Saturday, October 30, 2010
I spent the week on Yonaguni island. The original schedule had me teaching there Tuesday-Wednesday (I usually teach two days on this island - one school per day -- because the flights to and from the island are limited), but the typhoon that passed through Okinawa sent us high winds and heavy rain and thus all flights leaving the island were canceled until Friday morning.
This island is the most western place in Okinawa and Japan. It is only 108 kilometers/67 miles east of Taiwan and thus it has a very different culture in comparison to the rest of the Yaeyama islands. The kanji for it contains the Japanese word for "country" as it is so separate from the other parts of Okinawa. They speak a dialect that honestly should be considered a separate language. Unfortunately, like all of the Okinawan hogan dialects, it is quickly disappearing with the aging population. Yet, Yonaguni is one of the places where some of the young children can still speak it fluently, but only if they live with their grandparents. This language cannot be understood if you speak Japanese. While it is remotely related to ancient Japanese, it is definitely not decipherable with modern Japanese. Yonaguni language is very sing song, with quite a bit of intonation. You can check out a brief introduction to the language here.
I learned quite a bit about the differences between Yonaguni's funeral practices and those of the rest of Okinawa and Japan. The people on Yonaguni bury their dead (a practice that is not common in Japan at all). They place them in small coffins in a fetal position and after 7 years have passed, they perform a funeral rite in which the men and women open up the coffins and the women clean and polish the bones. The teacher who told me about this suspected that this practice might have come from China at one point, but she wasn't certain. Some of the children I taught had participated in this ritual already. This came up in the Self-Introduction + Halloween lesson plan (I had to throw both of them together) when I introduced the word "coffin" to them.
The kids I taught were exceptionally sweet and kind. Their English was also at a very high level. Island kids here in the Yaeyama region are always very wonderful to teach and every time I travel to these smaller outlying islands, I am delightfully surprised by how warm and lovely everyone is at these schools. Of course, the people on my island are also very nice as well, but I do live in the slightly cynical "big city" and I really do feel like this island has a bit of a "you ain't from around here boy are ya?" vibe to it (I am not the only person who has said this). You have to become a regular here before people warm up to you (unless they know you either on a work or friend related basis), otherwise they think you're just a tourist. It's just the way the culture is here. It actually isn't too different from Florida in that regard.
Unfortunately, because of the storm I didn't get to see much of the beauty of the island (no photos of the horses or the beautiful, dramatic cliffs that greet you as you fly in over the island or the lighthouse that eerily shines upon the town of Kubura at night, or the Western point marker of the island). Maybe next time when I head there in December I will be able to see these things. I did see this amazing vehicle parked at the airport though:
While on Yonaguni I did eat well thanks to my wonderful, gracious co-workers who took good care of me while I was stranded. I ate Okinawan food such as pig's cheeks in curry and used a spicy condiment that can only be found on Yonaguni which tasted like Sriracha sauce.
We also visited a small diner run by a Korean family. They prepared Korean BBQ and Bibimbap for us. 美味しかった! :)
I am not a big fan of being on a very small island, but I could definitely live for a while on Yonaguni. I would love to spend my time teaching between the two schools if that were at all possible. Or teaching both at the elementary and Jr. high schools. That would be great. I don't know what it is about the island but it felt quite different from anywhere I've been. Within the 4 days I spent there, I spoke more Japanese than I normally do and I realized that what I need is an immersion that enables me to stay away from English language menus and other English speakers (though of course the teachers are quite helpful in helping with translation between Japanese and English). I learn the most Japanese from interactions with my students and from being around small children. These students on Yonaguni opened up to me and I wish I could teach at these schools more often than every other month. We had this wonderful chat after school that involved both the use of Japanese and English to figure out what Inari sushi was called (I couldn't remember the name of it but I knew it meant "fox sushi", so I described it in English and the students really had to utilize their language skills and creativity -- they were drawing different types of sushi on the black board to see if it matched my description). These exchanges are what I look forward to anytime I step into any of the classrooms. I love learning from my students and I love when they are really interested and open towards learning about new things as well. Maybe I am a teacher after all...