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Conbini Lunch

October 28, 2008 in Oishii

Sometimes, when you’re rooting around for the day’s lunch in the conbini next to school, the choice is immediately clear: 

Note the Southeast Asia on a Shoestring guidebook in my lunch tableau. Plans are a-stirring. 

I Am Bob

October 27, 2008 in Ex-Patriate Games, I'm Learning Japanese ... I Really Think So, My Funny Irish Friend, spazarific

Our Visas say we’re English teachers but we’re not; not really. He’s an engineer. She’s a photographer. Him over there? He’s having a little adventure before he starts med school. Yet we’re parsing the sentences. We’re highlighting the difference between “l” and “r.” We’re wearing the suits, cracking the textbooks, bribing children into behaving by offering candy, stickers and prizes. It’s not really our life and yet, for the moment, it is. Sometimes, when thinking about unpleasant things like the lousy economy back home, it’s a comforting thing. Other times, it’s supremely frustrating. This isn’t me. This isn’t what I’m good at. This isn’t what I’m supposed to do. But as long as you’re in Japan you do it, and you do it as best as you can.

When you do get a rare taste of your real life, though, it’s bliss. The positive responses I’ve gotten to this here blog have given me the courage to pitch travel articles to various magazines, based in both Japan and the U.S.. To date, I will have 2 stories coming out in November and 1 in December. For the first time in a long while, I feel like me … or the me I want to be. So thank you very, very much for your support.

It’s just as exciting when I get to watch friends experience a bit of their real lives, too.

Bob is a musician. When we were neighbors in Osaka, I considered the apartment building’s cardboard walls a boon each time I was able to eavesdrop on his practice, serenaded one day by the strums of his guitar and the next by the ghostly wails of the oboe. When he moved across town, he took up shamisen and has, in the past few months, become part of the local Philharmonic Orchestra as well. Every couple of months, they give a concert, which I always eagerly anticipate: a Bob concert means that Sean and I put on clean clothes and hit the town in style for a welcome afternoon of beautiful music.

Bob’s name always leaps out from the sea of Kanji in the program; the only name written in Romaji. His is the only non-Asian face in the orchestra, too, and as if to further highlight this, oboe players are seated at center stage. He shuffles in with the rest of the orchestra in their tuxedos and whispering black dresses. The moment before the musicians raise the instruments is fraught with tension. They play Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Brahms, and Sean and I grin at each other in the dark; proud and happy. We’re usually the only Western audience members – if anyone cared to look at us, they’d probably guess we were here to see Bob perform. They’d be right, but not just because he’s a fellow homie. He’s terrific.

The other week, Bob had a shamisen concert. I’d missed his last one due to work and regretted it bitterly ever since so there was no way I’d miss this one, too. Sean had a class he couldn’t get out of so I went stag, humming to myself with excitement. It was to be my first traditional Japanese art concert; it seemed only fitting that the path to the venue was flanked by a large, glowering temple surrounded by perfectly manicured bonsai.

I was greeted at the entrance by two little girls, curled up in the laps of their mothers. They were precious in their red and blue kimonos, their hair in pigtails.

“Welcome to our show!” they chanted sunnily, no doubt relentlessly schooled by their mothers to recite the phrase with just the right mix of propriety and cuteness.

“Hello,” I said. “Your kimonos are beautiful.”

They were instantly shy; their mothers hadn’t told them what to say when getting a compliment from a big-nosed stranger.

“Say ‘thank you!’” came the whisper behind them.

“Arigatou Gozaimasu!” they bleated.

Their mothers handed me a paper bag full of treats for the concert intermission and I went inside. The concert was held inside Bob’s teacher’s home and the living room had been transformed by swathes of gold fabric and rows of small chairs covered with cushions. I arranged myself among the parents and siblings and caught a glimpse of Bob behind the kitchen’s swinging door. He was resplendent in a navy blue yukata – the only non-Japanese student. It was a recital for family and friends and, once again, it was pretty obvious who I had come to see. Nonetheless, all of the other people in the audience weren’t so easily identifiable. This was why, after the students had assembled on the small stage in their gorgeous kaleidoscope of kimono colors and the teacher had made her opening remarks, she passed the microphone to the first parent on her left. The parent spoke and then passed the microphone to the next person in the row. That person spoke, too, and passed the microphone on. Through my dawning horror that everybody in the audience would have to speak, I struggled to understand what each person was saying. After the 6th person had spoken, I understood that everyone was saying who they had come to see. Simple enough. All I’d have to do was repeat what everyone was saying. And say as little as possible. Yes. If I said as little as possible I’d be less prone to making mistakes and it would be over that much sooner. I would remain in one piece.

The microphone was passed to me and I caught the expectant lift of Bob’s cocked eyebrow. As little as possible. Just repeat what everyone else has said but say as little as possible. Ladies and gentlemen, in my performance anxiety, I managed to follow 50% of my own advice. That is, the “say as little as possible” part.

“Konnichiwa,” I said. “Bobbu desu.”

“What?” Bob yelped from the stage. Of course – in my determination to say as little as possible I’d said, “I am Bobbu” instead of “I am Bobbu’s friend.”

“Pardon me,” Bob told the audience hurriedly. “This is my friend.”

“Ahhhh …” breathed the crowd.

And the microphone was passed on. As the people after me droned, all I could think was: Konnichiwa. Bobbu no tomodachi ni narimasu. Ganbatte kudasai!!!! Bobbu no tomodachi ni narimasu. Bobbu no tomodachi ni narimasu!! Over and over, the right thing to say reverberated in my head, through the first clusters of students hunched over their kotos, picking notes awkwardly to form Elvis’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” and “Yesterday” by the Beatles. Worse than embarrassing myself, I was afraid I’d embarrassed Bob. Bob, unlike me, has studied Japanese long enough to be capable and confident; not continually making stupid rookie mistakes. He’s worked hard to make sure he isn’t always playing the role of the bumbling, clueless foreigner. Well, give me a few seconds and I play the part for all of us.

Bob came on stage with the other shamisen students. They picked and plucked; I could barely watch. Was he angry with me? Did he regret inviting me?

When intermission started, I slumped into my seat. Around me, mothers, fathers and siblings shifted and dipped into their treat boxes. Behind me, a toddler – the one who had kicked my seat and loudly announced, “I want to sleep!” during the first performancewhined that he wanted to hear his sister play the Ponya anime theme.

Bob slipped into the performance area.

“Hey!” he said.

“Hey,” I replied.

“I’m sorry – I didn’t know they were going to have everyone introduce themselves. I would have warned you.” he said.

“No, I’m sorry!” I said. “It was so simple; I should have just repeated what everyone else was saying but I was so nervous I wanted to say as little as possible. I hope I didn’t embarrass you.”

“What? No.” said Bob. “Not at all.”

And just like that, it was better.

After we discussed his performance – and the oddity of hearing “When You Wish Upon a Star” played on the koto – Bob ducked backstage, his voluminous yukata swishing with each movement.

I opened my paper bag of treats and found mini Crunky bars, mini baumkuchens and a Piknik drink box. I stuck its pointed straw inside and began to suck on it like a pacifier. All was right in the world.

Scarlet Fever Fever

October 21, 2008 in Ex-Patriate Games, I'm Learning Japanese ... I Really Think So, My Funny Irish Friend, spazarific

There are posts swirling in my head and they’ve been swirling for days. Nakata-san quotes. More mini cultural Japanese lessons. Posts about attending Bob’s wonderful koto and philharmonic concerts, posts about how Sean’s decision to build his IKEA bed at 1 in the morning resulted in a noise complaint addressed to ME, posts about solving a Japanese pop culture mystery that has pestered me for months, even posts about how I’m so “done” with “teaching” that when I get spam emails from “Vinny Barbarino” with the subject heading, “I’vE foUnD U a nEW jOb!” I say, “Tell me more.” I’d have written them all down, except that for the past few days all creative thoughts were eclipsed by my crippling sore throat. 

Naturally, I’ve had sore throats before; about once a year since I was a kid, accompanied by a little cold and flu action. I immediately perceived, however, that this sore throat was different. No cold. No flu. Just a fever and pain so intense I actually took the day off from work. I hate taking off work and I especially hate it in Japan, which does not condone paid sick days. Nonetheless, it had to be done. I knew whatever illness I had must have been the fault of the children anyway, with their runny little wet dog noses and 80 year-old man coughs that their mothers never taught them to shield behind their fists. Home, safely away from the germ mongers, I turned to that most respectable source of medical information: WebMD. Sore throat – check. Fever – check. Red/white spots – check. Swollen glands? Check. Pain made worse by eating or drinking? Heck yes, and what a pity it was, too. My mother sent a gorgeous care package chock full of treats but my sore throat was too painful for me to even consider enjoying them; not that I had an appetite anyhow. Loss of appetite? Check. Blinding anger towards the Irish? CHECK, since Sean had taken it upon himself to start on the bags of Jelly Bellies and Sour Skittles. My anger was somewhat sublimated when I surveyed WebMD’s suggestions for what affliction I might have. After Viral Pharyngitis, Strep Throat and Tonsilitis, Scarlet Fever was fourth on the list. 

Scarlet Fever: the very name sent a shiver up my spine, conjuring up images of wilting 19th century literary heroines. Beth March died from it. Mary Ingalls went blind from it. How could Scarlet Fever be a possible diagnosis for my symptoms? I clicked, and discovered to my surprise that Scarlet Fever is just strep throat combined with a red (scarlet) rash on the abdomen and chest … curable with plain old antibiotics. What a day and age we live in, folks. What a day and age. 

So Scarlet Fever is just strep throat with a rash. The discovery made the disease infinitely less threatening (Beth always was a weakling) but somehow, infinitely more appealing. I’ve always wanted to be a 19 century literary heroine and now that I knew how simple Scarlet Fever is to treat in this day and age, I found myself feverishly hoping it was the cause of my sore throat. I studied my pallid, dewy-eyed reflection in the mirror and was sure I saw the beginnings of a rash on my collarbone. WebMD said the Scarlet Fever rash starts on the chest. This was it: Scarlet Fever. Me. My 19th century literary heroine dreams were coming true at last. I immediately hoisted myself on to my new IKEA bed – with not a little effort – and fanned my burning throat. O, for some of Meg’s cooling Mont Blanc to soothe my pain. O misery. O agony!  

Sean came home, and I caught his visible disappointment as soon as he crossed the threshold.

“No dinner?” he queried. “But … you always make dinner.” 

“Sean,” I said thinly. “Take pity on me. I’m unwell.”

“You look fine to me,” he said cruelly. “Really? There’s no dinner? I’m so hungry.”

“How dare you!” I ejaculated. “I’m unwell and I suspect it’s Scarlet Fever!”

“Scarlet Fever?” he sneered. “You have a sore throat.”

Impertinent wretch. I’d have boxed his ears, if I had the strength. 

Two days later, my sore throat was no better. Scarlet Fever. It was so obvious. No matter that my “rash” hadn’t spread to my abdomen … yet. It was time to find myself an English speaking doctor and get myself some of those fancy Scarlet Fever antibiotics. Luckily, I’ve got the English Speaking Doctor hotline on speed dial. 

Finding an English-speaking doctor when you’re living abroad is always interesting. Since I’ve been here, my friends and I have needed various kinds of doctors for various afflictions and the experiences have all been different. Sean sliced open his finger last year while trying to cook and his doctor at the ER didn’t speak any English. Luckily, his injury was open-and-shut enough and his Japanese is good enough that he made do. Last summer, I was experiencing chronic shortness of breath and called the hotline for an English-speaking respiratory specialist. In a foreign country, “I speak English” can mean different things. It can mean you actually speak English or it can mean you know how to say, “My name is” and, “I like you.” My respiratory specialist’s English was more along the latter lines. The minute I stepped into his examination room, the perspiration began to pour down his face. He giggled and fidgeted. I ended up speaking more Japanese to him than he spoke English to me and finally, in what was obviously an effort to get me the heck out of his office, he diagnosed me with “maybe Asthma” and gave me a trial inhaler. The inhaler did nothing for my shortness of breath but 3 weeks of vacation from work certainly did. 

My Ear Nose and Throat specialist speaks English – more or less. His office is tucked into a back street, its entrance lined with rows of slippers for the patients to slip on once they deposit their own shoes at the door. The words he doesn’t know in English I happen to know in Japanese. ENTs in Japan don’t use tongue depressors and flashlights, they use laproscopic cameras and instruct you to depress your own tongue by wrapping it in gauze and yanking it out. You say “Aaaay,” not “Ahhh.” The inside of my throat flashed on the computer screen – as red, lumpy and bumpy as any 13 year-old boy’s face. 

“Tonsilitis,” said the doctor. It was a disappointment and at the same time, not. Tonsilitis was a serious enough diagnosis to validate my throat pain, even if it meant I wouldn’t be languishing in bed with my damp hair scattered on a silken lavender-scented pillow as my family wept at my bedside. It did mean, however, that I would be hooked up to a “Vapor Inhalation Therapy” machine for about 10 minutes a day for the next 3 days. The machine – box-shaped and outfitted with various plastic tubes – looks like it came straight from the set of an old Get Smart episode. When the nurse flipped the switch, vapor began to pour from its various hook ups and I was instructed to first inhale through my nose and then through my mouth. The nose session resulted in medicine dribbling down my face and onto my jeans and the mouth session resulted in my coughing like an old man … or one of the germy children who most likely got me into this mess. Yes, I’m still blaming the children. In fact, I blame them for every new yet common condition I’ve suffered since moving to Japan. It’s their fault I experienced hay fever for the first time and it’s their fault, too, that I discovered heartburn last year. They were the ones who drove me to visit Pepper in Korea. They were the ones who drove me to eat Korean Barbecue. Every morsel of meat was devoured because of something they’d put me through. Now we’ll just add Tonsilitis to the list. I hope they’re happy. 

Two Vapor Inhalation treatments, 4 antibiotic pills and 3 throat anesthetic pills later, I’m a happy camper, even if, as my last throat scan showed, I’m still diseased. It doesn’t matter because I’m strong and so is the anesthetic. 

Risotto alla Milanese and Carne alla Pizzaiola tonight. With Sour Skittles for dessert.

Your 105-Word Mini Japanese Culture Lesson

October 16, 2008 in Mini Japanese Culture Lesson

The Japanese use thousands of Chinese characters called kanji in their writing. Kanji are used to denote nouns, adjectives, and even verb stems. They range from the ultra simple character for one (—) to characters that have so many strokes they look like smudges on the page.

Proper stroke order is essential to achieve the correct balance  when writing kanji. Nowadays, with the popularity of word processors, many Japanese claim to be forgetting how to write kanji properly. This is similar to how Westerners are forgetting to spell since the advent of Spell Check. Once again, the East and West unite; this time, in laziness.

Me は Me

October 14, 2008 in Japanese Mix, spazarific, The Children

I’ve been tagged this week, and for once it wasn’t by a fresh student’s wandering hands. Kimberly over at Madden Wedding has tagged me to do a “meme” and it happens to be my first in all of my years of blogging. Since I’ve never met Kimberly in real life, I’m especially flattered. While choosing only 6 “odd” things about myself will prove to be somewhat of a challenge, it is, at least, better than working on a travel article I’m writing for an American-based magazine that is due today. Ah, deadline procrastination – how I’ve missed thee. 

In no particular order ….

  1. I’m completely repulsed by snakes, Michael Douglas, Melanie Griffith, and mayonnaise. Seriously – I’ll willingly order heaps of barbecued chicken/cow organs at a yakitori or yakiniku place but should one of those chicken hearts or sections of cow intestine have mayo on it, I’ll nibble the table instead through my shuddering disgusted sobs. As for snakes, Michael and Melanie, they should just be ashamed of themselves. 
  2. I used to sing show tunes to myself when I walked home from my late night editing job in New York City. I’m talking, “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler and “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” from The King and I on loop as I jogged down Park Avenue at 2 a.m., hopping over homeless folk and skittering rats. My rationale was that muggers wouldn’t mess with me if they thought I was crazy. That, and I love show tunes. 
  3. I learned to read at 3, type at 6, wrote my class’s Christmas play when I was 8, began my first novel at 13 and grew up speaking 3 languages. That said, as an adult I’ve become an extremely slow starter. It usually takes me years to make friends and get up the nerve to do anything that requires an ounce of bravery. 
  4. I am not above playing mind games with 5 year olds. Last week, sassy Miho with the dimpled smirk and side pony informed me that she will be Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” for Halloween. When she annoyed me by pointing at me, laughing in my face and telling me I was “muya,” I retaliated by telling her that I’m actually going to dress up as Belle for Halloween and she’ll have to be The Beast instead. Miho’s enraged response was to leap up and yank my blouse open, revealing at least a little of my cleavage to the other students. Fine, Miho. When you get out of “Time Out,” you can be Belle. And no, I have no idea what “muya” means. 
  5. I started writing a musical when I was 15 (see numbers 2 and 3). I drafted a plot and wrote several numbers, including the show stopper, “So You Think You’ve Won Me.” The musical was to be called Blood Money and would have been a story of lust, love, and family revenge. The musical was abandoned when I read a movie review in Entertainment Weekly that outlined the plot for “Wings of the Dove”; it was almost identical to Blood Money. I entertained thoughts of just altering the story but then I lost my job as a lounge pianist at The Cotton Gin, our area’s finest hotel. The firing probably had more to do with the fact that I was 16 and working in a lounge than it had to do with my talent but I took the dismissal personally. I never played again. Not so much “odd” as “stupid,” I guess. 
  6. I have a metal plate in my leg. Car accident in the Guatemalan jungle. Surgery. Rehab. Etc. The plate makes my leg ache when the seasons change and the biggest bolt pokes out of my leg, above my ankle, like Frankenstein’s neck. When I lived in New York City, I often set off metal detectors at Duane Reade’s. 
And as for the 6 other bloggers I must “tag,” I choose Cinna-monie, Amira, Pepper, Rich, my girl Guns, and Mrs. Brown. Thank you for the tag, Kimberly! 
All right, all right, slacker. Back to the article. 

Making Do

October 12, 2008 in Japanese Mix, Oishii, spazarific

I went into Supa Tamade for a bento the other evening since I was snacky and not up to making something out of the butter, lemons and rotting eggplant in my fridge. Unfortunately, the bento selection at 11 p.m. left much to be desired; what hadn’t been picked over looked somehow malnourished. I then sniffed around the sushi, only to find that each slab of raw fish was shimmering with a sickening rainbow-colored sheen.

I finally came away with this:

That’s Yuzu Wine to you. Sean came home shortly after I carried it back to our apartment and he immediately wanted to drink it but I suggested we wait until the weekend, when I didn’t have to be up at 8. Come Friday night, we cracked it open and settled in for a game of cards – loser would have to do house chores for the week – and I am saddened to report that, no, the Yuzu Wine in the adorable bottle was not worth the wait.

Fully Furnished

October 8, 2008 in Ex-Patriate Games, Japanese Mix, spazarific

Traditionally, Japanese realtors are wary of renting apartments to foreigners. For one, foreigners don’t tend to stick around too long. Secondly, foreigners will rarely know a local (Japanese) person well enough to secure them as a guarantor. Thirdly, foreigners sometimes don’t speak Japanese well enough to handle the transaction. Fourthly, many foreigners are appalled by the Japanese custom of “key money.” Why bother when it’ll be a headache for everyone involved? Savvy realtors, however, know that there’s a large, profitable market out there for foreigners in need of accommodation in Japan. So they hire an English-speaking liaison. They advertise in the English-language websites. They work around that pesky “key money” issue. They waive the need for a guarantor. To sweeten the pot further, they advertise their apartments as “fully furnished,” knowing that a person on a working holiday dreads the idea of having to deal with a bed when they’re moving back home. 

I’ve lived in 3 apartments in Japan, all of them “fully furnished,” and I’ve come to learn that “fully furnished” can mean different things. Were someone to ask me how I’d define “fully furnished,” I might list off appliances: microwave, stove, refrigerator, washing machine, dryer and oven. I’d then list some furniture: bed, couch, dining table, table, and chairs. If I were being greedy, I might include a TV/DVD player, vacuum, iron, a bookcase and curtains. Then I’d turn red because Japanese apartments don’t include beds, silly! They include futons. And an inexpensive Japanese apartment won’t include an oven, either. Or a counter. Or a stove with more than two burners. Or dryers. It will, however, include a balcony to dry your clothes, a charming well in the floor for shoe storage and a plastic stool-and-bowl set with which to conduct your Japanese-style evening bath.

My first apartment was arranged through my school’s housing company, which, of course, caters to its foreign employees. Those apartments did have beds, as well as large dressers, a table, a short bookcase, and the usual appliances. They also included Western-style toilets; the flusher printed on either side with the Kanji for “big” and “small.” When I moved, I chose not to stay with that housing company. Instead, I went with a Japanese firm I’d seen advertised online that, again, catered almost unabashedly to foreigners. That said, it was markedly more Japanese in design: we got the appliances and basic furniture but the toilet, shower and sink were all in separate rooms and there were no beds – just stacks of used futons. We did, on the other hand, get all kitchenware included in the rental fee. Cutting boards, plates, bowls, silverware, chopsticks, blender, rice cooker, potato peelers, measuring spoons – you name it, we got it. It was both a relief and an agony to leave the whole kitchen kit behind. On one hand, we didn’t have to take it with us. On the other, we’d have to buy the whole lot all over again. And I’d happened to like that rice cooker. Bah. 

Our apartment here in Akacho came “fully furnished” as well but according to our landlord Matsubara-san, “fully furnished” means a giant sofa, short barstools, a refrigerator, a heater, a rotating fan, and a long plastic table that takes up most of the kitchen/living room like a Viking buffet. Thus, no beds, no futons, no TV, no garbage can, and no microwave. And that’s cool; for the man who helped me get my internet set up in 3 weeks, I’d live without a toilet. 

Plus, there is this: 

Forget the microwave – this here is your sweet deal. As for the long table in the living room, it is draped in the turquoise and gold elephant-printed table cloth I bought last year in Thailand and as for the beds, Sean and I are heading to IKEA tomorrow. A new one just opened up over in Osaka City, much closer than the one in Kobe, and we look forward to having an excuse for chucking the old, grisly futons once and for all.

Your 183-Word Mini Japanese Culture Lesson

October 7, 2008 in I'm Learning Japanese ... I Really Think So, Japanese Mix, Mini Japanese Culture Lesson, Oishii

Britain isn’t the only nation to enjoy flavors of the month; Japanese chain restaurants, too, are extremely fond of offering “limited time only” menu selections in honor of the new month or the new season. Colorful posters bearing the images of the offering will be splashed across the restaurant’s windows from the first of the month, and as the month progresses, the pressure is on to sample KFC’s Yuzu Chicken, CocoIchibanya Curry’s Fried Oyster Curry, McD’s Royal Milk Tea McFlurry, or Beard Papa’s Pumpkin Cream Puff. It’s a clever marketing ploy to be sure, and some suspect it ties in with the Shinto compulsion for constant renewal. Most, however, when asked why Japanese chain restaurants continually offer “一月限定” menu selections, will simply reply, “Japanese like new things.” Other wealthier Japanese consumers note that these monthly offerings are limited to fast food restaurants – “for ordinary people who eat McDonald’s every day” – and as such will never enjoy the wonders of a July White Peach Beard Papa Cream Puff. This October, the McRib has come to Japan and woe to those who don’t experience its awesomeness.

Hostess Cupcake

October 5, 2008 in Japanese Mix, The Children

The two year-olds have been ganging up on me lately, ever since Kazuya had the brilliant idea of asking me if class was over when it was only halfway through. Because I feigned hurt feelings, Kazuya decided this was to be our inside joke and now asks me if class is finished every 30 seconds. The others have seized upon it, too, chorusing his question over and over like a flock of baby Mynah birds. Then they begin to shriek the syllable “ba,” which is something else they’ve recently discovered they can do.

Nakata-san, my 50 year-old salaryman private student, thinks it’s pointless to teach children English.

“Learn Japanese first,” he snorts, before guffawing self-satisfiedly. “Waste of time.” Nakata-san, unlike the vast majority of my adult students, has no problem volunteering his opinion. He is also very wealthy; a fact he makes sure to mention several times per lesson. I suppose I could be put off by this, especially by his penchant for calling the middle class “ordinary people,” but I try to see my sessions with Nakata-san as a glimpse into a world I know nothing about. Nakata-san buys a new luxury car every year and takes friends to restaurants so extravagant that each course is served in a different room, paired with a bottle of wine that costs more than my share of the rent. Students at my school are only allowed to take one 1-hour lesson per day, but Nakata-san gets 2 and-a-half. Naturally, because they’re “boring” and his English is already perfect, he refuses to use textbooks so what’s left is 180 minutes of forced conversation. I often dread the class because without the shield of textbook grammar, I feel an insurmountable pressure to perform and, since I do have to spend such a long time with him each week, let the sexist, classist and primeval comment he makes roll off my back. I sometimes feel like a blend of overindulgent therapist and Japanese “hostess,” enabling my deluded clients and providing salarymen with charming company in exchange for money and gifts, like a modern-day geisha.

I had a student last year who I suspected was a hostess. Each night, she had to rush home at the end of class to make her nightly hair and makeup appointment and she once told me that she was feeling guilty because she’d told a customer that her computer was broken. Why guilty? Because she told him that knowing he would give her a brand new one. Her hunch was correct; he showed up at the bar with a MacBook the next night. Now, she never actually called herself a hostess but I used to work in a bar and no one ever gave me a MacBook. Nakata-san does bring gifts, though; bottles of green tea and diet soda for me and the rest of the staff. Adding to the hostess bar vibe, I’ve also caught him staring at my breasts a few times. I’m the only teacher at my school on Wednesdays and doubt the 60 year-old secretary would make much of a bouncer … that is, if Nakata-san were actually a threat. As it is, he’s just a windbag and to be quite honest, thank goodness for that. When he’s not referring to his spouse as “just a housewife,” he’s actually a great source of cultural information. Most of my adult students insist that I yank on their incisors before responding to “How are you?” but not Nakata-san, who scatters his opinion about like seed. This is how I survive 2 and-a-half hours of free conversation; I simply ask him a non-partisan question about Japanese culture and he’s off. It suits me just fine; I don’t have to talk and I always learn something new. For example, Japanese prime ministers quit their jobs as often as Burger King employees and a Japanese person whose last name ends in “Kin” is more than likely the descendant of Korean immigrants.

Every once in a while I disturb the harmony, like when he refers to different groups of Americans by their accompanying ethnic slurs or when he says that my wiggly little 2 year-olds have no business learning English.

“Well, now, I don’t know,” I’ll begin.

“Garbage!” he will bellow.

Now, it’s true that the 2 year-olds have to be reminded what their own names are. They’re so little they probably haven’t figured out that Japanese and English are different languages. But language is a gift and I refuse to believe any sort of exposure is a waste of time; even though I see them once a week and they spend most of the class climbing the walls and shouting, “Owatta?!?!” Every once in a while they surprise me by calling out the name of a flashcard I showed them 2 weeks ago. Sure, they usually call out the name of the flashcard in Japanese but the English is getting in there. They’re exposed and, if they keep on taking English class, by the time they learn English for real in Junior High School they won’t have to root around for basic vocabulary like I do, at 28 years old.

When I tell Nakata-san this, he only says “bah!” and waves his arm. It’s a dismissive gesture, but I know I’ve won. Maybe if I drop a few hints, he’ll bring me a cupcake as a prize.


October 2, 2008 in Japanese Mix, My Funny Irish Friend, spazarific

The uploading cord to my digital camera is still lost, hidden in all the layers of moving nonsense, and I only just remembered that I have a Mac Baby. 

My glorious, sundrenched bedroom, with the futon rolled up and put away. The wayward sheet on the gleaming wooden floor is the instruction manual for the Pilates ball my mother sent me, which was stolen by Sean, much like my copy of The Golden Notebook; this month’s Book Club selection. He has it with him on the train right now but it should be here with me.