Thursday, April 8, 2010

Aisatsu! Let's Meet My Schools. And Bonus Episode: Bike Shopping and Karaoke Revelations!

Today was another day ippai (packed full of) fun! I got up at about 8:30, a bit later than I'd have liked but considering how exhausted I was after my adventure in Kyoto, it makes sense. I made a delicious breakfast including hard boiled eggs, crackers with cream cheese (Philadelphia) and jelly, and sliced apples, then set out to buy a bicycle. I had to meet with Paul to go to my aisatsu (school introductions) at 1pm, which meant I had to be back at my apartment at noon at the latest in order to shower, change into my power suit, and get to the station in time. My original intention was to buy a used bike (furui jitensha – literally “old bike”) but that rapidly became derailed because finding the used bike place I'd been recommended turned out to be impossible.

The place I was looking for was supposedly near the Jusco. Of course, there are two Juscos in Toyota, so as I got closer to the Jusco I know, I saw a hotel and decided to ask for directions. Hotels generally give the best directions because they're used to dealing with out-of-towners and they have maps. People who work at maps are also incredibly patient. So when the hotel sent me back towards the Toyota train station for a combination used and new bike store, I was super excited. I only had to ask for directions one more time when I got close to where I thought I was supposed to be but couldn't find the place. A quick journey through a tiny gap in a fence behind the parking area got me to the neighboring street, and sure enough, there was the bike store. Unfortunately, as I learned when I arrived, I learned that this bike store did not sell used bikes, but instead only new bikes.

The gentleman who worked at the store (like just about everyone here) was very helpful. He pulled out a map from under his desk, and not only gave me directions to a second bike store, but also hand drew me a simpler map when it looked like I was drowning with the first one. So with handwritten notes and a new map in hand, I headed off again into the wilds of Toyota.

At about the point where I thought I should be at my destination, of course I didn't see the furui bike shop either, so I asked a lovely woman named Mae (found this out later) in a car for directions. She asked me back in excellent English if I was lost, and I said yes! Turns out she'd spent two years in Columbus, Ohio. She took one look at my map, and said that the place I was going was very far away. I thought I was going around the corner, but it was a much longer walk. We talked for a bit, and she even offered me a ride to the far away bike shop, but at this point it was approaching 11:00am (and time was growing short for me to return to my apartment and prepare for aisatsu). We also exchanged contact information, so now I have another Toyota City friend!

(note: being perpetually lost seems to be an excellent way to meet people in Toyota City)

We parted ways, and as I was just a block away from the Jusco, I decided the hell with saving money; I had about enough time to buy a new bike at Jusco and bike myself home. So I did. And it was an excellent decision. My new bike has all kinds of nifty attachments, including a light that is powered by the movement of my front wheel and a wheel lock on the back wheel that will keep folks from “borrowing” my bike to go somewhere and not returning it. (it seems here people don't consider that stealing, but the effect is the same, my $160 bike is GONE). But all it takes in Japan to keep folks from walking off with your bike is a little circular lock around the back wheel to make it too much trouble to carry off. Comparing this to Philly, where I've had one bike picked clean off a bike rack, so only the metal spine of the frame was left; or the second bike which was wrenched right off the pole; or the wheel that was plucked off of my third bike the day Obama won the can imagine how shocking the relatively small degree of security necessary to protect ones stuff. People are just honest and nice here.

I also made a less pleasant discovery today: I realized this morning that though I'm eating less sugar, my gums were hurting. I brush twice a day, but I was developing some gingivitis. It seems (as I found out later when I asked Paul as we traveled to my schools) that in Japan, they don't add fluoride to the water. I knew fluoride toothpaste was not common here, but it didn't occur to me that it at least wasn't in the water. There is supposedly a fluoride mouthwash that they give to children in schools which I'm going to see if I can't find at the Jusco. Also, I'm going to ask my mom to ship me more mouthwash.

This is leading me to a quick aside about teeth and Japan. On Tuesday, as I bar hopped with my friends from the Izakaya, one of them asked me if my teeth were my natural teeth, and if not, how much had I spent on them. I was really confused by the question, and at first thought I didn't understand him, but after a bit of back and forth, I answered “yes, these are my natural teeth.” He complimented me on my teeth, which made me start paying attention to the teeth around me. And lots of people here do not have straight teeth. This isn't something you pay attention to in the USA, because practically everyone gets braces if they don't have straight teeth. If I hadn't been lucky enough to have straight teeth, I'd certainly have had braces. Many of my friends in Junior High and High School had braces or a retainer of some kind, and even as an adult, these products are still available and desirable.

At the hostess club on Tuesday, I noticed that one of the girls had very un-straight teeth, but apparently it didn't effect how she was perceived. I've also noticed (and this may be a function of my TV, which I'm convinced is not giving me the current Japanese channels but is instead some weird cable equivalent through my apartment that's about 5-6 years behind on all of its anime programming and doesn't appear to show dramas at all...still streaming these off of the that I don't really see any commercials for mouthwash or toothpaste either. You can't go through a day of Primetime TV in the USA without seeing a variety of commercials for toothpaste, mouthwash, tooth whitening products, etc. Here in Toyota we get lots of beer commercials. I've heard most of the world isn't as focused on dental care as the United States—in Moldova, they didn't even believe in brushing baby teeth, so the teeth there were a disaster as teens and adults—but I'd assumed Japan, being in the developed world, would have a more US attitude on that. But while teeth here are generally clean, straight teeth seem to be an option, not a necessity. And their gums must hurt like hell. Unless the beer is helping keep things in check.

So back to my day: I took my bike home and got dressed for Aisatsu (school meetings). With a quick Onigiri for lunch, I was good to go. We visited six schools today! At first it was a little nerve wracking to meet my principals, vice principals and tanto-senseis (third in charge) but as I repeated my Jikoshoukai multiple times, and chatted (as best I could within the context of my Japanese and the relative formality of the situation), I began to get more relaxed, and by the last school, one of the teachers was even offering to have drinks after class. That's the Special Needs school and they are going to be a fun bunch!

Each school was very different. I have two small schools, Kosema and Ohata, Ohata's entire student population being less than 80 kids, one very large school Nishi-Homi (that's in the Portuguese speaking neighborhood), as well as a couple in between (Ibo and Higashi-Yama). The Vice Principal at Higashi-Yama especially was quite concerned with my speaking too much Japanese instead of English with the students (since my Japanese is so terrible, I doubt that's going to be much of a problem), and I was given the suggestion by Paul to pretend I didn't speak Japanese at all on school grounds, and even when asked a question in Japanese to just respond in English. Paul said that was good way to both practice my Japanese comprehension and get a leg up on what the kids were talking about as they wouldn't know I understood them. (kind of

A short aside about the self introduction, just so you know what it is. Basically, this is a meeting between you, your company (if you have a company) and the school head staff (Principal, Vice Principal and Tanto-sensei, the third in command) You go to each school with your supervisor (in my case Paul, who is my supervisor's supervisor, as my supervisor has a huge number of people and needed to delegate some). Usually by way of the staff room, you are then led into the Principal's office, where there is an exchange of business cards, lots of bowing and “onegai shimasu” and more bowing, then everyone sits down. My meetings generally included a Principal, Vice Principal and Tanto-Sensei (third in command) as well as an occasional English teacher or Home Room Teacher.

As we sat, my supervisor, Paul, explained a bit about the company, gave them some literature about how we worked as well as my (very incomplete) Japanese resume, and then told them a little about me (I'm apparently very Genki/Happy and Energetic, no shock there). At some point at the beginning of the sit down portion, a woman would come in and serve everyone either tea or coffee. We were encouraged to drink. Depending on the school, some of the staff would start asking me questions like how I was getting to school, how long I'd been in Japan, etc and I would answer them as best as I could. At some point in this process, I got to give my official Jikoshoukai (self introduction), after which there were varying amounts of conversation and questions, and everyone left with smiles and more bowing.

Each school handled this aisatsu a bit differently. In one school, we were very informal and talked in the main hallway. At most schools, we met in the Principal's office. In addition to giving my Jikoshoukai in the Principal's office, I also got to give my self introduction to the entire staff at Ibo, which was a bit nerve wracking but ultimately fun. I am quite happy that we got to do this school meeting before my showing up randomly at some point during the week to teach classes. It would be much harder to just walk into the school on a random weekday and then try to get into the swing of things. At least this way someone in the school has actually laid eyes upon me and knows what I'm there to do.

As an aside, I am also very glad at the Izakaya that one of the folks said my nickname “Bashu” was like “Basketo-Shoes,” (Basketball Shoes), which the Japanese shorten to “Bashu” as well. So I was able to say “Please call me Vash, like Basketo Shoes,” for my Jikoshoukai, which was a big hit. Everyone found it to be hysterical, and it really helped loosen up the mood. By Toyota Yogo (the last school and most relaxed), I also asked the Principal (I think it was the Principal) if he was familiar with Philadelphia Cream Cheese. They sell it here in the supermarkets, a shock to me. With a little descriptive help from Paul, the Principal recognized Cream Cheese and “Yes,” to which I followed up that both Cream Cheese and I came from Philadelphia. That was a real crackup too for everyone.

In regards to Japanese comprehension, I must admit I was very surprised at how much Japanese I was able to understand today during my many school meetings. A lot of information was given to me in Japanese by various folks, and I understood maybe 60-70% of it. That's pretty shocking, especially considering the speed at which people were speaking. I think something in my brain is generally beginning to click, because I'm understanding a lot more and when I speak, people seem more able to understand me. It's really exciting!

For example, after attempting again today to buy a cell phone--this time at AU, which I'm going to go with because they have a good cheap plan BUT I need to setup a bank account first, a job for tomorrow at the Post Office, your best friend here in Japan along with the Hyaku-en Store, your local Izakaya bar, a good English map and the Jusco--I was able to much more clearly express what I wanted and understand what the woman was telling me (though again, lack of vocabulary is KILLING me). (that last one felt like a Barthlme sentence)

But it was afterwards, taking advantage of the “on a weekday if you're by yourself you can do Karaoke from 4 to 8pm or any portion of that time for 500 yen special” at VITS, that I had my real Karaoke comprehension revelation. I did a song called Naruhodo by the Mass Missile and suddenly, as I was singing with the lyrics, I UNDERSTOOD what the song actually MEANT! I've had this song on my computer for YEARS, and I've done it twice before here (it's an excellent song because it is slow and has some repetition) but this time, I knew what the song was about. I'd been shifting the lyrics to that song in my head in a state of confusion for YEARS, and suddenly, I got it! Wow!

Also, I found out (on Monday actually, but really took advantage of it today) that many popular musicals that I love have also been done in Japanese. The three real gems I found today on the playlist were Tomorrow from Annie, Memory from Cats, and the Japanese version of “I Still Believe” (今も信じてる)from Miss Saigon. The last one especially was excellent because I've been trying to do that song in English since I've started doing Karaoke in the States, and today I actually got to sing it in Japanese! Also, very exciting, most of the vocabulary of the song were words I knew, so it was relatively easy to sing. Score! Also, they have (which I discovered on Monday) “Another Day” from Rent, again in Japanese. That's my favorite song from Rent, and by the time I get back to Philly, I intend to have that one memorized in Japanese as well.

There were also some songs from Wicked (in Japanese) and some Japanese musicals that I want to write down the titles for and see if I can't find on CD. It's really exciting to sing songs from musicals you know fairly well in Japanese for Karaoke because you don't have to think of the tune; you can just read along and see how ideas originally in English are translated (not directly) into Japanese. As an aside, Karaoke really is improving my site reading speed and Kanji recognition, and one of my Kyoto Senseis (Vice Principals) hugely loves Karoake, so we have that in common.

In short, it's been another great day here! Today was a bit more business focused, instead of traveling about being a tourist, and I can feel my attention shifting from pure fun to preparing for my job. Considering how awesome the staff and kids I met were today--the kids that I saw all greeted me with a cheerful “hello” or “hi” and some even made it through the “how are you, I'm fine, I'm fine too” interchange that is very popular here—I'm very excited to start.