Monday, December 13, 2010

The Norm for Me, A Chuckle for You

I was talking to a friend the other day telling them about my day and they started laughing. I have been here so long that I’ve forgotten that what may seem completely normal to me at this stage in the game, is still very foreign for most. Here are few stories that sum up my day to day life.


I am a girl who jogs. This is big news here in Japan. I figured this one out when I did my self-introduction for the first time.

Hello, my name is Kate.

I am 23 years old.

I am from California in America.

My hobbies are jogging and playing soccer. 
Not a total lie, but it should be noted that the fact that I could pronounce those words had a great deal to do with while they were chosen to describe me.

Then it was usually time for questions from the audience. The first question was almost always, what do I want to see or do while in Japan. Valid question. I always answered with, I want to hike Fuji. Valid answer.

A stifled gasp followed by a slight head tilt would inevitably spread throughout the audience.

It took a while to figure out why I was getting such a reaction of shock from my little brunetted audience. So I took my question to where I take all my Japan related questions. Ian.
“Big Bro, why do these people look perplexed when I say that I like soccer and running?”

He explained that he thinks it’s rare for girls to say they like sports, and then to say that I enjoy two, AND want to hike Fuji, was basically too much activity for them to handle. I envisioned them pondering whether or not they could somehow sneak me on to the Japanese Olympic team.

I kept that thought in the back of my mind as I gave my self-introduction over and over again. I watched for reactions, it was a mix of shock and awe. I deduced that Ian’s theory was correct. To add to the confusion, during these self intros I would usually be dressed in a suit with pearl earnings and make up. I could see a few of them trying to picture what I would look like in shorts and ponytail, accented with a few beads of sweat. By look on their faces, they just couldn't conjure up such an image.

As time passed, it became accepted at Gochuu that I was in fact, athletic. So much so, that the sentence Kate likes soccer, appears on average, in about one English lesson a month. As the students and faculty at Gochuu made their peace with the fact that I enjoy outdoor activities, the uniqueness factor began to die down. What I failed to realize was that the rest of Kamagaya had yet to join them.

I have taken to jogging up and down one the main roads here in my little hometown of Kamagaya. I usually jog at night, though the road is familiar, the one I take to go to the grocery store in fact, it’s well lit and there are usually other pedestrians. It’s completely safe. Hear that mom and dad…COMPLETELY. SAFE. Occasionally as I jog I’ll see other joggers, usually men, who almost do a double take as I run by, but I just smile and they simile back. End of story.

Except one time.

I had recently added Bon Jovi’s greatest hits to my ipod which by default lead me to run a little too fast around the Pachinko casino. I was stopping at the corner to stretch and catch my breath. I was stretching under a light…hear that mom and dad, UNDER. A. LIGHT., when I saw an older couple walking toward me. I glanced up and saw them, unintentionally making eye contact with the man. He smiled, I smirked back and continued stretching. They continued walking toward me. He a few steps in front of her. As I stretched my hamstring I wondered if he had ill intentions. It’s Kamagaya, so it was a safe bet that wasn’t the case, though if it was, he was doing a hell of a job hiding it behind a smile and a wife. He came closer. Still on the defense from living in San Francisco, I stood and took out one of my head phones. He was only getting one of my ears, Bon Jovi had made previous reservations.

I let out a, Konbanwa.

He replied with the same. We had established it was a good evening, what the hell did he want?

He smiled and I skeptically did the same. The man was 50 plus and had a limp. 
I had a feeling I was going to make it.

Joggingu?! He asked, mixed with the slight gasp and head tilt that had become all too familiar.

Hai. I said as sincere as possible, while trying to hide the, Is this seriously a real conversation? thought that was running though my head. Evidently he needed clarification for what he thought he was seeing.

With the raise of an eye brow, he let out a satisfied, hump, and asked if I was from America.

Hai, Amerikajin desu. California kara kimashita. 
If he was already surprised to see me running, I might as well just push him over the edge with the fact that I was from the movie screen state.

I watched his face as he looked me up and down, checking off the stereo types he knew from both the small and silver screen.
High pony tail...yup
Big no.

I felt like he was looking at something he’d only seen in movies. And in fact he probably was. Kind of like when you go to the zoo as a kid and you happen to visit the elephants the day one of them is giving birth, and even tour guide Judy is excited. “You all are here on a VERY special day,” she explains, “Brenda has been due for some time now and… OOOOO there she comes! Even I’ve only seen pictures of this! I’m sure you will all be telling you friends and family about this when you get home!” Why yes Judy, yes we will.

So there I was. The equivalent of Brenda the pregnant elephant. Exactly what he had seen in the movies, but never in real life, let alone in his own backyard. He knew we Californian girls at the ripe age of 23 worked out, and he had seen a real live one. I`m sure his friends were going to hear about this. I could only hope that one of them works at Gochuu and could causally add, “Ya, and she plays soccer too.”

Kate “The Novelty” Sensei.

The title is strictly objective. I swear.

Upon arriving here in little Kamagaya, more specifically my middle school, Gochuu, I became the fascination of most of the students, and even some of the teachers. I was tallerish than most, though only 5`4``, I wore clothes that were different from what they had seen, I can run and get dirty yet be girly during the day, I wear nail polish and have pierced ears. I wear three rings on my fingers though I am not married, a concept that is still difficult for them to grasp. Mind you, none of my rings are on my left ring finger. My hair is a lighter color, so much so that I often get asked what color it is. They aren`t quite sure how to classify something that isn`t as dark as theirs or obviously blonde.

When I answer simply with brown or light brown, they looked shocked. By the looks on their faces, brown just doesn`t seem to be a sufficient enough answer for what they were looking for. I think they were expecting some crazy crayola color that is overly descriptive. Instead of brown I should be more thorough next time with, `Naturally brown, but went to Costa Rica last summer where it turned slightly blonde and has yet to grow out completely.` Try that one on for size kiddos.

But as time went by, all my nail polish, rings and unique hair color became quite normal to them. The amount of time I got called cute or kawaiiiiii in a day, was beginning to dwindle from 5,489,574,876 to only 1,000. Bummer. But I thought it was probably about time for my head to deflate anyway. I began to become less of a big deal, allowing me to talk a little more with both the teachers and students, and having them get to know me, Kate, not red nail polish girl from America. All was going smoothly until, day by day, they began to discover something new about me.

The realization: I can type…fast.

`SOOOOOOOOOOOOO fast Keito!! Sugoy!` they would say as I wrote an email or was Gchatting with 6 friends. Clearly working hard. I would smile, and do my best to dismiss it. But they wouldn`t let it go. Everytime I type anything, I get a few glances and they smile and shake their head in awe. Sometimes Keima will stand and applaud me. Just as that factoid was coming to a close I made the poor decision to respond to a text on my iphone (completely acceptable here, as is clipping your toe nails in the teacher`s room but thats another story) and that just about sent them over the edge. They were seriously in awe and now speechless. I had no explanation for this one and was tired of telling them what a big deal it wasn`t, so I just smiled and said, `Arigato.`

The truth: I type no faster than any of you. Promise.

The realization: I can drink…a lot.

It was time for an enkai. Drinking party, remember. We arrived, beers were set in front of us. We clinked glasses and took a sip. I, unlike my coworkers remained sober after that sip. They were instantly buzzed and completely hammered after the beer. After one I was feeling good, though still completely composed. My volume level had not gone up, nor were things as funny as everyone else seemed to think they were, and the biggest shocker of them all...I wasn`t bright red. I was continually asked if I was ok, worried that I wasn`t having fun. When in fact, the exact opposite was true, I was having a grand time! I ordered another beer. By now I was on number 3. More giggly, but still very much in control. Realizing that I was on number 3 and not acting much different than I was after one, word got out that I can drink. Which simply meant that I wasn`t as out of control as they were after having equally as many beverages.

I was immediately drilled with questions. I had no idea how I was supposed to answer them. Why do I not turn bright red  after a sip of alcohol? Well that would be because I`m not Japanese folks. But I couldn`t say that. So I went the other direction. `I`m half Irish,` I offered and shrugged. `HONTOOOO?!!!` three people said in unison. Yes, really I am. Word spread down the pillow seats like wild fire. She`s Irish, She`s Irish, She`s Irish, Hai Keito Sensei Irish. Hai honto! It was a modern day version of telephone. Only the alcohol had allowed the rules to be altered and instead of whispering to the person next to you, the game became to make sure the person two down from you knows. Hai, Irish, that`s why she can drink! I heard again. Another beer was placed in front of me. And some sake. They were doing their best to meet my Irish needs. Maybe this little realization isn`t so bad.  My Irish needs were leading to free drinks.

Did I mention, I`m German?

The truth: I am half Irish, German and Slovenian for that matter. Though I am not any stronger of a drinker than any of you reading this…except you Japanese people. You I have beat.

The realization: I have green eyes.

Since I have been here, I have discussed with students the visible differences in our appearance. As I stand in front of them every day, they have had plenty of time to take this all in. Yes, I have light brown hair, Yes, I have lighter and rounder eyes, Yes, my clothes are different, No, I am not a fashion model, Thank You for saying I`m cute.
Recently, a few girls learned the word beautiful, and upped the ante. 

As the months wore on in to winter, the compliments on my physical features dwindled, but those in the clothing arena were just gearing up. The girls clearly have my wardrobe down, and anytime I wear anything new, usually sent from home (THANKS MOM!) I receive complements all day. This also comes in the form of a great inhale and ooooos and ahhhs when I walk into the classroom in the morning. It`s great.

The other day I was helping a little girl the best I could with her 1 minute speech. She had written it in Japanese and we were trying to translate her simple sentences into English. It was going to be awhile so I pulled up a chair next to her. She had chosen the topic option of Respectable Person. On the worksheet, Keima had made, were pictures of Ghandi, Einstein and even Obama as examples. She chose Miley Cyrus.

I was trying to figure out what she was telling me so I could tell her what to write in English, when she literally put down her pencil and started at me. She said something to her friend in front of her who was also trying to help us translate. You should know that any conversation I attempt to have with any of these kids generally takes the assistance of anyone within earshot.

Now they were both staring. `Nani?!` I said with a chuckle. Neither of them new the word for eye so girl number two opted for plan B. Charades. She pointed to her eye. Unintentionally poking herself which diverted our attention, only for a moment, to check she was ok. The minute we determined she was fine, their heads immediately shot back to my face. `Nani?!` I said again a little more genuine. While they stared I was racking my brain trying to think of what was different about me today. Other than my scarf which we had previously discussed the moment I hit campus, nothing else was new.  

One of them was able to mutter the word color, and I laughed. `Ahhh, green?!` I guessed in English, then offering the Japanese, simply because I knew it, `midori?!` That`s right ladies and gentlemen, my eye color in Japanese is the same as my favorite cocktail, Midori sour. Coincidence? I think not.

They both nodded vigorously. I`ve been here 3 months, surely this would have been covered by now. Then I realized that all the time I`ve been here, they haven`t really seen me up close, evidently not close enough to notice my eye color. I am usually up at the board or kneeling next to them helping with a worksheet, rarely are we face to face.

The girls were now trying to tell me something. After a brief pow wow with each other, Eye Poker screamed, Chinese angles! I looked to the Miley Fan for assistance. She nodded in agreement. No help there. I didn`t have a clue. `Chineeeeeseeee angles?!` I said again, `Chinese?!` She nodded. This couldn`t be right. My mind shot to any Chinese movie I could think of, which was none. I tried to connect the green eyes to anything Chinese and came up empty handed. I was about to get up and get a map when she said it again. This time I heard, Charlie`s Angles. `OHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!` I let out. I couldn`t help it. We all laughed and I high fived them for good communication and the fact that we did this without Keima.

Eye Poker said something again in Japanese and I figured she wanted me to name the actresses that played in the movie. All I could think of was Cameron Diaz. Not even knowing if that was what she wanted me to do, I offered Cameron`s name. Eye Poker and Miley Fan were VERY excited. `Hai, Hai!` they pointed to their face then mine and said, Cameron Diaz. For clarification, I pointed to my own face and said, `Cameron to Keito, onagi?! Honto?!` Which literally translates to, Cameron and Kate, same. Really?! I didn`t know the word for face so that significant part of the sentence came in the form of pointing. And see you thought my Japanese was getting good.

They give a firm nod to expresses that was exactly what they ment. They were overjoyed and completely satisfied with themselves. It was official, I look like Cameron Diaz.

The Truth: I look nothing like Cameron Diaz. Oh, and my eyes are actually hazel.


  1. Lol. Great post Kate Bohan! Sounds like your having a blast!

  2. Hahahaha LOVE it...and so true. All of it.

  3. And lovely Irish, Hazel eyes they are! Enjoied & hooted. love ya

  4. You and I are so much alike. Our students picture us as the stereotypical Californians and we somewhat fit the bill. But, when we talk about being athletic they look at us like we are crazy! Now I wonder if my students just think that I a total jock, especially now that some of them know I play on an all boys soccer team. "Internationalization" at its best!!



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