When I knew for certain that I would be moving to Japan, almost 2 years ago now, I drove with mom and dad down to Kona and spent an entire day buying souvineers from Hawaii that I could give to people who I met. We wandered into one shop which sold lots of stuffed animals. I Decided that it would be a good idea to buy a few Hawaiian stuffed animals, just in case I met anyone with small children. I bought a shark, an octopus, and a manta ray.
Months passed. Eventually I arrived in Japan and learned that I would be teaching grammar school, a worrying prospect since I had almost no experience with small children. I was told by my vice-principal that I should come up with a lecture which would introduce myself and the place where I came from. If I had something from Hawaii, the kids would love to see it. Well, aside from dozens of key chains, macadamia nuts and coffee, the only "Hawaiian" things I brought were an aloha shirt, a Hawaii state flag, pants with fish on them, and my stuffed animals. All of which I brought to first few classes. In the second or third class I ever taught, I ran out of stuff to talk about with about 15 minutes left in class. Embarased that I had no other plan, I looked into my suitcase and saw the manta ray. I pulled it out and tried to explain (my Japanese was barely passable at the time) that if anyone raised their hand to ask a question, I would throw them the stuffed animal. I began to swing the manta ray by the tail, and the class perked up. 15 minutes ended in no time.
Throwing the manta ray into the audience soon became a feature of all my intro classes. And the rougher I threw the stuffed animal, the more the class laughed. I began subjecting the manta ray to various kinds of tortures, from playing soccer with it, to using it as a pad when I sat down in class. The more slapstick the routine, the more the kids laughed, and the easier class was.
And yet, while class grew easier and easier the more I abused the manta ray, my experiences outside of class grew more and more difficult. Students began to slap me, kick me, punch me, kancho (made famous as the "1000 Years of Pain" by the anime Naruto) me, and attack me in horrible new ways that only the innocent mind of a child can devise. My only recourse in these attacks was to stand there and take it, unable to even scold the children (since I was not yet capable of speaking the language).
It was not long before I noticed the similarity between the way I treated the manta ray stuffed animal and the way I was being treated. I decided to cease the slapstick routines, and, within a month, the student's abuse of me also (mostly) stopped.
It was at that point that I realized that the manta ray stuffed animal was very important. I began taking it to school with me everyday. I began addressing it as "my friend" in front of the kids. I encouraged them to be nice to it, and I gave it a name: えいちゃん (like the letter "A" + chan), which translates as "Little Ray". That December I returned to Hawaii for Christmas. Knowing that I had come to depend on えいちゃんin class, I went back to the store with the stuffed animals and bought a spare to ensure against the very likely possibility of えいちゃん disappearing.
So for an entire year, えいちゃん and I have been partners. She comes with me to every class (and the days she doesn't come tend to be rough days for me). She is my bomb when we play timebomb. Her tail is my microphone when students want to say something. She waves her fin and says "hello" and "goodbye" to the students whenever she makes an appearance. She is my example of a friend. She is the prize for all my games (more on that later). She is my ALT (Assistant Language Teacher, what I am supposed to be).
And this is what has happened to her. Here she is side by side with the spare manta ray, which I have not used in class even once.
She has become real. That color is from being rubbed against the cheeks of hundreds of children. From being squeezed. From being chewed on. From being hidden in my shirt, only to emerge halfway through class to the elated shouts of my students. From being used as a hat. From accidentally being tossed into the sink. From being loved. And when you look in her eyes, she looks back.
And what have I become? I can't be so presumptuous as to assume that I am real too. Even if I have parts that move, or am shinny (mostly on my head these days), or can do tricks like talk, or write blog entries about things being real, doesn't make me real. I really don't know if I am real or not. But I did notice something recently, something which had changed. This next picture is one of the prizes that I made for my kids. When they win any sort of contest in class I sing part of "The Overture of 1812" and produce one of these from my pocket. On the back I write "Prize!" and then explain what the prize is for.
Then the other day I noticed, that I did a really good job making this stamp (it is, by the way, a stamp I made from an eraser). So I made another, and that was pretty good too. Then I tried drawing something, and I was good at that also. Then I made a website, and I thought I did a rather good job (you can see this website at http://nekolove.xenfree.com . It is a mobile phone website, though, so on a computer it will look tiny). The point is, I don't think I have really gotten better at any of this stuff, and I don't think that everything I do is great. But being a grammar school teacher has forced me into situations were I really just need to be good at something (like drawing or singing or dancing or sports or making pleasent conversation in another language with parents who hate you) so many times, that, at this point, I don't think about how I might not be able to do it, I just patiently sit down and do a good job. It is a funny feeling to suddenly believe that, in fact, you really can do anything you set your mind to, even if you are already 25. This must be how dad feels.
And it's all because I too have had the privilege of being rubbed on cheeks and squeezed and chewed on and tossed around. And loved. And when you realize that last part, it makes it really hard to leave. I have decided to offer the unused manta ray (who is longing to be real too) to the teacher who will replace me in April. えいちゃん and I want to stay together, since we are off on our next adventure, who knows to where yet.
And finally, here are some pictures on last weekend.
Outdoor onsen during snowstorm.
For some reason, after the outdoor onsen during a snowstorm, Yuri wanted to eat ice cream. So we did.