Thursday, February 24, 2011

San Francisco Trip Part 1: 27th-29th December

Got up at 6am for the epic trek to the railway station, as I don’t know how to call a taxi and happen to live at the foot of a mountain. Barely 10min from my house (lugging a giant suitcase down a gravelly rice paddy road) a teacher pulled up and offered me a ride. When he put my suitcase in the back I saw camping gear. Excited, I asked “Oh where are you going?!” He said, “work.”

So I began my first leg of the journey (train) and had a lovely coffee at Miyazaki airport looking out at the planes coming and going. This is the first time I have ever done self-instigated and organised travel and it was a cool feeling. I was of course the only foreigner on the plane out of Miyazaki. In fact, the only one in Miyazaki airport. Upon arriving in Tokyo I was pretty terrified of missing my connecting flight, but luckily a man next to me helped me find the transfer bus and told me to come hangout sometime. All Gaijin are escorts. The transfer took an hour but I was so giddy that there were 4 foreigners on the bus who I did not know that I barely noticed. Of course I did the Inaka thing and stared. Blatantly. I got to the next airport with literally 10min to spare, as in, I checked in, walked away, and the loudspeaker announced the final call for that flight. So lucky. As I went through security my shochu gift was taken off me, which was pretty gutting as it was PREMIUM but I was so happy to make the flight I gave it to the security guard saying “gift”. He probably tipped it out, but I like to think he has a little trashy side akin to finding alcohol in the motel rooms you are cleaning and took it home to his family. One looks for similarities wherever one goes.

Right so the flight was a good 11 hours, surprisingly didn’t go too badly. At about midnight they served us breakfast, which was an uncanny feeling. When I got to America, I was so happy. I smiled at all the security guards and told the customs officer how excited I was to see my host family again. She grimaced somewhat encouragingly. I couldn’t find where I needed to go, so I wandered around for awhile, and then realized halfway down an escalator, I can ask somebody. No gesturing, dictionary rifling, bowing or hopefully tossing out irrelevant words of Japanese in the hopes of magic. So I did, and the flood of English that came back at me was like jumping into a glorious river of sound.

This novelty continued. When I went to get some food, I was nervous in line. I hadn’t bought anything in English in 6 months. I’d forgotten the pleasantries, the structure. I was afraid that because the café lady wasn’t Japanese, she wouldn’t fall all over herself to serve me and thus would render me helpless. When I got my muffin I realized I had forgotten to tip so on my way out I tipped like $5. While I was waiting I saw two people casually drop their rubbish on the ground while they were walking and heard a family arguing at a table. The fact that this initially shocked me almost instantly amused me. I eventually fell asleep on my suitcase.

A couple hours later I saw a girl in sunglasses waving at me from the escalator. It was just like the first time I met the Noyes family, Skatie calling my name from across an airport. And then behind her, the rest of the family. As soon as we got close enough to talk, all nervousness disappeared and it was like I had never left. It was such a surreal mixture of exhaustion and excitement that before I knew it I was bundled into a (giant) American car and we were on our way.

From here on out I don’t have much to say, and it’s all out of order, because I was having such a good time that I didn’t want to dilute it by writing it down. So I’m pretty much just going to copy word for word what I –did- write. Beginning with "JOHN IS NOW RIDICULOUSLY TALL."

We stopped at a café before we got to the house and I had my first American burger (where the salad is served outside the bun) in about 5 years. In fact most of the food and experiences from this holiday were the “first in 5 years”. Down the hatch it all went, probably my first warning of the eventual “you didn’t have that tummy before Christmas” observation that was made from a JET on my return. Worth it! Indeed, my next memory from today is getting a giant hunk of lamb from the neighbouring Mart of Glorious Foods as dubbed by my host brother James. We’ve been hanging out four hours and already it’s back to “host sisters” “host brothers” (as if it would ever really change). Completely destroyed by red meat and being awake for two days, I fell asleep.

…To wake up at 1.30pm the next day, meet (and in some cases, re-meet) a room full of family, and head out to a brewery with Nick, James and Skatie. This has probably been the biggest change since I was here last, in that I can legally have a social drink now. It’s nice to be able to relax on that point. So we tried a bunch of different beers, one that tasted like coffee, and another that tasted like marmite which is understandable seeing as it’s a fun Kiwi pastime to convince international people that Marmite is made from the run-off of beer. (Small country = easy entertainment). The tour guides were great, reminded me of bartenders back home with the friendly but no nonsense attitude. It’s nice to be told explicitly what is and isn’t okay, coming from Japan where a glance or a light suggestion are about the extent of the guidelines.

From here straight out to dinner with a large part of the family. It was a lovely night of just straight catching up, getting to know the rest of the family, perfect food and wine. When we got back I stayed up to watch trashy TV with Skatie, which is something I never thought I would miss but happens to be my kryptonite. Highlights included “Teen Mom” and “I Used to be Fat”. Bed, then up at 3am for a jetlagged wander before going back to bed and sleeping until 1 again.

Woke up and looked at the beautiful view with Shana, and had a really enlightening conversation about moving schools and countries. Something I always regretted from my exchange year had been my lack of knowledge about culture shock (and consequent effect on my confidence). Both of these came with age and most likely couldn’t have been helped, but it means so much to me to be able to come back and see my host family again as a fully fleshed personality, rather than a teenager – and with an understanding of not only how I was as an exchange student but how I am able to improve on that now.

The most important thing, I have realized, is honesty. Honesty as in, not lying, has always been pretty standard. But in America there is a version of honesty that I think a lot of countries don’t follow so much. This is honesty of where you are coming from and why. Americans become frustrated in places like Japan because they are so vague. And Japanese (and other cultures) can become uncomfortable in America, because of the difference in communication style, the openness to “private” information, the honesty of emotion and reasons for conflict. I know I did. But to have a year-long background in getting used to this, and being able to apply that understanding now, it’s something I can draw on for the rest of my life. I feel like I can communicate directly AND indirectly, if I need to.

Anyway, I got off topic, we talked mostly about the differences between (among communicative style of countries) that of different types of schools also. Suburban schools, with all their amazing teachers and resources, can be hard to make friends in – because the people within them already have all they need. I was incredibly lucky to meet the people I did, and am grateful that they took the time to have an interest. Also, moving in itself is something we don’t give people enough credit for. It’s hard and I think it makes you strong in a very significant way. The courage to eat alone, for instance.

Alright back to actual events. Today I went on an outing with Shana and Skatie. This was something I really miss in Japan, the instant camaraderie between females. Of course there is the same in Japan, but again with the communication you don’t make it quite so inherently clear. We went for a look around the military housing, which was a really beautiful area. You can feel the care in the streets for the families, if that makes sense. A huge feeling of community, to make up for the one person (or more) leaving the household for long amounts of time.

Shopping with Noyeses is always an experience. Particularly at places where you normally have to make an appointment to go shopping. I found a pair of beautiful shoes, only to turn them over and realize they cost more than my return ticket. Still, the experience is one I enjoy, and will probably have limited access to (until I have done something fame-ensuring). A boozy lunch (another thing I miss) and securing the hate of our waiter later, we continued shopping. What made it even better was finding out we were shopping for clothes to wear in New York, because Shana had just written a book – which happens to be my childhood dream. The book is called “Getting to Know your Kid”, if anyone is interested. If it’s anything like her conversation you should be!

Back to the house, I saw Emma for the first time in 5 years. Nearly cried she has become so mature and beautiful! We all got onto a ferry to head into San Francisco city. It was indescribable to approach the skyline across the water, with absolutely nothing to mar your view. It brought me back to living with the Noyeses, where every few weeks there would be something like this to be disbelieved, grateful for the (near random) chance to have ever seen.
Dinner was a lovely night, again with a lot of family, lighting, wine, waiters, perfect food. I spoke a lot about Japan with James and Shana, along with some more risque topics. We also talked about me studying a semester or so in the states, which is something I hadn’t really considered but am becoming more and more excited about. Despite our differences I seem to fit there, somehow. After this we wandered back to the pier and onto the ferry. A magical night – excuse the cliché.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Dec 19th-22nd Birthday and Work Bon-enkai

Washing. Skype. Sleep.

20. Had an awful morning, realized I’d left my bike in the next town, ran to work late, forgot wallet and food. Hunger rage started at about midday. At cleaning time my supervisor came up to me and was like “are you… Depressed?” I had to laugh. Then a student brought me a Christmas cake she had made herself because I give her extra English help. I can’t be in a bad mood here if I try. On my way home Kelly picked me up, screaming to a halt around the corner and throwing a chocolate bar at me with a quick “eat this.” She understands.

21. The happy birthdays started at 8.03pm yesterday and continued all through the night, concentrated at around 4am when people in NZ are just waking up. At 6am I skyped home in my PJs and opened presents, including Marmite and newspaper clippings, which I took to work and entertained my colleagues with. My supervisor now loves my mum because she sent me clippings of cats. They showed me in return a photo of a Shochu bottle with scissors sticking out of it, which one of them had woken up to this morning. We gave him chocolates to take home to sweeten up his wife. I included this particularly because it reminds me so much of NZ, and I didn’t expect to see banter like that in Japan.

Today was also my supervisors birthday, which was a coincidence of grand proportions. I got him some sheep socks which he put on straight away. Later in the day he said (laughing) “Probably you are the only person I have a present from.” It was honestly a concept I had never considered and made me want to start a secret service for people who don’t get presents on their birthdays and just anonymously send them.

The lady who sits next to me got me a card and a present, which was so lovely. The card was really cute and heartfelt, and when I got to the phrase “you are my fairy friend” I got a wee tear and hugged the woman. She will probably never write me a card again.

From work I went to Kelly’s, where we were having a Christmas gathering. But there were Happy Birthday candles on the Christmas keki and presents!! Considering my birthday is so close to Christmas I was fully prepared to spend it like any other day, so it was so nice to be able to celebrate with friends.
A great day!

Sick. Went to the work Bon-enkai, which was hilarious. The teachers all did skits and dances and I got to just sit and hang with people. In the Bingo I won a box of tissues, which was absurdly convenient. At the end of the first party we all linked arms and sang the school song. I ended up next to my Kendo teacher, which was a lovely part of the night, considering we are usually screaming and hitting one another with bamboo.

At the next party I got to hang with more of the gym teachers, who asked me point blank why on earth I go to Kendo. Then the teacher called back, “very good. hayaku!” Which is what he yells in Kendo and means “quickly!” (When he’s not yelling “osoi osoi osoi” – slow slow slow!) Haha.

At this place I sat next to Kocho Sensei, and played a fun game with one of those kid’s games that pop every so often except every time it did you drink. The teachers made fun of my concentrating frown, because their eyebrows don’t really move. Then I made lots of sweet faces for them, including one with a toothpick of an old man kicked back looking staunch. Turns out this is a universal face and old Japanese men do it too, so me and Kocho Sensei had a great old time pretending I was an old man with me using the basic Japanese you use for subordinates. It’s the little things. I decided I should probably go home because I was so sick, so Kocho Sensei proceeded to tip all the snack baskets into my purse. Like I’m talking about 20 rice crackers, chocolates, beans, peanuts, everything. It’s like he’s stayed in hotels with me and my mum before.

JET Christmas party and Jodo Bon-enkai 17th-19th Dec

17 cont. Got given a bottle of shochu at work today! Yay. Off to Miyakonojo for the Christmas party. This is the night I met Jon and Sarah for the first time, the most wonderful couple ever. They were dressed as reindeer, which meant pretty much that we had to be friends. This was probably the first time that I noticed to any substantial amount that I spoke differently to other people. Case in point, when I asked for wedges and no-one had any idea what I was talking about. Changing the e’s to a’s (wadgas) solved everything. Sara and I sat and enthusiastically greeted anyone who walked past, with “irashaimasse!!” until about an hour later when someone told us that it didn’t mean welcome but, “welcome to my shop”.

From here we went to a nomi, where people started to drop like flies. Very drunk flies. Luckily Matt was in for the long haul and we ended up staying to “get our money’s worth”. Highlights included: asking for tobacco to test my Japanese, which resulted in them joining us and me having to force my way through an entire cigarette that I desperately did not want. Singing Christmas carols, getting to a (pretty recognizable) state of karaoke where you are just yelling at the microphone, thankfully for songs like “Livin on a Prayer” this gets you a standing ovation. For every other song, not so much. Before we knew it, it was 6am and last orders time. Of course we did. I also ended up with a mysterious prize, which turned out to be a packet of chalk and may or may not have actually been for me. From the bar closure we went for breakfast. Not the standard McGreasy breakfast dreams are made of, but the more common bowl of rice, miso soup and tofu variety. Slept in a van. Very nostalgic.

18th Got up early to take my train home. After waiting for 50min at the first station, I got on my train for 3min, only to be told to get off at the next station for my transfer which was coming another 40min later. I could have walked between stations in 15min. Sigh.

Right so the reason I needed to be back early was because I had my Jodo-enkai. At the end of the year, pretty much every organization has some sort of party. This one was for Jodo. I ate so much Nabe (delicious pot of boiled food) that I legitimately worried that one of my intestines might rip open. Despite myself, I partook of the special bottle of rice wine they had brought, which was special in that the rice wasn’t actually filtered out of the wine, giving it the look and consistency of babies wind. The taste was… Suprisingly okay. Suspiciously tangy, which did not sit well with the image of infant milk spew. But, we are adventurers, each and every one.

Our Jodo instructors are so different from my Kendo instructor. They are infinitely patient, allow us to bumble and botch up etiquette and stand around talking about our weekends in loud voices. That would never fly in Kendo. Anyway, they had some really interesting analogies for us at this enkai, which I hope I remember correctly.

Okay so, here goes. There was a priest, or magician, and in his hands behind his back he held a pigeon. He would ask people, “is this pigeon alive or dead?” And if the person said “alive”, he would bring it out. If they said “dead” he would break its neck, and then bring it out. The moral of this heartening little number is that no matter what, you hold the answer in your hands. You can control the outcome.

We thanked them for the opportunity to learn Jodo, and they said they were impressed that we had gotten right into it. And then, “you are only doing Jodo because you decided to be”. And here was another analogy, that of being outside a door. No matter what, the door is there. But whether it opens or not depends on if YOU knock.

These men are very wise, for how patient and (dare I say?) jolly they are. It’s easy to let patient people slide, because you think if they put up with so much they must not have much behind them. Particularly when the scariest men alive seem to have mountains of skill and intelligence behind them to give them that credibility. But I’m learning the importance of calm benevolence from these teachers. And courage from my Kendo teacher, of course.
Another thing they stressed the importance of was to take the culture of Jodo (of all Japan, really) back home with us. I often feel like we’re wasting their time, because we cannot seem to take it as seriously. But their wish is that we remain foreign, use our foreignness to show things like martial arts to other foreigners, without it being distorted. It’s the least I can do.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

7th December to 16th at work and Christmas event in city (I know, I'm so far behind)

Hmmm I think I lost this update so will run through it quickly.
7th, beginning to have trouble seeing where I’m going on my bike, particularly when I bike from two towns over at 10pm. Gets to a point where I’m literally guessing at the sidewalk, unable to see even my own tyres, hoping I’m not about to bike into the road. Then blinded like a possum by every oncoming car, but using the dying flash to mentally plan my line for the next 10 metres. In 2 seconds there will be a tree root. And, jump.

Everyone at work just got up and rushed over to press their noses against the window to peer out at the tree in the corner of the parking lot that is changing colour. I know I’ve been over the awe of nature here, but I feel like I have to keep documenting it, to prove it was ever real.

10th. So proud of my students and the way they work, even when I’m teaching them science as much as English. (In talking about weather or human behaviour). I can’t help it, everything is connected and it’s all fascinating. One of them made a joke today, in her speech. She said (remember Kiwifruit are called Kiwis over here) “I want to see history of Tiffany. I want to go NZ. I want to see a Kiwi eat a Kiwi. It is joke.” I laughed. Loudly.

12th Miyazaki city for caroling. Beautiful lights, heaps of foreigners and Japanese people all singing Christmas carols, drinking mulled wine and hot chocolate. Such a lovely, heartwarming scene. It’s like the need to have Christmas feel homey here makes it more homey than real home is. Probably also because at about this time we would be sitting around with no pants on eating sausage rolls in the sun. I got pulled up the front by a Japanese stranger for a dance, which was embarrassing but enjoyable enough for me not to care. Like most of my time here, actually. From here we went out, and I met my first impolite person in Japan. It was somewhat of a relief to find I’m not just making friends for the convenience of it.

13th Cried in the street today, and I didn’t even realize it was happening. I was Christmas shopping, pretty standard, and was walking down the main street toward the train station when I realized I was leaking (in public). To the point where I had to sit down, try to call some friends (who – thank god – couldn’t pick up) and basically wait it out until I could see again. Was I particularly upset? Not really. Perhaps drank too much water. From here I made my way home, just holding on, especially when a lady on the train dropped a handful of candy into my lap and a man living near me called “okaeri nasai!” (welcome home!) as I biked past. A cup of tea. Cured. It’s hard to believe as I recount this now (2 months later – I know, I’m sorry) that it even happened. Ah, culture shock you pretty little animal.

14. Taught the concept of “bless you” today. Apparently in Osaka they swear after they sneeze. I’m told it’s an entirely different culture to the rest of Japan, like the emphasis is on being funny. And if you are not, you are not seen as a good part of it. Interesting.

My supervisor keeps stealing omiyage for me. I told him it would make me slow, as I forgot the word for fat and was trying to say heavy. Oh, miscommunication. He also told me not to trust another teacher, because of his religion. “Japanese religion?” “No. His own.” Ah.

Got attacked by my kendo teacher for the first time today. You can feel how good he is, but it’s also cool to know that I can concentrate past the kiei (scream). – and his are intense. I also had my first shiae(sp?) – free spar. Sucked, haha. Sometimes I couldn’t help grinning, which was surprising even to myself, as I remember how terrified I was when I first began. The feeling you get when you get a good strike in makes you buzz so hard – I finally realize why people (who aren’t masochists) come back day after day. I also saved a frog that was hopping along the hallway, and some students saw me and now think I’m a frog whisperer. They also found out I can’t cook and found it HILARIOUS.

15-17 Not much happened, have been doing Christmas lessons and the girls whose notebooks I write in (plus one I clean with) gave me little Christmas gifts. One of them even gave me a little cake she had baked! When she gave it to me she said not a word. Then in her next notebook she was like “I am not normally taciturn.” These kids kill me – I love them so bad. One of the teachers offered me his lab coat to wear because I looked cold. Chivalry is not dead even in Japanese staffrooms! We also secretly watched an episode of Mr Bean, which happened to be the one where he is in a church. I was laughing so hard it was uncontrollable. Mr Bean truly transcends language. Not so much culture, we laughed at entirely different parts (Ie. I basically cried when he sneezed into his pocket – the teacher next to me only winced).