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Expatriates are celebrities

Blast Osaka Bureau

SHIRAHAMA, JAPAN -- Americans thrive on celebrity culture. Everyone craves their moment in the spotlight. Whether we win the lottery, write a rap song about big butts or blow up a government building with a truck of fertilizer, we are all waiting for our fifteen minutes of glory.

Well, I finally got my fifteen minutes -- not on film or in the sports arena but as an English teacher in semi-rural Japan.

Life as an American living in Japan is as close as many of us will ever get to celebrity status. Many people in the United States think Japanese are racist and resentful towards Americans due to reports in the media. They can believe that all they want. The truth is any American in Japan who doesn't have a nose ring or break the law on a regular basis will be treated with generosity to the point of absurdity.

Upon arriving at my junior high schools, the cheers from my students were deafening. My name echoed up and down the corridors. I tried to pretend I had actually done something impressive to deserve such adulation.

Remembering the Sean Connery character in "The Man Who Would Be King," I knew my days were numbered. I knew it was only a matter of time before these kids figured out I wasn't God. And my Waterloo came: on Sports Day.

Sports Day is an annual festival held at all Japanese schools. I knew my students had big plans for this day. I had seen them practicing for months, shuffling around the athletic field with an intensity rarely demonstrated in the classroom.

I got the impression that every Sports Day required a few human sacrifices because, as events of the day unfolded, the body count kept increasing. After a human pyramid collapsed, a few kids emerged howling in pain. I was shocked at how casual the teachers and parents dealt with these injured kids. "This is no big deal," one teacher told me. "Last year a girl broke her arm."

When it was time for the relay races, I could see the kids eyeing my size 13 1/2 running shoes with fear. But the truth is, despite my height, despite my demigod-status, I was a lousy athlete in my school days and remain so. You could start a bonfire with the benches I warmed in junior high school.

And in the relay, when I seized the baton from a scrappy, pint-sized chemistry teacher, I began running and experienced a discomforting sensation -- I wasn't moving nearly as fast as I thought I should.

I could see that sinking look on the students' faces as I rounded the track. After the race, first-year junior high school students approached me with a look of profound disillusionment. The kids, who had previously shown little interest in speaking to me in English said, "Teacher. Not Fasto."

And so I knew from that day on, there would be no fooling the kids. I was just another average schmuck, despite my height and my striking resemblance to Tom Cruise.

The parent-teacher party that evening - featuring housewives belting out karaoke songs, parents throwing a drunken principal at the ceiling, and smashed glasses and whiskey bottles everywhere -- offered some inebriated consolation.

But there was no getting around it -- my fifteen minutes were over.