The greatest news as of late is that my girlfriend arrived here in Japan. She flew into Narita from Norway by way of Turkey. She had just spent over a week exploring the colorful postcard beauty of the picturesque Norwegian landscape before coming here to soak up the flat, monochromatic and dusty hues of Sano, Tochigi. I imagine the adjustment must have felt to her like opening Door Number Two and winning a Hoover upright, only to be shown behind doors Number One and Three the brand new Lexus and $500,000 cash prizes she could have had. Well, she hasn’t complained yet, and I’m as happy as a clam at high tide.
The Monday she arrived was a whirlwind. It was my first official day at my junior high school, where a school assembly in my honor would leave me nearly in tears. I get choked up really easily, and all it takes is just the right amount of nostalgia, kindness, or stock photography of infants with their mothers to have me sobbing like there’s no tomorrow. I walked with my principal, vice principal and head teacher to the gym, swapped my indoor school shoes for a pair of indoor slippers and wondered why my indoor school shoes were not appropriate as indoor gym shoes, and I squeezed my toes into the tiny slippers and shuffled my way across the floor to the stage. I climbed a few stairs to the stage, curling my toes so as not to lose my ill-fitting slippers that would otherwise jettison off of my feet like bottle rockets, and stood in front of a crowd of nearly 600 students. A student greeted me on the stage, her back facing the audience. She turned the podium’s microphone to face her and read a welcoming introduction to me (this is where I got a little choked up) in excellent English. She then repeated it in Japanese. I was announced to the audience and a summary of who I am was delivered. I was asked to speak and so I repeated the same stuff that was just said about me, and my head English teacher translated that same stuff, and this broken record continued for the rest of the week with each class I visited. Rinse, repeat.
Most of my day was spent sitting at my desk and staring blankly at a filing cabinet while teachers frantically ran in and out of the staff room. I had no classes to attend, and the teachers are so busy they had little time to entertain me. I pretended to be busy, partly so I didn’t look like I was slacking but mostly so I could trick myself into feeling I had purpose.
The interesting thing I find about Japanese culture is the amount of individual responsibility everyone is given, yet how they function as a unit versus a group of individuals. When lunchtime arrives, everyone kicks into gear to transform each classroom into a mess hall – students and teachers eat in the room together and there is no cafeteria – and the group prepares the meal for everyone. Nobody eats until everyone has a meal and is seated. Together they begin, and together they finish. As for me, I’ve been eating with the principal and other staff, as I’m not sure I’m allowed to eat with the students. The reason for this, as it was explained to me, is that since I can’t eat the school lunch (it always includes meat and other things I don’t have in my diet) and I instead pack my lunch, it would seem unfair that I would eat something different than the group. Every student, teacher, nurse, and staff person gets the exact same meal, the only exception being those with allergies. In that case, parents, who are sure to get the monthly lunch calendar well in advance, will go to great lengths to prepare a meal for their child that looks just like what everyone else is eating, so that they too appear to have the same meal. So for now, I’m hidden from the students, when normally I would be eating with them, talking and getting to know their names and personalities. Ah well.
I left school early so I could catch a train to the airport to meet my girlfriend. I arrived with time to spare before her flight was scheduled to arrive, and then was granted an extra hour to spare as her flight was delayed. There were no trains on the schedule (as far as I could tell; Japanese transit still confuses me) that we could catch in time to take back to Sano, but I found that there was a bus that ran later, so it would work out. I waited, killing time at the customs exit while anticipating the moment she would walk into the room. As I thought about it, my eyes welled with tears (Mr. Emotional, I know) and I felt overwhelmed. The board’s status changed. Delayed. Delayed. Arriving. Arriving. Arriving. At Gate. At Gate. At Customs.
And there she was.
Only a month had passed, emails and letters and Skype calls and video chats exchanged, and finally she had arrived, smiling and carrying a backpack so heavy I wondered if she had packed a few Norwegians to bring along. What was in that thing? I never thought to ask.
We rode back to Sano on a nearly empty bus, my head spinning in disbelief as I reacquainted myself with her voice, scent, touch. She was here all right, and it made me happy. Our friend picked us up at the bus station and delivered us to our little cubic habitat a few kilometers away. The details of the rest of the evening will not be disclosed.
Perhaps the biggest news I have to share with you is the last step to my integration into the East. Yes my friends, I finally used a squatter. I thought I could avoid it. Back in March I managed two weeks in China without ever having to figure out how to relieve myself on anything other than a Western style toilet. On the one occasion riding in a smelly, filthy overnight train I almost used one, but the offensive stenches that accosted my nose upon entering the train restroom made my body tense up so badly that there was no way any muscle was going to relax. I think, as I attempted to unzip my pants just to urinate, that my genitals shouted, “Put me away, you lunatic! How could you dare expose us to this foul air?!” I lasted over a month here in Japan with immaculate timing as I entered the restroom at the Board of Education and found the Western toilet stall unoccupied. On those occasions when it was in use, I simply pretended to check my hair and walked back to my desk before checking the stall again in another half an hour.
But this time, I had no choice. My junior high school has no Western toilets, only squatters. And I had to go. I had gone so far as to research online the process of hovering over a porcelain hole in the ground, but still felt confused and intimidated by the process. What if I pee on my trousers? How am I going to hold myself up without losing my balance or getting tired and falling in? All these questions caused me a great deal of stress. I approached the stall. I entered. I stared straight down into that dark abyss with courage, and confidently loosened my belt buckle as if I’d done this a hundred thousand times before. I kicked off a shoe, and slipped one leg out. I’d be damned if I got these pants ruined. How would I explain that to my coworkers when I walked back into the staff room? I stepped over the hole, not letting my fears of being snatched up by a serpent and dragged to Fukushima get the best of me. And I succeeded. And I tell you, friends, since then I’ve logged several more squatter excursions, and I hope you will also have the courage to tackle one of life’s great challenges. It’s not all that bad, I promise.
Most of the week I attend a junior high school, but on Friday I go to an elementary school. There, I have more responsibilities, yet still very little direction. I am in charge of the lessons, and I conduct the lessons, and I’m not entirely sure I’ve figured out what the hell I’m doing. Again I found myself sitting at my desk with no clue as to what I should be doing, but when I am supposed to go to a class for a lesson, two students from that class appear at the staff room door and address me. “Marshall Sensei” they say. And they stand nearly at military attention as they wait for me. They gather my materials for me and carry them, and they lead me to the classroom.
On my first day there I ate lunch with the students in grade two (that school’s principal doesn’t mind that the students see I pack my own lunch). I was offered a desk that came up to just below my knee, and I shoehorned myself into the chair to join them. Two students conducted an inspection of the other students’ lunches, and made some announcements or something that other students repeated. When every student had wiped their hands and was ready, we began. I proved to be quite a distraction for their little ten-year-old brains, and as they stared at me I tried to look as casual as possible as I ate my meal that they were not allowed to have because it was different. Some students asked me questions, but I did not understand. We managed well enough by pointing and nodding and making gestures, which is how I get through most of my days anyway.
At the weekend my girlfriend and I visited Oizumi, a town with a large population of Brazilians, as well as Peruvians and other nationalities. It was nice to be able to communicate and to be able to read ingredients (we went grocery shopping), and if the town itself had more appeal beyond the delicious milk-free bread and Guaraná soda, I might find myself visiting more often.
The next day a group of friends celebrated a birthday with three hours at a local karaoke club. I’ve gotten over the fact my voice sounds something like a mix of Kermit the Frog and Gordan Gano and so I tried my best damn rendition of Depeche Mode and Talking Heads songs, and that’s good enough for me.
Next week we’re going to Disneyland Tokyo.
Oh, and I love Japanese stationary: