Monday, December 20, 2010

A South Korean Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone! I thought I would write a preemptive blog, since I will be traveling for the holiday. Tomorrow, I am heading to Fukuoka, the biggest city in Kyushu (the southern most island of Japan's four), and then Wednesday evening, I fly to Seoul with a friend who is a teacher in Nagasaki City. So, a South Korean Christmas it is. I can't wait, despite North Korea's threats. I will be in South Korea for a week, hitting up the Seoul area for 5 days and then 2 days in Busan. Two of my friends from Peace Corps Mozambique live around the Seoul area and I am beyond excited to see a couple of familiar faces at Christmas. Our Peace Corps group of about 64 people is a pretty tight-knit group and there is a planned New Years party in Florida that I will obviously be unable to attend, so it will be great to connect with a couple and have our own mini, Asian version of a reunion. After Seoul, I will travel by train to Busan to visit with a friend from high school. She and I have taken similar post-university paths. She did Peace Corps Morocco and is now a teacher in Busan. She has a great blog and you can check it out at

The worst part about a trip is planning for the trip and packing. I am trying to pack like Japanese people do. If you are on a ferry or any other public transportation, you look around and wonder where everyone's luggage is. But a handbag is usually all they need. I am going to be walking around one of Japan's biggest cities for a few hours so I would rather not be wheeling a gigantic Sampsonite suitcase behind me and knocking things over. It's way too bull in a china shop for my liking. Tonight is like the season finale of American idol in my apartment - which articles of clothing has what it takes to make the cut. I also gave my fish (Chikamaru-kun) to a friend to fishsit while I am gone. In order to do so, I had carry my fish tank through the streets of Ojika to her shop. That was no easy feat, seeing as it was all downhill on uneven cobblestone streets. I had to dump out about a third of the water in his/her tank while I was walking (on purpose and not). Chikamaru-kun, you are going on a diet when I get home. I am pretty sure that seven people now think I'm crazy. Like the lady riding her moped who called out "What is it? A goldfish" over traffic. Always excited to understand anything anyone says, I shouted "HAI!" back with fish water dripping from my sweatshirt cuffs.

I did my Christmas lesson as a baking party for three of my high school classes. We made chocolate chip cookies and it was by far, one of my most enjoyable/hectic classes thus far. I wanted to make it fail-proof so I prepped, labeled and pre-measured all of the ingredients, besides handing them each a recipe in English. It basically went like this: "OKAY! (shouting) BUTTER, SUGAR, BROWN SUGAR! (dumping motion with my hands) MIX MIX MIX!" It got the point across and there were zero burned cookies. All the kids sat on the floor to watch the cookies bake and they got to divide them up and keep a plateful to take home. I even decorated the home ec room where we baked in a Christmas winter wonderland theme. Snowflakes on the windows and cool table settings. Sandra Lee from Semi-Homemade on the Food Network would have been proud.

I have noticed that the kids love it when I blaspheme. I almost burned myself on a cookie sheet and said "Jesus!" and the kids burst out laughing. "Erin-sensei, what is Jesus?" I just shrugged and brushed off the deep question that most Christians spend their lives trying to figure out. It's like "Oh no!" Around Halloween, the senior boys made a haunted house and they told me to go through a tunnel on a test run and then proceeded to drop a swinging decapitated head and I yelled "Oh my god!" and all of the undead in the haunted house were laughing. I know my mother is frowning at this paragraph. Sorry, Mom. It just slips out.

I did what felt like about a billion Christmas parties in the elementary school. And nothing says Christmas like a forced Christmas card to the teacher. The entire 4th grade class presented me with colored Christmas cards. I was pretty impressed by some. The kids had written to me in Romaji, which I appreciated. Romaji is the romanization of Japanese characters - so it's all spelled out, rather than written in characters. A few were unenthusiastic, run-of-the-mill Santas but the rest were pretty vibrant, complete with an extra portrait of myself wearing a Santa hat or of anime or cartoons. I passed out candy later and the ones who drew me skinny got the best flavor.

Christmas is never easy away from my family but it's not as sad when I have friends to celebrate with. I hope that wherever you are in this crazy world, you have a wonderful Christmas!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman

The other day I went to the post office to mail Christmas presents to my family. I thought it would be a fairly simple transaction but I made the mistake of asking the question of what the price and delivery time differences were between express and regular. And by question, I mean, one word at a time in Japanese with a vocal question mark. “Price?” (making the money sign, rubbing my fingers together – still not entirely sure if that’s a legitimate hand gesture in Japan) “How long?” (pointing at my wrist like a watch). Sometimes my life just seems like a giant game of charades. But my questions sent the post office into a frenzy. The clerk hurried around, looking for a book and uttering “America, America, America” like a crazy. Another came to the cash register and spent about 10 minutes trying to find it in the system. And another clerk came over to serve as a spectator and to occasionally gesture back at me. It was like we were battling; a gesture-off, if you will. It all eventually worked out.

Then just the other day, I received a notice in the mail from my internet company. Of course, it’s all in Japanese. So I took it to school and my wonderful co-worker told me that it was a bill and that I hadn’t paid my internet in the last two months and the deadline is tomorrow. You can imagine my horror at the possibility of having my internet cut off. I have also always been one of those people who is careful about paying bills on time. My co-worker explained to me how to pay the bill at the post office. You can do so much at the post offices and convenience stores here, just at their ATMs. I took the bill to the post office and put on my lost puppy face and a friendly clerk helped show me how to pay bills through the ATM. It’s magical. You just slide the bill in and there is a barcode that gets scanned and you insert your cash. Voila, paid. I was relieved to take care of that and I am sure the post office workers were relieved to learn that I wasn’t there to send any more packages.

My next hurdle is figuring out the hours at the post office. There are few things I hate more than receiving an “undeliverable package” notice (i.e., I wasn’t home to receive it) and spending the evening knowing that something wonderful from home is only a block away and I have to wait until the next day to receive it. But anyways, apparently you can’t pay for more than one bill at a time (?) at the ATM and have to pay more in the actual post office. And when I wanted to do that, they said that the post office doesn’t do bill transactions after 4, yet they are open until 5. I had a Mozambique moment where I felt exasperated by the whole system. I had so many tantrums/meltdowns at the bank in Monapo. I hate things that don’t make sense. And the clerk just laughed nervously as he explained it and then slowly stepped away while facing me, like I was a Grizzly bear he didn’t want to agitate. So I had to walk there today during my 45 minute lunch to do so. It takes 15 minutes to walk there from school so the whole thing ate up half an hour. Then I had to shove my lunch down and go to class. Needless to say, it was exhausting. Especially since there were hills involved with the walking.

I am teaching three classes of 10th graders this week and they are a lot of fun. There are 27 of them and it’s an oral communications class. Oral communications class = just have fun. I am totally down with that. Today we played the Lifeboat game, where you pretend like everyone has to get on a “lifeboat.” When I would shout “five people in a lifeboat!” students had to find four other people to link arms with to make their lifeboat. Whoever didn’t find four other people, died a terrible death and was out of the game. It got pretty rowdy with shouting and flailing on the floor. It was funny because the boys and the girls refuse to create lifeboats together until absolutely necessary. People were grabbing each other and trying to force them onto their lifeboat. Tomorrow, we are playing the “mustache game.” I made mustaches out of colorful origami paper and wrote the names of famous people or cartoons on them. Each student, without seeing the name of the person or cartoon, has their mustache taped on and has to ask everyone questions to find out who they are. It should be pretty ridiculous. Can’t wait. I did a similar game with the 11th graders and one student had a really hard time guessing Beyonce. My co-worker even sang part of a Beyonce song to him (complete with jazz hands) and he still couldn’t figure it out. Once he finally did, I ordered him to look her up on youtube. It’s always a sad day when someone doesn’t know who she is.

My adult English classes are going great. I have two groups: beginners and advanced. It’s fun sometimes to just sit there and chat. As the “teacher,” sometimes it takes a bit to keep the conversation running. Plus, if I don’t, then they will all sit and stare at me. Sometimes I feel like a nervous date who has written talking points down so I don’t run out of them or like Sarah Palin and her hand during interviews. My English groups have great senses of humor. I asked one student, a housewife and shop owner in her 60s, “what do you say when your husband doesn’t like your cooking?” She thought about it for a moment and then turned to me. “Shut up.” She’s the same one who had to finish the sentence “I am…” and she said “I am a beautiful madam.” I gave her applause for originality and sassiness. She also brought a catalog to my house today so I could look at heaters her shop sells. Anyone who can offer relief from the cold and a small shipping and handling fee is my new best friend.

One thing that has been irking me lately has been some of the students in the elementary school and their fascination with poking me in the stomach. Now, I’m no Barbie but I don’t have a ridiculously large stomach. Some of them seem to have taken to me like their personal Pillsbury dough girl and it’s driving me up the wall. I am just generally against random people touching me (borderline mild obsessive compulsive), so when I greet a student in the hall with a wave and they walk up behind me and grab at my stomach, I start to feel a little bitter. The next time it happens, I am going to give them a serious “stop it” in Japanese. Sometimes when class begins and I am greeting the students, the teacher has me shake every kid’s hand as I ask them how they are. I’d like to keep the colds or flus to a minimum this winter season and I haven’t counted out carrying a latex glove with me each time I visit. Or maybe whipping out a bottle of Purell after each handshake would send the right message.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Everyone Could Use a Good Outburst

Let`s see. What`s new? Thanksgiving was good but uneventful. I didn`t do much. In fact, it was like any other day. I was going to make a one-person thanksgiving dinner but then decided it was too much work when I got home from school and just made a chicken stir-fry. Living in Mozambique for two years kind of dulled the ache I feel for American holidays. I do love both Thanksgiving and Christmas, but if you aren`t reminded of family get-togethers and all the jazz that comes along with the holidays, you tend to treat those days like any other.

In good news, I bought my ticket to fly to South Korea for Christmas. I am planning to spend a week there, splitting my time between Seoul and Busan. I am traveling with a friend from here and I`m hoping to visit some Peace Corps friends and a high school classmate while I`m there. I am hoping that the whole situation with North Korea calms down beforehand. It`s really bad timing. It`s like the time in college when I was days from my trip to Italy and the pope died. True story. People flocked to Rome and it resulted in ridiculously long lines. Somehow, I think that I would be facing the opposite problem in South Korea.

School is going well. It feels like I am constantly at the elementary school - which might explain how I caught a horrible cold. It wasn’t your typical “ah-choo” cold. It was one of those long, drawn-out colds with night sweats, fever, sore throat and other unseemly issues. All those children and their germs. I wore a sars mask for the first time at school and it was pretty magical. People wear masks here when they are sick or are afraid they are going to get sick. No one could see my face. Of course, everyone asked "you have a cold?" And then they wanted to know my symptoms and told me I should go to the hospital. Japanese people, much like Mozambicans, go to the hospital for the smallest cold. So they seemed kind of shocked when I said no to their recommendation and said I didn`t need to visit the hospital. It would be a waste of time, in my opinion, when I could just self-diagnose. And it would just cause extra stress because I don`t speak Japanese well and when I am sick, I lose my ambition to mime with my hands.

In sad news, one of the tires on my bike is punctured and I have to walk everywhere. I don`t mind this so much as it gives me exercise, but it`s definitely more time-consuming. I get my cardio in on the way to the gym rather than at the gym, I suppose. Glass half full. I visited Ojika`s public gym for the first time once last week and it is actually a cute little gym. Some of the equipment is outdated and may have been proven at some point to be ineffective in the quality of exercise it offers. I half expected to see that slimming belt machine that women stood there, wearing around their hips in the 1950`s, thinking it was providing a workout with the smallest contribution of standing there on their part. But I used the weights. I do this because I am a wuss. I`m not a wuss because I lifted the weights at the gym. It`s because I could lift weights for free at the high school but there are always students and a couple of male teachers in there and women don`t lift weights in Japan. At least not on my island. I would rather not get gawked at and no one uses the public gym weight room that often. So, I am planning to go a couple times a week probably. I bought a more powerful flashlight if I have to walk home in the dark. I was pretty excited about that flashlight when I bought it at the 100 yen shop. Maybe it`s because I like to put batteries in things. It gives me a sense of accomplishment.

So I have decided that I am going to write about a couple of things that drive me bonkers. First and most importantly, there is no insulation in Japanese housing. If you want heat, you have to buy a space heater, a heated blanket, a kotatsu table (a table with a built-in heater) or start packing. I have none of those and so far, wearing a hat, socks three shirts, a pair of pants and a long dress over all of that to bed has been working for me. But it will get colder so I imagine I will have to break down eventually and buy a space heater that I will become paranoid about whether I turned it off or not once I am school. It`s like my bad relationship with curling irons in high school. I probably put several miles on my old Dodge Shadow turning around to run home quick before school to make sure I had unplugged the curling iron – a paranoia that eventually expanded to the toaster and oven burners. One might have called it mild obsessive compulsive. But it`s not like I had to switch the light on and off an even amount of times before leaving the house.

Next, formality. I know. I know. I am not really that surprised by how formal everyone is in Japan, especially after coming from Moz and having to call everyone “o excellisimo senhor director, etc., etc.” But people in Moz were also far more blunt. If they didn’t like something, they would tell you. In the states, we obviously don’t have a problem with expressing our opinions either. But in Japan, what is said always errs on the side of politeness rather than the truth. In some ways this is good because people avoid confrontation and angry outbursts. But I am of the opinion that confrontation and outbursts are sometimes exactly what the doctor ordered. Who hasn`t screamed into a pillow at least once in their life, right?

And sometimes, I realize that I should put my foot in my mouth after the matter. For example, I have learned not to ask people if they went on a vacation. I asked a person this after being gone for several days and it was extremely awkward. To me, as an American, going on a vacation is great and everyone should use their vacation time to travel, have some much-needed fun and relax a couple times a year. Asking about how a trip went is just a polite courtesy. In Japan, there is this inclination to always appear busy and to work yourself into the ground. People will often spend 14 hour days at the office and this seriously impacts their family relationships and home lives. Much of the time, it is men working the long hours, leaving women to be the main caretakers of the children. I have been reading articles on Japanese society and the effects of such long days at the office. People are marrying and having fewer children at an older age. Some people can`t cope with the demanding work and withdraw from society to become “hikikomori” or people who don`t leave their homes and isolate themselves from society. And many younger people, referred to as “parasite singles,” live with their parents into their late 20`s or early 30`s because it is just easier and more comfortable. In my opinion, a healthier balance needs to be found between work and home.

Next, I still get flustered whenever people stare. I grew used to it while I was in the Peace Corps but it still can get bothersome. I always walk up a hill to school and there is always a group of guys standing outside in front of what appears to be a burning barrel, having a morning meeting before they all get in their trucks to go fishing or whatever their profession is. They always see me coming up the road and then stare when I am not that far from them. I guess I could say that innocent curiosity is fine when a person stares but when you have seen me before and realize that I probably won`t be gnashing my teeth and speaking in tongues anytime soon, it becomes rude to stare and it makes me fight the urge to go all Portuguese Erin on them.

One thing I have noticed with languages is that I am a totally different person in each. In Japanese, I am far more reserved and quiet because I can`t speak or understand the language that well yet. Portuguese Erin is a totally different story. She`s kind of a Sasha Fierce. This was the Erin that wouldn’t think twice about insulting someone if they were being rude. I never realized how aggressive I was until my sister came to visit me in Moz and a guy was being rude near the market and I made fun of his stutter right to his face. It just came out and I don`t know where it comes from. All I remember was my sister pausing and saying “did you just make fun of that man`s stutter?” I think that may be my survival of the fittest language. English is my normal self – a reasonable portion of everything. And I can crack jokes. I miss having someone around who has a similar sense of humor and finds the funny in the same things I do. I am definitely excited for my family to come visit in the spring.

Christmas is in a few weeks! My only decoration is a red and green tablecloth that some other ALT left behind in Ojika. I don`t really see a point in making or buying a bunch of decorations if the only person who is there to appreciate it is me. I am just fine with keeping the decorations at a minimum and randomly listening to the five Christmas songs I have on my iPod. I might make Christmas cookies. Key word there is might. A lot of these kids have grown up with ALTs telling them about Christmas, so I think that shoving it down their throats anymore would be tiresome. I will try to do some kind of activity or game with them at school. Last week, I had 4th, 5th and 6th grade and we all played Christmas bingo. Tomorrow, I have 1st, 2nd and 3rd and take one guess as to what game the Japanese teachers want us to play. I curse the invention of the game.