Saturday, January 26, 2008

Inspiration in unlikely places

This is my new garbage can-turned source of daily inspiration. The picture's a bit blurry, so let me help you with the reading:

Resources are limited.
However, there's no
limit to ideas of
human beings.

It's Engrish at its finest, yet another example of the Japanese tendency to slap random, often grammatically incorrect, English on anything - including garbage cans - to make it seem more prestigious. (Why "Engrish"? The "l" in "English" gets replaced with an "r" because there are none of the former in Japanese pronunciation.) The ol' Engrish marketing trick apparently worked on me this time, because I scooped this garbage can right up, even though it was several hundred yen more expensive than its Engrish-free counterparts.

But 500 yen is a small price to pay for daily inspiration, isn't it?

Moving more serious note, one that perhaps shouldn't be introduced with my musings on garbage cans: as of late, my students have been pretty darn inspiring, too. As part of my ongoing quest to teach them that not all Americans look like my blondish, freckled, fair-skinned self, I did a unit on Martin Luther King, Jr. in celebration of the holiday earlier this week.

We tackled the issue of racial segregation - a concept that's really foreign in Japan, because, except for the random gaijin, it's a pretty homogeneous society. I gave students either a piece of black paper or a piece of white paper, and told the two groups to stand on opposite sides of the room. I then told them that because they were different colors, they couldn't go to school together, that they couldn't have lunch together, that they couldn't ride the same train or use the same restrooms or even be friends.

They looked at me like I had two heads because the concept was so strange to them. They'd respond with "Eh?!?!," which translates to "surprise, amazement, the feeling of 'I can't believe it!'" according to my Japanese textbook. I can't describe how refreshing it was to find a group of kids that didn't understand the concept of discrimination - I envied their innocence.

I told them to imagine that the piece of paper was the color of their skin. I asked if they thought that the scenario was fair. It took a lot of explanation for them to get it, but inevitably, they agreed - hell no, it wasn't fair.

Then I told them about MLK, played an "I Have a Dream" video I found on You Tube, and hoped that they were getting something out of the lesson. Turns out I needn't have worried.

The culmination of the class was to write an "essay" - just five sentences - on their own dream, taking MLK's cue. I got the completed essays - 18 classes' worth - on Friday. And wading through the stack of grading - usually a rather arduous chore - was one of the most inspirational experiences of my time as a teacher thus far.

The students wrote about ending war, cleaning up the earth, promoting racial tolerance, tackling world hunger, volunteering, working for literacy, and making people smile. I cringed when one student wrote, "My dream is to be rich," but smiled when he explained, a few sentences later, that he would donate the money to help those less fortunate. Despite their broken English, their message was clear: the 442 student at Sakai Jr. High do have a clue about what's going on in the world outside of their sleepy little Japanese town. Not sure if you'd get the same result by polling 442 random adults in Anywhere, USA.

An essay toward the bottom of the stack had a note for me, written in careful English in the margin:

I have the utmost respect for King.
I will remember him.
Thank you.

Yes, the student really used the word "utmost."
And, yes, the message is pretty darn inspirational.

God, I love being a teacher.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Love Hurts

I am in love with Nagano.

And, yes, love hurts.

As I type this, I am nursing some wicked snowboarding-induced soreness. This weekend, three fellow JETs invited me to tag along on an adventure to Nagano Prefecture, home of the 1998 Winter Olympics and some "real" mountains (read: not like the glorified bunny hills that I'm used to riding in Wisconsin and Michigan). I quickly learned that while I can hold my own with a snowboard on the gentle slopes of the Midwest, the formidable peaks of a world-class ski resort are another story.

But, oh, what a beautiful place to fall on one's a$$.

My Illinois-born eyes had never seen such powerful, snow-covered peaks and my Illinois-bred bottom had never wiped out in such pristine, soft powder. I spent the vast majority of our two-day adventure pulling myself up out of various spills and crashes, but I loved every minute.

When I wasn't down on the slopes, there were plenty of other adventures to be had in Nagano. We met some fellow Fukui-ites (see photo) in a lodge cafeteria on the first day. We chatted up a professional Japanese snowboarder and a Japanese indie rocker in a pizza pub at dinner. We hung out with an Australian mom and her son, fellow hostel dwellers, who were criss-crossing Japan via rail. We soaked away our soreness at a Japanese onsen (hot spring), where I lost my wallet, but found it - with all cash and contents intact - the next day (the Japanese really are the kindest, most honest people on the planet). And, lest the weekend be perfect enough already, we ate elusive-in-Japan Mexican food for dinner on our last night.

Oh, Nagano. Worth every last bruise and sore muscle.

Friday, January 11, 2008

There's no place like HUG...

I miss hugs.

My holiday in Chicago - a solid 10 days of reuniting with family and friends that I hadn't seen in months - included lots o' hugs. Airport pick-up hugs from mom and dad. Big bear hugs from my sister and my 6-foot-something brother-in-law. Christmas Day hugs from grandma and the family. Tipsy bar hugs from all of my crazy friends in the city. Misty-eyed airport drop-off hugs...

And, alas, I took all of those delicious embraces for granted. Now that I'm back in Japan, I realize that what I miss the most about home is the nice, warm place that is a hug - and not just because it's cold here in Fukui.

Japanese people don't hug. The Japanese equivalent of the hug is the bow. I've made the mistake of trying to hug a Japanese person before, and the result was like the limp-fish handshake. They're surprised and uncomfortable, I'm surprised and uncomfortable, and the whole thing, supposed to be warm and beautiful, is awkward and culturally inappropriate. Ugh.

But, knowing this, I stupidly still look for hugs. On my way back to Fukui earlier this week, I witnessed what looked like a family reunion at the train station. It was a moment that greeting card commercials are made of: two young boys, on board, spot their cute, tiny, wrinkled grandmother on the platform as the train pulls into the station. The boys wave enthusiastically from the train window. The grandmother flashes a huge smile and waves back - with both hands in that cute grandmotherly way. The train stops, the doors open, and the boys bound out toward grandma...

...and the whole family bows to each other.

My Western eyes were waiting for the tear-inducing, geez-grandma-its-been-years-since-we've-seen-you kind of hug, but all I got was a bow. Don't get me wrong: the scene was still adorable, and the family's love for each other was more than apparent, but it didn't seem quite complete to me without the hug.

So, yes, I miss hugs. A lot. But the Japanese propensity to bow does have its advantages.

I headed out on one of my long rice paddy runs after school yesterday. My running route criss-crosses through narrow, winding roads with country houses scattered throughout. It takes me through the kind of places where people walk out in the street without looking both ways because, well, there's nothing to look for. No traffic. No people. Nothing. Just a crazy iPod-clad gaijin girl trying to work off her rice gut.

I zipped through a tiny neighborhood and almost took out a middle-aged woman. She was walking down her tree-lined driveway, getting ready to cross into the street, and didn't see me. Because of the trees, I didn't see her. We bumped into each other.

The Chicago in me expected an angry reaction from her: some cross words in Japanese, a fist-pump, maybe The Finger.

But instead, she bowed.

And, to my surprise, I bowed back.

We smiled. I mumbled an awkward "gomenasai...sumimasen" and was back on my way.

Maybe the bow isn't so bad after all.