Tuesday, September 25, 2007

ass rashes and man-chickens

Sojourner's Highlight: Having a guest to play tour guide for is a great way to get off your lazy butt and play tourist yourself.

: When you walk into any shop or restaurant, you are greeted with something that might sound like "arashmyasseh", if you don't know what they're saying. What the one or two or ten people working there are saying, though, is "irashimaseh," which basically means 'welcome', and has nothing to do with rashes on your ass or theirs. Even walking into a conbini at 2am, you are friendily welcomed.

Such politeness is a token element of the japanese service industry. If somebody is going to serve you, 9 times out of 10 they will offer the most amazing service you could hope for. You can go into a store and ask for advice that has nothing to do with the shoes they sell there. You can ask for something tricky at the grocery store and the cashier will probably leave the till to go look, subsequently making no less than 4 loops of the entire supermarket at a near sprint as he looks for someone who might be able to offer more help. Then suddenly there are between 4 and 5 other workers standing there with you, trying to understand the difference between baking soda and baking powder, before they run up and down all the aisles to reconfirm that they are, in fact, out of baking powder.

At restaurants, servers aren't expected to wait on you hand and foot; they take your order, bring your food, and then mostly leave you alone. But any time they are dealing with you, you will feel like the most welcomed houseguest ever. And if ever you need something, grab their attention and they will come running to ask what. The almost always amazing service makes me wish that tipping was part of the culture here. But their awesome service isn't tip-worthy, it isn't above and beyond: it is simply expected of people in that role.

The fan in my computer hums noisily and the glare of the flourscent overhead beats down on my brain and angers my eyes. I'm tired.

But it's ok: I'm tired in a good way! My parents have been here and we've been running around being touristy.

Last Friday and Saturday, my junior high held it's 'School Festival.' Every school has a festival like this, to which every class and every single student contributes in some way. Every student either helped with a stage production or with decorating a classroom. For a month leading up to the festival, students and teachers have been putting in two to three hours of preparatory work at the end of the school day, every single day. I am not supposed to take too many photos of the students, and I am definitely not supposed to put them on the internet, so I can only show a small sampling of their hard work on my flikr. Highlights included a "Stomp" performance and an inspiring brass and jazz band performance. These, as well as skipping-rope and dance troupes were my favourite because the often timid students got up on stage with confidence and rocked the house with their energy. It was hard to only employ the accepted polite applause after the stomp performance, and not to cheer and stomp in response. The band performance was possibly the best school band performance I have ever heard. I don't know if I have ever been emotionally moved by a school band before; maybe I am getting sappy in my old age.
Ok, to stop rambling, the last highlight I will mention included the English Club's filmed "Wizard of Oz." The students spoke way more english in that film than they ever would otherwise. My favourite part, though, was when Dorothy arrives after the tornado to meet the 'Man-chickens' of 'Man-chicken' land. I don't know if this was a matter of mistranslation or politically avoidant script writing... after all, it's 'little person,' or 'man-chicken,' not *unchkin, right?

Saturday afternoon, it was hard to believe the rapidity with which the students and teachers dismantled the fruits of their labour. A month’s worth of incredible drawings and decorations that covered the school disappeared in a mere hour, with narry a trace of their existence to be found. For them it was a simple matter: the festival was over, the materials no longer important. In Japan, when there is a designated time for something to occur, it should occur precisely then – not start early, and not finish late.

For example, tabe-nomi-hodai enkai parties are usually two hours of all you can drink and eat, and then you promptly leave the restaurant. After the school festival, we had a staff enkai. These parties are very important in the workplace culture of Japan; drinking together outside of work is seen as important to creating a cohesive workgroup. The team that pays their 3500yen each and gets sloshed together, stays together. The party was at the usual kind of place, where you leave your shoes at the door, kneel on the tatami floor, have beer, sake, and more, and they bring you food galore.

I had to open the party with a brief speech saying how grateful I was to be part of the team, and how impressive the school festival was. Then, the kocho-sensai (principal) made an opening speech welcoming me and – very quickly – offering the first ‘kampai’(cheers) so everybody could start drinking. The rest of the night witnessed increasing gaiety punctuated with decreasingly coherent speeches by a pre-selected line-up of teachers.

My personal nijikai (second party) was particularly satisfying. Some of the teachers went on to another bar, some went home; I tagged along with three Japanese student teachers and went for more drinks and nibblies at a smaller restaurant. (There, you pay for drinks by the half hour increment.) No offense to English-speakers who I have gone drinking or partying with, or to any ALT’s here, but that half-hour-turned-into-two-hours with those student-teachers was far more rewarding. It was challenging to fit in with them and the rest of the crowd, instead of just accepting my sticking out as I do when with a group of foreigners. It was challenging to communicate with them, and to make it entertaining for all of us. Most of all, it was extremely rewarding to connect with some people who really live here, instead of just people who are visitors, strangers, like myself. I made a much more determined effort to use the tiny bit of Japanese I know, and I feel like I learned as much from a couple hours with them then all of my studying before! It wasn’t just that there were attractive girls involved, I swear: it was just fun to hang out with them!

Since then, I have been making more of an effort to use my pathetic Japanese vocabulary (‘tango’) whenever I can. It has helped, of course, that my parents arrived Saturday night. I was late picking them up from the train station (because of the half-hour-turned-into-two-hours), but they were merrily sipping some beer in a bar when I got to them.

Having a guest expect you to play tour guide is a great way to make you get off your lazy butt and play tourist yourself. We have explored Sapporo a fair bit as well as made a short trip outside the city, to a fishing/heritage/touristy town – none of which I would have done this weekend had my parents not arrived.

On top of that, because they depend on me slightly and because I want to show off, I try to use any Japanese word, any chance I get. So, they are very good motivation, and it is very good language practice. Otaru (the fishing/heritage/touristy town) was very beautiful and worthwhile.

As a consequence, I am at the moment having mixed feelings about my personal ‘accomplishments’ thus far. Having my parents here makes me realise that I have learned a fair bit about how I can make a life here, even if the language is slow in coming along. And indeed, though unacceptably slowly, my language is perceivably improving nonetheless. I was quite proud when at a conbini I asked for help buying tickets to a soccer game, and was able to discuss the date and time and such!! After dinner tonight, it was really nice to be able to make the server smile with gracious acceptance of our enjoyment of and gratitude for the tasty food (I only know ‘tasty,’ at this point; ‘delicious’ will come later). Also, as I mentioned, people do indeed seem slightly more willing to try and speak Japanese to me now… I suppose it is the way I carry myself; perhaps I was frowning in confusion a lot before, and that deterred people’s attempts. Now I grin in confusion, and that makes it a lot easier on them.

And yet, I am still a little disappointed in myself. I feel like I haven’t put enough effort into studying and practicing Japanese every day. I feel like I haven’t made learning and reading about the language and the culture enough of a priority in my day to day life. On a different note, I feel like I haven’t put enough into finding challenging and new experiences, whether they are cultural, social, or personal.

Namely, I still haven't gone on any exciting hikes out of town. That isn't a particularly 'Japanese' activity, but it is personally an important activity. I feel most alive when I am outside climbing a big hill somewhere. Plus, Hokkaido is renowned for its hills and hikes and natural beauty, so I do feel I am not taking advantage of my (geographical) place in life.

On top of that, hanging out with the student teachers makes me realize that I have been 'hiding' among the english ALT's and retreating to my apartment all too often. I need to get out there and talk to Japanese people more, otherwise I will never feel a real part of the place I'm in.

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