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.


Blogger Claytonian said...

Does this mean I'm Japanese (I cry if other people are doing it)?

11:33 PM  
Blogger archipelagic said...

Nope. You still have a few things going against you in the Japanese-ness department, and Miracle Whip is still disgusting as a salad dressing. Though the fact that you would consider it as such is an argument FOR your Japanese-ness.

12:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your essay. My words fail me when I look at your writing. It is a joy to read. It makes me want more and more of your writing. That's what makes best sellers...when people can't get enough of you. Keep writing Sweetie!

Lots of love, Mom

1:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, what Mom says.

3:08 AM  
Blogger janamarie said...

i may be a pretty fresh gaijin in these waters, but i've been here long enough to know that your commentary on psychological japan is nothing less than absolutely incisive. and hilariously so.

4:33 PM  

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