Sunday, July 29, 2007

Random images from the past two weeks

I’ve been out every single night for the last two weeks and I’ll be out every single night for the next two weeks. I haven’t been this exhausted since I had mono.

I’m supposed to be getting ready to leave Japan but I’ve been roped into teaching summer school and supervising track practice. After work, it’s been one farewell party after another.

All of this has left me without a lot of time to update my blog. So I’m going to take the easy way out and post some pictures instead.

The first picture is of my friend Tomoko. We went down to the ocean to stand in the water and look out into nothingness for a while. Tomoko is a teacher at my school. She's a lot of fun. She’s also the one person who I can count on to fill me in on the really important things at school, like which kid got busted for shoplifting hair spray from the grocery school and which kid got suspended for biting a teacher.

But Tomoko is sick of teaching and sick of Japan. So she’s decided to move to Vancouver and work in a sushi restaurant next year. We stood in the Pacific Ocean and screamed, “Hello, Vancouver!” for a while.

Anyway, here we are teaching together for the last time. This is what I do during the day and this is what a typical Japanese classroom looks like.

Nice tan lines. The sexy white stripes down my back are from swimming with the students during PE class. Just in case you were fooled into believing that I actually work for a living out here. I spend more time in the pool than I do in the classroom.

Of course, I can’t talk about school without talking about the track team. These are my favourite kids in the whole school.

The two kids in the photo below are brothers. The older brother (Punchie) is the fastest kid on the track team and competes at a national level. He plans on competing at the 2012 Olympics and I won’t be surprised if he actually makes it there. He’s a smart kid and very serious. The younger brother (Mayonnaise) is a little brat, but I mean that in the most affectionate way possible. Together, they are the sweetest, most lovable kids I’ve ever met. These kids make me want to have kids. But only if they turn out like Punchie and Mayonaise.

Last week, the track coach surprised me with a special farewell ceremony that the kids put together. One of the kids gave a speech entirely in English (I was so touched to think how long and how hard he must have worked on it). And the entire track team presented me with several giant cards with handwritten messages.

I think out of everyone I’ve met here, I will miss the kids from the track team the most. Here they are after a track meet last weekend after we convinced the bus driver to pull over for popsicles.

Of course, another person I will miss terribly is the vice-principal. I took this picture of him pretending to be stern and serious.

And then another picture of him as he really is. Slightly crazy and a lot of fun. Here he is posing with a giant bottle of sake he had sitting under his desk.

Swarmed by some random kids. These are some of the more aggressive seventh graders. They’d usually run up to me after class and ask me inappropriate (not to mention grammatically incorrect) questions such as, “Do you play sex?”

I’ll miss walking past these rice fields on my daily commute.

Some of my favourite teachers at school. This was the first of many goodbye parties.

And what would a party be in Japan without karaoke? Here is the track coach singing “We Are The World” just for me. Sigh.

The next goodbye party was with my volleyball team. I am the filling in a Monica and Sachi sandwich. Two great girls and I’ll miss them both.

And what would a party be in Japan without fireworks? I’m sure my neighbours loved me after this.

That’s all for now. More later when I have time . . .

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Giant poisonous centipedes

For the past few weeks, my friends have been telling me horror stories about Japan’s giant poisonous centipedes (or “mukade” as the locals call them).

My friend Sachi was sleeping when a centipede crawled into bed with her and sunk its fangs into her arm, causing it to swell up to the size of a football. She showed me the wound and I almost passed out when I saw the two holes where the monster’s fangs had pierced her skin.

My friend Zoe slammed a book on top of a centipede only to watch in horror as it reared its head from beneath the book and struggled to escape. She blasted it with bug spray and it still kept violently twisting and rolling its body. The thing refused to die until she worked up the courage (sobbing and screaming the whole time) to crush its repulsive rearing head with a massive cookbook.

Almost everyone I’ve met here has a mukade story or two. I knew it was only a matter of time before I came face to face with one of these nasty creatures myself. I wanted to be prepared so I asked one of my coworkers, a seasoned mukade veteran, for advice on the best way to kill them.

“You must throw hot green tea on it,” he said. “That is the only way to kill them.”

“But what if I don’t have any hot green tea when I see one? What am I supposed to do then?” I asked. “Am I supposed to tell the mukade to wait for a few minutes while I put the kettle on, boil the water and then steep the tea?”

(His answer, by the way, was “Yes.”)

I was hoping that I would be able to leave Japan without having ever seen a mukade but luck was not on my side. I finally saw my first mukade last night.

I had been out at my town’s summer festival, drinking sake and listening to the locals belt out bad karaoke on a giant outdoor stage. As soon as I got home, I jumped in the shower. I was washing my hair when I felt something crawl across my foot.

I screamed and violently kicked my leg, sending the creature flying to the other end of the shower. I looked over to where it landed, expecting to see a cockroach, but was shocked and horrified to discover a giant centipede instead. It was about 15 centimetres long with a red head and countless yellow legs. It was writhing on the shower floor, making a whipping “S” motion with its body.

I ran screaming out of the shower. I wasn’t as terrified as I was when I was attacked by giant flying cockroaches because this time I was a little bit drunk (this must be what they mean by “liquid courage”).

I didn’t have any hot green tea on hand so I grabbed the vacuum cleaner and ran back into the bathroom, sucking the mukade up before it had a chance to run away. And then I stuffed a towel into the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner so it couldn’t crawl back out.

It took a while for my heart rate to come back down to normal and I don’t think I slept more than four hours last night. The bug situation in my apartment has gotten so bad that I’m constantly on edge. I’m not having a lot of fun right now . . .

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Giant flying cockroaches

Did you know cockroaches can fly? Because, seriously, I had no idea until I was attacked by two airborne monsters last night.

It was like something out of a horror movie. It was late at night and I was craving a snack before bed. I walked into the kitchen, flicked on the light and was just about to open the fridge when a giant cockroach ran up the wall about two feet from my face. I screamed and jumped backwards.

The cockroach raced wildly up and down the kitchen wall and then, horror of all horrors, it flew across the room and landed on the opposite wall. And then it raced wildly up and down that wall until it spread its wings again and launched itself directly at my head.

It was so terrifying and disgusting that I almost vomited. This was no ordinary cockroach. This was a huge cockroach. It was as long as my finger and as wide as a Snickers bar. And it was FLYING!

I slammed the kitchen door shut, trapping the cockroach inside, and ran screaming to my bedroom. But I was horrified to see a second giant cockroach racing wildly up and down the wall behind my bed. And then it spread its wings and flew across the room before disappearing behind a bookshelf.

At this point, I was close to fainting. I didn’t know what to do. I was too scared to hunt down the cockroaches and kill them because what if they flew at my head and got tangled up in my hair?

I was trapped inside my cockroach-infested apartment with no one to call and nowhere to go. I briefly considered taking refuge on the balcony but nixed the idea when I realized spending the night outside meant dealing with blood-thirsty mosquitoes, giant spiders, poisonous centipedes and that most horrifying creature of all, the geji geji (I would have provided a link but the mere thought of googling “geji geji” and having an image of one of those monstrosities pop up on my computer screen made me queasy).

So I did the only thing I could do. I laid on my bed, curled up in the fetal position, popped two Gravol and waited for sleep to take me far away from this awful reality.

It took a long time to fall asleep. I kept seeing imaginary cockroaches scurrying up the walls and running across the ceiling. Every shadow took on a menacing shape.

It hit me that I’ve spent a good part of the past year like this. Curled up in the fetal position, quaking in fear. I’ve been living in a near-constant state of paranoia. My eyes are always scanning the room for bugs. I always enter my apartment by slamming the door and stomping around, hoping the noise and vibrations will send the cockroaches into hiding before I have a chance to see them.

I do a thorough inspection of the bathroom every night before I have a shower. I slam the shower door open and shut a few times. I kick the tub. I shake out the towels. I can’t have a shower until I’m convinced it’s 100 percent cockroach-free.

I automatically jump back after opening the cabinet under the sink because this is one of the cockroaches’ favourite hiding places. Same goes for the stove.

I have half a dozen traps in my apartment but there’s really nothing I can do. Cockroaches, centipedes, spiders and geji geji are a fact of life in rural Japan. Especially in southern Japan.

I had almost gotten used to dealing with the cockroaches in my apartment. I wasn’t happy about it but I accepted their presence. But that was before I found out they can fly.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Cockroaches and table tennis?

One of the Japanese teachers that I work with got all of the Grade 9 students at my school to write a goodbye message for me. Each class compiled their messages into a little booklet and presented it to me last week.

Some of the messages made me laugh. Some made me cry. And some just left me scratching my head. These are just a few of my favourites (click on the images to enlarge them).

Saturday, July 14, 2007

It's so hard to say goodbye

School is winding down for the summer and I’ve been going from classroom to classroom to say goodbye. The students will be back in September but I won’t.

So I had to give a farewell speech at the end of every class. And I burst into tears every single time. I simply couldn’t talk about leaving without crying. I was completely and utterly unable to control my emotions. I’ve fallen in love with so many of these kids and I’d just look at their faces knowing I’d never get to see them again and that was all it took for me to come undone.

Eventually, someone would say something to make me laugh. And then I’d regain my composure a bit and manage to choke my way through the speech. But then I’d look up to see the Japanese teacher crying or one of the students crying and I’d lose it all over again.

Yuki is one of the kids I’m going to miss the most. Yuki is one of my Grade 9 students and is probably the funniest kid in the whole school. His English is light years ahead of the other kids so the Japanese teacher always made him come up to the front of the class and do model readings with me. Except he would act out the dialogue in the most ridiculous manner. He’d scream out the lines. Or he’d start dancing with me. That kid made me laugh more than anyone I’ve ever met.

This is Yuki:

And this is the message he gave me after our last class:

Kyoko is another kid I’m going to miss. She came to visit me in the staff room every single day, several times a day. Kyoko made me laugh almost as much as Yuki. She’s eccentric and wacky and totally independent. She likes classical music, hates sports and thinks most kids her age are stupid and vapid. Kyoko is awesome.

Of course, I will miss the entire track team. I’ve been running with these kids all year and going to their competitions to cheer them on so I really got to know them outside the classroom. Each and every one of these kids is amazing in their own way.

And this is just the start of the goodbyes. I still have another week at school. After that, I have to say goodbye to my coworkers, my volleyball team, my supervisor, my tea ceremony teacher, my friends. The rest of July is just going to be one painful goodbye after another.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

More to milk than meets the eye

You’d be forgiven for thinking this is just an ordinary carton of milk. After all, there’s nothing about its plain exterior that suggests it has a deviant side.

But if you turn the carton around, you’re in for a surprise.

Each carton features a different comic strip. Some are corny. Some are cute. And some are downright dirty. Like this one. Let’s take a closer look.

In the first panel, we see an old man drinking milk in his underwear while a young boy looks on. “My clothes were chafing me.”

In the second panel, the boy is rubbing his nipple and blushing. “Milk makes me feel funny.”

In the third panel, grandpa is grabbing his crotch. “Yeah! Milk is good for your bones!”

In the last panel, a mysterious woman suddenly appears on the scene. The boys drop the homoerotic hijinks and pretend they’ve been innocently drinking milk all along.

Things in Japan are so much fun when you don’t understand what’s going on.*

*Okay. A friend of mine translated the comic strip for me. Turns out it’s not dirty at all. The old man and his grandson are simply having fun demonstrating the incorrect way to drink milk after a bath (apparently, nipple rubbing and crotch grabbing are out). The correct posture is to put one hand on your hip and tilt your head back, as demonstrated in the last panel. I like my version better.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Cucumber Pepsi anyone?

I finally got my hands on a bottle of Pepsi Ice Cucumber, which is being marketed as the cool new summer drink here in Japan.

But don’t let the label fool you. Cucumber Pepsi is actually 100 per cent cucumber-free. According to one news report, it has been “artificially flavoured to resemble the ‘refreshing taste of a fresh cucumber.’”

Apparently, it has also been artificially coloured to resemble the refreshing look of mouthwash. Or antifreeze.

Still, I was intrigued. I like Pepsi and I like cucumbers. How bad could it be? I decided to take the Cucumber Pepsi Challenge and find out. Here’s my sip-by-sip report:

First sip: Ahhh . . . cold liquid. Refreshing!

Second sip: Hey! This actually kind of tastes like cucumber. Or melon. Or something. Not bad!

Third sip: No, wait. It tastes like watered-down Pepsi.

Fourth sip: What? This doesn’t taste like Pepsi or cucumbers at all.

Fifth sip: It tastes . . . toxic.

Sixth sip: Oh my god. This is disgusting.

Seventh sip: I think I’m going to be sick.

Unfortunately, the taste test came to an abrupt end at this point because I poured the rest of the bottle down the sink. Cucumber Pepsi is the most vile thing I’ve tried since the Tim Hortons pink smoothie.

What’s next? Broccoli Coke? Spinach Sprite?

I have a feeling Cucumber Pepsi is one Japanese fad that won’t be sweeping the world any time soon.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

What does it mean to be Canadian?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be Canadian lately.

Maybe this is what happens when you’ve been living outside the country for a while. Or maybe this is what happens when you’ve been living in a homogeneous society sharing a homogeneous culture because this is definitely what being Canadian is not.

In a way, I envy the Japanese people around me. They have such a strong sense of national identity. They share a rich cultural history that binds them together as a whole. The food, the language, the music, the art, the architecture, the religion, the customs, the traditions. There are so many things that are uniquely Japanese.

I’ve been living in a country that has elevated the presentation of raw fish into an art form and the simple act of serving tea into a complicated ceremony that takes decades to master. And then I think about Canadian culture and it’s hard not to feel like we come up short. What are the pillars of our culture? Back bacon and hockey? It seems so crude and unrefined in comparison.

Of course it’s not fair to compare Canada with Japan. The two countries are fundamentally different. Japan is old. Canada is new. Japan is small. Canada is big. Japan is homogeneous. Canada is multicultural.

Both countries are wonderful in their own ways but I can’t help but feel that Canada lacks a soul of its own. It’s just this big chunk of land where people go about doing their own thing.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to a party and I was asked to bring a “Canadian” dish. My Japanese friends looked confused when I told them I didn’t know what Canadian food was exactly. I tried to explain that in Canada we eat Indian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Mexican, Italian, French and Middle Eastern food.

For me, being Canadian means not having a clear sense of nationality or place in the world. I belong everywhere and nowhere. It is both discombobulating and liberating at the same time.

Growing up in Toronto, I was constantly aware of the fact that I had no cultural or ethnic identity to call my own. I grew up in a house flanked by Polish neighbours on both sides. I went to a high school that was predominately Italian. I worked weekends at the Sheraton Hotel eating curried goat prepared by the Jamaican kitchen staff and sharing the elevator with Chinese maids.

We’re all Canadian but what is our collective experience? What is our national identity? What does it mean to be Canadian? I’m not really sure what the answer is. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe being Canadian is an individual and subjective thing. Maybe being Canadian can mean whatever you want it to mean.

Even though I don’t really know what it means to be Canadian, I do know what makes me happy to call Canada home. I value our wide-open spaces and clean air. I like that we have universal health care and same-sex marriage. I like riding the subway in Toronto and looking around to see people from all over the world sharing the same car.

I like paddling a canoe on a quiet lake and camping under the stars. I like smelling autumn leaves and hearing them crunch underfoot. I like sticky summer nights and banana popsicles.

I like the rush of excitement that comes from driving into downtown Toronto along the Gardiner Expressway and seeing the skyline lit up at night. I like the feeling of awe that comes from crossing the Lion’s Gate Bridge at dusk when the sky is pink and the mountains are purple.

There is a lot to be grateful for. Still, I don’t think any of that makes me uniquely Canadian. My values are not necessarily part of a collective consciousness. I’m not even sure if we have a collective consciousness in Canada. I can hate hockey and yet I am just as Canadian as a face-painting, flag-waving hockey fanatic. If nothing else, at least Canada is a place where we respect and celebrate our differences.

So on that note, happy Canada Day.