Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Lots of People in Japan Speak English

... presumably as a result of superb JET influence in the past, but many are afraid to use it. They are out of practise, you see, and therefore even those who will eventually be revealed to be near fluent will be reticent in revealing their talent to even the most winsome foreigner. Those who DO eventually engage one in conversation will inevitably be female (though, perhaps if you are male, you would be approached by your biological counterpart, but most of them are either asleep or drunk most of the time, which is not conducive to bilingualism), young, bored and lacking in an outlet.

Perhaps my favourite experience of a random Japanese woman practising her English on my gentle ears was also the shortest. I was standing on the subway, making my way home from a long day at school. As I waited for my stop, I noted a young woman sitting across from me, staring. This is, in itself, not unusual. I am a rare, caged animal in Japan, and it is freely acceptable for the natives to eat popcorn and observe my mating rituals; however, most observe covertly and will instantly divert their eyes when they are surprised, feigning immediate and concerted interest in the floor/ceiling/middle-distance. This woman continued to stare even as I glared back, showing bravery and, perhaps, ignorance of the animalistic gaijin tendency to attack when provoked. A stop before mine, she stood to get off. I moved aside to let her pass, and as she did so, I heard, ever so softly 'Excuse me'. Before I could react, the doors were closed and she was gone. In all likelihood, during the time she had spent staring at me, an intense inner-monologue had been going on, as she debated pronounciation, approach and tense. Probably, she was fluent. Probably, she had studied English for all her years of schooling. Probably, she could read Hemmingway, Proust and Wordsworth, backwards, in a clear English accent. And yet, it took all her courage to whisper two words to me.

This reticence and fearfulness is a frequently observed characteristic of the Japanese psyche. It is not considered a flaw, but an attribute.

They are a smart and dedicated nation. Their students are rigorously taught and rigorously tested (I know, because all of the fifteen year old I teach are fitter and smarter and sassier than me). No one slacks off, no one skips school - in the 6 months I've been teaching, not one single student has asked to be excused to go to the bathroom (which makes me wonder: when do they smoke their first cigarette? engage in sexual experimentation? bedaub themselves with eyeliner? if not in the toilet stall during class, then when?). Necessarily then, generations and generations of young Japanese have been released from high school primed and imprinted with at least the very basics of English speech. Most will know enough to carry out a conversation. But with this knowledge is also imparted the importance of humility and heirarchy, and, even though I am no more than an exotic foreign animal, imported to dance for the entertainment of locals, I am potentially above them, and thus even a whispered 'excuse me' risks breaching conventions of conduct.

Also, no one speaks on the subway. So, if she'd got it wrong, 100 pairs of well-educated ears would be quick to (silently) condemn.

I've had other encounters. Recently, I summoned all my courage and entered a shoe-store. This takes courage principally because usually, when I approach the sale-staff, they look at my feet, widen their eyes and shake their heads dolefully, briskly retreating in their 20-centimetre shoes. I am Gulliver, attempting to be appropriately shod in Lilliput. This time, though, I was entering the Timbaland store, a hearty American brand which must surely cater for the foreign foot. I was enticed in by a pair on display, in the iconic fawn leather, but with a particularly Japanese twist: leopard lining. I got the doleful head-shake when I asked for a pair of those in my size, and was supplied with a pair of simpler, basic boots which might admit my foot. The sales assistant spoke no English whatsoever, so all of this communication was achieved through mime.

Luckily, the purchase of boots is more conducive to theatre than the purchase of laxatives.

I sat next to a Japanese woman who was, spitefully, trying on a pair of the same leopard-print boots that I had so coveted. She saw me looking and I sighed dramatically for her benefit, accompanying this with a properly doleful headshake. Instead of sniggering, she said, in perfect English 'Why don't you try their biggest pair? They might fit'. Her name was Risa. She had lived in America for four years. She never had the opportunity to practise her English since moving back to Japan two years ago, and my sitting beside her had provided her with the chance. And, thanks to her, I attempted the size 7.5 and found them to be a - if not perfect then certainly bearable - fit. We bonded over our matched boots and then marched to opposite ends of Pole Town, her relishing in the exercise of her rusty linguistics, and me delighting in my Brogdignagian Boots.

Encounters with adults like Risa are rare, but school children are young and hormonal and impulsive and therefore less bound by precedent than their older counterparts. They are often more willing to speak to me, usually when they have been snapped staring. Giggling girls will shout 'Cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuute' as I bypass them on the escalator. Boys will yell 'Good afternoon' as I trudge up to the school entrance at 8am. Japanese school children may be smarter and better dressed than their Western counterparts, but they are still subject to the same whims (cat-calling; bullying; cross-dressing), and they often expose my continuing ignorance of the fact that I stand out here like a neon sign at midnight.

You see, in New Zealand, if someone walking/running/driving/biking past you at speed yells 'Come home with me now!', it is entirely likely that he/she is talking to someone else. An errant toddler, perhaps, or a confused elderly father. One can walk on, head down, safe in the knowledge that there are hundreds of people in one's immediate surrounds to whom the statement might pertain.

However, in Japan, where you are the only foreigner within a kilometre radius, it is probably you who has just been authoratively sexually propositioned by a sixteen year old on a blue bicycle.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sometimes blogs with no subjects are the best ones

Well, I'm back at school. Three weeks of sleeping 'til noon had ill-prepared me for the rude shock of chirping crickets (oh, I have an iPhone, that's the sound the alarm makes, oh, I have an iPhone, I'm all WASPish and blonde and thin and I have no fingerprints left, I swiped them all flat on my touch screen, did I not tell you?) at 6am.

With the absence of boyfriend, I have license to make all the noise I want in the AM, and so I do. It is with a "harrumph" that I lever myself floor-wards, and a groan that I traverse the icy floors towards both lightswitch and heater dial. Once both have been dealt to, I lay today's underwear flat on the radiator (nothing like a warm bottom to make you warm towards teaching Japanese students the correct pronunciation of "Keanu Reeves"). I prepare my daily vat of black coffee, and as that drips through my inherited coffee machine into my large yellow inherited mug, I go to the bathroom (aside: once I have bathroomed, I usually find myself lacking in the energy to return my pajama bottoms to their former position: I consider it a waste of energy to indulge in the bending and the pulling and the arranging that this requires, given that once the short trip back to the bedroom has been completed, I must then remove them once more. So I usually shuffle the ten or so metres to my wardrobe with my pants around my ankles. Does anyone else do this? Have I plumbed new depths of laziness? Should somebody write a Wikipedia article about me?). By this stage, I usually have about 15 minutes left before I have to leave, and 12 of these 15 minutes is devoted to makeup application/fringe straightening/clothes donning. As I complete this compelling tasks, I usually have something playing on my lap-top, usually quality foreign cinema along the lines of Gilmore Girls/Sex and the City/Grey's Anatomy. I find that a 6am wakeup is less depressing when somebody is having a baby/dying/throwing up/being dumped/being haunted by their dead ex-fiancee as a result of malignant brain cancer/being run over by a bus on the way to signing up for the army/talking really fast/having sex with a man who demands analingus/ having sex with their married ex-boyfriend/having sex with their gay colleague's husband (match the scenario to the drama, dare ya) quietly in the background.

The last 3 minutes are spent doing all the things necessary to do when going outside involves entering a landscape that looks like this:

These are:

- Tucking my fringe gently and lovingly into a knitted hat with a pompom on top (the pompom is optional, but I think it lends me a certain dignity);

- Arranging my ear-muffs over said hat;

- Donning a cardigan;

- Donning another cardigan;

- Putting on my coat (buttoned to the very top, unless snow down your cleavage and back floats your boat and tickles your fancy and rings your bell);

- Wrapping on my scarf (I have one of the those endless loop scarves, which wants to go around my neck only twice, but can be persuaded to go three times, if I accept strangulation as a natural part of my commute (which I have learnt to, and don't some people find this stuff erotic anyway?));

- Putting on two pairs of socks (by this time it can be somewhat difficult to do the bending-in-half that this necessitates, and sometimes I wonder whether if I am going to go to all the trouble of writing out a list of my clothing conundrums, mayhap I could revise and put the socks on first, perhaps in combination with removing the aforementioned pajama bottoms, and save myself this daily grief, but I am an old dog and I already know all the tricks I'm ever going to know and those include How To Write A B- Law Opinion; How To Hide Expensive Candy in Your Cheap Pick n Mix; How To Look Innocent When the New World Checkout Girl Discovers Your Chocolate Covered Strawberries; How to Order Triple Shot Vodka's At Nomihoudai's and How to Persuade Students That Bright Red is Your Natural Hair Colour, and thus I will continue to spend precisely 45 seconds of every morning hopping on one foot whilst attempting to put a second sock on the other).

- Putting on boots;

- Remembering an umbrella.

As I walk to the elevator, I double check my face in my iPhone, which usually involves me taking a picture like this:

... and after THAT has happened I'll remember that I've forgotten steps One and Two and that fukkit it doesn't really matter because no matter what lengths I go to in preparation, I'm inevitably going to end up looking like this:

Even taking into account the remarkable resemblance that I bear to Frosty the Snowman, I'm still doing better than Aravin's new car:

Ha! I could tell you that it was a BMW and you'd be none the wiser. (FYI it is in fact a Suzuki, that's Yuki the Suzuki to you, and is of the breed of all stereotypical awful Asian cars, that is, shaped like a shoebox and with about the same engine power).

School continues on as usual. I teach classes. I stand in front of classes. I say things they don't understand. I mime going down Splash Mountain:

They look alarmed.

I eat lunch. I laugh at the packet:

I get bored. I remove my ring, which hasn't been removed for nigh on 10 years:

I try not to vomit up my mushroom soup.

I commute home. I walk behind this girl, and blatantly papparazi her:

(She's not coming across as well in pictures as in person, but FYI she was wearing stiletto leather boots, diamante studded booty shorts, leopard print and Louis Vuitton. And totally working it).

I walk past my bike, and remember that I should have put it away two months ago:

But feel better when I see that at least it's got company:

Merry Tuesday, lovely people. I hope you're at least as sexy as the girl in the hot-pants, as excited as me on Splash Mountain, and as qualified for good soup as my mushrooms. Failing that, I at least hope that you're not as screwed as Aravin's car.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I Don't Believe in Global Warming

...despite all evidence to the contrary. I know that the flash floods in Brisbane must have been borne of some dramatic, cataclysmic, seismic overhaul of the currents and the air-pressures and the cloud systems and suchlike (in my mind I see the people who live in the clouds in James and the Giant Peach throwing hissyfits and snowballs and taking out their rage on terra firma) but it simply does not compute that the world as a whole could be getting warmer when I am this fucking cold.

Empirical evidence aside, the font of all knowledge in my life currently is my JTE and his wife, who possesses some sixth sense with regards the Sapporo climate. And he tells me that this is a positively warm winter. That the amount of snow that has fallen is minimal. That -6 is tropical compared to the winters of yore.

I hate yore. I don't know why anyone ever lived there.

This morning was bright and clear-skied and I watched Grey's Anatomy as I got dressed (only two thermals instead of the usual layered three, DARING), drank coffee, left my apartment, locked the door, unlocked the door, went back in to retrieve my three bags of unburnable garbage (since it is Thursday and only those things that are unburnable might be submitted for disposal, presumably by burying or simply throwing up into the air and running away since it, by very definition, is refuse that refuses to burn), locked the door, walked down the hallway, slipped and caught myself, remembered why I never wear these boots even though they are leather and very attractive and cost $400, continued down the hallway, slipped and failed to catch myself, fell on my arse and three bags of unburnables, speculated on whether burnables or unburnables would make for a softer landing, got back on my feet, and boarded the elevator, punching the buttons more aggressively than was strictly necessary.

At least it was a nice day, I thought to myself, as I jauntily swung the (squashed) bags of rubbish into the... rubbish place.

Ten steps further: snow. Light, soft, a gentle dusting.

Twenty more steps: Heavier snow. Much heavier. Ear muffs - donned. Scarf clutched tighter. Third, abandoned thermal remembered with regret.

Ten minutes later: unadulterated blizzard. I look like a chocolate lamington.

I sat on the train and grumbled into my scarf as my shoulders melted into my pockets.

When I arrrived at the BOE, I was greeted by a message on the whiteboard, informing me that Sapporo was expecting heavy snowfall this week, and that we might expect both trains and buses to be running behind schedule. Apparently, this is old news to everyone but me.

As I melted gently onto the carpet, as my ears turned from a violent blue to a healthier purple, I speculated on global warming.

I considered Brisbane, New Orleans, Chile.

I ruminated on aerosols, on petrol, on my carbon footprint.

I thought about the snow drifts, my ruined fringe, the icicles on my eyelashes.

And I decided this: I want a chocolate lamington.

Saturday, January 8, 2011


Whew. Long break between blogs, borne of necessity, due to the simple fact that I am too popular for my own good. It would more or less impossible to cover in detail what has occurred in the interim (and you would fall asleep, the resulting volume surpassing War and Peace in both length and philosophy), so bullet points must needs suffice, as they do both in life and law exams. This brevity is also the fault of the fact that this blog post is being authored at 6.14am. I suffer for my "art".

Things What You Missed:

- It was Christmas Eve. We drank sake and reflected upon the oddness of Christmas spent away from home. Two New Zealanders, an Irishman, an American and a Singaporean gathered around a table and toasted multi-culturalism (and then walked into a bar, etc etc).

- It was Christmas.

- I ate ham, on Christmas, for the first time ever (how odd that this should occur in Japan, especially given the fact that my typical Christmas fare in New Zealand was, that most Japanese of staples, salmon. Having a vegetarian mother has shocking ramifications for one's pig intake).

- James, the most British person in Japan, brought Christmas cake and Christmas pudding. The Americans present prodded it suspiciously. James ate his portion with vigour. And chopsticks.

- I Skyped my family and enjoyed the spectacle of all festively adorned in the ridiculous clothing I had sent them. Father is particularly fetching in the luridly checkered yellow and orange hooded jacket which sang his name from the shelves of Senki ("Jo-ru! Jo-ru!"). Half of me came from this man:

I think this explains a LOT.

- I Skyped one Ally Garrett and enjoyed the spectacle of her festively adorned with ginger kittens. No finer accessory.

- One Diane White called me and wished the best of the seasons from the southern hemisphere where, amusingly, despite the purportedly summery climate, they had been forced to light a fire on Christmas Day, giving credence to my former private speculations that Taihape is, in fact, godforsaken.

- It was Boxing Day. I discovered that Americans do not call it Boxing Day. Imaginatively, they refer to the day after Christmas by the tag "the day after Christmas". ("But what do you call the Boxing Day Sales?" "..."the "after-Christmas sales"" "But that's so BORING!" "Maybe, but what does Boxing Day even MEAN?" "...*Googles*"). My request, put to an American family, that we should eat together on Boxing Day, was met by bemused sidelong glances, as if I had created some occasion upon which we all must don boxing gloves and shorts and meet in a ring to eat our gyoza. Which might have been festive.

- It was the 30th of December. Manfriend and I flew to Tokyo.

- Tokyo is big.

- I was reunited with one Elizabeth Love in a touching fashion (emotionally rather than figuratively) (a shame, really).

- I was reunited with one Abby Foy in an equally touching fashion (I apparently spent much of my holiday acting out episodes of Full House).

- I introduced my friends to their first nomitabehoudai. They got drunk. Very. There were some inappropriate maneuvers performed upon a nearby statue of Buddha (he felated a number of chopsticks, if you must know). We became overly excited by plates of bean sprouts.

- It was New Year's Day. The fact that I was not near-naked in a badly-pitched tent with a headache listening to New Zealand bands perform amongst grape vines grated oddly.

- We went to Harajuku. There were girls. And shops. And Nigerians flogging illegal things from dark corners. And may, many crepes. I discovered Forever 21, H&M and TopShop, all in a row, like very well-dressed and well-behaved English children. Acted like a Jew at the Wailing Wall. Worshipped. Worshipped vigorously, with my wallet. Liz rebelled by putting lots of weird things on her face.

- It was New Year's night. We went to Abby and Juliet's hotel room. I ripped my Karen Walker dress. Soothed self with plum wine.

- We tried to find Tim in the streets of Shinjuku. Many, many hours passed.

- We found Tim. Then we found dinner. In a restaurant glowing neon blue with the light of a thousand fish tanks, with the tag line "Experience the Great Barrier Reef". Can now tick that off my list of things to do in Japan. We were shut into a booth by long-suffering wait-staff. We ate nabe and very small pieces of cheese cake. We became merry. And overly excited by the possible contortions to be made with our tongues.

- We accidentally went into an arcade. Spent many, many dollars attempting to win small, plush Kitty's and alpacas. Amused by plethora of alpaca. Had not suspected them to be so popular an animal. Abby won two alpaca (alpacas? Had not suspected that correct grammatical rendering of plural alpaca(s) would be an issue I would ever face. Notable lack of foresight).

- We went to Big Echo for the countdown and for karaoke. Taylor Swift was there. So were the Backstreet Boys. And Queen. And The Killers. Abby was still bemusing composed.

I was not composed enough to take any more pictures that night.

- Suddenly, it was 7am. Instead of falling asleep like a normal person, I read a book (stolen from the hostel, soz) entitled American Wife, which I enjoyed until I realised, upon reading the end credits, that it was premised upon the life of one Laura Bush and her husband, one Bush Bush. Then, was struck by the immensity of my own denseness. Distressing commencement to the New Year.

- It was January 2nd. We went HERE.

Obviously, this is DISNEYLAND.

- Manfriend conceded to wear a hat:

- I myself located the most classy, tasteful pair of ears available for purchase:

- We went on Splash Mountain, where I was, inconceivably, splashed. My fringe was ruined. I was inconsolable. These guys remained perky:

- I became briefly homesick, prompted by Disney's charmingly accurate rendering of my homeland:

- More days passed. We did stuff.

- Liz came to Sapporo! It snowed a LOT.

- We went to the zoo in this weather. This proved to be rookie mistake. Too cold for photographs; too cold for animals.

- We went to a cat cafe. I spend too much time in cat cafes.

- We went to Round One. We rode arcade horses vigorously. We napped on massage chairs. We caught the 6am train home. I bought bran. I am a healthy, regular human being. We slept until 3am and then bought ridiculous quantities of McDonalds.

- We reverted to our 17 year old selves. This night resulted in Liz's last day in Japan being spent prone, on the couch, unable to move or eat. It is best documented photographically:

It is now 7.17am. An hour ago, I put Liz on a bus to the airport, the first leg in a trip back to NZ. We were sad.


- I am exhausted. Even in bullet point format, and conceding much detail to the wonder of the photograph, I have clearly left it too long between blogs to accurately record all highjinks.

- New Year's Resolutions:

- Write more;
- Drink less;
- Write less about drinking.