The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Shrimp Women

I was in the post office this morning (unusually, I have a Thursday off, giving me a chance to do things around town) and I saw a "shrimp woman". This is an elderly woman who has such severe osteoporosis that she can't stand up straight. She walks around with her hands on her knees, bent over at a complete 90 degree angle, as if she were searching for something she had dropped on the ground. Consequently, she has a spinal curvature resembling a shrimp. I use that phrase flippantly, but it's actually extremely sad. These women are quite common in Japan - I suppose it is an unfortunate combination of a long lifespan combined with a life spent planting rice in the fields by hand, and a diet that doesn't traditionally include much calcium. If you go for a walk during the day in a semi-rural area, you will almost definitely see a woman so bent with age that she can barely see where she is going. Sometimes they get around with the assistance of a small shopping cart that they push in front of themselves for support.

Anyway, this particularly woman looked like she was 100 if she was a day old, and she had the worst back I think I've ever seen. She could barely shuffle her way up to the counter, and even then, her head was below the level of the desk, so she had to twist her neck just to look up at the teller. I wanted to help her somehow, but I had no idea what to do for her; I assume that most of the other customers felt the same way because, in true Japanese fashion, they were pointedly ignoring this embarrassing situation. Eventually, she got what she came for and shuffled her way out of the post office. All I could think was "Man, I don't want to get old." That and "Sit up straight."

Friday, February 17, 2006

It's Like the UN Over Here

One of the really interesting things about this job is the international character of this place. We have English, Chinese, Arabic, French, Portugese, Bulgarian, Rumanian, Thai, Khmer, Malay, Swahili, and Indonesian teachers all working in the same building. Walk down the halls, and students will say "Hi" or "Es salaam aleikom" or "Nihao" or whatever their target language is. I must admit that I feel a little bit lame when a student says good morning in their language and I don't even know for sure what language it is, much less how to respond.

And I even admit that I felt a little bit (just a little bit!) of rancour when students say their greetings in Arabic. It's a reflex reaction that shows I still have some deep-seated resentment toward the Arab world. Why? It boils down to prejudice ... and yet, the Arabic teachers here are incredibly kind people. It's confusing to feel this general hostility towards the Arab world and a sense of affection towards some individual Arabs ... but it's a good thing. It clarifies in my mind just how stupid prejudice is, and how dangerous it is to think of people en masse. As it turns out, everybody is an individual. Imagine that! I think it has been very valuable to me, in general, to meet people from other cultures. That sounds really obvious, but when I think back on life in Canada, my friends and acquaintances are pretty uniformly caucasian. But here ... It's kind of like a mini-UN here.

I'm always telling my students what a great, multi-cultural country Canada is. We're so lucky that we can walk down the street in Toronto and meet people from any country in the world. The problem is ... do we? Do we have a lot of friends who are recent immigrants? Do we actually make the effort to learn a couple of words in Korean from the Korean grocer, or how to say "Good morning" in Hindi from the guy down the hall? Usually, no. And I think it would make a huge difference to that person to know that we care enough about their culture to at least acknowledge their language to the tune of 1 or 2 words. I certainly know how happy the teachers are here when I ask them about their home countries.

By default, the common language of communication here is English. It's completely an issue of practicality ... but it also enforces a kind of "status quo" whereby the native English speakers work comfortably in an environment that everybody else has to struggle in. And we English speakers rarely even have to think about it. It's "fair" but it's also completely unfair, as we are the minority. And it seems to me that the world is like this too. We're lucky that we were born in an English speaking country, but that's all it is: sheer luck.

Of course, I've been studying Japanese pretty hard, but hearing all these languages around me has really made me want to study other languages ... starting first with French. I studied it for 13 years and I've forgotten 99% of what I learned ... but actually, I think most of it is just buried. I only need to start digging a little bit...

Au revoir, mina san!

Friday, February 10, 2006

Update, at Long Last

It's been quite a while since my last update. Work is going well, I suppose. I am now in a bit of a quandary. I have already agreed to work in Kyushu (southwestern Japan) starting in March, taking up a contract with my old company. In fact, I have already signed the contract and everything.

My current job was just meant to be a temporary time-filler between contracts with my other company. But, much to my surprise, this job is kind of fun and moreover, I get paid around twice as much as I would at my other job. It's hard work, and living in this town is pretty awful, but the money is good and the perks are also considerable. So my quandary is a pretty familiar one: do I go for the money, or for the quality of life? I feel pretty strongly that life in Kyushu will be better (more fun, more freedom, more friends) but I have a lot of debts that need to be paid off and the money I could earn here would be awfully useful. I just don't know what to do. I am leaning towards going to Kyushu for a few reasons. One is that I have already signed a contract and breaking that would permanently burn my bridge with that company, if nothing else. On the other hand, there is always a chance that I'll be able to get this job again in the future. Argh.

Other than that, not much is happening. Oh, I bought a computer recently! It's my first computer, and nominally, I bought it for work, but I also figured it would let me do a lot of other things such as use Skype to call home cheaply and so on. But I haven't got the internet at home, so it kind of defeats the purpose... (if I move to Kyushu, my apartment will have free internet...)

Anyway, sorry to have gone so long without an update. I've been busy and at the same time, haven't had much news. I'll try to do this more regularly over the next few months.

Hope all is well and that everyone is happy and healthy.