Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This kerosene, it's a goddamn arms race

(Warning: contains a very minor The Wire spoiler.)

It's really getting cold now. When I yawned the other morning and saw my breath coming out, I decided it was time to investigate heating. You see, Japanese houses generally don't have central heating, and mine is no exception. Instead, portable kerosene burners are used. I dug mine out of the cupboard and found it still had a little fuel in it, so I gave it a whirl. It delivers a pleasingly intense blast of heat, although I am more than a little concerned about the twin threats of burning my house down and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning. I don't think I'll leave it on when I'm asleep. It also makes my house smell like a petrochemical plant when it's running, but I don't mind that so much. The smell is heavily associated in my mind with good memories of my snowboarding trip to Nagano three years ago, because the hostel there was heated the same way. All I need to do now is figure out how one goes about buying kerosene and I'll be sorted. (I have read on the internet that using stale fuel is bad for your burner, but I'm not sure about how one responsibly disposes of smelly and highly flammable liquids.)

I should also work out how to operate my kotatsu, which is the low square table my laptop is on right now. It's no ordinary table, as its underside contains an electric heater. The top comes off allowing you to sandwich a blanket between the heater and the tabletop, creating an enclosure into which to slide your legs to keep them warm and toasty. I tried one out at someone's house last week and it was delightfully cozy.

Ok, I don't actually intend for this post to be entirely devoted to heating. This week has seen my debut at school four of six, which I definitely won't be identifying by name for reasons that will become apparent. Whenever I start at a new school I have to introduce myself to the whole school in Japanese. This never seems to go smoothly, so this time I was determined to nail it. Before I went in on monday morning, I practiced it, and I came armed with my notes in my pocket. But a quick self-intro in the staffroom was all that was requested from me. Oh well, I thought, this place must just roll in a less formal way. Today I stroll in at 8:18am, two minutes before the first bell, and the instant I make it to my desk I'm ushered to the gym hall for assembly, at which I am of course required to introduce myself. No notes, no preparation. I think I did pretty well, considering. A few short months ago, forming coherent English sentences at 8:20am would have been a struggle.

I'd heard tales that this school was a little rough, and they turned out to be not entirely unfounded. For the first time since I got to Japan, I've seen disobedience. There are a few kids at this school that could do with some new collars. And for the first time, I've heard teachers raise their voices to deliver reprimands that sound, to my ears, as terrifying as they are incomprehensible. I don't want to give the impression that I'm like Prez; I haven't had to deal with any classroom stabbings as yet. But today I gave three back-to-back self-intro lessons and in two of them I was competing with chatting students to make myself heard. It was fairly exhausting. As I was told in my training, the Japanese approach to classroom discipline is strangely non-interventionist to a Westerner - students very seldom get shouted at or sent out for misbehaving in class. Apparently discipline takes the form of stern talkings-to in private.

The regular schedule is all up in the air this week, because there is a 'chorus festival' this saturday. From what I can gather, this will be an inter-class competitive singing spectacular. It's being taken very seriously, with the time from lunch to well into what I would consider 'after school' being devoted to singing practice. It seems a little cruel to me to make 12-15 year old boys sing competitively; I mean, I still haven't really got the hang of my post-puberty vocal chords. This does perhaps explain why Japanese people are so good at karaoke though. I can only assume there is a tenpin bowling festival in the spring.

It's not all bad news though. The attitude problems seem mainly confined to third grade, and the younger students are very spirited (genki) when I see them outside of the classroom. The girls in particular have an interesting habit of telling me their names and testing me on them later. As you may know, my memory for faces is woeful at the best of times; I think I may actually have mild prosopagnosia. Matching Japanese faces with Japanese names is a total nightmare for me. ("Hmm, let me see, the girl with brown eyes and straight black hair... Yuka? Yuki? Yuko? Oh, Motoko. Sorry.") Still, they don't seem to mind too much when I get it wrong.

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