Thursday, 10 April 2014

gaijin invasion of an ume matsuri

Way back in February we had a national holiday and, as is my wont here, I took up a complete stranger on their extremely kind offer of a day’s traditional Japanese culture. A bunch of ALTs from around the prefecture met at a tiny town called Kiyotake to try on kimono and enjoy the new plum blossoms (ume) at a mini traditional festival (matsuri). In Japan, people like to talk about the weather and the changing seasons lmot as much as Brits. Each passing month appears to be marked by a special produce – cherry blossom themed candy was this March’s speciality.

We gathered in a large hall, along with several families of other foreigners, and were helped on with our kimono and obi. In actuality it was kind of a cross between a yukata – the simple, one-layered, thin-material worn in summer- and a real kimono, which is thicker like the layer we wore, but includes many complex layers of material and padding.

Somewhat restricted, we slowly made our way to the matsuri, which of course kicked off with all of us displayed on stage and asked questions about our origins! As I may have mentioned before, the population here is 99% Japanese. This means that any foreigner outside of a big city is often de facto a local celebrity, and people will unabashedly stare at you.

At best, they will pepper you with questions about your country and your opinion of Japan; invite you randomly to their home for dinner and parties; leave their shops to accompany you places if you’re lost; explain things to you slowly; and treat you like an honoured guest. I appreciate all this very much, even if I feel I don’t deserve such special treatment all the time. At worst, they cross to the other side of the street on sight or give you the evils (I’m looking at you, Miyazaki grandmas); prefer standing in a choc-a-bloc rushhour bus to sitting next to you; fall off their seat in surprise every time you use chopsticks or a Japanese word; and ask very personal questions about your religious and political beliefs, how much your possessions cost, your exact relationship status, etc.

Living here, you are generally excused almost any faux-pas or silly mistake by virtue of being a foreigner, and so you kind of oscillate between trying to disprove assumptions by integrating, and just doing "gaijin smash" and lazily taking advantage of your perceived special status! I think that this ‘free pass’ results partly from necessity and from genuine consideration, of course, but also perhaps partly from the assumption that foreigners could never possibly understand, integrate, or conduct themselves like anything but a thrashing fish out of water. This assumption may not seem particularly problematic until you imagine applying it to Japanese living in the UK.

But, this is only one side of the coin – the other is tremendous kindess and forbearance – in a country still quite unused to the foreigners. Despite the cliched image of the Japanese tourist, leaving the country to go on holiday is still pretty uncommon here. I’m only beginning to learn about Japanese history, but it was still illegal to leave Japan until 1868, and in the preceding couple of centuries no foreigner was to enter on pain of death – so it’s little wonder that immigration and gloabalisation works a little differently here.

I say all this not to detract from the perfect day or from my experience generally in Japan, but to give a balanced picture of what it’s like to live here. I have zero problem with showing off on stage in a kimono and receiving applause for existing! I’m sure most ALTs will take all these things for granted, but perhaps not the people reading back home!

After our moment in the limelight, we shuffled off to enjoy yakisoba, tea ceremony, archery (called kyudo), and of couse, the ume! (Sakura are the famous cherry blossoms that come later in the year, while ume are the smaller fore-runners.) We also twitnessed the talents of a group of precocious pre-teens shake their thang to Beyonce. The spring sun was bright and warm as we drove back through the snow-capped mountains.

This woman was a kimono-folding powerhouse! 

Waiting for tea ceremony to begin

Getting involved with some pounding 

Monday, 7 April 2014

random things i want to remember

Enjoying a parcel from Rachel's school in the Scottish highlands! 

The English teacher crew 

  • After learning “_____ would be ____ without ____”, my second graders writing “Without xxx videos, Saturday nights would be boring” and wiggling their eyebrows at me. I absolutely love that my job doesn’t involve discipline and I can just give them a big tick for perfect English while keeping a straight face. 
  • My cleaning-time partner, Yuki, ie. the cutest girl to have walked the planet. She will literally clap her hands with glee. We were talking about the class trip to Disney Land and her love of Daffy Duck, at which she squealed “I. love. Dufffffyyyyyyy!!!” and jumped up and down. 
  • Carlos-sensei singing to himself “Wake up Maggie, for I think I may something for to say to you!” 
  • My student’s pencil case featuring a marijuana leaf, the Jamaican flag and the words “Is it rearry so bad for me?” 
  • Reading on my balcony in the late afternoon, watching men throw sweets to a crowd from the scaffolding of a house constructed that day, a multi-coloured flag waving in the setting sun and the shouts of children and barking dogs sounding round the neighbourhood. 
  • Salsa dancing at a class run by my dentist. 
  • Leaving my laptop and bag in a mini-locker in the mall th the consternated stares of many passers-by. Deciding that I’m receiving more strange/curious/ terrified looks than normal on my return, and then realising I have left my belongings for 2 hours in a mini-fridge designed for groceries. 
  • City Hall piping out “going home time” music at 5pm and “bed time” music at 9pm to the whole city –  first The New World Symphony, and then Moonriver  – both serving to aid and abet any latent homesickness. 
  • Playing word games with OAP’s at Christmas dinner, including one where they have to say what they’d bring on holiday to guess the rule of the game. One adorable old woman says hesitantly, smiling “I’m going on holiday and I’ll bring, four puppies!” “I’m going on holiday and I’ll bring… a ginger cookie!” It absolutely breaks my heart to say she can’t come. 
  • Saying “Ohayou gozaimasu” every morning to the man exercising his two schnauzers by my bike route 
  • Being on the receiving end of flirtatious colleagues at work parties, who refer to “our hearts’ consent’ and say “You recover me.”  
  • The other ALT at my school approximating saying “Shitsurei shimasu” to the staff at the end of the day with calling out “Stretch marks!” 
  • Remarking to Yonezawa-san that Japanese women seem to eat a lot but remain tiny. Yonezawa-san tapping my shoulder the next day and pointing to the word ‘fuel efficient’ on her electronic dictionary, saying “Maybe Japanese women do not have good mileage” !! 
  • Pointing to a picture of a kilt and asking my students to tell me what it is, to be met with silence and then a tentative “Ehhh… didgeridoo??”
  • Asking my student “why do you prefer the Japanese movie trailer” in class and having her reply “It is so sad. I have cute crying face. I want all my boyfriends to see me like that.” 
  • Genuinely thinking a baby was crying when it was in fact a shopkeeper calling “Irasshaimase!” 
  • Teaching junior high kids the basics of debtae, argument and rebuttal, so that they now respond to everything by wailing “Why?!”, plus agonised hand gestures. 
  • Seeing my neighbour on the stairwell for the first time, only to have her literally scream and shut the door.
One of the many indecipherable pieces of paper I receive every day. I think it's about discrimination?

A few weeks ago, one of the teachers at school was kind enough to invite Christine (the other ALT at school) and me to his house, to celebrate hinamatsuri (girls' festival). A young guy, he has 5 children under the age of eight and a lovely, remarkably energetic wife. As far as I can tell, the festival involves displaying the family dolls, and eating certain foods, such as  clam shells, which symbolise a well-matched couple. According to superstition, leaving the dolls out on display past 4th March risks a late marriage for the daughters of the house. 

The children were among the nicest I've ever met, playing and trying out their excellent English on us, helping each other and eating like little models of behaviour. After dinner, sensei's mother dressed us in kimono and the little girls chose hairpieces for us! 

It was a fantastic surprise of an evening. 

Continuing with the theme of trying new things, a couple of ALTs and I went riding in Aya one Saturday. 
Horse selfie

Despite a bit of a language gap, I managed a rising trot and absolutely loved it! Hello, lessons in Hyde Park? I paid for it a few days later though, shuffling stiffly around school with aching legs. We finished the afternoon with some exploring. 

Twins out on the town

A takoyaki and okonomiyaki party at Satoko's! I hadn't been there since her yukata party in my first week in Japan. What a lot has happened. 

In my rain day uniform. That particular morning saw me standing awkwardly by the gas heater in chafing, utterly sodden tan denim...

Mum's wonderful letters

My new favourite app, TimeHop. Lets you see all your social media output  on the same day of each past year. The cringe-worthy updates are worth the forgotten funny memories. 
I also recently experienced my first earthquake. I woke up in the middle of the night to a loud rattling sound and the feeling of my bed being dragged to-and-forth across the floor. It lasted about 7 seconds( although it seemed much longer) after which I promptly rolled over and went back to sleep! Slightly worried at my lack of survival instincts now. In the morning I thought it was a dream until seeing a barrage of facebook statuses. 
Mimata (the town my neighbourhood borders on) at dusk

Movie nights with tea, Mulan, group singing and toy lobsters

A couple of weeks ago I took part in a fantastic event called Amazing Race. Foreigners teamed up with locals to compete in a city-wide scavenger hunt race, doing silly activities and hailing gabs with urgency. It started with a sour plum eating and plums tone spitting competition, naturally. We 90s kids cast our minds back to Titanic and gambate'd. 

Miyazaki's idea of progressive gender relations

On one of our last pit stops, some local kids taught us a routine of martial arts moves and we were graded on our performances! 

I forgot to mention that Amazing Race's theme this year was a cross between Japanese clans and Game of Thrones. The name? A Song of Rice and Fire. Genius. Team Martell came in fourth out of eleven groups! ^^ 

Fun with Line stickers

And with Line Camera

The two ALTs with our beautiful junior high teacher. She's wearing a hakama for the junior high graduation ceremony. 

One of my second year classes surprised me with a gorgeous card in our last lesson! I think my Scottishness must be showing as my hair was still decidedly brown last time I checked... 

My picture for the junior high yearbook 

The sunset by Miyakonojo station, just before I went to pick up Gabby from Miyazaki

At first I was very skeptical about the no make-up selfie trend. Who on the planet isn't already 'aware' of cancer? Then I learned about the fundraising aspect and the amazing amount of money raised and jumped on the bandwagon. If you missed it but still want to donate a couple of squids, you can do it here

Chris wonders why there is a man's face on her biscuit. 

Not amused.

The morning I marked my junior high kids' last diary entries was a good one.