Wednesday, January 2, 2008

John Denver's Head

You always see these studies in the news about how Americans are way down toward the bottom of test scores for math and science. Back in the eighties, when we feared everybody, everybody thought that Japan would overtake America as the world's superpower. Turns out, Japan was worried because they couldn't create anything. Americans were always inventing things that the Japanese engineers perfected. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, but Nokia perfected the cell phone. They were proud of how the world wanted to buy Japanese products, but obsessed with their lack of creativity.

And, like any other nation, when there's a cultural problem, they blame the educational system.

In fact, they're so interested in addressing this problem that they've set up the Fulbright Memorial Fund, a program that brings 600 American teachers each year to Japan. Their idea is that if we can have a conversation about the differences in the way we do things, Japanese teachers can learn how to make their students think more creatively and American teachers can learn how to help their kids do better on tests. I was one of those teachers.

I spent the first part of my trip in Tokyo sitting in seminars and seeing the sights and the second part of the trip in Iwate prefecture, which is in the North. That was where I really got to see Japan.

When you walk into a Japanese classroom, no matter what the grade level, the desks are all situated in rows. When the sensei enters the room, the lead student stands up and shouts something. (I never did find out what it was.) Then, the rest of the students stand and shout something back. Sensei bows, the students bow back, and everybody sits down.

I was floored the first time I saw this happen.

Another thing that killed me was the business cards. When you meet someone new, they will take out their business card and present it to you with both hands and a slight bow. You should receive it into both of your hands, bow, look it over carefully, and say their name. Then, take your own business card and repeat the process. I brought a box of 500 business cards with me and gave away probably half. You wouldn't believe how important these were – they were like gold. And when I got to the schools?

See, the kids were very rigid in the classrooms, but when it was time to go to lunch or something like that, they turned into kids again. So I'm out in the hallway with another American teacher, and a munchkin runs up to me and asks me for my card. My card? Okay. I take out my card and present it very formally and she squeals and runs to her friends with it. They, of course, line up, each wanting their own card. So I'm handing out cards just because I find it amusing and soon enough I run out. Does this stop them? No. Now they want my autograph. So I'm standing there, signing autographs, thinking: No. Fucking. Way.

That's right kids. Some people say they're big in Japan? I really am.

Literally. See, I'm 5'7" in my stocking feet, and I'm almost never in my stocking feet. I'm usually walking around in some kind of heel that adds what? Three inches? So I'm about 5'10" in my shoes and in Japan that made me the jolly green giant.

Add to that my blonde hair and blue eyes and I was probably the most exotic thing these kids had ever seen.

While we were doing our school visitations, I stayed with the Mafumi family. He was an English teacher who wanted to improve his conversational skills. Japanese teachers get an opportunity to teach for two years at a Japanese school abroad, and he'd taken his family to Poland. She was a stay-at-home mom and her two children, Miku and Taku, were her life. Taku was really Takuhiro, which they explained was not really a Japanese name. They'd made it up. The Polish word for yes was Tak, and so they combined that with the traditional Japanese "Hiro" and made up the name.

Mrs. Mafumi was a lovely woman whose command of English was limited to what she'd learned in high school. This I understand, given how well I speak French. However, I had my little Japanese phrasebook, and she had – get this – an excellent command of Polish. Yes, I said Polish. My grandparents were Polish, and when I was a little girl, I was over at their house more often than not. Anytime Grandma didn't want me to understand something she wanted to say to Grandpa, she'd launch into a string of unintelligible Polish words. Apparently, I picked one or two up along the way. When she was struggling to tell me how much she liked something, she'd say "Dobry!" and I would understand that it was good. This Polish/English/Japanese communication was something you'd have to hear to believe.

We'd gone on a road trip one afternoon to this lovely little river valley. She wanted me to go on a ride in one of the traditional flat boats, and so we climbed in. The pole man would move us up and down the river, telling jokes and singing traditional Japanese songs. You should have heard the singing, though. The river was surrounded on both sides by cliffs, and when he sang, his voice rose and echoed off the cliffs until it almost sounded as if it were the forest singing to us instead of a man.

We got back in the car and I told Mrs. Mafumi how beautiful I thought the song was. She thought it was beautiful, too, but not as much as I did. She'd heard it before. Do you know what she thought was really beautiful? Karen Carpenter. I'm not kidding. All of a sudden, she bursts into song: "I'm on the top of the world looking down on creation …" There was nothing else for me to do but join her. Yes, folks, I'm going to admit here and now that I know every word to that song. I'm not ashamed. And also? We sang some John Denver. And Barry Manilow. And Neil Diamond. Yes, I know all the words to those songs, too. (Shut up. You do, too.)

Just after we finished singing "Leaving on a Jet Plane," I turned to her and said, "You know John Denver is dead, don't you?" She didn't. I could tell this just broke her heart. How did he die? She wanted to know. I only half-remembered that it was a plane crash of some sort, and urban legend had it that they found the plane but never found his head. I have no idea if this is true, but I told it to her anyway.

That night, they put together a traditional Japanese dinner and invited some of their friends out to meet the American. Everyone was so happy to meet me: "Hello. How are you? This is a pen." (I never could figure out why everyone kept telling me about their pens while I was there, but when I returned home, I asked this Japanese bartender I was half-dating. Shu-hei said it was because that was the first sentence in every Japanese student's English grammar textbook.)

Mafumi and his friend broke out the sake and scotch and told me they were going to drink me under the table. I told them they must never have had drinks with an American before. They, however, must have had livers of steel. I do not. Oh, my.

The daughter of their friend – I can't remember her name – was an excellent student and wanted to try out her English on me. "Do you know Ha-Ree-Pot-tah?" she asked. I didn't understand, and nobody else seemed to, either. However, since coming to Japan, I realized that most words were pronounced phonetically, and they tended to drop the final consonant. Ha-ree-pot-tah. Ha-ree-pot-tah. Ha-ree-pot-tah. I figured it out. "Do you mean Harry Potter?" I asked. She grinned. I wasn't a fan, but told her I was. She loved Hah-may-nee, she said. Yes, I said, Hermoine was very smart, probably just like her. She beamed.

The adults were getting tired of the Harry Potter conversation, so Mrs. Mafumi broke in with, "Tell them about John Denver's head!"

I, of course, had no choice but to oblige. The story I told probably had no relation to the truth, but that didn't matter. This was John Denver's head we were talking about. They couldn't believe it. Not John Denver. Mafumi was the first to start singing. "Country roads … take me home …" They sang the whole song with the saddest, dirge-like quality I'd ever heard. Then they burst out into the most raucous laughter ever. "John Denver's head!" they cried.

The next morning, I returned to Tokyo. Mrs. Mafumi went with me to the bullet train platform, hugged me a million times, and wept. Wept. I felt terrible for leaving her. Meeting me was clearly one of the most exciting things she'd done in a long time. Me. This is what killed me, because really, I'm just an ordinary, average American girl. And I hugged her back, hard, because ditto.


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