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The Contest

September 28th, 2011 No comments

I just returned home from an absurd and sadistic cultural event in Japan known as the Speech Contest. We Americans have our own similarly evil cultural practice known as the Spelling Bee, only this is worse in a lot of ways because the students are judged on their ability to deliver speeches in English—a vastly different and more difficult language than their own—and the results are withheld until the end, whereas when you lose a spelling bee it’s based on the objective fact that you mis-spelled a word, and you know immediately that you’ve lost. This is more comparable to child beauty pageants in its cruelty.

For the last several weeks, ever since I started teaching, I’ve been staying after school to help the students prepare. There were five altogether with varying degrees of skill.

There were two first-grade boys, O- and S-, who were doing a short little comedy sketch called “Time Noodles” together, and they already had the routine memorized and blocked out by the time I started working with them. All I did was throw in a few ideas to make it funnier, and while I attempted to help them improve their pronunciation, it was already pretty good and they’d already done it so many times that their way of saying the words was practically hard-wired into their brains. I saw almost no improvement from them over the weeks, but to be fair there had been little improvement to make.

The second-grade student for our school was a girl named M- who was reading a short piece from “Alice in Wonderland”. This was a ridiculously difficult piece for a Japanese person to read, as they have a hard time with Ls and Rs and this was full of sentences like, “Alice saw a little bottle on a table” and “the rabbit was very surprised and ran away.” M- couldn’t pronounce these words for the life of her when she began, but after a painstaking few weeks in which I had her constantly moving her tongue to the back of her mouth and repeating “white r-r-r-rabbit” again and again and again, she eventually got to the point where she pronounced everything almost perfectly. Out of all my students, she clearly made the most progress.

There are two third-grade competitions: a recitation of some pre-written material they choose, and a speech that the students write themselves (or with help from their ALT, as was the case with mine). The boy doing the speech was Y-, and I’d completely re-written his speech about lessons he’d learned regarding relationships after this year’s 3-11 earthquake. I was afraid I’d made it too advanced for him, and he struggled with it for a long time, but he eventually got to a point where he could really pull it off. Unfortunately for him, he has a natural lisp so there was only so much he could do.

Finally, there was A-, the girl reading a recitation of “The Giving Tree”. She was already doing a fantastic job of it when I started working with her, although she was still getting some Rs and Ls mixed up and there wasn’t much going on by way of gestures. But she was an excellent learner, and I was able to help her take the speech from Good to Incredibly Freakin’ Awesome. Of all of them, I’d always felt like she had the best chance of winning.

Today was Game Day. This is the first time I’ve ever been in any kind of role like the coach of a team, but that’s essentially what I was. I did my best to keep them as relaxed as they possibly could be, “take deep breaths” and to feel as optimistic as they could. The phrase “Yes we can!” has (unfortunately) become my motivational-mantra-by-default ever since I used it for my self-introduction to the school, and if it gets the students fired up—which it undeniably does—I might as well keep using it in spite of the political irony.

I had four lessons in the morning followed by an extremely rushed school-lunch (10-minutes to eat as opposed to the normal 50), after which seven of us took a taxi-van from the junior high school to the school where the contest was being held which I assume was a high-school. It was myself, the five students, and Ms. T- (whom I now know is actually Mrs. T-), the really friendly and helpful teacher who sits next to me in the staff room. All along the way the students were reciting their speeches to themselves for that last bit of practice, over and over again. I must confess that it made me really look forward to the end of it, when I’d never have to hear those speeches again.

When we arrived at the school I immediately spotted Ben with the students from his school, as well as Trey whom I haven’t seen since that first week in Togane, and Ryan, the other Interac ALT whom I met at the so-called “orientation-session” the week before we starting teaching. I managed to say hello and chat a little with all of them. Ryan told me that his experiences at his school were similar to mine in that the teachers didn’t just want us to be “human tape-recorders” as Ian-the-über-nerd had told us, but that we were actually expected to plan and execute full lessons. The only difference for him was that his school is smaller, so he only has an average of 3 lessons a day whereas I have 4 or 5. I don’t mind that at all though, as I enjoy teaching and it makes the day go much faster.

Before going inside to join his team, Trey talked to me about his experience at last year’s competition and how surprised he was at how emotionally-invested in it the kids can get. He warned me that every year half the students end up crying, so I should be prepared for that.

There would be two rooms at a time with readings going on, and Mrs. T- was one of the organizers in Room 2 so she had to abandon us and play the objective role of the woman who says, “And the next student is Soandso from Suchandsuch School who will be reading Thissythis.” So as she left to prepare I was left alone with the kids outside, the sole coach of the team. Before I took us inside for the opening ceremony I had us all stand in a huddle, put our hands together, and shout “Yes we can!” at the top of our lungs. I felt awkward as hell doing that, but they really liked it so that’s all that counts.

The brief opening ceremony was in the main auditorium, which could probably sit about four hundred people but here there were only about a third of that number. There were seventeen schools from the area participating in the competition, each with four or five students. The ALT was with them all so I got to see a lot more foreigners, and there were always one or two JTEs as well.

Unfortunately I had to divide my time between the auditorium and Room 2 as I wanted to see all of my students compete. I remained in the auditorium first to watch the first-graders do their “Time Noodles” routine. They were only the third group to go, and they were far superior to the previous two so I felt pretty good about that. One of the boys, S-, was so nervous that his voice shot up ten degrees during a couple of the lines, and he forgot to do one of the funny extra-things I’d suggested, but other than that their performance went down swimmingly.

Immediately after that I headed over to Room 2 to catch M- do “Alice in Wonderland”. I was far more nervous about her than I’d been with the first-graders, but as I heard the two speeches ahead of her I began to feel better because they were pretty awful. I couldn’t understand how so many of the speech coaches don’t correct their students when they make an L sound instead of R or vice-versa, or the S sound for a TH. Some of the students were barely comprehensible.

My stomach was in knots when it was M-’s turn to go. Her first line was “Alice was tired of sitting by her sister on the bank” and up until the previous day she’d been pronouncing “bank” like “vank”. But as soon as she nailed the B-sound I started to smile, and I kept on smiling as she went through the whole piece and delivered it better than I’d ever heard her do it before. Considering how poor her delivery had been when I started, I’ve never felt more proud in my life. I applauded wildly when she finished and made sure she saw me grinning widely and giving her the double-thumbs-up when she was done.

I caught a few more second-grade speeches and while some had better delivery in terms of dramatic-performance, none had pronunciation as flawless as M-. When I was finally able to talk to her at the break, I showered her with heartfelt praise, completely convinced that she would at least make the Top 5 if she didn’t win her whole competition.

I sat next to A- the whole time, and she was more nervous than any of them. I kept reminding her to breathe deeply and kept telling her that I knew she was going to do great. Now that I’d seen what the competition was like I was more certain of that than ever. A- was our strongest competitor by far and as long as she had no major screw-ups and there were no superstars up against her, I figured she had the best chance of winning the third-grade recitation.

I ducked out for a few more first-grade performances, most of which were barely comprehensible. But I did catch one called “Let’s Go to the Speech Contest!” with two girls doing a little sketch in which one decides not to go to the speech contest and the other disguises herself as the first girl at age-68, telling her how much she regretted not going and thereby convincing her to go. It was a ludicrous piece, but they were the best I’d seen among the first-graders in terms of delivery.

I was able to see the last few second-graders and none of them were better than M- so I felt very optimistic about her chances. During the break I stayed in Room 2 with A-, keeping her calm and positive and joking around to take the edge off. Her parents had shown up and they came over and introduced themselves to me, and I was able to tell them how great their daughter was which they appreciated.

Ryan was sitting nearby and I was able to chat with him as well. It was also his first time at a contest and he was feeling pretty good about it too.

When it came time for the third-graders to take their seats in the front of the room, I gave A- one last “gambatte” and a “yes we can!” She was the fourth student to go, and throughout the first three she’d glance at me and I’d remind her with my body language to breathe. The first three students were so-so at best, then A- took the stage and blew everybody away. I had a huge smile on my face the whole time, and I could see from the judge’s expressions that they were impressed as well. Even Ryan looked at me during the speech with an expression of awe at A-’s ability. She nailed every last word of “The Giving Tree” except one very close to the end (she said “prace” instead of “place”), but she was animated and emotive and practically perfect in every way. I was beaming when she was finished, but she didn’t seem so sure of herself.

I had to skip out then to go back to the auditorium for Y-’s speech, and Ryan came with me because his third-grader would be speaking right after mine, and he told me point-blank how impressed he’d been by A-. When we got inside, a half-Iranian girl was giving a speech about the difficulties of growing up as a non-fully-Japanese person in Japan. She was extremely good, so I knew right away that Y- wouldn’t win. He was up next, and it was a somewhat surreal experience to hear him deliver the words I’d written in front of an audience. He wasn’t perfect, but he was at his best so I was satisfied. The poor kid has a lisp—what can he do? When he finished the speech I breathed a sigh of relief. A lot of the other kids had gotten tripped up or drawn blanks in the middle of their speeches, and they’d left the stage in tears, already certain of their failure. All my kids had gone through their speeches swimmingly, and all had been at their best.

I watched the rest of the third-graders’ speeches, none of which were better than Y- or the Iranian girl, but when the last girl to go got tripped up and lost her place and I saw the Iranian girl smile because her chances of winning had just gone up, I immediately felt an intense loathing. Even though they were competing with my students, I felt nothing but empathy for the girls who blatantly screwed-up. They were all in for an intensely difficult emotional trial, and a bad memory that would leave a mark on them for rest of their lives (I still remember mis-spelling the word “moccasin” at my second-grade spelling bee and it still leaves a sour taste in my mouth).

I managed to get back to Room 2 for the last two third-grade recitations, both of which were less-than-spectacular so I felt great about A-’s chances. The last girl to go did a recitation called “I Have a Dream” about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, and while her pronunciation was atrocious you couldn’t fault her at all on delivery. She got up there and shouted “I HAVE A GREAM!!!” so loudly that I thought my ears would burst. The rest of the speech was thankfully a bit less thunderous…at least until she repeated “I HAVE A GREAM!!!” at the end.

When it was over, I gave A- my praise and asked her how she felt. As wonderfully as she’d performed, she was still all in knots about what the results would be. The poor girl wouldn’t allow herself to relax and feel good about how she’d done. M- was in a similar state, as no matter how many times I told her honestly that she’d done great, she still needed to hear the results.

I caught up with Trey for a moment before leaving. “That was intense,” he said, referring to the Martin Luther King girl, and I laughed in agreement. “Brace yourself,” he told me then. “This is the moment of truth. I hope I don’t have any criers.”

“I won’t have any criers,” I said confidently. “All my kids did great.”

And so we all entered the auditorium. I sat between the three boys and the two girls, directly next to A- as she was struggling not to pass out from anxiety. Mrs. T- had returned to us and was sitting on the other side of the two girls, ready to mark off the winners on her program sheet once they’d been read. Of course they had to prolong the process to obscene proportions, with a couple of preliminary speeches in both English and Japanese about how all the kids had worked hard “but unfortunately there can only be one winner” and that sort of thing. There was only one plaque for each competition, but the Top 5 were awarded with certificates.

When they started reading the results it was all in Japanese, so I couldn’t be sure what was going on but there were sudden outbursts of emotion bursting forth all around me. They read the results of the third-grade speeches first and I’d completely missed it—apparently Y- had not made the Top 5. (I found out a few moments later to my surprise that the half-Iranian girl had only come in 5th) When I finally turned to A- and asked her what was going on she said they were now reading the first-graders, and I glanced at Mrs. T-’s sheet to take a look. Suddenly the boys beside me had an emotional outburst of their own—I checked Mrs. T-’s sheet and saw that they’d won second place! I was happy for them, but I couldn’t feel too proud because they’d done most of the work before I’d gotten there. The first-place winners, incidentally, were the “Let’s Go to the Speech Contest!” girls.

Then came the second-grade winners. I watched as Mrs. T- marked off the fifth-place winner, then the fourth-place winner. Apparently M- would be in the Top 3! Then came the third-place winner and the second-place winner. Here goes…it’s…it’s…not M-. What the mother effing eff of all effs? Are you effing kidding me? Did you not hear her flawlessly pronounce the words “Alice” and “rabbit” again and again and again? Are you really saying that of the seventeen students her nearly-perfect performance wasn’t even among the Top 5? Re-effing-diculous. At least M- didn’t appear too disappointed. She had to know how well she’d done.

Finally, the third-grade recitation results. A- was losing her mind. I took her hand and held it tightly, feeling the appreciation of my support through her fingers. The fifth-place winner wasn’t her. Good. She was way better than fifth. Nor was the fourth-place. Good. Nor was the third-place. Second-place: A- from ___ Junior High School. First-place: someone else—a boy whose performance I hadn’t seen.

Um…okay? How are we supposed to feel about this? She’d won something—she’d done extremely well by all objective standards, coming in second out of seventeen. But she should have been first, so…yeah. When they called her name there was no outburst of emotion, just a quick gasp and then a look like, “Uh…hooray?” At least she could breathe a sigh of relief. The results had come in and they’d affirmed that she was in fact excellent at English-recitation. She could go home proud, if not completely victorious.

All of the winners got to go up on stage and receive their certificates to the applause of the crowd. I remained seated with Y- and M-, both of whom were clearly disappointed but neither of whom appeared too broken up about it.

But once the ceremony was over and we all got outside and stood together, that’s when M-’s tears started coming. Serves me right for not heeding Trey’s warning. I did the best I could to comfort her but there was hardly anything I could do. I just wanted to hug her but that’s SRICTLY FORBIDDEN, so the best I could do was keep telling her how proud I was (which I was), how great her performance had been (which it had) and that she shouldn’t be upset just because the judges were stupid (which they were). At least I got her to smile at that, but it was short-lived. She was crushed and she would go home crushed and there was nothing to be done about it.

Before Trey left he came and shook my hand in friendly congratulations, and before Ryan left he came over to do the same. He also told A- how impressed he was by her and that he was really surprised she hadn’t gotten first-place. A- smiled and thanked him. She seemed happy enough with second-place so if she was disappointed I couldn’t tell, but like the rest of us she had a hard time feeling good when M- was clearly in pain.

As for the others, the first-grade boys were happy with their second-place finish but were probably holding back because of M-, and if Y- was feeling crushed inside he was behaving like a full-grown Japanese man and keeping it well-hidden behind a mask of nonchalance. I was proud as hell of all of them, but unfortunately my opinion matters very little when weighed against that of the judges.

The taxi-ride back to school was a much more subdued affair than the ride over. Half-way through it I busted out my I-phone and played the Blue Man Group version of “White Rabbit” in an effort to get M- to smile and while it worked for half-a-second that was the best I could do. Then I decided to take a gamble and play Queen’s “We Are the Champions” and that ended up paying off nicely. Mrs. T- liked the song and thanked me for playing it, and when I noticed the kids liked it too I started singing and they all smiled and laughed including M-, though she went right back to crying when it was over.

Back at the school we went up to the staff room and declared our results to the principal and vice-principle, and everyone got their congratulations from the various teachers who were of course still there at 5:30 working overtime. Before we went our separate ways I had us all put our hands together in the hallway for one last “team-moment.” Mrs. T- told us we had to whisper because the teachers were working, so I had all of us whisper “We are the champions!” at the top of our whispering-lungs.

I went back in the staff-room and gathered my things. The principal and vice-principle thanked me for the work I’d done and I gave them a Japanese “your welcome.” On my way out the door and off school property I passed by M- one last time, who was standing on the school steps apparently waiting for a ride. She wasn’t crying anymore but her eyes were still red and she was obviously far from over it, so I approached her, took her hand, and told her in as simple English as I could that I was proud of her, that I know how hard she worked and that she should feel good about how she did. She smiled and thanked me, but it’s practically a certainty that she’ll still be crying through the night.

She really was robbed, and I’m not just saying that because of my bias. Her delivery had been nearly flawless, and it had been an incredibly difficult speech. She’d had such a hard time at first and the amount of improvement she’d made in just three short weeks had been astounding. She’d obviously spent hours upon hours struggling with those Rs and Ls and Bs and THs and going through it again and again and again and again when she could have been doing…I don’t know…something that’s actually fun? Instead she worked her ass off, poured her heart and soul into this thing and came out with absolutely shit to show for it. That’s life, I suppose.

Before I go to sleep tonight I’m going to try and find a way to make up some kind of mock-certificate so I can give it to her tomorrow as something solid she can hold on to as a reward—however hollow—for all the work she did. It won’t change the permanent scar of the undeserved feeling of failure that the speech contest will leave on her, but if it even helps just a tiny little bit it’ll be worth it.

In any case, now she’s got a bruise that she’ll hopefully grow from and learn from. Lord knows what kind of lessons a fourteen-year-old Japanese girl is going to take from such an experience, but maybe it’s that you shouldn’t put so much of yourself into something as meaningless as the flawless pronunciation of English words.

At least I’m sure I’ve learned something today. There was a profound lesson for me somewhere in this experience—of that I’m completely certain. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to figure out what it is.

Just a Dream?

September 27th, 2011 No comments

I don’t think I’ve written about a dream in my journal since I started posting entries online, but some are just too profound (or seemingly profound) to ignore.

I was back at my middle-school but it was completely abandoned. I felt that I had to wait for something but I didn’t know what. To pass the time I thought I’d go for a run, but first I had to find my locker in the locker-room and put on my gym clothes.

She was waiting for me there: Sara, my first true unrequited love, and probably the most fondly remembered. In real life, though she was one year older than me and belonged to someone else, she was always extremely sweet and kind to me in spite of her awareness of how I felt.

It was clear to me as soon as I saw her that I was in a dream. I have lucid dreams quite often and one of the biggest triggers is the presence of a lost love. The first thought that goes through my mind is “Am I dreaming?” and the answer is always yes.

We just sat staring at each other for awhile. I was appreciating how beautiful she looked and she—knowing I knew I was dreaming—behaved accordingly and let me appreciate her. Although unlike in usual dreams involving her she no longer looked the same as she did in middle school but much older, about as old as she would be today but still lovely. She let me get close to her, stroke her hair, and wrap my arms around her.

When we finally started talking, her appearance had changed completely. She was now a young black woman.

My mind was open to the idea that some part of Sara’s actual soul was now appearing to me in the spirit realm only accessible through dreams, and I asked her, “Is this what your true self looks like?”

“This is who I’m most comfortable being,” she told me. “You see I still have Sara’s eyes, but her life isn’t the most worthwhile I’ve experienced.”

I’m only approximating how she explained this to me—the actual words she used are lost, and unfortunately so is most of our conversation. But the basic idea is that we were two souls who knew each other but only interacted briefly in this particular life, meeting on a deeper plane of reality that I’d accessed through this dream. Many lucid dreams are just pure fun, but some feel incredibly significant while I’m experiencing them, as though I was meant to have this dream at this particular time in order to learn something from it.

She offered to answer any questions I might have, and so I asked her directly why she’d come to me in this dream. I don’t remember her exact words, but she said something like, “I’m only a projection of Sara, just an extension of your mind, but through my eyes you can see a glimpse of God.”

As she said this, the iris of her left eye changed from brown to a swirling blue-gray mass that immediately knocked me back, sent chills through my body and started my heart racing wildly from the fear and awe at the idea of having a direct experience of God. I fully expected the shock to wake me out of my sleep and I could feel myself drifting away from the dream, but something held me there.

After a moment I regained my composure, and her eyes had returned to normal. She was smiling at me gently, allowing me to recover from that shock, and then she said, “Let me ask you a question.”

Curious, I said, “Go ahead.”

I don’t remember the exact wording, but she asked me something like, “Why do you care so little about life?”

It sounded like she was telling a joke and I was about to hear the punch-line. “I don’t know,” I said, “why?”

She held up a cell-phone and said, “Because you have so much free time.”

I woke up immediately, left to ponder the meaning of that.

Categories: Personal Tags:

On Typhoons and Teaching

September 23rd, 2011 No comments

The speech teacher at my high school once told his class that teaching is akin to performing—you’re up in front of an audience and you have to keep them entertained, only your primary goal isn’t for entertainment alone but to get them to pay enough attention long enough to learn something. After doing this job for three weeks now, I can say that’s spot-on.

Having also done actual theater, I can also compare the experience in another way. No matter what your emotional state is going into a performance, it rapidly gets buried beneath whatever you’re projecting while you’re up on stage, almost to the point where you’re not even feeling it anymore. I was significantly depressed all week, but it was like I got a break from it every time I was up in front of a classroom.

I won’t delve too deeply into the reasons why. There was the standard social-inadequacy stuff leftover from the weekend, but on Tuesday I got a completely different ‘elbow from the sky’. The MC from orientation week, Mike, had found my blog after training and read my posts about the experience, as well as one of my philosophical posts from awhile back. Last month he sent me a response to that post and I appreciated the opportunity to talk philosophy with someone. I told him if he wanted a clearer idea of my metaphysical views, he could read the essays up on my website or my short story, Synthian Truth. Several weeks went by without a word and I assumed he just wasn’t interested enough, but on Tuesday I got an e-mail from him with his extremely negative reactions.

Now, all that stuff was written years ago and a lot of his criticisms were completely valid, but it still sucked to have someone I look up to basically crapping all over these things I put my heart and soul into. It would be one thing if he’d just challenged my reasoning from a strictly philosophical standpoint, but he repeatedly used words like “frustrating” and “selfish” to describe the entire philosophy, and took a few pokes at some of the literary aspects of my short story as well. It’s one thing to be criticized for things I’m not good at like playing soccer or drawing, but my two biggest talents are writing and philosophizing, so to be hit there really stings. To confront the idea that I’m not even very good at what I’m best at is not a pleasant experience.

Nevertheless, all of that goes out the window when I’m teaching, and the main point of this entry is just to share a little anecdote about that.

But first, I know some people back home are curious about what the typhoon was like. Honestly, it was extremely unremarkable. It just rained heavily all afternoon, and the wind was a little bit stronger than usual but not even all that much. I took a video of it but it’s too dull to even bother posting. Just rain splashing into puddles and trees slightly swaying in the wind.

I guess some parts of Japan were told to evacuate, but not Chiba. I went into school in the morning expecting a full, normal day. It was only after I arrived that I was told the first two periods were cancelled and the rest would be shortened so the students could go home early—1:00 p.m. I taught my four lessons and ate the school lunch, after which the students all went home but the teachers remained and in typical Japanese-fashion continued working for the rest of the day and presumably well into the evening. At 2:00 I was told by the Vice Principal that I could go home, and at that point I had nothing to do there anyway so I thanked him and left. I got completely drenched on the way home, so that was fun, but the next day all the water had dried up and except for a few scattered twigs and branches on the ground you wouldn’t even know there’d been a typhoon the previous day.

Now, for the teaching anecdote. The third-grade lesson this week was to teach the grammar point “it makes me ~” as in “Music makes me happy” or “Saying goodbye makes me sad”. To introduce the grammar point I’d scoured Google Images for pictures depicting feelings and pictures of the things that make me feel those feelings.

Music makes me......happy. Saying goodbye makes me... ...sad. Roller coasters make me... ...excited. Big dinners make me... ...sleepy. Bullies make me... ...angry.

I had a hard time figuring out what to pick for “nervous” but because the previous week I’d acted out a story from my childhood when I was shy and tried to work up the nerve to ask a girl to dance who then rejected me (somewhat cathartic but trust me—it illustrated the grammar point beautifully) I decided I might as well reprise that theme and have the sentence be “beautiful women make me nervous”.

Of course the hard part would be finding a picture of a beautiful woman on the internet. I’m only being half-sarcastic there—the fact that there are billions of pictures of beautiful women makes it difficult to zero-in on just one. I figured I’d narrow the search and be culturally-keen by searching for “beautiful anime woman” but naturally there are millions of such pictures as well. Mindful of what kinds of images could potentially pop up on my screen with a search like that, I made sure to keep the “SafeSearch” feature of Google Images on “strict”, but even with that there were more than a few sexually-suggestive pictures popping up. It was a hassle, but I eventually found a picture that didn’t show too much skin and didn’t look too much like a little girl (they all kinda do, unfortunately) and printed that one out.

When I put it to use in the lesson, it had the desired effect of drawing a few chuckles. The kids like the idea of me being nervous around beautiful women, as it’s sooooo not the persona they see from me. Of course when I pulled the picture out and asked, “what do beautiful women make me?” it wasn’t quite so easy for them to guess as “what do bullies make me?” and the first answer I got was “excited”. But they were laughing so that’s all that matters.

Then I played a game where I give each row a secret sentence like “it makes me tired” and they have to whisper it up the row to each other and the last person goes and finds the two pictures—(in this case the picture for “studying” and the picture of Harry Potter looking tired.) They really enjoyed that game and it really hammered home the “it makes me ~” grammar point so I consider it a pretty successful lesson.

Studying... ...makes Harry Potter tired.

When it was over, the JTE told me the students were asking me where I got the picture of the anime character. I replied honestly that I don’t know, I just found the picture on the internet. I asked the students if any of them knew who she was, but only one student did, a boy sitting in the back. I asked him, “Who is she?” He hesitated for a second to find the right English words and said, “adult games character.”

Wild laugher erupted immediately—I guess the other students knew those English words too. The JTE’s face went completely red. I shot back at the kid, “How do you know who she is?” and that got even more laughter.

Luckily, nobody in any of the other classes recognized her.

Beautiful Anime Women

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

Japanese Hippie Music Festival

September 19th, 2011 No comments

Of all the fun and interesting weekends I’ve had since coming to Japan, this past weekend probably tops them all. When most people think of Japan, they usually don’t think of reggae and psychedelic rock music festivals, but apparently they have them here. A couple of weeks ago Ben invited me to go to this event called “33” with him and a handful of other English teachers, and I knew it was an experience I couldn’t pass up.

Welcome to 33

I won’t do what I typically do and describe the entire experience in a completely chronological narrative, as there’s no real story to tell. It was just a mish-mash of little experiences and happenings ranging from conversations with fellow foreigners to random meetings and struggles to communicate with the Japanese people there, and of course a hell of a lot of drinking and a little bit of dancing.

Our sacred spot. Ben had gone there on Friday night to help set the place up, and they were just finishing when four of us arrived mid-Saturday afternoon. It was at a field surrounded by trees up on some hills—apparently it was some kind of ‘sacred ground’—about ten kilometers from Togane. Ben took his scooter while I hitched a ride with two of Ben’s other friends, a guy named Toby who’s been living in Japan for ten years, and Ben’s childhood friend and former college-roommate Jeffrey, who only arrived in Japan a week after I did. Ben had scoped out a nice camping spot about a five minute walk from the main concert area, and we spent most of the first few hours chilling there.I can't do that, but I can take pictures.

That morning, Ben and the other two had been at the ocean, and they’d dug up some clams  that we ate when evening rolled around. That wasn’t quite a full meal, but much to my surprise and delight, there was döner kebab being sold near the main area. I ended up eating two that night and some of the other guys had three (they were relatively small), but the next day he switched from chicken-meat to beef so I couldn’t partake. But we did some heavy cooking for all three meals on Sunday, with oatmeal for breakfast, curry udon for lunch, and pesto pasta for dinner.

After finishing our clams on Saturday night, two more guys who’d come by bike arrived. Fred, whom I met briefly a couple of weeks back at Kate’s little dinner-party thing, and Andrew. Like Ben and Jeffrey, Fred is from Wisconsin but he’s been here for five years. Andrew is from Alaska and he’s been here for one.

Fred is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met, and he had me laughing quite frequently all throughout Sunday, but he left early on Saturday night and it was just the five of us for awhile. Toby was a great guy and I enjoyed talking to him, but he went to sleep early that night and left in the morning to go to something called Tokyo Game Show, which is like an expo for all the latest video-game technology and is apparently the Nerdiest Event on Earth.

Awesome light-show, but no crowd. The second stage.

Saturday night basically consisted of trip and after trip back and forth from the stages—there was one big one in the main area with mostly psychedelic rock and a smaller one off to the side with faster, more reggae-ish stuff—to the campsite and interacting with as many Japanese people as we could. I met a whole bunch of people that night but it was dark so I didn’t recognize most of them the next day. I did, however, remember the names of the cute girls who were camped out a few tents down from us: Aki and Mariko. They got a lot of attention from our group, but the only time I was able to talk to them on my own—down near the main stage while some slow psychedelic rock was being played—I got that familiar distinct impression that they were just being polite and secretly wanted me to go away, so I did after a friendly “have a good night.”

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed myself that night, and found the whole sub-culture within Japanese-culture thing rather fascinating. Most of these people were either not like typical Japanese, or were simply in their off-with-the-mask mode that happens when they drink. But all of the standard formalities were completely out the window, and at times it was almost like I could forget I was in Japan. It felt like a time-warp back to my college-days when I used to do hippie music festivals in the states, as it was uncanny how similar the atmosphere here was.

A girl named Molly got there around 11 p.m. She was an ALT in Togane for three years but is living in Tokyo now. She was off doing her own thing a lot of the time, apparently running into a bunch of people she’d met at the same event last year. She and Ben were the last ones to go to bed on Saturday, though I stayed up until a respectable 3 in the morning.

In spite of all the energy expended, I still couldn’t sleep past 7 (that’s become true of every morning here now) and apparently neither could some of the others. We all pretty much got up around that time but our brains didn’t start properly functioning until later. Fred came back at 9:30, this time with a Japanese girl named Mayumi who’d brought all the stuff we needed for cooking in her car. I also met Mayumi briefly at Kate’s dinner party, and she’s incredibly nice. She used to work as a clerk at a hardware shop, and Fred started talking to her when she spoke English to him while he was checking out—pretty much unheard of in these parts. She speaks decent English and wants to learn more, so she and Fred became friends and we were lucky enough to have her company for the day. Unfortunately I think she was starting to get a little frustrated later on, as once we’d all started drinking and joking around with each other it became just about impossible for her to follow what we were saying.

Main stage area at day.Nice set-up. Some of the shops. One of the many goats in attendance.

After breakfast, Mayumi needed to get some cash, and I also needed cash so I went with her and Fred on what was supposed to just be a run to get cash, water, and ice but turned into a drive all the way back to Togane to Mayumi’s family’s house because she was supposed to leave her key with her mother and had forgotten. So I got to meet Mayumi’s whole family, and like her they were also incredibly friendly. They’ve got four houses on a piece of land a short distance from the beach, and one of the houses is empty. I’m apparently welcome to use it if I want, which I doubt I’ll take advantage of but it’s pretty cool and somewhat flabbergasting to be offered that. Apparently Mayumi’s grandmother is rich, as she owned a delivery company during Japan’s economic boom and sold it for big bucks. Now her whole family lives in these houses all right next to each other.

The whole driving and shopping adventure took about an hour and a half altogether, but it was nice to be out of the sun and in air-conditioned environments for awhile. I also got to take advantage of the sit-down toilet at the convenience store, as the porto-potties at the festival were not Western-style and I was dreading having to attempt to use them.

Like Saturday, we spent most of Sunday drinking and talking at the camp, though there were the occasional trips to the festival grounds and at one point a game of Frisbee with Aki and Mariko, who later joined us for dinner.

More shopping. The famous kebab stand. Frisbee with Aki and Mariko. Mayumi with a goat.

As great a time as I was having, there were some difficult moments. If the good vibes were the sunlight, every now and then a dark cloud of melancholy would roll in and block it out for awhile. Seeing how naturally it seemed to come for people like Ben and Fred to engage in friendly communication with the Japanese people there forced me to reflect on my own shortcomings in that area. Almost all of the other teachers there have this open and easygoing quality about them that seems to make people want to interact with them, but I’ve got this whole aura-of-anger thing going whenever I’m not actively trying to project friendliness, and I don’t appear to be a very approachable guy.

So I’d slip into these brief periods of melancholy, but then something would always happen to shake me out of it again. I was determined to have a good time no matter what, so when we went down to the stage for what was to be my last time to check out the reggae band there, I started dancing and getting really into it. Then all of a sudden two girls came up to me and asked me about myself and the other foreigners there, and they wanted pictures with us. That was the extent of our interaction, but it still felt good to be approached at all.

Rasta-jin Pics with chicks!

Mayumi was the only one with a car and she wanted to leave after dinner, so I went with her and Fred to get a ride home. I got all my stuff together and we loaded her car with all of the supplies no one wanted to bike with or carry the next day. Just before leaving we asked some of our camping neighbors to get a group-shot, so that was nice to have even though it didn’t come out so well.

I did miss the second night, but I don’t mind. I was longing for the comforts of my apartment by that point anyway, and I felt like I’d gotten enough out of the experience. All in all it was a damn good time, and an extremely unique, atypical cultural experience. I’m also glad I got to spend more time with the other teachers here to get to know them better, and I hope it leads to hanging out with them more often.

Ben in front, me in back with Andrew, Mayumi, Fred, and Jeffrey.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , ,

Lake Tour

September 12th, 2011 No comments

Togane Lake

Two more major items on my Togane-activities list can now be officially moved from the “to-do” category to the “to-done” category. On Thursday afternoon, after finishing my previous blog entry, I went to the Aeon shopping center and purchased a bathing suit, then headed back to the ocean to go for an actual swim. It was even less crowded than the first time I went (apparently all the Japanese people were still at work) and this time it was sunny and beautiful. I was the only one in the water, and the water was warm and perfect. Everything about that beach was perfect—the waves were nice and big but not too big, and the sea-floor was nothing but sand so you never had to worry about your foot coming down on a jagged rock. As far as I could tell there were no jellyfish either. I’ll definitely try to make it back there more often, including this afternoon.

And yesterday morning I took a little bicycle tour of some of the parts of Togane I hadn’t seen yet. Up in the hills behind the train station there’s a little lake, and I made that my first destination. It wasn’t much to see but there were a lot of people walking around there, and I can imagine it looks really nice during cherry-blossom season. There was also a cemetery up there—the biggest one I’ve seen so far.

Lake? More like a pond.

Who doesn't love shrines?

Japanese awesomeness. They sure know how the honor their dead.

I rode further up the hills and through an incredibly nice residential area. I realized what a skewed impression I get of this town by living directly on the 126, the main thoroughfare that runs through town and which I dubbed “The Road” a few entries back. This area was as green as it gets.

A somewhat nicer road to live on. Tunnel back down to the sticks.

Perhaps the nicest property in town. Through the tunnel.

From there I used my handy-dandy map app on my I-phone to head towards Togane Lake, the bigger of Togane’s two lakes by at least four times the area. I managed to get to one of the tiny little barely-a-road roads that run through the rice fields before getting lost. The I-phone needs some kind of unsecured wireless signal to tell me where I am, and these little paths didn’t exactly match up perfectly with the map. I rode in the general direction I thought I was supposed to go, and took in some more excellent scenery, but once I’d ridden far longer than I felt I should have I stopped a friendly-looking guy out for a walk and asked him for directions to the mizumi. He gave me directions in Japanese, and while I certainly didn’t comprehend everything it was enough to know the words migi and hidari—right and left.

Lovely scenery.

His directions led me right to the parking lot near the entrance to the walking path around the lake. I took my bike up and parked it for a moment to absorb the view and take a couple pictures, and suffice it to say I was not disappointed. It certainly is a picturesque little lake they’ve got here. It’s just over twenty minutes from my apartment in the busy middle of town, but this looks like sheer nature.

Mizumi desu.

Artificial shore. Yes, we're still in Japan.

Close-up of the far end.

I started to ride my bike clockwise around the lake, but quickly realized that this path was not really bikable. It was un-paved, very narrow at Pretty.points, and with sharp rises and falls in elevation. I took my bike back to the parking lot and locked it up, then proceeded to walk around again, this time in a counter-clockwise direction.

There may have been about fifty or sixty people there altogether, about half on the water and half on the edges, but nearly all of them were there to fish. There were two guys sitting in a little hut near the parking lot, and one of them called out “Good morning!” to me in English as I passed by. I smiled and waved back, then continued on my journey.

About a hundred meters later, I was walking up a hill and saw two men coming in my direction. The one in the back was running from something and he tripped and fell on the ground. When I reached them he’d gotten up and was rubbing In the wild. his arm, and the other guy looked at me and said, “hachi”. That can mean ‘bee’ or ‘wasp’ so I understood the warning. The second guy had just been stung.

But I was resolved to go the full distance around this lake and I figured as long as I did nothing to threaten the bee, it would probably leave me alone. That’s how most bees operate.

Apparently not in Japan. I walked slowly and carefully past the thing, but it was not having it. It came right for me, landed on my shoulder, and stung me right through my thin T-shirt. “What the fuck!?” I yelled, tugging at my shirt to get it off me and then running away as it chased me. I must have violated its territory. When I’d gone some distance it turned around and left me alone.  

Trees are awesome.I hadn’t been stung by a bee since I was a kid, so naturally my first worry was the possibility that I’d developed an allergy in the mean-time. That kind of thing has been known to happen. But I had to keep going in the same direction because I sure as hell couldn’t go back to the angry bee’s territory again. If I started foaming at the mouth or anything, I’d just have to hope one of the fisherman would be able to help me out.

From that point on the walk was far less enjoyable. I remembered someone at the Narita training telling me that there are some Japanese bees or wasps that don’t just attack in self-defense—they’ll get you just because they don’t like how you smell. There were about fifteen more of these bees or wasps more or less evenly spaced along the path around the lake, and I was so focused on keeping an eye out for them Looks serene...that I was barely appreciating the scenery. I just wanted to get back to the safe territory of the parking lot.

I was extremely cautious the rest of the way, and none of the other bees came after me, so it’s possible that first bee had just been aggravated by the fisherman or something and was taking his revenge on anyone who dared to pass by. I certainly hope it’s not typical bee behavior (there’s a really cheesy pun there that I had to use all my powers of restraint not to use).

It’s a shame that it went down that way because this was a really nice piece of nature and I’d like to make it a somewhat regular thing for me to go and walk around there, but if I’m going to be constantly worried about angry bees it’ll be impossible to enjoy. Of course the sting didn’t hurt too bad—it didn’t leave its stinger in me and the throbbing pain subsided in the afternoon once I’d put some cream on it—but that one bad experience might have ruined it forever.

Bee-stings aside, it was a great morning. I finally got to see the nicer side of Togane, and while I was already pretty happy with this town I now have reason to like it even more.

Still can't believe I live here.

Categories: Personal Tags: ,

Togane Teaching Tid-Bits

September 8th, 2011 No comments

I thought I’d have to work six days in a row this week, but to my pleasant surprise it turned out that today, Thursday, is a testing day for all the students and there are no English classes scheduled. As such I get to stay home, though I’m technically “on call” for Interac in case they need me to do some random thing like sub for a teacher at another school. Odds of that happening: probably about one in ten thousand.

There are a bunch of things I’m inclined to write about, so I’ll use this morning to jot them down. Of course not everything I want to write about can be posted publicly, and half the point of keeping a journal is to be able to get things off one’s chest, so the more sensitive (and frankly more interesting) stuff will have to be kept private.

First, stuff about school. I’ve now worked there for five days and I still can’t believe how much I love it. By now I’ve introduced myself to nearly every class so almost all the students know me, and my introduction lesson always goes over really well so almost all of them like me. For someone who always struggled to fit in as a child, it’s incredibly bizarre to suddenly feel like I’m the most popular guy in the school.

There’s really nothing quite like having a classroom full of students giving you their complete attention, laughing and smiling at your jokes and clapping for you when you finish the lesson. The feeling you get when you walk down the hall and almost every group of students you pass by smiles and waves “hello” is just incredible. After the last period, each classroom sings a song with their homeroom teacher, and whenever I pop my head in the students all perk up, and some wave, smile, or giggle. To be the object of such admiration is a rare and wonderful thing. I’ve never had a job like this before.

Of course I’m completely aware that nearly every job has a “honeymoon” period. I’ve loved the first week of every job I’ve ever had, even jobs I later came to despise like hotel Front Desk Agent. For all I know after a couple of months I’ll hate this too. The long hours won’t fly by so quickly anymore and the students will start to grate on my nerves. I don’t see that happening, but I have to acknowledge the possibility.

There is one thing I’m getting sick of already. For my introductory lesson, the JTEs have their students write an introduction to me, so for about ten minutes they all write sentences starting with their names and then things like their hobbies, likes and dislikes, what they did on their summer vacation, and so on. Afterwards I’ve got to correct the papers and leave comments for them, which was fun at first but after about 300 of these things it’s grown extremely tiresome. So many of them are exactly the same. “My name is Kenji. I like baseball. I play baseball. I like AKB48. I went to Kyoto in summer vacation.” And that would be one of the good ones. [Incidentally, AKB48 is apparently the super popular J-Pop band of the moment, and a good 15% of the students mention them]. Thank goodness for the students who write something interesting or original, like “My hobby is astronomical observation.” Next to sentences like that I write “wow!” or “cool!” Some of the students ask me questions like “what video games do you like?” so I can write the answer. Some students have written “I love you!” which is either a joke or a mis-translation of daisuke, which means “love” in the same sense as “I love sushi.”

So far I haven’t gone to any after-school club activities, but I’m waiting until I’ve introduced myself to all the students first. There are actually two after-school periods, and so far I’ve stayed behind for the first one to help the speech-contest contestants practice their speeches. I met the kid who wrote the earthquake story that I re-wrote, but unfortunately I think I made it too difficult because his speech skills—while impressive for a Japanese JHS student—are probably not up to the task of delivering the speech as I’ve written it. The other third-grader isn’t reading anything she wrote herself, but a pre-selected short story: The Giving Tree. She has trouble with a few words like “branches” and “leaves” but on the whole she delivers it well and I think she has a real chance of scoring high. There are two first graders doing a little comedy routine and I think they stand a good chance as well, but the poor second-grade girl picked “Alice in Wonderland” which is ridiculously challenging for a Japanese student. “Alice” is hard enough to say and it’s in just about every sentence, but she’s also got a few nasty lines like, “a little bottle on a table”. In my zeal to help them all out, I figured out how to make voice recordings on my computer and I burned CDs of myself reading each of these pieces so they’ll all have an example to practice by.

I’m technically supposed to come in at 8:30 and leave at 4:15, but so far I’ve been coming in before 8:00 and leaving closer to 5:00. The English teacher who sits next to me in the teachers’ room, Ms. T-, told me that the vice principal said I shouldn’t be coming in so early. I guess he’s worried that Interac will be charging them more, but that’s not the case at all. I don’t get paid any extra for the extra time I put in—my only reward is brownie points, but I consider those pretty important.

As for the whole key-incident, it was only brought up once on Monday by a teacher who said she’d heard about it, but that was the last time it was mentioned. Mr. I- and I nod and greet each other when we cross paths, but we haven’t spoken all week. That’s probably because in school all conversation is professional, and as he’s not involved in English teaching we’ve got nothing professional to discuss.

Finally, a couple of things about life outside of school. One of the biggest elements of Japanese culture is keeping quiet. You’re supposed to keep quiet and respect your neighbors, but that apparently doesn’t apply to elementary schools. There’s an elementary school just on the other side of my apartment building and the sports field is the closest part, so every morning at 7:30 it starts with the drumming and the whistling and the brass bands playing and the kids screaming and yelling and my fricking god it’s annoying. At least on most school-days I’m up by then, but this morning I was trying to sleep in and that just wasn’t happening. The same thing happens at the end of the day, and as I write this I’m discovering that you can hear the kids screaming during gym period throughout the day as well. Every time it starts I think to myself, “Um…I’m sorry…I thought this was Japan” (in Randy Marsh’s voice). You’d think elementary school would be the perfect time to instill the value of keeping your effing mouth shut.

And last, as I’ve written before there are almost no foreigners in this town whatsoever. But every now and then I’ll spot one and it’s always a shock. Yesterday while I was on my way to the fields to start jogging I spotted a group of four of them, and I couldn’t resist catching up to them and saying, “Hey, fellow foreigners!” One of them responded in what sounded like a German accent and I asked where they were from. They were from Sweden. Crap, I would have loved to have been able to bust out the Deutsch. They did speak English though. Apparently they went to the university near here. I’d forgotten about that place. It’s a bit of a distance from where I live so most of the students don’t venture this far, but there is an international university just outside of Togane. So I guess whenever someone sees a foreigner here, they assume it’s either a student or a teacher (or an antique salesman).

That’ll do it for now. Everything else I want to say can’t be said out loud.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

Tokyo Team Tour!

September 4th, 2011 No comments

Picture of the day (if not the year)

The last three days felt like three weeks. After the incredible experience of starting my ALT job on Thursday and Friday and the crazy misadventure of Friday night and Saturday morning, my natural impulse was to just kick back in my apartment and have a nice long rest. Instead, I went to Tokyo.

This time I didn’t go alone. Two of the other ALTs I met at Narita training, both of whom live closer to Tokyo than I do but are stationed in different towns, had made plans with me to meet at Tokyo station and spend Saturday afternoon doing some sight-seeing. It was Stephen’s first time in Tokyo so he was really excited (I was psyched enough about going there for the second time, but it’s never the same as the first), while Amy lived and taught at a school in Tokyo two years ago. She would therefore be serving as our guide.

I took the bus into the city this time instead of the train, and found it to be well worth the extra ¥400. There was no changing trains, and while the bus made a few stops in the Togane area, once it got on the highway it went straight to a parking area on a road just outside Tokyo station. Rather than 80 minutes by train (and if you count the time it takes to get outside of the station from the train platform—90 minutes) the bus took just under an hour. That and the plentitude of seating makes the bus a far superior option.

I called Amy when I got to the station and she said she was there at our meeting point—the Yaesu Central Entrance—and waiting for Stephen, who unfortunately doesn’t have a phone yet. I went inside and spotted Amy, then we both went outside to wait for Stephen, hoping something hadn’t gone wrong because if it had he’d have no way of contacting us. We chatted for a few minutes about our experiences of the first couple days of teaching, and were relieved when Stephen walked up to us within five minutes.

Amy rattled off a list of possible places for us to go, and they all sounded perfectly good to Stephen and me. We decided to walk towards one of those places—I actually don’t remember which because the destination would change a couple of times as we walked—and headed off in that direction.

There was a typhoon making its way across southern Japan at the time, so the weather was somewhat schizophrenic. It was sunny one moment, then all of a sudden it would start pouring rain and everyone would run to take shelter. During the first downpour we were lucky enough to be right near a highway underpass, and from there we took our first pictures.

 Shelter from the typhoon. Waiting for the rain to let up.

Stephen and Amy Dragon streetlights. 

The rain let up within just five minutes and then it was sunny again, so we continued our journey, mostly just walking the streets, taking in the scenery, and exchanging stories about teaching. Both of their first days apparently went just as well as mine, and we were all on the same page in terms of how awesome it was to be able to talk and communicate with the Japanese students. Although I must confess I’m a little jealous of them, as Stephen teaches high school so their English is more advanced so it’s much easier for him to talk with them, and Amy’s Junior High School is much smaller than mine so she’ll actually be able to get to know all of her 120-some-odd students, while I don’t think I have a prayer of getting to know all of my 600.

None of us had eaten lunch before we came, so before too long our primary goal was to pick a place to eat. Our destination then switched in favor of a place where Amy was more familiar with the restaurants, but she wasn’t quite sure how to get there and we ended up wandering through a part of town conspicuously devoid of eateries of any kind. It’s just like it is with ATMs—they’re everywhere when you don’t need them, but as soon as you need one they’re nowhere to be found. Of course the weather also decided to hurl some more wind and rain at us, but none of us minded too much because it was a welcome relief from the heat and if you’re going to be wandering around semi-aimlessly in any city, it might as well be Tokyo.

Typical Tokyo street. Typical Tokyo weirdness. 

When the rain did let up, I jokingly predicted that that was it and it wasn’t going to rain again for the rest of the day. At the time I figured that there was no chance of it not raining again, but it was like the kami heard me and adjusted their plans accordingly because it actually didn’t rain again for the rest of the day.

We eventually came to a place Amy had eaten at before and said was good, so we went inside and sat down for a much-needed lunch at 3 p.m. Stephen got dumplings of some kind and both Amy and I ordered strips of garlic-covered chicken which were extremely delicious (oishi). I was surprised when Stephen said he hadn’t yet tried Japanese beer yet and ordered one. He said he wasn’t much of a beer drinker, but he definitely liked the beer he ordered—some seasonal brew of the Kirin company—and both Amy and I tried some and were surprised to find we liked it too. Normal Kirin is crap, but this stuff wasn’t bad, and was certainly refreshing after all that walking through the humidity.

Dome City!After lunch we headed off to what had at some point been decided would be our actual first destination—Tokyo Dome City. It was where the Tokyo Giants baseball team play their home games, but they also have concerts there and we later discovered that this evening there was a big event with a bunch of Korean pop stars all from the same record label. But right next to the stadium is a little theme-park with a Ferris wheel you could pay to go on and get some breathtaking views of Tokyo.  There was a great location to take pictures there at a little river along the way.

Close-up. Beautiful shot of Stephen and Amy.  What a place to be.

We went in the wrong entrance at first and found ourselves in a little-kiddie area, which had a Massive crowds for the concert.very cool steam-thingy that Stephen and I took pictures of before realizing how we might have looked. We got out of there and found the correct entrance, and headed up the stairs to the  Ferris wheel.

While this place was packed with people I was shocked to find absolutely no line at all to get on. We just purchased our [somewhat overpriced] ¥800 tickets to get on, had our obligatory photo taken by the professional photographer who tries to sell you the picture for ¥1000 when you exit (none of us bought), and hopped into our car for the fifteen-minute go-around.

Dome City, on the way up.

There was a jukebox in the car and while I couldn’t stand the J-pop that was playing and just wanted it to be turned off, Stephen really wanted to hear it because his students were always talking about it. I acquiesced and we listened to about 4 minutes of the stuff, and while Stephen actually seemed to genuinely enjoy it I eventually had to put my foot down because it was sucking all of the potential profoundness out of the experience.

Super-tourists!Climbing higher.

All three of us were snapping massive amounts of pictures the whole time, and we definitely got some incredible shots. This was the first time I was able to see Tokyo from an aerial view and it was just as awesome as I’d imagined. Just this gargantuan urban environment stretching out as far as the eye can see in all directions, and even then we were only seeing a part of it.

No edge in sight.

Even the sky was picturesque, with low-hanging clouds from behind which the sunbeams could be seen raining down on the city below. Unfortunately pictures can’t really capture it, but that didn’t stop us from trying.

Awe.

On the way down we discussed what we wanted to do next, and it was decided that evening would be the perfect time to go to a part of town called Shibuya, a busy place filled with all kinds of shops, arcades, bars and restaurants, and all kinds of random Tokyo madness.

We had to take the subway to get there, but luckily Amy knew what she was doing so it was not nearly as confusing an experience as it had been for me a week ago (was that only a week ago?) I also loved having Stephen there because he was impressed by just about everything, including how you could see the subway cars twist and turn as they made their way through the underground tunnels. But even he felt a little too weird about taking pictures on the subway.

Shibuya! Crazy scultpure.

We got to Shibuya (which I liked to call “Shi-booyah!”) just as evening was turning to twilight, and found ourselves at this crazy triangular intersection which is apparently famous or something. The whole atmosphere of this place was so insane and so distinctly Tokyo that I had to get a video of it.

After walking around that little area—apparently some famous meeting point—we crossed that crazy intersection ourselves and walked up one of those streets, snapping photos all along the way.

Streets of Shibuya.

Like Asakusa last weekend, Shibuya was filled with tourists and foreigners. We heard lots of English being spoken, including by Asians which always gave us pause. But I think unlike Asakusa the majority of the people there were still locals who just like to go there to hang out, shop, or play at the arcades.

Last week I remarked about how Tokyo is swarming with beautiful women, but Shibuya took it to a whole other level. The establishments there mostly catered to the young, so nearly every girl there was somewhere between late teens and late twenties, maybe early thirties (it’s so hard to judge with them). But there was enough going on all around that I wasn’t bothered by them. One pair of super-hot girls would walk by and there would be six more behind them.

Arcade megaplex.I spotted a crazy-looking place across the road and asked Amy what it was. I couldn’t tell from the outside, but it was apparently some kind of arcade/gambling-megaplex. We decided to go inside and check it out, and I’m glad we did. The first floor had a bunch of those claw-machines and those photo-booths where you can edit your photos to do things like massively enlarge your eyes (which the Japanese seem kind of obsessed with), and each of the upper floors had its own unique flavor of things to play. There was a gambling floor with some kind of electronic roulette-table thingy (I actually have no idea what it was) and a corner where you could actually just sit and bet on horse-races, which I assume were being broadcast live from various parts of the world where horse-races were going on. The top floor was just a straight-up video arcade, mostly fighting games with graphics like you wouldn’t believe. I remember when arcades were little more than pinball machines and Pac-Man. We’ve come a long way.

Photoshop-booths. The look on Stephen's face...

Super-fun happy time!

6000 yen on...um...? The fastest way to lose money.

After that madness I kind of had a hankering for a beer, so we went inside the nearest bar and sat down. It was a very western-style bar and there were a lot of foreigners there, but none of the pictures I took of it came out. We wanted to ask the bartender to get a picture of the three of us but he was too busy so we decided not to bother him. The most interesting thing about that place was the food menu, which had just about every type of bar-food from anywhere in the world you could think of. You name it: pizza, fish & chips, bratwurst, quesadillas, spaghetti, and on and on. The only thing missing was—alas—buffalo wings.

It was about 7:00 now and I wanted to get home at a decent hour because, after all, I desperately needed a good night’s sleep, and the others seemed to agree that it had been a nice full day and we were ready to go home. Amy helped us navigate back to the Shibuya station, and I took a few night shots along the way.

Sibuya at night.   Happiest man on earth.

Kind of a lot of people...

I’ve yet to truly experience the true Tokyo night-life, but I’d left quite early last week so this was the first time I’d seen Tokyo all lit up. Amy, however, informed us that there used to be a lot more lights than there were now. Apparently the Japanese are conserving energy due to the earthquake (which is, incidentally, the only sign in Tokyo that there even was the biggest earthquake in Japanese history just six months ago).

We changed trains at Shimbashi station, just like I’d done last week, and got to Tokyo station  and the Yaesu Central Entrance from where we’d started. Neither of them were in a hurry to get back, so they came with me to the busses and I asked the very friendly guy there when the next bus to Togane would be (in Japanese of course). He said 8:15, and it was now just 7:40, so we had some time to walk around this area and take some night photos, though almost none of mine came out.

Stephen's photo: "Two Passengers in a Foreign Land"

We came to a point where we spotted a German flag across the street, and I said we had to go in for a closer look. It turned out this was a genuine German bar in Tokyo, and not only that Die haben echtes Bier hier!but they served hefeweizen, my favorite kind of beer. I didn’t think I’d be able to find hefeweizen anywhere in Japan, so I couldn’t resist going in to have one. I asked the others if they wouldn’t mind and they didn’t mind at all, so we went downstairs and into the bar, which was completely and utterly empty except for the two Japanese guys who worked there.

I was running out of time and just wanted a quick beer, but these guys clearly expected us to sit down and spend some time there. I explained in broken Japanese I just wanted one beer and we would have to be fast (hayai), but when he showed me the drink menu and I saw how much the hefeweizen cost, I had to decline. It was about ¥1150—almost $15—and practically as much as the bus to Tokyo itself cost. As much as I wanted a hefeweizen I wasn’t going to pay that much for it and there wasn’t really enough time anyway.

The guy there was extremely friendly though, and joked that maybe I wanted a bigger one, taking out this giant 2-liter hefeweizen glass, which Stephen couldn’t resist getting pictures of, though unfortunately they didn’t come out well at all.

Trinken wier hier? Nein, trinken wir nicht :(

We apologized to those guys on the way out and they were both very friendly about it, and I resolved that I’ll eventually go back there sometime and fork over the price for that hefeweizen, assuming the place hasn’t gone out of business by then. It was a really nice place—just a terrible location. And it’s a shame the Japanese don’t seem to have much of a taste for German beer.

We walked back to the bus stop and I bid Amy and Stephen a goodnight. They were definitely great travelling companions and I hope to see them again at some point. Stephen has expressed an interest in coming to visit me in Togane, as he likes to surf and the beach is much closer to me than it is to him.

I tried to pay when I got on the bus but was told to pay after. But after an hour when we reached Togane station, everyone who got off the bus there just said goodbye to the driver and left without paying anything, and there was no one there to collect money. It wasn’t even like everyone went back to the station to pay someone there—everyone just went their separate ways. I don’t know what I did wrong, but I somehow got a free trip back from Tokyo, which actually meant I paid less overall than I did when I took the train.

When I got home and made myself a quick dinner I couldn’t resist having a couple glasses of whiskey and listening to music while contemplating the events of the past few days before going to bed, so I didn’t actually make it to sleep until midnight. At least I got a full eight hours, and I’ll definitely get another nap later on. But it’s nice to finally have a day completely free. Other than blogging and doing laundry, there’s nothing at all I have to do. I don’t even feel the need to “seize the day” because I’ve seized the living crap out of the last few days and starting tomorrow I’ve got to work six days in a row. On Saturday there’s some kind of open-house thingy at the school and I’ll be teaching to the students while their parents are there, as though they haven’t put me through enough stress already. At least they cancel school on Monday to make up for it.

There may not be another blog entry for quite some time, but I still plan on doing some work on this site. I started publicly posting journal entries a few months into my first year in Germany, but I’d like to go and back-post the entries I wrote before that, stretching back to my first day in Germany so readers can go back and compare the initial experiences of Japan with those initial experiences. I’ll make a note whenever that’s complete.

Until then, enjoy your break from the heavy reading material! Get some rest if you can. After today, I certainly won’t be getting much.

So Much Life, So Little Time

September 3rd, 2011 No comments

I can’t believe how many significant experiences are being jam-packed together over the course of these few days. My first two days of teaching were incredible, and last night ended with not one but two parties and a minor disaster that led to a completely unexpected misadventure throughout the night and into this morning. I’ve got only an hour to blog about everything, then it’s off to the train station to meet a couple of other Interac ALTs for another afternoon in Tokyo!

So I’m about to attempt a little “power-blogging.” Forget the narrative structure, forget the stylistic tweaking—this will be an entry purely for the sake of event-documentation, starting with the stuff from last week I missed.

Tuesday, August 30

I went into Chiba City for a day of “textbook training” which basically consisted of eight hours in a room (with a one-hour break for lunch) with four other people—an ALT name Ian with four years’ experience who basically ran the show by imparting more-or-less at random his accumulated wisdom from those experiences to the rest of us, a half-Filipino ALT named Stephen with six months’ experience who was brought in because he had experience working with the textbook that the two others there—myself and a guy named Ryan who’s lived in Japan for awhile but is just starting to teach for Interac—will be using. As tedious as it may sound, it was actually pretty fun because Ian was an unapologetic über-nerd with the kind of nerdly sense-of-humor that I can appreciate. By incredible coincidence, it turned out that Ian, Ryan, and myself all share the same favorite Star Trek series—Deep Space Nine—which is actually the least popular of all the series. As you can imagine, there were quite a few tangents from our discussion of Interac policy, and the poor Filipino guy who’d been called in really didn’t have to be there at all because we probably only spent a total of 30 minutes on the actual textbook. I was glad to meet Ryan though, as he’s also teaching in Togane but unfortunately he lives closer to Chiba City and commutes.

Wednesday, August 31

My last day of ‘summer vacation’. I had two major shopping destinations of the day: the supermarket and the electronics store. At 9:30 I left for the supermarket and was surprised to find the doors closed and locked when I got there. Scratching my head I walked back and then towards the electronics store, but I noticed that nothing was open. Was this some kind of national holiday? I called the Interac office and asked them, but was informed that in Japan everything usually opens at 10:00, and in some cases 11:00. Go figure.

I bought a printer from the electronics store because I thought it would be nice to be able to bring in my own materials without needing to use the school computer, and while walking back to the apartment in the heat and humidity, carrying that giant box, a van suddenly pulled up beside me and I heard a male voice with a California accent saying, “Need a ride somewhere?” Keep in mind this is Togane—other than myself, Trey, and the random black people we’d seen at the station when he showed me around, I hadn’t seen any other foreigners here. But suddenly there was this Californian dude pulling up and offering me a ride. I only lived right up the road but it was just too weird to pass up, so I got in the back-seat next to a Japanese kid (there was another Japanese kid in the front) and he chatted with me while he drove me the couple blocks back to my place. When I told him I was an ALT he rattled off a few names of people I didn’t know, but when I told him I’ll be teaching at ____ he said, “No kidding! That’s where my kid goes!” He must have married a Japanese woman and stayed here. When I left he asked for my name, and told me his name was George and he sells antiques. Bizarre, but considering how few gaijin are around it’s not unlikely George and I will run into each other again.

In the evening I finally met Ben, the JET ALT whose blog I found while doing research on Togane the night I found out this was where my placement would be. We met near my apartment and went out to an udon restaurant a block away from me and talked for an hour or so. He gave me lots of useful information about Togane and good advice about teaching Junior High School kids, and I could tell right away that he’s going to be a valuable friend to have. He may even be the nicest fellow-American I’ve met in Japan so far, but that’s tough to say because there are so many great ones I met at training (not to mention ‘Need-a-ride?’-George). Ben invited me to a little dinner-party that Kate, another JET ALT in Togane was having on Friday, and I gratefully accepted the opportunity to meet more people.

Thursday, September 1

See the previous entry.

Friday, September 2

What a day this was. It was another day of teaching, only a bit more intensive than Thursday with four classes instead of two. I got a bit more sleep than the night before—about four hours instead of two—but was still exhausted all day. Not during the lessons, though. When you’re in front of the classroom you enter a completely different brain-state as though the kids’ attention provokes a surge of artificial energy that prevents you from feeling fatigue no matter how exhausted you are. I’ve documented this phenomenon before because it happened while teaching adults in Germany too, but in a classroom full of kids it’s even more powerful.

It was all first-graders again (remember, they’re the equivalent of 6th-grade in America) and it was the same two teachers (as well as a third lady who I keep meaning to ask about but keep forgetting) so we all knew exactly what the lesson plan was and we got better and better at it every time. I figured out new and clever ways to get the kids to talk, as well as how to stream-line the whole process to make it as time-efficient as possible. During the last two lessons I had the kids practically eating out of my hand and it felt spectacular. To make matters even better, I’d heard from one of the other teachers that the first-graders I’d taught yesterday were asking about me and when they’d get to see me again. I hadn’t done nearly as good a job with them as I did with the classes on the second day, so the fact that I’d wowed them so much is a very good sign. I also heard from some of the second- and third-grade teachers that their kids couldn’t wait to meet me.

While the other teachers were a bit cold and distant towards me on the first day, they warmed up a lot on the second. My offer to correct the students’ papers when I didn’t have to was clearly appreciated, and when I corrected four more classes’ worth of papers on the second day I was given explicit gratitude, even told point-blank “you’re a hard worker!” I humbly replied, “Well, I like to keep busy.”

Which is true. It makes the day go by so much faster, and I like correcting papers anyway. Having felt bad about the corrections I’d made on the first day, I even went back through all 60 of them and wrote encouraging messages underneath the number I’d written the previous day. Just simple things like “perfect!” for perfect papers, “awesome!” for really good ones, “great job!” for decent ones, “very good!” for sub-standard ones, and occasionally “nice writing!” or “nice letters!” when the kid was clearly trying but not quite getting it. I just want them all to feel like they’re doing something right, and even the worst of the worst had to be given credit for writing the letters correctly.

After my fourth and final class I had to kill about an hour and a half in the teachers’ room, but studying Japanese was making me sleepy so I turned to the teacher next to me, an incredibly nice woman named Ms. T- and said, “Do you have any work I could do? I’m so tired and I need something to occupy my mind.” At first she said, “Not really,” but then she remembered she had this text a student had written for the speech-contest that needed some serious tweaking. The speech-contest is exactly what you think it is—schoolchildren all over Japan compete in local competitions by reading a text and whoever does the best job moves on to the region, the prefecture, and all the way up to the national level. The first-graders read something pre-prepared but it’s the third-grade where the real competition is because the students are supposed to read something they’ve written themselves. Supposed to.

Last years’ winner was an incredibly moving piece about how the death of a grandmother affected the student (not sure if it was a boy or girl) and it set the bar pretty high. The third-grader from our school this year had written about his/her experience of the earthquake, which I’m sure is going to be the most unoriginal topic of the year. Ms. T- asked me to correct it, but when I saw how flawed it was I asked her if I was only supposed to make corrections or if I could do a complete re-write. She was in disbelief at my offer and said, “of course!” so I happily took the paper and while holding true to the spirit of the story and the point of each individual paragraph, I completely re-wrote the whole thing. I couldn’t help myself. I’m a writer, after all, and I wouldn’t mind our school winning a few rounds of this competition.

I actually found myself getting choked up a little during the process, as the sentiments were rather moving. I hadn’t been here during the earthquake (which I’ll always regret because it would have been a truly profound experience) but just contemplating the experience from a 15-year-olds’ point of view was rather intense.

When I was done it was again past the time when I was supposed to leave, but the teacher I’d volunteered to do it for was gone so I just left it on her desk and I’ll have to wait until Monday to find out if I went too far. But I can’t wait to meet the student who wrote it.

So much for lack of details. Anyway, on to Friday night!

My plan was to go to Kate’s dinner-party, but in the afternoon one of the male teachers, another Mr. I-, came up to me and in very broken English invited me to come to a drinking party with him and about ten of the other teachers. I’d been hoping this would happen but I didn’t expect it would happen so soon, and I was sorry I had to decline because I’d already RSVPed to the ALT party.

But after giving it a little thought I decided I could in fact do both, if I just made an appearance at the dinner party and made contact with the other ALTs in Togane that would be enough, then I could head over to where the JHS faculty was drinking and join them for my first genuine cultural-immersion experience.

Kate’s party was a lovely little 45-minute chat with some very friendly people, and I’m glad to have made contact with them and hope to see them again soon.

But the drinking party (nomikai) with the JHS staff was truly awesome. It was at one of those places where you get all-you-can-drink for a fixed period of time, but here we didn’t have to sit on the floor because there was space for our legs underneath the tables. There were about ten other people there, teachers as well as the extremely cute secretary (there’s no future there—she doesn’t speak a single, solitary word of English and is clearly not interested in me), including one of the JTEs with whom I’d been running my lessons, Ms. H-.

I went around the table and memorized all of their names, a feat they were all impressed by, and used as much Japanese as humanly possible to answer their questions and make comments, though I had to rely on Ms. H- for translation quite a bit as you could imagine. A bit later on, however, a few other guys came and Ms. H- went to another table with the rest of the women, who then left shortly thereafter.

So then it was just myself and eight Japanese guys who speak English about as well as I speak Japanese, which is not very well at all. And yet we still managed to communicate, as it can blow your mind just how far a tiny little bit of another language can go. It was the first time I really had to put my Japanese-skills to the test for an extended period of time, and it went really well.

The pre-determined drinking time ended, and the rest of them were eating from a traditional end-of-the-party dish that was a kid of beef soup so I couldn’t partake, when I took my leave. I was feeling pretty damn good by the time I got back to my apartment—a 3-minute bike-ride away—but all that changed the instant I put my hand in my pocket in search of my apartment key and came up empty. Oh shit.

After thoroughly checking my pockets and determining it was, in fact, gone, I called Mr. I- (the teacher, not the IC) and explained that I lost my apattomento kagi and it was probably on the floor at the restaurant. I rode back there just as he and the others were coming out, and they said it wasn’t there. So now I had a real problem.

Mr. I- found the number for the real-estate company on his phone and called them, but it was 11:00 p.m. so obviously no one was there to answer. I said it might have fallen out of my pocket at the train station (I’d wrongly assumed I was supposed to wait for Mr. I- on the platform earlier—part of a miscommunication) and some of the others offered to go search for it. I could hardly believe how kind they were being, but Mr. I- insisted that it was part of Japanese culture to always help someone having trouble. He walked back to my apartment with me but there was no point to that, and when we got back to the station fifteen minutes later every single person who’d come out drinking was still standing around waiting to see if there was anything else they could do to help. The key, regrettably, was not found in the station.

There was nothing to be done. Mr. I- offered to let me sleep at his place and try the real-estate office again in the morning, and I accepted his offer with humility. I sincerely hope this was not a case of honne and tatamae, as he gave off no impression that he was put out by having to do this for me and the last thing I want is to establish my reputation as the idiot teacher who lost his apartment key while drinking (incidentally, I felt completely sober from the moment I discovered the key missing).

One of the others was apparently the designated driver for Mr. I- because he drove the two of us the 20-minutes to his house where he apparently lives with his mother. He laid out a futon mattress for me on his bedroom floor and in spite of all that was on my mind, I promptly passed out, not sure of whether in the end I’d look back on this as a unique cultural-learning experience or the moment it all went horribly wrong.

Saturday, September 03

All night I dreamt about finding the key, feeling extremely relieved, then realizing I was dreaming and hadn’t actually found the key.

We’d set the alarm for 6:00 a.m. but I woke up at 5 anyway, in keeping with my newfound tradition of never getting nearly enough sleep. Mr. I- let me take a shower at his place, though it didn’t do much good because my clothes were still dirty and a bit stinky from cigarette smoke the night before (he’s a bit of a chain-smoker).

The same guy who drove us home the previous night (Mr. H-) was there at 6:30 to drive us back into town, and he helped out by trying to find the real-estate office and drop me off there. We couldn’t find it, but it wouldn’t have done any good anyway because it wasn’t open at that time.

At 7:00 I called Mr. I- (the IC who helped me move in), but he didn’t pick up. Mr. H- drove us back to the station where Mr. I- was parked and I said goodbye and thank you to him, apologizing for the trouble which he brushed off like it was nothing. Honne and tatamae? I doubt I’ll ever know.

Mr. I- was going into the Junior High School to do some work and said I could come in and use the internet, but I felt like I’d imposed on him enough and had him drop me off at my apartment. From there I took my bike and proceeded to search for the real-estate office which I knew was close by but wasn’t sure how to get there. I eventually did find it, but of course it was closed and there was no sign saying when it would open on Saturdays or whether it would open at all. I kept calling Mr. I- the IC every 15 minutes but he never picked up (I finally just heard from him now at 11:00), and at this point I was about ready to resign myself to being homeless until Monday. At least I could still go to Tokyo, as that would eat up some time, though I was much smellier than I was comfortable with and more importantly I didn’t have my passport on me in case something horrible happened.

I went back to my apartment and just sat down and leaned against the door, trying Mr. I the IC again as well as the Interac Chiba office which was, naturally, closed. How could I have lost my key on a Friday night of all times? I felt so incredibly stupid and still do. So much for feeling like an adult…

I figured that rather than wait there all morning my best bet would be to just go to the school, have Mr. I the teacher let me in, and use the internet to see if I could find some kind of emergency number for Interac employees. So I went there, relieved that there was no sign of student activity (the last thing I wanted was for the students to learn of this story), and called Mr. I- but not he wasn’t answering. I rang the buzzer on the door but there was no answer there either. Fantastic. Maybe he really was sick of dealing with me.

To top everything off, there’s a typhoon approaching, and it started to rain heavily just at that moment. Luckily I was under some shelter so I could sit it out, and I was about to sit down when Mr. I- appeared at the door and let me in.

We went up to the teachers’ room, and I got to see what the school is like when it’s completely empty, which I do confess was kind of cool. There were a few other teachers in the room when we got there (what they say about the Japanese work-ethic is true—all these people there on a Saturday), and I was relieved that they were all people who’d been at the nomikai the previous night so I felt more comfortable with them seeing me in that state. Of course the entire faculty and board of education is eventually going to hear about it, but at least by the time any of them say something to me about it I’ll be wearing a suit instead of jeans and not reeking of cigarettes.

I got on the internet but couldn’t find an emergency Interac number, and figured I was just going to have to be homeless for awhile. Ben called me in response to a text-message I sent and kindly offered to let me stay with him if I had nowhere else to go, and I said I’d still probably go into Tokyo but I might need to crash with him that night.

My cellphone was running out of batteries—when it rains it pours—but Mr. I- not only said I could buy a charger at any convenience store, but he offered to drive me to one. So we spent another twenty minutes doing that, and by the time we got back to school it was approaching 9:00. If the real-estate office was going to open on Saturdays, that would be the time.

And lo and behold, 9:00 rolled around and Mr. I was waiting for me as I got back from a bathroom trip to tell me we were going to the real-estate office where I could pick up a spare key. Apparently he and one of the other teachers had called them and arranged the whole thing.

So he drove me there, we went inside, and he helped me through the process of applying for a second-spare. This spare key would be free of charge, but if I ever need another one it’s going to cost me a lot of money. But that won’t be an issue because I can safely proclaim that I will never ever make this mistake again. My second spare is already in a safe and secure location that I can access without having to enter my apartment at all.

Once I had the key Mr. I- drove me back to my place and I thanked him profusely. He insisted again it was Japanese culture to help out when someone else was in trouble, and we bid each other a good day. I got back inside, took another shower, and got started on this blog entry which I intended to be a very short one but just couldn’t help myself and it’s become another wall-of-text monster.

How this will affect my relationship with the rest of the faculty at school, time will only tell. Maybe they’ll think of me as an idiot, or maybe it’ll bring us closer because now they’ve seen my flawed, human side. I suspect it’s the latter, but I’m very new in Japan and I still don’t know these people very well so I’m far from confident about that.

Anyway, it’s been an insane few days, and today will be no less crazy. After all that madness, in just a few minutes I’m heading back to Tokyo!

I hope you can’t overdose on life, because if you can I’m coming dangerously close to the limit.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , ,

On the Other Side, At Last

September 1st, 2011 No comments

When I was a kid I used to picture myself growing up to be a public school-teacher. The particular ages of the kids I wanted to teach varied as I got older, but out of all possible age-groups I think Junior High School is at the top of my list. At that age, kids have reached a certain maturity and yet remain completely innocent—it’s like the golden years at the end of childhood before teenage rebelliousness kicks in. For me, that was probably the most confusing and emotionally frustrating time of my life, and yet also one of the most fondly remembered. I was just beginning to see the world as it really was, to shed the fantasies of youth and confront life’s most painful realities, but I was still young enough to believe I could overcome them. It wasn’t until high school that I let those hard truths crush me, and it took me many years to fully accept and learn to live with them. Now I find myself standing at the front of a classroom full of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, looking on them with an empathy emanating from that past-self within me and thinking, “Oh my god, I’ve actually grown up.”

Today is the first day of my life that I actually felt like a full-blown adult. Teaching businesspeople in Germany, nearly all of whom were older than me, didn’t carry with it the same impact, and before then I was either a student or working at a job mostly done by students. But to actually be in the role that as a kid I pictured myself being in when I grew up (albeit in a completely different cultural setting)…that’s really something.

I won’t be going into nearly as much detail about teaching as I do about other things on my blog, as I feel that to do so would be somewhat unprofessional. Today will be the only exception (and I still won’t go into as much detail as usual), as this being my first day it definitely qualifies as one of those experiences I’d like to keep in this online memory-preservation jar of mine.

First of all, I slept for less than three hours last night. I’m not sure exactly when I got to sleep but I think it was somewhere between midnight and 1:00, and I remember waking up at exactly 3:00 and from that point on my brain wouldn’t stop, as I kept thinking about how I was going to do my introductory speech in front of the whole school and I kept getting new (and good) ideas about what to do during my lessons, which were also to be a self-introduction.

The students noticed me from the moment I walked in the building, and I smiled and said hello to all of them and they, for the most part, returned my greetings, which helped put me at ease for the incredibly nerve-wracking ordeal of having to give a short introductory speech about myself in front of the entire 600-large student-body at the opening-day assembly in the morning.

I started off by deliberately botching the “ohayou gozaimasu”, making their very first impression of me a funny voice, followed by a clearing of the throat, another voice, another throat-clearing, and then a few lines of simple-but-perfect Japanese about myself. I just gave them the basics—my name, country of origin, and age, then did it again in English, but in the morning I’d had the clever idea of including a picture of Barack Obama among the pictures I was supposed to bring to show the students something about my background, and I brought two laminated photos of Obama to the assembly—one of him smiling and another of him frowning. I said I wanted to help their English teachers make English one of their favorite classes, then pretended to be a student saying in Japanese, “English our favorite class? No you can’t.” To which I replied as I held up the smiling photo: “Barack Obama says ‘yes we can.’” That got a tiny laugh, mostly from the faculty, but I continued on, saying, “But we need your help to do it. You have to believe you can learn English, and Barack Obama believes you can. So I’ll say ‘can you learn English’ and you say ‘yes we can!’” Of course no one did it the first time, so I held up the photo of Obama frowning and said, “Aw, you’re making Barack Obama sad.” That got a bigger laugh, this time from some students as well, and when I went to initiate the “Yes we can!” chant again, about 20% of the students joined in, which was actually a pretty high number when you consider most of them had no idea what I’d been saying.

I know I won some points with the principal and some of the board of education people with that little stunt, as red as my face was afterwards. As for the students, most of them were excited to see me in the hallways and eager to say hello, though I have no idea if my Obama-routine had anything to do with that.

Incidentally, I do feel a little weird about using Obama’s “Yes we can” campaign slogan when I feel like in actuality he’s completely abandoned the spirit of that mantra, but the irony there was like my own little private joke to myself.

For my very first lesson, I was teaching a classroom of about 30 first-graders (in the Japanese system the grade number resets whenever you pass from one school to another, so these would be like the equivalent of 6th-graders in America), most of whom have had only bare-bones experience with English so I knew I had to keep it extremely simple. I did my best but I know I went over their heads a little with my explanations of all the places I’ve lived, though handing out laminated pictures of those places seemed to go over well. At least I’d been warned that they would be very shy and not want to speak to me at first, so when I opened the floor up for questions about myself it was a struggle to get anyone to stand up and give it a shot (the sad-faced Obama picture really came in handy there). But once I’d told them a bunch of things about myself including places I’ve lived and a few things I like and dislike, I got them into groups of four and had them play a game where each group had to think of as many things as they remembered from my introduction. I gave them a few minutes to think and write stuff down, then called on each group at random, who mostly gave one word responses like “America!” or “football!” or “rock and roll!” and gave them a point for each thing. Naturally the groups borrowed from each other so the latter groups scored higher, but I loved when someone would shout some random thing like “Barack Obama!” and I could hold up the picture and say “yes we can!” which everyone loves. I also had a lot of fun giving out copious amounts of high-fives.

Once the game was finished the students all had to write sentences of their own as if they were doing their own introductions, so they wrote their names, where they were from (almost all of them wrote ‘Togane’ or ‘Chiba’ but one kid wrote ‘Earth’ which I got a real kick out of). I was supposed to go around and check their grammar but I didn’t want to correct them when they were already so nervous about me, so when they started writing their likes and dislikes I just said things like, “Oh, you play piano, that’s cool!” or “I like video-games too!”

I only had two of those lessons today, both of them first-graders, and the second one went much more smoothly than the first for obvious reasons, including the fact that the JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) knew exactly what I was doing the second time around. There were actually two of them in the room at the same time as me today, but I think that’s just a special thing for the first week.

When I wasn’t in a lesson I was in the massive teachers’ room where each faculty member (about 30 people total) has his or her own desk to work at. I didn’t bring my computer because I didn’t know I could, but I won’t make that mistake again. I occupied most of my time checking out the textbooks I’d be working with (insanely boring) and doing some Japanese practice with a Japanese-textbook I’d been given at the Interac Chiba office during an additional training session there this past Tuesday (which I intend to write about in a blog entry this weekend briefly covering all the stuff that’s happened between the Tokyo trip and today).

I had to eat the school lunch just like everyone else, and because I’d made up my mind not to re-incorporate beef and pork into my diet no matter how much easier it would make my life, I had to level-up my chopsticks skills and pull out every shred of pork in both the rice and the salad that was served. It’s good practice though, and I received a couple of compliments on my ohashi skills.

At the end of the day I offered to correct the students’ papers, which I didn’t have to do but I wanted to do not only for the sake of making a good impression but because I genuinely wanted to read what the students wrote and get a better sense of where their English skills were. I felt kind of bad correcting the papers of the students who clearly had a hard time with the exercise, but I suppose you only learn from your mistakes and I’ll do my best when I’m there in person to keep them from getting discouraged. There were some perfect papers though, and some sentences that made me want to burst out laughing. I have no idea how she got this, but one girl wrote at the end of her paper, “I long for the good old days.” I couldn’t resist drawing a smiley-face and text-bubble saying “Me too!” after that sentence.

In a way it summed up the whole experience. For her, the “good old days” must have been her elementary school years before she started going through all these changes (either that or she was actually referring to simpler times before the modern era, in which case more power to her), but for me the “good old days” include my own experiences in Junior High School.

Because I’d arrived 20 minutes early I was told I could leave 20 minutes early, but I stayed until all the papers were corrected, at which time it was fifteen minutes past the time I was supposed to leave anyway, but I was more than happy to be a “team-player” and put in the extra time. I gave everyone the standard Japanese goodbye on my way out, and said goodbye to the scattered groups of students I passed on my way out the door and off school property.

The day could have easily been a lot more perfect, but I’m a bit surprised at just how well it went. I’ll only get one first-day-as-a-genuine-public-schoolteacher in my life, and I’m beside myself with relief that it was such a good one.

And now here I am at another cross-roads, looking back on the past from which I envisioned this as my future (or at least some variation of it), and looking forward to the future in which this beginning is a distant past. I fully expect my enchantment with this job and with my current life to fade over time, but for now my mind is in a good place. For today at least, this life is beautiful.