Wednesday, February 20, 2008

sapporo snow festival (vegetarians not allowed)

Randomata: a word unheard. Last week when ordering a pizza I confirmed four or five times that the selection I was making contained no meat. When the pizza arrived an hour and a half later (because we gave wrong directions... woops), my teeth just touched the cheese when my friend noticed the beef minced throughout the sauce. I blamed myself for not double checking one more time and specifically asking if the sauce had any pre-added meat. On the weekend, at a nice tapas bar, I scared three or four servers by asking for vegetarian recommendations. Finally we picked something that the head server said had no meat in it. I explained that I didn’t eat any meat whatsoever, and he confirmed after a direct question that there wasn’t meat in it. When the omelette-ish dish arrived, I took one bite and tasted sausage, chunks of which were spaced throughout. These are just two examples of an ongoing battle vegetarians face here.
Supposedly the word ‘vegetarian’ is one of those adopted into Japanese without a change to its meaning (just change to hiragana syllables). There are also, of course, ways to say that one doesn’t eat meat without reaching outside Japanese vocabulary, such as ‘nikku o tabenai.’ Nikku is a catch-all for beef (gyunikku), pork (buntanikku), and bird meat (torinikku). But no matter how you say it, you’re likely to provoke a surprised reaction from whoever is taking your order. In fact, they might seem downright scared (that they won’t be able to find any food for you, and that you are some strange anomaly they can’t fathom).
More confusing, however, are the people who nod in agreement, for they make it seem like the concept of vegetarianism is actually crossing the cultural-linguistic border. In reality, even if the word is known in a basic way, few people seem to understand the mentality behind it. People find it hard to understand why someone would choose not to eat meat, and it seems to suggest that that person is religious, allergic, simply doesn’t feel like eating meat at that moment, might just want a little bit less than usual, not a meat-focused dish, or perhaps doesn’t eat a lot of meat in their diet but might want to eat some now. Above all, that person is downright strange.
Japan might have been prescriptively vegetarian at some point in Buddhism’s heyday, but that time is long gone. Now it is very difficult to convince people that it is possible to not have meat, to remove it from a certain dish or, better yet, to cook without it in the first place. Difficulty arises when servers too quickly signal their understanding because there are many times the meat doesn’t even register in their minds as part of the dish, likely if it is: pre-mixed in a sauce, part of soup broth, minced finely, or placed amongst other ingredients (so that the meat doesn’t stand out as a main feature of the dish).
Sometimes I think that everywhere I go, me being vegetarian gives people a new view to think about; other times, I’m just hungry.

I haven’t checked in for a while now. I don’t think anything worth mention has happened –

– except the WICKED Snow Festival. At several sites throughout the city, ice and snow sculptures coupled with festivities and performances to provide entertainment to the hordes of visitors. Odori Park, the large Boulevard that runs through blocks and blocks of the city centre, was covered with massive displays of skilled carvings of temples and imagined scenes, as well as blocks of familiar and comical characters, and an amateur section, where some of my chums tried their hand. Susikino (the party centre of town) had a long line of sharp ice sculptures as well as an ice bar (a popular gimmick in Hokkaido). Perhaps most fun of all was Satoland (trans: sugarland), which was the kids’ section of the Festival. I went with three guys who were staying with me over the weekend. Sure, we’re all 22/23/24/27, but that doesn’t mean we can’t admit to still being kids…

Highlights include an ice maze, an ice tube slide, insanely enthusiastic dancers everywhere who periodically gathered on stage for a more official performance, and an organized yukigassen. Yes, in typical Japanese fashion, the snowball fight had a court, pre-made barricades, deployment tactics, stringent rules, helmets and bibs, and uniform pre-made, pre-counted snowballs (made with these awesome and awesomely simply snowball makers that every kid should want).

Having buds at my house was great, not so much because the four extra male bodies stank up the place almost beyond tolerance, and not because they bought me booze, but because their perspective on my apartment and the city was refreshing. They were thrilled with what the city has to offer (as compared to the small town they live in at the very opposite end of the country, southern Kyushu), and ensured me that I am very lucky to have such a comfortable apartment, close to anything I might need.

Also, my friend Lex is halfway through his second year as a JET. I enjoyed seeing the progress he has made with the language, and the fact that his enthusiasm for living here has not waned in the least. He has nothing but good things to say about the living, working, and playing situation of a JET: decent pay, heaps of paid time off, the chance to travel, the chance to learn about a new country, and relatively straightforward demands – just hang out with the kids a bit! All these things I know, but sometimes don’t think on. Course he speaks fluent French as well, and he’s just an enthusiastic guy in general, but it still gives me hope for my second year here in Japan.

Not everything gives me hope and excitement for that second year. Next post: 'life is boring here.'

Friday, February 8, 2008

struggles in the school system

Randomata: Unsatisfied student. A third-year student at my junior high is applying to go to a high school in the United States. He asked me to check over his application paragraph, as did his teachers ask me to read over the review they must write in English. His justification was frustration with the close-mindedness of the Japanese school system, where teacher’s “don’t want to hear [his] opinion.” Junior high school does seem to stress repetition and retrieval of sanctioned information, rather than critical thinking. I think everybody (across the country) is expected to acquire basically the same knowledge, and not necessarily to analyze or dissect it. However, I’m not sure if this characteristic changes as the students age and move into high school. In a line that stood out for me, his teacher’s review presents the converse sentiment that the student has a “lack of patience and over-optimistic thinking.” I think the difference between the two comes from a lack of challenge for the student, who is eager to engage with English, not just reiterate required segments (‘regurgitate lifeless snippets on cue’ I would say in more polemical tones). He wants to practice speaking English, perhaps about real ideas relevant to his life, which actually happens very little in English class. I’m certainly not going to make any overarching comment on education in Japan being homogenous, suppressive, or ineffective. Yet, I think it unfortunate that a teacher should ever think a student ‘over-optimistic,’ his eagerness a ‘lack of patience.’

Randomata 1: Respect for authority and government control. The teachers in Hokkaido have had consecutive drastic pay cuts over the last several years (including one of 10%). Understandably, teachers are somewhat frustrated by the situation, considering their commitment and involvement at work has not lessoned accordingly. Months ago, at a conference of JETS (like me) and Japanese Teachers of English, one teacher took the opportunity to stand up and comment that the pay cuts were unacceptable and teachers should no longer work a minute past their contracted hours. Coincidentally, one of the managers from the Sapporo Board of Education was in the same seminar room and he directed a sidelong response that teachers don’t work as hard as they make it seem. You could feel the antagonism in the air, which is pretty much unthinkable here.
The teachers do have a union, but it is characteristically Japanese in key ways. Central tenets of life here seem to be acceptance of the status quo, respect for hierarchies of authority, and avoidance of overt social (and political) discord. Unsurprisingly, legislation bans disruptive strikes. I heard the word whispered amongst the teachers at my Junior High School. At my friend’s High School, the teachers took the only strike measure they could, again, one very characteristic of these hard working and devoted teachers:
After regular class hours (when they’d normally still be working), the teachers took 29 minutes to stop all work, have some drinks and cakes, and in such a way send a message to the government. Anything 30 minutes or longer would constitute an illegal ‘disruptive strike’. Their protest, then, did nothing to interfere with the educational system, and did not actually cause the authorities that much difficulty. Hopefully, if teachers continue to protest within their means, the government will lose face due to their undervaluing of teaching, a profession generally respected and prestigious.
In this place where respect for authority is paramount, a quiet struggle continues, an experiment to test the responsiveness of government to a largely docile populous. So, barring the threat of strike, what power has a union?