Tag Archives: humor

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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Sittin’ in the corner, Munching eggs…

Yesterday a friend asked if we could go for a run together sometime today. She wanted to show me a certain cherry tree that was blooming. 

That sounded like a capital idea. However by the time she gets off work tonight it will be dark. Therefore, we decided to go in the morning before work.

After the run I had enough time to shower, put on make-up, read my Bible, and catch the bus. What I DIDN’T quite have enough time to do was eat breakfast. I grabbed two hard boiled eggs and a bottle of spicy mayonnaise (it tastes rather like Arby’s Horsey sauce), stuffed them in my backpack, and headed out the door. 

Once I arrived at school I had 40 minutes before classes began. There is some debate whether it is really appropriate to eat at our desk outside of the designated lunch time and the omiyage (food gifts brought back from vacations). When other teachers pull out food to snack on, they share it with everyone in the office. This was breakfast, and I didn’t have enough to share. So I slipped off to the women’s locker room and sat in the corner, peeling eggshells into a paper bag. The locker room is rarely used, and I assumed I would have peace and quiet and that no one would ever find out.

About half way into the first egg, however, the school nurse walked in. She apologized in Japanese, and I waved it away, apologizing myself. We had a bit of a conversation while she changed and I peeled the other egg. Then she left. It turned out okay. But for all the world, I saw how ridiculous I looked, sitting cross-legged in a corner of this narrow room, munching on eggs. 

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Spring Break: Cleaning, then Touring Tokyo and Kyoto

It’s been a few days since I posted. The main reason for this is that I was on spring break. In Japan spring break marks the change from one school year to the next. For this reason, or perhaps another, we are given two weeks off, which is longer than any U.S. school that I know of.

Part 1: Cleaning

The first week I spent helping coworkers clean apartments, as four of the ex-pats were leaving, two were moving into vacated apartments, and four more teachers were moving in. We junked a ton of items. What, after all, are we really supposed to do with glittery jewelry that none of us here want, with half empty bottles of condiments, with bikes whose brakes no longer work, clothing that flatters no one currently living here, used gift bags, VHS tapes, and Japanese textbooks that were pompous enough to invent their own system of romaji? With the exception of clothes, which we are trying to coax friends with cars to cart to Koriyama and make a profit selling to thrift stores, it all got thrown away. There were plenty of echoes of, “But someone might want that?” but in the end most of it ended up in the trash.Seeing the high amount of stuff that was left for the rest of us to deal with, and feeling the frustration of it, often meant I returned to my own apartment and began tossing items into the trash. Those butt-ugly Christmas decorations? They’re gone. The taupe shirt I never wear? It’s on the donate pile. The purple flats I’ve worn to pieces and should have thrown away years ago? Dumpster. The poinsettia that wasn’t really still alive? Yep, that too. Next year I don’t want to be the person who is still packing the night before and leaves clutter, dust, and mold for the other teachers to deal with. I want to be the person who is well packed and leaves the apartment as spotless as possible (bed sheets being the great challenge to all movers everywhere). Intellectually I acknowledge there were other things I did that week, but the emotional memories are tied to cleaning.

Part 2: Tokyo and Kyoto

The second week I headed down south for a few days. My sister and my brother-in-law came to visit and we spent two days in Tokyo and four days in Kyoto. There is plenty that can be said about both of these cities, for they are both beautiful and have a lot to offer. But there are plenty of blogs and books that hold that information. In this blog post I’m going to skip all of that basic information (if you want to read it, leave a comment below and I’ll type up an additional post) and instead just tell you the funny/odd bits of the trip.

Saturday

1. We took the bullet train (shinkansen) from Koriyama to Tokyo. Because it was relatively crowded, I didn’t bother to try and sit by my companions but bee lined to an empty seat. Two gentlemen were sitting in a row and after asking permission in Japanese, I sat down in the seat between them. I pulled out my book and assumed that would be the last we spoke for the next 75 minutes. To my surprise the man on the aisle began speaking to me in English. It was a pleasant enough conversation, especially once I found out he had a girlfriend and therefore wasn’t hitting on me, just exploiting the opportunity to practice his English (which bothers me far less than it does some other ex-pats).

As the chatter waned, the end of the conversation ran as such:

Man: “Do you like beer?”

Me: “No.” He had told me he was a cook at a pub (izakaya) and I was sensitive to the fact that it might hurt his feelings to tell the truth, but I did so anyway.

Man: “You don’t like beer?”

Me: “No. I don’t like the taste.”

Man: (pulling a can of beer out of his coat pocket) “Do you want this?”

Me: “No, thank you. Please enjoy.”

And he did, cracking open his can of Asahi. It was 10:30 in the morning. I may have lived here for two years, but moments like this still hit me hard with the, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more” feelings. I also breathed a sigh of relief that I had been honest, else I would have been obligated to sit there drinking a can of beer.

2. That night we stayed in a capsule hotel. My sister complained about this a little, but because this is a peak travel time, when she went to make reservations a couple weeks ago, everything else was either really expensive, really inconvenient, or already booked. Why, she wanted to know, would she pay the same as a regular room for a space she couldn’t even stand up in? Me? I loved it. I first heard about capsule hotels via a television program 15-20 years ago, and when I got a job here in Japan, that was high on top of the bucket list. It was a bitter disappointment to learn that most cater only to men, and that my gender would keep me from this amazing experience. Somehow we found one of the only ones that allows women and that is where our reservation was. 

I had had a long day. The physicality as well as the frustrations of cleaning the week before had really taken it out of me, my relatives had been sharing my small apartment space for five days, we had gone for a run that morning then spent the afternoon walking around museums, and while I had long since ceased to be contagious, my body was still feeling the effects of the flu that had ravaged it. It was 6:30 when we checked in, and my sister asked if we wanted to do something. “I need some alone time” I responded, and crept off. Despite everything else, when I reached my capsule I began grinning like a fool. There is something in my soul that loves the really small spaces  when I am sleeping, and after journaling for a few minutes I fell asleep, exhausted. I slept for 12 hours that night. Man, that flu did a number on me!

Jeni in a capsule

My sister in her capsule.

Sunday

The best food in the world is when someone really good at making an item makes it. Rice and beans had never tasted so good as they did in Mexico. And people from India will always be the best at making naan. Similarly, the Japanese do Japanese food like nobody’s business. But they’re not so hot at making American, British, Italian, etc. food. Most of their interpretations end up as some amalgamation that is pretty pitiful. I’m a decent cook and can make quite a lot of food myself. Nevertheless, there are certain items I can’t make, and when I travel out of my rural town, I like to hunt down the really good food as opposed to settling for the “just okay”. To save our budget, we rounded out the restaurant visits with trips to the convenience store for sandwiches, snacks, fruit, and milk. Sunday breakfast was just such a meal. For lunch we found ourselves in Ueno and I dragged my sister and brother-in-law to a shawarma stand run by a guy who, well, I don’t know where he is from. But he isn’t Japanese and the sauce there is really good. Around supper time we were in Akihabara and I successfully lobbied for a visit to the local Rose and Crown (a chain of Victorian pubs) for some decent fish and chips. I’m sure they’re not perfect, and if I were British I would know that, but they are better than the fried fish at the Iwaki aquarium, and are pretty close to those at the Eagle and Child in Oxford. 

Akihabara is a part of Tokyo known for two things: 1. The plethora of electronic stores 2. A girl’s pop group based out of there. The group is called AKB 48. AKB is the abbreviation for Akihabara and 48 is the number of women in the group. They are split into three groups – the A group, K group, and B group – of 16 each and they perform concerts with lots of choreographed dancing. And they are wildly popular. 

Beneath the subway station in Akihabara there is an AKB 48 cafe. We walked by at 9:15 in the morning and saw a long line already forming for the opening at 10. After going to Ueno we came back to Akihabara for dinner. The Rose and Crown is across the square from the AKB 48 cafe, and I decided to track how fast the line moved. There was a consistent rain, and I kept my eye on a certain pink umbrella. In the 50 minutes we sat in the restaurant, it advanced 25 meters. By my best guess, the patrons spent an average of 90 minutes in line prior to entering the cafe. The line never got shorter while we were there, and even grew slightly longer. People arrived to stand in line at the same pace as they entered. Granted, it was a Sunday during spring break, which may have resulted in a higher demand that day, but I still wondered at the commitment. 

Monday

Monday we traveled to Kyoto. First we stopped by the Shinjuku area of Tokyo to see the view from the Tokyo Metropolitan Offices. Then we took the bullet train to Kyoto, found our hostel, walked to Gion to see a temple and see the shops full of Japanese craft. After stopping back at our hostel to put on more layers of clothing, we walked to Nijo castle to see the cherry trees lit up at night.

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The cherry blossoms lit up at night

We also enjoyed some performances on the koto, sometimes called the Japanese zither. In total I calculated we walked 9 1/2 miles that day (15 km). No, I don’t want to go running tomorrow, thank you.

The koto performance was done by three women who were all very skilled. But I had a hard time not focusing on how bad a case of osteoporosis one performer had. I blame it on watching too many episodes of “Bones.”

After the koto performance I stopped by one of the tables selling various items. It was giving samples of various types of liquor. I had been there a year before and regretted that I hadn’t bought a bottle of yuzu shu. “Yuzu” is a kind of citrus fruit and “shu” is another term for sake. I think there is some technical difference, just like ale is technically different from beer, but I don’t know what it is. I had in mind to buy some yuzu shu, but to make sure it was as good as I remembered it, I tried the small sample sips of each of the three options: yuzu shu, plum shu, and a special sake that was developed with the mind for people to drink it while sitting under cherry blossoms. A lot of businesses colleagues and groups of friends hang out under the flowering cherry trees during the spring and, well, they drink. Public intoxication isn’t grounds for arrest in this country. As long as you don’t drive, no one seems to care. Except the women receiving unwanted advances. 

While the plum shu was good, of the three I still liked the yuzu shu best, so that is what I bought. But this year I caught a key piece of information I had missed last year. The sake was 20% alcohol, the plum shu was 8% alcohol, and the yuzu shu was a mere 5% alcohol. The amount of alcohol seems inversely related to how much I like the beverage. In other words, I really don’t care for the taste of alcohol. 

Tuesday

Tuesday we went back to Nijo castle in order to see it by day and get the historical side. The best way to do this was by renting audio guides that told about each location. It was 500 yen to rent each device, and I suggested to my sister that she could remove the provided ear piece and replace it with my headphones, which she could then share with her husband, thereby cutting costs. The woman running the station insisted this was not possible. I’m not super technologically savvy, but by looking at them, my suggestion would have been quite easy. The woman just didn’t like the idea of us finding a way to save some money.

Lesson learned: just because people in Fukushima-ken don’t generally know English, don’t assume the people in Kyoto don’t.

Wednesday

Wednesday we headed out to Arashiyama, notable for both the flowering cherry trees along the river bank as well as for the wild animal park that, unlike the typically cramped zoos of Japan, allows visitors to look at monkeys in their natural environment. To the Japanese they are just “monkeys” but to the English speaking world they are “snow monkeys.” This is because they live farther from the equator in the wild than any other non-human primate. The system that makes this possible is the many natural hot springs in Japan, which snow monkeys freely bathe in during the winter. Japan is basically a bunch of mountains sticking up out of the ocean, and while technically  dormant, most of these mountains are volcanoes. The hot springs provided by the magma are enjoyed by humans and monkeys alike, though they don’t share the spots. These hot springs allow the monkeys to live on Hokkaido, Japan’s northern most island, which has a latitude equivalent to Maine. In addition to living in a different climate, Japanese monkeys do not carry the coloring of African primates. No dark haired, white faced apes here. Snow monkeys have light hair and red faces and rumps. As long as a person keeps in mind that they are wild animals and there is no barrier so caution must be taken, it is a wonderful experience to see them. 

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A snow monkey at Arashiyama

On the way back to downtown Kyoto the train was again crowded. I found a seat, but by accident this was in the section reserved for handicapped, pregnant mothers, the elderly, etc. Others are still allowed to sit there, but courtesy dictates that we be mindful and offer the seat if necessary. A few stops later an older man stepped aboard. I watched him look around for a place to sit and, finding no available options, stood. As I waited for people to finish crawling aboard I processed how in the world to offer my seat in Japanese. Nope, I didn’t have the words for it. I realized, however, that the Japanese value of less communication could actually work in my favor here. If I could just pull this off correctly, I wouldn’t need more than a few words. I waited until the gentleman was looking in my direction, then rose and gestured to my seat, saying only an elongated, “Sumimasen” (Excuse me) in a way that clearly indicated a question. The man acknowledged my gesture but waved it away, wordlessly communicating he didn’t want my seat. I sat back down. Communication. Win.

Thursday

Even though we could have spent a few more hours in Kyoto, all three of us agreed we would just rather head back up north. We had seen what we wanted to see, and while we could have found something to do (there is a new aquarium and we hadn’t seen the silver temple), it was mutually agreed upon that my brother-in-law would get a better picture of Japan by spending an afternoon in Koriyama than by spending another morning in Kyoto. In Koriyama I took them to the top of a tall building near the station to see the view, then we went off to experience Round One. Round One is like Chuck-E-Cheese on crack for grownups. There are a ton of games and areas (everything from DDR to arcade games to batting cages to pool tables to roller skating to a mechanical bull) but instead of paying per activity you pay for the amount of time you are there. I don’t know of anything quite like it in the U.S., so that is how we decided to spend our free time on Thursday.

But first we wanted to eat lunch. We got into Koriyama at about 1. There is a good Indian food place nearby, but we had had Indian the night before. The other two agreed that ramen would be good, so I guided them to the place all of my friends rave about, then headed to McDonald’s.

Inside McDonald’s I ordered and sat down. As I was situating my stuff, a group of high school boys in the corner shot glances at each other and then furtively called out, “Nice to meet you.” I ignored them.

Don’t misunderstand me. I wasn’t dissing them because of what they said. It was more HOW they said it. If they had come up to me with a big smile and said, “Nice to meet you,” I probably would have thrown them a bone and interacted with them until our limited mutual language ran out. But young Japanese men have this thing they do. They call out a phrase and then hide their eyes, heads, or whole bodies if possible, seeing if the woman responds. If they can say something more suggestive they do. I have a funny story about that, but I promised this blog would be G rated, so I doubt I’ll every type it out on here. The American equivalent of what these guys do is like the punk across the room making kissy faces and winking. Or the guys who honk at girls as they drive by. Okay, we see you, but if you were actually looking for a date, you need to work on your communication skills. What you’re currently doing isn’t going to get me to throw myself at you and plead for your number. The creepy young man thing? Yeah, they have them in Japan too. And in every country I have a hard time not bursting into laughter at their incompetence. 

Well, that’s most of the funny things I can remember. Until next time, I’m signing off.

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Cool English and It’s Influence on Japanese Band Names

Currently in Japan the younger generation finds English and French to be rather hip. Don’t misunderstand this. It doesn’t mean all of my students are falling over themselves to learn English. The elementary students like it well enough, as the lesson is highly activity and game based. In fact at my school, the students in first through fourth grades clear away their desks for the biweekly English lesson and sit on the floor. Over the next 45 minutes they will get up to sing a song, often with motions, they will likely work in groups, and they may dart around the room during an activity. Once fifth and sixth grades hit, they are confined to their desks. Textbooks are incorporated, and while we still do activities, it is rare for the students to stand up during the lesson. By the time they are given a thrice weekly English lesson in junior high, spelling and grammar receive heavy emphasis in the curriculum, tests are incorporated, and students smile a lot less frequently during the lesson. 
 
So what do I mean when I say French and English are hip? They appear decoratively on a lot of items: t-shirts, tote bags, pencil cases, notebooks, etc. Sometimes the English is spelled incorrectly, but not usually (that is one of the major components of their education, after all). Sometimes it just doesn’t quite make sense (I used to own stationary that said, “I’m sticky about my favorite things”). Sometimes it is crude (seeing a sweet middle-aged woman in a t-shirt with cuss words is so common it is almost cliche). Sometimes it is rather embarrassing for the wearer (I’ve consistently seen one woman wearing a shirt that says, “I like being simple minded). But most of the time it is completely correct, quite sappy, and very unremarkable. The mother of one of the little girls on my preschool bus wears a t-shirt with English on it several times a week, and I consistently notice this, but I can’t actually remember what any of the shirts in her collection say. I don’t speak French, but a coworker of mine does and reports that the words she sees on vending machines, advertisements, and t-shirts are as consistently incorrect as the English is. Occasionally I spot German, of which I do have a conversational knowledge. The quote that often passes through my head when I see Japanese usage of German is, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”
 
In addition to decoration, a common way English is used is in the names of Japanese musical groups. I’ve heard my students mention all of the following artists:
– Spicy Chocolate – they dress a little like rappers, but they sing pop love songs because that is what is popular in Japan.
– Perfume – Their big hit is called “Chocolate Disco.” Yeah, I don’t know what a chocolate disco is either. 
– Mr. Children – the picture in my head this name creates always makes me think of a kindly old man, like Mr. Wizard, singing nursery rhymes. Even though the band is a bunch of young Japanese dudes singing melancholy pop.
– EXILE – mentally I usually swap this with Exodus and begin thinking of Moses. I probably should keep it straight and just think of Napoleon or the Count of Monte Cristo.
– GReeeeN – I didn’t misspell this. They have four “e”s in their name because of the four band members. 
– ONE OK ROCK – I actually kind of like their music. But there is some indication that the name comes from the time they used to practice on weekends, which in butchered English is, “One o’krock”.
– BADBOYS – I translated this name for my students, and it made them peal into laughter. The tricky thing is, this term is loaded with meaning in English. It is everything from a naughty toddler to a criminal on the show “Cops” to the James Dean hottie. I gave the direct translation, but I know that doesn’t do it justice.
– Kis-My-Ft.2 – It’s pronounced, “Kiss my feet.” When I first heard the name, it made me laugh, and then I had to explain it to my students. Again, that also required some nuance of why someone would kiss another’s foot. 
– World Order – while the name always reminds me of a dictator, their quirky and brilliant dance moves make their music videos so very worth watching. 
 
Now, I am fully aware that American and British bands have their own set of less than intuitive names. I remember being puzzled when I first heard the names Smashing Pumpkins, U2, UB40, 98 Degrees, the Beatles, Fun., and One Direction (which direction is that?). I guess what I’m trying to say here is that no culture has a monopoly on crazy band names. 

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