Tuesday, April 26, 2005


I have been meaning to write about Ryu for a while now. He's a boy I run with in track and field club after school. This year he's an eighth grader. He's incredibly fast when he runs, and he always makes it look so easy to do. He's also incredibly shy. So many of the boys here combat each other for my attention and make any attempt, at various levels of loudness, to interact with me, making jokes and grabbing my arm or slipping theirs under mine to walk with me for a while down the hallway to chat between classes, or fight over where I'll sit when I eat lunch with their class that day. But from the beginning Ryu was quiet and sat in the back of his classes and only smiled bashfully and looked down at his desk whenever I caught his eye. He's not so good at English. It's difficult for him and in class he's never one of the kids who raises their hand to answer a question posed to everyone.

When I first started running with the track team, he was visibly nervous. Whenever the track coach instructs the kids to do something new, he looks at Ryu and says, "Ryu, setsumei shimasu." Ryu will explain. And Ryu always looks shocked and surprised and turns to me with pleading eyes and without any words at all I can tell he's thinking, please just understand the next exercise! I can't explain it in English! He told me many times over the first couple of weeks that English was difficult, one phrase he'd apparently memorized. I knew that he was embarrassed and offering some form of apology, and I always told him not to worry. I talk in my broken Japanese to him, and when he's hooked into a conversation and likes something I say in Japanese, I tell him how to say it in English. I pick pretty simple stuff so that he doesn't get discouraged. And now while we run I don't have to offer a phrase because he's gotten to the point where he'll ask me how something I've said in Japanese would be said in English. Sometimes he accepts the English, other times, if it's too difficult for him, he'll say so. Most of the time he'll repeat the words for a minute or so as we run until they feel comfortable to him. The last thing I taught him was the word "strange" so he could point to his friend Rikiya and say, "Rikiya is strange." I gave him the option of strange or weird, but he thought weird was too difficult to pronounce, so he stuck with strange.

Last week I told him I was starting to study kanji and I asked him how many he knew. He told me about twelve hundred. Kanji are incredibly complex and also incredibly beautiful. They're difficult for Westerners to learn, and even some Japanese people have trouble. I told Ryu that even though I like kanji a lot, it's very difficult for me. He asked how many I knew. I have a pitiful fifty or so at this point, and sometimes I struggle to recall some of those even. Ryu wanted to know which ones I knew, so I told him some of them, and after we finished jogging he kneeled down in the sandy lot where most of the club activities are held, found a stone, and started to draw kanji in the sand. And draw, I think, is the right word, as the words "draw" and "write" are the same word in Japanese.

He drew the kanji for "person", "woods", "forest", "time", and "heart/mind" (as the heart and mind are the same thing in Japanese, they aren't seperated, and it exists in the center of your torso) then he drew the kanji for "to know". I like the kanji for "to know" because it looks like a person about to walk through a doorway. That makes sense to me on a gut level. Ryu explained how the kanji are made as he drew, saying, "Kou, kou, kou," with each stroke. Like this, and this, and this. Occassionally he'd look up and say, "Wakaru?" Do you understand? I'd nod and he'd go on to another one.

The last kanji he drew before it was time to start running again was "tomo" the root of the word "friend" in Japanese. He added the rest of the word in hiragana to the root and, still looking at it, said, "friend." Then he smiled up at me and pointed back and forth between the kanji and himself and me, making a triangle over and over, as if he were drawing a kanji that encompassed both of us and the one he'd drawn. I patted him on the back of the head and rested my hand on his shoulder and told him in my lame Japanese that he was indeed my good friend. And then we got up and went back to running.

This sort of thing happens to me more than I say. I don't really put everything of my life here in this journal. And there are many moments like this one that I don't write about. I can't explain that impulse except to say there are some moments in life I just want to keep for myself. Which is probably strange, coming from me, because I think I'm probably notoriously open about my life. Except I tend more to tell people about bad things in my life or ridiculously embarrassing moments. I'm fond of self-depricating humor and also I think it's probably a way for me to avoid talking about certain kinds of emotions. I've never been comfortable with publicly embracing sentimental feelings. But one of the things that's changed in me since I've come to live here is that I find it's much nicer to be open to those feelings than not. The land of happiness and togetherness has worked a sort of spell on me, I suppose. And I'm glad that it has.

So...in the spirit of togetherness and happiness, I offer this moment.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Another Quiz

Following in the footsteps of Ms. Bond (but aren't we all?)

Christopher Michael Barzak's Aliases

Your movie star name: Toppo John

Your fashion designer name is Christopher Vienna

Your socialite name is Muncheechee New York

Your fly girl / guy name is C Bar

Your detective name is Cat Maplewood

Your barfly name is Pocky Orange Crush

Your soap opera name is Michael Warner

Your rock star name is Kit Kat Cheetah

Your star wars name is Chrhob Bartak

Your punk rock band name is The Funky Top

I can't help but wonder what kind of movies I make, considering my Movie Star name.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Shinjuku tonight

Saturday, April 23, 2005

This is sick (cue Janet Jackson's "All Night")

This is sick, but David posted this in my comments section back in December, and I didn't understand it at all, but now I do:

If you think =you've= got pronoun trouble, try this one: "Koshikakesaserarehajimetagaranakattarashii."

My Modern Japanese Lit prof claimed he'd heard one usher say that to another at a theater. Translation: "It's almost as if they didn't want us to start seating them."

Weird, weird, weird.

Progress, I guess.

But I have to admit, if someone said it at natural speed to me, I probably wouldn't catch it all. Reading it, though, I can definitely understand.

Maybe in another four months I'll be able to hear it all at once too.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Generic Post Meme

Spoke Japanese today, go team language learning, Japan Japan Japan, students asked how to say the equivalent of "family jewels" in English, sold a story, can you believe the wretched state of affairs in America, look at this article and feel the sense of dread, Japan, students raised a toast to my eyes, spoke in Japanese and was understood once again!

And they really did raise a toast to my eyes today. Three girls in the middle of a review of their tests. "Kurisu kawaii! Kimi no hitomi ni kampai!" (Chris is so cute! To your eyes! Cheers!)

Via Tim

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Mothers are the same everywhere

The other night my friend Takao and I were driving to Tsukuba to play some pool when his cell phone began to ring. He flipped it open while driving and looked at it. I could see the squiggly incomprehensible characters of kanji on the phone screen and once again gave an inner sigh of disgust mixed with inferiority complex that the third alphabet of Japan always brings out in me. Thousands and thousands of complex looking characters that can have two or three "readings" each, which means you might as well say there are like 6000 kanji characters instead of two or three thousand. That's how I figure it at least. Takao said it was an email from his mother. He had just left a ceremony for his grandfather's death before he came to pick me up. His grandfather had died a hundred days before and in Buddhist ritual on the hundredth day after the death, a ceremony to honor the dead is performed, and if memory serves me correct they are no longer referred to by their earthly name, but by their "Buddhist" second name afterwards. Don't quote me on that part, though. In any case, Takao lit some incense and prayed and did the various rituals he's supposed to do for that ceremony and then headed over to my place. His mom emailed him to say, "The police are out all over Tsukuba county tonight, so be careful driving!" I had to laugh so hard because my mom always does the same thing. Even when I didn't live at home anymore, she'd call and leave me emails warning me of various police patrols and dangers to beware of. I swear she watched the news of where I lived like a hawk so she could deliver these foreboding messages. Takao asked why I was laughing and I explained and then we both had a good laugh because it was so funny to know that wherever you go in the world, mothers are all the same.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Goodbye Without Leaving

Just finished Laurie Colwin's Goodbye Without Leaving. Buckets of tears. Buckets, I say.

Monday, April 18, 2005

After school

Sunday I had to work at the junior high because it was PTA day, so parents could come and observe us teaching their kids. I felt like a laboratory animal, but that's only because I don't like being watched while I do my job, which is why I've always liked teaching because you don't have people looking over your shoulder twenty-four seven while you do it. I mean, the kids are watching you, sure. I just don't like the sense of being "overseen". In any case, after the classes ended, the parents and teachers all went to the gymnasium for a big meeting and most of the kids went home, but I stuck around and talked to a few who stayed behind. Mostly they kept trying to get me to decide which was better, Japan or America, or which teachers were cuter, or which were meaner, or to tell them secrets about the other teachers, but I stood my ground. Well, it wasn't all of the students trying to pry information out of me, just Takayuki and his friend. Also I caught Shoki, the English genius, playing in some falling cherry blossoms with his friends. Shoki is in the center. He is always that happy somehow.

Monday, April 11, 2005

New School Year

Last week the new school year started and it's been fun but tiring. Fourteen teachers left and fourteen new ones came to replace them, three of these switches were English teachers, which was half of the English staff. It's natural here to switch your school every five to seven years, I guess, and at least in this case we managed a good switch, I think. One of the new English teacher's came from the neighboring district where my friend Beth teaches, and the other two are twenty-somethings who have spent time living abroad in Canada and England. It's nice to have a couple more twenty-somethings to teach with, too, as most of the staff is in their late thirties and fourties. It's also nice to have a couple more people to work beside who have spent some time abroad. I think having that experience immediately changes how they interact with me, whereas an English speaker here who hasn't stepped foot outside of Japan (though still a pleasant interaction) is just different somehow. When I'm around Takada sensei (mid twenties, year in Canada) it actually feels like interacting with a Westerner sometimes. She lost most of her accent in that year and engages me in this physical way that I find really familiar. Today at lunch she squeezed my shoulder and said, "Hey, Chris," as she walked past with her tray, and Tadashi, one of my bad boys, was sitting across from me and said, "Chris, chris, your type? your type?" I teased him and nodded and he smiled really big and said, "My type too, shh, shh." Yamazaki sensei (late twenties, year in England) is all worried his British accent will throw the kids off, but I told him not to worry. What if they had to talk to a British person some day? I mean, they might as well be exposed to the different sounds of English. There's not just one kind out there, though it seems they favor American and Canadian accents here. In any case, I'm already liking the both of them and also all of our desks have been switched around in the office so I'm sitting next to Hiraga sensei, and he and I get a long great, so I'm happy to be next to him for the next year. Over the spring break he knew I didn't have any travel plans and called me a few times to have dinner, which was nice of him. We've already begun to teach alot together this year, and I like his classrooms a lot because he's so good with the kids, firm yet really encouraging. Most of the try hard for him.

With the coming of the new teachers, too, I've suddenly found myself speaking more and more Japanese to all of the sensei's. Takada and Yamazaki sensei are making sure I do more of that. I'm not sure why but the refresh of the new year and all the ceremony that goes along with teachers leaving and arriving here allowed me to feel like I could break out of my fear of talking in Japanese with some of the people I've known for the past eight months. I had had in my mind some sort of block, and so had they, this idea of myself when I arrived and couldn't communicate so well, that they just didn't know how far I'd come in seven months of intensive studying. So I've held entire conversations in Japanese with non-English speakers the past week and a half, and though I mess things up here and there, I'm not doing too bad. I was able to tell Mitsui sensei that when I talk to her I always think of my mother, which is something I've been wanting to tell her forever, but Mitsui sensei, who sits across from me and always tells me when she likes shirts and ties, often mumbles her Japanese and I've been afraid if I told her something she'd launch into a half-mumbled conversation that I couldn't then follow. So at the welcoming party for the new teachers I told her and she thought that was so cute and sweet she said, "Nihon no mama, ne!" I'm your Japanese mama, right!" Later Ikeda sensei, who kind of reminds me of my dad a little, asked me to sing karaoke with him, so we did "Let it Be" because the Beatles are huge here, don't you know, and he said, "This song, my life." That guy cracks me up so much. His father was a bald barber, so I told him I would never trust a bald barber, and he thought this could be a wise thing.

Still it's busy as hell here and last night I didn't sleep well and this morning there was an earthquake before I had to leave for work and it's been raining all day long. I also was just struck by the fact of how I just write sentences now where the phrase "and this morning there was an earthquake" is just lightly thrown in between breakfast and arriving at the school, as if I stopped off at 7/11 for a Coke before going on.

It's going to be a rough year. Takada sensei and Yamazaki sensei taught for the first time today (they don't have much teaching experience) and Yamazaki later said, "It's worse than you said it would be," and I felt kind of bad, because I knew he was going to find it rough going. He's teaching the new ninth graders this year and they are way behind and a hard group to teach. Totally not a good group to start out with. He's too nice and polite that they will probably walk all over him. But hopefully in a couple of months he'll get tired of it and start pushing back.

That's one of the problems with the Japanese public school system. Before the kids reach high school, they can't really be punished with things like dententions or out of school suspensions etc. Going to school up to the ninth grade is a right, not a privelege, here, and so it defangs the teachers in many ways. And parents here do not like their kids being scolded byt teachers, much the same as America these days, and yet then get on the teacher's case when they don't instill the proper values into their children. It's got to be one of the worst jobs, in this particular case, being a teacher in today's world where everyone wants you to raise their kid and yet won't let you have any power to discipline either. So in this case, here like in America, the kids can cause a lot of trouble, and until high school at least, they know they can get away with a lot. Luckily, for the most part, the kids at Edosaki are sweet, and we only have to deal with individual cases here and there. But from the sounds of it, a lot of schools become more difficult the closer they get to urban areas.

Anyway, I am so tired after a bad night's sleep that I think I will head to bed way early tonight and hope to wake up refreshed tomorrow morning without any earthquakes.

A culture of death

So true...

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Good, the Bad, and the Good Again

I have a new car now, and I also have a new medium sized electric oven that came in the hatchback of the car, left by the Australian teacher who returned home last week. I can bake if I wanted, if only I knew how to bake. And I have the new car too, which delights me. It's purplish/blue. Someone is looking out for me. It doesn't stall on cold mornings or when I'm taking a turn. But one thing I do not have is a Japanese driver's license. Apparently I am an unfit driver. I took my driving test today, which is actually the most sadistic version of an obstacle course one might imagine, and failed. Supposedly I make my left turns too wide. I agreed with the instructor. It's hard to go from driving one of the normal Japanese buggies and then go to take the driving test and be forced into a boat the size of a cadillac that you have to maneuver through S shaped and tight L shaped curves that are--and I'm being serious here now--the width of bike lanes in America. Now I have to go back and take the test in May, on Friday the 13th. I told the man who assigned me my retake date that Friday the 13th was a bad luck day in America, his response was the Japanese version of "Yeah, in Japan it is too, next." Bastard.

Living in a culture different from the one you were born and raised in is actually amazing. It's the best decision I ever made, for sure, to do this. But one of the things that is difficult about doing this is that there is this very subtle accumulation of stress that suddenly bursts on you like biggest black cloud of rain you can imagine. It's the accumulation of small defeats, not being able to buy a suit on your own very easily, or one of those days where you're using your second language and suddenly it disappears on you and you grasp at words like straws but no matter how hard you try whatever you've learned and have had no problems with previously is just not going to roll over and bark that day. Or it's one of those days when you see a group of Japanese people around your age in a big group chattering back and forth like crazy and you think about how that was just about any day if you wanted back in your own country and how now it's like this really precious thing that doesn't come often enough. It's a bad day in the classroom, or those moments when you understand something very keenly because you're sensitive and observant but your host culture seems to think you would never be able to possibly get it because you're just not one of "us" when it comes down to it. It's those small defeats that gather over a period of time, so seemingly insignifant on their own but so heavy suddenly, that get you down.

The magic and wonder of living this way is the amazement that comes from saying something right, having a conversation with someone in their own language instead of your own, being showered with affection for being a caring respectful teacher or community member, accomplishing minor tasks like learning how to use your washing machine (because it's in kanji, you know, all the instructions) or your new electric oven, or what day of the week you put the plastic bottles out and what day the articles of clothing you're getting rid of, etc. It's overhearing a conversation in another language and understanding. That's the really cool stuff that you can't put a price on. But it has a twin whose power is much more of a slow burn, and luckily it doesn't affect you as long as the good stuff does, but it eventually will.

This is one of those days.

I have been driving a car since I was sixteen years old, damnit, and I understood everything you told me to do in your damned Cadillac on a Disney car-rail ride of a course. I do not make wide left turns. And who stops halfway up a hill, puts their parking break on and honks their horn, then takes the parking break off and goes down the other side? And yet I did it, damn it, and I did it right. Wide lefthand turns, no, not really.

We will meet again on Friday the 13th, So and So san, and I will not be so eagerly polite this time. I *will* have my driver's license.

I actually have an International license to drive on now, but it's only good till August, and so I have to have the Japanese license by then if I want to stay and work in the country, to get back and forth to work and to even get to the grocery store, etc. Apparently most people fail the first time, and from the looks of the people in my group, I believe it. 12 people went in, 1 came out with a license.

I thought it was strange that they put all the foreigners into a group to take the test, too. I mean, the examiner couldn't speak or understand English. If he could have, I would have seen a reason to have foreigners lumped together, but since we were all speaking Japanese to him, why all the sorting based on where you came from? Oh I'm sure there's some reason, but I have not been able to think of one that is very satisfying just yet.

I will not let this get me too riled for long, because on top of the new car and new electric oven, I just got a new suit, and I must say, I look very dashing. Tomorrow is the first day of the new school year here, and we're supposed to dress up really really like a whole lot for the first few days, so I'll be sporting my new threads.
Overly excited about this suit, as is probably obvious, but damn if I wouldn't stop and date me if I saw me walking about in this get up.

And also the purplish/blue car is pretty sweet too.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Bloopers are so fun

Oh sigh. I shower some praise on the NYT and then today they go and print this about the pope dying:

"Even as his own voice faded away, his views on the sanctity of all human life echoed unambiguously among Catholics and Christian evangelicals in the United States on issues from abortion to the end of life.

need some quote from supporter

John Paul II's admirers were as passionate as his detractors, for whom his long illness served as a symbol for what they said was a decrepit, tradition-bound papacy in need of rejuvenation and a bolder connection with modern life. "