Into the Lion’s Den (Sort Of)

Work this week has been a bit of a whirlwind. With the new teachers settling in, administrative and departmental meetings have been a daily occurrence. While I technically have to attend, I basically do nothing except sit in the back, busy myself with either making travel plans for the upcoming year or brainstorming bachelorette party ideas for my best friend’s wedding next month (both of which ensure that I look appropriately attentive), and laugh when everyone else does. There are worse ways to spend a day in the office.

The best part of my week, though, was when my school principal, O-sensei (Sorry, privacy means that you don’t get more than his first initial!) invited me over to his house for dinner. He’d been promising to have me to his house since he’d arrived at Aomori High School last year, but, as it tends to do, life got in the way. But he finally made good on his offer, and so on Tuesday after work, we meandered on over to his house, where his wife had dinner waiting for us. In a country where I am taller than roughly 95 percent of the population, O-sensei kind of scares the hell out of me. Part of that has to do with the fact that he’s my boss, but part of it also is because he towers over me at roughly two meters (or 6’5”). Don’t get me wrong, he’s one of the nicest people I’ve met while in Japan, but I still get a bit nervous when speaking Japanese to him. Because Japanese has different forms that depend on your hierarchal relationship with the person to whom you’re speaking, I’m constantly worried that I’ll inadvertently offend him and then lack the language skills to dig myself out of that hole. “Dread” is far too strong a word to define the emotion I was feeling, but suffice to say that I was more than a little どぎまぎ in the hours leading up to dinner.

My principal kindly asked me to bring along a friend or two, so an ALT who lives in the same apartment building as me came along for the evening. The prospect of having someone else there (both as moral support and as someone with whom to divide the heat of conversation) lessened my nerves.

As it turns out, I had absolutely nothing to worry about. Not only was the food absolutely delicious (no surprise there), but my principal and his wife were as welcoming as could be. While I knew that O-sensei could speak a bit of English, he wanted to use dinner as an opportunity to practice a bit more, and he definitely surprised me with his ability.  By the end of the evening, he was proud of how much more conversation he could understand, even in comparison to a few hours beforehand.

O-sensei will stop by my desk every once in a while at school, but it’s never for more than a few minutes, and he naturally has lots of things that he has to attend to. (At dinner, he told us that the reason I always see him walking around school was because his office is in a sequestered corner where no one – besides the odd visitor – ever ventures.) As he told us, though, at school he has to be in “principal” mode; at home, he can relax, and the difference was completely noticeable.

It was really refreshing to see him so at ease and joking around, and he even let me in on a few in-office secrets. I have a new desk neighbor at work; he coaches kendo, which involves a whole lot of murderous screaming and whacking each other with bamboo swords, so he’s a pretty physically intimidating guy. By contrast, I consider myself pretty unassuming, unless I enter “Amazonian mode” when wearing heels. Apparently, though, I’m the scary one. According to O-sensei, I make my neighbor nervous every time he looks at me. Beware the scary foreigners!

I was able to muddle through with my pathetic Japanese knowledge and was even able to get a few laughs out of our hosts after proclaiming that the term 別腹 (betsubara) applied to me. 別腹 is one of my absolute favorite Japanese words. It literally means “separate stomach,” and you use it to describe a person who’s able to eat dessert, even after having a huge meal. Basically, it’s my life motto summed up in one handy little word. (And in a similar vein, we later taught O-sensei “food baby.”)

And that, my friends, is international culture exchange at its best.

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