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Remembering 2012

December 31st, 2012 No comments

The first week of my winter vacation has been pleasantly boring. After that first day of going to the movies in Soga, I haven’t done anything noteworthy. I’ve just been hanging around, studying, jogging, riding my bike, playing Mario, and watching lots of football and political shows. I expect tonight will be somewhat more memorable, as Stephen is coming to Togane and we’ll be going to some sort of party with Josai students whom I may or may not have met on other random occasions. It won’t be as wild as last year, but it should be fun.

When I look back on 2012 when I’m older, I’ll probably mostly remember it as the year of my involuntary two-month hiatus from my teaching career, stuck in America delivering pizza due to an expired visa. That didn’t turn out to be terribly consequential, and I’ll no doubt look back on it in a much rosier light than it felt to me while it was happening. It really wasn’t so bad after all. I got to spend more time with my family and hang out with Mike in Brooklyn a few more times, and delivering pizza is not actually the least enjoyable job in the world (that’s a toss-up between McDonald’s cashier and hotel front-desk agent).

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But there was a lot more to 2012 than that. The year began with a pretty great night of clubbing in Tokyo with Trey, Stephen, Jack, Lily, and a bunch of other people. I partied with Trey a few more times in the first half of the year and we developed a pretty decent friendship before he left to go to Stanford in the summer, but we’re still in touch.

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I met Kim and Enam on the day of my first hanami, the cherry-blossom festival at Togane Lake which turned out to be a fantastic day.

I said goodbye to my first group of graduating students in March and began my first full school-year the day after the hanami in April.

 

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Easily one of the highlights of the year was the sailing trip in the Virgin Islands with my dad and his brothers and friends. With the exception of my blackout-drunk first night and the ensuing day-long hangover, I could hardly have hoped for a better trip.

 

 

I experienced my first Sports Day in Japan, which due to the infectious excitement of the students turned out to be one of the best days of the year, capped off with one of the most enjoyable enkais with my colleagues.

This was the year I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge at night with Luke, Marc, and Mike, an experience I’ll never forget.

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And while my vacation in America was still a vacation, I got to spend a week in Santa Barbara with Krissi which included three nights of camping in the mountains.

After the two-month hiatus, my triumphant return to school turned out to be a priceless experience as well, as I was flabbergasted by how delighted so many of the students were to have me back.

My return-to-Togane party, a night of dinner and karaoke a few weeks later, and Ben’s Christmas Party a few weeks ago were the highlights of the year’s end, and hopefully whatever party I end up at tonight will belong on that list as well.

Overall, 2012 was a year of split lives, with one foot in the West and the past, and one foot in the East and the future. I relived some old experiences like sailing and delivering pizza and lived the first of many new experiences in my life as a teacher in Japan. Of all the lives I’ve lived so far, I consider this the best. So at the end of 2012, in spite of all the pitfalls and setbacks, I can only consider it a success.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , , ,

An Unexpectedly Long Journey

December 23rd, 2012 No comments

I kicked off the first day of winter vacation yesterday with another first for my time here in Japan, the first time I’ve gone to the movies. The reason I haven’t gone is not so much for lack of interest, nor because they dub all the English movies into Japanese like they do in Germany, but simply because movie theaters in Japan are much fewer and farther between than elsewhere.

The closest theater to me is in the town of Soga about 30 km away, a half-hour by train with one connection in between. The theater itself is several km from Soga Station, though there is a free shuttle bus leaving every ten minutes from the station that stops in the general vicinity.

The theater’s website is only in Japanese but I found the movie schedule easily enough. The movie I wanted to see—The Hobbit—had three different schedules, one for 2-D and two for 3-D, though I couldn’t distinguish the difference between the two for 3-D. I figured the best time to go would be 3:05 p.m., giving me plenty of time to get some errands and chores done and then have lunch before taking the train in to see it. I wanted to have a big lunch so I wouldn’t be starving during the movie, so I planned on curry rice and chicken which takes two hours to prepare. You’ve got to rinse the rice and let it soak for an hour, then the rice-cooker itself takes about another hour to finish.

But half-way through my cooking of the rice, at 1:30, I realized I miscalculated and should have started an hour earlier. The movie started at 3:00 and it would take about an hour to get there from Togane Station. I kicked myself for having been so unconscious of the time issue, and quickly debated whether to forget about lunch and just go or wait until the 6:25 show. But the 6:25 wouldn’t end until 9:25 and the last train from Soga left just after 10:00 so that would be cutting it a little close. On top of that I have no idea when the last shuttle bus runs so I decided to just get my stuff together and go. I’d have a few soy protein bars to sustain me and I could probably get some quick food at the theater. As for the rice I had cooking—well—I’d let the cooker finish and see if it could be reheated when I got back.

I got to Soga station at 2:31 and saw the shuttle bus pull away the second I got out the exit. There was another one in ten minutes, but I was still feeling pretty stressed about possibly missing the movie. I’ve never gone to the movies in Japan before and I have no idea how it works. Do they even let people in late? Probably, but would I only miss some coming attractions or does the actual movie start at the exact time they say it starts? I had no idea.

I got off the shuttle bus at the “Festival Walk” stop with just 10 minutes to spare. I asked one of the bus-riders in Japanese if he knew where the “eigakan” was and he pointed me in the right direction. It was through a large complex of all kinds of uniquely Japanese recreational establishments but I had no time to stop and check them out. The theater was all the way at the end, and I made it there at 3:00. Success!

Or so I thought. I asked the cashier girl for one ticket to The Hobbit and she told me the starting time. It took a second for my brain to process the time in Japanese, but I knew there was something wrong. She was saying 6:25. I told her I wanted the 3:05. She informed me that the 6:25 was the one with English audio. The 3:05 was the one dubbed in Japanese.

I almost laughed out loud at myself. If I had just decided to wait for the 6:25 in the first place it would have been perfect, but instead I’d rushed out the door and stressfully raced to the theater for nothing. But I obviously couldn’t just go back to Togane and come back—that process would take the whole three hours anyway and cost me extra train money. And I wasn’t going to do this another day either. I’d come all this way and I was going to see the movie, damn it, even if I had to wait another three hours. So I bought the ticket for 6:25 and walked away, trying to figure out how I was going to kill three hours in Soga, a town notorious for having nothing worth seeing.

But the answer was right in front of my face, with all the posters for Les Miserables hanging around the theater. I went back to the cashier girl and asked her when the next showing of Les Miserables would be. Turned out it started at 3:15 and ended 6:00. “Sugoi!” I exclaimed, glad that at least something worked out perfectly.

So it was to be a double-feature. Movie day in Japan, in which I’d see the two movies and the only two movies currently playing that I have any desire to see.

I was starving so I went to the concession stand and bought a piece of fried chicken breast and a soda, discovering in the process that movie theaters in Japan charge just as ridiculous prices for food as in America. They gave me this whole blue tray designed to hold all kinds of food and up to three beverages, but with just one piece of chicken and one soda I felt a little silly carry it into the theater.

In Japan they give you assigned seats, so I found mine and sat down, somewhat surprised to see that so many people had turned out for Les Mis. The theater wasn’t packed by any means, but there were at least three dozen or more there to see a movie in a language they don’t understand (subtitles can only convey so much) about a culture they’re not familiar with. But maybe Les Mis is well-known in Japan too and many people like the music. I don’t know, but I had to wonder about what was going through the audience’s mind during all the parts about God and sin and redemption.

My review of the film: absolutely fantastic. I of course love the show, and the time I saw it in London sticks out as one of—if not the best—theater experiences I’ve ever had. It’s a lot different in movie form though because you don’t have that magic of live performance where the actors are up there belting out those songs and feeling the emotions behind them right there in communion with the live audience, but most of the performances in the film made up for that. In those cases it was actually more impressive, as there’s such a huge difference between stage acting and film acting and to be able to convey the same emotions on screen without an audience before you, to have to go take after take after take in character, maintaining the same intensity of emotion the scene calls for while surrounded by cameras and directors and producers and that—it’s extremely impressive when they pulled it off. I couldn’t get over how unbelievably amazing Anne Hathaway was as Fantine—I’ve never seen a more Oscar-worthy performance in my life. Hugh Jackman was also great as Valjean and almost all of the other actors were impressive as well. The only exception was Javert played by Russell Crowe, whose singing voice is decent at best but who didn’t do much of anything with it anyway and failed to achieve the kind of pathos that every other major character did.

The film itself ended at 5:50 which still left plenty of time before The Hobbit, so I resolved to stay in the theater until the lights came up and just enjoy the end credits music. In the process I discovered another small difference between the movie-theater experience in Japan and America, as nearly every other person in the theater stayed behind as well. The lights weren’t even slightly raised during the credits, but remained completely off until the final logo at the end of the film appeared. At that point they turned on and everyone got up to leave at the same time. It’s possible they too just wanted to stay to enjoy the music—they certainly weren’t getting anything out of reading the credits—but the fact that they all dutifully waited for the lights to go up at the very end suggested otherwise.

I used the time before the next movie to use the bathroom and head back to the ticket stand to check with the guy there when the movie would end and what time the last shuttle bus was. He attempted to speak English to me, and told me the movie would end at 8 something and the last shuttle bus left at 10 something, so I felt I could rest assured I’d have no trouble getting home.

I made my way to the theater showing The Hobbit, took my 3-D glasses from the bin and made my way to my assigned seat. I was the only person in the theater when I got there at 6:10, and only about ten others came in before the movie started. It was no surprise that most Japanese would prefer to see the Japanese-dubbed version of the film, but I was surprised that even ten people would come for the subtitle version, especially now that the movie’s been out for a week.

My review of the film: it was acceptable. At this point I’ve seen Peter Jackson’s films of Lord of the Rings many times over and I know what to expect, so there weren’t any disappointments and any problems I had with the way he did certain scenes were problems I knew to expect anyway. He dragged some things out too much and brushed over others, and added some elements that were not at all a part of the book but which were nevertheless not really egregious alterations of the Middle Earth history. Some of his additions were also pleasant surprises, as he brought back a few characters from Lord of Rings who weren’t in The Hobbit and they had some scenes with them that while not written by Tolkien were both consistent with his history and enjoyable to watch. I thought the actors were all well-chosen—the dwarves in particular—and I was very happy with the actor who played Bilbo (in stark contrast with Elijah Wood as Frodo). The scene I cared most about was the one where Bilbo finds the ring in Gollum’s cave and they have their scene of riddles, and I was pleased to see them stick so faithfully to the dialog in the book. As for all the other elements—the scenery, the cinematography, the score, etc.—those are all top-knotch and the reason I still enjoy the Lord of the Rings films after all this time in spite of my many problems with them. Whatever flaws there may be in Peter Jackson’s storytelling, the look and feel of the films does draw you into Middle Earth and take you on an adventure.

I hadn’t known for certain whether the film would cover the entirety of The Hobbit or just the first half, but half-way through the film I realized things were moving far too slowly to get through everything, and indeed it did end at the half-way point, just after the escape from the Misty Mountains and the arrival at the edge of Murkwood Forest. So I guess that means another trip to Soga next year.

The film ended at 9:15 and I didn’t waste any time staying for the credits. I was the only one who got up to leave right away which is further evidence that staying until the very end is part of Japanese movie-going culture, but the 10:06 train I had to catch was the last train home and I couldn’t afford to take any chances.

I reached the shuttle-bus stop at 9:22 and looked at the schedule. It looked like the last bus came at 9:08. Some help that ticket-cashier had been. He should have just stuck to Japanese instead of trying to English me and getting both the movie ending-time and shuttle-bus time wrong.

So I’d just have to walk it. And in times like these it’s no small blessing to have an iPhone with GPS tracking handy. I was not only able to easily navigate my way back to the station but I could tell I was making good time along the way and didn’t have to stress. I made it back to the station with plenty of time to spare and stopped at a konbini to buy a quick “dinner” of two more pieces of greasy fried chicken. I figured the rice I’d started cooking nine hours earlier was a lost cause.

On the train platform the announcer came on every few minutes to say something about a delay but I couldn’t tell if he meant the train I needed or the one before it. I figured it was the one before it because it was past the time it should have come. Luckily an old Japanese guy came up to me to attempt communication and I was able to ask him. Apparently there are quite a few people like this—old Japanese men who like to approach foreigners and practice their English. Other ALTs have told me how it annoys them, but I don’t mind. It’s usually some kind of learning experience.

This guy was taking the same train as me so we had a long time for him to keep searching his brain for things to say and ask me in English. It was all very random, asking me about things like the difference between miles and kilometers, the assassination of JFK, whether I’d heard of Nat King Cole, and so on. He handed me a business card and I was proud of myself that I was able to read his name in kanji: 池田“Ikeda” a combination of ‘pond’ and ‘rice field’. He informed me that the Japanese prime minister when JFK was president was also named Ikeda.

He left the train at Honda, two stops before my changeover in Oami, I complimented his English and he left with a smile, very proud of himself. I guess I can see why other foreigners might find people like him annoying but I was happy to make his day. And considering just how much of a struggle it is for me to communicate with students and other teachers, his English really was quite impressive.

Our train had also been delayed by a couple of minutes so I walked very quickly to make the connection on Oami, which was reduced from 3 minutes to 1 minute, but it didn’t matter anyway because they were waiting for another train which had been delayed. I guess because it’s the last train they wait so everyone can make the connection, which I have no problem with at all.

But it also meant I didn’t get home until 10:45, a full hour and a half after leaving the theater. Considering that it’s 3 hours of travel time to and from the theater and most movies are about 2 hours, it’s just not worth going unless it’s something I really really want to see. And now I was actually glad to have made my timing error earlier, as the only film besides The Hobbit I wanted to see was Les Miserables and now I don’t have to go all the way back there.

The last discovery I made of these day is that Japanese rice cookers don’t shut down when they’re finished cooking, but keep the rice warm until you remove it. It came as quite a surprise to me when I opened it up in preparation to scrape it all into the trash and discovered that it was not just warm but actually nice and sticky and delicious. So it turned out that the rice hadn’t gone to waste after all. The only thing wasted was hours and hours of electricity, though I can’t imagine it took too much juice to maintain the mild warmth.

And that was my adventure yesterday, a nice way to kick off my winter vacation. The rest of it probably won’t be as interesting, but I’m sure it’ll be enjoyable.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , ,

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.

Japanese Christmas Time

December 13th, 2012 No comments

It certainly doesn’t feel like Christmas time. The weather is cold, but not freezing. Most trees have lost their leaves but many are still in the process of losing them and plenty don’t seem to lose them at all. As for snow, we got about 2 cm all last year combined so I don’t expect much of that either. You only really notice that it’s Christmas when you go shopping, as a few stores have Christmas sections (like the dollar stores) and they’ve got Christmas music playing all over the place, including supermarkets. Maybe some Japanese scientists discovered that Christmas music increases consumerism by some factor. Either way, as soon as you walk outside it just feels like Fall again.

At least among my fellow foreigners there is some minor observation of the holiday season. There were two Christmas parties this past Saturday, a pot-luck dinner at Kim’s apartment and then a relatively big Christmas-bash at Ben’s place just like last year. There was just a small gathering of people at Kim’s—her boyfriend Enam and the same people who came to my party celebrating my return to Japan: Hiroshi, Will, and his Japanese girlfriend. There was also a guy named Ravi whom I only met once before on our beach picnic last Spring. We had a smorgasbord of food from East and West, everything from a sushi platter to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Also some homemade tuna-salad. Nothing traditionally Christmasy, but we did say “Merry Christmas” when we toasted our drinks.

Once we finished dinner we all migrated over to Ben’s party, which was almost identical to last year except that Trey was noticeably absent and I hadn’t brought a flaky Chinese girl who went home with another guy. That guy—Dan—was there, and we had some very pleasant conversation. He used to work with K-sensei, and now he works with S-sensei whom I worked with last year. He agreed with me that she’s a nice person but very difficult to work with.

I hadn’t seen Ben in almost half a year so it was nice to get to hang out with him again for a little. I might not see him again for a few more months , but I guess that’s just how he is. I also got to see a bunch of other people I haven’t seen in equally as long, including a really nice guy and fellow fantasy-nerd Zach, who has the same plan as I do of doing absolutely nothing during the holiday break. But we made tentative plans to at least head into Tokyo one of those days.

I also met a few new people. Ben plays soccer so he knows a bunch of Japanese people so it was great to have a few native Japanese there as well. At one point I found myself having a nice conversation about the difference between English and Japanese culture when it comes to religion with an attractive Japanese girl who spoke great English. It wasn’t until I’d stepped away to use the bathroom and came back to find her talking to another guy that I realized that might have been some kind of an opportunity. I went outside for a smoke and casually mentioned it to Enam, who very forcefully told me to go back and touch her gently on the back and say we didn’t finish our conversation. I was feeling loose enough and confident enough to try that, but I didn’t want to interrupt her talking with the other guy. Enam came in and without my asking just went up to that guy and struck up a conversation with him, at which point I went ahead and did the “we didn’t finish our conversation” move on the girl. She was polite enough about it, but I quickly realized that we probably actually did finish our conversation because it suddenly felt awkward. I was thinking about what an overwhelming labyrinth of interaction exists between casual-conversation-at-a-party and the goal of serious-romantic-relationship and I lack both the experience necessary to navigate it and the motivation to try.

I don’t remember how our conversation ended but I did get a Facebook friend request from a Japanese girl the next day. There was no picture on her profile so I can’t be sure it was her, but I don’t think I spoke to any other Japanese girls at the party for a long enough time to warrant a friend request. In any case, the next event I host or attend, the option of inviting her exists.

Unlike at most social events involving drinking, I paced myself very well this time and consumed plenty of water throughout. I never crossed the line between buzzed and drunk, and I left when the party was winding down at midnight rather than the wee hours of the morning. Instead of what I’ve come to regard as an obligatory hangover after social events, the next day I felt relatively decent. I even felt up to go jogging in the afternoon.

There are no more Christmas parties as far as I know, so that was probably the only Christmas celebrating I’ll be doing all year. I’m not bothered by it though—I’ve had crappy Christmases before, and none will ever be as crappy as the one I spent working at the front desk of the Doubletree in Santa Barbara.

As for school, I wasn’t even asked to do a Christmas lesson this year, but in anticipation of one I’d bought a bunch of Christmas pencils and stickers back in America before my flight back. I was planning to give them as prizes for winning the Christmas game, but there is no Christmas game and the games I’m doing these last two weeks are mostly of one half of the class against the other, which means I don’t have enough to give to all the winners. So I came up with the idea of asking six Christmas questions at the beginning of each lesson and letting the students who answer them take a gift.

I hold up a flashcard for each question, starting with a house decorated in Christmas lights and I ask “When is Christmas?” Usually no hands go up at first but someone always tries eventually, and most of the time they say “December 24”. I figure Christmas Eve counts as Christmas too so I accept that answer. The next ones are very easy, as I have a picture of a Christmas tree and a picture of Santa Claus and I ask “what’s this?” and “who’s this?” and a dozen hands go up. I also ask what we say on January 1st (“happy new year”) which one person always gets, and the last thing I do is hold up a picture of myself as a kid on Christmas morning (which my Mom sent last year for the Christmas lesson) and ask “Who’s this?” Some students remember the picture from last year, but in some classes it takes awhile before they guess it’s me, but when they do everyone usually gets a kick out of the picture.

But the most interesting thing is when I hold up a picture of a church and ask “What’s this?” If you did that in most classrooms in the world, everyone would know right away, but not in Japan. A few know the word in Japanese but not English. There’s usually at least one student who knows the word “church” but sometimes they say “chapel” (which I accept) and there was one class in which nobody knew at all.

So that’s Christmas to the Japanese. Everyone knows about Christmas trees and Santa Claus and presents, but that’s as far as it goes. I imagine that most of the students are probably confused that a picture of a church is even included in the Christmas questions at all. “What the heck does religion have to do with Christmas?” they’re probably thinking.

But for whatever reason, there is one other thing that Christmas means to both Western and Japanese students: lots of time off. One more week, then it’s the start of what will probably be my least-needed vacation of all time.

Orchestra Day

November 30th, 2012 No comments

There’s not much to say about this week other than that it was pretty good overall. My lessons were well-received. I was invited to a Christmas party at Kim’s next weekend. I heard from Oliver in Germany for the first time in months. And there was a nice little concert at school this morning before lunch, which is probably the most noteworthy thing.

The “New Philharmonic Orchestra” came to the school to perform in the gym and teach the students a bit about orchestral music and all of the different instruments involved. I remember my own middle school doing the same thing, which I’d forgotten about until now. It was pretty much the same exact thing for the same reason, only this was a lot more formal and regimented. But the orchestra would come, play some popular pieces including Disney songs and scores from famous movies (today it was a medley of every song from “The Sound of Music”), and try to entice the students into perhaps taking up an instrument themselves. They had one musician introduce each instrument and talk a little about it, then play a short piece to demonstrate.

They also had one student from each grade attempt to conduct the orchestra themselves, which resulted in lots of laughter a new appreciation for the importance of a good conductor. And they had a few students come and ask questions of the musicians, a part of the assembly that was completely useless to me. But overall it was quite enjoyable. I love orchestral music and it’s always a nice opportunity to hear it live, although unfortunately the acoustics in the gym were rather poor.

The whole thing made me regret that I never took up an instrument as a kid—or rather, I never stuck with it when I tried—but I just didn’t have enough motivation back then. I think I’ve probably got enough self-discipline to be able to do it now, but A) figuring out how to take lessons in a country where your grasp of the language is minimal at best is probably just as hard as taking the lessons from an instructor you barely understand, and B) I can’t afford it right now anyway. There are ways around A—I’m sure I could find some kind of online tutor—but currently B is a deal-breaker. Still, chalk up “learning an instrument” on my bucket list of things to do before I die.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

Still Rollin’

November 14th, 2012 No comments

I thought I’d do a quick update post on what’s been happening lately. Even though it’s all pretty much back to the routine at this point, the routine is pretty awesome and worth preserving for future trips down Nostalgia Avenue.

Since I’ve been back and for the remainder of the school year, I’m only teaching with O-sensei and we’re only covering the extra material in the textbooks that the other JTEs don’t have time for. That means instead of teaching grammar points in which there’s a lot of natural lee-way for different kinds of games and activities, we’re doing boring textbook supplemental stuff like dialogs about giving directions or taking a message when you answer the phone. The first-graders have been the exception, our only guideline for the last two weeks being to teach the 3rd-person form of verbs (he plays, she reads, he goes, she studies, etc.). The last two lessons with them turned out to be two of the best I’ve ever done.

First, I was only supposed to review the verbs they already know. Not much to go on, but it gave me a chance to try an idea I’ve had in my head for awhile, to play a sort of baseball-game. A student comes to the front of the room and I pitch a little soft squishy baseball my mother bought for the Kyle-shop at them. They get three tries to hit the ball with their hand (almost all do on the first try—there was only one strike-out and it was hilarious for everyone) and when they do they reach into a cup with folded up strips of paper with Japanese verbs. If the verb is 走る (hashiru) they can get to first-base just by knowing what it is in English (run). They get to second-base by spelling it correctly, and third base by using it in an “I ___” sentence. (“I run home”). They hit a home-run if they can make a correct “He/she ___” sentence which they haven’t learned yet, but which I give them a hint at the beginning can be done by adding “s” to the verb. If at any point they make a mistake or don’t know the answer, I toss the ball at the other team and a student who catches it gets a chance to do what the batter couldn’t. If they can’t (or no one catches the ball) the batter is safe, but if they can he or she is out. I used little flash-cards of Mickey Mouse in a baseball uniform and drew the bases on the blackboard to illustrate the action.

                          3mickey_blue3mickey_flip

The students had an absolute blast with this game, and O-sensei and I were surprised at how entertaining it was for us. Because there’s such a wide range of student abilities, you had some only hitting singles or not even reaching first, while some hit home-runs with ease. Even students who messed up could be safe at a base and end up scoring for their team, but only if another student batted them in before three outs. The results were as varied as the students, with some classes ending the game in a tie, some just barely winning and some totally blowing out the other team. But by the end of the game, all of the students had their memories refreshed on a whole bunch of verbs, and those who really paid attention had learned how to make 3rd-person form already.

The following week (this past week) was the lesson for actually teaching 3rd-person form. I started by busting out my German and greeting the students with “guten Morgen!” and “wie geht’s?” and “das Wetter heute is sehr shön, ja?” and all kinds of other incomprehensible phrases that sound funny to them. I wrote “Ich spreche Deutsch” on the board and got them to figure out what it was in Japanese and then translate to English: “I speak German.” I then turned to O-sensei and asked, “Do you speak German?” which she does so she got to show off some of her Deutsch-skills as well. I then wrote “She speak German” and asked the students if that sentence was correct. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but in every single class there were a significant number of students who already knew that it should be “speaks” for a he/she sentence.

I then used “I play soccer / He plays soccer” as another example and explained that for almost every verb you just add “s” for a he/she sentence. I then went over some common exceptions like do, go, touch, have, and be, and in each case found plenty of students already knew the proper 3rd-person conjugation, so I acted like I was trying to stump them but they were too smart for me. Once that was done I asked if they were ready for a game, to which they always cheered.

This was a very simple game, but it might just be the best I’ve ever done. I divided the class into two teams—orange team and blue team—and showed them that each team had a “moja-moja” ball (a rubber puffer ball my mom also bought for the Kyle-store and is easily the most popular item) with the corresponding color. I had two identical sets of 35 cards with Japanese verbs—the same ones used for the baseball game—and handed them out to each team, with each student taking two and some three. I had 35 pages with an English “I ___” sentence and Japanese translation for each verb, and I’d hold up a page and call out the sentence. There’d be one student on each team with the Japanese verb corresponding to the sentence, and they would have to raise their hand and catch the moja-moja ball, then write the sentence in “He/She” form on their side of the blackboard. So if the sentence was “I speak English” you’d have one student from each team with a card that read 話す (hanasu) and they’d race to catch the ball and run to the board to write “He speaks English”, slamming the ball on the table when they were finished. The faster team would get 10 points, but as long as the other team wrote it correctly (and we made sure they always did) their team would get 5 points. That student would then stay up front to throw the ball to the player with the next card.

moja-moja

Some students had the hang of it right away and had no trouble scoring for their team. But what made it a great game was that when a student wasn’t really sure what to do, their team-members would shout instructions at them for how to properly conjugate or spell the words they needed. So if a student didn’t know that the 3rd-person form is “studies” and not “studys”, their team was sure to correct them as they were writing and to do it as fast as possible. Some students had no idea what they were doing the first time they went up, but from watching everyone else had it so figured out by their second time at the board that they actually won the speed points. They were clapping and cheering and having an incredibly good time, but also actually learning and reinforcing the new knowledge the whole time.

One of the classes got so loud that the teacher in the adjacent room complained to O-sensei afterwards that no one could hear her do her lesson, so we tried to keep it down after that but there’s only so much you can do. But in between every round I just held my fingers to my mouth and made a “shh” sound and they were so eager to keep going that the room would go from pandemonium to sheer silence in about two seconds, only to erupt again with noise when the next sentence was called.

Most times the game ended up being really close, with the lead changing back and forth and the team that started behind coming up to win. Only one game ended with a tie, but the losing side was never all that disappointed because just about every student had had two chances to go and just about all of them won at least one of those times.

I had to write about that lesson in detail because it may be a very long time before I manage to top it.

The other lessons weren’t as awesome, but quite successful in their own right. For the 2nd-graders, after the boring giving-directions lesson in preparation for their interview tests (saved only by the students’ amusement at my impression of Mario wandering aimlessly around a city map to their randomly-given directions) the next material was an even more boring listening-exercise taken straight from the textbook. There was practically nothing that could make that fun, but at least it only took ten minutes, after which O-sensei suggested we play a game I’d made for a random class I had to teach on a different day when some teachers were giving demonstration-lessons and I had an extra lesson with a group of only first-grade girls. For that I just printed a whole bunch of words from the part of their textbook they’d already covered and cut them up, folded them, and tossed them in a cup. A student would come to the front and proceed to take words and try to have their team guess the word either by using gestures, drawing a picture, or pointing to the object in the room if it happened to be in the room. They’d have three minutes to get through as many words as they could, and there were enough really easy words for each student to have some degree of success. We used the same words for the second-graders after the listening exercise and they enjoyed it as much as the first-graders had. As an added bonus, there was school this past Saturday because it was an open house when parents could come watch their kids’ lessons, and a few parents were there and apparently just as entertained by the game as the students.

Finally, I went back to my old tried-and-true Jeopardy game for the third-graders to review the story of the zookeepers having to kill the three elephants at the Ueno Zoo during WWII. I used the same categories I used last year: Missing Word (they fill in the blank with the word from the sentence in the story), What’s Next? (they find the sentence in the story and read the next sentence), Vocabulary (they say the English for a Japanese word from the vocabulary box for the story), Scrambled Sentence (self-explanatory), and Grammar (they choose from three verb forms or prepositions from a sentence in the story). They all remembered the game so no time was wasted on explanations, and many of them were very excited when they saw me setting it up. With six teams and one student standing up to be the hand-raiser for each team, rotating after each questions, it gets very competitive and exciting, especially when hands go up at the same time and I keep things interesting by letting teams with lower scores have the first shot. As usual, they all got really into it and had a great time. It didn’t matter at all that the material was a ridiculously depressing story about dead elephants.

And this week my material is a bland and boring dialog about taking a message from a phone-call, but once O-sensei and I get through the tedious textbook stuff I play the telephone game with the students, having the first person from each row come out in the hall and “take a message” which they then go inside and pass down their rows to the last person who then races to write it on the blackboard for speed-points and accuracy points. These relay games are guaranteed to be fun, but I gave it an extra twist by coming up with 36 funny sentences and going through the name lists for each class to plug one of the actual students’ names in the sentence, so their message would be something like, “Soandso is eating an elephant” or “Soandso wants to fight Obama”. I was a bit worried about embarrassing some students so I gave most of the embarrassing ones to boys who I know have a good sense of humor like, “Soandso is wearing a skirt” or “Soandso wants to kiss Lady Gaga”. I had no idea what to expect, but so far I’ve done it twice and it’s gone over quite well.

And that’s everything on the teaching front. On the social front, I had another fun weekend party this past Saturday, starting at an okonomiyaki restaurant with Kim, Enam, Jack, and Stephen and then migrating to another karaoke place for a private room with a fixed price for unlimited hours (until 6 a.m.) of drinking and singing. I still had a cold when we went out so I hadn’t planned on drinking at all, but it’s kind of a requirement for karaoke and I ended up once again going a little overboard. But—and I never ever thought I’d feel this way—karaoke is such a good time that the inevitable hangover the day after is just as much worth the price as the actual money. It was also just such a nice warm feeling to be back in Japan amongst friends, just hanging out and having a good time, carelessly crooning away to all kinds of music, mostly the stuff we all grew up with.

And there’s not much else to say about that or anything else really. Life is once again a constant series of enjoyable events from Monday to Friday, from the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep. All I can do is squeeze as much appreciation out of this time as I can, as one day I’ll almost certainly look back on this time and remember it as the Glory Days. May they continue to roll.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , ,

Epic Return, part 2

October 22nd, 2012 No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epic Return, part 1

October 19th, 2012 No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PAC of Wolves

September 9th, 2012 No comments

I left Mike’s apartment at about 6:30 last evening, Mike himself having gone down to Atlantic City to meet a bunch of friends of his a few hours earlier. But he was kind enough to give me a set of keys and let me use the place as a base for the night, which saved me the hassle of driving in and out of Manhattan (in exchange for the hassle of driving in and out of Brooklyn, which is probably not that much easier.)

But his place is conveniently located just a few blocks away from Atlantic Avenue station, one of the main public transportation hubs of Brooklyn. To get to Columbia University where the Wolf-PAC meeting was being held, I just had to hop on the B train and ride it straight to 116th street. I hadn’t realized Columbia was located in Harlem, but that’s where I found myself.

That was an interesting enough place for me to be. I was along Frederick Douglas Blvd, a busy enough street with a ton going on. I never got the feeling I was walking through anyone’s “territory” where I had no business being. I stopped at a food vendor to get myself a slice of pizza for dinner, then walked through Morningside Park to the university.

I found the Faculty House where the meeting was being held and got inside at about quarter to eight, over an hour before it was scheduled to begin. I was about the fifth person to arrive when I walked in, and I said hello to the guy organizing the event and made my donation before taking a seat in the front row.

I introduced myself to the other guys there and immediately started chatting about politics, about TYT, and about Wolf-PAC. I knew going in that this would be the largest concentration of Young Turks fans I’d ever see in one place, the previous number being just two—me and Krissi. They may have the largest online news show in the world and get 1 million views a day on YouTube, but fans are still few and far between, and especially since I live overseas I never encounter any. It was nice to actually be able to talk about the show with other random people were actually as familiar with it as I am.

A black guy who works for an IT company took a seat next to me and started talking to the woman behind me about the convention speeches. She thought Obama’s speech was great but he said it did nothing for him. When he told her he wasn’t going to vote for Obama but for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, she was taken aback and they launched into the standard throwing-your-vote-away vs. voting-your-conscience argument. He told us that his girlfriend cried when he told her he wasn’t voting for Obama, which I thought was sad and funny.

People were slowly but surely filing in, and at about 8:30 someone made a comment and we noticed that Cenk Uygur had arrived. It was a very surreal moment to see him in person for the first time. He’s been a face on my computer screen nearly every day for the past two and a half years, so seeing him in the flesh was a pretty crazy sensation. I’ve had celebrity encounters before, and while Cenk is probably the least-known celebrity I’ve seen in person, he’s the most familiar to me personally.

He walked up to the podium and shook a few hands along the way, mine being the last. I just shook the hand of someone who’s shaken hands with all kinds of famous journalists and politicians from Wolf Blitzer to Al Gore.

He and his helpers got the power-point slideshow set up for his presentation and then he went to chat with some people in the back as more and more filed in. There were 200 seats altogether and by the time the presentation started at least three quarters were full.

The presentation.The presentation itself was also surreal to watch. It was all about the influence of corporate money in politics and the strategy Wolf-PAC is taking to fight it, things he talks about on The Young Turks all the time. Since I watch the show every day I was already familiar with everything he was saying, from the examples of how corporate lobbyists make millions buying politicians and screwing over the American people (see Billy Tauzin) and how Barack Obama isn’t doing anything to work against it (see Billy Tauzin). He was just talking off the cuff with prompting from the power-point slides, using the same tone and expressions he uses on the show all the time. It was like watching the first hour of TYT live.

As for the Wolf-PAC strategy, he laid it out as clearly as I’ve ever heard him make it. One of his most important statistics was that 86% of the American people think the politicians are bought and the system is corrupted by corporate and special interest money. That’s clearly an overwhelming majority, encompassing not just liberals but conservatives, libertarians, and just about everyone across the entire political spectrum, but the media never talks about it because they’re the ones cashing in on all that money spent on campaign ads. But if we start making progress on this issue and gain more attention, we’ll have the American people on our side as long as we remain focused on this one thing and don’t get side-tracked with a bunch of other liberal causes that a majority of Americans wouldn’t get behind.

But all it will really take is a number of dedicated people to bring pressure to local politicians. The idea is to fight fire with fire, corporate Super-PAC money vs. grassroots Wolf-PAC money, but not on a national level. Everyone understands that even if you manage to get someone truly dedicated to campaign finance reform into national office, they’ll just be attacked relentlessly with corporate cash in the next election and booted out. It has to be done at the local level.

The central idea is to call for an amendment to the constitution banning corporate money in politics. Something that bypasses Supreme Court decisions saying corporations are people and therefore have a 1st Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections, and that all elections must be publicly financed. It’s important to note that we’re only trying to eliminate corporate money. David Koch, George Soros, Sheldon Adelson etc. will still be able to spend as much money on independent issue ads as they want. It’s just that corporations won’t be able to reach into their bottomless coffers to infuse money directly into the election of our politicians. A constitutional amendment sounds radical, but it’s actually a pretty modest step.

And the way you get to a constitutional amendment without going through Congress where such a thing would be hopeless is to do it on a state level. If 34 state legislatures vote to call for a constitutional convention, all state legislatures would have to convene and vote on the proposed amendment. Getting there will be a long hard struggle but once you get your first few victories, the ball should start to roll pretty quickly. If Rhode Island votes to call a convention, Connecticut will be more likely to do the same. Get a third state on board and suddenly you’ve got a real movement going. And if you manage to get a red state to go along, everyone will start paying attention.

Just as the special interests threaten politicians who vote against them, Wolf-PAC can threaten politicians who vote against it. The average state legislature election only costs about $40,000, so it’s not completely out of reach. Politicians will think “I can either vote for campaign finance reform and get $40,000 or vote against it and have $40,000 spent on defeating me, so…hey it turns out I’m a fierce advocate for campaign finance reform and always have been!”

It sounds like a pipe-dream and Cenk admitted as much, but he used his own personal story to make it more hopeful. When he and his friends started The Young Turks in his living room ten years ago, everyone told him it would fail. Nobody was going to want to get their news from no-name unheard of people. Eight years later he had the largest online news show in the world, and now a show on television on Current TV. He said the hardest thing about competing online is getting to 3 million YouTube views. Several hours of YouTube content are posted every second, so you’re not just competing with a few dozen or hundred other TV networks, but against millions and millions of other things out there. But he said that once you hit that magic number of 3 million views, the next thing you know you’re at 6 million, then 10 million, then 20 million, and so on. Everything starts out small with just a small group of dedicated people, but if you remain dedicated and keep persisting, you can succeed.

After the speech he took a few questions, in which he addressed much of the skepticism about the idea including the fact that if this movement ever actually gains traction, what’s to stop the corporations from using their money to crush it like they crushed ACORN. Cenk pointed out that ACORN was vulnerable because they relied on government funding, something Wolf-PAC doesn’t need to worry about. Congress can’t vote to defund it. And while the mainstream media is certain to talk about it derogatively as they stand a lot to lose a lot of money if the movement succeeds, the best thing that could happen to the movement is more publicity. He welcomed Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly to blast and deride the movement as much as they want—it’ll just get more people to pay attention and with 86% of Americans already agreeing with our core conviction, the harder they fight us the stronger we’re likely to get.

When the speech was over he wasted no time in putting us to action, breaking us into groups based on our home state for us to meet each other and get coordinated. The New York group outnumbered the rest of us by about 5 to 1, so they remained in the main area while New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania stood in groups off to the side. As his home state is New Jersey, he came to our group first.

The necessity for him to hold these kinds of meetings became clear right away, as he asked if anyone would like to be the coordinator for New Jersey. Apparently there isn’t one yet. One of the guys there, a 46-year-old lawyer, volunteered for the job and Cenk spoke with him a bit about what that job would entail. When he was done I spoke up and said I feel bad because I live in Japan so what could I do from overseas to help out? Someone said, “You should feel bad. You know what the Japanese are doing to the whales?”

I said, “Yeah, they really shouldn’t be doing that to those whales” and Cenk laughed and said, “Yes, I agree, they really should stop doing that to the whales.” He told me he wasn’t sure what I could do but there must be plenty of things that wouldn’t require my physical presence and I could work that out with our coordinator. As he was leaving I couldn’t resist telling him, “Go easy on the herbivore men. They’re all right.” That got a laugh from some of the other people around, and he laughed too but I’m not sure he got the reference to his own segment because he said, “It’s okay, some of my best friends are vegan.”

New York delegation.He went off to talk to the Pennsylvania people, and I listened to what the New York coordinators were telling the New Yorkers about a petition they already had going, until something one of the Pennsylvanians was saying caught my ear. It was about the political spectrum and how it’s not really a straight line from right to left but more of a circle, and people will agree wholeheartedly on certain issues even if they disagree with all others. I spoke up in agreement, explaining that most of my family is conservative but we all agree that there’s too much influence of money over politics, which Cenk said was great to hear.

When Cenk left that group I talked to the guy with the “circular political spectrum” theory for awhile, then chatted with another guy there who’d overheard I lived in Japan and wanted to ask me a bit about that. After awhile he took out his camera and said he was going to try and get a picture with Cenk before he left, and I said I didn’t want to bother him for that but it certainly was tempting.

But when we saw other people already posing with Cenk we moseyed on back there and joined in. I took a few shots of Cenk with other people but just as I was about to go myself, one of his handlers came up and said they should probably get going. So I decided to forget about it, but just then a group of people asked for a group shot and everyone there was welcome to join in so I did. The guy I’d asked to take my picture with Cenk took a shot of it, but everyone was posing for the other camera. So the only picture I have with both Cenk and myself is a somewhat funny shot of him and everyone posing for a different picture.

Me and Cenk! (and other random people)

But I did get to speak to him one last time, just to tell him it was an honor to meet him, I’ve been a member for over two years, and I was supposed to be back in Japan now but there was a problem with my visa so I had the opportunity to come to this, and I hoped there was some way I could help. He was as polite and gracious as it gets, and he thanked me before heading over to talk with another group, as now all the New York people had broken from their large meeting and were gathering around for their chance to meet him. I left after exchanging some Facebook info with one of the people I met there who was interested in Japan, and I assume Cenk didn’t acutally manage to make it out of there for quite some time afterwards. He’d clearly come there to work, to seriously push the Wolf-PAC agenda forward in this region, but he understood that the people who’d come there were fans and he was the big celebrity, and he felt an obligation to meet everyone who wanted to meet him.

On my way back to Brooklyn I started getting feelings of paranoia about the kind of impression I’d made and whether I’d made a mistake by blabbing to him about my visa bullshit which he couldn’t possibly care about. It had only taken five seconds but I just couldn’t help but feel weird about it. I guess it’s natural to feel that way about celebrity encounters, wondering if beneath their gracious exterior they’re really thinking “why are you talking to me? I don’t care” but there was nothing to justify getting that impression from him. I might not have impressed him by any means, but it’s highly unlikely that he went home thinking, “Man, why did that Japan guy even show up? What a waste of space.” I’m sure he barely gave a second thought to me.

But I did manage to accomplish my goal of actually meeting him and getting to say a few words face to face, as much as I would rather have chosen more intelligent, less irrelevant words. He’s probably the number one person I’ve most wanted to meet for the last two years, and now I can finally say I have.

All that remained to do was get back to Brooklyn from Harlem. That turned out to be somewhat tricky, as the subway stairs I’d come out of only led down to the platform for the trains going uptown, and I walked around the entire block and couldn’t find the stairs for the opposite platform. Under normal circumstances I would just ask people for help, but I must somewhat ashamedly confess that I was a little intimidated to do that in Harlem. It’s not that I’m afraid of black people, it’s just that I have a pretty good idea what I look like to them and I’d rather not ask them to do anything for me. But when I circled back around there was a lady begging me for change, and since she wanted something from me I told her I’d gladly help her out if she could tell me how to get to the subway going downtown. She kindly pointed me to the stairs across the street which I’d stupidly not seen before, and I gave her a dollar. I hope she was able to buy some good crack with it.

I’d texted Krissi when I left Columbia because she’s the only person I know who’d give a damn that I met Cenk Uygur (the only person among the dozens I’ve recommended the show to who actually became a die-hard fan), and she texted me back saying she was just sitting at home bored so I could call her if I wanted. After the lengthy subway journey back I gave her a call and told her a bit about the event as well as my current visa-limbo situation, so while Mike’s apartment was empty I at least had some company on the phone for a couple of hours until the battery started to die. It was a nice conversation to end what had been overall a pretty damn good day.

And it was a day that would never have happened if this whole visa problem had never occurred. I would still trade the Cenk-meeting to be back in Japan, but for all I know something will come of this Wolf-PAC thing and I’ll be able to work with the NJ coordinator guy and do something to help out. And if that’s the case, and we eventually succeed and I can feel I was a part of it, I might eventually look back and be glad the whole thing happened.

The Latest Updates

August 20th, 2012 No comments

Things have been relatively uneventful since I got back to New Jersey. On Thursday evening I went with my dad to Easton, PA to join him on his monthly gathering of a few Lafayette fraternity brothers. We went to Porter’s pub, a place with a selection of about 60 beers, and if you try them all (usually not done all at once) you get your name engraved on your own silver mug which they hang on the ceiling. I tried a few beers and got my own mug started, which should be finished by the next time I get there thanks to my dad impersonating me.

And yesterday I hung out with Lisa, an old friend from high school whom I haven’t seen in years. We were pretty close for awhile but drifted apart towards the end, and she’s had a pretty rough time of it ever since her best friend Val died when they were 17. Her father just passed away on Monday and Lisa had gone to the funeral the day before, but other than some sadness over that she seemed to be doing very well overall. We had lunch at a diner in Clinton, then walked up Point Mountain, the highest point in Hunterdon County for some nice conversation with beautiful scenery. It was nice to see that she’s doing much better since the last time I’d seen her.

Finally, I finally got some new information from Interac last night regarding my visa situation, and the news was pretty good overall. They found out that if I’m in the country when the Certificate of Eligibility is issued, I don’t need to go to an overseas embassy to get the work visa. So as long as I get back to Japan before the processing is complete, I won’t have to leave Japan and I should be able to get the visa and be back to work relatively quickly. However, if the ironic happens and the process is rushed fast enough to get the certificate issued before my August 31st arrival, I’ll have to fly to Korea to get it done.

I’d also asked them about the possibility of working for the school as an unpaid volunteer while I don’t have the visa, and he said that wouldn’t be possible if I’m still on a contract, as on paper it wouldn’t look like volunteer work. They’d have to end my current contract early and draw up a whole new one for the remainder of the school year. After giving it some thought I realized this is probably the best option, and I sent them an e-mail this morning to ask about what exactly that would entail. After all, it reflects pretty poorly on Interac if their ALT can’t fulfill his obligation to work the full school year because of visa issues we should have been on top of, but if we demonstrate our willingness to work around the problem, that should be to our credit.

In any case, I’m feeling much better about the situation overall and it looks like whatever consequences ultimately come of this, they won’t be too disastrous. The worst thing that could still happen, other than a major financial hit, is that I won’t be able to help the Speech Contest students prepare and I’ll have to feel like I let them down. But I’m pretty sure the Speech Contest is open to the public, so I’ll be able to at least go there and show my support to the students regardless of my visa situation.

And that’s where things stand right now. Whatever happens, I’ll be back in Japan by the end of next week.

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