Monday, June 6, 2011

Monkey Mako Chan

I seriously had a breakthrough with my private kid student yesterday. This kid has had me cradling my head and wondering how the hell I'm supposed to teach him anything if he doesn't want to be taught. After he threw the flashcards in my face and told me to go away (in Japanese, of course), I threw those flashcards in the back of my closet. I stopped trying to make him repeat things. I pretty much gave up and just decided to have fun and play with him. I just talked to him, mostly in English, a few Japanese words sprinkled in if he really didn't understand. But he almost never spoke a single English word. I felt like I was wasting his mother's money. I was a fake, a liar. I wasn't a real teacher. Sure, I can teach kids at my school. But that's different. They provide materials, lesson plans, a classroom, Japanese staff to help you enforce the rules. I had no experience in making my own lesson plans, and this kid didn't want them anyway. So, I chased him with stuffed turtles and caterpillars and let him throw plastic apples at me. I performed a play for him where I jumped on a futon pretending to be a monkey jumping on the bed. I fell on my head and I cried for my mama. Then I pretended to be mama, calling the doctor and telling them,"no more monkeys jumping on the bed!" Mako just sat there and laughed his head off while I threw away my dignity, his mother watching the whole thing.

But then something changed, Mako started to trust me. We became friends. I regained my confidence and starting getting more creative ideas. I slowly incorporated interesting ways of learning without him ever realizing it. I bought those plastic capsules filled with little sponges shaped like animals. You put them in hot water and watch them grow. We decided if they were fish, or turtles, or sharks, or starfish. I bought a big fuzzy dice at Tokyu Hands and some pieces of colored felt. I sewed a different colored square of felt on each side of the dice. I counted to three, he threw the dice at me, we looked to see what color and then we ran to find something that was the same color. This whole time he almost never repeated ANYTHING. But slowly, something was changing.

Yesterday, I came into his bedroom bracing myself for more plastic apple abuse, but something was different. Mako-chan suddenly wanted to learn something. We matched foam ABC letters to the letters on a mat, and he repeated A B C D E and F. We threw the dice around and he repeated all the colors as he touched them. We collected everything we could find that was yellow. Then we sat down on his floor and had a snack. We ate mango jelly and drank green tea his mother had brought upstairs on a tray. I felt like I was on a playdate, only I was 25 and he was 3. Recently I had been trying to get him used to hearing and answering the question "Do you like___?" So, I asked him, do you like mango jelly? Instead of answering in Japanese "Un, suki da yo," like he usually does, he said, "Yes!" and gave me a thumbs up. Wow, I thought, progress!

I rubbed my tummy and asked, "Is it yummy?" He nodded, "Yes!" Then he couldn't open his package of crackers and commanded me to open it, "akete!" I pretended not to understand. I made a motion like I was opening something and questioned "Open, Mako? Open?" He nodded and said, "Open!" I said... "Open, please?" He repeated, "OPEN PLEASE!" Well, how about that. I finally got him to say please. And then I opened it for him. Well, my work here is done, I thought.

But then, something even better happened. It was almost time to go and his mother had come up to collect our dirty dishes. I was cleaning up the plastic food toys that littered the floor. There should be seven french fries but I counted only four. I asked Mako, "Mako, where are the french fries? French fries please!" He raced to retrieve them from under the sofa and brought them to me. Trust me, he had never obeyed a request like this before. I said, "Thank you," and he repeated, "THANK YOU!" I laughed. Hmm.. maybe this was the the chance I'd been waiting for. I handed the fries to his mother and said, "Here you are." She said, "Thank you." I motioned for her to hand the fries to her son and say "Here you are." She did, and I can't believe what happened next. Mako said "Thank you," and then he passed them to me and said, "Here you are!" I was literally about to cry with happiness. For months, I couldn't even get him to say, "Thank you," and now he was saying, "here you are." This was too much progress for one lesson. I was sure he would soon be bored, I was ready to stop there and take the progress I could get. But then, Mako tells his mother he wants to do it AGAIN. Doubtful, I ask him, "One more time?" He says, "One more!" I hand the fries to his mother, we do our little conversation, she hands them to Mako, he says his lines perfectly, he passes them to me again, and we continue like this for maybe 7 rounds. Here you are. Thank you! gobble gobble gobble. Here you are. Thank you! gobble gobble gobble. Mako loved every minute of it. And so did I!

Now, I can't wait for next Monday.

A set of Very Hungry Caterpillar-themed cards
we sometimes "play" with

Oh. Hello again.

Apologies for the long absence. You know, busy with moving and worrying about earthquakes and radiation and whether all those people up in Northern Japan are okay. I just saw pictures taken by some friends who went to volunteer for a few days over the weekend. The piles of rubble are insane- as high as the houses sitting next to them. I would have liked to volunteer as well, but I noticed there were only men in the group that went up North. Apparently they thought clearing rubble was too hard for someone like me. (Yeah, fair enough, they're probably right.)

Anyway, the aftershocks finally stopped about a month or so ago. Every so often we still get an earthquake, but it's a small one. I don't even know what's happening with the nuclear power plant anymore. I haven't turned on my TV in a long time and frankly, I like it this way. I was tired of being nervous all the time. I just needed to get on with life.

Apparently, so did everyone else. Life in Tokyo seems business as usual. People are out and about shopping and eating and all those things they do.

Personally, things are pretty good right now in my corner. Being a newly single foreigner in Japan, I am excited to have the freedom and the independence to really get to know this place better than ever. I no longer have a Japanese guy I can depend on for help with translation, question asking, buying electronic appliances, etc. It can be scary to approach someone and try to explain something in Japanese because you never know what new word they're going to say that might trip you up, or whether or not they're going to panic and tell you they can't help you because they don't speak English, even though you're trying you hardest to speak THEIR language. Sometimes I just can't stand the awkwardness. I'm sure I make it awkward as well, but when we're both awkward about the fact that I'm not Japanese and my Japanese isn't perfect, it's just painful sometimes. But, in the past couple of weeks I've done a bunch of things that I have seriously put off for months and months because I was lacking confidence about my Japanese ability. Finally, I think I'm gaining some confidence in that regard.

1. I went to a hair salon and got a haircut using only Japanese. Granted, the haircut sucked afterward, but at least I got some Japanese practice. Now I know that just because the salon is close to my apartment, that doesn't mean I should go there. Seriously, this girl just didn't care. She parted it to the side, whacked off a couple of inches and said she was done. I mean, I know I told her to just cut it and then do what she thought was appropriate. Back in America they would put some layers in without even asking you, make it look nice. It wasn't until the next day that I discovered the worst part. If you don't get the part lined up exactly as she had it, then strands of hair fall on the wrong side and look at least an inch or two longer than the rest of my hair. I had to fix this with my craft scissors in the bathroom.

2. I went to the Suginami City Office and finally asked them why my recent health insurance bill had appeared to double, and whether it would continue at this rate. They did explain, and I mostly understood. There were a few points I didn't quite get, but I'm gonna chalk that up more to my atrocious math skills rather than any lack in my Japanese ability. Anyway, I was relieved to find out that everything made (relatively) perfect sense and from now on I'll be charged at the normal monthly rate. Thank heavenly goodness.

3. I called my landlord yesterday and asked if he could do anything about my clogged sink in my bathroom. It's been clogged since a week after I moved in. That was about four months ago. Right now, as I write this blog post, there's a dude in my bathroom fixing it. Truth is, I could have emailed the company that helped me get this apartment (they speak English) and they could have called the landlord for me and translated. But why not cut out the middleman? I've been studying this language for 3 years now. It's time to frickin use it! And now, use it I have.

Earth: a salon where the hairstylists don't give a crap

Life is also good because this weekend was especially fun-filled and relaxing. I did all my usual favorite things- studied Japanese in a coffee shop, sang karaoke for two hours by myself belting out Madonna, Michael Jackson, Weezer, Lady Gaga, and more. They didn't have Fiona Apple's "Criminal" anymore. Apparently her popularity has waned in Japan. I'm pretty upset about that one. That was seriously my best karaoke song.

Anyway, after that I went to the neighborhood Sento (public bath house) and took a nice long soak. Super relaxing. I was also surprised to see a girl with tattoos in there. She wasn't kicked out, in fact, no one paid her any attention. Usually these kinds of places, particularly Onsen- that is, natural hot spring- would strictly forbid people with tattoos from entering. Once upon a time the only people with tattoos were the Yakuza (mafia). However, I'm guessing since my neighborhood is famous for having lots of tattoo-adorned, thrift-store-clothed, guitar-toting young people, the most popular neighborhood sento has adopted a lax policy towards tattoos. No tattoos, no customers...

The other highlights of my weekend included seeing a Paul Klee exhibit at the MOMAT (The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo) and then going to a pop idol group concert. The exhibition was really interesting. I always knew Paul Klee was famous because we briefly studied him in art history class in college, but I never gave him much notice. It turns out... we have a lot in common. He loves yellow, orange and green, too! Every time I stood next to a painting, someone said something like, "Oh, you match the painting!!" I swear I had no intention in matching his color palette when I was dressing that morning. I did get a lot of enjoyment out of his colors though.

Below is a photo I took of a postcard of my favorite painting in the show. Then, below that is one of my paintings from my junior year in college, during my western phase. Note the abundance of yellow and orange in both images.

Paul Klee, 1922

Caitlin Stewart, copyright 2005

As for the pop idol concert, well it started with the visit to the art museum. I went to the museum with a few friends and acquaintances. One girl mentioned that she was going to her cousin's concert that evening. She explained that her cousin was in a teen pop idol group called Paspo (ぱすぽ), which is short for the English word "passport." The group consists of 10 girls all in their teens. Their costumes and songs have a bit of an airline theme to it, meaning they push suitcases around stage for a few seconds at the beginning and then salute the audience a lot. Some are short and cute, some are tall and model-esque. All are skinny, with long pony tails, short skirts, and high voices. I never expected to attend something like this, but my friend suddenly realized her other friend wasn't going to make it and she needed an extra person to take the ticket. That's how I found myself accepting an invitation to a teen idol concert. After a second's thought, I figured, well, I never made it to a Hanson concert when I was 10 years old, now's my chance to see what this sort of event is like. I had no idea what I was in for.

In America, one would expect to see an audience largely made up of young pre-teen or teenage girls, desperate to grow up beautiful and popular like their idols. But this concert was totally unexpected. I'd say 98% of the audience was male. On top of that, probably half of those males were over 30, perhaps even in their 4os or 50s. They knew all the lyrics and dance moves by heart. Some of them had obviously practiced together at home, or in the park. (On any given Sunday afternoon you can often simultaneously see dozens of various groups practicing dance moves, singing in a circle, or playing an instrument in Yoyogi park-perhaps I've seen some of these guys on a Sunday afternoon, faithfully practicing their Paspo dance moves). Anyway, there was one group of about 10 young guys (they looked about 15 years old) at the back of the concert hall with a huge pile of glow-sticks on the floor (backup, in case the sticks ran out out of juice). They held glow-sticks in each hand and did synchronized dances while singing along. The sticks made it feel a bit like a rave or something. What's more, everyone else in the audience was holding glow-sticks, too. Each girl in the pop group has a designated color- ie. pink, yellow, red, green. Our friend's cousin was the blue girl. So we wore blue glow-stick bracelets in support of our friend's cousin. Everyone in the audience held a different colored glow-stick depending on which girl was their favorite.

To be honest, the fact that there was so much importance placed on the idea of which girl was most popular, and that the entire audience was male, suggested to me that this whole thing was less about the music and more about fetish-izing the girls. I mean.. half the time the girls weren't even singing. They would put one of the more popular girls out on stage by herself and she would dance to a song by herself. The crowd loved it, but honestly it's apparent these girls aren't really dancers. It was mostly a lot of jazz hands and simple, easy cheerleader moves. No flips or anything fancy like that. At the end of the show, they announced that anyone who bought a CD could line up to meet and take a picture with their favorite girl. Each time a girl was requested, they would announce it over the loudspeaker and she would run to greet her fan and laugh at his jokes and give him a hug and take a picture with him. Some girls were called up over and over again, like 20 times, while others (including our friends cousin) got called over only two or three times. It was a big popularity contest. According to our friend, the manager is pretty mean to them, as well. I just can't imagine the terrible pressure and distorted self-image that weighs upon these young girls.

But there I go, trying to bring my feminist ideals into a teen idol pop concert. It was a fun experience though, no doubt about that. I especially enjoyed it when that group of boys lent us some glow-sticks and we tried to follow their synchronized dance moves. I can't say I'll ever attend another event like this, especially as my ticket was free this time, but I valued the cultural experience. Only in Japan, eh?

Get ready for take off, it's PASPO!