Tuesday, December 11, 2007
today was depressing. it's rare i have a truly depressing day in japan, but for some reason, it just was. i sat at my desk and stirred the Big Black Pot of Undecided Futures. i tried desperately to sort out something clear about staying or going next year but got nowhere. i've never been so incapable of divining what i truly want. sure, it takes time for me to get mobilized for action, but usually i at least know what i want. maddening!
downcast, i returned home for lunch. tomato soup and grilled cheese cheered me up, as did some time away from my woes in the pages of a book. as i returned to the genkan to put my shoes back on and head back to school, i realized i forgot to change shoes on my way home and walked the whole way in my school slippers! i felt better the rest of the day.
this evening it occurred to me (i'm surprised it didn't much sooner) that trying to communicate here has been like one long, complicated game of charades and pictionary put together. instead of trying to act out or draw "jackhammer" or "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," you're trying to get people to guess things like, "my lactose-intolerant friend is coming over for dinner, and i forgot to get soymilk," or "this smell reminds me of visiting my aunt in texas when i was little," or "do women or men usually take the initiative in dating situations?" it's fun: a neverending game, and everyone plays!
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
japan is constellated by spiders. often they are pretty in their way, clouds of webs flecked by insects so tiny and formless that they look like dark little stars, green arachnid bodies floating in the outer space of visible galaxies stretching from telephone poles or garden tomatoes. but sometimes they are just gross. i rarely kill them anymore; there's just no point. they eat or at least compete for territory with bugs that are even more of a nuisance. i have literally seen a mukade caught in a spiderweb inside my house, and for that i will forgive them a great deal.
anyway, i went to a foreign food store last weekend, and when i came back and unloaded my bags on the kitchen table, i realized i had gotten exactly two of everything. the unconscious effort of shopping has on several occasions revealed to me things about my life i didn't notice before. in college, when i plunked various items from the bookstore on the counter, i realized red was my new favorite color--it was the color of everything i had chosen. i wonder if this sudden need to pair everything is a reflection of my desire to be part of a pair. or maybe i just like to stock up on beans.
i was going to ignore thanksgiving altogether this year and maybe head to tokyo, but it meant so much to me last year that emily planned a traditional dinner when i was still new to the expat business, and i figured some of the new people might feel the same. plus, i travel north constantly; i wanted the fun to come to me. the task of planning the event (and by default, cooking the turkey) fell to me, and it was my first one. i have a teeny-tiny convection oven and a two-burner stove; i was responsible for cooking a 12-pound turkey and enough sweet potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce to feed ten people. my mom was "cooking by email" the day before...giving me last-minute instructions.
i had to order the turkey online, along with several other things not widely available in the japanese countryside. because the typical japanese refrigerator is about 1/4 the size of a typical american one, people aren't really in the habit of storing whole poultry. when it arrived, i tried to fit it in my oven, and it was, uhh, a little tall. granted, it was frozen solid, but i was sure i was going to have to give it a slight chiropractic "adjustment" when it thawed...
turns out turkeys are more solid than i thought. though i leaned my whole weight on it, cpr-style, it didn't flex at all. i had to buy a special pan that b a r e l y fit in my oven so the top of the turkey wouldn't touch the heating element.
megan came over the night before to bake pumpkin pies. i made mom's fantastic, jammy (my new favorite word) cranberry sauce full of fragrant orange peel and walnuts. i also made sweet potatoes. sweet potatoes deserve a whole paragraph all to themselves, because they are my favorite thanksgiving food. the sweet potatoes native to this land are purple. they're not as moist or delicious as the orange ones, and last year when i tried to cook them for thanksgiving, they turned green in the oven (ghastly), and were dubbed ogre potatoes. not the kind of infamy i was hoping for. only once each year does the local store sell something which resembles the elusive orange sweet potato. i was waiting anxiously this year, hoping it wasn't a fluke, scanning the stores every three days or so. finally i spotted them! in my overwhelming excitement, i bought no less than fifteen potatoes. i felt light-headed with happiness.
megan and i were up till 1am making preparations the night before the party. the next morning dawned too soon, but we got down to business in the early afternoon.
i feel like i've watched my mom wash and prepare turkeys a hundred times, so in a way it felt natural, as natural as cold, raw birdflesh can feel. we stuffed, trussed, and squeezed that thing in the oven and slammed the door!
like a big, 3-D photograph, we had to dodge the top of the turkey with a big foil mask or "turkey hat" to keep the skin on top from burning, but check out the finished product!
the fun showed up, bearing other glorious food and drink, and we had a choreographed toast. the turkey was done on time, cooked through, and i had had two martinis by the end, so i carved like a maniac, literally. megan was an indispensable wingman. get it!? she made the entire three days possible and fun. considering my tendency to be a kitchen dictator, her graciousness throughout the weekend gave me a new appreciation for just how cool she is.
Monday, December 03, 2007
it's december. the colors have only just sharpened their exquisite edges on the blunt grey sky and then sliced through it, leaving red and yellow points waving in the afternoon sunlight. the weather has been wavering between golden, late fall warmth and hard, young cold which is more shocking, but less cruel, than true winter cold. i've started leaving my heater on all night, but i'm not quite to the point of cursing the day i decided to move to this country. i did finally take my coats and sweaters to the dry cleaner, something i've only been trying do for seven months or so.
for about two miraculous weeks, i was free of the puffy red allergy eyes, the scourge of my time here. i decided to take claritin to see if it would help (though last year it didn't seem to). after a week, it seemed to at least help me control my insane need to claw at my eyes. sadly i've run out, and already i look like the insomniac bag lady again. i really need to visit an allergist! (if only that were a more possible task, as there aren't any in these parts.)
my walk to school this morning was comfortable enough, except for the sly expansion of the spider ceiling over one part of my path that has lately threatened to brush the top of my head and cause an unparalleled freak-out. just inside the school grounds, the morning chill was pierced through with a beautiful fragrance, fresh and sweet, some invisible late blooms. i'm never able to find its source. i changed into my cold shoes (chilling all night in the outside locker) and headed into the school, remembering what it was like to feel alien here...it seems like a long time ago.
november evaporated in a surprising number of social events and one of the busiest seasons i've had at work yet. the longer i'm here, the more responsibility i get. it's less about pretending to teach and more about actually teaching, a change i burn for. one of my own great teachers said teaching was like building a bridge to help students traverse a long journey by a shorter and more direct path. to actually witness my instruction helping people cross some of those gaps is ridiculously satisfying. i know they hate when i lurk over their shoulders to see if they understand, but they are also happy and surprised when i chuckle at their clever answers.
it seems this season in my life has been about making connections, mostly with my students, and being humbled by my own feelings of ignorance. as you probably know, i love my students. i always have, but i haven't always been able to connect with them. it's hard to have a moment when you're communicating through a third party or piece-by-piece through a dictionary. however, after a year and four months of not studying japanese, i've acquired enough to have a sparse, but meaningful interchange with a high schooler. i'm starting to get them, and they're starting to get me. roll your eyes if you want, but it's beautiful. i finally have a rapport, a foundation, with a significant percentage of my students and feel comfortable thumping them on the back or giving them a hard time. they will actually ask me questions instead of always calling over the japanese teacher, and amazingly, i can sometimes answer their questions without help.
often the ways in which these connections form surprises me the most. one of the boys in my second year class, masahisa, has no interest in talking to me. at all. his friends yuya and dai-chan are my buddies, but he wants no part of it. last week, half the class burst into an impromptu round of stomping and clapping, instantly recognizable as a queen song. when they got to the chorus, i couldn't help chanting, "WE WILL, WE WILL ROCK YOU!" apparently shocking everyone. why!? it's an english song, guys. and how on earth do you know it? it was waaay before your generation. but this must've ratcheted me up on the ladder of coolness a notch, because after that masahisa and i had our first conversation, about queen.
one of my first years (first year's?), shingo (i just know my mom is laughing at these names; don't try and deny it, mom), has been looking up dating phrases in his electronic dictionary, which he then tries out on me in front of his class. first it was "smooch," which no one says but maybe your grandma, and then later, a much more sophisticated exchange, as follows:
"Are you busy tonight?"
"Yes, sorry, I am."
"Tomorrow I'm free."
"Would you like to go see a movie with me?"
he balks a little, then smiles.
"Uh, when does the movie start?"
he doesn't answer, as the class is laughing too loudly for him to hear the question.
finally i ask, "What movie?"
"OK!" i give him the thumbs-up.
the other teacher then adds, "He already has a girlfriend, what do you call that in English?"
i say, "two-timer!"
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
today i was writing 1-10 on the blackboard.
1 through 5 were ok (thank you preschool math), but then i hit a difficult patch: 6. 2. 8. 9. 10. what the...? in what universe? but to be fair (it's me, do we really need to be fair?) i was thinking "six, second, eight" which sounds a little like "seven" and the numerals have a resemblance too.
like every blogger, everywhere, i have some lovely stuff i haven't gotten to post yet, so think of this as the flashback that never happened the first time.
i was traumatized last week when i looked at the imdb pages for the two lead actors for the new show chuck! and realized that though i expected them both to be in their early thirties, they were, in fact, both younger than me. *gasp*
From Early September:
i was geared up for the school festival this year. i had my key places to hit: cotton candy stand, shaved ice stand, pudding stand. can you say "cracked-out on sugar"? what could i do; they sold out of curry early. i also wanted to see the tea ceremony again and watch my students' remake of The Terminator. there was an art show, a magic show, calligraphy, and many other fun things to see, eat and play.
here are the cotton candy girls. they kept shrieking "it hurts! it hurts!" when they had to add the sugar because hot pieces fly out and burn, but they kept dutifully on. the leader, the girl in the middle, always greets me with "LAUREN! OH! YEAH! YEAH!" to which i'm never quite sure how to respond.
then a close-up of my cotton candy. the hot, wet mouth of the sky was trying to eat it as fast as i was.
and though i tried to take some covert pictures from the window above, it seems i am never hard to spot.
From Late August:
in japanese, fireworks is 花火, literally "flower fire." this is my lucky second year to witness the phenomenal event that puts my town on the map--the annual august 17th fireworks display. last year it was raining, and it was marvelous nevertheless. this year the weather was clear, and an unbelievable 190,000 people showed up to see it (town's population normally: 20,000)! people book train tickets early, and kara and i were barely able to squeeze onto a standing-room only train for the two hour ride from tsu where we had been helping with the new JETs orientation. we watched the thermometer in the overburdened car (usually cool with air conditioning) creep to over 91 degrees. my long legs were awkward crouched painfully on the floor, but a kind old man practially sitting in the lap of another stranger made a little space for me to stretch them out. forget going to the bathroom, i think someone must have been sitting in there too!
it was worth it, of course. we had a surprising number of new JETs show up, and we all enjoyed reclining on the beach with explosions in the sky. the highlight was the immense single firework that made all the others seem piddling and small. they said they wouldn't count it down since last year it had failed to go off, so we waited...the resulting fireball and sonic boom flattened us spectacularly! below is a video taken by my best teacher friend. about halfway through the clip, the announcer says "mamonaku desu" which means "any time now." my friend forgot to turn the camera off, she was so busy shrieking and clapping.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
without meaning to, i keep tabs on the minute, rarely consequential, details of the world around me. it's like the scrolling headlines on the news, but instead of "President chokes on brussel sprout...Starbucks stock plummets," it's more like, "...Mr. Y is wearing loud pants again...Mr. T got his hair cut too short and looks like a shaved warthog...Ms. M is wearing glasses instead of contacts today...two second year students are pretending to be sick so they can go home...a dead bee is stuck inside the glass cabinet...one of the office girls is delivering mail...Mr. S just got up for more tea...Ms. F put the tape in the player on the wrong side, so it may record over something important...Mr. S is talking to that other guy who looks like a PE teacher but isn't..."
i can't stop taking it all in. if you know me, this is why i get so worn out from shopping malls. there everything is made to compete for your attention, so it's like a million things are stuffing themselves into my eyes and ears at once. the only time i get real relief from this part of myself is when i'm sick, and head colds are the best. i came down with one yesterday.
i smile absently. talking is heavy and breathing is audible. my hearing slips inward, can't really follow the outside anymore. just a slow, dull blur of sound, distant. things move across my eyes, my vision is also inward. i feel my heart beating slowly and thoroughly throughout my body.
i could listen to it in my head all day. hands and feet are warm for once. my body is totally relaxed, staring into space, overjoyed to be still and lay here agape on a pile of tumbled blankets. my mind is hardly moving at all, so i’m easily and comfortably entertained by the dust motes floating by in sunlight.
on my lunch break i just sat on the loveseat for fifteen minutes feeling wonderfully, stupidly relaxed and thought two thoughts the whole time, after which i almost fell asleep. i would happily have succumbed, but i had to shuffle back to school.
last night i took some nyquil to help with the faucet nose, and i woke sluggishly with a nyquil hangover. i mumbled around with my eyes half closed, well, one completely closed, and fixed my tea, heated some scones, and then started to sit down under my kotatsu. i flipped the blanket back a little and saw the writhing red body of a fat mukade!! cue horrified scream. instantly my nyquil hangover was incinerated in adrenaline. that got my eyes open.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
our weekend was characterized by a new and miraculous sensation for me~~that of knowing where we were and where we were going. we seemed to stumble easily onto the doorsteps of places for which we were searching, and we navigated the subways without a hitch. i guess i have learned something this year.
our first hotel was of the standard business variety. incredibly clean (they should call it japanese clean, 'cause it's a special kind of clean that you've never seen in america and can only try to imagine) and well-equipped. we arrived about twenty minutes before our check-in time and were offered a place to store our luggage, but they basically told us to get lost for the remaining nineteen minutes, so we pretty much just stood outside until it was time. everyone, meet my new friend danielle.
here's the bathroom with standard items: a dispenser with shampoo/conditioner/body wash, a razor, comb, toothbrush, and a toilet that will wash your butt if you want.
here's the nice, firm bed. (hear that mom? something else you'd love!) the comforter and carpet (often neglected in american hotel cleaning...i know, i was a maid) were without even a hint of previous-occupant ickiness.
the other amenities: a safe, tea maker with free tea, hairdryer, the book of buddha and the new testament, a flashlight charging under the desk, a tv, and a refrigerator. women (and women only; the website was very specific) got a bag of cosmetic samples upon check in, but we'll get to that later.
one special feature of this hotel is you must plug your room key into the wall to get the lights to work, as so:
the other special feature is the view of tommy lee jones out the window. he's in a series of very hilarious tv commercials for boss coffee. numbers 4 and 5 are my favorite...(for "lainbow" mountain)
we dove into a lovely evening. dotonbori was bright and full of people. we met kara and her mom at the best mexican restaurant in osaka, hermanos, and stuffed our faces. then we did some pre-shopping shopping and finally retired to try out our cosmetics bags.
we dressed up in the hotel pajamas and readied our faces with the provided hairband. we felt very laverne and shirley and took several really bad pictures that just make me look like a giant with three boobs. the so-called "essential" oils of the face wash got in our eyes and stung in that chemical burn kind of way. we tried to soothe our angry skin with the wet paper towel jason mask, but mostly we were just glad when it was over.
the next morning we headed out early to shop. even more hardcore were the people lined up waiting to be assaulted by pachinko. some highlights were:
an "only in japan" moment--anti aging scrub for your knees.
some HO~~TT boots for a mere $1300.
and some tuff faux leather jackets.
after that we checked into the capsule hotel! capsule hotels are only recently making areas where women can sleep, and as such, often the women's (womens'?) quarters are less nice than the men's. though still "japanese clean," our floor of capsules was on the basement level, so zero windows. boo. and the poor lighting didn't alleviate that basementy feel.
you get two keys, one to the auto-locking threshold through which men are absolutely not allowed (as you're free to roam naked from locker room to make-up room to capsule to bath if you so desire), and one to your locker. provided were hotel pajamas, curry yellow towels (clearance sale?), and a body sponge. the keys are on a neck cord so you can put on your one-size-fits-all PJs and look like a PE teacher too!
the capsule size was far from claustrophobic, though bear in mind, i chose to be buried underground for two hours as a performance art piece:
romping in capsule land:
the wicked witch watches TV:
lastly, and most brilliant of all, we shopped in what are called the lolita stores...shops overflowing with fluffy lace and ribbon-bedecked dresses of exquisite quality. i had hoped to find one of these frothy confections for my very own, but the girls at Baby, The Stars Shine Bright were less than friendly, and i felt very downcast after that. neverfear, though, the girls at Angelic Pretty were much sweeter, and i found a dress that i just had to have. i've been in love with white for a few years (thanks Apple), and my new dress is fashioned of white velveteen. it feels amazing to wear, and i spent so much money that i (gulp) could barely afford the train ride back home.
i've been bitten, though. i. am. obsessed with these dresses and check the websites daily to see what new ones have been posted. it's very alice in wonderland: wacky, feminine, and a little bit magic.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
the leaves are still firmly grasping their trees, but something is starting to smell nice and smoky. i made pumpkin soup last night, and it was marvelously silky. autumn is my favorite time to cook.
on the school front, i finished my week in a delicious uproar. we were reviewing body parts, going over what each finger was called in english. ms. murakami, the other teacher, asked, "what is this finger called?" and pointed to her middle finger. the super-cute eager boy in the front row chirped out "f*ck you!" i almost had a heart attack laughing. they don't understand what these things they've heard on movies really mean, but they're trying so hard to make any connection and blurt it out, for which i am eternally grateful...after some blatant dicionary-checking to figure out why exactly i was turning so red with hilarity, we tried to move on. she wanted me to act "dizzy" so the students could guess what it meant. after some guesses like "feel bad!" and "ill!" one boy finally yelled out "CRAZY!" which i suppose is how i actually looked leering this way and that. finally, as we performed a short dialogue about illness, ms. murakami was supposed to say, "It'll make you feel better," but instead she said, "I'll make you feel better." and we lost it again! i pantomimed a sexy walk repeating, "I'll make you feel better!" which cracked up the rest of the class even though they were still trying desperately to figure out what i had said.
ahh, fun with english.
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
one day i came home to a business card slipped in my mailbox. i ignored it.
the next day, as i was walking home, a man passed me on the path and asked politely if i was miss carroll. after my affirmative (i was all excited to get a package or something), he launched into a marvelous self-introduction characterized by polished bows and all the grandeur he could muster on a cheery spring day halfway up the hill to my house. he was a banker, my banker, apparently. my banker who rides a moped (snicker). he wanted to tell me some marvelous new thing to do with my money or maybe how to get the whitest whites, but my blithely uncomprehending face put him off pretty quick, and i've never heard from him again.
this was equally effective against the jehovah's witnesses.
Sunday, September 30, 2007
i seem to be better now, though i'm oddly twitchy at night, and i haven't been sleeping very well. however, i have a big weekend to osaka planned, and nothing will keep me down! my new friend danielle (who is actually my age, bonus!) and i will be staying in a capsule hotel, so i'll make a full report. i'm so excited to finally check that off my list! planning this trip necessitated my First Entirely Japanese Phone Call, and i'm proud i emerged unscathed. not so last week when steph called me from the waxing salon hoping i could converse with the bikini waxing lady about something mysterious. i really wish i knew what she said, 'cause that's bound to have been an interesting conversation!
Sunday, September 23, 2007
i also decided it was high time for me to nerd up in the nerd army and become one of the thousands of other foreigners in japan who read manga. manga are graphic novels, in japanese, and they're ridiculously popular among high school students. i decided i would benefit in several ways. i'll be able to relate to my students better (that's a huge motivation, 'cause that's one of the best perks of my job), and it will improve my conversational japanese ('cause they write it how people talk, not how reference books talk). the illustrations are pretty incredible too. i dived in last night, armed with my pencil and kanji dictionary and made it deep into the third page. woo-HOO, i'm cruising now! yeah, i'm slow, but hey, it's laborious looking up 75% of the words on every page. imagine reading a book like that. but i'm stalwart when it involves art and language. here is the title page and an excerpt from my first ever manga: Ouran High Host Club.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
this morning i was disturbed by a very obvious white patch of skin above my left eyebrow that wasn't there yesterday. i mean, whiter than the rest of my western european-ancestored face. skin cancer? not likely. i mean, hell, i haven't seen the likes of some good ol' fashioned vitamin D since i was in high school. and that was (ahem) ten years ago, or so i've been told. i then realized that, no, i didn't have that monster-making pigmentation diease with which michael jackson was supposedly stricken, i was simply peeling from a surprisingly fierce sunburn. this is a memento from two full days under sun on grass, and in spite of copious sunscreen applications.
our two day trip to awaji island (first time off honshu) had all the makings of an epic. we got up at the ungodly hour of 2:30 am and drove a twisty turny road through the mountains of nara. we had breakfast, already ragged, at a rest stop with a ferris wheel and a view of the awaji bridge. and then they played soccer all day, suckers, and i watched and screamed and shook my homemade pom-poms.
that night i walked to a party much too far away for my amateur high heel gait. the sultry air was just perfect for my strapless dress, though, and i got a whispered compliment about my hair that was quite unexpected. it was a little too three bears for me, though. this bar is too quiet, this one too loud. this one has too few people, this one too many. this one has no dancing, and in this one, the DJ sucks. i had a good time, but i didn't stay out late, and rather than break my face or my feet, i slipped off my shoes and walked back to the hotel with jill.
the ride home the next night was even worse than the drive up. after two full days of cheering in the elements, we piled into a car bound for a three-hour traffic jam. after we emerged from that mess, worn out and not certain about our path home, we chanced to meet a rainstorm that would keep us on the edge of our seats all the way home. you see, this particular road is prone to rock slides which take enormous chunks of the road down the side of the mountain (and cars too, if they're there), and a downpour like fake movie rain doesn't help. quiet and tense, we slalomed down the mountain past the construction where the last fatal rock slide was. there was so much water everywhere, but kara and i both gasped when we passed an unbelievable, violent torrent on one side...and it was only the first one. that's when i was truly scared. she drove like crazy to get us off the road before the whole thing washed away, but i was also afraid of hydroplaning. it was a delicate balance. we arrived home around midnight, and i practically wept.
i reject "gray" as a viable spelling of this word. i mean gray is too broad, no gravity, all overblown hand gestures and monotony. now grey is a word that's squinting its beady black eyes. it could be the color of a mean sky or the dense fur of a wolf with its eyes trained on you and its hackles raised.
"got up" is a generous idea. in reality we whipped our underslept carcasses into some clothes and stumbled through the mist into dark cars.
another romanticization. this road is so twisty, half the time you're heading back the way you came. every drippy, endless tunnel from which you emerge has a 90 degree turn so you can never see what's ahead, nor can you see the alleged light. it feels like you're driving straight to hell, and it looks like it too.
a fancy term for Crushing Freefall Of Death.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Monday, September 10, 2007
however, the puppeteers of humor have been handing me some lovingly-wrapped bits of crazy, so those will have to amuse you until i can ink out some words of my own.
the panky was actually pretty good for japanese chocolate and gave our sleepover party some "just on the brink of a sexy pillow fight" credibility. supposedly it has twice-baked bread crumbs inside (read: crunchy bits, which megan said felt like chewing glass), and the best part is this particular variety is "mild bitter Panky." while we were having our giggles, the innocent little kittens of japan were getting addicted to:
CATSMACK! buyer beware.
Saturday, September 01, 2007
[amendment: they changed it so we don't have to work tuesday. phew!]
yesterday my school had it's chorale and band performances. the gym was hot, and all the fans waving in people's hands looked like the flicker and flutter of enormous butterfly wings.
we also had sports day, something totally perplexing to me last year, since it wasn't really "sports" as much as team games and races. since i knew a lot of the students this year, it was much more exciting, and i may even have cheered a little bit.
starting the day off with a bang...they have no idea that this looks like "heil hitler."
the left front boy is one of my favorite students, hakuma, dressed up in a wig and makeup. japanese boys make surprisingly hot japanese girls. he was even stroking the ends of his hair in a convincingly girlish fashion.
i love that these kendo uniforms are so usual...just a typical japanese thing. they look awesome!
here's a relay race about keeping the ping-pong ball in the ladle.
and here's some actual muscle and speed. the guy smiling is kei, another of my students. i have never ever looked this happy while running.
most badass of the day, however, is always the traditional clothes they wear. i mean, i know they're high school boys and everything, but wow! takayuki on the left requested jokingly in class that i call him "master taka," so i do. he also asked me what "lol" means. oh the wealth of knowledge i provide.
and the parting shot: a big group of my best boys hang out by the train station every evening. after their big sports day, i asked if i could take a picture, thinking they'd shrug and let me, but instead they leapt into action!