Tuesday, December 25, 2007

One Time, One Meeting (一期一会)

It took me 36 hours to get home from Japan.

That included 14 hours of layovers, four trains, three planes, one cancelled flight, a thunderstorm, a subway accident and many, many, many bottles of Diet Coke.

But there was one bright spot in this transportation debacle. It occurred during the time I expected to be the most lonely: my four-hour, pre-dawn layover at Nagoya airport. I arrived in Nagoya at about 1 a.m. on Sunday morning (JST), after enduring the multiple train rides, the thunderstorm and the subway delay, only to find that the airport itself was closed until 5:20 a.m. I'd need to wait on the floor of a cold sitting room, located right outside the main entrance, until the airport opened.

Cold, wet and exhausted, I maneuvered my 50-pound suitcase to a free space and sat down to contemplate how exactly I'd pass the next four hours. Fortunately, that dilemma was resolved for me. Within five minutes, a 20-something Japanese guy approached me.

"Hello. Do you speak English?"

I nodded yes, not sure what exactly I was getting myself into. He proceeded to squat down next to me and showed me a stapled packet of papers.

It was a take-home English exam.

"I not understand question 24."

So, I switched into English teacher mode, despite the fact that it was now nearly 1:30 a.m. We discussed the ever-fascinating subject of English verb tenses until our conversation turned to more interesting topics: why exactly we were both sitting on the floor of an airport waiting room at the crack of dawn. Turns out he was a helicopter pilot for the Japanese service, heading home to Kyushu to visit his one-year-old son for the holidays. He was studying English with hopes of getting a job promotion.

He chatted away, using broken English (him) and broken Japanese (me) and plenty of gestures. After about 30 minutes, our conversation sparked the interest of another 20-something guy (turns out he worked in finance, and was on the way back home after visiting his fiance in Hokkaido). His impression of America:

"I been to Hawaii. Hamburgers is very big."

The three of us talked for the next three hours - about nothing and about everything at the same time. It was "internationalization" at its finest. Among our many topics of discussion:

Fart, hiccup and yawn. We swapped vocabulary words in our respective native languages. They wrote the Japanese down for me so I'd remember. It's he, shakkuri and akubi, respectively, in case you were interested.

The difference between "rap" and "lap." There are no "L" sounds in Japanese, so English words with the "L" sound are pronounced as "R." They asked how I kept in touch with family back in America, and I told them I used a laptop. They replied with, "Rap? Like 'yo,' 'yo,' 'yo,?" The helicopter pilot threw in a West Side-esque hand gesture for emphasis. Hilarious.

They learned about my adoration of all things Mexico and wondered how I could ever love a country that wasn't Japan. "The Japanese are the friendliest people in the world," the finance guy told me. I'd tend to agree, if these two guys were any indication.

Time flew by. We laughed out loud, catching dirty looks from other sitting-room dwellers who were wisely trying to sleep. We compiled lists of new vocabulary words for each other. We took turns buying snacks and beers from the 24-hour conbini conveniently located across from the waiting room. It was, hands down, the most fun I've ever had during a crappy airport layover.

As 5:20 grew closer, I prepared to say good-bye to my two new friends. But before we parted ways, they wrote some kanji on the bottom of my list of new words: 一期一会

Ichi-go Ichi-e. "One time. One meeting." Once in a lifetime.

"THIS is ichi-go, ichi-e," the finance guy explained, referring to the past four hours and our unlikely but instant friendship. He then bowed and walked away.

The extra explanation was kind, but it wasn't necessary. I understood the meaning perfectly because I'd been living it everyday for the past five months. It's fascinating that the Japanese have a term to describe that making-random-friends-in-an-airport, climbing-mountains-in-a-hailstorm, eating-fried-shirako, being-lost-and-finding-your-way-and-yourself feeling exactly.

Once in a lifetime. Random but beautiful.

Merry Ku-ri-su-ma-su, everyone.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Putting Fukui on the map...

...with my first Japanese earthquake. Yup, that's Fukui Prefecture on the map above, and that big red X shows the epicenter, which seems to be right under Sakai Town. The quake was a 4 (out of 10) on the Richter Scale, which makes it "light" with "noticeable shaking of indoor items, rattling noises," according to good ol' U.S. Geological Survey.

But apparently the U.S. Geological Survey doesn't apply in Japan. There was no "noticeable shaking." There was no "rattling." There was no rolling (sorry, I had to...). Actually, we didn't even feel it.

The earthquake happened this afternoon, while I was at school, smack dab in the middle of cleaning time. When the principal made an announcement in rapid-fire Japanese over the school's PA, a few students paused to listen, but didn't even bat an eyelash. For all I knew, cleaning time was ending early - now that would be exciting! So I asked for a translation.

"Oh, that? We just had an earthquake."

No big deal in a place where there are 100,000 quakes each year.

So thanks, Japan, for going easy on this Illinois-raised earthquake virgin. I'll consider it an early Christmas present.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

KFC in the Land of Sushi

Christmas is in the air at Sakai Jr. High, and it smells a little bit like fried chicken.

As I prepare to head back to Chicago for the holidays, I've been wrapping up my fall term classes with a Christmas-themed lesson. I lead the students through some games, talk about Christmas traditions in the U.S., and finish things up by asking them to decorate an ornament for a big paper tree I've taped up where my English bulletin board is supposed to be. But as much as I hope they learn about my culture through this lesson, I'm learning a ton about theirs.

For example, I learned that KFC is the food of choice for Christmas dinner in Japan.

Yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken. But here, they just just call it "Ke-n-ta-kki." Colonel Sanders is right up there with Santa Claus in the Japanese Christmas tradition. Please know that I'm not trying to judge the validity of the holiday custom - it's just that where I come from, KFC is usually reserved for summertime picnics, Monday night football, or maybe a dinnertime drive-thru run for a frenzied soccer mom, so the contrast is striking.

And what's KFC doing in Japan in the first place? Come to think of it, what's Christmas doing in Japan? Oh, the joys of globalization...

I've yet to visit a KFC here in Fukui (I try to stick to local fare, like sushi, or maybe shirako...). So, mom, if you're reading this, you can skip the turkey and ham for Christmas dinner. Better make it a bucket of Original Recipe. Or maybe some Extra Crispy, おねがいします. And please don't forget the biscuits.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Baby, It's Cold Outside...

Fukui is cold.

While we've got nothing on the six inches of snow that apparently fell in Chicago earlier this week (there's none of the white stuff here - yet), temperatures have been falling quite steadily. And it's been raining everyday for about two months. Torrentially.

So, it's cold here, and most of the buildings in Japan don't have the central heating that I'm used to back home. But leave it to Japanese to devise some amazing alternative ways to beat the cold. There's this fantastic heated, cushioned floor pad that you can spread out over your cold tatami floor. Or there's the kotatsu, a low table with a built-in heater underneath, which is then covered by a big comforter. And there are big, fuzzy electric blankets everywhere.

Feeling warm n' cozy yet?

But my new favorite way to stay warm is called なべ (nabe). This is a cold-buster that you eat. Nabe involves throwing lots of yummy vegetables into a big clay pot filled with warm broth. You wait a few minutes, then carefully pluck the now-warm, still-yummy vegetables from the pot with your chopsticks, dip them into some even yummier sauce, eat, and be warm.

Yum. (Did I mention that already?)

Nabe is so popular that people have aptly-named nabe parties. And my awesome scuba-instructor-turned-Japanese-tutor-turned-nabe-chef-friend invited me to one last night. The food and company were wonderful.

Of course, another way to beat the cold involves drinking large amounts of red wine. Which I did. And my awesome scuba-instructor-turned-Japanese-tutor-turned-nabe-chef-friend did, too. She's thinking about doing some diving in Latin America next year, and is interested in learning a little bit of Spanish. So, with the wine flowing, we spent a fair part of the evening learning the essential first words of any new language: the vulgarities.

I wrote the Spanish-English translations on a dry-erase board that was conveniently located in our makeshift dining room (we were in the scuba shop, after all), and my tutor carefully translated the English into Japanese. Like the good teachers that we are, we modeled correct pronunciation for all of the なべ guests, and everyone had a lovely time cursing in three languages.

Such fun. I hope it stays cold here 'til July!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

SGF? がんばってください.

SGF. That's Single Gaijin (foreign) Female.

がんばってください. That's gambatte kudasai, which translates to "persevere," or "try your best," but in my experience, it's usually used when the situation is so dire that it's laughable. (You have 200 essays to grade by tomorrow morning? Gambatte kudasai. You want to navigate the Tokyo subway but don't read kanji? Gambatte kudasai. You want to climb to the top of Mt. Hakusan, even though it's hailing? Gambatte kudasai.)

You get the idea.

What do the two have in common? Well, let's just say that the dating scene for a SGF in Fukui is well, uh, lacking. I don't want to perpetuate any stereotypes here, but Japanese women being what they are (read: beautiful), we SGFs have our work cut out for us. The SGMs (that's Single Gaijin Males) are into the beautiful Japanese gals. And the Japanese guys? Well, I tower over them when I'm rocking my heels (or sneakers, or flats, or when I'm barefoot...), so they're into the beautiful Japanese girls, too.

Today, one of my sixth-grade students brought this situation to my attention during our school cleaning time. Cleaning time is bonding time, really. We're thrust out into the hall, where there's no heater, and use cold buckets of water to wipe down the floors and shelving. It's how they'd punish students in the USA, circa 1912, but here in Japan, it's part of daily school life. I speak a lively mix of Japanese and English with the students during this time, usually related to the awful temperature (さむいですね - "cold, isn't it?").

But today, our conversation went above and beyond the usual temperature talk. One of the students noticed a ring on my finger when I dipped my rag in the bucket of water. I've had this ring forever - I bought it while studying in Mexico in 1999 - and I wear it on my right hand everyday. But my student didn't seem to care. The conversation went something like this:

Student: "Sara-sensei, you got married!?!?"

Me: "No, not me." (I show her my bare left ring finger.) "My sister got married, remember?" (My little sister's July wedding has been the subject of past class discussions.)

Student: "Oh." (Her brow furrows, she thinks for a minute, and then brightens.) "Well, do you have a Japanese boyfriend?"

Me: "No...."

Student: "Maybe a Chicago boyfriend?"

Me: "Nope." (I'm feeling mildly pathetic at this point, but am amused by her use of "Chicago" as a way to describe a type of boyfriend.)

Student: (Looking at me like I'm an alien.) "How old are you?"

Me: "I'm 27, remember?" (I've told them all my age a zillion times. They ask everyday, and never cease to be amazed by my oldness.)

The student stares at me. She then conferences with a friend who is cleaning the floor next her. I hear the words "27" and "boyfriend" mixed in with some rapid-fire Japanese. Then they both look at me sympathetically.

"Gambatte kudasai."

Oh, God. I just got gambatte-d by a 12-year-old girl. It's that bad, huh?

At this point I'm beginning to wallow in self-pity as I scrub the cold hallway floor with even colder water. Japanese get married younger than Americans, darnit! I'm normal in America! Don't they know that?!?

Sensing my sadness, the students try to cheer me up.

"Sara-sensei is very, very, very cute!!"

Except the "cute" comes out like "cute-o." It makes me laugh.

At least somebody loves me.

SGF, gambarimasho!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Merry クリスマス!

Merry Ku-ri-su-ma-su!

For being a country of mostly Shintoists and Buddhists, the Japanese sure know how to get in the Christmas spirit. Last night, my Japanese tutor (yes, the one who's teaching me to read in Japanese with Curious George) invited me to her company Christmas party. But what I haven't mentioned is that my sensei is a woman of many talents - not only is she a fantastic teacher, but she's also the owner of a sucessful scuba shop in Fukui City (and she knows how to rock a pair of reindeer antlers - see above).

What better way to get in the クリスマス spirit than with a room full of Japanese scuba divers?

The party, held at a local restaurant, was a blast. Winning a round of bingo and downing a few glasses of wine helped break the ice for me, and soon I was chatting away (slowly, awkwardly, but in Japanese!) with my sensei's customers and friends. Sensei was kind enough to provide nametags for everyone, translating guests' names (written in kanji) into hiragana (the Japanese alphabet that I can read) and romanji (Roman letters, like we use in English). Because of this, I became fast friends with a Japanese guy named...MAC.


But a Japanese party usually isn't just a party - it's actually a series of parties. Party No. 2 was at a karaoke bar, where I belted out "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" with a Japanese guy whose voice could've passed for Bing Crosby's. Party No. 3 was back at the scuba shop, where we had a few more beers n' snacks before calling it a night. Yes, I slept at the scuba shop. (Actually, on a futon in an apartment above the scuba shop, but it's fun to say, just the same.)

Random? Yes. But oh-so-fun.

Merry クリスマス!