Monday, March 7, 2011

Party Time

宴会 (ennkai). The literal translation is a work "party" or "banquet", but the 宴会 is so much more than that. To anyone working as an ALT in Japan, the more accurate definition would be "an event where Japanese colleagues have dinner together, drink copious amounts of beer and sake, and go bonkers wild singing karaoke for hours on end". Last Friday evening (March 4th) my school held its after graduation 宴会. For schools, the event usually occurs at graduation, the start of the new school year (mid April), summer break (August) and winter break (December). By this logic this last 宴会 should be my third, but I could only attend the dinner portion (and not crazy wild portion) of the summer break 宴会 in August, and the winter break event was canceled. Last week's was actually the first full one that I have been able to attend, and it was interesting to say the least.

First off, the Japanese 宴会 is superior to America's work party in every conceivable way. America's work party is stuck in the throes of an identity crises - it doesn't know if its really a party or meeting. Trying to have fun in this ambiguity is difficult. Drink one to many and you look like a lush in front of your coworkers. As an informal but professional work gathering it fails because dealing with anything work related, especially co-workers, on a Friday or Saturday evening is painful. The Japanese 宴会, by contrast, is a PARTY. Not a little work holiday get together, but a PARTY where co-workers just happen to be in attendance too. Instrumental to this is Japan's "post-party-no-judge" system (I completely made that term up). Everything that happens at an 宴会 will be completely forgotten by the following Monday. Baseball coach got fall dawn drunk and threw the karaoke microphone at another teacher? Come the following Monday, no-one says anything of it to anyone; it never happened. For the Japanese, who live in a rigid class structure with intense societal pressure to conform, the 宴会 really is a time to cut loose frat-party style. 

This particular 宴会 that I attended was held on the really nice beach resort on my island, about a 10 minute drive away from my apartment. A bus was provided to take all of us teachers to the resort and back. The party started in a banquet hall, and in true 宴会 fashion, was an all you can eat and drink affair. To avoid cliques, the seating among the 50 teachers and staff was determined randomly. I got placed by a baseball coach and the crazy maintenance man. The maintenance man, truthfully, is a really nice guy, but a little weird (at one point mid-meal he tried to say something to me, but all I could focus on were the pieces of rice and seaweed that he had gotten in his hair). Anyhow, after we sat down and the commencement speech was given, everyone grabbed a bottle of beer and immediately started filling each others' glasses. Rule number one at an 宴会 is NEVER pour your own drink, as it can come off as rude. Be on a constant lookout for any neighbor's glass nearing half empty and fill them up. Your glass will always be taken care of. 

After finishing my food and making a couple rounds to fill co-workers' glasses, the party moved on to stage 2. We moved from the dining hall to another huge room - the karaoke party room. After everyone had mingling around, the teachers had me give the toast. I yelled out 乾杯 (kanpai, cheers), and everyone sat down and the music started. It wasn't five seconds though until I heard muffled chanting - "Bu-ran-don", "Bu-ran-don" (how my name sounds with its Japanese spelling). I was terrified, as I knew exactly what they wanted. Every ALT's trial by fire - they wanted me to be the lead off karaoke singer. My heart rate shot up through the roof. I had been told to be prepared for this moment, having a song ready when they called your name, but I hadn't prepared anything. Fifty people were looking at me waiting for me to name the song, and in my panic only one thing came to mind. YMCA. 

Gettin' Krunk Up in Here

I don't remember anything from the song, other than that I had most signing out the letters with me. Back at my seat, drenched with sweat but utterly relieved, some of the teachers brought me a drink and yelled out お疲れ様です (o tsu kare sama desu, job well done)! Evidently I passed the test. The rest of the night passed by without incident, as I was able to just sit back and enjoy the festivities.  

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