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?



Castle Boy
August 20, 2008, 4:13 pm
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The previous weekend was perhaps my most accompllished this side of the Pacific: a cornucopia of squid was consumed, a face was sunburned, and gifts were purchased. Entire continents have had less to show for a weekend–that’s right, I’m looking at you Antarctica. The success story started on Sunday morning. After much begging on my behalf,  my friend agreed to give me the royal tour of Ako. I for some reason decided that 11:30am would be a suitable time for us to meet at the train station and for the tour to begin. When I arrived at 11:45am we decided it would be best to start with something to eat and pedaled down to JusCo, which I might start calling Xanadu-Ako location, to patron the largest food court the prefecture has to offer that is also within the city limits of Ako.

I was persuaded to try Takoyaki, which essentially batter, squid, (which I still call calamari for my stomach’s benefit) and what the Japanese universally call “sauce”. Sauce is BBQ sauce, and I think the BBQ nomenclature is something this country should embrace. Let’s be specific Japan, “sauce” sounds a bit vague by virtue and bit suspicious–like something they give you at Jack In The Box (oh wait, that’s called “jack sauce”…still).

I know what you’re thinking, squid balls for breakfast? gross. I agreed, and consequently was compelled  reward my stomach for it’s cultural martyrdom with two scoops from 31 flavors. I won’t contend that BBSQ squid balls and ice cream is the foundation of a healthy breakfast, but at least it has more flavor than Special K

Having satisfied our culinary aspirations, the tour embarked. Our first stop was Ako castle. It was once a large castle built in the 1300’s but all that remains now are few castle walls and guard posts, a small temple building and assorted ruin among the footprint of the castle. We took few pictures, prayed to a few Buddhist gods, and then headed to the beach

The beach in Ako is small but adequate. It’s a place where I would recommend one build a sand castle, nor encourage any scuba diving, but a book can be read and a sunscreen-stubborn Caucasian boy can find himself with vicious sunburn. That same Caucasian also may have bruised my foot on a rock. It wasn’t my best moment.

Afterwards we headed to Ako’s finest restaurant for dinner, Sakuragumi. Sakuragumi is a fairly famous pizza place near the castle, and has full Napolitana accreditation. It happened to be prix fixe night, so we each spent around the equivalent of $55 for the meal, but it was a delicious eight course feast. Three of the courses were squid based.

The next day, my friend was nice enough to be my guide as I scoured Himeji for a gift for my mom’s birthday. They have a little broader shopping selection in Himeji and it’s small trip from Ako. to avoid any present revelations I’ll skip the shopping details until the gift arrives stateside, which will most likely be in October. Ships are slow.

After the shopping mission was completed, I kind of hinted that I might have an interest in walking through the castle. Himeji Castle is a world heritage site, and it lives up to it’s billing. The castle construction began in 1346 and was completed in 1618. It’s cool to touch things significantly older than my country, however the two castles in two days gave me flashbacks childhood summer trips.

Himeji castle, from below.

Himeji castle, from cellphone.

At some point in the mid 1990’s my family decided it would be a great idea to take vacations that involved extended road trips across the country. I’m not exactly sure why this decision was made, perhaps we wanted to put the family motto, “Fortitudine et Prudentia” (Fortitude and Prudence) to use–with an uneven concentration on the former, or maybe we had decided things were going a little too well and we needed to pursue a balance by spending thirteen hours in a car during the hottest months of the year. Catholic guilt can be a strange and persuasive motivator.

Regardless, these things happened and we spent eight hour nights at Hampton Inns in Ashville, NC and kept a running survey of McDonald’s Playlands from Memphis to Mobile. Often on our return trip, my dad would be determined to detour us to some arbitrary civil war battlefield that may or may not be along out route. It wasn’t bad enough that we were on a 13-hour road trip, it had to be educational too. To my father’s credit, I can only recall one such occasion where we pilgrimaged to one of these AAA “points of interest”. I think it was in 1995, but other than that all I remember was that it must have been 15 degrees hotter there than anywhere else in the world, and that I spent a significant amount of time in the backseat of our minivan beating the hell out of a a plastic child car-seat.

However, this past weekend both of castles kept a temperature that was five to ten degrees cooler than the outside, and I observed absolutely zero no car-seats were abused by frustrated teenagers,or anyone else for that matter . Clearly, my childhood could have been marginally improved with an American castle or two

I did make one error though; by visiting two castles back to back, with the same person, I acquired the “Castle Boy” nickname. I wouldn’t mind it, in fact I coined it, but the Japanese are crafty. If word gets out, it could only be matter of days before I end up with a finished, “Castle Boy” spandex and rayon outfit in my hands and the Japanese take gifts very seriously.