Be afraid, Have fun

Quick update: I’ll be uploading several posts within the next few days. I got behind on posting, but I have been writing.

Thus far, orientation appears to be 95%:

  • If you do any of the following, you’ll be fired
  • How to handle low motivation students who don’t want to be in class

And 5%:

  • Have fun and be enthusiastic!

It’s…well, I’m really susceptible to authoritarian language for some reason. I recognize that I don’t want to obey as much as I did when I was an uptight, stalwart teenager, but the vestiges of that are still alive in me. So, when I’m told over and over again that if I lose my red folder I’ll be terminated, the only thing I want to do is lock that folder away and never touch it again. Unfortunately it is the most important thing I need for my job as well, so I feel like I have to carry around a bit of radioactive material with me every day.

The language is interesting – there’s a hard edge to everything, yet it’s all smothered in giggles. Everyone should have fun and never step out of line. I haven’t been here long enough to put my finger on it, but there’s this odd cultural back and forth. I’m watching the veteran teachers shrug off inconsistencies and hard redundancies as “very Japanese.” I don’t know what that means yet, but it’s making for some language that is very at odds with itself. We get rules that are described as both ironclad and unnecessary.  Be afraid. Have fun.

Does this mean the stereotype about Japan having rules for rules sake is not a stereotype?  So far, all I’ve been given are rules I must not break. And they give them repeatedly, and couple them with stories of who got terminated for breaking said rule. Today, for the third day of orientation, I’ll be given a list of classroom procedures that I must do every day…or else? I thought it would be a little more lax – that the unyielding wall of procedures was a smokescreen to weed out those looking for a free trip to Japan. It’s looking less and less like that is true. As our teacher contact put it, “If you can find happiness here, you can survive anywhere.” Yeah. I couldn’t tell if that was a translation issue or not.

I’d say it’s also difficult being the new person. My fellow “new” teachers have all at least taught for my company before, or have taught in Japan. And the veteran teachers say, “But we all know already…” a lot. I stop them every so often, but it’s intimidating, feeling like I’m the one person who doesn’t know what everyone already understands, especially as concerns the cultural divide. I have the least amount of experience teaching ESL, and the least amount of experience teaching in Japan. I keep worrying that I’ll get found out, even though I’m perfectly qualified.

I’m writing this to find a silver lining – like, if I can make this work, then really I can do any job out there. Not just ESL – any job. I’m not going to let all this doom-and-gloom get the better of me. So what if one teacher solemnly looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re working at [redacted]? Good luck, you’ll need it.” I mean, that’s how all the best stories start, right? Going into the break, the wormhole, the maw – that’s how you become a protagonist.

I’ll be happy to get out of here for a day – I’m going to go sightseeing this weekend with one of my new compadres. I need a reminder that I’m across the largest ocean again. The daily sushi simply isn’t enough…




The Third Aside: Civilization (A Free Write)

While writing my piece on Hangzhou, there was a third aside I deleted. The piece was growing very long, and I already ramble. I decided to put that rambling here – give it space to breathe and be a larger reflection.

It has to do with the grandiose idea of civilization.

In one of my earlier pieces on Dujiangyan, I pointed out that the dirty city brushed right up to the protected mountain, that there was this clear break between what was old and protected and what was new and expanding. In Shanghai, all the parks are hemmed in by city. In Hangzhou (and I’ll note it again when I write about Leshan), off the coast of West Lake I could see the skyline, again pushing right up against the protected line.

It got me to thinking about the spread of people, and the growth of our cities. It’s vital that we protect history for future generations, so that they might reflect on old techniques and beliefs, and see what progress (or regress) we have made throughout the years. At the same time, we must grow and move forward, and the technologies of the future will need breathing space of their own. Ultimately, we have to walk this line of preservation and evolution.

We are not kind to history, or at least we were not kind. The Turks used the Parthenon as a munitions depot (which is how part of it got destroyed), the French chiseled graffiti into the ancient Egyptian ruins (If I remember correctly, I translated one piece as “Jean-Pierre was here. It’s too hot.”) The Pyramids were stripped of the outer stone to use for other buildings (that’s why the one Great Pyramid has only the smooth top). Mao ordered the destruction of temples when China renounced religion. Old buildings get torn down and used to build new buildings, old temples get buried, tombs disappear. We can’t keep track of all that we have built, destroyed, and rebuilt. I don’t suggest that we try.

Nor do I think it’s necessarily fair to suggest countries don’t develop at the cost of losing their history. When China built the Three Gorges Dam, they did so through the forced relocation of millions of people, the destruction on whole cities, and the drowning of swaths of countryside. They needed power, and they wanted a port deep inland. So at what point to we tip the scale in favor of development over preservation? The Keystone oil pipeline in the States is another example – we don’t want to destroy a pristine environment, but we also need oil. Which is more important?

I’m still working on my theory, but I feel like we need to practice what I am going to call “responsible destruction.” If we try to save everything, we will never build anything new. If we only preserve our history, we will never develop a future. However, we cannot build a future at the cost of history. For me, this debate turns to a storm of contentious questions. Who gets to decide what is worth preserving? What happens when we ignore future implications for immediate gain? How much is enough? How much is too much?

And what about my feelings, when I look at beautiful mountains hemmed in by smog-choked high rises? When I reflect on what the Leshan Buddha sees, I realize his horizon has only grown more clouded as the city across the river grows and the factories churn out more bad air. I feel the need for civilization to press onwards and upwards, and I lament that we’re destroying beautiful things as we go. We preserve but a sliver of what was, and I don’t know if that’s enough.

We keep growing in size.

I remember my childhood in Indiana. I remember when the man who owned the woods where I ran my dogs sold the land to a developer, who in turn developed the land. The trees came down, and a subdivision went up. The homes put up fences and banned trespassing, and so I could only walk my dog on a leash on the road. I drove by them in later years, those houses. I was still angry. I felt like a part of my life had been destroyed. But then again, where are new families supposed to go? And what do you do with land that you don’t use?

This is not an easy thought process. I felt a certain revulsion seeing the cramped city held at bay from a single green space. It’s the same revulsion I feel for Reagan, who said “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.” What a horrible notion. I know that if they weren’t protected, the beautiful places of the world would be full of houses and stores and more of the same things we have in our everyday lives.


Ok, it took free writing all that to get to this point: The reason we preserve, and need to preserve both natural and historical sites is to break us out of our everyday lives. We walk Civil War battlefields out of respect for the dead, and to remind us that we are not a country free from strife. We save what mountains we can so we may climb them and look over the world and be taller than our houses and skyscrapers and feel our individual smallness, our collective greatness. And we save our history, even if it’s just in pieces, so that we can feel the difference in time.

Those who have no history cannot lift their heads above the needs of the moment. History is what allows us to look to the future!

Unfortunately, my marvelous revelation doesn’t solve the city encroaching on historical sites/ national parks conundrum. I’ll walk around in that circle later.

Excuse me, but noodles are calling.