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Second Honeymoon

October 27th, 2012 No comments

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

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

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

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

“Earthquake! Wahoo!!!”

And so on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Contest

October 28th, 2011 No comments

I’m in the middle of a particularly eventful few days. This is the second of two entries I’m posting today, the first of which is below.

Thursday was a special day in the school-year, the day when every class competes in a Chorus Competition which isn’t held in the school itself but instead in a large performance hall up in the hills. I had the option of not attending and thus having the day off, but the choice between another boring free day and a chance to witness another unique Japanese cultural event was no choice at all.

I got directions from Mrs. T- the day before and yesterday morning rode my bicycle to the place in question, stopping in to three 7-11s first in search of a sandwich without pork in it because I had to bring my own lunch. I had to go some distance out of the way before finally finding one, so I ended up arriving there a few minutes late, which turned out to not be an issue at all. There were teachers all along the way there to direct the students on the right way to go, and a few of them were still out when I arrived just behind one of the last students. I got few “hello”s shouted at me as I rode by the building where the students were gathering outside, and I had to ride around and park my bike in the lot among the students’ bikes before walking over to the gathering area where attendance was just being taken.

Aside from the students who shouted greetings at me, I felt a little invisible. None of the teachers told me what was going on, when I could go inside, where I should sit, what the program would be, or anything. I just stood and watched the students file in one class at a time until someone noticed my confusion and said I could go inside. Every student had their sleeves checked by the teachers before going inside, apparently to make sure the sleeves of their white shirts weren’t rolled up underneath their suit-jackets. Conformity in action.

I found my way to the auditorium where all of the students were already seated. The third-graders were in the orchestra seats up front, the first-graders were behind them in the next seating-section behind a flat walkway, and the second-graders were immediately behind them. I’ve seen all 600 students together before in school assemblies, but somehow in the concert hall the student-body seemed much bigger.

One of the teachers was kind enough to direct me to a blocked-off area of seats on the left, and I made my way to the front row of that mostly-empty section to get the best view possible. I was sitting right on the corner near the clear walkway, which gave any students who wanted a chance to come up and talk to me. A- from the speech contest was the first to approach me, along with one of her friends from her class, a half-Columbian girl who likes to speak Spanish we me (even though we both know very little). I asked A- how she felt about her class’s chances of winning and she didn’t seem too optimistic, but I gave her a “Yes we can” for a smile.

One of the JTE’s, Mrs. S- came up to me and I was able to ask her a little bit about how this thing was supposed to work. Apparently each class would be singing two songs—one song that was the same for the entire grade and another that was unique to their class—and they were being judged by professional musicians who would decide on a runner-up and first-place winner within each grade, as well as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place for the whole school (which I presume always goes to the third-graders).

In what will probably be my grandfather’s favorite part of the story, she showed me the sheet-music for the third-grade song, which was actually a Christian hymn. I told her that in America a public school could never get away with teaching a Christian hymn to the students, but apparently that’s the song the head music teacher selected for them. Most of them don’t know what it means and almost certainly don’t give a moment’s thought to the meaning (even though the words were translated ), but I found it extremely amusing to think that a class full of Shinto and Buddhist Japanese students were going to be singing about how they were “warriors of Christ.”

The event began with a short speech by the principal followed by the school song, which I politely stood for as though it were the National Anthem. After that it was time for the first-graders, all of whom took the stage to sing their song together before splitting into individual classes for the competition part. I was glad it was a nice song because I’d get to hear it seven times that morning, though by the last time I was already sick of it. In addition to just singing, each class had a piano-player and a conductor from their class. In America not too many students play the piano let alone conduct, but somehow every class had at least one of each.

After the first-graders there was a short pause, and then it was the same routine with the second-graders. Their song was “Scarborough Fair” which took much less time than the first-graders’ song because they merely sang the first verse in English and then again in Japanese. I love that song, and I hadn’t grown sick of it even by the seventh time.

The songs chosen by each class were also universally pleasant (even the hymn), so in spite of some slight boredom here and there it was an enjoyable experience. The sound of children singing is pretty pleasant in general, and these kids had put a lot of practice into their songs, rehearsing them in music class for months, perhaps even in the earlier part of the year before the summer holidays.

It was a lot like the school concerts I used to have in my own school-days, though a few major differences made it an event of a different nature entirely. For one thing, almost none of the students’ parents were there, and if they were they were up out of sight on the mezzanine. Of course most importantly, this was a competition. The students weren’t just singing for fun or for the enjoyment of their parents, but for the concrete purpose of winning honor for their class and avoiding the shame of losing. The audience wasn’t simply enjoying the songs, but constantly judging how each class measured up against one another. Even I tried to gauge which classes had the best chances of winning, and while it wasn’t always easy to predict the winners, the losers were easy to spot. A few bad singers could ruin it for everybody.

Naturally I was comparing the event to the Speech Contest the entire time, as these were both competitions that students poured a great deal of effort and emotional investment into. Not all of them, for sure (plenty of both were clearly not into it at all), but a majority of the girls and nearly all of the third-graders, for whom this would be their last chance at winning. I’m still split on the rightness or wrongness of turning a potentially just-for-fun event into a competition that would invariably end with emotional devastation on the part of some, but I’m at least certain of one thing: this was far less cruel than the Speech Contest. At least in a competition of classes, you’re in it together with your fellow students. If you lose, you share in the disappointment with the same group of people you see every day.

The second-graders wrapped up shortly after noon, then the students all went outside to sit in their various groups and have lunch. I ate my 7-11 sandwiches inside and then went out to float from group to group to group and engage in awkward interaction with the students. Not awkward because they didn’t want me there, but purely for communication reasons. Even simple questions like “Are you enjoying the contest?” are too difficult for many students to understand. But at least everyone could understand things like, “Nice weather today.” “Yes, it’s sunny!”

Another thing about the chorus contest that was also true of lunch is that I got to see a lot faces I don’t normally see. I think it’s true of many Asian countries, but the Japanese are definitely big on those surgical masks to protect them from airborne germs. Some students only wear them when they’re ill, but some students wear them every single day. But they have to take them off while singing or eating lunch, so it was interesting to finally see what they really look like. There’s one girl in particular who is extremely outgoing and who talks to me all the time (albeit usually in incomprehensible Japanese) but who is perpetually masked. While her second-grade class was singing it took me a few moments to even realize it was her. When she called out to me at lunch and I went over to her group it was like interacting with a new person.

Near the end of the break, all of the third-grade classes got together and ran through their songs again for a bit of last-minute practice. I floated between all of them, but I made sure to give a few extra words of encouragement to A-’s class, 3-6, which is filled with students I like.

There’s another third-grade class, 3-4, that also has a lot of students I particularly like. That’s the class where the girls came up to me one day to ask me what music I listened to. When I was seated back in the auditorium they came up to me again, and we were able to communicate much longer than I ever have before thanks to the fodder for topics that the contest could provide. They all expressed how nervous they were, and I was able to ask them which of the first- and second-grade classes they though were the best, and things like that. A few minutes after they left, an individual girl from that class came up and spoke to me on her own accord as well. None of the boys came up to try and chat with me but about half of them gave me a “hello” at some point.

The third-graders all got up on stage to sing their hymn, then came the individual classes. 3-4 came in the middle and they did an excellent job, but it was hard to weigh their performance against 3-1 and 3-2 who also performed beautifully. Some of the girls from 3-2 started crying after their performance, which brought some emotions to the surface in me. When one of the crying girls looked my way I assured her it was great and her “thank you” was like the most sincere thing I ever heard.

A-’s class, 3-6, was the last to go, and I was very disheartened when they gave a clearly sub-par performance. The conductor for 3-6 had been clutching her stomach in nervousness before the performance, and afterwards she broke down in tears, her face as red as if had been badly sun-burned. It was such an emotional scene that my eyes started welling up themselves, and her friend came up to me and asked me what I thought. Of course I lied and said it was great, and when she made me repeat it for her crying friend it actually seemed to help, and she gave me another astonishingly sincere “thank you”. I don’t think I’ve ever felt better about telling a lie.

A- didn’t come up to me, and I’m glad she didn’t. I wouldn’t have wanted to lie to her and call into question the very sincere praise I’d given her at the Speech Contest.

The third-graders were finished around 2:00, but the school-day doesn’t technically end until 4:15 so there had to be something to fill the time. First there was the school-wide chorus which took the stage and sang a few songs, the atmosphere noticeably different now that it wasn’t being judged. Then they rolled out a drum set and a couple of over-sized xylophone-looking things, and a group of three professional musicians came out to play a few songs which included the theme to Super Mario Brothers. Although the music was nice, I was getting pretty sleepy, my leg was falling asleep, and I just wanted them to announce the winners so we could all go home.

Around 3:30 the school chorus came back to do a few songs with the professional musicians, and then the stage was cleared and one of the women judging the contest came out to say a few words before the winners were announced. By “a few” I mean about two-hundred-thousand too many—she went on and on and on and on in incomprehensible Japanese for about fifteen solid minutes that felt like fifty. “Just shut up and put everyone out of their misery already!” I kept thinking. The tension in the room was so thick you could barely see through it.

Finally she left and one of the members of the school faculty took the stage. Apparently they wanted the news to be delivered by a familiar face. He made a couple of jokes at the beginning and then at last began revealing the winners. I’d been hoping he’d do it by class number so I’d be able to understand, but the announcements were done by the names of the songs. Of course there were outbursts of emotion all over the auditorium, so I was able to tell which group won something, but I didn’t know whether they’d won runner-up or first-place or anything. The first two girls to take the stage had merely won the prizes of best conductor and piano player, which I didn’t realize until I spoke to Mrs. T- after. The red-faced crying girl was, thank the gods, the winner for best conductor. But that didn’t stop her from crying her eyes out while she was up on the stage. A- and the rest of 3-6 gave her encouraging waves from their seats, but they were not to be among the winners of the day.

When it was all over I was still in massive confusion about what happened, so I caught Mrs. T- in the lobby and asked her to tell me what the results were, which I marked down on my program. The first and second place winners from the first- and second-graders made sense, as did the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prize from the whole school, which were all among the third-grade classes. The #1 prize went to 3-4, which pleased me. When that group of girls emerged from the auditorium they marched victoriously up to me to receive their congratulatory high-fives.

Of course there were plenty of other girls there in tears. None of the boys seemed to care much, but that was to be expected. Still, the whole place was such a mess of emotion that my urge to get the hell out of there was growing exponentially. Too much for my soft mushy heart to handle.

The classes were gathered outside with their homeroom teachers, whom I presume were all either giving victory speeches if they’d won, or if they’d lost some words of comfort (or perhaps a lecture on how they’d brought shame upon themselves and their classmates—who knows?) I safely escaped to my bicycle and rode away.

So that was the Chorus Contest. It was about as enjoyable as such a thing could be, though my feelings are still pretty mixed about it. But whether good or bad, it was certainly an interesting experience.

Tonight promises to be an equally interesting experience, if not the most interesting of the week. A bus is leaving from the school at 5:30 to take me and any other faculty members who might require it to a party in the nearby town of Naruto, so I will once again be drinking with my Japanese colleagues, though this time is going to be much bigger than the little welcome party back in September. I have very little idea what to expect. I’ve seen what a few of these people are like when the office-persona comes off and they kick back, but most of them are still a complete mystery to me, including most of my fellow English teachers and the principal and vice-principal. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what they’re like in a social setting.

Naturally, I’ll report back with that on the morrow.