Archive for June, 2012

Games People Play

June 27th, 2012 No comments

Last night Trey invited me to his place to hang out again, and I came just expecting another night of documentary viewing and intense political debate. When he informed me that a couple of girls might be coming over later my first reaction was annoyance. I didn’t particularly feel like dealing with my female issues (such as they are these days) at the time, but I guess it’s been a long enough time since the last time (at the club in Tokyo) that I’m probably due for another round of flirtation-practice.

The girls didn’t show up for a couple of hours, and I had a very nice time with Trey debating politics and even discussing some deeper philosophical questions about the nature of the universe, and we were just sitting down to dinner when the two of them arrived. A couple of Josai students, naturally, and since I can’t really accurately record this experience without saying some less-than-flattering things about them I’ll keep their identities extra-secret by referring to them only as L- and K- and not even mentioning where they’re from except to say one of the colder parts of Europe.

I was immediately relieved that neither of them were particularly stunning, and as they sat down and started talking to us I became further relieved that their personalities weren’t all that magnetic either. They were both pretty sharp, and K- seemed nice enough, but L- was very aggressive and combative the whole time, acting as though the two of them were doing Trey a huge favor by gracing us with their presence and he wasn’t doing a good enough job making it worth their while.

When we finished our dinner she wondered out loud why it had taken him so long to offer them drinks, and when he told them what liquor he had it didn’t appeal to them so we all had to go out and walk to the 7-11. When they got to the liquor section she asked him, “What can we buy?” and he said, “Whatever you have enough money for.” She didn’t say it out loud until later, but apparently her question had been a cue for him to offer to buy them drinks. In Trey’s defense I said it’s American culture for the women to have equal power and to buy their own drinks, but apparently not where they’re from. He did apologize for his oversight, but she actually said overtly that when their drinks were finished they needed a reason to stay. Trey is not the kind of person to bow down to a woman so he just said, “Well, I would love for you to continue keeping us company but I’m not going back to 7-11 so I guess you can leave.” Apparently that’s the whole “play it like you don’t care” method and it worked because they stayed anyway.

While the four of us were drinking together we played a game called “Never Have I Ever” which is apparently an extremely common drinking game all over the world but which I’ve only seen on TV. Basically, you say something you’ve never done, and if another person in the room has done that thing they have to drink. It’s usually something sexual and embarrassing like, “I’ve never had a threesome” so you get to find out who has and who hasn’t. Since the goal is to get the others to drink, men can easily say things like, “I’ve never had a penis in my mouth” and then wait for the girls to go ahead and take their sip.

Of course one of the first things K- said was, “I’ve never had sex with a girl” so Trey immediately took a sip and I hesitated for a moment to make the mental calculation of whether or not to be honest. Of course they were all staring at me and asking me point-blank if I was a virgin, so I just brushed it off like I wasn’t sure about the rules yet (“were you supposed to drink when you have done the thing or haven’t”?) and I took a sip. It was enough to satisfy the girls but I think Trey knew what was up. I’ve never actually told him that fact about myself before, but now he knows or at least suspects.

At least that little lie made the game more interesting in my case, as I could have easily had them all drinking all night long by saying things like, “I’ve never touched another person’s private parts” or “I’ve never had a relationship that’s lasted more than a month” but these are intimate things I have no desire to reveal to a couple of girls I just met and who’ve done nothing to earn my trust or respect. But aside from that first time, I at least remained honest in my lack-of-drinking for all the rest of the questions, including “I’ve never cheated on a boyfriend/girlfriend” and “I’ve never given oral sex to a girl.” The girls said they respected that I hadn’t done either of those things, but if I’d been honest about the virgin question they’d have no doubt seen it differently.

So that was an interesting-but-uncomfortable experience and I hope I never get sucked into playing that game again.

After that we moved to the living room and got drawn into two separate conversations, Trey with K- and me with L-. She was showing signs of interest and I was being polite in pretending to not be as completely uninterested as I actually was. She was asking me questions about American politics and I was explaining things to her and giving my opinion, not trying to show off my intelligence but knowing that she was picking up on it anyway. I can’t deny there’s always an ego-boost to feel like you could have someone if you want them (especially when they’re acting like they’re some kind of huge prize), so at least the experience was enjoyable in that regard. Had I actually wanted her, though, it would have been a lot different. It’s a million times easier to impress women you have no trace of desire for whatsoever.

When it reached 11:30 they started talking about leaving again, and I pre-empted them by announcing my departure myself. Apparently they weren’t serious about leaving then either, because they stayed and L- asked me why I was leaving. “Because it’s late and I have to work tomorrow,” I told her, and she said that where she’s from they don’t accept that as an excuse. I told her I’m not from where she’s from. That probably made her like me even more.

They were smoking on the balcony when I went to get my bike so I exchanged a few more pleasantries with them before leaving, saying that we’ll probably see each other again. I couldn’t care less if I do.

The experience wasn’t at all what Trey had intended it to be for me. Instead of getting me hooked up with someone, it basically just reaffirmed my appreciation of being alone. I may not have ever had sex before, but it can’t be worth putting up with a girl like L- all the time. To be fair she had some good qualities, but the way she constantly acted like she was owed something just for bringing a vagina to the room was a huge turn-off.

It was all a game to all of them, and just like “Never Have I Ever” it’s a game I don’t care for. It’s interesting to take a stab at it from time to time, but I don’t make the game nearly as big a part of my life as most people do.  I’m probably a happier person because of that.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

A Questionable Sighting

June 25th, 2012 No comments

Although I try to record any event of significance in this journal, there are quite a few instances of hanging out with other people that I’ve neglected to mention because they seem too routine or normal. I’ve hung out with Trey at his place in the evening about every other week for the past few months, gone out to dinner with Jack and Lily a few times, cooked dinner at my place with my neighbor Kim from Interac, and spent a weekend afternoon with a Josai student named Tracy on two occasions. While I enjoy and appreciate all these experiences, I never feel compelled to write entries about them. There’s usually just not that much to say. “I hung out with soandso. We did suchandsuch. We chatted about thisandthat. I enjoyed their company and had a good time.” End of story.

The same lack of something interesting to say would apply to this past Saturday, when a group of five Interac ALTs including myself went to the beach in the middle of the day for a picnic, but there was something that happened right at the beginning that did strike me as something noteworthy. The picnic itself was a great time—about four hours of sitting on the beach drinking and eating tons of delicious food—but there’s not much I can say beyond that. Kim and Enam, the two ALTs I hung out with the first time at the hanami festival, were there, as well as two Interac ALTs I haven’t met before, an Indian-American named Laura-Anne and a Jamaican guy named Ravi. All splendid people with enough similar interests to keep the conversation lively and interesting.

But the noteworthy thing happened when Kim, Enam and I were waiting for Laura-Anne and Ravi to pick us up in her car in a parking lot in Togane a few blocks from the apartments where Kim and I live. There were a few people coming and going to the convenience store there, and one young girl who looked familiar standing and waiting for someone, dressed in an outfit like a call-girl might wear. I didn’t pay her much attention and was just chatting with Kim when I suddenly realized that I did know who she was—she’s a student at my school but she almost never comes to class. She was a second-grader last year and I saw her so rarely that for awhile I thought she might have transferred to another school. She’s an attractive girl but she always seemed depressed or pissed off at life, so when I stopped seeing her in class for months I was a little worried about her, thinking maybe she had a rough home-life or was maybe the victim of abuse. This year I’ve seen her more often, never in class but frequently in the hallways or during Sports Day when she was sitting on the side and not participating with the rest of the students.

So there she is waiting in this parking lot of a convenience store dressed like a prostitute, and just a minute after I recognize her and mention it to Kim, some older guy comes to meet her and she leaves with him in his car. This strikes us both as very shady, as the guy is too young to be her father but way too old to be a sibling (he was probably just a little over 30). When Enam comes out of the store we mention it to him, and he says she might be doing something called “compensated dating”. Apparently in Japan some guys pay big money for the company of young girls, and apparently this isn’t illegal. I didn’t know this but apparently there’s no age of consent in Japan—it’s decided on a case-by-case basis whether or not a sexual encounter between an adult and a minor constitutes rape.

As for the law itself, I see the rationality behind it. In America there are 18-year-olds who wind up convicted of rape and permanently labeled a sex-offender for sleeping with their 16-year-old girlfriends, which is just insane. And there could conceivably be non-coercive, genuine loving relationships between older men and younger girls (that was pretty normal for most of human history), so deciding each case based on its own individual circumstances makes sense to me.

But witnessing this made me feel a little sick. Assuming I wasn’t just completely misinterpreting what I saw, this was just a cold business transaction with nothing even close to “love” involved. The girl is probably depressed just as I assumed, and she doesn’t have enough sense of self-worth to refuse to be used in that way. She probably figures she can make a lot of money so why not? Who knows what kinds of rationalizations and justifications go on in the minds of girls who choose to do that?

But what really disturbs me is that idea that it might not be her choice. Maybe she does have an abusive home. Maybe her father is the one who got her into that so he could take the money.

That possibility enrages me and almost makes me think I should say something to someone, but I know it’s none of my business and I should just keep it to myself. I’m not even sure I saw what I think I saw. For all I know that guy was her uncle and she was only dressed like that because that’s how she likes to dress, and her whole permanently-depressed demeanor is just a coincidence. And even if I did say something there’s almost certainly nothing that could be done about it anyway, and all I’d be doing is spreading gossip about this girl to other faculty members and making them judge her based on what could very well be a mistaken impression on my part.

All I know is that I’m going to feel sick every time I see her now. I saw her this morning and it brought the feeling right back, but I’m just going to have to deal with it.

On the bright side, she’s probably the only student in the school who’s involved in that sort of thing. Almost all of the other girls seem completely innocent—even moreso than the girls I went to middle school with—and I can’t even picture them with a boyfriend let alone an older guy paying them for favors. Luckily, Togane seems like a good town for kids to grow up in, and the vast majority of them manage to get this far with their honor intact. I guess you just can’t expect everyone to be as fortunate.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

Police and Power-Points

June 16th, 2012 No comments

Yesterday was a holiday in Chiba, the anniversary of the day it became an independent prefecture. Schools were closed, but thanks to Interac I didn’t have the day off completely. They chose that day for the annual “Police Meeting” which all the Chiba ALTs are required to attend. It took place in “Hon-Chiba” (a section of Chiba City with its own train station) and lasted from the annoying time of 3:00-4:30. I would have much rather it taken place in the morning so we could have gotten it out of the way and had the rest of the day off. Smack in the middle of the afternoon meant you had to plan the whole day around it, and with train schedules and travel times taken into account, the whole ordeal took a good 4 hours out of the day.

I couldn’t imagine there being any serious consequences of skipping this meeting, but since I’m not sure and don’t want to risk losing reputation-points with my company I decided to go. I also figured it had the potential to at least be somewhat interesting. I might learn some Japanese traffic laws or things about the Japanese legal system I never knew before.

As it turned out, I learned almost nothing, but that’s not to say it was the fault of the police officers who made their presentations. Naturally, they all spoke Japanese and most of their Power Point slides were in Japanese, so most of the information came to me through the Interac translator. The guy was doing the best he could, but it was obvious that he was only giving the basic gist of what the officers were saying. I have to give him some credit though—he clearly wasn’t even a native English speaker himself (he sounded eastern-European) and translating between two non-native languages is no easy task. But had I been fluent in Japanese I’m sure I would have gotten a lot more out of it.

The first half-hour was all about drug laws, and it reminded me of DARE back in elementary school. They showed pictures of all the drugs that exist in Japan (same drugs that exist everywhere) and told us the street names so we could “watch out” for them. The penalties for being caught with each drug were also explained, though I’d already heard just through conversation how stringent the penalties are here. You could get up to five years in prison just for being caught with a small amount of marijuana, and that’s the least penalized drug. Though I did learn the interesting fact that while marijuana is the most-used drug in pretty much every other country in the world, in Japan it’s amphetamines, which account for almost 70% of almost all drug prosecutions while marijuana is only about 25%. Japan also has the lowest rate of drug consumption in the world, not just because of the laws but because of the intense and permanent shame brought upon anyone caught using them.

The second half-hour was the most potentially useful, in which it was explained what we foreigners should do if we witness or are the victim of a crime. Basically you dial 110, ask for a translator, and answer all the questions put to you. They went into intense and unnecessary detail about what kind of information they’ll need, all extremely common-sense things like where you are, what the criminal looked like, which direction he went, etc. There was a lot of time spent on explaining to us what we should do if we weren’t sure where we were, one of the suggestions being to hand the phone to a Japanese person who could explain. That’s got to be the most obvious thing in the world, but maybe they think we foreigners are so stupid that it wouldn’t even occur to us. But I’m being unfair. At least they went to the trouble of explaining it to us at all.

The next fifteen minutes was all about traffic laws, and the guy who did that presentation was by far the liveliest presenter. He told a bunch of jokes and asked random questions of the audience like what year was the bicycle invented and by whom (according to him, in 1817 by a German guy named Dreiss). He taught us the 3-point traffic safety program called “3-right” which because “three” in Japanese is “san” translated to “san-right” (get it—“sunlight”?) The three points are 1: light (always turn on your headlights when it’s dark), 2: light-up (wear reflective clothing when you’re a pedestrian at night), and 3: right (always look to the right when driving because that’s where most pedestrians come from). Obvious, common-sense stuff, but at least it was presented as entertainingly as possible.

But the final fifteen minutes were by far the least useful and most “why did they even include this?” section of the meeting. It was all about stalking and domestic violence. With about twenty slides packed to the brim with Japanese writing, the presenter painstakingly explained all kinds of things about stalking and domestic violence which the translator could barely translate and in the end after all that talking the only two things I got from it were “don’t stalk people” and “don’t commit domestic violence”. Although even if you do, you’ll get off with a warning the first time and you only get fines for repeated offenses. In Japan apparently, it’s a much graver sin to smoke a joint than to beat your wife or girlfriend.

Really, the only things I got from the whole meeting were 1- don’t do drugs, 2- call 110 if there’s a crime, 3- be careful on the road at night, and 4- stalking and domestic violence are frowned upon. Couldn’t they have just typed all that in a one-page memo and spared us all a trip to Chiba?

But again, I don’t want to be unfair to the police who made the presentation. They were in the role I’m normally in, and it was interesting to see how they did what basically amounts to teaching in front of a room full of teachers. A few of them tried a few warm-up gimmicks to “wake us up” when they started, but it always got dull again pretty quickly once the power-point presenting got under way. There’s no real avoiding that though—unless you’ve got a natural talent for keeping an audience’s attention like the traffic-presentation guy did. I like to think I do, but I know there are some points during some lessons where I start losing students, and it makes me more sympathetic to anyone up there teaching or presenting.

When the domestic violence guy was finished, it was 4:35. I was planning to catch the 4:52 train or I’d have to wait almost an extra hour to get home. I figured if I left before 4:40 and walked really fast I’d have a chance to make it, but I hadn’t counted on them opening up the floor for questions. I desperately hoped none of the ALTs would ask a question, and I figured they would have at least figured out by now that they probably wouldn’t be getting much useful information anyway. But of course one girl had to go and not only ask a question, but an extremely stupid one.

Of course she was an American, and with her obnoxious American voice she said, “I just want to ask about all the red-light runners here in Japan. I live in a small town and I see people running red lights at least two times a day, and as a pedestrian I want to know what the Japanese police are doing about it.”

Are you effing kidding me? This is not a bitching-session for you to vent your pet-peeves about unpunished traffic violations, though apparently you were planning to ask that question the whole time, like you just had to express to some police officers how pissed off you are that they don’t catch every single asshole who runs a red light.

The question was translated and answered politely by one of the officers, but I could have told her the answer in five seconds without putting the translator or the officer to any trouble at all, “Listen, you ignoramus—here’s what they do about it: when an officer sees someone run a red light, they pull them over and give them a ticket.” Same fricking thing they do in every country in the world. What more can they do? What more do you want? Do you want them to set up surveillance cameras on every single traffic light in Japan and go off in hot pursuit any time anyone runs a red light? Maybe they should impose a special tax on foreigners who ask obnoxious pointless questions in order to pay for that.

Clearly her question infuriated me, especially because it looked like her asking it was going to make me miss my train and thus spend an extra hour getting home all because she wanted to take out her anger at red-light runners on some poor police officers who couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

So I did something I later regretted and got up and left. I explained to one of the Interac people there as I was leaving that I’d miss my train if I didn’t, but I still brought a little shame upon myself in the process. I should have politely sucked it up and waited until the meeting was formally dismissed which would have been the proper thing to do. Yeah, it would have cost me an extra hour on what had already proved to be an incredibly useless journey, but it would have avoided whatever tiny blemish on my reputation with Interac that it might have earned me. I can’t imagine anyone else gave it a second-thought, and I know that consistently good reports from my school are far more important than whether I left the police meeting a couple of minutes early to catch a train, but I still wish I’d done the respectful thing and sucked it up and dealt with it.

But in my defense, I think what I did was far less disrespectful to the police than asking them what they were doing about the problem of red-light runners. You might as well say, “It rains too often. What are the police doing about that?”

Anyway, that was the police meeting. I really didn’t want to go but I did the right thing and went, but then did the slightly wrong thing by leaving slightly early. In the end, I doubt either going or leaving early will be of any major consequence.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , ,

The Explosion of Team C

June 9th, 2012 No comments

It felt nice to finally be back in normal teaching-mode this week, though unfortunately I didn’t have any third-grade lessons.

For my second-grade lesson I had to teach future-tense using “will” and one of the things I did was make a class schedule where we’d all stop and do something at 50 past the hour, 5 past the hour, and 20 past the hour. I started the lesson by teaching them “the wave” like we do in baseball stadiums, and the first thing on the schedule was always to do the wave again. For 5 past and 20 past I let the students vote on three options each, the first being 1- Shout “What’s up!” (the first “phrase of the week” I taught them) 2- Chant “Let’s go!” (second phrase of the week) and 3- Dance “YMCA”. Most classes vote for the easiest thing so it was usually “What’s up!” but one class voted for “Let’s go!” and one totally awesome class voted for “YMCA”. For 20 past the options were 1- Make noise, 2- Be silent, and 3- Sing the school song. The students got a kick out of my singing of the first line of the school song to demonstrate, but no classes actually voted to do it. 5 out of 6 voted to be silent—the least fun option—but I made it funny anyway by shushing everyone who made the tiniest peep, thus drawing laughter which would prompt more shushing. The rest of the lesson was also fun, but it would be too much trouble to explain.

For the first-graders I had to teach “Is he/she___?” and I made a gesture game out of it, where a student would come and draw a piece of paper with a gesture-prompt on it (both in English and Japanese) and have to act it out for the class. Easy gestures included cold, sad, a baseball player, a dog, etc. and more difficult ones included bored, a mother, a geisha, a chicken. The student’s own team would get to make the first guess (every student had a Hint Page with all the gestures in both English and Japanese) and then the whole class would chant “Is he a baseball player?” or “Is she a chicken?” or something, and then I’d either point to “Yes, he/she is” or “No she/he isn’t” depending on whether they were right or wrong and we’d chant that. If their team got it wrong, the other team would get a chance to guess and steal the points, 6 for easy gestures and 10 for difficult ones. At first I couldn’t solicit enough volunteers so I used a random number generator iPhone app to pick students, but when I started offering Kyle-dollars, there was no shortage of volunteers. I gave everyone who tried a Kyle-dollar even if they were completely flummoxed and I needed to walk them through the entire gesture. Some students were surprisingly good at it, but most were clueless and needed help. In any case, it was lots of fun for everyone and had them all using the target language enough times to hopefully have it stick.

But the real story of the week was after school. When I handed out the price list for items from “Kyle’s Shop” (カイルの店) I painstakingly explained to the students that they can come to Team C even if they’re in another club, something they clearly didn’t understand before. I drew a line on the board representing the after-school time, which lasts from 4:15 to 6:00 and shaded the time from 4:15 to 4:30 pink for Team C and from 4:30 to 6:00 blue for their other club to drive the point home that even just coming for 15 minutes was okay and then they’d still have 90 minutes for their normal club. And of course, every time they come they’d be able to go shopping AND get an additional Kyle-dollar.

I was not at all prepared for how effective this pitch would be. On the first day, after having showed some of the gifts and handed out the price-list to just 3 second-grade classes, I had about fifteen students show up to go shopping and get their Kyle-dollar. I couldn’t just hand out the money for nothing though, so I’d ask each student a few questions in English like, “How are you?”, “What did you eat for dinner last night?”, or “What music do you like?” and help them give the right answer before letting them have the dollar. The boys just did their shopping, got their dollar and left, but some of the girls stayed behind and we looked through the Sports Day pictures I’d taken from Saturday.

The next day, after making the pitch to two more second-grade classes, about twenty-five students flooded in and it was a little overwhelming. I had my laptop out for anyone who hadn’t checked out the Sports Day pictures to look through while students lined up to have their brief interview with me to earn their Kyle-dollar and go. This is not at all what I had in mind when I envisioned Team C, and I was already starting to think of ways to fix the situation. Once all the boys had left there were still a decent number of girls willing to stay behind and actually try some actual communication, so at least some of the original intention behind the idea was honored.

But on Thursday, after teaching the final second-grade lesson along with two first-grade lessons, there was just this giant flock of boys crowding in and surrounding the table with the gifts, all eagerly waiting to get their interview over with to get their dollar. Some of the girls who’d been there the previous days just looked in and decided it was too crazy in there to even bother coming in.

But the biggest problem is that some of the boys obviously had far more Kyle-dollars than they could have possibly earned on their own in the few lessons I’ve had with their classes so far this school-year. They’d obviously just gone up to other students and taken Kyle-dollars from whoever didn’t want them. I’d known it was possible that might happen but I couldn’t think of a way to avoid it that wouldn’t be a complete pain in the ass. But this sucks because they’re buying up the best items before any other students—particularly the third-graders because I didn’t have lessons with them this week—could have a chance to. I’d thought that after the first day or two they’d run out of Kyle-dollars even from their other classmates, but on the Thursday they were still showing up with enough money to buy all the best stuff, stuff that should take students weeks to earn enough to buy.

Once the shopping and interviewing was over, only two students remained. One is a first-grade girl named R- who has been at every single Team C meeting since the very beginning, the only student who has. She’s an absolute joy of a person and the reason I didn’t despair of the whole Team C idea even during the weeks when it was only one or two students coming. Her English is still extremely basic but she’s totally determined to learn. On top of that, she’s a pretty good teacher on her own, extremely patient with me when I try to speak Japanese and always gently correcting me when I make a mistake and helping me figure out how to say something I’m struggling to say. If R- were the only person to ever come to Team C it would still be worth it. The other student is a first-grade boy who comes occasionally for lack of anything else to do. The three of us played a game with the “Elfer Raus” cards I’d brought back from my dresser-drawer in America and that was pretty fun, but I left knowing I really need to do something differently. I’m getting a lot more people to come, but I’m still barely getting anyone to stay, and if I don’t fix the Kyle-dollar issue the entire store is going to be sold-out before any of the honest students honestly saving their money get a chance to buy anything.

I had three first-grade lessons on Friday and when I handed out the price-sheet I implored them not to give their Kyle-dollars to other students, and the JTE helped me explain why this was unfair. So when after-school time rolled around, at least none of the first-graders showed up with absurd amounts of cash-in-hand. But the second-grade students who’d been buying all the best stuff still came with their seemingly never-ending supply of Kyle-dollars, I had to struggle to explain to them why what they were doing was unfair and that I wasn’t going to sell them any more items for which only one remained. I also told them that next week’s Team C would only be for third-graders, so that should give those students a chance to buy things as well, and I’ll at least be able to explain when I hand out the price-list that they shouldn’t be giving their Kyle-dollars to other students and if any of them showed up with more money than they could have earned on their own, I won’t sell them anything. Just to be sure, I’m going to start making students write their names on the back of the Kyle-dollars when I hand them out and they won’t be able to use any Kyle-dollars unless their own name is on them.

But at least the week ended on a high note, as R- got three of her friends to stay and play a card-game, the same game we’d played the day before and which she really liked. It’s a game called “Dötsch” (I’m unsure of the spelling because it’s just a dialect-slang) which roughly means “stupid” or “fool” but for which the Japanese have a word “baka” which actually translates much better. So we called the game “baka” and spent an entire hour playing it. It felt surreal and pretty cool to be playing a German card-game I used to play as a kid with my grandmother and cousins with a bunch of Japanese schoolgirls who totally loved it.

At any rate, this was a milestone week for Team C and it came with many pros and many cons. Starting next week, I’m going to attempt to do what I’d had in mind for Team C ever since I thought of the idea and bring in a sign-up sheet for each day. From now on if students want Kyle-dollars they’ll actually have to stay and communicate (even if that just means learning a card game and playing for fifteen minutes) and not just answer a couple of questions in English. I’ll have six slots per day, so students in their groups of friends can find a day available and plan to come then. Anyone can still go shopping, but only those who participate in the communication activity will get the Kyle-dollar. Had I done this earlier nobody would have signed up, but with the gift-shop/Kyle-dollar element it stands a much better chance. I’ll make an exception for R-, the Original Team C member, who is always welcome to come and join even if all the rest of the slots are full. She’s earned that privilege.

There’s no doubt that the gift-shop idea has given Team C a much-needed boost in participation, and hopefully once I get a few more of the kinks worked out I’ll finally end up with something close to what I’d intended with the idea in the first place.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

Sports Day: The Final First

June 5th, 2012 No comments

This past Saturday was one of the biggest days of any Japanese school-year: the “Undokai” (literally “exercise meeting”) which is usually referred to as “Field Day” or “Sports Day” in English. Every school has their own particular ways of doing it, but the basic idea is the same: all of the students and most of the teachers and staff are involved in various athletic competitions usually revolving around a track. There are the basic 100-200 meter races, a handful of relay-races, and a quite a few weird and wacky races to make it more fun. There are some familiar events like tug-of-war, and many distinctively Japanese events like teams holding up bamboo poles and trying to knock the other team’s pole down first.

As I sit down to write this I realize just how tedious a task attempting to describe it all in detail would be. I suppose just an account of the highlights and my thoughts surrounding the whole thing will suffice.

Fortunately, I don’t need to record it all in words because Sports Day is the one day of the school-year that Interac policy allows its teachers to take pictures at school, and I took advantage of that to an extreme degree, snapping well over two hundred photos and capturing about a dozen videos. When it comes to the third-graders these will be the only visual record I’ll have to remember them by, and if I get moved to a different school next year the same will go for the other students as well.

Of course, there are still strict rules regarding students’ privacy, so it’s obviously forbidden to post any pictures on a public website. I would have refrained from doing so anyway just out of my own common sense, but it’s nice to have them for myself. If you want to see them you’ll just have to remember to ask me to show them to you the next time you see me in person. Having looked through them all on Sunday I can easily say that these are my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken. I mean, it’s nice to have shots of me in front of the Colosseum or the Golden Temple and that sort of thing, but most of my tourist-photos are of things you can see online anyway. These are pictures unique to my life, pictures of my wonderful students having a wonderful time on one of the most memorable days of their childhood. In addition to all the crazy pictures of them involved in crazy athletic events, I’ve also got a whole bunch in which they’re just smiling for my camera and flashing the obligatory V-for-victory sign. Priceless.

Not that I’m going to do anything about it, but I just can’t help but point out how allowing teachers to take pictures of students one day out of the year kind of negates the entire point of banning us from doing it the other 364. If the concern is that some teachers are going to misuse images of their students (and may those who do so burn in Hell for all eternity), opening up that door even for one day means that the door is open period, and you might as well just let photos be taken but maintain the ban on putting them online. I’m just resentful of all the pressure I felt to get at least one shot of pretty much every single student all in one day. If I couldn’t get one on Saturday, there’d be no other chance and their faces would be doomed to the inevitable memory-hazification like last year’s third-graders.

Luckily, a handful of last year’s third-graders came to the event, and I was able to get some pictures with them as well. They were some of my favorite students too, so that was really nice, and I also enjoyed practicing my much-improved Japanese on them. My vocabulary may not have advanced particularly far in the last three months, but my confidence in my ability to communicate has gone through what I feel are some pretty big breakthroughs.

All in all it was an excellent day that I enjoyed thoroughly, though it came after one of the most boring weeks I’ve ever had to endure at school. The entire week was preparation for the event, so there were no lessons and because I wasn’t involved in the Sports Day planning I had literally nothing to do until Friday when I finally had this week’s lessons to plan. I would just wander around the field watching the students practice, occasionally getting some interaction but mostly being ignored because the students were all wrapped up in whatever they were doing. Occasionally I’d come inside and do whatever kind of busy-work I could come up with to occupy myself, which wasn’t much. The days stretched on forever and I somehow felt more exhausted going home after doing nothing than I typically do after a full day of teaching.

The monotony of practice was broken a little on Thursday when the entire morning consisted of a full dress-rehearsal of the entire event, so I got to see what Sports Day itself was going to look like and to know which events would take place when. I was supposed to take part in the first racing-event, but because nobody had given me clear instructions I ended up not being in the right place for it. Luckily, before the actual event, several students and teachers came up to explain to me over and over again what I was supposed to do, and while it didn’t actually fully click until I was actually doing it, I at least managed to pull it off on Saturday.

By Friday, the day designated for working out the kinks of the dress-rehearsal, even the students were sick and tired of it. I barely got a nod of acknowledgment for any of them that day, they were so zombified.

But when Saturday morning finally rolled around it was a completely different story. The students were excited that the big day was finally here, and as they made their way to the field in advance of the opening ceremony I got more greetings than I sometimes get in a whole week. They were totally loose and outgoing and friendly throughout the whole day, which is more than half of what made it so enjoyable.

The other half had to do with the events themselves, most of which were interesting and funny if not downright hilarious. The race I was a part of was a 200-meter dash for the third-grade girls with a twist. They’d run about 50 meters and pick up a card which had been left in their lane. The card would have an object and the name of a teacher. They’d have to grab the object from a blue tarp half-way through the race (things like softballs, plastic bags, baseball gloves, and other assorted randomness) and take the hand of one of the teachers to race the rest of the way. I was on one of the cards for the first race and one of the cards for the fifth (there were about fifteen altogether). The first girl was too slow in finding the right object so we came in last. The second girl did okay and got to me fourth, but I ran so fast with her that we surpassed the pair in front of us and placed third.

The only other thing I was involved in (and believe me, I would have loved to have been involved in much more) was the PTA-relay after lunch. A team of teachers and staff (including the vice principal who went first and the principal who went last) went up against five teams of PTA members in a race to kick a soccer ball around a cone 40-meters away, and back to pass the ball to the next person. I was so pumped up at that point that while the vice-principle took his time and dribbled the ball like a real soccer player, I just launched it down the field and sprinted after it to wild cheers from students. I brought our team from about fourth place to second place in one wild dash, having kicked the ball only three times throughout. Other teachers did well too, and by the time the principal was on his way back for the final stretch, we were so far ahead that he paused to do some tricks with the soccer ball, which of course the students loved. I was happy to have at least one first-place victory of the day.

As for the students, the entire school was divided between two teams, one sporting red head-bands and one wearing white. Half the classes from each grade were red and the other half were white, and each event gave each class more chances to rack up points for their entire school-wide team.

Before the lunch-break there were two heavily-practiced events not worth any points at all, which I found out were the first time this school has over done them. All the girls got together for one massive coordinated dance-session to a Japanese pop song called “Rising Sun” by EXILE, which was fun to watch but naturally got old after the eighteenth time. The boys had the difficult (and somewhat dangerous) task of making different formations with their bodies, culminating in five human pyramids, the center one being a giant pyramid of every single third-grade boy in the school. Watching them practice that got boring fast enough as well, but on the day of the event it was pretty impressive for the crowd, and was the source of some top-notch photos.

The second-most-insane event (the first being just too hard to even attempt to describe) was also the most heavily practiced. It was called a “Mukade” or “centipede-run”. Every single class divided up between boys and girls and tied their legs together around the ankles. In a long line with their legs tied together and hands on each other’s shoulders they’d have to run in perfect synchronization for about 300 meters around the track against all the other classes in their grade. This is not only challenging but potentially quite painful, as any break in synchronization would result in the entire team collapsing like dominoes. They practiced this over and over and over again, trying to work out the perfect leg-stroke length and timing. Most teams even stayed after school to practice more. Every team must have collapsed six dozen times over the course of the week, but on the day of the race half the teams had it down perfectly. Of the half that did collapse during the races, they only did once or twice and all made it past the finishing line with a respectable time. (Incidentally, the only major injury of the week took place during tug-of-war practice on Thursday—there were no injuries on Saturday). By pure coincidence, it turned out that classes on the red team tended to do much better at this than those on the white team.

There was some issue regarding which team I was on, as the event-organizers had forgotten to assign me one. On the second day of practice a group of students came up to me and asked me which team I was on, two from the white team and one from the red. I told them I didn’t know, and each girl was imploring me to be on their team, but I couldn’t choose in front of them because it would hurt at least one of their feelings. They went up to O-sensei, one of the main guys in charge of the event, and asked him what team I was on. He asked me which team I preferred but I told him I couldn’t choose, so he wrote down the colors and covered them with his hands. I pointed to his left hand, which put me on the red team, but a few minutes later when I was back at the teacher’s room, M-sensei, the other main guy in charge, told me he’d decided I was on the white team, leaving it up to me again. I ultimately went with the white team because it seemed that most of my favorite students were on that team, although there were of course many many dozens of exceptions and I wished I didn’t have to pick a team at all.

It turned out that the white team ended up barely beating the red team on rehearsal day, but the red team won a decisive victory on the day of the event itself (thanks in large part to their dominance in the mukade-run). When the results were announced, the red team went wild and the white team was pretty silent, but thankfully none of them seemed too upset by it and they were good sports in applauding their opponents’ victory. After the closing ceremony when I was helping the students take everything down and pack everything up, no one seemed to care who had won and they were all just happy at having had a good time. Some of the third-grade girls were periodically breaking into tears (this being their final Junior High School Sports Day and having to confront the harsh realities of linear-time) which had me choking up a little, but a few minutes later they’d be smiling and laughing again so it wasn’t nearly as somber as it could have been. There was a lot more crying at the Speech Contest and Chorus Contest.

Once everything was cleaned up and all the parents had gone home, the students went back to their homerooms for the final twenty minutes of the school-day and I went home to shower and change before coming back and riding with T-sensei to the post-Sports-Day enkai. There’s no need to go into details about that as it was pretty much the same as all the other enkais I’ve described, the major difference being this time PTA members were invited as well. Only about six of them came though, and most sat at the same table. Once I got buzzed enough I felt inclined to go up and introduce myself to them and ask each of them who their kids were. They invited me to join them at their table and asked me a bunch of questions about myself, and I impressed both them and myself by being able to explain all kinds of things in Japanese that I never thought I’d have been able to explain, like my entire employment history since college. When I said goodbye to them I think I heard one of them comment how he’d never known an ALT to speak so much Japanese before.

There was a karaoke after-party this time too, and I got off to a good start by singing “Hey Jude” but replacing “Jude” with the abbreviated name of our school (which happens to rhyme nicely). I also managed to have a nice conversation with the new vice-principal who is a really serious and intimidating guy most of the time, more than any other administrator I’ve known so far, and while I’ve always gotten the feeling he doesn’t like me I thought I made a decent impression.

Unfortunately, I may have screwed things up a little by getting too drunk. It’s really hard when you’re drinking out of a tiny glass that everyone keeps refilling when it’s barely even half-empty. There’s no way to keep track of how much beer you’re actually drinking, and by the time you go too far it’s too late. I know it’s Japanese culture to not hold anything from an enkai against anyone but I can’t help but feel a little embarrassed by how sloppy I think I was. Hopefully I’m just being overly concerned.

The last thing I did was get up on the microphone when the party was ending and implore everyone to sing the school song. They’ve done that at all the other enkais and one of the ways I kept myself busy this week was to memorize the damn thing, which was no easy task let me tell you. K-sensei helped me understand the meaning of the lyrics but it’s still very hard to memorize an entire two-verse song in a foreign language in a matter of a couple of days. I went through it in my head literally hundreds of times, but a good 80% of the time I’d space out on one line or another. Without a firm grasp of the meanings of the individual lines, it’s hard to remember that “minori yuta kana” comes after “tou shio ni” or that “chikara wo awase” comes after “mann yo ni”.

But I kept at it and was able to sing along for the most part during the rehearsal and at the closing ceremony, but nobody noticed or gave me any credit for it, so I was dying to show off at the enkai and this just happened to be the first time we didn’t sing it. But I got them to sing it and I actually sang through the microphone, and while I still ended up tripping over a few lines I did it pretty well over all and was told so afterwards. Of course then I had to go and sing it through half the car-ride back to my place with the principal sitting next to me, and while I don’t think he was bothered by it at all it’s still kind of embarrassing.

But when all is said and done, it was a pretty great day overall. Whatever minor regrets I might have about this or that don’t amount to very much in the end, and the pictures alone are worth more to me that I can say.

There is a touch of sadness though, that this is the last big school event in Japan I’ll get to experience for the first time. From now on every Speech Contest, Chorus Contest, Graduation Ceremony, Spring Concert, and Sports Day will be something I’ve already been through. Of course there’s no avoiding that—it’s pretty much the nature of everything you do in life—but it’s still worth noting.

In any case, the beauty of the way I’ve chosen to live my life is that eventually I will move to another country and everything will be fresh and new again. It’s just that right now I love my life-situation so much I don’t even want to think about it changing.