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Driver’s License Adventures, Part 2

March 27th, 2013 No comments

I spend all of Monday morning in preparation-mode, cycling between practicing my speeches for Friday’s closing day of school, and this afternoon’s practical driving test. To prepare for the driving test, I go through the entire course in my mind, visualizing every part of it and even using the Mario Kart Wii wheel as a prop. I’ve got the entire thing down to a science, each and every procedure and for each and every section of the course. Most people fail on their first try, but it’s possible that the entire next year of my life is riding on this. If it looks like I might not pass in time, Interac might not transfer me to the schools I’m hoping to be transferred to.

I time my arrival at the Unten Menkyo center in Kaihinmakuhari to correspond with the beginning of the one-hour block of time from 12:00 to 1:00 in which people are allowed to walk the course. I walked it a couple of times the first time I was there, but I definitely want at least one more chance to get it even more firmly in my mind, walking the course and going through each procedure at the actual places I’d be carrying them out. Just my luck that it’s raining today—now I’ve got the whole windshield-wiper situation to add on top of everything else I need to be conscious of, not to mention the potentially slippery roads. I’ve got my umbrella but after a half-hour walk through the course, I’m still pretty wet and my left foot is soaked—there must be a crack in the bottom of my left shoe.

I would have used the whole hour but I don’t want to get completely drenched, and I feel pretty confident that I’m as prepared as I can possibly be, so I go back inside and wait where I think I’m supposed to wait. When I got in, the ladies at the information desk had told me to pay 2,200 yen for a stamp and take it to Station 8. I got the stamp but Station 8 and every other station was closed for the lunch break, so now I stand there waiting for it to open. To confirm that this is where I’m supposed to be, I ask “jichishiken?” (practical test?) to a girl there and she says something that sounds like confirmation.

At 1:00 four men who appear to be proctors come to the desks and I show them the sheet of paper for the exam I’d received last week. They tell me foreigners have to go to Window 10. I’m confused because the guy at Interac had told me I wouldn’t have to go back to Window 10 and could just show up at the driving course at my appointed time, but shockingly enough this was incorrect, as was the information the lady at the information desk had given me.

So I go to Window 10 and give them the form and the stamps. There hadn’t been a clear place on the form on which to put the stamps, and I find out now that this is because I didn’t need them if this was my first time taking the test because I’d already paid. They tell me to keep the stamps and put them on the form when I re-take the test. I have no intention of having to re-take the test, but OK. Wouldn’t be the first 20 bucks I’ve ever wasted.

After a short wait, I and three other foreigners are called back to the window and told to head over to the test-course waiting room. There are about thirty Japanese people there too, but only three of us who are foreigners who’ll be taking the test with the automatic transmission car. There’s an Indian man with his wife, and a Middle-Eastern guy dressed extremely casually and listening to his iPod. I myself am dressed in a full suit and tie, knowing that half the battle is making a good impression on the proctor.

Our proctor arrives after the others have already entered and begun their explanations to the various other groups taking other kinds of tests. He asks us all if we speak Japanese. The others do but I tell him it’s difficult for me. He apologizes for not speaking any English, but I try to explain that it’s okay because I’ve memorized the course. He shows us the map and explains the whole course to us, doing his best to make sure I understand. I keep assuring him that I do because I’ve studied it. I am relieved that he seems like a nice guy—probably not the kind of proctor who looks for any excuse to fail you.

He tells us that the Middle Eastern guy will be going first and I’ll be riding in the back. Then I’ll take the test while the Indian guy rides in the back. He asks us if there are any questions, and I do have a question so I try to ask. When you make a right turn into a road with two lanes, I’m not sure whether you’re supposed to turn into the right lane and then change lanes to the left, or just turn wide into the left lane. The Middle Eastern guy speaks English so he tells me you’re supposed to turn to the left lane. Unfortunately, I’ve been practicing the other way the whole time, so I’d have to adjust.

The proctors leave and there’s another short wait as they retrieve the test vehicles. At 1:55 the test vehicles pull up, and I’m shocked by how many there are. There are about ten cars, but also three busses and a tractor. The test course—it appears—is going to be a lot busier than I’d thought.

The three of us find our car and the Middle Eastern guy opens the back door for me to go inside. He’s a nice guy and I hope he passes, both for his sake and so that I can see what a passing test-run is like.

In the book about the driving tests I’d been studying, it tells you to carefully check under the back and under the front of the car before you get in. The Middle Eastern guy doesn’t do this but the proctor is already in the car and doesn’t seem to notice. It appears you don’t have to do that in this prefecture.

He takes his seat and fastens his seat-belt, so far appearing to do everything correctly. The proctor points out where the blinker is (the Japanese word is “winka”), as well as the emergency break and the windshield wipers. In Japanese the blinker and wiper are reversed, but luckily the pedals are the same. I’ve made sure to practice the right-side blinker motion in my head every time.

As we pull out, I’m relieved to find that it has in fact stopped raining. So that’s one less thing to worry about.

The book suggests you verbalize every action as you take it, but the Middle Eastern guy doesn’t and I don’t think it’s necessary anyway. The book also tells you to keep as far left within the left lane as possible, but he doesn’t do that either. As he rounds the first curve I’m already starting to doubt his chances of passing, as he not only doesn’t stay to the left of the left lane but drifts a little into the right.

The next section is a long straight road where you must accelerate to 40 km/hr. Some prefectures will make you change lanes so I’d practiced that as well, but this wasn’t part of the test. Another thing I can stop worrying about.

At the end of the long stretch, you can go straight into a right-hand curve or take a left-hand “exit” into a stretch of road with a hill and fake railroad tracks. My map had shown that for our test we’d have to take that road, so I’d practiced those two obstacles—making a full stop on the hill and accelerating without rolling backward, and stopping at the railroad tracks and rolling down the window to listen for a “train”—but apparently I didn’t have to worry about that stuff either.

The Middle Eastern guy starts to merge into the left but the proctor quickly shouts at him not to, to just keep going straight. I feel bad for the guy—it’s also his first time taking the test and he’d been nervous as hell going into it. That little slip-up undoubtedly got him rattled even more.

Around the next bend you have to change to the right lane to avoid an obstacle, then make a right turn onto the center road with four lanes (two for each side) and a traffic light. He starts to turn into the wrong road, and the proctor has to shout at him again. This really isn’t going well. But if he actually manages to pass that’s great news for me as it means the bar is much much lower than I’d expected.

But when he actually does make the right turn, I know it’s over for him. He turns into the lane second-from-the-right, which is the wrong side of the road. The proctor corrects him and he gets to the right (left) side of the road, but rather than a specific lane just straddles the line between them all the way through the traffic light. He makes the next three left turns, forgetting to put his blinker on, and just when he’s about to reach the crank, the proctor tells him it’s over. He’s failed. Just take the car back to the dock. On his way back he once again drives on the right side of the road. Ouch.

I get out of the car as the proctor explains to him all the reasons he failed. The Indian guy—who will be riding in the back during my test—is there and I inform him that our Middle Eastern friend failed. The Indian guy will be taking the test for the second time, and I tell him this is my first. He tells me how difficult it is, but somehow I’m much less nervous than I’d expected to be. Maybe it was because I knew I couldn’t possibly do as poorly as the first guy, and my driving would seem expert by comparison.

When I’m told to get in the car, the proctor is still inside but I go and check under the car anyway. Better safe than sorry. I go inside, lock the door, adjust the seat, and check all the mirrors (adjusting the rearview with both hands) before I realiz I’d forgotten the seat-belt. No matter, at least I remembered it before starting the car. I also check the blinker, the wipers, and the emergency brake. Once I’m sure I’ve done everything I was supposed to before starting the car, I ask if it’s OK to start. I start the engine, release the emergency break, put the car in drive, and do the “full-head spin”. The word for “check” in Japanese is “kakunin”, and I’ve been practicing saying that followed by a number for each thing I check. When you start you’re supposed to check 1- behind you, 2- the left mirror, 3- the rearview mirror, 4- the right mirror, and 5- over your right shoulder. I go through this while verbalizing, “kakunin ichi ni san shi go” then put the blinker on and pull out.

course

I continue to verbalize everything as I make my way through the course. You’re supposed to check your rearview before every time you brake, so I say “baku mira” then “bureki” every time. At the long stretch of road it takes me awhile to accelerate to 40 but I get there, and make sure to verbalize the checking of my rearview four times along the stretch (the book says you fail if you don’t check at least twice).

I make it all the way around the course and am already feeling a little more at ease. This is the first time I’ve ever driven a vehicle in a foreign country and the first time I’ve ever driven on the left side with the wheel on the right. I haven’t driven a car at all since October, but it appears to have come right back to me with no rustiness at all, and the fact that the wheel is on the other side is not as disconcerting as I’d feared. Visualizing it all dozens of times beforehand really helped.

But so far has just been the easy part. Now we get to the turns and obstacles, starting with the right turn onto the center road. When you turn right you have look 1- left, 2- right, 3- at your right mirror, and 4- over your right shoulder. I say “kakunin ichi ni san shi” and make the turn, hand-over-hand like you’re supposed to, but my instinct is to turn into the lane closer to the center. That was a mistake, but at least it was the correct side of the road.

There’s not enough room to change lanes before the traffic light, and it’s just turning red. I say, “aka shingo desu” (the light is red) and stop. Ah, twenty seconds of rest before proceeding. When the light turns green I say, “aoi shingo desu” (the light is blue—yes, blue) and proceed. I kakunin at both crosswalks and check my rearview again, then change lanes to get in the left before the course’s series of three left turns around the block with the crank. There’s a stop sign there so I say “tomare desu” (it’s a stop) then stop and count to three (you must wait a full three seconds) before proceeding.

Left turns are the same procedure as right turns but in reverse, so I kakunin ichi ni san shi again and turn left, making sure to keep the turn as tight as possible. I signal left as soon as the first left turn is complete, which the book also suggests you to because it’s obviously better to signal too early than too late. The proctor has been calling out each turn in advance, but he can tell I’ve already got it memorized. I’m hoping my blatant use of Japanese is correcting his earlier impression that I’m just a dumb foreigner who can’t speak the language, and I think it’s helping. I even say “winka” every time I signal.

After the third left turn I’m at the point where the first guy failed, but now we’ve reached what most people consider the most difficult part of the course. It’s called the “crank”. A very narrow road with two sharp right-angle turns you must navigate without hitting the polls erected over the curbs, or driving over the curb. You’re allowed to hit the curb but driving over it is instant failure. If you hit the curb you’re allowed to back up, but only three times.

The book says the procedure for the left turn is to stay as far left as possible and turn at the last possible moment, then get as far to the right as possible for the right turn. This has been bugging me because I imagine that making it more likely to clip your tires, so instead I try to keep to the center. I take that turn as slowly as humanly possible, coming within a centimeter of hitting those polls but not doing so. I’m hugely relieved to have made it through the first turn without having to reverse at all, but half-way through my second turn I feel my back left tire hit the curb.

Okay, so we’ve got to back up. I shift into reverse and pull straight back like the book says, but the tire hits again when I continue. Now I turn the wheel a little as I back up, trying to get into what I imagine is a more favorable alignment. No avail—the tire hits again. As I shift into reverse the third time, the proctor informs me this is the third time. If I don’t make it this time, I fail. This time I turn the wheel massively as I reverse, really altering the alignment as much as possible. And it works! The tire doesn’t clip and I don’t hit the polls. The hardest part is over!

The next part is cake. A right turn back on the main road and a right turn at the traffic light—I turn into the closer lane again, but I merge left quickly enough and hope it’s not the difference between passing and failing. Slow down and kakunin at every little intersection, winka before the left turn at the end, stop and count to three at the stop sign. Left turn and around the bend, and now we’re at the course’s second major obstacle: the S-curve.

This is exactly what it sounds like: an extremely narrow S-shaped curve you have to navigate without hitting the curb. The books says it’s easier than the crank, but as soon as I enter it I can tell it ain’t that easy. I make the leftward curve as slowly as possible, ever conscious of the distance between my right tires and the curb, and keeping the blinker on the whole time. I get to the straight section, change to a right turn-signal, and begin turning the wheel to the right.

That’s when it happens. I feel my left rear tire rise up and plummet back down again. My sigh is so loud that the Indian guy in the back probably heard it too.

At the end of the curve, the proctor tells me what I already knew: because I drove up on the curb I have in fact failed, and I should return the car to the dock.

I don’t bother verbalizing anything anymore. I don’t even pay enough attention to what I’m doing to remember that the blinker is on the right side, and end up putting the windshield wipers on for the last turn. Doesn’t matter now anyway.

We pull in and the Indian guy gets out so the proctor can tell me my mistakes. It’s amazing how well I can understand Japanese when I know exactly what the person is going to say. He said my checking was very good, and I drove well. I failed because I drove on the curb in the S-curve, but I also lost points for not turning into the far left lane on two of the right turns, and also for turning the wheel too much in the crank. I think he wished me better luck next time.

So that was it. I’d done almost everything right and went to great lengths to give the proctor no excuse whatsoever to fail me. I did make a good impression on him, but it ultimately didn’t even matter. What did me in was a mistake of pure mechanics—I misjudged the position of the rear of my car during an obstacle. That’s instant failure no matter what the proctor might think of you.

As I walk away the Indian guy tells me he’d failed for the same exact reason his first time, and that he can’t believe how narrow that S-curve is. I wish him luck and go on my way, passing by the Middle Eastern guy outside as he’s smoking a cigarette and inform him of my failure. We wish each other better luck next time, and in I go to make another appointment.

I’m upset, but not as angry as I thought I might be. Having to take the test again is no big deal—what I’m worried about is how this might affect my job placement. If I can’t get the license before the school year starts on April 8th, they might not give me the position I’d been hoping for, the one with multiple schools including junior high and elementary. Unfortunately, the next appointment I can take is for April 4th, cutting it as close as possible. That’s also a Thursday which means if I get the license that day there’d only be Friday to get a car and be ready to drive to work on Monday, so this might mean they’ll change my placement already.

I call Interac but neither of the people who are handling my license-situation are in the office, so I have to wait until one of them calls me back. That happens as I’m waiting on the train platform, and when I tell him I fail he’s totally nonchalant, saying that’s the norm and not to worry about it. I express to him my worry about it affecting my placement, and he says he doesn’t think it will—that they’ll just look into bus routes or something until I get the license. I think if I can take a bus to these schools why do I need a car in the first place, but I don’t say anything. I’ve already gone this far—I’m going to see it through until I get that license, even if it takes me ten tries. (On the plus side, the 2,200 yen I’d spent on those stamps turned out not to be a waste after all!)

I’m relieved, but I want to talk to the woman in charge of that anyway, also to clear up my question about whether my school will have the official word I’m leaving before the closing ceremony. She’s out of the office all day but I reach her the following morning, and she tells me Interac informed the Board of Education about my transfer on Monday and they’d probably tell the school sometime this week. More good news.

She also tells me that they checked the route to my schools and I can use a bicycle to get to them until I get the license. Again I’m wondering why I need a car at all, but at this point I’m not turning back.

I also ask her why they can’t tell me what specific schools I’m going to, and she says it’s because of the contract, but they’ll tell me next week. But she can tell me that it’s one junior high school and two elementary schools, which all but completely confirms that it’s going to be what I think it is—that I’ll be taking over the schools from the Jamaican Jehovah’s witness, meaning I’ll be going to the same junior high school that one of my current vice principals is becoming the principal of. More good news.

So that was the second installment of my driver’s license adventures, both for those of you who know me and any foreigners who might have stumbled on this post while researching how to pass the driver’s test. Hopefully this will just be a trilogy rather than a long series of chronicles.

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The End Approaches

March 24th, 2013 No comments

Friday was my last actual paid work day at my school, so I suppose I technically don’t work there anymore. But it didn’t feel like the last day because in reality, it wasn’t. It was the last day for the students, but the teachers remain for another week before changing jobs within the school or transferring to their new schools. There was a closing ceremony on Friday, but the real, actual, final closing ceremony won’t be until this Friday, the 29th. Attending that is optional for me, but I wouldn’t dream of missing it.

Friday was, however, the last day for O-sensei, my teaching partner for every class for the last two semesters. Her husband is being transferred to Korea, so she’ll be moving there with him and just be a housewife for awhile until she’s comfortable enough with the language to get some kind of job. It’s a pity because she made a great teacher, but I suppose she never intended to make a career out of it.

Departing part-time teachers give farewell speeches at the first closing ceremony while full-timers go at the second, so O-sensei one of three teachers who gave a speech on Friday. One of others was being offered a position as a full-time teacher, so he had to give a farewell speech in spite of the fact that he’d already found out—though he was supposed to keep it secret—that his new job would be at the same school. The students are in for a pleasant surprise when they see him again in April.

I hadn’t stayed the whole day after the closing ceremony last year, so I hadn’t known how the whole teacher-transfer process goes down. At the end of the day of the closing ceremony, there’s a meeting in the teacher’s room in which the principal formally announces which teachers and faculty members will be transferring and where to, and he also reads the names and ages of the people who’ll be replacing them. Apparently it’s supposed to be kept secret until that moment, and even then they’re not supposed to tell anyone until the formal announcements are made in the newspaper the following week.

Why the need for secrecy, I have no earthly idea. O-sensei couldn’t explain it either. That’s just how it works in Japan.

Apparently, I was also supposed to keep my own impending transfer a secret. When I e-mailed Interac to ask them which specific schools I’d be going to, they wrote back telling me I should only be saying that I might transfer to another school, not that I definitely would. Oops. Too late. But that’s a mistake I couldn’t possibly regret any less, as I wouldn’t have had all those wonderful goodbyes from students if I hadn’t told them I’d be leaving.

But the whole secrecy thing complicates things in terms of my own role at the school’s final closing ceremony. I’ve been hoping to be able to give my farewell speech—to which I’ve added a few extra paragraphs and continue to practice every day—in front of the whole school like the other departing full-timers. But Interac hasn’t told my school’s administrators about the transfer yet, and I learned from T-sensei yesterday that the school actually received a letter telling them I would stay there. This confuses me greatly, and I called Interac to find out what the deal was but the woman who handles placement wasn’t there and she never called me back, so I have to wait until Monday to clear things up. She did write in her e-mail that they let the schools know about their shuffling of ALTs at the “end of March” and the 29th is the last weekday of March so I’m fairly confident they’ll know by the closing ceremony, but I’m not technically supposed to be a part of the closing ceremony unless they have the official word that I’m leaving. T-sensei said that I could still give my speech, but it would just be its own extra part of the assembly. I wouldn’t be in the formal goodbye part where all the departing teachers are handed flowers by students, make their speeches one by one, and formally exit the gym. I’d probably also be excluded from the farewell-speech giving portion of the enkai, for which I’ve also prepared a speech.

It’s a little annoying, but I’m pretty sure they’ll be told the news next week and everything will be ready for Friday. It would be extremely weird for Interac to withhold news about who the school’s ALT for the next school-year will be until it actually is the next school year.

Interac is even keeping the schools I’ll be going to secret from me, though I have a pretty strong clue as to which junior high school I’m going to. It came about in a bit of an odd way. A year ago, the mother of one of my students found my apartment while doing her Jehovah’s witness knocking-on-doors thing, and ever since then she’s been showing up at my door every couple of months or so to talk to me about Jesus and make me read Bible passages. I’m too polite to ask her to stop, so she keeps coming. The last couple of times she came, she brought with her a Jamaican girl who is also a Jehovah’s witness and also an Interac ALT. The first time, once we got through the Bible stuff she asked me if I’d be transferring and at that point I didn’t know. She said she already knew she’d be transferring and I should contact Interac and ask them, which is what prompted me to do that at the beginning of the month. The second time she came I said I would be transferring but I didn’t know where to, that it would be in Togane but they were making me get a car. She said that meant I’d probably be taking over her schools, as she needed a car to get to them. They’re in Togane, but way up in the hills so it’s not really feasible to walk or bike to them. As far as I know, there’s only one junior high school up in the hills, and since she was their ALT and she’s transferring, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that this is in fact where I’ll be transferring to.

At the meeting on Monday, I listened to where the other departing teachers are being transferred to, but none of them were going to that school. However, one of the vice principals—the really nice guy who once told me he wishes all Americans were like me—is going become the principal of that school, which needless to say is awesome news. No stress about making a good impression on that principal—I’ve already had two years to do so!

But we’ll see. If I fail the driver’s test tomorrow, there’s some chance Interac won’t offer me that position. They said they’d pay for a cab until I get the license, but I’ve long since learned not to always trust the information Interac gives me. For all I know, what they told my school was true and they won’t end up transferring me at all—leaving me with a substantial amount of egg on my face when I go back in April and face all those students I shared heartfelt farewells with.

In any case, I should know by Friday. Though the school-year is technically over for me, I pretty much consider this to be a work-week. Monday is the driver’s test and that’ll take up the whole day. Tuesday is the day of the Spring Concert, so I’ll be seeing a whole bunch of teachers and students that day. Wednesday and Thursday are free but I’m toying with the idea of going in anyway just for the hell of it. And Friday is the closing ceremony and farewell enkai. So it’s over but it’s not over.

The only absolute final goodbye I’ve said so far is to O-sensei, who will not be working next week and not attending the closing ceremony. She was given a very fond farewell by the faculty when she left at the end of the day, and I was asked to pose in a picture with her as she left. We exchanged a few words of mutual appreciation for each others’ help, and I gave her a note I’d written to further express my appreciation. I’d written messages to all the students, so it was only right to write one for her as well. She helped me tremendously throughout the school year both with lessons and basic life-in-Japan stuff. I was extraordinarily lucky to be partnered with her, but now that’s over.

I feel extraordinarily lucky to have taught at that school, but that’s over too and it’s time to move on. One week to go.

Falling Into Placement

March 6th, 2013 No comments

I didn’t expect things to happen so quickly, but less than three days after I made that call to Interac I now pretty much know what the next school-year has in store for me.

I won’t go into the complicated little details of how this all came together, but suffice it to say it’s now beyond any doubt that I will not be returning to this school. I will still be operating under the Togane Board of Education, but I will have two schools instead of one—a different junior high school than the one I’m at now, and an elementary school. That’s as close to the kind of situation I’d been hoping for as I could have hoped for. Not only will I get to find out what life is like in another junior high school, but I’ll also get a taste of elementary school life as well.

I don’t yet know what the specific schools will be, but I do know that I will have to get a driver’s license in order to reach them. I find that a bit odd since Togane isn’t very big and I think I could easily reach anywhere by bicycle, but my being offered this position is predicated on my ability to get a Japanese driver’s license.

After doing some research, it looks like this is no easy task. There are the typical bureaucratic procedural hurdles to get through but that’s not the big obstacle. The written test is also apparently a joke, as I’ve done some sample tests online and pretty much all of it is plain common sense. I just need to study the road signs and I’ll be fine.

The huge hurdle, however, is the dreaded practical examination. It didn’t take long into my research to discover that they make the test as inhumanly difficult as possible, apparently actively searching for any reason whatsoever to fail you. Here’s a website describing what the process is like at the driving center where I have to go. And here’s a site where I downloaded an extraordinarily helpful book from which I can study every last thing they’re looking for, but if you just scan some of the comments at the bottom it’s quite intimidating. Passing the test on your first try, it would seem, is almost unheard of.

At least I have the advantage of plenty of downtime at school to not only memorize the course but the procedure for every little thing down to properly making turns. I’m supposed to go in and apply for the test on Monday, and while there I should be able to walk the course and get everything even more solid in my mind. Still, I expect to fail the first time for the simple reason that I’ve never driven on the left side of the road from the right side of the car in my life. If I were to actually manage to pass this insanely difficult driving test on my very first time behind a right-side steering wheel, it would be nothing short of a miracle of epic proportions.

But I have until April 8 to get the license, and the woman at the Chiba office who was in charge of my placement tells me you can take the test as many times as you want and only have to wait 3 or 4 days between each time. I’m sure I’ll get it on the second or third try, and if by some incredible stroke of misfortune I don’t have it by the 8th, she tells me they’ll arrange for a cab to take me to the schools until I get the license. But that was after she said they’d have to change plans if I couldn’t get the license, so I can’t be too sure of that. The back-up plan, she said, was to just switch me and Kim, giving me just one junior high school to teach at but at least it’s a different one.

Today I had my first final lesson with a non third-grade class. It also happened to be a day that O-sensei was absent so I ran the whole thing on my own. I spoke Japanese nearly the entire time, and was pleased they understood. The first thing I did was tell them it was our last lesson because I won’t be coming back in April, and their reaction was as nonchalant as I’d expect from the second-graders. Some of them seemed a bit warmer than usual, but none of them were upset or anything. Like I wrote before, they’ve long since taken me for granted and that’s a major part of the reason I want to leave in the first place.

But at the very end when I said my goodbyes (I didn’t give the whole big speech, just a few words of gratitude and encouragement) a couple of the students asked me to take a picture of me with the whole class. That was pretty touching, but it’s against the rules so I had to decline.

The next two months are going to be difficult, both in terms of emotion and stress, but they promise to be among the most interesting since I first arrived in Japan.

The Send-Off

March 5th, 2013 No comments

Every year at the beginning of the final week before the seniors graduate, there’s an assembly in which the underclasses give them a send-off. We had ours yesterday, and I guess I missed it last year because it was completely new to me. I might have been called to the Chiba office or something, as I’m sure I would have remembered it.

The first and second graders bring their chairs to the gym, while the third-graders have chairs set up for them. The underclasses are seated by the time the seniors line up at the entrance. Everyone applauds continuously as they enter and take their seats. There’s the singing of the school song, and then the ceremony begins.

I have no idea if it’s the same routine every year, but this year it started with a play performed by the drama club with cameos from some of the teachers. My Japanese isn’t good enough to really comprehend the play, but it obviously took place in school. One of the second-graders had the lead role and did an excellent job. I wonder if he wrote it himself, but I forgot to ask. It was a huge success, with everyone laughing frequently, especially during their teachers’ cameos.

Next came the band performance, and they totally rocked the house. I remember being pretty impressed at last year’s spring concert and was majorly impressed again by them this time. I don’t remember my middle-school band being that talented, but it makes sense that in Japan they’d be better, as Japanese students in general definitely seem to be far more dedicated to their hobbies and after-school activities. (I’d bet any of the sports teams from a Japanese school could beat an American school’s team if that competition were somehow arranged.)

The next part was the most interesting, as one of the teachers had put together a slideshow with pictures of the graduating class taken throughout their whole three years at the school, including pictures of them as first-graders which they got a huge kick out of. There were a lot of random pictures thrown in, but most were from significant events like class trips. There was a lengthy section dedicated exclusively to Sports Day, and I was pleased to see that some of my pictures—which I’d copied to the school’s computer network—were included in the show. A lot of people had worked really hard on this send-off and I hadn’t been asked to do anything, but at least with the inclusion of some of my pictures I could feel I contributed in some small sense.

After that, the emotion level in the room was now pretty high. Some of the girls had tears in their eyes, the reality of the impending end of this special time in their lives perhaps hitting them for the first time. At this point the seniors were asked to turn around and face the underclasses, as one of them gave a short speech thanking the seniors. The underclasses then sang a lovely song for them, thus raising the emotion level even higher. Then a senior gave a short speech to the underclassmen, and the seniors sang a song for them.

Finally, everyone faced the front and the principal gave a short speech of his own to the seniors. I was able to make out that he was talking about his best memories from their class, and he mentioned the pyramid the boys had done and the dance the girls had done on Sports Day, the first time they’d ever done that, and he’d been impressed by it.

Finally, the seniors stood up and left the room as they entered, to continuous applause. Once they were gone the second-graders were asked to help clear the gym floor and I helped a bit with then, then everyone filed out.

It was a beautiful little ceremony. I couldn’t help but get a little emotional myself, not just thinking about how this is the last week the seniors will be here, but probably one of the last weeks I’ll be at this school as well.

I’ve heard that some Interac teachers have already received their placement for the next school-year, so yesterday I called the office and asked if they knew what my situation was going to be. I was transferred to one of the women in charge of placement, and when she told me they were probably going to offer me to the same Board of Education and asked me if I’d like to stay at the same school, I realized absolutely nothing has been done in terms of my placement so far and none of what I’d previously written to Interac had been considered at all. But now the choice was actually being put to me directly—would I like to stay at the same school?

I couldn’t help but hesitate for a moment. I really love this school, and the thought of leaving definitely makes me sad. But all my other reasons for wanting to leave ultimately triumphed and I told them I’d like to change schools. She gave me the impression that I’d be staying in Togane but just switching schools. When I hung up I realized that this would most likely mean they’d simply switch me with Kim, and I’d just teach at the other junior high school next year.

While that would be OK with me, I’d still prefer to get more broad experience, so I sent her an e-mail and explained exactly where I was coming from, that I want to know what other schools are like and while I enjoy junior high school I’m also curious about elementary and high school. I said I’d prefer to work at multiple schools and would be willing to relocate but I don’t have a Japanese driver’s license.

This morning I had an e-mail back from her asking me if I had a valid driver’s license from my own country and if I’d be willing to get one for Japan. She said they were having placement meetings every day now and would discuss my situation this morning and she’d let me know. So nothing is confirmed yet but it definitely sounds like they’ll not only honor my request to change schools, but put me in multiple schools of various levels, which is exactly what I’d like the most.

As to the car question, that leads me to believe I might get to go to other schools without having to actually change my apartment, and I definitely like that idea. It would be cool to live in another part of Japan, but since I now know that I’ll be staying in Chiba anyway, I might as well stay in Togane.

If I do have to drive, I’ll have to go through the whole process of getting a Japanese driver’s license, and I have no idea how complicated that will be. It might just be a matter of filling out an application since I’ve already got an American license, or I might have to take a whole driver’s test—that would undoubtedly be challenging, but I’m sure I’d be up to the task. If that does end up happening it’ll also be the first time I’ll have driven a car in a foreign country (I never drove in my entire four years in Europe), and I’ll have to get used to driving on the left side of the road with the wheel on the right side of the car. That’ll be strange but cool.

Nothing has been decided yet, so I don’t want to get too ahead of myself. But it looks as though like the seniors, my time at this school is also rapidly coming to an end.

A Change is (Probably) Gonna Come

February 7th, 2013 No comments

My 29th birthday was this past Saturday, and it was a good one. It was pretty much the same group of people and the same routine as my return-to-Japan party. Kim and Enam, their friends Will and Mai, Stacy, Jack, and Jack’s friend John, and Atsushi. I didn’t ask for any presents but Atsushi actually bought a cake with “Happy Birthday, Kyle” written on it. Great guy.

We hung out at my place for a couple of hours as we waited for everyone to get there, then went out to eat at a very small and very Japanese restaurant two buildings down from me. The food was delicious and the servers were happy to have our business, but there were some regulars there who seemed bothered by the presence of a large group of foreigners and quickly left after we got there.

After dinner we went to Sound Plaza, the nearest karaoke bar and the same one we went to for my other party and, coincidentally, the same one my school used for the last enkai. We actually ended up in the very same room as the enkai. And for two or three hours it was just good old-fashioned drinking and singing, an activity I never thought I’d enjoy but which I’m enjoying more and more each time. I think my singing voice might be improving too, but it’s hard to tell when you’re intoxicated. But this time I didn’t go too overboard and the hangover the next morning was mild.

I hadn’t seen most of those people in months, not since the Christmas party, and I have no idea when I’ll see them next. I like them all and enjoy their company but I can’t honestly call any of them friends (“friend” in the German “freund”-sense and not the American “I have 286 Facebook friends”-sense). If I really loved any of them like I came to love Oliver and Lena, it would be harder to consider relocating.

But that’s what I expect will happen for the next school-year. Every year Interac has all of its employees fill out an “intentions survey” and makes placement decisions based on our responses. Last year I wrote that I wanted to keep the same contract and stay at this school for another year, and I was extremely glad when that request was granted. And as recently as a few months ago I expected to want to stay here for another year as well.

But over the course of the last few months a feeling has been growing in me that I could really use a change of pace. I’ve been teaching at the same school for almost two school-years now and if I stay another year, by the end I’ll have lived in Japan for nearly three years having only set foot in a single school. Most ALTs have experience in many different schools, often at different levels. I want more experiences too.

So when I took the survey a couple of weeks ago I wrote that I wouldn’t mind changing schools but I wouldn’t mind staying here either. But in the weeks since, my urge to have a change has grown much stronger and now it’s something I really desire. As much as I love this school, I feel I’ve been here long enough and it’s time to move on. And as much as I love Togane as a location in terms of its proximity to the ocean and to Tokyo, I’d like to get to know another part of Japan as well.

There are a few other factors contributing to this desire. For one, pretty much all of my favorite students are third-graders and they’ll be graduating in a few weeks anyway. The current second-graders have long since stopped appreciating me and I feel like most of them take me for granted. I make the lessons as fun as possible and they enjoy them, but it’s just routine for them at this point. Let them have someone else for their third year and maybe they’ll realize how good they had it. The first-graders this year have been fantastic, but kids change quickly and there’s every reason to expect that if I stayed another year they’d become just as apathetic towards me as the current second-graders are.

There’s also the simple fact that I’ve got all these great lessons but I can’t do them again for the same students. If I go to different schools I’ll get to do the lessons again for different students who’ll find them fresh and exciting. It would be awesome to go into a school full of students who’ve only ever had mediocre ALTs who never put much thought into lesson-preparation, let alone awesome game-designing. (By the way, I’ve designed my most epic game yet for the end of the school-year. Once I’ve done it a few more times I’ll have to write all about it.)

Of course there’s a risk that I’ll end up in one of those “human tape-recording” situations like some ALTs whom the JTEs never let do anything creative. I’ve been lucky to be in a situation where I can plan and execute all of my lessons under what is almost my complete control, but that’s definitely not the case for everyone. I’m just hoping that if I show my lesson-plans to whomever I end up working with, they’ll see how much thought I put behind it and how valuable it could be to have the students learn English in a way that’s fun for them.

Finally, what really tipped things towards my wanting to move is that O-sensei told me last week that she and her husband will be moving to Korea when this school-year is over. She’s been as perfect of a teaching-partner as I could possibly imagine, so that alone would be enough to keep me hesitant about leaving, but since she’s leaving anyway it doesn’t matter.

Today I wrote to the placement department and told them that now I definitely want to change schools next school-year and that I am willing to relocate. I expressed a preference for Tokyo (that would mean I could still easily come back and visit) but said I’d be willing to move anywhere and the most important thing to me was to have a change of some kind.

So that’s where things stand right now. If last year was any indication, I won’t know what the final decision is until the very end of the school-year, but I think there’s a strong chance my request will be granted and this school-year will be my last at this school. I’m sure there are plenty of teachers who would love to trade places with me, to have one school that they live within walking distance of instead of a bunch of different schools spread out all over the place. I know what it is I’m giving up, but I’ve had it long enough and I’ve certainly appreciated it while I’ve had it. There’s just so much more out there to be appreciated.

The World Goes On

December 22nd, 2012 No comments

If those silly fools who believed the propaganda about the Mayan prophecy had been correct, the world would have ended yesterday. Maybe what the Mayans had actually predicted was the end of the Japanese public schools’ fall semester.

The last school-day of 2012 was an eventful one for me, starting with the closing ceremony in the school gym. It was exactly the same as last year, basically just the singing of the school song followed by an extremely long speech from the principal (all I got is that he was talking about the future), but this time I stayed after the first and second-graders left and the third-graders remained behind for what was apparently a briefing on their upcoming high school entrance exams. They were split up into groups according to which type of high school they intended to apply to, then the head of the third-grade teachers gave them all an extremely serious speech about the importance of these tests. I only picked up a few phrases here and there but the tone was unbelievably harsh with lots of shouting. It sounded like his goal was to drill home just how incredibly important these tests are, and that if they failed they would amount to nothing more than human garbage who would probably be doing Japanese society a favor by killing themselves. I suppose high school entrance exams aren’t stressful enough so he felt it was his duty to add to the pressure.

Once that was over I was able to leave early because Interac had scheduled that afternoon for me to come to Chiba and take my mandatory annual health check, which was precisely as fun as it sounds. I went to the Chiba branch office for the first time since returning to Japan, so I got to meet the people I was dealing with on the phone during my time stuck in America and put faces to the names and voices.

For the health check I was escorted by a very nice woman who’s new there to a hospital literally across the street from their building, and go through a tedious ordeal of waiting, getting some sort of test done, waiting some more, getting another test done, and so on. I had to do the standard things like height, weight, and blood pressure, as well as an eye-test and chest x-ray, and I had to pee in a cup and hand it to a nurse which is always awkward. Oddly enough, they didn’t do a hearing test or blood test like they had at the health check during orientation last year, but I didn’t complain when it was over and they finally let me go.

The last part of the day was the only enjoyable part, as it was the year-end enkai for my school. It was just about the same type of deal as nearly all of the others I’ve gone to, but that’s not a bad thing at all. Because of the health check I had to fast all day, so I was more than ready to dig into all the crazy Japanese cuisine laid out for us, which seemed to taste more delicious than ever this time.

I got to talk to T-sensei for awhile about how things have been going since I’ve been back, which was nice because we never talk at school now that we’re not teaching together anymore. I asked her a bit about the whole high school entrance exam thing and she explained what I’d seen after the ceremony. She also informed me that it’s not exactly the case that students only get one shot at the exams and if they fail that’s it. If they want to get into a public high school they only have one chance, but they can still take an entrance test for private schools, assuming a private school isn’t their first choice anyway. But if they fail twice, that is the end for them. They become the convenience store clerks and fast food cashiers of the world.

Once everyone had a few drinks in them more people made the attempt at communicating with me, and I found my ability to communicate has improved a bit since last year but isn’t nearly where I’d like it to be. It’s still extremely hard to understand them, as they’re not used to speaking to foreigners and don’t think to only use the simplest words and phrases expressed in the simplest ways. But if they knew a little English they put it to their best use. One of the young teachers spoke to me almost exclusively in poor broken English while I responded in poor broken Japanese, and somehow we managed to communicate quite a bit.

That teacher was the subject of the most fun the night, as he apparently had a new girlfriend he was texting with throughout and the other teachers were teasing him about it or occasionally even peaking at her texts and reading them aloud to everyone. At one point someone took the phone and passed it around to everyone. One teacher asked him what he wanted his reply to be so he could type it in and send it. It embarrassed him but he took it as jovially as can be expected. It’s always fun and interesting to see these serious professionals behaving like the students they teach.

After the initial party was karaoke, just as wild and fun as usual only this time I made sure not to get embarrassingly drunk. I drank just enough to work up the nerve to sing “99 Luftballoons” in German, which everyone got a kick out of. Later I sang John Lennon’s “So This Is Christmas” which went without reaction until the end, when I got a nice warm applause and “Happy Christmas”es from a few people including the Vice Principal whom I once thought had a permanent stick up his ass but who is actually just as friendly when he loosens up as the last one, and also happens to have the best singing voice out of all of us. I joined him for what was my only cigarette of the night and he asked me about my month-and-a-half absence which I did my best to explain in Japanese. I still find it perplexing how no one at the school seemed to know what the problem had been when I got back. I guess Interac didn’t bother explaining but just sent my replacement and said, “Here, use this guy for now.”

I felt a little sad when the night was over and we all went outside and went our separate ways. The place was a five-minute walk from my apartment (it was the same place I went with Kim and Enam and everyone on my return-to-Japan party) so just minutes after I was in this warm and friendly social situation I was back alone at home, knowing that this is pretty much all there’s going to be for the next two weeks. Of course loneliness doesn’t bother me much these days, but there’s always this weird thing about it being Christmas and having no one to share it with. Everyone I know around here is going somewhere, and I can’t afford to so I’ll just have to make due alone.

But it won’t be so bad. I’ve got plenty of ways to pass the time, and I recently figured out where the closest movie theater is so today I’m going to see The Hobbit and I might see Les Miserables next week. I think I’ll head into Tokyo on New Years’ Eve and find a celebration to join, but other than that I’ve got no other plans. And when all is said and done, I can’t forget how badly I wanted to get back here when I was in America and couldn’t. I may not be with who I want to be, but I’m right where I want to be.

Dues

November 23rd, 2012 No comments

Well, the high of being back in Japan has finally worn off and I’ve slipped into a melancholy mood for the first time since the return. It’s nowhere near unbearable, just the natural human emotional cycle. What goes up must eventually come down.

It started this past Monday, when for the first time in a long time I gave a truly bad lesson. I was trying out a new game for a first-grade class and it just wasn’t working at all. Games should be simple enough for students to pick up the rules more or less intuitively even if they didn’t fully comprehend the instructions, but the way I designed this game was completely counter-intuitive to them. The students who had the misfortune of participating, it seemed, ended up feeling like they understood the grammar less than when they started. Total failure.

Of course it’s not something that’s never happened before. It used to happen quite frequently last year when I was just starting out and hadn’t yet gotten a feel for what works and what doesn’t. It would typically take one or two failures before I’d have the kinks worked out enough to make a lesson successful. But there was a noticeable difference in the way the classes I always taught first reacted to me as opposed to those I taught last. I’ve done pretty well with the first-graders all year so far and I know I can put together another good one for next time, but even just that one miss was enough to do some damage. A few of the students in that class who normally greet me warmly were giving me the cold-shoulder after that one.

I re-worked the whole thing and it went much much better the second time, and other successful lessons for other grades bounced my mood back up now and then, but it was overall a downward trajectory.

It culminated yesterday with some bad financial news, which ironically was immediately preceded by good financial news. When my visa expired, apparently, the Japanese government cancelled all of my registrations with things like taxes and health insurance. Interac set up a time for me to go with an Independent Contractor to the Togane City Office to re-register. I was picked up after lunch at school yesterday by Ms I-, the same woman who took me shopping when I first moved into my apartment a thousand years ago. At the City Office we discovered that the Alien Registration Card I’d got at the airport was not yet valid because my address wasn’t on it, and I’d been living in Togane illegally since I got back. That turned out to be of no consequence though—I just filled out a form and they put my address on the back of the card and stamped it. And when I re-registered for Health Insurance, they informed me I would only have to pay for the remainder of the fiscal year (until March) and I’d get a 70% discount for reasons I didn’t quite understand. I was behind on my payments for this year’s insurance but this year’s insurance was cancelled so I don’t owe any of that money.

And the other good news is now that I have health insurance again, I can finally see a doctor about the acid reflux problem I’ve had for years and years. Interac has already set up an appointment for me to go with Ms. I- to a doctor on Monday.

But the bad news started when I got home and found my October pay-sheet from Interac waiting for me. I’d been paid in full for the month of September, which I’d assumed was either an oversight on the part of Interac (which has been known to commit a few oversights from time to time) or the simple result of my having a year-long contract with a base monthly salary. I figured I’d just wait and see what happens, and just make sure not to spend too much of that money. But they’d paid close attention to my October pay and started paying me only on the day I returned. After rent, I was left with what amounts to just a few hundred dollars in pay.

Almost immediately after making this discovery I got a call from the branch manager at Interac, first to confirm my doctor’s appointment and second to inform me about the oversight with September’s pay. I wasn’t supposed to receive any of that money, and of course now Interac wants it back. But in their infinite mercy they won’t ask for it back all at once, and instead they’ll deduct a certain amount from my paychecks until I’m square with them again.

I wasn’t about to argue anything about their share of the responsibility for the visa-mess, especially when they literally just agreed to pay an IC to take me to a doctor next week out of their own funds. It would also be pretty useless to do so as I can’t possibly imagine they’d ever agree to cover even half of the income I lost. All I’d be doing is taking an adversarial posture with my employer, and I’d really rather not do that when I’m counting on renewing my contract next year. Besides, the branch manager himself was being incredibly nice about it, and he had nothing to do with the visa oversight in the first place. I now know who it was at the office who fucked up, and I hope he’s glad that for the sake of not ruffling any feathers I’m willing to take all of the responsibility.

If I want to be square with Interac by the end of my current contract, I’ll have to let them take about a third of my net salary each month for the next four months. That will leave me with little more than basic cost-of-living expenses and maybe the odd night out. It’s certainly do-able, I just have to go on living like a hermit which is something I’m quite used to anyway. It’s only going to really be rough during winter break, when everyone is off traveling and I’ll just be sitting at home in my apartment not spending money. No trips to Kyoto or anywhere else this year. At best I might be able to treat myself to one day-trip to Tokyo, but that’s it.

On the plus side, at least I don’t have a girlfriend. I was considering actually putting some effort into finding one when I got back to Japan, but I’m glad I didn’t because I certainly couldn’t afford that right now. Here’s to silver-linings.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

Sayonaramerica

October 16th, 2012 No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Good News, Bad News, No News

September 29th, 2012 No comments

Since the first time I lived abroad, I’d have a recurring dream in which I’d be back home in America and suddenly realize I wasn’t supposed to be there. I’d be struck with anxiety thinking, “This isn’t right—I should be in Germany [or Japan]. What am I doing here? I’ve got to get back.” That dream came true this year, and recently I’ve been having the inverse of that dream, in which I’m back in Japan and suddenly realize I can’t remember the return journey. I either realize it’s a dream or decide not to question it and just go with it. When I woke up from the former dreams I’d experience relief. With the latter, huge disappointment. I’ve been suffering from some kind of reverse-homesickness, and it seems to be getting worse all the time.

The thing is, nobody seems to get it. Why would I want to be back in Japan so badly? Do I have a girlfriend there? No? So what’s the big deal? You can eat sushi here too.

I tell them I have friends over there and a nice place of my own, but when I try to explain that it’s my job I miss most of all, they really don’t get it. To almost everyone I talk to here, a job is just a job, a way to earn money, a means to an end but by no means and end in itself. I can’t adequately explain the difference between coming home from a shift at Domino’s pizza and only feeling good because you’re finally out of there, and coming home from a day at school and feeling good because the day was actually worthwhile. With a few exceptions, these days are utterly devoid of any quality that makes life actually worth living, and I’ve slipped straight back into the depression I used to feel when I lived here and had nothing to live for in the past.

One of those exceptions was last Sunday. I had the day off (the first after 11 straight days of working) and went hiking in a nearby state park with my mom and dad, stopping at a brew-pub on the way back for some beer and nachos before returning home to watch the football game on TV. The weather was perfect and it was a fine day overall, but those days are few and far between.

Any “friends” I used to have in high school have long since moved away, as have most of the people I hung out with in college. Mike in Brooklyn is the only one left that I have any desire to see, but it takes an hour to drive to Long Island and an hour from there to get through the traffic to his neighborhood and find a place to park. The earliest I can ever get off work is about 7:30, which means it would be 9:30 by the time I got there. That’s not too bad, but when I planned to do that Thursday night, orders kept coming in and I didn’t get out until 9:30, making the trip out to Brooklyn decidedly not worth it. I’ve got this Sunday off too though, so I’ll at least get to have another fun day out there tomorrow.

I previously wrote that this is no longer a vacation but a life, but that’s not really accurate. This is barely any kind of life at all.

With regards to my actual life—the one I don’t currently have access to—this week can be characterized by good news followed by bad news followed by no news. The first good news came on Monday. Interac informed me that they received the completed documents from immigration and expected final Certificate of Eligibility approval the following day, Tuesday, at which point they would update me again. That was great to hear, as it meant the CoE would be on its way and set to arrive the following week, and after the 4-day visa processing I’d be set to fly back the week after. I decided to make Friday the 5th of October my last day, and use the rest of the 3-day weekend to pay some final visits to family members with my parents, including Sue and Lance on Long Island, my grandparents up in Red Hook, and maybe even Billy at college in Delaware.

There was nothing from Interac the next morning, but another bit of good news came my way quite unexpectedly from Heath, the ALT who’s been replacing me at my school but who made it clear in so few words that he has no interest in keeping in touch with me. Before deciding to leave him alone and just accept my disconnectedness from the school, I’d made it a point to at least let him know my feelings about missing the Speech Contest, to tell him what happened with M- last year and to impress upon him how much I was determined to help her win this time and how bad I felt that I couldn’t. I’d hoped to at least let her know through him how sorry I was, and to hopefully motivate him to coach her as best he could.

His message was, “Just wanted to let you know your girlfriend M- got 4th place this year so no tears this time!”

The news itself was indeed fantastic, although the delivery felt like a bit of a stupid juvenile jab. My “girlfriend”? What are we, five-years-old? “Ha ha, you care about a girl’s feelings! You loooooooooooove her!” Yeah? I suppose I have cooties too.

But regardless of that, I can now rest easy knowing that M- achieved her goal which she so richly deserved. She worked so hard last year and came away with nothing. Over the rest of the year she focused hard on her speaking and pronunciation abilities and came back the following year to deliver a speech that landed her an actual prize. I wish I could have been there to share the moment with her, but I couldn’t be happier that she got it.

The next day I got a message from Kim, my neighbor, who’d also been at the Speech Contest. She told me about M- winning and congratulated me, though I told her I couldn’t accept her congratulations because I hadn’t been there and she’d done it all on her own. But she also told me she met Heath and talked to him, and this is where the bad news comes in. She said he’s a really up-beat guy, he’s been living and teaching in Japan for 17 years, he’s a champion sumo wrestler, and he’s well known by the JTEs in our area. She wrote “your kids are in good hands.”

That was the worst possible thing she could have said to me. I don’t want my kids to be in good hands. Capable hands, sure, but not expert 17-years-experience hot-shot celebrity ALT sumo-wrestler hands. For whatever reason he seems to have nothing but disdain for me, but I imagine the kids must love him and the JTEs must be quite impressed by him. When I go back, I’ll no longer seem like as good of a teacher to any of them. A significant portion of the students will no doubt prefer him to me and be disappointed when I return, and the teachers will have to readjust to working with an inexperienced, non-Japanese speaking teaching partner. For all I know, after seeing him do his expert lessons they’ll realize just how amateurish mine were and stop letting me have so much control over the planning.

I hope I’m just being needlessly paranoid, but when the only thing I’ve got going for me in my life is my job, it’s hard not to constantly worry about all the ways in which that might end up spoiled by this situation. It took me 27 years to find myself in a life situation in which I could truly call myself happy, and wouldn’t it be just so poetically appropriate if the thing that provided that happiness gets tainted and torn to shreds after just one extremely brief lightning-fast year?

And it’s all because of paperwork! Forms and stamps and files that nobody ever checks. Because I didn’t get a fucking stamp I was supposed to get before going on vacation, I’m forced to exchange a month and a half or more of a life worth living with this empty bullshit existence, and return to a fundamentally altered situation. The more I actually think about the underlying reality of the situation—that everything would be perfectly fine if not for the paperwork procedures of people with absolutely no connection to my life whatsoever—the more absurd it seems.

The worst part is, there’s still no end in sight. At the beginning of the week it looked like next Friday was the light at the end of the tunnel, but I heard nothing from Interac the whole rest of the week. I just sat tight until Thursday which they said is the day I’d usually hear from them, but got no update then either. I would have sent an e-mail asking what the deal is, but I did that last Thursday when I also got no update and it make no difference. They’re going to update me whenever they damn well please and all I can do is wait and grind my teeth.

And that bit of no news is how the week ended and where things stand right now. For all I know, I will get the Certificate of Eligibility in the mail this week as planned and be ready to fly back the week after. Or there might have been some kind of problem and they had to start the whole process over from the beginning in which case I’ll be stuck here until December. Maybe Heath and my school have decided they’re happy together and want to make his teaching there a permanent arrangement, so Interac no longer has need of me and are just figuring out how to release me from my contract. WHO KNOWS???

In any case, I took back my two weeks’ notice from Domino’s and told them to just keep scheduling me until further notice, so there will be no visits to family members next weekend. I’m still going to try and do that before I leave though, because if there’s one thing my mind couldn’t possibly be more made up about it’s that I’m not coming back to America again next year. I need to stay in Japan, pay off all the debt I still have from this year’s travelling expenses and when I can finally afford to travel again, actually see more of Japan.

There will come a day when I find myself back in this situation, stuck in America where I don’t belong and desperate to get back to my actual life. But then I’m going to wake up, I’m going to be in Japan, and I’m going to breathe and enormous sigh of relief that this time it was just one of those dreams.

Extended Sentence

September 15th, 2012 No comments

On Thursday I got the latest update from Interac, telling me they’ve got to fill out one more form and send it back to Immigration, then wait for Immigration to send back the Certificate of Eligibility before they can send it to me, and the whole process should take about three weeks. By their estimation, they should have me back at my school by October 15th.

I’d been thinking more along the lines of the week after next, but this is a whole extra month. Needless to say I’m not happy about it, but at this point I’m pretty much just resigned to accept my fate. Now there’s no doubt that I’ll miss the Speech Sontest, and the students will have had other ALTs for an entire month and a half before I get back, so there’s absolutely no telling how I’ll be greeted upon my return. At least I will return…just not for another month.

Of course the thought has crossed my mind plenty of times that maybe I should take advantage of the extra time at home and try to visit more people or revisit some family I’ve already visited once, but for the sake of my finances I really just need to keep working at Domino’s full-time, which means six days a week and always in the evening, leaving me with very little time and almost no mental energy for more visits. At this point all I want to do is just ride this out and get back to Japan as soon as possible.

At least it’ll be a much more interesting life experience when I do go back. Last year it was a long and gradual transition between one life and the other. Finishing work at Planeo at the end of June, living my two final weeks in Germany before flying home in mid-July, one month in America visiting just about everyone, a week of orientation in Japan before moving to Togane, and a week of adjustment time in Togane before starting teaching. This year, it’s just going to go directly from my old living-with-parents-and-delivering-pizza life directly to the living-in-Japan-and-teaching-schoolchildren life within the span of about a week. I could conceivably be delivering pizza in New Jersey on Friday and teaching English in Japan on Monday. It can’t get much weirder than that.

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