Wednesday, June 11, 2008

If you don't wanna go to Fist City...

My Japanese class is going really well. Every Tuesday after class, there is another optional hour and a half of extra class where a bunch of volunteer teachers come in and split us into groups. I have had the same lady to myself every week and it's been great. We try to talk to each other using things I've learned, and then she teaches me new useful sentences. As we talk, I ask her how to say a lot of things in Japanese. Then she makes me write everything we say down in my notebook in hiragana or katakana. Only foreign words can be written in katakana. You must never write Japanese words in katakana, or foreign words in Hiragana. Which is annoying because you have to know two different characters for every phonetic sound.

Anyways, I really enjoy these optional lessons because I get to learn whatever I want and have real conversations with someone. I learned that my teacher used to live in the States for quite a few years. She's lived in New Jersey and California, I think. As a result, she knows some English, which helps when I don't understand what she's asking me, or I want to know how to say something. The really exciting part, though, was when we realized that her son and I both graduated from Washington University in St. Louis! He graduated almost 10 years ago, but he got a degree from the architecture school. He lives in Japan now. I thought that was an amazing coincidence.

This past Tuesday we had another lady sit in on our lesson. I think she is studying to be a volunteer Japanese teacher too, so she wanted to watch. We ended up including her in the conversations and she was also really nice. They taught me a lot of useful art-related vocabulary, such as art museum, painter, painting, modern art, sculptor, painting. It was fun. Afterwards, the lady who sat in on our lesson ending up walking with me back to the station. She was extremely cute and old, and literally half my height. I had to bend down to speak to her. She doesn't know much English, so I was trying to talk to her in Japanese. As we were walking, she asked me to have coffee with her. We stopped at a coffee shop where she treated me to an iced latte and we shared halves of a sandwich. While it was difficult and I'm sure I said a lot of strange things, we managed to have a conversation. We talked about our past travel experiences, where I wanted to go in Japan, what movies we liked. I told her about my plans to go to Kyoto with my mother and grandmother in August. It was quite fun to really try to have a conversation with someone who didn't know English. She seemed to really enjoy meeting me, too. I don't know what it is about the older Japanese ladies, but they really seem to like me. It's really cute. They're really cute.

In other news, I have started a band with three guys from my guest house. Our band's name at the moment is Blazing Cranes, but I'm not sure if that's the final name or not. All of us are foreigners. Leo is Asian-Australian and he plays the drums. He's pretty quiet, so I don't know him that well. The other two are both English teachers at the same company as me. Andy is from Glasgow, Scotland and Daniel is Canadian. The two of them switch roles back and forth playing guitar and bass.

Our first practice was last Sunday. We found a nice studio in Tachikawa, a few stops away from our guest house on the Chuo line. For about 25 bucks each, the four of us can rent the studio and all the instruments and equipment we need for four hours. Not bad, I think. We rented a full drum set, a guitar, a bass, amps, microphones, a fancy electronic keyboard, and maybe some other equipment too, but I don't know anything about that stuff.

Andy and Daniel had already written a few songs since we had first decided to form a band, so we practiced those. Since they had been practicing the songs in their rooms with their own voices, they decided to sing their own songs themselves. I played the keyboard and did backup vocals. However, as my strengths lie mostly in singing, I hope and expect to be given more of a singing role. I played piano as a kid and took lessons for a long time, but I honestly don't remember much. I never got very good cause I never wanted to practice. But at least I can remember what key is which note. I also have pretty good pitch so it's easy for me to match notes.

Anyway, I really enjoyed practicing with these guys. We seem to have similar tastes in music and all have quite a broad range of tastes, too. So far our music seems to have a bit of a folk, punk, post-punk, slightly country feel. Some of it reminds me of the Velvet Underground, Beat Happening, and... not sure what else. But I like it. I really enjoyed being able to improvise my own parts. They would play me the guitar parts of a song, and tell me what notes/chords they used and then I would come up with a keyboard part. It was all very simple, mostly ambient chords and such, but it sounded pretty nice. Gave the songs a richer, fuller sound. I also enjoyed coming up with some backup vocals for a few songs.

Since I don't really know how to write music, the guys suggested I come up with a cover song or two that I'd be interesting in singing. Last night we decided to do a cover of Loretta Lynn's "Fist City," at my own suggestion. I played the song for them and they really liked it. They tried playing it on guitar while I sang and it worked quite well so we are all very excited about it. I am pretty excited to be singing again, too. So we'll work on that this upcoming Sunday. The plan is to practice every Sunday night.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The important parts of culture: food and the words you need to know in order to acquire it

Well, some new strange foods I've tried are the following: pigs ear, and frog legs. Both of which I happened to eat at two different Okinawan restaurants. Okinawa, if you didn't know, is one of the most famous tropical Japanese Islands. It's a very popular vacation spot.

Anyway, pig's ear is apparently an Okinawan culinary delicacy. I ate it when I was attending a company party. The individual branch schools often host parties for their students, Japanese staff, and teachers to attend. I don't technically have to attend, but let's just say you win your staff's favor by attending their school parties. Sometimes these parties are held in the actual schools. This party, however, was held at a restaurant. It was a set meal for everyone, so someone ordered a bunch of famous Okinawan dishes for everyone to try. This just so happened to include pig's ear. Even the Japanese students were telling me I shouldn't eat the pig's ear, because it's basically just cartilage. I tried fried chicken cartilage once, also in Japan. It was awful. I have to wonder, why would someone choose to eat such a thing? "Oh, waiter, I'd like some fried chicken please, only please hold the meat." I guess some people like a good helping of crunchy bone-like substance every now and then. Anyway, I was glad to find that pigs ear wasn't quite so terrible as chicken cartilage.

As for the frog legs... well, you know what they say: it tastes like chicken! There's not much more to say, except that it was hilarious seeing how the legs were still attached. They were also disturbingly muscular looking. It was very bizarre because it was obvious that what we were eating had once been a frog. Much rude picture taking ensued at the dinner table. Here's a nice example:

Eating frog legs is just one of many strange eating experiences I've had with my friend Adam. (See earlier blog entry on eating scorpions). We both have Tuesdays off, so I end up hanging out with him a fair bit. Luckily, it turns out he's a pretty good eating partner, and I'm always looking for more of those. My criteria includes the following: they need to like many different kinds of food. They need to be adventurous and willing to try strange, new things. They need to love eating out. They can't be picky. They need to love meat. That last one is probably the most important, actually. Anyway, as a result of all this, Adam and I have made a pact to try a new and possibly disgusting food every Tuesday. We call it: Disgusting Tuesdays. Lovely.

In other news, I started Japanese lessons a few weeks ago. The class is held two days every week, on Tuesday and Friday mornings. There's about 15 people in the class. The teacher speaks a little bit of English, which is nice and helpful for me, being the only native English speaker in the entire class. There are no other Westerners really. There’s a bunch of Chinese women, three women from Laos, one from India, one from Indonesia, a girl from Thailand, two Korean women, a doctor from Colombia, and a younger guy from the Philippines. It’s quite interesting to see what problems people from different countries have with Japanese pronunciation. Though it can be rather frustrating when the Chinese students have a much easier time with pronunciation, and the reading and writing of Japanese script. It's also annoying cause some of them are rather cocky about the fact that they are better than other students. Whenever we have to read something out loud in class, and someone like myself is reading a bit slowly, they will blurt out the answers before I can come up with them myself. It's not that it's embarrassing really, but I don't like that they deny me the chance to figure things out for myself. It's very annoying, because I know I'd be able to get the answer if they just let me.

I admit I am still VERY slow at reading and writing. But I have been learning quite a bit and I am very excited about it. I've really been getting into it, trying to study a lot on my own time. Just in the first week I learned how to write and read in Hiragana. The Japanese use three different writing systems: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Kanji are the ancient Chinese based characters which are much more numerous and complex than the other two writing systems. Katakana is a phonetic writing system, mostly used for writing foreign words that use sounds that are not familiar to Japanese people. Like hamburger becomes "hanbaagaa," ice cream becomes "aisu kurimu," salad becomes "sarada," and so on. Hiragana is also phonetic, but used for Japanese words. It is much easier to learn than Kanji anyway. So my teacher started us on Hiragana. After a week or two she started us on Katakana. I can now officially read and write in both Hiragana and Katakana, and I am extremely surprised and proud of this amazing feat. Though I read like a small child; I'm constantly sounding everything out. Nevertheless, it is amazing to look around on billboards, the train, or in restaurants and be able to read things finally. Once I read a word, I may not know what it means, but at least I can look it up in a dictionary.

Unfortunately, the Japanese use all three writing systems together at the same time. So all three could be used within the same sentence, which can get rather confusing. It also means I can often only read parts of sentences. Well, hey, it’s a start. I’m very excited to be learning something again. I didn’t realize how much I missed being in school and using my brain and learning things. Sometimes I think about quitting the job and going to school again to learn Japanese full-time. But, that would require money I either don't have or can't afford to spend. So, I will satisfy myself with a mediocre class taught by volunteer teachers for free. At least it's two days a week! But man, oh man. Sometimes I just want to learn faster! I really want to be able to converse with people already. Sadly, I still have a long way to go... but I shall persevere.

Anyways, more to come later. I must divulge the dirty details of my splendid visit to the extremely tame and child-friendly Tokyo Disneyland. I faced Space mountain for the second time in my life and I am thoroughly proud to say that this time Space mountain didn't conquer me, I conquered space mountain! Oh yes, that's right. I even sat in the front row again. (God that was terrifying as a child...)