Writer, photographer, "rapper" and general technophobe takes on the internet in what could be a very, very messy fight. But it's alright: she's harder than she looks, and she's wearing every single ring she could get her hands on.


Monday, 31 August 2009

Leading and Whiting

Well, I didn't make the studio a sky at all. Not even a little bit. I didn't make the studio a sky, or a sea, or the bottom of a garden occupied by fairies. I didn't convince them that they were pirates, or spies, or aliens, or princesses. No. What I did, in fact, ran something like this:

Me: "Yoshi, please stop crying."
Yoshi squeezes herself behind door and continues crying.
Me: "Yoshi, sweetheart, please stop crying."
Yoshi continues crying and says something indecipherable in Japanese.
Me: "Look! Yoshi! Here's a rabbit! Can you say rabbit? It's coming to..."
Yoshi looks appalled, smacks the rabbit and starts crying so hard that snot drips off her chin. Hiro runs up and tries to kick Yoshi.
Me: "No! Hiro! Don't kick Yoshi! No kicking of Yoshi! Naughty!"
Hiro kicks Yoko instead. Yoko starts crying.
Meanwhile, Shina - who wants nothing more than to stay away from kicking boys - creeps into the corner and picks up a red brick. "Brue!" she shouts enthusiastically.
Me: "Good girl, Shina! Except that it's red. Can you say 'red', Shina? Red?"
Shina nods and screams "Brue!" again. Hiro - in sheer fury that I told Shina that she was good, and, possibly, that she can say 'brue' - kicks Shina, who throws the red brick at Yoshi. Yoshi screams something in Japanese, hits the rabbit again, continues crying and desperately tries to turn the door knob, like a tiny little prisoner in a bad made-for-tv drama.

Frankly, my studio wasn't so much a sky as a warzone - with little plastic bricks as weapons and laminated word cards as shields - and my imagination ran out after 45 solid minutes of screaming girls. The bunny had used three different accents, I had crawled around on all fours mooing like a cow, I had hopped around the room like a rabbit only to be met with three seconds of blissfully shocked silence (followed by shouts of "Usagi! Usagi!"), and the only thing that could distract the kicking boys was to give them something to kick, which they promptly lobbed - with their hands, just for the sake of irony - at the girls, who sniffled even harder. It was less about inspiring children and more about acting as a policeman for teeny tiny ASBOS.

Which is not to say it wasn't also rewarding. When they were good - when they sat down on the carpet neatly, or thought that my cow puppet pretending to eat their hands instead of an imaginary sandwich was the funniest thing they had ever seen - I got a glow that leaked out of my ears, because they were the most adorable children in the world. When the little Japanese version of myself (an eight year old who has her own English dictionary that she carries around with her in a tiny pink satchel; her mother says she "wanted it for her birthday") grabbed my hand and said, very soberly, "I am leeding" - instead of "I am reading" - the high five I gave her was so genuinely enthusiastic she almost fell over.

But... My God. It's bloody hard work. And it's far less about teaching, and far more about trying every single thing in your power to get them to notice that you're even in the room at all. It's like the world's worst date; every time you think you've come up with something interesting, and you're mentally patting yourself on the back, their eyes suddenly glaze over and they're staring at a fascinating bit of fluff on the carpet again. For every inspired puppet show that sparks something for three minutes, there are another fifteen minutes where you are desperately grappling with basic verbs and trying to distract them from a piece of blue tac on the bottom of their shoes. And yes, all you have to do to get their attention again is scream "race to the wall and put your heads on the floor!" but a) that's not on the curriculum b) somebody usually gets trodden on and c) you have to do it too, and there's only so much flexing my body can take before it starts making loud snapping noises.

I'm going to stick it out, though. I may not want to be a teacher on a permanent basis, but this is a life lesson. I'm stretching myself in directions I never thought I could or would, and I mean that metaphorically, spiritually, and very, very literally: even my toenails ache with all the jumping and crawling and hopping and hokey pokey-ing (American version: presumably "cokey" is too drug-addled for toddlers). And yes, I did spend at least ten minutes (while at the convenience store, queuing up for yet another bloody rice ball) calculating that I worked half as hard and for twice as much money when I was in PR in London, but hey: if that's what I wanted from life - an easy, well paid, ride - then I would have just stayed there. Clearly self-inflicted torture and bruises on the knees are what I prize above all experiences; that and the shame of knowing that a 1.7 year old with the world's cutest mullet and a passion for ponies can speak more of a second language than I can.

Anyway, it's all very good practice for when and if I ever decide to inflict my genes on another human being. Because you can bet your arse that they'll be fascinated by blue tac and carrying a dictionary around with them. They'll probably have asked for one for their birthday.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Making the studio a sky.

The problem with releasing the inner child is knowing how the hell you're supposed to get them back in again. Because kids really aren't that easy to control; especially when you've spent the last 17 years pretending that you were never one in the first place.

School training started three days ago, and already I'm exhausted. My school encourages as much activity and as many games as you can possibly fit in, and - frankly - I'm not known for my athletic abilities or my physical stamina. Three days of rolling around on a carpet and pretending to be a fish - of shuffling along the floor on my stomach - and my muscles ache, my bones ache, and the little bit of my knees that used to have skin ache. And this was with a class of 7 fully grown adults, also training. We haven't even come into contact with the kids yet, so I can only imagine what will happen when there are 10 five year olds released into the room.

What's strange is that, for the first day at least, it all felt very, very strange. My body didn't feel like it was supposed to move like that; using all of my limbs (instead of just the bottom bit of my legs) to move around felt silly, and the shapes I was expected to get into felt bizarre. After years of sitting politely on chairs and walking upright, suddenly crouching into a crab shape and scuttling across the room felt ridiculous and embarrassing. Worse, the imaginary worlds that I had to play in (it's an English-through-Drama school, so the more imaginary worlds the better) felt pretty much invisible. I've learnt to create imaginary worlds sitting at my computer and using my head, but the ability to create that world and then physically play in it - to make that world real - disappeared a long time ago, and for the first day or so "let's go to the bottom of the sea!" just meant: "let's turn bright red and hope that this section is over pretty damn quickly, coz I can't see no sea, and I can't see no fish, and I definitely can't see no shark that we're all pretending to scream at."

But it came back. With a startling loud click, it all came back. Well: part of it did, anyway. I was never a particularly physical child - prone to reading books and sitting neatly and practicing my letters on sheets and sheets of green paper - so the physical element still feels a little bit strange. But playing in other worlds? Thinking like a child? Remembering what makes children laugh? Easy. And the more realistic you can make that world - the better you pretend to zip on your wings before you go flying - the more fun they have, and the more fun you have, and the more they learn. And the more they learn - I've only just realised - the more you do.

Because it's something I needed. Being an adult and walking straight and sitting neatly and exercising my brain has occupied the last twenty years of my life; in all honesty, I was chasing after adult conversation and behaviour long before I stopped being a child (when I was five I took my Godfather aside and soberly told him to "tell me grown up stuff, please"). But this is a different kind of hard work. This takes over your whole body. This isn't all about thinking; it's about doing, instinctively, and being. You can't sit down and write about an evening floating in space: you have to strap on your helmet and make the studio the sky. You have to encourage the children to stop seeing it as a classroom, and instead see it as a blank canvas that can be anything. Because the power of their heads and their bodies to make it anything is all there; they just need to tap into it.

Japanese children haven't been brought up playing these kind of games, and it's been a long time since I played them, so in a way we're starting off at roughly the same stage. But it's a stage I think I've been missing: a stage that is going to help me see the world differently. Because in opening the imaginations and the worlds of these tiny little children, I have to open mine as well. And - as a writer - that's exactly what I needed. To move away from the desk, and learn how to create a world and then actually play in it. To start using the creative part of my brain as a muscle that moves again, instead of one that just sits and stagnates in the dusty part of my brain, under the bit that works out the water bill and how much tax has been deducted from my wage slip.

It was never something I was looking for. When I came to Japan, I came for the travelling and the experience; teaching was very much secondary, and a way to make the money to stay here for a while. But I've already realised - before school has even started (I meet the kids on Monday) - that this part of the adventure is going to be as tangible and as powerful as any of the rest of it. Because this is the bit that has taken me out of my comfort zone; not walking, upright, sensibly, with other adults who just so happen to be from another country.

It's going to be hard, and it's going to be knackering, but I'm going to try as hard as I can. And if the child in the middle of me is so desperate to come out, I'm simply going to let her.

Monday, 24 August 2009


Once or twice in a lifetime, you meet someone or something who you know - from the very beginning - is going to change everything. It doesn't mean that it will be easy; the most passionate relationships never are. They can be riddled with hate, with insecurity, with confusion and with pain; they can make you happy too easily, can make you cry too easily; they can make small things seem big and the big things shrink down to nothing. But, straight away, these things sink into the middle of you, and there is nothing you can do to stop your insides changing. From that point on - no matter how hard you struggle against it - you are on the road to being somebody different.

Japan has already started seeping through me. I have already hated it with a bone-aching passion; I have sat in sterile train stations - confused and unable to communicate and frustrated by the blankness and formality and efficiency of Japan and its people - and I have cried, and then cried harder because nobody will acknowledge that I'm even upset. I have got on the wrong trains; ordered the wrong food; been to job interviews and sobbed in the reception areas because of the coldness of the teachers and the ugliness of the cities. I have been to supermarkets and wanted to scream: supermarkets where bread comes in three or four slices per loaf, where fresh tuna is kept in the August heat instead of a fridge, where toothpaste doesn't have fluoride and the deodorants don't do anything at all and I can't buy anything because I don't recognise what anything is. I have been burnt by the August sun; I have been bitten by Japanese mozzies, screamed at Japanese cockroaches and nibbled by Japanese river fish. I have said the wrong things and been laughed at ("Give me toilet"); I have swallowed loo water by accident (by peering, in open mouthed curiosity, into the high-tech bowl of a Tokyo toilet and then getting an automatic squirt of bum cleaner), and I have been shouted at by old ladies for forgetting to take my shoes off in cafes. I have been ritually humiliated because nobody will sit next to me on public transport; because small children gape at me and get tugged away by cross parents, and because there is a metre gap around me on even the busiest buses (known, I have now discovered, as The Gaijin Bubble). I have been lonely, frightened, broke, confused and very, very angry: with Japan and with myself for being there out of choice. In short, I have hated it more than I ever thought I could hate a place, and I once spent three entire days in LA.

But this anger has been in short blasts; like any relationship, when the anger and the confusion and the tears are over, I have looked at Japan with clean, tired eyes, and found myself loving it all over again. Because I do: I love Japan. Already - in less than two weeks - I adore it; already it feels like somewhere that could be a home. It is, simply, a mass of the most bizarre, beautiful contradictions I have ever seen in one culture. Opposites are everywhere. The people are quiet, kind, polite; their hobbies are often noisy, frantic, colourful and eccentric. They are simultaneously shy and arrogant; obsessed with sex and prudish; dignified and seedy; cold and immensely warm; efficient and fragile. Everywhere is clean, everything runs on time, everybody has manners; there is no anger, no aggression, no rushing. Underneath the blazing colours and lights and chaos of modern Tokyo is a strange calmness, a strange control; underneath the quietness and traditions of rural Japan is a passion and warmth and depth. 'Love hotels' and nakedness and prostitution and used knickers are everywhere, but if you wear a low cut top or kiss your partner in public people will frown at you. Get something right and they will look at you with suspicion; make a mistake and they will laugh. Speak just one word of Japanese and they will enthusiastically applaud your intelligence and then speak in eloquent English and apologise for their own stupidity.

Life over here makes sense, because it makes no sense at all. It has an air of wholesome tackiness; a crazy, colourful innocence and serenity with no undertones of violence, or desperation, or ferocity that are everywhere in the UK. And maybe it's because I just don't know it well enough yet, and maybe because everything is new and exciting, but already I am in love with this country. I'm crying all the time, and I'm scared most of the time, and I'm in a constant state of confusion, but I'm hooked: already I know that it's one of the most important relationships I am ever going to have. No matter how long it lasts for, Japan is going to make me somebody different.

On Wednesday I start my new job: after a frantic week of interviews, I have managed to secure (what seems to be) a top notch job teaching 'English Through Drama' to little children (pretending to be a tree, and such), and I move to Tokyo tomorrow: at the weekend I will buy a scooter and start exploring my local area.

It isn't going to be easy; I already know that. These kind of relationships never are. I am going to be lonely, I am going to cry, I am going to get angry, I am going to email my mum again and ask her if I can come home (she said no). I am going to call Japan all the names I can get my hands on, and then some new ones that I've learnt especially.

But I'm not going to mean any of them. And, when I've had a little cry and a shout and a sleep - when I've thrown my riceball at a wall and prodded somebody with my newly purchased chopsticks - I'll wake up, blurry and clean and on my own again, and realise that I've fallen in love with Japan all over again.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Things I have Learnt Since Landing in Japan 4 Days Ago

1. Unlike British people, Japanese people don't clap when the plane lands. It's almost as if they expect it to land safely, because they've just paid hundreds of pounds to be moved from one place to another and not die in the process.

2. A little of the language does not go a long way. You can smile and point and use all of your facial muscles and say "sumimasen, Pre-paid phone, domo," as much as you like, but you will not walk out of the shop with a pre-paid phone. What you will walk out of the shop with is a bright red face and a gaggle of giggling shop assistants.

3. Cyonara
is, in fact, spelt sayonara, and a) yes, it makes a difference, and b) nobody says it anyway, because it's old fashioned and Western films have ruined it.

4. Tokyo is bonkers. Utterly bonkers. And therefore amazing and the best city in the world. Rural Japan is, by contrast, much less bonkers, and much more scary.

5. Old habits die hard
. After at least an hour and a half spent standing wide eyed in a supermarket, I walked out with:
  • A tuna mayo rice ball.
  • A bar of Cadburys chocolate.
  • Pasta.
  • Cheese sauce.
  • A bottle of diet Coke.
I was hungry. And a bit scared of all the flesh-based pictures on the front of all the packets. I'm not proud of it. I would have been embarrassed being caught with that little handful in London, let alone as the only westerner in the building. I may as well have walked in with a t-shirt that said: single, British and undomesticated.

6. New habits form quickly.
I have established that I like: soya beans, seaweed biscuits, giant fish-egg wotsits (that's what I call them, anyway) and salmon/wasabi rice balls. I have also established that I like Manga, brightly coloured mobile phones, scooters and sitting cross-legged on the floor. I am therefore already eating, doing and attempting to buy all of the above to the exclusion of every other new experience, which makes me a total loser.

7. Walking into a wood in shorts and sitting on your suitcase and crying for half an hour because you're lost and overwhelmed will not solve anything, but it will mean that 56 mosquitos will feast on you while you're distracted and cause your legs to blow up like ham hocks.

8. For every hour spent looking for a "nice dress" in London to take with you, spend an hour learning a bit of Japanese vocabulary instead. You can buy dresses in Japan; what you can't buy is the ability to communicate without running out of the shop screaming.

9. Stereotyped Japanese past-times are utterly true, and much, much more fun than bowling. Karaoke, themed restaurants, slot machines, comic stores, dance machines (lots of machines) are all the norm, and just as entertaining as they look: especially when the lights all go out half way through your starters and the waitresses cover themselves in blood and start rattling on your 'prison bars' (door in front of your table). Even if it means you can't see what you're eating.

10. Five foot ten blondes don't blend in very well, even in flat shoes and a hat. And every single Japanese word used will be automatically deemed 'cute', no matter how well you think you have nailed the accent.

11. Language tapes bought online are wrong, and teach you nonsense that will make people laugh at you, a bit like that poor Korean girl in X factor who sang Mariah Carey and got every single word a little bit wrong. Plus, knowing how to say 'I would like a coffee' is all well and good, but if you don't know what 'would you like a small one or a large one, with milk or cream or a mocha, and do you want the cheap sandwich deal and a table by the window?' means, you're screwed either way.

12. Making friends who speak both languages is probably the best thing you can possibly do for your sanity. Thank God for Sam from The Best Job In The World: without whom I'd probably still be in the airport, although at least I wouldn't now be addicted to seaweed ricecakes.

13. Chopsticks are easy to manage if the object is: large, dry and textured. If it's slippery, just tip it into your mouth from the bowl or you'll make a mess of your t-shirt.

14. If you are a messy, fussy cow in England, you will be a messy, fussy cow in Japan. If you don't like pork in England, you won't like pork in Japan either. And if you get lost in Islington, the chances are that you're going to spend large proportions of your time sitting on the pavement at bus stations, wondering where the hell you are. All that's changed is where you are: not who you are, apparently.

All in all, it's a good start. But a start it is: I have yet to secure a job, a house, more than five words of language and a knowledge of what the hell I'm supposed to do with 90% of the contents of the supermarkets. But I've only cried once, I've only had the bottom half of my legs eaten by insects and I've finally worked out how to wheel my suitcase without smacking the backs of my heels in the process.

Let the rest of the adventures begin. After I've finished my bar of Cadburys chocolate, obviously.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

To Japan

I fly in 8 hours. 8 hours, before I head into a world of tsunamis and typhoons and earthquakes, apparently.

The Write Girl will be back. When I've found my feet again - not too long from now, I hope - I will be back, in full blogging glory. From a country where the light is stronger, and when the light inside is as well.

Until then: cyonara. x

Sunday, 9 August 2009

The Blacks

I said a long time ago - when I started this blog - that without honesty, writing has little purpose. It is truth that gives writing insight: take that away, and what you're left with is dead, dry and a little crunchy to walk through. And sometimes, frankly, that kind of honesty is hard. It can cost, it can embarrass, and it can expose. The privacy that feels real for the few seconds when you're writing isn't real: if you want to be a writer - if you have anything you want to say, or feel capable of saying, or feel compelled to say - it can't be. It's like lying on a doctor's table with no clothes on, and then finding that he has opened the curtains and thousands of people are examining you from the other side of the window. Which can be, in short, terrifying: even if you put yourself on the table and took all your own clothes off in the first place. So - incapable of being honest, and incapable of being anything but - I've not written for nearly three weeks. Three weeks, and now it would be too tempting to leave the curtains shut, because I'm a little scared of what's out there.

If honesty is what writing is about, though, then there is no other way to re-enter this blog but to tell the truth. My absence has been largely due to the fact that over the last few weeks, I've been suffering relatively badly from what I have called - since very young childhood - an episode of The Blacks. For me, it always feels like there is a thin, pale grey smoke running through the middle of me and out into my toes and fingertips, and a lot of the time it's almost backlit and shiny: a little like the dry ice in Stars In Their Eyes. Which is great: when it's like that, I feel fantastic. I can write. I can go to the pub. I can steal the remote control and fight over Scrubs versus Simpsons (Scrubs, obviously). Sometimes it darkens, like bad weather, and goes a little darker in colour, and a little denser, and then I might go to bed a little early, or snap a few more times for a few less reasons, or decide that my hair is crap and probably always will be. But, again, I can still function. Which is - you could say - all you really need to do in life: just get on with it.

Very occasionally, though, the smoke in the middle of me turns into something else. It peels away from my fingertips and toes, and shrinks back - a kind of smoggy implosion - and turns into something hard and black in the middle of my chest. And, then, when it gets really bad, it'll become spiky as well, and I can actually feel it: pointing out like a dark star in the centre of me. Which - as you can imagine - hurts. A lot. So much so that nothing else matters, and everything becomes slightly irrelevant, because everything - and I mean everything - comes second to it. Job. Boyfriend. Family. Food. Laughing. The only thing that doesn't come second to it is sleeping, because that's the only way to escape it.

I've had The Blacks since I was very tiny: I remember one when I was about six or seven years old, which is probably when I dubbed it with such an unimaginative name (Holly Golightly called it The Mean Reds, which sounds far friendlier). So I know when it's coming, now. I know the symptoms. The first thing to go is my sense of humour: both appreciation of, and ability to tell, witty anecdotes. I find that I'm not laughing when I should be; in fact, I'm not laughing at all. Second is a sense of perspective: I start to feel very distant, as if I'm in a big glass case and I can't really see or hear or understand the rest of the world properly, and they can't really see or hear me. Thirdly, I try to imagine what could make me happy again - black cherry cake, for instance, or love - and the only thing I can think of is: my bed. 

The things is: everyone can see it. No matter how hard I try, no matter how genuinely I try to laugh at a sitcom, or engage in somebody's conversation, I'm not really there and people can tell. And the more they ask me if you're okay, the more I want to go to bed. 

It doesn't last forever, of course: nothing does. Inevitably, sooner or later - sooner, usually, especially now that I am better equipped to deal with it (it used to terrify me as a child) - I wake up one morning, and it's gone. It can be a few days, it can be a few weeks. For one terrifying period, it was nearly four months, and it almost killed me. But I always, always come out the other end absolutely unscathed: The Blacks disperse again into a light mist, and I can see again. I can write again, drink beer again, love again, try and switch over to Scrubs when The Simpsons is on. Which is all I really want from life, of course: to just get on with it.

The fog hasn't quite lifted yet. It's still a dark grey, and I still feel numb and detached: as if the thread that ties me to the world is thin and stretched out. But - in being honest, and forcing myself to write again - I'm hoping that it might be a way back. I'm hoping that - in opening the curtains - it might just be a way of letting a little light back in again.