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Part XVI School lunch, doctors, and haircuts

January 14, 1999

You know, there has to be something special about an establishment that deserves to be mentioned each and every visit.  The place where I get my hair cut is such an establishment.  It's been a tiring week, even though it was only four days (this Friday is "Coming of Age Day" in Japan), because it was the first week back after my extended vacation.  The first week back is always the longest.  Anyway, getting a haircut here is a (mostly) relaxing experience, because they drape you in really warm stuff and pamper you for 45 minutes.  There is something very relaxing about closing your eyes and having someone play with your head.  Also, yesterday was my first day back at Shorinji Kempo (that martial art that I do, remember?), so I am somewhat to very sore at the moment, even though I had to leave early (see below).  Why does this matter?  Well, with each haircut comes a great head and neck massage.

So, I decided to treat myself to a haircut as a way to unwind and get a good start to my three day weekend.  It is indeed a treat, because I think they charge by the hair.  Actually, while it isn't all that expensive, they have a special "frequent flyers" program which is hilarious.  For every 1,000 yen you spend (about $9 right now), you get a little stamp on your membership card (everything in Japan has a membership card).  A haircut costs 2,900 yen, so you get two stamps per visit.  After accumulating 40 stamps, or the equivalent of $525, you get 1,000 yen off the next visit.  So, you are paying $26 for a haircut so that after 20 haircuts your 21st is only $17.  Yeah, right.

But still, the haircut was enjoyable, if tedious.  I think they can charge by the hair because they cut each one individually.  Twice.  I have stopped watching in mute horror at the snail-like progression, and now I just close my eyes.  And the massage was excellent.  I think I am going get a job there just so they train me to do that.  Then, I can train all of my friends.

Oh yeah, I already have a job.

In any event, as I mentioned to some of you already, while in Rome I walked too much and developed tendinitis in both Achilles tendons.  I am sure there is a joke in there somewhere, seeing as my Achilles heels are now the weakest part of my body, but I'll just let you imagine that I said something really funny along those lines.  I got a prescription from my doctor in South Bend, but unfortunately I forgot to get enough to last, and it ran out today. And my feet still hurt whenever I run or go down stairs.  Running I can control, but stairs are harder to avoid, unless I want to become a hermit.  I also found out the hard way last night that martial arts are out for now.  So, I asked some of the Americans in town (both of them) and got the name of a nice doctor who speaks more English than I do Japanese.  Which is not saying much.

I was trying to explain "tendinitis" in Japanese, through gestures such as clutching my heel and grimacing, and finally he seemed to understand.  I had brought my pocket-computer-dictionary-thingy, and he proceeded to type in a word and proudly display it to me.  The word was "plastic surgery." At this point I got very nervous, but since running hurts too much I decided not to make a break for it.  I violently shook my head and whipped out the empty prescription bottle.  Luckily, my Japanese is good enough to say "one more."  There was a slight problem, however. Most drugs used in America are banned for one reason or another in Japan, some for being stimulants, some for being depressants, and some I think for being American.  So, the anti-inflammatory I have been using is illegal in Japan (good thing customs didn't search me when I entered the country last week), but Dr. Fujie gave me what he assured me was "the same thing."  I take my first dose tomorrow, so you will know why if I suddenly stop responding to emails.

Everything worked out fine in the end, and everyone in the doctorÝs office was very nice and tried hard to understand me and make themselves understood.  What made the whole thing even easier is the way medical insurance works here.  I filled out a one-page form at the beginning of the year, and they sent me a membership card.  I gave the card to the receptionist, who wrote down all of the information and gave me another membership card, this one for the doctor's office.  Then, she deducted what the insurance is going to pay for the office visit and charged me the rest.  Which was seven (7) dollars.  Then, I went across the street to the pharmacy owned by the same doctor and, after showing them the insurance card, they charged me $5 (five dollars) for two weeks worth of anti inflammatory pills plus a topical cream.  That's not bad.

OK, on to school lunch.  I have already mentioned it in passing before, but I felt after yesterday's lunch that the subject should be revisited.  Yesterday we had "beehu shichyu," which, of course, is beef stew.  Lunch is always the same configuration:  a main thing, usually involving meat; a second thing, usually involving vegetables; a starch (rice or bread); and milk.  Often there is a piece of fruit or a dessert.  Yesterday the dessert was "honey conbu."  Conbu is an especially chewy kind of seaweed.  Sometimes there is a condiment or two.  The thing is, for everything on the tray there is a specific way to eat it, and everyone eats it exactly the same way.  For instance, if there is no condiment for the bread, it is eaten plain.  If, however, there is butter or sweet peanut cream (it is not peanut butter), then that is spread on the bread.  No one would even consider eating the bread plain if a condiment was served with it.

I, however, sometimes deviate from the norm.  For instance, I don't like the sweet peanut cream, and I like to dip my bread in the beef stew.  However, I have found that if I do something different, people make fun of me.  So, instead, I now say "look, this is how we eat this in America" and I eat it the way I want.  They laugh at the folly of Americans and then try it that way themselves, just to see what it would be like.  And there is no question that I am speaking for all Americans, either -- it is simply assumed (more on that later).  The best is when it is "hanbaagaa suteki" day.  This, of course, is hamburger steak.  Which, of course, is a hamburger without a bun.  However, without exception, this is served the same day as bread.  So, I say "this is how Americans eat it" and I use the bread as a bun.  And it blows their mind.  Then they all try it and think it is funny to do something new.  This would not be so funny and could be attributed to cultural and eating differences if it weren't for the McDonald's five minutes up the road.  It's not like they've never seen a hamburger with a bun before -- it's just that this is not a hamburger.  It says distinctly on the menu that it is a hamburger steak.  Therefore, putting it on a bun is very funny.

In Japan, just about everything is an extreme.  Nothing is half-assed.  For instance, if someone has a hobby, they do it everyday for several hours.  There is no such thing as a part-time hobby, or a weekend project.  I'm going somewhere with this, so bear with me.  At lunch there is either "one portion" or "more than one portion."  Since I am a big person who likes to eat, I often go for a second portion.  Today, for instance, I took a second roll.  However, by taking a second roll, I implied that I would like ALL SEVEN rolls that were left, because all numbers greater than one are equal ("more than one portion.")  Three times I had to assure someone that two was indeed enough.  And this has happened nearly everyday since I got here.  (Oh, I also took a second drink box of milk?  That must mean I want all 19 that are left, right?)

A similar phenomenon occurs when I try to describe life in America, because Japanese society is so conformist.  That is not to say that people here are forced to do the same thing as everyone else.  It is just that everyone does the same thing as everyone else.  So, someone found out that I don't like coffee.  Their immediate assumption was that no one in America likes coffee.  When I quickly assured them that people DO drink coffee in America, they jumped to the other extreme -- everyone in America likes coffee except me.  It is very frustrating sometimes that people here can't understand how different people are from each other in the States.  I get questions like "Are all teachers strict?"  "Do all boys misbehave?"  "Is everyone as handsome as you?"   You know, standard stuff.  But I have to answer every single question by saying "well, it depends."  or "I don't know" or "of course not -- I'm the fairest one of all."  It's just that in most aspects there are very few differences among Japanese preferences.  This, of course, is my opinion, but it is one shared by many people with whom I have spoken.

I have an anecdote which very nicely summarizes this conformist phenomenon.  This is a true story, by the way.  It seems that someone opened an ice cream shop, but no one was coming in.  As it turned out, the reason that no one came into the shop was that no one came into the shop.  One day the owner hired 12 people to stand in line outside his shop, and immediately many other people got in line, too.  It is now the most popular ice cream shop in the city.  As silly as that may sound to you, tell that to anyone who has lived in Japan and they will reply with a knowing nod and maybe a comment along the lines of "yeah, that's how things work in Japan."  I've tried it, so I know.

I had a very interesting conversation with some teachers the other day about how to handle students who misbehave.  The third grade (= American ninth grade) at this school has a few particularly bad boys who are always talking and shouting and laughing and walking around the class, and it is very hard to get anything done.  This especially frustrates me, because in the States that kind of thing is simply not tolerated -- those kids would be sent out of the classroom, to the principal's office or even home. In Japan, it is considered every student's right to be in the classroom to learn.  Also, controlling the student is purely the school's responsibility, not the parents.  This includes after-hours activities.  At the street festivals in Kiryu teachers have to walk around all night making sure their students don't get in trouble.  It is never the parents' responsibility to discipline a child.

Not that no one should be allowed to talk, but these boys carry on shouted conversations across the room throughout every class I have with them, and there is nothing I could do about it.  The other students can't learn anything because for much of the time they literally cannot hear me or the other teacher.  During a conversation with some of the teachers, I said that I thought it was the right of all the quiet students to have a classroom which is conducive to learning, ie. not so loud and distracting.  I also mentioned that parents of trouble makers are often called in to school in the US.  They thought that this was very interesting, but that is where it stopped -- there was no discussion, or even hint of a discussion, about changing the way things are done.  Because, well, that's the way things are done.  What more needs to be said?

So, no student is allowed to ride a mountain bike -- only "street bikes" are allowed.  This type of bike hasn't existed in America for 30 years, and for good reason.  This rule is so vigorously enforced that my mountain bike was impounded because a teacher thought it belonged to a student.  So, if you ride the wrong kind of bike to school it is taken away, but if you disrupt class everyday, all day, such that no one can learn and the Assistant Language Teacher is ready to beat the hell out of you, there is nothing that can be done.  Yet another example of extremes -- either a rule is enforced to the point of lunacy, or there is simply no rule and nothing can be done.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that Japanese society is a study of polarities. Very little is ever moderate or in the middle.   People don't believe me when I say a food is just OK -- either I like it or I hate it, so which is it?  Also, people in Japan rarely change their mind.  That sounds strange, but I really believe that it's true.  Once a decision has been made, there is almost no chance of it ever being  considered again, let alone changed.  No matter how many good reasons there are and no matter how hard you beg and plead, the answer will remain the same. What this means in practice is that things in Japan are the way they are because that is the way they are.  It's really that simple.  Why do people eat lunch that way?  Because that is the way it was eaten last time.  Why is there no way to discipline these students?  Because no such rule existed last year.  I am painting the picture of a very static society, but there is one large caveat.  I am paraphrasing and probably horribly mutilating some famous person's words here, but I recently heard something the effect of "never underestimate the Japanese: they have the amazing ability to collectively turn 180 degrees and march in the opposite direction."  (If you can find where I heard or read that quote, I'll be very grateful.)  These moments of violent change come few and far between, but they do happen.  One example is the program I am on -- eleven years ago, there were almost no native English speakers in Japanese schools. Today, nearly every junior high and high school in Japan has a native English speaker at least part of the time.  That is amazing -- can you imagine something so expensive and logistically difficult spreading so quickly in America?

OK, one last anecdote.  I was talking with another ALT, and we were complaining about how cold we always are due to a lack of central heating and especially of insulation.  Insulation would make everything so much easier and cheaper to heat, and it makes sense in a country without a lot of energy resources.  Almost simultaneously, we reached the same conclusion, one which ended the discussion. Some day everyone is going to realize that insulation would be a good idea, and within two years every building in Japan will be coated with the best fiberglass money can buy.  There will be no discussion of why it was not done before or anything like that -- it will just change.  And there is absolutely nothing we can do to speed up the process.  When we realized this we just laughed.  After living in Japan for a while, it is clear that that is just the way things work here.  Is that bad?  Good?  Who knows?  But I'll tell you one thing: it is probably not in the middle.