Thursday, February 16, 2012

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.”

Japanese schools are weird. I mostly teach at a junior high school, which would be the equivalent of an American school for 7th, 8th and 9th graders. Sounds like the most volatile, hazardous age group, but these Japanese kids aren't like American adolescents. I don’t know how to explain it. They are more disciplined but less mature. More obedient but less respectful. I could keep going, but these vague comparisons clarify nothing. Let’s just do a list. Here are some of the strange routines/rules that hopefully help capture the foreignness of an average school-day here.

1) The students are permitted to enter the teacher’s office whenever they want, but before they can advance past the doorway, they must announce their intentions - what teacher they want to visit and why. The really strange bit is; the announcement doesn’t have to be decipherable and it doesn’t have to be directed at anyone in particular. It doesn't matter what the request is and it doesn't matter if anyone hears it. All that matters is that they grumble something in Japanese under their breath while staring at the floor. Once they do this, access is granted. Up until I asked a fellow English teacher to please explain the muttering, mumbling flock of juveniles in the corner, the whole ritual was very disturbing. Japanese people should realize that when your primary export is films featuring satanic children, you should not force kids to whisper to themselves in public. This seems like common sense to me.

2) All the students always wear the exact same thing. Let me clarify. Each kid owns at least four (so far) distinct school uniforms and, a few times a day, the entire student body simultaneously and stealthily changes out of one uniform ensemble and into another (according to scheduled school events and unpredictable weather patterns). I have no idea where the students change and I have never actually seen them change. It just happens. At least three times a day.

There are two basic categories of school uniform: Casual and Formal; and both contain a pair (so far) of seasonal variations.

Casual: warm-weather casual wear is - blue athletic shorts and a white t-shirt. cool-weather casual-wear is - a blue and red track-suit. The casual garb is never baggy, but just loose enough to prevent you from easily distinguishing the genders of individual students. The boys here are miniature-sized and the girls have short, boyish haircuts and, when Casual, everyone wears the exact same thing, down to color-coordinated sneakers. No ear piercings, no make-up, no Axe-body spray. Nothing that would help you differentiate boy from girl. It took me a few weeks, but I eventually figured out the best method of gender classification when the students are dressed Casual: I examine their backs, looking for bra-strap protrusions. That’s right; Japan, where searching for bras on 14-year-old boys happens.

Formal:  warm weather formal wear is - black pants for the boys and black skirts for the girls and white collared shirts with the sleeves rolled up for everyone. White knee-high socks for the girls. Cool-weather formal-wear is - navy blue skirt-suits for the girls and black full-body suits for the boys. The boys’ suits look like something a generically Asian servant from “Tintin and The Blue Lotus” would wear. You know, the type of black suit that has big gold buttons and a matching funny hat with a gold tassel (all of which Tintin inevitably steals after breaking an antique vase over the servants head while he, the generic Asian servant, smokes opium. No? No Tintin fans? Whatever. My sister knows what I’m talking about). The girls’ skirt-suits are long and pleated and straight out of an amateur theatre production of some comic opera about a cross-dressing navy fleet. The blouses are long-sleeved and nondescript, other than this exaggerated lapel-thingy that hangs off the rear of the collars. Everything is dark blue with white trimming and the costumes were supposedly modeled after the early 20th century Royal British Navy uniform. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I guess because it’s weird to have 200 hundred students intermittently, synchronically and secretly changing in and out of these outfits. And we haven't even talked about the super-mini-skirts the high school girls have to wear.

3) Monday through Friday, everyone at every school in my town eats the same thing. Every day, small trucks roll up to each school a few minutes before lunchtime and deliver the exact quantity of food required to feed every student and teacher at that particular school (there are two elementary schools and one junior high school in my town). Every school lunch has the same basic formula (meat dish + vegetable dish + rice + soup + milk), but I’ve been eating school lunches for nearly three months, and they have yet to repeat a meal. Usually, the food is healthy and damn good. No one here is vegetarian, and, if you don’t like lunch on a certain day, you're fucked. There’s no other food source on the premises and the only way you can avoid eating your entire allocation is if you pawn some off to a student. Like I did on Liver Day and expect to on Pregnant Fish Day and Whale Day. If you don't finish lunch with a clean plate, there’s an actual Japanese idiom people will say right to your face, which essentially translates to “you’re fucking over the farmers.”  After all the food in school has been eaten, its time to brush your teeth . For about five minutes students and faculty roam the hallways brushing their teeth to the fullest - spitting, gargling, foaming etc. I’ve already adopted this habit and will probably encourage co-workers to do the same at my next job (a big assumption is hidden in that sentence). There’s something intimate about watching people brush their teeth in sailor’s outfits.

4) There is no janitor, but the school is sparkling clean. That's because students and faculty clean the school daily, during a fifteen-minute, “Cleaning Time” period.  For these fifteen minutes, everyone has a job to perform. My self-appointed duty is to roam the school grounds collecting litter. Some students sweep the hallways. Some wash windows. Some scrub bathrooms. Some hack at grass and call it weeding. It doesn't really matter what you do during Cleaning Time, as long as you’re completely silent, wearing a handkerchief on your head and appear to be engaged in some act that could maybe be interpreted as something related to cleaning.

Similarly, there are no lunch ladies (no janitors and no lunch ladies; this may explain why the Japanese lack any sense of sarcasm and mordancy - they don’t get exposed to it as children). Instead of cafeteria tables and cantankerous service, the kids quietly eat at their desks in their classrooms. Once the food is loaded off the delivery truck, children from each class don their Lunch Preparation Gear (white lab-coats, surgeons caps and Sars masks) and transport the food to each classroom.  Everyone serves their own food and rinses their own dishes. The whole lunch procedure is organized, efficient and homogeneous: aka it justifies almost every stereotype Americans have about Asians (Come on. Sars masks? Is that necessary?).

5) Everyone is at school all the time. The kids usually arrive around 7am, so they can participate in morning club activities: band, basketball, baseball, soft-tennis (exactly what it sounds like), chorus, volleyball, brass-band, ping-pong, etc. Classes go from 8am to 4:30pm and after school the clubs hold afternoon practice, until 7pm. The teachers are all coaches or club leaders so they’re often at school from 7am until 8pm. It’s madness. I prefer to honor my contract and arrive at 8:10am. I leave sometime between 430 and 7pm, depending on basketball practice and my mood.

6) Just because I’m at work, it doesn't mean I’m working. Case and point - I’m at work right now. My official job title is “Assistant Language Teacher,” and that about sums up my responsibilities. I assist. I have yet to make a lesson plan and rarely lead full junior-high classes by myself (I do at the elementary schools, twice a month). I am often about as necessary as a tape-recorder - carefully enunciating sentences for the students to repeat. The textbooks are boorish (clearly written by Japanese people) and the content is sometimes...uncomfortable (sample dialogue; Daichi: “This is the Atomic Bomb Dome.” Emma: “What happened to it?” Daichi: “Well, the bomb exploded over it. The heat reached 7,000 degrees centigrade. About 130,000 people were killed.” Emma: “That makes me sad.”). Even though my presence is often extraneous, I manage to stay occupied while the primary English teacher drones on in Japanese. Assistant teachers’ chief class-time contributions include:

-Slapping students across the back of the head when they fall asleep.
-Pinching students when the head-slaps don’t register.
-Correcting the primary English teacher’s grammar and pronunciation (as much as possible; there are too many errors to keep track of - especially when preoccupied with slapping/pinching).
-Recording the oral portion of exams. This is my favorite task because the other English teachers at my school are technologically retarded and can only play the recordings through the entire school’s intercom - meaning once a month I sit at my desk and listen to myself deliberately declare; “It is big. It is hard. It is fun to play with. What is it?” (other favorites include: “Tom has two balls, Amy has no balls. How many balls does Ken have?” and “When you want drugs, where do you go?”)
-Stealing and hiding students’ property when they sleep through my slaps and pinches. Don’t judge me for this - I only do it when a kid is especially rude. And some of these bastards can be incredibly disrespectful. In the middle of class they will put their books away and use whatever uniform they aren’t wearing as a pillow and fall asleep right in front of you. When you slap/pinch them, they swear at you for waking them up. Then they go back to sleep. Sometimes they turn their backs to the teachers for an entire class. Sometimes they get up and exit the premises. Sometimes they laugh at your homemade haircut and your “purple” shirt (which, by the way, totally isn’t purple). The other English teachers (who, in case you haven’t gathered, are Japanese) occasionally attempt to wake them by poking and tickling, but are equally unsuccessful. It’s one of the strangest things about school here. The teachers don’t have any actual power. They can only control a student if the student has some self-imposed sense of accountability or shame. If the students don’t give a shit, there’s really nothing you can do. You can’t kick them out of class. You can’t send them to the principle. You can’t even fail them - no one gets held back and everyone graduates on time. So there’s nothing I can do when a student pisses me off. Except slap them and steal their shit.

Side note: Sometimes I just let them sleep. As I mentioned, a lot of these kids are at school all day, working their asses off. They’re undoubtedly sleep-deprived. If a good student falls asleep on occasion, I attribute it to exhaustion and let them sleep. It’s inconceivable to me that these kids are so busy at such a young age.

7) Even though the students can be shockingly cheeky, there are hardly any truly bad kids. The teachers are like moral/behavioral lighthouses, but we don’t have the authority to police the kids into submission. In reality, they can do whatever they want. And still, they don’t smoke. They don’t fight. They don’t have sex or take drugs. They are more immature than rebellious or mean-spirited.

Of course, there’s always an exception. At my school, Ken and Kei are the exceptions. They are twin 14 year old orphans and, by Japanese standards, they are bad-asses. Long hair. Sagging pants. Completely shaved eyebrows (a fashion statement that would be interpreted as anything but gangster in the US). And complete disregard for teachers and classmates. A quick Kei story:

About a month ago Ken overheard another boy saying he could beat up Kei with one hand. Ken relayed this to Kei, and Kei went ape-shit crazy. I was sitting at my desk when I saw him sprint down the hall with four teachers in hot pursuit. I followed everyone up to the 3rd grade (9th in the US) classroom, where Kei was already demolishing bodies. Desks overturned. Girls crying on the floor. 3rd grade boys converging on Kei and getting clobbered by wild punches and feral kicks. Kei is one of the few kids who has hit puberty, and he was utilizing his physical superiority to the fullest - disposing of schoolmates like a cartoon. Meanwhile, about six teachers had formed a semi-circle around Kei and were verbally attempting to pacify him - basically acting as behavioral lighthouses gently chaperoning a battle-ship piloted by a drunk, maniacal sociopath. They were unsuccessful and when an art teacher extended a conciliatory hand, Kei knocked him to the floor. People screamed and the teachers retreated into their futile semi-circle. At this point, my USA disciplinarian instincts took over and I jumped in and corralled Kei in a haphazard, vertical half-nelson and dragged him out of the classroom. He thrashed and head-butted and kicked at the semi-circle of teachers that was escorting us out of the classroom and down the stairs.  Halfway down the stairs, Kei went limp and promised he would behave himself. Immediately the teachers ordered me to release him. I did, and he (obviously) ran off, kicking down a door, smashing the trophy case and toppling a statue on his way. My lip was bleeding and I decided I would offer no more assistance. If the teachers were dumb enough to let a deranged student run wild, that was their problem. So I stood back and watched, as Kei...

-went outside and lit a cigarette.
-kicked a math teacher in the groin.
-punched the principle in the face.
-spotted his 3rd grade antagonists and re-entered the school.
-lifted a 3rd grader up against a wall and choked him, still smoking the cigarette.
-spit on a teacher that politely pleaded he please stop with the whole strangling routine.
-exited the school and paced the parking lot, breaking shit.
-sprinted into the woods when he heard police sirens.

A few hours later, I was being interviewed by the police, terrified that I had transgressed more than an unwritten law. But I was fine and the police thanked me and pretty soon word of my heroics had spread through school and students were approaching me, flexing and saying “Mr. Jake is muscle.” I am considering having this engraved on my gravestone.

Within a week, Kei had returned to school and was back to his normal self - disrupting whatever classes he decided to attend.

8)  I’m still trying to figure out whether or not my co-workers are my friends. In America we would just call them alcoholic, bi-polar bff’s.

At school the faculty always acts professionally - and by that I mean; there’s no evidence of anyone having any sort of a personal life or emotions. Aside from a daily fifteen-minute snack break, there’s minimal interaction between the teachers throughout the day - and when we do talk, the conversations are brief, formal and almost always limited to school-related topics.

Side note: My work-etiquette edification happened pretty early-on. The first week of school, the Vice Principle was absent from school. No one explained anything to me, but the general atmosphere in the teachers’ office was one of enthusiasm and diligence. There was no whispering, no furtive glances, no expressions of any sort of anguish. People went about their business, preparing for and beginning the new semester. About two weeks later an English teacher apologized that the school had not thrown me a welcome party yet. She explained this oversight (which she worried I would find extremely offensive) by simply stating; “The Vice Principle had a surprise.” A few days later Bryce - my predecessor who is back in the states now - e-mailed me from Utah to inform me that The Vice Principal had committed suicide. Bryce had discovered this from a friend he has in Toyooka, and he thought I should know. He also doubted that anyone at school would have told me about it, and he was right. There were ZERO signs of sadness or shock. No crying. No hugging. No bewilderment. No communal grieving. In Japan, the work place is for work. End of story.

So, for the first month or so, I assumed this orthodoxy would define my inter-office relationships. Then I had my welcome “enkai” (Japanese for “party”).

For my enkai, my school rented out a large room at a restaurant in Iida that gives free refills on beer and sashimi. I carpooled there with four teachers (in Japan, drinking and driving is not just discouraged, it’s prosecuted. If I were ever discovered operating a vehicle with any hint of alcohol in my system, I would be terminated and deported - possibly barred from ever returning); all women over the age of forty who politely tried to include me in their mundane conversations. Needless to say, I had pretty low expectations for the night.

But once we got to the restaurant and were seated on the floor, at three separate tables, the beer and raw fish started flowing. Initially I assumed I wouldn’t get drunk; my glass was minuscule and my flushed co-workers were well on their way endorsing yet another Asian stereotype (the one about Asians having a ridiculously low alcohol tolerance). But I’m in Japan, where procedure and decorum is emperor - even when it comes to getting smashed.

In Japan, you never pour your own drink. Other people refill your glass and you refill other peoples’. If, at any point, no one notices you’re approaching empty, all you need to do is offer a refill to someone else. Everyone will immediately become overwhelmed with embarrassment, like you're generousness has exposed their negligence, and they will offer you a refill. But that’s just for the first hour. As Asian faces become lobster-red and speckled with spittle, the procedure gets exposed as nothing more than a facade of formality. Drinking companions stop checking to see if you need a refill and use the pretence of politeness to force you to drink more. They offer and you can’t refuse - it would be like negating the foundation of their entire existence. People from the other end of the table get up and offer you a refill on your full to-the-brim glass. You drink just so they can refill. People from other tables stumble to your table and offer you a refill. You can’t refuse. Pretty soon it’s chaos - sweating, swearing co-workers, wandering aimlessly, grasping forties to their chests and slurring their way through what they believe is English. Raw fish accumulates, the untouched slices turning auburn at the edges. Teachers insult students (think Ken and Kei) and break into song (think the soundtrack to Top Gun). Sometime later, you’re seeing double, seated at a random table, with what looks like quadruplets interrogating you on your love life. Here’s a dialogue snippet from a conversation I had with two of the younger female teachers at my school.

Note: their Japanese questions were graciously translated into broken/slurred English by a fifty-five year old English teacher and grandmother.

Social Studies Teacher with only one eye open: “Do you have a girlfriend?”
Me: “Yes.”
Science Teacher approaching fetal position: “That’s horrible. Is she in Japan?”
Me: “No, she lives in Spain.”
Social Studies Teacher with only one eye open: “You are handsome.”
Me: “Thank you.”
Science Teacher approaching fetal position: “Here, have some Japanese vodka. You will learn Japanese if you have a Japanese girlfriend.”
Me: “Yes, probably. I learned Spanish from my Spanish girlfriend.”
Social Studies Teacher: “What was your first impression of me?”
Me: “When I first got here, I was very tired. Everything was a blur.”
Science Teacher: “We should sing karaoke together.”
Me: “Yes. American Karaoke is different than Japanese Karaoke.”
Social Studies Teacher: “There are no boys in Iida. Do you like Japanese girls?”
Me: “Japanese girls are very nice.”
Social Studies Teacher: “I need a husband.”

An hour or so later I carpooled home. Apparently one in every five people at the enkai was a designated driver, although I never would have known. Here, the designated drivers don’t bleed the awkward resignation and resentment they do in America. They accept their role for the night. Japan is one big college fraternity, and on Friday nights, the humble civility that cramps the daylight hours becomes a mechanism for peer-pressure, merriment and unfiltered spectacle. Designated drivers enjoy the show and wait their turn.

The next day, a Saturday morning, I arrived at school at 8:30am. I was hungover and a half an hour late for basketball practice. I was also thankful I wouldn’t have to see any of the other teachers until Monday. Or so I thought. When I parked in the teacher’s parking lot, I noticed that the baseball field was littered with hunched-over bodies. Over a hundred squatting, teachers and students, weeding the baseball field at 8:30am on a Saturday. Everyone stood up and greeted me in unison, cheerful smiles spread across their faces. None of the teachers acknowledged the night prior. None of the students were angry that they were hunting dandelion roots at dawn on a Saturday. This was one of those “Jesus Christ, where the fuck am I?” moments.

I’ve had maybe six enkai since then. There is an enkai to commemorate anything remotely important. A completed demonstration lesson. A third-place finish in a teachers’ volleyball tournament. The debut of the new Vice Principle. Like so many other things in life, none of them matched the first time, but all of them were a damn good time.

Okay. This e-mail has officially gone on too long. If you’ve made it this far, you’re a true friend. As before, I’ll finish with some quick, random thoughts.

-I coach the basketball team at the junior high-school (me and the aforementioned Social Studies Teacher are co-head coaches). The team is terrible. We lose most of our games by more than 100 points. No joke. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that opposing coaches with far superior teams play their starters and run a full-court press for the entire game. I don’t know why the other coaches do this. I also don’t know why some of them only give instructions, even during time-outs, through a mega-phone. Anyway, I will write about this more next time, whenever that is. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s torture. But it’s rarely boring.

-Japanese schools require that students sing on the regular. Like daily. My personal singing voice is long gone, if I ever had one. Either way, if you combine the constant singing with those sailor outfits, it’s like I’m back at the Steiner school, preparing for Opening Night of HMS Pinafore. Except now I can’t blame puberty for my nasally, semi-falsetto voice.

-Matsuura Sensei is my favorite English teacher. She helps me constantly, translating the school menu and my postal mail. She also calls me every friday night, completely wasted. Her drunk dials mostly consist of her repeatedly shouting “Honnntooniiiiiiiiiii????” which best translates to “Really?? Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaatttttttttttt?????” I love her.

-I have always had a hard time distinguishing Japanese people from...Japanese people. Racist? Maybe. Patriotic? Definitely. But the truth is,  I could never even consider any Japanese girls attractive because they all looked like my cousins. After a few months, this little ethnic astigmatism is almost vanquished. I can differentiate my students from one another. I can separate good looking Japanese people from heinous Japanese people. This is worth mentioning and must be a sign of personal betterment.

-I deeply regret having taunted bidet toilets in the past. They are amazing. As we speak, my asshole is beaming.

-My dad visited me in October, accompanied by Karen (his girl) and Nana (my aunt). It was great fun. They stayed at a hotel about half an hour away - and this is where I ate the raw horse. It was fine - not as tender as the best beef and not as succulent as the best lamb. But fine. I have also eaten wild boar. Next on the list is: mountain bear, bee larva and grasshoppers. I was planning on having venison a couple weeks ago, until I saw a baby deer in a cage outside the restaurant.

-In the last email, I mentioned Japanese Baths. Well, this past weekend I went to an onsen with my school principle. Have you ever sat under the night sky, next to your butt-naked boss, as he contemplates the pros and cons of his favorite constellations? I bet you haven’t.

- It’s been unseasonably warm this past week. Like maybe 60 degrees in early November. The weather here is  more or less the same as the Northeast USA. Except everything seems to happen a bit later. The leaves are turning right now, and the mountains are absolutely perfect - orange/bronze  foreground mountainsides with snow-capped peaks looming in the background.

-It’s crazy how quiet Japan is. People are so polite and restrained that the world becomes noticeably quieter.

Okay. That’s all. Sorry this was so long. Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear back from anyone and everyone.

I could promise to make the next one shorter, but I’m done with the lies and propaganda. Maybe I’ll take longer to write it. That counts, right?

Holla atcha boi.

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