Monday, January 17, 2011

Japanese to Me - August 2010

My school offered to let me take a holiday on Friday, but I was anxious to get into the work routine, and I wasn’t about to waste a day of leave without knowing what I wanted to do with it. Fortunately, my predecessor (the person who worked at my school and lived in my apartment before me) left me a bunch of papers and two notebooks full of information, so I was able to find the right bus to my school. Even so, it was a good thing I gave myself some extra time and caught the early bus, because I managed to miss my stop and had to walk back for half an hour in the sweltering heat, but at least I got there on time. I was glad I chose to work that day; it gave me a chance to go through the material left to me by my predecessor, take a tour of the school, and meet some of my fellow teachers. Besides, I had spent the last three months receiving things from the JET Programme, and I wanted to start actually earning them.

I spent the weekend unpacking my stuff and cleaning my apartment. My apartment has been held by several generations of JET participants before me, and the good news is that it already contains lots of the thing I know I’ll use. The bad news is that it’s full of random pieces of junk, much of which is probably useful, but which I’ll have to sort through. Although the place is basically tidy, there are lots of corners where layers of grime have built up, and I keep finding cupboards and shelves full of stuff that needs to be organised.

I guess I should start by describing my apartment. My place is fairly large for a one-person dwelling. I have two rooms with tatami floors. Tatami is a kind of Japanese reed mat that gets used for the flooring of traditional Japanese houses. I like it, although it can’t be washed and doesn’t bear heavy furniture or shoes. One of the two rooms is my bedroom and the other is my living room. They are separated from each other and from the rest of the house by sliding doors. The rest of the flat has vinyl flooring. The front room contains a small kitchen and dining area, and leads onto the bathroom. The bathroom is the oddest feature of the place. Separated from the front hall by a curtain is an alcove containing a washing machine and a sink with a vanity. Off this are two doors. One leads into the shower cubicle, which also contains a bathtub. The other leads into a closet containing the toilet. Over-all, the whole thing feels as though it was put together by an alien – who knew what all the requisite components were but had no idea how to combine them. I mean, I have to open a door to get from the toilet to the sink, and there isn’t even a proper door separating the sink from the rest of the flat. What gives?

As I said, I have not a bed but a futon, and this has to be folded up and stored in the closet every day, leaving the room almost empty. In my living room I have a T.V. and D.V.D. player, which, thanks to region-coding, I’ll need if I want to rent any movies here. I also have a kotatsu, a kind of square coffee table with a small furnace in it. The idea is to drape a blanket over it and turn the furnace on so that it keeps you warm. Not that I need any help keeping warm right now, but I look forward to trying it out in the winter time. My kitchen contains a small fridge, a microwave, a rice-cooker, and a gas stove, but no oven. That unfortunately will limit my cooking a bit, but I coped without an oven in Hong Kong, and I’m sure I can manage it again. I would like to get a toaster-oven though, so that I can make toast and maybe experiment with some mini-baking.

Though annoying, exploring the various corners and cupboards has been something of an adventure. I keep finding things that at first look like rubbish, but that I later discover have a very practical purpose. All those flashlights lying around? They’ll be useful if there’s an earthquake, or if the circuit breaker goes. That plastic thing that looks like a giant clothes pin, and that other plastic thing that looks like one of those swatters they used to beat mats out a hundred years ago? The clothes pin is for hanging out my futon to dry, and the swatter is to beat it, which is apparently something I’ll want to do every week or so. And those bags hanging up by the doorway? They actually contain emergency supplies I can use in the event of an earthquake, including a bag of ten-yen coins for the public phones!

My place is in a suburb of Sendai, fairly far out from the city centre. Over-all, I’m quite pleased about that. On my JET application, I requested a semi-urban placement, and my location is definitely semi-urban. Sendai has the amenities of a large city, but my neighbourhood is quiet, and my schools are practically semi-rural! The trade-off is that I’m somewhat isolated from the rest of the city, and getting around is difficult. I don’t know if it’s just Sendai, or just the area I live in, but I’ve been less than impressed with public transportation here. It’s a twenty-five-minute train ride to get to downtown Sendai, and a fifteen-minute bus ride to get to my school. That wouldn’t be so bad if the services ran more often, but the train only comes about three times an hour, and the bus comes once an hour – if I’m lucky. Every morning I have one bus that will get me to school on time (as opposed to forty-five minutes early or half an hour late) and if I miss the bus to go home I have to either wait two hours for the next one or pay for a train ride. I feel like I’m back in elementary school having to catch the school bus! Transit is also expensive. A single ride usually costs around $2.00,* which seems reasonable in itself, but makes no allowances for transferring. The result is that a round trip involving, say, a train, a subway, and a bus can cost upwards of $12.00! Nor are there unlimited monthly passes available. I’m half regretting that I didn’t bother to get an international driver’s permit before I came here, although I know cars are expensive too.

Our first full week in Sendai was devoted to orientation. We started on Monday with a welcome ceremony, and spent the rest of the week learning basic survival, discussing what to expect from our schools, and touring the facilities at our disposal. Our advisors sent us home nursing fears about mould (it’s a problem in Japan’s hot, humid climate), cavities (they don’t fluoridate the water here, which seems reasonable, or the toothpaste, which seems excessive), earthquakes (Japan is on the Ring of Fire, after all), and sexual assault from our students (apparently Japanese children don’t get the “Good Touches/Bad Touches” lesson). Most memorable was the turn in the earthquake bus, where we got to experience – safety belts in place – what it would be like to be in a severe earthquake. It was pretty scary, not because we were in any danger, but because I wouldn’t want to experience one of those without being strapped to a bolted-down chair! Apparently Sendai is overdue for a major earthquake. We’ll see if one happens while I’m here.

When I came back to work the following week I got a nice surprise: my own school laptop! This is actually a first for all the teachers, not just me, and I’m very grateful for it because I know it will make planning and preparing lessons much easier. Of course, everything is in Japanese, which is a difficulty, but there are two mitigating factors. One is that the computer runs on Windows, so I’m already familiar with most of the programs, commands, and short-cuts. Say what you will about the Microsoft corporation, but I’ve never been so grateful to have grown up using their software! The other factor is that many of the major commands aren’t so much written in Japanese as in “Ingrish”, which is to say English words written in katakana. I’m sure if I was a Japanese-speaker I’d find that quite silly, but as an English-speaker I’ve found it very helpful. It’s also been good katakana practice; I spent a good long while on my first day just sounding words out and trying to figure out what they meant. “Do-ki-yu-me-n-to… dokyumento… Documents! Ma-i-pi-ku-chi-ya… mai pikucha… My Pictures! O-pu-shi-yo-n… opushon… Options! Shi-ya-t-to-da-u-n… shattodaun… Shut Down! Ki-ya-n-se-ru… kyanseru… cancer? Can sell? Cancel!” And so on and so on.

I arrived at my school in the middle of the summer holiday, but despite the suggestion that this would be a good time to use up some of my vacation days, I’ve found plenty of ways to keep busy. I spent my first week planning my first lesson, organising a display for my school’s upcoming culture festival, and creating my first English board. I had to bug a teacher for a place to put it up, but she was very accommodating, and found me a board I could use. My September board is all about Canada. I’m going to try to put a new one up every month. I’m enjoying work a lot so far. It’s nice to have the opportunity to be creative and to share my culture. Of course, it also helps that I haven’t done any teaching yet, and that I’ve done most of my work by myself, at my computer. This is the best kind of work, after all: the kind that doesn’t involve any actual human interaction!

In terms of adapting to life in Sendai, one of the biggest initial challenges has been the heat. It doesn’t feel quite as hot as Hong Kong did, but I’m not sure if that’s because it’s actually cooler here, or just because, having weathered one Asian summer, I’m better prepared for my second. As in Hong Kong, it’s not just the heat but the humidity that’s oppressive. What I notice most of all, though, is the sweat. This is the kind of heat where beads of perspiration literally roll down your face, and you can work up a sweat just sitting still. Where you drink several litres of water a day, but need surprisingly few bathroom breaks. Where you keep the air conditioning on all day and only feel a little bit guilty about it. I sleep without covers every night, and still need a shower in the morning to wash the sweat off, and often another one in the evening. Even the teachers at my school have commented on how hot this summer has been. I notice that they all have little towels that they use to dry their hands and mop their foreheads. It seems like a very good idea!

Another huge challenge is obviously the language barrier. This is my first time living in a non-English-speaking country. In Hong Kong, English is the minority language, and most people speak Cantonese, which can make it difficult to get around or talk to people. But English is an official language, and all government services and most large businesses are accessible in English. Many services in Japan are also available in English, and of all the foreign languages, English is by far the most commonly spoken. (Which is kind of baffling given the close proximity of China and Korea, but I’m not complaining.) The difference is that, whereas Hong Kong is a bilingual country where English is the language of the minority, Japan is a unilingual country, where English is the language of foreigners. So if being an English-speaker in Hong Kong is like being a Francophone in Ottawa, then being an English-speaker in Sendai is like being a Francophone in London, England. Or a Hispanophone in New York city. Or a Cantonese-speaker in Vancouver. There may be lots of signage in your language, and many people may speak your language, and it may even be a required subject in schools. But it isn’t the national language, and people are in no way obligated to use it when they speak to you. You are the foreigner, and the onus is on you to learn the local language, not the other way around.

With that in mind, I’ve been doing what I can to improve my Japanese, but acquiring a new language isn’t easy. I never succeeded at learning French, and though I plan to make a game effort here in Japan, I know it’s going to be a long and frustrating process. I was pleased on my first day in Sendai when I was able to successfully ask for and buy ice-cream, but the truth is my functional vocabulary is pretty much limited to “Do you have…?”, “Please”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me”, and “I don’t understand.” It’s a bit depressing. At one point, I got so sick of saying “wakarimasen”* that I just took to smiling stupidly at people and shaking my head like an idiot. I was feeling pretty bad about my prospects of picking up the language at that rate, until it occurred to me that I had been in Japan for all of one week! That gave me some perspective, and I started to cheer up.

One of the differences between Hong Kong and Japan that surprised me is that, whereas in Hong Kong people will generally just look at you and assume you speak English, people here will actually address you in Japanese and expect you to understand. Which is nice, in a way. I’m glad they don’t think foreigners are stupid and incapable of learning the language. But it doesn’t do me much good, since I don’t (yet) speak it. The other thing that surprised me is that many people don’t seem to know how to deal with allophones. Maybe it’s partly my ESL training, or the kind of people I hang out with, but I feel like in Canada we generally have a sense of how to talk to foreign-language-speakers. Speak slowly; use small words; avoid idioms. Complement your verbal communication with gestures, and rephrase if the person doesn’t understand the first time around. While lots of people here also do those things, many seem completely clueless. Several times people have tried to engage me in conversation by rattling off a complete sentence at a normal speed. When I tell them I don’t understand, they simply rattle off another, equally complex sentence, and then look to me for comprehension. At that point I can only look apologetic and try to make them understand, as gently as possible, that it’s all Japanese to me.

The good news is that I have lots of resources to help me. I’m in Japan, surrounded by Japanese people, working at a Japanese school. A couple of people gave me Japanese study material before I left Ottawa. The JET Programme offers free Japanese courses to its participants. And there are lots of programmes here in Sendai for people who want to improve their Japanese skills. At this rate, the only thing standing between me and learning Japanese is me!

My cooking has been fairly rudimentary so far, but at least I’m managing to cook for myself. Our orientation included a survival cooking class, and I’ve been experimenting with the recipes they taught us. So far I’ve been living on stir-fry, Japanese curry, cold soba noodles, onigiri, and miso soup. Our instructors recommended that we make miso soup with red miso, which is a lot tastier than white miso, and for the first time I’m actually discovering that I like miso soup. I’m also learning to love umeboshi, the pickled plums that get used in onigiri.

Despite discovering new Japanese foods, I do find myself missing certain things. I haven’t felt the need for cheese yet, but I was surprised to realise, after a few weeks of living here, that it simply isn’t sold in the regular grocery stores. Or rather, the stores sell almost every variation on cheese you can think of, including cream cheese, parmesan cheese, Kiri cheese, shredded cheese, cheese strings, and cheese balls, but go looking for something as mundane as a block of orange (or, preferably, white) cheddar, and you’ll be completely stymied! One thing I have been craving is fruit. Not that there isn’t plenty of fruit available here, it’s just that it’s almost comically expensive. You know how in Canada apples usually cost one to two dollars a pound? Well here in Japan, they cost one to two dollars an apple. A tray of four can cost you five or six bucks; the same money can get you three peaches. Granted the fruit is about four times the size of Canadian fruit, so I suppose it evens out, but I don’t see how it benefits me to pay more for a bigger apple. I only want a regular-sized apple; getting a bigger one just means I’m either going to make myself sick trying to finish it, or have to throw half of it away. It’s not like I can cut a wedge out of it and save the rest in the fridge for later! (I mean, I guess I could do that, but it wouldn’t taste very good!) Peanut butter is also a lot more expensive than I’m used to. I paid a few dollars for the first 140g jar I bought, and counted myself lucky when I found a 350g jar for $4.00. (Although I wanted to rant at someone, “Do you know that in my country I buy this stuff at $3.00 a kilogram?!”)

In terms of socialising, my situation is very much like the one in Hong Kong. I’m one of seventy ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) in Sendai, and together we form a kind of instant gai-jin* community. This group is a bit more diverse than the Hong Kong cohort, though. Although most of us are fresh out of university, there are also several ALTs in their upper twenties and thirties. We also come from a much broader range of countries. There are ALTs here from all over the Anglosphere: Great Britain and Ireland, Canada and the United States, Australia and New Zealand, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, and Singapore.

Still, nice as it is to have fellow foreigners around, it’s also important to me to meet local Japanese people. In this respect, my predecessor has been very helpful. She left me the names and numbers of a couple of her friends, and when I had some free time, I decided to call them. They’ve both been very friendly and helpful, and have offered to show me around Sendai and teach me about different aspects of Japanese culture. They also introduced me to a church in my area, for which I’m very grateful. Finding a church is always an important part of moving to a new city for me, but in Sendai the churches are sparse, and most of them are in Japanese. The church I’ve started going to is also in Japanese, but in other ways it’s quite welcoming. Although the congregation is small, there are many young people there, and a surprising number of English-speakers. Besides several Japanese people who speak fluent to passable English, there is also a group of American missionaries who speak varying levels of Japanese. The structure of the service is basically familiar. I don’t understand the songs lyrics, but I can usually follow along with them, and indeed I’m finding them very good reading practice. And sometimes people translate the sermon into English for me. Although it’s always nice to experiment with different churches, I think I’m probably going to keep going to this one on a regular basis.

I expected to arrive in Japan and be both fascinated and horrified by all the differences, to go through highs of euphoria and lows of depression. The truth is, I don’t really feel like I’m in a foreign country. I don’t know if it’s just where I am (a city too big to be really traditional but too small to be really touristy), or the fact that I’ve lived over-seas before, but for the most part, Sendai feels like everywhere else, except that the food is different, and I’m on the wrong side of the language barrier. So, with neither the excitement of being a tourist nor the stress of massive culture-shock, I’m basically just focused on settling in.

There is one respect in which Japan differs from anywhere else I’ve been: the bowing. Everybody here bows to everybody. I actually rather like it, and I’m trying to embrace it whole-heartedly. I find that it works very well as a kind of all-purpose gesture of respect, and it can very easily be fine-tuned depending on how much respect one wishes to convey. Not only can it take the place of a handshake, a wave, or a smile, but it can be used in many situations where there is no good alternative. For instance, if you want to express gratitude to someone who is out of ear-shot (say, a driver who has yielded to you) then a bow is a clear and convenient way of doing so, whereas in North America you would probably have to resort to a wave or something. And if you want to convey a great depth of gratitude, there’s no more satisfying way to do so than with a good, solid, “Doumo arigatou gozaimashita!”* coupled with a bow down to waist-level, whereas in North America one would be reduced to awkwardly babbling, “Thank you! Thank you very much! Thank you so much! I really appreciate it! Did I mention ‘thank you’?”

The bowing does feel excessive at times, though. I was surprised that when my principal walked on stage to give a speech, he actually stopped and bowed to the podium first. Greetings often involve a long series of bows, and leave-taking can similarly drag on for a good minute or two with all the bowing that takes place. At one of the restaurants I’ve been to, the staff always follow me out the door, bowing and thanking me repeatedly for my custom, and I’m never sure whether I’m supposed to return those bows or let them have the last word on the subject. And, although I know Japanese people are physically reserved, I was surprised that this even extends to the greeting at church. In most churches when the congregation greet each other they usually shake hands, and more demonstrative parishioners will even hug each other. Here in Japan, a bow is apparently considered sufficient for sharing the love, which feels a bit less than warm and fuzzy to me.

* “$2.00”: Since the exchange rate is, very roughly, one hundred yen to the Canadian or U.S. dollar, and since Japanese prices are similar to North American ones, I’ve elected to simply think in terms of dollars, and to talk in them whenever possible. If you want to know the price of something in yen, simply remove the decimal point from any figure I state.

* “Wakarimasen”: Japanese for “I don’t understand.”

* “Gai-jin”: Japanese for “foreigner”

* “Doumo arigatou gozaimashita!”: A respectful Japanese term for “Thank you very much!”