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.