Thursday, September 8, 2011

Nostalgia, Beef Jerky, and Airplane Etiquette

**This is a picture of my hand, close-up.  No, it has nothing to do with this post...I just like it!

It is September 9th, 2011.  Summer, the "time to enjoy the sweet things in life" is over, while summer the "time to try to prepare for classes in fetid, humid air" lingers on...I will say though, that the mornings and evenings are getting cooler here in central Japan, and Autumn is whispering all kinds of sweet nothings in my ear as I bike to work. 

Travelling home to Seattle in summer was, of course, wonderful.  This year was also my 30-year High School reunion, so it was an especially nice trip. My head and dreams are filled with faces of friends and teachers, blueberries, raspberries, and the lakes, trees and the glorious smells of the Pacific Northwest. I am finding it hard to snap out of my reminiscences and think about the second term of school which will begin very soon... so I am giving myself a lot of "breaks", i.e. a little time to recount the story of flying back to Japan from Seattle in this post.

My seat on the plane, just in front of the wing, was a window seat on the right hand side of the cabin. I had boarded early, as my recent "Silver Medallion" frequent-flyer status allows (...I thought this early-boarding was meaningless when I scanned the chart of things I DIDN'T get until becoming a "Platinum Medallion" member, but the beauty of being assured space in the overhead bin and being able to settle in my seat without impatient people trying to get around me with lumpy suitcases won me over very quickly!).  My one and only neighbor very politely smiled at me before putting his bag up above and a little carry on under the seat in front of him. That is when everything took a bad, nearly evil turn...He pulled out a very large, EXTRA-SPICY bag of Beef Jerky to place in the seat pocket in front of him! BEEF JERKY!

Now don’t get me wrong—I do not wish to put down the Seattle-founded Oh, Boy! Oberto company (yes, the exclamation point is part of their name).  In fact, in junior high school I ate enough of the stuff to pave the road to, well, the other Emerald City (Get it? Seattle’s nickname?) *I am talking strictly jerky here...even THEN I knew that those “pepperoni sticks” were vile! **Hey! It just occurred to me that maybe the school allowed the stuff to be sold in the student store in the first place NOT because it was supporting a local company but because they knew the power of pepperoni sticks in keeping young hormone-driven lips apart! Smelly food for thought... But back to the recent past:

The man...The extra-spicy beef jerky...the .00001 millimeters between our seats...and the 10+ hours we were about to share together on an international flight...

In the name of self-defense, with the speed that can only be generated by true “fight or flight” situations (and paired, perhaps, with a small dose of general middle-age crankiness at the lack of public decorum infesting society...), I said:

Jen: (in a dramatic stage whisper, with big, surprised eyes, only 1/2 turned toward the man): “Beef Jerky?! No…, no, no, no nononononooooo, he CAN’T plan on eating beef jerky on a PLANE with no air circulation!…It MUST be a gift for someone back home! Wow…beef jerky…on a plane!...hehehe…” (shakes head in disbelief)

Man: (with blank look) “ .................”.

I wasn’t sure he could understand me…the flight was going from Seattle to Tokyo, then on to China and Vietnam…he could have been from anywhere.  Not that his being able to understand me or not excuses my rudeness (But truly, was I any more rude than he was, bringing BEEF JERKY on a ten-hour international flight?! And what about the Airport selling the stuff? Talk about RUDE! I’d say THEY have a bit of explaining to do: endangering the air of millions of passengers and crew-members alike on a daily basis! I think I’ll write a letter!). I finally knew he did understand when, the first time he got up from his seat he took the offensive meat-product with him and came back to the seat smelling suspiciously minty-fresh! He had obviously brushed his teeth (and possibly downed half a bottle of mouthwash) after his snack. I smiled very brightly at him and sighed a big inward sigh of relief.   He said perhaps two things to me during the flight, “excuse me” and “sorry”...and I hardly blame him...who wants to talk to a crazy, rude woman? As I rarely enjoy talking to strangers on flights, his not interacting with me was a second, hidden “reward” for my rudeness I guess...

Karma can work very quickly, though: just after I stage-whispered my dismay at my seat-mate’s choice of in-flight nourishment, the girl/woman (impossible for me to guess) sitting in front of me decided, 30 minutes in to the flight, that it STILL wasn’t time to close her window-shade.  All of the others were closed and had been closed since the last Seattle-esque speck of land had disappeared from sight. I realized that I was still wearing my sunglasses and when I took them off, I was nearly blinded by that special light that is only found at 37,000 feet.  I quickly put them back on and assessed the situation.  Technically, the window was part mine....3/4 of it hers, but 1/4 of it fell decidedly on my side of the back of her seat. Telling myself it was one of those situations where it was better to do a thing first and perhaps apologize for it later, I took full possession of that 1/4 and pushed the shade down.  Depending upon her reaction, I had planned on saying something like, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you had fallen asleep and hadn’t realized that the time has come for everyone to shut their window-shades so we can sleep or watch movies!” Her reaction was to jump as if I had tasered her. She did not say anything, but slightly turned her head, as if unsure of what crazy thing I was going to do NEXT!  When nothing more came from behind her seat, she must have convinced herself that we were now in some sort of negotiation with the window-shade, because she proceeded to re-open it “just an inch”, which had the effect of not only burning my eyeballs, but burning them with the laser-like focus and intensity found only on vintage Star-Trek episodes!

Was she THAT INTERESTED in clouds? Was she hoping to see a sunset, despite the fact that we would be directly under the sun for the entire trip?! These were my thoughts as I closed the window again, while saying “I’m sorry, it is just a little too bright out there to have our shared window-shade open just now...”  A little while later I began to feel a little troll-like because it occurred to me that it might have been her first trip on an airplane....and then it occurred to me that maybe she had been  using the light to read because she didn’t know how to turn on the overhead light. Well, I had planned to find a way to show her how to do so on my way back from a trip to the bathroom and a little stretch.  Long before I made it to my seat, however, I could see that she had the window-shade open again, but was using her pillow to “block” the light from reaching me. Now, anybody who has foolishly opened an airplane window-shade mid-flight knows that the special GOD-LIGHT at that elevation has the power to penetrate skulls, not to mention the flimsy puffs that pass for in-flight “pillows.” I marveled, for a split second, at how the pillow was nearly translucent, before pushing the window-shade down once more.  She finally left it down until someone else opened their shade a few minutes before bits of the Japanese archipelago could be deciphered through the clouds.  I let her keep it open then, and suddenly wondered why she hadn’t opened the OTHER window, slightly in front of her seat, but which she must have had 3/4’s possession of...

My puzzlement melted away upon hearing what I have come to value as one of the most beautiful phrases in any language, anywhere: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have begun our descent in to (insert city name here), where the local time is...”My brushes with beef-jerky breath and near-blindness were forgotten as I started to ponder just how many more comfortable minutes I would have before the Japanese humidity would welcome me back with open, damp arms.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Wonderful, Horrible Thursday

Today is Thursday. My "easiest" and most "difficult" day of the week: easy because I have only one class...difficult because it happens to be my largest and most unruly group! It should improve, as soon as I can remember everyone's name and use those names within sentences to keep their attention when I need to.

I have a little bit of a rant to write, but first, I hope you are enjoying the photo above...can you imagine the conversation that was had when trying to arrive at a name for their hair salon?

Keiko: I know, Junko, Let's use a foreign word...that should get some attention.

Junko: Yeah! Good idea, Keiko! But let's NOT look up the meaning of it!

(...I don't imagine I will be visiting any time soon!)

So this morning, at precisely 3:58 a.m., I am awakened by the slamming of a car door. Then I hear one of those prolonged "beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep" sounds that tells people a sliding door in a mini-van is being opened. THEN I hear rummaging, then "patta-patta-patta-patta" (the sound of someone running in ill-fitting slippers) disappearing in to the distance. Fully awake, and angry because I had only one more hour of sleep left before my alarm was set to go off, I decided to go out on my deck and see exactly who it was running around making so much noise at that hour. A woman came running back down the street, patta-patta-patta, slammed the back door of her van, pushed the button that made the sliding door close with another "beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep", and then slammed her own driver's door. This is not the first time this has happened, but it is the first time I have seen the culprit. I also realized that she parks in front of my house OUT OF CONSIDERATION FOR HER FRIEND/CUSTOMER(?) WHO LIVES DOWN THE ROAD!!! She doesn't want to park in front of her friend's house because she KNOWS it will wake them up! So much for consideration of others...if I figure out her schedule, I am going to talk with her. Nothing like an irate foreigner speaking in broken Japanese to put the fear of God in to someone at 4 a.m.!

Okay, my little rant is over. Thank you very much.

Monday, April 25, 2011

"Crunky Nude Ball", anyone? Or a pancake milkshake?

Do either of these new Japanese products need ANY explanation? I mean, obviously they were created to fulfill a need in society (...weren't they?!). Sorry- the title of the milkshake is not "pancake" but "hotcake" milkshake...hmmm, that is a nice rhyme...there may be a poem in that! Except in Japan "Hotcake" is pronounced "hot-to-ca-kie" with four syllables, so it would be "hot-to ca-kie mir-ru-ku-sha-kie"!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Summer is a-comin' in...Loud, sing cu-ckoo!

Happy Easter to one and all. I woke up very early this morning and decided to ride my bike to the ocean---it is a stunning day here. I was sitting enjoying the view and listening to my music (today was Diana Krall, Rickie Lee, and the magnificent Charlotte Rae--hence the title of today's blog!). An older man came walking up with an entire flock of pigeons following him and he stopped and started to talk to me like we were old friends. I went along with him because, well, he was pretty old...and that is just the way I am--talkative!-- when he suddenly realized that I wasn't who he thought I was. I don't even think he realized I was foreign, which is kind of funny, given my height when compared to most Japanese... not to mention my sunglasses, a ridiculous headband and the bright orange-swirly patterned sweatshirt I was wearing. Still, he asked where I was from, if we hadn't met before, and if I rode my bike there often. We chatted a while and then he walked off after a few "domo's" and bows. Nice guy, but I am glad those damn pigeons followed him! I hope the Easter bunny is generous to you all. The photo is of the "winter roses" in the small garden next to my driveway.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Japan is my Second Home

Beyond the insanity of the last week because of nature's recent wrath here in Japan, it was a long week of goodbyes, speeches, and present giving-and-receiving for me. I swear, every vessel that can be used as a flower vase in my house is in service! It is nice to feel so loved by my students and colleagues. Teaching can have very, very strong emotional perks: One hundred and ninety 7th graders making a speech in English for me, giving me flowers, and clapping as I left the auditorium...200 or so 10th graders making a speech, giving me flowers, singing "Sing a Song" in English and then making a "canopy" of their arms above me as I left the multi-purpose room, in tears...and the same number of 8th graders doing something similar. I am happily drained of energy.

Yesterday was the "biggie" though: the all-school assembly in which five of us "leaving or retiring" teachers had to make a final farewell speech to everyone (1100 people). I often try to give speeches in both Japanese and English so that everyone can understand...but this year I barely had time to come up with a rough outline so I decided on English only. Since I am still recovering from a cold, I decided to make it short and sweet because I feared my voice wouldn't last. Well, listening to the other teachers' speeches-- luckily I was fourth!-- gave me better ideas...

I reminded students of all of the times we had studied the "What do you want to be when you grow up?" units, and how everyone always laughed when "teacher" or especially "English teacher" was mentioned...and then I talked about how I love teaching and that it is like opening a gift every year, and every never know what it will be: sometimes it is a small thing (Oh- that girl couldn't pronounce that word last she can!), and sometimes it is a big thing (Hey! I remember that girl hated English in the 8th grade...and now she is trying out for the prefectural speech contest!). I spoke about the various traits I loved in each of the groups I taught, and how I hoped for their continued success in English. I encouraged them to travel-- not just to experience the world, but to better understand their own country.

Then I lightened things up a bit (these ceremonies can be deadly serious!) and spoke about/sang the various sounds that will remind me of them and the school: our morning "quiet time" song, our school chime, the various songs I often heard at lunch-- I mentioned a few extremely popular Japanese band names and did a little imitation of Lady Gaga singing "Poker Face", which they loved-- and then I hummed the song that always plays at the end of the day : "What a friend we have in Jesus" (though only an instrumental version- I don't know if any of my students realize it isn't a Japanese song!).

That is when I switched gears and told them how much my family has been in contact with me since the earthquake and how much they want me "home." But, I told the students, I feel like I AM home, at least in my second home...and I just couldn't leave. I don't know if it was then when I started to cry or not, but that set off quite a few students, too! I have spent nearly half of my life here, how can I leave in a time of crisis? I can't.

Lastly, I talked about "Life=Change", a motto in my classes. I reminded them that one of the retiring teachers was born during the Second World War and that the head of our Board, who was sitting on the stage had lived through it. Then I talked about how proud I was that America, a country they fought that war with, had sent two huge ships full of food, blankets, kerosene, medicine and rescue helicopters just to help the Japanese people. Now THAT is change! I said that I hoped that they would find the good in every change in their lives.

At the very end, I sang a verse of our school song and a tiny bit of a beautiful song they sing here at our school festival which is full of reminiscences and hope at the same time. It is never easy to say goodbye, but this year was especially hard.

Several students ran up to me for a hug after the ceremony-- and this is a country that does not often show public displays of affection! I was so surprised by it I started crying all over again!

The link I am trying to include is to my latest photo book. This one is especially for my colleagues and students at Futaba Gakuen, but I hope everyone will enjoy it and that the love I have for this special place comes through the photos.

...details I want t...
By Jennifer Hansen