Friday, March 23, 2012

Yoku Naru yo* - October 2011

Peter: Hey, it gets better!
Claire: What?
Peter: Life after high school.  It gets a lot better.
  - Heroes, “Homecoming”

This year I decided to be proactive about the city-wide sports competitions.  Since nobody told me what was going on or invited me to any of the events, I took matters into my own hands and actually asked which competitions I could attend.  The teachers seemed surprised at this, as though they couldn’t imagine why I would want to watch my students play sports when I could spend the whole weekend sitting at my desk twiddling my thumbs.  They asked me what events I was interested in, and I suggested volleyball, which turned out to be at a school just a few train stops east of me.

My students played well, and I enjoyed watching them a lot.  Unfortunately, they got beaten hard in the first match, and even though they rallied well late in the second match they still lost that one too and were unable to advance in the competition.  I stuck around and watched some of the other games, but they weren’t as much fun without someone to root for.  I asked about going to see some of the other sports, but there weren’t any others I could get to easily, so I spent the rest of the weekend bored at school.

In the middle of the month a buddy of mine from university came to visit me.  She’s been teaching English in Korea for the last couple of years, and since we were comparatively close to each other, we thought it would be a good opportunity to hook up.  As with my sister in June, I decided the best course of action would be to meet in Tokyo, spend a few days there, and then go back to Sendai together.  So on Saturday morning I got an early bus for my third trip to the world’s largest city.

I arrived in the early afternoon and checked into the hostel, where my buddy had arrived a few hours earlier.  It was my first time seeing her since graduation five years earlier.  We’d been reasonably good about maintaining e-mail contact, but hadn’t met since the fall of 2006.  I was afraid reconnecting would be awkward, but we were actually able to pick up quite naturally, and had a very nice holiday together.  It helped that she came with her own travel guide and loads of suggestions for things we could do in the city.  That took some of the pressure off me as tour guide, though I was still the language expert.

We caught up over lunch at the okonomiyaki place, trading notes on life in Japan versus Korea.  The first sight we went to see was the Tokyo Tower.  Built as an orange and white version of the Eiffel Tower, it’s one of Tokyo’s most recognisable buildings.  It was my first time to visit it.  We contemplated going up to the top viewing level and also visiting the aquarium we’d heard was inside, but the queue to get to the top was too long, and the aquarium was closed.  Instead we took the elevator half-way up the tower for our night view of Tokyo.  Then we went to visit some of the other attractions inside the tower.  One was a wax museum with likenesses of various famous people and characters.  I recognised many of them, but I wouldn’t say they were very good.  The other was a gallery of optical illusions where we had good fun taking silly photographs.

My buddy had heard that on Sundays one could go cycling around the Imperial Palace, so the next morning we went and did just that.  The bikes were being lent out for free and the streets were blocked off for cyclists, although the route didn’t extend all the way around the grounds.  As I’ve already mentioned, last month was my first bike-riding experience in years.  I was slightly steadier this time, though grateful to have a multi-lane road to practise in.  I’ll have to try to find more opportunities to do that.

After the bike ride we took a walk around the East Garden and then explored Ginza.  We tried to go to a baseball game at the Tokyo Dome, but when we got there the tickets were sold out, so we settled for an unspectacular ride on the Ferris wheel.  The trip wasn’t a total waste, though, because there were lots of young people in costumes hanging around the stadium, affording us a much better view of Japanese cosplay than we had at any other point during the trip.

In the evening we went to dinner at a “Ninja” restaurant in Akasaka.  It was gimmicky in a quintessentially Japanese fashion.  When we arrived a man in a ninja costume escorted us through a series of dark tunnels to our table.  The dining area was fashioned after an Edo-era street with each party dining in a separate room.  Everything was black: black houses, black tables, black chairs, black chopsticks – heck, my drink even came with a black skewer in it.  All the staff were “ninjas”, and were of course dressed in black, though the ominousness of the effect was rather offset by our waitress’s friendly attitude and Hello Kitty pen.  The bathrooms were subterranean caves.

The meal was expensive.  We tried to save money by ordering things à la carte and sharing, but we still ended up dropping about $60 each.  The place wasn’t over-priced, though; the food was genuinely good.  The portions may have been smaller than we could have wished, but we couldn’t complain of the quality.  There was also the added thrill of live entertainment.  Our waitress prepared a couple of the dishes right in front of our eyes, and at the end of the meal another “ninja” came to show us some “ninja magic” – basically your run-of-the-mill magic tricks, but still entertaining.  If you’ve got a good sense of fun, a willingness to suspend your disbelief, and up to $100 to blow, I heartily recommend the place.  It would make an especially good date restaurant.

On Monday I took my buddy to see the Meiji Shrine.  We took our time walking around Yoyogi Park, including a visit to the Treasure House Annex, where the exhibit had changed from kimonos to scrolls.  I got us hopelessly lost walking around the Harajuku district, but we found our way back to our train station eventually, and went up to Shinjuku for some architectural exploration.  According to my buddy’s guidebook, Shinjuku was the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s designs for the movie Bladerunner.  I wasn’t the least bit surprised, although upon reflection I realised that most of the buildings we were looking at must have been built after that movie came out.  We went to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building for the view, but Tokyo at dusk is not nearly as impressive as Tokyo by night.  We also went inside some of the buildings, discovering that they had interesting internal architecture, too.

In the evening we went to Ikebukuro to visit the Aquarium at the top of the Sunshine 60 building.  I like aquaria as a rule, but this was one of the least impressive ones I’ve seen.  I thought the bird habitats were especially disappointing; they looked really small and I couldn’t help thinking that the birds must feel awfully cramped in them.

On Tuesday we went to the Tokyo National Museum.  It was a repeat for me, but some of the exhibits had changed, so the trip was worthwhile.  We also stopped in at the National Museum of Western Art, which contains a good collection of renaissance and later painting as well as several bronzes by Rodin.  In the evening we went to Akihabara.  First we checked out an “anime museum”, which was disappointing; then we went to a maid café.  If you haven’t heard of maid cafés, they’re places where all the waitresses are dressed up in cute maid costumes.  It seemed like one of those odd and uniquely Japanese things we should check out at least once.  The place was very cute, decorated with bright colours and stuffed animals.  Despite the premise, it didn’t feel sleazy so much as gimmicky and over-priced.  We did notice that there weren’t a lot of other female customers, though.  We had dessert and my buddy got her picture taken with a maid.  We spent the last part of the evening walking around Akihabara.

On our last morning we went back to Ueno Park to see some more of the park itself, and then to Shinjuku for our bus home.  We got into Sendai in the early evening, and stopped there for a gyu-tan dinner before heading back to my place.

I had to work on Thursday and Friday.  They’re my elementary school days, and I didn’t think I could ask in good conscience for more time off from them than I’d already taken that year.  My buddy was thus left to amuse herself for two days, which she did pretty well.  On Thursday one of my Japanese neighbours took her to Yama-dera, a nearby temple.  In the evening we went over to her house for tempura and fun bilingual conversation.  On Friday she made her own way up to Matsushima.  Then we met up with a Japanese acquaintance from church who took us to a yakiniku restaurant and then a karaoke place.  We were an oddly disparate singing group.  Not only did the Japanese girl not know many of the songs we sang and sing a lot of Japanese songs that we in turn didn’t know, but even my Canadian buddy and I found ourselves drawn to different kinds of music.  It didn’t help that we have different vocal ranges, though we tried to make that work for us on some of the duets.  Still, it was a fitting conclusion to a Japanese adventure.

We only had one noticeable earthquake during our time in Sendai.  It was in the early morning hours when we were still in bed, and I just ignored it, but she was impressed.  Despite its proximity, Korea apparently doesn’t get many earthquakes.

Since I’ve now been there three times, it might be a good time for another unsolicited advertisement.  Every time I’ve visited Tokyo I’ve stayed at the Sakura Hostel in Asakusa.  It’s clean, friendly, and convenient.  It’s located right next to Senso-ji Temple, and a few subway stops down from Ueno.  The prices are generally good, though they vary with the time of year.  My only complaints are that there isn’t wireless internet in the rooms (There are computers and wi-fi available in the lounge, but that tends to get really crowded in the evenings); and the breakfast isn’t very good (Unless you like making a meal of white toast.  Here’s a tip: bring your own peanut butter!)  I can’t compare it to other hostels in Tokyo, not having stayed at any, but I’ll happily recommend it.

After seeing my buddy off I met up with some of my co-workers for a day trip to Yamagata.  We were going with a tour group that took us first to a rusk cookie factory.  Rusk cookies seem to be really popular here, though to me they just taste like stale bread with a sprinkling of sugar – a silly thing to pay for.  Then we had lunch at a konnyaku place.  Konnyaku is a tasteless jelly-like substance made from devil’s tongue, and at the restaurant we had an entire meal made almost entirely out of it.  They’d made it into imitation sushi, imitation yakitori, imitation soba, etc.  It was certainly a novel experience, but given that konnyaku is an almost calorie-free food, it wasn’t very satisfying.  I’ve also had much better imitation meat in Hong Kong.  They’d promised us a temple and a foot spa in the afternoon, but they got cancelled because of the rain, so the rest of the day was a bust.

In the news this month, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is dead.  It’s unfortunate that he wasn’t captured alive and can’t be put on trial, but at least his dictatorial rule is now definitively over.  The country also has a new flag, replacing the old uniformly green number.  Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, is also dead.  The Commonwealth has agreed to change the rules governing who can accede to the throne of England: succession will now be decided solely by birth order, regardless of gender.  People around the United States and Canada are participating in something called the “Occupy” movement.  It started in New York, with “Occupy Wall Street”, and spread from there.  Evidently the people involved are fed up with the current financial system, but beyond that I’m not sure what their purpose is.

There have also been several stories recently (at least on the news I listen to) about bullying and teen suicide, especially of gay kids.  For some reason these stories have gotten under my skin, probably because I got teased a lot growing up.  One thing that’s come up a lot in the stories is the “It Gets Better” Project, a video project intended to encourage gay youth and prevent gay teen suicide.  Its message: life may suck now, and people may bully you, but hang in there; once you leave school life is going to get better and people are going to get nicer to you.  I first heard about the project a year ago, when I saw Dan Savage’s original “It Gets Better” video.  The video touched me because, as I knew from first-hand experience, its message was true.

My life in elementary school sucked.  I have gone so far as to describe it as hell.  On the plus side, I didn’t get beaten up or suffer much in the way of physical abuse.  On the down side nobody was nice to me, I had no friends, and I got teased every day.  It was an incredibly lonely way to spend seven years.

I never knew why I got picked on.  I went to four elementary schools, and with each change the problem seemed to get worse.  Clearly I inspired the same kind of antipathy everywhere, though whether it was because I was dislikeable or simply made a convenient target I couldn’t say.  In retrospect, much of it may have been my fault; I probably said and did a lot of things that put people off, and I didn’t know how to stand up for myself.  The one thing I’m certain of is that it had little to do with discrimination.  I don’t belong to any minority demographics, and I didn’t see a lot of kids expressing prejudiced attitudes in any case.  I got picked on for being me, not for belonging to a group.

I got called “fag” or “faggot” a lot when I was twelve, but I didn’t even know what the word meant, and I suspect the kids who used it probably didn’t either.  I mean, I also got called “paedophile” a lot.  When I was twelve.  At other times it was “Chinese”, “lesbian”, “retard”, or my personal un-favourite, “loser”.  The words weren’t hurtful because I resented the meaning.  They were hurtful because they were meant to be hurtful.  Heck, one of the most enduring ones was to simply call me by my initials.  There’s nothing wrong with initialising someone’s name, but to this day I dread to hear it done to my own.  Kids have a way of throwing around whatever words they can to hurt each other, and the actual meaning doesn’t matter half so much as the malicious intention behind them.

For me, things got better when I entered high school.  Maybe my high school was just exceptionally good (I’ve been told repeatedly that it was), but most of the students there seemed to have matured out of the bullying phase.  There was one student in grade nine who made a profession out of being obnoxious to people, and nobody liked him.  While still lonely, I was at least spared the constant barrage of name-calling I’d grown used to.  I went through some rough periods and endured a lot of heartache, but it was still an improvement, and since graduating my life has been on a steady up-swing.

Looking back on my childhood, I remember believing that I was doomed to misery for life.  I would love to be able to go back and tell that child the truth: that from a low point around grade five or six, my life gradually got better.  That’s why the “It Gets Better” Project speaks to me.  In fact, if I have one issue with the project, it’s that its focus is too narrow.  It’s not that I don’t see the need to target gay teenagers, but life gets better whether you’re bullied for being gay or for other reasons.

It’s hard for me to know, not being LGB or T myself, but just as the world has become a friendlier place the older I get, so I think it’s also become a more gay-tolerant place.  I’m pretty sure my high school was a comparatively queer-friendly environment.  I didn’t see a lot of gay-bashing going on, and I knew lots of people who were openly gay or bisexual.  I can only recall one homophobic incident in my entire time there, and I think it was the exception that proved the rule.  A male acquaintance of mine had a picture up in his locker of two male anime characters in a suggestive pose.  Another student saw the picture and started attacking it as sick and disgusting.  Now, I wasn’t in total disagreement with him.  I didn’t like the picture and I didn’t think it was appropriate for a school.  But the way he pointed it out wasn’t diplomatic; it felt like a personal attack.  And then he got nasty.

“You’re gay!” he said.

And I thought (but did not say): “Yeah, and your point would be…?”

It was the only time I can recall from my high school days hearing the word used as a personal insult.  And although it was an unfortunate incident, its uniqueness underscores the fact that the school was, by and large, a fairly open and un-homophobic place.  Most of the students I knew didn’t throw around words like that, and I bet everyone who heard it was thinking the same thing: So what if he is gay.  What’s it to you?

Since graduating high school I’ve seen almost none of that kind of thing.  Adults, whatever their personal beliefs may be, tend to know better than to insult people to their faces.  In the real world homophobia is considered highly un-cool, and nobody likes a bully.  You still meet jerks sometimes, but you can usually walk away from them, and the older you get the less you care what other people do.  That’s the message the “It Gets Better” videos are trying to get across.

A lot of celebrities have been jumping onto the bandwagon.  Lady Gaga’s been especially vocal about the issue.  Rick Mercer made a video calling on gay public figures to out themselves so that gay kids could have more role models to look up to.  In the same spirit, I read that actor Zachary Quinto recently decided to come out.  That surprised me, not because I wouldn’t have thought Zachary Quinto was gay, but because I couldn’t imagine why an actor of his calibre (this is the guy who’s best known for playing a serial killer with a brain fetish and a half-alien space-traveller) would have felt the need to be in the closet in the first place.  Apparently it wasn’t so much that he was in the closet before as that he didn’t think it was anyone’s business.  Which I completely sympathise with.  We could all stand to know less about our favourite celebrities’ dating-lives.  I guess in a perfect world no one would care about a celebrity’s sexuality except as a point of curiosity, and people would feel free to talk about their orientation or not as they chose.  But we’re not quite there yet.  Incidentally, I also learned that Rick Mercer is gay.  Don’t know if I didn’t know that because it wasn’t common knowledge, or because I’m just ignorant.

There are plenty of other celebrity videos out there, made by gay and straight people alike.  Heck, even the president of the United States made one.  (Nice work, Mr Obama!)  I’ve seen a few, but I think the more interesting ones are probably the ones made by ordinary people, chronicling personal stories of hardship.

That isn’t to say that I don’t have some reservations about the project and some of the other ideas floating around.  Sharing experiences of bullying and personal growth may be cathartic for the adults who make the videos and others who watch them, but I do wonder how effective they are in practice.  After all, when I was a child I heard the same message.  As early as grade one I remember my teacher telling me about how she was teased as a child.  I found it incredible that any well-adjusted and normal-looking adult could ever have suffered the kind of cruelty I did at the hands of my classmates.  For the rest of my elementary school life I heard similar messages: lots of kids get bullied; it’s a normal part of school life; many of the adults who seem so happy today were bullied as children; this too shall pass.  I always met these reassurances with the same juvenile scepticism.  Other kids might be the victims of teasing, but even the kids who got teased teased me!  The adults who talked about being bullied in the past couldn’t possibly have had it as bad as I did.  And what kind of reassurance is it, when you’re ten, to be told that a decade from now your life will be happy and good?  Do you know how long a decade is from the perspective of a ten year old?!

I also can’t help wondering if giving so much media attention to the issue of teen suicide might actually be backfiring and having the opposite effect from the one intended.  What if covering these suicides and giving names and faces to the kids involved actually makes other children more likely to do the same thing?  What if kids who think they have no reason to live decide to kill themselves in the hope of becoming martyrs?  I’ve heard that theory proposed for the rash of school shootings that happened back in the nineties, and it seems like the same could be true of suicide.  After all, the impression I get is that there’s been an upsurge in the teen suicide rate lately, and that can’t be because of increased levels of bullying or homophobia.  Bullying has been a problem from time immemorial, and homophobia should, if anything be on the decline.  So while I think it’s important to acknowledge the problem and reach out to teenagers, I’d be careful not to crucify them.  We don’t need any more dead kids.

Another thing I’m concerned about is the response to bullying.  In their desire to put an end to it, I’ve heard adults advocate tougher anti-bullying laws and harsher punishments for bullies.  Bullying should definitely be taken seriously, and acts of violence disciplined.  But focusing too much on punishment might well end up doing more harm than good.  As we know from real life, stiffer penalties aren’t terribly effective at reducing crime, and sending people to prison often just makes them into more hardened criminals.  Moreover, kids do stupid things.  How many times have you looked back on your childhood and thought, Did really do that?, Was I really that dumb?, or, I sure was an obnoxious brat, wasn’t I?  I’ve no doubt that a lot of bullies go through the same thing.  Sure, some of them probably turn into obnoxious adults, but most of them grow up to become, well, grown ups.

A while back I was on Facebook and I saw some people I used to know having a discussion about this topic.  Interestingly, one of the people involved was my former elementary school classmate.  It was strange but heartening to see one of the kids who used to torment me as a child acknowledging the problem of bullying.  At one point he mentioned using homophobic insults as a child, and I thought, Yeah, I was one of the people you used them against!  I had a mini-catharsis realising that both of us had come a long way from those miserable elementary school days, that we’re both now very different people from our childhood selves, and that any animosity we may have once felt for each other is now buried in the past.

As a child I could be unkind too.  I’ve said hurtful things to others that I regret and wish I could take back.  I’ll never have the chance to apologise for most of them, but I hope anyone I hurt has forgiven me.  In the same way I forgive everyone who was mean to me in my childhood.  I know they were only children too, doing stupid things as children do.  I don’t hate them or want to see them punished.  The worst I hope is that they now regret their childish behaviour, and have grown into thoughtful and compassionate adults who do their best to instil their children with a degree of empathy.

Bullying is a problem as much for its perpetrators as its victims.  It’s a sickness, and needs treatment more than punishment.  Kids don’t just bully each other because they’re bad.  They do it because they feel insecure, because they’ve been bullied themselves, have abusive parents, want to impress their friends, or have low self-esteem.  Punishing their behaviour alone isn’t going to solve those problems.  And criminalising it may simply turn relatively normal kids into criminals.  It isn’t enough to treat bullying symptomatically; the root causes have to be addressed.  And it isn’t enough to say that bullying is bad; kids have to learn positive alternatives.

One concrete suggestion has been legislation to protect gay student rights and target homophobia specifically.  Protecting gay students and eliminating their systematic bullying is a worthy goal.  However, as an anti-bullying strategy I don’t think it’s terribly well-directed.  It may take some of the pressure off gay students, but it does nothing to address the problem of bullying per se.  The reasoning behind it seems to go like this: Some kids bully others with homophobic insults; if we eliminate homophobia, we can eliminate bullying.  Which is nonsense.  Homophobia isn’t the reason for bullying, it’s an excuse; and bullies don’t bully gay kids because they are homophobic, they bully them because they are bullies!

You don’t have to be gay to get bullied.  You don’t have to be gay to get bullied for being gay.  Nor is being gay the only reason gay kids get bullied, nor a guarantee that someone won’t himself bully others.  All different kinds of kids are bullies, and all different kinds are victims: gay kids, straight kids, black kids, white kids, religious, non-religious, pretty, ugly, fat, skinny, able-bodied, disabled, mentally average, mentally handicapped.  Some kids just like to pick on people, and they’ll target anyone they and their friends can agree is “other”.

I was pondering all this over lunch one day when my tea lady snapped me out of my stupor to ask me what I was thinking about.  “Ee… muzukashii desu…”, “Uh… it’s difficult…”, I tried to explain.  Like, seriously, what’s the Japanese for “gay teen suicide”?  Fortunately Wikipedia does have a Japanese entry on the “It Gets Better” Project, and between that and Google Translate I was able to explain the situation to her.  It was nice to be able to talk to someone about it.

I don’t have much optimism that bullying can ever be eliminated.  The targets may shift, the means vary, but I think it will always be a part of school life.  There’ll always be the kid who gets picked on, teased, beaten up, ostracised.  Who has his shoes stolen or his glasses broken or his lip split.  Who gets called a “fag”, “retard”, “loser”, or worse.

But it gets better.  It really does.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Mamma Mia! – Ostensibly about a girl’s search for her “real” father, this silly musical comedy is really just an excuse to string a bunch of Abba songs together.  The results are mixed, but the movie’s almost worth it for the fun of seeing respectable actors like Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, and Colin Firth dancing around and behaving like teenagers.  (Three stars)

T.V. shows I’ve seen this month:

Heroes (Season 1) – I freely admit that this is a deeply goofy show.  It has insufferable narration (“You do not choose your destiny; it chooses you.”), idiot characters (Um, Peter, you think you might want to pick a shorter building to test your “I’m telling you, I think I can fly!” hypothesis?), bizarre plot-twists (How many times a day does Claire die?), and absurd coincidences (What are the chances that of all the patrons at the Fly By Night Diner, the only one who notices the man landing in the parking lot is the one who can “bendo space ando time”?)  The climax to the last episode makes no sense to me.  And did I mention that the villain is a cute, affable, nerdy, whingeing, creepy, megalomaniacal, vicious, brain-eating sociopath?

I wanted to say that as a sort of disclaimer before I make the following rather embarrassing confession: I love Heroes!  As I’ve said before, about 50% of its charm comes from sheer campiness.  How can you not love a show with characters whose nicknames include “Man with Horned-Rimmed Glasses”, “Mystery Sock”, “Flying Man”, and “Super Hiro”; dialogue like “Save the cheerleader, save the world”, “Future-me scares me”, “This is usually the part when people start screaming”, or “Yatta!!!”; Star Trek references every other  episode; or a season finale entitled “How to Stop an Exploding Man”???

But there is another 50% that’s actually genuinely good.  This isn’t a show that was slapped together one episode at a time; the season has a well-constructed, intriguing, and unified story-line.  Or rather, several, for it weaves its story together from many disparate threads.  Watching these threads gradually come together is a big part of the fun.  The characters come from a variety of backgrounds and lifestyles, and struggle in interesting ways to integrate their new-found powers.  Many of them are actually relatively well-developed and surprisingly well-acted (considering that half the cast look like they were pulled from hair-care ads).  Most of them are sympathetic, making the conflicts between them that much more interesting.  And there are always fresh surprises to keep things engaging.

There’s a part of me that’s seriously tempted to go and rent Season 2 now.  Having fallen in love with the series, I want to see where it goes next.  But the overwhelming consensus seems to be that the subsequent seasons all suck.  And I really don’t need to add to my list of once brilliant T.V. shows I’ve watched descend into garbage.  I’ve done it too many times already; I don’t need the pain.  So although I’d love to learn more about the characters and the shadowy forces controlling their lives, I think I’m better off leaving the show where it is, remembering the good parts and sparing myself the bad parts.

Books I’ve read this month:

Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson – That’s it!  When I grow up, I want to be Bill Bryson.  Not only does the guy get paid for going on backpacking trips, but he also writes books about fascinating topics like, in this case, the English language.  The result is one of those painfully interesting books that make me long to go back to school and study its subject in real depth.  Given that I’m on the road to making English my career anyway, I may just end up doing that!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling – The final book in the Harry Potter saga.  Both the story and characters have clearly matured.  I like a lot of the themes that get brought in, such as death, loss, and regret, and I don’t think I’ve ever come closer to liking Harry as a character.  On the down side, the book has some boring bits and isn’t as unified as one could wish.  Much of the story builds on the previous books, but there are some new elements that feel contrived.  The ending is surprisingly sudden.  For a series with a huge cast of characters and numerous sub-plots, and in contrast to all of the previous books, it contains very little dénouement.  It’s almost as though Rowling was trying to avoid the long drawn out conclusion of a book like The Lord of the Rings, and ended up swinging too far in the other direction.  I’m not seriously bothered by all the lose ends, but that may change once I’ve had a chance to think about the series more.  The climactic sequence is reasonably exciting, though I wish to Elbereth that Rowling had killed one or two fewer characters in the process.  The main storylines are resolved in more-or-less satisfying ways, and she even vindicates the vain hope I was holding out at the end of the previous book.  Over all it makes for a decent conclusion, and I’ve decided that I do indeed like the Harry Potter series.

* “Yoku Naru yo”: Japanese for “It gets better.”

Monday, March 12, 2012

Karaoke, Bike-Riding, and Other Discoveries - September 2011

By a strange coincidence, September 11, 2011 was the anniversary of the two most personally significant news events of my life.  Firstly, it was the ten-year anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks in New York City.  While the attacks and their aftermath didn’t affect my life directly, their global ramifications were so sweeping that I can’t help but think of them as among the most important events I’ve lived through.  From the first time I heard of them (one week into grade thirteen, walking into my law classroom and seeing an image of smoking towers on the television screen), I knew that I was witnessing a major story that would change the world as we knew it.  Ten years later the world is still dealing with the fallout from that day.

The other event had much less global impact but affected me much more directly.  September 11 was also the six-month anniversary of what has become known as the Great East Japan Earthquake.  I’ve already written at great length about that experience.  Six months on you can barely see any damage from the earthquake itself, but the clean-up from the tsunami feels like a never-ending task.  The story has faded from the international news and the aftershocks have more or less ceased (the current level of seismic activity is pretty much what it was this time last year), but there is still a massive amount of rebuilding to be done and the newspapers continue to print daily updates on the numbers of dead and missing.

Oddly I didn’t do anything to commemorate either of those events.  I suspect that had I been in North America the World Trade Center attacks would have been spotlighted, but they received much less attention here in Japan.  Nor was I aware of any special events to commemorate the earthquake.  So the date passed mostly unhallowed by me, though not unnoticed.

Classes resumed at the end of August.  I’ve made a new English board for the teacher profiles, and I’ve been adding them at a rate of one per day.  That should get me through the whole staff in just over a month.  Back in the classroom, I’ve noticed that my first-year teacher hasn’t been bringing me to class very often.  To some extent I don’t mind very much, since I much prefer teaching the higher grades, but I do worry that the students are missing out.  On the plus side, from what I’ve seen so far, the first-year teacher is pretty good.  He has a good relationship with his students, and they in turn seem more relaxed and comfortable using English than the other classes I work with.  Still, at the least I’m losing some important bonding time with them.

School Festival was at the beginning of the month.  My contribution to it largely consisted of spending a lot of time in the accountant’s office cutting half-inch pieces of origami paper.  The students were all making mosaics, and, hey, those little coloured squares have to come from somewhere.  But the event also gave me my first opportunity to do something with the letters I’d received from the JET Programme.  I made a big bulletin-board display about them.  It included all the letters, an explanation in Japanese and English, definitions of difficult words, a map showing the town the letters came from, and even some Wordle word art.  I doubt many of the students got to look at it, but I hope that the parents who came saw it and got something out of it.

After the festival we had an after-party, and after that a group of us went out to karaoke together.  It was only my second time at karaoke since coming to Japan, and my first time going with my co-workers.  Clearly I was at a bit of a disadvantage because I couldn’t sing along with any of the Japanese songs, but on the plus side I was invited to join in every time a teacher chose an English song to sing.  So I lent my questionable singing talent and unquestionable English expertise to such songs as “This Love”, “Without You”, and “Bring It All Back”.  When it was my turn to pick I chose “Shine” by Collective Soul, which I think I did a decent job on.  I also invited one of the male teachers to a duet of “All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow, which ended up largely turning into a solo for me.  In retrospect I chose a pretty difficult song, but we still had fun with it.  Just before I left, the art teacher led us all in singing the Totoro theme, the one Japanese song I could at least join in on the chorus of.  It was a really good time; I wish we did that sort of thing more often.  At $30 each I could see it being an expensive hobby, though.

The biggest priority for me at the start of the new term was to get my kids ready for the speech competition.  I didn’t actually see as much of them as I’d hoped to over the summer holiday, but when they came back to school it was clear they’d put a lot of work into their speeches.  One of them wrote her speech; the other did a recitation of a short story.  I wasn’t a fan of the story she chose, but her delivery was excellent, so I think it was a good choice for her.  As last year, I much preferred listening to the students’ own speeches than to the recitations.  I was surprised (though in retrospect I don’t know why) by how many students talked about the earthquake this year.  Even speeches ostensibly about other things worked their way around to it eventually, as though the students felt obliged to mention it.  I can see that it was an important event in the lives of the students, but after about a dozen speeches the theme got old, and every time I heard the words, “On March 11, Japan suffered a terrible earthquake,” I found myself thinking: Yeah, I know.  We all know.  We were there.  I was very glad that my student was one of the very few who didn’t mention it at all.  Unfortunately, she didn’t win anything.  The student who did the recitation got third prize, not enough to advance to the prefectural level.  So that’s it for speech competitions this year.

There’s been a surprising development with my putative swing dancing club: one day, the mother of one of my students called the school and asked if she might join.  Since I barely had any students anyway I figured there was no harm in letting her come for what turned out to be a private lesson.  She’s now become my one regular club member, and has even brought friends along.  At first I was reluctant to hold the class only for adults; after all, the whole idea of the club was to do something fun with the students, not their parents.  But the thing is, I enjoy it; it’s the only opportunity I ever have to dance, and I’ve realised I’m not too bad at the teaching, either.  So I suppose I’ll keep it going for as long as I can with whoever wants to come.

The ALT fellowship group hasn’t met again, but I did learn from some of the members about a church they go to down town, and I decided one Sunday to check it out.  Unlike my church, the congregation is at least half made up of English-speaking foreigners, including ALTs and other English teachers from a private school.  I really enjoyed going to church in an anglophone-friendly environment, and I’d like to go back there, but at the same time I like the church that I have.  I’ll probably keep going to my regular church, but I may also visit the new one from time to time.

Another thing that came out of the fellowship group was a suggestion by one of the ALTs that we go up to Ishinomaki for the weekend to do some volunteer work.  As it turned out, we weren’t able to get organised for a weekend trip, so instead a couple of us joined a local group and spent a day volunteering in one of Sendai’s coastal neighbourhoods.  We met at a church downtown and rode bicycles out to the work location.  It was my first time riding a bicycle in years.  I know they say you never forget how, but there’s a big gap between being able to stay upright on a bike and actually being able to ride it well.  On the plus side, I really liked the bikes we had.  They were quite comfortable and easy to ride, and came with a motor attached.  I’d never ridden a bike with a motor before.  I set mine to “echo” mode, which means that the motor only kicks in when the rider is actually pedalling.

I was pretty unsteady at first, weaving back and forth in my attempts to remain stable.  One of my pet peeves since getting here has been the fact that cyclists ride on the sidewalk rather than the street – especially annoying if you live in a neighbourhood like mine where the “sidewalk” is a two-foot wide covered gutter – but I was grateful for it now, because I would have gotten myself killed riding in traffic.  I steadied out a bit after a while, and as the muscle memory started to return I discovered that I actually enjoyed it.  I did reasonably well for speed; I kept the motor off most of the time, and only turned it on for help going uphill.  I still had wobbly moments, though, and found starting and stopping difficult.  Shortly before we reached our destination – and just as I started to think I was getting the hang of it – some of the other volunteers pulled up in a van and said they’d drive me the rest of the way.  And so my cycling experiment was brought to a sudden end.

As I settle into my second year in Japan, I’ve made a surprising and gratifying discovery: I speak Japanese!  Not well, admittedly.  Or fluently.  Or intelligently.  Actually, I probably have the grammatical level of a two-year-old, and a vocabulary somewhat worse than that.  But I have reached the point where I can at least carry on a low-level conversation with a Japanese person.  And since that was one of my goals when I arrived here, I feel pretty good about that.  I’m still hopeless at a lot of things, but now, where I used to just shake my head and smile helplessly, I ask people to repeat things and reach for my dictionary, and sometimes I can even figure out what they’re saying!

The point has been brought home to me by my recent interactions with other teachers.  When doing the staff interviews I noticed that it was much easier this time around.  The Japanese phrases I’d had to memorise last year now came much more naturally to me, and I understood the responses better.  I also noticed improvement at the School Festival after-party.  Whereas last year I was seated between two of the English-speaking teachers and spent most of my time talking to them, this year I was happy to sit at a table with mostly Japanese speakers and muddle through conversation as best I could.  I was quite successful, too, managing lengthy conversations with the teachers to my left and right, neither of whom spoke more than a few words of English.  I may not have been the most scintillating conversationalist there (Am I ever?) but I could hold my own, and I felt good about that.

This achievement is especially important to me because this month my Japanese language classes came to an end.  There aren’t any higher-level courses offered in the evenings, so this will probably be the end of my formal Japanese study.  I’m going to look into getting a tutor, though.  While I get plenty of conversation practice at school and also outside of school (Special thanks goes to my tea lady for that!), I still have almost no reading ability.  I’d like to work on improving that for a while.

In the news this month, the U.S. has repealed its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military.  Prior to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, gays were forbidden from serving in the military, period.  The policy liberalised the army somewhat, allowing gays to serve but only if they weren’t open about their sexuality.  Repealing it means that now gays and bisexuals can serve in the military and do so openly.  That sounds like progress to me.

Books I’ve read this month:

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury – Loosely connected series of short stories chronicling the settlement of Mars.  More intelligent than some sci-fi stories I’ve read.  The story called “Usher II” is especially good fun, if not great science fiction.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling – In the words of Xander Harris, “Stop this crazy whirligig of fun; I’m dizzy!”  Instalment five in the Harry Potter series is a downer from start to finish – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  I like the fact that Rowling has started subverting some of her more obnoxious tropes.  And this book has the coolest villain so far; in fact, I think Dolores Umbridge is now my favourite character of the series!  Actually, I liked pretty much all of this book, except for the romantic sub-plot.  That made my skin crawl.  I’m still not sure how I feel about the ending.  I’d say it was good if I thought Harry was going to grow from the experience, but so far the only result of bad things happening to Harry seems to be to turn him into more of a jerk.  Which brings me to a chronic problem I seem to be having with this series: I don’t much like Harry Potter.  I don’t mean I dislike him, just that I don’t find him especially engaging.  I can only hope that he matures a bit before the end of the series.  And also that things lighten up at some point!

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling – Thankfully this book does indeed hearken back a bit to the lighter tone of the earlier instalments – at least until the last few chapters.  Unfortunately, though the story is interesting, it isn’t resolved as satisfyingly as those of the other books.  Instead, it mostly serves as setup for the final novel.  As for the ending, I’m in denial about that.  Rowling’s done one of the things I was most hoping she wouldn’t do.  I’m still holding out hope that it will come out alright in the last book, but it’s hard to see how.