Friday, April 25, 1997


I've just returned from my annual duty as freshman advisor, a duty designed in hell, right up there with root canals, kidney transplants, and shovelling shit at a pig farm as a fun thing to do. An overnight at a resort with twenty eighteen year olds, an exercise in obligatory merriment which requires the men to get drunk, roar and puke all night, and the women to fill the spectrum between admiration and indulgence. Maybe even join in, if you want to look really modern. Not a good time to be a bathroom sink, or a hallway floor, or an available lap.

The formula for this madness goes like this. Take a basically nice kid, teach him the importance of being one of the gang, put him in a group he will call his peers, add alcohol, and see what happens. Twenty individual human beings, all of whom would no doubt give up their seat to a stranger, help an old geezer across the street, or sing a crying baby to sleep on instinct, transform themselves on cue (it's eight o'clock; time to start the drinking party) into a single mighty drinking machine that is part bent elbows, part slobbering lips and all macho asshole.

Do something about it? Might as well ask a lemming to see a shrink about his self image. It's not that people aren't trying. Every year at this time there are public notices urging the young not to engage in this "ikki" practice -- "eek-kee-eek-kee" is the encouragement the group shouts in rhythm to help you get your beer down as fast as your gullet will move it along. The speed is the thing.

Even though this time-honored tradition leads to a number of deaths every year, the practice has the weight of tradition. Heavy drinking, along with smoking, is a handy symbol, for those who need it, that one has arrived in the adult world, and the university culture seems to have incorporated the symbol with a vengeance, adding local particulars such as the shouting out of university mottoes and in-group words like the ritual shouting at kabuki or a bullfight.

There have been worse ways to mark the acquisition of the status of student, Germany's duelling scars being maybe the most ferocious example, and it seems rather silly to worry about the occasional hangover and the after all pretty low statistical figure of drinking deaths. What I'm dealing with is an attempt to figure out why I am so put off by these rituals.

Don't tell me it's because I'm a boring old fart who is jealous of the ability of the young to do such damage to themselves and get up and walk away. That may be part of the reason. I'd be in a hospital if I tried to do to my body what these kids have just done to theirs. But if that were all there was too it, I wouldn't be taking note of secret glances and picking up the pieces from time to time for the outliers in the group whose agony has no place to go, no refuge like my willingness to wear my old geezer identity.

I've been watching this process since I first came to Japan years ago, watching it up close every year at Freshman Camp and talking with students about it. You'd think by now I would have stopped being such a dishrag and spoken my piece at such gatherings. Instead, I've taken the coward's path, have learned to beg out of student dinners, which end up as "nomikai" (drinking parties), and avoided wherever possible getting into a situation where I come out looking like a boring old man with no sense of humor, and with no memory of the kind of energy that has to be expressed in crazy ways. I would beg out of Freshman Camp, too, if I thought I could get away with it. But the ongoing popularity among university administrators of these Freshman Camps, either as a way to save their young charges from the Japanese Hell that is social isolation or as a way to make sure the faculty earns their money, gives me serious pause. I can skip an occasional faculty meeting and fail to read one memo after another about deadlines, but I know where the real lines of duty are drawn.

There is the positive side, not unlike the argument that smoking forces you to stop working so hard and take a break. Being a freshman without friends is lonely indeed, and many kids have no idea how to break the ice. They've never had the responsibility, after all, since all their lives have been regimented. Watch the kids gather at a station and wonder for up to an hour how to proceed, and you will see how people can be programmed to be followers. How else but through yet another organized activity can you bring them out of social isolation?

Freshman Camp works until the club activities and the junior and senior seminars take over the function. Heaven forbid they should have to wait that long to belong! But there's a logical flaw in that argument. It isn't that long before the clubs get started, and by the time Freshman Camp is set for the third week of class, many students have already decided where they are going to find their social life. The real reason seems to be automatic behavior on the part of administrators. Organize the kids; they can't run their own lives yet, and many would fall through the cracks if left to their own initiative.

So every year, I meet with up to twenty-five reluctant students who carry the curious label, "McCornick no ado group member" or "McCornick's Advisees." This is my eighth freshman camp. After the first three years, I put my foot down, said no to overnights and organized an afternoon hike and a barbecue. It worked, because the students could be intimidated into saving money a tad more easily than they could be intimidated into plunking down over a hundred dollars for this overnight. But this year the sophomore contingent outfoxed me. Convinced I'm not doing my full duty, they took the situation out of my hands and had the whole overnight organized before the scheduled first meeting with my advisees, guessing correctly that I wouldn't veto the idea. As a result, I had seven sophomores come along this year. I've never gotten more than two or three doing it the second time around for just a barbecue.

Obviously there is something in the overnight that smacks of fun and adventure. I wish I could say it was the freedom to get away, to sit in a hot spring resort, to sleep in a room with your buddies, or only a room away (and this year, not even that in one case) from some hot stuff members of the opposite sex, that was drawing them. But I suspect it's also the chance to get drunk and puke all over God's earth and sky.

The art of life, I've come to believe, is in knowing which battles to fight. Protesting against this drinking practice seems like a battle too costly to engage in, so I surrender. But surrender costs, too, and there is my dilemma. Why, I wonder, as I look at myself in the mirror, don't I speak out where it counts and call these nomikai a lousy self-destructive practice. I've become pretty obnoxious about berating some poor restaurant owner trying to make a living for not providing a smoke-free environment for me when I want to eat. I can make lives miserable without even trying, with my desire to smell the food I'm eating. Why not get up on the horse over the nomikai?

It's not just cowardice. At some level my conviction is real that such nonsense serves a purpose; it separates the people with character from the louts, shows the follies of youth in clear relief, without which there would be justification in claiming wisdom with age. I do wish I didn't find my hands clapping along quite so readily, and putting a little beer in the glass and demonstrating my approval by letting them "ikki" the sensei.

Knowing you don't have to bang your head against the wall to learn not to bang your head against the wall is not privileged information. Most people realize you can actually learn by watching the folly of others. Why, I ask myself, should I determine who is going to learn by making the mistakes and who will learn by watching. Yet my desire to play Cassandra sometimes gets the upper hand. And so the pendulum swings. Mind your own business, speak your piece, mind your own business, speak your piece.

All the while, I am wondering if the real issue is my outsider status, or my use of outsider status to justify lack of action. As an old man, I am an outsider to these kids and their ways. As a teacher, I am on the other side of authority. As an American, I carry the weight of reflecting a culture already known for do-goodism and snatching the moral upper ground, usually with little or no justification. But which is it, wisdom and recognition of limitations or cowardly justification?

Subdued isn't the word for the mood at breakfast. Only half of them showed up, and those that did had no more than three words apiece and misery written all over their faces. Not too many proud tales. Just the one about the guy who fell asleep in the girls' room and couldn't be moved. Or so the story goes. A great tale to tell of Freshman Camp. For him and for the other guys. Less great story material, I suspect, for the girls.

I decided at breakfast (no, I had decided the night before) to leave early. After all, I did my duty by sticking around all night. It was better than in some years. A nice hot bath in the "onsen" and a big private room not immediately adjacent to the howling and cheering. The usual breakfast in such places of cold egg and cold rice and miso and pickles and some Asian analogue to spam. Leave the spam alone and it ain't bad. One last time of standing around while the group gathers (a mere thirty-five minutes, slightly less than the average waits for such things) and a chorus of "what shall we do, where shall we go's") and it's over. They go to see the lake, hangovers visible in their subdued voices and sluggish gaits, and I wave a cheery toodle-oo and head down the mountain to the refuge of home and futon.

With one of the crew in tow. The one who came closest to being a statistic in the annual numbers of students dying from an alcohol overdose. Evidence of my guilt still showing through in the way I overrode my desire to sit separately and avoid the risk of being chucked upon as the bus zig-zagged its way down and out of the Hakone mountains.

So it's over for another year, this hellish thirty-six hour demonstration that people in developed countries risk extreme hubris by slapping the adjective "primitive" on the rituals of the folks in such places as Papua New Guinea. I'm free again to tell eighteen year olds what I think. In a classroom where, when I choose to make them do so, they have to listen to me. This was their turf (albeit university designed) and the classroom is mine, at least as far as they will let me have it.

I can go back now to talking one on one with the occasional misfit, the guy or girl who suffers from having to go along with the crowd, where I can establish a big brother little brother/ sister relationship, a buddy system for dealing with the cold cruel world without fighting windmills. I work so hard in a classroom to include everybody, to be a teacher in the democratic tradition, embrace the ethics of Paolo Freire in wanting education to be all-inclusive. I reject the advice of my colleagues who urge I join them in looking for a few select students to teach and ignore the rest. At the same time, I have a special place for the outlier. It's so much better, I tell myself, to light a candle for someone who complains of the dark than it is to scream at the world for not turning on the lights. Or is it?

(from my journal of correspondence with students, this entry of October 11, 1991.)

TT: Why do people drink so much? Ever since I was in high school my life has been hell because I can't drink. As soon as I have more than one bottle of beer I have to vomit. It's because I'm so skinny. Recently I look at myself naked in the mirror and I hate myself. I have started missing classes because of it. Every weekend we go drinking and every weekend I vomit on the way home. I hate this Japanese custom of making people drink. When we do ikki (I don't know if there is an English word for it) everybody thinks we are having a good time. I laugh with everybody else, but inside I am screaming. But if you don't do it, they say you are a girl and they laugh at you until you finally give in. Do Americans drink like that?

AM: I think this practice of forcing others to do ikki (to "chug-a-lug") is dangerous and stupid. And yes, we have it in America, too. People (especially college men) who are worried about their manly identity often get quite mean to show how manly they themselves are. It's a strange definition of manliness (manly = mean) and it can do a lot of harm. I think you ought to try to find some friends who think like you do (there are some, I'm sure!) and see if you can work out a strategy to stop it, at least, from happening to you.

I have such mixed feelings about things like that. On the one hand, I don't want to sound prudish, and say that drinking is a bad thing. And I don't want to sound boring, either, by saying that people should try for moderation. Everybody knows that.

At the same time, I think you need to learn what your own capacities are. If you never get drunk, you don't know what you're like when you get drunk. Do you get happy? Sad? Belligerent? If you get angry and mean, you know that you need to control your drinking. And you know also that there is something wrong in your life. Drinking can teach you a lot about yourself. Also, sometimes I think it's fun to get drunk with a a bunch of friends, or with another friend. It can be a way of getting to know somebody very well. Like all good things, it can be abused. Sounds like you're having a nightmare.

I think your problem isn't the drinking, though. It's the fact that you can't tell your friends about how you feel. Can you talk to any of them? Is there one who would understand how much this is hurting you and be sympathetic? If so, I think you should let your discomfort be known. And if none of these people are sympathetic, I'd start looking out for some new friends.

Write me again on this topic, if you like. I think it's an important issue.

April 25, 1997