Friday, January 11, 2013

Not Nearly as Interesting as Last March - March 2012

The past seven months have been a continuous déjà vu for me.  Novel experiences from my first year in Japan have, on the reliving, become familiar, better, or less interesting.  Every event in the school calendar is greeted with recognition: Ah!  It’s School Festival time again!  Can I attend any of the sporting events this time?  How am I going to spend this Christmas?  What?  You mean I have to do something for the skills-development conference this year?  So, of course, as we progress through the month of March I keep looking back to the previous one for cues on what to expect.  And about half-way through the month the system breaks down as I try to remember the last two weeks of the school year.

That’s funny, I think.  What happened at graduation last year?  Why can’t I remember the end-of-year party?  And what did I do for the last two weeks of class?  And then it comes back to me: Rice balls.  Sleeping on the floor.  Quiet desperation.  Earthquake.

My brain, seduced by the routine, finds itself anticipating disaster: looking forward to power-outages and emergency rations with the same inevitability as staff shuffles and spring break.  I wonder how my co-workers can avoid this trap, but then this is only my second year in Japan; everyone else is used to routines that don’t involve earthquakes.  The Friday before graduation I half expected an earthquake to happen, but 3:00 came and went and the ground stayed put.  And so I had yet another first-time experience in Japan: the experience of a normal March.

We had a lot of parties this March.  There was one for the “fourth year” teachers that was held at a miso-themed restaurant.  It made me appreciate how much I’ve grown to like miso during my time here, and how much I’m going to miss it.  We had another one the night of the graduation ceremony, and my tea lady organised one for some of her teacher friends.  We had karaoke again after that one.  I tried my vocal chords at “Ue o Muite Arukou” (a famous Japanese song known inexplicably to the English-speaking world as “Sukiyaki”), and freaked everybody out by screaming in the middle of the second verse of “Comfortably Numb” (What???  It was right there in the lyrics!!!)

I also met up a couple of times with the Australian ALT who’d been here last year.  She came back to Sendai to visit friends and participate in the earthquake anniversary observances.  Surprisingly, these weren’t nearly as big a deal in Sendai as I would have expected.  Perhaps it’s partly because I don’t speak the language, but it didn’t seem to me that the people around me were planning on doing nearly as much commemorating as one would have expected.  When I asked my co-workers they talked about staying home or maybe doing some shopping.  It seemed odd to me that people from Japan – i.e. those I’d expected to take the earthquake anniversary most seriously – seemed least interested in observing it.  Perhaps Japanese people just deal with things differently from Americans.

There were commemorative events happening, however, and I was sure to go to them.  On Sunday, March 11, a memorial service was held at the International Center.  It was attended by the mayor, the prime minister (the new one, not the one who’d been in office when the disaster happened), the emperor, and his wife.  It was all in Japanese, of course, which made me feel a bit excluded; still, I was glad to be there, and when we observed the moment of silence, I hoped that I was engaged in a process of collective grieving that transcended language and nationality.

Students in schools around Sendai made banners with messages of encouragement on them.  After the memorial service we went for a walk in the arcade and looked at them.  One of the ALTs who’d left last year also published an essay about the experience.

There was also an event the weekend before the anniversary.  The Tohoku Kibō no Saiten (Celebration of Hope) was a worship event featuring gospel artists from different countries and American evangelist Franklin Graham.  The event ran for three days, but I only made it to one of them.  I enjoyed some of the music.  The line-up included Tsutomu Aragaki, whom I knew of through my second-year textbook.  I quite enjoyed his singing, as well as Alfie Silas, the Tommy Cooms band, and 3rd Wave, a Korean group who sang in English and actually didn’t butcher the language!

I was less impressed with the sermon.  I’d heard Franklin Graham’s father Billy Graham speak in Ottawa back when I was in high school.  I seem to remember that I liked him at the time, though I was much younger and the situation was very different.  At any rate, Franklin Graham’s sermon was not what I was expecting.  It wasn’t subtle, or sensitive, or even particularly interesting.  It was one long alter call, relying heavily on repetition and shouting, and leaving very little room for genuine persuasion or argument.  The earthquake itself, supposedly the reason for the event, only came up once in the sermon – when he warned that anyone who left the stadium unsaved because of timidity or reluctance could have their lives snuffed out as quickly as the tsunami victims did, and lose their chance at salvation.  I was reminded inescapably of the “Death Comes Unexpectedly!!!” sermon in Pollyanna, and expected it to be equally effective.  For a long time it looked like no one was going to respond to the call, but eventually people started coming forward in a trickle, and then a rush.  Which I guess was a good thing, otherwise Mr Graham would have looked pretty silly.  For my part, I went away feeling disappointed and not a little insulted.

I decided to eat normally for Lent this year, instead forgoing entertainment for seven weeks.  I’ve given up some of my favourite web sites, which have of late been making too many demands on my time, as well as all movie and music rentals, purchases, and downloads.  Not books, though!  I thought it would be a big sacrifice, but I’m actually coping pretty well, and pleased that I now have more time for other things.

I didn’t do anything special with my graduating students.  One of the third-year classes, my favourite, gave me a “thank you” card, which was unexpected and sweet.  The five students who had written replies to the Canadian children I gifted with the Canadians’ original letters.  The rest I’ll probably have to leave with my supervisor when I go.  One of the girls actually got a reply from Canada!  I didn’t get a chance to see it, but it’s nice to know that some meaningful communication was able to happen between children on opposite sides of the world.

The graduation was much as I remembered, except that this year it ran as scheduled.  Also, the female teachers of the graduating classes all showed up wearing kimonos!  This is apparently an annual tradition, but it was a shock to me, as they’d forgone the practice at the austerity ceremony.

The end of the school year has brought one more change: staff shuffles.  These were announced on the last day of school before spring break.  There are actually very few teachers leaving my school this year.  We’re losing our principal, but all of the English teachers are staying.  I knew a lot of that already, as teachers are told in advance whether they’ll be changing schools.  But there’s one group of people who aren’t told in advance, who have to wait for the very end of the year to learn where they will be in April: the support staff.  And as it turned out my accountant was staying, my nurse was staying, but my favourite person on the entire staff was leaving us.  That’s right: my tea lady.  My wonderful wonderful tea lady, who’s been my mother and aunt and big sister, my friend and tour-guide and teacher for as long as I’ve been in Japan.  I’m devastated.  I can’t imagine what the school’s going to be like without her.  True, we’ll probably keep in touch; true, I’ll have lot’s of chances to see her again.  But it won’t be the same.

I’m particularly annoyed that she’s being transferred to an elementary school.  At a junior high school she’d at least have an ALT, but at an elementary school the best she can hope for is one to visit once a week.  If she was getting a new ALT at least I could be philosophical about it and comfort myself with the knowledge that someone else could benefit from knowing her.  In my opinion, anyone so friendly, so helpful, and so skilled in the art of gaijin-go* is really wasted on a school with no foreigners.  Unfortunately, there’s nothing at all I can do about it.

In the news this month, Mexico had an earthquake.  This caused me some brief concern, as my sister is currently visiting the country, but she’s fine.  The Canadian government is enacting new “tough on crime” legislation.  The legislation involves things like tougher mandatory minimums for some crimes.  I’ve been listening to some of the debate around it, and it sounds like it has the same problem as a lot of similar legislation: it isn’t so much “tough on crime” as “tough on criminals”.  Which seems like a pretty poor substitute, if you ask me.  Dear Mr Harper, if I am ever the victim of a crime I expect it might give me a modicum of comfort to know that the perpetrator will serve ten years rather than five, but you know what I would find a thousand times more comforting?  Not being the victim of a crime in the first place!!!  With that in mind, how about you take the money you want to spend incarcerating prisoners for longer, and instead spend it on measures to reduce crime?  It may not sound as exciting, but I think we’ll all be happier in the long run!

Books I’ve read this month:

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher – I had the same problems with the third “Dresden Files” book as I did with the second.  I like Michael, the new character we’re introduced to, and I enjoy the mix of urban fantasy, medieval mythology, and film noir themes.  But I wish Butcher would let up on the violence a bit!

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson – A pedestrian, run-of-the-mill crime thriller, notable mostly for being quite long and taking a good while to get interesting.  I liked the title character and wished the book included more of her, but despite being a putative central character, she actually receives surprisingly little page-time.  The novel’s original Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women, gives a much more accurate picture of what the novel is about.

* “Gaijin-go”: A term I made up meaning “foreigner language” or “the way a foreigner talks”.  Basically, Japanese simplified for non Japanese-speakers.

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