Thursday, April 23, 2009

One door closes. Another door opens. And so it goes

A couple of weeks ago, I was told I couldn't join Kyoto University's swim team because it was for Japanese only.

I didn't want to fight it but I didn't want to throw in the towel either. So I went back to the sports office to try again. But instead of trying to force my way onto the swim team, I thought I'd ask if I could join the long-distance running team.

The swim team is a varsity club and the long-distance running team is a recreational club so I thought maybe I'd have more luck joining a less competitive club. It was either that or the "life philosophy" club. (Also, they have a "mushroom study" club. How awesome is that?)

When I went to the office to ask about joining the long-distance running team, the same guy who told me the swim team was off limits to foreigners was working behind the desk. He gave me the same frustrating speech about why it would be "difficult" for me to join the team. He didn't tell me outright that I couldn't join the long-distance running team. But he didn't tell me that I could join it either.

Eventually, we came to a compromise. He said he would take down my name, phone number and email address and pass it on to the running club. And then it would be up to them to contact me. I left the sports office not entirely convinced that he hadn't immediately thrown the slip of paper with my contact information on it in the garbage.

But a few days later, I got an email from the running club. The message was written in Japanese but it was filled with smiley faces and exclamation marks. The president of the club invited me to come to a meeting for new members on Monday night. They would be more than happy to have me, he wrote. The club was open to any student at Kyoto University.

"Maybe they read your blog and were too terrified to reject you," my friend Seema joked. Or at least I think she was joking.

Excited about finding a group of people to run with regularly, I went to the meeting on Monday night. The long-distance running team shares a clubhouse with the climbing team in a small portable squeezed between the tennis courts and Building 4 (yes, that's its official name) at the south end of campus.

I showed up at the clubhouse promptly at 6 p.m. I poked my head in the door to see 12 unnaturally skinny guys sitting on the floor around a pair of low tables. Intimidated but unbowed, I stuttered my way through broken Japanese.

"Um . . . I'm here for the meeting? To join the running club? Morita-san emailed me and told me to come? Is it okay?"

A couple of guys immediately jumped up and ushered me in.

"Come in! Sit down!"

I was bombarded with questions. Where are you from? What's your favourite Japanese food? Can you drink alcohol? Do you read manga? What’s your favourite movie? Can you eat raw fish? What do you think about Japan?

I felt like I was on a first date. With 12 Japanese guys. Who were all at least a decade younger than me.

I spent a good hour sitting in the clubhouse answering their questions. When they ran out of questions, they handed me a sheet of paper listing their social events for the next month. Barbeques, parties and (my personal favourite) a 40-kilometre forced march from Nara to Kyoto starting at midnight.

It all sounded great but I was a little confused. I thought this was a running club, not a social club.

"So when do you actually run?" I asked.

"Oh, we don’t have any official practices," one of the guys said. "You can just drop by the clubhouse after class and see if someone is around and wants to run. Otherwise, we just run on our own."

Before I could tell them this wasn't exactly what I was looking for, they offered to treat me to dinner. Who was I to turn down a free meal? And so off we went to the cafeteria.

After dinner, they told me they were having a little party back at the clubhouse and would I care to join them? They offered to buy me drinks. Who was I to turn down free drinks? And so off we went back to the clubhouse.

A few drinks later, I tried to beg off. I had a kanji test the next morning and I needed to study.

"We will help you study!" they declared. Before I knew it, three guys were writing up an impromptu kanji quiz. And so I spent the next hour writing and reading various kanji characters to the delight of my new friends.

They were so nice and so welcoming that I felt like I couldn't back out. I'm the newest member of Kyoto University's long-distance running club whether I want to be or not. I joined the club thinking it would help me stay in shape. Instead, I feel like I'm in a Japanese study group. With beer.

The long-distance running club will be good for my Japanese. But bad for my liver. As for the running, I guess I'm on my own. Oh well. At least I found a club that happily accepts foreigners.

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