Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Leadup to the Naha Marathon

A few nights ago I followed up on my earlier promise to run my heart rate monitor all night while sleeping. Looking at the graph the next morning was very fun (I had some good dreams, apparently), but I was most excited to see that my nightly range dipped down to 32bpm three times. It's impossible to know how long I spent at that rate (though it was less than two minutes because the watch registers every 60 seconds and the surrounding readings were 33), but it's good to have a goal now.

Another morning this week I noticed my monitor was calmly settled on 34bpm. So I took a picture.

The Naha Marathon is this Sunday. I am nervous on many levels: (1) All of the boats were canceled yesterday and today between Zamami and Naha due to high winds. (2) Tonight it's really windy. (3) The winds aren't supposed to die down until Sunday. (3) My muscles don't feel very loose yet. (4) I'm well into my tapering and it isn't making me feel like Superman yet, like it did leading up to the Kume Marathon. (5) I just started running in a brand new pair of shoes two weeks ago and I'm not completely sold on them yet. This is a terrible time to not be confident in my shoes. (6) While the taper is great, the premise is to gradually dwindle my running down so I have lots of energy. But I also get lots of doubts about my abilities when I go so long without a long run. (7) I can't figure out the bathroom situation on the marathon course (are there places where I can just hop into bushes? is the first bathroom stop at 7km loaded with porta-potties or will there be a line?).

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Military Brats

Last night was the finale of Zamami's November weekend concert series. The last show included new acts and costumes by the taiko drummers, hula, eisa, a firedance, a traditional mainland Japanese dance, some comedic skits, and a concert by our local band, The Mammy's. (I know the grammar is incorrect, but it's not my band.)

The show lasted five hours and there were probably 3-400 people in attendance, which is a significant percentage of our island's population.

It was a great time but unfortunately I left terribly embarrassed. For the second time in three weeks a delegation of six military folks from mainland Okinawa have ventured out to Zamami for the weekend. The previous group started a[n illegal] bonfire on one of our famous beaches and camped there without paying. The American whom I had befriended that week reported to me that a local had referred to this group of miscreants as 'friends of the English teacher.' So there is possibly an assumed association between us English speakers.

This group included black, hispanic, and white skin colors which wouldn't be relevant except that Japan has so little immigration that anybody not of Japanese descent is noticed. So without their excessive beer and loud voices, they already stood out. I am unsure if the two girls were gay, but they acted it. Public displays of affection are frowned upon by male/female couples, so you can imagine how a gay couple is viewed in this conservative society. The group often bellowed out marching commands (followed by everybody counting off) at inappropriate times (when is an appropriate time?). They actually sat on the stage when The Mammy's started to play, which prompted a difficult gesture-based request for them to move back (two remained on the stage, apparently protesting their rights). The highlight of disgraceful behavior was when the entire hula group formed for their final performance and the military people jumped up and broke into a swing dance to the hula music, just left of the stage. They were so drunk, loud, and animated that they distracted all of the hula girls on the near side of the group.

This event reminded me of an interaction I had with a Taiwanese tour guide in Palau. The tour guide was about the same age as me and he worked for a group similar to Club Med. He told me that when the Taiwanese tourists came they felt entitled to do whatever they wanted since they had paid for their trip (it was rumored that only 17 cents on the dollar stayed in Palau for tour group trips). That, along with a cultural element, prevented the tour guide from asking his guests not to walk on the coral and pick up creatures off the sea floor.

So, entitlement. The military people had probably hatched this 'drunken vacation weekend' while back on base. They'd paid their boat fare, were renting a room, bought their beer, and were going to have a good time. Unfortunately, when they left the base they were in another country. Further, they were representatives of America whether they wanted to be or not.

I think I did a good job of disassociating myself. Though I debated heavily over asking them to calm down, I decided that would probably have the opposite effect I intended. So what can I do? Only improve myself. Be aware of my actions and remember that I am both a member of this society and an ambassador of another.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Buy Nothing Day

Here is a quote from the Buy Nothing Day Japan website:

Once upon a time, we used to buy what we needed, period.

Now that we have all we need, we buy for other reasons: to impress each other, to fill a void, to kill time. Buy Nothing Day is a simple idea: try not to shop for a day, and see how your view of our world changes.

Where does all this stuff come from?

Where will it go?

Why do we buy it?

Aren't there better ways of spending our time?

In 1992, Buy Nothing Day started in Canada, and quickly grew into a "festival of sustainable living" celebrated in at least 35 countries.

This Friday is the single biggest shopping day in the United States. The premise behind Buy Nothing Day is to eliminate all non-necessary shopping for one day. The goal is not to send a message, but rather to increase personal awareness of what and why we are buying.

Think about celebrating the aptly named Black Friday (the black is supposed to mean that retailers will go 'into the black' but we all think a different thought when we hear 'black' in front of a day of the week) as both a day off from work and a day off from spending. BND is honored internationally on Saturday, November 24.

Here's the link to the United States' Buy Nothing Day website.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Numbers

A fun tool I used while blogging my Pacific Crest Trail hike was to keep track of things in terms of numbers. I guess it says something about my brain and that is supported by my habits of keeping lists, tracking all of my expenses, and disliking dancing, but I think it also makes an interesting post.

The number of...

palm trees in my yard: 2
banana trees in my yard: 3 (and one's producing bananas!)
cats I've seen at my neighbor's door at one time: 19
books I've finished: 2 (Collapse and Mountains Beyond Mountains)

bags of burnable trash I've taken out since August 10: 1
shoe boxes of cardboard/paper I've taken out: 3
bags of cans: 1
bags of plastic or glass: 0

fish I've caught: 3
fish I've kept: 1
t-shirts I've acquired: 3
t-shirts I've worn out: 1
cockroaches I've killed since arriving: 39
cockroaches that have escaped: 6

letters from my Peace Corps South Africa friend, Erin: about 9
countries I've received mail from: 4
kilometers I run, on average, per week: about 78
hours I listen to NPR every day: about 3
uninhabited islands in the Kerama chain that I've seen goats roaming on: 3

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Brown Sugar [does not equal] Nuka

Last Thursday and Friday I attended the Okinawa JET Mid-Year Conference in Okinawa City. Yes, I've only been here three months and that is not the midway point of any year.

I've been working on a solar oven for two months (look forward to that post), but have been anxious to get baking. So when I found an oven for sale on the English language Okinawan classifieds site, I made an offer.

My friend Shu was kind enough to fit the oven pick-up into the schedule at 6:30am on Friday morning. That afternoon another friend, Jaimee, was nice enough to haul me and the oven back to Naha. Then a taxi driver was nice enough to accept my money to get me to the port.

Today I made my inaugural cinnamon rolls and cookies. You can see in the picture that the cinnamon rolls got a little dark, but the cookies are the real story. The brown sugar had a strange consistency when I packed 3/4 cup and mixed it in. The color was right, but the sugar was almost spongy. Certainly not sticky. Lacking curiosity, I didn't taste it. But I did taste the finished dough, which was pretty tangy. I wrote it off as the result of using all foreign ingredients (me thinking globalization of food hasn't hit Japan yet...). When I was preparing the cinnamon and brown sugar for spreading on the cinnamon rolls, I licked my finger and realized that my brown sugar was in fact something opposite of sweet. I instinctively looked at the package, which initially brought no help. But on the back were pictures showing this substance being poured into a pot of water, then adding vegetables and cooking.

My friend Amy looked it up and here's what Wikipedia says:
"Rice bran finds particularly many uses in Japan,
where it is known as nuka (糠; ぬか). Besides using it for pickling,
Japanese people also add it to the water when boiling bamboo shoots,
and use it for dish washing."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Twice in the last week I have been tactfully corrected on the gender of my students. There was never a question in my mind that two my Zamami fifth-graders were girls. One has long hair and a feminine voice, the other only hangs out with the girls and has a hermaphroditic name and haircut.

I have been living on Zamami for over three months! I was so blown away to find out about the first mistake (from a teacher) that I started analyzing other students. I came up with a fourth grader that looks boyish but dresses with a lot of pink (I still don't know..). But I wrote an email to my predecessor a few days ago detailing my problems with one of the fifth graders and I consistently referred to that student as 'she.' He wrote back with the correction and right now I am sitting here in shock.

It would be like learning all the numbers as a child and then at age 8 somebody telling you that you're one off. How do you look at the numbers again without feeling betrayed - and how long does it take to relearn? At the end of last week I was still unable to see the masculine traits in my first mistake.

How many other students am I wrong about?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Cleaning Time

One of the unique differences between American and Japanese schools is the participation the kids take in keeping their schools clean. Every day when I arrive to school, the teachers and kids are all busy cleaning various parts of the school, or watering plants or weeding. There is also a Japanese soundtrack (though yesterday I heard Avril) playing over the sound system. The music played at Aka school, combined with the dutiful cleaning and perky attitudes, is reminiscent of something out of The Sound of Music.

After lunch we clean again! The students here in Japan stay in their same classrooms all day while the teachers rotate. This instills a sense of ownership for the students, who take pride in their rooms. The kids sweep and then actually wipe the entire floor with wet rags. So far I have not been suckered into the rag job.

I wrote to my predecessor last week about cleaning time because it's very uncomfortable for me. Three months into my job, I'm still unsure what I should be doing. The jobs and assignees seem to change every day and I'm yet to find the sign up sheet or figure out how everybody knows where to go. I feel guilty hanging out in the teachers' room so I end up just walking around like a supervisor, checking in on all the different groups of students and usually ending by playing with the first or second graders. Today I made a concerted effort to help the Aka second-graders but ended up taking pictures and distracting them by miming a mock English lesson. The teacher came in and caught us in a moment of raucous mayhem so maybe tomorrow I'll be more disciplined.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Maybe I Am a Playboy?

[picture one: School concert and play at Geruma]
[picture two: Taken from Ama looking towards Zamami. There are two small, beachy islands in the foreground, Gahi and Agenashiku. Amuro is in the foreground on the right with Tokashiki in the background.]

I had hoped to make my inaugural kayak voyage to Geruma today for their school play that began at 10am, but wisely opted out after doing the high route run and encountering significant winds. On Thursday I met an American girl visiting Zamami because the Japanese girl whom I have a crush on waved me over to her restaurant that's near my house. It was a cruel bait-and-switch, but it enabled me to talk fluently in a language.

In a purposeful attempt at increasing my karma, I invited Jane (American) to Geruma with me yesterday to see the school play which I really knew nothing about. Jane has been staying on Zamami for a week and I realized how difficult it is for a visitor to get word of the cool local happenings without a cool local insider to tell you. So I told her.

It turns out the 'school play' was a instrumental concert, singing, taiko drumming, then speech-contest entrants (competition is in Naha) delivering their speeches, then an actual play set during the war (when the bombs hit I turned to Jane and said 'perhaps now we should leave?').

It was a great community event attended by few people, but only because the island has a population of just 70. The superintendent was there and asked me why I came. I said "because I wanted to!" He reminded me it wasn't in my contract and I reiterated my reasoning. I think this impressed him enough to forget my Halloween costume.

The inevitable assumptions and questions arose after I showed up with an unknown American girl. One teacher asked if she was my girlfriend and I tried with great difficulty to explain that I had only met her two days prior. During a moment of my floundering, the teacher pointed into my eyes and said "maybe you are a playboy?" and then he walked away smiling slyly.

The play ended at 12:30, 15 minutes after the boat had left for Zamami. The next boat wasn't until 3:30 so the Geruma English teacher, Ayano-sensei, lent me her car to explore Aka and Geruma with Jane! I only ever get off the boat and go to the schools so this was a wonderful opportunity. An interesting note on Ayano's car: she uses it only to drive the 1.5 miles from Geruma to Aka port so she can take the boat into Naha on weekends. She has been living on Geruma since April and I think she said she has filled the gas tank only once.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Dave Who?

One of the primary reasons I moved to Japan was to try and replicate the effects that Peace Corps had on my personality. Palau broke me down by removing all my comforts and replacing them with simple pleasures, minimalism, and an atmosphere of bleak English.

This next island still has warm temperatures, fishing, and tourism. But my ability to get by with English is weakened. And I have internet at home. And I'm getting paid real money for my work, and real expectations follow real money.

Japan is challenging in different ways, but it's still stripped me of confidence. I vacillate between feeling sorry for myself for knowing so little Japanese to fulfillment after hearing what I'm studying in actual conversation. I compare my learning to fictional JETs who all know more than me - a very unproductive practice. I let a couple of 'trouble' students bring me down. I beat myself up when games fail in elementary class. I allow paranoia to creep in when I don't get affirmations.

But I love it (not when I'm sad for myself, but the rest of the time it's great). I am broken down right now. This is when there isn't any fluidity in my blog posts or letters (and I write egocentricly for my own affirmation). I don't know who my friends in Japan are, or if I have any. I can't communicate. I felt 'challenged out' in the States, but here I can't even turn to the neighboring teacher to ask how I'm doing.

I don't know who I will be when I come away from this experience, but it's fun to be in the middle of the transformation.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Sonmin Undokai (Adult Sports Day)

[picture #1: Zamami students finish their eisa performance]
[picture #2: Geruma (foreground) en route to a surprise tug-of-war win over Aka, an island five times their size]

As part of my continued marathon training I had to wake up and do a 15k at race pace this morning, which meant either (a) my legs were tired or (b) my legs were stretched out for the 5k I was favored to win at sports day. My legs didn't care because their pace lost everybody by 2k in the race. I maintained a solid pace the rest of the way to win by over a minute amidst a raucous crowd. I get a lot more crowd support than most because I know the student and teacher population of all five teams. (Zamami is broken into its three villages: Ama, Zamami proper, and Asa, and then there's Geruma and Aka islands.) Though I felt fast I was disappointed with my time of 19:43.

I also competed on the men's 800m relay team. Our first runner had a slim lead over Aka island, but tripped and fell 150m into his 200m leg and lost significant ground. I was our third runner and only had the distance to the Aka leader to close, which I easily halved, but our anchor (4th runner) was a bit slow (and he had already thrown up after the 5k). It would've been a tight race without the fall.

My 5k win brought some fame I was hoping to attain, especially with the old people and the single ladies. I had a number of 'congratulations' handshakes all afternoon and, after the results were announced (Zamami won over Aka by a slim margin), 'arigato goizamasu's.' I didn't understand why people were thanking me until it was explained that the points gained in my win are what put Zamami in the lead - and since I was Zamami's only individual event winner (and the 5k garnered the most points), it was natural to credit me. I didn't complain, until I had to give two speeches. I gave them both in English (one was translated), since that was really the only option. I talked about how cool Sonmin Undokai was and that we don't have anything like it in the States that brings out such complete participation.

In the evening we had a concert at the port that was the first of a November weekend series. It was the same taiko, eisa, hula, and music performances that I've seen many times, but I don't tire of it and neither do the hundred community members (plus tourists) who turn out.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Taiko Drumming

I'm sure there are many different kinds of drumming in Japan, but to us Okinawans there are two: eisa and taiko. Eisa is Okinawan drumming that differs primarily from mainland Japanese taiko because of the movement involved. The eisa drums are strapped around the neck and the troupe of drummers dances as part of the performance. These differences are not wikipediaed; they are purely my observations.

In my three months here I've seen tons of eisa and fortunately have not tired of it yet. The energy is inspiring. Taiko performances are rarer, but I've seen a couple. Currently Geruma is practicing taiko for a 'school play' next weekend. School play is in quotes because I'm unsure if that was the correct translation.

Enjoy the pictures but know the sound is amazing. I am contemplating the idea of learning how to take and upload video as a blog supplement. Maybe I'll do that after I learn Japanese...

Thursday, November 1, 2007

All Saints Day.. err... Halloween again.

American holiday media bombardment doesn't exist in Japan, so November 1st is just as good a day to celebrate Halloween as was yesterday. And it turned out I had two elementary classes to lesson-plan for today, so we continued the Halloween theme.

I did the requisite 11-20 review, emotions, and days of the week, then went into Halloween Bingo and, since I didn't bring any prizes, a paper cutout pumpkin prize! The students enjoyed coloring for a bit and I enjoyed watching and doing something other than worry about how much English they're learning. It was a nice moment to step back and recall a message during the August elementary training: don't worry about how much they learn, just make English fun.

When I got home to Zamami I had to take care of my downed internet. Not an easy task to try and translate "Authentication failed" to my supervisor, Kiyoko. She tries her hardest to make our conversations work without electronic help, but she went quickly to Yahoo's translation page for this one. I can usually read through the choppy translation to get the point, but I was lost on this one:

"The internet is in a condition that I was sharp so documents do not arrive."

No matter, the internet was back up a half-hour later.

Halloween in Japan

I didn't know the Japanese necessary to explain my outfit to those who saw me en route to Geruma school in the morning. When I exited the speedboat at Aka I passed by the school superintendent and he did not look amused. Indeed, he was not. Later in the afternoon I had to visit the Board of Education and the gesturing used to describe the superintendent when he arrived at work was either steam coming out of his ears or devil horns growing out of his head. I hoped for the latter to be in keeping with the holiday.

We had a Halloween party at Geruma that involved a history of Halloween read by me and translated by the junior high students, a janken (rock, paper, scissors) game, and then trick-or-treating to the 3 elementary classrooms and me in two bathrooms (each gender, respectively). My JTE (Japanese Teacher of English), Ayano, and I provided masks to all the students except kindergarten because they had made their own.

When I arrived back in Zamami it didn't take long for the 1st/2nd grade elementary students to discover me. I used their herding formation to help offset the surprise that adults found at my appearance. The little kids quickly perfected saying 'trick-or-treat' and I soon had to limit their candy intake to make sure I saved some for the junior high party at 5:30pm.

The Zamami Halloween party was organized by the JTE (Shizuko) and some of the junior high students. The lack of costume participation was compensated by the fantastic female costumes that two of the boys wore. I made sure to give them extra candy and prizes. We played Bingo and did a mini trick-or-treat, as well as voting on the best jack-o-lantern drawing (real pumpkins are hard to come by) and the best costume.

Holidays tend to have a theme of being a lot more work than they're worth to me (and a lot more materialism than is healthy). I am yet to determine if the fallout from the superintendent's disgust in my costume was offset by the elation of all the kids and teachers. I hope so because I don't need any more reasons to turn my lip up at holidays.

Today a remnant of my costume remains in the pink nail polish. Time to find a real woman for some remover.