Monday, December 22, 2008

Still Japan-Awkward

It’s been five months since I’ve been back, and I still have weird mannerisms left over from Japan. When I gesture to my kids, I still unconsciously use the palm-down “come here”, and the Japanese way of showing numbers with my fingers. I bow slightly to people I pass in the halls at work. I say “I’m sorry” all the time, which has a very different meaning than “sumimasen” in Japanese. “Sumimasen”, which I think literally means “It is not finished”, meaning “I am indebted to you”, is used for “excuse me”, “I’m sorry”, and sometimes “thank you”. For instance, I got in the habit of saying “sumimasen” to servers at restaurants if it seemed to me like they’d gone out of their way to give me something. In English, I translate all these unique situations as “I’m sorry”, and now I’m apologizing for everything. When I want to get someone’s attention, I apologize. If someone does something nice for me, I apologize. It’s really awkward, and it probably just comes off like I have no self-esteem. You’re supposed to be confident in America, if someone does you a favor, you don’t have to be embarrassed, you’re supposed to just smile and say thank you like you deserved it. These are things I still have problems with.

Another thing I struggle with is interacting with parents/guardians of my students. For a long time, I was overly smiley and deferential, and I noticed that other staff-members were casual and not terribly smiley, and the parents responded better to that. In actuality, we’re providing them with a service, and most of them don’t pay for it, so it’s not like we need to kiss their ass or anything. Still, just a couple days ago I was meeting the parents of a registering student, and the giant smile and slight, spasmodic bows took over. They were Somali, so maybe they didn’t notice too much. Maybe they thought I was foreign too.

Despite this lingering impact Japan still has on me, when I think about my life there, I’m filled with different conflicting emotions ranging from relief to anger to regret. My work-life here isn’t filled with the constant guilt and torment, I don’t have to plan for a spectacular presentation for the parents that will have no relevance on anything, and I don’t have to look so BUSY BUSY OMG I’M SO BUSY all the time. I think about how about this time of year people would be having their bonenkai, or end-of-the-year parties, for their work. And then I remember how I never got to go to a single enkai, how I wasn’t even invited to my company’s first bonenkai because my boss wanted me to cover a class for her because canceling for the company party would be so out of the question, and I get fucking pissed. I can’t let go of the idea that because I put up with a shitty work situation for so long, I missed out. I missed out on regular work and hours, a living wage, on actually becoming more fluent in Japanese. By staying in the countryside, I missed out on an urban Japanese life. But it’s all old news, it’s in the past, it’s water under the fucking bridge, so why can’t I let go? A while ago, I thought it was forgotten, but in some ways Japan just clings to me.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lies my students tell me

Lying was one of those behaviors related to poverty that was discussed in the orientation months ago. The kids make stuff up constantly, ranging from little things to inventing elaborate tall tales. There’s a lot of chicanery surrounding snack time, because the kids are always trying to figure out how to get more food. I spend a good portion of my time at the program sounding out phonetically spelled words on flashcards, but I also hear some stories.

NOTE: As a Japan blogger, I was a little lax with pseudonyms, because most Japanese people in my life hardly ever used the internet, and even if they found my blog, they wouldn’t understand it. I generally only had pseudonyms for people I talked a lot of shit about, and sometimes for kids. Now that I’m in America, I have to be a lot more careful, so if I’m talking about kids or anyone associated with my work, I’m definitely using pseudonyms. If there’s an issue that’s particularly sensitive, I won’t even identify the person with a pseudonym, lest that make them more identifiable. Anyway, let’s get to my lying kids.

I was going through flashcards with Yusuf, and we were sounding out the word “pet”. I asked him if he had any pets, even though I knew his family and was pretty sure he didn’t.

Yusuf: Yes, I just got a boy cat.

Me: Really? What’s his name?

Yusuf: (looking at his shirt) Uhhh, I call him Batman.

After reading a short passage about a lost cat with a red tag, I asked Halima if she had any pets.

Halima: I used to have a dog, her name was Oranges and we had to make a tag for her because she was on shows and sometimes she got lost, and she was the color orange, and now you can see her in shows, she’s on the TV, on shows, and no, I don’t have a dog. I hate dogs. They’re nasty.

Little girl: My mom’s taking me to the Mall of America this weekend.

This girl’s mom was in jail at the time, and had been for a while.

Haley and I came across the word “wept” in our flashcards, and she asked me what it meant. I explained to her what it meant to “weep”, and how “wept” is the past tense, but not in those words because she doesn’t know “past tense”.

Haley: So like I wept when my grandparents died?

Me: Yes! That’s exactly right. That’s a good example.

Haley: They both had guns, grandma had a gun and grandpa had a gun, and they were really mad, and they were shooting and shooting, and they ended up shooting each other and they both died!

Me: Wow. When did that happen?

Haley: Four-hundred-ninety-eight years ago.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Rambling about work-related things

Twice a week I head downtown during the morning commute for my internship at a human rights nonprofit. Downtown at 9 AM is a completely different world than anything I'm used to. As I walk the few blocks from the bus stop to the high-rise where I work, I pass by people pulling their SUVs into parking garages that charge at least eleven bucks a day, and imagine how they must have commuted from Edina or St. Louis Park. So many people in suits and business attire, and I wonder, what the hell do these people do? They must be part of that miscellaneous business world I always hear about in my alumni newsletters that give me advice about career-building and reference things like company stock profiles, regional training sessions, and presenting projects to a board of directors, and it always sounds so mysterious to me. These suits walking around, are they lawyers? Are they marketing executives? Do they work for Target's corporate headquarters? I see groups of men not much older than me walking briskly down the street, looking all date-rapey with their gelled hair and fancy shoes, and I overhear bits of conversation about heading to some random Irish-themed yuppy bar on the corner for happy hour. It's a world that is totally alien to me.

Where I actually work, though, is different. Even though the staff is predominantly made up of lawyers, people wear whatever they feel like, which ranges from business casual to jeans and a sweater. My real, paying work place is similarly casual, and for a while I found this shocking, because Japan is so formal (remember, it's rude not to wear makeup). I worked with mostly kids, often little kids, often in their homes, but there was only one time I wore jeans to a class, totally by accident because I got almost the whole way to the class before realizing that I'd forgotten to change. When I looked down and noticed I was still wearing my jeans, it felt as if I'd forgotten to put on pants, and I was half naked. I even apologized to my student's mother and offered an explanation, which was totally not necessary. I started watching 30 Rock since I've been back, and I still can't get over how Liz Lemon works for NBC but can wear jeans and hoodies to her job.

By the way, I am so done with internships. They always look like they'll be really cool in the description, but it's just unpaid entry-level labor. If you have a personality like mine, which is to quietly and obediently do your assigned work rather than schmoozing and being a go-getter, internships of this sort do not lead to jobs. It possibly leads to references and definitely something to put on your resume, but I have a LOT of shit like this on my resume. If I wanted a job in this area, I'd either have to go to law school (PUKE) or get some other degree in something like nonprofit management so I can work in fundraising and PR (BOOOOOO).

Also, so much of the human rights community is based on pushing their respective nations to sign whatever human rights treaty put forth by the UN, but these treaties are largely symbolic. There are treaties that are legally binding and those that are nonbinding, but in their implementation, there's basically no difference. For example, the US hasn't signed onto the Convention on the Rights of Women, but places like Egypt have, and I don't think Egypt has such a good record with women's rights. I've been working on a disability rights toolkit here, and of course I'd like the government to sign onto the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But really, it's just because it would be a nice idea, because even though the rights of PWD are universally way behind, the US has a comparatively good record, and the convention doesn't add much to US legislation on the issue, and the stuff that it does add, the US would basically ignore because it smells too much like socialism. So I don't know how I feel about the pushing legislation part of human rights work, but there's a lot of grassroots level work around the work that really helps. I just don't know how to get involved with that.