Monday, December 17, 2007

Why my school sent me home, Flu season in Japan, and PTA Ijime


Seasons Greetings! I hope everyone is planning for a very Merry Christmas.

With December rolling around to the new year the Japanese are giddy with enkais (business related food/drinking parties) and bonenkais (year end business parties) in which they'll party the night away, get very silly drunk, and make asses of themselves. Well, that's how it goes in a society which wears masks and keeps all of its feelings and personal thoughts under a rigid series of inhibitions. With a bit of alcohol most Japanese forget this artificial barrier and just act themselves. They might even be bold enough to shuffle up to the foreigner whom they've seen every day for the past year and just haven't had the nerve to talk to and engage in a conversation -or as they often call it here nomi-nication (a bad pun which means to drink-communicate). They may even know some English, or be interested in learning some. However, the daily rutine is quite different from the rare moments of inebriated liberation from social anxieties. It is this tightly clammed up inside attitude the Japanese take while interfacing with each other, and other people, often gives certain folks the wrong impression of Japanese. They often come off as seeming overly serious, unsmiling, and perhaps angry. The best example of this misconception would be by the case study of experiencing a theatrical film in the movie theater with a group of Japanese.

Whereas in my home country of America people will whoop, hoot, and hollar at the screen, they'll laugh at the jokes, and if the movie was good enough most folks will stand up and applaud the performances and art. In Japan, due to the aforementioned inhibitions, the complete opposite is true. Through the entire film it is dead silence (with the slight exception of that one old lady who never fails to turn off her cell phone and then can't figure off how to turn it off once it starts ringing). Mostly there is a very serious air about the theaters in Japan. People walk silently in, they sit there not talking to each other (as is custom in Japan to do -especially among older couples), and once the credits roll people silently get up and silently exit. With no hint of emotion sometimes it's hard to tell if anyone enjoyed the film at all. And as the one foreigner in the audience, I often find myself blurting out and laughing at jokes alone only to catch myself and look around at all the serious faces -which don't appear to be very entertained. Although, don't let this fool you, the Japanese love movies. I even saw a Monk in the "Transformers" film this past summer. Which was interesting -to see a Monk watching Optimus Prime.


School ends this week for most Japanese students. They will get a winter vacation and will enjoy a huge new years celebration. However, Christmas is not a Holiday in Japan, so everyone still works. I'm even scheduled to work, but I take Christmas off every year. This year Sayaka and I will hold our second annual Christmas party at her parents house in Kumamoto. After which we'll stay in Kumamoto up through the wedding.

With winter setting in it's frigid cold in Japan. Which means something entirely different than from where I come from. Growing up I lived in Montana and grew accustomed to a cold barren frost bitten winters, but you could always go inside, warm up, have a hot cocoa, and watch TV with your socks up. Japanese houses have no central heating, and worse, zero insulation. Which means, you walk out of the cold and into the cold. The only difference is the wind chill drops considerably. However, due to the thin single pained glass and other small gaps and air vents the house whistles with its own chilly breeze. Safeguarding yourself from the sniffles is nearly impossible. As it is now Sayaka and I are cranking on three electric heaters, one kerosene gas heater for when it gets really cold, electric blankets, and fleece blankets covered by down comforters. And this is just enough to make you feel only like you're camping inside your house. We still can see our breath at night. And my electric bill is like $200 -which sucks.

This past week I got real sick. I hurt my back again (an old injury) and was laid flat out for four days. I finally gathered enough strength to make it to work one whole day, came home, and then caught a flew bug. I then was out for five more days with a fever. And to make matters worse, the violent flemmy coughing threw my back out again.

It was a tough couple weeks. To make a depressing story more interesting, today I tried to go to work. I felt considerably better, and aside from a runny nose and a sinus headache, there's not much to complain about. I say tried to go to work, because once I got to work the vice principle cautioned me not to go to class. While he ran around with paper work I asked what was going on. He said that since I had had a fever that I needed a doctor to sign off for me to return to work. I should mention that in Japan they go to the hospital for every trivial ache, pain, or sniffle.

It's bad enough the hospitals are over congested with all the old people, getting an appointment means nothing because even if you are right on time it may take 6 to 8 hours of waiting before a doctor becomes available from the backwash of elderly. Besides, I've never been one to go to the hospital for minor things anyway, bruises and cuts I take care of on my own, and I'm even more reluctant to go knowing that my whole day will be waisted in a waiting room only to talk to a doctor for two minutes to tell me to take two aspirin and call him in the morning.

So there I was stuck explaining to my vice principle that I don't have a note from the doctor because I didn't go to the doctor. When asked why, I said it was a minor flu bug, and also that I don't like waiting around in the hospital with a fever when I could be at home snug in bed recooperating. He seemed to agree with this, but insisted I need to be checked up. He called the hospital but the check up would cost upwards of $50 just for the doctor to feel my forehead and tell me I'm fine. The vice principle looked at me and said that he could do that himself, and so it was pointless for me to go waist good money with everyone already knowing that I was fine. So I asked if I could go to class then, and he said no.

Apparently the school has a new policy not to make (or even allow) students to get sick by direct contact with teachers or other students. The PTA graced us with such a new rule, as it was under a lot of pressure by some parents who threatened to sue the school because their kid got sick, and like all good obedient Japanese, they went to the hospital for some minor sniffles. Of course, this wasn't the problem either, the problem was the family kept going to the hospital for every trivial thing that they racked up a pretty large bill. What's worse is that the family is lower working class and couldn't afford all the bills, and so decided to sue the school for making their kid sick. Well, aparently some other parents in a similar situation thought it would be a good idea, and like all obedient Japanese people, followed suit -and so a whole series of parents sued the school for their children having the sniffles. They lost of course, but they insist their bullying until they feel satisfied.

Come back to my dilemma. I'm fully recuperated and without a doctors signature I have to wait and extended three days, or at least three days after my fever has broken, before they can officially let me back into the class room. I joked to the vice principle that if he wanted to call the parents so they could come feel my forehead just to make sure I was fit enough to teach, they were more than welcome. He suggested I go home until I'm better than good, and then told me he'd see me tomorrow.

So now I'm at home writing this blog. Although, I feel kind of bad for missing the the Monday of the last week of school. But what are you going to do in such a situation?

On a more even ended note, who sues a school system for their kid catching a cold anyway? Or even a flu? To juxtapose my culture for a moment, when I was in Junior high school and someone got sick, our parents made sure we went to class, then they threw that person in the same class room with us, rubbed them up and down on everyone, and told everyone to get sick too! That way the whole school would be sick one time, then everyone's immune systems would get strong, and nobody would be sick for the rest of the year. It's a big shock going from that type of -tough it out and don't be a baby mentality to this odd -rush to the hospital and sue the school over the sniffles type mentality.

Considering the above differences, I think the schools in Japan let the PTA boss them around way too much. The Parent Teacher Association has more power than in America. In America it's just a committee, but in Japan is a governing body which helps run the school systems. The problem is they bully the schools into kowtowing to every parent with a complaint -no matter how unreasonable. For example, since our school budget was cut this year we didn't have enough money to buy as much kerosene for the stoves to heat the classrooms. Just like my frigid igloo of a house, the schools are much worse comprised with their glass and concrete -worse insulators ever. So when it got a little chilly, the heated teachers room had to be turned off. During the summer we had the quite opposite problem, while it was scorching hot, the air conditioned teachers room had to be turned off so that it would match the smoldering outside heat. Why? Because one of the students complained to their parents that it was either too cold or too hot, and the parents complained to the PTA, and the PTA bullied the school in to making it entirely inconvenient and uncomfortable for teachers to have a good working environment.

Now I don't mind showing the kids I'll tough it out along with them, but when they're not at school in the early mornings, we teachers are. And when they go home at night, we stay and burn the midnight oil. But the school is still under the thumb of the PTA -and this PTA Ijime (bullying) is very annoying.

I shared my honest opinion with one teacher explaining that if children want more heat or more air cooling they can get a job and pay for it. That's the old Bill Cosby routine, get out and get a job. As long as you are a student, you obey, you learn, and you don't get perks unless you put forth a good effort. As far as making the educators suffer the demerits of civility for a few caterwauling hooligans (actually parents who should know better) seems to be catering exclusively to the squeaky wheel, no matter how unreasonable the demands may be. Frankly, I'm quite fed up with it, but the other teachers, well, they're all good obedient Japanese -and they fall into line and do as they're told. Which is sad... because it's only going to get worse. Next year someone may even loose a finger to frostbite, but I guess only time will tell.

I suppose every school systems has its fair share of problems. It just seems to me that these are very trivial and that mountains are being made of molehills to the inconvenience of everyone else, and at the sake of a good education. What do you think is more important? That your school have good teachers, or that they be allowed to teach? Well, I'm on extended vacation -so obviously allowing your teachers to teach is not the priority of current PTA. But hey, in the end I guess it depends on the parents to start acting like adults. Do they want well rounded intelligent children, or do they want stupid children and more sue happy money? Okay, stupid children it is then. It's not like they were going to learn anything anyway, they keep sending all the teachers home. Well, okay, it's just me then.