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.