The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Inspiration Everywhere

Even though I don't consider myself to be a negative person, it seems that I spend a lot of time complaining. This is just my way of venting and releasing negative energy, while at the same time relating a (hopefully) mildly interesting story.

That's the nice thing about this website thingy. Whenever something bad happens to me, instead of getting upset, now I say to myself, "This gives me a little story for my diary." Frustrating experiences become grist for my complaint mill, or something to that effect.

So last night, I went to the onsen with my friend Mark from Alabama. We were both pretty bored, and we hadn't been there in a while. The temperature is finally starting to cool down, and onsens are best enjoyed when the air temperature is cooler anyway. So off we went.

Now, I have definitely noticed a difference between living in the Tokyo region and living in Nagasaki, where I was before. In Nagasaki, foreigners are a real oddity -- so strange that seeing one up close is maybe a tiny bit fun, like looking out the window and seeing a raccoon. "Oh look! How cute! They look just like they do on TV! Let's see if they bite." But in Tokyo, foreigners are everywhere: being loud in bars, eating while walking, belching on trains, impregnating your daughters, etc. and just generally doing everything they're not supposed to do. Instead of being cute, they're just pests. "Oh look! Another bunch of raccoons! Get the rat poison."

So instead of getting shy glances from people that I imagine want to speak to me but are too shy, here in Chiba I get barely-concealed contempt, or indifference. So, Back to the onsen. I was showering before getting into the bath, which I always do. It is important to be clean before you get into the baths, because they are shared. I also take comfort in knowing that (almost) everyone else is clean before they get into the same bath water that I'm soaking in.

I guess I must have accidentally splashed the man sitting behind me, because he got up, and with an angry look on his face, barked in English, "Be careful!" As a reflex, I said sorry in Japanese, and he left before I could think of anything else to say. The fact was that, in the next couple minutes while I finished showering, I was splashed by any number of people on all sides of me. This always happens every time I go to an onsen; it is practically unavoidable. Technically, it's a faux pas, but it's almost impossible to control where your water goes. This guy had chosen to vent his frustration on me, simply because I'm a foreigner and he naturally (?) assumed that I was ignorant of the proper way to behave. He chose not to say anything to the Japanese guys on either side of him who were also doubtlessly splashing him before I came along.

The more I thought about this, the more ticked off I started to get. In fact, as a foreigner in Japan, I am generally more polite than most Japanese people, who can get away with the occasional bent or broken rule. I have seen Japanese people talk on their cell phones on the train, but I never do it; businessmen drop rubbish in the street, but I always put mine into my pocket until I can find a trashcan; people smoking in areas that are clearly marked non-smoking; short Japanese people with their legs sticking way out into the aisle, causing a major disruption on trains while I am sitting with my feet neatly tucked in and my knees up around my ears. And most relevant to this discussion, I've seen numerous Japanese people come to an onsen, and not bother to bathe, but just go directly into the bath. If I did that, I would probably be lynched.

I started wishing that I had fluent Japanese so I could explain this whole double standard to the Japanese man who had told me to "Be Careful!" but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he would never understand my point, no matter how fluently I expressed myself. Whatever country you live in, there are always going to be assholes... I guess the challenge is not to sink to their level.

Then again, I'm starting to think that the correct response to his getting up, coming over and saying "Be Careful!" to me would have been to bow deeply, apologize profusely, smile, and then spray him right in the face.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Autumn of Disasters

Well, it seems I was a bit rash in disparaging the power of typhoons. The last one was the strongest and most deadly in over 10 years, causing landslides and incredible flooding. One of the most dramatic things I saw on the news the next morning was a bus load of people clinging to the top their bus, with the water level around them almost to the roof. They had spent the entire night on the roof; I can't imagine how exhausting and terrifying it must have been to spend the entire night in a torrential downpour while hurricane winds almost blow you into the water.

I was pretty ticked off that day because I walked in the pouring rain to the post office to try and send some money home; I got there around 4:30 only to discover that they only do money orders until 4:00 (for some reason). So I trudged home, cursing Japan, while the wind was whipping the rain at me sideways. Then I had to walk through 8 inches of water outside the station, so that my shoes were absolutely soaked. By the time I got home, I was pretty miserable. Fortunately, my friend Mark is from Alabama, and as a veteran of many hurricanes, knows that the only thing to do is to get together and have a typhoon party, so that's what we did. The next day, watching the news, I realized that if wet shoes are all you have to complain about, you're pretty lucky.

Yesterday, I was lying in bed watching TV when I started to feel my bed shake. Not having any familiarity with earthquakes, I had no idea what was going on at first, but the tremors got stronger and it seemed like my whole house was flexing and swaying, and I eventually got the idea that it was a quake. It lasted for about 30 seconds, so I flipped over to the news channel, and within a minute or two, they had interrupted the show for a news bulletin reporting a strong earthquake about 250 km from my place. It was magnitude 6.8 apparently, meaning it was strong enough to buckle roads, derail trains, and worst of all, cause landslides. There were a number of aftershocks - I think I must have felt about 7 or 8 over the next couple hours. It wasn't until this morning when I turned on the news that I realized how severe it had been. 15 people died and numerous people are missing. Lost of houses were swept away by landslides. They said that if it had happened in Tokyo, thousands would be dead... pretty scary stuff. At the time, however, I wasn't really scared. I was too dumb to know what was going on, I guess.

Anyway, I don't mention this so that anybody will worry about me. I'm perfectly healthy and enjoying things so far... I'll try to have happier news next time!

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The Positive Side of Typhoons

Sure, typhoons are generally bad things, wreaking havoc wherever they go. They always kill people whenever they roll through Japan; not to be too cynical, but they often seem to be very elderly people who, in the middle of the storm, get out the ladder, climb up on the roof (perhaps to adjust the TV antenna, or maybe to see who among their neighbours is also on the roof in the middle of the storm) and then get blown into an adjacent river. This happens more often than you'd think. After every storm, the news reports are full of 78-year-olds who get blown off the roof into a river.

Typhoons also tend to cause landslides. I'm not worried about this, because I live nowhere near a slope of any kind. I am a little bit concerned about the possibility of flooding, because I seem to live in a flood plain, and that sounds like a good candidate for a place that floods frequently.

The reason I mention all of this is that there is another typhoon coming this way right now. It is the second or third since I've been here. In fact, in the 30 days I've been here, I think it has rained at least 23 of those days. Considering that I have a washer but no dryer, you can imagine how difficult it is to do laundry when it rains every day.

The good side of typhoons, if there is one, is that occasionally they are so severe that the rail service gets shut down in certain places. Today, school is letting out early, and I get to go home soon because the local rail service is probably going to get shut down later tonight. Tomorrow, when the storm passes through, if it hasn't weakened or changed course, school will also probably be cancelled. Yippee! That means I get to stay home and, uh, watch Japanese TV, or more likely, Japanese static.

What else is going on, you say, glancing furtively at your watch? My students are very nice. Most of them are keen to speak English, and are really quite charming and friendly. There are some, however, who are suffering from some sort of congenital shyness which renders them unable to speak English in the presence of other people. I'm sure they're very smart at other subjects, but when they start speaking English, it goes something like this:

(In a class where we are practicing asking each other about our families)
Student: Where...(30 second pause) Where...(10 second pause)
Me: (encouragingly) Where....?
Student: Where do you ...
Me: (wanting more than anything else in the world to say 'live') Where do I...?
Student: (no doubt conjugating the verb 'live' in every possible sense and weighing the relative merits of saying 'live', 'lived', 'liveth', 'livery', and 'love') Where do you ... live?
Me: I live in Toyoshiki. And you?

And so it goes. As I say, most of my students are really good, but there are a handful who are just hopeless, and unfortunately, they absolutely know that they are hopeless. Part of this course is about boosting their self-confidence, but it's hard to praise them when they almost never say or do much of anything. Oh well. Next topic...

Cell phones. I know the West is really bridging the cell phone gap lately, but this country is still miles ahead in terms of how cell phone crazy it is. Whenever I get on the train, the entire row of people sitting across from me have a witless expression on their faces as they fiddle with their cellphones, playing games or sending e-mails to their friends. I am tempted to whip out my cell phone and take a picture of it someday. Young or old, everyone has a cell phone, or three. One of my Japanese acquaintances has at least three, for different occasions. There are even phones designed for young children; they can only dial three numbers (mummy, daddy, and home, presumably).

The etiquette of cell phone use here is very well developed. You are never to speak on your cell phone on a train, because people on cell phones tend to speak very loudly and that disrupts the harmonious atmosphere that otherwise exists between fellow travellers. When you do have to take a call in public, you are to place your hand over your mouth as you speak, so that passers-by will be tricked into thinking you're not really talking to anybody. It is also advisable at these times to hunch your shoulders, bend your knees, and try to shrink into a little ball so that some people will fail to see you entirely. Also, if you are speaking to your boss, be sure to bow a lot and say 'Hai' as often as you possibly can without actually cutting him off. Cell phone fashion is also very distinctive. Girls can create a youthful, fun-loving image by adorning their tiny, ultra portable phones with two or three pounds of dangly ornaments, straps, plastic toys, and miscellaneous doo-dads. As phones get smaller and smaller (I have heard of phones only a bit bigger than matchboxes) it gets more and more necessary to strap them to keychains, stuffed animals, bricks, etc. in order not to lose them...

Well, here's hoping that I don't get blown away by this typhoon. Time to go home!