Monday, September 7, 2009

It's only natto-ral

Alright, let's try and get caught up. The tuesday after Bon Odori was my first time in the classroom. When meeting a class for the first time, one gives a special lesson called a jikoshoukai, or self-introduction. Since I have six schools, I'll probably give this lesson upwards of 40 times between now and Christmas. I've known about the jikoshoukai for some time, so I've put a fair amount of preparation into it. I hook my laptop up to a TV and show essentially a slideshow about Edinburgh, Inverness, Scotland, my family, my hobbies, etc. To keep things interesting I include lots of music (the Gay Gordons, Scotland the Brave on bagpipes, a bit of Theatre Fall and Radiohead) and some (mad) props. My premier prop is my kilt, which I wear throughout the lesson. This gets a big response in the classroom and staffroom alike when people see it for the first time. I'd say my second most popular prop with the students is a crappy little Nessie toy I bought in a Royal Mile tourist tat emporium for a fiver. As you can see, I'm not ashamed to milk my Scottish heritage for all it's worth.

My first self intro under-ran horribly. A period is fifty minutes, but my presentation was done in less than 25, and despite my (excellent) co-teacher's efforts to string out the quiz activity I prepared and the Q&A session at the end, we still ended up resorting to the textbooks to fill the last five minutes. But I was determined not to let this get me down; it was my first attempt and plenty had gone well, I'd just misjudged the timing. Fortunately I had no choice but to get straight back on the horse, as I was up again with a new class next period. I hastily chucked in a couple more slides in the five minutes between lessons, and generally slowed the pace down as much as I could. While the end was still a bit of a pad-a-thon, I managed to fill the whole lesson. On the whole, I felt fairly pleased with my first morning's teaching.

It is quite tricky to hold the attention of a class for that long, given that in first year at least, they have very little understanding of English. I've found giving out British pennies for answering (or asking) question is a good way to motivate the students to respond, and it breaks up the lesson a bit. And I can usually get a laugh when I explain how little the prize is worth.

The end of that week was taken up with a three-day training seminar for all the new JETs in Yamagata. This was for the most part enjoyable and useful; it was good to get some specific pointers on how to teach and what to expect in the workplace. It was tiring though. The days were long and we had dorm accommodation, which for a poor sleeper like me meant substantially less than my requisite seven hours.

Scanning the itinerary, I was filled with dread when I saw 'Video making activity' on the second afternoon. I have an almost pathological aversion to seeing myself on film. However, this turned out to be the highlight of the orientation for me. We were giving the task of making short films loosely based on some aspect of Japanese culture. Avoiding the 'drama' group like the plague, I signed up for 'food'. The organisers had a bag of Japanese foods, and from the get-go offered not to tell us what they were, so that we could use the element of surprise in the film if we so chose. We took them up on this suggestion, and decided to take the thing in a fairly silly Jackass sort of direction. We devised an obstacle course which we would tackle in two teams of two (girls vs boys), with food stations along the way. The mystery foods would have to been eaten at each checkpoint before the team progressed, with the added twist that one could not put food in one's mouth using one's own hands.

Camera rolling, I charged into the room with my teammate on my back, as the course dictated. The first checkpoint was dried squid, which my piggybacking teammate thrust enthusiastically into my mouth. This looks fearsome, but didn't taste all that bad. It was however incredibly chewy, and thus challenging to eat quickly. Next I was feeding some kind of nuts to him in a crab-crawl posture. Then, I ate a seaweed-topped rice-cracker while he held me in a wheelbarrow position - child's play (though rather dry). Pulling ahead of the girls, we were just a semi-blindfold three-legged sprint away from the final food station. Getting a bit mixed up with the protocol, he donned the blindfold, meaning that when we got there he would be the feeder and me the feedee. We arrived to find a styrofoam tub of a pungent smelling substance that looked a little like a Rice Krispie square. Alas, I was not so fortunate. It quickly dawned upon me that I had to eat natto. I should have seen it coming.

Let me explain. Natto is fermented soy beans (is anything in Japan not made of soy beans?), and is the Japanese equivalent of Marmite, i.e. an acquired taste that is either loved or hated, but seldom treated with indifference. It is notorious for being something that gaijin can't stomach. People are often impressed by my willingness to eat various forms of raw seafood, but will then say, 'Ah, but do you like natto?'. I sampled this foodstuff when I came to Japan before, and my bumbling sidekick Danny inadvertently bought some natto sushi at a convenience store. In the context of a sushi roll, I had found the stringy, smelly, mushy beans fairly unpleasant. Now I had to eat a whole tub of the stuff straight up.

My teammate, blind and tethered to my leg, scooped a big handful of the mush into my mouth. Gooey tendrils stretched from his hand back to the tub. Overcome by its yeasty stench, I gagged, spraying some natto onto the table in front of me. But the camera was rolling, and I was determined. I gulped down the foul substance and demanded more. Meanwhile the girls had caught up, and after one taste their appointed eater had thrown in the towel. Her teammate stepped into the fray, but couldn't hack it either.

With grim determination, I chomped my way through the rotten soybeans that were fed to me. It was all over my face, in my beard. Finally, I guided my partner's hand to the gobs of natto I had previously spat onto the table, and once I put those away, we triumphantly high-fived.

When the videos were played back that night, I got a round of applause for my efforts. You see, I wouldn't consider myself to be an especially introverted person these days, but the kind of people who get accepted to JET tend to be fairly gregarious. Among these big personalities, I had felt like I was fading into the background at the orientation. But thanks to natto, I'd become a legend. I'd like to think my soybean gluttony symbolises my open-minded and flexible attitude to adjusting to a new culture, but it probably just reflects my fondness for dumb food challenges. I am, after all, a man who has eaten 51 chicken nuggets of an evening.

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