You are browsing the archive for 2007 August.


August 29, 2007 in Uncategorized

It’s been about a year now since I accepted my teaching position here in Japan, and about 10 months since I began learning Japanese. I endeavored, first, to master the writing system – at the time, I thought this consisted mainly of hiragana and katakana; kanji, as it was explained on the website, seemed superfluous. Back in October, I set about to learning the Japanese syllabaries while at my office, using their high speed internet to download the charts, and, on the back of work assignments, tried my hand at writing the characters myself while wolfing down a Teriyaki Boy curry and sushi combo platter. My hands shook, my brow trembled and my end results looked nearly nothing like the examples. At the time, I could never imagine drawing the characters fluidly.

In August of 2007, I draw the characters fluidly, if without grace. My hiragana and katakana books taught me the correct order but, just as my students do when I show them how to write the alphabet, I abandoned it long ago in favor of what felt comfortable. At lunch with Yoko-san and her husband-san, I traced the character for the particle ‘wo‘ on the table (for reasons I have forgotten) and they giggled because my strokes seemed so random.

“Top to bottom,” instructs Sean – whose Japanese script and kanji are practically art. “Left to right,” he says, while surveying my work as I try to draw some kanji – the symbol for ‘flower,’ the symbol for ‘sky.’

“No.” he says. “What … what are you doing?”

“I don’t know.”

“Top to bottom, left to right!” He takes the pencil and proceeds to draw a series of gorgeous kanji, almost without looking.Well, la dee da.

On the train, during one of my seemingly endless commutes, I (for fun) traced the latin alphabet on the arm rest. I was somewhat surprised to note that I actually write my letters top to bottom and left to right.

Since apparently top to bottom, left to right is ingrained in me after all, I sometimes try it when I write hiragana or katakana. But my writing is still like a child’s.

Pants On, Pants Off

August 28, 2007 in Uncategorized

Work, schmerk; shigoto, schmigoto. Like the summer vacations of my youth, O-Bon (and my family’s visit) zipped by …to use a hackneyed ‘idiom’ I was required to teach my adults a few weeks back. Now I am left to teach these children how to speak in full sentences and to teach these adults how to enunciate “l” “f” and “si.” After Taipei and Korea, I am galvanized and can think only of my next trip – Pepper’s invitation to meet up with her during her upcoming South Asian tour is making the prospect of traveling even more thrilling. Oh, Pepper – you travel temptress; you vacation vixen! My body is in Japan – rooted in a 6×6 classroom teaching adults grammatical points – but my mind is in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

When the recent school term began, I was given a new load of Friday classes to take over for Anna, a teacher who recently quit to return back to the States. There are now classes of cheerful 4-6 year olds, quiet 9-11 year old girls, rambunctious but smart 7-9 year old boys and mostly fun 14 year olds.

I taught that new class of 4-6 year olds for the first time the other day and was startled at the uncanny resemblance between the memory of my Italian/Guatemalan brother at age 4 and this little Japanese boy. It was no matter, however – we had shapes and colors to learn. Professionalism, people. One by one, I invited my students to the blackboard to draw the shape I called out. First, Rina drew a delicate triangle and then burly Shin strode up to scrawl a boxy circle. When I turned to Reisuke to invite him up next, I saw that he was naked from the waist down.

The effect was more frightening than startling, annoying, or amusing – this is also something my brother would have pulled at the age of 4, shortly before he took to gleeful flight. Something had to be done – and quickly!

I cleared my throat. “Reisuke,” I said gently and mimed pulling up shorts. “Pants … okay?”

Reisuke giggled and, with some regret, pulled up his shorts. Thus inspired, Shin then yanked down his own kit. As Shin reminds me of no one, it was easier to jump on the matter quickly – “Shin! Pants! Now!” He, too, giggled and got decent.

An alternative course of action, to be sure, would have been to hold a vote in light of this wave of de-pantsing:

“It appears that we’ve had a de-pantsing movement here today. All in favor of ‘pants-on’, raise your hand. Nobody? Nobody? I see. All right, all in favor of ‘pants-off’, raise your hand. What do you know? The exposed winkies have it.”

Later, I taught the 14 year olds. Despite our getting along quite well, towards the end of class, Miko threw her head back and wailed, “Anna, come back!”

She wailed this in English, mind you, so it is fairly certain that she wanted me to understand. Earlier in the class, she and her friend were talking about my clothes in Japanese, giggling when I said, “Pardon me, now?” with all the severity of one of my own teachers. There’s nothing wrong with talking about someone’s clothes (especially when they describe your new red belt as “kakkoii”) but to talk in front of someone as if they’re not there – and to do so, loudly, while someone is trying to teach – is just plain rude.

“Pardon me?” I asked again, after her English outburst. She giggled.

“No, no,” she said, her eyes wide with false earnestness. “I love Ribu!”

Little liar. Hell no – you leave class last. And luckily for both of us, you resemble no one I know.

P.S. – a box of Pocky Sticks goes to the reader who can find the hidden non-Karate Kid movie reference in this post. Because it’s my day off and I can offer treats if I want to.


August 24, 2007 in spazarific

In Taiwan, the traditional form of Chinese writing is still used, even after most of mainland China switched to a simplified version in 1956. The traditional Chinese characters are still used in written Japanese as well. I know about 400 of these characters which is why, though I know about 5 phrases in Mandarin (“thank you,” “you’re welcome,” “excuse me,” “how are you?” “mint chocolate chip ice cream” and “wee wee”) I felt as though I might have a chance at understanding a bit of what was going on around me in Taipei.

To my amazement, I was indeed able to understand a lot of what was going on around me. This was not, to my regret, because my kanji-reading ability is so great; it was because, unlike in Sakiio, many Taiwanese people – shopkeepers, tour guides, hotel staff, waiters – speak English. Nonetheless, I tried to maintain my rule of “hold the English until it’s spoken to you first.”

While enjoying Mongolian barbecue, my parents became thirsty. I gave the passing waitress a meaningful look and, because I don’t know how to say, “Water, please,” in Mandarin, I grabbed my pen and scrawled the Chinese character for “Water” on my napkin when she approached.

“Water,” said the waitress in disgust. “How many you want?”

Abashed, all I could do was hold up three fingers.

The Blacker the Hair …

August 17, 2007 in Uncategorized

Between me and the owner of a handicrafts store in Taipei:

Store Owner: Why do you have black hair?
Liv: (gesturing to her parents, who are loose in the shop) Because they have black hair.
Store Owner: (dubious) Your mother hair is different.
Liv: She paints it. Dye.
Store Owner: Oh.
Liv: This is a lovely keychain. I love Cloisonne!
Store Owner: You and your family are not so tall.
Liv: No, we are not.
Store Owner: I think Westerners are more tall.
Liv: Well, many of them are but we’re different.
Store Owner: (amazed) Ahh …..

Later, after reporting the conversation to my parents:

My mother: What? What does she mean, “why do you have black hair?”?
My father: Okaaaaay ……

Welcome to my world, folks.

Curiouser and Curiouser

August 13, 2007 in Uncategorized

Got to bed late, though I was supposed to wake up early-ish in order to meet my parents at Shin Osaka station for our trip to Tokyo. I lolled in bed, dreaming of glories past, when the obnoxious trilling of my phone yanked me back to the torrid Kansai summer with a grim and sickening finality.

I groped for the phone and my groggy eyes were confused - the caller ID said “Alan,” my buddy from training who I haven’t heard from in months.

“Guess who this is!” he said, after I answered the phone with a weak “Hello”.

“Uh…” I wiped my bleary eyes and looked at my caller ID again. “… Alan?”

“Yeah! Guess where we are?”


“No!”Alan said.  ”We’re at the top of Mt. Fuji!”

In my sodden and stupefied state, I vaguely remembered having heard from others in our training group that Alan might be making the trek to Mt. Fuji during O-Bon, so I supposed it made sense that he might be there now.

“That’s great!” I said honestly, though not without a hint of a yawn.

“Sorry to ring you so early,” said Alan, but his voice was suddenly clipped, dry and his vowels sounded divine. “I thought it might be too early but we wanted to say hello.”

Why does Alan sound British? I thought.

“Are you okay?” asked Alan.

“Yes, I, uh, was asleep.” I mumbled, still confused.

“I told Alan it wasn’t even nine o’clock yet!” said Alan. I was further confused, because though I knew it had been a long time since I had spoken to Alan, I had no recollection of him ever speaking in the third person. Had I been so busy teaching grammar that I had lost track of the current trends in Canadian comedy?

This is what happens, you see, when you stay up too late and are awoken unexpectedly – you can fail to realize immediately that your Canadian friend has passed the phone to your British friend.

The trip to Tokyo took 2 hours on the lovely, shiny Shinkansen. After the first half hour, I texted Alan and Steve.

“Okay, now I’m awake.” I tope. “Congratulations, boys! Thank you for the wake up call but be careful with an old bird like me – I confuse easily.”

In Tokyo, the buildings are shiny, well-planned, and, apparently, my Japanese is difficult for the Tokyo folk to understand, though the Osaka folk have come to know my rhythms. Or is it that I have come to know theirs?

Yet, in the space of one afternoon and evening, I have seen zero bicycles. Thus, I am satisfied.

Even better than the pictures

August 11, 2007 in Uncategorized

Yoko-san suggested that my father, brother and I visit Himeji castle while she took my mother shopping in Kobe. It sounded like an excellent idea to me as well, since not only is it an extremely beautiful and historic attraction, but after 7 months I still haven’t been.

“Scemo will accompany you,” said Yoko-san. Scemo, her son, shrugged.

“It’s the most beautiful castle in all of Japan,” said my father to my mother. “And you’re going to miss it!”

“Take a picture then,” said my mother and the 6 of us parted ways – Yoko-san and my mother to Daimaru department store, and Scemo, Diego, my father and myself to the broiling pavement with instructions to meet back at the train station at 6 o’clock.

“I think,” said Scemo after our mama-sans were out of earshot, “that it will be very hot at Himeji castle.”

Scemo was most certainly correct – summer in my region of Japan is brutally hot and unbearably humid, topping 35 degrees Celsius on some days. Our earlier day trips to Nara and Osaka had been visually gorgeous, yet scathingly uncomfortable due to the rivers of sweat running down our swollen, panting necks and straining backs. My apartment-tini in Osaka – despite its working a/c – offers little relief.

“You’re right,” agreed my father. Already, after 2 minutes of walking to the train station, our shirts had melded to our backs yet again.

“There’re probably a lot of stairs, too,” Diego pointed out.

“Maybe,” I said, opening up the Kobe guide book I had gotten for free in a Sayonara Sale months earlier. Himeji castle was on page 63; beautiful, majestic, with its infamous swooping eaves and, yes – several stories high.

“Hmm,” we said.

We followed our “hmms” to Miyako Hotel, near the coast with its vast cherry red bridge and its deep blue seas. We followed them to the bar at the top of the hotel, with its view of the natural beauty that lay below.

Macha aisu kureemu oneigaishimasu,” said my brother politely, using the bits of Japanese he’s picked up since arriving. Soon, the green tea ice cream he had asked for appeared and we were all pleased. We ordered another bowl, in chocolate this time, and my brother enjoyed a bubbling, glinting nama biru while my father and Scemo sipped campari and soda cocktails as we all gazed at the sea.

At length, it was my brother who pointed out the time.

“It’s five-fifteen,”he said. “There’s no way we can get to the castle and back and meet the mama-sans at 6, is there?”

“You are right,”said Scemo.

“Hmm,” we said.

“Give me your tour guide book, sis,”said Diego. I handed it over.

“Where’s the castle?”

“Page 63,”I said. He began to flip through the various Must-See sites in Kobe and, upon finding Himeji castle, handed the book back to me.

“Hold this,”he said. I did. He picked up his camera and, after adjusting the zoom lens, took a picture of the book’s picture of Himeji castle. When he was satisfied, he showed us his handiwork. There; a perfectly framed – if slightly soft focus – shot of Himeji castle that could have passed for a landscape shot of the real thing.


He showed it to the mama-sans when we met at the train station.

“It’s beautiful,”said my mother.

“Oh, it was so beautiful,” we said.

“Were there many people?”asked my mother.

“A few,” said Diego.

“Was it very hot?” my mother asked.

“It was actually pretty cool,” he replied.

“You should have gone,” said my father. “The most beautiful castle in Japan …!”

“Yes, yes, I missed it.”said my mother. “But now I have beautiful ceramic bowls. And you saw it for me, so there!”



August 9, 2007 in Uncategorized

My brother, Diego, rolled into town a couple days after my parents did, wearing his usual vacation gear – a skintight designer T and sunglasses. As soon as he lifted his arms to hug my mother at Shin-Osaka station, I caught my first glimpse of what has been our secret for the past few months – his brand new tattoo.

Quietly, as he and my parents exchanged pleasantries, I marveled at its composition. “SPQR” – the symbol of ancient Rome – in bold, black ink styled to look like letters gashed into marble. For me, the concept and execution were a success. After several lonely years, Diego’s stallion tattoo has a companion at last.

We took a heinously expensive cab to Abeno because neither my parents or my brother – who had just traveled for 18 hours – wanted to deal with the commuter trains while carrying a suitcase. We crossed bridges; I read Japanese signs. My parents gushed over my pathetic Japanese skills. I glanced in the rearview mirror to check the geographical status of Diego’s tattoo – winking at me from beneath the edge of his T-shirt sleeve.

Finally, the dawn came. Somewhere over the Teppankokoro bridge, I heard a thin, high scream coming from the backseat.

“What’s this?” my mother cried. “SPQR? What is this? How could you do this?”

“Surprise!” said Diego. “Do you like it? SPQR – it’s in honor of you, mamma!”

“Oh my god!” wailed our mother. “Who do you think you are? Braccia di Ferro – Popeye? You’re kidding me. It washes off, doesn’t it? Mamma mia!” She licked her fingers and attempted to wipe off the offending stain to no avail.

The next day, my brother tried to go to the gym and reported a series of cold, angry looks from the Japanese already there. At dinner, my parents’ Japanese friends Yoko and Scemo, informed Diego that in Japan, tattoos are associated with the yakuza and that not only would he find enjoying himself at a gym difficult, but that a hot spring would pretty much be out of the question.

“Huh!” was my brother’s awed evaluation of the situation.

It’s been a few days now since the dawning of the age of SPQR and from time to time, my mother will still reach out her wet fingers in a doleful attempt to see if the letters will smudge. Yet, they never do.

My O-Bon Vacation

August 5, 2007 in Uncategorized

Yesterday, after a brilliant day playing games with the kiddies and passionately discussing Bon Jovi with giggly female students, I gleefully bid the staff members at my Utajo school goodbye for the next two weeks. O-Bon – the Japanese season of honoring one’s ancestors – is coming, my friends. It’s a long time since the words “summer vacation” held any meaning for me, and the meaning is good.

Despite being as un-Japanese as they come and having no graves to dust off, I suppose I will be celebrating O-Bon in my own fashion – tomorrow, I will do as the Japanese and welcome my own ancestors to this Japanese earth; my parents are coming into town to visit and two days later, my brother will come on down as well. I am beyond excited – and not just for the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese my mother has promised to bring.

Sure, my interpretation of the holiday is a bit skewed – the ancestors honored are supposed to be dead, not living. And, technically, my brother is younger than I am so he can’t be an ancestor. But what do you expect? I’m gaijin. I’m also a gaijin who’s about to see her folks for the first time in 7 months.

Dig it.