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Second Honeymoon

October 27th, 2012 No comments

They say your first few months living in a foreign country is your “honeymoon period” when everything about the culture—even the stuff that later gets annoying—is new and awesome and fascinating. I’m not sure I’d even broken out of that phase by the time I left on my ill-fated summer vacation, but it’s certainly felt renewed since I’ve been back.

“Ah, there’s that forced friendliness from the convenience store clerks I missed so much!”

“Yes, I’d love to take off my shoes before entering this establishment!”

“Sweet! We’re all going to wait at this red light even though there are no cars coming at all!”

“Earthquake! Wahoo!!!”

And so on.

There also might have been a bit of a renewed appreciation for me on the part of my students, but it’s hard to tell because they were always so warm and friendly before anyway. But I definitely have noticed that some students who never gave me much love before are now all of a sudden smiling and waving at me every time I see them, so that’s certainly a nice bonus.

The lessons themselves haven’t been much different though. Perhaps the second-graders are a bit more enthusiastic than they were before, but that could easily be because this week all I did was play games with them, and it’s hard to go wrong when games are the only item on the agenda. I did start each lesson with a brief explanation, translated through O-sensei, of why I was stuck in America for so long, complete with a few pictures to illustrate. The pictures of me in my Domino’s uniform and of me in Times Square with Mickey Mouse both had the desired effect.

Next week will be a bit more challenging. The material they gave me to work with wasn’t exactly the most conducive to fun and excitement.

For the first-graders all I’m supposed to do is review verbs in preparation for teaching them third-person form next week (I find it absurd they’re just learning that now), which at least gives me enough lee-way to make a fun game out of it, which I’ve modeled after baseball rules and am really looking forward to trying.

With the second-graders though, I’m supposed to prepare them for an interview test, and the interview will be about giving directions. Last year it was the third-graders who got the directions lesson, and it was one of the least-fun lessons I did. This time I’ll be trying something a bit different, drawing a big map on the board and handing out cards to the students with a direction phrase on it like, “Go straight for two blocks” or “Turn left at the first traffic light” and have them try and guide a little flash-card of Mario to the destination but they can only read the direction they have on their card so I expect he’ll be wandering around rather aimlessly for awhile until luck gets him where he’s going. I can do a pretty good Mario impression so hopefully that’ll make it fun, but then it’s just going to be the tedium of preparing for the interview test.

But the third-grade material is by far the worst. In addition to normal grammar lessons, the textbooks have lessons that are just stories or short texts, usually amusing (or supposed to be amusing) but often something serious about Japanese history. The story I’m supposed to teach this week is about three elephants at the Tokyo Zoo that the zookeepers had to starve to death during WWII so they wouldn’t escape if a bomb took out the fences.

Seriously? I’m trying to make a fun, happy lesson and the material you’re giving me to work with is dead elephants? Ironically, I’ll have a much better chance if the students don’t comprehend the story, but the whole point of the lesson is to get the students to comprehend the story. But I’ve figured out a way to make some games out of it and hopefully the spirit of competition will distract them from thinking about poor Tonky and Wanly desperately doing their tricks in hopes of being fed but getting nary a peanut or drop of water for their effort.

And speaking of competition, yesterday was the annual Chorus Contest, which I wrote about in great detail last year so I don’t have to this year. I definitely enjoyed it a lot more this year, both because I know most of the students a lot better than when I was just starting out last year and because of the second-honeymoon effect. The fact that it was a competition and not just a fun “let’s all sing songs for each other” event didn’t bother me as much this time around. Now I know there’s a Spring Concert, and that’s the just-for-fun one. If it wasn’t a competition, there’s no way some of these boys would exercise the self-discipline to practice their songs and get up on stage to sing them. But every single student got up and sang, even the “bad” students who never come to class or spend the whole time goofing around.

The songs they sang were lovely, particularly those sung by the third-graders who for obvious reasons took the competition most seriously of all. They went after lunch, and the whole time I was getting chills listening to them sing, nearly moved to tears at times as they poured their hearts and souls into it. I felt so lucky to have gotten back in time for this, and I didn’t let a moment go by without appreciating the fact that I was getting to share the experience with them.

Just like last year, when all the classes were done singing they had a few paid musicians to play some music just for fun while the judges made their final decisions backstage, and this year the three-piece band was very lively and fun. The students were clapping along and dancing in their chairs the whole time, waving their hands in the air and just having an absolute blast. I tried to enjoy it as much as I could, but I couldn’t block out the awareness that in just a short time no matter what happened, a whole lot of students I really like are going to be emotionally crushed.

And that’s exactly what happened. The results were read, and from each grade there was one runner-up class and one winner. Everyone else was a loser. Yes, you did spend nearly two months practicing and preparing for this event, you did invest way more of your emotions than you probably cared to into the opinions of these two judges, but after all that you get to go home with precisely jack squat and maybe some words of comfort from your homeroom teacher which won’t mean anything because they’re obviously biased in your favor anyway. As I watched the students walk out of the auditorium, most of the them, third-graders in particular, just looked completely devastated, and plenty were crying. Even T-sensei had tears in her eyes when she left, apparently having invested as much emotion into the judge’s opinions as her students.

As for the judges, I have no idea what kind of drugs they must have been smoking before watching the show because their decisions made no sense at all. Last year I hadn’t been listening critically but this year I decided to make it a bit more fun by jotting down notes for each class in the program they handed out, giving each class a score on a scale of 1-10 (which in reality turned out to be a scale of 5-9) and then ranking them within their grade based on who I thought did the best job. The actual judges were music teachers from nearby high schools so I suppose their ears are better trained than mine, but the classes that won were those I ranked the lowest, and I’d been as objective as I could possibly be. The two third-grade classes that won were the two friendliest classes, but they clearly didn’t do nearly as well as those I put at the top, one of which is my least favorite.

What bothered me the most was 3-6, which I gave a 9 out of 10 (the highest score) and ranked at number 1, just ahead of 3-4 which is my least favorite but definitely deserved a 9 as well. I’ll confess there was a bit of bias there, as while every class in the school has students I like, the one with the highest percentage of my favorites is 3-6. They did a spectacular job though, and their lovely song had moved me deeply so I felt perfectly justified in putting them at number one.

On my way out of the building I couldn’t resist going up to their class as they stood around commiserating and showed them what I’d put on my program. Most of them didn’t notice me but one of the girls paid attention to what I was telling her and she started shouting in Japanese “We won! We won!” Confused, the others turned to her and asked her what she was talking about. She pointed to me and said that according to Kyle-sensei, their class was the winner. I showed them my program and pointed out the score and rank I’d given them, and just like that their faces lit up and they started cheering wildly. I’ve never seen such a radical split-second reversal of emotion in my life. It was fucking awesome—there’s just no other way to put it.

I couldn’t really do that with any other groups, so I got out of there and went home immediately after, but that’s definitely going down in one of my favorite school-related memories of all time. I’m sure those students went back to being depressed after I left, but at least when they went home and inevitably brooded over it, they’d be able to think that at least in one (presumably unbiased) onlooker’s opinion, their class had in fact done the best job. It won’t mean as much as the stupid high school music teachers’ opinion, but it’ll mean something.

The chorus contest is one of those school events after which an enkai is obligatory, so I had the pleasure of going to another one of those just a few hours later. Again, there’s not much new to say about these but I particularly enjoyed this one quite a bit thanks to the honeymoon effect, as this is about as genuine Japanese-culture as it gets. Floor pillows, people pouring beer into your tiny glass, all kinds of colorful seafood concoctions—the works.

I’d been told the event started at 6:00 but it turned out to have been 5:45 so I got there a bit late and everyone was already eating and drinking, but that meant I got a warm round of applause when I entered so that was a nice touch. It felt like they were officially welcoming me back into their family.

Over the course of the night I got to speak to a lot of the teachers I never get to talk to, especially now that I’m working exclusively with O-sensei. I told Y-sensei, the homeroom teacher for 3-6, what I told his students about ranking them at number 1, and he seemed almost as appreciative as they were. He said that on Monday he’s going to announce it to the whole class. I did the same for 3-4’s teacher, but I don’t really care what he does with the information.

I did most of my speaking in Japanese, naturally, except when I just couldn’t find the words, but most of the teachers at least seemed able to understand when I expressed myself in English, as I’m pretty good at finding the most basic, simple way of saying things.

I talked to I-sensei for a bit, who told me that the girls were all very excited that I was back, and jokingly asked me where my keys were. I informed him they were right in my pocket.

My only exclusively English conversations were with K-sensei and T-sensei. K-sensei asked me about finding a Japanese girlfriend and I explained to him why it’s difficult. He thinks I should have no trouble at all once I get past the language barrier.

And with T-sensei I commiserated about how terrible it was for the students who worked so hard to get no recognition. She was still in an emotional state, her eyes red with tears the whole time, but she really appreciated when I told her how great her class had done. I exaggerated a little because I’d actually ranked them 5 out of 6, but I saw no harm in that and in telling her to tell her students I thought they were wonderful. They were—I gave them a 7.5—but the other third-grade classes just outshined them. They still did better than 3-1 which got 2nd-place (6th in my book), and I was completely honest in telling her how ridiculous I thought the judge’s decisions were. She said that the principal had told her the same thing, so either he was just saying that to make her feel better or I’m not the only unbiased person who felt that way.

When our time was up I only needed to walk five minutes down the road to get back to my apartment (I wish they’d hold all the enkais at that place) and settled down to look back on what I knew the whole time would be one of the most memorable days of my life. It was fantastic to be able to share so many smiles and pleasant interactions with so many students on the same day, but terribly sad to have to see so many of them emotionally devastated. At least I was able to mitigate some of that devastation.

So with that I feel like my Epic Return is officially complete. The renewed sense of appreciation I have is still going strong, though it’s not like I needed it in the first place. I assume this second honeymoon period will wear off at about the same time the first one does, whenever that may be.

Epic Return, part 2

October 22nd, 2012 No comments

I’m back at school for my first full day since before summer break, enjoying all this down-time I have in which to do things like write blog entries. I’ll just pick up right where I left off in the last entry.

I’d been a little worried about the weather when I landed in Thursday and the rain continued non-stop throughout the night, but by the time I went for my jog that morning it had already cleared up and has been sunny and beautiful ever since. I was very glad about that on Friday as it meant everyone would be in a slightly better mood than otherwise.

I knew that when I went in I should probably say something formally to the school administrators, so I composed a little speech in my head and practiced it a few dozen times before going in. I kept it simple enough to do in Japanese, and it basically went like this: “Hello, everyone. For my absence, I deeply apologize. I look forward to working here again.”

I was finished with my jogging and grocery shopping with about an hour to spare before going in, so I used the time to take a little cat-nap while practicing my speech every couple of minutes. Before I knew it 2:00 was upon me, so I put on a suit and tie for the first time in months and proceeded to make my way to the school.

I didn’t want to arrive during the hectic period between classes so I timed it so I’d arrive just as the final period of the day was starting. I didn’t expect to see any students on the way in, but there were some in the window of the second-floor music room looking out as I approached, and they were the first to spot me and wave hello. I could already feel my spirits lifting, and they were high enough already.

The hallways were empty as I entered the building, slipped into my school-shoes, and walked upstairs to the teacher’s room. When I entered there were a handful of teachers there who were quite unaware that I’d be coming, and they all greeted me with surprise and friendly hellos. Two of the three main administrators were missing, so the only one there was the guy who just started this year. I walked up to him and delivered my speech flawlessly, he thanked me and we gave each other the formal yoroshiku onegaishimasu and that was that.

I then awkwardly walked back to my desk, which was of course covered with Heath’s stuff. I’d been expecting O-sensei to be there, the one I’ll be working with from now on, but she was apparently in a lesson with the special needs students at the time. One of the other teachers offered to take me down to say hello to her, but on our way downstairs Heath was coming upstairs. We decided I could just talk to him until O-sensei was ready, so we went back to the teacher’s room and finally got to know each other a little bit.

He explained the kind of stuff he’s been doing while they were gone, which apparently consisted almost exclusively of textbook work with a few scattered game days here and there. I told him the whole story of how I ended up in the visa situation in the first place, and regarding Interac’s part in it he said he wasn’t surprised. He’s only been working for them for a few years out of the 17 he’s been here, but he’s known people who’ve worked for them since they first started and has heard plenty of stories. No further comment there.

I was definitely glad to get a chance to talk to him and get a sense of the guy. He’s definitely a good guy and I’m no longer thinking of him as some kind of threat. He told me all about the speech contest, how all the students did well but M- was the only one who won something. He said Y- gave a great speech (the one I wrote for her) but she leaned on the podium the whole time so that might have cost her some points. As for the first-graders, he said they were robbed, that they did fantastic but all the prizes went to others, some of whom clearly didn’t deserve them.

I asked him how he’d compare this school to other schools he’s worked at and he said his favorite was a much smaller school of just 150 students because there was more of an intimacy that could develop between the students and teachers than where there are 600, but he said he had a great time here as well and the students are very friendly.

He speaks fluent Japanese but he did his best to keep that secret from the students. I was kind of happy to hear that, as now the little bit of Japanese I know can still manage to impress them.

As we were talking, a few scattered students would come and go into the teacher’s room and they were all surprised and happy to see me, which of course felt wonderful. More started coming when student cleaning time began, and I told Heath I was tempted to go out and say hello to everyone, to which he said he understood completely and to go for it.

The next fifteen minutes were absolute bliss wrapped in joy and smothered in ecstasy, as I wandered the halls and watched all my student’s faces light up with surprise and happiness to see me. Naturally, some were more enthusiastic than others but the ones I like the most tended to be the ones most delighted by my sudden reappearance. I pretty much stuck to the third-grade hallway, but stuck my head in a few first-grade classrooms as well once cleaning time was coming to an end. The second-graders haven’t been especially warm to me so far this year, so I didn’t bother going through that hallways and used most of my time to chat with the third-grade students who wanted to come chat with me.

Suffice it to say, any worries I had about my absence causing my students to cool off towards me went right out the window. My absence actually seemed to have quite the opposite effect, as it would seem to have made their hearts grow fonder of me just as mine did of them. In fact, I was so overwhelmed with joy by the time I was finished that it almost seemed to me that the entire nearly two-month-long wait had been worth it. If I’d just come back to work on the first day of school as planned, I would certainly not have been treated to such an incredibly warm greeting.

On a bit of a funny note, many of the students told me I look like I lost weight. I wanted to say, “That can’t be true, do you have any idea what my diet was like in America? I must have consumed more cheese in those two and a half months than the whole year I spent in Japan.” I took the compliment anyway, but I suspect I only look thinner by comparison with my sumo-wrestling replacement.

He was packing his stuff up to go when I got back to the teacher’s room, explaining that they’d told him since I was now here he no longer needed to stay. Once O-sensei had seen him off, she came back to discuss next week’s lessons with me. It’s not a normal week because the students have their Chorus Contest on Friday, which is why I’m not teaching every class and I’m doing games instead of textbook lessons. Whatever the reason, it’s fine by me.

I sat at my desk with my computer out, planning the games for next week just like old times and appreciating every minute of it. I wasn’t getting paid for the day but I couldn’t care less about that. I was going to stay until after school time and then go walk around some more, which is exactly what I did and got more super-warm welcomes from some of the sports teams practicing, one of which even gave me a thunderous round of applause.

I left in some of the best spirits I’ve ever been in my life, and totally pumped for starting lessons again on Monday. Unfortunately it’s only going to be two classes and they’re both second-graders, so it won’t be as awesome as it could be, but I’m sure they’re going to like my games and it’s going to be awesome in any case.

On Saturday I spent most of the day getting my remaining affairs in order, and in the evening I had my reunion party. Kim and Enam showed up with three of their friends, two of whom I’d met before at the hanami and one of which was the Japanese girlfriend of one of the two. Stacy came a few moments later, and for awhile we just hung out at my place and chatted. The last person to come was Atsushi, a Japanese guy who speaks decent English and whom I’ve met on several occasions before, so I was glad he came as well.

Because there were eight of us and I’d only reserved a table for five at Dohtonbori, the okonomiyaki place I really like, we had to change dinner plans because on Saturday night there was not enough room to squeeze the extras in. We ended up going out for ramen at the place right next door that just recently opened.

Atsushi had to go after that, but the rest of us went back to my place for another drink before heading out to a relatively inexpensive karaoke bar which is right across the street but I’d never noticed before. Togane apparently has a ridiculous amount of karaoke bars, but still not a single normal bar.

With the exception of Stacy who doesn’t drink the rest of us proceeded to get quite drunk and sing all kinds of songs as loudly and belligerently as we could. I’d never do karaoke in America but in Japan you get your own private room so you’re only embarrassing yourself in front of your own friends, which makes it a hell of a lot of fun.

Once our time was up we stumbled into a convenience store to buy some snacks, which we proceeded to devour back at my place before everyone else went home and I crashed on my bed to wake up the following morning with the obligatory-yet-completely-expected hangover. At least the party served its purpose though, as I was up late enough and woke up late enough to feel like I’m pretty much over the jet-lag. I did have to struggle to stay awake until 10:00 last night though, but I made it and although I woke up at 5:30 this morning it wasn’t too inconvenient, as I wanted to go jogging at 6:30 since it’s now that time of year where it’s getting dark as soon as school ends so I’ve got to go in the mornings now.

But aside from the early sunset it still feels like summer here. In America the leaves were already brown, many trees already bare, and the weather cold enough to keep the windows closed and maybe even fire up the heat at night, but the climate here is noticeably warmer. All the leaves are still on the trees and you can still be comfortable in a T-shirt during the day, so that’s nice.

And now I’m back at school and about to start teaching again in a little less than an hour.

It’s several hours later, so I’ve already had my first lessons. The first one went better than I expected with more enthusiasm from the students than I usually expect from the second-graders, but the second was much quieter and less into it. Still, it felt great to be up in front of that classroom again, and the games went over quite nicely. It should be much better tomorrow when I’ve got some of my favorite classes in the school.

The teachers are having a meeting this afternoon so all of the students are leaving an hour early, which means no Team C today but hopefully tomorrow. I’m looking forward to that as much as anything else, though it’s been so long I can’t be sure anyone at all is going to show up.

In any case, I’m back, it feels great, and (knock on wood) it looks as though there’s nothing but good things on the horizon.

Epic Return, part 1

October 19th, 2012 No comments

Yesterday was what you might call a long day, beginning with me waking up at 4:00 a.m. in America and ending with me going to sleep at 9:30 p.m. the next calendar date on the other side of the planet. But I am BACK in my apartment in Togane, Japan and couldn’t be more thrilled to be here.

I had two flights yesterday, the first a 6-hour trip from Newark to Vancouver through Air Canada. That flight was mostly filled with white English-speakers like myself, but as soon as I got to the departure gate for my flight from Vancouver to Narita the entire atmosphere changed. There was a group of about fifty Japanese schoolgirls waiting to board the flight with me, and just about everyone else waiting was also Japanese. Just like that, I was back in the cultural minority. Listening to all those girls banter incomprehensibly all around me, I couldn’t stop myself from grinning at the sound, as they sounded exactly like my students. Of course they weren’t my students, otherwise half of them would be smiling and waving at me and a handful would be coming over to try and communicate, but it won’t be long before I get to experience that unique sort of pleasantness again.

While waiting in Vancouver I took out my iPhone to charge it through one of the USB-chargers they had at some of the airport seats, and discovered to my dismay that it was broken. I’d packed it in a stupid place and it was busted up and wouldn’t charge. That would make things more difficult upon my return, but I immediately sent an e-mail to my phone provider using the airport’s wireless service to hopefully get the ball rolling on a replacement a.s.a.p.

But I did have some good luck by getting a window seat for the second flight even though no window seats had been available to reserve, and I found myself sitting next to a very serious-looking Japanese guy in a suit. One of the flight attendants came by to ask me if I was travelling alone and if I’d be willing to switch with someone seated in the emergency exit row who didn’t want to be there, and I said sorry but I was perfectly happy here. The guy next to me chuckled, so apparently he spoke English. We chatted briefly, and he turned out to be one of the guys in charge of the student group. Apparently it was an all-girl class trip in which they’d spent the week all split up staying with different families in a nearby town. Why they’d pick some obscure Canadian town out of all the places in the world for a class trip I have no idea, but it was interesting because I never knew high school students did things like that before.

The flight was ten long hours, but I came prepared this time, all set and ready to go with an addictive strategy computer game to make the time fly by. But I was only a half-hour into it when a flight attendant came up to me and said I couldn’t use my wireless mouse because it was a transmitter and therefore prohibited, and the game is such that you can’t really play it without a mouse. All I could think was, “Are you kidding me? My little mouse is going to throw our entire flight off course?” But hey, even the slightest chance of it causing anything to go even slightly wrong is motivation enough for me to shut the thing off. Luckily I’d also packed a game controller that was not wireless, so I could play some Super Nintendo emulator instead whenever I needed a break from A Song of Ice and Fire on my Kindle.

The weather was crappy when we made our approach but it was a magnificent feeling when we broke out of the cloud cap and Japanese soil finally came into view. It was a slightly rough landing but there must have been a mile-wide grin on my face when we finally touched down. I still had a long way to go to my apartment, but at least I was back on my beloved “semi-solid ground”.

Then came the Moment of Truth. Immigration. This is what I waited two months for, for the sticker in my passport that would let me through the gates. I wait in line until I finally step up to the counter. The immigration officer looks at my visa and asks me if I understand Japanese. Uh oh. What’s this now? I tell him “sukoshi” (a little) and he says in broken English that because I’m staying for one year I need to go through the Priority Line at the end of the room.

So I line up there and when the time came I step up and nervously hand my documents to the lovely immigration officer there, fully expecting complications. Lo and behold, she takes the documents, inputs some info into her system, prints out a new alien registration card and gives me the green light to go through all without me having to say a single word. That happened so fast it felt absurd. I waited two months for the bureaucrats to process what I needed for immigration, and I was through in literally two minutes.

Not that I was complaining of course. It exhilarating to finally be back in Japan as legally as can be. No more bureaucratic bullshit for a whole year! And you can’t even imagine how on top of the visa renewal process I’m going to be when the times comes.

It took awhile for my baggage to appear at the baggage claim but not long enough to get me really worried. There was still major relief when they finally showed up, and as soon as the customs guy let me through and out into the public section of the airport, I knew I was home free.

I still had the money I’d put on my Suica card for the return train journey I was supposed to have taken back in August, so I just breezed through into the station and found my train. An hour later I was in Chiba, and from there it was routine—Chiba to Oami, Oami to Togane. I arrived at the home-base platform at 7:10 p.m.

It was raining as I dragged my luggage the fifteen-minute trip up the road to my apartment, but I was smiling the entire time. This was where I’d been longing to be for the last two months and now I was actually here! There’s the karaoke bar! There’s the supermarket! There’s the post-office! Holy crap, there’s my school! And there’s my beautiful beautiful apartment building!

Now for the next moment of truth. I take out my key, insert it into the lock, and twist. Ah, never has a clicking sound sounded more magnificent! I open the door, and there’s the power switch on the wall. Let’s see if Interac really handled the situation as they said they would. If the electric company cut me off, it was too late in the evening to get it fixed before the morning, so I’d have to be in the dark all night. I flick the switch. Nothing…crap…wait…there it is! Apparently it just needed a split second to wake up after all those weeks of hibernation.

In come the bags, off comes my sweat-drenched shirt. And into my brain strikes the reality that I’M HOME!!!!!! I find myself laughing almost hysterically with joy, even hugging the wall with appreciation. It’s still here! It’s still clean! And it’s not even stuffy and stinky!

All that remains is to check the water and make sure I still have internet service. I twist the hot water valve of my kitchen sink, and it too needs a moment to realize what’s happening before it comes gushing out of the faucet in a magnificent cascade of hydration-replenishing goodness. Now let’s just make sure it gets hot…waiting…waiting…still waiting. Hmm. Maybe the gas just needs more time to wake up than the electricity and water, so I leave the faucet running. A minute later and still…no hot water. The gas has been shut off. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

At least based on my experience, the Japanese are pretty good about taking care of these things in a very timely fashion, so I should at least have hot water for a shave and shower by the time I head into school tomorrow.

I unpack the computer and fire up the modem. I need to re-enter all the security information but luckily I’ve got that readily available, so I’m back online in a matter of minutes. I send Interac an e-mail to let them know I’m back but in need of hot water, and I get an e-mail from my phone provider about replacing the damaged iPhone.

I don’t know if you remember the story of my lost iPhone a year ago, but I’d been using an older model after I thought I’d lost the iPhone 4, but the iPhone 4 magically appeared weeks later so I’ve had that the whole time. That makes this much easier, as instead of waiting for a whole new phone I just need a new sim-card, as the one for the old model won’t fit in the model 4. Kind of funny that now I’ll actually be going back to use the iPhone I originally bought in the first place. Now it no longer feels ridiculous to have two of the damn things, and I’m glad no one took me up on my offer to buy one from me over the last year!

I’m starving, and I know there’s a KFC right up the road but I’m exhausted and I’ve still got some instant Ramen. It’s an electric stove so I’m capable of cooking that, and that’s what I do for dinner as I finish the rest of the unpacking.

It’s about 9:30 when I consider myself done for the day, and I unfold my bed, curl up under the covers, take a moment to squeeze one last ounce of appreciation from being back, and fall fast asleep.

I woke up a few times during the night and although my body might have been telling me it was the afternoon, I was still exhausted enough to get back to sleep and not wake up permanently until about 5:30, though I still laid there in a half-conscious state until 7:30 when the noises from the elementary school marching band began blaring. That’s going to get annoying again real quick, but today it was a welcome sound.

I was able to call Interac through Skype, and right now it looks like the gas man should be coming around 11:00 and I don’t even need to be here when he does, so that’s convenient. Everything is all set up for me to head into the school at 2:20 p.m., which is after the last period Heath and O-sensei are teaching and right before the last period of the day, so I figured that was the best time to go in. Interac is also going to send someone to the school at that time to meet me, so we can get all the remaining loose ends tied up including what bills I need to pay, as there was quite the substantial pile on my floor when I got back.

And now as soon as I’m done posting this blog entry I’m going to head out for a run. After two months of running an entirely uphill/downhill route it should feel like the easiest thing in the world to get back to my completely flat route, and I’ve missed this route as much as anything else here so it’s going to feel fantastic.

By the time I’m back the gas should be on so I can shave and shower, then I’ll head to the supermarket to stock up on everything I need in terms of groceries…which is pretty much everything there is. Hell, I even miss the supermarket so I’m going to thoroughly enjoy that too!

Of course what I’m most looking forward to is heading into school, and you should expect an entry on what that was like soon. I’ll have the weekend to recover from jet-lag, have a nice little reunion get-together with some friends Saturday night, and be as ready as I can be to teach again starting Monday.

With regards to that, I actually received my schedule for next week when I checked my e-mail in Vancouver. Usually the schedule has which class and which lesson from the textbook you’ll be teaching, but this schedule was different. I’m only teaching about 2/3 of the classes so that’s a little disappointing, but there’s just one word underneath each class I’m teaching and it’s the same word for each class: “games”. Jack-fucking-pot!

It means I get free reign to do absolutely anything I want in all these classes, who have presumably been longing for my games so much while I’m gone that the teachers decided my first lesson back should just be pure unfettered fun. And pure unfettered fun is exactly what they’re going to get! Of course no matter how much the students enjoy those classes I’m certain I’ll be enjoying them more.

Usually when you come back from a vacation the hardest part is going back to work, but as far as I’m concerned Monday can’t come fast enough!

Sayonaramerica

October 16th, 2012 No comments

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Barring any unforeseen catastrophe, in 24 hours I’ll be en route back to Japan, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

I took the train into the city on Friday to pick up my passport with a fresh new valid work visa (a beautiful thing to behold), and that went as smoothly as I could have hoped. On my way back from the consulate I passed by Times Square and spotted a crew of three people dressed as Disney and Sesame Street characters soliciting money from families whose kids might want their pictures taken with them. I couldn’t resist approaching them and telling them how I teach English in Japan and my students would get a kick out of a picture of me and Mickey Mouse in New York, but I was there alone so one of them would have to take the photo. Cookie Monster removed his gloves and took the camera, and I lined up to pose with Mickey as Elmo stood on the other side of me. I had to turn to Elmo and say, “Not you, sorry. My students don’t know who you are.” Poor Elmo. They took a couple of shots and opened their bags for my donation. I have no idea what the standard tip for those guys is so I gave them each 2 bucks. That was 4 dollars well spent. I also bought a Yankee cap for the super-friendly groundskeeper who works at my school in Japan, as he’s told me a few times how it’s his dream to go to New York City and see a Yankee game. I can’t wait to give it him.

Last night was my last shift at Domino’s and it felt unbelievably good when the time came for closing and I finished mopping up that floor for the last time. In the days leading up to my last day, I was surprised to find a few of my co-workers xpressing their disappointment at my leaving. One of the managers, Stephanie—who was also there the last time I worked there—said she’d just gotten used to having me back and didn’t want me to go. I’d definitely gone in their with a bit of a chip on my shoulder but after awhile I warmed up to my co-workers and it seemed they warmed up to me, apparently finding me to be a hard worker as well as pleasant company. So in addition to all the money, my time at Domino’s has also earned me a few extra Facebook friends.

As for the money, my nearly two months of work minus all my spending on gas and beer (my only regular expenses while living at home) netted me a decent chunk of what I would have made teaching in Japan. In fact, when you weigh all my income and expenses from both jobs in both places including the extra burden of the new plane ticket, it seems the net pay worked out to be almost equal. It’s just that to make that happen I had to work six days a week for six to nine hour shifts. I could have gone back to Japan in August as scheduled and sat on my ass until the Certificate of Eligibility came through, begging my family for cash when it ran out and perhaps demanding arbitration within my company for financial compensation for them having dropped their end of the ball on the visa, but this was definitely the better move. It was my mistake for trusting my company’s e-mails saying I could go on vacation and return without worrying about immigration issues, and a couple months of delivering pizza, washing dishes and mopping floors were the consequences of my error. I believe that’s called “accepting responsibility”…but what would a liberal-progressive like me know about that?

My replacement teacher Heath has been in touch with me over the past week as we’ve been waiting on Interac to organize the transition to bring me back. I probably misjudged the guy just as I think he misjudged me, but it seems I’ll actually get a chance to meet him on Friday. My branch manager called me yesterday and he said even though I’ll be arriving on Thursday it’ll be easier to have Heath finish out the week and have me start teaching a fresh set of lessons on Monday, but I’m certainly free to go in to say hello to everyone, pick up my textbooks and discuss the lessons plans.

According to Heath, things might be a bit different when I go back. Since he’s been there he’s only been teaching with O-sensei (whom he actually worked with at a different school when she started a couple of years ago) and only doing lessons from the textbooks that the other teachers couldn’t get to because they’re behind on the teaching. That’s probably how things will continue even after I return, so I’m a bit disappointed that I won’t get to work with the other teachers anymore but somewhat relieved that they’ve only been doing the kind of textbook work which leaves little room for fun and games. Even if that’s the material they give me when I go back, I have complete confidence that I’ll be able to make it fun and the students will be glad to have me back no matter how great and experienced a teacher Heath has been. I shouldn’t be thinking of myself in competition with him—his 17-years of experience are just motivation for me to raise my own bar even higher.

So that’s what lies ahead. As for what’s behind me, it wasn’t all that bad when all is said and done. I can’t deny that it was depressing to not be doing what I love and frustrating to be missing precious weeks of my students’ lives that I only have so little time with in the first place (not to mention the Speech Contest), but in the end all I can do is chalk this one up under valuable life experiences. It reminded me of what work is like for most workers, and greatly enhanced my appreciation for being able to do the kind of work I do.

And I also got to spend extra time with my family and friends I never get to see in Japan. Getting to see the fall foliage—far more beautiful here than Togane—was also an added bonus.

So goodbye once again, America. I won’t be back for a very long time and I can’t say I’ll miss you too much when I’m gone, but you’ve treated me well enough while I was here.

On a final note, the owner of the Domino’s I worked at, Teddy, was desperately in need of drivers when I called him to come back to work. (On my last shift working with him I had him snap a photo I thought would also be quite funny for my students to see.) As I was leaving he said he thinks God sent him back to me this time. Well, if God caused me and everyone at my company to not consider visa-expiration dates before I went on vacation just to boost Ted’s service numbers then He works in mysterious ways indeed. But if He does exist, I suppose He could have had more than one purpose. It’s hard for me to believe there was any purpose to this at all, but maybe one day I’ll look back and see one.

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End in Sight

October 6th, 2012 No comments

It’s been a long, long, long five weeks staying here and working for Domino’s when I should be teaching in Japan where I belong, but now I can finally safely say there’s just a little more than one week to go. The Certificate of Eligibility took the maximum amount of time to process (of course) but it finally came through this past Monday, got shipped here on Thursday and received by the Japanese consulate on Friday. I set up a time to go pick up my passport with the new work visa this upcoming Thursday, and bought a plane ticket to return to Japan the following Wednesday, October 17th.

I’d go into depth into what I’ve been doing and what it’s been like over the past month, but I already did. I took those entries down and they’re going to stay down. For years I’ve been using my journal for two primary things—recording the events of my life in order to better preserve the memories, and to vent my frustrations (i.e. “whining”). And while I think it’s just as valuable to have a record of my thoughts and feelings during certain time periods as well as the events themselves, there are plenty of people I’d rather not share those thoughts and feelings with. Some of them read this blog, and all of them potentially could. So from now I’ll be keeping most of my journal offline, entries will be fewer and farther between and devoid of almost any introspective commentary whatsoever. I suspect this will come as a huge disappointment to absolutely no one.

Next week I’ll have my final day of work at Domino’s on Monday, then Tuesday to get all my affairs in order and packed for Wednesday’s departure. I’ll be flying Air Canada, taking off from Newark at 7:00 a.m. and landing in Vancouver for a three hour stopover before flying directly from there to Japan. If there are no delays I’ll arrive in Narita at 3:25 p.m. on Thursday, and presumably go to an immigration office on the same day to apply for a new alien registration card. Interac may or may not send someone to meet me at the airport to help me take care of that.

But of course what I’m most looking forward to is Friday, when I’ll finally get to return to my school. In my last phone conversation with Interac they said if I arrived on a Thursday they’d have me back at school on Friday, so I might even be asked to teach some lessons that day, though with no time to plan them I can’t imagine they’d expect too much from me. I suspect they’ll probably have my replacement finish out the week, but I can still go in to say hello to everybody and discuss the following week’s lessons with the teachers. I’ll have the whole weekend to plan them, as well as get readjusted to the time-zone, reconnect with my ALT friends, and be back to normal life by Monday.

And then I’m never going on vacation again.

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