Sunday, November 19, 2006

National Day of Sports: Part 2

When Sayaka, Colin, and I moved onto the elementary school, we encountered a field of thousands of kids in matching hats and armbands doing militaristic drills. Saga isn’t even that big, but this elementary school is enormous. It was also basically impossible for parents to have any idea where their kid was. We found Yoshiko, were followed around by some random kids, and pretty much all my students found me. I’m just realizing now that that’s not so hard, considering I’m white and enormous. Not long after arriving, we were informed that we would each have to pair up with one of Yoshiko's kids to do some choreographed dancing with them at eleven. My reaction to this was reluctance, mild irritation, then acceptance. Yoshiko's phone call the Saturday night a week before was finally making sense to me. She had called at eight o’clock, just as Colin and I were about to leave town to spend the night in a town an hour away, doing serious drinking at our friend’s birthday party and possibly going swimming the following day. Our weekend was totally booked. When Yoshiko called, she told me that her kids had a sports day the following day from 10-4, and she’d like Colin and I to come, but if we’re too busy it’s okay. I very apologetically told her we were probably too busy. The elementary school was about two hour’s drive from where we were staying. She explained that she really wanted us to come, but insisted that we didn’t have to if we were too busy. Being too spineless for America (but maybe not deferential enough to authority for Japan), I caved in and told her maybe we could stop in at one. That would mean leaving Matt’s at ten in the morning, seriously cutting into our Saturday fun and ruling out a Sunday trip to the waterhole with everyone else. Her reply was, “Can you come before? Dancing is at eleven. I need four adult. I am asking favor.” But that was as far as I was caving (if it was so important, why did she call so late?) and we agreed on one. But that sports day was cancelled due to rain. We were home when we found out, and still didn’t get to go to the waterhole. Whatever, Colin can’t swim, anyway.

Yoshiko's cryptic phone call finally made sense. The kids dancing with their parents was an important group activity. She couldn’t count on her ex-husband to show up, and her mother was too old. She really needed help. If I had understood the situation, I may have acted differently.

At eleven, parents and family members infiltrated the field’s organized little lines of children, relying entirely on the program map and numbers to locate them. I squatted in the dirt with my partner. “[I hate this dance]”, she informed me. The music started, and the field became a nearly uniform, dancing mass. Tamami and I were usually at least a step behind everyone else.

Afterward, it was lunchtime, and hundreds of families headed to the enormous gym to eat the obentos their matriarchs had prepared the night before. As we crowded onto our little plot of floor, Yoshiko said, “Obento are important of Japanese sports day. American sports day, too?” When I told them there weren’t really sports days in America, everyone gasped.

We watched more kids doing sporty things around the field, Colin and I got stared at a lot, and the event became more exhausting than interesting. However, the closing routine, which involved the entire school, was pretty amazing. It was a choreographed, musical thing that involved tumbling, kids climbing on top of each other and making human sculptures of various shapes, riding around on unicycles, and doing more incredibly complicated formations. It looked like the Cirque de Soleil. You would never see anything like that among American kids. It’s weird, these kids are still monsters in the classroom, but there’s so much importance placed on appearance and presentation. In recent weeks, I’ve been witness to such indoctrination when Sayaka explains our Christmas English Presentation to the kindergarteners. Although she usually speaks in English during the class, whenever she talks about the Christmas Happyokai, she speaks in semi-formal Japanese. The first time, she sat them all down, and said, “[In December, we’re having a Christmas presentation. You will perform on the stage, and everyone will be watching you. Your parents will be there, your brothers, your sisters, your grandmothers and grandfathers. Everyone will be there. If you don’t do a good job, everyone will laugh at you. So, let’s try as hard as we can!]”

The kindergarten Christmas Happyokai is on December 16th, but we’ve been preparing for it since early October. Now we’re doing almost nothing but practicing for it during class. I’ve decided I don’t really like this emphasis on presentation over all else. We could actually be teaching kids worthwhile English, instead of making them say, “Oomph-and-a-hoomph-and-a-double-de-oomph” over and over again while they mime pulling a gigantic turnip out of the ground. During the weeks before the sports festival, my students were terrible. They were exhausted, cranky, and could never focus. I learned later that it was because they were practicing for two hours a day to put on a kick-ass show for their parents, at the expense of their studies.

“Japan is really weird,” I remarked during a phone call to my grandmother.

“Well, they might think you’re weird, too,” She replied, as if I needed a lesson in cultural relativism.

“Of course I’m weird, I’m a foreigner.” The promptness and matter-of-factness of my response is only surprising in retrospect. I live and breathe cultural relativism, man, and every waking second and sometimes in my dreams I exist in constant awareness of just how weird I am in this country. But I’ll save the complexity of cultural relativism for another time. For now, I guess I’ll just apologize for chronological leaps in my narrative, and for the absence of breast-grabbing in this post, since I know that’s the only reason anybody reads this.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

National Day of Sports: Part 1

If you live in Japan, you know what a sports festival is. If you don’t, let me explain. Sometime in late September or early October, every school from pre-school to high school takes one entire Saturday to dress up in matching uniforms and hats, sing songs, do extremely choreographed militaristic drills, and some sports competitions, I guess. As a teacher, if you’re not taking part in the drills, also while wearing a silly hat and using a whistle, you’re expected to go and watch with the rest of the students’ families. I had to go to two of these in one day. The little grabby-hands pre-school was having one at the same time as N Elementary, the school the majority of my students go to, including all four of my boss’s kids. N Elementary’s sports festival was actually scheduled for the weekend before, but had been rained out.

As soon as Colin, Sayaka, and I arrived at the pre-school, we knew things were different. There was a sea of kids in the courtyard, all lined up and divided by their class, which was demarcated by an armband and a different colored hat. They looked like a skittles rainbow. The teachers that I was accustomed to seeing sitting on their asses and hitting babies were standing at the front of the front of the lines with enormous smiles, leading the kids through the words and dances of various songs, usually from “My Neighbor, Totoro”. There was a whole group of them assisting with the youngest class, who were one and a half to two years old. Those kids were in a lopsided cluster rather than an organized line, were barely following the dance moves, and a couple of them were crying hysterically. After the national anthem, the kids cleared out, the orderly, single file fashion deteriorating as the lines progressed toward the younger classes. The teachers scurried out and began making complex marks in the dirt of the courtyard, as Colin and I wondered what game they were setting up. It wasn’t a game. The oldest class, the six year-olds, marched back onto the courtyard carrying flags of various colors, and the markings on the ground were for their incredibly complex flag drill. I watched in awe as the same kids who won’t stop bouncing and screaming for a single fucking second during our class executed perfectly timed flag ripples across the courtyard. They were so calm and disciplined, like little machines. It was a serious shock.

Next came the foot races, starting with the toddlers. The teachers stretched out a tape, with a line of them squatting behind it, encouraging the toddlers to keep going. After the air gun was fired, they began waddling toward the line, some of them walking diagonally, others getting distracted by things in the dirt. In the first footrace was one of the kids who wouldn’t stop crying. He stopped in the middle of the courtyard and refused to budge, his face twisted in the anguish of baby existence. The rest of the toddlers finished, and he stayed in place. One, then three teachers trotted out to him and squatted to his level, trying to console him and convince him to finish the race. The entire event was put on hold, and bored parents began making calls on their cell phones as the pep talks continued for ten minutes. I wondered why the hell they didn’t just carry him over the line and move on, but distracted myself by looking at a nearby puppy that was way cuter than the babies. Eventually I glanced back at the courtyard to see that the toddler had calmed down a bit and was making a few slow steps toward the finish line, then he turned around and tried to run the other direction. The teachers blocked his way, herding him toward the tape. He finally crossed it with his face red and his finger in his mouth. There was a big applause, and the games went on. I’m pretty sure that in America there’s no way anyone would spend fifteen minutes trying to reason with that kid. Japan is different, though. It was symbolically important for him to actually finish the race by himself.

After we’d watched the games for a while, Sayaka led us to the area where the rest of the kids were waiting so we could say hi before heading off to the elementary school. The little disciplined machines in them disappeared when they saw us, and especially when they saw Colin. But none of the kids actually molested me! The worst I got was when one of the boys pointed to my chest and banally remarked, “[Boobies].”

Colin wasn’t so lucky. As soon as the kids saw him, they swarmed him, poking at every possible private area they could. I feel bad now, since he was asking me for help and I didn’t take him seriously. I thought if he really wanted help, he wouldn’t have made his resistance so fun for them. They were all shouting questions at him as some of the boys began climbing him like a jungle gym.

While trying to defend himself, Colin said, “I can’t understand you, you’re speaking in crazy, demon tongues!”

“Don’t say things like that! There’s a chance Sayaka could understand you!” I told him, even though I knew there was no chance Sayaka could understand him. I hugged a lot of kids whose names I couldn’t remember, then we moved on to the elementary school, where more marching and flag-waving would ensue.