A Letter Home – 2004

 

I’m writing from Toyama, Japan, a main-island prefecture nestled between mountains and sea, roughly 4hrs Northwest of Tokyo by bullet train. For the past four months I’ve been teaching English to children ranging 3 – 14 in the town of Ohyama. Or perhaps more aptly surmised; for the past four months I’ve been attempting to teach English to children both young and old, with a couple of their parents thrown in for good measure, too. Attempting to teach English is an interesting task – a combination of human tape recorder, stand-up comic, dictionary, and jungle gym. Although it’s half-a-world-way in many regards, the duality of classroom dynamics is ever-present: there are students who love to learn and students who hate it, students that try super-hard and students that sleep in the back of class under their textbooks; hyperactive students, attention deficit students, hungry students, rich students, poor students, happy students, depressed students – those whose only concern is the next minute, and those who walk as though they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Elementary students are highly excitable – live-wire bundles of energy – running, shouting, playing, laughing, learning, all part of a larger game; junior high students in the awkward stages of transition – unsure about being cocksure, too cool yet at the same time, not cool enough.

 

As Vincent Vega (John Travolta) comments to his criminal cohort Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) in Pulp Ficiton, “It’s the little things that make it [culture] different.” Japan, like Amsterdam, is on the metric system, thus a Quarter Pounder with Cheese over here is called a McGrand (pronounced Mi-ku Gu-raa-n-do). But perhaps even more impressive than McDonalds burger schemes is the Katakana alphabet in which they are written – an alphabet separate from the phonetic Hirigana, and character based Kanji alphabets, in which anything foreign is translated to a Japanese-friendly vowel-consonant combination. Or maybe it’s the belief promoted by Den Fujita, “the eccentric billionare who brought McDonald’s to Japan three decades ago”…”eating McDonald’s for a 1000 years would make his countrymen taller, blond-haired, and fair-skinned” (Fast Food Nation). It must come as quite a surprise that in only 30 years it’s made believers fat and unhealthy instead, although in this regard, Japanese youth are right in line with the N.American ideal; what milkshakes, fries and burgers haven’t been able to transform, bleach-blond hair-dye, punk music and pump-heels has. Not that embracing any of these ‘N.American-isms’ has made Japan any less ‘Japanese’. If anything, the reverse is true; Japanese pop-culture exists as a testament to the surreal – a sort of Dali-esque pastiche of various cultures and generations injected with high-tech gadgetry and neon lights that culminates in a, who-dropped-a-tab-of-acid-in-my-bowl-of-rice experience. Young woman with platinum blond hair wear mini skirts, pink feathered boas, sheepskin boots, and accessorize with bling and T-shirt’s that read: “Give me strength! Are you serious? Pise myself laughing” or, “Daddy was a street corner. Know your limitations, my mother said.” Toilet seats are heated (and if you’re lucky, hydraulic), public transport arrives exactly at the specified time, a synthesized ‘Big Ben’ plays over the intercom to signal the end of each class, beer vending machines stand next to coffee dispensers, bears threaten the existence of small towns, and everything – absolutely everything – from baked cookies to batteries in a box, is individually wrapped in plastic. There’s a shirt I’ve seen on several occasions that embodies the heart of the matter; in bold letters it reads, “Same, same, but different”, and there’s really no better explanation.

 

Under the initial onslaught of culture shock lies something more tangible. Peel away the thin veneer of glitz and pop, look behind the facade of trend and fashion, and there is the realization that despite the often bizarre, superficial differences, individuals the world over face a similar set of challenges. Albeit for many in the first world, the primary set of challenges are not so much challenging as an unconscious pattern of actions taken for granted; food is in the fridge, heat comes from vents in the ceiling, and water comes from a tap. Japan is no exception; rice comes from the rice cooker, heat from your AC unit, water from the tap. However, in expressions of individuality and conformity, quirks and idiosyncrasies, cultural context is revealed and the fabric of society on which routine intertwines with daily drama, unfurls. How does a student express frustration? What discipline is appropriate for the disruptive child? Why does nobody speak when asked about East-Asian political tension? Or, rather – how is a student expected to express frustration? Is disciplining a disruptive student beneficial to the class? Why is it inappropriate to express personal feelings about controversial topics in a social setting? The answers to these questions, indeed the questions themselves, belie one of the main differences between East and West: the dynamic of individual vs group. Unfortunately, four months has only begun to hint at this insight, and I’m afraid there’s not too much I could write now that I wouldn’t disagree with later – so I’ll stop this digression, get back to the original intent of the email, (which was to wish all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year) and leave you with a description that could only come from Japan at Christmas – something I’ve heard about, but yet had the pleasure to see. In the back of a department store, amongst rows of stuffed reindeer, origami christmas cards and miniature snow globes, lies a destitute tree ornament looking for a better home: Santa Claus nailed to a cross.