In Which I Neither Edit Nor Filter, and Tipsily Narrate My Afternoon. Preemptive Apologies to the Gene Pool.

6/30

Stylish Tokyo ladies wear staggeringly high nude heels, thus elongating their legs and ensuring that I will never be a stylish Tokyo lady.

I share their tendency toward hobbling, though.

My lower back is playing cruel and unprecedented tricks on me so I’m self medicating with all the seat time I can manage in front of food and, surprisingly, beer.  Thus, on a solo day trip to Shiboyu, I have managed merely a quick jaunt to a towering Tower Records before diving under the streets for some lunch and a cold one.  I wanted whiskey, but I guess this place doesn’t have that.  I don’t have any idea what I ordered, either, or how much it costs because of all of the pointing I did and this menu’s conspicuous lack of Arabic numerals.  Oh, my Kirin’s here.  Might as well photograph it:Image

The thing in the black cup looks interesting but since I don’t know if it’s a drink, soup, or a finger bowl for cleaning, I’m going to use my smelling before I have a go.  What if I were Amy?  What would Amy do?  (Amy, for those of you unfamiliar, is nose-blind.)

Oh, my lord, I haven’t had a beer in years; it’s foul.  If a Natty Ice and a Natty Light had an incestuous six pack of anemic babies who then intermarried for centuries, one of them would eventually abort this drink.  I’ll probably have four of them.  My back really hurts.  Food’s here!

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That red thing: I don’t think I was supposed to eat that!  There’s a hole in my stomach and my nose is crying; these might be my parting words!

Never mind.  A few bites later, everything is pleasantly tainted with the lingering force of this pepper, and my stomach’s no longer burning because I’ve coated it with the flood of spice-induced tears I keep inside.  Lunch is actually quite delicious.  It’s a noodle… it’s an egg!  It’s a noodle… it’s an egg!  This Kirin is getting easier to drink.

The muted lighting and mood music in my subterranean tavern are fine catalysts for an active imagination.  It’s the kind of place that keeps a side room for gangsters.  I hope one of the Yakuza says hi to me!  I need to get out of here…

Twenty minutes later: I have taken action against my little bitch vertebrae in the form of two of these suckers:

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Aspirin in general is totally alien to me so I figure a couple of the foreign patosick tabs should do the trick.  And although Shiboyu is this thriving, hopping, Times Squarey kind of place with youths and haircuts galore, I’m not a shopper.  I’m currently parked in another pub for some people watching.  Ooh!  They’re playing John Denver here!  And there’s a glass of the proof stuff in front of me so I’m good.

For the record, Kirin whiskey is better than its beer.  This place smells pleasantly of soy and cigars, and my emotional pleasure has vanquished my physical pain.

My kindly, accommodating bartender has asked if I’d like a shingle or a double for my next trick.  I ain’t raising no roofs here, so double it is.  A pox on the fool who invented shingles!  Whoa, the guy next to me just lit a thoughtful cigarette and is puffing away contentedly.  Like the Alehouse in 2001, you can do that here.

Whoops, my boobs fell out.  Guess my shirt is too loose and my hanging camera too heavy.  That lady has been staring at me for awhile, sooo… explanation accepted.  Mental apology made.

So an hour later, I’ve been sitting on trains for thirty minutes on my way back to Shinagawa.  I’ve decided that rather than risk further damage, I’m heading back to my room for some books and some supermarket sushi.  And honestly, the googling of “lower back pain” that’s most certainly going to commence.  Though it’s probably because the serving size is mathematically accurate for someone who’s half of me, these bizarro pills aren’t working and I’m grudgingly ready to call it a day.

Night y’all, ’cause it’s midnightish in Portland.

Sleep dreams…

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Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Walking Everywhere!

6/29

I couldn’t write last night because I accidentally drank too much sake at the beach and laughed too hard at the fact that even halfway across the world, someone- not us, mind you- wrote “penis” in the sand.  

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It was exhausting and I fell into bed before 8. Oh!  Just found ocean detritus up my nose.  Good beach day.

So my goal yesterday was to try really hard to fit into the group flow.  I’ve said before that I have a difficult time with all the herding and the pace adjusting, and honestly, it was tough in Kamakura.  We have these wonderful sweet volunteers taking us around, adult ed English students, and it blows my mind how much time they devote to make sure we have the Japanese experience.  But then they also have to document every waking second of it, and after the 96th pose it gets a little forced.  I do understand the inclination, though, because nature and the ancients fling the fast and furious photo ops here.  I guess I’m just more inclined to take pictures of hilarious signs, like the one for… dog food?

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or the “that’s what she said” writing prompt here:

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I did kind of get excited about the grand scenery, though.  See, Kamakura has this holy site- Hasedera- built on the steep hills of the coast, and its temples and statues are hundreds of years old.  Some aesthetically far-sighted designers placed koi ponds, stone walkways, and an explosion of hydrangeas in strategic juxtaposition with the plethora of smoothly carved gods and goddesses, and the result is like a heavenly Asian wonderland.  Unfortunately, our fetid throngs of humanity kind of put a damper on it.  I couldn’t help thinking, as I was being jostled and shoved up this beautiful path at the pace of the crowd around me, that we were doing something wrong.  There was no time to stop and smell the hydrangeas, per se, and the B.O. threatened to overpower it anyway.  And then, at the pathway’s summit, at what should have been an unbroken vista of paradise, we saw the snaking lines of tourists and the dirty rooftops of modern urban sprawl.  

It hurt my heart a little.  I needed some of the quiet and the peace the Buddha preached.

As the crowd made my way back down the path, I tried to readjust my attitude again.  It’s good that I’m with such kind, smiling people, because I’m afraid if I met my match of cynicism, we would together poison the congenial atmosphere.  As it is, it’s a solid, happy group, and I was able to refocus in time to snap this with a genuine grin:

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I also had to “time out” to clutch my stomach over this photo:

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It’s one of our guides, and he wanted to pooch out his belly in imitation of the statue.  Good stuff.

The giant carving of the Kannon, goddess of mercy, was another good lobotomizer for me. It’s one of the biggest wooden statues around (“around” being the Great Generalizer meaning “in Japan but probably more than that”) hewn from a single tree and eventually gilded in gold.  It’s got all this symbolic meaning, which was awesome because I love symbols, but I won’t talk about any of them because I forgot.  What I do remember is that 1) nobody was allowed to take pictures there, so it was appropriately more solemn, and that 2) that solemnity was ruined in the best way possible by an adorable little girl with squeaky shoes.

I also, after sneaking off for a bit, got to have a moment with these guys:

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They were tucked off behind an incense structure so I was alone for a few seconds, and it finally gave me a sense of the peace that the whole place is meant to invoke.

Ice cream was next, and at the risk of being the cliche of the chick who takes pictures of her food: I ate this, you guys!  It’s sweet potato green tea ice cream!
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It was cold and stuff, but I’ll probably never have it again.  A noodly lunch was next, and then off to a drugstore to buy beach booze.  I actually purchased Japanese menthol cigarettes, too, in the interest of fully immersing myself in the culture, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to smoke one because of how much I enjoy the current capacity of my lungs.  I might bring them home and trade them with friends for favors.  

Two bottles of sake later, I found out we weren’t done being touristy and we stumbled off to see this dude:

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As a rule, I try not to take photographs of landmarks that can be better absorbed by googling them.  I find that whatever factor inspires awe simply cannot be translated by a bungling amateur, and the resulting 3×5 cheapens the experience.  This thing, though, I snapped, because I wanted to everybody to see how hilarious it is that the people have left, as an offering, a relatively minuscule watermelon.

Changed my mind at breakfast, though.  Good watermelon is unquestionably the nectar of the gods.

And I’m out.

Tic Tacs and Toes

(The title means nothing, FYI.  Just two things I’m lookin’ at…)

Anyway: 6/28

My attitude, thought not subject to gravity, is nevertheless defying it.  There’s a clear and direct correlation between that and the second grade music classes I watched today.  Cute meter’s on overload again…

“Watched” isn’t really the right verb because the teacher threw me into performance mode almost immediately.  She wanted me to sing the English versions of “Bingo” and “Old MacDonald” so the kids could learn pronunciation, and thus I found myself at the front of the classroom alternately politely coughing, nervously kicking the floor, and attempting to ready my mind.  With zero prior experience singing for an audience except accidentally or in karaoke- in which case cake shots come into hazy play- I had to draw on that for inspiration.  Thus, I abandoned all hope of being impressive and focused on my more accessible ability to act stupid and make people laugh.  My accompanist played way up high on the keys, so I took a deep breath and falsetto’ed away, clucking, squatting, and thrusting my head like the chicken on Old MacDonald’s farm.  

Whew: “chickchick” was a hit.  Also the mooing.  I tried to make a lot of eye contact while mooing, which is really the only way to do it.  Children, as it turns out, love it when you look deeply into their eyes and low at them in a voice of equal depth.   Their delight overwhelmed me, and I took my seat udderly cowed.

No, I’m not sorry about that pun.

The kids sang next, and oy!  What noise!  For awhile I was totally mesmerized, then I got emotional again because my lacrimal ducts have hijacked my nervous system, and then I flipped back to science mind in an attempt to stiffen my flaccid upper lip.  I wanted to see if, while occupied by their own teacher and lessons and not by me, their behavior would be similar to that of American kids or if there’d be a noticeable cultural difference.  

It’s essentially the same.  Some kids were absorbed by the lesson; some were involved but not actively engaged.  The rest were doing stereotypically student things like falling out of chairs, picking scabs, and poking around for a nose-lunch.  Gross.  My tears were effectively dried and I waited for the end of class.

One thing I really like about this school is the schedule.  Side note: I’m afraid to generalize about anything because I’m only attending one of, like, thousands of schools in Japan. I don’t want to make assumptions about an entire country’s way of life in the same way I wouldn’t want people making assumptions about Maine based solely on a conversation with our governor.  Thus, the “about this school” singularity.  The other American teachers are having similar experiences, to be sure, but that’s still only four schools and they’re four schools that were purposefully selected for this exchange.  So.  Side note concluded.  

Anyway, the schedule here is great.  Kids have a 50 minute class followed by a ten minute break, and repeat as necessary all day.  During the breaks, they’ll go absolutely bananas, running pell mell up and down the hallways, zipping outside for a quick unicycle workout, or generally just jumping up and down and shouting at each other.  They’re in school longer than elementary students in Portland, but they’ve got plenty of time for motor breaks and socialization.  I wish I could say that it improved their behavior in class, but that wouldn’t be true: they’re pretty much allowed the run of the place.  I feel, though, that an extension of our schedule to add these little recesses would do wonders for Portland kids, and exterminate the interminable bathroom and water requests during lessons. This Shinagawa scheduling brilliance seems both student and teacher centered.  I like it.

When music class ended, I thought I’d stick around and maybe high five some kids and watch them jump at me.  A few did in fact rush up, but before I could stand and raise my hand, a couple of the more assertive ones climbed into the lap area and started stroking my arms and my hair.  I bent slightly at the gathering kid crowd and more of them aimed for my blondeness, touching reverently and murmuring, “yellowwwwwww.”  And I’m telling you right now that if you haven’t had this experience, friends, you haven’t lived.  

I felt like Jesus, or a Beatle- except in a disturbing and thoroughly fraudulent kind of way… though I’d be lying if I said that part of me didn’t enjoy it.

A lot of me didn’t, though, and here’s why: a couple of days ago, one of the teachers made what she probably thought was a complimentary comment about eastern jealousy of the western look.  It’s been eating at me ever since.  For starters, beauty isn’t at all about coloring or height, which is my assumption of what she meant by “western”.  Scientifically speaking, it’s about symmetry, simple as that.  I mean, I’ll give you the “big ole eyes” thing because that’s one of the main reasons we think children and puppies and stuff are cute.  I read in this science essay once (because I’m a huge nerd about stuff like this) that evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense for the youngest of our species to have adult sized eyes in their heads, because eyes are where we make our most primitive but deepest connections.  If they’re proportionally bigger in a child, we’re more likely to get sucked in and want to take care of them, which is good for the whole propagation thing.  Throw the big eyes together with symmetrical features, and you’ve got beauty.  Skin color?  Immaterial.  Hair color?  Immaterial.  Height?  Same damn thing.  We may think those things matter, but that’s psychology and not physiology speaking.  And as we know, our psyches are easily manipulated.  

I tend to figure since you can’t help the placement of your facial features, you do the best you can with posture, smiles, and thoughtfully placed accessories.  The notion that there’s anyone out there- especially a child- who thinks otherwise breaks my heart a little.  I just wanted to grab these kids playing with my hair and say, “YOU’RE beautiful, YOU are.”  

Just, you know, not in a creepy way.

This whole thing? It screams Awesome.

Have you ever had a transcendental experience with food that just brings you to tears because you feel like you’ve reached the apex of epicurial miracles, and it can’t possibly get any better, and then you take another bite and there’s SHRIMP in this, too?!

I just did the thing where you roll solo into a restaurant and point at stuff, and you guys, I’m drunk now.  And HAPPY. 

I have to go, I’m sniffling…

In Which I Get Excited About Kurt Baker and a Bead

6/27/13

So I am not gift-centric, like at all.  It stresses me out when I feel like people expect things for Christmas and birthdays, and I want none of it myself, being much happier with the feasting and singing and smiles than I am with the accepting and thanking and wondering where the hell I’m going to put it.  Grinchy, yes, but realistically, there are limited resources in this world.  I would much rather eat them than wrap them in paper and styrofoam for the questionable sake of tradition.

That said, I didn’t see any way around avoiding it here. I was told in no uncertain terms that we are to give people stuff, and we are to accept things in return.  Represent, yo.  But oh, the sigh of relief when I unloaded the last of it today.

Our morning was a shuttle session: first to the superintendent’s office- a Shinagawa big shot- and then to the Friendship Society that works so hard to host us here.  Since organization is my strong point in the same sense that hiking is a mackerel’s, I just threw every present I had into my arms and started passing them out willy-nilly.  Everything went smoothly except when I accidentally threw ¥10,000 at the super’s feet, and then got awkward about the retrieval because I’ve never figured out how to bend over without being either squatty or provocative.  Judging by all the crinkly-eyed smiling on both sides of the table, however, I think we did okay and now I don’t have to worry about presents anymore!

I was only allowed to check two suitcases on this trip, and one of them was reserved exclusively for this etiquette mandated crap.  My eyes gleam now at the prospect of empty space.  How shall I fill thee, o vacant valise?  

A kimono, a conveyor, Kurt Baker.

I can’t tell you how thrilled I was this morning when I woke up to the virtual social scene and saw that Kurt Baker, this Portland musician I don’t actually know but have nevertheless probably, at some point, spilled something on, has an album that’s selling in Tokyo right now.  This is not solely because of the possibility of fault lines getting active, in which case I can be listening and then later refer to the experience as a “Shake and Baker”, although that prospect admittedly excites me.  Mostly I’m just enjoying a contact high, this feeling that someone from my beloved hometown is making an unrelated appearance in the land of no blondeness.  And because I’ve heard really good things about him, so I’m jazzed about the new music.  And because Portland musicians are home to me.  My symbolic Baker binkie.  

I’m hittin’ that right after school.

I hate to admit this after previous rant, but I did get a loaner gift from a student today, and it has already advanced so far up the ranks of useful that I’ll probably end up buying one for everyone else, which should effectively cement my position in hypocrisy hell.  It’s this book, and it is just bloody fabulous because it says everything in English, katakana (Japanese letters) and romanji (English pronunciation of Japanese letters) plus it has pictures.  I took it to an eighth grade class today and told everyone I was takai (tall) before they could ask me yet again.  And then I translated part of my introduction, which wound up being a mistake because they got comfortable enough with me to ask me to sing.

This one kid sang for me.  It was gorgeous and joyful and soaring and spontaneous, just him leaping from his seat and belting, with the clearest voice coming from behind these perfect white teeth.  Seriously, I remember the teeth.  The moment is frozen for me because I was once again overcome with emotion and if the happiness wasn’t going to do it, the fear would because he wanted reciprocal favors.  

What?  If there’s not a steering wheel, a shower head, or a shot glass in front of me, I don’t really know how to do that.  I statued myself, racking my brain for a song, any song, any song that wasn’t gangster rap, which is my usual go to.  By the time I remembered Prince and was ready to “all seven and we’ll watch them fallllllll,” the moment was over and I felt like I’d failed.

Score another one for East Asian dominance.

I have to make a side note about the exuberance, too, before I mention the other gift I actually really love.

I cannot for the life of me reconcile the life and energy that is so apparent in this school with the restraint reported from every source I consulted before coming here.  Where is the taciturnity?  The quiet, reserved population that I was supposed to find so difficult to connect with?  I do see that in adults’ treatment of me, but that could easily be chalked up to a simple inability to speak the same language, understandable and something I’m quite sure I’ve done myself (exception: cabdrivers).  Further evidence is adults’ interaction with each other.  Yes, they are respectful and deferential when appropriate, but I also see laughter and animation; I see joy.

Especially with the kids, I see so much joy.

When I walk down the hall, notably on the elementary floors, every single time I am enthusiastically greeted with shouts of “hellooooo!”  The accent is on the first syllable but they draw out the last, and it’s both hilarious and gut-punching adorable.  Since I’ve figured out that they’ve been learning English from a tape so their inflection and responses are uniform, I’ve started to engage them Groundhog’s Day-esque conversation.  I’ve had this one dozens of times:

“Helloooooo!”

“Hello!  How are YOU?”

“I’M fine thank you how are YOU?”

“I’M fine, too, thank you.”

And then we stare at each other, totally puzzled with how to go on because that’s where the tape ends.  Sometimes they rapid fire some Japanese at me and for awhile, I would make my exaggerated “I Love Lucy” faces trying to indicate my ignorance before eventually walking away, waving and saying “BYE byeeeeeee” while everyone giggled happily at each other.  It was my favorite part of the day even before our new ritual.  The new one happened by accident, when a little bugger waved at me and I mistook it for a high five invitation and smacked him.  His reaction was typical- a belly laugh- so we continued to high five until the inevitable moment he started to make motions about what a Jack and the Beanstalk character I am.  For the record, I prefer the Taylor Swift comparisons, which are ridiculous until you remember that I might be the only towhead in Tokyo.  Anyway, I said yes, I’m tall, and I raised my hand in the international mime gesture of “this high” (side note: not the same gesture for burnouts.)  The kid got excited, did a little scootch before leaping, and smacked me right back.  Before I knew it, I was surrounded by the giggle brigade, jumping and whacking and generally reinforcing the aforementioned notion that they are indeed the cutest children on the planet (byproducts of my sister’s DNA not included.)

One of ‘em even hit me in the boob.  Go figure, a student actually does it instead of just shouting it in class…

So no, I don’t see the reserve I was expecting, and I’m looking for it.  “Maybe I’m just seeing the extroverts,” I thought, and made a point to watch for all the children rather than just judge the ones predisposed to approaching me first.  Unless they’re GI Joe-ing under desks or behind classmates- classroom walls facing the hallways are always made of all glass so they can’t be hiding in there- I don’t think that’s true.  

There’s life, and there’s play, and there’s fun as a culture in this school, and it’s something I really, really love.  It’s another note to self to improve back home.

I said before that I’d talk about a gift, but I’m honestly a little exhausted so I won’t go much further than to mention it: a bead.  A little boy gave me a bead as he was walking home, and beamed when I thanked him and I smiled.  It makes me really happy that I’m writing all of this down because life is playing fast and loose with the moment-having right now, and I want to be reminded of these feelings so I can help create a place for them in Portland.  

Grinch or not, this one stays with me for life. 

The Bum Rap

6/26

Part I

I think something clicked when I accidentally got mostly naked on the teeming streets of Tokyo.  

I had a celebrity paparazzi moment yesterday, y’all!  It’s not as fun as it sounds, though, because I hadn’t prepped for it, and there’s really no way to gracefully realize that the sidewalk grate is an active air volcano and that Marilyn Monroe must have had some warning to be able to hold her skirts down.  Without said warning, I got the front parts stuck in my armpits and the back parts floofing in the general vicinity of my lower backpack.  I stood there for a moment- dazed, don’t you know, but calmly trying to extricate myself before moving on- before it dawned on me that 1) this is something people get upset over, as a rule, and 2) my first order of business should have been to move to a less gusty spot.  

I honestly never got embarrassed, which threw me into meta-mode as I tried to figure out why not.

See, if this had happened in Portland, I would have been mortified.  I think I have this carefully cultivated personality there, and while I will purposefully put myself into situations that others don’t- simply because it’s not “done” and I want to challenge our social mores- I would not, for any reason, be okay with unwittingly showing my bum.  I would shudder for years at the grate incident, picturing students or parents or secret crushes who would have thoughtstagramed it and associated me with it indefinitely. Hundred percent nuh-uh.  

In Tokyo, however, I don’t know a soul and didn’t give a dang when I supermooned them.  I realized upon analysis that I must only be self-conscious around people who have already judged me through some sort of interaction with my actual personality.  This is admittedly stupid, but realizing it was a revelation that opened my horizons here.  Why bother staying silent and observant?  It seems now that I tiptoed through my first few days with the primary goal being not to offend.  I shoved my personality way down inside me, which was okay, but I figure that now that I’ve showed all the surface parts, I might as well let ‘em know the hidden parts, too.  It’s good for people to interact honestly as long as nobody’s getting hurt, right?  Right.

Metaphysical phase over; decision made.  I called the play to sing Carly Rae Jepson out loud on the Shinagawa streets for the duration of each chorus on my walk today, and I contend that “Call Me Maybe” is still the singable-est ditty on the intercontinental airwaves.  Something shifted and I’m happier now, so hooray.

Part II

Yesterday brought another gift, but in a decidedly more materialistic sense.  Let me preface this by saying that I never, in any incarnation of myself, thought I’d criticize the food scene in Portland because it is beans and frankly the greatest bunch of restaurants in the civilized world and I will never tire of going to old faves and investigating potential new ones.  We’re missing one thing, though: conveyor belt sushi.

Conveyor belt sushi is what happens when you die and get fast-tracked to heaven.  You don’t have to bother with any of the pesky language learning or order giving.  You just plop yourself down at the counter, which runs in a narrow u-formation past you and the chefs, tuck your knees to the side because you have exceptionally long femurs, and start grabbing.  There are two tickets to paradise per plate, and plates are color-coded by price.  You take what you want, stack the dishes you’re trying not to lick, and pay when you leave.  Want sake or something special off the menu?  Stand up, shout, “eh!” because you don’t know Japanese, and point at something on the page while throwing your eyebrows skyward like caterpillars raising the roof.  A chef will prep the manna faster than you can say “oh, my frickin’ best sake ever” and then chuck it down onto the belt for instant delivery.  It looks like this:

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What the hell?  I thought I took a better picture than that.  Apparently my visual senses were dulled by ambrosia.  I’ll probably go back on my way home from work, though, and home is where I post these things, so I’ll take a better photo and show you, plus not delete the first pic because doing so would force me to edit out the word “ambrosia,” and no way that’s happening, son.  

So yeah, here it is for real and for better:  

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Awesome, right?  That thing in the shot glass is sake, with the overflow filling the box in which it sits.  Best box o’wine ever and I ate the entire life cycle of a salmon from roe to old and back.

Part III

Let’s return to today, my first walk to school.  I had this newfound confidence that was a combination of knowing the way and having already mooned everyone on it, so as I said before, I was singing and striding with pride.  I got aggressive, even.  The sidewalks are crowded and fenced in here, and I’m not one to dawdle so I decided to assert myself.  I was wearing what I named my Lindsey Lohan wraparound skirt back when Mean Girls came out, and it’s a really great description because not only does it remind me of one she was wearing in the movie, but it also unravels at the slightest provocation.  So I was trucking along Lohan-style and the endorphins I’ve been missing due to my lack of exercise finally kicked in with abandon.  I even took to eye flirting, which is something I love to do when I have absolutely no interest in the receiver.  Actually, it was a link I got from Attila that prompted this behavior (see Attila’s link for the whole story) and it was so gosh darned interesting that I thought I’d expose some gentlemen to some harmless American tease.

The endorphins were as inspiring as the fifth grade indoor recess I observed yesterday, so I can’t wait to get into a gym class here.  My eyes actually flooded, I got so emotional.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the purpose of sports:

At first glance, it looked like absolute mayhem.  The classrooms and halls are weirdly loud and action-packed, behavior I expected exactly zero of after years of hearing about Japanese reticence.  The gym was the same pandemonium with balls and children flying everywhere while everyone shouted and laughed.  As I studied the scene, however, some fascinating systems emerged.  I swear I felt like a marine biologist studying the play habits of minnows; they were so small and fast and smooth with their braided migration patterns up and down the floor.  Kids somehow accomplished two fully manned basketball games on the same court, weaving in and out of the three other teams with an awareness and athleticism that was nothing short of mind boggling.  Add to that a game of dodgeball they’d dialed up to eleven- on the same court, mind you- and the fact that they were all wearing identical navy shirts and brown hair… well, my western mind had a hard time sorting it out.  Yegads, it was beautiful.

Multiplying my sense of astonishment was the pure fun that each child radiated.  I didn’t see any of that alpha, testoste-posturing that fuels our American games, and passing was much more apparent than shooting.  Then when a kid did shoot and score, both teams grinned and cheered.  Nail an opponent with a dodgeball?  Exchange a toothy ear-to-ear; play on.

I stood in the doorway with my face leaking all over the place and tried to figure out how to bring this home.  I’m as guilty as the next player of trash talk and taunting, especially when it’s 12-year-olds I know I can beat.  Now I ask myself: why?  Sports are fun!  They make your entire body look and especially feel better; there’s no downside until you uglify them with envy and condescension.  

I’ve never seen them played this way before.  And I’m changed.

Part IV

I was scheduled to join a complete class for the first time today, and as it turned out I was joining as a student.  I had first period art with some seventh graders and a teacher who speaks better English than I speak Japanese, which is to say that she knew enough to say “hello” and “chair” and “sink”, which came in handy when I spilled blue paint all over my Lohan.

Art class was Tony the Tiger grrrreat! I was given four small papers on which to express happiness, anger, sadness, and joy using paints, stencils, toothbrushes, my breath, and a weird weeny screen.  I haven’t taken an art class since the early ‘90s and then, it was to attempt to draw a wooden man without any actual body parts.  This self-expression thing was a whole new ballgame.  Though I had some class act teachers at both SMS and Cony, I wish I had had more of an arts-focused atmosphere.  Today was a perfect illustration of how liberating it can be to create something original within rigid constraints and without ever having to talk about it.

In grade and high school I was sort of the asshole student who breezed through classes without any effort.  I’m terrible at art, however, so that dose of humility would have been good for me and would certainly be good for kids like me today.  

The other thing I realized was what it’s like to be the slower kid, the one who doesn’t understand directions and is somewhat handicapped in her ability to work independently.  I teach so many students in Portland who are limited with their English, or who need directions more than once… or who the other students avoid because they’re weird and look different.  I teach humans, in other words.  Here, though, I’m the outlier.  One girl even switched places to avoid sitting next to me.  And it’s easy for me because I’m not twelve and my mind, body and soul aren’t battling over who can betray me the most, and I also know that no matter how ridiculous I am, I’m out of here in a matter of countable days.  But I can’t think of a single Lyman Moore new kid who’s ever had that luxury, and I feel like that kid would have a vital outlet in an art class.  Because as I learned today, you don’t need to speak to cut the bonds, there.

Showing them your nethers works, too, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

And the Bleep Goes On…

It’s only a ten minute bus ride to school, so imagine my surprise when the little, wizened, hatted lady fell asleep on my elbow.  Twice.  By the second time, I had already thought about how my reaction should have been the for the first, so I widened my eyes as much as I could while sitting bolt upright and staring out the window.  I figured this would give maximum entertainment to whomever happened to be assessing the situation, and everything was going well until she awoke with a start, jumped in one smooth motion to look at me with eyes as saucered as mine, and hobbled off the bus, which happened to have just come to rest.  I know the the hobbling doesn’t mesh with the jumping…  I can’t explain it, either.

This was a much better start to my day than the credit card “customer service” (words dripping with venomous sarcasm here) bullshit to which I awoke, so from here on out I’m repressing that except to say that if you are considering opening a credit account with Banana Republic, you are out of your godforsaken, masochistic mind.

But school today has been much more simulating so far!  Fresh from the mobile entertainment, I had a spring in my step for the morning’s assembly.  For this, about 500 middle schoolers lined the auditorium military-style and in uniform, adjusting their stances on command.  It was kind of amazing, considering my experience with school assemblies consists of constant, low-to-moderate crowd rumble and me mentally hissing, “shut up and get your hands off each other, you damn, dirty apes!” while shooting pointed, poisoned glances at the various barbarians masquerading as children.  

And honestly, I really love what I do.  Just… American middle school assemblies?  No.

Shinagawa-style, however, could grow on me.  Apart from the kid who got in quiet trouble for having the wrong shoes and the girl who dropped to the ground with what was either heat stroke or an acute case of malignant melodrama, there was barely any movement at all except the bowing.  As various adults stood up and said incomprehensible things, they all just stood quietly pretending (I assume…) to listen.  This happening at Lyman Moore might just become my new fantasy.  Replacing, of course, the one about being a bawdy medieval wench in a land full of ale, song, and dragons.  

So all of a sudden (back to reality here) some nudging and verbal cues (my name- Caroline- no easy moniker considering they have a sound that’s in between an “l” and an “r” here but not a sound for either) prompted me toward the stage for my speech.  

“Ohayo gozaimas!” I proclaimed, and instantly became the much-mocked foreigner, “watashiwa Caroline Foster des!”  

Mind you, I don’t know how to spell any of that.  Yaeko, the Japanese-American sensei who taught our contingent enough culture to avoid some of the more common ambassador pitfalls, wrote our speeches for us phonetically.  I’m just reading what’s hopefully a gracious and humble welcome but could very well be lightly veiled atomic threat.  Kind of banking on the rice milk of human kindness with that one.  

As I continued to address the masses with my best Nippon accent- which I just learned was completely unexpected as they thought I’d be speaking English- I noticed that they did a lot of guffawing.  Kids don’t laugh at this school, they howl.  It all sounds gleeful, too, which is great because I’m relatively sure they’re laughing at and not with me and somehow that softens the punch.

Oh, my sweet melting heart.  I was about to say something self-conscious but a little first grader just blew me a kiss through the window and my whole soul has filled with warmth and goodwill.  I’ve been trying really hard to fight what seems like the racist notion that these children are flat-out cuter than any others in the world, but it feels factual when stuff like air kisses happen.  Plus the population is so much smaller than what I’m used to and small equals cute, like biologically.  

Seriously, everywhere I go, people are gawking at the new Tokyo Tower: me.  I had to translate my height into meters for one class, so I made my best guess based on the memory of a meter stick and said, “two” and I’m hoping the math holds up because I don’t want all of America judged on my tendency to fly by the seat of my party pants and say what I think without research.  

Aw, shoot.  Just remembered I have a converter on my phone (no Internet here) and checked my facts.  I’ve been telling these children I’m almost 6’7”.  Great.  Apparent American arrogance rears its ugly head again.  Problem is, it’s too complicated an explanation to try to give to even the English teachers, so I’ll probably just let it go and let them think I’m an ass.  

I wonder how often that happens to our immigrants and refugees in Portland… Note to self: reserve judgment.  

So yes, I’ve been allotted ten minutes in each of eight classes for a self-introduction, so after adding in the assembly, I’m busy for a good two hours today, a vast improvement over yesterday.  Plus I know where the tea is, so I’m settling in nicely.  My only current problem is that this school is much better at recycling than anyone, ever, so therefore I can’t find the trash can.  I’m not going to hold on to it, though- I mean yes, I’ll hold onto the trash, which I’m squirreling away in my backpack even though it’s a wet tea bag- but I’m letting go of the anxiety.  Hold your breath for my new motto here, kids:

When in doubt, think about the funny Asian bus lady.  And then giggle, and go about your day.