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Back in Deutschland, week 2

August 20th, 2013 No comments

I’m in Ichenheim again, for the first time in two years. It might as well have only been two weeks for all the noticeable change, except for the one giant difference of there being a 21-month old child here now. Now I’m writing another blog entry from this couch like so many times before, although this one feels like a chore as I’d rather just be relaxing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back in Deutschland, week 1

August 10th, 2013 No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

Circumnavigation

August 4th, 2013 No comments

I’m back in the country where I spent three of the last five years of my life. It feels like it’s finally the start of my vacation, but it also feels a bit like coming home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , , ,

Work-cation

July 25th, 2013 No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working the Fields

May 20th, 2013 No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Differences

April 23rd, 2013 No comments

Last month, in my epic entry on the closing day of Togane Chu, I wrote that at the enkai K-sensei told me who the new ALT for that school was going to be, someone named Lola that I hadn’t heard of. It turns out he was talking about Laura-Anne, a girl I actually have met once before, at the beach picnic last spring with Kim and Enam. I got to meet her again this past Sunday, as Kim and Enam arranged for the four of us to go out for okonomiyaki together and get caught up. I was glad for the opportunity, as I got to ask Laura-Anne about what’s going on at my old school this year, a nice way to maintain a connection.

She’s from Jamaica (last time I’d mistakenly thought she was Indian) and came to Japan in the same group of new ALTs as Kim and Enam, at the beginning of last school year so she’s a bit newer than I am. I’m sure the students will like her, though I must confess to some relief that she’s not some super-experienced hot-shot who’ll easily out-do me. I know it’s not a competition, but my ego can’t help but want to be as many students’ favorite ALT as possible.

I also got to talk to Enam about W-sensei, as he worked with her at a different school last year. Unfortunately, what I heard was mostly negative. He agrees that she’s a really nice person, but he said she’s not that great of a teacher and is more concerned with getting the students to like her than maintaining classroom discipline. He also said she’d often try to make him do awkward things like sing songs or wear a Santa outfit at Christmas. I have no qualms about wearing a Santa costume if she’s the one who bought it, but if she asks me to sing I will decline.

I think it has to do with the fact that she was an elementary school teacher before her maternity leave, and hasn’t had enough experience with junior high school to know what works and what doesn’t. I think my working-relationship with her will be a bit different because I’ve actually been at junior high longer than her, and I’ve already established that I’m perfectly capable of planning and executing entire lessons on my own. Enam said that’s probably the way to go, but she also has a tendency to rely too heavily on the ALT and just sit back and not help at all during class, even joking around with the students while you try to give a lesson. That sounds a little frustrating, but I’d still prefer that to a JTE who never lets me do anything.

I also talked to Enam about transportation, as he also has a school that’s 10 km away and instead of getting a car, he found a good deal on an electric bicycle. I’m strongly considering doing that instead of a car because it’s far less expensive, though I still have no intention of giving up on getting the license.

As for school, I wrote that I’ll be meeting with each class at K-chu twice a week but that’s not entirely accurate. This week I only meet with each class once, and I asked S-sensei about it and she said that some weeks I’ll meet with classes more than once and some weeks I won’t. It all depends on the schedule and what’s being taught. Because it’s difficult to squeeze in two meetings with each class here due to my Wednesday and Friday mornings at other schools, I suspect weeks of just one lesson per class will be more common, something I’m a bit disappointed about.

I almost didn’t meet with any classes yesterday, as there was only one lesson scheduled—a fourth-period class with first-graders—and W-sensei was absent. S-sensei told me they would cancel the lesson but I said I was going to do the whole thing myself anyway and didn’t need W-sensei to be there. She asked the administrators and they told her the lessons should still be cancelled. I think it’s a rule that ALTs can’t give lessons without a JTE present, and while the administrators at Togane Chu had been perfectly comfortable letting me break that rule, I figured I hadn’t established enough confidence regarding my teaching abilities here yet.

But apparently there was more discussion on the matter, and at the break after first-period I was told I could go ahead and give the lesson after all. One of the vice principals and a teacher’s aide were present, but I did everything on my own and everything went perfectly well. Hopefully that will establish a firm precedent that they don’t need to cancel my English lessons when the JTE is absent. Teachers in Japan are almost never absent, but if what Enam tells me about W-sensei is true, she might be an exception. I’d hate for my already sparse teaching schedule to be made even sparser.

As for that, I definitely miss getting to do every lesson five or six times, but at least now I can use lessons or variations of lessons I did at Togane Chu that these students have never had before. Today I played the moja-moja game with the third-grade classes to practice the past-participle, and the kids were delighted. It was even better with a smaller class-size, as each student had four chances to go instead of two.

Another advantage of the smaller school and class-size is that it’s much easier to remember all of the students’ names. Keeping 600 names in my head, divided into groups of 30-35 was next to impossible, and I’d undoubtedly forget a few every week. But it took me no time at all to firmly memorize the 100-students here, as I’ve also gotten much better at memorization in general. Since memorizing their names I’ve done three classes and while I needed some hints to get through the 26-student first-grade class, I always got it after a prompt. I had the two 16-student third-grade classes today and I impressed the hell out of them by remembering every single one of their names, and I was even able to think of the name of the one student who was absent. The students are already starting to warm up to me, but that should go a long way.

But one disadvantage of the small school is that it seems every last student is in one of the clubs. I opened up the after-school “Kyle-Store” yesterday and had no participation. One girl came in to see if she could buy anything with just one dollar, and promptly left when she found out she couldn’t. I don’t think anyone is going to stay after and play games like at Togane Chu.

But I might try and check out the clubs and sports on my own. That’s something Interac encourages but at Togane Chu I gave up on it rather quickly. The students would greet me warmly and then go right on doing what they were doing while I stood there awkwardly. Only once did any of the teams invite me to play. The teams here are much smaller, so it’s worth a try to see if things here go any differently.

The only other thing worth writing about are my first actual elementary school lessons which I started on Friday at H-sho, but I’ll wait until I’ve done the rest of them tomorrow at M-sho where the reaction is sure to be different in some interesting ways.

The settling-in process continues.

Update: I just got home from school. The Kyle-store today was significantly more active than yesterday, with about two dozen students popping in to check it out, some expressing regret that they had to go to their club so couldn’t stay and play a game, and three first-grade boys did stay and play a round of Uno. We’ll see how it goes from here.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

The Absence of Friends and Cherry-Blossoms

April 8th, 2013 No comments

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It’s the first official day of the new school year, and just like the last official days of last school year, I have nothing to do. All week is orientation up until Saturday when I have my first lessons. Since those are just self-introductions and I’ve done that before, most of the work is already done. I’m going to prepare a little something extra I haven’t tried yet, but that won’t take long at all.

It used to take me 5 minutes to get from my apartment to work. To K-chu it takes 25, which isn’t too bad except for the annoyance of trekking up hills. But I’ll be biking it until I somehow get a driver’s license (which apparently requires a miracle), so I might as well get used to it. Luckily it was cold enough this morning that the sweat was minimal. When I got to the teacher’s room, I was immediately asked to give my self-introduction to the faculty, so I went through that again and delivered it without a hitch to polite applause at the end.

The teacher in charge of the ALT here is an S-sensei (not to be confused with Principal S-sensei), and a few minutes after I sat down she asked me if Interac had told me to come in today, because there were no classes and she wouldn’t have time to talk to me. It would have been nice if I’d known I didn’t have to come, but so it goes. It was determined that I should stay until lunch time and then, since I didn’t bring any lunch with me, I could go home. I assumed there’d be an opening ceremony today but it turns out that was last week, though there will be a “welcome ceremony” tomorrow (not sure about the distinction) in which I and all of the new teachers will be introduced to the students, though I won’t have to give a speech.

It’s only about an hour into my first day here, so my first impressions aren’t worth much, but I’m glad S-sensei seems nice and the rest of the faculty was welcoming enough. I’m liking the somewhat cozier atmosphere of this smaller teacher’s room, and the view out the window from my desk is much more aesthetically pleasing than before—evergreen trees as opposed to other wings of the building. Since this is where I’ll be spending most of my time over the course of the next year, that’s no small thing.

I’ve yet to actually see any students, and it’s entirely possible this whole day will go by without encountering even one, but at least tomorrow I’ll get my first look at them and they at me. Hopefully they’ll be just as friendly as at Togane Chu, and I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t be.

Now let me back-track and tell the sad story of this past weekend, which was supposed to be full of pleasant scenery and social interaction. It’s cherry-blossom season which means hanami festivals, and there were two this weekend. The first was in the nearby town of Toke, organized by Fred. I’d thought it was going to be an actual festival like the one in Togane, but it was just a get-together of a bunch of ALTs and their friends in a very big and beautiful park there.

The event was from 11:00 to 16:00, but I was just finishing up my routine Saturday chores and errands at noon. I texted Kim and Enam to find out if they were going and Kim said it was still pretty early for them but they might go later. So I hopped a train and was in Toke by 12:30, then proceeded to make the long walk from the station to the park.

The weather report said it wouldn’t rain until the evening, but when I was about half-way to the park some drops were already beginning to fall. Luckily they sell umbrellas at every convenience store, and there are convenience stores on just about every block, so I was able to pick one up and have it ready to go when the rain really started falling five minutes later. Now I was just worried everyone else would pack up and leave before I got there. Kim sent me a text asking me about the weather, and when I replied to inform her it was raining I knew that would probably mean she and Enam weren’t coming.

I found the park but couldn’t find an entrance. Everything was fenced off, and I ended up walking half the perimeter before getting in. Now all I had to do was find the group of foreigners somewhere in this giant park. The iPhone made this [theoretically] a much less impossible task, as I could not only check the Facebook event page for the exact location and use the GPS tracking to guide me to that spot, but I could also text-message the people I assumed would be going to the event.

Well, my number for Fred wasn’t working, and neither Ben nor Atsushi returned my text, so I simply posted “Is there anybody here???” on the Facebook event page and hoped someone would respond as I made my way all around the park looking for them. How hard could it be to find a group of Americans drinking in a park? You’d think you’d be able to hear them a kilometer in every direction.

But everywhere I looked, there was no sign of them, even at the exact spot the event page said they’d be. Ten minutes after posting my “where is everybody?” message on Facebook, Fred posted to inform us that because the rain came early, they were heading out. Hah!

Of course not five minutes later, the rain stopped and didn’t pick up again until the evening, but by then it was too late. I’d come all the way to Toke and walked for about an hour and a half, and I never even made it to the event.

Well, I came here to drink sake in a park with other people, dammit, and at least I can still fulfill half my goals. I found an empty pavilion, poured myself a cup, put on some music with my iPhone, and enjoyed my own private little hanami-of-one for awhile. I drank two cups of sake in the pavilion and ate some of the food I’d brought, then migrated over to a very nice lake for another half a cup before journeying back to the station and to Togane. Disappointments aside, it was actually a rather pleasant little outing.

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The next day was the big Togane hanami event, and as last year’s had been so awesome I’d really been looking forward to this year’s as well. When I finally heard back from Ben and Atsushi the previous night, I learned they wouldn’t be coming so I didn’t know who’d be there, but at least I figured Kim and Enam would accompany me.

I wanted to get there as early as possible because I didn’t want to miss anyone. With all of the ALTs and Josai students in the area, there were bound to be a group of them somewhere. On top of that, I knew a whole bunch of my old Togane Chu students would be coming and going all day and this would be my last chance to see them for a very long time.

Kim and I exchanged some texts around 11:30. I said I want to head up there at about 1:00 and she said this was too early. I asked her what time she had in mind, but got no response. Even by 1:30 she hadn’t written back yet so I just sent her a text to say I was heading there now and would hopefully meet her and Enam there later.

Unfortunately, the weather on Sunday was almost as unpleasant as Saturday, though for a different reason. The skies were clear and the sun was shining, but the wind was a total bitch. Gusts of wind were raging to the point where they could almost knock you off your feet, and serve as a significant deterrent to bicycling there.

I spotted Zach on my way up, walking alongside someone who appeared to be his new Japanese girlfriend (lucky him). We stopped and chatted for a moment, and he expressed some sympathy at their having left Toke the previous day just as I was arriving. I asked him if he’d be coming back to the Togane event but he said they were just leaving. He said it was “pretty crowded” so I could probably find someone I knew.

It didn’t look “pretty crowded” when I got there. Compared to last year, it was all but dead. The wind was definitely a major factor, but I think the main reason so few people had come was the near complete lack of actual cherry-blossoms. The weather this spring has been atrocious, with rain and wind pounding at the trees multiple times a week, stripping the cherry-blossoms from the trees weeks earlier than last year. They’re almost all gone now. Last year the lake had been surrounded by magnificent pink—this year it’s all light-green.

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I walked the perimeter of the lake and found no fellow foreigners. I did run into a couple of Togane Chu students who graduated this past year and had a nice chat with them about what they were up to now, but the length of any such conversation is always limited by the limits of my Japanese.

Eventually I just decided to sit on a bench and read my book for awhile, hopefully until Kim and Enam arrived. As I was reading an old Japanese guy came up to me and proceeded to attempt to engage me in friendly conversation. Usually they only approach you to practice their English, but this guy spoke only Japanese. I did my best, but it was the most awkward-pause-filled conversation of all time. After about ten minutes—most of which was in complete silence—he got up and shook my hand to leave.

I texted Stacy to see if she or any Josai students were planning on coming, but she was sick and didn’t even know the event was happening. Kim still hadn’t returned my text from hours earlier. Yet another hanami of one—only this time I wasn’t drinking because the next day was the first day of school and I didn’t want to make the same mistake as last year (going in hungover) especially when it’s a brand new school.

I finally decided to just go home and come back after dinner. There were supposed to be fireworks at 7:00, so hopefully that would draw in more of a crowd.

As I was cooking dinner, I got a text from Kim saying she and Enam were at the lake but nobody else was there. I replied to tell her I’d gone and come back but would be returning there later for the fireworks. A short time later I heard her and Enam returning to her flat, but she never replied to my text.

I got back to the lake around 6:15 and there were indeed more people there but still no fellow English-speakers. I walked around the lake a few times and bumped into about a dozen more students so that was nice, but still far from genuine social interaction.  When 7:00 came around it was clear the fireworks had been cancelled (probably due to the wind), so I just went home.

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The whole thing was a gentle reminder of something I already know: I have zero friends in this country.

It doesn’t really bother me though. I’m well-aware of how overly-introverted I am and that it prevents me from easily connecting with other people. I only made two real friends throughout my entire three years in Germany. I made zero friends in Santa Barbara. In four years of college I came away with only two lasting friendships, and again only two from high school.

I thought I’d made a friend in Trey last year, but that’s in some doubt. The schools I’m teaching at now are actually the schools he taught at when he was here, and I sent him a message last weekend to ask him about the schools but haven’t received any kind of reply yet. The only other person I came close to connecting with was Stephen, but I think I might have opened up to him too much on New Years’ Eve and spoiled that too.

But as I said, I don’t really care. I’ve got six good, true friends in the world and that seems like enough to me. I’m not sure most “normal” people even have that many real friends, it’s just that theirs usually aren’t scattered across the globe like mine are. All that matters is that I’m not lonely, and while I felt a little of that this weekend, it happens rarely. I get enough human warmth and interaction from students and colleagues to keep me going.

Half-way through writing this entry, I had more social interaction than I had over the entire spring break. One of the JTEs I’ll be working with, W-sensei, came to talk with me about our first lessons this Saturday, and afterwards she wanted to practice her English because it was rusty after a year and a half of maternity-leave, so we got into a very interesting discussion about early childhood education in Japan.

I actually knew nothing about it before, but found it quite fascinating. In Japan, parents have a choice between sending their children to nursery school or kindergarten. Nursery schools take kids as young as 1, but when a child turns 3 they can enter kindergarten until their first-year of elementary school. Parents want their children in kindergarten because those are actual schools where they actually learn things, whereas nursery schools are basically just day-care centers. The bizarre thing is that kindergartens finish at 2:00 p.m., far too early for any woman with a professional job to pick the child up. Mothers are forced to choose between becoming housewives or continuing their careers at the expense of their child’s early education.

I remembered how K-sensei at the enkai had said K-chu students were very good because it’s in a rich area, and that makes more sense now. First of all, parents with more money can afford babysitters to pick their children up from kindergarten so they don’t have to give up their careers. Kindergarten is also more expensive than nursery school, about 400 to 600 US dollars a month. There are less-expensive public kindergartens, but there’s usually a waiting-list and single-parents are given priority, so it’s very hard for a two-parent household to get into them.

W-sensei has put her 18-month-old daughter in a private nursery school (it goes from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. —unbelievable!), and will have to decide next year whether to continue teaching, or give it up so she can send her daughter to kindergarten.

I find this rather amazing, as Japanese society in general seems designed to look out for the general welfare of everybody. Why not have kindergartens that offer day-care until 6:00?

So that was an interesting conversation. W-sensei is struggling with her English but is really determined to improve. This is good luck for me, as I love to have control over lessons and it appears she’s going to rely heavily on my help this year. Not only will be I doing a self-introduction lesson on Saturday, but I’ll be returning to the same class again in the afternoon to teach the alphabet.

I now have a much clearer picture of how this year is going to go at K-chu. There are two classes in each grade, and only two JTEs. W-sensei teaches both 1st-grade classes and a 2nd-grade class, while S-sensei teaches the other 2nd-grade class and both 3rd-grade classes. S-sensei also teaches Japanese (she has two teaching degrees) so she’ll be very busy this year. I didn’t have much of a chance to speak with her today, but I assume she’ll also be happy to let me do as much of the lesson-planning as possible.

It also appears as though I might be meeting with some classes more than once a week, though that’s yet to be determined. It would be very cool if it’s the case, but we’ll see.

And that gets the journal not just up-to-date, but up-to-the-hour. The weekend was a bit of a let-down, but the start of the week has been quite promising. Interesting how my life-situation in Japan is now so Japanese-like: Outside of my job I have no life to speak of. My job is my life.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , , ,

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.

In the Short and Long Term

January 7th, 2013 No comments

It’s the first school day of 2013 and the opening ceremony just concluded. It was almost exactly the same as the closing ceremony for 2012, only this time the speech lambasting the third-graders to take their entrance exams seriously only lasted for a few minutes as the other two grades filed out of the gym. It was nice to be back among the students again, and sad to think I’ve only got three months left before I never see at least a third of them again.

Today was just for the opening ceremony and most of the students will be leaving at lunch time, so I won’t be doing any lessons until tomorrow. I can hardly wait to get back to that again, particularly because I know what I’ve got planned for this week is going to be fun.

The winter vacation was a nice change of pace, but two weeks of it was more than enough considering I had absolutely nothing going on. It was just me alone with myself every day except New Years’ which didn’t exactly go as planned. Stephen came to Togane and we were going to join Stacy and a bunch of other Josai students for karaoke but she called us early on and explained that unfortunately the rooms needed to be booked in advance and theirs was already at maximum capacity. Stephen and I spent most of the night at my place engaged in intensely personal conversation, getting to know each other much more than we did previously.

Shortly before midnight I suggested we go outside to start the year somewhere slightly more interesting than my apartment. The only walkable place even remotely interesting is Togane Lake (the place where they have the hanami) so that’s where we went. There was nobody else just hanging out by the lake but there was a nearby temple where many people were going for the traditional New Years’ worship. It’s interesting how the Japanese are so secular most of the year but the one big religious holiday is New Years’, but they go by the Western calendar. So we didn’t get any fireworks but we got plenty of ringing bells.

The next morning we went out for breakfast at the nearest place that served it, which happened to be the infamous Denny’s where the Yakuza shooting occurred last year. That’s the first and probably the last time I’ll ever eat there—not because I’m afraid of another gang shooting but because the food doesn’t appeal to me. Although I must admit that the French Toast was pretty decent.

After Stephen left and I called my grandparents I biked to the beach for the first time of the year and was at my favorite spot—the river mouth on the beach—when 2:00 p.m. came around and East Coast USA officially entered 2013.

The rest of my vacation was as uneventful as the beginning, and while I had plenty of enjoyable ways of passing the time by the end of it I was starting to slip back into a mildly depressed state, weary of my relatively worthless existence. Teaching Japanese middle-school students might not be quite as fulfilling as other ways I could be spending my life, but at least I’m appreciated by people I also appreciate.

One thing I’ve been considering that I think I confirmed today is that I can only spend one more year at this school before moving on. I love this school so I won’t be disappointed if Interac keeps me here another year (something I won’t know for sure until the year is pretty much over), but there’s a much wider world out there and I’d like to expand my horizons a little, maybe get a taste of what it’s like to teach elementary or high school. If they do keep me here another year I’ll formally request to be moved next year, then depending on how that goes I’ll decide from there whether to stay or move on to a new country.

Before Stephen came to Japan he spent one year teaching in Saudi Arabia because the Middle East is apparently where you can make the most money teaching English. It makes perfect sense, as Japan is such a highly desirable location they can get away with paying peanuts, but not many Westerners are willing to live in Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia doesn’t appeal to me, but I know someone who taught in Egypt and that strikes me as perhaps the most interesting of the Muslim countries to live in as well as relatively safe and modern. Plus from there I could do some travelling to Israel or deeper Africa, places I’ve always wanted to see as well. This is far from something I’ve made up my mind about but now it’s floating out there as a possibility for my next and quite possibly last destination for overseas English teaching. I think after one more country I’ll be ready to settle down in America or some English-speaking country for a long-term career teaching something other than English as a foreign language to students I can actually communicate with. It would be worth it to spend a year or two in a well-paying country first to have a decent financial position with which to plant my feet somewhere.

So that’s where things stand at the beginning of 2013. I don’t expect it to be the most exciting or interesting year of my life, but I fully expect to enjoy it.

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.

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