Kemstone's Journal http://kemstone.com/Journal The life and thoughts of Kemstone. Wed, 02 Oct 2013 05:49:27 +0000 en hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.0.1 Death of the Blog? http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/10/02/death-of-the-blog/ http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/10/02/death-of-the-blog/#comments Wed, 02 Oct 2013 05:47:08 +0000 Kemstone http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/10/02/death-of-the-blog/ This won’t be my last blog entry ever, but it will probably be the last for a very long time. It’s not that I’m no longer documenting my experiences—I’ve written fourteen journal entries since my return from Germany, but I haven’t been inclined to post any of them online. The only one I did post, the Sports Day entry, was the second of two entries I wrote about Sports Day, one written specifically for the online journal with emotional content kept to a bare minimum. Over the last year or so I’ve grown more and more wary of sharing my personal thoughts and feelings with the world, and I’ve been keeping most entries private, occasionally posting public versions edited for content. In doing so I’ve constantly had to keep this process in mind as I write, making sure all personal thoughts I might want to edit out for the public version are carefully quarantined and easy to remove during editing. Lately I’ve lost the motivation to even do this, figuring that if any part of an entry is too personal for me to want to publish I just won’t publish that entry. I’ve just gone back to writing whatever I feel like writing without worrying about which parts are publicly acceptable and which parts I should keep to myself—the way a real journal is supposed to work.

As such, there are a few significant experiences that have gone undocumented in the public journal whereas in private I’ve documented them thoroughly. For instance, I wrote quite a few entries with regard to this year’s Speech Contest which took place a couple of weeks ago. I want to remember my experiences helping those students prepare and how I felt throughout the process right up until the day of the contest, but it felt like that sort of thing is between me and my students and there’s no reason the rest of the world needs to know about it. Editing out their names is beside the point—it’s not so much about confidentiality as it is about basic personal privacy. I don’t want to have to think about what other people reading this journal might think about my thoughts.

When I decided to start journaling online it was out of an idealistic notion of radical openness, the idea that if everyone were to just be as open and honest about who they are with the world, the world might become a more tolerant and understanding place. That may be true and the world might be gradually moving towards that point, but in the mean-time anyone who does so is going to have to deal with a lot of unpleasant consequences. When people close to me discovered and read the journal I had to start editing myself, and over the years I edited myself more and more to the point where the entire original point of doing this online was completely lost. What started as an experiment in fierce unapologetic public honesty has essentially become nothing more than “letters home from Japan.”

For awhile I also experimented with political blogging, and for almost two years the political entries greatly outnumbered the personal. I gave it a shot and for awhile I thought I might have some potential in that area, but I gradually lost all motivation to continue that as well. Political blogging, I came to discover, is one of the least rewarding ways imaginable to spend one’s time. I put a lot of thought and effort into my political entries, and I’d post them here to no reaction and on another website where the reaction was often positive but usually nothing worthwhile. After all those hours spent researching and writing, posting and discussing, I can’t honestly believe I ever changed a single person’s opinion on anything. There will be no more political entries here either.

I struggle to think of any good reason I should continue to do this at all. The only kinds of entries I can still imagine being worthwhile are those having to do with travel. My 10-part series on my trip to Rome complete with maps and pictures remains one of my favorite things I’ve ever posted online. I’m happy with all my travel entries and feel like those experiences are exactly the kind of thing best suited for an online journal. Starting life in a new country is also an experience worth sharing publicly, with all the cultural observations it seems people are interested in. But just basic stuff about life events are either too personal to share or too dull for anyone to care.

I had a couple of notable firsts yesterday as I left school after lunch and went into Chiba to renew my work visa. Rather than deal with the hassle of the train situation, I figured I’d take advantage of having a car and shave about 2 hours off the journey by driving in. It was the first time I’ve driven on the highway in Japan and the first time I drove in a city. But there was nothing remarkable about it. It was strange that the right-lane is the passing lane but that’s about it. As for driving in Chiba-city—after driving through Brooklyn that didn’t phase me at all. The visa-renewal process was just boredom on top of boredom, as I hadn’t actually expected to go to immigration on the same day so I hadn’t brought a book. I got ticket number 107 when I arrived at 3:30, and the counter was up to 67. Three hours later I was one of only two people left in the room, and my number got called dead last at 6:10. (Of course, the three hours I had to wait this year was nothing compared to the three months I had to wait last year.)  Because I got out so late, the drive home was also the first extended night-time driving I’ve done in Japan, but there was nothing remarkable about that either.

Almost everything that happens to me which I do consider interesting or important is of a personal nature that I no longer have any inclination to post on a public blog. As such, entries have been generally shorter and less frequent. That’s how it’s been for awhile, and now I’m just making it official and explaining the reason. I still find tremendous value in documenting my life experiences, but most of that value is lost when I edit my most honest thoughts and feelings.

But if you’re one of the people who checks the blog regularly to find out what I’ve been up to, the upside is that the next time we catch up I can tell you about stuff you didn’t already know.

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Sports Day: K-chu http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/09/10/sports-day-k-chu/ http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/09/10/sports-day-k-chu/#comments Tue, 10 Sep 2013 02:29:28 +0000 Kemstone http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/09/10/sports-day-k-chu/ Saturday was the third Japanese Sports Day I’ve gone to, the first being last year at Togane Chu and the second also being at Togane Chu when I visited their Sports Day earlier this year. Although this school is much much smaller than Togane (only 1/6th the student population) it was pretty much the same basic things. The students were divided into a red team and white team, but unlike at Togane they were even divided up within their own homerooms. Some competitions pitted homerooms against each other and awards were given to the classes that won those events, but the main competition was between the red and white team.

Most of the events were identical or similar to the Togane events. There were bizarre relay races, classes jumping rope in synch, and of course the obligatory “mukade” race where classes race against each other with their feet all tied together. Before the lunch break all the girls did a dance, but rather than human-pyramid building like at Togane the boys had synchronized vaulting along with the girls’ dance.

The thing most unique to this particular Sports Day were the elementary school events. Most of the 5th and 6th-graders from H-sho a handful of 6th-graders from M-sho (presumably those of them who’ll be attending K-chu next year) showed up and competed in a couple of events against each other. They did a tug-of war and a relay with current H-sho / M-sho students, former H-sho / M-sho students, and parents. So for about an hour, I got to see students from all three of my schools all together at once. It was almost certainly the only time that’ll ever happen, and it was pretty cool. (Incidentally, H-sho was victorious in both events.)

One difference between the K-chu and Togane Chu Sports Day that was not cool was my complete and utter exclusion from the entire event. At least at Togane Chu I got to participate in two events, but I was left out of everything. I wasn’t even assigned to the red or white team, but that allowed me carry out an idea I had to twist my headband so it was red on the left and white on the right, which led to some confusion and amusement of some students.

The best thing about the day was getting to take pictures. I won’t post any here, but because it’s such a small school I was easily able to get one or several pictures of every last student to remember them by.

There was an enkai in the evening which I attended, but it turned out to be the least enjoyable enkai I’ve yet been to. It was at a Chinese restaurant so unlike other events drinks were ordered and delivered pre-poured, which meant teachers weren’t going around pouring drinks for everyone and that meant far fewer teachers coming up to interact with me. By “far fewer” I basically mean zero, as the only teachers I spoke to all night were the ones to the left and the right of me. I’d already been harboring feelings of resentment at being left out of Sports Day, and that just augmented those feelings but I know it’s no big deal. At least it wasn’t all bad—the woman to the right of me had been a teacher at H-sho a few years ago and knew all the current 6th-graders and most of the other students as well, so we were able to chat at length comparing our impressions of some of those students.

She informed me that H-sho has its Sports Day on the 28th of this month, so I’ll get to see my first elementary school Sports Day then. Hopefully M-sho won’t have theirs on the same day, but if they do I’ll drive over there and check theirs out for awhile, though I’ll spend the bulk of the day with H-sho, which remains my current favorite school.

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Unremarkable Return http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/08/29/unremarkable-return/ http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/08/29/unremarkable-return/#comments Thu, 29 Aug 2013 04:02:55 +0000 Kemstone http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/08/29/unremarkable-return/ Compared to last year’s experience, returning to Japan after my summer holiday this year was as dull as it gets, just another routine return home from vacation. It’s been great to start seeing students again, but there’s none of that “oh my god you’re actually back!” wonderfulness I got thanks to my prolonged absence. I’m sure most of them didn’t even know I’d been gone.

The 30-hour journey from Ichenheim to Togane went as smoothly as possible, with just some slight anxiety at the beginning when my first train ran a half-hour behind. I didn’t get to the airport until one hour before departure, but this turned out to be plenty of time anyway. It might have even made it better, as I barely had to wait on line to check-in and pretty much flew by security. I got lucky on the 6-hour flight to Abu Dhabi when the woman sitting next to me got up and never returned to her seat, apparently having found a better one somewhere else. Maybe I smelled bad? If so, good. The layover in Abu Dhabi was only an hour and a half and most of that consisted of getting off the one plane and on to the other, as the airport doesn’t have enough terminals for the planes to connect to and everyone has to be shuttled to and from the planes. I was amused by how extremely lax the security line was—the United Arab Emirates is clearly not too worried about terrorist attacks. Finally, I got lucky again on the 10-hour flight to Narita as nobody was seated next to me at all. I actually managed to sleep for awhile too—maybe a whole 20 minutes of unconsciousness (a new flight record for me!)

It was only 4 p.m. when I got back to Togane, giving me plenty of time to unpack, go for a run, and head to the supermarket to re-stock my refrigerator before settling in for the night.

I stayed up as late as I could—9 p.m.—thinking I’d probably crash for at least 12 hours, but the jet-lag had other plans. I woke up at 2 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep for another five hours. It was early evening in Germany, the time my body got used to being the most awake. I only slept for one more hour after that, new construction projects going on outside my apartment making further sleep impossible. I went for another run, did some more shopping, had lunch, then went back to K-chu at 1 p.m. for two hours of Speech Contest practice.

The jet-lag kept me up for most of last night as well, and I was hurting this morning as I came in at 10:00 a.m.—3 a.m. by my body’s reckoning.

The Speech Contest students did improve while I was away, but I’ve been disappointed by how relatively not-far they’ve come in three weeks. One kid doesn’t even have his whole speech memorized yet. It’s a long speech, okay, but he’s had five weeks and there’s only three more to go. Others are still making the same mistakes they were when I left. I guess it just means I’ve still got plenty of work cut out for me. At least the best student is still performing wonderfully—she’s pretty much ready for the contest already and would probably win if it were held tomorrow.

Next week the semester begins, but it won’t be back to normal. K-chu’s Sports Week is next week, so I’ve got a whole lot of boredom to look forward to as the students prepare for it. At least I’ll have the elementary schools to keep me busy. I’ll use as time preparing those lessons as I can.

All in all, it feels as great to be back as I expected. Just no “second honeymoon” this time. I was gone three weeks but it already feels like I never left.

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Back in Deutschland, week 3 http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/08/25/back-in-deutschland-week-3/ http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/08/25/back-in-deutschland-week-3/#comments Sun, 25 Aug 2013 10:06:32 +0000 Kemstone http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/08/25/back-in-deutschland-week-3/ My last week in Germany was even less “eventful” than the first two, but that’s absolutely fine by me. It was nice to just be back in Ichenheim and spending time with all these people again.

Things here are the same as ever, except that Ralf and Myriam have a baby now. Savio is 21-months old and super cute. He was a bit shy at first but warmed up to me pretty quickly and I’ve had fun playing with him. He’s just starting to talk but it’s all pretty much incomprehensible to me with the baby-dialect on top of the Ichener-dialect which is already hard enough to understand. I was able to get him to say a few Japanese words, but I’m sure they won’t stick, and it’s very unlikely he’ll remember me at all the next time I see him. Such is the case with babies.

I spent the days hanging around, going jogging, bicycling around, and (of course) drinking lots of beer. Dieter and Frederick were working on a house they’re building where my grandmother’s old house used to be. Frederick will live in the downstairs part when it’s finished and rent the upstairs to someone. Ursula had to leave on Thursday to go to a rehabilitation clinic in Davos to treat her psoriasis, so I only got to see her for two days. Myriam and Ralf took holidays on Thursday and Friday so I got to spend a bit of extra time with them. And on Saturday night I went to the birthday party of Dietmar and got to see a whole bunch of people including my Aunt Fannie, Gabi, Marius, Melanie and her new husband Timo.

And there’s not much else to say. It may not have been the most interesting vacation of all time, but I certainly enjoyed it. Last year’s vacation was much more “interesting” due to the visa situation, and because of that I had a hard time just enjoying it. I definitely prefer this kind of holiday.

Tomorrow I fly back to Japan. It was nice to get away from that world for awhile, but I’m definitely looking forward to going back.

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Back in Deutschland, week 2 http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/08/20/back-in-deutschland-week-2/ http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/08/20/back-in-deutschland-week-2/#comments Tue, 20 Aug 2013 14:10:05 +0000 Kemstone http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/08/20/back-in-deutschland-week-2/ I’m in Ichenheim again, for the first time in two years. It might as well have only been two weeks for all the noticeable change, except for the one giant difference of there being a 21-month old child here now. Now I’m writing another blog entry from this couch like so many times before, although this one feels like a chore as I’d rather just be relaxing.

There are no interesting stories from my second week of vacation. It’s mostly just been lots of relaxing, drinking delicious beer, eating delicious food, and having interesting or silly conversations. There are hardly even any photos worth posting—it’s mostly just pictures of me and Oliver goofing around while drunk. I’ll just briefly recount what each day consisted of for the sake of the historical archives.

On Saturday we had a little party starting in the late afternoon. Amanda came all the way from Berlin and I got to catch up with her. They also invited a colleague of Oliver named Ma Ren who was a really nice and interesting person I’m glad I got to meet, and a woman named Rune from capoeira who was really nice but didn’t speak much English and tended to steer all discussions in directions I had nothing to contribute to. But that turned out to be somewhat lucky, as I went to bed several hours earlier than most of the others.

The party continued well throughout Sunday, at least for Oliver and me. In spite of his hangover, I was surprised when he opened a beer first thing in the morning, and after breakfast began pouring shots of whiskey into our glasses of tea (though that might have been at my suggestion). We finished off the whole bottle and had one of the maddest Sundays I can remember.

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Oliver needed all of Monday and even a bit of Tuesday to recover, so we just took it easy those days and watched lots of episodes of Game of Thrones. On Wednesday we got everything ready to go for our bicycle tour of Hannover on Thursday, the one thing I most wanted to do while back in Germany. That involved fixing Oliver’s bicycle (we’d already fixed my old bike I’d sold to them when I moved away) and buying a little bike trailer for Buutsch, the dog.

I said we should get up at 9:30 to give ourselves plenty of time to get to Hannover relatively early, but the way Oliver operates made that rather unrealistic. It took forever just to prepare breakfast, clean up, have a shower, pack the car, and finally get going. In Hannover we also had to stop at the house of is friend Kolya who was letting us camp out in his garden house that night. We got the key and headed to the garden house, dropped off our stuff there, had the obligatory beer, and finally got under way at about 4:00 p.m.

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With Buutsch in the little trailer, we made our way to the start of the tour along the river where I used to go jogging. Buutsch hated the trailer and made whimpering noises the whole way. When we were finally at a section of river not too crowded, Oliver let him out and rode with him on the leash ahead. That dog is so full of energy that he ended up pulling Oliver at extreme speeds for the next several kilometers. Oliver had to stop him every now and then just to let me catch up.

The first part of the tour went perfectly. It was dark and cloudy while I would have preferred sunshine, but it was cool to be back in Hannover and to see all the nice parts of it I became so familiar with in my time there. When I’d left I’d hoped to come back and see them again, and now I was finally making that happened.

But after the Herrenhauser Garten and Georgengarten, things started to go wrong. We had to ride through the city a bit to get to the next part of the tour, the Eilenriede (city forest), and there was some construction blocking a part of the route. But Oliver said he knew this area of the city really well and could get us to the Eilenriede without a problem. It turned out he was mistaking it for where he used to live and was completely wrong about where we were, so we ended up going extremely far off course. When we finally checked his iPhone to pinpoint our location, we saw how far we’d gone and because it was starting to rain it seemed like we should just quit and maybe finish the tour the next day. We started to do that and head back to the garden house at Lindener Berg by the most direct route, but Oliver could tell I was upset and decided we should just go to the Eilenriede anyway.

So we got there, found a place to stop and have a beer, but when that was done it was already approaching 7:00 p.m. and I knew we wouldn’t be able to finish the tour before dark. So we started heading back to Lindener Berg by way of the Maschsee, and we were able to take a quick detour to the Hiroshima Gedenkhain very quickly so I could get a picture of the plaque explaining it that Lena had accidentally deleted two years ago and promised to get another one but never did.

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When we got to the Maschsee we discovered it was Maschseefest, so it was extremely crowded and we didn’t get too close. In the three years I lived there I never went to Maschseefest, and this made the 4th time I blew it off. Nothing about it looked fun other than the beer, and you could get that anywhere.

We headed back around the Rathaus—also really cool to see in person again—then by my old flat in Calenberger Neustadt so I could see that again. After that we stopped at my favorite Döner Kebab shop to pick up some dinner, then back up to Lindener Berg.

Kolya wanted to come hang out with us there for a bit, and he met us on our cycles on the way back. For the next few hours we hung out with him at his garden house, which turned out to be the most pleasant part of the day. He’s a really nice and interesting guy and he’s interested in Japan so it was great to talk with him. He suggested that he and Oliver come visit me in Japan next year, though I think the odds of that are still very doubtful.

He left us on our own for the night, and we slept in until 11:30 and didn’t get everything packed an underway until an hour later. Oliver didn’t want to ride anymore—his bike saddle hurt his ass too much—but I wanted to finish the tour. We decided to split up and meet somewhere around the Maschsee at 2:00. That gave me plenty of time to head back to the river and ride around the places we hadn’t gone the previous day. It was the nicest part of Hannover (the last territory I’d discovered after moving there) and the day was sunny and much nicer than the previous day. I didn’t have to worry about the dog, and I could put on some music and just get in the zone I used to get it when cycling around while I lived there. That was extremely pleasant, and made up for the previous day’s disappointments.

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We drove back to Delmenhorst at 2:00 and after getting stuck in traffic finally arrived back at almost 5:00 (normally it shouldn’t take more than 1:30), and had another easy night.

On Saturday we drove to Emsland in the afternoon to visit Oliver’s daughters and his 8-month old grandson Finn. I haven’t seen his daughter Nele in two years or Ronja in nearly four. Ronja was 16 the last time I saw her and is now a 20-year-old mother, so she looks twice as old as last time. Nele was 15 and is now 17 so doesn’t look too different. Finn is a cute little baby who seems pretty well-behaved. While the girls were getting ready for their evening plans, Oliver and I took Finn to a nearby lake and played with him for a little while, the first time I’ve played with a baby in as long as I can remember. After that we went back and gave the girls a ride to wherever they were going for the evening, then headed back to Delmenhorst.

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We stopped at the liquor store to pick up some beer, and I bought a bottle of whiskey on a whim, expecting to sip on it casually throughout the next day. Apparently, Oliver got another thing in mind after I bought it, and we ended up finishing off the whole bottle that night, with just a little help from Lena. We were up until 4:30 in the morning going mad, and were both glad to have one more night of that in what will probably be a very long while.

All we did on Sunday was relax and recuperate, and maybe walk Buutsch a few times. But we went to bed pretty early that night and got up at 8:00 the next morning to be able to have breakfast and get me to the train station to catch my 9:53 departure. I said a nice goodbye to both of them and the dog, and boarded the train to the next part of my vacation.

It’s only been a day and I miss them already, but I think two weeks was about enough time. My friendship with Oliver and Lena is one of the strongest I’ve ever made in my life, so it’s important to see them when I can. It may not have been the most interesting or eventful two weeks of vacation-time I’ve ever spent, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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Back in Deutschland, week 1 http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/08/10/back-in-deutschland-week-1/ http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/08/10/back-in-deutschland-week-1/#comments Sat, 10 Aug 2013 12:59:26 +0000 Kemstone http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/08/10/back-in-deutschland-week-1/ DSCF3028

It’s been a pleasantly uneventful week. Oliver and Lena were working every day, and I spent my days doing all the typical stuff I normally do that doesn’t depend on physical location. Jogging, studying Japanese, e-mailing, watching internet entertainment, and so on. The only difference is that I’ve got to walk the dog twice a day. Also, I’m taking full advantage of the food I can get here but not Japan—in addition to things like chocolate, I ate döner kebab for lunch four out of the last five days.

Oliver got home in the afternoon and we’d usually start drinking then, just hanging out and relaxing until evening when Lena would get home. Then we’d have dinner, go for one last walk with the dog, and go to sleep. Now that Oliver has a week of vacation there should start to be more worth writing about.

There are only a few things worth noting right now. First, it’s interesting to be back in a country where everyone mistakenly assumed you’re one of them. In Japan, everyone knows I’m a foreigner. In America, everyone correctly assumes I’m American. But in Germany, people incorrectly assume I’m German, a feeling I lived with for three years but which is more interesting now that I’ve got the Japan experience to compare it to.

The climate is also something special. It’s not as hot here as America, and not as humid as Japan. It’s about as pleasant as an August could be, and being outside brings back all kinds of intangible feelings I used to experience every day. It’s like there’s this aura of every place you go, and I’m very much feeling the whole northern German aura just as it was when I lived here.

Finally, as pleasant as it is to be back, I have no sadness or any kind of regretful feelings about leaving. It was great to live here when I did, but I’m much happier in my current life situation. Not just because of my job, but I really prefer the Japanese culture as well. I plan to write a detailed comparison of life in the two countries, but I’ll say right now that if I had to spend the rest of my life in one of the two, I’d pick Japan. I’m glad I’ve got another two weeks here, but I’ll still be glad to go back.

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Circumnavigation http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/08/04/circumnavigation/ http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/08/04/circumnavigation/#comments Sun, 04 Aug 2013 17:35:56 +0000 Kemstone http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/08/04/circumnavigation/ I’m back in the country where I spent three of the last five years of my life. It feels like it’s finally the start of my vacation, but it also feels a bit like coming home.

My last week in Japan before the flight was somewhat eventful. On Saturday I attempted to have a karaoke party with a bunch of friends but nobody could make it, so it ended up just being me, Kim, and Enam going out for drinks, with Ben joining us for a little while. I haven’t seen him since the rice planting, but he’s finished his work for JET and is on his way back to the states, so it was nice of him to come say goodbye. And on Thursday, the last night before my flight, Stephen came into town and a few of us went out for an early dinner of okonomiyaki and then took the train down to onjuku beach to join a bunch of other ALTs to watch the annual fireworks festival they have there. That was a lot of fun, and the perfect way to spend my last night in Japan before vacation.

Friday and Saturday were epic. It started like any other day. I got up, went jogging, had breakfast, went to work (speech contest stuff), but when that was over the focus shifted to the daunting objective of moving my physical body halfway around the globe to Germany. I finished packing, cleaned my apartment, emptied the refrigerator and unplugged everything, checked and re-checked and checked again to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, then headed off on the long long 9-leg journey.

Leg 1 was the standard walk from my apartment to the Togane train station. Leg 2 was Togane to Chiba. Leg 3 was Chiba to Narita Airport.

When I got there it was 3 out of 9 legs finished. It was like I was a third of the way there already!

Of course, Leg 4 was a considerable distance farther than Narita from Chiba. That was the 10-hour flight to Abu Dhabi, which took off at 10:30 p.m. in Japan and landed at 3:30 a.m. in the UAE. I flew all the way over China and India and landed for the first time on the soil of a Middle Eastern country, but it was dark the whole time so I couldn’t see anything other than the occasional lights from cities.

The layover in Abu Dhabi was six hours total, with the next plane not taking off until 9:30. My first experience in a Muslim country wasn’t exactly an awesome one. It was mostly just like any other airport, only with most of the amenities tucked into “lounges” you had to pay the equivalent of 45 euros to enter. They sounded nice—unlimited drinks, internet, showers, and whatnot—but I wasn’t going to drop 45 euros on that. Other than that, the only major difference between this airport and any other was that there were a lot more men in madrassas and women in burkas walking around.

Although I will say that the airline of Abu Dhabi—Etihad Airways—was definitely the best airline I’ve ever taken. Between all the on-demand entertainment, power outlets in every seat, meal menus even for coach passengers, and excellent service, it rose to number one in my ranks right away.

Leg 5 was not Etihad airways but Berlin Air. I felt like I was in Germany already from the moment I boarded the plane, as while the Narita-Abu Dhabi flight had been a wide mixture of cultures with just about half-Japanese, there were no Japanese on the flight from Abu Dhabi to Düsseldorf and I’d say I good 80% of the passengers were German. The flight attendants were German, and while their service was perfectly adequate it just couldn’t compare to the friendliness and enthusiasm of the previous flight’s mostly Japanese crew. Customer service is one cultural area in which Germany and Japan could not be farther apart.

Although that flight was only 7 hours, it felt longer than the previous flight because at that point I was already quite sick of travelling and just wanted the journey to be over. At least it was daytime and I could look out the window. We flew over Iraq, so that was cool, although there was nothing to see but sand and small cities.

But that flight was notable for one very significant landmark in my life. The farthest east I ever went in Europe was Prague. When this flight flew past Prague on its way to Germany, I’d officially crossed every line of longitude on the globe. It took about four years and there was all kinds of hopping back and forth in between, but now I have officially circumnavigated the planet! That was always one of my lifelong goals—to join the club that Magellan started.

It felt great when the plane touched the ground and I knew the flying was over, but unfortunately the travelling was far from over. I’d accidentally bought a train ticket from the Düsseldorf main station as opposed to the airport station, so once I’d gone through customs (which took all of ten seconds) and got my luggage, I had to wait on line at the airport train station to change my ticket. Some of the legs would be altered and I’d arrive an hour later than planned, but there were still 4 legs left to go.

Leg 6 was a short hop from the Düsseldorf airport to Duisberg. After the stress of the ticket situation, I calmed down quite significantly once I was on that regional train. The reality of being back in Germany finally sunk in, as it felt like just a few weeks ago that riding this exact kind of train was routine.

After a 30-minute wait in Duisberg, the longest rail-leg of the journey began. Leg 7 was a 2-hour ride from Duisberg to Bremen on an InterCity train, the kind I used to take every week from Hannover to Helmstedt. Although I was beyond sick and tired of travelling at that point and just couldn’t wait for it to be over, Leg 7 turned out to be the most pleasant leg of the trip. It was a beautiful day and as the train raced through the countryside all kinds of pleasant memories about all the great times I had in this country kept coming back to me. I’m about to acquire 3 more weeks of such memories.

Leg 8 was the final solo-leg of the journey, so the last one that felt like a leg at all. It was on a packed regional train full of crying kids and people with body odor, but luckily the trip from Bremen to the town of Delmenhorst where Oliver and Lena live was only about 15 minutes. As soon as the LED-screen read “Nächste: Delmenhorst” I felt a wave of relief wash over me. It had been a long way since Togane, but I was finally coming to my destination.

I got a bit worried when I didn’t see Oliver at the station. I’d turned on my iPhone’s data roaming momentarily when I knew I’d be late to send him a Facebook message informing him, but I had no way of knowing if he got it until I turned the data roaming back on and saw he confirmed the message. So where was he?

I waited out in front of the station for a few minutes, hoping he was just running behind and would drive up any minute, but soon enough he emerged from the station, I dropped my things, and we had a nice warm embrace, two great friends overjoyed to see each other after two years apart.

Leg 9 barely felt like part of the journey at all. I chatted with Oliver as he made the five-minute drive to the house where he and Lena now live. But when he pulled into the driveway and parked the car, it definitely felt fantastic that it was over. The entire journey from start to finish had taken a total of 32 hours.

I’d already been awake for 41 hours at that point, having only dozed off a few times here and there on the flight, but I was up for at least another 6 hanging out with Oliver and Lena and the dog Buutsch. It was wonderful to be back with them again, and although it had been two years and they’re living in a different place now, it might as well have only been two weeks.

They filled me in on what they’re doing now and I told them what I’m up to as well as all sorts of things about Japanese culture. Later we took the dog for a walk. After that I went to sleep, my epic 47-hour day finally over.

I slept really well and woke up today at 7:30 as though there were no jet-lag at all. Today is Sunday and we’re just going to relax, make a little tour of Delmenhorst, drink lots of delicious beer and eat lots of delicious food. It should be a pretty excellent day.

As for the week, Oliver and Lena have to work so it’ll just be me and the dog for most of the day, but that’s no problem at all for me. Next weekend Amanda will be coming over so I’m really looking forward to that. Things are likely to get a bit crazy. And the following week Oliver was able to take off from work so we’ll do a few fun things like camp out at the East See and drive to Hannover with a couple of bikes to spend the day doing my old bicycle tour there, which I’m also really looking forward to. After that it’s off to Ichenheim for a week of Ichenheim enjoyment, and then back to Japan.

When I passed through immigration at Narita airport this time, the woman checked my alien registration card and told me I have to be back before September or my visa will expire. Well, I’ll be back on August 27th, so that works for me. I’m not even thinking about the return trip now, but after what happened last year it’s quite nice to be completely secure in knowing that when the vacation is over, I can go back.

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Work-cation http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/07/25/work-cation/ http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/07/25/work-cation/#comments Thu, 25 Jul 2013 04:27:13 +0000 Kemstone http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/07/25/work-cation/ It felt like summer vacation for approximately two days, and now it just feels like a new species of work. I’m not complaining—I like work—it’s just that the feeling is even less “vacationey” than I expected. I’ve set up meetings with the Speech Contest students every weekday before my Germany trip, about an hour of practice per meeting. Since there are four of them—two individual third-graders, an individual second-grader, and a pair of first-graders who do a skit together—that makes up to 4 hours a day depending on whether they can all come. With an hour of lunch that makes 5 hours, which is not much less than the 8 I was spending before summer vacation started. I come in a little later, leave a little earlier, and don’t have to plan lessons, but other than that things feel the same. This is not quite a vacation—I should come up with a different word for it.

DSCF2929I did spend the first day of Summer Vacation doing something interesting though. I was planning to join Lily and Jack for her birthday dinner in Tokyo at night, but I went earlier in the day and went up the Tokyo Sky Tree to check out the view and take copious amounts of pictures, only a few of which I’ll post here. I’ve been to many “high points” of cities: the World Trade Center (when it existed), the Eiffel Tower, the London Eye, the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower, the one in Rome with the really long name, and a bunch in various German cities, so this was nothing new for me, and to put it bluntly Tokyo is not a particularly aesthetic city so it wasn’t the fantastically amazing experience that many of the others were. The two best views are the Eiffel Tower for the aesthetics of the city, and Rome because of all the awesome landmarks.

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Not to diminish the awesomeness, though. It’s still pretty incredible to be looking out over this giant city from half a kilometer in the sky, nothing but urban jungle stretching all the way to the horizon and beyond. My most profound thought was just how many people were in my field of vision at any given time—albeit most concealed by buildings—and how strange it feels to think of specific people, to call to mind those who mean something to me at a vantage point from which all people appear insignificant.

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Once that thought occurred to me I entered something of a zen-like state and remained up there for hours. I would have left much sooner if not for the fact that when I’d felt I’d soaked it in enough the sun was on its way down and I figured if I just waited a bit longer I’d get to see the city at night, so I watched the sunset over the urban sea and got a few pictures of early evening Tokyo (almost not of which came out well) before heading down and all the way across town to Shibuya for dinner.

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Dinner was quite pleasant, with Jack, Lily, Stephen, Lily’s French friends, and a few various others including people I met at the picnic on Spring vacation. Unfortunately I had to rush out in order to catch the last bus back to Togane, but it was a good time and totally worth going.

Finally, the last event since my last entry was my first enkai with the faculty of K-chu, which was last night. It was noticeably smaller than all my other enkai experiences, but the basic format was the same: lots of people topping off your drink as you’re served course after course of odd-looking fish cuisine. There was a pause half-way through as the coach of each sports team (plus the band) gave a speech about their club, and that was different from Togane Chu. Because there are less students here there are less sports. If they asked every coach at Togane to speak it would take up the whole enkai.

More interestingly, it might have just been where I was sitting but there seemed to have been a lot more drinking at this affair than those at Togane Chu. Except for the administrators, everyone is seated according to a random number drawing, and I happened to be seated right along with the administrators, right next to the Vice Principal who until that night was the most intimidating guy at any school I’ve been to. In school he keeps busy constantly, and when I have to go up and get my stamps on my pay sheet for Interac he treats me like a nuisance so I’m always afraid to go up to him, constantly waiting for what appears to be a break in his activity. He also occasionally loses his temper and explodes at a student, shouting and ranting for minutes on end about god knows what grievance the poor kid committed. But last night he was pounding down the alcohol and behaving so jolly and merry it was like a different person altogether. He insisted on sharing a bottle of sake with everyone around him and he made a point of carrying out a conversation with me to the best of his English and my Japanese ability, telling me he’d never had an ALT even capable of conversation before. He actually told me I’m too serious in the teacher’s room and should be more friendly. Irony.

The main event was followed by karaoke, this time at the smallest karaoke place I’ve ever been to, a restaurant of just two small rooms, each with a karaoke machine that can’t be going on at the same time because there’s no sound separation and everyone outside our back room could hear the singing going on inside. Of the original [relatively] small group, only about half came to karaoke so this was indeed much smaller than that times at Togane, and while the karaoke queue was always full at those events, here there were rarely more than two songs cued up and occasionally there was nothing being sung at all. I was asked to sing near the very beginning, even had a specific song requested by the second-grade teacher: “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith, a song I don’t even like but heard often enough when it was popular in America to sing it pretty well. That was received very well by the staff. For my next song I took a stab at “Born this Way” by Lady Gaga and only did an adequate job but still got good applause. Finally, I screwed up by trying to impress them by singing the German “99 Luftballoons” and while I’ve done that successfully before, I was terrible that night and none of them knew the song anyway so the applause at the end was clearly forced. Oh well, not like anyone’s gonna hold it against me.

It was weird to come in this morning and see just about everyone from last night back at their jobs, but that’s the Japanese way.

Someone asked me if I had a hangover this morning. No, it had only appeared that I’d been drinking excessively last night, when in reality I’d been pacing myself so steadily I even had one last beer after getting home, and woke up this morning feeling fine. That’s the American way.

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Summer Semi-Vacation http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/07/20/summer-semi-vacation/ http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/07/20/summer-semi-vacation/#comments Sat, 20 Jul 2013 04:05:09 +0000 Kemstone http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/07/20/summer-semi-vacation/ Yesterday was the last day of the first semester, and normal classes don’t resume until September. But it’s not quite completely summer vacation yet, as I still have to go in on many days to help the Speech Contest students practice. On August 3rd I’ll head to Germany, and that’s when the REAL summer vacation will begin.

Before my last lesson with each class, I decided to prepare a little speech to say goodbye for awhile. I wanted to say some of the kinds of things I said in my farewell speech to the Togane students, but to let them know now instead of waiting until the very end. It went like this:

The first part of the year is over. I enjoyed it. If you enjoyed it too, I’d be glad. Our time together has been short, but I feel like I know each of you a little bit. I really like you. Thank you for your warmth and enthusiasm. For the next six weeks or so, I’ll miss you. I’ll think about you every day. Have a great summer vacation. Till September. Goodbye.

The first class I gave the speech to happened to be 5-1 at H-sho, my favorite class. They gave me a big round of applause when I finished the speech, the warmest reception it was to get. 6-1 applauded too, but naturally it was less enthusiastic. Although after the following class a couple of girls from 6-1 found me in the hall and gave me a paper crane they’d made as part of the lesson but later decorated and wrote a nice message on later. It’s the first “present” I’ve received from any students this year. I had lunch with 6-2, so I waited for the end of the lunch period before giving my speech to them. The student who likes me the most in that class is a very childish but sweet kid named Daisuke. He’s cried whenever I eat with their class and he doesn’t win the janken tournament to get me to sit at his table, but I was finally sitting across from him that day. He gave me a picture of a train with the words “thank you very very much” in katakana written on the back. The second present of the year.

By the time I said goodbye to the M-sho classes I already had the speech pretty much down pat. I’m not sure how much those kids appreciated it. The 5-1 teacher prompted them to clap at the end and they were pretty warm when I saw them in the hallway later, but I think that as a class they’ll always be shy and quiet. 6-1 didn’t clap, but I had a much more pleasant surprise when a whole bunch of students came up to me afterwards to ask me to sign their textbooks. So apparently it did have some effect.

The first classes I gave the speech to at K-chu were the third-graders. Strangely, the normally less-friendly 3-2 clapped while the more-friendly 3-1 did not, but I didn’t mean the speech so much for them as I’m bizarrely un-fond of this year’s 3rd-graders, especially when compared to last year’s Togane 3rd-graders who were my favorite class of all time.

Neither 1st-grade class clapped, but I made sure to look at all the students I particularly meant it for and most of them were appreciating it.

As for 2-1, they’re my second-favorite of all my classes after 5-1 and naturally I got the second-best reaction from them, applause and all. It didn’t hurt either that I managed to make my last lesson with them a Mario Kart game. I’d done that game with almost every class at Togane and with the 3rd-graders at K-chu, but I’m convinced that this was the best it’s ever gone. I don’t know if that’s in spite of or because of the fact that W-sensei wasn’t there. I had a little help from a young teacher who had a free period, but she’s not an English teacher so I had to explain the entire complex game myself. But somehow I did it, and thanks to them being an excellent group they played the game perfectly. One group finished the race, another got to the second-to-last row, but the other four groups were right there keeping up with them, making for maximum excitement.

That class was the only class where I had any kind of say in who got picked for the Speech Contest. S-sensei picked the two 3rd-graders, a boy and a girl, and W-sensei picked two boys to do the 1st-grade skit. Only one 2nd-grader can be chosen, and while W-sensei had try-outs in one of her lessons without me, apparently the two best were girls who’d gone the previous year and she wanted to give other students a chance. There were two other girls who’d done well, H- and R-, and she had them both do an audition for me.  They’re both great students and I like both of them a lot, so I didn’t want to have to choose. I ended up not choosing and just going with the homeroom teacher’s preference of H-, but I feel like I made a choice by not choosing.  R-’s audition had been slightly better but I couldn’t bring myself to not choose H-, who’s one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever known.  She’s very shy and timid but I think doing well at the Speech Contest would really help boost her confidence.  As for R-, if I have any say at all in the matter she will definitely be picked next year.

I didn’t technically have to go to any schools on Friday— it could have been the first full day of my summer vacation—but I guess I’m becoming more Japanese because I ended up going to two of them. A few days earlier I’d asked Interac to see if I could attend the H-sho closing ceremony. I just wanted one last chance to see those kids and wave goodbye before the long summer holiday. I specifically said in my e-mail that I didn’t want to give a speech, but when the H-sho administrators found out I wanted to come, they were very gratified and wanted me to give a speech to the whole school. I guess no one had told them I’d already given my speech to the individual classes the previous week.

I found this out just as I was getting ready to leave K-chu yesterday afternoon, but since I couldn’t give the same exact speech again for the whole school (what would the kids who’d already heard it think?) I of course had to write a new speech. Luckily I was able to draw most of the material from previously given speeches and include a line about being “grateful for your warmth and enthusiasm” I’d forgotten to put into the original pre-summer vacation speech for H-sho. I just had to write a few extra lines, get Saito-sensei to check and correct them, then spend the rest of the night and all the next morning practicing. I’ve done this enough times by now to find that I’m getting pretty good at it.

When I got to H-sho on Friday morning, I was greeted warmly by the principal and vice principal who both thought it was wonderful that I’d volunteered to come to their closing ceremony of my own volition and give a speech. The vice principal checked my speech before the ceremony and said it was good. The ceremony began very early—just 8:20, so we headed towards the gym very shortly after I arrived.

It was a very short ceremony with just the school song, a speech by the vice principal, the principal, and the 6-1 teacher, and the last speech was mine. I was handed a microphone and for the first time since opening day I stood before the entire H-sho student body.

The first thing I did was unplanned. “Ohayou gozaimasu,” I said. They returned the greeting. “Good morning,” I said. They returned that greeting too, and I said, “oh sugoi!” which elicited a lot of nice smiles and chuckles. Then I got to it.

“The first part of the year is over. I’ve really enjoyed teaching at [H-sho]. I think this is a great school. You’re wonderful students. I’m grateful for your warmth and enthusiasm. Until now I’ve only met the 5th- and 6th-graders. From September, I want to meet all the students, so I’ll eat lunch with every class. I’m looking forward to that. 5th- and 6th-graders, I’ll miss you very much. Everyone, have a wonderfully fun summer vacation. Goodbye. See you!”

Everything but the “See you!” was in Japanese, of course, and I got a lot of nice “see you”s back from the crowd as well as applause.

I stood by the exit as the kids were walking out, and of the kids who I haven’t been teaching more than half of them gave me some kind of greeting on their way out. They all smiled when I returned their greeting, apparently psyched to just have any kind of interaction with the English teacher. So that was quite nice, well worth the effort of memorizing yet another speech.

The principal approached me then and thanked me for my speech and all my work in the first semester. He said something I didn’t quite understand but got the gist of, that the first- through fourth-graders were very excited by my speech, maybe he meant about the part where I said I’d start having school lunch with them.

After that it was off to K-chu to take care of more unnecessary business there.  I was surprised to see students filing into the gym just as I got there. Apparently their closing ceremony happened an hour later than H-sho’s. So even though I didn’t have to go to any closing ceremonies, I ended up going to two. It was interesting to be at one right after the other, the increase in formality from elementary to junior-high rather striking.

After the ceremony each class had a slightly different schedule, so I hung around and waited for different opportunities to go into homerooms and give each Speech Contest student a CD I’d made the previous night of me reading their speeches, so they’ll be better prepared when we start practicing next week.

That was the last thing I did before leaving, and when I got home my semi-summer vacation had officially begun. I’ll be going to Tokyo tomorrow to celebrate Lily’s birthday, and next weekend I’m having a karaoke party with some friends. The following week, it’s off to Germany!

And one final thing of pretty big significance to mention is that I finally applied for a teaching certification program this week and got accepted the very next day. It’s the fastest, cheapest program there is but once I finish it I’ll be certified to teach in the state of Florida. That’s pretty useless as I have no desire to live in Florida but it will be incredibly useful to get jobs at International Schools which is what I want to do after the ALT thing. When I go back to the states I’ll probably need to do some additional work to get certified in the state I do choose to live in, but by then I’ll have been earning a much better salary for awhile and will be much better able to afford it.

So in both the short and long term, the future is looking pretty bright.

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Reading Practice http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/06/26/reading-practice/ http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/06/26/reading-practice/#comments Wed, 26 Jun 2013 05:13:54 +0000 Kemstone http://kemstone.com/Journal/2013/06/26/reading-practice/ I was confronted with a bit of absurdness in the Japanese education system this past week. It started when W-sensei asked me to do a lesson for the first-graders just reviewing how to read the words from the first few chapters of the textbook in preparation for the upcoming exams. She’s been discouraged by the relatively few students who still can’t read English letters, and is holding back the rest of the students on their account.

I repeated a game I played a few weeks earlier to some success, in which I’d divide the class into two teams, put five words up on the blackboard (printed in large font and held up by magnets) and have one student at a time from each team compete to see who could touch the word I read first. Once I’d gone through all the important words from the first chapters of the book, I’d have them come up and try to read the words themselves, giving a chance to the other team if they couldn’t.

Most of the students were perfectly adept at this game, but there were a few who really struggled. Some students would just pick words at random during the listening portion, and make wild guesses based on the first letter of the word in the reading portion (like the word would be ‘and’ and they’d say ‘apple’). Some were really trying to sound the word out but just didn’t have the hang of it yet. And one girl just didn’t get it at all. She’d come to the board each time during the listening portion but not even try to touch the words I called, and during the reading portion she’d stand up and come to the front but just stood staring at the word in painful silence. I could see on her face that she was trying to work out the pronunciation in her mind and at times it looked like she was just about to give the answer, but she was too unsure of herself to try. All I could do was gently encourage her but eventually I’d have to give up and let the other student answer, and she’d go sit down looking crushed. But she never broke down and cried, and she continued to dutifully stand up and subject herself to the embarrassment every time it was her turn, and at least managed to successfully read the word ‘seven’ at the very end.

Afterwards I thought a lot about that game and the students who had trouble with it, and decided to see if I could offer to stay after school and help any students who might want extra practice with phonics and reading. The upcoming English exam is almost certainly a lost cause for them, but if they don’t learn to read now they’re doomed to fail every subsequent English test in the future. I in turn would feel like a failure as a teacher, even though I only get 50 minutes a week with them and there’s only so much I can do in that time, especially when I have to keep moving forward for the sake of the other students.

I told W-sensei my idea on Thursday, and she reacted with her typical skepticism that such a thing could be arranged, but she said she’d ask about it. I didn’t get the sense that she was going to make it a priority, but once I left it must have quickly dawned on her that having students who still can’t read at this point reflects poorly on her, so she should take any chance she gets to help them out. In less than a minute she approached S-sensei with my idea.

To me it seemed like the most obviously doable thing in the world, but apparently that’s just my background in American education. Students who need extra help with a particular subject can stay after school and get that help from teachers who are willing to help them. Such a thing is entirely ordinary in American schools, but apparently not in Japan. In Japan, club activities come first—or at least they’re a higher priority than English. S-sensei explained to me that all of the students have to go to their club after school. Apparently they can’t even stay an extra 20 minutes for study and be a little late to their club.

As if that weren’t ridiculous enough, it gets even more absurd. This week—the week of exams—all club activities are cancelled. The idea is that students should go directly home after school and study. There’s no guarantee that they will study, but it gives them more time to study if they choose to use it. So if students who have trouble reading want to study that, it would make perfect sense for them to have a chance to study reading with a native English speaker who can actually help them learn to pronounce the letters—something a textbook can’t do. But apparently this isn’t possible either. The rule is that the students go home directly after school, so that’s what they must do. Even though the whole reason for that is to give them a chance to study, they can’t study at the school.

The only thing that could be done was to use my “Kyle Shop” time for extra reading practice. Instead of having whichever students from a particular grade come and shop or play a game, we’d make Thursday, Monday, and Tuesday a “special lesson” for first-graders and W-sensei would send the students with the lowest reading scores to me during that 20-minute after-lunch break period.

So what in a rational world would have been a chance for students who really wanted to learn to read to come after school for as long as they wanted over the course of as much time as they needed ended up turning instead into three 20-minute after-lunch phonics cram-sessions for students forced to show up.

I tried to do the best I could under the circumstances. The after-lunch break-time is pretty hectic and disorganized, so students would trickle in at varying times. I’d never know how many would be coming altogether or when they’d show up. I’d start by practicing letter sounds with three students, then half-way through two more would come in and I’d go back and review from the beginning, then three more would come in when I was near the end and so on. It was between six and ten students each day, with only four students coming all three.

I had laminated cut-outs of every letter in lowercase, and I’d start by going over short vowel sounds, then sounds of letters with just one sound, letters with two or more sounds, then combination sounds, and finally how putting an ‘e’ at the end of a word changes the vowel to a long sound. I had to race through all that in less than 10 minutes. Then for 5 minutes I’d play a quick “game” in which I’d call out a simple word like ‘cat’ or ‘name’ and have the students try and find the correct letters to arrange the word, hopefully remembering the rules I’d just taught them. They’d almost never get it on the first try but with a few hints they’d always get it eventually. Finally, for the last few minutes I’d hold up the words I used in the reading game in the classroom and have the students try to read them, helping them sound it out if they couldn’t. They could get the easy words quickly enough but anything over 3 letters remained a challenge, especially when there were combination sounds or an ‘e’ at the end. Some things just need more time and practice to really sink in.

I found a website where you can point your mouse over letters and letter-combinations and hear the sounds they make, so I printed the URL and gave it to all the students. I also found a website that converts roman-letter words to Japanese katakana, always distorting the pronunciation but the best way I could think of to allow them to check if they could read a word. I made a list of all the words from the beginning of the textbook in one column and their katakana version on the right, so the students could fold it and check each word if they were serious about studying on their own.

Other than provide them those tools for self-study, I figured the most valuable thing I could actually do for them would just be to give them some encouragement. I wish I’d had O-sensei to help me figure out how to express what I wanted to say in Japanese, but I did the best I could with my limited vocabulary. Half-way through our second “lesson”, I paused and talked to the kids about how I’m actually a slow learner too, poking fun at myself for having lived here nearly two years and still not being able to speak Japanese without constantly making mistakes (which I’m certain I was doing as I talked to them) or understanding what people were saying when they talk to me. I told them how difficult it was for me to learn hiragana and katakana, that I had to sit and practice many times a day, but I eventually got it and if I could do it they could too. I’m not sure that sunk in but some of them seemed to appreciate it.

Before the third day I remembered a few things O-sensei had taught me to say when I was saying personal farewells to Togane Chu students. Near the end of that lesson I told the kids that I wished them success, and “If you believe in yourself, I know you can succeed.” They responded kindly.

At least one girl, a really sweet girl who loves my lessons in spite of her difficulty learning, definitely appreciated what I was doing. She came every day determined to learn, and always left with a sincere “thank you”. Most of the boys, unfortunately, were clearly only there because they’d been told to come and hardly put forth any effort, though at least two of them did try.

As for the girl who’d had the most difficulty with my reading game, I addressed her in particular at the end of our last lesson. I told her I know that she’s capable of reading English, and she quickly disagreed and said it was “muri” (impossible). I reiterated that it is possible, that I could see it in her eyes. I don’t know if her smile at that comment was one of amusement or appreciation, but it felt like a positive response. I even told her (to the best of my limited ability) that I saw how difficult my game in class had been for her but that I respected how she kept coming to the front and trying every time. I don’t know if my words had any effect at all, but they were sincere. I know a dumb student when I see one and she isn’t dumb—she just thinks she’s not smart enough to read English. If that’s a result of her never getting encouragement from parents or other teachers, then maybe my little bit of encouragement might go a long way.

Unfortunately I doubt it, but that’s just one of the biggest downsides of my current teaching-role. As the Assistant Language Teacher my opinion is not as valuable as that of a real teacher, my time with the students is not long enough to make a significant impression, and due to the language barrier I’m not really able to reach them on a truly meaningful level.

One day I’ll hopefully be able to make a real difference in students’ lives, but I’ve got a ways to go before I get there. At least this experience serves as something of an appetizer of what that might actually feel like. It must be a feeling that’s really worth living for.

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