Sunday, December 17, 2006

Into the heart of Borneo

I’m heading off to spend two weeks trekking through the steaming jungles of Borneo.

I’ll be back on January 3rd if the leeches and the mosquitoes and the pythons and the crocodiles and the centipedes and the scorpions don’t kill me first.

And on that note, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! See you in 2007. I hope.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

My name is Sarah but you can call me "nipples"

I suppose I should be flattered that the kids at my junior high school have warmed up to me enough to give me a nickname. Unfortunately, the creation of my nickname was left to the imaginative power of a group of 15-year-old boys. They call me “nipples.”

It could be worse. They call the science teacher “pig.”

My own private nipplegate started in one of my Grade 9 English classes. The students were making Christmas cards and I was walking around the room correcting their mistakes (“Umm . . . ‘Let’s enjoying Christmas’ is good but ‘Merry Christmas’ would be better”).

There is one kid in this class who is the ringleader of a cabal of sexual harassers. He is failing English miserably but he knows every swear word in the dictionary and is fluent in dirty talk. His current favourite expression is “I want you.” The kid propositions me at least five times a day.

Anyway, he called me over to his desk to ask for help with his Christmas card. I should have known it was a ruse.

He asked me to spell a word for him. Which word?

“Nippluss,” he said, while his friends snickered in the background.

I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say so I asked him to repeat it. Over and over again.

“Nippluss! Nippluss! Nippluss!”

I still didn’t understand what the hell he was saying so he drew two red dots inside the upper half of his snowman’s torso. I clued in immediately.


The expression on my face sent him and his friends into hysterics.

“Nippluss! Nippluss! Nippluss!” he chanted.

I (lightly) smacked him over the head with my textbook and told him to stop. And he did stop. For a little while at least. He waited until my back was turned and softly said, “Nippluss.” I ignored him. So he said it a little louder, “Nippluss!” I carried on like nothing was happening until he yelled, “NIPPLUSS!” and the whole class exploded into laughter.

I turned to the Japanese teacher for help but she just shrugged her shoulders and said, “He is very rude boy.”

Unfortunately, the name stuck and now half of the Grade 9 boys yell out “nippluss” whenever they see me.

Now, I don’t really care that they call me nipples. I gave my teachers crude nicknames when I was their age too (my personal favourites were Mr. “Rock Hard” Rocca and Mr. “No Weenie” Novini).

But what surprises me is that they have the audacity call me nipples to my face. I wouldn’t have dared called Mr. Rocca or Mr. Novini by their nicknames to their faces. It would have meant a week of detention.

But in Japan there is no such thing as detention. No such thing as sending a kid to the principal’s office. By law, teachers aren’t allowed to kick a kid out of the classroom. I am not allowed, under any circumstances, to discipline the students.

So the kids talk in class. They sleep in class. They party in the back of the room. And the teachers just put up with it. Talk about blowing your stereotypes about the Japanese education system to smithereens.

Before I came to Japan, I assumed I would be teaching some of the most focused, dedicated and studious kids in the world. I imagined them staring up at me with reverence and respect.

Instead, they’re staring at my chest and calling me “nippluss.”

Friday, December 08, 2006

Cockroaches and boyfriends

My second newspaper column was published this week. It’s generating rave reviews. Two different people told me it was “interesting.”

I wonder if “interesting” means the same thing in Japan as it does in Canada (“It sucked but I don’t want to hurt your feelings”). Perhaps the humour of my musings on cockroaches and boyfriends was lost in translation.

I was just following orders. The editor asked me to write about my impressions of “Sakawa life.” He also told me to keep it short and simple because the town’s official translator can only read rudimentary English.

For those of you who can’t read Japanese, I’ve cut and pasted the English version below. Enjoy! Or don’t enjoy! Just don’t tell me it was “interesting.”

Settling in

By Sarah Marchildon

I’ve only been living and working in Sakawa for three months but I already feel very at home here. I am constantly amazed by how warm and welcoming everyone is. My social calendar is so full I don’t have time to feel homesick!

Many people ask me if I have had any trouble getting used to life in Japan. I tell them there have only been two major adjustments for me: 1) getting over my fear of cockroaches and, 2) not being asked out on dates.

There’s not much I can do about the cockroaches (high-pitched screaming doesn’t seem to affect them much). But I’m working very hard to learn as much Japanese as I can so I can find a boyfriend. Otherwise, it’s going to be a long, cold, lonely winter.

As for school, I’m having a lot of fun teaching English and getting to know the students. Junior high schools in Japan are very similar to junior high schools in Canada. But in Canada, students don’t have to clean the schools like they do here, and we don’t have anything like your national sports day. Undokai was a very interesting experience for me. I was impressed to see all the hard work and preparation by both the students and teachers in the weeks leading up to the big day. It was a real treat to be able to watch (and participate in!) undokai at several different schools.

In my spare time, I’ve been enjoying playing volleyball and tennis. I try to get out to the pool as often as I can and I run with the students at Sakawa Junior High School once a week. I need to exercise a lot because I’m worried I will get fat. The food in Japan is very delicious and all I do is eat and eat and eat!

I am also taking tea ceremony classes every Thursday in Kuroiwa and I study Japanese every day. I’m learning many useful phrases, such as “You are handsome” and “Are you single?” As you can see, I am enjoying Sakawa life very much.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Road mirrors

I love the big round mirrors that stand tall over every hairpin turn and blind intersection in this town. Their purpose is strictly functional -- the convex surface of the mirror allows drivers to see approaching cars around a bend in the road.

Most of the roads are so narrow and twisty that there would be a head-on collision every 30 seconds if there were no mirrors. I’m a big fan of the road mirrors. Not because I’m Captain Safety or anything. I just think they look cool.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Stephane Dion for Prime Minister!

Wow. I can’t believe Stephane Dion is the new leader of the Liberal Party. I wanted him to win but I didn’t think he’d actually pull it off. I wasn’t convinced the delegates would vote for a guy who made the environment the centerpiece of his campaign. But they did and he won. This is very, very exciting news.

I like Dion. I like his passion and his genuine concern for the environment. I respect him for making environmental sustainability his defining issue, especially when it’s not the easiest way to win the fight for people’s hearts and minds.

Canadians are an apathetic bunch when it comes to the environment. We know we should be concerned about the environment but we’re not willing to do anything about it. We say we care about nature but we also want to drive our SUVs, expand our highways and live in sprawling suburbs. Something isn’t working and Dion knows it.

Will he be the person to turn things around? I don’t know but I’m feeling optimistic about the future right now.

I can’t wait until the next election. Heck, I might even vote Liberal for the first time in my life.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Man hunt

I was told the only way I’d ever get a boyfriend in Japan was if I made the first move. All I had to do was take the lead and the men would follow.

Well, what a load of crap that turned out to be. I’ve transformed myself into a brazen hussy and I still can’t get a date. My attempts at seduction are about as subtle as a baseball bat to the skull. But no matter what I do, I just can’t crack their pathological shyness.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, let me give you three examples of how my not-so-smooth moves have been rebuffed.


Name: Nobuo (or, as I like to call him, Nobu-oohhh!)
Age: 28
Occupation: Employment status unknown
How we met: He plays on my volleyball team

Okay, so the real reason why I’ve been enjoying volleyball so much is because of Nobuo. He is, quite simply, one of the sexiest guys I’ve ever seen. He’s tall and lean with thick black hair and beautiful brown skin. Don’t even get me started on his body. The boy has abs you could break glass on (I know this because he takes his shirt off after every practice and, oh my god, I can’t even write about it without getting hot and bothered).

Plus, he’s fun and playful. He’s always bouncing around and cracking jokes with everyone. Everyone but me, that is. Up until last week, he barely said more than a single word to me. He’d mumble hello at the beginning of practice and mutter goodbye after it was over.

I asked one of the girls on the team why Nobuo went out of his way to avoid me. She gave me the same tired excuse I’ve been hearing for the past four months.

“He’s shy,” she said. “He’s afraid to talk to you because he can’t speak English.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” I thought to myself. “I’m so sick and tired of this shy and timid bullshit. If that’s the way he’s going to be then I’ll be the man and wear the damn pants and show him how it’s done!”

At school the next day, I went straight to the vice-principal for help. He does nothing but practice magic tricks and surf the Internet all day so I figured he’d jump at the chance to do something useful. I pulled out a pen and some paper and asked him to translate a list of phrases, such as “Are you single?” and “I think you’re handsome” and “Let’s go for a drink sometime.”

I showed up at volleyball practice last Monday armed with an arsenal of Japanese pick-up lines. Nobuo gave me the perfect opening when he walked into the gym wearing his hair in a different style. I pounced.

Me: Nobu-oohhh, sumimasen. (Excuse me, Nobuo.)

Nobuo: Hai! (Yes!)

Me: Kami wa . . . (Your hair . . .)

Nobuo: Down?

Me: Hai! Hai! (Yes! Yes!)

Nobuo: [silent]

Me: [batting my eyelashes, flashing him a huge smile and throwing in a little shoulder shimmy] Kakoii desu ne! (You’re soooo good looking!)

His response? He sort of half smiled and then turned and ran (yes, ran) out of the gym. See what I mean? How the hell do you ask someone out for a drink when they run away when you try to talk to them? Okay, moving on to Exhibit B . . .


Name: I forget
Age: 31
Occupation: High school English teacher
How we met: At a bar

I was out drinking with some of my co-workers when a handsome stranger walked in from out of the cold. He strode into the bar wearing a black leather jacket, baggy jeans and a striped scarf. His motorcycle was parked out front. He was like a Japanese version of George Stroumboulopoulos.

He joined our table and I swapped seats so that I was sitting next to him. I introduced myself in Japanese and was surprised when he answered back in perfect English. He told me he was a high school English teacher but his real passion was writing poetry. I asked him if he was single. He said he was. Things were looking up.

Late into the night, the conversation turned to romance. Everyone around the table took turns describing their dream date. When it was my turn, I pulled out the metaphorical baseball bat.

“Well, I’ve always wanted to ride on the back of a motorcycle with my arms wrapped around a cute guy,” I said, looking directly at the cute motorcycle-riding guy sitting beside me.

Someone asked me to describe what the guy on my fantasy date would look like.

“Well, he’d be wearing a black leather jacket,” I said, looking directly at his black leather jacket.

“And a striped scarf,” I said, looking directly at his striped scarf.

“And glasses,” I said, looking directly into his bespectacled eyes.

His response? Stunned silence. He just sat there blinking, not saying a word. I tried to drop more hints but I couldn’t penetrate his fortress of shyness. I haven’t seen him since. And that brings us to Exhibit C . . .


Name: Kashida-sensei
Age: 28
Occupation: Art teacher
How we met: He teaches at my school once a week

Every Tuesday, a foxy young art teacher visits my school. He always sits next to me between classes (but only because there’s nowhere else to sit). Our desks are so close our elbows touch.

It would be highly erotic if Kashida-sensei wasn’t so ridiculously shy. In four months, he has never initiated a conversation with me. He won’t even say good morning unless I say it first. And he never, ever, looks me in the eye.

So I took it upon myself to make the first move. Every week, I share my secret stash of chocolate with him. I slip him cookies under the table. I always pack an extra mandarin orange in my bag just for him. And he just sits there and giggles. Not because he thinks I’m funny but because I make him so uncomfortable. (The vice-principal pulled me aside and spelled it out for me, “He’s shy.”)

And even though I make the effort to speak to him in Japanese, our conversations are painfully one-sided. For example, I once asked him what he did in his spare time. He said he liked fishing. I said I liked fishing too. He giggled. I told him we should go fishing together. He giggled some more. I asked him if he would take me fishing. He giggled even harder. After about five minutes of this, I gave up and rolled my eyes (not that he noticed since he kept his head down the whole time I was talking to him).

The thing is, it’s hard for me to sustain interest in any of these guys when I’m doing all the work and getting nothing in return. It’s like a game of tennis. I’m hitting easy serves across the net and these guys are just standing there letting the balls pile up on their side of the court. It’s no fun if they’re not hitting the ball back.

Who knows? Maybe they’re not shy at all. Maybe they’re just not that into me. Maybe I should go back to being less brazen and wait for one of them to take the lead. Or maybe I should just resign myself to a life of celibacy in Japan. I don't know what to do. These guys are driving me crazy. And not in a good way.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

I went to Kyoto

I went to Kyoto last week. Unfortunately, half the population of Japan also went to Kyoto last week.

I blame the media. You see, it’s autumn and the leaves have started to change colour. The Japanese media have been reporting on the “leaf front” sweeping across the country as if they were in hot pursuit of OJ Simpson’s white Bronco. The leaf front has been the lead story on almost every TV newscast for the past five days. We’re talking live hits, helicopters, expert commentary and graphics. All for a bunch of dying leaves.

When the leaf front finally hit Kyoto on Tuesday, there was wall-to-wall media coverage. I was both excited and annoyed that the leaves had decided to explode into fiery shades of red the exact same week I was going to Kyoto. I knew it would be beautiful but I also knew I’d have to share the view with hordes of people.

Undeterred, Zoe, Aiko and I set off for Kyoto at dawn on Thursday. It took three and a half hours by train to traverse Shikoku Island and cross over the Inland Sea to the Japanese mainland. Once we were on the mainland, we hopped on the bullet train to Kyoto.

The bullet train was fast. It was a strange feeling riding on a train that went more than 300 km an hour. It felt like we were sitting in an airplane that was barreling down the runway just before takeoff. Towns and cities whipped past the windows. An hour later, we were suddenly in Kyoto.

We decided to spend the first day walking around. We saw geisha wrapped in beautiful silk kimonos.

We walked along cobblestone streets lined with traditional wooden houses.

And then we set off for some Buddhist temples to see what the entire population of Japan had flocked to Kyoto to see. Blazing leaves!

Now, you may think this was all very beautiful. But the photos don’t tell the whole story. For example, there were news helicopters circling overhead. It’s hard to appreciate the beauty of a temple garden when the air is filled with the constant thwack-thwack-thwack-thwack of propeller blades.

And whenever I tried to take a picture of something, there were 50 other people jostling to take the same picture as me. There was not one moment of quiet reflection. Nowhere to wander off by myself.

Visiting the temples was like a ride on an amusement park. You queued up in line. You paid your money. You shuffled along a roped-off path with hundreds of other tourists. You took some pictures. And you popped out the other side. One bus full of tourists drove away and three new buses arrived.

The experience wasn’t much fun. I didn’t hate it, though. There were parts of Kyoto that were breathtakingly beautiful. Like this golden temple just before sunset.

I also had a cinnamon bun and a latte for the first time in four months. It was almost as exciting as riding the bullet train. (Yes, I went to the cultural centre of Japan and Starbucks was one of the highlights. Go ahead and mock me. But you try living in a rural area where there’s no coffee and cinnamon buns and people who speak English and then tell me your heart wouldn’t involuntarily skip with joy when you saw those familiar green letters!)

We spent Thursday and Friday night in Osaka. Actually, the real reason we stayed in Osaka was because it was impossible to get a hotel room in Kyoto and Osaka is only half an hour away. I had tried reserving a room in Kyoto months ago but everything was booked solid.

We were lucky to even get a hotel room in Osaka. Then again, this was the view outside our hotel room window.

But Osaka was great. It was miles and miles of nothing but concrete and neon. I love neon. I’m like a moth drawn to the lights.

And that was it. We took the train back home on Saturday afternoon.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

My first volleyball tournament

I played in a three-day volleyball tournament last week. It was one of the most nerve-wracking, vomit-inducing things I’ve ever done.

Forget the cockroaches in my apartment. Forget the fish heads for lunch. Competitive volleyball is way more terrifying.

I was a little surprised my teammates asked me to play in the first place. These are the same people who banned me from the last tournament because I suck so bad. And it’s not like I’ve improved that much since then (although, to my credit, I no longer duck and scream when the ball comes my way). Maybe they were just waiting to make sure I wouldn’t publicly embarrass them before they invited me to play in a tournament.

Secretly, I was thrilled they wanted me to tag along. During the past three months, I’ve grown to like volleyball so much that it’s now one of the highlights of my week. But I was about to learn that volleyball practice and a volleyball tournament are two very different things.

When I walked into the gym on the first day of the tournament, I felt like I had stepped into an alternate universe. I barely recognized the place. Everything looked so . . . professional. There were line judges and officials and score keepers. There were even spectators in the stands.

Six different teams were warming up at the same time, filling the gym with the sound of squeaking shoes and balls pounding against the floor. I watched as they practiced spiking the ball with such force and speed it looked like the hardwood floor would splinter into a million pieces.

I was in way over my head. I told my teammates that I’d rather just watch. But they insisted that I play. I couldn’t argue with them. I mean, I wanted to argue with them but I couldn’t because my Japanese is too limited to explain how I was feeling.

They told me I wouldn’t be playing until the second game, which meant I had lots of time to sit around and get more and more nervous. Now, I’ve competed in countless swim meets and triathlons and I’ve always felt nervous before the gun went off but I’ve never felt the kind of anxiety I was feeling before I stepped on that volleyball court. I knew that if I screwed up I’d be letting down a whole team of people.

And if it’s true that a team is as strong as its weakest link, well then I felt like a rusty paper clip trying to hold a chain of iron rings together.

By the time the second game rolled around, I was so nervous I wanted to throw up. But my teammates dragged me onto the court. I was told to stand in the back, to the left of the server.

I started to panic. I looked around wildly and yelled in Japanese, "Hajimete desu! Hajimete desu!" (It’s my first time! It’s my first time!). I wasn’t trying to be funny but everyone started laughing. I didn’t want them to think I was joking so I repeated it again, in an even more panic-stricken voice. But this only made them laugh harder.

The official seemed annoyed by me jumping around flapping my arms and yelling in Japanese so he blew the whistle long and hard to shut me up. Once everyone was quiet, he blew the whistle again and the game began.

I silently prayed for the ball not to come near me and for a while it didn’t. But then we scored a few points and the other team scored a few points and before I knew it I had rotated from the back of the court to the front. I was inches away from the net, expected to “attack.”

I knew that if the setter hit the ball my way I was supposed to jump and raise my hand over my head and hit the ball so it would land on the ground of the opposing court. But every time I tried to spike the ball in practice it usually ended up in the net. So instead of spiking the ball during the game, I decided to just make sure it ended up on the other side of the net.

Whenever the setter passed the ball to me, I simply pushed it over the net with my fingertips.

When it came time for me to serve, once again my goal was just to get the ball over the net. Fortunately, my first serve sailed over the net and dropped into the middle of the opposing court. Unfortunately, my second serve veered wildly to the right and hit the official in the head.

The set went on like that for what seemed like hours. When we finally won, I was more relieved than happy. I was even more relieved to find out that they only wanted me to play that one set during the entire three-day tournament. I guess it was sort of a token goodwill gesture.

I still like volleyball and I’m still looking forward to practice tomorrow night. But I don’t think I’ll be playing in any more tournaments any time soon. I'd rather stay home and kill cockroaches and eat fish heads.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Carrot sticks: Part II

Since I got such a kick out of seeing Japanese people react with revulsion whenever I ate carrot sticks, I decided to take my raw-vegetable freak-out fest to the classroom.

I was curious to see what kind of chaos I could create by offering my students carrot sticks at lunch.

I figured the elementary school kids would be the perfect guinea pigs for my little experiment. These kids think everything is fun and exciting. All I have to do is walk into the classroom and they start jumping up and down, screaming “YAY!!!” I knew if I showed up bearing carrots, the excitement level would be through the roof.

I ran the idea past the homeroom teacher first, since I knew how controversial carrot sticks could be. The last thing I wanted was to get fired over a damn vegetable. He looked at me like I was proposing to feed the kids leeches for lunch but agreed to go along with the plan.

As soon as the bell rang, I joined one of the classrooms for lunch (kids in Japan eat at their desks). I quietly reached into my backpack and pulled out a bag of carrot sticks. Before I said a word, the kids swarmed around me.

“WHAT’S THAT?!? WHAT’S THAT?!?” they yelled (I have no idea why these kids insist on screaming when they try to talk to me).

“Carrots,” I said.

One boy frantically pointed at himself and then pointed at the carrots.

“Would you like one?” I asked.

“YES!!!” he yelled.

He grabbed a carrot, ran back to his desk and shoved it in his mouth.

It took a few attempts before he was able to bite off a small piece (the kid looked like he was trying to gnaw through a steel cable).

Once he finished chewing and swallowing, he stood up and proclaimed the carrot stick “DELICIOUS!!!”

Upon hearing this, a few other students ran over and demanded a carrot stick. I think they expected the carrots to be delicious because when they bit into them they looked completely bewildered, like someone had poured salt in their coffee instead of sugar. This kid was not impressed.

The girl in the photo below took a bite and said something in Japanese that sounded like, “WTF? This is the grossest shit I’ve ever tasted. Oh my god. I’m going to throw up now.”

Who knew carrots could be so much fun? Next month, poutine tasting!

Friday, November 10, 2006

Carrot sticks

You’d think it would be pretty difficult to gross out a bunch of people who have no qualms about eating fish with their heads still attached and squid so raw it’s still moving.

But I have discovered the one food that makes Japanese people recoil in horror. Yes, I’m talking about that most repulsive food of all -- raw carrot sticks.

The first time I brought raw carrot sticks to work it sent shock waves through the staff room. You would have thought I was biting the heads off bats.

“What are you eating?” asked one of the teachers, her eyes wide with disbelief.

“Um . . . carrots,” I said.

My explanation only confused her more.

She wanted to know if they were boiled. I told her they were raw. She wanted to know if I thought they were delicious. I told her they weren’t particularly delicious. She wanted to know why I was eating them if they weren’t delicious. I told her they were healthy so I enjoyed eating them. She wanted to know if everyone in Canada ate carrot sticks. I told her lots of people in Canada ate carrot sticks. She wanted to know if I was joking. I told her I wasn’t.

I noticed some of the other teachers were eavesdropping on our conversation so I held up my little container of carrot sticks and asked if anyone wanted to try one.

There was a collective gasp and some nervous laughter before they started backing away, wildly waving their hands in front of their faces and shaking their heads. In a country where raw horse meat is considered a delicacy, not one of them was brave enough to try a carrot stick.

I continued to bring in carrot sticks a few times a week and they continued to point and laugh. It took about a month for the novelty to wear off. After two months, one of the teachers worked up the courage to try one.

He took a bite, chewed and swallowed. He took another bite, chewed and swallowed. The poor guy looked like he was trying not to gag. He had an expression on his face that seemed to suggest he was eating pig rectum or blended rats.

He somehow managed to choke down the whole thing. I asked him what he thought.

“It was delicious,” he said. “Thank you.”

If the teachers at my school thought carrot sticks were disgusting, I can’t wait to see their reaction when I bring poutine to work.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Two minutes with a wild monkey

I had my first encounter with a wild monkey on the weekend.

I was walking across a bridge, minding my own business, when I saw a flash of fur out of the corner of my eye.

It took a few seconds for my brain to process what I was seeing. A monkey sitting on the bridge. I did a whiplash-inducing double take. “Holy crap! There’s a monkey sitting on the bridge!”

I pulled out my camera and slowly tiptoed toward it. I didn’t want to get too close. It was unnerving to come face to face with a monkey without a cage between us. Also, the monkey was not exactly cute and cuddly. It had a red face and pinched features, which made it look mean and angry.

A voice in my head repeated itself over and over: “Don’t look the monkey in the eye! Don’t look the monkey in the eye!” I had read somewhere that monkeys will attack you if you look directly into their eyes. Or maybe that was bears. Either way, I wasn’t going to take any chances.

So with my eyes looking everywhere but at the monkey, I inched forward and blindly took a picture.

By this point, the monkey was attracting a small crowd (“small crowd” meaning “four people”). Someone threw some crackers on the ground and the monkey jumped off the railing and started eating them.

However, the crowd seemed to be more interested in watching me take pictures of the monkey than in the monkey itself. They were looking at me with the same amused expression I get when I see tourists taking pictures of raccoons and squirrels in Stanley Park. (“Ha, ha. Look at the tourist taking pictures of that nasty-ass monkey like it’s some sort of exotic and beautiful animal. Ha, ha.”)

Suddenly, without warning, the monkey charged toward me. I had a terrifying vision of it leaping onto my face and digging its claws into my hair.

I shrieked and jumped out of the way. I also managed to snap a photo at the same time.

The monkey kept running and disappeared into the woods. And that was the end of my first encounter with a wild monkey.

Postscript: I thought it was a pretty unique experience until I went home and googled “Japanese monkeys” and found out Japan is overrun by monkeys. Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article about the monkey population explosion:

Rural villages sometimes post bounties of up to $1,000 for the leader of a particularly destructive monkey troop. In cities, sensational news reports about monkeys "molesting women and children" have stirred police officers to form monkey posses, patrolling streets with nets and bananas tied to poles.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The weirdest girl in town

Most of the time, living in Japan isn’t all that different from living in Canada. But just when I think I’m starting to fit in, I unintentionally do something to set myself apart. Like walking to work.

Who knew something so innocuous would turn into an international incident?

It started out innocently enough. I woke up early. It was a nice day. I thought to myself, “I’m up early. It’s a nice day. I think I’ll walk to work.”

That day I was teaching at a small school out in the country. It’s about four kilometres away and you have to go up and down a few steep hills to get there. But I like walking, especially when I get to pass through scenery like this.

So I hefted my backpack over my shoulders and set out for what I thought would be a nice walk through the countryside.

I got about 10 minutes away from my apartment when a car slowed beside me. I looked over to see one of the teachers from my school rolling down the passenger-side window and frantically waving for me to get inside the car.

“No, no,” I said in Japanese. “Walking, good. Exercise, good. Car, no thank you.”

My explanation only seemed to confuse her (either that or my Japanese is completely incomprehensible). She patted the passenger seat and urged me to get in.

I thanked her profusely, bowed and continued walking. She drove beside me for a little while. I pointed at my feet, pointed at the road ahead and gave her the thumbs up. Over and over and over again. She eventually got the message and drove off ahead of me.

Ten minutes later, a second car slowed beside me. It was a different teacher but he did the same thing. He rolled down the passenger-side window and frantically waved for me to get inside the car. I played another round of charades, pointing at my feet and the road ahead, until he drove on.

Five minutes later, a third car pulled up beside me. This time, it was the principal. Instead of slowing down to offer me a ride, he brought the car to a complete stop in the middle of the road and started shoving the junk on the passenger seat onto the floor. He didn’t even ask if I wanted a ride, he just assumed I’d hop in.

By the time the fourth car pulled up beside me, I realized the teachers weren’t offering me a ride just to be nice. They were offering me a ride because they assumed something had happened to my bike. They thought I was walking because I had to, not because I wanted to.

Amazingly, another car pulled up beside me when I was just one block away from the school. The teacher rolled down the passenger-side window and frantically waved for me to get inside. Now it was my turn to look at her in disbelief. The school was literally no more than 50 metres away.

“Um . . . the school is right there. I can walk,” I said.

She gave me a look that said “You are the weirdest f*cking person I have ever met” and turned left into the parking lot.

By the time I walked into the staff room, the gossip mill was churning at warp speed. The way they were talking, you would have thought I was the first teacher in the history of the school to have ever walked there. (Actually, I probably was.)

They wanted to know how long it took (45 minutes), did I ever walk such great distances in Canada (yes), do other people in Canada walk to work (yes), was my bicycle was broken (no), was I tired (from walking, no. From answering their questions, yes).

I tried to explain that walking to work was a nice way to ease into the day and get some exercise in. That I liked breathing the fresh air and looking at the scenery.

They smiled and nodded but I don’t think they really understood. By lunch, their tone had shifted from awe to concern. They wanted to know how I was going to get home.

Good lord, I thought. Here we go again.

I cringed inwardly and told them I was going to walk home. And so I went through the whole process of turning down rides all over again. By the end of the day, I had managed to convince them that I really didn’t want a ride.

I hefted my backpack over my shoulders and set out for what I thought would be a nice walk home through the countryside.

I got about 10 minutes away from the school when a car slowed beside me. I looked over to see a cab driver rolling down the passenger-side window and frantically urging me to get inside the car.

“No, thank you,” I said. “I’m okay.”

He seemed to think I was turning him down because I didn’t want to pay the cab fare. So he started yelling, “Free. Free. No money!”

I had already experienced the novelty of a free cab ride in Japan (I once had a cab driver waive the $30 fare because he said he enjoyed our conversation so much that he thought it wouldn’t be right to make me pay). So I pointed at my feet and the road ahead until he drove away.

All of this just because I decided to walk to work. What does a girl have to do to fit in around here?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Halloween in Japan

I was supposed to be Catwoman for Halloween but my costume ended up making me look like a cross between Nacho Libre and a dominatrix.

This is what happens when you slap a costume together at the last minute. My friend Zoe, who is an English teacher in the next town over, emailed me Saturday morning to ask if I had figured out what I was going to wear to the Halloween party that night.

“I was thinking that you should go as Catwoman,” she wrote. “All you have to do is wear something black and I’ll make you a mask like this one.”

She attached a photo to the email.

“Oh my god!” I wrote back. “Let’s do it!”

A few hours later, Zoe showed up at my apartment with some black felt and white thread.

I combed through my closet, trying to find something black and slinky to wear. The best I could come up with was a sleeveless black turtleneck and a pair of spandex cycling tights. It was more sensible than sexy. It was the sort of thing Catwoman might wear if she was riding a bicycle rather than prowling the rooftops.

Zoe managed to whip up a mask in record time. This is me trying on the (almost) finished product.

Once my costume was done, Zoe got dressed up as Pippi Longstocking (she had made her costume weeks ago).

We jumped in the car and drove to Kochi City as fast as we could. Luckily, we didn’t get stopped for speeding, although seeing the expression on the police officer’s face when he pulled us over would have been worth it.

Once we got to Kochi, we found out we’d have to walk about 10 blocks to get to the bar where the party was being held. Walking through the streets in full costume on Halloween weekend wouldn’t faze me in Canada. But here? There were hundreds of people milling around and not one of them was wearing a costume.

I had a sinking feeling we were going to attract a lot of attention once we stepped out of the car. Not only were we foreigners but we were foreigners dressed like we were heading to an S&M club. Zoe had to drag me out of the car like I was a dog on the way to the vet’s office.

Those were the longest 10 blocks of my life. We couldn’t walk two steps without someone pointing and staring at us. We stopped men dead in their tracks. They stood frozen in place, mouths open, eyes popping out of their heads. Once the initial shock wore off, a few of them pulled out their camera phones and snapped pictures of us. Other guys would elbow their friends until the whole group was hooting and hollering.

Who knew all it took to get a little male attention in Japan was to walk through the streets dressed like this?

The stares didn’t stop once we got to the party. Every five minutes a different Japanese guy would stop me and ask me to take a picture with him.

Yes, I’m aware of the irony. One week I’m writing about how hard it is to meet men in Japan and the next week I’m writing about how hard it is to fight them off. I’ll never figure this place out.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

So many men, so few balls

Remember when I said Vancouver was the worst place in the world to meet men? I take it back. Rural Japan is way, way worse. I haven’t felt this invisible and ignored since the last time I went to a gay bar.

Now, I’m not the kind of girl who bases her self-worth on her attractiveness to men. But it’s nice to have a little male attention now and then (being hit on by pimply teenage boys and the mayor doesn’t count).

I feel like Quasimodo out here. Men cross the street when they see me coming. Construction workers fall silent and stare down at their boots when I pass by. I could jump up and down in the middle of the road wearing nothing but a bikini and the men would still avert their eyes and run the other way.

I decided to ask the male teachers at my school why Japanese men went out of their way to avoid me. Of course, I had to wait until after several rounds of beer and sake since the male teachers are only brave enough to talk to me when they are completely wasted.

“Why do all the men in this town refuse to speak to me or even look at me?” I asked in broken Japanese once they were properly loaded.

“Japanese are shy!” yelled the 27-year-old social studies teacher. “Japanese man has Samurai soul! Samurai are shy!”

I politely pointed out that a truly shy person wouldn’t be screaming at the top of his lungs in the middle of a restaurant about how shy he was.

His response was to yell even louder. “I WILL BE YOUR BOYFRIEND!” He then drew imaginary circles around his nipples while chanting something that sounded like, “Ling, ling, ling, ling, ling, ling, ling, ling.”

The consensus around the very drunk, very loud, very rowdy and very obnoxious table was that Japanese men are painfully shy.

I realized the only way I was going to get a date in Japan was if I made the first move. Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy as it sounds.

For starters, the married men in this town don’t wear wedding rings. It’s impossible to know who’s single and who isn’t without wasting valuable time. I’d strike up a conversation with a cute guy only to have him say, “My wife is on your volleyball team” or “My son goes to your school.”

Not only is it impossible to tell if a guy is married, it’s equally difficult to tell how old he is.

One night after volleyball practice, I chatted up some cute basketball players who spoke passable English. They weren’t shy at all (that should have been my first clue). After about 10 minutes of flirting, one of them asked me to guess how old he was. I gave him a good, hard look and said 28. It was an honest answer so I couldn’t figure out why they were killing themselves laughing. It turned out they were all 19! I got out of there faster than the bullet train leaves Tokyo.

My luck isn’t much better with foreign men. While spending a weekend in the city, I met a guy from Australia. He was tall and lean with rugged good looks and a wicked sense of humour. We hit it off immediately. He even asked for my phone number and offered to take me surfing. Just when things were looking up, he dropped the bomb and casually mentioned his boyfriend. His boyfriend!

It’s hopeless. I didn’t think my love life could be any more non-existent than it was in Vancouver. How does that old saying go? Just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, someone throws you a shovel. Yeah. That about sums it up.

Monday, October 23, 2006

One little monkey sitting in a tree

This is Mana, my supervisor’s daughter. She is the cutest kid I have ever met.

Mana is everything a seven-year-old girl should be -- mischievous, curious, happy, brave, energetic, uninhibited, innocent, funny and impossibly adorable.

I love taking her picture and she loves hamming it up for the camera.

We went hiking on the weekend, climbing to the top of a 6,000-foot mountain (yes, a seven-year-old kid hiked 6,000 feet and didn’t complain once. Not only is she cute, she’s tough as nails!).

We took a break for lunch near the top. I pulled out my camera to take Mana’s picture but she stopped me.

Wait!” she said (in Japanese).

With a mischievous glint in her eyes, she dipped her fingers in ketchup and then smeared it all over her face and shirt.

“Okay,” she said, giggling hysterically. “Now you can take my picture!”

Friday, October 20, 2006

Christmas in Borneo!

I finally booked my Christmas vacation this week. Two weeks trekking through the steaming jungles of Borneo! Exciting! And a little scary too (there are giant cockroaches, poisonous centipedes, blood-thirsty leeches and malaria-carrying mosquitoes in Borneo).

I spent the past month poring over a map of Asia, trying to figure out where to go during the Christmas break.

The possibilities were endless. I could lay on a beach in Thailand or go biking in Bali. I could walk along the Great Wall of China or soak up South Korea’s nightlife. I could ride the rails in Vietnam or visit the temples in Cambodia.

I couldn’t decide. I was torn between Vietnam and Bali. But every time I’d study the map, my eyes would drift down to Borneo. Of all the places in Southeast Asia, Borneo seemed the most exotic. But I realized the only reason I felt that way was because I knew almost nothing about Borneo. So I googled it. One website led to another and before I knew it, I had spent fours hours glued to the computer screen, utterly captivated by Borneo.

I suddenly realized that Borneo was exactly where I wanted to go. It sounded like a nature-lover’s paradise. We’re talking thousands upon thousands of different species of trees, plants, animals and insects. (There are 1,200 different species of wild orchids alone!)

There are elephants, rhinos, leopards, monkeys, orangutans, bearded pigs, giant flying squirrels and monster bats (some with a wingspan of more than four feet!). Oh, yes, and HUGE cockroaches. Did you know Borneo is home to the biggest cockroaches in the world? Fascinating! And terrifying!

I was drunk on the idea spending a couple of weeks in the jungles of Borneo. So I bought a plane ticket and booked a spot with a reputable ecotourism company the very next day. The tour takes us into national parks, up untamed rivers, through deep canyons, into massive caves and to the tops of mountains. I am so excited!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Just another surreal day at the office

Although I am technically employed in Japan as an English teacher, that doesn’t really explain what I do here. I’m not so much an English teacher as I am a follower of bizarre orders.

Give a speech in Japanese! Play baseball with the boys! Sweep the floor! Answer personal questions! Wear polyester track pants! Sing karaoke with the principal!

The latest order? Transcribe the lyrics of an obscure ‘80s song. This had nothing to do with teaching English through music. This was a personal favour for one of the teachers looking to expand her karaoke repertoire.

In true Japanese fashion, she went about giving me the order in the most tentative and indirect way possible. She approached me between classes and asked me what kind of music I liked. I listed off a few bands. She smiled and nodded politely. But I could tell she wasn’t really interested. She was only asking me what kind of music I liked so that I would ask her the same question in return. I took the bait, walking right into her carefully laid trap.

“Oh, I love ‘80s music,” she gushed. She ran over to her desk, grabbed four ‘80s CDs and placed them in my hands. Japanese etiquette required me to “ooh” and “ahh” over the CDs for several minutes.

She took a CD from the pile, flipped it over and read the list of songs out loud.

“Which song is your favourite?” she asked.

I pointed to track 4, “Cum Feel the Noise” by Quiet Riot. She smiled and nodded politely. Once again, she waited expectantly for me to ask her the same question in return. So I did.

She pointed to track 11, “Overnight Success” by Teri DeSario. She explained it was a great song but for some reason the lyrics were missing from the CD booklet. She finally blurted out the question she was dying to ask me.

“Could you listen to the song and write down the lyrics?” she asked.

I agreed, thinking she was asking me to do this as a favour in my spare time. But she wanted the lyrics immediately.

“Now is okay?” she asked. If she thought this was an appropriate way to while away the working hours, who was I to argue?

She led me down the hallway to a small office and closed the door behind us. She ushered me over to a desk that was already set up with a pen, some paper and a CD player.

She stood beside me and played the song, pressing pause after every line. For those of you who have never heard the song “Overnight Success,” here are some of the more profound lyrics:

An overnight success. You hold the key to your happiness.
An overnight success. You have the power to rise above the rest. Yeah.

I put the lyrics down on paper while the teacher hummed and sang along, mangling the words beyond recognition. (Yes, hard-working people of Japan, this is how your tax dollars are being spent.)

Unfortunately, the music teacher caught wind of our little project and asked me to come to his class to teach the students how to sing “We are the World.”

I tried to explain that I transcribe bad ‘80s music, not sing it. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer and so I found myself standing in front of 30 slack-jawed 15-year-olds, singing “We are the World.”

Thanks to my new reputation as an authority on ‘80s music, one of the Japanese English teachers thought it would be a great idea to begin class by singing “Karma Chameleon.” And so, for the second time in one day, I found myself standing in front of 30 slack-jawed 15-year-olds, singing an ‘80s song.

This may sound like hell to some people but it’s heaven to me. I love the absurdity of it all. The more surreal it gets, the happier I am. I like to think of myself as a proud follower of bizarre orders first and an English teacher second.

Friday, October 13, 2006

George Stroumboulopoulos finally has his own website!

It’s a great little place, filled with George’s musings, music and links. Although the site isn’t affiliated with the CBC, it has the same flavour as The Hour -- snippets of information served with a dollop of straight-up, in-your-face irreverence. Yummy!

There’s also a link to my blog on Strombo’s homepage. Which is very flattering but also very weird because my blog is grouped in with a list of esteemed news outlets. The Guardian, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, New York Times and . . . Hollywood North? Yup. One of these things is most definitely not like the others.

I should probably apologize to the innocent victims who clicked on the link and landed here looking for something informative or insightful. This isn’t that kind of place. This is just a blog written by a Canadian girl living in rural Japan. It's filled with pages of random thoughts on such gripping topics as swimming, politics, pop culture, cycling, guys and life in general. Mostly I just whine about being single and how hard it is to find quality men.

Feel free to make yourselves comfortable and take a look around. Maybe you’ll find something you like. Maybe you won't.

As for Strombo’s site, I'm adding it to my list of favourites and visiting often!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

I'm the Leah McLaren of Japan!

In addition to being an English teacher, I am now also a newspaper columnist. I have my own column in the local newspaper. My own column! I’m the Leah McLaren of Japan!

I have complete freedom to write about whatever I want. The only catch is that my articles are translated into Japanese so I have no idea how closely the finished product resembles the original.

I used my first column (pictured above) to introduce myself. But, really, it was mostly just a desperate plea for friends: “Hi. I’m Sarah. If you see me around town, please stop and say hi. Talk to me. Please! Someone! Anyone!”

I’m thinking of taking a more serious approach towards my second column. I’d like to explore some of the over-riding social and political issues in rural Japan. Like the dire shortage of hot, young, single guys in my town. Or why married men don’t wear wedding rings.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Cheeky questions

The students at my junior high school are a contradictory bunch. They’re too shy to speak up in class but they’re not afraid to ask me some pretty bold questions.

I get the same questions every time I visit a new class: Do you have a boyfriend? Do you prefer older or younger men? What’s your type? Am I your type? Which teacher do you think is the most handsome? Do you think I’m handsome? How old are you? How much do you weigh? How tall are you? Are you wearing makeup right now? Do you like beer?

Instead of bailing me out, the Japanese English teacher forces me to answer these questions in front of the entire class.

For example, when one 14-year-old boy asked if I thought he was handsome, the Japanese teacher walked behind his desk, scooped her hands under his armpits, yanked him up out of his seat and marched him (kicking and screaming) towards me.

She stood behind him, clamped her hands down on his shoulders and said, “Look at this boy. Look deep into his eyes.”

[She paused here so that I could look deep into his eyes, which was impossible to do since his eyes were darting all over the place.]

“Do you think he’s handsome? Is he your type?”

Now, there’s no way to answer this without getting into trouble. If I said “yes,” I risked coming across as a pedophile. If I said “no,” I risked crushing the poor kid. I had a split second to choose between being a pervert and being cruel.

“Well, he’s very handsome,” I said. “But, um, he’s a little young for me.”

Bullet dodged. Jail term avoided. Cougar reputation solidified.

And then we move on to less delicate topics, like my weight. Fun!

Friday, September 29, 2006

I brake for soccer-playing pandas

I love the road signs in this town. They make me feel like I’m living in a zoo. My favourite sign is the one warning drivers to watch out for pandas playing soccer in the middle of the street.

A little further up the road is a sign that urges drivers to brake for chicks wearing little yellow hats.

I also like this sign posted by the “poop police.” The mug shot of the dog is a nice touch.

I’m not sure what this next sign means. It’s either warning people not to hang glide near the power lines or it’s an ad for a hang gliding company. (Hang gliding! Power lines! Fun!)

Monday, September 25, 2006


My school held its annual undokai (sports day) this weekend. Undokai is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

It’s a huge event and everyone takes it very seriously. Maybe a little too seriously. I saw two students almost come to blows during practice last week. One boy started screaming and lunging at another boy who he felt wasn’t trying hard enough. Two teachers had to jump in and pull them apart before the punches started flying. I also saw a few girls crying during dance practice because they couldn’t get the steps right.

These kids have been under an incredible amount of pressure during the past two months. This is no touchy-feely “let’s just try our best and have fun” sports day. The only thing that matters here is winning. It matters so much that some of these kids even spent their summer vacation at school, practicing for sports day.

I’m not sure what to think about this emphasis on perfection. It doesn’t seem healthy. But, at the same time, all of their hard work makes for some incredible performances. It’s inspiring to see these kids compete at such a high level but I can’t help but feel there’s a darker undercurrent at play. They seem to be driven not by joy but by a fear of failure. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It’s just different.

Whether I agree with it or not, all of their hard work paid off. It was an impressive day from start to finish. The students were divided into four teams (red, white, blue and yellow) and competed in all of the events as a group. There were no individual stars.

There were all sorts of different events, ranging from the ordinary (100-metre sprint, three-legged race, tug of war) to the bizarre (parents whipping the students around on a giant bamboo pole).

One of the most entertaining events was what can only be described as the "tire grab." A bunch of old car tires were placed in the middle of the field. Two teams lined up behind white lines on opposite sides of the field. When the whistle blew, each team ran to the middle of the field and tried to grab as many tires as they could, by any means possible. Punching, hitting, kicking, tackling and stealing were all fair game.

I would like to say that I just sat back and watched. But I was forced to participate. Not in the tire grab. Worse. In the 800-metre run. For some reason, girls are not allowed to run the 800 but they made an exception for me. Which means I had to race against the boys, including the male gym teachers.

Luckily, I’m a good sport. So I did it. I ran the 800 in front of all the students, all of their parents and pretty much the entire town. I’m happy to report that I did not come in dead last. I came in second last. I passed a nerdy kid who was dying in the last 100 metres.

Here’s a photo of me running the 800. This is either at the start of the race or near the end when everyone lapped me. Yes, a bunch of 13-year-old boys and one chain-smoking gym teacher lapped me. After almost two months in Japan, public humiliation no longer fazes me.

Some of the sports were judged, such as dancing and cheering. These were the main events and they were the ones that the students worked night and day to perfect. The girls danced.

And the boys did this. I have no idea what it’s called.

Despite the pressure, most of the kids seemed to be having fun. They were screaming and cheering for their teams and were happy to pose for pictures. The kids in the black suits and white gloves are the captains of the cheering squads.

It was a fun day but I’m sort of glad it’s over. I haven’t been teaching much during the past two weeks because most of my time at school has been spent sitting around watching the students practice. I think the kids are secretly relieved it’s over too.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

I no longer hate volleyball

I never thought I’d say this but I’m actually starting to like volleyball. Trust me, no one is more surprised by this ironic turn of events than I am.

Up until a few weeks ago, I was a hardcore volleyball hater. Now, I’m buying kneepads so I can dive for the ball like everyone else.

Why the sudden flip-flop? It’s simple, really. The more I play, the better I get. The better I get, the more I enjoy it. I hardly even notice the forearm pain anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no superstar. I still suck. I mean, I’m so bad my teammates banned me from playing in a tournament last week. But, even so, they’re still some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Either that or I’ve got a serious case of Stockholm syndrome.

I think my teammates started to warm up to me when they realized I wasn’t going to give up and walk away. (Finally! People who appreciate my stubbornness!)

I scored a few bonus points when they found out I spent two hours on the train for the sole purpose of buying kneepads at the “local” sports store. They also found out about my secret training on Wednesday nights (turns out there is no secret anything in this town).

But the real turning point came on Saturday night when my teammates invited me out for drinks.

This wasn’t your average night out with the volleyball team. This was a "welcome party" in my honour. One of the girls baked a cake. One of the guys made dinner. Everyone was fun and friendly and went out of their way to make me feel like a part of the team.

Halfway through the night, two of the guys pulled out a pair of guitars and announced they had spent the past three weeks practicing a Canadian song to welcome me. They sat down at the front of the room, plugged in a mike, set up a sheet of music and started playing Neil Young’s Harvest Moon.

Here were two guys who could barely speak English and yet they had gone to all the trouble to learn how to play (and sing) Harvest Moon. Just for me. It was such a kind and thoughtful gesture I wanted to cry. How could I hate volleyball after that?

It’s ironic how a sport that once filled me with fear and loathing has now become the highlight of my week. Believe it or not, I’m actually starting to like volleyball!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Waiting for the typhoon to hit

A major typhoon is about to slam into my town. The outer edge of it has already arrived, bringing torrential rain and howling wind. The windows in my apartment sound like they’re about to rattle right out of their frames.

I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to do. I’m all alone. Should I barricade myself inside a closet in case the windows explode? Oh my god. Oh my god. The wind is insane. It's picking up speed. It’s getting louder and louder. I have never heard wind like this before. And the typhoon hasn’t even hit yet.

Holy crap. The utility poles are shaking. The power lines look like they’re going to snap. Stuff is blowing off my balcony. Okay, I’m really scared now.

UPDATE: Well, I survived my first typhoon. Others were not so lucky. At least 10 people are dead and a gust of wind even lifted a train from the tracks. Apparently, typhoons are pretty common and generally not a big deal. But this one was scary.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A "typical" day

06:30: Wake up. Get out of bed.

06:32: Scan the bathroom for cockroaches. See one lurking behind the soap dish. Scream. Run out of the bathroom. Grab the vacuum cleaner. Chase the cockroach around the apartment until it finds a hiding spot the vacuum cleaner can’t reach. Am fully awake now.

06:35: Shower. Turn the gas line on. Hold down the knob on top of the shower heater while turning the crank on the side of the heater. Bend over and look inside the little window on the bottom of the heater to make sure there is a flame. Keep turning the crank until a fire is lit. Turn the shower on. Shiver violently under a steady stream of cold water.

06:45: Get dressed. Wear newly purchased ghetto outfit in order to fit in at school where all of the teachers wear polyester tracksuits.

06:50: Eat breakfast. Make toast by putting slices of bread on the fish grill, as there is no toaster or oven in my apartment.

07:00: Watch Japanese morning “news” on the one channel my TV actually gets. The top story is almost always about baseball, usually the heroic feats of some guy named Matsui. This is followed by a report about a horrific traffic accident somewhere. The rest of the “news” consists of press conferences with American celebrities on tour in Japan.

07:45: Bike to school. Bow to the grannies along the way.

08:20: Attend the staff meeting, which is conducted entirely in Japanese. Try not to look too confused.

08:30: Teach English. I usually teach four classes a day, alongside a Japanese English teacher. I am based at a public junior high school where the students range in age from 12 to 15. Some of them spend the class asleep at their desks; others talk with their friends. Apparently, this is all perfectly acceptable classroom behaviour. Last week, I watched one kid turn around and squeeze the blackheads out of his friend’s nose for five minutes while the Japanese teacher carried on like nothing was happening. Of course, there are loads of kids who are enthusiastic about speaking English. There are even a few who like to scream my name down the hallway. When I’m not in class, I sit at my desk in the staff room, study Japanese and inhale second-hand smoke.

12:40: Eat lunch. The school serves up a hot lunch every day (usually rice, fish and vegetables). The students eat lunch in the classroom. Two students from each class put on hospital scrubs, surgeon’s masks and hairnets, and serve lunch to the other students while elevator music blasts over the loudspeakers.

15:30: Clean the school. The school shuts down for 15 minutes every day so the students and teachers can clean it from top to bottom. The principal blasts frantic classical music over the loudspeakers. His favourite song is Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, which always makes me feel like I’m in the middle of that famous scene from Apocalypse Now. But instead of machine guns, everyone is running around with brooms, mops and rags ready to wage war on dirt and dust.

16:40: School ends. However, almost all of the students and teachers will stick around for another few hours for sports practice. These kids are mind-blowingly good at sports. They take it very, very, very seriously. I peeked in on the girls’ volleyball team and my jaw hit the ground. Each and every one of them was practically an Olympic caliber athlete. Same goes for the judo team, the softball team, the track team. It’s absolutely incredible to watch. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They train with military precision. There are no breaks. Drills are repeated again and again and again until the kids get it right. Anything less than perfection is unacceptable. This rigorous training probably explains why so many kids are asleep at their desks during the day.

18:00: Bike home. Bow to the grannies along the way. Make dinner. Watch the evening “news” on TV, followed by Full House dubbed in Japanese.

19:30: Bike back to school for volleyball practice with the locals.

20:00: Play volleyball for two hours. Suffer incredible forearm pain and soul-destroying humiliation.

22:30: Bike home. Scan the bathroom for cockroaches. Shower. Crawl into bed. Wake up eight hours later. Repeat.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Super size my ass

I had my first real taste of culture shock the other night.

I went into town to buy a pair of baggy, knee-length shorts to exercise in because the spandex shorts I brought with me are too tight and too short for rural Japan.

I browsed the racks for about 15 minutes before I found a pair of shorts that were both regulation length and relatively stylish (“relative” being the operative word here).

I grabbed a small-sized pair to try on since all the women in this town keep telling me how “slim” I am. Seriously. They are obsessed with my weight. I hear “You are so slim!” at least three times a day.

They eye me up and down, smiling and nodding approvingly while I squirm with embarrassment. After about five minutes of this, one of them will finally say, “You. Have. Nice. Body!” It’s both flattering and creepy.

So I could be forgiven for assuming I would be able to fit into a small-sized pair of shorts. But when I tried the shorts on, I couldn’t get them up past my knees. They were so small I had to double-check to make sure I hadn’t grabbed a pair of child’s shorts by mistake.

The same thing happened when I tried on a medium pair. So I tried on a large pair. This time I was able to get the shorts up past my knees but not past my hips. So I tried on an extra-large pair. And the shorts still didn’t fit! They were stretched so tightly against my butt the seams were about to split.

All I could think was “My ass is XXL? Are you kidding me?”

Adding insult to injury, the store didn’t even carry XXL shorts. So I ended up buying a (large) pair of spandex yoga pants instead because, apparently, I can only fit into clothes that are made of stretchy material with an elastic waistband.

Like I said, it was my first real taste of culture shock.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Going buggy

So far, there are only two downsides to living in rural Japan. One is being forced to play volleyball. The other is being forced to deal with the bugs.

The bugs here are not like the bugs in Canada. These bugs are absolute monsters. They are big and hairy and have teeth and fangs. They slither down from the mountains at night and crawl in through the cracks in the walls.

My voice is hoarse from screaming every time I see a cockroach in my apartment. I can’t help it. They’re always sneaking up on me when I least expect it. The blur of a brown thing with skinny legs and long feelers zooming up the wall or scurrying across the floor makes me jump out of my skin.

I can’t suppress the screaming even though I know I should since I live on top of the town library and my ear-splitting screams probably terrify everyone quietly reading their books below.

But I’m taking steps to deal with the bug problem. I have set up several roach traps in my apartment (one is at the foot of my mattress in case any of the little bastards try to crawl into bed with me while I am sleeping).

I also have the vacuum cleaner plugged in and at the ready at all times. My makeshift bug-killing machine ruthlessly sucks up any cockroach, beetle, centipede or spider that dares enter my apartment. (I also keep a towel stuffed in the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner when it’s turned off just in case any of the bugs try to crawl back out.)

The creatures are omnipresent. You don’t just see them; you can hear them at all times. The cicadas scream all day. The crickets chirp all night. The frogs croak in the rice fields. And I am always hearing little scuffling sounds in my apartment. Or at least I think I am. Either way, I am going completely buggy.