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Deborah Lea

The Sounds of Japan
By Deborah Lea
Apr 18, 2005 - 2:33:00 PM

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I arrived in Japan having heard the word "humidity" but only understanding it as something United States east coasters complained about. As far as I was concerned, "humidity" was the conceptual creation of people who didn't want tourists stealing summer from them.

My experience in Yamaguchi taught me otherwise. "Humidity," I came quickly to learn, was a real, vicious thing. The warm, thick dampness inescapably pressed itself against every inch of my skin, day and night. No matter where I went or what I did, I could not escape the insistent pressure of humidity. I began spending my free minutes draped across the couch directly in front of the fan. My boss warned me this was unhealthy, overwhelming my body's own natural defenses to the environment, but such warnings meant little when I stepped outside of the flow of air and felt myself begin instantly to melt. When I was not working, my life was nothing more than days on that couch, staring dazedly out the window and listening to the distinct sounds of Japan.

These sounds were surely not those of people. As on the train my first evening in Japan, my entire neighborhood was preternaturally silent. I saw people coming and going from the houses surrounding my own. Their shadows sometimes crossed windows, and sometimes their unshadow selves curiously asked me how I was doing. I knew they existed, but if I had been forced to rely on sound alone, I could only have come to the conclusion no one lived anywhere near me. One afternoon, in fact, I was excited to hear music from "The Godfather" drifting out a window. I hummed along for a few seconds before nearly crashing into a wall in delayed shock. There was music! I could hear music! One of my neighbors was making noise! My new roommate and coworker, a few weeks arrived by that time, shared my shock when I informed her of the bizarre occurrence.

The silence of the people around my house was one thing. Other things made noise, though, and these noises were alternately soothing and aggravating to me. The sound of the cicadas was deafening and I longed to find the secret to obliterating them, or at least teleporting them to some faraway planet where they would never overwhelm my ears again. The sound of frogs in the rice paddies quickly became my favorite thing about Japan. I could spend hours taking pictures of rice paddies and loved to see the sunlight glimmering off them as the rice grew slowly over the passing weeks, but it was the sound of the frogs that made home within them which was most soothing to me. I left the windows open and closed my eyes, listening to them as I felt most distinctly my distance from home. Those frogs made that distance seem something wonderful, not painful. It was nothing to be rued - especially as my mention, in a later application, of them as my favorite aspect of Japan earned special mention by the man who would later hire me. It was true: the frogs spelled out best the difference of my life before Japan and my life in Japan. If the humidity sucked my will to live, the frogs out there singing skillessly, I imagined, to the moon, brought some of it back.

Sometimes cars would sound out down the main road through town, and the train passing by every few hours reminded me I was not really as removed from everything as I sometimes felt. That train was taking other passengers to towns I might someday visit, and the sound of the train became most welcome to me. It symbolized the potential of escape to me when I began feeling more and more oppressed not only by the humidity but by my workplace environment. For all I love my new home away from Yamaguchi, I miss the sound of that so-close train connecting me to all the rest of Japan. And I miss the sound of the frogs, but soon it will be time to fill the paddies with water in preparation for rice-growing, and when there is water there will be frogs. I look forward to hearing them again and thinking now how that will be, aptly, the mark of about a year in Japan for me: my frog annniversary.

The humidity was oppressive my whole stay in Yamaguchi. I once wrote: "Wow! An almost-cool breeze blew there for a second!" It was such an exciting thing for me, that momentary respite from suffering. I may look forward to the summer return of the frog chorus, but the humidity ought join the cicadas in an alternate dimension.

My employers were also oppressive. When they hired me, they had not informed me they had installed a video camera to monitor the classroom during classes. I only became aware of it my second week when an old employee, filling in while my employers searched for a new permanent coteacher, pointed up over his shoulder and said, "I'm not sure how I feel about this whole Eye-in-the-Sky thing." I was baffled until I caught sight of the small black sphere mounted on the ceiling above the blackboard. I could, at that moment, hear the Twilight Zone theme playing. But I ignored it as best I could. After all, I had already signed my contract and I didn't have enough money to argue things like that. It put me on edge as soon as it was pointed out, but it was tolerable until the first time it became more than an abstract matter.

I was in the middle of preparing a tic-tac-toe grid on the board when the classroom door opened and my boss hurried in. Taking the eraser as my students watched, she erased the grid and began laying flash cards across the eraser tray. I stood incredulous as she informed me this was better, much better. After her intervention, she stepped back and observed from the rear of the classroom. By then, the damage had been done. I was so shaken by the intrusion, both initially and how it continued, I could barely think. When class was over, I angrily but calmly informed her that was a horrible, unsettling thing to do over a minute detail, displaying both a damaging lack of trust and undermining my authority with a class who was still getting used to me. She told me it was necessary - she had to teach me - and was entirely unpersuaded by my pleas that she wait till after class next time.

Such an intervention only came one other time, when my placement of family figures was displeasing to my boss. This, too, was a minor thing, but apparently nothing was too small to not register on the scale of right and wrong ways to do a thing. I was again shaken but made it through class. My post-class confrontation was more vehement the second time. Whether that confrontation was the reason there were no future interventions, I do not know. The interventions stopped, but by then my wariness was already firmly rooted. Whenever a convergence of strikes in the bowling alley below rattled the door, I would eye it with mixed fear, trepidation and tinges of hostility. I was ready for a fight after that second intervention. The camera, used in a different manner as time passed, yet remained a point of contention between us. Sometimes, my new roommate, subject to a few "interventions" of her own, and I would make therapeutic videos of our own on my digital camera. This helped us (practically) artistically combat the tension of our work situation. They gave us a chance to laugh at the things that set us on edge at work. Watching these videos still makes me laugh, and will, I suspect, bring back the good ol' Gooch days until I am in my late eighties at the very earliest. "I defy you with my toaster!"

I dearly loved my classes. My inexperience was quickly forgotten as necessity provided focus. The kids didn't seem to know the difference between me and a real teacher, so that gave me enough confidence to get me through my first days. I was, I felt, more a performer than a teacher anyway. Performing I could do. I made silly faces, stomped around, and led games the children enjoyed. My inexperience didn't show or mattered not a whit to them, which made it easier not to be overwhelmed. That and the fact I often forgot I was actually the teacher, and not just a big kid. The kids made me laugh at least as often as I made them laugh, and those points of connection between my students and me made my overall eikaiwa experience a joyful thing. The camera and the controlling, untrusting environment in the office were one thing; the classroom experience quite another. I got paid, I kept thinking with incredulity, to play with cute, inquisitive little kids who only occasionally made me crazy. And "playing" seemed truly the sum of what I was allowed to do. Progress, I began to think, was not welcome at my academy.

I also loved that my students called me "Sensei," for though it was intuitive to them, I hardly felt like a teacher - this even apart from the fact that "Sensei" to me was a title reserved for my tall, sturdy karate instructor! It was a reminder to me not to get too worried about the experience. I would learn and become comfortable, I told myself, and I did. My boss repeatedly informed me I was a quick learner, that she was impressed how I only had to hear something once to adapt and change, but that meant less to me than my elementary school kids looking up at me with big curious eyes as they waited to ask me a question. As often as not, they'd be dangling at all kinds of angles off tables and chairs while they waited, making strange noises or throwing things at each other.

Some classes were more difficult than others, but there was only one class which routinely made me want to leap off the roof. (I probably would have, too, if only it were higher. Leaping off that roof would have resulted in injury only to my pride.) Every Saturday I would wake up and think, "Oh no! It's Saturday!" Hiding under my pillow wouldn't make it go away, so I had to accept solace in that The Class was over early in the day. Two rowdy boys and two exceptionally quiet girls plus one angry mother made for some of the consistently least pleasant hours of my life. My other Saturday classes were always a treat, starting with my adorable, genki preschoolers and concluding with my stone-cold silent junior high class. Trying to get any of them to talk easily took up half the class itself, and though I understand this now that I have seen what their daily school experience is like, it was utterly perplexing to me then that six teenagers could make absolutely no noise. The rare times I got them to laugh with my antics and silly faces were Saturday highlights, my weekly challenge, and some of my fondest memories of southern Honshu.

My adult classes were sometimes more difficult. The small ones ended up being more conversational than they should have been, and my adults - I'm embarrassed to say - learned much more about segregation and my brother's shoe size than actual conversational English. My community center adult classes were a wonderful experience for me. I still didn't feel like a teacher, but my students frequently commented on how much I knew and seemed to respect me. It could all have been show. That wouldn't surprise me now that I've heard the unwarranted "jouzu!" ("well done!") about 4,082 times in the last five months alone. But certain moments shine in memory as true compliments. Mostly, I remember those times and think my adults were right about one thing: I should have been an acting teacher instead. I argued then and still think it true that hamming it up is one of the best ways to demonstrate subtleties that might otherwise be difficult to express. Short looking everything up, it's effective and requires no tools other than a willingness to get goofy.

One particular community center quotation continues to make me laugh. Each week, the advanced class had a theme we would discuss at the beginning of each class. One week I asked the students to prepare a list of three things they would bring with them to a deserted island if all the necessities were already provided for. Making rounds of the room as students discussed the matter in pairs, I overheard one student say cockily: "I would bring my English teacher!" I suppose in the daydream world, permission is unimportant. I walked away laughing.

In spite of that and dozens - perhaps hundreds - of other fond memories, in and outside of work, after only about a dozen weeks, it became clear I would have to leave. My boss, having oft shown her ability to be atypical in her bluntness, would yet often use my roommate and I as channels to convey to each other problems she was having. Instead of telling either of us directly, she would tell the other and wait for us to discuss such matters with each other. This inconsistent indirectness created unbearable tension, as did her husband's frequent unannounced visits at our house, which they owned. I felt there was no escaping them, and so it was that after a one-week break which saw me accidentally but happily in Kyushu, I gave my notice. I would miss bike rides with my roommate, coconspirator, and friend. I would miss making our therapeutic videos and Mr. Shark the classroom helper. But I needed freedom I did not feel I could ever find there, where I was constrained personally and professionally in method and manner at every turn.

So, in giving my notice two weeks after informing my bosses such a thing was close at hand if they would not try their hand at "trust," citing calmly all of the things that together meant I would be unable to stay, a comment from my boss led me to respond, "I don't feel I can be your monkey." That was, after all, what I felt like: a trained monkey, except without the training.

After I gave my notice, my attention quickly turned toward finding a new job. I didn't know where I'd go and I worried I might have put myself in a bad situation financially, but the mantra that kept me through my first days in Japan kept most of my stress at bay: in Japan. In Japan. I'd find a way somehow.

Based solely on the fact I am writing this from Japan six months post-Yamaguchi, it's safe to say, I found a way. This, unlike the one preceding it, is one that makes me awaken with a smile every day.







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