Okay, this is the last one. It’s taken about two months for everything to wrap itself up, and although there are about a million little stories I could tell, I’ll try to stick to an overall summary that’ll give you an idea of my present situation. No need to bore you guys any more. Barring extraordinary events, you probably won’t hear from me again en masse until I come back to visit Toronto in August. (P.S.: Anyone know a good way to get cheap tickets across the Pacific in August?)
By the time I finally received my last big Blight paycheque, I had about 10,000 yen ($125) in my account and half as much in my pocket to account for six months’ work in Japan. Aside from a final trickle I’d receive in mid-May, that cheque had to cover two months of food and rent in addition to the month’s rent already deducted for March in Shizuoka. I celebrated my windfall by buying a towel rack so I could stop hanging my moistened towels on the bathroom door.
Every time I asked someone about when and how I was supposed to pay rent, I got a different story. Nobody knew. The landlord’s supervisor had an office next to my apartment, and since I’d seen him several times and he’d never bothered me to pay up, I was beginning to hope that my initial deposit had actually covered the first two months.
I’m starting to wonder what that guy actually does, because the same day I finally got my first paycheque, the landlord called my employers to let them know that the deadbeat in The Village hadn’t been paying his rent. And yet when I talked to the supervisor about it, he didn’t even know how much I owed, so I just handed him a month’s rent in cash and figured he’d get back to me if he needed more. I now have a “deposit card”. It’s one more thing I’ll have to figure out how and when to use.
When I returned to my Monday school for the second time, I pulled out my superstar Mai-Keru-Pon program and coaxed the Four Horsemen back into their stable for a bit. The “cool teacher” (Soccer Sensei) asked me to be his assistant soccer coach even though I can’t play soccer, and the vice principal invited me to the school’s PTA banquet that week. The nurse who’d asked me to “Please go home” even gave me a lift, and much to my surprise, there wasn’t a single call for retribution against the child-terrorizing foreigner.
Did you know that Japanese people actually have a single word that means, “to die in the attempt of vengeance”? Kaeriuchi. Look it up.
I finally cracked and let the junior high teachers in on the secret that “Let’s enjoy English” is not a normal thing to say. The mid-level teacher understood and adapted, but Mr. K looked shocked and asked, “Well, what about, ‘Let’s enjoy bingo’?” I tried to look apologetic as I shook my head.
The Wednesday school is indeed small and pleasant, and I swear I am going to die on the way there. The vice principal and I nearly had two consecutive head-on collisions one day, and if the winding narrow streets aren’t challenge enough, there are moving obstacles: several kilometres of signs remind drivers to “Watch for monkeys.” I once saw six of them loitering by the side of the road on the way home.
Aside from the monkeys, other wildlife in the area include the bird that flew into my apartment while I was airing my futon, the baby owl my Thursday grade twos found in a local park, and the bloody eight-inch millipede in my landing that looked like it could have thrown my shoes at me. I have used a broom to insert a wad of paper into the hole into which it disappeared and continue to pray that it never tries to return.
(Literally, “Michael-san is a thing that has popularity”)
While the classes themselves can be up and down, it seems that somebody always recalls that I did something fun with them at some point, so I generally enter my schools with the reception due to a local celebrity. Some of the kids still challenge me to Mai-keru-pon on sight, and at my Friday school the lower grades all chase me down the halls after class, screaming with such abandon that they often fall over themselves.
There are some downsides to this, of course. Sometimes the kids prefer to cling to me rather than touch any of the colours I indicate, and some of the younger boys like to wail me in the crotch given half the chance. It’s hard to defend. They’re short. They also go nuts when I draw a rounded W because they think it looks like a bum.
One Friday after school, a second-grader rang my doorbell and asked if I could come out and play, and I was lucky I was heading out of town that evening because otherwise I had no idea how I was supposed to respond.
On my second Friday, I played with the grade two hordes during lunch and learned the downside to getting decent with my classroom Japanese: the kids weren’t clear on the concept that, while it may appear otherwise, Mike is nowhere near fluent in their language.
Kid A: “Gurble mumf!”
Mike: (Smile and nod.)
Kid B: “Hey, hey… Mibble dum!”
Mike: (Smile and nod.)
Kid A: “Mike! Mike! Fibble murp!”
Mike: (Smile and nod. No motion.)
Kids A & B: “Waaaaaaaaah!”
Mike: Dear god, what have I done!?
It’s hard enough trying to accommodate all the kids when they’re fighting over what game to play. When you don’t understand what the hell they’re saying and Kid A thinks you’re not playing her game because you don’t like her, it gets a lot harder.
I once had a Friday that featured at least one child crying in every single class. One girl sobbed for twenty minutes because—I only learned afterwards—I’d started off a please-and-thank-you game by callously giving the ball to the kid beside her.
I don’t know what to do when kids cry. My instinct is to stop the lesson and try to console them, but even when I do, I can’t understand the problem or say anything useful anyway. I try to tell myself it’s the Japanese teacher’s job to deal with those situations, but it doesn’t keep me from feeling like a gigantic oozing mass of human sludge for ignoring the very obvious sobs coming from the back of the room.
It doesn’t help that I have a knack for generating injuries. While it could be related to my penchant for introducing games that involve manic running in enclosed spaces, my greatest achievement actually came after school one Wednesday while barrelling down the mountain to catch the bus: just as I was thinking it was exceedingly dangerous for the kids to be running alongside me, a grade two tripped and fell with such momentum that she rolled straight over her chest and onto her face, legs arched horrifyingly up over her back. For a second I thought she was dead. Amazingly, she didn’t even shed a tear, and while I was pondering whether I should run back up to the school to get some bandages, she decided to keep going for the bus. I got this image of her arriving home with massive goopy gashes on both knees and a trickle of blood down her chin, saying, “Yeah, Michael-san walked me to the bus stop,” and I convinced her to wait while I ran back up the mountain to get the school nurse.
In most Japanese schools, the students and teachers all receive prepared lunches for a reasonable monthly fee, so I get regular doses of local cuisine. Upon receiving my lunch one day, no sooner did I finish singing, “Fish heads, fish heads, roly-poly fish heads…” than they gave me a generous extra helping. I’m too polite not to eat it all.
But after two weeks of convenience store dinners, I finally received cooking implements and a lucky rice cooker from the teachers at my Monday and Wednesday schools. I also gleaned a benefit from practicing sword fighting in an open space near my apartment: the lady who lives in the adjacent house lent me an old VCR! This is important, because the best advice I’d received as to renting DVDs in The Village was, “Find friends who can lend you some.” The only video shop in town is exclusively VHS.
Once I got paid, I decided that the VCR deserved an appropriate receptacle, so I purchased a TV stand. It goes well with the cardboard boxes and hundred-yen bins that comprise the rest of my furniture.
There are about a dozen JETs in the Izu area, and as Socks is unfalteringly polite, I tend to get invited along to their rather frequent events. I actually spent my first weekend in The Village not in The Village but on a hike up a mountain in Ohito, after which I made my first visit to an onsen (“spa” or “hot spring”), where I discovered that green après-bains uniforms designed for Japanese people make tall gaijin look like oversized Christmas elves.
I also made a trip back to Shizuoka for a kabuki party and received not only a video of the performance, but also an appropriately sized pair of geta (wooden stilt shoes) that I wore out to the bar afterwards. While I’d been getting accustomed to the JETs’ campy, carefree, high-school-like attitudes, my friends in Shizuoka are all around thirty and have significantly different priorities in life. Francis is married, Grimm insists that I attend his wedding next spring, and one of the other guys has a gorgeous Japanese girlfriend that he’s determined isn’t “the one,” so he spent his time at the bar successfully picking up the 51-year-old mother of a girl my age. Then I had to tap on his car window to retrieve my shoes.
Many of the roads here lack both barriers and bike lanes, and since they’re bordered by six-foot concrete drops to either ravines or rice paddies, I’ve been taking my borrowed bike down the back lanes where the plummet to ground level is shorter. A very near miss involving a car, a crossroad, and a lot of screeching and swerving got me thinking I could use a helmet, but I need to get out of town to buy something other than the dorky space-cadet crash helmets all the junior high kids wear.
The only injury I’ve actually sustained was acquired during my first-ever public holiday in Japan, which also happened to coincide with my first-ever Japanese cold. Climbing a local mountainside, I learned that bamboo is not only thick and fuzzy when it’s young, but that the ground around it is soft, loose, and poor for traction when you’re on a sixty-degree incline. If the mountains in the area didn’t top out around 300 feet, I might actually hurt myself.
I recently volunteered as a staff member for an Eco Challenge based in The Village, but since I couldn’t be trusted to follow instructions on my own, I effectively just stole a bunch of corporate swag and became a special observer for two days. I got to sit on a boat and watch several hours of kayaking, get driven out to see the teams rappel down a fifty-foot waterfall—only a prelude to the 200-foot cliff face the next day—and watch as they delved into an old gold mine to find their checkpoint tags. Although I know it’s a gruelling 32 hours of punishment, I kept thinking the events looked like an incredible amount of fun. I’ve since joined the local sea kayak club, and I’m half toying with the suicidal idea of trying to put a team together for next year. Then again, given my stupefying sense of misdirection, perhaps an orienteering challenge isn’t the best idea for me.
Did you know that Japanese people use the words “kayak” and “canoe” interchangeably? I’ve been diligently working to correct this egregious error.
Between kayaking, soccer, and the fact that everyone has to have different shoes for inside and outside of school, I now have more shoes than I’ve ever owned in my life, and the first sandals and running shoes I’ve owned since I was twelve. I have to be equipped to play. Even the road-rash I got from skidding down the mountain was somehow reminiscent. I think my job description is effectively, “Professional Child.”
While I don’t know if I’ll actually stick around long enough to do the next Eco Challenge, I can’t see myself taking off before my contract is up next March. The people in town are very friendly, and I’m learning to keep the stress level down while still being able to come up with decent lesson plans for school.
Last week I modified “What time is it, Mr. Wolf?” into “How old are you, Mr. Dragon?” and basically chased my kids around school all day with clawed hands and a manic grin. I’ve been bringing a giant inflatable die to class purely because the kids seem to get a kick out of it.
I’m honestly getting a little concerned about my growing dependence on a daily jolt of celebrity. It could be compensation for my lack of real friends in The Village, but there’s just something comfortable about walking around town and having every kid I see perk up and yell out, “Maikeru-san!” I’m a little worried that I’m going to have a lot of trouble readjusting to being an average, unknown person when I come back home.
Then again, maybe I’ll just have to get cracking on that master plan for worldwide fame and fortune.
Suffice to say, I’m expecting everyone to be ecstatic to see me when I get back.
Date: Wednesday, June 5, 2002
Subject: Just When You Think You’ve Finished…
Apparently, all the characters had yet to make their final appearance.
After I got out of the shower and dried off in my usual semi-blind state this morning, I noted a large black streak on my towel. "Oh, hell," thought. "That looks like grease. It's never coming out."
Wondering how on earth I got grease on my towel, I squinted a little and the streak started to look strangely familiar.
IT WAS THE MEGAPEDE!!! OH MY GOD!!!!
Nothing like a heart attack to wake you up in the morning.
I took him outside and dealt with him gangland style, but I've been exceedingly wary of crawly things all day.