Sadly, last night’s “party” turned out to be a bit of a let-down. The way these enkai things had been described to me, I’d been expecting lots of drinking and laughing with my normally very-serious colleagues, a chance to see them in their more natural persona. It was that to some degree, but not nearly as much as I’d been led to believe.
Mrs. T- collected 5000 Yen from me in the afternoon to cover my food and drinks for the party. A hefty price to pay for one evening, but I figured it was obviously worth it and I finally got my first paycheck this week so at least I could easily afford it. (Incidentally—I found out that the money for my housing loan won’t be deducted until next month’s paycheck, but I’m going to take a 100,000 Yen loan anyway just to be safe).
Part of that money presumably went to transportation, as they’d hired a bus to take people from the school to the restaurant where the party would be taking place. The bus left from the school at 5:30, and while I normally leave at 4:15 I stayed later this time, having to finish preparing my materials for next week’s lessons anyway. I did run home just to drop off my stuff shortly before the bus was to leave, and I got back and waited outside the school until it was ready to go. The first surprise of the night was that only four of us would be riding this bus of about twenty seats. Everyone else was driving.
One of the three other teachers who came on the bus started talking to me in Japanese as soon as he got on. Luckily it was simple enough for me to understand. He asked me if I drank beer and I said yes. He asked me if I drank wine and I said yes. He asked me if I drank whiskey and I said yes, I love whiskey. He said we would be drinking a lot (takusan) tonight and he was looking forward to it.
The restaurant was about a fifteen minute drive up the 126, and we ended up getting there before most of the others. Mrs. T- was there directing people to our private room, and the principal and Vice Principle were already seated in the back corner.
I immediately regretted not bringing a camera, although I’m not sure whether posting pictures would be allowed in any case. I know I can’t take pictures of the students but I’m also not supposed to do anything that could solidly identify the particular school where I work (because obviously if I did that, then…um…yeah…). But due to company policy I’ll just have to provide a written description. If you’ve ever seen a movie that takes place in Japan, you’re halfway there already. It was a distinctively Japanese setting in all respects—tatami mats on the floors and shouji sliding doors, two very long, close-to-the-ground tables surrounded by legless chairs so you had to kneel or sit cross-legged. There were wooden trays of food at every place setting filled with various kinds of raw fish and shellfish (it looked about as intimidating as it gets) and there were little stove-thingies to heat up pots with later portions of the meal.
I took a seat near the middle of the table closer to the entrance so I could see the entire room and hopefully have a better chance of communicating with others, but for awhile nobody sat near me. Other teachers continued to file in and I just sat there waiting for things to get started. Eventually a couple of the guys whom I’d met at the other drinking party sat near me, and two JTEs, Mrs. T- and Ms. Y- sat across from me, much to my relief. They would definitely be able to help with the communication.
Things began about as formally as any Japanese event, with one of the teachers standing up to introduce the principal, who gave a long incomprehensible speech, followed by a few other teachers who gave long incomprehensible speeches of their own. When the last person to speak was Ms. S-, the homeroom teacher of class 3-4, I realized the speakers must have been those teachers whose classes had won the Chorus Contest.
When Ms. S- was finished a bunch of people got up and briefly left the room to come back with open bottles of beer for whomever might want some. We all had tiny little glasses so those of us who wanted beer would hold them out to have the drink poured for us. This is classic Japanese culture—you’re never supposed to pour your own alcoholic beverage. Once everyone had something to drink, one of the teachers stood up to make a toast and we all said “kampai” and clinked our glasses together, so that’s one cultural element that’s no different from the West.
I took a few sips of beer and noticed some other people starting to pick at their raw fish, so I went ahead and dug in, bravely facing the bizarre smorgasbord of fishy strangeness laid out for me. I prepared myself for the worst with every bite, yet miraculously everything turned out to at least be decent, and some things like the oysters turned out to be quite delicious.
Every few minutes someone would come along to top off my tiny beer-glass, as these glasses were so small they required nearly constant topping-off. It seemed that half the people there were spending more time working than enjoying their food. Most of the people, it seemed, weren’t drinking at all. Nearly all of the women ordered juice instead, and I noticed that even some of the men were drinking soda or non-alcoholic beer. Seriously? I was thinking. What kind of party is this?
Mrs. T- and Ms. Y- who’d been sitting across from me were among those moving around and pouring drinks, and occasionally kneeling down to talk with other teachers, so I was left on my own again, to slowly pick at my fish (I did as the others did and only ate one thing every couple of minutes) and sip at my beer. Eventually Mrs. T- came with a drink menu and asked me if I’d like something besides beer, a soft-drink or maybe some sake, or…. “I’ll have a glass of sake,” I said. When you’re going to immerse yourself into Japanese culture why not go all the way? I haven’t even actually drank sake since I’ve been here. A few minutes later, Mrs. T- came back with an entire bottle (a small one, maybe 0.3 liters) and a little glass and poured some for me. I discovered that I had a taste for it. We offered some to a few people around me but there were no takers. So at this Japanese drinking party it turned out that the only person drinking sake was the American.
When most of most people’s fish was gone, cups of some kind of egg-soup were distributed by the women who worked there (I hesitate to call them “waitresses”) and then they lit up the candles under the stove-thingies for each person to get the next portion of the meal cooking, which was a delicious mix of oysters and potatoes in some kind of creamy sauce. Later on, they would replace those pots with pots of rice mixed with things like vegetables, shrimp, and mushrooms, which was also very good.
Every now and then I’d actually find myself communicating with someone. A couple of teachers came up to me and asked me simple things like how I liked Japan. When they saw I was drinking sake they’d ask me drinking questions like what I thought of Japanese beer and whether German beer was better. I was honest with them. One of the first-grade JTEs, Mrs. H- came up and talked to me in English for awhile, mostly about teaching and getting the students to think English is fun. Another teacher, upon pouring my drink, told me with his limited English skills that his students really like me, which of course was nice to hear.
At one point I got into a discussion with a couple of the male teachers beside me of which classes were the worst. They were interested in my opinion because I’m one of the only teachers (if not the only teacher) in the school who actually teaches every single class. When I told them 2-3 was the loudest and 2-4 was the most difficult, they laughed and wholeheartedly agreed with my assessment. Ms. Y- was across from me at that point and she laughed in agreement too. There’s one student in 2-3 that we were all thinking of in particular who she said behaves like a “big baby”. “Hai, akachan” I said, and they all laughed. The guy next to me teaches 2-6 and asked me what I thought of that class, and once I remembered who was in that class I told him I really liked it, and he said he did too. In fact, 2-6 might be my favorite class in the whole school.
In any case, it was interesting to be hanging out with a group of teachers and to confirm that yes, in fact, they do share their judgments of their classes and talk smack about some students. When I was a student, we all suspected as much.
Conspicuously absent from the event was Mr. I-, the teacher who’d let me sleep at his place after the other party when I’d lost my key. I was looking forward to socializing with him some more as we’ve barely said a word to each other since that night, but he never showed up. Also not in attendance was the super-cute secretary, though she hadn’t been at school all week. I sure hope she’s just on vacation and not fired or anything. I can’t communicate with her at all but I miss her sweet smile and bubbly personality.
When I finished off my bottle of sake I was still barely buzzed, but at least loose enough to get up and take care of some business with the other JTEs that I’d been planning to bring up at the party. I’m tired of not knowing the students’ names, so my idea was to have them make name-cards for me that I could study like I study vocabulary. They could write their names in English and hiragana, as well as one thing about themselves they’d like me to remember about them, like “I’m on the soccer team” or “I play piano”. I figured the hardest part would be matching the names to the faces, but if I only collected six cards per class I might be able to keep their faces in my memory and by the end of November I could have all 600 memorized. They all liked the idea—Ms. S- seemed to love it—and Ms. Y- said that as long as the cards didn’t go back to the students she could attach pictures to them. Apparently the students don’t know this, but they’ve got a database with all of the students’ I.D. photos, the primary purpose of which is to help the police find them if anyone runs away (which has already happened a few times this year). So if that’s the case I can take cards from all the students next week and get to work on memorizing them all right away. I’m meeting with every single class in the school next week (it’ll be my busiest of the year so far) so that should work out perfectly. If I cram before each class I might even be able to start greeting them by name as early as the week after next.
After telling Ms. S- about the idea, she kept me engaged in conversation for awhile, asking me a bunch of questions including things about Germany. She’s the most well-travelled of all the JTEs, having been to six different countries in Europe alone, but never Germany. We both agreed that Paris is beautiful but the French people’s refusal to speak English is fucked up (we didn’t use that particular word). If you hate Americans that’s fine—even though we saved your asses in WWII—but English is the default language for travelers all over the world, even countries you have no beef with. So get over yourselves and show some goddamn hospitality to foreigners like the Japanese do. You could learn a thing or two from them. Rant over.
While I was talking with her one of the male teachers stood up and made an announcement, which Ms. S- explained was telling us that it was almost time to go. Huh? It felt like it had only been two hours since it started. Nobody was even close to drunk yet—not even me. The teacher on the bus had said there would be a lot of drinking…I suppose “takusan” means different things to different people.
But we all stood up and did this thing where everybody claps a single time all in unison, which I now know is how these gatherings are supposed to end—just as formally as they begin.
There were a few more minutes for everyone to finish eating or drinking, and then people slowly started filing out. I was told that only one other teacher would be taking the bus back, so I waited for him to leave and then followed him out. So now there were only two people on this twenty-seat bus, probably the biggest waste of money of the night. Had there been any effort to organize transportation, I’m sure rides in other teachers’ cars could have been arranged.
As we pulled out of the restaurant parking-lot, the clock in the bus read 9:00. Unbelievable. I don’t think I’ve been to a party that ended at 9:00 since elementary school. Even middle-school dances went until at least 10:00.
But I don’t want to complain too much. I had a nice time and it was a worthwhile experience. Just because I spent the equivalent of a week’s worth of groceries on a single meal and less alcohol than I could buy for a tenth of that price doesn’t mean it wasn’t money well spent.
I just hope this wasn’t as good as it gets. I’ve heard stories about enkais that gave me the impression that they can get pretty wild, but this was just a few degrees looser than the typical day at school. I’m sure a lot of it had to do with the fact that most of the teachers were driving themselves home. Perhaps there’ll be another party which doesn’t take place right after school so they can take taxis to and from the event. I don’t know. But if this is as wild as my school gets, that’s pretty lame.
Still, I’ve got no regrets. It was a fitting end to a particularly interesting week. Thursday’s Chorus Contest ended up being the highlight in terms of interestingness (apparently that is an actual word) but Friday’s enkai was nothing to scoff at either…at least not too much scoffing (also a word).