Thursday, September 29, 2005

Sou ka na!? Sou ka naa!?

I think I post less and less about my experiences here on a regular basis because of a couple of reasons. One reason is I'm keeping many of them for a future writing project. But also after living here for over a year now, I'm used to things and don't come home and rush to the computer to write down something that, six months to a year ago I found completely new and full of wonder and excitement. But then I sometimes make myself take a step back and think about my day and it's true that something really cool and magical in its own way happens here for me almost everyday. I think I've just gotten so used to it that I forget it sometimes.

Today I had a conversation in Japanese with two boys about Howl's Moving Castle. On my ketai (cell phone) I have a Caluficer charm, the little fire dude, and one of them noticed it and started talking about the movie. Before I knew it, we were throwing out lines from the movie in Japanese. It was so strange because I didn't think about it until just now, before I'm going to sleep and now it seems funny to me because you know you've had that moment with friends in your own language quoting lines from movies in your own language, and everyone has a lot of fun doing so. So new experience in another language # I lost count: Favorite lines from movies rap session.


Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Bitchy Revisited

Yesterday I taught one of the Japanese English teachers I work with the words "bitchy" and "pissy". Good for use among family and friends, I said. He's been having a bad time lately. The kocho sensei (principal) has been getting down on him (possibly for some things that he needs to be talked to about anyway, but you didn't hear that from *me*) and when he confided in me and wanted to find the right word to talk about how kocho sensei has been acting toward him lately, I said, Bitchy. Or pissy. Those two words just about cover it.

Now when I ask how he is he tells me today he is a little bitchy, and I say, "Boku mo bitchy da yo!" I'm bitchy too.

We laugh about this as if we're the teenagers in our classes who look up the English words for sexual anatomy or ask me if I "play sex" (it's a confusion of verbs--they learn play early to talk about the sports and games they play, but in Japanese the verb they use is just a generic "do" that is used to make just about anything a verb, even adjectives). It's great fun splicing languages together, then having students who overhear a sentence part in Japanese and part in English say, "What was that? What does that mean?" and then just looking at each other and laughing.


"Energy costs are likely to be a particular burden on low- and middle-income households, whose income growth has barely matched inflation over the last few years. Wealthier households have done better, government data show, and have helped keep economic growth healthy with spending on second homes, new vehicles and the like." (New York Times)

Well thank God for those wealthy households who have kept economic growth healthy. Without their second homes and new vehicles (and the like) the United States economic data as a whole would look as bad as it is for everyone who doesn't fall into that 5 or 10%, or whatever meager percentage it is now, of the population.

Off to write all those people personal thank you notes. Ta!

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Immature Thoughts

Sometimes I have these really imature thoughts that, while immature, I can't help but entertain. For example, why is it that when we have "liberal" leaders in office and things like natural disasters or economic disasters happen, the right wingers and religious fundamentalists say it is God's punishment for the liberal trends in our culture. Yet when these same events happen under the helm of a Christian, right wing adminstration, none of these people say a damned word. Not one.

That's my immature thought for today.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Hello Tokyo

Welcome to the new Sprawl blog Yoshio Kobayashi has made. I heartily recommend coming to Japan for anything at all but especially for things speculative fiction oriented. The SF Seminar next May looks good, and 2007 Worldcon will soon be on the horizon. Can't wait for everyone to come get together in the land of the rising sun one day soon.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Onward, Upward

So it's been almost a year since I started studying Japanese. It's a strange thing to try to acquire a second language. There are hills and valleys in the process. There are moments of success when it feels like you've just done the impossible, and there are moments when you feel like the most stupid person on the planet. For many months now, I've been able to understand much of what is said around me. When I go to stores or on trips to various places in Japan that I've not traveled to before and find myself needing directions, when I go to restaurants and want a suggestion, I can do all of these things easily. Sometimes, usually for friends who don't speak Japanese, I'll have to think about how to formulate a question they've asked me to ask someone, but if I'm given a couple of seconds I can figure out what I need to say. For example, the other night I went with my French friend Steph to a bar in Tsukuba for drinks. We were sat at the bar, but Steph wanted to sit at a table so he asked me to ask the bartender if it was ok if we moved to a particular table (we thought we should ask as they had made a big deal of putting us at the bar because there was only two of us). So I was able to ask (though I still hate shouting for people's attention here, even though it's not rude) and got the table without a problem. And when my mom was visiting, I was able to translate for her and my aunt in various stores and shops and places where they had questions about items they were purchasing or might want to purchase, and about food, or how to get us to our ryokan when the bus to the place had stopped running, etc. But learning a language involves a variety of skills, especially when it is one so different from your own. I learned French in high school and college, but it was a completely different thing because the grammar is almost the same and the words look familiar. We at least use the same alphabet with only slight variations on accent marks etc. Studying Japanese is an entirely different process than studying French ever was.

There are various things you can be skilled at in learning another language: reading the other language, writing the other language, understanding someone else speaking the language, and speaking the language yourself. These are all different areas, and you can be strong in one and lower in level in other areas. For example, I chose to focus my skill learning in the understanding and speaking areas. I thought that would be most useful to me. And it has been. And I'm glad that is where I focused. I figured I can always still study reading and writing even when I'm not in Japan, whereas while I'm here, I should be able to hear and speak it while it's all around me.

One of the things that happens when you're trying to speak another language though is you find out stuff about yourself, tics that you have that you wouldn't have noticed so keenly maybe if you hadn't put yourself in this particular position. For example, when I traveled with my mom and aunt this summer, I spoke with much ease wherever we went. I realized I had vocabularies and grammars I had forgotten I studied. I was improvisational and fluid. I'm that way when I'm speaking Japanese to Japanese people I don't know. Clerks, sales people, strangers on the street or park who happen to strike up a conversation with me, etc. I feel less committed to these people, so I'm less reluctant to screw up in front of them, so I speak more easily and actually don't make many mistakes. But if I'm speaking to a Japanese person who I know knows English, I get nervous and speak very little. I become afraid to make mistakes in front of them. I feel behind because they've already done the work to learn mine and I just started on theirs. With the kids at school I have conversations everyday. This has given me a relationship with them that they weren't able to have with their previous foreign teacher, according to many of them. My colleagues at work are always telling me I seem more and more Japanese every day. At our recent work party, one teacher told another one in front of me, "Chris Nandemo wakatteiru!" Chris understands anything at all that you say to him. That's a bit much, but not in the confines of everyday conversation it isn't. And now the Japanese English teachers often direct me in class in Japanese. And I can explain grammar points to the kids in Japanese so they can understand when to use, for example, is/are/am correctly. And the elementary schools are happy because they no longer have to try and figure out what I'm trying to have their students do. I can explain my own lessons to the kids and they can relax while I teach.

But there are still moments when I struggle with certain things. Like I said, when I'm around people who already know English, I freeze up a little. Or when I'm around new people who I want to make a good impression on, I take a while to warm up to speaking around them, for fear of sounding stupid. But for a while now those were my weak points and I was okay with them (not totally okay but okay enough).
Then this past weekend I went to get a membership at a dvd and cd rental store. I bought a dvd player so I figured now's the time finally! Doing things like this is always like doing it for the first time over again. But joining this damned store made me feel like I understood the whole immigrant experience a little more.

So I walked in and asked if I could have a membership card, and was directed by the counter woman to a desk where they make them. I went over to the area, where two men and one woman were attending to people wanting memberships. The woman asks if she can help me. I tell her I'd like to become a member and she immediately appears worried and gets the form for me to fill out but seems to try to be recalling any English at all, even though I've asked her in Japanese if I can become a member. She points to places on the form and tries to tell me in English what they are. I tell her, "It's okay, I can read most of this and I can understand you, so don't worry." But when I started to write my information in English on the form, she said they needed it written in Japanese. This is actually a new experience for me. I've got cards at a variety of places that didn't care if I wrote my name and address in English. But this place wanted it in Japanese. So I began by writing my name, and I realized quickly that I NEVER write in Japanese, except on very rare occasions. My recall for writing is low. And I'm embarrassed by my kanji. My writing looks like my fourth grade students handwriting. But I made that decision long ago that writing wasn't my priority. But it's taking me forever and ever to fill out this basic form, so finally to save everyone time, I tell the woman, "I'm sorry but I can understand everything you say in Japanese and I can speak it obviously, and I can read it, but I don't write it very easily. If you could write my information for me, I'd be grateful." She then has to make a big production over this by asking her superiors who are there helping another customer if she is allowed to do this for me and then various Japanese people are suddenly looking at me, the illiterate foreigner, and I just want to say forget it and walk out of the store right there. It didn't matter that I used a really nice grammar to ask her to do this, was able to communicate with her verbally with ease. That didn't save me any embarrassment. Finally she got the okay to write my information for me, which she did quickly and easily and the whole process was done in two minutes, whereas it was taking me forever.

Afterward I sat in my car in the parking lot, a bit upset and shaken, and told myself I guess it's time to take away some of my grammar learning study time and devote it to writing practice, so I can avoid scenes like this in the future. I thought about how it would have been if I had been back in America working at some store and a foreigner had come in and said, I speak English but I don't write it very well, can you write my information for me on this application?" I would have done it without hesitation and without asking for anyone's permission either, without drawing everyone's attention in the store, but I still would have felt bad for the foreigner, and I don't want anyone's pity. I like being independent, even in another language. And there are enough foreigners living here who don't learn the language that give the foreign population, especially the westerners, a stereotype that we can't learn Japanese (or find ourselves above having to), so I feel that I have to do my best to be an exception to that stereotype. So now it's time to become a better writer of Japanese. But god how boring it's going to be. It's not the same rush as when you're interacting with an actual person and are able to communicate. It's you and a piece of paper, drawing kanji and hiragana and katakana over and over and over again, until it becomes second nature. And I already spend too much of my time staring at blank pages when I try to write in my own language. But here I go anyway.

Sigh. Just when you think you've reached a comfortable place in the climb up the mountain, you find a new slope you have to scale.

Onwards and upwards, or upwards and onwards, however that saying goes...

Thursday, September 15, 2005

What I like to wake up to

Sunshine and fall weather and Billie Holiday and a warm shower, and news that I sold a story. Got all of the above today. A good start.

Realms of Fantasy will be publishing my story "Dead Letters".

Monday, September 12, 2005

Beautiful Dreamer

There was a character in the comic book called "The X-Men" that I read when I was a teenager. She was peripheral, part of a story-line called The Mutant Massacre. But I thought she was lovely and should have been a character with a main storyline. Her name was Beautiful Dreamer. This story just recently released by Pindeldyboz by Elad Haber reminds me of Beautiful Dreamer. It's a story by a writer who should have a main storyline. It's a story by a writer you should read.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

My Week

I sang "Ten Little Indians" at least sixty times at elementary schools so far this week.

Today I hauled bamboo out of the woods to raise banners on for Sports Day this Saturday. I did something wretched to my thumb. I can feel my heartbeat at the base where it joins the rest of my hand. It feels like a seperate entity at this point.

I spent part of the morning with a teacher who has a sprained ankle talking in Japanese. We both agree we do much better with foreign languages when it's one on one rather than large groups of people, when all the foreign words start to blur together because too many people are speaking at once to understand everything. He's going to New York this December/January to visit his cousins who live there and asked for recommendations as to what he should do there and in New Jersey (where the cousins live). Any ideas? I tried to suggest a few things, but I've usually don't see New York as a tourist when I'm there. Usually I just hang out with friends who live there and go to parties or bars or museums or concerts.

At one elementary school this week, I was asked by a group of fifth grade girls whether I was married. When I said I wasn't, a boy asked what my type is. I told him smart people. He looked around and verbally wondered as to whether there was anyone of that type in the classroom, then he came to the conclusion that the girls were out of luck.

At another elementary school, I sat at my desk in the teacher's office and gave autographs, sometimes several to the same kid. The line stretched from the office halfway down the hallway. Apparently as one kid said, I am daininki. Super popular. Why why why??

Another child asked me why my eyes are blue. I'm still struck deep down in my soul when kids ask me that question. I've been asked it for a year, only the first four or five months I didn't understand what was being asked. But I'm asked often now that I can talk to the kids in their language a bit. I think it strikes a nerve with me because it makes me feel like a freak of nature somehow. So I told him that lots of people in the West have blue eyes. That it's a normal color there. Supplied with this answer, he said oh is that right? I didn't know. And began processing this piece of information quite seriously for a third grader.

It's been over a year now since I started teaching in Edosaki. It's weird to feel like a fixture there now. With Sports Day rolling around again, everything feels strange. It feels like I've lived a lifetime here for some reason.

One of my ninth graders was worried about my family and friends in America and while we were weeding the courtyard asked me if they were hurt in the hurricane. I told him I didn't have any friends or family who lived near it, so everyone I knew was okay. He said it was still good that I was in Japan so I wasn't hurt. He wanted to know when I would go back to America. I told him probably next April. He said oh the same time I'll be graduating junior high then. He asked why I wanted to go back. I couldn't think of how to say what I felt in Japanese for some reason. So he said, "American tomodachi ni aitai?" You want to see your American friends? I thought for a moment and then just nodded and kept weeding the courtyard.

Saturday will be my second Sports Day.

Tomorrow I will sing "Ten Little Indians" at another elementary school at least twenty more times.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

Yet another dispatch from home. Incredibly nostalgic, but in that eye-rolling way where you wonder if things are ever going to change.

Tired and Wet on the Outside, Warm and Fuzzy on the Inside

On a happier note (and oh how easy I'm made happy these days!) I now have two Whatchamacallit's in my possession. Make that one. I totally just devoured the first one as soon as I got the box open. For dinner, Annie's Mac and Cheese. You have no idea how much I'm going to enjoy that.

Thank you Christopher and Gwenda. It made my day all fuzzy warm, even though another typhoon is coming this way.

Saturday, September 03, 2005


I haven't said anything till now about the Katrina disaster because a part of me is in shock over the pictures I see and the stories I read and the things I hear on the U.S. radio stations I'm listening to online. As I was getting ready to go to school the other day, I was listening to NPR describe the damage and lives lost in the Gulf area, and was so dumbfounded that I stood in front of the mirror with my tie half-tied for a few minutes, not really sure how to react. And the news that the already in trouble American economy would probably slide into a recession because of this, that my country is beginning to look the same as the Cold War Russia that it had been so eager to bust up in the seventies and eighties, well, these are all things I've known were coming, but when they come and you hear other people saying them for the first time on public channels, it still shocks and hurts you. You never wanted these things to happen, even when you were telling people "if this goes on" for over a year or two.

I left America a little over a year ago now, but my decision to leave was made about a year and a half ago. And one of the things that factored into that decision was how difficult it was to live in America, at least in the part that I was living in, and hold the views on the country that I held. I couldn't speak out my own thoughts and opinions without someone telling me I was un-American and that if I didn't like it here, I should go live in some other country. And then the opportunity came for me to live in another country, so I did. I made the decision to leave. And it's been the best decision for me that I've ever made in my life so far.

Why? Because I no longer had to be surrounded by a community of people who had forgotten that it was their duty to criticize the government, that the government works for them, not the other way around. I was no longer surrounded by a media that lied to its people, or created bite-sized info-meals that said nothing important and talked about only the most sensational aspects of life in America, who were controlled by relatives of government officials. I was no longer in a class of people whose skills and talents were devalued by a government who has no interest in education and knowledge or the arts, that instead placed value on war and warfare materials and took federal money from nearly every avenue of American life in order to fund a war in the Middle East that they promised would be over within months, that they failed to justify in the first place, and that has done nothing but serve as the murdering vehicle for American soldiers and the people of Iraq. I no longer had to be surrounded by an America that had cut off its ears and blinded itself to the world around it, an America that is ignorant of the world outside its borders, that has no understanding of the countries and languages and politics and customs of anywhere else in the world because of its own inbred arrogance.

But as each day passes, that arrogance is becoming the downfall of America, and it will continue to do so until Americans remember who they are, and what their duty is at times like this. When your government fails you, you must respond to that failure. The country was more than happy to attempt to impeach President Clinton for having an affair, yet cowers in so much fear that it can't speak even a syllabe against the Bush administration's unforgivable conduct as America's leaders.

I'm far away, but I still feel the sadness that I tried to outrun for a while. And I love my country, more than I even realized before coming here. It wasn't until I came to Japan that I realized how American I was, and how much I love America. But when will all of this end? Do we really have to wait through the rest of Mr. Bush's term to see what other catastrophes his administration will bungle or what other disasters they will fail to respond to in those remaining years? Why can we organize against a president who's had an affair, but not one who has ruined our economy, created a war in a country out of an incident for which that country had no evidence of being connected to, a president who has still failed to bring aid to his own people when a section of the country seems to have, overnight, become a Third World nation?

Jeff Ford says all this better than me at his blog. I suggest you go read him instead, as I never really say what I feel about these things in a way that's right. All I can say is, I want to come home to America, but to what America will I be coming home to? I fear it won't be home at all, really. It wasn't when I left, and I feel as if it will be even further removed from the concept of "home" when I come back. I'd hoped something would make a turn for the better while I was gone, but I'm afraid it will only get worse.