Been a bit since a substantial blog entry, and I apologize. I’ve had a bad run of things, and have tried to get out of the house more, to improve my mood. Results have been mixed at best. Anywho, the Kyoto trip was a pretty big deal, so I figure I should blog about it. Here we go.

First, a bit of background. I had a long weekend coming up, and no real plans, so when a nearby JET (my friend Nam) mentioned that his friend had a spare ticket to Kyoto, I leaped at the opportunity. Turns out it was a small group outing with three other JETs (Rick, Nam, and Adriane), one JET’s girlfriend (Lianne, Nam’s lady), and this Japanese girl Hiromi, who was organizing the whole thing. Rick and Nam had known Hiromi for a bit already, having met her at some festival before I got here. There are pictures up on flickr. Check enough of them and you’ll get an idea of the people I’m talking about.

So, a quick rundown on personalities, before delving into the meat of the story:

  • Nam: Slightly nerdy tech guy from Canada. Great, outgoing personality, smokes, drinks, generally well-balanced, wonderful person. Japanese is pretty bad.
  • Adriane: Sweet, caring, infinitely well-mannered girl from Germany, whose Japanese is amazing. I am sure I offended her once or twice with my horrific sense of humor and lack of manners, but she never let it show.
  • Rick: Overly energetic white guy from Long Island, who is determined to be the life of the party, speaks in most ironic TV references and old slang, and is pretty bad at Japanese.
  • Lianne: Don’t know very well. Sweet Filipino girl with perfect Japanese and English. She doesn’t live around Ibaraki, so she and Nam took off after the first day and spent the weekend together.

And then there was Hiromi, which is a lot of what this post is about. I didn’t know her from Adam when I signed up on this trip, and so I decided to go with Rick to a dance festival she was participating in at a nearby town, the week before Kyoto. As a side note, the dance festival was hilarious; watching random Japanese girls get freaky to “Pretty Fly For A White Guy,” oblivious to the song’s content, had me in stitches.

Anywho, I talk to Hiromi a bit there (and meet her parents and sister, who comprised most of the rest of her dance troupe), and learned the following things:

  • Her English is great. She studied abroad in Arkansas (yeah, I know, “huh?”) for around a year.
  • She’s a college student studying fine arts, sculpts really well, and likes to dance (no duh).
  • Her dad is a nuclear physicist.
  • She’s amazing at that DDR-type game shown in Lost in Translation, where you have to hit lots of colored buttons in sync. I don’t know the name of it, but she schooled everyone in the arcade.
  • She’s kind of a nerd.
  • She actually speaks Japanese with me.
  • She doesn’t dumb down her Japanese with me.
  • (and this is a big one) She doesn’t like a lot of Japanese society.

I’ll expound on the last one later. For right now, all you need to know is that I was sort of taken with her. Yeah, she’s not exactly drop-dead gorgeous, but she’s a bit nerdy, she’s into art, and I can have a fucking CONVERSATION with her. That goes a loooooong way to making someone attractive.

Now I’ll talk a bit about Japanese society. Something that’s been increasingly apparent to me, and which really crystallized during my talks with Hiromi, is the Japanese hive mind. Their need to be part of a team is intense, and nigh-incomprehensible to outsiders. My kids all define themselves by which class they’re in, what clubs they’re in, what their family name is, what their sports festival team is, and what nationality they are. NEVER by what they’re interested in, what their personality is like, or, usually, even their first name. My kids cried when they lost their sports festival. The cried when they won their sports festival. When they list reasons they shouldn’t have to study English, inevitably they list, “We are Japanese and must honor Japanese culture.”

This fits in with a lot of how I teach my classes. I’ve learned to never, ever call on a single kid for an answer. They’ll clam up and not say anything. They don’t exist as an individual unit. Saying something would make them different from the rest of the class, which is unthinkable. It doesn’t matter if they’re too smart for the lesson or too dumb, they all move at the same pace. Even answering simple questions like “How are you” or “What is your name,” and they’ll consult their neighbors. This is why it’s incredibly dangerous to let a couple kids misbehave in class, because before long, they ALL will. However, get the majority doing work, and all the rest will fall in line. There’s not much individuality; they are all with each other pretty much from kindergarten onwards, they all wear the same clothes and like the same TV shows and bands. There’s minor differences, as in one kid might like One Piece while another likes Keroro Gunso, but nobody is going to come out swinging with a weird answer like “Hard Gay.”

Now, Hiromi was bullied as a kid. She didn’t talk much, and the other kids would go so far as to cut up her gym clothes and bully her. I’ve kept an eye out for bullies in my schools, and while I know they exist (the other teachers are greatly concerned about them), I haven’t seen much. From talking to Hiromi, I learned that bullying in Japan is subtle, intense, and oftentimes leads to suicide. She managed to muscle her way through the intimidation, and developed an independent streak a mile wide as a result. She’s incredibly strong-minded, opinionated, and forward-thinking, which is frankly pretty rare in this country.

So, Kyoto.

It was beautiful. Check the pictures. I’ll wait. There’s a crap-ton of shrines, nearly all of which Hiromi was insistent on seeing (she planned the itinerary after all), so the trip wasn’t exactly restful. We basically ran from one place to another as fast as possible, braving HUGE crowds of Japanese tourists. The buses were completely packed at all hours, and the drivers insisted on driving in this funny manner which involved a lot of clutch shifting, making it the bumpiest ride possible. Rick babbled about some driving gobbledegook (something about how it saves on gas), of which I promptly forgot all the details.

Throughout all this, there was some growing enmity between Rick and Hiromi. The straw that broke the camel’s back was our trip to Kiyomizudera. It was 3 pm, we had to meet up with Adriane (who was visiting some friends) at 6 all the way across town, we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, and she wanted to run as fast as possible, up the side of a mountain, to get to a temple which very well might be closed, to look at some buildings we couldn’t see because there was no light, and to walk between some stones that we couldn’t find. Rick wanted to stop and eat. I couldn’t blame him. We ended up making it, and it was kind of neat, but in the end, it was just another temple, and we’d ended up being an hour late to meet Adriane, which was a bit uncool. She was fine hanging out with her friends a bit longer, but still.

I tried to use the opportunity to play peacemaker and get to know Hiromi a bit better. At this point I was pretty much outright flirting with her, which wasn’t being rebuffed exactly. On the train ride back to the hotel, I ended up talking with her a good long time about relationships, which… was a bit odd. She kept mentioning how she hated Japanese guys, and how they never really had anything going on upstairs. She repeatedly remarked on how immature all Japanese guys were, or how immature other girls were, or how much worse their English ability was, and how she disliked being stuck in a woman’s role in Japanese society. She hated guys who expected her to just become a mother and a housemaker, and was actively rebelling against it. All of this was well and good, except for her oftentimes haughty tone, and occasionally baffling blanket statements, like “All Japanese guys are boring, so I won’t talk to them” — to which I silently thought, “How do you know how they’re boring if you don’t talk to them? You’re stopping just short of saying they’re poopy heads. How old are you, anyways?”

That night, the plan was to meet up with some of Rick’s friends and go clubbing in Osaka. Osaka’s one of the party capitals of Japan, so it promised to be a good time. We were going to get a few drinks first, when Hiromi casually mentioned she couldn’t go.

Why? She’s 19.

Oh, didn’t I mention that? Right, that’s because I DIDN’T FUCKING KNOW.

Think about it — girl has an amazing grasp of English, whereas everyone else I know struggles to tell me what their name is. She’s got a well-formed ego, very forward-thinking, well-versed in art and literature, intelligent, is performing ballet on stage in a troupe, has an art show coming up soon, and is Japanese, so it’s impossible to tell how old she is. Of course I thought she was 22 and about to graduate. Nope.

What ended up happening was Adriane, Rick, and I went for drinks, then Adriane and I came back to the hotel and hung out with Hiromi, so she wouldn’t feel isolated. When we got back, Adriane crashed in her room almost immediately, so it soon was just me and Hiromi, in a bedroom, her in pajamas. Talking about how Rick was messing up all of Hiromi’s well-laid-out plans.

At this point, I’ve got her figured out well enough to make some observations. I tell her that she’s way ahead of the game, but she seriously needs to stop making a show of being Strong! and Independent! just to impress people. I told her that good Japanese guys do exist out there, but they’re afraid to be different from the hive mind, and she’d have to actually spend some time with them to figure out what they were really like. I told her that she is only busy with what she wants to be busy with, so if she’s not dating people, or not doing enough work, that’s just a reflection of her interests. And finally, I told her to stop calling everyone immature, because, despite her fairly advanced mental maturity, she hadn’t had almost any emotional maturation (not a single boyfriend yet), so there was a lot she’d yet to learn.

She sat there and thought for a bit.

When she opened her mouth, she said that, after Kyoto, she didn’t want to hang out with foreigners anymore. She invited us just so she’d feel special, so she’d be different from other Japanese people, and it was pulling her away from her real friends. Other people paid for English lessons, but she was smarter than them, and was able to get them for free. Finally, she just needed to focus on her work and her career. We used up too much of her time.

I told her that we were her friends and we wanted her to be happy. If that would make her happy, then she should do it.

She looked a little uncomfortable as I twisted the knife. I got up and left her room after that.

The last day in Kyoto was pretty unremarkable. We were all quieter than normal, and there was a thin layer of tension in the air. As I waited for the train at Kyoto station, a random mentally-handicapped Japanese man stopped me, introducing himself as Mayonnaise-san. Rick was too freaked out to really talk, but I stood my ground and held a conversation. Mayonnaise-san was extremely happy to talk to me, and prattled on about every sort of bizarre, inane thing that came to his mind. He told me that he was just lonely, waiting for friends, and wanted to talk to someone who would listen to him.

I replied, dude, I know exactly what you mean.