Tuesday, July 1, 2008

365 days in Japan

Today is the one-year anniversary of my move to Japan. It snuck up fast. Here, Father Time wears a black hood and pads around silently in split-toed tabi, only to suddenly shoulder-roll into view and embed a shuriken into your forehead.

I felt nostalgic after realizing it was my 365th day here and read through some old journal entries from last year. At the time I was 2.5 kids and an outdoor grill away from being a fat suburban loser. Every morning I got into my Honda Civic and commuted 25 minutes through highway traffic, listening to the soul-eating banality of drivetime corporate radio. Thank god I worked with interesting people at the time, because after work I would settle back into the Civic and do the commute back to the 'burbs, only this time--and I hesitate to even admit this--I'd listen to Tom Leykis's crappy talk show filled with "amazing" dating tips like "pump 'em and dump 'em" and "your goal should be to get more ass than a toilet seat."

Arriving home to my featureless white apartment, take-out burrito in hand, I would sit in front of my computer and read the news. Most nights would be accompanied by a half bottle or so of 3-buck Chuck and a fistful of candy. I was an authoritative 224 around the time I left. After dinner I would usually go to the apartment complex weight room and put in a half hour on the elliptical, while watching Mexican telenovellas without sound on the wall-mounted TV. I was reduced to a piece of workout equipment designed for pregnant women and asthmatic hemophiliacs.

It started to dawn on me that we are nothing more than an aggregate lump of the choices we've made. At a certain point, you can't claim to be a good guy who lies sometimes--after a certain number of lies, you're a liar. You're not a struggling novelist with a day job if you never produce--you're a barista with delusions. By the same token, I saw myself as a risk-taker, an adventurer, philosophically different from the people shuffling in and out of Blockbuster with the latest Tom Cruise movie "the Man" has told them to watch. Made of sterner stuff.

But there I was, drinking the same Starbucks, watching the same summer blockbusters, driving in the same bland Japanese econo-box. So when the chance came to go to Japan, I took it. It meant leaving all my family, my friends, and my girlfriend of four years to take a job I had no experience in in a completely foreign country. A different alphabet, a different culture, different everything. When I first got to Japan I didn't know how to ask for a glass of water. It was an epic cultural kick to the scrote for a good couple months.

The switch was comprehensive. I spent the last year with no cell phone and no car. All my bills are on auto-pay and my paycheck is on auto-deposit. I only physically have to pay my phone bill, and I can do that at 7-11. I buy almost nothing except for food. I read a lot. I don't watch TV. I walk about an hour a day, lift weights in what looks like a prison yard, and jog past rice paddies. I spend a lot of time alone, at first by default and now by choice. This year has been a complete 180 from the one before it.

Not everyone has to have a major freak-out and leave the country to feel fulfilled. There's plenty of anarchists and avant-garde art freaks who do just fine in the same suburbs I felt closing in on me. At the end of the day you just have to decide what kind of person you want to be and do things that correspond with that image. So after a year out and some pretty significant emotional wreckage as a result of my decisions, a lot of highs and lows, and uninterrupted change of all kinds, I'm ultimately satisfied that I had the balls (and that's all that matters--just ask Tony Montana) to do this, and will hopefully continue the momentum. I would have changed a lot about how I executed this particular little adventure, but hindsight is hindsight, isn't it?

Alright, I swore I wouldn't let this blog get too self-indulgent, so thanks for reading if you did, a pox on ye if you didn't, and now I'm gonna get back to kancho jokes and half-nude fantasy bird paintings.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Falcon Vs. Bald Eagle, WHO YA GOT?

Bear vs. Hippo, Lion vs. Tiger, Gorilla vs. Elephant. In the realm of the hypothetical interspecies warfare that interests 19-year-old virgins, drunk frat brothers, and autistic Star Wars fans, my dad can authoritatively settle at least one match-up.

This could be the most badass thing to hit Cannon Beach since the '64 tsunami--I guarantee some Octogenarians' pacemakers skipped a beat during this monolithic showdown last week:

Click to read the article!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Advice to My Replacement Part 2: Games

I tried to treat teaching like counter-insurgency. These little kids are hanging out and having fun, and all of a sudden their mom turns off the TV, throws them in the back of the van, and ships them off to extra school. I am the despotic lord of their new world, and they are the directionless peasants under my thumb.

As with any all-powerful despot, you have 2 main options for controlling an unruly populace- the carrot or the stick. In general, I was pretty "carroty." My guess was that if the kids were busy being afraid during class they wouldn't be learning much. Plus, who wants to go to a school were the teacher is some arrogant ass who's into scaring little kids into obedience? I've had teachers like that, and it's no fun.

So as the year wore on, these were my operating principles:

1. Kids hate forced learning.
2. They love games.
3. Their attention span is really really short.
4. They love violence.
5. Class works better if they're always a little tired and a little off-balance.

Eventually, I was able to work all of this into a method for making lesson plans. I solved number 5 by asking for a bunch of big rubber balls to be stocked in our classroom. Have you thrown around a bouncy rubber ball lately? It's fun as hell, and it's like kryptonite to children. They can't resist. You know those cows that, given an unlimited food supply, will eat until their stomachs explode? It's like that.

If there were a few balls in the class room, the kids would instantly come in before class and play dodgeball/soccer/volleyball/ until they were sweating profusely and exhausted. This made them way more mellow and easy to control during the succeeding hour of class. They just didn't have the energy for their usual bastardry anymore.

As for the actual classes, I just tried to make those into one spastic game session. I worked off the assumption that kids can pay attention to something for like 5 minutes, max. I tried to always keep them moving, standing up, sitting down, talking loud, talking quiet, just keeping things moving as much as possible. Everything that could be turned into some kind of competition, was. If I say "He has crackers" and I want them to repeat it, I would make it a competition between 2 students to see who could do it first...that kind of thing. They go from not caring at all about English in a regular setting to it being of life-or-death importance when it's framed as a game.

All of the games would last for about 3 minutes or so, and after about a year we could cram in like 10-15 games in one 50-minute session. In the very beginning, we were doing a paltry 2 or 3 games per session.

The last thing, and one I didn't do enough of, is to keep the kids slightly off-balance. Every once in a while, I would just randomly stop class and call on a student to answer a question. Usually someone who wasn't paying much attention. This can interrupt the flow of class, but it's pretty good for keeping students on their toes. I never found a good way to do that while preserving the rhythm of class.

Anyway, once I got all this stuff institutionalized into the lesson plans, we were able to shred through the material like Godzilla through downtown Tokyo. It's amazing how fast these little bastards can learn when they're halfway engaged. By the end of the year they could have absorbed 3 times the material we had scheduled for one class.

So to sum it all up: make it fun first, and the learning will follow inevitably.

Any of the other teachers reading this: you have more experience than me, so feel free to throw in your own 2 yen.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Advice to My Replacement Part 1, the Nature of the Beast

My replacement arrives in less than a month. I've decided to write him some short bits of advice to smooth the transition, and just for the hell of it, I'm going to post them all here, first. I always wished I had more guidance in the first months I was teaching, so now I'm giving back what I can to the cause. None of you bastards ever comment (with a few much-appreciated exceptions), but now would be the time if you have anything relevant to say.

Part 1: The Nature of the Beast

Children are little bastards, and if you understand that early, everything else will be easier. Don't hold them to the standards you hold adults--their worldview and priorities are fantastically different. Would you let it slide if your co-worker came into work one day, jammed his fingers up your ass as a joke, drew a naked woman on the wall in marker, then demanded that you two go outside and play dodgeball instead of work (edit: Christ, that sounds like a pretty awesome work place actually)? Hell no, you'd have him fired before the end of the day. For a child, particularly a male one, these all seem like reasonable options.

They don't understand or care about social convention. They don't have the ability to manipulate you or hide their emotions. They are basically a raw mind on display. If they want something, they take it. If they think something, they say it.

Structure your class with this stuff in mind. Sure, they'll thank you for teaching them English when they score that sweet job with Honda's North American headquarters when they're 35, but in the meantime you're just some jerk-off who steals an hour from them every week when they'd rather be outside destroying something or watching crappy anime or doing whatever it is Japanese kids do for fun.

In short, you cannot treat these kids like they're just small adults. They have no idea why they're studying English after school when they'd rather be playing baseball. If you told them it's because it will really pay off in a decade when they're in high school, they'd tell you to get bent, they can't even think 2 weeks into the future.

So what's your response? Mine involved a metric assload of games, and I'll get to that in the next installment. In the meantime, anyone with any relevant input on children's nature, feel free to write a comment.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Yale Captain Shows Us How Lame Rowing Is

The latest news around here was the earthquake that killed 11 people and injured about 150, and I'll get to that in due time. I was going to write about it now, but I came across a mock-worthy rowing article, and when it's natural disaster vs. making fun of rowing, I have to make the hard choice and go with rowing...

The Harvard-Yale race happened sometime in the last couple weeks. For those of you who don't know, this is the oldest American intercollegiate sporting event. A hundred and fifty years ago, most young physically fit men were doing things useful to society and needed to generate money for their families--farming, delivering newspapers, laying bricks, shoeing horses, stuff like that. Of course, when your family estate is maintained by a collection of slaves and underfed orphans, you have more free time to devote to activities that are super expensive and benefit no one, like racing row boats. So that's exactly what our well-heeled lads from Harvard and Yale did, and the rest is history.

So the race just happened--Harvard won--and I found this description by the Yale captain pretty funny:

"It was like a boxing match," said Yale captain Jack Vogelsang, who was in the six seat. "You throw a couple punches, then wait and see how they respond. They throw a couple at you, you put up your defenses and try to go in. So much of it is just being very patient and knowing when to go in. They played it well."

Definitive proof of how lame rowing is. The reality is that the race was nothing like a boxing match. Boxing is exciting and dramatic. There's a lot of fancy footwork, physical danger, and an incredibly fast pace. A sport where you can find a psychologically broken and physically exceptional specimen like Mike Tyson--a poor black kid with fire in his belly beating the shit out of everyone in his path. A sport with a pretty compelling narrative, warts and all.

The Harvard-Yale race is a bunch of rich white kids racing carbon fiber boats at relatively slow speeds. There is almost no guile or strategy. Each stroke is exactly the same. Basically, from the word "go" you try as hard as you can and hope you win. Occasionally your coxswain will tell you to "make a move," which means you try harder for like 20 strokes, but you're already trying as hard as you can, so usually not much happens.

This guy from Yale is trying to associate rowing with boxing to leech off some of the danger and excitement into his own relatively dull sport. I don't blame him...he's searching for a way to convey his excitement about the race and make it relevant to the rest of the world.

But the bottom line for me is that interesting sports don't have to metaphorically compare themselves to other sports to seem interesting. Correct me if I'm wrong, but do football players ever say "This game was like a boxing match?" No way man. They don't have to. They say "This game was like a badass game of football, where grown men are running into each other at full speed and breaking their bones."

My dream is to hear a hardened ex gang-member welterweight emerge bloodied from the championship fight and tell reporters that it was a lot like the Harvard-Yale race.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Spoken Japanese vs. Written Japanese, or, Checkers vs. Chess

Spoken Japanese is considered to be one of the easier languages, in the grand scheme of things. The sounds are pretty easy, there are no tones like in Vietnamese or Chinese, verb conjugation is straightforward, and the Japanese habit of omitting everything possible from a sentence makes it a little easier for a beginner to understand.

Instead of asking, "Are you well," a Japanese person would just ask "Well?" with the implicit understanding that they're talking about you. It's way easier to understand a sentence that's half as long.

Lastly, Japanese people speak pretty clearly for the most part. There's no mumbling through a mouthful of superglue like Hawaiian...it's more like a moderate-speed machine gun shooting out crisp words at you.

(If you ever get into the honorifics and knowing which special level of politeness to use for a certain person, spoken Japanese can become diabolically hard--my rambling is just in reference to basic Hiroki Average's speaking.)

But written Japanese is a whole other ball of natto. I've heard it said that written Japanese is the single most difficult written language in the world. For those of you unfamiliar with it, Japanese has three alphabets:

Hiragana, which looks like this: あいうえお

Katakana, which looks like this: アイウエオ

And kanji, which looks like this: 頭肩膝足の指

Hiragana is kind of the basic alphabet, the first thing they teach little kids here. Katakana is used primarily for foreign words, so Japanese people can identify them and discard them as loan words from inferior barbarian cultures. Kanji is used to express ideas...I'm not really sure how to say that correctly.

Basically, if Japanese is a cake, Kanji is the thick bread part, hiragana is the frosting, and there's sprinkles of katakana on the top.

So anyway, three alphabets would be fine, but there are literally over 10,000 kanji in existence. Just to get around daily life and not be illiterate you have to know 2,000 of these little bastards.

Now here comes the fun part. For a given kanji, there is a Japanese reading and a Chinese reading, and multiple readings within those sub-categories. God forbid you put 2 kanji together, because this creates a compound kanji, which completely changes the meaning. So sometimes you're looking at like 10 different pronunciations for a given character.

And of course, they are always printed really small and look very similar.
Let's take this little guy, for example: 読む --This means "yomu," or "to read." Please don't confuse it with 語 which means "language," or 話す, which means "to speak."

The colors are pretty fun too. This means red: 赤 and this means blue: 青 All this stuff is about what a 6-year-old in Japan is learning while us slackers were outside enjoying the fresh air, our ABCs firmly committed to memory. Japanese children are incapable of reading the newspaper until they're about 15--then they can read most of it, but not all.

My all-time favorite is probably the kanji for "dot," though. Like, a little circle. A dot. Easy, right. This is the kanji, right? " . " NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, that would be too simple, THIS is the kanji: 点 That means "dot."

So yeah, Japanese is a real flying scrote-kick in terms of learning to read and write, and probably helps explain the work ethic around here. They've all been busting their asses since age 6 just to read the color of their crayons.

For those of you who read this and studied Japanese back in the day, how far did you get with the reading and writing?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Thoughts on Japanese Longevity

It's common knowledge that Japanese people never die. Take a stroll down any street in Japan and you'll see old hunched women who look like they tottered right out of the Edo period. Or chain-smoking 200 year-old grandfathers out for a 4-hour hike in the mountains--look in front of you, because they're probably kicking your ass and are about a mile ahead on the trail.

How do these people cheat the reaper, you may ask. It's certainly not due to a lack of bad habits. Washing away your stressful 16-hour workday with a handle of sake and a few packs of cigarettes seems like a recipe for a chest-clutching death by major organ failure at age 55, but most of these guys do exactly that. Fried foods? Hell yes they eat fried foods here. Deep-fried pork is like its own food group in Japan.

And yet they keep on chugging. Here's my theory why:

1. The diet. Yeah, they eat a lot of different fried foods, but always in relatively small quantities....like, maybe 100 grams of meat. The non-fried stuff includes a lot of different vegetables in pretty big quantities, and of course a stronger emphasis on fish instead of red meat. This low-meat, low quantity, high variety, high vegetable, high fish diet leads directly to number 2.

2. No fatties.

Of course there are plenty of fat Japanese people--maybe more and more as their diet continues to get westernized. But according to whichever group ranks world obesity, only like 3% of Japanese people are considered obese, compared with 33% of Americans!
Most people are pretty damn lean around here, and they walk a lot, cycle a lot, and generally do things to help out their heart. Even the old grandmas are out shopping on their bicycle.

3. Onsen

Japanese people love to take group baths. Strange? Perhaps, but a weekly dose of super-hot mineral water surely dilates your veins and helps with blood circulation, right?

4. Tea

They drink a lot. All the time, all day. Green, black, oolong, you name it.

5. Social pressure

To live in Japanese society is to navigate an ever-changing web of interlocking social pressures and obligations. You have to buy gifts for people for a thousand different occasions, you have to use different verb conjugations and vocabulary based on the status of the person you're talking to..Take the word "I." In Japanese, you can say "watashi," which is usually for formal situations or for women. Or you can say "boku," which is more boyish and casual, but not super casual. Only to be used by men. Then there's "ore" which is much more casual and usually just said to friends, but only by men. There's also "oi," which is casual but also specific to the Tohoku region, so you can say that if you're trying to curry favor with someone you know is from there.

I think you get the picture. The Japanese mind is constantly calculating, assessing, trying not to offend, moving moving moving. I would love to see the dementia rates in older Japanese people compared to the western world...I bet it's lower for a given age group. The best way to keep your brain from aging is to keep using it a lot, and they do. In fact, there's just no avoiding it.

Anybody else have any thoughts on the matter?