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Part XIX School and other Demons

February 4, 1999

OK, I finally caught the Hong Kong A Influenza that has been going around. Actually, "going around" is a great understatement, since this thing is basically an epidemic. In one of my classes, seven students were absent, and when one of my teachers took her 5 year old son to the hospital, they saw four of his classmates there already. I had hints of this for two days now, and I have been bombarding my body with Vitamin C, Echinacea, and sleep, but to no avail.

Speaking of getting sick, once again I must repeat that small cultural differences are sometimes interesting. I was outside for a while playing soccer with some students and when I came back in one of the teachers asked me if I was going to gargle. I said, "what?" She then explained that it is customary to gargle after coming in from the cold to prevent catching cold. Hmm. I just think she was trying to pull one over on the gullible gai-jin. In any event, I did not gargle, which might be why I am sick right now. Who knows?

 It snowed this morning for the first time. About one inch, but traffic was ridiculously slow. There are no plows or shovels that I have seen in Kiryu, and people were using brooms instead. No salt, either, so the roads quickly iced up. So why, you might ask, was I outside playing soccer with the students? Because nothing, but nothing, gets in the way of a scheduled event in Japan (well, that's not always true; see below). The ninth graders were going to have a soccer tournament no matter what. It was about 30 degrees and windy and those kids were out there in sweatshirts and track suits! Needless to say, it is hard to dribble a soccer ball when you are shivering from head to toe, and even harder when the ball has snow on it.

I still haven't answered the question -- why was I there. Well, I have started visiting the classes of other teachers so that I can see how the different subjects are taught and get a better sense of the average daily life of a student. English classes with me are pretty abnormal, I figured, so I thought I'd see what "normal" was. As it turns out, it is almost never is the stereotypical image of rows of students dutifully memorizing lessons or listening to lectures. There is a lot of group work, and a lot of hands-on stuff. In the social studies class, they were studying the Edo period of Japan (1603 - 1868). First, the teacher reviewed the text a little, then they watched a video about a particularly important battle (war always makes for good TV), and then they split into groups and answered several questions that the teacher wrote on the board. After this, they were given fill-in-the-blank worksheets highlighting the major points. The science class was even more interesting. About once every week or two they meet in the library, split into groups, and choose from several closely related subjects (today's were sun, moon, and earth). Then, they delve in the library's holdings, learn what they can about their chosen topic, and make a presentation to the rest of the class about it. That's pretty alternative, I think.

 These two classes, picked at random so as to prevent the teachers from only inviting me to the interesting lessons, completely blew away the stereotypes I still carried around with me about the "average" class. The classes I teach, while a bit more game-oriented, and maybe a bit more entertaining, aren't as much of an exception as I thought. Of course, having someone else there who is not their regular teacher is a big difference, so my classes still stand out. I think I am going to go to a cooking or industrial arts class next and try to join in, just to see the reactions from teachers ad students. Even after six months I can't do anything without being the center of attention, even if it's just sitting at my desk studying Japanese. So, I've given up trying to be inconspicuous, and besides, I want to see more of the school life here. Another reason is that every time I have contact with students outside of the classroom they get a little more comfortable with me and a little more willing to try to talk to me -- usually in a combination of their poor English and my poorer Japanese. One problem is that even the good students, the ones who score high on tests, are learning sentences like "the boy who is sitting under the tree is Bill." Sometimes these are not the most useful constructs for everyday conversations. Which got me to thinking -- who thinks up the curriculum, and how many times did they bang their head with a rock before doing so? I realize that teaching a language is hard, and that it is easy to criticize. That's why I'm doing it.

 But back to cooking classes. I taught one last Saturday to 20 adults (mostly women) ranging in ages from 25 to 72. The Kiryu International Exchange Association has an annual party at which they serve food from as many different countries as possible. This year's theme was finger-food, and I was asked to participate, so I taught them how to make buffalo wings. I got the recipe from another American here. It was a very easy recipe, and it was actually a fun experience. Some of the people there are also in my evening English conversation class for adults, so I was able to communicate very easily. We made up about 300 wings at one of the community centers and took them over to city hall for the big party. At the party were a great number of people that some here call "gai-jin collectors." This is not a term of endearment. A gai-jin, of course, is a foreigner. A gai-jin collector is someone who latches on to any foreigner, acts like a long lost friend, and tries to get as much personal information as possible. The thing is, I am not a person to them -- I am just an object on which to practice English. Also, it's considered cool to be talking to the gai-jin, so we are used as status symbols. I'm not kidding here, and I am not just being cynical. Some of these people are downright scary, and it's hard to politely get out of a conversation with one of them (after being here a while, you know who they are as soon as they start a conversation). I have come to realize that they are not being friendly -- they just hope to get something from you, whether it's status or free English practice or whatever. It's almost like they see it as a conquest, and they want to get as many as possible.

It's very hard to describe the kind of person that I am talking about, but any foreigner who has lived in Japan will know what I mean. Fortunately, gai-jin collectors are the vast minority of the population. Unfortunately, a party thrown by the Kiryu International Exchange Association draws them like flies to a dead moose. It was like war in there, constantly trying to talk with friends and/or legitimately interesting people without someone bursting into the conversation and asking for my phone number. Why do they want my phone number when they haven't even met me yet? That is the first sign of trouble. I don't know, maybe this doesn't make much sense to someone who hasn't been here, but trust me, it is a legitimate concern, not just for me but for most other people with whom I have talked about it.

 Anyway, enough about the freaks (not that I am biased or anything).

There is an annual festival here called Setsubun which happens at the beginning of February. People throw soybeans while chanting "in with good luck, out with the devil" (or, more precisely, "fuku wa uchi, oni wa soto." Yes, that's right, the infamous "fuku" is back, and this time it means "good luck") Then you eat your age in soybeans (fun for grandparents, I'm sure). This protects you and yours from the bad demons that inhabit Japan. Good thing those demons haven't immigrated to the states, eh? Anyway, it is unclear to me whether this falls under the aegis of "religious" or "cultural" festival. Many events and rituals in Japan are like this. There are Shinto and Buddhist temples and monasteries everywhere, and many people visit them to honor ancestors, have weddings, throw beans at demons, etc., but most people will tell you that they are not religious. The line between a "Japanese" custom and "religious" custom is non-existent.

In fact, even though these temples exist and millions of people visit them each year, I would call Japan a very, very secularized country, much more so than the States. Much like Christmas in America has become more of a time for family gathering than a purely religious event, many things which were originally religious have become simply mainstream culture. Except, in Japan, that process has been going on for a whole lot longer, until by now the original religious aspects are pretty much forgotten, and it has become simply a cultural phenomenon. A bean throwing festival, rather than a religious event. Japan has even done the same thing with Christmas -- many people in Japan give and receive presents (especially money), and many people even have Christmas trees, but almost none of them are Christian. I wonder how I would feel about that were I Christian -- is it sacrilege, the bastardization something that I hold very important? Is it the first step in converting people? Is it simply an interesting blending of cultures? I want to hear the thoughts of some Christians on the subject (hint hint).

 All that being said, I wanted to go to a Setsubun in a nearby city last night and it was canceled. There goes my previous assertion that no scheduled event in Japan is ever canceled. Sometimes the reason for cancellation is itself another story. In this case, my friend Laura called to find out when and where it was to be held, and was told that it was no longer happening due to "lack of cooperation." Lack of cooperation by whom? The demons? The soybeans? I mean, exactly how much cooperation is needed for an event whose main activity is throwing soybeans into the air, especially when most people bring their own beans? And how important could an event be if it can be canceled due to "lack of cooperation?" Can you imagine people canceling Christmas because the florist won't deliver the poinsettias on time?

Oh, and by the way, I am having my middle-of-first-year-in-Japan crisis. Can someone please tell me what the HELL I am doing here what could have possibly come over me to make me sign up for another year? Would throwing soybeans have exorcised whatever possessed me to do that?