Monthly Archives: January 2011

Train Man

Ooh have I got a treat for you today! If you’re like me, then sometimes you just don’t feel like reading stuff; you want somebody to just read it for you, or sit there on a sofa dribbling into your wine glass while you’re spoon-fed information from that box in the corner with all the pretty moving pictures. Well today, just for you people, I’ve created a nice little video about Japanese Train Men.

Now, I’ve already seen a problem with this plan of action. While most people will cringe and get embarrassed at the sight of themselves on camera, I actively enjoy it; I can watch pretty much any video of myself doing anything and I sit there sniggering like Mutley on dope. It’s unlikely that anyone will get as much pleasure out of watching this as me. As a result I really have no way of telling (apart from when I attempted to show it to Sophie and she quickly found the window of Baskin’ Robbins infinitely more exciting) whether it’s any good or not, so I’m just going to throw it on here and hope that I don’t bore you so senseless that you fall asleep on your keyboards. I apologise for the lack of footage of the actual train man. The next time I jump on a local train I’ll be sure to get some footage of the guy in the cabin, as promised. I’ll get some light men on here as well. Ahhhh, see, now you perk up!

So here you go. Oh, and look at how I can make a train horn noise with my mouth!

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Anchorman, for example.

Try explaining the meaning of “bite the bullet” to someone on the spot without using any colloquial or difficult language. “Take what’s coming to you?” Nope, that’s a saying. “Put up with it?” Nope; saying. Take whatever hardships come your way and deal with it? Too long, plus the verb “to take” is not normally used for an intangible thing, and it’s unlikely that “hardships” is in the top 1000 most used English words. “Accept any difficulties that come to you?” Closer, but doesn’t really capture the essence of the saying. What you think is a short explanation to your work colleagues will quickly turn into a full-on game of shirades interspersed with Google searches, brain-wracking and vast quantities of umming.

Writing about this conjures up memories of the film, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”, when Will Ferrell’s character is trying to understand one of the more common English sayings:

Veronica: “Oh, well, when in Rome”
Ron: “Yes? Please, go on.”
Veronica: “Uh, do as the Romans do? It’s an old expression”
Ron: “Oh! I’ve never heard of it.”
Veronica: “Oh.”
Ron: “It’s wonderful though.”

Later, he attempts to use it:

“Sometimes you gotta look at yourself in the mirror and say, “When in Rome.”

I consider myself very lucky to have English as my first language but, in day-to-day life, we only ever really skim over the surface. It is rare that you ever have to think hard about what you say; most of it is instinct; automatic (a serious problem for some people). Teaching English as a foreign language forces you to delve deep into the language; to figure out why we say certain things in certain ways, as well as making you realise how much of what we say is colloquial. If you want to see what I mean, pay particular attention to what you’re saying to the next person you speak to and ask yourself how much of it would be understood by someone who can speak only formal English. This boils right down to wanna, gotta, gonna, y’alright, how’s it going, what’s happening, and every saying we ever use.

Teaching these kinds of phrases to the teachers is often more rewarding than teaching the pupils, because the phrases tend to be quite comical for someone who has never heard them before. My JTEs often remember them and use them in conversation with me later on, puffing up like a proud cat when they do. That kind of thing is almost impossible to coax from my students on account of the group mentality that is so prevalent in Japan (i.e. it is not good to stand out from the crowd) but when it does happen, it’s probably the best thing about the job – even if the word/phrase is used in completely the wrong context:

At the beginning of every lesson, the students all stand up. One student leads with a couple of prompts and then they all bow, say “onegaishimasu” (“thanks in advance,” kind of) and sit down. Usually I just say “good morning” which they repeat back with varying degrees of enthusiasm and then I ask how they are, to which they answer “sleepy” or “hungry”. Every time. One time though, after they’d all settled down ready for the lesson, one of them shouted “for example!” at the top of his voice causing the whole class, including me, to simultaneously erupt with laughter. Just like a young, Japanese Ron Burgundy, flailing wildly with the English language, he didn’t make any sense but that’s what made it so funny.

Now he’s got the hang of it though, and often – rather helpfully – manages to say it just before I’m about to. If that’s the only thing he ever learns from me then at least I can say I taught someone something during my time abroad. And a very useful phrase it is too.

Eggs ‘n’ Beans

Bean paste. What’s that all about? Every time you get some omiyage in this country you’ll open the wrapper and marvel at how beautiful or bizarre it looks. Sometimes you’ll want to gobble it up right away, sometimes you’ll just want to sit there, stare at it and poke it for a while, and then other times you’ll just wonder why you’ve been given it in the first place.

One of these times was after a trip to Hakone, a place famous for its hot springs, beautiful vistas and an impressive shrine, but also for its geothermal activity. After a fantastic gondola ride up a mountain and an incredible view of Mt. Fuji, you can join hoards of Japanese tourists for a little walk to some sulphur pools and bask in the bliss-inducing smell of rotten eggs. Not only this, but there is a little shack selling actual eggs that have been cooked in the sulphur, and their shells are subsequently as black as a chimney sweep in a nightclub. These famous “black eggs” are snapped up by hundreds of intrigued people wondering if they taste any different, and munched dutifully four feet away from the shack itself. So there I was, walking on eggshells in a very literal sense, buying eggs from a shack on a mountain and wolfing it down, only to think that this egg tastes a lot like an overcooked boiled egg, which it did, and then that I should take some of these back for my JTEs, which I did. How my brain made the connection between those two thoughts is beyond me but I guess it was the novelty factor that swayed me to purchase precisely ten.

Now I think that was bloody thoughtful of me, going all the way to a mountain top to get presents for my work colleagues, yet when I presented one of said eggs to one of my teachers I was confronted with giggles and an inquisitive, yet somewhat incredulous look.

“What is this?”
“It’s a black egg from Hakone.”
“This is real egg?”
“Yep”
“HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”
“What, you don’t like eggs?”
“No, no, I like eggs. I will have it at lunch, thank you.”

The cheek! To be fair though, she did get me a massive lump of chocolate from France. To get an overcooked, day-old egg that looks like a lump of charcoal isn’t exactly going to win hearts.

I digress. The Japanese put bean paste in everything. Imagine getting a whole bunch of kidney beans, mashing them up and then loading them with sugar. You now have the essence of what this nationally revered delicacy is about. I’ve talked already about the beauty of omiyage. When you’ve stared at it for a good half-an-hour or so and you can finally bring yourself to reap its destruction by way of consumption, you are suddenly struck with a feeling of dread. All you can think is what’s inside it?. But you’re only kidding yourself. You knew what was inside it before you even opened the packet.

Bloody bean paste, that’s what.

I Ra-be Japan

As I rode home on my trusty bicycle this evening I was struck with a feeling that I have not felt for a long while. It was something that used to happen frequently to me when I was living in London, particularly in the 1st year there, while I was walking around doing nothing in particular at all. I might have been coming home from work, walking around town on the weekend or having a cappuccino outside a coffee shop and some non-event would spark a feeling of complete contentedness accompanied by three words, “I love London”. It’s this warm, satisfying feeling you get when everything about the place you live just feels right; you really do love it, both for its flaws and its soaring strengths. You laugh at the former and feel warmer because of the latter.

Thinking back on it, I’m not sure I had this feeling at all in my last year of living in London which is somewhat telling of the circumstances: I’d learnt everything I could from my job at the time, I was constantly on a budget with no pay rise in sight and all the lovely friends I was living with, 1-by-1, moved out of the house to live with girlfriends, buy houses, etc. Not to mention the house was absolutely freezing in winter. The insulation was so bad that we spent £500 on gas in one quarter in order to add 1 degree onto the thermometer, and in the summer we were constantly badgered by an irate banker who liked to intersperse singing happy songs about Jesus with spitting venom and C-bombs at us for talking in the back garden at 9pm.

Six months after moving to Japan, I’m riding my bicycle in the winter sun, wrapped in about 17 layers and on my way back from work. I pop into the foreign food store to pick up some nuts and oats (I’m on a bit of a mega health-drive at the moment) and then carry on my merry way while high school students cruise along the pavements nattering and giggling, and devil birds screech their hearts out. As I cycle along the road I come to some roadworks where a youngish guy is working. As I pass him, he stops, bows, beams me a massive smile and says “hello!” Five seconds later and there it is; “I love Japan”

The people of this country are what makes it so wonderful. There are so many things that annoy me here, and so many things that are painfully backward for a country that is supposed to have the 4th largest economy in the world (no central heating anywhere for instance), but its people are forever smiling, friendly and considerate. There is a feeling of togetherness and social responsibility here that we simply don’t have back home. Ashley went to Hong Kong and Thailand for Christmas and the other day she said to me that “Japan makes you more considerate”; the fact that everybody here cares if there is litter on the pavements means that you wouldn’t even dream of dropping the end of that chewing gum wrapper on the floor. This compared to say, Bangkok, Thailand where no-one cares about anyone else and there’s crap everywhere (literally in some cases). London’s just as bad; everyone’s out for themselves, grumpy and rude, and if someone is sick on the tube then most people will shuffle down the carriage and stare at the end of it as if the window to the next one had just become the most fascinating thing in the world. I have no doubt that the same scene in Japan would result in a flurry of neighbourliness and concern.

There are two different words for “sorry” in Japan; sumimasen and gomen, and you can extend the latter to “gomenasai” if you’re really sorry. Verbs change not only for the different tenses and negatives, but also according to the level of politeness you wish to use, of which there are three; casual, polite and humble/honorific. The verb “to go” for instance is “iku” in casual form and “ikimasu” in polite form. It’s “mairu” in humble form, but that’s only when they’re talking about their own actions. If someone in “humble mode” is talking about you going somewhere then it becomes “irasharu” or “oideninaru” in honorific form. All this craziness means that everyone is acutely aware of everyone else’s social standing, and if you walk into any shop or restaurant in Japan they will treat you with the utmost respect, beam smiles, address you like you’re some kind of feudal lord and thank you for your business before you skip merrily out of the door with your deep fried mashed potato.

I guess what I’m getting at is that, despite the bone-aching cold, the stone-age living, and those bloody birds, Japan is actually a jolly lovely place full of jolly lovely people. I will be sad to see the back of it when the time comes.

Shoo, Flu

Help me. Please, God, help me. I have been knocked for six like an Australian bowler during this very Ashes Series. I have had scant contact with other members of the human race for 7 days now and I’ve thought about it long and hard over cups of tea, tiny bowls of cereal, plane rides, train rides, and countless capsules of Day Nurse, but I can now officially confirm for you that flu is in fact, rubbish. You want my advice? Don’t get it. Just don’t. If you see someone coughing, run a mile in the opposite direction. I realise that if you live in London, this may be a difficult rule to follow on account of every man, his dog and both sides of his conscience sneezing all over the place at the moment; go sign up for the London Marathon and consider it training. It is better than hot/cold shivers, runny noses, headaches, aching eyeballs, crawling skin, the strength of a dying ant, endless hours alone, impending insanity and the get-up-and-go mentality of a sloth smoking a spliff in a bath of cement while surrounded by a year’s supply of Jaffa Cakes.

I’m at the end of my tether. I have taken Thursday and Friday off work because I fear I may faint if I even try to muster up the energy to ride my bike to school, let alone get in front of a bunch of school kids and attempt to be inspiring and enthusiastic. Thanks to the absence of sick pay in my contract, that means 2 days of a meagre 20 days of holiday wasted on sitting at home in my pyjamas.

If nothing else, it has given me the opportunity to think. For hours. In my case this is usually not a good thing because I start poking around at every aspect of my life like sticks in some gigantic game of Ker-Plunk; you can poke around a little bit but if you get too carried away, the ball drops and you’re going to have to start setting it up all over again (which is one of the reasons I’m out here in the first place). It’s not just the flu that has brought this on of course; this particular moment in time heralds a few different milestones for me.

  • Firstly, and most obviously, it’s the start of a new year; 2011 in case you weren’t paying attention. A new year traditionally forces one to think about what one’s next move is, or indeed if one even has a move, and if not, why the hell not?
  • Secondly, I am very close to being half-way through my 1-year contract, and two-thirds of the way through the school year. My current 1st-year students will become 2nd-years at the end of February, and in April I will be presented with 300 new recruits fresh out of junior-high. Mwahahahahaaaaaa.
  • Finally, at the beginning of February I will be expected to submit either a “YES” or a “NO” to the Shizuoka Board of Education. That submission will be in reply to the question “Will you be wanting a contract for another year?”

Hmmm. Up until December I was dead-set on staying one year, then I started teasing Ashley, a good friend of mine who has always had the intention of staying 2 years, with gradually decreasing NO/YES ratios of 95/5, 90/10, 85/15, etc. A couple of days ago I was dead-set on staying for another year. Now I’ve completely swung back to 100% NO.

Truthfully I don’t think I’ll know until we get a little closer to the date, but the last week has certainly provided time for some ideas to solidify in my mind. As and when I can forge these ideas from cuendillar I shall present them on these humble pages, but until then, you can rest happily in the knowledge that this will be the last self-indulgent post for the time-being. Back to the Japanese…

Happy New Sneer

The secret’s out; I’m back in England. Just for Christmas and the New Year mind, but back nevertheless. The first thing I noticed when I stepped off the plane was how ordinary I felt. Having been something of a pseudo-celebrity and the only white man for miles around in Shizuoka, all of a sudden I’m just another drop in the ocean; no more special service or interested stares to make me feel important. The second thing I noticed was how dirty London is. I never noticed it before, and when I went to Japan I don’t remember thinking that it was particularly clean, but oh do you notice it when you come back. Trains for instance. Trains in Japan are spotlessly clean and well kept inside and out, the bullet trains are among the fastest in the world, they are always dead on time and the Narita Express (their version of the Heathrow Express) has a key-combination bag locking system for peace of mind; not that anyone ever nicks anything in Japan anyway. Yes, you have to pay a little more for it but when everything runs with clockwork precision, people don’t mind quite so much. London trains by comparison are noisy, late and ugly, with smears on the windows and dirt covering the carriages. The seats are so stained they look like an exhibition in the Tate Modern, and you daren’t touch anything for fear of contracting a deadly disease.

This was all normal before, but now I’ve been spoilt by Japan’s ridiculously clean and efficient public transport system, life in England will never be the same again.

Christmas and New Year should be a time of celebration; a time to reflect on the year that is about to disappear into the history books forever. Yet, as I sit here on New Year’s Eve, on my own, nursing the flu and preparing for the incredible excitement to be wrought from the television schedule, I am celebrating that at least the shivers have subsided for the time-being. How is it possible to wear 2 t-shirts and a woolen jumper, cover yourself with 2 quilts, crank up the heating and still be shivering, I ask you? I am supposed to be out eating curry and attending groovy warehouse parties and instead I am sat on the floor of my sister’s front room ordering a takeaway and crying to you lot about the unfairness of it all.

In my present mood, it is just about possible to be optimistic, but it’s no fun, so I’m going to continue down this negative path with some thoughts I had while I was out harvesting the germ-infested London air.

What’s the most depressing thing you can do?

Yes let’s get right to the nitty gritty shall we? None of this fannying about with the drum-rolls and the less important things that no-one cares about; this one cuts right to the bone. Here it is:

CLOTHES SHOPPING

Many men the world over will be nodding their heads in agreement already, but wait, there’s more:

CLOTHES SHOPPING IN LONDON DURING THE SALES

…and then the stakes got higher, but the bookies were left wanting more:

CLOTHES SHOPPING IN OXFORD STREET DURING THE SALES AT RUSH HOUR

There we go. That ought to get even the most die-hard shoppers at least slightly onside with where I’m going here.

Why do we do it? We know the day will never end well even before we set foot outside the door, but still we insist on buying that shirt that they couldn’t sell during the season, and which they only ever have in XXL sizes because there’s £10 off it! TEN POUNDS! That could feed a family of 4 for 2 days! Look how much we SAVED! And look! Look at this limited edition top from NEXT! It’s got random text and numbers all over it! That’s so original, and there’s £15 off! BARGAIN!

If you’re clever, you’ll be able to disregard the rubbish and occasionally find something that’s not bad, but you can bet that you spent the entire day sifting through stores like they were all part of one gigantic T.K. Maxx in the vain hope that one little gem might be hidden in this huge pile of man-made manure.

Shoe shops are the worst. They are staffed by a high turnover of young, trendy twenty-somethings who are probably just out of uni and faced with the most pathetic job-market in years. The only use for their MA in Maths is knowing which shoe size to get for the customer; their frustration is palpable. Then there’s the customer’s stress. A new pair of shoes is a very personal thing; they can (I’m told) make or break your outfit, so you have to make sure you get the right ones, and that requires a lot of looking in a mirror. I don’t know about you, but there’s a limit to how long I can look at myself in a mirror in front of people before I start getting vanity alerts. This time limit is halved for every customer looking my way and so, during the sales, I barely get the shoes on and stand in front of the mirror before I put them back in the box, hurriedly put my old, comfy pair back on and scamper out of the shop telling the pursuing shop assistant that “I’ll think about it” before I vanish into the dark, never to be seen again.

Think about this before you hit the January sales folks. Stay indoors, have a nice cup of tea and watch a film instead, because you’ll get much more satisfaction from that than the paisley fleece you’re going to end up buying after a day of crowded, cold, shopping misery.

Happy New Year.