium-free, or perhaps it's aimed at religious separatists who believe that things that have taste are temptations of the devil. Either way, it is not very good, and I suspect that somebody in the head office is going to be doing 'the honorable thing' because of this by the time the summer's over.
I made some falafel for dinner and it turned out reasonably well, so much so that I would like to eat it again. This box of falafel mix was a gift. I have some notion that more can be purchased at the international food store somewhere downtown, but I think it would be much more fun if boxes of falafel were simply mailed to me by people who read this webpage. If I know you as well as I think I know you, you will enjoy sauntering into the post office and, when asked what it is that you are mailing, declaring that you are mailing some falafel to Japan. Let me also include the caveat that the new Japanese girl in our house had never eaten falafel before, so I gave her a piece along with some of the cucumber dip that goes along with it, and she apparently enjoyed it so much that she did the dishes while I was upstairs eating. (She was downstairs watching "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!") I have some concern that this may mean we're married now, but I'm going to assume the best. So, please send the falafel to the following address:
Please mark the box 'FALAFEL'. Thank you. Once you have done so, please turn off the lights in your room and stare at the following image for seventy-five consecutive minutes:
Shortly thereafter, you should become separated from your body and begin to visualize yourself as a sort of Sanrio Santa Claus, tumbling through the pink aether with Col. Sanders and the Kitty:
At that point you will be given the choice of learning the secret of your birth or the secret of your death. It may not be clear which character holds which secret. Choose well.
May 28, 2004 Let us now speak of animals. First, I would like to discuss how they can be employed in the education of those who seek to speak English:
This is a simple game that is played with the animal flashcards that are intended to be used in the kids classes. The deck is shuffled, the cards are dealt and the terms 'high-stakes', 'fold' and 'hold 'em' are taught, more for the instructor's amusement than anything else. (Anyone who has lived in Japan for any period of time will know that there is no need to teach Japanese people the word 'gambler'.) Each student lays down an animal, and then a battle ensues in which students attempt to 'knockout' the other students' animals by playing cards from their hand and making comparisons in which their animal is superior to that of their opponent. ("My monkey is smarter than your mouse," etc.) In the game's debut, Chisato (a housewife) and Chieko (a thirteen year old girl) savaged each others' forces, leaving the witless Morihisa (god knows what he does for a living) largely unscathed. It was looking like a serious tactical error when Chieko was left with only a rabbit to face Morihisa, who was showing a horse and had, let's face it, already done seven lessons on how to make comparisons whereas she was on her first, but Morihisa, frozen, was unable to generate a comparison in which the horse trumped the rabbit and could only watch as his entire kingdom was laid to waste by the rabbit.
THE WORLD FAMOUS ANIMAL TOURNAMENT
One thing I like very much about Japanese people is that they can always be counted on to have an opinion about animals. Now, I'm fairly confident that any of my friends could produce a top-five-animals list in fairly short order, but the average man-on-the-street back in the USA has, I suspect, not given very much thought to the subject, which is very stupid not to have done. At the beginning of the class, students are asked to list their top five animals. (Nobody has trouble doing this.) Then they are taught how to make similes ('_ is as [adj.] as _' or '_ is not as [adj.] as _'), and while they are doing a silent reading exercise, I use the top five lists to seed the tournament. Snakes, wolves and pirahnas get automatic bids because they are featured in the text lesson I use to give the exercise an air of scholastic legitimacy, and also because every great competition needs villains as well as heroes, teams you root for as well as teams you root against. All of the #1 animals from the students' lists make the tournament, and so do animals featured on more than one list. Then, after some educational mumbo-jumbo, we are ready to play. Comparisons must be made, each series is best-of-three; the rest is up to chance.
For two consecutive tournaments, Dogs came in as the consensus top-ranked species, and for two consecutive tournaments, Dogs made first-round exits. Their collapse in the first tournament remains the most shocking. Though hardly a small-species team, Birds had shown very little support prior to the match, earning a bid only because I had spent a while explaining the differences between parrots and parakeets and I needed a low-ranked team to fill out the lower end of the bracket. (The seeding procedures weren't completely finalized at that point.) In the end, Dogs' inability to fly cost them greatly. Birds' triumph was short-lived, as they got swept by Goldfish in the next round. But for a while, they were the toast of the Animal Tournament.
Dogs would suffer another upset loss to Pirahnas in the Animal Tournament II before finally righting the ship and reaching the finals against Cats in Animal Tournament III, going on to topple Cinderella-story Koalas in Animal Tournament IV. "I fucking hate Dogs," said Andrew, a fellow teacher. "They're the Manchester United of Animal Tournament."
Pirahnas are the Gonzaga of Animal Tournament. They never, ever appear on anyone's top five lists, yet tournament after tournament, thanks largely to the sharpness of their teeth and their swimming ability, they upset a larger-species competitor and go on an improbable run that stops just short of the trophy. In Animal Tournament II, the class wiseacre decided that he was backing Pirahnas all the way, and his aggressive approach stunned the rest of the class; before they had really begun to get comfortable with the target structure, he'd led Pirahnas to an upset of heavily-favored Dogs. (Dogs vs. Pirahnas is one of the great rivalries of Animal Tournament. They played twice more after that first matchup, with Dogs winning the next two.) By the time the next round began, the rest of the class was a little more prepared to back their own animals. Pirahnas took the first comparison, but Cats roared back to seize the second. The wiseacre was ready and spoke quickly, making a comparison on the grounds of 'cool'...but he made a key mistake in sentence structure and put the pirahnas first in the sentence, so it came out 'Pirahnas are not as cool as Cats.' He realized what he'd done and howled. The class cheered. Cats went on to lose in the finals to Goldfish.
I double-checked the seeding because it looked too good to be true: a possible semi-finals matchup between Monkeys and Elephants. It had the potential to be the greatest non-championship series in Animal Tournament history. I began to think about inviting other classes in to watch. But anything is possible on paper; five minutes later, Wolves had upset Monkeys and Pirahnas had, for the second tournament in a row, swept the Elephants. The students seemed to realize they had fucked up when the semi-finals rolled around and we were looking at Wolves against Pirahnas. Nice one. Television ratings went through the floor. Elephants, the Kevin Garnett of Animal Tournament, have yet to get out of the first round.
"I think there's something dodgy in the seeding there," said one of my fellow teachers, studying a bracket. "Monkeys got a pretty cushy first-round matchup, considering Dogs were the #1 seed and they had to play Pirahnas." The league office denied all knowledge of wrong-doing.
I: Cats (d Goldfish)
Of course, you read all of that and you narrow your eyes. "He is dodging the question," you mutter. "Still I do not know where he has been for the last month. He must account for a number of things, and he has not done so. Curse his evasiveness; I will demand answers."
"Holy shit!" you cry, seizing your computer monitor. "Is that a statue of two monkeys dressed as samurais?! And one of them has a bandage on his leg, presumably from a battle of some kind?! I cannot believe I have seen this! Having done so, how am I supposed to write this report for work? Thanks for blowing my mind, you damn webpage guy!!
Last Friday was the one-year anniversary of my landing in Japan, so I decided to celebrate by going to the zoo. (Someone told me it's all happening at the zoo.) The Kyoto Zoo is notoriously depressing, so I decided to take the train up to to the atmospheric urban decay of Osaka and its Tenno-ji Zoo. It was, as the following image proves, a fine decision:
The zoo itself is in an oddly exhilirating state of disrepair. The animals have been finding food somehow, but the staff appear to have fucked off at some point in the late 1960s. (It's not hard to guess where they might have gone: the zoo is next to the Shin-Sekai district, which is full of low-rent porn theaters, pachinko halls and gloriously seedy shogi parlors.) The Western concepts of 'urban planning' don't exist as we know them in Japan, leading to bizarre sights like this:
The rhinos have very easy access to the highway, which is exactly what you'd want them to have, I suppose. There were a fine bunch of monkeys and penguins at Tenno-ji, and those are the cornerstones of any zoo, as far as I am concerned. (I'm not going to walk away disappointed as long as there are some monkeys and some penguins; it is a good rule to live by, really.) The hippo was underwater the whole time I was there, but they did have this helpful display that explained the ecosystem that forms around hippos:
So, that's how that works. It was a very nice day. Later, I went to Kairyukan, the Osaka Aquarium, which was all right. Unlike Tenno-ji, the owners had spent more on building it than the spare change they had in their pockets at the moment when one of them said, "Hey, wouldn't it be fun to own an aquarium," so there was a fairly different ambiance. The highlight, predictably enough, was in Ecuadorian rain forest exhibit. It was intended to display some turtles and other fish, but the overly-thorough designers had evidently gotten a bulk discount on organisms typically found in the area:
The three resident squirrel monkeys were avoiding the water, pausing in their leaps to give occasional utterly-confounded looks downward. ("Look, I'm sure they know there's been a mistake. Probably some fish wound up at the zoo and they'll be sending a car for us any minute now.) In any event, for those of us who were not squirrel monkeys, that was also a pleasant day. I sat and stared for a while:
I almost had something. Oof! For a minute there, I nearly lost myself.
April 10, 2004 It's been a good weekend. On Thursday, I went to visit the local monkeys with some friends. The babies were out and around, and although they were young, they appeared to be committed to the fundamentals, namely the tremendous importance of climbing on things and the equally tremendous importance of abandoning the basic principles of physics as applicable to self-preservation whilst launching surprise attacks intended to knock each other off said things. We met a Japanese researcher who was tracking what he referred as 'monkey male female intimacy'. He'd identified the alpha male of the mountain and kept following him around with a notebook, running if necessary. Did the alpha male have many girlfriends? No, he said, checking through his logs to be sure. Zero girlfriends. We weren't really surprised, given that some git was following the poor monkey around with a notebook, making even a master seduction process rather difficult. We gave sympathetic nods to the obviously frustrated monkey and I wondered how long it would be until he abdicated the alpha-ship in exchange for some time alone with the ladies. For everyone else, it was a beautiful day, with spring weather and the last of the cherry blossoms crying out life and peace and naps whenever anyone liked.
On Friday, I found an international foods store and gave the Japanese a fright by wandering around with a dazed grin. I nearly wept at the sight of some Newman's Own products. I blew the last of the petty cash on chips, dip and a jar of pickles.
On the left, you will notice a new photo gallery. Instead of a standard travelogue, wherein I would merely tell of the long journey and the train breaking down in the middle of nowhere and the crazy French nature photographer who hired me as his translator and the long hike through the forest and along the narrow, frozen mountain, let me quote to you from a pamphlet, some of which is available on the website.
An outline of Jigokudani Yaenkoen
Most readers of this web-page will be able to make an educated guess about of the spiritual significance of what I found there. Needless to say, it was a powerful day, and I will bring those truths to you, in time. For now I have only the pictures, and may they be a spell for winter wherever it lingers.
(news) A warning that terrorists might strike trains and buses in major U.S. cities using bombs concealed in bags or luggage has the nation's transit systems ratcheting up security measures.
Is this really what it's come to at home? If they're serious about tackling concealed sources of terror on the trains, they need to start with buckets of barbecue chicken on the CTA. A whole lot of terror has been enacted upon my innocent stomach by those fucking things.
April 2, 2004 There was a brawl in the streets a few weeks ago. The yakuza have an office building about halfway between our house and their 'sports club' down the block, and in the morning, you can often see the lads in spotless black suits forming phalanxes around the entrance to the parking garage, waiting for the inevitable black limousines to arrive. On the morning of the brawl, I slept late and awoke to the sound of shouting. I didn't think much of it at first, since the shouting was less shrill than the election vans and less unsettling than the squads of monks who showed up at various points in the winter, walking about a hundred yards apart from each other through these narrow side streets, chanting for the coming of spring. Most of all, though, I took little notice because people saying good morning to each other can sound pretty violent around here sometimes. It became clear after a couple of minutes that things were getting knocked over, though, so I got out of bed and went to the window, and that is when I saw the brawl, less than twenty yards from our house. It was not balletic gunplay or martial arts mayhem as the movies promised; the fight was centered around two old guys, both of them screaming and clawing and far beyond composure, and everyone else was undecided as to whether they should be separating the bosses, giving the bosses space to settle it, or choosing someone on the other side of the dispute and whaling on him. As a result, most of the yakuza were standing around, bumping into each other, making tentative movements toward the bosses and pausing to half-heartedly shove whoever was nearby. I thought about getting out my camera, but I was still in my underwear, not yet in stealth mode, and our walls are paper-thin, hardly suitable for stopping bullets. After a moderate amount of damage was done, someone finally took some initiative and broke up the fight. Everyone smoothed out their suits and headed in separate directions, except for one guy who stayed behind to pick up all of the things that had been knocked over, most of them bicycles. I put on some pants and got on with my day.
But there has been no trouble of late. It was touch-and-go for a while, but the monks pulled it off again; spring is here and Kyoto is in good cheer. After weeks of nightly reports on the news, the cherry blossoms are in bloom, and everything is at its most beautiful. I had the day off, so I set off along the Path of Philosophy, a tree-lined canal where priests and theologians took contemplative strolls in ages past. Hundreds of people were there, eating and drinking and excitedly observing the cherry blossoms. I chose to emulate the ancients and spent my walk in deep thought about subjects of scholarly interest, primarily questions regarding what monkeys would do in various situations. It was a nice day. At some point, I will post a photo album. There are still a lot of monkey pictures to get through yet, though. (You will notice them there on the left. I think the autumn gallery is about the best thing I've ever done outside of a bowling alley.)
I arrived at the very end of the season last year, and my first memories of Japan were in this air, at this temperature, utterly lost at all times. With the rainy season less than three weeks away, the atmosphere didn't last long, but the memories were vivid, and it's pleasantly disorienting to have that sense again. After a long disappearance, a lot of food that had absolutely no reason to be seasonal has returned - various noodle bento boxes and varieties of onigiri - much to the relief of my intensely boring diet. I'd thought it all phased out, but it's back and improved and, in some cases, now including packets of bread crumbs (in the case of the noodle bentos). In a classic Japanese move, the local grocery store got a liquor license over the winter and promptly ditched most of the bread and bottled water to make room for the booze. Fortunately, they bought out the flower store next door and have just finished converting that into the liquor department, so the bread is back. Which is nice. Nothing can be taken for granted with food and drink. I need only take a few steps outside of my house to buy orange juice from a device that doubles as a slot machine. If you make a purchase from it, you get one free play at the slots, which as best I can tell are rigged to give you three matching numbers but miss on the fourth. It happens every time, and I imagine that really fucks with some people. As for me, I am satisfied with the orange juice.
I should have posted this a while ago, but I forgot that I had it. Here is a stealth photo taken by one of my housemates at last year's yakuza summer festival:
I didn't eat any of the food, so I have no real health concern, but for fuck's sake, even if the guy is a dandy cook, shouldn't he have waited until his most recent 'error' was healed before going back at the grill?
(news) President Bush on Thursday signed into law an act that would make it a separate federal crime to harm a pregnant woman's fetus, in a move likely to bolster his support with conservatives in an election-year.
I am at a distance from things, so I am missing details about important news stories at home in the USA. Obviously, you are not allowed to harm a fetus, but can someone clarify what the law says if the fetus starts it? I hate to be an alarmist, but I have had dreams about apocalyptic futures ruled by lawless mobs of roving fetuses, and I am concerned that fetuses are going to get it into their newly-formed heads that they can start trouble without consequences. Now, well-behaved fetuses have always had no greater friend than me, but unfortunately there's always going to be a certain element that makes these discussions necessary. I'd like to see some provisions regarding the revocation of womb privileges, for example. It would send the right message if we could just take a few of the troublemakers and say, that's it then, to the test tube with you and think about what you did, or think about it just as soon your prefrontal cortex develops.
February 29, 2004
1. The class misinterprets my thick midwestern accent as telling them to work in pairs and design powerful Roberts, and later, when everyone feels very foolish about it, the more expensive of the two Roberts is ceremoniously renamed after me by way of apology. 2. Hidenori shows up late and predicts a Trimalchio-esque parade of wealth and orgies for fuel cell engineers in the near future. 3. Speaking English in a normal tone of voice isn't working for Akira, so I've enrolled him in my special 'Shouting English' program. 4. Chikako O. likes the phrase 'beautiful place' and decides to write it down in her notebook, where it receives the unfortunate semi-phonetic spelling of 'butful plays'. 5. Open lesson. 6. The class works really hard to prepare goodbye parties for David Beckham and George Bush, although Beckham's group orders a karaoke machine, snacks and a wide variety of alcohol whereas Bush's group settles for 'American beef' and 'some present'. 7. Hiroshi N., Saori H. and I talk about which animals are not to be fucked with. 8. The 'digital camera phones' topic runs out of steam with about 10 minutes left, so the gang in the Voice Room settles for the usual round of questions about how cold Chicago is.
February 28, 2004
1. Tetsuya, looking to establish himself as the class hard-ass, will not admit to ever having been to the hospital. 2. The class is unable to determine what would occur in a theoretical meeting between their chosen hero and villain, Superman and The Terminator, because everyone disagrees about who is stronger and why. 3. Everyone chortles at the picture of the eggplant, which then becomes the target of a fierce round of 'too' complaints. 4. A salaryman and I shoot the shit about Japanese baseball for a while. 5. The otherwise young and healthy Miyuki has been ordered to eat prunes every day to combat her anemia, leading her to wonder if the Bad Fortune she received on New Year's Eve is coming true. 6. There is a downside to this job, and there is plenty of time to contemplate it as I spend 45 minutes trying to teach a senile, partially-deaf old woman the meaning of 'yes'. 7. The notorious taxi dispatcher is in the Voice Room and regales everyone with tales of incredibly gross things that he's eaten. 8. Emiko plays the passive voice like a robot playing the flute.
February 26, 2004
1. Given that this is the ass-end of a six-day week, finding my first lesson open was especially pleasant. 2. Sachiyo I. gives due notice at the outset that she won't be making any sense today when I ask "What's new?" and she replies that she's been drinking a lot of spoiled milk lately. 3. The class is excited to learn the term 'internal bleeding' and seem to think it will be very useful. 4. Keita and Sachiko C. fight through their massive mutual discomfort with each other to roleplay giving presents. 5. The group in the Voice Room become very concerned with giving me a 'Japanese name' but fail to reach any conclusions about what it should be. 6. Snowboarding is just way more popular in Japan than it is in America. 7. Naomi Y. was told by a fortune teller that the ghost of her long-deceased grandfather's spurned lover was following her, and Tadashi advises her that "the best way to be against ghost is ignore it." 8. Coupled with her inexplicably husky voice, Teenage Karate Aiko's time away from English school has left her sounding a lot like the Hulk.
February 25, 2004
1. Miho's story of being bitten at the monkey park in Bali is transformed from a tale of woe to a sparkling review of the passive voice. 2. Given the 'Computer Dating Service' profile cards to practice matching 'likes' and 'dislikes', Etsuko and Sachiko-Low engage in what amounts to either a stunning display of incompetence or a stirring display of solidariy with supporters of gay-marriage legislation by matching up 70 year old women with other women who have nothing in common with them and are 50 years their junior. 3. Open lesson. 4. The dog woman keeps processing 'space-ship' as 'house', much to the amusement of the rest of the class, and is eventually allowed to continue doing so. 5. Kinu doesn't seem to understand that if you're glad to be rid of your ex-boyfriend because he was cheating on you and you liked television more than him anyway, you're not really allowed to refer to it as 'broken heart'. 6. Good call not stopping by the Voice Room today, Japan, because I would have been surly. 7. An otherwise fine class on bringing things to parties is ruined when I fall asleep as Yurie K. is presenting gyoza to Youko E. 8. Mana gets a bit cocky in Adjectives Game #1, so I beat the holy hell out of her in Adjectives Game #2.
February 24, 2004
1. Yoshimi Y., one of the all-time slugs, would outfit her ship with a bed on a trip into outer space. 2. Michiko and Keiko K. try to teach me the Japanese phrases I should have shouted at the old woman who lost control of her bicycle while I was running this morning, causing me to trip and fall and wreck my right knee, and then just kept going. 3. The dog woman somehow manages to inhale the entire grammatical concept of comparatives, so nobody can compare anything any more until she coughs it up and it gets washed off. 4. Hiromi earns enthusiastic props for being the only teenager in Japan without a cell phone. 5. Erina persuades the other student to buy a two-bathroom house for her ten-member family and crows about her success afterward. 6. The highlight of Kanae's theoretical five-day world trip would be Las Vegas, where she has heard that they have toilets made out of gold and other toilets with "varying water levels", and she wants to find them. 7. The Voice Room is empty, sweet mercy. 8. Yuuichi (the older of the two Japanese Mike Sauls) just learned that he is going to be transferred to Tokyo and erupts in a typically genial-yet-volcanic session of pointing at people and shouting that "His vector is up! Her vector is up! My vector is down! Down!"
February 23, 2004
1. Tadashi rambles for a while about his deep and profound respect for the JUSCO chain of grocery stores, where he bought a new business suit and ate dinner off the sample trays. 2. I am not feeling much up to talking, so I send the students off to separate classrooms and have them write letters to each other about their everyday activities, making like a mailman whenever somebody finishes one. 3. I break out some art vocabulary for Kayo and attempt to diagram the comedic implications of the term 'still life'. 4. I am perfectly willing to deal in moral absolutes and declare that students who choose 'money' in the 'what would you bring to a desert island (much of something, many of something, a little of something, a few of something)' exercise are not going to heaven. 5. The mob of deaf-mutes who occupy the Voice Room today expect to watch and coo as a series of exotic foreigners deliver 40 minute monologues, so I cover my face with a notebook until they reluctantly begin a half-hearted conversation about winter sports. 6. Maiko N. used an emergency phone line to order reggae tickets and Naomi Y. swiped a movie poster from the video store for her co-worker, so I introduce the idioms 'where do you draw the line' and 'gray area' and let the class roll with those for a while. 7. 16 year old Ayaka uses 'going to' to map out her future in terms of the arrivals of the husband, the children and the grandchildren. 8. English-less diffident 12 year old Mana and I are both bored shitless by a matching-food-cards game, so I start showboating and that pisses her off enough to get us through to the bell.
February 22, 2004
1. For his last lesson, Yohei and I reminisce about the good times and how difficult definite articles are. 2. Although it is not highlighted in the text - and I've never noticed it myself - Yoshihiro, professional beer-taster, pointed out that the friends in "Dinner With Friends" (Level 6 #29) start with bourbon, move on to wine, and finish with brandy. 3. Rainy weather keeps the students away, thereby allowing me to chill in the teachers room for a lesson, free of conversation. 4. Takashi M. is up to his old tricks, booking blocks of lessons for several hours straight on weekends and flunking the hell out of each and every one of them in mute bewilderment, prompting healthy volleys of rage from the teachers in the comments section of his student file. 5. The Whore of Gion has to apologize to one of her customers who spilled wine on her favorite dress. 6. Kyoko N. makes sentences like butterflies but does surprisingly well with commands. 7. Another open lesson, bless its heart. 8. Failing to make a certain critical leap, the group in the Voice Room can't understand why I am not an NBA player given that I said I liked to play basketball and my English is so good.
February 21, 2004
1. In a discussion about guilt, unintended consequences and suicide, Masaki wonders if he's too hard at the old folks on his mini-volleyball team when he curses at them during the games, but then decides that he's not. 2. With the passive voice on the table for everyone to use, Tooru hides a giant rat in the basement of the house-with-a-secret he must sell to the rest of the class. 3. Hideki K. sweats like a motherfucker and cannot be convinced to use the past form of 'have to'. 4. In a smooth move, we transfer a student from another class into my open lesson and then transfer her back right before it's time, thus preventing the staff from booking someone else into it and thereby preserving the sitting-around I had planned. 5. The good thing about terrible students is that you can catch quick naps while they struggle to answer questions about things you've just read to them. 6. As he continues to expend incredible effort with absolutely no results, Morihisa comes to represent evidence that brains are sometimes just not fair to those who own them. 7. I spend 45 minutes teaching 'his / her name is' and 'do you have a (family member)' to an old woman who, unclear about the family member concept, keeps asking me if I have various animals and gets a bit cranky about my continued failure to have them. 8. Sakiko O. plays a very, very big tuba.
February 19, 2004 I knew that my life was going well when I walked into work, the room full of teachers went silent and the head instructor said, "Here's our secret weapon." Evidently, a challenge was made and there is to be a bowling competition between our school and one of the others in the area on Sunday. I'm not sure what is at stake, but I have to say, this is exactly what I want to be doing with my life right now. The Year of the Monkey is most certainly underway.
Today, on the 26th anniversary of my birth, I am going Buddha-spotting. Some may not be aware of the wide variety of Buddhas that can be seen out in the world. Here are some I saw when I wasn't even looking for any:
A Buddha sitting on a building in which other Buddhas were reclining;
Buddhas teamed up with Ultramen, an imposing alliance against anyone who would cause trouble in this particular mini-shrine-lookin'-like-a-chicken-coop, seen in larger view below:
Complicating efforts to work that one out was its location at the Memorial to the World's Unknown Soldier, somewhere off in the hills of Kyoto;
The point at which blessing shit just gets indiscriminate.
February 18, 2004
1. Training seminar. 2. Training seminar, continued. 3. Yuka T. is reading a 'simplified' version of "The Picture of Dorian Gray", so we talk about that for a while and then I have her do comparisons of adverbs using Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, the Lilliputians and the Brobdignagians, which goes pretty well. 4. Keita bangs his head on the desk a few times, the dog woman makes it known that a monkey attacked her brother for making eye contact with him, and the poor third student who wound up in this class just gapes. 5. I was blessed with good old Hideki I., another one of our phantom students, but another guy signed into the class and thereby ruined what ought to have been an open lesson. 6. I take to stabbing myself in the leg to stay awake during an intensely boring apologies lesson. 7. Keiko N. wishes for 'hand power', which is eventually understood to be the ability to heal people by touch, but she insists on referring to it as 'hand power'. 8. Yuuichi and I slag off people who only travel in tour groups.
February 17, 2004
1. For reasons none of them were capable of articulating, the class placed Ireland third on their list of 'most dangerous places in the world', one spot ahead of North Korea. 2. I did a lesson on apologies as a subtle cue for Tadashi to apologize for being such a fucking dimwit. 3. Bless you Rie K., phantom student, bestower of open lessons! 4. Chisato shrieked a lot, mainly. 5. Middle-Aged Yoshie was making her electronic dictionary say 'CAT' when I walked in, giving little cause for optimism that she might be able to handle adverbs. 6. The wombats were sleeping when Naomi-O visited the zoo on her honeymoon in Australia, so she bought a souvenir wombat from the gift shop. 7. Hiroyuki thanked me profusely for teaching him how to answer business phone calls in English, although his habit of naming all of the hypothetical characters "Mr. Nonny-nonny" was a bit odd, unless he was trying to make a Shakespeare reference. 8. Masaki resumed his habitual bitching about the lack of commitment and discipline among the other members of his mini-volleyball team, all of whom are more than twenty years old than him, dropped subtle innuendoes about the amount of chocolate he received for Valentine's Day and then admitted it was all from members of his mini-volleyball team, declared his intention to be the greatest mini-volleyball player of all time, not to mention the greatest English speaker at our school, tried to get a scouting report on his competition (the other high-level students), bemoaned the absence of teenage girls in their high school uniforms from his usual lesson times, bitched about the old folks on his mini-volleyball team some more, took off his shoes, stretched, bragged about the recognition he has received in the mini-volleyball world, ran his fingers through the Cthulu hell-mouth that is his hairline, drooled a bit and slumped meekly in his chair as the bell rang and I was finally released.
February 16, 2004
1. Satsuki's whirlwind four-day world trip would include stops at Tokyo Disneyland, California Disney World and Florida Disneyland, but it would omit EuroDisney in favor of messing around in Hong Kong. 2. The problem with teaching Tadashi any language skills is that he's just going to use them to talk about his cult, so you're better off doing your job poorly with him. 3. The class helped Keita figure out that "Under Siege 2" was the movie he watched on television last night. 4. I held a seminar in the Voice Room on expressions to use when responding to good, bad and surprising news, and I took care to point out that the perennial favorite "ehhhHH?!" may be fine in Japanese but really isn't in circulation in English. 5. Having spent four hours there during a homestay in rural Pennsylvania, Maki-2 described Pittsburgh as a place where "the building is tall and many people are crowded," which more or less matches by impressions of the city and the people who live in it. 6. Marina was five minutes late, so I omitted some of the more difficult letters (Q, U, V, X, Y, Z) from the 'find household items for each letter of the alphabet' game. 7. Osamu said that, in Japan, having your wife as a doubles partner in tennis is thought to lead to divorce and he's seen first-hand evidence of it, but he may give it a try anyway because if it pans out he'll get to play tennis more often. 8. Lacrosse is an improbably popular sport among shy high school girls.
February 15, 2004
1. The appearance of several dozen Pinkerton cover bands in the Vancouver area about four years from now will be directly traced to Kana's upcoming two-week homestay in Canada. 2. An attempt to use the '20 Questions' format to work on 'How (adjective)' is it?' questions went down in flames because, despite a lengthy series of explanations, clarifications and diagrams, no one other than nigh-inarticulate Naoki understood that when the teacher says "Okay, who has a place?", you're not meant to reply "I do! My house!" or "I do! Himeji Castle!" 3. Shin, you magnificent bastard, thanks for staying home on a cold day and giving me an open lesson. 4. Maki and Metal Takeshi's team shot down Souichi and Miki's offer to trade a few tents for a little alcohol. 5. Blinky showed up to the Voice Room full of crackpot notions and wanted to talk about American department stores, having recently completed a study of Nordstrom's in his human resources management class. 6. The biggest surprise of Katsuhiko's life was when he woke up late one day, whereas Morihisa may or may not have eaten a canoe. 7. Open lesson, thou fragile creature, I thought thee certain victim to the crushing maw of commerce, but thou wert fully-grown into 40 minutes of sitting around and doing nothing! 8. I'm not naming names, but I'm pretty sure that someone was eating dog feces before this lesson.
February 14, 2004
1. Minoru, inarticulate beady-eyed pachinko-addict degenerate that he is, can form 'it's too (adjective)' complaints with the best of them. 2. The staff asked me to write a Level 5 Progress Report for a student who has taken one Level 5 lesson, because they're trying to sell him more lesson tickets. 3. The class practiced rounds of 'Will you (do something) with me' questions and it was discovered that no one much wanted to do anything with anyone else. 4. Naoko-4 confessed that her best friend gets angry at her because she sings too quietly at karaoke, giving me a perfect segue into a lesson about adjectives with prepositions ('worried about', 'pleased with', 'rude to', et al). 5. Manami has taken a second job as a pub waitress in addition to her day job as a food critic, which may strike some as a conflict of interest but damned if I'm going try to explain that concept to her. 6. Saeko Y. is stressed out because she must spend 1 million yen in one week at her university office or their grants will go down next year, which is approximately the stupidest thing I've ever heard to be stressed about. 7. Yohei will be defending his thesis next week, and he sincerely hopes that the commiittee doesn't discover his weak point, which is the radiation data regarding whatever the hell he built. 8. For what I'm told was the third straight period, Ecuador was the main topic of discussion in the Voice Room.
Earth-J has two Valentine's Days where the rest of world has only one. February 14 is the ladies' half, wherein the women of the nation are expected to present males with chocolate (whether they have squired this male, hope to squire this male, or are simply a co-worker of this male and wish to have harmonious business relations with him). One month later, March 14 brings "White Day", wherein men are meant to return the favor. I think it's a bit unreasonable for a culture to prize submissiveness in its women and then expect the poor women to make the first move, but that's Japan for you. Our school manager brought some chocolates and a note in Japanese that roughly translated to something about how nice it was that we could all work together happily, and she drew a picture of a woman (possibly her) standing on someone's head (possibly us). Anyway, I thought it was a lovely gesture. Strangely enough, though, even though it is clearly February 14, they don't celebrate Mike Saul's birthday here, although everyone agreed that it was a good idea and there may be a street festival to mark the occasion next year.
Am I allowed to have a birthday while I am in another country? This is a question of some controversy and while interesting points can be raised on both sides of the debate, I suppose it all comes down to the quality of the presents one receives. I am going out on the road for a little bit on the occasion of my own day of the year, February 19, but all of my activities are merely prelude for my plans at the beginning of March, which involve an amount of monkeys that completely beggars belief.
Did you know that whitey wears a uniform? (Yeah, I know, of course he does: it's the clothes he stole off the black man's back.) It does lead one to wonder who penalizes whitey for dress code violations, but those are questions for another time; listen now, if you crane your ear, you can just barely hear the giddy shouts and cheers of young whiteys across the land, all decked out and on parade in uniforms unwrinkled and new, proud little peacocks one and all, still early in the spring of life's long year of taking shit that isn't theirs.
And although those uniforms will never be so bright again as that first day, before the bloodstains and extra mustard that mark whitey's work take up their rightful splotches on the arm, on the knee and just over the right breast, although time will take its toll, those memories will last forever, right up to the finale of the life, which evidently involves a chair in a field and some glasses off to the right, a hell of a twist ending for those who were expecting a sofa or perhaps some plates.
February 12, 2004
1. Given a chance to change their lives, everyone decided to be actresses. 2. Controversy erupted in the 'say nothing true to each other' game when Naomi thought everyone was calling her ugly because she said she wanted to get plastic surgery and they told her not to do it. 3. Yuka K. explained why her elderly parents can't take care of her big dog: "Their power is weak." 4. A middle-aged salaryman and two teenage girls pitted Jackie Chan against Saddam Hussein in the 'Hero vs. Villain' game with fairly boring results. 5. Tomoko bombed what was supposed to be a free lesson for me (e.g. I wouldn't have to work), and she fucking sucked at relative clauses. 6. I tried to teach three phrases for talking about feeling sick, and while the class was able to master "What's the matter?", "I have a _" took a while longer and "Why don't you __" never really got off the ground. 7. Saeko-2 was pleasantly daft, thanking me profusely for helping her to realize that while her job as a dietician at a retirement home may not be perfect, it's better than being a dietician for a group of samurais, because she couldn't understand a word they were saying in 'The Last Samurai'. 8. The Voice Room emptied out after Paul's "Chocolate Cake Topic Voice", in which students could eat a chocolate cake and learn the appropriate verbs-with-prepositions for talking about making a cake, so I was able to chill for the final lesson of the day, and now I'm on weekend.
February 10, 2004
1. Miwako gave me an envelope with two tickets to every art show opening within 100 miles of Kyoto in the next two months, which was very nice of her and signified progress in my attempts to get along better with the rich housewives who make up a large portion of our clientele. 2. The Voice Room was empty. 3. Keita has a new black trench coat that includes actual parachute straps across the front, and a few teachers have been assuring him that it's very cool in order to revenge themselves upon him for being such a fucking mope. 4. Miho was a no-show, possibly due to conflict with the Indonesian lessons she also takes. 5. Naoko-3 will be going to Tokyo Disneyland as a high school graduation celebration for two days in March, but she would spend three months there if she could. 6. Katsuhisa no-showed for a man-to-man lesson, blowing roughly $70 by doing so, but his parents are paying for it, so it's no big deal. 7. If Kana had super-powers, she would be able to stop time and change her age in order to get out of having to take her college entrance exams, and her superhero name would be James Bond - while Naomi-HP (Harry Potter) would be someone called Bewaddajimmy and fail to enunciate. 8. Michiko-3 bought a nice lamp in Paris and found her English skills up to the task of haggling over the price.
February 9, 2004
It occurred to me today that I've taught more than 1,500 lessons since I arrived in Japan (7-8 per day, five days a week, nearly nine months), and I've completely forgotten most of them. I remember the various devices and techniques employed for each lesson point, of course, because they come up again, but the actual content of each lesson is generally gone from memory within a day or two. (That's fairly normal for teachers here, as best I can tell.) In an idiosyncratic exercise, then, I'm going to post one-line recaps of each day's lessons here until I grow tired of doing so or, alternatively, I achieve some transcendent truth in the doing of it. (Language gets to be like modal jazz at times; I use unnecessarily complicated structures just because they can be justified within the scale.)
1. Michiko-2 broke her knuckle falling over 'a stone' at the convenience store, which I agreed is a dangerous place. 2. Chieko and Yuka T. speculated that there would be tension in a hypothetical meeting between Doraemon, the cat-like robot hero from the 24th century, and Napoleon, the former emperor of France, especially when Napoleon tried to steal Doraemon's 'instruments' in order to further his 'ambition'. 3. Instructed to answer only with lies during introductions, an inexplicably aggressive Makiko badgered poor Etsuko with questions like 'Do you like dog food' and 'Is your husband dead'. 4. A half-assed discussion of food took place in the Voice Room, with the main conclusion being that someone ought to sell pretzels in Japan. 5. Sachiko-1, Maiko-1 and I nearly put each other to sleep with a thoroughly boring rendition of the 'force (someone) to (do something) vs. make (someone) (do something)' lesson. 6. Kanae announced that she lives on a ship in the sea of Japan, and Tomomi let that pass unchallenged. 7. The sleepy monk raised the topic of bad poultry and then just listened as Osamu and I chatted about how Americans will eat pretty much anything. 8. Two genial salarymen agreed that both of them work 'well' but get up on Sunday mornings 'badly'.
January 17, 2004 I have been away from this for so long that I had to review some old entries to remind myself what I sound like. According to my notes, M. Heiden was a mild-mannered museum security guard when an accidental encounter with a radioactive microphone infused him with the force of five emcees. I am going to roll with that and we will see how it goes.
1 cup (4 ounces) hazelnuts
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Spread the nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast for about 8 minutes, or until lightly browned and fragrant. Remove from the oven, leaving the oven on. Transfer to a large plate and let cool. With a rollingpin, crush the nuts until coarse. In a medium bowl, stir the oil, maple syrup, brown sugar, orange zest, and vanilla bean together. Add the oats and stir gently to coat. spread the mixture on a baking sheet and toast for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring every few minutes to encourage even browning. Remove from the oven an let cool on the pan. Transfer the granola to a bowl and toss with the dried fruit and crushed nuts. Serve either with cold milk, or top with a the whole milk yogurt and honey.
2003 was a very good year, and December was its greatest month. The Israelis had the idea that we should take advantage of unseasonably warm weather at the beginning of the month to play soccer, and the Canadian, the Englishman and I were all up for it. We showed up at the Kyoto University sports complex one night and claimed an empty strip of field to play. We had no real business being there, but the Israelis are a confident lot who appear to know people everywhere they go, and no one bothered us. It was very crowded, with the field hockey team and the soccer teams hard at work. I was pleased to note that Kyoto University fields an American football team. The long-snapper and the place-holder spent most of the night rehearsing their roles with monomaniacal resolve. We split into teams and played soccer (football, isn't it, kids in the park, jumpers for goalposts) for a while. It was my first game in 15 years, and I was terrible, retaining no footwork or ball control skills whatsoever. The others were better, but the Canadian was pissed off at the Israelis for not passing to him, and the Englishman was the only real ace on both halves of the pitch. As such, when some guys from the Kyoto University soccer team came over and invited us to play them, I didn't give our squad much of a chance. As it turns out, though, our size advantage played a decisive role - they kept bouncing off us, falling down and apologizing - and we were ahead 30-2 when the stadium lights were finally turned off. They were very nice guys and we all promised to play again soon.
We had our school Christmas party late one Sunday night at a nabe restaurant called The Lockup. It was on a dark, unmarked side street in the massive shopping arcade in downtown Kyoto. (To be fair, all side streets are unmarked in this country, and the shopping arcade pales in comparison to its equivalents in Osaka, but I am trying to set the scene here.) I'm not that into being on time or having any idea where I'm going, so I showed up 45 minutes late and therefore arrived alone. Although there was an unlit sign over a wall-length window indicating the location of the restaurant, there was no door, and the other side of the window was an empty, featureless black space without any people. After busting some nihongo ("Lock-up wa doku des ka?") for a gang of drunk salarymen, I was led into a bar next door and guided to the entrance for The Lockup, which was several feet away behind some barrels. A hallway went to the featureless black space I'd seen through the window, and stairs led down to a tunnel with locked doors, distant screams and flickering candles. To my surprise, part of the floor had been replaced by deep sponges. I wandered around for a while until suddenly a waitress appeared, took me by the arm and guided me through a door and past several jail cells to a large cell at the end of the hall, where sat everybody from my school as well as some random Japanese people. I greeted everyone, took off my shoes and sat down to eat. The kim-chee nabe at our table was warming my stomach when suddenly the lights went out, black-lights came on, and monsters raced into the cell, tackling and hitting people. There were too many of them, and they could not be stopped. Then waitresses in tight mini-skirts appeared and shot the monsters with laser guns. The dying monsters crawled away as the lights came on and "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" rose up on the sound system. Me and a random Japanese guy hugged each other. A waitress came in to take everyone's picture. During the Secret Santa, I gave two bomb-ass wooden monkey stamps and I received a nice houseplant.
I spent a few days traveling along the west coast of Japan after that, visiting the cities of Hiroshima, Onomichi and Kurashiki as well as the island of Miyajima; and when I disappear from the earth, those memories will be among the last parts of me to go.
It was profoundly disorienting to come home from a long trip and still be in Japan. Everyone was happy to see me back at the public baths, though. The owner, sentimental old coot that he is, grunted and pointed at a sign to make sure that I understood they would be taking holidays on January 1 and 3-5. Earning 'regular' status there is one of my greatest achievements and I am very proud of it. The yakuza guys asked me for the lowdown when a new foreigner walked in. (I didn't know him. They thought he was nuts for spending so much time in the green electrically-charged pool.) In the steam room, where gloriously tinny 1950s jazz is piped in through the ceiling, one yakuza asked me how the Chicago mob was doing. I meant to tell him that they were all pretty old, but I accidentally told him that they were my grandfather. (The conversations are all in Japanese, and mine remains shitty.) He nodded and seemed content with my answer. On another occasion, I chatted with a yakuza about The Last Samurai. He liked it a lot. He asked me what kind of work my family did, and I told him that my mother was an office worker. He said that he came from a long line of samurais and then he traced his entire family tree, identifying where and when each samurai lived, following that with a disseration on his wife's family tree, which was also chock-full of samurais. I said that was great, because I know the word for 'great'.
And now it is January, and I am back at work for undetermined months to come. My Japanese income tax return came back, and it was unexpectedly generous. My credit card debt has been vastly reduced and Citibank has learned that I am capable of being a fully ascetic motherfucker. Fred, a yakuza guy I have taken to calling Fred, just got the light-blue added to his full-back-butt-and-legs tattoo of a warrior slaying a demon. He's taking it one color at a time, which I think is wise. The weather has become bitterly cold, and there is no heat in my old house. Others have kerosene heaters, but I have read too many accounts of disastrous polar expeditions to go in for that shit.
IKUKO is in Kurashiki. I will leave it to the French speakers of the world to decide whether the Japanese work the same magic with their language as they do with English. I suspect that IKUKO knows about as much French as I do, which is to say that IKUKO has access to a French dictionary if IKUKO can be arsed to get up and find it, and if that is the case, I'm guessing that the Japanese are, in fact, capable of making some measure of magic with other languages. It's a risky move on their part, though. Say what you will about their various military capitulations throughout the ages, but the one thing the French will fucking fight you over is their language. I can only hope they accept IKUKO with, well, satisfaction, as opposed to rage or, worse, ennui.
Unless it was decided while I was out of the room that merciless dominion over the earth is a good thing, I am absolutely astounded by the Sony Corporation's decision to name their latest robot QRIO. In years to come, the scattered bands of survivors may well point to the moment when we let the machines break the 'u'-follows-'q' rule as the moment when robots realized they could get away with anything, so they might as well give the wholesale slaughter of human beings a try.
I will have comments in days to come on Cookie Monster (some excellent comments on that entry have gone unused thus far), space travel, very tall basketball players and other important topics, so you ought to return to this space soon.
But! Perhaps you are still annoyed because it has been so long since I have written. I am unreliable, you think, and I have abandoned you to the savagery of your cubicle too many times to be forgiven. Let me say, then, that those other webpages can promise you multimedia and regular updates and all kinds of other crap, but we both know that I am the only one in the world who can bring you a photograph of two monkeys staging the death scene from 'Camille'.
I think I've made my point.
December 24, 2003 Although a full recounting of recent events will have to wait for a few days more, I would like to provide you with a story and a nice picture to send you into the holiday season on a positive note. You may remember the Hero vs Villain trials I was running a couple months ago. To recap, students are asked to select a hero and a villain, and then they must tell the story of their encounter using no more than five lines. The following story comes from Akiko, Kae and Rie. (To be honest, it was an Akiko-dominated affair. The strong areas of her vocabulary really show up in the final product, especially that first sentence. Rie had some input, particularly where exclamation points are concerned, but Kae took the Ringo role and mostly just gaped at the other two. Still, I will credit all three of them.) I believe it is a powerful piece of work and I would like to share it with you and with the armed forces everywhere.
1. Saddam Hussein is so selfish and mean to people and one day he hit his friend.
RESULT: Superman d. Saddam Hussein, TKO.
Let those who hit their friends be warned that that shit will not be tolerated in the new year or any year to come. And now, continuing the theme of friendship, it will come as no surprise that the picture is of monkeys.
I am off to Hiroshima on an overnight bus. Happy holidays!
December 20, 2003 It's 3AM! It's snowing in Kyoto! And I saw a monkey on a motorbike!
I love everyone!!!
December 4, 2003 I've been in-country for more than six months now, and I'm still making terrible purchasing decisions based on amusing packages. This has got to stop. Last week, I bought a new cheese product called Cheese & Cheese because I thought it might, in theory, kick ass if Cheese had a wise-cracking partner, also named Cheese, who would provide a humorous contrast to Cheese's gruff yet lovable exterior -- and together, Cheese & Cheese would join forces to solve the 'crime' of my hunger. That was my reasoning. As it turns out, however, Cheese & Cheese joined forces to create two hideous shades of orange and several atrocities against innocent taste buds. Which is unfortunate, given that I blew 400 yen on it.
Inspired by our retarded company newsletter, here is the first installment of a powerful new segment called ELT 2 The Rescue:
(column) (New Chicago Bulls coach Scott) Skiles is no Bill Cartwright, the man he is replacing, and we know this because Skiles said one of his hobbies is reading and then refused to reveal what book is on his nightstand. Short of top-secret Pentagon reports or naughty romance novels, I'm not sure why this is classified information.
Thanks for asking, (Chicago Tribune columnist) Rick (Morrissey). Introductions are often difficult for new language students. When he began to learn English, (new Chicago Bulls coach Scott) Skiles may have memorized a series of rote phrases such as "I live in..." and "There are (x) people in my family", and while he may be able to produce those phrases with a reasonable degree of confidence, he may not yet be ready to expand on them. In this case, we can assume Skiles announced that "My hobby is reading a book", but we should not take that as indicating a command of the present progressive verb tense on his part -- rather, we should use that phrase as a launching point for teaching him new sentence structures that will allow Skiles to describe himself in greater detail, and ultimately have him making appropriate tense selections between the simple present and the aforementioned present progressive. So allay your frustrations, Rick! (New Chicago Bulls coach Scott) Skiles is not holding out on you -- he's actually giving you your next teaching assignment! Thanks for writing.
In order to add more exciting 'user-interactivity' to this web-page and hopefully score some 'web millions', I have prepared the following brain-teaser. You can test your wits, record your answer and check it against the solution at the end of this entry. Please study the following photograph, taken near my school two days ago. What is wrong with this picture?
Here is a box in which you can type your answer, for those of you who find that sort of thing satisfying:
If you click 'Send', your answer will be sent to the news bureau of the Chinese Space Program. Unfortunately, as they have not been advised of the question, I expect they will find your answer very confusing, so you're probably best off just leaving it here.
Christmas cheer is in full-swing here in good old Iwataki-cho. Some of the yakuza have their Christmas lights up, which are really quite pleasant, and one of the whore-houses gave us a fresh-baked loaf of bread for reasons that are entirely unclear to us. (It's still sitting on the kitchen table.) With the cold weather and lack of heat in our house becoming increasingly notable at night, I have been spending a lot of time at the public bath house down the block. It's pretty laid-back in there. The yakuza guys generally won't shower directly next to me, but they don't mind sharing the whirl-pools or the awesome steam-room, and one of them offered me some shampoo the other day, which was very nice of him. There was a big guy in there the other day who had a full-back tattoo of a warrior slaying a dragon. I was mighty impressed, and glad not to be a dragon.
Unfortunately, there came some tough news recently:
This city is still reeling from the last pink lady typhoon, and I don't know if it can withstand another one. We must batten down the hatches and prepare for the worst. What kind of cruel God would so callously subject these people to a pink lady typhoon again? Like earthquakes and their aftershocks, the second pink lady typhoon is often more intense than the first. Say a prayer for all of us here in Kyoto. We are going to have to face this pink lady typhoon head on.
SOLUTION TO THE BRAIN-TEASER: Look at the dishes at the bottom of the poster. They have Cookie Monster endorsing cheese danishes and pigs-in-a-blanket. Cookie Monster, by definition, does not give a shit about anything other than cookies. (Believe me, I have studied that gentleman.) I need to learn the idiomatic equivalent of "Focus up, Mr. Donut."
November 26, 2003 What the fuck does this mean?
My ability to organize and understand schema is going to be completely destroyed by this country or it's going to transcend mortal bounds. I'm calling even odds on either outcome. Seriously, what the fuck does that mean? No one can explain it to me.
On the plus side, I now know where lives the soul of rock and roll.
Christmas decorations have been up for a month and a half already, but there's nothing going on for Thanksgiving here in Japan. The dual holiday of last weekend -- the Emperor's Birthday on Sunday and Japanese Labor Day on Monday -- gave people a day off from work or school and a chance to reflect upon the real meaning of the occasion, which appears to have been the tremendous importance of descending upon department stores like packs of screaming hyenas and drinking for three days straight, in multiple cities if at all possible. (Happily, a number of my students achieved this goal, proudly announcing that they were blitzed in Osaka, Kobe and other prefectures entirely.) The Japanese love holidays, and they're not picky about where the holidays come from; the bars made the most of Halloween for theme parties and the stores are united in blaring "Do They Know It's Christmas After All?" at people who may or may not in fact be aware that it is Christmas after all. Thanksgiving, however, appears ready to pass without a glimmer. At the very least, I'd think that Japanese restaurants would pick up on it, transpose it into "Eating Day" or something along those lines. People would go for it. I mean, I know there's going to be a ton of rabbits up in here come Easter.
There will be no home-style Thanksgiving for me, as I must remain in Japan through the holidays and long into the next year. I like the food -- my aunt has done a fine job ever since she took the reigns as the family chef -- but the thing I will really miss is the annual Thanksgiving football game with my friends. In many ways, it is the most powerful day of the year. It is a noble, fierce contest wherein the souls of poets are wrapped in the manias of the XFL and placed in the bodies of the Chicago Cardinals. Rosters are drawn up weeks in advance, lyrical epics are written of the QB and WR combos thusly formed, and even the laziest of bastards go into training as far as two weeks in advance of the day. Injuries are no excuse. Separated shoulders and skewed ankles have been disregarded in past years; two years ago, I played with a newly broken finger. Members of the circle are returning from all over the country for the game this year; one guy is even flying in from 1914 to play. I have a fucking fantastic new jersey but alas, I do not have the resources to cross the ocean with it. I am not sure if I will ever regain the trust of certain of my compatriots. I can only hope that redemption will be considered when the full extent of my activities in Japan comes to light.
Forced to make other plans for Thanksgiving, I have done so. I will be gone for two days, during which I cannot disclose my location. They are perhaps the most powerful plans I have ever made.
The sky is full of all but stars tonight.
November 10, 2003 I hope you liked the quintessence. It was a powerful day. Today's entry will restate themes from earlier entries and tie up some old plot threads before I move on to new topics in the future, such as how I'm sick of these Atkins people insulting bread, which is a good food and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.
Wherever you go in this world, there is no escape from anti-climax: the Hanshin Tigers lost in Game 7 of the Japan Series, falling short just like the Cubs and Red Sox did. At last check, one of the major daily newspapers was still running front page stories about the Tigers, even though they're not playing any more. (I don't know what the stories are about. Unfortunately, the English versions of the newspapers here are much more restrained than the Japanese originals, and they run actual news on the front page.) One of my students attended a financial seminar where an executive from a major bank -- I will refrain from saying who it is to avoid the faint risk of libel charges, but you might have heard of them -- announced with a straight face that the Japanese economy is going to rebound based on absolutely no evidence other than the fact that the Tigers have been successful twice in the last 50 years and the economy was strong in those times. The student was tremendously excited. Since he appeared to have made no plans to check himself prior to wrecking himself, I attempted to check his self for him, but I don't think I was entirely successful in doing so. Well, I hope it works out, and I hope the currency doesn't crash until after I leave.
An update on the battle against panda-porn is long over-due. Even when I am silent, I am busy. Nothing escapes my notice, not even evidence as well-concealed as the sight of two pandas fucking on the side of a train car:
You know what, though? This is one case where the parents and the zoo-keepers have to share some of the blame, too. This is what comes of the tremendous social pressure on pandas to reproduce. In some twisted way, in their narcotic-addled state, these poor pandas are just trying to do what they think they're supposed to do, and some callous, cynical bastard is making pornography from it. The pandas get locked in a cycle of sex and drugs, and they can't get out, even as their very bodies are falling apart. This panda's nose has caved in from years of cocaine use:
How long has it been since that panda had a warm meal? They have him out there working the streets, and he can barely stand. Even when you take them in and try to turn them around, when night comes, they become desperate and lapse back into their old habits, as this police photograph shows:
That moment of clarity that flashes in the panda's eyes is absolutely heartbreaking. For a moment, it's as though they know what has become of them. For every panda we save from a life of pornography, there are three more who are never heard from again. Perhaps most despicable of all is when these smut-merchants use pandas to recruit other pandas. Please be advised that what follows is extremely graphic material:
How can they get away with showing that in public, you ask? I don't know. I really don't. Here are some student email comments on the panda-porn issue:
Several perspectives were offered on whether I should take the bike. The Israelis in the house got all excited and wanted me to get it so they could try to break the lock like they said they used to in Tel Aviv. My friend Katy noted that, in Spirited Away, the abandoned bicycle makes the river spirit sick, and he bestows many blessings on Sen / Chihiro in thanks for her removing the bicycle and making him well again. I thought that was an awfully good point, especially as I've found Spirited Away to be eerily accurate in all other respects regarding life in Japan. Several of my students confirmed the near-disposable attitude towards bicycles in the city and recommended that I take it. Kurt suggested that Japanese bikes may be like lizard tails, and when pursued by a predator, salarymen will leave their bicycles behind and escape. On the other hand, The Bicycle Thief continues to be a movie that I have seen, and I kept worrying that the poster-hanger would come back for his bike, even though it had been in the river for more than a week. The Israelis insisted that if I took the bicycle to the local police box, saying that I found it abandoned, then if nobody reported it missing within a month, it would become my property, and I could say the lock was broken when I found it. Reluctantly, I took the bike. I hope I made the right decision. I can't second-guess myself now. It would be pretty silly to go and put the bike back in the river.
The elections were finally held on Sunday. There are no laws -- and, apparently, no anger or resentment -- against noise pollution, so the numbers of Assholes With Megaphones reached a sort of critical mass in recent days, with campaign vans parked outside our school from open to close and trucks with speakers driving around every neighborhood of the city as early as 7AM. There was even a helicopter flying overhead at one point, blasting some creep's message loudly enough that it could be clearly heard on the sidewalk. In an exciting development, though, none other than Godzilla was running for office. On Saturday, a van arrived with Godzilla's name painted on the side in big red letters, and smiling people stood on top of the van, waving and making speeches for hours. The best part is that although Godzilla himself was apparently elsewhere at the time, he deployed little Godzukis to run around and hand out campaign literature. Here is photographic evidence:
There were two Godzuki-squads on duty at the same time. When a squad saw someone walking through any part of the square around the train station, they'd sprint after them, with the Godzuki assigned to get the passer-by's attention and the guy with the yellow-and-blue sash on propaganda duty. (There was a third guy, the one in the blue coat, whose job seemed to be to protect the Godzuki's flank.) So, naturally, we chased after them:
The guy in the yellow-and-blue sash was annoyed by our presence, but he channeled his anger into whatever harangue he was delivering to the voter. Godzuki was sort of bemused. Shortly afterwards, I had a man-to-man lesson, and I asked the student if she knew that Godzilla was running for office. "Yes," she said. I asked her if she was going to vote for him. "Yes," she said. I said that was probably a good idea, and then I asked her if Godzilla was going to destroy the city if he lost the election. "Yes," she said. I got all wide-eyed and asked her what office he was running for. "Yes," she said. I asked her if she understood anything I had said. She smiled and tilted her head to the right.
No, panda! Stay away! Damn you, ram, defiler of innocence.
November 3, 2003 quintessence (n) 1 : the fifth and highest element in ancient and medieval philosophy that permeates all nature and is the substance composing the celestial bodies 2 : the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form 3 : the most typical example or representative
October 27, 2003 How long does a bicycle have to sit in the river before it's considered public property? I am one of the few in this land without a bicycle to call his own. (I had a borrowed one before, but one of my housemates loaned it out to a shady character who returned it all fucked up, which is another reason to pass legislation against shady characters.) There are so many bikes here that they're nearly disposable, and people keep telling me just to take one that looks abandoned, but I've seen The Bicycle Thief, and I can't take that risk. However, since Wednesday morning, a nice-looking silver bike has been lying on its side in the Takase-gawa, a river / canal / lengthy puddle near my house, and no one has touched it. The Takase, rarely more than an inch deep, is about eight feet below street level, so the bike clearly wasn't parked there deliberately. Hopefully, there are some Italian neo-realist film experts reading this web-page who can help me determine at what point it becomes unreasonable to speculate that a poor, honest worker may have pawned the family linen for the bike and left it in the river while he hangs some movie posters nearby. I mean, it's been at least five days.
Tonight is Game 7 of the Nippon Series. The Hanshin Tigers, hapless perennial losers, are trying to cap their dream year with a championship. They lost the first two games, won the next three, and lost last night. No matter what happens tonight, Osaka is going to explode. (Some of my students, upper-middle class types, named the Tigers' home stadium the most dangerous place in Japan, simply because of the lunatic fans.) I have noticed that they win when I wear my Tigers t-shirt, so I am going to do my part by wearing it today, even though it really ought to be washed. Japanese baseball fervor can match any city in America. A number of serious financial publications have credited the Tigers' success with the recent signs of recovery for the Japanese economy (since the last time the Tigers were any good was 1985, in the midst of the "Bubble Era" in Japan). The Tigers even have a curse of their own that's every bit as good as (if not better than) the stupid goat in Chicago or the Bambino in Boston.
Several people are walking around the neighborhood right now, chanting in long, deep tones. It is 8:50am.
NEWLY CROWNED MY FAVORITE ENGLISH MISTAKE OF ALL TIME, ALTHOUGH PERHAPS YOU HAD TO BE THERE TO REALLY APPRECIATE IT
I gave him a level-up recommendation because of that. As a teacher, I tend to reward brilliant mistakes more often than mediocre successes. I asked Yoshiaki, the gravel-voiced, hard-living tennis coach, about his recent vacation trip to Okinawa. His eyes lit up. "I met the manta," he said. He'd gone scuba-diving, apparently, and seen a manta ray. I cheered and gave him a level-up recommendation. However, I merely winced when Masako, the elderly housewife, delcared that, after a stressful week, "I relieved myself this weekend".
I've been meaning to photograph this for quite some time. This is a popular pizza chain in the Kyoto area. I haven't tried their pizza, so I don't know if they're any good. But I do know one thing. Chicago, this is you:
Come on, Chicago. Don't deny it. That is you. (Especially you, Gianni Cutri.) Japanese pizza delivery places deserve credit for their cool delivery scooter-bikes. The pizzas go in the hatch in the back (visible on the right bike), and there's a roof for some reason, but it's on two wheels, so they can park on the sidewalk if they like. I haven't had any pizza here, as it's rather expensive and bound to be a disappointment. I miss it quite a lot, though. I haven't decided whether my first meal upon return to the U.S.A. will be a fucking gooey deep dish pizza or a mad blowout at a Mexican restaurant. All I know for sure is that you people in Chicago are in the mob and you wear striped suits with hats so quit pretending you don't.
Here is a threat:
They're serious. They will sticky about their favorite things. God help me, I've seen them do it.
THE 99 YEN SHOP: FIVE OBSERVATIONS
Let me give fair warning that the next entry will be the most powerful in the history of this web-page.
October 15, 2003 It's election time here in Japan. Forward-thinking innovators that they are, the Japanese have solved the problem of campaign finance reform by making assholes with megaphones the primary venue of political discourse. The better-funded organizations record women with infantile voices reading their slogans and hire dirty old men to drive around residential neighborhoods in trucks with loud-speakers. The lesser-funded organizations have to rely on less mobile, slightly less dirty old men outside of train stations to get their message across. It's all the more irritating because the message never even amounts to much; nearly every other word, from radicals and establishment candidates alike, is "thank-you-(polite-acquaintance)". I resent the implication that I've done them some kindness. The idiot who sets up outside of my school in the evening spends half of his time listing other train lines where he likes to jabber. (And then he thanks the train lines, as if they can hear him. I want to learn Japanese if only to tell him what a fucking idiot he is.) There is a passage in Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons: The Dark Side of Modern Japan about a Japanese neighborhood that demanded several trees be cut down because they might attract "noisy birds", but never thought to register a complaint about the roving politicians or the squawking traffic signals. (Traffic signals squawk here.) As is to be expected, then, our students just passively accept the idiots-with-megaphones, never taking notice or registering annoyance with them. Some teachers, myself included, use the idiots-with-megaphones as objects for "culture lessons" about how anybody doing that in a Western country would get the crap beaten out of them. (Students are considered to have failed if they don't head downstairs after the lesson and tell the idiot with the megaphone to shut up.) I have found that teaching is all about making your fury educational as best you can.
I have been trying to keep up with politics in the United States, but I am inevitably disconnected from events, and must rely on internet articles to give me a sense of what is happening. Checking up on the Democratic primaries, I found these poll results:
I can see that Gen. Wesley Clark is in the lead with Gov. Howard Dean running second, but what surprises me is that someone called Monkey Brain appears to have 3% of the vote. Is a monkey brain running for president under the Democratic banner? If so, let me issue a strong caution about voting for monkey brains that do not reside within monkey bodies. It's true of all species: removed from their bodies, brains in jars become violent, hateful and deranged; in the case of monkeys, their natural whimsy turns into sinister, calculating evil. Hence, I cannot endorse the monkey brain's candidacy. It would be interesting to see a demographic breakdown of its supporters. I suspect that it has cornered the pure evil vote, who historically have supported vengeful abominations of science, and that evidently gives him higher numbers than poor Dennis Kucinich. (Come on, Kooch.) My best guess is that the monkey brain may be some kind of Green Party affiliate, and its support will level off in a few weeks when Ralph Nader returns from vacation and insists that Monkey Brain be returned to Monkey Body. (But where will the monkey brain swing votes go?)
Much like their American counterparts, the Democratic Party of Japan firmly believes in putting out its fist and sort of hoping that evil walks into it at a speed that will bring about an impact that will cause evil to re-think its actions but not hurt the Democratic Party of Japan's knuckles too badly.
This poster is yet more evidence that people have become all too quick to point the blame at spectral black apparitions for social problems. They are truly the scapegoat of the modern age; and when you consider the recent statistics showing that the ratio of spectral-black-apparition-on-random-old-guy-and-school-girl violence is actually significantly lower than the numbers on random-old-guy-and-school-girl-on-spectral-black-apparition violence, it becomes all the more egregious.
Also, let me make one more thing perfectly clear:
These croissants can brag about their eating ability all they like, but when breakfast was over, one of us was eaten, and it wasn't me.
Yeah, it's that easy.
October 1, 2003 Here is the data from my latest research. As a warm-up exercise for the lesson that's intended to teach the phrase "each other", I have the students decide on a random hero and a random villain, and then they must tell the story of what happens when the hero and villain meet (each other). Ideally, they stumble across the language construct without realizing it, and then I can teach them using their own text. Pretty clever, no? I cap the stories at five lines, because some students would go on forever if allowed, and some struggle past two. I don't get to run this exercise as often as I'd like, because the one of the other teachers does the "each other" lesson with most of the students before I get the chance. (And sucks at it, too.)
Every time I begin to lose my patience with Japan's shenanigans, it goes and says something sweet like that. How can I say no? Of course I am also comin'.
Earth-J is well-renowned for its strange use of English, but they rarely get credit for their bizarre combination stores. Here is one, from the restaurant district:
If you look closely, the sign reads: "Coffee and Spaghetti". That's the concept of the cafe: coffee and spaghetti. Re-united and it feels so...gross. The chef came out and shook his fist at me after I took the photograph.
The next entry is a shop off to the side of an up-hill road leading to Kiyomizu-dera, a temple in the mountains:
On the left: designer handbags. On the right: gravestones. Together, in one store. Who said you can't take it with you? Kaufman and Hart, consider your theories punked by Earth-J.
The champion of the combo-store scene is actually quite sweet: it's an art gallery and milk store. They have a teddy bear wearing denim overalls that sits out front, sometimes holding a milk bottle and sucking his thumb, other times just sitting at a table as if waiting for dinner. They sell high-quality dairy products and framed prints. Sadly, there is never, ever anyone in there. I plan to shop there some time. I really do. I haven't taken a picture of the place, because I don't want to make them self-conscious.
Some places are not so welcoming of foreigners:
The one on the left says "keep out", obviously. I'm guessing that the one on the right says something to the effect of "The foreigner isn't keeping out, is he? He's wandering past like he doesn't even see the sign. Goddam it. Look, as a fellow non-foreigner, could you please do me the favor of kicking him?"
Other places tell you not to enter, but are conflicted in their message:
So do you go with the signs and the roadblocks that are telling you to stay out, or the statues of the happy man and the giant rabbit that are telling you to come in? Jesus. Where was this shit in my high school ethics class?
September 16, 2003 I am back with another update, because one of my students said that I should renew my webpage more often. (She also said that, having read it, it's too hard for her to think of me as a teacher. Well, it was a good run.) Life is relaxed again. Autumn has definitely come, the Hanshin Tigers have clinched the Central League pennant (a feat equivalent to the Red Sox or Cubs doing the same in America) and nervously await the Pacific League champion in the Japan Series, and I am once again equipped with a camera for more of my freestyle documentation. A few weeks ago, I bravely broke the code of silence here by exposing the sordid underground of panda porn. Now, I bring you shocking photographic evidence that these pandas are being drugged before they are forced to participate in these pornographic activities.
This panda - whom we will call "Bao Ling", to protect his identity - is clearly in the throes of a drug-induced psychosis as he poses on the side of this truck. It would appear from his expression that he has been fed some manner of methamphetamine cocktail. Compare his quiet derangement to the coke-fueled rampage of "Xiao Ping" below:
I feel confident that the majority of my readers are good and decent people who are as full of outrage over this as I am. Should it be my mission, while I am in Asia, to smash these panda-porn rings? Perhaps we can have a vote on it.
On a completely unrelated note, did you know that there are 2.3 jingles for every man, woman and child in Japan? I am making that up, but I'm not lying to you.
September 15, 2003 I think I am through the summer crazy without any serious trouble. The timing of the seasons are a little skewed here, because the Kansai summer is split into the rainy season (first half) and the bastard hot season (second half), which is finally drawing to a close. In the years since I finished college, I have become renowned for making terrible decisions in the summer. Something about hot weather and working full-time sets me off on some bad craziness, and I start doing things I would normally know better than to do. Two summers ago, for example, I quit my job without having another one ready, and that led to six months of unemployment and debt from which I have yet to recover. (I really thought I had that aquarium job locked up.) I am not going to talk about the summer of 2002 except to say that my decision-making in 2001 was basically the Bhagavad Gita in comparison. I don't think I did anything terribly rash this summer, unless you count moving halfway around the world to a place where I don't know anybody and I can't speak the language, but that wasn't really a summer decision, as it was late spring when I arrived. I keep the air conditioning in my room at 18 C at all times in order to create the illusion of winter, when I am much wiser.
IN MEMORY OF JOHN RITTER, WRONG DOORS TO RECEIVE WARNING LABELS
(AP) With the nation still in mourning over the sudden death of sitcom actor and everyman hero John Ritter, Congress is considering legislation that would require wrong doors, the great bane of Ritter's life, to be clearly labeled as such. House Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), the sponsor of the bill, grew visibly emotional as he spoke on the House floor. "Every year, thousands of innocent, well-intentioned Americans walk in the wrong door and all hell breaks loose. For too long, we have blamed the misunderstandings that result, and spent too much of our energy attempting to correct those misunderstandings, frequently making them worse in the process. We must look elsewhere, to the real problem: the wrong doors themselves." Complicating the initiative, however, is what Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Min) has referred to as the "shifty" nature of the wrong door. "Often, the wrong door is separated from being the right door by time, not space. Right doors become wrong doors in a matter of seconds, simply due to the arrival of an unexpected neighbor, girlfriend or landlord." Although Coleman had prepared a report on what he referred to as "the quantum implications of this spatial transferrence", his explanation was interrupted by the arrival of Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wi), wearing a padded bra designed to look like twin watermelons. Feingold, startled by the presence of reporters, insisted that the situation was not, in fact, what it appeared to be.
People have been asking how I'm doing with the language. The answer is that I'm doing quite poorly. You'd think that, living in Japan, I'd have some cause to learn some Japanese, but the fact is that it just doesn't come up very often. I'm paid to make Japanese people stop speaking Japanese, and outside of work, I just use the same ten words over and over again, mostly thanking store clerks and telling drunks I can't understand them and to quit talking to me. It would be nice to be able to say more, but my motivation is lacking. It's a problem I've discussed with students (hello, Asuka): the huge gap between being able to say anything and being able to say anything worth saying. The language CDs are all about asking for directions, commenting on the weather and ordering drinks. I'm not interested in any of that. I need to be able to say things like:
1. Before you decide to charge me for that milkshake, perhaps you should consider my status as an international connoisseur of milkshakes, and while your initial assumption may be that I will not accept bribes in exchange for favorable reviews, I think you will be pleasantly surprised if you give it a try;
By the time I learn how to say any of that, it'll be time to leave. It's tough being divided by from your neighbors by languages. The rabbi and I used to argue about the Tower of Babel. He'd send me an email responding to something I said with a proverb in Hebrew, knowing full well I couldn't understand it, so I'd make up words and send them back to him, and he'd call me into his office and we'd yell at each other. He took the position that Tower of Babel was a good thing, because language comes before thought, and artistry of language supercedes artistry of ideas. I took the position that his position was really stupid. If Chomsky heard the rabbi, he'd just freak out and start randomly clawing at things. (I don't know why I always let myself get drawn into those arguments. You're not going to get anywhere arguing over the virtue of something you believe to be a metaphor with someone who believes it to be the literal truth, anyway.)
On a completely unrelated note, I have this to ask of fans of the NFL:
Are you ready for some football?!?!
The list of respects in which Hank Williams, Jr. has outlived his usefulness is long and well-documented, but the clear superiority of this little guy is yet another reason why our team can afford to trade Hank Williams, Jr. to another planet for draft picks. Rebuilding on the fly is the way to go, folks.
August 28, 2003 I should preface this entry with a quote from elsewhere. I live in a house with a few other foreigners in what I think is a very nice neighborhood. There is a large river nearby, and on the other side of the house, there is a small canal with rickety bridges. The streets are quiet and narrow, and most of the other houses are very old, built in a traditional Japanese style. I think it's all quite nice. One of my housemates is also an English teacher. The first time he told one of his students where we live, this was her reaction:
Foreigners, brothels and yakuza, oh my! That place has everything that scares us!
There are, to be fair, a number of brothels around here. But they're good neighbors. They keep the fucking down to a perfectly reasonable volume, and their buildings are always very clean out front, thanks to the old ladies who run them. They have hidden entrances for customers, and the employees all live in nearby, so you never see them clocking in or out. I can't see why anyone would complain about the brothels, at least in terms of neighborliness. (There may be labor issues, such as vacation time or retirement funds, but I am not here to address those.) And the yakuza? Holy shit. Anybody who gripes about those guys hasn't been to the rockin' End of Summer street festival they throw in August.
"Are you taking your camera?", asked my housemate, normally a fiend for photos.
There is a "sports club" down the block where the yakuza hang out, watch baseball and talk business. They have minivans with decals from their club that are parked around the neighborhood. (I did not necessarily expect that the yakuza would be so fond of minivans, but I suppose there are convenience issues to consider.) Across the street from the sports club is an apartment block for the young, swinging bachelor yakuza. The festival took place in the intersection and the parking lots for the two buildings, branching off into the four streets in each direction, with a side festival for kids on the other side of the apartment block. Unfortunately, I missed the guy who was just walking around handing out envelopes of cash (10,000 yen, about $90) to random people, but most of my housemates scored. I did get a ton of free food and beer tickets, though. (I failed to use most of them, since the guy at the iced tea booth kept grinning and giving me drinks for free, and cotton candy was the only meatless item on display elsewhere.) There was a tall bandstand in the midst of the festival area, and a few of the senior yakuza, all wearing traditional dress, took turns singing half-hour long narrative songs while throngs of people danced in a circle around the bandstand. The dance was two steps forward, one step back, clap twice, one step forward, single clap to the right, and repeat. It was a whole lot like country line-dancing. Anyone was welcome to join, but I was busy trying to keep an inconspicuous tally of how many in attendance still had their little fingers. There were more than a few missing, but for the most part, I'd say this was a competent bunch of yakuza. (So as not to show off, I kept my own hands in my pockets.) It was a lovely evening. Everyone was in such a good mood. The yakuza like gaijin (foreigners), because they were originally the outcasts of Japanese society. According to an interview with the local boss, they're more willing than most legitimate organizations to employ Koreans and other immigrants. (So there, Sony.) Again, there may well be a number of valid complaints about the yakuza, particularly regarding the killing of people, but there are absolutely no grounds on which to complain about them as neighbors. Declaring summer to be over was a particularly nice gesture. Our electricity bills have been absolutely brutal of late, and if the yakuza say summer's over, it's over, or some fool is taking a bullet to the head.
The next night, I saw the Dismemberment Plan at Taku Taku, an old sake warehouse. There is something perversely fun about seeing a band from home when you're abroad. The Sea and Cake in Camden Market was a highlight of my trip to London a few years ago, and this show was memorable, too. I expected a bit more representation from the English teachers of the area, but there were only two other gaijin in the sold-out crowd of more than 200. It was sold-out before I got there. I used the stupid-gaijin trick to get in: just stare blankly at the Japanese person as if you do not understand and keep repeating your request in a stilted tone. Eventually, they decide it's easier to just give you what you want. Out of politeness, I stood all the way at the back, because nobody there was taller than my shoulders. The Dismemberment Plan have taken about two more lessons of Japanese than I have, but they stumbled through the between-song banter quite gamely, and the crowd loved them for it. I was the only person in attendance who knew to wave his arms during "Back and Forth", and I could see Travis Morrison's eyes light up when he saw it. That was a nice moment. (One of the other gaijin and a Japanese kid picked up on it for the second chorus.) There were some mighty cathartic songs. There always are at their shows. It's a shame they're breaking up. I will really miss them. Unfortunately, they were the opening band at this show, so they only played for 35 minutes, and that meant no "Ice of Boston", which did leave me a bit sad. (But maybe it'd be strange hearing that song without my friends, because that was always a "look each other in the eyes and smile because we're together" moment.) The headliners were a Japanese indie rock group called Quruli who were really quite good and were a good fit, musically. They could have been from D.C., were they not singing in Japanese. It's kind of fashionable for Japanese bands to have one line of English in the chorus of their songs. Quruli had one that went "I go back to China". The rest were in Japanese, though. At the end of the show, they did the standard rock-star encore. Then, in an utterly charming turn of events, after the house lights came on, the audience applauded until the band came back out to be thanked again. The audience didn't want another song; they just wanted to say thanks. I thought about saying hello to the Dismemberment Plan outside, but they were being mobbed by teenage Japanese girls, and that's a personal moment in anybody's life, so I left them be.
The choice she thought she'd never have to make:
Between the one who taught her how to live...
And the one who taught her how to love.
My prediction: the movie ends with Godzilla wandering back into the sea, alone, tears streaming down his face, as "Just Once" blares on the soundtrack.
Unfortunately, there will be no more pictures for a while unless I decide to dig out some of the old ones I haven't used yet. I came home to find my mutant digital camera feasting upon the bloody entrails of yet another dead battery, its third victim. Just as it did after the first two, the camera pleaded with me, claiming that it could control itself, that this was an accident. It hasn't been right since I fell down a mountain with it in the Badlands a few months ago. I restored it to life with a hairdryer, but now it kills rechargeable batteries, which are expensive. It can't help itself. I may buy a new one with my next paycheck if the exchange rate is favorable and I have enough yen left over after the bills are paid.
Now, I realize it's unethical for me to try to sell the camera to somebody, but is it unethical for me to give the camera to a hobo for him to try to sell? I am a friend to hoboes.
August 14, 2003 My plans to bowl were thwarted by torrential rains. There is rarely any fierce weather in Kyoto, surrounded as it is by a ring of mountains, but today was an exception, with a furious downpour for several hours. It was all the more disappointing because I had been fasting for the last few days, since I am presently at the end of my fiscal month (paycheck on Friday) and was facing the choice between groceries and bowling on my weekend (W, Th). My umbrella held up just long enough for a trip to the corner store, where I spent the bowling money on some Country Ma'am cookies. They're kind of weird, but basically all right. All of the cookies in this country come in individual wrappers.
Summer holidays bring out some of the stranger students. Although they work blistering hours when they're on season, the school-kids have three two-month breaks each year, and the adults don't do too badly either. Some are inspired to sign up for a few classes by impending vacations to Guam or Hawaii, and others simply binge on English lessons until they have to go back to work. I am commonly accused by the other teachers at my school of favoring "the creeps and the weird ones" and directing scorn towards "the nice ones". It's probably true. I'm sure that the alcoholic salarymen, the pachinko fiends and gambling addicts, and the unclassifiable oddballs aren't that much fun to actually live with, but within the isolated context of an English classroom, they're just more interesting than the legions of old housewives, who never really want to talk about anything other than meeting their friends for lunch. The latest Takashi to sign up for classes - not to be mistaken for the Takashi who takes six classes in a row every Sunday and can't really speak by the end of them, or the Takashi who can't speak at all but must, according to the government agency that is paying for his classes, be recorded as 'pass' for every class and leveled-up to harder lessons at regular intervals regardless of his progress, with whom I spent an entire man-to-man class explaining the concept of "party", which he still did not understand by the end even though the Japanese word for "party" is the same as the English one, and in whose file, out of frustration, ever since then, I've been writing imaginary exchanges between us about philosophy, socialism and labor relations, where for the most part he comes off as a fiercely idealistic neo-Durkheim - this latest Takashi is a gregarious economics professor who bears a stunning resemblance to Jackie Chan and recently claimed the prestigious title of the all-time sleaziest:
It's impossible not to like the guy, but keeping control of a class with him is like chess: you have to see a few moves ahead for the moment when he's going to bring up "erotic sites on the internet", because he always does, and you have to be ready for it, or the class will be off the rails for the next half-hour. I failed disastrously yesterday, when I was trying to teach the students the difference between "bored" / "boring" and "interested" / "interesting". Takashi was on fire, let me tell you. (Also, let me reiterate that he's an economics professor. In Japan. Think about it.)
I'm trying to get some ideas about advanced Engrish theory up and running. My provisional notion is that the moment when a student masters passive voice is the moment when their Engrish ability is finally, irrevocably lost. That's the final forbidden fruit, the last safe harbor of confused subject-verb relations. Once they master subject-verb relations, they cease being able to earnestly announce "I am very dangerous!" when they mean to say "It was very dangerous for me" (in a discussion about car accidents), for example. It helps that I am one of two teachers at my school who's capable of teaching the passive voice effectively, though, and am appropriately selective about when I do it. "Take care when renouncing your magicks," I tell them. "Take care."
August 7, 2003 I have been sulking for a while now over the death and mutant resurrection of my digital camera. It's a serious matter; a dozen tragedies bloom every time I step outside without it. You don't bring a knife to a gun-fight, and you don't go for a walk in Japan (or, as I have been thinking of it these days, Earth-J) with only your eyes as testimony. The camera was stone dead for a while, but when I swapped a borrowed battery into it, it came back to life. Evidently, it had killed both of the lithium-ion batteries I had been using for it. (They won't re-charge any more.) I bought a new battery (for 5000 yen, not chump change), and the camera works, but it drains the battery at a highly accelerated rate, so I have to keep popping the battery in and out while I'm in the field. That will do for now, but it will be a problem for more serious photographic research.
TALES OF THE SLIGHTLY SPOOKY
It feels like that was ten years ago, although I've only been here on Earth-J for two and a half months or so. The only reminders of the first 25 years of my life come through the internet (and grateful I am for it). Everything is strange and different, except for bowling, which is much the same, but louder. This place cheats you and allows you to pull scams on it in equal measure. I support economic sanctions against any country whose fast food joints double the prices of milkshakes once the hot season begins...but I bowled seven games yesterday for 700 yen (roughly $6.40), with several games of pop-a-shot and some skiing video game thrown in as well. It's bewildering. If grad school is a sequel to college, then teaching English in Japan is a three-decades-later remake, amped up with rapid jump-cuts and unnecessary special effects. Everyone's still fucking and drinking, but the townies get a more prominent role, because focus groups liked them in the original.
I get such mixed signals from this place. Some days they love you...
July 12, 2003 Trouble follows me wherever I go. Already, there is controversy. My students adore me, and management keeps threatening to extend my probation. The controversy revolves around a censored bio of me that was briefly in circulation. The Japanese staff at the school, who know fuck-all English - none would be above 7B, our second-lowest level, and most would be 7C, the lowest - started running around taking photos of the teachers without warning or explanation, having decided amongst themselves that it would boost sales if the students could preview the exciting teachers waiting for them at the school. I managed an annoyed smile for the photo. Two days later, the photo and a piece of paper were handed to me during my break with the explanation (in broken English) that I should write about my hobbies. Still annoyed, I wrote that my home-town was Chicago and my hobbies were bowling and getting paid. The staff wanted more, so I ranked my top five animals (monkeys, cats, penguins, pandas and turtles) and then I put on my headphones so they would leave me alone. Two weeks later, at the tail-end of a cuss-out session where management raked me over the coals for teaching 7A #79, gift-giving, in a maverick fashion (fuck it, though, I did what I had to do, those students know how to give gifts with the best of them now, and nobody told me I was going to be observed that day), management also made it known that they didn't like "getting paid" in my bio and they wanted it changed. Evidently, "drinking vodka straight out of the bottle" (as one of the other teachers wrote) is okay, but the wisdom of Schoolly D is unacceptable. Figure that. So, I've been getting the evil eye from management lately. It always happens sooner or later.
But the students are on my side. I was asked to host a two-hour discussion on baseball at the school, so I stayed up all night learning what the hell goes on in Japanese baseball, and the discussion came off like dynamite, although the teenage girls who came in just because they like me were pretty bored and left midway through. (I had everyone in stitches with my analogy between baseball players and Monster Island. "Gamera would be a good catcher, I think," I said. "But there are not enough monsters to play all the positions," Kenji said. "That's okay. King Ghidorah can sit in center field and cover right and left field with his other heads," I replied.) One of my students (one of the A Bathing Ape hip-hop kids) gave me a burned copy of a dead brilliant rap album that purports to be performed by King Ghidorah himself. I don't know anything else about it. The vocals and production sound American. There are all of these movie dialogue samples where officious aliens claim to be controlling King Ghidorah, and then he raps about how they are not, in fact, controlling him. At one point, the aliens announce that they are making Ghidorah and Gigan fight, and then a guest rapper named Gigan comes in and contradicts them by rapping about how he and Ghidorah are friends. ("It's all about me, it's all about you," he says.) Towards the end of the album, when King Ghidorah starts demanding that you "render unto Ghidorah what is Ghidorah's", you know you are in the presence of genius. I haven't been able to find anything on the web by searching for "rap King Ghidorah", but it's fucking good, I tell you.
So: there are troubles, as usual, but I am good, I am relaxed. I have a bike of my own now, and I spend a fair amount of time riding around Kyoto. Say what you will about the morbid obesity of Americans, but there are no people on Earth who consistently make worse navigational decisions than the Japanese. (And I've been to Fargo, so I've been around the block a few times.) They are truly, astonishingly bad at walking on the street, using stairs, really mundane directional affairs that they manage to cock up every chance they're given. It's one thing when you're walking, but riding a bike means that when you see someone approaching, you have three seconds to figure out what the worst possible navigational decision available to that person is, and then you have to figure out what you will do when they make it, which they inevitably do (usually to walk on an angle directly into your path, especially in situations where the opposite angle for you is a brick wall or a river). God help you if you're coming from their peripheral vision. (Or where their peripheral vision ought to be, because they have none, and the elderly have negative peripheral vision, which is one of those things you just have to encounter to understand.) It really stresses me out sometimes. I come home determined to write a really scathing diatribe about it, a three-volume companion to Remembrance of Things Past wherein I remember nothing but shitty navigational decisions made by Japanese pedestrians, but in time I relax, and turn my attention to other things.
Early on, when I lived in Osaka and got lost all the time, I theorized that I could become un-lost simply by following the Japanese, because presumably they knew where they were going. Doesn't work. I'd follow them for ages until we wound up at a wall, which they would bump repeatedly into like a remote control car or one of the one-line-of-dialogue town folk in the early Final Fantasy games. Perhaps they are better at walking in Tokyo.
Okay. Some readers have asked me to clarify what I meant by "panda porn" in the last entry. Here is panda-porn:
I trust you understand what I meant now. There are reasonable uses of pandas, and there are pornographic uses of pandas. That is pornographic. On the more tasteful end of the advertising spectrum comes:
Sharp. If dinosaurs aren't erotically fixated on your back now, they will be. Buy our product.
A couple of shots from around my neighborhood, starting with my house:
And the intersection of Gojo and Kawaramachi, where I live:
(Click on it for full size.) I took the photo, then I swapped places with the little guy and he took a photo. It was all good fun. And that's Japan: good fun, until the erotic fixation becomes apparent, and Kenny Rogers told you what to do at that point: you got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, know when to run.
June 24, 2003 At first, I was only telling my students my bowling average and high score if they asked about it. These days, I figure, fuck it, who cares if they ask? I'll tell them anyway.
I had a tough roster of students today: mostly teenage girls, and a man-to-man lesson in the evening with Fortress Genyuu, a genial middle-aged man with virtually no language skills who retains next to nothing from lesson to lesson and, despite having a good sense of humor about it, looks like he could beat anyone in Japan's ass and may be thinking about doing so after the lesson. I had him draw a floor-plan of his house the other day in a group lesson, but I had no idea what to do with him in a man-to-man lesson, especially seeing as how I'd already told him about my bowling average the day before. (It turned out okay: this time, we had a spirited discussion about days of the week and things you find in kitchens.) It's the teenage girls who really put you through the wringer, though:
Hasty segue notwithstanding, I managed to teach a decent lesson about the subtleties of using "too (hot/cold/etc)" and "not (hot/cold/etc) enough".
ERI'S CAREER CHANGE
She has a point. I don't know how the bad-teeth stereotype got affixed to the English, because I have seen some profoundly fucked sets of teeth among the Japanese.
I should write a few words about our textbooks and teaching system. Students are divided up by level of ability: absolute beginners are 7C, followed by 7B, 7A, 6, 5, 4 and so on. Native fluency is level 2. (Who is level 1? Teachers? God? No one really makes it past 3, so I don't know if it has ever been answered.) There isn't much to do with 3's and 4's other that shoot the shit about baseball or whatever else they want to talk about. (I overheard another teacher leading some 4's in a discussion about ethnic cleansing the other day. Man, I stick to baseball.) With the other levels, you check their file to see what lessons they've had, and you try to find one that's open in common among all of the students (anywhere from 1-4 in each class), or one which they haven't done recently. (There are a ton of 7A students who've done every lesson three or more times but still aren't good enough to level up.) In practice, most teachers only have 5-10 lessons from each level that they're willing to do, but that works out fine, because students are randomly assigned to different teachers every time they come. So, you wind up with a fair amount of students that you've had before, but they've usually had other teachers since you last taught them. Each page of the students' texts has a story, a picture and some grammar point. You use that as a springboard to plan a lesson. There are some that I never get to use (the pseudo-Muhammad Ali one in 7A has always been taught before I get to it, as has level 6 #8, wherein you just have the students fill out a questionnaire about sleep and dreams, and then they chat about it when they're done), but there are a few that I've made my own, such as 7A #43 (how to complain about things), 7A #49 (little vs few, much vs many), 6 #12 (look, feel, taste, hear, smell), 6 #20 (comparative adverbs), so on and so forth. I do think the textbook was designed with the idea that students would be doing these lessons in order, but with the random assignment of teachers and classmates each time out, it's just not possible.
The textbooks are brilliantly outdated. They were written for Spanish ESL students a little over twenty years ago, and for some reason, this Japanese school bought reproduction rights to them. All teachers catch the frequent references to the Soviet Union right away (you get to compare its size to that of East Germany at one point), but there are many hidden delights to be found deeper within, such as the exercise where students are asked to compare the abilities of celebrities (Example: "OJ Simpson is a faster runner...") or the photograph from a record store where Bananarama, U2's "October" and the Police's "Synchronicity" are clearly visible on the new releases shelf. The students seem completely oblivious to it, fortunately, although a handful of the stories do feature characters explicitly informing each other that it's 1983. There's one story where a woman announces that she is going to leave a party because she's almost too drunk to drive, and everyone else harasses her, so she stays, has a few more drinks, and then leaves to drive home. That's just the background of the story, mind you - it doesn't end with a cautionary tale about drunk driving or anything, they just finish the party and leave, with the woman chastened for her party-pooping ways.
On a non-academic note, I found a pair of excellent Engrish t-shirts for 500 yen apiece at a sidewalk sale during my lunch hour. If I return to the United States without an unstoppable armada of bat-shit crazy t-shirts, I have failed. That is my position.
These dapper fellows can be found in one of the subways near my apartment. The train lines are all privatized, run by separate companies, so each has its own decor. Some vary from the norm more than others. Hankyu, my regular line, just has some panda-porn advertisements for tourism in Kobe. I work at a different school sometimes on Thursdays, though, and these guys are all over that train line: a solid forty or so at each subway station. To deny how awesome they are is sheer madness.
June 19, 2003 I am keeping my cool, which is the most important part. Yesterday's sound and fury notwithstanding, life is good, life is relaxed. I am in demand as a teacher and I am getting better at it. Today was my day off. I had agreed to go to Nijo Castle with a housemate, but the rainy season was in full swing when I finally emerged from my bedroom, and I was looking great in my black and silver basketball shorts, so I decided to stay in and lounge around for most of the day. I'm planning to do most of my tourist-ing in the fall, when the heat and humidity abate. For now, I am content to keep my cool.
In the evening, I did some wandering. After a trip to Tower Records, I came upon the 99 Yen Shop for the first time. It is a glorious place, dramatically unlike its dingy American equivalents (dollar stores). Everything from the local supermarket was there, but for the low cost of 99 yen (roughly 85 cents) instead of 300 or 400 yen. It was quite nice; I had to keep reminding myself that if I could see it, I could afford it, because absolutely everything was only 99 yen. The only real drawback was having to listen to an insane theme song on the ceiling muzak in which a high-pitched voice chanted "99 yen" over and over again. The local supermarket plays only the Beatles (and obscure tracks, too, from lesser-known masterpieces like "Yes, It Is" to their absolute nadir, "Girl", but no solo tracks, as far as I can tell, leaving no possibility of the magic that might occur shopping for cold turkey while listening to "Cold Turkey"). I feel bad about abandoning the supermarket, but that's what I have to do. 99 Yen Shops are not to be fucked with. How can they offer such low prices? With no reason whatsoever, I choose to believe that it's something or other to do with the yakuza.
Remember the good old days of Doritos?
Yes, many people forget about the hard-scrabble, working-class origins of this popular corn chip, but old-timers fondly reminisce about the days when Doritos were the product of one man's dream, one man's hard work, and if he didn't make the trip to the market that week, then everyone would have to do without until he did; when Doritos, like our lives, were simpler, less flashy, the pride of a small-town farm community; and when Doritos, like our lives, didn't have that sketchy Mexican air about them.
What's that? You don't remember those days? Strange, neither do I. In many ways, Japan is not another country as much as it is a parallel universe. Of course, I bought the Classic Doritos for 99 yen and brought them home for dinner. As the package promises, each chip is dusted with the all-natural flavor of the back of a sweaty horse, which is to say that they taste sort of like less greasy Fritos. They're kind of thick, also.
More futuristic landscapes for kids:
Why is the lion half-buried? Why is the unhappy face turned towards him? What does this mean? Am I the lion? No one tells me anything.
June 17, 2003
As some of my friends know, when awakened by the phone, I will agree to almost anything in the interest of getting off the phone and going back to sleep. I awoke with horror yesterday morning, realizing that, in order to get the Foreign Personnel Office off the phone, I'd agreed to work a double-shift at the language school. Who takes advantage of a sleeping man like that? A single shift is bad enough, as that gang of heartless manipulators should well know. The work day at a language school is a process of gradual derangement. Everyone you meet speaks fragmented English, and basic concepts of proportion and order do not exist ("My hobby is reading newspaper and climbing mountain", said Nakao), leaving you as the sole bulwark of the reason you remember existing in a land and a life far away from this tiny classroom. You have to keep reminding yourself that these are grammatical errors, not pronouncements of fact. Eight lessons leaves you at your limit but able to walk away under your own power. Anything beyond those eight is a serious risk to your long-term mental health. As I expected, things grew strange as the day wore on. My eyes were glassy, my tie half-cocked. A student, asked why he wanted to learn English, gave a ten-minute, non-stop, completely incoherent dissertation on the study of law throughout Japanese history. Another student announced that she wanted to learn English so she could "marry a foreigner and bear half-Japanese, half-foreigner babies". The usual list of questions - where am I from, do I have a gun, do I have a girlfriend, what do I think about Japanese women - seemed to be coming from somewhere above me, spoken simultaneously on the high-end and the low-end of the audio spectrum, but not the middle. Another woman, dressed seductively, named Mami, announced that she wanted to be a screenwriter, but when she tried to write a scenario, she couldn't sleep because she was always thinking of ideas, so she gave that up and started working at a tire company.
Although I had my umbrella with me, I left it at school and walked home in the rain.
June 10, 2003 I had an unusually large amount of new students yesterday, so I was able to acquire some new data for the ongoing Where Am I From? project. Results skewed close to their historical distribution. One student said New Zealand ("I don't know"), one said Canada ("You seem kind"), two said America ("I don't know", "You look American"), three said England ("You have golden hair" (!), "You are smart", "I don't know"), and four said Australia ("All teachers are from Australia", "I saw Australian and you look like him", "You are tall", "You are handsome").
One drawback to the otherwise pleasant life afforded by residence in Kyoto is the strange lack of crazy t-shirt slogans. T-shirt spotting was the greatest joy of my days in Osaka, my first port of arrival in Japan. People mostly dress in modern outfits here, but for whatever reason, their shirts are usually blank. So it goes. My all-time favorite was on a train in Osaka, on my way to my first day of training. A woman in her twenties wore a tight t-shirt, with the words stretched across her breasts:
SYMBOL OF FARM INDUSTRY
I nearly missed my stop.
But life is good, life is calm. I am gradually expanding the list of foods that I can eat from the local grocery store. It's not quite at double-digits yet, but I think I am hitting the basic nutritional minimums, so that's a relief. I will be able to experiment a little more once my first paycheck arrives. (When you're living on savings, you can't afford to blow 500 yen on a dinner which, regardless of what is shown on the package, may well have fish eyeballs in it.) I am learning not to make purchasing decisions based on the relative enthusiasm of the characters on the packaging, a very important lesson that I struggled with for quite some time. (You wonder if the Calbee pig-looking guy really believes in those chips.) It's widely known that the Japanese are at the vanguard of doing crazy shit with fish, but I didn't realize that this country is also the experimental frontier of baking. They are really quite good at it, offering pastries seen nowhere else, and bakeries are second only to vending machines for sheer ubiquity in some areas. There's a bakery next to my school, and we have to pass it for a second every time we walk up the stairs from the teachers' room to class. Of course, I've had a few profoundly disgusting pastries as well, but for the most part, they are reasonably priced and delicious.
A word about 'delicious': it's been interesting to notice that certain adjectives and adverbs have an almost totemic importance to lower-level students. They learn one way of describing a thing, and they stick with it. Someone taught most of these kids 'delicious' early on, and now everything that tastes okay is 'delicious' to them in role-plays. Yesterday, a steak, a cup of coffee, and some salt were all described as 'delicious'.
A final question:
June 9, 2003 When asked to guess where I am from, here are Japanese students' top five responses, along with the reason most frequently given for the choice:
5. New Zealand ("I have friend in New Zealand")
England is the winner by a mile (and that's always the reason they give). None of the others even come close. I do get a little annoyed with the ones who choose Australia, because they're avoiding the question (no other reason has ever been given for that choice), and thereby screwing with a valuable scientific inquiry. It's true that nearly 90% of the other teachers school-wide are from Australia, but I don't think our branch has more than one or two, due to some quirk of dispersal.
Here is a picture from my old neighborhood, Juso, in Osaka.
Okay. Now, guess where those fighting chums are found.
If you said "the police station", you are probably a crack addict, but in this instance, you are right, and no one can take that away from you. That is the local police station in Juso. Criminals are warned: there's an agreeable bear with a pole in these lands, so watch the fuck out.
May 25, 2003
I will tell you only small things, and from them you will assemble some larger truth, in time, when you have collected enough of them. I know that you can do this.
Holed up in a temporary apartment on my first and second days, peeking at Japan from my balcony, attempting to apply Enigma-machine style decoding techniques to Japanese television, I had to eat eventually, and I gave in around 10am on the second day. I was hoping for some breakfast, but I soon found myself to be fucking hopeless in Japanese convenience stores, and I wound up with a pseudo-orange drink and some semi-barbecued potato chips. That was fine. It could have come off a lot worse, as it did a few days later, when I inadvertently bought a ham sandwich that I swear was deliberately disguised to look like an egg sandwich. (Seriously. There was a ring of egg salad around the outside of the bread, and a sneaky strip of ham on the inside.) There was a plastic bundle wrapped around the neck of the orange drink. Inside was a small plastic statue of a monkey sitting on a plate of spaghetti and lobster tail, opening a clam and looking quite disappointed to find an omelette inside. The inscription on the base of the statue read WORLD MASTERPIECE THEATER II.
I have no internet access at home. I am writing this from an internet cafe on the sixth floor of a shaky warehouse (where the elevator only goes up to the fifth floor), a building surrounded by hip-hop clothing stores and the ubiquitous tiny noodle shops, each with its own handful of silent Japanese men in suits, where even one so cheeky as I does not get the impression he should entertain thoughts of entrance. My actual place of residence is many miles away in Juso, the red light district of Osaka, which is right around the corner from Friendly Street and Very Friendly Street. A building simply entitled "Diary of a Nurse" is nearby. In three days of residence, my roommate Adam is the only other white man I've seen.
Today, while trying to find this place, I saw a woman with a shirt that read THIS BIG NEW WAVE HAS ME VERY EXCITED ABOUT THE FUTURE.
May 6, 2003
I went to Wisconsin for the weekend. I am now back in Chicago, aimlessly stacking things near my luggage and making the occasional trip over to the Japanese consulate, just a few blocks away, right next to the Museum of Contemporary Art. With my apartment lease now expired, I am living in my mother's penthouse downtown, always a curious transition no matter where I'm coming from. I never know what to do about the doormen. I really prefer to open my own doors, but it seems kind of vicious to disregard the only thing they are being paid to do. They always get up from their chairs before I can open the door myself, so it would be a shithead move to wave them off when they're already on their feet, but then I have to wait for several seconds until they reach the door, seconds in which, as an able-bodied human being, I ought to be opening the door for myself. It's all very awkward, and I am tired of hearing about the suffering of Iraqi children when I am made to endure such things.
Last week was quite busy. Tuesday was my last day at work. Because he gave me a bonus check, I allowed the rabbi to recast our mutual history as one of shared prosperity and joy in various reminisces public and private. My replacement at the job is an excellent fellow who stands as good a chance as anyone at succeeding in the job. He was beginning to look quite overwhelmed by the time I left on Tuesday, but that will happen to you around the time you encounter the seventh alternate spelling of Hanukkah and begin to wonder if you're responsible for knowing which fits which context. My only concern is that I'm not sure if he has the ruthless streak that allowed me to handle those situations (immediately ceasing all work until someone comes by to explain it to me, or simply writing I DON'T KNOW, THIS WAS SECRETLY WRITTEN BY A GENTILE instead of the word). But they certainly did reduce me to a formula in the hiring process, because they chose another non-religious white kid with a Germanic last name and a background in literature from a state school. So I hope it works out for everyone. I keep meaning to call over there to find out how things are going, but then I keep not doing it.
The exit interview was tame. The HR director pre-emptively announced that the rabbi was a pain in the ass and that I'd done a splendid job with him, and also that my replacement was making $4000 less than I started at, so they'd prefer if I didn't mention that to him. (Did I fuck! Homey don't play no conspiracies of silence.)
The day was chock full of poignant moments. The rabbi announced that he'd be taking me to lunch, and then he didn't. He implied that my replacement would be far easier to deal with than me, and later he whispered that he wasn't sure if my replacement "was all there" and wanted reassurance. People with whom I had no relationship whatsoever began chatting with me about the trip to Japan as if we were old friends. They did the same thing when I grew a beard. Then, I replied with some of the most powerful set of blank stares yet unleashed within city limits. This time, I just shrugged and agreed that, yes, it was pretty exciting. (I mean, it is.) Several people requested that I speak some Japanese for them. I don't know any, but rather than take the time to explain that the job doesn't call for me to speak the language, I got in the habit of stringing together the few words I know, like dorobo saru no kansai, and claiming that I'd complimented them on their clothing, when in fact, I was referring to a thief monkey belonging to the region south of Tokyo. They tended to think it was great. I do what I can. The rabbi announced that if I ever got into legal trouble, I could call him and he'd help me out. (Everyone thinks I am always on the verge of trouble. Four people contacted me to make sure I behaved during the exit interview.) He thanked me for two and a half years of remarkable service and said that, from a substantive perspective, I was the best help he'd ever had during his thirty years in Jewish communal service. In truth, I was only there for one and a half years. As for the other statement, I will allow it to stand on its own. I hope things go well for my replacement. He really seemed like a great guy.
As I walked out of the building, people kept coming up to me and telling me what an amazing job I'd done handling the rabbi, and how I was the best they'd ever seen at it. It was all very surreal.
There were no such poignant goodbyes on my way out of THE LAND OF THE DOUBLE BONE HARD NIGGAZ, although they made their peace in ways traditional to the neighborhood, such as double-parking alongside the moving van (thereby blocking the entire street), continuing to holler at each other at all hours (yelling through windows: the original cell-phone), and, perhaps sweetest of all, making off with my toaster. I left it on a box near the dumpster because I wasn't planning to keep it, and sure enough, the toaster was gone less than an hour later. God bless Rogers Park.
And so, as I sit here in my mother's place downtown eating applesauce, writing out in the dining room because all of the other phone jacks are blocked by bookcases, I am led to reflect upon the time, many years ago, as an angry young boy, I spooned a bunch of applesauce into one of my stepfather's books, closed it real fast and replaced it on the bookshelf. It was never mentioned. Has he not opened that book in the seventeen years since that act of guerilla vengeance? I don't even remember which one it was.
I leave on May 19 for San Francisco and May 21 for Osaka.
March 25, 2003 At last, there is another movie where an adorable, insouciant American moppet goes overseas and teaches the English not to be so stuffy and proper, and also the tremendous importance of livening up formal events by doing spontaneous synchronized dance routines to contemporary pop hits. It's been nearly a year since the last entry in this valuable cultural exchange, and past experience has shown that, no matter how comprehensively the film establishes its message, the English tend to forget these valuable lessons if left alone for more than six months, and need another one as a reminder. Do the English make films where charming, insouciant English moppets come overseas and teach the Americans to use silverware and stop drinking out of the toilet? They owe us that much. Meanwhile, the wait for summer 2003's blockbuster Vin Diesel Hits French People seems as though it will never end.
Fuck it; I am going to Japan. I have had it with the rabbi, with freedom fries, and with the Los Angeles Lakers. I am leaving in mid-May, when my apartment lease is up. I tell you no lies when I say this. I am going to teach Godzilla how to express his frustration in ways other than destroying buildings. I am going to gently imply that he went out like a punk in Godzilla 1985, and he should have known better. I am going to make like a new jack Raymond Burr. I have some plans for putting this shit back together. Some will ask if I know any Japanese. I will reply that I been reading some books, and 'monkey' is 'saru' in Romanji, so I am not tripping.
(news) The Arkansas opening will leave only Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia as the remaining Starbucks-less states.
Well, that's interesting.
The Jewish holiday of Purim came and went last week. It celebrates the Jews' victory over the wicked Haman, an advisor to the King of Persia who schemed against them in the 6th century. Feathers get seriously fucking ruffled if you forget to attach 'wicked' to the name of Haman. Insouciant as I am, I could tell immediately not to mess around with that one. I know how to choose my battles. I am drawing up some strategies against those guys in ape suits from "Spectreman".
November 25, 2002 Conversation overheard between two guys sitting near me in a restaurant:
As a man, the AUTHOR, eats Chinese food, another man, the CRITIC, looks up from a laptop.
CRITIC: It's good. You just need to proofread a little bit. Like here. You misspelled 'killers'.
(news) "The monkey is a tough opponent," huffed a police officer in Kagoshima, where the child was bitten in September by a monkey that eluded police. "He appears and disappears like a ghost. Today, he may appear on the top of a roof. Tomorrow, he may be somewhere else. "We couldn't capture him," the officer admitted. But, he added, "we couldn't have charged him either."
The above article, about monkeys causing trouble in Japan, is essential reading for two reasons: for the antics of the monkeys, of course, but also for its role in the ongoing dialectic of the representation of the monkey, a field in which I am the world's foremost expert. The article is an important text because it highlights the struggle of modern man to write seriously about problems caused by monkeys. Clearly, these monkeys are causing problems for the villagers, and clearly, the author would like to do justice to their plight, but he can't help himself, adding qualifiers such as 'huffed' to a police officer's speech. I think it is a spectacular piece of writing, myself, but perhaps I'd feel differently if they were my crops. Well, probably not. I'd go out to eat.
(news) "We have improved from last season … [but] we have to find a way to salvage victories," Rose said. "That's really the only way for us to grow as a unit. Anytime you don't have victory, it breeds all kinds of evil."
I love it when athletes become incredibly serious and start phrasing sports in terms of basic, profound moral concepts such as good and evil. Man, here's for the home team.
October 21, 2002 Some readers may be wondering which of my kidneys I plan to sell in order to acquire the new fighting Japanese monsters video game for the GameCube. The answer to that question is "the left one, because I have had enough of its loafing."
September 17, 2002 (news) In an astonishing concession, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il confirmed Tuesday that Japanese citizens were kidnapped decades ago to teach language and culture to spies. Kim said at least four of the victims were still alive and might be allowed to return home. Ending years of denials, Kim admitted the kidnappings during a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Kim said about a dozen Japanese were kidnapped by North Korean agents, acknowledging the abductions were "regrettable and would never happen again." Kim said those responsible would be punished. "I strongly protested the abductions," Koizumi said in a news conference, adding that Kim apologized. "Kim said it was done by elements in the military, and an investigation was underway." "I thought we had to hold talks to improve relations between Japan and North Korea. But my heart aches when I consider how the families must feel," Koizumi said. "This happened over decades of hostile relations and I want to talk about it frankly," Kim was quoted as telling Koizumi by a Japanese delegation official who briefed reporters afterward. "I want to apologize and it will never be allowed to happen again."
I hate to fall into a familiar refrain, because I know I've been over this before, but I want to know when the American government is going to apologize for kidnapping me decades ago in order to teach martial arts and fighting techniques to spies. North Korea owned up to what it did. What about you, Mr. Bush? I had shit to do, and y'all kidnapped me. Does your heart ache when you consider how my peeps must feel? It should.
Please, then, everyone ask me what I atoned for. I'll even give you my work phone number if you'd prefer to ask by phone. Let's not let this day slip away.
July 17, 2001
I found an old Tandy monitor out in the alley, so I brought it back into my apartment with me. I don't know what I'm going to do with it yet, but, knowing me, it will probably be brilliant, insightful and part of a delightful romp. It could be a trap, though. Someone could have set me up the bomb !! Or the monitor might be a trojan horse type deal to smuggle in a secret assassin! Who is very, very short! And cubic! Shit.
If you would like to see me on the big screen, come to the Chicago Short Comedy Film Festival this Thursday, July 19th. I am in a film called "Outside the Box" that is part of the 7:30 show - ours is the photo on the bottom left, and that's me on the right. All of the films other than ours are quite short, so even if they are terrible, they will be over quickly. They will probably be good, though, given the people who made them. (See the festival webpage for more.) Ours is okay. It's at the Biograph Theater in Chicago, which is where John Dillinger was shot. For those of you whose eyes just lit up with the idea that that would be a great place to shoot me, please do not. The movie will be fun, but it's not really the artistic achievement I want to go out on. I will keep you updated with more suitable opportunities to shoot me as they arise.
(email) Incidentally, I ran into Ichihiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki after their shutout game against Cincinnati.
"Nice teamwork, fellow!" I congratulated them.
"Tell 'I woke up' Marc to get up our cases," said Ichihiro.
"Yes," said Kazuhiro, "Why his pressure of us to home runs and strikeouts? He is stringer for Asahi Shimbun?"
"What you say!" I said. "Marc's respect is all are having for you! When several gentlemen come together it is for number 51 with great dignity."
"You are right," said Kazuhiro. "I have a lot of feeling."
"I'll," agreed Ichihiro.
The road to healing is a long one.
July 16, 2001
I noticed something, and I want you to know, because I don't think most people know about this, and it's going to change a few things around here: bottle caps, the kind that are on 20oz bottles of soda, that you can buy in convenience stores, of the plastic variety, you can use them with a different bottle of soda than the one they came with. Okay. That was the shittiest revelation ever.
Idea for a viral marketing campaign: choose your target demographic, go to where they live, and litter the entire area with used (therefore low-cost) samples of your product to imply that it is widely employed within that demographic. The goal of Mountain Dew Code Red is to increase the Mountain Dew brand's numbers with black people, according to the pre-release advertising materials around the office of the last place I worked, an ad department, and I live in a strange schizophrenic area where black people are on some blocks (which happen to be run-down) and white people are on other blocks (which happen to be well-maintained), and though I have never seen any black people drinking Mountain Dew Code Red, which is not to say that I haven't seen black people drinking things, because I have seen many black people drinking many things out front on the stoop and in the park down the block, over the course of one week there were a shitload of empty bottles of Mountain Dew Code Red strategically placed and neatly spaced out in the gutters on the blocks with black people, and then there were no more, and never has there been another one. It was odd. If it was an actual campaign, it didn't work, I guess. Were you able to follow that sentence? Writing it was a pleasant, lilting experience.
(baseball) After the game, (Ichiro) Suzuki was asked about making contributions with his defense, while he is struggling on offense. "That's a question the Japanese media would ask," said Suzuki, who is boycotting the Japanese media along with (Kazuhiro) Sasaki, his countryman.
Ichiro! How can you say that? I would never ask a question like that. I challenge anyone to provide an example of me asking that sort of question. Now I'm starting to wonder if Ichiro is just making excuses to avoid talking to me and the rest of the Japanese media. Regardless, I will continue to keep up my end of the bargain. Ichiro has indeed been struggling at the plate, although in light of his fine achievements this season, it would be petty to complain. He will get back on track. Kazuhiro, however, is at the top of his game. Kalamazoo Kazu, as he could be nicknamed if he had anything to do with the city of Kalamazoo, MI, pitched in the ninth inning of a recent game and earned a 'save' for ensuring the victory. Huzzah!
When I grow up, there will be dancing bears.
July 13, 2001
Are you alright? You look tired.
(news) All-Stars Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki are fed up with the Japanese media covering their play with the Seattle Mariners. The two players from Japan issued a joint statement Thursday saying they will not talk to the Japanese press corps until further notice. "Their position is that it's important their privacy away from the ballpark be respected," said Tim Hevly, director of media relations for the Mariners. "And until such time they feel the Japanese media gives them that respect, they will be unable to speak with Japanese media."
I know that I wouldn't be traditionally classified as part of the Japanese media, but I can't help but feel bad about this. I admit, I have probably not given Ichiro and Kazuhiro the respect they deserve. My relationship with both of them, especially Kazuhiro, has been tenuous at best. They have achieved many things: home runs, strikeouts, nominations to All-Star teams. I have given those achievements no mention on this webpage, speaking instead about monkeys, many of whom are unambitious and content to let the Yankees of New York retain their World Series crown unchallenged, unlike Ichiro and Kazuhiro, who work very hard toward that end and deserve respect that the "Japanese media", aka I woke up in a strange place, has not given them. Ichi? Kazu? I'm sorry. I think it's great what you've done. From now on, I will talk about Ichiro and Kazuhiro instead of monkeys. Let the healing begin.
If there was any way to do a Man On The Street segment on this webpage without recalling the Onion, I would do one, and I would ask everyone why they are trying to kill me, because I'd really like to know about that.
I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.
Antarctica, Beelzetron, Books, Chicago, College, Communism, Food, Internet, Japan, Manute Bol, Monkeys and Apes, North Korea, Oregon Trail, Outer Space, Panda Porn, Politics, RabbiTech, Shakespeare, Sports, Texas.
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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.