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Cross-Polar Transit

July 28th, 2012 No comments

My last night in Japan before coming home to America for a month was spent in an appropriately Japanese way. It just happened to be the night of the summer vacation enkai, the last teacher drinking party before the long holiday (during which I assume most teachers will be going in every day anyway). I’m used to these events by now, so it wasn’t nearly as special or interesting as my first couple were, but I still find these to be worthwhile experiences.

It took place at a fancy hotel and tennis club not far from the Togane Culture Hall (venue for the Chorus Contest and Spring Concert), a kind of place where weddings are held. The meal was 5,000 yen per person, and consisted of about five small portions of very fancy, very traditional Japanese cuisine (mostly bizarre seafood concoctions). A few speeches were made by the principal and head teachers about the school-year so far, as well as an impromptu speech by one of the new teachers from each grade.

I was also called upon to put the teachers to a kind of trivia quiz with a twist—the twist being all the questions and answers were in English—and it was slightly embarrassing because no one had told me about it beforehand and I was just kind of thrust up to the microphone and told to go ahead. The teacher who put it together, the young one who has hard time speaking English, apparently spent all her time translating the questions into perfect English and no time thinking about how the quiz was actually supposed to work in terms of who competed and how they were supposed to answer, so we had to figure that out and explain it to everyone on the spot. There were some excruciating moments, like when I asked a question on Japan’s voting age (it’s 20, by the way) and none of the teachers knew the meaning of the word “vote”. I don’t know it in Japanese either, so I couldn’t help them. Eventually one of them asked an English teacher and got it. But for the most part it went smoothly enough, with easy questions like “What’s the highest mountain in Japan?”

Almost everybody drove to this place (I rode my bike) so almost nobody was drinking, making this a far less loose affair than usual, and there was no karaoke after-party this time either. But even if there had been I wouldn’t have gone, as I had to get up at 4:00 a.m. the next morning to begin my painfully long and excruciating travel ordeal.

It started with a 5:00 a.m. train from Togane to Chiba with a transfer in Oami. The Oami to Chiba train-ride at that time of morning is apparently quite crowded so I didn’t get a seat, but just to add to the anxiety there was a spider moving about and spinning a web right over my head, often dangling down just a foot or two away from me and igniting my arachnophobia. But the train was too crowded for me to move, so I just had to put up with it for thirty minutes. I only had three minutes in Chiba to change trains, but I was able to get to the Narita Airport Express easily enough and arrive at the correct terminal with plenty of time to spare.

Going through immigration this time was a bit different than last time, as this time I’d checked with Interac beforehand to ask what I needed to do to get the proper re-entry permit. They told me that the rules are actually changing and I wouldn’t need a re-entry permit this time, but the guy at the immigration counter was giving me a hard time anyway. I still had that stamp from back in April which expires on August 15th, do when I told him I’d be back on the 31st he was confused. I told him that my employer told me the rules were changing and I didn’t need a permit anymore, and although he did let me through he took my Alien Registration Card and punched a hole through it, saying it’s no longer valid and I’d have to get a new one when I return. I wrote to Interac this morning just to be sure I also don’t need to apply for a new visa before coming back either.

As opposed to the April flight which was just a nice straight shot with United Airlines from Narita to Newark, this time I was flying Air China because it was about a thousand dollars less than any other airline. But it meant I first had to fly four hours in the wrong direction, from Tokyo to Beijing, and transfer flights there. I only had an hour between the landing of one plane and the departure of the next, so I was a bit worried I wouldn’t make it, and when the line at the transfer desk was taking forever and you had to go through a security checkpoint after that, my stress level rose. But I made it to the right gate with about five minutes to spare, and felt much more at ease once I got on the plane that was actually taking me to New York.

The flight itself, however, was rather painful. It was about 14 hours, and unlike United Airlines it had no amenities whatsoever. For their long international flights, United now has little TV screens for each seat, equipped with hundreds of on-demand movies and TV shows for your entertainment. They’ve also got electrical outlets in the seats, which is what made my last cross-Pacific flights a piece of cake to endure because it allowed me to play addictive, time-consuming computer strategy games. The Air China plane was super-old and had no such things. There were no electrical outlets so I’d only be able to get an hour or two of gaming in at best (I didn’t even bother), and there were only three screen in the whole cabin—two small ones to each side too far away from me to see, and one bigger projection-screen which was so feint as to be barely visible. Not that I would have been interested in the entertainment anyway, as it was just Chinese movies with Japanese subtitles. So for fourteen hours I just cycled between listening to an album on my iPhone and reading a few chapters from A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. the “Game of Thrones” book series), with one two hour podcast-listening session on my laptop, which drained half the battery. I’m thinking of buying a couple of spare batteries for the return journey to make the more bearable.

But at least I got a few awesome firsts out of the journey. I had a window seat for both flights, so I got to see Korea for the first time on the first flight, and although I never left the airport I can now technically say I’ve been in China. On the flight to New York I got to see a bit of Russia from the window, the really vast sea of nothingness part of it that I believe is known as the “steppe”. (Coincidentally, the podcast I listened to was part of a history series, the most recent of which just happened to be about Genghis Khan and his Mongolian Army, straight from the steppe I was flying over).

But coolest of all was seeing the polar ice-cap. As Beijing is practically on the same line of longitude as New York, we flew almost directly over the North Pole. The sun never actually set during the flight—just dipped down near the horizon and swung back over from west to eat. I’d never seen the actual arctic ice-cap before and it looked pretty cool, like some alien landscape on an ice-moon like Europa. The ice was all cracked up too, which makes me wonder if that’s how it always is or if it’s like that now due to global warming. In any case, given my window direction and our flight path, there’s a chance I actually laid eyes on the actual North Pole.

Whenever we passed it, we went from flying almost due north to almost due south in an instant, and the second half of the flight took us into New York. They switched the lights off after both meals—one early on and one at the half-way point, and both times I managed to doze off slightly but of course it wasn’t nearly enough to ward off jet-lag.

After that eternity of flying was over, we finally landed in what I’d thought was Newark airport because I hadn’t checked the flight info the previous day closely enough. When we landed the cabin crew announced “Welcome to John F. Kennedy airport”, and I immediately hoped my dad had checked the flight info carefully before coming to pick me up, as I’d told him Newark in the e-mail I’d sent the night before.

I got through immigration easily enough—the guy didn’t say a single word to me as he just took and stamped my passport, then waited nervously for a good twenty minutes at baggage claim, uncertain that my luggage had been as lucky in making the tight one-hour Beijing transfer as I had. But my bag did appear and I breathed a sigh of relief, and when I got through customs and spotted my dad waiting for me, the relief was now complete. I’d made it. All that remained was getting back home to New Jersey.

Unfortunately, even that proved to be a bit of a hassle. A drawbridge on the Belt Parkway had been stuck when my dad drove out there, so he tried to take a different highway back to avoid the bridge but by now this was extremely clogged as well. We ended up getting off the highway altogether and driving through the streets of Brooklyn, though we somehow get turned around and were going the wrong direction. I had to use his iPhone to navigate us back to the Belt Parkway, and we lost an hour total in the process.

A long, traffic-congested drive later, we were finally back in Clinton, and we stopped at a bar for dinner, some cold beer and delicious pizza. The meal and the atmosphere it was in—a redneck bar filled with rednecks and redneck families—could not have been a larger juxtaposition from the fancy Japanese cuisine formal dinner of the night before.

When we got back home, my dad had been invited over to visit some neighbors he hasn’t seen in awhile, and although I was ready to pass out at any time I figured I’d join him for the hell of it. (My mom is vacationing in Jamaica right now and won’t be back until late tonight). So I went over and found myself drinking beer on a typical back-porch of a typical American home with a bunch of typical American families. It felt like diving in head-first.

It also happened to be the night of the Olympic opening ceremony, so I ended up watching that as well once it started raining and we went inside. There was another family visiting so it was a pretty decent crowd, with two couples, a single mom, three high-school girls whom I haven’t seen since they were middle-schoolers, and two middle-school boys whom I haven’t seen since they were elementary-schoolers. It was a pleasant enough time, going back and forth between answering questions about Japan and cracking jokes about the Olympic ceremony.

At 10:30 my brother came home from work, so my dad and I headed back home and watched the rest of the ceremony with him. It was midnight when it ended, which meant that with the exception of a few very brief dozings, I’d been awake for 33 hours straight.

So if I consider the last 48 hours total, it was quite the eclectic series of experiences. A fancy dinner with my Japanese colleagues, my first time in China, my first glimpse of the polar ice-caps, a journey through the back-streets of Brooklyn, pizza and beer at a redneck bar, and watching the Olympics with American neighbors—quite the mish-mash of events indeed.

The upcoming month promises to be full of fun and interesting experiences. Let the summer of 2012 begin!

School’s “Out” for Summer

July 20th, 2012 No comments

It’s the last day of school before summer vacation. There are no classes today—just a closing ceremony which finished a few minutes ago. I’ve still got to stay until the end of the work day though, but at least I’ll have something to do in the afternoon because (supposedly) we’ll be having our first Speech Contest meeting. I’ll probably be asked to come in every day next week for Speech Contest practice as well, so it doesn’t really feel like the last day of school—just the last day I’ll have to kill time in the teacher’s room. Even for the students in sports and clubs it’s hardly an ending—they’ll still be coming to school to practice over the summer break.

I’m a bit sad because this will be the longest period of time I’ll be going without teaching since I started this job, but it’ll be good to have a break from this life for awhile and return to my America-life for a month. I’ll be bringing with me all the fresh new perspective I’ve picked up here, and this life will still be waiting for me when I get back.

My lessons this week were sparse, but for the most part I was just asked by the teachers to give the students a fun lesson and play any kind of games I wanted. So needless to say they were a lot of fun and the students enjoyed them, so it was nice to end on a high note. For the English “Phrase of the Week” I taught the students “I’ll miss you” and “I missed you”. I’d say “Goodbye, I’ll miss you” and they’d say it back to me, then I’d walk out of the classroom for a few seconds and come back in and say, “Hello! I missed you,” which they’d repeat back. Then I’d do it again two more times, each time putting more fake emotion into it, pretty much fake-crying by the end of it. The students got a kick out of it and I hope it helped them to remember. At the end of the lesson, I said “Goodbye, I’ll miss you” one last time and they said it back to me. Even though it was kind of prompted, it still felt nice.

In social news, I had dinner with Kim and Enam last night in Kim’s apartment, and tonight I’m going to Lily’s birthday party, which will actually be at a bowling alley in Chiba. I haven’t been bowling in god knows how long, but I’m looking forward to seeing her and Jack, as well as a few other people who are probably coming like Stacy and Stephen from Interac whom I haven’t seen since our last visit to Tokyo. I hung out with Trey again on Monday night and I assume we’ll manage to get together at least one more time before I leave, because after that we might very well never see each other again. Such is this kind of life.

Lots of goodbyes going on. At least this time most of them are temporary.

Another Beach

July 17th, 2012 No comments

A Chiba Landmark

I’ve been to the Pacific coast of Japan many dozens of times now, but it’s always been the same beach. Yesterday I finally got a taste of a different beach, apparently one of the most popular in Chiba.

On Saturday I got a Facebook invitation from an ALT named Tim whom I’d met at the hanami back in April to come to a beach party in the town where he lives the next day. Although it was short notice I had no plans, so I asked a bunch of other people if they wanted to go too and ended up going with Kim and Enam. I also asked Stacy, Jack, and Lily, but apparently Josai students still had classes on Monday even though it was a holiday.

I have to confess I didn’t really remember who this Tim person was, but through the magic of Facebook we’d apparently ended up in each others’ friend network and checking his profile pictures jogged my hazy memory.

I hadn’t seen Kim or Enam since our own little beach party a few weeks ago, but it was nice to see them again too. We took an 11:00 train from Togane and after a twenty-minute stopover in Oami got on the south-bound train for the hour-long journey to Onjuku. Along the way I noticed them playing a fun-looking word game on their smartphones and I downloaded it myself. We were all so engrossed in this game that we ended up missing our stop, as before we knew it we were in Katsuura, the last station on the line. We had to wait another 40 minutes for the next train to come and take us back to Onjuku, the second-to-last station on the line.

Stuck in Katsuura Kim + Enam

Once we got there we headed into a drugstore to buy alcohol and snacks, then walked to the beach and found the “famous” camel statues that this beach is known for, and a few minutes later another one of their friends, a Scottish guy named Hiroshi, found us there. We all then proceeded to navigate through the substantially large crowd—much much larger than any I’ve ever seen at the beach I normally go to—in search of the gathering of foreigners. It took us awhile because it was a very large beach and there were a ton of people there for the holiday, but eventually we spotted them and headed over.

Onjuku beach Looks kind of like Santa Barbara

Tim also vaguely remembered Kim and Enam from the hanami, and there were a few other faces I recognized as well, such as Anand from the Valentine’s Day party that was so disappointing for everyone involved but me. A couple of girls from that party were also there but I didn’t even bother trying to talk to them. Ben was supposed to come too but he never showed up.

Ba-ri bo-ru The camels mean...I don't know.

After that it was pretty standard stuff, drinking and snacking and chatting about everything from sports to politics but mostly about teaching. We met a few new people whom we may or may not ever see again, and just had an all-around good time, a perfect way to spend a sunny afternoon.

The view from our spot.

Although it was sunny, it was unfortunately also rather windy, to the point where sand was getting in our drinks and it messed up my camera so I couldn’t take anymore pictures (though thankfully it seemed to have magically fixed itself by this morning). After a couple of hours the wind really picked up to the point where it was no longer comfortable, so we all headed to Tim’s apartment for more drinking and chatting there. His place made me a little jealous, a sixth-floor apartment with a large balcony and breathtaking view of both the ocean and the beautiful hills so prevalent in southern Chiba but not around here.

And there’s not much else to tell, really. When Kim was tired we left and took a 7:00 train which got us back to Togane shortly after 8:00. While walking from the train-station I got spotted by former student, a particularly pleasant girl who graduated in March and who I was sad to think I’d never see again. So that was nice.

I had dinner at home and ended up getting to bed around 10:00 for a nice long sleep. The big advantage of drinking in the day is that as long as you finish early enough, you can be pretty well-recovered by the morning. I’m still a little hazy now, but I have no classes today anyway so it doesn’t matter. I’ve got a pretty sparse schedule this whole week, with no classes on Friday either. I assume there’ll be another enkai Friday evening but so far no one’s informed me about one.

And on a final note, I should mention that when I hung out with Trey last Thursday he went into this whole big pitch about how I should go to law-school, and he was persuasive enough to have me actually considering it. He said that once you pass the bar exam, you achieve a whole new level of societal status. You’re no longer just a subject of the law, but you can walk into any courtroom and file a motion—you have actual power. On top of that, it can lead to a political career. When Trey runs for office he says he’d really want to have me on his team, but he can’t put me in any position of real power unless I’ve got the credentials.

Aside from the fact that I don’t actually want to be a lawyer, it’s pretty tempting. I know that I could if I wanted to. Trey is going to Stanford, and I can not only hold my own in arguments with him but actually sway him over to my point of view sometimes as well. If I can argue so effectively with a Stanford law student, there’s no reason to think I couldn’t be a Stanford law student myself (though to be un-politically correct for a split-second, it might be more difficult for me as a white person to get into a school that prestigious). In the end I told him I’d seriously consider it, but no matter what I’m going to be in Japan for at least a couple more years. So we’ll stay in touch and he can let me know what the reality of being a law student is actually like, and I’ll make the decision later on.

It would undeniably be nice to actually have money and power, but I don’t know if it’s worth it at the expense of two things I truly love: teaching and travelling.

Stuff of Lately

July 9th, 2012 No comments

Nothing especially noteworthy has happened in awhile, but it’s been a long time since my last entry so I might as well just write down a few things about how things have been going lately.

Summer is pretty much in full force now, with temperatures approaching the 30s (that’s like the 80s for you Fahrenheit-minded people out there) and nasty humidity. During some classes I end up sweating so much it soaks through my shirt. Luckily the teacher’s room here is air-conditioned, a benefit not all ALTs get to enjoy (although it’s not on today for some reason). I’ve only used my air-conditioning at home once so far, though my fan has been eating up plenty of juice. Without it things would be pretty unbearable.

The 4th of July of course passed with no fanfare. To celebrate I went with Jack and Lily and a few other Josai students to a sushi restaurant. We could have easily eaten American food at one of the many family restaurants around here but I guess they were going for irony. When I got home Trey called me, apparently suffering from America-withdrawal, wondering where his hot dogs and Budweiser and fireworks were. I of course couldn’t be less phased. I haven’t been in the states for the 4th of July in four years.

This is the last five-day school week before Summer Vacation. Next week is just a four-day week from Tuesday to Friday, and then classes don’t resume again until September. I’ll be asked to come into work though, as preparations for this year’s dreaded Speech Contest are beginning and I’ll be expected to coach the competing students during the break. Unfortunately for them, I’ll be gone for most of the break so they won’t get as much of a chance to practice with their ALT as some of the other students will, but I didn’t come in until September last year either and there seemed to be plenty of time to tweak their performances. Besides, over-rehearsing can be just as bad as under-rehearsing.

As for the students who’ll be participating, we held “auditions” for the second- and third-graders last week and auditions for the first-graders will be tomorrow. I put “auditions” in quotes because almost nobody came. Speech Contest teams consist of two first-graders who do a dialog, one second-grader, and two third-graders one of whom does a recitation and the other a speech they write themselves. Only two second-graders came—the same two boys who worked together and came in 2nd-place last year—and three third-graders, so we only had to cut two people. The low turn-out doesn’t surprise me at all. There’s nothing fun about the Speech Contest—I’m surprised anyone does it at all. If it didn’t look good on a high school application I’m sure nobody would.

Of the two second graders, I was surprised when the one whom I thought was the weaker of the two last year gave a much better reading than the other, so there was no discussion at all among the English teachers in selecting him. That’s “S-” for future reference.

One of the three girls was M-, the one who was robbed of a victory last year but who apparently wants to subject herself to that torture again. I’ve got mixed feelings about that, as while I admire her perseverance I really hate to think of how terrible it will be for her if she loses again. It’s one thing to try extremely hard and lose once, but to come back again and try harder and still lose…I’ll just have to do everything I can to keep that from happening. She’ll be pronouncing those “R”s and “L”s like it’s second-nature. If she’s the one who writes the speech I’ll make sure it’s the best damn speech those judges have ever heard. Unfortunately, I have no control over the other competitors, and if there are five better ones out there she’s out of luck.

The other two girls were Y- and M-, the latter being quite possible the sweetest girl in the entire the school but whose pronunciation wasn’t quite as good as Y-. Y- is a very intelligent, athletic girl who I was surprised to see at the audition because I’d assumed she was devoted to the track-and-field team, but I guess she wants this on her high school application. She’s very serious and not particularly friendly, but I have a lot of respect for her and think she’ll do well. She gave a speech at the graduation ceremony back in March so she’s got some public speaking experience, and from what I heard it was a pretty good speech too. It was a long discussion over whether to include Y- or M- and while I agreed that Y- had given the better audition I refused to say which person I’d cut and left it up to the others to make the final call. I feel bad for M- but in the end I think it’s better for her. She’s a sensitive type and I could easily imagine her crying if she loses, while Y- seems strong and confident and I can’t picture her crying over anything, let alone a Speech Contest. So M- is spared months of torturous English-recitation practice and a potential crushing defeat—not the worst deal ever.

As for the first-graders, I was hoping R- from Team C would want to do it but she’s too busy with other things. She’s joined other club activities and doesn’t come every day anymore, but she still makes it once or twice a week. When I asked her if she wanted to do it she said she couldn’t but knew that a couple of boys from her class were planning to audition. I’m not too familiar with the speaking ability of those boys, but there are two first-grade girls whose English and pronunciation skills are clearly head-over-heels above everyone else and who I think could easily win if they choose to do it. On Friday I had an opportunity to ask both of them about it and neither one was sure but they both said they’d think about it. But they both seemed honored to be asked. We’ll see what happens after school tomorrow.

As for after-school, the “explosion” of Team C has settled substantially and the mad rush of students coming to spend their Kyle-dollars has disappeared, much to my relief. I usually get just two or three students now and the group varies but there are some who come more often than others. There’s a pair of second-grade girls who sometimes come but it’s mostly first-graders. There’ve only been two days in the entire school-year where third-graders came, but I should have expected that, as they’re now the leaders in their respective clubs and fully devoted to them.

There haven’t been as many Team C days recently because the schedule has been strange due to exams and sometimes the students go home early and all after-school activities are cancelled. There was also that Speech Contest audition day, and last Thursday and Friday I was asked to help some third-grade students prepare for an interview test administered by some organization that I guess gives them a credential for their high school applications if they pass. Of the six I helped, I felt that two would easily pass, four were a toss-up, and two unfortunately didn’t really stand a chance. I did the best I could though, giving them as many tips and tricks for responding to English questions even when they couldn’t fully understand them.

As for actual teaching of actual lessons, that’s been going as well as always. I’m currently doing a particularly fun lesson for second-graders on “must”, for which I came up with a bunch of commands and students draw them from a cup and they must do whatever the command is—things like “You must give every student a high-five” or “You must not laugh for one minute.” I give a Kyle-dollar to everyone who does it, so I get a few boys volunteering and then I’ve got to pick students randomly, which I do with a random-number generating iPhone app. It’s exciting and entertaining for the students—especially when someone is forced to sing—but not necessarily for the unfortunate students whose number gets called by the iPhone. Most of the commands are easy and non-embarrassing and there’s only been one time where a girl who was told she must sing the school song all but begged me to let her choose another one. I couldn’t really oblige or it would defeat the whole purpose of teaching “must” so I had another student come and join her. Of course they only had to sing the first line, and I sang with them as well, so it wasn’t so bad for them. I hope she forgives me.

On Friday, K-sensei was too busy to come to his first-grade lessons and they were just going to cancel them and have their home-room teachers do something with them instead, but I told their homeroom teachers I could teach them myself and they let me go ahead with it. So I got to teach completely on my own for those two periods, only the second and third time I’ve had that opportunity, though when I did it last year one of the senior teachers remained to keep his eye on me. This time there was nobody there to watch me so I was truly on my own, but it went really well both times. The students seemed to behave even better than when the JTE is there, and pay extra attention because they couldn’t expect a Japanese translation if I said something they didn’t understand. The lesson was on “how many?” which was simple enough to not have to explain too much, but I did have to explain the game I’d planned. I had just enough Japanese to do that successfully, so it all worked out.

And that’s everything of note recently. I’m flying back to the states two weeks from Friday and I’m really looking forward to it, but I’ll be enjoying the weeks in the mean-time. I start to miss this job when there’s a three-day weekend—I’m really going to miss it when I’m gone for a whole month.