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Engrish of the Day: "I'm hungry. Let's go 4 a lunch!"

Whoever said all Japanese people are serious and inscrutable was lying through his teeth.

After taking a very long, very difficult placement exam followed up by an oral interview at the HIF center, I was exhausted. Jetlagged too, but neither was enough to overwhelm the sheer terror that had gripped me when I realized I was only minutes away from meeting my host family.

I've been worrying myself sick memorizing Japanese etiquette in a quest to successfully avoid offending anyone. Bowing, politeness levels, terms of address, eating habits, expectations—everything's different. I imagined myself this sort of lumbering American water buffalo crashing through delicate sliding paper doors and tearing up tatami mats with my smelly, muddy hooves. There's an onomatopoeia for this nervousness in Japanese (I swear, there are onomatopoeia for everything in this language). Hara hara. Hara hara. Hara hara.

The staff lined us all up outside the big hall and marched us in to a banquet filled with clapping families. They were to call off our names one by one and we were to bow to our hosts. But while I was busy repeating the formal introduction I was supposed to make in Japanese over and over again in my head (direct translation: I hand my affairs over to your honorable care. I beg you, please treat me nicely.), I heard someone calling out my name. A big man with a shaved head, a huge grin, and a chubby boy sitting on his shoulders was saying, "Ah! Eric! You're Eric aren't you! Haha! Look look, that's Eric! Woohoo!" I slowly smiled, very confused, and gave an awkward wave.Very much not what my guidebook had said was the Traditional Japanese Greetings we were supposed to be exchanging.

Let me introduce you to my host family: the Takeuchis.

Takahiro, the father, is an elementary school teacher and a giant motorized teddy bear cranked with nitrous. He inhales his food. He wrestles and hugs and kisses his children constantly. He calls out ritual Japanese niceties like "dou itashimashite" to express "you're welcome" or "itadakimasu" to express "thank you for the meal" in the strangest, most comical accents, sometimes like an overacted samurai from a Kurosawa film and sometimes like a clown. He teaches me slang. He loves funk music. He loves finding out weird things from me about the US even more. I like talking with him best, because he's learned his English from pop music and he's very good at simplifying his Japanese and interspersing it with English words so that I can understand and respond.

Mika, the mother, is the most playful housewife I've ever met. She more than holds her own on the enthusiasm front with her husband. She mimics things that anime characters on TV are saying as she cooks dinner in absurdly high or low pitched voices to entertain the children. She makes extraordinary breakfasts, to say nothing of her meals the rest of the day. She's an excellent storybook reader, a job she volunteers for at the local library and always a virtue in my view. When she talks with me, she poses complicated questions and very patiently explains each word, referring to a dictionary if necessary, until I've finally understood her. Sometimes one sentence takes five minutes or more before I'm at last able to give back a broken and insufficient answer, but she doesn't seem to mind at all. She's only scolded me once, and that was for not speaking up when she'd used a word I didn't understand.

Sakiko is the nine year-old daughter. I haven't gotten to know her very well yet. She's cheerful like her parents, but fairly quiet. She was quite shy around me for the first few days here, but yesterday and today she's become more outgoing. I generally understand her better than anyone else in the family the first try, but she hasn't said anything complicated to me so far. She does amazing kanji calligraphy.

Kouichiro, the four year-old son, is adorably violent. Occasionally, not so adorably. He crashes into things and people in a random path of destruction (his parents showed me all the things he'd broken). He screams at the top of his lungs, laughs maniacally and cries hysterically with no apparent catalyst. It's strange to talk to him, because the Japanese he uses is heaps more masculine and 'adult' than mine (here's one of his many gems for those who can understand the nuance nihongo de: "Uruseeeei! Ore wa baasan ja nei zo!"). As of yet though, he's never once attacked or bothered me the way he leaps on his parents and sister. We'll see what the future holds.

They've given me a room with a desk, plenty of shelves, and a futon that I fold out every night and fold back up in the morning. The only thing they've asked of me is that I keep the room clean. Remember how I'm still trying to make sure I don't offend them? So I've been keeping this place positively sterile.

The rest of the house is somewhat Western style, but with plenty of Japanese touches. The two toilets, for example, are in their own closet-sized rooms separate from the bath. They both have faucets, but the faucets aren't for washing your hands. Instead, they run as you use the bathroom, I guess to disguise the sound of urination. The father also demonstrated the intimidating array of buttons and gadgets attached to the toilets, enabling all sorts of heating and cooling and squirting. He asked me to make sure I turn them off once I'm finished, "For ecology, you know." Uh huh. Yeah. Sure. Like I'll be touching anything except the flush handle. Crazy squirting flashing beeping toilets can kindly keep their techno gizmos away from my nether regions, thank you!

My vocabulary's atrociously limited, I have a schizophrenic habit of switching from informal slang to wooden etiquette modes of speech and back again at random and inopportune moments (you'd think keeping desu/masu and da/ru straight wouldn't be too hard, but just wait til you're in the middle of a difficult sentence). I probably sound like a four-year old one moment, an old woman the next, hopeless artificial and weirdly natural from one sentence to antoher. Nonetheless I seem to be getting along with my host family quite well and I've made friends with two extremely cool Japanese high school students learning Russian in the building next door to HIF.

My host father helped me buy a bike for cheap so that I can travel around Hakodate independently, given that I live in a suburb rather than in the main city. He also took me to a picture book festival for elementary school children. The mom got me to agree to stand in front of all these kids and sing "If You're Happy And You Know It" and "Head, Shoulders, Knees And Toes" to them in English before I quite knew what it was she was asking of me (see what happens when you don't ask for clarification?).

I met Takahiro's parents, who live in an extremely Japanese one-room apartment behind the liquor store they run, and elicited coos of, "Your Japanese is incredible! We're very impressed!" from them (nothing to be too proud of, these seem to come raining down irrespective of anyone's actual skill at the language) and demands that I come see them if I'm every in trouble or thirsty or hungry.

I also got my first, "Ehhhh?! That's EXACTLY what a Japanese person would've said!" at dinner last night when Kouichiro asked me if I hated kimchi and I replied, "Anooou… kimuchi ga kirai da to iu wake ja nai kedo ne..." which in more direct English would probably translate best as, "Well, no, I don't hate it, but I don't really like it either..."

Oh, and I placed into advanced class in my exams, at the fifth of six levels. Which is exactly how I did when I took my German exams the last time I was abroad. Funny that.

Next up, I'll describe Hakodate, as soon as I've seen more of it.

Apollyon's Adventures in India

back to August 17, 2006

Puna (poonah) is a crazy city, I have travelled here to meet Sanket's sister (again) and to pick up Sanket's other grandmother. The city is renowned for having the worst drivers in the world but they make up for it by having the best pickpockets and con-artists. Sanket has confiscated my money for 'safe keeping' ... see I told you they were good!
The driving seems insane because we are used to 'traffic laws'. I have not seen a single accident or traffic jam in Puna since arriving, despite having travelled the wrong way down a main road lined with concrete walls into oncoming traffic; clipping five motorbikes doing a U-turn across all the lanes at a crossroads; and seeing a truck reverse away from a set of traffic lights cross the concrete embankment drive on the wrong side of the road honk its musical horn and speed diagonally back onto its original side of the road.
You see the rule of the road here is that if you are big you are right. But if you are small you can act as though the big guys don’t want to kill you. The balance is struck. Actually I feel as though it improves the driver’s empathy, they look out for each other. Also when there are no mistakes to make you can’t get angry. I’ve seen a minor bump being settled with a hand shake, no insurance details were exchanged. That's what bumpers are for right?

My friend from my advertising course is living in Puna and he is doing a management degree. If you ever wonder why Indians are so successful in business (an Indian woman has just taken over Pepsi International and the majority of computer programmers in silicon valley are Indian) then consider this: in his first month on the course he was expected to work from 9-5 every day, including Sunday.
What's that? Big deal you say?
What if I told you it was 9am to 5AM?
That's right, one hour for lunch and dinner and four hours sleep a night. Now he has settled into a 9-9 work schedule and he has his weekends back. His college halls close at 10:30 so this gives him only an hour to get drunk every night. I know from experience that he manages this quite well!
It is strange to see a guy who used to steal deer from the zoo for venison steaks so subdued.

Sanket's sister, Deepti, has been showing me the sights. Ganesh is a favourite for all Hindus but in Puna they are particularly crazy about him, the local gallery, idol stores and the Ganesh museum are all testament to this. I must have seen tens of thousands of elephant headed God statues since arriving in Puna. In a few days time (on the 27th)the Ganesh Chaturthi festival begins and there will be a huge celebration including two story high clay and papier machier Gods being paraded through the town.
One such idol was Ganesh riding a horse.
Rumours that Samuel L Jackson is involved with contract negotiations for ‘Elephants on a Horse’ have been denied.

forward to August 21, 2006

First and foremost: I am not making this up.

I was watching television. An unhinged animated short series, Animaniacs on crack and PCP and given keys to a city bus -- shorts were only about 45 seconds long.

Cut to commercial. Turns out this cartoon is on a Fox network, and in what seems to me the result of a perplexing marketing decision, they're airing a short, live promotional intervew with the man himself, Rupert Murdoch, about how he's winning the Monopoly game that is late capitalism. (Actually, I'm pretty sure they were just talking about MySpace, but the interviewer's nose was wedged, in the parliance of our times, firmly between Rupert's asscheeks.)

Live interview though, right? And who shows up but Michael Moore, emerging from a shiny black and red van that looked like a milk delivery truck.

Mic in hand, Mike marches right up to the scene of the interview and says, "Mr. Murdoch, I'm here with the legal team that represents The Devil." (Pause for effect: Murdoch is stone-faced, the bootlick interviewer in a panic sweat.) "And they want to know why you're stealing all of his ideas."

Uh. Live interview? They're allowing this? I'm incredulous. I'm also delighted -- I love a good ambush, and hello, the Devil's counsel are going to be on TV!

Then Murdoch said something completely glib and unmemorable.

At this point the spot ends, concluded by smiles all around and logo-flashing. I infer that rather than slipping up and allowing an old-school-Moore live-interview ambush, this is simply Fox's new marketing strategy: Hey, we're Fox! We're owned by Rupert Murdoch and we're really, really evil! You know it, we know it, we all know it, but let's not let it wreck our lunch!

I proceed to be bowled over by Fox's brilliance -- and then, upon waking, at my unconscious -- for devising such a campaign. Good work, icicle's brain! Now back to killing you with alcohol.

for DreamQuest 2007

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