Journals from Kanto Gakuin University
2009-11-28 Guacamole in Japan
I would like to make an announcement. For the first time in my life, someone ate something I had prepared and asked enthusiastically for the recipe. Yes, me, impressing people with my skills in the kitchen!
What, you ask, was the magical dish? Why, guacamole, of course! The buddies, the host families, and the exchange students had a potluck last week, to which Brandon, Jeff and I contributed basic nachos, along with store-bought salsa and home-made guacamole for dipping the extra chips. We just mushed some avocados, tomatoes, cilantro, lime, and a cheater pack of "guacamole seasoning" together in a bowl, put it out on the table and suddenly we were surrounded by housewives asking us how to make that lovely green sauce. I did my best to avoid giggling as I pretended that guacamole was a serious culinary matter!
In other food news, we have noticed recently that when we go out to eat, our Japanese friends say they're "full" at least ten to fifteen minutes before they actually stop eating. "Oooh, I'm full could you pass me the meat?" A Japanese "I'm full" is apparently a preparatory remark, meaning "I'm about 80 percent full, so don't be surprised if I stop eating in a bit." An American "I'm full," on the other hand, is direct and to the point. That's it, I'm done eating. Although, of course, we don't mind the Japanese saying, "betsu bara," which means that even after you feel like you can't eat any more real food, you still have room for dessert! Apparently the idea is that you have two stomachs, one for meals and one for sweets; it's funny, I hear I told my mom that when I was about four
Another cultural quirk that I have slowly gotten used to is the Japanese way of listening. When Americans listen, we throw in a few "yeah, uh-huh, right, I know" phrases, but usually when the other person pauses. When Japanese people listen, however, they constantly communicate the fact that they are still paying attention to what you're saying: "un un, un, un sou da ne sou sou sou" (yeah yes, yes, yes. true right right right). In face-to-face conversations, listening involves a nod with each noise. The difference in approaches to listening are even more obvious on the phone: Japanese friends of mine will often say a sentence or two, then stop. "Hello? Are you still there?" I'll laugh and apologize, "Oops, sorry, yes, I still need to practice my 'un's!" I always thought it was silly (obviously I'm still here, you've only said one sentence) and then I caught myself almost doing the same thing to my American friend Mary! It suddenly felt so weird to talk to what seemed like thin air, saying three or four sentences before getting an audible reaction. It seems that I've gotten used to the reassuring nature of Japanese listening noises.
Speaking of listening versus not listening, this week the exchange students got the chance to visit an elementary school, one exchange student per class. It seems that compared to most of the classes that other exchange students observed, my class was quite orderly! I visited a class of third graders, taught by a middle-aged woman who had matters well under control. When I arrived in class partway through the school day, it was time for English. Before the lesson, the teacher had me give a short introduction, and the kids stood up one by one and said, "My name is ___. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu (Nice to meet you)." Then we practiced the names of vegetables in English: the teacher held up a picture of a vegetable with its name written underneath in English, I gave the pronunciation, and the kids repeated after me. Once they had the vegetable names more or less figured out, we put the chairs in a circle and were each assigned a vegetable, five or six kids per variety. One kid stood in the middle, called out a vegetable, and that vegetable's students all scrambled to switch seats. Whoever was left without a seat was the next in the middle. Later we asked each other, "What do you like?" and answered, "I like watermelon," etc. The kids got to run around a bit during the chair scramble, but it was organized chaos: when they were sitting, they were listening.
Next it was time for math, and the lesson of the day was triangle-drawing. The teacher wrote some problems on the board (almost all in kanji; luckily they were only third graders so I could read almost all of it), and the students were to copy down the instructions and draw triangles with the given measurements, using a compass. While they were working, the teacher had me walk around the class observing, while she sat at her desk waiting for students to show her finished problems. It was hard to tell, but it seemed like the students' seats were organized, with the slowest learners on the left and the fastest on the right, although the slowest learners (all boys) were often paired with girls who could explain how to complete the problems. Overall the girls had much clearer handwriting; the boys' handwriting was often illegible for me, and many of them only wrote down the necessary numbers rather than writing out all the kanji involved in the sentence.
Lunchtime began with half the class pulling out hats and masks and science-lab-type overcoats (which apparently they did even before the arrival of swine flu), lining up, walking to the kitchens, and bringing back plates, chopsticks, and food. They dished out the food while the other students waited, then we ate at our desks, grouped in fours. I ate all of the rice, veggies, and soup, and I did my best with the fish, but I'm still slow at eating fish with chopsticks (the bones are difficult!) so I ran out of time at the end, and the kids in my group were very entertained by my earnest but rather unsuccessful fish-eating efforts.
Once all the leftovers were eaten, the milk cartons were broken down, and the plates were returned to the kitchens, the students enthusiastically switched into cleaning mode. There were chalkboard/eraser-cleaners, dusters, desk-movers, sweepers, and moppers zooming around everywhere, laughing and joking as they tidied up the classroom and directed me in different tasks. It was nice to see how much they enjoyed the cleaning; American students would roll their eyes and groan, but these kids seemed to take pride in it. After cleaning, we said our goodbyes, and the kids headed out to another recess.
All right, one last story: my friend Makoto, who volunteers with the Yokohama Bay Stars baseball team's fan organization, invited me to attend one of their events this past Monday. It turned out to be Fan Appreciation Day at the ballpark; the season is over, so there was no game, but there were competitions, prizes, and activities, mostly aimed at kids and mostly taking place on the field itself. We arrived early, but thousands of people were already lined up outside the stadium, waiting for the gates to open. We found an open space and played catch to pass the time while we waited for other volunteers, and we enjoyed everyone's reactions at seeing a girl throw hard.
Once everyone arrived, it was our job was to stand at the entrances with signs and boxes, raising money for a program that allows professional players to hold baseball clinics at local elementary schools. I found it funny how thoroughly the fans lived up to the stereotype of Japanese group behavior: within almost every group, if the first person gave money, they all did. If the first person didn't donate, no one did!
After about four hours of fundraising, we got to eat free bento lunches in the press boxes behind home plate, then head out onto the field (still full of kids and their parents), entering through the dugout. I got a chance to hit off a tee for a while; I've never been a good hitter, but even I can make good contact with a ball that's not moving! One of the Bay Stars players jokingly told me (in a thick Japanese accent), "Very good bat! Just like Griffey." Somebody must have told him that I'm from Seattle Once the event itself had ended, I also got a chance to pitch from the bullpen mound for a while, and my catcher was a former player named Kawahara who helped lead the Bay Stars to a championship a few years back (although in reality he was a lefty relief pitcher, not a catcher).
Afterwards the volunteers all went out to dinner with a few former players and the founder of the elementary school baseball clinic program. I really liked the founder; he reminded me of my dad when he kept talking about how much he loved watching the kids' eyes light up when they got to see professional players in person. He also said that he would love to have me help out at their baseball clinics and give pitching demonstrations so that "girls can see that they can play ball, too!" I wish I had more than two weeks left in Japan! It was also fascinating to hear him talk about how difficult it was to get this non-profit program started; perhaps because of the relatively equal distribution of wealth in Japan (as compared to the U.S.), volunteering and charities are not widespread concepts. When he approached schools with the idea of doing a free baseball clinic including professional players and team gear giveaways for the students, he was turned down by more than half the schools because they thought it was just too good to believe. Why would professional players do something like that for free? There had to be hidden fees. Three years later, though, the program is growing, as word of successful, free clinics spreads among the 350 Yokohama elementary schools. They have even gone as far as Brazil and Peru, distributing baseball equipment to young ballplayers!
Considering that my dream job would be interpreting for a Major League team and running baseball-related charities in the off-season, Monday was a good day. I do love baseball.
Thank you for reading,