My junior high decided that once a week for a series of weeks the seventh and eighth graders would join the local sixth graders for an activity. They make crafts or cook or learn to play a traditional Japanese instrument, and they do the same activity every week. I don’t know what the point of it is in the Japanese mind, but in my mind it forms a bonding opportunity with next year’s seventh graders and provides a few hours of alternate education, with a kind of Montessori vibe.
The hierarchy system in Japan dictates that decisions are often made for me, with a quick check to see if I have any objections. This year it was decided that I would go to yoga lessons. If someone had bothered to ask my first choice, yoga would not have been it, as I have a minor issue with the potential spiritual undercurrents that any given leader may introduce and a major issues with flexibility. With the spirituality I decided I could spend most of the two hours praying and inviting the presence of God into the room, thus countering any other spiritual entities who might try to show up. There isn’t much I can do about the flexibility, however.
My completely amateur and non-academic assessment of people’s flexibility is that people seem to fit into four categories: athletically flexible, flexible, athletically unflexible, and unflexible.
A. Athletically flexible people are those whose sport calls for them to be able to bend into various shapes, so they spend a good chunk of their day stretching: gymnasts, dancers, divers, figure skaters etc. I honestly believe some other people fit into this category too. Kickers on football teams, for example. And others who practice sports not requiring flexibility but who themselves prize it and therefore craft it.
B. Flexible people – you know, the people who don’t seem to stretch on a regular basis but just seem to be really flexible. Not like a contortionist, but flexible. I don’t know how they do it, but they do.
C. Athletically inflexible – these are people who have spent a great deal of time building up muscle for one or more sports but who did little or minimal stretching. Because there is a mental correlation many people have between flexibility and athleticism, these people become the brunts of jokes when others realize that these great athletes are worse than many nonathletic people when it comes to basic flexibility.
D. Inflexible people – I’ve met some who just can’t bend hardly at all. I’d describe it more, but on the rare occasions when I meet them it seems rude to stare so I look away before I can craft an accurate mental assessment of exactly how far they can bend.
I happen to fit in category C. Nevermind that I haven’t run in a month, I have permanent thunder thighs from decades of serious running (and I’m awfully proud of them, by the way). Now, there are specific spots in which I am still more flexible than average, areas where I worked the muscles over the years for one reason or another. For example, psychosomatic back pain as a teenager meant that I did a lot of lower back stretches. Consequently while I still fall short of a gymnast, my chiropractor’s assistant used to accuse me of showing off when she measured my flexibility on a monthly basis. And because the Achilles heel really is the Achilles heel of runners, I’ve worked that thing out so much I need to stand on a step to get the angle necessary for a good stretch. Furthermore, a consistently itchy back as a kid really means I don’t have that one spot on my back I can’t reach. One way or another, my right arm can reach every inch of skin on my back. My left arm is a different story. But most people don’t ask to see if I can itch my back or stretch into a back bend. Most people just notice that I can’t get even close to touching my toes.
What does this mean? Well, it means that I’m the person in the circle who looks EXACTLY like that one comedy you once saw where someone is groaning and grunting and can’t get past mid-shin in the toe-touch. The saving grace – sort of – is that one of the P.E. teachers was in the room too. She was worse than me, though she also didn’t try as hard, demurely shaking her head and giving a small smile when urged to try harder. Sometimes I still am that kid who makes a joke out of everything. Other times, like at yoga, I just am the joke.
Naturally, the whole session is in Japanese. Every once in awhile I catch a word I know: “Left,” “Sri Lanka,” “Ceylon,” “difficult,” but most of the time I just watch to figure out what I’m supposed to do. Sometimes I think I understand, but I wonder if it could possibly be right. Yesterday I heard, “Now [something, something, something] baby, [something] mother [something, something]” and we all assume the fetal position and rock back and forth. Then we were supposed to kick our legs around in the air. I tensed my torso and mimicked the indignant flailing of a baby that has been put down for a nap against its will. The three seventh grade girls next to me pealed into laughter.
But last week was far funnier. As the leader tried her best to speak in soothing tones, I was sure I heard her say, “No birthday cake arimasu.” That would translate, “There is no birthday cake,” though if I WERE to try to translate, “There is no birthday cake” into Japanese, it would be closer to, “Birthday cake arimasen” or “Birthday cake nai.” What she was trying to say in Japanese, I’ll never know, but for the next two hours, at some of the quietest moments I would think to myself in a soothing voice, “There is no birthday cake” and burst into giggles that I managed to stifle into silence, but which still rippled up and down my torso.
After yoga I asked the five sixth grade boys what their names were. They’ll be my students in April, I might as well learn their names now. I already knew Takumi, for he was in my group at the English program we did last October. Of the other four, two of them were named “Yu.” “‘Yu’ and ‘Yu’?” I verified in Japanese. Takumi grinned and said very clearly in English, “Double Yu.”
Yes, that’s right, the pun is alive and well in Japan.