Thursday, December 27, 2007

When You Go Home for the Holidays, You Get Reverse Culture Shock...

It was a long, boring flight. I drifted in and out of sleep as cinematic delights such as No Reservations starring Catherine Zeta Jones and High School Musical 2 starring a lot of brightly colored young people played on the cabin's movie screen. A strange phenomenon- I cannot keep my eyes closed longer than 30 seconds or so unless I put a blanket over them. This maneuver enables sleep.

Fitful sleep. Ended frequently by important announcements and the pinging of the "Fasten Seatbelts" sign. Northwest Airlines didn't kill me, but they'll have a second chance next Saturday.

Christmas, as usual, was wonderful. I enjoyed our yearly viewing of A Christmas Story, then opening presents with my mom, my oldest brother and his wife. We ate bountiful meals lovingly cooked. We watched Will Farrell in the intermittantly brilliant and hilarious Elf. Later, that night, my mom and I watched Bad Santa, which is even funnier albeit in a mean-spirited way. I think these two films will also become holiday traditions around here.

Yesterday, in the holiday's aftermath, my mom needed to hit the grocery store. So I had her drop me off at the Albany Mall. After a year and a half of being surrounded almost exclusively by Japanese people, it was strange and disconcerting to be thrown into a sea of Americans. So many hair colors! Shapeless clothes, uncreatively chosen exclusively from the Gap, American Eagle Outfitters and PacSun.

Whatever you're a fan of, there's more than likely a calendar devoted to it. You need a gift for that obsessed fan of My Name is Earl? There's a calendar. There's also one for Ugly Betty. These will soon be marked down 50%. Store clerks don't reflexively say "Irrashaimase!" to you when you walk in, but they do chat you up a bit in a friendly manner. People think nothing of loudly upbraiding their children right in front of you.

I learned a new word, too. While I was checking out books in one of the narrow aisles, a large bodied cracker needed to push a baby carriage through so he could do what I was doing. Very politely and very clearly he said to me, "Scoom."


I know he meant "Excuse me," but it wasn't a slurred version of that phrase because there was no hesitancy about it. I mean, sometimes people slip up and say "Scoo' me" or something similar. No, this was plainly spoken, in a well-practiced voice not too loud not too soft.

And he said it again to the little girl sitting a few feet away reading Japanese comics with her even younger sister hovering about and frequent interruptions from her brother telling her what their mother was up to.


When I tell my lower level students back in Japan they have absolutely nothing to apologize about per their English skills, this is what I have in mind. And "Scoom" will make for an interesting conversation with the upper level students who appreciate bits of strange slang and True Stories of Native Speakers.

So overall, it was a pleasant and amusing splash in the gene pool from which I emerged almost 40 years ago. These are my people and I love them. Mostly, I love them from a distance. I've almost forgotten how to speak English to cashiers, though. Even pleasant ones like the woman who checked me out at Books-A-Million. She was great.

"Would you be interested in signing up for our discount card?"

"Sorry, I live out of the country."

"Oh! Then I guess you wouldn't really have much use for one, huh?"

"Yeah, I probably wouldn't get many chances to use it."

We both chuckled pleasantly about this little exchange. Casual shmoozing, how I've missed you.

Today's Adventure... A Trip to Wal-Mart!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Swing Girls:" A Holiday Treat...

Here's the climactic performance from the 2004 comedy Swing Girls:

Swing Girls is the story of a group of Japanese high school students from Yamagata prefecture (think Arkansas) who discover a love for big band swing music. It's a simple feel-good flick with uncomplicated characters and neatly resolved dilemmas.

The guy with the Spock hair on piano is the rich kid with no self-confidence. At the movie's start he's the only one in the school brass band. He's a whiz on piano, but gets stuck playing cymbals, which fills him with despair. At the story's beginning he's too much of a wuss and too easily intimidated to stand up for himself or quit.

The drummer is the phlegmatic chubby girl who deals with disappointment by literally eating entire gallons of ice cream.

The lead trombonist is the shy, retiring nerd who proves to be the most musically-inclined of all the girls.

The middle aged balding guy bopping along in the back of the auditorium is the school's math teacher. He's a hardcore jazz enthusiast who eventually becomes the band's mentor... until it's discovered he has no musical ability whatsoever and is secretly taking Yamaha music classes where he's routinely browbeaten and bullied by a young child.

The bassist and rhythm guitarists are two punk rockers just looking "to make some noise" after their original band breaks up because their boyfriends turn out to be lovesick wimps.

The trumpeter is the cute, boy-crazy girl of the bunch. She has a toy mouse on her trumpet's bell because a fright from a real mouse enabled her to first hit that very high note at the end of her solo.

The two guys on lights are the punk rockers' disgraced boyfriends finally finding redemption.

Note when the crowd first begins clapping, they're clapping strictly on the beat. The young guy who shows them how to clap on the backbeat is the high school's band leader, who frequently verbally abuses Spock-hair but proves here he really knows his stuff as he gets the whole audience swinging.

The guy in the letterman's jacket is the school's king jock, whose personal philosophy reduces the world to various dichotomies. Here, he declares "There are two kinds of people in the world- those who swing and those who don't!" and decides to become one of the former.

The pretty young woman who joins the math teacher and says, "Jazz is cooler than I thought, neh?" is the school's music teacher. The math teacher has long nurtured a crush on her, anonymously gifting the music room with precious jazz albums despite the music teacher's disinterest and preference for classical music. Is romance about to blossom?

And the girl on saxophone is Tomoko, whose lazy scheme to get out of summer make-up math caused not only the school's brass band to come down with violent food poisoning during the high school baseball playoffs but also the formation of the Swing Girls (and a Boy) Jazz Band. During the film she does a lot of growing up.

This scene is notable not only because of its infectious, joyous energy but also because they're all actually playing the instruments. The audio is a little out of sync, but if you ever get a chance to watch the film itself you'll see what a difference it makes that they're not faking the notes- especially during the drum solo. Few things in movies make me crazier than when someone fakes playing their instrument and does so badly. What's even more amazing is, none of these people had ever played before learning specifically for this movie. They were so successful, they even went on a short tour and played dates in Japan and the United States to support the film's marketing campaign.

I recently watched video of one of their live performances and sadly, the trumpet girl was not able to hit that high note at the end of her solo although she gave it a mighty effort. Imagine the facial/lip muscles and lung-power it would take to actually produce that sound... so she shouldn't feel too down about it.

Now you know the context, so enjoy!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year...

That's right. Here in Nihon it's Bounenkai (bow-nan-kigh) season. Who or what is bounenkai? Bounenkai is a what and it means "end of year parties." At year's end, companies and groups of friends get together to celebrate with food and drink. Lots and lots of drink.

One young woman I know has to (has to) go to no less than 5 bounenkai this year. When she told me about them, she wore a wry smile, because like many social functions here in Japan, bounenkai are obligatory, which makes them a sort of mixed blessing. Fun, but you really have no choice but to attend. Because Japan is the land of obligatory fun, practically no matter how exhausted you are. Not only that, but these bounenkai are going to set her back a big chunk of money. She has to take a taxi to each one because none of them are going to be at izakaya near the station.

I'm sure she doesn't feel too badly about it. After all, she'll have a blast at each. And it's no surprise she has so many parties to attend. But even people like myself have at least one bounenkai invitation. Mine is a more birthday party than bounenkai, but it has some year end/Christmas undertones. A friend gets a year older, the earth completes yet another solar orbit and we all feel good about these things. Why not eat massive quantities of fried food on sticks washed down with daijoki of beer?

We're deep into Japanese Christmas season here, too. You'd have to be some sort of idiot or masochist to even think about dining at a KFC in Japan these days. And to those back home worried I'm not getting my annual required dosage of seasonal music, let me reassure you that my system is thoroughly over saturated with Manheim Steamroller and as a result I'm in danger of anaphylactic shock.

Okay, that video clip isn't from Japan. But there are lots of Christmas lights a-shinin' in the dark these nights. Near Kobe there's evidently a famous display of what people here call "Christmas illumination." Kurisumasu ilumine?

Here's a video of what Christmas in Japan looks like:

To whoever shot this... excellent work!

There are approximately 1 million Christians in Japan for whom December means celebrating the birth of the Messiah, but Christmas is also enjoyed by many others here in this largely secular nation populated mostly by Buddhists and Shintoists. Even the concept of Santa Claus carries cultural weight here. Talking to friends, I've learned that many of them received Christmas day visits from Ol' Saint Nick, or as he's known here, Santa-san.

Santa-san comes in a window (chimneys are scarce here... but why he doesn't use a door, I don't know) and leaves gifts to good little children on their pillows. When the gift is a bicycle, I imagine that causes a few logistical nightmares but the big guy is obviously up to the task. He's only been doing it for a thousand years or so.

I did hear a few tragic stories, though. One person told me she used to write wishes down on slips of paper and put them in a sock each December, but Santa-san never came. Another said she asked her parents why Santa-san never left her anything on her pillow.

"We're Buddhists," was her parents' common sense reply.