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Hitting the Road

May 27th, 2013 No comments

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Well, it took two weeks after I got my license to actually get a car, but it arrived on Saturday and I drove it on Sunday. I took it to work this morning, making this the first day of the school-year in which I haven’t arrived all sweaty.

I had no say in the car Interac decided to get for me. I guess they have some kind of business arrangement with car dealers like they do with Leopalace. They told me on Friday that they could send someone from the dealership to drop off my car on Saturday afternoon, but I told them I wasn’t going to be home then so they just had the car parked in its designated place and the keys delivered through my mail slot.

I was a little surprised that Interac never asked me to send them a photo or a faxed copy of my driver’s license. I could have simply lied two months ago about passing the test, told them I got my license, and proceeded to drive illegally until passing the test (or getting caught). I wouldn’t have done that even if I had known, but it’s strange to think how easily I could have.

When I got back to my place on Saturday I’d already had a few drinks so I would not be taking it out for a spin, but I did take the keys and go check out my new vehicle. There are only three parking spaces outside my Leopalace and they’re apparently all taken, but there’s another Leopalace right down the road—literally a minute’s walk—with available spaces and my car was waiting there at number 3.

It’s a Suzuki WagonR, probably the single most common car in Japan. My first reaction was disappointment at how big it is—Japanese roads are horrendously narrow—but I knew it could be worse. At least it’s the color I would have chosen.

I went inside and checked out the interior, again disappointed that there’s no auxiliary audio port so I can’t play my iPod through its speakers, but it appeared that the CD player plays mp3 CDs which means I can burn CDs with much more content than a single 80-minute audio CD. I started the car and figured out how to un-retract the side-view mirrors, as nearly every car in Japan has retractable mirrors due to the narrowness of the roads. The transmission controls are on the front panel and all of my gauges are digital. Other than that (and the position of the wheel of course) it was no different from any other car I’ve ever driven.

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After finishing up a bunch of walking-distance errands on Sunday, I got ready for my first genuine drive in Japan. I burned up an mp3 CD made up of every Pink Floyd album and headed out to my car. I got inside, adjusted the seat and mirrors, started her up, and confirmed that the CD-player works. The music for my maiden voyage would be Dark Side of the Moon, the best album (as it widely acknowledged) for testing speakers. (The speakers were, like the car, not the least bit impressive).

I released the emergency break and pulled out into the real road for the first time ever in a country not called “the United States of America”. The first thing I did was engage my windshield wipers while attempting to signal left. Oh yeah, forgot about that. (I’d make the same mistake three or four more times throughout the drive).

I started out along the same route I take to get to work, taking it slowly and nervously. Every time a car was approaching from the opposite side I’d feel pangs of anxiety, wondering how both our vehicles could possibly pass each other without side-swiping on this ridiculously narrow road. I felt more at ease when I took my first turn onto a larger street with clear markings between the right and left lanes.

After about five minutes I’d relaxed enough to start the music, though the anxiety picked up again when I reached the long road to M-sho, my first destination. It’s a long narrow road through the hills with no center line, so any time a car approached I’d slow down and get as far left as possible without driving off the road. Thankfully, it’s not a particularly busy road so there were plenty of stretches where I could just relax and enjoy the drive. After ten minutes I was almost completely at ease.

I reached M-sho, confirmed that the time to get there was indeed about 20 minutes, turned around in the parking lot, and made the 15-minute drive to K-chu.

Now that I’d confirmed I know the routes for my Wednesday routine, I proceeded to use the car for actual errands. I took it back into town and drove to the shopping center I normally bike to every week but which I’ll now be driving to. It was a nice luxury to be able to shop without concern over whether I’d have enough room in my back-pack to fit everything.

Once that was done, I had one final task to complete as there was barely a quarter tank of gas and I knew I should take care of that a.s.a.p. This was going to be the most challenging part of the day, but I might as well figure it out now.

I took the long way back to the main road (the 126—the road with everything on it), driving along my jogging route. This included a tiny stretch of road through some rice fields, a road too narrow for two vehicles. Much to my great relief, no cars were coming the other way while I drove there. I’ll be avoiding those kinds of roads as much as humanly possible, but I had to drive on it this time to get myself positioned to turn onto the 126 on the same side as the only gas station I know of.

I got to the station and pulled in, noticing the English word “IN” taped in giant letters on the ground where I entered. A worker directed me to the pump he wanted me to take, and I pulled up and got situated. Gas stations in Japan are a mix of full service and self-service and I wasn’t sure which this one was, but when nobody came up to me right away I figured it must be as I feared—self-service.

There was a big complicated machine at the pump with Japanese writing all over. At least I can read katakana so I knew which pump was for “regyuraa”, and I removed that pump from the handle and put it in my tank, hoping I could just pump and pay at the end. Of course no gas came out.

Oh well, I guess I have to be the dumb gaijin who doesn’t know how to pump gas. I approached one of the workers there and asked for help, using the word “hajimete” which means “first time”. He understood and naturally poked no fun at me, maintaining the typical Japanese professional friendliness the whole time. He took me to the screen and showed me which buttons to press and where to insert my cash. I put in a 5000-yen bill (about $50), hoping that would cover the cost but not really knowing because a simultaneous dollar-to-yen / gallon-to-liter conversion is too much for my mathematically-challenged mind. Luckily, the tank was full when I got to 3500, so apparently it costs about $35-$40 to fill my tank in Japan. That’s not as bad as I’d feared, but I’ve yet to see what kind of mileage I get.

The worker showed me how to take the receipt and scan it to get my change, and I thanked him and went on my way. That wasn’t so bad, and now that obstacle is clear. I drove down the road a bit, made the first U-turn I could, and returned to my parking space to end the journey.

With that one run I cleared just about every first of driving in Japan that I needed to. The obvious ones of driving on the left, remembering where the blinker is, avoiding crashing into oncoming traffic on super-narrow roads, navigating parking-lots and parking properly, and most importantly filling my gas tank. The only two other hurdles to clear are highway driving (because of the tolls) and getting caught on a one-lane road when there’s an oncoming car.

I’ve done enough driving in my life that I imagine I’ll get used to the big differences pretty quickly. I thought the most difficult thing to adjust to would be driving on the left with the wheel on the right, but now I think the narrowness of the roads is actually going to be what takes the most time adjusting to. Hopefully once I get a better feel for how wide my car is and how much room on the roads I have to work with, the anxiety will dissipate.

So the next stage of my life in Japan begins. So far the only difference a car makes is getting to and from work quicker and not having to work up a sweat in the process, but the car does also open up a whole new world of possibilities. I’ll probably wait until I’m much more comfortable driving to take advantage of them.

Categories: Personal Tags: ,

Working the Fields

May 20th, 2013 No comments

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I’ve neglected to write about a couple of social events I’ve partaken in recently, only because there was nothing particularly remarkable to say about them. Two weekends ago I went to a picnic in a lovely park in Tokyo to visit Jack and Lily and a bunch of their friends. A couple of days later I went back to Tokyo to celebrate Stephen’s birthday at a restaurant in Harajuku. Both were pleasant experiences, but neither begged to for full blog documentation.

The social event of this past Saturday, by contrast, was of a culturally interesting enough nature to warrant a full post. Fred, whose company I greatly enjoy but rarely ever see, has gotten involved with a local organic farm company which—among many other things—gets groups of people together to teach them old-school methods of farming. As it’s rice-planting season, they’re currently having groups of people—Japanese and foreigners alike—come and plant rice by hand, the way the Japanese did it for thousands of years before they built machines to do the work. Groups plant rice for a couple of hours, then after a short interval of time to let everyone get a bath or a shower, they have a party in the evening.

I have to confess that I wasn’t looking forward to this at all. It was just one of those experiences I felt obliged to have simply by virtue of it being a rare opportunity. Though the experience probably wouldn’t be fun, it was an experience that very few people nowadays will ever have. Trudging through the mud and doing back-breaking labor in the fields for no pay doesn’t exactly strike me as the most pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but I figured I’d just push myself into it. At least the party afterwards was guaranteed to be a good time.

I met up with Fred, his girlfriend Chihiro, another rarely-seen Togane ALT named Kate, and a guy named Ryan I haven’t seen since last year’s hanami, at the Togane train station at 12:30 and we proceeded to walk the 5 km to the farm. We couldn’t have hoped for a more beautiful day, and the walk was quite pleasant as we all got caught up with what each of us has been up to. Fred will be here for one more year, then he’s going to go back to America to get his masters in forestry and start a career in that field. Ben, whom I haven’t seen since the Christmas party, would join us later, but I found out this is currently his last year living here and he’ll be going back to America in July (the JET program is now officially done in Togane, probably thanks to the fine job Interac ALTs like Kim and I have been doing for less cost to the schools).

We got to the farm’s “headquarters” (nothing more than an ordinary Japanese house) forty minutes early and just hung out until everyone else arrived and we were ready to begin. Fred and Kate had done this last year and said there had been about 60 people, whereas today there were only about 25. That would mean more rice-planting for everyone! Hooray!

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We walked down towards the rice fields, most of which had already been seeded, and stopped to pick up the rice plants themselves along the way. Apparently they let the plants grow a little before putting them into the flooded paddies. Hey, I learned something already!

When we reached our designated section of field, little squares of rice plants were distributed to each of us, and we lined up at the edge of the paddy. A grid had been imprinted into the mud earlier by a big wooden mesh cylinder, and our job was to tear off 3-5 stalks of the rice plants—roots and all—and press them about 2 centimeters deep into every intersection in the grid. We were each responsible for three rows, and once finished we would help finish whatever was left.

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I rolled up my jeans and stepped bravely into the mud. It was an interesting sensation to say the least, but nothing unpleasant and I got used to it very quickly. The hard part was the constant bending down to plant the rice. Once you got the hang of tearing off the stalks, you picked up the pace considerably and ended up hunched over at a 90-degree angle for pretty much the whole time.

The depth of the water varied throughout the field, with the mud above the surface at some points, and sometimes practically thigh deep. You had to be careful whenever you removed your feet from the mud to step forward, or you could easily fall over—which a few people did. Due to the lack-of-ease-of-mobility, whenever you ran out of grass you would shout “nai” (none left) to the farmers and they’d toss you a fresh batch, often missing and splashing you with muddy water.

When Fred had finished his lines I took my camera out from its dangerous location in my pocket and tossed it to him, which thankfully he caught and was able to get some good shots of me in the midst of my labor.

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It probably took me about forty minutes altogether to cross the paddy, but by the time I was done the last remaining sections were all well-covered, so I assumed my work for the day was done. That wasn’t so bad.

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Of course, unbeknownst to me there was a whole other section of field we had to do. Once the first part was done we headed up the hill to that one, a much longer and narrower field DSCF2917than before. This time we were planting black rice, which should only be planted 2 stalks at a time, making the tearing-off part of the job slightly more challenging. For some reason the water in this particular field was more bug-infested than the other, riddled with spiders darting to and fro across the surface. I braved my arachnophobia and made it through, this time tackling four rows at a time to make it go faster. I traversed the field three times before I was done, and while my back was pretty sore by that point I couldn’t deny the strong sense of accomplishment.

The whole ordeal hadn’t been nearly as bad as I’d feared—only about an hour and a half of actual labor altogether. I’ve never been one to enjoy getting my hands dirty, but it didn’t come without a small sense of pride at having done it. I spend most of my time sitting in a faculty room at my computer. Doing actual manual labor was a nice change of pace, though it’s certainly not something I’d want to do every day.  There’s another event in the fall when we harvest the rice, and while Fred says that’s more difficult I’ll probably try that too.

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We headed back up the hill, stopping somewhere along the way to wash off the mud, and when we got back to the house the farmers were giving rides to a nearby bath-house. This was an authentic Japanese everybody-take-your-clothes-off-in-front-of-each-other bath-house, so I waited in the lobby while the others went in. I’d already done my Japanese-culture thing for the day—getting naked in front of a bunch of people I barely know is one of those cultural experiences I’m perfectly content to deprive myself of.

The party was as enjoyable as expected. Ben brought his iPod and some speakers and provided us with music. The farmers provided us with meat to grill, delicious fresh vegetables grown right on the farm, and beer. The whole thing cost us 2000 yen apiece, worth the price even though I couldn’t eat most of the meat.

As usually happens at these sorts of things, the foreigners mingled with the foreigners and Japanese with the Japanese until all of us had consumed enough alcohol to start mingling with each other, each doing our best to communicate using as much of the other language as possible, and managing to do so surprisingly well in spite of the difficulty.

When the food was gone and the hardcore partiers were migrating inside, most of us decided to head home so as to avoid getting completely wasted. I walked back to Togane with Fred, Ben, and Ryan, sipping our last beers along the way. It was nice to hang out with those guys again, and hopefully I’ll get to see Ben at least one more time before he heads back to the states.

All in all, not a bad way to spend a Saturday in Japan.

Driver’s License Chronicles, Part 5

May 12th, 2013 No comments

It had been almost a month since my last trip to the Menkyo center in Kaihinmakuhari to fail the practical driving test, but going there again on Friday still felt like routine. The only difference was I had work in the morning, whereas every other time I’d gone had been on a day off. I greatly preferred this circumstance, as the Menkyo center trip didn’t cost me a holiday but merely an afternoon sitting in the teacher’s room of K-chu doing nothing. Also, teaching a couple of successful lessons at H-sho in the morning made it a good day regardless of what would happen in the afternoon.

I woke up early and decided to go for a run in the morning so I wouldn’t have to bother with it in the afternoon. Success.

I taught a fifth-grade class “I’m from ~” and they greatly enjoyed the games and activities. Success.

In order to accommodate my need to get to the Menkyo center on time, H-sho combined both 20-student sixth-grade classes into one giant 40-student class so I could do my lesson for both and leave after third period. I had to alter the plan a bit, but it worked out well. Rather than having the class arrange the alphabet on the blackboard and then having them try to beat their own time, I pitted one class against the other and had them try to beat the other class’s time. One class won the uppercase battle, and the other won the lowercase. The students loved it. Success.

After third-period I had just enough time to ride home and drop off my computer and excess baggage so I wouldn’t have to lug it around with me all afternoon, stop at the 7/11 to pick up a snack for lunch, and get to the train station with time to spare. Success.

I made it to the Menkyo center with no trouble at all, as by now I know the train and bus routine so well as to be able to sleep-walk through the whole journey. Success.

So by the time I got there, I figured I’d already chalked up enough successes on the day that one little failure wouldn’t bother me too much. On top of that, I now know what the consequences of failure are, and they’re not bad at all. I have to work up a sweat on the way to work four days a week, but that’s no big deal. And on Wednesdays I have to pay for a taxi to M-sho and walk home from K-chu, but the cost of the cab-ride four days a month is less than a monthly lease of a car anyway and the walk home from K-chu is a doable 45 minutes. The worst consequence of another failure is simply having to bother with the whole annoying process of going to the Menkyo center and taking the test yet again.

I got there just as the booths were opening up after the lunch break, and immediately spotted my Tunisian friend at the front of the line. He asked me about why I failed last time and I told him about my left turns not being tight enough for our super-strict lady proctor. He agreed that she was definitely too strict and wished me better luck this time. I thought I’d see him again in the waiting room for the test-course but that was not to be. Apparently he was there for something else that day, or perhaps he’d taken the test in the morning and was still there for some reason. Who knows?

In the test-course waiting room I didn’t even bother going through the course in my head again like every other time. I just took out my Kindle and did some reading, just wanting to get this over with and go home. A Chinese guy sitting next to me attempted to talk with me about the test, but he spoke no English and I speak no Chinese so we could only use our limited Japanese to communicate. I found out it was also his fourth time, and we managed to explain to each other why we’d failed our previous tests.

Our proctor was the first to enter, and while I was immediately relieved that it wasn’t the woman, this guy seemed just as strict and no-nonsense as her. I was hoping for the guy I had the first time, who seemed the friendliest out of all of them and might very well have passed me had I not driven up on the curb in the S-curve. No such luck. This guy just told us the order we’d be going in, explained that the test was very difficult and recommended that we all go to driving school. He didn’t walk us through the course map and explain the rules about backing up in the crank and S-curve like the other proctors had. He was in and out in two minutes.

I finished the chapter I was reading, and very soon after the vehicles were brought around and I went outside. I was to go second again, so I’d be riding in the back while the first person took the test. This time it was a Filipino woman who was taking the test for the second time. We didn’t exchange many words before getting in the car, but I wished her luck.

I could tell she was going to fail pretty early on. She wasn’t staying nearly left enough as she drove around the course perimeter, and she almost missed the right-turn onto the center road. The proctor had to point it out to her as she was driving past it, so she had to come to an abrupt stop and make the turn well past the turn-marker. She did come to a full stop at the stop sign at the end of the road, but forgot to signal her left turns until she was already making them. I was surprised that he didn’t fail her before the crank, but he let her get to it. At first it seemed like she really knew what she was doing, as she made the sharp right-turn like a pro, doing it surprisingly quickly and not hitting the poles. But as soon as she got to the left turn I knew she’d miscalculated and the back wheel was going to hit the curb. Indeed, she not only hit the curb but drove right up over it. Instant fail. She took the car back to the dock and then it was my turn.

Here we go again. I check under the back and front of the car like every other time. Get seated, adjust the seat, the mirrors and all that. Same old routine. I feel like I’ve done this a hundred times already, not merely three. Of course as I take my foot off the break and start to pull out I realize I forgot to disengage the emergency break, but the proctor doesn’t write anything on my sheet so I assume it doesn’t matter.

I don’t bother verbalizing my actions this time. I just make all of my mirror-checks and head-turns as blatant as possible. All I say is “hai” to the proctor’s instructions, all of which I know before he says them. As I make my way around the perimeter I’m only half-focused on the course, thinking about this morning’s lessons and how well they went.

At the right-turn I make sure to get as close to the center lane as possible and make the turn without incident—no other vehicles are coming the other way. It’s not until I get to the series of left-turns before the crank that the proctor starts writing on my sheet. What could he possibly be writing? I’ve done everything perfectly so far. I suppose it’s still just not perfect enough.

At the entrance to the crank I move to the right to reduce my chances of hitting the curb on the way in like I had the second time, and I notice him writing something but I make it in without any trouble, do the right-turn perfectly, and make the left-turn only having to back up once. I’ve got the whole crank thing down.

More easy stuff, then it’s the S-curve. I move to the right again at the entrance to get in a good position to not hit the curb at I drive through it, and for the second time I make it through the S-curve without needing to back up at all, though I make sure to excessively check my mirrors like a paranoid schizophrenic throughout.

The proctor doesn’t tell me to head back to the dock before finishing the course, so that’s a good sign but I was able to finish the previous two times as well and still failed. As I make the final turn into the dock, my old instincts kick in and I accidentally engage the windshield wipers a second before remembering the blinker is on the other side. The proctor doesn’t write anything though, so either that’s not something you lose points for or I’ve already failed and it makes no difference. I park the car, the woman riding in the back gets out, and I prepare to accept my fate.

The proctor speaks in Japanese with a few English words thrown in here and there. “This time was okay” he says. “Okay?” I repeat. What does that mean? “Yes, it was okay,” he says making the OK hand-gesture. He says a few things in Japanese I don’t understand but assume it’s about how I drove well. Then he says, “demo” which means “but”. Of course.

He explains that at the entrance to the crank and S-curve I shouldn’t have moved to the right because there could have been bicyclists or something. I’d blatantly checked the right mirror before doing so for that very reason, but apparently it didn’t matter. I should have just taken the turn from where I was, even though that makes it much harder not to hit the curb. I accept his advice with humility, and wait for him to jot down that awful “fail” kanji (不) on my paper.

But he doesn’t hand me back my paper. He tells me to wait. Confused, I get out of the car and walk towards the other people there. “You passed?” the Filipino woman asks me. “I don’t know,” I say. He didn’t tell me I passed (at least I don’t think so—I’m not sure what ‘you passed’ is in Japanese) but he didn’t hand me back my paper and he’d told me to wait. The other test-takers tell me this probably means I passed, and they congratulate me. I realize that I probably had passed—otherwise he would have given me my paper so I could go make a new appointment—but I’m not quite ready to start celebrating. Not until I know for sure.

The Filipino woman is waiting behind for her friend—the woman going after me—to finish the test, and she asks me if I could give her any pointers on how to make it through the crank. I take her to the map and walk her through the procedure, and she’s surprised to learn that you’re allowed to back up three times. The proctor hadn’t explained that this time, much to her unfair disadvantage. But she was very grateful to me for telling her, and we got to chatting a bit as we waited for her friend to finish the test.

I get to know the other test-takers a bit better. All of them have been in Japan longer than me and have been driving with an international license. They only need a Japanese license because the rule has changed and you can only use an international license for a year. The only other American to go had been renewing her international license for years every time she goes back to Arizona, which you’re not supposed to do. It was also her fourth time on the test and she ended up failing because her left-turns weren’t tight enough, a frustration I told her I knew all too well.

After all of them had left, I sit in the waiting room and eventually the proctor enters and calls my name. He tells me what I now need to do to get the driver’s license, and it is thusly confirmed. Success.

All that remained was the long slow process of getting the actual license. I first had to go to Window 2 to pay for the license, which costs 2050 yen, just slightly less than the 2200 yen cost of taking the driving test. Then it was back to Window 10 to give them the stamps indicating I’d paid. Waited there for awhile, then was taken to another room to go to another window and fill out another form. Waited there for a long time, then was given a receipt for the license and told where to go next. Got my photo taken, then waited outside in the hallway for a very long time hoping I was in the right place and they hadn’t forgotten about me. While I waited, the woman proctor from my last two tests hurried by. I would have liked for her to stop and take note of the fact that I’d passed, but she didn’t acknowledge me. A short while later, a man came out from the back room with my license and a paper with instructions for how to renew it after a year. He explained a bunch of things in Japanese which I pretended to understand (I can find out anything I need to know through Interac), then he gave me my long-awaited license. I took a quick iPhone photo of it for Facebook, then inserted it into my wallet.

On my way back home I called Interac to let Takahashi-san know that I’d passed and got the license. She sounded happy for me, congratulated me, and told me she’d send me an e-mail about getting me a car as soon as possible.

I happened to be riding the train back to Togane at the same time as most high school students journey home, so I had the nice bonus of seeing some of my Togane Chu students who graduated last year. I ran into a lot of them at Togane Station and proudly showed off my new license.

I still haven’t got an e-mail from Takahashi-san, but I assume I’ll be taken somewhere by an independent contractor to get a car one afternoon this week, as I have no lessons on any afternoon. I have M-sho on Tuesday though, so if it doesn’t happen tomorrow I’ll have to cab it one more day. If it does, I’ll be driving to work in Japan for the first time ever in just two days. I’m a bit nervous about driving on these super-narrow windy roads, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it quickly enough.

I’m actually not nearly as happy about being able to drive as I am about not having to go back and take the driving test again. I still don’t really want a car, but I know I’ll be glad to have one to drive to work when it’s really hot and humid or when it rains. It’ll also be convenient in many other ways, some I probably don’t even realize yet. But the experience-factor is probably the best thing, as driving in a foreign country where they drive on the left side of the road is a pretty cool experience to have.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

Momentum

May 1st, 2013 No comments

The momentous two-month duo of March and April is over, and everything is fast becoming routine. I’ve had at least two lessons with all of my classes, and as many as five with some. I know most of my students’ names now, with only the exception of H-sho because the administrators there have been too busy to put together a name-list for me. The Kyle-store has transformed from an after-school thing with only non-club-members participating to an after-lunch thing so club-members can come, and as I only eat lunch at K-chu three days a week that allows one day for first-graders, one for second, and one for third. I’ve also expressed an interest in visiting the students’ club activities after school on Fridays, and the first of those experiences might happen as early as tomorrow, before the four-day weekend.

The most interesting experiences now are still the elementary school lessons. After the self-introduction, it was time to get right into actual teaching. As I don’t work at those schools every day and only see the homeroom teachers when I’m in the classroom, all of the planning is entirely my responsibility. I have a textbook which outlines what needs to be taught and the order in which to teach it, but how I teach it is completely up to me. It’s an interesting feeling—in contrast to the junior high school situation where the JTE does most of the teaching and I only come in once or twice a week to reinforce, I’m responsible for all of the elementary school students’ English learning for the year. The feeling of responsibility is particularly strong with the fifth-graders, as I’m laying the foundation for all of their future English learning. Things I could always count on every Japanese person to know are things these students don’t know until I teach it.

Lesson 1 was “Hello, my name is ~. What’s your name? Nice to meet you.” As much as I dislike the textbook and the CD that comes with it, I knew it would be useful in getting these structures into the students’ minds, as there’s a musical chant which sticks in your head and was very effective for teaching them. Because they don’t know phonics yet, they can’t memorize by words, so I reached all the way back to Narita training and used a technique I saw Cedric teaching to the elementary-school teachers: to draw a shape for each phrase depending on how many words. “Hello, my name is suchandsuch” is a five-point star because there are five words. “What’s your name?” is a triangle, and “Nice to meet you” is a square. The students were drawn in with curiosity as I drew the shapes, and when I pointed to each corner of the shape as the CD chanted the words, they understood immediately. Next week I opened the lesson by drawing the same shapes on the board, and the students remembered every word. The foundations of English are successfully being laid. It doesn’t get much more gratifying than that.

With the sixth-graders so far it’s just been counting and letter-games, as this year they learn numbers from 30 to 100 and the lowercase roman letters (I found out they learn uppercase in Japanese class because ‘romaji’ is one of the four writing systems they use here). I’ve been combining new ideas with some old ideas I’ve used in both JHS first-grade lessons (playing games where students have to guess ‘how many’ of something there are) and even some games I used for beginners in Germany (counting to 100 without saying multiples of a certain number, which these kids are better at than the adults were). I’ve found myself short on time a few times, but the students always have fun, and things I know I can always save what I don’t get to for following week, as I’m working with the loosest of guidelines.

One thing that will still take some getting used to is eating lunch in the classroom. It still feels a little awkward, even when I’m in lunch-groups with students who are inclined to think of questions to ask me. They think of a question (usually along the lines of “what food do you like?” or “what color do you like?”), ask me, I figure out what they’re asking, give them an answer, and that’s the end of the conversation. Occasionally I’ll remember to ask them what their favorite suchandsuch is too, but that only prolongs the conversation by a few words.

Yesterday I ate lunch with junior high school students for the first time ever, as W-sensei came up to me at with no warning at the beginning of the lunch-period and told me to come to her homeroom and eat with the students. One student was absent so I could sit at his desk. When I got there with my full tray of food, the students were just starting to get things set up so I had to wait for about ten minutes before the formal beginning of the meal was made, though unlike in elementary schools it was just a ceremonial few words instead of a whole speech. Lunch itself was just like elementary only even less social, probably because I happened to be at a table of particularly quiet students. I asked each of them what clubs or sports they were in, but that was the extent of the conversation. When I was finished with my meal I went to empty my tray, and because they’d served a curry with beef in it I’d hardly finished half of it, and when I put my tray down on the edge of the table to empty something else, it fell over and spilled curry all over the floor. So that was delightfully embarrassing, but it’s not like it was a complete disaster. If I was their age I might get made fun of for it all year, but I’m their teacher and they still respect me. I taught their class today without W-sensei (she was mysteriously absent yet again) and it went really well. They were even more respectful than when she’s present.

Regarding W-sensei, I’m afraid Enam’s warnings about her are turning out to be accurate. While she has yet to impose on me too much, it’s clear she doesn’t know how to discipline the students, and when it comes to teaching itself she’s pretty much just winging it and figuring it out as she goes along. I can’t be too hard on her because that’s been more-or-less what I’ve been doing since I started this job, but last year I noticed a distinct improvement in the first-graders’ reading ability from week to week (thanks to K-sensei and O-sensei) whereas now they seem pretty stagnant. At least it motivates me to step up my own teaching, as I don’t want them to have the disadvantage of not learning phonics at the same rate as the rest of Japanese 11-year-olds.

Outside of school, things feel like they’re picking up in the socialization department, mostly because Enam has moved in with Kim and he’s more inclined to come over and see if his neighbor wants to hang out a bit. We hung out Saturday afternoon, and Sunday evening was his birthday which we celebrated with a large group of ALTs in Chiba, starting at a bar and then migrating to the bowling alley. I got to see Stephen, Stacy, and a bunch of other people I hardly ever see, though Jack and Lily didn’t come. I’m going to try and visit them in Tokyo during the four day weekend.

But the most significant piece of news comes through a conversation I had with Enam on Saturday, about what I want to do in the future. I’ve had it in my mind since I started this that one day I’d go back to America and become a full-time teacher there. But what I learned about the present-day American education system from my own brief experience with teacher education courses as well as articles like this are a major deterrent to taking that path. Enam brought up the possibility of teaching at an international school instead, and the more we discussed it the more it made sense. I could become certified through online courses as I do the ALT thing (which certainly provides me sufficient down-time to work on assignments), then get a job as a real teacher, teaching any subject I want, anywhere in the world I want. International schools are everywhere, they pay well, and they don’t tie their teachers’ arms and legs to standardized test-scores like they’re now doing across America. I could also continue to teach in different countries around the world, but do more travelling as I’ll be better able to afford it. And I don’t think it prohibits me from returning to America either—I’m sure there must be some international schools within the United States.

So over the next few weeks I’ll be looking into online teaching certification programs and see what options are out there. What I’m doing now is the perfect springboard to what I want to do next. My life may appear somewhat aimless at times, but underlying all the shifts and changes would appear to be a steadily forward momentum.

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