Occasionally I’ll come across misspelled gems when I’m marking students’ work or looking over their shoulders in the classroom during a writing task. This week has been particularly amusing, starting with Monday when I was marking writing exercises using the passive tense. Conjugating verbs into the passive is a pain in the arse for anyone learning English thanks to all the irregularities, so I sympathise. I asked the students to think of a person or object and write three hints about it so others could guess what or who it is. I’m glad I put my coffee down when I read the last one from my pile of papers, which said, “He was boned by my mother.” It took a while until my JTE and I realised he was trying to say “borned by”. The logic was there at least. やっぱり英語って難しいな～。
Yesterday we were making sentences like “I (do ~ ) when I’m happy/sad/bored etc”. One student wrote “I crap when I’m happy.” Of course I never actually laugh at the students, but I can’t help having a quiet giggle to myself. I feel for them though, R and L are really hard to distinguish from a Japanese perspective.
There’s one 2nd grader (13 years old?) who is hilarious and will always beckon me over for a chat when I’m walking around the classroom making sure people are getting on ok with the task. He is so determined to speak English even though most of what he says is one word questions or mostly gestures, but despite this we end up having some pretty interesting conversations that usually just result in him asking in Japanese and me replying in English, so at least he can use his listening skills. Yesterday he asked me what surprised me most about Japan when I first got here, and I said the level of customer service. Japanese shop assistants treat you like a VIP, from the precise way they handle your money to the honorific language that they use. In contrast, I told him that shop assistants in the UK might have a little chat with you and ask about your day or even compliment you on something you’re wearing. Both countries have their negatives though; in Japan I feel like I’m being served by robots because everyone says the same few set phrases, and in the UK sometimes I just get completely ignored throughout the whole transaction.
I love these little exchanges of culture because it makes me appreciate both sides instead of just taking one for granted. It still makes me sad though how most Japanese people I’ve met, including the students, have never left the country or just have no interest in going abroad. We actually did a lesson on opinions the other week, and one question was “Do you think English is important?”. I was a little disappointed to see that over half the class wrote that they didn’t think so. The majority of the reasons were along the lines of just not wanting to go abroad, but one student simply wrote 日本人だから。 (because I’m Japanese.) Cue eye roll. This lack of open-mindedness does make me realise why foreigners get such bizarre treatment a lot of the time in Japan. Yes, Japan is a special country full of interesting food and culture, but internationalisation is a thing, even if it happens more in other countries than here. One thing that stands out is the NEVER ENDING COMMENTS about how amazing it is that foreigners can use chopsticks or eat sushi. One of my principals spent half the evening at a teacher’s gathering asking me if I could eat such and such Japanese food, then practically wetting himself when I said yes. He couldn’t believe it when I said we could easily buy soy sauce, noodles and tofu in UK supermarkets. He leaned over to the other teachers and exclaimed how miraculous it was that I could eat rice. He brought a bowl of a variety of spinach to school once, slapped me on the shoulder instead of using my name and told me to try it. He stood behind me as I ate, saying “How crazy is it that foreigners can eat this stuff?! She probably won’t like it.” while the teacher next to me said, “Actually, I’ve never tried it either.”
Of course not everyone is like this, and this is probably a more extreme case of alienifying foreigners, but even in a subtler form it puts me off staying here long-term. I love my life here, but I’ll be relieved to be back home when I can blend into the crowd again and not feel like a special snowflake.
Praise Japan and its generous number of public holidays. This year’s Golden Week had a total of four holidays, which worked out that if you took two days off work as paid leave, you ended up with a rather tasty ten-day break! Eager to cross off the next country on my travel bucket list, I rounded up three friends and began planning a trip to Thailand: three days in Bangkok and four days up in the mountainous city of Chiang Mai, with a day in Tokyo and two days travelling/recuperating at the end.
In March I posted about the plum blossoms in Kameido Shrine and how I wanted to go back for the wisteria festival – so that’s what we did in Tokyo! It was significantly busier, but the weather was superb for a spot of terrapin-watching and gorging on freshly baked sweet potato chips and mochi.
As our other friends booked the wrong plane tickets, Lauren and I spent the first morning wandering around town. We had a bit of a hectic arrival at 2am when the taxi driver couldn’t find the apartment we were staying at. We ended up getting a different taxi who tried to rip us off at the end, which I was having none of. The first taxi cost us 350 baht from the airport, despite dropping us off in the completely wrong location, and the second didn’t put the taxi meter on so he decided to charge us 500 baht instead of the 80 or so it should have cost us. Luckily I’d done my research and knew about this habit of theirs, so after suggesting we give him 100 baht and being consequently laughed at, I gave him 200 and an angry rant about how we were tired, annoyed and not in the mood for his shit. Whether he understood my English or not, he got the message. Lauren said she was going to just cough up the 500 and leave, but decided from then on she would definitely leave the haggling to me! You don’t mess with a Fraser.
I feel like I’m going to write too much so I’ll aim for a quick summary of each day! EDIT: Oh well I tried.
Day 1: Tried to find a cafe from Tripadvisor – failed. Tried to find the place where you get a massage from a blind person – failed. Someone yelled “ELLEEEEEN!” from the middle of the road, it was Mina (another Aomori JET friend) who was standing next to a car with its hazards on, parked dubiously in the middle of a roundabout. We ended up driving over an hour north of Bangkok with her Thai friend to Ayutthaya to see an awesome temple. It rained and the roads were flooded, which was scary, but we got to see a floating market and some weird stunt show depicting the battle between Myanmar and Thailand. We finished the evening with a Thai massage, where my body was pulled and stretched in ways I never knew possible, then tried to find some street food for dinner. We stumbled into a bit of local territory and couldn’t read any of the signs or menus, but luckily we came across Mina’s Thai friend who had just bought some dinner for his parents. He ordered us all Pad See Ew for 40 baht each (about 80p), which was cooked at the front of what looked like someone’s garage and served on plastic plates from Tesco, and it probably remains the best thing I ate all week.
(The first four photos are from our day in Tokyo.)
Day 2: Sam and Alex arrived in the early hours, didn’t get off to a great start when Sam realised she left her phone in the taxi and we had to sort that out. We got it eventually though! Spent the day at Chatuchak market, which sells EVERYTHING, but we probably spent the most money on food and fruit smoothies. I am in love with Thai food. There is such a variety of dishes, everything is so sweet and spicy and fragrant, which is a wonderful change from the same dishes that get repeated over and over in Japan. For our first lunch of the day, I ordered a spicy crab and green mango salad and shared a coconut ice cream in its shell with Lauren.
Day 3: Had a lazy morning while we packed up to go to Chiang Mai. Decided to hit up Wat Pho to see the reclining Buddha, which was too long to get a decent photograph of! He was sort of lying behind all these pillars, so you got to see different sections of him as you walked down the side. It was ridiculously hot, and we took shade under the trees in the temple courtyard. Caught the plane that evening and had a nice dinner at our hotel, the Rainforest Boutique. It really felt like a holiday when we started drinking coconut rum out of a coconut with a cocktail cherry on a stick.
Day 4: Lauren suggested we go to the Royal Gardens in the morning. We were probably the first ones there, so it felt a bit eerie walking around with the loudspeakers playing instrumental versions of Kiss From A Rose and November Rain. We got a taxi back, which was more like a red truck with no door on the back that you just hopped in through and sat on the bench inside. We soon realised these were the norm in Chiang Mai, and to hail one you have to ask the driver if they are going in the same direction as you. If not, try a different one! For lunch we all tried the Chiang Mai speciality, Khao Soi Gai, which is noodle curry soup with crispy fried noodles sprinkled on top. Back at the hotel I got an aromatherapy massage, but wasn’t feeling great and thought I was coming down with something. My fears were confirmed when the masseuse looked at me worriedly and said she thought I had a fever…
Day 5: I woke up feeling like crap on the day we were due to see the Elephant sanctuary, the day I’d been looking forward to most. I almost didn’t go, even put my pyjamas back on and resigned myself to bed feeling a bit sad about my predicament. Then I thought “fuck it” and got up and went. Who knows if I’d be able to get this opportunity again?! I could just sweat the fever out!! It must have worked because when we were outside my back felt like a waterfall and I didn’t feel as bad later. (Also probably due to it being 38 degrees.)
The Elephant Nature Park was for elephants who had been rescued from a lifetime of pain in the circus, at tourist attractions where they were forced to “paint” pictures, carry people on their backs for treks and carry logs through the forest. We were shown a very disturbing video on the way there in the minibus of the elephants’ previous lives – I was a complete emotional wreck and couldn’t watch! I suppose I hadn’t really considered how badly they were treated in order to become submissive enough to let tourists ride on their backs or do stunts in a show, so to know the whole truth was very overwhelming. It made me glad I chose to see them enjoying their lives in peace, with endless supplies of watermelon and pumpkin to keep them happy. Some were blind, some had missing ears, some had broken legs that had healed badly so they had to limp. One poor thing had stepped on a landmine and had her foot blown apart. There were many dogs at the park too, most of which had been rescued during the floods after the earthquake five years ago. We were allowed to feed and touch some of the friendlier elephants, which was amazing. We held out halves of watermelon at the beginning of the day for the elephants to take from us with their trunks – they were so rough; it was the strangest feeling! I loved the sound their trunks made as they curled the food away into their mouths, like a huge sheet of sandpaper being swept over a smooth rock. I loved watching the other elephants eating huge stalks of grass, lifting it up with their trunks and absent-mindedly stuffing it in their mouths at all sorts of awkward angles, then just letting it fall to the ground if it didn’t fit in properly. We got to see a three week old baby elephant and its mum too, which was gorgeous. At feeding time, another young elephant ran over and trampled all through the watermelon, closely followed by one of the dogs who had come to investigate. We had an amazing vegetarian buffet lunch, then finished the day giving the elephants a bath in the river and relaxing on the viewing platform to see them play in the mud.
Day 6: Sam and Alex had plans to go to Tiger Kingdom to see the tigers, but Lauren and I didn’t fancy it (paying to see tigers in cages had us suspicious for a number of reasons) so we enrolled in a Thai cooking class (it was called Thai Orchid cooking school) for the day instead. Our teacher was lovely and let us choose from a number of dishes. I made fresh spring rolls, Tom Yum Kung, Penang curry, Pad Thai and a steamed banana cake with cocount. During the break the teacher took us down to the market, where she told us about traditional Thai herbs and spices, let us try unusual fruits and have a wander around. We tried durian, which tastes better than it smells… The texture was creamy like an avocado and it tasted like a ripe papaya with a strong hint of garlic. Not the worst thing I’ve ever eaten! My favourite was the mangosteen, which tasted like lychee. That evening we explored the night market and stocked up on more elephant trousers and souvenirs.
Day 7: We had no plans for our final day in Thailand. so we found a nice cafe on Trip Advisor to go to for lunch. It was too early to eat when we found it, but we happened upon a beauty salon and decided to get our nails done while Alex went for a wander. Our sleeper train to Bangkok left at 5, so we said our goodbyes at the hotel and headed to the station. At about 7:30, the train guard came to make our beds, pulling out seats and compartments to make bunk beds on either side of the carriage. It was surprisingly comfortable! I would’ve slept better if the train guard hadn’t been in the next bunk over, making the weirdest snoring sounds I’ve ever heard in my life, like hundreds of farting butterflies were being expelled from his mouth. 12 hours of travelling down and 24 to go, we hung around at the airport until our flight back to Tokyo was ready, then when we had safely landed it was straight to Shinjuku to catch the night bus back to Aomori. I was dreading it, but I thankfully I slept like a baby and felt only a bit gross when I finally got home.
I’m really keen to explore the southern parts of Thailand, definitely need to visit a few beaches, so I’m sure I’ll be back. Wouldn’t mind if I missed Bangkok though – it was fun, but a typical touristy city. I just want more mango and sticky rice.