The Myth of the Green Dress – Nakatsugawa-shi, Japan

The Myth of the Green Dress
Nakatsugawa-shi, Japan

A green shimmer radiated from beneath the clear plastic veneer of the dress bag hanging in the middle of the room. Thousands of emerald-green sequins reflected the dim overhead florescent light in the small seamstress shop. As the kind old seamstress unzipped the bag, layer upon layer upon layer of ruffled green tulle poured out in torrents, overwhelming her small frame. She took me behind a curtain and hung the dress on a metal rod, pantomiming that I was to put it on. As she closed the curtain, the rod bent under the weight of the sequins. It was difficult to find the middle of all the silk and lace and tulle in order to step into the dress. It was heavy to wear. The ruffles ended about six inches past my feet in the front, a six foot train flowed behind me in the back. When I emerged from the makeshift dressing room my students beamed, the seamstress clapped, and I feigned excitement. For my formal introduction to my new colleagues, students, and community I would be outfitted in Dorothy’s ruby slippers and reincarnated as Scarlet O’Hara on a St. Patrick’s Day gown. And so began my year in Japan.

One month into my first year as a teacher in rural central Japan, as the monotonous days of attendance without pertinence wore on, an event appeared at the end of the school week which threatened to break up the tedium of August: the three-day extravaganza that is the Nakatsu High School Bunkasai (cultural festival). The magnitude of this event was really unprecedented; the culmination of more than a month’s worth of active preparation, and a year’s worth of administrative planning.

August was a quiet month. No classes, lessons all planned, teachers away on holiday, students nowhere to be seen. I busied myself over-preparing for my first lesson, studying Japanese, and trying to stay cool in the sweltering staff room. During the languid summer afternoons I wandered the campus in search of students. I found them scattered in corners working, practicing, painting, singing, juggling, and congregating in focused concentration. During my walks I would try to engage them in conversation, asking questions about their efforts, kicking a stray ball back to the jugglers, silently observing from the sidelines in hopes they would approach me. All my efforts to connect met the same end: my students were nervous and reticent in my presence. While I realize now that they were adjusting to me in the same way I was adjusting to them – slowly – it nevertheless exaggerated my sense of being an outsider in my new home.

Katy and Mr. Okazaki (Kocho-sensei)

Mr. Okazaki (Kocho-sensei) and Katy

Incredibly, it was my own embarrassing role in the festivities, as the honorary host of the opening ceremonies, that ushered me into the inner circle. A few days before opening day, the student council president approached me with a request to co-host the ceremonies with the principal. She told me it was school tradition to introduce the new English teacher to the community at the school festival. They had even planned a special presentation for my introduction. I was excited by the prospect of an activity, and honored by the invitation. Fast-forward to the seamstress shop and you will see why the panic set in. You see, the green dress was my presentation gown, and the presentation was actually a waltz, which I would dance with the principal in front of the entire school community. If public humiliation is characteristic of humor, then this would be my comedic zenith!

On the opening day of the festival, dressed in the now infamous green dress, I entered the gymnasium where the entire school, and most of the community, was seated in anticipation. With great bravado I exclaimed, “Mr. Okazaki (Kocho-sensei), may I have this dance?” As I not-so-gracefully sashayed across the gym, the principal, dressed in a silver, three-piece tuxedo complete with top hat and cane, met me with outstretched arms and responded, “Yes, my darling, sweetie, let’s dance.” Because Japanese people speaking English is very funny, this got a huge laugh from the audience. Then, carrying my train across my arm, the principal and I ascended the stage stairs and proceeded in our music-less waltz while the entire audience cheered. It was about 37 degrees outside that day, even hotter inside the gymnasium; I was wearing the heaviest, most hideous dress I’ve ever seen; I was waltzing with a silver tuxedo-wearing, stoic, middle-aged Japanese man in front of five hundred people. And, it was clearly the funniest I’ve ever been. The crowds cheered, Kocho-sensei bowed, I curtsied, and that was it. I took off the dress and resumed my role as quiet observer as the bunkasai began.

The first two days constituted the cultural festival, during which time each homeroom class was responsible for creating and performing a 30-minute production of some cultural significance. The categorization of some of these performances as “cultural” was in name only, and the variety was vast: a capella choral performances of Disney songs, near-professional Japanese traditional dances, an international clothing fashion show, an American cheerleading routine, street-show performance acts of juggling, bubbles, and clown charades. The combination hip-hip/traditional Japanese fan dance was my favorite piece. Each of the 3rd year classes performed hour-long Japanese dramas, which were, admittedly, difficult to sit through. Yet the infectious energy and resounding pride of every student in the school made even the longest “period piece” worth the nap-jerking.

The third day of events was billed as the athletics festival. Despite the excess of relay races and tug of war under the scorching summer sun, it was my favorite day because the students showed themselves to be real kids. They were loud and raucous, fierce competitors, and supportive teammates. Many students raced around the track barefoot; injuries abounded. Yet the overwhelming sounds of the day were laughter and cheering. It was a great day to be a spectator.

The day culminated in the annual cheering competition, the pièce de résistance of the entire festival. Banish all thoughts of ESPN competitions, this ain’t your Friday night football game! Each year the students are divided into four groups, North, South, East, West, depending on where they live in relation to school. If you are on the North team, you are on the North team for your entire tenure at Nakatsu Koko. The same is true for your siblings. Because of this fact, team loyalty and rivalries run deep. Each team spent the summer holiday painting massive billboard murals that were mounted atop the bleachers where the teams would stand. These murals portrayed various scenes (including a rococo winged chariot attended by cherubs), which seemed to have little correlation to the event, but were nonetheless stunning. They served as the centerpiece of each team’s performance, and they struck me as the most beautiful components of the festival.

In turn, the 1st and 2nd year students of each team performed synchronized song-and-clapping routines while the 3rd year students, dressed in traditional Japanese costumes, danced in the middle of the field, leading the cheers. Even after watching weeks of practice the real performances were more spectacular than I could have imagined. As I sat alongside my new colleagues under the spectators’ tent, we cheered together at the performances and celebrated the South team’s victory, the first in more than ten years.

After the festival ended, school life returned to normal. No classes, no work, low attendance from teachers and students. I resumed preparations for my self-introduction, reading, and internetting. But, something had changed during the festival. Colleagues who had never spoken to me stopped by my desk to tell me, in English, “nice dancing” or “pretty dress.” Other teachers would just point at me, mime my dancing, and laugh, but I took it as progress. One shy student who wouldn’t have made eye contact before told me, “You look like a movie star in your green dress.” Over the next two weeks there were a series of anonymous gifts of fresh fruit and photos from the festival left on my desk. And, after hours spent practicing the waltz in the gymnasium after school, the principal and I now share a casual rapport. Ever since the green dress episode, it’s as if the inner circle of school-culture opened just a bit to welcome me, ever so slowly, to join them. All it took was a little humility and waltz in a green dress.

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