Monthly Archives: May 2014

Two Stories

What do you do with your teeth?
On Monday one of my students had a tooth fall out in the middle of class. Since I teach junior high, this is a decently rare occurrence, but out it came. The teacher explained to me that in Japan upper teeth are buried under the house and lower teeth are thrown on the roof. This is considered good luck and helps ensure that the next set of teeth will be strong. In turn, I explained that in the U.S. we put a tooth under our pillows, and the tooth fairy comes to pick it up, leaving money behind. The teacher translated this for the students, and they all made the standard Japanese noise of astonishment. They say “Eh”, but instead of making it one note like crusty old Americans do, the sound starts relatively low and raises 22 notes. The lack of completion of the third octave conveys a feeling of bewilderment. But in this case it was good bewilderment. I think they all wished they got money from their teeth too.

Um, would you like a pen?
Since I live overseas I have my mother on my checking account. It means she can deal with my finances and pay bills without too much of a problem. Because my parents live in a small town with exactly one bank, that is the bank chain I use. Like many companies, this bank gives out pens to its customers. They happen to be really good pens, and when I make my once a year visits I grab
half a dozen to take with me.

Today at the elementary school I teach at I saw the students looking inquisitively at my pen. I didn’t see anything special about it. It is a dark green ball point pen with English writing. Still, if they valued it that much…

I offered the girl the pen. She insisted she couldn’t take it. But the boy next to her said he would take it. The girl got mad at him. I don’t
know if it was because she actually wanted it or because she thought it was rude for him to take it. In either case, this was something I could fix. In elementary school the students come to the teacher’s room to fetch me to start class and they walk me back afterwards. The girl happened to be the one assigned to accompany me. Back at the office, I asked her to wait a minute and dug through my backpack to find another pen from the bank, which was subsequently presented to her. She thanked me and left. During cleaning time I saw she was using it to mark the progress on her group’s chart.

I wonder if this bank has any idea that it’s pens are floating around in rural Japan.


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Monday was one of those days here in Muddville. The ninth grade English teacher, Mr. Sato, slunk in in the morning and said, “Today I have no motivation.” He coaches the baseball team and they had lost both of their games on Sunday. To avoid having to teach a full class, he showed the students “The Making of ‘We Are The World.'” It was either going to be that or a compilation of ABBA’s music videos. The seventh and eighth grade English teacher seemed cheerful enough. On the way downstairs after class, however, she commented that two girls we had just passed in the hall were tired because they are on the basketball team and extra practices had been held last weekend. And sports day had been held last week, basically an all day track meet. The girls were physically exhausted, and it showed. We walked in to the teacher’s room to find Mr. Sato trying to make coffee. The office lady, Mrs. Honda, saw him and rushed over, apologizing profusely. “Do you need your caffeine?” I teased Mr. Sato. He smiled. “Yes. My caffeine and my nicotene.”

For my part, I was tired too. Friday night for a coworker’s birthday we had gone to Round One. Round One is a delightful company in
Japan. It is like Chuck E Cheese for grown ups, or Dave and Buster’s on crack. The first floor has a bunch of gambling machines. The second floor has the check in area. The third has conventional bowling. But the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors, oh my! A flat fee gets you in for a certain amount of time and within that time span you can do as many activities as you like. The fourth floor has arcade games, table tennis, darts, and a skating rink. The fifth floor has miniature bowling, karaoke, a mechanical bull, and a spa area. The sixth floor has batting cages, archery, putt-putt, golf practice, and small courts for basketball, soccer, tennis, badminton, and volleyball. Usually it closes by 11 and opens at 6. But on Friday and Saturday nights the complex is open all night. Anyone who arrives after 9 just pays the two hour price as long as they leave by 6. So that is what we did. Because there aren’t a ton of people there at 2 in the morning, we also could bend some of the rules. You’re only supposed to play that arcade game once before moving on? Play it twice, no one is waiting. The badminton court we’re only supposed to stay on for 10 minutes at a time? 40 minutes later we finally depart. This sounds crazy, but even though we were there for seven hours, we still ran out of time. None of us got to do all of the things we wanted to do. There is that much going on.

Anyway, we dragged ourselves out by 5, caught an early train, and slipped into our apartments. I was in bed by 6:15, slept until 11:10, woke up, and went to bed by 9:30. Sunday morning I slept until 8:30, and that night I was in bed by 10:20. Monday morning my alarm was set for 6, but when I awoke I changed it to 6:35 and went back to sleep. If you calculate it up, there is enough sleep there. It averaged to 8 hours a night. But I was still tired. I loved our time at Round One, but I basically worked out for at least six of the seven hours I was there. And the one hour of “not working out” was spent singing at the top of my lungs. My arms were incredibly sore, which serves me right for doing batting cages, volleyball, badminton, table tennis, and pitching games in the same night. Still, I was recovering, and was doing fine until ten minutes before first period. That is when wave of dizziness hit.

I was my usual, chipper self. Except when I had to pause for a moment. But it seemed to be okay, for everyone was moving a little
slower too.

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Strange Bedfellows

People say that when you live in a foreign country you change. It’s true. Naturally you pick up some of the culture of the inhabitants, your food and clothing preferences change, and you are stretched by having cross cultural interactions. 

But there are other ways you change that people don’t always tell you about. You change to accommodate what is available to you from your own country within the limitations of the local environment. 

Let me explain with the following examples, brought to you by the letter “M“:

A. Milk – I love milk. I am a die hard skim milk drinker. Through and through. And in the states, while I will occasionally drink 1%, given the choice between 2% and another beverage, I’ll pick the other beverage. Or go without. Whole milk is entirely out of the question. I don’t like the fatty taste or the way my stomach feels after drinking enormous quantities of fatty milk. It isn’t the lactose, as I will drink a quart of skim milk without flinching. It really is the fat. 

But I can’t find skim milk in Japan. At least not in my rural area. I can’t even find 1%. There is exactly one brand which carries 2% milk, and that is the only one I will buy. Early on, I had to face a decision: drink 2% or don’t drink milk at all. It wasn’t a hard decision. What’s more, the milk that shows up in school lunch is whole milk. At first it was strange to drink that cup a day. But I built up a tolerance to it. 

One of the local junior highs often sends milk home with my coworkers. My coworkers have more than they want to drink, so they offer it to me. I could turn up my nose at it, seeing as the fat content is higher than I prefer. Or I could accept it gladly. See, milk here is 188 yen a liter. That’s about $8 a gallon, for my U.S. readers. So if someone offers me six cups of milk (1.2 liters), I’m not about to turn up my nose at it, especially because that is one of the first items I run out of, so the milk is not only free but saves me trips to the grocery store. 

B. Music – Karaoke is big in Japan. In fact, the Japanese invented karaoke. In the states I didn’t go because most of my mental database is of the genre labeled “Christian.” While I appreciate a good melody, it is the lyrics that are most important to me. Songs have a way of solidifying their message in my brain, so I am careful about what I choose to sing. An awful lot of songs are about love, usually either the whirlwind of a fresh romance or the sorrow of unrequited love. I don’t seek out a lot of those songs. I don’t need the former reminding me of what I don’t have right now, and I don’t need the latter reminding me of where I have been in the past. 

Then came Japan and karaoke. I wanted to be able to engage with the culture, but I can’t read fast enough to keep up with the Japanese lyrics. Every karaoke selection I’ve seen has a large section of English songs. But they aren’t ones I inherently know. Living here has been a crash course in American pop songs. I’ve become familiar with the most popular songs from P!nk, Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, Plain White T’s, the Fray, and others. In fact, I’ve intentionally youtubed a lot of these songs so that I am ready for karaoke. 

C. McDonald’s – In the states I shunned McDonald’s. I didn’t like the way it made my stomach felt and there was almost always a healthier alternative. I went years without eating at that franchise.

Then came Japan. I don’t remember when I started frequenting McDonald’s, but now I go there once every couple of months. Sometimes it is because I’m craving beef. Other times it is because I just want something American. The other local U.S. franchises either altered their fare to fit the local taste buds (I’m lookin’ at you, KFC and Subway) or aren’t actually a meal (ahem, Starbucks) or are ridiculously difficult to get to ([cough], Dominos). So, I eat there. When I return to the U.S., I will probably shun McDonald’s again. But for now, I eat it. 

D. Marvel Comics – As a kid I never got into comic books, and being only slightly interested in the movies D.C. comics put out, I didn’t jump on the Marvel band wagon. Until Japan.

It started gradually: I watched The Avengers with some friends. The most frustrating thing to me was the lack of character development. Exactly why did I care about these people? But I realized most other people had seen the movies that came first. “I bet that would have made more sense to me,” I commented to Ashley, “if I had seen Iron Man first. Or Iron Man 2. Or Captain America. Or ThorOr a movie about the Hulk.” Her eyes grew wide. “You haven’t seen any of them?” Nope. 

And so the saga began. We watched all four movies, then went back and rewatched The Avengers. Last year I saw Iron Man 3 on one of my flights between Japan and the U.S. And last weekend I felt like seeing a movie, so I caught Captain America 2

Why? Why this sudden welcoming to Marvel Comics movies? Well, now that I’ve seen them I am following the genre, though clearly not wholeheartedly, else I would have bothered to see Thor 2 last year. It’s because there aren’t a lot of English movies that make it out to rural Japan. Sure we have our own collection of films, I subscribe to Hulu Japan, and there is a video rental store about half a mile away. But sometimes we just want to go see a movie in a theatre. And of those that make it to the nearby city, quite a few are dubbed into Japanese. 

In fact, to see some movies in English, we have to go to the next major city over. Instead of just a half hour, we’re traveling an hour and a quarter.  And even though I saw Captain America 2 while in Tokyo, it was the only movie in English in that cinema. I watch Marvel movies because Marvel movies are some of the only options I have. 


So, I am changing. At least for the time I am in Japan. I’m becoming more like the Japanese, but I’m also adapting pieces of American culture I never would have thought I’d adapt. C’est la vie. 

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The Fire Drill

Last week the junior high I teach at had a fire drill. 

I’m going to assume everyone reading this blog has a grid for what a typical fire drill entails. If the reader doesn’t, it usually is just making sure everyone exits in an orderly and safe fashion.

Here is what is different about Japanese fire drills (vs. U.S. ones):

1. The students changed their shoes on the way out. – Yes, Japanese take their shoes off when they enter houses. They also do it when they enter select businesses (schools and hospitals, yes. Traditional restaurants, yes. Most other stores, no). Since this was a planned drill, the students all collected their outdoor shoes from the cubby holes a few minutes before, then changed on the way out. I asked my co-teacher and he said in a real drill they would just go outside in their indoor shoes.

2. Once the students exited the building, they ran to the designated gathering point. My teachers always yelled at us if we broke into a jog. Here, it was expected. Not a full out sprint, but a rapid jog. Like storm troopers on a mission. 

3. They all wore caps – I knew about the shoes thing. My sister had told me about it years ago when she was a teacher in Japan. But this year, for the first time, I noticed the caps. Japanese students have caps that they wear during their daily cleaning time. Apparently they also wear them during fire drills. What I want to know is whether they would all reach for their caps in the case of a real fire. 

4. And they all held handkerchiefs – As far as I could gather, this was to have something to cover their mouths with to prevent smoke inhalation. Makes sense. But what if you don’t have the handkerchief with you? Do you dig through your bag to find it before exiting? So many questions…

5. They actually practiced putting out fires. It wasn’t a real fire, but the firemen who had come to observe the drill gave a short lecture and then about twenty students took turns taking the pin out of a fire extinguisher and aiming it at the fire. They used real extinguishers but filled them with water which was aimed at an orange pylon. This part I really like. I’m 30 years old and I’ve been shown how to use an extinguisher, but never having actually used it, I sometimes wonder if I would botch the whole operation in a panicky moment. Here they practice. I say, Good show!

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The Humor of Idioms

Idioms can cause a host of trouble when it comes to learning another language. For a good movie with a lot of this humor, check out Short Circuit and Short Circuit 2. The Indian character makes a lot of linguistic mistakes, mostly when it comes to his idioms, and it illustrates how ridiculous our language is. 

For the real world examples, here are a few:

1. On Wednesday I taught at a local elementary school. One kid was missing from the fifth grade, and I overheard the teachers discussing it. I had a total language win when I caught them saying the word for chicken pox. I chimed in, proud that I knew what that was. But explaining the English version was less than intuitive. At first they messed it up with goose bumps. Then they wanted to know what a goose was. Unfortunately, that isn’t a word I know in Japanese. We all know that neither ailment has anything to do with birds, but explaining where the name comes from is rather tricky. 

2. Today the teacher I work with wanted me to call upon a student to answer the grammar question. “Please pick up a student” he asked. I smiled at the image, especially when I caught sight of a kid who weighs as much as I do, but I didn’t correct the teacher, out of a wish to avoid embarrassment for him, and called out a kid’s name. It is possible I heard incorrectly, so I listened intently the next time. Nope, he didn’t ask me to pick OUT a student, he was still asking me to pick UP a student. I swallowed a smile and did so. It happened a third time too. Among my coworkers we often have debates about whether or not to correct such situations. Of all mistakes it isn’t that severe, and there isn’t a lot of freedom to correct superiors, no matter what country one is in. 

3. Another teacher at a different school with whom I have worked consistently ends class with, “So much for today.” This fatalistic, discouraged view of the situation is in direct opposition to her sunny nature, leading the several of us who work with her to believe that what she means is, “That’s all for today.” But her mistake is so cute that I ordered my coworkers not to tell her. 

4. Years ago, before I came to Japan, I worked at a coffee shop in the States. One of my coworkers was a German woman and one day she said something she regretted to a customer. “Oh,” she asked, “What is it called when you say something you don’t want to say?” “It’s called, ‘Putting your foot in your mouth.'” “In Germany we say, ‘I put my foot in a bucket of mustard.'” To this day I think of that. I don’t know why the Germans keep buckets of mustard handy, or who would put their foot in one, but it’s quite the imagery. 

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