27 December 2005

Doubles, Anyone?

Not just anyone, because my tennis people seem to have formed a clique. It's always Jun and me ("The Young") against Mr. Yabe and Mr. Iizuka ("The Veterans"). And today was war. We played the longest doubles match I can remember: 5-7, 6-4, 7-5. In one game, we went through 14 deuces. 14!!! All in all, we played for four hours straight.

I think I earned my dinner.

26 December 2005

A Very Insufficient Tribute to Robert Doisneau

I admit, I fell for Doisneau's girly black-and-white shots of couples on the cobblestones of Paris (1940s-1950s). But I also fell for the shots working-class people in bars or on dirty street corners, not in the center but on the outskirts of my favorite city. A friend lent me a huge book of Doisneau's work. None of the descriptions were written in English, so reading French and recognizing scenes of Paris made me very nostalgic. But the real kicker came when I read about why Doisneau chose to be a photographer. Because he described exactly why I love to write, in much less than a thousand words:

…ou plus simplement une façon de marquer ma joie d’être au monde et de voir clair.

A very rough translation is:
...or more simply, a way to record my joy to be in the world, and to see clearly.

(The translation is less-than-perfect, but) I couldn't have said it any better.

24 December 2005

Merry Christmas, Re-Stated

I sit here now on Christmas Eve, 14 hours before Christmas Eve on America's east coast. It is my first Christmas alone, yet loneliness is the last thing I feel. I reflect on my experiences with Buddhism, with Judaism, with a country of people who claim to have "no religion," and maybe for the first time I understand Christmas better than all the years before when I was surrounded by people and presents and lights. The real message and meaning of Christmas is simple: joy to the world, for there is the great promise that you are, and will be, loved. And the promise of Love is personified by a baby born in a stable. Is it really important whether or not this baby was the Son of God? ("Of course it is," some people would argue. "That's the whole foundation of Christianity -- Jesus as the Son of God.") But I believe what is most important, beyond any ideas of Trinities or Virgins or gifts of frankincense, is simply what this Day and what this Child represent for ALL people: the hope, and the promise, of being loved. And with true love comes peace--an erosion of barriers if not an erosion of identities--and with peace comes the ability to be content with what has already been given to you, and with contentment comes the inner strength and energy to love someone else.

There were two aspects of Buddhism that were hard for me to embrace. The first was the lack of a God in the Christian sense, the lack of someONE to whom I could specifically address my prayers. The second was a quote from a Buddhist monk, who said there was no need to convert to Buddhism, because I could find everything I needed within myself and within my "current" or "former" religion of practice. I read this and felt like a scolded child, like my efforts and readiness to accept something new were "silly." And for a long time I rejected this idea because I felt like it was rejecting me.

But it was always in the back of my mind, and slowly, I have come not only to accept it, but also to agree with it. I don't feel a need to divorce myself from Christianity, in hopes of finding a simpler, less "cluttered" spirituality. I have only to look past the violence and the complicated family trees of The Bible to find what I originally set out to discover somewhere else -- the message of unity and love. And being alone, in a foreign country of non-Christians on Christmas Eve, has taught me exactly that.

It's not that my family, or all those who celebrate Christmas with me, have not tried to teach me this already. But I think it's a journey you have to make on your own before you can fully appreciate it. Never has there been a more appropriate time for the quote that has almost become cliche:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
--T S Eliot

Merry Christmas. A new Merry Christmas; a simple Merry Christmas; one I feel like I am knowing for the first time.

I've never felt more content with God, or with the understanding that there are multiple paths to the same destination.

You are loved, there is hope for peace, and the rest is just details.

22 December 2005

Picture This

There's a 20-something white girl, brown hair, only about 5 feet tall despite all the milk she drank as a kid. It's 40 degrees outside, and despite being inside a classroom, she's freezing because schools don't actually close the windows or turn on the heat in winter. (Maybe they would, if the heat existed). She's layered in long underwear, windpants, 2 sweaters, a coat, a scarf, and gloves, and she's standing awkwardly at the back of a classroom. There are 30 mentally and/or physically disabled middle school children and 10 teachers in the same room. The noise and movements around her never stop, and the atmosphere borders on insanity. The girl focuses on her breathing so she won't flee right then and there. At the front of the classroom, an older lady is playing the piano, and a younger lady is playing the flute.
Suddenly, there is the sensation of large, dry slugs sliding down the fronts of her thighs. The girl jumps and throws her head down in shock to realize that a boy has just shoved both his hands down her front pockets. She yanks them out and places them firmly by his sides, squeezing them tightly to send a clear message, despite the language barrier. She is the only person in the room who speaks English. Before she has a chance to move away from the distracted student, a young Japanese teacher wraps something around her head. A glance in the window shows her that it's a blue paper flower the size of a basketball. "Dance?" the teacher pleads, and drags her to the front of the classroom. She recognizes a Hawaiian aloha tune from the piano. The girl hesitates at the mini-stage, but someone pushes her to the middle as two more hands drape a lei (?) around her neck, on top of the grey wool scarf. "Dance, dance!?" the teacher begs. So covered in gloves, layers, a big paper flower and a plastic flower necklace, the girl unfolds some very ungraceful aloha moves. And in the middle of dancing, wishing she could blow her nose, or drink a cup of coffee, or be alone, she admits to herself for the first time, "I really, really hate this."
Was it so bad? Nah. In the grand scheme of things, it was nothing. But in that moment, she wanted to be anywhere else, and she still doesn't want to go back.

A few days later: that same girl is still cold. She just drank a very Japanese solution of powdered ginger in warm water, a gift from a friend who said it would "make [her] body hot." Luckily for her, she loves the stuff. She's in her apartment and little puffs of air are visible when she exhales. The music is on for the first time all day, and the volume is loud. She's singing and panting, bent over the tile floor in her shower, scrubbing with a bottle of cleaner that has a sparkling toilet bowl on the front. That toilet bowl is the only part of the packaging she can understand. But the drawn-on twinkles told her enough -- the liquid works wonders. Scrub scrub, hey! that black stuff is gone!

Despite the fact that she's recovering from a cold, her jeans are rolled up to her knees and she wears nothing on her feet (they're getting wet in the shower). The top of her, however, is of course layered in long underwear, sweaters, a scarf, and a wool hat. But this time, alone in her apartment, thinking about the people she loves, reflecting on a fun weekend, and singing, she's pretty damn happy.
And you gotta admit, wearing a hat inside is kind of funny.

Bonenkai Photos 2

Bonenkai Photos

21 December 2005

I [heart] Fuji Higashi

Last night teachers held a much-anticipated event, the bonenkai. It's a big party at the end of the year, when everyone eats, drinks, makes fools of themselves, and jumps through traditional hoops and formalities like, "Thank you for a good year; please be kind to me next year."

My school had a big blowout at a traditional inn down the coast. Of course there were hot springs, and the entire floor was tatami, even in the elevators. The best part, though, was that I was completely snug and warm for 24 hours straight. Central heating, big bath, and warm futon blankets. When my "roomies" settled down to sleep we looked like a cozy Japanese family -- 6 people side by side on futons on the floor.

But the important parts happened before we went to bed. Once all 60 teachers got to the hotel, we were like kids on a field trip. Everyone (finally) in casual clothes, running around, checking out the rooms, and playing on the elevator. After a thorough inspection of the place, we threw down our bags, practiced our comedy routine, ate a huge traditional dinner (complete with speeches, toasts, bowing, and raw unidentifiable sea creatures), enjoyed the performances, drank some more, bathed, and finally curled up to sleep. It was such a bonding experience and, even though I've spent time with teachers outside of school, this was the first time everyone has been so relaxed and in the same place. Each teacher has so much personality, and being with them in a different environment was the highlight of the trip.

Here are some random things and explanations of the above pictures. Unfortunately, some of the pictures are too dark because the banquet room was so big. Also, I have no control over the arrangement of pics when I post. But I'll explain the best I can.

  • Everyone draws a number to determine where to sit; all the seats are on the floor along the walls.
  • The festivities begin by toasting and everybody takes the first drink at once.
  • During the meal the rookies (youngest teachers) hop inside the circle and move around serving, pouring drinks, and making small talk with as many people as possible.
  • After all drinking, eating, and performing is finished, the evening comes to an official close when everybody claps once, simultaneously.

  • I performed with Mayumi, Migiwa Sensei, and Takayuki Sensei. His costume is crazy because he did an impression of a very famous, very gay Japanese comedian called "Hard Gay Leather Lemon." Mayumi and I impersonated a band called Pink Lady, which was famous about 20 years ago. Migiwa is dressed as a maid, representing this new breed of Japanese dork entertainment, where maids serve weirdo dorky guys in shops that are a combination of arcades, cafes, and comic book stores. I can't explain how dork-serving maids, Pink Lady, and Hard Gay combined to form one 10-minute comedy skit, but trust me, it was absolutely hilarious. They loved us.
  • The PE teachers--former national soccer stars--ALSO did an impression of Pink Lady, but their costume interpretation was slightly different from ours. (The picture is really dark, but look closely.)
  • I missed Jun's skit because I was preparing my costume, but he did something as a reindeer with a bowtie.
  • The principal and vice-principal performed last, pretending to be members of a boy-band, complete with cheesey (cheesy?) boy-band dance moves.

16 December 2005

Japan, Oh Japan

  • Today a teacher began toting a new coffee mug. It's covered in a Jamaican flag, a huge 5-pointed leaf, and the declaration, "Marijuana can't be that bad for me."

  • The Japan Times ran an article about a Snoopy doll for sale in Tokyo. The beloved cartoon character, cast in platinum and gold, is going for the little tune of 5.5 million dollars.

  • Since I'm on my 3rd cold, I needed to buy more tissues. I grabbed the cheapest ones and the packaging says, "Your skin will be touched softly and gently by 100% high quality pulp."

  • Oh, Japan. No further comment.

12 December 2005

Why I May Have Gotten the Best School in Japan

Today was Monday. And tonight we had a going-away party for a nice, young teacher who was replacing someone temporarily on maternity leave. I'll be sad to see him go, especially since he was the only one around to help me read power switches in Japanese when I blew my fuse. (I know, I'm such a glutton, using the lights AND the air-conditioner at the same time, gee what was I thinking, to want light AND heat simultaneously? [The air-con puts out hot air, and I wanted to use that instead of kerosene]). Anyway, the guy lives in my apartment complex and he's pretty cool, so I'll miss him next semester.

When my school has an enkai (drinking party), we go all out, heading for the best bars and restaurants in town. Tonight, the vice-principal couldn't make it, but he threw in 100 bucks out of his pocket just so we could have an extra-good time on a school night. I was out with my co-workers but I felt like I was out with my best friends (in Japan, of course). And that, dear readers, is why I am happy in this place. Connections among people.

People make everything.

05 December 2005


I feel like so much has happened to me in the past 48 hours -- both good and bad -- I don't even know where to start. For now I'll try the easy stuff and see where this goes.

I went to Tokyo with Mayumi and Jun. It was a whirlwind trip. I saw some great sights, bought some new clothes, ate at a great sushi place, and learned some more Japanese.

I was reminded a couple times why Mayumi is such an awesome friend, and why Jun can be such a nice guy.

I tried uni, raw sea urchin ovary. I mustered the guts a lot sooner than I expected. Uni is small, yellow-brown, mushy like firm hummus, and tastes absolutely gross. A pasty, chemical + grossly-biological taste. I'll stick with my raw tuna and seaweed, thanks.

I pushed through some barriers on purpose and had a very interesting discussion on love (and expressions of love) with Mayumi and Jun. Hopefully more on this later.

I ate some authentic-tasting Italian food.

I got an amazing email about the Duke game. I won't spoil it for those of you who may have taped the game without watching it yet.

Mt. Fuji is covered in snow, and all day you can see the wind whisping the flakes into a crowning cloud.

I tried to keep up the self-sufficient thing, and decided against asking Mayumi for help getting a kerosene refill. (She's my friend, but she still has her own life. It's not her job to cart me around just because I don't have a car. I thought I should do it on my own. Besides, I thought I was being Japanese, by thinking of the "group" and not inconveniencing anyone else.) So, I made it to the gas station in the freezing cold, asked for the correct fuel in Japanese, and dragged that darn thing back to the bus stop. I had to stop every 10 steps to switch hands. The container was HEAVY, and the handle was too small to use 2 hands at once.

The first bus came, and let people off, but for some mysterious reason didn't let me on. I thought the bus driver didn't see me, because it was pitch-black, even though it was only 5pm. I was disappointed but resigned myself to waiting, 20 minutes in 40-degree weather, for the next bus. I had put on extra clothes in preparation for this trip. But there was no way I was making the 30-minute walk home with 50 pounds of kerosene bumping against my thighs. I waited and waited, blew my runny nose, and waited some more. The next bus came, and let people off, but again totally ignored me and did not open the door for me to get on. I was stunned and this time, heartbroken. (Keep in mind I was already having an usually rough day.) Why did he not let me on the bus? Was it the huge jug of kerosene? I had considered this before I left my apartment -- maybe kerosene on a public bus was a safety hazard. But the bus took me TO the gas station, with the jug in full sight. So why wouldn't it take me BACK? Why didn't they even try to speak to me? This was the last frustrating straw in a very emotional day. I wanted to cry. And in fact, I sat on my damn kerosene, in the cold, in the dark, by the side of the rode, and I did just that. I held my head in my hands until the metal in my earrings began to freeze and hurt my earlobes. A few minutes later I stood up, dragged that jug of kerosene down to my school (where I knew Mayumi would still be), and asked for a ride home.

I felt ashamed. But as Mayumi lifted the jug into her car, she squealed, "Are you crazy? Why didn't you ask me for help?" Then I burst into a big story about how I didn't want her to feel used, I wanted to do it myself, and not bother her or depend on her. She was my friend, not my chauffeur. She looked at me and said, "Lauren, sometimes I think you are actually Japanese. But in this case, you don't understand. No one can live a life alone. You don't have a car. So don't be stupid - just ask me for a ride!" I bit my lip but I promised her that next time, I would.

After that Mayumi and I sat in her parked car and talked for a long time. I needed to have that conversation. Lately I've just felt like the shit has begun to hit the fan, if it's possible for that to happen in waves. The whole attempt to assimilate in another country has taken me farther than I expected, faster than I expected. Some of the results are amazing, beautiful, and powerfully transforming. But others are not so pretty. When you enter the JET Program, if you take it seriously, you are signing on to accept an explosion of your social circles. People who never care to keep in touch with friends wouldn't have this problem. But I want to make sure all the people I love really know that I love them. So one leg is running in Japan, so smoothly it scares me. One leg is planted at home in water. By home I mean all the family, friends, and experiences I had before Japan. I say water because you know it's there and it's necessary for life. But water is also something that moves, changes, and takes the shape of its container, yet is impossible to pin down. It's really hard to run with one foot down a new path that you love more and more, and stand in water with the other. However, it should still be possible -- right? Because you have two feet!

But you're forgetting about the JET Program and that third leg you sprouted when you met all the other ALTs! Americans and British and Irish and Australians and Scottish people that, like you, are foreigners in Japan. You think you're in the same boat, and that you should all bond over common struggles in Japan. And you want to maintain good relations, because you think you're supposed to be friends with other people "like you" on the JET Program. The problem is, everyone assimilates at various speeds, to different capacities. Some people hate Japan, or dislike it at least, and you don't want to be around negativity when you're happy. Some people like Japan okay, and don't want to complain, but are clearly uncomfortable with the differences in your experiences. Others just don't care and it's like they never left home. But all of them, somehow (except for 1 or 2), make you feel more out of place than if you were just hanging around with your Japanese friends. And then you feel like a poser, or a traitor or something, for "forgetting your roots," or leaving behind what you know, or becoming too Japanese, or being naive because you're still "in the honeymoon stage."

And the weirdest part of all is when you realize your values are changing, and it begins to affect your everyday life. You gauge your interactions with Japanese by Japanese standards. And then you start to adopt their values, or realize their values match your own, and you can really flesh out your own way of doing things by being in a new culture. But you forget that you are changing! You think it's just you all along! (Maybe it was, and America socialized you into acting a different way!) So when you interact with other ALTs, or people from home, you start gauging your experiences with them by Japanese standards. And then you get so confused, and feel like you're being pulled in so many directions, and wondering what is best for you without rejecting too many things from Japan or too many things from your previous life that the next thing you know, you're sitting on kerosene and crying because the bus driver didn't even try to speak to you in Japanese. And you think, if he had just said, "No toyu on the bus," in any language, you would have understood.

02 December 2005

Taking Notes

Just wanted to share some things Japan has "taught" me about myself -- and by "taught" I mean "reiterated, reminded, or reinforced."

-I like chocolate.
By this point, my supervisor and I have had many of what I'd call mini-bonding experiences. One of the best ones by far was the day she brought me a box of Japan's newly-marketed 72% cacao chocolate. I was so delighted I thougt my eyebrows were going to shoot off my forehead. And she was so excited to give it to me, in fact, that her husband complained, "Why did you only buy Lauren a box? Why not one for me too?" Also, when I opened the chocolate Mom and Dad sent I felt such bliss it was like coming home.

-I have a weird little stomach.
I like to eat about every 2-3 hours. Literally. And I like to eat about a handfull at a time. I like a warm, heavier meal for lunch (chicken curry, can't beat that in cold weather), and a small thing for dinner (salad, yogurt, and God forbid - cereal). I have explained my strange eating schedule about as many times as I have consumed food. Aren't you hungry? Don't you like it? Aren't you American? Food at 9:30 in the morning - did you not eat breakfast? Do you cook? And to all of these questions, I very calmly answer, "Yes." I like the food, I cook a lot of it, I'm American, and if I'm still alive you can bet your rear I ate breakfast. If I haven't eaten by the time you see me, I either have a crazy Japanese medical check-up or I'm deathly ill and you should rush me to the ER. Because a huge part of my peace and happiness is based on my eating, I just don't bother trying to conform to the 3 square meals a day social ritual. I go out to eat if friends go out to eat, but other than that, the food thing I do on my own. It makes me much happier. Now I understood what happened in France, eating like I do all day long, wanting very little at night, but always sitting down to a 3-course meal with 3 matching glasses of wine.

-I like feeling self-sufficient.
Living in Japan is often like my image of living on a farm. I say this for two reasons: I don't have a car, and my apartment is old. All the water heaters are gas, including the one for the shower, and if I want to create heat in one room I must do the following:
1) grumble about the lack of central heating
2) force myself to get up and put on 3 more layers of clothing
3) open the kerosene heater trap door and pull out the big metal box
4) lug the big metal box outside, where it is pitch black and cold, to my locker where the small tank of kerosene is stored
5) open the tank, open the box, grab the plastic pump and pretend to perform very crude surgery as I pump, pump, pump the refill kerosene into the empty box
6) pretend it's dawn, instead of pitch-black at 7pm, and that I have gotten up early to go milk the cows and watch my breath form little clouds
7) pump, pump, pump and damn it's cold
8) store the tank and the pump, shut the box lid and lug it back up to my aparment
9) insert box into heater, wait for the glub glub of kerosene refill
10) press START button on heater
12) wait 5 minutes for the warmth

Then I feel totally satisfied with what I "did all by myself," as proud as if I had accomplished all of those steps on brain-power alone. There's something to be said for the little, daily labors slowly eased and erased by technology. I used to take being warm for granted: Cold? Walk to the thermostat and push that dial to the right. Voila. And even though maintaining my previous level of comfort takes a lot more time and effort, I must acknowledge the fact that I am lucky to have an apartment that gets cold in the first place, and I am lucky to have the money to buy the kersone. It's easy to complain, but after I've done something so necessary to my existence, without consulting anybody, I feel so good. And I'm not cold anymore, either.

- I am a frugal big-spender.
For some reason, the more money I make, the more I want to keep. I'll refuse to spend a lot of money on something I need (a new kotatsu, for instance), and go for weeks spending a minimal amount of dough. I bought bath towels, in the exact color I wanted, for 2 bucks at the dollar store. (I happen to prefer thin towels, thank you!) But if I've wanted something for a while, like a specific bottle of perfume that would cost 30 times my bath towels, I feel totally comfortable spending the money. It's all about discrimination -- the good kind, that is.