Just West of the Midwest Chapter 3: Dazed and Confused

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Photo by acfrohna

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.

Initial Observations:

  • 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.

You think I’m exaggerating.

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Just West of the Midwest Chapter 4: The Finer Points of Flop Sweat

First thing this morning, I’m driven to the Community Center where, before the onset of their annual Tsunahiki (Tug of War), I’m to greet all 1,000 middle school students whom I’ll be teaching this year.I knew I’d be expected to say something to the young crowd, but I’d been so preoccupied with coming up with a speech for my meeting with the mayor and an upcoming conference in Miyazaki, that I arrive at the center completely unprepared.

Being August in this sub-tropic region it is sweltering and because of my very strong desire to cover up my psoriasis, I’m completely overdressed.  So, by the time I step foot into the packed gymnasium, I’m dripping with sweat.

I don’t mean perspiring.

I mean DRIPPING with sweat.

There are beads of perspiration pouring down my face. stinging my eyes, soaking my top and drenching my hair.

Leaving me longing for a handkerchief.

Or better yet, a very large bath towel.

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This is how my day felt… I’m the one with the horns. (Student/Teacher artwork)

As I stand to the side, trying desperately to pay attention to the speeches being given on my behalf, literally quivering with anxiety over what I’m going say, I look down to the shiny, polished wooden floor at my feet and am aghast to see an actual puddle of nerves.

I fidget with my damp shorts. I fuss with my wristwatch.

I feel the unrelenting urge to weep and long for a cool, dark place to hide.

Dizzy with heat, I hear my name. It sounds like it’s being spoken underwater.

Akiko-san (who’s been standing at my side, attempting to sooth my conspicuous distress with her sympathetic smile) gently nudges me forward.

Legs still wobbling, I step toward the microphone.

First step.

You can do it, Anne.

Second step.

There’s nothing to be nervous about.

Third st-

The next thing I know, the customary slipper I’ve been required to slip into before stepping onto the pristine gymnasium floor, is catapulting ahead of me into the first row of the surprised student crowd.

Some duck.

Others giggle.

I cringe as I retrieve my footwear from the first row and turn back to the microphone. It feels like I’m walking in the shallow end of a pool.

I search desperately for the very first words I’d speak to my students.

“Ohaiyo gozaimasu,” I stutter into the microphone as the sound of my shaky voice reverberates off the gymnasium walls, mocking me.

“Atsui, desu ne? [Hot, isn’t it?].” I stammer, attempting to laugh.

Nothing but silence.And a lot of staring.

I introduce myself in Japanese, apologize for my poor grasp of the language and stand there before the hushed crowd, trembling.

Grasping for words.

Even my native tongue evades me.That is, until I hear myself say, “I expect to see you all in class with smiles on your faces.”

At which point I bring my index fingers to the corners of my mouth and actually pull up a smile.

A freaky, sad clown smile.

What an idiot.

What deafening silence.

I quickly thank everyone and as I’m returning to my place… I slip on my very own puddle of flop sweat, just barely averting an ass plant, yet propelling the very same slipper into the hushed and bewildered crowd of teachers and administrators standing behind me.

So much for first impressions.

As the students disperse and regather into their tug-of-war groups, I make my way back to Akiko’s friendly, forgiving smile and signal her to lead me to the nearest bathroom.

There, I stick my head beneath the sink and unsuccessfully attempt to drown myself.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 5: All in a Day’s Week

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-

“Creeeeaaaaak!”

– 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.”

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This is how I feel each time I approach my mailbox. Student/Teacher storyboard artwork.

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.)

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At the Board of Education office with Akiko-san.

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.

Everyone is.

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.

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Yamamoto-sensei (raising his glass) at the Community Center volleyball tournament. photo by ac frohna

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.

I think I made a new best friend.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 6: My Town of Shintomi Board of Education Family

Considering these are the folk I spend most of my time with, I thought it might prove helpful to offer a quick run down of My Town of Shintomi Board of Education Office Family: Kuranaga-kacho (above left) is the office’s section chief, a tiny, little, married man with coke bottle glasses. He is the “Papa-san” of the office. He has a devilish sense of humor and a HUGE heart. He is quick to smile, to test me and to tease me. When he and I spend time together, I’ve noticed his facial expressions vacillate somewhere between unabashed bewilderment and downright delight.

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photo by ac frohna

Oki-Hosa (above right) is the Assistant Section Chief. He is the family’s nerdy, forty-something uncle with a buzz cut, a big, persistent, genuine smile and an almost noiseless laugh – nearly imperceptible without seeing his facial expressions and body movements. Married with children in some of my classes, Oki-Hosa has a penchant for doing everything by the book and has made it clear that as Assistant Section Chief, I am officially HIS responsibility.

In his mid-thirties and married, Hiejima-kakricho (above center) is the Board of Education’s Chief Clerk. He is reserved in his words, his smile and his sense of humor. All of which are alive and well, yet wielded at the most unlikely moments.

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Yoshino-san (above right) is the office Mama-san, with a small but sturdy build, a boyish hairstyle, but a natural, feminine grace. She is single, thoughtful, quick to laugh and quick to scold. She is stern but nurturing and as loyal – and protective – as an old bulldog.

Akiko-san (above right of me) is the youngest in the office. She is single, has a slight frame and what seems to be common among Japanese girls and women, a page boy-style cut. She is sweet and soft-spoken, but has a sly, sisterly wit. She’s been my local tour guide, a kindly tutor in all things Japanese and an excellent friend. I surprise her often, frighten her a little and make her laugh. A lot.

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Tomioka-san (above with me) is Head of the Town Hall’s Computer Department. Even though he is not part of the Board of Education, Tomioka-san is a regular face in our office due to the fact that his office is just down the hall. He is the “cooler”, more laid back uncle, the family’s “black sheep” who shuffles rather than steps and always has a cigarette dangling from his left hand. He thrives on distracting people from their work with a joke, or a story. He always looks like he needs a haircut and would clearly prefer to be somewhere – anywhere – but at work in his office. He never fails to make me laugh.

I was given a load of praise from my bosses this week. They seem quite pleased with my performance thus far, despite the sleeveless top I wore to a recent school function. I’m quite sure my popularity has a little to do with the fact that Shelly, my predecessor, was apparently a very private individual. It seems she didn’t go out very often and, much to everyone’s chagrin, she also didn’t drink.

I do both.

Happily.

Not that that should matter. But if the truth be told, a little alcohol goes a long way to relax people, take down inhibitions and let go of experience-stealing insecurities; and honestly, even though this job is important to me, even more important is that I grab all the experiences I can while I’m here. What better way than to immerse myself in the lives of the people who surround me? So, when they ask me to join them, I do.

Otherwise… what’s the point of leaving your own backyard?

It’s a lovely feeling knowing that I have an entire community looking out for me (not just my office) and although the attention isn’t always easy, it’s never unappreciated. At least not yet.

Even though they feed me and feed me and feed me.

And then worry I might gain weight.

They praise me, encourage me and gently correct me when they feel I’ve gone astray.

They also guide me, direct me and lead me, for fear I might lose my way. If I have to go to the post office, someone accompanies me. If I have to meet an electrician at my apartment, two people tag along. When I had to go to Miyazaki for yet another orientation, Yoshino-san took the train with me, using the excuse she had errands to do in the city.

They do, however, let me go to the bathroom on my own. Ironically, this is where I would most like a female companion due to the fact that men and women share the same bathroom on my floor at the town hall. The women do have stalls, but in order to get to them, one has to pass by the urinals.

Go figure.

Thankfully, a new building – with separate bathrooms – is under construction as we speak.

But I’m truly grateful for the caring guardianship. It’s a far cry from what several of my JET colleagues have been going through. Poor Jeremy (a super lovely fellow from New Zealand), for example, has been having a really bad time with his host town. He and another AET, Janelle, have not only been systematically ignored by their office (hardly having a word spoken to them thus far), but are being given few school visits and are left with little to do each and every day. Add this to the fact that on the very first night of their arrival, the officials in charge dropped the two off at empty apartments, with no futon, no bedding, no furniture and, most certainly, no welcome dinner party.

Jeremy said his heart left for home that very night.

How could you possibly blame him? Very sad. I feel very welcome and wanted here. They make me feel as if we’re all in this together. Which makes me feel as if maybe I’m not that far from home, after all.

All in all, the initial fears I felt since all of this began have slowly melted away. We’re discovering that despite the vast differences in our lives, we come from the same world where people laugh when something’s funny and cry when something’s sad. Where the sun rises in the morning and sets at night.

The only difference for me is that around each corner, at the start of each new day, with the learning of each new word, I’m greeted by a new adventure and filling the void I’ve been feeling in my life for so long.

Not-So-Side Notes:

  • I began classes last week and found my students very noisy, but anxious to listen. Let’s see what happens after the novelty of my first few visits and the excitement of hearing about where I’m from wears off. I’m quickly learning how very important the teacher is to the fabric of the Japanese family. Parents look for guidance and advice from their children’s teachers and welcome regular home visits. Together, they talk about everything from behavioral and familial issues to future goals and expectations. Teachers are highly respected in Japan – revered even – and rewarded with high salaries and excellent benefits.
  • There is an undeniably military feel about the Japanese School system. Not only in how tighty things are run, but even in how things look. Especially with regard to the students.The typical boys’ elementary school uniform is black pants, a white shirt, white tennis shoes and a black Nehru jacket. Even their serviceman-style buzz cut reeks of the armed forces. Girls’ uniforms may vary in color, but the theme is always nautical in nature, complete with sailor tops, pleated skirts, as well as the quintessential Page Boy cuts.
  • Fascinating to me is the fact that all of my students are responsible for cleaning their schools. Each day, the entire student body grabs their assigned mops, buckets, rags, etc., and clean the classrooms, bathrooms, the offices and hallways. They wash blackboards, scrub floors, scour toilets, empty trash. I think it not only offers a sense of pride – ownership – of their school, but it also teaches one to respect the process and all it takes to make things work.
  • There is a strong sense of community, and an even stronger sense of conformity woven into the fabric of Japanese culture.Yet I can see inklings of revolt in the younger generations. Slight and more than slightly tinged with likeness. But change is coming and the desire for individuality, perfectly understandable.
  • I saw a rugby match last weekend. Pant, pant, pant. Grunt, sweat, grunt. (And that was just me watching from the sidelines.) I went to the event with Akiko and, afterward, we chatted with her Rugby friends who invited us to a party. It was at that very moment that Akiko helped me to understand something I read about the Japanese culture before arriving, but was not sure I understood.Their reluctance to say, “No.” I jumped at the party invitation and turning to Akiko, asked if she wanted to go. With a look of absolute terror on her face, she said the word “hai” (or yes), but was shaking her head “NO!”  I was confused. I was stymied. Eventually, I took the international symbol of frantically jerking one’s head left to right, then right to left, and so on, as the stronger of the conflicting responses. Afterward, as we climbed into Akiko’s car, she let out a nervous giggle. Followed by a reeeeeeeally looooong sigh of relief. I knew then I had made the right decision.
  • I went to a Benneltons in Miyazaki and saw lots of cute clothes. Unless I can amputate 30 pounds and several inches from my body, I won’t be buying anything of them.
  • I received word from DePaul University. I passed my comprehensive exams and officially have my Master of Arts in English. And there was much rejoicing.
  • Sam and I decided on either Bangkok, Singapore, or Burma, for our two weeks off during the Christmas break. Wherever we go, we hope to find long, deserted beaches, stores that carry clothes our size and men who know how to follow through on flirtations.
  • I attended a Kendo (Japanese fencing) lesson because I thought I might be interested in learning this ancient art. I quickly learned I would be consistently hit on the head with a bamboo pole. Maybe I’ll try Kyudõ (archery).
  • If anyone cares to send a care package I would love to have a decent sized towel. The ones I find here barely wrap around my head, let alone any other part of my body. Also sparse in these parts: decent toothpaste, effective deodorant, ingredients for pasta sauce, good music, Woody Allen’s “What’s Up Tiger Lily?” AND, of course, LETTERS!
  • I’m desperately trying to get used to having to constantly remove my street shoes (be it school, office, or someone’s home) for a pair of incredibly unattractive rubber slippers which I regularly launch ahead of me into the path of innocent bystanders.
  • I met a Major based at Nyuta Baru Air Force Base here in Shintomi and he’s invited me to visit. Let’s see… me and hundreds of American Fly-boys. What to do, what to do…
  • Although I don’t have to make a decision until December, I’m thinking I might sign up for another year.
  • I went to the beaches of Kojima with Sam and Ted where we saw wild monkeys. When the tide was out, the three of us walked out to the island where the monkeys live. Beautiful, but slightly stressful knowing our adventure had to be timed with the tides, otherwise we’d be spending the night with our primate pals.The beaches were stunning and almost completely deserted except for a very kind and generous family who shared their picnic and their jet ski.
  • I was recently invited to a chicken farm where I was gifted a dozen freshly laid eggs. The gesture brought a tear to my eyes. Or was it the tons of pungent chicken shit wafting through my nose?
  • How about that crisis in the Middle East?
  • Also heard about Stevie Ray Vaughan… bummer.

Juat West of the Midwest Chapter 7: School Days

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Meeting some of my students at Nyutabaru Air Force Base Air Show. Photo by acfrohna.

With school in full swing, my teachers and I seem to have gotten our routines down. That’s not to say I have the same regimen for each teacher.

Far from it.

In fact, my teachers’ classroom styles are as different as their personalities.

At Tonda Chugakko, the largest and most centrally located of the elementary schools, there is Yamamoto-sensei. If you remember, I met him during the very first moments on Kyushu soil. Yamamoto-sensei seems to be the senior English teacher in the Shintomi School District and he certainly has the most commanding presence, despite his diminutive dimensions.

Probably in his late 50s, Yamamoto-sensei is always well-groomed, always dressed in a white shirt (well worn, but well pressed), tie and slacks. His mastery of the English language is excellent and although his teaching style tends to be a little too formal for my liking (and I’m quite sure his students would agree), he’s well respected and liked – at least by me. Before each class, he goes over what the students are expected to learn that day and how I’ll be participating, which usually entails clarifying pronunciations and taking part in dialogues.

Unfortunately, most of the dialogues do little to detour from the terrible textbooks the students are forced to learn from. However, he’s NEVER ONCE made me feel unwelcome or unwanted.

And he’s quick to smile.

Especially when he sees how the students light up when I enter the classroom.

Hatekeyama-sensei is the other English teacher at Tonda. Probably in her early forties, she has a lovely round face that reflects a rather happy individual.

Full of giggles.

Full of life.

And from what I’ve seen, full of love for and from her students.

When necessary, she can also scare the crap out of misbehaving students (and me for that matter) when her gentle voice and pleasing demeanor turn in a flash to booming and formidable. Thankfully, she’s never had a harsh word for me. In fact, before each class we have together, we sit in the teachers’ room and chat.

And laugh.

A lot.

Not only does Hatekeyama-sensei carefully go over what we’ll be doing in class that day, she also gives me freedom to create my own dialogues, stray from the formal class routine and follows my often unscripted plan with a grace and gaiety that I find delightful and inspiring.

Hashimoto-sensei is the English teacher at Kaminyuta Chugakko, the smallest and most rurally located of my schools. I would have to guess that she is in her sixties  – even though her dyed jet black hair tries to hide it – maybe 4’9″ (on tippy-toes) and very near retirement.

Every day I’m scheduled to participate in her classes, she picks me up at my apartment in her tidy, little, white car. Barely able to see over the steering wheel (and that’s with the use of a pillow), Hashimoto-sensei very slowly and very, very cautiously drives past rice fields and forests to the modest but well-kept elementary school far from town.

I love our little journeys together.

She’s not only very kind and very thoughtful, she is also very accepting of my presence.

Even though she has the worst grasp of English of any of my teachers.

Yet this has never intimidated her – even during our first couple of classes together when nerves and language barriers could have set us on the wrong path.

When she saw that I wasn’t there to judge, expose or condemn her, she gained confidence.

Now, Hashimoto-sensei wears her broken English like a badge of honor.

And with the patience befitting a saint, she helps me with Japanese.

I adore her.

Finally, at Nyuta Chugakko, another very small, humble and rural school I visit, there is Kubota-sensei.

With a face like a rabbit and a head like an egg (and a personality to match) Kubota-sensei is certainly a very, very nice man and has been very kind to me. (He also picks me up on days I’ll be visiting his classes.) It’s just that he seems far more interested in learning about all the eccentricities of the English language rather than in teaching it.

His students are clearly bored out of their minds.

The problem is that even though his English is excellent, he doesn’t know how to convey his love of the language in his lessons; which, like Yamamoto-sensei, never veer from the textbook.

Kubota-sensei does tries to connect with his students through music.

But turning on the CD player so the kids can read the lyrics and sing along to out of date pop tunes, while I sit idly by, doesn’t seem to be a good use of anyone’s time. And when I do take an active role in his classes, it seems to be more as a human tape recorder rather than a classroom assistant.

However unsuccessful or ineffective I might feel in the classroom at times, I’m still confident that my influence on the students of the Shintomi School District will most strongly be felt outside class visits.

Maybe during lunch time. (Each school visit, I’m assigned to eat with the students of a particular class.) Or during recess, when I’m able to wander the hallways, playgrounds and school gardens and join students in a game of ball or hopscotch.

Or during my walk to Tonda Chugakko, the grocery store, the river, or the Town Hall, when I’m often met by a slow-moving, giggling gaggle of smile-hiding girls who stop everything to walk beside me and talk to me.

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My arrival on the scene compels them to use English; while at the same time, they have the opportunity to see me attempt Japanese.

We talk about music.

Mostly Back Street Boys.

And we talk about our lives.

Mostly mine.

Even the intentionally slower pack of bravado-laden boys (who usually follow close behind,) bent on showing off their physical prowess more than their grasp of English, are eager to spend time with me.

And so they, too, try to communicate.

Each sad attempt.

Each silly mistake.

The bond grows stronger.

And that’s what all of this is about, isn’t it?

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 8: If This Is a Day to Celebrate My Birth, Why Do I Feel Like Death?

Before I begin reporting what’s been going on here lately, I have to send a super thanks to Catherine, Caralyn and Audrey for their much appreciated contributions to the “When in Rome – beg for care packages” Fund.

Not only did the contents bring a smile to my face, a sigh to my stomach and a twinge to my heart, but now I can hold my head up high each time I go to work knowing I’ve got my Dick Tracey “Glamora Girl Kit” to make me feel confident about being a real woman.

The first week of my third month in Japan has been so busy that my only plan for the upcoming weekend is to lock myself in my apartment and sleep. If I do have to go out into public, where there is little doubt that I’ll be the object of far too much attention, I plan on donning a very clever disguise so as to go unnoticed by my many fans here in Shintomi.

I plan on disguising myself as an old Jewish jeweler named Saul.

Wish me luck, or should I say, “B’Hatzlacha.”

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My birthday celebration at Kacho’s home during the Harvest Moon Festival.

Last Tuesday night, everyone at the Board of Education office was invited to Kuranaga-Kacho’s to celebrate Shukakutsuki, the Harvest Moon. Japanese legend is that if you look closely enough at the moon during this time of the year, you can see a rabbit mixing a bowl of rice for rice cakes.

His doing so is supposed to ensure a good season of crops.

It was a truly magnificent evening as a cool breeze made its way across the fields of rice and vegetables surrounding the house. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen and high, high, high in the sky sat the blue-white moon.

A bright, solitary eye set there to watch over the evening’s festivities.

We arrived at Kacho’s at dusk and found laid out on the lawn of his lovely home, a feast fit for the Emperor himself: fruits and fish, vegetables and meats, spirits and sake (much of which I’d never seen the likes of before) crowded the long, low table.

As we spent the next few hours indulging in the lavish dinner before us, which was the traditional and exceptionally delicious dish of Sukiyaki, I could sense secretive glances here and there and couldn’t help but wonder what my companions were up to. As their secret smiles became more and more obvious, especially after Kacho disappeared into his house, I guessed that they had planned a little something for my birthday.

They had.

Not only had Kuranaga-kacho’s wife baked me a cake, but she and her nieces (some of my students at Tonda) presented me with two lovely potted plants, which I hope to keep alive for the very first time in my less than stellar experiences with house plants. The folks at the office also chipped in and bought a cassette/cd player for my apartment.

Their continued kindness and generosity really got to me and in the middle of thanking them, I began to cry.

Embarrassed by this sudden outburst of emotions, I looked away from the long table of friends to Yoshino-san, sitting to my left. She, too, was crying.

When our teary eyes met, we both began to laugh and the happy evening was back on track.

And the birthday celebrations didn’t end there.
In fact, they continued on for quite a few days, during which time I was given:

  • lipstick from Yoshino-san and Akiko-san
  • earrings and a scarf from Oki-Hosa’s wife and daughter
  • rice bowls and hashi (chopsticks) from a girl that works in the computer room down the hall (whose name I’m sorry to say I don’t even know)
  • a birthday cake from the kitchen staff at Tonda Junior High
  • pajamas and towels from Sam
  • an ugly doll from one of the Masta’s (owners) at a Karaoke bar we frequent
  • a bottle of wine from Tomioka-san’s wife,
  • a bottle of champagne and roses from Tomioka-san
  • fruits and nuts from Junko-san
  • 27 pinks roses from Toshi and the other fellows who work in the computer room down the hall from my office, whom I’ve gotten to know during cigarette breaks
  • and all the students at Tonda sang me Happy Birthday

What on earth am I going to do when I return to being a nobody back in the States?

Who cares.

And the celebrations didn’t end there. (Even though, in hindsight, they probably should have.)

Samantha came down from Hyuga over the weekend to help continue the celebrations and after a few beers in my apartment, we headed out to a local karaoke bar. Now you might be asking yourself why we seem to be addicted to making asses out of ourselves with microphones, but the sad fact is, that we have no other choice in Shintomi.

It’s either karaoke or nothing.

There are no quiet, corner pubs or dusty ol’ saloons, no cozy wine bars, or lively juke joints – just these dark, windowless, characterless, little sing-a-long spots.

The first one we walked into was nice and peaceful.

Sam and I were enjoying the lack of attention.

Please understand that it’s not overblown egos at work here. The simple fact is that as one of very few female gaijin living in the area, we tend to get noticed.

It also doesn’t hurt that Sam is a tall, beautiful blonde and I’m… well….I’m tall.

However, we soon found the quiet atmosphere and only the two of us to look at, rather unappealing and decided to call it an evening. We were resolutely steering a course for home when we heard strange cat-calls from the third floor of a building just behind us.

At first, Sam and I continued toward my apartment.

Indignant and disapproving.

But, almost simultaneously, we looked to one another, shrugged, and with a “What the hell?” headed up the staircase.

At the top, we found a group of men who had apparently been imbibing for quite some time. It was clearly a celebration of some sort and the focus was a young man who wore a painted-on beard, with a scarf and belt wrapped around his head – sheik style.

We never did find out what that was all about, but we did find ourselves in another Shintomi karaoke bar previously unbeknownst to us. This one, however, was packed to the brim with men.

Hallelujah!

From the moment of entry (maybe I should rephrase that), our glasses were kept filled and we were treated like starlets aboard a Navy destroyer that was on leave for the first time in 12 years.

I also met an older gentleman, a local businessman, who said he’d been wanting to speak with me since my arrival. It seems he’s interested in finding an English teacher for his employees and although I explained I was under contract and kept quite busy with my present job, he urged me to consider something for next year and handed me his card.

Eventually, this large group of men left the establishment, en masse.

Sam and I, however, stayed.

And drank.

A lot.

Which I am now dearly paying for with a headache the size of Godzilla.

And a smoldering stomach which Yoshino-san keeps force-feeding green tea.

Each time the evening’s libations threaten to reappear in a fiery flame of vomit, I  lay my head down on my plastic-coated desktop and curse the day my mother gave me life.

My office wants to me to go out with them again tonight. All I want to do is crawl into the fetal position from which I sprang.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 9: Two Gaijin, One Thief and Seven Police

Sam and I had five days off from school and decided that after doing some chores at our perspective homes, we would meet for a few days of sightseeing around Hyuga.

Despite the fact that typhoon number 22 was making its way across the island.

The first night I arrived in Hyuga, we headed out to find some food and drinks and ended up at an establishment we’ve been to before called Hard-Boiled. (I have no idea why and my guess is those who named it don’t have a clue either.)

The establishment was empty, except for the bartender, Kyoto, who is a teacher at one of Sam’s schools, moonlighting at the bar at night. Kyoto and I had met previously and I have to say he left a good impression on me for having an excellent sense of humor. Sam likes to tease Kyoto about speaking English (which he can manage, but only slightly), but I’m more interested in practicing Japanese and Kyoto proves very patient and supportive.

Comfortably bellied-up to the bar, Sam, Kyoto, and I spent the remainder of the night teaching each other English and Japanese phrases.

Oh yeh… and drinking.

By the time we leave the bar, Sam and I had downed just about every type of concoction Kyoto and the other bartender on duty could conjure and were literally holding each other up as we made our way through the rain and up the hill to Sam’s house.

It’s about 4 a.m.

I don’t know how we managed, but we stayed up talking – at least until the room stopped spinning – and then turned off the lights.

The next day, we dragged ourselves out of bed only to discover that the bad weather had gotten worse and there was little use in making any sightseeing plans. So, we easily fell asleep again until about noon, when we finally decided to dress and head out for some food to sop up the alcohol still churning in our stomachs.

Neither of us could find our wallets.

Being in the sorry state we were in the previous night, we figured we’d either lost them on the way home, or left them at the bar.

Strange though.

I’m sure I took my wallet (which contained 7,000 yen, about $53) out of my pants and set it on the kitchen table at Sam’s after we got home.

Then again, things were a little foggy.

Not overly concerned, we headed to the bank and took out more money.

(By the way, here in Japan, cash is King. We’re even paid in cash.)

And after buying groceries, we headed straight to Hard-Boiled.

NO. Not to drink, but to see if anyone was there.

Not a soul was in sight.

So, we decided to return that night to inquire about our missing wallets.

And stumbled home at 3:30 a.m.

No lectures, please. We’ve heard them all.

When we got home, I went to put the remaining cash I had into a brand new wallet which I chose not to carry that night, thinking there’s NO WAY I’m going to lose another wallet.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In a matter of moments, Sam and I discovered that missing is not only my new wallet, but my camera, her camera and her wallet.

It’s then a faint lightbulb appeared over our alcohol-addled brains.

“We are idiots!” I moaned. “We didn’t lose anything, we’ve been robbed – and not once, but twice!”

This time they got my cash card, my American Express card, and another 15,000 yen ($115.00).

Not knowing where to turn at such an ungodly hour, we returned to Hardboiled and told the owner what happened. Hoping he might have seen some suspicious character follow us out of the bar.

I don’t know.

Maybe somebody wearing a striped shirt and a mask.

He didn’t.

So, the bar owner called the police and reported the crime and we spent the next hour at the police station trying to explain the circumstances. Afterward, we returned home and to bed, only to be woken three hours later by the alarm we set in order to greet the Hyuga police who’d soon be arriving to investigate the scene of the crime.

Once we dragged our sorry asses out of bed, Sam went in search of someone with a good grasp of English; while I waited at Sam’s house, tidying up and trying to get the smell of alcohol and stale cigarettes out of the air.

At about 9 a.m., the police arrived.

And much to our complete and utter dismay, not one, not two, not three, but SEVEN representatives of the Hyuga Police Department invade Sam’s home.

They have cameras.

Notepads.

Fingerprinting kits.

Walkie-talkies.

The works.

And for the next three hours, they proceeded to question us (through our interpreter) about our activities of the last two nights. Needless to say, they’re shocked by our late-night carousing and (although they would be hard-pressed to admit it), more than slightly amused by the haggard, smelly, foreign women before them.

Undoubtedly fostered by the fact that Sam and I are laughing through most of the investigation.

Not that the situation is the least bit amusing.

It’s just that we were running on very little sleep.

Even less food.

And boatloads of booze is still coursing through our systems.

The longer the investigation took, the giddier we became.

Until we were so slap-happy that any question we were asked was followed by fits of uncontrollable laughter – made even worse when Sam and I were required to stand at the various crime scenes, pointing to the spot where the perpetrator had taken the items, while an officer snapped photos.

They told us this is routine.

We laughed again.

They laughed along.

Sam made coffee for everyone and shared some British goodies and souvenirs sent to her in a care package from home and after all that’s required of us had been completed, we sat back and watched the policemen perform their various duties.

A few wandered outside to look for strange footprints.

Another officer attempted to lift fingerprints off the desk where some of our stolen items had been.

Unfortunately, I had to admit to washing the desk earlier that morning in my efforts to tidy up the place before the police came.

This brought the house down.

As the merry investigation progressesd, Sam discovered that also stolen were some earrings and a bracelet. In order for the police to get a better idea of what the items looked like, Sam pulled out a photo album and showed the officers recent pictures, which happened to be of the two of us in our travels.

I watched as half of the Hyuga Police force handed the album from man to man – each of whom spent far more time than necessary skimming through the pictures.

Maybe they liked Sam’s photographic skills.

Maybe we were kind of like a freak show.

Bizarre.

A little grotesque.

Hard to look away.

Maybe they were trying to get a better grasp of just how ingrained our stupidity is.

Whatever the reason, all seven officers finally wrapped things up and depart.

Each with a tiny Union Jack fluttering in their hands.

And Sam and I spent the remainder of the day eating heavily, watching movies and trying to forget the past 48 hours.

Later that afternoon, the phone rang.

It’s one of the policemen from earlier that day who claims he has one last question to ask. This ruse is quickly uncovered when, before the phone call ends, he asked Sam out on a date.

Can you believe it?

She gets a date out of the whole thing, while I’m out 22,000 yen ($170) and left with the frightening knowledge that there are several horrendous photos of me on file – or better yet, posted on the walls of the Hyuga Police Station – none of which will land me a date with anyone but the flasher who just happens to see my picture at the station while being booked for the 29th time.

Now one would think that the story is over, wouldn’t one?

Well then… one would be wrong.

We HAD to and I mean HAD to meet some people out that night.

The entire evening had been planned around us.

So, once again, we return to Hardboiled where I learned that Kyoto has the hots for me. He did not choose to share this bit of news by seductively whispering some sweet nothings in my ear, but announced his amorous intentions to the entire bar with the same subtly a male tiger uses when spraying his intended. (Audrey!)

I guess I’m flattered, but I’d have preferred a little wooing.

Besides that, the remainder of the evening was rather subdued and, believe it or not, Sam and I were home before one a.m.

And relatively sober.

I put my last 3,000 yen in my purse and after talking for a short while, we called it an evening.

Before I passed out – from exhaustion, mind you – I’m sure I heard a noise outside Sam’s house. However, I convinced myself that it was merely an overactive imagination spurred on by the past days’ events.

Wrong.

We woke the next morning to find that we’d been robbed.

Yet again.

Bringing the grand cash total to 25,000 yen.

I’m so very, very glad Sam and I chose to stay in Hyuga in order to save money for our Christmas vacation.

This, of course, led to another police investigation, but one not nearly as mirthful as the last.

The officers investigating this time are humorless and condescending.And clearly think Sam and I are a pair of brainless bimbos who don’t know their right boobs from their left.

Not that I can blame them.

To top it all off, we were called in to Sam’s office where her supervisor sternly lectured us on the fact that we have an image to uphold and that our behavior – although on our own free time – was unacceptable. (Even though that behavior was in the company of many of his other employees behaving the same way, but who are not being lectured. The difference? They’re all men.)

I was never more glad to see my little town and my futon.

But sleep was restless.

I was certain that first thing Monday morning, after hearing all the gory details from Sam’s supervisor, I was going to receive the same lecture from my superiors at the Board of Education.

Yet no lecture followed.

Kacho told me he got the anticipated phone call.

Hosa shook his head disapprovingly, but said nothing.

And then, as they turned back to their work, I can see they’re doing everything they can to hold back their smiles.

Did I tell you that I love my town?

That’s all for now, my friends.

May the sun shine brightly on your days. But not in your eyes, causing you to swerve recklessly into another lane, where you take out a few cement pylons and a brand new BMW, owned by a big man named Luigi, who doesn’t want to call the police.He’d just prefer to break your legs.