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The Wind Down

March 31, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games

The days have become an endless series of goodbyes. Classes are finally over so there are gifts, hugs, and obligatory promises to come and visit. There was a Sayonara Sale for coworkers, a goodbye in Kyoto with the friends from training, and an early hanami with my soon to be ex-bookclub. Even though it was still far too cold, nothing could have been finer than sipping sweet sake from tiny plastic cups and eating delicious samosas made with gyoza skins under the shade of the blooming fruit trees. Finally, after 2 years of searching,  I was able to lay my eyes on real, live Peach Blossoms. They are delicate and ruffled, blooming in several shades of white and pink. My favorite shade of momoye is a juicy fuchsia that I know a certain someone with that name would love.

The internet is canceled. The apartment keys are being handed over. The men from the electric company have come. The bank transfers are attempted and bungled, then completed with great success. The belongings – including my computer – are stored with Bob. The Salvation Army is visited. There are handshakes. It’s all ending and though it’s been planned for months, it seems to have come out of nowhere.

“What’s next?” everyone asks. “What’s the next adventure?”

Well, as for the Next Big Thing, it’s still in development. At the moment, I am more concerned about Lasts. This is the last time I will drink with the boys from training. This is the last time I will have my hand impulsively grasped by a 3 year-old student’s chubby little paw. This is the last book club gathering. This is the last time I will visit my favorite udon shop. This is my last hanami season. And soon, the Last Day itself will come. Not so soon, but soon enough for me to pose the question to you fine Japanophiles - what would you do if you had one day left to live in Japan?

Please discuss. I am very curious to hear what you would do in my shoes.

In the meantime, a bit of adventure is warranted first. Starting tomorrow, Sean and I are taking a long, exotic vacation. Stay tuned for I Eat My Cobra ….

School’s Out, Let’s Shout …

March 30, 2009 in "Teaching" English, Ex-Patriate Games, spazarific, The Children

… and so ends my teaching career. I have waited for this day since January of 2007. A year. It was just supposed to be for a year. Just a year and then I’d get back to real life, back to the career I hoped would come clear during my self-imposed exile from the New York City journalism scene. It’s clear. It’s time to go home, take what I learned from teaching and figure out a way to apply it to my non-teaching life.

Recognizing the Look of Confusion: I was never able to recognize this face when I was an editor. I took sloppy, lazy mistakes in my writers’ copy as insolence or disrespect. After 2 years of speaking to people who don’t understand me, I’ve learned to recognize how the eyes follow your mouth, as if hoping to read a translated transcript there. I’ve learned to notice when the neck bobs from straining to understand what you’re saying. How many times did my writers flash these telling physical signs at me? Our advertising company demanded strict adherence to a style format when producing reports and the rules changed weekly; no wonder they were often confused. This misunderstanding of their need for help is something I regret. You can’t be an effective communicator if you don’t know how to read your coworkers.

Breaking it Down: And speaking of communicating, teaching English as a Second Language has worked wonders for me. I’ve always tended to assume people think the same way I do but, apparently, my way of thinking of a lot more convoluted than the average person’s. It’s why I can’t figure out simple instructions. Or why I can’t verbally give directions. As an editor and a would-be-writer, this has caused considerable problems. Fellow workshop participants were at a loss when critiquing my stories because they had no idea what I was talking about – opting to forego any helpful comments and instead scrawl, “I don’t understand this” all over my photocopied stories. Likewise, my editors returned my reviews and articles asking, “What does this mean?” Well, it means x, y, and z – isn’t it obvious? Obviously not. These reactions to my work led, in part, to my developing writers’ block to begin with. Why don’t they understand my stories? Am I doing something wrong? Am I not a good writer after all? Enter my students, who froze each time I asked them “How come?” As an ESL teacher, you learn that when someone doesn’t understand you, you’ve got to back up and try it again. And again. And try it another way. And another way until it finally makes sense. So you meow like a cat. You flap your arms like a bird. And, eventually, you learn to simplify your speech. Gone is my twisted, experimental grammar. Gone are my mixed metaphors and triple adjectives. So much of the writing I’ve been inspired to do in Japan has had to do with explanation and description. Learning Japanese, too, has forced me to further simplify my thought process. I can’t say “I’ve been wanting a new pair of shoes like these” because I don’t know the grammar so instead I’ll say, “I wanted new shoes.” Shorter. Simpler. And finally, instead of “I don’t understand this” I get “I liked what you wrote.” Thank you, spastic students. Thank you, kind readers.

Exploring the Hulk Smash Reaction: I’ve always had  short fuse, especially when I sense disrespect. If a person is not listening to me as well as disrespecting me, I turn green, rip off my shirt, and smash things. It’s always been a problem for me. Before I started teaching, I “loved” children. Of course, all of the kids I had babysat had been good little boys and girls; they did as they were told and said cute things. Teaching ESL was my first experience with badly behaved children. I watched helplessly as my rage ballooned to new proportions. I left class on some days with the veins in my neck throbbing as I scrawled, “GET TUBES TIED” in my roll books. My angry reaction was a horrifying discovery, and one I’ve had to struggle to remedy. I’m working on it. I’m learning that some disciplinary strategies work for some kids and don’t work for others. I’m learning what things work for me and what don’t. Most of all, I’ve learned that it’s a process – and it’s one I’m glad that I’ve discovered now rather than the day little Lucia tells me my nose is big.

There are many other things I’ve learned, of course. How fascinating it is that everyone learns a different way. How rewarding it is to see a student’s pained expression melt with relief when he finally understands. How strange and beautiful my native tongue is. My conversations with my adult students have been my best window into Japanese culture. My experiences teaching ESL have provided me with so much great writing material that I can’t see straight due to the images swimming before my eyes.

Last week was my last week ever as a teacher. I’m thrilled. I’m also extremely humbled and grateful. I was never a great teacher, but I was paying attention the whole time. I may not have always had good students, but I had absolutely amazing teachers.

The Status Quo

March 30, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games, My Funny Irish Friend, spazarific

Sean, who is usually so calm, cool and collected is now showing signs of stress in his final days in Japan. Normally, he’s the one to decipher manuals, read maps and break down a task step by step. He’s the one who never reveals too much to strangers or even to friends. He’s the one who never kicks himself the next day for having said something silly. If Sean does make a mistake, it’s generally inspired by greed – too many sausages at dinner, too many beers, too many episodes of The Office late at night. But now he’s packing, planning his post-Japan travels and fielding his relatives’ increasingly frequent demands of, “So you’re coming home – What next?” Sean was one of the many for whom living in Japan was a lifelong dream – he never thought of much beyond that. Now that it’s over … what next, indeed? So he’s forgetting his photo when he needs to apply for a tourist Visa. He’s getting lost on the way to an embassy. He’s locking himself out of the apartment. He’s misreading the instructions on the ESTA site and paying $50 to register when the $50 is actually for an application manual he doesn’t need.

“What’s going on, Sean?” Bob and I ask. “What happened to Mr. Perfect?”

Most telling, though, is his recent habit of leaving his Facebook account logged in when he’s not at the computer.

Sean should know better than this. Surely he must sense the vengeful anger in my gaze as I calmly survey his moves at the computer; seething and waiting. Waiting for my chance to avenge the many wrongs he’s done me by taking advantage of my own forgetfulness and changing my Facebook status update to something unseemly. Liv is in the bathroom making noises. Liv is letting a big one rip. Liv is a loud American! Liv is too selfish to make Sean a measly toastie! Etc. Etc. I should know better, too, and I’ve come to guard my computer time with severity.

When Sean started leaving his Facebook account open, I knew something was weighing heavy on his mind so, naturally, I jumped at the chance to avenge my honor. In the past week, Sean has been quick like a bunny, hungry like the wolf, and has even revoked his Irish citizenship for a beautiful blue American passport. He’s also been in the mood to wear polka dots. Did you know that Sean is also a little girl? He is – he’s a little girl with pigtails. He’s a little girl with pigtails, riding a tricycle.

He discovers my revenge and howls in outrage – both because I’ve dared to suggest he is sympathetic to America and because I’ve somehow outwitted him.

“Sean thinks Liv is a child!” he fumes in his new status updates. “A 5 year-old child!”

“How’s that medicine of yours taste?” I shoot back nastily.

“I can’t figure out how you’re doing this,” he complains. “You must have found out my password!”

“Nope.”

“You did!”

“Nope. You’re leaving your account logged in.”

“I wouldn’t do that! That’s what YOU do!”

“Well, I guess you’re just as addle-brained as me these days.”

*

It’s 2 in the morning and I can hear Sean’s voice in the darkness. The neon ridiculousness of the next door Supa Tamade sign floods a constant florescent glow in my bedroom and I look at my hands, wringing my bedsheets.

“Liv!” Sean whispers. “Are you crying?”

“No.” I say, wiping my wet cheeks as though he can see me.

“You are!”

“A little bit,” I admit.

“What’s the matter?” he asks. “Are you still upset about the movie earlier?”

“No.”

“Then what, so?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re probably stressed about moving,” he says. “Packing, going back home, saying goodbye.”

I pause.

“Yes,” I say. “That’s why I’m crying.”

Let Me Ask You Something

March 29, 2009 in spazarific

… and another thing I wanna know is why the heck I asked the man at the cafe where the “honorable” toilet was. What, am I Amish and amazed by the concept of flushing?

And I want to know why, when the unification of Japan was mentioned in relation to the building of Osaka Castle, I was able to pipe up, “Tokugawa Ieyasu?” – even though I was wrong because we were talking about another guy who unified Japan. But why am I able to connect any names to any part of Japanese history in the first place?

And why am I unconflicted about drinking sake outdoors

And why am I slightly impressed that a Korean celebrity is coming through the park?

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m a little drunk right now.

Goodbye, Work

March 26, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games, My Funny Irish Friend, spazarific

(written Sunday, March 22 but not transcribed until today)

Sean’s dojo has him tied up with other Sayonara parties and events his last weekend in Japan and I, too, am occupied those days. My soon-to-be ex-bookclub and I have arranged a hanami for next Sunday and I imagine myself in Kyoto next Saturday; stalking geishas in Gion. As such, Sean and I decided to hold our school Sayonara Party today in our small apartment. I’m dusting, arranging tekka maki on a sushi platter, slicing cucumbers and octopus for the tako su and ruing the fact that I can’t find Sprite for the pitcher of naranjada. We’ve invited a handful of coworkers out of politeness but since we’ve been so antisocial in our time here, we only really expect the few we actually had rapports with to come. As 2 o’clock and then 3 o’clock pass, it appears that we are correct. Sean is slightly miffed but what did we really expect? Avoid company party invitations and yours, too, will be avoided. At 4 o’clock, the handful of people we expected begin to ring the doorbell and take off their shoes at the door. We are both relieved.

There are eight of us and we’re listening to music on my computer. I’m passing out the slightly deformed sushi rolls and explaining that naranjada is a Latin American punch that’s supposed to be made from orange juice and Sprite but this being Japan, all I could find was Mitsuya “cider,” which tastes of candy and ruins the whole thing. It’s Sean’s idea to start listening to various countries’ national anthems on the internet – he starts, naturally, with Ireland and segues into others representing our guests: the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Japan, and Israel. We’re passing around photos, chatting, and arguing over which cookies are best. I’m content to keep opening bottles of wine and sake.

Everybody is laughing and sharing tales of living in Japan. Sean’s switched to Beethoven, which makes him, Bob and I nostalgic for our first days here, when we were neighbors sharing Irish tea in Sean’s shoebox apartment. For all of the coworkers apart from Bob and Sir Steve, it’s their first time visiting our apartment but it is somehow not strange for either misanthropic Sean or perpetually shy, nervous me. It is the first party we have held, indeed, the first time we’ve really reached out to the coworkers we met after training, and the apartment is so cozy, lovely and filled with giggles that I’m wondering why on earth we didn’t do this before.

Your 272-Word Mini Japanese Culture Lesson

March 22, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games, Holidays, Looking, Mini Japanese Culture Lesson, My Funny Irish Friend, Things I Will Miss About Japan

In the realm of Japanese music, there is obviously nothing is more riveting than J-Pops, but please consider some key players in Japan’s traditional music:

The shakuhachi: a wooden, end-blown flute that is – as its name helpfully denotes – 1.8 feet long. Traditionally used by Zen Buddhist monks in blowing meditation; more recently popular in Western 1980s music.

The koto: the national instrument of Japan. It is a stringed, wooden instrument similar to a harp. Koto players adjust the string pitches by moving its bridges before playing and pluck the strings with three finger picks designed to fit on their thumb, middle, and index fingers.

The sangen: a 3-stringed instrument similar to a guitar in shape and similar to a banjo in that it is covered with skin. Unlike a guitar or a banjo, a sangen is played with a large weighted plectrum called a bachi rather than with the fingers. It is also called a shamisen, but Bob calls his a sangen so I do, too.

The taiko: the Japanese drum; giant, struck with a bachi and a rather high pitch relative to their large size.

When you’ve drunk yourself into oblivion in honor of that venerable holiday called “Thursday,” the last thing you probably want to do on Hungover Friday is sit through 5 hours of a traditional Japanese music student recital – even if one of your good friends is performing.

Poor Sean. Lucky unhungover, fresh-as-a-daisy me. I have so enjoyed watching Bob perform in both the Philharmonic and traditional Japanese music concerts. To think that this was our last hurts my heart more than the plucking of the koto hurt Sean’s brain.

Demonstrative Demonstrations

March 19, 2009 in "Teaching" English, engrish, spazarific

Every once in a while – amid my weekly passion plays for the students’ attention – a teensy bit of English gets taught. Just a bit. A very little bit. Today was my last day teaching my Thursday maniacs and in the last minutes of that last class, I witnessed the best use of demonstrative determiners ever.

The demonstrative determiner in question was “this,” and it was used to describe Shunsuke’s middle finger as he thrust it repeatedly at Kouki. He could have shouted any of the Japanese equivalents to our healthy English four-letter words but, no. He chose English. And he chose a demonstrative determiner.

“This! This!” he cried, shoving it in Kouki’s face. It was almost as if the lad was trying to warm my heart with a smidgen of self-gratification.

Sometimes, they do listen.

One Box, One Body

March 18, 2009 in engrish, Ex-Patriate Games, Kawaii

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Found: the Eucharist in Japan.  In the Weight Loss section of your friendly local pharmacy.

Obviously.

Guess You *Can* Take the Cork Out of the Boy ….

March 17, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games, Holidays, My Funny Irish Friend, spazarific

It isn’t just me who forgets her own country’s holidays while living abroad. And don’t get so smug. Look, the sad truth is that if you don’t see signs advertising sales or parades, they’re ridiculously easy to forget. I usually find out about Labor Day and such via my friends’ facebook status updates. Sean’s not addicted to Facebook like I am so he often misses his friends’ buzzing about the Lovely Girls’ Contest or whatever non-Christmas events they celebrate in Ireland. Nonetheless, I was still surprised when he greeted me with a puzzled look after work tonight.

“It smells wonderful in here. What’s that on the stove?”

“It’s … Irish beef stew.”

“Lovely! What’s this bottle of wine doing next to it?”

“It was for the stew.”

“What? Wine? In Irish stew? You must be joking me. Where did you hear that?”

“It was in the recipe … ”

“All you need is a bouillon cube.”

“Well ….”

“And the potatoes are wrong! You’re supposed to have them in a separate dish. Then you pour the stew over it, and mash the potatoes up.”

“Well, can’t we mash them up anyway?”

“I suppose we can.”

Sean had taken a few bites when he looked at me sharply. “Why in god’s name are you wearing my paddy cap?”

“Well …”

“And you’re wearing the leprechaun t-shirt I brought you from Ireland last summer!”

“Well …”

“You’re drinking beer, too! You never drink beer with me at home.”

I sat quietly and waited for his small male mind to process it all.

Finally, the light went off.

“Is it St. Patty’s Day?” he asked. “March 17th … La! It is. You did all this for St. Patty’s Day?”

“Yes.”

His eyes softened. He began to grin.

“This stew is perfect, my dear.” he said. “Thank you.”

Total Salvation

March 16, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games, I'm Learning Japanese ... I Really Think So, My Funny Irish Friend, spazarific

The invitations for the aforementioned Housecooling Sayonara Sale have been sent, the ryokan for the Snow Monkey Onsen in Nagano is booked and the “To Do” checklist has been drawn up. Today’s mission: Donate Unwanted Clothes to the Salvation Army.

I tried to do this before, a couple of months ago. I crammed a suitcase full of clothes that a) I brought from New York, believing I’d have to wear suits to work every day and b) I bought in Japan, foolishly believing they’d look good on me. My first attempt to unload the clothes had failed because after 2 years in Japan, I still have trouble finding places on a map. I’ve never been good at following directions or maps – period. Add scores of unmarked, skewed streets to my slow Japanese-reading skills and you’ve got one perpetually lost, clueless gal.

After dumping a few of his unwanted pairs of slacks into my suitcase, Sean drew me a map that he copied from the Salvation Army’s website.

“Sean, this is all in Japanese.”

“I know.”

“Couldn’t you just add some romaji subtitles so that I can read it faster?”

“You should be able to read this by now. They’re simple kanji.”

“I can read most of them but it takes a long time. Can’t just you make it a little more Liv-friendly?”

“Fine,” he said and scribbled the word “Izumiya” in romaji. “You need to go straight and then turn here, at the Izumiya supermarket.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I was hoping you’d translate some of the kanji you’ve scrawled but sure – translating no-brainer katakana is nice, too.”

“You’re welcome!” he said sunnily. “And don’t forget – you need to go to Tenmabashi.”

So I went to the train station and stared at the map. No Tenmabashi on the JR Osaka or JR Loop lines. Sean must have meant to take the subway. So I did, lugging my heavy suitcase up and down the stairs. When I arrived at Tenmabashi, I compared the station’s map to Sean’s map and found almost no similarities. It was a Bad Japanese Day so I didn’t dare risk asking anyone which direction I should head. Instead, I lugged the suitcase up and down the mainstreet a few times, staring at each office building in hopes that things would start looking familiar or that the kanji for Salvation Army would leap out at me. When it never did, I gave up and went home. I still had time to find the place, I said. Plus, my arms ached.

This morning, I made up my mind that today would be Salvation Army Day. Sean had since laughed himself silly while informing me that I needed to go to Tenma, – not Tenmabashi as he’d told me – so that was my (actually his) mistake. No wonder I couldn’t find the place! As I hoisted my suitcase yet again, we went over the map a few more times together.

“Don’t forget,” he said. “Turn at the Izumiya. Just look for the supermarket and you’ll be grand.”

I started to feel nervous, envisioning myself dragging my suitcase up and down the streets yet again.

“Oh, Sean,” I pleaded. “Can’t you just go yourself – or come with me? You’re so much better at finding places on maps than I am and this suitcase is heavy for me.”

“Now, now, you’ll be fine.” Sean said. “Just use your logic.”

He didn’t have to gloat quite so much at that last part but, fine. I’d go and I’d show Mr. Smugpants that I could find a landmark on his fuzzy map. I went to the JR station, plunking in my money for the correct stop, and headed to the elevator with the heavy suitcase.

An hour later, I was completely lost. I’d walked down a neon-lit shotengai for 40 minutes and had seen hide nor hair of an Izumiya. Furious, I called Sean.

“Didja find it?” he chirped.

“No!” I shouted. “Your map doesn’t match the one at the train station – again!”

“Of course it does.”

“It doesn’t! And then I went to the Ward Office to see if they knew where it was -”

“How did you end up at the Ward Office?”

“It’s right next to the train station. So I asked the information desk and they called City Information and she told me I had to keep going straight down the shotengai and I’ve been walking and walking and there’s no Izumiya!”

“Are you sure now that’s what she said? Are you really, really sure?”

Maybe Yes!!”

“Cause, you know, you do tend to misunderstand people when they speak to you in Japanese.”

“Well, I sort of understood her! She said to go zutto down the shotengai and I’ve been going freaking zutto for 40 minutes and there’s just no Izumiya …”

“Calm down, calm down.”

“… and I’ve been dragging this stupid suitcase for an hour and I just feel like an idiot.”

Maddeningly, Sean only chuckled on the other line.

“Oh, Liv,” he said. “You really can’t find anything on a map, can you?”

“I guess I can’t!”

“Calm down, calm down. Okay. Why don’t you come home, so? I’ll just go myself on Thursday.”

Finally – the words I’d wanted him to say in the first place.

“Okay,” I said miserably. I yanked the suitcase around and faced the direction from which I’d just come. The shotengai’s ceiling was decorated with shrine torii in blues, greens, and reds. Tasty-smelling restaurants and bookstores beckoned me from every side. I began to drag my suitcase again and as I walked, I stewed. Even if I was having a Good Japanese Day to begin with, getting lost again made me feel hopelessly stupid. Moving Day is coming so fast it’s making me dizzy and I no longer have the time to mess around, hoisting heavy suitcases through busy side streets, looking like a lost tourist. And Sean – always so smug. I could hear his Cheshire Cat grin spread across his face even through my cell phone. I glanced again at the map he’d drawn for me – clutched and smeared by now – and felt glum. Why were things like this so easy for Sean? The man has a nose like a bloodhound; two days into his life in Japan and he was already leading Bob and I around town by the hand. Logic and symbols make sense to him, whereas all they do is set my mind spinning. No wonder he majored in Math and no wonder I spent my college days deconstructing novels.

After I’d walked for about 10 minutes, I decided to cheer myself up a bit by playing a round of Taiko Drum at a nearby arcade. Then I browsed a bookstore and had a friendly tete-a-tete with a smiling yellow pooch at a beauty supply boutique. My mood – if not my suitcase – was beginning to lighten and I tried to make the best of my afternoon. It was dinner time and my stomach growled. I peered into restaurants, wondering which would cheer me up more – sushi or nabe? I stood in front of a sushi bar window, gauging the prices of their nigiri sets when I saw it: the restaurant’s name.

Izumiya.

Izumiya? Like the popular grocery store chain?

Wait a second.

I craned my neck into the alley just left of the restaurant. Trumpets blared, angels sang, and clouds parted – there, just a few meters down from Izumiya Sushi Bar was the Salvation Army. Fifteen minutes later and one suitcase load lighter, I set home – my chest bursting with pride. I rolled my suitcase faster, giddy with its lightness and the satisfaction of having completed an important task; number 4 on a monster checklist of items, a task that had gnawed at me for weeks. Izumiya restaurant! I giggled madly to myself. Not Izumiya supermarket!

And in all this, my greatest bit of comfort was that cool, logical Sean would have gotten lost, too.