Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Japanese Work Ethic (or 'How To Look Busy When You Are Not')

If you are a dedicated follower of my blog (you good thing you), then you will know that this week, comprising of the last of September and the first of October, is Senior High exam week, wherein classes cease, students sweat, and I use up three red pens adding 'ed's and 's's and 'ing's to the words of students who labour under the delusion that the entire English language functions with ONE TENSE ONLY. And so it was, Monday through Wednesday. But, as I teach only two grades, and the exams of those grades had been assiduously completed, marked and submitted, Thursday and Friday were days in which the students and teachers of Kaisei High School, as a single entity, shook their black heads and said, no, we need you not.

Does this mean that I get to spend the first, grass-scented, amber-hued, days of autumn on my balcony, naked, drinking Sapporo and imagining what life would be like if I were Rory Gilmore? Alas, no.

The JET programme is illustrious (this may seem a clumsy segue but bare with me), difficult to enter, and extremely well-paid. It is also the result of a concerted effort on the part of the Japanese government to persuade promising and well-educated non-Japanese into the country, with a view to a. achieving the globalization of Japan (whose population remains 98.5% Japanese), and b. convincing these insular peoples that white folk are not exclusively the sex-and-self-obsessed types they see depicted on television (thanks Grey's Anatomy). Contrary to popular belief, the average gaijin will not swallow your sweet little Japanese babies whole (though they are so unbelievably cute as to appear edible), vomit them back up in public and then perform the complete Thriller dance in the remains whilst infecting all in the surrounding with a virulent STI AND attempting to convert them to Christianity. This being a particularly tough stereotype to break (also arduous to enact), and one dearly held for some centuries, the JET programma frequently comes under attack for failing in its various aims and costing the tax-payer too much money whilst doing so.

The filter-down effect of this beaurocratic harakiri on me is that a day in which my place of work does not require the application of my skills does not mean a day off for me. What it means is something more complicated than this.

It means that both yesterday and today have been spent at Cheiria, a self-proclaimed 'life-education centre' on the outskirts of Sapporo, a half hour subway ride from my residence in Sumikawa. In Chieria, one room is dedicated to those JETs who have been rejected from their respective schools, for whatever reason (school festivals, exam week, public urination). We must be there from 9.30 to 3, attendance vigilantly attested to by a sign-in/sign-out sheet. Whilst there, there is no supervision. JETs will variously vactantly surf the net for 5.5 hours (me), eat their way through the local supermarket, learn Japanese, or sleep on folded arms. What I am trying to illustrate is that it is only rarely that presence at work physically means presence at work mentally. Though some may utilize the hours and available colour-printer to create teaching resources, for most this is an awkward limbo existing between a frantic school life and a holiday proper. And yet - we are paid to be here, to sit and wile away the hours until we can legitimately depart and resume much the same activity at home.

This may seem like a typically Western and abusive response to a malleable and trusting quirk of Japanese employment, but this half-working state is the retarded, illegitimate child of the Japanese Work Ethic. The JWE manifests itself in Japanese Working Life in the form of attendance at the office at 6.30am and departure at 8.30pm. It is testified to on the subway at 10pm, where men still clad in business suits sleep restlessly on the shoulders of the similarly attired fellow passengers; in the home life, where the man eating alone on the couch at night is the bread-winner and must therefore salute his position by never encountering the family he works to provide for; and in the statistics recording infidelities as both recurrent,expected and accepted. In my specific working environment, the JWE means that the teacher will remain at his desk until nightfall, whether he has actual work to do or not, simply because an early departure signifies lack of commitment to the job and lack of respect for fellow workers. It means that the average teacher will eat his/her lunch at his/her desk whilst perusing papers, in order to maintain the illusion that dedication supersedes nutrition in terms of importance.

In my eyes, the JWE leads to exhaustion, broken families, and unrealistic expectation. It leads to paper-shuffling, cook-spoilt-broth and sky-high stress levels, and, for all its apparent rigours, has not managed to kickstart the stagnant Japanese economy.

But I am a JET, employed and paid by the government, whose practices and expectations have culminated in a very comfortable, if contradictory, lifestyle for me, and it is not mine to question why. So I will surf the net, read my book and listen to my iPod, and try to enjoy the fact that because I am doing these things in an office, rather than on my bed, I am getting paid for it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

From the Other Side

This week heralds the first in which I have been at a high school during exam week, and not been hovering constantly on the edge of hyperventilation/heart attack/incontinence due to attacks of nerves. This is, of course, because I am no longer on the receiving end of those exam scripts, that metred time, those red pens. My heart goes out to those who still are subject to that certain stress (my dear sister, my wonderful friends, suffering still at the hands of the Gods of Law, who do be vengeful gods), but I do feel an unmitigated smugness as I construct the marking schedule, find my median, and moderate according to personal whim and the unpredicatable scale of my own desire for a cheeseburger. After all, I was made martyr to Exam Week for most of my life - I remember one exam period during high school where I spent no less than 12 hours in English exams alone - it is only fair that I should extract pleasure from the same circumstance where I may. Because where Exam Week means tears, and sorely smudged fingers and possibly dashed hopes for the average student, for the English teacher so new that her shoes are not yet worn in, it means something entirely different.

It means a 10am arrival at school, as opposed to the usual 8am requirement.

It means a casual dress code, whereby I am currently clad in yellow tights and a short skirt with flowers in my hair.

It means SNACKS. I have so far been presented with a large mocha and a chocolate orange. It means the constant intake of said SNACKS throughout the day.

It means a day spent SITTING rather than STANDING.

It means no lesson preparation, no sleeping students in class, no swollen feet and no liberally chalk-dusted shoulders (I have an unhealthy attachment to the pink chalk, so always end up looking like have particularly violent strain of dandruff).

It means smilingly bypassing every one of the numerous and deadly landmines of the Japanese classroom.

That said, it also means facing the reality that despite 6 weeks of slavish dedication to the furtherance of the English skills of some 120 promising young students, the majority of them still believe the past tense of 'ski' to be 'skyed'. But one cannot win all one's battles.

Today has therefore been spent, armed with red pen and coffee, facing 120 literary masterpieces on the subject of the imminent winter vacation (in 60-80 words) (or in one student's case, 9). From what I have read, many of them will be studying. Still more will be skying. One student faces the interesting prospect of the purchase of 'food hall' shoes. I wish him all the luck of the Irish. Japanese students are unerring polite, so many will conclude their essays with 'Thank-you', which makes you feel a little mean-spirited for presenting them with a grand total of 4 marks out of 20 (two of them gleaned through the ability to double-space, one through the admirable ability to count words written (23)).

Despite recurring incomprehensibility, dramatically bad spelling and a cliched adherence to 'r's over 'l's ('I was rearry tired'; 'I will be grad when it is holidays'; and, from one contradictary soul, 'It was rearry scaley' (scarey, for those ill-versed in Engrish)).

One might think that this would be a great trial for a FOB English teacher with a genuine love for the language she disseminates, but really, it is a joy. Once you have inured yourself to the predicatable repetition ('This winter vacation I will read books. I could not read books in my summer vacation because I was busy. So this winter vacation I will read books, because I am not busy') and distinct aversion to double-spacing, you can enjoy spotting, and rewarding, the original, and the idiosyncratic.

To the student who wrote 'Do I like studying? Not so much' I give you KUDOS, for that sentence could have come from my very mouth.

To the student who wrote 'I will become a crever girl!' CONGRATULATIONS for making me choke on aforementioned chocolate orange.

To the girl who spelt 'shoes' with three 'o's, no one will ever fault you phoenetically.

And to the esteemed author of 'I wont to study herrd at school because I wanting to Engish teacher be it', good luck. Methinks thou shalt need it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Japants (or "The Lack Thereof")

Here is the great thing about being in Japan: I know for absolutely certain that I am not in New Zealand anymore.

This would be my greatest fear, should my overseas exploits lead me more West-wards: that the likes of London, Sydney, and Vancouver (I have no idea whether these places are West of New Zealand, this is beside the point) would all be more striking for their similarities to, rather than differences from, the Land of the Long White Something. Japan does not make me fear this. In fact, finding ANY point of convergence presents something of a challenge - so far, I can only state definitively that they drive on the same side of the road and also have Pringles.

One fabulous ramification of this vast cultural gap is the difference in fashion. In New Zealand, it is only natural that common trends should tend towards the New Zealand body shape, which ultimately makes a necessity of covering up the bad bits and exploiting the good. As a nation tending towards a gentle beer belly, our tendency therefore is to make much of the decolletage - opaque tights and a low neck will get you all the places you want to go (Estab, and then Burger King). As a quintessential example of this body shape, my wardrobe is thick with tights and rife with boob tubes - the neck and shoulders are where my superpowers lie, while I must allow my legs to be my kryptonite (thanks for the thighs, Ma). Not so in Japan! Oh no!

Breasts here are like drugs. Nobody has them. And if you have them, you keep them hidden away, otherwise everyone will want a go. One of my first days in Japan, wearing a top that in New Zealand would be considered positively demure, suitable for office work, a close-up photo of my breasts was taken by a portly old man on the subway. I was too surprised to permit the feminist to rise within me. Sometimes I think of him, a little nostalgically, sitting up in bed clutching cellphone, staring at the faint shadow of real-life White-Girl-Cleavage on the tiny screen. And I could hardly blame him - my modest C cup is an anomaly, even on the midnight subway returning from the red-light district. The above-the-waist fashions here therefore tend toward the collar and tie. Even the proliferation of the maxi-dress here in the un-seasonally hot summer did not allow for the spaghetti-strap to make a comeback - they all wear t-shirts underneath. No, what the Japanese work is the leg. And, woah, do they work it.

You have not seen legs until you've been on a crowded 7am subway with 500 15 year old girls. I am aware of the perverted nature of this subject, and that this should be authored by a hairy 50-plus in a wife-beater with his hands down his pants. But my fellow JET's even have a name for it: "Junior High Thigh". Their school skirts are rolled so as to be crotch-skimming, and the legs thusly revealed are long, pale and thin with barely a hint of either muscle or cellulite. This is just how they're made. And looking from these pins, to mine own, safely concealed beneath the ubiquitous 80-denier black stockings, I do begrudge my breasts, so I do. The most dangerous part of this blatant attractiveness is the inherent innocence. The 14 year-old school girl will sit with legs widespread on the bus, on the subway, beneath the desk at school, with never a hint of the knowledge that the 25 year old English teacher standing before her is trying with all his (or her, I'm not above it, though I am shielded from it by the fact that a. I teach at a Senior High School, at which stage they have learnt to be appropriately scared of the power of their bodies and b. Kaisei has no uniform) might to resist the hitherto dormant paedophllic inclination that is stirring. You have to feel sorry for the teacher trying to explain the meaning of the word "fancy" while Junior High fannies air themselves easily before him. The most striking point is their seeming carelessness - though they must stand before mirrors in the morning, carefully rolling their skirts to display the lower butt-cheek to best advantage, their poses once so attired are artless. There is no cocking of the knee, no careful drape of a crossed leg - they are still schoolgirls, and they giggle and huddle and squat exactly as one would expect. It is no wonder they are the subject of countless pornographic books, disguised as comics - no surprise that the brothels one passes in Susukino are adorned with false blondes in miniscule approximations of school uniform: in a country where false modesty and ignorance are considered worthy attributes, the giggling adolescent in navy socks is a symbol of the most perfect, corruptable, purity.

This post has, as they seem always wont to do, wandered off topic somewhat. But I think that nonetheless my digression has summarized the inclination of Japanese fashion aptly: it is all about a subtly sexualized rendition of the inner child, made manifest in long socks, short skirts, high necks, tartan and bows. Big hair is also the go; the best have manfully gone through the painful bleach process to achieve the gingery/honey blonde which is the best Britney that Asian hair can manage. Make-up focuses on the EYES, capitalized to show the desire that they be AS BIG AS POSSIBLE. Huge, spidery lashes, white powder at the inner corners, a constant Bambi-bashfulness. Cheeks glow with blush - the Japanese value their pallor, shrinking from the day beneath frilled sunbrellas, and so the pinker the cheek, the paler the rest of the face by comparison. In passing, do you know why so many Japanese will put their hands to their faces (in the peace sign, of course) in photographs? Because they think it makes their faces look smaller. I have no idea, but feel it is an important cultural point. High heels seem an essential element of any outfit, and it is not uncommon to see a young Japanese woman, impeccably dressed in the shortest of skirts, riding a bike in leopard-print six-inch stilletto's whilst both texting and smoking.

I am in awe.

In short (skirts), I am no Japanese girl. That said, as I go out tonight (it being a public holiday tomorrow, thank you Equinox Day), I will be wearing an outfit purchased in Japan - a short creme dress with a ruffly hem, a long black vest with similar ruffles, and red lipstick to top it off. And - because I am from New Zealand, and therefore the reluctant owner of a fine pair of "Mince Pie Thighs" - black tights.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Little Bit Camp

Get to know me even a little bit, and you will immediately become aware that I am not low maintenance, appearance-wise. Stemming perhaps (certainly, this is not an immense psychological challenge) at least a decade of extremely low self-image, inevitable comparisons with two very attractive sisters and some bullying experienced in formative years, a lot of my current confidence is gleaned from the ability to look in the mirror and, objectively, like what I see. And, objectively, my natural reflection grants me none of this self-assurance. My addiction to hair-dye began at 13; eye-liner at 15; hair-straighteners at 17; and expensive foundation at 18. I consider my unprimed image a blank canvas, requiring extensive and painstaking application of paint (preferably MAC) before public exhibition may be considered. I know this isn't healthy - I am envious of those who unthinkingly leave the house in the mornings fresh-faced with pillow-imprints still upon their blithely smiling faces - but nonetheless it is a fact of my life. My ability to interact with others, do my job properly and behave like a functional human being relies almost exclusively upon the strength of my face-faith. This means that I am rarely (OK, never, I sleep in my make-up, I can't even DREAM confidently with a naked face) unmade up, I refresh this facade frequently, and I consider a bad hair day no less an affliction than the clap. All of this then culminates in one certainty: camping is not my natural environment.

The irony of this escapes me not, the whole point (or so I am informed by those with an earthier bent) of camping being "getting back to nature". My response to this "why would you want to do such a thing?" I firmly believe that the whole campaign of human accomplishment is premised on the ultimate goal of getting as far away from our natural roots as possible. Keep your caves - I'll have a penthouse. The higher the better! If I can be closer to the sun than to the earth then I must be extremely successful! Natural materials? No - give me stainless steel, titanium, the harder and less bio-degradable the better. Why would something subject to degradation be desirable? Unfathomable. Living as I now do on the 11th floor of an apartment building as asthetically pleasing as a single cinder block stood on end, I consider myself to have come rather far in the world. And yet, this very weekend, I voluntarily subjected myself to something that ought to have been obliterated as a leisure-activity when resort hotels were conceived of - camping.

I can only put it down to FOMO. Or perhaps the formation of fissures in my thus far rock-hard attachment to the concrete jungle in which I reside - maybe the move to Japan has awoken the nature-lover within (think it vastly unlikely)... Anyhoo, I am a boastful recent survivor of Lake Toya '10, the destination for a Hokkaido Welcome Camp at the end of a 3 hour bus-ride. This was back to basics stuff (or as basic as I can manage, which still involves an iPhone, vodka and liquid eye-liner). No mattresses. One toilet. And no showers. Not that thatmattered in the end, as "camping" as an experience legitimated all my hitherto blocked-out memories; and it rained, near constantly, from the moment of arrival to precisely the minute we were back onboard the bus. My last camping experience was circa '05 and was less of a "getting back to nature" event so much as a "drinking as much alcohol in as short a time as possible" vendetta. Five years appears to have had less of an effect on me than I might have thought (have now thought hard, have only marginally longer hair and a tattoo to show for one half-decade departed) because I found myself gleefully skulling a lethal vodka/lemonade concoction out of a water bottle whilst sitting in a circle playing "I Have Never". Despite the fact that this last blog documented clearly the onward march of my 20's, methinks much of the 17 year old remains in me still, and not merely in the form of a Harry Potter addiction. So how did I survive nearly 20 WHOLE HOURS without electricity? Simple. I was drunk for most of it, and asleep for the rest.

Camping therefore remains an experience, if not wholly foreign, then certainly blurry to me (NB: Have discovered how to use italics. Expect more of it). I feel it is best left that way. And yet: now, back in my apartment, with a laptop on my lap (where else, pray tell?) and a perfect fringe, I feel a certain freshness that I certainly did not have at this time on Friday. There is something to be said for the power of nature, for the beauty of Lake Toya is really best left unsubjected to sarcasm. The water was cool and grey; the leaves yellowing and collecting at the margins of the shore; the mountains at the horizon really did loom and tower like all the best mountains ought (though Japanese mountains do mirror their human counterparts in their smallness and uniformity)(dammit, nearly made it through that whole description sans sarcasm. Alas). Though my shoes are ruined and all photos of the event depict me with an alarming expanse of forehead, I do not regret this regression into a less vain past. Time (20 HOURS) away from the city has zenned me out. I am drunk on ozone (and, admittedly, red wine).

Maybe occasionally (very), it would do me some good to be reminded of the wonder of an unmarred landscape, even when compared to the genuinely impressive results of a flawless MAC finish... A gentle constant rain may be soothing - bugs in ones food a source of protein - a sleepless night on rocky earth a chiropractic success... But next time I'm bringing an air-mattress. And a pillow. And a small - but well-equipped - collapsible bathroom.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Foreign Birthday

Today I experienced my very first birthday away from the comforts of my home country - a foreign birthday. I must premise this blog with the caveat that it is only 2.15pm, and that much might remainin store for me, whereby this becomes the best/worst birthday ever but that, should it occur, will legitimise the existence of a different blogpost.

In typical rule-breaking form, my birthday began yesterday, as I had the dual pleasure of opening a package from home and Skyping with two best friends in Wellington. In my family we have a very strict rule in which no presents are to be opened - indeed, not even vague allusions towards said presents are permitted - before the day in question ('What will you have to look forward to??') so there was a certain naughty joy in opening my package on Birthday Eve. Coming from so far away, both weight and size was restricted, so this package, by dint of necessity, contained only the bare essentials for a happy existence (make-up, hair-dye, candy, a Lady Gaga poster). Further delight was granted in the form of a Tinker Bell card, which sings when opened. Angelic. I hope they experienced this at Customs, I sincerely do. It would bring joy to the most stoic of Japanese hearts. And, it would be just like them to take issue with my birthday pineapple lumps, when they have already let a consignment of illegal drugs (contraception) slip through their security. This was in fact that first piece of mail which reached me from home - a self-addressed, self-stamped envelope containing naught but a month free of fertilization. It having been some months since I compiled these envelopes, I experienced some confusion in coming across, amongst myriads of incomprehensible advertisements for pizza (although, comprehended that they were about pizza, didn't I?) not only mail in English, but mail in my own handwriting. Had I sent myself a congratulatory message? Was I posessed of a second personality, whose sole function was to ensure continued foetus-foiling? But no - simply the efforts of a more sensible past self bearing fruit (or not, as it were). Pregnancy in Japan (shudder) - not to be contemplated, as am currently living off Frosties and JellyBelly's which perhaps does not comprise sufficient nutrition for infant (other reasons include; utter fear and revulsion at prospect, genuine lack of impetus or desire, and probable alcohol-induced infertility). But I digress. A long way. I have digressed so far that have forgotten original thread. Must revise.

Ah. Yes. Package: thank you, family, for that small (though it cost $40 to post) piece of home on the anniversary of my existence. Appreciation all round. The second pre-birthday delight came in the form of the digital appearance of one Ally Garrett and one Diane White in my living room in Japan. People have told me before but I never really acknowledged the truth of it: Skype is genius. It is free! It has video! You can see, real-time, the expressions of derision that form on your best friends' faces when it becomes apparent that a month of dictating to Japanese children has left one with a distinct American twang (apparently I roll my 'r's now. When I say my name it sounds like Zac Efron(m?) is saying it)! You can also see yourself, so can observe own emotions when describing life in Japan. Most revealing. Perhaps overly so. But it really was indescribably wonderful to chat with friends from afar as if they were in the same room, to feel no fear that the conversation would be equal in price to that of a small car, and to be able to observe, with own two eyes, that they are not doing homework/watching re-runs of Shortland Street/inspecting breasts for lumps and/or lopsidedness, whilst doing so. One of the best birthday presents I could have received. Those who have not invested in the necessary software and teachnology - do so. It is one tehcnological advance for which I can express unadulterated approval. (Most amusing, too, was my ignorant insistence that, every time the camera froze, some energetic action from the subject would stimulate the camera back into action. Resultant shaking of head/hands/entire body followed by dizziness and anger pure entertainment. Highly recommend).

Anahwah, that was last night. After Skyping, I ate a Big Mac, read Harry Potter and fell asleep, all sources of great pleasure to me (I am a simple soul). This morning, felt somewhat disillusioned by Japanese birthday, a sensation which is bound to ensue from the combination of lack of edible foods for breakfast/dire hair day/having to get up at 6am. But, boyfriend had supplied me with no less than four different types of chocolate, no doubt anticipating my mood, and so I was thusly sweetened. Bike ride, train ride, bus ride, all uneventful, though felt like demanding subway seat from old woman on account of birthday. Refrained. Actually am realsing that henceforth, there is little to tell about this 23rd life anniversary of mine - the simple fact being that Japanese people don't give a damn about the occasion. Here, everyone's birthday, regardless of actual birth date, is celebrated in unison on January 1. A typically Japanese initiative - respecting the collective over the individual, refusing to make oneself stand out, 'The nail that sticks out is hammered down' type-logic. When I told the teacher I work with that it was my birthday the next day, she simply nodded and carried on somewhat awkwardly, as if this was akin to declaring the next day to be the commencement of one's menstruation. When I unabashedly made 'It's My Birthday Tomorrow' the subjest of a game of Hangman, the puzzle was solved with absolutely zero fanfare, as if I had written 'I have an umbrella'. All my efforts to be lauded for the admirable acheivement of being alive were thwarted.

And so, the end of the post. In summation, only people who are not Japanese care that is my birthday. And only I care with any particular enthusiasim (yay ME). But, boyfriend is wining (beering?) and dining me tonight, and tomorrow night plans are afoot for drunken revelry with gaijin who, like myself, consider any occasion ripe for unadulterated imbibing. Happy Birthday to me, I say. I'm determined that my 24th year will be greeted with some fanfare, at least. In a country where 'Respect for the Aged Day' is a legitimate national holiday, I'm sure I'll be able to find some reason for which September 15th should inspire similar veneration. 'Respect for Scarlett Day'? I think so.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Before one (me) moves to Japan, one (me) hears much said of the "Japanese" way of thinking and behaving and reacting, which includes - but is not limited to - the Japanese Smile, the Japanese Sharp Intake of Breath, the Japanese Work Ethic, the Japanese Reaction to Foreigners, the Japanese Subway Code of Conduct, the Japanese Subway Grope, the Japanese Breast Fixation, and the Japanese Criticism (which is to say, silence, followed by the Japanese Smile). Essentially, when you move to Japan, and particularly when you take up employment in a Japanese institution, you must rethink both your general manner of behaviour and your ability to assess a situation. The fact of the matter is this: if you (I) think you (I) are working hard enough, you probably aren't. If you think you are dressing demurely, you are probably a saucy minx. And if you think you are doing your job well, you are probably instructively moribund (yes, moribund).

This is difficult for anyone (me). In New Zealand, if you are doing a crap job, you will be told so. This information may come in the form of a written or verbal warning, an icy shoulder or semen in your coffee (extreme cases only, or so I am reliably informed), but it will come, and due opportunity will be given to rectify shortcomings (Aside: unless the amendments to the Act are permitted, and then if you are in the first 90 days of employment then you will find yourself out on the street with no explanation - but I digress). The practical machinations of NZ law (impractical as they may be) were of zero interest to me whilst I resided therein, so why now? Why indeed). The Kiwi Karacter is brazen, bold and bolshy and even the most reticent employer/co-worker/nosy stranger on the street with no pants on will grab you by the scruff of your neck and rub your face in your failures.

Not so in Japan. As an email from my supervisor (sent to a posse, rather than just to me, would be on plane home, locked in bathroom, rocking back and forth, if t'were for I alone) informed me, the Japanese smile, while it may appear to be a symbol of encouragement, is in fact an awkward reaction to the fact that something is terribly wrong, and you are at fault. Like babies with gas, this smile appears as a physical reaction to intense discomfort. So, to quote the aforementioned supervisor: "I’ll give one easy advise: As you know Japanese people are so shy and not too many words but just smile (even for JTEs); “Japanese smile” sometimes shows “OK” “agree” but sometimes “not good though I don’t say clearly”. You see? Even when he is giving advice about the omnipresent "Japanese Smile" he shrinks from directly addressing the less pleasant elements... He is "Japanese Smiling" in an email! A rare talent.

All of this is a long-winded (gassy baby) explanation for why I am frankly terrified and uncomfortable from the moment I step into the entrance hall of the school and replace my outdoor shoes with my indoor shoes, to the moment I don my sunglasses, undo two buttons on my blouse, and leave. It is hard because the staff are so welcoming, the students so intelligent and interested, and the novelty of teaching so great, that I instinctively feel relaxed and at ease and able to be myself entirely - I have to force this discomfort upon myself in order that I should quell my instincts and remember that quoting Eddie Izzard whilst instructing third years on possible examples for inclusion in their essay entitled "Why I prefer Camping by the Sea over Camping in the Mountains is NOT OK ("I'm covered in bees!); using "beer" as a Hangman word in NOT appropriate and taking a photo on my iPhone of the student's t-shirt emblazoned with the legend "Pills, Pipes and Needles" (illustrated with a picture of Winnie the Po(thead)o with a jar of honey) is a POSSIBLE breach of privacy.

The problem is that reliance upon that internal gauge that tells you whether you are doing a good job and pleasing those around you or whether you are mortally offending an entire community (NB: did that in the weekend, by wearing a sheer top, breasts are contraband items here) is not advisable. The safe assumption is that your interpretation of the social cues surrounding you is inherently wrong. Specifically in the case of the unassuming JET, you could consider yourself a grand success, practically the adopted daughter of the principal, and then find yourself refused in your request to re-contract. And there is no definitive way of knowing where on the scale you teeter, for even a request for advice or feedback will be met with the ubiquitous nod and grin.

So that is where I stand - on eternally unstable ground. All confidence in myself and my abilities must be tempered by the realisation that I am, and always will be, an alien.

On a more positive note, today I was told by one Japanese teacher of English (who spent some years living in Canada and is therefore capable of greater inter-culture communication than weakly upturned lips) that when I was teaching I "looked like a queen". I took the more conservative regal interpretation over the Priscilla Queen of the Desert option, because even though I wear more make-up than all the other teachers combined, I don't think I've reached drag-queen levels. I glowed from the compliment all day (and preened and fanned myself and was generally very un-Japanese and smug) even though the question of which queen exactly could lead to some contradictory possibilities (headless, traitorous, short and round, festering, with rotten teeth, dying of the plague etc etc).

In a vanity inspired solely by my red hair, I have quietly (and now world-widedly) decided upon Queen Elizabeth I as my teaching persona. And if she can conquer the Spanish, I can conquer the Japanese. Even if they smile at me.