Super cute pandas painted on a roadside. I had to put them up!
It’s funny the way things sometimes come around full circle. It seems like yesterday that I was just a wet-behind-the-ears freshpanda still trying to sort out my way from point A to point B back on campus, still brimming with enthusiasm and roaring to start studying the evil all encompassing language of Nihongo, the terrifying specter of which still haunts me in my sleep on occasion.
Risa contemplates the state of English education in Japan over some coffee.
I had never intended to wind up in Japan – really, at the time, my dreams basically consisted of the following:
a) graduate
b) become world’s greatest Geneticist
c) discover cure for:
1. Muscular Dystrophy
3. Cancer
4. Pimples
d) patent all of the above
e) profit
f) use profits to create army of killer pandas
g) take over the world
h) marry Sandra Bullock
Now that she’s finished her coffee, Risa eagerly inquires what we should do next.
This is of course back when the idea of majoring in Genetics seemed like something to look forward to, as opposed to now, when looking back at my diploma causes me to wince in remembrance of the unrelenting terror and torment that conspired to make me feel like my college experience was somewhat akin to being dipped in lava for four years straight.
Anyway, I first met Risa during these happy, dewy eyed sunny days four years ago – eager for a chance to “improve my japanese” I had signed up to be conversation partner at the local language school. Risa was my fourth or fifth conversation partner – turnover was high as most students simply came for a semester or less, and while I was perfectly happy with my previous partner, she was returning for the mysterious country over the ocean from whence she came, and she was kind enough to introduce me to her friend in her stead.
“Hmm…let me see…” says panda, putting on his thinking cap.
The thing about having conversation partners is, you never really know what you’re going to get. For some, the phrase “conversation partner” more often than not stands as a thinly veiled excuse to meet and hook up with attractive foreigners of the opposite sex. To this day, if you stop by a bulletin board in any given language school or international center, you are likely to find a wide variety of “seeking conversation partner” ads that read more like a page ripped from the newspaper personals. After all, just what does “ideally tall” or “must have blond hair” have to do with improving one’s speaking? Another danger inherent to the whole “conversation partner” scheme (especially in america) is the kids who just “want to play” – while these sorts of people (generally super rich kids with a dad highly positioned in the upper echelons of Mitsubishi or Sony and who inexplicably drive a BMW convertible despite the fact they just arrived in the country yesterday) can be a great blast, for those of us not similarly blessed with a bottomless trust fund and a vested interest in actually trying to do well in school, in the end, these “conversation partners” prove to be a tremendous disappointment.
Well, how about we explore the samurai district?
While the list of potential pitfalls goes on and on, fortunately for me, Risa proved to be wonderful in every way. Bright, intelligent and witty, she captivated me with her ambition and dedication to learning. When I think back on the meandering series of events that led my life to the point where it is now, while I must credit M with playing the primary part in my decision to abandon genetics and try my luck here in the Land of the Rising Sun (and bean paste), Risa is not far behind. Certainly I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to her for all her assistances and patient explanations of the countless vagaries of the Japanese language and culture that allowed me to make it through school and simultaneously sparked in me a deep interest in the “mystery of Japan” as it were.
Back in those days, we were both sort of trying to get our lives sorted out – Risa’s English, while excellent, still needed some work, and my Japanese, while somewhat identifiable as a fragment of a human language (as opposed to random sounds made by small furry woodland creatures) was still about as painful to listen to as it is now, only even more so. Nonetheless, over the course of time, our respective mastery of language (well, not exactly “mastery” in my case, but whatever) increased, and by the time Risa decided to leave the green rolling hills, lush greenery, cascading trees and expansive blue lakes of the idyllic little college town on the isthmus, I remember being distinctly impressed with the tremendous progress she had made.
Risa happily posing in the middle of some very old samurai houses.
Risa’s dream was always to become a teacher and teach English to foreign children living in America, and I was surprised when she got accepted to San Francisco’s graduate school TESL program – not because I didn’t think she could do it, but rather because the shock of the fact that she’d be leaving sort of took me unaware. The cloud of confusion that perpetually hangs around my head not withstanding, things were decided, and off she went.
We’ve been lucky enough to meet each other several times since we parted ways – primarily because for reasons that remain inexplicable to me, she seems to like the cow-filled, snow-covered, countryside that is Wisconsin. The last time we met was right before I left for Japan to do this whole teaching thing, during the great Swedish wedding adventure of 2003. At the time, I didn’t know if or when I would be heading back stateside and given raft of convoluted hoops necessary to jump through to get student and work visa’s properly sorted in the wake of the september 11th attacks, it was anyone’s guess when Risa might be able to visit Japan.
So I was elated when I received a phone call the other day to hear a familiar voice chirp up “Hey panda! I’m in Japan! I’m coming to visit you!” – which sort of brings me back to the exposition of this whole affair, primarily things coming around full circle.
Of course we have to stop by the world famous Samurai public toilet!
It’s funny the way things have changed so dramatically in so short a time. It’s surreal seeing a person who you previously knew from the “before” of America suddenly step off the bus into the “here and now” of Japan – even more surreal because while before she was a visitor in “my” country, now I am a visitor in “hers”, only…. she’s a visitor as well?
In this day and age of criss-crossing national borders so blithely, it is inevitable that one runs into all sorts of disjunctions like this, bizarre conjunctions of previously disparate spheres that serves only to obfuscate the paradigms that had just moments ago seemed so clear. Past and present, east and west and all around, college and “the real world” – all jumbled together and mixed up in a big ol’ cross-cultural stew.
Risa’s now a teacher, having received her masters and TESL certification, which, when added to the fact that her english is now astoundingly perfect (not to mention her Japanese, obviously) makes her infinitely more qualified to teach English than I. Nonetheless, in her perpetually polite manner, she inquired if she might have a chance to observe me teaching at my school. It was weird trying to teach with her sitting there watching me – I remembered back when it was her sitting in the seat in front of me as I went on and on trying to explain the nuanced details of the usage of the subjunctive tense in modern english. Yet now, I couldn’t help but be aware of the fact that now she probably knew more about the English language and how to teach it than I did. So many things have flip-flopped – now I showed her around the streets of K-town, explaining the various intrigues of the ancient Maeda clan as she marveled at the whole “Japaneseness” of everything, despite the fact that this is her country – she fills me in on the latest dramas unfolding in the democratic primaries back home – we discuss the state of foreign language education both in America and in Japan – only I, the american panda pontificating about the failings of the monbusho, and she, a Japanese english teacher, detailing the tribulations faced by newly arrived Mexican immigrants in southern California. It seems so different and distant from those days spent by the lake correcting each other’s (badly written!) homework and thinking about what we would like to do in the future!
Nothing says friendship like a big spatula full of sizzling okonomiyaki!
It’s so strange the way life leads us, I think, floating around here aimlessly in this country, with only distant memories and hazy thoughts towards the future to guide me. Unexpectedly, a piece of the “past”… or at least the “before” bubbles up in my path for a moment and I’m not sure just how to reconcile the linkages between that which was and that which is now…! If I were a pithy french existentialist, I’m sure I’d weigh in with a breathy, angst filled forlorn “Who am I? What a I? Where am I headed?” but since I am just a mere panda, suffice it to say that my poor little panda brains are twisting around in knots trying to figure out just how to make the edges of this dreamy state of Japan that I am currently swimming in mesh up against the shores of the previous “concrete” reality that I had known. Risa has interrupted my paradigm, as it were.
I apologize for the bad 12-year old girl blog angst writing. Won’t happen again.
Anyway, the whole bizarreness of it all not withstanding, we had a blast – I only wish she could have stayed longer…! It’s always fun to catch up with old friends, and I feel truly lucky to have people who will brave the some of the most boring places in the world to come visit me – whether I be stuck in the cow-infested countryside of Wisconsin, or the rice-paddy filled northern climes of inaka japan. I wish I could elucidate more clearly the strange mish-mash of reverse-culture shock and curiously incongruity that happens when different spheres of our lives collide like this, but I’m afraid I can’t right now since I seem to be afflicted with a severe case of narcolepsy this week.
I’ll try and write more later. But I’m so happy to see my friend again.
Now listening to: “DJ GT – Voices of Summer 2003 (moonshine)”
(what would I do without digitallyimported.com…? Probably break my horrible addiction to uber cheesy vocal trance, for one…!)
8:33 am

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