Tuesday, August 17, 2004

"I'm fine, thank you, and you?"

To briefly play a little catch-up, the "date" went well. Mr. Nita Boss Man couldn't make it, so we went with a woman in the TV studio, Hisako. When we got to the restaurant (we drove there, though it took all of 90 seconds), we met the owner; his name is Konosuke, but he told me to call him Ko-chan. Ko-chan it is. He's a charismatic guy, the type of proprietor who likes to fraternize with his patrons, make sure their dining experience is an enjoyable one. So he sat at our table the entire time we were there. Mr. Internet (yeah, I'm terrible with Japanese names) did a lot of translating, since Ko-chan and Hisako weren't really into English-speaking. But as the evening wore on, I discovered that Hisako just took some time warming up to the challenge; her English is about as good as Mr. Internet's, though he told me more than once of how hard he'd studied to pass his university's English qualifying exam... but that must have been decades ago, and now he generates sentences like, "I eat hungry."

We even played a game of Guess How Old I Am. I guessed Hisako was 27 or 28; she's really 35, so she got a big kick out of that. She guessed I was 25, which is pretty close. We briefly discussed how we agreed that Americans look older than Japanese; but then she said that when she first met me, she thought I was 18. <shrug> When I had to guess Ko-chan's age, first I said 200, then 29, then when I seriously thought about it, I said 48. He shook my hand and said, "Arigato." He's 52, so it wasn't that big a compliment. And Mr. Internet is 54.

Ko-chan is also the director of Nita's own Japanese drum group, Blazing Drums of Nita Town (Nita no Hono-o Daiko). When I expressed an interest in learning how to play Japanese drums, he had me tap out a steady beat on the table with my fingers—1 2 1 2 1 2—on which he improvised. I was able to keep the beat steady (whew!); I guess the best place to begin is at the beginning. I told him that my brother plays the drums—"American drums" I said, not knowing a better term.

Nita is having a big festival next week Tuesday and Wednesday. There's to be music and dancing and street-side vendors, and I don't know what all will take place. But definitely music and dancing and street-side vendors. Ko-chan asked if I wanted to learn a traditional Japanese dance for the festival. Sure! I said. I want to get more involved in community activities.

Hisako invited me to her house the next day. She lives with her parents; her father is a Buddhist monk, and they own a large house on a steep hill about 7 minutes' drive from my apartment. That was fun. Her older sister and brother-in-law were in town from Osaka for the holiday. Last weekend was the Obon Festival (sp?), when people visit their ancestor's graves. The four of us drove to Hiroshima-ken to see tateana-style houses; the sister and brother-in-law work as architects, and are interested in different architectural styles. The tateana-style is very old; basically the entire house (which is a single room) is made of a thick layer of sticks and straw; I took photos, and when I post them, they will explain the style better than any description I can give.

We drove back to the house for lunch, then went to a nature park not far away. The sister and brother-in-law brought their dog Juju; I think she's a labrador retriever. The nature park follows a river through areas where the river has worn away at the stone in such a fashion that it looks like giants have dropped huge boulders in the valley. But the boulders didn't come from elsewhere; they are the same stone that makes up the river bed, worn away with time. Beautiful, albeit unbearably humid.

When we returned to the house again, Hisako's father was preparing incense to place before each gravestone; the graveyard is in the forest next to their house. We went with him, visiting the graves of their family, and of previous monks: Hisako placed a few grains of rice at the base of each stone while her sister poured a bit of water over the top. I took pictures, with their permission.

Sunday sucked. But the books I ordered from Amazon.co.jp arrived, so it wasn't a total loss.

Yesterday was the dance practice at the Nita gym. Hisako picked me up from my apartment. Her cousin Fuyuko was visiting from Matsue, so she joined us. And who else showed up but Mr. Internet, armed with digital camcorder and tripod. "Maybe in a little while we do Easy English Lesson," he smiled. He even had a short script written out: What Do You Say When You Meet Someone? I think he wanted Hisako and me to have a short dialogue, so we practiced a bit.
"Hi, Emily!" she said.
"Hi!" I replied, momentarily forgetting her name.
"How are you doing?"
"I'm well."
"That's good."
We weren't sure where to proceed from there, and Mr. Internet was puzzling over the script, which I hadn't bothered reading. Pointing to it, he said, "The textbook say, 'I'm fine, thank you, and you?'"

Oh lord....

(If you're not part of this inside joke, I'll explain it to you. Grade school education is highly standardized throughout Japan, and English textbooks are no exception. The big joke is that when students are asked, "How are you doing?" they reply in unison, "Fine, thank you, and you?" One of the speakers at the Big Tokyo Orientation told us that he took some Japanese students to the States once, and one of the boys came down with a terrible intestinal bug of some sort. They took him to the emergency room, where a doctor asked him, "How are you doing?" Though clearly in great pain, the boy strained, "Finethankyouandyou?")

"Nobody talks like that!" I said in my defense. I mean, it sounds like something appropriate, and it even is appropriate, but try saying it out loud; doesn't it feel a bit awkward? It's almost a little formal. In any case, even if people do say it, they don't say it all the time. So Mr. Internet scratched it off the list.

Then came dance time.
HOLY CRAP that was not the simple, cute dance I thought it would be. It's a beautiful dance and I would love to learn it, but the other people there had been practicing for two months. There were a few of us who were there for the first time, and we all stumbled through it together; the woman teaching us moved through it very quickly, and it's fairly intricate. Mister Internet caught much of our sweaty moose dancing on tape; maybe he's posted it somewhere. Lord, I hope not.

Ko-chan asked me if I wanted to dance in the festival. "I'm not good enough to dance in the festival this year," I said. "Maybe next year." Then I discovered there are two more rehearsals, so I said, "I'll go to the next one, and I'll decide then." In truth, I had a good time, but I was a little stressed out trying to remember which moves came when, and dealing with three people who wanted to interpret for me while I was just trying to follow the leaders' movements.

By the end I was quite tired and hot and feeling a little testy, so when Mr. Internet approached Hisako and me again, I half-whined, "Do I have to?" Hisako was also worn-out, and neither of us looked fit for film, so he decided we didn't have to do it after all.

But really, it was more the fact that he just showed up expecting me to do an English lesson that rubbed me the wrong way. I was trying to do my thing, joining a dance class, getting to know people, and when he presented me with a script, I felt like I was just some American monkey to him. I'm not opposed to doing online English lessons, in principle. But he had said we'd do a new one every other week, whenever I was working in Nita, and this was unscheduled. Also, 99.8% of Japanese people who would bother (or know how) to check an online English lesson probably already know how to introduce themselves. That stuff's really early in the curriculum.

Blubalubalubalubaluba... okay, it's out of my system.

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