Coming out of the cold and into the cherry blossom season has never felt so good.
12.04.2009 26 °C
I had a spring break recently so I made my great escape from Japan to the big and wonderful city of Seoul Korea. It was so wonderful.
I met an English teacher who works for the same company as me at the airport and we happened to be going to the same guesthouse. It was actually great to have her around. As we didn't come together, we didn't feel obligated to do things together but we had a few meals together and had a few nights out together and she was good company. Anyway Seoul was wicked, just what I needed.
Japan is so suffocating sometimes. There is no outward emotion, no dancing—unless they have been trained—and no craziness. Let me tell you, Seoul has all that and more.
The first thing I saw was four drunken middle aged women fighting over a purse.
That is how you know you are not in Japan any more. The clubs don't event get going until 3am but that doesn’t stop people from getting drunk at dinner time. I swear, half the population is drunk at any given time. There are people hugging and kissing and wrapping their arms around each other in the streets. I know it doesn't sound like a big deal but coming from Japan where there is none of that it was so refreshing! The whole place reminded me of a mix between Japan and Thailand.
They are affluent and love fashion but it's dirty around the edges and far more laid back than Japan could ever be. All in all a successful escape.
Things are back to normal now though. It was my first week of school this week but I caught some kind of super cold in Korea and I'm taking a few sick days to get over it. I was determined not to be sick at all this year as I was always sick last year. I have been overwhelmingly unsuccessful having gotten seriously sick three times since Christmas. Any day now I’m hoping my immune system will kick back in.
But, I have been getting a little ahead of myself as there have been two significant events since my parent’s visit that are worth mentioning. The first is my trip to Osaka with my boys (all my best friends here, but for Thao, are boys) to see sumo wrestling for the first time,
sleep in a capsule hotel for the first time,
and eat ramen on the street for the first time.
Well, I have seen it many times on TV and it seemed a little draggy. For example, the sumos seemed to be up in the ring for ages before anything resembling wrestling ever happened. Then they would only wrestle for about five seconds and then it was over. At the live event everything was different.
First of all, there are tones of screaming fans. I didn’t even know Japanese people were capable of screaming like that. Well, except for the gym teachers at school. Also there is a lot of pomp and ceremony that happens around the edges of the ring that you don’t get to see when you watch it on TV. The referees look like priests, and actually, they might be. Sumo is a sport that is based in Shintoism and therefore comes with a lot of cleansing and prescribed behaviour. The sumos sip water to cleanse before the match and they throw salt to purify the ring.
Then they raise their legs and stomp the ground hard to rid the ring of evil spirits. They make like they are about to fight by getting down on their haunches and starring each other down.
Depending on their level they will do that three or four times before they actually fight. When they do finally fight it usually only take a few seconds and it usually ends with one of the wrestlers falling off the three-foot high ring and into the crowd. How would you like a sumo to fall on you?
The other thing that happened this month was the end of the old school year and the start of the next as the Japanese school year changes at the end of March rather than over the summer. I’m not sure why, and neither is anyone else but Japanese people often think that if they do something then it must be for the best, and they never question it. So with the end of school comes graduation. In Japan graduation is a huge deal and all the students—including the wee kids at the pre-school—who are moving into a new school have a graduation ceremony.
This is a very solemn event when all the teachers wear black and the students are trained in the proper way to enter, bow, turn, sit down, accept their graduation paper, and wait. Yes, even the students who are not graduating are trained in the proper way to sit and observe the ceremony. If they are boys they must sit straight with their hands in loose fists on their laps and both feet flat on the floor.
If they are girls they do the same but their hands are folded flat in their laps. Usually everyone is very composed until the student president gives the speech. Now, this student has a very important job; they must cry. If this student does not cry then the teachers and parents will have a hard time bringing tears to their eyes and if the parents and teachers don’t cry then they will be considered cold. So, you see, this student must cry so that everyone’s floodgates can open and everyone can save face. Now, I realize that may be a very cynical way of looking at it but I have to wonder why, in this society of people who NEVER cry or show any outward emotion, why they ALL cry.
I have been wondering if this even is really as sad as everyone makes it out to be and I’m on the fence. On the one hand, my Japanese friends have told me that at graduation you must cry, especially if you are a teacher who is leaving the school (and every year there are always four or five teachers leaving) or people will think you didn’t care about the students. So, in this society where everything is prescribed I am not surprised to find that even crying is prescribed. But then, I have been thinking more and more about it lately and this is what I have come up with. Maybe, in many cases the crying isn’t just an act, maybe the emotion really is felt. I mean, the student teacher relationship here is quite different than at home. Their connections can me more like a parent/child bond than that of the western teacher and her students. Perhaps it is only natural that they should feel the need to cry. What I don’t understand though, is why it was taboo for my friend Krista to cry when she told her principal some dirty old man had flashed her behind her house but it is demanded that full grown men who have only taught students—part-time—for one year cry like little babies. Oh! And this! When the part-time teacher I am referring to started to cry and snot all over himself at graduation I offered him a tissue and he refused it. He wanted to make sure that everyone saw his tears. He told me so after the ceremony. ???
And, I simply must tell you all about the strangest thing in Japan ever. Firefighters.
OK, how can I explain this? Firefighters seem to be similar to the army in that they are trained to take thirteen steps to get somewhere that should only take them four steps. They are the same as home in that they have both professional and volunteer firefighters but all firefighters here go through the same training. They all learn how to fight fires the exact same way: totally and completely inefficiently.
I’m sure you have all seen on TV or elsewhere the regimented, stilted behaviour of line-ups of army men and women performing their, I don’t know what it’s called, routine? They spin their guns and march around and all the while you wonder why? How does that help them fight the enemy? It’s the same with firefighters. So, they have these completions to see which group of firefighters have their moves down the best and let me tell you it’s ridiculous! They won’t just do something fast—you know, cause they are fighting a fire—but they must do each move with precision. They wouldn’t dream of taking the rake off the truck without stopping, turning their head to the right, then turning their body, then slapping their hands to their sides first. Ridiculous! So I thought, OK this must just be for show. So, I asked my friend who is a volunteer firefighter and he said this is actually the way they fight fires.
After he told me that I could only think about all the people who must have died in fires waiting for the firefighter to turn his head, turn his body, run thirteen steps, turn left, slap his hands down and then grab a freaking hose to put out the fire!
So, my Easter was pretty good. Right now is cherry blossom season in Japan and that's a pretty big deal. It is easily the most beautiful season here and it's a time for picnics and getting drunk before noon with as many friends as you can get together.
I ran into one of my students on my walk the other day and she told me they would be having a cherry blossom party at our community house on Sunday so I went and it was really nice. My community here is great! So much like our own. Rugged, friendly, down-to-earth farmers and farmer’s wives who are happy to invite me in and make me feel welcome despite our language barriers.
They are great people who love to have a laugh with me and their friends about whatever English they know...which is minimal. But they find a way to communicate and they are not shy, especially given all the beer and coolers we have whenever we get together. It reminded me a lot of home.
It was a beautiful day; about 25 degrees and the kids were all running around with bubble blowers. I love me some bubbles. And the old people were eating some dried mystery meat. If they can't tell me what animal the meat comes from then there might be a need to worry. Oh! You know what? I think I just now figured it out. I think it must have been boar meat. It wasn't bad. A bit gamey.
So later I was telling my friend Namba sensei about how it was Easter and how usually at home we get together with family and she was like we are your family here. Nice! In fact she just came past my desk three seconds ago and poked me in the ribs and said "Yesterday" and gives me thumbs up. Ha ha!
She's great. She has such minimal English but she is by far one of the best communicators of all my Japanese friends here and she is solely responsible for any and every situation that has made me feel like I belong here and am wanted here. She makes sure I know about every party and every thing that is happening in my community (or else I would never know). Other people are too shy that their English isn't good enough. Some people don't even say good morning to me cause they are afraid I might speak English to them. I think in any group that accepts me and feels comfortable around me it is because Namba sensei puts them at ease. She doesn't speak English, I don't speak Japanese but yet we are good friends.
So, I'm planning on leaving for Thailand again late in July. My best friend Shane and I are going to explore Southeast Asia together. We are both laid back but surely we will find something to clash over at some point. It's inevitable. In preparing for it though, Shane has been very agreeable. So I have high hopes. My concern is that only that he can be pretty hard-core: he doesn't mind discomfort in exchange for value. I am not that way at all. I like cheap but there is only so far I will go. I'm on vacation after all. I hate hate hate long bus rides too. I know a few of those will be inevitable but I'm going to want to skip a few of those and fly but I can already hear him telling me it won't be so bad. If I had a buck for every time someone convinced me to do something saying "it won't be that bad" I would be going around the world and not just to Southeast Asia.
I will return to Canada in late September and start a show at Celebrations Dinner Theatre at the end of the month. I am really excited about it. I always loved working there and singing and dancing for a living but I just couldn't bare the serving. Nothing is worse in my opinion. But now things have changed and the cast no longer has to serve so I can break the chains and go back for one more run. After that, I guess the plan is to find a good teacher's college and get my teaching degree. I guess I have been bitten by the teaching bug.