Friday, July 22, 2005

Night Out in a Pizza Restaurant

I have a bit of bad news to report actually. My Japanese teacher (who has popped up in this blog several times, perhaps most notably in this entry), has been hospitalized after a blood vessel ruptured in her brain. All the information I get is passing through the language barrier, so I’m not exactly sure of the details, but apparently it is pretty serious.
The good news is we found out she won’t need surgery, but she will be in the hospital for a long time doing rehabilitation. This means no Japanese classes for the foreseeable future.

Since I was enrolled in two of her classes, both her intermediate class on Thursday nights and her advanced class on Friday nights, my week has suddenly become a lot more open. I’m trying to find new ways to occupy the time.

My friend Matt, who is also in the Thursday class, and I decided to go out for dinner last Thursday instead. We went to a chain fast food Italian family restaurant.

As we drove up, we asked ourselves the same question as always: smoking or non-smoking. Neither of us are smokers, but we have noticed that the hot girls in the short mini-skirts are almost always sitting in the smoking section. (This seems to be more true in the Gifu/Nagoya area then it was in Kyushu).

We tentatively decided on non-smoking, but when the waitress informed us that non-smoking would be a little bit of a wait, we happily changed to the smoking section. The girl situation was much as we had anticipated: lots of cute girls in skimpy clothing in the smoking section.

I had previously written that we ALTs always seem to frequent the same places and always seem to run into each other. This fast food Italian place is a magnet for other ALTs. When Matt got up to use the bathroom, he noticed our other classmates Jimmy and Franz sitting in a booth at the back of the restaurant.

Jimmy and Franz rounded out the other two students in the Thursday class, so now all four of us were in the same place. “No Japanese class, and it looks like we all had the same idea,” I commented. The difference between Jimmy and Franz, and us, was that their table was covered with study materials. “Wow, we get a night of from class, and you guys are still hitting it hard,” I said in admiration. “That’s dedication, isn’t it?”

We talked briefly about our Japanese teacher, exchanging information about what we had heard. “I heard that Adam… you guys know Adam right? He’s in the Friday class with me. Anyway, he called her, and she couldn’t even speak on the phone.”

“Yeah, that’s the fucked up thing,” Jimmy said. “The part of her brain that controls speaking has been damaged. She can write and send e-mails fine, she can understand everything fine, but she can’t speak. Isn’t that fucked up?” Indeed, especially since her job was teaching, it did seem pretty awful.

We talked to Jimmy and Franz for so long that the waitress gave our table away to another couple, but we sneaked back into the smoking section and slipped into another open table. “Man, those guys are always studying,” I said. “It makes me feel guilty whenever I see them. I feel like we should be studying now instead of just goofing off.”

Matt changed the subject slightly. “You know whenever I talk to you, you’re always down on yourself about how bad your Japanese is. I don’t think you realize how good it actually is. I know lots of people who have been in Japan ten years and can’t speak as well as you.”

“Well, that’s true. There are some people who just never study. At least I do study. But it depends what the comparison is. If you compare me to these people who have been in Japan for ten years and don’t study at all, then I look pretty good. But on the other end of the spectrum there are people like are friends Adam and Mike who have been in Japan for a year and a half and have already passed the 2nd level of the Japanese Proficiency Test. I’ve only past the 3rd.” (The levels go from the 4 up, with 1 being the highest).

“Yeah, but those guys had to study hard every night of the week for the whole time they were here. It’s just a question of what your priorities are. I think it is more important to enjoy the experience in Japan and have fun.”

This was a good point, but I couldn’t help but think of all the evenings I wasted watching English movies or just doing nothing. That would have been great studying time. “I guess my problem now is lack of motivation. I can’t see what I’d want to use Japanese for in the future. None of the jobs that require Japanese appeal to me.”

As we were talking, we noticed a little girl, maybe 5 years old, standing shyly by our table and watching us. Matt turned and smiled and said sweetly, “Oh, Hello.”

“Hello,” she replied.

“What’s your name,” Matt said in his simplest English.

“My name is Yuki,” she replied in the usual sing-song voice that all children in Japan use to repeat the English phrases they have memorized.

“Nice to meet you Yuki.”

“Nice to meet you too.” This was apparently the extent of her English, and she broke into a huge smile at having been able to recite it all.

Matt changed into his Japanese, “Your English is very good.”

“That’s because I’ve studied English at school,” she said, also in Japanese. She became so excited she started jumping up and down. We waved good-bye to her and continued with our meal.

But a short while later she returned, this time with 3 other friends. All four girls simply stood by our table watching us, waiting for us to talk to them.

I should note that this is not an unusual experience in Japan. Every foreigner has similar stories. Back in Oita, Shoko used to get a big laugh out of the fact that whenever we went out together, little kids would always come up and introduce themselves to me. “You’re so famous,” she used to say teasingly. “It’s like I’m dating a rock star.”

It’s a good thing of course and shows the success of the ALT program. Little kids have such a good time learning English with the ALT in school that they associate all foreigners with positive experiences, and are eager to go over and use their English. It is certainly a positive change from the older Japanese, who sometimes go to great lengths to avoid talking to foreigners.

But ideally, after the kids have used up their two or three sentences of English, they are supposed to return back to their own seats and let us finish our dinner. In this instance, they stayed at our table for a good 15 minutes.

Very quickly we used up all the English questions they were able to answer. “What’s your name?” “How old are you?” “How are you?” The rest of the time we talked to them in Japanese, asking where they went to school, and what grade they were in, and other things like that.

When I felt like I was running out of things to say to them, I leaned in close and said, “Actually, there’s another English teacher in this restaurant.” They clapped their hands with excitement. “Mr. Franz and Mr. Jimmy are sitting in that booth in the back over there. Do you want to talk to Franz and Jimmy?” The girls ran off in that direction.

As soon as they were gone Matt gave me a high five. I was very proud of myself because I had accomplished the double purpose of finding a nice way to get rid of the girls, and also played a practical joke on Franz and Jimmy. Matt and I laughed as we imagined how Franz and Jimmy would react when the girls crashed their studying session. They were so serious about their studying, we didn’t think they would be happy.

But our laughter was cut short when the girls almost immediately returned. “What? Didn’t you find Franz and Jimmy?” I asked.

“We looked, but we couldn’t find them,” one of the girls said.
“They’re right over there. Franz is the one studying Japanese,” I said desperately. But the girls were not interested in going for a second look. I suspect that because Franz was Filipino American, and Jimmy was Chinese American, they did not look like the blond-haired blue-eyed English teachers the girls had undoubtedly been expecting.

So for the rest of the dinner we were entertaining the girls. “Where are your mothers?” I asked. “Do they know you’re here?” No use. The mothers had no problem with us occupying their children will they ate dinner.

Although I have to admit they were pretty cute. One of them had started jumping up and down, and pretty soon they were all jumping up and down like a bunch of rabbits. In fact Matt commented that they looked like rabbits, and they made bunny ears with their fingers while they hopped up and down. Also after recovering from their initial shyness they climbed into our booth and sat down next to us.

“Do you have a girlfriend?” one of them asked me.

“I have many girlfriends,” I answered. That’s my stock answer to what is a standard question in Japan. If I say I have a girlfriend, then there are a lot of follow up questions. If I say no, then it makes me look pretty pathetic.

“Do you want to be Joel’s girlfriend?” Matt asked.

“Yes, yes!” answered a couple of the girls.

“What? You son of a bitch,” I yelled at Matt. “What are you doing?”

At one point we started blowing on each other. I don’t remember how this started. It might have been me. The kids were making bird noises, and blowing a lot of air out at the same time. So I took a deep breath and blew it on their faces, and then they responded in kind. Matt got dragged into it as well when the kids started blowing on him too. “Oh, nice going,” Matt said to me. “Now we’re all going to get sick from each other’s germs.”

The kids, being kids, would occasionally spray us with saliva as they got more and more excited about blowing. Matt, who works in a pre-school, was well accustomed to this. “This is just like work,” he said. “I’m going to have to go home now and take a shower.”

Eventually the kids’ mothers got up to pay their bill, and called over to their children that they were leaving now. They gave us the usual bow as a thank you, and quietly left.

“That’s just like every day at work for me,” Matt said.

“It’s the same with me when I go to the elementary school,” I said. “I don’t usually expect it when we go out to eat though.”
“It’s not all bad,” Matt said. “Sometimes if you get swarmed with kids like that, and you handle it well like we did, it really impresses all the women around. Did you see all the looks we were getting from all the young ladies in the next table?”

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