Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Movie Night

I love movies.

That's the utter obvious truth.

I can remember being just a little girl, telling people proudly that I thought Disney was for babies. Yet, every time my sister would pop on her favorite Princess movie, it would be me to watch the whole thing. As she had/has the attention span of a gnat, and I was always interested in whatever was on the television.

I love movies, but not nearly as much as my host father, Masaki Otosan. Though, he is better known
The resemblance is uncanny.
as Captain Jack Sparrow. In my first email from him, I asked him what I should call him, as it is one of the Rotary Youth Exchange Cardinal rules to ask your host families what to call them. Much of the time, they will just have you call them by their first names.

But the Japanese culture is much more different.

In the rule package I received from Japan, one of the rules is that I am supposed to call them Otosan and Okasan, Father and Mother, respectively. Now I as much as I was initially uncomfortable with doing this, I suspected that the host families would be even more uncomfortable with me calling them this. I am not their kid, after all. When my parents were hosting Ale from Argentina, they asked her to call them Steve and Jackie. Not, Mom and Dad. It made more sense to everyone.

Not quite as much of a resemblance. But
Captain Jack will let it slide.
Yet again, I was wrong in assuming something about the Japanese culture. (I know, I know, this is unsurprising considering my recent track record in making terrible cultural assumptions.) I emailed my first host father, Kenichi Masaki, and asked him what he would prefer to be called. From my words, I think he interpreted that I would be uncomfortable calling him Otosan, though he told me to call him that. He then added that he loved American movies, and if I would prefer, I would be allowed to call him Captain Jack Sparrow. I was so relieved to have a host father who seemed to have a sense of humor, and it made my family very comfortable knowing that this man seemed like an easy going guy. Plus, I had some idea of what to get him as a host family present. In the reply email, I told him that my favorite movie was Star Wars. In his next email, he addressed the letter as 'Dear Princess Leia..."

Nearly, a week after I landed in Japan, I was sitting at the dinner table at the Masaki's quite bored. My computer, which had been used as a home theater in my room during down time, decided that it would no longer play movies. I had brought with me about 15 of my favorite movies along to Japan for these kinda of situations. I discovered within hours that they would not work on Japanese DVD players due to some sort of DVD sourcing problems or something to that extent. Still, I wanted to do something, and that's when I discovered the Masaki family movie library. I found myself watching my first American movie, spoken in all Japanese, with English subtitles.

To no one's surprise the move we first played was Pirates of the Caribbean 1.

It was quite an experience for me, because I did not realize how strange it is to see non-Japanese people speaking fluent Japanese. In America, this sort of thing never crosses our mind. We all kind if assume that everyone can speak English, black, white, Chinese, Zimbabwean, Pakistani, or Russian. But being in Japan for only a week has given me this image that it's just plain weird to see someone none-Japanese speaking the language. And that's exactly what Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom were doing.

Over the course of 3 months in which I lived with this family, we watched a lot of movies. It even became a bit of a tradition after while. It seemed like every Saturday night, after Track practice and dinner, I would park out in Captain Jack and Mrs. Masaki's room in front of the brand new big screen TV (only purchased because Captain Jack wanted to start a tradition of Movie Night.) They ended up getting Digital Cable, with many special movie channels. That's when the tradition came into practice. The family knew how much I loved Star Wars, and one Saturday evening I got a call to
The fact that this image exists means that the world is great.
hurry up and meet the family in the TV room. The original Star Wars was on one of the Movie channels. We watched the entire thing through, in English with Japanese subtitles. The family cracked up each time I quoted Luke and Obi-wan. Around the part when they first reach the Death Star, Mrs. Masaki went into the kitchen and brought out cups of Cookie's and Cream Haagen Daaz Ice Cream, and we cheered as the Death Star was blown to smithereens. It was the most fun I had all week.

And it came as no surprise to me that when the 5th episode came on the following week, we all watched it together. After 6 weeks, and 6 episodes of Star Wars, I began to wonder if our tradition would continue. It was a lot of fun, for all of us. And in the next week, I was disappointed when no one called for me to come see what was on. I walked by the room various times, listening to see what was on. I even heard a familiar line, "Don't you shoot that green sh*t at me!" I burst through the door, yelling, "I love this movie! Independence Day!" Captain Jack nearly jumped 3 feet in the air, but when we met eyes, I knew why the door had been closed. He was laying in his underwear, looking like he had walked right off the pages of an Abercrombie and Fitch magazine for old Japanese woman.

All he needed was a rose in his mouth, and we could have him into a Valentines Day. I would have apologized profusely, but I noticed he didn't seem to mind. "Oh you like this movie? I'm sorry we should have called you in." I took my seat on the couch, glued my eyes to the television, and pinched my thigh so hard as to not burst into a roaring laughter. When it was over, I excused myself and ran into my room, where I nearly wet my pants at what I had seen.

The next week, Cookie's and Cream Haagan Daaz in hand, we watched Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. And the week after that, we went to the movies and saw the Lake House, which we all agreed was really quite awful. It's weird to think that American movies could have helped to bond me even closer to this wonderful family. But they did.

And around this time, our time was beginning to come to a close.

On the second to last Saturday Movie Night, Masaki Okasan had to attend a wake. Captain Jack and I were on our own. Now normally this would probably scare a Japanese man to be alone with a 15 year old American girl, but Captain Jack isn't exactly normal. He's a badass pirate, with basically no badass skills. He called up his friend, Saiyuri, and together we all went for Okonomiacki at Hakobe. Saiyuri speaks fluent English, and she translated for Captain Jack, that he was going to miss me more than I can imagine when I move to the next family. I told her the feeling was mutual. When we were all finished, Saiyuri returned home, while Captain Jack and I headed into the TV room for Movie Night. He rented the Disney Pixar flick, Cars. I wonder what 50 year old man of any nationality would admit to watching a Disney movie. We both laughed and cried and enjoyed it though. And when it was over, we agreed it was one of the best Disney films in a few years.

The final movie night took place on a Friday night, November 17th, the night of my birthday. Captain Jack had really wanted me to watch his favorite musical, even though I had no interest in it. Finally, I gave in, and we popped in Moulin Rouge. I was not disappointed. The movie was wonderful. The story was sentimental and hilarious at the same time. And even though I enjoyed every moment of it, I couldn't help but feel sad that it was our last movie night. And when it ended, everyone was quiet. It truly was over, not just the movie, but the whole tradition.

I left the Masaki's apartment on the 19th of November. They still have Movie night, every so often, because they have a great television and set-up for it. But I've been told it just isn't the same.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Just Taking A Simple Chance

I'm having the greatest year of my life, but that's not to say every day is perfect. Today was just one of those days. Those days that nothing seems to go right no matter what you do. First on my way to school it started pouring while I was on my bike and only halfway to school. In school it seemed as though all of my classmates deliberately spoke in the fastest and most difficult Japanese possible. They also seemed to spent today reminiscing over the past 3 years spent together, none of which included the cute gaijin. I guess I just forgot what it feels to occasionally be lonely at school. When the long day ended I hopped on my bike and rode home. Whenever I feel a little down, running always makes me feel better. I know it's weird but it's just a nice hobby I've picked up. The problem is that I haven't run in a long time. Track ended in the beginning of November, and with birthdays, moving into a new family, long bike rides to and from school, I haven't found much time to go running. But I needed to run and thus, I got on my shoes and left. My host mom wanted me to take my cell phone because she was sure I would get lost... I was sure I would get lost too. My new house isn't in the middle of the city, like my last one was. But I told her that I would be fine, mostly because I didn't want to lug around my cell phone. I ran out to the busy main avenue, where I had to stop at like 15 red lights. Cars honked and drove past me, and I couldn't really get into the running rhythm. But I followed the road until I reached the main highway. And there I had a moment. I was standing on a crumbing old corner with the option of turning back into Kochi City or taking the mysterious road on the right. I've seen the trail back into Kochi City, but I'd never seen the road. But what is the worst that could happen? Er.. well I could get incredibly lost and have my host family get really worried about me or I can find something that I would never usually stumble across. And thus, I took the chance, and I turned right on a dusty barren road, that looked as though it hadn't been driven on in many many years. It paralled alongside the main River, which at it's best was disgustingly brown and smelly. The bright sun had broken thru the rain clouds from the morning as I ran along the muddy puddle filled road. Not a car in sight. Not a house in the distance. Just me and my running. Looking out upon the river, which seemed to grow clearer and cleaner as I ran along, dozens of ducks and birds swam gracefully in the brown water. Occasionally a fish would spring into the air and disturb the calmness of the birds. As I followed the road to the riverback I noticed huge packs of little crabs that fled as I drew nearer. Turtles also rested calmly on the muddy banks. In the distance smoke from a burning rice paddy rose slowly on the mountains. In front of me in the distance I was being towered by lush green unspoiled mountains. To my right was the murky river, slowly inching it's way towards the ocean, and full of blissful life. To my left was what seemed like miles and miles of rice paddies, some burning while others just waiting to be picked. And behind me was home- Kochi City. For the first time in the past four months I could reach out my arms and not touch anything. I was alone on a silent muddy road in the middle of nowhere Japan, with a destination unknown. Never have I felt so free. I was close enough to civilization to run back to it, but far enough to be only surronded by sights and sounds of nature. Still I followed the road, feeling so peaceful and happy. The sun began to fall behind clouds, but I felt like I could reach out and touch it. Soon enough the moon appeared and I began to grow weary over whether I ought to turn back or keep going. I listened to my heart and kept going. Luckily the river grew browner, the animals less common, rice paddies smaller, and sure enough Kochi City loomed in the distance. Back into the city, I found my way back home. There I was met by my host father who smiled and waved and host mother who also greeted me back warmly. I couldn't believe the clock when it said that I had been running for nearly 2 hours! For someone who hasn't run in awhile, that's incredibly good. I don't think I've ever run that long. The point is that for how bad the day started of as, it turned out to be very peaceful in it's ending hours. I was introduced to a whole new area of Kochi City that I may have overlooked if I had not taken a simple chance.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Baseball--- Yakyu

I woke up nice and early and went to my host brothers baseball game. What an interesting experience...

Yohei, my 14 year old host brother, attends the best middle school in Kochi and plays baseball for the school team. He is a Chu Ninensee, or by American standards, an 8th grader. Usually he is the starting pitcher, but today he played first base.

Anyways it was freezing and rainy and it wasn't exactly a place I wanted to be. My host mom, MAri-chan, and I sat down on the icy bench sometime during the second inning of a seven inning game. But after only a few minutes, I was very glad I came. An American joke is the crazy Soccer Mom, here it's the crazy Baseball mom.

I was sitting there cold and nearly numb and then suddenly a crack of a bat and a herd of ravaging screaming mothers stands up screams "GANBARE!" (do you best!) But it wasn't just for hits, or catches, is was also for balls, strikes, steals, bauks, you name it and these woman cheered for it. And when the ref made a bad call... well I don't want to remember that incident.

In Japanese baseball, the strategy is to get a man on base... then bunt. They bunt with no outs, one out, two outs, runners on first, second, third, the bases loaded, it doesn't matter. The pitcher bunts, the power hitter bunts, the leadoff hitter bunts, they might as well call it Buntball and just be done with it. The funny thing is, the Japanese almost sort of think that they invented baseball. Normally I'd say they didn't but Japanese baseball is so different than American baseball, that they sort of did invent a new game.

The thing I like about Japanese baseball is that is has heart. When you look back onto American baseball in early years when it truly was the American pastime, when little boys only dreamed of playing the major leagues, most importantly the players played for the love of the game not just money like today. That's Japanese baseball for you... plus a few crazy mothers.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Last Day with the Masaki's

Okay so I know this is called Last Day but I think it best to start on the night before I left...

My last photo with this crazy-ass family, whom I absolutely adore.
After my incredibly amazing Sweet 16 party, I find myself on the verge of tears as I pack all of my new gifts in a Bag for the move.

It's time.

The move from the Masaki family to the Oono family.

Naoko sits alongside of me putting things my disorganized belongs into tattered bags. She keeps me from crying, but the sentiment of overwhelming sadness is still there eating me up inside. Before finishing up the packing, Otosan comes into the room to announce we would be heading to see a movie, The Devil Wears Prada, in a few hours. I want to be all packed by then, so I hurry to throw things into my bags. I've been her for 3 months and as I look around at my 6 full heavy bags, I can't help but wonder how much I'm going to have after 12 months.

The thought makes me cringe. I realize just how much I love it here in Japan.

Looking around at everything makes me so sad. I've only been here for 3 months, but they have been
I have no description for this photo other than
Captain Jack is a goofball.
full of happy and joyful memories.

I start to cry.
I can't help it.

Right before we leave for the movie theater I give Naoko and Okasan their presents from my parents. Naoko opens hers and instantly loves it. It's a pink and white framed picture of she and I at the airport on my first day in Japan. It says, "Big Sister, Little Sister." She makes an excellent point when she points out that although she may be the older sister, I am much bigger than she is.

I can't help but laugh.

Okasan opens her present, a framed picture of me and Naoko at the pool. It's really a gorgeous picture, of the 2 of us. Both wide-eyed girls with dreams and beautiful smiles. My parents also write a note, "Favorite picture of our two daughters..." It takes Okasan a while to translate it. But she absolutely loves it and she puts the frame into her room. Then I hand her a note. This note I have been working on all week at school. It's written in the neatest and best Japanese I could possibly do. My original note was very me... terrible Japanese, a million star drawings, and a few smileys. I showed it to Shiho and Aimi at school and they conferred that it wasn't very good. So they proofread, fixed my kanji characters, and made me write a much neater note. I still used my same words, though. Apparently they were good enough. The note said something like, (translated from Japanese):

Dear Okasan and Otosan,

Now I want to thank you. I have been here for 3 months. They have been exciting and great. We have many jokes. (Lists all of good jokes.) I am very happy but sad to leave. Please come visit me in America, you will enjoy! I will miss you very very much. I still here for 9 more months. I will visit. Again thank you!

Your Gaijin, Jurie Gaana.
By the time, Okasan was finished reading the note, she has burst into tears and is hugging me and telling me how much she will miss me. I am fighting tooth and nail to not cry, and am in luck when Otosan returns to urge us to get going. We go to the cinema one last time, to see the movie.

Afterwards, we go to the Super Market and then return home. Back at home, I take one last shower at the Masakis. Then I decide to spend my last night with my host family. It's pretty late, but that's okay. I ask Otosan if he likes the frame and he admits he loves it.

"The picture is great, two girls with fat cheeks."

That's exactly how he says it. Ridiculous pirate. Two Anpanman. The picture is on their cabinet in their room.

We talk about the past 3 months and all of our jokes... Outskare Katsukare, GIDGET, 525,600 minutes, Competitive, procrastinate, Osoi eater, Captain Jack Sparrow... things only we can understand. We as in the Masaki family and me, who shared 3 fun months, August to November. I got to have a great family, Otosan, Okasan, and an older sister, Naoko. They got to have a wonderful American daughter and a younger sister. The thing is, even though, I will no longer live with them, that doesn't have to change. I know that, they know that. But it's still sad that I'm leaving tommorrow. I then teach the Masaki's one of my favorite old games, Bubble Gum Bubble Gum In A Dish, How Many Pieces Do You Wish? They love it! It's pretty funny when Otosan loses and Naoko wins. We also do some crazy hand games, which only Otosan can master. Naoko goes into the tub, and I am left with Otosan and Okasan. We talk about the party. I ask them what they thought about my friends, and they agree my friends were great and very polite. Naoko had said earlier that she was so suprised to see I had so many friends and that I was obviously very close to all the girls at the party. Otosan also assured me that the Ono family was great and very excited to have me and so far I had done well. Done well? After last years exchange students, Rotarians were extremely hesitant to host. Otosan admitted that he wouldn't have hosted if Sakioka-san hadn't pressured him. But now, many people are volunteering to do it. I already have my third host family picked out. They live rather far from the school, I will be the oldest kid and get this... there are 4 children! The oldest girl will be an exchange student next year. As of now, they are building my room in the house. That's an example of how I have done well, Otosan says.

I'm getting really tired as it is very late. But before I go to bed I make them promise they will come to visit me in America. I tell otosan I will take him to see Rent (one of our jokes.) They tell me Oyasumi Nasai for the last time. I head to bed and fall asleep... the last time in the Masaki house. When I awake the next morning, I just lay in bed for a while, drifting in and out of sleep.

At 10; 30 I finally decide to leave the room. Otosan decdes we should all go out for brunch. At breakfast Okasan and Otosan order Coffee, Naoko orders tea, they ask if I want water. "Can I have Coffee?" Otousan thinks about this, "Okay, you're 16 now, I guess you can." You'd think I was asking him for alcohol or something... The girls all order Cheese Toast and Otosan order something else. We kind of sit there and talk about Kochi and how it never snows.

When we get served, Otosan and Okasan eat quickly, and me and Naoko eat slowly. When I am
finally done, I can't help but tell Otosan, "Osoi Eater." (Another of our jokes.) Back at the house, we take a whole family photo. My camera timer comes in great use as we sit on the deck and smile. Then Ojisan takes a picture of just the Masaki's and me. Back inside, it's time to load everything into the car. It takes Ojisan and Otosan both to carry just one of enormous heavy bags... poor guys. It's raining really heavy by this time, but Okasan takes my Camera chip to get pictures from the party. When she returns, she also has a bag of chestnuts. The most difficult little beast in the world. It's time to go... Obachan stands on the sidewalk waving to me. I'm crying so hard now I can't even hide it. Okasan is fighting not to cry. Naoko is too, but she is losing. The ride is quiet, but when we get there, I've dried my eyes. I don't want my new family to think I don't want to go to them. That all I want to do is stay with the Masakis, because that is not the case. We unload the car and the Masakis are invited in for tea. Okasan speaks to my new Okasan about me. Naoko looks around at the house and consistantly whispers "sugoi" which means Great. To break a mere awkwardness, I decide to speak. My new host brother is wearing a Red Sox Jacket. I call him on it and everyone laughs. This is going to work out. Its time for the Masaki's to go. Naoko is really crying now as I stand on the sidewalk and wave.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

My Super Sweet Sixteen: Day II

Classy. With a side of awesome.
In theory, it was still November 17th in America so Part II of celebrations was justified. At least, in my mind. ((Since technically, I was born 16 years ago on the 18th in Japan because of time zones and the fact that I was born in America. But do we need to get that technical? Nah.))

When I got to school that Saturday morning, I was able to hang out with my friends for a few classes.
They dressed me up for my birthday.
It was great because everyone was really excited about my upcoming birthday dash. I kept thanking my classmates for their beautiful gift from yesterday, but they all just brushed it off as no like it was no big thing.

But it was big deal to me.

After school, my friends stayed behind to eat lunch and I hurried home to get ready for my party. Soon we left for the Shin Hankyu Hotel, which is also the classiest (and most expensive!) hotel in Kochi City. Once we arrived at the hotel, I was whisked away from my host family into a back room, where a lovely Kimono-clad women stripped me out of my clothes and put my a fancy Kimono. Obachan, Okasan, and Naoko were in the room with me getting ready, and essentially cooing the entire time at their little white girl getting Japan-ed up.

It takes a long time to put on a kimono, but luckily the Kimono lady had patience, which I suppose is the main requirement for Kimono dressers. Anyway, I was given the choice between several of her Kimono to wear. I picked
Learning how NOT to breathe.
out a beautiful blue Kimono with traditional flowers on it. The teacher then set about the task of squeezing me to death into the Kimono. For the hour and a half that I wore it, I'm not sure that I got much of chance to breath.

Still in the dressing room, Okasan, Obachan, Naoko, and Me took a ton of pictures. They then put my hair half up and half down. And to be perfectly honest, I looked absolutely gorgeous. Yep, I am not even going to beat around the bush on this one. I looked amazing, despite the fact that I was a white girl in a Japanese Kimono.

Next, I had to wear those stupid traditional flip flops, and truthfully, I'm just surprised my ankle is not
Friends from class!
broken right now. Hey -- I may be wearing a drop-dead gorgeous outfit, but I am still the same clumsy fool that has never been able to wear heels for fear of death!

In the elevator down to the party room, Yurie gave me an amazing tiara to wear as a present. The whole tiara get-up really threw out the authentic Japanese outfit, but I'm still an American girl. And most American girls on their Sweet 16 wear tiaras, as ridiculous and narcissistic as that is.

When I walked into the party room, all of my friends cheered for me KAWAII! and had me take millions of pictures. As usual, I was supposed to do a speech in Japanese, but I forgot to prepare one so I did a speech in English about the fact that Sweet 16 is a little bigger than normal birthdays because everyone seems so interested in that fact.
And I thanked everyone for coming. Yurie translated everything and added that I attended her 17th Birthday Party in America and how special I was. (Did I mention how much I hate attention?)

Afterwards, the banquet chef rolled out my ginormous cake. And by ginormous... I seriously mean that the thing was bigger than a typical wedding cake. I think it might have been a wedding cake, also. But it was covered in fruit and white chocolate bestowing "Sweet Sixteen Julie!"

All of my friends came to where I was standing and we took a bunch of pictures. Yurie told them all
that I loved hugs. So a bunch of Japanese girls went outside their cultural comfort zones to give me hugs. Aimi was the only one who wouldn't give me a hug, but I told her I would get her to crack, and give me a hug by the end of the night. I told her by the end of the party I would get her to crack and give me a hug, she told me fat chance and we laughed up.

They placed Sixteen Candles around my cake and lit them. Then everyone sang the wonderful birthday song for me. I was so happy and excited I couldn't accurately describe it. I was surrounded by 20 of my best friends, all giving me hugs, my loving host family, my kind new family, and a few Rotary counselors. Then the chef gave me a sword... okay a giant knife... and had my cut my cake. I sliced in and everyone cheered.. it was truly wonderful.

Dear lord, I am pampered.
It was time to sit down and eat after that. I sat at the head of the party with Yurie and my left and Masako on my right. Masako brought her Ipod and played terrible Rap music... just like American sweet sixteen parties. Waitors came around and gave everyone huge plates covered in sweets. Then bowls of Ice Cream. Then pieces of cake. The meal was my wonderful Birthday Cake, Vanilla Ice Cream, various Fruit, Crepe, Choclate and Vanilla Cookies, Pudding Bread, mini Parfaits, whipped cream sugar fruit, and Almond Crackers. My plate alone could have fed an army. Everyone ate just a little bit of what was served.

But me- heck -- I ate everything!

It's my birthday and I can do whatever I want!

After the meal, I went around and took pictures of the tables and joked with my friends. I wanted to
So. Much. Cake.
be the best hostess I could be. It was really emotional to walk around and speak all the guests. I generally hate being in the spot light, even if it my birthday. But everyone was so kind and wonderful that I could not help but remark to Yurie that I've never been so happy at a party before -- and the best part was that it was my own party.

My own Super Sweet Sixteen!

After that I sat with Naoko and Obachan for a little while. Then I went to speak with my new family. They seem really great, and though I'm incredibly sad about leaving the Masaki's, I know I am going to do great with the Ono family. Because I want to make it work. And looking around, and seeing how many great friends have, the wonderful relationship with my first family, and the fact that Rotary is spending a huge amount of money on a fabulous party for me, all of these are products of me wanting to make it work. It being this year, my exchange.

New host Dad and Captain Jack.
That's just how life in Japan is for me. Exchange is what you make it. I'm having the best year of my life. So I think I'm doing a pretty good job. At least, I hope so.

After a little while I decided to change back into my school uniform and it was back to a thousand more pictures. Yurie had the idea to get everyone who got me a present come up and take a picture with me holding the present. I kind of burst into tears of joy again.

I don't know why but I was feeling just so loved. More hugs and tears and pictures covered the next 15 minutes. And then like the saying goes, "All good things must come to an end..." Matsumoto-san, my counselor, said it was time for the party to finish.

As all of my friends were leaving, they all gave me more hugs. Even Aimi gave me a hug. I'm pretty
Photos with presents!
sure everyone had as good of a time as I did. I overheard my friends saying that it turned into a good party. And I agree 100%. I just had the best Sweet 16 party.

Otosan, Naoko, and Me waited in the lobby for Sakioka-sensei to give me his present. 3 Harry Potter books, which Otosan cracked up about and told Sakioka-san I had already read them. After 3 months, he knows what I've read.. pretty crazy right? Back at home, me and Naoko opened my presents. I don't want to sound spoiled rotten but the happiness from my party was turned into sadness. This is because everything I opened I had to quickly pack away. In a pendulum swing of emotions, I went from being the happiest girl in all of Kochi, Japan, to the saddest. I did not want to leave the Masaki's tomorrow. With my never-ending birthday celebration, I had delayed facing the inevitable: I was moving to a new family. And even though I though the new family would be great, I could not bear to think about parting with the Masaki's. Simply put, I love them.

I love my big sis!
As for the presents that I opened and then quickly packed away... well random is a bit of an understatement.

But that's the Japanese for you. Not that I don't love everything I got with all my heart. My track friends bought me a great scarf, Shiho baked me a cake, Nanae bought me a plastic Christmas tree, Masako got me a Totoro stuffed animal and towel. I also got Cookies, chocolate, and Anpanman Doll, pajamas, a mirror, a mini Star Lab, a pencil case, Miss Bunny Frame, sunshine Mug, Christmas candles, and a handmade stuffed dog. I'm sure I forgot some other stuff... and I'm sorry for that.

When everything was all packed away, the fun decided not to end. Otosan took up all to the movie theaters to see "The Devil Wears Prada" which is a great film... I went to bed that night thinking that these past two days may have just been the most fun days I ever had... But I was also dreading tomorrow.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

My Super Sweet Sixteen: Day I

Birthday girl.

This morning, as my alarm clock blared to life alerting me about the impending day, I woke up and felt like the typical 15 year-old girl exchange student to Japan. Because, obviously, that's a typical
My crafty friends made a pretty card for me.
feeling that many people experience in their lifetimes. Ha.

But, of course, today was never meant to be just ordinary day for me. It was my 16th birthday, after all!

And in America, that's a pretty a special day.

Sweet Sixteen.

Since I have always been extremely young for my school grade in America, most of my friends had already celebrated their Sweet 16 birthday with big elaborate parties. I have attended parties at banquet halls with catered food and DJ's and ball gowns and elaborate decorations. As for me, I had never planned on having a big party for my 16th, as I generally abhor any attention that being "the birthday girl" would bring. Plus, I have known for some time that I would celebrating the "Sweet 16" as an exchange student in come foreign
Even if it my birthday, I still got to clean toilets for cleaning
duty at school. How exciting!
country, which probably did not share the same odd traditions of elaborate parties like in America. Mostly, though, I am not really a big partier.

But, of course, Japan is Japan, which generally means I have limited to no say in my fate here. My host family and Rotary had plans for my birthday, which they did not feel I should be consulted about. So my plans for a nice quiet passing of another year were thrown out the window.

On the morning of the 17th, I quickly got dressed in my navy winter school uniform. Before I headed to school, I received "HAPPY BIRTHDAYS" from my host parents, much to my surprise and delight. Not that I expected them to forget, but it was still comforting to know they remembered and that I wouldn't be reliving the beloved movie, "16 Candles" with a slight Japanese twist. After my daily morning walk through the Obiyamachi shopping arcade, I arrived at school. My friends and classmates all cheered for me and wished me a happy day. But that was it. Then they kind
The girls in my class got me this
present... my first Yukata!
of went back to normal and forgot about my birthday. Not to sound disappointed, but they had all been talking about it for weeks.

Sometime during the day, Yurie came in my classroom, and screamed "HAPPY SWEET SIXTEEN!!" After that random, but not wholly unexpected, outburst from my overly-Americanized friend, I had to spend most of the day explaining the significance of a "Sweet 16" to my teachers. The day kind of drifted by slowly, at lunch I ate with Shiho and Kaori and we joked about how Shiho is so young. She won't turn 16 till February 20th. I'm pretty sure she is the last 15 year old in our year at school.

So technically that still makes me one of the younger girls in our grade. This is one thing I have in common at both Tosajoshi and Verona High School: being a wee baby in terms of age!

Finally, last period of the day came and I anxiously waited until the end of class. Then halfway through, Yano-sensei suprised me, he stopped teaching and announced to everyone it was my birthday. It seemed like everyone knew, and I realized why they all virtually stopped talking about it earlier in the day.

They had been planning this...

That evening, my host family had a small party for me, as well.
Naoko even returned from college to partake in the festivities.
Yano-sensei then called me up to stand in front of my 43 other class mates as they sang to me in English. It was the most off-key terrible version of a wonderful song, and yet I stood up there looking at 43 girls laughing and cheering for me. After the song, Yano-sensei announced they had all pooled some money to buy me a gift. I thought that was the most surprising part of the day... I was dead wrong. The present was the nicest most beautiful gift I could have ever even imagined. I slowly opened the package, causing my classmates to stir and urge me to go faster... and... then... "Oh my god!" I said as I pulled out my present. My 43 classmates bought me a beautiful Japanese Yukata, or summer kimono, and 2 handmade hair clips. I mouthed a few "thank you" but I could not help but feel so touched by the generosity and thoughtfulness of my class mates, that I burst into tears.

In retrospect, I feel a little bad that I couldn't thank them more.

It meant that much to me.

Life as an exchange student has taught me that when you get surprises, hold onto the moment, try to feel and remember it as best as you can. Looking out at my friends, tears streaming down my face, that is something I know I'll remember. Then my teacher, Yano-sensei, whom I really enjoy having as a teacher, handed me another package. He had bought me a really cool lamp "for studying" and an pretty picture frame. I wanted to say to everyone "You don't know how much this means to me. You've just given me an amazing birthday and I can't thank you enough. I love you all so much and I'm so thankful I have been given an opportunity to be in the same class with you all." But my Japanese skills are a bit on the poor side so they all had to settle for "Thank you..." with a few tears and sniffles.

I asked Yano-sensei if I could give them hugs and he replied, "No, Japanese people hate hugging." I
Making Takoyaki with the Masaki family!
burst out laughing because I wanted to say, "You don't say? I never would have guessed," in my sarcastic voice.

Standing in the front of the room and looking out at 43 of my classmates laughing and smiling at me, I felt like the happiest 16 year old alive. I may not look or act like the majority of these girls. But I fit in here. I have the best friends here, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

After class ended, I fulfilled my school duty of cleaning and headed home. At home, the Masakis greeted me with more "Happy Birthdays!" There was also a package from home waiting for me. Inside were some little gifts from home, which included clothes, a bracelet, and Verona news, More things to add to my wonderful day. I decided to take a little rest.

My beloved big sis comes home!
Later on for birthday dinner we made my favorite meal, Okonomiyaki with a side of Takoyaki! I don't think I have ever eaten so much food in my life. It was so much fun to make the dinner with my host father as he clowned around. Making Okonomiyaki is easy, but Takoyaki is a bit more difficult. You basically fill little ball platters with mix and raw octopus and let it cook. Then you have to flip it it so it turns into a good ball. Otosan is a Takoyaki fiend, as for me, for my first time, I didn't do to bad.

After dinner we decided to wait until midnight for Naoko to return to eat my cake. In the mean time, I took a Japanese-style bath and then we all wathced Moulin Rouge, because my host family is basically the coolest.

At midnight I went with Otosan to pick up Naoko at Kochi station. I got a big hug and a Happy
Fruit on a cake. A Winning Birthday combination.
Birthday. We caught up on the ride back home, remembering when we last lived together at the apartment. And back at home my family sang happy birthday to me and gave me a nice chocolate cake. The cake was so cute, chocolate and covered in fruit bestowing "Happy Birthday Jurie" in Japanese.

It was really wonderful! For presents I received some underarmor winter clothes for my uniform, a Totoro-themed towel, and a stuffed animal. (I really am becoming a Japanese girl.) My Obachan bought me a beautiful traditional fan. Tired, we all went to bed.

I fell asleep feeling like the luckiest girl alive. And yet, the festivities had only just begun!
I don't want to forget one of the best moments of this exchange.
It was a tuesday I believe, I slowly came back to my classroom from my self study in the library. I need that self study but sometimes i just wish I could spend more time with my friends. Anyway as I walked up the third floor on the Tosajoshi building I saw my 2 best friends smiling and waving at me to hurry. I don't know that I have felt to well-like in my life. Sure the main reason was they just wanted me to hurry so they could get out of class quicker. But also because they wanted me to come back to the classroom, to be with them. 2 girls waving and smiling and urging me to hurry. It's the little things that make you learn to appreciate life in strange ways.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Funnel In The Sky And A Shaking Earth

I've run into some interesting things. There is no point in denying that. But then interesting to me, is completely and utterly normal to Japanese standards. But then it's the also the opposite
Japanese news is a little bit pathetic compared to it's American counterpart. Often the main headlines are cats getting stuck in trees, people being hit by cars suffering barely a scratch, and other minor stuff that wouldn't merit to anything in America. Don't get me started on some of the stuff I have seen on Japanese News Programs. Yesterday at dinner, we sat down to watch the news. And like I expected, the first 10 minutes were devoted to the weather of Kochi for the next 2 weeks. I've been here long enough to despise these 10 minutes. They play the same music over and over and the song is a combination of Nick Jr. And the Brady Bunch meets those silly crane games that you find on the board walks. The news then goes onto 15 minutes of pure annoyance, in my opinion. Talking about how one of 5,000 Pachinko parlors in Kochi, open since *gasp* 1991 is closing down, local fisherman caught a slight surplus of fish, Tosayama High school is going to Okinawa on the School Excursion. Yes people, this is headline 6 o'clock news! In no way shape or form am I exaggerating this either.
Afterwards they dedicated 10 minutes to talk about the recent Tornados in Hokkaido. I was a little surprised to hear about this. Japan is an island that is pretty much one mountain range, thus it is nearly impossible for Tornados to strike. So I listened carefully as the newscaster talked about the tragedy, the disaster of the tornado that ravaged Hokkaido. Using such strong words I figured this could only meet death and destruction. And not to sound like a horrible person but I've been her for nearly 3 months listening to stories about cats getting stuck in trees, old ladies losing there purses in the subway, and the Kochi city board fighting whether or not to put up another Karaoke bar by the famous sights of the city. I was damn interested to hear some news about an actual disaster. Excited even. Just as the suspense was filling up, a commercial break occurred. Some other time I'll go into just how bad Japanese commercials are, actually Japanese television is really just bad. But the break gave my host father an opportunity to ask me a few questions.
"What's the name of those storms in Hokkaido?"
"Oh Tornados, just like the baseball team."
"Right! Are there a lot in America?"
"Oh yeah in New Jersey but in Oklahoma, Texas, and the Mid-West there are many tornadoes. They cause a lot of damage and people sometime die."
"Well in Japan we NEVER have tornadoes. This is probably the first tornado ever."
"Oh Okay."
"Have you ever seen Twister?"
Before I could answer the news came back on. I expected to see the worst, houses blown to smithereens, people crying, talk of missing people, agony. What can I say I grew up with American pessimistic news? As the news suddenly took us to Northern Hokkaido, my expectations were thrown so far out the door they could expect to be allowed back in. There were a few houses with missing shingles, some shattered glass from missing windows, but the real clincher was the broken flower pot and the old woman crying over it. "I worked so hard..." No overturned tractor trailers, missing houses, telephone poles on the other side of town, and above all no flying cows! As I sat there annoyed and frustrated at the Japanese news program, my host father sat across me and moaned, "Awful, just terrible. Those poor people." Yes poor people! They lost there precious flower pots! They then flashed onto a different segment of the actual tornado. I snorted looking at this little black pipe cleaner the Japanese people considered to be dangerous. It made those big beastly tornados in Tornado Alley look like monstrosities, the Armageddon in a huge black windy tube. My host father was snorting and whispering, "It's enormous, lucky people didn't get hurt! Look at the size of that thing." I didn't have the heart to tell him Americas tornadoes were way better, it probably would have turned into an argument.
And yet...
A few months ago, probably about early September, I was tucked away nicely sleeping. It was about 5 in the morning and the sun was just about to make its rising. I think I was dreaming about fairy and chocolate cake, well you get the picture. And then suddenly my eyes flew open. My mind raced with an alarm bell screaming DANGER DANGER! Then as if on cue my whole body began to shake. I sat up and felt it wasn't just my body but my bed was shaking, too! Then I noticed the floor was shaking. But the clincher came when a book fell off the shelf behind me. I was awake and alert and now screaming for help! I got up and charged thru the hall way into the kitchen, not noticing that the shaking had abruptly stopped. When I got into the kitchen, I heard my host parents scramble into the kitchen. "So you felt it too?" I yelled in pure fear over what had just happened.
"What? What happened are you okay? Why did you scream?"
Okay so there not very good actors, as I had learned at an earlier time. And yet, this lack of understanding was very believable.
"The shaking? My bed was shaking! I was shaking. What in God's name just happened?"
My host father and mother looked at each other with a look of disbelief. "Bad dream?" My host father finally asked.
Oh no! Don't make me feel crazy, I'm not crazy. My room was shaking and a book even fell.
"We sleep on the floor, we would have felt the shaking," my host mother said in a comforting voice.
"But- I swear a book even fell in my room. Something happened. What happened?" I stammered.
My host father knew I wasn't going to give in so he said, "If it was an earthquake the news will mention it." Earthquake. I'm in freaking Japan, the island was made from millions of years of earthquakes and volcanoes and the thought had not even occurred to me. Scared to death, I plunked down into the chair and watched the news talk about how Misa Yokogawa won the Clothes cabinet at the local Grocery store lottery. After about a half an hour of nothing, even I began to think it was a bad dream. By then a talk show came on with special guest owner of the local Aeon superstore!
"See, it was just a bad dream," my host father laughed.
I was too proud to concede this and was lucky when the special guest said, "... Yeah I was up early this morning. That nothing little tremor woke up my barking dogs..."
"SEE!?!?!? Earthquake!" I said.
My host parents giggled and said, "No No No it wasn't an earthquake. It was a little tremor, nothing big." It occurred to me that I was in the strangest country in the world at that point. That was until the tornado incident.
How many miles separate Japan and America? How is that Earthquakes barely phase them, and tornadoes barely phase us? I'm sure Californian would have taken a slightly less crazy reaction as I did, but they still wouldn't have denied they had just survived an earthquake. No matter how insignificant the "tremor" was. It's so interesting when you look at how different and alike 2 separate cultures are. Maybe it's a bit on the strange side to compare the reactions of the people to weird weather and unavoidable earth shakings. But it just goes to show how different we really are.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

A Thought In The Mind Of A Teacher

Everyone was once a student, and thus everyone knows what it's like to be taught. Or to have a teacher. But not everyone has had a teacher that truly touches their heart. Or makes a lasting impression that affects the rest of their life. In America I have had some truly wonderful teachers who have definitely helped me make some important decisions, including the one where I somehow ended up on the other side of the world for a year. I think about 90% of Japanese students has never had this experience, and I fully understand why. Class homerooms have about 45 kids, making nearly impossible for teachers to get to know the kids. By getting to know them, I mean learning their names would be a good start. For one, each student receives a number. On each assignment they are to write their number first and then their names. The teacher grades them and puts the score in a book next to their designated number. During class when a answer is asked, the teacher will call out a random number. Basically there is never time for getting to know the students weaknesses and strengths and thus class generally bites it here.

One of my favorite things to do here is to teach. 4 times a week I head over from the Tosajoshi high school to the middle school to teach the Chugakkou Ichinensee (epitome of American school system 7th graders) English Conversation class. The main teacher of the class is Paula Fabian. She is a really kind lady born in America, grew up in South Africa, exchange student to France, and 20 year English teacher to Kochi, Japan. She only has 6 classes at Tosajoshi, and then she teaches math in English at the various Universities spread throughout Kochi City. I love spending time talking to her because she knows what I'm going through. I mean she was once and exchange student and she was once a first time gaijin with heavy culture shock over Japan. We usually talk about the immaturity of our students. Especially about how bad they are, which I'll elaborate on in just a moment. Today, though, she brought me a present; Julie's Best Biscuits, Chocolate Wafers! haha.

Like I mentioned before, we teach 4 classes on Monday, Wednesday, thursday, and Saturday. Saturday's class is so-so. On my 2nd day of school, back in September, when I walked into their room, they burst into gasps of amazement. I thought it was very cute at first, but now after 2 months I want them to stop being afraid/amazed of me. The 40 or so kids have a very hard time speaking in front of me and Ms. Fabian, probably because they are embarrassed if their English is bad. I wouldn't mind correcting them, but they would prefer to remain quiet. From watching the girls, I have concluded that Japanese school girls have an immaturity beyond that of all our wildest imaginations. These girls are 12 and 13 years old and yet they gorge on Disney and Pokemon and "kawaii" characters. They scream and run around and act like preschoolers. It's hard to accurately describe it, but sometimes it shocks me.

Monday's class is just one of those classes that every teacher would die to have. To start, when I walk into the classroom, they all bow their heads in silence, waiting for the lesson to begin. We have only had this class about half as many times as we have had the other classes, but they are right on schedule. Ms. Fabian stands in front of the board and teaches, then together we walk around and engage the students in English conversation. This class is not shy around me one bit. For our last class we had the kids do an assignment on asking their partners name and what they like. Many kids eagerly asked me "What's your name, Julie?" and then "What do you like?" To which I happily responded, "My name is Julie and I like Chocolate." Then when they were tested I couldn't help but chuckle at, "Hear nem izu Jurie end she rikes Chokoret." They really are a great group of girls, but as soon as class is over, they are back to being zoo animals.

Wednesdays class is what Ms. Fabian describes as the "class from hell." They are loud, obnoxious, immature, and inattentive. When I go around and try to have conversations with them, they get very giggly and only answer me in Japanese. Then the giggles turn to screams and laughter. Soon while Ms. Fabian is on the blackboard teaching, it becomes nearly impossible to pay attention with all the noise. Once I was absent from the class due to a Rotary meeting, afterwards Ms. Fabian told me she finally lost her temper and tried to throw one of the girls out of class. Which is unheard of, here in Japan. My experience with them has left me frustrated and annoyed, but not giving up on them. Each week I try a new approach to get them to talk to me, and they usually do. But it lasts for about 5 or 6 girls, then they break into loudness. Ms. Fabian and I usually count down the seconds until the bell rings with this class.

Thursday class is much like Saturday's class in that they won't talk to me. I try very hard to walk around the room and listen to each of the pairs of students speak, but it seems when I get to them, they quiet down and pretend to do something else. Sometimes they hide their papers, knowing I won't go searching for it. They do the same thing to Ms. Fabian, but she just yells at them in Japanese. I can't do that yet, so for a while I worried I wasn't serving any purpose with Saturday, Wednesday, and Thursdays classes.

Today, however, was very different. After I had lunch with my friends, I headed to the Tosajoshi Middle School, prepared for the Thursday class. Ms. Fabian greeted me with a box of Chocolate Wafers. I told her she had made my day. During class, while Ms. Fabian stood at the board teaching, I stood off to the side, amazed at how rude the students were being. They could certainly talk amongst themselves whenever they wanted to, but when it came time for talking to us, they seemed to get quiet. Ms. Fabian turned to me and told me she had wanted to give them a speaking quiz she that she didn't have the patience to do it. I volunteered almost instantly, seemingly forgetting that the students almost never talked to me. She was surprised and asked me if I was sure. Why not? So she handed me the class list and explained what to do. I would go around and ask the kids for their numbers then have them read off a section of their current assignment. I would then grade them between 1 and 4 of their English Conversation skills. Ms. Fabian told me if they refused to do it, which she fully expected the majority of the girls to do, to jot down a big zero next tot their name. It seemed simple enough, but I immediately took a disliking to asking for the numbers. Call me crazy, but I don't know anyone who would prefer to be referred to as a number rather than a name.

So I started around the room. My first victim, I decided to look on the top of her paper and address her by her real name. "Okay Ms. Takamura, read for me section C." Yui Takamura looked up at me as if I was an axe murdered who had just killed her parents. I got down on my knees, down to her eye level, and said "Yui? Right here." I was pointing to the section in which I wanted her to read. She looked at the paper and then back at me. Then for the first time all year, she spoke and read section C. "My nem is Yui Takamura end I rike Sushi. Here...hur. Jurie, what is this?" She asked me a question, which totally caught me off guard. "Her," I answered. Yui continued, "Her name is Yumi Okamoto and she rikes Borreyball." Yui looked up and me and smiled. I smiled back and said, "Very Very Good Yui!" Then I flashed her a thumbs up, and she blushed. Then she turned around to her friends and began bragging about how she got a thumbs up and a very good compliment! I continued down the rows, listening to each and every student while on my knees at their eye level, surprising myself that each and everyone was responding to me. "Ayumi Yano, Masako Sawada, Chika Morimoto, Tomoyo Takamatsu, Emi Waka" Most of them asked me how to pronounce the word her, which I happily did for them. I also realized that for how hard we were working on teaching them Her, Him, She, His, that they just didn't get it. And nobody would have noticed it if I hadn't gone around and given the girls and opportunity to ask. So in the end, everyone did as they were asked and I finished with each girl having a score next to their name. Ms. Fabian was really impressed about what I did. She thanked me, but in the end it was I who was most thankful. She gave me the opportunity to try something I had never done before. Something that landed in immediate success. Something that made me realize something very important about these girls and about well, me.

I didn't realize it at the time, but me calling these girls by their names was my way of saying to them, "To me you are much more than just a plain old number sitting in this classroom surrounded by your fellow numbers, your more than just another girl in a sailor uniform. You're an individual, and I see you. And I am here to help you if you need it." In return, these girls responded to me by doing as I asked of them. Each tried their hardest to read from the paper, occasionally getting stuck, in which I smiled and helped them to the best of my ability. I'll probably never be able to remember everyone's name, but the very least that I can do is help them when they ask for it, and most importantly pay attention to them. I believe that in life, we sometimes need someone else to validate our existence. You know give us a little nudge and reminder that hey, we are still here! We all know we exist, but how often do we wonder of someone else notices we exist? Sometimes, we need someone else to say, "I see you. I'll help you if you need it." Especially in a country where everything is on the "inside", somewhere that I will never be able to be apart of simply because I wasn't born Japanese. But even those who were born Japanese, need an occasional individuality check.

As for me, I want to be a teacher one day. I want to be able to get down on my knee with a smile and really help someone learn something new. Socrates once said, "I can't teach them anything, I can only make them think." I think he was right about one think, you can't teach someone something, but if you make them think and try. Then maybe one has accomplished something bigger than life. I know Yui Takamura is probably not going to save the world with her new statement, "Her name is..." And I certainly don't think I made a lasting impression that will affect her decisions on the future. But maybe she'll remember that I helped her. And maybe, just maybe she'll return the favor to someone else.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Imouto-- The Feeling Of Being The Little Sister

Naoko, me, and Okasan in Kobe
I wanted my next post to be all about the fun weekend I just had. Instead, I want to talk about something else that happened this weekend. Something I never imagined would happen. (But, then I never imagined I'd be spending a year in Japan either.)

As I have mentioned before, my wonderful host family has one daughter, Naoko, age 22.
Naoko and I.
She is a University student at Kobe University, studying Pharmacy. When she is through with University she will return to Kochi and carry on in the Masaki Family Pharmacy. When she lived at home, from what I gather, she was the absolute most average Japanese teenager, except she was naturally smart. Meaning that, while she got good grades, she did not have to spend every wakening moment studying, like most Japanese teenagers. She attended the best high school in Kochi, made wonderful friends, all of whom are at the best University's throughout Japan. She never really dated, because it was against her father's rules. On free days after her Orchestra practice, she stayed at home, studied a bit, probbaly watched a lot of movies with her parents, and eventually attended cram school for the big country-wide university tests. To top off the perfection in her parents eyes, she even dreamed about carrying on the family business in pharmacy. She was Daddy's little angel, minus the overbearing affection (because Japanese men don't really show affection.) 

Okasan and I wait for Naoko to meet us
Then she went to her father's alma mater, Kobe University. And now she is the typical Japanese University student. She lives alone in little dorm room and parties on all her free time with her new friends. She has a steady boyfriend, which her father knows nothing about. And last month, when her report card was sent home, I knew that I should leave the house for a little while. She got her first D in Physics! Captain Jack was livid.

During the summer, when we both lived together, we didn't spend all that much time together. She usually slept throughout the day, then partied in the night. Thus, when she was awake, I was asleep. We sat at the same dinner table, but there was a bit of a language barrier. Sure, we went to a pool, the caves, and to the beach together, but nothing super special. It wasn't until the day she left, that I genuinely knew I was going to miss her. 
That day there was a typhoon, and we both were stuck in Kochi. So we hung out, went shopping, and talked the whole day. She told me all about her secret boyfriend and how much fun University is. And when the next morning came I found myself crying as she left. It was even harder when she told me she had always been an only child, so having me around meant something to her. I was really crying then. But then just before she boarded the bus, she turned around and gave me a big hug. Japanese people NEVER
Kobe Bridge.
hug! And so, I was really really happy.

October was a busy month for me. Unfortunately, I hadn't been able to keep in touch with Naoko. And to make it worse I lost her cell phone email, so I couldn't even email her. But it wasn't as if I would never see her again. She promised to come back for my birthday, even though 2 days later I'd have to move so I wouldn't get to spend any time with her.

Then, my Otosan announced we would be visiting her at her University on Sunday. I was really excited to see Naoko and to visit Kobe. 

After a long bus ride, we arrived and walked deep into a community of College dorms. We arrived at a bright pink building, climbed a million steps, and were greeted by an excited Naoko. She quickly jumped to give me another unexpected hug! I was so shocked and speechless, I didn't even get to say hello. She brought me into her dorm; a yellow room with a huge futon that had not been made in what looked like months. There were pictures of random places all on the wall, and a plasma TV hooked up to an old school Nintendo set. There were attempts at cooking and dirty dishes in the sink. And the bathroom was the size of broom cupboard and cluttered in every girly kind of thing
The city of Kobe.
possible. The tiny closet overflowed with clothes and shoes. Okasan muttered under her breath at the filth, while dusting the walls. I sat in awe and thought This is brilliant.

Suddenly I noticed a picture of Naoko kissing a boy, hanging on the wall. I knew Otosan would be furious if he found out, so I grabbed the picture and slid it under the bed. Naoko mouthed a "thank you" over to me. And that's when I first felt it.

Afterwards we found ourselves on the outskirts of Kobe at a Starbucks. Naoko and I shared a coffee and caught up on life. I told her all about Hokkaido, Tokyo, Matsuyama, and Okinawa. She told me about how she got a D and updated me on the status of her and her new boyfriend. 
When we noticed Otosan listening in to our conversation, I said "I always get A's in America." 

Naoko gave me a nasty look when her father said, "See you should be more like her. A D in
Physics!" I snickered at her. 

"You know your Japanese hasn't gotten any better," she retorted. "Yeah well I can read it and understand it!" I said angrily. 

Then I replied, "Your English hasn't gotten any better." 

She smiled and said, "Yeah but I'm not living in America for a year." Then she chuckled. She shut up when I said, "That may be so. But I didn't get a D in Physics." Everyone but Naoko laughed at that one.

Pretty soon we were on a train heading to Pearl Bridge. There we looked out at Kobe, what a great
They always think I'm doing something stupid.
They are usually right.
city. Naoko grabbed my arm and we walked throughout the small museum laughing and skipping and just catching up. At one part of the museum, there is this great glass floor. My host family was afraid to fall through. Nope, not me. I jumped on it and it didn't appear to shatter. So Naoko followed. Afterwards, she turned to me and said "I'm having a wonderful day!" On another train ride, I gave her a present, a few packs of her favorite gum, Orbit Citrus, all the way from America. I got another hug! 

We went out of Kobe Mt. where me and Naoko joked around, bickered, and acted like 2 sisters. She was older, wiser, advice giving older sibling, while I was the annoying, playful, in need of advice younger sibling. I got her in trouble for her D, she was mean to me about my Japanese. I saved her from getting trouble with that picture of her and her boyfriend, she gave me some great advice on how to handle some problems at school. She gave me much needed hugs, I gave her packs of gum. A pretty fair trade off if you ask me. And I learned something new, big sisters and little sisters are the same in Japan as they are in America.

For those of you who know me, you know I have a 12 year old little sister, Shannon. We fight every chance we get, but when it comes down the important stuff, she and I have each others back. She, like all little sisters knows just how and when to push my buttons, get me in trouble, and just be a little
He generally photobombs his own pictures. Fool.
sister -- That alone should be enough of a description to the role. For the past 11 and 1/2 years I've had to put up with the little squirt, and though I may live to regret writing this, I wouldn't change any of it. 

But I have never had an older sister before. 

I've never gotten to be the annoying, pesky, little brat copying her older sister, and getting her into trouble. That little kid who looks up and occasionally needs advice. I was always perfectly content to being the older sister to take the time to care about how the other side lives.

At home, when I thought about my upcoming exchange, I only thought about Japan life and what it might be life. I wondered if I would ever learn Japanese or fit into a group of Japanese students at school. I thought about how I would make friends, what school life would be like, how I was going to fit in with no language skills, etc. But I have since learned that school and culture is only the tip of the iceberg for my experience this year. 

My entire host family plus Naoko's cousin!
There is really so much more. I'm apart of another family!

That's another set of parents and people who watch out for me. And best of all, I'm a little sister! I guess I consider it life experience to be able to get your older sibling in trouble, or save their skin when needed, to give a good laugh, and to need an occasional hug-and get it! I never thought how much fun it would be. Like I said earlier, I never ever figured I would experience something like this. Never ever imagined having an older sister, like Naoko, to make fun of me or give me advice. So far that I've been here I've taken on many roles: "Exchange Student," "Crazy Gaijin," and  even "Japanese school girl" to name a few. But my favorite so far has definitely been that of, "Little Sister."

When we had to leave, it was my turn to get on the bus. I gave her another hug and nearly in tears, I said goodbye. When we were driving away, my phone started ringing with an email. "Imouto (little sister) don't be sad. I will see more soon and that I promise. I am coming on your birthday. It will be fun. And your Japanese has gotten a little bit better. Love, Naoko" (translated from Japanese.) I smiled reading it and then attempted to reply in Japanese. Later on in the bus somebody asked my host father if Naoko was his only daughter. He said "Naoko and Julie. "

Friday, November 03, 2006

Warlords and Scumbags and Tongue

I have never been very good at card games.

I mean especially the common games that everyone knows. Solitaire is about as easy as nailing jello to a tree.

Poker face? Mine is non-existant. Me trying to play any of those games that are used often in gambling is probably like watching someone who just realized that they got everything stolen. That face of pure horror at the fact that they have the worst luck ever, or in my case, the worst hand. I'm not even very good at Go-Fish, though there is no good explanation for this one. This lack of ability at cards did not cease when I arrived in Japan.

In October, I was happily living with my first host family, the Masaki's, in the middle of Kochi City. It was with them that I learned a famous Asian card game, originating from China, but making it's way to the West. The game has dozens of names in English, Rich Man, Poor Man, Scum, Root Beer, Butthead, Arsehole, and Capitalism. My favorite name for the game is definitely Warlords and Scumbags, though.

That night, Masaki Okasan informed me that Otosan had invited over a group of his friends for a little card playing party. In my mind, I imagined Poker Night with the guys. This being Masaki Otosan, better known as Captain Jack Sparrow, sitting around a table with his Male friends, smoking long smelly cigars and drinking beer, can after can. All this while gambling away a whole weeks pay check. But like usual, I was wrong. At 7, the friends that Captain Jack invited arrived, and immediately suprised. Saoyuri, the Obasan travel agent and fluent English speaker, led the pack. Captain Jack told me that he invited her because he likes to practice his English with someone who doesn't yell at him for wrongly pronouncing words, like a certain exchange student he knows. But I strongly suspected that he and Okasan were trying to fix Saoyuri up with Captain Jack's brother, who arrived next. Then in came, Shiho, a good friend of mine from school. She and I were in the same class for the School Excursion to Hokkaido, and became good friends. Her parents are tight with the Masaki family, so we were all often going out together. Behind Shiho was her mother and a friend of the family. In all there were 8 people, including the Masaki's and me. There were no big smelly cigars, endless cans of beer, and gambling, but there was a deck of cards. In the main living area of the Masaki mansion-style apartment, the group sat in a large spread out circle.

Masaki Okasan readied about 2 decks of cards for the games, while Captain Jack brought out 2 cushions. He explained that the top 2 winners would get to sit on the cushions in comfort, and brag to the rest about their success. I figured I would never get to sit on those cushions. After a short discussion on what to play, 'Warlords and Scumbags' was chosen. The group was shocked that I did not the rules. But they knew that this meant one thing; that they would have to explain them to me. I'd been in Japan for only 2 months, and could barely muster, "I'm hungry," let alone understand the meaning of a difficult card game. What made matters worse, was that I really wasn't interested, and constantly begged to be allowed to just watch. But Captain Jack insisted I play. I conjectured that he really just wanted to crush me at a game, especially since he knew card games were not my strong point.

Finally, the group explained everything thoroughly in Japanglish, until they were sure I was positive of the rules. For reference the rules are: The player to dealer's left starts by leading any single card or any set of cards of equal rank. Each player in turn must then either pass, or play face up a card or set of cards which beats the previous play. A single card is beaten by any higher single card. A set of cards can only be beaten by a higher set containing the same number of cards. It is not necessary to beat the previous play just because you can, as passing is always allowed. Also passing does not prevent you from playing the next time your turn comes round. The play continues as many times around the table as necessary until someone makes a play which everyone else passes. All the cards played are then turned face down and put to one side, and the player who played last to the previous "trick" starts again by leading any card or set of equal cards. The first player who is out of cards is awarded the highest social rank, depending on the version of the game this is either Warlord, President, or king. 2nd place next is Vice-President and seated to the right of the President. The middle scoring people are just known as citizens or workers. The last player to be left with any cards is known as the Beggar, Bum, or Scumbag. We began the game, upon picking up the cards we were dealt. Since I actually did understand the rules of the game, I immediately began believing in miracles, or at least beginners luck. It was a crushing blow for Captain Jack, when I put down my final cards before anyone else. The group just stared in awe as I stuck my finger in Captain Jack's face screaming, "Take that. In your face!" Then they all accused me of knowing the rules prior to playing, followed by accusations of cheating. My taunting laugh made them all grow serious, and I was soon sitting comfortably on a cushion as Warlord. If my first lucky break did not make you believe in miracles, then perhaps, the fact that I won 4 games in a row will. The very best game was the third round, when Captain Jack was made the Scumbag. I smiled from ear to ear, as he refrained from looking at me, and repeatedly tried to skip my turn.

Meanwhile, I bounced around the room, dancing, and making an utter fool out of myself. The rest of the group began talking about me, in Japanese. I'm not 100% sure what they were saying, but I'm sure it was something like, "Wow she is energetic, isn't she?" With Captain Jack and Masaki Okasan looking at each other before saying in a synchronized voice, "You have no idea." Sure enough, the luck died out. And it wasn't a little end to the luck, dropping me into the Vice President spot. No this was a full-fledged Karma hammer, knocking me down to the last citizen before Scumbag. And by the next turn, I was made the Scumbag. Every single one of my opponents was soon bouncing around the room and rubbing it into my face.

Unfortunately, luck had really disappeared for me, and I stayed the Scumbag for about 10 games. Since Japanese people have the worst memory, by the 9th game, Captain Jack was saying, "You really are bad at cards, aren't you?" During my time, serving as the scumbag, I realized just how much I disliked this game. It wasn't just because I was terrible, though I'll admit that may have played a small part in it. Mainly because it was not the kind of game, I was used to. The ones I had played back at home with my friends and family. Suddenly it hit me, like I was a deer on a busy highway. I was going to teach this group of Japanese people the incredibly exciting American game of Tongue.

Tongues is a fast paced game involving doing 2 things at once, observing and collecting. Players simultaneously pick up the card and then decide whether or not to keep it or pass it along. They pass that card to the opponent on their left, and pick up the card they've received from the opponent on their right. Each player can never have more than four cards in his hand, but the objective is to get 4 of the same card. When a player collects four of a kind, they quietly, but visibly, stick out the tongue. When one player does this, every other player must do likewise as quickly as possible. Those who stick out their tongue continue to pick up and pass cards, making it more difficult for other players to realize what has happened. The last player to stick out his tongue is the loser. A person with less Japanese language skills then a 2 year old, explaining a complex card game to a group of Japanese adults is just one of those things that should be filmed and made into a comedy. Needless to say, it proved to be a complete disaster of misunderstandings. I found myself briefly regretting the attempt to teach this group a game, when I could barely explain it. I once again tried to explain everything thoroughly, but was pretty nervous when we started the game. This time, however, everyone seemed to understand. The first round was really all about explanation, and we went slow and steady. By the second round we were ready for the fast paced version, in which I would be the dealer. As dealer, I quickly looked at the card and then flung it on the next person. By mid-way through the game, our eyes were constantly peering up from our hands to the suspicious mouths of the opponents. I noticed Shiho's tongue poke out of the mouth, and I became the second safe person.

The last person was Captain Jack.

Everyone was in uproars as Captain Jack moaned about the difficulty of the game, how it's nearly impossible to pay attention to your the card you pick up as well as everyone's face. Annoyed, I began putting the cards into the deck, when Captain Jack yelled, "What are you doing?" All 7 members of the group, demanded more of this new game that they had just learned. I was so proud of myself for having succeeded in spreading one of my favorite card games all the way to Japan. Since it's difficult to distinguish a winner, we decided that the first person to get all letters in PIG, another name for Tongue, would be the loser. Captain Jack held a solid capital P, though he worked tirelessly to try and make that P disappear with claims that the rules hadn't been set yet. Everyone ignored him. We played about 10 rounds, during which I was the dealer for about 6 of them. But Saoyuri and Masaki Okasan, whipping sweat off their brow, complained that I went to fast for them.

The deck was passed to Captain Jack, who had suddenly made it his life mission to make me lose. His beady eyes bounced from the cards for my face, full of revenge for teaching such an addicting game and excelling at it. He went twice as fast I did in dealing, barely having enough time to breath. By the end of the game, in which I won, he was out of breath and moaning that this game was not good for his heart. He put his hand and his wrist and felt his pulse, whimpering about the newly added I he had received.

By that last game Shiho, Saoyuri, and Captain Jack, all had PI, while Shiho's Mom and Friend, Captain Jack's brother, and Okasan Masaki had P. I had nothing, because this is one of those rare card games that I am actually pretty decent at. Dealer had moved on the Saoyuri, who had insisted on following the philosophy of the Tortoise, slow and steady. Prior to Game 10, Captain Jack had formed an alliance with everyone else in an effort to make me get at the very least a P. They all secretly conjured a way to alert each other if one of them got 4 of-a-kind. I didn't mind, and instead laughed at their attempts. During the round, I watched as Captain Jack's brother made a weird hand motion, following his tongue popping out. I stuck my tongue out, while everyone in the group did the same. Everyone that is, except for Captain Jack, who sat concentrating intently on the cards being passed his way. He was the first of the group to receive a PIG. He was heart-broken, not that he lost, but that he couldn't beat me. I challenged him to a Rematch, and he told me it would probably kill him, as he whipped the sweat off his forehead. We were all finished, much to my relief. If we had kept going, I really think one of the members would have over exerted themselves. Though I really think many of them wanted to keep going. Now I don't think I'm going to go down in history for teaching Tongue to a small group of Japanese adults in Kochi. But I'm happy enough knowing that I taught them a little something from home. What made it even better, was just recently Shiho, informed me that she went to a card party and met up with the Masaki's.

They all played Tongue, and laughed through the entire thing. I asked her who won, and she smiled, "Not Captain Jack."