Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Human rights" class and the Osaka Aquarium!

Good morning! Wow, what a weekend! I went to Osaka Kaiyukan aquarium and harbor village; it was incredible! But before I get into that, I forgot to mention last week that I gave an interview for one of the Japanese classes at my school (sort of like our English classes in the English-speaking world; focused on literature and various misalaneous topics in the humanities considered important for making us “well rounded individuals.”) The topic of that class, taught by Arita sensei, was human right for foreigners living in Japan.

It was kind of a funny/weird class. In the beginning before my interview, the students got in pairs and described the foreigners that they knew. The first thing they all did was make huge rings around their eyes and laughed saying “Ooki mei!” That`s interesting. In the past, Caucasians always made fun of Asians for their “squint eyes,” but apparently they make fun of us for our “huge eyes.” A few of them tried to “discretely” observe me and make observations, but since I can understand most Japanese adjectives, I knew what they were saying. Big feet, curly hair, (is it really curly?) a little tall, muscular for a girl, maybe a little chubby.

“I think that`s just her sweater.”
“Yeah, foreigners always wear big clothes.”
“I don`t know…her cheeks are kind of chubby.”
“Yeah, I guess you`re right. Foreigners are always kind of fat.”
“What about Chinese?”
“Most of them are too, I think.”

Excuse me? At least they were nicer to me than some of the other assistant language teachers in town. I heard several names I knew, along with “fire hair” and “very loud voice,” “crazy” and other such descriptions. One term really shocked me. Panda. They used it several times, and from the context and who they were talking about, I understood it as their slang for someone who was half black, half white. Really? Wasn`t the purpose of this class to promote the rights of foreigners? Then we got into the interview part, my answers already written out for me ahead of time, as if I hadn`t been here long enough to know how to speak simple English mixed with Japanese. Here`s the transcript:

Arita: Please give an interview. How long have you lived in Japan?

Me: About six month.

Arita: Do you have trouble in Japanese life?

Me: Yes. Japanese is so difficult.

Arita: Do you ever wonder about something in Japan?

Me: Yes. Many Japanese people talked in whispers “gaijinn.” (Please speak with exaggerated gestures!)

Arita: How do you say the word jinkenn” in English?

Me: human rights.

Arita: Did you lean about “human rights” is America?

Me: Yes. I studied it in history and English class.

Arita: Please tell us about the people in the U.S. having many background.

Me: (tell us about background for instance, Chinese American or African American. Please use easy English, and short time…(about two minute)

Arita: Thank you, Laura-sensei! Give her a big hand.

One small explanation: “gaijinn” is the slang term for “gaikokujin.” “Gaijinn” literally means “outside person” or “alien.” “Gaikokujin” means “outside country person,” so it`s a little softer and more polite. It was something I had mentioned to her earlier that year, so she added it to the interview. Sometimes when I sit on the train, the Japanese will stare, and if I sneeze, eat, or talk quietly on the phone, they`ll whisper it really loudly, as if I don`t know what it means. I don`t really find it too offensive, (I can be an obnoxious American sometimes), but Arita sensei thought it was really bad.

Anyway, I just wanted to share that rather amusing experience. Did I mention the “black face” that one of the teachers put on at an assembly last week? Of course, every culture has an idea of what is racist and what is not, and I don`t think the Japanese mean any harm, and if anything our world is too “politically correct.” But I definitely have a sense that the old notion of white people being the only ones with a “racial and cultural superiority complex” is not really the way human nature works. Every culture, deep down, thinks they`re the best and the smartest and the most likely to continue the longest. In the case of Japan, they are right about this on many levels, such as mandatory and fairly simple recycling, low crime rate, convenient and fast mass transportation, rich cultural history mixed with state-of-the-art technology and living standards, and health care/welfare system which works a lot better than America`s and uses less resources. But other areas perhaps, like the suicide rate, workaholic mentality, lack of faith/understanding of religion, rice paper walls/inefficient use of energy, and ridged adherence to rules without any flexibility, could use some improvement.

Anyway, nothing particularly special happened throughout the week, except my Thursday night English class. Seven people came, including one of my students who told me she got into Osaka Language University! It always makes me smile to learn when my students are successful. We had Part one of a Valentine`s lesson where I taught them how to say who they love and why. For the Christian part, I showed my Malawi Missions documentary I made in college, and talked about how happy and joyful the Malawians are, despite the fact that they have nothing. Why? Because those orphans know they are children of God. They know His love, and they love Him. One of the students actually started tearing up during class and said she wanted to have love like that. That`s a great first step!

My regular English lessons were also about Valentine`s Day! We played a warm up “pass the pen” game. I played the song “I just called to say I love you” which was printed in their textbooks and when the music stopped, the person with the pen had to say “I love (blank.) The key was to get them to understand when to use an S and when not to use an S. For example, “I love sports” but “I love basketball.” It`s a little tricky. Then they practiced a “shopping for your valentine” dialogue. And at the end, I taught them the phrase, “Be my valentine” and the tongue twister “Vincent Valentine`s valentine volunteered her Vermeer veil.” Vincent Valentine was a popular character from several movie/video games when I was a kid, and Vermeer, of course, was a famous Dutch painter/designer. But none of the kids knew either of those. And here I thought I was throwing in cultural references they would understand/like! I must be getting old.

Anyway, the highlight of the week was my trip to the Osaka Kaiyukan aquarium with my friend Kayoko! Kaiyukan means “Playing in the sea pavilion.” The aquarium is in the center of a really festive seaside marketplace, and the tanks are made to get you right up close to the animals, so you feel like you`re playing with them. The animals are also trained to interact with visitors.

I stayed up too late on Friday night, so I was pretty tired Saturday morning, but I was keen on catching the 9:08 train to Osaka, so I was up at 7:30am and arrived around 11:00am. (Looking back, I really should have given myself another hour to sleep— why do I have to be so gung ho when I make plans?) But it was really nice just to walk around outside in the beautiful weather before Kayoko arrived. She was coming from Kyoto, the opposite direction, and got a little lost, so I explored the harbor and square. Here`s the front of the aquarium:

And here`s the harbor:

Then I went to the information desk to find out when all the feedings were. I don`t think the Osaka aquarium has any shows, because the lady didn`t mention them and I didn`t see any posters beside the tanks with a time displayed, like there was for the feedings. I was just in time for the river otter feeding! Here it is:

By the way, some folks have had trouble with the videos; they say “unavailable.” I tried to fix the problem, but if you`re still having difficulty viewing the videos, please leave a comment and I`ll see what I can do. And if you have any suggestions about how to fix it, let me know!

I ate my small sack lunch out in the event square, and there was this really cute dog running around with a red ball in her mouth! Here she is:

About that time Kayoko called again. She had thought I was in the aquarium, so she bought a ticket and went ahead inside. But I had been dumb and already bought her a ticket, thinking we would meet at the entrance and it would save time from having to wait in line! Fortunately, Kayoko was able to explain the situation to the staff, and they gave me my money back. That was a relief! I also rented an audio guided tour in English so I would know what we were looking at.

So about noon we went in together. Here`s us in front of the whale shark statue:

Next we saw the sea otters. Boy, do they like to bathe! The audio guide saw they have over one thousand hair follicles per square inch, so they have really dense fur! They have to work really hard to keep it all clean and groomed so the cold water doesn’t get at their skin. Here`s one of them fastidiously at work:

And of course, no aquarium is complete without dolphins! They sort of made a show out of feeding them, making them do tricks for their food, but unfortunately because the glass was so dirty in the feeding area, none of those pictures turned out well. But here`s a white-sided dolphin up close, just looking at us:

One of my favorite exhibits was the Australian coral reef. We just sat and watched the beautiful fish for awhile. The waves were produced artificially by fans:

And here`s the star attraction of the Osaka aquarium, what they always advertise on posters in the train stations, a whale shark:

These gentle creatures don`t have the powerful jaws and sharp teeth of great white sharks, but are “filter feeders” like whales, eating mostly microscopic sea creatures called plankton. They are the largest species of fish on earth and quite beautiful and majestic. They are also fairly intelligent and like to play with divers, giving them rides or doing small tricks. Unfortunately, we missed the whale shark feeding. Oh, well, next time!

Here`s another playful guy: the giant manta ray. He has a thing for the diver`s bubbles!

Manta Ray:

Doesn`t it look like some weird machine, or an alien? Especially its tubular eyes. I told Kayoko maybe he likes “fizzy drinks,” how the bubbles tickle his nose! Manta rays have the largest brain/body ratio of any fish on earth, and are very curious around humans. They are very rarely aggressive, and like whale sharks, mostly eat microscopic creatures. These are the “gentle giants” of the sea.

You might be wondering what that fish attached to his back is doing. It`s not a parasite; it`s actually protecting him from parasites! It`s called a “cleaner fish.” They attach themselves to larger fish for transportation, safety (who really wants to pick on a monster like that— except for large sharks and orcas) and to feed on the parasites. This is symbiosis at its best!

Here’s a tank where all the fish swam in one direction due to an artificial current. It’s not particularly interesting, but the little girl is so cute!

This is a giant sea turtle, the kind that can live over two hundred years. Doesn’t it look like it’s flying through the air, rather than swimming?

Here`s a Japanese sunfish. I call it a torpedo fish. I bet you can guess why:

Now that looks like an alien!

This is a Japanese “tako” or octopus. I`ve always liked octopus, though I don`t know why. Maybe because they`re so smart and curious. It certainly isn`t their looks!

The last room was filled with hundreds of jelly fish, though because of the dim light and flash against the glass, none of those turned out so well. You`ll just have to see them for yourself! On March 15th, there`s going to be a new exhibit of “finless dolphins.” I`ll definitely have to go back to see them, probably with my mom when harbor village is having their “World Performance Festival” in August!

After we finished at the aquarium, there was a street performer setting up in the event square. While we were waiting, Kayoko and I bought mochi, or rice cakes, smothered in some kind of molasses. I love mochi! Especially when it`s warm and gooey. The performer was a Canadian from…guess where? Vancouver! We asked him why he wasn`t there now for the Olympics. “Too crowded,” he said. So he tries to draw a ton of people to see his show with his obnoxious gaijin jokes. Something tells me he really doesn`t mind crowds that much.

His tricks were OK, but his sense of showmanship was…off. He was kind of stupid, actually. His Japanese was pretty good, but he used it to tell really crass jokes, (which I understood because I teach high school, after all), and it took him ridiculously long to set up his tricks, often because he would stop to do stupid stunts or tell dumb jokes just to kill time or something. I won`t bother to put up a video of him.

After that we went back into the aquarium to see some things we missed. We got to watch a keeper clean the river otter cage. They were so funny! They kept trying to chew on her rubber boots or stick their noses in her cleaning pan. As soon as she faced them they`d scuttle away, but turn her back for half a second and they were up to mischief! When she swam, they would grab onto her legs to catch a ride. And that`s when my camera ran out of batteries. Drat!

At 5:00 we went to see a 3D ocean movie at the Suntory museum. Is it dishonest of me to continue to use my college ID to get into places at a discount? They never ask, “are you a college student?” and I lie about it; I just show them the ID and they give me the discount. Hmm…I did have to pay a fee to get the ID in the first place...what do you think?

Anyway, it was a great movie, though Kayoko kept falling asleep! I asked her if she wanted me to continue to wake her up, and she said yes, because she wanted to see it; it was only her second 3D movie and she really likes them. I guess we all have something that puts us to sleep, whether we want to fall asleep or not. With my mom it`s computer screens, with Kayoko it`s 3D movies, with me it`s…oh, no, sermons! I sometimes fall asleep during really long sermons, even if they`re interesting and I want to hear what the pastor is saying. So I try to take notes; that helps. I have a secret: I actually prefer evangelistic prayers with lots of “praise God” and “yes, oh, Jesus!” thrown in because in the Presbyterian Church where I grew up…sometimes I actually fell asleep during the prayers! Not that they were ever boring, and indeed were sometimes quite poetic, but I`m the kind of person who has to be actively engaged in something or I…fall asleep. Trains have a way of doing that to me too.

About that time it was 6:00, so we went to the harbor to watch the sunset. I bought a chocolate ice cream cone (kind of rare in Japan) and Kayoko and I chatted about our faith. She hasn`t had a chance to go to church since moving to Kyoto and was craving some Christian interaction, so I invited her to join our Monday night skype Bible study and told her about the upcoming Christian retreat in March (which I can`t go to since I`ll be in India). We also made plans to visit some other places in Japan, like Okinawa and Hokkaido. Kayoko is a really great travel partner and friend. The best word I can think of to describe her is…yasashi, the Japanese word for “nice,” but they often translate it as “gentle” and it literally means “easy,” as in easy-going. Isn`t it interesting that the Japanese use that word to mean the ideal friend? One who is very calm and happy, goes with the flow, doesn`t get uptight or upset. (A very good balance to my obsessive compulsive go, go, go plan everything in extreme detail personality.)

But in America, to say someone is “easy” is a bad thing, meaning “easy target.” Language reveals a lot of interesting differences in cultural values/expectations. Harmony and peace are the most important thing to the Japanese, and they would never even think of taking advantage of others (most of them, anyway; every culture has its deviants). It surprised me the other day to realize that most of my close friends are Asian; I normally gravitate toward them rather than other foreigners, and someday, I might just wind up with an Asian husband. (Can you believe it; I used to find Asian guys unattractive but now they look downright cute and I see Caucasians and they just…stick out funny. They`re so tall and…big. Ug, I sound like my students!) I just get along with Asians really well, better than “Westerners!” Oh, I hope I don`t have “reverse culture shock” when I get home!

As we were coming up from the harbor, there was another performer, a Japanese guy, and he was much better than the Canadian. They were sort of a pair, working the music and sound for each other, though their acts were separate, and I got the impression the Japanese guy was the sensei of the Canadian, the teacher he kept referring to. Many of the acts the Canadian did were smaller, simpler versions of the Japanese guy, and afterward he asked him for advice. Maybe Japan has a system similar to in the United States where a big, popular band or performance group will pick up a smaller, lesser known group and sort of help them along in their career.

Chinese, Japanese, Irish, and Africans have a special flare to their performances. Maybe it`s energy, or connection to the audience, or maybe they just love what they`re doing. There was nothing particularly unique about the Japanese guy`s tricks: juggling, dancing, balancing, I had seen them all before. But he was really clever in the execution, in the timing, in his use of the audience and such. So it was really fun to watch, and both Kayoko and I put some money in his hat afterward. Sorry my camera ran out of batteries; Kayoko got some pictures and hopefully I`ll be able to copy them from her soon!

Then we saw the light up, the main reason we went, since it was the last week for it. Not so great, just a small, glorified display of Christmas lights. But that`s what got me to come, so I`m glad it was there!

Then we walked around the indoor market place. Most of the shops were already closed, and that`s too bad, because there was an indoor zoo and alpaca farm and ninja house! That just means I have to go back! But we got to see the art gallery, and share a world-famous Osaka okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is an egg pancake stuffed with meat (ours was seafood and pork) and vegetables, and smothered in a sweet/spicy barbeque sauce. Sooooo delicious! Here's a picture:

I had it before at the Nagoya aquarium and thought it was disgusting, but that`s because they also smothered it in mayonnaise and spicy mustard. I was sure to ask for that stuff on the side this time. So I take back what I said about the Japanese not knowing how to cook! You just have to know what`s good and what`s not. Kaiten sushi is so overrated.

I had only expected to stay until 6:00 or so, but we had such a good time we didn`t catch our train until 9:00! I said goodbye to Kayoko on the subway, and got back to Nabari around 11:00pm. So fourteen hours, and we still didn`t see everything! I can see why there`s a hotel right next to the aquarium; you could easily spend two days there and at harbor village! Plus there`s a ferry that goes directly to Universal Studios, and a lot more that I didn`t mention, but I want to keep it a secret for when my mom comes!

Sunday I called my mom, and the clock on my computer was a little slow, so I missed my train! Kae had to take care of her dad, so Kazumi san was going to pick me up. I called Pastor Toshi to let him know I would be a little late. Thankfully it was all right, and he translated for me since Kae was gone. Then I spent the rest of the day organizing my photos and videos from the aquarium, writing my novel, An Honest Assassin, and reading. So it was an absolutely spectacular weekend!

Prayer requests for this week: The frost bite on my hands is still giving me some trouble, though thankfully the weather is beginning to warm up! But I`ve been having some neck and back pain and when I woke up this morning and stretched, my neck “popped” out of place! I can`t hold my neck straight and its starting to give me really bad head and shoulder aches too. I have a suspicion that it was originally injured in my bike accident last week (when I fell and twisted my neck to avoid hitting my head and scrapped up my hands instead) and that the stretching just made it worse. Fortunately one of the teachers was able to recommend a chiropractor to me, and I have an appointment for Wednesday at 5:00. So please pray that he`s able to fix me up as quickly and cheaply as possible! I also need to get some anti-malaria medicine before I go to India, but from what I read, no Japanese doctors will prescribe it, as some say it has “mind altering effects” even though I took it in Africa and was just fine. I was considering not even bothering with it, but then I talked to the other Laura in our skype Bible study who went to India before and actually got malaria, and she said “Take the medicine. Take it!” Since I`m extra susceptible to mosquito bites, I think I`ll take it. I just need to find out how to get it! And of course, please pray for the trip to India! Besides paying for our own transportation to and from India, food, lodging, and volunteer fee, we have to raise $15,000 in building supplies for the houses. If you want to donate towards the building materials or just want to know more about the trip, you can visit our team`s website at:

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,
L.J. Popp

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