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Journals from Kanto Gakuin University

2009-09-20 Snapshots

Good morning, everyone! It has been quite an eventful week, so instead of telling you a single long story like I did in the baseball email, I think I'm going to send you a patchwork quilt of short stories, snapshots of this week's experiences and observations. Of course, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, so each "snapshot" might come out a bit longer than intended, but here we go! I suppose that just in case I don't get to everything, I'll give you a quick summary of what went on this week. So, this week: we had classes every day, but we also did karaoke on Monday, saw kabuki (traditional Japanese theater) on Tuesday, watched baseball on Wednesday, took a study day on Thursday, had a "Mexican food party" on Friday, and meandered around Tokyo on Saturday, where I discovered a Spanish-speaking organization that supports the local Latino community! (I have a lot of rather unrelated stories, so transitions may be lacking today, sorry!) For those of you who are planning to study abroad, this may sound odd, but I would recommend that you not carry a dictionary with you, even if your language skills aren't particularly advanced. Dictionaries may help get the point across eventually, but they kill conversation. So many people here have electronic dictionaries, and whenever they run into a word that they can't figure out, they pull out their little device and look it up. I must admit, it's helpful sometimes, but it seems to me that it makes us lazy. Instead of trying to explain the word by giving examples or using circumlocution, we cheat. We look it up. And then the other person reads the word on the screen in their language and understands the meaning but doesn't learn the word. Not carrying a dictionary, on the other hand, has led to so many entertaining conversations for me! It gives you a reason to start conversations with strangers on the bus/train ("Um, excuse me, could you help me read that kanji?"), and it sparks creative bouts of charades with Japanese buddies. I think my most-used phrase here (maybe even more than "I don't understand") has been, "For example" I rarely know the exact word I'm looking for, so I say something similar, then tell stories and give examples to get a little closer to the intended meaning. It usually works, it's much better practice, and it allows for much more interaction with actual Japanese people. The only time I really use my dictionary is when I'm in my room doing homework and there is no one to talk to anyway. I like people too much to choose a reference book over a good conversation! I am, as usual, loving public transportation. I do my best to leave early for school so that I can walk the half hour to the train station and take the train alone, opening up the opportunity to chat with other commuters. I've been happily surprised to see that people on the train talk much more than I expected; everyone had told me that Japanese commuters are plugged into books, cell phones, and iPods and don't interact much, but I haven't had that experience at all. In fact, I've noticed that if I pull out my kanji flashcards near someone who looks about my parents' age, they will usually start a conversation with me, happy to see a young person fond of kanji. In many places, I've had to look for a way to start conversations, but here, other people often start them for me. Last week I chatted (in Japanese) with a lady who was bringing homegrown vegetables from her friend's garden to her mother in Yokohama, a tiny man from Nepal who works for Kawasaki and has been here for seven years, a middle-aged Japanese guy who was reading a "dramatic baseball comic" (manga), a (rather good-looking) half-Japanese man from California who is here teaching English, and a very sweet little old Japanese man who helped me study kanji, and then upon discovering that I spoke Spanish, told me in halting Spanish, "Que bonita es usted" (You are so pretty)! Surprised, I answered in Spanish, "Gracias! Habla espanol usted?" but it turned out that he only knew that one phrase. On Monday, all ten exchange students went with five or six Japanese students to a tiny "karaoke box," where we squished in and sang songs in Japanese, English, Korean, Chinese, and yes, Spanish. A few people drank, a few people didn't, and overall it was a good mix of people having fun without any peer pressure to sing or to drink. Every single person (even the really quiet ones!) sang at least one song of their own volition, without anyone talking them into it. I sang three, in spite of my terrible voice: La Paga by Juanes and the Black Eyed Peas, California Love by Tupac (that was a fun one!), and Are You Gonna Be My Girl by Jet. We had the room for three hours, and when our time was up we were sad to leave; there were still so many songs we wanted to sing! Tuesday was my birthday, and as one of very few college students who don't drink, I was happy to turn twenty-one in a country where it doesn't matter. We had the morning off from school, so we went to do some visa paperwork and then came back to study and nap. Around two my room phone rang, and it was Jeff saying I was needed upstairs in the tatami room (large meeting room). I went up, confused, and all the lights were off. I opened the door to see all of the other exchange students sitting in the dark around a cake covered in candles, chocolate, and fruit. They sang happy birthday to me in Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Spanish, accompanied by Evi on the ukulele, and made my day. The cake was delicious; apparently Jeff went on quite a cake-seeking odyssey, visiting several bakeries until he finally found one all the way in Zushi that had what he was looking for. Thank you, Jeff--it was wonderful! On Tuesday night we went to see kabuki, which is traditional Japanese theater. It was quite an experience; traditional Japanese theater is like nothing I've ever seen in a Western theater. As far as I can tell, the point is not the plot. The point is the presentation: the aesthetics of the beautiful sets, the intricately decorated clothing, the exaggerated make-up, the slow elegance of the dances, and the famous poses. Once you realize that and stop waiting for the action, it is much more enjoyable. Everyone knows the story already, since all of the plays were written hundreds of years ago; they don't come to see what will happen, they come to see actors exhibit their skills. I enjoyed it much more than I had expected, and the headsets with English translations of the dialogue and cultural explanations of the symbolism helped immeasurably. Kabuki is like Shakespeare in that even native speakers often don't understand the language used, so we each caught a handful of words during the five-hour performance, but would have been lost on our own. On Wednesday I went to another baseball game with Shunsuke, Yoshi, and four exchange students. We dropped by the batting cage again, where Shunsuke proposed a pitching showdown: whoever lost had to buy the other person juice! It was hardcore competition, with such high stakes... The pitching cages have strike-zone-sized screens divided into numbered sections; if you hit a section, that light goes out, and if you hit all of the sections in a given row, you get a bonus. Shunsuke went first, and got thirty points. I went second, and got one hundred and seventy points! I razzed him good-naturedly and ended up sharing the juice with him anyway, and he has challenged me to a rematch, set for next Wednesday. I realized in about the seventh inning of this week's game that I had been talking to Shunsuke in Japanese for about four hours, and I hadn't felt limited by language at all. I know that it was partly because he's a "buddy", and knows to speak slowly and use simple vocabulary and grammar, but I was still happy to realize that I could hold such a long conversation in Japanese so smoothly. We razzed each other about the pitching cage, about the Yankees versus the Mariners and the Yomiuri Giants versus the Yokohama Bay Stars, about forgetting the cheers and jumping when the guy next to us struck his huge drum, and more. The only English we used was when we defined new baseball terms, such as my favorite new word: "taimrii", from "timely", meaning "RBI"! I love it when languages mix! Thursday was a study day, which isn't much different here than at Linfield, so let's move on to Friday: the "Mexican food party." Stephanie's mom had mailed tortillas to her all the way from Texas, so we celebrated the occasion by inviting all of the buddies to come eat whatever Mexican food we could find ingredients for in Japanese grocery stories. We made horchata, guacamole, pico de gallo, and taco meat, and put out salsa, bean dip (also courtesy of Stephanie's mom), and lots of chopped veggies and cheese, and taught the Japanese students how to fold burritos. We ran out of tortillas quickly, though, so I ran off to the store for more corn chips (we tried several stores before we found one with corn chips!) and taught them how to make nachos. They seemed to love it, and I think it went really well. Later we danced (more salsa/cumbia/merengue lessons) and arm wrestled. I beat my buddy at arm-wrestling, which made the freshman buddies very happy because he has a tendency to be a bit strict with the younger Japanese students, and they were happy to see him humbled a bit, especially since one of the freshmen beat all of us! Oh my goodness, this is the end of page number three. Maybe I'll write about Saturday later " hang in there, you'll hear about Peruvians soon! Adios for now, Lily

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