Friday, January 14, 2005

I have been warned that I haven't posted in over a week. Gomen ne (sorry ok?). This was the first week back to school after fuyu yasumi (winter break). It was both good to be back at school and also difficult because the break was long enough that it felt like I had to gear up to be a beginner at the schools again. How easy it is to slip out of a routine, and to feel your confidence in speaking another language slip also, after only a two week break. Thankfully the transition wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be, though I have also got a sinus infection at the moment, and that has slowed me down. I can't hear very well out of my left ear. I went to the doctor after school on Wednesday and he told me it was due to allergies, which it's getting near to hayfever season here and I have bad allergies as it is, so he gave me a shot to deal with the pollens here, but he didn't give me any medicine to clear up the infection that was already there. I asked him why not repeatedly and he kept telling me the allergy shot would be enough, but three days later I still can't hear very well out of my left ear due to it being clogged up, and so all week I kept saying, "mo ikai" to the students and teachers, one more time, because I couldn't catch everything they were saying with only one ear working right.

On Thursday I returned to Numasato elementary school and even though I was sick and could only half hear what I and other people were saying, it was a lovely day. The first three classes were fourth graders. I made them interview each other like reporters using the English phrases they've learned with me so far this year, and write their classmates answers down on paper and report their findings to the rest of the class. They were very industrious and serious about this, which is both cute and unnerving. Only a couple of kids who just can't keep up with the rest of their classmates sat at their desks saying, "Sensei! Eigo o wakaranai!" Teacher, I don't understand English! So I spent most of the time doing interviews back and forth with them, and in fact they did understand English and could say their phrases they've learned, they just needed someone to sit down with them and prompt them a little bit. The last two classes of the day were third graders, and we were going over colors and numbers together, and the last game we played I would call out a color and they'd have to find something in the room that matched the color I said, and when I called out white they all rushed to me and swarmed in a circle, holding onto my legs and arms and several tickled my stomach. It was also very cute and unnerving. I've never encountered children so excitable and touchy feely as Japanese kids, or am I just out of touch with American children? I don't think I would have rushed a foreign teacher and tickled him or her when I was a kid. But maybe my vision of my childhood isn't very clear anymore. Maybe I would.

I like Numasato a lot. Each elementary school does its own thing. Takada gives me vegetables and fruit from the children's garden when I go to that school, Hatozaki kids sing me songs like "Stand By Me" and have learned how to play "Country Roads" on their recorders to play for me as a surprise when I visit. Numasato teachers feed me and feed me all sorts of Japanese treats, and keep me loaded up on coffee, which is of course necessary working with their kids. Ikenobe sensei, the vice principle of Numasato, talked quite a bit with me, so I had to get some of my rusty Japanese gears going again after the two week break.

I ran with the track and field team on Tuesday after school, but I was already starting to get sick, so I didn't run the rest of the week. I hate missing practice with them because some of those boys had little interest in English before I started running with them, and once I did they began to get better at English and take more interest in learning it in class, their teachers told me. One 7th grade boy runs beside me and says anything he can think of in English while we run, even if it doesn't necessarily add up to a conversation: "How's the weather?" he says, "It's cloudy. Oh look, it's Chris. How are you, Chris? Do you know me? I like running. Do you like ice cream? My favorite subject is science. English is difficult." In class today, we played a game and he was constantly raising his hand and giving me significant smiles, trying to please me with his answers. I am mote mote, according to Tadashi, very popular with the kids.

I have also hit another phase in the language acquisition process. I can feel these physically when they occur. I don't know how to describe them. The last time I had one was in November, which was a very draining month. I dreamed in Japanese and after a few weeks it stopped and I felt like a certain amount of the language I'd been struggling with had become internalized and slips easily off my tongue now. Now I'm having Japanese dreams again, and I have been studying a lot this past week in between teaching classes, so I can feel it coming to that point again. This is both good news and distressing, because it's always a sort of feverish process to assimilate whatever I've been struggling with. This used to happen when I was learning how to write stories in the beginning. I'd go a few months, then I'd have a sort of minor breakdown, after which certain techniques and concepts I'd been struggling to learn how to use in my writing worked more naturally for me, in ways that fit who I was as a writer, rather than how they worked for other writers where I was picking up the ideas and strategies from reading their fiction. So I suppose learning how to do anything well is really learning a language of some sort. Writing stories is a language in and of itself too. It has its own grammar and rules and structures and nuances in how to create meaning. The rules are able to be broken to produce new results just like language can be broken and bent into new forms too. I've begun to see language acquisition as a sort of dominant metaphor for living life. And actually I think it's been there for a long time for me, that metaphor. Even in the novel I wrote last year, the narrator is a "collector of words".

At Japanese class tonight I was tired and sick and probably sounded like a drunk Japanese man when I tried to tell our teacher what I did over winter break in Japanese. I couldn't collect my thoughts and eventually was like, oh whatever. By the end of a week being surrounded by Japanese only and speaking it on a daily basis, I sometimes am just too tired to learn new things at the end of a week. But I suppose there is no real ideal day to hold class. Friday night probably is best. I wouldn't want to give up my Saturdays or Sundays, I suppose.

If I haven't mentioned it, Japan makes all sorts of different flavors of Kit Kats. I posted this news on the With Boots circle blog I belong to, but failed to do so here. My favorite flavor is the Green Tea Kit Kat, although just today I ran across a new flavor. Cantaloupe. I can't believe it. I bought one, but it wasn't really that good. Interesting, but not a big seller, I imagine. Well, at least not a big seller for me. But the Green Tea, mmm, oishii! (Delicious!)

My apartment is freezing due to the lack of central heating (complains complains) and even though I have a kerosene heater to warm the place up, the insulation in Japanese housing is terrible too, so the heat just leaks out quickly. According to people I work with and friends I've made here, Japanese people find it to be natural to deal with the cold, and to be cold during the winter. It's summer that the housing has been built for, to keep everything as cool as possible. Although I tried to point out that proper insulation would actually make this much easier, no one really bit on that idea. They just give me foggy looks, as if this idea were as strange as people once thought flying to the moon was.

I can often not help but feel like I'm living in a strange cross-warp between the worlds of nineteen-fifties America and the postmodern techno thriller The Matrix. It's an difficult mix to live in sometimes, but definitely interesting. I have never felt more American in my life. And often I feel like I'm getting inklings of what it must have be like for immigrants who have come to America in the past and also the present. Since there are three alphabets here and I only know two of them and a handful of characters from the third alphabet, if I come across things in Kanji (third alphabet) I have to struggle to figure out what something may be, a certain kind of medicine, what exactly is in this package at the grocery store, is this a blanket or something altogether different (and often it looks like one thing and really is something else that I never would have guessed). I have been talking to Tadashi about how it feels to be a foreigner. He understands some things, but not everything, because he hasn't lived abroad yet, and I think this is something prevalent with many of my Japanese friends. For example, Ohama sensei went to Portugal to teach Portuguese students about Japan for a month in the autumn. She came back complaing about how everything she was offered to eat was potatoes and bread, potatoes and bread. She still makes jokes about this months later, yet she isn't able to understand why I sometimes crave food different from traditional Japanese food, even though she herself experienced being away from her home life for a short period and had an introduction to what it must be like to be seperated from everything you know. This distresses me sometimes. I sometimes hope for someone, a Japanese person, to know what it feels like to be a foreigner away from everything that they know, but I rarely run across anyone who has left the country other than for brief spurts of tourism. Fujita lived in America for three years, but she said she lived in an area of California so densely populated with Japanese people working in America in the eighties that she didn't have to speak English if she didn't want to.

I mentioned that I was trying to finish a story before I left for New Year's in Tokyo, and I think I didn't mention it again, but I did finish that story before I left. Finally got the suicide club story written, first draft at least. I'm not sure what I'll do with it as it's entirely nonspeculative. It has all sort of ideas in it, sure, but it can't possibly sell to a genre magazine, unless I tried it in horror magazines, as it does have a sort of horror element to it, although I think even that is a bit of a stretch for the sort of story it is. In any case, it's written, and I'm really pleased with it. Tadashi read it and said he felt that the characters were all very familiar to him, like people he knew, which made me feel good because this was the first story I wrote where the main characters were all Japanese and I want to make sure I'm capturing their consciousnesses in such a way that they feel real and right to a Japanese reader too. That's really important to me.

And now it is late and time for me to go to bed and dream in Japanese some more.


Blogger David Moles said...

You need to get a kotatsu. And one of those quilted housecoats.

4:29 PM  
Blogger chance said...

remind me I have comments for you on the story next time you are online (yes i know i should write them up, i think we both know I won't.)

7:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I ate a quarter-pounder today and DAMN was it delicious. I hereby retroactively dedicate that hamburger to you. May American-style comfort food come your way.


1:40 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

When I was living in China, once a month, a couple of us used to take a four hour train trip on Friday night to Beijing. That evening we would have dinner at a joint venture Australian/Chinese hotel that had a coffee shop that served American food. We're talking Stouffer's level food. Most of the time we got lasagna. Since by about six months in, none of us were eating any cheese at any other time, not for that matter, much milk, the cheese would make a couple of us quite ill.

We didn't care.

Sometimes you're just got to have something familiar.

9:10 AM  

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