Silver Linings

 

 

I booked a hostel last minute, on the train to Tokyo, after a scheduling error meant that I couldn’t crash with my friends at their Airbnb.

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I was a little bummed. I was looking forward to catching up, and was worried that anything in the area would be out of my price range.

I found a hostel within walking distance of their location with good reviews, and booked it. I arrived in a typhoon, rain soaking through my rain jacket. It was a cozy Edo era house, retrofitted to be a guest house. Someone met me at the door and helped me in from the pouring rain.

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One of the first things I noticed, despite being cold and wet, was that the house was shockingly beautiful. I am hopeless when it comes to architecture, but it was obvious that this house had history. A stones throw away from Nijo castle, this 130 year old house had been remodeled to better accommodate travelers. The eeves were wooden, wide, and old. Parts of the wall had been removed and replaced with glass, so that you could actually see how houses of the era were built.

Perhaps due to school starting, and perhaps due to the impending typhoon, there was only one other person staying there. After a quick tour, the guy working asked if I wanted to stay in one of the private rooms for free, since no one else was booked for the next few days.

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So, I got a traditional tatami mat room intended for 3 people to myself for 3 nights, and still got to spend plenty of time with my friends.

I usually got back to the guesthouse around 10 to immediately fall asleep. The night person would be there, watching songs from Glee on YouTube and drinking whiskey on the rocks. One night, I hung out to watch a few numbers.

I think I am someone who focuses on the negative. It can be a useful trait, when you’re a problem solver, trying to hone in on what in a situation needs to be fixed. There are obvious downsides. I wanted to post this as synecdoche for general gratitude- I am a lucky person. Sometimes bad things happen for no reason. But sometimes good things do too.

Neighborhood

I went for a run this evening.

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I haven’t written that much about my neighborhood, but there is definitely something eerie about it.

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Very peaceful, very beautiful and calm, but… almost on the border of something.

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The cicadas sound deafening along the river. It’s a kind of shimmering sound that comes in waves.

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Spiders claim small territories, overlapping fiefdoms right next to the other.

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Right next to the river are little fishing shelters. Some have tables and chairs, where people sit and drink and fish on the weekend.IMG_20160805_185735356_HDR

At dusk, these shelters are bequeathed to the cats.

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There are many feral cats here. Generations of them growing up along side the river. They are very skittish, but will watch you without running.IMG_20160805_185827163_HDR

I’m not a superstitious person, but walking home after the sun went down, I passed a cat sitting to the side of the road. I almost expected him to say something to me. He didn’t run as I approached, just watched me placidly until I passed.

Corny Update

I’ve been a little quiet here for the past few weeks, but it’s all exciting news, I promise.

I recently started contributing to Odigo, a travel site focused on Japan. You can check out my article on my trip to Hakone and my article on the history of Pokemon.

This isn’t a reason I have been slow to update, but it’s still worth knowing that I bought this roasted corn beverage.

 

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It tasted like popcorn and water.

 

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What’s in a Name?

IMG_20160702_161926595_HDRThere’s an unusual opportunity in moving abroad that is usually only open to drag queens and derby girls: Rebranding.

For a fairly ‘typical’ American name, my name doesn’t translate well. I’ve gotten notes addressed to a Mali before. While traveling in Iran, I was frequently called Mooli, which I didn’t correct because I kinda liked it. (when someone else corrected him, the guide replied that if that was the pronunciation, then I was obviously spelling it wrong.)

I didn’t give this much thought before coming to Japan, except that perhaps I wanted to avoid having a long oooo this time around. I pronounce my name with a tall “o”, like “shopping mall” or what a wild animal does to you if you get too close. I thought I would transfer my name to the closest sounds in Japanese, which should be easy enough.

After a few months of shrugging whenever asked how to spell my name in katakana or hiragana, I realized that my apathy meant I was spelling my name differently at two of my schools- going by Mari at one school, and Mori at another one. I decided it was time to make a commitment to one or the other, which meant I would need more information. I asked around a bit. Mari means round, or ball. Mori means forest.

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Another famous maru, who also enjoys boxes

In a (n extremely) scientific poll of Japanese speakers with around 8-9 participants, I got about 10 different opinions.

-Mari is a silly name.
-Mori is a last name and sounds silly as a first name.
-Mari is a well-known gaijin name.
-Mori is an acceptable first name.
-Mari is a traditional Japanese name.
-Mori is not really a name.

There is a lot to take in here. One is that according to my scientific polling, all Japanese speakers have 2 opinions in all matters. Another is that there is no way around the fact that “Ball Teacher” sounds silly as hell, while “forest teacher” sounds like a 13 year old’s fanfic author username run through free translation software. Not that I would know anything about that, of course.

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I wonder if the legal name OoOxoMoriSensei1999oxOoOo is taken yet

For now, I will probably be going with Mori: an opportunity to rename yourself after a famous millennial J Pop song only comes around once in a lifetime, and you have to be ready for it.

 

souvenirs

One of my shoes has been rattling for the past few months. Sometimes methods of transportation rattle- this is normal. Usually it isn’t shoes. After my usual problem solving method (ignoring it) didn’t fix it,  I resorted to sitting down and prying open the heel to figure out why.

There was a small hole in the heel, with something shaking inside, causing me to sound like a maraca. After prying it open, a small piece of smooth beach glass fell out. I can’t really say for sure where it came from, by my guess is that it came from Fort Bragg.

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So the past few months, I’ve been carrying a little piece of this beach around, several thousand miles away across the Pacific.

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I took it out, placed it on the table, and took the boots to a local cobbler. I haven’t found the piece of glass since.

I wanted this to be a very different post

My parents were visiting my uncle in Paris when Columbine happened. It was ’98, I was 7 or 8 years old. My mom told me later on that she had felt dazed all day, foggy, unable to process a muted sense of shared grief that didn’t seem to affect her surroundings. She ran into an American in the Metro. They hugged. At the time, it was a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. At the time. Now it’s merely the first line of a chapter.

Yesterday morning, I watched one of my closest friends marry the love of her life in a sweet and intimate ceremony in Seattle. She arranged it so that I could Skype into the ceremony to watch, and a kind friend held up her phone for me so that I could view the moment my friend became someone’s wife. I wasn’t expecting to (stoic that I am) but I cried my makeup off. I often tell my friend jokingly that her relationship is disgusting, because of how obviously and totally in love they are. She still gets stars in her eyes when she talks about her (so weird to finally say it!) wife.  Everyone deserves to feel loved like this once in their life- the kind of sincere, enduring love that rejects irony or cynicism. It really is nauseating. Inshallah, we should all be so lucky.

Last night, I went to bed after reading the news that 20 people in Miami were gunned down in cold blood. I woke up to the news that the body count had reached 50, with 54 wounded. It is the deadliest mass shooting in history… so far. He had purchased the guns one week previously. Legally.

I am from a country where bathrooms are a matter of national conversation, but guns are not. I am from a country where we will shake our sabers and mourn and then continue, after a short while, business as usual. We will have a yelling match, attempting to boil down the problem to one or two complicated issues, and we will feel thwarted by our own frustrations and inability to solve something that only happens here. The status quo will begin to feel comfortable again.

I tease my friend for the happiness that she has found, but in truth, her marriage was a revolutionary act of love.

Celebration is a communal event. I am grateful that my friend made the earth move so that I could be a part of her happiness and see that joy. I am grateful beyond words that I will get to be a part of that happiness into the future.

Mourning is also a communal event. I am riding the train to work, reading these headlines with an ache. I wish there was an American on this train that I could hug.

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I’m not like “those” Americans, I’m a cool one

 

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About 7 years ago, I was walking from Notre Dame cathedral to Shakespeare and Co. when it started raining heavily. I managed to duck into Shakespeare and Co before it started pouring and noticed there were lines of chairs crowded together, pointed towards a podium set up at the end of the second room in between the stacks of books on the floor. There were plates of cheese and small thimbles of wine set out on tables. I was informed that they were for a reading by an American expat author later that evening, and that I was welcome to stay and help myself if I was here early for the reading.

Even though I smelled like wet dog, I started feeling fancy. It was near the end of my trip to Paris after studying in London that spring. Staying in hostels meant that most of my clothes were dirty at this point, and my winter wool jacket was continually damp from the off season rain. For a college student, there are no magic words quite like “free food provided.” and if that free food comes with free French wine? I had won the lottery.

It ended up being the worst book reading I have ever, ever been to.

If you can imagine a cross between David Sedaris and Chuck Palahniuk, but with little of the charm, it would come close. The guy read terrifically half-baked allegories for the HIV/AIDs crisis at the height of the 80’s, and a few boring/shocking violent pieces where pretty young women were justly punished for having the gall to be pretty young women. He said (with a straight face) that he considered it his duty as a writer to fully explore the line of violence and sexuality, because Americans were too afraid to touch the topic. He considered himself something of a pioneer, boldly exploring new ways to combine the two themes (at this point I looked around the room to gauge the reaction and noticed that most of the crowd was staring intently, with thoughtful expressions, considering for the first time the deplorable lack of violence and sex in American pop culture.)

Around this time I decided I was going to try and duck out. As an English major, I had been to my fair share of bad readings, but no amount of free wine and cheese would make me willing to consider sexual violence the higher art form that this man was claiming. I grabbed my coat and purse. That was when I realized that while I was in the last row of the first room, there was overflow seating into the second room. Which would have meant striding past 5 packed rows of people, who were all paying rapt attention to the man behind the podium. I put my things down again. it went on for another hour and a half. The wine helped.

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I still think of that expat sometimes. The stories bled together, and I don’t remember the book he read from. But when we got to the general Q&A session, someone asked him about his life as an American in Paris, he responded (after he finished comparing himself to Hemingway) that he had never learned French. Not only that, he went out of his way to avoid learning French. He had a French partner. He had lived in a French neighborhood. For years. He said that not speaking the language allowed him to maintain a sense of mystery and wonder, and keep up the romance. For any challenges, he just turned to his boyfriend to translate. “Two people walking down the street can be talking about hemorrhoids,” He explained, “and I can pretend they are talking about 18th century poetry.” 

I don’t know why this frustrates me the way it does, but it hits a nerve. He portrayed his deliberate ignorance as a daring, brave act, rather than a selfish and lazy roadblock, and put the onus on others to pick up the slack of communication. All to avoid shattering the fantasy version of his adopted city.

Maybe it’s the American stereotype of acting like other countries are theme parks. The old joke about moving to Canada if the politician you want isn’t elected, because all of Canada is just a backup plan for our political chicanery. The voluntourist who humble brags about how seeing people with so little made her appreciate her own shower and smoothiemaker and car. Acting like historic customs are just quaint stubbornness or that shouting louder will somehow communicate your point across the barrier of language. The cliches about ugly Americans abroad go on and on.Which (of course) leads to a backlash. You will never willingly hear someone define themselves as a tourist. Trying to define the difference between a tourist and a traveler is almost as old as the genre of travel writing itself. Generations of travel writers have tried to define the precise line between ‘tourist’ and ‘traveler’, and then explain how their arbitary definition makes them a better, more spiritually whole person. Kind of like that girl in college who says she’s a cool girl and “not like the other girls,” saying that you aren’t “like other travelers” implies that there is something wrong with the others.

I think about that guy with some guilt now. I was so self righteous about him at 18. You got the impression that he wanted points for daring to live outside the United States, bravely living in a place where people had lived for thousands of years, without speaking the language, even though it had all been his deliberate choice. I thought he was the ugly American stereotype that I was never going to be.

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And here I am, in Tokyo, not speaking Japanese. My choice is not one I made for aesthetic purposes (I can function without the fantasy that the schoolboys on the subway are discussing Voltaire) but of course the reason that I am functionally illiterate doesn’t make a difference when someone is trying to communicate with me and I fail to understand. Which does not stop them from praising me for trying.

Approximation of a Japanese conversation that happens at least once a day

Me: “Pardon me, hello, the food you like sunshower?”

Tokyoite: “I’m sorry, I am not sure what you mean. Could you please repeat that?”

Me: “Pardon golf ants the food yes I see”

Tokyo: “Hmm, Yes. Are you asking for the English language menu?”

Me: “taxes.”

Tokyoite: “Ah yes, I see! Your Japanese is very good!”

Me: “Thank you but maybe, it’s potato flower.”

Every time. It is considered polite to compliment someone on their effort, a fact that I find hilarious, because when someone compliments you on your language skills after your third attempt to be understood, it’s possible you may need more practice.

I am sure I will write more about my attempts to learn Japanese as I make headway. So far, I have gone from completely illiterate to bluffingly illiterate. I like to joke with the teachers at school that I now qualify for second grade. I don’t think you need to be fluent in order to appreciate another culture, but let’s just say it’s a personal goal to speak more Japanese than that man speaks French.

I’d like to thank Sir Mixalot

I was rushing out the front gate at the end of the day, trying to catch an early bus to Koreatown. Almost to safety I was spotted by a small gaggle of children across the grass.

“Ego-Sensei!”

“Good bye!” I waved, still striding towards the gate.

“Ego Sensei! Duckduckoose!” several kids yelling at once over each other, frantically making the “come here” gesture.

I stopped. A few weeks ago, I taught a small group the game “duck duck goose” during recess, and they had apparently enjoyed and remembered it. Which made me almost tear up. It’s a special moment when you get confirmation that you are noticed, and appreciated, and not just a novelty that comes into class spouting funny broken language and jarring hand signals. I’m also, to put it mildly, very easily suckered into something when I feel flattered. I turned around. I could catch the next bus.

“Duckduck goose! Just one!” I put my bag down by the concrete pillar and small hands grabbed me, pulling me like a current over to the grass. I sat in the circle while kids chased each other round and round. Within minutes, a much more exciting game of soccer was started nearby, and half the circle attrited to this exciting development. I got up, determined to make the next bus. “Goodbye!”

“Ego Sensei! Bi-guti! Bi uti!”

“What?? Wakari Masen!!” I called back, turning around again. 3 little kids were holding their arms in a heart shape. 2 others were rolling on the grass laughing. I couldn’t believe how much they liked me, even though I only taught at their school a few times a week. They appreciated me, and liked my teaching, and they were learning and enjoying English! And now they were telling me they loved me, making little heart shapes. My heart melted. this is why you travel. Moments like this.

Big booty! Sensei has big booty! Biiiiig Booty!” 

yeah nope those were butt shapes. My big butt shape, apparently.

Well then.

yeah those fuckers are getting a pop quiz next week.

Things That Happened Today

1. It was 5 minutes after class was supposed to start and the students still hadn’t arrived to escort me to class.

Usually, at the beginning of every period, I hear a knock on the door of the teacher’s room. the door slides open and two or three shy faces peer inside expectantly. “Engu Sensei?” Sometimes they duck back out again. Usually another teacher or principal in the room will usher them towards my desk, the students giggling nervously and refusing to look at me directly, while the teacher makes them repeat “Good morning. I am from class 3. How are you? Please come to our class.” But they seemed to be running late this morning.

The principal walked over to my desk. He is an older man with salt and pepper hair, dark glasses and a kindly face. “Kaboom!” he said. He held his hands together and pulled them apart quickly.

I cocked my head like a golden retriever. He explained in Japanese. I smiled and repeated my life mantra, “gomen nasai, nihongo wakari masen.”

“etto…. Terr… Terror.” He mimed a bomb and made a noise again.

My eyes widened. Japan is a very safe country, but has experienced terror attacks before. Maybe the subway? Maybe it was in the US and he was coming over to tell me?

He mimed the bomb exploding again.

Another teacher came over on her phone, looking up a translation. “Mail threat. Mischief. A mischief.” She threw her hands in the air and rolled her eyes. “annoying.”

Someone called in a bomb threat to the school as a prank. I breathed a sigh of relief. The other teachers looked irritated at the interruption. the principal looked concerned that he had just given me a small heat attack. I felt badly  I wondered if that was a mark of being American, being constantly ready for The Worst Imaginable.

2. “Bad teacher!”

I turn around. A student in the front row is trying to get my attention. “Bad teacher!”

When I first started teaching, if I made a mistake and the kids looked confused, I would slap my wrist and say “bad teacher!” then roll my eyes to the heavens to illustrate that they were to ignore whatever I had just said. It seemed to clear things up for them, and also entertain them. I did this if I said the wrong symbol won in Janken (rock paper scissors) if I said the wrong word on a flashcard, if I held the flashcard upside down- whenever necessary to throw the heat off. I say it in the same tone you would use to scold a dog and then smack my wrist loud enough to make a noise.

But apparently I had said it once or twice too many times, because that was now my nickname according to this one student. He sees that he got my attention, which is probably the worst outcome that could have happened if I had wanted this to end quietly. He smiles happily. “Bad teacher!” Later, walking down the hallway to a 3rd grade classroom, I hear a small chorus from behind me. “Engu sensei! bad teacher!” I turn around and there is a small gaggle of different children waving and smiling at me. Nicknames travel fast.

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3. My coworker made me tea and left it on my desk for me.

I think this is the school where I am being observed this week.