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Remembering 2012

December 31st, 2012 No comments

The first week of my winter vacation has been pleasantly boring. After that first day of going to the movies in Soga, I haven’t done anything noteworthy. I’ve just been hanging around, studying, jogging, riding my bike, playing Mario, and watching lots of football and political shows. I expect tonight will be somewhat more memorable, as Stephen is coming to Togane and we’ll be going to some sort of party with Josai students whom I may or may not have met on other random occasions. It won’t be as wild as last year, but it should be fun.

When I look back on 2012 when I’m older, I’ll probably mostly remember it as the year of my involuntary two-month hiatus from my teaching career, stuck in America delivering pizza due to an expired visa. That didn’t turn out to be terribly consequential, and I’ll no doubt look back on it in a much rosier light than it felt to me while it was happening. It really wasn’t so bad after all. I got to spend more time with my family and hang out with Mike in Brooklyn a few more times, and delivering pizza is not actually the least enjoyable job in the world (that’s a toss-up between McDonald’s cashier and hotel front-desk agent).

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But there was a lot more to 2012 than that. The year began with a pretty great night of clubbing in Tokyo with Trey, Stephen, Jack, Lily, and a bunch of other people. I partied with Trey a few more times in the first half of the year and we developed a pretty decent friendship before he left to go to Stanford in the summer, but we’re still in touch.

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I met Kim and Enam on the day of my first hanami, the cherry-blossom festival at Togane Lake which turned out to be a fantastic day.

I said goodbye to my first group of graduating students in March and began my first full school-year the day after the hanami in April.

 

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Easily one of the highlights of the year was the sailing trip in the Virgin Islands with my dad and his brothers and friends. With the exception of my blackout-drunk first night and the ensuing day-long hangover, I could hardly have hoped for a better trip.

 

 

I experienced my first Sports Day in Japan, which due to the infectious excitement of the students turned out to be one of the best days of the year, capped off with one of the most enjoyable enkais with my colleagues.

This was the year I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge at night with Luke, Marc, and Mike, an experience I’ll never forget.

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And while my vacation in America was still a vacation, I got to spend a week in Santa Barbara with Krissi which included three nights of camping in the mountains.

After the two-month hiatus, my triumphant return to school turned out to be a priceless experience as well, as I was flabbergasted by how delighted so many of the students were to have me back.

My return-to-Togane party, a night of dinner and karaoke a few weeks later, and Ben’s Christmas Party a few weeks ago were the highlights of the year’s end, and hopefully whatever party I end up at tonight will belong on that list as well.

Overall, 2012 was a year of split lives, with one foot in the West and the past, and one foot in the East and the future. I relived some old experiences like sailing and delivering pizza and lived the first of many new experiences in my life as a teacher in Japan. Of all the lives I’ve lived so far, I consider this the best. So at the end of 2012, in spite of all the pitfalls and setbacks, I can only consider it a success.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , , ,

An Unexpectedly Long Journey

December 23rd, 2012 No comments

I kicked off the first day of winter vacation yesterday with another first for my time here in Japan, the first time I’ve gone to the movies. The reason I haven’t gone is not so much for lack of interest, nor because they dub all the English movies into Japanese like they do in Germany, but simply because movie theaters in Japan are much fewer and farther between than elsewhere.

The closest theater to me is in the town of Soga about 30 km away, a half-hour by train with one connection in between. The theater itself is several km from Soga Station, though there is a free shuttle bus leaving every ten minutes from the station that stops in the general vicinity.

The theater’s website is only in Japanese but I found the movie schedule easily enough. The movie I wanted to see—The Hobbit—had three different schedules, one for 2-D and two for 3-D, though I couldn’t distinguish the difference between the two for 3-D. I figured the best time to go would be 3:05 p.m., giving me plenty of time to get some errands and chores done and then have lunch before taking the train in to see it. I wanted to have a big lunch so I wouldn’t be starving during the movie, so I planned on curry rice and chicken which takes two hours to prepare. You’ve got to rinse the rice and let it soak for an hour, then the rice-cooker itself takes about another hour to finish.

But half-way through my cooking of the rice, at 1:30, I realized I miscalculated and should have started an hour earlier. The movie started at 3:00 and it would take about an hour to get there from Togane Station. I kicked myself for having been so unconscious of the time issue, and quickly debated whether to forget about lunch and just go or wait until the 6:25 show. But the 6:25 wouldn’t end until 9:25 and the last train from Soga left just after 10:00 so that would be cutting it a little close. On top of that I have no idea when the last shuttle bus runs so I decided to just get my stuff together and go. I’d have a few soy protein bars to sustain me and I could probably get some quick food at the theater. As for the rice I had cooking—well—I’d let the cooker finish and see if it could be reheated when I got back.

I got to Soga station at 2:31 and saw the shuttle bus pull away the second I got out the exit. There was another one in ten minutes, but I was still feeling pretty stressed about possibly missing the movie. I’ve never gone to the movies in Japan before and I have no idea how it works. Do they even let people in late? Probably, but would I only miss some coming attractions or does the actual movie start at the exact time they say it starts? I had no idea.

I got off the shuttle bus at the “Festival Walk” stop with just 10 minutes to spare. I asked one of the bus-riders in Japanese if he knew where the “eigakan” was and he pointed me in the right direction. It was through a large complex of all kinds of uniquely Japanese recreational establishments but I had no time to stop and check them out. The theater was all the way at the end, and I made it there at 3:00. Success!

Or so I thought. I asked the cashier girl for one ticket to The Hobbit and she told me the starting time. It took a second for my brain to process the time in Japanese, but I knew there was something wrong. She was saying 6:25. I told her I wanted the 3:05. She informed me that the 6:25 was the one with English audio. The 3:05 was the one dubbed in Japanese.

I almost laughed out loud at myself. If I had just decided to wait for the 6:25 in the first place it would have been perfect, but instead I’d rushed out the door and stressfully raced to the theater for nothing. But I obviously couldn’t just go back to Togane and come back—that process would take the whole three hours anyway and cost me extra train money. And I wasn’t going to do this another day either. I’d come all this way and I was going to see the movie, damn it, even if I had to wait another three hours. So I bought the ticket for 6:25 and walked away, trying to figure out how I was going to kill three hours in Soga, a town notorious for having nothing worth seeing.

But the answer was right in front of my face, with all the posters for Les Miserables hanging around the theater. I went back to the cashier girl and asked her when the next showing of Les Miserables would be. Turned out it started at 3:15 and ended 6:00. “Sugoi!” I exclaimed, glad that at least something worked out perfectly.

So it was to be a double-feature. Movie day in Japan, in which I’d see the two movies and the only two movies currently playing that I have any desire to see.

I was starving so I went to the concession stand and bought a piece of fried chicken breast and a soda, discovering in the process that movie theaters in Japan charge just as ridiculous prices for food as in America. They gave me this whole blue tray designed to hold all kinds of food and up to three beverages, but with just one piece of chicken and one soda I felt a little silly carry it into the theater.

In Japan they give you assigned seats, so I found mine and sat down, somewhat surprised to see that so many people had turned out for Les Mis. The theater wasn’t packed by any means, but there were at least three dozen or more there to see a movie in a language they don’t understand (subtitles can only convey so much) about a culture they’re not familiar with. But maybe Les Mis is well-known in Japan too and many people like the music. I don’t know, but I had to wonder about what was going through the audience’s mind during all the parts about God and sin and redemption.

My review of the film: absolutely fantastic. I of course love the show, and the time I saw it in London sticks out as one of—if not the best—theater experiences I’ve ever had. It’s a lot different in movie form though because you don’t have that magic of live performance where the actors are up there belting out those songs and feeling the emotions behind them right there in communion with the live audience, but most of the performances in the film made up for that. In those cases it was actually more impressive, as there’s such a huge difference between stage acting and film acting and to be able to convey the same emotions on screen without an audience before you, to have to go take after take after take in character, maintaining the same intensity of emotion the scene calls for while surrounded by cameras and directors and producers and that—it’s extremely impressive when they pulled it off. I couldn’t get over how unbelievably amazing Anne Hathaway was as Fantine—I’ve never seen a more Oscar-worthy performance in my life. Hugh Jackman was also great as Valjean and almost all of the other actors were impressive as well. The only exception was Javert played by Russell Crowe, whose singing voice is decent at best but who didn’t do much of anything with it anyway and failed to achieve the kind of pathos that every other major character did.

The film itself ended at 5:50 which still left plenty of time before The Hobbit, so I resolved to stay in the theater until the lights came up and just enjoy the end credits music. In the process I discovered another small difference between the movie-theater experience in Japan and America, as nearly every other person in the theater stayed behind as well. The lights weren’t even slightly raised during the credits, but remained completely off until the final logo at the end of the film appeared. At that point they turned on and everyone got up to leave at the same time. It’s possible they too just wanted to stay to enjoy the music—they certainly weren’t getting anything out of reading the credits—but the fact that they all dutifully waited for the lights to go up at the very end suggested otherwise.

I used the time before the next movie to use the bathroom and head back to the ticket stand to check with the guy there when the movie would end and what time the last shuttle bus was. He attempted to speak English to me, and told me the movie would end at 8 something and the last shuttle bus left at 10 something, so I felt I could rest assured I’d have no trouble getting home.

I made my way to the theater showing The Hobbit, took my 3-D glasses from the bin and made my way to my assigned seat. I was the only person in the theater when I got there at 6:10, and only about ten others came in before the movie started. It was no surprise that most Japanese would prefer to see the Japanese-dubbed version of the film, but I was surprised that even ten people would come for the subtitle version, especially now that the movie’s been out for a week.

My review of the film: it was acceptable. At this point I’ve seen Peter Jackson’s films of Lord of the Rings many times over and I know what to expect, so there weren’t any disappointments and any problems I had with the way he did certain scenes were problems I knew to expect anyway. He dragged some things out too much and brushed over others, and added some elements that were not at all a part of the book but which were nevertheless not really egregious alterations of the Middle Earth history. Some of his additions were also pleasant surprises, as he brought back a few characters from Lord of Rings who weren’t in The Hobbit and they had some scenes with them that while not written by Tolkien were both consistent with his history and enjoyable to watch. I thought the actors were all well-chosen—the dwarves in particular—and I was very happy with the actor who played Bilbo (in stark contrast with Elijah Wood as Frodo). The scene I cared most about was the one where Bilbo finds the ring in Gollum’s cave and they have their scene of riddles, and I was pleased to see them stick so faithfully to the dialog in the book. As for all the other elements—the scenery, the cinematography, the score, etc.—those are all top-knotch and the reason I still enjoy the Lord of the Rings films after all this time in spite of my many problems with them. Whatever flaws there may be in Peter Jackson’s storytelling, the look and feel of the films does draw you into Middle Earth and take you on an adventure.

I hadn’t known for certain whether the film would cover the entirety of The Hobbit or just the first half, but half-way through the film I realized things were moving far too slowly to get through everything, and indeed it did end at the half-way point, just after the escape from the Misty Mountains and the arrival at the edge of Murkwood Forest. So I guess that means another trip to Soga next year.

The film ended at 9:15 and I didn’t waste any time staying for the credits. I was the only one who got up to leave right away which is further evidence that staying until the very end is part of Japanese movie-going culture, but the 10:06 train I had to catch was the last train home and I couldn’t afford to take any chances.

I reached the shuttle-bus stop at 9:22 and looked at the schedule. It looked like the last bus came at 9:08. Some help that ticket-cashier had been. He should have just stuck to Japanese instead of trying to English me and getting both the movie ending-time and shuttle-bus time wrong.

So I’d just have to walk it. And in times like these it’s no small blessing to have an iPhone with GPS tracking handy. I was not only able to easily navigate my way back to the station but I could tell I was making good time along the way and didn’t have to stress. I made it back to the station with plenty of time to spare and stopped at a konbini to buy a quick “dinner” of two more pieces of greasy fried chicken. I figured the rice I’d started cooking nine hours earlier was a lost cause.

On the train platform the announcer came on every few minutes to say something about a delay but I couldn’t tell if he meant the train I needed or the one before it. I figured it was the one before it because it was past the time it should have come. Luckily an old Japanese guy came up to me to attempt communication and I was able to ask him. Apparently there are quite a few people like this—old Japanese men who like to approach foreigners and practice their English. Other ALTs have told me how it annoys them, but I don’t mind. It’s usually some kind of learning experience.

This guy was taking the same train as me so we had a long time for him to keep searching his brain for things to say and ask me in English. It was all very random, asking me about things like the difference between miles and kilometers, the assassination of JFK, whether I’d heard of Nat King Cole, and so on. He handed me a business card and I was proud of myself that I was able to read his name in kanji: 池田“Ikeda” a combination of ‘pond’ and ‘rice field’. He informed me that the Japanese prime minister when JFK was president was also named Ikeda.

He left the train at Honda, two stops before my changeover in Oami, I complimented his English and he left with a smile, very proud of himself. I guess I can see why other foreigners might find people like him annoying but I was happy to make his day. And considering just how much of a struggle it is for me to communicate with students and other teachers, his English really was quite impressive.

Our train had also been delayed by a couple of minutes so I walked very quickly to make the connection on Oami, which was reduced from 3 minutes to 1 minute, but it didn’t matter anyway because they were waiting for another train which had been delayed. I guess because it’s the last train they wait so everyone can make the connection, which I have no problem with at all.

But it also meant I didn’t get home until 10:45, a full hour and a half after leaving the theater. Considering that it’s 3 hours of travel time to and from the theater and most movies are about 2 hours, it’s just not worth going unless it’s something I really really want to see. And now I was actually glad to have made my timing error earlier, as the only film besides The Hobbit I wanted to see was Les Miserables and now I don’t have to go all the way back there.

The last discovery I made of these day is that Japanese rice cookers don’t shut down when they’re finished cooking, but keep the rice warm until you remove it. It came as quite a surprise to me when I opened it up in preparation to scrape it all into the trash and discovered that it was not just warm but actually nice and sticky and delicious. So it turned out that the rice hadn’t gone to waste after all. The only thing wasted was hours and hours of electricity, though I can’t imagine it took too much juice to maintain the mild warmth.

And that was my adventure yesterday, a nice way to kick off my winter vacation. The rest of it probably won’t be as interesting, but I’m sure it’ll be enjoyable.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , ,

The World Goes On

December 22nd, 2012 No comments

If those silly fools who believed the propaganda about the Mayan prophecy had been correct, the world would have ended yesterday. Maybe what the Mayans had actually predicted was the end of the Japanese public schools’ fall semester.

The last school-day of 2012 was an eventful one for me, starting with the closing ceremony in the school gym. It was exactly the same as last year, basically just the singing of the school song followed by an extremely long speech from the principal (all I got is that he was talking about the future), but this time I stayed after the first and second-graders left and the third-graders remained behind for what was apparently a briefing on their upcoming high school entrance exams. They were split up into groups according to which type of high school they intended to apply to, then the head of the third-grade teachers gave them all an extremely serious speech about the importance of these tests. I only picked up a few phrases here and there but the tone was unbelievably harsh with lots of shouting. It sounded like his goal was to drill home just how incredibly important these tests are, and that if they failed they would amount to nothing more than human garbage who would probably be doing Japanese society a favor by killing themselves. I suppose high school entrance exams aren’t stressful enough so he felt it was his duty to add to the pressure.

Once that was over I was able to leave early because Interac had scheduled that afternoon for me to come to Chiba and take my mandatory annual health check, which was precisely as fun as it sounds. I went to the Chiba branch office for the first time since returning to Japan, so I got to meet the people I was dealing with on the phone during my time stuck in America and put faces to the names and voices.

For the health check I was escorted by a very nice woman who’s new there to a hospital literally across the street from their building, and go through a tedious ordeal of waiting, getting some sort of test done, waiting some more, getting another test done, and so on. I had to do the standard things like height, weight, and blood pressure, as well as an eye-test and chest x-ray, and I had to pee in a cup and hand it to a nurse which is always awkward. Oddly enough, they didn’t do a hearing test or blood test like they had at the health check during orientation last year, but I didn’t complain when it was over and they finally let me go.

The last part of the day was the only enjoyable part, as it was the year-end enkai for my school. It was just about the same type of deal as nearly all of the others I’ve gone to, but that’s not a bad thing at all. Because of the health check I had to fast all day, so I was more than ready to dig into all the crazy Japanese cuisine laid out for us, which seemed to taste more delicious than ever this time.

I got to talk to T-sensei for awhile about how things have been going since I’ve been back, which was nice because we never talk at school now that we’re not teaching together anymore. I asked her a bit about the whole high school entrance exam thing and she explained what I’d seen after the ceremony. She also informed me that it’s not exactly the case that students only get one shot at the exams and if they fail that’s it. If they want to get into a public high school they only have one chance, but they can still take an entrance test for private schools, assuming a private school isn’t their first choice anyway. But if they fail twice, that is the end for them. They become the convenience store clerks and fast food cashiers of the world.

Once everyone had a few drinks in them more people made the attempt at communicating with me, and I found my ability to communicate has improved a bit since last year but isn’t nearly where I’d like it to be. It’s still extremely hard to understand them, as they’re not used to speaking to foreigners and don’t think to only use the simplest words and phrases expressed in the simplest ways. But if they knew a little English they put it to their best use. One of the young teachers spoke to me almost exclusively in poor broken English while I responded in poor broken Japanese, and somehow we managed to communicate quite a bit.

That teacher was the subject of the most fun the night, as he apparently had a new girlfriend he was texting with throughout and the other teachers were teasing him about it or occasionally even peaking at her texts and reading them aloud to everyone. At one point someone took the phone and passed it around to everyone. One teacher asked him what he wanted his reply to be so he could type it in and send it. It embarrassed him but he took it as jovially as can be expected. It’s always fun and interesting to see these serious professionals behaving like the students they teach.

After the initial party was karaoke, just as wild and fun as usual only this time I made sure not to get embarrassingly drunk. I drank just enough to work up the nerve to sing “99 Luftballoons” in German, which everyone got a kick out of. Later I sang John Lennon’s “So This Is Christmas” which went without reaction until the end, when I got a nice warm applause and “Happy Christmas”es from a few people including the Vice Principal whom I once thought had a permanent stick up his ass but who is actually just as friendly when he loosens up as the last one, and also happens to have the best singing voice out of all of us. I joined him for what was my only cigarette of the night and he asked me about my month-and-a-half absence which I did my best to explain in Japanese. I still find it perplexing how no one at the school seemed to know what the problem had been when I got back. I guess Interac didn’t bother explaining but just sent my replacement and said, “Here, use this guy for now.”

I felt a little sad when the night was over and we all went outside and went our separate ways. The place was a five-minute walk from my apartment (it was the same place I went with Kim and Enam and everyone on my return-to-Japan party) so just minutes after I was in this warm and friendly social situation I was back alone at home, knowing that this is pretty much all there’s going to be for the next two weeks. Of course loneliness doesn’t bother me much these days, but there’s always this weird thing about it being Christmas and having no one to share it with. Everyone I know around here is going somewhere, and I can’t afford to so I’ll just have to make due alone.

But it won’t be so bad. I’ve got plenty of ways to pass the time, and I recently figured out where the closest movie theater is so today I’m going to see The Hobbit and I might see Les Miserables next week. I think I’ll head into Tokyo on New Years’ Eve and find a celebration to join, but other than that I’ve got no other plans. And when all is said and done, I can’t forget how badly I wanted to get back here when I was in America and couldn’t. I may not be with who I want to be, but I’m right where I want to be.

Dear NRA Members,

December 17th, 2012 No comments

87% of you agree that support for 2nd Amendment rights goes hand-in-hand with keeping guns out of the hands of criminals.

79% of you say that gun-shop employees should undergo criminal background checks.

75% of you believe in denying concealed carry permits to applicants who have committed violent misdemeanors.

74% of you support criminal background checks on all gun purchases.

74% of you think gun permits should only be granted to those who complete gun safety training.

71% of you believe that people on the terrorist watch list should be prevented from purchasing firearms.

68% of you support restricting concealed carry permits to people who’ve never been arrested for domestic violence.

65% of you believe gun owners should be required to report lost and stolen guns to the police.

63% of you support restricting gun ownership to people 21 years or older.

So why does the NRA leadership consistently oppose such sensible gun regulations that would undoubtedly save lives and which most of its own members support?

Could it be because most of their funding comes from gun manufacturers and not NRA members? Could the fact that gun sales consistently increase after every mass shooting have something to do with it? Is there some chance that this gives them a financial incentive to make it as easy as possible for dangerous individuals to get their hands on deadly weapons?

When you look at a political candidate’s NRA rating, do you just check the letter grade or do you look into the specific pieces of legislation that the candidate voted for or against? A candidate may agree with any of the reasonable regulations listed above that you yourself support, but they will vote against them every time because they believe it will cost them your vote.

I fully support your right to own a gun. Hunters should be allowed to hunt, citizens should be allowed to defend their property from intruders, and all people should be allowed the capability of protecting themselves from violent attacks. I may not choose to hunt or defend myself and my property with a gun, but I believe in the ideal of personal liberty and will defend your right to make your own decisions when it comes to firearms.

But I also teach at a public school, and what happened in Newtown, Connecticut this past Friday is the worst kind of horror imaginable. The school I teach at happens to be in Japan, where gun laws are the strictest of anywhere in the world, and I can’t deny that knowing it’s nearly impossible for anyone to get a gun makes me breathe much easier when it comes to the safety of my students.

I recognize that none of the regulations above may have prevented this particular tragedy. But in America an average of 30,000 people are killed by guns each year, while in Japan it’s less than 50. If enacting some of the regulations that NRA members themselves support can save a few hundred lives each year, why not do it? If enacting regulations NRA members support can save just one innocent child each year, why not do it?

The politicians who have the power to do something will only do so if the NRA allows them that political flexibility. But the NRA leadership is not going to do that without massive political pressure, and they’re not going to respond to pressure from the outside.

If we really want something done about the epidemic of gun violence in this country, the pressure is going to have to come from you, the members of the National Rifle Association. You are going to have to be the ones who step up and demand that your organization listen to you for a change instead of the gun manufacturers who profit from more gun violence.

I know that while we may come from opposite sides of the political spectrum, most of you are good, compassionate people whose hearts are just as broken over the tragic deaths of those children in Connecticut as everyone else. If your compassion can move you enough to move your own organization to allow the passage of some kind of gun regulation that will save lives, then at least some good can come out of this senseless tragedy.

Nothing will ever make up for the grief those families are going through, but at least we can try to give them the comfort of knowing that their children’s deaths were not completely in vain—that the changes we made to our gun policies in the wake of their devastating loss prevented at least a few other parents from having to endure the same suffering.

Categories: Political Tags: ,

On the Shooting in Connecticut

December 15th, 2012 No comments

This is going to be my shortest political blog post of all time, as I just have one quick thought I want to express.

I’m in favor of the right to own a gun, but all the recent mass shootings have had me rethinking my position. Today I woke up to the news that some psycho piece of shit walked into an elementary school in Connecticut and shot a bunch of people including twenty children.  It makes me absolutely sick to think about, and I can’t imagine what those families are going through.

Of course I can’t help but imagine how I’d feel if the same thing had happened at my school. But that would never happen at my school, because guns are massively illegal in Japan and so hard to come by that even Yakuza gang members have a difficult time getting their hands on them. A mentally disturbed person certainly isn’t going to be able to just grab a gun from his mother’s kitchen table and walk into a school and start shooting kids.

If you asked me on another day I might say I think Japan’s gun laws are too strict. On almost every issue I usually come down on the side of more freedom. But the fact is that because the Japanese have much less freedom than Americans when it comes to firearms, my students are much safer.

And if I’m so personally grateful for Japan’s strict anti-gun laws, maybe it’s a tad hypocritical of me to oppose gun bans in America.

Categories: Political Tags:

Japanese Christmas Time

December 13th, 2012 No comments

It certainly doesn’t feel like Christmas time. The weather is cold, but not freezing. Most trees have lost their leaves but many are still in the process of losing them and plenty don’t seem to lose them at all. As for snow, we got about 2 cm all last year combined so I don’t expect much of that either. You only really notice that it’s Christmas when you go shopping, as a few stores have Christmas sections (like the dollar stores) and they’ve got Christmas music playing all over the place, including supermarkets. Maybe some Japanese scientists discovered that Christmas music increases consumerism by some factor. Either way, as soon as you walk outside it just feels like Fall again.

At least among my fellow foreigners there is some minor observation of the holiday season. There were two Christmas parties this past Saturday, a pot-luck dinner at Kim’s apartment and then a relatively big Christmas-bash at Ben’s place just like last year. There was just a small gathering of people at Kim’s—her boyfriend Enam and the same people who came to my party celebrating my return to Japan: Hiroshi, Will, and his Japanese girlfriend. There was also a guy named Ravi whom I only met once before on our beach picnic last Spring. We had a smorgasbord of food from East and West, everything from a sushi platter to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Also some homemade tuna-salad. Nothing traditionally Christmasy, but we did say “Merry Christmas” when we toasted our drinks.

Once we finished dinner we all migrated over to Ben’s party, which was almost identical to last year except that Trey was noticeably absent and I hadn’t brought a flaky Chinese girl who went home with another guy. That guy—Dan—was there, and we had some very pleasant conversation. He used to work with K-sensei, and now he works with S-sensei whom I worked with last year. He agreed with me that she’s a nice person but very difficult to work with.

I hadn’t seen Ben in almost half a year so it was nice to get to hang out with him again for a little. I might not see him again for a few more months , but I guess that’s just how he is. I also got to see a bunch of other people I haven’t seen in equally as long, including a really nice guy and fellow fantasy-nerd Zach, who has the same plan as I do of doing absolutely nothing during the holiday break. But we made tentative plans to at least head into Tokyo one of those days.

I also met a few new people. Ben plays soccer so he knows a bunch of Japanese people so it was great to have a few native Japanese there as well. At one point I found myself having a nice conversation about the difference between English and Japanese culture when it comes to religion with an attractive Japanese girl who spoke great English. It wasn’t until I’d stepped away to use the bathroom and came back to find her talking to another guy that I realized that might have been some kind of an opportunity. I went outside for a smoke and casually mentioned it to Enam, who very forcefully told me to go back and touch her gently on the back and say we didn’t finish our conversation. I was feeling loose enough and confident enough to try that, but I didn’t want to interrupt her talking with the other guy. Enam came in and without my asking just went up to that guy and struck up a conversation with him, at which point I went ahead and did the “we didn’t finish our conversation” move on the girl. She was polite enough about it, but I quickly realized that we probably actually did finish our conversation because it suddenly felt awkward. I was thinking about what an overwhelming labyrinth of interaction exists between casual-conversation-at-a-party and the goal of serious-romantic-relationship and I lack both the experience necessary to navigate it and the motivation to try.

I don’t remember how our conversation ended but I did get a Facebook friend request from a Japanese girl the next day. There was no picture on her profile so I can’t be sure it was her, but I don’t think I spoke to any other Japanese girls at the party for a long enough time to warrant a friend request. In any case, the next event I host or attend, the option of inviting her exists.

Unlike at most social events involving drinking, I paced myself very well this time and consumed plenty of water throughout. I never crossed the line between buzzed and drunk, and I left when the party was winding down at midnight rather than the wee hours of the morning. Instead of what I’ve come to regard as an obligatory hangover after social events, the next day I felt relatively decent. I even felt up to go jogging in the afternoon.

There are no more Christmas parties as far as I know, so that was probably the only Christmas celebrating I’ll be doing all year. I’m not bothered by it though—I’ve had crappy Christmases before, and none will ever be as crappy as the one I spent working at the front desk of the Doubletree in Santa Barbara.

As for school, I wasn’t even asked to do a Christmas lesson this year, but in anticipation of one I’d bought a bunch of Christmas pencils and stickers back in America before my flight back. I was planning to give them as prizes for winning the Christmas game, but there is no Christmas game and the games I’m doing these last two weeks are mostly of one half of the class against the other, which means I don’t have enough to give to all the winners. So I came up with the idea of asking six Christmas questions at the beginning of each lesson and letting the students who answer them take a gift.

I hold up a flashcard for each question, starting with a house decorated in Christmas lights and I ask “When is Christmas?” Usually no hands go up at first but someone always tries eventually, and most of the time they say “December 24”. I figure Christmas Eve counts as Christmas too so I accept that answer. The next ones are very easy, as I have a picture of a Christmas tree and a picture of Santa Claus and I ask “what’s this?” and “who’s this?” and a dozen hands go up. I also ask what we say on January 1st (“happy new year”) which one person always gets, and the last thing I do is hold up a picture of myself as a kid on Christmas morning (which my Mom sent last year for the Christmas lesson) and ask “Who’s this?” Some students remember the picture from last year, but in some classes it takes awhile before they guess it’s me, but when they do everyone usually gets a kick out of the picture.

But the most interesting thing is when I hold up a picture of a church and ask “What’s this?” If you did that in most classrooms in the world, everyone would know right away, but not in Japan. A few know the word in Japanese but not English. There’s usually at least one student who knows the word “church” but sometimes they say “chapel” (which I accept) and there was one class in which nobody knew at all.

So that’s Christmas to the Japanese. Everyone knows about Christmas trees and Santa Claus and presents, but that’s as far as it goes. I imagine that most of the students are probably confused that a picture of a church is even included in the Christmas questions at all. “What the heck does religion have to do with Christmas?” they’re probably thinking.

But for whatever reason, there is one other thing that Christmas means to both Western and Japanese students: lots of time off. One more week, then it’s the start of what will probably be my least-needed vacation of all time.