Sunday, September 9, 2007

i live in a japanse musical

Randomata: There is delightfully awful music everywhere. Pretty much all Japanese popular music includes random english words and half-sensical english choruses. Many stores have music in certain sections, setting the mood or whatnot. In the grocery store, they play adverts for milk or meat or fish. These are 7.5-second bites of high-pitched and chirpy synthesized singing/noise that repeat absolutely incessently for the store's hours of operation. Think of 20 small children butchering 7.5 seconds of a song, and then repeat it continuously in your head. In the hyaku-en store (dollar store, but 100 times awesomer), they always play awful pan-flute or synthesized remakes of old english music that was annoying in the first place - no offence to Rod Stewart, he's just not my bag. An ad on the radio just now consisted of something like panfluted theme to Jurassic Parts meets synthesized remix of the theme from star wars. I'm pretty sure it was an ad for a tutoring school.

----If this post is too long for you, please read the last 4 paragraphs about hookers, toddlers, broomsmen, baseball and the YMCA.-----

So much has happened, I hardly know where to start. I suppose I will start with that realisation.

I have settled in at Work ever so slightly. The other teachers speak very limited english, for the most part. Further, they are absolutely terrified of me. I don't feel like I am that frightening, but sometimes they noticebly shake with nervousness or simply try to avoid interaction by turning away quickly or engaging in conversation with someone at just the right moment.

That said, several speak very good English and they all speak better english than they give themselves credit for. What's frustrating is when the teachers or students are so afraid that they become convinced there is no way for us to communicate. Sometimes the students will refuse to listen to a word in English, or refuse to attempt to understand, even when I can see in their eyes they understand at least some of what I have said. Some of the students are completely uninterested in me or learning english. Sometimes others try to understand and I fail to convey my meaning to them; those exchanges are the most disheartening because the students get disappointed in themselves.

I have already learned some things about teaching, such as the incredible power students have over the teacher. The teacher has to act like a stone wall when it comes to distractions and insults hurled their way, and yet she has to be interested, sympathetic, and engaged with the students for teaching to work at all.

I am most excited when students feel like I treat them as individual human beings, so I try to show genuine interest in what they talk about, music and sports and lunch. It was pretty cool that one of the kids burned me a CD of a Japanese group because I said was curious to hear it. But what that sort of interest does is make you vulnerable, because the students can make fun of your interests, personality, or simply spurn the interest you show in communicating with them. It is so immediately draining when a student ignores you, openly avoids or dislikes you, or simly refuses to communicate. It hits you hard, no matter what kind of stone front you pretend to put up.

Every day teachers open themsevles up to be used and abused by the students - because even the students simple disinterest hurts on a personal level. I just have to remind myself that a student's behaviour is not really directed at me, or simply a direct result of my teaching; instead, it emerges from my energy and teaching as well as his life and personality and mood and the weather outside and the colour of his socks (etc). This means that I cannot take complete credit for the enthusiastic students who are enjoying practicing english. But I can try to join in that energy, and try not to be too personally drained by my failures to interest or communicate.

My status with the teachers was somewhat improved when I scored our only goal in the staff soccer game. The other team (from another school) won 2-1, but we had a good time playing together. And the next morning I was greeted by a round of applause from the entire staff, who were slightly less afraid of me that day. It was really nice to be out there on the soccer field with them, because everybody forgot their fear and the language gap was no longer such a big deal. I hope to find an indoor team to play with for the winter, but no luck yet.

To return to and mitigate the contents of the Randomata, I heard a really awesome brit rock cover band in this little bar in Susukino (the party district). The owner of the band was the lead singer and guitarist, and the staff of the bar were all the other players. They did four sets over the course of the night, though the last (at 230am) was just for 4 of us gaijin (foreigners). I couldn't understand half of the words they said, but at least they were on key the whole time. And technically, they were unbelievably skilled.

It was such a crazy experience to be in this random little bar tucked away on the second floor of some random shopping centre in Sapporo, listening to this incredibly talented group of young Japanese guys rock the hell out of these british songs that likely sounded like gibberish in their minds, as latin did to me back in my choirboy days. They absolutley rocked the house. I just wanted to add this disclaimer, cause I don't want to be hating on all music in Japan. There is also some good rock and folkish/acoustic-pop on the radio that I can't get enough of.

I am in really good spirits right now, because I have just very much enjoyed my precious weekend. It was a different story by the end of the workweek last week.

I was exhausted almost to the point of incoherence: I couldn't even communicate with myself any more. I have been nervous about fitting in and doing well at work. Then there is interacting with the students, which is exhausting even when it goes well. Then there is going to bed at 12 or 1 and waking up at 6 every day. I left the house at 730 every morning, and I didn't get back until 630 most days, 730 others.

You have to try and fit in other things, like shopping, making yourself dinner, seeing friends, cleaning the house, not too mention relaxing a bit and having some down time, in that few precious hours you have after you finally change out of your work clothes.

Which reminds me: the stereotype of Japanese salarymen and societal overworking is true. The other teachers do not leave the office until on average 645 every day. The subways are swarming with people coming home from work at 830 and 9 at night.

Crazier still, in my mind, is how hard the kids work. Many students are also at school, for sports or clubs or extra classes, until 630 or 7 every day. Plus, they all have some school related activity, even if it is just sports, on Saturday.

All workers try not to take their holidays. They use them for sick days, or they take short three day holidays here and there so they don't inconvenience anyone. Imagine squeezing a family trip overseas in just 3 or 5 days. The entire country, as far as I know, operates with this workaholic mentality.

Something that really impresses me about the Japanese people is how they act when drinking and excited. I went to a Nippon-Ham Fighters (the sapporo baseball team) game on Saturday in the amazing Sapporo-Dome stadium that was built for world cup soccer a few years back. Walking into the stadium was incredible. I can't wait to watch a soccer game there.

But, more to the point, the fans were incredibly coordinated in their singing and cheering, which did not let up for the entire game. Every single player who came to bat had one of several songs directed at them; every play had some crowd response, but the bad plays and mistakes received no jeering. Most impressive: the alcohol was kept flowing, by attendents with keg-backpacks, the entire game. And yet, nobody got stupid or rowdy or violent or even SPILLY. Back home (beer + excitment = idiocy) and I was inevitably annoyed after any sporting event.

And the beer festival that occurs at Odori Park in the centre of Sapporo, out on the streets, with no police attendance, would in Vancouver necessarily be accompanied by a strong intimadatory police force with baton in hand - because people simply get stupid and violent.
AND - imagine this - at the end of the game, pretty much everybody picked up their own garbage and carried it away with them. Hardly a crumb was visible. In a stadium that seats tens of thousands, that is pretty damn impressive.

By the way, this was my first professional baseball experience. Mike (and everybody else), I'm sorry if I ever made fun of you or your beloved baseball. It was quite enjoyable.

Because I am rambling and need to sleep soon, I will end here. Let me just relay one of the most hilarious and enjoyable moments I have had since coming to Japan:

After the 5th inning, the teams left the field and a hundred or so toddlers, a few mascots, and some 10 cheerleaders lined up along the diamond. Some field crew came out to sweep up the bases and such. All of the former led the entire stadium in the singing and dancing of a bastardized remix of the YMCA by the village people.

The cheerleaders in their skimpy outfits, who were simultaneously inculcating the future generations in how to gain the approval of thousands of people, were all-too enticingly shaking their hips rhythmycally in front of the little devils. The mascots were amusing and absurd, as mascots always are, though I have a special affinity for them, having myself worn a moosesuit with a head so large I could not actually make the 'C' of the YMCA.

Then there were the thousands of people enthusiastically singing a half-english, half-japanese song largely meaningless to them. There was just so many layers of meaning and absurdity in the whole thing, I haven't quite unpacked it yet.

But, the icing on the cake was sweeter still. Towards the end of the song, the field crew all hefted their giant brooms and subsequently engaged in a ridiculously enthusiastic, well-coordinated and well-performed broom-swinging and feet-kicking dance to the chorus of YMCA, with unassuming children, absurd mascots, and half-naked women in tow. The multitudes in the stadium enjoyed the show as something very enjoyable, but completely normal and expected.

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