One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Futon

Right there, on the wall of my bedroom, was a cockroach.

I stared, frozen in disgust as it sat calmly on my wall – slightly camoflauged by the wooden perimeter that ran around the small room. Its spindly antennae moved back and forth inquisitively and I knew that it sensed my terror.

 

 

 

ゴキブリが大嫌い!!!

 

“Oh god oh god oh god oh god,” I repeated manically as if I had just found a dead body.

I took several deep breaths and tried to calm myself down. My revulsion at this intruder had rendered me nearly useless. I was revolted and hysterical but for some reason, I couldn’t take my eyes off the six-legged offender.

Composing myself slightly, I slowly made my way to the door of my bedroom. My bare feet pressed into the slippery surface of my tatami as I made my way out of my room. I hurriedly clomped down the stairs, causing a symphony of creaks and groans to fill the downstairs of my apartment.

I yanked the thin string of my ceiling light and it blinked slowly to life. A terrifying image came to my mind of a dozen cockroaches scattering across my floor, trying to escape the light. My friend Hermán’s words echoed in my head – “You know, I hear that if you see one cockroach in your house, it means there are about fifty more living there as well.”  How innocently he had relayed his little factoid – as if it were a piece of trivia we would hear and then file away for years.

Now, however, that was all I could think about. As I quickly made my way to the kitchen, I pictured an enormous family of cockroaches living in my walls. Zigzagging erratically across my floor when I wasn’t home. Having little cockroach pool parties in my mountain of unwashed dishes. Enjoying the cold air as they explored the inside of my wall-mounted air conditioning unit.

I held back a gag as I yanked open the cabinet under the sink. I kept a various array of cleaning supplies in here, along with my poison spray. I stared into the dark space with more than a bit of trepidation. If any place in my apartment was perfect for a huge family of cockroaches, I thought, it was most definitely this dark, cool space underneath my sink.

I snatched the can of poison spray and shut the door as quickly as I could. The design on the can was formidable looking and showed a red upside-down cockroach with a large X through it. The nozzle was apparently designed for heavy spraying which meant I would not have to be close to the offending insect.

When I got back to my room, I saw with a mixture of relief and dread that the bastard was still chilling on my wall, antennae swiveling back and forth on its gross, crispy head. I crept to the other end of the room and tugged my futon out of the way. I didn’t want to sleep in poison spray residue, after all.

Gripping the can in my shaking hand, I took a few more deep breaths. Your fear of bugs should not be this crippling, I chastised myself. It’s like four hundred times smaller than you are. And plus, you have poison. POISON.

As I psyched myself up, I began to feel an odd sort of remorse for killing the little guy. He’s only being himself, my emotional side chimed in. He’s probably cold. Maybe hungry or thirsty. And he just wandered in because he was trying to survive. Is that so wrong?

I stared at the cockroach again for a brief moment. Its black teardrop of a body was fairly large by cockroach standards. Its legs were jagged and almost hairy-looking. All the while, its incredibly long antennae wouldn’t stop moving.

I took a deep breath. It had to die. I wasn’t about to scoop it up nicely in a cup or with a piece of paper and kindly escort it out of my apartment. And I surely wasn’t going to let it roam free in the crevices of my place with the rest of its disgusting family. No, I decided firmly, this son of a bitch was going to have to be dealt with.

Readying myself, I tightened my grip on the can. My finger grazed the trigger and I steadied my aim. The cockroach’s antennae waved back and forth, paused for a bit and then continued to move alternately. I’m sure it sensed something was about to happen.

photo 1

Actual handrawn depiction of the events that transpired that evening

“Sorry, little dude,” I said, trying to sound simultaneously brave and apologetic. “You came into my house. I don’t wanna do this but you gave me no choice…”

I squeezed the trigger and a forceful spray shot out of the can. In the exact same instant, the cockroach leapt off the wall and flew toward my face. FLEW TOWARD MY FACE. Its wings made a sickening thump thump thump sound as they beat frantically against the air.

I let out a horrific shriek as I dove out of the way – something that must have sounded akin to a baby goat being attacked by a pterodactyl.

photo 4

Yes, my mouth really is that enormous

The newly-revealed flying cockroach made a sharp turn and crashed into the far wall of my bedroom. It fell on the wood perimeter of the room, safely off the tatami. Its spiky legs twitched, its body spasmed and, its (now obvious) wings flapped uselessly.

“YOU SON OF A BITCH!” I was now yelling. My finger was tight on the trigger, emptying far more of it onto the poor thing than was likely necessary.

It didn’t matter that it was now past midnight on a Tuesday. Or that the walls of my apartment allowed for every footstep, sneeze and snore of my elderly neighbors to be heard. Nor did it matter that said elderly neighbors and I had a fairly good relationship.

The only thing that mattered now was exacting revenge on this evolutionary freak of an insect that had taken me by surprise not once, but twice in the span of an hour.

After a few more seconds of adrenaline-fueled spraying and hysterical curse words, I released the trigger. The cockroach now lay glistening in a small lake of poison. Noxious fumes filled the area and I moved to crack open my window before I passed out.

Dramatically, I collapsed onto my tatami and covered my mouth and nose with my blanket. Nobody had told me cockroaches in Japan flew. I thought flying cockroaches were only a weird Floridian thing. What in the ever-loving christ was going on?

Before too long, I had a wad of far too many paper towels in my hand and I was standing over the insect again. Its angular legs kicked slowly against the air and my stomach turned in response.

Eventually, my heart rate slowed and my bedroom no longer reeked of insecticide. I had taken the cockroach in its massive tomb of paper towels and thrown it in the bag of perishable trash I kept in my freezer. I warily gave my apartment a final once-over before climbing the stairs to my bedroom again.

I don’t know what I would have done had I found another cockroach. Probably spend the night at a friend’s.

I verified that the walls, tatami and wooden perimeter of my bedroom were all bug-free before repositioning my futon. Shaking out the blankets diligently, I settled cautiously in to my futon, turned off the lights and tried not to think about where the cockroach had been before I found it.

 

*This is part of a larger story on my encounters with bugs in Japan. I hope to post more here sometime. Feedback is appreciated, as always! 😀 Do you hate bugs like I do? What’s your least favorite insect? Ugh.*

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A year later: Bleeding Through

photo 1

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my life.

The Short Version: from 2010 to 2013, I lived in rural Japan. I taught English in local elementary and junior high schools. It was easily the most challenging, amazing, rewarding, frustrating and life-changing thing that has happened to me yet.

For this reason, I find myself still thinking about Japan quite often. I will talk about it to whoever will listen. I’m on the board of my city’s Japan-America Society. I try to practice my Japanese whenever I can. And I still keep up with and listen to a lot of Japanese music.

Whenever I find myself talking about Japan though, I can occasionally see something in my friends’ eyes for a split-second. An eye roll or a lift of the eyebrows that seems to say ‘oh jeez here he goes again’. As if I’m a veteran grandpa recounting his time in ‘Nam or something.

It just seems that I can’t let Japan go.

But…do I have to?

レリゴーレリゴー

レリゴーレリゴー

For me, living in Japan for three years was a serious life-changing event for many reasons: It was my first time living away from home, I was in a different country doing something that I had dreamed about doing for years. I was able to travel to several different countries as well as domestically in Japan. I also formed amazing relationships with my students, coworkers and other foreigners from all over the world. I was even featured on a radio program, a TV show and on the front page of a Kyushu-wide magazine!

These are extraordinary things to do in one’s early twenties and I recognize that I am incredibly fortunate to have been able to have the experience I had.

But now that I’m back, and as I look forward to the future, I find myself still wanting to hold on to my connection to Japan. It would be great to work someplace where I can use Japanese. I would love to go back and visit sometime – specifically Kumamoto. And I still want to practice the language as much as I can because, hey, I spent a lot of time learning it. I don’t want to forget it.

It’s difficult, however. I want to embrace and cherish the special relationship I have with this island country that’s seven thousand miles away. But at the same time, I don’t want to dwell on it so much that it turns in to this sort of conceived paradise that it never was – causing me to deem what I plan to do in the future as ‘not as cool as Japan’.

Even though I’ve been back in the US for almost a year. Things like dealing with reverse culture shock (which is a very real thing), shifting dynamics in friendships old and new, and the crumbling of a long-distance relationship have all been more challenging than I anticipated they would be.

These things caused me to reflect more fondly on the good times I had when I was living in Japan. Almost like an escape back in to the Good Old Days. I was even quite resentful for a short period after coming back to the states, feeling that I had plateaued in my life. I even began looking up ways to get back to Japan.

But this wouldn’t have solved anything.

A metaphor popped into my head the other day, though, that I feel aptly describes my feelings.

Imagine you have a blank journal. You write in said journal for a good number of years with pens of varying quality. Some of the pens may be blue or black or red. Some may have been running out of ink when you used them. Maybe you even wrote in pencil on a few occasions.

Then one day you obtain a new writing utensil: a marker. You continue to write with this marker for a good long while before you eventually lose it.

The next time you go to write in the journal again, you see that the words you’ve written on the previous pages have bled through to the next dozen pages or so. You can write over the splotchy words and exclamation marks that have bled through, but you’re still able to see them clearly.

 

photo 1

Japan was, for me, the time in my life that I wrote with the boldest, darkest marker I could. I painted the shit out of my journal with it. I doodled in all the margins, I took up every line on every page. I wrote so boldly that the ink bled through for pages and pages and pages.

Now, when I write more things in the journal of my life, it’s with the constant reminder of what I have done in the recent past. Instead of blank pages to start from, I’m forced to write over the inky shadows of exciting times that seemed like just yesterday.

It feels like the new words that I write are not eye-catching or impressive – especially when compared to the huge, fun strokes of what’s left over from before. It’s like they’re having to fight for space and attention on the page. Sometimes it almost feels too fresh to even attempt to write over.

What I’ve had to learn to do is to accept that these reminders of my time in Japan will always be there in my journal. They’re going to have bled through to a good number of pages. But as time goes on, the dark smudges and blotches will begin to lighten and fade as new pages are turned.

Part of me fears that I will never be able to recapture the gusto and passion from the time in my life that I wrote with that bold marker. But another part of me sees that as a challenge. Why wouldn’t I be able to have another experience like that? It’s up to me to make it happen.

Sometimes it’s definitely easier said than done, but I’m finding a nice balance now between my life that was and where I am currently. The wonderful thing about having a journal like this (or, life, as I call it) is that at any time, I can go back and relive all of these adventures. I can flip back a few years and lose myself in rumination about how great (or not so great) certain aspects were.

These moments are nostalgic and fun to look back on – especially with friends who were there too. But the truth is, there’s no hope of recreating them. And that is a painfully bittersweet thing to realize.

(noun) A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

Hiraeth: (noun) A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

 

I’ve seen discussions and articles from former JETs on ‘Breaking up with Japan’. I think this is a good way to put it, but it seems a bit…final. I guess for me, ’Archiving Japan’, is a better description of what I’m doing — writing about it, experiencing it again and storing it away in my memory.

And I know that every time I take it out and revisit it, I’ll see those bold-ass marker strokes and smile at what a great experience it was.

 

 For those ‘ex-expats’ who have left Japan (or anywhere) and have readjusted to their home countries, have you found you’ve gone through the same kind of challenge? Have you managed to strike a balance that’s put you at peace? Do you have any advice for others who are struggling? 

 

ZA SUMOLL

Before I went to Japan to teach English, I had quite a large number of people tell me the same thing.

“Ohhh,” they’d say knowingly. “Those students over there are SO GOOD.”

It was almost like a compliment. Or a congratulations – like I had won the education lottery or something.

I guess in comparison to our own school systems, Japanese students seem to be ideal. They’re quiet, attentive and obedient and they don’t talk back to you like the self-entitled brats in Western school systems.

Or so people think.

I myself believed this as well. That’s why it came as a bit of a shock when I was designated to teach at Daikyuu Junior High – one of the ‘roughest’ schools in Yatsushiro.

“Ohhh,” people in my city would say, almost apologetically, when I told them where I was scheduled to teach. “You’re at THAT school.”

It didn’t take me long to figure out why people had this opinion. Daikyuu, it seemed, was full of problem students. A group of girls once went on a rampage in the school – tearing down bulletin boards, spraying the fire extinguisher, shattering a window and denting a teacher’s car by kicking it.

 With things like these happening during my first year as an ALT, I became aware of two facts: 

1) Japanese students are definitely not as perfect as the world seems to believe.

and

2) Just because a student is ‘shitty’ does not mean they aren’t intelligent or talented or hilarious. Most of my favorite students were actually ‘shitty students’.

So how were these students dealt with? Detention, it seemed, was not a thing in Japan. In fact, discipline in general seemed very strange to me. Depending on the teacher, punishment could either be obscenely lax or uncomfortably intense.

I remember witnessing this firsthand one frigid winter day. As the temperature outside fell, so too did the attitudes of the majority of the students inside Daikyuu. Japanese schools are usually not insulated and it’s often as cold inside as it is outside.

My coworker Matsuda Sensei and I had been practicing a dialogue in class and one male student in particular was having none of it. Normally he was a very bright kid who was great at English, but this particular day just did not seem to be going well for him.

His day got even worse when he back-talked the teacher during class.

“WHAT DID YOU SAY?!” Matsuda Sensei exploded without warning. “GET OVER HERE.”

He approached the boy in a flash, seized his arm and pulled the student violently out of his chair. He then promptly dragged him out of the classroom.

As the sliding door slammed shut, I was left staring at the rest of the class in an incredibly awkward silence. Some students threw each other cautious, amused glances and snickered.

“Er…let’s er…repeat this dialogue…” I said, awkwardly trying to continue the lesson.

Nobody was listening.

“Do you have any pets?”

I was met with silence. Thirty five sets of eyes all focused intently on the hallway.

“WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?” Matsuura Sensei yelled – the thin walls providing little insulation from the sound. An angry, mumbled reply followed.

“Er…everyone? Let’s try to focus…” I pleaded helplessly. “Yes. I have some hamsters…”

Silence.

“DON’T BE SUCH A SHITTY KID! YOU’RE BETTER THAN THAT!” This time the yelling was accompanied by a heavy thud.

“GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER!”

“…Oh really? I…I love hamsters…” I continued in vain.

Shortly after my lonely monologue, the door slid open noisily and the boy re-entered the classroom and took his seat. I could see that his eyes were puffy and red and he was rubbing the top of his head gingerly. He looked miserable.

“Sorry,” Matsuda Sensei said casually as he slid the door closed. His face was dour and his eyes still shone with anger. “Now let’s repeat this dialogue.”

*****

Even though some students had troubled home lives that made them act out, the ‘bad’ students at Daikyuu were still hilarious and full of personality.

They often took advantage of my enigmatic status of ALT. After all, I was still kind of a teacher but…I didn’t really discipline anyone so…I was kind of cool?

“IAN SENSEI,” a third year student (one of my favorites) said to me once. “I HAVE ZA SUMOLL PENNUS ZIS SCHOOL!”

“I’m sorry, what?” I said with a surprised laugh. The small group of boys that had cornered me in the hallway with him giggled mischievously.

“ME, I, ME” he repeated with a macho jerk of his thumb toward his chest. “I HAVE ZA SUMOLL PENNUS ZIS SCHOOL!”

“Ohhh I see,” I replied. “Really?”

“OH, YES.” he said as his friends around him dissolved into laughter. “BERYY BERYY ZA SUMOLL.”

“Do you mean to say,” I began, “That you have the smallest penis in this school?”

He blinked, confusion registering on his pimpled adolescent face. His friends stared at me in bewildered silence.

“It’s actually ‘pee-nis’,” I continued. “In English, we don’t say ‘pennus’. Nobody would understand you if you said that.”

“Oh…oh yes,” he replied, obviously surprised that I was indulging him.

“I have…” he thought for a minute “…za small…”

“…est” I interjected helpfully. “the smallest”

“Za smallESTpeenis…in…”

This school”

“Zis…school.”

“There you go!” I said reassuringly. “Good job! Just remember….smallest, okay?”

He nodded, still baffled that I had not scolded him. “Okay. Sankyuu!”

The debate over whether or not I was being a bad ALT can be had, but I don’t regret correcting him. I figure that if a student is going to say something like that, they might as well say it properly. That way, they can get the reaction that they want rather than a confused stare.

Perhaps another reason that I helped him out was because, as a student, I was the same way. I would frustrate my Spanish teacher countless times by saying any number of random phrases. The smart ass, chatty kid who would constantly be thinking of anything else during class – that was me. I find it extremely interesting that even in a culture as different as Japan’s, I was able to find students who reminded me of myself when I was the same age.

I would often catch myself observing my classes during team-teaching lessons. I saw notes being passed, secret conversations being had, doodles being doodled, and kids staring out the window, pining for freedom.

A few times, my gaze would fall on students having discussions during class. They would catch my eye, immediately stop talking and turn back to their work. I realized that I must have looked like a stern teacher…but in reality I was just watching.

I think it’s a very surreal experience that few people get to have – observing students in front of them who acted just the way that they did in school.

I found that, in my time teaching Japanese students, they are not as different and perfect as people seem to believe. Children and adolescents, I learned, are the same everywhere. We may grow up in different places with different social structures, but we all have traits and characteristics that we share. Traits and characteristics that make us inherently human. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to come to this realization and I hope that more people can.

Peek at chuu

Internationalization through Pokemon.

In 2010, a new Pokemon game came out for the Nintendo DS. Having not played Pokemon since before my own pokeballs had dropped, the announcement had me excited to relive the nostalgia.

On the morning of the release, I stood outside the video rental megastore TSUTAYA’ along with Chris and Joe. We were excitedly talking about how we were going to be able to play the game before anyone in the US. The game was released in September of 2010 in Japan but would not be out stateside until MARCH of the following year.

After plucking our copies from the display, we failed miserably to contain our fanboy outbursts.

“Oh my goddddd,” Joe exclaimed with an ear-to-ear grin as we stood in line, clutching our game cases as if they would fly away. “Pokemonnnnn!”

“I don’t know what starter I’m going to use first!” I said. “There’s an OTTER Pokemon! I might have to choose that one.”

“I’m choosing the fire one!” Chris chimed in excitedly. “It looks badass!”

We continued chattering on about Pokemon when suddenly I heard my name called out behind me.

“Ah! IAN SENSEI DA!”

I turned around and saw two of my third-grade boys from Close Elementary School. They were standing in line behind us and waving excitedly at me. One was short and mousey-looking and the other was heavyset with massive cheeks and a great smile. The two of them were staring at me with huge grins plastered on their faces.

“Oh…hello!” I said in my trademark ‘Genki ALT’ voice.

I was used to seeing my students outside of school. It was usually during the most inopportune times – like when I was in the middle of the booze aisle in the supermarket or walking with a female friend (who immediately became my speculated girlfriend).

“POKEMON? POKEMON?!” they said excitedly.

I smiled and lifted up the newly-purchased game. “Yeah!”

“Ehhhhh!!” they exclaimed happily.

Chris finished paying and we took our leave. As we left, I turned and waved to my kids. They waved back enthusiastically.

“Jeez,” I said as we descended the stairs. “Whoever thought I could use Pokemon to connect with my students?!”

As it turned out, Pokemon was pretty difficult for me to play. Having just moved to Japan and having a pretty low proficiency, I had trouble understanding the long blocks of text in the game. Eventually, I got to a point where I had to do something in order for the game to progress. I didn’t understand what I needed to do, so I lost interest and gave up.

About a month or two later, I was teaching fourth period at Close Elementary school. After class, a group of seven or eight students rushed me as I was gathering up my flashcards. They were all talking excitedly at the same time.

“Whoa whoa,” I said, my head spinning from the onslaught of kid!Japanese. “I can’t understand you all at once.”

“IAN SENSEI! YOU WERE AT TSUTAYA, RIGHT?! LIKE A MONTH AGO?!” it was student the with the big cheeks. He was looking at me with hope sparkling in his adorable, beady eyes.

“Yeah,” I responded with a smile. “I bought Pokemon. We saw each other, right?”

Elation spread across his face and he turned to the group of his classmates. “I TOLD YOU HE WAS THERE! I TOLD YOU!”

They broke into another mess of chattering again. Eventually one kid raised his voice above the others so I could understand him. He was small and wiry with adorably large ears and buck teeth.

“DO YOU HAVE POKEMON BLACK OR WHITE?!” he yelled intensely.

“Oh…er…I have White.” I answered in Japanese.

“IAN SENSEI!” he said with a dramatic sweep of his arm. “LET’S BATTLE!”

“Oh er…I think I don’t can.” I said awkwardly as his finger remained pointed at me. “My pokemon strong aren’t very, you see.”

“I DON’T CARE!” he challenged. He held his arms out in to his side – elbows bent in a power-up pose. “I’M STRONG! I’LL WIN!”

“I’m sure you are…you would definitely win!” I agreed.

Unsatisfied, he stomped his foot. “I STILL WANT TO BATTLE YOU!”

“No…no thank you.” I said as politely as I could with an obvious glance at the clock. “Oh look, late. Lunch preparation to do I have to!”

I squirmed out from the crowd of clamoring children and hurried out of the classroom. I was a bit disconcerted…as if I had just inadvertently made an archenemy.

****

The next morning, I awoke on my couch in my underwear. The bright sun filtered through my thin curtains, illuminating my messy apartment. My head was throbbing painfully, my mouth felt like it was full of sawdust and my limbs ached due to actions I remembered through fuzzy, disjointed memories.

I groaned as I rolled over, my skin peeling noisily off the fake leather of my couch. I stood up precariously and waited for the room to adjust itself in my vision. Popping aspirin into my mouth and getting dressed, I sluggishly prepared to exit my apartment in search of food. My stomach bubbled dangerously – unsure of whether it was wanting food to be put in or to eject poison from itself.

It was October but the sun was still shining brightly. I emerged with sunglasses that hid my bloodshot eyes. I gingerly stepped outside and eased myself on to my bike – Jeezus H., everything ached. Never again, Alcohol, never again.

“IAN SENSEIIII!”

I heard the voice and a shudder of exasperation ran through me. My students had once again spotted me at one of my least flattering moments. They were like little ninjas.

I turned my head to find a little boy wearing a black shirt with gold cursive that was far too big for him. He was waving fiercely at me from across the parking lot of my complex. His thin arm was nearly enveloped by the sleeve of his shirt – it reminded me of a waving flag. He began running across the parking lot, his skinny legs poking out from the white shorts he was wearing.

“Ohh, h-hello…” my voice came out in a croak, my ‘Genki ALT’ façade crumbling like a biscotti.

As he got closer, I began to recognize him. His ears were hidden by the baseball cap he wore, but I could see his buck teeth as he smiled and ran across the parking lot toward me. My heart sunk. It was my rival.

“IAN SENSEI,” he panted dramatically as he neared me. “ARE YOU FREE RIGHT NOW?”

“Er…no, no Today is I’m very busy…” I said as I tugged my mouth downward into a convincing frown of disappointment.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING TODAY?” Jeezus, his voice was like a megaphone. “I WANT TO BATTLE!”

My temples throbbed in annoyance. “Work I have do,” I lied in my broken Japanese. I shifted my butt on my bike seat as if I were preparing to leave.

“Working I have been this morning since!”

Rival-kun tilted his head to the side inquisitively. “BUT I JUST SAW YOU ON YOUR COUCH!”

My eyes narrowed from behind my sunglasses. “…what?”

“YEAH,” he replied innocently with a point toward my door. “I LOOKED IN YOUR MAIL SLOT AND SAW YOU!” he then grinned mischievously. “YOU WERE IN YOUR UUUUNDERWEAR.”

“…WHAT?!” I repeated incredulously. “NO! That’s bad! Why do that did you?!”

“I RANG YOUR DOORBELL AND YOU DIDN’T ANSWER!” he replied simply.

My grip on the handlebars of my bike tightened dangerously. How does one respond to something like that? One of my third grade students had seen me passed out in my underwear on my couch. Embarrassed did not even begin to cover it. How did he even know where I lived?!

“SO….BATTLE?!”

“NO!” I said angrily. “Again that don’t do!! I am not battling you! Goodbye!”

I kicked off the ground and began riding away from my peeping student. I felt violated. What was even going on? It was like I was trapped in a terrible rendition of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. Not on my couch, not with a pouch. I will not fight you here or there. Nor even in my underwear!

I didn’t see Rival-kun for a while after that. I think he finally got the hint that I would not, in fact, battle him. If he were more devious, he could have undoubtedly blackmailed me into reluctant Pokemon battle. But thankfully, he was an innocent Japanese third grader and not an evil genius.

I learned a lot that first year. Pokemon, it seemed, could indeed be used to connect with my students. In my experience, it definitely brought my nosey third-grade student and I to an uncomfortable new level. More importantly, however, I learned the importance of having a covered mail slot.

***Note: the above picture is not of Rival-kun, but was a random boy I met on a ferry who was also playing Pokemon.***

Fall/Autumn/Otoño/秋

*This is an entry from my other blog http://curlyqshoo.blogspot.com and was written way back in 2011. With fall having come to Texas, I’m finding myself very 懐かしい (nostalgic) about Kumamoto and Japan as of late.*

As summer comes to a close and the bitingly cold winter prepares to descend on the Moto, I’m left to enjoy the brief autumn that happens here in Kyushu.

 On my bike rides to school, I’ve noticed that people have started wearing jackets. The school kids have begun to wear their fall and winter uniforms – jackets that remind me of Star Trek uniforms for boys and long-sleeved shirts and skirts for the girls.
 Whereas summer in Kyushu is full of vibrant colors that assault your eyes throughout the day, fall has somewhat of a different attitude.
 During the summer, the rice fields wave dramatically in the wind – a shade of vibrant green that I had never seen before coming here. The two blue rivers that I crossed on my way to school every day would sparkle brilliantly in the blazing sun. The mountains stood tall and stoic, glowing in their majestic earthy colors as the sun bounced off them, illuminating them so that they could be marveled at.
From this...

From this…

...to this :(

…to this 😦

However in fall, it seems that the HD!nature switch is suddenly turned off. The colors begin to fade as the rice is harvested, transforming the area into dull brown empty fields. The sun seems to get lazier and lazier as it reluctantly rises into the sky every morning, only parting through the clouds when it really has to.

There are still splashes of color, though. The persimmon trees are dotted with vibrant orange fruits that look very dramatic against their stickly backgrounds. Various flowers bloom dramatically, but they’re too late to the party. Summer is gone and the cold winter will soon settle in.

Along with the fading colors, I’ve noticed the decrease in the amount of insects. The mosquitoes die off pretty quickly and I don’t see many dragonflies. The flying insects in my apartment haven’t seemed to die yet, but I’m hopeful they will soon. However the spiders are another story.

The spiders seem to increase dramatically in size around this time of year.  What were once small, hungry-looking spiders on lampposts are now horrifically big and gnarly. Like…jaw-droppingly awful. As I ride by them, I have to contain the shudders that they elicit from me for fear that I’ll fall off my bike.

 Their webs are gigantic elaborate webs that hang about the lamppost in such a way that any unlucky flying insect will eventually be snared if it comes within a foot or two of the pole. Some even resemble spider web globes that envelope the empty space between the post and the actual light. Others still stretch from the light pole to a nearby bush or shrub some five feet away. This boggles my mind because the spiders would have to either work in tandem from either side or have some incredible acrobatic moves.

 I find myself unconsciously ducking whenever I see these incredibly feats of arachnid engineering for fear of being clotheslined. In reality, they’re pretty high up and I’m most likely  not in any danger, but I don’t want to take the chance of being snared by a low-hanging trap!

 I’m sure that the high school students that I pass on the morning think that I’m the most polite foreigner ever – bowing to them all the time. In reality, I’m trying not to get a face full of spider butt-floss and insect carcasses.

  Lately, the mornings have been cold but the afternoons have been nice and warm. I know that this is just nature playing a dirty trick on everyone. Last year, it was a lot colder around this time. I think it’s waiting for the right moment to spring winter on us (no pun intended).

 I’m enjoying the nice weather in the afternoon, but I’m constantly paranoid about the sudden drop in temperature. I know it’s coming soon. Out of nowhere, it’ll hit and the temperature will dip ten degrees! It’ll most likely happen at the most inconvenient time for me – like on a run to the conbini without my jacket.

 At least for now, it’s mikan season. And that always makes me happy!

Mikan!

Mikan!

 

**Also, I can’t fix the format of the first few paragraphs! It’s so frustrating! Can anyone give me any tips on coding/how to make separate paragraphs?! WP isn’t doing what I ask it to X__x **

Flying Fish

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Mud and Fish abound at the Kagami Mud Festival in Kumamoto, Japan!

Whether parading ‘drunk’ horses through downtown Kumamoto City or parading gigantic wooden phallises through the street, there is no denying that Japan has some interesting festivals.

In rural Kumamoto, the small town of Kagami has its own small festival every year in April. While the official name is ‘鏡が池鮒取り神事’, it’s known colloquially to the ALTs in the area as the Kagami Mud Festival.

As with other festivals and celebrations I’ve been to in Japan, I’m sure the mud festival has an ancient meaning or significance, but I am not completely privvy to it. All I knew was that there is mud. And it is thrown.

We gathered in Kagami on a colder-than-usual April afternoon. Walking past a shrine with an enormous tree, we made our way to the area where the festivities were taking place. The road beyond the shrine opens up into a small plaza of sorts that leads to a park across the river. Across a large hill is a bridge that overlooks a medium-sized manmade pond that rests in the middle of the plaza.

Children and some adults were loitering around the perimeter of the pond, excitedly talking with their friends or playing tag. Photographers dressed in heavy-duty rain ponchos were prowling around looking for the perfect spot to set up. On the hill we could see dozens of families waiting expectantly – lining the bridge like birds on a telephone line. They were at a safe distance from the madness that would soon ensue.

After watching a formal parade where children (and a horse!) carried a mikoshi (portable shrine) to pay their respects, the fun part began.

Suddenly, we heard the sound of several people chanting. Faint at first, the sound slowly grew louder and louder until the air around us was abuzz with excitement. The source of the noise soon revealed itself – a huge crowd of men dressed in fundoshi (Japanese loincloths) were marching up the street toward us. It was clearly obvious that they were drunk; aside from the fact they were actually half-marching and half-stumbling, the stench of cheap sake and beer radiated from them in a two kilometer radius.

As we watched the group of men inch closer and closer to the area like a drunken amoeba, people began to cheer and clap. The men came to a halt – as if they were stopped behind an invisible line – and continued to chant excitedly. I saw that one incredibly drunken man was being carried by two others.

Stamping their feet wildly, the group of semi-naked, drunk men chanted wildly for another minute or so before the loud bakuchiku (the firework that starts events) was shot into the air. As the deafening boom and subsequent crack-ak-ak! of the firework echoed through theair, the chanting turned into wild screaming and the men all rushed forward into the pond.

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The spectators cheered excitedly as the men screamed and splashed through the shallow water. Immediately, they plunged their hands below the surface as if they were searching for something. Suddenly, one man took something in his hands and flung it through the air. It landed with a wet smack on the ground close to us and immediately began flopping about wildly. It was a fish.

Apparently, the pond had been stocked beforehand with several carp of varying sizes. The object of this particular celebration was for the men to catch the carp barehanded and throw them out of the pond. While I’m not a member of PETA by any means, this was still a bit hard to watch.

No sooner had the fish crash-landed in front of us then a giggling child swooped in and grabbed it expertly. She brought it (still thrashing helplessly) over to a boy and deposited it into a plastic grocery bag that he was holding. Together, I watched them run off to collect the other fishes that were now littering the perimeter.

By this point, the shivering men in the lake had begun taking clumps of mud and hurling them into the onlooking crowds. They would take aim at people (especially children) and sling it at them full force. A few launched handfuls through the air, causing the mud to spread out in a filthy arc – effectively splattering a range of people, (and cars…and houses…) who were in its path.

The children waiting around the pond squealed in delight as they were hit by the mud and even began throwing it back at the men. Other children rushed around with more plastic shopping bags to collect the growing number of fish that had been ripped from their temporary home in the pond.

Eventually, the drunken, naked Japanese men began climbing out of the water with massive handfuls of gunky mud. It was like watching a scene from Night of the Living Dead as they began chasing children and adults alike. Commotion erupted as unlucky bystanders were pelted with thick, runny mud. One poor child in particular got it slathered all over his head.

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…and I mean ALL OVER his head.

The scene was, in a word, chaos. Fish were still flying through the air. Mud was being hurled in all directions and even the bystanders who had been a safe distance away were now being hit by it. Laughter and shrieks and drunken shouts of excitement filled the air as more and more men stumbled out of the pond. My friends and I scattered and regrouped multiple times, but it seemed nowhere was safe.

Within minutes, nearly everyone who was standing remotely close to the lake had some kind of mud on them. The men were becoming more bold in their exodus from the pond and were actively chasing people. A mud-smeared, wet man stumbled over to my friend Javier, his fundoshi soaked and droopy, and grabbed a hold of his cheeks playfully.

“IYEEEEEEIIIIIII” he screamed joyously as if he were talking to a child who had just taken their first steps. “IYEIIII IYEIII IYEIIII” he sang as he smeared mud rhythmically from Javier’s cheeks to his chin and then back again.

He then caught sight of me laughing at my friend. “Eyyyyyyy” he slurred and stumble-ran toward me.

The man stopped suddenly and looked me square in the eyes – his dark, glazed-over eyes trying their best to focus on mine. It was almost as if he were peering into my soul.

‘You want to get dirtyyyy’ his inner voice seemed to speak to me. I felt like I was underneath the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter. ‘You don’t mind getting dirty…but you don’t want to get too dirtyyyy hmmm’.

Then, as soon as it started, the surreal moment ended and he snapped back to reality. His hands shot out quickly and he pressed his fingers to my cheekbones. With a cute “Ey!” he smudged mud on them so I sort of resembled a cat. Obviously pleased with his work, the man then grabbed my hand in a vigorous, muddy double-handed shake.

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With that, he skipped away to rejoin the other men who were still falling all over one another trying to catch fish.

Before too long, the bakuchiku sounded again – signaling an end to the mayhem. The men all climbed out of the water and the bags of fish were collected and taken to be blessed, grilled and then eaten (in that order).

As it wound down, a woman walked up to me and thrust a large greenish-yellow fish into my hands. “Check this out!” she said to me with an excited smile plastered on her face. “Isn’t this great?”

Have you ever held a clammy, writhing fish in your hands? Let me tell you it is not the best feeling in the world. She wanted me to keep it but I declined as politely as I could. She shrugged and chucked the fish back into her grocery bag.

The exact reason for this festival still eludes me, but I believe it has something to do with pleasing a god of some sort with fish? It is said that if you get hit with mud, you are to have a year of good health.

Whether you get muddy or not, this festival is just one of the many strange and fun events that seem to happen in rural Kyushu. For those who can read Japanese, here is a link to the event with a much better explanation than mine!

http://www.city.yatsushiro.kumamoto.jp/ar/article_view.phtml?id=18486

And for the record, I haven’t been sick yet this year!

Fellow readers, what is the craziest festival or event that you’ve been to? It doesn’t matter if it’s in a foreign country or not!

In my old country…

 I’ve not yet been back a full week but already, the comparisons to my former life are coming hard and fast. 

 “Wow. In Japan, there’s no tipping and the portion sizes are SO much smaller.”

 “It’s so much more humid in Japan! It’s still hot here, but I find I’m not sweating as much.” 

 “Yay, American toothpaste! A lot of Japanese toothpastes don’t have fluoride.”

 

 At the moment, my family and friends are dealing well with me constantly linking everything I come across back to Japan. However I know that the responses will soon turn from expressions of interest to eye rolls. “Yes, Ian. You’ve told us about how they eat horse meat in Japan.” 

“But but…” I’ll say, desperate to enlighten them about an aspect of Japan that they didn’t previously know. “Did you know that when it comes to grapes, a lot of Japanese people-“

“-don’t eat the skins? Yes, you’ve told me that as well.” 

This is sure to be disheartening, but I think it’s just part of the decompression process of living as an expat. I’m now back in a very familiar environment that is now very different. However at the same time, I’m continuing to draw on my experiences from a very different environment that grew to be very familiar. 

If that makes sense? 

At this point in my re-entry phase, I still can’t stop comparing everything to my life in Japan. I feel like I’m Phoebe from the Magic School Bus (nostalgia trip, anyone?) 

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At my old school…nobody spoke English…and people weren’t this fucking fat! 

In the Magic School Bus, Phoebe is quotable as saying ‘At my old school…’ followed up by some incredibly obvious statement i.e. ‘At my old school…we never rode on bees’. And, much like my family and friends, the class just collectively rolls their eyes at her and nod. 

 Yes, Phoebe. We know that your life before coming to this racially diverse class of characters was different. No need to keep saying it. 

However, just like this unfortunately-clothed third grader, I’ll need to keep this in mind as I continue to adjust to Texas.