Monday, December 28, 2009

Dr. Feelgood

Since I’ve been ill in real life (IE 2009) with a kidney stone, I thought I’d regale you with the time I had to go to a Japanese hospital.

I caught some sort of intestinal infection that had me going to the bathroom far too often than even I had become famous for. Back then (or back there, if you prefer), I considered myself to be constipated if I only went to the bathroom once or twice a day.

I know, there had to have been something wrong with me if I considered five times a day to be pretty normal – and let’s face it, there was nothing pretty about it. I suppose I could narrow it down to my ingesting of 2 liters of Coke a day – my preferred poison of choice. As well, the only foods I knew how to cook were chilli con carne, spaghetti and lasagne. I see the splatter pattern now.

Back in 1990, however, I knew I was sick. I’ll spare you my gory details and will instead attempt to describe how I got to go to the Ohtawara Hospital.

From Monday through Thursday, I was working at a junior high school and suffering. On Friday I visited the Ohtawara Board of Education (OBOE) offices. Not looking my usual chipper self, both Kanemaru-san and Hanazaki-san noticed my complexion to be quite ashen, and came within a few feet of my desk to query me about it.

I explained in English that... well, I had to go to the bathroom a lot. I was trying to be polite. Hanazaki-san didn’t say anything... and he’s the one with the fairly understandable English. So, I pulled out my English/Japanese dictionary. Kanemaru-san pulled out his Japanese/English dictionary and off we went.

Would you believe that my dictionary didn’t have the translation for ‘the squirts’... sorry if I’ve lost you, but it is what it is. Now unable to use words, I resorted to pantomime.

I grabbed my then slender stomach and doubled over and made farty noises. Everyone laughed. Now I appreciate a laugh, but only when I’m trying to be funny. I held up a finger a la ‘just a moment, please’ (chotto matte, kudasai) and ran to the bathroom and came back with a roll of toilet paper.

Believe it or not – they understood I was sick. Of course it may be because I actually used the facilities then and had accidentally left the bathroom door open – but they got my drift.

Hanazaki-san, Kanemaru-san and my bespectacled driver whose name I never learned drove me to the Ohtawara hospital.

Even 19 years ago, it looked 19 years behind what we had in Canada, what with the cramped halls, patients in stretchers in the halls and cracked floors and walls. No biggie. But what struck me as odd was my doctor.

He stepped out of an office into the waiting room where I sat—excluding my posse, all of the other Japanese visitors sat very far away form me, probably not interested in catching whatever international disease I had. I appreciated their concern, as I too did not want to catch something national from them.

Anyhow, the 30-ish doctor in the typical white lab coat and black glasses had a lit cigarette dangling between his lips that jumped rhythmically as he talked to Hanazaki-san. In fact, pretty much everyone who worked at the hospital was smoking—like it was part of the job description. Stranger still is that in my three years there, I never saw or heard a Japanese person with a smoker's cough/hack - I wonder if the amount of green tea ingested had some kind of preventative medicine for cancer?

The doctor stuck his face right in front of mine, pressed a tongue depressor into my mouth, exhaled some smoke at me and asked in the best English-accent I had ever heard outside of Monty Python what was wrong with me.

After Kanemaru-san helped me pick my jaw up off the cracked and dirty marble floor, I quickly explained my issue. The doctor nodded, put two fingers into his white coat pocket and pulled out five wax packages and told me to take one a day, coughed, said sayanora and walked away. Hanazaki-san ran after him.

I kid you not... these wax cachets were about two inches wide by one inch high and thinner than a sugar packet at a gas and gulp diner. Inside the packet was a very fine purple coloured powder. So... do I mix it with my coke (I didn’t drink coffee then), ocha (green tea), heat it up on a spoon and inject the liquid or snort it?

Apparently that’s what Hanazaki-san went to find out for me, telling me I need merely tip the grainy contents into my mouth and swallow it quickly before it dissolved my tongue. That’s what he said. He might have meant “dissolve on your tongue”, but Hanazaki-san was quite insistent I follow his directions.

With nothing to lose but poop, I emptied the contents into my mouth, tasted it and then swallowed. It was a big mistake to have tasted it, because if you can imagine grape flavoured dirt, then you are half-way to the map that will tell you where to find the pit that some now-extinct creature must have barfed atop this medicine. Bleagh! If I ever needed a reason to never get ill again, that magical medicine in the doctor’s pocket that he had handy for me was it. Prescription? Who needs that? Labels on the packaging? That’s for whiners.

After two days, I felt like my regular old self again. On the Thursday of the next week, I was picked up at my school by Hanazaki-san at lunch time and driven back to the hospital for what I figured was a follow-up.

Nope. I had to pay my hospital bill of 1400 yen... which is about $14 US.

Somewhere flush with excitement,
Andrew Joseph
PS – sorry no pictures, but I’m sure you understand.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ego Rock

All foreigners arriving in Japan are immediately set upon by the locals to answer the many questions they have about all things non-Japanese (that’s me).

Is it cold in Russia? What? You know I’m not from Russia. It doesn’t matter that I’ve not been there... as a foreigner, it’s expected that I be an expert in all things foreign. It was a tough question, but it really came down to what time of the year... I guess it would be cold in the winter, but not in the summer. Giving me an “Ah so ka” (kindda ‘oh, I see’), I apparently dodged the bullet of incompetency.

While one might naturally assume that the Japanese are asking me these questions and more specifically ones about myself, in an effort to get to know myself and Canada better, rest assured that did not enter into the equation.

Questions in Japan are for knowledge, and knowledge is power. But it’s also for prestige. In this case, there’s a certain amount of prestige from learning something about the local gaijin (foreigner), as that knowledge can propel one up (or down) the social ladder—at least that’s how it appeared to me in Ohtawara.

Why down a ladder? Sometimes it depends on which gaijin you talked to. Getting chummy with Andrew, Matthew or Ashley – that’s a move up the ladder. Talking to one of the nice folks visiting from India at the Asian Farm Institute in north Ohtawara, could be considered a bit of a downer—not that the people visiting Japan and learning Japanese farming techniques  weren’t fantastic people, because they were—but prestige-wise,  they just weren’t Western enough, pardner.

Simply going out to buy film for my camera (yes, I am that old), will inevitably get me stopped by people interested in learning something about me. And that’s cool. I like talking to people – especially when they do so in English. Heck... it’s the point of me being in Japan. Well, that and getting laid. That was always there in the back of the mind.

Back when I was 23 (two years before travelling to Japan), I was incredibly shy. I know you don’t believe that, especially when I’m laying myself open with this blog, but if you think about it, it might explain that whole virginity thing I was afflicted with through high school, five years of university and two years of college.  Anyhow, the point is... I’m in Japan not to teach English so much as to teach the Japanese a bit about internationalization. Perhaps Matthew will be kind enough to give me the Japanese equivalent of that phrase in the comment section bellow? He’s a smart one, that Matthew.

Anyhow, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Japanese already know the answer to every question they ask the foreigners, but just get a kick out of hearing us speak English. Remember, just being seen with a foreigner is cool – but having a conversation – wow! You must be super frosty. And dating or more? Woo-hoo! Words describing how cool you are escape me.

Since all of Ohtawara seemed to know I was dating Ashley, I was only allowed to answer questions.

The following are some of the questions I was asked ad infinitum during my first three months here until someone got smart and had it printed up in the local newspaper. This is also true.

Following each question are my answers as they would have been seen if the newspaper had used my computer 19 years later and wrote in English.

  • “Why did you come to Japan?” As long as the question is asked nicely, I usually answer: “I don’t know” and blubber for the next four minutes.
  • Why aren’t you married?” “Just lucky, I guess.”
  • "Do you have a girlfriend?" “I don’t know. What day is it?” (Was I already having problems already with my I-hate-your-guts-today-but-might-not-tomorrow-if-hell-freezes-over-girlfriend?)
  • "How many girlfriends do you have?" “I don’t know. What day is it?” (Yes, I guess I was.)
  • “How much money do you make?” If a member of the opposite sex asks – be careful. They may be looking for a spouse. I usually turned the question in my favour and asked them: “Japan or Canada?” Because we are dealing with English as a foreign language, I can safely state that most Japanese would only hear the word Canada, and will repeat it. I always made my salary in Canada higher than what I was currently earning in Japan. I found that besides making me look awesome for giving up money to come over and teach English to the youth of Japan, it will also scare away prospecting mates who will be stunned at your fiscal stupidity.

However, because I did have some brain function working, I gave the straight answer: “Enough to live comfortably here.”

As an aside, I made 3.6-million yen a year. A Japanese millionaire, though the US equivalent was $36,000. Not bad for a job right out of school with a recession going on in North America.)

  • "Do you know how to cook?” “No, I don’t. I’m very hungry.”
  • “How big are you?” Y’know, I was never sure how to answer this one, but I always gave the straight answer less the fact that I had a sense of humour confuse anyone. I told them my height.
  • "Can you give us your impression of Japan?”My “Sorry, but I don’t do impressions. Ba-dump-bump” confused the heck outta everyone. 
To the newspaper’s credit, they printed all of my answers word for word... in English, so maybe 30 people understood it.

Somewhere a lot of people fell off the social ladder and went ba-dump-bump,
Andrew Joseph
PS: Yes... I really was asked these questions by an Ohtawara newspaper reporter – and yes, those were my answers. I never thought it would see print. Still, after it was printed, my boss Mr. Hanazaki called me a new phrase: odokemono. It means ‘joker’. After this, I was not allowed near the media without Ohtawara Junior High School English teacher Ryoichi Shibata by my side.
PPS: Not everyone is impressed with certain foreigners. See photo above.
PPPS: Today's title brought to you by Janis Joplin.
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