Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Lead us not into translation

Or, 'Big in Japan'.

This one's really just a follow up to my last post, but I felt it was sufficiently long to justify its own entry.

My exposé came out a day earlier than I was expecting. The first I knew of this was my landlord's mother (who I am pretty sure has a thick Yamagata accent, because I struggle to understand a word she's saying) telling me that she saw me in the paper. I rushed to the konbini and bought a Japanese newspaper for the first time.

I felt strangely reluctant to read it, not because of the effort involved in deciphering it, but because of the weirdly acute embarrassment I sometimes feel towards any media representing myself. Anyway, I got over that the next day, as teachers and students kept telling me they'd seen it, and I felt I should probably know what they had read about me.

So, here is my probably quite ropey translation of the story. My reading is coming on quite nicely; it's streets ahead of my listening.

Title: Konnichiwa, I'm an ALT. [Konnichiwa is rendered in katakana, which is unusual. I think this is to emphasise that I'm foreign; they may be subtly mocking my accent.]

Picture caption: Keen snowboarder Mr Stewart, Nanyo City.

Subtitle: The junior high schools and kindergartens of Nanyo; Mr Finlay Stewart (from the UK)

Callout: He loves snowboarding. [More literally, 'love snowboarding'. Japanese is into the whole brevity thing, and allows one to omit any part of a sentence that isn't semantically necessary, thus "I did it!" is yatta (lit., 'did') and "I love you" is aishiteiru (lit. 'loving').]

Text: Mr Finlay Stewart (28) from the UK teaches English at junior high and kindergarten in Nanyo City. "I love the people of Yamagata because they are so warm-hearted", the cheerful young man says happily.

Mr Stewart says that he originally liked Japanese movies, novels, and so on. While studying fruit flies using robots at Edinburgh University he became aware of Japan's excellence in the field of IT, which really gave an impetus to his interest in the country.

When he started working in Nanyo in Summer 2009, he was troubled by the differences from his home country that he experienced, such as the humidity and being unable to read most of the kanji labels at the supermarket. He says he felt dispirited*, and experienced culture shock. But now he finds Yamagata's foods and the beauty of its four seasons fascinating. "In particular, I've come to love the crunchiness of inago [grasshoppers cooked in sweet soy sauce, a Yamagata delicacy]", he says with a smile.

As he loves snowboarding, he goes to resorts like Zao every weekend in Winter. He also goes sometimes with his ALT friends, and says that the sight of the mountains always cheers him up. As for the future, "I want to experience Japanese culture not as a foreigner [they use the polite gaikokujin, not gaijin], but to get inside it. My goal is to understand things like a local." To the people of Yamagata he says, "If you come across a foreigner in your everyday life, please don't be afraid to try speaking English to them".

* This was the hardest part of the whole thing to translate. It literally says 'the spirit became distant', and 'spirit' is a pretty ham-fisted translation to begin with. The Japanese word is ki, which is the same character as the Chinese chi. As any player of Tenchu: Stealth Assassins knows, keeping one's chi close at hand at all times is vital to one's survival in the land of the rising sun.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Lantern of the mack

Or, 'Papa-paparazzi'.

As sometimes happens on friday evenings, I'm in an almost euphorically good mood. I suppose it's been quite a good week. On monday my JLPT results arrived; at 72% it was amongst the worst exam performances of my life, but that's a pass so I can now officially 'understand basic Japanese'. My four kindergarten visits went well; by the final one this morning by eye was completely in and it went like a dream. And I just got a belated Valentine's Day cake from Marie.

To celebrate all this, I just took my first trip to Nanyo's most up-market conveyor belt sushi joint. It's actually really close to my house, so it's almost embarrassing that I hadn't been there until now. It was a classy place, with no inauthentic nonsense like hamburger sushi on the menu. So concerned were they with authenticity that they didn't call salmon saamon like everyone else does, but rather shake, because that's the proper Japanese word for it. Plates ranged from 100 to 500 yen, but I was able to have a decent meal without breaking the 200 yen barrier. And the prawn soup was free.

Alright, let me talk you through my activities of last weekend. It was a three-day weekend, as friday was 'National Foundation Day', whatever that means. This meant that thursday was yakiniku night with my friends in Yonezawa. Yakiniku is a vaguely Korean-inspired form of dining, whereby one cooks one's food (typically meat with a few token vegetables, and for some reason, an ornately prepared solitary shiitake mushroom) in a bucket-shaped grill in the middle of one's table. Due to an unlikely series of coincidences, this was in fact my third yakiniku in the space of seven days. Actually, the night had been falsely advertised to me as a sukiyaki night. Just about every cooked Japanese food has yaki (meaning 'cook') in its name, so it's easy to get confused: yakiniku, sukiyaki, yakitori, teriyaki, takoyaki, okonomiyaki...

This particular restaurant specialised in horumon, which clearly comes from the English word 'hormone', but somehow means offal. Thus, we were served up a couple of platters of raw avian and mammalian innards, most of which we couldn't easily identify, and decided on balance that it was best to keep it that way. A lot of it was unpleasantly fatty and/or tough; the cow tongue was the pick of the bunch, which is never a good sign.

Thankfully, the meal came with 90 minutes of unlimited drinking. I've noticed that natives and gaijin approach nomihodai a little differently. The Japanese don't hold back on ordering drinks, but when the time is up they will politely call it a day, sometimes even leaving their glass half-full. This level of restraint seems to be beyond us dyed-in-the-wool capitalists from the West, who cannot resist the urge to stockpile as last orders draws closer. Thus, we were still drinking about an hour after our time had elapsed, which I feel has to be a little cheeky.

After that it was karaoke, and another couple of hours of boundless boozing. The song selection system had the irritating bug/feature that although there were plenty of English songs in the catalogue, one couldn't search for them using the alphabet which you are currently reading. Thus we had to puzzle out how our chosen artists or titles would be rendered in katakana. The hit of the night was Reedii Gaga's Baddo Roomansu (requested by someone other than me, believe it or not), though Kesha's (that one's a no-brainer in Japanese) Tikku Tokku was also more fun than one would imagine.

The next morning - or more accurately, early afternoon - we all met up again for the classic hangover food of ramen, then went off to carve a lantern. As you might have seen from my flickr feed, it was the Yonezawa Snow Lantern Festival once again, and the Yonezawa International Relations Association was to have its own lantern. This meant that an assortment of gaijin and gaijin sympathisers were given a roughly 1x1x2m obelisk of compacted snow, a stencil, and a selection of saws, spades and bricklayer's trowels and told to do their worst. I think it turned out quite nicely. There was a really pleasant atmosphere of teamwork and anticipation; in many ways I enjoyed making the lantern more than the actual festival the following evening. My friends and I also went freelance and made a snowman, but I noticed that this had been obliterated by the time of the festival. It was of the American three-ball format as opposed to the Japanese (or, of course, British) two-ball, so I'm concerned that it may have been the victim of a racially-motivated attack.

After the festival the next day, a bunch of us headed to a Western-style bar, by which I mean they had an actual bar at which drinks had to be ordered and actual chairs on which to sit. They also had an albino snake which customers could hold. It's actually the second bar-snake I've encountered in Yamagata prefecture, which seems very improbable. Anyway, after thursday night's antics I decided it would be best to drive and not drink. All I can say is, I don't know how teetotalers and pregnant women do it - I really struggle to have fun being the only sober one in a crowd of drinkers.

Now, let's jump forward to tuesday, when a reporter came to interview me for the Yamagata Shinbun (newspaper). In Yamagata, I guess every day is a slow news day. An English teacher was assigned to act as interpreter, but he wasn't really a whole lot of help. Perhaps he felt, quite justifiably, that there were better uses for his time than facilitating the stroking of my ego. Consequently I ended up speaking quite a lot of terrible Japanese, so I'm a little concerned about what mutated version of what I was trying to say will actually end up in the story. The whole thing felt quite farcical, and it reached a kind of ridiculousness nadir when she asked me how I coped with the Yamagata summer and I said "Aircon, ice tea, and not wearing many clothes", which she dutifully scribbled down in her notebook.

But the lunacy wasn't over. She said she would come back tomorrow to take my photo, and as I had mentioned my love of snowboarding, she wanted a snowboard-themed photo-shoot. The weather was beautiful on wednesday afternoon, but there was no question of going to any actual slope. So after getting a few shots of me wearing my boarding gear and holding my board, I had to resort to busting out some flatland moves. We ended up getting a shot of me pulling a big stationary tail-press in the little park in front of City Hall, which is actually a pretty tough thing to do on my stiff, freeride-oriented Nitro Suprateam. Sadly, this is probably the closest I'll ever come to being a pro snowboarder.

Apparently it should be hitting the newsstands on tuesday; I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Kevin Karuta

I've got a whole bunch of kindergarten sessions lined up this month, and they started today. I always have mixed feelings about my occasional pre-school duties; the kids are adorable, but it is a much tougher gig than middle school, for several reasons:
  • Obviously 25 3-6 year-olds are harder to control than 25 12-15 year-olds.
  • Although at least one other teacher is always on hand, this is not a team-teaching scenario. That means that coming up with a lesson plan is entirely my responsibility, and I am in sole charge of the class.
  • Unlike middle school English teachers, kindergarten teachers generally do not speak English. This means that I am typically the most bilingual person in the room, which is a pretty sorry state of affairs. This is one area where I really feel the benefit of my slowly strengthening command of the language; these days I can produce just about broken Japanese (making heavy use of imperative sentences) to keep the class on the rails.
Today I feel I overcame these difficulties, and delivered easily the best kindergarten lesson of my career so far. I don't usually go into the details of my work on this blog, because I imagine talking shop is pretty dull for anyone who's not a teacher of English as a foreign language. But I am suitably proud of this one that I'm going to make an exception. Perhaps it'll help someone googling for ideas - us JETs aren't really trained for working with such a young age group.

I decided to base the lesson around The very hungry caterpillar, a book I fondly remember from my own infancy. I had considered this before, but dismissed it as being too advanced - how many foreign languages can you say 'cocoon' in? However, I decided to run with it on this occasion, figuring that since I was teaching the oldest class at the end of the academic year, it was the best shot I was going to get. Besides, I was hard up for other ideas.

It turned out to be a smart move. I am pleased to say that Harapeko aomushi ('the very hungry cabbageworm') is a firm children's favourite in Japan too, so most of the kids already knew the story, which helped a lot. In fact, the kindergarten had a huge Japanese version of the book, which made my, regularly-sized English one look a little pathetic.

First I got the kids to gather round me and I read the story with lots of gestures and animated facial expressions. Having done my homework and looked up words like 'caterpillar', 'cocoon', 'nibble' and 'butterfly', I was able to kind of act as interpreter for myself. The book presents a lot of educational possibilities: one could use it as a springboard to teach numbers, days of the week, or elementary entomology. But I decided to focus on the foods consumed by the insatiable larva. He eats 16 things: one each weekday, ten on his Saturday binge, and a single leaf for his pre-pupal meal on Sunday. Discarding the leaf as not being proper human food, that left me with 15. Normally, I would say that attempting 15 new vocab items in one lesson would be a mistake in middle school, and disastrously overambitious for pre-school. However, only four or five of them were truly novel; the kids all know the more basic fruits in English, and many of the other things are katakana loanwords in Japanese (chokoreeto keeki, sooseeji, aisu kuriimu, etc).

I had prepared picture flashcards for each of these things by scanning the book, digitally tidying up the images and printing them off as colour A5 pictures, then putting these in plastic pockets for protection. (Finding a scanner, negotiating permission to use it, discovering the software for it wasn't even installed, and then figuring out how to do this myself despite the twin obstacles of overzealous computer security and Japanese, was a mission in itself.) Anyway, I reviewed the vocabulary with these cards, and then used them for a game of karuta. To play, I line the kids up in four teams on one side of the room, and lay the cards out on the other. Each round, one representative from each team competes to be the first to slap their hand down on the picture I shout out, for which they are awarded a sticker.

I use karuta in virtually every kindergarten lesson I do. I was feeling bad about this lack of originality, but I've decided that it may actually be a good thing. Kids that age enjoy repetition, and routine helps lessons to go smoothly. Now as soon as I say 'karuta', the kids (and, importantly, the teacher(s)) have a fairly clear idea of what is required of them, at least at the places where I have semi-regular visits.

For the final part of the lesson, I gave each child a little paper badge bearing one of the 15 items. They sat in a circle while I stood in the middle reading the story. Whenever I said the word describing the thing on their badge, they were to run around the outside of the circle once. Additionally, whenever I said a number, they all had to clap that number of times - they were expecting it before each foodstuff, but the likes of 'one Sunday' and 'two weeks' always caught them out, the fools. The word 'caterpillar' was a cue for them to crawl around like insects, in as much as a mammal can imitate the gait of a hexapod. Finally, 'butterfly' had an analogous action assigned to it, so the game terminated with everyone running around flapping their arms. I think these drinking game-esque activities, where one must identify certain events and respond to them with arbitrary behaviours, work well with young children.

The kids seemed to love it, and that game took me up to the end of the 35-minute lesson nicely. I know from experience that there is nothing worse than trying to pad for ten minutes with pre-schoolers.

In other news:

Apparently a reporter from the Yamagata Shinbun wants to interview me, as part of a regular feature on the prefecture's ALTs.

I went boarding at the oddly named (especially considering that Japanese lacks the phonetic range to differentiate between the English short 'a' and short 'u') but very good Jangle Jungle on Sunday. It was very much geared towards the freestyle end of things, with kickers, boxes, quarter-pipes and many many rollers liberally dotted around. I came off a lip off-balance, and consequently my tailbone hit the hard packed snow with sufficient force that all I could do was emit feeble inhuman-sounding groans for several seconds as my jarred torso attempted to get its act together sufficiently to re-inflate my lungs. My body aching and confidence shattered, my day of riding was effectively over, though I did spend some time gingerly practicing riding switch on beginner runs, just to get my money's worth. Bearing in mind my mishap of last New Year, I feared the worst, but as 48 hours have now passed since the incident I think I'm in the clear.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

El kappatan

It's that time of year again: setsubun, my favourite minor Japanese festival. What I like about it is that, to someone outside of the culture, it sounds like the insane ramblings of a febrile toddler. If you don't know what I'm on about, see last year's post. But to summarise very briefly: throwing beans at demons, and silently eating oversize sushi whilst facing a particular direction (this year, south-south-east, compass fans).

I don't think this surrealism is peculiar to Japan. It is difficult to step outside of one's own culture, especially if one is a Westerner, as our customs have permeated just about everywhere on the planet to a greater or lesser extent. The average Japanese person has a pretty solid understanding of Christmas, for example, though they will invariably overstate the importance of Christmas cake. But imagine trying to explain Christmas to a true outsider, like the hypothetical Martian anthropologist. "So, you cut down an actual tree and erect it inside your house, decorating it with various colourful ornaments and electric lights. And you must eat a bird which is considered by many to be a less tasty version of one that you eat all the time, with a side serving of a vegetable that is almost universally disliked. Remind me, what does this have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ again?"

A similar sort of effect can be found for folklore. For all I've talked about Kappa Sushi (or indeed Kappa Zushi, as I think it should in fact be pronounced), I've never explained what a kappa is. They are mythical river imps, and they have an interestingly multi-faceted character. In some stories, they are mischievous pranksters. Other accounts portray them as a genuinely malevolent force, a little like ogres in our folklore, who like to drown and/or eat children. The only thing they like to eat more than children is - weirdly enough - cucumbers, so people occasionally sacrificially toss cucumbers into rivers as an offering to ensure their children's safety. For this reason, cucumber sushi rolls are often referred to as kappa maki.

On the positive side, kappa are very honourable creatures. Their word is their bond, so if you can somehow trick one into making you a promise, you can hold him to it forever. Another point in their favour is that they supposedly have an advanced understanding of human medicine, with particular expertise in bone-setting. So, worth having on your side.

All good monsters need a weakness, and kappa don't disappoint in this regard. They have a saucer-like depression on the top of their head, and they can survive on land only as long as they keep this filled with water. Should you come across one, you can simply give it a nice deep bow, and it will be honour-bound to return the gesture, even though this will likely result in its demise. So, they may have just been made up to teach children the importance of a) manners and b) staying out of rivers.

Again, I think a lot of our legends would sound similarly demented to a newcomer. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to think about how you would explain vampires to our notional curious extraterrestrial. What I like abut kappa is their moral ambiguity, which I feel most of our fairy tales lack.

Anyway, back to setsubun. Once again, I got a packet of dried beans with my lunch today. On the way home, the supermarket was doing a roaring trade in ehou maki, one of which I managed to bag without being awkwardly interviewed this time around. I pushed the boat out with a huge 880yen sushi log that containing, as tradition dictates, seven fillings. (These were, I think: tuna, eel, prawn, crab, fake crab, salmon roe, and cucumber.) Had I wanted to pull out all the stops in addition to pushing out the boat, I could have got the 1250yen deluxe version which boasted no less than a dozen fillings. But I reasoned that as the number of fillings increased, so did the probability that one of them would be natto.

A teacher of some advanced years was telling me this that this whole ehou maki business only came about a few decades ago, and opined that it was evidence of the shrewdness of sushi merchants. Banishing demons from one's home with a barrage of dried beans is all very well, but there's not much bottom line in that for anybody. I'm inclined to believe this assessment, as the degree of spurious commercialisation surrounding Valentine's Day in Japan puts the West to shame. I mean, they've managed to turn it into two days, for a start.

Finally, I can announce that I just submitted my intention to stay for a third year. Re-upping last time was a no-brainer, but this time I had to repeatedly engage large parts of my central nervous system before coming to a decision. I figured that I've got a pretty sweet gig here, and three years in Japan hopefully isn't going to be that much more detrimental to my career prospects than two would have been. I think I'll probably call it a day after that though.