Vacation, all I ever wanted

I’ve never taught in an American school, but based on my interactions with people who have, I believe I can safely assert that American teachers work hard. Despite the climate of public opinion, which has increasingly demonized them over the last decade, my impression is that most American teachers work well over 50 hours per week, not including all the extra hours spent at home grading papers and preparing materials for class.

Although American teachers receive (at best) middling pay, the job comes with a major fringe benefit, one that is constantly lorded over them as an excuse for garnished wages: American teachers get a lot of vacation time. True, it isn’t as flexible as regular time-off, since teachers can’t up and take it whenever they want, but even so, the summer vacation enjoyed by teachers is the envy of working people everywhere. And winter break is nothing to sneeze at, either.

For the most part, teachers in Japan have it about the same. Same long hours, same mediocre pay. But there are some major differences. For one thing, Japanese teachers tend to get a lot more respect than their American counterparts. In part, this is just a product of Japanese society as a whole, where people go to considerable lengths to avoid offending one another, and nobody would think of denigrating another person’s job. The Culture of Blame that is so pervasive in America just doesn’t exist here on anything like the same scale. This isn’t always a good thing, as historically, close ties between the Japanese bureaucracy and private sector interests consistently undermined the public good while generating only modest outcries. (Wait… this seems somehow familiar). Still, I think overall it’s a positive that, when something bad happens, Japan’s first instinct is to fix the problem rather than castigate the people at fault. Whereas in America, we get so caught up in the fun and excitement of scapegoating that we sometimes lose sight of what’s actually wrong. Economy bad? Budget deficit? Racial achievement gap? Barber shaved your sideburns a little too high? DAMN TEACHERS DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING!

But there’s a price to be paid for that extra respect. The culture here may not be one of blame, but it’s certainly one of hard work, so much so that the Japanese invented a term (karoshi) for “occupational sudden death” from overwork. For the Japanese, a suspect work ethic is perhaps the most damaging social stigma. This means that people not only work awfully hard, but also take pains to keep up appearances, in order to avoid the perception of laziness. For teachers, the result is a lot of extra days at the office.

Aside from the national holidays that affect everyone, the Japanese academic calendar includes three major breaks: (1) Summer vacation, which lasts the whole month of August; (2) Winter vacation, which is the two weeks surrounding New Year’s; and (3) The end of the year break, two weeks at the end of March and beginning of April for graduation and the start of the new school year. While there are no classes during any of these breaks, Japanese teachers have to come to work during ALL of them.  (Not quite every day—we do have six days off for New Year’s, though this includes a few national holidays).

Now, Japanese teachers get 20 vacation days per year, and in theory they can use them during these breaks. The reality, though, is that most Japanese teachers never get close to using their full allotment of vacation. And this isn’t because they’re all humorless automatons that can’t function outside the office. It’s because the social stigma against slacking off is so great that, even though these are days they are entitled to use, they don’t consider it appropriate to use them all.

So teachers are stuck at work right now, just like they were in August when I first arrived, without any classes to teach, and doing… I’m not sure what, exactly. They do seem to be working diligently, although if they were goofing off, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Since I don’t have any of the administrative duties that the Japanese teachers have, there’s really no work for me to do, but since I have to keep showing up, I spend most of the day studying Japanese, occasionally taking breaks to read or write a blog post (on MS Word, since I don’t have any internet access at my desk). My Japanese is definitely improving, and while that isn’t saying much, every little bit makes my life here easier.

Lucky for me, though, I’m not Japanese, so the expectations are different. If I wanted, I could take time off now, but I’m choosing to save my nenkyu for March/April, when my parents may be coming to visit, and for a possible return to the States (date TBA) for my friend’s wedding. And I will be taking a little trip—to Kumamoto and Fukuoka, the two neighboring prefectures with big cities—during the six-day New Year’s break, starting on Thursday. Rest assured, though, I’ll be using those 20 days. I mean, my coworkers have gotta understand—letting vacation days go to waste is downright un-American.

Be not proud

(NOTE: Merry Christmas, everyone. This is maybe, possibly not the post you most want to read while you tear through wrapping paper this morning. Just a heads up.)

"You could eat apples off my head, kid."

A month ago, my grandmother turned 98-years-old. Last week, she had a stroke. Today, she died.

I’m not in the habit of eulogizing, but even if I were, a blog about cultural misadventures–even one with the glossy finish and high production values of–doesn’t really seem like an appropriate place to celebrate a life. Instead, I’d like to think about death, and the way we remember the people we lost.

I am inexperienced in the ways of death. I have been to exactly one funeral, for my grandmother’s second husband, the only grandfather I ever knew. I was a child then, old enough to be sad but young enough to be ashamed of my tears. I told my parents I had something in my eyes and complained about having to get dressed up.

About a month ago, my uncle died of cancer. He was 63-years-old. For some time, it was understood, by him and everyone else, that he was dying. When it finally happened, it wasn’t a surprise. It is impossible to afford cancer any positive benefits, but if it has even one, perhaps it is this: its devastating predictability allows you to prepare for death, as much as anyone can ever be “prepared” for such a thing. I knew, when I saw my uncle a year ago, that it might be for the last time. When I came to Japan, I did so knowing he would die while I was here.

With my grandmother, it was different. Into her mid-90s, she was still spry, sharp, and able to live independently. Emotionally, this was sort of awkward for her relatives, because it’s natural to feel guarded about a loved one at that age. Intellectually, you know that time is running short, so you try to cherish and appreciate it more than before, while having to remind yourself not to be somber or invite death by calling attention to it. Every goodbye looms as maybe, possibly the final goodbye, but you don’t know, and so it seems ominous to think that way. And when the person is as lively and robust as my grandmother was, it’s easy to entertain the idea that she’ll always be around, the exceptional exception to the odds of life.

I did not get to see my grandmother a final time before she died. I am sad for her, because she was a wonderful woman, and she deserved to see her family together one last time. For myself, I am less sad than grateful. I am grateful because my grandmother was a warm, caring, charming person, uncompromising in her optimism yet amicably compromising towards those around her. This is how I will remember her. I won’t remember her in a hospital gown because I wasn’t there. I don’t know what she looked like, waiting to die. I don’t know if she was scared, or content, or happy or sad. I am told she was comfortable up until the end. I don’t need to know more than that.

After the stroke, my mom asked me if I wanted to write something for funeral, a story or a few words, since I wouldn’t be there. And when I started to think about my grandmother, I was embarrassed, because I couldn’t think of any stories to tell. How could this be, I thought. I loved her, and I knew her, and yet no stories came to mind. I have dozens of detailed, well-rehearsed stories about people I barely know, and none about my grandmother. Was there something wrong with me?

But, after awhile, I realized I was thinking about this all wrong. Stories, yarns, tales–these are things told in bars, or written up on pithy little blogs. Stories have punchlines, unexpected twists, conflicts in need of resolution. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Stories are self-conscious because stories are meant to be told.

I have no stories about my grandmother. Instead, I have memories. Memories are like stories, but unselfconscious, and stripped of all their trappings. A story is:

“One time, this kid brought a bunch of dance sticks into our house and start chucking them around, and it was stupid and harmless until he inevitably broke a light in our kitchen. Then, seeing what he had done, he sprinted out of the house, at which point I gave chase and corralled him. After bringing him to justice at the scene of the crime, and with the vague innuendo of possible bodily harm floating around, we took down his information and solicited a promise to reimburse us for the cost of a new light, as well a variety of concessions regarding the immediate forfeiture of any dance sticks, should they ever be seen again on the premises. The next day, we bought a new light, and charged him a 1000% markup for the inconvenience.”

A memory is:

When I was working on the campaign two years ago, we stopped at a polling place in Worcester, and I called my grandmother. Not because I actually expected her to come and see me–it was November and she was 95-years-old–but just to tell her I was in town. Twenty minutes later, she arrived, having driven across town to stand in the cold with me, even though I was working and didn’t have very much time to chat. She stayed for almost an hour. It was nice to see her, even though the circumstances weren’t ideal.

Another memory is:

After I found out I was going to Japan, I visited my grandmother at her home, a Jewish assisted living facility a few blocks from her old house. She had a lot of energy that day, and when we went to lunch in the cafeteria, she toured me around, introducing me to the other residents and bragging about my upcoming move. They didn’t seem as excited about it as she was. I got a number of worried looks, a few Oh, gawds and a “Just don’t marry one of those.” After lunch, we went upstairs and watched home movies of me as a child for awhile until she got tired. It was a lovely afternoon.

Memories are what happen in between the stories, and although they seem less exciting, they are how we come to know each other. Stories are superficial, which is why we rely on them to characterize the people we don’t really know. They make for a quick retelling and a nifty summing up. For family, or for close friends, the people we really know, stories seem trifling and insignificant. They skate a person’s silhouette without ever filling it in. Only through the accumulation of memories, each one so individually flimsy and inconsequential, can a life take on shape and color and sound and weight.

I have no stories of my grandmother, but I have a lifetime of memories.

Two days before she suffered the stroke, I got a letter in the mail from my grandmother. Because of an earlier stroke, she had difficulty writing by hand, and my address in Japan is long and complicated, so the text on the envelope was all typed by someone else, probably my aunt. I imagine the letter inside is type-written, too, but I don’t know because I haven’t opened it. I had wanted to save it for the weekend, when I would have time to sit down and enjoy it slowly. Then, she had the stroke. Now, she is gone.

I did not get to say goodbye to my grandmother, but perhaps she said goodbye to me.

Stop making sense

Some people have a tendency to say stupid shit when they drink. Actually, scratch that–everyone has a tendency to say stupid shit when they drink. But, even under the influence of alcohol, some people are better at controlling this tendency. Of the other people–the ones who habitually let shit fly and chips fall where they may–we often say, “S/he has no filter.”

I have known a number of filter-less drunks, and like us all, I am sometimes one myself. But those who know me well, and especially those who have lived with me, understand that I have a different issue. It isn’t so much that I say shit that’s damning or offensive or tactless or harmful. It’s that I say shit that’s patently ridiculously and nonsensical, not just when I’m drinking, but whenever the mood strikes.

Unlike the filter-less drunk, I can control this instinct, and am able to subdue it when I’m in dour company. But ordinarily, among friends, I just let it fly. And that’s how songs about poop and pockets are born.

The thing is, I don’t have very many friends here, and the ones I do have I don’t see very often, so there isn’t the same outlet for my inane bullshit. In some ways, though, living where I do in Japan is the perfect storm for a person with my particular proclivity. One of the many wonderful things about back-country camping is that, when you have to relieve yourself, you can do it anywhere. Behind a rock! Next to that tree! Off a cliff! The choice is yours, because as they say, the world is your toilet. (NOTE: I’m being told by my legal counsel that “The World is Your Toilet” is actually a trademark of Go-Girl, the elegant and stylish piss funnel for today’s empowered woman! A division of FemMed Inc.)

Like the toilet-world envisioned by strong, independent, funnel-wielding women, for a person who says ridiculous shit, rural Japan is a world of possibility. See, when no one speaks or understands your language, you can say whatever you want, whenever you want. That means nobody stares if you yell “JORD be praised!” to celebrate good news. Nobody crossing the street to avoid the dude raving loudly about the potency of them Corvallis boys. You wanna use “hounds” as an adjective, well, no one’s gonna judge you here.

And given that I generally lack for conversation, I compensate the only way I can, by talking to myself. Whether it’s Dean Coolbaugh, head ball coach of the Coolbaugh State Cougs, explaining his winning philosophy (“There’s no ‘I’ in Dean”) at a post-game presser, or a new rendition of The Sopranos theme song (“Woke up this morning / Got myself some jorts / Papa always said you wore / The Chosen Jorts”), I’ve got no reason to hold back. Hey, it all sounds crazy to my neighbors.

I ride my bike a lot here as my primary method of transportation, and despite the beautiful scenery, it can get kind of lonely and dull, especially at night. To keep spirits up, I like to urge myself on aloud in the third person using a variety of nicknames, including but not limited to:

  • Steamboat Willy
  • The Constable
  • Doctor Grindhouse
  • Toll Boothington
  • El Jefe
  • Santiago
  • Dodge Charger

And sometimes, when I’m running or biking, I just yell at myself to “Fuel the jet” over and over again. I don’t know what it means.

Before I came here, some of my friends wondered aloud what manner of English my students would learn, since I tend be, shall we say, inventive in my deployment of language. And while I hate to disappoint, I confess that in class, I make an effort to teach them by the book.

If they listen carefully outside of class, though, they just might learn something.