Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, July 28, 2006

Under and Back Again - Pt. III

Friday, July 28, 2006
The clock-radio in my motel room goes off at the programmed time, and I wake up to the sound of some very excited radio announcers. The rains have finally arrived, and Brisbane is getting a fair share of it for the first time in ages. It's not enough to raise reservoir levels down there by any notable amount, unfortunately, but it's still most welcome. Here in the Sunshine Coast, on the other hand, there has been plenty of rain (ironically), there is no water shortage, and the people aren't particularly enthusiastic about today's sog.

It really is a sog, too. It's still quite warm, but the our sister-school's campus is definitely looking a bit waterlogged...

Most private schools in Australia are Christian. Our sister-school is obviously no different. The Christian presence, however, is everywhere yet not as conspicuous as one might think. You'll see a cross here, a poster with a Biblical quote there, a note with "Jesus loves you" elsewhere. You'll also hear "God bless you" quite a bit. Even so, for the most part, the Christian theme exerts a very positive influence on students and faculty alike without dominating or demanding. Religion is an important part of the curriculum, but it is only one part, along with everything else. Indeed, to a wide extent, one could almost forget the fact that this is a church-controlled school.

Not on Fridays, however. We learn that rather quickly. We're invited to the morning staff meeting, something that apparently only happens twice a week here. That in itself is strange to us. In any Japanese school...or company, for that matter...every working day starts with a meeting to underscore the group thing. That's clearly not the case here. However, what really raises some Japanese eyebrows is the fact that the first half of the morning staff meeting is a Bible reading, a sermon, and a prayer led by one of the teachers of Christian Studies. It does make sense, and I actually find it a very positive, uplifting way to kick off the day no matter what one's religious views happen to be. I'm not sure exactly how Ms. Y feels about it (since she herself attended a Christian school), but Mr. I seems to appreciate the novelty of it, if nothing else. Mr. K, on the other hand, is furrowing his brows, cocking his head back and forth, and clicking his tongue. Religion in school is clearly a concept he has trouble dealing with.

After the meeting, we are told that the day's morning assembly is actually elementary school chapel, and we are asked to attend. Then the school's popular and very interesting pastor appears, introduces himself, and calls me aside for a little private discussion. It turns out that he actually has some of the same misgivings that I do, and perhaps in even greater measure. He really hopes we'll attend the chapel, but at the same time he is concerned about offending the religious (or non-religious) sensitivities of our students, mindful that Japan is not a Christian country. In other words, while he hopes to spread the Christian Word in a positive, helpful way, he has no desire whatever to force-feed it. (My respect for the man immediately triples.) Also, since the main point of the day's chapel is the Lord's Prayer, he asks if perhaps one of our students or faculty might read it in Japanese. I tell him I'll see what I can do.

Mr. K has no idea (or interest in) what we're talking about, but both Ms. Y and Mr. I seem surprised. Maybe it's because I've never seemed in any way religious in their presence before. Actually, as I've already mentioned on this blog, religion has always been very important to me but also both personal and private. My views and beliefs definitely do not fit any traditional mold (unless "Zen Christians" or perhaps even "Shamanistic Gnostic-Taoist Christian-Buddhists" have been around for far longer than I imagined). However, my opinion on the matter is that this is the way God is worshipped here, so we should respect and honor that. After all, participating in chapel and reading a prayer couldn't harm and could help, so what's the problem?

Well, among our staff there are some misgivings over whether or not our students will be comfortable with the idea. My announcement that I intend to ask for a volunteer goes over like a Led Zeppelin (maybe "Communication Breakdown"...or was it "Misty Mountain Hop"?).

My coworkers shake their heads, and keep up a steady, negative muttering. Japanese kids rarely if ever volunteer to do anything, let alone read a Christian prayer in front of a couple hundred children! They are confident that I'm going to get at best blank looks and at worst a lot of whining and complaining followed by a very awkward situation.

As it turns out, the kids are puzzled when I explain the situation and make my request, but then one of our boys immediately volunteers. Amazingly, it's a rather aggressive-spirited (but also disciplined) boy who is one of our school's leading kendo competitors. Actually, the chapel turns out to be a lot of fun, and our kids get right into the spirit of things, even making an effort to sing the songs along with the children. My coworkers are astonished. It's definitely an interesting (if not befuddling) experience for them.

After chapel, our kids return to their "home base" room for another intensive English lesson. On the way there, I and the other teachers make an amazing discovery. Our own students are now speaking to us in English, and they are doing it both comfortably and confidently. Two nights with a host family in Australia has already had a dramatic effect on their English ability...and especially on their whole attitude toward it. That really is the bottom line, isn't it?

After the morning classes and lunch it is time for our kids to do their cultural demonstrations again, but this time they do it for the elementary school grades in their individual classrooms. It is pouring down rain now, and the elementary grade blocks are separated from the main, junior/senior high complex, but we somehow make it all work (and get rather wet in the process).


Year 3 kids learn hanetsuki, a game like badminton traditionally played during the New Year holidays. Meanwhile, Ms. Y happily takes pictures.

After that, the kids have one more class, a final Pastoral Care Group (i.e. homeroom) meeting, and they're off for the weekend. Barring any emergency, we won't see them again till Monday, and I'm sure they'll appreciate that in the end.

After school we're invited to kick back with some of the other teachers in the faculty lounge, and they seem kind of non-plussed when I tell them my Japanese colleagues are tired and would rather just relax on their own. Apparently they'd gathered their mainly for our benefit. I immediately coax my Japanese colleagues out of their hidey-hole and into the lounge, and we enjoy a bit of quality time with our sister-school's staff. Come to think of it, this is the first time we have really mingled and socialized with them as a whole. They really are an interesting group.

Inevitably, one of the topics that comes up (after I get done telling my life story and then wake everyone back up) is beer. I know that in both the U.S. and Japan (and probably elsewhere in the world) people see Foster's Lager as the archetype Aussie beer. The funny thing is that, during all the time I've been in Australia, I have never seen a single bottle of the stuff. In fact, I have only seen one or two adverts for it. I mention this to the teachers I'm talking to, and I'm greeted by a round of sprayings of their drinks. "No one drinks that shyte around here," retorts a health teacher, wiping his chin. Actually, the most all-around popular beer here seems to be Victoria Bitter, and it is a nice, gentle brew with no aftertaste that, for that reason, goes very well with a meal. However, it doesn't have a whole lot of steam, so when drinking just for drinking's sake, men around here tend to prefer classy Crown Lager, punchy XXXX (read "4-X"), or mild-mannered Carlton "Mid". (There are also Toohey's, Cascade, and Hahn in the local stores, but I don't get a chance to sample those and no one mentions them.) (Actually, it turns out that Crown Lager, Victoria Bitter, and Carlton Mid are products of the Foster's Lager company as are Toohey's and Cascade, but whatever. XXXX is made by XXXX, and the brewery is on Castlemaine Street in Brisbane!)

Speaking of drinking, there is probably going to be some of that going on later. The faculty here have a special surprise planned for us tonight, but there aren't many details. After it gets dark, we are picked up at our hotel and driven down to the classy-looking Pelican Waters district, finally parking next to a large tavern right on the waterfront. After meeting up with other teachers and a few spouses and friends, we are then led down to the docks and onto a large boat, the skipper of which is apparently the father of a student. And so begins a wonderful evening of delicious food and white wine (oh, yeah...and Crown Lager) sitting on the upper deck of a cabin cruiser as it plies its way around the Pelican Waters harbor and the canal network and partway down the Pumicestone Passage between Caloundra and Bribie Island. The sky has cleared, and it is a bit nippy, but not bad at all. The view is spec-TACU-lar!!!

After a while, though, I notice that two of our party have still not come up to join us. Ms. T and her best friend (whose name I can't for the life of me remember), a Japanese student studying to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology in Brisbane, are all alone belowdecks. Mr. I and I (Me, myself and Mr. I?) apparently both think the same thing, and we both make the excuse of going in search of more food in the main cabin so we go down and can talk to them. They say that they're staying below because they're too cold, but I have to wonder. They both seem a bit uncomfortable at our presence, but they start to warm up (figuratively, at least) after a bit. Then more people start coming down to find out what we're up to (read "see if there's more food left"), and I relocate to the bench along the stern transom, where I sit and look pensively at the beautiful night scenery.

Pretty soon Ms. T's friend comes and sits next to me, and next thing I know the conversation is starting to remind me of my lyrics to my song "Open Halls":

I took the time to come away and follow after you.
It seemed you needed someone there.
The line is open; it's for you.
You gave me answers to the questions that I gave to you,
But yet I sense there's something more.
My ears are open; share it now.
My heart is open; share it now.

When I wrote that song, my inspiration was a really interesting Hawaiian girl I met while on a school trip a couple of years ago. She broke away from her group and followed after me as I strolled through Himeji Castle. Mainly curious about my life in Japan, she wound up psychoanalyzing me, but she did it in a very casual, natural, "You know, from the beginning I had the feeling something wasn't quite right" sort of way. Yes, I was feeling pretty stressed out at the time, and her words proved to be uplifting, particularly when she ended it all with something like, "I envy you your life, and I love my life. So enjoy your life as I do mine." Definitely words to remember.

This time the case is very different. Ms. T's friend is training to be a professional psychologist. She's very perceptive, and she chooses her words very carefully. I'm not feeling stressed out at all; in fact, I'm feeling quite happy with life. Or so I think. How easy it is to be proven wrong! With very little effort, she succeeds in dragging out of me a couple of big issues that probably need to be dealt with, but which I've been more or less denying...or at least forgetting about and hoping they'll just go away. I'm left quietly venting out hidden pockets of my soul into the night over my wine worried a bout of depression might suddenly kick in (the last thing I want to happen with a psychologist sitting right next to me!) but in the end I actually wind up feeling better. I don't get a chance to express any gratitude, however. The crowd, already joking about my having been "ensnared and psychoanalyzed" by the resident shrink, quickly intervenes. We arrive at the dock, the group goes in different directions, and the night's merriment comes to a nice, comfy close.

For us, anyway. After returning to the Currimundi Hotel we discover the hard way why it has such a mixed reputation. A group has apparently booked into the rooms above us, and they proceed to have a loud party into the wee small hours. Sleep is more or less impossible, so I click on a light and read Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. After a few hours the raucous laughter and obnoxious shouts upstairs suddenly turn into a chorus of puking and spitting...onto my veranda. (Luckily, my curtains are closed so I don't have to see it.) After that things quickly peter out into an eerie silence.

Next: The Weekend!!!! (bold, brassy fanfare with a didgeridoo thrown in for effect)


  • I love a story with a vomit ending!

    Waiting to hear what the weekend held for you... :-)

    By Blogger DewKid, at 5:38 AM  

  • I am not sure if you read my comment about shy Japanese students, after your first Aussie post, but I was relieved to read that your students broke through their wall of shyness!

    Mr K's modes of disapproval amused me somewhat :D
    But I like the PLC pastor's sensitivity. Christianity is a loving and tolerant religion, all about free-will and choice, but like so many others, in the wrong hands it twists in another direction.

    I think the drunken party upstairs was nasty! I don't understand how people can get that sick. Ugh.
    I mean, you try not to get food poisoning, so...

    By Blogger Olivia, at 9:55 PM  

  • The story was great! I love the smile on the girl's face while she's teaching him how to do the string thing w/ his hands. Her smile says everything.

    Isn't it interesting how so many countries actually hate the beer they're famous for!? Altho, haven't seen that much in the U.S. Ppl seem to love Budweiser... and I'd say that could be taken as the national beer of the U.S. or maybe Coors. Don't know really.

    The Aussies and the Brits really seem to love their beer! gosh, I haven't had a good beer in too long! :)

    By Blogger tooners, at 5:11 PM  

  • Dewkid
    Apparently the vomit missed my back porch, but the spit didn't. My outdoor table and chair were rendered unusable. Oh, well. Another reason to stay in my room and read my Murakami novel.

    Yes, I read that comment. I was actually amazed at how far our students came along so quickly. I've personally met Japanese exchange students in the U.S. who absolutely would not speak to anyone except other Japanese.

    I'd heard Pastor Rick was a very interesting chap, but I didn't expect him to be quite so prudent with regard to "cosmopolitanism". I've met a lot of people in both the U.S. and Australia who would happily force the kids to memorize and recite the Lord's Prayer thinking they were doing them some good. In the end, the kids enjoyed the chapel. Only Mr. K had a problem with it. ;-)

    The kids loved teaching their customs to the children! During the prep sessions in Japan they seemed both confused and near panic, but in the end they enjoyed every bit of it!

    I actually found an Australian beer tasters' review website. Out of 61 beers that the judges tried and reviewed, Budweiser was firmly at the bottom and Foster's Lager was next in line. (One of the judges said, "God, this is awful!") Victoria Bitter didn't do much better, as it was in the bottom ten. XXXX Gold and Bitter were both near the top.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:11 PM  

  • Oooh. Kafka on the Shore. So I got you hooked on Murakami, well, at least interested enough to try another of his books.... I hate to admit that I have that book sitting on the shelf of "yet to read"...

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 11:49 PM  

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