Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Not too long ago, in an inbox very, very nearby... (Part 1)

Unearthed from my email, previously thought lost forever in a struggle with a kleptomaniacal Japanese oni, I give unto you the first of my journal entries detailing my reactions, misadventures, and daring dos as an Assistant Language Teacher with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme.

August 9, 2009, One week in Japan

Holy Shiitake, Batman!

Well, as I stare out my new bedroom window, the fact that my clothes have to dry on a line is not the only thing that reminds me I'm living in Japan.

It was almost exactly one week ago that flight JAL 001 touched down at Narita International Airport in Tokyo. Sunday evening consisted of clearing customs and airport security (which sounds like much more of a hassle than it really was, laughably even), then sending two of my largest pieces of luggage ahead to Aomori-ken, while my two littler pieces of luggage and I—oh, and 600 other JETs from AROUND THE WORLD!!—piled into various buses for the two hour ride to Keio Plaza. There we attended the three days of orientation—to sum it up, it was half a lecture in common sense practices (*yawn*), with a quarter of the time spent meeting new JETs, eating, sleeping, etc., and the other quarter time spent in actual, good, practical, (and at times humorous) seminars on topics ranging from managing expectations, food/shopping, and teaching techniques. I enjoyed it, but I also kind of felt like I could have been thrown in head first as well and probably done okay (thanks to Ruairi, my fellow office ALT).

Wednesday morning I ate breakfast (important: including some rather soggy, mush-like powdered eggs), met with my JET advisor and the rest, and started off again for the airport. This time it would be Haneda Airport, which handles domestic flights, and another 90 minute bus ride. We boarded the plane, took off, and landed again in about the amount of time it took us to drive to the airport, so that was good. As we stared out our windows we could tell we weren't in Kansas...er...even Tokyo anymore. Mist shrouded hills covered in an emerald cloak of evergreen trees surrounded us. No glass and steel anywhere rising above the tree line. One little u-shaped luggage ramp greeted us as we entered the airport in Aomori-shi, the capital of Aomori-ken (the suffix "-ken" is for prefecture, "-cho" is for town, "-shi" city, "-shu" state, and "-gun" is for county, I think). Already I could see a pleasant, middle-aged Japanese man in a suit holding a sign that said "13" amidst the crowd beyond our position. I looked down at my shirt and saw that it had a #13 sticker on it. Lucky, huh? When we JETs were given the signal, we exited the luggage area and left to meet our prefectural advisors; no longer to have anyone to rely on but ourselves and our knowledge. At this point, what I didn't know couldn't hurt me, right?

Boy was I in for a surprise!

"Hajimemashite," I said. "Watashi wa Ransu Raito desu. Dozo yoroshiku onegaishimasu!" (translated: How do you do? My name is Lance Wright. It's my great pleasure to meet you!") My prefectural advisor's name was Sawahashi-san. He was a little taller than me, 54 years old, spoke decent English, and was a self-proclaimed Christian. I told him I was too. In fact, in the car ride from the airport to Oirase-cho, he explained to me how he had visited America twenty years ago and stayed with a Christian family there. They had taken him to a church where Chuck Simmons had spoken. He asked me if Chuck Simmons was still alive today, and all I could say was that I thought so. (To be honest, the name sounded familiar, but I had no idea who he was talking about.) With him, Sawahashi-san had brought another office worker, Mr. Sawagashira, who was younger, spoke far less English, and stoically drove the whole way while Sawahashi-san and I sat in the back.

Before we arrived, we stopped at a soba (buckwheat noddle) shop for lunch. It was good, but more than I could eat, and it was the first time I got to practice taking off my shoes for Japanese style eating/living. Soon we were back on the road.

Twenty minutes on, I'm feeling a bit warm, and I can feel gas building in my stomach. "Suck it up, wuss," I told myself. "You're NOT going to do ANYTHING!" My stomach laughed at me. Minutes later, my mouth was full of soba again, and I caught what I couldn't hold in my mouth in my hand. Thank God for hands! Mr. Sawagashira quickly pulled over and I was soon retching out the window over the side of the vehicle. Fun!

I apologized as best I could, checking my suit for damage, and climbed back into the car. Desperately hoping it hadn't been the food I just ate that had caused this, I explained that I thought the winding road and the heat had caused it instead. Nope! Once we were in Oirase Town proper, and switched cars to take me to the town office, I vomited again. Soba looks like brains when you throw it up. Now feeling utterly terrible, I proceeded on to meet my boss, a man called simply Kyouikicho, a title like superintendent, but meaning more like "lord administrator," or in this case "head samurai." Ruairi claims he looks like Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The man clearly commands respect though, and is very grandfatherly to the ALTs. Our meeting consisted of small talk around a nice table with some mugi chaa (barley tea) all around. I met Ruairi for the first time at this point also. (Ruairi is several inches taller than me, very short hair, blue eyes, Irish background, and from Bristol, Connecticut.) I managed to survive the meeting without incident and moved on to my apartment.

Ruairi and Mr. Sawagashira accompanied me to the apartment and showed me around. I don't remember anything they said that day because I was looking for the bathroom again. I barely made it, but not before puking all over the toilet seat first (this time it was mostly water and tea). That's three times! They asked me if I was all right and I didn't know, but resolved to take a nap because I was so exhausted at this point. Since they weren't far away I wasn't worried.

Sleep. Glorious sleep. Kind of glorious sleep. I had back pains at this point, I was feeling dehydrated, a bit of a headache, and my stomach came calling again. Four times! And this time my stomach had no water left. Something was very, VERY wrong! That night I met up with Ruairi and we discussed the possibility of seeing a doctor. We determined I had food poisoning—but from what? I spent part of the evening looking up the symptoms and dreading the prospect of a urinary tract infection, or worse. Since the local clinic had already closed, Ruairi said we'd have to go to Hachinohe-shi (twenty minutes by car) to get anything done. Our other option was waiting till morning and seeing a doctor in town. Since I hadn't vomited in a few hours at that point, I chose the latter.

And that was all on Wednesday.

Don't worry, that was the worst of it. Thankfully, I'm on the mend now. The past two full days have been much improved. I'm not at 100% strength yet, but the aches are gone, I haven't vomited since, and the other symptoms are all in remission. According to Ruairi, who went with me and Mr. Fukuda, another office worker, to the clinic, the doctor said I ate something that didn't sit well with me. NO SHIT! On the plus side, I got to experience socialized health care firsthand, (though a little too soon for my liking). I was given a prescription of pills and a mixture that goes in water to take for four days. The whole expense cost me only $14 US. The rest was covered by my insurance, which ironically, hasn't even kicked in yet.

Recently I've been rearranging my apartment. It's nice, but you can tell it's been lived in if you look close. I'm very grateful for the care I've been given so far, and I hope my employers will come to see that they'll get their full money's worth with me. Ruairi is a life saver (perhaps literally), and I know not to eat powdered eggs in Japan anymore! Sheesh!

Oh, and we had our first enkai (office party) on Friday night. It was pretty fun! Ruairi says the Japanese are the Irish of the East. They're all exceedingly kind though, and I look forward to getting to know each one.