Friday, 19 September 2014

One Month in – Genki Kids and Onsens

The pedantic among you will have noticed that I have been in Japan for more than a month. Well I originally planned to blog more things at the start of September (or as the ever-efficient Japanese call it - month nine), but between drinking on the weekends and entertaining genki kids during the week, the blogging kind of slipped through the cracks. 

To be honest though, I think you have to cut me a little slack. I sleep on the floor, all my clothes come out of the washing machine drenched, and I have only just realised that my hob will never get hot no matter how long I wait unless I put a pan on top of it. The simple everyday tasks of going to the supermarket or ordering at a restaurant have suddenly become impromptu games of roulette. I haven’t paid my bills yet because I don’t know how. I'm doing my best.

There is of course the unavoidable fact that I am extremely lazy and forgetful. Today I had one first period lesson, leaving the rest of the day to stare at a computer screen pretending to do work. I mean seriously, it does not take long to plan a lesson for six year olds. After reading every news article on the BBC website and compulsively checking the Scottish independence referendum results, I have realised I can procrastinate no longer. I have loads to blog about and plenty of time to do the blogging.

So before you all start thinking "Oh typical Soonton-Sensei, so predictable", "he never keeps up with anything", "I knew the blog wouldn't last", etc. or you forget about me completely, here is an update on my life in Japan one month-ish in.

Small Victories

Moving to Japan has been unlike any other movement I've made up to this point. Moving to University in Durham involved finding places just like the ones in my home-town, just closer. You ask "Where is a good pub?" and someone can point you in the right direction. Or even better, you see a sign which looks like a pub sign, or a name like "The Rose and Crown" and know instantly what you’re getting. Moving to the US, someone may have to explain to you, "Nah brah, we don’t have pubs, we like totally get wasted in bars" before you can find a drinking establishment, but at least they speak a form of English. Here I am not only illiterate and mute, I also have no idea which cultural cues indicate somewhere as a place to drink the pints. Sometimes by chance I manage to find an Izakaya. I can’t read the menu, so I mumble something like,

 "Nama biiru kudasi"

which elicits a condescending

 "Sugoi! You’re Japanese is so good! Jouzu!"

As if I have just pulled a bunny rabbit out of a hat. Then something hardly larger than a half pint is slid my way while they wait patiently for me to order some edamame or other bar snacks. Silly Gaijin, you can’t drink without eating! Barbarians!

Finding the pub is just one step in the exhausting process of forgetting all my old cultural norms and learning new ones. When someone asks you to be "on time" they mean 10-15 minutes early. It is polite to ignore people when they sneeze: pointing it out draws attention to their weakness or something. Bring a hand towel around with you, because there is nothing to dry your hands with in the bathroom. There are a million and one of these maxims to live by, and no one can tell you them all. You just have to gaman your way through it. 

As there is an extra layer of social ineptitude added to the difficulties of daily life, one must take refuge in small victories while living abroad. This week I managed to buy a fan and a vacuum. To most this is nothing, but finding out where they are sold, working out why one is triple the price of the other, and navigating the interaction with the cashier really makes me feel like I've done something with my day. Dream big.

Kocho-Sensei's Penis

I don't know if it is my new-found social ineptitude or if the Japanese just aren't telling me things, but I never seem to know what is going on. Life here has a habit of hiding little surprises round every corner. Each day is its own little adventure, but there were a few moments that really caught me off guard.

One week in I looked up from my desk to find the teachers room completely deserted. A small Japanese child came in to ask for.... something. I flexed my Nihongo muscles and said in broken Japanese "sorry... where are teachers?" He either did not know or more likely I was not saying what I thought I was. We stared at each other for an awkwardly long amount of time, neither able to cross the linguistic gap between us, before he eventually ran away. Turns out there was a staff meeting and no one thought to invite me. For two hours. Afterwards the Japanese English teacher who looks after me said she would pass on anything I needed to know. There was nothing to pass on.

Then of course there was Japanese sports day. In England sports day is just another day, except you wear your P.E. kit all day. People run, get heat stroke, then go home. In Japan they prepare throughout their summer holidays, coming into school to make banners, learn cheers, and practice events. 

The "cheers" are 8 minute choreographed routines created completely by the students - which doesn't seem impressive until you see four 3rd years trying to teach over 100 students the words and moves that they made up. Unfortunately Segun (Blue team) who I was cheering for lost, but they came closer to winning than they have in about four years. For my unwavering support, the students threw me up in the air and cheered. I have never felt so fulfilled. I think next year is our year.

Things didn't really get strange till afterwards. In Japan there are work parties called "Enkai" which are only slightly less than mandatory. Like most nights out I have had in Japan it was Nomihoudai, which basically means "all-you-can-drink" within a certain time limit. Honestly, this system would not work in the UK because people would abuse it, but here it is the cheapest way to drink. Want sake? Sure. More beer? Let me bring you three. Sounds all good so far - except the enkai was at the local onsen.

For those of you who don’t know, onsens are basically public baths built on natural hot springs. Not only was it my first time in an onsen, I was also not informed that the onsen was an optional segment of the enkai. The result was me, the principle, and the grounds keeper trying to make small talk about the fishing industry naked with very little common language. Thank god I’m half blind without my glasses - although I still caught Kocho-sensei taking a peek. It was far less awkward than I expected.


Afterwards the principle and I shared a bottle of sake at the nomihoudai and talked the night away. I worried that maybe it was only the alcohol, and when we went back to school he would almost certainly resume his role as the distant authoritarian figure. However I caught his eye over Tuesdays morning’s assembly and I swear I saw a small smirk. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I can’t speak or read Japanese, I have no idea how to teach elementary school children, and sometimes I eat in restaurants alone because supermarket shopping in Japan overwhelms me too much. But for all the moaning that I have done here, which could basically be summarised as "culture shock - its real", not all the little surprises are bad. Turns out the Japanese English teachers are mostly very supportive, the other Gaijin love to drink too, and there are places I can drink my fill for £12 - as long as I can drink it in under two hours. What’s not to love?

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