Sunday, September 16, 2007

waste and welcome and "Life is so unnerving..."

Randomata: In one of my very early posts, I considered the impending difficulty of excessive waste packaging in Japan. I now believe that worry was well founded. Food is ridiculously over packaged in layer after layer of plastic, some of which is burned, some buried, and some recycled.
Shopping for food at grocery stores and cooking at home reduces some of this waste. I try to refuse plastic bags at the store whenever possible (though you go through quite a few with all the complex garbage sorting). If you shop at a conbini, you have to simply accept heaps of waste plastic.
Chopsticks are a huge waste of forestry resources, as you may have heard. Of course, Japan imports the vast majority of its wood resources, so the felled forests are elsewhere. Portable cases and chopsticks quite easily alleviate this waste, and this simple conservation tactic will (i hope) only grow in popularity, however slowly.
Another random and very noticeable waste, people seem to enjoy idling their cars for no purpose whatsoever, intentionally leaving them running, even when they have no intention of driving away.

Gaijin (foreigners) make up something like 1% of the population of Japan. The great majority of these are Korean; quite a few are Brazillian or Brazillian-Japanese; of 'western' foreign-residents, the greatest number come from the United States; the rest are from 'Other' places. There's at least five Canadians in the J-Spot, cause that's how many I've met... Embassies, International Communication Hubs, Numerous 'Gaijin Bars' and associations of various sorts provide a somewhat flimsy sense of community for those who miss it and wish it.

'Gaijin' literally means 'outside person' (read: unwanted outsider) and can be construed as rude. Gaikokujin is a more polite way of saying 'foreign resident.' Like the vocabulary, the reception to foreigners varies diametrically. Some people are stunned to see me (or a group of us), overtly dropping their jaws and starring unabashedly - and I mean starring nonstop for five or ten minutes. Some children scurry away. Many old people furrow their brows furiously or quite stiffly look away. All of these are fairly superficial reactions, and possibly don't tell us much about the mentality behind them, but so far they are all I have to go on.

Other people, of all ages, are very excited to see these strange looking people; many are eager to practice a small smattering of english (usually as a joke, and especially after a few drinks). On the subway the other day, a wonderful elderly man smiled and gave us a friendly greeting and, after making a origami Pikachu for the child next to him, quickly whipped up a beautiful paper flower for my friend. Many people, of course, embrace the foreign or the Western, taking trips and exchanges overseas, practicing their English or second language at school and with tutors. Students like this are the first to come up to me after class and engage in small talk. Every time I have gone to a bar, we have ended up very good friends with the bartenders, so they, at least, don't mind us. These all make a small sampling but, again, they are all I have to go on.

Any surprised reactions in a fairly large and connected city like Sapporo would likely be exaggerated in any smaller town. So far, my racial identity has only prevented me once from a given activity. I stunned the owners of a small coffee shop simply by walking through their doors, to then have them ask me by gestures and Japanese to please leave because, I guess, the shop was closed - even though it was only the afternoon. I am not at all bitter or offended, though at first it was somewhat hard not to take it personally. A reaction like this is understandable because foreigners are so extremely rare. Seeing me for the first time, of course this older couple was unprepared. Even my teachers, who have had foreign ALT's before, hardly know how the heck to act around me!

Oh, of my height: Yes, I am definitely above average height here, but No, I do not feel like a giant. I do feel like I have to slouch all the time, hunch my shoulders and chest somewhat, so as to be less intimidating, most especially at school where I do dwarf the munchkins.

The munchkins are slowly warming up to me. It helps that they now realise I will not yell at them if they speak Japanese. They are allowed to think out loud, and even try to communicate with me in Japanese, as I stare uncomprehendingly and they search for an English word to say what they want to say. I am trying to use my time with them to pick up Japanese words here and there; however, in their minds, I have to remain functionally noncommunicative to ensure their continued striving in English.

I had a hard task on Friday at work. I had to listen to two girls read a story from their textbook, to decide which student would enter a regional speaking competition. Both spoke very well, despite their extreme nervousness at orating in front of the big scary englisher, me.

The selection they read, in tone reminiscent of Silverstein's "The Giving Tree," was a heartwrenching story about the bombing of Hiroshima, as experienced by a tree on the outskirts of the city. I had accidentally stumbled upon "A Mother's Lullaby" earlier that day, as I flipped through the textbook. I was unprepared for its impact.

(rest of story on flikr)
Anyways, it was difficult to evaluate the speaker's pronunciation, intonation and animation of such a story, not to mention I hate being in a position where I have to judge the students.

On the other hand, it was nice to feel at all useful. I am beginning to think that my school doesn't really want an ALT, as they have me scheduled for very very few clases each day. I know that is me being overly anxious: once the school festival is done, things will calm down and they will have more regular classes again, with which I can help. It is just hard to go to school everyday and have nobody ask me for any help, on anything whatsoever. I have written short, individual responses to some 300 questions posed by some of the students, to show them that english actually will enable communication with a real human being. That has been... 'fun'. (At least it's DOING something!!!!)

Somehow, I am extremely tired and somewhat stressed at and after school, despite my lack of work to do. Being there with nothing to do is stressful, and not feeling like part of the team is most uncomfortable. I do not stay an hour or so late every day now to put in more 'Face Time', as I had been doing, because the positive effects were negligable. My friends advised me to relax, to stop wearing a tie and such nice clothing, and to make a few obvious blunders in front of everybody so that I am not so upright and intimidating anymore. To that end, I wore no tie and was late to work on Friday... the effect of this perhaps I will feel on Tuesday, after the long weekend has ended.

I really want to talk about the soccer game and the gay pride parade, but I don't want to stretch anybody's patience.
So, to another post those topics I relegate.

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