As you might expect from a country where only 1% of the 127 million people identify as Christians, the concept of Christmas isn’t really hashed out. In fact, if you presented my students with a picture of Jesus, Santa Claus, and Disney’s Olaf from Frozen I can tell you that they’d only be able to recognize two out of the three. With that said, a couple of my students are Christian which is pretty neat (though, they’re mostly Brazilian), and on a whole Christmas is still a pretty well known day. Of course, as many American conservatives would point out, the change in Christmas (is not a war but) stems from the fact that anything that can make a buck will.
The same hold true over here, as Christmas is mostly celebrated between young lovers going out and having a date, while some parents–especially those keen on Western cultlure–will break out a present for their kids. For me this hardly feels like Christmas time. I blame a lot of it on the lack of Christmas songs, though, my local grocery and convenient stores have an instrumental playlist going. I think the entirety of the issue probably stems from this:
As someone who has literally never spent a Christmas Eve away from his Grandma’s house in snowy Minnesota, how the hell can I consider this appropriate winter weather?
*That picture was actually taken on Christmas day, meaning December 25.
So, weather wise it was such a lovely day, if I learned anything from the Whos down in Whoville, it’s that the spirit of Christmas is all that matters. And with the last day of school the day before Christmas eve, it was hard for the mood in the teacher’s office not to be a bit festive.
This leads into what is probably the most formal celebrations any school has during the year: the bonenkai, or as I’ve been told in literal translation: the forget-the-year party.
After a pretty tiring day I quick walked back home to change after school and returned to school to make the bus up to the city. Not gonna lie in saying I was totally looking forward to the night. I was ready for the experience, but I was also extremely exhausted. I basically napped on the hour long bus ride up to the hotel where we got dropped off.
It felt kind of like going to a school dance. Some people where dressed up, and we shuffled into an elevator up to the banquet room. Our seating place were random, though I’m not sure I entirely believe that since I’ve been seated next to my adviser the past two times (not that that’s any bit a bad thing). It’s another time when I realized how lucky I usually am to have another ALT at my school. She sadly had to leave early to catch her plane back to America, but I was desperately wishing to have an English speaking friend go through this new experience with me. This time I got placed in the center table just a seat away from our kouchou-sensei, or the principal. While people were filing in, hardly anyone coming to our table, I figured I’d have to do my best to get into a conversation with him.
He’s actually a bomb guy. I’ve hardly had many interactions with him that don’t involve me being polite and letting him pass by me in the hall, or saying good morning, but I’ve heard enough fantastic stories. Even at the nationals race I went to in Yamaguchi, I met his wife who was a former English teacher and I think we mostly talked about him (and the fact that her somewhat British accent was some of the most fluent English I’d heard from a Japanese teacher). I knew that he was formerly an art teacher so I started off with that.
Lucky for me this topic of conversation hardly went beyond level 2 Japanese. It went something like this:
Me: So, I heard that you were an art teacher? My college major was art. What art do you do?
校長先生: Oh, really? I enjoy painting.
Me: Last year, I worked as a printmaker, but I enjoyed painting, who is you favorite?
校長先生: I really enjoy Pablo Picasso.
Me: (thinking about the only period of Picasso that I enjoy) Oh, me too. What is your favorite series?
校長先生: I have to say… his blue period.
Me: Fantastic! Me too (true story).
We then went on to talk about how–in about three months–he’ll be retiring. Completely new news to me, and even if I don’t get to see him all the time, pretty bummed to hear he won’t even be nearby. He’s got a motto around the school called “yaruki smile” (somewhere along the lines of shining smile) and he really lives up to it himself. He just seems like a completely jolly dude. He mentioned how after he retires he wants to get back into painting and visit Spain to see the art there. He’s been studying Spanish for a while now.
Me: Eh! Amazing! When I was in high school I spoke Spanish really well, but now, it’s just a bit. But I will try to practice with you if I can.
校長先生: por favor, un poco hablamos bien.
Off to a great start, and as my supervisor came and sat down next to me like clockwork the night started off with a highlight reel projected in the front of all the fun things that happened this year. A weird feeling to see how recently it was that a completely different person got to take care of all the students like I am doing with a completely different approach.
Then the servers brought in the beer, and like bees in a hive a rush of order beyond comprehension was occurring. We naturally had a moment to pause with filled glasses and say kampai lifting them in the air and clinging them against each other. But as I drank and sat back down, it’s like I entered the twilight zone.
Eventually I looked over to my adviser and whispered, “Do I need to do anything?” He laughed looking around and said “No, I think it’s Ok, you’re kinda like a guest so you don’t need to worry.”
I was worrying because probably more than half the teachers were jumping around the seats and tables with bottles of beer cradled like a diamond in their arms stopping at anyone seated to fill, almost longingly, their drinks to the brim. Guess it’s a basic custom, not hard to figure out, where the lowlies and newbies serve the higher more respected. I felt kinda bad for kouchou-sensei because every time he took a drink he had to pause to have someone offer to fill his drink again. Usually it’s a good way of making sure everyone has a good time, but often also a very tenuous way to drink as well.
Anyway, once the drinks were thoroughly distributed our appetizers were served, and people got ready for the second year teacher committee who organized the night to perform their main act. It consisted of a somewhat racy and raunchy skit about how one of the teachers was looking for a boyfriend, and turned into a sort of Dating Game style act. I simultaneously wanted to understand everything they said and was thankful that I didn’t get all the jokes they were saying.
This was followed by games that even I was involved in, more drinking, more socializing, and all the while plates of delectable food placed in front of me.
There were three forks, three knives, chopsticks and a spoon, so I’m thinking that’s what you call a four course meal.
While mingling for a couple more drinks we got organized to move onto the next event, whatever that was to mean. And then kouchou-sensei leaned over to make one last comment.
校長先生: (in English, with yaruki smile) I’ve never seen an ALT do what you’ve done… (he pauses to figure out from my adviser what words to use next) to join running club every day. You care about the students so much. When I saw you at Yamaguchi, I was so proud that you are at this school. You’re a good person, and I think you will do big things in Japan.
Honestly, I blame it on constantly having to have his glass filled, but by the time he finished I was practically rippling in tears of happiness. Like, the last time anyone has ever said such a great thing about me is lost in my recent memory. My adviser was totally loving it watching on the sides, too, because kouchou-sensei was probably on the verge of keeling over in drunken glee.
The rest of the night was similar to the night I spent in Yamaguchi after we’d gotten dinner at the Korean BBQ restaurant. I went into a group with about six other teachers, some of my favorites, and we headed out on the town, winding down an alley to a legitimate bar, literally the first I’ve been to here. We order more drinks, so food, and I felt again like I was the most interesting thing in the room, but more than happy to answer the questions shot at me and practice my Japanese. When it got to be a little after 11 o’clock I was hoping to stay out more–do karaoke, or bowling, or anything–but since I was forced to take the bus home, I had to call it early.
All together, though, a great way to end the first phase of being here, start the winter vacation, and make up for not going home for the break. It might not look much like winter, but it’s not too far away from feeling like it.