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.


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