Monday, April 25, 2011

School holidays

My son came down with a high fever last weekend, so today I dragged him to a doctor for a check. After waiting about an hour, he got the joy of having a really long Q-tip run up his nose, and the resulting goo tested (and you thought the strep check was gross?). Influenza B.

So, he has an automatic 5-day holiday, since children with the flu are required to stay home a minimum of 5 days before being checked again and certified able to attend. And in an interesting twist: if 7 or more students in any 1 class are out with the flu at the same time, that class gets the week off. The whole class, even the healthy ones, can't come to school, and really aren't even supposed to go outside for the week. The teacher doesn't really benefit from it (other than much lower decibel levels), since they have to call the students' houses every day to make sure they're staying home.

It's pretty tough for families with 2 working parents. Lucky my English school is attached to my home, huh?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

School in Japan, pt 1

Well, a new school year has started here in Japan. Elementary school students line up every morning, laughing and shouting (sometimes crying...) for the walk to school.

So, how is elementary school different here in Japan than in the States, you ask? Well, let's see... Classes are all conducted in Japanese, of course. Duh! And English is a furrin' language which has from this year become a required subject from the 5th grade. No grades, mind you, just comments from the homeroom teacher - but many of the teachers hate that they must teach it, since they sometimes speak even less than their students...

Well, let's look at a typical day in my kids' public school. They all walk to school, since public schools don't have buses (unless you live in BFE, like I did, where there may be a bus... One.), wearing their uniforms and with big leather satchels across their backs with all their books and materials. When I was a kid, only girls had them, but here, everyone has a pencil case, whether it be "Hello, Kitty", "Pocket Monsters" or "Puma". Even high school toughs carry them, it's like "To Sir, with Pencil Case". Everyone also has a little bag hanging from their packs, with a pair of plastic chopsticks in them for lunch. Not to eat, you wiener, to eat with!

But they eat lunch in their classrooms. Not in the cafeteria; if their school was even built with a cafeteria, it's probably been converted to a computer lab or storage. Every day, the school cooks leave carts with that class' lunch in the hallway outside the room, and 6 kids have to bring it into the classroom and serve it out. In aprons. That they bring from home.

And no pizza, hamburger or chef salad menu, either. Usually rice with mystery fish or meat in an unidentifiable sauce (some things are the same as at home, you see). Milk several days a week, sometimes barley tea (tastes like the inside of an ashtray to me...). Occasionally a bun of some kind, like sweetened soy flour on sticky buns; in which case, the bun is the main dish. In elementary school. Jr High hot lunches just began this January in my town, and high school students take boxed lunch sets in little plastic boxes which their mothers make fresh every morning.

Study is similar to Stateside, with the obvious substitution of Japanese instead of English, and kanji practice instead of penmanship. Everyone takes Home Ec and Shop in both elementary and junior high school. And all students are required to learn the recorder and the kenba pianica (like a bastard child of a harmonica and a piano - Beethoven's kazoo!), and participate in music day concerts every autumn. The level of their concerts by the time they reach 6th grade is pretty incredible, really.

This is only the first post in a series that will discuss Japanese schools over the next few weeks, so check back often!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Interesting Commercials

After the March 11 earthquake, when every TV channel was 24/7 scenes of death and destruction, advertisers pulled all their commercials, so as not to be perceived as trying to make a profit off other people's suffering. Instead, commercials by the Advertising Council, Japan, aired with public service messages urging people to be kind, polite, considerate.

Good messages in themselves, and pretty well presented, actually. For example, one shows a high school student on the train with friends, looking at a pregnant woman and wanting to offer her his seat but not doing so, stating that people can't see what you feel in your heart, only the things those feelings cause you to do. Later he follows his impulse and helps an elderly woman climb a staircase. These messages lose effectiveness, however, when the same 4 commercials are shown every 5-10 minutes until the shrill sign off of "A-C--! (or "A-shee! in Japanese pronunciation)" sets your teeth on edge (just what does that idiom mean, anyways?).

But one very popular commercial has cartoon characters using polite phrases like 'hello', 'thank you' in a jingle that is really quite addictive. Take a look. Now take a look at what some inventive soul has done to that commercial to symbolize the power and rebirth of Japan and the Tohoku region.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Another Fox Pas

One thing I have watched with bemusement over the last decade or so is the marginalization of conservative America. I'm not knocking those with conservative views; I think a balance of conservative and liberal agendas, and certainly the give and take such differences bring to the political arena, are vital to a healthy, functioning democracy. But the increasing demonization of anyone not sharing said conservative views, especially as represented by Fox News, really bothers me. As I said a few weeks ago, accuracy is certainly not a concern there.

Their latest screwup, trying to link a GWU student's suicide with Obama's speech last Wednesday, doesn't even count as an error, just as an agenda.
George Washington University students in Washington, D.C. learned of a tragic coincidence of timing on their campus Wednesday. As President Obama delivered a speech on deficit reduction in the Jack Morton Auditorium, university officials were learning one of their students had committed suicide in his dorm room across campus...

...GWU officials tell Fox that police were notified about the incident around 2pm, which happens to be at the same time that President Obama was speaking. A source tells Fox that the incident may have occurred earlier, noting that police went knocking on the student's door at 1:30pm. As of this writing, Fox has not been able to obtain reaction from the White House.

All factually accurate. Really, read every sentence individually and you'll see that every one is 100% true. But put them together like this, and you're left with a spin that would make a bowling ball jump 4 lanes to the left. "Fox has not been able to obtain reaction from the White House"? Are you kidding me? This person's death, while tragic, certainly wouldn't be something the White House need concern itself with unless it were someone the President or his family personally knew, or it happened in his presence.

I mean really, c'mon. Does this really not bother anyone?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Language Barriers

There are many barriers to communication when you live cross-culturally, of course, and language is only the most obvious. There are also physical cues, cultural cues and curly cues.

I've been in this country for 21 years, and speak the language reasonably well. I may not be an accomplished writer/poet like Lafcadio Hearn, or a translator, but I get by. But no matter how well you speak, you'll never get by the verbal cock-block of someone who is convinced foreigners can't speak the language and therefore won't listen. This is the Coach-Beast-in-a-tutu of communication.

I've been putting off getting new rear tires for the car, because they're horrendously expensive. But I finally decided I couldn't wait any longer (the belt was poking through the rubber), and found the best deal at a local gas station.

So I go in and ask them to do it, and this one guy is talking to me with his hands a lot, and seeming to have speech problems. But his coworker talks to me normally, we get things set up, and I sit down to wait while they get to work. A few minutes later the first guy comes in with one of my tires to show me the wear on the radials. It's pretty bad, but his speaking is worse. Once again, he's trying to wave and point my eyes and not finishing sentences.

After he goes back out to finish the work, I finally realize the problem. Despite the fact that I'm answering his every question in Japanese, he's convinced I don't speak or understand, and is trying to use gestures to 'help' me. When he comes back in to ring things up, it just gets worse. He refuses to say how much it costs, but writes it down instead. Then when I read the amount out to him he says "Yes", then writes down how much change I'll be getting.

But the ringer is when he hands me this little card and tries to explain in pidgin Japanese:
"100 km, you ka-chin! Ka-chin, kachin, 100"

Now, I have no fucking clue what this numb-nut is trying to say, so I look at the card. It says (in Japanese, of course) to bring the car back when I reach 100 km, and they'll retighten the lug nuts. Why couldn't he just say that? Especially since "nut" is the same word in both languages, and is written on the card in the characters reserved for foreign loan words. Where do you get "tighten lugnut" from "ka-chin"?

I'm going back in tomorrow to get "ka-chin"ed. I think I'll pull the reverse-gaijin trick, and resolutely misunderstand anything not said in normal Japanese. Then ask him to re-explain and pester him for details until he finally either gives up and explains in normal Japanese, or realizes I'm pestering him in Japanese.