Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Sagas of Round-Up

Long before I arrived in Japan, the publishing arm of the Kriasho Corporation redesigned some of its older textbooks so they no longer resembled brightly-colored workout tapes from the 1980s. Though the new textbooks are sleeker and easier to use, the lessons chronicle the exploits of characters so absurdly two-dimensional that I can no longer restrain myself from making fun of them. Were I in charge, the textbooks would be about Japanese salarymen searching for lost Viking treasure, or a bumbling band of college students on a cross-country road trip to locate a mythical Kentucky Fried Chicken that had successfully merged Original Recipe with Extra Crispy. Maybe someday.

Take Off (Even Days): Surpassing the Love of Men
Take Off follows the everyday adventures of Meiko, a smartly dressed anime character, and her redheaded shoulderpad-wearing American co-worker Amber. Meiko bears the distinction of being the only character in the Kriasho universe with an even remotely sexy voice, though Amber's slow drawl evokes the painful lethargy of a soap opera-watching housewife. In the first Listening section, Meiko is devastated when she fails to score a date with the narcissistic Jules (who, though he is American, has adapted the Japanese men’s habit of carrying a purse)—however; after fifteen units of restaurant visits, cooking classes, and weekend trips with Amber; Meiko turns down Jules’s invitation for a romantic ski weekend because there isn’t enough room in the car for her very special friend.
Rating: 4/10. I give this story extra points for its daring lesbian undertones and a circular arc worthy of Strindberg; though that damn actress playing Amber prevents it from scoring any higher.

Gear Up (Odd Days): A Boy and His Trains
Katherine is a flaky eighteen year-old on a homestay with the Kobayashi family in Tokyo. Her host brother Hiro is a twenty-three year-old introvert who still lives at home even though he works for an international bank, and whose defining characteristics are his crippling shyness and his obsession with trains. Many an astute Gear Up reader has noted that Hiro seems to love trains a little too much—to the point where his idea of a fun weekend is riding the rails to Shizuoka and impressing upon his blonde companion the finer points of rack-and-pinion locomotion.
Rating: 3/10. Though Hiro’s train fetish and social awkwardness are good for a few laughs, this story’s lack of tension will leave readers falling asleep. Even a nerve-wracking moment when Katherine runs out of money at the mall is easily resolved when Hiro rushes to her rescue with her forgotten ATM card.

Breakthrough (Odd Days): A Narrative of the Life of Chris Quimby
Chris is the token black character of the Kriasho universe, and the Breakthrough editors—in an unprecedented display of social daring—push the bar even further by making his wife Haruka Japanese! Unfortunately, instead of speaking out against America’s narrow-minded views on interracial marriage, Haruka spends the majority of the book volunteering at animal shelters, fussing over her dog, and generally being as annoying as possible.
Rating: 1/10. This story is saved from a zero only by Haruka’s adventure-seeking father Toro, who backpacks across South America and serves as an inspiration for travel-junkies everywhere.

Breakthrough (Even Days): Why America Hates Vegetarians
This saga centers around Takashi, a physical therapy student (already I loathe him) from Japan attending college in San Francisco. We also meet Jake the pretentious art gallery owner and Jill the yuppie lawyer—though they both pale in comparison to how irritating Takashi is. In the first Dialogue, Takashi proudly announces his vegetarianism and strict abstinence from alcohol, and later—in a particularly horrendous example of sarcasm—makes a painful speech about the merits of organic vegetables. The actor playing Takashi has a voice like a rhinoceros dying of prostate cancer, and I feel the cringe of fingernails on a chalkboard every time I play the Breakthrough CD. Takashi spends the second half of the book in pursuit of an unnamed female Friend (whose voice, if I may be so bold, is almost as annoying as Takashi’s), whom he finally gets alone on a bluff overlooking the Bay in the final lesson. Sadly, Takahashi’s date comes to an embarrassing end when he prematurely ejaculates all over the backseat of Jake’s car and has to spend his New Years Eve wiping semen stains off the leather interior.
Rating: -12/10. Not even a reference to Where the Red Fern Grows can make me give this hunk of crap a positive rating.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

International Health Trends

(from a low-intermediate level class)

Me: Belinda doesn't eat meat. What do we call someone who doesn't eat meat? Do you know the English name?
A student: Vegetarian?
Me: Excellent! Now—a harder question. In English, what do we call someone who doesn't eat meat, doesn't eat eggs, and doesn't drink milk?
Another student: Allergic.

I found this far too funny not to post.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Like most of my more open-minded peers, I despise censorship in all its forms; from government-sponsored suppression of a free press to a public school’s removal of ideas that threaten its daily routine. However, there remains a gray area regarding opinions posted on the internet, where—though no one is officially regulating the flow of ideas—what you post might come back to hurt you. I learned this during my Livejournal days (*shudder*) on multiple occasions that I will not go into here. These incidents lead to my aversion to blogging, which I overcame only by shunning the daily recounts and true confessions that hounded my last blog. People, I’ve found, despise being written about as if they were characters in a narrative; a statement that evokes, even as I write this, the image of a menacing figure with tinted hair and a fur-lined coat wandering the Bennington campus late at night with her scowling sidekick, blowing cigarette smoke in my face and stretching out her o’s and i’s as she whispered her condemnations in the bushes outside Commons. That girl had dark, hideous eyes made all the more sinister by an abundance of mascara and eyeshadow. I’ll never forget those eyes. (Okay, so I lied about not delving into the past, but that’s the most you’re going to get).

However, once again it is clear to me that if I’m not careful, and if Certain Parties (I’m not talking about ex-girlfriends, either) were ever to find this blog, a similar fate could be in store for yours truly. As much as I hate to, I have to be careful about what I post here. This is at times frustrating, and at other times made easier by obfuscating or manipulating key facts or opinions. I consider it censorship if someone wants to express something and cannot; and by this definition I do feel censored with this blog. I’ve given the matter a lot of thought and vowed to tread as close to the line as I can and encourage all to read between the lines until this threat is no longer a problem. As a further precaution, I’ll post this official-sounding Disclaimer written with lots of Latinate language and passive voice:

All entries in this blog are, for all legal intents and purposes, works of fiction, and any opinions expressed therein are not necessarily those held by its author. The tone has been highly distorted for entertainment and humorous purposes, and should be considered facetious. Where incidents are recounted which supposedly involve real people, the names of those people have been changed. Any resemblance between the identities of people recounted here and those of the real world are purely coincidental. Much of the dialogue and anecdotes recorded herein are works of the author’s imagination and, even when they appear to refer to real-life incidents, should be taken as fictitious.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Life in Japan #4: Real Questions Students Ask Me

I wrote my list of false questions as an outlet for various frustrations that I’ve been mulling over in my post-Bennington life (which, for those of you just joining this blog, I’ve found to be particularly unsympathetic). Before I came to Japan I entertained the idea of convincing the Japanese that all Americans were a pack of Salinger-reading, mix CD-burning, Hawaiian shirt-wearing creative types who shunned traditional symbols of wealth and status; though I quickly found that Japanese people already have predetermined notions about Americans that I will discuss later. Most of their questions, by contrast, are personal ones:

Q: Where are you from?
This is undoubtedly the most common question I am asked, as the Japanese government’s English curriculum appears to progress as follows:
1.)My name is _________.
2.)How are you?/I’m fine, thank you.
3.)Where are you from?
With lower-level students, “America” will usually suffice, though for a long time I was unsure of how to handle a more specific answer since New Hampshire is not exactly given to international recognition. I used to say “Boston,” which everyone in Japan knows (katakana: Bo-su-tan), though this soon made me feel like a traitor to my home state. “Near Boston” didn’t work very well because even most intermediate level students don’t understand the geographical concept of “near.” Finally, I just started telling the truth, which works quite well since Japanese people are used to hearing the names of states they don’t recognize.

Q: What is New Hampshire like?
“There are many mountains, many forests, and many lakes—like Yamanashi.”

Q: What is your hometown like?

“It’s very small. Too small for me.”

Q: Do you cook?
A: Students, in addition to most of my co-workers, ask me this unnatural-sounding question whenever I talk about food. Since Japan is a land of plentiful restaurants, cheap convenience store bentos (which I got tired of really fast), and several hundred varieties of ramen, it is perfectly easy for the blundering gaijin to consume his or her recommended calorie intake by doing nothing more complicated than walking into the konbini or boiling a kettle of water. There is an insatiable demand for convenience foods here; and most twenty-somethings of both sexes have no interest in cooking. Many are even afraid of it, and answer my question with nervous laughs and trembling hands. There is almost a social norm against cooking; possibly because that duty is traditionally given to the wife of a household, or possibly because it is their way of showing their peers that they too can afford the convenience of prepared meals.

Q: What’s your blood type?
Before I came to Japan I had never been asked this question by anyone not wearing a Red Cross uniform. People here talk about the relationship between blood type and personality in the same way that Americans casually evoke the Zodiac. I forget what personality type O Positive signifies (I had to sneak a peek at my blood-donor card as I wrote that last sentence), but I seem to recall it being something vaguely complimentary.

Q: What was your job in America?
Since there are no fewer than nine correct answers to this question (see 1/22/09), I almost always say teacher (which, I freely admit, is a shameless lie by omission), since most students do not know what a tutor is, and any other answer would undoubtedly cause me to lose face in a culture where having a steady, full-time salaried position marks the line between success and failure. Answering this question professionally is such a common predicament for foreign teachers that AEON included sample answers in its Native Teacher Training Manual, which of course I am forbidden from quoting here.

Q: Do you use chopsticks in the US?
Chopsticks are not as ubiquitous in Japan as in other Asian countries, and I have even met some Japanese people who are not adept at using them. I taught myself chopsticks by reading the back of the package at the Hawaiian Isle Chinese restaurant at age eleven; and that I took the time to learn the traditional eating methods of another culture surprises and delights many students.

Q: How do you use marijuana?
This question arose on the street one night after someone mentioned a prominent Japanese actor who had been caught naked in a park in the throes of a cocaine high. The asker had the fascinated look of a child approaching a forbidden subject; and I wondered if he had ever known anyone who had gotten stoned. I’m obviously no expert, but I explained how to smoke a joint using a series of simple gestures, to the acknowledging nods of the crowd. After all, part of my job is introducing students to American culture.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

On the Road

I finished Jack Kerouac's On the Road today, and found the experience significant enough to write about here. People have been telling me to read this since Ben recommended it freshman year of college 5+ years ago, though it seems fitting that I should finally read it after reaching Japan. I'll be honest; the book didn't make it on to my Top 20 list, but every time I picked it up I felt an incredible invigoration that I tried to hold on to as long as possible while the memory of Kerouac's breathless prose still surged through me. I read the last two sections in one sitting and my mind spun with possibilities for adventure and that I can't quite put into words right now, and haven't been able to for a long time. That a writer can provoke such a feeling, even with just one sentence, is proof of the sheer power of the medium.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ian Answers Japanese Students’ Questions about America

Q: Is rap music popular in America?
A: No, not at all. Hip-hop and rap music have yet to gather a strong following in America and are enjoyed by only a small percentage of people. The same goes for country music and terrible pop music that for some reason gets played on the radio. Americans enjoy almost every other kind of music, and the most popular band is called Rane.

Q: Is fast-food popular in America?
A: NO. Most Americans abhor the heavily commercialized, overpriced fast-food chains; succumbing to their temptations only for the occasional snack (which makes them remember why they avoided fast food in the first place).

Q: Do Americans prefer Coke or Pepsi?
A: Both are equally popular. Most Americans will usually choose one or the other based on their mood, though they usually drink Moxie instead.

Q: What sports are popular?
A: Some Americans enjoy baseball, but I can’t think of any other popular sports.

Q: What kind of cars do Americans drive?
A: Americans prefer small, reliable, fuel-efficient cars that they maintain themselves. A minority drive large, cumbersome vehicles called SUVs that are merely status symbols of shameless middle-class consumerism; and this small group is regularly the subject of ridicule for their attempts at overcompensation.

Q: Do Americans read for pleasure?
A: Of course; all the time. Reading is one of the most popular pastimes in the country.

Q: Do Americans follow news?
A: Yes, ardently. Americans understand that it is important to be informed about what’s going on in the world around them, and follow both national and foreign reports from reputable, unbiased news sources.

Q: Is President Obama popular?
A: Yes, though most Americans resent the over-commercialization of his image.

Q: What jobs are popular in America?
A: All kinds. Americans understand that success is about more than just money—it’s about doing what makes you happy. As a result, those young people with passions for art, acting, music, or film are especially admired for their creativity, even if they don’t currently have full-time jobs using their degrees.

Q: Are there any jobs that Americans respect less than others?
A: Massage therapists.

Q: Is a quality education important to Americans?
A: Naturally. Americans today understand that post-secondary education is a wonderful opportunity to expand your intellect and develop a more sophisticated outlook on the world around you; and most Americans keep on learning new things long after they’ve left college.

Q: I’ve heard that Americans care only about themselves and their own needs. Is this true?
A: This, I’m happy to say, is the biggest misconception of all.

Q: Do all Americans think the way you do?
A: Yes.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Back in the Habit

Tokyo cityscape, as seen from City Tower in Roppongi Hills.

After two months of keying out phone e-mails until my thumbs blistered, I've finally gotten my computer set up and successfully plugged into the internet after only three phone calls in search of the correct English tech support assistance. It's been so long I don't know what to do. I have an overwhelming urge to peruse eight weeks worth of news stories, look up every reference I've scribbled down in my notebook for later, e-mail every person I've promised correspondence with, read every blog entry I've missed, scroll every message board, and post every blog idea of my own that I've haphazardly drafted by hand without the ease of Word to oversee the process. So many possibilities await. I feel so...connected.

I wonder who's updated their Facebook status?