Teaching In Socks

a “whole” in the logic.
When viewed from afar the arrangement of our educational theory seems a bit off. We tell you children to stop asking questions and instead reward those who cam memorize answers. We ask them (and our asked ourselves) regard the information we are taught as indisputable facts. Then in college and perhaps in High School we are informed that the facts we have digested for the past twelve years are–in many cases–not facts per se, but instead simplified solutions. Suddenly questions are more valuable then answers and just as the whole thing starts to unravel we throw you in a nine to five and tell you to forget about it.
I suppose that’s why, at this age,  I am just starting to discover the humor and chaos in language. It could also be that as a language teacher I encounter more often and have developed an eye for it (but let’s face it as the above paragraph indicates I’d rather whine and moan about how it was Mrs Goldman’s fault in third grade). The fact that I learning a new language is probably a heavy contributer to this new found perspective as well.
Unless I was listening to George Carlin comedy bit, I never really questioned the logic of language– even in college. I mostly just sat in awe of people who could manipulate words and conman sentences well, hoping that someday I could do that for a living as well.
Then I came to Japan. The other night a student asked me to check an email they had written in English. In it they made a small typo, typing “the hole presentation” when them mean the “whole” presentation. We had a small laugh about how silly this was. Afterwards, it occurred to me that homophones  are the most damning evidence that language is human, and flawed(besides all the other reasons). We have a one word that mean “entirety, everything” and it sounds exactly the same as a word that means “a void”. This is just lazy, and careless.  Let’s not  even debate the logic behind the phonics of “whole”–it takes a sever ump in logic to arrive at the conclusion that a “wh” combination can make both an “h” and a “w” sound ( e.g. what).
I also spend a great deal of my time studying (okay, 30 minutes a day) Japanese grammar and trying to perfect my understanding of grammatical structure only to often find out that people don’t speak (or write) in perfect grammar; English speakers are guilty of this as well.
I’m not saying we tear the whole thing and rebuild, but we need to realize the foundation we have in place–with all languages across the board–is dangerous. I realized the other week, that on occasions when I’m not paying attention to my anunciation or intonation (which is all the time) I have the habit of asking the check-out lady at the super market for “two, flat owls”. “Fukuro” means means bag. “fukurou” means owl.
Now, I’m lucky; the check-out ladies are pretty understanding (or hard of hearing) because I have yet to receive any owls, but let’s imagine that I did. Owls are vicious devil-birds capable of anything within a 180 degree frame of reference. I on the other hand have no experience raising carnivorous birds and a fear of things attack my head from above.
Simply because some  lazy linguist made an inadvertent error–the is no other logical explanation, you cannot connect owls and bag etymologically–during the naming of things millenniums  ago we now have either two dead owls or one mangled white boy. Must this senseless violence continue or commence simply because we are too lazy to fix something that is broken? There is a seemingly infinite amount of sounds we have yet to use and other that are greatly underused.  Why does “X” get off so easily? Why stop at 26 letters? why not more?
I think at this time it’s only appropriate to announce my candidacy from President of the United States (and the World) on the platform of creating a 27th letter. It could looks like a dragon face! or a dragonfly or a dragon fruit! who knows?  I’m thinking the letter will have a “jh” or “bykl” but I am willing to negotiate this–my running mates, however, two vicious  supermarket Owls, are not.
(Ed note: I would like to apologize for this blog in Advance. i really have nothing to write about this week and I feel like the guy who writes the back page for the American Airlines in-flight magazine; American Way.  Next week I promise more interesting content as I probably will have achieved a new level of consciousness and have the ability to write blogs with my mind powers. )

Visual Deception
September 8, 2009, 6:02 pm
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This weekend I went to the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art. The museum is a little far from me– about an hour and half away (one stop past Sannomiya); however, their current exhibition, Visual Deception, seemed like proper impetus to make the trip.

Tadao Ando designed the museum, so the building itself was part of the draw as well. I have been impressed with his buildings whenever I encounter them. The Contemporary Art Museum in St.Louis was probably my first cognizant exposure to Ando’s work. I also like the that a former boxer from Osaka who never received any formal architectural training has this great sense of shape and framing the amazing views his buildings create. It’s like someone gave Avon Barksdale a T-square.

Ando is perhaps most famous for his concrete construction method where many of the interior and exterior walls are simple, smooth (yet not flawless) exposed concrete slabs. He is not the first architect to use this method (so I’m told) but the way he uses it and his consistency with the material have made it a signature of his work.

play stairway to museum

play stairway to museum

The Hyogo Prefectural Museum was unlike the Contemporary Museum in many ways; namely it was bigger and used a much darker color pallet for the ceiling and walkway ornamentation (if one could call it that). A first I wasn’t sure how I felt about the building. From the exterior there are hints that it might be part of some terrible future dystopia imagined in the 80’s. Inside, however, the building is really quite elegant. There are a number of long, geometrically-magnificent spaces. The stairways range from the massive and wide forum variety to winding Escher-like narrow stairs that spiral down wall of rectangular corridor.  The darker pallet also helps to balance out large amount of light pulled from the outside. Without a dark colored ceiling the contrast between the spaces and the sight lines created would be lost.

While I enjoyed the building, the way the exhibition was highly imperfect. Apparently in Japan, and exhibition cannot sell out. This means people funnel in to the exhibit as quickly as they can. Unfortunately for me, this was a fairly popular exhibit.

more stairways

more stairways

My girlfriend and I were smart enough to buy tickets to the exhibition at the train station–who knew you could do that–and this allowed us to bypass the ticket-buying line which reports suggested was about an hour long. However, we still had to wait ten minutes in the Exhibition entrance-line. This was not terrible, however the opening room to the exhibition was extremely crowded. The room itself was large, however everyone was crammed along intermittent pieces of wall space  that held the works of art. The Exhibits signature pieces by Giuseppe Achimboldo (below) were particularly crowded.

This guys a vegetable

This guy's a vegetable

The entire scene was pretty much a foreigner’s nightmare museum experience.It hit a number of the bad museum experience pressure points;

  1. It’s lots of people who are used to being crammed into trains at rush hour, so they abandon all respect for personal space and cram around you as much as possible.
  2. It’s a crowd that skews slightly on the elderly side, so they are moving as slowly as possible.
  3. I am the tallest person, so if I’m in front, I am the one ruining it for everybody–as such I am forced to observe from the back of the pack
  4. There’s around round of “the new” flu  going around (perhaps this is swine flu II, I don’t know) so everyone is either wearing masks that don’t work or sneezing on people wearing mask.

It was a tad bit hellish.

After a few minutes I made the executive decision to forgo context and simply move to ahead of the crowd when possible and try to intimately view a few pieces of art rather than try to see everything trudging along with the mases.

It was a good decision. There were several rooms dealing with the Dutch and French master who developed and played with the depiction of depth and perspective. This was followed room tying in Japanese scroll and Ukiyoe printing into the development of visual illusions and depth before finally taking off with the modern pieces.

The exhibit had one a the more interesting collections of Magritte’s work that I had seen and I really did enjoy, what I perceive to be, his sense of humor about perception and reality. The highlight of the exhibition for me was a piece by Patrick Hughes, which depicts a Venetian style sea city. The piece is painted on a 3D canvas, where the triangular blocks of wood just out from the wall towards you. The scene is painted in such a  way that as you move the depth and lighting changes altering what you see and creating the illusion of an actual cityscape.

Overall the exhibit was pretty great. The modern pieces at the end were a nice pay-off. The crowds however did little to change my perspective that museum visits in Japan should be remain rare occurrences.

Party Central
September 2, 2009, 5:58 pm
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Farewell to freedom party

Farewell to freedom party

On Sunday I attended a farewell party for one of the teachers at the Himeji branch of our school. It’s been my observation that in Japan–and especially in my company–it is strict tradition to have both a Welcome Party and a Farewell Party for every staff member.

There are also Parties in the literal sense of the word;  not group-email organized, laissez-faire, happy hour get-togethers that seem to be all the rage amongst modern Corporate America. In Japan there is sign-up sheet, a restaurant reservation, and weeks of advance warning.  Also, sometimes there are balloons.

While I’ve never been a proponent of work-related functions, I do find something pleasant about a well-executed tradition. It’s first class of no class. The types of parties I experienced at my previous jobs–impromptu drinks at a bar around the corner or cake in a boardroom–weren’t terrible, but they were awkward gatherings, devoid of any sort of sentiment other than obligation and the thrill of drinks on the company tab.

The idea of making a big deal about both your entrance into and exit from the company seems logical and appropriate–it mirrors life; you have a party you barely remember when you get here and one you can’t enjoy when you leave.

Still, these parties in  Japan fill me with a modicum ofanxiety and trepidation. As a foreigner, participating in a Japanese custom(even if it’s just a party) with large groups of Japanese people always has the potential to be a terrifying affair.  As a stranger in a strange land you are always on the precipice of a international incident, and the more people that are there to witness it, the more loaded the powder keg is.

In the back of my head I always know the next move could be the one that sets it off. To avoid this, I try not to make any sudden movements and I try take good notes. In my quest to always be aware of my environment  I have begun to notice a rudimentary pattern of events at these parties:

1. Japan’s Fastest growing Quiz Sensation; How’s your English.

I don’t work in Himeji, so I don’t know any of the students at this party. It can be hard enough to start a conversation with a complete stranger, but as an English Teacher and representative of the company I have a responsibility to make friends without stressing anyone out about their English level on a Sunday.  So I have to make sure when meeting anybody to keepmy conversation in their realm of their English ability. This requires a lot of work:sticking to simple questions, keeping your statements concise, yet at a slow and well-enunciated rythym. Managing all of these things inspires a lot of nodding a smiling  as well.

This is difficult for me to maintain for more than fifteen minutes.  I start to feel like a cross between a amateur hypnotist act and prospective religious cult founder on a recruiting mission.

2. Monopolizing the Fluent speakers and burning them out.

Because of #1, when I find a student at an English level who I can carry on a reasonably detailed conversation with I tend to trap them into a conversation until I exhaust their mind.

On Sunday, I hit a bit of a gold mine: a former student at a pretty high level. This was great because a former student, limits the amount of financial damage I can do. Unfortunately for him, I also found out he likes soccer. I imagine that before the party he presumed he would show up, greet a few people in English, but conversely primarily with former classmates of his in his native tongue.  Instead, he found himself attending a football debate/inquisition in a language he probably hasn’t practiced in months.

3. The Foreigner Table:

No matter how great the effort to mix and mingle, inevitable the party starts to break into comfortable sects of conversation and the “foreigner table” appears.  God forbid any of  us bother to make the effort for the entire duration of the party to avoid the temptation of fluent conversation or to shun the chance to sprinkle obscure references and jokes into a conversation and where they have meaning. It either says something said or great about the human condition that I got a minor rush from being able to drop a David Brent line from The Office and watch it resonant with someone who had seen the show.

4. Can You use Chopsticks?

At every party, even as I am in the act of eating with chopsticks (or hashi as they are called) a students will ask me,”Do you know how to use chopsticks?” and then the group at the table will  marvel as nod and a crudely shovel a piece of lettuce into my mouth with two pieces of wood.

On one hand you have to applaud and admire the student’s effort and desire to instigate conversation. On the other hand, it’s frustrating because it is often the same conversation.

The worst culprit, by far, of these stock questions is “why did you come to Japan?”.

At face value, it’s a perfectly reasonable question. It’s probably even a good question. However, having been bombarded by it so many times, you want to make it into a person and berate it and tell it how ugly it is.

It’s also tricky because it’s not a question we would usually ask someone in the US. Let me rephrase that: it’s not we would ask because we want to know why you came to the US. We know why you came to America–same reason everyone comes–it’s awesome.  Have you seen how big the drinks are? Do you know you get free refills? You can infinity gallons of Diet Dr.Pepper for $1.50 (did you even make that much money in a month in your country? a year?).

Instead, we want to know what terrible unbearable condition caused you to leave your previous country–“was it political oppression? were you escaping a robot dictator? child labor? doglabor? do they make dogs work in factories in your country? awwww That’s terrible”.

Thus, despite being fully familiar with the question, I’m not entirely sure what constitutes a suitable answer. I could be honest, but being honest is boring–which highlights the other problem with this question: it’s begging for sarcastic answers .

Off the top of my head; “I came here to do Godzilla Research”, “I was fleeing an undisclosed zombie invasion that the government hasn’t made public yet”, ” I am a zombie invader”, “I’m allergic to Cheeseburgers and Freedom”.  Unfortunately, I happen to live in one of the countries (maybe there are many of them) where this brand of sarcasm doesn’t resonate and is in fact a spark waiting to set off that international incident I fear constantly.

Maybe next time I’m asked I’ll just I cam to Japan because I really like good Welcome and Farewell Parties. I think that will earn me some Japan points.


1. Over the weekend, the government shifted drastically for the second time in 50 years. It was probably my fault.

2. Someone stole my Wedding: http://mdn.mainichi.jp/photospecials/graph/gundamwedding/index.html