Thursday, March 29, 2007

If you are a parent, read at your own risk.

EDIT: Colin informed me he was embarrassed by my post because not only do my parents read this (I asked them to stop, so if they got offended it's their own damn fault), but his parents read it too. Thinking of my boyfriend's parents reading about my rack embarrassed me as well. But somehow, I'm not ready to take this post down yet. I just wrote it, and I don't even know if it's ready to disappear so soon.

I'm putting up this temporary post to thank all the people who responded to my stupid, emo comment solicitation, convincing me not to give up on my art. Though I'm surprised the threat of giving up my art is what everyone took from that. Really, I've already kind of given up art. I'm writing a stupid blog about stupid things. And I'm a little drunk. But this post is for a limited time only, so get it before I take it down. For most of the people who commented, I decided to reward you by talking about tits. That's right, tits. But mom and dad, you can stop reading now. Not that any of this would surprise you too much. There's a picture of me as a three year old standing in front of a mirror with my hands on my hips, checking myself out with my top stuffed with socks to look like enormous breasts. Really, they were ridiculously, cartoonishly large breasts. I was wearing this pink cotton dress (I didn't wear pants for a while because I couldn't button them myself), and I'm pretty sure I had stuffed myself in an attempt to look like Barbie. With my stubby three year old body and short brown haircut, you could see the dissatisfaction in my face. I loved Barbie, who had all kinds of sexy adventures while I was stuck in the body of a child. I played with Barbie for far too long, and even though she had spurred my own (as well as millions of other little girls') fascination with breasts, I was a late developer. As I grew up, I stretched out, but not forward. In late middle school, I didn't care about having large breasts, I just wanted breasts, like all the other girls had. Then one day in early high school, I woke up no longer a skinny flat-chested kid, but a somewhat chubbier girl with an enormous rack. It happened so quickly and so late that I was unable to view them normally. I got distracted by them in class. They caught my glance as I walked by windows, and I thought, damn, what enormous tits I have. For a while I wore these tight sweaters, fascinated by the shape and weight of actual breasts on me. Of course, it was also a little strange because breasts meant that I might become an unwanted sexual object. I remembered that an English teacher on whom I had a crush off and on throughout my freshman year complimented me on a shirt I wore the first day of school. By the end of the year, I still wore the same shirt but couldn't button it anymore and wore a tank top underneath instead. Seeing me every day, I thought he must have noticed, and this both mortified and interested me. It was the age-old conflict of being a busty sex-kitten getting in the way of your desire to also be perceived as a bright young woman. Somehow you want to be both, but it doesn't work that way. Now the thoughts about my button-down shirt and English teacher only mortify me. My sisters developed early, and always seemed ashamed and awkward concerning their endowments, like they were weird, foreign flotation devices. Now that I'm in Japan, where breasts are rare, I work on hiding them more. I slouch, I wear baggier shirts, I cross my arms over my chest (a lot of this is to avoid groping from four-year-olds). I can't say that I love my breasts and we have a special bond like those women and their vaginas in the vagina monologues. But I've still got love for a nice pair.

Monday, March 19, 2007


It was only a matter of time before this was the title of one of my posts. For the past three days, I was sick with a deadly lung pox that’s severity actually convinced me to go to the hospital, as has been suggested many-a-time by my Japanese co-workers. Being bedridden for three days really rubbed it in my face that without teaching, I’ve got nothing to fill my hours but consumption of nostalgia or internet garbage or whatever else. Always consumption, though, never production. Colin creates all the time. He creates songs about cookies he just ate, and all the foreigners love them because they know exactly what kind of cookies he’s singing about. Identification. Fondness. Nostalgia. And so forth. He writes those songs because he has to, but with me and writing, we have a much more complicated relationship. Actually, we’re not really on speaking terms at the moment. But with a little time, things might heal themselves.

Sidenote: Right now, I’m at the office, and the place is filled with kids diligently washing the windows. Saori’s helping, too. Everybody’s washing the windows but me. It’s unlike me not to offer to help. But I’m not helping, because I don’t feel like exerting myself while I’m still recovering. I’m also bitter. I just realized that I’ve cleaned the office nearly every single day since January, and I teach ONE class a week here. That’s right, ONE. That essentially makes me a maid, cleaning up the messes of other teachers and their students.

Anyway, back to Colin and his song about cookies. Colin performed in a crowded bar, and for his forty-five minute set, he got to be loved by a whole room of people. I always wanted to be in a band, but it turns out the euphonium isn’t such a rockin’ instrument. My personal views toward art are more conducive to performance. I want everyone looking at me, I want them to respond as I perform, I want them to appreciate it and tell me so because I’m ever so self-conscious about my art. Look at me, no, don’t look at me. I’m hideous. But really, love me.

I used to be into theatre. I felt completely at ease on stage, being someone else, playing, so to speak, but I was always hoping that the audience would not just see the character but the process behind it, which was me, and be able to appreciate it. I quit theatre by the time I was in college because Grace saved me the pain by going through the Macalester Theatre Department herself. I realized recently that one of my life goals, to be in a Greek chorus, will probably never be accomplished. I’ve missed any Greek chorus chances I might have had. But I guess the fact that I wanted to be anonymous behind a mask with a large group of people saying the same lines as me shows that my ideas on performance aren’t entirely egocentric.

I’ve often wished that I could write poetry. Poetry can be performed, can be shared with others in an open forum, and everybody claps or snaps or whatever people do nowadays, and breathe their snide comments quietly to their friends. But if it were me reading, I wouldn’t want to read it unless everyone would love it. I would hope they love it. But I can’t write poetry. At least pithy, clever prose would be sufficient for performance, but I don’t do that either. I’ve got nothing but awkward, unwieldy prose, all somewhere between too long and seventy pages. What I’m getting at is that this stupid little blog is the closest thing I have to art as performance. I’m sharing it with you, my community, in hopes that you’ll approve and respond. But no one ever responds. Do you want to know how I know people have read my posts? Within the next day or two, several of my friends will follow suit and update their own blogs. I’m shouting into a black hole now, listening to my own egocentric echoes. I know I'm not interesting, I know I don't write what others want from me, but I have to know, can anybody hear me?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

One thing about living in rural Japan is most people have no idea about anything outside of, for the most part, rural Japan. The people who have been to Tokyo are considered worldly. I’m more well-traveled within Japan than a lot of Japanese people I encounter, because I’ve been to Tokyo and Kyoto and Okinawa. The most banal details about the world beyond tend to render many of my students and co-workers awestruck. Today in the office, I was talking with one of the teachers and Megumi, a recently graduated Junior High School third year. Megumi is a sweet, enthusiastic, and unfortunately not particularly bright girl. I explained to both of them the usual things, like how you can’t ask something like “How’s the weather in America?” because America is huge and there many different climates. The response is a wide-eyed, “Aa, sounanda.” (“[Ah, I see.]”) Also not all Americans are attractive (“Heeeee?”) and not all Americans are white (“Naruhodo!”). Anyway, as Saori entered the room, Megumi bounded toward her and exclaimed, “[I learned so many things about America! They drive on the right side of the road but the driver is on the left side, and most of the streets are straight and they all have names! And they have vending machines in America but not as many, and not everyone has pools, and they don’t eat horse in America but they think Japanese people eat dogs!]”
“[Maybe,]” I interjected.
“[And Cassie-sensei’s older sister kept two ferrets at her house, and after four years, they both ran away!]”
While I found Megu’s delight with these seemingly dull revelations to be charming, some days I just want Japan to have a little cultural awareness. On a more somber note, I’ll be seeing a lot more of Megumi because she failed her entrance exams to get into high school, so she’ll be working part time at the juku. The arrangement was probably some sort of compensation to her family since the juku failed to get her into high school. I hear that one can retake the high school exams the following year, but it’s not common (it is common for the college exams). I hope she does, mainly because coming from my own culturally unaware viewpoint I find it hard to accept that someone living in a wealthy, developed nation would actually be done with their education at fifteen.

By the way, Colin is famous on the internet. Only because Clay is famous on the internet. But they're both nerds. Oh, and in case you get your scruffy white guys confused, Colin is not the one in the hat doing the vlog.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Yareba dekiru

I’ve been inexplicably tired, both physically and mentally. It prevents me from being the person I want to be, which is someone who spends more time on her lesson plans and always cleans her house and washes her dishes and does her laundry, and perhaps most importantly, writes about the absurd things she encounters every day. I turn sentences over and over in my mind with plans to turn them into something. I compose in my mind but it stays fragmented in my Word document. I have a file filled with fragments that may never become anything. I have a nearly finished entry about the Japanese social attitudes toward breasts, that I’m sure would delight a good portion of my readership if I could just piece it together. I don’t work nearly as long of hours as Yoshiko or Sayaka, but my average of three classes every day leaves me psychologically exhausted. Furthermore, I’m feeling very conflicted about my work.

I work at a juku, also known as a cram school, also known as the place kids go after their nine hours of school are finished to prepare for entrance exams and other important tests. Usually I work at the English conversation section of the school, which just means I teach functional English for speaking and writing, almost entirely in English. Recently, all the teachers have been completely swamped due to entrance exams, so I’ve taken on extra work as well. I’ve been helping third years in junior high school prepare for the English listening and grammar portions of the high school entrance exams. Things are done quite differently in the genuinely juku part of the juku. I was vaguely aware of it before, as I sometimes taught in the same room as some of these classes. I knew about the academy chant, but never used it because we don’t do that shit in Amurrca. At the beginning and end of every class, the students put on these ninja headbands, stand at attention and repeat, “Yareba dekiru! Zettai dekiru! Kanarazu dekiru! Dekinai koto wa nai!” This translates approximately to “Once I’ve done it, I can do it! (not actually so weird-sounding in Japanese) I can absolutely do it! Without fail, I can do it! There is nothing I can’t do!” Since entrance exam season began, they’ve added a new portion to the chant: “Koukou gokaku! Zettai gokaku! Gokaku, gokaku, gokaku!” That means, “High school, success/pass! Absolute success/pass! Success, success, success!” Then all the students bow and sit down. After that, the teacher covers his or her content along with a healthy mixture of encouragement, threats of failure, and even bullying. You know, enough to make them emotionally confused and terrified of failing.

I’ve been experiencing some cognitive dissonance about being involved in this world. On one hand, I have to do my job. On the other, my job is being part of a system I completely disagree with. I have various reasons that I’ll try to break down into points.

1) The tests are stupid and inaccurate measures of ability.
These kids cannot speak a lick of English. Seriously, they can barely tell me their names, yet somehow, they are able to take these tests that use fairly complex grammar and vocabulary. The reason is, you don’t need to know English to take these tests. You just need to know how to take a test. What keywords to listen or look for, things like that. You never need to form any sort of original sentence. Furthermore, the tests, and probably English education in general, fail to present English as having any functional value. The English dialogues and reading samples are obsessed with Japanese culture. Often, they involve explaining Japanese words or customs in English. Why the hell would Toshio and Haruki be speaking English to each other in the first place? A common motif is a Japanese student explaining something to an ignorant foreign ALT, who concludes the conversation by exclaiming that Japan sure is great. Japan is completely obsessed with itself. I thought my boss was being absurd when she asked me to have an English conversation class while translating a tea ceremony, the most Japanese thing possible. Teachers wonder why their students don’t care about learning English. Could it be because they’re teaching them things like how to understand Shinkansen announcements in English? Um, the Japanese announcements come on first. If that’s the only way they know how to make English useful and relatable, it’s no wonder they don’t care.

Remember how when we were young, we found out that standardized tests have a racial and regional bias? Hey, native speakers, check out these real test questions from last year. You’re supposed to choose the picture of the thing they’re talking about.

No. 1
John: Kayoko, it's cute. Did you make it?
Kayoko: Yes, John. We're going on a school trip tomorrow.
John: I hope it will make tomorrow's weather good.
Question: What did Kayoko make?

No. 2
Judy: Akio, what does this kanji mean?
Akio: It means "rice", Judy.
Judy: Oh, does it? That's strange. I thought it was the name of the country.
Akio: Oh, yes. It also means your country.
Question: Which country does the kanji mean?

How did you do? I knew the second one from studying Japanese, but I had no idea about the first one. I still don't know the explanation behind it. The answers are c and a, by the way. Still, these sorts of questions pretty much make it impossible for many immigrants and children of migrant workers to succeed in school. Which relates to my next point of objection.

2) The tests help to keep the rich rich and the poor in their place.

It sounds like a leap, but if one can only do well on these tests by paying a juku, then the kids who get the best educations are limited to the ones who can afford to pay a juku. Thus, those who can’t are screwed.

3) The fact that kids have to take these tests is stupid and pointless.

I can’t speak for the other subjects, but I know the tests do not help them learn English. They do help them lose sleep and occasionally throw themselves off bridges. One reason this system is still holding on is that it’s great for indoctrination. These kids have to spend all their time together studying. During test season, the third years go to the juku from 9-5 every Saturday. But I have to clarify something. While the kids take tests very seriously, they’re still little bastards in the classroom. That stereotype about the disciplined little machines that are Japanese students is really not the case. If anything, the constant studying at cram schools makes their behavior even worse.

Anyway, in January, the kids went for a three day retreat at a mountain lodge… to study from 8 AM to 9 PM. My Japanese tutor was one of the teachers who attended the retreat. When she described it to me, adding that they occasionally took breaks to do arts and crafts, she said, “[It was very fun.]”
“[I see,]” I began in my halting Japanese, “[The kids, did they have fun?]”
“[It was VERY fun]” she reiterated.
At the time, we were looking at the memory board with the blown up group picture from the excursion. The kids were all wearing their ninja headbands and making “yareba dekiru” fists. Each had written a note on the memory board, thanking the teachers for the experience and repeating stock phrases about how they know they can do it if they put their mind to it. Some of those kids will fail. Some of them have already. Not long ago, I had to console two sobbing twelve-year-old girls. My students, the only two taking the entrance exams for junior high school found out they both failed their first exam moments before taking my class. Granted, one of the sobbing girls was not one who had taken the exam. One of the girls, Tomoka, started crying, then another girl in the class began crying hysterically in sympathy. That day when I asked them “How are you,” I taught them, “Not so good.” Twelve-year-olds already have plenty of reasons to cry. They don’t need any more help from these idiotic tests.