Archives for the month of: January, 2014
My First Thanksgiving Dinner, benefits of American friends

My First Thanksgiving Dinner, benefits of American friends

I am in a whirlwind of confusion, I don’t understand. I am constantly coming up against words I don’t know, gestures that confuse me and actions I find alien.

Japan? That’s fine, I expected to find that confusing. No, this is my fellow English speakers, my American compatriots.  I had no idea I would be this difficult to comprehend!

Despite my expectations of a shared language, interchanging of popular culture, shared history, we constantly misunderstand each other. My Japanese vocabulary is limited but my American glossary grows by the day.

Lets start with some simple examples;

  • To me a cup of tea and a biscuit means Yorkshires finest black (I never realised tea came in other colours till I moved) tea with cold milk and a hobnob. My colleagues would expect a kind of scone or bread roll along with some herbal concoction or no milk and lemon.
  • Bombed means something failed not that it cost a lot of money (a bomb).
  • Soccer? No. Football.
  • A jelly sandwich? A jam sandwich.
  • They don’t offer me a lift, they offer me a ride. In English a ride could be a shag (a sexual encounter). If you gave me a lift in America you would pick me up and carry me (pick up and chat up might also mean the same thing in American English and this could lead to more problems in misuse). I just tend to get the bus, less potential for misunderstandings…
  • Oh and a lift is also an elevator.
  • A rubber is only used for erasing in the UK in the US it protects you from much, much more…
  • Then there is favour, favor, color, colour, zed and zee…

So gradually my timetable has become my schedule, my lessons morph in to periods. I request my students to ‘turn in homework’ instead of handing it in and I slowly begin to understand.

But I am fascinated by my American colleagues. They’re actually real? America is real? I had seen it so many times in movies (movies, not films) and TV shows (not programmes) that I started to think of it as a fantasyland like Narnia or Hogwarts. But here they are right in front of me with accents I had heard all my life but never really experienced and as I listened more carefully they started to become my friends.

I was wary at first, struggling to connect. Working under the (mis) assumption that our shared language and similar cultural references would bind us closer. I assumed it would be easier to connect with Americans than to Columbians or Brazilians, and these Latin American nationalities had previously become my good friends. Perhaps it was here that the disconnect occurred? At first, we were not bound together by these things but almost pushed father apart. My assumptions around understanding ‘American culture’ confounded me. We thought so very differently about things, especially education, and where I expected to find links I often found conflict.

But as my language has modified so have I. Travelling and working abroad gives you an insight in to the world and sticks a rocket into your assumptions and explodes preconceptions. What am I learning the longer I stay away from the UK? That nothing is as I expect, nothing is what I think, that I must be open and ready to embrace every single different kind of person I meet.

Not literally, although I have bought some Brazilian exuberance and hugs to Japan.

So, despite me using being British as an excuse for bad behaviour, happily invoking shallow cultural stereotypes as alibis (Brits like to drink therefore I will order another beer, Brits are unfriendly that’s why I’m not happy today, Brits are intelligent so I must be too.) I am aware that my own expectations of others are getting in the way of reality.

I am going to try to be more open, to have less expectations, to enjoy my new American friends. To work at saying allowance instead of pocket money, to celebrate thanksgiving, to embrace every single different person I meet (thanks to tactile Brazil). Because this experience, this opportunity to get to know so many different types of people, it’s a privilege I don’t want to squander.

armhotoI am not fond of rules. Ironic, as my job entails a constant enforcement of, sometimes, arbitrary rules designed to control large groups of young people. Rules designed to stop school children rebelling and saying, “I will go to the bathroom when ever I like, I don’t need your permission to URINATE”. When I became a teacher I had to reconcile the rebellious part of my nature with the enforcement of rules at school. I justified it to myself in that I tried to be fair and honest and enforce only those rules which kept my students safe and happy in my classroom. No pleasures for me in making someone take their hooded top off because it wasn’t school uniform or telling people when to stand up or sit down. Given the choice, I didn’t care what they wore, but I had bought in to being part of a community so I had to support the people that did care and thought it was important. I don’t need to inflate my ego by demonstrating my power over teenagers. I don’t, some teachers do. For them the rules are a stick to beat young people with to give themselves higher status in a world where they feel reduced or diminished by their life choices.

Japan thrives on rules, I currently understand, at best, about 2% of the rules here. I have been doing a little bit of travelling during this winter holiday. Mini excursions up in to the mountains, the lone female traveller I always wanted to be, finally a reality. This was made so much easier by the rules. In Japan there are rules and they are followed. It feels safe. Things arrive on time, get to where they are going and no one bothers you. Perhaps, I need rules? Perhaps rules keep us safe and help us make sense of the world?

I stayed in a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, with incredibly solicitous staff tending to my every need. It made me completely nervous and confused. I was never quite sure what I should be doing. In the end I had to just accept that I was a foreigner and I would get it wrong, probably no one would care that much, and what could I do about it anyway? So I mis-tied my yukata, stomped my way to the dining room and enjoyed a delicious dinner.

I have a tattoo on my wrist; it is the Triforce from a Nintendo game called ‘The Legend of Zelda.’ It represents many things to me; family, friendship, home but also rebellion. I worried about having the tattoo in such a prominent place. Thought maybe I should have it somewhere more easily hidden. If it was hidden I could pretend to comply, but be a secret rebel. In the end I chose the inside of my wrist, to display my rebellion, the less complicit location. My darling mother’s immediate reaction on seeing it was “Oh no, do you think that was a good idea?” which cemented the decision for me. It was definitely a bloody good idea.

I was working in Brazil at the time and watched the leaders of the school struggle to manage two boys, two non-compliant boys. Unusual for an International school, not so unusual for a UK comprehensive school, in fact pretty typical behaviour, but unfamiliar to this private school selective world. Not my usual world, but one I was temporarily inhabiting. I was uncomfortable with the way the situation with these boys was being handled but was unable to have much influence. One of them was an incredibly talented writer, I hope to read more from him one day. The boys were quietly removed from the school. Mainly because they wouldn’t back down and comply with how the school wanted them to behave. I have always liked the rebels best, the students who fought the system. I chose to work with these kinds of students as a career. There are not so many of them in my new life and I miss them. These people can change the world given the right opportunities. These boys reminded me that I want to be non-compliant too so I got the tattoo on my wrist and not on the safer, more hidden spot on my ankle, I had also contemplated. A small gesture as a constant reminder.

I struggle to comply with expectations of me. I will not get married, I will not have a family, I intend to stay fat and not diet. I will wear my flab as a badge of honour and every time I feel pressure that I might be more socially acceptable if my arse was 3 sizes smaller I will look at the triforce on my wrist and remember not to be afraid. So I buy a massive fur coat and take up two seats on the Japanese subway, become bigger and bolder and brighter. I turn up my Britishness and my foreign status, exaggerating my rolling vowel accent. I celebrate my single life freedom by travelling alone and sleeping diagonally across a double bed.

I like and understand the rules but I will not let them impede my happiness. Every time I look at the tattoo on my wrist it is there to remind me not to worry. The rules are there to help us feel safe. If I am not endangering anyone and I am safe and happy I will continue to rebel and ignore the rules even here in Japan.

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