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Part X Iranian rocket scientists and organized crime

October 6, 1998

Last Saturday there was an English recitation contest at one of my junior high schools to decide which two students get to go to the city-wide recitation contest next month.  I'm not sure if there are levels of competition beyond that.  Being the only native speaker available, I was one of the judges.  This was a harder job than you might imagine.  I mean, a recitation contest is just that: recitation.  Each student (there were ten) chose a passage from their English textbook and read it out loud.  And then we had to decided who read out loud the best.  So, really it was a pronunciation contest.  The problem is, the students went very quickly one after the other and there was barely time to think about the one you just heard before the next one was reading.  And besides, they all had Japanese accents, so they all made the same mistakes -- r, l, and th were bad.  I mean, you can tell them only so many times that you eat rice and kill lice.  Or that my name isn't Lafi, damn it.

But for me, the most frustrating thing was that the passages they read were quite short, and in all cases they stopped reading before the end of the story.  Each passage was some kind of narrative, about a sick boy or a female pilot or King Solomon, but the readers stopped way before the denouement.  So there was King Solomon, being wise, and there was the Queen of Sheba, being jealous, and then the story ends.  And I don't even know whether the sick boy survived or not.  Talk about nerve-racking.  I mean, I was getting into the stories so much that it was even harder to judge the pronunciation.  But, we ended up choosing two, and I got to sign their certificates, and now I get to judge them again next month.  I am also one of the judges for the city-wide contest.  Whoopee.

After the contest the principal of the school, who speaks a bit of English, took me out to lunch, where we ate Shabushabu.  Shabushabu is meat.  What happens is, there is a big pot of boiling broth at your table, into which you throw a bunch of veggies.  This is much fun.  Then, they bring some very thinly sliced raw meat to the table, and with your chopsticks you dip the meat into the boiling water for about 30 seconds, by which time it is done (I hope).  Trying to hold onto a piece of slippery, falling apart meat with a pair of chopsticks while the steam from the boiling water slowly peels your skin off is not the most pleasant experience I have had.  It tastes awesome, though -- there is even a special shabushabu sauce to dip the meat into.  There is a separate sauce to dip the veggies into.  And woe be unto you if you use the wrong sauce.  All around, a good experience, and the principal is an awesome guy, plus he paid, so itís all good.

Words like shabushabu are fairly common in Japanese.  Watashitashi is we, tokidoki is sometime, betsubetsu is "separate bills" (at a restaurant), naninani is whatever.  So, something like watashitashi tokidoki betsubetsu shabushabu ikimasho means "let's go eat boiled meat sometime and split the bill."  Well, you know, naninani.

(To those of you who speak Japanese -- I am well aware that I forgot all of the particles in that last sentence.  That's because I haven't the foggiest notion where they might go. Plus, the sentence wouldn't have been as funny.  So don't rain on my parade, yo.  If you don't speak Japanese, why the hell are you reading this paragraph?)

OK, now for the real story.  After lunch I went to Takasaki (the local "Big City (tm)" to go to a party which turned out to be a bust.  However, before the party myself and my friends Jeff and Kristin were walking out of the train station when we saw a large group of young people (about 18-24 years old) standing in a big circle in a public square near the station.  We couldn't figure out what the hell they were doing -- some of them were dressed in robe-lookin' things with writing, some had red T-shirts that said "BLOOD" on the back, and some were in street clothes.  About a quarter of them were women.  Then, all of a sudden, one of them took a few steps into the center of the circle and started yelling something at the top of his voice, scaring the hell out of us.  When he was finished, all the other people yelled something else in response.  Then, a guy standing next to the first guy did the same thing, and got the same response.  This continued all the way around the circle until everyone (about 120 people) had done this.  And there was some kind of hidden benchmark -- if someone didn't yell loud enough, or put enough effort into it, the crowd response would not be forthcoming, and they would have to do it again.

Needless to say, we were all very, very confused.  I tried asking some Japanese guy what was going on, but he either didn't know or just didn't want to tell me.  Then, a middle-eastern looking guy walked up to us and said "hello."  I took that as my cue to ask him what the hell was going on.  He responded "No English. Sorry."  It turns out that he is from Iran, but that he is a NASA-trained rocket scientist working in Tokyo.  I'm not kidding, and if I were Jeff and Kristin would call me on it, since they are both receiving this email.  Anyway, in broken Japanese and even more broken English, he explained to us that this was some kind of yakuza induction ceremony.  The yakuza is Japanese organized crime.  That's right, we were sitting there laughing out loud at the mafia while they went through their traditional mafia rituals.  Real good.  Needless to say, we left soon thereafter.  The whole thing was quite surreal, though.  I mean, here was a bunch of mafia-in-training shouting at each other while a guy from Tehran who NASA trained (although not in English, apparently) explained it to us in Japanese.  And what the hell is NASA doing training Iranians, anyway?  Not that there is anything wrong with being Iranian.  Some of my best friends aren't Iranians.

And finally, all I got to say is this:  equal parts (about 1/2 cup each) soy sauce and sake (you know, pronounced sock-ee), a bunch of fresh grated ginger and garlic.  Let anything (read: chicken) marinate in that for 4-24 hours (the longer the better), then cook it any way you want, but preferably in a pan or wok with sesame oil (with a little more ginger sauteed in the oil first).  I'll bet it would work with tofu, but you would have to be very careful with the tofu so that it doesn't fall apart before you cook it.  Besides, only sissies eat tofu.  How many does it serve?  Well, it seems like no matter how much chicken I use, there is only enough to serve me.

So, that's the news from Lake Hell-And-Gone, where are all the women are short, all the men are Japanese, and all the children are short and Japanese. (If you didn't understand that, you need to listen to more public radio.)