Monday, June 30, 2008

The humble nature of the Japanese

Yesterday, one of my friendly co-workers (the same one who gave me the umeshu kit) noticed that I'd started studying kanji (Chinese symbols used in Japanese writing). I'd drawn a grid on a piece of paper and made a bunch of copies, and I was sitting at my desk writing kanji over and over and over in an attempt to sear them into my memory.

Today, I showed up and found a couple of notebooks and a little post-it note on my desk. I looked inside the notebooks and was delighted to find that the pages were pre-printed with a grid made just for practicing kanji. I didn't know these existed, but of course they're perfect! There was a large notebook and a small notebook.

The note the teacher left said "Good morning. These notebooks are for you!! I don't know why I bought two similar notebooks. Maybe this is because I am old..... For my daughter, I look like an ill-natured person to give such notebooks to you."

I went over and thanked her profusely. She seemed happy to have helped.

The note struck me as so odd, but I know it's just the Japanese way.

In America, in a case like this someone would just give you the notebooks and say, "Hey, I saw these and thought they looked like just what you need, so I picked up a couple for you. I hope they help."

But the Japanese teacher's approach in presenting the gift — "I'm so silly, I must be a bad person for giving you this" — is just an example of the way the Japanese operate. The Japanese are constantly apologizing. It's part of their culture.

I suppose presenting the gift in this way was my teacher's attempt at making me feel good about getting the gift, rather than feel indebted to her because she did something nice that she didn't have to do. Or perhaps it's an attempt at minimizing any silliness I might have felt for not realizing I could buy a notebook like this.

Either way, her response was very Japanese. I've gotten used to hearing the Japanese around me apologize all the time. Every time I hear one of my co-workers on the phone, the conversation inevitably turns into a long stream of "Sumimasen"s (Excuse me/Sorry) before they hang up.

And every time a student enters the teachers' office to talk to a teacher (which happens all the time), he stands in the doorway and calls out "Shitsureshimasu!" which translates roughly to, "I'm sorry I'm being rude" or "Excuse me for disturbing you." They repeat it again before leaving: Shitsureshimashita! (I'm sorry I was rude.) It's customary for all teachers to say this as well before they leave the office for the day.

I remember reading a dialogue in my Japanese course book a while back about a person going to dinner at a Japanese couple's house. The visitor arrives and the husband greets him with an apology for his wife's poor cooking. Obviously, if a husband said such a thing in America, he'd get whacked up side the head with a frying pan, and the guests would wonder why they were invited over to eat a bunch of slop. Here, it's seen as a humble gesture. You are low, everyone else is high.

I haven't quite reconciled how I feel about this. On one hand, this approach is kind of refreshing compared to the American attitude of do-no-wrong. Often Americans tend to avoid apologizing at all costs because apologizing means acknowledging weakness and admitting you fell short. Here, the tendency is to accept all responsibility and avoid blaming others. Apologizing constantly helps to maintain harmony and avoid conflict.

On the other hand, there are times it annoys me because I feel the Japanese are being insincere. The husband doesn't really believe his wife's cooking sucks. The teacher at my school didn't really buy me two similar notebooks because she's old — quite the opposite in fact. It was quite thoughtful of her to buy both sizes in case I liked one size better than the other. I want to shake the teacher and tell her its OK to feel good about helping me.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


A calligraphy display from my school's Culture Festival

Last week was a big week at my high school. It was time for two of the school's three major festivals for the year, Chorus Festival and Culture Festival (Bunkasai in Japanese). The other big hurrah is the Sports Festival in September.

Japanese schools don't have big fancy dances like prom or homecoming. They don't have Friday night baseball games that all the kids attend or anything like that. So these festivals are the main fun events for the kids, and they are a BIG DEAL.

Kids stayed after school every day for weeks leading up to the Chorus Festival to practice singing together. Every home room class (40 kids each — that's 24 classes in all) rehearsed their own song. From about 3:30 on everyday, their soaring voices filled the teachers room.

Last Thursday the festival finally arrived. Instead of reporting to school that day, everyone met downtown at Phoenix Hall, a large auditorium next door to the atomic bomb museum. It was a pretty posh place. Nice cushy seats and good air conditioning (not to be taken for granted in Japan!).

Over the course of the day, I heard performances by all 24 homerooms, as well as the mothers in the PTA, the teachers (not including me, thankfully, as my singing is about as pleasant as Chinese water torture) and the guitar club. The brass band also played several tunes. The event was actually a competition. After the winners were announced, the winning homeroom came back for an encore, too.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't catch a few winks here and there — there's only so much choir you can hear that you don't understand before your mind starts to drift — but it was still enjoyable. The kids really put their all into it and they had a good time. When it came time to announce winners for each grade and for the competition, they went absolutely berserk. Like they won the lottery or something. You can't help but smile when you see kids so happy.

The next day, Friday, school was in session but all classes were canceled so the kids could prepare for the Culture Festival on Saturday. My high school occasionally has school on Saturday for events such as this, but then closes the following Monday to make up for it. Besides school festivals, it sometimes has session on Saturday for "open campus" to allow junior high kids to check out the school to see if they want to go there, and for PTA days when parents are invited to come in and observe their child's classes. I'm always amazed that they have these Saturday events and I never hear anyone complain about it. I can only imagine the whining I'd hear from kids and parents in the U.S. if American schools just decided to require Saturday school from time to time.

Culture Fest really blew me away. Tons of people came. Lots of family members and the kids' friends. The halls were so packed that sometimes it was hard to move.

Every homeroom class and student club decorated a room and planned games or short dramas to entertain everyone. And when I say these kids decorated, I don't just mean they made some posters and hung some streamers. The amount of effort put into decorating this festival was astounding. Giant paper mache creations, large murals on the walls, 3-D decorations made out of cardboard and tin-foil.

The activities going on in some of the rooms were really creative. One class created a life-size board game on the floor of their classroom using giant cardboard tiles and dice. Another class organized an activity where students would work together to try to arrange hundreds of little colored tiles on the floor into a picture.

I enjoyed competing with a couple of boys to use chopsticks to catch paper airplanes mid-flight. I was not nearly skilled enough for such a game, not surprisingly.

There was also a timed game where you raced to use chopsticks to pick up rubber balls floating in a pool of water. So very Japanese. It was cool.

The kids even organized all the food booths for the festival, serving udon (thick Japanese noodles), curry rice, dango (pounded rice treat on a stick with sweet sauce), and bananas and strawberries in chocolate. One class decorated their room like a 7-Eleven and sold bread and donuts and drinks. How cool is that!

One of the most impressive parts were the short dramas that several classes created. They created huge, elaborate sets and created stages by shoving all the desks in a classroom together on one side of the room to form a platform. Then they'd set up chairs for the audience on the other half of the room and put a cardboard marquee out front with show times running throughout the day. People would come and cram themselves into the room to watch these kids perform on their stage made out of wooden desks. Dangerous, and a fire hazard, I have no doubt. This is another example of a kinda dangerous thing that Japanese schools do that no one worries about here, but that would give American parents and teachers a heart attack. I like that they just let the kids have fun without getting their panties in a bunch.

There were productions of Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and others. I chose to attend a showing of Momotaro (Peach Boy), a famous Japanese legend about a boy born out of a peach who grows up to fight and defeat demons with the help of some animal friends. My final assignment in my second Japanese class at Sinclair Community College was to translate the story of Momotaro into English. I was really excited when I was able to translate the story, so I have a special affection for the tale of Momotaro.

Here's a video clip of part of their performance. The kids really ham it up.

It was kinda cool when I realized that I actually understood some of the stuff they said!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bathroom Engrish

From the bathroom in a bowling alley downtown:

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Crows ate my lunch

Recently I stopped at the "Yours" grocery store on the way to school to buy a bento for lunch. It's a container with a few rice balls, a little piece of fish, fried potato, couple pieces of chicken and some pickled vegetables.

I cycled the rest of the way to school and, typical absent-minded me, promptly forgot the bento in my bike basket.

Lunch time rolled around and my stomach was growling something fierce. Peering into the break room refrigerator, I realized my mistake. Probably the lunch was bad after spending four hours sitting outside, but nevertheless I went outside to retrieve it.

Upon arriving at my bike, I saw an empty bike basket. Had I just missed the lunch when I looked in the refrigerator?

Then I saw something hanging from the basket... pickled vegetables.

Looking down, I saw my lunch on the cement floor between the other bikes. Or more accurately, I saw my lunch container.

The plastic bag (which had been taped securely shut) was ripped open. Half the Styrofoam container lay scattered about in large ragged chunks.

That's when it hit me:

The crows ate my lunch.

Every bit of it was gone except for the pickled vegetables, which are, ironically, the only part of the bento that I refuse to eat. Apparently pickled vegetables aren't fit or the birds, either.

For some reason, the voice of Elaine from Seinfeld burst into my head. You know the episode where she tells the lady at the party in an Australian accent, "Dingos ate your baby!"? Well I heard Elaine cackling, "Crows ate your lunch!" With an evil echo like that chorus in the Christmas Story that goes "You'll shoot yer eye out!"

CROWS ATE YOUR LUNCH! (Ate your lunch. Ate your lunch. Ate your lunch...) BWAAA-HAHAHAHAAAAA!

OK, I'm weird. But you have to understand something.

The crows in Japan are freakishly large. Like large enough to eat small children. OK, maybe not eat children, but they actually have been aggressive enough to bloody their faces trying to swoop down and snatch their candy. So says this New York Times article written a few weeks ago. So you see what kind of despicable bastards they are.

They are practically the size of my butterball cat back home. Picture ominous jet black beasts with long curling claws and menacing black beaks. They look like they belong in some Stephen King novel where they'd peck through the skulls of innocent passersby and pick out their brains. When I bicycle to school each morning, their obnoxious cawing carries across the entire valley. I swear you can hear it a mile away.

Nefarious Japanese crow waits atop a power line to swoop down and Take. You. Out!

Back to my stolen lunch. Understandably peeved, I walked back to the office, my stomach still growling, and practiced my Japanese telling the story to the math teacher who sits next to me. He was amused. The crows are, indeed, seen as big pests in Japan, he said. That's why sometimes you'll see trash strewn around places. Crows pick through people's garbage and spread it around. Like this:

Smart little demons, aren't they? Very smart. Take a look at this BBC video story about how they crack open nuts.

But if you think that's clever, consider this battle of wits. Tokyo cleverly started baiting the buggers with meat inside plastic bags full of poisonous gas. Bye bye crows! How d'ya like that?

So anyway. The math teacher and I agreed. The crows are evil.

And I opened my desk drawer and took out my back-up lunch: U.F.O. brand ramen noodles.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Jeffrey Dahmer's favorite Tupperware

Today Joe and I walked to Juntendo, our local do-it-yourself store, to buy a Tupperware container for rice.

Among all the containers, I saw this.

In case you missed the label, here's a close-up.

All right! Just the right container to keep all that "meat" in my freezer from going bad.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Making umeshu

A very generous co-worker of mine showed up with a cool gift out of the blue for me this week. She came over to my desk with a paper bag filled with unripened plums, rock sugar and a large glass jar. By layering the plums and sugar in the container and filling it with white liquor, we can make our own umeshu (oo-may-shoo), or Japanese plum liquor. This is a drink that Joe and I both took a shine to during work parties, so we were pretty excited to get this gift.

We put the concoction together tonight. Now we just have to wait around six months or so to enjoy it. As they say, good things come to those who wait.