Thursday, December 20, 2007

watership down

i'm heading home for a little holiday visit. talk to you when i get back!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


this morning was rainy, and i walked to school in all black and brushed into tiny phosphoresent blue insects flying slowly as they shared my umbrella. i thought they were fireflies, but i just looked up fireflies, and they're not. it's still finals, so i have a lot of free time. instead of rushing to eat my breakfast, i've been bringing it with me and eating it all morning long. it's cold out, so i don't want cold breakfast. ever since my lifelong love affair with cereal ended my third year in college, breakfasts have been a challenge. today my fellow teachers chuckled at how japanese my breakfast was: miso soup and onigiri. i never thought i'd get to the point where something wrapped in seaweed and rice tastes just as normal as something between bread. i mean seaweed has a flavor of the sea. that doesn't seem plain enough when you think about it, but it is. this morning's onigiri had steak and mayo inside, so it was basically a japanese-style roast beef sandwich. i've taken to eating much stranger things for breakfast too, if they're around...broccoli and macaroni and cheese, whatever. i just get so bored of toast and eggs. bagels are harder to come by than golden geese, or golden fleece, and my morning creativity ends there.

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

noah complex, or: the great potato massacre of '07

finally finals! five whole days of sitting at my desk knitting, drinking tea, and getting to go home for lunch, which i've just done. on the way back, i took scissors to that spider ceiling i mentioned yesterday. rather than get all those spiders in a froth by stretching taut their sticky web until it broke, i simply snipped in twain the important threads, and the spiders drifted gently to two sides. problem solved.
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 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

queen for a way

i know you are despondent from my long absence, dear reader, but i intend to rectify that directly. perk up your teary eyes!

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 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.
"What time?"
"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?"
he considers.
"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!"