The strangest/coolest part of teaching Japanese students is getting blindsided by their insane knowledge of things I would never expect them to know. Last week, one student wrote in his “My Dream” essay that he wanted to be an NBA player…not many people, especially in the semi-country of Nabari, know let alone follow the NBA. I asked him what team he wanted to play for. He said “the Hornets” and then proceeded to speak highly of Chris Paul. I was floored.

Today featured a similar sports-related mindbender. One student at my current school loves Major League Baseball to the point where the only sentences he ever says to me are “Angels!” or “Matsui great guy!” followed by a thumbs up. Unlike the NBA, the MLB gets a lot of followers here but few people know EVERY DETAIL of the league, usually just what the major Japanese players are doing. This kid, though, knows nearly every story to come out…he’s mentioned the various no-hitters thrown this year. Here’s what he said today.

KID: “Angels! Ehhhhh, not so good.” (Clearly aware of the team not making the postseason = ( )

ME: “Ahhhhhh yeah, they didn’t do very well.”

KID: “Number 77?”

ME: “77? (Thinking, realizing number 77 is Reggie Willits, a utility player who gets the occasional start in the outfield who is best known for running fast and sometimes hitting the ball, though he probably played a billion times better than Juan Rivera this year but I digress. He’s not terribly famous.)

KID: “Willits! Willits!”

ME: (Mind says “holy shit, how do you know Reggie Willits?”) “Wow how do you know him?”

KID: “Great great!” (Thumbs up, probably just happy I know who Willits is).

I then asked him if he knew who was in the World Series, and after two incorrect guesses (“C.C. Sabathia” and “Oswalt”) I told him the facts (“Lee” and “Lincecum” who he knew and, like the majority of Americans bound not to tune in, surprised who made it that far). He then said he actually hadn’t watched a full MLB game in a long time…makes sense, as they air during the day and these kids basically never leave school. So he must have bought one of the comprehensive MLB magazines on sale here that publish rosters and results and studied it. And somehow become familiar with Reggie Willits.

So yes…no need to resign Hideki Matsui for his Japanese-market ties. Reggie freakin’ Willits might be able to get the job done.

(Note: Sorry for lack of updates, but I’m currently working on a bigger sized one about a topic barely connected to Japan. Hint…books! So yeah maybe I’ll write that one day.)

(Japanese Fun Fact #84: Shockingly, the semi-ironic humor involved in watching a film like the gore-gore-gore-tastic flick The Expendables doesn’t translate to a Japanese audience. While a group of foreigners laughed at explosions outdoing one another, everyone else remained silence. Great film by the way, if you love watching small nations be destroyed.)

The awesome: One of the teachers I work with wanted me to write up a dialogue we could use in class this week. She suggested making “going to the movies” part of it and suggested working in a contemporary flick. That film – The Expendables, just opening in Japan. Considering I’ve been waiting like eight months to see this film – I regularly watch the trailer for this and get abnormally giddy about it – I nearly high-fived the teacher. I’m gonna revel in making students try to spell the name “Sylvester Stallone.”

The bad – A student tried to give me a shoulder-area massage and I (mentally) flipped out. Strangely…or not surprising depending on yr stereotypes…this sort of close student-teacher relationship seems kinda common, probably a result of school sorta filling in for parents in the work-obsessed Japanese society. Or maybe back rubs are just cool. But I sure as hell didn’t dig it, and was just waiting for NBC cameras to break through the door.

(Japanese Fun Fact #? I’m on my phone I am not lookin that up: Little kids sincerely believe guns flow like water in America and think you can buy a glock at every store. I told them otherwise, but thinking about it I realize they are more-or-less right.)

Due to reasons I’m not even sure I recall at the moment, I swore off eating at McDonald’s sometime last September. Whether for health reasons or because I’m sick of associating the taste of home with with “secret sauce” I vowed to avoid frequenting the nearest chain…perilously located in the same place I do my grocery shopping. For a while I did pretty well – and, unsurprisingly, I felt way better as a person. I welcomed a life free of chemically-modified Quarter Pounders and “apple pies.”

Then came the Cheese Fondue Chicken Sandwich.

Part of the chain’s new “iCon” chicken sandwich series, the cheese fondue offering appeared to be the least vomit-inducing option of this bizarre promotion. Save for maybe the “diavolo” (which looks nice and spicy), the rest of these foodstuffs appear to be have been conceived by someone with a sick sense of humor. As you can see below, items like the meat-sacrilege “German sausage” chicken sandwich and the Carbonara sandwich…complete with what appears to be mushy eggs…seem like desperate creations dreamed up by a Deadhead jonesin for something to eat at four in the morning. The cheese fondue doesn’t even look that appetizing, but the promise of cheese…a rare commodity in Asia…made this an oath breaker.

Shamefully I ordered the sandwich…with fries, woe is me!…and went home to eat. Upon opening the cardboard box hiding my lunch, I became both repulsed and intrigued – living up to its fondue billing, the chicken patty comes coated in a vaguely alarming white cheese sauce. It looks disgusting…but tastes pretty amazing. Shame safely ignored, I bit in.

The sensation I felt was neither love nor hate. Rather, all I felt after biting into the cheese fondue sandwich was a void waiting to be filled by anything of interest. It wasn’t bad but not particularly good either. The cheese sauce tasted OK but didn’t pack the punch necessary to truly make this memorable. The chicken wasn’t crispy while, like every McDonald’s item to ever feature it before, the bacon might as well have not been there. Ultimately this thing wasn’t bad, but if I wanted to break my Golden Arches protest I’d rather do it via the chemical perfection of the Big Mac.

So I promptly returned to my vow not to eat at McDonald’s…which I promptly broke a week later when I got hungry after school and had one cheeseburger. I’m a weak man.

Bonus Action! The Cat Cafe Of Uncomfortableness

Two friends wanted to experience the Japanese cat cafe this past weekend and me, being a two-time veteran, obliged to go with them. I planned on the three of us hitting up the cafe I had first gone to (memories!), a place that, though definitely strange wasn’t nearly as bizarre as I thought it would be. Sadly, after a two-hour trip to get there, we discovered the place was undergoing a renovation. Using my quick thinking though, I recalled seeing another cat cafe in a different part of Osaka next to a 7-11 somewhere. I suggested we find it and, after a few detours caused by a proliferation of 7-11’s in the area, stumbled across the place. I figured it would be more or less the same experience as the other place.

Oh ho ho ho ho no.

I should have actually been a bit more skeptical given WHERE this cat cafe was found: Den Den Town. Basically Osaka’s answer to Akihabara (aka nerd central, Tokyo), this zig-zag of streets serves as the hub for every weirdo stereotype the Western world has regarding Japan. Nerds waddle from toy store to adult video store to video game store to security camera store (really) while women dressed up as maids try to hustle them into their cafes. If the Japanese panty vending machine actually exists, it’s probably down some Den Den Town alley. So, unsurprisingly, our cat cafe sat on top of a packed maid cafe. We made our way up the stairs and entered what appeared to be someone’s living room. Except it was crawling with cats.

Whereas the other cat cafe seemed to put the emphasis on the cats…people, even little kids, came there to pet and look at cats…this place and its clientele struck a different vibe. There were lots of cats, and some people played with them (or rather, tried to play with them as the cats ignored them). Yet a lot of people seemed to be sitting down on a couch reading comics, maybe stroking a feline as it passed by. This place felt more like a strange way to live out an alternate life…you could do the things you love (read manga) but do it in the company of kitties. This…coupled with the way maids from downstairs came in every few minutes to change clothes in a backroom…made the place feel way more weird than it had any right to be. All while having access to all the orange juice we could drink and waves of cats who could care less about our existence.

The experience creeped us out and we only lasted half-an-hour. Even that felt like a small miracle, mostly facilitated by a tubby feline who seemed to like attention. I’ll be keeping an eye out for a puppy cafe next time around.

I’m not one to believe in “fate” or similar pre-ordained mindsets, but even a skeptic like myself notes the timing of my newest teaching venture and sorta wonders how the timing came together so well. As you could probably guess from a few whiny posts down the page there…look ma, LiveJournal!…I’ve been quite frustrated as of late and those bumps in the road persist. The most unsettling development is I’m starting to become more stressed at my job, which wasn’t happening until recently. So I was thrilled to learn that, starting this past Tuesday, I’d also start visiting an elementary school every other week. Considering how much I enjoyed elementary schools this past winter, this felt like a great addition to my life.

I’ve been once thus far and, since I’ve already talked about them before, here are a few observations from my latest visit.

– Elementary school classes can be tiny. My biggest class at my new school peaks out in the high 20s…my smallest rests at nine. Nine fourth-students for the entire school…insane, but makes class pretty manageable.

– The younger the kid, the more enthusiastic they are to learn English/interact with the weird-o foreign man who magically appeared in their school. Whereas my oldest students at junior high school, now confronted with the menace of high school entrance exams, have zoned out of English class save for the times when they can win a bookmark by answering a question correctly, third-to-sixth graders love trying to say stuff in English. I’ll admit they probably aren’t retaining tons…not to mention, when you are that little ANYTHING out of the ordinary seems really exciting…but they at least show some energy.

– Not to mention, the elementary school has an entire room devoted to English dubbed “The Happy Room.” It’s got giant picture books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and sock puppets. I don’t know why junior high schools can’t do the same. Or at least provide puppets.

– Weirdest question asked by a student – “what’s your favorite ‘buzz’ in America?” Turns out “buzz” refers to trends, at least in this kid’s mind. I told them the most popular things in America at the moment are vampires and Lady Gaga. I think I’m right?

– I also appreciate younger students because they constantly bring up Spongebob Squarepants around me, specifically that I have the same name as the mentally-challenged starfish on that show. Always gets a laugh, at least.

– The Japanese love the song “The Entertainer” a lot because they played it on loop during the lunch period. Nothing like ragtime piano to fire you up for the afternoon. Looking forward to the “Maple Leaf Rag” next time.

– Only mishap of the day came during the hour I was waiting for the bus to come. I decided to study some Japanese…mistake one…and focused on the lesson where you learn how to say “I want [object].” Two of the teachers noticed my effort and commented on how “great” it was. Then one tested me by asking what I wanted in Japanese. Caught off guard, I replied “water” as it seemed kinda funny in a stupid way and way better than anything else I could think of. Everyone laughed and we went on our ways.

Fifteen minutes later the teacher comes to my desk carrying a giant bottle of sports drink, having taken my (admittedly shitty) joke seriously. I tried to explain that I was OK, I didn’t really want anything to drink and felt absolutely mortified at what I had done. I felt quite bad (not to mention stupid, but that’s a given), though later on I pretty much laughed it off. That’s what I get for studying.

(Personal Problems Aside Because It’s This Or Therapy #1: I’m realizing one of the things that’s starting to make me more and more frustrated is the super-niceness of the people here. That sounds like an amazingly prick-like thing to say – how dare you be nice to me! – but it just seems so forced. A year ago, I loved being assaulted with kindness, people oooohing and ahhhhing when I cracked up a Japanese textbook or admitted “yes, I can eat sushi.” Now, whether because I’m used to Japan or…more likely…I’ve become a little meaner, I find myself questioning the actual authenticity of this niceness more frequently. Are they actually trying to be nice…or just trying to make me feel like they care? Honestly, the biggest reason I hate this is because it makes trying to read romantic interests damn near impossible, and that will drive a dude insane.)

(Japanese Fun Fact #82: I learned from a friend this weekend that when a pet needs to be put down, the Japanese don’t take them to the vet. They take them to “the dream chamber.” Putting pet dogs to rest…still kinda whimsical in Japan!)

“Two great tastes – together at last!”

I spotted this seemingly innocent-looking juicebox at the local convenience store this morning and, after doing a cartoon-like double take once I realized what this drink promised, pretty much had to buy it. This specific combination seems to already have been a hit in Japan – a quick Google search reveals it previously existed as a candy, a candy a lot of people outside of Japan wanted to try for some reason. I’ve never seen it in beverage form, though, so it was new to me. Plus, the cheap thrill of drinking something “scotch flavored” in plain sight of all my teachers and students seemed like a thrilling chang of pace (look how cool I am, drinking “scotch!” Out of a juicebox!).

Let’s jump right into it…did this actually taste like alcohol mixed with yogurt, or was it a massive letdown.

Big reveal………

It was the latter. The yogurt taste overpowered whatever else was supposed to be in this concoction…the scotchiest element I could pick up on was the aftertaste, and even that only tasted like alcohol set on fire. Seriously, whatever lingered around in my throat reminded me of used charcoal more than anything else. In retrospect I clearly broke rule number one when it comes to products claiming to have the same taste as an alcoholic drink…never buy them if they aren’t actually alcoholic. Especially when mixed with yogurt.

(Japanese Fun Fact #81 – The word “blood” makes Japanese children laugh a lot. That’s grim.)