Long before I was a Japanese housewife, I was a very angsty twenty-something living alone in Japan (Sorry to those of you who had to endure the letters I wrote home. I kept copies of some of them. Sheesh!). Though it was summer vacation when I first arrived in Kyushu in 1995, and though my fellow JETs in other cities had the summer off, I had to sit at my desk in the Board of Education for eight hours a day for the first four weeks I was in Japan. It was excruciatingly boring. Fortunately, I had ample opportunity to record my first impressions. Here are a couple of them (with all signs of angst removed).
There is a man in my office who looks like he is older than Mt. Fuji. The JET teacher at the Board of Ed before me nicknamed him Origami-san. About every other day, he comes to my desk with a new origami figure and tries to teach me how to do it. It's actually a nice reprieve from the intense boredom of trying to look occupied for eight hours a day. Origami-san doesn't speak a bit of English, so I learn by copying him. Honestly, though, I can't seem to remember how to make anything. He's taught me how to fold cranes twice now. I'm afraid to ask again beause I imagine the Japanese would take my inability to master this simple task as a sure sign of feeble-mindedness.
Today at work, I noticed that it suddenly got really quiet. I looked around only to discover that over half of my coworkers had disappeared. I figured it was a meeting I didn't know about, but just as I was forming this theory, one of my co-workers walked past wearing black combat boots and a fluorescent orange hat. I turned to see another wearing his beige fieldwork outfit when only moments before he'd been in a suit and tie. Finally I asked Sawako, the woman who sits next to me (and, not coincidentally, the only one who speaks English in the entire city hall), where everyone went, and she said:
"Kaji. Do you know kaji?"
I do know kaji. It means fire, as in building fire. So my first thought was that the building was on fire and everyone else was evacuating. As I was thinking this, Sawako, managed to find the word in the dictionary.
"Fire," she said looking up from her dictionary, "or conflagration" (the second one came out with a mess of r and l sounds, so it took a minute for me to compute).
"Same difference," I told her.
Then there was a pregnant pause, as if her two word explanation sufficed. It didn't.
So I asked, "Is there a fire somewhere?"
"Yes," she offered as a tantalizingly unhelpful reply before returning to her work.
I decided to persist. "So are they going to fight a fire?"
"Where is the fire? Don't they have a fire department?"
"Oh," I said. (...while beginning to suspect Sawako's English skills are not all that good).
Moments later, I heard sirens. The section across from mine has a ham radio, and I could hear firefighters talking. I had no idea what they were saying and no one bothered to explain. The guys came back to the office just before lunch and returned to their work as if nothing had happened.
And nobody said anything.
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