Serendipitous, or guzen

You know how there are certain people or situations that can be perfectly summed up in just one word? For example, there’s this PE teacher at the junior high and every time I see him, the word “lithe” pops into my head. The other PE teacher is a giant of a man who quite literally looks as if he’s been rendered from stone, but Furuta-sensei has this very graceful, very cat-like quality about him (actually, I don’t know how many of you’ve noticed this, but I think as a race, Japanese people tend to resemble cats quite often. I know during the whole WWII thing Allied propaganda was trying to play the monkey card, but seriously – think of your favorite Japanese person (yes, Austin, you will find that this exercise works even with Koizumi) and then think of an animal you associate them with or think they resemble in some way. I guarantee it will be way easier than it should be to slap some whiskers and pointy ears on them. However, this won’t work if you chose me as your favorite Japanese person because the white in me will get you confused and make you think “koala” or “wombat” or even “arctic seal”). He runs marathons, but he doesn’t have any of the stiffness that I usually associate with long distance runners (who are usually rather skinny and suffering from chronic shin splints and knee problems). He seems to glide from place to place, and even when he stands it seems like he’s still in motion – as if he were actually a person-shaped column of water and could bend in any direction he pleased.

But I think I’ve made my point.

The word I’m associating with this evening is “serendipitous” or, in Japanese, “guuzen.” Around 4:00 today, 15 minutes before I’m allowed to bolt out the door and across the field to the comforts of my own home, Idouji-sensei (my JTE) came running up to me in a rather frazzled state and asks if I can help her pick out 6 first years for a speech contest in Nishinoomote (it turns out that Eddie is actually going to be judging at this contest. I will be buying him a lot of drinks between now and then to ensure that my kids win). Of course I say yes and she informs me that we’ll be doing the selection after school. 4:15 rolls around and Idouji-sensei has disappeared, so I wander around the building for a bit looking for her, but eventually plop myself down at my desk and focus all of my remaining energy on NOT just packing up and leaving. Finally some students locate me and take me to where Idouji-sensei is waiting and we listen to the kids read some dialogs and then go through the heartbreaking process of selecting only 6 of the 9 students that showed up. After all this, Idouji-sensei informs the students that they will have to practice very hard all weekend and that I will be available to them during and after school on Monday to help them with their pronunciation, intonation, etc. Then I’m lead over to some second year students who are told the same thing before I sit down and try to get them to say “received” instead of “lesheevdo.” At 5:30 as I’m beelining for the door, one of my favorite teachers asks if I have a minute to meet his daughter. His sons were freaking adorable and friendly as hell when I met them, so of course I wanted to meet his daughter, who turned out to be rather saucy, but in that cute, 5-year-old kind of way. At 5:40, after taking a brief moment to admire an amazing mosaic and praise the students who’d done it, I finally made it out the door. I was walking past the gym when I ran into Ayumi.

Ayumi is a third year and up until today our conversations had consisted of some exaggerated waving and an exchange of hellos in the hallway. As we walked the length of the gym, she asked, “You go home now?” Yes, I’m goING home. What are you doing now? I’m…sanpousuru. You’re going for a walk? Yes, walking. ::laughs:: Where are you walking to? To your house. ::laughs again:: You’re going to walk me home? Yes, please stop. Wait. Yes, stop. No, you mean “please wait a minute.” Just stop. Okay. As she ran off to grab her shoes, I took a moment to guage the appropriateness of this situation and, if need be, figure out the best way to delicately extricate myself from this situation. She returned and we continued the trek across the field and onto my front door step. I was getting ready to say my farewells when she surprised me by saying that she’d been to my house several times before when Ayumi, the ALT from two years ago, lived there. Images of all sorts of ugly lawsuits began to surface in my mind, but then I remembered that this is a country where teachers are allowed to hit their students, both in jest and as a disciplinary measure, where it is the teachers and not the parents who apologize to store owners for the goods their students steal, who talk their students out of committing suicide, where “morality” is an actual class with a real textbook taught in all public and private schools. So I let her in and fed her and got her a drink of water.

We talked a little about our families and I learned that her family owned an udon restaurant and that her aspiration in life is to become a chef and open a restaurant in America. She wants to travel to England and France and Italy to check out the food and get ideas. I showed her pictures of Europe and then of Oregon and California. While we were looking at photos of Kat’s graduation I explained that I had gone to an all girl’s high school and that we wore uniforms. She was impressed that we had the option of wearing pants and explained that she wants to go to an all-girls high school in Kagoshima that specializes in cooking. She taught me some Taneben and we talked about the English proficiency exam she had just passed and then I noticed a spider on the wall. I got up and was getting ready to squish it with my shoe when she exclaimed, “No! No!” And I’m thought, “Great. She’s a hard-core Buddhist or something.” I asked her why she didn’t want me to squish it and it turns out that on Tanegashima, spiders are regarded as “mamorigami.” That’s right – “gami.” As in the voiced version of “kami.” As in god. On Tanegashima spiders are apparently guardians of the home. As such, they are allowed to do pretty much whatever the hell they want and you’re not supposed to kill them. I explained to her that I hated spiders and asked what was permissible under those circumstances. I was told to “gaman” (endure). When the thing started making its way toward my open backpack I had to capture it in a glass and take it outside. Ayumi was appalled by my treatment of kumo-sama (yes, she was in fact referring to it as “the honorable mr. spider”) and actually told me that I really shouldn’t be treating a god that way. I told her that I’m sure there were plenty of other gods living in my house, but I’d really prefer it if they stayed outside to patrol the perimeter of my house and protect me that way. At this point it was getting late, but it was too dark out for her to walk home safely so I gave her a ride. I dropped her off and received a bundle of delicious udon in return.

As I made my way home I thought about the unlikely evening I’d just had. I’m still a little worried about the appropriateness of a student hanging out at my house, but overall I was glad I got to know Ayumi a little better. It was nice to interact with a student outside of class and speak English to her outside the confines of the textbook. And I think she appreciated being able to talk about real things in English and hopefully she even felt a little proud that she was able to get through the entire conversation with very little Japanese. I was amazed at how at 3:59 I was planning to spend a quite night at home, and then at 5:30 how all I wanted to do was fall into bed, but there I was at 7:30, driving home with dinner in the passenger’s seat marveling at the series of events that led to what turned out to be a very worthwhile experience.

And then the words drifted into my consciousness – one from the dusty and tattered tome that houses what’s left of my English vocabulary, the other from the part of my brain that automatically tries to translate every word I think of:

serendipitous

guuzen

Of course, the real idea worth contemplating is what cruel twist of fate put me on an island where spiders are revered as gods.

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