Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Bored of Education

Some of my colleagues at the BOE (that's Ide-san on the right), and Amakusa on a later trip (and in broad daylight)

Indeed, at the appointed time the next morning (the Japanese have been genetically hardwired to never be late), Takeda-san was there to drive me to the Board of Education, the place I was to spend Mondays to Fridays at until the school term began in September. There, while everyone was busy shuffling paper, the truth is, I really had to search hard for things to do. Eventually, I found the equilibrium between preparing for lessons, studying Japanese (none of them spoke English) and surfing.

Everyday, at the stroke of 12, a chime would go off, and like clockwork, the papers are put aside and everyone whips out their bento boxes, painstakingly prepared by themselves (the ladies), their wives (the married blokes), their mothers (the younger chaps) or 7-11 (me). Of course I only found out about this ritual after my first day there, when lunchless (and car-less, not that I'd have known my way around), I was rescued by one of the Office Ladies (or OLs as they are known in Japan) who called some bento-delivery service. That lunch, while incredibly expensive, was truly delicious.

The BOE would be the place I would go to whenever it was a school break. It would also turn out to be the place where I met many patriachial characters who took it upon ourselves to make me feel welcome in Japan. By means of broken English, Japanese and copious amounts of sign-language, I was invited by them to go for drives, dinners at their homes and sight seeing.

One of these drives-cum-sight-seeing trips happened because of my then bad command of Japanese. In August, I had yet to buy a car, and so, I was driven to and from the BOE by the staff working there. One evening, it was Ide-san, a really kind man, who was driving me home, a 10 minute drive away. Ide-san doesn't speak a lick of English, but he still tried communicating with me, using simple Japanese.

OK. I knew the word "yama" (mountain). He had to be asking me if there were mountains in Singapore. That was easy enough, and I replied with a resounding "No" (or actually, 「いいえ。」)
Umi? What was an umi? Well, if he was asking about mountains, he must have been asking about valleys. That's a no. There're no valleys in Singapore.
I understood enough to know that he was thus going to take me to see some valley, since there was no "umi" in Singapore. Too polite to decline, I said OK.

A while later, it suddenly stuck me that I had learnt the word "umi" before. It meant the "sea"! And Singapore, being the small island that it is, was surrounded by nothing but the sea. And yet, I had told the guy otherwise, and we were now on our way to Amakusa, a 2 hour drive away, to see the sea! Not having the language ability nor the nerve to tell Ide-san, I went along with it, silently chiding myself for the memory lapse.

To cut a long story short. By the time we got to Amakusa to see the sea which Singapore "didn't have", it was pitch-dark, and hence wasn't much of a view. The worse thing was that Ide-san was so apologetic about it (not that it was his fault that it was dark, nor that he thought I lived in a land-locked country). We had dinner, before beginning the 2-hour drive back, the word "Umi" (海,うみ) now permanently etched in my Japanese vocab store.

Monday, December 26, 2005


* My first weekend at the Board of Education -fishing excursion with the Elementary kids to some place the name of which I never figured out

I type that now with much ease. But those were the very words I had to memorise and rattle off, with nary an understanding of their real meaning nor proununciation & intonation, in my salutation to the Mayor (and the rest present at the Kaou Town Hall) as well as the Board of Education members. It all happened very quickly. I was met at Kumamoto Airport by Takeda-san (the errand boy on the BOE) and Masumoto-sensei (one of the 2 Japanese English Teachers in my town) waving a huge signboard with my name, and more significantly, "Assistant Langage Teacher", boldy emblazoned on it. Whisked off in a car for a 45-minute ride to the Town Hall/BOE, all I recall is that I was dripping in sweat in my suit in the height of the summer heat and humidity, gazing at the sheer amount of greenery en route. Welcome to the inaka!
Miraculously, I survived the stuffy initial meetings and greetings, and was then driven to my apartment in Yamaga. Takeda-san stayed in the car while Masumoto-sensei and I scaled the endless flights of steps to my apartment on the 4th Floor of Mitoya Mansion. (sounds better than it looks, but more of that later).
After he had shown me into my apartment, Masumoto-sensei lingered on for just a while longer before he took his leave, but not before informing me in his brand of Engrish that someone would pick me up for work the next morning.
As the door shut behind him at about 3 pm that afternoon, it became very stark to me. I was on my own.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Bright Lights, Big City

And so I landed in Tokyo on a Sunday morning (3rd August 2003). There, I was to spend 3 nights, attend an Orientation programme, meet the Singapore Embassy guys for dinner at Roppongi, take in a bit of the sights and lights, sing at a karaoke, eat tempura and use the only Japanese I knew ("Sumimasen.Oterai ha doko desu ka."- Excuse me, where is the bathroom?).
Having been teased by the somewhat surreal Tokyo, I was promptly whisked away to Kumamoto (somewhere in Kyushu, Southern Japan) on 6th August 2003, to truly begin my stint in inaka (rural) Japan.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Better Late Than Never

In August 2003, having just finished serving my bond with PSC, I packed my bags and left Singapore for an adventure of my lifetime. I had always longed to work & live in a country where I couldn't speak the language nor truly comprehend the culture. Maybe it was a need for exoticism, or perhaps it was to feel that I had truly gotten away from it all. Italy and Japan featured on my list, but on 2nd August 2003, having resigned from my job, I found myself on a plane to where people call the Land of the Rising Sun.

This blog comes a little late, but I thought I'd try to document (maybe in pictures) the one year I spent in Japan, just so there'll be some tangible manifestation of the year satisfying my wonderlust. It is not meant to replace the memories that will remain with me (till Alzheimer's hits anyway), but hopefully it'll allow me to look back in nostalgia some time down the road.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

To be honest, it wasn't quite such a simple decision to leave.
"What about your stable civil service career?" asked Mom, who lived in an era where people worked for one employee all their lives.
"We hope you'll accept the promotion," said my Boss, whose offer, while flattering, could not dissuade me from leaving.
"But you'll lose lots of money from selling your car," advised some well-meaning souls, who unfortunately didn't realise that if I were to count the dollars and cents in the first place, I wouldn't have chosen to leave.
Yet, while all these were insufficient to stop me from leaving, it was at the airport that I realised what the most compelling reason to stay was.
Yes. Family, friends, colleagues, ex-students... seeing them at the airport really drove home the point. In embarking on my new adventure, I had to say goodbye to them.