Graffiti – Ximen, Taipei.
I had one of those days yesterday. One of those days that you occasionally have when the universe seems to be determined to get one over you.
Yesterday was the first day of teaching this academic year. In case you’ve just checked whether this is a 6-month old blog post, I might need to quickly add that unlike in Europe and America where academic years start in the autumn, in Japan, the start of the academic year is the 1st April, and at my university, teaching starts the second week so April, after about a week of orientation.
Regardless of when the start of the academic year is, most teachers and university lecturers/professors know that the start of a new term is stressful. Most academics are very busy planning teaching, attending meetings and finalising their own research projects before the teaching starts. And so was I. But I had already planned my classes for weeks ahead, I had already been to most of my meetings and I had done a fair amount of my own research during the two-month long winter vacation. So it was all good.
On the first day back at work, I was to have a 90-minute session with some second year students at 9am, but more importantly, I was to meet my new first year students during a 3-hour orientation session in the afternoon. I was a little nervous, as I wanted to make a good first impression on my new students.
My alarm woke me up at 6.40am, but after having been up half the night with problems with my daughter’s blood sugars I wasn’t on full form.
During the night, probably due to stress, I had developed a cold sore on my lip. Bloody marvellous, given that in Japan you never see cold sores. If a person has one, they will most certainly wear a surgical mask to hide it.
I however did not want to wear a mask on the first day of meeting new students because (maybe influenced by my Western mindset) I felt like wearing a mask would give them an everlasting first impression of a person with weak constitution. Besides, I wanted the new students to see my face on the first day, partly so that they would see that I am tough but kind, but also so that it would be easier for them to understand my British English, given that most Japanese people are more familiar with American English. Then again, I don’t know what kind of an infection-ridden message a cold sore on my lip would make… In any case, I decided not to wear a mask.
We didn’t have any Zovirax (cold sore cream) in the house, so in desperation I decided to slab some toothpaste on the cold sore, which, supposedly, will dry the blister and get rid of the cold sore very quickly. Since I wanted to get rid of it fast, preferably before my afternoon class with the first year students, I applied an extra thick layer.
Not only was yesterday the first day of teaching this academic year, but it was also the first day for our new au pair to help out with the kids’ morning routine and school run. The word bedlam doesn’t quite capture our morning activities yesterday morning, but somehow we got the kids kind of ready for school on time, I got changed into my dress and suit jacket and pounced out of the apartment around 7.50am to make it to the 9am class.
On the train I get some subtle curious looks. I say subtle because in Japan people rarely stare. If you have done something wrong, like talk on your phone on the train, no-one will tell you that you are not allowed to make phone calls on trains or on train platforms in Japan. They just give you this ever so slight eye-roll and you are supposed to figure out that your fellow passenger is sending you a clear message. So, I’m there standing on a packed commuter train trying to figure out what the seemingly obvious message is, until I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the window. And I notice the blob of blue Colgate on my lip.
I probably don’t need to mention this explicitly, but as subtly as the Japanese roll their eyes, I removed the toothpaste on my lip, and pretended it never happened.
On a positive note: I noticed the toothpaste before I reached my university, and even more importantly, before I started teaching my 9am class.
On a negative note: I share the tube to work with those people several mornings a week. And I might have just managed to acquire a new nickname, maybe something like The blue lipped Western lady amongst those commuters. But hey, I’d rather it was Colgate on my lip than, say, half a tomato stuck to my tooth! This – the half a tomato incident – has happened before, not to me, but to a colleague who had his work ID card photo taken straight after lunch with a tomato skin covering his front teeth. To me, toothpaste somehow feels like an easier thing to brush off than a tomato skin (no pun intended).
After the somewhat uncomfortable tube journey, I get to work and think that my dress feels a bit funny. I go to the toilet to realize that the lining has frayed and become detached from the dress. Every time I take a step, the detached part of the lining is pulling my dress higher and higher at the back of my legs.
It occurs to me that maybe the eye-rolling on the train was not about the toothpaste on my lip (after all, it wasn’t half a tomato). Maybe it was about my dress and its slit at the back of my legs that was revealing maybe a little more than it should have.
On a positive note: I noticed the dress ‘malfunction’ before my classes.
On a negative note: I can’t take a single step all day unless I’m willing to walk on the edges of every room, literally my back glued to the wall. Since I don’t have a spare dress at work and because there is no time to go and change at home, I decide to glue my back to the wall, and so all day yesterday, while my colleagues took the shortest route from point A to point B (as one would), I tried to keep up with them by taking sidesteps somewhere on the periphery of the room. And with teaching, I just stood there in front of the class like a meerkat spotting danger across the desert, and made sure I didn’t move a paw.
Somehow I got through the work day without, so to speak, revealing too much. And the Colgate seemed to have worked wonders as my cold sore was not covering half my face (as it usually does). It was a mere one small blister on my upper-lip, which I was able to hide with make-up.
On a positive note: Today, i.e. the second day of teaching, was a dignified, incident free day.
On a negative note: I know one of those less dignified, incident-rich days will happen again. I’m just hoping it won’t be tomorrow or anytime soon, but I know it’s there somewhere lurking in the horizon, maybe making a devious plan for the first day of the second semester.