Monthly Archives: July 2014

Losing the Train in Translation

Soon after I got to Japan I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea for learning Japanese. Because was in Niigata, and Niigata was nicknamed “Snow Country” (Yukiguni) I would study Japanese by studying Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Yukiguni (雪国) in both English and Japanese. (I remember a guy doing this with a novel when I was in Albania and it seemed to work for him.)

This idea crashed and burned fairly quickly and all because of a train. Snow Country is famous for its simple opening line: “The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.” In Japanese it looks like this: 国境の長いトンネルを抜けると、雪国であった.

I broke out a dictionary (more on that later) and started translating:

雪国–snow country

Somehow, someway, I’d missed the train. I went through each word several times trying to find the train. I copied the words onto paper and double checked to see if I’d missed a word. I even got a different copy of the book in case there was a mistake in the version I had. Eventually I gave up and asked Ms. Ogura, my Japanese colleague for help,

Me–Umm, excuse me, Ms. O. Where’s the train?”
Ms. O–It’s implied.
Me–It can’t be implied. It’s the opening line of the novel. It’s like walking up to a stranger and saying “guess my name” and never telling them your name.
Ms. O–Because it’s トンネル (tonneru) in katakana, we know it’s a train tunnel.
Me–That doesn’t mean he’s on a train. He could be walking out of the tunnel.
Ms. O–Why would he be walking in a train tunnel?
Me–How do you know it’s “he”? (Remind me again: why don’t I get invited to parties?)

Something like that. Either way I threw that idea aside, along with the Japanese version of the book, which actually turned out to be a good idea. Sort of.

Back at university when I attempted Spanish (and for one semester, Latin) my bad habit was relying on the dictionary too much rather than the context of the sentence. This meant I’d look up every other word and feel as if I wasn’t making any progress through the assignment. When I went to speak, the introvert would take over and all the grammar rules would lock up in my head (If I were to use the subjunctive at this point in the conversation I would look impressive. If I were capable of understanding the subjunctive I would remember how to use it.) The result was me blabbering on about nothing, usually with a bad accent.

In Japan, I eventually learned to just try to speak more, but the perfectionist would eventaully take over as the other person got faster and faster and the panic and the brain lock would ensue. I was also torn between reading Japanese and spent a lot of time studying the four Japanese alphabets and getting nowhere.

My solution was to pretty much punt and marry a woman whose English was better than my English. I know it’s lazy, but it works when your goal is never studying.

One For Justice One For Sport

It’s no exaggeration to say that some of the worst physical trauma in my life has been caused by alphabetical order.

This is because for p.e. class the p.e. teacher (Mr. Wenzlau and/or Mr. Veneklasen?) used to make us sit in alphabetical order on the front row of bleachers in the old Quonset hut gymnasium in Hayden, Colorado. This put me between Mr. K and Mr. M, who happened to be the two largest boys in my class. I was taller, but that’s useless when you’re rail thin and clumsy and suck at football in a football town. This seating arrangement by itself wouldn’t have been bad except the favorite activity while we were waiting for the teacher to start class was “Pass it Down”. This involved one of the people on the end (Mr. B or Mr. Z), punching the arm of the person next to him and saying “pass it down”. This went down the line until it reached the end and then started back the other way. This basically made me a pinata for Mr. K and Mr. M.

I didn’t like it–and now days there’d be meetings and music talk therapy sessions and cognitive meditative gestalt therapy, and that’s just for Mr. K and Mr. M.– but it was my job to sit there and take it. Mind you, Mr. K and Mr. M made their punches sting, but they were never cruel, except in forbidding me from punching them. (I also remember a couple of times when they forbid the people on their other sides, Mr. H and Mr. Smaller M from punching them. Instead they had to punch me which meant I got punched twice.)

In one of these cases, Mr. Smaller M decided he was also going to forbid me from punching him. I punched him anyway. This led to angry threats and especially hard punches from him, especially after I hit him again. Then, on the way out to the football field, I got pushed from behind and barely managed to keep my feet. Mr. Smaller M had decided to make a fight out of it. What happened next was arguably a draw–I got a small cut on my jaw and Mr. Smaller M got a black eye–but when you’re a rail thin and clumsy guy who sucks at football in a football town, a draw is a stunning accomplishment.

I remember the main comment being “I didn’t know he (meaning me) could fight.”

Unfortunately, the next game became trying to push me into another fight with Mr. C, a fellow trumpet player, who wasn’t well liked at the time. Because I was basking in the glow of a my draw and my sudden modicum of credibility, I got egged into starting the fight even though Mr. C was actually a friend. My heart wasn’t in that one, so my first punch was more of an announcement that the fight should begin. That one was also a draw (mostly because Mr. Grimes broke us up quickly) and I ended up accepting all the blame for that one and received my first and only in-school suspension because it was my job to sit there and take it. I also apologized to Mr. C. and received some advice from the people who’d egged me on that my first punch was too weak.

I haven’t been in a fight since. (There were days, though; there were days.)

Commenting and Carefully Crushing Dreams

Because I dabble in writing things, on occasion people will ask me to check their work. When I did this in my fraternity, I quickly learned to establish a couple rules:

1–If you do not know the assignment, I cannot help you.
2–If you cannot explain the assignment, I will not help you.

I adopted these rules because I tried to help out a couple fraternity brothers and it turned out that they didn’t understand the assignment and my help didn’t actually help them and they blamed me. Later, for reasons I don’t remember, I started editing masters theses from Pakistani students who needed help from a native English speaker. This led to a new rule:

3–Rules 1 and 2 are negated by bundles of cash. (Everyone has a price; mine is quite low.)

I bring this up because several years ago a friend asked me to give my opinion on his novel. He emphasized that he intended to publish it. He then handed me 90 pages of text that, to my surprise, turned out to be the entire novel. It also turned out it wasn’t very good.

I then faced a dilemma. How brutal do I get? Is it my job to crush his dream? After all, he’s not a student. I’m paid to break their dreams. On the other hand, I’ve asked friends to look at things for me and been disappointed when their feedback was sparse and/or vague.  In the case of my friend, I found what little I could that was positive and was as honest and supportive as I could be. I also added my usual caveat that if you follow my advice you’re a fool. Your work is yours; if you make it mine you do so at your peril. (Translation: don’t blame me if you muck things up thanks to me. Something like that.)

A couple years later he gave me a revision. I was shocked at how much better it was. He’d dropped most of the potboiler aspects and had changed the point of view. It was still a bit short and he’s prone to flowery prose that draws attention to itself with its verbose radiance and luminosity.

Recently, he gave me third version. He’s brought back the potboiler elements but much more effectively. He still has a ways to go to get it publishable, but he’s getting there and I’m having fun reading them because thus far each has been different. He’s actually been revising the novel by rethinking it and moving parts around, not just proofreading.

Revolving Fish and the Way of the Sloth

Today, for the first time in forever, our oldest, our youngest and I finished school on the same day and the oldest didn’t have club.

This meant we were able to celebrate the end of the term at the same. Usually, the girls finish at least a week after I do. This makes it hard to do much and once we are able to do something, pretty much everyone else in the area is trying to do the same thing. Also, by this time I’ve settled into the time of sloth and loafing and the notion of showering, shaving and putting on clothes suitable for outdoors seems impossible and too energy draining to be taken seriously. Also, the way of the sloth is cheaper than the way of the, well, of the normal fun-loving human. (At least it’s cheaper until we order pizza.)

The end of term ritual began with the girls arriving home and presenting their report cards. There were, no grades, just lots of circles in the right places meaning they did well. After that we waited for the traditional choosing of the place to eat fight (one usually wants sushi; the other usually wants Italian) but it didn’t happen. Instead, we followed our youngest’s choice and went to Kappa Sushi, a large cafeteria style conveyor belt sushi restaurant. (One plate with double nigiri is 108 yen, or about a US $1.06.) They also have dessert and a several side dishes roaming around on the conveyor. If you’re too impatient to wait for the conveyor, they have a touch pad ordering system and your order is brought to you by a little bullet train. (We suspect this is why our youngest actually likes to go there.)

Today every one was especially hungry and we stuffed ourselves pretty well. It can be hit and miss, depending on what’s in season. Today the salmon and maguro (tuna) were excellent, but the engawa (flounder) and hamachi (yellowtail) were only average.

After lunch we managed to drag ourselves home and while I began warming up for the way of the sloth, the girls went to a video rental store and managed to acquire a copy of Frozen. (This, by the way, is a small miracle as it was only released two days ago and sold 661,000 blue-ray discs in one day.)

Since we were pretty well stuffed, She Who Must Be Obeyed made buttered popcorn (grown by Mother of She Who Must Be Obeyed) for supper. I’m 47 years old and still think this is a pretty cool thing to have supper. Then we watched the movie (in English) and everyone managed to stay awake through the entire movie and watch the funny disclaimer near the end of the credits.

Tomorrow our oldest starts summer band practice and our youngest will probably watch Frozen in Japanese (when it becomes Ana to Yuki no Jyoou or “Ana and the Snow Queen”)

I will focus on sloth and loafing.


Long Memories of Lousy First Impressions

In my experience, I make a decent first impression. It’s the second and third ones I have trouble with. However, here in Japan, first impressions are pretty much everything and you don’t always know which one you’re leaving. In my case the first impressions involved genetics and money.

Thanks to the crap shoot of genetics, I’ve pretty much been granted thin lips and denied anything resembling a bottom lip. (My other option, also coming from my father’s side, was a nose that points up.)  Because of this, when my face is “at rest” I have a naturally angry expression that tends to make me seem less than approachable to people who don’t know me. (People who know generally don’t approach me.) This all gets worse if there’s any tension, say I’m meeting new people. Mind you, I didn’t always realize this.

Soon after meeting all my colleagues at the Board of Education in Nou-machi, I’d often hear people say things along the lines of “Dwayne is very serious.” I didn’t think much of it at the time and would simply play along. “Yes, I’m very serious.)

Months later, during a drinking party, Mr. Komatsu, my supervisor got drunk and told me, quite seriously, that I “didn’t have a kind face” and always looked serious but that when he got to know me he realized I was a nice guy. I was shocked by this, and am still not sure if I should take it as a compliment. This opinion was later confirmed during our weekly trip to the hot spring bath. I told the story about being told I didn’t have a kind face and the men I was with both said, at the same time and quite strongly “you don’t”. Since then I’ve worked to become more aware of the impression I’m leaving, but I still don’t have a bottom lip.

I also left an odd first impression regarding money. Part of the reason I moved to Japan was to earn money to start paying off credit card debt. As such, after I got my first paycheck, I sent a huge chunk of money home and resigned myself to a month of little social life (situation normal, in other words). I did that again the second month I was there, but that time, right after the money had been sent, Mr. Komatsu (who hadn’t yet told me I didn’t have a kind face), told me that he needed money from me to pay for my July pension payment.

I won’t get into the long story of why he needed this except to say that it would help me in the long run. However, in the short run, I kept repeating that I didn’t have any money because I’d already sent a bunch home. He just kind of nodded and then went off an paid the money out of his own pocket without telling me. I was mad that he’d do this–and didn’t realize how big a deal it was for a Japanese colleague to intervene like that–but paid him back the first chance I got. For the rest of the time he was my supervisor, Mr. Komatsu would ask me “money okay?” every time I saw him. He did this even though I never had any money problems after that.

Three years later, as I was at the train station getting ready to leave Nou-machi and move to Tokyo, my second boss, who hadn’t been involved with the money situation because he wasn’t my boss yet, asked me “money okay?”

I tell that second story to trainees just coming to Japan. Your first impression is pretty much the only impression you’ll get to make in Japan. And even people you don’t meet will get that impression.

Let’s Have a Drink and a Chunk of Your Wallet

Yesterday I talked about going to parties at a Japanese “snack” or hostess club and how, despite occasional bloodletting and forced singing in German, it was all a pretty good time. It’s not something I would do on my own though, and that’s partly because I tried it once. Sort of.

It happened by accident and I was simultaneously stupid and lucky.

I don’t remember on which trip this happened, but during one trip I took to Greece, I found myself with time to kill. I wandered about aimlessly with very little plan. I bought some Cuban cigars and decided to track down an English bookstore that turned out to be closed. While I was trying to figure out if the store would be open while I was there, a very kind middle aged gentleman approached me and asked where I was from. He spoke good English but my “stay the hell away from me” introverted self bristled a bit (unfortunately not enough). I don’t remember his entire shtick, but he was kind enough and i was bored enough that when he recommended a bar nearby I said sure. As we were walking there he mentioned something about how the girls would like to talk to me, too.

At this point, my internal alarm went off, but because things were in motion I went along. We ended up a small, loud bar about a block from Syntagma Square. it was empty except for me, the bartender and one woman. I was basically just a bar and a couple chairs and had a cheap plywood feel to it as if everything had only recently been thrown together and decorated with mirrors and bright paint.

The gentleman who’d invited me suddenly began asking me what I wanted to drink. I chose scotch and the bartender quickly poured it. Then, the woman sidled up to me and started chatting me up in pretty good English until I offered to buy her a drink. I remember knowing things weren’t right, especially as everything I did and said was being stared at, In the end, I bought her a scotch.

At this point, the devils over my shoulders finally got through to me and convinced me that what was going on was messed up even for them. I said I had to go which prompted a couple minutes of “no really, just stay . Just stay,” Finally I convinced them that I was leaving and they brought the bill. My brain did a quick drachma to dollar conversion. I owed around 70 dollars for the two drinks. I paid the bill and got the hell out of the bar, even though the kind gentleman offered me yet another drink.

I exited the bar (the name of which escapes me but is probably recorded in my journal from the time). All in all, getting away from the Bar Scam (aka the “Let’s Have a Drink” Scam) for only 70 dollars and no physical mugging wasn’t too bad. As I said, even though was stupid and ignored my own instincts, I was lucky.



Drunken and Bitten in German

A third late one as a result of a work related party. One of these days I’ll have to write about the Japanese version of networking. Until then, hostesses.

Back when I still lived in Niigata, my karate senseis would hold an annual New Years Party with all their students and several parents. The food was usually pretty good. However, because my friend Charles and I were technically adults (behavior not included) we were invited to drinks and more at a Japanese “snack bar”. A snack has little to do with food and a lot to do with alcohol and women.

Basically, a snack is a hostess club that doesn’t charge an entry fee but instead charges a fairly hefty two hour rate that includes basic appetizers and some drinks. The hostesses, or in this case the hostess, is usually attractive and/or charismatic and pours drinks and flirts with the customers to get them to spend money on drinks not included in the service charge. The idea is to get the customers drunk enough that they start spending money on drinks for the hostesses (which are not included in the fee) and on premium extras.

There is a fair amount of cleavage involved, dangerously shorts skirts and a few soft-core “Basic Instinct” moments. Now, because Charles and I weren’t paying, we tended to have a lot more fun than we should have. At one party, for reasons I still don’t understand, I ended up with a 1.8 liter bottle of premium Kubota manju sake to take home. (Note: if you can find a bottle of Kubota, grab it. It’s one of the best on the market.)

However, the evenings were not without their odd moments. Apparently the first time we went, either Charles or I sang the German version of “Genghis Khan” and the second time we went, I was expected to sing it. This request had two minor obstacles. 1) I didn’t actually know the tune and 2) I don’t speak German. Somehow I managed to blast out an impressive version that impressed the hostess. (Something tells me, though, I could have farted out the song and she’d have been impressed.)

At one point, Charles and I took turns slow dancing with the hostess–who, it should be added, spoke English well–however, at one point the hostess, for reasons that, well, for reasons, bit Charles on the neck hard enough to draw blood. At another point she slipped me her address and told me she wanted to see me again. (I don’t know if she did the same with Charles, or if the taste of his blood put her off him completely.)

Either way, I never called her up as I expected there would be more costs and bloodletting involved than I wanted to pay. To this day I wonder how much our senseis actually spent on all that. I also wonder, well, I just wonder.


Driving Right on the Left and Left on the Right

One of the trends that’s followed me throughout my life is that soon after I arrive some place, or reach a certain age, the rules change and I’m no longer eligible for whatever the rules used to allow. When I turned 18 I was legally able to drink 3.2% alcoholic drinks, but seven months later Kansas changed its laws in such a way that I wasn’t able to legally drink until I turned 21.

Japan did something similar to me. When I first arrived in Japan, foreigners could legally drive as long as they possessed a valid International Driver’s License. The could renew it forever. However, about the time I moved to Tokyo someone in Japan realized there wasn’t any money in letting foreigners use foreign licenses and changed the law to require that anyone living in Japan for more than a couple acquire a Japanese drivers license.

Now this in and of itself shouldn’t be that big of a problem. However, Japan being Japan decided to make getting license as complicated as possible. There were exceptions: anyone from a country that drives on the wrong side of the road (left) was granted the ability to get a license without having to take a driving test. Canada filled out enough paperwork that Canadians, despite driving on the correct side of the road (right), were also allowed to get a license without taking a driving test.

The USA, however, having a larger population than most of the wrong side of the road countries combined was unable to fill out the paper work in a way that satisfied Japanese authorities. (Basically, every licensing office in the country would have to fill out the paper work and guarantee that a Japanese could a license without having to take a driving test.) And that’s just the start of it.

To get a license, I first had to prove that I had a license for at least 30 days before I came to Japan. There’s a clerk whose job is to go through documents and match driver’s license dates with entry visa dates. If the clerk’s not satisfied, you will be coming back.

Eventually, to pass this phase, I had to provide all my expired passports and all my expired Kansas driver’s licenses. Luckily, I’m enough of a minor hoarder that I still have all of those. Once that was done I had to get the most recent license translated into Japanese (for 6,000 yen-ish). Then, at long last, I’d be able to take the eye and written test and then take the driving test. (For another 6,000 yen-ish.) Unfortunately, each prefecture (or state) has only one licensing office which makes getting a license an all day project.

History–both personal and as written by other foreigners–and 6,000 for each try says I will fail the test at least once. To avoid this, and because I’d never driven on the wrong side of the road (in an official capacity, at least) I went to the testing center a few years ago and paid 5,000 for a one hour practice session on the test course. (You are expected to know the course when you take the test.) It all went surprisingly smoothly and except for turning on the windshield wipers instead of the blinkers a few times when I was changing lanes, the hour was uneventful.

Unfortunately, at the time I was doing a lot of extra work in the summer and the thought of spending all day at the center only to have spend another day at the center, has caused me to put off trying to get the license for along time.

I hope to do a couple more practice sessions (at least once with a manual transmission) and finally try for my license this summer. Hopefully I’ll only have to do it once; but I’m sure by then the rules will have changed.

A Deadline is Dead to Me if it’s Not Really Dead

One of the skills I’ve never been able to fully master is the art of establishing and abiding by artificial, self-imposed deadlines. This was especially true at university when I had research papers to, well, research and, eventually, to write. I’d draw up a nice, relaxing schedule that staggered out my research and writing and even included a couple days to set the project aside so that I might edit and finish it with the clarity of calmness instead of panic.

I typically stuck to the schedule for about a week, maybe less. The devil over my right shoulder was always reminding me that the fake deadlines weren’t real and nothing would actually happen to me if I missed them. The devil over my left shoulder reminded me I still had a lot of time to get things done. “Take your time. Take all the time you need. Play with us, DL. Play with us forever and ever and ever.”

Something like that. I eventually finished all my projects, but before each deadline there was a a bunch of denial and a bunch of dodgy math:

A = read one book + take notes + return to room + translate bad handwriting into English + organize notes + return to library for book you forgot
B = Random computer failure
C = Printer out of ink
D = meals + toilet breaks + random internet surfing
E = actual writing – denial + rationalizing
Finished paper ≈ 3A(B^2+2C)+4D-E/2

I know it looks crazy–and it is and it wasn’t the best for sanity retention–but it got me through university.

By contrast, friends of mine had, and probably still have, the ability to set a fake deadline and behave as if it’s real. They even said no to social activities because they “have to get part ABC of project XYZ done by Thursday”.

Give me an actual deadline, and the shorter the better–XYZ must be finished by Monday or there will be actual consequences–and I’ll have everything done.

Tell me that telling myself that is a great way to get things and I’ll agree with you and might even try it out, but I’ll eventually realize it’s all just a fake deadline.

Part of the purpose of these daily posts is to impose an artificial deadline and stick to that deadline, especially if I have no ideas when I sit down to write.

Like tonight.

The Slow Chemical Descent Into Madness

I’ve mentioned before that I teach at an all boys school that is the least religious religious school you can imagine. Besides seeing how boys behave in the absence of girls, I also get to watch their slow descent into teenagerhood. This is not a pretty spectacle.

For the most part, teenagers are the equivalent of bottle of pop (Coke and/or soda to people from various soulless regions) that’s been shaken up and then set out in the hot sun to eventually explode. If it doesn’t explode, the longer it sits in the sun, the more flat and disgusting it becomes. With boys this happens in or around 8th grade (for girls it happens sooner but that’s another post).

At the school where I work, the boys arrive in 7th grade with a lot of positive energy and, for a while at least, are a lot of fun to teach. There was one exception to this rule. Several years ago we had a group of 7th graders we dubbed the “Demon Seed” class for their unusually high levels of noise and disinterest and general obnoxiousness. They were so bad that when we met their elementary school teachers, we held a trial to see who was guilty. The elementary school teachers, probably to save their own skins, assured us that the Demon Seed class were an exception and the next class would be nice. This turned out to be true. Most of the Demon Seed Class, though, stayed bad all the way through high school.

For the record: BAD in this case means annoying wastes of time; not violent and dangerous.Even compared to Japanese public schools, are boys are okay.

Starting in 8th grade the non-Demon Seed lads begin to hit the growth spurt in which their bodies get bigger whilst the switches in their brain cells begin shutting down. As a result, many of them get increasingly lazy. This is compounded in Japan because no one is actually allowed to fail until they start the 10th grade. Until then, education is both mandatory and compulsory. (I’ve proposed that, because the school is private, they kick out the bottom students in each class each year. The response is lots of teeth sucking which a Japanese way of saying “um no”.)

Once boys figure out this scam–especially the boys in the lower level English classes–they pretty much begin tuning out. The process starts with lots of “I don’t understand. I don’t understand” said whilst I’m trying to explain something so that they can understand it. This progresses to them saying “Speak Japanese” instead of listening and me saying “um no” which is Liveleese for “Hell no”.

By 9th grade, the boys are fully grown and their brains fully switched off. The lower level classes, especially if they have weak homeroom teachers, become unteachable. Last year I had a 9th grade class that was so bad I broke it into two sections. The “Play Room” for kids who never brought the textbook and just wanted to talk and the “Study Room” for kids who wanted to learn something. i do have a few tricks and have proven my willingness to stay late into the evening to get students to finish a project, but only  a few students are worth the effort.

In 10th grade, the dynamics change. Boys from outside the system are brought in and those who were cool in junior high suddenly find themselves not as cool. Also, failure is suddenly an option. Not surprisingly, that helps quite a bit.