Category Archives: Thoughts

A Conversation in a Smokey Bar

It strikes me as interesting in Japan how no one speaks English to me first. The first assumption from all Japanese  I’ve spoken with is to speak Japanese first and then English after I’ve proven myself woefully incompetent in their language. I asked a couple friends what they thought of this. What follows is a rough breakdown of what they said. For the safety of the innocent and guilty and myself alike their names have been changed.

 

Guybrush Threepwood:  They do it because they want to show you how superior they are. If they downgrade their language they have the social advantage!

Anastasia Beaverhausen: That’s ridiculous. Japanese people are polite in the extreme. They are being polite and assume you are capable of speaking with them rather than not because that is the polite thing to do.

Guybrush Threepwood: I find that assumption to be shockingly naive. Japanese people are not being polite; it is a disguised cultural norm to avoid potentially embarrassing situations. By starting in Japanese, you look silly failing to speak Japanese and they save face if their English isn’t good enough.

Anastasia Beaverhausen: That is incredibly racist to suggest that they are being “sneaky Asians” by calling it “disguised”. Not everyone of Asian descent is trying to be underhanded and get the better of you.

Guybrush Threepwood: I’m not being racist! This is a social coping system that avoids anyone from being embarrassed.

Anastasia Beaverhausen: That’s just another racist concept: Japanese obsession with embarrassment. You’re probably about to say this is avoid ritual suicide aren’t you?

Guybrush Threepwood: Well…it would be silly of me to do that now wouldn’t it?

Anastasia Beaverhausen: I knew it! You racist pig! How could…

 

At this point the conversation had devolved rather appropriately assisted by alcohol and we were all  granted a spectacular view of the gutter. The point, however, was understood.

Potential racism aside, there is value to the suggestion that it’s some kind of social embarrassment avoidance strategy. This is after all at least part of the purpose of euphemisms: by changing the embarrassing part of the scenario we can avoid a lot of potential problems which in my mind speaks to a lot of Japanese culture.

Having worked here for over a year now I’ve gotten a lot of insight into Japanese culture. And in simple terms it’s an attitude of avoidance that permeates throughout all facets of life. I suppose that wasn’t very simple, let me try again:  Nobody likes being embarrassed and Japan has elevated it to a fact of their culture.  People at work will always ask first before assuming anything because if it goes wrong they get embarrassed. Why get embarrassed when they can avoid it in the first place and protect you from it as well? It’s enlightened really, a social contract that helps everyone.

Or at least it’s another possibility for explaining this crazy country where very little seems to make sense most of the time.

On Being a Grown Up

I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately that involve lamentations on my pretense of not being an adult, conversations that start with “having responsibilities” and usually ends with “sucks”.  I’ve also had grown up discussions about taxes and savings and <shudder> children….  These are things that I am not yet prepared to discuss with anyone.

The simple truth is that I have a genetic predisposition against growing up.  I’d blame my sister or mum, but that would be a clear lie to just about anyone who knows me or has met my older and less handsome twin who I sometimes refer to as “dad” or “father”  in order throw off potential assassins.  Like him, growing up feels like a word I’ve adopted in order to blend in and become part of the crowd, but which we have very little intention of accepting without a bitter prolonged battle in which elves and orcs will fall in droves.

Despite this, I can feel that dirty wench “Time” sidling up behind me.  Everyday I have moments where I mention to a student about something they don’t know about because I was part of the final generation who knows about cassette tapes, VCRs, rotary phones, and knows that the Fresh Prince of Bel Air isn’t a new type of Subway mascot.  It’s these moments that cause me to facepalm myself and sob for my increasingly disappearing childhood.  And each time I do this, I feel just a little more anger and hatred for the young and youthful.  

But Japan has interesting ideas about growing up, and I’m starting to see why a large group of foreigners stick around this country despite how messed up it seems.  The simple truth is that being a little childish or having childish interests is perfectly acceptable.  Grown men and women going to watch anime movies, hanging out and buying toys or collectibles from gaming stores, playing arcade games for hours, drinking and eating foods that seems childish are all things that foreigners see locals doing without anyone except us thinking it’s weird.

Japan doesn’t quite prescribe itself to the concept of putting away your toys  and leaving your childhood behind.  It seems to accept or at least tolerate older people taking part in childish things.  I think half of my students regularly go to Disneyland or Universal Studios, at least three have all-year-access passes.  And none of them are younger than 20.  My Magic: The Gathering game group is filled with grown adults(both men and women) ranging from late twenties to late forties.  A lot of them have families, all of us are working smucks, and we regularly invade and take over a gaming store in Nagoya every Tuesday.


And it isn’t weird, rather, it’s encouraged right alongside a plethora of internet cafes, arcades, video game and hobby stores, regular manga and anime events, and cosplay.  This is a country that matches with a certain type of foreigner, one of which I’m similar to but not one of.  It encourages this sort of behaviour, and I’m not sure if it’s (1) progressive or (2) yet another way Japanese silently judge people.  It could be either or even both, this is a weird country that I doubt I’ll ever understand.

But I hope that North America does accept this, because it would be amazing.

 

-GJ

Japan, Year One

I woke up this morning and had a brief, but profound conversation with myself.  It went a little something like this:

“Great jumping Justin Trudeaux has it been a year already?”*

“Yes Graeme you intrepid fart, it has.”

“Well….shit.”

Seriously.  I’ve been in this insane country for almost a year.  Mentally I think my cynicism and sarcasm arrived well before me physically and set up shop preparing for my eventually arrival.  I adapted surprisingly well considering my cultural background is more tea-based than ninja star-based, and I think I had a very quick culture shock compared to two very poorly remembered weeks in China.  But after one year things have been both surprising and disturbing.

Overall, I’ve been pleased with my cultural progression and adaptation, but my Japanese is a sore spot.  I haven’t had any drive at all to improve it beyond the basic phrases and words that I need for my day to day existence.  In fact, I’ve developed a well maintained air of ineptitude as it really really really helps me get away with all kinds of crap.  I discovered fairly early that a foreigner who can do more than I or has been here longer has a lot of expectations of their capabilities.  But if I keep myself at a very specific level of useless than I can accomplish a lot more with a lot less effort.

I learned a lot about Japan that I would never have known by living in Canada.  It’s amazing how much a country changes when you experience it first hand.  I know this seems obvious, but I’m not referring to the kinky fun stuff that we all known about Japan.  Japan has a lot of surprises for visitors but even more surprises for someone who joins into the culture.  Experience has taught me to keep an open mind, but experience in Japan has taught me to adjust my thought process from why to why not.  So many of my personal assumptions have been completely changed and I’ve adopted an intentionally rational thought process to adjust.  I’ve also had to adjust my interpretation of rational as well, but that’s a whole other rant.

This is a country that really desperately needs to get a grip on the future and embrace the rest of the world, but this won’t happen.  Japan and the Japanese people recognize there are problems and I have a very strong impression that the right people in the right places of power understand where these problems stem from.  Yet despite this nothing will change here.  The zeitgeist of Japan doesn’t want to, at least not right now, and this is a sad conclusion for me to draw.  There is a lot this country has to offer and culturally there is a lot we all could learn from them.

Hopefully this changes before it’s too late.

 

*Actual words may have varied

The Summer of Ninety-Six Point Eight

Summer has arrived in Japan.  It’s hot, sweaty, boiling in the sun, an infinitesimal degree cooler in the shade, and the cicadas are the noisier than a pair of children who’ve disappeared into the supermarket candy aisle.  The nights are cool (thank a relic of an outmoded belief system) which makes it a lot easier to sleep than other places I’ve stayed(only slightly less effective than alcohol and valium), and with the summer season comes festival season!  In the summer every Japanese city/town/dwelling with more than 1 person has a festival to celebrate…something.  With some kind of terrifying town mascot.

The first weekend of August had the local Yokkaichi festival, a celebration of such magnitude that I didn’t know about it until two whole days ahead of time.  It took up the entire shopping arcade, five or six additional side streets, about half a kilometre of major road, and filled all that space with Japanese carnival game stalls, food stalls, gambling stalls, and stalls that sold aquatic creatures of varying degrees that were not for eating.  Unless you’re Chinese, then all bets are off.

The food was…disappointing.  A lot of it was fried or bbq chicken, it was all ridiculously overpriced, and the best thing I ate was probably the turkish kebabs.  Nothing was bad, it was just so overpriced for what you got compared even to restaurants that I limited myself very heavily to things I couldn’t find anywhere in town.  Such as kebabs.  Can’t find those in small town Yokkaichi.

I didn’t bother with the carnival games, seen and done those a hundred times before.  And it has nothing to do with me being bad at them.  Instead I watched a few traditional Japanese dances, floats, and displays of such drumming prowess that the ladies clothing sometimes reminded me of this one time in Amsterdam that I probably shouldn’t repeat in print.

 

 

On the other side of festival season, this week is Obon, the traditional Japanese celebration for the dead.  Traditionally, many Japanese who live in the big cities use this week of relaxation to take a load off, visit family in the small towns(or smaller cities) and take a walk to the cemetery to visit grampy-six-feet-under.  Its a solemn time to remember dead family members, light some candles in their honour, and eat a meal to remember them by.  In practice, people take a vacation in Guam or spend a few hours with grampy or granny before buggering off to Sizzlers(or the Japanese equivalent) for some all-you-can-eat chicken’n’chips.  It’s so North American I felt like crying, saluting and subjugating a visible minority.  There’s even a traditional celebration where some people will lite a candle and set it down on the river to float downstreams.  It’s lovely and I wanted to take pictures and take part.  But does anyone actually do it? Nope.  For the first time since I came to Japan I heard someone say: “It’s TOO traditional”.

 

At The Company, we are working.  Its a week of holidays for most people, so the clear response to this is to have us work.  Doesn’t matter that almost every other school is closed all week and that literally all of our regular classes are cancelled and I might teach 1 or two hours this entire week.  Nope, someone at corporate thought it would be a radical and bodacious idea to have six people sitting around doing nothing for a whole week.  And not only are we working, someone had the bright idea to also screw up our usual schedule and come in two hours earlier.  It’s not like any students are showing up in those two extra hours in the morning that are never otherwise available, but we definitely don’t have some students showing up in the evening who would be here otherwise.  Just bloody brilliant.

-GJ

The Oxford Circus Localization

Its been a little while since I shared anything. Here’s some stuff of me in Europe

 

London stinks. I don’t mean this metaphorically, but literally. everywhere you go it smells kinda funky. especially in the world famous London Underground. Its hard to desribe, sort of, as a wise man once said, a monkey peed in battery acid. The pungent aroma of age. Well, I hope it’s age. It could be the queens socks.

On the other side of things, this city is a sight to behold. I cant help but be slightly overwhelmed by the same smelly age with respect to my eyeballs. Everything looks either old or breathtakingly modern. Especially from a distance, I’ll see more of them up close today.

Last night on e of our number got a bit lost after going to an underground death metal concert. This led to a couple discoveries: pubs are open to two, but the subway closes at twelve, you measure the city in streets, not blocks because so much of the city is winding and crazy, and that pot pies are incredible here.  Absolutely incredible. Which is especially good because our hostel has three pubs inpissing distance, two

out of three of which make me think going there at night will leave me four or more new holes I didn’t have before. Come for the pies,leave with a stabbing. Speaking of pies, there is no comparison. English pies are mindboggingly good, along with the fiwh and chips. It’s hard to imagine that a culture who invented all day farting because of beans for breakfast could manage anything gastronomically significant, but there it is. Also: the Guiness really is better here.

 

 

 

 

A Canadian Lament

Today I made my first batch of homemade pasta sauce.  It tasted a bit like Kye did(your noise does have taste buds it it, look it up) after we tried to clean her skunked fur with tomato juice.  I used local tomatoes, salt, pepper, bottled water, and the better part of a bottle of local wine.  I originally bought it to try some wine since I still haven’t found a place selling Chinese liquor.  Usually when we got poor wine back home, or just leftover wine, we would use it in our pasta sauce.  I’m never buying wine here again.

It tasted like a Frenchman peed into antifreeze.

But, it got me thinking about what exactly I do miss about home.  And to be honest it isn’t food.  I miss dinner with my family, listening to my dad as he tells me about music or the latest beer mug he nicked, my sister as she gripes about work and the ways that her cat is now waking her up, my mum as she expounds about my dad and my sister and the things she wants to try out at the next family dinner, hanging out with my cousins and ripping movies a new one, going to the pub with my friends and watch one of them pee on another guys car while he’s watching, playing games with more of my friends while we drink more and more as the night goes on and our aim gets worse and worse, the cold weather and the terrible drivers, my dog eating snow and chasing snowballs, the good and bad beer and griping about it.

It’s the things we do and the places we go to that I miss because while this is my first extended leave from home, I can never wake up and not remember than I am a stranger here.  I speak the language enough to order some food and find the bus stop, but not enough to introduce myself with any substance.  I can eat almost anything, but not with the satisfaction I would get back home.  In fact, I am at the point where I don’t eat very much at all.  Filling up on food doesn’t seem to happen because I don’t have the company that encourages the experience.  Graeme Tegid Jones isn’t obsessed with food.  This must be the fifth horseman.

The simple truth is that now that I have moved to another country and living here, moving to anywhere else in North America seems trivial and simple by comparison.  Living here isn’t easy.  The things I took for granted are gone, and I want them back every day.  Even the bad things.

Rememberance

The Green Fields of  France, The Dropkick Murphys

Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done
And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the great fallen in 1916
Well I hope you died quick
And I hope you died clean
Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene?

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart you’re forever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plow
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard that’s still no mans land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation were butchered and damned

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause
Did you really believe that this war would end wars
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying it was all done in vain
Oh Willy McBride it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest


I may be in another country, halfway across the world, and in place that doesn’t remember.  But I do remember.  I just wish I had a poppy to wear.

It’s a bit like hammer time

So the weather is starting to cool a bit out here and having a hot shower each evening is now routine.  It’s actually getting pretty chilly in the evenings and I’m considering the search for some sweat pants.  Not for regular use mind you, I don’t want to be renamed Mr. Sweatpants.  I can wear a sweater regularly, since it is now time to break out the hoodies, but in the words of led Zeppelin: I come from a land of ice and snow.  The students are kinda wussy.  It’s maybe 17-19 degrees in the shade during the day and 20 in the sun, so this sea of black hair and pale skin has broken out the big guns and jumped right from no jacket to wool jacket.  Even the weather hasn’t really changed.  It has just gone down 5 or 6 degrees every couple weeks for the last month.

The only change I’ve made to my clothing roster is…long pants!  I walk into class with long pants and a shirt on an my students gasp.  It’s like fake butter, they just can’t believe I’m not cold.  And they are further baffled when I want to turn on the ceiling fans because I’m, wait for it…HOT!  Okay, maybe I’m over dramatizing this.  95% of them have a tenth of the body fat that I do, probably less, and they didn’t grow up in a country that is actually cold.  But I still think they could do with some shoring up.

But I think that the school could change things very easily in a small way.  More fat in the school meals.  There are many differences between schooling in China and Canada, and this is a small one.  ALL students each the cafeteria food.  This is not a “we could cook something” or we “can go out and get something” situation.  The canteen here is literally the cheapest food around and it is still better than some restaurants I’ve tried.  On top of that, students can’t have electrical appliances in their rooms for cooking food or even boiling water.  They school justifies this by parading the words  “safety concerns” which is  a bit like saying we don’t want soldiers to have guns because they might hurt someone.

In reality, the concern is money.  They don’t want students cooking rice or boiling water for electrical reasons.  Each dorm room has 6-8 students.  There are 11,000 students.  That is somewhere between 1375-1833 dorm rooms.  If they are all using rice cookers and kettles, the students are suddenly drawing on a  A LOT of power.  But I digress.

Add more fat to the food.  Making a it a little greasier.  Now I’m not talking about throwing tubs of lard at the students, but these meals that the majority of students are eating are constipating and unpleasant.  If they cook with a little more oil or butter these students might have a little extra body weight to deal with cold weather.  Right now, all of these female students could probably apply to be models if they weren’t so damn short.  Seriously, I’ve met three people that are close to my height, maybe two inches shorter at most.  Everyone else: not even my shoulders.  And it’s the food.  They get lots of rice and veges, but the meals are very light on the protein side of things.  Cooking with more tofu would help, anything with protein would help.  These students have been eating school food since they started school.  This isn’t a situation of their family being poor, this is where the schools cut costs.

“This week in sports…”

Has been a new experience in inconsistency.  The lectures for this week  and the previous two weeks, which I intended to be for Halloween, haven’t come out as intended.  First, I couldn’t find clothing for dressing up that didn’t have to be tailor made for me.  Second, I couldn’t find pumpkins of proper size to be used as jack-0-lanterns without someone mistaking it for an orange stress ball.  Yeah, they are that small.  I was told I could find some, but I have gone with three different people to three different locals, and all proved fruitless.

Yeouch.  Sorry bout that.

So instead, I  moved ahead my plans for teaching my students a little something about North American music history.  Okay fine, it’s basically the USA music history.  But some of those artists were Canadian so I’m including them.  I’m starting with Ragtime and ending with The British Invasion this week.  Next week is disco through to modern music.  It’s been pretty entertaining with my first two classes that I got to do this with.  Some of them enjoyed me doing new, but a lot of them haven’t had a chance to develop a personal music taste.  All the music here feels pretty homogenus and what little feels different isn’t Chinese  or Asian for that matter.  It seemed like they heard what was being played, but couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  Especially jazz.

(Long talk below,  not funny at all.  Very serious discussion follows and me being introspective)

Which brings me to another thing: sheltered.  I don’t think anyone except the foreign teachers here have any idea just how sheltered these kids are.  I don’t call them adults(and they are only a year or less younger than me) because they have spent so much of their lives without exposure to so much that we take for granted back home.  This isn’t entirely a censorship thing, because there are ways to get around censorship that are tactfully accepted by the government.   I’m sure censorship is part of it, but a lot of my students seem to know little about their own culture and don’t seem to particularly care.

The students are fascinated by North American culture, because their own culture feels like it doesn’t have any substance to it.  Compared to my experiences in college and uni, I’m not entirely sure these students even have a clue about their own culture.  When I went to a temple a few weeks back, the student seemed out of place.  I asked her if there was significance to the repetition of turtle and snake statues(but in more words and easier terms) and she didn’t know.  When she went to ask the monk who was the caretaker of the temple he didn’t know either.  And I’m not talking about a statue here or there, but central figures in a fountain that was right in front of the main entrance to the temple.  Later, I asked my tourism class and I got two stories from three students that were fables regarding them.  The rest of the class was clueless.

And as I’ve been going around the city there is something that has struck me what you see in the streets is like a facade for everyone.  Behind these good looking streets with trees, shops, restaurants, and people are decrepit homes which no one looks after.  And they are all over the place.  The street level looks good, but they are just buildings hiding the dirty reality behind them.  This is not to say that the people are in any way like this, but the Chinese mentality here is a focus on the outward appearance just for appearances.

I started thinking about this because I asked my students to design Halloween costumes and I gave them an example of what I wanted.  I drew the headless horseman on the blackboard and made a list of his features.  But when the students presented their costumes everything was focused on the head with the body essentially discarded.  They gave the head deep detail, but when I asked them about the clothes none of them had a response.  The head is the outward appearance that they think about but the body is ignored.

I’m going to have to think about this more.  It makes me want to see the rest of the world and see if this is specifically Chinese condition or maybe something we all share.  I will probably think about Richmond very differently now and look at it in a new light.  Especially university students.  I wonder if other people I know are really all that different from my students?

I’m sure Orwell would find this all as no surprise.

English Corner

There is a clause in my contract which stipulates that I am required to help students and teachers with extra curricular activities,  such as a little something called “English Corner”.  Let me break it down:  a class is selected to run a weekly event on Sunday evenings called “English Corner” where they come up with games and events for the students of the English department and other students to practice their English and win prizes.  A couple students are appointed the the MCs and they co0ntrol and ebb and flow of the evening.  Us foreign teachers are supposed to show up and say something if we are asked, and help give things some ompf.  It goes on for an hour and a half, and some classes arrange music or sing-a-longs.

The last two weeks I’ve gone to this “English Corner’, and basically the students get the other students to do word association games and attempt to get them to talk with each other in English.  It’s a fun something for the students and gets them working together and trying new things.  It did bring something to the forefront.  No matter where in the world you are, young adult Chinese girls all giggle the laugh the same way.  They do it the same way in Canada, and they do it here.  Must be a cultural thing.

Also, I am getting pretty sick of noodles.  Never thought I’d dread eating noodles, but I’m getting pretty close.