The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Sunday, September 28, 2008

First Class, and Training

I had my first class on Friday. Most of my students were pretty happy to see me again, and to find out that I would be teaching them. But of course, some of them groaned and said, "Him again?" I'm not sure if these geniuses have realized yet that I'm the guy who decides what mark they receive at the end of the term.

Then, on Saturday, I helped with our company's big semi-annual orientation. There were about 130 teachers, and I had to lead an information session for about 50 of them for an hour in the afternoon. It's the third time I've given that talk, so I was afraid it would be really stale, but it went over well. I think it was about as painless as it could be. It's funny; sometimes I don't mind public speaking (like at this hour-long session) but other times, I get really nervous. For example, at the beginning of the day, we had to get up on stage and introduce ourselves. It was only for about 10 seconds, but afterward my heart was hammering! I wonder why...

After the orientation, I went out with some of the other teachers and the Japanese staff for a bit of food. We went to an "Asian" place, meaning they had stuff from random Asian countries, but no one country in particular. (For some reason - I'll let you speculate on what it could be - the Japanese don't consider themselves "Asian".) The people I was with seemed to enjoy ordering weird stuff, so they got pig's ear (Wikipedia says: It can be first boiled or stewed, and then sliced thin, served with soy sauce or spiced with chili paste. When cooked, the outer texture is gelatinous, akin to tofu, and the center cartilage is crunchy. Pig's ear can be eaten warm or cold.) We had it sliced thin, with chili paste, and cold. It was pretty good, but I wouldn't order it for myself.

We also had something the Japanese were calling "piton" which is also called a hundred-year egg (Wikipedia says: a Chinese cuisine ingredient made by preserving duck, chicken or quail eggs in mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice straw for several weeks to several months, depending on the method of processing. After the process is completed, the yolk becomes a dark green, cream-like substance with a strong odor of sulfur and ammonia, while the white becomes a dark brown, transparent jelly with little flavor or taste.) I have to confess that the image was so disgusting, I didn't even try it.

This week classes start in earnest, so I'll let you know how everything goes... until then, take care, and watch out for hurricane Ike.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

No News Is Good News

Not much has been going on, but I promised to try and update this thing more frequently. Let's see if I can remember what I've been doing this past week:

Working in the office has been nice. It requires a long commute, and it's kind of boring, but the highlight of every day is surely when we (the 3 or 4 other foreigners working in the office and myself) go out to one of the local restaurants for lunch. Every conceivable cuisine is represented within a 4-block radius, so before lunch we always sit around and discuss our options: "Basement Italian? Thai? Cheap Japanese? How about the Good-curry-but-bad-salad Indian?"

That will all come to an end when I go back to teaching next week, as the university has 2 very mediocre cafeterias. Our only choices are dingy-but-uncrowded cafeteria, or nice-but-crowded cafeteria. So I'll enjoy the food around the office while I can.

We had a small training session for 25 of the new teachers this week. I was supposed to deliver a short presentation during the first part of the session. Well, as it turned out, the trains were severely delayed that morning. We got on a train at 8 a.m., and didn't get off the train until 2 and a half hours later. That was a horrible ride; probably the worst congestion (compaction, really) I've ever experienced on a train. When the train gets that crowded, most people don't have a strap or rail to hang onto. Furthermore, nobody has enough floor-space to stand with their feet wide apart. So, you put your feet right together like a soldier at attention. It makes it almost impossible to keep your balance when the train starts or stops moving. People who have no strap to hang onto just end up leaning onto the person beside them. No big deal, as you are jammed cheek-by-jowl with the next person, but the effect gets transmitted to the people at the end of the train car. If you are at the end of the car, you literally have the weight of a hundred people leaning against you. You can't fight against it; I've seen people trying to, and it just doesn't work. Your hands will get pried off the bar, no matter how strong you are. You just have to try to get a breath when you can, and then hopefully not have your ribs broken. It's awesome!

Anyway, two and a half hours of misery, and I managed to get to the conference room halfway through my own speech. A co-worker was bravely trying to do it, but when I arrived, he just handed the mic over to me and I had to pick up from where he was. It was kind of confusing, to say the least, especially since I was shell-shocked from the train ride.

Other than working, I haven't been doing very much. I was planning on driving to Kyoto this weekend with my friend Mori, but a typhoon was coming, and I had visions of Hurricane Ike - roads washed out, or at the very least, tourist sites closed due to torrential rain. So, I decided to stay in Tokyo this weekend. As it turned out, the weather hasn't been too bad; the typhoon seems to have changed course, but I can still go back to Kyoto next month. Maybe the leaves will be turning by then. Ahhh... Kyoto in the fall. If I go, I'll have some pictures for this thing.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

1 Week Back

So, after having an all-too-brief 4 week visit back to Canada, I have come back to Japan. My flight was great, actually. The plane was about 1/3 empty, so right after takeoff I was able to change seats and move into a vacant spot right behind the bulkhead, with no-one beside me. The extra room meant that I could stretch out and actually get a couple hours of sleep. There were also a few good movies, so the 12-hour flight only felt like 8 hours or so.

I was really struck by something at the airport. Here in Tokyo, 2 middle-aged men were carefully picking up every bag on the luggage carousel, and putting them back down with handles facing outwards for easy retrieval by the owners. There were also shifting them together, so as to make best use of the available space. They were performing their job (which I'm sure is no picnic) calmly, professionally, and with care.

Contrast this with the scene at Chicago O'Hare, where a hulking young man was snatching bags off the carousel and heaving them down in a pile on the floor. I'm not exaggerating when I say that his face had a kind of dull meanness about it as he flung people's suitcases much harder than they needed to be thrown, as if he took pleasure in the thought that he might be damaging the property of strangers.

This episode encapsulates something about Japan, and goes a long way to explaining why I like it here. If Japan and the US are opposite extremes, I would say that Canada is somewhere in the middle, although tending toward the American end, I'm sorry to say.

After the airport, I had to stop in briefly at the Tokyo office to pick up my apartment keys and the map to my place. Now that I'm a "seasoned veteran" I no longer get an escort to my apartment, the assumption being that I can figure things out for myself. Well, let's just say that what looks simple on a map looks an awful lot different at night, in the dark, in an unfamiliar area, and when you're shockingly sleep-deprived.

Following a long train ride to my station, I wandered around for quite some time before giving up, going back to the station, and getting a taxi. Even with a GPS navigation system in his taxi, the driver couldn't find my place, so he dropped me off by the nearest recognizable landmark (the local elementary school) and I walked around until I finally found it.

And I went inside, right? Wait, one more slight hurdle: an electronic gate, which I had not been given the combination to. It was 10 pm by now, so a few moany phone calls later ("Sorry to call you so late, but I'm just FINALLY getting to my place NOW ... yeah, I know, it's been like 3 HOURS since I left the office ... it's REALLY FAR from the station and REALLY HARD to find...") and I was given the code. I dropped my stuff on the floor, got my bed set up, and slept like the dead. I was so tired that I had no trouble getting to sleep, and I woke up the next morning around 6 a.m., jet-lag defeated by sheer force of exhaustion.

For the next couple weeks, I'm working in the Tokyo office, which is a horribly long commute on a packed train, but I suppose I can endure it for 2 weeks. After that, I'm back to the same school I was at before. That's okay, I guess.

So, am I glad to be back? Umm, hard to say. I feel a lot less excitement and enthusiasm than I have in the past. My school is nothing to get excited about - the students are decent, but dull, and lazy. My apartment is far from work, and in the wrong direction from Tokyo. So, I don't know. It's hard to see any advantages this time over last time, but I have nothing to really complain about, either. So we'll see. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

I'm hoping to keep this thing updated more regularly, so we'll see how that goes, too...