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The Tales of Genki

September 23, 2007 in Uncategorized

Despite the fact that Japan is the birthplace of the Samurai and the Yakuza – not to mention the perpetrators of the Showa period war crimes – many Americans view the Japanese as a peaceful people; hard to rattle, fiercely disciplined, respectful to a fault, beautifully friendly and above all, unfailingly polite. It’s not an entirely outrageous perception – in fact, I might even venture to say the effect is deliberately engineered to some degree. In Japanese, when one wants to inquire as to another’s general well-being, the phrase most commonly used is “O genki desu ka?” which loosely translates to “Are you healthy/happy/well?” In Japan, to appear genki is the thing – it is considered socially unacceptable to let one’s emotions interfere with their performance or mood. The most common way to express genkiness is by maintaining a lively and energetic attitude, regardless of one’s circumstance or natural disposition. Even ex-patriots living in Japan are not excluded from the pressure – at my school, we are reminded to be as genki as possible at all times. I have noticed that in my Japanese books, there are no suggested responses to the question “O genki desu ka?”

I’ve been in Japan long enough now, I believe, to have scratched the surface of the honorable, pleasant Japanese veneer and detected the less-than-genki human passions that lurk beneath the wa. It can be a difficult thing to penetrate at first – a genki person is a lovely, friendly, helpful person and for a stranger in a strange land, such an attitude is extremely comforting. The moving abroad honeymoon effect also adds to this willing acceptance, to be sure.

Despite the genkiness, wa, bowing and politeness, I have noticed lately that there is an awful lot of slapping going on in Sakiio. To be sure, it isn’t a Jekyll and Hyde effect, nor is it stumbling into a shooting at a club or being cabjacked by a bleeding Yakuza. It is merely the humanization of a formerly one-dimensional set of co-inhabitants, the slipping of a mask visible only to the uninitiated. And to witness the mask of such carefully perfected happiness slipping can be a fascinating thing.

*

My class of 3 year olds at Utajo is lovely, but, as I scrawl in my roll books, “Kazuki is very restless and sometimes the other students become distracted.” What I mean, of course, is that adorable little Kazuki has bratty tendencies. He likes me enough to bound into the classroom before class, bellowing, “Ribu-sensei!” and can be reduced to stitches by my animal imitations, but as time has gone on, he has become harder to keep focused in class. He is increasingly fidgety, loud, whiny and completely disinterested; preferring instead to run about the classroom and keep the other students from hearing what I’m trying to say. Thus, “restless.” Naturally. I have learned to write such comments from my Japanese staff members, who are  masters at gentle insults. When my 12 year olds are being complete jerks, the staff members will calmly observe that “They are very active today.” Sometimes they use the word “powerful.” “Powerful” and “active” are ridiculous understatements, but I have actually grown to like using such language. It feels oddly powerful, almost like using a subversive code. This is how bratty Kazuki becomes “restless.” Kazuki is also 3 years old, which is why I always feel compelled to add “but he is a good boy” to my notes. He’s 3 – therefore I feel the onus of his bad behavior falls on his mother, who is always present in class. Far be it from me to discipline a 3 year old in front of his own mother. Far be it from her to discipline him, either – she laughs each time he shrieks and tickles him between gentle urges of “Hora!*” and “Nani iro**?” so that he makes even more noise. Kazuki’s attempts to kick me or hit me in the face with a rubber ball while I am drilling the other students with flashcards have also met with this kind of “punishment.”

*look!

**What color?

Sometimes, Kazuki’s mother brings her husband to school. He clomps in, wearing a black leather jacket accessorized by square, yellow-tinted sunglasses. He speaks little to no English and when I greet him cheerily before class, he only bows deeply in response. He slumps in a chair outside the classroom, watching quietly until Kazuki begins to scream or kick at me. He then glares angrily at Kazuki until Kazuki’s shrieks turn tearful. The man came to class a few weeks ago – flowing ponytail swishing angrily – and Kazuki was inconsolable. He sniveled, shrieked and the little girls in class stared in wonder. The day’s class was nearly impossible to teach and as I was wearily bidding the students goodbye at the door, Kazuki’s father jerked his chair back and left my line of vision. Aya and Miko tugged on their little shoes and tripped happily out of the room with their parents, but Kazuki sat on the floor, crying bitterly as his mother tried to interest him in putting on his sandals. Annoyed and partly deaf, I left them to their drama and wandered into the school’s reception area, where I noticed Kazuki’s father stalking towards the classroom, with a large, stiff, rolled up magazine in his hand. I heard rather than saw the blow – a savage crack followed by even more intense wailing. The whole family emerged from the classroom; the mother laughing and happily chatting to the staff, Kazuki screeching in her arms and the father bowing solemnly to each person in his path.

*

Last night, Bob, Sean, Andy and I headed down to Toriisuji; Sakiio’s hustling and bustling center of nightlife – a series of narrow streets lined with glittering neon billboards, izakayas and gracefully arranged swooping street lanterns. After a snack of edamame, beer and chicken parts we sipped conbini beers at the north end of the Takobashi bridge, beneath the giant plaster model of a Pocky Sticks box. Sean received a phone call on his cell phone and stepped off to the side. I caught a flurry of activity beyond his tall form – a group of girls in mini shorts, hair falls and tall heels, surrounding a man with fierce ‘burns and a striped button down. One of the girls had begun slapping at him with a flat palm, teetering on her heels as she did so. At first glance, it looked like the teasing sort of slap flirtatious women often give the men in their circle, but the slapping continued. One of the other girls joined in.

I asked Bob if the girls looked serious to him. He said they didn’t, but as we peered more closely, we noticed that the man had begun slapping back. Soon, the rest of the girls had descended upon the man like a flock of ravens and it was impossible to mistake the ruckus for anything but an unbridled slap-for-all. As soon as the man began to slap back, Bob and I had instinctively wandered towards the fray – although I’m not sure what we would have done; taken him down? – and I caught a few angry shouts of “otoko*” combined with adjectives I didn’t recognize.

*man

Two or three men wearing wife beaters and bandanas around their bald heads appeared from back streets and stepped into the melee, holding back the enraged females and blurting what seemed like sensible words to all involved. The catfight slowly dissolved.

*

Last week, my coworker Peggy told me that several of her adult female students have complained to her about workplace beatings. I expressed confusion – what was a workplace beating? I’m from America, where smiling while saying “I need to lick some envelopes” to a female coworker can earn you a reprimand. My coworker explained – she’s learned that, apparently, male higher ups will actually smack a female employee on the back of the head or on the arms if she makes a mistake or annoys them in some way.

“I asked one of my students what she would do if she had magic powers for a day,” said Peggy. “She said that she’d make a rolled up magazine slap her boss up the head. To get him back.”

Peggy then told me the story of the milkshake – in her neighborhood, she saw a man fling the contents of his milkshake at a girl with, what seemed to her, very little warning. I reacted with surprise to the new tale, but was still focused on the workplace violence.

*

Peggy is not the only one with a Public Display of Violence story. Sean, too, witnessed what he described as a “brilliant” scene. It took place in the street, in our neighborhood. A girl and her boyfriend stood outside a shop, blending into the scenery until the boyfriend suddenly shot his hand out, slapped her upside the head and shouted, “Baka!”

*stupid

Sean grinned as he told me this story; hand twitching, cool blue eyes surveying me with a keen hope.

No.” I said emphatically.

The Star Festival

September 18, 2007 in Uncategorized

When my parents came to visit me last O-Bon, my mother presented me with a generous care package full of treats. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Hamburger Helper, La Tamalera Tamales, Barilla multigrain spaghetti and packages of tortellini, Godiva chocolates – it was too much, I swooned. Part of the package was the August 13th issue of In Touch magazine. In general, I’m usually unaffected by celebrity gossip – I worked at TV Guide for 2 years and at a TV research firm for 4; by the time I quit my job last November I’d had more than enough. Now, I can enjoy a good fashion spread or a thoughtful interview – even the occasional scandal – as much as any red-blooded American gal but during my 8 years in New York City, I saw more than enough celebrities walking their dogs, having drunken fights, crossing the street or shopping at KMart to buy into the glamour aspect or snap to attention each time a new Lindsay Watch update blared across the internet. Had I not had friends who worked at celebrity rags or were I not living in America I could have gone forever without knowing if Ryan Seacrest was actually gay. My move to Japan heralded a refreshing absence of celebrity hoopla – Japan has its own celebrities to worry about, 97% of whom are unknown to me. Any celeb magazines here are in Japanese and I don’t watch TV for the same reason. I catch the big Hollywood celebrity headlines from time to time when a friend IMs me with the breathless “Anna Nicole is dead and Britney shaved her head!” news but for the most part, I am out of celebrity touch and okay with that.

Thus, I accepted the In Touch issue with gratitude, yet a small grain of salt. I bid my parents good night and headed to the high horse stop on the corner to wait for my ride home. As I mounted, I felt the stirrings of the familiar quiet longing for something fluffier than my bulky kanji books to read on the ride. It came to me in a flash – I had a magazine! It had been 8 months since I’d read a magazine and I suddenly no longer cared which one I read. I pulled the In Touch out of my bag and set it on my lap.

And then I saw it.

What the fark? I thought in dismay. Brad and Angelina are splitting up?

Wait. Wait. What?

Despite never having been especially attracted to Brangelina, I suddenly had to know more. I flipped to the story and read that Brad wants stability for the kids but Angelina feels that L.A. has too many bad memories and that the children will benefit from a well-traveled childhood. Furthermore, Brad wants to get married but Angelina isn’t interested. Another celebrity split – it wasn’t as though I should have been surprised and yet I was. The Brad and Angelina I knew in January of ’07 were stable – saving lives and desperately in love. 8 months without a constant stream of celebrity gossip has left me in the dark; for me, this rift came without concrete warning.

I flipped to the front of the magazine and saw Rihanna, poised to bite into a strawberry with juicy, glossy lips. A CoverGirl ad for Wetslicks Fruit Spritzers – available in 12 refreshing fruit flavors. This lip product was entirely unknown to me – I’ve been working with Canmake, Ettusais, and Kose for nearly a year. No midnight CVS raids for me here. The lower-end cosmetic stores and sections in establishments such as Loft are visually satisfying though I rarely purchase and I have not yet found a Sephora so I tend to tip toe through the cosmetics departments of Takashimaya and K’ntetsu and bolt as soon as a saleslady beams and bleats, “Irasshaimase*!” at me.

*welcome!

I digress. With only one leg thrown over my high horse now, I read on. Nicole Richie – out of jail and having a boy! Jailbird? Pregnant? Since when? Christina Aguilera – having a girl! What – her, too? The rest of the magazine was filled with more or less the same celebrity gas I remembered – only Posh’s hair and Ashlee’s face were different.

And then – the number one picture that made me realize how out of touch I’ve been and how much time has passed since I moved to Japan:

There she was – her hands on her hips, looking as shapely and luscious as any celebrated starlet. It was Kelly Osbourne, who 8 months before had been easily twice her apparently current size. I always had a soft spot for her and never cared if she was heavy but this was quite a shocking change. She looked absolutely fantastic. How much time does it take to drop that much weight, anyway? How long have I been gone again?

Why did I care, anyway? Celebrities are just people like anyone else, and perfect strangers to me besides. And yet, seeing their faces on the glossy pages was like looking at a high school yearbook; all of the events and people left behind years ago suddenly seemed familiar and comforting, remnants of a time gone by. I had to face it – Paris Hilton’s frozen mug shot was making me nostalgic for my crazy America.

I jumped off the high horse and walked the rest of the way home. I read the In Touch magazine cover to cover. Twice. Three times.

Sean wandered into my apartment and found it next to the bed.

“What’s this – Hello! magazine? Oh Lord, what rubbish.” he declared.

“Excuse me, but it’s In Touch.” I hissed. “It’s an American magazine.”

“Since when do you care about celebrities?” he asked, flipping through the pages. “I didn’t know you liked celebrities.”

Here, I paused. Because I don’t care about celebrities … right?

“I don’t,” I said.

And yet, when Evan and Jiggy IMd me to tell me about Britney Spears’s disastrous VMA performance, I immediately set about to scouring the internet to find a clip.

The MTV site was no help – the performance clips were physically off-limits to viewers outside of the US (I actually swore out of frustration over this). I managed to find mp3s of “Gimme More” but the youtube community was uncharacteristically slow about getting the visual fix online – I had to wait for 2 days before I found it. The time it took me to agree with everything I’d heard – and, by that point, read – was far shorter. I gaped in shock at Brit’s sleepwalk through her come back single. She had been so hot, writhing around on that same stage with a python, snapping her limbs in precise, exciting movements to the beat. It had only been a few years ago!

Sean regarded this with hostility, too.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

“‘It’s Britney, bitch’.” I sighed sadly.

“Oh, right. Okay.” he said, watching the clip. “It’s not a very good song, is it?”

I liked it.

“Why are you watching it, so?” he asked.

“Quiet!” I cried.

I’ve been checking Perez Hilton these days, something I never did back in New York. The unabashedly catty posts fill me with the same indifference and annoyance I used to feel when I happened to glimpse a celebrity magazine’s cover in line at Gristede’s. And yet, they are suddenly a tie to a world that grows dimmer by the day. I click and click. And I click some more. Gimme more, gimme more, gimme more, gimme gimme more.

As of today – September 18 – Britney Spears has been dumped by her manager and might lose the kids. Kiera Knightley thinks she’s big. Suri Cruise and Shiloh Jolie-Pitt are really, really cute.

My, how they’ve grown.

The Drawing on the Glass

September 16, 2007 in Uncategorized

On Saturdays, in Utajo, I teach two classes of kids. First come the 3 year olds, who are fresh and chubby – dripping snot as they play with alphabet blocks, wriggling in their parents’ laps and howling what they think are the words to the songs we sing. Next, there are the 7 year olds, who giggle, cheekily shout out the Japanese words for objects when I drill them with noun flashcards, call my board drawings “creepy” and try to erase the feet off of my stick figures when my back is turned. They enjoy the games we play in class but cannot be stopped there. They are creative masterminds, you see, and must be allowed to explore their own powers. Imagine my pride as a teacher: my kids at Utajo have recently pooled their considerable talents and invented a whole new game of their own: “Stare at Liv Through the Classroom Window as She Sets Up For Class and Run Away Shrieking When She Catches You.” Pure genius – deceptively simple yet rife with layers of underlying complexity that are constantly built upon, never failing to create full minutes of pure, wholesome entertainment. Each week, I watch the evolution of this brilliant game with a keen interest. As the teacher of these young minds, you see, I have a duty.

Yesterday, a new and thrilling twist in the game developed which I must report for posterity, since I feel sure that “Stare at Liv Through the Classroom Window as She Sets Up for Class and Run Away Shrieking When She Catches You” could very well be the next “Hide-and-Seek.” I sat, cross-legged, on the carpeted floor and gathered my materials for class; a handful of flashcards (today’s lesson: junk food), a bell, a witch hand puppet. As I checked Wee Ann Coulter for any injuries from the previous week’s class, there came the familiar knock on the glass. I swiveled my neck to catch the tops of Yoshi and Takashi’s bristly heads, seconds before they disappeared in a fit of giggles. I went back to my work, keeping my ears perked for any new taps that might demand my attention but the glass was uncharacteristically quiet. I shuffled the junk food cards and checked the clock – 5 minutes before class was to start. This should have been peak Liv-Spying time and yet, the little rascals were nowhere to be found. I peeked around the corner and saw three of them – Yoshi, Takashi and Hitomi – hunched over a desk in the reception area, thick in a conspiratorial hush.

Fine by me. I lounged on the classroom cushions, wondering if I had enough time to do a couple of stretches.

A sharp tap came on the glass window to my left, and I got into game mode – I turned to look, prepared to catch another little imp as he scampered off but this time, my attention was drawn to a piece of notebook paper that was pressed to the window by a small, splayed hand. Puzzled by this new development, I peered closer and saw that on the paper was scribbled a stick figure of a man who appeared to be exploding from between the legs, as evidenced by dozens of ink scribbles. The muffled giggles from behind the piece of paper piqued my curiosity further – was I missing something here? It looked as though Yoshi was showing me a picture of a man who had just suffered an attack of explosive diarrhea. As if in answer, a second sheet of paper was pressed against the glass, probably by Takashi. This sheet of paper showcased a stick figure of a grinning man standing next to what could only be a massive pile of fecal matter – and just in case I couldn’t tell, the word “unchi*” was helpfully scrawled next to the pile in hiragana.

*poop

The giggles were growing louder – because I am actually 20 years younger than the age on my gaijin card, I, too, had begun to snicker, my stifled laughter mingling with that of the little scamps crouching beneath the window. They were too proud of themselves – they couldn’t contain it any longer and burst, popping up to make sure that I knew the drawings had been done by them (and here I’d thought it had been the principal). And then we laughed, my friends. Oh, how we laughed!

Poo – the great equalizer. It brings all ages and all races together.

Hooked on J-Pops Worked for Me!

September 10, 2007 in I'm Learning Japanese ... I Really Think So, Japanese Mix, spazarific

In 1976, my parents emigrated to the United States. In as much time as it took them to get through customs, they realized that their quickie Berlitz course (taught by Brits) had done little to prepare them for the realities of the American English-speaking world. My mother still tells the story of the day a DMV employee – impatient with her faltering English and heavy accent – barked at her: “Whatsamatta, lady? You speak Chinese?” My father had his own problems: while working at a hospital cafeteria, he realized he couldn’t understand the customers’ orders and, to compensate under pressure, simply served everybody in line hamburgers.

Minor setbacks nonwithstanding, my parents persevered. According to them, it took about a year to feel as though they had English under their control. My mother once told me that in her early days in America, she enjoyed watching Sesame Street as a way to help her improve her English. “That, and soap operas,” she says. “I watched Another World and got hooked! I didn’t know what the heck they were saying, but they were so much fun!”

When it comes to buffering my own Japanese skills as an ex-pat here in Japan, I employ many different means. I’m fond of quizzing myself on kanji while reading signs in the trains, searching through my cell phone dictionary to find new words, memorizing the Japanese translations in my school’s textbooks but by far my favorite means of boosting my Japanese power is listening to music: specifically J-Pop. I feel no shame in admitting that if a song has a bubbly ‘hook’ I will probably need to listen to it on loop for a week.

Many who know me would agree that my greatest power is Memorization. This is perhaps why learning kanji has felt simpler to me than understanding grammatical rules.

The memory is a blessing and a curse. I have been terrifying people my entire life by remembering some minute fact they told me once:

“So I went back home to see my folks.”

“Oh, was it nice to see Trixie?”

“Uh, yeah, it was, but, uh … how did you know the family turtle’s name?”

“Well, you told me.”

“What?”

“Yeah! Remember that time, at Ben’s party, last year, after we all did the SoCo shot? Raita complimented Gwen’s tortoiseshell barrette and you said you hated tortoiseshell accessories because of your family’s turtle, Trixie. And then you told me about how your family got Trixie at a carnival playing the dart game and your sister named her ‘Trixie’ because you all thought the carnival dude was trying to trick you into taking her over the other turtles… Marcus, are you okay?”

“Dude. You’re sick. Get away from me.”

And in my secret heart of hearts, I cry … or I assuage my tears by listening to a song a few times and come away remembering half the lyrics. It takes a bit longer when listening to Japanese songs, since I understand little of the lyrics but nonetheless, it still works. If I’m armed with an English translation I can easily learn grammatical structures and phrases far beyond my level.

In fact, my ride to Japan more or less began after my dear friend Guppy referred me to this clip:

At the time, I had been toying with the idea of moving abroad (I had, indeed, already signed up for my Global TESOL course) but was still undecided as to where I would go. I joked that I would eventually choose the country with the best boy band. I have since learned that Happa Tai – the nearly naked dancing dudes – are not a boy band, but are in fact, a comedian troupe. Since I adore all things ridiculous, they blew my mind upon the first viewing and within a few weeks I had the lyrics and their meanings memorized. This is how I am able to recognize and sometimes use conditional verbs and urge people to “try keeping dogs – they’re cute!” It is also how, at karaoke, I am able to convince strangers that my Japanese skills are far higher than they are.

For my birthday in March, Sean gave me a copy of Learning Language Through Lyrics (Volume 1: Classical Japanese Pop Songs). Thus, my next J-pop obsession became Iruka’s 70′s hit, “Nagori Yuki” (“Lingering Snowfall”):

Though I have not yet unleashed my rendition of this wistful love ballad on my karaoke friends, it is coming. I have delighted many older adult students by referencing this song. I also have the word for “snow” burned in my memory and can say that “X is even more X than last year.”

Here is the latest J-pop song I have become obsessed with: RSP’s sample of Miki Douzan’s 2001 hit “Lifetime Respect,” first encountered when Bob belted out a truly respectable rendition at karaoke last month.

Hooked on J-Pop works; though I only have a couple of lines memorized so far, my skills have developed to the point that I can tell you that the chorused couplet of “issho, issho” means “lifetime, lifetime.” Further: the “woah-oh-ohs” mean “woah-oh-oh.” On fire here.

In related news, I have – after a bit of goading from Sean, Bob, and Steve – decided to submit my application to take the 4-kyuu part of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test that is given every December. I originally resisted the idea because taking the lowest level of an exam (the only one I currently qualify for) didn’t seem like much to blog home about but my friends have encouraged me to have a change of heart. While taking the lowest level of an exam is not very exciting (Sean, Bob, and Mike will be taking the 2-kyuu), studying for it will force me to really polish my skills. Applicants for the 4-kyuu must have a command of basic grammar, be able to read and write simple sentences in Japanese, know about 800 words and about 100 kanji (I know about 400). So while it is the lowest level of the exam, it is still somewhat involved and passing it is something I couldn’t have even dreamed of a year ago.

Thus, respect for a life time. Woah-oh.

In Which the Bleeding, Liberal Heart Does Not Go On

September 5, 2007 in Uncategorized

Once the norm, corporal punishment is still a debated topic in today’s Japan even decades after it was outlawed. I, myself, as an American who grew up in the 80s and 90s, am terrified to even raise my voice to a child in the classroom. Imagine my shock this past week to discover not one but multiple instances that demanded the harshest corporal punishment imaginable! Even my bleeding liberal heart could not be persuaded otherwise.

Last week, kids at my school learned X, Y, and Z. Seemingly innocuous subject matter, to be sure. However …

I pointed to “X” on the all-mighty ABC chart and, as expected, my students crowed, “X!” We chanted the name of the letter and its sound. We sang the name of the one child-accessible word beginning with “X” – “X-Ray.”

I pointed to “Y” on the chart. “Y!” cried my students. “Yellow, yellow!” we shouted. “Yolk, yolk!” It was becoming quite the raucous lesson.

I pointed to “Z” on the chart.

“Zed!” they howled.

I lurched as if kicked in the stomach. Zed? Zed??? I held an unsteady hand out to balance myself.

Perhaps it had only been little Kumiko, I thought feverishly. Perhaps she was the only one who for some unimaginable reason had said “zed” and her loud voice had drowned out the others’. Perhaps my other kids were still worthy of being called good students. I decided to give them another chance – needed to give them another chance.

Swallowing roughly, I shakily swung my pointer stick back to “Z.”

“What’s this?” I asked again in the most timorous, hopeful voice. I waited in breathless thrall.

“ZED!” cried my children – all my children. There could now be no mistake. I tried to imagine which one of my fellow teachers could have been responsible for this monstrosity. Had it been Duncan from Vancouver? Kim from New Zealand? Aussie Mike (and I had so liked Mike!)? English Steve or Irish Sean – had they been the ones to betray our mission? Fine friends indeed! Oh, there would be consequences for this grave insult. And none of the sorry culprit’s “But America is the only English-speaking country not to blah blah blah” noise. Zed – how dare they?

But first, the children.

In my broken, weary, no longer bleeding heart I knew that there was only one thing to do – the cane for each and every one!!!! Zed. Zed!

And yet, in Japan, corporal punishment is now illegal.

My hands were tied.

Boiled Crap

September 4, 2007 in engrish

According to Yahoo! News – and various other publications – winning the bid for the 2008 Olympics has inspired Beijing to finally take the plunge and fix the Engrish that has run rampant on their signs and menus for decades. The rest of China is expected to follow suit.

Japan, take note. A few shots from my personal collection;100_41251.jpg100_4011.jpg100_4722.jpg100_4345.jpgengrish.jpg699243198_62437e6140.jpg070210_16250001.jpg070126_19410001.jpg070121_15420001.jpgSeriously.