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Campfire Stories from Japan, Part II

July 30, 2008 in Japanese Mix, spazarific, The Children

Before I resume my Campfire Tales from Japan, I would like to share with you my first attempt at creating a soumen experience at home:

Another picture of food: I must really be turning Japanese. From the left corner: grilled eggplant and pumpkin, meat croquettes, Sean’s bowl of tsuyu dipping sauce, chilled soumen, tako su (octopus and cucumber salad), sashimi, my bowl of tsuyu dipping sauce, a tuna roll, and bamboo shoots. Note: the only things I actually prepared at home were the noodles and the tako su; everything else came from the supermarket deli. Sometimes you just don’t feel like cooking.

I officially have soumen on the brain. There were leftovers last night and they will be today’s lunch. That is the proper time to eat soumen, after all.

Anyway, back to ….

Campfire Stories from Japan (Part II)

Rollin’ on the River

There was a river at our English camp, sluicing calmly through the greenery. On those scorching days, the cool, gurgling river offered a sharp contrast to the relentless sun but we were told time and again: We’ll play in the river on Day 4. Not before.

There were similar river rations back at GCC. I remember being slightly annoyed with them after watching films like The Parent Trap, where it seemed like the campers could do whatever they felt like instead of having to adhere to schedules. We were, of course, for safety’s sake, only allowed to use the river at certain times, with the whole cabin and a couple of counselors nearby. Age 11 marked the last time I’d be unconflicted about my appearance in a swimsuit; after that, we tended to use River Time to lie on the dock on our towels, posing stiffly like Teen Magazine models for photos or, in a defiant misuse of River Time’s purpose, to shave our legs at the shallow end. We rolled up our jean shorts until they could go no higher and managed to balance on the rocks, like exotic birds, wielding our razors awkwardly and beholding the finished products with pride. Nothing shouts “Coming of Age” to me like that memory of us on the river – our knobby, 13 year-old legs covered with nicks, the random smooth patch, dabs of raspberry-scented shaving cream and bug bites.

For our kids, the real draw of River Time was basically to splash the heck out of the counselors. Our head counselor had suggested we bring squirt guns to camp as a precautionary measure and my eyes had lit up – Ammunition! I’d completely misjudged how zealous the children would be, how desperately they would want to soak us. Who knows what we ever did to them, apart from teach them games and songs and make them dinner?

I discovered just how ruthless a few of my little campers could be while I, already soaked by some other little hellions, was recovering on the river bank. I saw them – three of them, a coven of silent, purposeful witches, approaching me – each clutching a giant plastic bag filled with water. My eyes wisened and I reached for my water pistol.

They approached slowly to fake me out. I often find it amusing how children tend to think that adults, despite their obviously advanced age, were born just yesterday. Oh, yeah; three little girls carrying bags of water – I suppose they’re just going to water the crops. How helpful. What a delight. I think I’m gonna move.

In the end, the girls had more stamina than I did; it’s hard to move around a lot in flip flops, in soaked shorts, on a rough, rocky terrain. Three plastic bags of water – floosh. Ah, well. Already soaked and, thanks to Hiro, sporting a hand-stung bottom to boot.

Each time they saw us with a water gun, the children begged: “Kashite! Kashite!” Ha. As if we’d lend them to you. Who do you think you’re dealing with? The Super Soaker was invented for us, not for you.

Camp Songs

Since it was an English camp, there was occasionally some English happening from time to time. For example, vocab lessons about food, games and nature. Songs, too, were being sung in abundance. Our head counselor had suggested we teach our groups of campers a specific song that we could perform for the whole camp at the end. Immediately, my mind flashed to GCC’s Air Band – the towering pinnacle of each camp session. It was beyond exciting; each cabin would have the 2 weeks to prepare a song and lip synch it in front of the whole group. During rest period, we would frantically plan and choreograph. I remember little to no involvement from the counselors, apart from the year we wanted to perform John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane.” GCC was a Catholic summer camp; Jack and Diane referenced teenage sex and therefore, was inappropriate. The edict completely confused us – we’d thought it was just a little ditty with a nice beat – but we shrugged and chose Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” instead. The year I was 13, our cabin performed “The Bohemian Rhapsody” – for me, a song that required no memorization – and brought down the house. Oh, for another turn on the Air Band stage! If only the whole goal of camp wasn’t to get kids to actually speak English words.

It was my first hope to teach my kids the charming camp tune “Last Night I Ate (a Bowl of Jelly)” but this proved disastrous. They just couldn’t grasp the concept of singling out someone in the group and having that person lead the next verse. I was slightly disappointed; I’d had fun memories of singing the song on bus trips from Camp to the wildlife park and thought it would be simple enough for non-English speaking kids to pick up. Alas.

In the end, inspired by a surprise recollection on the bus ride over, I taught them the old hand clapping rhyme: Miss Mary Mack.

Talk about your sleeper hits; soon, every girl and boy was desperate to learn the rhyme and the accompanying hand motions. The boys’ interest surprised me; when I was in grade school, the boys wouldn’t go near the hand clapping games with a ten foot pole. Yet, for days after I began teaching Miss Mary Mack, I had children galloping up to me with their hands outstretched, crying, “I want to do it! I want to do it!”

Up until the moment their parents picked them up from the train station, chubby little hands were thrust out to me, even between bus seats. What amazes me is that these kids so readily picked up on singing the rhyme. They refuse to learn the lyrics to any song I teach them in school but Miss Mary Mack? Piece of cake. Must be all the fresh country air.

The Campfire

And finally, on the last night of camp: the Campfire. There would, regrettably, be no S’mores because graham crackers are extremely expensive in Japan, but there would be a great, big, roaring fire and some campfire tales for the whole crowd.

Campfire tales, too, are a little different in Japan; or at least at our camp. Our head counselor at GCC used to love to leap in front of the crackling fire and, after settling every one down, bellow: “So there I was … in the middle of the Australian Outback.”

“Boo!” the campers would hiss. “Boo, Pat. Boo!”

“Don’t you want to hear about how I wrestled an alligator?” Pat would demand.

“No!” We would shout. “Boo!”

It became something of an inside joke. Sometimes Pat changed the preamble of his story. So there he was … in a swamp. So there he was … in the middle of the forest. The only thing that never changed was that he never got to tell the rest of his story. We didn’t want to hear about ol’ Pat in the Australian Outback – we knew he’d never been! We wanted ghost stories. And we got them; shivering, shuddering ghost stories that forced us to huddle silently close to our friends in delicious fear until the final moment: “You’ve got it!” We’d shriek and scatter and then it would be bath time. The walk back to the cabins must have been only 10 or 15 minutes long but spiked on terror and trudging through the dark, moonlit woods, aided only by some flickering flashlights, it was excruciating.

Our campers got a slightly more positive and uplifting experience: hand clapping games and stories about monsters living in this very campground! The monsters, he promised, would be making a special visit very soon. I could only partially understand, but to me, it all seemed like harmless fun until I noticed little Natsuko shivering beside me.

“I don’t want the monsters to come,” she said, hiding her face behind my back. “Scary!”

My heart broke. Natsuko had easily become my favorite camper, with her tiny, Mogwai face and relentless cheer.

“It isn’t scary,” I whispered to her. “Just watch!”

She shivered and remained hidden.

“The monsters are coming!” shouted the camp leader. “They are coming now!”

The other campers shuffled restlessly.

“They’re coming!” he shrieked. “They’re coming … they’ve already come! I – Kazu! I am a monster!”

“Mouuuu ….*” groaned the campers.

*Awwwww ….

Silently, little Natsuko came out of her hiding space.

Chi Chi o Misette!

This last tale is told by special request for my dear friend, Margot, who I’ve known since I was 6 years old and who was my GCC companion each year. With Margot, I explored the mysteries of life and, later, the mysteries of becoming a woman. It must have been she who suggested shaving in the river. It was she who was always next to me in line for the mess hall. It was she who made better lanyards than I did. And it was she who was there the first time anyone ever referred to my bosoms as “chi chis.”

How sad it is that I must say “the first time” – in Japan, “chi chi” also happens to be the word for “breasts” and, if you’ve read this blog with any regularity, you know that I have my bosom assaulted regularly by my students. This summer camp was no exception – Hiro managed to get in a few squeezes in addition to his rain of spanks, kancho and punches. A few other little girls got me, too. For once, though, the word “chi chi” was not uttered. It would have been too strange, really, to hear that word in connection to my chest in that sweaty green camp setting once again, 16 years after the fact.

In 1992, I was 12 and, really, “chi chi”s were just not to be found.

We were trudging to the showers after one of the campfires. Pat had told us a story about a dead woman who had coins put over her eyes and whose ghost was trying to find the wretch who had stolen them. The trees shivered in the breeze and the flashlights threw ghostly shadows in every direction.

And then, out of nowhere:

“Let me see your chi chis.”

It was some little punk from one of the boys’ cabins, trying his best to sound manly and threatening. Lame, to be sure, but even lamer? He was talking to me.

Me. Me, of all people, the only person in my class who was still light as a feather, flat as a board.

If I responded, “No!” I would have to admit that I thought I even had chi chis, thus, opening myself up for taunting. If I responded, “Okay,” I would be a slut and, then, a tease when I refused. Clearly, given my circumstances, there was only one suitable response.

“Are you blind?” I asked. Yes, even at age 12 I was spazarific.

How things change. When a child feels me up nowadays, I understand it is because my chi chis are beyond compare. Every Japanese child says so. If I could go back in time I would grasp that runty, insecure, flat-chested little 12 year old camper I was by the shoulders. I would give her a deep, comforting hug

Cheer up, little sister! I would say. Don’t worry. Trust me. I’m you, after all – just a lot older and with absolutely magnificent chi chis. Take a look. That’s right. Some day, all of this will be yours. You will be gorgeous. You will be irresistible. Even better? You – yes, you! – will be routinely molested by Japanese children almost every day.

Don’t give up, flat-chested little sister. Wonderful times are ahead!

Campfire Tales Out.

Campfire Stories from Japan

July 29, 2008 in Japanese Mix, Looking, Oishii, spazarific, The Children

Back, now, from the summer camp I was trying to prepare for last week when the humidity locked me inside. It’s been blissfully rainy and cool for the past couple of days, which means the door now opens easily and I take advantage of it to the fullest, sometimes swinging it open and shut simply because I can. On the day I left for summer camp, I needed Sean to wake from his peaceful slumber and wrench the door open for me. Neither of us were particularly happy about it: he, disgruntled to be woken before his usual princely hour of 2 p.m. and I, dreading going out to the summer camp in the first place.

The summer camp: an extremely lucrative extension of my company’s English for Tots program. I first signed up for it out of love for my own memories of summer camp but also before I was officially burnt out on screaming, disrespectful children. By the time the day rolled around, I was panicking. 5 days, I thought. Out in the wilderness, with hollering children. And I can’t go home after 8 hours. I said as much, in a gentle, joking way, to one of the staff members who, last week, was wishing me well on my trip. One of our students’ mothers, lingering nearby, snorted: “5 days? Everyday.” I teach her “active” son and immediately fell silent out of respect.

I write to you now a week later, refreshed by the lush, green landscape of the Japanese countryside, recharged by swapping classroom management ideas with other counselors and energized by meeting amazing, adorable new children. Like just about everything I foolishly dread, the camp turned out to be a beautiful thing and I’d wilt in shame if I could stop grinning. What a marvelous thing it is to get away, to dip for even a few days into the “new” and the “other.” The summer camp trip was a blend of both new and old; I haven’t been camping since I myself was a kid, traipsing through the wilds of Lake Tsala Apopka in Florida, drinking bug juice until my tongue was red and making lanyards until my fingers could twist no more. Our company’s summer camp endeavors to be evocative of the North American summer camp experience, but there are still plenty of Japanese touches to go around, adding some blissful new elements to my own camp memories. And thus, without further ado, I give you:

Campfire Stories from Japan

I. Campers and Counselors

I went to summer camp for 5 years, from age 9 to 14. I skipped a summer in 1990 because my homesickness trauma had inspired me to shout, “never again!” but by 1991, the memories came flooding back to me in a wave of lovely nostalgia. Those really had been beautiful s’mores, so much more delicious when roasted by a real campfire. It had indeed been fun to shoot arrows. And what about those sharp yet somehow delicious smells of citronella and penny, bubbling up from the stone water fountains? I returned at ages 11, 12, 13 and 14 but, for some reason, stopped short of returning as a counselor. Looking back on it, this was a silly move. The counselors have a lot of fun in their own right, sometimes even more than the kids, for whom everything from Wake Up Call to Night Night is a seamless magic show. Behind the scenes, the counselors craft, plan, and shoot the breeze in a special, isolated bunk with the A/C cranked high. In the evening, after the kids go to bed, the counselors drink beer, play cards, and commiserate. Had I known this, I might have stayed on at Good Counsel Camp until I moved to New York. As it was, I remained a happy, if bug-gnawed, camper.

Campers, I find, are different now. These days, they arrive fully equipped with water shoes for the river, loads of snacks, and personal water bottles because nowadays, things like heatstroke and dehydration are taken more seriously. One of my most vivid memories of camp was being eternally thirsty, so thirsty even the reeking penny water tasted wonderful. Our little stinkers sipped their green tea all day, keeping cool under floppy brimmed sun hats and baseball caps.

I remember our counselors, even 20 years after the fact. Being silly little girls we, of course, liked the male counselors the best. They must have been teenagers but seemed like grown, hulking He-Men. We giggled over cute Mark (although I secretly preferred funny Pat) and made up stories about how Chris and Teri must be secretly in love. As we headed into adolescence ourselves, we found ourselves almost flirting by leaving cryptic notes in our cabins for the Cabin Inspectors to find.

Apparently, the allure of the counselor is strong, even today. I myself had a little camper who found himself somehow attracted to me and showed it by spanking me every chance he got. Now, I understand the epic power of my arse as well as anyone who’s ever seen it but I’d like to make it just one day without being molested by a Japanese child.

“Stop, Hiro!” I growled, in English. I switched to Japanese around the time he switched to attacking me with kancho and punches to my belly.

“You must have a spankable bottom,” suggested another counselor. “Or he likes you.” I could dig that; I remembered the whole aggressive pigtail pulling nonsense in grade school. Nonetheless, Hiro’s affections were a tad violent and invasive for my taste. There are other ways to show love, after all. I like cookies. I like cards. Why not a pretty little wildflower for Ribu-san? Why, instead, pointed fingers to the bum?

By night 4, I’d had enough of Hiro’s cheek-crushing crush. When, at that evening’s campfire, he made for my backside yet again, I grasped him by the shoulders and, in Japanese, said: “Stop it. You are rude.”

Hiro didn’t attack me again. Let that be a lesson in love to him.

II. Showers

It was a blistering week, well over 30 degrees and stiff paper fans were fluttering left and right.

“Atsui!” cried the campers. “Hot! Hot!”

I was sweating in places even udon noodle soup didn’t inspire sweat. Bending over a basketball court to make body tracings, I left puddles of sweat on the floor from the backs of my knees when I stood. One by one, children were sent to the heat stroke quarantine area; forced to look on solemnly as the stronger ones huddled under the shady trees, watching the fat, lazy koi cut listlessly through their pond in between activities. We played tag, made lanyards, searched for leaves, and stood on long, sun-soaked lines to enjoy bowls of curry rice for lunch. At the end of such a sweltering day, the only thing to do is shower and sleep.

In my day at Good Counsel Camp, bedtime showers were both agony and ecstasy. Yes, they were refreshing and washed all of the day’s grime off, but the sheer hordes of campers and the lack of enough showers meant bath time was a savage free for all. The counselors did their best to corral us into lines but we somehow always clotted at the door. Multiple shrieking children were often herded into the same spitting shower stall to save time and we’d be shoved inside by a shouting counselor, forced to be naked with others, shivering with soap in our eyes and sobbing, like something out of a Concentration Camp scene in a Holocaust movie.

To my great delight, at our camp, the native English-speaking counselors would have to deal with none of the bath time corralling. It was up to the Japanese counselors to group the kids together and send them into … the sento. Yes; Japanese kids at Japanese-style Western Summer Camp get to relax in a lovely, rock-filled public bath at the end of a long, fun-packed day. And really, what could be better? Cold shower to clean off. Hot soak. Cool air. Ahhhh. While the children bathed, the counselors drank beer, plum wine and played Uno until it would be our turn to use the public bath.

For all I know, packing that many kids into a sento was something like my own memory of shower time at summer camp. I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t privy to the whole rigamarole of sending troops of naked kids into a hot bath. All I know is that, for us, it was heaven.

III. Messing Around

When you’re up at 7 o’clock and dashing from activity to activity in the blinding sun, your clothes soaked through with sweat, all you can think of is food. How long is it until breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? After hiking, playing tag, and speaking, of all things, Pidgin English, you imagine that anything you eat will be exquisite.

And then you go to the mess hall. Ours at Good Counsel was enormous, decorated with the lopped off heads of wild animals and awards won by campers from years and years ago. The funk from the kitchen flooded through the cavernous hall and stank of reheated canned vegetables and ground meats while the pitchers of “bug juice” sat sweating, already lukewarm, on the long, rough hewn wooden tables. We ate everything, though – pausing long enough in our mechanical gulping to point out how disgusting a lump of meat was. Ugh. Mess hall food. The top prize for keeping one’s cabin the tidiest was a field trip to the Pizza Hut in the neighboring town: it was that thought that kept us going.

In contrast, the Japanese Camp mess hall is one of the tidiest messes you’ve ever seen: air conditioned, with the dishes set out all ready once the children come trooping in. Instead of grace, the camp boss leads the kids in chants and rhythmic hand claps that lead up to a final “Ittadakimasu!” A typical breakfast: miso soup, a piece of omelette, a bowl of rice, a sausage. Dinner: rice, soup, watermelon, fried potatoes, fried fish, a piece of hamburg steak. Unlimited refills of barley or green tea. All of this arranged in a lovely configuration on the compartmented plates, just the right amount to fill a 6 year-old Japanese child’s stomach. These were the rations for the adults counselors, too. Much fevered planning ensued. Many of my little campers didn’t eat much, which meant I could help myself to their discarded, uneaten fried fish or a few of their fried potatoes. I heard tales of other counselors convincing their children that two French fries were a suitable swap for watermelon. One must fight to survive in the mess hall.

There was also a barbecue – Japanese style, which is, in itself, a take off of Korean barbecue. Large, oiled smoking griddles were assigned to each of the counselors, as well as sacks of meat, yakisoba and vegetables to fry up for the kids. I set my sights on the sausages on sticks; they plumped when cooked and oh, yes, they would be mine. The smell was heavenly and we ate around the fiery pits of coal, surrounded by peach trees.

Even more wonderful than the calm mess hall with its decent food and the sizzling barbecue was the amazing, totally Japanese not-even-a-hint-of-American-Summer-Camp-in-it lunch on the last day. Pay attention, because this is your Japanese Culture Lesson for the day.

Nagashi Soumen: “nagashi” means to flow and “soumen” are a very thin kind of wheat noodle. They are so thin because, unlike udon which are cut, these noodles are stretched. Noodles, as everyone knows, are a very popular treat in Japan but in the scorching summer time months, they are often eaten chilled. The “flowing” comes into the equation because sometimes, these chilled noodles are served in long troughs made of split bamboo stalks and piped through with flowing water. At one end; the noodle master plucks the cold noodles out of the noodle pot and feeds them down the pipes. Crowding around the pipes, hungry people pluck the noodles out of the trough with chopsticks and dip them into their cups of soumen tsuyu, or special soy-based dipping sauce. At the other end of the flume is a big bowl to catch the noodles lunchers don’t manage to catch. Lazy, unskilled people rejoice and simply stand by this pot to eat noodles at their leisure. Pansies

Not very summer camp, really. When the noodles are this delicious and fun to eat, though, who cares?

Initially, the idea of chilled noodles horrified me. I’m sort of black and white when it comes to traditional preparations. Sweet bread? No thank you. Sweet meat? Ugh. Meat and bread should be salty. Likewise, chilled noodles? Please. Apparently, enough Westerners feel the same way that when eating at a ramen place and ordering a cold noodle dish, the staff will warn you, “It’s cold,” in case you couldn’t read the kanji for “cold” next to the tasty-looking item. I’ll tell you this, though: while the idea of sweet meats and breads still annoys me, in the realm of chilled noodles I’m a convert. On such a hot day, cold noodles are incredibly refreshing and absolutely delicious.

There’s a trick to getting them out of the trough, to be sure. My first attempts involved plucking with the unwieldy chopsticks but I soon learned that if I merely stood my chopsticks into the water, the noodles would catch on them as they flowed down the pipe and – voila – a clot of noodles all for me. Even better; situated between two campers as I was, it meant I could often get noodle rations meant for them. Again – one must fight to survive in the nagashi soumen line. The tangy, savory dipping sauce and surprisingly lovely texture of the cold noodles remains burned into my mind and we will, I believe, be having them for dinner tonight, even though Japanese people don’t eat noodles for dinner. Well, Americans don’t have nagashi soumen at summer camp. So there.

You all look tired now. I think you’ve had enough campfire tales for one day. Come back tomorrow for more. I’m off to the sento.


July 21, 2008 in Japanese Mix, My Funny Irish Friend, spazarific

The summer heat is oppressive, rolling over Kansai in heaving waves of humidity. News reports say the temperature is somewhere in the 30s which means nothing to my American sensibilities apart from “nearly unbearable.” I honestly think I used to be better at tolerating heat and cold than I am lately; last year’s 40 degree winter had me shivering in a frozen block of agony and, as of the past couple of days, this summer’s 90 plus degree heat has me absolutely furious since the humidity is not only affecting my sleep pattern but my ability to leave the house. I don’t mean the heat has sapped me of energy; I mean that the humidity has warped the door and its lock mechanisms and literally trapped me inside.

Sound ridiculous? A few weeks ago, I’d have thought so, too, but as the summer approached, Sean and I noticed that the door was becoming harder and harder to pull open, soon requiring a series of heavy shoves. The warpage theory is Sean’s and it kind of explains the door, but doesn’t set my mind at ease about the lock, which, in the past couple of days, has required even more of an effort than the door. Even Sean must expend Herculean efforts to get the stupid thing to turn. Last night, when he came home from his calligraphy class, he rang the doorbell rather than wrestle with it, only to find that I was having no more luck than him. We pushed, shoved, rattled, and swore and finally, after 5 minutes or so, got the key to turn in the lock. About 5 more shoves and he was inside. The lock, by the way, is new – every unit in our building was replaced perhaps a month ago and was working pretty well until this week.

Today is Monday, one of my days off, which I had intended to use for a bit of shopping. I have, against my better judgment, agreed to be a camp counselor for one of my company’s English Summer Camp sessions. Casual clothes are required and I haven’t bought a pair of shorts in 4 years. Squirt guns are also advised – for games, not for discipline – as are six packs of beer for when the kids go to bed. I’d have bought all of those items, plus maybe some lovely fish for dinner tonight, if today wasn’t such a hot day that opening the lock was impossible. That’s right; impossible. Not difficult, not time consuming – impossible. I slathered on the sunscreen, pinned on my sun hat, jiggled my bike keys in my pants pocket and prepared to leave the house. I twisted, I shoved, I pulled; that lock wasn’t budging. In annoyance and despair, I began to grunt and jiggle the door handle, in hopes that it might loosen the lock’s teeth. Nothing. I don’t know how possible it is to throw all of one’s weight into their two fingers, but nonetheless I tried, growing angrier by the second. It was as if the lock was stuck in place by super glue, so relentless was its hold.

I threw my hat on the floor, to join the bag and keys I’d hurled there when I first tried opening the lock. I shoved and pulled, gritting my teeth, the veins in my neck, no doubt, standing out. In frustration, I ran to the bathroom to get a cool washcloth – Sean had said it was the humidity that caused the door and the metal to warp; maybe cooling it down would help? Again, nothing. Nothing.

For half an hour I worked on that lock. Twisting, grunting, shouting, kicking. Finally, I stopped – I felt the sides of my neck pulsing uncomfortably – and stalked back into the dark living room, where I threw on the air conditioning. Maybe, I thought, the cool air dissipating throughout the house would help. 15 minutes later, I tried again. 15 minutes after that, I gave up. I was, for all intensive purposes, trapped.

So I’ve been inside all day, not buying squirt guns, not buying the “Summer Baa-gen” pedal pushers I saw at JeansMate, not perusing the fish market for tomorrow’s ceviche, not feeling the breeze in my hair as I pedal to midtown. Instead I’ve been writing which, of course, can never be a waste of time. But I assure you that when Sean returns from his karate tournament and finally succeeds at wrenching open this hermetically sealed chamber, I will explode from the open door like a coiled cat pouncing on the prey it has, so far, only been able to watch.


July 19, 2008 in Japanese Mix, The Children

Today, a student – who had been making whistling noises through his pencil cap, belching answers, and ignoring instructions he full well understood – reacted to my closing his workbook for him by calling me a bully. That’s all right; in my head, I called him something much worse. He may one day regret that he was born unable to read minds; there is incidental language to pick up from me that is a lot more interesting than “Close your book.”

From Heart

July 18, 2008 in I'm Learning Japanese ... I Really Think So, Japanese Mix, spazarific

To you from me – the babelfish translation of the Japanese “Information” e-mail I just received from the hair salon I patronize:

Always, it came and the store thank you heat more and more became harsh, but how you probably will pass? Truly the selfishness, August you make 4 and 5 days suspending business. Furthermore, summer vacation of the stylist has been below. Takeda Junko (July 30th, August 14,15th) Mia pure flat (August 19,20,21st Daiki)  Miyamoto Fuyu (August 26,27,28th) Very much, annoyance is applied, but we ask may. Waits staff all and it comes and for the store from heart.

So … then my hairstylist will be around all month. Got it.

In the Soup

July 15, 2008 in Japanese Mix, Oishii, spazarific

After everything else, train station noodle stands are still one of the cheapest ways to fill your belly, which is why, in the oppressive heat of a Kansai summer, melting from every pore, you willingly hand the cook a 270 yen ticket for Tempura Soba. The businessmen huddling over the packed counters around you dab at the rivulets of sweat coursing down their temples with neat squares of folded cloth, and every one in the place eyes the moist water pitcher beside you jealously. The steam from the good broth makes everything fuzzy and encourages you to sweat in places you didn’t know you could and soon, with a little help from the hot red pepper-and-black-sesame mix sprinkled into your soba, every orifice is running. The noodles are slurped by the men in an effort to cool them down but you, after a year and a half, still can’t bring yourself to do it. You delicately sip, twist and twirl and are finally faced with a noodle-less bowl of tasty broth. You’ve been told you shouldn’t drink it – too much sodium – and you know you shouldn’t drink it – you’re already a boiling puddle of your former self – but you want it all the same. Feeling your toes squish in your shoes is what snaps you out of your broth lust and you gulp another complimentary cup of ice water, mutter a solemn “arigatou” to the cook and brush aside the heavy cloth curtain on your way out. It delivers an appreciated gust of breeze.

Throughout the train station, on the way to your bike, you hope feverishly that you don’t run into anyone you know: all of that simmering broth has caused your nose to flow like a spigot and it won’t stop.

To Makudonarudo

July 12, 2008 in The Children

I realize that my installments of the Harried … with Children saga border on tattling; this week I was ignored, this week I was laughed at, this week I was criticized, this week I was molested. Boo hoo. It’s easy to dwell on the negative; it makes more of an emotional impression after a long day of frustrating work and, due to the drama, often makes for a better story. But here I must confess that for all the students who force me to shout with my mother’s voice, there are students who absolutely charm me, little ones I honestly can’t wait to see each week. Today I am inspired to introduce the exquisite 2-3 year old babies; doll-sized, uncoordinated and squiggly with high piping voices and chubby hands that pat at their mothers and the flash cards I lovingly offer them each class.

They arrive in sandals and sun hats, clinging to their mothers’ hands and babbling in pidgin Japanese. There is Masa, who has become bold enough to attempt singing the weekly songs but, of course, doesn’t know the words. It doesn’t stop him from shrieking along, though, and performing the matching actions with great gusto.

Kazuya gaped at me the first class and remained rooted to his mother’s lap. After fifteen minutes of my spastic leaping around, I noticed a single silent tear trickle down his cheek. 12 weeks later, he tries to push ahead of Masa to tear off his shoes and tumble into the classroom, shouting out the names of colors and dancing to beat the band. He has taken lately to trying to nuzzle my lap with his forehead. His mother grins in apology.

Sara arrives for class in frilly dresses, wispy pigtails and pink Anpanman shoes that squeak each time she takes a step. She barely speaks, even in Japanese, and is often more interested in exploring the colorful posters on the walls. The other week, she discovered the word “Purple!” and shouted it delightedly throughout the class, even when I pointed to “Blue,” and “Cow.” I tried in vain to get her to say it again yesterday but, alas, she did not.

Yuusuke is the tiniest and youngest of the class, content to doze in his mother’s arms most of the time. His peaceful face lights up like the Fourth of July each time I bring out the crayons and every so often at something I’ve done that has escaped everyone but him. I’ve never heard him speak; perhaps he is too young, but he does love to wave good-bye.

Mia is the newest addition to the fold; tiny, toddling and initially a bit shy but, by the end of the class, racing to hand back each flash card I’d laid out on the carpet for the students’ consideration. When class was over, she joined Masa in asking me, “Doko iku no?” A fairly straightforward question: Where will you go? They asked this question two times apiece, and given the context, my guess is they were asking where I was going at that very moment, after class, now that the singing, dancing and giggling was all over.

I cheerfully gave them a straight answer – “I’m staying here!” – but am now considering my options if they ask me again.

Down for my nap, I might say. To the beach. Nowhere – I simply vanish into a puff of glitter once my purpose is served. Home, to watch cartoons. To play with my new puppy. Nothing; I’m free if they want to buy me ice cream and hang. To “Makudonarudo”, for a nice 99 yen Hot Apple Pie and Royal Milk Tea McFlurry. Tokyo Disneyland. My answer will blow their minds. I only hope they ask me again; I love it when we chat.

Reason #15 Why It’s Great to Live in Japan

July 11, 2008 in Ex-Patriate Games, Japanese Mix

Living 13-16 time zones ahead of most of your friends and family means you have a day-long grace period when it comes to extending birthday greetings.


July 8, 2008 in engrish, Japanese Mix

After the day’s grammar lesson, our adult students have the opportunity to tell us a brief story, so that we can check their grammar. Part of the reason our students come to our school is for hardcore corrections, the reasoning being that without the correction, they could just crack open an English textbook with their friends.

“What did you do today?”

“I go to shopping …”

Went shopping.”

“I went to shopping.”

Went shopping. You go to places but you go action … ing. Go to Japan. Go to the store. Go swimming. Go fishing.”

“I went … shopping.”

“Cool. What did you buy?”

“I buy one D-bwee-D.”

Bought a DVD. V. V. Watch me. Lips on teeth. Vvvvvvv.”

“Bbbbb … vvvvvvvv.”

“Excellent. DVD.”

“D…. Vui D.”

“Better. What did you do next?”

“I meet friend to restaurant so eat lunch.”

“Met a friend at a restaurant for lunch.”

“Met a friend at restaurant for lunch.”

“At a restaurant for lunch.”

“At a restaurant for lunch.”

“What did you have for lunch?”

“Japanese food.”

“What kind of Japanese food?”

“Traditional Japanese food.”

“Okay … what kind of traditional Japanese food?”

“We ate sushi.”

“Awesome! I love sushi. It’s my favorite.”

“Ehhhhh? You can eat sushi?”

“… Yeah.”


“So what did you do after lunch?”

“We go to buy movie chicket.”

“Went to buy movie tickets.”

“Went to buy chicket.”



“Watch my mouth. T. T. Teeth together. No tongue. Tickets. Tickets – more than one.”


“Great. So … today you bought a DVD, met a friend at a sushi restaurant for lunch and then went to buy movie tickets?”

“… Yes?”

Sometimes I don’t know who’s telling the story – them or me.

Sleeping in Coffins

July 4, 2008 in spazarific, The Children

This is the comic strip I think of each Friday when I encounter Mia, one of my 4 year old students, in the bathroom right before class. In addition to sharing a 3:30 appointment, Mia and I also apparently share a bathroom schedule, which I think says more about my recent green tea overload than anything else.

Mia and her mother usually storm the bathroom by the time I am washing my hands. The first time our ambling bathroom schedules clashed, Mia cringed in mortification. The second time, she hid her face. By the third, fourth, and fifth time, she had gotten over herself and now delightedly squeaks, “Mada?????” upon catching sight of me hovering over the bathroom’s handy dandy space age electric hand dryer.

“That’s right.” I tell her. “Again!” And her mother and I both laugh awkwardly. It has become something of a challenge for young Mia, but increasingly less amusing for me because I know that one of these days, the timing will be off and they will arrive when I am mid-bathroom break, and I’ll have forgotten to press the flushing sound button on the robo toilet. Furthermore, the last time Mia found me in the bathroom, she was so excited that she swatted me on the bottom, as if to reprimand me for getting the timing right yet again. Or reward me; I’m not sure which. I can’t bear to think of what hearing those telltale toilet flushing sounds would do to undermine her and her classmates’ already dinted concept of Teacher as Divine Law.

Today I defiantly skipped my usual bathroom break. Being spanked by a 4 year old once is more than enough for a lifetime, particularly when you add it to being fondled in a grope-and-run and being ritually flashed en masse. When I saw Mia in class a few minutes later, she made no mention of having missed me in the bathroom and I certainly didn’t mention it to her. I was, however, the one cringing by 4:00 and, naturally, when I got home I raced not for the A/C but for the loo closet, which is graced by the presence of little powder blue plastic slippers; a gift from our landlord, stamped with the white silhouette of a naked little girl sitting on a potty, waving away a naked little boy offering toilet paper. The word “No!” hovers between the pair.