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Sensei Party

October 29th, 2011 No comments

Sadly, last night’s “party” turned out to be a bit of a let-down. The way these enkai things had been described to me, I’d been expecting lots of drinking and laughing with my normally very-serious colleagues, a chance to see them in their more natural persona. It was that to some degree, but not nearly as much as I’d been led to believe.

Mrs. T- collected 5000 Yen from me in the afternoon to cover my food and drinks for the party. A hefty price to pay for one evening, but I figured it was obviously worth it and I finally got my first paycheck this week so at least I could easily afford it. (Incidentally—I found out that the money for my housing loan won’t be deducted until next month’s paycheck, but I’m going to take a 100,000 Yen loan anyway just to be safe).

Part of that money presumably went to transportation, as they’d hired a bus to take people from the school to the restaurant where the party would be taking place. The bus left from the school at 5:30, and while I normally leave at 4:15 I stayed later this time, having to finish preparing my materials for next week’s lessons anyway. I did run home just to drop off my stuff shortly before the bus was to leave, and I got back and waited outside the school until it was ready to go. The first surprise of the night was that only four of us would be riding this bus of about twenty seats. Everyone else was driving.

One of the three other teachers who came on the bus started talking to me in Japanese as soon as he got on. Luckily it was simple enough for me to understand. He asked me if I drank beer and I said yes. He asked me if I drank wine and I said yes. He asked me if I drank whiskey and I said yes, I love whiskey. He said we would be drinking a lot (takusan) tonight and he was looking forward to it.

The restaurant was about a fifteen minute drive up the 126, and we ended up getting there before most of the others. Mrs. T- was there directing people to our private room, and the principal and Vice Principle were already seated in the back corner.

I immediately regretted not bringing a camera, although I’m not sure whether posting pictures would be allowed in any case. I know I can’t take pictures of the students but I’m also not supposed to do anything that could solidly identify the particular school where I work (because obviously if I did that, then…um…yeah…). But due to company policy I’ll just have to provide a written description. If you’ve ever seen a movie that takes place in Japan, you’re halfway there already. It was a distinctively Japanese setting in all respects—tatami mats on the floors and shouji sliding doors, two very long, close-to-the-ground tables surrounded by legless chairs so you had to kneel or sit cross-legged. There were wooden trays of food at every place setting filled with various kinds of raw fish and shellfish (it looked about as intimidating as it gets) and there were little stove-thingies to heat up pots with later portions of the meal.

I took a seat near the middle of the table closer to the entrance so I could see the entire room and hopefully have a better chance of communicating with others, but for awhile nobody sat near me. Other teachers continued to file in and I just sat there waiting for things to get started. Eventually a couple of the guys whom I’d met at the other drinking party sat near me, and two JTEs, Mrs. T- and Ms. Y- sat across from me, much to my relief. They would definitely be able to help with the communication.

Things began about as formally as any Japanese event, with one of the teachers standing up to introduce the principal, who gave a long incomprehensible speech, followed by a few other teachers who gave long incomprehensible speeches of their own. When the last person to speak was Ms. S-, the homeroom teacher of class 3-4, I realized the speakers must have been those teachers whose classes had won the Chorus Contest.

When Ms. S- was finished a bunch of people got up and briefly left the room to come back with open bottles of beer for whomever might want some. We all had tiny little glasses so those of us who wanted beer would hold them out to have the drink poured for us. This is classic Japanese culture—you’re never supposed to pour your own alcoholic beverage. Once everyone had something to drink, one of the teachers stood up to make a toast and we all said “kampai” and clinked our glasses together, so that’s one cultural element that’s no different from the West.

I took a few sips of beer and noticed some other people starting to pick at their raw fish, so I went ahead and dug in, bravely facing the bizarre smorgasbord of fishy strangeness laid out for me. I prepared myself for the worst with every bite, yet miraculously everything turned out to at least be decent, and some things like the oysters turned out to be quite delicious.

Every few minutes someone would come along to top off my tiny beer-glass, as these glasses were so small they required nearly constant topping-off. It seemed that half the people there were spending more time working than enjoying their food. Most of the people, it seemed, weren’t drinking at all. Nearly all of the women ordered juice instead, and I noticed that even some of the men were drinking soda or non-alcoholic beer. Seriously? I was thinking. What kind of party is this?

Mrs. T- and Ms. Y- who’d been sitting across from me were among those moving around and pouring drinks, and occasionally kneeling down to talk with other teachers, so I was left on my own again, to slowly pick at my fish (I did as the others did and only ate one thing every couple of minutes) and sip at my beer. Eventually Mrs. T- came with a drink menu and asked me if I’d like something besides beer, a soft-drink or maybe some sake, or…. “I’ll have a glass of sake,” I said. When you’re going to immerse yourself into Japanese culture why not go all the way? I haven’t even actually drank sake since I’ve been here. A few minutes later, Mrs. T- came back with an entire bottle (a small one, maybe 0.3 liters) and a little glass and poured some for me. I discovered that I had a taste for it. We offered some to a few people around me but there were no takers. So at this Japanese drinking party it turned out that the only person drinking sake was the American.

When most of most people’s fish was gone, cups of some kind of egg-soup were distributed by the women who worked there (I hesitate to call them “waitresses”) and then they lit up the candles under the stove-thingies for each person to get the next portion of the meal cooking, which was a delicious mix of oysters and potatoes in some kind of creamy sauce. Later on, they would replace those pots with pots of rice mixed with things like vegetables, shrimp, and mushrooms, which was also very good.

Every now and then I’d actually find myself communicating with someone. A couple of teachers came up to me and asked me simple things like how I liked Japan. When they saw I was drinking sake they’d ask me drinking questions like what I thought of Japanese beer and whether German beer was better. I was honest with them. One of the first-grade JTEs, Mrs. H- came up and talked to me in English for awhile, mostly about teaching and getting the students to think English is fun. Another teacher, upon pouring my drink, told me with his limited English skills that his students really like me, which of course was nice to hear.

At one point I got into a discussion with a couple of the male teachers beside me of which classes were the worst. They were interested in my opinion because I’m one of the only teachers (if not the only teacher) in the school who actually teaches every single class. When I told them 2-3 was the loudest and 2-4 was the most difficult, they laughed and wholeheartedly agreed with my assessment. Ms. Y- was across from me at that point and she laughed in agreement too. There’s one student in 2-3 that we were all thinking of in particular who she said behaves like a “big baby”. “Hai, akachan” I said, and they all laughed. The guy next to me teaches 2-6 and asked me what I thought of that class, and once I remembered who was in that class I told him I really liked it, and he said he did too. In fact, 2-6 might be my favorite class in the whole school.

In any case, it was interesting to be hanging out with a group of teachers and to confirm that yes, in fact, they do share their judgments of their classes and talk smack about some students. When I was a student, we all suspected as much.

Conspicuously absent from the event was Mr. I-, the teacher who’d let me sleep at his place after the other party when I’d lost my key. I was looking forward to socializing with him some more as we’ve barely said a word to each other since that night, but he never showed up. Also not in attendance was the super-cute secretary, though she hadn’t been at school all week. I sure hope she’s just on vacation and not fired or anything. I can’t communicate with her at all but I miss her sweet smile and bubbly personality.

When I finished off my bottle of sake I was still barely buzzed, but at least loose enough to get up and take care of some business with the other JTEs that I’d been planning to bring up at the party. I’m tired of not knowing the students’ names, so my idea was to have them make name-cards for me that I could study like I study vocabulary. They could write their names in English and hiragana, as well as one thing about themselves they’d like me to remember about them, like “I’m on the soccer team” or “I play piano”. I figured the hardest part would be matching the names to the faces, but if I only collected six cards per class I might be able to keep their faces in my memory and by the end of November I could have all 600 memorized. They all liked the idea—Ms. S- seemed to love it—and Ms. Y- said that as long as the cards didn’t go back to the students she could attach pictures to them. Apparently the students don’t know this, but they’ve got a database with all of the students’ I.D. photos, the primary purpose of which is to help the police find them if anyone runs away (which has already happened a few times this year). So if that’s the case I can take cards from all the students next week and get to work on memorizing them all right away. I’m meeting with every single class in the school next week (it’ll be my busiest of the year so far) so that should work out perfectly. If I cram before each class I might even be able to start greeting them by name as early as the week after next.

After telling Ms. S- about the idea, she kept me engaged in conversation for awhile, asking me a bunch of questions including things about Germany. She’s the most well-travelled of all the JTEs, having been to six different countries in Europe alone, but never Germany. We both agreed that Paris is beautiful but the French people’s refusal to speak English is fucked up (we didn’t use that particular word). If you hate Americans that’s fine—even though we saved your asses in WWII—but English is the default language for travelers all over the world, even countries you have no beef with. So get over yourselves and show some goddamn hospitality to foreigners like the Japanese do. You could learn a thing or two from them. Rant over.

While I was talking with her one of the male teachers stood up and made an announcement, which Ms. S- explained was telling us that it was almost time to go. Huh? It felt like it had only been two hours since it started. Nobody was even close to drunk yet—not even me. The teacher on the bus had said there would be a lot of drinking…I suppose “takusan” means different things to different people.

But we all stood up and did this thing where everybody claps a single time all in unison, which I now know is how these gatherings are supposed to end—just as formally as they begin.

There were a few more minutes for everyone to finish eating or drinking, and then people slowly started filing out. I was told that only one other teacher would be taking the bus back, so I waited for him to leave and then followed him out. So now there were only two people on this twenty-seat bus, probably the biggest waste of money of the night. Had there been any effort to organize transportation, I’m sure rides in other teachers’ cars could have been arranged.

As we pulled out of the restaurant parking-lot, the clock in the bus read 9:00. Unbelievable. I don’t think I’ve been to a party that ended at 9:00 since elementary school. Even middle-school dances went until at least 10:00.

But I don’t want to complain too much. I had a nice time and it was a worthwhile experience. Just because I spent the equivalent of a week’s worth of groceries on a single meal and less alcohol than I could buy for a tenth of that price doesn’t mean it wasn’t money well spent.

I just hope this wasn’t as good as it gets. I’ve heard stories about enkais that gave me the impression that they can get pretty wild, but this was just a few degrees looser than the typical day at school. I’m sure a lot of it had to do with the fact that most of the teachers were driving themselves home. Perhaps there’ll be another party which doesn’t take place right after school so they can take taxis to and from the event. I don’t know. But if this is as wild as my school gets, that’s pretty lame.

Still, I’ve got no regrets. It was a fitting end to a particularly interesting week. Thursday’s Chorus Contest ended up being the highlight in terms of interestingness (apparently that is an actual word) but Friday’s enkai was nothing to scoff at either…at least not too much scoffing (also a word).

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Another Contest

October 28th, 2011 No comments

I’m in the middle of a particularly eventful few days. This is the second of two entries I’m posting today, the first of which is below.

Thursday was a special day in the school-year, the day when every class competes in a Chorus Competition which isn’t held in the school itself but instead in a large performance hall up in the hills. I had the option of not attending and thus having the day off, but the choice between another boring free day and a chance to witness another unique Japanese cultural event was no choice at all.

I got directions from Mrs. T- the day before and yesterday morning rode my bicycle to the place in question, stopping in to three 7-11s first in search of a sandwich without pork in it because I had to bring my own lunch. I had to go some distance out of the way before finally finding one, so I ended up arriving there a few minutes late, which turned out to not be an issue at all. There were teachers all along the way there to direct the students on the right way to go, and a few of them were still out when I arrived just behind one of the last students. I got few “hello”s shouted at me as I rode by the building where the students were gathering outside, and I had to ride around and park my bike in the lot among the students’ bikes before walking over to the gathering area where attendance was just being taken.

Aside from the students who shouted greetings at me, I felt a little invisible. None of the teachers told me what was going on, when I could go inside, where I should sit, what the program would be, or anything. I just stood and watched the students file in one class at a time until someone noticed my confusion and said I could go inside. Every student had their sleeves checked by the teachers before going inside, apparently to make sure the sleeves of their white shirts weren’t rolled up underneath their suit-jackets. Conformity in action.

I found my way to the auditorium where all of the students were already seated. The third-graders were in the orchestra seats up front, the first-graders were behind them in the next seating-section behind a flat walkway, and the second-graders were immediately behind them. I’ve seen all 600 students together before in school assemblies, but somehow in the concert hall the student-body seemed much bigger.

One of the teachers was kind enough to direct me to a blocked-off area of seats on the left, and I made my way to the front row of that mostly-empty section to get the best view possible. I was sitting right on the corner near the clear walkway, which gave any students who wanted a chance to come up and talk to me. A- from the speech contest was the first to approach me, along with one of her friends from her class, a half-Columbian girl who likes to speak Spanish we me (even though we both know very little). I asked A- how she felt about her class’s chances of winning and she didn’t seem too optimistic, but I gave her a “Yes we can” for a smile.

One of the JTE’s, Mrs. S- came up to me and I was able to ask her a little bit about how this thing was supposed to work. Apparently each class would be singing two songs—one song that was the same for the entire grade and another that was unique to their class—and they were being judged by professional musicians who would decide on a runner-up and first-place winner within each grade, as well as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place for the whole school (which I presume always goes to the third-graders).

In what will probably be my grandfather’s favorite part of the story, she showed me the sheet-music for the third-grade song, which was actually a Christian hymn. I told her that in America a public school could never get away with teaching a Christian hymn to the students, but apparently that’s the song the head music teacher selected for them. Most of them don’t know what it means and almost certainly don’t give a moment’s thought to the meaning (even though the words were translated ), but I found it extremely amusing to think that a class full of Shinto and Buddhist Japanese students were going to be singing about how they were “warriors of Christ.”

The event began with a short speech by the principal followed by the school song, which I politely stood for as though it were the National Anthem. After that it was time for the first-graders, all of whom took the stage to sing their song together before splitting into individual classes for the competition part. I was glad it was a nice song because I’d get to hear it seven times that morning, though by the last time I was already sick of it. In addition to just singing, each class had a piano-player and a conductor from their class. In America not too many students play the piano let alone conduct, but somehow every class had at least one of each.

After the first-graders there was a short pause, and then it was the same routine with the second-graders. Their song was “Scarborough Fair” which took much less time than the first-graders’ song because they merely sang the first verse in English and then again in Japanese. I love that song, and I hadn’t grown sick of it even by the seventh time.

The songs chosen by each class were also universally pleasant (even the hymn), so in spite of some slight boredom here and there it was an enjoyable experience. The sound of children singing is pretty pleasant in general, and these kids had put a lot of practice into their songs, rehearsing them in music class for months, perhaps even in the earlier part of the year before the summer holidays.

It was a lot like the school concerts I used to have in my own school-days, though a few major differences made it an event of a different nature entirely. For one thing, almost none of the students’ parents were there, and if they were they were up out of sight on the mezzanine. Of course most importantly, this was a competition. The students weren’t just singing for fun or for the enjoyment of their parents, but for the concrete purpose of winning honor for their class and avoiding the shame of losing. The audience wasn’t simply enjoying the songs, but constantly judging how each class measured up against one another. Even I tried to gauge which classes had the best chances of winning, and while it wasn’t always easy to predict the winners, the losers were easy to spot. A few bad singers could ruin it for everybody.

Naturally I was comparing the event to the Speech Contest the entire time, as these were both competitions that students poured a great deal of effort and emotional investment into. Not all of them, for sure (plenty of both were clearly not into it at all), but a majority of the girls and nearly all of the third-graders, for whom this would be their last chance at winning. I’m still split on the rightness or wrongness of turning a potentially just-for-fun event into a competition that would invariably end with emotional devastation on the part of some, but I’m at least certain of one thing: this was far less cruel than the Speech Contest. At least in a competition of classes, you’re in it together with your fellow students. If you lose, you share in the disappointment with the same group of people you see every day.

The second-graders wrapped up shortly after noon, then the students all went outside to sit in their various groups and have lunch. I ate my 7-11 sandwiches inside and then went out to float from group to group to group and engage in awkward interaction with the students. Not awkward because they didn’t want me there, but purely for communication reasons. Even simple questions like “Are you enjoying the contest?” are too difficult for many students to understand. But at least everyone could understand things like, “Nice weather today.” “Yes, it’s sunny!”

Another thing about the chorus contest that was also true of lunch is that I got to see a lot faces I don’t normally see. I think it’s true of many Asian countries, but the Japanese are definitely big on those surgical masks to protect them from airborne germs. Some students only wear them when they’re ill, but some students wear them every single day. But they have to take them off while singing or eating lunch, so it was interesting to finally see what they really look like. There’s one girl in particular who is extremely outgoing and who talks to me all the time (albeit usually in incomprehensible Japanese) but who is perpetually masked. While her second-grade class was singing it took me a few moments to even realize it was her. When she called out to me at lunch and I went over to her group it was like interacting with a new person.

Near the end of the break, all of the third-grade classes got together and ran through their songs again for a bit of last-minute practice. I floated between all of them, but I made sure to give a few extra words of encouragement to A-’s class, 3-6, which is filled with students I like.

There’s another third-grade class, 3-4, that also has a lot of students I particularly like. That’s the class where the girls came up to me one day to ask me what music I listened to. When I was seated back in the auditorium they came up to me again, and we were able to communicate much longer than I ever have before thanks to the fodder for topics that the contest could provide. They all expressed how nervous they were, and I was able to ask them which of the first- and second-grade classes they though were the best, and things like that. A few minutes after they left, an individual girl from that class came up and spoke to me on her own accord as well. None of the boys came up to try and chat with me but about half of them gave me a “hello” at some point.

The third-graders all got up on stage to sing their hymn, then came the individual classes. 3-4 came in the middle and they did an excellent job, but it was hard to weigh their performance against 3-1 and 3-2 who also performed beautifully. Some of the girls from 3-2 started crying after their performance, which brought some emotions to the surface in me. When one of the crying girls looked my way I assured her it was great and her “thank you” was like the most sincere thing I ever heard.

A-’s class, 3-6, was the last to go, and I was very disheartened when they gave a clearly sub-par performance. The conductor for 3-6 had been clutching her stomach in nervousness before the performance, and afterwards she broke down in tears, her face as red as if had been badly sun-burned. It was such an emotional scene that my eyes started welling up themselves, and her friend came up to me and asked me what I thought. Of course I lied and said it was great, and when she made me repeat it for her crying friend it actually seemed to help, and she gave me another astonishingly sincere “thank you”. I don’t think I’ve ever felt better about telling a lie.

A- didn’t come up to me, and I’m glad she didn’t. I wouldn’t have wanted to lie to her and call into question the very sincere praise I’d given her at the Speech Contest.

The third-graders were finished around 2:00, but the school-day doesn’t technically end until 4:15 so there had to be something to fill the time. First there was the school-wide chorus which took the stage and sang a few songs, the atmosphere noticeably different now that it wasn’t being judged. Then they rolled out a drum set and a couple of over-sized xylophone-looking things, and a group of three professional musicians came out to play a few songs which included the theme to Super Mario Brothers. Although the music was nice, I was getting pretty sleepy, my leg was falling asleep, and I just wanted them to announce the winners so we could all go home.

Around 3:30 the school chorus came back to do a few songs with the professional musicians, and then the stage was cleared and one of the women judging the contest came out to say a few words before the winners were announced. By “a few” I mean about two-hundred-thousand too many—she went on and on and on and on in incomprehensible Japanese for about fifteen solid minutes that felt like fifty. “Just shut up and put everyone out of their misery already!” I kept thinking. The tension in the room was so thick you could barely see through it.

Finally she left and one of the members of the school faculty took the stage. Apparently they wanted the news to be delivered by a familiar face. He made a couple of jokes at the beginning and then at last began revealing the winners. I’d been hoping he’d do it by class number so I’d be able to understand, but the announcements were done by the names of the songs. Of course there were outbursts of emotion all over the auditorium, so I was able to tell which group won something, but I didn’t know whether they’d won runner-up or first-place or anything. The first two girls to take the stage had merely won the prizes of best conductor and piano player, which I didn’t realize until I spoke to Mrs. T- after. The red-faced crying girl was, thank the gods, the winner for best conductor. But that didn’t stop her from crying her eyes out while she was up on the stage. A- and the rest of 3-6 gave her encouraging waves from their seats, but they were not to be among the winners of the day.

When it was all over I was still in massive confusion about what happened, so I caught Mrs. T- in the lobby and asked her to tell me what the results were, which I marked down on my program. The first and second place winners from the first- and second-graders made sense, as did the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prize from the whole school, which were all among the third-grade classes. The #1 prize went to 3-4, which pleased me. When that group of girls emerged from the auditorium they marched victoriously up to me to receive their congratulatory high-fives.

Of course there were plenty of other girls there in tears. None of the boys seemed to care much, but that was to be expected. Still, the whole place was such a mess of emotion that my urge to get the hell out of there was growing exponentially. Too much for my soft mushy heart to handle.

The classes were gathered outside with their homeroom teachers, whom I presume were all either giving victory speeches if they’d won, or if they’d lost some words of comfort (or perhaps a lecture on how they’d brought shame upon themselves and their classmates—who knows?) I safely escaped to my bicycle and rode away.

So that was the Chorus Contest. It was about as enjoyable as such a thing could be, though my feelings are still pretty mixed about it. But whether good or bad, it was certainly an interesting experience.

Tonight promises to be an equally interesting experience, if not the most interesting of the week. A bus is leaving from the school at 5:30 to take me and any other faculty members who might require it to a party in the nearby town of Naruto, so I will once again be drinking with my Japanese colleagues, though this time is going to be much bigger than the little welcome party back in September. I have very little idea what to expect. I’ve seen what a few of these people are like when the office-persona comes off and they kick back, but most of them are still a complete mystery to me, including most of my fellow English teachers and the principal and vice-principal. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what they’re like in a social setting.

Naturally, I’ll report back with that on the morrow.

More Cross-Cultural Contact

October 28th, 2011 No comments

Some weeks are stranger than others. I’m nearing the end of a three-day stretch of events that fall outside of what’s become the normal routine for me. As each thing deserves its own post, this will be the first of two separate entries I’ll be posting today.

On Wednesday I finally got another chance to socialize with people my age from the local community. Ben invited me, Fred, and a few of his Japanese friends out to dinner at an Okinomiyaki restaurant near his apartment. (Okinomiyaki is the same thing I ate on my first night in Japan). After getting off of work and going for a jog, I gave him a call to find out what time he’d be heading there. I finally have a working phone again, but I lost my contacts and was only able to call him because there was a missed call and it turned out to be his number. He said I could come right over and have a beer before we went out, so I took him up on that.

For the only the third time since I’ve been to Japan, I threw on a long-sleeve shirt before going out. It turned out that I should have worn a jacket. The weather is finally starting to shift (though the leaves are still stubbornly refusing to change color.) and this night was the coldest we’ve had so far. Luckily it was only about a ten minute walk to Ben’s place.

I got there and we chatted for a little while about how things were going at school, then Fred showed up and joined us. Mayumi came a few minutes later, and soon enough it was time to head to the restaurant. It was a five-minute walk to get there, and although we were a few minutes late for our 7:00 reservation, none of the others had arrived yet.

This place was bigger than the one in Narita, and they had some rooms where you sit on the floor and others with chairs. Thankfully, we had a room with chairs.

The first person to arrive was a guy named Atsushi whom I believe works at a bar near the shore and is also a judo instructor for kids. I would describe him as “incredibly friendly” but that description seems to apply to nearly every Japanese person I’ve met. I guess he also seemed more laid-back and easygoing than the norm. He didn’t speak fantastic English but he wasn’t afraid to put what he did know to use, and seemed to understand most of the things I said to him.

The other three guests were all girls in their early twenties. A girl Ben knew (I forget how) named Ai, who is a hip-hop dancer (and also incredibly friendly), and two of her friends, whose names I believe were Kai and Miku, or something like that. They were all nice-looking, but Miku was particularly beautiful. Unfortunately, neither she nor Kai spoke English at all save for a few random words. Ai’s English was just slightly better than my Japanese.

Fred has been living here the longest and his Japanese is by far the best, so he pretty much stole the show when it came to group conversation, leaving Ben and myself to do our best to figure out what was being said unless Fred translated something. I could answer a few easy questions like where I’m from, how old I am, and what my birthday is, but I’m still nowhere near the level required to carry on any kind of interesting conversation. At least I noticed myself having an easier time getting the basic idea of what was being talked about.

Dinner was delicious, and afterwards Ben invited everyone back to his place for a drink (nobody opted into the over-priced alcohol of the restaurant). Mayumi was the only one who declined the invitation, heading home about ten minutes before the rest of us left, while everyone else decided to go.

Atsushi and the girls had driven there, so we were able to get rides from them back to Ben’s apartment (which due to the road-situation actually took just as long as it did to walk), and once everyone arrived Ben, Ai, and I went on a beer-run to the FamilyMart nearby.

When we got back there was about another hour of Japanese/English conversation, with Ben and I straining ourselves to use Japanese words whenever we knew them and the girls doing the same for English. Whenever there was something we just couldn’t understand, Fred or Atsushi would translate, but this didn’t happen very often and communication flowed rather smoothly the whole time.

Near the end, we somehow got into demonstrations of weird body/hand tricks, like placing coins on your elbow and trying to catch them in your hand with one sweep of the arm, or spinning a battery on the floor with a single flick of the finger, not to mention the pulling-off-your-thumb trick, which is apparently just as well-known in Japan.

Atsushi left shortly before the rest of us, and at about 11:00 Fred, the girls, and I stepped outside to head home ourselves. As it happened, Trey, who lives right across from Ben, was just getting home from kick-boxing practice and he came up to say hello to us (the girls in particular) before they got in their car and went home (much to Trey’s disappointment).

Before I began the cold walk home, Trey said he wanted to talk to me for a second, apparently eager to get some of his political thoughts off his chest with a fellow political-junkie. He proceeded to go into a short rant about how Obama was easily going to win the 2012 election because the Republicans have no clue that times have changed and that thanks to the internet nobody is buying into the bullshit that their own economic interests are aligned with those of the super-rich anymore. I agreed that more people are catching on, but I’m not so optimistic, particularly when so many people get their information exclusively from corporate mouthpieces like Fox News or talk-radio. He insisted that all of the Republican candidates are too weak to win, and I said that if Romney gets the nomination and the entire corporate media-machine coalesces behind him in support, he’ll look a lot stronger than he does now and will have a chance to beat Obama. He doesn’t think so.

He apologized for keeping me, but I didn’t really mind because it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to talk politics with anyone. The same is apparently the case with him, as he also brought up a bunch of other issues including what Herman Cain’s candidacy is all about (the Koch Brothers have been paying him for years to pull the political spectrum farther to the right, and he has no intention of becoming president but merely to pressure the other Republican candidates to do things like propose their own flat-tax plans).

At any rate, he was kind enough to finish our conversation by giving me a ride home in his heated car, and when he dropped me off he said that we should get together some time and he’d show me “the other side of Togane”. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I hope he follows up on that. He’s a very cool guy, and although I’m not nearly as big of an Obama fan as he is, it’s nice to be able to talk politics and he’s the only one I’ve met in this entire country so far who’s interested.

I got to bed shortly after midnight, and discovered upon waking up at 7:00 as usual that this was actually plenty of sleep. I’ve been going to bed around 10:00 on weeknights but I often wake up in the middle of the night and toss and turn for hours, and when I get up at 7:00 I still feel exhausted. Seven solid hours is probably better than nine interrupted ones, so from now on that’s what I’ll be trying.

Wednesday had been a relatively crazy day. Thursday would be even crazier.

Minor Misfortunes

October 21st, 2011 No comments

Good luck and bad luck tend to come in streaks, and this week has definitely been one of the latter, though as far as bad luck goes it’s been rather mild. Starting with the loss of my cellphone this past weekend, a small slew of relatively bad but far-from-extremely unfortunate things have befallen me, and nearly all of the clouds have been offset by a silver lining.

Monday began with a classic example of how the first time you run through a new lesson is always the worst, though this was more disastrous than others. I had to teach third-graders the grammar point: “This is a book I bought yesterday” or “This is a movie I watched last week” and so on. I wracked my brain for awhile trying to think of any possible way to make such a thing fun, and eventually came to the idea of making a True/False game out of it whereby the students had to try and trick the other students into guessing the wrong thing about something they did in the past. I made up nine flashcards for myself to go with such sentences as “This is the book I read last night” or “This is a band I saw last year.” I had the students raise their hands to guess True or False (some were obviously false like “This is the car I drove this morning” and a picture of the batmobile), then passed out papers and asked them to draw three pictures with their own sentences. I had a help-sheet printed out with the entire sentence-structure and words to fill in the blanks, and gave them about 5-10 minutes to work on it. Then I invited one student at a time up to read their sentences, show their pictures, and try to trick as many of their classmates as possible. While they were drawing I got the idea to have the students stand up and move to one side of the room for True and the other side of the room for False. I’d give the student who read their sentences as many points as there were people standing on the wrong side of the room.

Naturally, it was like pulling teeth to get students to volunteer to come up and read. Luckily a few were actually confident enough to do it, but the students who were supposed to be moving from side to side just huddled into their groups of friends and proceeded to carry on unrelated conversations. Most of the students didn’t even finish their own pictures and sentences. Massive teaching fail. After the lesson I told Ms. S- that if she had any ideas on how to fix the lesson by next time to let me know because it wasn’t working.

But I had no time to sit back and think it over because I had to do the exact same lesson next period with Mrs. T-. This time I made a shorter introduction and had the students stand up and move to one side of the room or the other instead of raise their hand, so later on when the students played themselves they’d know what to do. I also only asked them to draw two pictures instead of three, but still most only ended up drawing one or none. A- from the speech contest was in the class and she was eager to help me out in any way she could—bless her heart—so she volunteered right away (and tricked most of the class with her sentences) but it was still really tough getting anyone, boys in particular, to volunteer and I didn’t want to put anyone on the spot.

I had to do the same lesson a third time in a row right after that, this time with Ms. S- again, but by then I’d finally figured out what I was doing wrong: the game pitted an individual student against the entire class. Students wouldn’t want to play unless it was to score points on behalf of their team. So this time I made it a game of boys vs. girls. During my introduction I had two sentences of practice in which I got them all standing up, then two sentences with just the girls standing up and two with just the boys. If the sentence I read was true and there were ten boys standing on the False side of the room, the girls would get ten points. If the sentence was false and I got girls on the True side of the room (a handful actually believed that I really did buy a SpongeBob T-shirt last week), the boys would get five points. I then had them all draw just one picture and write one sentence, and encouraged them to choose whom they wanted to play for the team. When a girl read her sentence, the boys would have to guess whether it was true or false and vice-versa. That did the trick. I had no trouble getting participants that lesson, and the students actually seemed to enjoy it. When it was over Mrs. S- asked them to hand me their papers to be corrected and to include a message to me about what they thought of the game. I wasn’t too happy about that (more sentences for me to correct) but most of the sentences were positive like “It is fun game” or “I was very enjoy.” The most negative comment was “It was interesting.” But one student wrote a sentence that nearly had me laughing out loud: “This game is very fun for me because it teach me girl’s private!”

I ran through the game three more times over the course of the week and while the boys vs. girls thing always worked to some degree, it was somehow never as successful as that third time. At times none of the boys would volunteer and I’d have to count-down from five and keep boosting the girls’ score by one point until one of them finally relented. Sometimes no girls would volunteer and I’d have to do the same for the boys, but neither side ever allowed the other more than two free points. Also interesting to see was that while the girls would split themselves on whether the boys’ sentences were true or false, the boys almost always all stood on one side of the room, and more often than not the wrong side, thus giving the girls major points. The girls managed to win every single time, once even crushing the boys by more than double their points. Ms. S- asked why the girls were so good at this game. My guess—which I didn’t say out loud—is that girls are just naturally better at deception :). After that lesson, one of the boys commented on his paper, “This game reveals the sad truth.” As far as I’m concerned that was the Sentence of the Week.

That was this week in third-grade, which doesn’t really have to do with luck but I wanted to write about anyway. The other notable things of the week do. On Tuesday I was informed that some people from Interac would be coming the next day for a “regular observation”. So my bosses were coming to sit in on a couple of lessons to evaluate me. Woo-hoo. A good dose of extra stress is just what I needed.

On top of that, I started to come down with a condition on Tuesday and it was in full-force on Wednesday morning. It was nothing new for me—for years I’ve been getting this inflammation of my left lymph-node about once a month. It usually lasts a few days and basically just makes it a little painful to eat food. An annoyance but usually little more than that. This time it was awful. I could barely even finish my breakfast because the pain was so rough it had my eyes tearing. Coupled with the exhaustion of having my patented wake-up-for-hours-in-the-middle-of-the-night-tossing-and-turning session on both Sunday and Monday night, I was in a pretty bad state Wednesday morning and didn’t exactly feel up to being evaluated by my employers.

Yet there was a distinct bright-side to the timing of the situation. For one, they’d have to cut me some slack on my performance due to the illness. But more importantly, they’d be able to help me get to a clinic where I could finally see a doctor about this. I actually have health insurance now! I haven’t gone for the last two years because I didn’t think it was worth the price it would have cost, but now it was suddenly affordable.

I only had two lessons the entire day, first-grade lessons teaching them prepositions of location (on, under, in, next to, behind, etc.) and I’d had a chance to run through them on Tuesday already so at least I’d had a chance to work out some of the lesson’s kinks. About fifteen minutes before the first lesson, one of my bosses from the Chiba branch, an extremely nice woman named Kono, arrived with none other than Cliff from training in Narita, possibly the most good-humored, easy-going trainers we had. I felt instantly relieved, and told them both right away about the sickness. I figured Kono would contact Mr. I- or another Independent Contractor to ask when they’d be free to take me to a clinic, but she volunteered to take me herself after the observation lessons.

I won’t go into detail about the first-grade lessons. I did a brief demonstration of the words using a picture on the board and the physical props of a book and a desk, then launched into one of my standard team-games whereby I showed the students pictures depicting the various words and awarded points to the first team to raise their hand with the right answer (naturally cheating a bit in order to spread the points as evenly as possible). The last part was a quick relay game where I gave each team one picture and they had to go person to person until the last team member who had to find the right sentence from a series of cut-out sentences I’d arranged in the back of the room. There were some problems with the demonstration but they all eventually got it and they were all clearly having fun. I was very happy to see that, as not only were the two Interac people there but also a couple faculty members and a man from the board of education. The kids’ energy got me through it, and while my throat was killing me I felt fine for the most part, in that altered-physical state that always comes when performing in front of an audience.

I felt great about how things went, but when it came time for Cliff’s evaluation he had piles upon piles of criticism. I started to sink a bit when he began laying it on, but I didn’t let it get to me too much because it was all very constructive and valuable. All of his criticism had to do with the mechanics of my lesson rather than my teaching-style and demeanor, which he thankfully had a lot of praise for. He offered me all kinds of suggestions on how to do things better and I put them to use the following day to great success.

The most important thing he told me was to not underestimate the students. I’d been so discouraged at the beginning by their profound lack of English-speaking skills that I’d blinded myself to their intelligence, forgetting that just because their English is terrible doesn’t mean they’re not sharp as knives. When I made teams in front of Cliff I held up my fingers and had them each repeat after me, “Team 1 number 1, team 1 number 2, team 1 number 3, team 2 number 1, team 2 number 2…” and on and on until team 5 number 3. Cliff said that the kids would catch on quickly enough and I could stop talking rather quickly. The next day I found that indeed, after the second team they’d get it just by the finger-prompt and by the end they didn’t need fingers at all. Even when introducing the words, I eventually stopped having them repeat the “It’s on the desk, it’s under the desk” stuff and just let them do it themselves. Not only does this make my job easier, but as Cliff explained, when the teacher stops talking they feel like they’re getting it and it encourages them. When I saw how quickly they were catching on it felt extremely gratifying.

So while I never enjoy criticism, I can’t say I was too devastated by Cliff’s. I just had to remind myself that I’ve only been doing this for two months and of course I’ve got a long way to go before I get to his level. In the mean-time it’s actually a pretty great thing to work for a company that sends people like him around so we can benefit from their expertise.

On another note, Cliff commented on how lucky I was to be out here. He told me that he loves the kids out in Chiba—that they’re so much more engaged than in Tokyo. Not having any basis of comparison this isn’t something I’d been appreciating, but it’s good to hear. He also said that my school in particular is pretty great. After hearing from Kono how all the JTEs and the faculty members really like me and appreciate my work, he said that’s a rare situation, that there are usually one or two teachers who have a problem with the ALT, or with whom the ALT has a problem.

Thanks to the greatness of my school, they were more than willing to let me leave after lunch (all I could manage to eat was a bit of soup) with Kono and provided her with a map and detailed directions on how to get to the nearest “hospital”. I put “hospital” in quotes because upon arriving there it was actually just a tiny little clinic, even smaller than my family doctor’s office when I actually had medical coverage in America.

So this was my first foray into the Japanese National Health Care system. I was quite curious to experience it firsthand, as all I’ve heard so far are brief anecdotes, mostly from the “Body and Health” chapter of one of my Japanese-learning resources. Upon arrival Kono helped me check-in at the front office window. I just handed them my National Insurance Card and gave them my phone number (proudly reciting it in Japanese). We then took a seat in a tiny waiting room, which was occupied by about 15-20 other people, mostly mothers with very small children.

The time passed pretty quickly as Kono asked me questions about how I was finding life in Japan and I took advantage of her standing offer to help me with my Japanese by asking her various questions I’ve been harboring about how to say certain things that my computer-textbooks haven’t gotten to yet.

Before we knew it I was being called in to the back, where I took a seat in front of the doctor who asked me a few basic questions through Kono (any history of illness, any allergies to medicine, etc.) and ran a quick stethoscope-check. It seemed like it was over way too quickly, and I made sure to point out my inflamed lymph-node to him in case he missed it because that was the whole point. He touched it and asked me if it was painful (itai desu ka?) and I was able answer without translation that it was. The next thing I knew he was explaining to Kono what the problem was and I was told to go back outside and wait for the prescriptions. Kono used her phone to look up the translation of the problem, and I finally got the name: pharyngitis.

I hadn’t had a chance to explain to him that this happens all the time, otherwise the diagnosis would probably have been chronic pharyngitis but I suppose I’ll just have to wait until next time.

After a few minutes we were called to the front-office window, my Insurance Card was returned along with a prescription slip and a bill for the examination: 1010 Yen, or about 15 bucks. Not too bad.

Conveniently enough, the pharmacy was right across the parking lot, so we went there and handed them the slips, and after a few minutes the pharmacist came to the desk with a shocking amount of pills. I couldn’t believe how many drugs they were giving me. There were two different pills for pain (one was specifically for throat pain), some anti-biotics, anti-inflammatory pills, and some fluid to gargle which was also for the throat. There were instructions on how many and how often to take each of these pills each day which Kono later explained in the car. But how much were all of these drugs going to cost me? 1050 Yen. About 16 bucks. Wow.

Kono stopped at a drug-store on our way back to the school and told to me wait in the car. I assumed she was picking something up for herself or her family, but when we got back she handed me the bag full of cough-drops, lemon tea-mix, and two kinds of ramen noodle-cups which wouldn’t be so painful to eat. I don’t know why I’m still so shocked by the generosity of the Japanese, but I was in awe of the niceness of this gesture. I thanked her profusely and left.

When I got back to the teachers’ room it was still an hour before the end of the school day, but the Vice Principal told me to go home, apparently surprised that I’d come back at all.

I struggled through a piece of bread when I got home to cushion the slew of drugs I had to take, but within an hour I was already feeling incredibly better and the ramen dinner was hardly even painful at all. I felt much better the next day and better the next, so score one for the Japanese health care system. It seemed a little rushed to me, but they got me examined and (at least temporarily) cured for about $30. I’ll take it.

Yesterday I returned from school to find a failed delivery notice from the post office. This is nothing new—I’m always at work when they delivere packages and so far I’ve just called the number for English service at the bottom of the slip and scheduled a redelivery, usually for later the same night. The problem was the package was the phone I ordered to replace the lost one, so I couldn’t just call the number. I know you can make calls to land-line numbers through Skype if you purchase credit, so I did that and discovered to my chagrin that it apparently didn’t work. They said it was an invalid number.

I’d heard there were public phones you could use at 7-11, so I rode my bike there and asked the employees where the phone was. They pointed me to a payphone outside and exchanged one of my 100 Yen coins for ten 10 Yen coins, kind enough to have the foresight that I might run into an issue there. I put a coin in the phone and called the number, then got an automated Japanese message telling me…something. The call never went through. I put a few more coins in and tried again to the same result. Great.

I decided to give up and just ask Mrs. T- for help to call from the school’s phone the following day. When I got home I figured out how to request a refund from Skype for the credit I purchased, and within an hour I was notified it would be granted. Today at school Mrs. T- called the post office for me and rescheduled the delivery, so I should have the phone tonight. So that bit of bad luck was hardly all that bad either.

However, the missing phone remains a true bit of misfortune. McCall, the company that issued my phone, informed me that my only options for replacing the phone were to either buy a new one at full price (about $1000) or purchase a used one they had at their office for $200. I of course went with the latter option, but it’s a downgrade from the phone I had which kind of sucks. There’s also no warrantee on this one so if it malfunctions or anything I’m SOL. But they assure me it’s in “good condition” so we’ll see.

Finally, when I returned home from 7-11 I had an e-mail waiting for me from Interac, a receipt for the initial housing loan I’d agreed to take during training week and had completely forgotten about. I’d come to Japan with what I thought would be enough money to pay all of the initial costs and get me through to October, so I told them I didn’t want the loan at all. It’s extremely low-interest but in my mind loan = debt and I hate being in debt. But because of how Interac does business with the real-estate company they go through, going the route of the loan was the far less complicated option and I’d agreed to take it, but agreed to repay it in just one lump-sum instead of over the course of five months as is usually the case.

Lo and behold, two months later I’m smacked in the face with the realization that the entire amount, about 150,000 Yen is about to be deducted from my first paycheck, the paycheck I’ve been waiting on for weeks because I’m dangerously low on funds and that $200 I had to spend on the replacement phone brought me pretty much to the brink of total bankruptcy.

And yet just like with all the other misfortunes of the week, this was to be offset by other things. My mother generously decided to put more money in my bank account this week of offset the cost of the replacement phone. And after writing back to Interac to explain my predicament they replied to inform me that while nothing can be done to stop the huge deduction from my first paycheck (leaving me with only 30,000 Yen for the whole month) they could send me an application for a fresh loan of 100,000 Yen to be re-paid over the next four months. The only catch is that money wouldn’t be able to come through until next Friday the 4th of November, but as long as I keep living the miserly lifestyle I’ve been living until then, the $200 from my parents and 30,000 Yen from the paycheck will be plenty to get me through.

So that was the unlucky week I had. A bunch of extremely short-term misfortunes that all add up to little more than minor annoyances. When it comes to the big picture, I can still consider myself extraordinarily lucky indeed.

Japanese Family Music Festival

October 17th, 2011 No comments

Festival!

Even though it was organized by the same people, the festival I went to yesterday was worlds apart from the festival I went to last month. The main difference was that this was purely a Sunday afternoon/evening affair as opposed to an overnight camping weekend, but everything from the music to the type of location to the make-up of the crowd was different. Instead of reggae and psychedelic rock, the bands were much more traditional Japanese. It took place in a rather large park which was clearly a place where many people go every weekend no matter what’s going on there, complete with ponds, walking trails, and kids’ playgrounds. And Ben wasn’t kidding when he said it was more “kid-friendly”—while there had been a fair share of very little kids at the hippie-festival, this was almost exclusively a family affair with kids ranging all the way from 0 to maybe 12 or 13 all over the place. I felt out of place to begin with, and it turned out that neither Ben nor Fred ended up showing up so I felt substantially awkward the whole time, yet I still managed to have a relatively pleasant experience. It was certainly more enjoyable than my normal Sunday routine.

Before I get into the story of the day’s events, I have to make a rather large digression regarding the fact that on Sunday morning I discovered to my great bewilderment that I’d lost my I-phone. I’ve been known to misplace things from time to time, but the fact that my I-phone disappeared is by far the most perplexing lost-item situation I’ve ever experienced. I clearly remember having it on Saturday morning, and I only left my apartment twice that day—once for a fifteen-minute trip to the 7-11 during which I never took my phone out of my pocket, and once for my daily jog on which I never bring my cellphone and certainly didn’t bring it that time. I went back to the 7-11 on Sunday and asked them if they found it, but it was not in their Lost Items box or even in the back room. I checked every corner of my apartment several times over (including the pockets of all my pants and all of my back-pack compartments) but it was just nowhere to be found. It makes no sense whatsoever that it’s gone. Whenever I take it out of my pocket upon returning home, it always goes to the exact same spot next to the couch and there’s no reason to believe that’s not where I’d put it upon returning from the 7-11 on Saturday. Besides, if it hadn’t been in my pocket when I emptied them, I really think I would have noticed it missing then.

I’ve done so much figurative scratching my head over this that I’m practically removing my figurative scalp. But to add an ever more bizarre element to this little anecdote, this is just the latest in a long line of lost-item WTFs I’ve been having since I got to Japan. I never put them all together until the I-phone, just figuring I’m kind of an absent-minded person and every now and then I’m going to lose things, but I would bet all I own that I’ve lost more random things over my two months in Japan than I did throughout my entire three years in Germany. I lost my wireless mouse while relocating from the Narita Hotal to Togane, even though I’d practically torn the room apart looking for some papers I’d also lost (later recovered because I’d left them in one of the conference rooms so they don’t count) and it made no sense to me that I wouldn’t have noticed that I hadn’t packed my mouse during that frantic search. I lost my apartment key—we all know that story—and while I’d accepted that it must have fallen out of my pocket at some point while removing my wallet, I didn’t buy anything that night and only removed my wallet in places that were later searched thoroughly. Then there’s the USB-stick that was never anywhere but in my computer or the top compartment of my back-pack, the disappearance of which was extremely bizarre but which I didn’t think much about because I had another one. And then there’s a long list of papers and documents that I would have sworn were in my desk drawer at work but which I haven’t been able to find even after going through every sheet of paper in there one-by-one.

The I-phone is the most expensive loss and also the most bizarre, seeing as how I only took it to one place the whole day, I didn’t even ride my bike so it wouldn’t have slipped out of my pocket, and I never even removed it from my pocket because I didn’t get a call. Either it was stolen by some ninja-pick-pocket, or Japan is just full of mini-black-holes that are constantly opening up, sucking random electronics and sheets of paper into oblivion, then closing up again. It’s just absolutely mind-boggling.

In any case, I e-mailed McCall, the company that issued my phone, to let them know I lost the phone and they responded saying they’ll send me info on how to replace it “as soon as possible”. That was over 24 hours ago and so far nothing yet. Luckily I don’t really need a cellphone, but not having one raises all kind of minor difficulties such as not having an alarm to set before going to bed (luckily I wake up on my own before the alarm almost every day anyway).

It also made yesterday’s trip to the festival a bit more challenging than it would have otherwise been (It was a long digression, I know, but at least I brought it around). I was Facebook chatting with Fred in the morning to ask him how I could get there by bike, and he sent me a map and directions which were a lot more complicated than how it normally takes to get somewhere around here—normally it’s “take the 126 x blocks in y direction and you’re there”. But this “Sanbunomori Park” was nowhere near the 126, and it was about 13 km along a series of winding roads up in the hills on which my I-phone’s GPS-abilities would have really come in handy. Instead of just heading out and relying on the maps to guide me, I had to painstakingly write out directions and draw myself little maps of the intersections by hand, just like in the Dark Ages.


View Larger Map

Luckily, it wasn’t too complicated, and I ended up finding my way there without taking any wrong turns at all. It also happened to be an incredibly lovely day and an incredibly lovely bike-ride. I’d only been up in the hills for a very brief stretch of road on the day I did my “Lake Tour” last month, but the 12 km or so that I rode through on Sunday were absolutely gorgeous. I remember how when I first got to Togane I wrote that I would not use the word “beautiful” to describe this location, and while it’s undeniable that the main stretch of road here, the 126, is as ugly as it gets, there is apparently a crap-load of natural beauty to be found just a few hundred meters or so in every direction.

Of course, the downside was the fact that I was no longer in the flatlands of Togane, but riding on some particularly steep hills. There were a few long sustained uphill slopes that I just couldn’t get over without getting off the bike and pushing. To make matters worse, the temperature—which had dropped comfortably into the high teens and low twenties (Celsius of course) had picked back up yesterday along with the humidity. I was sweating bullets, but at least the downhill parts were completely exhilarating.

Sanbunomori Park Festival Grounds from the Overpass

After a little less than an hour I finally reached my destination. I wasn’t quite sure how to get into the park but I could hear the music and see the set-up below a tall overpass I rode over, so I knew I was in the right area. I eventually found the entrance, parked my bike, and worked my way down a winding wooden staircase where bunch of merchants were there selling goods and wine, and found myself confronted right off the bat with a familiar face. Kio is one of the guys who organized both festivals, apparently a friend to all the Togane ALTs as Ben had told me at the last one. He recognized me but didn’t remember my name. I told him and he asked me if Ben was here too, but I told him he wasn’t and he probably wouldn’t come for a few hours. Kio was busy so I couldn’t stay and chat, but it was at least nice to know that I sorta kinda knew someone there.

Awesome Kids' Toy Upper Part of the Park

I got down to the festival grounds and proceeded to spend the next hour or so wandering around and taking random snapshots. Of course I’d forgotten to charge my camera battery as it was somewhat of a last-minute realization that I should bring it—I haven’t used it in a few weeks—so I knew I had to take pictures and videos sparingly.

This guy was painting the whole time.

I wandered around back to the nice little pond under the overpass, then in the other direction up the hill to the playground, where I noticed to my relief they had a clock. No I-phone meant no time-keeping device for me, and the fact that I’d ridden there by bike through unlit streets with a bike with no headlight meant I had to be out of there at least an hour before sunset, meaning 4:30 at the absolute latest. (The headlight, by the way, was stolen—or at least I thought it was. Now I’m thinking it might have been one of those mini-black-holes.)

The most clearly apparent difference between this festival and the hippie festival (other than the preponderance of children) was that the crowd was much bigger. Apparently family festivals draw more of a crowd than hippie festivals. Too bad for Kio, at no one seemed to be charging an entrance fee for this one like they’d done at the other.

I was happy to spot the same Döner Kebab van that had been at the hippie-fest, though disappointed when I saw that it was once again a beef kebab and not a chicken one. Although I wasn’t too upset because the line was seldom less than twenty people long throughout the whole afternoon, and only one guy was in there serving the food so it was crawling along at a dismal pace.

After wandering around for awhile I took a seat on an empty bench at the back of the stage area, keeping my eyes open for Fred or Ben but of course neither of them came. I wanted to go up and start chatting with people but it was clear from the start that my Japanese skills are clearly not where they need to be to allow me that sort of confidence—at least not while sober. I knew I didn’t have a chance of having any kind of conversation with anyone who doesn’t speak English, and since most Japanese people don’t it would be a safe bet that no matter who I approached it would just be an awkward series of “Sorry, I don’t understand”s. That happens enough at work. I figured that I was the one who stood out so if anyone there could speak English and had any interest in talking to an English-speaker, it was up to them to come up to me. So I just tried to maintain a smile and look as approachable as possible.

The first act.

A couple times a father or mother with their kids would come and ask if they could sit on the other side of the bench and I gave them a friendly “douzo” then let them tend to their kids while trying to think of something to say, but they always left before I could think of something. I was spacing out big-time on my Japanese. There was even a moment where I just wanted to say hello to the little kid who kept looking at me but I couldn’t even remember the word for “hello”. Oh yeah, “konnichiwa”…duh. By then it was too late.

After the first band there was a brief interlude in which a group of little kids got up to sing a few Japanese kids’ songs, which may have been the single most adorable thing I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life. I risked the battery life of my camera to take a video, but I didn’t keep it going long enough to capture the best parts. At least I can give you a taste.

After that it was back to my bench again, but this time a guy came over to me deliberately, sat down, and asked me in English if I’d like a beer. I hadn’t been planning to drink anything but how could I refuse? Finally, this was what I’d been waiting for. He was there with his wife, an American woman named Kelly, and their daughter Noe. His name was Ise (something short for something else), and his wife had come to Japan to teach English fifteen years ago. He’d met her when he was bartending then. They both moved to America and lived in Chicago, then got married and came back when his wife got a job teaching at the nearby International University (I believe it’s called Josai). Their daughter looked to be about three or four years old and she was speaking both English and Japanese…lucky girl. Ise was a drummer who’s currently unemployed and playing the role of mother to Noe while Kelly brings home the bacon. Not the typical family-dynamic for Japan.

I gave Ise my story, exchanged a few words with his wife as well, and was glad to have finally met someone here so no matter what happened the day wouldn’t be a total bust. They left for shadier pastures after about a half-hour, but it had been nice sharing a drink with them.

The next performer was a solo singer with a voice not nearly as beautiful as her face singing Japanese songs while her boyfriend/husband accompanied on something like a guitar but not a guitar. It wasn’t all that exciting so I wandered around some more, still searching in vain for signs of the other ALTs. Man, having a cellphone would have really been handy, but what can you do? I found Kio again and asked him if he’d heard anything from Ben, and he gave Ben a call for me but got no answer.

Labyrinthine Stairs

While the next band was setting up I spotted a young girl who looked incredibly familiar but I wasn’t 100% sure she was one of the students at my Junior High School. She looked too young to be a Junior High student but that might have just been due to the lack of a uniform. I looked at her for any sign of recognition on her part, and while she held my gaze for a few solid seconds she gave me no indication that she knew who I was, so I didn’t say anything. After she and her friend or sister she was with had walked away, I became a lot more certain that she was one of my students, that she was a first-grader whom I hadn’t recognized right away because I’ve had far fewer lessons with the first-graders than with the other two grades. It got me a little miffed that she hadn’t said “hello” but I couldn’t be too angry because I hadn’t said “hello” either. At least I’m teaching first-grade this week and I’ll be able to ask her “wtf?” (though I probably won’t use that exact term :))

The sun had gone down behind the trees when the next band started, and while it was clearly the best music of the day so far the clock was reading just after 4:00 so I knew I had to leave soon. Before I did I noticed a Western guy—someone who’d been in the sound booth the whole day—pop out in front of the stage with a camera to take some photos of the event. I figured I might as well try to have one more sliver of social interaction before getting out of there so I went up to him and asked him where he was from. Apparently he was from Finland and went to the [Josai?] University, just like those other Westerners I’d spotted several weeks ago (and several times again since then). Despite being from Finland his English was great so I was able to chat with him for a few minutes, getting little more than the fact that his name was Ollie (or something like that), he was from Finland and studying at the university, plus his impressions of Japan so far. He’s been here for less time than I have—only one month—but somehow he’s already working the sound at Japanese festivals. I parted ways with him on friendly terms and we said we’d probably see each other around in Togane. Considering how much we stand out around here I’d say that’s rather likely.

Overpass from the Festival Grounds

On my way off the concert grounds I passed by Ise and his family, and he stood up to shake my hand and give me a warm goodbye as well. Really nice guy, that guy. He said he hoped we’d run into each other again and I sincerely agreed.

Finally, on my way up the stairs I found Kio one last time and told him to tell Ben I’m sorry I missed him, assuming he actually shows up (I found out today that he never even went). I hadn’t talked to Kio much but he still said it was nice to see me again and I told him the same.

As I was getting back on my bike, a Japanese woman came up to me and asked me in English if I was interested in hearing some flute music that would be starting in a few minutes in another area of the park. Now I start getting people coming up to me. I told her I had to go but thank you, then got on my bike and proceeded to take the long and winding road back home.

I’d left not a moment too soon too, because the twilight was in full force by the time I reached Togane and the safety of streets lined with streetlights.

So altogether it wasn’t a fantastic day, I didn’t get to hang out with the other ALTs again, but I did have a nice time, got to meet a few new people however briefly, and got to take in a bit more of the scenery surrounding Togane which made me feel even luckier than ever that I was placed here. I may be losing all kinds of random items, but I don’t think I’m in danger of losing that feeling any time soon.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , ,

Double Jeopardy

October 15th, 2011 No comments

This past week was probably the most fun week of teaching I’ve had since the beginning. The third-grade students had English tests on Wednesday, so I was asked to make up a game to review the last two chapters of the textbook during the second half of the lesson. I spent several hours last Friday putting together a Jeopardy game, complete with five categories and questions ranging from 100 to 500 points for each. I printed the category names, point numbers, and questions on pieces of paper (each took up half a sheet) and magnetized everything to the board with the point-papers covering up the question-papers. The categories were “Missing Word” (I think ____ basketball is fun. Answer: that), “Scrambled Sentence” (new happy kimono in I very looked my), “Vocabulary” (切手. Answer: stamp), “What’s Next?” (I read a sentence from the textbook and they had to find it and read the next sentence) and “Grammar” (Music (make) (making) (makes) me happy. Answer: makes).

I tried to judge the relative difficulty of each question and give them the appropriate points, but there wasn’t much of a range. It was funny to watch how the students first went with the safer 100 and 200-point questions until discovering that the 400 and 500 point questions weren’t much harder. I split each class into 6 teams, had one person from each team stand up to be the “hand-raiser” and let the first person who raised their hand try to answer the question for their team (though of course the teams could help). Often the hand would go up before the students had the answer, so I had to count down from five and say “time’s up” to give the other teams a chance. Occasionally they’d get the wrong answer, but most of the time the first team to get called on would get the points, and also control of the board. I didn’t take away points for wrong answers though—that just seemed cruel.

The kids had a blast and so did I. Even the students who aren’t normally into the English lesson were enthusiastically participating. Because everyone on each team had a chance to stand up and answer the question for their team, I got to call on students who would normally never in a million years raise their hand, particularly some of the very shy girls. It’s amazing how much scoring points on behalf of your team can motivate Japanese students.

Mrs. T- does both second and third grade classes, and she liked the game so much she asked me to make up another set of Jeopardy questions for the second-grade classes which I’d be doing the second half of the week [hence the title of this entry]. They’d take their test and then I’d come in to play the review game. It would have made a lot more sense to play the review game before the test, but no one seemed to mind. It was great going in there after the students had just finished their boring tedious test and then completely turning things around with such a fun activity. I’m pretty positive I’ll be asked to make more Jeopardy games in the future, and I’m looking forward to. It’ll be even better next time because I won’t have to take up so much time explaining the rules.

On the social-interaction-with-students front, things also picked up a little this week. After one of the third-grade Jeopardy games, three of the girls came up to me while I was gathering all of the papers together and complimented me on my tie. I said I liked their ties too—a solid red tie is standard-issue for their school-uniform—and luckily they got the joke. They asked me when my birthday was, and I told them and asked them for their birthdays. It was clear that they just wanted to interact with me and were using the only English at their disposal, and I felt gratified by it. But after “we like your tie” and “when is your birthday?” it seemed their vocabulary was tapped. But with hand gestures and a few random words one of the girls was able to explain to me that she’d seen me jogging with my I-pod and wanted to know what music I was listening to. I listen to different music every day and asked when she’d seen me. It had been last Friday, so I thought back to my playlist then and asked her if she knew the Red Hot Chili Peppers. She didn’t but one of the other girls did. They asked me if I liked any Japanese music and I admitted I don’t know any. I asked them for recommendations and they happily wrote down their two favorite bands: “Uver World” and “Bump of Chicken”.

The next day I checked out the bands on YouTube, really hoping I would love them and want to get really into them so I’d have something to talk with the students about (not to mention I’d just like to know some good Japanese bands), but unfortunately I wasn’t into it. Uver World was pretty bad and while Bump of Chicken was all right it was nothing I could see myself choosing to listen to.

On Thursday I stayed after school to check out the clubs again, and while I was making my way down the hall another group of girls stopped me and attempted to chat. They asked me about my beard, wanting to know the English word for it. I taught them that word and a few other words I thought they’d like because they’re “loan words” meaning they actually come from English. They were surprised to find that ネクタイ(nekutai) in English is “neck-tie” and ワイシャツ (waishatsu) is “white-shirt”.

After that bit of pleasantness I finally did what I’ve been meaning to do since last week but hadn’t felt up to it until then—I went to the male teachers’ locker room, changed into my exercise clothes, and headed out to where the sports teams were practicing. The volleyball teams had the gym that day so the basketball teams were outside jogging around the school, and the first thing I did was join them. Naturally, they got a real kick out of that. One of the girls doubled her pace when she saw me to try and catch up, which surprised me because she was one of the girls who never seemed to like me in class. But after one lap I realized the better method would be to run in the opposite direction so I could say hello to everyone.

After a few laps around the school I ran out back to where the baseball, track-and-field, soccer, and tennis teams were all practicing in their various corners of the field. I waved hello to the boys’ baseball team, jogged around the track a couple of times with the track-and-field team, then watched the kids practice soccer for awhile (I shouted “goooooooal!” every time one of the kids made it in, which of course made them laugh). I headed over to the tennis courts and got about fifty kids shouting “Hello Kairu!” at me and waving, then I headed over to where the girls’ softball team was practicing and half of them tried to teach me their names. I still remember the names, but unfortunately not the faces they belong to.

I headed into the gym to say hello to the ping-pong, badminton, and volleyball teams, hoping to maybe get invited to play a little badminton again but that didn’t happen, so I went back outside and made the rounds again. A couple of the track-and-field boys challenged me to run around the track with them and see if I could make it in under 35 seconds. I gladly accepted, and was shocked at how fast they were. They all finished ahead of me but I managed to keep pace with them and finish in 33 seconds. They congratulated me and I bowed graciously in acceptance.

It was approaching 5:00 and the teams were starting to pack it in, so I jogged back around the front of the school to go back inside and a couple of the boys shouted at me, “You are so cool!” No Junior High School student ever said that to me when I was in Junior High School.

I’d left my things in the teachers’ room and didn’t want to go up there in my sweaty exercise-clothes, so I changed back into my suit before going upstairs, but there was nothing I could do about the sweat, which didn’t stop completely until after I got home.

So that was also quite the fun experience and I’m glad I finally did it. I probably won’t do it every day but once or twice a week should be enough. It’s definitely helping the kids get more comfortable with me, and that’s the whole idea. The more comfortable they are with me, the more they’ll want to interact with me and the more motivated they’ll be to learn English.

Now it’s the boring old weekend again, but at least I’ve got plans for tomorrow. There’s another music festival going on at the same place as the last one, and it’s organized by the same people but this one is supposed to be less of a hippie-type thing and more “kid-friendly” (although there were plenty of kids at the last one). Ben is going tomorrow afternoon and possibly Fred as well, but neither of them will be getting there until mid-afternoon. I’m thinking of heading up a bit earlier and thrusting myself into the thick of it without any fellow foreigners to hold my hand for the first couple of hours. I’m curious to see how I can do among Japanese strangers all on my own. I certainly seem to do alright with students.

Quick Taste of Chiba

October 10th, 2011 No comments

As planned, I went out last night and met up with Ryan in Chiba City for a few drinks at a bar. Unlike Togane, Chiba has actual bars as opposed to just “snack bars” (places where beautiful women charge you for their company), and at roughly 45 minutes away and just under 1000 Yen for a round-trip it’s probably where I’ll end up going on many weekends once I start getting paid.

I planned to be there at 7:24 but I ended up getting on the train going in the wrong direction and having to wait half an hour at the next station for the right train (the platforms were reversed from what they normally are for some reason) and I didn’t get to Chiba until 8:00. But that was no big deal, and when I got to the station Ryan and his girlfriend—I think her name was Atsui—were waiting there. Atsui was waiting to meet someone else, so it would just be me and Ryan heading to a nearby place that he goes sometimes, an upstairs lounge that used to be owned by a Canadian and is now owned by a Japanese couple who speak perfect English and cater to foreigners.

There was live music going on though I’m not sure there was any method behind it—it just seemed that people with instruments could go up and do a song whenever they wanted, but half the performers were Americans and it was mostly classic rock stuff so I really enjoyed it. About half the people there were foreigners so it was a very different dynamic than what I’ve gotten used to. I met a few more people who either work for Interac or used to work for them but left for whatever reason (peoples’ opinion of the company vary greatly depending on their individual experiences), and I met a few other teachers who just work for private language schools like I used to do in Germany.

One noteworthy conversation happened shortly after we arrived, when we sat by a woman from Australia and I told her that one of my best friends in Germany had been from Australia. “Yeah, there are some good ones,” she said, “especially those who leave the country.” Ryan and I said that the same could be said about Americans, that there are a lot of ignorant, selfish morons back home but the people who go out and travel tend to be more open-minded, intelligent, and friendly. She agreed, but said there were definitely a fair amount of people who just come to Japan to get laid by all the Japanese chicks who throw themselves at westerners. I told her that I hadn’t found that stereotype to be true in the slightest, and Ryan agreed that he hadn’t found it to be the case either (he’d met his girlfriend after a year of living here, just by being at the right place at the right time). She acknowledged that we were probably right, that while it might have been true in the past that westerners had a very easy time with Japanese girls, things have changed recently. Just my luck. She also said that she could see how it would be incredibly difficult to meet nice Japanese women here, as single girls rarely go out to drink at bars and when they do they’re usually in big groups that are hard to approach. So yeah…that was very encouraging.

As the night wore on I met a few more people and got the basic run-down from all of them—their name, where they’re from, who they work for, and how long they’ve been living in Japan. Most were over 30 but a couple were younger than me, and they all seemed very nice so I wouldn’t mind running into them again.

I chatted with Ryan for awhile and compared our experiences of Junior High School teaching, and most things seem pretty much the same. I did ask him about whether a bunch of his students were afraid of him, and he said there was really only one girl who won’t even say hello in the hallway. I suppose if I made it a point to say hello to every single student in the hallway almost all of them would respond, but I definitely get the impression from a good deal of them that they don’t want me to talk to them so I either just exchange nods with them or let them ignore me completely. But I think Ryan just has more of a vibe of approachability in general.

The last train I could take home if I didn’t want to wait until 4:30 a.m. was at 10:42, so I left and 10:30 and Ryan walked me back to the station. I made it back without any problems, even managing to figure out the transfer during the brief 3-minute window at the Oami station.

All in all it was a pretty good night. Between that and a nice long phone chat with Danielle—one of the girls I met at training in Narita—in the morning, I feel that the craving for socialization that had been slowly building has been satiated for the time being. But I am planning to Skype-chat with Oliver tomorrow night, so I’m really looking forward to that, and I’ll call Ben this evening and see if he’s free one day next weekend.

But oddly enough, I’m looking forward to this week’s school-days more than anything. These three-day weekends are too long.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , ,

Before and After School

October 8th, 2011 No comments

This was by far the slowest week at school I’ve had so far. Instead of 4 or 5 lessons a day, I had a maximum of 3 lessons, and thanks to some cancellations due to a teacher’s absence there were two days in which I had only 1 teaching-period the entire day. But I was able to use all that extra down-time to double my pace of Japanese-studying and to finally tackle a little blog-related project I’d been meaning to do for awhile: to go through all my journal entries from the time I arrived in Germany until I started posting online and edit them for content so I could back-post them and have them up on the blog. I had to remove a lot of stuff that was far too personal to share publicly, but once I get them up and posted (which should be within an hour of finishing this entry) my blog will cover my entire TEFL-teaching career from my arrival in Germany to the present.

It was striking to go back three years and see the difference between how I wrote then and how I write now—what with the excessive use of profanity and all of the paragraphs devoted to detailed descriptions of lucid dreams. But it was an interesting little trip down memory-lane for me, particularly due to the stark difference between the beginning of my teaching-career in Germany and how it happened here. With Interac, everything was all taken care of from the moment I arrived, but in Germany I had to figure everything out myself and it was months before I had any kind of financial stability. Looking back at that 24-year-old kid from my current perspective, it’s a wonder he actually managed to make it work out at all.

Back to the present. Because the week was so slow there’s little to say about it. The most significant thing is that I started checking out the other after-school sports and activities now that the speech contest is over. And because the after-school period goes until 5:00 and the sun now sets around 5:30, I had to switch my jogging time from after school to before school, making it the first thing I do in the morning.

So with the exception of Wednesday, I got up at 6:15 every morning and was out the door and on my half-hour jogging route by 6:30. I was quite surprised to find myself jogging by a whole lot of students on their way to school, as the school-day doesn’t start until 8:00. I suppose it’s because their families have to get up and leave early for work, so they send them off to school more than an hour before it starts.

It’s nice to be spotted and given a warm “hello” by students outside of school, and I can always tell which of the bicycling kids are junior high students because unlike the high school students they all wear helmets. Sadly, only some of them wave hello while most of them just nod politely, and some of them completely turn their heads away and pretend not to see me. That always sucks, but I try not to take it personally.

It turned out to be the same dynamic after school. When I went to the gym for the first time after school, a bunch of the students—mostly the boys—got really excited and shouted hello at me, but more than half of them just went about their business as though I wasn’t there. I suppose that’s to be expected, but I can’t shake the feeling of self-consciousness that maybe I’m doing something wrong and most of the kids are still afraid of me or just don’t like me.

But in any case, it was interesting to get a look at the logistics of after-school sports practice at my school. There are five teams practicing in the gym at the same time: the boys’ and girls’ badminton teams on the left, the boys and girls’ basketball teams on the right, and the table-tennis team upstairs on a mezzanine. I shuffled between all of the teams on the first day, mostly just observing but occasionally giving some encouragement, and near the end one of the boys on the badminton team handed me his racket and asked me to play with them. So for about fifteen minutes I had some fun whacking a shuttle-cock back and forth with some of the kids.

The next day the volleyball team was there instead of the basketball teams, and I cycled between the gym and the school hallways where a bunch of students were spread out and practicing playing various brass instruments. They seemed more self-conscious than encouraged while I was watching them so I probably won’t do that again. And on other days I went outside to watch the soccer, baseball, and tennis teams do their thing.

The school administrators were surprised that I was staying after school to check out the club activities, as I’m technically allowed to leave at 4:15. But they apparently didn’t mind, and they even let me have a locker so I can keep some sneakers and sporting clothes downstairs in case I want to do a little playing myself. I fully intend to do that next week.

Next week should be particularly easy and fun. I won’t be doing normal lessons but instead just playing review games. I’ve already got a whole Jeopardy game made up for the third-grade classes based on the last two chapters in the textbook which they’ll be tested on Wednesday, and my assignment for the second-graders is just to do “something fun” for the half the period because they’re taking a test during the other half. Monday is a national holiday and I have no lessons on Wednesday due to the exams so it’s another “stand-by” day, so I’m only working three days this week.

In spite of my money-shortage I know I need a little dose of outside-of-school socialization, so I’ve got plans to head into Chiba tomorrow evening and meet up with Ryan for a few drinks, which I should just be able to squeeze into my 10,000-yen-per-week budget. And I may give Ben a call and see if he wants to do something one of these days as well, maybe give me some surfing lessons at the beach.

And that’s where everything stands right now. I can’t say every moment is pure bliss, but life is undeniably good.

Categories: Personal Tags: ,

The Occupiers Can Win

October 6th, 2011 No comments

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” –Gandhi

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It feels like a lifetime since I’ve posted a political blog entry, but I just can’t resist adding my voice to the chants going out from Wall Street and all across America these days. About two months ago I moved to Japan and since then my focus on politics has taken a back-seat to the major life-changes I’ve been going through. It wasn’t long after I look my leave-of-absence from the political world that thousands of my fellow citizens found themselves diving in head-first and igniting a movement that has the potential to completely change the American political landscape for a generation. This post intends to serve the dual purposes of A) spreading some of my optimism about the potential of the Occupy Wall Street movement to bring about significant political change and B) keeping with the primary purpose of my political writing which has always been to provide like-minded people with arguments to potentially sway conservative-leaning yet open-minded citizens to our point of view.

First and foremost, you should tell your conservative friends that if they like the Tea Party, they should love the Occupiers. After all, this is a grassroots movement of citizens disillusioned with the broken system standing up and demanding change. I seem to recall the pundits on Fox News and other cable channels lauding the Tea Party for that very reason—regardless of their specific views, they were participating in the political process in the full spirit of the American tradition of Free Speech and the right to organize. You’d think that even if they disagree with the message of the Occupiers, they should at least acknowledge that their zeal for peaceful demonstration is as American as it gets, and intrinsically no more or less valuable than that of the Tea Party.

Of course, we know that there is in fact a world of difference between what lies at the core of the Tea Party and what drives the Occupiers. While it’s true that most of the average citizens who go to Tea Party rallies are well-intentioned people who honestly believe in the message they’re sending, their movement is “grassroots” in name only—it is in fact a collection of various political organizations funded by right-wing think-tanks like Americans for Prosperity which are themselves funded by the wealthiest Americans and corporations, the very people who are responsible for the economic conditions the Tea Partiers’ anger is a product of. Their anger is justified and their willingness to protest is admirable, but they’ve been misled and misdirected into serving the enemies of the very kinds of change they really need.

Conversely, the Occupiers are a true grassroots movement, not funded by any billionaires but started “from the ground up” in the most literal sense of the term. Just a few hundred citizens decided to direct their anger at the very people responsible for their financial hardship and they took to the streets and kept at it—not just organizing a single protest for a day and then going home having been completely ignored by the media, but sticking to it until people finally started paying attention and more powerful allies began to join their fight.

The right-wing propaganda machine wants us to dismiss them as a bunch of left-wing hippies who don’t understand how the world really works, and this has worked so far and will continue to work on the Fox News audience for a long time to come, but they should be reminded as often as possible that just as the Tea Party was not quite the neo-Klan rally gathering of racists and bigots that the “liberal” media sometimes portrayed them as, neither can the Occupiers be characterized with such a broad brush. Fox News has constantly reminded us that there are Independents and Democrats among the Tea Party crowd, and we should all be reminded that there are indeed some Tea Partiers among the Occupier crowd as well.

The movement to restore fairness to the American economic system should not be considered either right-wing or left-wing and we should resist as much as we can the efforts of the corporate media to drive a wedge between the Occupiers and conservative-leaning citizens who would share their sentiments if only they were given an objective look.

I won’t waste time going into the justifications of the Occupy Wall Street movement itself, as anyone interested in understanding their message could read any of a thousand other blog posts, check out this website, or simply watch the movie Inside Job. The central fact—and it is a fact—behind this movement is that Wall Street traders, aided by their bought-and-paid-for tools in Washington (on both sides of the aisle) who’ve been deregulating their industry since the 1990s in exchange for campaign donations, inflated a financial bubble that dealt a crippling blow to the middle class when it burst. Moreover, those responsible for this fiasco have continued to thrive thanks to a giant taxpayer bailout, even awarding themselves record bonuses as if to spit in the faces of all the people they’d screwed over once they were through screwing us.

I’ll say it again: if you like the Tea Party you should love the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Tea Party movement was so popular (among those who failed to follow the money) due to the perception that it was a struggle of the Little Guy against the Big Guy, a reaction to the financial crisis and the ensuing bailout that enraged everybody regardless of political affiliation. Yet somewhere along the way the anger was diverted from Wall Street and directed at the handful of people in Washington who were actually trying to fix the system. The Occupiers have brought the anger back to where it started and where it belongs, and if the success of the Tea Party is any indication it will soon be a force to be reckoned with.

Just look at what the billionaires and the corporate establishment have managed to accomplish by harnessing the momentum that the Tea Party provided them with. They were nearly able to derail health care reform entirely, and while a bill was ultimately passed it was so watered-down and establishment-friendly that its main element is actually a mandate to buy insurance from the same profit-driven companies that were the reason the American health-care system was in such need of reform in the first place. They’ve prevented anything whatsoever from getting done on climate change, deflated any pressure there might have been to restore the civil liberties demolished by the Bush administration, allowed state and local governments to slash funding for education and public services while handing out corporate tax-cuts, secured at least a two-year extension of the Bush tax-rates, and in the biggest irony of all made last years’ Wall Street Reform Act so ineffective as to ensure that if nothing else is done by the time the next bubble bursts, the entire financial-collapse and subsequent taxpayer-bailout is guaranteed to happen all over again.

Much has been made by the mainstream media about the lack of “concrete demands” from the Occupier movement. The lack of specific demands never stopped the Tea Party from having such a major influence in Washington. And if the Tea Party can be said to have made any demands at all, it was always to prevent something from getting done (e.g. “Kill the Bill!”). The spirit of the Occupier movement is to get those in power to actually do something to fix the broken system. The specifics of what that is can be debated by policymakers, but without that pressure from the ground there will never even be a debate.

One of the best suggestions is this one put forward by Alex Pareene at Salon to demand that Wall Street forgive the debts of the 99% who bailed them out. It’s got both moral and practical justifications: they’d be bankrupt if not for our help so why shouldn’t they save us from bankruptcy? Not only that, but imagine the stimulative effect on the economy if all of a sudden the middle class had all that capital freed up to spend on consumer goods rather than debt payments to banks. If the Occupiers take up this idea as a rallying cry, it might just become a real issue in the 2012 election.

The timing of this movement could hardly be more perfect, as right now the Obama White House is suffering from a complete lack of momentum and yet it still has time to change course. When he came to office Obama had a movement of energized citizens behind him but his failure to harness that energy and lead the country in a different direction caused it to fizzle out in a matter of months. If he wanted to ensure his re-election there’s a new movement full of energy just waiting to be harnessed, if he just had the political courage to stand up, take the mantle, and run with it.

Among the Occupiers’ demands, I believe the immediate firing of Tim Geithner, (referred to by insiders as “Wall Street’s man in Washington”) should be near the top of the list, along with the rest of Obama’s disastrous economic team to be replaced by people actually willing to fight the bankers and hand out indictments where appropriate. Obama has done so much to appease the Wall Street crowd and yet they still aren’t satisfied, so his best chance at redeeming his administration is to give up on their support entirely, take a cue from Franklin Roosevelt, and welcome their hatred. As the Occupy movement grows it should become increasingly clear to him that making an enemy of the most hated institution in the country is not, as the establishment-insiders in their beltway-bubble would have him believe, political suicide. He won’t need their campaign cash with such strong wind at his back.

At the very least, the Occupy movement can play the same role as the Tea Party movement in providing strong and vocal support for policies to bring about more economic fairness for the middle class, throwing its support behind any politician willing to fight for their popular and just cause and fighting tooth-and-nail against all those Wall Street puppets who stand against them.

Finally, as the number one argument that will get thrown back in your face by conservatives when you insist that the rich should pay their fair share is that “the top 1% pay 40% of all federal taxes and the bottom 51% pay no taxes at all”, I just want to offer you a couple of links that will allow you to quickly shoot down that talking-point. Here it explains that between 1987 and 2008, the top 1%’s share of the national income increased at five times the rate of their share of taxes. Here you’ll find that while the top 1% do pay 40% of all federal income taxes, when you factor in other kinds of taxes including payroll tax and sales tax their actual share is actually between 22 and 28%, right in line with the 25% of the national income they control. And here you’ll find that when you don’t just cherry pick the federal income tax, the bottom 51% do indeed pay a decent chunk of their income in taxes. You can cite these facts, or you could simply remind them that when a family making less than $30,000 a year pays 13% in taxes, they have to use everything left over to pay for food, heating, car insurance, and all the other bills, while when someone making millions of dollars a year pays 34% in taxes, they’ve still got millions left over.

The Occupy Wall Street movement deserves as much support as we can give it. It’s about time we’re seeing the pent-up rage of the middle class spilling out onto the streets, and if the history of class-struggles in the United States is any guide, there’s reason to believe that they might actually succeed.

More School Stuff

October 1st, 2011 No comments

It’s officially been one month since I started teaching, and I think it’s safe to say I’ve settled in to the job quite nicely. I wouldn’t say that every single moment is a joy, but for the most part I’m still really enjoying it. Oddly enough, I almost prefer weekdays to weekends now because on school-days I’m surrounded by people and constantly occupied with things to do. On weekends it’s back to my isolation, and while I certainly enjoy my evenings the days are filled with menial tasks like going shopping, doing laundry, and updating my blog. I know I could call people and try to do something fun, but that usually requires money and I’m running out. I’ve got to stay on a strict budget of under 10,000 Yen per week for the next four weeks, and that’s not so easy when groceries can cost up to 7,000 Yen and random bills keep dropping out of the sky. At least the beach is free, and I’ve managed to get there at least once a week.

There are a few things I want to write about this past week, starting with a quick follow-up about the kids from the speech contest. I did end up making a certificate for M- (I quickly discovered there are a billion and a half websites for such things) and I made one for Y- as well. I went in early Thursday morning to print them out and try to give them out during the 30-minute reading period the students have between 8:00 and 8:30. I knew which class M- was in so I found her right away and gave her the certificate, saying “This is for all the hard work you did. You deserve something for your hard work.” She smiled politely and thanked me, but I couldn’t judge whether it meant anything at all to her. I couldn’t find Y- but I spotted him in the hallway after first period and asked him how he was doing. He seemed pretty depressed but said he was okay. I asked him which class he was in and when I found out it was a class I had a lesson with that day, I took the certificate with me and gave it to him after the lesson. He smiled politely and thanked me too, but that was the end of it.

I didn’t see A- again until yesterday, and when I asked her how she felt about coming in second she confirmed what I’d suspected—she was pleased that she’d placed so high but also disappointed that she hadn’t come in first. She’d wanted to go on and compete in the regional championships. For her sake I’m almost glad she’s not going to because the competition there would no doubt be much harder and if she ended up not placing at all a sensitive girl like her would be devastated. Although on a personal note, it would have been nice to continue working with her until that competition, as she’s such a sweet girl and I already miss seeing her every day.

One of the JTE’s, Ms. Y-, saw me give the certificate to M- on Thursday morning and she told me that she’d spoken to her and M- told her that she wanted to try again at next year’s speech contest. I couldn’t believe that, and I still have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand—good for her. Instead of just accepting defeat she’s motivated to come back and try again next year. On the other hand—so much for learning the lesson of not putting your heart and soul into something as pointless as a speech contest. She hadn’t even volunteered to go to the contest this year—Mrs. T- had to talk her into it—and if she was that upset about losing this time around it’s going to be ten times worse if she loses again next time when she’s had an entire year building up to it. But assuming Interac doesn’t change my contract at the end of the year, I’ll be her coach again next time and I’ll just have to do everything in my power to make sure she doesn’t lose. At least I know she’s got what it takes.

And one final note regarding her—yesterday was the day of Student Council elections, and she was running for one of the second-grade offices. There was a big assembly during fifth period which I attended just to see what it was like, and it was almost exactly like it was in my American schools only with a lot more bowing. All of the candidates from all of the grades were up on stage—about ten altogether, and each of them gave a speech about why they’d be the best person for whichever job they were running for. They each also had a friend to give a speech in support of them, and Y- and A- were among those speaking in support of their third-grade friends. One of the first-graders, S-, was also running, which meant 4 out of 5 of the speech contest students were on the stage. It was strange to hear them give speeches in Japanese after hearing them recite English for so many weeks, and naturally it was pretty much all incomprehensible to me. I understood the words for “school” and “students” but that was about it. In any case, I really hope M- won her election. Two failures in one week would just be far too cruel a blow for fate to deliver to her.

As for me, I’ve been in a comfortable state of ‘so-so’ all week, neither significantly happy nor depressed. The lessons this week weren’t nearly as fun as the ones I had last week when I had that great relay game for the students to play. I also had first-grade lessons, which I don’t have every week for some reason, but all the first-grade JTEs wanted me to do was administer the “Listening Check” at the end of the chapter they’d been teaching. This was the kind of “human tape-recorder” work Ian had warned us about at the “orientation” in Chiba: I would read a bunch of dialogs that the students had to answer comprehension questions about, and then check the students’ answers. To make matters worse, they split the classes in two so I had to do this for 20 minutes in one room and then go and do the same exact thing for 20 minutes in the other room. Six first-grade classes meant I had to do this twelve times, and when you consider that I had to read each dialog twice it meant I had to read them all twenty-four times. I pretty much had them memorized by the end.

Luckily, there were ways of doing this that prevented me from losing my mind. The most obvious thing was to read some of the dialogs in various silly voices, though not too silly because it was a listening check and perfect pronunciation on my part was essential. I did that from the very beginning, but when I went to check the students’ answers nobody wanted to raise their hand. So I’d say, “How many said Ben is from America?” and they’d all raise their hand. Then “How many said he’s from Canada?” and none of them would. “You’re right—he’s from America.” Boring—capital B. When I went into it for the second time, I had a sudden flash of inspiration and I split the class into three teams and told them that after each question I’d say, “Three…two…one…go!” and the first person to raise their hand with the right answer after I said “go!” would get a point for their team. It was un-frickin-believable how well that worked. In just about every group, I had nearly every single kid raising their hand after every question. They usually all shot up so fast that I was able to just pick whoever I wanted, trying to get all of them in at least once, and to make sure all the teams remained pretty even until the end. I’d usually give the win to the most enthusiastic team.

At the beginning of one of those classes, one of the boys was being disruptive and rude, clearly not interested in English class at all. But as soon as the competition started, he got completely into it, listening intently to every dialog so as to make sure he had the right answer, and shooting his hand up in the air as fast as possible every time I asked a question. Whenever I called on him he’d enthusiastically say “Yes!” before answering, and when I made sure to call on him for the game-winning point at the end it was almost like I made his whole day. That felt really good.

For the second-grade lesson I had to teach, “X gave Y a Z” so I had a warm-up in which I gave “presents” to students who could answer easy questions like “How’s the weather today?” and “What day is it?” I just had little pieces of paper with pictures of things like a CD, a watch, and a box of chocolates on them, and near the end I threw in a helicopter, and elephant, and a mansion to keep things interesting. After that it was the JTE’s job to teach the grammar point by using, “Kyle-sensei gave Yuko a CD” or what-have-you as examples, then we’d launch into the activity. But for one of the lessons once I’d finished the warm-up the JTE had mysteriously disappeared and I was left there on my own to fend for myself. I found out later that one of the students from her homeroom had been acting up so she’d been called out to give him a stern talking-to which lasted about ten minutes (this is the only form of discipline available to Japanese teachers, as there’s no such thing as detention or suspension here), so during that time I had to think on my feet.

Luckily, Interac provides its ALTs with books full of lesson-plans for nearly everything, and while I usually pick-and-choose what to use I was able to fall back on one of the ideas from this lesson I’d discarded. I drew a big circle on the board and had all the students take out a piece of paper and copy my drawing. Then I wrote すずきさん (Suzuki-san) underneath and asked the students “What should we give Suzuki-san?” I took suggestions from the students like nose and mouth and asked “What kind of nose?” (a small one) and “What kind of mouth?” (a big smiling one) and I’d draw it up and the students would laugh and copy. We continued in this fashion until we had a complete and very silly-looking face drawn. When the JTE came back she obviously had no idea what I was doing, but I quickly let her in on it by telling the students, “Look, we gave Suzuki-san a mouth, we gave him two big ears” and so on, and she was able to explain the grammar point by launching off of that. I’d discarded that idea because it’s a pretty ineffective way to teach the give/gave thing, but ironically it was the most fun I had with the second-graders all week.

Between that and the speech contest, that pretty much covers everything notable from the week. It’s going to be pretty dull until I get paid, so unless I have another crazy dream this is the kind of thing I’ll be posting. It’s also been over a month since I’ve written any political posts so I’m feeling kind of obligated to get back to that, but my heart’s not really in that right now so we’ll see.

September was quite a month. October’s going to have to have a few surprises in store if it has any chance of measuring up.

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