Summer Sunshine

While it may seem a little ridiculous, considering how much I whined and moaned just a few months about about how ungodly cold and snowy it was here in my little corner of Japan, I now find myself doing the complete opposite and cursing the very blasted existence of summer as I sweat my way through yet another “lesson” in what must surely be the hottest, muggiest place on earth.

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A beautiful waterfall hidden away from the concrete ugliness…

To give you an idea of what I’m going on about, you must first realize one thing – Japanese schools don’t believe in having air conditioning. Or, perhaps I should state more accurately, in a perfect example of that perverse sense of logic that is the physical manifestation of the Japanese spirit, they believe in having air conditioners, but just not actually using them. The result is class rooms where the median air temperature in the summer is actually somewhere in the 35-38 degree celcius range – seriously.

The teacher’s room fares only slightly better – despite the installation of four massive and incredibly high tech air conditioners in the ceiling last year, we found ourselves staring pathetically at their vengefully silent and closed air ports, as the kyoto sensei explained in that particularly patient way he has that makes it seem like he’s explaining to a dog why you shouldn’t pee on the living room carpet despite the fact that you’ve just made a perfectly legitimate inquiry (example: “why can’t I park my bicycle behind the school again?” “because the kids might steal it” “uuuhh…but they stole it the last time when I parked it in front of the staff room like I was supposed to…” “you should watch your bicycle more carefully…”) that for reasons that remain known only to god and the prefectural board of education (whom, I should add, are sitting in perfectly air conditioned offices high about the burning concrete st”we speak) “we can only turn on the air conditioning after July 3rd…”.

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Panda and C belt out a tune rocking karaoke tune.

*smacks head against desk*

When the air conditioning was finally, sweetly and mercifully turned on last week, then, it was a major event attended not only by the entirety of the staff (including the poor bastards in the seitoka – student discipline department, who have been doubly cursed by providence, not only having to deal with punishing the worst of the worst students in this school, but also having to do so on a non-ventilated tiny office on the fourth floor, which, for obvious reasons, is not where you want to be in the middle of the hottest summer known to man), but also it seems, half the student body – the half that still bothered coming to school, I should say (the numbers had been steadily dropping as the temperature/humidity climbed). That having been said, the miserly powers-that-be then dictated that the air conditioners should be set to “no lower then 29 degrees C”, which is sort of a cruel mockery, especially as the LCD panel sits right by the door to the staff room displaying the “cooled” temperature in big blinking digital numbers to taunt and tormet us. For comparison, I have my air conditioner at home set to 18 C and I would set it even lower if it could. It may be some sort of twisted blessing, I suppose, that even at this entirely unreasonable setting, the air con still manages to make the staff room somewhat more liveable than the rest of the school – transitioning between the two results in an oppressive wall of humid heat you can actually see as you leave the former for the horrible, horrible latter.

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Panda does his best Rodin impression. I think I look like a hobbit in this pic…

Outside the staff zone of bare-survivability, the situation quickly grows apacolyptic. So hot was it that today, not more than five minutes into a lesson, I was literally drenched in sweat from head to toe – it was as if my entire shirt had turned into one big pit stain… even my pants were sort of damp from the heat/sweat and where they touched the back of my knees, there was this sort of, I guess you could call “knee pit stain”, which was gross as all hell. Not that it really matters, however, since my poor poor students had long since stopped paying attention to what was going on at the front of the classroom and were instead either slumped over in sweaty, silent pain at their desks, or else laying in a pile falling half-way out of their chairs passed out from heat stroke, their lifeless bodies occasionally quivering when I call on them to answer something. The JTE had long since stopped teaching as well, resigning herself to pressing her nose to a cracked window and staring forlornly outside much in a way that sort of reminded me of what a desperate puppy locked in a car with the windows up in the middle of summer might look like. Concentrating on “teaching” english was out of the question – rather, I found myself straining to focus my harried mind simply on trying to remain upright and conscious.

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C flashes her lovely smile at the camera…

*sigh* it was so hot, I actually found myself being violently angry at the sun…!!!

Heat stroke, dementia and fits of fainting not withstanding, summer is a sad time for other reasons as well. If you’ve stumbled across the ol’ pandablog from one of the “JETs teaching in Japan” webrings I belong to, then chances are you know that late summer is when the standard JET contracts end and the new ones begin – which means that many of your fellow teachers will be finishing up their contracts and either going back home or moving on with their lives.

Staying behind is always hard to do – I used to hate it back when I was in university and so many of my friends would leave after their year of exchange was over, back to their home countries and all you’re left with is just you – walking down the same old streets, going through the same old routines, staring out at the same familiar landscape… only now people who were there just the day before are there no longer, and most likely will never be. The “tenous web of fragile human interconnection” I think I penned sometime before in a particularly angsty blog entry… And here again, I find myself in the same situation, on the other side of the world.

In many ways I think that the emotion of seperation – and that sounds like such a profound way of putting it – I’m not referring to the pain of seperation from a loved one or significant other, but maybe a more mundane, but still somewhat visceral feeling of seperation from friends or people you get on well with – might be lessened if we just woke up one day and they were gone, without warning. Sort of how watching people waste away with a chronic and ultimately fatal disease can sometimes be harder than if someone just goes suddenly in a car accident (pretty morbid example, sorry). I mean, so you don’t have to ruminate on the impending changes, or have to have those pithy and borderline weepy conversations where you promise to always keep in touch or to visit, or to call, or to make plans to see each other in the future – all those varied and assorted promises that are the ink we use to inscribe the shakey lines of the fragile web of human interconnection, stretching out far over the horizon, criss crossing globes and hemispheres and continents, time zones, cultures and more importantly, lives.

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The water was a beautiful shade of blue rarely seen in this land of sewage drains…

I think that part of what makes it so precarious is the fact that the future of our lives is so unknown, especially at this age. Things are in such a rapid state of flux, the dynamics of our situations changing from day to day, high mobility of person and widely ranging variability of plans and goals for the future that it can make even the simplest of tasks neccessary for spinning the web that much more difficult – “give me your address and phone number back home” proves much trickier than it may seem on the surface.

“do you want my parent’s home address and phone number?”

“okay”

“then again, I don’t really go there much and they sometimes lose my mail.”

“well, what about where you’ll be going?”

“well, I’m not really sure of the place, where I’ll be living, etc. Depends on where I can find a job.”

“okay, well do you have a cell phone number back home?”

“No, not yet. Tell you what, why don’t I give you the phone number of my friend’s place where I’ll be crashing for a few weeks in NYC while I look for a job and a place, and I’ll give you my new number as soon as I get a cell phone.”

“okay, that sounds good. So then, hmm… I guess, why don’t you give me your e-mail address?”

“yeah, that sounds great! I’ll give you my e-mail address and e-mail you as soon as I get a place/number, etc. okay?”

And so it goes. You scribble down a solitary name and e-mail address in the blank entry field of an address book that has fields for so much more information for each person, promise to e-mail each other – to add each other to the inevitable “friends mass e-mail list” for those updates that you’ll send out to all your buddies from back in university, back on jet, back on exchange, wherever it is that you’re leaving, those updates that will come weekly at first, then monthly, then finally every three months, before petering out and finally stopping as that tenous, fragile web – finally snaps the impossibly thin and delicate whisp of digital thread that was all you had connecting each other in the first place.

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Trees, rivers and rocks – like a scene out of “The River Wild”

The emotion of seperation would be lessened too, I think, if the person remaining behind was staying somewhere cool, somewhere huge, somewhere dynamic as well, where the winds would change every minute and bring new and interesting things, people and experiences blowing into our lives ever so quickly as they left, so that at least we could take some sort of coddling comfort in the ever changing rapidity and fluid dynamicism of it all, so we could at least sum up our lives with some manner of pithy mantra espousing the modern post-internationalist virtues of freedom of mobility, capital, and people, encapsulate it in commercial slogans like “digital generation”, “M-life” and so forth and say that even if we keep losing people from our lives, at least there is some form of stability in the constant stream of change.

But if you remain behind in the quiet environs of a mid-sized non-descript city, be it in the middle of Wisconsin or in the middle of Japan, then the situation is quite different. We are left to ruminate on our fragile, delicate whisp of a web as it puffs and blows in the slightest of winds, its thin digital silk threads straining and threatening to break, as we walk down the same streets we have walked down before, eat at the same restaurants we used to eat at before, do the same old tired routine, and think on the fact that only just yesterday did we used to do this with someone else – someone who our jet setting, m-life-ing, e-commercing digital generation has now allowed to be half a world away in the matter of 10 hours.

One of the guys I used to go to university with was telling us one day how strange he found modern airplanes.

“You see” he started, as the rest of us raised dubious eyebrows and put another buffalo wing in our collective mouths – “it’s like this – I mean, one moment you’re here, then you get in a big metal tube for like 12 hours, and then you get out and it’s like BAM! suddenly you’re back in Korea! It’s sort of like magic, don’t you think? Like a time travel machine or something…”

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Challenging “rapids” threatening to sweep hapless pandas away!!!

Of course, at the time we just called him some rather disparaging names (he wasn’t known as being the cleverest of people, at least outside the field of mechanical engineering, at which he was quite, quite good at) and went back to drinking our beers and watching the game.

But now that I think on it, I guess maybe he was right in some ways – in some drunken, haphazard way addressing the fundamental shift that has changed the fabric and nature of human existence and interaction with the dawn of the “modern era” of “affordable travel for everyone” and the lowering of restrictions on the movement and passage of people back and forth between most countries in the world. I wish only that I was able to put that fundamental change into more precise and descriptive words, but instead all I can do is simply brush up against its oblique, obfuscated shape – in the sad moments biking down a street and passing the apartment where your friend used to live, or the somber moments when you read something funny in the paper and want to share it with them, but can’t since they’re not there… when looking at old pictures on your ketai and snorting over something entirely ridiculous you used to do together – brush up against it and instead only be able to feel a dull sense of melancholy . . thinly construed web metaphors and half-finished thoughts of dissastifaction couched in the academic terms of political science and all its dry praise for the benefits of “free movement of citizenry”.

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Staring out over this little hidden oasis.

I went to spend the day on Sunday with a friend of mine who is leaving. I had never been down to the city where she lives before despite the fact that it is only a short train ride away from mine. I don’t know why – sort of just never made time for it, I suppose.

We had a really great time – we drove around town a little, and then out to the nearby surrounding mountains where hidden right beside the road, obscured by a few bushes and indistinguishable from the blankets of rice fields save for a small sign directing one to turn right at the next junction, lay a deep and beautiful gorge several hundred meters deep, carved into the rocky earth and plummeting straight down to a gorgeously clean river fed by a lovely waterfall.

I could hardly believe it, so used to the ugliness of this country that I had long since satisfied myself by looking at rows of artificially planted trees (you know the ones – the kind where you see a parallax as you drive by as the trees in the “forest” are all planted in suspiciously organized and straight parallel rows) to the north. But as we climbed down the steep steps into the gorge and then sat on some rocks, watching families and small children playing in the water, I sort of felt this deep sense of sadness – not just because in some ways the scene reminded me of back home, but also because I wondered why I had never come down to visit before. Surely if I had known such a place existed, I would have come down more often?

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C is incredibly shy around the camera. Maybe cuz she stole all my ketchup?

I think much like the gorge, I feel sad in the same way about many of the people who are leaving. What sorts of things do they have, I guess, for lack of a better term, that I never took the time to get to know? What quirks, or funny stories, or interesting experiences, odd jokes or fun hobbies…? All this time, and much like my friend’s town down just a few stops south on the train, I never bothered to find out, even though they were literally right beside me the entire year?

We did other things during my visit – attempted to defraud various karaoke houses (including one which to my suprise had not only the most extensive list of 2Pac songs I’ve ever seen in this country, but such thugged out anthems as 50 Cent’s “In da’ club”, a rather frighteningly skillful rendition of which was performed by my otherwise white-bread looking compatriot in crime, which has made me begin to wonder if perhaps I shouldn’t start taking her claims of being “from the hood” more seriously…. ate at various overprice family restaurants ( ^_^)v, admired all sorts of cute panda products (she hooked me up with some of the Panda-Z izzle…) and so forth.

I feel sad she’ll be leaving – not just her, but so many other people. One year sometimes isn’t enough, I think, not enough time to cement those friendships to the point where that tenous web of seperation will make it more than a few months. What can we do?

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Flashing the stereotypical J-girl peace sign. Heavens, she’s even got the J-gal lean down! Do you practice at home when no one’s looking? *grins*

I found myself making a resolution on the train ride back to be more active this next year – to make sure to spend the time wisely making the most where I am in life right now, taking the time to hang out with people, to generally just do correctly all the things I think I may have slipped on this past year.

Then again, I think, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve had these thoughts – every year, every summer, for the past 5 or 6 years the exact same though process goes through my head. And every year I find myself regretting my failure to appropriately sieze advantage of my current juncture in life.

Who knows how this will bode for the future?

Now listening to (in honor of C): 50 Cent – “In da’ club”

When I roll 20 deep, it’s 20 knives in the club
Brotha’s heard I fuck with Dre, now they wanna show me love
When you sell like Eminem, and the hoes they wanna fuck
But homie ain’t nothing change hold down, G’s up
I see Xzibit in the Cutt that brotha’ roll that weed up
If you watch how I move you’ll mistake me for a playa or pimp
Been hit wit a few shells but I dont walk wit a limp…

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