Friday, February 27, 2004

Pictures
So I've been reading a little about John Kerry and Jane Fonda, and how they were in the same photo together 30 years ago and how it might be an issue in this election. Has anyone else been reading about this?
If so, I'm pretty sure I know what the more politically ambitious of you are thinking right now. "What about that photo of Joel Swxagman and me?" and "How much will it cost to have it destroyed?"
Rest assured, the rates will be very reasonable. Contact me to begin negotiations.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Why?
From CNN's website today:

The United States intercepts two ships packed with Haitian refugees as President Bush warns he will turn back anyone attempting to flee the violence by sailing to America.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

My favorite Japanese English
"Exercise is moving the body"--From a sweatshirt one of my elementary school students was wearing.
(Actually I see a lot of funny English everyday, and it is hard to say which is my absolute favorite, but that one made me laugh. I was teaching a class and I saw that shirt and I just thought to myself, "damn right." )
For more fun and Japanese English check out the engrish.com website.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Depleted Uranium weapons and the Japanese Media
Today, while in the teachers lounge, I flipped through the school copy of the Japanese newspaper, and came across a big two page spread on the depleted Uranium weapons used in the Iraq war, and the effect on the Iraqi children.
It's an issue I'm somewhat familiar with. I first heard about it from Mark Mattison. I then researched Depleted Uranium weapons, and used it in my paper on Clinton's intervention in Yugoslavia (in which depleted Uranium missiles were also used) for my foreign policy class at Calvin College. I subsequently used this information in a Chimes article on the Iraq sanctions, and for teach-in we held with the Calvin College Social Justice committee on the same issue.
Depleted Uranium is very effective for punching through armored vehicles, but unfortunately is responsible for causing deformed fetuses and cancer in areas in which it is used.
Because of the intermittent bombing and use of Depleted Uranium weapons during the Clinton administration, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of deformed fetuses and childhood leukemia cases. With Bush's war, even more depleted Uranium has been used.
The thing about Depleted Uranium weapons is that the problems are well known inside activist communities in the United States (just put "depleted Uranium weapons" in a search engine in Yahoo, and see all the sites that comes up), but you'll never hear a word about it in major media sources. Yet in Japan, it was featured very prominently in the newspaper, along with graphs of the increasing number of child deaths from cancer in Iraq, and pictures of deformed children.
I explained to my Japanese colleagues that this sort of thing is never in the American newspaper, and most Americans didn't know about it. They responded to me that it is frequently in the Japanese press and television news programs, and almost all Japanese are familiar with these problems.
Which brings me back to some familiar ground. I didn't have this web log last year, but those of you who were in e-mail contact with me during the build up to the Iraq war recall I frequently compared the American media to the Japanese media. I don't want to repeat myself too much, but this is another perfect example.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Bird Flu hits Oita
Bird flu has been found in Oita prefecture in Kokonoe, a town not directly boarding Ajimu, but close enough so that Ajimu is in the radius of towns at risk. Yesterday we had bird flu inspectors come to inspect the chickens in Ajimu. Announcements were heard on the town loudspeakers all day forbidding the buying, selling, or transporting of poultry products.
So far nothing has been found in Ajimu, but on the advice of my co-workers at the board of Education, I threw away the remainder of my carton of eggs.
Also, you may not know this, but American beef is currently banned in Japan until the whole mad cow disease gets sorted out. All this is making me reconsider the merits of vegetarianism. In fact, I think I would have become a vegetarian a long time ago, if meat weren't so damn tasty.
Anyway, I'm sure you're all concerned about my health. I'll keep you updated on this web log.
Day 1
Still feeling good. A slight cough and a runny nose, but I think it's just a small cold. Circulation seems to be normal, and no notable sicknesses yet.
I create an incident at a party
I was at a party last night in Usa. Aside from myself and two other friends (Eion and Chris), everyone else at the party was Japanese.
Chris and I were talking to a friend at the party, and the subject of movies came up. She asked us what we thought about, "Last Samurai". As you'll recall from my post on "Last Samurai" a couple months ago, the movie is very popular in Japan and still a frequent subject of conversation months later.
As you may also recall from my post, I had some problems with the view of Japanese history presented in the movie. And I mentioned that in the conversation. I felt the "Last Samurai" downplayed the achievements of the Meiji restoration, and presented a romanticized version of the Samurai class system. She admitted that the Meiji restoration was an improvement for the lower classes in Japan, but remarked that the point of the movie was to honor the Samurai spirit.
I've heard this defense of the movie before, and I'm not quite sure what is meant by "Samurai spirit". Certainly the Samurai rebellion depicted in the movie, and all the bloodshed it caused seems a little pointless if it is just in defense of some elusive "Samurai spirit". So I said I thought all the killing was pointless then, but she corrected me. "The point isn't whether they killed or didn't kill. The point is the Samurai spirit." To illustrate her point, she brought up the scene where Watanabe Ken's son has been wounded in the fight by the bridge. "Even though he knows he is going to loose, he doesn't give up but charges ahead at the enemy and fights till the end. That's the Samurai spirit."
"So then is kamikaze an example of Samurai spirit?" I asked. This was dangerous ground, I knew. Every guide book I've ever read on Japan warns to avoid bringing up sensitive or embarrassing areas of Japanese history when talking with Japanese people. But every now and again I like to push the envelope.
At the end of World War II, as an invasion of mainland Japan became imminent, desperate Japanese fighter pilots would sacrifice themselves by crashing their planes into American warships. This was called kamikaze.The name literally means "divine wind", and is in reference to an incident in Japanese history when a strong wind prevented the Mongol ships from reaching Japan.
Most Americans are familiar with the former meaning, but not the latter. For many Japanese people, it is the reverse. So she thought I was talking about the Mongol invasion. "No, no, no, this doesn't have anything to do with that," she said. She assumed that I wasn't really understanding the conversation, and made an appeal to the large group for someone to translate for her. "Someone tell him this doesn't have anything to do with kamikaze ," she said.
"Hold on," someone else said, "there are two meanings to the word kamikaze aren't there?" The conversation was batted around the group for a while, and eventually she realized what I was talking about. And was outraged at the comparison.
But, in the time it had taken to clear this up, and perhaps also because of her excitement, she forgot which foreigner she had been arguing with (not kidding). She turned on Chris and started chewing him out.
Chris, who had really only been half following the conversation, had no idea what was going. It was very funny to just watch his eyes get bigger and more confused as she scolded him in rapid Japanese. Eventually he just threw up his hands and said, "Look, I know how to introduce myself in Japanese, and that's about it. I'm not part of this conversation."
Chris later said to me he half thought things would turn into a fight at that point. I think this is an exaggeration. She was talking fast, and she had raised her voice, but she was no where close to decking one of us. But anyway, you can infer from Chris' comment that it was an emotionally intense moment.
At this point the conversation again went back into the larger group, and as everyone was talking to each other in rapid Japanese, I lost track of what was being said. Eventually when the conversation had run its course, the girl turned to me and said calmly, "We've all decided you are wrong." And how can you argue with that?
Afterwards we had a much calmer conversation. Some of the other Japanese people explained to me that Japanese people are very shy about their own country, and very self-conscious about how foreigners view Japan. So they become uncomfortable when these subjects are brought up. And we had a nice conversation about foreign conceptions of Japan.
I should add though, before I wrap up this entry, that I do not believe sensitivity to outside criticism is a phenomenon unique to Japan. Remember the outrage last year about France's criticism of the U.S.? Anyone following right wing commentators would have thought France was the enemy. (And apparently a lot of people did, judging from the protests of French restaurants, which, by the way, was broadcast on Japanese TV, and really made all us ex-patriot very proud to be Americans. Big shout out here to everyone who bravely protested French restaurants last year. Thanks a lot guys.)
Actually, right wing commentators also get upset when other Americans criticize America. If I were ever to write a guide book about America, I'd be sure to warn, "No matter who you are, and no matter what your reason is, make sure you never ever criticize America."

Monday, February 16, 2004

Movies
Had a movie night last night with some of the gang. We rented "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" which is just coming out on video in Japan now. It wasn't bad. Gave me an idea for a movie of my own, about a JET who is a secret agent in his spare time. It has possibilities I think.
Also, while we were thumbing through the video collection, we came across the movie "Predator." And someone mentioned this movie was now a classic because it stars both the current governor of Minnesota and the current governor of California. As the only American in the group, it was a real patriotic moment for me.
Of course after Ronald Reagan, it is not unusually at all for actors to enter politics. But the thing about Predator (and most of the films in the Arnold Schwarzenegger cannon) is that they were so violent that I was never allowed to watch them as a child. Kind of ironic that Schwarzenegger is now a politician in the party of family values and wholesome entertainment.
update Turns out Jesse Ventura is no longer the Governor of Minnesota. I guess a lot can happen when you've been out of the country for a few years.
Yuri Gagarin
I was teaching the 9th grade students today out of the textbook, and the sample English reading for that day was about Space exploration, and Yuri Gagarin (the first man in Space) and Neil Armstrong (the first man on the moon).
Of course I knew all about Neil Armstrong, "One small step for man..." etc. But I had never heard of Yuri Gagarin before. In fact as I was doing the model reading for the students, I kept tripping over his name because I had no idea how to pronounce it.
Which perhaps indicates a slight bias in the American Educational system. Either that or I'm just an idiot and fell asleep during the Yuri Gagarin section of my history class.
But those of you under 30: honestly, how many of you knew who Yuri Gagarin was?
Update Tom did.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Friday the 13th and Valentines Day
Today being Friday the 13th, I've been getting asked a lot of questions concerning Americans and our fear of this day. I don't think anyone in this day and age still takes the superstition seriously, but sometimes when talking to Japanese people I find it easier to just play into their expectations, so I said some people in America worry about Friday the 13th. I was curious to see if this superstition was world wide, so I've been asking if in Japan people worry about Friday the 13th. The response is always that since Japan is not a Christian nation, they don't believe in Friday the 13th.
So apparently Friday the 13th is a Western tradition, but I'm not entirely sure it has its origins in Christianity. Does it? I overheard one of the teachers in the staff room explain to everyone else that Christians fear Friday the 13th because Jesus was put to death on a Friday, and betrayed by Judas, who was the 13th disciple. But I'm fairly certain there were only 12 disciples. Does anyone know the origin of Friday the 13th? If so, send me an e-mail. (I guess I could look it up on the Internet myself but, you know, too damn lazy).
Ironically there seems to be a bit of confusion over Valentine's Day, which is obviously a Christian holiday (from Saint Valentine). Many of my students, and even Japanese colleagues, believe that Valentine's Day is in Japan only. I've been surprising a lot of people by telling them Valentine's Day is celebrated in the U.S. as well.
But it is different in Japan. All over the rest of the world, men are busy buying presents for their girlfriends on Valentine's day. In Japan, it is the female's job to give gifts of Chocolate to the men. The men aren't expected to give anything at all to their girlfriends on Valentine's.
To balance this out, a separate holiday was eventually created in Japan known as "White Day", which occurs exactly a month later. White Day was actually created by the marshmallow and Chocolate companies, which saw an opportunity to double their valentine sales by encouraging men to reciprocate the gift a month later.
But dig, White Day came later. Originally only Valentine's Day existed, and originally only the women gave chocolate.
Which reinforces what I've been telling some of you ever since I got here: Is Japan a man's paradise or what? Men don't clean, men don't cook, a certain amount of marital infidelity for the husband is almost expected and...Somehow while throughout the rest of the world men are buying things for their girlfriends on Valentine's day, Japanese men managed to convince their girlfriends that the women was supposed to give on this day. How do they do it?
Disclaimer
Okay, obviously I'm stereo-typing for comic effect. Many Japanese men do clean, cook and are faithful to their wives. And now might be a good time to confess that my own record as a Western male on cooking and cleaning is pretty terrible. On cleaning especially terrible.
Also, I did eventually search the Web myself for origins of Friday the 13th. The websites I looked at all agreed that the origins had been lost in antiquity, and only offered various hypothesis (such as this website). And if you're wondering why it takes me so long to reply to the e-mails you send me, it's because I'm wasting my time on things like this.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

I passed
I got my results back today from The Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and I passed. You'll recall this test is offered once every year in December. There are four levels, one being the highest, four being the lowest. I took level three this year, and passed.
So what does that mean? According to the test result paper it means that at level 3, "The examinee has mastered grammar to a limited level, knows around 300 kanji [Japanese characters] and 1,500 words, and has the ability to take part in everyday conversation and to read and write simple sentences."

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

A long and rambling story with no real point
(so don’t say I didn’t warn you)
As I’ve mentioned to some of you, every Thursday I drive down to Oita city to study Japanese with the aid of Japanese people who volunteer their time to tutor foreigners. It’s a really cool organization called “The Earth Men”, and its goal is to promote internationalization. In theory it is open to anyone. In practice, the Japanese volunteers tend to be almost exclusively women in their 20s. Which, I’ll admit, is probably one of the main reasons I make the drive every week. Okay, so you found me out.
I guess I’ve made a bit of an impression on these women, because for about a year now they have been referring to me by the Japanese word “fushigi”. I didn’t know what it meant at first, but the dictionary translated it as “mysterious.” I was quite pleased with this until an Australian friend, who is fluent in Japanese, told me a more accurate translation would be “weird” or as he put it, “a weird-ass”.
Anyway, I really enjoy these Thursday night tutoring sessions, but the entrance is always awkward. I always walk into the room a little bit sheepishly, unsure of whether I’m supposed to ask someone to tutor me or wait for the head instructor to pair me up with someone. And if the same girl who tutored me the previous week is there, then I’m always unsure if I should ask her to tutor me again, or if she expects to tutor me again, or if I should choose someone else. It’s a bit like a high school dance, only it’s a tutoring session.
This past Thursday, I walked into find a few pairs already diligently studying, and then a group of Japanese women just in the corner talking among themselves. The head instructor was busy, so I was left to fend for myself. I approached the girls in the corner, and tried to integrate myself into their conversation, but they were talking quickly to each other in Japanese, and I couldn’t understand what was going on, and felt pretty awkward, as if I didn’t belong there.
And then salvation arrived. My friend Greg walked in the door and found himself in the same position as me. So I immediately latched onto him and started talking to him. At this point the head instructor came over. She’s a really nice lady, but is significantly older than the rest of us. She has kids our age, so we all treat her like a mother, and it is her job to make sure studying actually gets done at these tutoring sessions, and she was not pleased at how we had segregated ourselves. “There’s plenty of teachers here,” she said to me and Greg, “Go find someone to tutor you.”
So Greg went off to another corner with someone to study. I, like a scolded child, returned to the Japanese women and their conversation about who knows what. I just sat at the bench next to them and smiled while they talked to each other. Eventually they became sympathetic to my predicament, and offered to bring the conversation down to my level. “What do you want to talk about?” one of them asked me.
I really hate those kind of questions. It was so broad I didn’t know how to answer it. So I just threw out the first thing that came into my head. “What’s your favorite Ice-cream flavor?” I asked. Inside my head I could hear a voice chiding me (ala Homer Simpson style) “Oh, that was brilliant”.
Everyone humored me by answering, and then when the question had gone around the group and returned to me, I answered “Grape”. Ajimu, where I live, is actually famous for its grapes, and has grape flavored ice-cream. But besides town loyalty, I really do like grape flavored Ice-cream. After 3 years in Ajimu, I’m sick to death of actual grapes, but grape flavoring I still enjoy.
I mention all this because I was at a party on Tuesday night, and somehow the subject of ice cream came up, and everyone agreed that the most disgusting flavor of ice cream was Grape Ice cream. At which point Greg yelled at me across the room, “Hey, Joel, I heard you like Grape ice-cream.” And I’m not just saying that as a figure of speech, he really did yell it across the room. That, plus the accusing town in his voice, made the rest of the room silent and everyone focused on me.
I froze, mortified that my preference in ice-cream flavors had been exposed. I tried to think how Greg had found out about this. You’ll recall he had left the group and gone off to study with another girl before the subject of Ice-cream flavors had been brought up.
And then I remembered that Greg’s girlfriend, Yuka, had been in the group. “I suppose I did mention that to Yuka,” I said sheepishly. I didn’t really expect at the time that it would later be yelled at me across the room. Inside my head I was thinking, “Well, thank goodness I didn’t tell Yuka anything really personal.”
Greg explained, “yeah, that’s how boring my conversations with Yuka are. We talk about your favorite Ice-cream flavors.” The “your” in this sentence was emphasized, and again, somewhat accusatory. As if it was my fault the conversations had descended to that level.
But, having previously dated Japanese women myself, I am well aware of how hard it is to keep a conversation across the language barrier. The conversation doesn’t always flow naturally, and sometimes you become desperate for anything to talk about. Actually if my friends (Greg included) only knew how often the mundane details of their lives had been used as fodder to keep my conversations going…
Greg then explained that Yuka had actually been talking about me later that night, and saying, “Joel is still very mysterious. He asked everyone about there favorite ice-cream flavors, and then he answered grape. He’s very mysterious.” Or, again, I suppose the word she was using can also be translated as weird. But I prefer mysterious.

Monday, February 09, 2004

...and on Buddhism
I’ve also been reading a lot about Buddhism recently. The interest started about 6 months ago or so when I started becoming reading Japanese comics. Because of the visual nature of comic books, I discovered it was possible for me to understand the general story of a comic book without having to understand all of the words. As with reading the Bible (see previous entry) the sense of satisfaction I got from being able to work through the material was very gratifying.
Since Comic Books in Japan cover a much greater variety of material than comics in the United States, it is possible to read find comics in Japan on virtually any subject. I decided to I might as well try and learn something while reading comic books, and decided to work through the a comic series on the life of Buddha.
I was impressed by the richness of the legend, and when I was back in America this Christmas, I bought an English copy of the Buddhist scriptures, which I’ve been reading in my spare time.
The similarities between Buddha and Jesus are very interesting. The stories of their birth are very similar. Buddha’s birth, like that of Christ, is surrounded by supernatural events. And there is a story of a wise old prophet named Asita rejoicing after having seen the baby Buddha, which reads remarkably similar to the story of Simeon meeting the baby Jesus in the temple.
At Buddha’s birth, it was prophesied that Buddha would either grow up to be a great king, or he would end up rejecting the world. Therefore Buddha’s life, like that of Christ’s, was filled with tension over whether he would be a political or a religious leader. And Buddha, like Christ, suffered some frustration at not being understood in his lifetime by those who were closest to him.
But thing that struck me the most was the dialogue between Buddha and the religious teachers of his day. Like Christianity grew out of Judaism, Buddhism grew out of Hinduism and Buddha conflicted with the established religious leaders much like Christ did. Although the content of the conversation is different, the dynamics are the same. Buddha criticizes the hypocrisy of the established religious leaders in words that are very similar to Jesus. And the religious leaders are jealous of Buddha’s popularity and try and trap him with questions just like the Pharisees did.
In any discussion of similarities between religions, I suppose Joseph Campbell gets brought up sooner or later. And I have to confess I have not actually read any of his writings, but my understanding of his thesis is that all myths share basic similarities which reflect the needs of the human beings who create them. I’m curious as to what he would say (or did say) about the similarities between Buddha and Jesus both conflicting with the established religions. If I had to guess, I would suspect he might say something about the struggle in every culture between the established traditions and new ways or thinking, or perhaps the generational conflict that occurs in every culture. But I am, as the expression goes, just “talking out of my ass” at this point. If anyone has read any Joseph Campbell or has further insight into this, please e-mail me.
However I can’t talk about the similarities between these religions without mentioning the differences. And the differences are more significant than the similarities. Buddhism, with its belief in reincarnation, represents a very different view of reality and human existence than Christianity. Which, I suppose, is what my Sunday School teachers have been telling me for years. I guess I was just never ready to listen before. This is an obstacle to my belief in religious pluralism (the belief that all religions are equally valid), but I guess I’m still somewhat sorting things out.
Perhaps less important but more striking to me is the emphasis Buddhism places on human suffering. For anyone not familiar with the story of Buddha it can be summarized like this:
When Buddha was born, it was prophesied that he would either grow up to become a great ruler or he would reject the world and become a spiritual leader. His father the king wanted Buddha to become a great ruler, and so tried to shield his son from all the unpleasantness of the world. One day when Buddha went outside the castle in his chariot with a charioteer, and saw a man who was old, a man who was sick, and a man who was dead. Overcome by how much suffering there was in the world, Buddha rejected his position as prince to go out and meditate on human suffering. (That’s a crap summary. Go out and read the real thing for yourself).
Anyway, the point being that Buddhism takes as its foundation the fact that existence on earth is full of suffering. In Christianity we of course acknowledge this point (the book of Job, some of the Psalms), but the emphasize is more on God being in control, and passages like Psalm 23 or the sermon on the mount.
When tragedy strikes, I don’t think it causes a Buddhist to question his or her faith in the same way it usually causes Christians to, because Buddhists accept human suffering as the corner stone of their faith.
I’m not sure which is better. The Christian world view might be more uplifting, but there is tragedy and suffering in the world. Perhaps we as Christians sometimes act like Buddha’s father. We try and protect people from the realities of the world, and then when people are exposed to suffering, their world view falls apart, much like what happened to Buddha on the chariot ride.
My favorite part of the Buddhist legend occurs right before Buddha gives up his throne. He appears to his father in a dream, and his father begs him not to go. Buddha agrees to stay if his father can grant him 4 wishes, and his father answers he will give Buddha anything he wants.
Buddha asks to never grow old, to never be weak, to never be sick, and to never die. His father pleads with him not to be so unreasonable, but Buddha leaves anyway.
I like this because I think it illustrates the truth of the human condition. With all his power and wealth, the king was powerless to protect his son from age or disease or death. And Buddha realized that all the money and power would not make him happy if he could not first make his peace with the suffering of human existence.
You can argue whether Buddhism provides the right answers or not, but I think it does a very good job of pin pointing the problems of human existence.
On Christianity
Recently I've started to get back in the habit of reading the Bible daily, something I've not done since 9th grade. I'm still struggling with the same issues that I've been struggling with (somewhat on and off) since high school but I figured I wasn't helping anything by completely cutting myself off from the Bible.
Being ever conscious of time management, I decided to combine my devotions with my language studies and bought a Japanese Bible. I figure I'm familiar enough with the Bible (or at least the Gospels) to be able to skip over words I don't know and still be able to understand what is going on. And so far this has worked fairly well. Occasionally I have to skip over whole sentences, but I really enjoy the satisfaction I get from arriving at the end of a page filled with Japanese characters and thinking to myself “I understood that, more or less.”
In fact in a lot of ways I think reading the Bible in Japanese is actually better for my studies. Like many people raised in the Church I'm so familiar with the Bible that sometimes it is hard for me to concentrate when reading familiar passages. Struggling through the Japanese forces me to pay attention to every word.
(Although at times I do wonder if it is worth all the strain on my eyes. Japanese can be a difficult language to read because of all the characters to recognize and decipher, and this is especially true in the small print of a Bible. )
I'm also intending to start attending Church again. This is a bit more of an effort than it was in America as the nearest Church is over an hour away. I've only attended twice over the 3 years I've been here, the last time being over a year ago now.
The Church service is all in Japanese, which is in theory good for my studies, although, as with school assemblies conducted entirely in Japanese, I tend to just give up and tune out after a while. But the people at this Church are all very friendly. And there is a freshness and realness to this Church that I think is partly a result of the fact that Christianity is rare in Japan, and these people attend Church not because of custom or habit or to maintain social standing, but purely because of choice.
Unfortunately the past couple weeks I haven't managed to get myself down to church. Again, the long commute is a bit of a discouraging factor. Last week I was intending on going, but I ended up being out with my friends until 4 that morning. This week also arrangements with friends prevented me from going. But hopefully next week. I do intend to try and start attending regularly.
Of course at this stage, the fact that I’m only going to be here for another 6 months somewhat overshadows everything I do. I'm not going to be able to integrate myself in this Church as thoroughly as if I would have started attending this time a year ago. So to a certain extent it's an opportunity lost, but better to start attending now than not at all.
And from the BBC...
A friend alerted me to this interesting article. It is about "The British Plain English Campaign" whose goal is to "ensure public information is delivered in a clear manner." They "annually hands out the prize for the most nonsensical remark made by a public figure."
So who to you think won the award this year? If you were thinking someone from the Bush administration, you would be so right. Check out these beauties from Rumsfeld.

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know"

and

" I believe what I said yesterday. I don't know what I said, but I know what I think... and I assume it's what I said"

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Reflections on being home
I guess this comes under the heading of “better late than never.” You may perhaps recall that when I first returned to Japan, I said I would post some reflections on my trip home. That was almost a month ago now.
I'll divide this into two sections, reflections on the homestay, and then reflections on just being home in general.
Homestay
Now that I’ve returned to Japan and had a chance to meet up with the students again, it is interesting to see which aspects of the homestay trip are getting highlighted. I like to think we were really able to provide a wide range of experiences for the students: spending a day at an American High school, going to a typical American Church service, volunteering at a homeless shelter, going skiing, visiting Lake Michigan, seeing a professional Hockey game, Grand Rapids Museum etc, etc, etc. Yet the only thing the students talk about is going shopping. In fact Mike, the other JET in Ajimu (Ryan’s replacement) after talking to the students, thought that shopping was the only thing we did.
This is particularly surprising to me since Japan has shopping malls to rival anything we went to in Grand Rapids. Granted the actual town of Ajimu is just a small rural community, but Fukuoka (only 2 hours away by train) contains a huge 5 story shopping mall, each floor of which is probably equal to one Woodland Mall.
But I suppose given the fact that the majority of the students I brought with me were 15 year old girls, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that going to the mall would be the highlight of the trip. And the malls in Grand Rapids were filled with different stores and different types of people than the malls in Japan.
And at some point the students must have mentioned other things we did, because one of the teachers at Ajimu High School praised me quite highly for the variety of experiences we had arranged for the students. Of course in Japan flattery is common, so you always have to take compliments with a grain of salt, but I was pleased with how highly he seemed to think of the homestay.
Not that I can take any of the credit for it. My mother actually did most of the work, thinking up activities and making the necessary phone calls to arrange stuff. Over on this end the Ajimu Board of education coordinated everything here, and also thought up of some ideas for the homestay. All I really did was act as a middleman between the Board of Education and my mother. And of course chaperoned. But the students were so well behaved that it really wasn't much work.
Another interesting thing I've noticed the students talk about frequently is how good looking everyone in America is. We had a bit of a post trip party where they showed their pictures to the rest of my Wednesday night English class, and it was interesting to hear what they said, particularly when they were talking in Japanese to each other and presumably under the impression I couldn't understand what they were talking about. They talked at length about how beautiful my mother was, and how cute my younger cousins were. At one point the subject of my former girlfriend came up (whom I had mentioned in passing once during the homestay) and I overheard one student say to the other, “Do you think she is beautiful?” and the reply was, “She must be. There aren’t any people in America who aren’t beautiful.”
All this is made more interesting by the fact that I received several comments from people in America about how good looking my students were, and how beautiful Japanese people appeared to be.
Now that we’re all back in Japan and school has started again, I'm trying to find the line between hurting the feelings of these students by ignoring them completely, and embarrassing them by paying too much attention to them. I made the mistake of warmly greeting one of the students in the hallway last week, and as I was leaving I heard her friends tease her about what good friends the two of us have become. The same day I think I hurt a student's feelings slightly by not acknowledging him when he came into the teacher's room. It's a delicate line, and like many things in life, requires more finesse than I have.

Part 2: being home in general
And what can I say about the mixed emotions of being back home? Sometimes when I would meet good friends again, I felt like it had been a mistake to leave in the first place when I have such valuable friendships back in Grand Rapids. Other times I thought about all I had learned and all the experiences I had since I left, and I was increased in my conviction to continue living abroad in some form or another even after my current job finishes in August.
Sometimes it felt like I had never left Grand Rapids, and that relationships had picked back up right where I had left them. Other times I had the weird feeling of returning to a familiar place, and yet feeling like I didn't belong anymore. Sometimes I felt things hadn't changed at all in Grand Rapids, and I was relieved by that. Sometimes I was frustrated for the same reason (what a boring place where nothing ever changes). At other times it seemed that too much had changed since I left, and I was frustrated by that I no longer knew my city.
All in all, I was somewhat relieved to return to Japan where at least I feel like I know where things stand (even if it is for just another 6 months now).
But I don’t want to harp on this too much, because one thing I realized when I was home is that my experience is not unique. Very few people I know from High school are still in the same place. Most of my friends in Grand Rapids now are friends from Calvin, and not native to the area. So they probably went through all these same emotions many years before I did. Granted perhaps I'm a bit more sentimental about things than the average person, but still.
So I suspect I don’t need to elaborate on these feelings too much, because most people have experienced the same thing about leaving home and coming back again at one point or another.
But it was damn good to see a lot of you again. I really wish time had allowed for me to meet more people.
Living in Japan the past few years has obviously been a choice I made. And with any choice, there is always something lost, and the thing I have regretted the most is loss of proximity to friends and family. The experiences I have had in Japan have I think made my choice worthwhile, but I really wish I could have both.
But as I said already in an e-mail to some of you: I should be home again in August. No promises, but probably. My job will end this August. I don’t know what I'm going to do next, but I have enjoyed my time in Japan for the last 3 years, and would like to stay abroad in some form or another. I imagine it's more than likely that first it will involve a trip home first to sort everything out before I depart again.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Quote of the day
This one is also a little old, but I just found out about it recently. And you know what my standard excuse is whenever I comment on old news: "I've been in Japan for the past 3 years, cut me some slack."

"I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace. We want there to be peace. We want people to live in peace all around the world. I mean, our vision for peace extends beyond America. We believe in peace in South Asia. We believe in peace in the Middle East. We're going to be steadfast toward a vision that rejects terror and killing, and honors peace and hope. " George W. Bush June 18, 2002

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Stealing from Mr. Guam
This has been making the rounds lately. I saw it on Mr. Guam's website, who found it on someone else's website, etc. It is an interesting article on the Just War theory as interpreted by the Bush administration. A bit heavy reading, but fascinating.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Tombo Times
The new issue of Tombo Times is out. So check it out and see what those crazy foreigners in Oita Prefecture have been up to this month.
I don't have anything published in it this month. (My article got pushed back to next month's issue. I'll let you know when it comes out). But everyone seems to be talking about this article. It's someone writing about their experience encountering discrimination in the sex industry in Tokyo. It has a few people upset because he then makes the case that Japan is a racist society, and compares it to the days of segregation in the United States.
I thought the whole thing was supposed to be tongue and cheek myself, and found it pretty funny. No doubt the guy writing it is a bit of a dirty old man, but I thought it seemed that the comparisons to racism in the US were sarcastic. But read it yourself, and let me know what you think. Is he just being silly, or is this guy (as some people around here feel) really being serious when he writes about racism in Japan.
Quote of the day
"We pray that God might guide us to use [the nuclear bomb] in His ways and for His purposes." Harry Truman, 1945

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Dating Game
I attended a sort of dating game on Saturday night. It was my first time to do something like this, but apparently it’s real popular in Japan. It’s based off of a Japanese game show. There are a even number of men and women at the event. You sit at the table opposite someone of the opposite sex, and talk for ten minutes. After 10 minutes, the men all rotate to the next table, and so by the end of the rotation everyone has talked to everyone else. Then there’s 20 minutes of free talking time. And then the game starts.
All the guys come with one flower, and the girls come with a box of chocolates. The men all line up and come forward one at a time to present the flower to the girl he likes. But, if someone else likes the same girl, they can call out “Chotto Matta” (wait a minute) and also present their flowers to the girl. The girl at this point must choose who to give her chocolate to.
It's a bit of a rough game, because if the girl has to choose between two different guys, then someone ends up getting a pretty public rejection. Also, because some girls receive flowers from several guys, at the end there are girls left standing without any flowers.
I commented to my friend Chris at one point that you can’t have a fragile ego and play this game. Chris countered that you can’t have a fragile ego and be on the JET Program in general. He then talked about all the times he was meeting someone for the first time in Japan, and the first thing they would say to him would usually be something like, “fat, you fat.”
It's a bit of an oddity about Japan. For a culture that is usually so polite, there seems to be an exception when it comes to pointing out physical attributes. Chris isn't even that fat. Not by American standards anyway. My friend Ryan, now he was fat. Ryan, you'll recall, was the other English teacher in Ajimu for the first two years I was here. Nice guy, but quite over weight. And you would not believe the amount of flack he got because of that. Japanese people were not at all shy about pointing out that he was overweight. For my part, I endured several comments about my acne. This past summer my acne was worse than it had ever been in my entire life, caused by the hot and humid climate of Kyushu (well, my diet of chocolate and coffee probably didn't help). And at the time Japanese women did not hesitate to tell me how disgusting they thought my acne looked.
But I digress. I'm supposed to be talking about this dating game. It was 30 people in total (15 guys, 15 girls) mostly all Japanese. Of that number four of us were foreign men (me and 3 guys from Britain) and two foreign girls: an American and a Canadian. I felt like I was somewhat tricked into going to this thing. At the time I agreed to come to it, I was told only that it was a party. After I found out what kind of party it was, I protested, but I was told that it was only for play, and more of a friend meeting party.
Which wasn't completely true. There were some people there who were definitely looking for a potential mate. I wasn't really looking for a new girlfriend, so I was unsure of what to do. I found a pretty face and starting talking to her, but when I got the sense that she might like me back I started to get worried. Since I was one of the last guys to present my flower, it was already apparent at that time that some of the girls would be left standing without having received any flowers. I thought this particular girl might expect to get flowers from me, and I didn't want to leave her up there without getting flowers from anyone. On the other hand I didn't want her to think I was really interested. So I gave her my flowers, and then panicked and ignored her for the rest of the night. I suppose this gets filed under my long list of “situations I could have handled better.”