Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Spring in my step

I do believe that Spring is now here. I feel it in the air, in nature and in my bones. I feel like I'm on my way to being completely restored. School is out and I'm going to take the opportunity over the next two weeks to do some spring cleaning at work, organize myself for the new year, and get the ball rolling on organizing things for my successor.

I just got back from a short walk around the school grounds where I was thinking about how beautiful and clean it is here and how different it is from anything I've ever known. I'm having one of those "I love Japan" days and people, let me tell you, I'm going to miss it. I have tons to look forward to, but I know it's going to be extremely difficult to say goodbye.

I briefly chatted with a friend who had returned to Toronto after living in Japn for a few years and she's battling reverse culture shock HARD. I wonder what it's going to be like returning "home" to Montreal after calling some other place home for two years. And then moving away and calling yet another place home. I understand the meaning of what Dave has said several times to me in the past: people can be home. But what do we call those places where we physically are but are not technically home?

Yesterday, the visiting Canadians arrived and I got such a thrill from interacting with them and acting as a translator (my god, since "quitting" Japanese, I've spoken more of it than ever before). It's been awhile since I've felt that exhilirated at something work-related. I hope it's a sign of things to come.

The other day Dave and I were talking about doing things every weekend before we leave and I counted how many we actually have and there's on 17!! The weekends are hard because we basically have to cram everything into 2 days. So many places to see, so little time. BUT, we have booked our tickets for Miyako-jima in Okinawa for my birthday in May. We'll visit the lovely Julia, whom I've been communicating exclusively with during our time in Japan. Getting excited.

Hope all is well with you!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Peer pressure, beer pressure...

It's the end of the school year here, and along with the long boring graduation/closing ceremonies in the unbelievably cold gym, there are parties. Lots and lots of parties. Japanese teachers work hard, so not surprisingly, they party hard (okay for a few hours about 3 times a year, but they go all the way). Last week, I went to two. I'm not going to another one tonight. My liver, and my wallet, need a break.

I've mentioned before that alcohol is a social lubricant here but I wonder if it's also used for social cohesion. After over a year and a half of attending all manners of parties, I'm not really sure if I like how the drinking aspect of the soiree is handled. The unspoken rule is that you're not supposed to fill your own glass. This is especially true for the principals and vice-principals. You must be on top of their glasses all the time because they are the bosses. You don't want their drinks to run out lest you want to spend the rest of your career in office purgatory. Or so it seems to me.

So this is the scene: you're working on your meal and working on being entertaining to your neighbours while trying to understand their enquiries about your life outside work. Suddenly, out of the corner of eye, the lunch lady/gym teacher/school affairs officer is bringing the sake/beer bottle to your glass. But it's still full. What do you do? Well, you pick that sucker up and either take a polite sip (usually if you're a lady) or chug it down (if you're a big, strong man). At this point, the pourer (the aforementioned co-worker) gives the pouree (that's me) a hit of the jesus juice. Rinse. Repeat. Many, many times. I used to think this was charming. Now I find it annoying. The other night, I wasn't feeling well as I suspected I was coming down with a cold. I had an enkai to go to that evening so I soldiered up and went (backing out was not an option), but decided that I wouldn't drink. Easier said than done.

When I arrived, I explained to my seat neighbours that I was feeling under the weather and would not be drinking. Knowing that I like to whet my whistle on occasion, I was met with ridicule. My beer glass was filled. I obliged them and drank it. At this point, the warm sake came. Confirming my love for warm sake (for the 20th time), my sake glass was filled. Again, the lady doth protest. But apparently not enough. I obliged them. Then I turned both my sake and beer glasses over. Oh, the howls of protest that followed. For the rest of the evening, and when I attended the after party, my desire to remain not drunk was tested as my co-workers and city hall employees begged me to drink with them, to be one of them, when I so blatently didn't want to be. At 11:oo p.m. on a Monday night, I called it quits and bid their drunk asses goodnight.

Ladies and gentlemen, I rest my case on this charge of beer pressure.

In Japan, there is an oft-quoted saying: The nail that stands too tall, must be hammered down. Often times, I feel that I am that nail, and my co-workers, my students, my neighbours and my Japanese friends are that hammer. I'm constantly told how to sit, how to eat, how to dress, how to pose for pics, how to behave and how to be. I am a foreigner in a land that believes in uniformity, conformity and the ever-mighty group. I knew this before I came and can accept it most of time. I don't often complain about this, but there are days when I'm tested.

The beer pressure, the peer pressure: these are things I cannot change but I fight them because if I didn't, I'd lose myself. I didn't come here to become Japanese. I came to become who I am and who I will be. I used to notice these little wrinkles I got on the sides of my mouth, the so-called laugh lines. But they looked so deep and I wondered if I got them from faking my smile for so long. Now, I don't spend a great deal worrying about wrinkles because my momma's got fabulous skin, and while such a thing is mostly genetic, I don't need to jinx myself and bring out things that don't need to be there. So what did I do? I stopped faking it. I stopped saying everything was delicious when it tasted like ka ka. I stopped laughing at jokes I didn't understand. I stopped doing things I didn't want to do and saying things in the hopes of pleasing everyone. I learned the importance of being me, and staying me, at all the times. I still act diplomatically as I know my role as a cultural ambassador, but I don't pretend anymore and now the wrinkles are gone.

That's not to say that their are still little trials everyday. I wrote the following poem the other day when I arrived at my elementary school's graduation wearing a gray-brown suit while everyone else was wearing black (keep in mind I'm [not] an artist and I'm [not so] sensitive about my shit - ref?):

They try to hammer me down,
but I'm strong, oh so strong.
My will is formidable
and I won't bend, I can't.
Then why do I feel the pinpricks
of their eyes
on my back,
my neck?
I care, but I don't,
but apparently not enough.
I'm different;
But I'm different;
This is my life (July 2005-July 2007).

Oh, the joys and trials of teaching English in Japan. The beautiful struggle. I love it. I loathe it.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Looking back, looking forward...

I've been pretty emotional as of late for several reasons: It's winter which means trying to get out under the thumb of feeling SAD, the season of goodbyes has started, it recently snowed non-stop for three days, and I miss my someone special. I'm also thinking back on all the things I've experienced in this country, mainly remembering the good things because there are so many. That, along with my future plans, coupled with the fast-approaching departure from Japan in July is also having an affect on me. I'm in the early stages of getting ready to leave. My contract will end on July 24, my car insurance will be cancelled on July 26, and if all goes well, I will fly out of Tokyo no later than July 31. That means that I have just over 4 months to say proper goodbyes to my students, my co-workers, the friends that I've made here, the country, and to effectively close this chapter of my life. I have to plan speeches in Japanese, give meaningful gifts to the children and those that are special to me (this is of my own volition), pack up and get rid of all the stuff I don't want and ship stuff home, clean my apartment, create a good welcome package for my successor, sell my car, and mentally prepare for my life post-JET. I'm sweating just thinking about it.

But I'm getting excited.

I'm getting busy and keeping myself occupied during those long lesson-free hours at my schools. I'm in the midst of career planning and figuring out how to get into a new field and I'm SO EXCITED about that. This kind of stuff turns me on. I've also been planning/preparing for not one, but two huge moves: one back home and the other to...
the UK. Yes folks, not content to have one great overseas adventure in my life, I'm planning for a second one. As I type this, my heart is beating a thousand miles a minute and I keep making typing mistakes, but I'm putting this out in the universe. I've only been thinking about it for about, oh...at least a year, but I haven't written about it because I'm superstituous and believe that some things should be kept private. But this is great news, no? In a few short months I will apply for a working holiday visa (send me your positive vibes, ok?), and if all goes well and on schedule, I will be in England by September. Ok, everyone, let's scream a collective AHHHHHHHHH!!! Deep breaths, deep breaths.

So it's no big wonder that I've been all over the map, but I'm getting back to a more balanced me. Over the next few months, I intend to write about all these things with the purpose of not only keeping you abreast on all the going ons in my life, but to lend structure to my ping pong ball thoughts.

Ok, my stomach is just starting to unclench from all this future talk, so let's switch gears and do something fun, shall we? I've been getting "tagged" a whole lot and while I usually ignore those email messages from folks, I thought it'd be different to post answers to those burning questions people seemingly want me to reply to. Here goes:

4 things you didn't know about me (cuz I couldn't think of five):

1. I'm afraid of the dark. Seriously, I'm a grown woman and I sometimes have sleepless nights because I'm so afraid of what might be lurking under my bed, in my closet or out in the forests. I've watched too many scary movies and have heard/seen too many wacked out things, plus I have a vivid, technicolour imagination. While I can sleep fine the majority of the time, I sometimes have those nights where I sleep with the lights on. I curse the following movies: An American Werewolf in London, Signs, and The Grudge.

2. I sometimes have fashion shows in my apartment. By myself. Yes, I sometimes like to take out the cute things I have in my closet and strut around in my apartment like I'm Naomi Campbell. But I have experience; I've been in several (school) fashion shows and I can work it.

3. I love gross out humour. I'm a voracious reader of literature and non-fiction, I love art house and foreign flicks, and I read the news. But tell me about a movie or a show that involves fart jokes, diarrhea and double entendres, and I'm all over it. Anchorman, Dumb and Dumber and Family Guy are a few of my faves.

4. I hate shopping for gifts. I suffer from major gift-giving anxiety and I absolutely hate shopping for gifts. I'm afraid of the receiver hating my gift, ripping it to shreads and taking out my heart while it's still beating. I try to think about gifts months in advance, but if I forget and I'm stuck for time, I'll freak out, go shopping for hours, wear myself out and eventually get something that I don't love. Blech.

Hee hee. I feel good.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Having fun on the cheap...

As I mentioned in a recent post, a few friends and I hit a karaoke bar and sang our hearts out for a little while (okay, 3 hours). I'm not a karoke fiend like some others I know, but every once in a while, I'll strain the vocal cords for the sake of self-expression, stress release and hearing a good song. Regardless of your singing ability (howling dogs ain't got nothing on me), more often than not, karaoke is a good and not-so-expensive night out.

In Japan, karaoke, like onsensing (I'll explain shortly), is one of those things that you do to simulataneously expel the pressures of a hard day and embarrass yourself. Prior to coming to Japan, I'd done karaoke'd twice. In Japan, I've lost count. But it's pretty cool in Japan. I'm not sure if Canadian karaoke bars have undergone radical technological transformations, but I really love the computerized nature of this past time. Here's how it works: After setting up a room with the clerk, you can either used a handheld computerized song book or a tradtional paper book. You choose a song or three or five (which is usually against proper karaoke etiquette), punch the number into the remote control or the handheld thingy, wait for your song to come up on the screen, and belt it out. And the coolest part is while your singing and sweating and making love to the microphone, you can pick up the phone in your room and place a call to reception for drinks and food. Pretty hot, if you ask me.

I can't really say how much all of this costs, especially when you lose track of time and stay in the room, usually devoid of windows for FIVE HOURS, but it's a relatively cheap night out and good fun when you're with your friends. Sometimes the end of the night can be a headache though, especially when you've got 2 rooms, 15 people and one bill. Eeek, bad memories all over again. But for me, I can go every few months and find myself having a good time.
Another way to have a good time in Japan without parting with too much of your hard-earned yen is going to the onsen (hot springs). This is another national past time. Onsening is essentially getting naked in front of strangers, for a fee, but if you're not too shy or don't give a fack, it's a worthwhile and pleasurable experience. I love my neighbourhood onsen with it's lovely outdoor baths, cool lavendar pool, a bunch of jacuzzis, a sauna and a steam room, and so much beautiful nature (it's on a mountain). It costs 800 yen and you can stay for as long as you like. There are also massage chairs, the ubiquitous vending machines, two full service restaurants and an adjoining hotel. A few weeks ago, I went all by my lonesome and had a blast. I started out the evening by having a delicious dinner of miso-katsu don (fried pork cutlet with miso sauce on a bed of rice in a hot pot - very Korean), then made my way to the women's locker room. In my neighbourhood, the baths are sex-segregated, but I've been told that there are mixed sex ones and even private ones for just you and that someone special. Anyway, after getting a locker key and a towel (for 200 yen, or you can just bring your own), I entered the comfortable locker room with its tatami mats, long mirrors and bright lights, and proceeded to get completely nekkid. This can be a little daunting for the unintiated at first, but after a few visits, you get used to it. That is, unless you see the kids that you teach, with their mothers, and just sometimes, one of your first grade boys, who is openly staring at your goods while you try to be cute and ask him, in English, how he is. But I digress.
So, you get naked, lock up your stuff, but the key on an elastic on your wrist or ankle and get into the onsen room. First, before even stepping into a bath, you wash every inch of your body at the shower/scrub station. I usually bring my own things like face wash and the like, but body soap, shampoo and conditioner are provided free of charge. When I went last time, I brought my Oyin products, a shower cap and a spare towel to give myself a deep conditioner while soaking (my hair was absolutely luxurious after my hour in). After bathing, you can then get into a bath. You can use a "modesty" towel to cover your most precious bits, but it's of very little use for anyone who is above the age of 5. But be warned: TOWELS SHOULD NOT GO IN THE BATH! I don't know why, but it's a rule, and it must be obeyed.
And that's about it. You take your time dipping from bath to bath and you just sit and soak. I usually go with a pal, but I've gone with co-workers, and it's a time to catch up and let your hair down, so to speak. I've seen more naked Japanese ladies than I care to remember, but it's an experience I definitely recommend. You feel great (it's almost like getting a full bodied message), and man, are you clean! Oh yeah, some onsens have a rule about no tattoos but it's mainly to keep out the yakuza (yes, they do exist, even in my village), but I think for the most part, foreigners can get away with having one or a few. I have one on my back, and while I do cover it up when my students are around, it's not a big concern for me.
Gosh, don't I just sound like a brochure for Japan???

Friday, March 09, 2007

Been there, done that...

But not in that cynical kinda way...for the most part. The last two weeks have been pretty intense. Lots of travel, lots of seeing and doing things, lots of eating, drinking, laughing and bitching, and precious little sleep. Let take a trip down memory lane, shall we? On February 24, I took the night bus from Nagoya to Shinjuku and let me tell you, it was hella ghetto. I mean, there was a freaking chandelier at the back of the bus. Even the Japanese people were like WTF? It was super cheap though (3,200 yen, about $33), but not worth the price. Ohhhh, Orion Tours, never again.

So, got into Shinjuku at 5 a.m. and made my way to my girl Petra's place to grab a few hours of sleep before my wax appointment. Yeah, that's right, I'm in a foreign country, but I still gotta take care of my bizness. And let me tell you, it was good. But I didn't go all the way to Tokyo for a (very, very, very, very slammin') brazilian wax. No, that would be insane. Worth it, but insane. No, no, I went all the way to Tokyo to attend the 2007 Conference for Returning JETS.

It took place at the stunning Pacifico Hotel in Yokohama (seen on your left) and was definitely worth going to, in my opinion, and not just because we had 3 days off and were let loose in the big city. Despite the ill-focused nature of some of the workshops, geared primarily for those who will be staying in Japan, a few of them were really useful in terms of finding post-JET employment, dealing with re-entry culture shock, making the most of your JET experience, etc. I went to the conference without any expectations, so I left satisfied. I took plenty of notes and the juices in my head, that had all but froze over the winter, flowed freely and wildly and I started planning, thinking and researching as a direct affect of the conference. Jeremy, you asked what I'll be doing post-JET...well, I've got plans (and how!!), but I was debating on whether or not to post them. I'm pretty free with what goes down in my life, as you probably already know, but I'm a bit superstitious about certain things. But who knows, I might share what I'll be doing sooner rather than later...we'll see.

Let's see, what else? Yokohama is famous for their (expensive) Chinatown, where incidently, was the location of our shitastic hostel. I ate too much Chinese food, but enjoyed it nevertheless, and especially enjoyed going to karaoke with Christina, Dave, Ed and Bridget. I also went on the tallest ferris wheel in the world with Dave and snapped some pics.

God, I don't really remember anything else exciting to share with you. Been there, done that.

Another place I went to recently was Hida Furukawa. Ok, let me tell you the deal - the good people of the Hida Furukawa City Hall want to drum up foreign tourist business in the area. To this end, they sent out an invite to the Gifu City Hall office to have some ALTs come to the town for a weekend in order to give them some feedback on attracting foreigners. There would be eating, skiing/snowboarding/snowmobiling, sightseeing, cultural stuff and it would all be for FREE. Those who know me well know that that's my favourite freaking word. We got to stay at a nice hotel with BEDS, eat some expensive assed food, hang out with some old pals and make some new ones and get smothered with Japanese culture. Seriously, it was a lot. As a second year JET, I've done everything we did at least once, but it was nice to practically be given the keys to the city. Oh, and I went skiing, which I haven't done since 11th grade. I told my instructor that it had been about 10 years since I last put on skis but he took me up to the top of the very high hill and made me remember what I thought I had forgotten. It felt really good to ski down the mountain, free and semi-competent. It was also especially gratifying since the lesson was entirely in Japanese save for the words "teacher", "up" and "down". It felt good to hold down conversations with a perfect stranger while re-learning how to ski. Me = supastar.

Well, that's about it. You're updated. I wrote more than I actually meant to about my recent travelling. I have a whole bunch of things about life in Japan that I want to blog about: the karaoke experience, school life, observations about the Japanese, etc. I will try to squeeze in some shorter entries in the coming weeks, but it might be hard as they'll be jam packed. 27 Canadians from small town Alberta will be descending on this tiny, mountain village at the end of the month and I'll be endowed with entertaining, interpreting and translating duties. I will also be attending graduation and year end ceremonies, welcome and goodbye parites, going to doll class, hosting a goodbye party, and going to Kyoto and Takayama, all this month. Throw in seeing the hot Scot and having some semblance of some down time, and I'm completely booked. Should be a trip. Wish me luck.