Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Touron

Exactly half of our 話す・聴く classes involved the teacher distributing a passage from a Japanese-language book on Japanese culture, everyone reading over it in the intervening week, and then coming together to share impressions in the next class. Given the cultural angle, they were mostly on dryly factual topics such as 有り合わせ (rummaging through the fridge and jury-rigging dinner out of whatever happens to be in there) and Japanese religious customs (they're Shintou-Buddhists in practice but atheists at heart), which, while interesting, don't exactly lend themselves well to spirited debate. Most of the rest of the time we worked off a video, but sometimes we did something completely different. One day, for example, the teacher brought in some printouts from a Business Japanese textbook, and we talked about where everybody sits in a taxi and why it's unbecoming to answer 「スミスさん、もう仕事慣れました?」 with 「いやぁ、まじやばいっす!」。

And then a little while ago we did what's called a 討論 touron. This was a new term for me, but it means a group discussion with the goal of arriving at a consensus, and it's apparently a common section of the job interview process – throw a handful of hopefuls at each other and see who the most effective communicators are. We were split into two groups, each of which would have a turn, after which the other would choose a single “winner.” The teacher advised us to keep in mind a few critical points, the most salient of which was that everybody should, individually, be doing more listening than talking. Obviously in groups of four this just makes mathematical sense, but I knew immediately that this was going to be a challenge for me. In my experience, Western culture takes a more congenially adversarial approach to debate, meaning that being a polite and skillful interlocutor is not about acknowledging the probable veracity of all opposing arguments, but rather about systematically annihilating all opposing arguments while not being an asshole about it. This gets back to a point I wrote about earlier: In summary, English communication is transitive, Japanese communication is receptive.

Despite this, I immediately took the helm, simply because, despite evidence to the contrary, I am pretty damn alpha in most situations. It's not like this is exactly a foreign atmosphere for me; being Vice President of my Canadian university's Japanese Club taught me how to run a meeting, how to manage time, how to summarize and proceed, and how to know when to let people get off topic and when to gather them back in. To be honest, I had a little bit of a plan, which mainly involved taking control right away, because I knew that once I had it, maintaining it would be easy. The teacher had mentioned that another thing to be conscious of was who had shown the most “leadership” in the touron, so to open things up I pulled a trick out of my Background in Philosophy bag and asked that we define our terms: Our topic was “what limitations should be put on children using the Internet,” so I asked, Until what age, for the purposes of this discussion, do we consider someone a child? We quickly agreed to define a “child” as elementary school-aged. All having accepted this definition, I sprung my first trap, such as it was, suggesting that surely nobody thinks that we should ban children from using the Internet entirely, so we can then work from that baseline?

I was assuming, of course, that nobody would, which was the basis for my entire outline, in which I intended to gradually add limitations and caveats to the mixture until we had arrived at a reasonable conclusion. My mistake was in thinking that most people would agree with me. I was of the opinion that, in this technology-centric Information Age of ours, children should be allowed to use the Internet almost without restriction, basically excepting only pornography, dangerous liaisons, and blatant misinformation. This was pretty stupid, and I should really have planned for the possibility of somebody going the other way, because, as it happened, all of them did. Right from the start, I had to throw away my whole plan.

The only person who actually noticed my misstep was the teacher himself, and he found it hilarious, just because he imagined my internal reaction to be one of scrambling to find a new angle, with my original idea in ruins and nothing to fall back on. Know what though, that really wasn't the case. I took the hit and moved on, formulating a new plan on the fly and running with it. I think I actually deserve credit for that, if anything. Rather than fumbling and folding, I affirmed grace under pressure. That's a desirable skill in a prospective employee, wouldn't you say?

Funny enough, my initial failure even worked to my advantage, as while easily persuading them to my point of view would have left everybody with little to say, and pure domination would have made me look quite inconsiderate, we were instead able to talk things through and hammer out an understanding. In fact, they convinced me, which is certainly uncommon. It actually turned out to be a genuinely interesting discussion, which was quite pleasant, and certainly better than can be said of the other group, which just talked in circles around each other. I'd thought fifteen minutes would stretch into eternity, but it flew by. Everybody found my overly Japanese declarations of 「なるほど」and 「はい、分かりました」to be quite amusing, for some reason, but I was mostly trying to do them in imitation of the teacher, who is quite naturally the discussion leader most of the time.

I thought I did pretty well, and so did the other group, which couldn't quite decide between me and the Korean guy. “Rude Boy showed the most leadership and did a good job at organizing the discussion, and drawing out everyone's opinions,” they said, but the Korean guy “did the best job of bringing those opinions together.” The teacher disagreed, though he was torn, rather, between the Korean guy and the Chinese guy, who “made the most conscious use of time,” i.e. talked neither too much nor too little.


“But,” he said, “Rude Boy did clearly lead the discussion, and he did a good job. So if he'd been a little less concerned about expressing his own opinions and spent a little more time listening to the others, I'd have said he was the best.” I was startled. I thought I had been listening to the others! What must have happened, though, was that every time I tried to indicate my comprehension of another person's viewpoint, I did it by summarizing, and sometimes using what they said as a jumping-off point into the next section. So the whole time, where I thought I was being receptive and attentive, I was coming off as forceful and self-centred! It really is tough to find that sweet spot sometimes, isn't it? This is definitely something I'll have to watch in the future, because from what I hear, being a team player is even more critical in the Japanese corporate world than in the English-speaking one, and I reeeeeally don't want to come off like I don't play well with others. Still, at least I learned something.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Gion Matsuri

Kyouto, if you don't know, is home to three major festivals. There are many others, of course, within both the city itself and the metropolitan area, but this trifecta is by far the largest and most important, and, for some reason, all three prominently feature some kind of parade. One is Jidai Matsuri, featuring dress and paraphernalia from all periods of Japanese history. It's an enticing draw for a history enthusiast like myself, but I couldn't go for some reason. Earlier in the year we also had Aoi Matsuri, a highly officious Shintou event of great religious import, involving something about the royal family and some other stuff no one cares about. Mother Russia had to go for Culture class. She described the experience as “Boring.”

But both are small potatoes compared to Gion Matsuri, the vast majority of which takes place nowhere near Gion. Instead, for a few days, Shijou, Muromachidoori, a bunch of associated thoroughfares, and innumerable alleys and side-streets are closed to vehicular traffic and lined with rows upon rows upon rows upon rows of food stalls, stretching for blocks and blocks, nearly all selling one of about five products. The masses don yukata and converge on this locus, and even with all the space afforded them the resulting flow is thick and slow. It is noisy. It is crowded. It is nearly unnavigable. And it's awesome. And best of all, tourists are scarce, or at least they were when I went. How is that even possible? I have no idea, but I'm certainly not about to argue the point.

The festival actually continues throughout July, with various ceremonies and such taking place within the vicinity of Yasaka-san, but when people tell you they're going to “Gion Matsuri,” this stretch is almost certainly what they're referring to. Clad in our summer jinbei, Shiga and I met up with two of the girls from our earlier goukon and spent a couple of hours wandering the lanes, enjoying the street food, and playing Super Ball, a game where you're given a little net that basically disintegrates upon contact with water, with which you gather as many floating bouncy balls as you can. If you gather over a certain number, you can win larger balls, otherwise you just get to pick five smaller ones to take home with you; I was just off winning a big one. I'd never played before, but I'd seen it any number of times in dramas, except in those it's always with goldfish for some reason.

After seeing them off, as both had a test the following morning, Shiga and I continued to stroll idly, taking in the sights, for another couple of hours. The scope of the festival was startling; we ended up getting slightly lost in the back ways, and this is an area that we actually know. Towards the end of the night we hooked up with a big group of English Club cats by complete chance, and then we all sort of haphazardly made our respective ways home together, in gradually shrinking groups.

Let us pause here for a moment to appreciate the striking beauty of a young Japanese woman in a yukata. To me, it is abundantly clear that in a perfect world, J-girls would wear only yukata, seifuku, and suits. I also saw one gyaaru-looking girl wearing an elegant, immaculate yukata...with one bare shoulder. That palm's worth of skin was somehow a hundred times more erotic than the most revealing bikini. One of my English Club kouhai told me that such was a common sight in Shinbabashi. Man, I can't wait to move to Oosaka.


Looking over these last few paragraphs, the reader would be forgiven for thinking that Gion Matsuri is kind of unexciting. And she'd be correct in her conclusion that nothing especially dramatic or life-changing transpires. There are, really, three essential elements to enjoying a Japanese festival: The food, the atmosphere, and the friends you bring with you. You can have fun by yourself, of course, but it's hard. To me, it's all about spending time with the people close to you, and, in the process, also feeling the current of humanity itself flowing not only through, but all around you. Basically, I'm trying to say that if you don't know how to enjoy a festival, there's something wrong with you.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Goodbye English Club

There's another month or so of classes left, but with exams and other obligations bearing down on us, it's not really practical to continue English Club activities any longer. Instead, we're gathering for one last “normal” katsudou before we (mostly) break until after summer, though I'll be gone by then. We've already undergone a fairly intensive discussion about how to continue improving the section, so now we're going to congratulate ourselves on a semester well done with some snacks, drinks, and wistful conversation. Everyone has crowded around the table, itching for the OK to dig in, because we've pretty much been waiting for this moment all night.

“Oh, but before we eat, I have some Information,” says Super Junior, Information being the standard note on which to end daily katsudou. My heart jumps. “The first is that the deadline for the last nomikai is tomorrow, so contact me by then if you want to participate. The second is the thing that I posted on LINE earlier, so everybody please look at that.

“And the third is that...Rude Boy is leaving in August, so we have a present to give him!!”

“There it is,” I say, shielding my eyes. “How embarassing.” But I'm smiling.

I'm called to the front while most of the rest of the section gathers in a semi-circle, and I'm presented with a couple of gift-wrapped items. Everybody pitched in. I'm too shy to open them right there, but one is a jinbei, and the other is a small album filled with pictures and handwritten messages. I have a couple of jinbei already (you eventually just start to accrue this stuff, somehow), but this one is much nicer. And it's wonderful, but it's the album that really gets to me. I've had to write these notes any number of times myself, so I appreciate the difficulty in coming up with something to say, and I don't begrudge anybody who only scratches out a few words and their name. But something like this really lets you know who really liked you, and who you touched. When I read through it tonight, I'll hear the voice of each author in my head, as scenes from the past year drift across my mind, like the overly sentimental denouement of an overly sentimental movie.

They ask me to say a few words. I have some prepared. I'd suspected this might happen.

“Before I came to this university,” I tell them, “I checked it out on Google Maps. And I thought, What the heck? There's nothing here! But, no. Surely if you actually walk around, you'll see, oh, there's this shop here, and this restaurant here, it can't be that bad. But then I got here, and...there really is nothing around, is there?”

Appreciative laughter.

“So to tell the truth, for the first few days after I arrived, I was very depressed. I wondered if I'd made a mistake, if I should have gone somewhere else. I thought, Can I really enjoy a year in a place like this? Am I really going to be able to meet anyone? It was a little bit painful. But then I came to this English Club, and this section, and everyone was so kind to me...”

My voice falters and I have to close my eyes and look away just to keep it together. I smile sadly. It's a deflection.

“...was so kind to me, and taught me so m...any things, and uh...I was, uh, very happy about that. So uh, yes. To tell the truth, this week, I've been confused. I uh, I've been thinking...you know...right? Like...I had some goals for this year...and some I've accomplished, but, some I haven't. And that was good, and I had some good experiences, and I improved myself, and I hope I improved my Japanese, but I've kind of been wondering if it was worth it. If the world, I guess, even in some small way, is at all different because I came here. And actually, just now, in this moment, standing here, I felt...that...it was worth it. So tha...


“Thank you.”

Friday, 12 July 2013

Duelling speech contests

I'd love to enter a Japanese Speech Contest. I'd get to try something new, force myself to use the language in a way I'm not accustomed to, and just plain see where I'm at, like a Prime Minister testing the confidence of the populace by calling an election in mid-term. Well, I entered one, but they only accepted five people, and I wasn't one of them. Maybe the content was too abstract, or they didn't appreciate the style I constructed. Maybe I messed up the paperwork, or made an insufficiently compelling case for myself. Or, you know, maybe I've been put on a blacklist for the sexual harassment thing. To be fair, I have no idea how they selected the contestants.

The eligibility rules were a minor clusterfuck of “buts” and “provideds” founded on the abstract that you could only enter a contest whose language you did not speak natively, which initially sounds quite obvious, but one of the many language epiphanies this ryuugaku has granted me is a somewhat vaguer understanding of what the hell a “native speaker” is. (What, could Mother Russia enter a German contest?) The Europeans are unilaterally denied on the basis of their English being too strong, which is like disqualifying a would-be sprinter for running too fast, but that's how it goes, I guess. So to keep them out, they decided to institute this rule of “residency,” so that only residents of Asian countries can enter the English, and those of anywhere outside Japan can enter the Japanese...which led to an idiotic loophole in which a Brazilian girl who's lived here for six years could not test her Japanese, in which she is proficient, but was let into the English, in which she can barely make herself understood.

The Europeans were not pleased. She won, too. And then could not make an acceptance speech, because memorizing three minutes for the contest was one thing, but saying a few words off the top of her head for thirty seconds was beyond her.

The judges always come up with questionable choices anyway. I learned early that fairness has no place in this arena. Obviously when the outcome is entirely dependent on human whim nobody's going to agree with the results 100% of the time, but I imagine things might be different if there was only a single judge instead of three. Though it's probably too much accountability to put on one person, I have a sneaking suspicion that when judges have to determine a winner by consensus, they may differ on who was best...but they're willing to give first place to somebody that all of them agreed was good. In other words, rather than give a standout performance, you have a better chance of winning by performing competently in kind of a mediocre way. Which is shit, frankly, but that's the performing arts for you.

I was a little bit anxious to see Insufferable Dumbass get knocked down a peg, and boy did he ever. “I have this problem, I always have to be the best,” he told his parents over Skype, because he Skypes with them like every fucking day. This was news to me, because I'd always assumed he must be aiming for the opposite. Anyway, he genuinely believed that he might win, which is pretty incredible, though I certainly didn't want to see him crash and burn; he's actually an extremely kind, generous person. He's just irritating. And extremely young for his age. And louder than most battlefields. Also there's the fact that he's fucking stupid. I mean really fucking stupid. Anyway he stuttered and mumbled through his train wreck, and for a moment I thought he would burst into tears right there on the stage. He disappeared for a couple of hours afterward. I would feel bad, but I think the wake-up slap probably did him good. Tiny Korean Girl came second.

I was quite unimpressed to see that the number of spectators more than doubled after the intermission. In other words, a gigantic crowd of Japanese people came to watch just the English portion. In fact, even a couple of the English contestants didn't show up until it was their turn to go on! Come on, guys. That's a little fucking disrespectful. We stayed to watch yours, you should come to watch ours.

Worse, one of the English contestants cut his own legs right the hell off. He submitted an energetic, elegantly enunciated, well-structured speech about a two-month ryuugaku he'd done in New Zealand. He talked about some of the differences in socialization, how New Zealanders will take any opportunity to strike up a conversation, and how he was always made to feel like he was an individual before he was a foreigner. Good stuff, delivered in an engaging and interesting way. But then he dropped the bomb: “Of course, people in New Zealand speak only English, so if I had a problem, like when my gas got cut off, no one could help me. So I had to rely on myself.”

OK, fair point. Would have been a lot better of one if he'd said “Of course, very few people in New Zealand speak Japanese,” but unfortunately, I think he'd truly never considered that people from English-speaking countries might be learning some language other than English. After all, all white people speak English and only English. Didn't you know that? I thought everybody knew that. Also, everyone not from Asia is white. He still could have recovered, but when people find themselves in a hole, some don't know when to stop digging, and some requisition a backhoe.

The speeches were all followed by a handful of questions from the judges. The purpose here is partly for them to clarify and inquire, but more importantly it's to test the speakers' ability to formulate a response extemporaneously. In this case, he actually cut off one of the judges in the middle of her question, answering, “For example, I have to use English here, because you can't understand Japanese.” He had no way of knowing that this particular woman has been here for over twenty years, lives Japanese, and works as a professional translator. Her response was justifiably curt: “Yes, I do.”

Oops.

“But actually,” she continued, “I was going to ask you what advice you would give to your New Zealand friends if they were to come to Japan.” The look on his face said it all. People do that? Eventually, he managed to spit out one final facepalm: “Well, I would advice them to learn Japanese customs, like eating with chopsticks, or taking shoes off for coming inside.” The judge was Canadian. Whatever the other two may have thought, I am quite sure she had already decided to torpedo him at this point. I certainly would have. He did not place.

Interestingly, the two sets of judges handled Question Period very differently. For the Japanese it was like – holy shit, you guys. You've spent years learning this language. You've come all the way here to improve your abilities. You have formulated a speech and delivered it in front of an audience largely composed of native speakers, and now your every mistake and insufficiency is going to be brutally scrutinized. Here, have a couple softballs to hit out of the park. You've earned them.

The English, though, was: We are going to test the living shit out of your English skills today. Then sacrifice your immortal souls to Belial and personally feast on your bones.

To my delight, pride, and, to be honest, genuine surprise, Shiga made it into the top three. He earned it. I listened to where he was at a month ago, and I thought, buddy, you're going to do a great job...and you're going to get destroyed. But he smashed my expectations. He spent day and night practising his speech, in his head or under his breath, translating every moment of transit time and other wasted hours into an opportunity to get that little bit better. He had me record myself reading his speech, as you do, and listened repeatedly in an effort to nail down the intonation and delivery. He checked in frequently to have me adjust and refine his pronunciation. And it paid off! Maybe I should lean on him for a cut of the prize money.

Just three days later, I went in to watch a Recitation Contest. Since I'm not a buin, and a 4kaisei at that, I was in no way required to attend, but I wanted to show my support, especially since it was to be one of my last chances to see the English Club all together. The concept is to take a short excerpt of a famous speech, in this case Obama's “Yes we Can.” and have fifteen 1kkaisei each perform it for the assembled club. All of them. The exact same speech. Over and over again. Any speech contest involves a certain degree of downtime and boredom, but this one was downright stultifying. However, it was no doubt a good chance for the younger students to get a feel for the competitive format and atmosphere without having to tangle with content generation, an additional layer of nuance and difficulty.

For me, I think the most important thing is rhythm and flow, the ability to draw the listener in and hold their interest, which is probably, at the end of the day, the single most important communication skill after “making sense.” Pronunciation is another level down, but while very few people will ever completely erase their accent, the ones who sound the most fluent are those with the most natural intonation, pronunciation being what it may. As for the speech itself, I feel that structure and a good hook are worthy of scrutiny, but the subject is immaterial. Last comes speaking skills such as eye contact and gestures, because I feel that, while certainly important, they are not what's being tested. In contrast, one judge asserted that speed and pacing were the most important, while the other was all about the pronunciation, because, she said, “If we can't understand you, there's no point,” which was not only assholish but ironic, since she kept saying “pronounciation.”

Because nearly every active member made a showing, it was fun to watch the social dynamic, too. The participants were off to the side, while the 60 or so 1kkaisei gathered in front, backs straight, respectfully attentive, silent as the grave. The 30ish 2kaisei, behind them, were much the same, if a little more relaxed about it. The 15 or so 3kaisei were mostly in charge of running the contest, while the rest sternly monitored the action. Finally, I sat at the very back of the room with the one other 4kaisei. We lounged around haphazardly, chatted at inappropriate times, and were generally just carelessly disruptive in an attempt to keep ourselves entertained. And of course we did, because who the fuck's going to tell us not to? The 3kaisei? Not if they know what's good for them.


The kid I've been coaching didn't place, but I thought he did very well, and I would have put him in second myself. He was a little down after “losing,” but I kicked his ass about it, reminding him that the most important thing is improving and doing your best, and placing is just a bonus. He responded really well to that, and now he's already getting pumped for the full-on Speech Contest in October. Oh to be 18 again. Meanwhile, both first and third place were from my section. Conversation, fight!!

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Tanabata party

Tanabata was on Sunday, so obviously we celebrated it last Wednesday. A little over a hundred kids from the campus's International Club, whose membership is entirely Japanese, gathered in our dormitory foyer amongst a two-storey bamboo tree. Or maybe not so much a tree as a long branch that had been stood up and set in water to act as a tree. I didn't much feel like socializing when I woke up, but I forced myself to make idle conversation with strangers who constantly exhibited utter shock at my ability to speak their language, talked to the like three club members I did know, ate some soumen, and sat down to scrawl out a few wishes. At that table an adorable 1kkaisei, who claimed to be 18 but couldn't have been more than 14, somehow attached herself to me and stayed that way for the rest of the afternoon, and seriously omfg so adorable.

“That I may come back to Japan quickly.” The first one was easy; I've made this wish at many a previous Tanabata party, in both Japan and Canada, and I long for the day when I don't have to anymore. Second, my sister is getting married in September, so I wished “That my sister may have a happy home life.” Moving to do another, I was jokingly cautioned that none of my wishes would come true if I made too many, so I said, fine. Just one more. And I wrote: “That the person (people) important to me may live in happiness.” I'm sure you can imagine who I was thinking of.

These really are my three most fervent hopes right now. I'm getting soft. I strung my tanzaku up among those already there, displaying such inspiring desires as:

“Lose weight”
“Money, food, women”
“I want bangs!!”

along with a handful asking for no rain, that Orihime and Hikoboshi might meet. Speaking of which, it was a good thing I'd managed to drum up some enthusiasm, because I'd been drafted the previous day as a last-minute replacement for Hikoboshi in a skit. Orihime was some guy from the club, and Hikoboshi was originally supposed to be Tiny Korean Girl, which would have been...interesting. I managed to attention whore it back and forth across the stage, high-fiving Orihime when we were reunited, pulling umbrellas out on occasions when it was too rainy for us to meet, etc. Everybody had a good time being ridiculous.


We also had a few rounds of bingo, with those cards where you punch holes into the board with your fingers, the ones they always use always. Seriously they always use the same ones, do they just sell them at the konbini? Also I swear I have never won a single game of bingo in Japan ever. Afterwards they laid out some tarps and a few watermelons and did the thing where they blindfold somebody and try to make them smash it open with a stick. Except that they tried to direct them towards it, and they were allowed to thrash around at it as many times as they wanted, so I guess we were playing by Special Gaijin Rules. I've never actually witnessed this practice except on Beach Episodes, but I've always condemned it as a waste of perfectly good food. Turns out, though, we ate it, so I guess as long it's not full of sand, it's actually still edible after being bashed to bits. Did you know that? I didn't know that.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Gaijin Tales! Mother Russia saying and doing things

Australzealand: Is that in Kansai? It takes about an hour to get from Kansai to Kyouto Station.

*

Australzealand: Then here in Kansai, everyone's like “homa ni” and “nan yan...”

*

Rude Boy: Going somewhere exciting?
Lithuania: Yeah!
(beat)
Rude Boy: Don't overwhelm me with detail.
Australzealand: Do you find your sarcasm sometimes lost on people here?

*

Insufferable Dumbass: Whatever, people are gonna talk behind my back. I'm used to it, even back home.
Big Finn: Have you ever tried to think about maybe why that is?

*

Rude Boy: i think my least favourite part was when i was complaining to one of my friends about how i often feel that i'm not being afforded the deference i would be were i japanese, and how i understand why it happens, but it's not about me needing to be the big man, it's about feeling disrespected
Rude Boy: and one of the other guys with us said "well, of COURSE you're not going to be respected. you just have to accept that this is japan."
Rude Boy: and i was like
Rude Boy: um
Rude Boy: no
Rude Boy: not an acceptable answer
Rude Boy: excuse me while i unfriend you in real life

*

Nara (turtle girl from before): She's mad.
Rude Boy: What, really? I didn't even notice.
Nara: Well, she is.
Rude Boy: What the hell did I do?
Nara: Probably nothing. But she's a girl.

*

Insufferable Dumbass: Emperor system and imperial system...are those the same thing?

*

Hot girl's shirt:

Want To Do You All
*LOVE GIRLS*

*

Rude Boy: I only have three beer.
Mother Russia: That's enough for you, right?
Rude Boy: Awwwwwwwwwwwwwww.
Mother Russia: :3

*

Mother Russia: I talked with the Russian girl today.
Rude Boy: In Russian?
Mother Russia: Yeah.
Rude Boy: And was she like, “Um, your pronunciation is perfect, but you speak like a small child...”
Mother Russia: Hahaha! No...but I could see it in her face.

*

Mother Russia: Good night, broken person!

*

Rude Boy: oh and because i was drunk and had been watching too much mad men i kept taking her lighter and lighting her cigarette for her last night loooooooooool

*

Mother Russia: It's supposed to look all relaxed...
Rude Boy: She doesn't look relaxed. Look at the position of her arms, she looks like she's masturbating.
Mother Russia: Well...that's pretty relaxing, right? :3
Rude Boy: Ha! Could be. But judging by her face she looks more into it than relaxed.
Mother Russia: Why do you keep saying 'she?'
Rude Boy: Who is it?
Mother Russia: Me!
Rude Boy: O...h!

*

(halfway through Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
Mother Russia: Do you like it?
Rude Boy: Yes, although I have some questions.
Mother Russia: “What is this movie about?”

*

Insufferable Dumbass: In Germany, is it pretty popular with the Japanese food?

*

Rude Boy: [Name]-CHAN!!
1kkaisei: YES!!
Rude Boy: YO!!
1kkaisei: GOOD AFTERNOON!!
Rude Boy: She's really energetic...
Genmaichan: Are you trying to say “young?”
Rude Boy: Maybe I am.

*

Rude Boy: want some cheeseburger pizza
Mother Russia: a mix of both?xD

*

Lithuania: You going to have some coffee with those sandwiches?
Rude Boy: Um...no? What the fuck?
Lithuania: Oh, it's pretty popular in Lithuania. Coffee or tea with sandwiches.
Rude Boy: ...I guess I can't talk. My country's national cuisine is French fries with gravy and cheese curds.

*

The moment when you find yourself in a busy footpath, stealthily trailing after some high school girls in the hopes of stealing a glance at their socks, you begin to question your life choices.

I was trying to figure out if they went to my old high school.

*

Rude Boy: Piss...cocks...fuck...
Lithuania: I wish you could hear yourself.

*

Lithuania: I'm gonna start watching Game of Thrones.
Rude Boy: You might not like it. Apparently there's a lot of fucking.
Lithuania: Yeah, one of my friends said it was more like Game of...“P.”
Rude Boy: …“Piss?”
Lithuania: No! Other “P!”
Rude Boy: Game of...Penises?
Lithuania: No! P o...
Rude Boy: ...oh, “Porn!!”
Lithuania: Yes!!
Rude Boy: Now I'm curious about Game of Piss, though.

*

Rude Boy: I saw something horrifying today.
Lithuania: What was it?
Rude Boy: Do you know those giant spiky caterpillars? I saw one on the sidewalk on the way home, and a hornet was just stripping the fuzzy part off its body...
Lithuania: That's terrible!
Rude Boy: ...and it was thrashing around and trying to push it off like “No, stop!”
Lithuania: Oh, see! That's it, right? You have the right to defend yourself from the attacking caterpillar!
Rude Boy: Uh, yeah, I'm pretty sure the caterpillar was just minding its own business and the wasp was like “Oh hey, food!”
Lithuania: Haha.
Rude Boy: Like if I had to kill to eat, I would obviously try to do it in such a way as to inflict as little pain as possible. But it didn't even kill the caterpillar, it was just like “I'm gonna start from the back,” and just started eating it alive.
Lithuania: That's intense!
Rude Boy: And I'm like, what's my responsibility here?
Lithuania: You should never interfere with nature.
Rude Boy: Right, and even if I did, what then? The same exact thing is going on in a forest somewhere right now. I can't be there every time it happens. It's not like I can just end all suffering. It really got me thinking about how nothing we do matters and we're all fucked...it was a very depressing existential moment.
Lithuania: So what did you do?
Rude Boy: Well, I just left it there.
Lithuania: What! Probably this was a test from God, and you faaaaaailed!
Rude Boy: Doubt it. Do you understand “Deism?” The idea that God exists, but doesn't interfere with the affairs of this world. Cause it's the old argument, either God is impotent, or He is wicked, or He doesn't exist.
Lithuania: This conversation got deep fast.
Rude Boy: I'll show you deep fast. Anyway that wasn't even the worst part. When I went back to school a couple of hours later, it was there in the same spot, only now being torn apart by a small army of ants. And it was still thrashing around like “Nooooo!”
Lithuania: Oh my God! You should have just stomped them allllll!
Rude Boy: Well, maybe I should have at least stepped on the caterpillar's head. Just to be merciful.

*

When I learn a new word, I often spend the next little while trying to insert it into conversation as often as possible, frequently employing it even in instances where I would normally say something else, or stitching together extremely tenuous excuses to try it out. I assume this is normal for most people learning a second language. Partly this is for practise, partly it's to check if I'm using it correctly, and partly it's just excitement. It's like getting a new toy toy to play with.

Part of studying a language formally means memorizing long lists of vocabulary that seems 99% useless. Like “constabulary” or “positron.” When in hell am I ever going to need a word like that? Even if I do, I'm better off looking it up when these specialized situations do crop up, and instead devoting my study time to more common words and phrases.

That said, when, in the course of your day, in some conversation or on some sign, you do encounter a word or kanji that you had to memorize for a test, the feeling is downright magical.

And you know what's even better? To struggle and struggle to grasp the nuance of a grammatical pattern, to hear it but not comprehend it, to come up with a half-dozen example sentences but not be sure if they're right...and then one day, unprecedented, have the spontaneous urge to use the construction in a sentence you're already in the middle of saying. These are the days when you've got this whole language-learning thing under control, you are worldly and educated and intelligent, you really are making progress, and have not been spending hundreds of hours of your life for nothing.

Then usually the next day you can't understand when the konbini clerk asks if you want a bag or not and you feel like the densest sack of shit who's ever walked this earth, which is why you sort of learn to savour the small victories.

*

Once when I was eating an ice cream cone, Mother Russia took it from me, ate the top part, and then gave it back with a huge groove in the surface of the ice cream, because she'd tried to rake it out with her teeth to avoid eating the cone.

Rude Boy: Um.
Mother Russia: Because of my diet, remember! I can't eat carbs!
Rude Boy: Uh-huh. Did you...need some help with this? >_>
Mother Russia: Yeah!!

Aaaaand so we started swapping, with me filing down the cone for her, and her eating as much of the revealed ice cream as she could before handing it back to me to continue my work. Then I pulled out a second one...which she stole, but this time got impatient, grabbed a spoon, and, after a few minutes, gave me back the empty cone.

Rude Boy: Oh, thank you so much. I'm so super excited to eat my, fucking...hard, dry bread.

Another time, she drank four coolers, I drank four beer, and then took down another half beer before she noticed that I was slowing down and just finished it off for me, without asking. Then she took my last beer, also without asking, and drank that too.

She can drink me under the table. It's awesome.

And finally, continuing with the theme of “Mother Russia ganking all my stuff,” she also sometimes takes my meat when I get a bentou, because she knows I don't really like it.

Rude Boy: Wow, you must really like having my meat in your mouth.
Mother Russia: I do!
Rude Boy: Hehe.
Australzealand: -.-

*

Japanese language teacher: What do you know about Liberia?
Chinese student: It's a very cold place, right?
Japanese language teacher: Isn't that...Siberia?

*


On the spur of the moment, I decided to go downtown. I realised partway there that I'd just made two transfers without paying any attention to what I was doing, my mind occupied by the more pressing concerns of essay topics and homework. After taking a stroll through some of my favourite areas, I decided I was hungry and stopped at Subway, where I noted that they'd hired a new girl. I dropped in at my local Round1 for a few rounds of Wang at Midnight before remembering that I needed to pick up Part 2 of 1Q84; considering the locations of nearby bookstores, I opted for Junkudou, in a spot I rarely visit but certainly not far out of my way. Finally I checked BookOff for any desirable new stock before heading home. A year ago I couldn't have found any of these places even if you'd given me a map.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Just visiting?

“Sometimes I question my purpose in teaching Japanese,” last year's head teacher once told my class. “When you go back to your countries, you'll probably never use it again. In five years, maybe you'll have forgotten it all. Eventually, I realised that, more than language ability per se, I have something more meaningful to impart...I'm talking about memories.”

Most of the people living in my dorm are in Japan for the first time, and most of them will never come back. There are times when you can really feel this adventurous energy in them. It's an exciting life. Every uniquely Japanese thing spotted is a must-seize, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If you don't get out to Arayashima this weekend, you may never get around to it. If you miss Aoi Matsuri this year, you'll never see it. Get out there! Explore Japan! Carpe diem!

Years ago, that's where I was. But I've transitioned to a stage where a lot of the stuff that once seemed exotic has normalized. Those wacky Japanese are just people. They eat, sleep, live, love, study, work, and fuck like anybody anywhere. Even the things that stuck out at me when I came as a child (at which point the entire world is bizarre) have faded into the blob of daily life. “Cultural differences” are now merely the way things are. When people, Japanese or otherwise, ask me what most surprised me about the country, I have to think hard to remember.

It's not that Japan has become boring, but my feelings have certainly levelled out. As grandiose a statement as this is, I intend to spend the rest of my life here, so I have the time to enjoy myself a little more leisurely. Different goals, you see. My counterparts are giving it their all because they're fistfighting the calendar. They don't want to live here anymore than I want to live in Borneo.

Aren't they living here for now, though?

To be completely honest, and here I will well and truly reveal my deepest conceits, I'm not so sure all of them are. I struggled for a while with coming up for a definition of “living” somewhere. For some time, I couldn't quite do it.

Obviously time is a factor. If I go to Hawaii for a week, when I talk to people I'm not gonna start telling them that I used to live in Hawaii. So maybe is it the amount of time invested into a particular place? Somehow that doesn't seem right. If I backpack around Russia, I might easily be there for a year or more, but that's travelling, not living. Is it a fixed address that makes the difference, then? Nah, that's not it either. The fact that I change apartments every few years doesn't mean that I don't live in Marseilles, and besides, maybe I like the non-committal nature of a hotel.

How about the guy who doesn't speak Japanese, seals himself in English plastic wrap, and doesn't have any Japanese friends, but hasn't set foot in any other nation in the last twenty years? Obviously I'm not asserting that he doesn't live here.

Actually, yes, that's exactly what I'm asserting.

I think you get me. Obviously he lives here, of course he does. But he doesn't really live here. There's a difference between living and surviving – at some point or another, we all experience the quietly gutting realisation that we're doing no more than worshipping the clock, that nothing we currently have is contributing to our dreams or happiness, and that the days have begun to slop pointlessly into one another and we will soon die miserable and alone. So we do something about it. Change jobs, make a move on that hottie at Starbucks, take up a new hobby...move to Japan. Get off the metaphorical couch, somehow. Time and persistence don't mean you lived somewhere anymore than graduating university means you got an education. You can shack up with Japan, but when you haven't spoken in months, that's a sham marriage. I'm shopping for rings.

Lately I've started to feel like I really “get” living here. Everyday tasks are becoming less challenging. I didn't even notice at what point my internal dialogue switched “the dormitory” into “home.” I've got my place, and my space. I've more or less established myself in this school, in this city...even in this country, perhaps. I've made connections. I've got friends, contacts, and fences throughout the region. I've got Mother Russia. These days I'm feeling pretty good about my life, and the world, and my place in it.

That's why it's so painful to say that I'm going to be leaving very soon.

I think I've always made it clear that I'm here for the long haul. In fact, one of my goals at the start of the year was to find my next vehicle, and I pursued every option I had with zealous lust. First I applied for the only English-teaching position that was willing to consider hiring me without a completed four-year degree, and we conducted an interview over Skype, so I got to experience the unsettlingly silly sensation of wearing a shirt and tie in my own house. It was one of those nerve-wracking panel deals, with four strangers staring me down, spurring me through a grueling, stamina-draining gauntlet. Each question seemed designed to probe for the slightest sign of weakness, itching to expose me as a dumb college kid, an otaku FOB, a Nihon-kabure with no teaching skills or even interest in the profession (the latter of which I actually am). A combination of poor audio and difficult topics shattered my initial plan of appearing pleasant and comfortable, ensuring that instead I wore a look of intense concentration throughout.

In the end, I had no idea how well I had performed. One of the ladies I'd clearly won over, the other two seemed to be giving me serious consideration, and the guy seemed to harbour nothing but hatred for me, the world, and himself. I didn't get the job, obviously, but was several weeks later I found out – through my father's connections – that I had actually been deemed the most desirable candidate out of the five shortlisted. The youngest, too, for what that's worth. I only lost out for complicated legal reasons having to do with the timing of my graduation. Just bad luck.

I investigated other avenues. I checked for other employment options, but what few existed turned out to be unavailable to me. I threw all my efforts into a bid for language school and actually got quite deep into the process, but in the end, on top of immigration issues, the money just wasn't there. Going directly to grad school wasn't happening without a scholarship, either, to say nothing of my less-than-stellar academic record. Every single thing I tried ended in abject failure, and not even spectacular, explosive abject failure; just door after door quietly closing in my face. On the one hand, I can say I did everything I could, so no regrets there...but on the other, I gave everything I had and it still wasn't enough, and that's maddening. I had this idea that Effort x Talent = Results, but it's just another fairy tale I was told as a child, like that evil can't go unpunished forever, or that looks shouldn't matter.

I finally had to concede the truth: At the end of August, I'm going back to Canada. Probably for about a year, and possibly much longer. I can't say. But I'm already working on my plan to get back, so there's that.

What does the change of venue mean for this blog? Well I'm not just gonna let it die, that's for sure. I haven't run out of things to say about Japan just yet. On that note, rest assured that this space will not metamorphose into some strange pastiche of my personal interests, either – I mean it's always been that to some extent, and I hope that my particular injection of personality makes it more compelling, but I fully realise that people come here looking to read about Japan, not me.

The delivery method is going to change a bit, of course. As the theme of this blog up until now has been “my life in Japan,” I obviously can't continue in that vein while not in Japan. Doesn't keep me from making observations, though. Maybe comment on recent developments in pop culture. And the stories and anecdotes will still be there, just coming from a different perspective. Except a drop in frequency, though.

I've got a couple more months to come to terms with my failure, cross off a few more boxes on my checklist, and just generally make the absolute best of the time I've got left. Which is really just a metaphor for life right there, isn't it? I want to sincerely thank everyone who reads this blog – there aren't a lot of you, but I appreciate every one. If you're just stumbling upon me, please do have a look through my archives before inevitably skittering away in revulsion. And to all of you, regardless, I hope you'll consider sticking around.


We're not out of the game just yet.