Getting Schooled

Although the previous night had gotten a little chilly, this was to be a sunny, beautiful day in Osaka. I had hotto caku (hotcakes), as they are called, to last for a few days for breakfast, so I ate them once again. After being in Japan for one full week, I concluded that it was about time to figure out the garbage collection schedule. Garbage was picked up every weekday in my neighborhood, according to a somewhat complicated schedule. Monday was the day for plastic or polystyrene, Tuesday and Friday were for burnable trash, including kitchen and yard waste, but glass bottles could be put out on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month, Thursday was for non-burnable trash, including metal, glass (not bottles), and cans. I skipped Wednesday- what one puts out depended on which Wednesday of the month it was. The 1st Wednesday, they did not pick up, the 2nd & 4th Wednesdays were for newspaper, magazines, cardboard, and milk or juice cartons, while the 3rd Wednesday was reserved for large items, but only if you called first. All of the above was required to be put in “Toyonaka City Designated Garbage Bags” only, which I happened to come across while I was cleaning. They were clear, 42-liter plastic bags with the exact phrase above printed on them. The neighbors told me that, if you put out the wrong thing, the garbage men would leave it by the curb and refuse to pick it up. Instead of leaving out trash in front of our houses, the whole block left their garbage next to a pole underneath some mesh netting. I put my plastics out with some trepidation, hoping they would not still be there when I got back from work.

I started working on my computer project as soon as I got in; Kiyoe had given me a few suggestions of how she wanted to see the results displayed. This kept me busy until lunchtime, I ate lunch once again in the cafeteria with Kiyoe and had some shredded beef, a salad, and a little fried potato patty, called a korroke (croquette) in Japan. Kiyoe excused herself after lunch and said she would meet me at 2 to start my wet lab experiments. When the time arrived, Kiyoe showed me where to find bacteria as well as the media to grow them in. I streaked some out on a plate in order to get separate bacterial colonies and put the plate into the incubator to grow. I then had time to make a couple of flasks of liquid media, but then it was time for me to go the school!

Although it wasn’t entirely clear whether my research project would involve using live animals, Kiyoe wanted me to be authorized to use the animal facilities on campus. In order to obtain this authorization, I needed to take a two-hour class on research using mice as well as the correct use of the facility. The only catch was that the course was taught entirely in Japanese, and there was a test afterwards! Kiyoe assured me that just being present in the class was enough to satisfy the bureaucracy at the university and that the test was given entirely for assessment purposes, that no one had previously failed to receive the needed authorization. Kiyoe had given me a thin “textbook” that had been printed up for the class, all in Japanese, of course. As I started to leave, she stopped me and had me put on my lab coat, which was to be worn to all official functions such as this. As Kiyoe walked me to my class, I joked that I should also have a stethoscope around my neck to truly look the part. This, however, didn’t appear amuse her in the least. I tried to look inconspicuous as I took a seat, hoping that no one would ask me anything and find out how little Japanese I actually understood.

Class consisted of playing an hour-long video that (I think) explained mouse research in general, followed by a 45-minute talk on (perhaps) Osaka University specifically, and ended with another video demonstrating precisely how to use the facilities. Throughout the class, I pretended to scan the notes I had been given and tried my best to pay attention. I understood very little, my two years of Japanese were more geared to such queries as “Where is the train station?” than to the intricacies of scientific research. It reminded me of a nightmare I have had where I find myself in a particular class where I can’t understand any of the information, but then the instructor hands out an exam that I am expected to take. I had a lot of time to think during the two hours that followed. I pictured myself as Dr. Drake Ramoray, the character Joey plays on “Friends”. Joey is not portrayed as being particularly bright on the show but plays a doctor on a soap opera where he gets that contemplative “doctor” look whenever someone says something complicated that he doesn’t understand. I tried this look out a number of times during class.

The last 15 minutes actually made sense to me, it was a video showing how to go about the procedure that I have already described concerning working with the mice. Having gone through the whole process once, it all looked very familiar. Just before 5 pm, I was handed the test. I put my name on it and completely guessed at the dozen or so multiple-choice questions that were on it. In return, I received a form to fill out in order to get a microchip put into my I.D. card which would allow me to gain access to the animal facility.

I then hurried back to the laboratory and joined the weekly lab meeting, already in progress. It was like déjà vu- inside our conference room was a man giving a lecture in Japanese about a subject that I could barely follow. At the end of the meeting, the head of our research group of 25 or so people, Dr. Kaneda, announced that I had joined the group and had me stand up and introduce myself in Japanese. After this, the meeting ended and I resumed my work until the last bus was ready to leave for the Toyonaka campus.

When I returned home, I was pleased to find that my garbage had indeed disappeared from where I left it. I fixed soba, buckwheat noodles, for dinner and discovered two bites into them that one has to boil them like spaghetti before serving. They had not come dry but in a package like fresh pasta noodles, but were quite doughy without cooking them. I quickly put on a pot of water and did my best to prepare them correctly. By the time they were finished, I had eaten a variety of other items that I had around the house- so I wrapped them up and decided that they might make a good breakfast mixed with miso soup- I would find out in a matter of hours!

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