Pictured: Japanese kids preparing for
a mustard gas attack lunch
Here is the seventh in my Tuesday mini-series of reflections on my experiences in the JET Program, lazily culled from e-mails sent to friends and family at the time. This one looks to be from mid-February 2004:
So, February isn’t off to a very auspicious start. I’ve been sick for about two weeks straight, attacked by two separate viral infections back to back. I’m okay now, but it was rough going for a while there. Various people around me speculated that the children I teach were to blame, but I’m almost more inclined to blame the teachers. One thing about Japan that I think we can move out of the “culturally relative” column and into the “just plain lame” column is the fact that there is no substitute teacher system. That means if a teacher doesn’t show up, another already overworked teacher has to pick up the slack. So unless a teacher is like deathly ill, they come in. How Japanese people have the highest life expectancy in the world I’ll never understand…
Do you remember during the SARS scare, they showed all this news footage of people in Hong Kong or wherever wearing surgical masks? I suppose the intention of that footage was to provide a visual example of the hysteria and fear–I mean, I think the plague would have to break out before we’d wear something like that in the West, otherwise we’d just feel too stupid. But here in Japan (and let’s speculate Asia at large so that my SARS lead-in makes sense), it’s not really that rare at all; I mean, kids wear them everyday when they dish up food for other kids during school lunch. It looks pretty funny, actually, this line of kids dishing up food wearing lab aprons, shower caps and masks. So that SARS scare news footage might have been a touch misleading in that sense. I think most people wear them so they don’t make OTHERS sick rather than to save themselves from sickness. All around me, during this flu season, I’ve heard the hacking and sniffling of various mask-wearing teachers, and I think it finally caught up with me. I missed just under two straight weeks of school, so now I’m frantically trying to salvage the rest of this month and make up for as many missed classes as I can, while planning for new ones.
And now on to “Reader’s Corner”. My “Christmas in Japan” entry has drummed up more reader mail than any before. As you may remember, in the last installment a reader corrected my erroneous assertion that Christmas Cakes were a purely Japanese invention. Another reader had this to say on the subject:
“While your correspondent was correct in pointing out that the “Christmas Cake” is, strictly speaking, a “British import”, in that country, I believe it is actually something entirely different (i.e. not a grocery-store-style birthday cake that says “Marry Xmas” on it). I’ll leave it at that.”
Not leaving it at that, the reader went on to say, with a grim smile on his thin lips: “Also, you probably know the other meaning of Christmas Cake (“kurisumasu keeki”) in Japanese, but in case you don’t, it’s a euphemism for a woman who’s turning 25 years old and is still unmarried. Until recently, 25 was considered the “expiration date” for would-be brides, after which point they, like the cakes on December 26th, “sell for half price”. Though this politically incorrect term is still widely used, the average marriage age for women in Japan is now something like 28, rendering it meaningless.” This said, our reader noticed and tried to dislodge a small piece of tobacco, left on his lower lip from a hand rolled cigarette, by blowing on it. When this failed to produce results, he finally removed it with his fingers.
Another reader, a girl from Alabama that I’ve never met before, took offense at another part of my “Christmas in Japan” article, in which I asserted that “eating Kentucky Fried Chicken accompanied by champagne was a 200 year old Polish Christmas tradition.” She lived in Poland for one year, she told me, and the only Polish Christmas tradition of note is that of keeping live carp in the bathtub. “Vodka” she went on, “being the most popular ‘tipple’ in Poland would most likely have been served with the carp.”
Check back next Tuesday for Part Eight.