HOLLY MIRANDA SMALE

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.







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Friday, 30 April 2010

Hey Jude

I picked my karaoke tunes carefully last night. Five Japanese teachers, me and not one Western song that any of them had heard of apart from Rainy Days and Mondays by The Carpenters, and you can only sing that so many times (three) before you want to try something else.

So, knowing exactly what I was doing, I put on The Beatles and waited for it.

I waited eight seconds. And then one of the teachers frowned.

"I know this one," he said in confusion.
"Me too," the other agreed.
"It's The Beatles," another one said crossly. "Even I know The Beatles."
Two shrugged and pulled their bottom lips out to show that they didn't care what he knew, because they did not.
"Where do we know this from?" they asked me.
There was a pause while I told Jude to go out and get her.
"Imagine you've got a duster in one hand," I told them eventually, "and a brush in the other."
"It's the cleaning music!" they both shouted in delight."It's the song they play when we're cleaning the school!"
I nodded. The teacher who loves The Beatles put his head in his hands.
"It has words?!" one said.
"Yes. The original isn't just violins."
"Is it about cleaning?"
"No. But it's quite good anyway."
And they both happily hummed along, pleased that they had known some Western music after all.

The Beatles achieved a fair amount in their time - probably because they were bigger than Jesus - but it makes me sad that they will never really know the full impact of their music in this part of the world: that, for the rest of time, Hey Jude will be known to 300 Japanese children and 30 adults as The Cleaning Music but with, you know, some man singing over the top.

And if that's not worth na-na-na-naing to, I don't know what is.

Bending truths

"Was that a real dream?" my sister asked. "I know how you`re prone to making things up a bit."
"It was a real dream," I said without any indignation at all, because she`s right: I have no issues with bending the truth now and then if it needs to be bent. The world is a better place because of bent truths (not because of lies; they are very different things).
"All of it?"
"All of it. Every single bit of it. Even the red hat."
"Oh. What about the dream before it? The one with the chopstick?"
"Also 100% true." Because dreams are the one thing you shouldn`t lie about: they are already bent truths without any help from us.
My sister considered it.
"Wow," she said. "Your dreams are seriously easy to analyse, aren`t they. Mine usually involve flying dogs and massive marshmallows."
"Also easy to analyse," I pointed out. "You want a dog and you like marshmallows."
"Very true. Mmm. Do they have marshmallows in Japan?"
"Yes. Lots."
"Ooh, good," she said, because she`s visiting in August. "So we`re all going to wait for a green eyed man to turn up, are we?"
"No," I frowned at her. "That`s the point; I`m not waiting for anything anymore."
"Oh yeah." There was another pause. "One question."
"Mmm."
"Are your ghosts actually from Butlins, do you think?"
"Probably not. I`ve never been there."
"Didn`t think so. Well, I`ll keep an eye out anyway. A green one."

And with that she laughed and was gone and the room was empty again.

Ghosts

Last night I had another dream.

Nobody died in this one, which is comforting because frankly I was getting a little worried about my violent inclinations.

No: in this one, they were already dead.

I was wandering around a big Japanese house. There had been a party – which I didn`t remember but judging from the mess there had definitely been a party – and everybody was cleaning up. As I carried the empty plates into the irrationally large kitchen (it was a dream, so the kitchen was the size of a football pitch and as high as a cathedral), I walked past a tired, sad looking man with a red hat.

“I`ve been waiting for you,” he told me, carrying his dishes in both hands: so weighed down by them that even his hat didn`t look as jaunty as it should.
“Oh,” I said. “I`m sorry. I didn`t know.” I felt uncomfortable, and he frowned at me which just made it worse.
“I`ve been waiting for you for a long time,” he said crossly, and then disappeared around the corner. Then he popped his head back and looked at me with an expression I couldn`t read. “Don`t go anywhere,” he added.
“I won`t,” I said – because that`s what you say when somebody tells you not to go anywhere - and the minute he disappeared I decided that I certainly was going to go somewhere – I wasn`t just going to stand in the corridor with an armful of dishes – so I went into the kitchen and put them down.
“Who were you talking to?” a faceless person in the kitchen asked me.
“The man in the red hat,” I said. “He`s very bossy, isn`t he?”
“What man in a red hat?”
I looked around and saw him glaring at me from across the room. Behind him were lots of other people with red hats on, like a chorus of Butlins workers.
“That man in a red hat,” I said, feeling even more uncomfortable.
There was a silence.
“There`s nobody there, is there,” I eventually said in a small voice. This isn`t the first time it has happened; I often see people who aren`t there. It`s not scary anymore: it`s just a bit boring.
“Mmm,” the faceless person said, raising an eyebrow, and then they took my dishes off me.

I went into a separate room; a room with a big window and a big table, and sat down. There was nobody else in the room - otherwise I wouldn`t have chosen the room – and then I realised that somehow somebody had sat next to me.

Expecting it to be the sad man in the red hat I turned around, and I suddenly had this rush of peace; a warm, calm, sure feeling I`ve never had in real life before, but that I recognised immediately.

“Hello,” a man with green eyes and no hat at all said.
“Hello,” I replied, not feeling uncomfortable in the slightest. And there was a warm, calm, sure kind of silence.
“Don`t feel sad,” he said after a while. “He`ll go away eventually.”
“Who will?”
“The man in the red hat.”
“You can see him too?”
“Of course I can.”
“Oh.” And then I smiled because I couldn`t help it: I was suddenly full of them. “Can everybody see you too?” I asked him.
“I don`t know. There`s nobody else in the room.”
“Good point,” I said.
We looked at each other for a long time, and I felt utterly, utterly happy. And then I did something I didn`t think I would do. I stood up.
“I`m going, now,” I announced quietly.
“I know.” He smiled at me.
“I`ve got an appointment with a ghost in a red hat,” I said, even though I knew I didn`t need to.
“Yes.”
“I`ll come back when he`s gone,” I told him, even though I knew I didn`t need to say that either.
“I know,” he said again.
“You know a lot, don`t you,” I pointed out.
“Yes. And I`ll be here when he`s gone.”
“I know,” I said.

And then I left the room and when I looked behind me it was empty and I didn`t mind at all.

When I woke up this morning, I felt different: as if something inside me had changed. I had felt it, finally – that calm, peaceful happiness that I recognised even though I had never had it before – and I had also been smart enough to walk away from it until I knew that I was ready. Because I knew, without knowing how I knew, that the man with the green eyes – the man who made me feel totally calm – would be there, somewhere, when I had finished dealing with my ghosts. And the man with the green eyes already knew all about them, because he could see them as well.

I don`t know how long the ghosts want to talk for. A long time, judging from the look on the face of the man with the red hat (and the hand gestures the people behind him were making). But however long they need, I`ll be there and I`ll listen and I`ll make them all okay again.

And when I`ve finished, I`ll go back to the empty room with the big table, and the man with the green eyes will be there. And I now know, without a doubt, that he will be waiting for me, and nobody else.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Weathering the storm

It`s strange, being scared of the weather.

I`m British, and we`re not scared of anything; mainly because there`s nothing in Britain to be scared of. Excluding the odd crazy pitbull, we don`t have one single dangerous animal – we used to have bears and wolves but we rather indignantly killed them all for daring to be so damn scary and having such pointy teeth and nails – and the concept of natural disasters is completely alien to us; if an earthquake somewhere else causes a teacup to rattle slightly somewhere in Bedford it makes front page news, and the idea of living in fear of our houses falling down at any old time of the day or night just seems ridiculous. Even other people`s natural disasters throw us into chaos: a volcano erupts in Iceland and Britain grinds to a panicked, incredulous standstill (“You what? I can`t go on holiday to Crete because of Mother Nature? What the bloody hell is that all about?”).

I once worked in the Human Resources department of a major factory, and during a contract change there was outright chaos and confusion when we got to the `act of God` part of the clause.
“What does that mean?” one of the workers asked the tired manager who had answered this question fifteen times in two days.
“It means if something disastrous happens which is out of our hands.”
“Like what? Like faulty wiring?”
“No, that`s not an act of God.”
“Like broken down lorries?”
“No, that`s not an act of God either.”
There was a buzz of confusion.
“Like what, then?”
“Like a tsunami. Or an earthquake. Or a tidal wave. Or a hurricane. Or a typhoon. Or a plague of locusts.”
“In Hatfield?”
“Exactly. I don`t think we need to worry about that too much.”
There was a thoughtful silence, and then one of the other workers piped up with:
“We did have very heavy snow last year, though, didn`t we. It took me a full hour to get to work.”
And then there was a violent murmur of agreement, while everyone discussed just how disastrous the snowfall had been, and how they hadn`t seen anything like it since 1989, and how it could easily happen again and they needed to be protected against such phenomenon.
“Because I don`t see why I should lose a day`s wages just because Mother Nature is in a bad mood,” a lorry driver added, and they all applauded vigorously.

So, all in all, we`re not very scared of Mother Nature in Britain. Apart from the odd bit of snow and volcano ash that dares to travel from a less civilised part of the world – a place that dares erupt without giving any warning – we don`t see much sign of her. We see her on the news now and then, and we read about her in the papers if something really bad happens somewhere else, but that`s the key point: it`s somewhere else. Brits are thus born and bred to be utterly impervious to the power of Nature, because our little island is wrapped in the largest piece of cotton wool the world has ever produced.

(Which doesn`t mean that the weather isn`t a massive conversational topic in Britain. Of course it is: we live for it. Rainy, sunny, cloudy, windy; we`ll discuss it until we can think of something better to complain about. We just don`t assume at any stage that it might end up killing us. Mainly because it won`t, unless we`re that one person a decade who gets hit by lightening because they climbed up a telegraph pole in the middle of a storm.)

So, as British as I am – and I am truly, truly, inherently British – when I woke up last night to find the windows of my house rattling and things banging outside and rain hammering onto the roof and the wind howling like one of the wolves we exterminated centuries ago - huffing and puffing and trying to blow my house down - I was a bit frightened. Actually, I was really frightened. The weather isn`t supposed to do that. The weather is supposed to be a background effect, but this weather wasn`t even vaguely background; it was very, very foreground, and making a big fuss and nonsense to make sure we all noticed it.

So I reacted just like a British person would. In a half asleep state I panicked a bit and thought I was about to die, and then I dragged my bed away from the window (convinced that this extra foot might save my life for some reason), and checked to see if there were any trees nearby, and then ran to every single window and made sure the curtains were closed. Then I filled up a bottle of water in case my house collapsed and I was trapped under rubble with nothing to drink, and grabbed some biscuits in case I got hungry. Finally – as it got worse and worse and I was gripped by the conviction that it was the worst typhoon ever to hit Miyazaki, and there was about to be an earthquake too, and that a tidal wave was about to rise up and drown me in my bed – I got out of bed and sleepily started Googling typhoons in Japan for April 2010, to see how bad it was going to be. To prepare myself for the worst, you know. ANd to see if there were any tips on how to survive this kind of trauma.

Nothing.

Then I Googled storms in Japan for April 2010.

Nothing.

There was nothing. No earthquake, no hurricane: it wasn`t even a typhoon, or a storm worth mentioning on the internet. It was just a strong bit of wind. Typhoons can kill people – typhoons have killed people – and earthquakes and tidal waves certainly have; but you`d have to be pretty unlucky to be killed by a strong bit of wind. You`d have to be standing directly underneath a tree with very weak roots.

The thing about Japan is that the people here live with the presence of Mother Nature every single day. They know that a massive earthquake could happen, they know that when it does a tidal wave will happen, they know that massive and life threatening typhoons batter them a few times every summer and they just have to try and get through it. But they respect it, and they appreciate it, and it doesn`t frighten them. They understand it. They even admire it; it`s awe inspiring and humbling, to see, feel and hear the wrath of nature and realise exactly how pathetic and tiny and vulnerable we all are, like little ants standing up bravely against a massive saucepan of hot water, just waiting to drop on us.

I`ll be alright, though. Earthquakes, tidal waves, typhoons, hurricanes, a strong big of wind; there`s nothing that Japan can do that will scare me now. I was there for the snow storm in Hatfield last year. I was an hour late for work too. Mother Nature doesn`t scare me, no matter how angry she gets.

I am British, after all.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Music

I just let England down horribly.

The Deputy Headmaster at the school I teach – as delightful as every other teacher here – is fascinated by England, and at lunchtime today he wheeled his chair up and started asking questions that I didn`t have the foggiest idea of how to start answering.

“Who is Ben?” he asked me enthusiastically (via our translator, the English teacher). This was clearly a question that had been troubling him for some time, because it was out of his mouth before his chair had stopped moving.
“Ben?” I said.
“Ben. Big Ben.”
“He`s a clock,” I said. “A big one.”
“Yes, but why is he Ben? Who is Ben?”
“Oh, God, I don`t know.” His face dropped, so I quickly Googled it (I Google things about twenty-five times a day; I`m that kind of girl. Being a geek is so much easier these days). “Aha,” I finally announced; “Ben is actually the name of the thirteenth bell in the tower, not of the clock, and was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, who was the first commissioner.” (Although, I added mentally, probably not the man who designed or made the bell in the first place. He will go down in History as completely insignificant.)
“Aaaaahhhh!” The response seemed to be exactly what my boss was looking for; his face lit up, and he murmured “Big Ben, Benjamin,” happily a few times.

I sat back in my seat, but he wasn`t done.

“And who is number one in music in England now?”
I thought about it.
“I have no idea,” I admitted.
“Queen?” he asked.
“I doubt it.”
“Brian May?”
“I doubt that too.”
“Who do you like?”
I thought about it, but I couldn`t think of one single English artist that wouldn`t confuse the hell out of everybody in a six mile radius.
“Laura Marling?” I ventured, without thinking about the consequences of this name in a language that doesn`t contain Ls or Rs. He looked at me blankly, and then brightened;
“You like Olivia Newton John?”
“Mmm,” I lied. “And The Beatles,” I added, in the hope of steering the conversation away again.
“The Who?” the English teacher interrupted.
“Them too.”
“No, who is the Beatles?”
I gave up.
“Brian May and Olivia Newton John,” I said. “That`s who I like.”
And there was much happiness and applause and my music taste has been confirmed by my colleagues as possibly the best music taste in the history of all English assistants, and I decided that it was time for me to go home and try and work out what the hell has been going on in England while I`ve been away. Because the chances of Brian May and Olivia Newton John reaching number one in some kind of duet in the next few months are small, frankly. And I have a suspicion that this question is going to be coming up again (we`re all going to Karaoke tomorrow night).

That`s something they don`t tell us before we come to a foreign country. We swot and we swot about the country we`re going to, but we never think for one minute that we might actually need to know something about the place we`ve just come from, too.

So it looks like I`ll be spending the next few weeks learning English cultural and musical history, as well as Japanese.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Yen

Imagine the scenario.

You're in a Post Office in England. No - actually, you're in a Post Office in Hatfield (which is England, but only reluctantly). You buy a few stamps, you post a few letters. You pay for the stamps and the letters, and then you leave. If you're lucky enough not to have been robbed in the queue, you'll probably be mugged on the way out. And if you're lucky enough not to have been robbed in the queue or mugged on the way out, you were probably stupid enough to leave a fiver on the counter and everybody's too busy punching each other in the kidneys to claim it first to bother you for the change in your pocket. And if you were even more stupid, and you'd handed over ten quid more than you should have, you can say goodbye to ever seeing it again, because the cashiers just high fived each other and booked a table at the local pub so that they can spend it.

I just got a knock on my door. It was a man from the local Post Office; a man who had sold me stamps and posted my letters this morning.
"Hello!" he said (I'm translating: this was in Japanese. Nobody in the Post Office in Nichinan speaks a solitary word of English, and there is - frankly - absolutely no reason why they should, seeing as we're in Japan).
"Hello," I said back. "Everything okay?"
He beamed at me, and then held out a piece of paper. The people at the local Post Office have taken to going on a translation site and typing in what they want to say to me, converting it and then printing out the results so I can read them. I enjoy this very much, and often go in just so that we can have this kind of exchange.
The paper, this evening, said:

We got ten yen you left please take.

"Hmm?" I said in confusion, being handed a little paper envelope. I noticed that he had my address because I'd written it on the back of my letters (they made me do it).
"Ten yen!" he said. "Left in Post Office."
"Umm, thankyou very much," I said, opening the envelope and seeing that there was, indeed, ten yen sitting in there quite comfortably. "Wow."
"All okay?" the young gentleman from the Post Office grinned at me, looking thoroughly chuffed at his White Knight behaviour.
"Yes," I said, still a bit confused, "thankyou so much, that was very kind," and then he bade me farewell and jumped into his car (the Post Office has just shut, and he must have been on his way home).

I closed the door and then looked back in the envelope: yes, I had forgotten my ten yen change that morning, and there was a receipt to show that there had been a deficit. I had taken only ten yen instead of twenty. And by God, I can only imagine how much of an uproar there must have been: enough to make the poor gentleman at the counter drive to my house and hand it back to me eleven hours later.

The reason I was so bemused, however, was that ten yen is not ten pounds. Ten yen wouldn't buy much at the pub, because ten yen is less than seven British pence, or - for the Americans out there - ten cents. It wouldn't even have paid for the rubber he wore off his shoes walking to my front door, let alone the petrol it cost him to drive here. I would never in a million years have missed it (even if it was ten times that I wouldn't have missed it; I'm incredibly bad with money). And yet he felt the need to return it, because otherwise the Post Office would have stolen my money. And Post Offices don't do that in Japan, apparently.

When he had gone, I turned to Betty (my surfboard, not my grandma).
"Betty," I said, turning my ten yen over in my hand. "I don't think we're in Hatfield anymore."

And I think that might be quite a good thing.

Betty

I've just discovered a rather crucial point about surfing, and that is:

You cannot surf if there are no waves.

All of my hard research - all of my dedicated Youtube watching and Surf site net-surfing (I know; I enjoyed that irony too) - and this is the one thing that anybody forgot to tell me. I sat as close as I could to my computer, established how all of the pros were standing (just as you'd expect them to stand, actually), dyed my hair blonde again (it was inevitable) and even practiced jumping up on to my board without a board, on the floor of my bedroom (not very easy, because you need muscles that function, apparently, and mine don't).

When I was a kid, my mum had to physically restrain me from wearing my new party dresses to bed: so eager I was to try them out, and so reluctant to wait until an actual party. Nothing has changed. A couple of days ago I bought a brand new (old) surfboard (my grandparents had given me some money for Christmas, and a friend of a friend was selling his monstrous pink surfboard, Surf Betty. As my grandma's name is - as fate would have it - Betty, I immediately bought it. She's now signing off emails as "love, your surfing grandma" so it has already been worth every yen). There was no chance at all that I wasn't going to take Betty out for a spin straight away (surfboard, not grandma), so this morning I popped her in the car, hired a wetsuit and drove to the local beach.

The girl in the surfing shop giggled an awful lot. That was the first sign. The second sign was that she said something in Japanese and made a motion with her hand that looked like the kind of dance my mum does at family discos. The third was that the surf shop was empty, and the fourth was that the beach was too.

"Excellent," I said, struggling into my wetsuit (it's far more tiring than actually surfing: this is obviously how surfers get ripped bodies). "Fools," I laughed as I grabbed Betty, smacked it against my head, tripped up on the cord, turned round and banged it against the car and finally dragged it - with all the elegance of a lame monkey - down to the sea. Because it was, and I have to point this out, a beautiful day. Blue sky, sunshine, sea sparkling. The perfect day for surfing.

Except that it wasn't. I pulled my board out into the sea, and then me and Betty lay there for twenty five minutes, waiting to do something other than bob up and down.

"Betty," I said eventually (I like talking to inanimate objects as long as there is nobody else around to witness it. And - believe me - there was nobody around. Not one single person. And certainly not one single surfer). "We're not getting much surfing done, are we."
Betty said nothing, because Betty is a large piece of floating plastic.
The sea continued to sparkle and lull about gently: it looked, for all the world, like it was asleep. Every now and then a tiny wave would turn up - foaming gently at the ridge - and I would get all excited and paddle and paddle and try and hop up onto the board ('hop' is not the right word, but let's just pretend it is), and then me and Betty would go upwards about three inches and bob back down again.
"This is not going so well, is it," I told Betty, and then I decided to give up, lie down and have a little nap. Betty is a monster - huge, fat, pink and floral (my board, not my grandma) - and it's a little like having a raft attached to your ankle. Very comfortable, as long as you're not trying to climb on top of her and make yourself vertical.
After a nice amount of time I realised I was burning, and Betty and I pushed our way back to the beach.

The girl at the shop was still laughing when I returned the wetsuit (struggling out of it is even harder, incidentally).
"Good?" she said, giggling.
"Excellent," I said. "No waves, but I had a nice little sleep."
She didn't understand a word of what I said, but she gathered enough to know that I had now learnt my lesson. "Come back soon," she said as I left.
"I will," I said, because I'd had a lovely afternoon anyway, even if I hadn't caught one single wave. I'd gotten to know Betty better, and I'm convinced that now she's on my side I'll be a pro before summer.
"Wednesday," the girl in the shop said in English as I was opening the shop door to leave. "Big waves." And then she laughed again and waved me away.

See, my mum was wrong. Wearing my party dresses to bed didn't make me want to wear them any less when a party happened: it just meant that I was comfortable in it by the time I was standing in a corner and not talking to anyone (that's what I did at parties. It was My Thing). The same goes for Betty. We're friends, now, and now that we've napped together there's nothing we can't achieve.

So thanks, Betty my surfboard, and thanks Betty, my Grandma. There's nothing better than a good spot of surfing; even - as I now know - if there are no waves at all.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Poker face.

Last night I played Poker for the first time, and - as two of us were absolute beginners (but I can play Snap like a Goddess, just so you know) - at the beginning it was all a bit confusing.
"Why are you tapping on the table?" we asked a friend who seemed to know what she was doing.
"I'm holding."
"What for?"
"To see how the cards play out."
"What will they play out to?"
"I don't know."
"Do you have a good hand?"
"I don't know."
"Right," we said, because it was obviously all ridiculous. And then, a few minutes later - without having any more idea of what kind of hand she might have - our friend piled three blue chips in.
"I'm raising it," she explained rather dramatically.
"To what?"
"To a thousand." (Or something like that; I was judging by colours.)
"But you don't know what everyone else has got!"
"I don't care."
The other players groaned.
"We've only just seen the flop," they muttered.
"Has she got a strong hand?" we whispered to the others.
"Might do," one explained, slightly crossly. "Or she might be bluffing. Or she might think she does, but it's not actually as good as it could be, in which case we either risk assuming that our hands are better and invest more money, bail out now and save our money or hold and see what happens."
My friend and I both shrugged at each other, made faces that meant this is clearly a game for drunks and idiots, decided that we were - as it happened - drunks and idiots, and handed our money over, even though not one word of any of it made the blindest bit of sense and we really just wanted to play Snakes and Ladders or I Have Never.

It continued making no sense for the majority of the evening. Just when I thought I had got the hang of it, I got it all wrong and lost everything again. In the end I gave up because I was tired and couldn't be bothered any more, and just piled in everything I had with nothing useful in my hand at all.
"I don't think that was a very good idea," the girl who knew what she was doing said as I pushed 1,000 yen worth of plastic into the middle of the table and stood up.
"I don't give a crap," I said, yawning; "I need a cigarette and my butt is dead."

As I was outside, stretching my bum and killing my lungs, I pondered the ridiculous game I'd just been playing and realised with a jolt that - far from being the "biggest pile of shit I had ever come across" (this is what I called it when I lost half of my winnings in one hand) - Poker is probably the single most important game in the entire world. It's life, condensed into an evening and played around a table. And I was bad at both of them.

What I realised is this; poker is part luck, yes - you can only do what you can with what you've been given - but it's more than that. The difference between a good poker player and a bad poker player is that - no matter what is in their hand - a good poker player knows when to risk everything, when to give up and cut their losses, when to move on before they lose more, when to keep giving and keep their fingers crossed, when to hold and see what happens. They know when to accept that their hand just sucked and bow out gracefully, and when to trust in their instincts and bravely stand behind their cards. They know when to play, and when to sit it out. And, most importantly, a good poker player knows that no matter how good they are at playing poker, and no matter how great their strategy is, or even their hand, fate might just come along and take all their chips with one wrong card, or give somebody else a better one. And so a good player knows that they can never relax, but at the same time they have to remain calm: that they always have to keep playing, and they always have to keep trying, and they always have to keep making difficult decisions even when they won't know the outcome until it's too late. Because the game doesn't stop, and somebody who has nothing one minute can have everything the next. And somebody who has everything can end up with nothing. And there isn't a lot you can do about it but try and stay in the game.

There are so many disadvantages to getting older; I can't even kneel down anymore without my knees cracking (I blame my hip hop class, incidentally; they hip popped their way right out of their sockets). But - just as everything has its yin and its yang, its light and its shadows - so age brings with it something amazing too; it brings with it experience to help us play the game of life better. Because what are we living, if it isn't just a huge game of poker? What are our tragedies and our hopes and our dreams and our failures if they aren't a series of lessons that teach us when to stick, when to raise, when to leave, when to give everything; a series of lessons that ultimately teach us that everything - every single thing we do - is a combination of luck in the hand we were dealt, and in the choices that we make with those cards?

I was not very good at poker last night, and I have never been very good at life either. I hold on for too long when I shouldn't; I keep throwing everything in when I know, deep down, that I've already lost; I lose my nerve and withdraw when I could have won it all. And - worst of all - I always think that the next hand might be a better one. I always look at the cards that life has dealt me and think: the next ones might be cards I can be brave with. It's only after the game has played out I realise that I had a better hand than I thought I did. And it's too late, because I've already lost it.

If age is bringing with it noisy knee joints, it is also bringing with it the rules of poker. Nichinan - the quietness, the sea, the solitude - is a hand that I know I would have thrown away five years ago; traded in for the possibility, or hope, of something better or more exciting. But it isn't five years ago, and in that time - five years of hurts and disappointments and successes and confusion and achievements and loves and losses - I am beginning to work out when to stick, and when to walk away before I've played everything I have (and - even more importantly - who to walk away from). I am beginning to learn how to play the game.

I went back into the room, last night, and I bought myself back a handful of chips. I decided to keep trying, despite being so incredibly tired (and my butt still being dead).

I didn't win, but it didn't matter. All that really mattered to me last night - and all that matters to me this morning - was that the cards in my hand had finally started to make some kind of sense.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Scrubbing

Some things about Japanese schools are so adorable I feel like I`ll explode if I don`t tell everybody about them immediately.

Unlike in the West - where religion is displayed loudly and proudly in big buildings and big songs and big books but never really seen anywhere (unless you count wars) – Shintoism makes itself known in every day Japanese life; it is so built into the fabric of the culture here that you can`t pull them apart, like chewing gum on expensive carpet. Cleanliness, one of the key principles, is woven into daily habits; it`s in the absolute refusal to wear outdoor shoes indoors (they think Westerners might as well live in barns, as we traipse our mud into and out of our houses and restaurants), it`s in the firmly established and ancient Onsen (public bathing) tradition, it`s in the ritual hand cloths before eating and it`s even built into the language; Kirei means both beautiful and clean, and therefore doesn`t make the distinction that we do in England (Kate Moss is not that popular here). Harmony and respect are also present everywhere; from the bows that small children give of old ladies in the supermarket, to the identical uniforms in their schools, to the symmetry of their gardens and architecture.

This dedication to cleanliness and harmony extends to the school rituals, too – along with a big dollop of cuteness - and today I watched in delight as 300 children simultaneously brushed their teeth to the special “teeth brushing” song (a rather perky lady announcing over jaunty classical music “now brush your top right! And now your top left! Now make sure you do the back of the teeth! That`s right – keep going!”) and then spit into the sinks in unison.

Then, when they were thoroughly scrubbed, they all got brooms and wet clothes and dry clothes out, divided into small groups and scrubbed the school from top to bottom: to – and this is the best bit – an instrumental selection of Western songs, including The Street Where you Live, My Way and Hey Jude. I spent quite a few minutes trying to work out if there was any particular relevance in these songs, but in the end I decided they were purely motivational; and the children did, indeed, clean it their way (and stared at me because I joined in with all the na-na-na-nas even though there weren`t any).

I couldn`t stop laughing; I looked at these little children, diligently brushing and sweeping and scrubbing, and I tried to imagine what would happen if they had tried to initiate any of these routines into the school I went to when I was their age. For one thing, cleaning your teeth – in England – is a) a highly personal thing to do, and the sign of a serious relationship when you finally do it in front of your partner and b) done with as little enthusiasm as possible, which is probably why all of our teeth are falling out. I can only imagine the chaos that would have occurred if they had tried to get us all to sit at our desks and brush out teeth to the sound of a specifically assigned tune. For another thing, if anybody had so much as suggested – tentatively – that we should even touch a broom (let alone scrub on our hands and knees), we British children would try and sue them. “I am not a bloody slave,” I remember one boy in my class telling the headmaster, because he was ordered to pick his maths book up from where he had lobbed it. It would be an affront to our personal liberties to be abnoxious and filthy brats.

I`m not quite there yet; not quite able to join in with the harmony and cleanliness as I would like. I wasn`t brought up in this culture, after all: I was brought up in a culture where messiness usually represents creativity (just how many people in the UK, I wonder, have A CLEAN HOUSE MEANS AN EMPTY MIND signs pinned outside our filth?). I`m happy to get naked in front of adults, and I`m happy to bow, but I`m still not at the stage where I can comfortably brush my teeth in front of 30 fourteen year olds, no matter how serious the relationship is (I get toothpaste all round my mouth and it usually ends up on the desk).

But I`m going to work on it. It must be all sinking in, somehow - little by little - because my house isn`t nearly as disgusting as it used to be, and I`m a lot more enthusiastic about personal hygiene. Not to mention a whole lot happier cleaning, as long as I`ve got something instrumental to na-na-na to.

I just need to do it my way.

Hidden Souls

According to Martha Graham, the pioneer of modern dance, “dancing is the hidden language of the soul.”

I`m troubled by this. I thought I had quite a nice soul; prone to spurts of laziness and self-obsession, yes, but also relatively honourable and lacking in big, black, festering holes. Mine was never going to be a top notch soul - it won`t go down in history as one of the great souls of all time - but overall I was pretty happy with my lot: I thought I had a perfectly workable, decent soul. You wouldn`t parade it around with great pride, but at the same time you wouldn`t be ashamed to be seen out with it in public. (That`s all you can really hope for from a soul, these days. And from a boyfriend, incidentally.)

If Martha is right, though – and I see no reason to assume that she is not right, as she clearly knew a lot about the language of souls and whatnot, which has mystified poets and writers and artists since a time when there was no tv to watch – my soul sucks. It sucks really, really hard. My soul, by this measurement, is embarrassing, uncoordinated and prone to fits of giggling. My soul kicks other souls in the shins and hits the speakers attached to the ceiling and cannot – no matter how hard it tries – do anything even approaching what the teacher is telling it to do. My soul is – through the medium of dance – trying very, very hard to tell the world that it is absolutely useless at everything and possibly a little bit simple.

I`ve worked out – through trial and error – that I`m comfortable with any dancing that only demands me to wiggle my hips and shoulders; discos, clubs and even the occasional rave have been harmlessly attended and wiggled through over the years. The minute I have to start moving my limbs, however, it all goes to pot. I`m built (as a friend once pointed out) like a Tim Burton character, and all of my limbs are “too long and not attached properly, like a badly constructed toy spider.” Worse, because of my height, I firmly believe that by the time a brain impulse has reached, say, my feet or my hands, most of the message has been lost, like an extended game of Chinese whispers. My limbs spend most of the time they should be dancing hissing “what? What? Can you say that again? I didn`t get any of that.”

Unfortunately, my rubbish and ungainly soul must be particularly gobby, because I love any kind of dancing. And so – because of a desire to meet people and build strength so that I can stand up on that darned surfboard and simultaneously find yet more ways to make myself ridiculous – on Tuesday I joined the local ballet class.

It went well to start with. Seven years of ballet as a young child with the outrageously cartoonesque Miss Buller – eighty years old, silver haired, pink leotarded, posh voiced, extremely resilient walking stick, extremely bad temper – and I knew exactly how to look like I was warming up properly so that I didn`t get smacked with a thin piece of wood. I also “defy and undermine all the physical logistics of ballet” – Miss Buller`s words, not mine - by looking quite a lot like a ballet dancer until I start to actually do any ballet (“how,” she once said to my mum, “anyone can be built for such elegance and lack it so badly is something I will never understand”). So I was greeted with enthusiasm by the ridiculously flexible teacher, until she realised that my clumsiness and lack of grace was probably going to force her health and safety insurance through the roof.

It was great fun, though: my ugly little soul managed to stomp its way through 45 minutes of huffing and puffing and sniggering, looking a lot like a giraffe skating on ice. And – while they didn`t specifically ask me to come back – they didn`t specifically ask me not to either, so all in all I think it was an outrageous success (even if there is now a three metre radius around me everytime I try and do a leg kick).

My soul wasn`t quite done though – it still had a few more things to say – so yesterday I went to the local Hip Hop class. Unlike ballet, I do not look even vaguely like I would be good at Hip Hopping (or whatever the verb form of it is); the teacher was laughing before I`d even got into the room and put my fluffy baby blue slippers on (everyone else was wearing baggy jeans and yellow trainers). I then spent 45 minutes with my tongue stuck between my teeth, desperately trying to encourage my legs and arms to do something other than flail, and recognising an expression on my teacher`s face that I hadn`t seen in quite a while: complete incredulity at my crapness (I`m an adult, and thus I have learned to stop attempting things I can`t do). He kept slowing down, coming over and showing me a basic foot step and arm punch (my arms do not punch, incidentally: there is something wrong with them), but there was absolutely nothing hip about my hopping at all; if Bambi tied a bandana around his head and headed out into the `Hood, he`d still look cooler and more coordinated than me, and he`d probably annoy the other deer less (they weren`t happy with how my lack of hipness was dragging all their hoppiness down to my level).

I`m going back next week, obviously: to both of them. I`ve managed 28 years without grace and street cred, so I see no reason why I should let their absence stop me doing something I both enjoy and find very funny.
Plus, I`m trying so hard at the moment to improve my language abilities, that I think I need to also pay attention to what my soul is trying to say. The poor thing is clearly having just as many problems communicating with the world as my brain is.

I think, though, if Martha had any kind of say about it, I know what her opinion would be. “Dancing is the hidden language of the soul,” she would say, gracefully and yet funkily gliding around me, adjusting my limbs and then smacking them briskly with a walking stick. And then she would stop and smile sadly. “But some souls,” she would add, more pointedly than she probably needed to, “are probably supposed to stay hidden.”

And mine, I think, is almost definitely one of them.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Postcards

"Who the hell," my sister asked me yesterday, "are you writing to?"
"Eh?" I said, playing for time. (That`s a Japanese sound, by the way; one of the things I`ve picked up by accident. Like a desire to shower sitting down.)
"When you write your blog," my sister clarified, even though I knew exactly what she was asking the first time. "Who are you writing to? I mean, let`s assume for a minute that the only people who read it are direct family."
"Not even that," I pointed out.
"True, I`m usually too busy watching Neighbours online."
"And dad would rather roll himself in the kneck with a pizza cutter then read anything I write," I added.
"Yeah," my sister agreed. The whole family knows that.(This doesn`t upset me, incidentally. I am very much like my father, and watching anyone I love do anything creative makes me uncomfortable, even if they`re quite good at it. A boyfriend I had years ago was incredibly talented at songwriting, but I had to literally beg him not to perform in front of me because my fear for him and any potential failure made me awkward and nervous.)"So..."
"Sooo?"
"Who are you writing to? Apart from mum and grandad?"
"I don`t know," I admitted. I`ve asked myself that quite a few times over the past year; a year of writing a blog, when the very thought of it confuses me (who the hell wants to know?). "I guess it`s partly limbering up; it`s like doing stretches before I write books. And when I can`t write my blog, you can guarantee I shouldn`t be writing a book either because I`m in the wrong head place, so it`s a good gage. You only have to look at how many blog entries I write every month and you can see how happy I am. Plus it`s nice to record what I do, in case I ever want to look back on it when I`m old."
"You`re old already," my sister pointed out. I ignored her. "And you could just write a diary, like normal people."
"I could, yes."
"But then nobody else would ever be able to read it," she observed rather astutely.
"Exactly."
"And you want people to read what you write."
"Of course I do. I`m not really sure why, though. I haven`t quite worked that out yet." I thought about it a bit more. "The blog`s important to me. I guess I`ve spent so long being scared of anybody reading what I write, and being so precious about my writing, that I couldn`t let anything go: not ever. My writing was getting suffocated. I suppose the speed and quantity of a blog - of just banging it out in ten minutes and putting it out there without editing, with no real worry that the quality is inevitably going to go up and down a lot - is good practice for me. It makes what I write less pretentious, somehow, because you can`t really do much pretending when it`s every single day. It encourages me to be myself, because I know I have no other choice."
"And what if nobody reads it at all? What if you`re just writing into a big void?"
We both pondered the probablity of it, and came to a mutual conclusion that this was very, very likely.
"It doesn`t matter," I realised. "It`s like sending postcards, really. Just to myself."
"Aw, that`s kind of sad."
"You think? I think it`s kind of comforting."
"Oh. Well maybe I`ll read it before I watch Neighbours very day, then. Would that make it better?"
"Yes," I said.
"Then that`s what I`ll do."

When you go on an adventure, you send postcards because you want to make other people happy, and you want to tell them what you`re doing, and you want them to live through you and see the things you`ve seen even if they will never go there, but you also do it to mark your territory in your own mind: to lay down little rectangular cardboard flags and say to yourself I was here. And that`s what I`m doing, I guess, in the only way I know how: by writing. So whether it`s read, or whether it`s just a voice shouting into a big empty space, I`ll keep writing this blog. I`ll keep sending myself electronic postcards.

Because then I`ll know that I was here, even if nobody else does.

Apples

They`ve finally let me at the little ones.

Three weeks with sullen, bored and horny teenagers and hyperactive, noisy and demanding ten year olds, and I have earned my stripes; I am now allowed to teach groups of thirty-five 3, 4 and 5 year olds. And by “teach”, I obviously don`t really mean “teach”. I mean “govern over absolute chaos, get climbed on and pray with every fibre of my being that nobody gets hurt or ends up crying.”

This is impossible, obviously. They`re four years old. Somebody will always end up crying – for no apparent reason, often just because they`re overexcited or a friend looked at them strangely - and somebody will usually end up hurt: often by me, because I`m very big and my feet are very large and I can stand on at least twenty five tiny toes at once if I`m not extremely careful.

Luckily, after eight months with Kou, I now know how to deal with any kind of small child. When I started teaching, I used to get incredibly stressed; shouting, waiting for them to pick up vocabulary, trying to make them do the games I wanted them to do at the speed I wanted them to do them in. And then – after a month of going purple and crying and screaming “stop running!” at the top of my voice – I suddenly realised something I hadn`t fully worked out before: they`re little children. At which point it all became easy: as long as they`re laughing and listening and vaguely safe from their own clumsiness, then learning will happen. At that age they`re like sponges, and they`ll learn things whether you want them to or not (like my one year old whose first words – in Japanese or English – were “stop running”, said with a distinctly British accent that delighted his mum).

My first lesson at this school was therefore very different to my first lesson at my last school. I walked into my first school and politely introduced myself to the children, tried to shake their hands and then – very seriously – focused and worried and checked my plan a million times and got blotchy when we didn`t manage to achieve anything on it. My first lesson at this school involved silly voices and playing with a ball and simply enjoying a crowd of beaming, adorable little faces. When it was over, I knelt down on the floor, and it took three seconds before I was covered in children; all trying to climb as high as they could on me, as if I was some kind of tree. As one particularly small and noisy child tried to get a strong foothold on my shoulder, another climbed onto my lap, stared into my eyes, gasped and shouted “Midori!!!”

“Green,” I corrected (my diligent learning of Japanese colours just paid off).

“Green!” he shouted at the other children, and they all raced to get a better look. At four years old – two weeks into their first time at school - I am almost certainly the only person they have ever seen with eyes that aren`t black. They probably weren`t even aware that we existed.
“Green!!!” they all shouted, and then one bright child added “apple.” “Ringo,” she told the other children solemnly (the Japanese translation), and they all immediately named me “Apple Sensei”. That is my new name, apparently. The Apple Teacher.

I love little children; there is something so exhausting, and so invigorating, about their enthusiasm and their energy. Nothing in life has dimmed them, or drained them, or made anything boring or routine; everything is fresh for them, even the shade of somebody elses` eyes.

On the first day of school, children are supposed to bring an apple for their teacher. And, in a way, mine brought two very different ones.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Cuppas

English is not the most popular second language in Japan: American is.

Japanese children learn American spellings, they learn American words, they learn American accents (the vowel sounds are totally different) and they learn American geography. England, on the other hand, is a mystical and confusing place, indistinguishable from the country of London, floating somewhere in the middle of Russia. Today, I gave twelve 11 year olds unlimited time to find England, or Britain, on a map, and - after ten minutes of drawing circles around Italy, Sweden and Moscow - they eventually admitted that they didn't have the foggiest.
"What language do they speak in England?" I asked them.
Silence.
"What language do they speak in America?" I ventured.
"English," they said confidently.
"So what language do they speak in England?"
Silence again.
"English," I said. "They speak English. English comes from England." I drew the two words on the board and then scribbled underneath them so that they could see they were similar. "See?"
Their eyes lit up with sudden comprehension; as if they had never before drawn a link between the two. Mainly because they hadn't.
"And what country do I come from?"
Silence. And then: "London."
"Where is London?"
Silence.
"Where is Tokyo?"
"Japan."
"So where is London?"
Silence. So I drew a map and gave myself chalk related breathing difficulties in attempting to draw a map of Europe.
"It's very small," one of them pointed out in disappointment.
"Yes," I said tiredly. "It is. Very small."

The problem is, it's not just the children who don't know anything about England. Adults don't know a lot more, although they are similarly fascinated by the mystical, tiny island that moves around and disappears like Avalon.
I tested out a basic quiz on my colleagues, for fun, during one of my preparation periods.
"What is the English national flower?"
Silence.
"What colour are the buses in London?"
Silence.
"Blue?" somebody ventured eventually.
Finally I brought out my trump card:
"What is 'a cuppa'?"
"Eeeehhhhhhh?" six adults all said in unison. There was a flurry of excitement. More teachers joined in, wheeling over their chairs and murmuring - "cuppa? Cuppa?"
"Ceppa?" one of them asked.
"Cuppa," I corrected.
"Big hamster?" somebody offered.
"No. That's a capybara."
A few of them had got their computerised dictionaries out and were feverishly searching for the answers.
"Woodland elf!" the deputy headmaster eventually shouted. "Woodland elf!" He showed me the entry.
"That's a kappa."
"Oh," he said, still thrilled.
"A cuppa..." I announced, with the whole room in my thrall, "is a cup of tea."
"A. Cup. Of. Tea?" they all shouted, delighted. "Aaaaah!!" They have now introduced "cuppa" into the staffroom vocabulary, even though they sometimes get confused and call it a "cuppa of tea".

It's going to take a while, I think, because I'm the first English person to ever teach at the school, but I've decided; I'll have them speaking in rhyming cockney slang by the end of the year. They already know a little American, so it shouldn't take too long. And, by the time I leave, every single child in Kitago will know where England is on a map.

Despite the fact that we are so very small.

Ode to a laminating machine.

If I ever needed proof that I am a total geek – which I didn`t – I think I`ve just found it. Never mind my MA in the most obscure, hypothetical and impractical subject ever studied at University (representation of gender in Shakespearean tragedy). Never mind the fact that I spent the majority of my formative years in white ankle socks. Never mind the fact that I like knowing that Delphinium flowers are so called because it is derived from the Greek word “delphis”, which means “dolphin” (and they do look like dolphins). Never mind that I had twenty used novels delivered to my house at the weekend and I had to sit down for a few minutes because the excitement overwhelmed me and made me a little bit dizzy. Never mind that I spent at least half an hour fondly patting said books like little rectangular dogs and sporadically sniffing them. None of that proves anything.

I`ve just discovered the laminating machine.

Twenty eight years, and I`ve just realised that there is a machine into which you place paper – any paper at all – and out it comes: plastic and shiny and permanent. You can`t wet it, you can`t destroy it, you can`t burn it. It`s there for good. And the process.... Oh, the process. Slow, smelling slightly of chemicals, elegant. It goes in, it comes out, and suddenly your little pieces of orange paper that say ORANGE on them (I`m teaching colours to four year olds) look like they were made by a proper teacher. A proper, non-just-winging-it teacher. And the kids can do what they like with them, but they will not be able to ruin them. I`d just like to see them try (and – trust me – I will).

The thing is, I`m a little bit carried away with it now. I made myself a little business card with all my details on it (I don`t remember my own phone number or address, so I always carry my details around with me), drew a rainbow on it to cheer it up a bit, and then laminated the hell out of it. Now it looks like a proper piece of legitimate information. I looked around the office and found a picture a friend had drawn, and I laminated that. Then I started wondering what I could possibly write or draw that might need laminating. Because everything – I now believe – can probably be improved by covering it in plastic.

If I wanted to get all deep and psychological about it, I could probably work out a reason for my love of lamination; making something transient (like paper) permanent, making something resilient that is normally so fragile. I could probably compare – if I thought about it very hard – my love of the laminating machine with Keats` envy of that infamous Grecian Urn; my appreciation and jealousy of something that can do what I struggle to achieve, which is essentially to make my words and my writing permanent and immortal and strong and able to stand anything. To make something that lasts forever, when I won`t.

But I don`t think I`ll go that far. I think I just like making things shiny. I`m even thinking about getting one for my own private use, but I`m scared of where that path could lead me. I can already feel my supermarket receipts quivering in fear.

I guess I`m going to have to take a deep breath and find another way to make what I do last. As well as another way to make it shiny.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Literacy

It`s been exactly eight months - to the day - since I arrived in Japan, and I can`t do it any longer. I`ve sidestepped, I`ve avoided, I`ve ignored and I`ve growled at it from corners of restaurants. I`ve put moisturiser in my hair and shampoo on my face and mouthwash on my hands and an entire bottle of garlic marinade on my stir fry; I`ve eaten God Only Knows what, I`ve done an impression of a tuna fish in a convenience store one too many times, and I`ve gone into the men`s bathroom far more times than I normally would. I`ve drunk caramel tea when I hate caramel tea, and put my garbage out every single morning in the hope that one of them will be right. And it simply can`t continue.

I am going to have to learn how to read Japanese.

Of all the written languages I have ever seen, Japanese is the most complicated. There isn`t an alphabet; there are three. Foreign words (words brought in from the West, predominantly, like "Biru" (beer) and "Winu" (wine)) are written in Katakana; a relatively simple looking series of slashes and shapes, making up syllables. Hiragana are a similar looking, but totally different,set of shapes, which also each represent a syllable. Kanji - the bit that really, really scares me - are characters that represent one word (but often the word will depend on the Kanji before and after; they don`t always stand alone). There are two and a half thousand basic Kanji that school children need to know before they can `read`, and a popular game show in Japan involves getting fully literate, intelligent adults to "buzz" in as soon as they can work out what an advanced Kanji is. Simply; if you don`t know it, you can`t read it.

In any given Japanese sentence, there will be a combination of all three alphabets. All at once. All thrown in, higgledypiggledy. I`ve been with native speakers (like the ex) who would stop mid sentence and say "sorry, I`ve got no idea what that says" (I`d like to say he`s just particularly stupid, but unfortunately not). All of which spell out words that I don`t actually know. It`s not as if I can learn them and then read "noodles with those nice little bits of batter on top, which you like, Holly". I have to learn them, read them, and then work out what the hell the Japanese means.

But I have to. Everyone else here has done it - to some coherent level - and I am sick of having to walk out of any restaurant that doesn`t have photos to point at. At the weekend, I had to drag a waitress outside so that she could open up the glass case and I could pull out a little plastic display version of the food I wanted and point to it.

"It`s haarrrrd," I whined at my dad, when I took one look at the pictures and my brain started immediately closing down (I could hear the whirring; the same I get on really boring dates).
"It can`t be that hard," my dad said, unsympathetically.
"It isssss," I insisted.
"Well," my dad pointed out once I`d demonstrated how hard it was by holding the book up to the webcam. "It can`t be that hard, Holly. An entire nation of people has learnt how to do it. And lots of them are five years old."

Dad has a point, unfortunately. So - to save my face from shampoo and my food from too much garlic sauce - I`m going to do my best.

It`ll be nice, I think, when I eventually become literate.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Nakedness Part Two

After being held hostage by a group of eight year olds for two hours this afternoon, I finally decided that I might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb, shoved a jumper on over my pyjamas, grabbed a towel and opened the front door.

"Are you alright?" I asked them in Japanese. The boys immediately screeched, jumped on their bikes and rode away as fast as they could.
"That'll learn ya," I said, smoothing down my hair and getting in my car. Because, I had decided, if I was going to expose myself in front of strangers, I might as well get some health benefits from it at the same time.

I'd been putting this trip off for two weeks. In Yokohama I went to an Onsen (public bath) at least once a week. In Nichinan, where a fully dressed foreigner causes traffic pile ups, I'd been postponing getting completely naked in front of the local community for as long as possible; vaguely aware, on some level, that they wouldn't have the Tokyo habit of staring-politely-ahead-and-pretending-to-be-interested-in-the-wall.

I was right. They didn't.

If I thought three boys circling like sharks outside my house this morning was embarrassing, it wasn't a trickle in the ocean of mortification I sat in this evening. Butt naked, I walked into a room full of equally butt naked ladies, and every single one of them stopped talking and stared at me. You know the dream where you suddenly look down in a public place and realise you've got no clothes on? That's what it's like. Except that it's not a dream, and you don't understand what anyone is saying about your body because it's a totally foreign language. And you can't cover yourself up with your hands, because that conversely draws attention to how naked you are, so the only way you can get through the experience is to throw your hair back and keep your hands by your side and stride in with as much gusto and nonchalence as you can muster.

It didn't stop them talking to me, though. I had assumed that - as in Tokyo - our nakedness would be a barrier to conversation, but it wasn't at all; in fact, they were all delighted by the fact that I had embraced their culture and wasn't wearing any clothes and - I suspect - got far closer than they would have ever got to me if I had been wearing some.

One old lady - the more confident of a large group - shuffled towards me energetically, breasts floating like little popped life belts. She got to about half a metre away, stopped and then stared at me.
"Hello," she eventually said in Japanese.
"Hello," I said, trying not to look awkward. She said something I couldn't understand, no matter how hard I focused (I'm convinced that if I concentrate when somebody speaks, at some point a light will go on and it will suddenly all make sense: the way that Julius Caesar suddenly did during third period on a Tuesday when I was 14).
"I'm sorry, I don't speak much Japanese," I explained. She ignored me; there was no way I was getting out of it that easily.
"Are you okay?" she continued in Japanese.
"Yes, thankyou."
"You're very red," she pointed out.
"Yes," I agreed, smiling and going - if possible - redder. "It's hot." We both politely sidestepped the fact that nobody else in the room was red; Japanese women go a beautiful, sheeny kind of golden pink.
She asked me if I was an American.
"No," I said. "I'm from London."
"Ah, America. I've got two friends from America. Is America nice?" she asked (I think: I only caught a few basic words).
"Yes," I lied. "But I'm not from America. I'm British."
"My friends like it in America," she continued happily. Then she chatted for a few minutes - I have no idea about what, but it was obviously a great story because she laughed a lot and pointed at the sky - and then she bade me good evening and shuffled over to other side to tell her friends what she'd learnt about me.
"She's American," I heard her declare in excitement.
"But she's from London," one of them pointed out.
"American," my new friend confirmed.
"But London isn't in America."
"Isn't it? Where is it then?"
"England."
"England?"
"Yes."
"So she's not American?"
"No. She's English."
"What language do they speak there, then?"
"English."
I could sense that her friend was getting a little frustrated with her, but my lady was taking it all in good grace.
"English? Goodness. She's red isn't she."
And then they all laughed good naturedly and waved at me, breasts waving energetically.

There is a point, when you're sitting, naked, in a pool full of naked people who are all grinning at you and waving sporadically, that you have to accept that at some stage you're going to have to get out of the pool and stand in the middle of the room, naked, and say goodbye. I waited as long as I could, and then I started to feel dizzy from the heat, stood up, had a head rush, sat down again, went redder, stood up and waved goodbye to all of my new friends, who were all watching me in fascination (they probably wondered what the hell I was doing).
"Nice to meet you!" fifteen naked women shouted at me as I grabbed my towel and tried not to look happy to see it.
"Otsukarasamadeshita," I replied - or something like that - bowed deeply - still without any clothes on - and then backed out of the Onsen with as much dignity as I could manage.

You know those naked dreams? As I put my clothes back on and wandered back into a clothed society, I found myself thinking: I don't think I'm going to be having any more of them.

Boo

The children have found me.

Friday, it was fun. They all stared at me and chased me around the school as usual and then lined up at lunch time to get my autograph on their diaries (which they then covered in clear laminated stickers, so that my embarrassed scribble wouldn't get ruined).

Saturday, they stalked me in the supermarket. Different children, but children nonetheless. They were fascinated by the fact that I was buying Japanese food. Or any food at all, actually. Perhaps they assumed that due to my height to weight ratio, I didn't eat; or perhaps only consumed tiny children who followed me around supermarkets (judging by how fast they ran away everytime I turned round).

It's Sunday now, and they've worked out where I live. Three young boys have just completed eleven circuits of my house. They keep walking past my windows and bobbing up and down to check if they can see anything. They've already peered through my French windows and had a conversation about the fact that my bed is not made (it's 2pm but it's Sunday), and if my music changes there is a ripple of excitement that passes around the group like a tiny, nervous Mexican wave. They're currently jumping around outside my bathroom to see if they can reach high enough to spot anything, and standing close enough to my windows to be able to hear me typing.

They can hear me typing this right now.

I feel like Boo Radley. It's making it very hard to do what I normally would do on a Sunday; walk around my house in various states of undress and dress with a bandana around my head and a blanket around my shoulders, sing loudly and inaccurately and occasionally grab a spray can of aerosol and perform an impromptu little choreographed dance around the kitchen (like Hugh Grant in Love Actually, except with a smaller film crew). Plus I'm a little embarrassed; I'm still in my pyjamas, having spent the morning reading and writing and burning toast, and I don't want them to assume that this is what all foreigners do when they're not teaching. Not all of us; just most of us. As I said, it's Sunday.

So I'm hiding in the corner of my room where they can't see me - trapped between two windows - waiting for them to go away. I need a shower, but I'm not absolutely certain that they can't see through the bathroom window. And I can't go out and buy a curtain for my bathroom until I've had a shower; if they see me in this unwashed, feral state, I'm ruined. So I'm trapped; I'm just going to have to hide in this corner and type in the dark until they've all gone to sleep.

Or until I've gotten up the courage to open my front door - in my pyjamas with my snoopy t-shirt and my hair standing on end - and shout BOO at them as loudly as I can.

That's the problem with being a celebrity; there are no days off. There is nowhere to hide.

But, frankly, if they start carving things in the tree outside my house and leaving presents there, there's going to be trouble.

I'm going to be forced to start dancing at them.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

The Yellow Room

In my pool of memories - the ones I dip into now and then, when I'm tired or sad or far away from people I love - is my favourite one. It's not a complicated one, but it's incredibly vivid. It happened more than once, I'm sure, but the memory that stays with me was about four minutes long, and perfect.

I woke up, at the age of six or seven. It was summer - it must have been - and the sun was pouring through the curtains into my room, which had slightly satiny, very pale yellow wallpaper. I was curled up in bed, under my adored Brambly Hedge duvet, and the sun had woken me up gradually by making my cheeks warm. I opened my eyes, and the whole room was shining; the walls, the curtains, the patch on my bed where the sun was peering through. The glass mobile above my bed was throwing rainbows onto all of my walls, and downstairs my mum was singing. I remember smelling bacon, so although I don't remember my dad being home, he must have been: my mum can't cook bacon. And the faint sounds of cartoons were floating up the stairs from the living room, which meant that my little sister was curled up with her Blankie, watching the Saturday morning television.

I opened my eyes, comfortable and warm and sunlit in my favourite duvet, cuddled my Fluppy (dreadlocked yellow dog toy), looked around the shining room at the rainbows and the sunshine, listened to my mum and my sister giggling downstairs, and smelled my dad's bacon, and I was happy. Perfectly happy. I was completely safe. My happiness didn't depend on anyone else; it was mine, and it was simple, and it was right. And as I lay in bed, curled up and smiling, my mum came up the stairs and took a photo. A photo that we found a few weeks ago, when I got home and looked through the contents of the loft, emptied for renovation. A photo where I look just as happy as I remember being.

It's a memory I have chased ever since. That simplicity, that shininess, that warmth, that security: I have looked for them for twenty two years. And it has been so hard to find; so hard to wake up gently in the morning and have nothing there but sun and comfort and a feeling that you are totally, totally safe. So hard to wake up in the morning without tiredness and worries and pain and insecurity being there as soon as you open your eyes. So hard to wake up in the morning with the utter freedom of being a happy child.

This morning, I woke up to feel the sun shining on my cheeks. My curtains had opened in the night, and my bed is under the window (my bed is always under the window; just in case, I think, the sun wants to make the room yellow again). I woke up and I thought nothing; I wasn't tired, I wasn't sad, I wasn't lonely. I was lying in the sun, and my room was shining. And although I couldn't hear my mum singing or my sister laughing - or smell my dad cooking - it was okay; I know that they are doing it somewhere else, and I can hear them if I strain hard enough. And, just as it did twenty two years ago, the day stretched open with all its possibilities and simplicities: no pain, no confusion, no hurt, no worries or anxieties or doubts. Just sunshine, and me.

I spent so long looking for that yellow room; trying to find it in other people. Thinking that somebody else might have it. But I was wrong. I just had to find the quietness, and the warmth, and the right bed under the right window. I just had to find somewhere that would let me wake up in the morning with nothing but the future ahead of me. And the peace that was inside me all along.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Days of Summer

Sometimes the films that make an impression on us aren`t the films we want to make an impression on us. Critically acclaimed films might be the ones we display proudly on our shelves, but they`re not always the ones that make a difference.

In 1999 – the year of American Beauty, Notting Hill, The Sixth Sense, The Green Mile, The (first) Matrix and Star Wars – it was the fluffy Ten Things I Hate About You that had a big impact on me. From a basic teenage girl perspective, it was the first time I had ever had a full blown crush on a male celebrity; Heath Ledger in that film was, and remains – even though he is now gone – everything I didn`t know I was looking for (I had a passion for David Bowie in The Labrynth as well, but I think that because of my age – six - it was largely platonic; despite the shiny and revealing leggings). On a slightly deeper level, the film reassured me in a way I didn`t know I needed to be reassured. I was very lonely that year, with very few friends, and the fact that the heroine was also lonely and had no friends – and yet somehow made that look good and then ended up with Heath – was a great comfort to me. I fell in love both of them – him, and her – because they made it okay: at some stage, I realised that somebody would love me despite of (or indeed because of) the fact that nobody else seemed to. And that was a feeling I carried around long after the Green Mile tears had dried, or the desire for a long black swishy coat had passed, or I had stopped Seeing Dead People (although I`ve still never seen Star Wars, thank God).

Last night, I watched another fluffy film that had a similar impact on me: (500) Days of Summer. The fact that the lead male looks identical to the man who just broke my heart is ironic (although their mannerisms are different enough to make it bearable), but it is – in essence – a film from the same genre as Ten Things: a sweet, puffy, independent rom-com about a boy who falls in love for the first time, and then has his heart totally broken by a girl who thinks that she feels the same way and then realises that she doesn`t. I doubt it will win any awards, but the writing is good, the acting is good, the direction is good, and the music is superb.

We each bring ourselves to the films we watch, though - even if the Oscars ignore them - and this film left a deep impression on me just when I needed one. Heartbreak is bad; confusion is worse. Understanding what makes no sense takes up more time than hurting ever does. Working out how somebody could say they love you and still hurt you so badly, adore you and still walk away, is confusing: no matter how many times you spin it around in your head like an old wooden Top to see where it lands.

Eleven years after Ten Things made me think that things might be okay again, Days of Summer has done a similar thing. The main character is obviously handsome, but it`s his mannerisms that make him stand out; and, in all honesty - once the cheating started - I stopped seeing the gestures I loved in the boy who broke my heart (the tiny twitch of a bottom lip or the twist of a hip when they walk that makes them grab the inside of you and twist it around). I looked and I looked, but I stopped being able to see them: I even stopped being totally sure that they had been there at all.

More importantly, the film made me realise that it happens: that millions of people all over the world fall in love with somebody who doesn`t love them the way everybody deserves to be loved; unquestioningly, unreservedly and uncompromisingly. Love is one thing, and relatively common; that kind of love is another, and it is not. And it has made the questions a lot easier to answer, even if they don`t hurt any less right now. Because the fact that there were any means that it wasn`t what I was looking for. And the fact that he could never really answer them means that I deserve something better. We all do.

Towards the end of the film – after the heartbreak and the tears and the depression and the agonising and obsessing – the boy sees her again, just after she has married someone else. And he tells her that he doesn`t understand why she has chosen somebody that isn`t him; he asks her how she could have chosen to commit to somebody so soon after she said that she couldn`t commit to anybody.

“I woke up one morning,” she says, “and I knew.”
“Knew what?”
“What I was never sure of with you.”

Heartbreak is incredibly painful, but I am going to let go and stop asking questions. Real love doesn`t have any, and when I meet the right person, there won`t be any questions at all: because the pain and the lies and the instability and doubt are a result of uncertainty. The right person - wherever they are right now, and whatever they`re doing - will wake up in the morning next to me, and they will know. They will look at me and they will be sure, the way that he never was.

And - perhaps, finally, when I look at them back and I see gestures I love that never go away - I will be sure too.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

A second education.

I didn`t get a very good impression of the English education system when I was at school; mainly because there didn`t seem to be one.

`School` involved sitting in a dirty building as quietly as I could, unsticking the chewing gum from my trousers as quietly as I could, removing the pencil shavings from my hair as quietly as I could, doing my homework as quietly as I could and trying to learn something without getting killed for it. Chairs were broken, teachers cried, boys bled regularly and my mum made damn sure that my shoes were as cheap as possible, because at some stage they would inevitably be stolen, chucked over the fence into the nearby wood or simply made filthy by walking into the assembly hall and sitting down. Lunchtimes were spent trying not to sit on mushed up chips or discarded bits of pizza, and breaktimes were spent hiding under a pile of coats in the changing room so that nobody would cut my hair off or call me a word I didn`t fully understand but didn`t like much anyway. I`m sure that there were nicer schools out there, but we weren`t even allowed to play them in netball tournaments. And so – after what felt like a million years, but was actually seven - I left secondary school with not much gained from education other than a strong character and a suspicion of any shoes that cost more than four pounds fifty.

The Japanese school system is the diametric opposite to the British school system, and it epitomises in every way how different our cultures are. The buildings are spotless – cleaned every day by the students, indoor shoes worn at all times – and classical music chimes to mark the end and beginning of each lesson. The students are perfectly dressed, without the slightest attempt at individuality; where we rolled up our skirts or drew on our backpacks or wore high heels and fishnet tights (when I say “we” I obviously don`t mean me; that would have been a death call), these children are dressed in identical, clean uniforms with polished identical shoes and identical school bags with identical books. They bow in the corridors when a teacher walks past; they eat exactly the same food – healthy fish, rice and vegetables – at their desks, quietly, and when they enter a classroom they all – in union – thank the teachers, bow and thank the earth for giving them the ability to study. After school they attend various sports clubs with energy and enthusiasm – not because their mum can`t pick them up until 6pm on a Tuesday - and to the best of my knowledge not only is there no smoking behind the bike shed, there is no bike shed. Hair is neat, words are softly spoken, and they make lines like no other children I have ever seen: they move like shoals of fish.

It`s famous all over the world; the Japanese education system. And all over the world it is questioned by the West as suppressive and flattening; effective, obviously, but essentially “repressing” the freedom of children to just “be children”.

A week in a Japanese public school (public as in; public, rather than public as in; private), and it is quite clear that these children have a freedom that British children can`t even imagine. Not only are they all getting a first class education – for nothing, regardless of their income or background – but the lack of `individuality` that we rate so highly means that there is no fear over whether their shoes are the right ones (I once nearly got thumped for wearing Hi-Tec trainers instead of Adidas during PE); no staying up all night wondering if their pencil case is going to be laughed at. They are free to be children; to giggle and worry about their lessons and show each other their new key-rings and make eyes at the opposite sex. At breaktime, they put their little yellow hats on (the elementary school children have no uniforms; just t-shirts and trousers and yellow caps) and run outside; climb things, jump things, roll things. The playground has a rope bridge, four foot tyres, climbing frames, woods: they play games and get muddy – in a way that we can`t even imagine, in a comprehensive school system that banned swings because they were “too dangerous” - and then they all skip happily back to the sanctity of a beautiful, clean, quiet school, filled with teachers who aren`t nearing nervous breakdowns and swearing at each other over the canteen burgers.

A Japanese school feels safe. It`s safe to be a child here; it`s safe to be a teacher. I`m sure there is bullying just as there is anywhere in the world – they are still children, and prone to inherent cruelty and thoughtlessness – but I sincerely doubt that it`s in a head-down-toilet kind of way, and because of the way the day is structured there`s no way for anyone to be on their own at any stage. It feels like a school for children, instead of a building to get children ready and hardened for the horribleness of adult life; something they will be unprepared for no matter how many swear words are written on the walls of the toilets.

We rate individuality and creativity too highly in the West, I think; if I have either of them at all, it is in spite of my school education, and not because of it. My school experience taught me to fear standing out; to fear success; to fear intelligence. It taught me to be ashamed of doing anything well, or of behaving myself. It taught me to distrust equality, and harmony, and peace as symptoms of supression.

The Japanese school experience gives the children the stability they need to be themselves when they are old enough to know who that is; it gives them time to grow up, and adjust, without crushing them under a mask of enforced individuality which is just another word for letting them do what the hell they like, and letting the stronger rule the weaker, just as they would in the wild. Fear and dirt and noise and junk food do not encourage us to be special children; they just encourage us to turn into horrible adults before we`re ready to.

If Japan is a graceful, warm, harmonious, productive and welcoming culture, then it`s pretty obvious that the education here plays a big part in that. And if Britain, by and large, is not, then I think we also need to look to how we treat our children.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Golf

In the same first language, conversation is like a tennis game: you bat the sentences back and forth, until one of you stops being able to reach the ball and then you start again.

In a second language, it`s not quite like that.

“We go to lunch,” my closest Japanese teacher friend said first thing this morning.
“Yes,” I agreed, even though it was 8.30am and we had another three hours to wait. And then I added “Hai,” just because I could. “When?” I asked him eventually. It seemed like a sensible question.
“In three hours.”
“Oh. Okay.”
“Teacher is Tiger Woods.”
I stared as politely as I could.
“Who is?”
“Teacher.”
“What teacher?”
“Lunch teacher.”
I smiled and nodded as hard as I could, and then said: “what lunch teacher?”
“The teacher we eat lunch with today.”
“I see.” Once that had been established, I had the next element to grapple with. “He`s Tiger Woods?”
“Yes. Japanese Tiger Woods.”
“He`s a famous golf player?”
“Eh? What`s famous?”
“Celebrity.”
“Oh. No. No golf.”
“He doesn`t play golf?”
“Tiger Woods?”
“No, the teacher we`re having lunch with.”
“I don`t know. Maybe.”
There was another pause while we both tried to work out what was going on.
“But he`s Tiger Woods?”
“Yes. Lots of girlfriends. Very handsome.”
“Ohhh. Oh, I see.”
“Dangerous.”
“I doubt it.”
“Be careful.”
“Oh.” I laughed, a little bit disappointed. I thought we might be having lunch with a famous golf player. “I`d rather poke my ear drums out with a rusty nail. ”
“Eh?”
“Don`t worry.”
“Good.” There was a pause. “So we go to lunch?”
“In three hours?”
“No." He looked at me in confusion. "In two hours fifty minutes.”
“Oh." I looked at him in similar confusion. "Okay.”
"Okay."

And then we both sat down in silence, utterly exhausted.

When you`re communicating in a second language, it`s not like tennis at all. You whack the sentence as hard as you can, and then stand with your hands on your hips and watch it land in a tree or in a pile of sand somewhere in the distance. And then you wait forever while the other person goes and tries to find it again.

Perhaps, I decided as I started the two hour fifty minute wait, our conversation had more to do with golf than we initially thought.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Aliens

I`ve discovered the secret to instant celebrity. If you aren`t special in your own country, go somewhere where your country makes you special.

A BBC documentary, national broadcast and print, and this is – by a long shot - the most famous I have ever been. All of that time doing interviews and making myself utterly ridiculous, and all I really had to do was be extremely tall, female and white somewhere where absolutely nobody else is extremely tall, female and white. My race, gender and height, apparently, are my trump cards; and there was me, foolishly trying to prove that I had abilities or skills that made me stand out from the crowd. If you want to stand out from the crowd, it`s a lot less hard work if you go somewhere where the crowd is very, very different from you. In fact, it`s no work at all. Blending in is the tricky bit.

(I don`t think I`m the first person to uncover this truth, incidentally. Judging from the quantity of very strange Western men walking around Japan with beautiful Japanese wives and girlfriends, I`m not the only white person to realise that making your race a defining characteristic can be somewhat of an advantage.)

I currently have the kind of fame that Jodie Marsh would rip both of her belts off for. When I go into a supermarket, people stand still with their hands stuck in the chiller section; if I turn around abruptly in the home shop, there are at least two seconds of staring before everybody realises that I can see them and recommence filling their baskets with toilet rolls. Taking a photo of a husband and wife in their wedding outfits on the beach at the weekend – big, frothy green dress and six inch heels on sand – I turned around to discover that the passers-by were ignoring the happy couple and taking photos of the foreigners instead. I feel a bit like Jim Carrey on The Truman Show; when I`m driving my car, other drivers swivel to look at me, and people remain on the pavement when the little green man is walking because they`re so distracted by how strange I am (either that or they assume that I don`t understand the road system and will drive through the red light and kill them). At school, the children follow me around in giggling huddles (sometimes – in the cases of the eight year old boys - hiding behind bushes and bins and stalking me like ninja), asking questions: where am I from? How old am I? Do I have a boyfriend? Where are my shoes from? Why are my eyes green? Why am I so tall? Do I know Angelina Jolie? Can I say hi to her for them? And when I`m done answering (London, 28, no, Topshop, genetics, genetics, yes, of course), they grin at me and drag me into the playground to play soccer, and I spend the rest of the lunch break telling them it`s football.

It`s a very surreal experience; one that I certainly didn`t expect, coming from Tokyo and Yokohama where everybody is so bored of Westerners that you`re usually the first one to get pushed over on the train. I`ve gone from being utterly invisible in every possible way to being incapable of it; I can`t even leave my rubbish out on the wrong day, because everyone will know it was me and it will end up back on my doorstep with a reproachful note and a bad impression of an entire chunk of the world`s population (I don`t represent England; I represent every English speaking country, as well as – apparently – Germany and Russia, according to the guesses of my school children).

Coming from the UK, a cosmopolitan culture, it`s a shock to the system; realising just how – well... Japanese Japan is. If you`re not from Japan you`re foreign (it doesn`t matter where you`re from, incidentally: the rest of the world is classified in one lump as other; my ex once got asked if he could "speak foreign"). I legally have to carry around a Gaijin card to prove that I am allowed to be here, and the word Gaijin literally translates to alien; what I have is, in English, an Alien Registration Card. And – in Nichinan - I really, really am one. I might as well have been beamed in from a shiny spaceship with Will Smith at the helm; it would create the same amount of commotion.

It will wear off soon of course; soon I - “the tall one who doesn`t understand us” - will be just another part of the local surroundings and the community and school children will have adjusted (already nobody is hiding behind bins anymore, and it`s only Tuesday). But it`s been nice, and it`s been educational. Being an alien is an experience that not many people get to have: we get so used to being part of the environment we`re in, that it`s strange to put yourself somewhere shocking and then realise that your environment is shocked straight back.

But – if the warmth and welcome I have received in this part of the country is anything to go by – when the spaceships eventually turn up from outer space (which they will; we all know that) and start beaming tall, funny looking creatures down, I`d advise them to come straight to Japan. In particular, Miyazaki.

Everybody will just assume that they are British.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Surfing and standing

Yesterday, I spent the day surfing.

I`ve always wanted to say that. It`s not actually true, unfortunately. Yesterday, I spent two and a half hours lying on my belly on a surfboard, squealing and drinking salt water and being tumbled in various figure eights. Yesterday, I spent two and a half hours trying to say “gosh, isn’t it beautiful here,” but only getting to “gosh, isn`t it beau-” before a big wave crashed into my mouth and finished off the rest of the sentence; two and a half hours feebly attempting to get into a kneeling position on a surfboard without rolling under the water and getting whacked on the nose by said surfboard, and then surfacing to the sound of far too much laughter for my liking; two and a half hours flapping about like a maimed dolphin in a net, before indulging in as much tempura and noodles and beer as I could fit down my throat, because – after all – I must have earned it, what with all the flapping and screaming and laughing and whatnot. Two and a half hours, and I`ve got a graze on my tummy and arms that I can actually feel because I`ve done something to the muscles inside them (used them, possibly) and a bag full of sandy bits of bikini and the biggest smile on my face I`ve had in a very long time, because I think I may actually have found a sport I enjoy. Even if I`m predictably terrible at it. Which of course I am, because anything that involves moving my body almost always ends up in something being broken.


One of the reasons I took the position in Nichinan – apart from the fact that it`s beautiful and quiet and with children and far, far, far away from Yokohama, Tokyo or Hamamatsu - was because it is, like, The Surf Mecca of Japan. While it was a predominantly empty beach yesterday, as soon as the weather starts warming up apparently the sand will be filled with cute surfer-types from all over the world: a fact that is, frankly, both exciting and worrying, because my gasping and rolling around under water is going to be a lot more embarrassing when done in front of nice looking boys wearing rubber. However, it does give me a few cold(er) months to practice my skills, and I reckon that as long as I can stand up before I fall down again I should be able to pretend that I`m actually very skilled and just more interested in getting an even tan than in doing backflips (or whatever it is you`re expected to do once you`re vertical: I`m crossing that athletic bridge when I come to it, which won`t be for some time judging by yesterday`s inept performance). Plus Standing Up On A SurfBoard is on my Life List, so hopefully that`ll be one thing I can tick off by the end of the year; two if I manage to nearly kill somebody else in the process before saving them again (No. 9: Saving Somebody`s Life As Directly As Possible doesn`t say anything about not being the one to put their life in danger in the first place).

There`s something about this place – about bobbing around in the water, looking at the mountains and the boats and the sharp little islands (that look, as my friend said, as if Japan “rained itself into being” or dripped itself like hot wax) and listening to the birds and the waves and the drowning gurgles of terrible surfers – that makes everything feel more open, and much more possible. It makes London and Tokyo feel a million miles away; as if they suddenly stopped existing while you paddled out to sea, because they realised (with some embarrassment) they didn`t make much sense anymore, and all the noise and commotion was for nothing at all. And there`s something about surfing that makes you feel free, and strong, and capable of it all. As if it doesn`t matter how bad you are, or how far down you`re lying, or how weak your arm muscles are, or how much water you end up swallowing, if you try hard enough you can drag yourself off your stomach and finish off much higher than you were before. That you can end the day by standing up.

I`m not a good surfer at all - in fact, I`m a terrible surfer - but I`m very good at forcing myself from a very low position to being upright again. So I`m investing in a surfboard, and I`m investing in a wetsuit, and I`m going to spend the rest of the year doing exactly that.

And by God, am I going to have fun in the process.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Play-doh.

I think my head is falling off.

Either that or everything in it is squeezing out of my ears in stringy shapes, as if somebody has filled me with plasticine and then pushed something hard and star shaped into my hairline.

Today, I finally did it. After eight months of surviving in Japan without ever actually really touching it, I finally gave it a headbutt. Or, I should say, it finally got fed up with my namby pansy lazy British ways and gave me one while I kicked and screamed and yawned throughout, because proper cultural immersion – frankly - is bloody exhausting. My first day in a non-English speaking environment with my new colleagues, and I can barely sit up straight: every single sense in my body is frazzled and worn out and sizzling with over-work. And it feels wonderful. It feels like I’m actually experiencing Japan for the first time, instead of being an extra on the set of Lost in Translations.

I think it’s only possible to realise that you’ve hit your comfort zone when you’ve been dragged unwillingly out of it. Eight months in Tokyo of saying doko and pointing at toilet signs, and after a few hours in the countryside of being forced to communicate and ask questions my vocabulary has pretty much tripled. I can now, very slowly, conjegate basic verbs – followed by massive round of applause – I can hold a very, very basic Japanese conversation with a table full of non-English speaking teachers for three hours, and I am no longer scared of saying something wrong: thanks to this incredibly kind and polite culture, everytime I open my mouth everybody gasps as if I’m linguistically gifted. Even more amazingly, an hour ago I stood up in front of 40 tipsy staff after my traditional welcome dinner, and told them - in Japanese, down a microphone - that I hoped they were all well and having a good evening, that I was very happy to meet them, that their school and city was beautiful, ne, and that they were all my new friends. At least, that’s what I was trying to say, and everyone drunkenly laughed and clapped and pointed so I’m guessing at least something was communicated.

Furthermore, during my first traditional Japanese meal - after eight months of eating pasta and anxiously avoiding anything that once had a face - I finally decided that it was time to stop being a pathetic wuss and ate everything they put in front of me. Raw fish, shrimp with their little beady eyes still looking resentfully at me, chicken knuckles, breaded monkfish, bits of bleeding raw beef, wasabi, tofu, fish eggs: the works. I got my chopsticks, I took a deep breath, and I ate it all: every single, carcassy mouthful. Because if I’ve realised one thing about Japan – in a school where 300 students and 40 staff eat identical lunches every single day, and nobody once says ‘oh man, I don’t like sweetcorn’ before picking all of them out – harmony and equality is far more important than the whim of the individual. And the fact that I don’t like raw fish or meat at all doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t just eat them anyway and smile and tell them it’s delicious: because if it’s good enough for them, it’s absolutely good enough for me too. Frankly, it’s probably a little too good. My idea of good food is beans on toast with cheese on top.

It’s strange, really. I’m shattered; I have not stopped in thirteen hours. At stages I’ve wanted to cry and hide under the table; I’ve laughed, I’ve been embarrassed and shy, I’ve felt like a Queen and like a total plonker. But at no stage did the experience feel ordinary, and at no stage did I stop feeling proud of myself. Because, for the first time, I’ve actually moved my self, instead of just moving my body. I’m actually – very slowly - starting to live inside a foreign culture, instead of skirting around the outside and using it as a pretty backdrop: like sticking one of those New York skylines on the inside of a hotel room and convincing yourself that you might as well be there. And - instead of being sad and heartbroken and bored at home in England – I’m spending every bit of energy I have living as hard as I can so that there’s no room for anything else at all. So that all the sadness gets pushed out of me like play-doh and replaced with something better.

Changing your own world takes so much more than just moving yourself somewhere else, and it’s taken me more than eight months to finally realise that. It’s going to be a really hard year, I think, but it’s going to be worth every single headache and scary microphone speech and mouthful of something I don’t want to swallow. Because if I can do this, and I can really experience it, and enjoy it, and be here fully, instead of just physically, then I can do anything.

And that’s what this adventure is all about. It’s about learning how to be where I am, for a change, instead of always somewhere else.