Thursday, January 31, 2008

rocking the slopes and cooking in the dark

First of all, I’m alive. I’ve been out of touch with people back home for a few weeks now, for which I have several excuses and no real reason, but I am definitely alive – doing rather well, actually.

Let’s see, excuses include most interestingly a lack of electricity. On a day of less than usual transience, I came home after work and flicked my genkan light switch to no effect. I immediately knew what the problem was; with my undisciplined postal awareness, less than exemplary filing system (ie a messy floor), and irregular paying habits, it wasn’t hard to guess. Apparently those notices with red writing that I kept receiving in the mail weren’t friendly letters congratulating me on another successful month in Japan. They were notices that I was about to have my power cut off! Such are the exigencies of illiteracy that now in darkness do I well.
The scoop is that somehow I managed to lose my power bill from last August or September, and for whatever reason it wasn’t added to my subsequent bills. In that case, I am thankful to the Man for not cutting me off sooner!
I wasn’t too concerned about the whole situation, even though the temperature has hovered between -6 and -10 for the last few weeks. Actually, The Weather Desktop (*TM) says it’s -11 right now. Truthfully, my heaters were broken before I moved into the apartment so I have been going through the whole winter without them anyway. Ironically enough, I just got my heaters fixed last week (company’s coming soon) and used them approximately once before my power went out.
In any case, I was accustomed to the cold. I had my handy headlamp and so was able to scrounge up some matches and candles. That first night, in fact, I had a quiet candle lit dinner chez moi avec book and a lovely cup of tea. (Since that, I’ve been mooching off the girlfriend ‘till I figure out how to say “I’m an idiot, please turn my electricity on” in Japanese).
Long story short, I haven’t had access to the internet for email’s sake, nor have I spent much time around the phone for phoning’s sake. I will figure out the power situation soon, and then I’ll be back in touch.

----The next day, I phoned the power company. After telling me that they didn’t speak English, the operator left the phone momentarily. He came back asking if it was Mr. Wilson calling. I didn’t tell him my name, and I wasn’t calling from my home phone…! Apparently there is only one person in the whole city who had his power cut off. Tee hee, silly me. I managed to tell him that I paid the pill and if my power worked that would be peachy. Now, Thurs the last of Jan, I’m at home and reconnected for the first time in a while, woot---

Second excuse: intentional disconnect. I had a decision of some import to make recently: whether or not to stay a second year here in the J-spot. I felt like my mind was bouncing back and forth between here and home a bit, so I figured I would focus on my friends and life here for just a little while until I made up my mind.
Depending on your feelings toward me and your current geographical location, the news is either good or bad. I’m staying. I’ve signed the contract, so barring any unforeseen calamity or severe change of heart, I’ve got around 18 more months before I’m out from under JET’s umbrella with a paid ride back home. (Later or in another post and if I remember, I’ll come back to my temporarily improved disposition toward my work situation.)

Third excuse: itsumo isogashii desu, jinsei te son’na mono sa (Always busy, such is life.) Work occupies the same amount of time as always, true, but I’ve been spending more time with friends (socializing as a regular way of life is still a bit new to me). There have been some more exciting activities to spice things up as well.
The weekend before last I went for a hike up the back of the tallest mountain in Sapporo, Teine, with friend Ido. The path was partly packed by previous perambulators, otherwise we would have simply drowned in the metres of soft powder, what with the snowshoes that didn’t fit our boots. It was an awesome four hours, followed by an enjoyable slide on my rump down the ski hill on the face of the mountain, to the bemusement of many a skier and boarder (some of whom I passed – man those M.E.C. rain pants are slick!), concluded by an ever wondrous soak in an onsen (this one had relaxing marble bucket soaking seats as well as personal ‘cradles’ to stand in and get the massage jets right where you need ‘em).

Last week I bought a gi and rocked up to a judo class that a fellow JET told me about. I spent a couple hours practicing falling over and smacking the floor properly. Yesterday night I did the same! I got thrown over some guys backed and slammed to the ground. Sweet! Today, I was only slightly sore all over.

Speaking of sore, all week I’ve actually had more sore muscles than at any one time before. Last weekend, a crew of us stayed at a friend JET’s place near Niseko, a ski town of some renown. Three of us took the plunge, hired snowboards and booked a lesson. Having skied only three times now, and boarded never, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Snowboarding always looked so immensely cool but also immensely difficult. However, as soon as I strapped in, I was hooked.

We were up the mountain about five hours both Saturday and Sunday. Though by Sunday I was able to shuffle down an easy run without falling, I kept trying to learn the proper movements and turning, as well as increasing my speed, which meant the falling didn’t stop. I think you could probably average it all out to a tumble every 2 minutes (maybe I was a slow learner). With ten hours up the mountain, that’s heaps of tumblin’ – all of it very ungraceful and some at unsafe speeds for a useless novice like me.

In any case, it was wicked. Hokkaido’s incessantly incredible powder kept coating the slope; the mountains never seem all that crowded here, but late Sunday evening I saw a total of two people on my way down the run; I was finally able to snake down the hill tip-first without spinning in circles to slow down; it was great fun hanging out with friends in a new town; I finally tried this damned sport that I’ve been afraid of for years and years: all around, it was awesome. We hopped the two hour train back to Sapporo, and were home by ten.

Consequently, the soreness. Unfamiliar muscles in about four or five places ache to high heaven – lying in bed, I actually had to lift my head up with my hands because the muscles around the throat that normally take that job were out on strike for the day! All the usual muscles too seem at risk of cramping at any moment. I love it!

Ok, so that’s a sense of why at this moment, I’m glad I decided to sign the contract and keep my option open for next year.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

the (half-)year in review

Randomata: 1. Students are not allowed to have any colour in their hair. A couple students (who, I guess, tried something new in the holidays) came into the office to have teachers quickly spray-dye their hair back to its natural black. 2. In the assembly, everybody speaks from a lower microphone on the floor until the principal has gone to the elevated mike up on the stage; when he bows in front of the mike, the entire school bows back. Teachers scan the rows of chairs (brought down from the classrooms with impeccable efficiency) and shift individual students to make sure the rows are in perfect alignment. Quite a sight is the sea of straight students with the same black suits and black hair and their straight rows of chairs, all bowing in unison to the man on stage. (I’m really not trying to say everybody is the same, only that in this they strive to make it look so).

The new year has turned; Thailand has come and gone, revelries galore as well: welcome back to work after three weeks of delicious and horrendous slothing. I forget how to wake up in the morning, I forget how to think, and I definitely forget how to work (hopefully I don’t forget how to write).

Several things hit me immediately when I get to my school for the first time in what feels like an eternity. Surprisingly, I just realized how little these kids are: in size and age and maturity, the kids at Junior High are soooo young. I think because I was nervous and had no basis for comparison, I didn’t see it before. Now, after that week at elementary schools and after a bit of time for reflection, and now that I’m not quite so nervous and intimidated by everything (for example, my girlfriend doesn’t frighten me so much or seem so tall anymore), I have a bit better idea of where these kids are at. Hopefully I continue to treat them with respect, as people of all ages deserve full respect; however, hopefully I continue to learn to better communicate and connect with them.

The next thing that hit me was just how much energy I put into ‘simply being’ here, which I’ve commented on before. The moment I got through those doors – actually, when I turned onto the street – I jumped into ‘work mode’, which means instant smiles, incessant greetings (whether students want them or not), and openness to any initiation of conversation or contact in any way whatsoever; putting on the appropriate face, attitude, body language, and voice; and then of course there is the psychological shift in an attempt to avoid a disconnect between the superficial and the internal.

Then I saw the students’ faces (as they passed me and my annoying greetings). Some were basically disinterested, which I totally understand. However, others had a big grin when they saw me and offered a really friendly greeting, as if they didn’t mind seeing me again after some time apart; that was a nice feeling! Of course, these are the same reactions that I receive day after day, and I think it more a reflection on the students’ personalities and moods than on what I do. In any case, many kids did seem happy to see me, and that’s a relief!

Let’s see, what’s next… Ah yes, how quickly things return to normal. After some quick friendly exchanges with the other teachers, about the same as after a usual weekend, they moved off with the usual hustle as I sat in my quiet shell amidst the usual bustle of the office. I look around at all these people, who I know to be amicable, but I can’t think of something worth enough consequence to start an enduring conversation. And never has anybody approached me seeking anything more than a quickie. Sigh. Back to that.

Also normal is the fact that we have an assembly (by the way, my tenses are mixed up because I’m presently writing this at work with the intention of posting it past-tense later…) and nobody tells me about it (this is more amusing than annoying), as well as the fact that today, as oft, I am pretty much the only person not wearing a suit. Oh, and I’m the only person with a beard, which quite fascinates some of the students, and most likely bothers some of the teachers.

Let’s see… what else… did I mention that I have to decide whether I’m going to stay a second year or not – by next week!?! I have waffled more than Eggo about this decision. The long and short of it is that I don’t think this job (in its current manifestation) holds nearly enough stimulation to interest and challenge me. I am not the type of person who is capable of sitting on a cushy position, relaxing, and enjoying the doing of nothing. I have tried for the last five months to learn this ability, but it’s just not me. At best, I can do about half ‘n half, work ‘n laze - a low standard which in this job I am yet below!

But, if I were to leave now, I would feel somewhat defeated, like my experience here has been one of drained energies and a bit too much disappointment. I think my brain closed off in frustration, and I don’t think I learned half as much Japanese as I could – with or without hordes of friends with whom to practice. Also, I’ve been lazy, and I’ve yet to see many other places in Japan. Central to my disappointment, I don’t feel like I grew in my job, had a challenge and overcame it. Instead, I was accepted with low expectations and little motivation to exceed them (I just feel like I’m getting in the way when I try!), and I let myself remain in that increasingly apathetic funk.

This is not to say that nothing good has happened. Far from that, I’m really proud of myself for coming over here, and I feel like I have learnt a lot about myself already – mostly about personal limitations that need expanding. I had so many great experiences, hiking, skiing, sightseeing, traveling, and of course just hanging out with friends. And I surely I have learned a lot by being in such a different work environment as well. I have learnt some Japanese, and surely gained some experience of the life and culture here – though progress in both these areas is hard to quantify.

The hope is that I can maintain (/increase) all those worthwhile things, and get rid of this nagging sense of disappointment in myself: feel a slight sense of challenge and improvement in work, learn a bit more of the language, meet more new people here (ie Japanese people), and see some more of this country while I have the fortune to live here.

I am going to request to change schools, perhaps to High School, or ask for more changes of location during the year (I think I’m the only Junior High JET who doesn’t change schools all year).

The risk is that a change of scene for my job won’t improve things and I will become like other disenchanted second-year ALT’s, with piddling interest in their jobs, who seem like they really should have gone home after just one year! The risk is that after two years I will feel like I’ve spent two years stuck in this place, getting nowhere except farther away from the world I used to know (to be slightly melodramatic about it), with no sense of new direction to show for it and, to boot, no identifiable or re-applicable job-skills! Suddenly I’m a 24 year old with no skills and only one job on my resume. Eep.

Also, there’s that girl, and I know she’ll be here for a second year… trying not to let that affect my decision too much.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

thailand, in brief

I'm back.

I successfully navigated my first-ever christmas with not a carol sung, though I did enjoy the fairy lights of Odori park, as well as the dinners and secret santa's with friends. Christmas day was an odd day - it never really felt like the christmas season - because I had to go into work for half a day and give one more class their last speech test for the term! Fortunately, thanks to the time change, I was able to talk to my family as they held their Christmas Eve dinner. The day after Christmas, we left for Thailand.

Thailand was a great time, no doubt. The whole country was rather filthy and littered with debris, buildings mostly rundown looking, all restaurants with kitchens of questionable cleanliness. The toilets were often drop toilets with no toilet paper, and no sink or soap. Of course, we stayed in inexpensive places and purposively avoided the more developed touristy areas. However, other than one mate almost dying from a peanut allergy, nobody got sick and, so far, nobody seems to have acquired malaria.

Ok, those were all the negatives. The temperature was perfect - a delightful 35 degree improvement from dear Sapporo. Bangkok was insanely busy. I was quite intimidated at first, by the hawkers and hookers and peddlers and taxi drivers and beggers and... all of it. The markets are sprawling, packed and endless, and unlike anything at home or here in Japan. On the up side, after a day in the city I felt far more comfortable navigating the streets, and after two I wasn't afraid to haggle and I didn't feel intimidated by the hectic press of the city. The day before we returned home we spent doing a bit of sight seeing around the city, and I realised that I no longer had all the same negative feelings I had toward Bangkok at first. I had fun! (Still, I'm glad we only spent two days there!) Wat Poh Temple in particular was awesome, including the Giant Reclining Buddha (see flkr).

We also went to a quiet villa of resorts in the Kaoh Sok National Park. The people there were unbelievably relaxed and friendly relative to those in the city. We stayed in these cute little bungalows, spent the days walking through the forest and swimming, or tubing down the (somewhat dessicated - ouch, rocks, ouch) river with beer in hand, or hanging out at the chill restaurants enjoying the music, the mood, or the monkeys fornicating across the creek.

The forest included some awesome vegetation, which I suppose you have to be there to enjoy. There was also this crazy huge spider that someone almost walked into, as well as the maggot-like leeches that we all pulled off our skin at some point (Far Right: the leech dance).

After that, we headed down to Koh Phagnon, the island of some fame. We stayed in this incredible bungalow on a hill overlooking a beach. Thans Sadet, our bay, was barely developped and so extremely quiet. We had electricity a couple hours a day, no shower or sink, and we shared the room with giant spiders and hordes of ants. I'm not complaining about all these things - the place was amazing! Best of all was the water. Imagine jumping into lukewarm ocean! Every time I went in, it was hard to come back out. Even when the ocean was choppy as hell (we had some wind and mediocre weather) and the day grey, we played in the surf and were reluctant to emerge.
(There are cats and dogs and roosters all over the place ).

Also incredible was the food. I don't have pictures of all the dishes we enjoyed - because that would be stupid, and because my friends already snapped at me for taking too many photos! Massaman (sweet red curry) was possibly my favourite. (But the green curry was delicious too, and the yellow curry not half bad). The pat thai, fried noodles and vegetables was always tastey. The prawns were always tastey. I got myself addicted to fruit shakes and I think collectively we got addicted to the banana pancakes. As an example of our lethargy, one fond memory witnesses us enjoying a smorgusboard of options at one restuarant before walking to the end of the bluff to enjoy a smorgusboard of deserts at another restuarant. Of an inconceivable deliciousness to price ratio, the food kept coming and the booze kept flowing the whole trip, and I don't know how we didn't all gain ten pounds.

Here is a random monk we met in the forest on the way to an ancient inscription. He gave us some tea, teachings, and led us in an hour long meditation-walk.

We went to the famous New Year's Party at Hat Ryn (don't trust my spelling, as a general principal), where all the Full Moon Parties are. There was lots of drinking, probably lots of drugs, general debauchery, scum of the earth kinda feeling at times. But dancing with friends on the beach till the wee hours and ringing the new year with thousands of partiers did have a bit of flare to it. I didn't take my camera, for obvious safety reasons and to prevent any incriminating evidence.
This post (as always) presents a family friendly, entirely PG recount of my doings. I am fairly morally upright, so it's not that I'm hiding a dark underside, or anything like that. But surely you can't be a youth living abroad without, you know... well, nevermind. Suffice it to say, over the whole trip, a good time was had by all, and nobody was arrested for anything they may or may not have done that they possibly, sort of maybe technically should not have done.

I can't sum up the whole trip, not even close. It was my first time in Southeast Asia, first time in a less developed country (to use a vague and loaded term). I realised that I have no idea what most of the world is like. Maybe Thailand is Asia and Japan is Asia, but they seem to have next to nothing to do with eachother. The people in Thailand are almost the opposite of Japan, often jumping on you forcefully (in the city at least) and making you work for any respect they might give you, whereas in Japan, ultra politeness and a huge smile are prereqs for any greeting (not that this means they are more genuine). Even the more relaxed people in the smaller places like Thans Sadet didn't just automatically greet you with smiles and easy friendliness; they seemed slightly more guarded. It took some convincing before we earned bigger smiles, deeper friendliness and any real connections with people. A lot of tourists do filter through, so maybe that guardedness is a feature of other tourist destinations as well. Don't know!

The pace of life, the people, the values of what is necessary and what is not - all so very different from what I'm used to. As I said, debris, dirt, and ramshackle houses seemed tolerated; as long as people had the basics, walls and a roof, they were happy. Yet, time, food, and financial opportunity seemed abundant, so it seems that different values, rather than (say) poverty, were the cause of this. That's a wholly inadequate and inconclusive stream of thoughts there, sorry.
As well as having a really relaxing time, I realise that, Man, there is a lot more world to see, and a lot more eye opening that has to happen for me.
I definitely have to go back to Thailand some day, and do way more sightseeing, fun activites, and less lazing about. I understand a little bit better now the way travel and accomodation and spending work there, so hopefully I'd be well prepared for a second trip.
One more full day's travel brought us home to Sapporo. The first night home, it was -13* celcius, compared with 33* in Bangkok. More of a shock was returning to the pace and people of this world, so very different. I've yet to return to my school, and I am a bit nervous to do so. I feel distant, disconnected from my livelihood (if not life altogether) here, even though it was that job that let me splurge on a whim and take the trip to Thailand. I have to decide very, very soon whether I wish to recontract and stay in Japan for a second year. Though I didn't make any new years resolutions, I hope to make that decision and live generally without too much moaning, pondering, obsessiveness (etc). We'll see.