Sometimes it’s the little twists of fate.
There’s a Lot of Snow
It’s breaking records out here in Japan. Tokyo is worrying about snowfall that wouldn’t even faze my town. And they’re right to worry, seeing as how they weren’t ready for snow like this. Cars need special tires! Public transportation needs to be well-equipped! Snow needs plowing! My tiny mountain town is well-aware of what standard snowfall procedure is.
But like Tokyo, we too were caught off-guard. We’re good with snow up until a certain point. Our snowplows are more monsters than anything else. I live in constant fear of their rebellion and eventual devouring of our village. Even they couldn’t keep up with the meteorological onslaught.
Though I had plans on Saturday, after digging a path through the nearly two meters of snow outside my apartment to finally reach the road, I found it unplowed, with snow at least a meter too high for any car to reasonably drive. Plans subverted, I was trapped in my apartment. Some sudden urge forced me into doing the dishes and laundry as well as unpacking everything from the Hokkaido trip. I’m kind of a slob, and I think the snow was doing its best to whip my apartment back into something livable. Thanks, snow.
I wasn’t alone, either. Where my fellow teachers (who live in the same apartment as me during the weekdays) typically go home, two of them were trapped as well. I’ve complained before that guys are rarely around to hang out with, but here was a great example of a good opportunity to forge friendships. I technically knew both of these people, but I didn’t really know where we shared common ground. They both majored in athletics in University and were both great baseball players (one of them even going to Koshien in high school). I was an RPG loving shut-in who hadn’t played any sport seriously in my life. Aside from a mutual love of alcohol, where did we align? Not that a mutual love of alcohol isn’t enough…
Aside: Now I’m really considering buying a Wii U. That’s a pretty good excuse to get people over.
Anywho, I ended up sitting in my room all Saturday studying, with occasional bouts of show shoveling. It was pretty hopeless though. The snow kept filling in everything. It was more path-maintenance than anything else.
Come Sunday, the snow stopped. Temporarily, anyways. Sunshine melted some snow, but it wasn’t substantial. Our apartment parking lot was packed with the white stuff, and my car wore a nice snow-fleece jacket. I did my best to dig out a spot for my principal, because I’m a hierarchy-respecting suck-up like that. I also like shoveling, and I knew I’d appreciate it if I came back to a shoveled parking lot.
After a good half hour, my middle school gym teacher came out to help. He’s about the same age as I, give or take a year. We both started shoveling, but after a while, he seemed like he wasn’t enjoying it quite as much as I. A couple 「疲れた」s later, and I got the message.
This is where Japanese culture is kinda funny. On the one hand, as tired as I was, I enjoyed shoveling and would have liked to continue. But this guy had come out and helped, and if he left before I did, in spite of it being help, it would seem like he was being lazy. He wasn’t lazy, mind you. He’d done “his fair share”. It was also possible he didn’t want others to see a foreigner doing more work cleaning than a Japanese person, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. I just really wanted to finish clearing a spot for my English teacher so that everyone could park. In the casual way Japanese people do it, he declared it 「無理」, “impossible”. There was just too much, he said.
If I had really wanted to shovel, I could have done what I’ve done in the past: head inside and come out after a half hour, supposedly recharged and ready for more. If someone asked why I was back, I’d say that I had rested and wanted to continue. I’m a freak like that.
This time however, I was being bullheaded. I knew I had reached my limit, and that if I didn’t continue, I wouldn’t come back to it. Going inside wouldn’t be a thirty-minute return: it would be the end of my effort. The gym teacher just shook his head.
「一緒に卓球？」“Do you want to play some table tennis?” he said, trying to divert my focus.
「中学校の体育館」 “At the middle school gym.”
「入れる？」 “Can we even go in?”
「もちろん！鍵ある。」 “Of course! I have a key.”
Well, screw it. This is what I was looking for, right? A chance to make a new friend and bond with a fellow teacher? I decided to put away the shovel and go.
Sports, and More Sports
It seems elementary schools here are filled with P.E. teachers that couldn’t get a job in middle schools. Everyone and their mother majored in physical education, which means that the competition for a coveted physical education teacher job is pretty tough. The type who are competing over these jobs like competing, so I guess it all works out. This guy was one of the lucky few who got in.
While I’d thought America was focused on its sports, it’s actually a much better place for a gamer than Japan is. Friday Night Lights’s style “sports-are-life” and the culture of “jocks and nerds” are half-dead concepts where I come from. Sure, playing sports is a social activity that connects students/people together, but it isn’t the high school hierarchical system it was thirty years ago. The stigma around gaming is disappearing as it’s become something we all do.
In Japan however, sports are the social glue and gaming, once you enter the workforce, carries a stronger stigma than I expected. One of the most common self-introduction questions is “What sports do you like?” I often declare myself a lover of hockey, ultimate, and table tennis. The first two I can’t prove, partially because I’m terrible at both of them, and partially because nobody plays them in Japan. I’m terrible at table tennis too, but at least it’s something I can connect to Japanese people with. As we walked to school it became abundantly clear that video gaming would not be our bond.
「今、ゲームやってるか？」I asked, curious.
Shame that. Ironically, he’d spent his weekend cooped up in his room watching TV, which he assured me was particularly boring. Why he gave up on gaming is beyond me.
In the school, we made our way to the gym, pulled out a table, and began playing. It was clear from the get-go that he was leagues better than me, but being in Asia, it’s to be expected. Japan’s no China, but most students are well-versed in the art of ping pong. A gym teacher studies these things, so he had a particular advantage. In the beginning, I only had to score one point to his eleven to “win”, but by the end of our hour playing, if I scored three, it was a victory. Improvement is fun. As is scoring points when your opponent fails his serves.
Tired, I was pretty sure we were done after an hour, but I was totally wrong. I made all the gestures I knew to signal my doneness, but he either didn’t recognize them or ignored them. Instead, we put away the table tennis equipment and started 1-on-1 basketball. Just when I thought we were done with that, he pulls out the soccer ball. I was a little incredulous, but kept going, figuring it was a good workout if nothing else.
Two and a half hours after entering, we left the school. It was pitch black, and the gym teacher did a good job of scaring me a couple times. I was tired, but I did feel like we were closer than before. It’s been said that once a Japanese friendship begins, it’s never actually over. You don’t really have to maintain it. Like a Social Link in the Persona games, once you’ve leveled your relationship up, it stays up. You have to make a pretty crazy move to lower it. With our relationship leveled up, I could ignore the guy for a year and we’d still be considered friends. I wouldn’t do that of course, but it’s the reality.
We got back home, declared the snow pile actually impossible, especially after our workout, and retired for the night.
Or so I thought.
This Is What Happens When You Have Friends!
I spent about an hour or so making dinner and drinking beer, figuring I was done for the night. We’d left the school around 6:30 and it was now just past 8. After 9, I figure I’m in “let’s go to bed” mode. (Un)fortunately, I heard the doorbell ring. Sockless, I walk to the door to find a slightly-more-drunk-than-I-left-him gym teacher. “Party at [the music teacher]’s house!” It was 8 o’clock, I was kinda tired and in bed mode, but I’d never really had a great relationship with the music teacher, so I decided to just go.
Funny thing about not understanding everything around you is you’re never sure if a party at a music teacher’s house is a planned thing or just two random dudes walking over with a bunch of snacks trying to start a party. Japanese culture’s weird, man. At least I can feign incomprehension and innocence. I don’t even really have to feign it.
It’s a little awkward being over someone’s house when you suspect they detest you. A little more awkward when the conversation is at breakneck speed, and just when you’re ready to insert a clever comment, the conversation’s moved on. Luckily, after two hours or so, I was able to join a conversation on goals and dissatisfaction at work. And oddly, when it took a turn for the English, I started having a pretty good time. Both teachers’ English was better than I thought, especially the music teacher. Her comprehension was much higher than I’d imagined. For whatever reason, some people in Japan think English is pretty cool.
Thankfully, the night ended on that high note. We all walked back to our apartment together, drunker and closer than before. Yeah, it was nearing midnight and I had school tomorrow, but it felt good.
These are the moments that make you feel like you belong.