Teaching In Socks

Fifty-Four Forty or Fight
February 25, 2009, 5:17 pm
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As swiftly as it was brought into action “The Apple Pie Bold as Love: American Culinary Experience” has been suspended until further notice.  The date the organizers had originally requested fell on a weekend that I will be out town and the date we initially compromised on happened to present a scheduling conflict to the cultural society.

I am both bummed and relieved. One on hand, I was really looking forward from the inevitable farce that would arise. While I’m sure it would have been injury free, (I got over my kitchen-fire phase in college) I think we can safely assume that me teaching a cooking class on two weeks notice to forty women with immensely more culinary experience than I had was worth at least one appearance on This American Life. At the very least, some dreadfully awful apple pies would have been concocted (let”s face it, that should read “attempted” –concocted assumes I get that far).

The organizers mentioned they would like to reschedule sometime in June or July. This gives me plenty of time to not practice pie-making in the oven I don’t have. So, the opportunity for disaster is not entirely lost.

Pie catastrophes aside, what I found most interesting was the process by which local cultural office informed me of the postponement. Specifically, I experienced my first serious, social, Japanese apology. while it was unnecessary, I did find it to be a noteworthy experience.

The organizer, who I met last week, dropped by yesterday with his English speaking colleague. Unfortunately, I was in class, so they left a message with my manager, that the even wasn’t going to work. They then returned today just to apologize to me personally for the misunderstanding.

I found this to be quite polite, but again, not necessary; scheduling conflicts happen, I am aware of this was certainly not insulted. However, they took the matter intensely serious; if you had observed this interaction on mute, and only seen their faces, you would have deduced that they were explaining to me in detail  and with great remorse that my dog  had died an agonizing and gruesome death. The man from last week was sweating profusely, he slouched in his chair as if weighted down by shame. His colleague, spoke English fluently, but still he chose his words diligently and in a slow, deliberate pace, apologizing, on my count at least six different times during a five-minute conversation–at least two of which were apologies for hypothetical things, that in case I had started working on they were sorry for.

As  I thanked them for their apology while reassuring them that it wasn’t necessary, the obvious revelation–that western culture could use a dose of this behavoir–hit me. It felt nice to get an overdone apology. Well maybe it was the apology, or maybe I was just feeling better because in the midst of this planning we cleared up any confusion there may have been about me being a Canadian. U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A.

baby steps/blame Canada
February 19, 2009, 4:30 pm
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Let me begin by explaining that the default personnel set up for my English school is this: one native English speaking teacher (me), one Japanese English speaking teacher, and one manager–to work on recruiting new students, and renewing students contracts and making sure the school is profitable.

Managers are always Japanese, and apparently it is rare that they stay at a particular school for very long. If they are successful, they get moved to bigger schools, and if they aren’t well…  When I first arrived, the default personnel scenario was in place. But within two months the manager was asked to move to another school (not because she was successful) and never heard from again. Sans manager, the other teacher and I were forced to pick up some slack– and in terms of dealing with students this meant the other teacher had to pick up more slack because out of the two of us she was the only one who spoke Japanese. Then in December, we got another Manager, who was capable and successful.

Unfortunately, after two months, the powers that be, recognized her talents and transferred her to another school three days a week.  Also, those same three days a week, the moved the other teacher to another school because she didn’t ave many students here. Thus creating a new, reformed  power hierarchy at my school that consists of just me, alone, by myself.  This essentially means that I am running someone else’s business in a country where I don’t speak the language.

As you can imagine, on occasion, this is ripe for farce.

Thus, in between faxing some forms (usually the manager’s job) and frantically trying to prepare for my class (my job), I was greeted by a visitor from the city office (I was stoked I could understand that much!). He was a wonderfully nice gentleman, who, happened to be friends with one of my students. He also knew less English then I knew Japanese.

He came armed with a series of pamphlets written Japanese, He explained each one, in Japanese pointing pictures of old people cooking and young Australian and Japanese children making arts and crafts together. It became apparent to me that he was in charge of some cultural exchange program, but beyond that I understood little of what he said.

This was a bit depressing; I have now been living in Japan for seven months, and have been taking private Japanese lessons. I study hard and try to speak when I can, but progress is slow, frustratingly slow.  Every Japanese person I try to speak with is always patient and really understanding, and I try to be patient with myself as well, but I’ve encountered few things as difficult as trying to have a productive conversation with someone when we don’t understand each other”s language. It’s like playing the worst game Pictionary or Charades every three seconds, except you don’t even resort to such games because you end up drawing an entire stick-figure conversation or imitating Riverdance.

As soon as he moved away from the explanation of the pamphlets and into free form conversation the structural integrity of our conversation collapsed.  The thick blanket of the linguistic impasse swiftly covered the room. I could see drops of sweat forming on his forehead as I tried to faun understanding to make him less nervous as he tried sentences in both quick Japanese and bits of broken English.

We got to a final sentence with only two words I understood, “Canada”  and “food”. I asked him to repeat the sentence, but I was still to grasp those two words. Realizing we had hit the cul de sac of this conversation I panicked and I did what I usually do in these situations and said “yes”.

Now I  know from a specific Seinfeld episode that this is a bad habit to have, but in situations of international exchange, I have the propensity to panic (I would make a terrible diplomat).

After I said, “hai”, he shot me a look that I briefly interpreted as meaning he understood that I did understand, or that I had just agreed to something.

Did he want me to tell him some Canadian foods? Were they going to make some Canadian foods and did he want me to come? Did he want ME to teach people how to make Canadian food and more importantly did he think I was Canadian?

After he repeated the question again for my benefit, I sucked in my pride and told him that the manager would be back on Friday and she could help translate. We exchanged formalities, he unnecessarily apologized for stopping in unannounced and he promised to come back on Friday. Afterwards, I thought about Canadian foods my list consist of this: Canadian Bacon, Poutine (gross) and some form of Canadian Syrup, also, maybe Ketchup flavored chips (does that count?).

Later my student, the who was an acquaintance of his, came to class and I asked him what his friend had requested. My student clarified everything, saying he wanted me to to either give a speech about Canada or teach peopel how to cook some Canadian foods. I replied to my student, who is very fluent in English, that I would be happy to do that, but I’m not Canadian. He blinked a few times, tilted his head–much in the way a canine does when it’s confused and said, “really?”.

depressing things: 2, Ted: 0 (maybe I get a half point for sucking in my pride instead of insisting that I would agree to teach a Canadian cooking class).

Also, I’ll find out tomorrow if the offer still stand to teach a ethnic American cooking class. If so what should I cook for the class, tacos or pizza?

Subtitled Explosions
February 10, 2009, 5:32 pm
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I went to go see a movie with my friends the other week. The offerings at most movie theaters are similar to the selections at the rental shop; about 50% Japanese and 50% English. However, it should be noted that often the Japanese release date for a foreign film is several months behind the European and American openings. So, while I got to pick the movie, my options were “Quantum of Solace”, “Che: Part II”, and “The Day the Earth Stood Still”.

I had already seen “Quantum of Solace”, and I knew “The Day the Earth Stood Still” wasn’t worth watching (and I don’t even really dislike Keanu). I didn’t have a lot of confidence in Che, but I know from experience and good Benicio Del Toro performance can make a film, and the prospect of the Cuban revolution promised some cool explosions.

I was also relieved that we were seeing a movie a week before the opening of “Mama Mia”. My companions, both girls, offered no complaints about my selection of Che; however, had we been there a week later I might of found myself outnumbered and on the wrong side of an anti-ABBA argument. In such a case, I would have to start my own revolution against the ABBAstablishtment (sigh, I know, but I’m too proud to remove this pun).

Free of watching Glenn Close (or is it Meryl Stree?p) and “former James Bond” dance around like idiots for two hours intermittently between horrible dialog and ridiculous plot points, I thought fortune was on my side. After buying the tickets though, a question occurred to me, “How authentic a depiction are they going for in this Che flick? Could it be so realistic that they might have him and the other characters speak Spanish?” This question then lead to another question, “If they’re speaking Spanish, and I’m in Japan, will the subtitles be in Japanese?”. Holding my ridiculously overpriced ticket in my hands, I realized I was possibly in for two hours of complete foreign language  immersion–a reality confirmed approximately six seconds into the movie.

It wasn’t terrible. I remembered some of the “functional Spanish” I picked up on my vacations to Spain and Mexico.  It wasn’t enough for me to be able to give an accurate review of the movie, but I can say there were a decent number of explosions.

I told my students this story and actually several of them who later saw the movie came back the next week to tell me that in their theater there were groups of presumeably English-speaking foriegners who walked out of the movie within the first five minutes, presumably ambushed by the language barrier.

Political currency
February 4, 2009, 4:16 pm
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Yes We Can Buy These Jeans

Yes We Can Buy These Jeans

I lived in London during the first half of 2004.  At that time, the war in Iraq was just turning a year old, and England, under Tony Blair, was reluctantly the most militarily invested of the “Coalition of the Willing”. In March, Spain was attacked and you could get the sense that this struck a chord with Londoners.

It would be an exaggeration to say that American foreign policy was a source of constant debate while I was living abroad, but I do recall it becoming the standard segue into conversation anytime I was introduced to a European. “What do you think about Bush?” basically replaced “nice weather, we’re having” as the go to  conversation ice-breaker.

Not that being American had much “cool currency” in London to begin with. I think the  group of students I belonged to had a reputation of asking stupid questions, wearing brightly colored hiking gear on Regent Street, and acting like idiots in the lamest bars around town. That is to say, even without the war, being a proud American in London is like trying to impress a girl in New York by telling her that you’re Canadian.

I bring this up only because when I saw this Obama sign plastered on the window of a women’s clothing store in Kobe, it made me realize I might be experiencing the exact opposite of my London experience here in Japan.

To begin, even before Obama, and for a while now I would imagine, that in a number of circles, being an American was a positive status symbol. I ca’t personally confirm this, but I get the impression that over the last ten years, when America was the arguably the least country in the world (or at least in Europe and the Mid-east) America was still cool in Japan–and not just New York/LA-America, but America-America. People in Japan were still taking English classes, watching Keanu Reeves movies, and buying Abercrombie and Fitch. In fact I remember when I first got here I saw a student wearing a “faux-school” shirt for a fictitious High School in Missouri.

If that’s not enough, people have said they think I look like Tom Cruise, and not only are they serious, but they also don’t mean that as an insult (nor did I clarify them on why it would be).

On top of this, as you may have heard, the political climate has changed in such a manner that America now has the most iconic President it has had in almost 50 years. I can’t imagine Bush’s likeness being used to sell anything other than rifle ammo. Jimmy Carter’s doesn’t ndores anything other than Habitat for Humanity and Billy Beer. I don’t even think Clinton’s face was used to move women’s clothing (own joke goes here). Let’s cancel that bailout: Obama’s Economic stimulus plan should just consist of him continuing to be really cool and appearing in a bunch of Coke and Nike commercials. The invisable hand of the market will do the rest.

For the past two weeks students and friends have had Obama fever. The number one selling book in Japan is a book of Obama’s speeches. I was also congratulated on his inauguration several times, and students have been asking questions constantly. While popularity by no means ensures Presidential success (well, maybe it does), I know from experience that being cool by assosciation is better than the alternative… so far.