Sunday, December 17, 2006

Into the heart of Borneo

I’m heading off to spend two weeks trekking through the steaming jungles of Borneo.

I’ll be back on January 3rd if the leeches and the mosquitoes and the pythons and the crocodiles and the centipedes and the scorpions don’t kill me first.

And on that note, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! See you in 2007. I hope.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

My name is Sarah but you can call me "nipples"

I suppose I should be flattered that the kids at my junior high school have warmed up to me enough to give me a nickname. Unfortunately, the creation of my nickname was left to the imaginative power of a group of 15-year-old boys. They call me “nipples.”

It could be worse. They call the science teacher “pig.”

My own private nipplegate started in one of my Grade 9 English classes. The students were making Christmas cards and I was walking around the room correcting their mistakes (“Umm . . . ‘Let’s enjoying Christmas’ is good but ‘Merry Christmas’ would be better”).

There is one kid in this class who is the ringleader of a cabal of sexual harassers. He is failing English miserably but he knows every swear word in the dictionary and is fluent in dirty talk. His current favourite expression is “I want you.” The kid propositions me at least five times a day.

Anyway, he called me over to his desk to ask for help with his Christmas card. I should have known it was a ruse.

He asked me to spell a word for him. Which word?

“Nippluss,” he said, while his friends snickered in the background.

I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say so I asked him to repeat it. Over and over again.

“Nippluss! Nippluss! Nippluss!”

I still didn’t understand what the hell he was saying so he drew two red dots inside the upper half of his snowman’s torso. I clued in immediately.


The expression on my face sent him and his friends into hysterics.

“Nippluss! Nippluss! Nippluss!” he chanted.

I (lightly) smacked him over the head with my textbook and told him to stop. And he did stop. For a little while at least. He waited until my back was turned and softly said, “Nippluss.” I ignored him. So he said it a little louder, “Nippluss!” I carried on like nothing was happening until he yelled, “NIPPLUSS!” and the whole class exploded into laughter.

I turned to the Japanese teacher for help but she just shrugged her shoulders and said, “He is very rude boy.”

Unfortunately, the name stuck and now half of the Grade 9 boys yell out “nippluss” whenever they see me.

Now, I don’t really care that they call me nipples. I gave my teachers crude nicknames when I was their age too (my personal favourites were Mr. “Rock Hard” Rocca and Mr. “No Weenie” Novini).

But what surprises me is that they have the audacity call me nipples to my face. I wouldn’t have dared called Mr. Rocca or Mr. Novini by their nicknames to their faces. It would have meant a week of detention.

But in Japan there is no such thing as detention. No such thing as sending a kid to the principal’s office. By law, teachers aren’t allowed to kick a kid out of the classroom. I am not allowed, under any circumstances, to discipline the students.

So the kids talk in class. They sleep in class. They party in the back of the room. And the teachers just put up with it. Talk about blowing your stereotypes about the Japanese education system to smithereens.

Before I came to Japan, I assumed I would be teaching some of the most focused, dedicated and studious kids in the world. I imagined them staring up at me with reverence and respect.

Instead, they’re staring at my chest and calling me “nippluss.”

Friday, December 08, 2006

Cockroaches and boyfriends

My second newspaper column was published this week. It’s generating rave reviews. Two different people told me it was “interesting.”

I wonder if “interesting” means the same thing in Japan as it does in Canada (“It sucked but I don’t want to hurt your feelings”). Perhaps the humour of my musings on cockroaches and boyfriends was lost in translation.

I was just following orders. The editor asked me to write about my impressions of “Sakawa life.” He also told me to keep it short and simple because the town’s official translator can only read rudimentary English.

For those of you who can’t read Japanese, I’ve cut and pasted the English version below. Enjoy! Or don’t enjoy! Just don’t tell me it was “interesting.”

Settling in

By Sarah Marchildon

I’ve only been living and working in Sakawa for three months but I already feel very at home here. I am constantly amazed by how warm and welcoming everyone is. My social calendar is so full I don’t have time to feel homesick!

Many people ask me if I have had any trouble getting used to life in Japan. I tell them there have only been two major adjustments for me: 1) getting over my fear of cockroaches and, 2) not being asked out on dates.

There’s not much I can do about the cockroaches (high-pitched screaming doesn’t seem to affect them much). But I’m working very hard to learn as much Japanese as I can so I can find a boyfriend. Otherwise, it’s going to be a long, cold, lonely winter.

As for school, I’m having a lot of fun teaching English and getting to know the students. Junior high schools in Japan are very similar to junior high schools in Canada. But in Canada, students don’t have to clean the schools like they do here, and we don’t have anything like your national sports day. Undokai was a very interesting experience for me. I was impressed to see all the hard work and preparation by both the students and teachers in the weeks leading up to the big day. It was a real treat to be able to watch (and participate in!) undokai at several different schools.

In my spare time, I’ve been enjoying playing volleyball and tennis. I try to get out to the pool as often as I can and I run with the students at Sakawa Junior High School once a week. I need to exercise a lot because I’m worried I will get fat. The food in Japan is very delicious and all I do is eat and eat and eat!

I am also taking tea ceremony classes every Thursday in Kuroiwa and I study Japanese every day. I’m learning many useful phrases, such as “You are handsome” and “Are you single?” As you can see, I am enjoying Sakawa life very much.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Road mirrors

I love the big round mirrors that stand tall over every hairpin turn and blind intersection in this town. Their purpose is strictly functional -- the convex surface of the mirror allows drivers to see approaching cars around a bend in the road.

Most of the roads are so narrow and twisty that there would be a head-on collision every 30 seconds if there were no mirrors. I’m a big fan of the road mirrors. Not because I’m Captain Safety or anything. I just think they look cool.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Stephane Dion for Prime Minister!

Wow. I can’t believe Stephane Dion is the new leader of the Liberal Party. I wanted him to win but I didn’t think he’d actually pull it off. I wasn’t convinced the delegates would vote for a guy who made the environment the centerpiece of his campaign. But they did and he won. This is very, very exciting news.

I like Dion. I like his passion and his genuine concern for the environment. I respect him for making environmental sustainability his defining issue, especially when it’s not the easiest way to win the fight for people’s hearts and minds.

Canadians are an apathetic bunch when it comes to the environment. We know we should be concerned about the environment but we’re not willing to do anything about it. We say we care about nature but we also want to drive our SUVs, expand our highways and live in sprawling suburbs. Something isn’t working and Dion knows it.

Will he be the person to turn things around? I don’t know but I’m feeling optimistic about the future right now.

I can’t wait until the next election. Heck, I might even vote Liberal for the first time in my life.