Monday, October 30, 2006

Halloween in Japan

I was supposed to be Catwoman for Halloween but my costume ended up making me look like a cross between Nacho Libre and a dominatrix.

This is what happens when you slap a costume together at the last minute. My friend Zoe, who is an English teacher in the next town over, emailed me Saturday morning to ask if I had figured out what I was going to wear to the Halloween party that night.

“I was thinking that you should go as Catwoman,” she wrote. “All you have to do is wear something black and I’ll make you a mask like this one.”

She attached a photo to the email.

“Oh my god!” I wrote back. “Let’s do it!”

A few hours later, Zoe showed up at my apartment with some black felt and white thread.

I combed through my closet, trying to find something black and slinky to wear. The best I could come up with was a sleeveless black turtleneck and a pair of spandex cycling tights. It was more sensible than sexy. It was the sort of thing Catwoman might wear if she was riding a bicycle rather than prowling the rooftops.

Zoe managed to whip up a mask in record time. This is me trying on the (almost) finished product.

Once my costume was done, Zoe got dressed up as Pippi Longstocking (she had made her costume weeks ago).

We jumped in the car and drove to Kochi City as fast as we could. Luckily, we didn’t get stopped for speeding, although seeing the expression on the police officer’s face when he pulled us over would have been worth it.

Once we got to Kochi, we found out we’d have to walk about 10 blocks to get to the bar where the party was being held. Walking through the streets in full costume on Halloween weekend wouldn’t faze me in Canada. But here? There were hundreds of people milling around and not one of them was wearing a costume.

I had a sinking feeling we were going to attract a lot of attention once we stepped out of the car. Not only were we foreigners but we were foreigners dressed like we were heading to an S&M club. Zoe had to drag me out of the car like I was a dog on the way to the vet’s office.

Those were the longest 10 blocks of my life. We couldn’t walk two steps without someone pointing and staring at us. We stopped men dead in their tracks. They stood frozen in place, mouths open, eyes popping out of their heads. Once the initial shock wore off, a few of them pulled out their camera phones and snapped pictures of us. Other guys would elbow their friends until the whole group was hooting and hollering.

Who knew all it took to get a little male attention in Japan was to walk through the streets dressed like this?

The stares didn’t stop once we got to the party. Every five minutes a different Japanese guy would stop me and ask me to take a picture with him.

Yes, I’m aware of the irony. One week I’m writing about how hard it is to meet men in Japan and the next week I’m writing about how hard it is to fight them off. I’ll never figure this place out.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

So many men, so few balls

Remember when I said Vancouver was the worst place in the world to meet men? I take it back. Rural Japan is way, way worse. I haven’t felt this invisible and ignored since the last time I went to a gay bar.

Now, I’m not the kind of girl who bases her self-worth on her attractiveness to men. But it’s nice to have a little male attention now and then (being hit on by pimply teenage boys and the mayor doesn’t count).

I feel like Quasimodo out here. Men cross the street when they see me coming. Construction workers fall silent and stare down at their boots when I pass by. I could jump up and down in the middle of the road wearing nothing but a bikini and the men would still avert their eyes and run the other way.

I decided to ask the male teachers at my school why Japanese men went out of their way to avoid me. Of course, I had to wait until after several rounds of beer and sake since the male teachers are only brave enough to talk to me when they are completely wasted.

“Why do all the men in this town refuse to speak to me or even look at me?” I asked in broken Japanese once they were properly loaded.

“Japanese are shy!” yelled the 27-year-old social studies teacher. “Japanese man has Samurai soul! Samurai are shy!”

I politely pointed out that a truly shy person wouldn’t be screaming at the top of his lungs in the middle of a restaurant about how shy he was.

His response was to yell even louder. “I WILL BE YOUR BOYFRIEND!” He then drew imaginary circles around his nipples while chanting something that sounded like, “Ling, ling, ling, ling, ling, ling, ling, ling.”

The consensus around the very drunk, very loud, very rowdy and very obnoxious table was that Japanese men are painfully shy.

I realized the only way I was going to get a date in Japan was if I made the first move. Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy as it sounds.

For starters, the married men in this town don’t wear wedding rings. It’s impossible to know who’s single and who isn’t without wasting valuable time. I’d strike up a conversation with a cute guy only to have him say, “My wife is on your volleyball team” or “My son goes to your school.”

Not only is it impossible to tell if a guy is married, it’s equally difficult to tell how old he is.

One night after volleyball practice, I chatted up some cute basketball players who spoke passable English. They weren’t shy at all (that should have been my first clue). After about 10 minutes of flirting, one of them asked me to guess how old he was. I gave him a good, hard look and said 28. It was an honest answer so I couldn’t figure out why they were killing themselves laughing. It turned out they were all 19! I got out of there faster than the bullet train leaves Tokyo.

My luck isn’t much better with foreign men. While spending a weekend in the city, I met a guy from Australia. He was tall and lean with rugged good looks and a wicked sense of humour. We hit it off immediately. He even asked for my phone number and offered to take me surfing. Just when things were looking up, he dropped the bomb and casually mentioned his boyfriend. His boyfriend!

It’s hopeless. I didn’t think my love life could be any more non-existent than it was in Vancouver. How does that old saying go? Just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, someone throws you a shovel. Yeah. That about sums it up.

Monday, October 23, 2006

One little monkey sitting in a tree

This is Mana, my supervisor’s daughter. She is the cutest kid I have ever met.

Mana is everything a seven-year-old girl should be -- mischievous, curious, happy, brave, energetic, uninhibited, innocent, funny and impossibly adorable.

I love taking her picture and she loves hamming it up for the camera.

We went hiking on the weekend, climbing to the top of a 6,000-foot mountain (yes, a seven-year-old kid hiked 6,000 feet and didn’t complain once. Not only is she cute, she’s tough as nails!).

We took a break for lunch near the top. I pulled out my camera to take Mana’s picture but she stopped me.

Wait!” she said (in Japanese).

With a mischievous glint in her eyes, she dipped her fingers in ketchup and then smeared it all over her face and shirt.

“Okay,” she said, giggling hysterically. “Now you can take my picture!”

Friday, October 20, 2006

Christmas in Borneo!

I finally booked my Christmas vacation this week. Two weeks trekking through the steaming jungles of Borneo! Exciting! And a little scary too (there are giant cockroaches, poisonous centipedes, blood-thirsty leeches and malaria-carrying mosquitoes in Borneo).

I spent the past month poring over a map of Asia, trying to figure out where to go during the Christmas break.

The possibilities were endless. I could lay on a beach in Thailand or go biking in Bali. I could walk along the Great Wall of China or soak up South Korea’s nightlife. I could ride the rails in Vietnam or visit the temples in Cambodia.

I couldn’t decide. I was torn between Vietnam and Bali. But every time I’d study the map, my eyes would drift down to Borneo. Of all the places in Southeast Asia, Borneo seemed the most exotic. But I realized the only reason I felt that way was because I knew almost nothing about Borneo. So I googled it. One website led to another and before I knew it, I had spent fours hours glued to the computer screen, utterly captivated by Borneo.

I suddenly realized that Borneo was exactly where I wanted to go. It sounded like a nature-lover’s paradise. We’re talking thousands upon thousands of different species of trees, plants, animals and insects. (There are 1,200 different species of wild orchids alone!)

There are elephants, rhinos, leopards, monkeys, orangutans, bearded pigs, giant flying squirrels and monster bats (some with a wingspan of more than four feet!). Oh, yes, and HUGE cockroaches. Did you know Borneo is home to the biggest cockroaches in the world? Fascinating! And terrifying!

I was drunk on the idea spending a couple of weeks in the jungles of Borneo. So I bought a plane ticket and booked a spot with a reputable ecotourism company the very next day. The tour takes us into national parks, up untamed rivers, through deep canyons, into massive caves and to the tops of mountains. I am so excited!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Just another surreal day at the office

Although I am technically employed in Japan as an English teacher, that doesn’t really explain what I do here. I’m not so much an English teacher as I am a follower of bizarre orders.

Give a speech in Japanese! Play baseball with the boys! Sweep the floor! Answer personal questions! Wear polyester track pants! Sing karaoke with the principal!

The latest order? Transcribe the lyrics of an obscure ‘80s song. This had nothing to do with teaching English through music. This was a personal favour for one of the teachers looking to expand her karaoke repertoire.

In true Japanese fashion, she went about giving me the order in the most tentative and indirect way possible. She approached me between classes and asked me what kind of music I liked. I listed off a few bands. She smiled and nodded politely. But I could tell she wasn’t really interested. She was only asking me what kind of music I liked so that I would ask her the same question in return. I took the bait, walking right into her carefully laid trap.

“Oh, I love ‘80s music,” she gushed. She ran over to her desk, grabbed four ‘80s CDs and placed them in my hands. Japanese etiquette required me to “ooh” and “ahh” over the CDs for several minutes.

She took a CD from the pile, flipped it over and read the list of songs out loud.

“Which song is your favourite?” she asked.

I pointed to track 4, “Cum Feel the Noise” by Quiet Riot. She smiled and nodded politely. Once again, she waited expectantly for me to ask her the same question in return. So I did.

She pointed to track 11, “Overnight Success” by Teri DeSario. She explained it was a great song but for some reason the lyrics were missing from the CD booklet. She finally blurted out the question she was dying to ask me.

“Could you listen to the song and write down the lyrics?” she asked.

I agreed, thinking she was asking me to do this as a favour in my spare time. But she wanted the lyrics immediately.

“Now is okay?” she asked. If she thought this was an appropriate way to while away the working hours, who was I to argue?

She led me down the hallway to a small office and closed the door behind us. She ushered me over to a desk that was already set up with a pen, some paper and a CD player.

She stood beside me and played the song, pressing pause after every line. For those of you who have never heard the song “Overnight Success,” here are some of the more profound lyrics:

An overnight success. You hold the key to your happiness.
An overnight success. You have the power to rise above the rest. Yeah.

I put the lyrics down on paper while the teacher hummed and sang along, mangling the words beyond recognition. (Yes, hard-working people of Japan, this is how your tax dollars are being spent.)

Unfortunately, the music teacher caught wind of our little project and asked me to come to his class to teach the students how to sing “We are the World.”

I tried to explain that I transcribe bad ‘80s music, not sing it. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer and so I found myself standing in front of 30 slack-jawed 15-year-olds, singing “We are the World.”

Thanks to my new reputation as an authority on ‘80s music, one of the Japanese English teachers thought it would be a great idea to begin class by singing “Karma Chameleon.” And so, for the second time in one day, I found myself standing in front of 30 slack-jawed 15-year-olds, singing an ‘80s song.

This may sound like hell to some people but it’s heaven to me. I love the absurdity of it all. The more surreal it gets, the happier I am. I like to think of myself as a proud follower of bizarre orders first and an English teacher second.

Friday, October 13, 2006

George Stroumboulopoulos finally has his own website!

It’s a great little place, filled with George’s musings, music and links. Although the site isn’t affiliated with the CBC, it has the same flavour as The Hour -- snippets of information served with a dollop of straight-up, in-your-face irreverence. Yummy!

There’s also a link to my blog on Strombo’s homepage. Which is very flattering but also very weird because my blog is grouped in with a list of esteemed news outlets. The Guardian, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, New York Times and . . . Hollywood North? Yup. One of these things is most definitely not like the others.

I should probably apologize to the innocent victims who clicked on the link and landed here looking for something informative or insightful. This isn’t that kind of place. This is just a blog written by a Canadian girl living in rural Japan. It's filled with pages of random thoughts on such gripping topics as swimming, politics, pop culture, cycling, guys and life in general. Mostly I just whine about being single and how hard it is to find quality men.

Feel free to make yourselves comfortable and take a look around. Maybe you’ll find something you like. Maybe you won't.

As for Strombo’s site, I'm adding it to my list of favourites and visiting often!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

I'm the Leah McLaren of Japan!

In addition to being an English teacher, I am now also a newspaper columnist. I have my own column in the local newspaper. My own column! I’m the Leah McLaren of Japan!

I have complete freedom to write about whatever I want. The only catch is that my articles are translated into Japanese so I have no idea how closely the finished product resembles the original.

I used my first column (pictured above) to introduce myself. But, really, it was mostly just a desperate plea for friends: “Hi. I’m Sarah. If you see me around town, please stop and say hi. Talk to me. Please! Someone! Anyone!”

I’m thinking of taking a more serious approach towards my second column. I’d like to explore some of the over-riding social and political issues in rural Japan. Like the dire shortage of hot, young, single guys in my town. Or why married men don’t wear wedding rings.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Cheeky questions

The students at my junior high school are a contradictory bunch. They’re too shy to speak up in class but they’re not afraid to ask me some pretty bold questions.

I get the same questions every time I visit a new class: Do you have a boyfriend? Do you prefer older or younger men? What’s your type? Am I your type? Which teacher do you think is the most handsome? Do you think I’m handsome? How old are you? How much do you weigh? How tall are you? Are you wearing makeup right now? Do you like beer?

Instead of bailing me out, the Japanese English teacher forces me to answer these questions in front of the entire class.

For example, when one 14-year-old boy asked if I thought he was handsome, the Japanese teacher walked behind his desk, scooped her hands under his armpits, yanked him up out of his seat and marched him (kicking and screaming) towards me.

She stood behind him, clamped her hands down on his shoulders and said, “Look at this boy. Look deep into his eyes.”

[She paused here so that I could look deep into his eyes, which was impossible to do since his eyes were darting all over the place.]

“Do you think he’s handsome? Is he your type?”

Now, there’s no way to answer this without getting into trouble. If I said “yes,” I risked coming across as a pedophile. If I said “no,” I risked crushing the poor kid. I had a split second to choose between being a pervert and being cruel.

“Well, he’s very handsome,” I said. “But, um, he’s a little young for me.”

Bullet dodged. Jail term avoided. Cougar reputation solidified.

And then we move on to less delicate topics, like my weight. Fun!