Saturday, April 30, 2011

Learning to Drive, Part 1

The Japanese mountain village I called home for the three years after college had no train. Take a minute to think about this. There was no train. In fact, the closest train station was 45 minutes by car, making it perhaps as far away from a train as one could get in an island country the size of California that relies on trains as a major means of transportation. There was also no grocery store to speak of. Sure, there was the family-run affair down one of the back streets, but they sold things that had expired the previous decade. And half-way through my time there, the village did get a combination convenience store/farmer's market, but it was literally the size of my bedroom back home. The bank closed at 3 p.m. daily (in other words, before I got off work)and was barely big enough to hold the two tellers who worked there. The public bus that ran through town made its first pick-up at 7:30 in the morning and its last departure for the "big city" at 4:30 in the afternoon. This meant if I wanted to go anywhere by bus, then I needed to get to the bus stop by 4:30 p.m. (just about the time I got off work). It also meant that I wouldn't be coming home until at least 7:30 the next morning.

I taught at the two junior highs in this small town (or more accurately, collection of villages and hamlets). There were two junior highs not because the population was big enough to support two of them, but because the rugged mountain terrain and narrow mountain roads made it difficult for all the kids to get to a central location. So, when I was there, the larger school had 123 kids in grades 7-9, and the smaller school had just 57 kids, most of whom were related and a good 1/2 of whom had the same last name, Kamura.

Now, if you know anything about Japan, you know that people go by their last names. Junior high teachers call on their students by last name. But if I said "Kamura-kun" during class, half of the kids would look up at me. It was unnerving. So, I had to learn their first names. This might not sound so difficult, and usually I am good with names, but this was a classroom full of kids who had on the exact same clothes (navy uniforms), the exact same color hair (and eyes) with the exact same hair cuts (buzz cuts for the boys and above-the-collar hair for the girls), who were mostly related and from the same small town. None of my name-memorization techniques seemed to work with this group. They wore name tags, so once I figured out the kanji (Chinese characters) for their names, I was good. At least on the half that didn't have the same last name. Eventually, I learned all the students' names and even figured out how most of them were related, but it wasn't easy.

This second school was 20 minutes up the mountain from the larger school, which was directly across the street from my house. Because I wasn't permitted to own or drive a car (by my Board of Ed--more about this below), I had to take the bus to school. Since the bus ran so infrequently, this meant that I got to work late and had to leave early. Worse, though, was the fact that the road between the two schools was a one-lane mountain pass. It was also the only road between the hamlets to the north and the "center" of town where I lived. This made the road absolutely harrowing during "rush hour," particularly if you are making the trip on a city bus. Question: What happens when one vehicle fails to yield for another and enters the one-lane stretch of road anyway? Answer: Someone gets to back up. And since there was more traffic headed down the mountain to "town" than there was headed up the mountain to my tiny junior high school, I spent many a pleasurable moments on the practically empty bus, whiten-fists clenched to the seat in front of me as we backed back down the mountain to let the other folks through. It only took a couple of trips to convince me that I would die on that bus sooner than I would kill myself driving up and down the mountain. I had to get a car.

The first month or so after I moved into the village (during the summer holiday between semesters), I was required to sit at my desk in the "town" Board of Ed from 8 to 4:30 every day. Eight hours a day with literally nothing to do. "Study Japanese," they told me. I'd already studied Japanese for several years in college, and reading through those textbooks day after day was not helping me get any better at using it. While I didn't learn much Japanese while sitting there day after day, I did learn two important lessons about how to work the system in small town Japan.

Lesson #1: don't piss people off. This was an easy lesson for me because apparently my "predecessor" (the foreigner who sat at that desk and taught those classes and lived in that apartment before me, who, by the way, even though she was Scottish, short and blonde-haired apparently looked just like me, a taller, dark-haired American)was very good at pissing people off. In fact, from what I could gather, most of what she did made people mad. Why? Because she did what she darn well pleased regardless of what she was asked or told to do. (Note to any of you out there reading this who might one day find yourself teaching in a small village on the JET program. Don't do this. It makes life hell for the one who comes after you). I heard a lot about my predecessor, and it was usually in the context of me being told I could not do something (like own or drive my own car) because she had done it and it had caused a lot of trouble. Amazing how one short Scottish woman with limited Japanese language skills could cause so much trouble, but she could, and she did.

Lesson #2: always let the superintendent think that things are his idea. Even though I had absolutely nothing to do the first five weeks I was in the village, the superintendent would not let me leave my desk. I wasn't allowed to go out and acquaint myself with my surroundings, shop for things I needed, or even visit the schools where I would be teaching (thanks predecessor for making life so fun). He did want me to learn about Japan and to speak better Japanese, though, and it was this second point that turned out to be my salvation.

See, no one could teach Japanese in my tiny town,and my language skills were good enough that I tested into the advanced class being offered in the "big city." Problem was, it didn't end until 8 p.m. This meant I couldn't get there and back without a car. I knew they wouldn't tell me not to take the class, so I asked if someone could pick me up every week (see how I didn't ask if I could get a car? Clever, right?). It only took a week (a single round trip to the city) for the person assigned to pick me up to convince the superintendent that I should have a car. One week! I was starting to figure things out.

Next time: How to buy a car in a really small town when you don't really speak the language.

**The picture at the top is not the best quality, but it IS the actual village where I lived...

No comments: