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Friday, July 17, 2009

Magic Carpet Ride

On the third day of our (dis)orientation in Tokyo and after lunch, all the AETs (Assistant English Teachers) met again in the hotel’s meeting room before separating us by prefecture (province) for bus or plane rides to our specific destinations.
While I didn’t get to say goodbye to Kristine South who was off to live in Shiga-ken about five hours away by Shinkansen (bullet train), rest assured that she’ll be back in this BLOG.
We waited outside for the bus to take us to our prefecture – but the heat! We were all dressed to the nines in anticipation of meeting our bosses – I was wearing a then-fashionable double-breasted suit and tie – and began sweating as soon as stepped from the air-conditioned comfort of the hotel. In fact, I don’t think I was dry for my entire stay in Japan.
Ashley chatted beside me on the nondescript 1-1/2 hour ride north to Tochigi-ken’s capital city of Utsonomiya. After meeting the Prefecture's education big wigs, they called our names out one by one, and were quickly introduced to the people who would essentially be responsible for our welfare over the next year, or should we/they wish us to stay longer, a second and third year.
During our initiation back in Toronto, we had been told that the Japanese could be a tad xenophobic. So, it was with even greater fear and trepidation as a visible minority involved in the JET Programme that I stood up and walked to the front when my name was called. Let me get one thing straight with you all… I don’t see myself as a minority. I see myself as Andrew.
Mr. Hiroshi Hanazaki and Mr. Masahiro Kanemaru were my supervisors. Both of the men were about as old as I am now at the time of this Blog – 44, and seemed like very mature people.
After we all bowed to each other, I repeated a phrase I was told to say: dozo yoroshiku onegai shi masu (please take care of me). More bowing occurred as I said it. It was kind of cool.
Hanazaki-san and Kanemaru-san (the Japanese call each other by their surname, adding the word san after it, denoting Mr/Mrs/Ms) were office workers at the Ohtawara Kyoiku Iinkai (Ohtawara Board of Education) – a place that I was told I would spend each Friday. It was expected that I would teach the workers there English. Monday through Thursday I would be an assistant English teacher at one of seven junior high schools in Ohtawara City, visiting one school per week.
While the students also went to school a half day on Saturday, I was not expected to teach, as they realized that the non-Japanese were lazy buggers and needed two days off per week. It’s difficult to argue with logic.
In the hour-long drive up north from Utsonomiya to Ohtawara, my two supervisors - though not the driver - began to chat with me. Hanazaki-san spoke pretty decent English and immediately cracked me up with a dirty joke.
Kanemaru-san chained smoked and was quiet. Too quiet, it seemed, as he looked severe and often glared at me. It figured to be a long year if this guy was going to be my boss.
But then, it all turned on a ten-yen coin. Kanemaru-san pulled out a Japanese-English dictionary and sidled close to me and between puffs of his cigarette began to speak looked-up-English-word by looked-up-English-word. Five painful minutes later, it was over and Kanemaru-san had told his first ever joke in English.
Because of me.
How can you not like a guy who tries to do something like that? It beats me how they knew that I liked a good joke – or a bad joke even. Sure the jokes lost a little bit in the translation, but I sure as heck appreciated the effort.
Most of the trip was a complete blur. I occasionally glanced out the window to peer at the tiny white cars speeding by us on the Tohoku Expressway. Mile after mile (kilometre after kilometre) we passed rice field after rice field. I once again wondered what the hell I was doing here.
That feeling never did leave me throughout my wonderful stay in Japan. The blurriness, I mean. I think I needed new contact lenses.
After Kanemaru’s initial jodan (joke) that had me howling in pain thanks to his love of back-slapping, the man was a non-stop joke-machine. Maybe that’s why it was such a blur. He slapped me so hard my contacts fell out.
We finally pulled off the highway and drove by a score more rice fields and according to Hanazaki-san were approaching Ohtawara.
Oh-ta-wara (Big-rice field-field) City. The city so rural they had to call it a field twice.
Rather than bore you, click here to learn a bit more about Tochigi-ken, and click here to learn more about Ohtawara. Let me just say that when I was there in 1990 – 1993, the city barely had 50,000 people. There was no McDonald’s or KFC (back then, it was still called Kentucky Fried Chicken, ya youngins!), but there were plenty of bike shops, restaurants, something called a Mosburger and plenty of other surprises that I’ll reveal here.
“Zuiko Haitsu!” exclaimed Hanazaki-san like I knew what the heck he was talking about as the van pulled up to a parking lot in front of an apartment building. Apparently this fancy place had a name. Its nickname was Zuiko Mansion. Okaaaaay. This place had almost as many names as me.
Grabbing my seven (yes, seven) pieces of luggage – including an electric keyboard, a clarinet and at least one change of underwear (it cost my dad an extra $400 to get the stuff on the airline!), we decided not to take the elevator and dragged my stuff up the stairs to apartment 307 on the third floor of the eight-story white building.
Having never lived in anything higher than my parent’s basement in over a decade, the thin air took some getting used to.
The apartment jutted out as a wing meaning I had no neighbours beside me, just one above and one below.
Expecting to see hunchbacked mice in my new tiny apartment – according to those in the know (???), Japan is crowded and everyone has a tiny living space – I grabbed a breath while I could, as Hanazaki-san gave me a door key and bade me to open it.
Unlocking the door, they pushed me in. Taking a few steps forward, the three of them immediately began screaming at me – oh crap, I thought. They really do hate foreigners here – they’re going to kill me!
Slowly I turned and stared blankly at the ever-smiling face of Hanazaki-san, and the ever-smoking visage of Kanemaru-san, and the bespectacled face of the driver whose name I never managed to learn even though we “worked” together for three years. I know, I know. Pathetic.
Apparently upon entering any Japanese home, whether it’s guest or resident, one is expected to take off their dirty shoes and slip into something more uncomfortable – plastic slippers that are always neatly placed facing inwards to the home by the side of the door.
As you may or may not know, the Japanese as a whole are not described as being overly big people. Hanazaki-san and Kanemaru-san were both about 5’-8” (I think as tall as Gasoline!), while I was a towering 5’-11.25”). As a smaller race, they tend not to sell shoes in Japan larger than a men’s size 9 – or what they call a size 26cm. I’m a size 10-1/2 aka 30cm foot – which makes me sound a lot bigger elsewhere, if you know what I mean.
There were two sets of slippers laid out for me - one pair of baby blues and the other in cotton candy pink.
So there we were: two sets of slippers and two Japanese supervisors, a big-foot Canadian and a driver of indeterminate name and rank in the apartment.
Who would have to wear the pink slippers and who would dare go without? Believe it or not, I wore the blue slippers – jammed’em in tight - two of the Nihonjin (Japanese people) brought their own – pulled them out from the inside pocket of their jacket – while Kanemaru-san began taking off his socks after first slapping his forehead in disgust and swearing at what I assume was himself. He also lit up another cigarette – Golden Bat, I believe. At least it smelled like bat.
No one put on the pink ones. I like these guys already.
They all took turns showing me how to put on the tiny slippers – uh, there’s no real Japanese secret to that. I think that after my initial gaffe they thought I might be a tad slow. I skated (thereby affirming my tetched-in-the-head-ness) past the bathroom area immediately to my right and along a 4-metre hallway into an enormous living room/dining room/kitchen open concept area that was easily 10m deep by 5m wide.
At the end of it was a sliding door leading out to a full-sized balcony (facing north). Alongside the hallway on the left there was a 4m x 4m bedroom that had a small walk-in closet, a writing desk and chair and another balcony (facing west). A second bedroom beside it and accessed through the l/d/k was the designated bedroom, and a third larger 5m x 5m room that contained what can only be described as a turn-of-the-century German mahogany clothes drawer/liquor cabinet. At least that’s how I used it.
Even though I have no idea what a metre is, I’m pretty sure that this was a really big apartment. I wondered how the other AETs had fared?
All of the rooms were carpeted in a thin, ugly green ply, while each individual room had real doors on them save the middle room which was laid with tatami (grass floor mats) and had authentic Japanese sliding doors complete with a beautiful hand-painted landscape on it.
The kitchen area had a nice stove – but no oven, a fridge small enough to satisfy a Brit (1m high), a deep sink, lots of shelf space, and a convection oven with buttons to heat up one cup of sake (rice wine), two cups of sake, or god help us all, three cups of sake. There were also separate buttons for warming milk, and for cooking various weights of meat, including beef, veal, pork, chicken, and I kid you not, goat.
The dining room consisted of a four-seater pine table and chairs and a China hutch (actually a Japan hutch according to two-pack Kanemaru-san) that was filled with four sets of dishware and flatware, as well as various cups and mugs, spices and a tin of Twinings of London Earl Grey tea.
Hanazaki-san opened up some of the cabinets beside the fridge under the ample counter space and proudly showed me the cooking implements, including what Kanemaru-san’s dictionary said was a rice cooker – since we were men, none of us had actually ever cooked a meal, so the cookware was a bit of a mystery for us, although I was able to correctly point out a frying pan.
As an aside, Hanazaki-san promised to send an office girl or three around to show me how to use the cooking utensils. He did and they did the very next day, but he failed to send one who could speak English or one with a Japanese-English dictionary. I never did learn how to use a rice cooker. Nineteen years later, I still have no clue.
The living room contained a three-seat couch and an armchair that were both covered in a soft, luxurious but ugly, moss green fabric. Along with a 24-inch television on a small stand, a 2m-long marble-top table and a book case with a faded olive green dialer telephone, there was also something called a kotatsu (a 30-cm tall, wood table frame covered by a futon or heavy blanket, upon which a table top sits. As an added bonus, the table can be plugged in to act as a heater with the blanket capturing the heat).
The walls of the apartment were covered in white wallpaper with a light, light, light blue floral pattern that looked nice and not too feminine.
Each room had a 10-foot high ceiling - I hate the Metric system – and had more than its fair share of fluorescent lighting.
Drapes covered every floor-to-ceiling door/window in the place – except for the tatami/bedroom which had a pair of non-decorated Japanese sliding rice paper windows that covered up the 8’-wide x 1’-high window.
There. Hopefully you get a pretty good idea of how the Ohtawara Board of Education (OBOE) set me up. The OBOE (I only JUST came up with that acronym) rented out the place from their own budget, and really wanted to impress on me on how much they wanted me to enjoy my stay in Japan. If I was to compare my situation with any other AET in Tochigi-ken or even Japan, I might actually have had the largest apartment with the most Western amenities.
Oh… and much to the chagrin of one Jeff Seaman, my bathroom came with a Western-style toilet.
I also had a washer/dryer machine – an important luxury in a country with 200% humidity – as well as a shower. There was also a small gas heater that I had to turn on if I wanted hot water.
The toilet room – a 1m x 1m cubicle – also came with its own set of slippers – dark green ones with little cartoony frogs sitting on lily pads. Apparently they are only supposed to be worn in the toilet room and woe to the person that doesn’t wear them.
No offense to Hanazaki-san or Kanemaru-san or to the people of Japan, I never wore any of the slippers ever again in my place. Worse yet, I encouraged others not to as well.
By the way, my hosts had hung a banner across the living room: Welcome to Japan Mr. Andrew Joseph.
They had spelled it right and got the order of my name correct, too. Something that doesn’t happen often enough back in Canada.
Hanazaki-san then pointed to a large black and white map hung on the wall above the telephone. Strangely enough, everything was in English, so even I might be able to understand it. Showing me a small photo in his wallet, Hanazaki told me that the map was drawn by my predecessor Cheryl Menezes, an English woman of Indian descent.
I didn’t think it odd for them to have chosen another person of colour to be an AET. I thought it was pretty cool, actually.
Just then, the telephone rang. Picking it up and saying 'Moshi Moshi' (hello – for use on the telephone only), Hanazaki-san handed the phone to me.
Monkey see, monkey do, I said Moshi just once; a fact that elicited laughter from everyone in my apartment including the person on the phone but me. Moshi means insect. So, if you say it twice, shouldn’t it mean insect-insect? Or is that exactly what it’s supposed to mean: "Sorry to bug you…"
On the other end of the phone, it was Cheryl wishing me good luck in my stay in Ohtawara. She told me to have fun, because that’s what it’s all about. Life, that is. That and the Hokey-Pokey.
After taking her phone number – she was back home in the UK – I slapped my two friends on the back and said domo arigato (thank you very much). In the process I dislodged Kanemaru-san’s cigarette onto the floor.
And that’s how I got a new blue carpet.

Somewhere having to cut those slippers off my toe-jammed feet,
Today's title is by Steppenwolf.

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