Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Bad Boy Jr.

When last year’s Grade 9 class graduated in March, I thought my old nickname was gone for good.

With Tomoaki and his cabal of sexual harassers far away in senior high school, I figured there’d be no one left to scream out “Nippluss!” at me down the hallways.

Things were deceptively quiet at first. After the Grade 9 students graduated, more than 100 brand new Grade 7 students arrived to take their place. They were like a breath of fresh air compared to some of the surly punks who had gone before them.

The mood at school seemed to change overnight. Things were lighter and happier. My classes with the new students have been an absolute joy. The kids are so much fun. They’re really excited about learning English and they’re enthusiastic about participating in class.

I was particularly impressed with Koji, a cute little boy who was always raising his hand in class and finishing his assignments long before the other kids were done.

The Japanese English teacher was equally impressed with him, but for different reasons.

She pulled him aside after class one day and asked me if I remembered his older brother.

“That depends,” I said. “Who is his older brother?”

“Tomoaki,” she said.

Tomoaki!?!” I sputtered.

She nodded and laughed at my reaction. She said she could hardly believe the two boys were related herself.

Koji was quiet and polite while Tomoaki was rude and obnoxious. Koji paid attention in class while Tomoaki slacked off. Koji called me “sensei” while Tomoaki called me “nippluss.”

I was amazed at how these two brothers could turn out so differently. But the bubble burst last week. I was walking down the hallway between classes when it happened.

“Nippluss!” a voice cried out.

I whipped around to see Koji snickering with a group of older boys. Suddenly the resemblance to his older brother was striking.

I walked over to where they were standing and asked Koji to repeat what he just said.

“Nippluss!” he said in the same cocky and defiant tone his brother used on a daily basis.

“Your brother is very bad,” I told him. “You are very good.”

“No, no, no,” one of the older boys corrected me. “He is Bad Boy Junior.”

After I turned and walked away, a chorus of "Nippluss!" rang out down the hallway.

I give up.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

One year ago today . . .

I fractured my shoulder while racing in a triathlon. It blows my mind to think a whole year has gone by since then. It seems like just yesterday I was lying in a hospital bed alternating between excruciating pain and a morphine-induced haze.

I remember the orthopedic surgeon telling me it would take at least a year to fully recover from the injury. Turns out he was right.

My left shoulder still isn’t 100 per cent. I can swim without pain but volleyball practice leaves my shoulder throbbing. I still have occasional numbness and tingling in my left hand (due to nerve damage). And I have trouble reaching for things on shelves above my head.

But the thing that bothers me the most is how quickly the past year has flown by. One minute you’re being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, the next minute you’re taxiing down a runway in Japan. Time isn’t slipping away; it’s barreling downhill and picking up speed as it goes. Just whoosh and it’s gone.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Chest Hair Police

I’m an unofficial member of my school’s long-distance running club. I only show up for practice once a week. Anything more and I would go out of my mind with boredom. All they do is run circles around and around and around a dirt track worn into the ground.

I asked the running coach why the kids don’t run on the road (“Too dangerous!”) or on the trails (“Too dangerous!”) or on the path by the river (“Too dangerous!”).

The logic behind his workouts is equally baffling. The kids will do a set (2 x 1600 metres, for example) followed by a 20-minute break. Then they will do another set followed by a 45-minute break. And so, during the course of a three-hour workout, they spend less than an hour actually running.

During a ridiculously long break between sets last night, I was sitting with a group of Grade 9 boys. Not only are these kids the stars of the running club but they’re also my favourite students in the whole school. They’re just so happy.

Anyway, I was asking them what their nicknames were and they said they didn’t have any. I told them they needed English nicknames.

They loved the idea and starting making up English nicknames for each other. They did all the work and I just sat back and laughed at their new names: Lettuce Mountain, Monkey Pineapple, Invisible Volunteer, Fruit Punch, Mayonnaise, Amazon Solider and, my personal favourite, Chest Hair Police.

“And me?” I asked. “What’s my nickname?”

They consulted with each other in Japanese until Lettuce Mountain blurted out, “Beautiful Lady!” This was greeted with a loud “No! No! No!” from Invisible Volunteer. They huddled again and then Chest Hair Police yelled out, “Beautiful Lady Princess!” (It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue but it’s a huge improvement over my last nickname.)

I may not be getting a good workout with the running club but, damn, I’m having a lot of fun with these kids!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Kitty porn

This is so wrong on so many levels that I don’t even know where to start.

Why does this cat have a penis? Why is it holding a banana like that? Who commissioned this thing and what exactly is it supposed to be advertising?

Is it a fruit market? A veterinary clinic? A sex shop? A pet store?

Someone please enlighten me!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Bike love

This is Sachi. She’s probably the closest thing I have to a best friend in Japan. Without her, my life in this little town would be unbearably lonely.

We met last summer at volleyball practice and we’ve been inseparable ever since. Partly because Sachi is one of the few people in this town who can speak English. But mostly because she’s the only one here who really understands me.

We’re both in our 30s. We’re both single. We’re both outdoorsy.

Sachi is awesome. She’s traveled the world. She speaks three languages. She rides a motorcycle. She loves hiking and kayaking and cycling. She’s open and honest and always speaks her mind.

All of this adds up to make her a bit of an oddity in our rural town. Neither of us really fit in here.

And so, when the weekend comes, we hop on our bikes and just ride.

Our bike rides usually last the whole day. Yesterday, we rode for five hours. Sachi took me down to her favourite camping spot by the river. We sat on a couple of rocks and just breathed in the fresh air for a while.

In Vancouver, the highlight of my weekend rides is when we stop for cinnamon buns and coffee. In Japan, we stop for ramen and gyoza instead.

Last week at school, one of the kids asked me a tough question.

“What was the happiest time of your life?” he wanted to know.

I was stumped. I couldn’t think of anything. Or at least I couldn’t think of any one thing in particular. I told him I’d have to think about it and get back to him.

I realized what the answer was when I was on my bike yesterday. This. This is what makes me happy. Spending time with people I love and respect. Being in the great outdoors. Riding a bike on a country road. I don’t need much more than this.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The frogs outside my bedroom window

It’s rice-planting season in Japan and the paddies behind my apartment have been flooded with water. The fields, which were dry and barren all winter, are now teeming with life.

There are probably hundreds of frogs living in the rice paddies below my bedroom window. Every night, just after dusk, they serenade me with a chorus of croaking that goes on for hours.

The male frogs are the ones making all the noise. They croak to attract the female frogs. Once the female frogs arrive, the male frogs jump onto the backs of the females and start going at it. I’m very aware of the fact that I’m listening to one big frog orgy. It’s a nightly reminder that even frogs are having more sex than I am.

My little green neighbours are so loud that I have to wear earplugs to bed. Still, it’s a pretty amazing thing to hear. I even recorded a short video of it. Unfortunately, the video is really, really dark. You can make out a few lights from neighbouring houses but that’s about it (this ain’t Tokyo!).

But the audio is great. You can hear at least three different species of frogs. You can also hear at least one species of humans attempting a CBC-esque narration. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

And then my heart broke

A 12-year-old boy broke my heart today.

I was teaching the alphabet to a class of seventh graders when it happened.

I was calling out different letters at random. The students had to listen and then write the correct letter down in their notebooks.

Halfway through, I got to the letter “P.” I had already repeated it three or four times when Takuma, one of my favourite students, waved his hand in the air and yelled, “Mo ikkai!” ("Once more!").

A boy two seats behind him leaned forward and hissed, “Baka” ("Moron"). The word sliced through the air like an arrow, hitting Takuma square in the back. In a split second, he went from being a bright and bubbly boy to an utterly rejected one. The smile disappeared from his face and, to my complete shock, he started crying.

He just slumped over his desk, head in his hand, and cried without making a sound. He looked so hurt and so despondent I was almost in tears just watching him.

“Oh, kid,” I thought to myself. “I know exactly how you feel.”

The Japanese teacher marched to the back of the class and scolded the offending boy. I’m not sure what she said but it must have been pretty harsh because he sat like a dog with his tail between his legs for the rest of the class. She gestured for me to just keep going.

So I continued calling out the letters of the alphabet, stealing the occasional glance at Takuma. But he just sat there listlessly, tears sliding down his cheeks.

It broke my heart to see him so upset. He’s such a loveable, happy kid. He’s always so enthusiastic and excited about everything. He’s goofy and dorky and hopelessly uncool. His shirt is tucked in a little too tight. His pants sit a little too high on his waist. He doesn’t spike and layer and style his hair into place like the other boys do. He’s more of a child than they are. He’s retained an air of sweetness and innocence that makes him such a joy to be around. But I suppose this is the same thing that makes him a target too.

It was heart-wrenching to see him retreat into himself. To see the light in his eyes grow a little dimmer. I felt like I was witnessing him battening down the hatches for the coming storm of adolescence.

I wanted to give him a hug and tell him to hang in there. I knew a small act of kindness could make a big difference. But I didn’t want to embarrass him or draw more attention his way.

So I waited until the kids were busy working on a homework assignment at their desks. Takuma had stopped crying by then but I leaned over his desk, put my hand on his back and whispered, “Daijoubu desu ka?” ("Are you okay?")

He didn’t look me in the eye and he didn’t say anything. He just nodded his head once to let me know he was fine.

I walked away thinking, “Well, that’s it then. We’ve lost a sensitive child and gained a sullen teenager.”

But then Takuma did something I wasn’t expecting. He bounced back. Not because of anything I said or did but because he was more resilient than I gave him credit for. He came skipping over to me after class, as enthusiastic and dorky as ever. I felt a whoosh of relief as he excitedly talked about his favourite video games and did I like Metal Gear Robot (or something like that) and could he please, please, please have a Canada sticker.

I think he’ll be okay. It just might take my heart a little longer to recover from the shock of seeing him cry.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Four days in Kyushu

We had a string of national holidays in Japan last week so my friend Aiko and I decided to hop on the ferry and head south to Kyushu.

One of my favourite things about Japan is how easy it is to get around without a car. We stood on the edge of an active volcano, sampled the nightlife of a pulsing city and relaxed in a town famous for its hot springs. All made possible by Japan’s extremely efficient and very reliable network of trains, buses and ferries.

The first leg of the journey took us from southern Shikoku to northern Kyushu. The two-hour ferry ride was uneventful, aside from being swarmed by a group of rowdy junior high school boys hell-bent on showing off their mad English skillz.

They’d consult with each other in Japanese and whisper the words in English until one boy would be brave enough to shout out “I am crazy!” or “I like soccer!” and then the pack would dissolve into hysterical laughter. (It’s a testament to how cute Japanese junior high school boys are that, even after nine months of it, I still find this sort of thing utterly endearing.)

The only other thing about the ferry ride worth mentioning was how much it reminded me of crossing the Georgia Strait between Vancouver and Victoria (minus the three-hour sailing waits). There was no White Spot on board but the scenery outside the ferry windows was strikingly similar.

After we got off the ferry, we boarded a train that took us into the heart of Aso National Park. As soon as we arrived in Aso, we dumped our bags in a locker and waited for a bus to take us up into the mountains to see the park’s prime attraction -- an active volcano.

Two older Japanese men wearing crumpled suits and stinking of sake stumbled over to where we were standing and struck up a conversation with us. One of the men was excited to learn we lived on Shikoku Island and even more excited when he found out Aiko lived in the same town he grew up in. He disappeared for a while and when he returned, he thrust half a dozen chocolate bars and two ice cream cones in our hands.

It may sound sweet but it was actually kind of creepy. As we licked our ice cream cones, the two men kept staring at Aiko’s ample bosom and telling us how pretty we were. (Seriously, though. Why am I such a magnet for dirty old men? Why can’t I attract clean young men?)

When the bus finally pulled into the station, I dragged Aiko aside and whispered, “Okay. We’re going to let those guys on the bus first. We’ll wait until they sit down and then we’ll sit as far away from them as possible.” But they never did board the bus. They just stood on the platform waving to us as the bus left the station.

The bus switchbacked up a winding mountain road and dropped us off near the mouth of the volcano 45 minutes later. We walked on a spectacular path that ran along the edge of the dramatic crater.

Once we reached the mouth of the volcano, we joined the masses posing for pictures along the guardrail. Earlier, Aiko had told me her secret for looking 10 pounds lighter on camera, “Just twist your body sideways and lift your chin up.”

But instead of making me look thin, it just made me look stiff and slightly deranged.

We hiked around the volcano for a couple of hours before heading back down and checking into our hostel for the night. I didn’t really know what to expect since I had never stayed in a hostel before.

I assumed hostels were full of obnoxious 20-somethings trying to one-up each other with tales of their travels. They’d go out drinking and talking about how great they were until 2 a.m. when they’d come crashing into the dorm room, slamming doors, turning on lights, playing bongo drums and vomiting over the side of the bunk bed.

It turned out my fears were completely unfounded. We stayed at three different hostels and each one of them was clean, comfortable and quiet. Our roommates were lovely young women who were all in bed way before midnight. And not a bongo drum in sight!

From Aso, we hopped a train heading north to Fukuoka, the largest city in Kyushu. We timed our arrival to coincide with the city’s Dontaku Festival, which promised lots of music and dancing. The highlight of the festival was supposed to be the parade. But it turned out to be little more than dozens of high school marching bands parading through the streets for four hours.

The next day we went to Beppu, which bills itself as the hot spring capital of Japan. We were a little confused by this sign:

We figured it out as soon as we rounded the corner and saw people dipping their feet in one of the hot springs. Suddenly “hot spring of a leg” made perfect sense.

In Beppu, Aiko guided me through my first onsen experience (that’s a whole other blog post). I didn’t mind being naked with a bunch of other naked people. And I enjoyed soaking in a hot tub of water. But I wasn’t completely sold on the whole public bathing experience. Why pay money to have a shower and a bath with a whole bunch of other people when you can do the same thing for free in the privacy and comfort of your own home?

We spent one night in Beppu before catching the ferry back to Shikoku yesterday. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the ferry ride back home because I spent most of the trip curled up in the fetal position trying not to vomit as the boat rode over giant roller coaster waves.

I don’t know what made me feel more nauseous: the roiling sea or the sound of people retching all over the ferry. It was so bad that the bathroom sinks were clogged with vomit. Everyone was splayed out on the floor. Old women were holding handkerchiefs to their foreheads.

But other than that, it was a great trip.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Life is like a box of powdered bean paste

In the staff kitchen this morning . . .

Japanese teacher: “Sarah-sensei, would you like some chocolate?”

(Would I like some chocolate? Is the earth round? Is the sky blue? Of course I want chocolate! I want chocolate the way a seagull wants french fries.)

Me: “I’d love some chocolate!”

The Japanese teacher hands me a bag filled with small squares of chocolate wrapped in gold foil. I dip my hand into the bag and take one. I unwrap it and pop it in my mouth. My taste buds recoil in horror, “WTF? This isn’t chocolate!”

Japanese teacher: “Do you like it? It’s made from the powder of bean paste.”

Me: “Mmmm . . . [trying to think of a diplomatic way to describe this vile block of bean paste masquerading as chocolate] . . . it’s . . . sweet.”

It wasn’t a lie. It really was sweet. (It was also disgusting and tasted nothing like chocolate but I kept that to myself.) I just want to know why. Why ruin a perfectly good thing like chocolate by making it out of powdered bean paste?