Friday, June 29, 2012

Rabbits, Frogs, and Horses, and there's something in my eye

RABBITSU feeding time at elementary.
As you teach multiple levels of joined schools for long enough, two excellent perks arise naturally. One is finding siblings scattered amongst the year levels. It's always fun to find older and younger brothers or sisters of that student you love (or love to hate), and watch the ways they are different, and alike (some kids share facial features but not personality traits. Others show persistent strains of behavior...).The other excellent perk is class personality.

I know that in this blog I have on occasion bombastically decried one class group or another as 'awful' or perhaps worse. And maybe it's just the end-of-term blue tint that's coming over the whole thing, but I'd like to set the record straight: none of the classes are awful. Some of them are extra good. Some of them work really hard and listen to you, and you actually do teach them things. Other groups are too energetic to have time for learning, and so just spend their classtime not-learning and having a good time of that (and they'll take you along into that if you let them). So in my head I've started to categorize them loosely into "studious" classes, and "fun" classes. I love them for different reasons, in different ways, and sometimes on different days.

But anyway, it's the "frogs" and the "horses" killing me lately. The frogs (zodiac animal being oxen, same as me) were in 6th grade when I arrived. I've talked about them a lot because I've loved them for a long time now. They are the 3nens now, the eldest class in the middle school, goofier and sharper than ever before. Having seen them be leaders in their elementary schools (kinda) as 6th graders, and now seeing them grow into leaders in their JHS, I am more familiar with them than almost any class. They're maybe more on the 'fun' side of the spectrum when it comes to class behavior, but their spirit makes me happy to the point that I don't care. They also tend to channel that energy into not being afraid to talk to me. It's just cause I been around so long, I know, but it's nice.

The horses are now in the 4th grade, but they were 1st graders when I arrived. Those tiny cute minipeople have turned into kids with actual personalities and a great presence I think is uncommon for kids their age. The funny thing is, this is so at both separate elementary schools. At the bigger elementary, the 4th grade horses are sandwiched between the sheep below them (who I casually tend to think of as joyfully 'having rabies,' because they are perhaps the most 'fun' class I have) and the 5th grade snakes above them, some of whom border on being belligerent. But this sandwich effect always made for a sigh of relief when I saw their grade on my schedule amidst what promised to be a chaotic storm of the other grades. Every class is kind of hit or miss, but with the horses everything is a big hit.

Watching these 'horses' at recess reminds me of how long I really have been here. Kids grow, things change, and there was a time to come here, and there is a time to leave. That time is approaching.

Remember this kid? See here.

Now she gives piggy-back rides to the smaller ones.

I keep thinking about my farewell speech and putting off the writing of it. It's just going to turn into a love letter to the whole school, and I know it, and it embarrasses me a little bit, to think of having someone check it over for me and stuff, make sure the grammar is right before I stand and attempt to deliver. I guess it shouldn't, I guess really it's okay that at the end of these three years, even though I want to want to leave them with some bit of wisdom about cultural identity and international exchange, all I'm going to be able to get up there and say is I love you. Cause that's just kind of how I roll; sentimental n' shit. ^_^

Monday, June 25, 2012

I have never much liked standardized tests, though their role in my life has been at times rather fruitful.

I have a tendency to face challenges with a sort of myopic inelegance: things that get fixed into the schedule, like presentations, tests, evaluations.. they tend to absorb an inordinate amount of emotional energy which I sometimes resent. This is the root of my love/hate relationship to any "important" event that comes up. We can take a kempo tournament as example, but I assure you it's not limited to participation in stuff like that.

So a tournament is great for me in that it gets me back into practice, gives me something to work on and strive for. I have learned a whole lot this month in preparing for my test and two taikai that I know I would not have absorbed so rapidly without the necessity implied by the looming events. The downside is that it kind of prevented me from doing a lot of other things, because I couldn't really afford the time and energy to all that non-necessary stuff. And that's fine for a while! I don't resent my recent kempo engagements the way I would resent the JLPT were I taking it soon.

There is another effect, that is the sense of emptiness that naturally accompanies the end of any long-term or middle-term seeking. I've found that after finishing up any consuming endeavor (especially in a successful way), I'm kind of sad. Like when you're reading a huge freaking tome of a novel and you wonder if you will ever finish it.. but once you do... you kind of miss it in an odd way? I get attached to these time demands and do feel a loss when they go, even as I complain about them when they're mine.

Because it all depends on the time and place. I want to make the most of my time in Japan, which I am every day aware is a dwindling resource. Someone asked me if I were taking the upcoming JLPT, and in my head the idea of taking it here, now, soon was downright unthinkable. Studying for something like that would probably absorb not only my time but also produce a nice amount of stress. At the start of my time here, I thought I might at some point take that test, and I do still hope to, but I feel like I'll have plenty of time for studying and test-taking once I am re-installed in a life more ordinary and less full of this whole thing that smacks of once in a lifetime.

Standardized tests are mostly in my view a somewhat necessary evil. I hate them, I hate them a great deal. BUT I understand that in a world where we don't have time to evaluate every single person based on their entire potential, we have to have baselines. Also I would be a little bit of an ingrate if I did not acknowledge that standardized tests have been an agent of good in my own life as well (they gave me lots of free reading time when I was in school, and they gave me a job for a while once I was out).

I made a similar decision regarding the GRE when I was a senior in college. I knew that for getting into grad school, I would have to take the GRE in the first semester of senior year. That's just how it works, that's when you take it, mostly. But that was the semester I was studying abroad in Rome, and I looked that idea right in the eye and said, ef you sir, I would rather wait a whole year than spend a moment of my time living in Rome, Italy studying for or taking the GRE.

I handled it in Kansas instead, because I had the time for it there. In Kansas I wasn't getting special access to ancient ruins twice a week,or soaking up the presence of a disproportionately awesome entire-building-full of classics people. Instead I was living hand-to-mouth and hanging out sometimes with the like four friends I had, enough of whom were in grad school and super busy on their own. And then all kinds of great stuff happened because guess what kind of demand there is for a GRE teacher in a college town?

So it's sort of funny. That part of the reason I was in Kansas for that year (and not in grad school) was because of the choice NOT to take the GRE until after graduation. And while there, the GRE helped put food in our fridge and snazzy secondhand sandals on my feet. (The other part of the reason for being in Kansas was the Italian postal service's unreliability issues... or destiny.)

I guess all I'm rambling about is the idea that sometimes, there are things you can only do where you are right now. And so it's natural that those things get priority. I don't so much mind kempo having taken over the month of June because my Japan kempo dojo experience has grown to be a big part of the last two years, and was even an element of why I stayed this third year. When I think of not being surrounded once a week by these kempo folk, I sort of get choked up. Working on this stuff with these people is part of what I will soon lose. That impersonal monolith of a standardized test is not.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Wrecks and Unwrecks

So lately I've just been doing a lot of chilling and grilling.
Okay not that at all. I have no idea.
Things are just in a holding pattern. It's why I haven't written anything new in a long time. The days are much like the week before.
Except, maybe not at all.

After I got my black belt, I was in a tournament. Being in the tournament felt a lot more like a coming-of-age than the actual test. For the test I was kind of a nervous ball of wreckness, but the tournament was pretty awesome. I got to wear the special uniform over my gi, and where last year I was in like an event and a half in our city taikai, this year I was in four things!

Two were just like the things I had done last year, by-yourself kind of kata, and group kata. The special things were that during the opening, just after the warm up and before any of the actual taikai competition style events, I got to present the 'mohan embu.' I don't quite know what that means, except someone explained it's like an example form, a presentation to be a sort of example for the kids and perhaps the others present. Basically an exhibition by black belts to kick things off. For this embu, we just re-did the kumi embu (paired form... so like we have these moves memorized and go through a sort of choreographed pattern of attack and defense) that I had to do for the test. It was fun as hell. Like, doing that for show and not for testing purposes, moving through it more fluidly, it changed the way I do paired embu.

The other thing I got to do this time was fighting, which was also awesome, if a little scary in the moment. Beforehand, I hardly gave a thought to the fighting; it was not something you could prepare for, it was going to be a reaction thing, catch as catch can. It was going to be the high school boy that rides the same bus. He was strong. Too strong for me. I won, I think, the match, but in a real fight, I would have lost pretty hard. He was nervous, and it made him less in control. I broke a toe and got some astonishing bruises on my forearms.

 Since then, the kempo trajectory has changed to focus on the Hyogo prefectural tournament, coming up on the 24th. It's going to be another paired embu set, but after furiously memorizing everything I could for the test, the techniques I have to learn aren't so far from me, and after doing that mohan embu I'm way less freaked out by the idea of doing embu as a presentation. So I've really tried to focus on working with my partner to help her feel the same way. To feel the timing, the give and take of distance, the naturalness of the motions. I used to sometimes skip kempo if I was tired or didn't feel like going, but lately I've been going whenever possible, in preparation for these trifecta of stuff (testing, then citywide taikai, now prefectural taikai).
So there is that.

In the meantime, work continues apace, trying to plan out an arc of what I want to do and where I want to land, elementary-school wise by the end of the semester (and the end of my work here). Keeping up with the middle school shuffling and observation days and games and demonstrations.

Spend the kempo evenings enjoying kempo and the non-kempo evenings doing random things like firefly hunting, or consuming TV shows/books/other media.

I've also discovered a website called unfuck your habitat, which is pretty nice, and I've spent some time over the last week or so gently trying to clean things up. There is a lot to do, but I've managed to accomplish things that got shunted to the "do later" pile for like.. years. As well as stuff that tends to just get overlooked because it's not immediately noticeable and isn't on my mental roster of How to Clean House.  So all this is good.

I've been watching a lot of Avatar, the Last Airbender, because it's the best thing Nickelodeon ever did, and I've only recently realized this. It goes together with unfucking the apartment because I work for twenty minutes on something, then get to watch about half an episode. Twenty more minutes of work, and I get to finish the episode! The episodes are like crack which I am watching basically whenever I am not doing something else.

 I redid the potted garden because the pansies died in the heat and looked so sad I couldn't hold to this concept of not doing/changing/buying more stuff when you are not far from moving out.

I hear there's a hurricane (or two) a-coming, so this might have been a stupid idea. But yesterday was just so sunny and warm I had to. For the first time in a long time, I had a whole weekend of downtime, and it was pretty much the best thing EVER. The last several Sundays have been taken up almost entirely by kempo and while those are good times, so is drinking not-mosas, playing vidjagames, zoukin'ing, gardening, scrubbing laundry with a brush, and watching Avatar.

I love the feeling and smell of early summer, and while it's still not quite right to still be in school, I've even gotten used to that. I can't tell if it's really rainy season yet and we are having some sunny days in the rainy season, or if we have just had some really rainy ones in a still not-yet rainy season.

Friday, June 8, 2012


I've been thinking lately about time, for a handful of different reasons.

One is what I am calling "Trial Week." They call it torai-yaru week, with yaru being the verb "to do," and then... maybe to do a try? Anyway, students in their second year here spend one week out in the community doing a job, like a sort of mini internship. They don't have homework or club activities that week, only their job. So in the middle of their JHS timeline they get a whole week of tasting the freedom and drudgery that comes with being out of school. The elementary schools have trail-weekers, as do the kindergartens, so I've hung out with some of the students working over there on Tuesday and Thursday. They're pretty hilarious, and they seem to have a pretty big following amongst the kids. Plus, they (like me) seem to enjoy finding the younger siblings of their classmates, laughing about how alike they look or how cute they are.

So because their absence prevents us from having English classes with them, I spent my second-year's day of the week hanging out and accompanying their other teachers on what seemed like inspection rounds, visiting the various places of work to observe, take some photos, and tell them to keep up the good work. The kids are all working at places you'd expect. Our rounds that day were two grocery stores, Sponic Park, a home and garden store, an electronics factory (!), and lastly (and pretty unexpectedly) a sort of old folks daycare.

That last one caught me off guard because although I guess it's not really so different in concept to have kids working at a nursery school and a nursing home, walking into it was a little startling. It's easy to play with babies. It doesn't feel the same to the sensibilities or something.

But the kids at the old folks' daycare seemed to be doing pretty well. We watched them conduct a game and everyone seemed pretty happy about having them there. The staff said it was because they liked having young people around, liked seeing them there.

Another thing is, I've been thinking about JET succession; someone asked me at the elementary if they've picked my successor. I said they probably have, and once again thought about what it's like to be new, what it might be like to follow a three-year JET. I was almost protesting to myself, the kids only love me because I've been here for three solid years. It doesn't take much to be a rock star in the eyes of the elementary students, but the longer you do it, the better they know your name.

So I started to think, the most important thing we have to give people is our time. It's one thing we stress in the PSG volunteers too. Giving time to the caller. Because everybody is giving their time to something, and sometimes you can feel like all you really need is for someone to give time to you, but you're hesitant to ask because they have so many other, probably more important, worthier places to spend it.

And there are so many places to spend it, so many investment opportunities there.

If you don't have the time to spend on a particular person or thing, that doesn't make you less good, or less caring, you just care more about something else. I don't think everyone should spend three years in Shiso, but I'm glad I did.

Just thinkin'.


So after being so eager to start up the tag "for my successor," I have added virtually nothing to the blog in that category since April.

I have thought about it, I really have. But I seem to get bogged down in the particulars which, when I examine them, seem to have potentially no relevance at all to an incoming person. I thought about including much more detailed information about the schools, the classes, the teachers, then reconsidered because that kind of thing is neither relevant nor particularly prudent to put on the interweb. I thought about making a list of stuff I wish I'd brought or wish I'd known... but even that seems out of date when I look at this blog explaining how you can get the stuff you miss.

I also keep thinking of the questions I want to ask this mystery person for all manner of different reasons. What is your shoe size? How's your Japanese? Are you the sort of person who prefers to inherit a minimum of stuff (clean slate), or that wants a bunch of used stuff to adopt and make your own (taker)? Do you like gardening?

But sidestepping all this for a little while, what I'd like to first do is just make a list of the stuff I import and the reasons for it. When I say "import" I mean ask family and friends for, and/or fill my suitcase with when I make a visit to the US.

  • Instant hot cereals. Mostly oatmeal, but also grits. Mostly I import this because it's cheaper and there's a better selection in the US than there is at the internet-international stores I've used so far. That plus the ubiquity of hot water dispensers makes instant oatmeal a wonderful thing on chilly mornings.
  • Regular cereal. Again because I'm cheap and lazy... the local grocery only has four kinds of cereal: flakes, frosted flakes, choco flakes, and granola.
  • Facewash. Because I know what I like and don't feel like working my way through bottles and bottles of stuff from the drugstore. Same goes for face lotion.. I have a particular type that I like, so I just stick with that.
  • Makeup. Because I could maybe find 'dark brown' mascara, but I would rather just use what I know.
  • Toothpaste. I hear this is totally unnecessary, but Japanese dental work scares me, and I like to use stuff I know what's in it. I also import toothbrushes, which actually is totally unnecessary, but I just do it because it's easy.
  • Another totally unnecessary thing is Bath and Body Works body cream. There is plenty of lotion in Japan, but if you get this thick cream of a smell you really like at 1/3 price during the semi-annual sale, there's no reason not to bring it. You might need a lot of lotion in the cold, dry winter.
  • Hand sanitizer in small bottles. It's just useful for all those bathrooms without soap.
  • Sunscreen. Again, cheap/lazy.. you can get it here, but the selection and prices are better there.
  • Deodorant. I hear you can get good deodorant in Japan these days, but I bought a huge multipack of my favorite kind a long time ago and have just been using it ever since.
  • Over the counter painkillers. Your basic Tylenol/ibuprofen stuff, because if I hurt I can't be bothered to navigate the linguistic and cultural differences of my local drugstore. Plus I think it's cheaper back home.
That's the stuff I would regularly refill each year. In the beginning, though,  there is plenty of stuff I wished I hadn't brought, basically any products outside of those listed. You only get two suitcases, and you really can get most stuff in Japan that you want to find.

I wish I HAD brought better souvenir presents, more edibles basically. People even told me to bring edible stuff that was small, individually packaged, and preferably specific to that area. I was terrible at this. I think I brought mini bottles of lotion (because I just prefer 'real stuff' to 'snacks' personally as gifts? I dunno) and jelly beans or something, and then not really enough. I wish I had gotten ahold of little packs of peanut brittle or little jars of apple butter or some other such thing as my parents brought when they came to visit.

The problem at the time was partly that I was broke as hell. Getting a job with JET is great, and you will make some decent money doing it, but before you start getting paid, you might not have any money. Not having any money does not match up well with filling a house with new stuff, bringing presents for all the people it is probably appropriate to give them to (here, too, opportunities abound). Plus, unlike in Japan, those gifts can be hard to find or figure out, and that may be time you don't have in the process of packing, saying goodbyes, and otherwise preparing yourself for your whole new life.

Luckily, the local stores are at your service too. It would be best to bring stuff from your own local area, but failing that, anything from the home country is good (mini candy bars might have been a nice touch), and failing that (say, you get in and find yourself with enough to give out at your base school but nothing for your elementary staff-mates!), getting a gift box at a nearby shop is totally okay. I wouldn't necessarily do it, because no one will really mind if you don't pass out presents, but they'll be super impressed if you do.

I am GLAD I brought along an international driving permit. It was more than worth the hasslesome trip to the AAA office in the middle of the summer and the fifteen or so bucks to get, because a car is freedom etc. etc, and I live in a town with no trains.

I'm also glad of all the fake business clothes I brought; you need that kind of thing for official events and to give a good impression early on in your tenure. I wish I had brought more "work appropriate" sportswear for sports day practice.

In the very early days, before you have a life, you might want to have stuff to do to keep you happy or occupied. Books, games, video games, whatever. You can also spend this time exploring. The first week or so can be weird and rough because a lot of the staying JETs around the area are off on their once-yearly summer trip home, so there's all these ropes and no one to show them to you. You also might have to endure a state of internetlessness at the apartment for about a month (although there is some possibility that if you ask nicely, you can use the wireless from next door during that time)... so be prepared for this, as skyping at work is weird and skyping at home perhaps impossible, it might have to be email for a while.

As for furniture.. there can be some, though there need be very little, it all depends on your tastes. There is a recycle shop or four in town, and you can pick our your own stuff there, or buy new stuff, or buy my stuff (discounted extra for saving me the hassle of moving it/getting rid of it).. so are you the kind of person who wants a clean slate, or a mostly-there house?

And. How is your Japanese? Because one of my elementary contacts is really worried he won't be able to talk to you in English.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

promise to work hard

In the winter, at a dinner celebrating some of the black belts' ascension to higher levels of black belt, they pulled out cell phone calendars and planned my black belt testing date. At the time, through my half-drunk haze, I connected that test date in early June with all sorts of mostly unrelated things, but all tangentially connected to badassery and the meaning of martial arts as a force to build confidence and stop violence.

I started taking karate when I was in the 8th grade, and continued in Yoshukai through high school. By then, I was a 2kyu, a brown belt. In college I spent a summer with a new kind of karate and jiu jitsu, then at my actual college tried yet more karate, then aikido, but by the time I took aikido, I was close to graduation. I didn't think of myself as a brown belt anymore, more like an itinerant white belt with brown-belt-like tendencies.

There's a tradition I learned, that you never wash your belt (though by all means, wash your gi, and often). Because the idea was, it began as white, and over time and training would turn darker with the dirt, proof of your time and effort. Last summer, my brown belt seemed to be going in the opposite direction, forming up white streaks which I never washed off (...salt, from sweating).

But if I had thought of myself as a brown belt since I got one, then I have been a brown belt for almost ten years. It's an interesting middle ground.. being pretty good. People have referred to me as "basically a black belt," or "like a black belt."

But I wasn't one: a distinction so fine as to be, in a different half-drunk hazed debate about who would win in a fight, slim to unimportant.

As you have probably heard, a black belt doesn't mean you've made it to the top, it means you're ready to begin.

In this case it means I crammed a ton of terminology and practiced a lot of moves an ef-ton of times. I also memorized some points (the eight key attitudes, the five elements of atemi, the four systems of training, the six distinguishing characteristics) for the supervised essay.. on the walk up to the budokan, one of the guys who had given me a ride (I tried to drive myself, but my car broke down again about 1/3 of the way there... so I pulled over, called my team and flagged down another car in the convoy shortly behind me on the road) commented that the written test had to be worrying me. I shook my head because if there's anything I can do, it's write a pretty solid essay in 40 to 60 minutes (thanks Dr. Bragg, college in general, and genetic disposition). The written test was the least of my worries -- it was the one thing I knew if I put in the time, I would get the results. Put a pencil in my hand and my thoughts will focus. Give me the name of a technique and stand there expecting me to do it, and they scatter faster than Japanese people when auld-lang-syne starts to play at closing time.

I actually did pull a total fail on something I had practiced a lot because it was one of the first things they asked us to do (luckily no one seemed to notice the extent to which my mental faculties had deserted me -- for the love of pete, it was a set movement, like a two-person kata, and I was completely changing the last 1/3 of it, repeatedly). A few other things took me some time to remember or figure out what the words meant, but I could do the stuff, almost all of what was asked, I could do, and as I saw that happening, my confidence grew and the test shrank and soon enough I knew what my result would be.

I got to wear the face-protecting riot gear for the fighting bit, which was really brief even by my standard.

My partner was a capable girl with a large, ghastly bruise on her left foot. The part I had most feared, the dreaded "We say, you do," part where they were going to choose ten techniques from about a hundred, all of which you must know, only ten of which you will show... And one by one, they said words I could put together and remember their meanings. The pair to our right got read the riot act in the second set of movements. The pair to our left, in the third. I shifted from foot to foot, awaiting our turn at sensei scorn bat; it never came.

Twelve years ago, I promised to work hard. Now I suppose I am ready to begin.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Bless Your Little Heart

I've been following a discussion over at Locohama about gaijin clashing over microagression and racism. I read the article and watched the discussion, and it sounded to me like all of them were right. Which is confusing since they are making opposing statements.

I'm foreign in Japan. A few of my readers (hi Mom hi Dad!) have made the trip to also check out being foreign in Japan. And although I haven't considered this permanent, have not dreamed of spending the rest of my life on the island, I will admit there are moments it has come up in my mind, especially of late as I prepare to leave. Japan is so beautiful, and so friendly. Sometimes I look at the mountains and rivers and I don't know how to let them go. Same with the students. I think it takes a long time to get into a place, and even longer where Japan is concerned. They don't move fast in the 'accepting outsiders' department, but I really do feel like most of my co-workers, kempo folk, and students have some notion of who I am after working with me for as long as they have.

It may even be an illusion, but I feel like most of the kids in the JHS even see me as a person now, not just a diversion (although that too), and not just a foreign face. We're at a point now where all the JHSers were in elementary school when I arrived, so they've seen me push, pull, demand, relent, and instruct. They've seen me at my best, and in some cases at much worse, on sick days, running short on patience, and with a surfeit of good humor. Even though I try to keep it all professional, of course personality and personal place-in-the-moment leaks through. Some days I don't feel like going out to play at recess. Sometimes I bitch at the kids for not doing a good job at souji. Some days I just make faces at them in the classroom when I see them cutting up. Because I know them and their games, and even when I don't strictly approve, I am glad to see them play.

But like I said, these are the people I see every week, or every day. These are the teachers I've been bathing with, drunk with, and a couple of times bathing drunk with. These are the people I've learned to respect and even admire, to like and in some cases even trust. And that's kind of a two-way street, and that takes a long time. I'm actually pretty shy, terrified of mistake-making, and introverted, so I sort of get the whole Japanese slowness to warm up to outsiders.

When I meet strangers, it turns into the same old thing. As observed by many, Japan is a friendly place. Especially in the countryside, people are extra nice and helpful. This extends to a desire to feed you (which often turns into the quiz game Will You Eat It?), or show you some aspect of Japanese culture that you have probably never seen before. Because a tourist would not have. There is this friendliness that also pushes the assumption of your ignorance. Have you ever tasted this?

I've discussed this with many people before, about the manner and mien of some JETs we meet in the world. Some of them happen to have a greater than average amount of knowledge in Japanese language, culture, or other general stuff. As you know, I'm all about learning. There are people who I could just listen to all day long because they know so much interesting stuff. I like people who know more or different stuff than me -- they are the people I have something to learn from, and I want to do that because I'm a junkie, hooked young.

But it's all about the presentation. There is a different between the kind of person I could listen to all day, and the kind of person I want to punch in the face after ten minutes of talking with them. That difference is embedded entirely in my reaction to how they present the stuff they know (or believe) that I don't know. Whether or not I believe there is an assumption on their part that they are instructing me on something I know nothing about. It's especially funny when someone like this lectures me on an area where I do have some stowed knowledge or expertise; I tend to just let them go on, partly because for all I know, they do know more than I do about that topic, even if was my major.

But we have a general use term for the people who posture themselves as in a position to school you, rather than share, who assume your ignorance or inexperience or confusion or difficulty: we tend to react to them as douchey. It's a fine line, and I believe that most of those who fall on the side of douchiness are not at heart total jerks, but they are merely insecure, they have something to prove, that is that they know stuff, more stuff than you, and they have to exert their superiority. They don't even think of it as you NOT knowing stuff, they think only of the stuff they KNOW.

Like I said, it's a fine line, and one that I consciously avoid myself, lest I slip into that douchey know-it-all role too. There's the added bonus that I know there is always more to learn, and that you can learn it in the most unexpected ways or places from the most unexpected sources, it's true.

Anything can sound patronizing in the right situation. I'll admit that even as I was hitting the end of that Oita bike ride, the cheerful shouts of encouragement from fellow bikers and supporters began to hit nerves. "You can do it! Keep going! You're almost there!" Probably because I was by then into an irrational state where I could not maintain much emotional balance. Of course I can do it. I mean, everyone else has already. Almost there? But not there yet. Of course I'm going to keep going, what do I look like, a quitter?!

Well-intentioned gestures can be interpreted as anything.

You hear all the time about how Japan is "so homogeneous." What that means is, Japanese is a big solid concept. A kid asked me the other day, Emily, do you like Japanese? And I answered yes, before realizing I had no idea what he had really asked me. I hear the question as Japanese language, because that's what the word means all by itself to me (and I like language, so of course I like Japanese language too.. it's fun!). Japanese people would be "the Japanese," and any other thing would have the noun following the adjective "Japanese". Japanese food, Japanese music, Japanese art, Japanese whatever. The kid probably just meant "Do you like Japan?" but was a first-year and so it came out wrong.

The point being, though, that Japanese means all those things. It's a nation, but it's also a culture, complete with all the set of traditions and foods and language; it's also a race, and for most people, they all mean the same thing. A scion of Japanese people is heir to all that entails. We are us, this is ours, our legacy, which passes to you.

In the US, for example, America is a nation. But races and cultural legacies are something else. You can be a child of German and African descent, practicing Hinduism against your parents' wishes if you want. We fracture on all kinds of lines in America, beliefs and traditions and religions. We belong to groups that fall under the umbrella of being American. Because America is just damn big, and it's populated by people from all over the place, and it would be ludicrous to expect that Americans could have anything in common with all Americans other than their national affiliation to the country they live in. This is why anyone can look American to me. And if you aren't American, there is a process by which you can become one (I will admit up front that I have no idea how this process works for whom).

I'm aware that there is a process by which you can become a Japanese national, and that it's really difficult. But there is no process by which you can become Japanese. And this is why people are surprised to see you, a foreigner, participating in their cultural stuff. You may spend a very long time learning and taking in Japanese ways and customs and abilities. You may speak better Japanese than your fellow townsfolk. But a stranger meeting you for the first time has no idea that you aren't a tourist on a two-week vacation.

And the tendency so far is to assume that you probably are. There are questions you get used to answering. That "where you're from" isn't necessarily where you live now, it's where you were before Japan and more specifically, your racial descent. That "how long you are staying" is how many weeks, not years. It's not an overt aggressive speech act. They aren't trying to drive you out of the country; they're glad you are here to see their wonderful culture. Take lots of pictures and tell your friends about it when you get home.

Why would you stay? You aren't Japanese, after all. And bless your heart, that isn't your fault, now is it? You just happened to be born not one of them, and that's just how the ball bounces.

Okay so there is a presumed superiority inherent in that sensibility.

It's not your violent, hateful brand of racism, but it's still othering. You don't have to hate on someone to make them feel small. Sometimes being nice will do it. You aren't to be blamed for your not being Japanese, so who could hate you for it?

I'm not quite comfortable calling this aggression, although I also think it would be irresponsible to pretend that the compliments on your Japanese language or chopstick wielding ability aren't galling and some days totally wearing. It's gotten to the point that I don't even want to have the conversation with foreigners about it anymore. Yeah yeah, so someone told you your Japanese was good after you only said "Good morning" and you stumbled on the syllables, and you wanna bitch about it? I don't want to hear it anymore, you wear me out as much as they do.

But we do have to acknowledge the double edge of that sword. If you're so quick to compliment, your compliments become meaningless. The only real compliments I've gotten on my Japanese language are the times someone mistook me for Japanese when they weren't looking at me (by phone, or looking down at a clipboard as I walked by and spoke). They're only trying to be friendly and make conversation with these things, but occasionally the ignorance is astonishing.

America must be a scary place, what with everyone carrying guns all the time, and all that. But, on the other hand, girls in America are really tough and all know martial arts so they are probably okay. You get questions like "What do Americans/Westerners/foreigners think of such-and-such?" And you have to field that shit. And all you can do is say, "Well I don't know, Margo. But as for me..." and give your own opinion, stressing that it's just yours, not America's official position. And hope that over time they meet enough foreigners to being to see the pattern that there is no set pattern.

I've occasionally heard summations of an American way of doing things that were startlingly on target. I don't even remember what it was about (probably sports day), just that I explained how we did a thing compared and contrasted to how we were doing it at my school. One of the teachers laughed and said, isn't that just so American. To be so concerned with the final outcome, the bottom line, efficiency. And when I thought about that later, I thought, aren't most of my frustrations with the office mostly a matter of inefficiency and time-wasting? Maybe she had a point.

Still and all. It's a bit of a fix. Japan is incredibly welcoming and friendly, but it's a place where you will never been seen as one of them (unless perhaps you look like them). People who stay permanently or long-term have to find a way to fight that, or rise above it, or bottle it up until it causes their internal organs to explode. It takes a lot of energy to buoy up that kind of thing some days, and it can really wear you down. Maybe the answer is just to have a good support network, to get to know the people you like, to participate and to be involved. Yeah you won't reach everyone, but you'll slowly make a deeper impression on the people who have to deal with your shit and who get to be impressed by your poise and bravery on a weekly basis.

I say maybe, because that would be my go-to answer, and if it didn't work I'd have to try something else.

There is no quick way to make "the Japanese" see you as anything other than "not Japanese." Because for every co-worker you vehemently school, there are a hundred people who have never met you who might see you tomorrow and stare. But one day, maybe some of those hundred will all have a friend of a friend who is Japanese-not-Japanese, a person of non-Japanese descent who nonetheless is perceived 'Japanese' in behavior and language ability and cultural understanding.

But that's all missing the point. The point is to be a person, not "Japanese" or "not-Japanese." There's nothing more frustrating than standing in the void and shouting, I'm a person! I matter and have feelings! Some would rather not shout. Some would.

There are people in Japan who know that I'm a person. There are many more who don't and never will.