Friday, December 17, 2010

Just like the prodigal son I've returned

That's right, for the next couple of weeks the title of this blog is rather misleading, as I'm back in sukottorando. I arrived in Edinburgh late last night after an epic 24-hour journey involving a car, a bullet train, a conventional train (on which I befriended some eight-year-old boys, letting them play Angry Birds on my Archos), two planes, a bus, and a chilly but nostalgic walk. Thankfully, Edinburgh largely dodged the recent snowfall, so the only hitches were waiting for 45 minutes in Amsterdam while our plane was de-iced, and me upending an entire glass of water into my lap during the subsequent flight. I'm still pretty jetlagged, so apologies if this is a little unfocused.

From tonight I have a hectic social schedule, so I'm taking it easy today. I just went for a long stroll around all my old stomping grounds. It's a very strange feeling being back. On the one hand, it's like I never left. But it also feels very unreal; for the last 16 months Edinburgh has only existed for me as a place inside my mind, so it feels a bit like I'm walking around in a dream. Maybe that's the jetlag talking. I'm expecting Leo DiCaprio to show up with a spinning top that doesn't make any sense.

Anyway, I had a successful jaunt, opening my foreign foods account with a falafel and hummus wrap from my Mediterranean take-away of choice on George IV Bridge, which I ate by the castle. I washed that down with some much-missed ginger beer, and then managed to bag some re-usable chemical hand warmers. I happened to mention these in a conversation with Marie, and she reacted as if I'd just casually referred to my teleportation device: grilling me with skeptical questions about how such a thing could possibly work. While hokkairo are commonplace in Japan, it seems they only have the single-use disposable ones for some reason.

A few things have struck me about re-entering my culture. I should remind you that I've come from a rural town of 34,000 to a cosmopolitan capital city of 478,000, so as an experiment comparing Japan and the UK, this is pretty badly confounded.
  • First, something that just about everyone in my position says: everyone around you speaking a foreign language is a good thing. When you can actually understand the conversations of random people in the street, you realise that 90% of what they're saying is at best inane and at worst actively annoying.
  • I'm having to make a very conscious effort not to speak Japanese in shops. It's only a matter of time until I slip up and confuse a barman or something with an "arigatou gozaimasu".
  • Things are a lot more multicultural here. I've seen a lot more races and heard a lot more different languages on the streets of Edinburgh than in Yamagata. In fact, the high proportion of East Asians is helping to smooth the transition for me a little.
  • I'm sorry to say it, but Edinburgh is just dirtier than Japan. The streets are strewn with litter and dog turds, and I had to dodge several "pavement pizzas". It's not even the weekend yet!
  • There are a lot of young, attractive student types around here (I'm staying in Newington). Nanyo really lacks a compelling reason for people to stick around past their eighteenth birthday.
  • Beggars. I've already had to turn down several requests for spare change (very nearly saying "sumimasen"), which never, ever happens in Nanyo or Yonezawa, and you don't even see much of in the big Japanese cities.
Alright, I'm off to try and insinuate myself into a neuroinformatics Christmas party.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I'm always touched by your presents (rein)deer

I'm sitting in a brand new staffroom that smells of paint and optimism. For the last two days my current school has been relocating from the crappy old post-war building it previously occupied to a spiffy new one on the same site. Presumably there will be an exciting demolition in the not-too-distant future.

Although on a more modest scale, the place is uncannily similar to Edinburgh's new Informatics Forum. The world over, it seems generations to come will be able to instantly identify buildings erected in the early part of the 21st century by their ostentatious multi-floor atria spanned by weird bridge-corridors, their copious exposed wood, and their colour scheme of mostly white walls with the occasional deep fuchsia or electric lime stairwell.

It's all very flashy and modern. There seem to be plasma screens bolted into the ceiling all over the place. One of these in reception is proudly announcing how many kilowatts the solar panels on the roof are generating, which I can't look at without wondering what percentage of that output is being spent on advertising the fact. On the walls are boxes with antennae that look just like wifi routers. I got all excited about the possibility of unfettered internet access at school, but I've just been told that they are in fact some kind of weird building-wide voice communication system. Denied.

Most of the big stuff has been moved now, so I've decided that my lifting services aren't really required anymore. Coordinating 340 kids to move the entire contents of a school is a tough logistical problem, like a really hard and tedious level of Pikmin, but with tracksuited Japanese teenagers instead of flower-headed imps. Because the second- and third-graders still have the tracksuits from their pre-merge schools, there are in fact two easily distinguished tribes. I'm curious as to whether the ones in blue can survive indefinitely underwater. I did wonder whether a bucket-brigade approach would be more efficient; we certainly had the manpower for it. However, we'd probably end up forgetting Susie-chan. (I think that reference, to a removal firm advert that aired on Grampian TV about 15 years ago, is comfortably the most obscure one ever to appear on this blog.)

The move has been a fun opportunity to hang out and chat to students. I just had a very confusing trilingual conversation involving a poor kid who recently moved here from China and appears to be worse at Japanese than I am. Fortunately, another student, who I know relatively well as I've coached her for speech contest, turns out to be Chinese too - I had no idea - and was acting as interpreter.

The other thing I've been doing this week is appearing at kindergartens as Santa Claus. The inherent deception in this task stresses me out a little. I know they're only little kids, but I'm clearly quite a bit younger than most depictions of Saint Nick. Having said that, I have pretty big problems judging Japanese people's ages, so maybe the same thing works in reverse. However, surely even the three-year-olds are sharp enough to detect that my beard is not the real thing, but in fact a crude facsimile made of felt and held on with string.

On these visits I am accompanied by a little helper in the shape of my supervisor from City Hall. He's there to translate, although I'm much more able to field the kids' questions on my own than I was this time last year. (Weirdest question so far: "What kind of (eye) glasses do you like best?") Yesterday, the kindergarten supplied a Rudolph costume for him to wear, which never stopped being hilarious for me. He initially put it on backwards, and the resulting positioning of the tail caused me to momentarily think it was an unusually anatomically accurate reindeer likeness.

As ever, I am surprised at just how adorable I find the children. They always perform a little song as their present to Santa, and now that I can actually understand some of what they are singing, it's almost unbearably sweet. Before anyone suggests it, I'm not getting broody (does that word even apply to men?). Chimpanzees are cute too, but I wouldn't want to share a house with one.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Make way for the S-O-V

You know, because Japanese is a subject-object-verb language?

I'm not quite out of the woods of my hectic December yet, but the worst of it is over so I have time for a quick post.

Sunday was the day of my Japanese exam (JLPT level N4, detail fans), taking place on a university campus in Sendai. Having paid 6 kiloyen for the privilege of taking the test, I was anxious not to be late. I set off bright and early, and paid a further 700 small ones to drive through rather than over Tohoku's mountainous spine. Consequently, I arrived with over an hour to spare, which I spent shooting the breeze with other Yamagata ALTs who were waiting in the winter sunshine.

When the time came we shuffled into the exam hall and took our assigned seats. Intimidating formality is something the Japanese have a real flair for; prior to the test starting we had to sit in tense silence broken only by the invigilator (who had a somewhat Gestapo-esque armband identifying him as such) repeatedly reminded us (in Japanese, naturally) to turn off our phones and have nothing on our desks other than pencils, erasers, and our ID voucher. There was a yellow / red card system to deal with breaches of this protocol - some poor chump got booked for prematurely opening his question paper. Needless to say, this oppressive atmosphere was doing nothing to help my focus.

First up was the vocab paper, a rapid-fire barrage of 35 multiple choice questions in 30 minutes. The first couple of sections were concerned with kanji (i.e. the hard writing system, with the semantic as opposed to phonetic characters). My kanji is pretty strong if I say so myself, so I breezed through them with minimal problems.

The latter half of the paper hit me like a breeze-block on the shinkansen line. It was testing recognition of words written phonetically, as they are in books aimed at young children (and, of course, in the entire English language). Japanese is a language with a very high degree of homophony - searching for the phonetic word kou yields 42 exact matches in my dictionary, ranging from the obvious 'high', to the moderate 'to love romantically', to the challenging 'stork' and the Call My Bluff-level obscure 'hundred nonillion (10^32)'. Searching my mental lexicon's many-to-many mapping between phonetics and meaning was something that I found very difficult to do quickly, which is why I still struggle with conversations. Also, since I was in the unusual situation of taking an exam for no reason other than my own satisfaction, I decided that there was no point in tactically studying specifically to pass the test. I think vocab is the place where this policy caused me most problems. I ended up making a lot of educated guesses, and quite a few uneducated ones.

Everyone else seemed to be surprised at the difficulty of the first paper, which made me feel a bit better. Thanks to my kanji performance I reckoned all was still to play for. Next up was grammar and reading, for which we had a more generous 60 minutes. Grammar went reasonably well; I was confident about most questions and on the rest I could typically at least narrow it down to a 50/50 shot. The reading went swimmingly. You know when you're playing Rock Band and you get into that almost mystical state when you're hitting all the notes but you don't quite understand how? It was like that. I found myself actually skimming through the passages, rather than having to laboriously decrypt every word.

The third and last part was listening. This is the one I was most worried about; you only get to hear each clip once, so mental focus is key. I downed a bottle of the slightly dangerous looking stimulant tincture you can buy in convenience stores, and headed in for the final round.

The first couple of sections were a lot easier than I expected, with only a couple of questions causing me any trouble at all. In those cases, I found it was best to just whack down a guess and forget about it, in order to devote one's full attention to the next question. For the last section, the question book was blank, as both the questions and potential answers were in the spoken medium. This was tough, and the wheels started to fall off my bid a little at this stage, but I figured I'd racked up enough marks by that point to pass anyway.

So, on the whole, I reckon it's in the bag. I'll find out in February.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

He ain't heavy, he's my blubber

(I really thought I'd be able to do better than that, but all I could think of were artists, not songs: Bob Marley and the Whalers, Freddie Mercury, Baleen-da Carlisle, Moby (Dick)...)

Like an interplanetary probe, I think I have slingshotted around my gloom and am in a really good mood today. (No, it wasn't bipolar disorder that I was fretting about having.) However, I am still feeling very ponderous. Today I have been mostly pondering whale meat.

Now, I realise that this it getting into somewhat political territory, and I've made a strenuous effort to avoid that on this blog. But the whole whale thing is an issue that most gaijin here will be confronted with at some point, so I reckon it's legitimate to discuss it as a part of my culture-clash experiences.

After my whale lunch of yesterday, I got into a phone-email discussion with a friend of mine who reckoned that the stuff was poisonous. Of course it's not, I scoffed, they wouldn't serve it to kids if it was. To my enduring shame, I assumed that she was just being a stupid hippie, and that my PhD in science automatically trumped her English lit degree when it came to matters of marine mammal toxicity. I reasoned (and I use that word loosely) that most health scares turn out to be the inventions of scoundrels pushing political / ideological agendas and/or trying to sell news media: the MMR vaccine brouhaha, the BSE/CJD kerfuffle, the entire organic movement in general and its especially repugnant anti-GM sect in particular, take your pick. Since many people object to whaling on ethical grounds, I assumed this was more of the same.

But you know what they say about assumptions, and it turned out I'd just bought some prime real estate in Wrongville. She stuck to her guns and insisted that whale meat contains dangerous levels of mercury, such that the pregnant or breastfeeding probably shouldn't touch it with a bargepole and everyone else would do well to seriously restrict their intake. A quick look on the internet reveals that she's right: whale meat on sale in Japan does indeed contain very high levels of mercury relative to international standards, and samples from people who eat it regularly contain substantially more than those from people who don't. Of course, everything including water is poisonous if you ingest it in sufficient quantity, so one should always be skeptical of people labelling anything 'poisonous'. Nevertheless, it seems that very low concentrations of mercury can be bad news (particularly during development, be that pre- or post-natal), and there's not really any amount of mercury that could be said to be good for you.

Obviously, one plate of kujira isn't going to kill anyone. If an adult, knowing the risks, wants to eat it then that's fine by me; after all, we allow people to skydive, have unprotected sex, and poison themselves with certain arbitrarily selected drugs, and I wouldn't have it any other way. (It's just become my ambition to do all three simultaneously.) But it does seem rather dubious to give it to children who:
  • are still developing and are thus more vulnerable to mercury's effects.
  • aren't old enough to understand the dangers.
  • even if they do understand the dangers, would find it difficult to avoid eating the stuff. In a way that is very surprising to a Westerner, everyone is served up the same meal and everyone eats it, with no-one whining about allergies, ethical scruples or religious taboos. Furthermore, the kids are encouraged not to waste food - I've even seen the waste being weighed and used as the basis for a kind of demerit system for the class.
So why do they do it? Well, according to the Japan Times (if you only click one link, make it that one), Nippon is sitting on a huge whale meat stockpile; it seems demand has collapsed recently, possibly because it's poisonous. So the producers of the stuff have started flogging it to cash-strapped schools at a steep discount.

So, there you have it. I'm amused to think that if Greenpeace et al really want to stop people from hunting whales, they should start dumping more mercury into the Pacific.

Alright, I can't resist foolishly sticking my oar into the question of whether it's morally acceptable to eat the stuff, which I've diligently avoided doing thus far. As with so many issues, I'm inclined to take South Park's position on this one, which that it doesn't make a great deal of sense for anyone who eats beef to be spluttering with rage at the thought of slaughtering whales, and that perhaps there is a whiff of xenophobia / racism about their position. I can just about buy that whales are probably more sentient than cows (although good luck to anyone trying to prove that in a rigorous way), and if you choose to draw your own personal line in the sand to include one and exclude the other, then that's fair enough. But you can't then claim that people who've come to a slightly different conclusion are barbaric monsters. It seems to me that it would be just as rational, if not more so, to draw the line at eating mammals. I actually have quite a bit of sympathy for the oft-mocked pescetarians. When I went through a memorably insane four-day vegetarian phase in 2005, I decided to draw the line at vertebrates, which is, evolutionarily speaking, probably the most sensible subdivision that could be made of the animal kingdom.

The reason I gave up on that was that I figured that it's probably worse to keep a chicken locked up all its life to harvest its eggs than it is to swiftly dispatch it, so by using the slippery slope argument on myself, I'd have to become some kind of weird prawn-eating vegan, and that was just silly, ergo, doner kebabs all round! What I'm saying is, only vegans and people who'll eat any non-human life-form can make any kind of claim to logical consistency, and everyone else should just do what they think is right and not be judgemental about it. But go easy on the whale, for you own sake.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Still alive

Konnichiwa, bitches! Well, it's been an interesting week for school lunches. Yesterday we had a historical lunch: a spartan offering a plain rice ball, seaweed salad, and a very salty cured fish, which was apparently a typical dish of the Meiji Era. Not sure I'd want it every day, but it was a nice change of pace. Then today the kujira (whale) surfaced once again. It's only wednesday; by friday we could be eating acorns or the concept of pity or something.

I know it's been almost a month since my last update. At first there just wasn't much going on to blog about (having said that, the bike ride was a resounding success; the highlight was seeing a graveyard full of monkeys). Then I got a bit busy with seminars and Thanksgiving dinners and the like, and then I got stressed out about having to give a ten minute speech in Japanese next week. Then for the last few days I have been in a truly weird mood, brought on by at least some of the following:
  • The aforementioned speech. It's been a while since I've had to just grit my teeth and spend hours toiling through a task that I really didn't want to do, such as attempting to write an interesting and engaging bit of oratory in a language at which my level is low-intermediate at best. It put me in a really foul mood. I started writing a blog post whilst in that mood, but luckily had the sense to 86 that one before letting it see the light of day.
  • I've had a cold, and the associated nasal blockage made it difficult for me to get a good night's sleep. Insomnia always seems to coincide with my episodes of gloomy soul-searching, but I'm not sure which is the cause and which is the effect.
  • Culture shock? I feel that at t=16 months, this rationalisation for my mood swings is wearing a bit thin.
  • The existential angst of being 28 and still not really knowing what you're doing with your life. I believe this is sometimes called a quarter-life crisis, in which case I'm either hitting it a bit late or I'm going to live to 112.

Or maybe I just had the blues. Anyway, I spent several days pondering the question of whether I have a certain mental disorder - can you guess which? - I think I've pretty much pulled out of this funk now, and while I'm not 100% convinced that I don't have it, I've decided that it doesn't really make any difference to anything so the point is moot.

So, this is really just a placeholder post to say that everything's cool and that normal, less emo, blog service will resume shortly. Although it might actually be a while, since between now and getting on the plane in a fortnight my schedule is looking pretty packed, what with the speech, my Japanese exam, three Santa Claus appearances, a kids Christmas party, and all the usual midweek drinking. Well, it is December after all!*

* This would be a joke in Japanese, albeit a lame and predictable one. The months are simply called 'one month', 'two month', etc. But they also have archaic traditional names that are a little more poetic, of which December's is shiwasu, meaning 'teachers running'. This is because at this time of year even the usually serene priests (who I guess were teachers of a sort in those days) run around taking care of all the end-of-year religious rites. I believe I have got in before anyone else by making this gag on Dec 1st. I'm the king!