My first high school lesson after returning from winter break damned near nineteen days later. It is to a room which is occupied by two people, one of them myself. The other person is one of my coteachers, a wise, English-grasping fellow who, like many of my superiors here, curiously laughs at only the least funny of my jokes (excepting one man who laughs at literally everything I say in either language).
The lesson is for him and his video camera, which will record my performance and stilted fake interaction with a class that does not exist. In my absence on the following day, due to some creative catch-up scheduling, they will play this video tape to my students, who will behave as though I am in the room giving them directions. I trust any holes will be filled by the instructors who occupy the corporeal realm, scrambling as they shall to bolster my image with reality and substance. I imagine a preschool teacher recording a simliar tape, wherein she begs and pleads with empty space to please, take your nap, don’t do that with your crayons, can you tell me what your opinion is about the color green. The first three or four times I did this, the sham entertained me. I handed stacks of papers off screen with the location of the playback TV in mind so that it would appear I was actually passing physical matter from the video realm to my teachers. I gestured to empty desks in the audience and waited for class reactions and responses to my Good Morning Everyones and How Are You Todays. At 1 degree Celcius in my Japanese high school, where the inside temperature is at least at parity and occasionally lower than the outside temperature in winter due to the curious decision to leave all the windows open, the charade becomes more transparent. After nineteen days away from class, it’s hard to teach one to a room full of empty chairs.
Perhaps to rectify this karmic imbalance, I will be delivering a fifty-minute lesson to the entire class of first year students on Monday. Normal lessons for me consist of twenty kids, and so to grasp the scale of this one all you need to do is multiply by sixteen, the number of sections I teach in a week. That’s 320 sixteen-year-olds in the gymnasium, for one good-old-fashioned The Bigwigs Are Watching hoedown. I don’t think collectively that 320 people have ever been cumulatively interested in anything I have had to say. In this instance, they will at least be prohibited from leaving, which I suppose is for the best. I intend to play the largest game of rows and columns that has ever occured at this institution, and will mercilessly drill them on obscure American pop cultural trivia that even I need to consult Wikipedia to verify. It will be a crowning moment for me. I will force them to pose for a picture, which I will take with my cell phone.
Our school’s English journal is issued roughly twice a month, and always features solicited work by the students of my classes. In these scenarios I exact revenge on the students as though they were the poetry and short fiction editors of my past life, heartlessly rejecting work for even the tinest fluctuations in such random elements as my current temperance, what I would like to eat today, how many things I’ve read about this subject before, whether or not my name is used in the paper, if the paper is or is not about snacks, the presence or absence of cute doodles, and other such things. The journals are usually prefaced with either a foreword by my teacher or myself. In the instance that my writing appears, the powers that be have taken to adding a distinctly manga-inspired shoulders-up sketch next to my name that sort of resembles what I perceive to be the teenaged Japanese eye’s ideal fantasy of my appearance, with a long lithe neck, wild messy hair, a pointy bishounen nose, and a shirt scandalously unbuttoned at the top. I have not yet been able to determine if this was sketched by one of my students or not, though I have my suspicions that it was since I started receiving copies of the school’s drawing club newsletter on my desk shortly after it began appearing. Either that or my school has access to a vast amount of clip art that contains illustrations of vaguely western twenty-somethings with big noses who are disarmingly pretty. I will have to get a picture on this thing soon so you can see it. I showed it to a coworker at one of my other schools, who told her friend in Japanese that it made me look like one of the Fancy Boys who work at the host bars downtown, all dolled up in suits and bright hair and handing out flyers to young women in the hopes that they might come in and shower them with yen and limbs. I think they were a bit amused (embarassed?) that I actually understood what they said. I began miming as though I was distributing flyers, just to ease the situation.
After this we turned our discussion to tonight’s school mochi-making ceremony, which I know of only through erratic legend and the things people have told me, often delivered so casually and calmly by my coworkers as to suggest that there is merely nothing out of the ordinary with the idea of putting a bunch of cooked rice in a big bowl and beating on it with “Big Hammer” until it is left a squishy gooey paste. Mochi is made! Someone else told me I will need to “cover my jacket with something when the beatings happen because the splatter,” which has left me a little nervous.
I had threatened it in this journal before, though somewhat unaware of who exactly was at the hands of these bold statements, and now the gruesome realities have come to pass: Jessica and I are now the proud(?) owners of a 7700 yen hunk of PVC plastic, lovingly sculpted and painted by Japanese pervs (or the machinery they designed) somewhere in this great land. A shining representation of modern, cool, scantily-clad Japanese otakudom, she is maybe eight inches tall, and impossibly posed with a sniper rifle bigger than she is. Dressed totally appropriately for war and target shooting, Yoko (from the Japanese anime series Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann) enjoys finding time to shoot at evil from afar while taking care not to rip her pink latex stockings or in some way mess up her impeccable hair. As a conversation piece she has already offered her cost in amusement value: I relish the varied opinions of our friends and acquaintances as they feast their eyes on it. It may well be the most we’ve paid for something that does so little, functionally, though what it does as a matter of merely being present is altogether interesting to me. Offset on the other side of the television by the tiny wizard Vivi and his cute pet Chocobo she commands even more bizarre attention. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I at least think she is definitely making my big huge plasma television look attractive, and to that end I believe it’s a good idea to have it by the set: I’m usually looking in that direction anyway, and if I pay 7700 for something that is only useful when being looked at, I am going to look at it as much as I possibly can.
From here the road is a bit hazy. If more figures arrive others will have to go back to their boxes in the storage room, where they cannot be looked at. If too many arrive we will be forced to confront the logistical issues involved with shipping dozens of fragile, expensive, bulky items back to the States some day. In the Internet era, anything that we absolutely must have can be gotten while we reside either here or there: perhaps Yoko will keep ahold of her prominent position, so stable in high-heeled platform shoes, until the day we have places to put these things that don’t mandate an eventual journey by air or sea.
As I near the six-month mark in this country even the weird stuff is less surprising. Another English teacher like me said the other day that when she went to Thailand for vacation she could hardly believe the portion sizes. After keeping up my home front with meat that’s an outstanding deal at $4.49 a pound and a fridge the size of some American toilet paper jumbo packs, I am inclined to believe her. It’s gonna be weird to one day go back to a world where gallons of milk can be sold because people actually have the space to keep them, or where chicken breast is more expensive than chicken legs because it’s valuable for people to have chicken without the skin still on it. Via the magic of nearby Amagasaki’s Costco store, I’ve though managed to get an occasional taste of home. On the bottom shelf of our cabinet sits a nine pound box of Quaker Oats for Jessy’s breakfasts, and next to that (but below the two jugs of Prego so large they need to be turned sideways and coerced into the fridge once opened) rests an unopened 12-pack of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, which I have not seen for sale in this country anywhere outside of Costco. I bought it almost on impulse, in an effort to appease the machinations of my sentimental mind: without it, how will we cook tater tot casserole? What I failed to fully accept was the fact that there are no tater tots, ground beef is so expensive that tater tot casserole would be a luxury, and our oven is a microwave. Like my videotaped image, the soup now persists, waiting for the day that it will be useful.