Too Much Thought on my Hands
There's a semi (Japanese cicada) outside noisily screaming at the sun. Right now it is the only sound to be heard even though I'm here in a classroom with forty-one 9th grade students. It is the second day of classes since Summer Vacation turned into a pumpkin, and the kids are taking exams to demonstrate whether they actually did their summer homework or not. I'm taking my turn at proctor duty.
No, no, no...that's a proct-OLOGIST!!! Come on!!! I mean PROCTOR!!! You know, the guy that looks over the shoulders of the test-takers to make sure none of them are using cheat-sheets (and to annoy the heck out of them so their scores wind up lower than they should be). It's a very important duty, but it's also one of the most boring a teacher ever has to suffer.
This is especially true in my case right now. The current exam subject is Japanese language. The kids have a full, fifty-minute period in which to take it. Naturally, all of them finished after the first fifteen. Either the Japanese instructors sadly underestimated the students' abilities or they were really lazy when they put the exam together. It's nothing unusual; this sort of thing tends to happen a lot. That means we have thirty-five minutes of absolutely nothing to do, but the strict silence rule still applies. A few studious (or very worried) individuals are quadruple-checking their answers. Others are staring blankly into space. Most have their heads down on their desks, sound asleep. Me? While keeping one eye open for cheaters, I'm taking advantage of this wonderful opportunity to do some hard-core thinking.
Outside, the semi goes right on screaming at the sun with its eerie, loud, metallic-sounding rasp.
Recently the Western news media has been obsessed with that guy that didn't kill JonBenet Ramsay. Here in Japan, in addition to the normal fright about atomic goings-on in Iran and North Korea, we're mainly hearing about that Japanese fishing boat that "strayed" into Russian-controlled waters around the disputed Northern Territories, which Russia calls the Kuril Islands and has held since the end of WWII. The story goes that the boat tried to go into an area near one of the islands that is currently restricted (for environmental reasons, or so Russia claims) but still has very bountiful fish and crab stocks. Apparently Japanese fishing boats are quite fond of sneaking into that particular spot, and Russia is getting annoyed with it. Well, apparently a Russian patrol boat spotted the Japanese craft, ordered it to stop, gave chase when it didn't, and then fired on it, killing one of its crew. The boat was then captured, and its captain and two surviving crew were taken into custody.
I think the only reason they're making such a fuss about it is because it happened among the Northern Territories/Kuril Islands. That's still a very sensitive issue among the Japanese, who have been negotiating like crazy to try to get at least one or two of the islands returned. (Russia can't seem to make up its mind on the matter, first saying they'll return one island, then none, then two, then just getting mad...) The Japanese reaction almost suggests that they feel the fishing boat was the victim of an unprovoked attack within Japanese territory. Well, considering the Russians have been complaining about such incursions for some time...and gave this particular boat plenty of warning before shooting at it...somehow I just don't think so. Still, it's an issue of both nationalism and patriotism, and those always tend to be rather chaotic in the Land of the Rising Sun. The issue of Prime Minister Koizumi's visits to the ultra-nationalistic Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to all Japanese killed in war including several class A war criminals, is much the same. Patriotism is supposed to be taboo here, or at least the rest of Asia seems to think so, but it is still very much in the hearts and minds of a lot of the people.
Mr. N, who made this exam, pops into the classroom to see if there are any questions and to give a few warnings. It seems totally superfluous; the students don't acknowledge his presence at all. Total blank. Perhaps they have come close to finding the perfect Zen state. Zen and the Art of Spacing Out...
One of the students raises his hand. He has knocked his test problem sheet onto the floor, out of reach, and the rules say he's not allowed to get up to pick it up. I have to do it for him. At least I have something to do.
Speaking of teachers getting harshly removed from their posts, my wife is now no longer the coach of her tennis club. She quit voluntarily, but she was under a lot of pressure to do so. A little over a month ago her 9th grade members reached their mandatory "retirement" and dropped out. The remaining 7th and 8th graders then elected a new captain and vice-captain from among their ranks. My wife wasn't happy with their choice, because the new captain wound up being an immature, unreliable punk who basically did what he wanted when he wanted, never listened to a word he was told, and threw a tantrum if he was criticized in any way. In other words, he was useless, and the vice-captain wasn't much better. After the first summer tournament event under the new leadership my wife was so stressed out she was about ready to shatter on the spot. By the time the team had finished three such events, my wife was so fed up with the punk that she said, "Look, if you can't do your job any better than that, why don't you quit?"
Well, the punk did just that. He quit. Then he bawled to his parents. Well, his soccer mom (tennis mom?) and politically ambitious dad immediately went ballistic and noisily demanded that my wife resign. When she didn't, they started a smear campaign, got the parents of all the remaining tennis club boys together, made all kinds of outrageous accusations, formed an alliance to press their cause, and delivered what more or less amounted to a threat to the principal to do something or else. Very much to their credit, when the recently-retired 9th graders heard what had happened, they got the word out to a whole bunch of tennis club alumni, who then came to my wife's defense. They said that she had been strict with them, sure, but she had always been right. She had also taken an utterly hopeless team of losers and taken them all the way to the regional championship. The principal apparently suggested to the new alliance of tennis moms that they take that into account, but they wouldn't be placated. Instead, they countered that my wife was "arrogant" and guilty of what they called "verbal corporal punishment(??)". They also threatened to take their case to the school board, which would have very bad implications for the principal. As a compromise, he put the assistant coach in "temporary charge" and said he would take a poll of the remaining tennis club boys to find out what they thought. (Considering most if not all of them are mama's boys, there probably wasn't much point, but anyway...) In the end, it never came to that. My wife decided to resign voluntarily. In the end, she actually seems happier for it. That damned club had been driving her nuts, anyway.
Now the alliance of tennis moms is threatening to go to the school board anyway. They think my wife should be completely removed from the school, even as a teacher. (She is well known and respected at the school board, but you never know...) At the same time, the principal is getting quite fed up, and he's threatening to disband the tennis club altogether.
It's amazing how life tends to resemble TV dramas...
Fifteen more minutes. Can't we just declare this damned thing over and end it here?
Tooners just put a wonderfully heated rant on her own blog, but it was like an old friend. Living as an American in Bahrain, she is fed up with being stared at, having people cut in front of her in line, and being totally ignored by people she's trying to talk to. These are things I've always had to deal with here, but yet they don't seem to bother me as much these days. So, have I gotten used to it, or is it actually decreasing? I know that people, especially 50+ year olds, still seem to feel entitled to barge in in front of lines wherever they go, but I don't seem to be getting fixed by hard stares nearly as much as I used to. It has also been a while since I tried to talk to someone and got no reaction whatsoever (though I have had people simply turn and walk away in annoyed silence..).
It's nothing like it used to be in the early 90s, when people would point at me and say, "Hey, look! A foreigner!" Mothers would often whisper, "They're dangerous," to their children and quickly scoop them out of my way. If I sat down in a bank, hospital, or train station, all the adults within three meters would immediately relocate further away. Teens, young adults, and the middle aged would make their stares surreptitious, looking away nonchalantly if I glanced in their direction. Children and old people, on the other hand, would fix me with hard, glassy-eyed stares, which I would often return just to amuse myself. Sometimes braver children (unaccompanied by parents) would try to play with me, which was always fun. Sometimes elderly would try to talk to me, and I couldn't understand a word they were saying in the strong dialects they almost always used. Most of the time, however, they'd freak out if I did anything other than stare back. If I tried to ask a question, quite often they'd run away in a panic, sometimes after barking, "I don't speak English," even though I was using Japanese. At other times they wouldn't react in any way at all. Those that did respond would often look panicky, acting like they couldn't understand me at all even if I was asking a very obvious, simple question that I knew I was saying correctly.
That was fifteen years ago. It doesn't seem to be like that at all anymore. Now, when I walk into a crowded supermarket, I sense all eyes on me for a few seconds, and then everyone goes about their business. If I ask a question, some idiots will stomp away in a huff without saying anything, but most will respond, and they don't find it incomprehensible for a gaijin to be speaking their own language. In fact, on occasion people will actually ask me for help or directions, which would have been unheard of a decade ago.
I guess Japan really has become more internationalized, at least in a cosmopolitan sense, which is the one that really matters. Their English ability doesn't seem to have improved very much, though. In that respect, I think Bahrain probably has the advantage.
Oh, good. This Japanese exam is finally over. Next is math, but the kids don't seem to care. As they hand their papers in, most of them are noisily whining about the upcoming English test. What was I saying about Japanese English ability a moment ago...?
I guess some things will never change, just like that semi still shrieking outside. No doubt they shrieked just like that a thousand years ago, when aristocratic priests sat bored drinking rice wine while waiting for their pupils to finish copying their poetry. No rice wine for me, but least now we have air conditioning.