Monday, November 29, 2004

Multi-choice questions

Last night on the train I had fun teasing The Man about his way of offering me choices.

"I like the way you include me in all our decisions," I told him. "You always ask me first before doing something."

He looked wary. He knew something more was coming.

"And then you do what you want to do anyway," I added.

"That's not true!" he said.

"Oh yes it is," I said. "'Are you cold?' you ask, when you come into the room. 'Do you want the heater on?' And when I say no, I'm fine, you tell me it's very cold and turn it on anyway."

"I do not!" he said.

"Oh yes, you do," I said. "What about when you wanted an extra blanket on the bed. 'Do you want another blanket?' you asked. 'I'm fine', I said, and you put another one on anyway."

"It was cold!" he said. "I was doing it for you!"

"Yes, I know. You do everything for me," I said. "The other day, when we'd been walking a lot and wanted to stop somewhere for coffee, you asked me which coffee shop I wanted to go to. I said the one we were passing looked fine to me, and you said it didn't look very good, and why didn't we try the other one up the street a bit. So we did."

"It was a good coffee shop though, wasn't it?" said The Man.

"Yes, it was," I said.

Silence for a while. I grinned to myself. The Man caught me doing it.

"I'm not that sort of person!" he said, looking wounded.

"Yes you are," I said.

"No, I'm not!"

"Yes, you are!"

"No, I'm not!"

(And so on and so forth...)

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Party all night

The jazz concert was great. It was also very, very long. It was held at the NHK concert hall in Osaka, started at five, and finished shortly before nine. By the time we got home it was nearly ten, and we hadn't eaten. There are no restaurants open around the NHK concert hall on a Sunday night.

The hall was packed. I don't know how many people it holds, but I heard someone mention two thousand and something. A lot of people. There were something like 40 musicians taking part in the concert, which was not a retirement concert as I'd thought (i.e. he's not retiring), but a 50th anniversary concert. That's fifty years of performing - the pianist, Zensho, is 70. He'd collected many of the musicians he's played with through the years, and probably about a third of them were similarly aged. They were wonderful. Zensho was on the stage the whole time, looking about 55, which he does close up, too (does jazz keep you young?) and he was superb. 'Play' is exactly the right verb for what he does with a piano.

The part I liked best was when there was just three of them up there, the original trio that started off 50 years ago. Metcha cool music.

Now I have to get some sleep. Those old guys might be partying through the night but I have to work tomorrow.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Old and tired and worn out

Today The Man and I went shopping at Uniqlo, a large discount clothing store which has opened a branch near here. Well, quite near. (It was a longer cycle than we'd anticipated.) We bought a few things for winter - polo neck tops, a couple of jerseys (sweaters, for Americans), and so on. It was all very cheap and the quality is good.

While we were there I was trying on a jersey and looked in a mirror. The lighting was good. Too good, in fact, and I got a nasty shock.

"God, I look horrible," I said to The Man. "Old and tired and worn out, like I'm sick or something."

The Man looked at me. "Don't worry," he said, cheerfully. "You always look tired. It's the shape of your eyes."

I ignored him and decided it was the colour of the sweater that was making me look so bad. I didn't buy that one.

Later we cycled to another place, quite a long way off in the other direction, and splashed out on a new top futon. It was on sale, but still quite expensive. Our old one is ratty. The feathers have gone all flat and it's not warm any more. It's very old.

When we got home The Man and I had a wee fight while we were struggling to get the futon into its cover. According to The Man I was doing it all wrong. According to me I was doing exactly the right thing and it was the stupid cover's fault, not mine. Why are those things so bloody difficult? Why don't they make it easier? Can't they make them so the covers open all down one side, instead of having to thread this great ballooning feathery thing through a small hole? It's silly.

Our fight had nothing to do with his comment at Uniqlo, of course. He was just being unreasonable about the futon, that's all.

The new futon feels great and the expense was worth it. I tested it. I would have stayed there, testing it some more, but I have to do the washing and then prepare some lessons for next week. We're going to a jazz concert tomorrow. The pianist is an old guy who is retiring, and this is his last concert. He's very good. And it's a good thing The Man remembered, because I'd forgotten all about it.

Look at me in the ear and say that

Imagine being able to see with your tongue, or with your ears. This NY Times article describes how a new device, the BrainPort, is making it possible for blind people to regain some vision. The BrainPort also makes all kinds of other things possible, and it's very, very weird to think about.

How long do you think it will be before some rich lunatic decides he wants eyes in the back of his head?

(Registration required for the link, or use BugMeNot in the left menu to get a password.)


To the ESL teachers who come here looking for ways to teach the simple present tense, I apologize. I'd be annoyed too, if I wanted to filch a lesson plan of the Internet (I do it all the time) and instead got me rabbitting on irrelevantly about something quite different. Yes, I have noticed your searches, and feel guilty every time one pops up.

I recommend that you go here instead, at least for a start. Also, you need to narrow your search. Using Google, include ESL "lesson plan" "present simple" (include the quotes) in your search, and you'll narrow it down a bit.

When I have time to figure out how to make a sidebar with some useful links, I'll do it. That way when you turn up here, instead of just getting frustrated and cranky you'll have somewhere useful to go next. I have dozens of teaching links bookmarked. I just don't have time right now to check them out and make sure they're still there, and then figure out how to make the sidebar.

But I will. Promise. And sorry for wasting your time. I know how busy you are.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Navel gazing

I've been using Bloglines for a while now, and as anyone who uses it will know it gives you suggestions for blogs you might be interested in. You get a message that says: "Based on your current subscriptions, Bloglines has generated this list of feeds that you might be interested in. This list is updated daily." Sometimes the list contains some very interesting blogs, and this is a good thing if I have time to read them and a bad thing if I don't, because I add them to my feeds and end up with a huge backlog of unread but probably fascinating blogs.

But recently something a little disturbing has started happening. It has started recommending my own blog to me. It has become quite pushy about it, moving me right to the top of the recommended list. I'm not sure whether to be flattered or alarmed.

Does this mean I only read and write about the things that interest me? It makes me feel terribly narrow-minded, but on the other hand, well, should I read and write about things that don't interest me?

And what is my blog about, anyway, that would make it so fascinating to me? Even I'm not sure, and I write it. I can't think what gave Bloglines the idea I'd be interested in reading such nonsense.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Little surprises

Tonight I was chatting with some colleagues over curry after work, as usual on Thursday evenings, and one of them pulled out something he'd brought to show his students today. It was his driver's licence from twenty years ago, when he was living and working in Saudi Arabia.

After we'd finished laughing at his hair I asked him if the driving test was hard.

"Oh, no," he said. "You just had to give a pint of blood."

"And...?" I asked.

"And nothing," he said. "That was it. Give a pint of blood and you got a licence."

We thought about it. It made sense, in a mad sort of way. Get your licence, have an accident, and be refilled with your own blood.

I asked what it was like, living there.

"Oh, it was great!" he said, enthusiastically. "Wonderful entertainment, you know. You get invited out to public beheadings every Friday night."

After we realised he wasn't making this up, he told us, more soberly, that he'd never attended one, but his Saudi friends used to sometimes push him to go, because if a foreigner went he'd be pushed to the front, and they could tail along and get a better view. He said one of his colleagues went and had nightmares for six months afterwards.

He also said that you could fill your car for about ten cents, but unfortunately water was more like ten dollars a gallon. And whisky was about one hundred dollars a bottle. One day, he said, when a certain embassy was having a piano delivered, the crate bounced a bit too much on the docks as it was being unloaded and started to leak whisky, almost causing a Diplomatic Incident.

After working there for three years he'd saved enough to go back to England and buy a house, but he said he wouldn't do it again. The principal of the school where he worked is still there, though.

Funny how every Thursday evening I learn a little more about my colleagues. We work together every week but barely have time to talk. An hour or two over curry, though, and little surprises keep popping up. I've worked with this guy for seven or eight years and never knew he'd lived in Saudi Arabia.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004


Today as I was cycling to work (very carefully, see my last blog entry) a woman shot out of a side road without looking either way to see if anybody was coming, and I braked sharply and swerved to avoid her. She didn't see me. She cycled on obliviously, and I followed more slowly, wondering how on earth anybody in Japan makes it to adulthood. She had a baby on the front of her bicycle and a toddler on the back, and had sped straight through a stop sign out into a fairly busy street. Eventually she turned into another busy street, also without looking first, and narrowly missed a garbage truck that was coming the other way.

A bit later there was another incident when an older woman cycling towards me, slowly and carefully, got a big surprise. A crow, which had been sitting on a fence facing me but not visible to her, suddenly flew out and passed right in front of her face. She swerved and shouted, then stopped and stood there for a moment, breathing heavily and looking shocked. It must have been scary - this huge black thing swooped right in front of her face so close she must have felt the wind from its wings. The crow landed in a tree and looked smug. I think it did it on purpose.

From now on I'll be watching out for stupid cyclists, stupid drivers, and crows. I think I also need some protective demons, like the ones pictured below. These are the demons guarding the gates of Shi-Tennoji, where I went on Sunday. I want protective demons that look like that.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Little shit

I decided to go out and do a little grocery shopping just now, on my bicycle (with the wonderful baskets). It is a beautiful autumn day. I stopped at an intersection and looked to see if anyone was coming. Someone was. Two someones, in fact. They had the stop sign, not me (although I stopped anyway, because often cars don't stop there) - but they ignored it. These two kids on bicycles, going as fast as they could, came zooming down the road, straight through the stop sign, and zoomed into the road I was in. One of them rode full speed into the back wheel of my bicycle.


He flew off his bike and it skidded across the road. My back wheel skidded sideways a bit and I stood there aghast. Good god, doesn't anybody teach kids any road sense? (Answer: no. And this is why I stop at intersections even when I don't need to, because adults are no better.)

The kid hit the ground and bounced up again, grabbing his bicycle and starting to mount it. "Are you OK?" I called. He'd fallen hard, but apparently he'd rolled the right way because he looked fine and said so. "Sorry! Sorry!" he shouted, and he and his friend giggled and sped off again, as fast as before. The last I saw of them they were far away, speeding through another stop sign. Apparently one accident wasn't enough for them.

I stopped worrying about the little shit when I tried to ride off again and discovered that my back wheel was buckled. The bike shop man tells me it's too buckled to fix and will have to be replaced. It's bloody expensive, and if I see that kid again I'll be hitting him first. If he's alive, that is. Darwin's law suggests that he won't be.

More flea market pictures

Here are some more pictures of the flea market on Sunday.

First, some more of the temple grounds generally. This one is of the pond in the middle of the grounds, which is full of turtles. One year I came here in spring, and there were a lot of baby turtles. Someone had thrown in a whole slice of white bread, and a baby turtle had its front feet up on the bread and was paddling with its back feet. It looked very comfortable. I guess it was white bread surfing.

Naturally I didn't have a camera with me that day. But here are the turtles, sunning themselves on the raised platform in the middle of the pond. It's not a great picture, but you can get the idea.

In this one you can see my friend. Well, you can see my friend's hair. You can also see the temple in the background.

Here is another stall. As I said, it's all rather messy, but this just adds to the treasure hunt feeling you get when you're at these flea markets.

I don't have enough pictures of stalls. I was generally too involved in rummaging to remember I had my camera with me. But here is one, of my favourite kind of stall. There is an amazing amount of junk and I don't know what a lot of it is. This just adds to the mystery. I think that wooden wheel thing is for winding wool, or silk.

And here is another.

This woman was selling new noren, and other indigo-dyed cloth. They looked lovely flapping in the breeze.

Here are the dried snakes. I didn't buy any.

And, finally, can anybody identify this vegetable?

Monday, November 22, 2004

The promised pictures

I said I'd post some pictures from yesterday, so here are some. I took a lot, though, and this makes it difficult to choose which ones to put up. I've decided that I'll choose a few myself, and after that describe some of the others. If you want to see any of them, make a request and I'll post it.

The ones I'll put today will give an idea of what to expect.

First, a sort of general picture, giving some idea of what the place was like. This was taken from a slightly elevated position, but still only manages to capture only a fraction of what there was to see. The problem with this temple is that the only way to get a good overview is from a helicopter. You can't even see the temple buildings in this one.

Here is one of the temple buildings, but I'm not sure if it's the main one. Maybe it leads to the main building. I'm not sure.

The reason I'm not sure is that I always get lost in these temple grounds. There are a lot of large buildings. Add the crowds, and you have a very muddled Badaunt.

At one point, though, I must have been right next to the main temple area because we were sitting on some steps and having a little rest, and when I looked behind me I saw this:

Obviously this was the main area, but I was too close to see the actual building complex. There were very few people inside. Most people were out in the temple grounds, wandering around and checking out the numerous stalls. We were there for over four hours and I don't think we saw them all.

Remember the picture I posted of a kimono stall at the last flea market I went to, where all the kimono were hanging up, tidy and beautifully presented? That flea market was in Kobe, and was smaller and classier. This flea market is in in the middle of Osaka, in a fairly old and rundown neighbourhood, and is much larger, messier, and less genteel. It's also quite a lot cheaper. Here is what a kimono stall looks like at Shi-Tennoji:

You rummage through the piles of kimono and if you're lucky you find a gem. While my friend and I were sitting on the steps (with the inner temple area behind us, see previous picture), a beautiful young British woman started an extensive hunt through this stall, which was in front of us. She tried some kimono on. She was wearing jeans and boots and a big jersey (sweater to Americans), and had a huge mass of curly dark hair - entirely wrong for 'traditional' kimono wearing. But when she put one blue kimono on (she is not in the picture, but the kimono is one of the blue bunch in the front left) it looked stunning, even over jeans. I cupped my hands to my mouth and shouted (because I was too knackered to get up), "IT LOOKS WONDERFUL! THAT'S THE BEST ONE FOR YOU!" and she turned around, looking surprised and uncertain.

"Really?" she said. "Do you think it's better than this one?" She held up another blue one, almost the same shade, but which somehow didn't work for her. We assured her the first one was definitely the one, and she told us that actually she wanted to buy two, one for herself and one for her boyfriend in London. We spent quite a bit of time giving helpful advice, but both of us stuck by that blue one. She roped in some passing guy and got him trying on men's kimonos for her so she could see what they looked like on. It was an entertaining and friendly interlude.

She ended up buying the original blue one and another darker blue one for her boyfriend. They were very cheap. And they looked great.

I was feeling particularly happy while I was sitting there because I'd just bought some bowls. I've been looking for some more. I'd bought two rice bowls, a long time ago, and regretted not getting more. The ones I got were expensive, but we've been using them every day since then and they feel right in your hand when you lift them. They are beautiful, the balance is perfect, and there is something very satisfying about them. Before I bought those bowls I don't think I'd ever really understood the pleasure of eating from beautiful dishes. I'd had nice dishes before but nothing like those bowls, which are over 100 years old. They are, somehow, exactly right, and I've often wished I'd thrown caution to the wind and bought more than two.

I've been looking for more ever since. They didn't have to match (and in any case that would be impossible), but they had to have a similar feeling of rightness. And yesterday, I found them.

This picture isn't a great one, although you can get some idea of what the bowls look like. I don't know how old they are, but the designs are hand-painted so they're not very new. I bought four, two rice bowls and two okazu (side dish) bowls. The okazu bowls are a little larger, and have lids that protrude over the sides of the bowl. The rice bowls lids fit inside. You can see these two types on the left of the photo. The rice bowls are in the front, and the okazu bowls just behind them.

Now I'm sort of wishing I'd bought some of the plates as well, but actually they weren't as big as I wanted. I already have some lovely plates, and the smaller ones don't get used so often. I like to buy things I can use a lot. Also, while these dishes weren't as expensive as my other rice bowls, they still weren't that cheap. And if I'm going to have mismatched dishes, I might as well wait and get some other mismatched ones, otherwise it's going to look as though I had a set and then broke half of them. I'd rather have it look as though I had several sets and then broke most of them!

This next picture is here just because I thought the old guy was très cool.

The final picture today is my favourite, for no particular reason except that it makes me smile to look at it. There was a little path off the main area, which had a few stalls down one side of it. It's a sort of side-entrance to the temple, probably a sort of tradesman's entrance. There is space for parking, which wasn't being used, and stalls down only one side of the path. On the other side, by the empty parking spaces, some people had stopped to rest. We stopped there for a little while, too, and took the weight off our feet. Then we carried on, and as we were leaving my friend said, "I think you should take a picture of that," and I did. Perhaps next time I should just hand her the camera. It's the best of the lot.

I think that's enough pictures for now, but following is a list of other pictures I took. If you want to see any of them, let me know and I'll post them. Alternatively I could just post one or two with each blog entry for a while.

Red demon
Green demon (these demons guard the entrance to the temple)
Mystery vegetable
Fascinating junk stall
Indigo noren in the breeze (Noren are those sort of half-curtain things)

There are also several more general sort of pictures, rather messy, but that's what it was like, really. Messy beyond belief, and wonderful, glorious fun.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Snakes and manhole covers

I've had a brilliant day. The weather was gorgeous, the flea market was crowded and lively and full of fascinating junk, the company was good (the same friend I went to the last one with), and I took lots of pictures. They are not ready to post yet because they need some adjusting (trimming, fixing the contrast, and so on) and also resizing for the web.

But here is one picture to start with, which shows the temple where the flea market was held. It also illustrates a charming detail about cities in Japan which is rather at odds with the general ugliness. Every city, or area within a city, has its own design of these:

That's right - it's a manhole cover. And because I was in Tennoji, an area of Osaka, this one shows the temple which is Tennoji's landmark. Only some of these manhole covers are coloured. The plain ones have the same design, but with no colour.

I bought some bowls today. I will post a picture of them, but probably in a day or two. Right now I'm exhausted and although I'd rather just go to bed I need to plan three lessons for tomorrow first. I left the house at nine this morning and got home at nine this evening. It's been a long, wonderful day, but unfortunately it isn't over yet. I'm thinking now I should have bought one of those dried snakes I saw, instead of just taking pictures of them. A snake strategically planted in the classroom would have taken care of my lesson plan problem. No students, no lesson plan, no problem.


I'm going to another flea market tomorrow. I intend to forget the work piled up here, forget the massive desk tidying job I've been putting off for weeks, forget everything, and just enjoy myself. The weather is forecast to be sunny, a perfect autumn day, just like today.

Tuesday is a public holiday, so I will catch up with my procrastinating then.

Friday, November 19, 2004


I had a sad but somehow funny and hopeful little exchange with a student today. Andaloo's blog entry about racism in Spain reminded me of it.

I had been asking students to tell me a funny, frightening, exciting, or embarrassing thing that happened to them. (I've been getting them to tell anecdotes.) One very small student, a gormless wee lad, chose to tell me an embarrassing story. His story was in terrible English which I won't try to reproduce here, but the gist of it was that one day he was at the train station and three foreigners approached him and asked him for directions. He was a high school student at the time, and he was 'very surprised.' He said he knew they were speaking English, but he couldn't understand what they wanted. So he told them he didn't speak English. Then he went to the other end of the platform, and then realised they'd wanted directions he could probably have given if he'd tried.

(I mentally translated this into a terrified, "No English! No English! and a panicked dash for safety - I've come across this behaviour before - and tried not to grin.)

I asked him why he was so embarrassed by this incident, and he looked up at me and said, "They were black." And then he looked down, quivering. I think he knew it wasn't really an adequate explanation, and his English wasn't adequate to explain more, but... well, in a way, it was adequate.

This kid is 18, and he's little. He makes me feel big, and I'm not. He breaks into a sweat whenever he has to talk to me, even though he has improved over the year and doesn't shake quite so badly these days. I'm not an imposing person, but he still makes me feel like some sort of monster. So I can only imagine his reaction to being approached by not one but three foreigners, and not just foreign but tall, black foreigners. He must have been petrified. All three were men, and he said they were 'very tall'. (I should add here that he thinks I'm 'very tall', and I'm 164 cm, so it's equally possible that they were very short.) He'd never seen a black person before. There aren't many, here. I can just imagine three friendly black tourists towering over this wee boy and unintentionally scaring him witless. I asked him if they were friendly, and he looked surprised, and then said, "I think so," and looked ashamed.

But what I liked about this story is that he clearly knew there was something wrong with his reaction. He felt bad about it. I also like it that he told me - it's sort of weird, really, since I'm also a foreigner and he is also scared of me. It felt like a confession, and also a step forward.

I asked him if he would try to communicate next time, if something like that happened again, and he got an inward look on his face as he struggled to imagine it. The idea clearly scared him at the same time as it made him think very, very hard. But finally he looked up with a frightened face and whispered, "I hope."

I thought that was a lovely, honest answer. I hope, too.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Mating season

It's the textbook ordering season, and the textbook publishers have come out of hibernation and are performing their mating dances. I don't know what's up with them this year. Perhaps there's some sort of Viagra for textbook publishers. Everywhere we go, there they are, trying to push their latest book on us and telling us how wonderful it is. It's starting to feel like we're being stalked. I've even been visited by the same guy twice. He was at one university lurking in the teachers' room after work, waiting to pounce, and then turned up a week later at a different university to disturb our lunch break. (To be fair, it's kind of hard to get hold of us at any other time.) This turned out to be a good thing, I thought, since instead of sending me the text I'd asked for, for inspection, he'd sent the sample CD that comes with the book, which wasn't much use to me. After complaining about this, and while I had him on the spot, I asked for one other text as well. If he didn't want to send it out, I told him, could he at least send an inspection copy to the school? I will not use a book I haven't checked out first.

A couple of days ago the first book I'd asked for finally arrived, but then instead of sending me the other one I wanted he sent me a different one, which his company had already sent me a copy of with their catalogue. My colleague, who had asked for two other books, got the same one. I guess that's their latest and greatest, and they're trying to get us to order it. Considering that he'd also left an inspection copy at the school and we'd already told him it was unsuitable we weren't very impressed.

The same company, yesterday, apparently organised a lunchtime meeting at the place I was at today. I'm glad I wasn't there, but from what I'm told it did have some entertaining moments. They brought along the writer of the book they're pushing (yes, the same one I have two copies of, which I know I won't be using), and also a 'very experienced teacher' to give us some hints about how to use the book.

The writer started off badly. She told the assembled teachers (who had been bribed with pizza) that she knew the problems we had with motivating students, and how important it was to 'engage their interest' and 'get them involved in their own learning.' For this reason, she said, she had researched the target audience and included only topics they were interested in. This made this book unique, she said, and particularly suited for the Japanese university student.

My colleague told me he was intrigued by the idea of a 'unique' textbook 'particularly suited for the Japanese university student,' and picked up the sample copy and leafed through it. He frowned, puzzled, and picked up the book he's been using this year. Sure enough, it had exactly the same topics as the new book. And exactly the same topics as every other textbook for English learning that has been published in Japan in the last twenty years or so.

Being a kind person, he didn't point this out. He chewed on his pizza and listened thoughtfully.

Our boss, however, wasn't quite so restrained. When the writer introduced her special guest, the man with extensive English teaching experience in Japan, who had "been teaching here for years and has a lot to offer," the boss interrupted.

"We have a lot of experience right here in this room," he said. "How long have you been teaching in Japan?"

"Four years," the guy replied proudly.

"Four years, eh?" said the boss, and no doubt got that horrible little smirk he gets when he's about to be heavily sarcastic. (I wish he wouldn't do that. It spoils the effect.) Then he went around all the teachers in the room - about twenty of them - asking how long they'd been teaching in Japan.

The shortest period he got in response to this question was from my colleague, who has been teaching here for nine years.

The same company is offering free drinks to any teacher who wants to go to a particular bar in Osaka tonight, where they'll be buying rounds and telling their captive audience all about their latest and greatest offerings. I am not there, obviously. I'm here. Even if it wasn't on a weeknight when I have to be up at 5.30 am, even the free drinks don't predispose me to being patronised by people who haven't researched their audience properly. The same writer and 'experienced teacher' will be there.

I didn't get my usual let-off-steam-dinner-with-the-guys tonight, either. I turned up at the Indian restaurant, as usual, and discovered that along with four other teachers, there were three strangers; a short dark intense-looking bloke with glasses and two younger women who looked a bit more relaxed. As I removed my raincoat, one of them pulled out a seat for me. I was a bit surprised, but assumed that they were friends of one of the other guys. However, once I was seated, the little short bloke with glasses leaned forward earnestly and said,

"First of all, I'd like to thank you all for coming to this meeting."

A quick look round at the guys' faces showed me I wasn't the only one who didn't have a clue what he was talking about.

"What meeting?" I asked.

"I haven't heard about any meeting," said one of the other guys.

"And, er... who are you?" asked another. "I mean, I don't want to be rude, but, er, perhaps you were expecting someone else...?"

No. They were expecting us. It turned out they were from another textbook publishing company. This lot were really serious. They had come from New York (the women, who were British) and London (the guy, who was American) to research the textbook market in Japan, and were visiting various schools and universities and setting up meetings with teachers.

I still don't know who set up this particular meeting, but we hadn't been informed. If it was the boss, who knows we go to the curry shop after work, I will have his guts for garters tomorrow.

I did, however, perform a service for teachers in Japan at this meeting. I told the researchers that we would all appreciate it very much if they would remove, from all their textbooks, that horribly unnatural question that is the bane of English teachers everywhere: "What's your hobby?" This question has enraged me ever since I first encountered it, and most especially since I had a peculiar fan follow me around for a while in the area where I live. He'd pop up in the most unexpected places, and one day when I went in a coffee shop to wait for my washing to dry at the launderette he followed me into the coffee shop. He wanted to talk, and I told him I didn't want to, so he sat at a nearby table, watching me and grinning dementedly while I tried to read my book, and wrote a letter to me, on a paper napkin. When I left he presented the letter to me. It began, "Dear Lady. Where did you invade from? What's your hobby?" stopped making sense for a bit, and ended "God save the Queen!"

I thought the hobby bit spoiled the tone of the letter, but my demented fan (who was wearing a dress that particular day) had obviously learned his lessons well. Every bloody English textbook in Japan includes that question in the first chapter.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Good idea

Now this is the kind of earthquake I could live with.

Upside-down fruit

Do you know how pineapples grow?

Today I took to work a whole bunch of travel pamphlets in English that I've collected over the years, and had one class working out travel plans for themselves based on the information in the pamphlets. They had a ball, getting serious about organising trips that would include all the places they were interested in. After a while, one of the students called my attention to a very small photo in one of the pamphlets from Malaysia, of a pineapple plantation. Because the picture was so tiny it was hard to see anything much except a bunch of people carrying pineapples through some low-growing plants. The student asked me,

"Do pineapples grow on little bushes?"

I stopped and stared at her. "No, of course they don't!" I said. "What a funny idea! They grow on... um... let me see. They grow on... er..."

And then I realised I didn't have the foggiest idea how pineapples grew. The student showed me the wee picture, and I squinted at it and didn't learn anything. I apologised for my ignorance and told her I'd look it up later.

Back in the office at lunchtime I asked some other teachers, and they all reacted pretty much the way I did. "Oh, I know this one! They grow on, um... er... trees! No, bushes! No, trees! Yes, of course - pine trees! No wait... er..."

We discussed whether we'd ever heard of anybody being bonked on the head walking under a pineapple tree, and wondered why they were called pineapples. We decided that the answer to the first question was no, we couldn't remember hearing of such a thing, but perhaps they don't fall until they are squishy and harmless. To the second, we realised, after a moment's thought, that they're called pineapples because they look like pinecones, not because they grow on pine trees. That seemed pretty obvious. But after that we were stumped.

Finally it occurred to us to consult the secretary, whose computer is hooked up to the web. I looked up "pineapple plantation", and found this. "Eh?" I said when the picture appeared. I don't know how I thought pineapples grew, but that wasn't it.

I called the other teachers over and had the satisfaction of hearing them do it too. "Eh?" One added, "But it's standing on its head!"

Funny the things you learn when you're teaching language. Today I learned that pineapples grow upside-down.

Is this something everybody already knew except us? I mean, it was reassuring not to have all the others pointing and laughing at me and saying, "Didn't you know that? Are you stupid or something? Everybody knows that!" - but what if all the Wednesday teachers at that school are ignorant?

Did you know?

Monday, November 15, 2004

Ripped off

Today I used the haggling game again, in my community class. This class is of older learners. The ages range from mid-thirties to mid-seventies. They are beginners, and are keen to learn.

They loved the game, and proved themselves to be very good hagglers, far better than the university students the other day. They were downright tricky, in fact, and at the end of the game I felt compelled to teach them a new word. I wrote I GOT RIPPED OFF! on the board, and waited until they'd all noticed it. (Some of them were still haggling, being reluctant to stop the game before closing a sale.)

When they saw the words on the board, they all started scribbling in their notebooks. I waited. Eventually one of them asked, "What does 'ripped off' mean?"

Sometimes it's faster to give a translation, so I dredged through my pitiful Japanese vocabulary for one. "Inchiki, I said, then mumbled to myself, "No, wait, that's what I call The Man, that's not it, or is it...?" Then I said, "Well, it might be inchiki, or possibly damasu"

(The woman sitting nearest me doubled over with laughter at my comment about The Man, and I remembered that her English was quite a bit better than that of the others.)

They thought about it, and still looked puzzled, so I decided a demonstration was necessary. I stood up and pointed a finger accusingly.

"Watch out for Mrs Tapioka!*" I said, sternly. "She ripped me off! Do you know how much she charged me for half a Chinese cabbage?"

Mrs Tapioka jumped, went pink, and erupted. "This year typhoons!" she shouted indignantly. "Vegetables expensive!"

"No!" I insisted. "You ripped me off!" I appealed to the others. "FIVE HUNDRED YEN for HALF a Chinese cabbage!"

Little lightbulbs went off all over the place, and there was uproar as discussions erupted amongst the women over whether or not that was the going price. (The only man, Mr Happi*, aged seventy-something, was laughing so hard he started to wheeze alarmingly and couldn't contribute.) I think I won in the end, although Mrs Tapioca refused to give me a refund.

By the end of all this everybody knew exactly what 'ripped off' meant.

I'd forgotten how much fun it is to teach adults, and especially how much fun it is to teach middle-aged Kansai women.

*No, that is not her name, but it is her shape.

*No, this is not his name, but it is his nature.

Saturday, November 13, 2004


I will never understand why, when it comes to western design, many ordinary Japanese people seem to lose all their aesthetic judgement. They'll get the Japanese design just right, but the western touches will be so wrong you wonder if they suddenly went blind.

The reason I was thinking of this today was that I was hanging out washing, and looking out over the back where there is now a large, ugly apartment building behind us. If I lean out a little from the balcony I can almost butt my head on it. When I first came here there was an old Japanese house on that section, but it was half destroyed in the earthquake, and demolished shortly afterwards.

That house behind ours was the first real Japanese home I visited in Japan. The people there kindly invited me to lunch when I first arrived. They were an ordinary middle-aged middle-class couple, with married children who had moved away. The old house had a lovely tatami-style traditional interior and a huge and gorgeous Butsudan - family altar - in the main room. To one side of the Butsudan there was a scroll depicting a misty mountain scene, which complemented perfectly the muted wall colours and the tatami. It would have been wonderful, except that on the other side of the Butsudan they'd carefully tacked up a life-sized poster of Sylvester Stallone.

Several beers later I discovered that the tiny toilet room was festooned with frilly flowers - a frilly flowered toilet seat cover, a frilly flowered toilet paper holder cover, a frilly flowered mat, etc etc. The final touch was a large soft padded plastic Mickey Mouse poster on the toilet room wall. The overall effect was ghastly, funny, and totally baffling. I think I went into culture shock right then and there, sitting on the toilet with frills tickling my bum, staring at Mickey Mouse.

Still, I miss that old house, and the old neighbours. They had a traditional garden as well, with a lovely old bent and gnarled tree that we could see from our balcony. Now the people are all strangers, and from the balcony we can see a blank wall.

Friday, November 12, 2004


I have come to the conclusion that my head is just too heavy. It's all those brains in there, weighing me down. That's why my neck hurts so much.

My acupuncturist tries to tell me that it is the humidity, which has still not gone away (it's supposed to, tomorrow) although the weather has become much cooler. This is meant to be one of the dry months, but it hasn't been, so far. But I reckon it's my brains. Clever, clever me.

Also, ouch. And in case you weren't paying attention the last time I wrote this (if I did actually write this - I can't remember, perhaps due to a bang on the head): Never, ever let yourself get a bang on the head. It messes up your neck forever.

That's my advice for the day. Avoid accidents. Also, don't be too clever.

I was too clever today, when I decided to borrow my Iranian friend's joke. I found myself in a lift with two Americans and a Pom. (This sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn't it? It is. It's the beginning of a failed joke.) I hadn't seen any of them for two weeks, so it seemed like a good opportunity.

"Congratulations on your newly re-elected President!" I said, brightly.

Everybody stared at me. The silence stretched. The doors went ping! and closed. A atmosphere of deep gloom would have descended except that we were going up, so in fact the atmosphere of deep gloom ascended. Then the Pom said, gently,

"Well, Badaunt, that wasn't very kind."

"Sorry," I said, humbly. "It was supposed to be funny."

"Ha ha," said one of the Americans, heavily. They both looked infinitely depressed. The doors went ping again and we exited. The Americans stomped off, and I mentally apologised to their students.

I should have known that overworked teachers would not appreciate a joke like that on a Friday morning, especially after they've been forced to try to explain the inexplicable all week to baffled students. I wasn't thinking straight, and my neck hurt.

It's been a long week.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Sensitive and caring

I called one of my brothers tonight, mainly because he called me yesterday when I wasn't home and I thought there might be something urgent. There wasn't. He just wanted to chat. He's the sensitive and caring brother. He calls every six months or so just to make sure I'm still alive.

SCB told me that Youngest Brother visited him recently with his family, and that he remembered something I said about YB not answering my emails. I had told him that YB was the worst person to be the only NZ member of the family to have email, because he hardly ever answered it or passed on news.

SCB said that he'd checked this out. He'd asked YB, "Have you heard from Badaunt recently?', and got the nonchalant reply, 'Oh, yeah, she emailed once or twice."

"So what did she have to say for herself?" SCB asked.

"Oh, nothing much. Just the usual," was the response.

This would have been the end of the conversation, except that SCB, knowing YB rather well, got suspicious. He asked,

"Have you read her email yet?"

YB, who is incapable of lying (at least with family, because he knows we'll always catch him out) (or perhaps because it never occurs to him), replied,

"Nah, not yet. I think K did, though." (K is his wife.)

SCB and I giggled over this. "Well, what do you expect? He hasn't changed at all," he told me.

"I noticed," I said, and we giggled some more. We shared a few insulting but funny anecdotes about YB. After a while SCB had a sudden attack of conscience and said, "Ah, but he's all right, really. We shouldn't laugh about him like this behind his back."

"Why not?" I asked. "Isn't that what he's for? I certainly haven't found any other use for him yet! Besides, it's nothing he doesn't know. I laugh about him to his face, too. And in email."

"Oh, so that's why he doesn't read it," said SCB, and we pondered the logic of this for a moment.

After I got off the phone I checked to see what my last 'nothing much, just the usual' email was about, and discovered it was one I'd written in the middle of one of those typhoons. It's getting pretty windy here, I'd said. The rest of the back fence just blew away.

It was the third one I'd sent him since July, none of which have been answered.

Perhaps I'll send him another one soon, telling him the house fell down, I lost my job, I'm homeless and hungry, and please send food. Then I'll sit back and wait for the food package to arrive sometime in the next year or so.

Currently reading: Good Morning, Midnight, by Reginald Hill. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Bad for business

Today I had my students role-playing a flea market game. This is always great fun, which is why I do it. We practice the language for haggling in English first, and for describing things, and then I divide the class in two, half sellers and half buyers, and set up 'stalls' at the back of the classroom. The sellers decide what they're selling (we use bits of paper with pictures or words), and the prices they paid for those things, and then try to make a profit by selling them for more. It gets very noisy and exciting. Then the buyers and sellers swap places, and it all starts again.

Out of my four classes the science majors made the biggest profits, and the business majors, almost without exception, operated at a loss.

I berated the business class for this. "What are you thinking?" I demanded. "You are business majors! Twenty years from now when you guys are in charge Japan is going to collapse!"

But it was no good. They thought it was funny.

They also thought it was funny that three of them had bought Louis Vuitton bags from me at highly inflated prices after I told them they were genuine Louis Vuitton bags from China.

Monday, November 08, 2004


Last week I had some students writing recipes for me. One student didn't finish hers, and gave it to me today at the beginning of class. It was even printed, very unusual here, where most students don't have a computer. I skimmed through it, and the following instruction caught my eye:

Dissolve the egg, and fly.

I decided to bring the recipe home to try, but I can't figure out how to dissolve the egg. I'm working on it, though. Flying is next.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Have a nice trip

I discovered today that trying to explain contemporary fundamentalist Christianity in the U.S. (i.e. dispensationalism, as opposed to traditional Christianity) to a Buddhist is like trying to describe a bad acid trip to a straight person, while you're still tripping. You get a reaction that is equal parts bafflement, concern for your sanity, and nervous laughter - and behind all that a lurking suspicion that you're making it all up.

Speaking of which, I spotted a shelf of the Left Behind novels in the English section of a large bookstore here the other day. They were in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section.

Cat humiliation

This morning when I went to the front door to get the newspaper, I could see that the little ginger cat was sunning itself on the front doorstep again. It comes back every year in the cooler months, and uses the doormat as a sunbed. Through the frosted glass of the front door I could see that it was having a wash as I approached the door, and I knew which bit it was washing, too. One back leg was sticking straight up in the air. It was a 6-shaped cat. I haven't seen it since July, when I accidentally gave it a surprise.

When I started unlocking the door, the cat quietly slunk off and disappeared under the gate, going around to hide behind the wall, probably thinking I would never know it had been there. I don't think it realises we can see it from inside. I opened the door and went to the letter box to get the newspaper, and as I was coming back our two visiting turtledoves swooped over the wall and almost hit me. I ducked. They flapped up again and and did a crash landing in the tree, and from there they cocked their heads and watched me. I felt guilty because I had nothing to feed them.

Usually we feed the birds in the garden by leaving birdseed on the wall under the tree. The idea was, originally, to encourage the few bulbuls and warblers we'd seen about the place. What we actually ended up with was large numbers of extremely demanding sparrows and these two rather stupid turtledoves. Still, it's better than nothing. We used to have no birds in our garden at all, and while it's a very small garden, it didn't feel like any garden at all without birds. So we continue to feed the sparrows and turtledoves. This fascinates the cat, who is apparently convinced that one day it will be able to catch one. Sometimes I see it crouched on the top of the wall, barely able to move because of the painfully spiky rose branches it's tangled up in, and staring up into the tree hopefully, as if it thinks a bird might accidentally fly down and land in its mouth.

Today, right after the turtledoves crashed the tree, two paws and a desperate little face suddenly appeared at the top of the wall. The birds were, of course, out of reach, but the cat had apparently been overwhelmed with excitement by their low approach. Unfortunately the wall at that point was too high for such a small cat. The face hovered there for a moment, straining upwards, then claws scrabbled and it abruptly disappeared again. There was a thump on the other side. The turtledoves were still there, heads cocked, peering down at the little drama they'd provoked and looking puzzled. They'd been joined by a large number of sparrows, who were laughing raucously. I went out the gate to make sure the cat had survived the embarrassment, but it had gone.

Poor cat. It doesn't seem to have much luck in our garden.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Dance till you drop

Today I met some friends. They were not the friends I was expecting to meet, but I met them anyway.

I had arranged to meet one friend, but the arrangement was in doubt and I hadn't been able to get in touch with her. So I emailed to say that I'd be there, and that if she didn't turn up never mind. I had to go to Osaka anyway, and had to eat lunch, so it might as well be at my favourite Iranian restaurant. I would take a good book, and could always chat with the manager if he wasn't too busy. He is a funny and intelligent man.

I also emailed another friend to tell her I'd be there. She had already told me she'd be in Osaka but would probably be busy so wouldn't be able to make it, but I wanted her to know I'd be there anyway, just in case.

I got to the restaurant, and the first thing I saw, after greeting the manager, was two other friends, completely unconnected with the first two. They were the only customers there.

How's that for serendipity?

I joined them for lunch, we talked for a couple of hours, and then the other two, who had been to Koya-san and had ended up staying overnight, and had just happened to suddenly decide to visit the restaurant on their way back, said it was time for them to get home. They'd already been gone a day longer than they'd expected and had things to do. I decided to go as well, as it was clear that my friend wasn't coming. But just as I was about to stand up, the other friend (the one I'd emailed who had said she wouldn't have time to come) turned up.

So the first two friends left and I stayed, with the third one.

While we were there a couple of guys came in, separately, both American. The manager, who is Iranian, had a running joke going. Whenever an American came in he'd congratulate them politely and seriously on their new president. (To understand why this was such an effective practical joke you have to understand that every single American I've met in Japan has ended up loathing Bush, even those dyed-in-the-wool Republicans who voted for him the first time around. They are sick of feeling ashamed. He is an embarrassment to all Americans except those 52% in America, apparently. I guess there's a lot of news that doesn't get covered much in the US.)

The reactions of these two guys (and of my friend) were really funny. They went pink and looked ready to explode, but were rendered speechless by the manager's apparent sincerity. One of them tried to claim he was Canadian. When challenged on this he said he was Canadian in his heart, and paperwork wasn't that important, was it?

We ended up having a sort of party, including the two American guys. I had lunch twice.

Other customers came and went. Some Japanese businessmen came in briefly and had a very fast meeting at the table next to us. When I rolled a cigarette they goggled. I didn't notice because I wasn't looking, so it was a surprise to me when my friend started giggling.

"Don't look now, but those guys think you're rolling a joint," she said. "Their eyes are popping out of their heads." (People don't smoke rollies here, except me.)

I sucked earnestly on my 'joint' and offered it to my friend, who almost fell off her chair laughing. The businessmen suddenly got up and left. I apologised to the manager for giving his restaurant a reputation for being a hotbed of foreign terrorist drug addicts, and offered him a rollie in compensation, which he accepted.

I ended up spending the entire wonderful afternoon at the restaurant, and was late for my acupuncture treatment.

And now I'm ready to drop.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Dance while you can

The American elections are over.

The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews

I had a haircut today. I hoped it would cheer me up, and it did. I have found a new hairdresser, and I like her.

I told her, "I want to be able to tie my hair back off my neck on hot days, and for it to cover my neck on cold days. And I want it off my face. Aside from that, do what you like."

She grinned and took over. She asked me who cut it last time, and when. At one point, as she was lifting bits of hair and watching how they fell, she laughed and said, "I think your hair must be a real problem for most Japanese hairdressers. They wouldn't know what to do with it. Wavy at the back, straight in the front, really fine, thick, soft... oh, dear. This is not Japanese hair."

She was right. My hair freaks out most Japanese hairdressers. They touch it, shriek, "Eh?" and call their co-workers over to feel it. It's different. I start feeling like I don't have hair; I have some sort of alien substance stuck to my head.

My usual hairdresser, who is the daughter of my old, good hairdresser, who died, hasn't learned as much as I'd hoped she would. She didn't do too badly the first couple of times, but then she started messing up badly. The last cut she gave me was a disaster slightly worse than the disaster she gave me the time before that. I'd hoped she would get used to my hair, but she didn't. I ended up having to get the cut 'repaired' when I visited New Zealand in February, and the hairdresser I went to then told me she'd done her best but basically I'd just have to let it grow out. That's what I've been doing, and tying it back in the meantime.

After some discussion, during which my new hairdresser said "How about...?" and I said, "Whatever you think will look OK," she gave me a sort of bob cut. I liked the way she talked about my hair, as if it was now hers, not mine. "I think I'll grow these bits out," she said, "So I'll leave them for now. And I want to show the wave, so I'll layer it a little bit here..."

"Sounds fine to me," I said, to everything. I'm useless at deciding what to do with my hair. I don't care enough, unless it's really awful.

It was really awful before, but it's not now. She did a good job. I won't need to wear a hat all winter after all.

I'm in the middle of a five-day break. I'm going out with friends tomorrow. We all need cheering up.

Dance till the stars come down from the rafters;
Dance, dance, dance till you drop.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

No spitting

Today I had my students doing a quiz. There were some questions in there with words that were especially included for them to practice their pronunciation of the 'th' sound. One of these was rather mean, when I think about it - I have trouble pronouncing it myself, especially if I'm trying to demonstrate it. It's OK when it just comes up in conversation, but try standing up in front of a large class and saying it loudly. Sixth is a nasty little word. You have to be careful not to spit on the students in the front row.

The quiz game helps me to avoid this sort of problem, because they teach themselves. They have fun doing it, too, which is always a bonus.

One exchange I overheard went like this:

"What comes after sixth?"

"Er... hospital?"

"Huh? Oh! Nonononono! Er, again: What comes after... sixTHHHHHHHH?"

(Pause.) "Oh! SevenTHHHHHHHH."

"That's right!"

Happy grins all round.

And there you have it - a perfect little mini-lesson in pronunciation. Perfect because my job was to sit there and not interfere while they taught each other the importance of pronouncing things understandably, and I got to have a little rest. I wish I could figure out how to do that more often.

Monday, November 01, 2004

It won't happen to me

Tonight The Man and I were talking about Shosei Koda, the young Japanese man who was beheaded in Iraq. We agreed that it was stupid of him to have gone to Iraq in the first place. "Didn't he see the news?" I asked. "Didn't he know how dangerous it was?"

The Man agreed. But he also said that he hoped people wouldn't remember the guy only for that. "I hope that people remember that when we are young we always do stupid things," he said. "We all do things that could get us killed, stupid things. We have survived our stupid things, and learned from them. He just didn't get that chance."

I wondered about that. "I'm sure I wasn't that stupid," I said.

"You only think that because you survived," he told me. "What about... what about that time in China that you told me about?"

"What was that?" I wanted to know. "I'm sure I didn't do anything so foolishly dangerous."

"When you got lost, and ended up in a dark alley where those women tried to give you their babies," he answered.

"That wasn't dangerous," I said. "It was sad, but it wasn't dangerous."

"I've read about that kind of area in China," he told me. "And it was dangerous. Anything could have happened. Those people were outcasts. They had nothing to lose, and you were alone."

"They didn't try to hurt me," I said. "They only asked for money, and when I didn't have any they tried to give me their babies."

"It was very dangerous," he told me. "I've heard and read about it, and it was. They might have killed you. That sort of area is known to be dangerous, by local people."

I thought about it.

"There was nothing in the guide books about it, or in the media, or in any of the books I'd read about China before going there," I said. "And we weren't connected to the Internet then, so I couldn't look it up. It wasn't the same kind of thing as what Koda did. Everybody knows Iraq is the most dangerous place on the planet right now, for people who are white, or Korean, or Japanese, or who have any connection with the U.S. And Japan has thrown in its lot with America for this particular adventure. He knew that."

But now I wonder. At that time, in China, I'd got lost. I had been lost for a few days. I knew which city I was in, because that was the destination of the bus. And I knew my friend was living there somewhere. But I hadn't been able to locate her, and when I tried to call there was no answer. I was staying in a rather sleazy room in the old building of the 'Overseas Chinese Hotel', which was supposed to be strictly for overseas Chinese visitors, and was spending my days wandering around the town trying to locate the university where my friend was teaching. Nobody seemed to have heard of it. I hadn't seen any non-Chinese people for at least three days.

On one of my long wanderings, I'd ended up, at night, walking down a street that was not well lit, and which got darker and darker and less populated until it was empty of people. And really, if I'd been thinking like a sensible person I would not have continued. But I did, and then after a while I decided to turn back, but wanted to go back a different way (having an aversion to going back the same way I'd just come), so intending to go around a block and head back on a different street, I turned a dark corner into an alley to cut across the block. It was a very dark alley, and when I was well into it I was suddenly surrounded by women who came to me out of the dark, like wraiths, carrying babies and holding their hands out for money, or perhaps for food. They surrounded me so I couldn't move. When I indicated that I didn't have money on me (which I didn't - I was carrying only enough to get me back to my hotel if I got lost and needed a taxi, supposing I could find a taxi), they thrust their babies at me, saying something I couldn't understand. I could only understand that they were desperate and wanted me to do something for them.

When somebody holds a baby out to you, you automatically stretch out your arms to take it. I started to do this, and then something stopped me, and I held back. I suddenly knew that if I took a baby the women would disappear. My arms ached to take them, but I didn't.

The women were pleading and almost (but not quite) threatening. It was as if they had so little hope they didn't even have the energy to threaten. It was both sad and frightening. The women and the babies were very thin and dirty, dressed in rags, and the babies were terrifyingly silent. They should have been crying and distressed but instead they were painfully quiet and still, huge eyes in the gloom, sores on their hairless heads and faces, gazing at me blankly. They weren't really babies, I realised. They were stunted toddlers. They were beautiful, even with their sores and thin faces and huge staring eyes. They were luminous and pathetic in the darkness.

It was like a nightmare, not quite real. These wretchedly thin women and babies, huge staring eyes set deep in their skulls, almost hairless, terrible sores ... it was like being plunged into a Goya painting, plunged into horror so unexpected it doesn't seem real.

There was nothing I could do. I had to walk away.

It was terrible, walking away. I stroked the babies' faces, and apologized to their mothers in a language they couldn't understand, and walked away, leaving them there. They parted for me so I could go. I didn't feel it was dangerous, but I did feel it was an awful thing to do, to walk away like that, and I hated myself for it. There were just too many of them, and I couldn't help them all. If there had been just one woman and her baby, who knows what I might have done, or tried to do, to help them? But there were at least a dozen. I originally told The Man there were twenty or so, but I think there were probably fewer. It just seemed like more.

I fled back to lights and civilisation, walking fast and weeping, and furious at myself for weeping because I didn't have the right to weep for those people if I wasn't prepared to help them.

Remembering this, which I don't often (it still feels like a dream), I told The Man, "But there were only women, and they were so thin I could probably have taken them all on, and won, if they'd attacked me."

He said, "You don't know that. You said it was dark. Maybe the men were waiting in the shadows. Maybe you just got lucky. Maybe you did something right by mistake, and they spared you. But my point is that if you'd been kidnapped, or killed, or hurt, people would have said, 'What was she doing there? Why was she in such a dark and dangerous area?' And even though nobody knew of it before, they'd all know about it now, and would think you'd been stupid.

"Yes, the guy who went to Iraq was stupid, and he didn't think, but we all do stupid things and don't think, sometimes. And we learn. He didn't get the chance to learn."

I guess The Man is right. But I'm still distracted by the idea that I did something so dangerous. That hadn't occurred to me. I didn't know, even after it was all over, that the area I went to was dangerous. I still find it hard to believe. But I do remember feeling scared, and I wonder why. I'd always thought it was just the shock, and the thought that these women were so far outside society that they weren't even mentioned in guidebooks, or in books about China. I didn't know who they were. They didn't fit any picture I had of China. They were not 'official' people, so I didn't know they existed. Nobody knew. They were invisible to the 'real' world.

I was naive. I thought that anything that wasn't in the guide books or in the news didn't exist. If it wasn't written, it wasn't there. How silly is that?

The Japanese guy was naive, too. He thought, "Well, I'm not a political person, I'm not trying to change anything, I am not representing Japan, I am just an individual who wants to know what is really going on. I'm just curious. People will see I am innocent, and they won't hurt me."

And he thought, as we always do,

It won't happen to me.

But innocence doesn't work like that. We are all symbols of something, whether we like it or not. I am a symbol of the rich, white world. I don't like it, but that's what I am. I am clean, well-fed, healthy and white. To those women I must have been unimaginably rich. Koda was rich, dressed in the clothing of the enemy, had a visa stamp for Israel in his passport, and he represented Japan, whether he liked it or not, and whether he knew it or not.

I still don't know whether being in that place at night was dangerous for me. The Man might be wrong about that. But it could have been, easily. And if I'd died, people would probably have thought I was stupid. I could have been comfortably at home in my safe little New Zealand, across the other side of the world. If I'd been hurt I would have become a person who had everything and threw it away for personal thrills and 'fun'. I didn't have to be there in a dark unknown alley in a Chinese town at night, alone. I was asking for it.

It was a smaller scale stupidity than the Japanese guy, but really, it was based on the same foolish impulse, or wrong instinct. The same thought of it won't happen to me.

The difference is that I survived.