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E-mail to Anna
September 30, 2002: Waiting for Culture Shock

I keep expecting "culture shock" to hit me like a ton of bricks. Life is settling down and I've passed the rosy "everything is a new adventure" stage of my time here. My JET manual warns that at some point soon I will be filled with resentment and rage that everything is so different. I would be lying if I said that there aren't moments of frustration at never really understanding what is going on around me, at receiving daily memos and charts that I can't decipher, and at relying on my memory of Microsoft Word feature locations to prepare classroom materials. On the other hand, I realize that never again will I be in the position of allowing myself such obliviousness. Moreover, I didn't come here to have the same life that I enjoy at home.

Most times mixing obliviousness with curiosity leads to interesting experiences. Take, for instance, this moment when I am still recovering from my introduction to Korean Red Pepper Chocolate. I must admit that the mix of spicy and rich was an interesting— if not surprising—taste excursion. It also garnered many interested smiles from my colleagues, although that is not a new experience. Every time they introduce me to something they watch wide-eyed to see how I manage. Both friends and co-workers have watched me closely as I tried sake and shochu (which, I think, is a distilled liquor made from rice or sesame seeds. It closely resembles paint thinner in both appearance and smell). I cause a scene if I bring my own lunch bento. When I pull it out of the fridge I usually must parade it around and show everyone on my way back to my desk. They all remark at my cooking abilities (as if I've done something fancy), especially if I've attempted to create something remotely "Japanese." It's as if they expect me to magically conjure up American-style food from the local suupahmahketto.

Other times my oblivion does lead to frustration. Such is the case with my newest quest—getting my hair cut. While I have been warned against sitting in a Japanese hair salon (styles are reminiscent of the feathered 80s look, minus the hair-sprayed wings) my hair is getting a bit shaggy. In my travels on the island I often encounter barber poles. Yet I spent three afternoons in a row trying—so far unsuccessfully—to get my hair cut. Most, I discovered, are just for men. I surprised the barbers who were in the midst of lathering up some man's forehead (a full facial shave is common—well, they leave the eyebrows!). I wove back and forth across town. At one point, I crossed a moat. No dice. I even asked at my stationary store. The woman behind the corner thrust a Shisheido catalog at me and asked if I was interesting in 2400 yen mascara. So I found the local "Avon" lady, but no one to cut my hair. I have not given up; today I will remount my effort, although I don't yet know the verb "to cut." I'll chance it. Who knows?—maybe I'll end up a blonde—or with a perm. Speaking of which—last week, I saw a man with a perm. He was 5 foot 4—sporting an afro and bright blue stretch velvet gym pants. It was a sight. All he was lacking was a large gold chain with the male symbol around his neck.

In other news I've managed to encounter the toothless woman twice more. Once was at a pre-school sports festival. I was there watching Akira (the "CRAZY" three-year-old son of my friends) and kids taiko drumming. She was there, sporting the large white bonnet, and chanting "blue." Two days later, we had a more personal rendezvous. Often as I am out running people will shout "Gambatte" from their cars or storefronts and sometimes small children will run beside me for a few metres and ask me questions. This time, the woman rode her bike up next to me and grinned. She shot three semi-accusatory phrases at me, of which all I caught was a word that sounded like the Japanese word for German. I stared back blankly and apologized. She glared at me and wagged her finger as she peddled away. All I could do was shake my head and keep running.

I'm also coming to realize that there may never be a "normal" week here. Every day I come into school thinking that I have certain classes at certain times as reflected by my schedule. Then—invariably—classes will be traded, we will have school election speeches instead of 5th period, or the first years will be surveying the school grounds instead of having classes. Then there are the extras—like this week, when the teachers will be posted around town before school in order to greet the students in the morning. Welcome to midterms.

I'm also learning to play badminton with Olympic-level athletes. I had no idea how different it would be from the Badminton I know—relaxing outside with a picnic. I'm having a great time and doing fairly well despite my inability to serve and the times that I hack at thin air. To play though, I had to clean my shoes with a toothbrush, as I did not yet own indoor sneakers. While in the Sports Center I wore four different pairs of shoes. The ones I came in, my newly-cleaned sneakers, indoor slippers, and bathroom shoes. I'm still recovering.

That's about all from Naru. The weather is turning cooler and most of the leaves in front of the school have fallen, to the delight of my third years who have much less sweeping to do now. And although I miss the vivid colors of the Adirondack and Green Mountains, I'm enjoying fall cherry blossoms.

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2002 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475