Naked-sensei here! Its high time I tell you about my first days as a foreign English teacher in Japan.
Ill never forget riding my bike to school that first day, laptop strapped to my back, tie around my neck, and school slippers riding in my basket (we're not supposed to wear shoes inside the school). I pedaled through the school gate and was immediately greeted by a mob of thirteen year olds, bowing and shouting a monotone "Ohayogozaimasu!" -- Good Morning!
My days of incubation were over. I was heading full-swing into school. It was a great feeling -- I knew nothing and yet I was a teacher! Or was I? By the reaction I was getting from my students, youd have sworn I was a movie star! On that first day alone, I was favorably compared to both Christian Slater and Brad Pitt! I caused a near riot in just about every direction I turned! (Readers, Ive been in Japan almost 4 years now and Im still getting compared to Brad on a weekly basis. Dont worry though I haven t let it go to my head!)
Weaving my way through the "Ooohs and Aaahs" in the hallways, I arrived at the Teachers' Room and found my small metal desk. Thinking back on my previous life in New York I thought,"Boy, Im sure going to miss my old cubicle in the Daily News Building!" Hard to believe that I used to share office space with Clark Kent.
That day, there were no classes nor, as it turned out, would there be for most of the month. September is a time for getting 'back in gear' it seems. There was a school assembly, however, to introduce Yours Truly. I have absolutely no recollection of what I said as I stared from the gym stage onto 700 Japanese teenage faces looking up in wonder.
I know for a fact that US convicts eat MUCH BETTER than Japanese Junior high students! I have a close personal friend who is a chef in the Oregon State Penal System and is recognized nation-wide for his award-winning "SPAMacopita." I kid you not. If our prisoners were served this food, they might think twice before committing another crime!
I hated school lunch even in the States. In fact it was the subject of my first ever piece of prose! For my Jr. High English class I wrote a horror story about the dreaded "Tuna Wheels" that were served in our cafeteria. So you can imagine my dismay when I discovered that not only are American Tuna Wheels gourmet food by comparison, but that Japanese teachers have to eat the school lunches as well to set an example!!
I was reminded of a Start Trek: The Next Generation episode where Ryker takes part in a Federation Officer Exchange program and has to spend a month on a Klingon warship. He had to pretend he enjoyed eating their slimy, living food (FYI, in Japan theyve made a "cuisine" out of living food! Its called "ikizukuri." Its not served in schools, though. All the food here is VERY dead).
Todays main course was a serving of cold, small, very smelly, burnt, whole fish over a bowl of rice. On the side was a concoction of dried beans, apple chunks and little guppy fish staring up at me! All topped off with a wholesome carton of milk (I hate milk). I downed the whole thing, minus the milk. A fellow teacher gave me a lecture on the importance of milk for my bones. Little did I know he would give me this lecture every day for the next three years. I dont know how I survived on school lunches for so long before I finally did what most foreigners do: Exercise our right to be different by bringing a sack lunch.
There isnt much else to report about my first day. It was the first of what would be many 8 hour days without a damn thing to do. Of course I did attempt communication with the kids and thanked them for the fan mail (I got several "love letters" that day). Their responses were not much beyond the typical, "Hello! My name is Mika. Im fine thank you, and you?" Giggle giggle. Before long it was 5:30 and time for me to leave. "Kids, Elvis has left the building."
|9/18||Sports Day |
What a day. In September, Japanese Jr. High schools have 2 special days in which ALL students are required to take part: Sports Day and Culture Day. Japanese people are stunned and amazed when I explain that we do not have these days in U.S. schools. They cant fathom life without Sports Day and Culture Day. Thats because they play a huge part in Japanese life especially Sports Day. I learned later that Japanese people engage in Sports Day events from kindergarten through college and beyond! Many, if not most, Japanese companies even hold a Sports Day for their employees.
My school's Sports Day began with opening ceremonies. (In fact, every activity begins with at least one opening ceremony in Japan. Sometimes theres even an opening ceremony for the opening ceremony!) The students marched out onto the dirt playing field in the same manner that theyd been practicing for the past 2 weeks, carrying their class flags and hand-painted paper banners. I realized why I have no classes in September: my students have marching practice everyday!
The school principal stood on a makeshift platform in front of the students and delivered a rousing speech through a bullhorn about the goodness of group participation, how it makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy, and makes the Nation stronger.
Then began the calisthenics which, to this day, is one of the most hilarious things Ive seen in Japan or anywhere else for that matter. The whole school population stands at military attention in really dorky looking uniforms: White shoes, white socks pulled up to the knee, blue shorts pulled up to the armpits, a tight white shirt that accents the boys girly arms and, to top it off, a cotton white cap with an elastic strap that goes around the chin to keep it from blowing off. In other words, they are forced to look like total dweebs.
Then the music began and, like an army of robots, they engaged in some of the most awkward and useless exercises invented by Man. The music was some kind of pseudo-patriotic crap on a scratchy record, and voices boomed over the loudspeaker, "Ich - Ni - San!" (One, Two, Three!) Who invented these exercises?! What good do they do?! Who wrote that music?!! Why the Hell do they play it?!! Have they no idea how ridiculous the whole thing looks?!!
Masahiro (one of my favorite students) seemed to be the only person clued in to the absurdity of the situation. He was either a half step behind everyone, or right in step but exaggerating every move like a Japanese Gomer Pile. It was comic genius, but I was the only one laughing. Everyone else looked so rigid and serious that youd have sworn WWII was about to happen all over again. Pretty surprising considering they were supposed to be enjoying themselves!
Finally it was time for the races to begin and everyone loosened up. They ran relay after relay: 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 3 legged race, 5 legged race, team jump-rope (30 kids trying to jump together with one huge rope -- that was Japans teamwork concept really at work!), and other inexplicable events. Mine was yet to come...
For lunch I was served a whole octopus! It was little but it was fully in tact and I ate it. I cant say I enjoyed the experience.
Then it was time for Folk Dancing. "Folk Dancing," which they say in English because it is a "foreign activity," is a "sport" in Japan and EVERYONE in this country is instructed how to "Oklahoma 2-Step" by the age of 11. There is no way I can tell you just how silly, corny and surreal it was. All the teachers, the students (in their aforementioned attire), the PTA moms (no fathers were present) -- all were "two-stepping" to the music of the musical, Oklahoma! The Japanese were precise and calculating in their approach to folk dancing. Me, I must have looked like a rodeo clown, completely out of control in my effort to jazz it up a little. Most of the girls and moms recoiled in fear when I reached out for them with my hairy hand and yelled, "Howdy!"
Then came the moment I had anticipated with excitement and fear for the last 2 weeks: My heat in the100 meter relay! I stretched with the PE teacher (whose English nickname is "Mr. Big Moon" -- a translation of his Japanese name), put on my green headband (everyone had them tied around their head in kamikaze style) and was ready to go. Our team got off to an awful start and by the time I was up, we were already a full 100m behind the next slowest team.
When I strutted out onto the track you would have thought Carl Lewis himself had just taken to the field. The students roared my name! It reminded me of the all-Russian audience cheering for Rocky in Rocky IV. I basked in the glory of the moment, raising my arms like Sylvester Stallone on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. But it was all for not -- huffing and puffing her way toward me was the short, out of shape, uncoordinated, little old librarian. When she saw me, she got a little too excited and -- in the process of trying to speed up -- fell down hard! I ran to her, checked her pulse (she was alive), then whipped the baton out of her hand and sped away like a purse-snatcher. I felt bad about leaving her there in the dust, but my primary responsibility was to win the race for the teachers team. You see, they thought that because Im a 61" tall WHITE MAN, that Im some sort of physically superior being. I was sorry to disappoint them, but the kids had a hell of a lead -- and a sprinter I am not. There was no way I could catch up, despite the ecstatic cheers. I felt pretty good about my performance all the same. And everyone else was certainly impressed. Of course I came in dead last, but everyone liked the fact that I "did my best." Thats what counts most in Japan.
Bunka Sai! (Culture Day)
For some reason I was more worried about how I would perform today than last weeks Sports Day, even though in theory I am much better singer than runner. What worried me even more was the fact that I had no clean shirts and I was out of deodorant. It would be very important NOT to sweat!
You see, running out of deodorant would be small problem for me at home, but as a foreigner in Japan, its a potential disaster. Can you imagine what it's like when you have to go the the store but you dont know how to read or speak... and youve got B.O.? After an hour of staring at various illegible cans and bottles on the shelves, you might end up buying hair spray for your armpits! Having no time for such adventures, I put on my suit and my flashiest tie and went to school.
Culture Day began with the usual preliminaries. The classrooms had been converted into exhibition spaces and art installations, and there were a series of original short plays performed by each of the 3rd year classes. There were also a couple musical interludes thrown in, and my rendition of The Beatles song, "Yesterday," was to be one of them. "Yesterday" is a karaoke anthem for foreigners in Japan. (Did you know that my new home, Okayama, is the birthplace of the karaoke machine?!).
I was surprised how creative and theatrical the students were on stage considering that in my classroom the same students can be so completely comatose! Most of the time I had no idea what I was watching (it was kind of similar to opera in that regard) but it was hilarious and highly entertaining just the same. Sometimes the humor was on purpose, sometimes not.
After an hour, the time had arrived for my moment in the sun. I walked out onto the stage. The music teacher started playing the intro. I began to sweat. The smell wasnt good. Then a solar flare of a spotlight momentarily blinded me. I sweated more. I wasn't getting off to a good start. I could hear my voice quivering as I stood there in front of the entire student body singing, "Why she... had to go I dont know... she wouldnt say..." By the time I finished, probably a half note too low, I had accidentally repeated the second verse twice, I was standing in a pool of sweat, and I smelled like a locker room. I stunk in more ways than one -- but I looked good in my new suit.
To my surprise, my performance was loved by all. During the afternoon I sang again. This time, performing a song ironically titled, "Tomorrow," although it was an entirely Japanese song. Musically the song was a piece of cake -- a typical gum drop sweet Japanese pop song. But the hard part was reading the words. The lyrics were written entirely in the Japanese hiragana alphabet! It was the closing number of the culture festival and I was joined by the heads of the student body, who helped me a little, but they barely opened their mouths. Booming out over the speakers, I was the only person you could hear. I was singing away but not knowing what I was saying. I must have sounded like Arnold Schwartzenegger trying to sing "Puff the Magic Dragon."
The "Drinking Party"
The lousy singing didnt stop there. The most interesting thing about Culture Day was the teachers "drinking party" that followed in the evening. I liked how they werent ashamed to call it what it was. On these occasions, Japanese get together with the sole purpose of releasing stress through drinking themselves into oblivion!
We had a great Japanese dinner -- all of us sitting on the tatami floor of a typical restaurant, pouring each other beer and sake and eating sushi, tempura, etc. The quiet, controlled people Id been working with for the last month were unraveling quickly. There faces were becoming red, their behavior boisterous.
I noticed that our esteemed English teacher, Mr. Fuji, was drinking pretty hard and fast. Mr. Fuji is in is early 50's and truly deserves the Japanese title of sensei (the word means "teacher," which carries a lot of weight here in Asia). He speaks English very well (which amazingly, isnt really a requirement for the job) and he is highly respected by his peers and students. Mr. Fuji can be seen most days in a purple warm-up suit and tennis shoes. His thin, wispy, white hair is usually standing on end -- wind blown by his brisk bike ride to school. The hair stays in that position for the rest of the day.
Mr.Fuji likes to engage me in conversation from time to time. Sometimes his topics are mundane and sometimes very profound. He always uses his hands when he speaks English, but not Japanese. Like my dad, hes got a low, clear, booming, baritone voice and always sounds like hes either teaching a class of 40 students, or like he's hearing impaired. The cadence of his speech is a cross between Captain Kirk from Star Trek, and Mr. Rourke from Fantasy Island.
"Hello Thomas!...And HOW are YOU today?"
"Aahhh... You say you ARE FINE? Hmm... And WHY are you FINE today Thomas?"
"Aahhhhha....Hmmm... YES!... Mmmmm...VERY GOOD... I see." etc.
Now that you know Mr. Fuji, try to imagine him drunk out of his mind!
As is customary, once our dinner was finished, a few of the hardcore partiers invited me to continue on with them to a "hostess club." I felt it important that I keep up with them in order to establish myself as one of the group, so I agreed. Besides, Id heard a lot about these "hostess" establishments and was curious to go where not many foreigners had gone before
| Mr. Fuji was already displaying signs of heavy intoxication. When we got to the club, the Drama teacher immediately summoned a bottle of brandy and two sleazy hostess girls to serve our table. The hostesses sat with us and gingerly dropped ice into our tumblers. They were attractive, I suppose, somewhere behind the make-up, tinted hair and trashy, tight dresses. They both had low, sultry voices (the opposite of the Japanese of cute, chirpy females), probably the result of way too much cigarettes, alcohol and karaoke. |
The drama teacher held the bottle of brandy up for me to see.
"You rike blandy?" He asked and grinned. He had strategically positioned himself between the hostess girls.
"Yes," I lied. This seemed to indicate to him that I wanted some, so he immediately patted one of the girls on the knee and she poured me a glass of brandy, straight up. Everyone else had theirs on the rocks and diluted with water. Shit! At that point, I had already drunk more than any night since my college days in Spain! I was in way over my head but I fought on. I had no other choice.
As I expected, I soon had a microphone being waved in my face. The karaoke torture was about to begin. They had selected an English song for me: "How Deep is Your Love?" by the BeeGees, a personal favorite of our grey-haired, slight of build, Vice Principal (I wonder was he a fan of the movie "Saturday Night Fever" as well). I was in trouble. They didnt seem to grasp the fact that I am a baritone and that the Brothers Gibb are sopranos. I looked at the karaoke video screen:
"Haaaaaaaaaaaaaa, Ahhhhh, uhhh, ahhhh...Is your love how deeeep is your love? I really need to know..."
I was glad I was in a foreign country and that everyone (except the hostess girls) was too drunk to remember my performance. Before the night was over, I had submitted to singing: 1) Simon and Garfunkels "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (also out of my range); 2) Richie Valens "La Bamba!" (I impressed the Hell out of them with my Spanish -- but still way too high); and 3) "Rhinestone Cowboy" by Glen Campbell -- a song that I could sing without crossing my legs! I had everyone in the bar swaying (way...) back and forth and smiling like we were old friends.
At 1:30 am it was time to go home. There was just one problem: Mr. Fuji couldnt stand up. Every time he tried he fell down just as fast. But, like a drunk Captain Kirk, he kept trying, saying,
"I AM FINE. Please do not WORRY about ME!" I was the only one who understood him as, unbeknownst to him, he was addressing everyone in English.
At last, we got him on his feet. The other teachers asked if he would make it home ok. He laughed a hearty laugh (you know how opera singers laugh? Same thing.) and said again,
"YOU do NOT have to worry!"
Still swaying in the wind, he pointed at his chest with his thumb like Mighty Mouse, "I...AM.......FINE!"
Just like me, Mr. Fuji had ridden his bike that day and, as fate would have it, he also lived in my neighborhood. The other teachers looked very relieved when they discovered that the two of us were headed in the same direction. I was charged with getting the honorable Fuji-sensei home in one piece. I asked him,
"Do you know where your house is in relation to mine? Perhaps we should take a cab."
"Thomas, I AM FINE. You do not need to worry... and YES! I...KNOW....WHERE I live....BUT! I do not KNOW Where I AM! HA! HA! HA! HA! (again the opera laugh)."
Well, you dont deny Fuji-sensei, when he insists on doing something! So I pointed the way and we rode off on our bikes. He was making tremendous S curves all the way, bumping into me and then careening off in the opposite direction, until he bumped into a wall or something else that sent him back toward me and the middle of the road.
The only thing I could do to keep Mr. Fuji from being run over was ride out in the middle of traffic.Cars were honking at me but I held my ground and made them pass. We had to cross a bridge and I was scared to death that Mr. Fuji would fall into the Asahi River. Several times his bike brushed up against mine and we both almost crashed.
Finally we reached the point where our paths diverged. I asked him one last time if he was ok. I dont have to tell you his response (opera laugh). We said good-bye and he sped recklessly away.
He had told me it was only a few more blocks, but when I saw him swerving over the entire road I decided to follow him at a distance -- just to make sure he made it home alive. He curved in and out then suddenly veered off to the left and out of sight. I thought for sure he had crashed. I caught up to see what had happened. There was his bike, laying on its side with the front wheel still spinning. And there was Mr. Fuji, remarkably still standing with his back to me, staring into the sky, entranced by the harvest moon. Then I noticed that he was releasing a cascade of pee into the gutter. At that moment I somehow knew that he would make it home in one piece, so I turned around and headed home.
On Monday I saw Mr. Fuji again and it was business as usual, as if nothing had ever happened,
"Aahhh THOMAS! And HOW are YOU today?"
A year after writing this, Mr. Fuji went on his annual school vacation. While playing golf in Honolulu, Mr. Fuji accidentally sent a ball flying into his 11 year old sons face. His son lost the use of his right eye and had to have it replaced with a glass one. I dont know if Mr. Fuji was drinking that the time, but he hasnt had a drop since. I returned from summer vacation to find his head shaved bald and his manner that of a Zen monk. With time, his hair and proud Captain Kirkian character would return, but the drinking would not. From then on, at our "drinking parties," Mr. Fuji stuck to oolong tea and was always home by 9:00.
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