Saturday, 29 December 2012

Face Down in the Dirt; a Crying Ogre


When my first puppy, Hayate, was small, he was always desperate for other dogs to play with him. Usually their humans interfered and he rarely got to satisfy his longing for a playmate (part of the reason puppy two, Kuri, joined the family). No matter what anyone did to Hayate he would be desperate for their affection anyway. When he was still small enough for me to carry in one hand he was bitten by an adult Dalmatian. Hayate screamed and cried, but the second the big dog released him Hayate was down in a play bow, tail waggling, begging to be included even before the blood had dried.
A friend told me a story about her daughter S and a thoroughly unpleasant little girl (TULG) S was passionately consumed with as a pre-schooler. TULG invited S to her birthday party, and S was walking on clouds for days beforehand. She carefully wrapped a gift and dressed in her best party frock. On the day of the party S ran down TULG’s garden path in all her toddler finery, the gift held out, stiff armed, in front of her. Near the end of the path S tripped and fell flat on her face, the present still in her arms (now resting on the ground above her head). Hearing something, TULG opened the front door and coolly assessed the situation. She walked over, plucked the present from S’s hands, walked back inside and slammed the door, leaving S face down in the dirt in her special dress.
The emotion I feel thinking about little S lying in that garden and what I felt watching Hayate willing to forgive anything if someone would just PLAY with him are pretty much the same. I don’t know if I excessively anthropomorphise Hayate or if others are just oblivious to their dogs’ emotions, but that’s a whole other post. What I am writing about today is actually my favourite Japanese children’s story, 泣いた赤鬼 (The Red Ogre Who Cried), by Hamada Hirosuke. It captures these emotions of pathos, yearning and loneliness into an exquisitely understated tale. I first heard the story from my husband, who had come across it at the pre-school he used to work at. It was considered important for the three-year-olds as a message about friendship. To contemporary readers it seems to have an obvious subtext about homosexuality and the cost of “passing” as straight, although I know nothing about how it was perceived in the 1930s when it was first published.
It goes something like this.
There once lived a red ogre, high on a mountain. Although he was an ogre, he was kind and gentle. He was always alone, and wished that he could make friends with the humans who lived in the valley. One day, while thinking about his loneliness, the red ogre decided that he would go for it and try to befriend the humans. He made a sign outside his house, and carefully wrote in his best letters: "Here lives a friendly ogre. Please drop by any-time for tea and tasty snacks."
Some villagers passed by and saw the sign. "Look how nicely it's written" said one. "Perhaps this is a kind ogre after all. Let's visit some time." But the other villager said "It's a trick! He'll get you inside his house then eat you up. Ogres can't be trusted." Listening from inside, surrounded by the snacks he had hopefully prepared, was the red ogre. He ran outside calling "I just want to be friends! Won't you come in and try some snacks?" But the villagers ran away, crying "an ogre is chasing us!"

The red ogre was gentle, but also weak. He cried to himself and broke his sign into splinters. Just then, a blue ogre from another mountain came to visit, flying in on a small rain-cloud. "I came to play" said the blue ogre, "and I saw you crying. What's the matter?" So the red ogre told him the whole story.
 "I have an idea!" said the blue ogre. "I'll go into the valley and cause trouble for the humans. Then you can come and save them from me." And that is exactly what they did. The red ogre came running to save the village. He gently pretended to wrestle the blue ogre. "Harder" the blue ogre whispered, "they have to believe you." The red ogre took a deep breath and began to beat the blue ogre as hard as he could. The bruised blue ogre ran away, and the grateful villagers gathered around the red ogre cheering. "You are a kind ogre after-all!" they exclaimed. The children all begged to play with him, and every day many guests visited the red ogre's house. They talked and laughed and everyone complimented him on his tea and tasty snacks.
After I don't know how many days of having fun with his new friends, the red ogre realised that he hadn't seen the blue ogre for a long time. "I hope I didn't hurt him too badly in the village" the red ogre thought, "I'd better visit him and make sure he's alright." So off he flew on his cloud.
The blue ogre's mountain was far away. It was cold and bare, even more lonely than the red ogre's mountain. All that grew were a few white lilies beside the large stone door. The door was tightly closed, and a sign read "Blue Ogre is Not at Home." Tucked into a corner where only ogre eyes could see it was a letter, addressed to "My Red Friend". The red ogre read the letter three times, four times, over and over again. It said:
"My Dear Friend,
I hope you are having fun with the humans. If they ever saw us together they would be furious, and you would be inconsolable, so I have decided to go away so that they will never find out. A long journey, a far away journey, but I will always be thinking about you, my red friend. Your happiness is so precious to me. Take good care of yourself.
Yours, your blue friend."
As he understood how deeply his friend cared for him the red ogre's eyes filled with tears, and he wept for all he had lost.
I think the ogre, the little girl and the puppy resonate so strongly with me because I feel such immediate understanding and identification. I had an incredibly lonely childhood and went to painfully humiliating lengths to try and find acceptance. I was homeschooled in an immigrant family with few connections to the wider community or culture. There were two girls only a little older than me who were also homeschooled and whose parents were friends of my parents, but girl A detested me and girl B preferred the company of girl A, so my “tween” years consisted pretty much entirely of
“B! Do you want to come over and play today?”
“Maybe… let me just call A and see what she’s doing. If she’s busy I can hang out with you.”
I’ve more than once made tea and tasty snacks and sat at my beautifully decorated table wondering if anyone would come; very often no-one has. That’s the part of the book that I tear up over, far more than the ending. I can’t handle watching vulnerable little beings go through those experiences. Not even my dog. But I’ve chosen to spend time every Sunday in an orphanage with children waiting for parents who may or may not ever come back for them. It’s like picking a scab to see if it’s still bleeding. Anyway, that also isn’t the point of this post. Naita Akaoni is a really great book. You should read it. That’s what I was trying to say.
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Thursday, 20 December 2012

Keeping Our English: Movie, Book and Music Recommendation Sites and Board Games

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8tracks is pretty damn cool
One of the side effects of teaching very basic English is that we have begun to speak “teacher English” even when we are off the clock. Our vocabularies are slipping and our grammar is becoming more and more infused with Japanese-English-isms ("let's enjoy with us"). Perhaps worst of all, we have begun to slip into using American English! Noooooo! We are making a conscious effort to hang
onto our native language by increasing our use of and exposure to English at home. Books, music, movies and board games are all good ways to do this. Word games in particular keep our minds in
English-mode: Taboo, Balderdash, Scattegories and Scrabble are all good. We also recently bought Geek Battle, which has been a lot of fun. You can read a review at Geek Dad.
For movies, books and music we have found some recommendation websites with really interesting systems. My favourite is Criticker, which takes a while to set up but has given me recommendations completely accurate to my taste.* It asks you to rank a bunch of films out of 100 (the more films you rank the better it works). It then creates a compatibility index and matches you to other users who like and dislike the same films as you. It recommends films that these other users with similar taste have rated highly but that you haven’t rated (assuming that you haven’t seen them). It’s like finding your movie soul-mate and having them hand pick the perfect collection for your next movie night. This works so much better for me than systems that try and find similarities between the things you like then recommend other things that share these characteristics. For example, I love the Colbert Report but can’t stand John Stewart. I am sure there are other people who feel the same way, but any mechanised system would have them in the same category and be unable to compute me liking one and not the other. Goodreads seems like a promising way to find new books, but I haven’t had time yet to really explore it. For music I’ve been enjoying 8tracks. We can’t access Pandora in Japan, but even if we could I struggled with it for the reasons outlined above. It had difficulty processing someone who likes Tom Waits, Amon Amath and Laura Jansen. Because 8tracks is a collection of play lists (mix tapes) submitted by users according to whatever theme or mood they chose, these problems disappear. You can search for an artist you like them listen to play lists featuring that artist and see what other artists the user has chosen to include together with him or her. You can search for a mood, a season, weather or a random keyword (“hot tea on a rainy morning” is a surprisingly popular inspiration).
Even if you aren’t an expat trying to cling to your own language and accent, if you just can’t decide what movie to watch or what band you are interested in listening to, try out these great (and free)
You can find me on 8tracks as djinnwired and Criticker as DjinnWired (just for something different).

*Since I wrote that it suggested a movie so terrible I stopped watching half way through… and I sat through Eragon AND Dungeons and Dragons. But it has still given me far more good than bad suggestions.
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Disaster Training, Two Years On

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Wikimedia Commons
I joined the students in the icy cold gym the other day to watch a disaster training video. I thought it would be the same old same old, but it was completely different to everything I had heard before (and actually contradicted previous advice). I think it may have been modelled on one of the schools Ryo wrote about. The video said it was Iwate prefecture but used a fictional name ("East Junior High" and "East Elementary").
The video shows a teacher instructing junior high students to protect their own lives first and run, not to check on the safety of their family and friends. The students object, saying that it’s horrible.
The teacher responds by asking them if a fire alarm went off at school and no one else evacuated, what would they do? The students reply that they would assume it was a false alarm and stay put. So, the teacher asks, what if everyone else was running? We’d think it was real and evacuated, the children reply. Exactly, he says. While everyone is milling around checking on each other and wondering what to do, valuable escape time is being wasted. By setting an example and running you are actually protecting those around you. At that point the video went into some really interesting looking research about how many people the average Japanese person needs to see evacuating before they take a threat seriously, but it started pouring with rain and I had to run out of the gym to move Rothbart under cover, so I missed the details.
In the next scene we cut to the March 11. The students are engaged in their club activities when the earthquake strikes. They immediately seize the initiative, running for the hills while shouting “tsunami, run”. The video shows that the school PA system has failed; if the students had waited for instructions from their teachers they may not have made it. The students run past a nearby elementary school, where the teachers are depicted as indecisive and dithering. The elementary kids see the JHS kids running and stream out of the school to join them. Local people see the running kids through their windows and join the evacuation despite no official order having been issued. Because the JHS kids ran immediately without hesitation or relying on others, the story concludes, they saved countless other lives.
It’s been almost two years since the great quake. This is the first time I have heard official advice to evacuate immediately and not stop to check up on others. Even in the weeks immediately following the disaster, when everyone was reviewing their emergency contingency plans and it was clear that the existing plans had massively failed, we were still encouraged to wait for broadcasts, gather at designated points, check on our neighbours and family members and travel together in groups. Students and teachers were told to assemble at school, but not where we should go for safety in the event of a tsunami that would render our elevation unsafe. This time, teachers detailed the route we will take to a nearby mountain, and we will do a practice evacuation leaving the school grounds for the first time ever in January.
Two years later, but better than never.
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2012 Orphanage Christmas Party

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Getting ready to wrap a giant pass-the-parcel
On Sunday we held our second Christmas party at a Catholic orphanage.
It was a much smaller affair than 2010’s, with no presents for the kids and only 12 volunteers. Despite the smaller scale I think it actually went better. It was really, really good fun. We had prepared good simple games, the kids were in a good mood and we were able to keep everyone’s energy up and positive throughout the event. I was quite nervous about the challenge of entertaining kids ranging from seven to seventeen, but I always underestimate how wonderful “big kids” are around little kids in Japan. Far from being bored or sarcastic about our games, the teenagers helped the little kids, making sure everyone was playing fair and having fun. The big kids made sure the little kids had the parcel when the music stopped during pass the parcel and helped them unwrap the paper. They cheered for the little kids while we played limbo (in Santa hats under tinsel, it was a Christmas party!). They let the little kids hide behind them when we played red light, green light. When one little boy got hurt he was instantly surrounded and comforted by three teenaged “big
brothers”. All forty kids ran out into the car park to see us off when we left. I can’t think of anything I would rather be doing at Christmas than giving these amazing kids something to smile about.
If you live in Japan and you are interested in volunteer activities with orphans, please check out the not-for-profit organisation SmileKids. They even have template letters you can download in
Japanese to send to orphanages.
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Thursday, 13 December 2012

2010 Orphanage Christmas Party

At Tokyo Orientation, when I first arrived, I learned about a JET-based organisation called Smile Kids that encourages ALTs to volunteer at orphanages. I was keen to get started but heard that ALTs in my prefecture already had an annual Christmas visit organised, so I waited for that. Unfortunately, it fell through and 2009 was the first year when there was no visit. So after a fair bit of background work I managed to get a visit organised for 2010. We only visited one of the (several) homes in our area, but it was a bit of an organisational nightmare even so. Everything the home (a sixty-year-old orphanage run by nuns) told me turned out to be inaccurate; they made last minute changes that I couldn’t pass on to all the volunteers… it was a mess. I think they were just a bit confused about what we wanted to do (and why), and were a bit concerned based on some sub-optimal experiences from the previous (very haphazard) system of ALT visits. Nevertheless, it went better than expected and I’d go so far as to call it a success. Unfortunately I was away for the last two Christmases and no one wanted to take over the organisation, so there were no visits. This year I'm here, and we're holding our second party at the same orphanage this Sunday. I'm posting this to reflect on the previous one in preparation.
Usually one does not post pictures showing children's faces, but this is taken from one of the organisation's own sites. I'm not linking to the site just to further decrease any privacy issues, but this is not my photograph.
To me the number of kids in care is appalling, but I’ve also been shocked at how NOT shocked the Japanese people I’ve talked to about it are. I suppose they don’t see what the problem is, as long as they are well cared for. There’s also a strong undercurrent of eugenics in society here. If a child is in care because its parents are in jail, there’s not much sympathy because the child is seen as having bad blood. As one person I told about our visit said, “they’ll just grow up to be criminals anyway, why bother?” A number of times I’ve heard child abuse being discussed quite openly in the staffroom; having heard of some of the situations kids are living in unaided, I think that the children who actually are removed from their families must have endured unspeakable suffering. The attitude seems to be that the social stigma and lifelong disadvantage resulting from being placed in care is so serious that it is better for a child to remain in an abusive home until their life is in imminent danger. I think that says a lot about how society responds to children in care. Obviously the border between regular violence and lethal violence is pretty unclear and I wonder how many kids die in the gap. I know of two since I’ve been here, one survived by her younger brother who watched his father kill both his mother and his sister with a knife. The other student was asleep in her house when her father set fire to it. I work in a low socio-economic area with high rates of gambling and alcohol addiction combined with the highest birth rate in the country, so the situation here isn’t necessarily representative of the entire country, by the way. Although I guess the social stigma of growing up in an orphanage is a nation-wide problem. The point of the story is that we’re doing what we can here. The inaugural Christmas visit had a few glitches, as I said, but overall it was a great event. The kids had fun, the ALTs had fun, the presents we brought went down well and we even got the little kids dancing at the end.

We had a bit of an awkward moment with the girl the Mr. and I were teamed with. He wore a Gundam T-shirt, which drew her attention. We asked if she liked Gundam, and she said that her mother likes Gundam. Then she got a bit sad and quiet and went and sat in the corner for a while. Oops. The other moment I felt bad was after handing out the presents we'd brought. We had one present for each “room”. The kids are divided into rooms by age and gender. The older boys had got air hockey table. One room had boys from two all the way up to eight, so it was a challenge to find something they could all enjoy. I thought I’d made a great choice with an indoor bowling set decorated with Anpan-man, a popular kids’ character. All the other kids were ecstatic about their presents, and the eight-year-old who opened the bowling set was super excited to find out what it could be… but was not impressed when he saw it. “Anpan-man?! Seriously?” He sat down next to his friend and they both looked at it for a while, then he said: “Well, the little kids will like it. I bet they’ll play with it lots.” His friend agreed and they both cheered up, smiling from ear to ear. Imagining myself in the same situation at the same age, there is no way I would have been cheered up by the idea of someone else enjoying a disappointing present. As I stood there in awe of the way they handled the situation, I heard the teacher's voice in the back of my mind: “They’ll just grow up to be criminals anyway, why bother?”
Because humans are more than the sum of their parents' choices.
Because these children are wonderful and special and invisible.
Because they are CHILDREN and it's CHRISTMAS!

You can read more about Japan's approach to child welfare and adoption in these posts:
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Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Night-time Visit to the Vet (a failed attempt)

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Bone shard that was stuck in my dog's top jaw
That isn't a picture of Hayate, it's a calendar I had on my desk. The bone is the star of the show

Kristin Lund blogs at about ex-pat life in Sweden with her dog, Rabbit. Incidentally, I had to double check her name but not her dog’s… sorry Kristin! There’s a lot to be jealous of in terms of doggie-life convenience. I was particularly impressed by the dog ambulance service she wrote about a few months ago. Until we moved and bought our car a few months ago we always walked to the vet. If we’d had something happen that meant the dogs couldn’t walk we could used the Doggyride I suppose, although when Hayate was refusing to walk after he got the snip we carried him in our arms. He was very heavy. He also released two days of pee down my husband’s chest. If something happened now we have the option to drive, but only if the Mr is home (I don’t have a car license). It’s a little scary, and a service like this dog ambulance would be very reassuring to know about.
The other night we did have to make an emergency vet run, and it was not a pleasant experience. Hayate suddenly because screaming, fell on his side and scratched frantically at his face while gagging. I thought he was choking on something, but when I looked into his mouth I realised he had somehow wedged a shard of bone cross-ways across the roof of his mouth, between the molars. I attempted to put my hand into his mouth but he was completely freaked out and bit me. I tried a couple of times with similar results and then tried to think of a new course of action. In the meantime his attempts to get the bone out by gagging led to him vomiting all over the lounge room. All of this naturally caused Kuri to become extremely distressed as well. She went from running around whining at random furniture to (extremely helpfully) trying to attack Hayate. We knew we needed to take him to the vet so he could be tranquilised (no one was going to get near his mouth safely otherwise), but we weren’t sure how. He was too frantic to get a collar on or pick up. We ended up being able to herd him into his crate then put him in the car in that, and arrangement he would object to at the best of times, let alone while hysterical and vomiting. We both had to go (the Mr to drive and me to speak to the vet/hold the crate together against his attempts to smash his way out). That meant leaving poor little Kuri home alone, since I couldn’t deal with her in the car as well. Hayate screamed and tried to dig/bite/smash his way out of the crate the entire 30~40 minute drive to our regular vet. The whole time we were just so happy that our vet is open until midnight. Until we got there and he was shut. Apparently the opening hours were shortened since the last time we had been there. A frantic google on my phone gave us one other vet in the vicinity who was still open… the evil vet from hell we had sworn never to go to again. We sucked it up and drove over there only to discover that although the clinic was open, there were no veterinary staff there: they were at a conference. What followed was a slightly surreal conversation with the receptionist.
“Are there any other clinics open?”
“No, we are the only late night clinic.”
“But you aren’t open.”
“We are; we just aren’t accepting patients.”
“So where can I take my dog?”
“You can try calling one of the clinics that is closed and see if anyone picks up… maybe someone is working late.”
Ten phone calls later we got through to one… who told us they were closed and hang up.
“So my dog could be dying and there is absolutely no one who cares? Are you serious? People in this city just sit and watch their pets die if it’s past 9 pm?”
“I don’t think that happens.”
“Then what do you DO?”
“Pets don’t usually have accidents at night I guess.”
At this point I was close to punching the poor girl in the face, which was very unfair because it wasn’t at all her fault and she just happened to be the only available object to vent against. We turned around a drove home, Hayate still screaming and thrashing in his crate. By the time we got home and let him out the inside of the crate was covered in damp clots of fur. We got inside to find that in addition to the vomit Kuri had expressed her agitation by peeing on every absorbent floor covering she could find. We were at a complete loss and resigned ourselves to a sleepless night and another trip to the vet as soon as they opened in the morning. Fortunately, at around 4 am Hayate worked the bone out by himself.
The whole experience left me terrified. Hayate’s situation wasn’t particularly dangerous, just upsetting. What if he had been choking? Or escaped from the house (as he has done before) and, a black dog on a dark suburban street, been hit by a car? Or eaten ant poison? He’d have died in the car as I ruined an innocent receptionist’s night by yelling at her. The next two days I asked every teacher I knew with dogs what they would have done. Most confidently gave me the names of late-night clinics (open until 8 or 9), but when I asked what they would do after those hours they were stumped. None had ever thought about it. The trouble is, when you need an emergency clinic you don’t have time to try and find one. I eventually got the number of a large clinic that has overnight staff. They aren’t open all night exactly, but staff are always there and you can phone to ask them to open for you. It’s in another city, close to an hour’s drive away, but it is better than nothing.
I’m thinking about moving to Sweden.

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