Monday, January 28, 2008

Naki Naki Sensei

Sometime I’ll do an entry about dispelling the top misconceptions about Japan. In this entry, I’ll just dispel one; that it is shameful to publicly express any sort of emotion. This idea has its basis in some reality, but the old notion needs a little revision. It’s fine to express emotion, as long as you’re expressing it as a group, at an appropriate time. The Japanese are actually huge fans of group crying. My first experience with large group crying in my life was in the Cedar Rapids airport, saying goodbye to the group of exchange students from Okinawa when I was a sophomore in high school. My school had a sister school in Okinawa, and every year they sent students to do a three-week-long homestay, and every other year my school sent students to do two weeks of homestay plus one week of Japan travel. I had never experienced that, as if on cue, a group of people could simultaneously start sobbing hysterically. But I guess it seemed appropriate, since we never knew if we would meet again.

I would meet them again though, when I did my homestay in Okinawa the following year. There, I witnessed the phenomena again. My high level high school was regularly the home of student teachers doing two week practicums. I was witness to the last day of one of those student English teachers, a small college student who fumbled through flashcards and said all her Rs as Ws. Ryoichi and I quietly scoffed at her incompetence from the back of the room, but as the class was drawing to a close, the main teacher made an announcement, and the girl was called upon to make a speech. She stood in front of the class, her stereotypically feminine voice quavering. She managed to utter only a few words before breaking down in hiccupping tears, covering her mouth with her hands. At the time I couldn’t understand what she said, but within seconds every girl in the class and some of the boys were crying along with her. We took an emotional, red-eyed group picture, and I felt a little embarrassed to witness such a display as an objective outsider. Then I remembered even these students had only known her for two weeks. When our homestay was over, our Okinawan host students accompanied us to the airport, and before parting ways, of course everyone cried and hugged.

At that time I chocked it up to Okinawans being culturally more open than mainlanders. Upon moving here, I found that group crying is an institution at ceremonies of transition or the final anything. And Japan really loves ceremonies. Entrance and graduation ceremonies are revered beginning in pre-school, and while the kids may be too young to be fully indoctrinated, at least the mothers can be counted on to wail hysterically. Even a child going from the three year old class in pre-school to the four year old class is made into a big, symbolic gesture. By the time they’re third years in junior high school, the students know what they’re supposed to do. At Colin’s graduation ceremony, the students were so choked up they were barely able to complete the scripted portion of the program. By the end, men and boys dabbed their damp eyes, the women in kimono had buried their faces in tissues, the female students were completely incapacitated by their weeping. I remember at my middle school graduation, the only person who cried was my friend, Susie. And like the assholes we were, we made fun of her. That’s why we were glad to be getting out of there. Because middle schoolers are assholes.

This institutional permission to completely break down publicly at appropriate times has contributed to a distinctive brand of tear-jerkers in film. I never watch these movies, but I see their trailers. The score usually involves quivering strings or something equally sad, and the climax of the trailer features a montage of a variety of characters, both men and women, in varying stages of anguish, with tears pouring down their faces. They’re always called something like “Naki Naki Namida”, ([“Cry Cry Tears”]) or “The Tears of Spring”, or something similarly obvious. I’m annoyed by films that so bluntly tell me how I’m supposed to feel. It’s manipulative, and it takes away from my agency as a viewer. Generally such films in America are mocked by any moderately discriminating viewer. But here, they have a function. They allow you to cry for all the sadness of the world, but at a socially appropriate time. It’s as if the montage of crying people is part of the advertisement. Look how many times you’ll get to cry.

My last day at the pre-school was wrenching. It was the day of the Christmas English presentation, and I was not only stressed out in the way that you get when you’re organizing an event involving dozens of small children, I knew it was the last time I would see any of these kids. I was acting as the emcee, dressed up in a Christmas tree costume, complete with a giant, ridiculous star bonnet. Yoshiko informed me that after the main program, she would announce that this would be my last day, and I was to make a speech. I was well aware of the convention of people, particularly women, bursting into tears on such occasions. I knew that they did this by habit or ritual, or because it was socially expected. This didn’t comfort me.

What happened with my job was sudden and devastating, and the worst thing about it was that I was losing my students, without the benefit of warning or closure. Of course as the emcee, I had to be incredibly silly and energetic. Occasionally during the downtime of my gaijin minstrel show, I would be seized by emotion, and my eyes would begin to well up. A couple times a kid or parent caught me doing this, and looked perplexed. I was a mess. If I could barely keep up my composure to do my job, I knew I was going to completely lose it during the speech.

When the presentations were over and the kids had all received their gifts from Santa, Yoshiko announced the “unfortunate news”. She handed me the microphone, and I said, in a far more somber tone than I had been using as the emcee, “Gomennasai. Nihongo ga amari shaberemasen kedo, kodomo-tachi ni, hoikuen-tachi ni, [I’m sorry. I can’t really speak Japanese but, to the students, to the people of the pre-school,] thank you very much,” I was already choking up majorly. “I don’t want to go.” I turned the mike off and practically threw it back at Yoshiko and turned around, hiding my face that was beginning to gush with tears, supporting myself on the cubby holes as my entire body racked with the sobs I didn’t want to release. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t control myself, that they had to see that. The combination of being shocked and angry about my job, uncertain about my future, and losing one of the few things I enjoy in life led to me being completely distraught in front of the kids and their parents. The younger ones didn’t know what was going on, but I could see the older ones understood. Before the parents left, I sat on the floor, hugged kids, and took teary pictures and it was obvious to everyone that I was coming apart at the seams, that it took everything I had to hold myself in the barely presentable state that I was in.

As we were packing up all our materials to go home, Yoshiko approached me with tears in her eyes, and said, “Your speech, very nice.” I didn’t give a speech so much as I gave a spectacle. And apparently it was a very satisfying one to the parents. On their surveys, parents wrote things like, “[Cassie-sensei’s tears show that she holds the children precious.]” I do, but there was a lot more behind my embarrassing display than that. I wanted to rip those tears out of Yoshiko’s eyes. She thought she was sharing in some nice, emotional moment, but she was the one who did this to me, and I hated her for it. She was part of the bundle of hurt that led me to break down like that. I wasn’t crying just to satisfy her stupid social conventions. I guess that makes me a relentless individualist, convinced that my feelings are somehow special and different. Maybe I should have thought of that time as an opportunity to cry for all the sadness of the world.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Iowa Caucus (I was there)

Let's take a little break from the despair of my Japan situation and talk about something the whole world is watching. Or at least the American expats of the world. Or just America. Okay, Iowa. Colin and I have been visiting for the holidays, and honestly, America has felt really nice. I'm such a real, bona fide human being here that I can even participate in the democratic process. Since I've been back, Iowa has been alive with caucus fever. We're just stupid little Iowa, but all the candidates were here paying attention to us, speaking directly to us, needing us, and the national media was covering it. I could actually be part of something significant.

I can't imagine anything like a caucus in Japan. It's hard to believe that it's still around in America. It involves publicly declaring your political opinion, counting bodies, not ballots, and having an open discourse to try to get people to come to your side. That is some crazy, old-fashioned democracy, but I kind of like it. The address on my U.S. driver's license is just outside of city limits, so my caucus location was a little town hall way out in the boonies. The building capacity was around forty-five people, but 270 showed up. You could barely move in the place, it was so packed with farmers and small-town Iowans. An old lady fainted. There was also a big stripey caucus cat wandering around, and I carried it to the Obama corner when it was time to pick sides. The first body count showed Obama in a definite lead, followed by Edwards and Clinton. Since the Kucinich, Richardson, and Biden groups had less than forty-one people each (15%), they either had to join a viable group or merge together under one previously nonviable candidate to make it over forty-one. The Kucinich supporters were almost immediately absorbed into Obama, and a couple Biden and Richardson people tried to rally the others to pick one and form a group. One man explained to the room that they were aware that neither of these candidates would win, but it would just be a nice statement to show that they had some support in Iowa. The man was immediately met by booing and jeering from mainly the Edwards and Clinton groups. An Edwards supporter shouted, "Are you here to vote, or to make a philosophical statement?" After the nonviable people either chose groups or stayed undecided, we worked on the final count. There were sixty-six for Clinton, eighty-eight for Edwards, and 112 for Obama. Here's where it gets a little complicated. The votes are actually determined by a ratio of bodies to delegates. In other words, 112 people is not 112 votes. It's rounded down to three delegates (chosen from that body) who can go on to vote for Obama at the convention in Des Moines. Edwards was rounded up to three delegates, and Clinton got two.

It was interesting to recognize people at my caucus location. I saw my high school humanities teacher with Edwards, the boy who was my main tormenter in middle school looking tall and skeezy in the Clinton corner. I caught a glimpse of a high school friend, just back from Iraq and in the Obama group. Most of the people I recognized from high school were with Obama. My sister's caucus location was a different story. She lives downtown, with bad neighborhoods about a block away in any direction from her house. Her turnout was about half the amount of my small-town, farmy location. She said the Clinton group was really obnoxious, and as soon as the undecideds/nonviables were identified, the other groups swarmed them, trying to scream at them and insult them into their group. One woman, who was a caucus observer, not a participant, began shouting, "Look! Someone in the Obama group just gave that woman fudge! They're trying to bribe her! That's illegal!" In the end, Clinton had the most people, followed by Obama and Edwards, but because of the ratio the delegate distribution was two to Clinton, two to Obama, and one to Edwards. A woman who volunteered to be a delegate to Obama explained her position by saying, "I'm a woman, so I could just as easily go for Hillary, but my kid's half black, so I think I'll go for Obama." Luckily, she wasn't chosen. But let that be a warning to all of you. If you don't vote, people like that woman are deciding for you.

Since being back, I've been getting back in touch with the climate and the sense of need here. There are a lot of things that are really fucked up. Honestly, I'm scared to move back because of the costs of healthcare. I had my blood drawn today, and after giving the nurse my information, she sent a paper across the counter:
"We need you to sign this release. Wellmark will only pay for this test if it turns out you have cancer, so if it comes up negative you have to cover the costs."
I read over the paper and said, "Um, I don't think I have cancer. Do I really need this?"
"Yeah, but your doctor thinks you should do this test."
I asked her the cost, and reluctantly signed the release. So if I don't have cancer, I get an eighty dollar bill. If I do have cancer, I have to pay for CANCER. Isn't American healthcare fun?

Anyway, I'm an activist, and America has a lot of room for improvement. Japan doesn't need me. It doesn't really even want me. I loved teaching, and I loved my students, but now I'm just one person with no Japanese institution to back me up, and the people I thought I could trust have turned on me. If Japan is based on your context within society, your social connections, then Japan can be a really, really nasty place. The nail that sticks out gets pounded down. I thought maybe that adage was out of date, but once I've become the nail, I think I get it. I'm stubborn, I'm a fighter, and I have a strong sense of justice. I didn't want to leave Japan defeated and with such bitterness in my heart. But Yoshiko's network of influence is much stronger than I can ever be. Maybe Japan is just telling me to get the fuck out. I want to resolve this. I don't want to leave hating Japan. Hopefully I can eventually work things out and find a place again in a country that needs me.