Friday, September 18, 2009

What Is Important

Every Friday I have a private lesson with a fourteen year old girl whose English is incredibly great. The text book we follow brings up social and cultural issues that always lead to interesting discussions. Today we talked about What Is Important.

This quickly lead to me drawing a cline (that's right, I'm using my CELTA vocabulary) on the board, with one end labeled 'Not Important', and the other, 'Most Important'. I then named various events, actions, or things and asked my student to place them in order from least to most important, according to how she felt about them. I'd like to share with you what she came up with.

* Spiders
* Magazines and Comic Books
* Having a Boyfriend
* Looking Fashionable
* Learning English
* Being a Kind Person
* Brushing Your Teeth
* Doing Well in School
* Being Popular
* TV
* Pleasing Your Family
* Making Money
* Being Happy

So what if you aren't a kind person, you're failing school, or you don't brush your teeth; at least you're popular and can watch TV.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Wakayama & Nara

I went to Wakayama (a beach town, and home of Adventure World) and Nara (a historic city best known for Toudai-Ji) for a weekend with Katie, her student Senae, and Senae's husband, Masataka. Undoubtedly you've seen my many photos of this trip on Facebook, so let me just highlight ten of the best-of moments.

1. Upon arriving at Adventure World, the four of us immediately got into a line. We thought it was where you waited to see a baby lion cub, but we were soon informed that it was the Hold a Monkey Line. Monkey holding ensued.

2. There was a gateway labeling one part of the park "The Feeling Area," though I'd classify the entire thing as a giant petting zoo. Animals I touched included a monkey (see above), a wallaby, a deer, a wallaby/deer/rabbit hybrid, an American bison, a giraffe, some elephants, many goats, and almost a rhinoceros.

3. Animals that I could have touched, but did not touch, included many dogs, a monkey riding a dog, a raccoon-colored monkey thing, numerous birds, and lions. Though we waited in the Feed the Lions Line for fifteen minutes, the lions were not hungry and we did not get to see what feeding them entailed. I imagine it entailed handing them steaks and petting them.

4. About my almost touching a rhinoceros. We were following the same path as the rest of the tourists through the safari part of Adventure World, but after touching elephants, an American bison, some goats, and a giraffe, we were unsure whether to continue straight past the rhinoceros' cage, or turn left and venture closer to the rhino. As there was nothing obstructing the left path, my friends and several other visitors took it. We were able to walk behind the rhinoceros, as he sat in his little Rhino House, and look at him through a window. We were still separated from him by small bars. Continuing around, we then found ourselves right outside the cage. Thick bars that stood three feet apart kept the rhinoceros from coming out. They did not stop us from going in.

Senae pushed Katie into the cage, and we all followed. Later, we discussed that had the rhinoceros been standing, we might not have marched unabashedly into his cage, but as it was he was lying down and looking unwell, so we weren't as afraid as we naturally should have been. The other visitors were most daring, as they walked right over to him and touched him (and yes, they had young children with them).

I entered the cage and took pictures, intending to touch the rhinoceros afterwards. Before I had the chance, an Adventure World employee holding a radio walked briskly towards us, saying, "Abunai! Abunai!" That means "dangerous." He explained in Japanese that we were not supposed to have wandered into the rhinoceros' cage, and it would be best if we exited immediately. I like to think that he was standing nearby when, over his radio, a voice cried: "Hey, man! There are tourists in the rhinoceros' cage again!" Crrssshh (radio noise), then his response: "Again? That's the fourth time this week!"

5. Soon after we accidentally walked into the rhinoceros' cage, it was Panda Feeding Time. This came after Panda Wake Up Time, which I think was even cuter than Panda Feeding Time. They actually called it Panda Wake Up Time, in English. Once awake, the pandas would assume the Fat Seated Hamster Position (thanks, Jesse!) and drink from milk bottles while being monitored by Panda Supervisors who wore Panda Hats. I think I've found my calling.

6. The last thing we did in Adventure World was to ride the Kandansha (Ferris Wheel). Masataka held our things while Senae, Katie and I rode. Senae suggested we wait longer to get the "Crystal Cabin," a car that was entirely clear, including the bench and the floor. We did, and the "Crystal Cabin" was excellent.

7. That night we checked into our resort hotel that overlooked Adventure World. It was beautiful. Our room was so large that it had a dining room, separate from the living area and bedroom area. It also had a balcony overlooking the pool, hills, Kandansha and ocean. It would have been altogether perfect, except that when we tried to buy beer from the vending machines near the elevators, they would not take our money. We tried several floors. What's with that, Japan?

8. The next day we drove to Nara to see Toudai-Ji, the largest wooden temple that houses the Virocana Buddha. The temple was very interactive. You washed your hands, wafted smoke by the door, and lit candles; and all before entering. Inside, after looking at the immense Virocana Buddha, we had our fortunes read. This involved shaking a box of wooden sticks until one came out, reading the number on the stick, and then having a man hand you your corresponding fortune. Fortunes came in Japanese, Chinese, and English, which was convenient. Though they had small, vague details about travel and health and so on, the best part was the title. Katie and I both got 'Good Luck.' Huzzah. Then Senae got 'Good Luck Later.' I guess she'll have to wait. After we'd read our fortunes, Masataka strolled up to us, looking very pleased with himself. He held up his fortune: 'Best Luck.' Well then!

In addition to pulling a stick and getting your Fortune Slip, you could also get good luck by squeezing and squirming through what I'd estimate was a 1.5' x 2' hole, maybe 4' deep, through a giant wooden support pole holding up the ceiling. We watched high school students go through before deciding I had to try. I attempted several unsuccessful approaches but ultimately I just had to reach my arms in as far as I could so Katie could pull me through. I flopped out on the other side like a fish; albeit a lucky fish. As you left the temple, you tied your Fortune Slip to a pole as a scary looking wooden statue dressed in red looked on. Good Luck, here I come.

9. The deer. There were SO MANY DEER. When we first arrived at Toudai-Ji, we were surprised to see a deer approach us in the parking lot. Having grown up around scores of deer in Maryland, it was exciting to be able to pet one for the first time. Katie and I stayed around the Parking Lot Deer, petting it, as Senae and Masataka called to us: "there are more deer over here." And boy, were there. When we abandoned the Original Deer to enter the park outside of Toudai-Ji, we were immediately met with swarms of deer. Senae and Masataka had bought us deer food (yes, vendors there sold deer food) so the deer instantly knew to attack. Quickly, cuteness became scariness (kawaii turned to kowaii) and I found myself actually running away from a deer. Please see Facebook for proof of this embarrassing moment. I did indeed flee from a deer.

Once we'd run out of food, the deer became passive and gentle. I found myself casually running my hand along this deer or that deer's back as I strolled by, since there were so many deer to be found at Toudai-Ji. Later, during the car ride home, I learned to say "The rhinoceros wasn't scary, but the deer were the scariest" in Japanese. I think it went something like: Sai wa kowaikunakatta desu demo shika wa ichiban kowaikatta desu.

10. Saiin Garan at Hohryuu-Ji. This was the second temple we saw on our second day, about thirty minutes by car from Toudai-Ji. It was stunning. Very peaceful and spread out, it consisted of many small temples or buildings in a practically tourist-free zone. I loved it. Though the pictures don't capture how lovely the area was, I especially liked the five-story pagoda, Gohjuu-no-Toh, and the central gate, Chuumon. There's not much to describe but I took some of my favorite photographs here; namely, the beautiful manhole cover, the cat defecating in front of the temple, the 'angel staircase' sun rays, and the parking lot structure. Please enjoy.

I know I said there were ten highlights, but we have to make this an uneven Eleven.

11. Senae and Masataka. They were wonderful. They planned the trip, drove us everywhere, and treated us to lunch and dinner each day. Unbelievably nice, and on top of that, they were also hysterical. There's a photo of Masataka, outside of Toudai-Ji, holding two lit candles over his head like devil horns as Senae laughs and moves to stop him. That sums up their relationship perfectly, and they were just as entertaining throughout the rest of the trip. A good example was when Katie, Senae and I were jokingly discussing how we should come back at night to rob Saiin Garan, estimating the value of its ancient artifacts. Masataka, without saying a word, mimed the best Cat Burglar Stealing a Gigantic Ancient Statue that I have ever seen.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Random Events from the Last Few Weeks

The Good.

A few weeks ago I went to see one of my Hisai students' friend's art show. Her name is Kikue Miyatake and the exhibit was a restrospective of her artwork for the past fifty years from age four to fifty four. At age eleven she had artwork in a Japanese national gallery, she later had shows around the world, lived in New York, and painted on the Berlin Wall. She's been invited back to Berlin to recreate her painting in what she said was the world's largest permanent outdoor gallery.

That's right, I said 'she said.' Even though this wasn't an opening, an event, or a one-day engagement, when I went to the gallery around noon on a random Thursday, the artist was there. I had looked through the gallery before I started to guess that the woman hanging around the door greeting guests was the artist. Her paintings are very interesting. Most are enormous and abstract and very unique (I thought). Her earlier ones looked Pollock-esque, and she went through a flowers-in-France phase, but everything was lovely. There was a giant photograph of her painting on the Berlin Wall. This is a picture of the painting, but the exhibit's photograph captured it better (it looks oddly flat here):

The problem with viewing abstract artwork in Japan is my inability to read the titles. It's always fun to know what the artist calls the splotches of paint you're looking at, and so I tried to copy the names of the ones I liked best to ask one of the GES managers about later. As it turned out, I had the artist explain her work to me firsthand. She walked me through the gallery and told me many of the titles, explained her process, and talked about New York (she'd lived in the East Village for a few years). I was in a great mood the rest of the day. What a great suggestion from my Hisai student! I also learned that "buumeran," a katakana title I could read but not understand, means "boomerang". "Himawari" is "sunflower". A little at a time...

The Bad.

Two men just came to my door. I considered not answering because one can only assume they were more Jehovah's Witnesses. And also because I was wearing pajamas (who wouldn't be, at 3pm on a Wednesday?). Nonetheless, I answered and was handed an opened envelope that, among many Japanese things I can't read, says in English: Tax Payment Notice. One of the men pulled out the papers and showed them to me. I said "Japanese little," because if they hadn't already guessed I can't understand them, my inability to make a sentence out of those two words would certainly clue them in. They said "tax" and in Japanese asked repeatedly "Margaret Delcher wa doko desu ka?" "Koko," I replied. "Here!" One of the numerous papers seems to say that I owe $16 each month for living here. Fine, except why was this mail hand delivered when they had my address, and why on earth had they opened it before I had even answered my door? Japan, you confuse me.

The Ugly.

My Favorite student knocked my classroom wall down. The classroom is half of a larger room, split in two by a moveable dividing wall made of fairly heavy wood panels. I can move them myself, but not without effort. I've been teaching in there over a month, and even with students occassionaly hitting or running head first into the dividing wall, I've never seen it budge. My Favorite knocked it so far out of place he could go through it to the other room. For the last ten minutes of my three year olds' class, my eight year old students in the other room, waiting for their lesson, were sticking their heads through the wall and laughing. Great.

To be fair, My Favorite is getting a little better. I've learned that he'll behave easily enough, as long as he controls everything. He goes around the room selecting which cards to use next, or pointing at something he'd like to do, and we do it. Am I letting this three year old control me? You bet. If it keeps him in the classroom (what's left of it) with his pants on, then that's good enough for me.

Yesterday as I was teaching the class that comes right before My Favorites, I heard a piercing scream sound from the waiting area. "Great," I thought. "My Favorite boy is out there throwing a fit." I finished up my lesson and went out to see what all the commotion was. First I saw the boy, standing on the window sill with one foot in a plant. Well that's normal. But next to him was the little girl, the other half of My Favorite class, bright red and screaming! What's this? The little and usually angelic girl was throwing a tantrum! She seemed to be angry at her mother and was shouting, but then when she saw me she almost melted into the floor out of embarrassment (while continuing to scream, of course). The mother looked at me like, "I've done all I can here," so I picked up the girl. Not under my arm like I'd done with the boy in the past, but nicely, and I carried her into the classroom. Then I held her screaming in my lap as the boy ran the lesson, until she was distracted enough to forget why she was angry and crying. From there things ran smoothly, until the boy knocked down the wall.