Teaching In Socks

倒産 is the Japanese word for Bankruptcy
May 11, 2010, 5:03 pm
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I suppose it’s only natural in this day and age of the credit crisis, CDS’s, CDO’s, prices at the pump, and sub-prime everythings that part of my Japanese educational experience involve participating in a bankruptcy.  I am fortunate in that it’s not my own personal bankruptcy, but unfortunate because, well, it sucks.

Two weeks ago my company declared bankruptcy during a press conference in Tokyo. I think people were surprised, but not shocked. The English conversation school market has declined rapidly (by over half in just the last three years) and most companies in this industry have not adapted quickly enough. My company was not the first fall, nor have we fallen the most spectacularly (if you want to hear about that, just google “NOVA Japan).

Apparently, one can still run a a successful English school in Japan–businesses in Japan still need employees that are fluent in English and schools and colleges still require their students to pass tests; however the company that I worked for was simply too big, and perhaps too poorly managed in a a shrinking market

The details of the in-the-boardroom-story that have emerged have been keeping the media busy. There are accusations (probably true) that board members embezzled money from profitable overseas school in Australia (and perhaps elsewhere) to keep the Japanese schools afloat.  Coincidently, the Australian schools were declared insolvent by the Australian Government in January.  The board was also apparently split on the decision to declare bankruptcy with the founder and President of the company filing a motion to try and halt the bankruptcy in court last week.

Somehow, through all of this, I have, for the moment, seem to have come out (sort of) alright. I lost a month’s worth of salary; however it appears that I may be covered by a Japanese government insurance policy that will repay and portion of my wages at a later date (go go gadget welfare state!). I lost all the vacation days I banked. I lost my contract. I lost my end-of-contract bonus. I lost one months worth of travel expenses. These are all things that are nice to have, but not necessary to survive. Also, I didn’t lose my job (yet).

A good chunk of the remaining schools were taken over by another language company, and they have kept the schools running and signed all the teachers at those schools to short term contracts–what happens after those expire no one knows yet. The employment with the new company, albeit in the same role maybe be a short-lived and oddly colored parachute, but it’s a parachute nonetheless.

The crisis at hand has been stressful, but at the moment I’m trying to view it as less of a stress and more as an interesting experience (although it takes a lot sometimes).

In the weeks following the bankruptcy it’s been interesting to see students who never showed up attend class seemingly out of the ether and worry about the status of their lessons that they used only sparingly before. It’s been interesting (and perhaps a bit sad) to see how my students react to bad news; while the new school has guaranteed to honor their contracts there is the general feeling that they are, and will be, getting screwed over somehow.  The mom types, complain to the managers, and then step into the classroom and immediately start checking that you’re getting enough to eat, the engineer types, excited to finally have something to talk about want to break it down matter-of-factly, innocently neglecting to consider that maybe it bums you out a bit

It’s been interesting. I get to learn some new Japanese words, memorize a few new strange kanji, and I even almost made my first appearance in the Japanese news when the reporters flocked to our school. My best friend, for reasons unrelated to this, was on Japanese Television four weeks ago, I guess God knew that I was subconsciously jealous and this is his interesting way of giving me what I wanted. Thanks.

Just because we’re both foreigners doesn’t mean we’re friends
April 16, 2010, 4:29 pm
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Gaijin (pronounced “guy-gin”) is the informal word for foreigners in Japan. Boiled down to it’s literal translation “gaijin” means “outsider”. Because of it’s context, it’s a word you don’t hear coming from the mouth of a Japanese person unless either you have done something excessively offensive, or if they happen filled with some pretty heavy prejudices. In polite conversation its considered more appropriate to instead use the word “gaikokujin” which means “foreigner” in a more literal, less slanderous sense.

Like other words of it’s ilk, the word “gaijin” is used frequently amongst the group of people it’s intended to offend.We call bars that foreigners frequent “gaijin bars”, certain cities have “gaijin networks”, and we ask each other if they know any other “gaijin” in the area.  I’m not exactly sure why this word was appropriated into the foreigner lexicon. It’s inception could have been an instance of the oppressed (relatively, obviously) seeking to dull the verbal weapons of the oppressor (again, relatively) by co-opting their vocabulary. The usage could have been the result of a collective attempt to try and sound more native, by using a bit of Japanese slang. Maybe it’s a hip-hop thing; Rappers sound cool tossing around the n-word, and thus foreigners wanted to sound cool by dropping their own forbidden fruit in casual conversation.

I tend to lean towards the third possibility, but maybe that’s just self-fulfilling colloquial historical revisionism because I like Wu-Tang and Lil’ Wayne.

While many of us gaijin subscribe to the same vocabulary, gainjin interactions beyond that can be complex. When I see a foreigner on the street I am often conflicted about what to do. On one hand, I know there is a good chance that this person and I have the shared experience of being a stranger in a strange land. We could probably share embarrassing stories about onsen trips or the number of times we have been asked if we know how to use chopsticks. I also know, that there might be a chance that we speak the same cultural language, and I could always use more friends around me who get my Chris Farley references.

On the other hand, I didn’t come all the way to Japan to rehash the greatest moments of Matt Foley: Motivation Speaker (in a van down by the river!). I also don’t want to perpetuate the Japanese misconception that all gaijin know each other. I can’t tell you how many times I have been a shop where there happened to be another random foreigner and the shop keeper assumed that we knew each other. I feel like I’m always trying to avoid looking like I’m part of a great gaijin conspiracy.

As I mentally debate these two contrasting view points I often find myself either giving the other person the polite but subtle head nod (which never looks cool) or doing the very obvious “I don’t know you” cold-shoulder.  In retrospect, the deciding factor on which one I do seems to be whether or not I suspect the person of being a tourist.

Don’t get me wrong, I like being helpful. I just don’t like being caught in a situation where I am helping the hopeless, and if you’re walking around look like a tourist, then you are already lost beyond my ability to save you.

These past week I was playing pool with two gaijin friends, a Kiwi and a Brit, when a foreigner couple strolled in past us. As they walked by, the guy yelled, “People speaking English, that’s what I like to hear”. No one in my group replied. Internally, I sighed; the man’s accent was American, I was going to have to take care of this or it was only going to reflect poorly on me amongst my peers.

As predicted, within minutes the girl came over to our table are started asking us where we were from. We were polite, I asked her where she was from. “Orlando” she replied. “Which is great in Japan, because when people ask us where we are from we just say Mickey Mouse”. That is great, I thought. Really great.

In my experience, people from Orlando are particularly dangerous on foreigner countries. They are generally entirely uncultured, but completely oblivious to it. They assume that their proximity to a theme park that is visited by people internationally has put them on a some sort of cultural pedestal and clued them in to the secrets of proper international relations. Just because the restaurant you work in taught you how to say “My name is Renee” in their language doesn’t mean you are some preferred customer to come poke around their country.

The girl left  us alone, but over the next thirty minutes they kept finding reasons to pop back over to our table. It quickly went from”Where are you from?” to “Do you know any good hotels in the area?”, “where can I get wifi around here” to bumming cigarettes. Like I said before, I am happy to be helpful, and politely helpful, –we drew them maps and wrote down Kanji; however there are travel agents and an American Embassy for a reason.

As we left the bar, my friends lightly lamented about how a day dedicated to shooting pool and drinking beer became a tour guide symposium. I rued that this was another reason the terrorist hate us, and vowed to stick to the cold shoulder routine more steadfastly. Some gaijin are gaijin enough to be “gaijin”

Naked and Confused
March 25, 2010, 4:02 pm
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During my “blog blackout” last month I made a short weekend trip to Kurayoshi in Tottori prefecture. Tottori prefecture is on the North side of Honshu (the Japanese “mainland”) and to get there I had to take the Super Hakuto train north, all the way across the island. I had never traversed the country from North to South before and it was quite interesting to watch the shifts in the landscape outside the window.

When foreigners list things they associate with Japan, the shifting landscape probably isn’t high on the list. This is unfortunate, because it’s kind of spectacular.  The numerous and lengthly tunnels couple with the quick progression from plains to field to mountains to coast line resembles the ride at Epcot–you know, in the good way, minus the space part and the talking Presidents.

I started in Aioi, along the coast of Seto Inland Sea, where it was cool and sunny. Within twenty minutes on the train the horizon was filled with sharp, gray mountain peaks and snow-blanketed fields. A handful of stops later, I was back again at sea-level, passing the famous sand dunes of Tottori and traveling alongside the Sea of Japan as waves crashed against the shore.

The abrupt transitions reminded me that I wasn’t in America. Back home it often always seems like you have to travel for days or jump on plane for the scenery to change significantly.

I headed to Tottori with my fiancée and her family for two reasons: Onsens (natural hot springs) and Crab meat. I can’t speak for the rest of Japan (although I think I do) but here in Hyogo, heading North to eat crab and sit in scorching hot water are a winter tradition.

Onsens have always kind of freaked me out. While Japanese culture highly values privacy, the notion of natural purity seems to supersede it. What I really mean is; at most onsens you are required to bath in them naked. There is usually a number of pools connected to the hot spring and they separate the men’s side and women’s side. Thus, when I go with my girlfriend, this basically leaves me stranded in terms of having a cultural consultant. Normally, I can hold my own, but onsens complicate the situation there is a strict code of etiquette at the onsens, (that involves bathing at certain times, not having tatoos and so forth) that is designed to maintain the purity of the water.

Now, I can get past the nudity (barely), and as you might have noticed from reading this blog, I have a wealth of experience in dealing with social faux pas. However, the one thing I dread is committing a faux pas while naked. Naked faux pas are like the sixth of Faux Paws hell (I saw six because I there must a be a seventh circle that I don’t want to–and hopefully am unable to–imagine).  Also, any transgressions is compounded by the fact that I am a foreigner– it’s not like I can blend in the with crowd or hope that an incident will slip anyone’s notice.

Now, I imagine that you, the reader, are anticipating some ripe and juicy story where I do something offensive and am chased down the streets, running to the embassy buck-naked.  Unfortunately, I have to disappoint you. I lucked out. First, we were traveling on a Sunday and Monday so the ryokan (Japanese style hotel) was fairly empty. In fact, at night I had the whole men’s side of the onsen, with four different onsens–two indoor and two outdoor, to myself. I could have swam laps ( sort of did, I ran around and jumped in every onsen for no explicable reason). The second day, I stumbled upon a poster in the changing room that outlined the proper onsen etiquette. For those interested it’s:

Step 1: Take a shower

Step 2: Get in the onsen.

Step 3: Don’t splash around or swim. Don’t eat food, don’t drink, don’t put your washcloth in the onsen, it’s uncouth.

Step 4: Chill out, you’re in mineral rich hot spring water. It’s one of the few benefits of living on top of a bunch of volcanoes.

Getting that sussed out helped make the weekend more relaxing. In between going to the onsen and eating the largest crab meal I have ever had we had a chance to go to a Yakuza-run arcade (classy and retro) and walk along the river–which held an outdoor all-male public onsen. I’m not sure what the protocol is on the outdoor onsen, but I bet it’s a bit too European for me.


Fill'er with Diesel and Bacon

Since January 15th of this year McDonald’s has been running it’s “Big America” campaign here in Japan. I assume the “Big America” title is supposed to be some sort of word play involving the “Big Mac” but all it makes me think of is fat, lazy McDonald’s-inhaling Americans (like myself). Basically, it’s a rather apt title.

The campaign has included four specialty burgers, The Texas Burger, Burger New York, the California Burger, and the Hawaiian burger (sorry Chris, no McRib). Here’s a list describing each burger. I can’t say I fully agree with the ingredients corresponding to their locations. What’s so New York about Monterrey-Jack cheese?or so Hawaiian about eggs? Do they even have eggs in Hawaii? If so they definitely aren’t indigenous. Please note, however, (as the author of the above link does) that all the burgers include bacon. Baconizing everything sounds very American We should be the United States of Bacon. Bacon, the most beautiful thing on Earth.

In Japan I try not to go to McDonald’s.  “Try” is the operative term though, I have gone a few times (they’re everywhere!) and each time I do, I feel like I am fulfilling a cliche. Even if it’s not the case I get the impression that the staff either looks at me and snicker at the humor of the stupid foreigner eating the stupid foreign trash-food or that the person behind the register sees me as some sort of McDonald’s expert who is going to enlighten them with my advanced McDonald’s knowledge. The sad thing is, when I look at the menu, I feel like I have advanced McDonald’s knowledge. I’ve seen McDonald’s items they cant even possibly fathom. Ordering McDonald’s in Japan simultaneously feels like cheating on my dream to be a worldly person and playing little league as an adult.

I went last week because the fries are still awesome, (even in Japan, even in England, even on the moon) and there is one down the street from my office. I resisted the brief temptation to order off the Big America menu. Huffing down a Big America burger would just put me one step closer to being a Big American.

No Pictured: The Jersey Burger- Bacon, Trash, and Tackiness--Class Free

I should also mention that the “Big America” campaign has been complimented by a number of strange commercials that involve a portable McDonald’s driving across America to deliver cheeseburgers to uncomfortably happy people. The whole things seems to be some sort of electric-kool-aid party gone corporate; in the commercials everybody dances as the tiny McDonald’s mobile delivers them cheeseburgers with bacon–which I guess wouldn’t be so bad, I mean bacon is involved.

Just a stranger on the bus
March 10, 2010, 4:29 pm
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In Japan, the public bus system is not used just by people who can’t afford cars and the mentally disabled.  It is used by them, but also other types of people as well: college students, the elderly, and working professionals. Japan has such a excellent comprehensive public transportation system that it really is possible –although not always extremely convenient–to get around without using a car.

I have recently started using the bus system for the first time since elementary school. Overall, I feel as though the Japanese Bus system is vast improvement over it’s American counterpart. However, in some ways this is it’s downfall. Because it’s nice, a wide variety of people use, and thus inside the bus there is a mixture of people with schedules and places to be and people who have absolutely no respect for time. I would even go as far as to say that it’s a metaphor of why communism, socialism, and basic kindergarten sharing all don’t work.

On the flip side I could see someone arguing that the Japanese bus system is evidence of why the previously mentioned ideals would/do work. The buses here are exceptionally clean, they leave their destinations on time, and in my experience, they are fairly safe (read: not made by Toyota) in terms of interior incidents and external accidents. In my opinion though, this viewpoint doesn’t look at carefully enough at the internal bus passenger interactions and overall atmosphere–it’s high tension.

I don’t think Capitalist or Americans are wired for bus riding. In my specific case, I take the entire ride too personally. If between my apartment and workplace the bus seems to take forever and stop at every single stop (as it did today) I take this as an omen that the rest of the day will be miserable. It should be noted that I often view things that I can’t control, such as stoplights, queues and commercial breaks, as God’s way of communicating messages to me (and about me). However within this paradigm it has become apparent recently that the bus ride duration holds a heavier often more dubious weight than the other mediums. Some might call it solipsist to believe that God communicates directly to me and about me through the number of bus stops I get to bypass (or not bypass) each morning but I prefer to refer to it as a brand or perfectly normal failed transcendentalism.

I would agree though that the bus proves the pervasiveness of solipsism even in a country as polite and conformed as Japan. Actually, maybe it doesn’t prove the pervasiveness of solipsism per se, but more specifically the blatant disregard people have for other people. This is perhaps what I find most irksome about the bus and where it really gets dicey.

On Japanese buses you pay a staggered fare based on how long/far you rode the bus. In order to pay this fare, you have to pay exact change. If you don’t have exact change, there is a change machine at the front of the bus (right next to where you pay). More often than you would think college slackers, indignant seniors, and just general self-absolved jerkfaces at the back of the bus signal that they want to get off at the next stop, then only when the bus has come to a complete stop at their desired stop do they get up and saunter to the front of the bus. Once at the front they suddenly, “oh, I have to make change so I can pay my fare, Let me do this while everyone waits and watches”. Then we, the lucky fellow passengers, get to wait to while this genius makes change, sorts out how much he needs to pay, pays and then finally leave the bus. I have seen people try to hold conversations with the driver while they do this, I’ve seen people look at the change in their hand as if they are doing algebra, I have seen people pay and then stand at the top of the step and look at as if they are some 18th century sea captain surveying a new island –it’s as if they have no clue that there are other people on the bus who have places to be.

I know I sound a bit like a curmudgeon complaining about this. However, being American abroad, I am aware of our reputation as clumsy, impolite fat lazy walking cheeseburgers. In the spirit of constantly wanting to prove people wrong (whatever the dispute may be), I have tried to be acutely aware of proper etiquette and basic public decency. This means giving up my seat on the train to the elderly, holding open doors for excessively long periods of time (one time in Osaka I was worried that I would stuck there until closing) and most recently chasing after a girl through the train station who had unknowingly dropped her cellphone on the ground.

Thus, it ticks me off when it feel like I’m the only one trying over here. Never mind all the little rules I break constantly because I don’t even know them, when people don’t prepare their exact change before arriving at their bus stop it makes me feel like God hates me.

box forts
March 4, 2010, 4:32 pm
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I didn’t intend to take a month off, however it appears that’s how long it takes to move and get Internet in Japan.  Actually, it takes a few days less than that, but if complain about NTT not giving you your Internet password information for a few days while also not checking your mailbox  that is exactly how long it takes.

During the process, I have learned a couple of interesting new tidbits about Japan:

1. The moving process is not enjoyable, not in any country, not ever.

2. A fourth-floor walk-up is a fourth-floor walk up even in Japan where it seems like the stairs are miniature stairs.

3. The Ikea in Kobe is exactly like the Ikea in New Jersey which is both great and terrible.

4. In Japan you can bargain with the sales staff even in the big-box electronics stores. This really surprised; not only have I been getting ripped off but I have been missing out on the thrill of used-car dealership-type negotiations.

Still, it’s great to be in a new apartment. I have a great view of the Akashi Bridge and Awaji island in the new place. Also, I have real furniture that didn’t come with the apartment and is not bolted down in any way.

The new place considerably bigger than my old one (but still small) full of appliances, Ikea furnishings  and a bunch of empty cardboard boxes. Why do I still have all of these boxes? Because in Japan there is a proper way to do everything and in Japan that way with boxes is to cut them into tiny pieces, wrap the pieces into bundles with string and then dispose of those bundles ONLY (ONLY!) on the first Saturday of every month.  Anything else is is an insult to your neighbors (and yourself).

I find this box-disposal methodology a bit cumbersome. It’s a lot of work for something they’re probably just going to incinerate. Also, the waiting time is a far cry from New York, where you could bring anything from your apartment outside and put it on the curb at anytime of the day on any day of the week and within hours that item that you put on the curb would become part of someone else’s home. The upshot of Japan’s way of doing things is that the neighborhood doesn’t always smell like trash; my apartment however, smell like cardboard boxes. Obviously, the only viable solution is to build a box fort in my apartment and just live in the fort until the night before the first Saturday of the month, at which time the fort will have to be sieged and raised. It’s the only logical solution, but that may be the box fumes talking.

Bread winning
January 21, 2010, 3:40 pm
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I apologize for the delay between posts. There have been a number of changes here at Teaching in Socks HQ. I’ll  probably talk about those at some point, but for now I would like to stay on the lighter side of things and talk about bread.

For the first few weeks I lived in Japan, I was confused about how sometimes after making a few sandwiches during the week I would end up with an extra, lone slice of bread and other times the math would work out perfectly. It took me a little while, but then I realized the large number printed on the side of the bread bag had some significance. “6” a bag with six slices of bread and “5” equals a bag with five marginally thicker slices of bread. I’ll will admit that despite having bought bread numerous times in the U. S., I am ignorant of American bread customs and standards. I feel like the denotation of the number of slices is something only bakeries and fancy breads do. In fact, I can never recall seeing a number on the side or a bread bag. Sizes I understand; “sandwich”, “thick”, “Texas toast”. Numbers, however, are new to me.

Pick a side Fatty

This predicament made me wonder, who buys the bags of five slices. I mean, presumably they are the same amount of bread divided up differently, but Japanese bread is already extra thick. Why would you want less slices. Taking a bag of five slices not only hampers your rationing ability but it completely bungles your sandwich math. I get the draw of thicker slices–Texas Toast is the greatest invention since somewhat thickly sliced bread–but even then I feel like the wizards at the bread factory are smart enough to put in a even number of slices.

When I was in High School, I stupidly and briefly took a job as a sandwich artist at Quiznos. I never stayed long enough to learn how to make any of the sandwiches, but I did learn how to cut them (diagonally) and how to apply lettuce (liberally, by the fistful). One night one of my jackass friends came in an order a sandwich. While he was razzing me and making ridiculous toppings requests, I proceeded to cut his 12-inch sandwich into twelve slices. What’s important here is not that you shouldn’t be a jerk to a person preparing you a sandwich (actually that is important) but that i cut the sandwich into an even number of slices. Why? because those are the mathematical law under which bread should operate.

“What about the Big Mac” you say? The Big Mac is not a sandwich, it is a burger and it is an atrocity. What about Club Sandwiches? Club sandwiches are awesome, but I dare you to tell me that they wouldn’t be better if the middle slice of bread was actually two thin slices of bread (law of evens) and if there was a little more bacon (maybe two slices up top and two slices down below).

Anyway, I see the decision to offer bags with five slices of bread as a shot across the bow in a war on sandwichry. Slicing and packing bread in odd numbered slices presumes that their is some alternative or superior usage for bread. This is foolish, and petty.  Don’t be surprised if you hear about The Sendai Sandwichcraft Trials  (I’m sorry). I should have been suspicious simply fact that they call bread by it’s french name, “pan” (in France are pans called “bread”?).

I feel like this bread predicament is just another issue that forces people apart instead of bringing them together. We are all forced into one camp or another. Are you a Coke or a Pepsi person? Leno or Letterman? Ford or Chevy? 6 slices or 5? Every time the clerk scans my items at the check out she labels me a look that says “you are a 6”. It’s degrading. I am not a number, I am a free, sandwich-eating man.