My New House and the Blue House! The God of Fire and the King of Pop!
The last couple months have been about as crazy as I expected. Well, maybe only 80% as crazy, since the only time I panicked was when an old man put me on the wrong bus and I then missed my flight out of Busan, dooming me to miss my connection in Seoul and buy a fresh $200 ticket so I wouldn’t miss school the next day and lose my reputation, but BESIDES THAT things have been manageable! Just packed. This is my first free day since the Iranian election so there’s a lot to go through. Ordinary Time resumes after Halloween. I’ve come a long way this year: so long a way, in fact, that everyone I meet thinks I’m 26, and I’ve become something of a magnet for 30-year old women. Is this good or bad?
My old home had housed ten different foreigners over eighteen years, and a family for decades before that. It was so broken down that a washing machine cycle took three hours, taking a shower in winter was a spiritual exercise, and floorboards didn’t just creak; they cracked. The ALTs here took advantage of the open space and decrepitude to host a massive Halloween party there every year, the biggest party for foreigners on the island of Kyushu. “Before I was placed here, I’d heard there was a crazy Halloween party in Kumamoto,” the new guy said last month.
In July, my owner said that his brother had found a job in Tensui, and he’d need my house in two months. But where would I go? I asked my host mother if she had any leads. She said, “Well, I have an empty lot near here. What if I build you a house and rent it out to the Board of Education?” “That would be, um, fantastic,” I said. As soon as I picked myself up off the floor, we had a deal. The groundbreaking was August 10th while I was in Nagasaki with my family, the location blessed by a Shinto priest with sake and fish and ritual dancing. A month and a half later, my home was finished. It’s modern, beautiful, and secure, with more than enough space for one person. “I wouldn’t have done this for anyone but you,” my host mother said. “You’re a good teacher, and you’re honest and responsible. You’re almost Japanese!”
I returned from Korea on the 27th and moved on the 29th, with the Board of Education transporting most of my things while I was at elementary school. (For my part, I had to organize, label, clean up, and bag everything beforehand, but once again I was a lucky, lucky man.) The one thousand and one of the books I catalogued last summer are sitting in the vaults of the Board of Education, crying out softly for local libraries to take them in. Other ALTs took a hundred and one books themselves, from classics to “I Am America and So Can You” to the Kama Sutra picture book. The red tape, for phone and Internet especially, has been a little thick, but those are luxuries. This house is so pure that just being inside of it reminds me of what a sinner I am. It’s in a beatific state, and even if I never defile it with messes or spills, my human nature will, ten months of my fingerprints, footfalls, showers, and cooking alone taking the sheen off. As for the Halloween Party, at the last minute we found an abandoned mall in a failed resort area forty minutes north of here, so it promises to be bigger and better than ever.
We had another run of holidays in late September, so I took a day of vacation and spent nine days in South Korea. I went to Seoul, the current capital; Jeju, the resort island; Gyeongju, the ancient capital; and Busan, a big port city. Being all alone in a country whose culture and history I barely knew and whose language I didn’t understand (besides the alphabet, which is really intuitive) was humbling but enlightening.
Korea is close, accessible by ferry, but the Koreans and the Japanese don’t get along. Familiarity breeds contempt, or more specifically, invading someone else’s country breeds contempt. Besides Japan’s 50-year occupation of Korea pre-1945, Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded in the late 16th century after Japan was unified, and his annexation plot was foiled by his death. Japan is proud of its temples and castles, architectural wonders preserved for seven hundred and something years. On the other hand, nearly every Korean landmark has been rebuilt in the last generation because the Japanese destroyed it once or even twice before. Thank heaven for sports: now Japan and Korea send baseball players into battle, and their arms buildups revolve around who can be a better World Cup host. It’s a testament to the Koreans’ love of their country that they have so much identity and culture despite China, Mongolia, and Japan hassling them since there were horses in Asia.
The Japanese haven’t felt the pain of the fighting so acutely, so they don’t hate Korea so strongly: the less cosmopolitan among them just think their culture is deeper and that some things Korean are distasteful. “Don’t drink the water, and don’t eat the sushi,” one grandmother friend told me. “The women are dangerous, too,” another chimed in. The political stories that have run here this year haven’t helped the stereotype that Korea is a rough place with emotional people. North Korea continued to be Japan’s biggest security problem. The opposition party, frustrated with stonewalling by the party in power, tried to break into Parliament with axes and chainsaws. The saddest story was Nobel Peace Prize Winner and former president (and occupant of the presidential Blue House) Kim Dae Jung being implicated in a massive corruption scandal, giving the Secret Service the slip, and going hiking in a national park…his body was found at the bottom of a mountain. This story ran in America, right?
The water wasn’t dangerous. Quality of life has vastly improved in Korea over the last fifty years. It felt like as comfortable as Japan, and in fact it seems like Korea has followed the urban Japanese model, from the architecture to the public transportation to the convenience stores. The Lotte Company, started in Japan by a Korean and now boasting headquarters in both countries, symbolizes this. The Korean economy follows a big business model: Hyundai, Lotte, Samsung, and the like are powerful and omnipresent. Seoul’s financial district, national government, and city hall seemed to be located in the same district, a field of skyscrapers inhabited by men in suits.
The sushi was just as safe. Korean cuisine is delicious. Besides the world-famous barbecue, meals are chock-full of vegetables and covered in spices I wish we used here (but can’t because strong flavor is antithetical to Japanese cooking.) Street vendor food is a little more costly than it is in Taiwan, but it’s still cheap and fantastic. Waffles were a surprisingly popular dessert. Regarding the third dangerous thing, sometimes I’d hear random really loud arguments from apartment windows, and people weren’t quite as polite as they are in Japan, but as an American, everyone seemed perfectly normal. I didn’t realize I dislike Japanese fashion until I got to Korea. The dress there seems simpler and more natural. Seoul is infamous for how much plastic surgery is done there, and the very first thing I saw there was an advertisement for fixing your eyebrows and skin tone, but I couldn’t tell who the offenders were: people looked natural and good. I especially liked that the most fashionable items for men were plaid shirts, jeans, and big black-rimmed glasses. Look good by looking humble. It’s anti-style.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Church there. Confucianism and Buddhism are the most popular creeds, but besides the Philippines, Korea is the most Christian country in Asia. The Christians refused to worship the Japanese Emperor during the occupation, so the religion is respected. Crosses are visible all over cities. The different Protestant branches have massive buildings in the center of Seoul just like the companies and government. Priests are moved from parish to parish every few years to protect against politics. The Catholic churches I attended in Seoul and Busan were right in the middle of the biggest shopping districts there, integrated into people’s day to day lives. Hundreds attended each of the Saturday night services I attended.
By chance I attended the youth Mass in Busan. It had modern music and a Power Point which ran readings, responses, lyrics, and beautiful (and cute) drawings in tandem with the service. At the end of the service, a high school kid gave me a melon roll and juice, and I hung around to talk to people outside. The priest was thirty years old, and he was on fire. I didn’t understand a word of his homily, but it seemed like he started with self-deprecating jokes about some part of life, pointed out how that reflected the Gospel, and then took everyone somewhere deeper, the same three-step path to homily happiness practiced by my pastor in Indiana. When he sang during the consecration, he was sonorous, and he was on a different key than the setting of the Mass – inadvertently he’d taken us somewhere ancient that the contemporary guitar and drum jangle around him couldn’t reach.
Back to Work
Back at the ranch, I spent seven days guest-teaching at four other elementary schools in a neighboring town, Taimei. So now I have hundreds and hundreds more little friends. The kids there were noticeably bigger than my own students. People say it’s because mountain people are small and shy while ocean people are big and rough. Never mind that these towns are seven miles apart.
Mutsuai Elementary had done a ton of English work at the request of the city the year before, so their program was fantastic. All the teachers could speak a little English, and some had been to Australia; they’d read the first and second graders picture books like “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”; they had tons of colorful materials for every lesson, and English was taped on the steps and handrails and pasted on colorful posters all over the school walls. I had only one day at Takamichi, so the staff, kids, and I made sure we enjoyed it the whole way. I was laughing all day long, and especially when I accidentally made a trip to the students’ girls’ bathroom after recess right in front of all the kids. At Nabe, the kids didn’t know much English, but they were playful. They know me as “Mario,” but sometimes I was Barack Obama or Michael Jackson. At Ohno, I met my all-time favorite group of students. The 6th graders and I really clicked. I’d laugh, and they’d laugh, and we’d keep escalating the fun until we were out of breath. They helped each other, enjoyed class, and enjoyed class. Coincidentally, there were twice as many girls as boys (and the girls demolished the boys at basketball during recess). I should introduce them to my second-favorite class, a 6th grade in my town that’s 2:1 in the other direction and always goes nuts for me. But it might be weird because the girls are much taller than those boys.
Many days, I’d come back from the elementary school and find a homework mountain on my junior high school desk. So I’d toil ‘til 8 or 9, because if you have enough time to travel you have to prove you have enough time to do other work. We’re also practicing after school for the English speech contest. I’m slightly worried about this year’s group, so we’ll have to get a lot done this week. Culture Festival, my favorite part of the school year, is next week! It’s the only time of year when the kids spend a significant amount of their time on the arts. I’m going to savor it. The teachers said at last year’s party that I should perform at the next one, so I rustled up the courage to offer to sing and play guitar this time around, but there’s no time in the schedule for me.
The Biggest Festival of the Year
But there was plenty of time in the schedule for me at the town’s all-night God of Fire Festival. The fire department treated me last year: I was handed drinks by ten different people and spent an eternity talking about life and God using hand signals and one-syllable words, and at the end I was given a Japanese fireman’s robe. This year, I knew much more about the language, culture, and people, and I wasn’t so drunk. Thanks to these changes the place looked smaller, friendlier, and more peaceful, and it was really exciting without being scary. (Scary, you say? Just wait a couple paragraphs.)
I donned my fireman’s robe, walked the hundred meters from my new home to the temple, and talked to parents and students (including some junior high grads, many of whom have much thinner eyebrows now). The other half, of the time, I was running and wrestling. All night, the young people and old people from a certain neighborhood (Shimo-Uso: they live in the mountains and like to be the best at everything) vie for control of the temple. The young people bang drums, blow horns, and rush at the old people of the neighborhood. They crash into each other and grapple for the high ground. I was a guest and occasional flag-bearer of the young guns. I picked up a bunch of bruises, accidentally cut a guy’s forehead open with the flag (luckily he was OK ten minutes later, so World War III was averted), and thoroughly enjoyed myself. “Don’t let the foreigner in!” people shouted, all in good fun. I do wish we’d taken the temple a few more times, but the elders were too heavy and too wily. During one run, a 70-year old man grabbed my neck, and I had to choose between the temple or and my consciousness.
A big fire burned in the temple square all night. At the end, the firefighters simmered it down to a bed of coals and ashes. The people of Shimo-Uso stripped to their loincloths and pushed a huge cart across the ashes ten times (at this time, I was talking to the fire chiefs, who were missing me, so I unfortunately missed this chance to show everyone what an American really looks like). Then two of my students who live in the temple neighborhood received blessings, came down from the temple, and walked across fire. Did you catch that? Sorry, there are so many paragraphs that for the benefit of those who are skimming, I’ll hit Return:
Two of my students walked across fire.
A couple weeks ago, I asked one of my students what it was like to cross the coals in 2008. “I can’t remember,” he said. “I was too scared.” I was scared then, too. I frantically screamed the names of my students as they approached the fire. This time, I just prayed quietly. I saw now that they weren’t doing this to prove their manhood: they were doing it to express their faith. The boys don formal robes and swords and dance for the god all night. Then they put on even more formal clothing, trade their swords for staffs, and cross the hot coals three times apiece. It was hard for them to walk at school the next day, but their offering was good.
The King is Dead
This is behind the times, but better late than never: people here were really bummed about Michael Jackson’s death. Here he was a performer, not so much a tabloid subject, and he had some fantastic shows in Tokyo. MTV Japan mourned him for a week. My students never mentioned his name, and then suddenly he was their favorite musician. High school ALTs made mix tapes of Michael Jackson videos for class.
I don’t have the best perspective on this because I was still eating baby food at the time, but it seems like Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan represent the beginning of worldwide pop culture. They were the best at what they did, and everyone in the world knew about them. America was sending out cultural signals before then, but the rest of the world didn’t have reception. Then Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa tuned in, and they couldn’t produce much of their own material yet so they got the two Michaels. Now the rest of the world has its own media, and while the American scene is still the standard, it isn’t everything, so people are less aware of it and less in love with it. “Thriller” and the Dream Team can never be topped. My kids know Jordan, but they don’t know Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. They know Jackson but not “American Idol” or Kanye West. America’s cultural trade surplus is shrinking on the other end, too, as Japanese anime and video games, European basketball players, Chinese musicians, and the like surpass our domestic product and find their own place in everyone’s homes.
Not having the Internet has been good for me. I’m slowly reading Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” in Japanese. Instead of reaching out into the world in my free time, I reflect upon myself. With no one to communicate with, the past floats from up the deep. My mistakes and sins are more numerous than I’d thought, my pride greater than I’d expected. Keep me in your prayers.
I’ll be back online October 28th, and I’ll come back to America for two weeks over Christmas. My stay here finishes at the end of July, and next fall I’m going to study Mandarin in Taipei (unless the Politburo on the big continent makes me an offer I can’t refuse). Taiwan people, please introduce me to your churches and your grandparents!