Sunday, 25 July 2010

Mr. Happy Things

Otis Redding called himself Mr. Pitiful and in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy there was Marvin the Paranoid Android. Both these cultural icons fire synaptic connections every Monday morning when I teach Mr. T. Somehow these cultural connections blend with my image of a medieval Benedictine monk who has inflicted upon himself a vow of misery and hardship which entails spending interminable hours in a Spartan cell contemplating this vale of tears.

Mr. T. is the only man in the class. The other students are middle-aged housewives who are intent on filling their days with happy sacrifices for their family, shopping and afternoon chats over a long lunch. Every week they have some pleasant tale of food, shopping, travelling or family to share with the class. Mr. T. is the only member of the class with any professed religious beliefs. He is a Catholic and has an austere haircut with a centre parting that no doubt contributes to my mental image of him as a penitential monk struggling with an uneasy conscience. It is not the case, however, that Mr. T. is perpetually depressed like Marvin the Android. It is rather that he seems to only enjoy the dour and morose aspects of his existence. He takes a certain stoical relish in recounting the bleak. It is tinged with maudlin in the sense not of tears but of sentimentality. How he reminds me of Marvin is in two ways – firstly he is very well educated with nearly flawless English. His brain is not the size of a planet but in comparison to the other students it does seem elephantine. And secondly, just as Marvin's rampant depression produces moments of inspired comedy so does Mr. T's bleak outlook create a jovial atmosphere amongst the twittering ladies of the class. It is as if he has sucked out all the sadness from the air and jealousy hordes it. With no sadness to go round we all have to feast on gaiety instead. 

Every week I ask a similar question to Mr. T. And it goes something like this:

“Do you have anything happy to tell us today, Mr. T?”

And now it is a running joke for the class. Mr. T. is a touch too pompous to notice that I am taking the piss, but the ladies immediately get my sarcasm and snigger with guilty delight. And like the miserable fool that he is, he runs straight into my trap and without fail manages to recite in his bumbling way a tale of woe. A tale lacking in sound and fury that habitually signifies nothing other than he should have spent his youth getting high and chasing poontang.

Below I will recount some of Mr. T's more memorable happy reflections.

Tale 1

“Anything happy for us today, Mr. T?”

“Yes, last Saturday my wife and I took the train to Aomori Prefecture to lay to final rest the ashes of my father-in-law. It was very hot. They were very busy in Aomori Prefecture because they are extending the shinkansen line to increase tourism.”

Masterful little prose poem this combining with a poet’s lightness of touch the disparate elements of death, tourism and high speed train travel.

Tale 2

“Do you have something happy for us today, Mr.T?”

“Yes, I want to speak about an experience a friend told me recently. My friend is a taxi driver. There was a JAL plane crash. The plane crashed into Mount Takamagahara in 1985. The plane crash killed 500 people. There were only 4 survivors. My friend was a taxi driver. He had to go to the memorial service for the victims. There are no trains on the mountain. No public transport. After the memorial service it was too late to move the dead bodies so they were stored in the local community centre. There were no hotel rooms available so my friend and many other taxi drivers slept with the dead bodies in the community centre. The next morning he drove one of the dead bodies back to its home. Every victim was taken back home by taxi. The most expensive taxi journey was 350,000 yen. JAL paid for the taxis for the dead bodies.”

“And why did you tell us this Mr. T?”

“Because my friend was one of the taxi drivers.”

Mr. T’s account of the plane crash, memorial service and sleeping with corpses was actually much more protracted than my rendition of his speech. Mr. T. squeezed the tale for all the time that he could by filling the classroom with circumlocutions and repetitions. His tone was not one of horror at the awful accident or even of anger for the incompetence of Japan Airlines. Rather it was admiration for how everyone pitched in to deal with the logistics of shifting so many dead bodies and how marvelous that JAL chucked millions of yen away on taxi fares. My only question was why didn't they rent cars and drivers? That would have been much cheaper than going on the meter. And I did mention that I would have slept outside rather than in a hall with 500 coffins.

Tale 3

“Tell us something cheerful, Mr. T. I don't want any more stories about dead people.”

“Yes, OK. Recently I have the feeling that I don't have much longer to live. My life is running out. Now the time is limited. Only a few more times can I see the colour of autumn leaves. There is so much that I cannot do before I die.”

“I see. And what is it that you want to do before you die?”

“I want to plant more fig trees in my garden. Insects ate my last tree. It was an Israeli fig tree.”

We all tried and failed to keep a straight face when Mr. T. delivered this gem of nonsense.

Tale 4

“So Mr. T. please let's have something uplifting today. I know. What did you do at the weekend?”

I was crossing my fingers and praying that it wasn't the anniversary of some awful massacre or natural disaster somewhere and sometime in Japan (it was obvious Mr. T. took no pleasure in the pain of foreigners and indeed felt that only Japanese and only himself in particular could really appreciate suffering and devastation). Mr. T. really excelled himself with this one. We all thought he was going to play a brave and cheerful melody. The first few carefree notes lulled us into a brief moment of hope before he tore apart the illusion of happiness with a series of thunderous chords of pathos.

“I went to a school reunion on Saturday to see my old school friends. The reunion was in Z Prefecture. I grew up in Z Prefecture. I was really looking forward to meeting my classmates, especially one girl that I really loved.

“But she wasn't there. Emiko didn't come to the reunion. I was very sad. She was the girl that I should have married. I loved her at school but after college I moved away and married my wife. That was a mistake. I really wanted to see Emiko.”

One of the ladies couldn't help interrupting. She asked: “Does your wife know about Emiko? About your love for Emiko?”

“Yes, I have told her.”

Silence poured down upon us that moment. I thought yes of course he's going to tell his wife about it. Surely his wife bears the brunt of this Marvin misery nonsense. This man really does want to be called “Mr. Pitiful”. If I were her I would have long ago killed Mr. T. by over salting his food or I would have fled the house in the middle of the night. Not however, before I had hacked to death his fig trees from Israel.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The Three Note Principle or How 'Wa' Works in Japan

The Japanese are such pussies; and such spineless pussies to boot. And I guess the more they display their spinelessness so the more facetious I become. This is all about the abhorrence with which Japanese people living in Japan (I believe many of them escape both the country and the collective conscious) have with direct confrontation.

Let me step back a bit and give you the adumbrated series of events leading up to my current bafflement and anger.

Three months ago I started a new job which came with a flat above the teaching room. In most ways a sweet gig with few hours, no fucking Saturday morning lessons (if you have done it then you know why that last ‘fucking’ was the most necessary adjective in this whole piece), and no fucking kids' speech contests (ditto). The genius of the job is compounded by the fact that my predecessors have nearly all been complete rookie teachers. A washed-out and badly groomed hippy veteran giving 10% is more effective than a charismatic sophomore giving the job 50%. The same sort of rule applies in armies I believe.

Anyway the school caters mainly for old ladies and the odd white collar victim looking to learn a bit of English. It is run by a committee who meet a few times a year to talk about the weather. There is a secretary who has that very modern sickness of thinking that anything not involving two programs on her computer is outside of her remit. Hence her 'zone' is surrounded by piles of old newspapers, broken equipment and mountains of other unnoticed trash that sadly excel doesn't have a button to deal with.

The secretary is aided in her paid duties by unpaid volunteers who calculate my wages after tax and buy bits and pieces for the classroom. I have always wondered why they don't get rid of the paid secretary and replace her with some well meaning sucker who will work for free; if it can be described as work. I would be happy to share the saved revenue with the school.

To return to my story, three months ago I moved into the flat upstairs. This was difficult because although the last teacher was gone nothing else had been removed. The small apartment was full of the detritus of several years of teachers. Stacks of useless teaching books and magazines, as well as broken pens, irritating fluffy toys, used chip fat and a half bottle of deodorant (that might have been a message) were all squeezed into the few storage spaces which were supposed to be at my disposal.

It was very nice of these previous teachers and the several non-executive school helpers to provide me with a full quota of pointless junk. Perhaps they thought it would allay any feelings of homesickness. However, being odd as I am, I kind of wanted some executing done to make some space for my own personal junk.

Not wishing to make waves before I started the job I begrudgingly took the responsibility for others' crap. Rather than confront my new employers with exhortations to action, I sought to cunningly shift some of the rubbish around.

The weekend before my first lesson I let myself into the classroom. I was in search of a shelf or cupboard in need of a crap top-up. I looked for ten minutes. The teaching room had photos, souvenirs, teaching books, broken equipment, flash cards, pencil stubs, magazines, cassettes and half finished arts and craft projects dating back to the 70s. Was this a time capsule waiting for civilized chimps one million years from now to dig  up and discover that there was a thing called ‘Australia’ which was possibly an odd cult involving bad hair cuts, sea festivals and making faces out of paper plates? A cult that valued glitter, broken scissors and ‘English conversation’?

Ah my kingdom not for a horse (where would I put it) but just half an empty cupboard. In the end I found a metal locker that had been overlooked. The thing was only loosely packed. What a find! Like that bloke in The Road finding a can of coke for his post-apocalyptic kid. I quickly grabbed a handful of books about entertaining kids with paper plates from my flat and squeezed them into the lucky locker. Now I too had contributed to chimp archaeology one million years in the future.

Sadly, my ruse wasn't to go unnoticed for a million years. It only lasted three months. If the chimps have records of Trippy Traveller in the future then I do sincerely apologize for this, but if you look in the flat next door to mine you will find a broken washing machine and all kinds of other goodies.

After three months the first of the notes arrived. It was an email from a volunteer helper. She had spoken to the Japanese teacher who gives lessons on Sunday mornings to South Americans keen to learn enough of the local lingo to avoid being sent back to the Andes or the Amazon. The Japanese teacher complained that I had used ‘her CD player’ and done something with her ‘text’.

I got this cryptic email on Sunday night. It was made all the more confusing by a preamble about late nights watching football games on TV. This need to start messages with the inane I find insinuating. Was she suggesting that football was making me interfere with other's equipment and ‘text’? I focused on the intelligible and pointed out in my reply email that there were two CD players in the classroom, only one of which worked. I had no idea that there were any restrictions on the use of the one CD player that worked. After all, it had been left out for 3 months.

On Monday morning I began to suspect something odd and Japanese was afoot. The only functioning player had been hidden. I took a quick look around the classroom but I didn't want to open any cupboard or locker doors for fear of being drowned in shit that the chimps might be needing in the future.

The mystery was cleared up after the lesson. My wife ran into one of the unpaid helpers who explained that the CD player belonged to the Japanese class and I wasn’t to use it. That's why the sad bitch had hidden it. For 3 months (and possibly a year before that) she had left it out and only now was she deciding to get all ‘mine mine’ on me.

A message was relayed via my wife that the other CD player didn't work and I hadn't touched her precious fucking player and that she should take a prize winning Japanese radish and spend a good hour fucking herself. I think a lot of that might have been lost in translation. Instead the unpaid helper went out and bought a new player. For over a year they had had no idea that the last English teacher had no means of playing CDs or tapes (other than gasp shock horror using the Japanese teacher's player). Either the previous English teacher had been so charismatic that he hadn't done a listening exercise or he too should have been made to feel the shame of wrongfully using the Japanese teacher's player.

But that was not the end of it. That evening a pile of books and magazines appeared on a chair along with a note in Japanese attached to the chair back. The writing was in big characters for all to read. All I knew was that it said my name and the name of the secretary. My evening students blithely ignored the note and encroaching rubbish. The Japanese are masters at not seeing things if it affects their ‘wa’ or harmony.

I took a leaf out of their book and did the same. After the lesson I turned off the light and went upstairs to drink beer and watch the footie.

The next afternoon the third note arrived. I had gone into the classroom early evening to prepare a lesson for a couple of middle school girls. Attached to the white board was a note from the secretary. It accused me of putting the books and magazines in the Japanese teacher's locker and that I should either give the books to my students or put the rubbish out to be recycled. Thus, the mystery of the ‘text’ was cleared up. After three months the Japanese teacher had noticed that her locker contained lots of unwanted stuff. It seems her ‘wa’ had prevented her noticing this for 3 months or she rarely used her locker. I guess the latter explanation was the case. She probably used it to store crap she would never use again and just resented someone nicking her trash space. Or she was creating her own unique message for the chimp excavators of the future, and had just let the project slide for 3 months. Anyway I tied up the offending articles this morning and took them to the recycling point.

So with one email shrouded in some unfathomable connection between CD players and football, one note in Japanese and one note in English the buck had been passed until it finally reached me the foreigner. No direct confrontation was required and the ‘wa’ could flow unimpeded again.

Now I'm plotting my revenge. I'm thinking of murdering the secretary and chopping her scrawny body up into pieces. These pieces I'll put in air-tight bags and stash them in the most inaccessible regions of the classroom where only the chimps will find them and conclude that the ‘Australians’ had pharaonic tendencies.