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The Elegance of Man

September 19, 2009

I went to my first elementary school on Friday. We had two identical presentations in a row; the first for the third graders and the second for the fourth graders. The three of us (the CIRs from Mongolia, China, and the US) gave short presentations introducing our respective countries. I think it went really well, but whenever someone presenting started to get long-winded about something, the kids began squirming and rattling their chairs around. Everyone seemed pretty happy to have us there, and I felt confident as a teacher. Now that I’ve seen what it’s like in a classroom, I’ve confirmed that I do belong here as a CIR rather than an ALT. Teaching in the classroom is okay, but I love working in my office and I think the international relations aspect of my job is fitting me just perfectly. One thing that was really interesting to see was the class politics. Just by spending an hour with these kids, I could tell who was the class clown, who was the class idol, who was the class nerd, etc… One girl spoke up a lot and whatever she did, eighty percent of the other girls in the class did, too. She was cute, bright, aggressive, and I could tell that the other girls respected/feared her. The boys didn’t seem to have such a clearcut leader, and nobody really seemed to know who’s example to follow, so everyone just kind of wrestled around, making sure to be seen but not stand out too much. Interesting stuff. I also could see who is ignored/bullied and who leads the bullying. Maybe I’m over-analyzing it all after watching “All About Lily Chou-chou,” but it was interesting nonetheless.

I got to eat lunch with the sixth graders while Mugi and Ecchan ate with the fifth graders. In Japanese schools, the kids help serve lunch, and it is done on a rotational basis. Some kids bring up whatever was prepared in the kitchen, and help serve it in the classroom to all the other classmates. I was lucky enough to be there for chicken curry. It was good, but everyone ate so fast and they had already cleaned up and were all brushing their teeth when I finally finished gobbling down the remnants of my lunch. I think they probably spent more time brushing their teeth than eating. But anyway, during lunch I got to talk with a bunch of the kids and they were supposed to challenge themselves and attempt to speak with me in English, but beyond “Hello, I am so-and-so…” it turned back into Japanese. One kid had a whole lot to tell me, with the conversation swinging back and forth between pets (he has 21 stag beetles), cars (he prefers a Mercedes Benz), and his dreams of the future (he’s going to be a policeman).

A girl came up to me and asked me who I thought was cool in the class. “Well,” I said, “you seem pretty cool.” She dissolved into giggles and then told me that girls weren’t cool, they were cute. “Oops,” I said, “well, you’re pretty cute, too.” Then she asked me if I had a girlfriend.

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

“That’s a good question.”

We played with the kids during lunch recess, and I ended up with little boys crawling all over me trying to touch me in inappropriate places. The girls seemed to have a better go of it, walking back and forth across the balance beam together quietly. I ended up running for my life as three young scallywags chased after me with a bag full of crickets they wanted to dump on top of me. Ah, what a life.

There’s something in the Japanese language called ‘Yojijukugo’ which literally means ‘Four-character compound word.’ Some good examples are 一進一退 (one step forward, one step back), 一目瞭然 (apparent at a glance) and other sayings that seem to contain an element of wisdom. Someone once told me that her favorite yojijukugo was 焼肉定職 (grilled meat dinner special). Since most Japanese words are comprised of two kanji (Chinese characters), it is quite easy to create yojijukugo by just putting two words together. There are thousands of yojijukugo that people would really consider yojiukugo, and thousands more that would probably just be considered a couple of words put together. But anyway, I’ve been creating some of my own recently. I was out on a walk last week and saw some kids playing around. It felt so good to watch them innocently having fun, I wanted to shout out, “青春万歳!” (Hooray for Youth!). A couple of nights ago, I was walking by the riverside late at night, and I came upon a young high-school couple lying together in the middle of the path, completely absorbed in each other and in watching the stars overhead. It didn’t bother them one bit when a giant foreigner passed by overhead in the dark. I wanted to turn back and shout out, “恋愛万歳!” (Let’s hear it for love!). Today, I created another one – “失恋万歳!” (Long live unrequited love!) Ah well, I’m not going to shave anything this time, but I do think I’ll start reading Time Enough for Love again.

Speaking of manliness (and, if it’s me, I’m pretty much always speaking of manliness), I’ve had some thoughts about the image of man. Recently, a TV program here in Japan has been complaining that Japanese men are becoming less manly than they were in the good old days. There were a number of complaints, but basically what they said was that Japanese men are soft and weak and fail to fulfill the gritty image of manliness that they seem to remember from the past. Anyway, I was talking with some coworkers last night at a work party, and someone asked me who my favorite female actors are. Well, I couldn’t really think of any, but I have a whole list of male actors that I like. I listed off several names of people that I admire and said that I felt they represented the virtues of the ideal man and that I would like to become manlier like them someday. She laughed and said that the people I named would hardly be considered manly by normal Japanese standards. They are too kind to be manly. Maybe it’s time to redraw our image of man.

I was talking with another one of my friends last night, and I mentioned how I’m always drawn to go talk to the juvenile delinquent types I see on the street. I mentioned how I liked that the word for delinquent in Japanese is 不良 (literally “not good”), and I thought it was great that even though they were considered not good, it didn’t really mean that they were bad. She laughed and said that she had never thought about it that way because in China they have the same word and that it carries the meaning of “bad” inside of the “not good.” But anyway, I like to think you can be not good and still not be bad. It breaks the whole constricting duality of the system. Whatever that means.

Today I went to the mountains! I went to Ebino Plateau, one of the first national parks of Japan. This was my first time in a Japanese national park. The drive up there was really scenic, and I saw some beautiful fields of flowers blooming even though leaves are already beginning to fall up on the mountainsides. It seems to me that in Japan, flowers bloom all year round. But anyway, I found a promising looking parking spot and began traipsing around the side of the mountain. Immediately, I started a deer that was hanging out in the woods. It was nice to see a real deer in Japan, not the pathetic tame deer they have up in Nara. So, I finally found a path (sort of) and worked my way down a valley and up the other side, and ended up scaling a nearly vertical hillside until I reached a summit. At first, I ran into a few people here and there, but I must have lost the trail because I ended up scrambling along a washed-out gully to get to the top of the hill. But really, the trail was so poorly marked and everything in that forest looked like a semi-trail. Deer trails, creek beds, the official “trail,” I couldn’t tell one from the other. Oh well, the view from the top of the hill was pretty nice (although it was hot up there and I left my water bottle and hat back in the car) and I poked around on the other side of the hill for awhile in a dry lake bed. I went back to where I had come from, and I eventually did find a real trail. This trail made a big loop around several of the crater lakes up there on top of the mountain. The lakes were really beautiful, a clear dark blue, and there were lots of people out enjoying the first day of Silver Week (the five day weekend in the middle of September). I was amazed by how many older people were charging down the path determinedly. I passed an old couple muttering “Yoi-sho! Yoi-sho!” (Heave-ho, heave-ho) as they plowed along. Eventually, I made my way around the loop and found myself at a big parking lot with a welcome center (and ice cream!). I was amazed to spot four deer browsing by the side of the woods, and then I realized that these deer were almost as tame as the ones in Nara. Ah well. As I was going around the loop, I always offered a hearty “Hello!” to everyone I was passing. I remember what I learned from Maruki-sensei about the importance of greeting someone and putting all your energy into that greeting to let them know that for that moment, you are focused on them. I actually ran into several of the groups a second time on the other side of the loop, and they exclaimed how surprised they were that I’d made it around so quickly. I laughed and said that it was because of my long legs and also that since I was by myself, I could move faster because I didn’t need to focus on conversing while walking. I like meeting new people, but the unfortunate thing is that most of the conversations never get beyond this:

“Hello!”

“Oh, hello!”

“Nice weather, eh?”

“Yes, very nice. You speak Japanese well.”

“No, no, not yet.”

Perhaps this is why we make friends, so we can get beyond these simple sentences that I’ve uttered thousands of times. Language is an interesting thing. Sometimes I get really tired of these simplistic conversations (if you can really call them that, rather than just basic greetings) and I want to add on the end, “Man, if you think I’m good at Japanese, you should hear me speaking English!” But, I never do.

I drove back down the other side of the mountain and wound my way back through the spa town of Kirishima. There were all sorts of giant columns of steam rising out of the side of the mountain, and the odor of sulfur was quite strong. It’s interesting to have these active volcanoes all around me. I heard from my boss that the stuff that I thought was the yellow sand from China was actually ash from Sakurajima, the volcano over in the middle of Kagoshima bay.

I went for a walk the other day around the danchi by the river. Danchi are giant housing complexes with rows and rows of the same gigantic industrial apartment buildings all lined up and randomly numbered. Danchi always fascinate me, because there are probably ten thousand people living in this danchi by the river, and it was super quiet, almost as if the buildings were all empty. Ten thousand people, that’s the population of the entire town where my mom is living. Well, I just made that number up, and I’m not sure how many people are actually living there, but if there are twenty apartment buildings, each ten stories tall, with fifty people on each floor, that’s… 10,000 people? Well, anyway, it’s a lot.

I’m going to go get cleaned up and make some dinner. I only had an ice-cream cone for lunch, so I’m pretty hungry. I’ll get some pictures uploaded sometime soon.

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One comment

  1. You speak English really well!

    Fun stuff.



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