Sunday, October 31, 2004

Angry white woman

It's raining heavily again. We just had a great big thunderstorm shaking the house, but it seems to be over now. Tomorrow I'm cycling to work, so I checked the weather site to see if it's going to rain tomorrow too. It isn't supposed to, but you never know.

Did you ever lie on your back and watch clouds drift by overhead, seeing figures and animals and scenes in the shapes of the clouds? I can't do that these days. The skyline encroaches too much. Instead I see things in the satellite pictures.

Today I can see a big angry white woman sitting on Japan, screaming.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Professorial conversation

On Thursdays after work a few of the teachers always meet at a local curry shop and have dinner together. We never stay long, just long enough to eat and walk to the station together. We use the time to let off steam a bit. We get sarcastic about our jobs.

Yesterday we were joined by a Japanese professor. He is a sweet and rather vague man in his fifties, who likes to join us occasionally. Usually he doesn't speak much. He just sits there eating and smiling and apparently enjoying our conversations. I sometimes feel a little annoyed when he joins us, because he inevitably makes me miss my train. He's a very slow eater, and it seems rude to suddenly leave him while he's still chewing. But I feel guilty about feeling annoyed, because so few of the Japanese professors actually want to socialize with us, and it's nice that he does. So I make an effort to relax and not start gritting my teeth when he takes twenty minutes to decide which curry to order.

Yesterday I tried to include him a little more. He teaches English, I thought, and maybe he was feeling a bit left out as the three others of us were sending insults and jokes and cynical comments flying around the table. There was a TV in the restaurant, and the news was on, showing a round-up of the day's tragedies. They showed the little boy being rescued (again - I think I've seen that bit of video several hundred times now). I looked at the professor and said,

"Wasn't that an amazing story, about the little boy?"

He looked at me. "Pardon?" he asked.

"That little boy," I said. "Wasn't it amazing how they got him out alive like that?"

He shook his head sadly. "I think they'll cut his head off," he said.

A quick mental scan located the story he thought I was talking about. I tossed up whether or not to correct him, decided it wasn't important, and nodded politely.

"They let the others go last time," he said, "But I don't think they will this time. It's terrible."

"Yes, terrible," I said. "There is a lot of bad news these days."

"Oh, yes!" he replied, and thought for a bit. "But did you see that little boy got rescued?"

"Yes, I did," I said.

He chewed slowly for a while, then looked up.

"Are you a teacher at the university?" he asked.

"Yes," I answered.

"What do you teach?"


"Really? So do I!" he replied, amazed.

The American teacher asked him, "What kind of class do you teach?"

He looked confused. "Pardon?"

"Er... Do you teach reading? Speaking? Writing? Listening? Grammar?"

"Oh, I teach a TOEFL course."


"TOEFL. I don't think the TOEIC is so useful. I don't know why so many universities teach TOEIC. TOEFL is what the students need."

"What's the difference, anyway?" asked the teacher.

"Um... you need TOEFL to get into an American university."

"Do you think our students want to get into American universities?"


Silence for a while.

"So... what does it mean, anyway? TOEFL, I mean. What do the letters stand for?" asked the British teacher.

"Stand for?" asked the professor.

"Yes, you know, what do the letters mean?"

"Mean? It's the TOEFL."

He produced a pen and started to write on a napkin. "T O F E L."

"Isn't it T - O - E - F - L?" I asked.

"Really?" said the professor, staring at the napkin.

"Teaching... no, Testing Of English As a Foreign Language," said the American teacher.

"Really?" said the professor, and wrote it down. "Oh, yes, look!"

"Well, it's something like that, anyway," said the teacher. "Maybe it's Testing of English for Foreign Learners. I don't really know."

The professor went silent, chewing and smiling vaguely and occasionally staring at the napkin.

After a while I asked him,

"How long have you been teaching the TOEFL course?"

He smiled sweetly. "Oh yes, the grammar is very difficult," he replied, "but I think it's good for the students."

"I see," I lied, and after a little pause decided to change the subject.

"Is your curry good?" I asked.

"Yes, it's very spicy," he said. "I like Indian food. When I was visiting the Grand Canyon in America I met some Indian people. It was very interesting."

"Oh. Um... I think..." I said.

"American Indians?" interrupted the American teacher.

"Yes!" said the professor happily. "They are very interesting people! They like spicy food! And they have interesting costumes, with feathers!"

"No, no!" said the teacher. "This is not American Indian food! And they're not called Indians any more. They're Native Americans."

The professor looked puzzled, and called over the owner of the restaurant. "Where are you from?" he asked.

"Pakistan," said the owner.

The professor stared at his plate, frowning. "This is not Indian food?" he asked, and our Pakistani host launched into a long explanation of Indian and Pakistani history in strongly accented English that left the professor reeling with confusion.

I decided not to make an effort to include the professor in future conversations. By this stage I'd not only missed my usual train, I'd missed the one after that as well, and had also missed out on all the stress-relieving banter that usually accompanies dinner on Thursday evenings. It works much better when our friendly professor just sits there, eating dinner and smiling vaguely while the conversation flies around over his head. I think we're all happier that way.

But now you know why I was so tired last night. Keeping up your end of a conversation like that is hard work.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

What are you looking for?

I am too tired to blog tonight. Instead, to entertain you, here are the recent Google searches that have been finding me (since the last time I posted these, whenever that was). As you can see, stupid accidents are still finding me far too often.

stupid accidents (10)
STUPID ACCIDENT (in caps, just for a change)
bartender quiz
pipe constructions
vinegar "with water" drink worming
guieter (from google in Japanese)
construction glasses
"static electricity" + "huge shock"
free short play
symbolic furniture
hunks + hairy
typhoon + "her umbrella"
"automatic door" works "shopping centre"
walkover constructions
surf lifesaver
funny short play
funny shaped cloud
laughed hard farted
Japanese leaflet driver waited embassy Sunday
Does calcium make a person grow tall?
sneezing caused by injury to spin
"bleeding nose"
girls with diarrhea
what is crazy guy in japanese
sleep grow taller
lose weight "miso soup"
description of shindo scale
Japan Earthquake News 10.24.04
grow taller with weights
ginger beer lesson plan
Gokoku-jinja Kobe
washing dishes symbolic

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

A cooked foot

I just had a bath. The weather justified it - it was cold today. I was unprepared when I cycled to work, and didn't wear my jacket. I expected it to warm up, and it didn't. Consequently I felt a little chilled all day, perfect for catching the cold most of my students seemed to have. I have had my spoonful of Manuka honey, watered my nose, taken Vitamin C, and had a hot bath in order to combat this possibility.

The bath was hotter than I expected. I had turned it on, and when I went to check the temperature it felt about right to me. But I was in a hurry, and just swished my hand in the water. I was in a rush to get back to the TV (an odd experience for me). I guess my hand was cold, and I didn't leave it in there long enough, because later, after I'd washed and stepped into the bath, I shot out of there like a cat on a hot potato.* The problem was that I shot out a bit too slowly - when I stepped in I put all my weight onto the foot going in, and my lower leg went all the way in before I could shift my weight and leap straight back out of there. My right foot is still a little pink.

But at least I feel properly warmed up. Even after I had added a lot of cold water that bath was still a very hot one. One day we'll get a new bath heater, the modern sort that turns off automatically when the temperature gets where you want it to, and my life will become a little less exciting.

*Yes, I know.

Today I got back the ear-cleaning alien story. The aliens have been removed, and there is a 'Nessie' instead. And some dung. It is altogether a surreal little story, but I'm afraid you will have to wait for details. Right now I have some urgent paperwork to do.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Flea market (with photos)

We had a lovely day today at the flea market. We met at Settsu-Motoyama station and went to God Mountain first. (There are some oddly named coffee shops in Japan.) We ate a leisurely breakfast, and the pot of coffee worked very well to wake me up.

Then we took the train to Rokko. The weather was glorious - a gift considering how it's been recently - and the flea market was crowded at first. We were soon shedding outer layers and down to short sleeves, and the sun was hot on our faces. We bumped into another couple of friends there.

The Gokoku Jinja flea market is a very small one. Gokoku Jinja is a small shrine, and there isn't space for a big market anyway, but I always seem to find something interesting there. Today I was looking out for something for my brother, who is a carpenter. I had told him about it, and he was interested. Last time I visited I gave him a very small old hand-held scale, probably originally for measuring herbal medicines, and he loved it. I'd told him about this other thing and said I'd look out for one for him. The one I found today wasn't very big (there seems to be two sizes, and mine is the smaller one), and not very flash (some have very intricate and beautiful designs), but it is in working condition and I think he's going to like it. He's a practical sort of person. Maybe he'll even use it. In any case, the beautiful ones are way too expensive.

Can you guess what it is used for?

Another thing I bought was for me. This is utterly useless, but I think it's beautiful. It's a large wooden spool with some golden silk thread still on it. The gold is gorgeous, and catches the light. This is not a great picture but I couldn't be bothered messing around to take a better one.

I also bought some buttons for my button jar. I didn't take a picture of those.

I didn't spend very much today, but I enjoyed myself very much all the same. I was looking for more rice bowls similar to the ones I bought another time, which have turned out to be very popular in this house because of the weight and balance of them, as well as the design. They're very old, and were expensive, and so I only bought two. But because we use them every day I've decided that if I ever spot anything similar I'll get them. They don't have to be the same. They just have to feel as good. I've been looking for a while now. It is proving harder than I thought, and although there was some blue and white today there were no bowls that caught my fancy.

There were a lot of kimono stalls. I don't remember if there are always so many, but a friend asked me especially to note whether it would be worth her going next month on a kimono buying spree, so I was keeping my eyes open.

All the time we were there, there was a group of Chindon players wandering around and playing music to keep us in a buying mood. I took some pictures of them, but none of them turned out very well. Here is the best of a bad bunch.

This is quite enough photos for one blog entry. I usually don't have more than one or two, and no doubt several people will be cursing me for the slow loading of my page. But I've been asked what makes Japanese flea markets different, and it's easier to show than to tell. If you hadn't figured it out yet, the stark truth is that foreign junk is always more interesting than domestic junk. I nearly bought a human skull today. The only reason I didn't was that someone else snapped it up before I got the chance. I think it was clay, but it looked very real indeed, all browned and aged and with some broken bits. The teeth were particularly gruesome.

The much bigger monthly flea market at Shi-Tennoji temple in Osaka will be on a Sunday next month (it's always on the 21st), so maybe I'll go to that one too. If I do, I'll try to remember to take the camera.

What next?

What sort of idiot chooses to live in a place that gets earthquakes and typhoons every other week, anyway?

Three of the earthquakes tonight (which were not in my area, and I didn't feel them) measured a strong Shindo 6. And they're having a lot of aftershocks, including a weak 6, four or five 5s, and a lot of 3s and 4s.

For those who don't want to click on the link, here is a description of a strong 6 on the Shindo scale, which measures how earthquakes are experienced rather than how much power is released. (In other words, it's a people scale, not a geologic scale.)

Impossible to keep standing and to move without crawling.
Most heavy and unfixed furniture moves and falls.
Occasionally, sliding doors are thrown from their groove.
In many buildings, wall tiles and windowpanes are damaged and fall.
Most unreinforced concrete-block walls collapse.
Many,less earthquake-resistant houses collapse.
In some cases, even walls and pillars of highly earthquake-resistant houses are heavy damaged Occasionally, less earthquake-resistant buildings collapse.
In some cases, even highly earthquake-resistant buildings suffer damage to walls and pillars. Occasionally, gas mains and / or water mains are damaged. (Electrical service is interrupted in some regions. Occasionally, gas service and / or water service are interrupted over a large area.)

To see a record of current quakes in Japan, you can check out this page. Unfortunately it's all in Japanese, but even if you don't have Japanese fonts installed, you can probably (if you scroll down) still see the times, and the numbers on the right, which are the Shindo measurements. As I write this, I see that the last aftershock was about 10 minutes ago, magnitude 3.9, and was a 3 on the Shindo scale at its centre and a 1 in several other places.

A lot of people will not be sleeping well tonight.

On a lighter note:

One reason to live in Japan is the flea markets. I'm going to one tomorrow, early.

Good night.

Saturday, October 23, 2004


Today I tried a little experiment in the class where I have the problem student, who I will call Mr Catatonic.

In the same class, there is another potential problem student, for completely different reasons. He is a big guy - not fat, but big, built like a wrestler. He has a voice to go with it, and an exuberant personality which could be a huge problem because he is great friends with everybody, and if he decides to play up then I'm in trouble. He could easily overwhelm me using his size, his voice, and the sheer force of his personality.

As it is, I have managed to keep him on my side, so he is not a problem. He could be, though. I like him a lot (it's not possible to dislike this kid) and he generally cooperates with me. Well, he does once he notices I'm actually trying to get his attention - but he can start a riot by raising his voice slightly and saying something funny, and tends to get caught up in a circle of noise and activity and laughter. When he raises his voice slightly he raises the roof, pulls all attention to him, and I am ineffectual. My voice simply cannot compete with his miracle of projection.

But he's wonderfully good-natured, and responds to my not-so-secret weapon, which is to tease him like mad. This started early on, one day when I'd been trying to make myself heard for a few minutes and he hadn't noticed, and the uproar around him was going on and on. I gave up yelling, waited for quiet, and he eventually noticed I was waiting and told everybody to shut up. He got the instant compliance I'd been hoping for but not getting, and the classroom went deathly quiet. (I don't think he means to take over the class like that. He just can't help it. He gets too happy and his energy overflows.)

Everybody stared at me. It felt like the quiet after a storm. I looked down at the roll, which I'd been trying to call, breathed deeply, frowned, and looked around the room. Then I opened my mouth and yelled his name.

He jumped. "YES!" he shouted, and practically saluted.

I peered around and pretended to spot him.

"Oh, there you are," I said, mildly, and smiled at him. "I hadn't noticed you."

He looked startled. There was a moment of silence as this sank in, and then he roared with laughter. I had to wait another five minutes for the class to subside again.

But anyway, this kid is fine. His English isn't great, but when he's working at it I can hear him over any amount of noise the others make, and it encourages everybody else to try as well because he makes so many mistakes and just carries on regardless, correcting himself, laughing at his mistakes, asking his partner or me when he doesn't get something, and generally being the sort of student I wish all my students were. He works hard and seriously when he settles down to it.

So today I tried a little experiment. I paired him up with Mr Catatonic. I was not very sure about the wisdom of this. Mr Catatonic hates attention, and there I was dumping him right in the middle of it. But since Mr Rumbustious is so good at taking control when I'm having trouble, I figured I'd have nothing to lose from trying. Mr Catatonic has been coming to class every week, not doing anything, and not writing anything either. This was my last-ditch attempt to get something out of him. There was the danger, of course, that it would make him worse. Or tip him over the edge altogether, so I was feeling a little apprehensive.

Mr Rumbustious had forgotten to bring his glasses or his textbook, and this turned out, I think, to be a blessing. It pulled the two of them together in ways they wouldn't have been if Mr Rumbustious had been more prepared. They had to sit side by side to share a text, and when I finally dared to look up and see what was happening, Mr Rumbustious was leaning so close to Mr Catatonic trying to read he was practically in his lap, because Mr Catatonic hadn't moved his book over. Mr Rumbustious was constructing some question loudly and ungrammatically from the cues in the text, and was wearing a determined expression, as he usually does when he decides to do something about this language learning business. But astonishingly, Mr Catatonic, while still staring down at the page as he usually does, was grinning. It was a very small grin, but I'd never seen him show any expression before at all. A grin? I almost fell off my chair.

And then - more astonishment - his lips moved. I didn't hear any sound come out, but I was half a room away and it was noisy. I wasn't the only one, however.

"PARDON?" bellowed Mr Rumbustious, frowning so fiercely and so seriously that I had to smile. He moved his ear closer to Mr Catatonic's mouth in an effort to hear and they almost bumped heads.

And after a long, heart-stopping moment Mr Catatonic's lips moved again. Mr Rumbustious nodded vigorously and carried on, so presumably whatever he'd said had made sense.

Now, I don't know precisely what happened - I was taking care not to pay too much attention, being afraid that if it was working I'd ruin it by noticing - but later on, when they finished the activity, I happened to glance at them again just in time to see Mr Rumbustious sit back, look directly at Mr Catatonic (who was still staring at his textbook) and grin hugely, bellowing, "DEKITA!" ("DONE!"). And I suddenly got the distinct impression that despite his apparently oblivious bull-in-a-china-shop approach, he knew exactly what he was doing. His expression said, "Ha! Knew you could do it!"

Mr Catatonic continued to stare at his text expressionlessly, but something had changed. I don't know what, exactly, but somehow he wasn't quite Mr Catatonic any more. He had progressed to being Mr Not-Very-Responsive.

We'll see what happens next week.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Giant white bird

This morning I checked out one of my usual weather sites and saw that a giant white bird was leaving Japan.

The next typhoon's projected course can be seen here, taking more or less the same path. Will it turn, or not? That last one was the 10th to make landfall this year, already breaking previous records, and was the worst in 25 years.

Incidentally, the pictures on TV of the passengers stranded on the roof of a bus overnight were astonishing. That was a night those people will not forget in a hurry. Here's a rather bland quote:

I was rescued after about 10 hours. It was really cold with the water coming up to our knees.

I suspect something got lost in translation.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Thank you note

Dear Mr Weatherman,

Thank you so much for your response to my letter. Your swift action is deeply appreciated. I understand that it would have been too much for you to get the typhoon here as quickly as I required, but your manipulation of the weather forecasters was a masterly compromise. As you are no doubt aware, a boufu keihou (strong wind warning) is required to be in effect by 7 am for classes to be cancelled for the morning, so you can imagine how surprised and delighted I was when, just before leaving the house, the boufu keihou was announced. It was exactly 7 am, and outside all was calm. It had even stopped raining half an hour earlier. I had given up.

This feat becomes even more impressive when I look at the weather maps and see that the centre of the storm is still some way off. I don't know how you achieved this somewhat precipitous reaction from the weather forecasters (hypnosis? bribery?), but I am grateful. I am particularly grateful because although it is now half past nine and still not windy, the rain began again shortly after the wind warning, quickly reaching torrential proportions, and cycling to work would have left yours truly somewhat soggy.

Thank you.


P.S. You may be amused to know that the university just called me to inform me that my classes were cancelled for the day. Wasn't it kind of them to take the trouble, half an hour after my first class would normally have started?

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

A letter of complaint

Dear Mr. Weatherman,

It is October. We are supposed to be having lovely autumn weather. The typhoon season is over. Please note these facts in your diary.

Not that I mind a typhoon if it means a day off work, but you've got the timing wrong. Again. Six pm tomorrow, for goodness' sakes. SIX PEE EM??? Can't you hurry it up a bit? I'll have to work all day, come home and spend a sleepless night while the wind howls and crashes around outside - and then work again the next morning when it's all over. That's not fair. Teachers aren't allowed to take a day off, but half the students will stay home because they'll be too tired. So what's the point? Eh? Couldn't you arrange this typhoon to arrive at a more convenient time so we could all get some sleep?

This is the second or third time this has happened this year. If you were my student, I'd fail you.

Yours sincerely,

P.S. And what's all this 98% humidity rubbish?

P.P.S. Also, I see you are contemplating sending us another typhoon after this one. If you must be excessive, at least make an effort to get the timing right next time.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Head in a bag

Today was rubbish day. A few years ago, the local city government decided to insist on clear bags, in order to enforce recycling. We are supposed to separate our rubbish into burnables, plastics, cans and glass, PET bottles, and... I can't remember what else. There seem to be an awful lot of things we are supposed to take note of before deciding which bag to put our rubbish into. (This new law is wonderful if you're a crow, because you now get to eat breakfast on rubbish days buffet style instead of pot luck.)

Anyway, as I said, today was rubbish day, and as I was cycling to work I got fleeting glimpses into my neighbours' lifestyles as I whizzed past their neatly stacked rubbish bags. (Neatly stacked except when the crows had been breakfasting, in which case rubbish was strewn across the road.) And as I whizzed towards one particular rubbish bag, I got the disconcerting impression that there was a head inside it.

Naturally I slowed a little as I went past, just enough to reassure myself that it was not, in fact, a head, but a discarded wig. It didn't look like real hair. It was blonde and coarse, and the colour was not natural. I carried on by.

But as I continued I started to worry some more. What if it was a head? A woman cycled past in the other direction, and I noticed that her hair was blonde and coarse and unnatural-looking, and remembered that in fact most people in Japan these days seem to dye their hair. This no doubt explains why every second block has a hair salon. Everybody dyes their hair, and it very rarely looks natural, particularly in this country where the majority of people have naturally black hair.

I argued with myself as I cycled along, coming up with reasons why it could not have been a head in the bag and therefore I should not have stopped to inspect and made myself late for work. Nobody would leave it out in plain sight, I told myself. They would hide it inside something, or at least cover it with rubbish. But then, said the devil's advocate inconveniently residing between my ears, they might 'hide' it in plain sight if they were particularly devious and realised that everybody would assume what I had assumed. They might have hidden it in plain sight knowing that everybody would assume that it must be a wig.

As I continued to argue with myself a rubbish truck was coming in the opposite direction. The guys running along behind it were clearly not stopping to inspect every bag. They were grabbing them on the run, and throwing them into that turning crusher thingy in the back of the truck, which was then crushing the bags and presumably tossing the squashed contents into the bowels of the truck. I thought of the wig.

Or the head.

I gulped. It must have been a wig, I told myself firmly. I had a class to teach.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

The spiritual guide to driving (and everything else)

I've just been reading an article in the Observer about Turkmenistan.

I'm glad I'm not a teacher there. Teachers are expected to spend two hours a day on the Spiritual Guide (the Rukhnama, written by the leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenbashi the Great, Turkmenistan's 'President for Life').

Children at nursery learn phrases from the Rukhnama in praise of the great Turkmenbashi before they can read; schoolchildren have to spend two hours a day reading and pondering the lessons it contains. Entrance to university, interviews for jobs in the administration, even driving tests, depend on knowledge of the text.

I wonder if he's been taking lessons in bizarreness from Dear Leader?


On Wednesday I asked the 'community learning centre' at one of the universities to do some photocopying for me. They'd said they would do this, but I had been reluctant to ask. It's easy enough to do my own copying, usually, and also the job I wanted done wasn't one I really wanted to advertise. I had decided to read my community class a book, and since it is supposed to be a conversation class I was a bit worried they'd think I was shirking my duties. Also, there seems to be a tendency in universities to regard anything other than the classics as trivial nonsense and not real study. It's not unusual for students to spend an entire semester on a few paragraphs of David Copperfield. I didn't want to torture my students, and was planning something they might have half a chance of understanding and enjoying.

So I wasn't too sure what the reaction to this would be. It wasn't a classic, and it wasn't 'conversation' either. Oh, dear. Would they question my teaching methods? But I didn't have time to do the copies myself, so I went over and asked if they could do them for me.

The way they jumped to accommodate me made me wonder if they had enough to do. They asked what I wanted copied, and I explained that I wanted the first chapter of a novel copied for the adult class. I'd be reading it to the students, I explained, and wanted them to have a copy.

"A novel?" asked the Very Nice Boss of the centre (who had very nicely bullied me into taking this job). The secretary took the book from me, and I explained which pages I wanted. He hovered by, and when I'd finished explaining he held out his hand. "Can I see that?" he said.

Worried about his reaction, I explained that it was from level one of the series, and was intended for learners. I told him that I would be reading a chapter a week to the students, and we'd be discussing it afterwards. It was only a small part of the weekly lesson, I assured him. After all, it is supposed to be a speaking class, not a reading class. I didn't want him to think I'd be shirking my duties.

But he wasn't concerned about that at all. He inspected the book with great curiosity, checking out the front and back covers, and looking at the first page.

"What kind of novel is it?" he asked.

"Er, it's a thriller," I replied, somewhat anxiously.

"A thriller, eh?" he said. He looked intrigued, and got a funny little grin on his face. He started reading the first page.

I waited. He read.

"Er, is that all right?" I asked.

He jumped slightly and looked up. "Oh, yes, yes, yes, no problem!" he said. "We'll have it ready for you on Monday. Thank you!"

As I was leaving he sat down on the nearest available chair and turned the page.

I think I'm going to like my new boss. What a shame he's only my boss for that one class.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Cultural conditioning

Autumn has arrived with all the subtlety of a ton of bricks. Thud. The nighttime temperature, which last week was about 23˚C, is expected to fall to 13˚C tonight, and today was positively chilly. The humidity also dropped quite suddenly on Monday (yay!). It had been a little more comfortable for a few days, but on Monday I knew it was really dry - I got my first big jolt from the knob on the teachers' room door. ZAP! Autumn has arrived!

I am particularly pleased that I'm waking up without a pain in the neck every morning, which is my fate every morning when the humidity is high. (My advice to anybody out there who cares to take note: do not have a traffic accident. You are left with stupid and painful side-effects that last forever and make you feel old.)

The futons have been aired and thoroughly beaten by The Man, and I'm looking forward to a bit of snuggling.

On the other hand, another typhoon is working its way towards Taiwan, and it could conceivably do the u-turn thing that happened two typhoons ago (although it doesn't look likely) so I'm not putting away my summer clothes quite yet. I have, however, been airing out cupboards, which smell horribly musty after the long, humid summer. My winter boots have grown a layer of mould, I noticed this morning. I forgot the shoe cupboard. I'll air that one tomorrow.

Half of Japan has come down with a cold. My students have been doing that sniffing and snorting thing that I find so distressing even after all these years here. I understand that this is a culturally conditioned reaction, but I simply cannot get used to this habit. When you're talking to someone perfectly politely and they suddenly sniff juicily in your face, it's hard to maintain inner calm.

But speaking of culturally conditioned habits (but not distressing ones), here is a question for my Malaysian reader(s):

Why, when Malaysian shop assistants hand you your change, do they touch the wrist of the hand that is passing the money with their other hand? I find this charming, and I always forget to ask when I'm there.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Cooking lessons

I'm working too much. And not enough. It's all getting on top of me. I can tell because I've started having weird and paranoid work dreams. Last night's dreams were lovely until just before I woke up, when suddenly I was being told about a new class I would have to teach soon. I was handed the list of students.

"Forty five students?" I said. "That's far too many. I don't want to do it."

"Oh, don't worry about that," said my boss (well, one of them - I have several). "That's just the official list. You only ever get one or two students turning up. Follow me. I'll show you the classroom and you'll see the teacher we've got doing it now."

I followed him through a corridors, up some stairs, along another corridor, down some other stairs, up a lift, through a building, down another lift, along a corridor, around a corner, up a lift again, down a few more stairs, around another corner, up some more stairs, and finally, when I was completely lost, we got to a tiny room where a teacher was working with a solitary student, who was standing by looking goofy.

"See?" said my boss. "Only one student!"

The teacher was a guy I worked with today, and I told him about this dream. He laughed.

"One student, eh?"he said. "If only!"

He laughed even harder when I told him that in my dream he was teaching the student how to cook chicken. "You lifted an entire chicken skeleton out of a big pot, using chopsticks," I told him, "and then you tossed it at the student and shouted, 'TAKE THIS!'"

But even though it was a funny dream it also left me feeling anxious, because in the dream I accepted the class (or was bullied into accepting it), when I knew I should have confessed to the boss that I can't cook. I can only pretend to cook. And besides, I'd never find the classroom again.

One of my students told me today that he didn't really want to live. He was dreading having to get a job, he said, and in two years he'll have to. But there is nothing he wants to do. He can't see any future for himself. He thinks it might be easier to die.

"Perhaps," he said, and shrugged and smiled, but his eyes were pleading.

I felt like I did in the dream. I'm only pretending to know how to deal with this.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Alien ear-cleaning

Today I was halfway through a lesson when I noticed that my lesson plan wasn't long enough. For some reason the students were behaving themselves extremely well, and were getting through the lesson a lot quicker than they usually do. I didn't want to start a new unit in the textbook, because what they needed now was revision of what they'd learned rather than a lot of new material. Instead I borrowed the story-writing idea I'd used in different classes last week and devised a blueprint on the spot for the students to write a story that would use the language they'd learned today. I ended it the same way: with the lines, _(name)_ has a terrible secret. S/he....., and told them to end it by telling me the terrible secret. The picture in the text I used to bounce the story off consisted of two people walking down a street, photographed from the waist down, no faces, so all you could see was legs and shopping bags. I told them to choose one pair of legs and imagine what the person was like.

Most of the students finished in just the right amount of time for me to collect the stories and end the class with five minutes to spare. However, one student, a very serious girl, had taken to this idea with a vengeance. She was still writing when the bell went.

What made this odd is that this particular student, while always very well-behaved (worryingly so, sometimes), is something of a plodder. Or at least I'd mentally labelled her that way. She is the sort of girl who always sits right in the front, looking serious, and listens with great attention, writing down everything. She tackles every task with great determination and thoroughness, first wanting to know in minute detail exactly what I want, and then doing it exactly as I say with no deviation at all. The results are usually adequate without being especially good. She tries very, very hard, and apparently has no sense of humour or sense of naughtiness, and never shows any emotion except anxiety.

But for some reason, today's activity wound her up to the extent that she became not just determined but positively inspired. Something set her off. She asked the usual questions at the beginning, wanting to know if they should write something for every point I'd written on the board, and should she write her name at the top? and what sort of paper did I want it on, should she start now? and so on, and then got to work. After a few minutes her writing got faster, and then she stopped and raised her hand. I went over to her.

She wanted to know the words to use in English to express the act of cleaning the ears. I thought about it, and couldn't think of any special word we use for this. I told her 'cleaning his ears' would be fine. She thanked me. I wandered off. Then I suddenly thought that perhaps she meant cleaning the inside of ears rather than the outside, in which case we'd say 'cleaning out his ears'. I went back and explained this to her. She listened carefully, nodded, thanked me (she always takes care to thank me), took a note, and positively dove back into her writing without giving any hint about which expression she wanted. I paused and tried to read over her shoulder, but her hand and hair were covering the page. I wondered what ear cleaning had to do with anything.

A little while later she surfaced again with another vocabulary question. This one was less unusual, and I can't remember what she asked. There were a few more like this. But for her last question she wanted to know the word for people who ride in UFOs.

"Aliens," I told her.

"Thank you," she said, and plunged back into her writing. I noticed she had filled most of a page with her careful round handwriting. By now the majority of the other students had finished, having petered out at about quarter of a page, so I collected the papers to correct later, and told them they could go. A few minutes later the bell rang. The plodder, not plodding at all, was still writing furiously, her nose so close to the page she looked as though she was trying to physically enter her own story. I started packing up my things, and she looked up, wild-eyed and panic-stricken at the thought that she was causing trouble by being too slow.

"Do I have to hand it in today?" she asked, holding out the paper. "I haven't finished." I noticed she was now halfway down the other side of the page.

"Do you want to finish it at home?" I asked her.

"Is it OK?" she said, looking anxiously at the pile of papers on my desk.

"Of course it's OK," I said. By now I was really, really curious and wanted to read her story right away (ear-cleaning aliens?) but clearly she had more to write and I didn't want to stop her. Her face cleared. "Thank you!" she said, gripping her paper.

I smiled. "I think you enjoy writing stories," I told her. "You seem to be very good at it."

She looked stunned, and stared down at the paper. Then she looked up at me again.

"Oh!" she said. She sounded startled at the idea. She pushed her hair out of her face and stared at me, finally understanding that I really wasn't concerned about her taking longer than the others, and that I was praising her. Then she suddenly grinned hugely, and I reeled.

I'd never seen her smile before. It was extraordinary. She is always so ... mousy. She doesn't wear fancy clothes or makeup, like most of my female students do. She always seems to be struggling to be a good student, crunched down on herself, frowning and looking serious and worried, with her hair flopping over her face, gripping her pencil like it's trying to escape. She seems to find everything hard work.

But today she was transformed. She'd hit a sweet spot, and got into the flow, and then right there at the end of class she produced that big, happy, open smile, and... well, I suddenly saw that this serious little plodder is unexpectedly, genuinely, jaw-droppingly drop-dead beautiful. If she pulled her hair back, lifted her chin and smiled more often, the world would be at her feet. As it is I'm probably going to be spending the rest of semester neglecting the rest of the class in my efforts to elicit another smile from her.

The friends

I told Okaasan that her friend would have changed and she might not recognize her. But looking at the photo now, I see I was wrong. Even if she hadn't told me, I would have known instantly which was which. Her friend still has that look. And Okaasan still looks like the little girl on the left, only with mad hair.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Unsuitable friends

The other interesting thing to happen yesterday (well, there were a lot of interesting things, but this was the one I loved the most) was that Okaasan caught up with an old friend.

This was a very old friend. The same age as her, in fact: seventy seven. The two of them used to be very close. They spent all their free time together for about 7 or 8 years, and in those days they had plenty of it. That was until Okaasan's friend's family moved away, and she went too, and they lost touch.

That was 63 years ago. They were 14 when they last saw each other.

And that's what made the reunion so noteworthy. Can you imagine it? They hadn't met in all those years, and hadn't kept track, and it was just chance that the old friend moved back to Otsu and Okaasan's brother happened to meet her. She and Okaasan got in touch by phone and arranged a meeting for after the lunch party yesterday.

On the way to Otsu Okaasan and I sat together on the train, and the first thing she did after sitting down was to start telling me about this coming reunion. I hadn't heard anything about it, and it took me a while to figure out what was going on. My Japanese wasn't keeping up. She was talking too fast, interrupting herself, trailing off into happy memories, and stopping abruptly to stare at me with big delighted eyes and say, "Ooh, how will it be?" After a while she remembered something, and dived into her bag and started rooting around. Eventually she came up with a photo clipped to a bit of paper with a clothes peg. On the paper she had written her friend's married name and telephone number, so she wouldn't forget. She took off the peg and showed me the photograph. It was of herself and her friend, taken when they were nine.

I stared at the photo for a long time.

It's a wonderful photo. It was taken at New Year. Two little girls peer out at you from nearly 70 years ago, dressed up in their bulky New Year finery. I looked at the photo, then looked at Okaasan sitting beside me, her face lit up with anticipation, beside herself with pleasure at the idea of meeting her little friend once again. It had finally sunk in. I had put all the pieces together.

"You're going to meet your friend after 63 years?" I asked. I grabbed her hand, and she gripped it tightly, nodding and beaming happily. I looked at the photo again, and the two little girls stared back at me through the years.

"I think she will have changed," I told Okaasan, and she giggled and gripped my hand tighter. I noticed that her eyebrows were on a bit straighter than usual. She had taken special care with her appearance, although her hair hadn't responded to the attention and was flying all over the place. But somehow, in her little brown suit, she had managed to look more eccentric than usual. Perhaps it was the running shoes. Or perhaps it was just that she wasn't in her usual environment, where her eccentricities are just a part of the usual decor.

She went quiet after that, although she didn't let go of my hand for a long time. Now that she knew I understood the momentous event, she could lapse into memories. She stared out the train window, holding my hand, uncharacteristically speechless.

During the lunch, which started at 12 o'clock, I was seated beside her, and she asked me the time so often that finally I put my watch on her table so she could check for herself. The meeting was set for 1.30, but it was too long for her to wait. I think she was having trouble eating. So she excused herself and went off to phone her friend, to ask her to come straight away.

Her friend arrived at one and Okaasan disappeared downstairs to meet her. They stayed down there in the lobby. I was dying of curiosity, but The Man told me to stay and finish lunch. Every now and again one of the cousins went down to check to make sure they were all right. Every time the report came back, "They're laughing."

Eventually a request came back for The Man and I to go down to meet the friend. We finished our dessert (Okaasan missed half the meal, which was served slowly over almost 3 hours) and went downstairs.

The two little old ladies were sitting opposite each other. They were both wearing brown suits, and both wreathed in smiles. Okaasan had lost all her tension and looked as relaxed and happy as I've ever seen her.

She had found her friend.

We introduced ourselves and chatted for a while.

Her friend told us that when she was a little girl, and first met Okaasan at school, she thought they could never be friends. Okaasan came from an old, established family of kimono makers, very high class. "She was such an ojoosama," she told us. "And my family was nothing, very common. I knew she'd never be allowed to be friends with someone like me."

Okaasan laughed as if that was the silliest thing she'd ever heard. Her friend smiled at her fondly, and continued,

"But she didn't care about any of that. I couldn't believe it, but she didn't even seem to notice! We became friends, and she was the best friend I ever had. I was so sad when we had to move away..."

"Oh, yes, it was terrible..." echoed Okaasan. "But look, we've met again! Isn't it wonderful? And look at us! How we've changed!"

Later, upstairs, The Man told Okaasan's brother what she had said. He shrugged and laughed. But his wife, who went to the same school, nodded. "Oh yes, she was common," she said. "I didn't play with her. I knew she was the wrong sort of person for us. But Okaasan never cared about things like that."

I caught a whiff of disapproval.

After all these years, Okaasan is still associating with unsuitable people.

Monday, October 11, 2004

How to grow taller

Today I met Okaasan's older brother for the second time. I can barely remember him from the first time, because I met so many family members all at once, from both sides of the family, that I was overwhelmed and gave up trying to remember who was who. All I could remember was that Okaasan and her brother didn't seem very alike.

Today it was a smaller group, only Okaasan's side of the family, meeting for a memorial service. I hadn't planned to go but was pressured into it because the aunt and uncle insisted that at the rate I visit them the next time I go it will be for their funerals. They wanted to see me again.

So, despite this being a much looked-forward-to public holiday, in which I was planning to sleep in, catch up on a few stacks of neglected paperwork, and generally just mooch around relaxing, today I was up at the crack of dawn. We picked up Okaasan, and off we went, to Otsu.

After the service the ten of us, three generations, went off to a very expensive restaurant beside Lake Biwa, and were shown into a tatami room. We had the room to ourselves, booked for three hours, and it had a panoramic view of the lake. Our waitress was a middle-aged woman in kimono who shuffled around the room on her knees, pushing trays and serving up numerous beautifully presented dishes. We didn't seem to be eating very much because each dish was tiny, but by the end of the meal I could hardly bend over.

During the meal the conversation flowed freely. A young cousin was the target of a discussion about the future of Japan. This young guy had been a problem child, getting into trouble at school. A few years ago The Man was called in to see if he could talk some sense into him. (The Man gets called upon for jobs like this quite frequently because he's such a black sheep himself, but somehow 'passes'. The kids listen to him.) This young cousin is now a second-year university student studying 'Buddhist welfare,' whatever that is. I asked The Man about this on the way home, and he looked blank. I suggested that perhaps a Buddhist welfare person would visit deprived people and tell them it was their karma to be deprived, and they must have been very naughty in a previous life. The Man wagged his finger at me and told me not to be flippant. "Buddhism isn't like that," he said, and I nodded seriously, feeling properly chastened. Then he started laughing.

But today the young cousin confessed another fear to The Man. He told him that he wanted to be taller, and how come The Man was so tall? Looking around at his family I wondered the same thing, and waited for The Man to answer. "Eat well," said The Man. "Lots of calcium. Make your bones grow."

That wasn't very helpful, I thought, so I chipped in with a little story. I used to know a guy, I told them, who was an identical twin. He and his brother looked exactly alike and were exactly the same height until they were separated, at fourteen. They didn't see each other again for about five years. In the intervening years, one twin joined a motorbike gang, lived on junk food, drank too much, and generally didn't take care of himself. (I omitted the drug-taking from my story as it was a bit too strong for the company.) The other became a fitness freak. He lifted weights, swam, and was a long distance runner. He was very fussy about eating healthy food.

When they met again, at 18 or 19, they still looked the same except that there was an almost five centimetre difference in their heights.

After I told this story, Okaasan's brother stared. He was fascinated. He turned to his grandson and said, excitedly,

"That's amazing! Did you hear that? Maybe it will work for you! You should try - "

He stopped abruptly and turned back to me. "Which twin was taller?" he asked.

Right then I decided that Okaasan and her brother resemble each other after all. It was an amazing moment. He opened his mouth and one of her comments came out, just like that!

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Spot the difference

In case any of you were feeling bad for not being able to distinguish between Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese, here is a test which will confirm your fears. And if you thought you could tell the difference, the test will most likely prove you wrong.

I have met a lot of people who claim that you can tell from the features, but I don't believe this. I think they are getting their clues elsewhere. The body language is different, for one thing. Also posture, the way of walking, clothes and makeup styles, and a bunch of other things.

How did you score?

(I got eight, and I was guessing like mad.)

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Mythical baby

I just came back from the supermarket. While I was pushing my bicycle out onto the road, an ancient woman shaped like a question mark was shuffling slowly towards me. When our eyes met her face lit up, and she stopped and gripped my arm. She smelt strongly of mothballs.

"Onee-chan!" she quavered, looking overjoyed to see me. "Did you have your baby?"

I started to mumble denials of any baby, but she wasn't listening. "Oh yes," she said, answering her own question. "And you are looking terribly tired," she added, peering into my face anxiously and gripping my arm tighter. "Take care of yourself!"

Then she let me go and shuffled off, as I stammered idiot thanks and looked around to see whether I'd dropped a baby accidentally without noticing. She had been very convincing. Then I started to worry about how tired I was looking, and came home to have a nap.

Terrible secrets

Today, in all of my classes (which were for the same course), I had students writing a little story. It was simplistic and rather boring, because it was aimed at getting them to practice using some very simplistic grammar constructions they'd studied in the textbook. They had to tell the story of a guy in a picture, making up the details because none were provided. They were supposed to write something like:

This is _(name)_. He is _(age)_ years old. He is a _(job)_.

And so on. It wasn't very interesting, although they seemed to be enjoying it.

I decided to make it a bit more interesting, and told them to add some details of their own. "Tell me something unusual about him," I told them. "Use your imaginations!"

They didn't do very well with this. It was too open-ended an instruction, I realised as I was wandering around listening to them discuss the problem with their partners and chewing their pencils. It was very hard for them, and I understood why. It was like telling someone to 'write a story' without giving them any guidelines about what kind of story it was to be. Where do you begin?

I thought about it, then went to the board. "Write this," I told them, "and finish the sentence." I wrote:

But _(name)_ has a terrible secret. He...."

The students were galvanised by this, and there was a lot of dictionary work as they tried to find the words for the terrible secrets they were assigning to their heroes.

But I think I was the one who learned the most today. (This is what students are for, in case you'd wondered. You students are there to teach the teachers. We became teachers because we like learning stuff.)

The first couple of stories I read as I was perambulating around the room were more or less expected. Well, maybe not expected, but at least not surprising:

He killed his brother, said one pair, and He spent five years in prison, said another. At the next one I paused. He loves a man, the students had written.

"Is that such a terrible secret, these days?" I asked.

"It is in Japan," they told me.

I got two more of those.

Then the next one stopped me in my tracks.

He is congenitally gloomy, they'd written. (Funny how you can always tell when the dictionary has had some heavy usage.)

I frowned, puzzled. "Why is that a terrible secret?" I asked, and the students looked at each other hopelessly. They clearly couldn't understand why I didn't understand. I asked them if the translation perhaps might be the wrong one, and asked them the Japanese word they'd used. It was nekura. And yes, my dictionary also translated it as 'congenitally gloomy'.

I asked if that was what they meant - that their hero was having dark thoughts and being depressed all the time. They said yes, and looked hopeful. I then asked them why feeling like that was something they would consider a terrible secret, and they got that puzzled look again. Clearly this was obvious to them, and they couldn't understand why I didn't get it.

I suggested that perhaps this was a cultural difference, but they found this hard to accept. No, no, they told me, it was obviously something to be ashamed of, because he pretended to be cheerful when he really wasn't.

It was very, very hard to explain that in most western cultures, at least those I'm familiar with, chronic depression is not something so shaming you'd keep it secret from everybody. They simply could not understand this. They said his life was good, and he shouldn't be nekura. There was no reason for it.

"Oh, you mean nekura is a mental illness?" I asked, and their faces lit up.


Mental illness is very much stigmatised here. I knew that.

When I got home I asked The Man about this. "What does nekura mean?" I asked. "And why would it be considered a 'terrible secret'?" I explained what had happened in class. We had a very long discussion about it, and now I think I understand what my students meant. I think they understood the problem a lot better than I did, and they were right about the 'terrible secret' bit.

The Man told me that you would not call somebody nekura to their face. You might say it about someone, but not face to face. It would be too much of an insult. And it is not classified as a mental illness. It is classified as a borderline mental illness. He explained it in terms of a friend we have, who was treated very badly by her parents, and who thought, for many years, that it was her fault. She thought she must be a bad person, but if she acted bright and cheerful perhaps she would be loved. She didn't talk about her fears about being 'bad' to anybody, but continued to suppress them. She thought she was the only one, and that if people knew how bad she was they would hate her. She would lose her friends and her parents would hurt her even more. She was a bad person. She was born bad and she had to hide it or her life would be even more miserable.

This went on for years. These fears, this conviction that you are 'bad,' and the self-imposed isolation and shame that goes with it, are nekura. Eventually it shows. You can't suppress it forever. Something's got to give. You can't please everybody, and sometimes in the end you give up. And then you give up trying to communicate at all. (Perhaps this is my problem student.) Our friend did not do this. She remained bright and cheerful and 'good' on the outside, always striving to please by using all her strength and willpower, all the while believing she was irretrievably bad. Eventually she became very ill, physically. And then she got help, and gradually came to understand that she was not unique. Other people have been abused, other people have been treated unfairly, she was not alone and it was not her. She was not worse than anybody else. She had not deserved what her parents did to her.

It took years, though. It was a long, slow process, and her health is still shaky.

The Man says this sort of 'borderline' mental problem is often harder to treat than 'real' mental problems, because the conviction of badness goes so deep by the time visible problems surface. The person thinks they are the only person in the world who is so awful inside, they are ashamed of their badness and ashamed that they have been deceiving others, and even if they agree that other people also have badness inside them (as all of us do), they are secretly convinced that nobody else is as bad as they are. They are incapable of communicating properly because they don't feel that anybody else is like them, and are afraid that if they reveal too much they will be hated.

Sometimes this suppression and feeling that they have been deceiving others leads them to despise other people, too. They hate them because they are stupid for not noticing how bad they are and for being so easily deceived, and for having it so easy, not having to struggle to appear good. In Japan in recent years there has been a spate of child murders - murders committed by children. These children are nekura. Someone points out something 'bad' about them, and they overreact. They think they've been found out. They go over the edge. They have nothing to lose anymore.

My students understand this as a shameful and 'terrible secret' because this is what they were thinking of when they wrote nekura. It has received a lot of press in recent years. It is not always linked to childhood abuse, but is generally linked to the need to please. Nekura children are those who feel responsible for the happiness of those around them, and desperately try to please by being a 'good child', doing all the 'right' things even though inside they don't really want to. This 'not wanting to' is why they feel they are deep-down bad. Good children behave like this, they learn. They don't want to behave like this, and therefore they are 'bad.' They are nekura. It is a character fault they were born with, and they are unlike everybody else for whom being 'good' is apparently easy. But if people know they are bad then they will be ostracised and hated, and so they have to pretend to be good. Everybody believes their pretence, and everything seems fine on the outside, and so their nekura is suppressed. They are cheerful and 'good' on the outside, and their nekura - their gloom and bad thoughts - become a 'terrible secret' they cannot reveal.

(I don't know if this makes sense. It is 1 am and I have been up since 5.30 am.)

The other thing that puzzled me was the pair who wrote that their hero had cancer. I got the same result when I asked why that was a terrible secret - the puzzled looks, the non-comprehension about why I couldn't understand. They tried to explain by telling me that even doctors don't tell their patients that they have cancer. I thought that was because here doctors believe that telling the patient will cause them lose their will to fight and/or upset them too much, but some discussion with the students revealed that the students, at least, seemed to believe that the doctors hide the facts from the patients because cancer is shaming. I couldn't quite figure that one out. I hadn't heard it before, and thought perhaps they had the wrong end of the stick. So I asked The Man (my dear and useful cultural interpreter) to explain that one, too.

He said that people don't want it known that they have cancer (if they know themselves) because they don't want to upset their families and friends. They will become a burden to everybody, and be responsible for making everybody sad. They are also afraid of the consequences: that their boss or their company (if they own a company) will be caused trouble. The bank won't give them a loan, or customers will not come because they'll be worried that jobs won't be completed. So cancer, too, can be a 'terrible secret'.

The Man thinks that one is possibly more culturally bound than the nekura 'terrible secret'. He said the term 'Adult Children' is used in Japan for children with nekura, and I found the term here. Although it is generally used as 'Adult Children of Alcoholics', it appears to be not confined to only that category. And it is not confined to Japan, although it seems to be a recent problem, worldwide. Or a recently identified one. A problem of this age.

The funniest result I got from this activity was the pair who decided that the man's terrible secret was that he had two lovers, a woman and a man. They wanted to add something to their story after explaining this, and were consulting their electronic dictionary as I approached them. They were shaking their heads and saying no, no, that wasn't what they meant, surely, it must be wrong, that didn't sound right. And what I saw on the screen was:

He wants to have it both ways.

I didn't hang around to find out what the Japanese was for that or what they were trying to say. I should have done, but didn't. I was laughing too much, and was afraid they would ask me why.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Glorious state hacking

If 500 hackers suddenly attack your computer in unison, using perfectly synchronised keystrokes tapped out to a military rhythm, call the cops. Dear Leader is up to his tricks again.

North Korea has trained more than 500 computer hackers capable of launching cyber warfare against the United States, South Korea's defense ministry says.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004


In one of my classes - of English majors, so they're pretty good - we've been tackling the topic of stereotypes. I'm not sure where we're going from here. Today we talked about the stereotypes we have about a whole bunch of nationalities, and I've given them some homework about it, and I'll see what comes out of that. But the students want to know what stereotypes are common about Japanese, Korean, and Chinese people. This class has all three nationalities. They had fun teasing each other today, and are totally enthused by this topic. We talked about how it was possible to get to know people from other countries who were totally different from our stereotype, and yet still hang onto the stereotype for when we meet the next person from that country.

I've been here too long. My image of Japanese people - and of Chinese and Korean people - has been coloured too much by my time here. I was hopelessly undereducated about this part of the world before I came. My image of Japanese people was probably... let's see... a little guy with glasses and buck teeth comes home from a long day at the car factory, shouts BANZAI! and ritually disembowels himself while flying his plane into an aircraft carrier in the middle of an typhoon. While eating a bowl of rice.

My oldest brother had a secret stash of old war comics which I discovered when I was a kid. (Did I need to tell you that? Didn't you guess already?) My education about other cultures wasn't helped along much by my dear Grandma, who was hopelessly racist, and who, when she heard I was coming to Japan, was horrified. She passed on the message that I should watch out for those terrible yellow Japs and for goodness sakes I hope you don't marry one. All that WWII propaganda obviously made a big impression on her. I can't think where else her ideas could have come from, since she never met a Japanese person in her life and didn't have TV or radio. (Maybe she'd found my brother's war comics?) And no, I never told her about The Man. She was 90 when I met him, and I didn't think it would do her any good.

Speaking of war comics, the Japanese weren't the only villains in my secret reading. Those Germans were pretty bad, too. We had a German guy living here for a while, and one day when he and The Man were sitting in the kitchen having one of their long philosophical discussions about racism and cross-cultural misunderstandings (involving lots of table banging and shouting and laughing), I sat down with them and listened for a while, and then told them I thought it was time for me to air some of my prejudices. I had all these terribly racist attitudes hidden inside me, I said, nurtured by a secret diet of war comics when I was young. To demonstrate what I meant, I shouted ACHTUNG! and BANZAI! and so on until they begged me to stop. (Apparently my pronunciation of German is pretty good. I've never seen anybody look so surprised as Jörg did in that moment just before he slid off his chair and disappeared under the table, making strange hooting noises.)

But anyway, I seem to have gone off the point here. What I really wanted to do was to ask you for some input.

What are the current stereotypes of Japanese, Korean and Chinese people? My students want to know - the bad as well as the good. It fascinates them. I'm looking for more or less uninformed cultural generalisations garnered from the media rather than educated personal opinions. If I can collect a few I'll use them in class next week.

Thank you. And... BANZAI!

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Gory Grandma

One of my students handed in homework today in which she wrote that she visited her grandmother during the summer vacation. Her grandmother was in blood, she said, and so she was happy. "I hope she continues in blood forever," she wrote.

I didn't much appreciate the mental picture I got from reading this.

I can't figure out what she was trying to say. (I didn't read it until after she'd gone, and won't see her until next week.) I've been hunting through my dictionary all day, in every break, trying to figure out where she went wrong. She clearly means something positive. I've been looking up all the Japanese words for healthy and cheerful that I can think of, and can't find anything using the word blood that is even close. My dictionary also lists idioms using the word blood, and none of those fit.

The only possibility I've come up with is that somehow she discovered the word blooming, meaning thriving, and then looked away, looked at the dictionary again and chose the wrong form, in bloom, and then looked away again, looked back at the dictionary and moved up a few lines to blood instead of bloom and copied that.

It's far-fetched, I know, but I can't think of anything else that makes sense. Can anybody else think of any idiom using the word blood that would fit?

Monday, October 04, 2004

Comparison shopping

Today in one of my classes the topic of shopping came up. It was in the textbook, and for once it was dealt with in a fairly interesting way. There was a comparison of how much things cost in the U.S. and in Japan. (I would have liked to see other countries, but the textbook writer was American.)

I can't remember the details now, and I left the textbook at school, but I was thinking about this as I was coming home. I know that when I travel, one of the first things I do in a new country is to look for a local supermarket. Wandering around a foreign supermarket is an education in itself.

I thought it might be fun to do a wander around the blog supermarket. We have a lot of different nationalities here. When I popped down to the supermarket after work to buy tomatoes, I took notes in the vege and meat section. I didn't note many things, just a few. I thought it might be fun to compare how much we pay for things in different countries.

Here's my list. Sometimes different varieties of fruit or vege were more expensive. I chose the cheapest on offer if there was more than one option.

I have converted the amounts to Euro, UK pounds, US dollars, Canadian dollars, Australian dollars, Singapore dollars, Malaysian Ringgits, and New Zealand dollars. I did all the conversions through the Universal Currency Converter®. If I missed your country, I apologize.

6 apples: ¥600 (€4.38; UK£3;5.40; US$5.40; C$6.85; A$7.50; SGD$9.12; MYR20.55; NZ$8.08)
3 medium-sized onions: ¥98 (€0.72; UK£0.50; US$0.88; C$1.19; A$1.22; SGD$1.49; MYR3.36; NZ$1.32)
1 lemon: ¥78 (€0.57; UK£0.39; US$0.70; C$0.89; A$0.97; SGD$1.18; MYR2.67; NZ$1.05)
8 small potatoes: ¥168 (€1.23; UK£0.85; US$1.51; C$1.92; A$2.10; SGD$2.55; MYR5.75; NZ$2.26)
3 medium-sized carrots: ¥98 (€0.72; UK£0.50; US$0.88; C$1.19; A$1.22; SGD$1.49; MYR3.36; NZ$1.32)
1 head of lettuce: ¥148 (€1.08; UK£0.74; US$1.33; C$1.69; A$1.85; SGD$2.25; MYR5.07; NZ$1.99)

10 eggs: ¥179 (€1.31; UK£0.90; US$1.61; C$2.04; A$2.23; SGD$2.72; MYR6.12; NZ$2.41)
Steak: ¥690/100 grams (€5.05; UK£3.47; US$6.21; C$7.87; A$8.61; SGD$10.47; MYR23.60; NZ$9.29)
Chicken pieces: ¥80/100 grams (€0.58; UK£0.40; US$0.72; C$0.91; A$1.00; SGD$1.21; MYR2.74; NZ$1.07)
1 litre of milk: ¥230 (€1.68; UK£1.16; US$2.07; C$2.62; A$2.87; SGD$3.49; MYR7.87; NZ$3.09)
5 kilos of rice ¥2300 (€16.84; UK£11.58; US$20.71; C$26.27; A$28.78; SGD$34.92; MYR78.71; NZ$30.99)

I was getting hungry by that stage so that was all I noted. I also noted that 2 large onions were ¥168 and 6 brown free-range eggs were ¥279, but I already had the cheaper ones.

Sorry about the odd amounts. The fruit and veges are usually packed already, and don't display the weights or give you a choice. You have to buy how many are in the bag. But as you can see the bag is usually small, so this is not a problem. If you need more you get two bags.

Must remember to do coffee and tea next time. How could I have forgotten the staples?

What surprised you the most? (Besides rice, I mean, which I already know is phenomenally expensive here.)

Sunday, October 03, 2004


I've just found a book I want to read. The writer is a Kiwi, even. There's an interview with him here. I'll have to add it to my list of books for my next order from Amazon. I doubt it will be in the bookstores here.

Here's a quote from the interview:

I've always been obsessed with truth. I did my PhD on truth. It has always driven me mad to see people saying things that are well known to be rubbish. And I've never understood how they can bear it. But at the same time I can see that it doesn't affect their lives materially so they can't understand why I get so hysterical.

I like the idea of a PhD on truth.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

A cork and a bit of wire

The downstairs toilet just exploded again. This happens about once a year, when the extremely tricky bit of plumbing devised by The Man gives out. He fixed it originally after the earthquake, when all the pipes busted inside the wall. Rather than demolish the wall and put new pipes in, he ran a pipe out the window and joined it up outside. At the same time he cemented the cistern back together. It works perfectly most of the time, but I have to admit it looks a little odd. (This is a good thing, by the way. Whenever the landlord visits we ply him with tea until he has to pee, and then he gets to be reminded of the collapsed toilet wall, which we never fixed, and the improvised plumbing. He comes out, washes his hands, and lowers the rent. Unfortunately he doesn't visit very often.)

Every time he has to fix this plumbing The Man tells me he did it properly this time and it won't happen again.

But it did. The pipes flew apart and water spurted everywhere. The floor was flooded and so was I. I suppose I should be grateful that it's only water. (It's the inlet pipe.) The Man is out, so I couldn't pretend to be an inept and helpless female and just let him fix it. He's due home at about midnight.

I turned off the mains and tried to rejoin the pipes. They did not want to be rejoined. I could fit them together but they wouldn't stay together. They'd look all right, but the slightest bit of pressure from water would pop them apart again. I tried hammering them together. Same result. Something more was called for, evidently. A new pipe and a professional plumber would be a good start, in my opinion. I suggested that last time, but The Man insisted that he could do just as good a job and I let it go. How on earth did he get those pipes to stay joined all this time anyway? I can't see how it is possible. Did he use glue?

I couldn't leave the water off, because then I couldn't use the toilets or cook dinner. But I couldn't leave it on because then it would be pouring water all over the toilet room floor all evening. So I decided to plug the inlet pipe.

After considering a few alternatives I settled on a cork, and had to shave it down to the right size. It took a while to get it just right, and even then I knew it wouldn't stay in once I turned the water on. So I found some wire and wound it around the cork and the pipe, in a great twisty tangle, and then turned on the water. The cork held. There is a little dripping, but not much. I've put a bucket underneath.

I wonder what is going to happen when The Man takes the wire off? Will turning off the mains relieve the pressure behind the cork, or will he get popped in the head and drenched, as he deserves, for doing this to me?


Last night I had a good sleep, and perspective is back. Sort of. Yesterday's problem didn't magically go away, but I know now that what I had decided to do last night is the right thing to do. Well, the only thing I can do.

As I mentioned, I have a student with a mental problem. I don't know what this problem is. I only know that he is not behaving in a normal way. I've had students with problems before, and one whose problems were as severe as this guy's, just last year, but he had some improvement over the year. This guy is getting worse, and I'm afraid he's heading straight for total mental collapse.

He was in my class last semester, too. His behaviour wasn't normal then, either, but I put it down to excessive shyness. I see a lot of that, and usually shy students respond eventually to my method for dealing with them, at least a little. This method is, basically, to treat them as if they are not shy, while at the same time making allowances for their shyness in ways that are not noticeable to everybody else. I give them space to think about things before trying, and time to work up courage, and then pretend not to notice anything unusual when they make a herculean effort to achieve something approaching normal behaviour. I treat them as if they're normal so they don't feel singled out. I give minimal praise for their normal behaviour, just enough so they know they'll be getting points for their hard work. The next thing they know they're chatting bashfully with classmates.

Before I go any further, I should add that this kind of 'shyness' can reach what I would call pathological proportions here before it is considered a real problem. It is not what I would regard as a character trait, more like an induced state of constant fear, brought on by the terror of perceiving oneself to be 'different' in a culture where 'different' equals 'wrong' and 'bad'. I have a Japanese friend who told me that she had never spoken to anybody openly in her life until she met The Man and I - she thought her real thoughts were unacceptable, too different from other people's, and since nobody ever admits to thinking really differently here she kept them to herself. She thought she had a mental problem. She coped with this by being very, very good at wearing the mask of sameness, and spent the first thirty years of her life feeling utterly isolated. She thought she was abnormal, and was ashamed most of the time. The famed 'group oriented' society here is extraordinarily isolating. Ask any foreign writing teacher who has their students keep journals. (The first time an apparently well-adjusted and normal student decided she could be open with me in her journal, presumably because I am a foreigner and therefore harmless and outside of normal society anyway, I was speechless for a good five minutes after reading what she had written. Then I wanted to kill someone. Her father, actually. And then her mother, closely followed by a few of her teachers and so-called friends.)

That was by way of background.

Last semester, my problem student exhibited excessively shy behaviour, but he was coping, if barely. I regularly put students into pairs or groups and have them doing various activities, and while he was not exactly enthusiastic, he could generally bring himself to speak a few words with his partner or group. In the oral testing I did at the end of semester he was abysmal, but he did speak. He squeaked through. I didn't put any pressure on him. I assumed his was the sort of shyness that would do better with less attention. A lot of them are like that - if you pay too much attention they clam up. My decision was to leave him alone and let him sort it out for himself. He didn't seem all that bad a case anyway. (Comparatively speaking, that is.) I've had a lot worse.

But it's becoming obvious that something happened over the vacation to make him worse. This semester we have had three classes so far, and so far I have heard him speak three words. That was yesterday, when I had the students making up a life for a man who was pictured in the textbook. The man was obviously a cook (the white hat gave it away), but aside from that no details were given. I had them inventing a family and hobbies and so on for him. They usually have a ball doing this.

I went around the class asking various questions to students about the man in the picture, and getting variously silly replies. When I got to the problem guy, I gave him a simple one. "What does he do?" I asked. We had just practiced this form because most students get confused - they understand "What's his job?" but when I ask 'What does he do?" they tell me he's cooking. I'd explained the meaning of the question, and was making sure they really got it and responded promptly with the right kind of answer.

The problem guy, when I asked, started out right. He whispered, "He is a." And then he stopped. I waited. Nothing happened. I asked again. No response. I told him the answer, and said, "Let's practice it again. What does he do?"

No response. He sat looking perfectly normal except that he wasn't responding at all. He was staring at his text. I noticed that his eyes were not focused on anything meaningful. He was staring at a corner of the page. I waited. Nothing happened. He was a statue. I asked using the other form, "What's his job?" and got no response from that, either. I asked him if he understood. He continued staring at the page.

At that point I moved on. There were 35 other students in the class and I'd already spent far too much time on something that should have taken 10 seconds at most. The others had finished the activity and were starting to get restless. Well, all right, they had finished being restless and were getting out of hand. A couple of the rowdier students were throwing things at each other across the room and shouting and everybody on that side of the room was laughing like maniacs. It was time to move on to something else. (This is the biggest problem with problem students in big classes - while you're dealing with them everything else goes to hell.)

We moved onto the next activity, and I kept an eye on the problem student. I noticed that his partner, who is a very good student, was just sitting there, looking patient and resigned. We exchanged a bit of body language - eyebrows, tiny shrugs - that said, "Sorry, can't do anything with him." "Not your problem. I understand." I made a mental note to make sure the shy guy ended up in a group of three instead of a pair in future so that even if he didn't respond to anything at least his partners could do something.

I also collected homework yesterday. Almost everybody did it. (I scared them last semester.) Three didn't. Two apologised. One, the problem student, didn't produce anything and didn't offer any apology or reason. He didn't do or say anything. Last semester he always did the homework. At the beginning he was almost the only one who did. That was one of the reasons I passed him.

I looked at the points I'd been giving to the various groups. Everybody was getting some, including his group, but I'd made a note that he hadn't done anything to get graded on yet..

When the class finished everybody stormed out noisily, and he took a little longer. I stopped him and sat down to chat a wee bit. Sometimes a word of encouragement helps. Also, if there's a problem sometimes they'll tell me. (Some students have problems working with particular partners, and I try to accommodate that.)

I asked if there was a problem. No response. I asked if he could do the homework and give it to me next week. No response. I explained the grading system to him again (which he should know, but I thought it was possible he didn't really get it). No response. I paused and waited. Nothing happened. I asked if he was understanding me, should I use Japanese? No response. "I need to know," I said. "Can you understand?" No response. I asked again in Japanese. "Do you understand me when I speak to you in English?" I asked. "Just tell me yes or no."

No response. No movement. No flicker of eyes. No expression. No nothing.

I told him he would need to do some work sometimes in class, since this was, after all, an oral English course, and if he didn't speak English or do anything I wouldn't be able to give him any points and he'd fail. I explained that he would need to do the homework as well. I asked him if he could try a little bit harder next week, please. I said it was difficult for his partner when he didn't speak, because that meant his partner couldn't either. I went on and on, far too much. In English. In Japanese. In English. In Japanese again. He sat like a frozen lump, apparently catatonic.

I was really, really irritated by his lack of response, and could feel myself getting angry.

Fortunately another student turned up at this point, from my next class, to explain to me that she couldn't attend today but here was her homework. I chatted with her a bit, and she left. I took a deep breath and went back to the problem student, who was still immobile. My irritation had gone and I was feeling anxious instead.

I touched his shoulder. "Don't worry," I told him. "Just come next week, and we'll work something out. OK?"

No response. I wanted to leave the room, to grab a coffee before the next class started. I started to gather up my things to leave. He didn't move. I went back to him.

"We'll sort something out next week," I said. "You can go now."

He got up and left.

He can understand me. He was able to speak last semester, and he did respond, if minimally. He responds physically to commands that require physical movement, so he is still listening and understanding. When I put students into groups I count them off with group numbers, and then tell them where to sit. He follows these instructions obediently. He sits in his group, opens his textbook to the right page, and then just... stops. You can tell him to move somewhere and he'll do it. You can tell him to stand up or sit down and he'll do that, too. But he doesn't speak, he makes no eye contact, and never looks up. He doesn't look at the other students, or acknowledge that they've spoken to him, or respond in any way that indicates that he even knows they are there. He doesn't speak, in any language.

Next week I am going to give him a written note, and a small notebook. I will tell him, in the note, that I can see that he has problems speaking, and that although this is a speaking class I will give him a passing grade if he does some work. Instead of speaking, he can use the class time to write. He should write at least half a page in every class, in English. I will give him topics to write about, and these will be from the textbook, although he can choose other topics if he wishes. He should give me this notebook at the end of every class, and I will respond to what he has written and ask questions for him to answer the next week. But at least that way he will at least be communicating in English. Nobody else will see his notebook, only me.

I am unsure how I will implement this in the classroom (if he does it at all) - whether to put him with a group while he is doing his writing, or what. I don't like singling students out when they have problems, because it makes the problems too obvious and tends to make things worse. But he is a handicap to any group he is in, so I'll have to figure out some way to have him doing something different while at the same time not isolating him too badly.

Perhaps I'll have him do the writing at home instead. In fact I like that idea better, come to think of it - it doesn't single him out so severely. But then I still have the problem of what to do with him in class, and the problem of when I'm going to read and respond to the notebook... The only thing I can think of right now is to put him into the odd-numbered group every time there is one, and change the classroom arrangement more frequently if there is an even number of students, so nobody gets stuck with him for too long. And perhaps instead of a notebook I'll give him loose leaf paper to write on, and a folder, and he can hand in a page every week. If he starts to speak again, I can tell him the writing isn't necessary.

In a real university (i.e. not a Japanese one) this sort of student would not pass my class. But I have to accept that I do not work in a real university. Learning is not really the point, here, and passing my class does not mean anything anyway in the grand scheme of things. If students fail my class (and they frequently do) they know they can just join another, 'easier' teacher's class next year and they'll get by without doing anything much. So there's really no point in failing him. There is, however, some point in being kind to him. It's fairly clear that he hasn't found life very kind so far. That's about all I can tell, really.

I think one of the reasons I got so irritated yesterday was that last year, when I had a student with similar symptoms, chatting with him when the others had gone did help. He didn't respond, exactly, but he hung around one day when he was the last one to leave and I said something to him, and he stood and waited. I continued to blab away at him, feeling slightly foolish because he wasn't responding, as I was cleaning up. He didn't respond by answering, or smiling or anything else normal like that, but he started staying behind after class every week to listen. In class he didn't do anything active - he'd sit with his partner, put his huge bag on his desk, and hide behind it. He never spoke to anybody, just stared at his textbook. But he was studying hard and listening carefully, something I only found out when I did a listening test and he scored highest in the class. When he handed in his paper I thought at first he hadn't even done the test - he'd written his answers using a very faint pencil and the paper looked blank at first glance. Then I peered more closely and could see these hen scratchings on the paper, wobbly old-person's writing, done with a violently shaking hand. I passed him the first semester on the strength of that, mainly.

But his problem was different. He was afraid of everybody. I think he'd been bullied. He was in a state of mortal terror most of the time, and it had made him mute. He apparently found me soothing, and hung around after class because I was one of the few people he was not afraid of. I talked to him about that (he didn't answer, of course, but he listened, with his head cocked minutely to one side, quivering and shaking as usual, but staying). I said that I was watching the others, and would always make sure he was in a group with kind students, nobody who would hurt or tease him. In the second semester he even started talking to the other students when I finally asked him to (it was the first hint I'd had that he was understanding anything I was burbling on about), and they responded to him with somewhat amazed attempts at normality, and asked for his help with grammar problems, at which he excelled. By the end of semester he even smiled once or twice, a wee twitch really, and some of the naughtier students had started treating him like an eccentric but inexplicably clever younger brother who would explain their homework for them. (He was weird. I really cared about that boy, but there was no way he could ever pass for normal.) In the first semester I'd warned some of the students who'd shown a wee hint of possible bullying, and word had gone around, apparently. I'd told them that I was counting on them to help him, and they did. They were lovely.

But the guy yesterday has a different problem. I don't know what it is, but it's not the other students. They're a good-natured (if noisy) bunch, and not unkind at all. The guy he was paired with yesterday is a gem. I can usually count on him to bring out the best in the most difficult student. He is intelligent, mature, kind, funny, and sensible. And he got no response from the problem student at all. Zilch. His own reaction to this was typically mature: he sat quietly and looked peacefully at ease.

And that's what I need to do. I need to be at ease about this. I need to do what I can, and not let it interfere with the rest of my job. And I need to not get irritated when he doesn't respond to me. I am not some sort of miracle worker. I felt like one, last year, and my ego got in the way when it didn't work this time. Me, the miracle worker, failed? Can't be true. It's his fault! He's just being stubborn!

I was frustrated and angry. I hope I didn't show it too much, but I'm afraid that people like him pick up on every emotion whether you think you've hidden it or not. The frustration and anger had gone at the end, when I spoke to him again and told him we'd work something out. I just hope it wasn't too late.

Bad teacher

Today I handled a tricky situation badly. I'm not going to write about it in detail now because I'm too damned tired - I was up at 5.30 am, and it's past midnight now.

But I wish I hadn't been so persistent. The student in question has a mental problem. I should have noticed how bad it was, and didn't. I hope I didn't traumatize him too badly. He is obviously deteriorating. In the first semester he seemed excessively shy, but was able to speak when it was necessary, and did his homework, and was able to squeak through. He has now stopped speaking altogether, in any language, and stopped doing homework as well.

I hope he comes back next week, so I can ... not apologize. I don't think that would help. But I want to give him some options he might be able to manage. I don't think I did that today. Actually I think it's unlikely that he can cope with the options either, but I want to try.

But... I'm still not even sure if I should. The cultural thing is rearing its ugly head. I know teachers in Japan are supposed to be parent figures/counselors/nannies at school, but is this also true at university? Are we supposed to make allowances for mental problems and just pass students who can't learn because they can't cope with life and it would be 'unfair' to expect them to? Is it professional to pass a student who didn't do the required work? Is it even kind to pretend he did, or to give him an easy way out? Or is it just making things worse?

I must consult my Japanese teacher friends. I did consult one Japanese teacher I bumped into at the bus stop after work, and she wasn't much help. She doesn't know me well enough to be completely honest. Her comment was that for some students just getting to class is all they can manage and you can't expect more from them. But she didn't tell me if she passed them. I asked, but she avoided answering.

I think that means she does.

And I don't know if I like that idea.

I hate the fact that I am spending so much time on one student who shouldn't be in university at all. I hate the fact that most likely his other teachers are just going to pass him and hope he goes away. I hate the fact that most likely nothing I do will make any difference. He needs help, in a big way, and urgently. There is no proper system set up for helping people like him.

I'm not qualified for this and I'm way out of my depth. I can tell I'm going to be going around and around with this. I need to get some sleep. Maybe then I'll get some perspective back. Maybe the right thing to do will be obvious in the morning.