September 2nd, 2008


111. Crack

Just got back from The Dark Knight. It's possibly the greatest comic book movie ever made - although Spider-Man 2 was pretty good, too. I think the fact that Batman doesn't have any superpowers makes him a more accessible character than most. It's very easy to get into the human aspects of the story - it's one of those rare blockbusters that has something for everyone.

When I got back I went out on the balcony to bring in my clothes. I saw a stray twig on the concrete. When I paused to consider it, I realized a pigeon might have brought it there and... yep, another egg.

Those [expletive] birds.

Now I know why I had to clean so much [expletive] [excretory expletive] off my balcony with the hose this weekend, and why they were hanging around so much. I had to chase them off again and again.

What do I have to do, call in to work and sit at home with a bag of pebbles?

This wasn't going to be a repeat of last time. As no bird was attending the egg, I steeled myself, grabbed a tissue, picked up the egg and launched it over the balcony. It fell straight through the bushes and made a disquieting crack on impact.

It's not a nice feeling to have killed something. But at least it's been done before the birds invested too much time. The eggs from last time were sometimes left unattended, but it would have been cruel to smash them after the birds had been tending them for days / weeks (though the temptation was there), so I decided to grin and bear the frequent droppings. But no more. No more, you foul, rotten fowl.

112. Sports Festival Preparations

I’ve just spent the last two hours planning my trip to Hiroshima. Actually, that may be misleading – I already know what the things to do there are – it’s the train trips that took time to plan. If I were just going to Hiroshima and back it would be no great sweat, except that I also want to stop in some temples in Kagawa along the way. This requires careful and precise planning.

Since I consider temples outside of Tokushima Prefecture to be “bonus,” though, I can’t be too worried if I don’t get to complete my itinerary. I think I can, though, provided I step lively. The temples I’ve picked out are on level ground and close to train stations. On the way to Hiroshima I’m trying for 87 and 86 – on the way back I’m trying for 68, 69, 70, 76, and 75. The list of trains to catch is sixteen items long and is best left to your imagination.

Today we delved deeper into our preparations for the Sports Festival. We spent the first two periods in the gym, beginning with lining the Year 1s and 2s up into formations again and again for a whole period before the Japanese teachers finally let us get moving and dancing. There are few things I’m less interested in than lining kids up, and among them is deciding how kids should be lined up while standing and sweating in a hot gymnasium without air conditioning. This was one of those moments where I wanted out of this job at any price. For me, these exercises in conformity are a colossal waste of time.

After the recess-like mid-morning break, we spent the rest of the morning outside in the sweltering heat to practice the opening formations. This was pure torture – among the other things I’m not interested in is listening to absurdly hot-tempered Japanese teachers scream and yell at their charges over every fault. Fortunately, there was a breeze. I also garnered a few seconds of amusement by comparing the children's parade to the Shinra's in Junon. I wonder if the music in that part of the game is a nod to the marches played at sports festivals.

I also had the foresight to go and fetch my new umbrella at the outset, but this ended up causing its own problems. H-sensei, essentially our boss, came up and said that I could keep using the umbrella for today, but that tomorrow I’d need a hat. I was cheesed. I could see the probable reasoning behind it – that I had to look busy, that I looked funny being the only one carrying an umbrella, or whatever – but the choices were using the umbrella, applying expensive sunscreen, or getting badly burned. I don’t have a hat, but tomorrow I will wear long sleeves, long pants, and a towel on my head. Lest you think this coping method ridiculous, it is what most of the other teachers are already doing.

I just can’t put into words how utterly infuriated I was that H-sensei had the audacity to tell me I couldn’t use my umbrella. Like I’m being forced to stand around outside and stare at kids forming lines and marching in circles for a hundred minutes straight, and they tell me I can’t even be safe and comfortable doing so? Why should I suffer just to conform? Why are we doing this crap? Why did I sign up for this? Why? Why? Why? This was another one of those moments where I wanted out of this job at any price. I was actually contemplating the consequences of taking a swing at certain individuals with my umbrella. I harbour the same frustrations and aggressive stubbornness that I’ve always had, it’s just that now I allow myself a sober second thought and a chance to walk away.

I’m so happy I wasn’t born and raised in this country. I have a feeling that any individuality I might have had would have been snuffed out by the school system and the broader social norms. A healthy portion of my youthful rebellion (especially at school) was justified, and here it wouldn’t have been tolerated – nor would I, I suspect, have dared exhibit it.

I don’t think it gets better for adults, because the labour environment here is equally caustic. Anyone who needs to claw their way to the top or even the middle has their work cut out for them. Everyone is underappreciated here – they think ¥700 an hour is a good wage, and people work untold hours of unpaid overtime just to keep their jobs. They’re all such sheep! But it’s hard to blame any individual when the whole environment is a recipe for exploitation. Japan is a beautiful country with some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet and the best public works infrastructure in the known universe, but please – think thrice before working here!

If you think this is a vitriolic rant, you wouldn’t want to see what I would have written had I written right after the lunch bell rang. Actually, I mean right after the ten minutes of extra marching they squeezed in before dismissing everyone. After that, I was about ready to scream. But I didn’t write just then, partly because I didn’t have enough time, but also because when major frustrations occur I have a tendency to say things that I regret later. I mean, I would have meant what I’d said – it’s just that the things wouldn’t have been informed by time, new information, and calm, non-flight-or-fight thought. There’s a potential for embarrassment there.

Mk. came in after lunch and gave us a memo she printed about the sports festival and taking proper precautions. “Heat stroke is very popular in Japan,” she warned. (After the laughter subsided, we informed her of the difference between “popular” and “common.”)

She also asked me if I had a particular problem with the sun – the other teachers saw my umbrella usage and became concerned. (This information improved my attitude about a million points.) Well, I guess I wasn’t allergic (as she suggested) or anything – I just burn really really easily. “Does that count?” I wanted to ask. But count for what? Why ask? What could be different?

Anyway, I still appreciated the post-facto appeal to our welfare among all of the Sports Festival “duties.” And one further welcome tidbit: It turns out we’re free to leave for lunch at the noon bell, even if the marches and formations and what not keep going – assuming we’re not personally involved in them, of course. That was good to know. I think they should be holding these drills in the first two periods – that way, if they run over the allotted time, they can just bump into other classes and not disrupt lunch. Classes come and go, but some things are sacred. But this “out” for the foreign teachers is almost as good.

They make many such “allowances” for us foreign teachers – predictable hours, sick days, steady lunch breaks, most Saturdays off – but in my opinion all teachers should be getting these things. Maybe when I say “don’t work in this country,” I mostly mean “don’t teach in this country.” But I mean both.

Let it not be lost, though, that I had a pleasant afternoon. It feels really good to be teaching again, giving and getting homework, and interacting with the students. There are lots of little things I’ll miss about teaching – chiefly, I love that feeling when you get some piece of work that totally exceeds expectations. I love it when kids demonstrate that they’re starting to get something through applying it. From a purist’s perspective, teaching is great. It’s all the other crap that I could really live without. I love teaching, but I hate schools even more than I did when I was a student. Does that make any sense? Maybe I’ve been reading too much Paul Lutus. I've also been thinking about his exhortation at the end of his illustrated, highly technical essay about tides in bays. It reads (emphasis supplied):

To those who do not understand mathematics, the entire preceding section may seem entirely mysterious, black magic. Some might even wonder if such mathematical knowledge is really necessary. Among Americans in particular, very few have the requisite training to follow the preceding section. That is because Americans are rapidly falling behind the rest of the world in many academic subjects, and science and mathematics are near the top of the list of "problem subjects" for American students.

Well, guess what? People who understand mathematics are more likely to understand the world around them, are more likely to be members of the teams that will build tomorrow's world, and colonize Mars. In the future, to be blunt, those who don't understand mathematics will serve hamburgers to those who do. I would like to paint a rosier picture, but as time passes, as the requirement for more technical knowledge grows, people who do not understand mathematics will simply be unemployable.

This is why I’ve got to get out of here – to get myself back to school (well, university – a special kind of school that allows agency). I can only wish I had the self-discipline to take a bunch of algebra, calculus, chemistry and physics books out of the library and learn at home – I don’t. I have to – or I feel like I have to – be in a structured system, and then push against its boundaries. My creative energy needs a reference point. Also, school is a good way to meet babes. Life is in the living. =)