Friday, November 5, 2010

The Freeze

'Tis the season for sickness. I woke up this morning to find a gauzy white cloud over my face, thickest at the peak of exhalation. Negative 2. Stripes of my body warmed by the coils of a blanket left on all night. Toe tips not registering, but probably still there. Fully clothed shower? But of course, the clothes would have to be changed eventually. Relieved I took some precautions the previous evening despite my lethargy to purchase kerosene and test my heaters. Left it running in the frosty morning kitchen. Changed into business casual for a welcome party finally happening after work today, with city hall employees. Another precaution to avoid the unnecessary removal of warmth later in the day. Sat eating cereal at the kitchen table, patting at the glands in my neck. Imagined white blood cells splitting multiplying swimming about in circles, each gland a lap pool, water level rising as more swimmers pack in. Repulsed a little by myself.

At work. No classes today, school-wide testing. Just tea. Lots of tea, and more dizzying kerosene.

I haven’t written in a while because things are stable. Not much to update. Halloween happened, it was lightly celebrated a week early in a city two hours south of Iiyama, called Ueda. I dressed myself as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall to have one person recognize my costume. Others guessed Charlie Chaplin. But where’s your mustache? Many said reporter. A microphone may have helped, though. And bigger hair. Either way, some time with a few of the best people I have found here, well spent.

Two weeks prior, a night out with uncle Toshio and his college era friends. Twenty minutes up a mountain from my house into Madarao Kogen, where another college era friend owns a pension (lodge). Blown away by the volume those men could put away. Enough to kill a small rhinoceros. Delicious nabe full of things I used to hate; perhaps I’m growing up. A multitude of pictures taken that have yet to emerge.

I returned to this pension two weeks later, day after the Halloween party, at the request of the lady pension owner in a friendly letter, ‘There is a festival happening, won’t you stay a night? Eat some food? We have artist and musician friends we’d like you to meet.’ And so I went, not for a night but for a few hours on the Sunday, long enough to eat some food, meet some of the pension owners’ friends, and make a musical aluminum can water instrument.

The water instrument instructor, a fifty-something world-traveling sort-of-hippie musician, called a few days later to invite me to a music festival happening a few hours south in, now, two weeks. A long, never-ending train of contacts in the inaka. I told him I’d consider it, though my marrow reminds me that many, many years ago, my parents or a public service announcement on television warned me against accepting invitations from old male strangers, especially when a car is involved. It doesn’t help that the invitation came in the form of asobou, ‘let’s play,’ for lack of an equivalent to ‘let’s hang out.’

In other streams of life, say, school, which is why I’m here, the only notable comment to make is, I think, I am adjusting. Responsibilities slowly inflating. Teachers have been more regularly disappearing, leaving but a small note behind, cover for me. A full week of ALT-led Halloween lessons, most done solo, and still more occasions to lead, including days when a teacher, present, hands the class over to me and watches me teach new grammar all in English to a group of thirty I can’t determine is getting it or not. ‘You are a very good teacher,’ he says later. It’s something.

Highlight of the last month, perhaps, where school is concerned: I finally got in on a PE class yesterday, gymnastics, was used to demonstrate basics for the first graders (seventh graders in American terms) to try. Front rolls went well. Back rolls and cartwheels were a challenge for the girls. PE teacher said come back again. Certainly, PE teacher, I will, though I worry I’ll eventually hear something along the lines of, she’s here to teach English, not cartwheels. Clear for now. Peculiarly, next day my arms are sore, but I don’t think it could be from the few cartwheels and rolls I did yesterday. Day before was a holiday, spent at a five-story adult entertainment center bowling, playing pool, testing arcade games. No Skee-Ball, to my dismay. Badminton after a few years away is satisfying, though. Settling for Denny’s after a twenty minute Mexican restaurant, any restaurant, isn’t there anywhere to eat around here? search is satisfying, too, though in quite a different way.

Not much else to discuss here. I am almost out of American peanut butter. I can see the bottom of the jar in some spots. I panic. Two more throat coats to last until Dad can bring more beginning of December. One awkwardly shaped hooded sweatshirt that mostly only warms a strip of my forearm where the wristband is. One last window without curtains. All windows in need of plastic cover insulation. Warmer slippers. More sweaters. Scarves. Socks loose and warm enough so my toes feel warm but not too cramped while I sleep. Another heater? More baths. First bath, I mean; It’s been all showers up to now.

I had big plans for this weekend, two days in Saku for a Nagano-ken JET ‘Naga-Yes’ cook-off and volcano climb. How good movies in bed sounds, though. I wrote a limb of a story for a writing group I’ve committed myself to, composed of JET friends in/around Kyoto, I’d like to develop. Maybe I’ll paint my nails. Draw. The options are really endless, and all may be done from my bed. A sleepy productive weekend, prodding my swollen glands.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Holiday at the Zoo

The ultimate design – to sleep the hours she wants (needs), engaged in her waking hours in activities she truly enjoys, endeavors with purpose, with money enough to live independently and with only the most necessary of luxuries (a car, perhaps, or a bike), and in time, some pleasant people about to hug her, share her meals, share her wine. I wonder if anyone gets what they really want. At twenty-three, I’ve already resigned to the idea of ‘good enough,’ settling into a bearable something that pays. Committing to an interminably long road of work because it’s what is done. Marrying rich, an alternative, but not really. The idea of settling into a bearable someone that pays is a bit harder to stomach, and it seems unlikely that a someone notably well paid would interest me, given the breed of work that must be done for such earnings. Notwithstanding, I am but twenty-three, and after some years, of course it’s possible that dragging my caffeine beaten self from monthly planner Monday to Friday in a suit skirt that grows a little more every year will greatly transfigure my stance. For all I know, I will be praying that a whale will care to look at me in ten years.

Readers, this is what has ailed me over the past month (and to a lesser extent the month before that). I’ve spent some time away, was dipped into various vats of responsibility at once, but here I am again, at last. Writing from a quieter place, though not entirely cleaned up yet.

Nearly a month it has been since I last wrote, in fact, so allow me to begin from where I left off, progressing quickly (for all our sakes), chronologically, so we may reach today and have a long, loud sigh together from our respective chairs.

I left you with mention of a vacation of sorts, to Kyoto, to visit friends. It was as delightful as I’d anticipated, though not in any way that is as boring or predictable as it sounds. Activity and crowd were up to my man Corey Waite, which had me feeling pretty good about things, this man who less oft lets me down than pigs fly in the sky, or somesuch infrequently occurring phenomenon. After eight hours of train hopping, I arrived in Shiga, body weary, met Corey and friend Dylan at the bottom of the station steps. From there, some conbini food, Futurama, and preparation for friend Corey Washburn’s arrival next day from Korea.

Next day, a two-hour train trek to Osaka to join with Washburn at the glowing can’t-miss-it Glico running man, then to assemble with a slew of others from around the country (girls from Niigata and Osaka, some gentlemen from Shiga, Kyoto, Osaka) for dinner. My heart set on Mexican food. Collected Nicale en route, swathed him in my pro-burrito fervor, and he enlisted. Somehow, hours passed, restaurants filled, and we were left with that shady empty restaurant people know better than to go to, or are willing to spend a few extra dollars or hours in crowded restaurant waiting areas to avoid: Shakey’s Pizza Buffet.

Do not be fooled by the remodeling, though it looks nice. They dimmed the lights. The booths are comfortable. The fried food looks flakey, freshly fried, demanding of a good finger-lickin’. New pizzas materialize every five minutes, sprinkled with magical oils that sparkle under heating lamps. Only five bucks for nomihodai (all-you-can-drink). Seemed promising. We rushed the place with our American-sized bellies hungry to demolish that tabehodai. Lined the bottoms with beer. Perhaps our first mistake.

It seems my standards are lower than most; many of us refused to clean off the first helping; Dylan ate a slice of pizza, a few noodles, was ready to claim food poisoning; Nicale, who eats two burritos per my every one, gave up mid-second round; I went for thirds. Felt I’d been poisoned three times. Still human.

Frothing from every pore, the lathered beer matter, malt and sugars cloyed and webbing our insides together; More beer! the tall men shout, and they are listened to because they are the easiest to follow in a crowd of 160 centimeter people. Stuffed into a convenience store, radiation lighting – whoever’s in the security booth can see all of my bones. I get ice cream. It is delicious.

In two hours’ time, our convenience store crawl has led us to Ame-mura, short for American-mura, Japanese for ‘American village.’ We idle in the main square for some time, delaying our entry into the club across the street, as crowds don’t really happen indoors this early. It’s now eleven o’clock. I’m on the stairs with a homeless man and his buddy comfortably splayed on the ledge a few feet above my head; the English being spoken around me drowns out all other noise, including that of the crackling potato chip bag and subsequent crunching going on directly above me, which I’d almost rather hear. Fatefully, some heavily German-accented English is heard from a few meters away; I turn. I think of Nils, my German friend now living in Tokyo, think he may be in the group, though of course it is small-minded of me to assume the only German in Japan is my own friend Nils. Nay, it is his ex-girlfriend, Doreen. Pretty good.

Finally, into the club we go, to dance until the trains start up again. Beyond that, little additional explanation required. Vague ‘we danced’ is perfectly accurate.

Next morning, we required nourishment. If we were to make it home. I insisted on ramen, and no one argued. Twenty minutes, we walked this way and that, following the directions of wrinkly pudgymen with their own reasons for being out at four in the morning. We ate. We enjoyed greatly. We regrouped outside, discussed what would come next. A few of us were soaring on our second and third winds, others used the wall as a bed. Who knows how time worked then, but after a while, we were approached by a group of four outlandishly attired party virgins with their minds set as ours were – drunk, food on the brain. Their inspirations were different, you could tell; the tan one with a curly ponytail, he went for Prince; the pretty one with a well-layered bowl cut preferred the likes of Abercrombie models; the yelper with a deep red mane wanted Gwen Stefani but got Scary Spice; and for her friend, who seemed afraid of foreign things, Hello Kitty. With everything we said, they knew a way to work it into an American pop song. Entertaining folk. What stuck with me most was a new version of the oft-heard ‘Your face is so small!’ (which I may not have told you I’m told all the time, by everyone, even today, by a student, but I am). It went like this:

Abercrombie: You have – small face.
Me: Why does everyone say that!
Scary Spice: Yeah! So small!
Me: Okay, I get it, it’s a small face.
Everyone: (staring at my small face)
Me: I’m sorry! Stop staring!
Abercrombie: Small face make me fall in love.

Next day, I went to sleep. Awoke at five to join male forces (Corey, Dylan, Corey, Nicale) for dinner, a beer on the bay, and sleep came quickly again.

If you are following the chronology, you’d know that I next woke up on a Monday. That’s right. I thank old people for allowing me the extra day of rest, or whoever was in charge of designating that Monday as Respect for the Aged Day. I spent my last few hours with friends unrolled on a rocky beach, among barbecues with some lean bodies of meat browning on top, Seados and speedboats splashing girls from the brink of a lane line spread to save the frolickers’ bikini strings from being pulled, and freshly-turned twenty year-olds reveling in their agedness by chugging beers, yelling, and cheering for their friends as they chugged beers. Welcome to Santa Barbara, Japan. That afternoon, I introduced my friends to the word game Ghost, and we continued to play it from beach to station, station to train, train to platform, until the moment we separated. And then another eight hour trek back, a bike ride from Iiyama station to my house, and crash.

The next Thursday was shubun no hi, which means another day off from work. To those who care, it was Autumnal Equinox Day. I spent it at the kitchen table, dimly lit, to watch a most triumphant battle; the summer heat of death and stirring block of cold met mid-air, bowed. Heat was weary from a long, hard term, but dogged, still, to have another day. Its opponent, fresh and steely. Gelid metal spears shot down, struck heat to pavement, impact spread light through the sky. One last hot spell unfurled like an earthquake tumbling out from its epicenter, and one night, heat slogged away into the darkness until its glow could no longer be seen, as would a cowboy who drew too slowly. It has yet to show itself in these parts again.

While I’m thrilled, somewhat, watching the temperature continue to fall, rain continue to pour - it’s only so long before we have negative numbers and snow. The season of kerosene and kotatsu. Test of my independence, patience. Preparation begins now. Which is why I now have a car.

Yes, that’s right, I have a car! It is the kind that has come to be what I consider the quintessential Iiyama car: kei, because it’s cheaper (specifically, the largest size cut-off-van-looking kei car to transport snow gear and young children), four-wheel drive, and a steering wheel on the right side of the car. This is something I’m still getting used to; I’ve taken Crystal’s advice and feigned planning to place whatever I’m holding on the passenger seat when I mistakenly open the wrong door, which is useful because it makes me feel less stupid. Otherwise, driving on the left side of the road came naturally; I ably set the clock, have yet to confuse turn signal with windshield wiper, and I always remember to stop before crossing train tracks. I also remember that I am to wait a couple of seconds at the traffic light after it turns green, but that’s a silly rule.

One day I left my car parked under a tree at the train station. I thought nothing of it, mostly because I arrived to the station at the same time as the train I needed to be on, so I locked my doors and ran. When I returned home, my car had received a thorough paint job by the local pigeon community (or maybe they weren’t pigeons, but I’ll blame them anyway because we all well know the whole race of them is terrible). Knowing how Japanese people are about cars – the facades are always clean! – I vowed to push it down the street from my house to get washed within a couple of days. Don’t want the neighbors judging you for your shit.

Unfortunately (for my car – I had fun) I was occupied painting skulls and jack-o’-lanterns on rot-breathed kids’ faces and sneaking handfuls of candy corn into my mouth all weekend, so the car wash never happened.

Luckily, yesterday, after sprinting home on my bike in the rain (yes, I have a car, but as long as I can continue to save the air (exercise at all), I will), I had the brilliant idea to move my car to the lot next to my house to, you know, show my car what rain was (get a free car wash). Car is looking respectable. Nature and I, we help each other.

Today I am at school. We have tests happening in every class in every period on Friday, and as such, I foresee an easy week. Test prep. Test distribution. Returning tests. I think teachers see me mostly as the game lady, so it’s likely their want of me will wane as the week wears on.

So, I’ve been giving some thought to that concern I raised last time, about considering myself an outsider in this finely tuned and unified company. I wonder if this will ever change, and if I have any power in changing it myself. If not ‘the foreigner who knows how to play lots of games,’ who am I here? As of now, I feel like the tail on the donkey. Tacked on an otherwise perfectly functioning animal. An animal, in fact, that is better looking without its tail, as it requires some sort of fastening agent to stay. And what’s a tail good for? Swatting flies? What good’s a tail on an animal that would rather take the trouble to synchronize the parts, individually ward off the flies together? Write up memos to photo copy and pass out to all other parts, informing them of the fly that almost landed on their ass last week, then one part to moderate a discussion of the fly, and how to prevent another fly from almost landing again. Anyway. I just. Wonder.

At last, at least, the teachers have all forgiven me for whatever it was I did wrong when I first arrived, and we are all on speaking terms. I’ve even managed to remember a couple of my students’ names. Maybe I can be a friend after all.

Tomorrow is a minimum day, and come 5pm, I will be attending the district-wide all-teacher volleyball tournament. I have denied two invitations to participate, seeing as, I suck, and I shouldn’t always have to say yes to playing games just because I’m the game fairy, but still, we’ll see. On a similar note, I hope to teach gymnastics during PE sometime soon, to the ‘special class of advanced boys.’ Some of them can do back handsprings. I’m trying to get this organized partly because I think it’ll be fun, but mostly because I need a quick route to respect. The boys don’t think much of me, but they will.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Clouds Break, I Fall Down


Some mornings are like Magnolia. The end of Magnolia, when all the frogs fall from the sky. Guts splattered on every surface, being pushed about by the windshield wipers who’ve no option but to keep driving.

I woke up this morning with one of those migraines that makes everything look like an electric buzz. Forgive me.

All I really mean to say is there are frogs everywhere. Tiny things, creep up on you like flies. They crowd convenience store windows and vending machines, suctioned to the neon glass, wondering how can I get my mouth on that silky black coffee, so thirsty. Painted on the ground, too, like one drop of acrylic yellow-green escaped the bucket of a carelessly passing child, limbs strike pavement and splash out, the imprint of a bicycle tire along their backs. Among them, earthworms, clearly dead.

It doesn’t help that it’s been raining, and with as little sense as frogs falling from the sky. There seems to be an entirely separate weather influence here that takes hold from inside; how I at once feel cold and wet and am still sweating profusely makes little sense otherwise. And often, an entire day spent sweating under late night diner bright sunlight ends with thunder that shakes the house, lightning that shorts my electricity, wind that sweeps the heavy rain through my window against gravity’s force and soaks soaks my bed sheets. Windows are closed, and I incubate in my four-room humidifier, the image of rapidly boiling eggs splitting and spurting out their whites.

Maybe I need to get out more. Maybe I need to clean. My world here feels very small and crowded. I’m going to Tokyo this weekend. Kyoto next weekend. Perhaps that will do me some good. Too much routine? A bad thing?

I’m pretty sure I am set on staying in Japan for two years. It seems a waste to have put all of this effort into coming to throw myself back out to sea after a year. What I’ll be doing my second year, though, I can’t say, as ideally, I see myself in a larger city doing something more socially engaging and ultimately more enjoyable; if I could be writing or doodling every day, I would be set. It’s what I want to do. There’s just something inexplicably satisfying about completing a project I had the gumption to labor through, even in its less enjoyable moments. When I get home from school everyday, feeling consumed, I wonder what I do it for; I consider those people fixed in spiritless positions and don’t know how they do it. How to go about seeking out other employment in this country, though, I am even more clueless. And where would I be useful, as the Japanese opinion goes?

Brainstorm: I could write television shows to air on Japanese television that would make learning English cool and interesting to Japanese kids. I could work in an international hotel or restaurant or other establishment in a large city. I could work for an English newspaper. I could brush up on my translating and/or Illustrator skills and make myself useful at a book publishing company. I could go on an interesting trip and write a best-selling book about it. I could design an elaborate and interesting story in my head and write a best-selling novel about it. I could draw a picture and sell it for lots of money, and then I could do it again. I could take up crocheting and sell my goods at temple bazaars. I could go door to door with some fictitious missionary ties and collect some daily bread money. I could wed a Japanese man. I could seriously take up a sport and live on the winnings I reap from always coming out on top. I could lose twenty pounds and become a model. I could invent a time machine, design my future, and propel myself to the day I am finally rich; or, I could just charge people a lot of money to use it, because it’s a time machine. I could take on an apprenticeship with a farmer and learn how to live off the land. I could buy a tent and live in the woods, creeping out only at night to feast on the fruits of Iiyama farmers.

There are so many options, clearly, I don’t know why I would ever limit myself.


Another morning in the office. I’m pretty sure my principal said ‘genitals’ in his announcement during the teacher’s meeting. I resolve to learn Japanese more solidly so I will understand the next time somesuch is uttered.

It is a wet day, pant fronts are already soaked, hair is full with dank humidity. Throat itches, and I wonder if I should break out the face mask today, though it seems more a show for pity than a real attempt at saving everyone else. Residual anxiety from a my future talk over the weekend has me feeling heavy, on top of the boggy mix of last night’s and this morning’s stratums of cereal sod lining the floor of my stomach.


Another morning in the office. No teacher’s meeting today, so nothing funny to report yet. Incurred yet another migraine yesterday, which makes every day since last Thursday. Awoke to a wide padded drumstick pumping my head into dough, eyes opened to a white wall with a texture like that of my wall at home enough to confuse me into thinking I was indeed at home. It took turning over to shake me out of that dream.

It’s not homesickness I feel, not exactly. I’m happy to be here, and I feel comfortable here. It’s just when I feel physically weak that I start to crave the repose of my bed at home, knowing Mama is but a muffled cry away.

No explosions, yet, though. The visual aura likely came while I was unconscious.

So I had intended to talk about Tokyo yesterday but was apparently distracted by something. Tokyo was a pretty good time. Exhausting, however. Really wearing. When you get down to it, it was mostly just incredibly taxing. I’ve always thought it was a fault of my own being uncomfortable jumping into poorly planned things, like I should be more adventuresome, so I leapt against my better judgment and found it was perhaps a mistake to go without securing some very basic things for myself – a place to stay, for example. I don’t like having to rely on others, and while my friend with the plan did eventually come through for me and did show me a good a time as he could, it was at the price of my feet which never got a break the entire weekend, and I was to put it simply quite miserable much of the time. I wouldn’t say the entire weekend was miserable, as there were enough high points to make up for much of my suffering, but I will trust my gut a bit more where it matters (in issues of comfort and security, namely, more so than the more directly related issue of appetite where my gut is rarely honest with me). As a good friend who hears all about my being put upon all the time would say, lay the hammer down. It’s true, I need to. On a more positive end, though, it was nice to hang out with friend Patrick, and to see some other old friends in Tokyo. I bought some nice things, too, but let’s not think too much about how much money I spent vacationing.

This approaching weekend, I am looking forward to with great pleasure and relief. I’m going to Kyoto to see some of what I would consider to be my good friends. This means I may be awarded more control when plotting out the day’s events, and mode of transport, and when I say I want Mexican food, I will get Mexican food, dammit. I have to say, my burrito hunger is developing into a serious condition; a mental cavity formed by the thought of the deprivation alone, it ails me. Perhaps a burrito is all the medicine I need for these headaches.

In other news, I am still without a car. I definitely need one. I now own a television, which is dandy, but I have yet to notify my cable provider that I have since signing a contract secured a television set, so it is yet to be set up. My bed is great, my refrigerator keeps my food cold, and my internet is everything I could have hoped for. One of these days my homecoming will not be so drenched in malaise that I allow my clothing and baggage to be dispersed all over the floors of every room; I will clean soon. Mother would be ashamed.


Things looking up. Weather cooling down. Vision two days clear. Some dizzying head sways like a baby being rocked to sleep.

Epiphany reached today - perhaps no larger than the size of a rain drop, but an epiphany, no less: I realize that my attitude regarding my position has been hindering my progress here. I've been barring myself from relaxing entirely into this job; I never fancied myself a teacher, mostly because I never wanted to be one. I came with the idea I would teach to survive through the first year while I spent my extra hours searching for some more artistic endeavor that could supplement or replace some other more realistic errand, such as serving tea or doling out soup, (I am open to ideas, have you any). Regardless of this, I broke through some sort of barrier a couple of days ago when the head teacher deserted me to attend a short meeting, and I was left to read a story with the class. This story, titled "A Magic Box," is nothing anyone should ever be proud to have written or excited to read, but the moment I had the class' attention, free of the leery eyes of heavily present head teacher, my voice became animated, I felt free to move my arms all around, and the voices of characters "Man," "Wife," and "King" possessed me. Before I knew it I had these sleepy kids reading in voices and laughing, and then I was laughing, and I had never been tickled enough to laugh in a class before. Maybe I could like this. And then the teacher came back, and the choral repeat-after-Mitzi-sensei resumed, voices dry, such dead characters they were.

Again, today, the head teacher was absent, so I had a full hour of classroom control. Though I had been dreading it the entire morning (this was the painfully unresponsive class from a week ago), it was fun, it was. Everyone got to make their own three wishes. The terror was gone. They participated. It was beautiful.

I would like to close with my favorite wish of the day, a generous gesture, indeed, and something we should all seriously consider:

"If I had one wish, I would wish for everyone in the world to have a new Ferrari."

Monday, September 6, 2010

Gone to Seed



I dwell among the humans but do not speak their language. I eat everything I am given, primarily locally grown vegetation, and will soon suffer the consequence of a bulging bottom. Throughout the day, I loll on grey slabs metamorphosed from your standard rock, tending to my varnish, accumulated sludgy layers of the displaced liquids from breakfast and lunch. I am often the object of much conjecture and fear. Due to the nature of where I live, I will never be clean.

What am I? A swamp monster? Nay. It is still me, but who knows for how much longer.

Everyday, the practice of scrubbing the day’s stench free continues to grow more stubborn, and I will likely start repelling shower water soon, or find it on the tile having joined with strands of my body coating. We continue to expect 34 degree days, which is, to you Westerners, approximately 93.2 degrees Fahrenheit; the humidity ranges between 40 and 85 percent, though the pure air to moisture ratio is skewed that much more indoors. I have taken to wearing pants to work to fit in, as I was day after day the only one in a skirt, and if the co-workers who have been ignoring me until now (all of the men, basically) will ever open their mouths, I think that disguising myself as an entirely inconspicuous employee would be a smart strategy at this juncture.

Which brings me to school. I will start out with a very general verdict, which is, ‘it’s pretty good.’ It is. Mostly, it’s interesting. Not in the sense that I am kept entertained all workday long, as I often find myself succumbing to some frightfully stodgy tasks such as counting notebook pages and circling answers to show they have been seen by someone, but the way things run here – the schedule, the activities, the topics of conversation, the dynamic – these aspects are intere- peculiar. They’re peculiar.

So every weekday I wake up at 6am. I have my morning routine. I leave the house at/around 7:40 to arrive at the school at 8, or, depending on my mood, I will stop at a 7-11 & i-Holdings en route to secure a much needed chilled beverage, though the chill only stays forty minutes if I’m lucky. I drink quickly.

There is a morning meeting that begins promptly at 8:15 in the teacher’s room. It is about.. something.. general school concerns, I guess. The first couple of days I had one of my co-teachers clarify what was said at the morning meeting, as the tone of speakers’ voices led me to believe the points of business concerned our very survival, but I’ve since determined it wasn’t worth her trouble. For example, one of today’s topics was introduced by, “last week’s cheese meatloaf was delicious, don’t you think?” I must admit that may be a poor example of teacher talk matters here, but the Japanese used is otherwise too fast and formal, so that is what I give you. I have this mindset that in time I will come to make sense of everyone’s gibberish if I just stand in the line of fire long enough – until then, I’ll assume everything is soup and meatloaf.

After the meeting, I often engage myself in translating the memos we receive on our desks every morning; this practice has served to fill in some of the depressions left by departed Japanese-I-used-to-know, but otherwise, the new words come slowly. I have a pretty extensive list, and with the time I have, I had to choose between contributing vital words to it or reviewing past items. Why reprocess when you can have everything new?

Twenty minutes and it’s first period. I only have to worry about first period twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays, so during free periods such as this, I’ll either continue translating desk notes, start preparing for a later class by creating an activity or worksheet or some such, or sometimes, you’ll find me doing the wearisome I-acknowledge-your-submission-of-this-assignment circling in notebooks.

I should clarify, there are five periods in a day, all within 8:50am and 2:10pm. Between every class is a ten-minute break, save for the lunch break that consumes an hour between 4th and 5th periods. After 2:10 it’s ‘student revival hour,’ a time to clean, a time to decompress, and something else I can’t quite translate from the schedule: ‘returning home student activity.’ My day ends at 4:15, or so says my contract, but I often find myself hanging around a bit longer to polish off some tasks or just show I can take it. I have yet to know how late everyone else stays, but my tardiest exit was 6:45, with all key players still busy with something in the office.

So throughout the day, whenever I am not wielding a red pen all over students’ notebooks, I am teaching. Until now, all but one lesson have been ‘self-introduction’ lessons; put another way, I have been talking about myself for three to four fifty minute-long periods a day, then quizzing students about it in the form of a game. When someone can be called a winner and there is money (Mitzi Mane-) involved, students get competitive. We had some yellers today.

Coming into the beginning of my second full week, things should start feeding back into the book. The book in question, our school’s textbook New Horizon, is interesting. I use this word too much. But I do think it’s having a bit of an identity crisis, all American English spellings with lapses into British English grammar, and culturally, it doesn’t/I don’t know where it is. I have yet to see how the teachers make use of the book; my one and only experience teaching with it in class involved a lot of direct reading, repetition (teacher’s determined goal of every class is to recite the sample dialogue ten times), and vocabulary translation. Each was met with thirty pained faces.

The students. They are all different. Some are incredibly enthusiastic, talkative, willing. Quite a few kids excel in English, love it – the majority, in fact. They scream hello! good morning! in the hallways and have interesting questions for me in class; they pass around my pictures of friends and family and scenery from home and they ooh ahh over it. Again, bribery helps. Others, though, they glare and spend hour-long classes in silence without even engaging in some other impertinent hobby, like doodling, as I had the courtesy to do as a student. Those students’ opinions that doing absolutely nothing is more fun than participating is, well, it hurts a little. I ask the teachers how to remedy this, they say shouganaine. (Nuttin you can do bout it.) Meanwhile I exhaust myself putting on this ebullient show, nothing natural about it, I’m trying!, and some kids just won’t look at you no matter how funny you are.

Kids here aren’t punished, not directly. If it’s to be a punishment at all, it’s being ignored, and when that happens, of course, the naughty students rejoice. They’ve been freed. Of course what’s happening is that they’re being left behind, so as idlers and savants graduate together, everyone having been given the same chance, as they say, those students who dreamt or plotted or whatever they do while they’re hard-at-staring will be at a serious disadvantage, and perhaps won't know the cause. Not that I’m one for punishment, as I think everyone has their reasons, but that tough love thing might do some well. I was told that hitting students wasn’t the most offensive practice, by which I thought the hand was used to discipline ill-behaved children, but I’ve realized since starting here that it’s the good students who are hit, and in more of a teasing sibling way.

It’s not that the teachers don’t care. Well, I really don’t know the teachers well enough to say that confidently yet, but what cold person would sign up for a low-paying, high-dedication job? I think that they really believe there’s nothing they can do.

So ‘they’ is four English teachers, primarily two females with a male and one more female in the periphery. The teachers’ room desks are arranged so that Miyamoto- and Mitsui-senseis are directly behind me and easily accessible from my swiveling chair on wheels – due to my close proximity to them, Miyamoto being the closest, I do the most work for them; Mr. Yamazaki sits a row away and is oriented in such a way that he and I are directly facing each other – the space and his frequent absences from the office make this okay; Hama-sensei sits at a group of desks behind and to the left of me, far, far away, so that I rarely know if she is in or if she is out – she seems to me unforthcoming, with an air of self-sufficiency that I receive awkwardly, being her assistant and all. I think I generally need to make a greater attempt to generate some bond or mutual comfort between myself and the teachers, though one can never know if a teacher is busy or just looking the part to allay said discomfort. And how friendly is too friendly? I fear being intrusive, precipitating resentment, maybe they’ll come into it on their own, in time?


Five of my sixteen classes a week are with Miyamoto. Four with Mitsui, four with Yamazaki, three with Hama. They range from first to third year (first being sixth grade; second, seventh; third, eighth). The second years are, as a whole, the quietest of them all, with first the loudest and least afraid to make mistakes, and third with the most language knowledge but still some anxiety persisting. I have yet to choose a grade I like the best, which I perhaps should never do, but I have found students I really like in every grade.

I should make an adjustment to the comment I made about disciplining, as I had a class last Thursday that deserved a Japanese scolding, which goes something like a sentence or two of harsh guilt-inflicting reproaches, rationalizations, how-could-yous, and twice as much silence following each utterance. I was to play a game with the class (a game, doesn’t that sound fun!?), so I decided on Wheel of Fortune, chalkboard style, where I spun my hand round and round the drawn wheel like a fool and had the kids guess letters until the phrase was revealed. I had played this game twice successfully previous to entering this defeatist classroom and expected nothing but to accumulate a larger fan base for the game. From these kids, it was impossible to get so much as a yawn, and at a point, when the silence had just been stacking one minute on top of the next until it came to be much too heavy to bear, I started intentionally landing my hand on “bonus” which called for a teacher-crafted question – anything. So I went with the easiest still-fair question I could think of, “What is my name?” thinking that team was lucky to be given those free points. But nothing. No one would guess. It was painful. I didn’t want to give up on them so I tried giving them hints, but nothing would get them talking. After I was finished, the game that shouldn’t have taken any more than five minutes had taken thirty, and Yamazaki-sensei was not pleased. His students were given a good talking to, told how they were wasting this rare opportunity to have me, such a great and pretty teacher (his words, not mine), at their disposal.

I think I am finished boring you with these school details. Or, rather, I am too pooped. I will leave you with one last remark, one you may find somewhat interesting, and that is: Japanese working people can fall asleep in any strange position you can imagine, at any time of day, and in any kind of extreme weather. One of the assistants to the principal has been asleep, stiffed back, arms crossed, and reclined to the max his chair allows, amidst students wandering in and out, the phone ringing, people calling his name, for the last twenty minutes. God grant rest to these overworked people.

Therapy Corner: (A continuation the first post’s expressed determination for emotional and/or spiritual progress for the greater goal of eventually attaining enlightenment)

(I wanted to make this a habit, this moment during which I could express discomforts or discuss personal growth with all of you, but forgot to attach it to the last entry; it isn’t so much that I forgot, actually, but I had nothing really to say. Expect to see this segment, then, every once in a while.)

I’ll just get right into it then. I wonder if I will ever feel right here. The aversion of my fellow teachers’ eyes as they walk past me is discomfiting. WHY. Why do they do it. Don’t they know I’m the one who was torn from my comfortable bedding and thrust into these muggy rice fields? (I wonder if the dream I had recently, where a party entertainer shook rice grain over the audience and it began to grow rampantly from my legs, too fast for me to keep up with the plucking of it, was at all a reaction to my feeling incongruous to this environment.) I don’t know how to act, if I should try being friends or if I should try being self-deprecatingly polite, and no one is offering answers. The problem is that because I know there is a system to everything here, I act so as to never disrupt it; naturally, this leaves me trying to stay out of people’s hair. I guess that this school signed up for me, so they should be willing and even happy to accept what they get, but if I’m off the mark, they’ll be disappointed. No?

I was told by other JETs that because our contract says the work day ends at 4:15, we have every right to leave at 4:15 without being given a hard time by other teachers. Still, it’s 4:45, and I don’t feel right about leaving. Not that I’m working. Clearly.

Other gripes include my feeding regimen, which is untimely and otherwise unfavorable. I eat breakfast around 7 and already feel famished by 9, not to have lunch until 12:45. As a non-meat eater, I am left with rice and/or bread and/or noodles, which are filling enough, sure, but make me drowsy. When I return home, where I can finally eat what powers me up, I’m still too full of rice, usually until 9, which is when I go to bed. Alas. My energy level drains. I hope it will right itself, with time, some bodily acclimatization.

I’m going to start making a habit of jogging today. We’ll see how long it lasts.

Brief very-last-minute update: Within two minutes of setting out on the jog, my vegetable-rich farmer-neighbor spotted me and insisted on gifting me a small, exotic squash. I thought, at least it’s something new; I asked her what exactly the thing was and she said, It’s a lot like a cucumber. So I took off, continuing another thirty minutes around the vicinity with, yet again, more cucumber than I need.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lots of Water and a Little Nudity

At the orientation in Tokyo, a former ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) currently working with the overseers of this whole JET project (CLAIR, or Council of Local Authorities for International Relations), imparted upon us the wisdom he has refined as a result of participating in the program and from watching, closely watching, the experiences of his friends and, of course, himself. Namely, this included a dissection of what the acclimation process might look like, advice on how to manage the more difficult of likely-to-develop conditions, and assurance that no matter how mutant our conditions may seem, there are many others in the hospital with us.
If any of his projections were correct, it is likely that many of us broke down in a grocery store. And it is not out of the realm of possibility that bananas and bottled water alone saw some through their first week here. A few have been cast into the most remote sequestered-by-mountains-and-sea villages without the ability to communicate with the few people around who may have by now started to take on a wicked hostility, speaking in a frightening, backwards tongue with savage voice. But, of course, there is more. A way out. How to be normal in an abnormal place.
The events recounted in the previous entry reflect his first note of advice, to go out and explore, wander the streets of your town aimlessly, a smile and a hello to everyone. Get as comfortable as you can without any greater expectations of settling in. Since you last heard from me, I have put into practice a few other key points of his dharma: establish routines, maintain contact with people at home who will keep you sane, and slowly welcome some culturally Japanese things into your own life. While I’m happy to say I do feel a great deal of comfort from adopting these precepts, it is possible that in combining the first two points I have planted myself in some sort of safe hole of home and English. Those, and poor posture from sitting too many mornings with Bran Flakes cereal with one banana, glass of iced coffee with soy milk, and Skype/Facebook chatting with Pacific Time friends on my computer. I realize that I have never been one to live outside of such daily routines, that it is something I come into naturally, but it’s true, assuming these few routine habits has made me feel much less like I am floating over those clouds that circle the mountaintops. I’m less of an observer, more like a person living her life among others in this city of Iiyama who are living their lives as well.
For the third, turning Japanese, well, I’m taking it slow. I wear slippers around the house. I dry my laundry outside (as if there is an alternative). I have obtained point cards to use at my most oft-visited restaurants and grocery stores as a display of my semi-permanent residency here in Iiyama; one hundred dollars spent at one store might get me a dollar off, if I’m so lucky. I paid my first gas bill at the conbini (convenience store) down the road. My electrolyte-infused beverage (Aquarius, Pocari Sweat, Dakara) consumption has eclipsed that of the more international and thus less Japanese water. Disregarding all American moral and social codes, I stripped down to nothing to spend an afternoon soaking in a Japanese bathhouse where I kept my American stare tucked away. I clean all of my trash before separating it into five separate bins. I call important people by their last name. I tote around a small square towel with which to dab ever so lightly at my forehead and t-zone when the heat becomes too much; it’s pink with polka dots and has a small embroidered dress wearing rabbit creature smiling in the corner, as all proper Japanese women love pink, polka dots, and small, cute animals. I look right then left before crossing the road.
Enough generalizations. As much as I’d like to convey the mood of this place through miscellaneous observations, perhaps some more specific ‘what have I been doing’ would be more entertaining for you, as it is, after all, for you.
The Binzuru Festival in Nagano city - yes, I believe that is where the action left off. I danced three hours in a procession of clacking shamoji (rice scoopers) among a fifty-or-so member large yellow-clad ‘International Team.’ The audience extended down ten or fifteen blocks, three-people deep. Behind us followed our own personal beer and chu-hai filled cooler, eventually emptied as the night wore on. Following the march, I retired at a friend’s house in the northern suburbs of Nagano and slept somewhat comfortably on a guest futon atop a tatami floor among four other newcomers. Nagano is praised for having the best JET support system in all of Japan, and I believe that, am thankful for it. Any time I have needed direction(s), a ride, or a place to stay, someone has volunteered to help without hesitation.
The next event of note would perhaps be the welcome orientation, again in Nagano city. [August 11] An afternoon of teaching demonstrations and classroom simulations, and then a scavenger hunt with local high school students. Of ten teams, mine was second. Thank you, yes, we are very proud. Following, about forty of us aligned ourselves at a row of oval plastics tables (just as those you’ve seen in most of America’s outdoor patio dining areas) on the roof of a bar above the Nagano train station for tabe- and nomi-hodai (all you can eat and drink). Friends were made, laughs were had – like any enjoyable evening out. I was surprised and pleased to find, however, that our network is larger than I had anticipated, as there are a number of ALTs with private contracts working around the city of Nagano, good people who have been welcomed into this large family of English speakers harboring a strong interest in Japan for some reason or another.
The following day, [August 12] I went with the other new Iiyama ALT, Crystal, to meet the mayor of this fine place. A delightful man, indeed, but with a tongue worn down with age so that, to an intermediate-if-even-that Japanese speaker, his words were mostly unintelligible. Following this very exhausting twenty minutes of trying ever so hard to decipher the tiny scraps of words that sounded like Japanese I’d heard before, a well-postured gentleman bearing a video camera on his shoulder entered the room and announced he would be doing interviews. In Japanese, if we were up for it. I was not. My fellow newcomer, having spent eleven years of her adolescence in Japan, spoke of her impressions and aspirations without stumbling. I spattered out something of a self-introduction in Japanese and did the rest in English with Crystal shooting out the Japanese translation to be used as subtitles. The interviews aired on television this morning, in fact. I do not yet have a television, and though I am curious to see how it turned out, I am not upset I missed it.
That evening, while basking outside in the post-typhoon chill, my very stooped elderly neighbor caught a glance of me as she went to shut her window. Hello!, I said. I’m your new neighbor! This sparked a twenty-minute monologue delivered by the old woman from her second story window, and as I said of the mayor’s speech, so was the case with obaachan – that slippery old tongue. And here, I was without the support of a fellow English speaker. For survival in such situations, as I am often in such situations, I have taken on what I think to be a pretty successful method for coping. This involves some very close observation of my Japanese speaking interlocutor, noting of their shifting demeanors, and finally, mild facial mimicry, and selective laughing in quieter moments. This final note is important; one mustn’t smile and laugh at everything even though impulse will often tell one to do just that. It is unlikely that everything is funny, likelier that something said every once in a while is funny. And knowing it is in the nature of conversation to expand so one comment further builds upon a previous statement, with some still relevant deviations from the main stream, I also throw in a few ahs (I see) and ehs (really?) to show I am following the development of the story I don’t understand at all. This tactic kept the old woman chattering on at normal speed; she was fooled. Some time in, once I’d begun to doze, I noticed she paused in her speech. Unusual. She looked at me, tilted her head. She repeated something she’d said before – it was a question! I explained to my neighbor then that I couldn’t hear her very well due to the cars driving by, at which point she said something about cucumbers and shut her window.
An hour later, she was at my door with a bundle of cucumbers, tomatoes, and much more to say. She came by again with more cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplants and watermelon two days ago when I happened to have Crystal here so I have finally been able to make some sense of what she says to me, which is apparently a lot about her children and how she thinks I’m incredibly cute. I like this woman.
The Saturday following orientation [August 14] was an eventful one. Many events. The first was an only-in-Japan combination controlled fish release-and-catch-and-grill, barbecue, water balloon fight, and international sweets lesson. Fish were tossed down a slope into a river where adults and children alike waded with nets, and in the case of one poor child, a plastic bag. This net diving went on for a good two hours, too long for me to maintain too much interest. Meanwhile, I helped in the delegation of S’mores materials to the Japanese in attendance - forty people, perhaps – and showed them how to properly roast and construct their sandwiches. At another station we had chocolate chip cookie bars crafted by fellow junior high ALT Elissa, and at the last, herb bread and hummus prepared by 5th year JET Ashley. Boy, how I’d been craving hummus.
A couple observations from this event that led me to deem it only-in-Japan, besides the obvious net fishing portion:
One child had upwards of ten S’mores. Had that child been in America, he would be getting a lashing from parents later on, or at least a very stern scolding. In Japan I guess ten S’mores is nothing to get upset about. Praise them.
A man, having had a little to drink, seemed to go unconscious while standing, fall, bang his head with great force on a railing of a bridge over the river, and begin to slide down the slope to his watery death. Some other drinkers nearby rushed to grab his legs and pull him back onto flat land. The man who had fallen laughed, rubbed his head, sat down in the bed of a truck, and chain-smoked cigarettes for the remainder of the afternoon. Near death, not a big deal in Japan.
During the water balloon attack portion of the event, perhaps one hundred balloons were thrown. Their rubber carcasses floated in the river, hung from branches poking out of the riverbed, spanned the bridge. After the last was thrown, every participating member set to work picking them all up, chasing them down the river if they had to. Never in America.
Bellies full, three of us and the hummus took off to Shinano City where some others were already swimming in Nojiri Lake. Two hours there with diving platforms, about twelve people, and eventually, rain. The coldest I’ve been in Japan thus far. We cut our swimming short to head to JET ALT Derek’s house for a bbq/party/sleepover.
And what a house it was. My apartment is big for Japanese standards, it’s true, but Derek’s house, or log cabin, rather, is mammoth by all measures, lest it be considered a hotel, then we have some competition. Two levels, the bottom with ceilings as high as the trees outside, natural wood, walls of tree trunks, glossed floors, sky lights, creekside placement, upwards of four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a king’s refrigerator - and a real oven! That not enough? There’s an entire second wing, equally endowed, though cozier, perhaps. And here, Derek lives alone, all because he was so generous to take two very expensive and superiorly bred Siberian cats off the hands of some Christian carpenter folk. Jesus.
The evening was filled with vegetable kebabs, tall cans of Japanese beer, fireworks and lovely people. Oh, and also, some bugs. It was here I suffered my first mosquito attack, three bites in total. Not bad.
The following morning was for detoxing. Well, not the morning-morning, when I ate chips and cream cheese for breakfast. But the following, the visit to the onsen. I referenced this earlier when I admitted to getting naked in a crowd, at the public bath, where all I could really think was, so many different types of bodies. And it was okay. I was perhaps the most conservative next to another new JET, Katie, with our printer paper sized towels covering as much as they could. A difficult way to live, though, maintaining that level of prudence. I eventually dropped the towel. It wasn’t quite liberating, as I thought it would be - it was still above 30 degrees (Celsius) outside and hotter in the water – but I guess sometimes it’s just about being like everyone else, assimilating, acclimating, getting naked in the public tub.
So, a few days have passed since then. I start teaching tomorrow, the first lesson being “All About Me.” What fun. It’s frightening to think these kids’ exposure to America and English and English speaking cultures will all be from my perspective. My friend Dave says they will come to have a very skewed view of America once I am done with them. These young and pliable minds, I will shape them all into artists. Or else, slovenly neurotic fantasists. Ja, ganbarimasu.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Good Mountain


[Written 8/5]

Konnichiwa, and welcome to the first installation of Mitzi does Japan. First, thank you for taking the time to visit, and I hope you find that reading will be an enjoyable and perhaps consistent use of your time. Here you will find the musings and probably complaints of yours truly, mostly in Iiyama (for those of you who know some Japanese, this Iiyama is not ‘good mountain’ but ‘rice mountain’ (not only ‘rice,’ but ‘prepared rice,’ or even a ‘rice-heavy meal’), as every uninhabited square area is ripe rice growin’ space here), but also the vicinity, which may be as far as Korea someday (girl can dream). Given the introduction, I pray you will be at least mildly entertained if not enlightened through reading this, and might even be so blog-hungry after this you will extend your eyes to previous entries which log my adventures at sea. (The second half has gone mostly unread due to my own negligence, so while you owe me nothing, well – sometimes it’s not about owing people things.)

Now that I’ve flattered myself beyond Japanese allowance (‘tis limiting, indeed), I will proceed by inserting some more culture-appropriate comments.

The Weather: is lovely, isn’t it? (If you enjoy the feeling of your insides being percolated, steamed until your fluids display themselves on the outside – the heat, humidity has endowed me with the appearance of an oil-glazed fish just in the oven, the sensation much like that the fish feels post-bake before the metal lid is removed from the dish – ‘tis lovely, indeed!) The days are bright and sunny (as the coils on the stove), and the nights are cool (ed to a chilling 85 degrees) and inviting (if you like to play with anonymous many-legged flying things). We anticipate this weather will continue to bless us and lead us in abundant harvest into the autumn months.

To be truthful, yes, the heat is pure misery, but, boy, is it pretty. After a wholly exhausting week of all-night goodbyes, inter-country/inter-prefecture travel, days long orientation, no-sleep, constant meet-and-greet(-and-drink), I was happy to pass another half an hour (which I could have spent sleeping) just standing outside my door and gawking at the awesome mountain surrounds. And I’d forgotten about these cicadas who follow you everywhere but are never so intrusive as to show themselves – they just let you hear their pretty abdomens vibrating.

Your Family: is well, I hope. (This is true.) Mine is, I think, doing well. I had the pleasure of dining with Papa, Uncle Toshio, Aunt Michiko and Cousin Kaori at a Korean BBQ establishment at the top of a narrow Shinjuku corridor but a few days ago ; I was so happy to get to see Corey (a friend, technically, but I say it feels as good as family in this strange place) who has remained the same wonderful person in the three years since I met him a great many hours south of where I am now ; Mama and Brother are, I imagine, still together in Hawaii, though I haven’t yet had the pleasure of speaking with them directly since arriving here in Iiyama ; Daphne, the silly thing, is surely thriving in our currently empty (but messy – sorry, Mom!) Monterey mansion.

Let the formality cease here.

[Written 8/6]

Imagine: being in a large round bowl - a fish bowl, if you will. Against the glass are thick mountains creeping up all sides, covered with bushy trees packed with the density of wool on an arctic sheep. In the sunken center, an almost-grid with basic necessity shops – restaurants, grocery stores, government office buildings – and one or two lane roads that function as speedways in a mile-or-so radius. In the space between the wall-to-wall ranges and the hollow, sprouting from the rounded base, buildings no taller than four upright vending machines stacked one atop another, with roads, the widths of which are comparable to Yao Ming’s wingspan, passing quietly between. And everywhere, bugs. Bugs of all kinds, little jumping things, gargantuan crawling brutes, large-winged little-bodied buzzing trespassers, baby orange juice swimmers. Luckily I have yet to find any more than the little jumping things in my own sanctum, but word to the wise, this is not a place to bike about with your mouth open.

And then, there is me. Somewhere in the ridge between ground-level ‘city’ and its budding relatives just up the hill, where the town begins to scale the gradual slope toward the curtain of mountain ranges, I sit in the hardwood floored living room of my sizable for Japanese standards home, surrounded by the clutter of school documents and peanut shells. The setup is recognizable, if not familiar, to most – a small, square entryway where shoes are deposited; a four-tatami bedroom with a western style double bed, nightstand, closet, the usual; a toilet like any other you’d see, though this one is equipped with the power of bidet; a shower/bath/washing machine room separate from but more or less adjacent to the toilet room; a kitchen complete with refrigerator and stove, but lacking oven and microwave; and lastly, the living room, which is like any other temporary college house living room save for its small stature, where the chairs are legless and the table is too low to fit even a microwave beneath it. I am lucky enough to have for my recreation a garage and an outdoor chilling area (at least that’s the purpose it’s served thus far) accessible by sliding glass door from the living room. That which might irk some people is the lack of central temperature control, by which I mean no air conditioning or heating. One must be adaptive to survive, or one must locate an air-conditioned establishment open to the public as I have not yet done.

Since arriving here, I have had little free time until today. Upon landing, I was greeted by my supervisor by the name of Fujiki, and by a local JET employee who works in the government office named Alaina. Together, Alaina, Fujiki and I have been winding about town by government car-of-the-day, completing errands vital for my success here. Thus far, I have: opened a bank account at the local JA bank, the JA of which, as it turns out, stands for Japan Agriculture (this is the kind of place I’m in); registered as an alien, as such a title is, for whatever reason, more favorable than ‘foreigner’ or ‘American’; purchased a lovely little used Miyata road bike with such personality the salesman was confused by my attraction to it (the bike can’t quite decide what color it wants to be – silver, white, or grey? Let’s use them all); met those important people employed with the Board of Education; seen the school at which I will be teaching for the next year, as well as the people I will be teaching alongside; been asked to date the single male teachers, all of whom are within my age range so I can’t tell if everyone’s joking; met some of the junior high school students who have finally done the work of getting me really excited about being here to teach – I could get used to being called beautiful every day; sweated a lot; eaten lots of cucumbers (tis the season, you know).

[Written 8/7]

Oh, the simple life. Last evening I put myself to bed at 8pm to wake up this morning at 8am. Still adjusting. An hour for leisurely phone calls and breakfast, then a walk down the street for picture taking on my cell phone so I have something to show you all when it comes time to finally post this monster. I notice that the heat fluctuates a bit – at times it is bearable, sun spreading itself evenly over the plain, others its vendetta against me is more apparent. Oddly, I have yet to be sunburned, though I do expect to develop a pretty flattering farmers’ tan in no time at all. If that’s the closest I can get to assimilating here – everyone is a farmer to some degree – I’ll take it. Boy, is it beautiful. The scenery is, to me at least, much like the backdrop in some of Super Mario’s worlds, with various shades of blue outlining the mountains that get lighter as they blend into the sky. There was a moment of grey yesterday, a peculiar moment, indeed. I had just finally, after days of searching, found the Iiyama train station, and also a fixie bike shop a bit out of place that I am now curious to explore across from said station. As I am waiting for the cars coming from both directions to slow so I may pedal across and give the station a good look, it begins to hail. At this point it is barely past noon, though because I had read something of rain coming around 6pm, without looking at the time, I raced back into the shelter of my home content to spend the evening by my window watching the little pellets tickle the ground. Alas, ‘twas but 2, and shortly thereafter, the storm ceased. And there I was, back in this floor-level chair, testing the limits of its recline for entertainment.

Although the days pass slowly, sometimes so slow I can feel some loneliness creeping into my limbs, it has yet to take hold completely. With the other JETs out of town, knowing I would have all this time to pass alone, I expected it to seize me much as a snake suffocates anything that has any warmth left in it. When the novelty of this place will subside and make way for overwhelming bad feelings, I have yet to know. If it is something that never has to come, well, that would be new for me, but as long as I can sustain the fascination – nay, peace - I’ll try not to live with apprehension.

In a couple of hours, I will be on my way to Nagano city for a festival, ‘Binzuru.’ I’m sorry to say I don’t know what it’s a celebration of, exactly, but I wouldn’t be surprised with how much the Japanese love to celebrate that it is about nothing at all. This is when I say the cliché thing about hoping I will meet some new people who I will want to maintain friendships with over the next at-least year, and that I will ‘make great memories’ and ‘catch the dream’ (so says one Japanese boy). As detached as I am by nature, I don’t want to make this another shallow ‘here’s something that happened to me’ experience. Who’s to say when it started, but one day I decided it wasn’t cool to be sentimental, safer to never be taken by anything, and the attitude I have projected and impressed upon myself all this time often leaves me feeling like I am missing something. With all the time I’ll have to myself over the next year, I hope I can make some advancements in that field. The opportunities I’ve allowed to pass as a result of this disillusioned thinking are too great. The balance, though, a healthy balance will be difficult to determine. While I at once scoff at those romantics who call every rose beautiful, I envy them their vulnerability. Maybe the first step is to stop putting so much thought into it. My ego. It weighs me down.

In conclusion, I don’t really know what I’m here for, but this is what I’m doing. It’s relieving, in a way, to finally realize I don’t know why I’m here. Read my application and you’d be fooled. For now, I’ll just keep sweating; first step to enlightenment is opening your pores.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Year After-Word

Hello, and congratu-lations for reaching the end of my blog. This is the Mitzi of anniver-saries pas-sed: My first day on the ship, first port, first caterpillar, first moment of enlightenment, and the second.

As it's now obvious that my efforts to halt time have failed, the time to write the conclusion has come. It's hard for me to write, as it denotes the end of the action; regarding this blog as "finished" would detach every incident, event and exploit from myself as they join other departed memories that only grow staler over time. This process allows the deaths incurred to die, the love to cease swelling, the excitement to be snuffed out.

With 2009, a tumultuous year of honors theses, graduation, moving back home, it has also been impossible to find time until now, when I am living out each hour of every day, very quietly, until my next adventure.

Now people are asking about my future. I know it's my duty as a college graduate to repay my patron (grand)parents—get a job and live independently of the family I'll visit often anyway, because I love them.

But the truth is that, after Semester at Sea, after four months of being shocked and inspired by the world, I can't help but feel like I'd be cheating myself if I settled for anything less. Maybe I'm spoiled. People have said that. But knowing how large the world is, how diverse, and now, how accessible it can be, I can't settle for less. Not unless my parents kick me out before my next adventure, to start in July of 2010, in Japan.

Beyond career paths, SAS influences me every day; as soon as I decided to live again, alas, on land, my memories started integrating themselves into my present. A feather-adorned vagabond I've seen in Salinas reminds me of Papa Smurf in Cape Town; dirty drunks recall that Salvadorian beer swiper. Why was it so easy to sympathize in countries I'd never been to, when I never even considered my own country? Now, I try to be mindful of their cir-cumstances, and I keep food in my car for the next guy who needs it.

The strongest effect SAS has had on me, I'm a little embarrassed to say, is in the emotions. Compassion hands my lunch to the homeless. Gratitude is what calms me down in long lines. Love insists patience with friends and family. I've even cried watching Oprah.

And for the first time, I really miss my friends. I thought that comparing American tastes with them in Hawaii was exciting, but having memories from eleven countries to share is unsurpassable.

In short, I hope you read this blog. Skimming the first time through is okay, but I hope you actually read it sometime, to learn about me, my experiences, to see that your money was put to good use. Even if you learn nothing, I expect it will provide you with enough material for a good conversation—with me, with my cousins, with an attractive stranger at the carwash who's just returned from Africa—as every good coffee table blog should.

The Coda at the Dock of Miami

Breakfast has never tasted so bad. The eggs are under-cooked, the fruit is bitter and the cereal is too quick to dissolve.

I may be projecting a bit.

As we near land, I resent that everyone is on their cell phones. It's our last day together, people! Aren't you devastated like I am?! I go outside to catch my last view of sweeping ocean before the screams of parents at the port sullies the pristine-ness of it. Bobby, Barb and Nicole are to meet us there, in that horde of people, but I can't manage to find them even after everyone else around me has located their families. It's been so long away from home that I've forgottten what my own family is like—Fridricks? Late, of course.

But we won't be off the ship for another few hours, so all the better for them. We disembark by floors, and ours is about the last to get off. So we wait around in headquarters for our turn, and our friends turns; a few friends come by the room for goodbye hugs. When Eilis' group is called, Kristin and I head up to the gangway on the fifth floor. We can hear the cries and sobs of people before we even reach them. When I hug Eilis goodbye, we both start to cry, but I won't show Kristin, because she'll call me weak. But whatever, I'm sad and I'm crying, and everyone else is crying, so Kristin is the odd man out here.

A sidenote to that: I used to attribute people's lack of emotion to toughness. I have never questioned someone for not crying. But the thought that people can go through this horrible goodbye without getting sad, well, that's something to question. And in Kristin's case, I wonder if I may have ruined her emotionally, after Nicole, Yoshi and I terrorized her so successfully as a wee one. Come to think of it, Drew isn't crying either.

Finally, our turn comes. As I leave, my ship ID is confiscated and I look over my shoulder as if to say, "Goodbye forever."Then a very dramatic exit, slowly trudging down the stairs, feeling as if the sky is pressing against my head.

Little do we know then, but when we get outside, everyone is still there, hanging around the grass lot outside. Eilis has located Bobby, Barb and Nicole, and a few other friends are able to meet the fam before they disperse for their own flights home. Hundreds of hugs later, Drew and Bobby separate to drive back to Ohio, and the rest of us—Barb, Nicole, Kristin, me, and even Eilis—load into the van and drive around until we have to drop Eilis off at the Miami Airport to fly back to New York.

We continue on to Bayside Marketplace for lunch/dinner. In honor of Chris, we eat at Chili's. It's a decent enough American meal, but doesn't come close to sating me after those months of deprivation.

The rest of Florida involves a lot of eating and family loving; picture and story sharing, too.

But a short day later, it's home for me. I am thankful that there is little to say about this travel day, as all flights are on time, no luggage is lost, and nothing positive to the point of mentioning occurs either.

Though I would like to stay close to that ship forever, it departs Miami with the dawn of the day following our disembarkation. So now that my schemes for sneaking back on to sail along into eternity are foiled, and I absolutely cannot return to my home on the ship, I would like very much to return to my first home, with my parents, so that I may start sharing my stories.