Wednesday, February 28, 2007

We heart George: Part II

My sisters went to CBC headquarters last night to watch George Stroumboulopoulos film The Hour in front of a live studio audience.

They didn’t bring a camera the last time they went to see the show so I had to draw a picture instead (circa June 2005).

This time they brought a camera so I can actually post a real photo of them rubbing shoulders with George. This picture was taken last night. I think it bears an uncanny resemblance to my drawing from two years ago.

It's my party and I'll sleep if I want to

Today is my birthday. I have some very exciting plans to celebrate this special occasion. I am going to bed at 8 p.m. and sleeping for 11 hours straight!

A good night’s sleep is all I really want for my birthday. Does this mean I am officially old?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Random acts of ridiculousness

One of my favourite things about living in Japan is the way the most routine, mundane events have this magical ability to descend into absurdity.

For example, I was invited to yet another drinking party with my Japanese coworkers a few weeks ago. These parties are about as routine as routine gets. You eat, you drink, you listen to half a dozen speeches, you get hit on by all of the male teachers who are too shy to speak to you unless they are completely drunk. And, finally, you endure hours of bad karaoke before stumbling home for the night.

These parties were fun and exciting when I first arrived in Japan but lately they had begun to feel like a chore. So when my coworkers invited me to join them a few Fridays ago, I didn’t really want to go.

Sure enough, the party started out routinely enough. I ate, I drank, I listened to half a dozen speeches, I was hit on by the entire male teaching staff. But just when I was about to write it off as another ordinary night out, things started to get ridiculous.

The PE teacher, who had been sitting next to me all night, was getting progressively more drunk. The more she drank, the more she opened up. Eventually, she started talking about her son. I should mention that I am friends with her son. We play on the same volleyball team and he always drives me home after practice. He’s cute but he has a girlfriend.

This girlfriend, however, is the bane of his mother’s existence. Not only does she not like her son’s girlfriend, she is actually afraid of her.

“She has big muscles,” she said, making a fist and slapping her own rock-hard bicep. “Scary!”

She then did an impression of the poor girl, which led me to believe her son was dating a) a sumo wrester, b) an Olympic weight lifter, or c) a drunken gorilla.

Then she asked me where in Japan I wanted to go. I listed off a few places -- Hokkaido, Okinawa, Mount Fuji, Hiroshima.

“Let’s go to Hiroshima!” she said. “You. Me. My husband. My son. Together, let’s go! We will eat okonomiyaki! We will drink beer! We will stay in a hotel! Okay?”

I told her it was an excellent idea and then added, half-jokingly, “but your son can’t bring his girlfriend.”

The next thing I knew, she whipped out her cell phone and started speaking to someone in rapid-fire Japanese. The only words I could make out were “Hiroshima” and “Sarah.”

She hung up the phone and explained that her son was on his way to the bar to pick us up and take us to her house so that we could start planning the trip.

I looked at my watch. It was almost midnight. I hadn’t drank nearly enough to think that showing up on her family’s doorstep in the middle of the night and dropping a surprise trip to Hiroshima in their laps was a good idea. But there was nothing I could do. This runaway train had jumped the tracks five minutes back and, like it or not, I was going along for the ride.

I had time for a quick drink to steady my nerves before the PE teacher’s son pulled up in front of the bar. He helped his mother into the back seat and I rode shotgun. A few minutes into the drive, the PE teacher and her son started having an intense conversation. Once again, the only words I could make out were “Hiroshima” and “Sarah.”

With a trace of annoyance in his voice, her son turned to me and said, “So my mom says that we’re going to Hiroshima together but I can’t bring my girlfriend.”

I was mortified.

“I swear it was your mother’s idea,” I lied.

“Sure it was,” he shot back.

This was followed by an uncomfortable silence. But things smoothed themselves out by the time we pulled into their driveway. I was ushered into the living room, where I met the PE teacher’s husband for the first time.

All four of us sat on the floor with our legs tucked under a small, heated table. We ate and drank and talked for hours. I was worried the PE teacher wouldn’t remember any of this on Monday morning but she kept her word and we ended up going to Hiroshima last weekend. I felt like their adopted daughter the whole time.

This is what I love most about Japan. The random adventures and wonderful people that pop up when you least expect it.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Mr. Suzuki, your house is on fire

I was in the middle of teaching a seventh grade English class this afternoon when I was interrupted by the earsplitting wail of an air raid siren.

“Be quiet!” the Japanese teacher yelled.

The students stopped what they were doing and sat up straight at their desks.

The air raid siren sounded twice more and then a man’s voice came over the town loudspeaker.

He was speaking so frantically I couldn’t understand what he was saying. All I heard was, “Blah, blah, blah. BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH!!!!”

I started to panic. Had part of Japan been leveled by an earthquake? Was this a warning that a tsunami was on its way? Had North Korea declared war? What the hell was going on?

“Mr. Suzuki’s house is on fire,” explained the Japanese teacher.

“They’re announcing that somebody’s house is on fire?” I asked, dumbfounded.

“Yes,” she said.

“What? Why?” I said.

“So that everyone knows,” she said.

I asked if we were supposed to go and help or something.

“No,” she said.

“So, let me get this straight,” I said. “They just want everyone in town to know that Mr. Suzuki’s house is on fire?”

“Yes,” she said, looking at me like I was a complete moron.

And then we went back to teaching as if nothing had happened.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

My surreal life

I was sent home early from work today because, apparently, I am sick.

I didn’t actually realize I was sick until the principal told me I was. I walked into the staff room after playing baseball with some of the kids and was told to go home immediately.

I was completely bewildered. “Go home? What? Why?”

“You are sick,” the principal said.

“Sick? What do you mean? I’m not sick!” I said.

“You are sick,” he insisted. “You are very cold today.”

I couldn’t argue with that. I had spent the entire morning shivering at my desk despite the fact that I was wearing three sweaters and a pair of double-layered long johns under my pants. I even wore my winter jacket and wool scarf to class. But I wasn’t cold because I was sick. I was cold because there is no heat in the school.

“I’m always cold,” I told him.

But he wasn’t giving up.

“You have many nose water,” he said.

I couldn’t argue with that either. I had been sniffling all day. Not because I was sick. But because it’s tree pollen season.

“I’m not sick,” I said. “I’m fine. Really.”

But no matter how times I repeated this, the principal refused to budge.

And then it hit me. Wait a minute, I said to myself. What am I doing? The principal of the school is giving me permission to play hooky. Why am I arguing with him?

“Um, okay,” I relented. “I guess I’ll go home then.”

It turned out I didn’t have a choice. While I was outside playing baseball, the principal had phoned my supervisor at the Board of Education and ordered her to drive to school to come pick me up and take me home.

My euphoria turned to panic. Three months ago, I made the mistake of telling my supervisor I had a sore throat and a fever. She kidnapped me and forced me to stay at her house so that she could take care of me. However, “taking care of me” meant that I had to share a bed with her hyperactive 7-year-old daughter, which meant that I got no sleep and left her house feeling worse than I did the night before.

I did not want to go through that again. Especially when I wasn’t even sick. The whole thing was getting ridiculous.

“No, no,” I said. “Please call her and tell her I’m not sick. She will be so worried about me.”

But it was too late. She was already on her way, probably weaving through traffic and driving 50 kilometres over the speed limit.

About 15 minutes later, my supervisor rushed into the office looking like she was expecting to see me in convulsions on the floor.

“I’m not sick,” I told her on the drive back to my apartment. “The principal is crazy.”

She dropped me off and I apologized profusely for the inconvenience.

Two hours later, my doorbell rang. My supervisor had returned with some ginger tea.

“It’s good for sore throat,” she said.

I give up. Apparently, I am sick.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Four days in Seoul

If I had to describe Seoul in 15 words or less, this is what I would write: Seoul has lots of concrete buildings, good food and hard-working riot police.

It’s not exactly the most profound description ever written but I was only there for four days, which was barely enough time to skim the surface. My first impression of Seoul was made on the 50-kilometre bus ride from the airport to the city centre. The crowded highways were fenced in by rows of towering concrete apartment complexes that went on for miles in every direction.

I suppose this is what happens when you try to cram more than 20 million people into one area. Although it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing city in the world, it was definitely buzzing with energy.

My favourite part of the trip was the food. Korean food is hot and spicy and unbelievably delicious. My friend Sony, who now lives and works in Seoul, took me to a barbeque restaurant the first night I was in town.

Barbeque restaurants have a grill set into the table, on which you cook strips of meat. After the meat is cooked, you put it in a leaf of lettuce and load it up with pickled vegetables, sauce and raw garlic. Then you roll it up into a little package and eat it. Yum!

Sony took me around to all of the main tourist attractions. We went skating.

We went to a palace.

We sampled Seoul's famous nightlife.

We even went to the aquarium, which had a strange assortment of household appliances doubling as fish tanks.

What was even weirder was that we kept running into hundreds of riot police everywhere we went.

The most surreal part of the trip was watching four busloads of riot police pour out onto the sidewalk to break up a protest of four people. Yes, one busload of riot police for each protestor!

I later learned that the government has a “zero tolerance” policy against potentially violent rallies. The four-person protest we saw didn’t look like it was about to become violent but I suppose “zero tolerance” really means “zero tolerance.”

Another highlight of the trip was meeting up with my friend Lee. Lee is a Korean who came to Vancouver for a one-year internship in 2005. We swam on the same swim team while he was living in Vancouver. Lee offered to be my personal tour guide and translator for the weekend.

I took this picture of Lee on February 10th. I asked him why there were still Christmas decorations up all over Seoul. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know. Maybe they are just lazy.”

Not only was Lee my personal tour guide and translator, he was also the perfect ambassador for his city. I experienced the warm Korean custom of being pushed, shoved and stepped on wherever I went. But Lee felt badly that no one apologized whenever they pushed me or stepped on my feet or cut ahead of me in line. So he took it upon himself to apologize on their behalf, which meant I couldn’t move two feet without Lee pulling me aside and saying, “I’m sorry.”

He said he was so impressed by the way everyone in Canada always said “sorry” for the slightest grievance that he has made it his personal mission to transform Korea into a more polite society.

Lee also took me out for a traditional Korean breakfast, which was centred on soup, rice and kimchi.

Anyway, I’ve just skimmed over the highlights. We had many more adventures but these are the only pictures I have that don’t totally suck. Overall, it was a fun trip but way too short.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Seoul searching

Monday is a national holiday. I’m not really sure what the occasion is. They have a lot of national holidays here in Japan and it’s something I don’t question.

So I’m taking a day off tomorrow and heading to South Korea to visit two friends from Vancouver who are now living in Seoul. It should be fun. I hear Seoul has good food and an exciting nightlife.

Actually, I just made that up. I don’t know anything about Seoul. I haven’t even made it past the three-page introduction in my Lonely Planet guidebook. But I flipped through some of the pages with pictures on them and it looks like the kind of place that has good food and an exciting nightlife.

As for my decision to prolong my stay in Japan or head back home in August, I still haven’t made up my mind. My supervisor keeps pushing back the deadline. Now I have until next Friday to decide. It’s maddening! I’m so sick of agonizing over it. I just want to get the decision over with already!

I’m hoping the next four days in Seoul will help clarify things. Or maybe I'll just enjoy the good food and the exciting nightlife and try not to think about it.