Monday, November 30, 2009

Pain in the Arts

There's a reason I don't teach kindergarten. While my personality ideally matches that of an energetic, yappy, and 元気 (げんき / genki), jovial/happy, youngster, there’s something my body wasn’t built for: Arts & Crafts. I’m clumsy, lack patience, I certainly don’t stay in the lines, and my feeble fingers shake like I’m in rehab. I'll gladly stroll through an arts & crafts show, but you won’t find me behind a booth.

Our (humans) brains are either wired internally to their physical body or externally to their soul merging with the outside world. The former makeup the world’s athletes and salarymen. While the latter is where I fit in nicely. This is the land of the thinkers and 夢想家 (むそうか / musouka), dreamers. When your brain is too busy contemplating an ice cream stand on a purple cloud, it can’t accurately orchestrate the maneuvering of muscles needed to move you eleven yards ahead to leap, and catch the ball while safely landing on the ground. Being an extreme imaginataur (a cute little name I came up with), this also rules out arts & crafts. Though doesn’t mean I shy away from torturing myself.

So during the dismal darkness of winter when opportunity came knocking, eleven of us 怪人 (がいじん / gaijin), foreigners opened the door to brighten our lives with our own personal Nebuta float.

Aomori’s Nebuta 祭り (祭り / matsuri), festival, is the premier summer celebration in northern Honshu. Picture a nighttime Macy’s Day Thanksgiving parade where gigantic illuminated paper floats march through the streets alongside flutes, Taiko drums and heaps of leaping volunteers clad in an unusual Haneto costume.

Besides growing りんご (ringo), apples the size of a giant's fist, Nebuta is Aomori's claim to fame. While I have joined the parade, I had no experience in creating one of the magical floats. Consequently, it was only natural that I immersed myself in this rich tradition. Early Saturday morning, we cracked our knuckles and gave out a ceremonial yawn as famed Nebuta artist, 木村明 (Kimura Akira), trained us to mold, craft, and paint a Nebuta float patterned after the face of who we believe to be the Japanese warrior, Saitō Musashibō Benkei.


The mundane adventure begins.

The journey towards creation involved seven crucial, pain-staking, phases:

1.) MOLD: Using a mapped out cheat sheet, we framed the body of the float by bending and twisting metal wires like they were on the dance floor. My fragile fingertips did not appreciate this activity.


Crave & Chris showing off their steel frames

2.) GLUE: Finishing the skeleton frame, we cut individual pieces of paper and glue them on forming the skin.

3.) EAT: Without a sandwich of doubt, lunch was where I shined the most!

4.) PENCIL: Before painting the face of our float, we sketched the design. I should have spent more time on this.

5.) PAINT: While we had a sample to mimic, many of us renewed our creative licenses by adding protruding tongues, piercings or in my case, lipstick kiss stains on the cheek and forehead.


Kimura-Sensei's shows 'this is how we do it!'

6.) WATCH: In the 'this doesn't make any sense' moment of the day, a professional electrician was hired to come in and install light bulbs inside our floats.

7.) POSE: Fat ladies are rare in Japan so nothing is over until a group photo is taken.


Cultures conveniently collide culminating an enjoyable day of Arts & Crafts.

While I thought we would be out the door before 1pm, most of us struggled to complete our 'apprenticepieces’ before 5pm. The work was miserable, but in the end I have something gloriously awful to show off! Now whenever someone attempts to drag me off to an All-Night Knitting Party, I simply show them ‘Mr. Casual’ and they understand my pain. Arts & Crafts are a wonderful diversion for many, but in my case I’ll let it float on to the next person.


Just like what a parent says about their child, 'It may not be pretty, but it's mine!"

Special thanks to Chris, Tesia, and Christy for assistance with this experience and post.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Piece of Cake

“It’s a piece of cake until you get to the top.
You find you can’t stop playing the game the way you’ve always played it.”
- Richard M. Nixon

The odds were stacked against me. I decided to teach my students slang.

Now, being an elite academic institution, 青森高校 (あおもりこうこう / aomori koko), Aomori High School’s students drown themselves in pride. While their vocabulary reaches into four digit territory, they are painfully はずかしがり (hazukashigari), shy. They would rather pretend they were frozen, as if staring into the eyes of Medusa, than to risk uttering an incorrect response.

Unfortunately, as is the case with most Japanese 生徒 (せいと / seito), students, mine exclusively orate the “hello / I’m fine / see you” package. I find this outrageously mundane. Personally, the conversations are so scripted and boring. Consequently, it’s rumored I now hold the Guinness Record for longest yawn. The students’ robotic lack of voice may fly in Japan, but not in my imaginative world.

While I’m aware my knowledge of Japanese is as if I were a four year old Forrest Gump: by using Japanese スラング (surangu), slang, I surprise and delight the natives. I’ve made it a goal to learn trendy phrases alongside the basics. For example, instead of おいしい (oishii), delicious, I’ll say 超うまい (ちょううまい / chou umai), the trendy way to say extremely tasty. Whenever I utter a ‘slang’ phrase, it has the same effect as a Japanese exchange student in America saying, “Damn son, cheq out dat a$$.” It may not be appropriate, but it’s unexpected, and people stick around for more.

My patented lethal weapon though is へのかっぱ (he no kappa), which translates into ‘piece of cake.’ Which is exactly what I thought it would be to instill the coolness of slang into the working vocabularies of my esteemed students.

Though the process is ongoing, I’m constantly reviewing the long list of かっいい (kakkoii), cool, words and phrases with my students. Thankfully, “hello” is now an endangered species with “what’s up?” and “heya” spreading like wildfire. While “see you” is a stubborn beast, I hear enough of “Have a nice day” and “take care” to keep my faith in the program. Overall, the greetings, manners, and reactions seem to be moving in quite nicely. Though, idioms remain a challenge.

Enter Mr. Fun, a 2年生 (ねんせい / nensei), 2nd year, student in class 2-3. He’s a short man sporting a tan complexion and styled hair that smoothly slopes down his forehead like a pointed spear. I knew he was something out of the ordinary when during 文化祭 (ぶんかさい / bunkasai), school culture festival, he wore a Miami Dolphins jersey. While a common garment of fashion in the states, you’re as likely to see a NFL jersey on a Japanese person as you are to find middle aged men engrossed in a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos at the barbershop. Sure it happens, but you’re delightfully shocked every time. Especially when that student is adorned in the attire of the (てき / teki), enemy, of your hometown favorite Buffalo Bills.

So of course I took notice of this なぞめいた (nazomeita), enigmatic, young man. What I discovered was as uplifting as Reese’s Pieces at the bottom of an ice cream sundae. Mr. Fun was no robot. He was an individual: one who wore his name with a smile.

After exposing students to ‘holy moly,’ he single handily branded it as his class’s catchphrase. Every time I’d walk by the 教室 (きょうしつ / kyoushitsu), classroom, chants of ‘holy moly!’ emitted from random students. While it wasn’t always used properly, I basked in the glory of their efforts.

Though when Mr. Fun became rather fond of, ‘piece of cake,’ concern clouded the glory. No matter what I said, Mr. Fun responded with ‘piece of cake.’

“What’s up?” / “It’s a piece of cake.”
“See you next class.” / “Piece of cake!”

Quickly, I felt as though Mr. Fun was mocking me. “Holy moly,” I thought. I didn’t earn an English Education degree from Boston University, inspire Florida high school students for five years, earn my National Board Certification, and take the time to instill coolness in these robots to inherit a bully. “Oh hell nah!”

Consequently, as the ‘pieces of cake’ arrived, they were met with constructive criticism. “Funny, but that’s NOT when you use that phrase,” I said. It appeared as though his ‘slang-parade’ would never improve. Though as the weeks jogged by, I noticed something: Mr. had lost his Fun. He no longer uttered 'holy moly,' 'see ya later alligator,' let alone 'piece of cake.'

“What happened?” I wondered. While this would have proven a perfect chance for a ‘teachable moment’ I had three messages in my Facebook inbox dying to be read. So I forgot about him.

Until recently, when visiting the downtown library I saw someone. It was him. He sat at a table with two classmates not more than 100 footsteps away. While public conversations with students are difficult due to their shyness and limited oral abilities, I opted to give it a try. Peering down at their papers, I noticed they were studying for an upcoming English exam. “Are you studying English?” I asked.

The classmates were sluggishly processing a response when Mr. Fun looked up, extended his thumb and said, “It’s a piece of cake.” And for the first time, it was.

I Can Dream About You

“Nothing happens unless first we dream.”
– Carl Sandberg

As a stereotypical American, 英語 (えいご / eigo), English, is my one and only language. Consequently, just like a Hollywood movie, my dreams are exclusively in English, regardless of the presence of foreigners.

Though last year, a fellow Aomori JET was delighted to have his very first ‘Japanese Dream.’ This meant in the ゆめ (yume), dream, Japanese was both spoken and understood; subtitles not included. For many of us studying 日本語 (にほんご / nihongo) Japanese, such a dream is a rite of passage. It proves your absorption of the language has saturated your reality to where it flows into the 潜在意識 (せんざいいしき / senzaiishiki), subconscious mind. I marveled at this anomaly and hoped to one day experience the same.

Several months had passed and without even a speck of ‘dreamy Japanese,’ envy crawled its way into my confidence. “Where was the Japanese in my dreams?” Clearly, I had only myself to blame. And it was time for self-reflection. Upon looking in the mirror I realized not only that I was quite handsome but that my Japanese ability was equivalent to that of an 8 month old baby! So I hit the books.

I’ve been studying like it’s the only way to get laid. And thus, last night it happened. My ‘Japanese Dream’ cherry was popped! Now, I won’t lie. It wasn’t the grandest display of Japanese, but it was there in some barbaric form.

In this particular installment, I was on vacation in my hometown of Buffalo. An old friend, Jimmy Wong, and I were paying a visit to the zoo when a group of Asian people approached us. They spoke in broken English and an unrecognizable muttered language. Which is a result of my (のう / nou), brain’s, inability to produce literal Asian dialects. It wasn’t until they uttered the words, ‘Bill Cosby’ were we aware of their intentions. They had two extra tickets for Bill Cosby’s performance later that night. Why he chose Buffalo on his deathbed tour is beside the point. Upon seeing the \16000 ($160) plus amount, Jimmy and I both knew our wallets weren’t thick enough. But then it dawned on me, “These mutha f***ers are Japanese!”

Just like in 事実 (じじつ / jijitsu), reality, I take full advantage of embarrassing myself when encountering a native of my host country. I uttered “日本人ですか” a simple way of asking, “Are you Japanese.” After they nodded, I said I was from Aomori. But folks, this was a tuff crowd. There was no surprise, respect, or laughter. Not even a smile escaped them when I said “私は変な人です” (watashi wa henna hito desu), meaning “I am a strange person.” I’m guessing that just like earlier, my subconscious was incapable of generating Japanese that I could respond to, let alone understand. But at least as a 夢想家 (むそうか / musou-ka) dreamer, I have a goal. I can’t wait until I have a dream entirely in Japanese. But then again it’s just a dream.