Sunday, 28 June 2009

My own private culture dance.

Things have been quiet at school lately for two reasons, firstly there were the mid-term exams, which (as in educational facilities around the world) pushes students into a studying frenzy as they realize just how little work they actually did over the vacation. I sympathize, and every time I visit a Shinto or Buddhist shrine, I throw some loose change and ask that I may never have to take another calculus test as long as I live.

The other thing that’s been sucking time is preparation for the school 文化祭 (kind of a ‘culture festival’). It’s like a fair, and all the classes and clubs have to design some sort of thing to do on the day. Cafes and ‘Haunted Houses’ are quite popular ideas, and a lot of the clubs do demonstrations or exhibitions of their sport or art. My role in proceedings seems to be to provide spelling and grammar assistance in terms of signage and bilingual menus, thus ensuring that Nogatas English-speaking population (of what? 5 people?) Can successfully navigate and order coffee. That’s some cultural sensitivity right there (although if you’re Korean I guess you’re out of luck).

I often wonder if the English teachers of Japan deserve a cultural designation of their own; after all they do seem to gravitate toward each other, and they have a unique social construction and dynamic that sets them apart from any other group of people out there. Where else in the world can you sit in a maid-café with people from five different continents and argue over how to best restore consciousness to near-comatose teenagers, or which piece of animated pornography is most offensive?

It’s interesting to note how your cultural conception of yourself and others changes as you adapt to being ’somewhere else’, we define ourselves in lots of ways, but many of them are intrinsically tied to factors external to us; where we are and who we’re with; I went from not really considering my ethnicity as a factor in my existence, to regarding it as almost my single most defining characteristic. I’m Shaun, and I’m a 外人, a foreigner. Even to my fellow foreigners, I’m ‘Shaun the Scottish-Australian guy’.

Also interesting is the way that foreigners generate a distinct cultural identity of their own, formed from a mélange of western cultures with some hefty slices of Japan; I’m thinking of strange saki cocktails, ‘parties’ in the onsen and perverse obsession over the horrible English grammar found on most fashion. Particularly interesting is the way that foreigners use language, wielding together parts of Japanese and English to form a set of hybrid slang perhaps that only finds use amongst this niche community; a few examples:

Genks? –How are you? (from the Japanese ‘genki’ for fine/healthy)

Iina! – Sarcastic ‘That’s great’ from ‘ii na’, Japanese for ‘great right? or ‘lucky right?’

Bow-fest – An event involving a lot of speeches and bowing.

Gaijin-hunters – Japanese people who have a fetish for foreigners.

‘(That’s) NHK’ – A waste of money, from the fact that the NHK collects TV license fees on a voluntary/honour basis and it’s very easy to evade payment.

So, example dialogue:

A: Hi man, genks?
B: Hai, I’m ok, I’m kind of hungover from my office enkai last night.
A: How was it?
B: Ok, kind of a bow-fest though, and there was this gaijin-hunter who wouldn’t stop bugging me.
A: Iina! What are you up to now?
B: I’m gonna go play some pachinko, wanna come?
A: Ugh, no thanks; I think pachinko’s pretty NHK.

Do you feel elucidated? Perhaps I’ll share some more next time. Right after I finish getting UNESCO to designate my mall as world heritage site.