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.