June 22, 2013
It’s 8:48 pm Tokyo time, I am in one piece although the balcony down the hall is not- that’s a better sentence than a story so we’ll leave it there, although I hope it’s not expensive…- and I am experiencing what might be vertigo, might be jet lag, and might be what I just remembered could be actual tremors. Like of the “fault line” variety.
Regardless, I am hitting the Japanese hay. More tomorrow on what toilets and food are like here!
June 23, 2013
It’s 4:31 am now. The sun has risen, I’m not tired anymore (yay!) and my ankles are down to a manageable size. Apparently 14 hours of altitude induces some serious swelling, so last night felt a lot like being round, slow and peg-legged. In fact, one of the first things I did when I finally had my room to myself was to hurl myself on my bed and stick my feet in the air. Though I thought the laws of gravity would favorably adjust me, realistically I ended up looking like a joke book elephant and gave up in favor of a food run.
Speaking of which, I just ate a 7/11 breakfast of what can only be described as raw mayonnaised squidcicles and I’m now waiting for an equal and opposite reaction, possibly in the form of hallucinations. The clerk, when I bought this, asked in broken English if I wanted it cooked. Since I wasn’t sure what was happening, I reassured her with some form of “no, no, I’m okay, thank you” while smiling and nodding a lot… and it didn’t occur to me that that might be a bad idea until right now. Post-tentacle.
So hallucinations, maybe? Best worst-case scenario. I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine, though.
Regardless, I’m not sure I’d know the difference. I’m lucky enough to have been around a little bit: Canada, Jamaica, the Bahamas, too much of Mexico- basically your average, moderately privileged American girl destinations- but none of them have screamed “foreign!” like this place and I’m just so glad to be finally getting out of my shell. Japan is different. I mean it’s the same, beautiful/ugly, appalling/magnificent awe-inspiring place that every place can be, but that’s true in such a novel way that I’m just really excited to be throwing myself into this world of being completely ignorant. And sure, I’ve only been here a couple of waking hours, but in no place has that been more obvious than the bathroom.
Some toilets are on the floor here. Like, the bowl is directly on the floor, but with a little splash guard (I guess?) built in. And the one in my hotel room is a western-style platform, but it’ll heat and spray me with a touch of its remote control. How great is that? It’s probably great, but I was too scared to try that function last night what with my 24-hours of straight travel ripeness. I knew I was heading to the 7/11 before submitting to unconsciousness, and I didn’t want to further bedraggle myself with a toilet fountain mishap. I actually sort of threw the seat down and leapt out of the room before flushing. It could have been really graceful except for the aforementioned vertiginous feeling, but I’m not afraid to jump into a few walls blindly.
My head can’t get any more swollen than my ankles, after all.
6/23 and 24, 2013
Years ago, while playing some sort of frivolous tennis-like shenanigan, my Very Tall Friend said something during the game (context forgotten, of course.) “I don’t hide well,” he said, as I laughed. It was funny then because it was true, and it’s also funny now, because:
I don’t hide well here. Welcome to Tokyo, sensei.
That was pretty much the theme of yesterday, which I am trying very, very hard to forget as I renegotiate with whichever part of my brain determines my attitude.
See, I love going new places alone. I love it wholeheartedly, minus the chunk reserved for full moons, live music, and shiny pants. I feel like if I drop into a place and experience the differences through my brain’s distorted lens, said brain enjoys some little-kid plasticity and has this explosion of neuronal connections that both excites me and makes me better. When I’m forced unwittingly into a six hour tour of slowly moving, without context stare-fest narrated in Japanese, I shrink. Inasmuch as you can shrink into yourself and still feel like a literal and metaphorical cow.
Yeah, my legs and ankles were back to monstrous all day. I’d like to say it was the weirdest thing and be special about my maladies, but I looked it up on the Internet- which is always true- and found out it’s a really common side effect of flying 14 hours in a window seat that you don’t want to vacate because the two people next to you are sleeping, so you don’t drink any water in favor of watching most of the first season of New Girl, which puts you into spasms of upper body laughter while your lower half stays cramped and paralytic under somebody else’s seat. Whatever, I know it’s my fault. It’s still not that fun to walk around all day when your shoes don’t fit, though. Especially when people are staring at you for being shock-topped and taller than your comrades.
So my bloated, surly self felt physically bovine, and the herding to which I was subjected only added to that. To be fair, the four of us from Portland have only encountered the sweetest and most generous of well-intentioned hosts (exception: the boy who sneezed on my knuckles) and I am quite certain that most people- and I certainly should be- thrilled at their thoughtful guidance. I do very much appreciate the time they took out of their Sunday. On the other hand, I have this severe itis about not having control of my own life and though it was only six hours, it was six long hours of reinforcing the plaster on my smile.
Oh- sidebar with a different attitude!- the initial quick destinations were top awesome! Our guides showed us to the nearest grocery store, 100 yen store (Japan’s dollar store counterpart) and train station and ohhhh, the first two blew my mind. The succulent sushi I can get here will happen on the reg, I promise you that. I won’t even attempt to describe the place but hope you can imagine by the frantic flitting I did from aisle to aisle with a manic and gleeful expression. I think Japanese anime characters have such enormous eyes because they’re looking at this incredible food all the time. A little piece of me will hate myself when I get home, get hungry, and have, like, cheese and crackers as an option when I’m craving tube sushi the size of a paper towel roll.
When I wasn’t marveling at the amazing fishy goodness, there were carnival sideshow offerings that quenched my thirsty imagination. I mean, look at this thing! Would you just look at it?
A phalanx of sidelong glances were aimed at us from the grocery, as you can imagine. Little kids were more blunt with their gaping stares.
The 100 yen store was also interesting, and I later picked up an umbrella and 10 gift bags for about five bucks, so that was productive. I also got a good laugh out of some translated ads, like the lotion labeled Urea Cream. While I understand that urea is a vital part of many lotions, in the US, the market tries to hide it in the melange of listed ingredients. So it was hilarious to see it advertised here as, essentially, bladder juice face goo.
The train station was next, and all of a sudden I found myself at this temple, with absolutely no idea if it was actual ancient Japan or some hyped-up tourist magnet. Throngs of people were milling about at the infinite gift shops, and without historical context or even knowing the name of the place, I was crowd-sourced to the front of the line where I understood that I was to throw in 10 yen, bow, and pray. This is not something at which I excel. The shrine next door was much of the same, except we ran into a wedding party, replete with traditional costume, rickshaw, and a bride who was actively trying not to be sick. Uncomfortable, to say the least, but finally:
Home. Grocery store for dinner. Credit card declined, embarrassing in the cashier’s inability to tell me in any way except by making a big “x” with her hands, and in my inability to do anything but put an exaggerated sheepish look on my face. Almost run over by a bike because everyone walks on the left here. Momentarily shocked out of lethargic submission from the sound of the two screeching tires. Debit card worked at 7/11. Food ingested.
Tomorrow, maybe I’ll hide well?
First School Day
At 8:30 this morning I arrived at school with a bag full of salt water taffy and pine products and an appropriately eager beaver attitude. The former were gifts- I was told to bring Maine goods and consumables for my principal, three assistant principals, and four cooperating English teachers.
At any rate, at 8:30 I was still eager. Komiyama-san told me to wander the halls by pointing all around and saying, “Place! Place! Place! Bathroom! Place! Place! Here, 9 o’clock.” I took this to mean I should explore, so off I went. It didn’t take very long because I was scared to venture to three of the four floors and I didn’t know the protocol for visiting the PE fields outside. See, I had to bring a brand new pair of indoor shoes and take the tags off when I got to school to prove I hadn’t tarnished them with outside wear. Since my outdoor shoes were in a cubby and I thought I might need them, I eschewed the outside world to check out the first floor halls. Adorable tiny people were scattered about in plaid and suspenders and there was artwork, a collection of posters, and inexplicably, a giant photo of a deformed toenail decorating the walls. Wide-eyed children shouted accented “hello”s at me before collapsing into giggles with their friends, and the whole thing was so delightful that I just wanted to shout back Sound of Music songs in their faces. I refrained. Song pun!
*SECOND ADDENDUM: Seven hours later- this time out of pure insanity- I think I just might. Shout music, that is. It seems like a boredum interruptum.
Right around nine, Mr. Komiyama fetched me to properly tour the school. Heck yeah, it was the grinniest 45 minutes I’ve been here. One classroom was easily my favorite in that it was a second grade, I think, with a kid who spoke English quite well. I could tell something was going on as I entered and he started dancing around the room with the other giblets egging him on. I saw the class looking from him to me and back while verbally firing at him, until at some point he jump stopped in front of me and in remarkably clear English demanded, “how old are you?”
He translated and the place erupted like it was simultaneously the funniest and most amazing thing the kids had ever heard. I swear one girl licked her lips. As I was laughing, he shouted a follow-up.
“How tall are you?”
“Almost six feet,” I answered, and blew up the room again. The whole thing did wonders for my posture and I strutted out of there like a newly knighted panther.
I know… that’s not a thing.
The tall theme continued as I toured, mostly emphasized by a hand held high in the air indicating where my head might end if it were a foot in front of me. I also got to meet the teacher who, two nights before I left Maine, emailed me an introduction and asked if I’d swim with the kids. It was heartening to hear her say I sounded like a nice person, based on my response. Heartening and a relief, since my response was the most politely cultivated, emphatic “no” that I could muster. I swim about as well as I hide here.
It’s about ten in the morning now, and I don’t have the slightest idea what the rest of my day will hold. I have a schedule, but it looks like this:
so if someone doesn’t hold my hand pretty steadily, I’ll probably just hang out in the teachers’ room. Staff all have desks in here- they even gave me one!- and I’m really glad I brought my notebook because I’d definitely be otherwise unoccupied. Perhaps, when I get to know some people better, I’ll be more apt to ask for duties, but for now the communication barrier is hung with signs reading “sit your buns down and keep quiet.”
And I’m good here. I know how to read.
It’s 2:30 now, and I’d like to dedicate this entry to the English teacher who talked to me for five minutes and showed me where to make coffee. I’ve just mixed the strongest shot mug of instant Nescafe that I think I can handle, because y’all, I am bored out of my overactive mind. Reading is all well and good to a point, but that point arrives more hastily when you don’t bring any books to work.
Six hours I’ve been here now, with two and a half remaining. I left my desk for the tour and ate an uncomfortable lunch at the table next to me, but other than that I’ve been doing all I can with a pen, a notebook, and a non-connected phone. Thanks be to whatever version of myself downloaded those free e-books, because otherwise I’d be nuts. As it is, I’m trying to stick with the Douglas Adams and PG Wodehouse because when those are done, the only remaining option is the Marquis de Sade I downloaded out of curiosity. Turns out the thing’s famous, though, because of its prurient and “highly inappropriate in a school and probably most of life” qualities. Soooo, nope.
I’m itching to get out of here to commence a solo walking tour of Tokyo. I’d like to bang around on public transportation, too, staring fascinated at the fashionable youths who make me feel enormous and dowdy, and try to find Harajuku to see what rang Gwen Stefani’s bell. I’m supposed to get paid half of my salary today, though, and that hasn’t happened yet. Without it, I’m broke as Back Mountain. With zero yen, a credit card shuttered by a company whose history with me includes cabdrivers and Banana Republic almost exclusively, plus a debit card I can only use judiciously until I can determine if there’s an exchange tax, I am out of luck. Impoverished, even. It behooves me to stay and keep still.
Almost 4 o’clock now, and I’m struggling with the quiet! I intended this blog to be more culturally philosophical than the existing play-by-play, but alas, my boredom doth defy my noble thoughts. Actually I just revisited the kitchen area for another cup of the brown and powdered, and a nice lady offered me ice. I believe she said we didn’t have to boil the water anymore, either. I took this as a somewhat ominous nuclear disaster reference and decided to fill my jug, because why not? I have no imminent offspring.
See? Science. There’s a reason, folks, that I’m a teacher.
(If only they’d recognize that here…)
It’s only a ten minute bus ride to school, so imagine my surprise when the little, wizened, hatted lady fell asleep on my elbow. Twice. By the second time, I had already thought about how my reaction should have been the for the first, so I widened my eyes as much as I could while sitting bolt upright and staring out the window. I figured this would give maximum entertainment to whomever happened to be assessing the situation, and everything was going well until she awoke with a start, jumped in one smooth motion to look at me with eyes as saucered as mine, and hobbled off the bus, which happened to have just come to rest. I know the the hobbling doesn’t mesh with the jumping… I can’t explain it, either.
You guys, school today has been much more simulating so far! Fresh from the mobile entertainment, I had a spring in my step for the morning’s assembly. For this, about 500 middle schoolers lined the auditorium military-style and in uniform, adjusting their stances on command. It was kind of amazing, considering my experience with school assemblies consists of constant, low-to-moderate crowd rumble and me mentally hissing, “shush and get your hands off each other!” while shooting pointed, poisoned glances at the various barbarians masquerading as children.
And honestly, I really love what I do. Just… American middle school assemblies? No.
Shinagawa-style, however, could grow on me. Apart from the kid who got in quiet trouble for having the wrong shoes and the girl who dropped to the ground with what was either heat stroke or an acute case of malignant melodrama, there was barely any movement at all except the bowing. As various adults stood up and said incomprehensible things, they all just stood quietly pretending (I assume) to listen. This happening at Lyman Moore might just become my new fantasy.
So all of a sudden, some nudging and verbal cues (my name: Caroline, no easy moniker considering they have a sound that’s in between an “l” and an “r” here but not one for either) prompted me toward the stage for my speech.
“Ohayo gozaimas!” I proclaimed, and instantly became the much-mocked foreigner, “watashiwa Caroline Foster des!”
Mind you, I don’t know how to spell any of that. Yaeko, the Japanese-American sensei who taught our contingent enough culture to avoid some of the more common ambassador pitfalls, wrote our speeches for us phonetically. I’m just reading what’s hopefully a gracious and humble welcome but could very well be lightly veiled atomic threat. Kind of banking on the milk of human kindness with that one.
As I continued to address the masses with my best Nippon accent- which I just learned was completely unexpected as they thought I’d be speaking English- I noticed that they did a lot of guffawing. Kids don’t laugh at this school, they howl. It all sounds gleeful, too, which is great because I’m relatively sure they’re laughing at and not with me.
Oh, my sweet melting heart. I was about to say something self-conscious but a little first grader just blew me a kiss through the window and my whole soul has filled with warmth and goodwill. I’ve been trying really hard to fight what seems like the racist notion that these children are flat-out cuter than any others in the world, but it feels factual when stuff like air kisses happen. Plus the population is so much smaller than what I’m used to and small equals cute, like biologically.
Seriously, everywhere I go, people are gawking at the new Tokyo Tower: me. I had to translate my height into meters for one class, so I made my best guess based on my memory of a meter stick and said, “two” and I’m hoping that math holds up because I don’t want all of America judged on my tendency to fly by the seat of my party pants and say what I think without research.
Aw, shoot. Just remembered I have a converter on my phone (no wifi here) and checked my facts. I’ve been telling these children I’m almost 6’7”. Great. Apparent American arrogance rears its ugly head again. Problem is, it’s too complicated an explanation to try to give to even the English teachers, so I’ll probably just let it go and let them think I’m a dunce.
I wonder how often that happens to our immigrants and refugees in Portland… Note to self: reserve judgment.
So yes, I’ve been allotted ten minutes in each of eight classes for a self-introduction, so after adding in the assembly, I’m busy for a good two hours today, a vast improvement over yesterday. Plus I know where the tea is, so I’m settling in nicely. My only current problem is that this school is much better at recycling than anyone, ever, so therefore I can’t find the trash can. I’m not going to hold on to it, though- I mean yes, I’ll hold onto the trash, which I’m squirreling away in my backpack even though it’s a wet tea bag- but I’m letting go of the anxiety. Hold your breath for my new motto here, kids:
When in doubt, think funny bus lady. And then giggle, and go about your day.
I think something clicked when I accidentally got mostly naked on the teeming streets of Tokyo.
I had a celebrity paparazzi moment yesterday, y’all! It’s not as fun as it sounds, though, because I hadn’t prepped for it, and there’s really no way to gracefully realize that the sidewalk grate is an active air volcano and that Marilyn Monroe must have had some warning to be able to hold her skirts down. Without said warning, I got the front parts stuck in my armpits and the back parts floofing in the general vicinity of my lower backpack. I stood there for a moment- dazed, don’t you know, but calmly trying to extricate myself before moving on- before it dawned on me that 1) this is something people get upset over, as a rule, and 2) my first order of business should have been to move to a less gusty spot.
I honestly never got embarrassed, which threw me into meta-mode as I tried to figure out why not.
See, if this had happened in Portland, I would have been mortified. I think I have this carefully cultivated personality there, and while I will purposefully put myself into situations that others don’t- simply because it’s not “done” and I want to challenge our social mores- I would not, for any reason, be okay with unwittingly showing my bum. Hundred percent nuh-uh.
In Tokyo, however, I don’t know a soul and didn’t give a dang when I supermooned them. I realized upon analysis that I must only be self-conscious around people who have already judged me through some sort of interaction with my actual personality. This is admittedly stupid, but realizing it was a revelation that opened my horizons here. Why bother staying silent and observant? It seems now that I tiptoed through my first few days with the primary goal being not to offend. I shoved my personality way down inside me, which was okay, but I figure that now that I’ve showed all the surface parts of me, I might as well let ‘em know the hidden parts, too. It’s good for people to interact honestly as long as nobody’s getting hurt, right? Right.
Metaphysical phase over; decision made. I made the call to sing Carly Rae Jepson out loud on the Shinagawa streets for the duration of each chorus on my walk today, and I contend that “Call Me Maybe” is still the singablest ditty on the intercontinental airwaves. Something shifted and I’m happier now, so hooray.
Yesterday brought another gift, but in a decidedly more materialistic sense. Let me preface this by saying that I never, in any incarnation of myself, thought I’d criticize the food scene in Portland because it is beans and frankly the greatest bunch of restaurants in the civilized world and I will never tire of going to old faves and investigating potential new ones. We’re missing one thing, though: conveyor belt sushi.
Conveyor belt sushi is what happens when you die and get fast-tracked to heaven. You don’t have to bother with any of the pesky language learning or order giving. You just plop yourself down at the counter, which runs in a narrow u-formation past you and the chefs, tuck your knees to the side because you have exceptionally long femurs, and start grabbing. There are two tickets to paradise per plate, and plates are color-coded by price. You take what you want, stack the dishes you’re trying not to lick, and pay when you leave. Want sake or something special off the menu? Stand up, shout, “eh!” because you don’t know Japanese, and point at something on the page while throwing your eyebrows skyward like caterpillars raising the roof. A chef will prep the manna faster than you can say “oh, my best sake ever” and then chuck it down onto the belt for instant delivery.
Awesome, right? I ate the entire life cycle of a salmon from roe to old and back.
Let’s return to today, my first walk to school. I had this newfound confidence that was a combination of knowing the way and having already mooned everyone on it, so as I said before, I was singing and striding with pride. I got aggressive, even. The sidewalks are crowded and fenced in here, and I’m not one to dawdle so I decided to assert myself. I was wearing what I named my Lindsey Lohan wraparound skirt back when Mean Girls came out, and it’s a really great description because not only does it remind me of one she was wearing in the movie, but it also unravels at the slightest provocation. So I was trucking along Lohan-style and the endorphins I’ve been missing due to my lack of exercise finally kicked in with abandon.
The endorphins were as inspiring as the fifth grade indoor recess I observed yesterday, so I can’t wait to get into a gym class here. My eyes actually flooded, I got so emotional. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the purpose of sports:
At first glance, it looked like absolute mayhem. The classrooms and halls are weirdly loud and action-packed, behavior I expected exactly zero of after years of hearing about Japanese reticence. The gym was the same pandemonium with balls and children flying everywhere while everyone shouted and laughed. As I studied the scene, however, some fascinating systems emerged. I swear I felt like a marine biologist studying the play habits of minnows; they were so small and fast and smooth with their braided migration patterns up and down the floor. Kids somehow accomplished two fully manned basketball games on the same court, weaving in and out of the three other teams with an awareness and athleticism that was nothing short of mind boggling. Add to that a game of dodgeball they’d dialed up to eleven- on the same court, mind you- and the fact that they were all wearing identical navy shirts and brown hair, and my western mind had a hard time sorting it out. Yegads, it was beautiful.
Multiplying my sense of astonishment was the pure fun that each child radiated. I didn’t see any of that alpha, testoste-posturing that fuels our American games, and passing was much more apparent than shooting. Then when a kid did shoot and score, both teams grinned and cheered. Nail an opponent with a dodgeball? Exchange a toothy ear-to-ear; play on.
I stood in the doorway with my face leaking all over the place and tried to figure out how to bring this home. I’m as guilty as the next player of trash talk and taunting, especially when it’s 12-year-olds I know I can beat. Why? Sports are fun! They make your entire body look and especially feel better; there’s no downside until you uglify them with envy and condescension.
I’ve never seen them played this way before. And I’m changed.
I was scheduled to join a complete class for the first time today, and as it turned out I was joining as a student. I had first period art with some seventh graders and a teacher who speaks better English than I speak Japanese, which is to say that she knew enough to say “hello” and “chair” and “sink”, which came in handy when I spilled blue paint all over my Lohan.
Art class was Tony the Tiger grrrreat! I was given four small papers on which to express happiness, anger, sadness, and joy using paints, stencils, toothbrushes, my breath, and a weird weeny screen. I haven’t taken an art class since the early ‘90s and then, it was to attempt to draw a wooden man without any actual body parts. This self-expression thing was a whole new ballgame. Though I had some class act teachers at both SMS and Cony, I wish I had had more of an arts-focused atmosphere. Today was a perfect illustration of how liberating it can be to create something original within rigid constraints and without ever having to talk about it.
In grade and high school I was sort of the nerd/hated student who breezed through classes without any effort. I’m terrible at art, however, so that dose of humility would have been good for me and would certainly be good for kids like me.
The other thing I realized today was what it’s like to be the slower kid, the one who doesn’t understand directions and is somewhat handicapped in her ability to work independently. I teach so many students in Portland who are limited with their English, or who need directions more than once… or who the other students avoid because they’re weird and look different. I teach humans, in other words. Here, though, I’m the outlier. One girl even switched places to avoid sitting next to me. And it’s easy for me because I’m not twelve and my mind, body and soul aren’t battling over who can betray me the most, and I also know that no matter how ridiculous I am, I’m out of here in a matter of countable days. But I can’t think of a single Lyman Moore new kid who’s ever had that luxury, and I feel like that kid would have a vital outlet in an art class. Because as I learned today, you don’t need to speak to cut the bonds, there.
Showing them your nethers works, too, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
So I am not gift-centric, like at all. It stresses me out when I feel like people expect things for Christmas and birthdays, and I want none of it myself, being much happier with the feasting and singing and smiles than I am with the accepting and thanking and wondering where I’m going to put it. Grinchy, yes, but realistically, there are limited resources in this world. I would much rather eat them than wrap them in paper and styrofoam for the questionable sake of tradition.
That said, I didn’t see any way around avoiding it here. I was told in no uncertain terms that we are to give people stuff, and we are to accept things in return. Represent, yo. But oh, the sigh of relief when I unloaded the last of it today.
Our morning was a shuttle session: first to the superintendent’s office- a Shinagawa big shot- and then to the Friendship Society that works so hard to host us here. Since organization is my strong point in the same sense that hiking is a mackerel’s, I just threw every present I had into my arms and started passing them out willy-nilly. Everything went smoothly except when I accidentally threw ¥10,000 at the super’s feet, and then got awkward about the retrieval because I’ve never figured out how to bend over without being either squatty or provocative. Judging by all the crinkly-eyed smiling on both sides of the table, however, I think we did okay and now I don’t have to worry about presents anymore!
I was only allowed to check two suitcases on this trip, and one of them was reserved exclusively for this etiquette mandate. My eyes gleam now at the prospect of empty space. How shall I fill thee, o vacant valise?
A kimono, a conveyor, Kurt Baker.
I can’t tell you how thrilled I was this morning when I woke up to the virtual social scene and saw that Kurt Baker, this Portland musician I don’t actually know but have nevertheless probably, at some point, spilled something on, has an album that’s selling in Tokyo right now. This is not solely because of the possibility of fault lines getting active, in which case I can be listening and refer to the experience as a “Shake and Baker”, although that prospect admittedly excites me. Mostly I’m just enjoying a contact high, this feeling that someone from my beloved hometown is making an unrelated appearance in the land of no blondeness. And because I’ve heard really good things about him, so I’m jazzed about the new music. And because Portland musicians are home to me. My symbolic Baker binkie.
I’m hittin’ that right after school.
I hate to admit this after previous rant, but I did get a loaner gift from a student today, and it has already advanced so far up the ranks of useful that I’ll probably end up buying one for everyone else, which should effectively cement my position in hypocrisy hell. It’s this book, and it is just bloody fabulous because it says everything in English, katakana (Japanese letters) and romanji (English pronunciation of Japanese letters) plus it has pictures. I took it to an eighth grade class today and told everyone I was takai (tall) in Japanese before they could ask me yet again. And then I translated part of my introduction, which wound up being a mistake because they got comfortable enough with me to ask me to sing.
This one kid sang for me. It was gorgeous and joyful and soaring and spontaneous, just him leaping from his seat and belting, with the clearest voice coming from behind these perfect white teeth. Seriously, I remember the teeth. The moment is frozen for me because I was once again overcome with emotion and if the happiness wasn’t going to do it, the fear would because he wanted reciprocal favors.
What? If there’s not a steering wheel or a shower head in front of me, I don’t really know how to do that. I statued myself, racking my brain for a song, any song, any song that wasn’t gangster rap, which is my usual go to. By the time I remembered Prince, the moment was over and I felt like I’d failed.
Score another one for East Asian dominance.
I have to make a side note about the exuberance, too, before I mention the other gift I actually really love.
I cannot for the life of me reconcile the life and energy that is so apparent in this school with the restraint reported from every source I consulted before coming here. Where is the taciturnity? The quiet, reserved population that I was supposed to find so difficult to connect with? I do see that in adults’ treatment of me, but that could easily be chalked up to a simple inability to speak the same language, understandable and something I’m quite sure I’ve done myself (exception: cabdrivers). Further evidence is adults’ interaction with each other. Yes, they are respectful and deferential when appropriate, but I also see laughter and animation; I see joy.
Especially with the kids, I see so much joy.
When I walk down the hall, notably on the elementary floors, every single time I am enthusiastically greeted with shouts of “hellooooo!” The accent is on the first syllable but they draw out the last, and it’s both hilarious and gut-punching adorable. Since I’ve figured out that they’ve been learning English from a tape so their inflection and responses are uniform, I’ve started to engage them Groundhog’s Day-esque conversation. I’ve had this one dozens of times:
“Hello! How are YOU?”
“I’M fine thank you how are YOU?”
“I’M fine, too, thank you.”
And then we stare at each other, totally puzzled with how to go on because that’s where the tape ends. Sometimes they rapid fire some Japanese at me and for awhile, I would make my exaggerated “I Love Lucy” faces trying to indicate my ignorance before eventually walking away, waving and saying “BYE byeeeeeee” while everyone giggled happily at each other. It was my favorite part of the day even before our new ritual. The new one happened by accident, when a little bugger waved at me and I mistook it for a high five invitation and smacked him. His reaction was typical- a belly laugh- so we continued to high five until the inevitable moment he started to make motions about what a Jack and the Beanstalk character I am. For the record, I prefer the Taylor Swift comparisons, which are ridiculous until you remember that I might be the only towhead in Tokyo. Anyway, I said yes, I’m tall, and I raised my hand in the international mime gesture of “this high”. The kid got excited, did a little scootch before leaping, and smacked me right back. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by the giggle brigade, jumping and whacking and generally reinforcing the aforementioned notion that they are indeed the cutest children on the planet (byproducts of my sister’s DNA not included.)
So no, I don’t see the reserve I was expecting, and I’m looking for it. “Maybe I’m just seeing the extroverts,” I thought, and made a point to watch for all the children rather than just judge the ones predisposed to approaching me first. Unless they’re GI Joe-ing under desks or behind classmates- classroom walls facing the hallways are always made of all glass so they can’t be hiding in there- I don’t think that’s true.
There’s life, and there’s play, and there’s fun as a culture in this school, and it’s something I really, really love. It’s another note to self to improve back home.
I said I would talk about a gift, but I’m honestly a little exhausted so I won’t go much further than to mention it: a bead. A little boy gave me a bead as he was walking home, and beamed when I thanked him and I smiled. It makes me really happy that I’m writing all of this down because life is playing fast and loose with the moment-having right now, and I want to be reminded of these feelings so I can help create a place for them in Portland.
Grinch or not, this one stays with me for life.
My attitude, thought not subject to gravity, is nevertheless defying it. There’s a clear and direct correlation between that and the second grade music classes I watched today. Cute meter’s on overload again…
“Watched” isn’t really the right verb because the teacher threw me into performance mode almost immediately. She wanted me to sing the English versions of “Bingo” and “Old MacDonald” so the kids could learn pronunciation, and thus I found myself at the front of the classroom alternately politely coughing, nervously kicking the floor, and attempting to ready my mind. With zero prior experience singing for an audience except accidentally or in karaoke, I had to draw on that for inspiration. Thus, I abandoned all hope of being impressive and focused on my more accessible ability to act ridiculous and make people laugh. My accompanist played way up high on the keys, so I took a deep breath and falsetto’ed away, clucking, squatting, and thrusting my head like the chicken on Old MacDonald’s farm.
Whew: “chickchick” was a hit. Also the mooing. I tried to make a lot of eye contact while mooing, which is really the only way to do it. Children, as it turns out, love it when you look deeply into their eyes and low at them in a voice of equal depth. Their delight overwhelmed me, and I took my seat udderly cowed.
No, I’m not sorry about that pun.
The kids sang next, and oy! What noise! For awhile I was totally mesmerized, then I got emotional again because my lacrimal ducts have hijacked my nervous system, and then I flipped back to science mind in an attempt to stiffen my flaccid upper lip. I wanted to see if, while occupied by their own teacher and lessons and not by me, their behavior would be similar to that of American kids or if there’d be a noticeable cultural difference.
It’s essentially the same. Some kids were absorbed by the lesson; some were involved but not actively engaged. The rest were doing stereotypically student things like falling out of chairs, picking scabs, and poking around for a nose-lunch. Gross. My tears were effectively dried and I waited for the end of class.
One thing I really like about this school is the schedule. Side note: I’m afraid to generalize about anything because I’m only attending one of, like, thousands of schools in Japan. I don’t want to make assumptions about an entire country’s way of life in the same way I wouldn’t want people making assumptions about Maine based solely on a conversation with our governor. Thus, the “about this school” singularity. The other American teachers are having similar experiences, to be sure, but that’s still only four schools and they’re four schools that were purposefully selected for this exchange. So. Side note concluded.
Anyway, the schedule here is great. Kids have a 50 minute class followed by a ten minute break, and repeat as necessary all day. During the breaks, they’ll go absolutely bananas, running pell mell up and down the hallways, zipping outside for a quick unicycle workout, or generally just jumping up and down and shouting at each other. They’re in school longer than elementary students in Portland, but they’ve got plenty of time for motor breaks and socialization. I wish I could say that it improved their behavior in class, but that wouldn’t be true: they’re pretty much allowed the run of the place. I feel, though, that an extension of our schedule to add these little recesses would do wonders for Portland kids, and exterminate the interminable bathroom and water requests during lessons. This Shinagawa scheduling brilliance seems both student and teacher centered. I like it.
When music class ended, I thought I’d stick around and maybe high five some kids and watch them jump at me. A few did in fact rush up, but before I could stand and raise my hand, a couple of the more assertive ones climbed into the lap area and started stroking my arms and my hair. I bent slightly at the gathering kid crowd and more of them aimed for my blondeness, touching reverently and murmuring, “yellowwwwwww.” And I’m telling you right now that if you haven’t had this experience, friends, you haven’t lived.
I felt like Jesus, or a Beatle- except in a disturbing and thoroughly fraudulent kind of way… though I’d be lying if I said that part of me didn’t enjoy it.
A lot of me didn’t, though, and here’s why: a couple of days ago, one of the teachers made what she probably thought was a complimentary comment about eastern jealousy of the western look. It’s been eating at me ever since. For starters, beauty isn’t at all about coloring or height, which is my assumption of what she meant by “western”. Scientifically speaking, it’s about symmetry, simple as that. I mean, I’ll give you the “big ole eyes” thing because that’s one of the main reasons we think children and puppies and stuff are cute. I read in this science essay once (because I’m a huge nerd about stuff like this) that evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense for the youngest of our species to have adult sized eyes in their heads, because eyes are where we make our most primitive but deepest connections. If they’re proportionally bigger in a child, we’re more likely to get sucked in and want to take care of them, which is good for the whole propagation thing. Throw the big eyes together with symmetrical features, and you’ve got beauty. Skin color? Immaterial. Hair color? Immaterial. Height? Same darn thing. We may think those things matter, but that’s psychology and not physiology speaking. And as we know, our psyches are easily manipulated.
I tend to figure that since you can’t help the placement of your facial features, you do the best you can with posture, smiles, and thoughtfully placed accessories. The notion that there’s anyone out there- especially a child- who thinks otherwise breaks my heart a little. I just wanted to grab these kids playing with my hair and say, “YOU’RE beautiful, YOU are.”
Just, you know, not in a creepy way.
Just found ocean detritus up my nose. Yesterday was a good beach day.
So we hit the tourist town again, and my goal yesterday was to try really hard to fit into the group flow. I’ve said before that I have a difficult time with all the herding and the pace adjusting, and honestly, it was tough in Kamakura. We have these wonderful sweet volunteers taking us around, adult ed English students, and it blows my mind how much time they devote to make sure we have the best possible Japanese experience. But then they also have to document every waking second of it, and after the 96th pose it gets a little forced. I do understand the inclination, though, because nature and the ancients fling the fast and furious photo ops here. I guess I’m just more inclined to take pictures of hilarious signs, like the one for… dog food?
I did kind of get excited about the grand scenery. See, Kamakura has this holy site- Hasedera- built on the steep hills of the coast, and its temples and statues are hundreds of years old. Some aesthetically far-sighted designers placed koi ponds, stone walkways, and an explosion of hydrangeas in strategic juxtaposition with the plethora of smoothly carved buddhas, and the result is like a heavenly Asian wonderland. Unfortunately, our fetid throngs of humanity kind of put a damper on it. I couldn’t help thinking, as I was being jostled and shoved up this beautiful path at the pace of the crowd around me, that we were doing something wrong. There was no time to stop and smell the hydrangeas, per se, and the B.O. threatened to overpower it anyway. And then, at the pathway’s summit, at what should have been an unbroken vista of paradise, we saw the snaking lines of tourists and the dirty rooftops of modern sprawl.
It hurt my heart a little. I needed some of the quiet and the peace the Buddha preached.
As the crowd made my way back down the path, I tried to readjust my attitude again. It’s good that I’m with such kind, smiling people, because I’m afraid if I met my match of cynicism, I could poison the congenial atmosphere. As it is, it’s a solid, happy group, and I was able to refocus in time to snap this with a genuine grin:
I also had to “time out” to clutch my stomach over this photo:
It’s one of our guides, and he wanted to pooch out his belly in imitation. Good stuff.
The giant statue of the Kannon, goddess of mercy, was another good lobotomizer. It’s one of the biggest wooden statues around (“around” being the Great Generalizer meaning “in Japan but probably more than that”) carved from a single tree and eventually gilded in gold. It’s got all this symbolic meaning, which was awesome because I love symbols, but I won’t talk about any of them because I forgot. What I do remember is that 1) nobody was allowed to take pictures there, so it was appropriately more solemn, and that 2) that solemnity was ruined in the best way possible by an adorable little girl with squeaky shoes.
I also, after sneaking off for a bit, got to have a moment with these guys:
They were tucked off behind an incense structure so I was alone for a few seconds, and it finally gave me a sense of the peace that the whole place is meant to invoke. I was saddened a little- two weeks later- to find that they were representative of hundreds of miscarried babies, but still, it was appropriately solemn and calming and I liked the sense of solitude provided by the stony crowd.
Ice cream was next, and at the risk of being the cliche of a girl who takes pictures of her food, I ate this, you guys! It’s sweet potato green tea ice cream!
We weren’t done being touristy, however, so we stumbled off to see this guy:
As a rule, I try not to take photographs of landmarks that can be better experienced by googling them. I find that whatever factor inspires awe simply cannot be translated by a bungling amateur, and the resulting 3×5 cheapens the experience. This thing, though, I snapped, because I wanted to everybody to see how hilarious it is that the people have left, as an offering, a relatively minuscule watermelon.
Changed my mind at breakfast, though. Good watermelon is unquestionably the nectar of the gods.
Stylish Tokyo ladies wear staggeringly high nude heels, thus elongating their legs and ensuring that I will never be a stylish Tokyo lady.
I share their tendency toward hobbling, though.
My lower back is playing cruel and unprecedented tricks on me so I’m self medicating with all the seat time I can manage. Thus, on a solo day trip to Shibuya, I have managed merely a quick jaunt to a towering Tower Records before diving under the streets for some lunch. I don’t have any idea what I ordered, either, or how much it costs because of all of the pointing I did and this menu’s conspicuous lack of Arabic numerals. Oh, my Kirin’s here. Might as well photograph it:
The thing in the black cup looks interesting but since I don’t know if it’s a drink, soup, or a finger bowl for cleaning, I’m going to use my smelling before I have a go.
Oh, food’s here!
That red thing: I don’t think I was supposed to eat that. There’s a hole in my stomach and my nose is crying; these might be my parting words!
Never mind. A few bites later, everything is pleasantly tainted with the lingering force of this pepper, and my stomach’s no longer burning because I’ve coated it with the flood of spice-induced tears I keep inside. Lunch is actually quite delicious. It’s a noodle… it’s an egg! It’s a noodle… it’s an egg!
The muted lighting and mood music in my subterranean tavern are fine catalysts for an active imagination. It’s the kind of place that keeps a side room for gangsters. I hope one of the Yakuza says hi to me! I need to get out of here…
Twenty minutes later: I have taken action against my bratty little vertebrae in the form of two of these suckers:
Aspirin in general is totally alien to me so I figure a couple of the foreign patosick tabs should do the trick. And although Shibuya is this thriving, hopping, Times Squarey kind of place with youths and haircuts galore, I’m not a shopper. I’m currently parked in another pub for some people watching. Ooh! They’re playing John Denver here! This place smells pleasantly of soy and cigars, and my emotional pleasure has vanquished my physical pain.
So an hour later, I’ve been sitting on trains for thirty minutes on my way back to Shinagawa. I’ve decided that rather than risk further damage, I’m heading back to my room for some books and some supermarket sushi. And honestly, the googling of “lower back pain” that’s most certainly going to commence. Though it’s probably because the serving size is mathematically accurate for someone who’s half of me, these bizarro pills aren’t working and I’m grudgingly ready to call it a day.
Night y’all, ’cause it’s midnightish in Portland.
I read the little boy’s t-shirt as we passed near Oimachi Station: “Get Off My Smile” it said, and without the benefit of punctuation, or, you know, syntax, I was stumped.
The third grader’s this morning was more forthcoming: “I demand stimulation.”
And this last guy- he was silvery, slouching, and probably pushing retirement- wore a tight top curiously reading “HANGOVER. Bring balance to your life.”
I can’t figure out if these are precisely translated nuggets of ancient wisdom, or just some crafty dude’s recognition of the masses liking anything reeking of English. I hope it’s the former. Note to self, though: don’t buy anything with Japanese characters just to have something exotic. Far be it from me to come all the way back from Asia and accidentally promote some travesty. I mean… ouch.
On a more “US Weekly” note, though, I signed autographs all morning! Who has two thumbs and can’t get enough of this girl? Everyone under the age of eleven in the entire prefecture, methinks. We got the kindergarden and elementary tour today, and at the risk of hinting at my fragile emotional status yet again, I have to report that it was really pretty special.
The kindergarten was first, and it was the kind of experience that makes me think about “oh, how apt a word!” Because really, it was a garden of blooming children and I wanted to lovingly water them and watch them grow and protect them from pollution and pesticides, which is what I consider things like McDonald’s and Call of Duty.
The kids welcomed us with a couple of heartwarming trips up and down the chromatic scale and I happily took some video.
I wish I could take more video at my own school, but wait, now I want to side note: there hasn’t been a seamless way to mention this yet, but I am continually delighted by the fact that everyone carries a towel here. See, the school is completely without napkins or paper wipeys, and I can appreciate that on a number of different levels.
1)Earth. Earth is fun, and she hates all this needless litterbuggery.
2) Who needs a hand dryer when you have pants?
3) All kids do with napkins is shred them anyway, and
42) Hooray for the Hitchhiker’s Guide! Most people probably can’t match my approximately baker’s dozen times of reading it, but I love that darned Guide. And if you’ve read it you’ll know that a towel is a non-negotiable travel companion. It is absolutely beguiling to me that these kids carry individuals on which to deposit their daily living. Copying that.
Where was I? Oh, right: media permission. I don’t have that at Shinagawa Gakuen, so I can’t show you video of the giddy ones at my home school. The kindergarten gave us the rights, though, so all signs point to ‘yes’ on that note. You even get to see a part of the dance!
Kinda puts you in the general mood of the Grinchmas Reformation, yes? Triple-sized heart and whatnot? I thought so.
Plus they gave me this official school jacket to wear so I did the thing where you- I believe the kids are calling them “selfies”- take a down-angle picture of yourself for the express purpose of showing off to all of your social mediamigos.
A half an hour of giblet playtime was next, so I parked myself in front of a bunch of four-year-olds and let them dress me up as a manga superhero, feed me with paper ice cream cones, and playfully throw little balls at me. Through the universal language of pretending the balls hurt because of the strength of the toddlers throwing them, I made friends. Lots of grabby high-fiving ensued upon departure.
At the elementary school, our next stop, a few of the third grade classes had performances prepared for us. I know they were third graders because all the students have special shoes here, on which their grades and classes are written, and I knew about the shoes because all performances have been in Japanese and when I don’t have the slightest idea what’s happening, I look at people’s t-shirts and feet.
Then it was lunch, time to communicate in the other universal language I know: the one where people make the dumbest, most contortionist faces possible at each other while laughing uproariously. I’m lucky in that I can do the wave with my tongue and wiggle my eyebrows independently, plus I have this party trick (provided the party is filled with 10-year-olds) where I twist my elbows around and stick my head through them. Honestly, if I taught social skills, I would probably just recommend acting like an idiot because before I knew it, kids were grabbing their friends, requesting specific grotesqueries, and generally using me like a set of animated and personable monkey bars. And I’m cool with that.
Plenty of autographs and a humerus stroke-fest later- and yes, I mean that in the literal sense of the arm, though there was screaming laughter, too- it was time to go. I’m a walking germ factory for sure, but I’m feeling good about bridging the gap-toothed gap. If they remember nothing else except a warm sense of some fun they had with an American, I feel like I’ve done my job. And I will definitely remember my fawning fans with fondness.
Stimulate you, little third grader? If we’re talkin’ humor, well then, pshhhhh, kid- I can do that with my eyes crossed. Somebody else can teach you how to translate, though.
Bloggin’ Live Like a Boss from the Front Lines
“Yolusku a-naga shimas!”
Every class begins with this student-led sing-songy call and response. It’s charming because it seems playfully military but doesn’t involve the word “heil”. I could get used to this.
Today I’ve invited myself to some third grade classrooms and if I’m reading my schedule correctly, I’m in an English lesson. Once again lost in the land of polysyllabic gibberish, I’ve decided to live blog the duration, which will simultaneously make me look busy and feel accomplished. Accordingly, I’ve parked my carcass behind a desk low enough that my knees are higher than my bottom, and I’m currently reevaluating my initial perception to determine that this is Kanji, not English class. I think that because the chalkboard looks like someone threw magnetic pick-up sticks at it and my comprehension is lower than my hips. Every new schedule I get seems to be accurate for a satisfying ten minutes before devolving into an incomprehensible mishmash of room changes and plot twists.
Flexibility is the name of my game here. That, and ignorance.
All the desks are quietly moveable and it appears the kids are shuffling, so I’m flipping a coin and joining this group. Wait, there’s a plant here… oh! Giblets are jabbering at me and it looks like they expect an answer, so I turn to the page in my notebook that I’ve dotted with helpful Japanese phrases and respond in Nihon with the first few sentences I see:
“More water, please. Let’s go to a Japanese bar! It is hot today.”
The closest girl thrusts her head forward indignantly because she knows I’m being absurd and she’s unwilling to admit it’s funny. She enunciates carefully in English while pointing to her work.
Oh. It appears that this is an art class. Foiled again; I guess it’s back to the drawing board.
I accede to what I think are this serious student’s wishes and start to throw down some pseudo-artistic lines, getting all mathy with my knowledge of the Fibonacci sequence and its influence on plant growth. I’m feeling pretty good about it until I study it and grudgingly agree with that noggin doctor, the one who diagnosed me with borderline visual retardation. This is not a leaf sketch; it’s a lightning bolt, and I give up and start taking in the room.
This, apparently, is not allowed, so a couple of 8-year-olds yank me pleasantly from my reverie. We draw simple pictures at each other for the remainder of class, labeling them in our respective languages. Though I understand this to be learning, I actually comprehend a smaller percentage of their speech than I did before the fun stuff, because the more (four) words they teach me, the more words they think I recognize implicitly when realistically my responses are always, “huh?”
It would be disturbingly easy for me to flush my self-confidence if I thought for a moment I were staying here.
When the break bell rings, I pop over to the adjacent room and make a point to peruse it for the individual earthquake helmets upon which the other Portland teachers have remarked. The concept fascinates me in the same way tornado drills did when I lived in Charleston. In Maine, our school-based fears lie more in the vein of, say, bathroom bomb threats and blockheads who think that class plants wrapped in homework are smokeable, so tangible evidence of a looming natural disaster kind of flabbergasts me. I wonder if fears of them- tsunamis, earthquakes- permeate these students’ waking thoughts.
In my own childhood- comparatively idyllic, devoid of Cold Wars, globally warmed El Ninos, and elementary gun violence- the pandemic panic-inducers were comfortably imaginary. Oh, there’s a Blue Van napping nearby kids? A sordid, psycho, sewer clown? Those were sleepover ouija fears, the kind we summonsed willfully for fourth grade feigned excitement. But as mentioned, I had the rare childhood untouched by tragedy, and maybe only appreciate that now. The threats facing so many wee ones today feel more imminent than imaginary, and it’s disconcerting to think that they live constantly with such a vivid visual reminder as an earthquake helmet on a shelf.
Except I can’t find them in here; there’s just that one in the corner. Is it a morbidly and ill-conceived teacher’s pet’s treat? The prize for survival of the fittest? A Hunger Games-esque culling of our overpopulation? I probably just can’t see the rest of them… I hope. But these crafty Japanese have continually astounded me with their resourcefulness; they’ve probably made tremor-activated foldables that fit nicely into uniform pockets.
Oh! The delightful ones have sung for me again! This almost makes me want to return to elementary school as a teacher- a sensei, as I’m honorably known here- except “oh heck no” just alarmed across my brain, so probably not. This class in particular is a treat, though, which I suspect has everything to do with a teacher who seems, with her inflections, expressions, and body language, to exercise control over and engagement with her students. They clearly love her, and it’s sweet. Effective elementary school teachers, I think, are a gift meant to balance the unforgiving rages of nature.
Aw, the pigtailed little midget in front of me keeps turning and shyly smiling. Is it weird if I pick her up and hug her?
Whoops again with the scheduling. I amble back to the teacher’s room for some word transfer- notebook to ‘puter.
It’s fourth period now: time to gate-crash the first grade because my novelty hasn’t worn off there yet, and I love that they love saying hi to me.
Oh, hooray! These kiddos are doing math, and yes! I speak that language. Not only that, I’m fluent in the simple plus and minus work they labor now to master.
Sort of. That fraggle-looking kid is wearing his workbook as a hat. The diligent little princess next to me, however, is manipulating her counting fingers with the rabid concentration of a fighter pilot. I point to an answer she’s written, say “five” and “good job!” and instantly her face is set aglow. I wish everyone found such innocent pleasure in working and getting it right.
Whoa. This professional-looking woman is getting incredibly strict with those seated as the younger guy prints problems on the board. I haven’t seen that kind of discipline yet, and her staccato admonishments grate as she shoves in wayward chairs. With fidgety bums still in them, mind you. Unusual, or the norm? I wonder how much the presence of my foreign face adjusts things. It’s like one of those science experiments in which the mere act of passive observation modifies the subjects’ behavior, thus casting doubt on the validity of any conclusion.
And now I sit here judging like some Little Miss Omniscient? Shoot, I can’t even decipher what she’s saying. Aw heck, I’m really glad it’s lunchtime.
You guys, I miss this morning when I smelled okay and thought I was athletic.
Grand, sweeping gesture across the brow about lunch, too, because I was placed with some curious eighth grade girls who had a lot of ready questions about whether or not I had a boyfriend, and – if not – perhaps I “liked” someone. Luckily, my proximity-induced infatuation with the Japanese gym teacher has passed and I could honestly answer with a “nah”. The boys up there were excited, too, because they’d heard I play basketball and wanted me to join them at recess.
“Sure!” I gushed, before the teacher harshed my varsity vibe, “I would love to!”
“No, no,” she told me, “too dangerous. You can only play with girls.”
Say whaaaaaat? I am certainly not the type to “only play with girls” and said so in no uncertain terms.
“But they will hit you,” she answered. “American boys are respectful and Japanese boys are crazy. You will get hit in face.”
“Totally fine!” I enthused, a little overanxious to make my point, “I love getting hit in the face! It’s fun!”
Ten minutes later I found myself on the court, resigned to a gentle girls’ game. Turns out I was terrible, too. What I saw last week as a beautiful, intricate melding of three games in one was this week a raging cluster impossible to navigate. I had no idea who was on my team, no idea how to pick my way from one side of the court to the next, and no idea how to dodge balls I couldn’t see coming. I threw up one shot- an airball- and then just started toe-running frantically, trying to figure out how to avoid being such an embarrassment to my hemisphere.
Made up for it a little bit in organized sixth grade volleyball, but only because the game balls were beach balls and everyone was terrible. Also accidentally whacked some girl so hard that I think I heard her nose hit her brain, but that’s to be expected when I’m subbing in PE, as Orianna learned the hard way back at Moore.
Sorry kids, but thanks for letting me play!
Wait, no- let me say that properly, the same way you do when classes slide to an end:
Wow, yesterday seems so far away. I had art class in the morning, which was miserable because we had to show our work and say nice things about it, and I don’t have anything nice to say about my artwork, like ever. Then there was that “head and shoulders being really far away from my knees and toes” debacle, which happened when I was forced to sing the song for 45 minutes after a breakfast of shrimp fettucine alfredo that I had mistaken for eggs. And, of course, there were the visits to other classrooms where they asked the same old, same old questions about my height, my marital status, and which Star Wars character is my favorite.
Han Solo, obviously. Although I saw a Darth Tater in the toy store yesterday and really appreciated the combo of the Empire and Mr. Potato Head.
Regardless, I think the most interesting part of the day was lunch. The whole lunch process here is still fascinating to me and I can’t believe I haven’t described it yet. For starters, we don’t eat until 1 p.m. and at that point, I’m slavering for anything you want to throw at me and have to physically hold myself back from biting someone. Especially since the kids start getting it ready at 12:40, and you have to just sit there and watch as things are equally parceled out. Yes, the kids do it all. They retrieve a cart full of lunch, trays, and utensils, roll it back to the classroom- no special cafeteria here- then dish out the goods to the rest of the students and teachers. Everybody waits until everybody’s served, they yell “itadakimas!” in scripted unison, and then boom: culinary chaos while everyone dives in.
The sheer amount of food on each tray boggles the noggin. On a typical day, I get a mound of rice that could hide a melon, a chunk of protein with some side veggies, and a steaming bowl of soup. Oh, plus the weird milky drink they serve here. Think I can chopstick that into my gullet in the mere fifteen minutes I’m allotted? Think again, Sayama-san. I generally heave my face as close to the tray as I can manage and have at it, picking up the soup bowl and slurping directly from the rim as etiquette mercifully dictates.
I’m afraid to leave any crumbs behind, either, because it seems that’s just not done here. I always leave stuffed to the gills, and- hey- I didn’t even mean to make a fish joke! (Yes I did.) Seriously, I eat so much fish here… often three meals a day. I keep waiting for the gray matter to expand accordingly, but have not, thus far, seen evidence to support.
Face-stuffing usually does not leave room for talking, which is fine, because we only have about sixteen words anyway in the middle of our linguistic Venn diagram. Yesterday, however, the protein portion was something that looked like a chicken parm sandwich and “whew,” I thought, “I can eat that with my hands! Maybe I’ll have time to relax and attempt a convo!”
I activated my munch mandibles and quickly polished off what turned out to be a sweet chili squidburger. Oddly delicious, too, which was a shame because I didn’t have to throw it up and use the “release the kraken!” pun that only just now occurred to me.
Unfortunately, this did in fact leave plenty of room for talking, and a nutcase ninth grader named Negi refused to leave me alone. He didn’t speak; he shouted. HE SHOUTED EVERYTHING! VELY VELY GOOD! VELY GOOD SQUIDBURGER, CALOLINE-SENSEI! DO YOU RIKE? DO YOU RIKE? SQUIDBURGER, YAHHHHHHH, CAROLINE-SENSEI!
This l/r thing is killing me. I totally understand it because I can’t say, “arigato, heyyyyyy!” properly, but the mistakes I hear (and see… check this thing out!)
are still, at times, really funny.
I don’t like to believe this is true, but I read somewhere that if the brain isn’t exposed to a particular sound in the first few years of life, it’ll close off certain channels and never be able to hear or effectively replicate that sound. So since I only had an ABC childhood, anything in another language will forever be phonetically inaccessible. You can teach me how to arrange my lips and tongue correctly, but my brain can’t distinguish the resulting noises from sounds I grew up with, so proper pronunciation is a crapshoot. Drop me into the Kalahari for a bushman visit and I’ll love you forever, but I’m danged if I can ever do that clicking.
It’s the same thing with the Japanese l and r. I can logically understand when people can’t hear the difference, and I can recognize that I’m doing essentially the same thing myself. I just figure it’s better to laugh with each other than the alternative.
Anyway, lunch eventually ended and Negi went away to do his job. The kids have to clean everything, too, which is refreshing. It’s also freakin’ adorable when I’m headed downstairs and pass a bunch of little first graders alternately sweeping the halls with child-sized brooms and diving with their wipe cloths like the floor is some kind of slip ‘n’ slide.
Lunch marked the end of my school day because the assistant superintendent gave us the afternoon off, probably in recognition that the two hours of stand-and-deliver teachers’ meetings would be a colossal waste of our time. That’s how I came to leave school early and the four of us found ourselves in Ginza.
Ginza. How do I describe this? It’s pretty lush. Very swanky New Yorky, and it was clear to me that I should have done a bit of research before flip-flopping my way down the ave in my v-neck tee and denim. The Cartier building was gold. The Swarovski one was dazzling crystalline. Louis Vuitton was there, Vera Wang… essentially anyone you see in a Vogue spread. It was kind of an alien world to me because my closest association with haute couture is when Miss Piggy says “I want be a high fashion model!” in the Great Muppet Caper, or maybe when Tyra makes them booty tootch. Bottom line is that I was happy when our destination was a toy store and then eating. Masterful eggy thing, too: my compliments to that tavern’s version of Mr. Boyardee.
And today, I’m back in school.
I found myself in third grade again, and was surprised to get my first hug in the better part of two weeks. This kid actually climbed me like a monkey on a pole to get his arms about my neck, and two little girls grabbed a hand apiece to lead me into the room. They were my artist friends from the leaf sketch day, and I was gratified to learn that I’d made an impression.
Holy boring asking them if they liked coffee for a half an hour, though. How is that an appropriate conversation for an 8 year old? Some lessons are weird here.
My next block- with the ninth graders- was an unmitigated disaster. Unbeknownst to me, I was supposed to create and deliver the entire fifty minutes myself. Since I’d been under the impression that I was to introduce Maine in a 10-minute slide show, that’s what I did. Well, it totally fell flat and the next forty minutes were amongst the most awkward and horrible of my heretofore blessedly cricket-free existence. Really, teacher, you’re not going to rescue me on this? I asked for questions to fill the time- hoping against hope I’d understand their accents- and nobody, not one person! spoke up for a solid five minutes. The entire rest of the class went the same. Absolutely terrible.
This doesn’t happen to me in the States. I mean, shoot, I can talk about anything. My students can attest to fact that we’ll go off-topic at the drop of a hat and I’ll wax poetic on space, evolution, anthropology, Genghis Kahn- whatever, really- as long as they’re learning and it’s interesting. We once spent an entire 45 minutes on the etymology of homosexuality because why not? They asked, and it’s socially significant. Those kinds of days are when I really love my job.
(Okay, so it’s not in the curriculum. I’m not fired, though, right? Nobody send this to Steve.)
Anyway, I couldn’t do that here. I mean, I could have spouted off in English, but I thought that might have been more awkward, so I just stood there muttering and waiting for their real teacher to jump in with something more textbook.
Did. Not. Happen.
Luckily I had some prep time before delivering what was intended to be an identical lesson, so I turned the thing into a Jeopardy game. Sooooo much better but ugh, what a bad taste in my mouth about that first one.
After lunch I had some blog time, then wove my way around meandering hallways, up three flights of stairs past the dojo, then down three more flights to the pool.
Did you hear that, you guys? There’s a dojo here! I had to look it up, actually, but I just know Dwight Schrute would have a field day. I need someone to teach me to be a martial artisan now.
So back to the pool, which was interesting, too. It was girls day, so they all dressed in one of two acceptable but equally stodgy swim uniforms and donned yellow caps and their goggles. My English teacher explained to me that the entire floor of the Olympic-sized pool can be mechanically adjusted by height, so for these seventh graders they’d dropped it a bit, though they’d raise it again when elementary students came back in. Honestly if someone had described it to me before seeing it, I would’ve been all “hahaha! That’s an awesome idea!” but dismissed it as hypothetical in the same way I might dismiss, for example, time travel.
It was really very cool, though.
Oh, my gosh, are they playing cricket outside?! No, shoot, it’s just creative baseball. I think I’m heading out anyway, though, because little people are funny.
July 5, 2013: Party Like It’s 1993
Once Ryan dressed like this with some stranger,
and it was neat, so I took a picture. If you had asked, I would have said no better shirt was made regarding the ‘90s, but I would have been patently wrong.
I know I already did a t-shirt entry, but this is my new all-time fave so you’re going to look at it, and you’re going to like it, okay?
I’m sorry the photo’s not more clear. I was trying to be stealthy, but I was also aware that if I were a mom and some giant white weirdo were trying to be stealthy- with a camera- around my child, I would summon forth my dojo skills and fillet her like a fish market ninja.
But seriously: “Moon the World 1993”? This girl’s maybe four years old but she’s already the the most amazing person I’ve never met. If she did, in fact, child prodigize her way into time travel, she did the coolest thing ever with it and then paused to make a wearable memento.
Ahhh… I’ve finally found my hero.
July 5, 2013
When that pre-adolescent brace-face flouted all the traffic laws to hurl his bike into the side of my car, where it crumpled as he somersaulted over the hood to disappear onto the opposite pavement, well, that was the most terrifying moment of my entire life.
The dumbest, however, might have been the time Dom lent me his moped and I accelerated it directly into Chuck’s parked car.
“What u doing?” read a text message I received shortly afterward.
“Oh, I’m gaping like a guppy in my good friend’s driveway,” I replied, and now I’m making this up because I couldn’t possibly have known it at the time: “I can’t hang out because this mess is going to cost me $1,000, but there are hot dogs here so it’s cool.”
Connecting the dots? Yeah, I’m not okay with anything on two wheels.
I am coming out, though, as heavily in favor of anti-sidewalk bicycling laws, because these people are breathing a humid new life into the term “reckless endangerment”. There is no regard for appropriate pedestrian lanes or the fact that people sometimes just want to walk in a straight line, and I couldn’t even listen to the Peter, Paul and Mary that shuffled onto the playlist this morning because it didn’t properly reflect how much I wanted to kick these people right in the spokes. If you want me to walk on the left, you stay on the left, too! Or go in the road. Or put out your cigarette, fold up the umbrella, and control that wobble-fest you’ve got going with the front tire.
There, I said it. Can I get back to being a role model again? My schedule says “handicap class” next and- assuming that’s a description and not an order- I feel strongly that I ought to be prepared.
Dang, that cutie’s in a wheelchair. I feel like a heel. Turns out I am okay with some things on two wheels… sorry about before, kiddo.
So the class, okay: the thing about people who somehow have the patience and diligence to work with- or be parents to- handicapped children is the sheer amount of patience and diligence they have to have. I think this about parenting in general, actually. It’s a full time job with no breaks and no outs for like 18 years, and you choose to do this and maybe allow your spawn to have sleepovers, too? I have the utmost admiration for good parents (my parents) because it seems like a heck of a lot to ask of yourself. Teaching is an amazing, fulfilling job, but I can’t imagine going home to more of the little one instead of a sandwich and a satisfying nap. I think the sense of responsibility would squash me like a bug. Plus, I sometimes have these vivid hallucinations of having a child who goes through this tortuous pain, and I’m helpless to stop or even ease it. The thought of David, Molly, or Lila getting sick or hurt just kills me, and even though I think they’re mine, they technically belong to my sister so that doesn’t even count the same way. So much worry.
And that’s when you have healthy kids.
These poor children who are trapped inside unforgiving brains and bodies require constant care, and it blows my mind that there are people in the world with such heart, who are doing it daily, and even loving it.
I’m having a really hard time writing about it, because, okay, maybe I’ll try to explain this another way:
A few years ago, I did the cross-country trip thing with a couple of friends and a sorry excuse for a vehicle, and it was great. We picked out a bunch of landmarks we’d heard of and drew up a rudimentary itinerary, and then just drove around taking silly pictures and checking off the “to do” list. We fell romantically in love with Savannah, Georgia, stood on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and deftly defied Death in its aptly named, sweltering Valley.
The Grand Canyon, though, now that was where I felt all the feelings.
The Grand Canyon is not at all something that can be studied via textbook or captured via Nikon. It’s a completely overwhelming expansion of your entire being: your eyes get bigger, your breaths get deeper, and your sentient abilities threaten to blow your hippocampus as you’re finally slapped with the vastness and ancient magic of earth. And as you marvel at the raw magnificence and sheer gaping unreality of the whole thing, you remember that after all, it’s just this tiny little place on a tiny little planet on a tiny little branch of relative nothing.
The contradictory nature of the whole thing leaves you grappling with life’s unknowable cosmos. It’s maddening, really. You’re left wanting simultaneously to save the world and give up because you’re just such a wee little bugger in comparison. And there’s all this strength and beauty around you and you’re a part of it and it’s good, but say what? with how the whole thing came to be.
It’s with that same appreciation and total incomprehension that I view the angels who devote themselves to taking care of the helpless and unlucky. I don’t totally understand how people this full-hearted exist, but they’re some of the best folk we have to offer and humanity is better for their presence.
Wow, y’all. I’m overcome. Wanna hear what shop class was like?
It was art class, really, with fourth graders. Since the younger the kids are, the more they’re on my level art-wise, I figured it would be a good fit. The teacher kindly agreed to let me watch, then started explaining what were probably the rules for his class. Rules that involved clamps and saws and hand tools.
That was when I got a little hesitant and started an anxiety-fueled head count. I mean, kids here are clearly more in control of themselves than my usual American wild thangs, but I’ve still seen them tackle each other at will in the middle of a lecture. Assuming there were 36 pairs of arms connected to the same number of 9-year-old bodies, and assuming I don’t count as a responsible adult because I can’t call the Japanese equivalent of 911, there appeared to be a dangerous ratio of all of the above plus one teacher and a box full of carefully sharpened art weapons.
I like my own arms and not those odds, so I thought, “aw, nuts,” and bolted.
A filling lunch of maybe horse meat and scallops followed, and then I found myself in the midst of an absolutely delightful rat pack of sixth graders. With the help of one friendly extrovert and another, internationally schooled English speaker, I found myself subject to the most interesting q and a yet. How much money do I have? How much taller am I than the teacher? Am I interested in dating him, and if so which kind of noodle is best?
(That’s ridiculously funny, by the way. I wish it had happened in exactly that word order and not the way it did before I took poetic license…)
This really is a lovely bunch of kids. If they hadn’t got so excited about wanting to know my favorite bike brand- seriously?- I might even deign to classify them perfect.
Eh, the truth is, I’d probably say that about any group who’d line up for my autograph. Solid day, though…
Solid, solid day.
I just ate spaghetti covered in mayonnaise and sea creatures, which is pretty weird.
The little octopi were oddly good for my fatigue, though, so I guess I’ll call it even. Why did I stay up so late last night?
Oh yeah, the funnest place ever!
So I’m a big fan of karaoke anyway because of how funny I think it is for a white woman in her 30s to be laying down some early ‘90s gangster rap. I like to be that joke for people. But Japanese karaoke is different, and even though my job is what brought me here, I want to quit it now and bring one of these things to Portland.
For starters, the singing shenanigans happen in a private room you rent out with your friends. It’s a little place- you could probably set up a Twister mat, but you’d have to move the couches and table- and it’s set up with an embedded wall tv for the lyrics, a couple of maracas, two mics, and a four-top of tambourines. And the acoustics are absolutely Bose-worthy! You don’t even need the microphones because somehow your regular voice is naturally amplified. It’s just like you’re singing in the shower except your clothes are on and you’re dry. Unless, of course, you rent the jacuzzi themed room because THEY HAVE THAT HERE!
We didn’t actually hit the place with the theme rooms, but after researching this morning and finding out they exist… well. Doing that. Anybody wanna come hang out with me?
At some point during a hallway party, somebody told a story about how Rappongi- another district here- was on the US Embassy’s “don’t even think about going there, idiot” list because of the preponderance of illicetness and burgling. I can’t explain why my ears perked up, but they did. I went back to my room and strapped myself to the wiki train.
That’s when it turned into a moral dilemma.
The article about Rappongi was written by either a racist or a person who legitimately had a researched-based reason for reporting that Nigerian bars there are rampant with roofies and robbery.
Now, I’m a rabid anti-racist, and I don’t believe you should judge any group of people for their extremists. I mean, I don’t want to have to take responsibility for Rick Perry because I’m a white person, or Lorena Bobbitt because I’m a woman. This attitude is nicely reinforced by the fact that none of my Somali students are pirates, and none of my Iraqi students are hole-hiding dictators. Personalities run the gamut in all of humanity, I figure.
That said, did I really want to go to Rappongi if the extremist portion of Nigeria happened to have relocated there? Was it worth the appearance of being non-judgmental if it meant I was ignoring advice based in facts? Should I stay home and be safer than sorry?
An emphatic nope. I figured I’d take my chances and simply avoid the bar scene.
This turned out to be a fabulous decision. After taking at least nine pictures of this awesome spider sculpture,
I hit the roof (literally- not metaphorically- because the view was too good to get angry there) on top of the 54th floor of the neighboring building for a nighttime Tokyan panorama.
The Mori Art Museum was next, and I fell in love with Love, the exhibit currently showing. Excellent night all around, and roof- not roofies!- for life, I say.
Sunday held a day trip to Akihabara, Electric City. I was kind of hoping for a quick trip before heading to Yoyogi Park near Harajuku, where I read the teenagers gathered around in crazy costumes to swing to ‘50s American pop music. Akihabara took a little longer than expected, though.
Allow me to digress.
I’ve been been trying to smash my American hips into Chinese dresses for years. First I tried in San Francisco’s Chinatown, but it made me want to cry and swear off gas station ice cream cones forever. Then I tried the general Internet, where I found out “triple XL” is a relative term, and not a kind one at that. Lastly, I tried sending a Vietnamese lady my measurements so she could hand sew me one to order, but I think I accidentally used centimeters because this gorgeous silken thing arrived a few weeks later but I couldn’t get it down much past my neck.
I thought I might be disappointed for life, but I had ruled out triple x of another kind. For the record, it is socially acceptable to enter the four-floor porn store when they’re selling Chinese dresses outside. Here I am!
But sadly, the dresses didn’t fit.
I should probably have mentioned that we were in the robot region of Akihabara, a place known for all kinds of insanely technological electronics and animation. I was tagging along to check out the robot store, which was unfortunately a bit of an anticlimax.
Porn store joke! Sorry, Mom!
Anyway, I split from the shopping for a bit and found this awesome dessert bar where I got to sit in an air-conditioned hammock, play with the ipod they provided, and eat something fruity that pushed me further from Chinese dress proportions but was the “who cares?” kind of delicious.
Then I left for Harajuku on my own.
When I say that Gwen Stefani is the reason I wanted to see Harajuku, you should know how ridiculous I was for listening because Gwen Stefani and I have nothing in common but a conspicuous lack of doubts.
Harajuku is what it looks like when the youth movement explodes and bleeds an ostentatious trail of neon and bad taste. I was far more nervous than at Rappongi, so I had to employ the tactics I read years ago in probably Marie Claire magazine. Bag zippers toward the body, walk tall with confidence, eye contact with everyone. The theory is that the thievery-minded will look for the weak and meek: targets who seem anxious or off guard. This minimizes the chance of them choosing victims who fight back and/or recognize. So, boom. I lined up my tired vertebrae and started the march, meeting every hawker’s eyes with an aggression I usually reserve for salivating mongrels. The poor souls who as much as took a step toward me got my “I’m packing fist heat and I’m not afraid to use it” look and I got out of there and on a train as quickly as humanly possible.
This entry’s to be stream-of-consciousness, so please bear with the random threads of thought.
I’m the outsider in a ninth grade science class right now, and I can’t figure out why this guy’s projecting a couple of cartoon peas on the wall. Okay… now animations of a priestly-looking fellow blessing a couple of trellises, and oh! Four little baby peas appear! The word “appear” has the word “pea” right inside it. This is some sophisticated linguistic trickery from someone who doesn’t even speak my alphabet. I’m impressed.
Back to the lesson, which is potentially about dominant and recessive traits. Can I say this next part with a straight face? I hope to god it’s not about creationism.
Phew: big R, little r. That spells relief in a way that Rolaids never could. Creationism as anything but religious history has no place in public schools.
This pea business would be really hard to understand if I didn’t have a solid foundation of genetics under my belt. I cannot for the life of me figure out how anyone ever gets an education in another language.
Oh, so the Lyman Moore kids showed up with Mr. Hilton today, and now I know four more of the 13 million people in this city! I’m so interested to see them experience this from a kid perspective. One of them seems to have made fast friends by arm-wrestling the boys in his homeroom, so I’m gratified to know there are universal languages other than making silly faces.
Okay, I just got bored and started copying Japanese characters willy-nilly into my notebook, and I had this flash that some of my ELL kids do this all the time. I always wondered why, too, because from the outside it seems like sort of a useless activity, but now that I’m doing it myself, I get it. I don’t actually comprehend the shapes I’m making, but I know other people do. It’s a time killer, the drawings are novel, and bonus: I get to look busy.
Ohhhhhhhhh. Every teacher should be allowed to do this. It’s such an eye-opening humblefest.
Math class is awesome! I get to learn ninth grade algebra, which corresponds to the honors class I took with Mrs. Worthley as a sophomore. It’s a happy 45 minutes spent figuring problems I’d forgotten I know how to solve and reminiscing fondly about the amoeba that allegedly lived in her eye shadow. Ah, the vivid blue memories…
Next, I return to the lab.
Now this guy looks 100% like a scientist. Hair is flying everywhere like he’s just been prepped as Doc Brown in Back to the Japanese Future, and all of his mannerisms exude the air of nematodes and covalent bonding.
I’ve not the faintest idea what’s happening here, but I’m wildly entertained.
Check that. Just a few minutes later, I’m bored out of my mind. The lecture style of this pedagogy is leaving me completely out of the realm of academic participation, and I’m note-to-selfing again to have something like the pea family animation in my lessons back home, because that at least kept me partially involved. If I can incorporate some pictures and simple ideas, then even if I’m speaking completely above a kid’s level, at least I can get a few salient points across via visual.
I used to think if a student didn’t understand something, he should just try a little harder to figure it out, play an active role in his education. Just come up and ask, if he has a question! Now I’m realizing that while that’s true to some extent, how does a person figure something out independently when he can’t even pull a complete sentence out of a lecture to connect with his life? Why ask the teacher to explain when she’ll just repeat the same incomprehensible things at a slower pace, enunciating to make him feel like an idiot?
Food for thought. I’m hungry.
Now I’m wondering whether our diversity in learning styles is actually a biological adaptation that benefits us as a species, serving a specific and important evolutionary purpose. It would certainly behoove us to have members of our community predisposed to learning different ways: some through visual interpretation, some through written language, and some interpersonally. It stands to reason that the more ways people in society can learn and communicate, the better they’ll be able to adapt successfully and respond to threats if one or more of those methods is cut off. The community has to work together.
Perhaps I’m onto something.
Throughout my teaching career, I’ve been told to avoid sticking to one way of teaching because not all kids learn the same way. That made sense, so I accepted it and have gone forward accordingly. Kids hear that and accept it, too, but I’m not sure they always accept themselves when they’re stuck in classes that don’t teach to their strengths, or that don’t balance the strengths of the class as a community. I think kids would benefit not only from being told that there are many different learning styles, but also from being taught how valuable those differences are, and precisely why.
The classes I always loved most were my neuro-psychology classes because they taught me how my brain worked and how that knowledge would help me fit into society. Then I got interested in evolutionary biology because it’s comforting to know there’s a “why” for feelings, even the most terrible and depressing ones. I never understood why we had to wait until college- and in an elective, even!- to learn that, because that knowledge has been the single most positive change in the way I live.
Maybe the single most positive change I can make for others is to help them understand this business earlier. Happy science!
I am dazzling with sweat like a convenience store doughnut. There will be no illusion of keeping cool today. One of the Shinagawa teachers just laughed, actually, at my dripping, bedraggled, and wild-eyed self. Initially I took this as him scoffing at my inability to gracefully walk two miles through the 95º fog of humidity that separates my hotel room and my school; the Real Feel is well over 100. How the natives continue to wear things like pants and nude hosiery is beyond me, because if I were in charge, my first order of business would be to institute a city-wide uniform of clam shells and fig leaves. But then I noticed the guy’s twinkling eyes, and heard him chase the laughter with “kawaii,” the Japanese word for cute.
He then pointed at his head, which I can interpret one of two ways:
1) His brain is pleased with my appearance, which is highlighted by the shirt I chose this morning out of sheer woodheadery. It’s got 3/4 length sleeves, and it used to be white but is currently transparent from the sweat that is pouring out of me like a catastrophic dam break. This is definitely disconcerting, and probably illegal in a school.
2) There’s a flower in my hair corresponding exactly to the part of his head at which he pointed.
Oh. It’s probably that one.
Now I’m in music class with 36 seventh graders and their recorders. This looks like big fun because I never had a music class in school, but nobody has given me an instrument, and also nobody’s talking to me, so I’m taking to my notebook to write things about yesterday.
Yesterday was an exercise in hyperbolic living, and boy did we exercise. It’s apparently the hottest week in 10 years, mind you, so this was no easy task. For the first two hours, we walked around the Shinagawa History Museum and shell mounds, and I quickly degenerated from trying to be a role model for the Lyman Moore kids who’ve joined me here to giving up on that in order to focus my efforts on not complaining about all of our shared and exaggerated grievances. We weren’t hot, we were dying like magnifried ants. The bugs weren’t biting, they were boring into our sensitive skin like winos with corkscrews. And we weren’t hungry, we were famished like the war-torn poster children listlessly swatting flies.
I know. The feeble whines of the spoiled first world. Believe me, I know how lucky I am to be here, especially after yesterday afternoon!
The fortune cookie of my life became very apparent in Odaiba, where at 2:00 we finally landed for a happy lunch at the all-you-can-shovel buffet. It was here that a former student- now a ninth grader- recommended what was the best soup we’d maybe ever tasted.
Oh, I was atremble with excitement over this one. I delight in recipe replication, and get giddily enthusiastic when I taste something new and delicious that is also potentially makeable.
Once, when I lived in Charleston, my salivary glands got all turned on by this sexy etouffe that made use of a shrimp or a crawfish or something else Bubba Gumpy with a face. So during shrimp season in Maine, I decided to give it a whirl. I put at least a stick of butter in there and added some other rich and delectables, but the result, ladled sparingly over rice, was still a bit overwhelming to the tongue buds. John, however, came home and had a field day with what he thought was soup, eating two heaping bowls full before crumpling to the couch, gently massaging his belly and muttering derogatory things about dairy.
This was hysterically funny to me until yesterday, when I found out the two bowls of soup I ate were sauce. That meal didn’t mesh well with the pants-fitting project I’m currently managing, so… bummer.
Dave then came over with some excellent news: there was some sort of Sega Playstation aim game in the urinals!
“Grab your cameras, kids,” I said, “we’re going to the bathroom!”
Exhibit A, from Things You Only Repeat to People When You’re Sure They Know the Context.
Exhibit B: I also sort of bought my students cigarettes.
Here’s my defense:
The Odaiba souvenir mall includes a shop of Japanese sweets. Thus, I proceeded to watch while the young ones gave me a live-action spectacular of why an excited person is described as “like a kid in a candy store”. They went absolutely nutso and honed in on the orange and cola flavored sugar cigs. I let curiosity kill me like an emphysemic, diabetic cat and grabbed a box myself. Since it had only been minutes since the kids had received their first spending money, and since I had mine in easy-access small bills, and since the whole thing cost less than two American dollars, I sprung for the packs like a champ.
“Holy smokes, I just bought them cigarettes,” I thought appropriately.
And unfortunately, what happens in Japan stays on the Internet for life. Begging forgiveness from all of you.
Despite Legoland’s proximity to the sweet shop and our repeated chanting of its name, we had to forego a visit in order to make room for an hour’s worth of photo shoots. Normally this would annoy me, but I was having way too much fun with all the kids, who speak English so well and have such good senses of humor! Everything continued to be hyperbolic, but in a decidedly better way. Funny? No. Gut-clutching, floor-rolling hysteria. Lego figure? No. Life-sized, building blocked samurai.
Truth? My smile parts were as sore as my leg parts last night, and Dave’s pedometer said I walked 12 miles throughout the day. Not too shabs for 95 and humid.
And now I’m excited to see what today holds. If I ever make it out of this interminable computer class- the PCs have floppy drives but nobody gave me a login, sooooo… writing again- I’m scheduled for another Tokyo walking tour.
(I’ll try to keep Parole Model in her cell.)
Epilogue: turns out today’s special was Asakasa, which was the place with the fake-looking temple and sick-looking bride. No thanks on that one; it’s mostly souvie shops anyway. My only souvenir plan is to pack the bag I borrowed from my sister with the most interesting 7/11 food I can find and take pictures of my nieces’ and nephew’s faces when they see it. Since I’ve got some empty time now here, I’m going to play an hour of basketball with a couple of first graders and then park it back in the air conditioned teacher’s room.
Maybe rustle up a few of my remaining electrolytes for the sticky and sweat-soaked trek home.
From Friday, July 12
Kermit the Frog makes a lot of faces, but I have a hands-down favorite. It’s the “Kermit’s kerflummoxed” look, where he sort of draws his lips together and his nose back and stares dumbly.
A bunch of kids are making that face in the corner, but they’re also jumping around waving their hands a lot and pointing at one clearly embarrassed but giggling child. All signs point to him just having broken some wind.
This is the most exciting thing to have happened so far today.
I finally got to teach another lesson, but I had no idea what do without guidelines or complete sentences, so I photocopied the Maine page of a US coloring book and had them paint the lobster red, the ocean blue, etc. I then had them draw in themselves, like, “what would you do if you were in Maine?” See, Ira had done a lesson in which students were drawing comics, and people were adding hilarious English but explicit speech bubbles with the Japanese teacher standing around complimenting them on using phrases they’d picked up from American movies. And Ira would try to swallow his laughter and correct them: “Well… in America… that’s not actually a thing you can say in school. I mean, kids do, but not… that’s really a very impolite thing to say to someone.”
I wanted that to happen to me. The closest I got, though, was when the kid surrounded himself with swastikas somewhere near Skowhegan. This might have disturbed me if I didn’t know that swastikas are an ancient symbol for peace, and that the Japanese still draw them into maps to indicate temples and shrines.
If I’m wrong, though, someone needs to get ahold of this kid. He’s got brown eyes and his name begins with a “K”, I think.
Mostly I’m just putting the time in today before taking the American kids back to Odaiba, which should be awesome since I don’t have to deal with any chaperones and can actually go to the amusement parks and Legoland. There’s also, apparently, a bilingual, interactive, cutting edge of a science museum in the neighborhood. And if I have an alley, that’s up it.
I’m definitely getting over the charms of being in school all day; can you tell? Mostly they just put me in the role of student or observer, and there are hours every day when I’m contractually obligated to do absolutely zippo. Having the Moore kids has helped somewhat, but wow, it’s a good thing I enjoy writing. There’s no Internet, even, just my trusty pink notebook and self.
I’m so bored right now I actually just did the math for the first week I was here. I had an average of six hours and twelve minutes per day with only my brain to occupy me.
Don’t mind my crank, please. They kept me up too late at that all-you-can-snarf place last night and tone-deaf goblins are currently blowing foghorns or recorders or whatever at me in music class. With absolutely no sense of timing or synchrony. Plus, again, they won’t give me one so I’m just sitting here, mentally growling and trying not to breathe through my nose.
It’s now a few hours from that last sentence and I wish my impatience hadn’t been so evident. Until today, I’ve been pretty good at going with the flow of all the classroom behavior, but I’m danged if I understand it and have spent hours (and you know I have them) trying to pinpoint this philosophy and determine whether it’s an improvement over ours. Or, more specifically, mine.
See, I grew up in the ‘80s surrounded by Yamaha, Sony, Toyota, and talk of Japanese technological and educational dominance. I even read about it in history books: the United States pumped a couple of billion dollars into reconstruction after the Big II in order to create a free market- and therefore non-Communist- economy, and at the same time prevented Japan from investing in any kind of military, which is our biggest cash vacuum. There was a prevailing Japanese attitude of “save your money and educate your children” so banks were able to provide all kinds of credit to a disciplined and technically savvy emerging workforce, and boom: economic fuse lit, reputation made.
And the thing about reputations is that they last, even if undeserved, unless contradictory evidence becomes glaringly obvious.
I’m staring it in the face now and I feel like an idiot for not having thought it through before. Sometimes I get irrationally egocentric and assume that things just happen to people and places connected with me. Like the Great Depression. It didn’t occur to me until well into adulthood that dozens of countries would have been affected. I had generally pictured it as, well, some people high-diving off Wall Street and others Grapes of Wrathing all over the Dust Bowl. Sad, distant, and US-exclusive. Wrong.
It was the same with the ‘80s. People darted around blowing coke-holes through their noses and canonizing Reagan by making terrible long-term decisions that nevertheless looked savvy to the greedmongers, and when it eventually hit the fan, of course there were world-wide repercussions. Japan’s economy, so dependent on feeding the excesses of the nouveau, took a massive sucker punch.
It has not, in fact, recovered, and children born since then have no memory of the war’s devastation, recovery’s intensity, or domination’s elated high.
They’re just some kids in some schools because they have to be. Their behavior reflects that.
In my classroom at home, I have a real problem with kids touching, tackling, yelling or sleeping through the lesson. All of these things happen in classrooms here, and constantly. Teachers generally just stand by and lecture through the mayhem, presumably figuring the serious students will just figure it out and damn the rest of the mad lot.
From one point of view, this seems to have some benefit. Kids here honestly do seem happier, smiling more and playing more. At first I thought all the whacking might be offensive, but they often giggle and wrestle right back; it’s playful. I know it’s a crowded city and people are much more likely to live in close quarters; does this explain my perception that they’re less guarded with personal space? It truly doesn’t seem like a bullying situation, which it certainly would be at home.
On the other hand, hush up and show some respect when you’re there to learn! Sure, kids don’t necessarily know what a crucial factor education is in living a free and happy life, but isn’t it the teacher’s responsibility to create conditions conducive to getting one? Be engaging, create connections interpersonally and from content to life, and for sweet Buddha’s sake, have some rules to keep the chaos out of the classroom. What is happening here?
I guess I’m making the Kermit face myself now.
Mixed reviews on the trip to Odaiba, although the bottom line was that it was very, very fun. Fifteen minutes before we were to leave, I found out one of our hosts had called all of the Japanese parents and given meeting instructions that conflicted with mine, so all of a sudden we had three groups of children all over the city instead of my planned and simple one.
I have to keep reminding myself of the Bambi principle… so I’ll try not to say anything much. We spent 20 minutes, however, trying to locate one of the groups at an enormous train station to no avail, then without the directional help of the Japanese kids who were supposed to be with us, I managed to get us safely onto a rail that would take us 25 minutes in the wrong direction.
Oh, hooray. We had limited time anyway and I’d already eaten an hour and a half of it, plus was missing a kid. Role model alert. I threw down for dinner as an apology, and our first glimmer of a luck reversal came afterwards when the entire group was reunited at the Odaiba station and when the Sega urinals turned out to be functional.
A group of us was dedicated to go to Legoland while the others wanted some shopping time, so we busted down to the entrance, only to be turned away. We’d missed the last entry by a mere few minutes… and my internals were once again succumbing to the relentless gnawing of guilt.
Luckily, yeehaw! The Sega Joypolis was open and it was fan-flippin’-tastic! Four of us had a private showing of Sonic the 3D Hedgehog, then discovered an indoor roller coaster that combined with a video game, so we could shoot zombies and then flap around wildly near the glowing pink intestines. A giant half-pipe dance dance revolution was next, and after an encore with the roller coaster we made our way to this giant ferris wheel that took us to the level of the tops of surrounding skyscrapers. Heights, wow. All the heebies were jeebieing.
We were scheduled for a trip to Nikko bright and early the next morn, so we cracked the whip and rode homeward. Turns out Nikko is a three hour trip, so I settled comfortably into my headphones once we boarded the bus.
Anyway, Nikko turned out to be one of those places where you have zero idea where you’re going until you get there, zero idea of what the place involves once you do arrive, and zero say in your activities or food choices beyond “do I want to get naked with students in the public bath or do I want to flout the rules and have a co-ed party with the American grownups even though co-edness was expressly forbidden by the phrase ‘do not get into each other’?”
Since one of the kids had described in vivid detail how weird it was for former exchange students to see a teacher nude by accident, and since there was no way in the deepest circles of hell I was going to risk being the naked protagonist in future stories, I went with co-ed party.
And I was irked, because Kim was really convincing when describing how cool the baths were. Kim lived in Tokyo as a kid, so before I left, we talked about all the things I should experience. The public bathhouse was one I was really jazzed to try, because it sounded like, you know, an authentic cultural experience, plus a way to challenge my boundaries.
IT DID NOT SOUND LIKE SOMETHING I WANTED TO DO WITH STUDENTS.
Grr. The waterfall in Nikko was pretty, though. The shrines: meh. I find it an arrogant, insulting slap in beauty’s face when people put cheap, plastic monkeys with price tags all over it.
So the hotel room itself was pretty interesting. There were no beds, just tatami mats on the floor, on which we put a sleeping pad, blanket, and pillow. It was actually moderately comfortable except the pillow, which conformed to my head in much the same way a mountain range would, for example, after millions of years with a glacier. Since we only had the customary eight hours, I got to know the ceiling and walls pretty well and emerged an absolute crankmonster in the morning.
I think it was written all over my face. I’m not good with yielding control over my life, and will only do so willingly for small chunks of time and for measurable benefit. I am also not good without considerable hours alone, and am sometimes hermetic for days at time. This girl? Not so happy.
We were scheduled to leave at 8:30, and shortly before I was hanging out in my room with a couple of the kids. One poor girl had slammed a finger shortly before boarding the plane to Tokyo, and the result was pretty disgusting. The poor thing had never before experienced how colorful and how oddly shaped and textured an injury like that can get, plus she was half a world away from the comfort of family, so she was understandably stressed. I figured I’d have her in my room for a bandage change so I could look at it and reassure her. I’ve had similar injuries as a result of playing basketball for years in shoes that were too small, letting giant people jump up and down on my feet until my toenails turn weird colors and fall off. I’ve also had 35 years of watching other people’s misshapen injuries heal.
It was a good plan, until the meddler came.
She barged uninvited into the room, and started manhandling my possessions, “making” the “beds” and ordering us in harsh, clipped tones to do this and that. I gritted my teeth and asked her please to leave, that I was taking care of things and that we’d be down shortly.
She refused. I repeated myself slightly more forcefully. She refused. Her hands were on my stuff.
I get it now. I get why people snap.
Luckily I turned the corner for a sec and deep-breathed all over the place, and the kids thought the whole incident was funny so that helped, too.
Back on the bus to head to woodcarving and wonderland.
I did wind up having a good time at both. Edo (Tokyo’s former name) Wonderland was like this pre-electricity “amusement” park, but with no rides. It did, however, have live comic ninja specials, a maze, and a crooked house, plus I got to hear a grown-up shriek when I surprised him in the wrong end of the haunted samurai mansion. We also made friends with this cool British girl on holiday by herself, the knowledge of which filled me with insane amounts of admiration and jealousy. Oh, to have control over my own comings and goings! What bliss!
Finally got home, though, and I begged off the brewery and baseball plan for some much needed solitude and schoolwork completion.
I feel better now, but Bambi principle… Bambi principle… Bambi principle…
I’m sorry I couldn’t follow it.
Monday, July 15
The water here tastes like the sweaty folds of a dog’s tired body, but that’s just the flaw that keeps the mind alive. Everything else is just sensory perfection.
I see: a tenderly lit Tokyan twilight and the gracious smiles of a hostess who, despite an uncrossable Cumberland language gap, I’ve come to think of as Friend.
I hear: some Britney, some Fugees, some Macy Gray. Some innocent pre-mess ‘90s Ameripop.
I smell: the menu blend of a favorite nosh spot, the savory scents of anticipation.
I touch: the smooth pleasing grain of my hashi and the comfortable curve of my sperkling wine glass. The bottle, I’m told by my charming hostess, will easily morph to “to go” as I wish.
I taste: an atheist’s conundrum. The nostalgic dreams of my future.
I love this place. Sabai Sabai Thai, y’all.
July 16, 2013
I just catwalked across the lobby in an elaborate and ostentatious imitation of modeling, because I thought it would be fun and I was imagining hidden cameras capturing me. This is the kind of thing a person does when she’s tipsy, doesn’t know anyone, and hasn’t had a traumatic childhood.
I thought today was uneventful but I just had the most wonderful experience in a restaurant. “Whale Wars” was on, sort of, except it was the local news and the footage came directly after the weatherman hammered on his map with a felt-tipped drumstick.
This is so much better, FYI, then our sensory-defying green screen. The Whale Wars thing was cool because the news story was from a Japanese fishing perspective.
“Oh! This pointy vessel is needlessly ramming us starboard!” Cut to British guy in bow tie who stammers and pretentiously gazes at camera.. “It’s not scientific research,” he breathes, while subtitles probably mistranslate him. “Hmmmmph.”
My chef is the greatest, to change an abrupt subject. I fell into this place a week ago because it was the closest doorway to the lobby and I was hungry, but I kind of fell in love with the prep guy (I can’t call him a cook for obvious sushitic reasons) because there’s nobody else in the joint so he stares at me when I eat, then gives me extra stuff. This is he:
Today I think he donated a salty fallopian tube, because he rubbed his intestines and said “egg” when I gave him the exaggerated shrug sign, plus the gunk tasted like liver. Here it is:
They also give me soup, but I don’t know what to do with it because it looks like this:
Do I munch on the fin? Do I daintily slurp around it, complimenting the chef? Who knows?
He (the chef, that is) talks to me about sumo, except we don’t speak the same language except for the word “sumo” so it’s a lot of gesturing and smiles. There’s a guy in the back who knows 17 words of English, so he pops out and translates sometimes. He’s getting my favorite kind of kick out of the situation, which is the kind that becomes a taller pour of sake when he’s in charge.
You guys: I’m eating the kraken, there are no handles, and handling it is out of the question.
July 17: Captain Fun Club
So. Guess who moved up the departure time for the field trip to Tokyo SkyTree today and didn’t tell me?
I actually arrived at school to a charming display of the lower grades singing so I hung out watching for awhile, then headed upstairs to the kids’ room to meet the pack. Instead I was met with emptiness and a sign on the board that said “meet Wednesday at 8” so I toddled back down to the teacher’s room to investigate.
“Oh, no one told? Ha ha ha! You. Follow them.”
He made a phone call to try to figure things out. “You meet, 10:30.”
I thought an hour and a half seemed like a long time to give me to get somewhere in the same city, but he stood over my desk staring at me with a map until I left. Since it seemed really obvious where and when to meet, I was not at all worried and took off.
It did in fact take the full 90 minutes, so upon arrival, I immediately started straining for the yellow flag that I thought was unique to our group. After I spotted nine or so, however, in the twenty minutes I waited, it was time for the executive decision to eat the admission fee and just ascend the thing myself.
Twenty dollars later, I found myself shooting skyward at slightly over 22 miles per hour. Then 1,148 feet later, I emerged from the elevator, ears a-popping, to face my fear of heights yet again.
Okay, the Tokyo SkyTree- tallest tower in the world- is an absolutely insane feat of engineering that, from ground level, looks like this:
It actually rises a few hundred feet above where I stopped, too, but there were clouds today and apparently you couldn’t see through them to the ground, so I aborted that mission at the first stop, unwilling to part with additional yennage.
And it was still completely unbelievable.
Just walking out of the elevator felt different. I couldn’t look down without swaying, and was reminded of my favorite quote about vertigo- Douglas Adams, of course:
“I’ve heard an idea proposed, I’ve no idea how seriously, to account for the sensation of vertigo. It’s an idea that I instinctively like and it goes like this. The dizzy sensation we experience when standing in high places is not simply a fear of falling. It’s often the case that the only thing likely to make us fall is the actual dizziness itself, so it is, at best, an extremely irrational, even self-fulfilling fear. However, in the distant past of our evolutionary journey toward our current state, we lived in trees. We leapt from tree to tree. There are even those who speculate that we may have something birdlike in our ancestral line. In which case, there may be some part of our mind that, when confronted with a void, expects to be able to leap out into it and even urges us to do so. So what you end up with is a conflict between a primitive, atavistic part of your mind which is saying “Jump!” and the more modern, rational part of your mind which is saying, “For Christ’s sake, don’t!”
I was definitely feeling it. Gravity was getting the best of me. It was weird, actually, how tangible physics all of a sudden seemed; my feet felt physically sucked toward the ground and my brain was fighting and flighting all over the place, but with nowhere logical to land.
There was a glass bottom on part of the floor, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so logically sure I was safe but whole-body frightened nonetheless. When you’re standing over a void 110 stories in the air, there’s just no active memory for the brain to grip ahold of and respond accordingly. It’s just, “I’m high!” competing with “s’okay” and it’s bizarre. And honestly, pretty awesome.
It was noonish when I decided I was done being astounded, so I found a lovely Indian place with curry and naan and sat happily, filled with the sweet pleasures of independence and having been forgotten. And I hate to be superficial- all I really require in a waiter is competence and a smile- but this tall, young Indian was dashing and rakish and I liked it.
Satisfactory, all around.
Unfortunately it ended there. Due to my sense of direction- or rather lack of one- it took three hours, four trains, and a two mile walk to get back to school, at which point they laughed at my expensive misadventure and assigned me to two hours of seat time with Candy Crush and couple of 20-year-old Burmese guidebooks.
I had to put those down rather quickly, too, because they were pretty convincing about how much malaria and AIDS I’m going to get while eating maggots and avoiding insurrection. I don’t know if I want to go to Burma anymore…
I’m excited for Thai beaches, though! My shirt o’the day read “Captain Fun Club” and it’s a title I plan to wear with gusto.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
School was boring. Did observations of classes in another language for eight hours, but mostly just tried not to fall asleep. I am frankly happy to be done with this leg of the trip.
Now I’m listening to reprehensible Japanese pop in a dirty little noodle stand that I chose using the worst possible criteria for choosing an eatery: proximity to my face. It’s probably going to give me dengue fever, and I’m probably not going to do this sort of thing in southeast Asia. It already seems like a terrible idea.
I ordered via machine vended ticket; is that weird? That’s weird. I want to go back and look for a picture of something in the whiskey family, but alas, I have some work to do for Portland Public Schools tonight. Procrastination rears its ugly head.
The guy who looks like a poster child for a post-teen/still-angsted biker gang gives me rice. No thank you ever again on the rice. At least put some fish on it or something!
Oh my gosh, I take it all back- these noodles are delicious. I don’t even care about the hygiene questions I was just formulating; a lot can be forgiven when you factor in fluorescent lighting and fat, gooey ramen.
I think I can already feel the MSG pouring out of my pores, but it’s worth it. Teaches me not to judge a cook by its cover…
A lesson I’ve quite enjoyed learning.
Friday, July 19: My Last School Day in Shinagawa
The other Portland teachers all have parties, assemblies, and gifts they’re getting today, but I don’t think my school has ever really known what to do with me. While Tara, Brian, and Ira have been active members in their school communities, they’ve also had a least a teacher each who could communicate in passably fluent English.
It has been very, very difficult for the English teachers and me to communicate here, never mind people like science teachers and assistant principals. With such a barrier, I think it’s easier for them to just let me be or let me watch and I’ve done my share of both. Today I have a few classes in the morning, and then am scheduled for “clean up time”. Four hours of it.
Since “clean up time” involves stuffing the magazine I brought back into my backpack, I figure I’ll use the allotted- minus ten seconds- for really whatever I want.
Today has actually gone better, so far, than the previous few. I delivered five 25 minute lessons on A Typical Day of School in Portland, and even though an average of 5.5 kids slept (or pretended to sleep) through the entire thing and everyone else ignored me and talked through it, the fact that I had to keep my temper in check meant I stayed firmly awake myself.
My favorite period by far was the one I spent with the “handicap” class. There were only eight or so students, and this is the second time I’ve been scheduled with them. My gosh, they were delightful. They oddly had better English than any other group of kids, too. They had short presentations on Japanese culture prepared for me, and were so cute and pleased and proud when talking about castles and some pop group whose name sounds like AK-47. They also performed judo and origami with gusto.
(I hope that one kid’s head is okay, actually. I’m not sure the furniture was ready for him…)
I left the class with a warm fuzzy feeling and almost shed one manly tear. Brian shed one manly tear yesterday when he realized his orchestra was philharmonic-worthy, and I wanted to do it, too. Almost.
Lunch came as usual and was also okay because I thumb-wrestled the children. Usually in a thumb war, I waggle my stump at people until they marvel at it and forget they’re playing me, resulting in a quick attack and pin. My stump is still quite a lot larger than any thumb these kids’ve probably ever seen, however, so I actually had to rely on manual dexterity and therefore lost handily.
Ha! Appendage pun. I’ve still got it.
The only surprising bit of today is when I did get all choked up on my way back down to the teachers’ room. I figured I’d swing by Elementary Lane to bye-five some first and second graders, and they swarmed around me with such genuine happiness and squeezing that for a second I was sad to be leaving and got a little sniffly.
I think innocence might be the most beautiful of features. That, or maybe immunity to fluorescent lighting. Most little kids have both, the little buggers. It was all I could do not to grab them in explosive, drippy hugs.
This has been an absolutely amazing experience. I feel like I’m better at empathy now, and have a more complete understanding of the various ways that cultures weave the threads of human nature.
My body is ready to go, though. You wouldn’t believe with what fervor I yearn to eat a cucumber.
Monkeys, Thailand, Justin Timberlake! And then I’m h-ward bound.
ADDENDUM: Turns out they do have a closing ceremonies of sorts, and I’m trying really hard to take it with a grain of rice but they only informed me as I was saying my goodbyes and walking out the door- for what I thought would be the last time- at 5 today that I’m expected back in school until 2 tomorrow. Yes, they have Saturday school here. Yes, I already made reservations at the monkey hotel- four hours away- for tomorrow night with Sunday plans booked solid, too.
What is intrinsically a selfish, independent personality is currently at odds with an equally innate sense of responsibility geared toward being Class Act Ambassador for 400 million people. Losing what I know is merely one weekend’s freedom, though, is killing me.
Sorry, fam. I’m trying to fight the whine…
Monday, July 22
I just summonsed the blog document because, as it turns out, I forgot to put all those Game of Thrones episodes through the cloud and they’re unwatchable… and I just finished the first of the books and couldn’t find an English bookstore to grab the second. My head is filled with a yearning for dragons, but that’s okay because it seems appropriate on a flight from Shanghai to Bangkok.
I’m at the wing seat and we’re way over the clouds so I can’t see much, but the wing itself is funny in that, despite the giant Chinese characters that dominate the decor, the “NO STEP” warning is linguistically directed to those who are presumably the only ones dumb enough to venture out for a mid-flight stroll. Or plummet. I guess you could try it once…
I haven’t written for awhile because of the wall-to-wall awesomeness and idiocy I’ve put myself through. It started as I awoke for my real last day at Shinagawa Gakuen, the Saturday farewell party. Despite my annoyance surrounding the circumstances, it was really very sweet and thoughtful. There are some absolutely lovely people in Japan.
They treated us like rock stars at the Grammys: we were celebrated for the sake of ceremony and the people, but nobody was allowed to talk too much. Still, when 500 tiny people are singing and swaying at you and 500 more are graciously honoring your presence behind them, you can’t help but feel good about intentions and the world. Singing kindergartners should be a non-negotiable presence at every summit of world leaders.
After that, we were led upstairs to further celebration, complete with gifts, food, and a delicious fruit tart concocted by the woman whom I refuse to further disparage because upon reflection, I realize that bossy or not, her intentions were good. She gave us a ton of time and effort and by complaining about that just because it doesn’t fit my personality, I’m the jerk. My apologies to someone who hopefully never knows that she needs them.
I also got to say my farewells to my favorite kid, this kid:
who is maybe the most outgoing and personable child in the world, and if I ever deign to become a kidnapper, this little dude’s my first target. He’s one of those children with a heart of gold, with no idea that there’s anything bad in the world so he treats it accordingly. He’s also hilarious, winking ostentatiously when you look at him and bursting into ABBA song and dance at the slightest provocation.
But alas! Farewell, and off to grab the first of three trains to the monkeys.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013: Bangkok
I was thrilled this morning when it rained during my search for a Bangkok breakfast. Totally confused, too, because I thought I had slept until 10ish and then lolled around in bed until noon. Why wasn’t anything open? When I finally found a 24 hour spot that served me prawns and green curry with a host of other stuff- including spices that forced tears to flow freely- I was disoriented (orient joke) to learn that it was just after 8 a.m.
I hurried home happily- home is a comfortable hotel with pleasant orange walls and plumbing that can be heard for miles- because it was raining and I felt sort of sickish. Whether from breakfast or anti-malarials, I will not be venturing far from my bed today. This is excellent because I didn’t really want to, and now I feel I have some valid excuses.
Though I’ve neglected, recently, to post my adventures, I’ve been keeping copious notes until my Internet reunion. This next section dates from last Saturday, July 20:
I was on my third train and rural, surrounded by the crushing beauty of mountains in magic hour light. The valley was neighborhood farmland. Distinctive Japanese roofing topped houses in various stages of distress, and distinctive Japanese hatting protected similarly aging farmers. There were orchards, rice fields, exotic hangings I couldn’t identify. The trees reflected a local Miyagi’s touch; they were low, with a myriad of wide-reaching, crooked branches.
The wretched, slashing and ubiquitous electrical lines asynchronously scarred the face of nature’s primitive beauty.
It was bloody fantastic and I was so excited to see the monkeys! I chewed on my wasabi fish jerky and anxiously awaited the train’s terminus.
My plans were to stay at a Japanese ryokan, which is a traditional inn with tatami mats and a sleeping pad placed on the floor. It turned out to be much like the one in Nikko, except the bathroom was so small the toilet was placed diagonally. The proprietor kindly offered to gather me at the station, a relief after four hours of travel to an unfamiliar land.
The first thing he said was that he needed to go to the convenience store.
“Sorry! So sorry!” he exclaimed when he climbed back into the van, “Japanese businessman companion party at ryokan! Must supplies. Drinking party, ha ha ha! Karaoke!”
This sounded like top-tier interesting to me, so I angled for an invitation.
“Wow, that sounds really great- I would love to do something like that.”
I didn’t get the go-ahead, but he wasn’t kidding about the soiree. Hot, heavily made-up “companions” in very short business suits and very high heels were in the lobby as we arrived, and as he checked me in and took my picture and offered me a bath, I heard the raucous glory of accented karaoke and bellowing.
I knew then it’d be an experience.
The bath was an onsen, which is a small pool fed by volcanically initiated hot springs that apparently persist throughout the country. The onsen in Yamanouchi were actually what brought me here. Kim had highly recommended the experience, the Japanese have historically found that people forge strong bonds in communal naked cleanliness, and the macaques at Jugokudani Monkey Park- located at the top of Yamanouchi, flippin’ love it.
Win win win win win win win win win win win win win win win.
Turns out at this particular ryokan, the bath was an outdoor one fed by the hottest of springs, and I could have it privately at sunset for an hour. Would I like that, yes? You bet! I rushed up to my room to pre-shower, because you’re not supposed to enter the baths without thoroughly cleansing yourself first.
After wrapping myself in nothing but the yukata left for me, I slipped downstairs barefoot but with my camera. Shimaya-san directed me to some funny wooden sandals that had rolly bottoms, and I clomped as gracefully as I could after him outside and down the mountain road. We arrived at the onsen and he left me to this:
I used to think coastal sunsets, Round Pond ones, were the most beautiful, but I do believe the mountains have won. The solar invasion of crags, peaks and passes present too much vastness and mystery to behold dispassionately, and it’s easy to see why people yearn for a godly interpretation. It was like staring simultaneously into endless ocean and devastating fire, and the experience of doing so in open air, without any threads of cover, and in the natural hot springs of the mountains of a volcanic archipelago…
It blew my mind a little. I starbathed. I shared my night with bats and baths and dreams.
It’s something I would like every person in the whole world to experience, and something I never want to do again, because the golden memories could only be tarnished by attempted repetition.
Next entry: monkeys for sure.
Jugokudani Monkey Park is SWELL. It was exactly what I’ve been waiting for this entire trip, and I’m so glad I chose the primate ending. (Side note: what is the etymology of “primate”? Is it, like, first friend? Because monkeys do a lot of friendshippy things like eat bugs off each other and then frolic together. Or maybe it’s more “top animal” because of all the braininess exhibited. I have to look this up… Okay, apparently it means of the highest order of mammals, which currently includes monkeys and humans and initially also included bats. Bats, right? I wonder if we demoted them or moved them sideways into their own category. Hold on, I have to look that up, too.
Okay, that was super interesting. Bats are essentially nocturnal mammalian bumble bees, eating mosquitoes and pollinating flowers and being awesome at nighttime stuff in exactly the way that I am- here in Bangkok- not. But they’re also really smart, and have other primate-like ear-brain characteristics, although there are so many differences that scientists aren’t really sure how to classify them yet, and will likely create a new phylum or class or whatever just for them. Bats might have given us AIDS and ebola, though, instead of the apes I assumed from reading fictional stories by people who also wrote Jurassic Park. So there’s that.)
Anyway, the monkey park was astonishingly cool!
I was very grateful to Sayama-san because he gave me a ride up the mountain to the park’s entrance and said he’d pick me up again when I was done. He took this picture of me and off I went:
Thus started the most beautiful walk I’ve walked. Brave, kind, or desperate people cut an even path into a steep ole mountain, making sure these soldierly trees would diffuse the sunlight:
They were also thoughtful enough to politely warn the mouth-breathers among us, and then tickle the imaginations of the animal-friendly. I don’t even particularly like being close to most animals, but I still wanted to see a goat-antelope.
There was also something called troglodyte troglodyte that I didn’t see, but I filed the name safely away to use the next time I want a creative way to call someone a bonehead.
I walked for over half an hour, and even though it was spectacularly beautiful, I was becoming acutely aware that something called “monkey mountain” would have mountains in it, too. Mountains I would have to climb, and for which I should prepare by drinking lots of water, having a hearty breakfast, and strapping on appropriate shoes. Since I had done zero of those things, I had to just call myself a troglodyte and push forward.
Finally, I came upon these guys!
I did the thing with the sharp intake of breath, then the thing when both hands and both forearms start flapping wildly at the wrists and elbows, then the thing where you look frantically around for someone with whom to share the experience, to say “do you- oh my gosh do you SEE that? MONKEYS!”
And then I was singing that George Michael song, and it was great!
Everything went away except the macaques.
So, I’m not generally the kind of person who wants to go places and see touristy things like temples and churches and such. I’m wildly interested in religions and their myths and power structures and ambiguous rule-making, but for the most part, I’ve been able to glean much more from reading and photos. When I’m traveling, I want to interact. I wanted the monkeys to throw poop at me!
Well, not totally, but I think I’d be much less upset than average if it happened. There’s this kid at school who expressed almost worrisome interest in hearing about it if the monkeys threw poop at me, and I sort of wanted to be able to tell him the story.
At any rate, I’ve been interested in the Japanese macaques for a few years, ever since that summer at Round Pond- David was three, I think, and couldn’t read yet- when he became obsessed with one of the old issues of National Geographic that we have lying around. “Aunt Carrie, will you read me the Gorilla Mazagine?” I heard at least three times a day. We would go cover to cover looking at the pictures, and when he asked me to read, I’d either do so or creatively edit around the genocidal massacring. He was really most interested in the dinosaurs, silverbacks, and whaleburgers, and I was utterly charmed by the way he enunciated “macaques” on the Japanese monkey page. The pictures were awesome, too. They were taken in winter, when the monkeys visit the natural hot springs to reverse-chill out and warm themselves, and their ecstatic expressions scream “anthropomorphise me, baby!”
It’s like, oh hey, old DNA. Thanks for advancing and stuff. You look peaceful and culture makes me shave now; who’s better off?
I think I sat at the pool for a couple of hours watching the monkeys bask, splash, and give each other the finger:
The babies were especially cute:
Whew- all these pictures are giving me metacarpal tunnel of the scrolling finger, so I need to wrap this up. Because of its absolute beauty and complete foreignness, however, I can confidently say that my monkeying was paws-down the most awe-inspiring time I’ve ever had with animals. If this is how you pet owners feel about your cats and dogs, I guess I understand you better now. This experience busted right through the top of the neat-meter.
When it was time to go, I called for my ride and started the hike back, stopping intermittently to take a few more pics, a couple of which were supposed to show how close I was able to get:
It was about a kilometer more of this before meeting my ride:
but Shimaya-san wasn’t there! Oh, the humanities! At this point, it was early afternoon, I’d skipped two meals, what felt like all my earthly possessions were strapped to my back, plus my jacket was directing me toward solar meltdown. It was a loooooooong walk to the train station. Four miles down a mountain? A long walk. And luckily some guardian angel started posting “this way to the station” signs about halfway down, because I didn’t have a snowball’s chance of finding it on my own.
Come to think of it, echo location would’ve probably come in handy. Audio-y. Ear-y. Whatever.
ADDENDUM: Six hours later I was finally back in Tokyo, checking my email to make sure the next day’s travel plans were in place. Here’s what awaited me:
“Dear Caroline Foster
We are very sorry,
we made an irreparable mistake.
we forgot to pick you up.
I’m very sorry.”
And you know what? That’s what separates us from the monkeys, and all it takes for forgiveness.
July 24, 2013
I don’t know why sliced bread gets all the comparative superlatives because of… there’s curry. I tried my first Thai green curry yesterday morning, and it excited the living daylights out of me before I realized the “avocados” were crunchy. In fact, I didn’t recognize a single ingredient outside of shrimp and rice, and there were at least four different kinds of green things, some leafy, some with skin. I housed about half of it while every facial orifice poured freely, then dashed to the counter to pay.
“No,” answered my pride, “but I have to go home RIGHT NOW.”
It was delicious, but I spent the rest of the day in my room. I can’t necessarily chalk that up to the breakfast, though, and the experience didn’t deter me from trying the exact same thing today.
I want to go out in Bangkok- I really do, I mean I kind of do- but it’s more of a “want to want” than an “actual want”. I don’t know if other teachers do this, but during the first few days of summer, I mostly go into hibernation mode and just sleep. My body is tanked from excessive school year energy depletion, and I need that couple of days to refuel. And it’s just great: naps, books, and eating.
I did that yesterday, and despite being in the number one nightlife place in the entire world, I’ll probably play the loser card again this eve.
Besides, I can’t help feeling conspicuously the tall, blonde foreigner. There will be no Indiscriminate Flirting Sundays here… just maybe some nighttime walks for photo ops. Maybe.
Anyway, tomorrow I’ll head to Railay Beach for some more attractive activities: sand, limestone rock climbing, and kayak spelunking. I feel like the relaxation and less stenchy atmosphere will bring back my fun side.
Not that I’m not loving this shut-in-ness! It’s just that I’m reading my good stories instead of living them.
July 25, 2013 The Whiny Entry
I’m in a cab to the bus station terrified because people drive like bats out of video game hell here. What is my obsession with bats lately? The Thai currency is the bhat; maybe that’s it.
My exceptionally loud, troglodytic cabdriver just spent far too long trying to convince me to let him drive me eight hours to Phuket. I’m in an epileptic cab that growls like an underfed lion. No thanks, buddy. Just- my lord, these people on motorbikes!- get me to the station without undue death.
I’m trying not to stress out because when the inevitable carnage happens, I want the loose-limbed protection of the baby and the drunk, not the tension-ridden rigidity of… me right now. This is horrifying.
Gads, the slums here are the most depressing I’ve seen since western Mexico, and it is harshing what is already a pretty harshed vibe. If life hands me poor, I’d like to be rural poor, coaxing life from the land instead of from human depravity.
Oh, I know it’s not that easy. I’ve done some thinking, I’ve been to some poverty workshops. I am just not at all interested in being philosophical right now because of the tenuous hold I already have on my well-being. Watch OUT for the guy with the MATTRESSES strapped to his moped! There’s no way he can see.
Holay, I’m glad to be at the bus station. I have six hours to kill; what am I going to do here?
Whoa, taken aback. There is seriously interesting stuff here. If I hadn’t already packed each suitcase to bursting, I’d bring back some of these animal print, glitter-striped, neon jeggings, complete with strategic cut-outs. The fun box would love this.
Why are they selling bras here? Like in the middle of the station? I’m going to get my ticket.
In a Japanese fast food place now. Dropped off my luggage because I was sick of… oh! Lugging! I get it. The lady gave me these weird fruits and I ate them because I’m an IDIOT and I forgot about the first lesson of STRANGER DANGER. Is there such a thing as hallucinogenic fruit? I need to look up what those things were.
I’m on a drink strike now. NO MORE WATER. I would rather dehydrate than go into those bathrooms again. Did you know you have to PAY for TOILET PAPER here? It comes out of a box from a machine that you have to stick your baht into in front of like everyone, all the people who are out in the station near the bathroom area.
Ewwww, there’s no soap here, either. I feel… not so fresh. I just went into the 7/11 to grab some hand sanitizer, but no luck. Then I tried to buy a bottle of vodka so I could pour it over my hands to clean them like I was getting amputated in an old western, but they won’t sell that to me until 5 p.m.
I’m mad at you, Bangkok. I’m going to go figure out where my platform is.
Okay firstly, Elli B: I wanted to send this in a facebook message, but you won’t let me do that. Bully for you, actually, because I wholeheartedly believe in privacy and keeping strangers out of my face. (Unless, apparently, they’re bearing fruit, in which case I’ll thoughtlessly Adam and Eve it. Wait a second… I’m trying to be a role model. Forget I said that, unless it reminds you never to do it. I wish I hadn’t.) Anyway, I have this rule that I’m not allowed to be friends with any students until they graduate from high school. Even though you weren’t technically a Baxter Houser, and even thought I considered reconsidering because the Japan experience was so separate, I still feel like you’re one of my kids, and that my rule was made for good reason and there’s to be no gray area.
This should not keep you from visiting, or emailing, or sending avocados through your sister. All of those things would be awesome and we’ll be facebook friends in four years!
To the rest of you: why did nobody tell me I was supposed to bring my own toilet paper and soap? You guys should know me better than to think I’d’ve planned for that. I mean, every hotel reservation I’ve made, I’ve made the night before checking in, and every transportation plan I’ve made has consisted of showing the first person I see a photo of my hotel confirmation and trusting that he’ll get me there.
A nice backpacker name Marit-from-Holland had to tell me about the toilet paper, and she was only talking to me because I’m blonde and she wanted to practice her English. That’s actually how she introduced herself. It went a little like this:
(Crazy loud ceremonial Thai music plays and the thousands of people in the bus station abandon their bras, leggings, and crazy fruits and stand solemnly.)
I poke Holland girl and hiss “what… is happening?”
“Oh, hello, yeah! This is for the king, we all stand up. Where are you from? I sat next to you because you’re blonde and I thought you’d speak English with me.”
I paused for a second, taking it in. I knew the king was a really big deal here because I’d seen shrines and pictures for him all over the city, but still, was it a close call that I was so wrapped up in my book that I almost didn’t stand? I didn’t want to end up in a Thai prison looking for Claire Danes because I lacked the local social skills.
“Um, sorry. Yes. I’m from the United States. Wow, thanks for letting me know.”
We proceeded to talk about the things that people talk about when they’re foreign to each other, and it was pleasant. I continue to be grateful that I memorized all of the world caps, btdubs. People automatically think I’m intelligent and feel bonded to me when I know the capital of their home country, even when I’m clearly wearing jeggings.
I eventually boarded my double-decker bus and sang Keller Williams for awhile, but then we actually got moving and I got scared all over again. I had bought the vodka solely to wash my hands like some kind of spaghetti Western amputee, but I found myself swilling it so I could retreat from the assault of road terrorism and poverty.
I don’t particularly want to talk about it; it was just really sad. It reminded me of driving through South Carolina, once I got past the plantations and the middle class planned neighborhoods: there were emaciated dogs everywhere, and piecemeal houses that adjusted themselves with the wind. It was sad, and it was easy to see why all the buses were overnighters. I don’t know if people would forget seeing that in daylight.
But yes: overnight bus trip, 12 hours. I’d paid for a VIP seat which meant I got a bean bun and some shrimp covered nuts with my trip, so I ate them, drank nothing beyond my few rogue sips of Absolut, and tried to conjure the sandman.
No go. The roads were bumpy and our center of gravity a pipe dream. The road and bus seemed precarious, and listen: I know what it’s like to drive those things. I’ve manned an Augusta Rec van in my day. They’re unwieldy, difficult to stop quickly, and the kid in the back is probably going to eat a Handi Wipe and vomit for the entire SeaDogs game. Every time we came to a complete stop in the middle of the dirt road, my head would pop up like a whack-a-mole’s, because I was kind of hoping it was an elephant crossing.
It never was, and I arrived in Krabi tired, dehydrated, and cranky.
A cabdriver almost instantly shuttled me into the covered cab of his pickup, where I watched an enormous snail climb the walls and tried to keep self, shoes, and luggage from flying out the back. The driver stopped after about ten minutes to get a drink, then left me stymied in the Isuzu while he lounged in a lawn chair under the drugstore’s awning for a few minutes, chatting with his friend. Later he stopped again, so I could watch him drain his weasel on that stucco building. Oh, then he put in nose drops, nice touch. I sat back and played the role of observer because he had complete control of my life, and I don’t like to mess with those people. Another of my rules is to be kind and infinitely forgiving to people who control me: wait staff, housekeeping, and cab drivers in places where I neither speak the language nor know the maps.
He dropped me off at a crossroads.
I sat there for an hour, because the man playing with the monkey told me that I had to wait for eight interested people before he’d shuttle me via longboat to Railay Beach, my final destination. It would have been okay- I mean I was dirty, hungry, and had been traveling for 18 hours, but it would have been okay- but this SCAMP of a monkey kept jumping on me for some playful attack.
At first it was funny. Oh! Haha. You’re on my back, now you’re not. Can’t wait to tell people a monkey climbed on me.
Then it wasn’t so funny. Hey! Quit scratching my legs, I’m not made for your shimmying pleasure.
Then I was actively annoyed. That’s my FACE, jerk! Blood’s not funny and you’re not cute anymore.
Finally some Chinese tourists saved me, and I’m judging a billion people on their kindesses: China is awesome, y’all. All that pollution must have been another country setting them up.
The three of them hauled me into their tuk-tuk and dropped me off at a much better boat station, where I almost immediately waded through the ocean to board with my cumbersome baggage. About fifteen minutes later, I arrived.
To paradise, seriously. Paradise. Just look at this place! I have a week here, and I intend to be as happy as people get.
July 27, 2013
Moment of silence for the praying mantis that landed on my neck. I thought it was a monkey attack, and reacted by thrusting my face in one direction and my shoulders and body in another, a move that would’ve made MJ proud. The mantis ninja’d onto my hand in reply. I looked at it, determined its size to be sausagelike, and flicked it like I’ve never flicked before.
If I’m being melodramatic here, it’s because everything seems acute and surreal, and I feel like maybe my mind should follow suit. I was sitting at the pool today- and yes, I know I’m steps from what’s been called the most beautiful beach in the world, but the pool has shade, and from shade I can still read my books and dip my dips (the pool- not tobacco- gross) and avoid my cancers, and I am thoroughly enjoying the beach at sunrise and sunset so don’t worry about it, okay?- and a lame monkey waddled by unassumingly, which was maybe the greatest thing since curry.
Also, people watching is fantastic at the pool. This couple did the butterfly swim at each other today- in full goggles, mind you- and every time I thought they would smash into each other, somebody moved aside. Butterfly chicken? So weird.
I don’t have a lot to say because I wasn’t exciting today. It was beautiful, and I walked around and dipped and napped and ate awesome stuff, but it was nothing eventful.
Maybe that’s part of the beauty.
July 29, 2013
I’m sitting on my deck over the pool. It’s just after a refreshing rainstorm, Shakira is singing to me about how much she deserves whatever’s underneath this guy’s clothes, and I’m perfectly content because I really, truly had an adventure today!
Any of you who’ve ever wanted to metaphorically tell me to take a hike, don’t worry about it. I took a real one today! Better yet, I scaled a cliff!
All of it was quite by accident, of course. I’ve just had a couple of days of relaxifest and felt like I should take a walk or something, perhaps in the jungle where I could forgo the UVAs and UVBs. I knew vaguely of some sign saying “climbing area” and another saying “lookout spot” so I put on a cute stripey shirt and some flip-flops, thinking I’d have a meander and a gander.
My first path took me here:
which is Railay East, lying parallel to the beach on which I’m staying. I stopped briefly to thank the reservation gods that I’d chosen correctly- because this is beautiful but looks sort of haunted- and continued. My goal was to get to the top of this thing:
I headed toward the rainforesty looking stuff, and asked “path?” to the lady on a smoke break, who replied eagerly.
“Yes! Rope. Rope for you.” So I continued on a pleasant flat journey, thinking it would be one of those long, pretty, gently sloping switchback trails.
Instead, ahoy! I saw this:
It had ropes, but was also straight up STRAIGHT UP and I wondered if I was the victim of one of those cruel jokes where you give a tourist suicidal directions and watch her do the jackass dance. Since I heard people behind me, I sort of twiddled around waiting to see what they’d do, but they passed me.
“Eh,” I thought, “you only live once. And if not, the silver lining will be that you’ll find out in 12 or 13 seconds.”
I started to haul myself up, still thinking that at the top of the rope, there’d be a path. I figured it would just be cliffy (cheers!) at the beginning. But nope. It was grip, lift, and balance the whole entire way, and I was feeling exhausted, sore, sweaty… and STRONG when I got to the top. I gave myself a sure-footed award, and decided it would be ice cream.
At the summit was my easy little path and it was just a couple of minutes of peaceful walk to the lookout, albeit in a real life jungle. Usually I soft-foot my way through the underbrush pretending I’m either Katniss or the last of the Mohicans, but a bunch of bugs were making out with my legs and I figured the louder I was, the less likely a snake would be inclined to join the orgy. Plus I was panting like post-Derby Orb, so there was really no point in trying to tread quietly. The view, according to theme, was also breathtaking:
But then it was time to leave.
I’m not sure how it happened, but as I was using every single one of my muscles trying to descend, I passed a couple of English speakers puffing in the opposite direction. I shied away, fearful of my smell, as they greeted me.
“Oh, going to the lagoon? I wouldn’t recommend it. Really tough climb alone.”
Wait, lagoon? I had intended to skip that in my spent state, but apparently I had taken a wrong turn. And of course in their kindly and wise advice, I heard a challenge.
“Oh, I’ll be okay! Thanks, though.” And I continued my literal downward spiral into what I contend is the only remaining stronghold of the paleolithic era. Here, look:
I found a level spot and stood there long enough to calm my breathing to inaudible, since the huffing was kind of ruining the moment. Tidal appreciation swept me because of WOW, that’s pretty…
The mud kind of stank, though, and I choose that word carefully because it was true in every sense. Flip-flops seemed, in retrospect, Big Dumb, and my shirt wasn’t cute anymore and all my rivulets were cutting through the layer of orange that had settled on me.
I kept moving toward the lagoon, but it was getting progressively more slippery and vertical, and when it became apparent that I would have to do some hand-over-hand rope lowering- and then climbing, on the way back- I realized I had to call a spade a spade and fold. Without a partner or being properly clad, it seemed pretty stupid to chance my life further. Shoot, I didn’t even want to bleed! Who knows what the wild things like smelling?
At the top, I regained my position, found the right trail, and headed down. Here’s my view:
The rope was like a polio vaccine in that without it, I didn’t like my odds against crippling. It was especially true because I knew I was on my last leg, hopefully not literally. At some point, I sat down for a break and to gather my wits. I had been having these streaks of descending so efficiently that I was getting these rushes of self-congratulatory chest-beatingness, which made me wary of getting a little too arrogant and making a dumb mistake. I knew all it would take was a monkey- they were hanging out with me near the treetops, except they were wearing their evolutionary camo so I didn’t get a good picture- to surprise me and I could lose my grip and hurtle.
The only option was down and on the rocks, and I don’t like myself like I like my whiskey.
But- oh, hooray!- I made it, and better yet, there was a primate party at the base! I snapped some more photos before hobbling home to my shower.
Adventure Central Time here, and man, I’m gonna miss those monkeys…
August 1, 2013
Some wafflehead took my umbrella at breakfast, so it’s a shame all these raindrops are vying for roles in the next Fast and Furious movie. The thunder’s just a low rumble but it’s been constant for the past 18 hours, and the raindrops are massive and pummeling. I picture each one thinking it’s a superhero, curling one fist forward and aerodynamically hurtling toward the ground with the express purpose of driving itself directly into the mantle, which is where the villain’s hiding.
I haven’t used “villain” for ages! Wow, what a great word.
The sky is nimbostratus gray, so I guess I won’t be kayaking today.
I think I’m becoming a crazy person. I just realized I haven’t had a conversation for like ten days.
Well, it’s a few hours later and I have yet to say anything to anyone outside of “duck curry, please” and “that duck curry was really good, thank you.” And I’m not sure they even understood, since I also have to point to the menu when I order. But looky here! I’ve made plans to go out in Bangkok this weekend!
Maybe I’ll get to shake manicured hands with one of the infamous ladyboys. Oh, I hope so. Or, frankly, just a normal night on the town would suffice because I feel like it’s been millennia.
Later, Thai beaches with your attack monkeys and your cumulous thunder. I love you, but it’s time to make a change.
Listen. Thailand. This law about detonating the national anthem every day at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.? Let’s let that one go, yes? It was raining pleasantly this morning and I kind of wasn’t in the mood to wake up.
Let’s do some Q and A, because it’s long overdue:
Q: How was Burma?
A: I didn’t go to Burma. Plus it’s called Myanmar now. And as it turns out, it might be welcoming to the prep-minded, “who cares about tropical diseases” traveler, but I am the sort of person who laughs at preparation and therefore can’t go to any of the fun countries. Apparently, your money has to be a hundred percent ironed flat or it’s nothing, and I haven’t ironed since my mom paid me 50 cents a shirt in the ‘80s, unless you count that time I did Amy’s skirt. But that was with a hair straightener so maybe doesn’t count. Also, you can’t jaywalk there and I LOVE jaywalking, and you can’t show the bottoms of your feet at people, even to put them up on the bus, and I LOVE showing the bottoms of my feet at people, especially on the bus.
One more thing: the guidebooks said I would have to eat maggots while I was getting malaria, and that’s kind of a turn-off.
Q: Also, weren’t you supposed to go on some guided tour that had you riding elephants and stuff?
A: Yeah, that was kind of a quandary. The elephant thing had been giving me moral issues for a few weeks before I was sitting around in Japan one night and came across some pics of the company’s most recent tour. It looked like a bunch of drunken 19-year-olds, which- no thank you. I figured I’d eat the deposit and just not show up, but then miraculously got an email that said blah blah blah, did I happen to want a refund? This was incredibly exciting because I had also just found out that the Japanese government and exchange rates had conspired to rob me of a few hundred expected dollars, soooo… windfall, booyah.
Q: Are you doing the backpacking thing on Khao San Road?
A: No. No way. I am only intrepid when trying new foods. I like showers and toilets and the world wide web.
Q: How do you feel about the neat tropical birds on your deck?
A: I turned on the television for only the second time in seven weeks the other night, and the English speaking channels only had The Year of the Yao and that Alfred Hitchcock movie about aviary murderers. So now I love Yao Ming but wish for those beady little eyes outside to stop giving me all of the willies.
Q: Do you have enough turmeric in you to choke a camel?
A: Yes, provided somebody flies over a camel and wants to watch me do that. That’s weird, though. But turmeric, yeah: I’ve been shoving curry in my face with the strength and velocity of an exploding star, so eventually I looked up its nutrient density. Turns out its loaded with turmeric. My dad once told me that stuff is really good for you but tastes disgusting, but I’ve now found the way around it: curry. I have warded off Alzheimer’s for the next 60 years, at least.
Q: Finally, you’re about to take a ferry to the mainland to catch your plane back to Bangkok. Are you excited about this thunderstorm?
A: Yes, and thank you for asking. I think it’s going to keep away the birds…
August 3, 2013
I started yesterday with a yawn but a sense of adventure. After checking out of my beach bum bungalow before noon, some kind courier shuttled me across the peninsula in a golf cart, so I could meet my second mode of transfer transportation: this seaworthy tractor with a trailer. Though I’d been worried about my luggage getting wet, a secret angel had put it in a plastic wrap cocoon:
and the trailer meant I wasn’t going to have to wade cautiously through a lapping tide while trying not to drop my three bags. Great start! The thunder had retired, too, for a bit, and the rain was down to gentle from driving, so all in all I felt pretty good about the next six hours of travel. On to the longboat:
This, too, was a quick ride. Since the outboard was loud and other passengers nonexistent, I faced away from the driver and bellowed Sound of Music tunes while making my last assessments of southern Thailand’s wondrous natural beauty.
This ended quickly as we approached the crowded mainland and couldn’t find a place to port. My captain adjusting his plans by smashing, once again bringing to mind the moped incident of 2009. I had to scramble across a couple of other boats’ bows- almost on four legs, but with my bulging pack turtling my back- before finding a place to put down on the pier. I could feel the butt cheek wet spots on my shorts and quickly went from satisfied to ridiculous as we made our way to the tuk-tuk, which brought me to the van, which brought me to the airport: for my jaunt back to Bangkok, I spent the additional $40 to grab a plane.
Excellent choice. Some airport’s little brother was trying hard to be a big boy in Krabi, so even though the food choices were poor and drink choices were zero, the little stall did have the last book I needed to finish the Game of Thrones series, and that’s all I really required.
I emerged triumphant at the cab stand shortly after five and hailed a taxi for the last leg of my trip. Pleasant talk radio droned until six, when it was interrupted mid-sentence by the ubiquitous national anthem, and I sat happily in the backseat playing Candy Crush and pretending I was Daenarys Targaryen for most of the next two-ish hours. I say “most” because toward the end, the cab driver was having fits over traffic, because apparently it usually only takes forty minutes. I was feeling a little prickly, too, because I’d agreed to meet this girl at 7, and I had intended to shower, dress carefully, and practice having a conversation or two beforehand. I’m not necessarily sure I remember how to do any of that.
Thankfully she was running late, too, so after I painted some face and put my hairs into a place from which they’d immediately fall in a humidity-induced imitation of Spanish moss, I headed out.
Clubbing, she’d said! And ladyboys! And a rooftop bar that probably wouldn’t let me in because I didn’t have a closed-toe shoe!
For a half an hour I wandered, getting progressively more frustrated. You have to understand that the sidewalks here become an outdoor thrift mall, and the streets were just packed. The same-old, same-old elephant wares and t-shirts dominated both my peripherals, while my direct line of sight was constantly occupied by someone idling at a complete stop in this one-lane-only herd of pedestrian traffic, usually either gabbing on a cell phone or staring blankly at his drug addled imagination. Even when not at a standstill, the pace infuriated me. If I decide to move, I generally do it purposefully, and there’s nothing that makes me more claustrophobic than slowly moving foot traffic or statues blocking the escalator.
I stretched out my fingers a lot and raged.
Also, then I got lost. By the time I got back to my hotel room to try to contact this girl with an apology, I was kind of spent and had lost my taste for adventure.
Alas, she’d put so much work into getting there, I returned to the streets. This time I got better directions and found her quite easily, and she turned out to be a sweetheart: this cute, friendly, Thai girl who speaks flawless English and with a boyfriend who lives in Portland.
Rooftop bar: check. Awesome views, delicious chocolate martini: check.
At 11:30, I gave up the ghost. No way was I staying awake for ladyboys, even, and I guiltily bade farewell and sleepwalked home.
I was feeling pretty terrible about myself until I woke up in the best bed ever, read for a couple of thoroughly contented hours, then ventured out for one of the best sushi meals I’ve had all trip, up to and including Japan.
Sorry, party deities. I know I’m in your church, but without the presence of friends, your wantonness ceases to inspire me.
August 4, 2013
Good afternoon. I smell like a man.
It was either men’s Nivea or women’s whitening deodorant today- or none at all- and since the second prospect terrified me and the third likely terrified others, I made the easy decision between this and Axe body spray.
At least I smell like a grown-up man.
There aren’t a lot of things left here that I particularly want to do (exception: eat stuff) but I figured I’d hit the famous weekend market to give housekeeping a chance to replace my two free water bottles a day. Also, I read that there might be pythons, so I figured maybe to find myself a yellow one and pretend I was Britney Spears for awhile. You know… do some public writhing. I hear dudes dig that.
Anyway, I grabbed some baht and a cab, and I popped my daily anti-malarial, which I’m learning to hate. I usually have the digestive constitution of a world superpower, but these stupid pills make it feel like an eddy in the stream.
When I finally arrived at the 35 acre market, I resigned myself to a couple of hours of wandering. See, I’m not really a shopper and honestly wasn’t that amped about the prospect of such a vast acreage of trinkets. Plus I knew that, with the 90+ heat and humidity, the Nivea and whiteners weren’t going to work on everybody. I frankly do not love odors.
It was much of what I expected- without the pythons- but I actually did see some really interesting things! The place was huge and specialized, and there honestly was something for everyone: antiques, books, clothing, the expected trinkets. There was also a ton of stuff for pretty much no one: an entire stall of assorted “toilet” signs, a compendium entitled The Lichens of Great Britain and Ireland, and phallically carved drug paraphernalia. I saw a chinchilla at the I Love Guinea Pigs World Farm, and a bunch of baby rabbits dressed in baby rabbit tutus. It was the perfect mix of cute and nauseating.
I hate to admit it, but I would happily furnish my entire apartment with the stuff I saw there. Especially the dragon gates, man! I want my friends to come to my door through dragon gates.
Eventually my nose decided it was time to go, so I strode my way through the maze, looking for an exit. Instead I made the trip’s only purchase. A Portland t-shirt.
I know… it’s not even remotely Britney. But alas, I smell more like JT, anyway.
August 6, 2013
This is to be the random photo blog entry, encapsulating my entire time in Asia in a couple of weird signs and a monkey. Here’s the first, which greeted me as I disembarked in Tokyo. They dropped babies, there, at least enough times to create this:
Here’s the giant “tube sushi the size of a paper towel roll” (are quotation marks appropriate when quoting one’s former self? Who cares.):
Then the wedding.
The next one was one of my very favorite “l/r” misunderstandings.
And for some reason I felt like this train photo was telling:
Okay, so this guy, Paul- on the left- was one of our guides in Japan. He’s got this awesome, infectious laugh, and likes beer, baseball, and pork cutlets. The restaurant is Ichiro Suzuki’s favorite place to eat when he comes home; his father still goes there all the time and there are pics all over the interior. The pork katsu is absolutely unbelievable.
The sake there was excellent, too. However:
The kindergartners dancing for us were beyond cute:
and we celebrated the 4th of July in style. In the hallway. With American flags taped to chopsticks that third graders made for us. Here’s Tara with hers:
Tara and I found a photo booth complete with a fun box!
In Odaiba, we hit the giant ferris wheel. These are my gondola buddies. Aiden politely asked if he would be allowed to vomit all over me. You can probably guess which one is Aiden.
Some crazy statues guarded Tokugawa’s tomb in Nikko, including the one with the most frightening belly button I’ve ever seen. (Katie, skip this one…)
At Edo Wonderland, we saw a ninja play:
Then for our last night out in Tokyo, Tara and I armed ourselves with cameras and a script and pretended we were documentary producers from the BBC. This guy was one of the very few who would actually talk to us.
And then I got to see the monkeys!
I already posted most of the pics I took in Thailand, but of course I had to do the one cliched pool shot with feet. This was my last full day in Asia, not counting today… which will conclude in a Mumbai airport. I’ll see you guys soon! Especially you, Irene! I’m looking very much forward to your lively voice greetings with your big smiles….
XOXOX from my bed in Bangkok,
Tuesday, August 13
So I just hung up from the fifth conversation I’ve had with the doctor’s office today, and I’m getting a little antsy.
Her: “So you said you got bit by a monkey? In southeast Asia? Hmmmm. We should probably call the CDC…”
Me: “Yes, the Internet said that I should get a rabies vaccination because once I start showing symptoms, I’m pretty much dead.”
Her: “Yeahhhh. I’m just, I’m not sure of the timing. Let me call you back.”
I’m going to be really irritated if I get rabies. And dead. I’m also going to be dead. I want that vaccine, like stat.
The Internet is so scary, and probably kind of alarmist, too, but that doesn’t help my fear. Neither does the fact that my traveler’s intestines have gotten progressively worse in the past couple of days and I can’t be more than skipping distance from my bathroom.
I- perhaps stupidly- even ventured out to basketball today. It was my first serious exercise in two months, so of course everyone made fun of me the whole time because I have new lightning-colored sneakers but not the speed to match. And I didn’t have enough energy to launch a counter-attack to their teasing because each time down the floor, I was more concerned about maybe needing to veer off the court for a wind sprint to the bathroom. And I didn’t want to say anything, because I’m always really aware that I’m the only female and therefore have to work extra hard to not be perceived as a total wuss.
Luckily the session ended without incident and I was happily chatting with Tyler about my trip when I happened to mention that I’d been bitten by a monkey.
He stopped in his tracks- and he’s spent a ton of time in southeast Asia so I was listening- and said, really gravely, “Carrie, that’s serious. I’m not kidding, you need to do something about that.”
I sort of giggled, and he didn’t, and I went directly home to Firefox and fear… and being sick eight (check that, nine now) times in the next seven hours.
I’m glad John’s at work. I’ve taken to moaning and whining through my struggles because I want it to make me feel better, and that’s way too embarrassing with company.
So rabies, yeah. Didn’t you just kind of think that’s a thing that only dogs in movies get? Even in Goonies, during that funny cave part, it never actually crossed anyone’s mind that she was really going to contract something. It honestly didn’t even occur to me when I was bit that anything might be wrong, and hence didn’t seek any attention for it beyond sort of cockily showing off that it had happened via blog and facebook.
Then today, I googled “a monkey bit me” and this is the first thing I read:
A monkey bite, no matter how trivial, can quickly turn dangerous. Monkeys are regular carriers of rabies; even the ones not rabid can create dangerous infections and fevers thanks to the high level of bacteria in their mouths.
Macaque monkey bites have been known to cause infections such as Bacteroides, Fusobacterium, Streptococci, Enterococci and Eikenella Corrodens – all are as unpleasant as they sound.
Every bite must be checked by a local doctor who will probably recommend getting a tract of painful and expensive rabies vaccinations. You have little choice, rabies has no early symptoms and is fatal if not treated immediately.
Thank you so much, about.com. You have totally ruined my day.
And I really wish the doctor would call me back…
August 14, 2013
Last night was decidedly not magical.
The doctor’s last phone call to me- around quarter of four, I think it was, which means at least three different parts of me had been rolling around and growling for the seven hours it had been since my initial phone call- went approximately like this:
Her: “So, hello, Caroline? Yes, you do need to go directly to the emergency room to get treated for rabies, and you should also have them give you a tetanus shot. Oh, and you should describe all of your other symptoms because there’s definitely something else going on there. Okay? Okay, great. We’ll go ahead and order the rest of the rabies shots and call you tomorrow. Oh, do you happen to have a picture of the monkey that bit you?”
Me: “What?! Oh. Um, yes, I do. I have a video, actually. Do I need to take that with me?”
Her: “No, you just go ahead and get there right now and bring us that picture tomorrow so we can have it for the CDC’s investigation.”
This was all of a sudden sounding very “Monday night cable line-up 2009”, so I got a little overwhelmed and teary and shuffled dejectedly out to my car.
In the waiting room at Brighton First Care, some nosy little bugger was spying on me so I decided to mess with him in order to distract myself. So when he was “whispering” to his mommy a play-by-play of my every breath, I turned around and asserted myself:
“Hey! You know why I’m in here? A monkey bit me. Yeah, that’s right.”
He quickly crawled under a chair and my intestines and I were left speaking only with each other until I was called behind the curtain. Weighed. Temped. Blood pressured.
Now, back in Japan, I was sitting in a science class with two other American students, and since we didn’t have materials for the lesson, we were sort of chatting about, I don’t know, breakfast or some other ridiculous banality. And out of nowhere, one kid was like, “You know what I do? Sometimes I weigh myself. And then I go to the bathroom and think- huh- I’m going to weigh myself again.”
At the time, I responded appropriately with snorted laughter and a faux-adult “I’m above that” attitude, but it was all I could think about after my first emergency room emergency, after which I wanted to burst out of the restroom saying “weigh me again! Weigh me again! I’m totally skinnier now!”
It was the last kick I got out of any of the proceedings.
I frantically texted away my last battery line in an effort to ignore the anaphylactic shock and basement emergency and everything else happening around me. Nothing like being nervous about your health and having someone almost die not ten feet away.
Overall I spent about five hours in the hospital. Pretty much everything that has ever been in my body was collected and labeled, and I’m not going to go into detail about that because it was terrible and embarrassing and gross. My psychosomatic personality disorder reared its ugly head the first time they grabbed my wrist and tried unsuccessfully to draw blood, and I had a horrifying panic attack that involved hysterically crying and failing to explain why I can’t have people do that.
So now I can’t ever go back there, of course.
They then pinned me down and punched shots in both of my arms, both of my legs, and both of my glutes, after which they explained that I’d have to do that three more times in the next two weeks. It was not the most excited I’ve been about my trip.
Anybody know any jokes?