Gradually, I was trudging through the rice patties and making grounds on the language. Small steps, like Noh theater actor pace, but nonetheless I felt progress. By day I was teaching English at a junior high school and by night was commuting via 4 train and subway changes to central Tokyo for Japanese lessons. Sparing myself and my colleagues the complete boredom of my mundane conversational level, I tried to put into practice at least some of the material from those lessons with the faculty and staff during lunch and class breaks.
This broke some barriers, not to mention nearly breaking my back with the heavy load commute and breaking the bank with the lesson fees, but the effort was paying off. While maintaining my personal cultural sanity as much as possible, I tried to consume as much Japanese as I could. I turned to TV. Oh, I still savored and prioritized getting TV tapes from the States, but I started tuning into a long running popular family friendly drama called, Kinpachi Sensei, 3 Nen B Gumi.
The target audience was probably upper elementary through junior high school aged kids, and the setting was a junior high school, starring a teacher with a strong influence on the lives of his 9th grade homeroom class, class. The program was known and loved in Japan in the same way that Little House on the Prairie found its fan base in America. I was relating to that school house teacher on the prairie- I'm way out in the middle of nowhere from home, on my own, and back in time! Nevertheless, the teacher, Mr. Kimpachi, on the show reached me even more than his students.
It was easy for me to follow since the setting mirrored my workplace, and the students were the same age. It helped me form connections not only through their young use of the language versus the language patterns of the teachers at school and on the show, but the process also helped me form empathy with them. As a French teacher in Ohio, I wasn't learning a language from page one at the same time the way my students were. This time I was, but it was more like page negative one below zero degrees Celsius. I would tape the show. (I sprung for a new tape: I never taped over American TV tapes from care packages!) I wasn't obsessing with plot twists here, rather, I was trying to catch native speed delivery. I'd watch and rewatch an episode a second, a third time, and start repeating after the actors. Granted, there are countless guide books, tapes and educational programs for this practice, but I found that the material really has to relate to your needs, and it was survival beyond survival for me at this point.
The administrators at the board of education embraced my efforts in the language, and they started to take advantage of it the way I took G rated advantage of Kinpachi Sensei. They started shipping me out to mingle under their name at various city-sponsored related events. This could be anything as retro as being post master for the day, which required wearing a sash and shaking hands with customers at the post office, to an artsy task like visiting a local gallery to comment on the pictures, to as silly as posing a question as a judge for the Miss Koshigaya contest. These were simple PR side missions, but I enjoyed the eclectic experience and tried to keep my sense of humor through it all. To a point. That point was the invitation (assignment, really) to be the guest at a "round table discussion" at the local Rotary Club chapter.
My supervisor at the board of education told me that he'd accompany me, we would have lunch with the group, and then discuss life in Japan as an American. I was told that it was a Round Table Discussion. I didn't think it was a stretch when I pictured a round table, with eight to a dozen people sitting, eating and chatting. As soon as we entered the venue, I was tipped off by the volume of men's shoes in the entrance way where you change from your soiled street wear to indoor slippers. We entered the room to a welcome applause. I looked up and around. I was stunned, and I couldn't hide my "I won the Oscar!" shocked expression. The venue was enormous. In the nightmare running through my mind the auditorium was as daunting as the OSU stadium, nicknamed the "Horseshoe." The club members sat in rows and rows of long tables streamed together (the length of a football field) and lunch was served. It was a nice serving of chirashi zushi, which is raw fish over vinegared rice, and served with a taste of plum wine for the toast.
I nodded my way through lunch with idle chit chat, mainly with pointed questions for my supervisor: where is the round table? What happened to the casual chat about Japanese and American life? This is an auditorium! After lunch, I was introduced by the Grand Poo-bah and escorted to the podium, and reminded that I had 45 minutes. There was a beautiful vase of fresh flowers and a pitcher of water. I smiled and thanked the gentleman who introduced me. He already introduced me - that's half of my solid bank of material! I looked at the water and wished it was the plum wine, but really, there was no escape. I've had to pull things off "off the cuff" in the past, but this was a new league for me. It was in another language, and one that I was only building confidence in.
I have never felt so put on the spot, so unprepared. The formality and generosity of the crowd, the meal, the flowers - I quickly dropped my mini protest about feeling cheated by not knowing about the scale of the event and turned my reflection on feeling like I was cheating this group. I wasn't a exactly a laughingstock, really, but have high expectations of myself. The details of the "discussion" are a blur, I may have even started my speech with, "any questions?" Fortunately, I had a supportive audience and we all survived.
It was time for me to get out of the minor round table set of ideas and raise my bar of preparation and Japanese ability to the pro bowl. I vowed I'd keep plugging so I could rally in the Horseshoe with or without the boost of cheerleaders. It only took about half a year until I could look at a bowl of chirashi zushi as anything but humble pie again, but I face it with vigor now, with or without the plum wine chaser.