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.




The defense of writing as honorable goes like this: writing is an altruistic act, virtuously endured by The Writer to his physical/psychical detriment. The honorable defense asserts that The Writer abides his solitary, painstaking existence only because The Writer has surrendered to a duty that transcends self. The Writer is not an individual; he is an agent for the dissemination of Important Ideas/Information, in the name of Knowledge Proliferation/A Better World. But that’s all casuistry. It’s pure shit.

The reality is simple and damning. Writing is a power-trip. Every day tons of stuff occurs that can’t be categorically explained. That’s life; a big, super-charged imbroglio of divergent opinions about what the hell already happened/is happening/should be happening/will happen. Most people just hope to navigate the maelstrom without spiraling into deep despair. But that’s not enough for The Writer. The Writer believes he deserves an elevated stature. That he has the authority to filter facts and employ thoughts so that the world-through-his-lens can be broadcast. Journalists frame the news. Textbook writers define history. Fiction writers beguile their audience. And so on and so on. I emphasize, none of this implies a belief in moral superiority – writers are often public about their own ethical bankruptcy. What it suggests, though, is that The Writer desperately needs to be at the source. An architect of reality, not an inhabitant. Writing is a form of auto-confirmation and it’s a very suspect compulsion. But someone has to do it.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you probably noticed a recurrent, emerging narrative voice. Subject material and tone and style and grammatical tics that intermix to (hopefully) establish this writing as definitively mine. I’m sardonic, but it’s neither craven nor cruel because I also mock myself. I use big words but that’s OK, because I also sometimes talk like a teenager. I love Japan but I hate Japan. Etc. Etc. Etc. Point is: writing gives me the chance to redefine myself and manipulate your impression of me. I can forge a voice, ostensibly my own voice, within the vacuum of my house/room/laptop/word-doc. It goes without saying that these are all very safe places. Places that provide me with the leisure to manufacture a calculated personage. A voice that I could never articulate in real-time. A voice that magnifies those qualities of myself I endorse and dissimulates those that are goddamned shameful. I guess this isn’t a good or bad thing. It’s just the nature of writing. The Writer is a contriving, sorry creature. He wants to be loved. He wants to be noticed. At minimum, he wants to infiltrate the public subconscious in some small way that only he notices or cares about.
                                         
So anyways, I guess the purpose of this already circuitous and pedantic post is to, at least partially, deconstruct the narrative voices I’ve worked so hard to create in this blog and other arenas of my life. And also, more directly, to bitch about foreign English teachers in Japan.

***

Despite the sensationalist nature of my writing, my life in Japan is now actually quite mundane. I have a 08:00 – 16:30 job. I have my own house and my own car. I seldom venture out into unknown regions of Japan and when I do, I print a Google map in advance. My school is a safe-place, my-house is a safe-place and Japan is the ultimate safe-place. Road rage is negligible. Crime is a non-factor. Tap water is drinkable. Earthquakes are bothersome at worst. The nuclear stink has cleared.

Of course, none of this discourages me from portraying myself in writing as a barmy voyager, tromping through the forsaken, alien badlands of the Far East. Which would be somewhat justifiable, if I actually were completely alone here. But I’m not. I check my e-mail non-stop and video chat with my USA family semi-regularly. Two aunts and two cousins are a bus ride away. And then there’s the JET Programme.

***

The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, or JET Programme, is a Japanese government initiative that brings college (university) graduates—mostly native speakers of English—to Japan as Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) and Sports Education Advisors (SEAs) in Japanese kindergartens, elementary, junior high and high schools, or as Coordinators for International Relations (CIRs) in local governments and boards of education.
                                                                                                             -Wikipedia

I applied to the JET Programme two and half years ago, after spending 6 months post-college doing what I hyperbolically labeled “freelancing.” In truth I was a middling writer for: a small-town newspaper, a foundering Wyoming-based cowboy-lifestyle magazine2, and a weekly real-estate advertisement register. Things weren’t going well. The cowboy publication was fast-approaching insolvency. Writing blurb profiles on real-estate agents was akin to asphyxiating my hopes and dreams twice weekly. The small-town newspaper had accused me of assassinating the character of a B-list actor3. Also, I was living in my mom’s house and really needed to get the fuck out. Japan was pretty far away.

Having the Japanese government sponsor a few years of what’s quickly becoming a lifetime of vagabondage seemed convenient. Also, I like kids – as long as they’re over the age of twelve4 – so JET made sense. The application process was a bitch – lots of paperwork to fill out and essays to compose and references to cull and medical/FBI background checks to endure. Plus a three (them) on one (me) interview which I was convinced I’d botched5. But a few months later, the Japanese government sent notification: Japan wanted me educating its children.

I figured that was the last I’d hear from JET. They’d accepted me into the initiative and assigned me to the Junior High School of Toyooka-mura, Nagano Prefecture. They had nothing else to offer. JET is not my boss and it doesn’t sign my paycheck (the Board of Education of Toyooka-mura handles those privileges). It does not monitor my professional performance. It has no contact with my school or town. It’s just this vague government bureau that winnows the supposedly creditable candidates from a global pool of mediocre applicants. Like a bighearted drug-dealer, it seeks out premiere product (potentially adequate English teachers) and delivers it to the customer (clueless Japanese children), free of charge6. And then it gets out of the way. Or so I assumed.

But when I arrived to Tokyo almost two years ago, I was ingurgitated by a mandatory three day JET orientation conference. It was the type of self-congratulatory, totally worthless affair that I imagine occupy the meeting rooms of Midwestern hotel chains every weekend. Thousands of people wearing laminated name-tag necklaces and monochromatic suits, overcompensating all over each other. Like a college freshman orientation mixed with a job-fair mixed with a white-collar cult that worships all things tedious. The sort of event that exists for no reason other than to give overbearing social-outcasts the chance to boast; “I’m Gabriel. I’m from Tallahassee. I will be attending the ‘Classroom Technology’ seminar at 2:30. I was considering ‘Adapting and Assimilating,’ but I lived in Scotland for two months when I was 16 so it’s no big deal. That’s where I learned to play golf. Scotland. I’m almost semi-pro, for sure7.”  

The conference’s raison d’ étre was specious and dual-layered. It was, in theory, a professional and social tutelage of Fresh-Off-the-Boaters. You were supposed to absorb effective techniques for successful employment in Japan and you were supposed to meet loads of other JETs – presumably people just like you – thereby initiating yourself into a support network that would buoy you once the inevitable home-sickness plague got paralyzing8. The professional aspect was a debacle and a farce. A barrage of mandatory, futile symposiums with pun/alliteratively-inclined appellations like Japanese Pop-Culture Pop-Quiz and A Solid Self-Intro and The Shock of Culture Shock and Cross Cultural Connection and Your Classroom Was Not a Japanese Classroom. The moderators were untrained, hung-over and younger than I was. The content was so forgettable I recall at one point deciding to forget it.

And then there was the social element.

I’ve never been good at making circumstantial friends. The act of forging relationships with people just because we share a physical space is draining, thankless work. The recycled jokes and the rehearsed attempts at eccentric self-expression and the grandstanding and the repressed anxiety. These fraught ingredients mingle and react and generate a ubiquitous, invisible material that can only be described as: The-Energy-Discharged-When-Lots-of-Souls-Really-Desperate-to-Make-a-Good-First-Impression-Converge. It’s an inescapable black hole that sucks you in and spits out the most wretched possible version of yourself. It’s a suffocating force and it makes me sweat. But it wasn’t all bad. There were JETs from other English-as-a-first-language nations, including girls from South Africa, Jamaica and Ireland. In case you didn't know, these are the best accents in the world. These accents cause a man to fall deeply in love with a lady he’s never met but has been watching for 30 minutes, from across the room. These accents transform a benign perspiration defect into an appalling and very public medical affliction. During those first three days in Tokyo, I had to change saturated monochrome suits a few times daily. Which was a challenge, because the laminated nametag necklace thingy kept getting all tangled up, mid-disrobement.

I spent the majority of Tokyo Orientation skipping compulsory forums, peregrinating the hotel and then the streets of Tokyo, and gorging on Japanese food with my Japanese aunts and cousins.

Once it was over, the freshly-oriented JETs were crammed into busses and shipped off to our respective prefectures and towns. I was ready to commence my Japanese life and never come in contact with any JET Programme event or representative, ever again.

***

Over the past two years I’ve done my best to assimilate into this provincial, agrarian, mountainside community. It was difficult at first. I spoke zero Japanese. By East-Asian standards, I’m Sasquatch-tall. My body language is Occidental and inadvertently confrontational to Japanese people. Yen confused me. I kept driving on the wrong side of the road. I couldn’t remember any of my students’ names. When I had a headache, I explained to the school nurse, “I’m stupid.” I ate whale without knowing it was whale and when I discovered it was whale I sprinted outside, imbedded myself in some shrubbery and went all Exorcist style bulimic. But, like anyone cast into a strange situation for an extended period of time, I gradually adapted. I mastered some Japanese words9. I figured out how to communicate with other teachers and contribute to English lessons. I coached the JHS basketball team, mentoring a squad of mostly orphaned 14 year old boys. I explored distant peninsulas of Japan. I taught an English conversation class to local adults. I memorized the weekly, monthly and annual schedules of both diurnal and specialized school events. I co-founded a classroom pastry café for the special-ed kids, so they could practice real-world service-industry labor. I planted, cultivated and harvested local produce. I slaughtered massive, hirsute insects. I passed the Japanese Driving Test. I observed a wild monkey bound across a mountain trail. I familiarized myself with the unique personalities of my students and created a series of particular memories with every single one of them. I taught loads of JHS English classes by myself, explaining English grammar in broken Japanese. I convened after work with other teachers, so we could eat and drink and banter. I made Japanese friends. Over time, I became a legitimate member of the Toyooka community.

And really, that’s why I came here. Sure, being a barely-employed, 24-yr old mollycoddle was an inglorious and dispiriting existence. And yes, I now live a self-sufficient and somewhat productive life. My job is rewarding. My house is spacious and my income is substantial. But none of that really matters. It’s all just windfall. I came to Japan to get mind-fucked by something novel and formidable and weird. I came because I like wading through incongruous, inscrutable stuff and trying to figure out what the hell it all means10. That’s why I enjoyed college so much; sans any concrete, long term ambition, I just studied whatever I wanted. I graduated with a “Concentration” instead of a Major because it gave me more time to dabble in all sorts of vaguely intriguing, totally disparate subjects11. I read obscure books about arcane topics I’d never contemplated before and probably never will again. I spent four years analyzing oodles of mostly inconsequential information. And it was really fun12.

But academic education is limited in one very essential way. It’s a systemized ecosystem founded on the hierarchical dynamic of teacher vs. student: Wellspring of Wisdom vs. Intellectually Starved Non-Adult. This is not bad or unfair or anything else with a moral subtext. But the resulting dilemma is that, in academia, the relationship between individual and information is inorganic and incomplete. Literature dispenses filtered and myopic knowledge. Professors are self-serious autocrats. Lectures are often mind-numbing, self-indulgent echo-chambers, completely detached from the aforementioned real-world tourbillion of ambiguous and antagonistic human desires and perceptions. Institutional learning is a healthy and necessary form of education, but it is, by definition, hermetic13. It quarantines you in a campus and pumps you full of pre-conceived, polished ideas. It completely disregards the holy mess of actually living on this cluttered planet populated by wayward individuals just trying to navigate the maelstrom.

Maybe that explains my nomadic tendencies. Ideally, a Dostoevsky novel and a good first-person antipodal adventure have similar results - when you’re finished, you think about shit differently than you did before. But the two aren’t analogous. Traveling injects a nonpareil strain of experience-based, adrenaline-spiked, real-world sagacity straight into your brain/heart. It induces a visceral pneuma-permutation that good novels/textbooks/lectures/debates/cerebral-exclusive experiences just can’t quite evoke. And that’s because when you travel, there is no intermediary. There is no external, 3rd person voice distilling and delivering information. There is no Teacher/Writer. It’s just you implanting your actual self in an actual existence that is foreign and unnerving. Basic comforts are absent. Nothing makes sense. Survival is a challenge. You’re bounded by individuals/communities/cultures that experience and evaluate Truth/Morality/Other-Big-Words via a lens completely dissimilar to yours. Everything they do is weird. Their reality is not your reality. And so then you’re faced with a choice: either you flee ASAP or you entrench yourself in the weirdness and hope that, little by little, your own lens expands. You hope you learn something.

Which is exactly what I’ve been trying to do here for two years. But the JET Programme won’t leave me alone. Rather than being the outlying government entity I’d presumed it’d be, JET is omnipresent. It hires representatives (usually ex-JETs) to oversee all currently-contracted JETs living within a certain prefecture at a given time. These appointed figureheads are called Prefectural Advisors and they’re basically just vainglorious status-junkies padding their resumes. Being a PA requires neither Japanese language proficiency nor cultural sensitivity. The only prerequisite seems to be an excess of misguided enthusiasm. PA’s arrange monthly JET social functions. They publish and distribute a bi-weekly journal. They organize and host lame conferences. They send mass e-mails, nonstop. Basically, they assault your professional and social life as frequently and ebulliently as possible.

For two years the social element of the JET Programme has been the single most invasive, agonizing and nugatory presence in my life. The JET magazine is a grammatically imprecise megaphone for anonymous Nagano JETs to broadcast a very distinctive blend of loneliness and social ineptitude. The once-monthly communal events feature activities like: slumber parties in tree-houses, Top-Gun themed volleyball tournaments, costume parties and silent auctions. Thankfully none of this is mandatory. But that doesn’t mean I can ever fully escape the JETs themselves. Those persons who frequent/utilize these contrived events/forums apparently all suffer from a strange pathos that compels them to announce their JET membership and overall life-zeal via group e-mail. Read enough of these e-mails and eventually you learn a great deal about individuals you never wanted to know. Here’s a brief list of just some of the people who have been a persistent, predominantly non-physical presence in my life over the past two years.

-Sam: AKA The American kid who posts videos of himself freestyle rapping on Youtube. In these videos, he’s usually seated in his own bedroom, by himself. He plucks his own cheek for raindrop-sound effects. He remixes 90's rock songs and raps over them in disjointed Japanese. He rap-accosts Japanese civilians on the street. He wears bandanas and sometimes dresses as a 16th century Japanese shogun. He’s from Colorado. His rap name is Samurai. Get it? SAMurai. Yeah. You get it.

-Sorin: An Australian PA who dates multiple Japanese girls simultaneously and advertises this polygamy whilst conducting official JET conferences. Also, he has this bizarre tickling fixation. Like, he’s incapable of not tickling me. He can’t do it.

-The Leprechaun: A lilliputian-sized Irish boy who ditches his classes (you know, his job) so he can jog shirtless around the baseball field. His school doesn’t allow him to drink alcohol at school drinking parties, because he has a history of vomiting all over other teachers and the interior of taxis. Also, he eats 36 raw eggs per week. Which might explain why people hate his puke so much.

-Helen Von Goerren (name altered ex post facto): Yes, this is a real person’s real name. And this real person occasionally sends real e-mails to all male JETs in Nagano prefecture, accusing them (us?) of being insatiable, wicked sexual deviants. One such e-mail included the sentence “So for future reference, men, if you happen to run into a Helen von Goerren from Nakano (I'm 5'3" and have very short brown hair, make a note) and we have just met please go ahead and assume that I am NOT interested in your hands on me unless I put them there.” Now, I have nothing against a woman defending herself. But not like this. Not. Like. This. I don’t know you, Ms Helen Von Gohren. I’ve never met you. I don’t care how tall you are. Don’t tell me what you might or might not do with my hands. Don’t send me this e-mail. I will not take any notes. Go away.

-Amy: Amy is a small, pale girl from upstate New York. Here’s a list of stuff Amy does: Amy blows glass, Amy asks you to make important life decisions for her, Amy hip-hop dances, Amy has car-accidents, Amy proclaims eternal love for her Japanese boyfriend even though she literally cannot communicate with him because she doesn’t speak any Japanese, Amy belly-dances, Amy trims her eyebrows into vermicular shapes, Amy is a master of the jump-in-the-air-and-kick-your-legs-out-to-one-side-when-someone-photographs-you praxis, Amy sews, Amy updates her Facebook status thrice daily, Amy plays the Sims, Amy talks about playing the Sims, Amy tells everyone how she feels about everything, Amy modern-dances, Amy has more car-accidents. I have nothing against Amy. But I do not need Amy in my life.

-Sexually Deviant Male JETs: There’s one who commutes a total of six hours every weekend in hope of seducing a Japanese girl he doesn’t even like (hasn’t happened yet). There’s one who makes explicit, vulgar overtures to American girls in front of his Japanese girlfriend, because she (the girlfriend) doesn’t understand English, which of course he (the deviant) finds totally hilarious. There’s one who fingerbangs Filipino working-girls at hostess clubs. There’s a horde of creepy Japanophiles. And then there are the two molesters who “grabbed” Ms Helen Von Goerren and “suggested she enjoy herself.” I’m grateful I had the opportunity to meet you all.

Can you find me in this photo? Here's a hint. The people on the far right are watching me get furiously tickled.


***

The professional element of JET is only slightly better than the social element. Having JET connections has certainly helped me with some of the more unpleasant obligations that come with living as a foreigner in Japan. Stuff like filing American tax exemptions and passing the written portion of the Japanese Drivers Test. But in terms of actual professional guidance, JET is worthless.

I can’t really blame JET, though. Of course it can’t help me be a good Assistant English teacher. JET employees have no idea what my professional life is like. They have never been to my school. They don’t know the teachers I work with or the textbooks we use or the students we educate. Most rural Japanese towns don’t have enough money for the JHS English department to procure multiple sets of supplementary textbook DVD’s. Most towns don’t have orphanages filled with neglected/abused kids. Most schools don’t enroll students who are sent to Juvy a few times per year. Most schools don’t have a paraplegic girl who gets taunted by neglected/abused kids and needs to be manually carried up and down the stairwell, in her wheelchair, by teachers. Most schools don’t permit the foreign Assistant English teacher to be a head coach of a sports team. And so on. The point is, I’ve been working in this particular environment with these particular people for two years. I’ve learned how to be a good teacher for my specific circumstances. JET can’t help me and they shouldn’t try to. But instead, there are four compulsory yearly conferences. Attendance is obligatory for all JETs in the prefecture. I would expound further on these conventions, but it would basically be a duplication of the Tokyo Orientation account, except this time starring some of my favorite, abovementioned personalities instead of cute Jamaican girls. In summary, JET conferences are the fucking worst. They’re so intolerable that this year I started asking my school vice-principal to get me out of them. I didn’t deceive him. I just told him it was a waste of time and I didn’t want to go and if he was happy with my work at school, then I might as well not skip work, at school. The first time I asked, he called the Toyooka Board of Education and spoke some rapid Japanese, then hung up the phone, flashed a firm thumbs up and said “OK!” The second time he didn’t even call.

But the Midyear Skills Conference was unavoidable. It’s an overnight affair – two days of monotonous meetings, monochromatic suits, heavy perspiration and pontificating JETs. Approximately 100 prurient, socially-weird foreigners cohabiting a concrete dormitory suggestive of a hospital ward. Plus around 50 Japanese-nationality English teachers in attendance, to facilitate dialogue between assistant and primary English teachers, or something. All of us divided into ethnologically multifarious, alphabetically-identified “Base Groups” of about twenty people. I was assigned to Group G. Oh also, I’d learned a few days prior to MYSC that I was the Group G Secretary. This meant not only did I have to attend the inane forums, but I was also responsible for annotating the proceedings and sending out a thorough report soon after. The report would be passed on to every JHS in the prefecture.

There were guidelines on how to write an appropriate secretary report. I tried to follow them. But when I sat down and started typing, my primary self-deception asserted itself. The Writer took hold. I had no choice. I had to produce something Honorable and Valuable and Good.

The following is my secretary report for Session III of Group G. The topic was how to augment English class warm-up exercises (the slightly more interactive first ten minutes of class), utilizing weather vocabulary.

Filed: 09:43, December 8th, 2011

Session III – Rapid Fire Games
Summary
Each member of group G had been asked to present a 5-10 minute game or activity introducing/incorporating weather-related vocabulary/sentence structures. It was early a.m. on the second day. The congregation was a cocktail of nerves and actual, still-only-half-digested cocktails. The weird 1980’s monitors adorning each cubicle belched electronically-chilled air. Fluorescent Hospital-Brand ambiance. The jangle of Muzak noticeably absent. New Friends everywhere. Flashcards flashing. The following is a compendium of the events that unfolded that late November day.

Activity #1:  9:07a.m. Nov. 22nd, 2011
a.    A paper card is distributed to each group-member. The card must remain face-down, no looksies, a crescendo of suspense, already.  Cards are flipped, we find out who made the cut. Those with “Safe” inscribed survive, while “Sunny, Cloudy, Rainy, and Snowy” card-bearers are sentenced to public shame.

Sample Dialogue:
Teacher: “How is the weather?”
Unlucky Student #1 (glancing at card): “It is cloudy.”

b.    A 2D map of Japan is consigned, one per person. Each map contains a series of squares superimposed over certain Japanese cities. Some squares are filled with categorical weather icons (the sun, the cloud, the rain), whilst others are just blank white slates. This is your typical info-gap game. Clutching our maps, we wander the room, interviewing purported classmates and amassing info and stuffing our blank slates with scribbled categorical weather icons, too captivated to fully grasp the Apocalypse-suggestive incongruities of Japan’s meteorology.

Sample Dialogue:
Student (JTE): “How is the weather in Kobe?”
Student (Me): “I don’t know where Kobe is and I can’t read Kanji.”
Student (JTE): “Here you are (pointing).”
Student (Me): “It’s sunny in Kobe.”

Activity #2:  9:13a.m. 
Note: at this point the relief of not being the First-To-Go and therefore having some idea of how exactly this whole thing is supposed to work, sets in for the rest of us. Serious Appreciation is directed toward the members of group #1, but not verbalized.

a.    An onslaught of enthusiastic weather-related gesticulations and weather-vocab repetition. Speed increases. Laughter and a sense of commonweal ensue.
b.    Flashcards are posted on the blackboard. Currently-presenting JTE delivers a terse weather report (i.e. “It is sunny!”) and Currently-presenting ALT races to touch the corresponding card.
Note: what exactly the ALT is racing from/against is unclear. Yours Truly wonders what sinister, formidable thing could be the cause of such celerity.

Activity #3:  9:19a.m.
a.      Weather flashcards flashed, the class recapitulates vocab: sunny, rainy, cloudy, snowy.
b.      A large map of Nagano prefecture is posted on the board. Magnets handled with aplomb. The omnipresence of Kanji befuddles. The ALT assumes a frozen stance, front and center, and the JTE produces a real-life TV remote-control. Then he, the male JTE (I don’t generally remember specific genders, just overall sex-impressions, and mine was that the vast majority of Group G’s JTEs were men) fake activates the real remote. The JTE actuates, front and center, into something resembling an overripe weatherman. He’s in full-on-car-salesman-pulpiteer mode. The class is rapt. A communal sense of I-never-realized-how-much-I-miss-my-local-11pm-news prevails. The JTE and ALT break character and explain that, time permitting, the middle school students can/should/will act-out the role of weather-correspondents-on-the ground. Pantomiming encouraged.
Supplies/Props: TV remote control, big map, acting chops/moxie/the ability to withstand teenagers pointing/laughing at you without wilting from anxiety.

Note: Yours Truly really appreciates the final-act of this activity. I’ve done enough burlesquing all sorts of surreal scenarios for the viewing pleasure of anyone under the age of 15. Payback, please.
             
Activity #4:  9:24a.m.
a.      Flashcards reign.
Note: from here on out, lets just assume every activity is preceded by some serious flashcard over-usage. Sunny, rainy, cloudy, snowy. You get the point.
b.      Non-explicitly-weather-related flashcards flash. They are: the images of nouns that implicitly correlate to certain weather patterns. Example: ice cream to sunny, umbrella to rainy, etc. The JTE poses a simple question: It’s rainy, what do you want?  The congregation emphatically answers “umbrella!”
Note: Yours Truly secretly covets the ice cream.
c.      Group G forms a circle, the Dynamite Game commences. Currently-Presenting ALT produces a plastic ticking-time-bomb novelty. He promises that it’s a cheap and worthwhile purchase. He seems trustworthy enough. The prop is passed from hand to hand, group-members regurgitating whatever weather descriptive occurs before they are allowed to pass-it-on. Tic-tic—it’s sunny—tic-tic—it’s snowy etc. When the bomb explodes (It’s really more of a feckless pop), the theoretically atomized man/woman/child must quickly regroup and recite every single weather vocab descriptive. The previously subtextual agony of public speaking is made explicit, an analogue of total personal ruination. The stakes are high. The game is a hit.

Activity #5:  9:34a.m.
Note: my secretarial record of activity #5 is not impressive/professional. I may have been getting tired/distracted by all my new friends. Regardless, the following is an exact recreation of Yours Truly’s notebook.
-follow sentence to weather.
-worksheet :)
-question to individual student; how’s weather; i wanna; + one question
-teacher to student, student to student
-(!)
Note: this list is more than a little disquieting, in terms of mental lucidity. The tone is vaguely creepy. Also there’s the issue of wanton punctuation/emoticon employment, which I’d rather not address here. Clearly something was off. I blame the bomb. If you were a member of group #5 or you can maybe decipher what I wrote to myself in a daze of PTSD, please contact me or someone else with more perspicuity/authority.

Activity # 6:  9:41a.m.
a.      Each member receives five cards. Each card has a weather icon and a designated point value.  There is no congruity between categorical weather icons and their allotted points. Example: a rain cloud can be worth +100 points and a dazzling sun can be -500 points, or vice versa. (note: this detail is a small feature of the game, but it also proffers something of a redemptive moment for those of us who get tons of flak just because we happen to enjoy rainy days. Possessing a +400 point rain cloud feels plain ol’ good.) So anyway, group-members (acting as students) take their five cards and wander and janken (rock, paper, scissors) and dialogue, the objective being to amass the most points possible. Format goes like this: Janken Winner can take any card from Janken Loser and Janken Loser must then also accept whatever card Janken Winner wishes to discard from his/her own personal stash. It’s essentially a card commutation negotiated with weather lexicon and governed by the Janken Winner. As an added bonus, it teaches Janken Loser that life is capricious and vile.
Sample Dialogue:
Janken Winner: “How is the weather?”
Janken Loser : “It’s sunny. Which card do you want?”
Winner: “Sunny Card. +500. Now, I will give you this card.”
Loser: “Rainy. -150.”
Winner: Say ‘thank you.’”
Loser: “No.”
Winner: “Say it.”
Loser: “Thank you.”

Additional Stuff: stock up on supplementary cards. Dispense them liberally so kids don’t ever get eliminated/weepy. Prizes awarded for most points accumulated.
Optional prize awarded to the Ultimate Loser; that poor soul foundering way down there in a truly, irrevocably negative place.

Note: the news of this Ultimate Loser’s Prize arrives too late. Yours Truly is already slipping into a psychical vortex of hellfire weather patterns, time bombs, smiley faces and now, mathematical nadirs. All my +400 rain clouds have been filched. The 1980s monitor I could’ve sworn I’d decommissioned, is once again exhaling an eerie cold breeze.

Activity #7:  9:48 a.m.
a.    Homemade Go Fish, with weather and time instead of numbers and suits. Group G segregates into tribes of around 5/6 people. We divvy up the cards and get on with it. The linguistic logistics are a bit more complex than your traditional Go Fish game, but it’s not mind-boggling stuff. Basically, when it’s your turn, you state your own card first (the one you already possess and are hoping to match with its mate) and then pose a correspondent question to another player. If the charged player has that card, it’s now yours. When a player runs out of cards, he/she must retrieve two more. Play until the deck expires. Most pairs = champion.
Sample Dialogue:
Player 1(looking at Player 2): “It’s 4pm. What time is it?”
Player 2: “Go Fish.”
Player 3 (looking at Player 2): “It’s sunny. How is the weather?”
Player 2 (sighing and relinquishing said card): “It’s sunny.”

Activity #8:  9:58 a.m.
a.    Your classic charades diversion, plus a heavy dose of equipment/props. Currently-Presenting JTE and ALT take turns acting out the pitiable role of defenseless-citizen-assailed-by-extreme-weather. Students postulate what sort of climate forces could incite so much flailing from one man/woman.
b.    Students face each other and, in pairs, ape the fear and desperation of being completely indefensible against a deluge of sunburns + twisters + blizzards + floods.
Note: as I watch my partner, a male JTE with a strong handshake and good teeth, get absolutely pummeled by what I can only imagine to be a Saharan-dust-devil, I am comforted. I couldn’t ask for a better companion. If anyone can withstand this whirlwind of dire weather + other ominous things in the room, it’s him. We are in this together.
Additional Props/Supplies: sunglasses, wool hat, scarf, sunscreen, trench-coat, umbrella, etc. Basically all the accessories you would pile on yourself if you were robbing a bank.

Activity #9  10:05a.m.
a.    One worksheet and one pocket-sized card are distributed to each member of Group G; again, no looksies. The pocket-sized cards display a weather denomination/icon – all the usual suspects – except this time “partly cloudy” makes a cameo (the moderation and verisimilitude of this phrase is sort of disconcerting, but definitely welcome). On the count of three we’re allowed to glimpse our pocket-sized cards. Then we set off meandering the room. The aim is to indiscriminately inquire about other people’s weather-cards until you’ve encountered and received the autograph of one student representative (he/she who possesses the required pocket-sized credentials) of every weather-forecast denomination/icon other than yours. First person to collect the autographs of every forecast, wins.  
Supplies: worksheet, cards, Sharpies for signing like you’re famous.

Activity #10  10:11a.m.
a.    This is, fundamentally, a weather-forecast word problem. A hand-out containing the forecasts of a variety of locations for the upcoming week is provided. We meet Laura, our fictional heroine intent on determining where + when = her optimal vacation site. The JTE reads the forecasts of each day in each location for the upcoming week. The avalanche of nongermane venues and weekdays and weather patterns strikes Group G as hilarious. Almost everyone laughs and then swiftly deduces where and when Laura will repose poolside to catch some rays. Sighs of personal satisfaction pervade.
Note: This is an unnerving six minutes for me. That’s my sturdy JTE companion up there. I slump in my cubicle, alone. He stands erect and confidant and true. A stream of haphazard, bewildering factoids pour from his mouth. Tuesday in Nagashima Spaland, snowy on the moon, Friday, hot and rainy, a typhoon in Matsumoto, snowy on the moon, Thursday, Iida, snowy on the moon. I cower, in a state total phrenic shambles. This is bad. Worse than I thought. Without my sturdy companion, I’ve got no chance against so much inclemency. And he’s up there, making things worse, because he can, because it doesn’t touch him. That’s how sturdy he is.
Time’s up. 10:15a.m. Some respite. Thank God.
Supplies/Requirements: worksheet, narrative creativity, a mentally-stable audience

Update
After lunch and some peripheral seminars, the members of Group G returned to their home base. The room was the same as before. Shiojiri/Matsumoto still visible through the windows; two horizontal towns bleeding into one another, surrounded by a sharp vertical topography.  The fluorescent-Hospital-Brand lights had not wavered. Muzak still missing. Group G members re-checked and again deactivated the monitors in their cubicles. The camaraderie fostered during the trials of the a.m. session had pretty much dissipated by this point. New Friends tentatively rediscovered. Awkward smiles and waves. A second helping of that Really Unpredictable Weather looming in the umbra of the room/our hearts.

Activity #11  1:04p.m. November 22nd, 2011
a.    This activity is essentially Pictionary: weather-forecast-version. The Currently –Presenting ALT clandestinely unveils two weather-related-vocab words to “student” volunteers. The volunteers hastily draw a single animation on the blackboard that captures the totality of these often conflicting climate conditions. If you’ve ever wondered how a 12 year old would pictographically interpret a “warm and snowy” day, this is your game.
Note: pretty much everyone is glad the first activity of the second session, which also happens to be the penultimate activity of the day, necessitates rushed hand-sketches. Nothing relaxes a passel like disfigured stick-figures on the blackboard. .

Activity #12  1:12p.m.
a.    This is an activity for elementary kiddies. The basis is the famous-but-probably-forgotten-and-deservedly-so Hot/Cold game. But instead of hot and cold, more specific weather vocab is utilized. The hider hides the object. The class guides the seeker (who has been sequestered outside-the-classroom during the hiding process) toward the designated object by chanting weather-related words that intimate either balmy good times (sunny = getting warmer/closer!) or overall chilliness (snowy = getting colder/further away!). The Current-ALT-presenter is lethargic and preoccupied. Group G is ready to go home.

Note: tragically, this one is all mine. Yours Truly did not anticipate having to present a warm-up lesson-plan in addition to his meticulous secretarial note-taking. I was unprepared. That hopefully explains me using whatever-I-had-in-my pocket as the object for hiding. But really, there are no excuses. I was overwhelmed by the moment. The ticking-time-bombs. The public speaking. The subconscious happy-face scribbles. The tempestuous, doomsday weather patterns. Those autonomous 80’s monitors. The sterilized lighting.  Being abandoned by my sturdy JTE. The truth is, by the afternoon of November 22nd, 2011, Yours Truly was a petrified shell of his former self.  And then, at that moment, I went up there, in front of Group G. I presented my unprepared presentation. Volunteers volunteered. My ChapstickTM was eventually located. Group G applauded. I shuffled back to my cubicle, where Sturdy JTE awaited, brandishing all of his perfect teeth.
“Hey!” he said.
“How was it?” I said.
“Great. It was great.”
“Weather is crazy.”
“It’s only a warm up activity. If this is a real class, there are still 40 minutes left in class.”


***

So about 30 minutes after filing this report, I received a reply from the leader of Group G14. Her displeasure was manifest. “This is not appropriate” is, according to the unspoken JET – JET code of social conduct, bordering on vituperation.

I sent a grammatically half-assed response two minutes later.

“Dear Leader of Group G,

personal opinions are mostly, if not completely, limited to annotations. you said i didnt have to remember names. english be proper. bulletpoints avoided. check. check. check. check.

a detailed report of 12 activities is supposed to fit on one page, sans bulletpoints--come on. be real.

every attending school in the ken could use a detailed report of 12 activites + a chuckle.
i was assigned the role of secretary and i secretaried my heart out. i was not, however, assigned the role of editor.

all the better than best,
jackson

She replied immediately, informing me that she didn’t have time to “get into the details” with me, but would pass my secretary report onto the Nagano Prefectural Advisors and I should expect to hear from them shortly. I did. They said the report was too long. I told them to bowdlerize as they saw fit. They did. The end.

***

It’s pretty easy for me to rationalize both the not-so-subtle insubordination articulated in my secretary report and also my churlish refusal to self-edit post-reprobation. JET has no actual authority over me. The Midyear Skills Conference is miserable and valueless. I did not volunteer for the position of secretary. Basically, I was forced to do something I didn’t want to do by/for someone who couldn’t really make me do it anyway. But some deep-rooted, parentally-inculcated sense of guilt/duty wouldn’t let me just eschew the task entirely. So I wrote it. But I wrote it for myself.

Which is what The Writer invariably does. He overlooks rigid guidelines and redefines the animus of whatever subject he’s writing about. He slips into fantasy-mode. I distinctly recall sitting at my work computer in early December, trying to compose a serviceable, succinct secretarial report. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t produce something 100% descriptive and totally inconsequential. So I transformed the humdrum assignment into an outlet for me to: hyperbolize, bloviate and govern other people’s perceptions of a specific event. I tried to be funny and clever and revelatory. I attempted to amend the experience. I had to make Session III of MYSC Exciting and Valuable.

In reality, MYSC was just like every other unoffending professional conference ever held in any Midwestern hotel. The Group-G members were anxious and aggressively polite, constantly feigning that they’d just acquired some very enlightening data. Nominal valuable information was exchanged. The carpet was the color of sleet. Everyone observed the dress code. The whole thing was goddamned boring. But then again, so is my daily life in Japan.

Which is to say, the report I filed was basically just another version of this blog. The Writer will be The Writer. Instead of confronting a situation for what it is, he tackles it on his own terms. He distills and revises everything. The dumb life-mistakes he makes and the people he fears and the lackluster seminars he attends and the weird new country he resides in and the numbness of when adventure eventually becomes habitude. These things are malleable to The Writer15. Reality is just another source. An inspiration for something better, something yet to be metaphorically/literally written.

The question then becomes: what motivates this strange psychological compulsion to manage the significance of everyday existence? Why do I romanticize my life in Japan? Why can’t I write a standard secretary report?

Merely dismissing the impulse to engineer reality as a suspect, mysterious force is to take the proverbial easy-way-out. There is some psychical nexus at the root of this compulsion. The Writer is just a symptom, but what is the illness?

Let’s re-examine briefly my totally subjective description of The Writer up to this point. The Writer is intent on embellishing his experiences. He attempts to dictate how these experiences are perceived by other people. He projects the world through his lens. He’s convinced of his own importance. He’s insecure. He craves attention. More than anything, he yearns to confirm himself as an appurtenant presence. To know that he matters even a little out there, in the Big Bad World. These things considered, it’s not a leap of logic to conjecture that, in essence, The Writer is a psychological bambino. He is a child. He clings to the youth-time delusion of self-as-the-center-of-the-universe. He inhabits that magical epoch of incognizance/ignorance when you’re utterly convinced that you are the single most important thing in the world. When reality is filtered through your all-important lens before it even becomes real. When your simplistic impression of whatever is in front of your face is the only thing that matters.

If I am The Writer, and I am therefore an intellectual child, this might also help diagnose my insatiable traveling impulse. To travel is to be bombarded by the unknown. It is humbling and confusing. Traveling confirms me as an uninformed, underdeveloped organism. It permits me to continue imagining myself as the Ultimate Recipient. All these weird cultures and their different interpretations of reality exist merely for my own personal pleasure. They’re out there, waiting idly for me to come experience them. So that I can expand my lens. So that I can learn something. So that I can say something I couldn’t say before. I am the student in this equation, the non-adult, removed from the university campus and now squatting in the sandbox, playing with all the toys I can get my hands on, certain that everything I think and feel is not only relevant, but important.

And the tragic paradox is: this juvenile, egotistical inclination is the same quality in other JETs that I find so insufferable. But I’m just like them. I may not post Youtube videos of myself rapping in costumes. I may not exercise half-naked during work-hours. I may not molest girls and I may not advertise my sexual conquests (or lack thereof) in a public/professional arena. But I do write. And writing is my way of expressing the subconscious belief that I am the center of the universe. That I’m entitled to do whatever I want with the world. And isn’t that what all these JETs are really guilty of? They just realize it differently, via their own unsettling personality quirks. I may not assault girls I’ve just met, but I also don’t consider the possibility that my little secretary-report tantrum was really obnoxious and inconvenient. Through my lens, The Leader of Group G exists strictly as a receptacle for my petulance and self-centeredness. But seen through her lens, I’m probably fucking up her day.

Is all this childish egotism really a bad thing, though? I’d hazard that it isn’t. Because if I somehow ceased not only perceiving things through my own personal lens, but also placed no special worth on my perception of these things, what would be left? Apparent abnormalities would become insignificant particles of an infinite Normalcy. Bedroom rappers and sexual deviants would no longer be despicable antagonists. I’d experience the world for what it actually is: a vast sandbox populated by lots of kids gamboling in their own little first-person universes. That’s the maelstrom. And maybe the secret to successfully navigating the maelstrom is that you have to think your experiences are significant. You have to believe that you matter. Otherwise you’d transform into some sort of omniscient parent/deity, aloof and detached and indifferent and anesthetized. You’d have no desire to dive into the playground and get covered in all the filth of infantile self-conviction/self-centeredness. You’d just stand there on the other side of the fence, observing the chaos. And eventually profound despair would take hold.

And so maybe that explains why JETs are so fucking obnoxious and maybe that’s why I write. Maybe that’s why I’m anti-social. Maybe that’s why I travel and drink and smoke weed. All these things keep me believing that I am the center of the universe. That what I experience and feel is unique and important. That I have some authority over reality. They keep me in fantasy-land. And maybe fantasy-land is the only place a person can survive. 







FOOTNOTES
1) Recurring, fantasies often involve but are not limited to – John Stewart, top hats, Rihanna, book endpaper photos, the Academy Awards, Keira Knightly, adult-children’s books, Eastern Europe, flying first-class, sailboats, a tribe of omni-racial adopted offspring - all of them the physically flawless and legally mine, New Orleans, facial hair, sweater-vests)

2) The editor of this magazine insisted “cowboy-lifestyle” was still a thing, but the subscription numbers said otherwise. I was the “East-Coast Correspondent.” Which means I went to upstate NY agriculture fairs and rode on tractors and helped cattle ranchers look for newborn calves that were missing and had a) either wandered into a ditch or b) been eaten by a fox. It was actually pretty fun.

3) I’m not sure if I assassinated the man, Mr Christopher Noth, or his character, Mr. Big from Sex in the City. But an assassination occurred. No regrets.

4) Twelve is that thrilling age when human beasts become human beings. I can’t handle little kids. They speak wrong and make weird sounds and dig at their own assholes and then try to climb on my face. How much I loathe little kids, especially en masse, has become somewhat of a running joke at my school. I visit the two elementary schools each once a month. As I leave my junior high school on those days the teachers point at me and laugh. When I come back, they point at me and laugh. And give me an energy drink and tell me to take a nap. I find none of this funny.


5) The interview went like this: there were three interviewers dispersed across one side of a long table. I was on a single leather chair, on the other side of the table, facing my interrogators. The chair had wheels. The interviewers were spaced so far apart that when the one on the right end asked me a question I couldn’t hear her. So I rolled my chair across the room and situated myself directly in front of her. I was sweating profusely. Once I’d answered her query, the guy at the far left end had a question. I couldn’t hear him now, so I rolled all the way across the room again, using my legs to crab-walk propel the chair. I kept repeating this noisy, jerky performance, rolling from on interviewer to the other. Sweating grossly. But also, covertly, sort of enjoying myself. Becoming more and more convinced I’d have to make some upgrades to the bedroom in my mother’s house. Because I’d be there for a while.

6) Thanks Japanese taxpayer!

7) Everyone hates you, Gabriel. Everyone. Hates. You.

8) The JET Programme is adamant about one thing and one thing only. Every JET will get home sick. They have graphs to prove it. Homesick graphs. As in, time spent in foreign country horizontal axis vs. quantity of tears vertical axis.

9) Some of the first were: “poop” and “die” and “stupid” and “drinking party” and “delicious” and “192.” Most of these are self-explanatory. I work at a middle school and Japanese people love eating and drinking. The 192 is approximately my height in centimeters. Which is pretty much the first question anyone I ever meet here asks me.)

10) Unless its math.

11) Astronomy, Visual Arts, Sociology, Music Humanities, Comparative Literature, Biomedical Ethics, Cuban Pop-Art, Shakespeare, Yoga. Yeah. I said it. Yoga. I was nearly expelled from yoga class, but still, YOGA.)

12) Granted, it would have been much less fun if I’d been the one paying for it.

13) - And totally awesome, I miss college so bad.   

14) That would be the introductory segment of this way too long essay.

15) In case this wasn’t made explicit already, reference to myself as capitalized “The Writer” does not insinuate any level of talent or accomplishment. The Writer is a self-description. Something you believe about yourself, even if you’ve never had anything published and no one reads your tweets. The Writer is someone who believes he must write.  



2 comments:

  1. Hello, Jackson! Helen here. I don't recall ever interacting with you, but it sounds like that's the way you like things :). A friend recommended I read this blog post, and after doing so I can see that you have very strong opinions about both your artistic integrity as a Writer and the JET program. I would, however, like to ask that you respect my privacy by removing my last name from the sections about me. You've been kind enough to do so for the other individuals whose behavior you have chosen to single out as representatives for Nagano and the JET program.

    I am flattered to have made such a powerful impression on you with just one e-mail (as it was only one, you know, at a time in my life when I was feeling very vulnerable and unhappy) and to have served as an inspiration for your work. I of course wish you all the best with your writing in the future. You are particularly good with hyperbole, and I enjoyed your tongue-in-cheek descriptions of our conferences and personalities (as an involuntary secretary for two different MYC/SDCs, I can certainly commiserate! My first year's report was submitted in a miniscule font, with the narrowest possible margins - annoying, yet within the requirements. Mwahaha!). I just don't agree that there's any need to make it personal :). I hope you understand, and enjoy the coming snow season!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is the best critique of the JET Program I've ever read. Thank you, good sir, for writing this.

    ReplyDelete