I look into Mia’s bloodshot eyes for the challenge.
And off we go.
Stroke for stroke.
Lap after lap.
Ten, twenty, thirty.
Keeping an even pace.
No sign of the other’s weakness.
Forty, fifty, sixty.
Tiring, but single-minded.
Who’ll be first to surrender?
Seventy, eighty, ninety.
I can hear, in my non-submerged ear, Mom calling.
But grumbling stomachs and dinner be damned.
Closing in on a hundred laps, Mom calls out again.
“Okay,” Mia gasps, “let’s stop at a hundred and four.”
Rejecting her offer, I push off once more.
And she follows.
Hundred and four. Hundred and five. Hundred and six.
Mark’s now standing poolside.
Tiny hands on tiny hips.
Dinner is getting cold and Dad is getting mad.
I call an immediate draw.
My opponent responds with a nod.
I climb out, expecting her to follow.
Instead, Mia slowly sinks back in the water.
And with an enormous grin,
pushes off the shallow end
for her victory lap.
With the orientation behind us, twenty-three of us boarded a plane bound for Miyazaki City, the capital of the prefecture where we would be employed. After landing, claiming our baggage, and moving as a nervous pack of science rats through a giant maze, fellow participants in the experiment began to scatter as each found their respective town representatives, or (if you insist on continuing with this analogy) “pieces of cheese.”
After exchanging strained and anxious smiles with Sam from across the room, I found myself chin to forehead with Yamamoto-sensei (sensei, meaning teacher), who will be working with me at one of the three middle schools I’ll be teaching at: Tonda, Nyuta and Kaminyuta Chugakko.
He was joined by two other gentlemen (Oki-Hosa and Kuranaga-kacho) from the Board of Education where I’ll be stationed before the school year begins and where I’ll have a desk when I’m not scheduled for a school visit.
If anything can be said about this unexpected detour from a hot shower and a deep sleep, it’s that I now have the bowing and proper greetings down flat.
I found quick comfort in the fact that these men seemed as nervous as I.
Although the town had been assigned an American AET the year prior, she was of Japanese-American descent and far less, “exotic-looking” than what had just walked through the airport gates. And what did they really know about this conspicuously-sized American gaijin (gaijin, meaning “outsider,” though if you ask most tactful Japanese, they’ll attempt to make it sound far less insulting).
We made it through introductions (Yamamoto-sensei acting as translator) and before there was time for an uncomfortable pause, the entire JET entourage was led into a large room at the airport for a press conference.
Despite the unexpected arrival of “Aunt Flo” (who had just barged onto the scene with a bloody vengeance), the completely overblown media attention, AND the overwhelming desire I had to slither from the scene, the televised event passed without international incident.
Afterward, the two cars they sent for me (in case I overpacked…which I did) were packed up and I settled into the back seat of the lead car.
Breathing a long sigh of relief.
Knowing I was soon headed to my new apartment.
Where I planned to unpack, unwind and sleep for an exorbitant amount of time.
As we headed north to Shintomi, the surreal nature of everything that had happened over the past week suddenly began to fade and the reality of the situation became as clear as the spotless windshield I was gazing out of as the Japanese farmland whizzed past.
Holy crap, Batman. I’m here… and for a year!
During the half hour ride, Yamamoto-sensei restlessly thumbed through my file – which I have since learned was copied and given to nearly every member of the Town Hall and nearly every teacher/faculty member where I’ll be team-teaching.
Who subsequently shared it with just about every member of the village who is old enough to read.
Yamamoto-sensei attempted to break the ice by asking a lot of questions about my life – marriage being near the very top of the list. In other words, at 27 years old, why am I not?
As attempts were made to keep the driver and passengers from experiencing a moment’s silence, I smiled, answered their questions, and occasionally gazed out of the car window as we whizzed past the scenery of Japan’s Pacific coast.
Thick and green to its very rocky edge in one place.
Long stretches of desolate beaches a few miles further along.
As we left the highway for smaller, narrower streets, I saw the coastal scenery quickly replaced by flat meadows, thick with yellow, creeping to the edge of a river.
On the other side of which – more yellow, stretching to meet a range of misty mountains.
Down the road a bit, as my tired gaze grew more gauzy and my hosts more comfortable in the silence, we passed one rice paddy after the next, neat and tidy.
Each patch perfectly reflecting the surrounding trees and tropics, sun and sky. Making my mind wander toward visions of patchwork quilts, windswept prairies, rows of young corn, “knee-high by the Fourth of July.”
Thoughts of home.
We passed fields upon fields of ripening vegetables – daikon and cabbage, sweet potatoes and carrots, each pungent and promising; and one watery channel after another where, Yamamoto-sensei explained, eels (a staple in Japanese cuisine and Shintomi’s economy) are raised.
As we passed a moist, green pasture scattered with grazing cattle, I noticed buildings appearing in greater frequency. First, it was merely a weatherbeaten, old farmhouse or outbuilding at the side of the road, but soon the streets began to fill with tiny shops and modest houses.
Faded but orderly.
Well-groomed and practical – if not beautiful – schools and offices playgrounds.
Yet amid the unassuming architecture, I noticed everywhere shadowy shrines and inviting gardens – the elegant undertones of customs and colors – which made me want to wander aimlessly and as soon as possible.
As we wound our way through town, all of the gentlemen in the car pointed at places of interest and of use, but I wasn’t really listening.
My mind was reeling with how utterly unfamiliar this was going to be from the last five years I spent floundering in Chicago.
I’m up for a World of different.
However, at this point in my adventure, the only thing I wanted to encounter was my apartment.
And a pillow.
My hosts had their own agenda.
First, I was paraded through the corridors of Shintomi’s Town Hall.
If anything could be said about this unexpected detour from a hot shower and a deep sleep, it’s that I now have the bowing and proper greetings down flat.
And this is no easy task, my friends, for there are many complexities which make up the Japanese Office Culture.
This industry of industry.
This world of uniformed workers, where business cards are handed out like handshakes and three-tiered greetings, as well as ceremonious departures are as much a part of life as crew cuts, white shirts, green tea, exercise, ties clips, white gloves, parasols and sensible shoes.
Walking through the town hall for the very first time, surrounded by my pint-sized, Board of Education posse, I was led into a machine gun round of official, formal introductions with every Head Hancho from every department.
The final, official, formal greetings of the day was at the Board of Education office where I’ll be working. There, I met the Superintendent, a soft-spoken man who quietly arrived, presented the rest of his staff, showed me my desk and then quietly disappeared into the crowd of curious bystanders.
So there I stood in my new office.
This peculiar environment of pushed together desks with thick, yellowing, plastic desk-protectors, folders, forms and neatly stacked file cabinets.
My new bosses and co-workers hovering silently nearby as I swayed with exhaustion.
I was soon whisked away by an expanded posse of SIX.
Both little, white cars now filled to capacity.
Added to the evening’s entourage are Board of Education staff members: a young woman, Akiko-san, a middle-aged woman, Yoshino-san, as well as Hiejima-kakaricho, the office’s chief clerk.
Within moments of leaving the Town Hall, our tiny parade pulled up to Shin Machi Shin Danchi and my apartment complex, which looks about as welcoming as a cell block.
With no traces whatsoever of the simple, elegance of Japanese architecture I’d envisioned for months prior to my arrival, I have to admit I was a little disappointed.
This disappointment was immediately vanquished when I saw I had little to complain about. My apartment is very spacious.
More room than I need, really, especially considering multiple generations of Japanese families regularly share one the very same size.
I have three rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom which boasts (there is a God) a good, ol’ sit down, Western toilet. I’ve quickly discovered that this is more of a luxury than I had ever, in my wildest dreams, imagined. I don’t know if this applies only to the more rural parts of Japan, but nearly everywhere I go and have to “go” I am forced to practice the fine art of squatting over a porcelain hole in the ground.
Because of this ungainly position, it’s probably fortuitous that someone, somewhere in Japan invented a little recording device for public bathroom stalls. Devices which has been designed to play music to veil the potentially embarrassing sounds associated with relieving oneself.
I’ve even heard the recording of a toilet flushing used for the same purpose.
As unaccustomed to squatting as I am (especially where no tent is pitched), bathroom visits have also become a muscle-burning workout, during which time the grunts and groans one hears emanating from my stall might be seriously misconstrued.
The Western toilet, however, is about the only thing familiar about the apartment.
Two of the rooms, divided by a screen, have tatami floors where I spend most of my time. Not only because this is where I unroll my bed each night, but because this is where my heating/ac unit is installed and being a sub-tropic region with cold winters and hot, humid summers this will surely be my favorite fixture in the apartment.
It certainly won’t be the florescent lighting installed in the ceiling of every room – the turning on of which casts a morbid pall over my complexion.
And my mood.
… nor will it be the Japanese-style bathtub.
What could be so different about a bathtub, you ask?
Ah ha, my friends, this isn’t the long, low receptacle we’ve all come to know and love; where one soaks in hot water and Mr. Bubbles after a grueling day.
The official story is that you’re not supposed to wash off in a Japanese-style tub at all, but suds yourself up outside the bath (which resembles more of a box), rinse, and then step into the tub for a soak.
Before any of this can happen, the water must be heated.
That’s right. After I fill the large, plastic box with H20, I’ve been instructed to ignite the pilot light (situated on the side of the tub), turn the dial to the desired temperature… and wait.
About 30 minutes.
The water in the kitchen also requires heating.
And there is no oven.
Only a two burner stove top.
A rice cooker.
And an itsy-bitsy washing machine that might be able to squeeze in one pair of jeans.
The grand tour of my new digs felt like a scene out of Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run.”
Convicts chained together.
The entire Shintomi Board of Education shuffling from room to room.
I began to feel the weight of the past days on my eyelids and was trying to figure out how I could gently persuade my gang to ‘git.
What was I thinking?
The seven of us piled back into the cars and headed off to a local restaurant for a welcome dinner. It was here I met Junko-san, a quiet, apologetic type, who’ll be assisting me in teaching a series of adult English classes at the Community Center.
She relieved Yamamoto-sensei of some of the translating duties as we dove into a feast of fresh fish and cold beer. This is definitely something I WILL NOT have to get used to. Every morsel and every sip of it was heaven sent.
Throughout the evening, I felt anxious glances greeting my every motion. Their unspoken curiousness and unasked questions were palpable. How would I handle hashi (chopsticks)? How long will it be before we can communicate with each other? How can she put away that much beer? How does someone of that size not collapse under the sheer weight of herself?
Actually, their genuine concern for my comfort was of great comfort.
The only instance that brought a moment’s worth of awkwardness was when I first sat down at the restaurant. As is customary whenever I sit on the floor, I crossed my legs.
Keep in mind, I was wearing shorts and tights.
I had failed to notice that all three women were sitting primly and properly on their knees, with their hands folded gently on their laps, and would have continued to be utterly ignorant of this unseemly, unfeminine posture had it not been for Yoshino-san, who approached me quietly from one side.
And slipped a handkerchief over my… how do I put this delicately?
Not a word was spoken about it (not that I would have understood it anyway) and I made an effort for the remainder of the evening to at least attempt sitting with my legs folded to the side.
I did try sitting on my feet in the same manner my female companions, but soon discovered that the leg flailing brought on by cramps caused by maintaining this position for more than 10 seconds would have proven far more embarrassing than an innocent, little groin shot.
When the dinner was over, I was relieved to learn that the women (Junko, Yoshino and Akiko) would be taking me back to my apartment, while the men continued celebrating my arrival at a local Karaoke bar.
The Karaoke bar, if you are not familiar with it, hails from these parts and can be found on nearly every corner of every community – large or Lilliputian.
They are usually small, dark establishments which serve (at least in Shintomi-cho) an array of alcohol – as long as it’s whiskey, shochyu (a local fermented beverage made from sweet potatoes) or beer.
A fixture in nearly every karaoke bar is the Mama-san. Usually in her 50s, dressed in a dazzling kimono or a baffling brocade suit (better suited for a sofa), caked in make-up without looking like it, this tiny, but near-terrifying presence lords over the bar with polite yet stern solemnity, making sure that patrons are well-served and, if over-served, rowdiness is kept to a minimum.
And then, of course, every Karaoke bar is equipped with music videos and microphones.
Now, the kind of music played here is not something a buck will buy you from an old juke box, but a series of sappy sounding, sing-along melodies played on a video screen, ranging from traditional Japanese ballads to obscure renditions of American Jazz standards.
At some point in the evening, each person (and EVERYONE is expected to participate) is handed a microphone and asked to sing their chosen song to a captive and politely captivated audience.
Sometimes you might find yourself standing on a small, spotlit stage and other times, you’re able to hide in a dark booth in the corner. Either way, you are socially obligated to belt out a tune.
For those of us not familiar with the traditional Japanese songs, most local establishments have a handful of Western melodies, such as “Yesterday” (Which, by the way, offers a five minute video of naked Japanese girls writhing on the screen); “My Way,” “Love Me Tender,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Moon River,” and the ever-popular, “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”
I wish I could say that I am able to perform this ritual in the unassuming shadows.
But that would be silly.
It’s become painfully obvious that I don’t go unnoticed doing anything – anywhere in Shintomi.
However, I’ve learned that the drunker my audience, the more appreciative they are.
And the drunker I am, the better I think I sound.
So I’ve learned to hold off on my song until the end of the evening.
With that said, my first evening in Shintomi finally came to a close.
As the men from my new office continued on with the celebration, Akiko, Yoshino and Junko brought me back to my apartment and after making sure I was settled in, left me on my own for the very first time since I set foot in Shintomi.
As soon as the door closed, my exhaustion morphed into nervous excitement.
I circled the apartment.
A few times.
I unpacked my things.
I called Sam, who was also feeling anxious and nervous.
Which made me feel much better.
So did a soak in the tub.
I soaked IN the sudsy tub for an hour.
Protocol be damned!
Then I tossed and turned on my futon until I heard a neighborhood rooster crow early the next morning.
At about 7 a.m., as I laid in my futon surveying my new surroundings, I heard some kind of nearby machine come to life in a series of clicks.
Followed by several bongs (and not the good kind).
And then a sickeningly sweet, yet strangely soothing voice of a woman who was wishing me (and from the sound of it, the remainder of the town), “Ohaiyo Gozaimasu” (Good Morning).
Still groggy from a restless night’s sleep, I couldn’t tell exactly where the voice was coming from, so I crawled from my bed and, assuming it to be emanating from somewhere outside, I opened the sliding door which leads out onto a small balcony overlooking the town.
I waited for the voice to speak again.
When it did, I realized that the voice wasn’t coming from the streets.
It was coming from my apartment.
So, I followed it until I found what I like to call the Clicky Machine mounted in the corner of the room just off the kitchen. The device, so I was later by Yamamoto-sensei, is used to warn the citizens of Shintomi of impending foul weather and such.
Foul weather or fair, it will act as a communal alarm clock each and every morning during my stay here.
So much for hitting the snooze button.
After slowly dressing and making some tea, I headed downstairs where, at precisely 9 a.m., Yamamoto-sensei arrived to take me to meet the mayor of Shintomi and more high ranking, local officials.
When we arrived back at Shintomi Town Hall, I was led into a reception room and there, with my introduction speech now soggy and crumpled in my hands, I waited with eight men and a local photographer.
Each silently watching my every move.
Shy smiles and nods of acknowledgement giving way to the only motion left in the room.
The clock’s second hand… ticking… away… the minutes.
Eventually, we were led into the mayor’s office where I would be welcomed with a short speech.
Followed by my feeble, yet remarkably long-winded “thanks for having me here” speech in both Japanese and English.
Followed by several campaign-style photo-ops.
When the preliminary formalities were concluded, I was motioned to have a seat on the mayor’s leather couch and in doing so made some unfortunate sounds as my perspiring thighs rubbed against unsympathetic upholstery.
Rattled and red-faced, I smiled weakly.
Then I noticed that each man in the room had a copy of my bio.
Nothing in there is going to get us through this any faster, my friends.
Thank goodness, the day ended with Akiko-san inviting me to a jazz festival in the neighboring town of Saito.
It was the fist time since arriving that I remembered to breathe.
I’ve never been so excited; while at the same time so petrified.
So far, I’ve met the Japanese Ambassador to the United States, the governor of Miyazaki prefecture and the mayor of the Shintomi.
They’re all at least five inches shorter than me.
Japanese is not an easy language to learn. Think of everything you know about our native tongue and… forget it. It doesn’t apply. However, I’m studying hard (ok, I’m studying) and I should be able to face the general Japanese public by sometime early next year.
The people of Shintomi are lovely and thoughtful.
But they only drive little, white cars.
I visited my first store in Shintomi on my own the other day to look for a reading lamp to replace the overhead florescent lighting installed throughout my apartment. I found a lamp, approached the counter and nervously attempted Japanese, but ended up playing a highly animated game of universal charades instead. I somehow managed to purchase the lamp, brought it home and – feeling a strong sense of accomplishment – plugged it in.
It’s frickin’ florescent.
I might have a chance at “romance” here having already been propositioned by two men.
Sadly, both were thirty years older… and about five inches shorter than me.
It’s Saturday night and I’m writing to you instead of being out there looking for aforementioned romance, or at least a little fun.
It seems Japanese women aren’t allowed too much fun.
I’ll be playing in a community volleyball tournament next week. This might be the only time my height will be advantageous.
The Japanese seem to have a million different rituals, gestures, sayings, etc.
Customs precede your every move.
Kindness and respect are not considered special efforts but are a given and vital part of daily existence.
At first these “givens” seem a trifle overwhelming – the greetings and the multiple “thank yous”, the blessings, the bowing and kneeling – even eating and drinking appear far too complicated. But as I begin to find my footing in these new surroundings, I’m learning to appreciate the grace in each motion and every saying.
I went to Miyazaki for yet another unremarkable JET orientation and then went shopping with Sam. Miyazaki has some fantastic clothing stores.
None of the clothes fit.
The town bought me a satellite hook-up so I can keep in touch with the happenings in the world on the English-speaking station.
I’m starting to talk to the television.
Everyone I meet wants to know how old I am, why I don’t wear make-up, why I’m not married, why I came to Japan, why I wanted to teach rurally, what I like to eat, what color are my eyes, what size are my shoes, how long are my legs?… Christ… didn’t they read my file?
I miss you all terribly and vow that if you don’t write soon I’ll throw myself into a boiling batch of miso soup.
I probably won’t drown because my head will be 5 inches above broth.
Day in and day out, for the last six weeks, upon returning home after a hard day of teaching English to the young minds of rural Japan, there’s an unmistakable twinge in my stomach each time I approach the mailbox, a desperate, glimmer of hope that when I open it-
– there will be at least one letter from at least one person who dares call me friend.
Much to my chagrin, I swing the door open and bend down, sweat falls into my already tear-stung eyes and the only thing I find inside is the faint echo of my last visit.
“Damn – damn – damn…”
“No letters – letters – letters…”
And I walk to the stairs of my apartment, sighing and crying.
Crying and sighing.
Look, when we said good-bye in July, I didn’t think it meant, “Talk to you when you get back.”
The only other thing that has frustrated me as of late is the language barrier. My understanding and ability to speak Japanese has improved, but only slightly. I just have to stop being so inhibited and so worried about saying something truly embarrassing, such as “Show us your package,” as opposed to “A pleasure to meet you, Prime Minister Kaifu.”
I do find, however, that after a few beers I can convince myself that I’m practically fluent and the words (as well as the often intense intonations of the language) come flowing out. My office got quite a kick out of the fact that I responded to a recent comment with: “Eeeehhhhh?” (To say this correctly, the voice should gradually rise several octaves. It’s kind of like the equivalent of our “Huh?” but, quite honestly, far more effective.)
At first I thought that working in an office where no one spoke English was going to be rather difficult, but I’ve discovered it’s to my advantage. Being forced to learn the language is both challenging and a great way to build relationships.Akiko-san, the young lady who sits across from me at the Board of Education, is trying hard to use English – everyone is – while I struggle with my Japanese.
She’s advancing at a much faster pace than me.
Nevertheless, I try not to get too discouraged and have to be content to learn a few new phrases each day. As it happens, going through my own struggles has made me better understand how I might be able to help my students learn English.
I’ve also been feeling rather lusty lately.
(Wow, where did that come from?)
As in most countries, the male populous of Japan has its share of toothless, pot-bellied, pock-ridden slobs who feel that if they’re going to take a chance on a woman it might as well be me, but man… some of the men here are so dang handsome.
Case in point, I met this incredibly good-looking elementary school teacher at a community volleyball game on Saturday who set my heart – as well as my lower regions – afire.
His name is Tanaka. He’s single, about my height (there is a God), and has a face that would surely launch a thousand sighs from you American women.
We met at a post-volleyball party as Yamamoto-sensei introduced me to each and every individual there. I was shaking hands, bowing, kissing babies and was nearly elected into office, before we got to this delectable, young teacher. The group he was with invited me to sit on the tatami next to him and although I preferred the idea of sitting on top of him, protocol forbid it.
Akiko-san snapped pictures while the hunky teacher and I chatted – or at least tried. He doesn’t speak much English. (Ask me if I cared.) Maybe I’ll send you all a copy of the aforementioned photo after I’ve had the negative blown up life-size. Come to think of it, maybe I’ll have it blown up a little larger than life so that he can be taller than me.
Many at the post-volleyball party departed soon after, including the man I now wished to father my children, so I spent the remainder of the evening eating and drinking and drinking and drinking with my employers, co-teachers and co-workers. Sam and another AET, Ted, arrived in Shintomi at about 6 p.m. only to find they were far behind. It wasn’t long, however, before their plates were piled high and glasses filled.
And kept filled.
It’s a Japanese custom never to let a companion’s glass get less than half full and they take this responsibility very seriously.Following the post-volleyball party was, of course, a visit to a local Karaoke Bar. There is NEVER only one event to attend when you go out in Shintomi and, I assume, Japan. In fact, you’re often expected to go to at least two more places before calling it a night. Even then, the men are often on their way to a fourth and fifth place.
While at the karaoke bar, my bosses and co-workers had their first chance to hear Sam sing.
God love her.
The sweet, utterly tone deaf diva.
At one point, a newcomer to the party (oblivious to Sam’s previous, ear-splitting performances that evening) moved to hand Sam the microphone. To my great astonishment, I watched several of my companions – who, as Japanese, seem culturally and morally obligated to urge EVERYONE to sing – jump from their seats to grab the microphone before the lovely, but terribly tortured songbird had the chance, offering excuses on her behalf.
Don’t feel too bad.
Sam continues to perform, unabashedly and unapologetically, every chance she gets.
After a while, Sam, Ted and I splintered off to a different Shintomi establishment where we encountered a wedding party celebrating, and where, by the end of the evening, I attempted to teach a young man in the party a truly conservative version of the Lambada.