I have taught the way of the grilled cheese sandwichNagoya, Academic Year 2009-2010

It was the last sadou class of the semester and I was just starting to come to terms with my persistent cough. This illness had dragged out from a rougher cold at the end of April, during the cold snap of Golden Week. As people were stepping out of the tatami room for the last time one of the staff who assists the exchange students approached me and a few others with a proposition: answer some questions about mayonnaise and make a brief appearance on a Japanese TV show. In preparation for the interview the next day my friend introduced me and my roommates to toasted mayonnaise on bread covered in furikake, which is a dry seasoning one uses to add flavor to rice. My Japanese roommate liked it, but my appreciation of Japanese mayonnaise apparently doesn’t go that far. Classes were already over by last Thursday when it broadcasted, but I woke up and flipped channels looking for the メーテレ [sounds like may-tele] station. I remembered seeing signs for the channel on billboards in the subway system, and have no doubt seen some of their shows. Ten minutes after I thought I’d missed it the subject came up. I felt like me and the two other exchange students looked so out of place with the other interviewees. The others appeared to be your average Americans, speaking entirely in English, and their interviews being chance encounters on the street. However we had been sitting around in the CJS office, headquarters for the exchange students, and speaking entirely in Japanese. I feel my Japanese pronunciation has never sounded so awkward.

 

During the interview the cough kept coming back, and even worse was the second half of the Japanese final when I could hardly write legibally. Instead of sidetracking after the test to go hang up on a rooftop with some friends who had spotted me, I made a straight trek to the closest clinic, finally certain of its strange hours. I blundered when I entered the narrow establishment, just between the first and second floors of a building built on a hill with a small miscellaneous store with small hand-made turtles by the upper entrance, a beauty salon or two, and shoe store out front on the lower end. It felt like the room was a hallway with a little more seating space on the left. One wall covered in plastic drapes and a lady to my left hardly visible except through the small whole in the blurry glass. Kind of cozy, kind of strange. My blunder was forgetting to take off my shoes at the mat. She called me out on that later and I put my shoes in the standard wooden shelf and took the slippers that were meant for customers. The doctor at the clinic liked speaking in English. He contorted his face like he’d just eaten something sour as he tried to conjure up difficult phrases, but my replies were usually short and more than half the time in Japanese. I did speak English, but in general if there’s a conversation on the language border I am likely the one speaking Japanese. At the medicine shop I picked up a hefty prescription to last me five days. I think at least one of them is a mint.

 

I had caught the movie club late for lunch, though the crowd was good. Just before everyone left for next period, I left the club house and took what was left of my lunch to a pretty busy building with a couple restaurants, the school bookstore, school store, bread store, and convenience store. I noticed a couple people who had come to my dorm’s party sitting behind me, but unable to place each other we didn’t end up talking until a fellow friend from the dorm showed up and the couple asked him what my name was. I turned around wondering which of us would talk first. My friend from the dorm and his friend came over, and spent a good deal of time talking about ‘How to eat sushi; The Japanese Tradition’, other online comedy videos, and laughed about how many pills I had just taken. I also learned more about some of their English classes, which put more focus on reading and writing and less on speaking. I have heard the same from several Japanese students. I feel it must be frustrating to have taken classes for so many years and to still not feel you have enough of a handle to communicate with others. From there I went shopping with another friend from my club and heard more on the subject. Apparently writing and reading has been stressed in Japan as a basic education since old times. With little language communication outside of Asia, the understanding of kanji made communicating through writing much easier than through speaking. The stress on writing and reading as fundamental remains strong to this day, according to my friend, which is why even in language studies today in Japan less focus seems to be on the speaking and listening aspect. I wonder if that is why standard tests seem so big, since it is where the most accomplished people of writing and reading can be assessed.

 

We traveled around the market area after that yesterday, less crowded in that it was a weekday, and ate some inexpensive pizza in the front area of a restaurant with a large wood-stoked, open-flame oven and while listening to the Japanese employees talk in Italian. After that a store with two floors of Aladdin pants was discovered, and its wares purchased. Mark that off the list of things accomplished in Japan. You can also put down the out-of-place laughter at entirely inappropriate rap music played in stores that nobody else seems to understand.

 

In spite of the rain I made a bookstore run with my roommate today. Good thing Japan seems to be connected through an underground network of stores, especially since my roommates umbrella blew out. Of course that network gets confusing, like riding the escalators up and down ten floors in one store in the train station. Finally bought some decent leggings, or should I say had them bought for me. Excluding the clogs, I wonder if I’ll pick up Japanese fashion just in time to go home.

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