You are browsing the archive for 2008 May.

Future Stars

May 29, 2008 in Uncategorized

Today, I was captivated by a teenage boy sitting across from me on the train. His finger was lodged in his nose, probing thoughtfully, seemingly without end. Though I know I shouldn’t have, I couldn’t help but peek at him from over the top of my book each time I turned a page. There he was each time; still exploring. Nary a care in the world. My young students are very fond of picking their noses but this was the first time I’d seen this behavior exhibited in a person over the age of 5. And in public! He continued to dig, I continued to marvel.

Suddenly I was overcome with a profound jealousy. This was a teenager, clad in his navy military-style school uniform, knobby knees sticking out from the standard issue shorts, his face popping over with a variety of ripe pimples, and yet he was apparently completely free from all self consciousness. I thought of the times self consciousness has crippled me in my life – stories I never pitched, plays I never tried out for, crushes I never asked out – and could have withered under the train car’s florescent lights.

Just look at him. Surrounded by benches of strangers, yet spelunking away, absorbed only in his own blissful musings. What strength of character, I thought. What devil-may-care flair. This young man, I was certain, would go far.

F is for ….

May 28, 2008 in Uncategorized

A true story, ripped from the classroom. I give you, my 8 year old genius students’ responses to the question, “What begins with ‘F’?”

Fish (thank you, Seira)

Flower (very good, Koki)

Friday (excellent, Ryu!)


Face of drunk (courtesy of a beaming Reisuke)

Face of drunk. Obviously. A is for Apple, B is for Bee, C is for Cat, D is for Deadbeat Dad, E is for Elephantitis and F is, naturally, for Face of Drunk.

Things that make you go, “ehhhhhhhhhhhhh???????”

Someone’s Knocking at the Door

May 24, 2008 in I'm Learning Japanese ... I Really Think So, Japanese Mix, spazarific

You never answer the door during business hours. You never, ever answer your phone when it’s a Japanese number you don’t recognize … at least not while your Japanese is still chugging along at what feels like a snail’s pace.

You’re doing the best you can. Really. You’ve passed the 4-kyuu, after all. You study daily. You read every sign you see, usually while walking to improve your speed-reading skills. On the way to the post office, the ward office, or the shoe department, you recite the phrases you’ve memorized for the occasion. Health insurance is kenko houken. You wear size nijuni. You want the package to arrive in three days. The phrase for “three days,” incidentally, does not involve the standard words for “three” and “day,” which is why your last experience at the post office was so confusing. You must also remember to use the ultra-modest, polite Japanese that is used in business and with people above your station. You’ve only just learned these ultra-modest verb tenses, which means you’ve also just learned that, for a year and a half, you’ve been talking to your doctor, teacher, and coworkers like a street urchin. Each footstep beats a diligent tattoo on the sidewalk: ken. ko. hou.ken. ken. ko. hou. ken. ken. ko. hou. ken. In person, after much mental practice, you can pull it off. On a good Japanese day, the women at the post office will toast you. “You are skillful!” they will say. You will (humbly) respond, “No, I’m not.”

But when the doorbell rings, there are only a few precious steps in which to practice what you will say.

This is a quote from an exercise in your Japanese book: “You have been involved in a car accident and have lost all your memory but for some reason you can speak Japanese.” Being woken by a surprise visitor who probably won’t speak English does indeed feel something like being in a freak car accident but being put on the spot often means that, for some reason, any Japanese ability you might have is gone. Genkihako. Size junijujibi. I humbly request that the package arrive in mikan*.

*the word for orange, which kind of sounds like the phrase for “three days.”

Sometimes you’re lucky, and it’s the FedEx guy, delivering your couscous from That Japanese is so easy it’s ingrained by now. Yes, that’s me. Heavy, isn’t it? Thank you so much! Likewise, when the Jehovah’s Witnesses come, they speak brilliant English, so they have no problem understanding you when you say, “Stop. You’re embarrassing yourself.”

And other times it’s the NHK, Japan’s big television station. They come early and, from what you can barely make out, they seem to be asking for money because, apparently, it’s the law in Japan that every television owner must pay a monthly fee for the privilege of watching NHK. Which you never do. Because you’re on the spot and absolutely appalled at the idea of paying for TV that doesn’t involve blood, music videos and glistening pool boys, you stand there, stuttering, simply unable to say, “How dare you accuse me of speaking Japanese well enough to watch the NHK? No money for you – I refuse!!!!”


Stammer “I don’t understand,” weakly until they grow annoyed with your stupidity and go away on their own.


Phones can be even more deadly. In face-to-face interaction there can be hand gestures to help you fill in the blanks, but on the phone, confronted with a disembodied voice that uses only the most polite business Japanese (which, remember, you only recently learned). So you flounder and pick out words: ADSL Company. Excuse me. Because. Excuse me. Therefore. Friday. Excuse me. Do you?

I’m sorry, do I what now?

So you don’t answer the door. And you ignore the phone unless, groggy, startled out of a deep sleep, you forget where you are and flip open your clam shell, stricken with panic the second you really come to and realize you are not in New York; you are in Japan and you’ve just answered an unidentified phone call

“Moshi moshi?” you ask, wincing.

“Hello, Liv!” And it’s your supervisor, from company headquarters, using a different extension. “I’m sorry to wake you up so early on your day off!”

“Oh, god, no, it’s really, really okay,” you say in a gush of wild relief. “I’m just so glad you’re someone who speaks English.”


May 23, 2008 in spazarific, The Children

Each week, children die and there is nothing their mothers and I can do but watch. They choke, gasp for air, their faces red, their chubby little arms and legs flapping wildly on the carpeted floor.

Stop it, sensei!!!” they shriek when I cruelly give them a 10-second time limit in which to color their assignments. “Stop it! Too fast!!” And they scribble furiously, gasping until it’s over.

“Silly sensei!!” they howl, when I purposely call a flashcard by its wrong name. “Silly!!!!” Their heads and palms hit the floor with fluttering thuds.

“You messed up, Ribu sensei!!!” they screech when I forget the words to a song. Their squeals dissolve into hiccups and before I know it, I’ve lost several more.

Each week, the children die of laughter. And somehow, they live to tell the tale.

The Type-A Chronicles: Part 2

May 15, 2008 in engrish, The Children

Today’s lesson for 11 year-olds was spelling. Spell cat. Spell dog. Spell hippopotamus. Spell platypus. Spell your name. Spell Shunsuke’s name. Spell Keiko’s name. Spell my name. A ha!!!

I turned to my desk to pick up a sheaf of papers and when I turned back, I saw this on the whiteboard:

Shunsuke is hamusuta.

“Keiko,” I said. “No.”

I added the “a.”

Shunsuke is a hamusuta.

They always forget articles.

Hawt Dawgs for Tawts

May 10, 2008 in Japanese Mix, spazarific, The Children

This is what my children’s classes would be like – in an ideal world.

But I can’t jump that high. And the dazed, tiny toddlers barely realize they’re alive, let alone how much fun it would be to follow my lead. And I’ll probably never be Japanese. I do think, however, that I pulled a groin muscle this afternoon while teaching my 8 year olds the sure-to-be-an-instant-classic “Months of the Year Cha Cha.” Their level of amusement: a solid 8. Their level of commitment: a disappointing 2. My level of enthusiasm: a super fantastic 15!!!, thus my pain level’s fluctuation from a very awkward 6 to a manageable 3.

And thinking today – the Brits teach the kids “rubbish,” and “brilliant,” the Irish dazzle them with their “grands” and the Aussies and Kiwis do their best to bolster that “zed” nonsense. For our part, the North Americans contribute “oh my god” but I wonder if I can’t take it a step further. Sean boasts that he has taught the children to say “good evening” instead of “hello” and other teachers claim to have taught their kids milder swears. Not to be outdone, I intend to teach my kids to speak with a New York drawl. Cawfee. Dawg. Hawt dawg. Oh my gawd. No, Yuki. No. Say it again. Daaaaaawwg. Wrong! Listen. Dawwwwg. Ah, brilliant. Just brilliant.

Must only wait until the lesson’s vocabulary involves snacks, animals, and Western religions. For the moment, I’ll settle for “Whaddup.”


May 5, 2008 in Holidays, Japanese Mix, Looking, My Funny Irish Friend, Oishii

Back from Hiroshima – this year’s Golden Week jaunt – and the verdicts are these: layered Hiroshimayaki is inferior to jumbled Kansai-style okonomiyaki, trolleys are a beautiful addition to any city, and Hiroshima itself is, as many, many others have noted, a true testament to the triumph of life over death. What is it like to be an American in Hiroshima, even 63 years after the tragedy? Tense, I suppose, in the sorrow-free moments; gazing upon the charred shell of the A-Bomb Dome and taking in each exhibit at the Peace Museum had me near sloppy tears several times. Sean, who will not accept that I am American, calmly passed me the Italian language translation of the museum pamphlet at the beginning of our tour and as I crept through the museum – my stupefied reveries interrupted by mewling children or J-Pop streaming from a cell phone – I found myself holding the pamphlet so the Italian words could be seen. I wondered; did the Japanese around me stare at my Western nose and think, “How dare you show your face here!”? My comfort, amid model after model of rubbled buildings and melting flesh, was that Sean, with his 6 feet of height and blue eyes, far more closely resembles the Japanese image of an American than I do.

It is hard to reconcile the images of the gored, wasted Hiroshima with the Hiroshima of today. The trolleys clang, trees with tender, baby green leaves lend blissful shade to the bridges and gentle rivers, costumed dogs bark and children cry over fallen ice cream. Saturday was the Hiroshima Flower Festival and all along a main thoroughfare, street stands exploded with squids on a stick, yakitori, takoyaki and yakisoba, drawing giddy crowds of onlookers and sparkly costumed little girls, fresh from baton twirling routines. Sean was surprised to learn that after the bomb, the city restored minimal banking services and electricity in mere days but that didn’t seem so strange to me – after a catastrophe on that scale, it would make sense that any semblance of normalcy would be desired. Plus, people had lives to live. And today, life is still everywhere in Hiroshima. We strolled the streets, enjoyed ice cream cones, and took a ferry to Miyajima Island, which was just delightful.

The approach to Miyajima is serene, though the famed vermillion torii beckons.

a bit closer

from the beach

somewhat extreme close up

and with the sun beginning to set.

Miyajima is famous for maple leaf-shaped sponge cakes called Momijimanju which are as fun to eat as their name is fun to say. Miyajima is also famous for enormous oysters, which I couldn’t resist sampling at 400 yen for 2 rocky beasts, squeezed over with lemon juice and a particularly tangy unidentified brown sauce. Deer also frolic over the island, as they do in Nara. I can never get enough wildlife. Nor can these kids:

The deer are wilder in Miyajima than in Nara. Everywhere, cartoon signs depict a little girl sticking her hand, full of food, towards a deer’s rump with the word “abunai!” (dangerous) scrawled in red.

Well, I don’t know what they’re trying to say with this sign, exactly – that it’s dangerous to feed deer or it’s dangerous to attempt feeding deer anally. Because in that case – duh. If I weren’t in Japan, a nation that considers poo “lucky,” I’d say the artist simply had a lack of vision. As it is, I’m just confused. Nonetheless, when I saw that little boy two pics above toddling over to the deer with his hand outstretched and no parents in sight, I couldn’t resist calling out, “Gochui! Abunai!” I’ve seen cracker-hungry deer strand abandoned toddlers on high stone ledges in Nara but that was okay and sort of cool, since they weren’t particularly cute. This kid was cute, though, and thus worth saving.

You can see how well he heeded my advice. And I was jealous – I, too, wanted to run with the deer but, as always, they flee from my every advance. They remind me of myself in any Japanese department store’s cosmetic department; I dart from counter to counter, taking in the many shades of eyeshadow, pausing to sniff a sparkly perfume bottle, but the instant a saleslady beams and bleats, “Irasshaimase!” I am gone.

Golden Week technically ends tomorrow, but since I am on the new part-time schedule, I am not slated to be back at work until Thursday. That is jes’ jim dandy with me. I am enjoying the new schedule far more than I expected. My hours are better (two days shifts and 1 evening shift versus 5 fun-killing evening shifts), my commutes and their resulting costs are drastically reduced, and this year, my kids are universally cute and pretty well behaved. I have one class of geniuses who can not only repeat what I say but also think critically. Seriously, nothing gets by them. While my other students would only stare and shout, “ehhhhhhhhhhh???” if I dared to switch pronouns on them, these kids latch on every time. It’s a joy. Also a joy – Persian food. Lately, I miss New York because spring is here, and spring means summer will soon approach. Summer in New York means loads of free events, the fountain spraying in Washington Square Park and dining outdoors. Ah, New York food – such a myriad of choices. I love Japanese food and even after a year here would still select to eat sushi several times a week, but, like the Japanese, I cannot survive eating rice alone. I feel no shame in treating myself to some McDonald’s chicken nuggets once in a while and I certainly feel no shame in enjoying any of the Western restaurants. Last night I finally made it to a Persian cafe I’ve been dying to try, especially since my girl, Guns wrote such a mouth-watering review about a Lebanese cafe in her ‘hood. Lebanese does not = Iranian, but it’s close enough and in Japan, beggars can’t be choosers. There was couscous. There was falafel. There was the pungent whiff of shisha. Mama eat and mama LIKE.

I have no real chores today. My homework and critiques are done for my writing class, the dishes are clean, school doesn’t start again until Thursday, my bills are paid, and my blogging is almost done. I think the lazy “chore” of the day must be scouring the foreign goods stores until I find couscous that doesn’t rival my NYU tuition in cost. I can’t think of a better way to spend the day.