Monday, January 24, 2011

JLPT in Kagoshima, 4th Dec weekend

3rd. Today I went to Kagoshima with Devon for the JLPT test. I hadn’t really thought of it as a holiday, because it is, obviously, a test. But a holiday it turned out to be! It’s easy to forget how relaxing it can be to go somewhere new. Even if it is not far (this is the neighbouring prefecture) it’s nice to go somewhere unfamiliar and not feel like you have to learn it by heart. The whole place just happens to you.

Anyway. This is a city. I’m learning that city here often means “was once a city and is now a building-ed ghost town with 50 million snack bars for people to sit in” but this one was pretty sweet. It had a mall, and pretty Christmas lights, and a big festive tree. It also had a volcano. As in, from most places in the city you could see a mountain that regularly sent out a big plume of boiling grey cloud.

Because we left Miyazaki on Friday, we got in quite late. We were pretty excited to be there though, so we got some Purikura and went to see Harry Potter. Movie theaters are pretty rare for me so I don’t care how much I pay. If you get in quickly, you can see English movies (provided they are hyped up enough to make it here) in the small window between English with Japanese subtitles and Japanese dubbed with no subtitles. Chur.

I really liked the buzz of this place. I think I like the buzz of all big cities, enough to live in one - provided I am rich enough to live in a clinical apartment with one piece of furniture and hurry along with Starbucks and an expensive coat. Screw being poor in a city. Or having a cosy cluttery home with soul. That said, while this is the dream I am happy to stick out the reality, which is (all times that I have lived in a city) living in a frozen house on the sunless side of the mountain, catching busses, and having the rubbish pile up outside.

4th. Right. Next day – whole day spent shopping. I spent more than I have ever spent on things. Considering I can generally barely muster the energy to buy a new pack of clothespegs I have little to no guilt over this. I accidentally asked to try on a pair of \40,000 shoes, but thankfully we could rely on my giant feet and their inability to squeeze into anything below a Japanese triple large as a way out. We also had the local specialty, “shirokuma” – lit. “polar bear” a type of dessert made of shaved ice and some delicious sort of sauce poured over it. Ten times bigger and more spectacular than it sounds.

Lovely Indian dinner. It seems the only way I can get mutton here is to have it in an “exotic” foreign dish such as curry. I’m just glad I can find it at all. In talking about this, my Vice principle was like, “You eat SHEEP MEAT in NZ?” When I asked if it was common in Japan, he wrinkled his nose (*figure of speech, Japanese don’t actually wrinkle their noses and laugh at me when I do) and said “Only in Hokkaido”. Like the horse meat in Kagoshima, sheep meat is the quirk of a prefecture, not a valid food source.

Test day. Begins with a starbucks run and study, where we saw a few other foreigners with JLPT books. Foreigners are so exciting to me now I could not stop myself going over to chat with them. “Omg you’re foreign? Me too!” (Not actually what I said but we all know it’s what I mean).

Alright, test itself. Spent ages wandering around a building which happened to be my building. I think it says something about my deservedness to pass a test when I cannot understand the instructions TO the test. Made friends with 2 of the 8 people in my level. The first section (reading and Kanji) was difficult, but not bad. I could understand what was going on and even pick up on little tricks they were throwing out there. 15 questions in the examiner yelped “pencils down!” and I realized I’d failed. There were no clocks in the room, and I have never run over time for a test in my life. Alas, it happened. Considering you need 60% per section to pass, you can imagine my torment at having to sit through the next two sections. Added to this was the 20min break they made us take between each section, which gave me just enough time to go to the toilet, see it was a squat toilet, realize I was in Japan away from everyone who loved me, and contemplate quite seriously just going to the hotel and its mini bar. Then I realized it would probably just be full of green tea. My fits of melancholy are nothing if not comical in their excesses (which saves me from entertaining them seriously).

Anyway. Back to the next section, grammar. I spent the first 5minutes staring and telling myself to stop being such an ass and just do the thing. I could not concentrate at all, and spent most of my time wondering what the time was and if I should start scribbling in blanks. In the next break, I made friends with another girl who I bonded with over the ludicrous fact that in being tested on such basic Japanese, all our instructions were in ornate and obscure Japanese terms – no English. The listening section was the easiest section, but the first 10minutes I was panicking that I couldn’t understand it, before I realized that what I was hearing were the instructions on how to take the test and the questions hadn’t actually started yet.

I think, objectively, if I had passed I would have felt as if I had cheated the system, as my level simply was not enough. Of course, on the day all I wanted to do was go and drink my heart out, perhaps administer some lashings to the mantra “I will not punch above my weight”. But then someone started talking to me outside the building, a Japanese guy who had just spent 8 months in Australia. Usually I want to cope with things on my own, but just to hear about his culture shock (could he have known a squat toilet had destroyed my will to live barely an hour prior?) was really touching.

Devon and I then went for a lovely dinner (wine) at the top of the mall, overlooking the city and facing the volcano Sakurajima, which decided to have a wee grumble directly at sunset for our viewing pleasure. Out for a couple drinks, met up with English Lily from the test and a Kiwi girl called Kat. It was refreshing to see new faces. Particularly good was recognizing Kiwi female values/communication styles in each other and as a result feel normal instead of some kind of constant shock to the sensibilities of all other nations.

So the weekend, while test-oriented and very briefly ego shattering, actually turned into a lovely holiday with some beautiful new sights, people, and even the invitation to return. Yay!

Dec 1st to 3rd at work

Hot slimy gas heater day today. We have three in our staffroom, that throw out heat to a 2 metre radius and make the windows and your skin slime up from any other distance. Reminds me of the time we bought a gas heater in Wellington, and it reeked like an explosion waiting to happen and you got a headache as soon as you left the room. Worth it.

Went to Jodo in the city today. I know roughly 800 words and still cannot understand simple conversation. Sigh. Apparently though, I have been the subject of discussion at council. Lord knows why. Got to see how Jodo actually looks when you don’t suck at it, which was cool. It is a defensive sport with a Jo (staff) against a katana (sword) so it’s interesting to be learning sword work (Kendo) and how to defend myself against it with a stick (Jodo).

Stayed in the city, got horrifically lost but enjoyed myself milling around a red-lanterned district. It reminded me a lot of Tokyo, with tiny wee alleyways and just hundreds of wee bars and food places. I don’t know how people ever manage to choose favourites out of these places.

Caught the last part of the French lesson after my sweet little adventure. It’s such a nice atmosphere there, everyone is lovely and supportive of each other and it is such a different thing to be doing. I still can’t believe I willingly go to extracurricular activities for no reason, particularly those that I actively avoided in school (ie. Physical exercise and language).

From here we went to Andre’s, a German person who has made a life for himself in Japan. I wonder what it’s like for the people who have done this, to have different JETs constantly flitting in and out. The biggest year or two of our lives is just a little interruption in theirs. Someone asked me what I liked about Japanese men, and I launched into my usual spiel about dignity, strength, subtle but hilarious humour, etc. At the end of this he said, “I think, you like a dream of Japanese man.” Haha. Too right. But this did reinforce my last point, about the humour. It clicks so well with me. I love it. Not the game-show type, but just little conversational things like that, a tiny reference to a giant background context, usually of some sweet universal theory.

5am train home. 7.30am bike to my house. 8am bike to work. Then a full workday on a body so tired it was having trouble separating dreams from reality. Still, who else can say that at their workplace they can sit at their desk, complete with blanket, soup, cocoa, lovely coworkers and 9 books? Which is the number I have received thus far from my supervisor. He gives them to me for everything, information about Japan, study, breaks from study, even two books for “when you are sick of Japanese AND English” which are written entirely in pictures.

Brought in marmite for my coworkers.
“What is the opposite of splendid?”
“Um. Terrible?”
“Ah. This is. Terrible.”
(laughs) “It has yeast in it”
“Ah. It tastes like something we… throw up. And, yeast.”

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Let's enjoy! Mammoth post to cover the rest of November, including worktrip to Kumamoto

“What is this?”
“That’s a persimmon.”
“Ah. There is, a box of persimmons, downstairs.”
“Oh..” (Hoping I won’t have to admit to my general dislike of all fruit)
“They are, good for.. hangovers.”
“Oh!” (Re-thinking my stance on fruit)
Some time passes. I forget about the persimmons. Then, a bulging bag is plonked on my desk.
“The persimmons… wanted to see you.”
Guess I’m back on the fruit train.

Thanksgiving! Not mine, but I’m always willing to jump on a holiday bandwagon. Particularly if it involves eating until your skin hurts. Haven’t had pumpkin pie or s’mores in YEARS.

Jodo today. It’s cold! Imagine a cold NZ winter day. Then imagine being in bare feet and going through slow, controlled, movements. You can’t even jiggle to keep warm. Jodo and Kendo are great, when I am at each they make me wish I was at the other. Perfect balance.

Today’s most profound student notebook: “I am angry. Because, I am hungry.” Me too, kid.

My class was really quiet today. That all changed when I drew a Kiwi on the board to illustrate a point and they collapsed into laughter. Sigh.

Worktrip! 2pm, on the bus with 10 other teachers. 2.10pm, first beer opened. Felt like going on a school camp, with all the turning round on seats to gossip, and lollies being passed around. Except of course we’re adults and drinking alcohol. 3.10pm – bladder implodes. Not really on casual enough terms with my coworkers to squeal about it, and not really on casual enough terms with Japan to squat on its roads. Suffered in relative silence. 3.20, toilet stop. 3.21, another beer. Do I never learn?

Stopped at a castle ruin, which is much like the one I live near, in that that there is no actual castle. Still, cool to walk up the terraces and imagine who placed every giant stone in the wall, how tired invaders would be once they got to the top. Being autumn, there were some BEAUTIFUL colours out, and the sun was setting so it was just perfect. I love how the males here get so worked up over nature. I could not ever imagine NZ blokes clustered around a leaf exclaiming at it. I’ll be watching a conversation, and suddenly the male will just stiffen up, gazing into the distance. He will vaguely (but politely) finish the conversation, then hurry over to the tree that his caught his eye to get a closer look at the latest hue. I love it.

The inn we stayed in was 101 years old, and had not changed in that time. It was extremely traditional, with tatami, slippers, and yukata for wearing the entire time you are inside. The service was so intense, we were waited on like ancient lords. It also had an onsen, which was my first naked onsen experience. With my coworkers. Once I found out men and women were separated however, it could not have been easier.

We then had a fancy dinner which consisted of millions of tiny traditional cubes of brightly coloured things, whole fish, and nabe. I was asked to do the kanpai, which was lovely! My glass was never empty and we got some hilarious photos of people filling it up, being polite, but looking sleazy. Then… Karaoke. There were like 10 english songs, one of these being Celine Dion. Unfortunately, 10 years of drinking, smoking, cackling and hollering have passed since my sweet voiced days of choir youth, and I ended up pretty much just yelling into the microphone. What I lack in quality of noise I make up for in quantity. Nevertheless, I got uproarious applause, cries of “beautiful!” and my personal fave, “the other guests thought you were Celine Dion!” (Meaning, of course, that the other guests could hear me). Now, I could fall into a culture shocked despair that while in Japan I will never really know what people think of me, or I could embrace the deceit and turn into a misled (albeit happy) asshole. I choose to embrace.

Right. More beers. Someone interrupted my conversation with a teacher to point out “your face is half of his face.” They then told me they were part of the BFA – Big Face Association. But the teacher I was talking to was part of the SHPA – Sexual Harassment Promotion Association. I don’t think I have laughed so hard in Japan. Then they told me the loudest teacher in the staffroom (who has a wee pot) has “…a monster inside him.”

We then took the drinking to our room, where we all clustered around a tiny table and I was given Extreme Drunk Japanese 101. I actually learnt a whole lot! The gym teachers decided they are going to talk to me slowly in Japanese in the staffroom. Then they got carried away and were like “English teachers! No English for Tiffany! Only Japanese!” Some of the teachers asked if I was lonely. It was really heartening to know I am thought of. The night ended with “To understand, not important. To listen, most important thing.” Awe.
Rolled out our futons and slept like little kids!

Up early. Another naked onsen before breakky. Breakfast, a huge tray of tiny pretty things + rice + soup. I had decided for the weekend I would eat as the Japanese do. By lunchtime I was dying for a biscuit. First beer at 9am.

Off to the soy and miso factory, which had a warm peaty smell. It was strangely comforting, and reminded me of the idea that we are addicted to grains, to feeling full.

Went rafting! Not extreme white water rafting, as I thought, but more of a gentle river float. Still, was nice. Before we got on, the female teachers were like, “drink? Male teachers are having beer. Female teachers, tea.” Sigh. Tea then. It was super cold on the boat so one of the teachers made his jacket into a wind barrier and four of us huddled under it. The driver of the boat was talking loudly about the gaijin in Japanese, and everyone was like ahaha! Then he came and asked for a photo, because he thought I was Sharapova. And the head grows.

On to an underground cave! Reminded me of Waitomo, except we had no guide and were allowed to run amok and take photos as we pleased. We took some stairs right up to the very top of a giant underground cavern, which was a weird, vertigo-tastic but technically not above ground feeling.

Bus ride home time. We watched a Japanese comedy, that reminded me heaps of Pio. Some parts had me laughing, and I didn’t understand a word.

Back to work! There was a big staff meeting and everyone left, but supervisor turned to me on his way out and said “alone. You can dance.”

Was lent a bunch of books from my supervisor today. There is a series called “Gon” which is about a baby dinosaur who takes himself seriously. It’s all in pictures. In describing the dinosaur he said, “very innocent. Very selfish”. Odd, to think of the two traits together. But I can think of many people who share them.