Monday, August 24, 2009

My first week, continued

My teaching debut is tomorrow. I was feeling nervous, but then I remembered that I actually taught kids of this age before, in my attempts to popularise informatics - in some fairly rough schools in West Lothian, no less. So I should be ok. I just have to remember to speak slowly and avoid contractions. Like Lt Commander Data.

Alright, back to my first few days here. Just attending to all the basic requirements for life in a new country was pretty time consuming and stressful. I had to apply for my Alien Registration Card (aka gaijin card), get a hanko (a personal stamp used instead of a signature), open a bank account, sign a lease and negotiate rent arrangements, get a keitai (mobile phone), look into getting a car, etc, etc. Getting a phone was surprisingly difficult - because I didn't yet have my gaijin card, they wouldn't let me have a contract (we discovered this after about an hour of choosing phones and packages). So I have a crappy prepay phone for now. I'm a little upset not to have an all-singing-all-dancing Japanese phone, but at least it's cheap - the contract deals sounded a lot more expensive than they would be in the UK.

In amongst all this admin I was introduced to many people, most notably the mayor of Nanyo. He seemed like a bit of a joker but still had a very imposing presence, although maybe anyone would give that impression if everyone else in the room was falling over themselves to bow at them. From what I could gather he was very into sports, and athletics in particular. He suggested I take part in a 'marathon' in October. I didn't think it prudent to decline his offer. Fortunately, I'm informed that it's just a 10k or something with a rather grandiose name. A bit like Nanyo City itself I suppose, with its 35,000 inhabitants.

I was also taken to nearby towns' Boards of Education to meet other ALTs, and I met a very passionate and lively man who runs a museum here in Nanyo. Needless to say, my self intro was getting a lot of outings. On thursday I had the honour of taking part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. This is a truly baffling custom which raises the simple act of making a cup of tea to an elaborate hyper-formal ritual (thank the Lord it's green tea, so there isn't any milk to worry about). Being merely a consumer of tea, my scope for embarrassment was limited, but still considerable. For a start, one is supposed to kneel throughout the whole ceremony, but my Western legs honestly can't take more than about a minute of kneeling - after around 20 seconds my face starts to turn crimson. So I sat cross-legged like a big stoopid foreigner. Possibly because I was the guest of honour, I was first to receive my tea. This was not a good thing, as it meant I had nobody to copy. My interpreter for the day was next to me, but seemed pretty clueless on the whole tea ceremony rigmarole. This somewhat reassured me: if even Japanese people had no idea what was going on, I didn't feel so bad about my ignorance. I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would take up tea ceremony as a hobby - it must be about as relaxing as a driving test.

I must admit, on thursday it all got a bit on top of me. Having seen the mayor and been to the tea ceremony, we met the landlord and estate agent, and I quickly realised the thousand pounds in cash I'd taken with me wasn't going to be enough to cover my startup costs. The rate at which I was handing over money made me feel very anxious. Then we went to the car rental place. Due to a combination of jetlag, exhaustion, shock, hangover and possible even a little heat-stroke, I was starting to feel faint. They wanted me to take the car out for a test-drive, but I really didn't feel mentally able to get behind the wheel on Japanese roads at that point. So I said no, I didn't feel up to it. They were nice about it, but I couldn't help but feel that they were wondering what sort of wuss they had as a new ALT. I tried to get out of going out for dinner that night, but they talked me into going for a quiet meal and a couple of drinks. I'm glad I went; it was a good way to relax, and you really see a different side of people once they're off duty and having a beer.

By the end of friday the most pressing issues had been sorted out, and it was time for my official enkai, or welcoming party. This was to be held at what seemed like a pretty upmarket sushi restaurant. I was sat in the position of maximum prestige, in the centre of the top table. Either side of me were VIPs; on my left a former head of education (I think), and on my right an ex-newsreader. I must have looked quite uptight, as people kept telling me to relax. Given the company, the formality of the occasion, the fact that all eyes were on me, and that I was sans interpreter for the first time, I feel some nervousness was justified. I gave a deluxe version of my Japanese self intro, adding the lines "I like sushi very much. Tuna is my favourite", which my interpreter had taught me earlier, to keep it topical. Once that was out of the way, I loosened up a little. The food was excellent. I had my first experience of sukiyaki, and didn't balk at dipping it in raw egg. Someone tried to tell me to down the egg when I was finished, but I think they might have been taking the piss - surely that would make one actually vomit? I declined.

The beer flowed freely. People kept topping up my glass (one must never pour their own drink) even when it was clearly already full. I thought I was doing well knowing the don't-pour-your-own-drink rule, but I got busted for having an impolite pouring style: one must hold the bottle with both hands, and indeed do likewise with the glass when one is receiving. I've been doing this ever since, but found out at the weekend that this is overkill when among friends, and I therefore looked like a raving ponce. More and more dishes kept being brought out, and several hours into proceedings they produced the tuna's head (the rest of it having been made into the sushi and sashimi we'd eaten) and carved it up in front of us before dishing it out. 'The best part', I was told. Thankfully, it had been cooked, and it was in fact pretty tasty.

As my drunkenness increased, so did my propensity to optimistically start conversations in English. In quite a touching gesture, someone had brought along printouts of the Japanese Wikipedia pages for Edinburgh, Inverness, Scotland, Edinburgh University, etc. which I gesticulated and doodled wildly over, trying to explain ambitious concepts like the difference between Islay and Speyside malts.

Eventually the time came to move the party to the karaoke place across the street. Unlike Britain, where one has to subject an entire pub to one's vocal stylings, the more considerate Japanese have small private rooms. About 10 of us occupied one of these rooms, where we drank yet more beer, and very unnecessarily ate pizza. Although only a tiny fraction of the library was in English, I was still left with hundreds of songs to choose from. I opened up with my old standby of Radiohead's 'Creep', but without Singstar's visual feedback there really is a lot of scope for singing an entire song several notes out of key. Well, there is if you're me. Somebody requested I sing 'Beat it', and while I liked the sentiment of paying tribute to the late King of Pop, it really was a very difficult song to inflict upon an unsuspecting noob. I think my best song of the night was 'Complicated' (Lavigne was curiously overrepresented - if Martian anthropologists only had a Japanese karaoke catalogue to go on, they would conclude that Avril made roughly the same contribution to English-language music as the Beatles). When I grabbed the second mic to forcibly duet on someone's rendition of tATu's 'All the things she said', I realised I had drunk too much. Good times.


  1. OK, saw your rice cooker picture and the big button on the left is for the 'keep warm' function while the one on the right (pale pink) is to cook the rice. the katagana i really do not understand as the last time i touched a japanese textbook was 10 years ago. i also gather there is a timer function and an something that reads 'white rice express cooking' but i don't know how do you do that. maybe the up and down arrows on the side of the display? the PCR machine in the lab has similar up and down arrows that allows you to choose different programmes. hope this helps! x

  2. The egg thing is true. I have had the pleasure of warmish raw egg with bits of cooked food floating in it, as it happens. Windswept polyglot that I am.