Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Teaching and Learning

I love teaching. Usually, I learn more from my students (to include my Japanese students as well as the middleschoolers and special ed preschoolers) than they do from me. I am quite fond of this arrangement.

Yesterday, while teaching my Zushi group (1o retired Japanese men and women), I was struck once again by how educated other countries are about American politics and culture. Half the class showed up with a copy of President Obama's inaugural speech. The Japanese newspapers printed it in English with a translation to one side. My students had underlined their favorite parts with questions scratched in the margins. With help from their media, they had thoroughly dissected his tone and meaning. Their unique cultural perspective really made me stop and think about this speech and its impact on American society. Wow.

Granted, this level of knowledge might not be the norm here. The majority of Japanese folk my age and younger probably aren't as studious, but have you recently read an American publication with a translated text of a foreign head of state's address?

Yeah. Me, neither.

Overall, the Japanese response to the inaugural address mirrored my own. It surprised/disappointed us. We expected a speech along the lines of "Ask not what your country can do for you..." , but we received: "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." My students and I are were a bit disappointed that the speech was not more inspiring (i.e. uplifting). However, its direct and insistent call to individual and collective responsibility surprised us--not pleasantly, mind you, but at least memorably.

It goes without saying that 1960's America was a radically different time and place than the present, thus JFK's speech was given to a distantly related people--think of them perhaps as cousins twice removed. Exiting the 1950's, a time of great prosperity, much like the last 10 years, our family wasn't yet mired in an impossible foreign war. Our great modern leaders had not been assassinated. We had just started to wear "the greatest nation" mantle comfortably (and arrogantly). Kennedy's call to service made sense to a generation who was not yet accustomed to being serviced in every conceivable aspect of life.

Time travel forward to 2009--we are mired in not one, but three wars. Two are on the ground and one is against a phantom menace across the globe. Our economy has been, for all intents and purposes, assassinated, along with our idealism after 9/11. All of our people, especially the young but also the old, cannot ask what we can do for our country because our mouths are too busy complaining about what we are owed or praising our self-worth. We simply have had it all too fast and too easy and with too many accolades. I am not sure our personal or national egos need any more "uplifting".

I don't think President Obama can call this generation to service in the same manner as President Kennedy. Most of us don't really understand the full meaning of the word. We tend to think of it as something to be done to help remedy a broken world, which is noble. But service is more than that. It's duty--humbly done without complaint because it simply needs to be done. The recent Miracle on the Hudson put this theory into action. The pilot and crew, dutifully trained and skilled, were ready. They didn't run around "saving lives". They simply did their jobs, without complaint or expectation of praise. How many of us can say the same? I know I can't. (I kvetch about the "effort" of placing our abundance of clothes in a machine that does all the work for me. Jeesh.)

Maybe this is why his speech made me a bit uncomfortable...we are being asked to be of service to one another in a different way than giving time and money to a worthy cause. We are being asked/reminded that the "time has come to put aside our childish ways". We need to become an adult nation--one that is not consumed with doing the right thing to please others (while simultaneously showering confetti down on our exalted heads).

Rather, we are urged to be a mature nation--one that fulfills its duty to itself and to others by accomplishing what needs to be done with no thought to our personal inconvenience or hardship. And without the narcissistic need to be praised or adored for it. The Japanese have many faults, but due to their Buddhist history, they completely understand duty, service and sacrifice. These ideals still permeate every human interaction in this culture, every day.

Our Christian heritage demands duty, service and sacrifice, too, modeled by the Son's willingness to do what had to be done without thought of His own hardship. America can resurrect this integral part of her character. We can do it.

Yes, we can. Humbly. Quietly. Cheerfully.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

That's Mr. Dustzilla to You, Pal

This three day weekend, while trapped inside with a sick kid, I became aware of an ever increasing problem: the dust bunny invasion in our uncarpeted apartment. Shy and timid creatures by nature, they usually cower predictably behind the furniture and flee in all directions if I have to move a chair to retrieve an errant slipper or tv remote. But lately, they have become emboldened, quite large and embarassing. I am pretty sure they wait for the door bell to ring and then lumber out to announce their oafish pride.

Perhaps not. Perhaps I am imagining things. But one thing is not debatable...there is no doubt in my mind that my dust bunnies have mutated. I just can't figure out what the tipping point might have been. It's winter so the windows are usually closed. I rarely turn on the heat. We live on the eighth floor so most dirt and dust gets conveniently knocked off in the elevator on the way up. What gives?

It's getting kind of scary. I vacuum up the little suckers and then, I kid you not, ten minutes later, like a scene out of Terminator 2, tiny bits of fuzz start collecting on the floor. Then the individual strands start moving towards each other by means of some irresistible force, slowly coalescing right before my eyes. By the time I wake up in the morning, they are fully mobile and rummaging through my produce drawer. (There is even dust in my refrigerator drawers. I don't get it.)

I guess I could do what many Japanese do in such inexplicable, mysterious situations: Blame the Chinese. Perhaps the toxic byproducts from their burdgeoning consumer driven society are making their way to our appartment via the air currents. Last spring, a giant, green dust cloud (not light and fluffy, but rather thick and menacing) attacked Tokyo, leaving a slimy goo everywhere. I'm no scientist but maybe, just maybe, this is the source of my Dustzillas.

What do you think? Is it possible to vanquish these freakish creatures and how do you do it without pissing them off?

Screwing Up Royally

Most of you who know me also know that I am a bit scatterbrained. I've hit the point in my life where if I don't write something down TWICE, I forget it. Not only do I have a family calendar on the fridge but I also have a dry erase schedule on the back of the front door. Somehow, I still miss 5% of my life's obligations.

Reiko, the woman who runs the English school I teach at, likes for me to remember the kids' birthdays. I warned her that I can barely remember my own children's special day. If it weren't for Lily updating me weekly about the new and improved plans for her birthday party (starting 9 months in advance), I might actually overlook it.

One of my 10-year-old students, who speaks fabulous English, reminded me two weeks ago that we had missed celebrating her birthday because of the Christmas/New Year holidays. I told her I would bring cupcakes to the next class. The following lesson time, as I was saying goodbye, she said, "My birthday?" Oh, Lord. I told her I was very sorry and would bring TWO cupcakes for her next week.

I didn't write that down. Big mistake.

The following class did not take place in Reiko's home as usual. The flu has hit hard in Japan and two of her children were out for the count. Since she didn't want to expose everyone to those germs, we met instead at a local community center. The first thing out of my student's mouth as she entered the room was, "My birthday?"

NOOOOOOOOOOO! I can't believe I forgot again!

I apologized profusely. Her eyes filled up with tears as she looked down at her feet, trying to compose herself. I felt like...well...have you ever disappointed an adorable Japanese kid to the point of tears? That depth of lowliness can't quite be expressed fully in the English language.

I started the lesson but I couldn't concentrate because my conscience was still busy cussing me out. All of a sudden, I thought of an option...THE DRINK MACHINE. Every Japanese gathering place has a drink machine with 30 choices of water, tea, soft drinks, jello juice, coffee (cold and hot), hot chocolate, corn soup (?) and assorted vile vitamin shots.

I broke out of my calendar review and shouted, "Birthday drinks from the machine!" The birthday girl looked shocked and excited. She jumped up and everyone stampeded for the machine. At first they thought the birthday girl would be the only one getting treated. When it dawned on them that everybody was included, you would have thought that Nancy Sensei was the Japanese Messiah. Hallelujah, free beverages!

I gathered from their level of excitement that Japanese kids do not get treated like this on a regular basis. They were so stoked to pick their own drink and enjoy it in class that the smiles did not come off their faces for the rest of the hour. The birthday girl was ecstatic. To add to my triumph, I even mangaged to weave the impromptu drink celebration into our lesson on the five senses (How does your drink taste/feel/smell?). Oh yeah, I'm a weaver. I weave. That's what I do.

Yessiree, my self esteem continued to skyrocket...until I tried to act out the meaning of the word "relax". I sat down in a chair and put my feet up on a desk, while letting out a long, theatrical "AHHHHHH". The entire class gasped in absolute horror. For a moment, I had completely forgotten that showing the soles of your feet/shoes to others is a deplorable, defiling insult in Japanese culture. Nothing is dirtier or lowlier than the bottom of one's foot. (It is also a terrible faux pas to point to anything with it.)

So after a second round of saying gomenasai (sorry!), there I was, back at square one...feeling lower than, well...the soles of my unfortunate feet.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More New Year Thoughts...From Someone Else

“I am not afraid of tomorrow, for I have seen yesterday and I love today.”
William Allen White

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Daruma Dreaming

Nothing says New Year in Nihon like the ubiquitous daruma doll (the little red guy engulfed in flames above). Mustachioed and a little fierce looking, he is modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism in Japan. These miniature fellows are usually hollow, red for good luck and lacking in appendages and eyes. The owner, while making a wish, colors in one eye (usually the left). If the wish comes true during the year, the other eye is filled in.

Dontoyaki follows closely behind the JItalicapanese New Year, usually around the second week of January. It is a solemn ritual centered around the burning of all the religious New Year's decorations and any other items associated with that year's god, to include charms, tokens and darumas. The Dontoyaki experience is both serenely magical and immensely cathartic. I became completely mesmerized watching the flames consume the remains of the past year.

(For a more detailed description of the event, please see my post from January 2008.)

The purpose of the dontoyaki fire is two-fold. Things are either returned to last year's god in gratitude...or to make humble peace with his disfavor. Burning "unlucky" items, like the daruma pictured above, symbolically destroys the unfavorable and sends it back from whence it came. The soul, released from its negative past, is then ready to fully hope for better times with the new year's god.

Those of you who know me and my family are aware that it has been a rough year, and, for different reasons, will continue to be for some time. But my dear friend Kim gifted me with my very own daruma this new year. I carefully colored in one eye a few weeks ago. Mr. Daruma now rests patiently in my cabinet...waiting for the day he can fully see...for the day my happiness is completely envisioned.

I know this is extremely late--but Happy New Year to you all. I hope that if the events of last year left you blind, that you now may see...great happiness and love throughout the coming year.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Dear Santa...

The Japanese school I teach at had an American-style holiday program right before Christmas. All the classes performed a Christmas song and showed off some of their English phrases. I have two classes; one performed The Twelve Days of Christmas and the other Jingle Bell Rock. My kids, some of them shown above, also spoke about why they love Christmas (based on the 5 senses we have been studying)...i.e. I love Christmas because I smell cookies baking, hear bells ringing, etc. They did an outstanding job.

Every class was adorable. The little ones sang I'm a Little Snowman (to the tune of I'm a Little Teapot), a class of rascally boys sang O Christmas Tree, and a class of sweet girls performed a Hawaiian Christmas dance in hula skirts.

My favorite part, though, was a class who read Letters to Santa. Ninety-nine percent of them wanted a DS game or a bicycle. One little 7-year-old girl got up and boldly read,

Dear Santa,
My name is Maiko. I have been good. I want a diamond necklace for Christmas.

Love Maiko

Maiko's dad set down his Nikon for a moment and buried his head in his hands. Some things are truly cross-cultural.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Into the Wild

The Thai people inconveniently decided to take a stand (once again) against their government two weeks before our December beach vacation to Phuket. We decided to skip the pleasure of getting stuck in the exotic Bangkok airport and go to Singapore instead. Singapore is wonderfully strange. It's kind of an Asian Orlando--brand spanking new, full of shopping and obsessively manicured.

The butterfly above is from the Singapore Zoo. He alighted on my head in the zoo's outstanding rain forest exhibit. Protected by soaring nets, all sorts of little fauna roamed free inside. We observed mice deer meekly foraging for food, sloths and tree kangaroos slumbering in the tropical growth, fruit bats swooping overhead and lemurs lounging like bored teenagers on electrical boxes. All of these creatures were no more than a foot away from our path. I haven't been this delighted, this lost in wonder, in such a long time.

There were dozens of butterfly species I had never seen before, all floating about in that aimlessly predestined manner of butterflies. This dark and handsome fellow wafted over and perched on my head. I calmly turned my head to look at Lily, Holy Moly, can you believe I have a butterfly on my head? Her brown eyes, the size of rice bowls, seemed appropriately amazed. The butterfly slowly flit, flit, flitted over and landed on her arm.

She shrieked like she had been assaulted by a venomous creature, convulsed wildly, turned tail and ran screaming with arms above her head, cartoon style, completely out of sight...completely out of the exhibit.

I laughed so hard I cried. I laughed so hard my sides hurt. (When was the last time I laughed until my sides hurt? I can't remember.) Family vacations always remind me that kids are truly amazing creatures themselves. They are so much fun to watch outside of their normal environment.

Of course, Claire, the benevolent older sister, commenced ridiculing her younger sister, until not one hour later, Claire freaked out when she saw a tiny spider hanging from my umbrella, near her head. These girls can do weird food. They can travel like pros. They can expertly navigate any city's metro/airport system. Just don't ask them to convene intimately with nature.

Perhaps high rise apartment living and no backyard has cut them off from their truly "wild" side. Perhaps they inherited the willies from a family member (see the post: I Love Not Camping). Who knows? In any case, I am seriously considering packing some Xanax on future zoo forays. I shudder to think of the mental health bills we will have to pay if we fail to preempt another traumatic episode of When Butterflies Attack.