Paradise lost

As I was writing the last post, one of the things I struggled with was reconciling my memories of middle school with the place I now work. For most Americans my age, only 10 years removed from the braces and body odors of junior high, memories of middle school are likely to be mixed at best and downright traumatic in some cases.

But almost 6 months into my job in Japan, the experience couldn’t have seemed more different, and not just because I’m wearing a tie this time. Where was the teasing? Where the hurtful nicknames? Where were the kids, ostracized and excluded, eating alone at lunch? Where were the girls crying in the bathroom? What was this idyllic school? And why were the students here so much more civil to each other than the ones I grew up with?

Of course, I’d have to be pretty naive to take this all at face value, and there are some practical answers to these questions that need addressing:

First, I’m a teacher now, and the differences don’t end at the chalk-stains on my pants. The students act differently around me than they do in my absence (shocking, I know). There’s a lot going on I don’t see, and the stuff I do see tends to be during class, where the students are generally better behaved and decorous towards one another.

Second, I, uh, don’t speak the language so hot. My deplorable Japanese doesn’t get me too far in normal conversations, never mind the slang-loaded banter that sprays around the room at lunchtime. As I recall, sarcasm–that easiest-to-use of rhetorical slights–was a favorite of bullies at my middle school, but given that it relies on an ability to differentiate based on intonation, I couldn’t recognize it in Japanese to save my life. So chances are there is some teasing that flies right by me.

Third, it’s tough for me to tell which nicknames are playful and which are hurtful. When a bunch of girls tell me to call their classmate “Ojo” (a pun on his actual name), and I find out later it means “princess,” is that teasing? Or is it flirting? At that age, the two are almost identical, so it’s probably only the girls themselves who know. And when a boy refers to his friend as “Right-Angle” (because his head is, well, a little square), is that in good fun? And if the recipient takes the nickname in stride, is he a good sport laughing off a harmless goof, or is he putting on a brave face in front of his peers?

This was hard enough to figure out when I was in middle school and it was all in English, so as you can imagine, it’s more or less impenetrable now.

The last thing that bears mentioning is that Japanese discourse tends to be marked by understatement and omission. In an effort to avoid disturbing the wa (harmony of society), Japanese people go to great lengths to avoid offending people. There really isn’t a need for curse words here because saying something, or somebody, is “the worst” is like saying “Fuck you” in English. (I found this out the hard way when I asked students, during an exercise in class, to give me an example to use in the sentence, “_________ is the restaurant that makes the worst food in Kazusa.” Crickets. Whoopsie.)

So, when calling someone “the worst” is akin to swearing at them, you can imagine the subtlety required to issue lesser insults, and the phenomenal degree of familiarity required to recognize them. Like I said, I’m probably missing a lot.

But, even taking all that into account, it was still remarkable how decent student relations seemed to be. Maybe that’s partly a product of small-town living, I don’t know. But the only whiff I ever got of bullying was when a female student missed class to stay in the nurse’s office. I asked my supervisor if she was okay, and she said, “Not sick, maybe.” Then she paused. “She has problems with friends.” I nodded my head, and in a quintessential example of Japanese understatement, she said, “Girls. It’s hard for them sometimes.”

So who knows? Maybe there have been girls crying in the bathroom all year long and I, for good reason, haven’t been around to see it.

But today, for the first time, I caught a too-familiar glimpse of what middle school can be like. In fact, if I read the situations right, I caught two glimpses in a span of 15 minutes.

The first came when I walked into the boys bathroom during lunch and found one of my students blowing his nose in the corner. In passing, we exchanged hellos, but when I came out of the stall I got a better look at him. He was crying and trying to muffle it with a rag. (Crying in bathrooms–it’s not just for girls!)

Now, bullying isn’t the only reason a student might be crying in the bathroom, so admittedly, I’m speculating. But this was, unfortunately, one of my worst students, someone for whom school is a chore and grades a non-factor. So I ruled out the possibility that this was the result of a bad score on a test (he has, I’m afraid, seen too many of those at this point to be so fazed). It could have been a family issue, or just a bad day, but in general this kid seems rather level, which is why I suspect bullying. Without getting into it too much, my impression is that this student alienates many of his peers with his attitude towards school, since so few of them share it. As a result, he’s probably not as well-liked as he might be, which is really a shame.

This student isn’t one I have much of a relationship with–his non-participation in my classes makes that difficult–so I didn’t think it was appropriate for me, of all people, to butt into his private moment. I did ask him if he was okay (in Japanese), to which he replied, “Yes.” Part of me wanted to tell the nurse or one of the other teachers what I had seen, but my intuition is that if somebody is crying in the bathroom, a lot of attention is the last thing they want.

Minutes later, I left, bringing my lunch up to eat with one of my classes. It is my routine to eat lunch with a different class each day, rotating through all three grades. I sit at a different table each time and (attempt) to chat with different students.

One reason why I’ve never seen a student eating lunch alone is that the arrangement makes it impossible. Students sit in assigned rows during class, and at lunch, the desks are turned to face each other and pushed together to form tables. So, mercifully, no one has to pick a table or search vainly for someone to sit with.

Anyway, I sat down across from a very quiet boy, the kind who is so often a target in American middle schools: shy, small, unathletic, and not terribly bright. During the course of the meal, he made a clumsy move with his chopsticks, and dropped a morsel of fish on the floor, where it sat. A minute later, another boy–loud, well-liked, a pitcher on the baseball team–pointed at the fish on the floor, singled the smaller boy out by name, and then said something else I didn’t catch. He may have told him to pick it up, or reprimanded him for dropping it. I have no way of knowing. But in Japan, singling someone out is rare and an easy source of embarrassment, which is why I am so careful about how I talk to students (see the last post for more on that).

This seems like a trivial enough exchange, but a few of the other boys laughed, and the smaller boy seemed to tear up. He didn’t cry, bu looked down at his lap and ate the remainder of his lunch quickly in silence without looking up. Again, I badly wanted to say something, especially since the cool boys in this class are always jockeying for my approval. But, beyond trying to smile at him, there seemed little I could do (especially in Japanese) that wouldn’t draw more unwanted attention.

After class, I made sure to say goodbye to him during a private moment. This is, of course, a textbook example of too little and too late, though whether that is worse than too much and too soon is up for debate. Finding a middle ground is one of the many, many things I have to improve on here.

As it turns out, dealing with bullying is one thing that doesn’t get any easier when you’re a teacher.

NB: Middle school really wasn’t THAT bad for me. No crying episodes to speak of. So rest easy, Mom.

Talk that talk

Do you remember high school?

Since my readership constitutes an ageless coalition that spans the generations, that question will be easier for some, more difficult for others. Still, I’d wager that most people have at least some memories of high school, though whether those memories are fondly recalled probably changes on a case-by-case basis.

Now what about middle school?

Memories of middle school are harder to come by, for many reasons. For one thing, it’s shorter than high school by a year. Additionally, a lack of cognitive development means that most pubescenti struggle with thinking abstractly, and I would posit unscientifically that this makes it more difficult to metabolize sensory information in a lasting and meaningful way. And this is to say nothing of the hormone-induced blackouts.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that middle school operates largely as a holding pen for unruly, chemically-deranged youths. Your average 13-year-old cannot function properly in society, so in order to minimizes disruption to the public at-large, he is cowed in with others like him and detained until his baser impulses subside. For the community as a whole, this works quite nicely, but the result is a middle school experience that is more often survived than enjoyed. You don’t graduate from junior high–you make it out alive.

Though terrifying, this all sounds rather exciting, and so you might expect to have dozens of thrillingly horrible memories indelibly stamped into your white and grey matter. However, this fails to consider the brain’s ability to repress unwanted memories, and so goodhearted people everywhere may find middle school recollections a little hazy.

But I didn’t ask you to dredge the backwaters of your psyche simply as an exercise in sadism. I’m going somewhere with this, though maybe not where you’d expect.

Do you remember your teachers from middle school?

Now this one is even tougher, because the curriculum in middle school is nothing if not forgettable. That’s by design, of course. You want to see a class full of these animals when they get riled up? I didn’t think so. Unbeknownst to pharmaceutical companies, PowerPoint is the most powerful sedative on the market, though studies on teachers have shown it to be habit-forming. For my part, I remember some names, a few blurry faces, and precious little else. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t recognize any of them if they were walking down the street.

What I do remember, though, is feeling awkward and uncomfortable around them. Not in class, mind you, where the roles of teacher and student are formalized and explicit. But outside of class–in the hallway, in the cafeteria, in the parking lot–seeing your teacher was a little weird. You might say hello, if it was a teacher you liked, or you might look at the floor or feign interest in your pencil. And at a place unassociated with school, like a movie theater or restaurant? Forget it. Kids that age have a hard time talking to adults, especially parents, because they just don’t understand, but teachers, too.

This is tricky for me, though, because one of my job expectations is that I engage in “grassroots internationalization.” That means, among other things, that I interface with the students outside of class whenever possible.

Now, this isn’t as difficult as it otherwise might be. Being tall, young, and American, students are more interested in chatting with me than, say, their middle-aged biology teacher. But it’s still sort of a delicate matter. Because my Japanese is so undeveloped, I can barely have a conversation with one person, to say nothing of fitting into a group dialogue. I eat lunch with the students, and this is ostensibly so that I can talk with them, but we seldom exchange more than a few words, because I can’t insert myself into the table’s conversation without singling one student out in a way that may make him uncomfortable.

At town matsuri (festivals), I’m often approached by students in huge groups, eager to chat up the ALT. This seems like a good opportunity to have a conversation in a relaxed environment, get to know my students, and internationalize grassrootsly–and it is–but the same problems apply. I can’t speak directly to any individual student without him or her clamming up completely, so I have to float out these rather lame, general-interest questions for the group to answer via consensus:

Me: “Are you having fun?”

(Whispering, looking back and forth)

Group: “Yes.”

Me: “Did you eat some food?”

(Whispering, giggling, pushing)

Group: “Yes.”

If I’m lucky, one or two of the bolder students will chime in with something more interesting or concrete, but that’s not a given. The other alternative is that I can make broad, declarative statements about myself–“I want to eat takoyaki (fried octopus)” or “I went to Amakusa yesterday”–but that’s pretty boring and rarely elicits more than a head-nod.

Trickier still is finding the conversational sweet-spot in between too long and too short. Students will engage me, but they’ll often wait for me to disengage the conversation, out of respect for a teacher, so it’s usually up to me to decide when the conversation is over. Now, I consider myself a rather adroit conversationalist, and the timing and rhythm of a conversation in Japanese isn’t so wildly different from English as to bewilder. But, for the most part, I’m used to speaking with adults, and talking to kids–especially as their teacher, outside the classroom–requires a deftness I haven’t entirely developed yet.

It’s a matter of recognizing that, while I may be well-liked as a teacher, I’m clueless to the jokes and references they use with their friends. I don’t want to cut a conversation short artificially or seem to dismissive to my students, because after all, these dialogues are very much a part of my job. But at the same time, I have to be careful not to linger or mistake courtesy for genuine interest. Beyond a certain threshold, I’m just as uncool and out-of-touch as every other teacher, the ones who just don’t understand.

Assorted factory seconds:

  • Since the marathon, I’ve had to tone down my training considerable, thanks to a nagging Baker’s cyst behind my left knee (self-diagnosis). It’s not a debilitating injury, but it’s lingering, and the internet consensus seems to be that time and rest is the best course of action. This is a real shame, since a lot of the work I put into training for the marathon has been lost during the layoff.
  • As a result, I had to skip the Unzen-Obama Half Marathon, which I was supposed to run two weeks ago. I did, however, rally to the run in the shorter Shimabara Hanto Ekiden, a relay-race with teams from all around the region. I ran for the Kazusa town team with six others. Because our team was rather weak, and perhaps because they wanted to clown the gaijin, I got to run the first leg with many of the fastest runners from other teams. Needless to say, I got smoked, finishing 11th out of 13, though I ran decently well, all things considered (4.5 miles at a 6:33 pace). As it turned out, I at least punched my weight, as the team finished 11th overall. (I also found out that the young kid I got burned by at track practice back in August runs a sub-5:00 mile. Doesn’t sting as bad anymore).

Dr. Grindhouse and the Speed Merchants

  • ┬áNext weekend, I’ll be heading up to Nagasaki city for a friend’s birthday. This also happens to coincide with the beginning of the Nagasaki Lantern Festival, a Chinese-inspired festival that celebrates the start of Chinese New Year. Supposed to be pretty beautiful, so hopefully I’ll remember my camera.

I know it’s been pretty slow recently, but be easy, because I’ve got some new stuff coming. Good things come to those who enterthegaijin.

A world away

Recently, I exchanged emails with a good friend, currently rambling about in South America. He’d been home for the holidays and found himself disconcerted by the number of people marching around attached to their smartphones and, as he put it, “oblivious to the world around them.” Now, granted, this isn’t a new observation, but it’s easy to understand how–after months in various Latin American backwaters–a person would find this phenomenon jarring.

Then, he as an aside, he added, “I’m sure Japan has a lot of this.” Well. I’m glad he brought this up, because it’s something I’ve been meaning to touch on here.

Remember the thought experiment we did a few posts back? I won’t subject you to another one of those, but I’m going to discuss some of the same issues, namely misconceptions about Japan.

Now, it’s grossly unfair of me to slander such a mild and unassuming statement as a misconception, since really, my friend is on point here. Japan–like America–has a bit of a cell phone fetish (not that it couldn’t be worse). In the cities, you see QR codes everywhere, with a frequency that far outstrips anything I ever saw in Boston. That’s a strong anecdotal indicator of smartphone use, since QR codes cater specifically to that demographic. (Although in Japan, virtually every cell phone is “smart” to some degree, as demonstrated by my bottom-end, unsophisticated, unsexy keitai and its ability to email and access the internet. My phone may have QR compatible software installed on it, I’m not sure. I haven’t checked because I don’t care). And you can hardly walk a city block without having this perception of smartphone culture reinforced.

Ah, but astute readers (of which I have many) will already have latched onto the operative word here: city. And therein lies the misconception. See, the popular notions about modern Japan that circulate internationally all have to do with Tokyo, and for good reason. For many visitors, Tokyo is the first and last, if not only, stop on the itinerary. It’s not only the biggest city in Japan, but the most populous metropolitan area in the world, and by a huge margin: at 32.45 million residents, it’s almost 60% more populous than Seoul or Mexico City, in a dead heat for second-place. Tokyo is the cultural hub of present-day Japan in almost every conceivable way, so it’s only natural that it represents the country as a whole to outsiders.

And, of course, this synecdochical relationship between city and country has analogues everywhere: Paris for France; Rome for Italy; New York City as emblematic of the United States. Now, as an American and a (Western) New Yorker, the idea of NYC as a stand-in for the rest of the country is laughable. The United States are so geographically huge and diverse that it’s ridiculous to suggest that any city, even New York, could provide a reasonable facsimile thereof.

But, as Tokyo and Japan are concerned, this idea seems on its face to be more credible. After all, NYC’s metro population (~19.75M) is just 6 percent of the US total, whereas about 1 in 4 residents of Japan live in metro Tokyo. And the country itself, while hardly Luxembourg, lacks the vastness that makes America so hard to render in microcosm; the land area of Japan would fit into the United States 26 times over.

Then there’s this: over 98 percent of Japan’s population is ethnically Japanese. With that kind of racial homogeneity, it’s easy to assume the culture is homogeneous, too. So, in a geographically modest country, of course the world’s biggest city is going to dominate with its influence.

While all of this plausibly supports the idea that sameness pervades in Japan, the fact is, it’s not true. Well, it is true, but only in marginal ways. Yes, the kids here read manga and watch anime, and the men drink sake, and we eat rice at (almost) every meal. And in the US, the kids read Harry Potter and watch, I dunno, South Park, and the men drink Budweiser, and we eat meat at (almost) every meal. But in real, meaningful ways, Japan is wildly various, just like America.

In my town, a huge majority of the people are either farmers or fishermen. The lifestyle here reflects that reliance on agriculture, and in that way, Minamishimabara has far more in common with rural communities in countries around the world than it does with Tokyo, Osaka, or any of Japan’s heaving metropoli. The Japan of bright lights, packed streets, capsule hotels and salarymen is a world away. And while yes, many people here have cell phones, they aren’t exactly live-tweeting from the rice fields.

@KazusaHotPotato Get Tubers, Get Paid. #harvesttime

NB: (1) All population stats courtesy Wikipedia; (2) I had to check to see whether “synecdoche” could be used as an adjective. It can (two ways!), so I did. I’m good, but I’m not that good.