Friday, September 29, 2006

I brake for soccer-playing pandas

I love the road signs in this town. They make me feel like I’m living in a zoo. My favourite sign is the one warning drivers to watch out for pandas playing soccer in the middle of the street.

A little further up the road is a sign that urges drivers to brake for chicks wearing little yellow hats.

I also like this sign posted by the “poop police.” The mug shot of the dog is a nice touch.

I’m not sure what this next sign means. It’s either warning people not to hang glide near the power lines or it’s an ad for a hang gliding company. (Hang gliding! Power lines! Fun!)

Monday, September 25, 2006


My school held its annual undokai (sports day) this weekend. Undokai is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

It’s a huge event and everyone takes it very seriously. Maybe a little too seriously. I saw two students almost come to blows during practice last week. One boy started screaming and lunging at another boy who he felt wasn’t trying hard enough. Two teachers had to jump in and pull them apart before the punches started flying. I also saw a few girls crying during dance practice because they couldn’t get the steps right.

These kids have been under an incredible amount of pressure during the past two months. This is no touchy-feely “let’s just try our best and have fun” sports day. The only thing that matters here is winning. It matters so much that some of these kids even spent their summer vacation at school, practicing for sports day.

I’m not sure what to think about this emphasis on perfection. It doesn’t seem healthy. But, at the same time, all of their hard work makes for some incredible performances. It’s inspiring to see these kids compete at such a high level but I can’t help but feel there’s a darker undercurrent at play. They seem to be driven not by joy but by a fear of failure. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It’s just different.

Whether I agree with it or not, all of their hard work paid off. It was an impressive day from start to finish. The students were divided into four teams (red, white, blue and yellow) and competed in all of the events as a group. There were no individual stars.

There were all sorts of different events, ranging from the ordinary (100-metre sprint, three-legged race, tug of war) to the bizarre (parents whipping the students around on a giant bamboo pole).

One of the most entertaining events was what can only be described as the "tire grab." A bunch of old car tires were placed in the middle of the field. Two teams lined up behind white lines on opposite sides of the field. When the whistle blew, each team ran to the middle of the field and tried to grab as many tires as they could, by any means possible. Punching, hitting, kicking, tackling and stealing were all fair game.

I would like to say that I just sat back and watched. But I was forced to participate. Not in the tire grab. Worse. In the 800-metre run. For some reason, girls are not allowed to run the 800 but they made an exception for me. Which means I had to race against the boys, including the male gym teachers.

Luckily, I’m a good sport. So I did it. I ran the 800 in front of all the students, all of their parents and pretty much the entire town. I’m happy to report that I did not come in dead last. I came in second last. I passed a nerdy kid who was dying in the last 100 metres.

Here’s a photo of me running the 800. This is either at the start of the race or near the end when everyone lapped me. Yes, a bunch of 13-year-old boys and one chain-smoking gym teacher lapped me. After almost two months in Japan, public humiliation no longer fazes me.

Some of the sports were judged, such as dancing and cheering. These were the main events and they were the ones that the students worked night and day to perfect. The girls danced.

And the boys did this. I have no idea what it’s called.

Despite the pressure, most of the kids seemed to be having fun. They were screaming and cheering for their teams and were happy to pose for pictures. The kids in the black suits and white gloves are the captains of the cheering squads.

It was a fun day but I’m sort of glad it’s over. I haven’t been teaching much during the past two weeks because most of my time at school has been spent sitting around watching the students practice. I think the kids are secretly relieved it’s over too.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

I no longer hate volleyball

I never thought I’d say this but I’m actually starting to like volleyball. Trust me, no one is more surprised by this ironic turn of events than I am.

Up until a few weeks ago, I was a hardcore volleyball hater. Now, I’m buying kneepads so I can dive for the ball like everyone else.

Why the sudden flip-flop? It’s simple, really. The more I play, the better I get. The better I get, the more I enjoy it. I hardly even notice the forearm pain anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no superstar. I still suck. I mean, I’m so bad my teammates banned me from playing in a tournament last week. But, even so, they’re still some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Either that or I’ve got a serious case of Stockholm syndrome.

I think my teammates started to warm up to me when they realized I wasn’t going to give up and walk away. (Finally! People who appreciate my stubbornness!)

I scored a few bonus points when they found out I spent two hours on the train for the sole purpose of buying kneepads at the “local” sports store. They also found out about my secret training on Wednesday nights (turns out there is no secret anything in this town).

But the real turning point came on Saturday night when my teammates invited me out for drinks.

This wasn’t your average night out with the volleyball team. This was a "welcome party" in my honour. One of the girls baked a cake. One of the guys made dinner. Everyone was fun and friendly and went out of their way to make me feel like a part of the team.

Halfway through the night, two of the guys pulled out a pair of guitars and announced they had spent the past three weeks practicing a Canadian song to welcome me. They sat down at the front of the room, plugged in a mike, set up a sheet of music and started playing Neil Young’s Harvest Moon.

Here were two guys who could barely speak English and yet they had gone to all the trouble to learn how to play (and sing) Harvest Moon. Just for me. It was such a kind and thoughtful gesture I wanted to cry. How could I hate volleyball after that?

It’s ironic how a sport that once filled me with fear and loathing has now become the highlight of my week. Believe it or not, I’m actually starting to like volleyball!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Waiting for the typhoon to hit

A major typhoon is about to slam into my town. The outer edge of it has already arrived, bringing torrential rain and howling wind. The windows in my apartment sound like they’re about to rattle right out of their frames.

I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to do. I’m all alone. Should I barricade myself inside a closet in case the windows explode? Oh my god. Oh my god. The wind is insane. It's picking up speed. It’s getting louder and louder. I have never heard wind like this before. And the typhoon hasn’t even hit yet.

Holy crap. The utility poles are shaking. The power lines look like they’re going to snap. Stuff is blowing off my balcony. Okay, I’m really scared now.

UPDATE: Well, I survived my first typhoon. Others were not so lucky. At least 10 people are dead and a gust of wind even lifted a train from the tracks. Apparently, typhoons are pretty common and generally not a big deal. But this one was scary.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A "typical" day

06:30: Wake up. Get out of bed.

06:32: Scan the bathroom for cockroaches. See one lurking behind the soap dish. Scream. Run out of the bathroom. Grab the vacuum cleaner. Chase the cockroach around the apartment until it finds a hiding spot the vacuum cleaner can’t reach. Am fully awake now.

06:35: Shower. Turn the gas line on. Hold down the knob on top of the shower heater while turning the crank on the side of the heater. Bend over and look inside the little window on the bottom of the heater to make sure there is a flame. Keep turning the crank until a fire is lit. Turn the shower on. Shiver violently under a steady stream of cold water.

06:45: Get dressed. Wear newly purchased ghetto outfit in order to fit in at school where all of the teachers wear polyester tracksuits.

06:50: Eat breakfast. Make toast by putting slices of bread on the fish grill, as there is no toaster or oven in my apartment.

07:00: Watch Japanese morning “news” on the one channel my TV actually gets. The top story is almost always about baseball, usually the heroic feats of some guy named Matsui. This is followed by a report about a horrific traffic accident somewhere. The rest of the “news” consists of press conferences with American celebrities on tour in Japan.

07:45: Bike to school. Bow to the grannies along the way.

08:20: Attend the staff meeting, which is conducted entirely in Japanese. Try not to look too confused.

08:30: Teach English. I usually teach four classes a day, alongside a Japanese English teacher. I am based at a public junior high school where the students range in age from 12 to 15. Some of them spend the class asleep at their desks; others talk with their friends. Apparently, this is all perfectly acceptable classroom behaviour. Last week, I watched one kid turn around and squeeze the blackheads out of his friend’s nose for five minutes while the Japanese teacher carried on like nothing was happening. Of course, there are loads of kids who are enthusiastic about speaking English. There are even a few who like to scream my name down the hallway. When I’m not in class, I sit at my desk in the staff room, study Japanese and inhale second-hand smoke.

12:40: Eat lunch. The school serves up a hot lunch every day (usually rice, fish and vegetables). The students eat lunch in the classroom. Two students from each class put on hospital scrubs, surgeon’s masks and hairnets, and serve lunch to the other students while elevator music blasts over the loudspeakers.

15:30: Clean the school. The school shuts down for 15 minutes every day so the students and teachers can clean it from top to bottom. The principal blasts frantic classical music over the loudspeakers. His favourite song is Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, which always makes me feel like I’m in the middle of that famous scene from Apocalypse Now. But instead of machine guns, everyone is running around with brooms, mops and rags ready to wage war on dirt and dust.

16:40: School ends. However, almost all of the students and teachers will stick around for another few hours for sports practice. These kids are mind-blowingly good at sports. They take it very, very, very seriously. I peeked in on the girls’ volleyball team and my jaw hit the ground. Each and every one of them was practically an Olympic caliber athlete. Same goes for the judo team, the softball team, the track team. It’s absolutely incredible to watch. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They train with military precision. There are no breaks. Drills are repeated again and again and again until the kids get it right. Anything less than perfection is unacceptable. This rigorous training probably explains why so many kids are asleep at their desks during the day.

18:00: Bike home. Bow to the grannies along the way. Make dinner. Watch the evening “news” on TV, followed by Full House dubbed in Japanese.

19:30: Bike back to school for volleyball practice with the locals.

20:00: Play volleyball for two hours. Suffer incredible forearm pain and soul-destroying humiliation.

22:30: Bike home. Scan the bathroom for cockroaches. Shower. Crawl into bed. Wake up eight hours later. Repeat.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Super size my ass

I had my first real taste of culture shock the other night.

I went into town to buy a pair of baggy, knee-length shorts to exercise in because the spandex shorts I brought with me are too tight and too short for rural Japan.

I browsed the racks for about 15 minutes before I found a pair of shorts that were both regulation length and relatively stylish (“relative” being the operative word here).

I grabbed a small-sized pair to try on since all the women in this town keep telling me how “slim” I am. Seriously. They are obsessed with my weight. I hear “You are so slim!” at least three times a day.

They eye me up and down, smiling and nodding approvingly while I squirm with embarrassment. After about five minutes of this, one of them will finally say, “You. Have. Nice. Body!” It’s both flattering and creepy.

So I could be forgiven for assuming I would be able to fit into a small-sized pair of shorts. But when I tried the shorts on, I couldn’t get them up past my knees. They were so small I had to double-check to make sure I hadn’t grabbed a pair of child’s shorts by mistake.

The same thing happened when I tried on a medium pair. So I tried on a large pair. This time I was able to get the shorts up past my knees but not past my hips. So I tried on an extra-large pair. And the shorts still didn’t fit! They were stretched so tightly against my butt the seams were about to split.

All I could think was “My ass is XXL? Are you kidding me?”

Adding insult to injury, the store didn’t even carry XXL shorts. So I ended up buying a (large) pair of spandex yoga pants instead because, apparently, I can only fit into clothes that are made of stretchy material with an elastic waistband.

Like I said, it was my first real taste of culture shock.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Going buggy

So far, there are only two downsides to living in rural Japan. One is being forced to play volleyball. The other is being forced to deal with the bugs.

The bugs here are not like the bugs in Canada. These bugs are absolute monsters. They are big and hairy and have teeth and fangs. They slither down from the mountains at night and crawl in through the cracks in the walls.

My voice is hoarse from screaming every time I see a cockroach in my apartment. I can’t help it. They’re always sneaking up on me when I least expect it. The blur of a brown thing with skinny legs and long feelers zooming up the wall or scurrying across the floor makes me jump out of my skin.

I can’t suppress the screaming even though I know I should since I live on top of the town library and my ear-splitting screams probably terrify everyone quietly reading their books below.

But I’m taking steps to deal with the bug problem. I have set up several roach traps in my apartment (one is at the foot of my mattress in case any of the little bastards try to crawl into bed with me while I am sleeping).

I also have the vacuum cleaner plugged in and at the ready at all times. My makeshift bug-killing machine ruthlessly sucks up any cockroach, beetle, centipede or spider that dares enter my apartment. (I also keep a towel stuffed in the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner when it’s turned off just in case any of the bugs try to crawl back out.)

The creatures are omnipresent. You don’t just see them; you can hear them at all times. The cicadas scream all day. The crickets chirp all night. The frogs croak in the rice fields. And I am always hearing little scuffling sounds in my apartment. Or at least I think I am. Either way, I am going completely buggy.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Deciphering the ubiquitous peace sign

I’ve been taking lots of pictures here in Japan and emailing them home to my family.

My brother wrote back to say the photos were great but why was everyone in them spreading their fingers and making a peace sign?

His question stumped me. I mean, I knew that Japanese people liked to strike a peace-sign pose in pictures but I didn’t know why exactly.

So I decided to ask one of the teachers at my school (and by “ask” I really mean “play charades” since his English is about as good as my Japanese).

My question came out sounding something like, “Camera. Japanese people. Peace sign. Why?”

He immediately understood what I was getting at.

“Ahhhh . . . piisu!” he said.

“Yes! Why?” I asked, pretending to hold a camera up to my face.

“War. Bad,” he said, firing an imaginary machine gun around the room. “Japanese like peace.”

He went on to explain that younger people like to pose by making a peace sign with their fingers while older people (such as himself) generally prefer to be photographed giving the thumbs up.

The language barrier prevented us from delving too deeply into the cultural significance of the thumbs up or the peace sign. So I googled it when I got home. I found a few interesting theories, including this one that links the start of the Japanese peace-sign craze to the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo. Here’s an excerpt:

“Figure skater Janet Lynn stumbled into Japanese pop culture when she fell during a free-skate period but continued to smile even as she sat on the ice. Though she placed only 3rd in the competition, her cheerful diligence and indefatigability resonated with many Japanese viewers, making her an overnight celebrity in Japan. Afterwards, Lynn (a peace activist) was repeatedly seen flashing the V sign in the Japanese media. Though the V sign was known of in Japan prior to Lynn’s use of it there (from the post-WWII Allied occupation of Japan), she is credited by some Japanese for having popularized its use in amateur photographs.”

It’s a cool little story but is it true? Did Janet Lynn single-handedly start the Japanese peace-sign craze? If anyone can shed some light on Japan’s obsession with the peace sign, let me know. I’d like to give my brother a proper answer to his question.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

First day of school

I’m happy to report I survived my first day on the job as a junior high school English teacher.

Fortunately, there weren’t any classes so I didn’t have to teach. Unfortunately, I did have to give a three-minute speech in Japanese in front of the entire school at the opening ceremony. Have I mentioned that I don’t speak Japanese? Right. You can probably guess how this is going to go.

I was given a week to write, translate and memorize my speech. A very sweet, old retired teacher who keeps showing up at school in a shirt and tie every morning despite the fact that he no longer works there took it upon himself to help me with my speech.

The first day of school finally arrived on Friday. I showed up 20 minutes early but I was the last person to arrive. I sat down at my desk, which is conveniently located right next to the kitchen (“kitchen” meaning “smoking room”), and silently ran through my speech.

At 9:00 a.m. I was ushered into the gym for the opening ceremony. Most of the teachers were carrying an extra pair of shoes to wear inside the gym. I, of course, did not bring an extra pair of shoes and was told to take off my slippers before entering the gym. This meant that I was now barefoot. As if I wasn’t self-conscious enough already.

I joined the other teachers in the back of the gym. All 350 students lined up in rows near the front. There were a couple of military drills. Attention! At ease! Bow! And then all the students sang a song while the music teacher accompanied them on the piano.

The principal walked up on stage and gave a long, drawn-out speech in Japanese. And then suddenly, I heard three familiar words: Sarah Denise Marchildon. All heads turned towards me. I just stood there and smiled until I caught the principal gesturing wildly for me to come to the stage. But in order to get to the front of the gym, I had to squeeze my way through the students first. There were a lot of eyes looking down at my bare feet.

Up on stage, I set my cue cards down on the podium and adjusted the microphone. I started my speech with a big smile and an enthusiastic “Hello, everyone! Nice to meet you!” The response? Absolutely nothing. Not one smile. Nothing but a sea of blank stares.

I was caught off guard but I forged ahead in badly accented Japanese. About halfway through the speech, I asked if anyone liked English. The response? Absolutely nothing. Not one smile. Nothing but a sea of blank stares.

I pasted on a big smile and mustered an enthusiastic-sounding “Please raise your hand if you like English!” The response? Absolutely nothing. Not one hand in the air. Nothing but a sea of blank stares.

Sensing that I was floundering, the principal tried to bail me out. He jumped in front of the first row of students and starting yelling frantically while waving his hands wildly in the air. One or two students grudgingly raised their hands.

I was so rattled I completely forgot the second half of my speech so I ended up reading it off the cue cards. And then I got the hell off the stage. They may have applauded. They may not have. I honestly don’t remember.

After the opening ceremony finally ended, the students headed back to their classrooms for exams (yes, exams on the first day of school) and I went back to my desk in the staff room, mistakenly believing the worst was over.

That’s right. The humiliation didn’t end with the speech. That was just a warm-up. At 3:15 p.m. one of the teachers came running over to my desk and said it was “cleaning time.” The teacher said I should help out because it’s a good way to chat with the students one-on-one.

She ushered me into a classroom and handed me a rag. She told me to join a group of three girls who were crouched down on all fours, cleaning the floor. I kneeled down on the ground and tucked my skirt between my legs in order to avoid flashing the group of teenage boys who were pushing brooms around the room.

After about two minutes of crouching on all fours, polishing the floor with a rag, I noticed that the boys had stopped pushing the brooms around. Instead of cleaning, they were standing the corner, elbowing each other while staring at me with ear-to-ear grins on their faces. That’s when I realized that they could see straight down my top as my shirt fell forward away from my chest as I leaned over to clean the floor.

If I had known all it took was a little cleavage to get them animated, I would have worn a bustier for my speech.

By the time school ended, I was craving a stiff drink. Fortunately, the teachers invited me out for dinner, drinks and karaoke. Over dinner, a few teachers went out of their way to tell me my speech was “great” and that the students were shy but they’d warm up to me in time.

As the night went on, and the teachers became more rowdy and uninhibited, I started to feel better. Funny how a few drinks and karaoke can do that. The principal even invited me to climb Mount Fuji with him next summer and I think I’m going fishing with the 22-year-old PE teacher in a few weeks.

It was so much fun that I’m actually looking forward to going back to school on Monday.