It all started with one of my best friends around the school, Mizuki-san. She is a 61-yearold office lady who loves chatting with me, even though she speaks almost no english and it goes without saying that i can barely speak a word in japanese. Nevertheless, she persists to bring me snacks and greet me enthusiastically whenever we cross paths, which is quite encouraging and nice. Whenever she wants to tell me something at all complicated (beyond "good morning") she brings with her a little japanese-english dictionary and points to the phrase in question. "Pension tax," "Clear tape," "You must apply by form," whatever. her super attitude about speaking english and being my friend have been really inspiring for me to study japanese. the fact that this old lady is making an effort to talk to me in MY language in her own country obliges me to get my japanese up to par!
Last week she came to my desk with her trusty dictionary and managed to communicate the following: "Fireworks ...this Saturday!... You come?" She mentioned something about her friends being able to speak english, but i had no idea what to expect. Obviously i agreed enthusiastically to join her because i love her and it sounded like fun.
SO last night was the night. She rang my doorbell about half an hour early and i answered in my exercise shorts, which was greatly emberassing as i had been planning on taking a shower and changing before she arrived. I quickly got the idea that she wanted to leave promptly, so I asked her for 5 minutes to change and REALLY quickly showered, got dressed and ran downstairs where she was waiting in the car. I met her 7 year old granddaughter and thought, "ah it's just the three of us. no english after all. Ah well! should be fun!"
When we arrived, we met up with a congregating group near a table under a bridge near the river, where the fireworks would be going off. She started introducing me to various Japanese friends, as we set out food. standard fare: my awkward japanese phrases "my name is" and "pleased to meet you" went smoothely.
Then she took me over to a different area where several distinctly non-japanese guys were hanging out. They didnt look associated with the first group, but one of the Japanese men came over to introduce me. One by one they introduced themselves and shook my hand: Tsetop from Tibet, Mahmood from Pakistan, they were almost entirely made up of people different countries all over the world! also including India, Fiji, the Philippines, and so on. I was pretty stunned. Were they refugees, grifters or what?
Soon i learned that this was a big group of students on a scholarship called OISCA; Organization for Industrial, Spiritual and Cultural Advancement. They are basically on a program where they came to Japan from their home-countries, to Fukuoka in fact, where they are living in a commune about 45 minutes outside of Fukuoka city and learning organic farming techniques, as well as studying Japanese and doing lots of other activities including but not limitted to singing and seeing fireworks. OISCA pays them a very modest allowance and tightly schedules their time. They have to wake up at 5:30 every morning and work until they go to sleep at 11, with one day off. The idea is that they will learn these skills, and go back home and use them while teaching others. Pretty amazing. Furthermore, most of the people i met spoke decent Japanese, and some passable english in addition to their own languages. It was quite humbling. soon we all gathered around a table on a tarp and enjoyed a feast of grocery store ready-made foods that they had brought along. I quickly realized that the whole group of 20-25 people that surrounded me, consisting of Japanese people, girls wearing yukata, and the boys whom i had recently met, where all ivolved in OISCA. I was not expecting this. We ate and drank and talked, and of course took pictures:
As we ate, we made conversation about global politics, the importance of the environment, and what it means to come from one country to another. I felt like i had fallen into an episode of Captain Planet.
It was particularly moving to speak to Tsetop, the boy from Tibet, who sat down next to me and eagerly engaged me in conversation, speaking the best english in the group byfar. His inquiries didnt make a lot of sense to me, because though i had at first explained that i was from Chicago, he seemed very curious about "where my family was from" (i explained that they were from eastern european origins originally, but have been in America for several generations by now) and he also humbly asked me about my opinions of China were as we got into a conversation about the Chinese-Tibettan relationship. I explained my opinions on China, given my limitted knowledge and how my sister was Chinese adopted, which only seemed to cause him more confusion
Soon we realized why. The Japanese word for China is "Chuugoku", which sounds quite similar to "Chicago." With all the different people saying that i was from Cicago in different accents, Tsetop had the idea that i was from China, and soon realized that i was actually an American. From that point things made a lot more sense. I wandered down the lanes of stalls selling food and toys with a group of the guys and we found a spot on the wet pavement by the river to watch the fireworks go off.
Tsetop openned up a pack of cigarettes and lit one up while he openned his phone up and had it play music through its tinny speakers as we sat talking about the world, politics and economics. Though he is ethnically Tibetan, he has never seen his country, as he grew up as a refugee in Butan. Honestly my conversations with him were more cerebral than many exchanges ive had with native english-speakers.
When he learned that i like to paint, Tsetop said he had a special request for me:
"Please make paintings about the importance of agriculture."
When i got home later that night, i emailed him some images of paintings by Jean-Francois Millet, who was famous for painting the common agricultural working class on a religious scale:
During the fireworks we all chatted, while some of the boys tried to get the attention of cute children sitting near us with their parents, by poking their ponytails and making funny faces at them.
the scary gaijin poking them, of course, terrified the little children and they sought consolance from their parents, who luckily had a sense of humor about the good-natured antagonism. the hour-long fireworks show was pretty impressive considering that they took place in Asakura-city, my Inaka (rural) area.Afterwards, we all exchanged information and the OISCO group invited me to come spend time with them on Sundays, when they have a break from their grueling schedule of cleaning, studying and working. Apparently Mizuki-san, the office lady who took me, volunteers there teaching Japanese, and gave me the impression that she's willing to take me when she goes to visit. As she gave me a ride back to my apartment, I made limitted cross-language conversation with her adult daughter and two grandchildren. Her grandson knew a lot of great english phrases and was talking about grilled octopus. I managed to communicate that i'd had a pet octopus, which they found endlessly amusing, and they were trying to ask me if i like to eat "ika" or squid. In trying to get the idea across, the boy translated Ika as "Kraken." I told him that was more like a Kaiju (giant monster). When i said goodnight and "nice to meet you" he very proudly said "Nice to meet you too" to everyone's applause.
More crazyness ensued when i got home from this fun evening. I was bumming around the internet before going to bed and happened to google the name of my office lady, Mizuki-san. I clicked on "image results" and openned one of the first images that popped up, just a flash snapshot of a couple of Japanese women. That linked me to someone's blog, seemingly a fellow ex-pat in Japan. While looking through the blog, i noticed "Fukuoka" in a few places, so i took a closer look: was this someone living near me? Then to my surprise, i started seeing FACES i recognized! Teachers from my high school! and the vice principal! I slowly realized that this was a previous ALT at Asakura High School. A picture of my principal captioned "the new school principal." a look at her "about me" sidebar revealed the name: kels. then i remembered hearing about an ALT two years ago named Kelsey. In fact, one of the night school teachers had emailed me before i came to japan and invited me to get in touch with a previous ALT named Kelsey! this coincidence was quickly awe inspiring, and i decided to stop disreagrding fate and email her right away, something i had been meaning to do but put off for quite a while.. crazy how life works sometimes, isnt it?