Friday, September 13, 2013

Christmas in Summer – December 2012


For Christmas, my mom came to stay with me for three weeks, providing the perfect excuse to see more of the country and do some proper sight-seeing.  Since her flight landed in Sydney, I flew down to meet her and we began our adventure there.  Sydney is not only the most famous and recognisable Australian city; for a long time it was the only Australian city I even knew anything about.  And among famous cities of the world, it’s one of the ones I most want to move to.  Not because of the weather, or the people, or the food, or even the sights.  But because I’ve always wanted to live in a state called New South Wales!

We began our first day with a walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens, which are considerably more impressive than Brisbane’s.  In fact, they’re probably the most beautiful gardens I’ve been to outside of Europe.  From the gardens it was only a short waterfront walk to the most famous building in the southern hemisphere: the Sydney Opera House.  We didn’t go inside, but we did have fun taking pictures of ourselves on the steps, and went for a nice but expensive lunch at one of the restaurants.  From there we also had a great view of the Harbour Bridge, which became a highlight of the Sydney Olympics.  It’s a big bridge, but if one squinted and looked very closely one could just make out tiny specs crawling along the top: tourists doing a guided walk across the structure.  It looked terrifying, though I’ve no doubt the adventurers were well secured.  From what I understand, the tour is good exercise, and would probably be very educational, especially to anyone with an interest in architecture or engineering.  It’s a couple hundred dollars, though, more than I felt like spending.

After lunch, we took a ferry around to Darling Harbour to see the Sydney Aquarium.  While I wouldn’t say it beats Osaka’s Kaiyukan for value, it’s a good-sized facility where we saw lots of Australian sea-life.  I was disappointed, however, that the most interesting members of the exhibition, the platypuses, were hiding, and though I watched and waited they did not make an appearance.


The next day (Thursday) we took the ferry in the opposite direction to Manly.  We’d had it recommended to us for beaches, penguins, and fish and chips, but the beaches were crowded and had lots of warning signs up, the penguins only come out in the evening, and the fish and chips we had were mediocre.

On Friday we took a tour bus out to the Blue Mountains.  On the way, we stopped at the Featherdale Wildlife Park, a zoo for Australian wildlife.  Aside from possums, I’d had little opportunity to see Australian animals in the wild, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to finally see kookaburras, kangaroos, and, of course, koalas!  I didn’t opt for a photograph with a koala, because I thought that was cheesy, but I did feed the kangaroos.  They also had wallabies (a smaller variety of kangaroo), wombats (which look like furry pigs), and Tasmanian devils (considerably cuter and less frightening than their animated namesake).  The cutest thing I saw there was the echidna, a funny, porcupine-like monotreme with a long snout that was waddling backward and forward in a corner of its enclosure.  The most interesting was the albino peacock.

From there we proceeded on to the Three Sisters, a large rock formation that is the subject of an Aboriginal legend.  In the nearby tourist centre we were shown performances of Aboriginal music and dance, and then we got a short cable-car ride and walk around the forested area.

We spent our last day souvenir shopping in The Rocks, and exploring the other interesting parts of downtown Sydney.  In the evening I walked down to a pie cart near our hotel that our bus driver had pointed out to us.  Apparently this innocuous establishment is renowned, and I was curious to know what a world-class meat pie tasted like.  It was everything one could wish for and more, with optional gravy, mashed potatoes, and mushy peas as topping.  You really don’t see enough good meat pies in Canada.  It’s kind of sad, really.


We flew back to Brisbane, and then up to Cairns.  Here we went on our most exciting Australian adventure: a trip to the Great Barrier Reef.  We took a ferry to a pontoon far out on the ocean, from where we were able to go snorkelling, SCUBA diving, or boating around the area.  Since I wanted to see as much of the reef as possible as cheaply as possible, I spent most of my time snorkelling – a first-time experience for me!  It didn’t allow me to see the coral up close, but I had a great “aerial” view (as it were) looking down on it.  I rented a pair of prescription goggles, and, in another first, was able to see clearly underwater!  I didn’t get to see as much aquatic wildlife as I would have liked (no clownfish, rays, or sea turtles for me), but I did get close up to some beautiful blue and yellow fish called “fusiliers”.  Sadly, I didn’t think to rent an underwater camera, so the only pictures I have are the ones I keep in my head.

Having spent one day on the reef, we devoted our other day in Cairns to the rainforest.  We took a long, scenic train ride up to the village of Kuranda.  The view from the train was lovely, and the village seemed nice, although we barely had time to get our bearings and have lunch before we had to leave.  The highlight was the trip back, where we took a long cable-car ride over the rainforest.  The cable car stopped twice on the way, at stations where we could walk around and see the trees up close.  At one of them I practised my declining Japanese skills on a pair of tourists by offering to take their picture.  (If there’s one phrase it will be useful to hang onto in the future, it must be “Shashin o totte mo ii desu ka?”*)  The most interesting part was the view from the cable car, though, especially on the last leg when we came in sight of the ocean.


We returned to Brisbane for Christmas, which we spent with some of my new acquaintances.  We went with them to a friend’s house on Christmas day, where we had a celebratory Christmas lunch.  Much of the food was fairly traditional (turkey, vegetables, etc.), but it was served in a casual buffet, and the weather was a lot hotter.  Although the company was good and there were presents for everyone, it didn’t feel as cosy as the Christmas I’m used to, and I think I like the boreal version of the holiday much better.

We spent the rest of our holiday hiding from the hot Australian sun.  We went to the movies, to the shopping mall, and to the Queensland Museum, but it was too hot for much else.


My mum flew home New Year’s Day, leaving me to plan the next phase of my antipodean adventure: a trip to New Zealand!  I now have my plane ticket to get there and my bus pass to get around, and I’ve confirmed that (unlike Australia) I don’t need a visa to get in.  I’m liking this country already!

In sad personal news, one of my cousins died suddenly just after Christmas.  I didn’t know her – in fact, she was the only cousin of mine whom I’d never met – but her mom is one of my favourite aunts, and I know her siblings, nieces, and especially children will be sorely affected.  She has two girls, still in their teens.  To make matters worse, her death comes exactly five years after that of one of my other cousins.  Can I just dissent from the accepted wisdom for a moment and say that sometimes, God’s timing is lousy???


In the news this month, a gunman in the United States entered a kindergarten and killed twenty students and six staff members before killing himself.  I won’t even try to put into words how shocking this is.  I find shootings of this kind incomprehensible as it is; the idea of carrying out such a crime against five-year-old children just adds one more degree of horror.  I will only add that I’ve been annoyed by how quick the pundits have been to politicise this event and use it to justify stronger gun-control laws.  I’m all for gun-control, but the degree to which the American system is being blamed for this event seems to be a) disrespecting the victims by using them as tools of propaganda, and b) over-simplifying the issue and ignoring the many other factors that would need to be in place for someone to murder two dozen innocent people.  At the risk of siding with the N.R.A. for a moment, guns don’t kill people…

In happier news, Kate Middleton, wife of Prince William, is pregnant with the couple’s first child.  Assuming the monarchy lasts that long, the child will one day be king or queen of England.  Though with Elizabeth, Charles, and William all ahead of em in the succession line, I don’t see it happening any time soon.


Movies I’ve seen this month:

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – I actually enjoyed this movie much more than I expected to – granted that I went in with very low expectations of it.  It has all the problems one would expect from a Peter Jackson adaptation (mostly related to length and pacing).  The story is all over the place.  And Thorin is not nearly as dwarvish or as kingly as I would have hoped.  Still, if you take this not as an adaptation of The Hobbit but rather as an epic action-adventure that just happens to have scenes from The Hobbit in it, it’s actually fairly successful.

One of the nicest surprises was the “Unexpected Party” sequence, which isn’t quite like the book version but still captures the right note of comic confusion.  At one point the dwarves even start singing the “Chip the Glasses” song, complete with choreographed acrobatics, and for a brief moment I allowed myself to hope they might sing every song in the book and turn it into a musical!  Sadly, it was not to be – no “tra-la-la-lally” or “ho, ho! my lad!” for this movie.  Another sequence that impressed me was the “Riddles in the Dark” scene.  This is probably my favourite chapter of any book ever, and it was a great relief to see an adaptation that was true to the spirit of the original while allowing for the change in medium and the alternate interpretation of Gollum.

One pleasant element that didn’t come as a surprise was Martin Freeman, who gives an outstanding performance as Bilbo.  Based on what little I knew of him before, I suspected he would be perfect for the part, and I wasn’t disappointed.  The additional material involving Gandalf and the White Council was interesting to watch, especially since it was mostly new to me.  There are even some moments where, in an attempt to make the story more grown-up, the characters explain things that are left deliberately vague in the book, such as why Thorin chooses a rag-tag band of civilians to help him take down a dragon, or why Bilbo goes along with this improbable scheme.  Both are explained in plausible ways that add depth to the story and characters.

Of course, for every sequence that works, there’s one that doesn’t, which is only to be expected when taking six chapters of a children’s book and adapting it to a two-and-a-half hour movie.  Scenes that should be funny turn serious, and moments that should be serious turn into puerile comedy.  The action sequences are reasonably exciting, but half of them are badly-timed and the other half require radical suspension of disbelief.  (Apparently terminal velocity is a lot lower in Middle-earth; either that, or rocks are a lot softer.)  And instead of ending where it should have, it goes on for an extra twenty minutes, with a ridiculous and unnecessary fight scene and an even more ridiculous last-minute rescue.  So while parts of it charmed me, the over-all product is still only mediocre.  (Three stars)

Les Misérables (2012) – I’ve been a fan of Les Mis, the musical, ever since I first saw it at the age of eight in London, England.  Since then I’ve listened to the cast recording innumerable times, watched the televised 10th anniversary concert, heard the abridged book on tape, seen at least two film adaptations, and even read the first six hundred of the novel’s twelve hundred pages.  And in all that time, one question has been bugging me: when are we going to see the musical brought to the screen???

So when I heard this movie was in the works, I was excited, but also nervous.  Movie musicals tend to overshadow their stage counterparts, and I was concerned that if this became the definitive version, it be something I could feel proud to be a fan of.  Is it?  Judging by the number of times I broke down in tears, I’d say yes!  Movie adaptations always entail changes, but this one shows real sensitivity and understanding of the source material.  I was especially impressed that, as often as not, the changes bring the film more in line with the original novel!  A few scenes have been moved around, too.  In some cases this is a clumsy choice: there’s a three-song pileup halfway through Act II whose casualties include some of the play's best numbers.  But in others, the result is inspired: I have never seen “I Dreamed a Dream” pack half the punch it does here!

One of the trickiest things about Les Mis is that so many of its songs are powerful soliloquies, conveying the characters’ inner griefs and torments.  To bring this out, the filmmakers use a daring and innovative technique: instead of recording the songs first and having the actors lip-synch to them during filming, they film the actors singing live, recording their voices along with the rest of the scene.  The result is phenomenal!  I’ve never seen a musical where the actors act their songs so much!  They’re not pretty to listen to; with a few exceptions the singing voices are merely competent.  But the emotion the actors bring to them more than makes up for the sound quality.  Special credit goes to Anne Hathaway in a stunning performance as Fantine.  Hugh Jackman throws himself into his part and is a fabulous Valjean.  Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen’s take on the Thénardiers is unconventional, but still entertaining.  Eddie Redmayne is surprisingly moving as Marius.  I also really liked Gavroche, Enjolras, Eponine… basically, everyone in the cast – with one exception.  Darn you, Russell Crowe!!!  Why do you have to be so much less awesome than everyone else??!!!!

Perhaps one could say that the film falls short on the grand level.  The live recording technique doesn’t work as well on the big ensemble numbers, and the battle scenes aren’t as exciting as they could be.  But where it excels is on the level of the individual.  Javert’s part is admittedly weak, a point I’m particularly bitter about as it’s traditionally my favourite.  But in every other respect the acting is universally good and the solos do not disappoint.  (Three and a half stars)

T.V. shows I’ve seen this month:

Redfern Now – Australian mini-series consisting of six stories about aboriginal families living in a suburb of Sydney.  I recognised many of the actors from The Sapphires.  In  contrast to my experience with Canadian T.V., I found it surprisingly intelligent, with complex stories and characters.  Race relations is one of the issues, but the series is concerned with all facets of aboriginal life.  Not all the episodes are equally good, but they range among a diverse set of topics, and I enjoyed most of them.

Radio programmes I’ve listened to this month:

The Lord of the Rings – BBC Radio’s audio play adaptation of one of my favourite fantasy novels.  Having grown up listening to the BBC’s adaptation of The Hobbit, I was expecting an excellent production, much more accurate to the book than the recent movies.  Certainly, it succeeds on the last count.  The plot follows the original quite closely, although even at thirteen hours a few things had to be left out: the Scouring of the Shire is included, but Tom Bombadil is still missing.  The characters also feel more like the way Tolkien wrote them, most notably the hobbits.  As usual, I was especially fond of Sam, but all of the actors are good.

The series has its weaknesses, though.  One thing that annoys me is that, in the transfer to C.D., they have eliminated the divisions between episodes, stringing the scenes together without meaningful breaks except the ones between volumes.  Another is that many segments are slower and less exciting than they should be.  ”The Shadow of the Past” and “The Council of Elrond” in particular would have benefitted from some flashbacks to break up all that talking.  Music in general isn’t used nearly as much as it should be, and other big scenes, such as battles, need better sound-effects.  Many key scenes are surprisingly weak: the audio from the movie version of “The Bridge of Khazad-dûm” is much more compelling than the radio one.  And while I liked both Frodo and Sam, their most important scenes tend to fall flat.  On the whole, I’d say it’s a decent production with first-rate voice acting that suffers from a low budget and some unimaginative writing.

Books I’ve read this month:

The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis – A fun adventure story that just happens to be set in the Narnia universe.  This is the Narnia book that fits the least well with the others, but it still works in its own right.

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett – My first Discworld book in a while, featuring a witch and a little girl who wonders why she can’t be a wizard.  I’m starting to really like Pratchett’s female characters, and I think maybe I should focus on them from now on.

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin – The second Song of Ice and Fire book sees civil war brought to Westeros, with three people laying claim to the Iron Throne, and the kingship of the north also in dispute.  You would think that would mean a lot of battle scenes, but Martin prefers to focus on the politics of the situation, which makes for much more interesting reading.  Surprisingly, my favourite character so far is Ned Stark, who manages to give “honour” a good name for a change.  Other favourites are Tyrion, Arya, and Sansa.  I’m especially impressed with Martin’s writing of women.  Although set in a traditional, patriarchal society, the series features a large number of female characters.  More importantly, it contains a large variety of female characters who are developed as people in their own rights, and not simply as objects of male reverence or desire.

* “Shashin o totte mo ii desu ka?”: Japanese for “Is it okay to take a picture?”

Friday, August 16, 2013

Summer is Coming – October-November 2012


My life has settled into a routine that’s keeping me pretty busy.  I have to be at work before 8:00 every day.  I teach until 2:30, then spend my afternoon and much of my evening preparing for future classes.  Since I don’t like teaching when tired, I’m also trying to get to bed at a decent time.  The result is that I’m working eleven hours a day, sleeping nine hours a night, and not finding time for much else.

Weekends have been largely devoted to shopping and cooking, but I’m trying to work some extra-curricular activities in too.  In October I went to the “Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb” exhibit at the Queensland Museum.  The exhibit was overpriced for its size; it certainly wasn’t the British Museum or Tutankhamen’s tomb.  It was also dominated by a video presentation that took almost as much time as the artefacts did.  It was nice in that it gave some context for what we would be seeing; unfortunately few of the articles on display were actually from the burial site discussed.

In November I decided to find out if anyone in Brisbane plays Dungeons & Dragons, and discovered a group that meets on Sunday afternoons.  They run different types of campaigns, not all of which are open, but I’ve been going to the ones I can.  I’m still very much a novice, and it’s not always easy to keep up with the other players, but they’ve been understanding.  It’s nice to be playing without a language barrier, and I find it makes role-playing in particular much easier.  As a sign of my commitment to the game, I’ve even bought my own dice!  They’re shiny and blue.  So pretty…

I’ve been to a few different churches now, but have mostly been frequenting the Lutheran church near my house and the Anglican cathedral down town.  The former is smaller and friendlier, but the latter has a more familiar service style.  I’ve also finally learned of a swing dancing group not far from where I work.  I’m now trying to learn the lead’s part in Lindy-Hop, but I’m finding it very dizzying!

The weather’s getting pretty hot here.  It definitely feels like summer, and I can only imagine what it’ll be like when summer really arrives!  We’ve also been getting a lot more rain than when I arrived.  We’re heading into storm season now, and one weekend I was stunned to look outside and see what looked like a hurricane!  It passed as quickly as it started, but it was pretty scary while it lasted!  Fortunately, most of the rain we’ve gotten has been the safe kind that waters the plants and makes everything brighter.  The grass is much greener now, and the trees have blossomed in a variety of colours, including purple jacaranda blooms.

One morning I awoke to a strangely dusky light, as though the sun were on a dimmer.  I recognised the effect from a few months earlier, and immediately realised that it was eclipse day in the southern hemisphere.  The total version of this eclipse happened in northern Queensland, and if I’d had time or money to fly up to Cairns, I could have seen it.  I’d been so caught up with work, however, that I didn’t even bother to go looking for eclipse glasses.  I think it will have to go on my bucket list: before I die, I want to watch a solar eclipse happening.

Despite taking up most of my time, work has been good.  I like my students, my co-workers, and the movies I sometimes get to supervise during morning break.  One of the other teachers showed me how to use the coffee maker, so now I can get my afternoon caffeine shot as needed.  It’s not like the coffee machines I’m used to; apparently coffee in Australia only comes in swanky varieties.  They give them funny names, too: “flat white”, “long black”, etc.  So… which one is a latte???

I’m not the only foreigner among the staff.  I have co-workers with American, New Zealand, and even Scottish accents, leading to many geeky dissections of the pronunciation guide in our U.K.-produced textbooks.  I’ve noticed that not even my Australian co-workers sound as Australian as one might expect.  I had an idea in my head of what an Aussies should sound like – think Julia Gillard – but most of them don’t have accents nearly that thick.  At least not in Brisbane.

On the flip side, I’ve been amazed by how many people here have said to me “From your accent, I’m guessing you’re… Canadian?”  Since my accent can’t be nearly that distinctive, I can only assume that Australians know we don’t like being mistaken for Americans, and are erring on the side of caution.  I’m not big on the self-righteous distancing so many of my compatriots love to do, bit it’s nice to see foreigners showing some cultural sensitivity.

In November my school celebrated Melbourne Cup day.  That’s the day of a big horse race in Melbourne.  Apparently horse racing is a thing here, and the students were encouraged to dress up, place bets, and cheer for their favourite horse.  The most enjoyment I’ve ever gotten out of a horse race was watching the Ascot sequence in My Fair Lady, so I completely failed to inspire my students with this event, or even to explain it.  It was a cultural experience as much for me as for them.

I taught my class for ten weeks, and it’s been one of the best work experiences of my life so far.  October was stressful, as I worked overtime to stretch four weeks’ worth of material out to six, but then I readjusted my schedule, and planning became much easier.  I had some great students in my class, and I really feel that the effort I made as a teacher paid off in both learning and class enjoyment.

Sadly, December will mean fewer classes, and I’m losing mine to another teacher.  My bosses have given me positive reviews, and have promised to keep me on the sub-list, so a new position may well open up in the new year.  For now, the timing is actually quite convenient; it means I’ll be free to travel and enjoy a long Christmas vacation.

When I told my students I was leaving, they suggested a party, which we held on Friday afternoon.  We had cake and snacks and drinks.  We played music and took pictures.  My students wrote me a “Thank You” card and even gave me presents, a gesture I found very touching.  It’s nice to feel appreciated for a change, but it’s even more gratifying to feel that I really have been a good teacher, and have earned the respect and affection of my students.

In the evening, they invited me along to a goodbye dinner for one of the Korean students.  It was held in a mixed Asian restaurant by my favourite Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese students.  I was the only white person there, but I’m used to that, and the mix of nationalities meant that most people spoke in English.  I’m glad I got a chance to hang out with them outside of school.  I hope when I get back to Canada I can find a job that’s just as good with students who are just as awesome!

I’ve had two interesting pieces of news from back home.  Firstly, one of my buddies from Ottawa is engaged.  She’s not getting married for another year and a half, though, by which time I should definitely be back in the country.  Second-, and more excitingly, one of my friends is having a baby!  E’s due in the spring, most likely before I get home, but since I plan to return shortly thereafter, I should get a chance to meet em fairly soon.  And if I was having any doubts about returning home, this had definitely made up my mind: what better incentive could there be than a new baby?!!

In the news this month, Hurricane Sandy slammed into the United States, doing massive damage to the eastern seaboard and especially to New York.  A few of my co-workers expressed concern for me, asking whether any of my family were in the affected area.  Fortunately it looks as though things haven’t been that bad in Ontario, and everyone I know is safe.

Also out of the U.S., Barack Obama has been re-elected and will continue as president for another four years.

Movies I’ve seen this season:

Shall We Dance? – An unusually sweet and down-to-earth movie about a middle-aged lawyer who recaptures his joie de vivre through ballroom dancing.  It wasn’t till the credits that I remembered it was a remake of a Japanese movie, and with a single exception, the story makes the cultural transition quite successfully.  Still, it does seem in retrospect like a tale far too charming to have been dreamed up by an American.  I’ll have to see the original some time.  (Three stars)

Books I’ve read this season:

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie – I re-read this mostly so I could improve the TV Tropes page.  Still enjoyed every bit of it!

Friday, July 19, 2013

How Ya Goin’? – September 2012


Getting settled in Brisbane has been a long and difficult process, but this month things started coming together.  First, my luggage finally arrived!  I mailed my suitcase from Japan at the end of July, on the understanding that it should take about a fortnight to reach Australia.  The fact that it took more than a month was a source of increasing distress to me, and I was overjoyed when a postal truck finally pulled up outside the front door and delivered my precious baggage.  Stuff!!!  How I missed you!

After viewing about ten rooms in all corners of the city I finally settled on one at the beginning of the month and moved in a week later.  It’s a bit more than I wanted to spend – rent, like everything else, is expensive here – but it’s close to downtown with easy access to public transit, and I’m quite happy with it.  It’s in a traditional old house, with a patio and palm trees in the back yard.

Lastly, I have a job!  This took quite a long time to find; I handed out résumés during my first two weeks here but got almost no response for a month.  Then, towards the end of September, two schools called me in for interviews that led almost directly to a place on the substitute teacher list.  Those in turn led to 6:00 a.m. calls for emergency relief work (“Of course I can be there in an hour and fifteen minutes; I’m practically out the door now!”), which led to near-simultaneous full-time employment offers.  I could only take one of them, of course, but this makes me feel a lot better about my desirability as a teacher, and I’m thrilled to be working again.

Although I’ve done this kind of work before, it’s been a bit of an adjustment.  I’ve spent the last three years doing either co-teaching or tutoring, and I’m having to recall my training and experience from Vancouver.  On the plus side, my students are at a much higher level than I’m used to.  I’m teaching the pre-intermediate class, which is quite low, but it’s an unspeakable relief to be able to say a sentence like “Take out your textbooks and turn to page sixteen”, and have the students comply without needing it translated!  They also seem unusually studious and enthusiastic about learning.  Maybe it’s the visa system here; in Australia students legally have to show up for class or risk having their student visas revoked.  Either way, they seem quite motivated, and are in turn motivating me to be a better teacher!

Now that I’m living on my own and working, I haven’t been getting out as much.  The most interesting event of the month was Mid-Autumn Festival, which was observed by the Chinese immigrant community despite it technically occurring in springtime.  I went with my Hong Kong acquaintance to a service at her Chinese-dominated church.  The event coincided with “River Fire”, a fireworks show over the Brisbane River.  We watched it from the shore and saw Story Bridge explode in coloured sparks.  It might not have been Sydney Harbour Bridge at the Olympics, but we were impressed nonetheless.

Otherwise, life in Australia is becoming routine.  The novelty is starting to wear off, although the local quirks still catch me off guard.  One that I still haven’t adjusted to is the habit people have of asking “How ya goin’?”  Not “How ya doin’?”, or “How’s it goin’?”, but “How are you going.”  Another idiom is the expression “Y’alright.”  Not "Y'alright?" as in "Are you okay?", but "Y'alright" as a statement of fact.  The meaning seems to encompass “That's okay", "No problem", and "You're welcome."

Apparently Australians count the seasons differently from us, because the first of the month was also the beginning of spring.  Not that that meant much to me, because it felt just like late summer.  In the middle of the month it finally rained for the first time since I’ve been here.  Much as I love uninterrupted sunshine, I’m looking forward to the grass turning green and hopefully the city starting to look a bit prettier.

In news out of Japan, one of my Japanese acquaintances recently went to Canada to begin a month-long homestay in (of all places) Saskatoon!  Though it’s a fairly small city, and not one I know a lot about, I know it’ll provide her with a great immersion experience, and do a lot to improve her English.

In the news this month, protests are taking place all over the world, including Australia, because of a video on YouTube that makes fun of the prophet Mohammed.  The protesters have called for the video to be removed and the maker prosecuted or even executed for breaking Muslim law and inciting hatred against Muslims.  Wanting to see for myself what all the fuss was about, I duly went on YouTube and watched the video.  Is it obnoxious?  Sure.  If I were a Muslim, would I be offended by it?  Definitely.  Does it promote hatred against Muslims?  Absolutely not.  It makes fun of Mohammed, but in no way advocates violence against his followers.  And it violates Muslim law by showing its prophet’s face.  So what?

Dear protesters: Cheap YouTube videos do not encourage hatred of Muslims.  Muslims who protest cheap YouTube videos encourage hatred of Muslims.  The way to prove that you are peaceful is not to commit acts of violence; the way to promote tolerance is not to outlaw opposition; and calling for someone’s death is no way to win em over to your side.  And I sincerely hope that the offending video never ever gets taken down.  It’s called free speech.  Deal with it.

Books I’ve read this month:

The Shack by William Paul Young – Modern-day fable about a grieving father’s weekend in the woods with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Never having dealt with bereavement myself, I find it hard for say whether I find this tale of forgiveness and reconciliation plausible, but I appreciate the down-to-earth tone and agree with most of the author’s thoughts on man’s relationship with God.

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin – More than a decade ago, I started watching a new T.V. show that blew my mind.  I’d heard lots of good things about it, and knew that it had received much critical acclaim, but until I saw it, I couldn’t understand how special it really was.  For the first time I was watching a show that didn’t treat its audience like children; that explored moral grey areas without being pedantic; that made loathsome characters loveable without trying to mitigate their crimes.  That show was The Sopranos, and I still consider it the best series I’ve even seen.

I felt the same kind of awe reading the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire: this is high fantasy for adults.  Despite owing a lot to the high fantasy genre, including the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, it tells a very different kind of story.  While it’s technically a fantasy, the fantastic elements are so restrained that it feels more like historical fiction.  Instead of Free Peoples battling an Army of Darkness, it has morally complex humans in conflict with other morally complex humans.  And while some of the principal characters are key players, they also include the helpless, the marginalised, and the victims who can only watch the horrific events unfold.

The writing is extremely disciplined: each chapter is told from the perspective of a single character, and Martin never doubles back and replays events from a different perspective.  The style is competent, though geared more towards readability than poetics.  The chapters are numerous but short, and since each one advances the plot a tiny bit, there’s little opportunity to get bored.  Martin also rotates between the different perspectives often enough that by the time I’ve started to miss one character it’s usually time for eir re-appearance.

This is the book I wish I’d written: a morally complex story with a diverse cast of characters and the perfect balance of cynicism and idealism.  I could never write a book like this though.  I’m just glad somebody did!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Not in Kansas Anymore – August 2012


“G’day!  Welcome to Brisbane.”

So says the sign over the gangway as I disembark from my overnight flight and take my first steps on Australian soil.  Aussies clearly aren’t shy about conforming to their own stereotypes.

Having been led to expect some of the most rigorous screening in the world, I’m surprised to be whisked through customs without a single search, X-ray, or body scan.  I’m also somewhat dismayed to find that having an electronic visa means I’m admitted without getting a piece of paper or even a stamp in my passport.  Sooo… I have a visa, I just don’t… have it.  This better not cause me problems later on.

I have only one acquaintance here, a buddy from my church in Hong Kong.  She’s generously invited me to come and stay while I find my feet, and I’m happy to have somewhere to go.  She meets me at Arrivals and drives me back to her place, where I get settled into her spare bedroom.


This is my first time ever in Australia, home to marsupials, Finding Nemo, and Peter Weir.  I’m a bit better informed about it than most foreigners.  I know the name of the prime minister (Julia Gillard), the capital (Canberra), and how to pronounce “Brisbane” (rhymes with “fizbin”).  With a bit of prompting I can even name all six states, two territories, and their capital cities.

All the same, I arrived here not knowing quite what to expect from the place.  Some of my earliest impressions of the continent came from A Town Like Alice: big, hot, dry, full of redneck cowboys and poisonous animals.  Over the years they continued to be informed by the media that trickled into North American society: the Chamberlain case gave us dingoes; Gallipoli gave us ANZAC; and Steve Irwin gave us crocodiles.  Then the Sydney Olympics happened, with its stylised representations of Australian history and its affirmation of Australian modernity.  There was also the Opera House, Ayers Rock (now preferentially knows as “Uluru”), and the Great Barrier Reef, and, of course, those Aborigines with their body paint, boomerangs, and didgeridoos.  In other words, my impressions were variegated and cartoony, and all over-laid with a general notion that Australia really isn’t that different from Canada.


So far my last guess doesn’t seem too far wrong.  In terms of day-to-day life, Australia is a bit like Japan (driving on the left); a bit like Canada (the spelling of “colour”, “centre”, and “grey”); and a bit different from both (the first floor is not the ground floor).  But most of the things that have taken me by surprise so far have involved not differences from my native land, but from my most recent country of residence.  When I arrived, I couldn’t get over how big everything was!  Imagine: four-lane highways with barely any traffic on them!  A two-story house for only two people!  A fridge as tall as I am!  Boxes of cereal that might last more than four days!  And 1 kilo tubs of yogurt!!!

Most of the changes are nice.  I’m thrilled by the novelty of actually being able to go up to the cashier in a store or stop someone on the street and talk to them!  I’m also amazed that the cash points here work 24/7 without charging for overtime, and that drivers will actually yield to pedestrians!  But I’m finding it hard to unlearn some of my Japanese habits; I have to restrain myself from bowing at everyone!

I’ve been coping with so much reverse culture shock that culture shock has barely stood a chance, but I have also noticed the odd peculiarity.  I embarrassed my Hong Kong buddy on my very first day by taking a picture of the grocery store shelf containing every form and size of Vegemite you could imagine!  I was even more shocked to learn that there is, in fact, such a thing as a Vegemite sandwich, and that it’s actually really tasty!  Other culinary discoveries I’ve made are that fish and chips shops are almost as common here as they are in England; Burger King is called “Hungry Jack’s”; and kangaroo is a popular meat, valued for its low fat content.

I was dumbfounded at the size of the money.  There’s a coin here that’s roughly the size of a quarter; you know how much it’s worth?  Ten cents!  The twenty is the size of a twoonie, and there may or may not be a fifty-cent coin that’s larger still!  The smallest coin is the five cent; Australia did away with pennies sometime before we did, though that doesn’t stop cashiers from ringing up your total and telling you that you owe $19.98.  (Am I going to get change from a $20??  No???  Then don’t tell me I owe 2¢ less than I do!!!)  Most baffling are the $2 coins, which for some reason are smaller than the $1 ones.


When debating the relative merits of Brisbane and Melbourne, the two came up about evenly, but in the end a number of small considerations tipped the balance in favour of Brisbane: it’s slightly closer, it’s slightly warmer, and it’s slightly cheaper.  It’s also the one major Australian city that didn’t make it into Bill Bryson’s book, so the only way I’ll ever learn about it is to discover it for myself!

My Hong Kong acquaintance and her husband have been helping me to find my bearings and showing me around.  They’ve taken me out to the Gold Coast (famous for its beautiful beaches and surfing) and Mt Tamborine (famous for its rainforest walks and cute cafés).  They’ve also helped me with practical matters, like figuring out the public transit system, opening a bank account, and shopping.

Between dropping off résumés, I’ve been exploring the down town a lot.  It’s an easy place to navigate: all the streets are named after people, with the female streets running one way and the male streets running perpendicular.  It’s most notable feature is ANZAC Square, where are commemorated Australia’s military loses in various conflicts, including (much to my surprise) Vietnam.  There’s also a botanical garden and several big old churches.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last two years living in a Japanese backwater, but Brisbane’s a lot cooler than I was expecting.  It’s not too big, and not too small either, the perfect size for someone who grew up in Ottawa.  It’s nice to be back in a city with beautiful buildings, be they historical, like the train station, or modern, like the library.  A lot of the city is waterfront, and the ferry service that runs up and down the river is a convenient and scenic way of getting around.  It reminds me a bit of Vancouver.

The best feature so far has been the weather.  August in the Southern Hemisphere is theoretically the dead of winter, but it feels much more like spring to me!  The days here see temperatures in the teens and low twenties, and are almost all sunny.  I’ve been here for almost a month now, and I haven’t seen it rain once!!  Combine that with the size of everything, the high prices, the general cleanliness, and the abundance of subtropical flora and I feel a bit like I’m living in Beverly Hills!


In my leisure time I’ve been enjoying the Olympics in London, which has put on a show to rival Australia’s own.  As my location has changed, the focus of the coverage has shifted from Japan to China and ended up on Australia.  I’ve gotten to know the green and gold team uniforms, and even the names of some Aussie athletes.  Needless to say, I have no idea what my compatriots have been up to.

I enjoyed both the opening and closing ceremonies, the former of which paid wonderful tribute to my favourite movie (a certain 1981 British flick featuring a lot of synthesised music but surprisingly few incandescent carriages), and the latter of which celebrated the country’s great musicians (my personal favourite part was seeing the Spice Girls reunited!)  I saw some of the rhythmic gymnastics.  I also watched the BMX racing, an entertaining new addition to the Olympic programme.  But the big focus, as always, was track.  In that category the big stars were Usain Bolt and his fellow Jamaicans, but the most impressive moment for me was when South Africa’s Caster Semenya came out of nowhere to steal silver in the women’s 800 m.

The Olympic spirit did not dissipate with the closing ceremonies, but remained strong through the succeeding Paralympic games.  This was my first year paying any attention to the Olympics’ younger sibling, thanks largely to the strong advertising push put behind it by the U.K.  Although I didn’t watch as much of it, I was very impressed by what I saw of the opening ceremonies.  I found time for some of the swimming and running.  And I feel I can say with some conviction that wheelchair basketball is a lot more fun to watch than the regular kind.


In the news this month, Australia has decided to re-open the Nauru refugee detention centre.  Opened under John Howard in 2001 and closed by Kevin Rudd in 2007, the centre is a dumping ground for refugees, who are kept in off-shore camps rather than being allowed to stay in Australia while their claims are being processed.  The fact that this controversial policy has been re-instated under the same party that saw it dismantled has made some noise in the international community, and quite a bit in the country itself.  It’s been interesting to see the Australian perspective on this change, which seems to be almost as unpopular here as elsewhere.

Also in the news, American cyclist Lance Armstrong has been found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs and stripped of his Tour de France titles.  I don’t pay any attention to cycling, but even I know that Lance Armstrong is a hero to a lot of people, and I grieve for them.


Movies I’ve seen this month:

Bran Nue Dae – Weird, irreverent musical-comedy about an Aboriginal boy’s Odyssey through Western Australia.  It wasn’t always to my taste, but definitely interesting as my first ever Aborigine-made movie.  (Three stars)

The Sapphires – A much more accessible Aboriginal story about four cousins who travel to Vietnam to sing Motown.  Sweet, fluffy, and entertaining, it’s worth watching mostly for its insight into Aboriginal history and affirmation of Aboriginal identity.  (Three and a half stars)

Plays I’ve seen this month:

Henry V – Part of the local Shakespeare festival, this was surprisingly good quality for free theatre.  The costumes and sets were minimalist, but compensated for by the quality acting.  Prior to this I’d only seen the Kenneth Branagh movie version; seeing it performed live has improved my opinion of it.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Pilgrimages - July-August 2012


My tea lady came by to pick me up in the afternoon and took me to her place.  She had offered to let me spend my last few days in Sendai with her, and loath as I was to impose on her, I was also glad of the opportunity it would give me to spend a little more time with her and her family.  That evening she had a little dinner party for me and some of the other staff from my school, giving me an opportunity for some extra goodbyes.  The next day I went to a festival with her, where we helped make yakisoba (“fried noodles”) at one of the food stalls.  Then we went out to see some summer fireworks.

A few days later, she drove me downtown and I caught my bus to Fukushima.  I spent one day there, visiting my ALT buddy, then went on for my final trip to Tokyo.  I didn’t do much with my time there, other than meeting up with an acquaintance and running some errands.  But there was one thing I thought I should fit in.  Do you realise that I’ve been in Japan for two years, and never once seen Mt Fuji???

Well, now I have.  I took a bus out of the city to a place called Lake Kawaguchiko.  It wasn’t close enough for someone wanting to climb the mountain, and I didn’t have time or energy for that anyway.  But it was close enough for a good, if slightly cloud-covered, view of it.  I took a bus to the far side of the lake, took my photographs, and enjoyed a leisurely stroll back.  It was a nice area; if I ever get the chance, I should go back there.


I always assumed that if I got into the JET Programme, I would have to make a trip to Hong Kong at some point.  As it turned out, I spent two whole years without leaving the country once.  But my flight to Australia gave me the perfect opportunity for a stopover.  And so it was that I spent five days getting re-acquainted with the sights, sounds, smog, and – most of all – the smells of Hong Kong.


On another ALT’s recommendation, I’d booked a room at a hostel in Tsim Sha Tsui near the museums.  It was a nice place; I had a private room with my own television and en suite bathroom.  The bathroom was the one feature I’d been nervous about; in classic Hong Kong style, it was the compact kind where the entire room turns into a shower.  But it actually worked out surprisingly well, and the toilet paper did not get wet, as I’d assumed it would.


Having done most of the touristy activities on my last visit, I made my priority spending time with people.  As soon as I arrived, I called up my best buddy from when I’d lived there, and we arranged to meet for dinner.  We spent time together almost every day I was there.  Together we visited some of my favourite old haunts, such as Victoria Harbour, the Central Library, Victoria Park, and, of course, my old church.  Sadly, all my old acquaintances from there have moved on.  Such is the peril of living in the most cosmopolitan city in the world.


I also got in touch with a buddy of mine from university, and with my two favourite students from my old school.  My university buddy was nice enough to treat me to dinner in the Mid-Levels, so I paid the favour forward by treating my students to a meal each.  I was a bit nervous about reconnecting with them after so long away.  Four years is, after all, a very long time in the life of a teenager.  But it actually went really well.  They’re not much different from how I remember them, except perhaps a bit less gawky and shy.  And they didn’t seem to feel the least bit weird about seeing their old English teacher again.

I met one of them in T.S.T., and he took me to see 1881 Heritage, historically the Marine Police Headquarters, which had recently been turned into a hotel.  Built in the 1880s and renovated in the past five years, it’s a charming specimen of colonial-era architecture combined with modern design.  My favourite features were the historical time ball tower (used to signal the time to passing ships), and the mock schooner standing in the middle of the courtyard.


My other priority in Hong Kong was food!  As I mentioned before, I’ve sorely missed Hong Kong cha siu (barbecued pork).  So I made a point of having at least one really good cha siu meal.  My buddy and I also went out for yum cha (dim sum and tea), where I was able to have a cha siu bao (barbecued pork bun).  It was as good as I’d dreamed it would be!

I also had a couple of egg tarts, another Hong Kong specialty, and, of course, milk tea.  Sadly, I didn’t manage to make it to any dessert restaurants, interesting little places where you can have surprisingly tasty dishes made with such unlikely sounding ingredients as tofu, black sesame paste, lotus seeds, and sago.


During the small amount of time I spent alone, I visited the Science Museum.  As I remembered, the museum’s permanent exhibit is skippable, but it often has excellent special exhibits.  Such was the case with “Creatures of the Abyss”, an exposé of deep-sea ocean life that came all the way from… Canada!  I had a blast inspecting the model of the colossal squid, experiencing simulated underwater conditions, and learning what happens to whales when they die.  I would have liked to visit the history museum, too, but the one day I had free was the day it was closed.


I took advantage of Hong Kong’s ridiculously cheap postal service to mail home some last-minute souvenirs I’d been given.  I also took advantage of a visit to North Point to visit my old hairdresser’s for an excellent haircut!  I visited the bank to see if my old account was still active, but learned that the small amount of money I’d left in it had been eaten up in bank fees years ago.

At the suggestion of my students, I went back to my old school to see if anyone I knew was there.  I’d forgotten that in Hong Kong, unlike Japan, summer break is a break for the teachers, not just the students.  So there was no one there who remembered me.  I did go in and take a walk around for old times’ sake.


For the sake of nostalgia it was nice to be in the city again, although if anything its biggest effect was to remind me of why I’d never want to live there.  Yes, it has some of the tallest buildings in the world.  Yes, the harbour’s beautiful, especially at night.  Yes, the MTR (“Mass Transit Railway”) system is awesome.  Yes, there’s great local cuisine, as well as every kind of foreign food to choose from.  And yes, everything (except housing) is cheap.

But the city is also crowded and humid and dirty.  It’s home to the most distinctive – and repulsive – smells I’ve ever encountered.  The pollution is so thick you can see it, and every evening you come home with a patina of smog stuck to your skin.  And the economic inequality is massive.  While it might seem cheap to someone earning a foreigner’s salary, it’s hard going if you’re living on the pitiful wages of the working class.

So instead I think I’ll treasure my memories, and seek out good Cantonese restaurants!


Books I’ve read this week:

Sabriel by Garth Nix – Fantasy novel about a young girl and her burgeoning career as a necromancer.  Definitely an interesting story with some engaging characters (I’m especially fond of the cat!), it still frustrates by leaving a lot of stuff vague and unexplained.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum – You can guess why I bought this book.  It’s a question I’d asked myself many times in the past, and I wanted to learn the answer.  What is it?  Read the darn book yourself!  It provides an enlightening view of race relations in the United States as seen through the eyes of black people, and I was fascinated to learn about the perspective.  Unfortunately, I found the book less helpful when it came to white people and the steps they can take to combat racism.  Speaking as a white person, I often feel we talk about racism too much not too little.  Certainly I don’t think it made me a more socially intelligent person that the earliest information I got about black people was, “These people used to be oppressed.  Be a good girl and don’t oppress them!”

Friday, April 12, 2013

’Cause Our Time Is Short - July 2012

“Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting…”
  - The Lord of the Rings, Book 2, “Farewell to Lórien”


I came to Japan with many motives and many plans.  I wanted to gain job experience and self-reliance.  I wanted to expose myself to a new culture, and learn a new language.  I wanted to experience “real life”.  Most of all, I wanted the adventure of throwing myself into a foreign country and learning to swim it.

In the two years since, I’ve had wonderful and unique experiences I probably never would have had otherwise.  I learned to like miso soup, dislike natto, and make okonomiyaki.  I went to a hot spring, honed my karaoke skills, and got a yukata.  I absorbed enough Japanese to have a simple conversation.  I lived through an earthquake, played Dungeons & Dragons, and lost my heart to a brony.

And now comes the hard part.

I spent Canada Day writing the J.L.P.T. (Japanese Language Proficiency Test).  The test is the standard measure of Japanese language skill.  Most people take it because they need the credentials for school or work.  I took it for interest; after two years in Japan, I wanted to see what kind of level my Japanese was at.  I did the easiest of the five levels, figuring it would be more satisfying to do well at an easy test than badly at a hard one.  I think the level was suitable for me.  Most of the questions were within my capability, but I took longer to do them than the allotted time allowed for.  The listening section was easy, as were the reading questions.  The grammar was a lot harder, though, and I didn’t finish the vocabulary section.  Over all I predict a low pass or a high fail as my result, but I’ll have to wait for months to find out.

Early in the month we had our last monthly meeting and official leaving ceremony.  We listened to some speeches in Japanese (most of which I still didn’t understand), made some short speeches of our own (I kept mine simple), and received our certificates of participation and a souvenir shopping bag from the City of Sendai.  In the evening we had our Leavers’ Party, which was the last official chance for all the ALTs to hang out together.

The following day was my school’s annual “Chorus Contest”, which featured a surprise performer: me!  I was as surprised as anyone; the idea actually came from the parent I was teaching swing dancing to, and she didn’t have a chance to explain it until the day of the contest.  She invited me to join her and some of the other parents in singing a Japanese song called “Wa ni Natte Odorou” (“Let’s Dance in a Circle”).  Then, half way through the song, she and I broke off from the group and I started leading her in a dance!  Right there, on stage, in front of all my students and teachers!  I was very nervous about the whole thing, especially since I didn’t know the words to the song and hadn’t danced for several months.  But it was a good memory to take away with me, and my students had nice things to say afterwards.

One of my elementary schools did special activities for my last visit.  These were similar to what we did back in February, though on a smaller scale.  Once class asked me questions, two did a dance, one gave me a recorder performance and a box of paper cranes, and one class almost brought me to tears singing a Japanese pop song called “Arigatou” (“Thank You”).  Nothing special happened at the other school except that each class gave me a “thank you” card, and the volunteer translators each gave me a small Japanese souvenir.  They were only the first of many.

I meant to plan an awesome last lesson for all my junior high classes, but ended up being too busy.  Paradoxically, the emotional stress of leaving created a vicious circle of inactivity and anxiety where I procrastinated over everything, accomplished less, and thus had even more to stress about!  There were a couple of weeks there where I was barely holding it together, desperately trying to put on a brave face for my students and not to cast a shadow on anyone else.

In the end I resorted to an old favourite activity of mine that’s simple but fun.  Since I’d spent months opening each class by asking the students questions about themselves, I opened the last class by having them ask me questions, handing out Canadian stickers as prizes to those who did well.  Then I told them a bit about their next ALT, and made them practise writing by writing down questions for him.  I hope they remember to ask them when he arrives!

I know little about my successor, but what I do know I’m thrilled about.  The last four ALTs at my school have all been female and my predecessor was from the United States.  So I requested a male from outside North America, and they gave me an Irish guy!  I bet everyone’s going to struggle to work their way around his accent, but hopefully it will help them improve their listening skills.  And my hope is that a man will be able to bond and interact with the students in ways that I didn’t.

All of the classes gave me goodbye cards, even the second-years!  I will especially treasure the ones from the first-years.  At the end of class I told them, in all sincerity, that they were wonderful, that they were the best group of students I’d ever worked with, and that I would miss them all.  I hope they’re just as enthusiastic for the new ALT.

The pre-break assembly included a little goodbye ceremony for me, where I received flowers and other gifts.  I wrote and delivered a goodbye speech in Japanese.  I hope I didn’t make too many mistakes, and that the students understood my pronunciation!  I also attended my last work party, which was partly a goodbye for me, though not exclusively held in my honour.  There I received yet more presents, for which I gave a thank you speech, this time in English.

My church also had a special farewell lunch for me.  The English teacher organised a “maru/batsu” (“true/false”) quiz about me, with the congregants guessing and me supplying the correct answers.  Two of the girls presented me with drawings of myself; the pastor’s wife gave me a framed calligraphy of one of my favourite Bible verses in Japanese; and everyone collaborated to make a video of goodbye wishes.  I gave a speech telling them how great they had all been and how much I was going to miss them, and then we took loads of pictures together.  It was sweet and sad, but there was a silver lining: lots of hugs!

At my last Dungeons & Dragons encounter, the Dungeon Master made me a gift of the dwarf figurine I’d been playing with.  With that and my character sheet, I can take the character anywhere in the world and use her if I ever want to play D&D again.  Other players gave me gifts which I think correspond to spells or powers or something.  It was nice of them, anyway.

You know what fiction cliché I’ve never understood?  The Surprise Birthday Party.  How can you possibly surprise someone with a birthday party on their birthday???  Are they so absent-minded they forget their own birthday?  When you say to them, “Hey, let’s do something on [the day that just happens to be their birthday]!”, does it not occur to them that you have something celebratory in mind?  The whole thing seems absurd.

For my birthday this year (to change the subject entirely) I planned to do nothing special.  I was far too busy for extra socialising, and so stressed I wouldn’t have been good company anyway.  I didn’t mention it to anyone, and those who already knew about it seemed implicitly to understand.  I spent the morning running errands at the post office, the bank, and my local ward office.  I’d taken the morning off, not planning to get to school till after 1:00, but one of the teachers called asking me to come in for the lunch hour.  Anxious as always to oblige, I was dismayed at 11:30 to find that I’d just missed the bus, and that there wouldn’t be another one that could get me to school for more than an hour.  So I did the only other thing left to me in that situation: I walked.  Forty minutes, up hill, in the blazing summer heat, with all my unfinished tasks still weighing on my mind, just so I could satisfy some teacher’s flight of whimsy.  Half way there, I reflected wryly that this was the oddest, least-festive birthday I’d ever had…

…and suddenly wondered why my co-worker wanted me at school early…

So when I finally did get to school, sweaty and tired and feeling dreadfully unprofessional, I had an inkling of what was likely to happen.  And when my co-workers brought out the birthday cake (for me!) and started singing “Happy Birthday” (to me!), it wasn’t a complete surprise.  But it nearly was.  So yes, despite my scepticism, despite the fact that I never thought it could possibly happen, this year I had my very own Surprise Birthday Party.  Some of the teachers gave me cards and souvenirs, and the second-year English teacher wished me well and played his guitar for me.  I cried.

At the end of the month I finished cleaning my apartment, gathered my bags together, threw out the last of my rubbish, and mailed the last of my boxes.  Then my head teacher and accountant came by to officially check me out.  When everything was done, my head teacher gave me a hug and they drove off.  And thus officially ended my life in Japan.

Final thoughts…

Things I’ll miss:
- Bumps on the sidewalk to assist blind people: I’ve mentioned these before, and though I have no need of them myself, I think they’re great!
- Free tissues: How do Japanese advertisers make sure you take the flyers they’re handing out?  They attach them to packets of facial tissues.  Nobody needs more scraps of paper, but everyone needs to blow their nose!  I didn’t have to buy tissues once when I was in Japan!
- Red miso: I used to rather dislike miso soup.  Then I discovered two things.  1) Miso soup is usually made with fish stock.  Leave the fish stock out for much less fishy tasting soup!  2) Miso soup in North America is made with white miso, which has a mild and uninteresting flavour.  Red miso is a lot more flavourful and tastes ten times better!  I’ve grown to really enjoy a good bowl of homemade miso soup with tofu, seaweed, and no fish flavour, and I’ve also enjoyed red miso used in other recipes.  I’m going to be really sad if I can’t find it when I get home.  I may have to get some shipped to me!

- The counters in the supermarkets for packing groceries: I always find it impossible when I bring my own shopping bag to bag all of my groceries and pay for them in the short time it takes the cashier to process the transaction.  In Sendai, you don’t have to bag your groceries at the cash: you put them back in your shopping cart, wheel them to special counters, and bag them at your leisure!
- Cheap D.V.D. rentals: Maybe if North American video stores rented D.V.D.s at 50¢-$2 a disc (instead of $5+) , they wouldn’t be going out of business.  All I know is that I watched a lot more legally rented film and T.V. here than I do in Canada!
- Cash society: Here’s a whacky idea: if you want me to pay for something, how about you don’t ask for a bank card?  How about you don’t make me write a cheque, or reveal my credit card number over your questionably-secure phone lines.  How about you let me pay you the old-fashioned way, with, you know, cash!  Like, pieces of paper and metal with a pre-assigned value!  I was consistently amazed in Japan by how many places would accept physical money where North American businesses would have insisted on plastic.  It was done in sensible situations, like accepting cash-on-delivery for online purchases.  (Are you listening, Amazon Canada?  This is how you get my business!)  It was even done in situations where there was a risk to the merchant: I never had to provide credit card details to secure a hostel reservation; I paid when I arrived!  I’m going to miss things like that bitterly when I’m back in less civilised countries.
- Karaoke: As you may already know, Japanese karaoke is different from the kind normally done in North America.  In the west it’s usually only found in bars and clubs, with a single person standing at the front and serenading the other patrons to their delight, amusement, or – most commonly – annoyance.  In Japan, karaoke is sung in a private room with a bunch of friends.  The emphasis is on the communal aspect of singing, not on the quality of the singers’ voices.  It’s a lot less embarrassing and a lot more fun!

Things I won’t miss:
- No express lines in supermarkets: The downside to Japanese grocery stores is that there are no special lines for customers buying twelve items and fewer.  Everyone, whether they have a shopping cart full of stuff or a litre of milk, lines up the same way.
- The humidity: When you’re not doing anything more strenuous than sitting down and your clothes are still soaked with sweat at the end of the day, you know it’s too humid!

- Two-hole punches: They make the paper sit less stably and rip more easily, and they’re difficult to align.  We really need to bring three-hole punches to the rest of the world!
- Bread: The Japanese seem to have only the vaguest idea of what bread is supposed to be.  You might be able to find a loaf of white, but rye? sour dough? whole wheat?  Forget it!  Most of the bread has sugar in it, and a lot of it has… other things.  Like cheese.  Or chocolate.  Or red beans paste.
- Smoking: I’m told the rules are getting tougher, but you can still smoke a lot more places in Japan than you can in Canada.  Be prepared to come home from the bar smelling like you’ve spent a month living on the street.  Also, be prepared to seek out the non-smoking section of restaurants.  And internet cafés.
- No central heating: I’ve no doubt that someone who’s actually spent a winter living in a cardboard box would tell me differently, but in the winter time my apartment walls felt like so much paper between me and the cold, and if I wasn’t sitting under my kotatsu, lying in bed, or taking a hot shower, I was shivering in my sweaters and thermal underwear.
- Expensive public transport: The average trip in Sendai costs $2.  And if, as my journey from school to the Education Center did, your route causes you to travel by bus, train, subway, and bus again, you have to pay for each of those trips separately.  That’s right, $8.  One way.  Good thing we got our transport supplemented!
- Expensive sunscreen: A newbie once asked me where the best place to buy sunscreen was.  “Your home country,” I replied.  Unless you want to pay 20¢/mL for it.
- Expensive peanut butter: I counted myself lucky when I found 340 g jars on sale for $4, but I still wanted to yell at someone, “Do you know that in my country I buy this for $3 a kilogram?!!!”
- No daylight savings: What’s to be gained by having sunrise at 4:30 a.m., I do not know.  I mean, it gets hot quickly enough as it is; could we not enjoy a little early-morning coolness on our commute to work?  And what’s the harm in having a little extra sunlight in the evenings?  You know, when we might actually appreciate it???

Things I learned:
1) Japanese hair colour does not come in nearly as many varieties as Japanese people like to imagine.
2) Japanese people believe that anything can be eaten with chopsticks.  Spaghetti, pea soup, yogurt, anything.
3) Quick and Dirty Tips for Speaking Japanese:
a) Pronunciation – You know how when you gave oral presentations in school, you were encouraged to move your lips and e-nun-ci-ate clear-ly?  Don’t do that.  In Japanese, the trick is to move your mouth as little as possible.  Learn how to say a “W” without rounding your lips, and an “F” without using your teeth.  When you’ve gotten to the point when lip-reading is impossible, you’ve probably mastered the language!
b) Syntax – Word order is commonly flipped around from what it is in English.  When constructing a sentence, if you think of it as English said backwards, you’re half-way there.  If you think of it as French said backwards, you’re three-quarters of the way there!
c) Grammar – Remember in high school when they taught you how to write a proper sentence?  Drilled you about nouns and verbs, articles and prepositions, and where to use them?  Yeah… forget all that.  If you want to understand Japanese grammar, think instead of the language you’d use to write headlines or jot notes.  Subject?  Guess!  Verbs?  Who needs them?!  Articles?  What are they???  It’s all about economy.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

The Amazing Spiderman – I was pretty sceptical when I heard this movie was in production.  Didn’t they just finish making a Spiderman trilogy???  But I was actually really impressed with it.  To be fair, I’d never seen any of the Tobey Maguire films, and in a way, I’m glad.  Without them as a base of comparison, I will say that the story was reasonably interesting, the hero was engagingly likeable, the heroine was surprisingly useful, and the villain was refreshingly sympathetic.  I didn’t know any of the actors (except for Martin Sheen and Sally Field as the obligatorily venerable old folks) but I thought they all did a good job.  This is also the first 3D film I’ve seen where the effect actually felt worthwhile.  I’m not saying it wouldn’t have been good in 2D, but swinging through buildings that look like they’re coming right at you is genuinely fun!  (Three and a half stars)

Swing Girls – Second-rate Japanese movie about a group of schoolgirls who decide to start their own swing band.  Sometimes cute, with some quintessentially Japanese moments, but also cheesy and annoying in places.  (Two and a half stars)

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – Um, this movie’s, like, really weird, but… it’s also kind of cool.  Like, the plot’s kind of stupid and, the hero is really, annoying.  But the fight sequences are, like really inventive and the humour is all… self-referential.  Or something.  Like… it doesn’t make sense, but it’s like, not trying to make sense.  Which is cool, you know?  (Three and a half stars)

Akira – Quite possibly the most famous animated Japanese movie of all time, and I’ve finally seen it!  Now if only I understood it…  (Three stars)

The Dark Knight Rises – Remember The Dark Knight?  Remember how awesome it was, with its intelligent storyline, interesting heroes, intriguing villains, and gripping action?  Remember how it was the superhero movie that was going to change superhero movies forever?  I suppose the sequel always had a lot to live up to, and though I went into it with high expectations, I also knew that it might well be disappointing.  What I didn’t expect was for it to be so – there really is no other word for it – boring!  Much as I wanted to care about this new story and the people involved, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt spends the entire film being set up to play a major character, without ever actually getting there.  Anne Hathaway’s character is arguably the most entertaining and fun, but feels utterly out of place in this bleak, sombre universe.  The returnees seem to have lost all enthusiasm for their parts.  And the villain is just irritating!  Whether it’s that that makes the plot-holes so hard for me to excuse, or the fact that there are so many of them, I don’t know, but the story made little sense to me.  Even the action sequences didn’t capture my interest!  All in all, it was three hours of my life I will never get back, and I resent Christopher Nolan for putting me through it.  Especially when I know he can do so much better.  (Two and a half stars)

Books I’ve read this month:

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien – I re-read The Lord of the Rings last year, yet somehow didn’t get around to this one.  Figured I’d better do it one more time before Peter Jackson goes and ruins – er – "adapts” it.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe – Not what I was expecting, this novel focuses mainly on the life and times of a wealthy African man, with the invading white colonisers only appearing in the last third of the book.  The meandering plot is more an exposé of life in tribal Africa than a unified story. But perhaps it makes sense given the novel's ending.

Fullmetal Alchemist (Volumes 1-3) by Arakawa Hiromu – I watched parts of the anime in university, and remember it as one of the few that didn’t completely suck.  So when I found English translations of the first three volumes at a used book store, I thought they’d be worth buying.  This was my first manga-reading experience, and I quite enjoyed it.  I’d love to get the rest of the series some time.  Not at $13 a volume, though.

Smashing Saxons by Terry Deary – Part of the Horrible Histories series, which presents history in a humorous format.  It was an interesting read, but I probably would have gotten more out of it had I been familiar with the dry version of Saxon history before hand.

Death Masks by Jim Butcher – My favourite “Dresden Files” book so far!  The story is typically silly, but at least the plot mostly holds together, and I enjoyed the new characters we’re introduced to.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

…And Still I Haven’t a Clue - June 2012


Ten years ago, my life as I knew it ended.  I lost almost everyone I cared about.  I lost the place that had been my second home for five years.  I lost work, play, and society.  I no longer had the right to free education; getting a job became an expectation rather than a suggestion; and learning became a means rather than an end.

Ten years ago, I graduated high school.

In the years since, I’ve gotten a university degree.  I’ve worked at a dozen different jobs, travelled abroad, and learned how to live on my own.  I’ve made acquaintances from all over the world and even a couple of friends.  In the last year or so I’ve even begun to think of myself as an adult.  I can look back at my teenaged self and see how limited my understanding was, and how many mistakes I made.  Yet, in many ways, I’m not that far removed from the the depressed, lonely, Hamlet-reading, Marvin-quoting kid I used to be.  I’m still not sure what to do with my life.  All I’ve ever wanted was a nice home, a loving family, and some form of employment that was both gainful and meaningful; yet somehow I find myself perennially hopping from country to country, like an inverse George Bailey.  I never learned to do things that most people take for granted, like drink, date, or dress stylishly; nor did I pick up the knack all adults seem to have of forming relationships easily and dropping them just as blithely.  And if I had to go back to grade thirteen and do it all over again, I’m not sure I wouldn’t make all the same mistakes.  It’s ten years later…

Okay, maybe I have a few clues, but it’s still not easy.


I got to see more of this spring’s sports competitions than any of the previous events.  On Saturday I was lucky enough that the volleyball was being held at my school.  I watched my team beat another in a nail-biting match, and cheered my lungs out as they faced their next competitor.  Sadly, it was not to be, and despite putting on a really good game, they were squarely defeated.  On Sunday I attended the baseball semi-finals.  This was a lot less exciting, but my team did manage to win the game, meaning that they got to play the finals the next day.  I turned up on Monday prepared to show as much enthusiasm for my baseball boys as I had for my volleyball girls, but the game ended up being incredibly dull.  Neither team scored a single run until the end of the last inning, and when they finally did I was so relieved that I barely cared that it was the other team!  At least they cancelled class for the rest of the day, so I had an excuse to go home early.

To make up for our weekend of sport we got a holiday on Thursday and Friday, which allowed me one more short trip: a weekend in Yokohama with my tea lady!  We took the bus down to Tokyo on Friday, and spent the afternoon seeing the sights.  We went to the Skytree first, Tokyo’s new tallest building.  It had been under construction for a while, and visible on all of my previous visits to the city.  It was finally open, but tickets to go up it were already sold out for weeks to come, so we only got to see it from the bottom.  We also paid a visit to the Tokyo Tower (now dwarfed by the Skytree, at only half its height), Shinjuku, and Kappabashi-dori.  The latter is famed for its plastic food stores.  No, I don’t mean food that tastes like plastic, like those cheap waxy Easter eggs, tasteless hot dog wieners, or gosh-awful processed cheese slices.  I mean food made of plastic, usually displayed in restaurant windows.  I’ve been a fan of plastic food ever since I first encountered it in Hong Kong and spent months believing it was the real thing!  I would have loved to buy some as a souvenir of my time in Asia, but even something as simple as an ice-cream would have cost me around $40, so in the end I settled for a miniature okonomiyaki fridge magnet.

When you think about it, Yokohama is probably the first Japanese city I ever heard of, and the Great Buddha of Kamakura one of the first Japanese icons.  So I was quite chuffed to be making the city the location of my last Japanese holiday, and the statue the destination of my first excursion in that city.  My tea lady and I went out to see it on Saturday, and in spite of the rain we visited many of the surrounding temples, window shopped the souvenir stores, and got some decent pictures of the Buddha itself.  In the evening we went out to Yokohama’s Chinatown, famous for being the largest in Japan.  It was nice to be surrounded by Chinese things again, and the place really did remind me of Hong Kong, but I was still woefully disappointed by the barbecued pork bun I tried.  Why do the Japanese have to fail at making Chinese-style barbecued pork buns??!!

Other than that this month’s been mostly about routines and leaving preparations.  I’ve finally booked my flight, which means I now know when I’ll be leaving Japan and when arriving in Australia.  I’ve started to sort through my stuff, deciding which things to take, which to leave, which to send home, and which to put in the bin.  Meanwhile, I still have singing practice one night a week, and Dungeons & Dragons another night.  I’m paying weekly visits to all the first- and third-year classes and to my elementary schools, and eating lunch with my students five days a week.  It’s busy and stressful, and as I enter my final month, it’s only going to get more so.


In the news this month, an especially gruesome story has been added to Canada’s surprisingly long list of grisly murders.  It started back in May, when the Conservative Party of Canada received a package containing a human foot.  Yes, that’s right, a foot!  This was followed by three more packages (addressed to the Liberal Party and two schools in Vancouver), a human torso in a suitcase, an apartment full of blood, an internet snuff video, and an international manhunt that ended with the arrest of the killer in Germany.  This is a level of disturbing that I don’t really think the words “WTF???” are adequate to deal with, so I’ll just say that I’m glad I’m not the person who opened any of those packages.  Or, obviously, the victim.

In other news, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury has died.  I know him as the author of Fahrenheit 451 and numerous short stories, and though far from an expert on him, I enjoyed and respected his work.  In Japan, the last fugitive members of Aum Shrinrikyo have finally been captured.  Aum (which is actually the Sanskrit word “om”, pronounced “ōmu” in Japanese) was the organisation that released Sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system in 1995; the arrests mean the end of a seventeen-year manhunt.  And in Australia, an inquest has definitively ruled that the 1980 death of Lindy Chamberlain’s baby was the result of a dingo attack, and not because of her or any other human’s interference.  I know nothing about this case other than what was in the movie A Cry in the Dark, but I gather it’s a big deal in Australia and that people there are glad to have this issue resolved.


Movies I’ve seen this month:

Rajio no Jikan – Clever Japanese comedy about the production of a radio drama and the impromptu revisions that get made in the process of airing it.  Full of bright humour and sharp satire, this is one movie that any fan of films about the media has to watch!  (Three and a half stars)

Books I’ve read this month:

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin – My first time re-reading this book since I was a child.  I had mixed feelings about it back then, and I’m still not sure what I think of it.  I respect the ways in which it deviates from standard fantasy motifs, but, while I enjoy some of the more horrifying elements, it seemed unnecessarily dark.  Oddly, I thought I understood the story, but now I’m not so sure, and I came away from my second reading even more confused than I went into it.  Might be a good idea to re-read the rest of the trilogy and check out the other Earthsea books too.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman – My first Neil Gaiman book, a kind of modern fairy tale about the intersection of Faerie and Victorian-era England.  Not an outstanding work of fantasy, but entertaining and good enough to make me consider reading more of Gaiman.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle – That’s right, I read it again!  It’s that good!  And it’s going on my list of favourite books of all time!