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Show and Tell

July 22, 2009

(Originally Published 25/10/2007)

It’s been awhile since I’ve written but I have an excuse.  First, last week was midterms and I had to study extra hard to pull off good grades on my exams.  The good news is I did pretty well and managed good grades.  The bad news is I stayed up late every night studying and by the end of the week I was so worn out that I succumbed to a cold and went home sick after my reading and writing exam on Friday, not feeling up to four hours of ceramics in the afternoon.More... I went to bed about noon and slept all afternoon.  I got up at six and slumped around for a couple of hours, watching anime with my roommate and then collapsed again and slept all night and didn’t wake up until mid-morning.  I took some medicine and drank a lot of soup (pumpkin-corn chowder) and it seems to have worked.  I’m almost recovered now although the cold has moved from my throat into my sinuses and then dropped down into my chest so I’m left with a barking cough that adds to my scary gaijin demeanor.  The weather has been completely unpredictable – one day hot, the next cold, sudden rainstorms, sashaying breezes – it’s hard to tell what to wear.  I wore my Pakistani knit cap to my job the other night.  One thing that has been consistent this week is the haze.  The rice was just recently harvested and farmers are burning the chaff that remains so the air pollution is particularly bad right now.  I can barely make out the mountains surrounding the valley.  I need to escape to mountains and the promise of fresh air.

One of my Japanese friends works for the volunteer club at school and she invited me to come along to a local elementary school with a group of other foreign students to talk about our home countries.  There were several people from the United States, two from Canada, two from Thailand, one from Korea (my roommate), and one from Latvia.  Many Japanese college students accompanied us as well.  The moment we stepped through the gate a few children noticed us and ran to grab their friends.  A whole battalion came charging around the bend and stopped in their tracks, staring at us.  “Haro!” came a few nervous calls and they all burst into sheepish giggles and ran around looking confused.  We called back our greetings and tried to look as unimposing and friendly as we could.  They ran off laughing and screaming and joined their classes safely out of sight.  We walked into one of the main buildings and had to take our shoes off.  There were slippers laid out in pairs for everyone to take but of course there are no slippers in Japan that will fit my feet.  Gingerly, I slid along the corridors on the balls of my feet with my heels hanging out precariously.  We sat down at the library at two long tables – one for the gaijin and one for the Japanese students who accompanied us.  A woman came in and explained the schedule and then we followed her to the gym.  Somehow I wound up in the front of the line and was the first foreigner to enter the building and the sight of all the eagerly anticipating third graders.  Their faces glowed up at me as I shuffled along to my seat in front of them all.  Several boys called out “Hello!” to us and then slapped hands in celebration with their friends if we called back.  The opening ceremony began and the class representatives got up and said hello to us in English, Korean, and Russian.  After that, it was our turn.  Being first in line, I was the first to get up and give a short introduction about my country.  Instead of talking about the United States, I talked about Oregon.  Mostly I talked about what makes Oregon special, such as there are a lot of trees and that we’re famous for delicious beer and cheese.  I said I lived with my mom and sister and that we had three cats.  They wanted to know the names of my cats.  We were supposed to keep it pretty short and since I was the first one I wasn’t sure when I should stop or not but I figured that was enough and passed it on to the next person.  After all the introductions we learned how to play “Rock, Paper, Scissors” in English, Korean, Thai, French, Chinese, and Russian.  After that we broke into small groups and played some strange game where we all join hands and form a circle and then someone runs through the circle and ducks under the arms of the people on the other side and then the circle has to fold in upon itself at that point and everyone winds up twisted around and facing another direction.  I didn’t really get it but the kids seemed to have a great time.  Then we learned how to do some traditional Japanese games like spinning tops or making origami.  I had so many origami presents thrust upon me by the kids and nowhere to put them so I placed them on top of the piano while I played the other games.  Unfortunately, I forgot them there when we filed out and I hope it didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings to find them there later.  Before we left we sang “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes” in English and we were asked to sing along and do the motions if we knew how.  I did and all of a sudden the teacher was in front of me thrusting the microphone in my face and asking me to sing.  So, I sang for everyone despite my cold amidst much giggling about how deep my voice was.  That was it.  It was a pretty fun experience but I felt a little weird as if I was being showcased as some sort of amazing person or celebrity just because I came to Japan from overseas.  Kids even asked me for my autograph and it was really embarassing because I didn’t know how I should act.  I did get to arm wrestle with some of the kids during all the pandemonium during the circle game and I had a good time comparing my feet and hands with many eager youngsters.  I have really mixed feelings about the whole adventure.  The kids were very polite – nobody called out “Gaijin!” or pointed or anything.  Still, I felt like I was on exhibition.  But, isn’t that one of the reasons I came to Japan?  In some ways, I define myself as an outsider and being a ‘gaijin’ leaves me free to act the way I want to act because everyone expects me to be zany.

I’ve always been fascinated with outsiders’ views of Japan.  Some of my favorite books are the travelogues written by Alan Booth about his walking soujourns around Japan.  Tonight I read a book by another expat in Japan who shadowed the famous haiku master Basho’s pilgrimage along the road to Oku (an old name for a region in northern Honshu, the main island of Japan).  It was a pretty good book, written in both English and Japanese and with many sketches the author did while walking along the route.  I liked how he included parts of Basho’s work Oku no Hosomichi and related his experiences at certain places with those of Basho.  Alan Booth also does this, incorporating historical anecdotes about the places he visits and offering his own thoughts.  Why is it that we all are obsessed with walking and experiencing Japan by foot and why do we identify ourselves so strongly as foreigners living in Japan?  It’s so important to me that I am planning to use it for my senior project.  I’m thinking about walking the Tokkaido (the route between Osaka and Tokyo) and recording my experiences and then translating them into Japanese.  I want to shadow some famous journey along this route or reflect my experiences with historically significant places along the way.  This is all still really rough right now but that’s what I’m working on.

I’m studying rakugo (traditional Japanese one-man comedy acts) right now and it’s pretty interesting.  The plays themselves are kind of boring but the way they are performed makes them hilarious.  It’s nothing fancy, it’s almost like stand-up comedy, with one guy dressed in a simple kimono and with only a handkerchief and a fan as props.  This one guy plays all the parts in the play and his facial expressions and voices are the key to the humor of rakugo.  We actually watched a rakugo performance in English in my reading and writing class the other day (part of the reason I became interested in this) and the performer was really good about utilizing the audience’s imagination to make the story come alive.

I’ve got a busy weekend planned and November is going to be an exciting month.  I can’t believe it’s almost Halloween already!

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