Five Times The Pink Panther Accurately Summed Up What It’s Like Teaching English Abroad

And it looks like I’m staying for one final year in Japan. Two years was just the right amount of time to get my life sorted; unfortunately, I’m not quite ready to say good-bye just yet. It’s been a long road. It’s a longer one to come. The papers are signed, the decision made. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu, JET 2016-2017.

A lot of my friends in the States have, at one point or another, expressed curiosity on what it’s like to teach English abroad. The myths and realities as expressed through the five times that The Pink Panther suddenly became too real for words…

1. WE DO NOT QUIT!!!

“Your life must be so glamorous, living abroad and teaching English to Japanese kids!” Glamorous is one word for it. And then there’s this…

…I do enjoy every minute of it even though I wouldn’t call it glamorous 😉

2. Why would they do something like that?

“I hear Japan is soooooo high tech! You must be going to all crazy-amazing robot conventions every weekend and never want to come back to the US, right?” The hard cold reality is…

…and not only that: my office is (somehow) still running on XP. Why would they do something like that?!

3. Why do you think they’re dressed like that? For fun?!

Doing anything for the kids on Halloween is basically along these lines. Also applies to generally trying to blend in with society when the clothes just look different on you than on the cute models (TTwTT)”

4. It is one of my specialties…

So, I can do things, I swear, I can! Sometimes, though, I can’t show them off perfectly because of cultural differences.

Can’t bake half the Viennese pastries I learned how to make because Japan and it’s non-baking culture. It’s still fun trying, though 😀

5. I thought you were ordering in Italian.

That moment when you suddenly become Vincenzo Roccara Squarcialupi Brancaleone at the local Starbucks… or anywhere, really.

Happy Friday, everyone!

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Happy 2016 And The Great Disappearance Act

Spent a blissful two and a half weeks with my family in California and close friend in Texas (shout out to Kimmy dearest for taking me to NASA and feeding me brisket!) for the first time since moving to Japan. In the spirit of the holidays, my technology was turned off in order to properly revel in family and friend time. Needless to say, I ate EVERYTHING (the trespass of which I was already admonished for during Wednesday’s ballet class #YOLO #ITWASWORTHEVERYCALORIE #MYTUTUSTILLFITSIFISUCKITIN), but even better than food was the quality time I spent among the people who love and support me most in the world: my parents.

My dad took a significant amount of time off of work to take me to all manner of doctor’s and dentist’s appointments, drive me around, play games well past both our bedtimes, and watch all the movies and TV shows that we needed to catch up on. Mum’s schedule, being what it was, allowed for mostly afternoon jaunts but I’m grateful for every precious second I spent in their company. Oh, yes, and my sister 😉 She and I put up with each other marvelously well, all things considered.

So that brings me to the month before I was in the States, when the internet pulled a great disappearing act. What happens when you’ve been paying your bills on time, when your router set isn’t broken, and the only problem showing up is “Check with your provider”?

Something I learned about Japanese internet: you will be dealing with three separate companies (Finance, Internet Provider’s Provider, and said Internet Provider) none of which have any helpful English lines in place (NTT claims it does; does not; and only NTT Finance had anyone remotely fluent enough to provide the assistance I needed via the Finance side).

I dedicate this post to Mari from NTT Finance, who not only bullied NTT into releasing my information to me (thus saving me an extra seven business days per interaction, a total of 21 once totaled), but generally got S*** done. I have never met anyone with such a go-getter attitude this side of the Pacific. Where everyone else was like, “I’m not sure if I’m allowed to do that and I’m not going to ask my superior because this is the one way things have always been done”, Mari’s response was very Disney “Let’s see what we CAN do about this problem”. Sadly this only got me as far as: Well, it’s not NTT’s fault. It’s your provider’s.

To which my brilliant response was: I thought NTT was my provider.

And a witty repartee ensued.

NTT: No. We take care of the finance side and NTT East provides the service to a provider who then has you pay for the glory of signing a contract with them.

ME: So you haven’t choked my internet and it’s not a financial issue?

NTT: That’s about right, Ms. Customer.

ME: So who’s my provider?! I only ever received information from NTT!

NTT: Uh, we can’t disclose that information.

ME: Whaaaaa…. How am I supposed to solve anything?

NTT: …

So while I keep receiving bills for internet I’m theoretically supposed to be able to use… I don’t actually have internet and I am now currently leaching off my workplace.

I hope to update with all manner of Foreign Film Friday posts that never got published and photos from the holidays and travel information I amassed over said holidays… all of which are stuck on my American phone, but I can’t until my WIFI is back. Work doesn’t have WIFI, we just have the LAN connection chord of doom.

Hopefully this is resolved. Soon. >.>”

Resolved as of 11:40 am. Three cheers for being taught how to hack into your router and resetting the damn thing. YAY! \O/

Destination X

Wednesday’s are always a fun day. Everything from three-second rule gaffes during home economics to messy self portraits in art and, of course, English lessons. If there’s an opportunity for me to attend a workshop with the kids, I know within five minutes of entering the office. As far as JET experiences go, I wish more schools were like this. Especially since all the down time with the kids makes for greater trust once they graduate to the middle school, where I teach all levels.

So it was with a mixture of anticipation and amusement that I stood before my favorite sixth years. I’ve come to trust them in many ways: asking them to help me research local dialects spoken by their grandparents, taste testing food they’ve prepared solo, water balloon fights, recommendations for places to visit within the prefecture. Now, I was about to integrate a lesson with real world application…

“So we’ve learned a lot about other countries in this unit.”

A couple of shy yeses pop up like groundhogs in the spring. Mostly it’s quiet. I take a deep breath.

“Where should I go on my next vacation?”

“Eh?”

“Nani?”

Their teacher translates. They look back at me, half-amused and half shocked.

“I’ll go anywhere – except war zones – I’ll take pictures to show you and I’ll bring something back for everyone to see.”

Everyone reacts. “MAJI DE!”

This is the equivalent of NO WAY. Also sometimes translated as YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME and YOU’RE CRAZY.

“No, I’m 100% majiME (serious).” Luckily my lousy attempt at a pun goes unnoticed…

“France!”

“Egypt!”

“Brazil!”

“ISLAM!”

We do a 7 minute review on why Islam is not a country. And yet they’re still too enthusiastic, excited even, to pay attention.

“Okay, okay! How about next week we write down suggestions on a slip of paper and I’ll draw one from a box.”

“Maji.”

That seems to be the theme of this semester: crazy English, crazy adventures ;D

We’ll see how it goes but at the moment all we’ve decided is that this trip must take place by Silver Week 2016 and I must take many pictures with myself in front of famous places and bring something back.

An Abundance of Apples… And Then Some

The final chapter in the sixth years’ quest to grow the perfect apples and the fifth years’ rice farming experience. No matter how many times I participate, it’s always invigorating to see my kids learning something for the first time: the fumbled guesses, the hair raising stumbles, and the beautiful ‘A-HA!’ light bulb moments. It just never ever gets old.

Children are incredulously and incredibly, well, incredible. I know this explains nothing, but there are no better words for all the funny, candid moments I get with them. The things they say, the ways in which they problem solve. Every precious victory is cause for day long celebration, every failure a drama worthy of a season on HBO. Kids are so full of life, everything is so new to them. And it’s been a real privilege and an honor to be taken along for the ride.

I almost want to pitch a documentary series to NatGeo about kids and how they grow up around the world.

 

October 01: World Ballet Day

Misty-Copland

Misty Copeland. Third African-American soloist for American Ballet Theater. Misty details the challenges of finding work and recognition as a minority dancer with a different body type in her biography.


Across time zones and across cultures, it’s World Ballet Day and the tutus and pointe shoes are out of the closet for a full 24 hours on BBC’s live stream of the event… And I’m two days late posting this  (^-^)” My schedule being what it is at the moment, I was absolutely exhausted. I didn’t even give it a go at the home made barre.

Perhaps my favorite BBC footage:

My own journey with ballet came late in life, just a little over two years ago. I can’t say exactly what prompted me to take up the barre as my mistress. For twelve long years I’d slaved away for Euterpe at the altar of music and composition. At 17, I chose my confirmation name as Cecilia solely for the fact that she was the patron saint of music. To chair as first flute in my high school orchestra was the single most defining point of my life.

And as a young gymnast and student of karate, I’d scoffed at the dainty little girls in the studio next door all lined up in a row, decked out in girly pink leotards and slippers, practicing their tame plie and tendu combinations while I was learning how to fly in the air or how to disarm a potential assailant. The sexism ran deep in those days of my younger self. I know better now not only because I have been educated and have become the wiser for it but also because I now have first hand experience on how bitchy a plie can be to execute properly, let alone a properly turned out tendu.

For those who have never taken up ballet, not even in their younger years, let me tell you: the struggle is real. Fine motor skills and incredibly muscle control are necessary to attain even a modicum of grace. The impact on the knees and insoles is unbelievable. Ballerinas will be some of the strongest people you will meet, psychologically and physically.

Somehow or other, twelve years after my first music lesson, I found myself trading up Euterpe’s golden stand for Terpsichore’s wood-floored studio one balmy summer night at the university. It could’ve been anything: yoga, hip hop, coding classes. For whatever reason, it became ballet.

tanaquil

Tanaquil Le Clercq. Her career ended tragically when she contracted polio at the height of her artistry at age 27. She became a prolific teacher in her later years.

Early the week of my first lesson, I’d gone to the local dance store with clammy hands and a sudden fear of judgment. When you think about ballet, about beginner ballerinas, the image is almost always of a mommy & me class or of a preteen or adolescent. It’s almost never of the 20-60 year old woman who has seen the world and wants to continue discovering new things about herself.

There were girls nearly half my age being fitted for their first pointes, a moment as defining of a ballerina’s life as it had been for me to attain first chair-ship in high school wind ensemble. It took me an hour of pretend browsing through racks of clothes, peeking over at the veteran employees, before I could pluck up the courage to ask for help. In the end, I purchased a simple, black leotard and skin colored tights (even as I was embarking on the greatest self-experiment of my life, I still had misgivings about the color pink) but there would be no avoiding it for the shoes; amazingly, my worn out leather Bloch slippers are now my life and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. 

From day one of abdomen ass-kicking at the hands of ballet and the perfectionist Madame Darcy, I fell madly in love with feeling so incredibly vulnerable and yet so alive. I’d never moved my body as a dancer. Still, that first night’s experience was an enlightenment. I felt human again.

The glittering world of ballet is quite possibly one of the most feminist dance forms around, which sounds crazy to say considering how little girls are groomed from a young age to attain a near impossible physical ideal. But comparatively, in ballet, it is the woman and not the man who is the centerpiece and leader in the dance. The scene of stardom is dominated by a slew of incredible prima ballerinas across history while only a handful of male dancers have been able to push past to the ranks of single name status world-renown. And not for a want of talent or grace or strength, either, as the male body is comprised of more muscle than its female counterpart. Still, while every generation or so produces a single male dancer who achieves the same level of worldwide stardom as their female counter part, it seems as if there are easily five or ten times as many women on the international scene who achieve that same level of recognition or higher. There are prima ballerinas (cream of the crop) and then there are prima ballerina assoluta (a title for only the most exceptional of the cream of the crop), one which applies only to women. As far as I know there is no male equivalent. Perhaps it’s the ephemeral pointe work, the selling point of ballet, which applies only to women that produces this fame effect.

For those dancers or aspiring dancers who are not completely convinced about ballet, the evolution of this dance form is still in process. Many fear that ballet is too rigid an art form to be popular in the new age of spontaneity and fluidity. Also, the main repertoire revolves around The Classics (classics that were classics even during you great grandmother’s time): Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Coppelia, etc. Very few living ballerinas have had choreography created solely for them. But this changing.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=2f-AvMve1N

I hope that more and more people discover the arts, in all its forms, and take a moment to truly appreciate them. It almost feels as if every year, more and more programs are cut simply on the premise of being unrelated to business or generating money and there useless.

Foreign Film Fridays 01: Mostly Martha

Because what’s not to love about watching films on Fridays about foreign worlds? A weekly series of posts to follow on all sorts of films: thriller, romance, action, mystery, and just down right quirky from all countries and languages. If you have any suggestions, by all means leave a comment! I would love to receive suggestions for more foreign films. Opening this weekly series we have…

mostlymartha

Original Title: Bella Martha
Year: 2001
Country: Germany
Language: German
Subtitles: English
Length: 1hr 45 minutes
Availability: Netflix

The film begins with a mouth-watering, epicurean description of food as the eponymous protagonist details to her therapist how she would go about preparing the perfect full course meal. DISCLAIMER: DO NOT WATCH ON AN EMPTY STOMACH. I did and regretted it within the first two minutes.

The plot is deceptively simple: Martha is a single, German woman with a passion for cuisine who must learn to reorient her life around a new Italian coworker and to care for her orphan niece after the untimely death of her sister.  For those who have seen the American version, No Reservations (2007) with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart, the German original will breathe new life and understanding into its American counterpart.

But while similar in the main plot, No Reservations features an all Caucasian main cast, which in turn renders Mostly Martha‘s original secondary plots useless in the remaking. Other differences include the pacing of the film. American films tend to be fast-paced, segue easily and fluidly from one scene to the next, and stitch themselves together into a false sense of artistic perfection.  I say false because in the seamless move from main scene to main scene you miss the little scenes, the imperfect little fillers that give a film its realistic essence. By comparison, Mostly Martha is shot to give the viewer as much background context as possible about who Martha is and life around her. There are main scenes, not so main scenes, and fillers shots of the characters at their most candid. None of the romance or her flaws are romanticized or glossed over; the story reveals itself gradually at a natural pace. When Martha and Mario kiss, they don’t go at it calmly or at just-the-right angle, they simply have a go at kissing like most of us do, however awkward it may be to watch.

Also of note, our alliterative culinary artiste duo have all the tension and chemistry that two people from vastly different background can possess. From language and culture to the way in which they run their kitchens and the food the make – everything, except their shared love for the art of cooking, is different. As they learn how to bridge their differences through their commonalities and how to accept each other as they are, Martha’s and Mario’s characters grow. The secondary plot issues, palpable between German-born Martha and Italian Mario, revolve around race and who is an insider versus an outsider.This in turn makes his food that much more exotic to Martha, who has never once been to Italy and can only experience it through Mario’s cooking. Indeed, this film feels as much a discovery of culture and intercultural interactions as it is about the food and the romance.

Unfortunately, No Reservations also has no underlying current of bridging cultures and worlds through food. It’s feels more like two people who have a different administrative approach and can’t seem to see eye to eye on the running of a kitchen. While Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character prefers French cuisine and Aaron Eckhart’s cooks Italian, different culinary tastes do not an intrinsic cultural battle make. Also her descriptions of the food fall flat with her calm and quiet demeanor, where Martina Gedeck’s take flight through use of sensual intonation and passionate  verbal caresses. While I love and prefer the modern cinematography of No Reservations (and Catherine and Aaron do have chemistry), I would rate Mostly Martha as the better of the two films for its diversity and for being more than just a romantic caper between two chefs.

Both films are wonderful (yes, I went there) and worth watching… just not on an empty stomach! Bon appetit!

Cuore Hachinohe

This sweet little cafe has no official website, though it should! It’s not close to city center, in fact just getting there feels like a drive through the backwoods of the countryside if you’re going via Gonohe, and the parking lot can hold only three cars at a time.

But if you can make it and you don’t have to hunt down parking away from the cafe, it’s more than worth your time. The atmosphere is adorably organic: everywhere there are handmade crafts decorating the window sills, the tables are made of wood, and even the pasta is made fresh. Because it’s family run operation the opening hours should be checked in advance (most Tuesdays seemed to be closed according to their calendar). Another quirk, if the menu is read correctly, coffee (without a food set) is only served after 2pm.

On the upside: all coffee comes with GORGEOUS art! ❤

Uriba-18-2 Kawaragi, Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture

Honshu in 1 Week: If there’s one thing I learned…

…about Japan during this whole trip – or so Kimmy said as we were finally en route to Tokyo – it’s that this country is extremely mountainous.

This was after the hundredth dozen set of tunnels we’d passed through. As beautiful of a scenery as we experienced in the early days of the trip, the second half was marked with progressively longer stretches of inter-mountain tunnels, one after another. This was the last leg. Really, I’ve been blessed with such amazing, adventurous friends. This is our short tale of one last hurrah on the open road, our last 7 days as partners in crime…

DAY 1: On the Road Again

Load the car with a year’s worth of luggage, blast a deafening amount of music through the speakers, and drive for as long as humanly possible, or twelve straight hours to be more exact. Mix in an unhealthy dose of Lawson’s coffee and stir liberally.

Oh, conbinis. How you shall be missed. They practically ensured that we could continue driving well past bed time. Sadly, it was the lack of 24 hour gas stations that finally grounded us at 2am in Niigata City at a Michi no Eki (roadside station). Otherwise we would’ve driven until reaching Fukui.

DAY 2: There Be Dinosaurs in Fukui

Having driven the entire length of the first day, I was relegated the duty of morning rest in the backseat while Kim and Elena sped past prefectures until early afternoon, after which I was much recovered from the caffeine crash.

We managed to make it past Kanazawa in record time, well after the lunch rush and the timing worked out like a charm.

Travel Tip 1: Start early in the morning. We left Imabetsu by 5pm because of work obligations earlier in the day but we would have covered so much more ground if we’d started early morning.

But don’t be fooled, this type of travel is not for the finicky or faint of heart. Michi no Eki are fluorescent lit and bug infested. Cicadas in the toilets, Aragogs in the ceilings of the bathrooms… and then there’s the little matter of what was once known as the Circadian Rhythm. Curtains and modernity have largely made it possible for humanity to ignore the call of nature, or rather the call to awake at the wee hours of 4am by summer standards. If I could do it all over again, I would have invested in a sleeping mask.

Travel Tip 2: However, when it can’t be helped or for the late night to early morning drivers there is a sizeable toll road discount if the car is equipped with an ETC and so long as drivers manage to exit by 4am.

For every stop we made, be it for gas or bathroom breaks (or as became more frequently: for both), we were set back anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes. Factor in breaks and switches if you’ll be on a particularly tight schedule, otherwise if time is of little to no consequences: carpe diem!

Fukui is known for potatoes, mackerel, and dinosaurs. Home to the adorable Fukuisaurus (a legitimate dinosaur, I assure you), there is a science center and dinosaur museum with enough exhibits to keep adults and children occupied all day.

We had only a couple of hours to kill. BUT IT WAS THE BEST!!!!

Not only were “traditional” dinosaurs (the ones we all knew and studied as children) represented, but the museum had a special exhibit for dinosaurs found and dug up on the Asian continent and Pacific. Fukuisaurus was among them, that adorable if derpy hadrosaur.

From the museum and our well-deserved rest, we hastened ourselves back onto the road. Time was of the essence. We had already set back for an extra night, a unanimous decision in a bid to see more of Shimane by the next day.

And it was well worth our sacrifice for an extra night in Tokyo.

DAY 3: The Land of 8 Million Gods and 1 Bunny Rabbit

Izumo Taisha, Matsue Castle… of the list of possibilities, including a possible seaside excursion or trip to a lighthouse, we narrowed down on the two closest. Kyushu had to happen that same night – or never, the hostel was kind enough to let us arrive a day late and we didn’t want to be unreasonably mucha.

Travel Tip 3: For a more luxurious experience, and given enough time, camp your way across Japan. Michi no Eki are a last resort and for the purposes of this trip, given our particular situational parameters, there were our only resort. But a nature resort (no pun intended), is a gorgeous way to get the woodsy back roads experience of Honshu. Make reservations a month in advance.

By the time we crossed the bridge into Kyushu, we were weathered a little worse for wear but still spirited enough to freak out for a hour later as we drove to our little hell-side hostel in Oita Prefecture. Also, the humidity was working wonders for our skin.

DAY 4: The Hells of Beppu

Never been so glad to find myself in hell before, in a manner of speaking. To have made it safely to our primary goal, exhilarating in its own right, received a further energy boost as we appreciated the natural geysers and mineral hot spring waters known as the Hells of Beppu.  Japan’s small scale version of Yellowstone NP, is impressive in its variety of geologic activity if not land masse. The colors were brilliant from milk white to blood red and crystalline stained glass blue.

There was one hell that got away, pressed for time we had to leave for Fukuoka City where Kim was able to partake of some second to last minute Pokemon Center shopping. Once we were all done with omiyage and merchandise, it was yet again time to hit the long road to Miyajima for a night and early morning exploring the geology and scenery of the island.

DAY 5: 1945

Hiroshima is a beautiful city. Lovely riverside walks wind you through a cityscape of modernity and to the vestiges of a fateful day in 1945. The past and the present merge perfectly into each other in Hiroshima and there is no better place to witness it than at the Peace Memorial Park and the attached museum which chronicles a single day of infamy: August 6, 1945.

The museum packs an emotional and psychological punch so be prepared to spend an hour or so sitting on a a quiet bench in the park after your visit. Educational in its history and uplifting in its message of eternal hope, I highly advise all Americans to pay the 50 yen to enter.

Travel Tip 4: The museum has free parking.

DAY 6: Nagoya

 From Hiroshima we made our way to Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture. Yet again, we were attempting to tick off another Pokemon Center off of Kim’s list, all the while oblivious to the fact that much like the hell that got away there was a Pokemon Center that got away as well: Hiroshima’s. Sigh. But, it gives us reason to go back some day, right?

Travel Tip 5: THROW OUT ALL YOUR TRASH AT EVERY REST STOP! And remember: that which you buy, yes even that deliciously chocolatey Parm bar, you will have to trash later.

Nagoya is the center of technological advances, Japan’s Silicon Valley but specifically in robotics. However, we didn’t have much time to explore at this point. Kim had a plane to catch early the next morning and we still had to find a suitable place to ditch the car in Yokohama (wherein there was yet another Pokemon Center that needed to be crossed off the list).

But after a lovely breakfast as Denny’s, we hit the city mall for clothes shopping and the last Pokemon Center.

Travel Tip 6: Pack for an appropriate number of days. Otherwise you’ll be living out of collectible prefecture T-shirts.

Nagoya reminded me of a less crowded and slightly shinier version of Tokyo. Reminded myself to try living there sometime in the future if possible.

Something must be said about Michi no Eko on the East Side of Honshu though. Where on the Sea of Japan side they’re few and far between, not to mention run down, the Pacific side has some amazing rest stops. Food courts, Starbucks, more gas stations… in short a luxury compared to driving on the west side.

DAY 7: Haneda Airport and Aomori Bound

Dropped Kim off at the airport early in the morning and stayed with her until she went through customs.

Travel Tip 7: Ignore Siri once you’re sure you’re on the highway Tohoku-bound/back to wherever you’re going. She attempted to be helpful by rerouting us through Tokyo. It took us THREE HOURS to find our way though traffic and back on the toll.

In case you missed it from Travel Tip 7, this is where the nightmares began. Not only did Siri seem to think driving on the mean streets of Tokyo would mean a faster exit from the city (I assure you, it was quite the contrary), she also somehow had the bright idea that driving straight through Fukushima’s SEASIDE was somehow okay.

For those of you who do not recall, Fukushima Prefecture’s coast was the site of the failed nuclear reactor. So at this point Elena and I had to create our own custom route, constantly looking ahead to make sure that Siri would not derail us from our path.

It’s an eerie experience driving in the dead of night through a prefecture that’s been the sight of a disaster. There were few lights in the towns and cities. We even cut the air conditioning early to make sure we didn’t breath any of the outside air, a precaution we took because of genetic predispositions to cancer and an unwillingness to tempt fate. Once we were past the line separating Fukushima from Miyagi, we resumed our air conditioning and relaxed.

By the time we rolled up to the hills of Gonohe, it was dawn. We watched the sun break it’s watery red glow across the horizon at the local park and then crashed from the physical and mental exhaustion for a good couple of hours.

The English Menu, or Why I Am A Horrible Human Being…

theenglishmenu

“Hello. Welcome. Table for two.” A hand shows the number two visually.

“はい、二人です。”

We are seated. We reach for menus and peruse while the waiter waits, watches us silently for a few moments. We’ve started speaking only to each other, unaware that he is still there, and are taking our time pointing out options to each other. This is mistaken as ineptitude.

“English menu?” he helpfully materializes an English version of the laminate copy. Any other time, I would be grateful. But this is the fifth time at the same restaurant with the same waiter and it’s been a long, long day. I glance across the table where stormy eyes concur with unsaid words. I turn suddenly to the waiter.

“ああ、大丈夫。読める。” I make an attempt at informal Japanese to show I actually can speak informally as well. Dark eyes blink back, slightly confused but the English menu spirited away from sight. Believing, I have established all information we needed to continue with dinner, we peruse at our leisure. We speak of silly things and serious things, we laugh at inside jokes, pointing out delicious options.

Five minutes pass in this way, until the waiter returns with a pitcher of water in one hand and…

…the English menu in another.

My mind screams in horror long before I’ve caught up with it. The pitcher of water is set down and the English menu dropped on the table where it cannot be ignored. To my very core, I am frozen, a mixture of emotions.

Shock. Laughter. Confusion. Fury. Despair. I want to cry. I want to laugh. Mostly I want to have dinner for once in my life, with the full comprehension that I know what I’m doing with a Japanese menu in my hand. Powder and sparks and consuming kisses, iambic pentameter, the sound of the atom bomb tests, Beethoven’s explosive fifth symphony… I think in sound, I think primarily in music. It’s all going through my head at the speed of light and anger wins before the rest of the emotions can catch up.

That all takes a millisecond to process. A fraction of a breath. I bend over across the table laughing into the hard wood surface, my arms encircling my head because I’m afraid of what I may do if he’s still around when I look up. I wait until I’m absolutely sure he is no longer near us. I surface for air.

“That’s it. I’m going to order in keigo.”

“What. No.”

We “argue”, my dinner partner and I, bantering about how we shall order in absolutely perfect Japanese keigo (or not order in such a way until we leave for our road trip and know for a fact that our passive aggressive actions will never negatively impact us).

“No, you’re right that’s just too rude. But still. I really want to order in keigo.” Internally, I tell myself that I might just wear my Waseda sweat shirt next time I go in. A sweat shirt made for autumn weather worn in the middle of summer is sure to illicit some response. Any response to the fact that I may not speak like a native but I can very well order at a restaurant.

Once we are quite sure that we know what we will order, we push the magic button that calls our waiter over and I speed speak through my order to show I’m not going to stumble through the conversation, I even give an explanation for why I can’t eat rice (allergy) and if it would alright to substitute it for naan. It’s not perfect, because I did slip up that last bit of grammar but I made myself more than intelligible.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time. It’s a performance piece we repeat ad nauseum, at every restaurant, and it eventually takes its toll on your self-confidence as a JSL (Japanese as a Second Language) speaker. Deep down inside you may know you’ve done it right, you’ve grammar-ed and words-ed your way through the linguistic minefield of what may be the exact opposite of how your native tongue works, and yet you will be rejected by looks alone.

He walks away even more confused than before. A different waiter comes to deliver the food. I’m unsure whether it’s worked or not, but we’re getting curry one last time before Kimmy leaves so, the fruits of our labor will be made known to us then. I feel like a horrible human being, relishing in the satisfaction of having pulled passive aggression on anyone. There are not buts to that sentence. I let it stand as is.

Road Trip Reactions

It’s a lovely, commitment-free city hall day in June. My notebooks are out, the coffee liberally poured, and The Google is running like a champ. It’s really quite a miracle – not completely lost on me – that the world of navigation has been simplified since the advent of the interwebs. As the Queen of Getting Lost in my family, I used to have to mapquest directions for something as close as the mall two cities over in a country where the streets have names (a.k.a Anywhere But Japan). Albeit street names are practically rendered obsolete and useless in Japan, mostly because of the Things Have Always Been Done This Way tradition of We Will Only Ever Take The Same Route Taken By Our Forefathers, Naming Streets Be Damned 😀 I love Japan. It’s a quirky, beautiful country full of gumption and character, which I wish everyone could see first hand.

By now word has gone round the office that I’m planning a suicidal road trip mission impossible: from Aomori Prefecture to Fukuoka then up to Tokyo to drop off a friend at the airport and back up to Aomori with just enough time to clock in at work by 8 am. It’s a standing tradition by now that whenever anyone comes to refill their coffee (machine of which is just behind my work station), said person stops to comment on the weather and chat me up about my recent inaka experiences. Quick, painless interactions that have now since come to mean this:

“So. You’re planning on going to Fukuoka?” Long pause. Coffee sip. “What are you: a college student or a shakaijin?”

Real knee slapper. Big grin from me and a joking, “Ohohohohoho.”

“But seriously, take it easy. Take a train! Or a camper van. Anything but a kei car.”

Kei cars are karui jidousha (lighter, fuel efficient versions of the white plate car and they are a pain to rev up past 80 kmph, though not impossible).

“Just… don’t.” Coworker shakes head, walks away.

“Ehhhh… why?” I ask after them.

“Traffic,” was the grim response. Apparently despite the fact that southern Japan is at 70-90% humid, no one seems to have qualms about travelling down there by car.

Another coworker comments, “I once went from Osaka to Tottori to Izumo to Hiroshima to Yamaguchi. I gave up at Yamaguchi. At that point Fukuoka seemed too far. Also, I wasn’t an adult like you, I was still an idiot college student. But I hear there’s a shrine that’s famous for housing a god of study. Is that why you’re going?”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I like studying. I love learning new things. I’m a shameless nerd. Some might consider this statement condescending. I assure you it’s not. I just didn’t have much else to do growing up in a household where going out or visiting friends was Out Of The Question. Basically it was classical music CDs (the only thing lying around the house apart from mariachi) and unhealthy amounts of Discovery, History, and Bill Nye. I’m starting to realize that most of my social anxiety came from not being allowed to socialize normally with other kids. Bleh.

“Trust me, you won’t make it to Fukuoka. You should quit now,” lovingly said, I assure you. They’re worried I’ll get myself into an accident, or worse yet into an early grave. Suzu-chan, I believe in you! For those of you who do not know, Suzu-chan is my kei car (who’s gotten me through the thick and thin of Akita and Sendai road trips but nothing quite like a 21 hour drive down to Kyushu).

One of the special ed teachers though understands exactly where I’m coming from. He owns a camper van and frequently goes off on weekend adventures. It’s just him, his camper van, and the great outdoors. As soon as he heard that a noob like me was planning a trip of doom he had one of his kids whip out a map of Japan and turned it into a geography lesson for the kid and an Introduction to the Road Trip of Doom 101 with a 3 unit Lab lesson for me. I will have to thank him profusely again next time I see him because it’s quite the advice!

All of this led me to asking The Googles if it was feasible to travel in a camper van and sifting through several forums I’ve come to one conclusion far too late in life: there area lot of idiots online. So many of the people commenting had either never gone on a road trip or had only done a day trip out of their town and were condemning the idea of even setting off for a cross country road trip because they’d had horrible experiences getting lost in the middle of a country where there are no street names and where they clearly didn’t speak the language. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve gotten lost plenty but at least I speak the language. I’ll have to see how much I love or hate Japan after this road trip but for the time being, despite the strange roadways and inconvenient ETC routes (Japan is mountainous, folks. We’re not in flatter-than-a-pancake Kansas anymore), I don’t think this road trip will kill it for me just yet. More word on that when I get back… >.>

And my favorite:

“Oh my God. Just train there. Trains are comfy, kei cars are like Death.”

Over and out.