Thursday, November 29, 2012

When Japanese People Ruminate: Pt. 2

Welcome back to the segment that endorses the behind-the-back hectoring + humiliation of Japanese children. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please refer to my previous, similarly titled post. Again, these are all authentic quotes provided by actual Japanese students. And again, in italics, I’ve included the rejoinders I always thought but never said.

1)      Classroom Assignment: Explain something you wish someone else would do, using the first-person conjugation of the verb-phrase: to want (D.O.) to…”

Yuto:
“I want my mother to buy clothes.”
(So many things, Yuto. So many things. Firstly; you’re lucky that you, as a 13yr old boy, have already seen a woman naked. The illusion is shattered. Not that big of a deal, right? Flesh and fat and other shadowy, anti-glamorous stuff. You know what I’m talking about and you probably resent that. But don’t. You’re ahead of the proverbial game. The obsession and dumb reverence society feels for the female body is, like, totally snuffed-out. You’ve seen your mother naked. Many times. It doesn’t get any more real than that. Now you can get on with the truly messy part: considering women actual people and figuring out how the hell to deal with them. Secondly; stop being so selfish. Of course you want your own mother to be clothed. Her skin embarrasses you. But have you ever stopped and asked yourself: why doesn’t my mother have any clothes? No, you have not. Which is fine because you’re barely a teenager and very unpopular at school and your naked mom is disturbing and unseemly. The thing is, this isn’t about you. Maybe your mom doesn’t have clothes because she has a grave, irreconcilable personal problem that prevents her from having the sufficient funds to buy clothes. Drugs, online gambling, prostitution, a pagan cult, who knows. I’m just saying. Use some logic. Your mom knows she shouldn’t always be naked. She obviously can’t help it. So maybe you should her help her out. (Apparently your father never did.) Then maybe she can get her life on track and buy some clothes and wear them. Thirdly, you sound like a good person. Whatever your motives, more than anything in the world, you want the woman who birthed you to stay warm forever. Good man. On par with all those dumb, honorable athletes who use their first paycheck to buy moms a mansion. Lastly, I’m really sorry you grew up seeing your own mother nude on the regular. That sucks. I know what it’s like. My mom has been towing me along to her skinny-dipping escapades for as long as I can remember. Stay strong.)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Whether or not Team is Spelled with an I and Other Misconceptions


Right now I’m sitting on a swivel-chair in a room in Northwestern CT, USA. I’ve spent the past week refurbishing and aesthetically updating this particular room. It is my bedroom. I haven’t been - much less lived - here at my dad’s house since I don’t even remember when. But after four years at college and two years in Japan, it didn’t really feel like my room anymore. The photographs were of ex-girlfriends. The toys were mostly plastic model dinosaurs. The decorative baseball-bat was signed by some ballplayer who took steroids. My bed-sheets and down-comforter had at some point been assaulted/modified by my father’s girlfriend; the revised linen-theme one of double-digit pillows and diaphanous, baby-blue frills.

Eight of ten bed-pillows are now stored in the basement and my gaze keeps returning to the collage of new photographs I diligently festooned just this week. Most of them are from Japan. Lots of them are of the Toyooka JHS basketball team. These basketball team photos evoke a pinpoint and visceral brand of nostalgia. They summon up a series of very tangible memories. Recollections that should be recorded before they too dissolve into past-tense, freeze-frame memorabilia. These snapshots remind me of the really good stuff. The stuff we, The Toyooka Basketball Team As A Unit, said and accomplished and overcame and fucked-up and failed at. These were my boys. My students, my disciples, my professors, my best friends and my little brothers. For two years, this was my family.

We have shared water-bottles and sweat-drenched headbands and loads of beef curry. We have watched TV in total silence. We have scrubbed vats and pots and pans and plates. We have collided into each other. We have farted on each other. We have been beaten annihilated by pretty much every team we played. We have traded hardcore wedgies until we were all doubled over in agreement that this nonsense has to stop. We have weeded the school lawn. When no one was watching, we have quit weeding and launched into frenzied four-leaf-clover-finding contests. We have performed choreographed hip-hop dance routines. We have been unable to communicate. We have communicated with gestures and without words. We have argued about the physical cuteness of Japanese girls vs. all-other girls. We have stopped talking for a few days. We have started laughing and not been able to stop. We have avoided each other. We have collapsed into a single pile of writhing bodies. We have given each other haircuts. We have grilled meat and when the meat caught fire we sat there blaming each other, refusing to extinguish the conflagration. We have punched a hole in the wall. We have cursed each other’s countries and languages and cultures and friends and parents. We have raced on zip-lines while kick-punch-battling to the death. We have felt earthquakes. We have exchanged romantic counsel. We have slapped each other across the face.

I have woken up hung-over and gone directly to basketball practice in my pajamas. I have contemplated quitting this stupid job that doesn’t even pay a dime. I have made a lifelong friend. I have met sixteen boys I will never forget and five boys I’m not sure I can live without, each of them possessing a litany of insufferable, tortured, exquisite imperfections. I have revealed the most bighearted, dim-witted, inspired, flawed facets of myself. I have sat in total darkness and wept and wondered if This Is What It’s All About.

And always, after all that, we played basketball.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Series of Inconsequential Anecdotes: Pt. 1



This segment is basically just an excuse for me to commemorate some very minor events/milieu that I encountered whilst residing in Japan. The entries will be brief and void of context. I will not attempt to mine them for constrained literary or sociological significance. It’s just that if I don’t write them down ASAP, I’ll forget them entirely. Because, again, they don’t matter at all.

Pt. 1: The Ocean is Closed in June

June, 2011: I drove to Kanazawa City for a long-weekend of beach-bumming + seafood gorging with a British boy and a girl from Baton Rouge. The boy’s name was Ben and the girl’s pseudonym is Kate. They were my two best friends in Japan. We’d vamoosed on a whim because Ben was moving back to England soon and the three of us had a good rapport so what the hell, why not. It was finally summer. I’d bought a cowboy hat. Ben had Technicolor swimming trunks. We wanted to go to the beach.

All I remember from the seven hr drive is that certain stretches of the highway were thick with the stench of some bizarre botanical explosion. I say bizarre because this particular olfactory experience wasn’t at all like springtime or bouquets or other aromatic stuff you’d normally associate with the blossoming of blossoms. It was a seminal odor, in the human male ejaculation sense of the word. Driving through these sporoid clouds was like periodically plowing your way through a dumpster of wadded up teenage-boy tissues. Syrupy and sneeze-inducing. We giggled and gagged and dubbed the mysterious organism to blame: The Semen Tree.1

***

Kanazawa is the capital city of Ishikawa Prefecture, a peninsular district that borders a tract of northwestern Nagano. The city itself is a small municipality, population just under 500,000. Located right on the Sea of Japan, Kanazawa is famous for jumbo shrimp and beaches that you can drive on and probably some other more remarkable historical/cultural stuff that none of us bothered to research. We booked a room at a homestay-type place run by a congenial, pony-tailed Japanese man who’d once lived in Tibet and tended to pack his English sentences with esoteric, spiritual locutions. There were two other guests at the residence; a portly, generally abhorrent Australian woman who’d given herself a Japanese first-name and spent afternoons ignorantly strumming whatever traditional Japanese musical instrument she could get her hands on, and a timid Swedish boy who suffered a serious native-land inferiority complex.

That’s That Shit I Don’t Like


In the name of Integrity, I have a confession. I’ve returned to America for the foreseeable short-term future. I no longer live in Toyooka Japan or teach at Toyooka Junior High School. But this blog is not finished. Not yet. Whatever posts follow this one will be retroactive reflections on living in/leaving Japan. Once I’m done, the blog is done.

If you’re wondering what it’s been like for me to come back to USA after two years in Japan, I’ve got lots of sentiment but zero sagacity to offer. I guess America has changed and I guess I’ve evolved. But I’m also pretty sure that any and all personal/national transformations are ultimately meaningless.

I miss Japan. I’ve missed my friends and family. Mitt Romney is depressing.  

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Miseducation of Ratna, Ken and Kumi: A Textbook Investigation Pt. 2


Note: Every now and then I steal one of my school’s English textbooks and analyze a specific chapter/activity/page from it. For the first installment and some basic information on the New Crown English Textbook Series, please refer to my previous post.

Pt. 2: If You Build It, You’ll Still Probably Die Anyways
Chapter Title: “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes”
From: New Crown Series, Volume 3, page 30.
Chapter's Theme: Sadako is sick with a little thing called “Acute Radiation Syndrome.” She attempts to heal herself by folding a piece of paper into the shape of a bird.
Graphics: A hand-drawn girl sitting in her hospital bed, peeling a banana. Animated Gnomic-Ken standing at the foot of the girl’s bed, epitomizing the physical posture of: The World’s Littlest Biggest Douche. A photograph of a priapic statue with lots of colorful, unidentifiable stuff scattered around it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jumbo Braun: The Tall Man Looseth


Note: The following is a factual, compendious timeline of one totally average day in the life of a 6’4 foreign English teacher in Japan.

07:32 – You wake up. You’re feet overhang the bottom-end of your futon. Your heels have been resting on the tatami-mat all night. This happens every night. It’s been happening for almost two years, and so by now your heels have all these cross-hatched tatami-mat depressions carved into them. You’re pretty sure the cross-hatched tatami-mat heel-carvings are permanent.

07:37 – You stand up, barely awake, and slam your head into the ceiling light fixture. It hurts, but not that bad. The light fixture swings violently, emitting an ominous click-clack, click-clack.

07:41 – You take a shower. The wall-affixed shower faucet is located at about your neck-level. You have to hunch and contort your upper body just to get some water outflow on your face. You don’t wash your hair because your lower back is starting to cramp-up.

07:47 – You towel off and head back to your room to get dressed. You’re a little late for work, so you speed-walk. You’re thinking about what you’ll wear today. You’re formulating a lesson plan for your first period class and you’re trying to think of some way to get the one especially dumb kid on the basketball team to stop setting illegal screens. You’re contemplating all these things at once. You forget about that horizontal beam at the entry way to your bedroom. It obliterates you. The sound-effect is that of solid becoming liquid in an instant. Like bone going splat. You shriek and maybe pass out for a little bit, maybe not. You’re on your bedroom floor, naked, entangled in a bath towel, moaning. The tatami-mat is making cross-hatch carvings on your ass-cheeks. Your head throbs.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

From Your First Cigarette To Your Last Dying Day: A Psychoanalysis of the JETs


 “Hey Jackson,

Thanks! I forwarded it to Stephen. I have to warn you, though, the description for secretary reports mention the following: ‘Please try to write your report as objectively as possible, referring to all speakers as Mr./Ms.(family name). It is not necessary to take the names of audience members who make comments. Any unacceptable reports will be returned with a request for revision. Unacceptable reports include: uninformative lists of bullet points, outlines, personal opinions or improper English.’ Also, it requests that the report be one A4 page max.

I'm pretty sure that the length of your report along with mentions of cocktails is [sic] going to get you a revision request. It’s not appropriate for a conference proceedings report that will be going out to every attending school in the ken.

All the best.

Signed,
Leader of Group G”

***

Like any aspiring writer, I sometimes get delusional. I start envisaging notable future journalistic endeavors and accomplishments. Exclusive interviews and obscure awards and a retinue of unibrowed bookworm-chicks.  I’ve been doing this for so long that I already possess a backlog of recurring, chimerical, literary-success related ignis fatui that I won’t get into here because they’re weird and humiliating1. But my most steadfast self-deception is also my most egregious: I often convince myself that the act of writing is Honorable. I believe what I write is Valuable. I assume that every single semi-literate person in the world not only wants, but needs to see my most trivial thoughts expatiated into 3,000-word, bigheaded self-celebrations. Now, in a dark chamber of my cerebrum, I know this to be a false surmise. I know I’m just some kid and this is just some blog and blogs suck anyway. I know there are millions of writers more talented than I and there are billions of people who have zero interest in ever reading the really stellar writing these writers-more-talented-than-I produce. But none of this matters when I’m locked into fantasy-mode. And the grand paradox is; I need the illusion of my writing as Vital and Good in order to continue generating my soporific, totally inconsequential writing. Fantasy-mode must be my default setting, or else I’ll shrivel up and become a middle-school Spanish teacher. If you think about it, this mania confirms something that should be painfully obvious anyway: writing is a personal/professional ambition that signals profound insecurity and egotism. You write because you are a yellow-bellied dastard and you need the attention.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Epileptic Imperial Wizard vs. End of Days

Note: a few weeks ago marked the one year anniversary of the calamitous earthquake/tsunami combo that rocked Japan last March,11th. Japan commemorated the moment and honored the dead, but really, unsurprisingly, it wasn't a lachrymose or indulgent affair. 

This is something I wrote a couple weeks after all the shit went down, last year. I didn't realize until I re-read it, but this experience sort of captures why I travel and why I hope I can always travel. Big ups to Japan. There's nowhere else in the world I'd rather be during a national tragedy. 


A cluster of middle schools girls was chasing a basketball when the earthquake hit. I watched them with a whistle in my mouth, only bothering to sound it when the ball traveled out-of-bounds. The technical basketball violations were coming in onslaught and this was my sixth straight hour of refereeing. I’d stopped caring.

The students of Toyooka Junior High School were still emitting cascades of enthusiasm though. Red and white bandannas wrapped around every small skull. Stomping feet and falsetto voices blasting choreographed chants and cheers that reverberated throughout the all-wood gymnasium. Colorful hand-painted banners hanging from the walls and ceiling. Teams in clashing neon jerseys. Cameras and twin-pronged peace/victory signs flashing. Girls yelping “ganbatte” and boys harassing each other through megaphones. Special-ed students waving colossal flags, like pioneers on a new planet.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Professional’s Guide to Semi-Appropriate Self-Diversion at the Office


Sometimes I have nothing to do at work. Literally, nothing. And although there’s significantly less 100% Free Time On-The-Job as when I first got here – you know, back when I spoke zero Japanese and was re-familiarizing myself with the fundamentals of English grammar; that year-long period when other English teachers would rather not seek my counsel about anything ever, because they got tired of watching and waiting while I googled their queries, verbatim – I’d say there are still 6-8 hours per week during which I’m at school and I must remain at school and there’s nothing productive/significant for me to do/contribute. Or else it’s a Tuesday morning and I’m really hung-over and I can’t be bothered to do anything I don’t absolutely have to. Like walk. Or eat. Point is, sometimes I get bored at work.

The following is a manual for all decent, diligent employees who frequently find themselves sitting at their desks, not talking to anyone, temporal ridge throbbing hardcore. Sometimes our bosses/managers/supervisors/administrators/chieftains just don’t appreciate all we do. Agonize not. There’s teaching, learning, self-amusement and self-actualization to be done. Here, introduced via some very important quotations, are my suggestions:

My school. My office. My dungeon. My mistress. My sanctuary.  
1)      Shakespeare says:
“All the world’s a stage;
And all the men and women are merely players.”

Jake Sensei says:
“Lie.”

Thursday, February 16, 2012

When Japanese People Ruminate

In this segment I will deconstruct Japan’s heart, spirit and future.

“But how will he accomplish all that in a single segment?” you ask yourself. Easy. I will scrutinize and affront the hard work of my most diligent students. I mean, what’s the point of teaching at a middle school in Japan, if not to make fun of the kids who try really hard? 13 year olds are inherently stupid, awkward and creepy. But when they attempt to articulate their stupid, awkward creepiness in a foreign language? Mocking them just makes sense.

These are authentic quotes from actual students/Japanese people. Also, in italics, I’ve included the avuncular and highly educational rejoinders I wish I had the courage to say to their faces. But I never do. Because I am a paradigm of professionalism.

Most of these are written responses to classroom assignments. The other ones are just some crazy shit I heard/read once. 

Self-Indulgent E-Mail to Friends and Family - Pt. 2

Note: This is the second e-mail I sent to friends and family after moving here, late July, 2010. When I wrote this I'd been living in Japan for a few months and so naturally believed I knew everything about the country and therefore had the right to dissect it in a caustic and lordly tone. Did it matter that I couldn't comprehend a single complete Japanese sentence? No it did not. Because I am Braun and Braun doesn't need silly things, like language, to assist him with knowledge-ingestion. He just understands. And ridicules. What did language ever teach Braun? The third-person. That's what.
Originally Sent:  11/9/2010, 10:31 AM Japan Standard Time. 
Original Recipients: Same as before; everyone I know. You'd think someone this attention-starved would have started a blog a long time ago.


My second correspondence from Japan:

Hey hey,

I hope everyone's just swell. It was nice to hear back from a lot of y’all after my last e-mail. Funny how coming to Japan reminds me to keep in touch with friends/people I haven’t seen for years.

That wasn’t meant to be as sentimental as it sounded. I swear I’m not lonely...

I won’t even pretend this is going to be short. But I’ll aim for concise.

I wrote my last e-mail right before my job started - while my school was on summer vacation. Well, vacation ended long ago and the past few months have provided enough material - daily oddities and specific episodes - that I figured it was time to update any interested parties. Admittedly, these emails are part journal; I’m not keeping a travel diary and my memory is shit, so I’m hoping to use these as a source later in life, when I’m struggling to recall the texture of raw horse meat. Anyway, this e-mail will predominantly be about work, because that’s pretty much all I do now. “Work.”

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Miseducation of Ratna, Ken and Kumi: A Textbook Investigation

In each installment of this segment, I will analyze a specific chapter/activity/page from my school’s English textbook series. Before we get on with the very academic close-reading, let’s have some context. The series is called “New Crown” and it consists of 3 levels (books); one for each Junior High School grade. The textbooks of each level -1,2,3 - apply the same basic structure.
1)   Thematic Chapters.
There are approximately 8 Chapters per textbook and the chapters are usually ten pages long. Each chapter examines a specific topic. These topics are supposed to distract Japanese students from the English grammar being forced into their ear/eye-holes. To give you an idea of what I mean by “topic,” sample Chapter Titles include: “Life in Australia,” “At a Nature Park,” and “Human Rights for All.” You know, the type of shit your average 13 yr old kid is dying to learn about1.
The anatomy of a chapter is pretty consistent. All chapters contain some combination of:
-Graphics: maps, AP photos, pie-charts, hand-drawn illustrations, etc.
-Narrative Passages: uninterrupted expository passages on a given topic. These paragraphs are written by an unidentified narrator with some nasty habits. Nasty habits include: heavy use of rhetorical questions, interjecting interjections all over the place, speaking in fragmented sentences, and being a condescending douche-bag. 
-Dialogue: a written conversation (relevant to that chapter’s theme) between two of the main, recurring characters. More on them later.
-New Words: 15-20 new vocabulary words. All germane to the chapter's topic and culled directly from the narrative passages and dialogue.
-Miscellaneous Activities: these are basically lodestars for teachers who hate their jobs and need to waste entire classes without doing any actual teaching. In response, students-faces say:  "I hate English and I will never leave Japan, ever,"  "I'm going to sleep now and you can't stop me," and "What would happen if I shoved these two mechanical pencils really far up my own nostrils?”

2)   Songs
Each textbook contains the lyrics of at least four English-language songs. Songs include: I Just Called to Say I Love You, Stand by Me, Yesterday Once More (I had to Youtube this one. Never heard of it. It’s by The Carpenters and it’s really slow and bad. But it features the lyrics “All my best memories come back clearly to me, Some can even make me cry, Just like before, It’s yesterday once more.” So, you know, that’s fun.), White Christmas, Take Me Home Country Roads, and Yesterday. I would make fun of these song-selections, but when last year’s graduating class called me into their classroom and sang a heartfelt rendition of Take Me Home Country Roads, dedicated to me, I may have almost cried. Or actually cried. Either way, fuck off. Music is magic.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Self-Indulgent E-mail to Friends and Family - Pt. 1

Note: This is the first e-mail I sent to friends and family after moving here, late July, 2010. I probably disagree now with half the things I wrote. Or else I've completely forgotten them because they really don't matter at all.  Either way, the content of this e-mail qualifies as dated. But it mattered to me at some point. And you know, like, life is all about the journey, and stuff. 
Originally Sent: 8/19/10  8:42pm, Japan Standard Time. 
Original Recipients: Everyone I've ever wanted to like me. This is my go-to-move when trying to impress someone - especially girls. Step 1) Pen a 5,000 word, emotive personal history ASAP. Step 2) Check my inbox every 1-2 minutes. Step 3) Distract myself by watching home videos of the Glory Days - e.g. middle school musical theater performances/that one high school basketball game when I scored 26 points. 4)Send follow-up e-mail with desperate "joke" that suggests a bad case of hurt feelings on the part of the sender, but also includes a link to a Youtube video featuring babies/finger puppets doing something cute/involving a bowler hat. 5) Buy a new sweater-vest, as a comfort-purchase. 6) Drink heavily. 7) Send another e-mail, sans prose. This one only contains a link to a highlight reel of scenes from all three Chronicles of Narnia films. 8)Repeat. 


Here it is, my first correspondence from Japan. 
(Footnotes added after-the-fact.)

Hey y’all,

So I’m not planning on writing massive, rambling e-mails like I did during my year in Spain. I skimmed a couple of those the other day and was astonished that a) I wrote that much, b) I expected anyone to read half of it and c) I was such an annoying bastard. Sorry about that. I’m so over myself.

That said, here’s a quick update on what I’m doing in Japan. So you can read. About me.

My house is…so much better than your house. It’s halfway up the Central Japanese Alps and faces the Southern Alps and there’s a river valley in between the two mountain ranges, if that makes sense. The mountains are real mountains, not the kind you hike as a Memorial Day morning activity. Their summits are usually wrapped in clouds. My house is also a real house, as opposed to some shit Harlem apartment shared with Craigslist friends. It’s not big but it has a bedroom, living-room, shower-room, bathroom, large kitchen and laundry room. And a heated toilet seat. Apparently that’s vital in the winter.

The View From My Bedroom/Whattup, Ladies?
There are a lot of insects here. Big ass insects. Moths on the windows and ants materializing from the floorboards and black beetles everywhere. Also, I’ve been warned to watch out for some breed of wasp that’s bigger than a fat man’s thumb. Its sting not only sends you to the ICU, but implants some extraordinary venom that acts as a pheromone and attracts all the other fat, hairy wasps in the neighborhood – basically making your flesh the conduit for a raucous wasp orgy. I thought that was worth sharing.

Mission Statement

The purpose of this blog is to write about Japan from my not-so-objective POV. Japan is a series of islands located somewhere between Hawaii and Paris. Japanese is not spoken anywhere else in the world. I currently live in Japan and am employed as a junior high school English teacher and basketball coach. I have my own house and my house is in the mountains of southern Nagano Prefecture, where they held the first Winter Olympics (1998) I can actually remember1. My Japanese language aptitude is pretty much a disgrace. I claim zero authority on all things Japan-related. I'm rarely perspicacious or funny. I did not go to school for writing. Blogging sucks. Enjoy.




1. This is probably only because, by the age of 12, I was totally obsessed with bobsledding. I was obsessed with bobsledding for same reason all professional bobsledders (is that a real thing?) post 1993 originally got into bobsledding: Cool Runnings. I was obsessed with Cool Runnings for a more personal reason though: I had a thing for Jamaica. I mean, common. Bob Marley. Jerk Chicken. Weed (the idea of it). Dreads. A cool flag. The best accent ever. Some cutthroat sport where they push hand-operated, handmade go-karts down some seriously steep island-rubble trails. These are the things a 12yr old mostly-white boy from the bucolic hills of Northeast USA obsesses over. Admittedly, I had been semi-aware of the '96 Atlanta Summer Olympics. But that's only because America is the best.