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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.

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Chu-hai and Cherry Blossoms

April 11th, 2012 No comments

Togane Lake

A “hanami” is a cherry-blossom viewing festival, a very popular activity during the cherry-blossom season, which lasts for different durations in different parts of Japan but is usually about one month long. The cherries only started blossoming last week, but they were in full bloom by the time of the hanami on Sunday.

I never received my school schedule in the mail from Interac, so all I knew on Sunday was that I had to attend the school’s opening ceremony the next morning. I didn’t know if I’d then have to stay the rest of the day or even do any lessons, but I was pretty resolved not to drink. It wasn’t until text messages from other ALTs informed me to bring drinks that I realized this was going to be that kind of event, so I ended up bringing four tall cans of chu-hai (a sweet alcoholic fruit-flavored beverage which is less expensive and less fattening than beer, but often with a higher alcohol content).

Before leaving for Tokyo the day before, I rang the doorbell of the new Interac ALT for Togane, Kim, and asked her if she knew about the hanami and if she wanted to go. She said yes, so I rang her again on Sunday when I was ready to go. Kim is practically fresh-off-the-plane, having just come from the big Interac training session in Narita, and she’d invited another ALT from training who now lives in nearby Sanmu, so the three of us walked to Togane Lake together while I told them about the area, about teaching Japanese students, and about all the things they learned at training that aren’t exactly true. It felt very weird to suddenly be the experienced one. Up until now I’ve been the new guy in nearly every situation.

There were already a ton of people at Togane Lake when we arrived at 3:00. After taking my first pictures I immediately spotted some of my students and said hello, and felt some more apprehension about drinking at this event. I’ve never had to encounter students in that state before, and there were guaranteed to be many of them here.

Lake entrance.  Along the path.

Japanese loveliness.

We walked around to the back of the lake, taking in the gorgeous and quintessentially Japanese scenery, until we spotted the two giant tarps on the grass swarming with fellow gaijin. Ben was there and immediately gave us a warm greeting, launching straight into introductions with the two new ALTs I’d brought. There were a few other familiar faces, but a whole bunch of people I’d never met before. Pretty much all of them had some kind of alcoholic beverage in their hand, so I went ahead and opened one up myself. They didn’t seem to have any qualms about greeting their students with booze-in-hand when they walked by, so I figured I shouldn’t either.

The gaijin tarps.

I chatted with a few people I haven’t seen in awhile and met a few others. Atsushi, whom I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, was one of the few Japanese people there to mingle with us, but it was nice to have a few Japanese faces among us. Most of us were American, and most of the Americans were from Wisconsin, as apparently Wisconsin and Chiba are “sister-states” and there’s a special program for Wisconsinites to come here and teach English. Kim is Canadian, and as far as I know the only one among us.

One of the first people I ended up in a conversation with is Dan, from the infamous night of Ben’s Christmas Party when he took Diana from me without realizing I’d been interested in her. I naturally hated him at the time but he clearly felt bad about it and even apologized in a Facebook message after-the-fact. We didn’t bring her up at all, but by astounding coincidence she just happened to walk by us right when we were talking, chatting some other foreigner’s ear off. She didn’t seem to notice us and he didn’t notice her, so I didn’t say anything.

What we did talk about was the teachers our schools would be exchanging. His school was getting S-Sensei in exchange for K-sensei, whom Dan told me is a really great guy who loves to chat in English and is really easy to get along with. Apparently they’ve even hung out outside of work. But he also said, “With him you’ll hardly have to do any work,” which made me nervous because having a teacher who does everything himself and leaving nothing to me is exactly what I’ve been fearing most about the replacements. But if he’s as nice a guy as Dan says, I can probably just ask him point-blank to give me more lesson-planning responsibilities.

After a little while, Kim and I decided to take a walk around the rest of the lake and check out the rest of the festival. As we walked I kept passing groups of students and saying hello, eventually no longer even thinking about the chu-hai in my hand. A few of the students’ eyes widened when they saw me with Kim and they asked me if she was my girlfriend, but I laughed and told them in Japanese that she isn’t—she’s just a new ALT. Kim thought it was funny how in Japan, if a guy and a girl are walking alone together it must mean they’re in a relationship. But she was also very excited to see how enthusiastic some of the students can get when spotting their teacher. She’s obviously looking forward to it, and indeed it is one of the best things about this job.

In fact, it turned out to be one of the best things about the festival. Back at the gaijin tarps as I continued to drink and chat with other ALTs about everything from where we’ve lived to places we’ve traveled to our impressions of Japan and so on, students would constantly be walking by and they all smiled and said hello. That doesn’t even happen at school, where the presence of their English teacher is nothing unusual and therefore calls for no acknowledgment. But seeing me outside of the school environment, in my street-clothes, drinking chu-hai, was quite a novelty for them. Some groups would call me over and challenge me to remember their names, which was really difficult having not seen them for a few weeks but I turned out to be a pretty good guesser and they all got a kick out of watching me struggle.

Of course the best part was seeing some of the recently graduated third-graders again. It’s been weeks since they graduated and I got all sad and melancholy about the idea that I’d never see them again, but since then I’ve been seeing them everywhere. The Spring Concert, the farewell ceremony, out jogging or riding my bike, in the supermarket—they’re all over the place.

The one group of recent graduates who were the most amused to see me was the “bad kid” group, Japanese middle-school version of “hoodlums” I guess you could say. They weren’t really bad, just the kind who didn’t care about school and would frequently disrespect teachers (though never me). The fourth time I spotted that group, one of the boys came up and put a chu-hai in my hand. I didn’t understand what was happening at first but one of the other ALTs explained he was giving it to me. I don’t know how he got it, but I thanked him and took it. At that point I was on my third and pretty buzzed, so if there was anything unethical about that I wasn’t concerned. He’s not my student anymore anyway.

Jack's back! I also got to see Jack and Lily again. They’re now back from visiting Jack’s parents in Boston and Lily’s parents from France are now here visiting her. I walked around the festival with them once and got caught up. Jack actually has some sort of job with Interac now, not as a teacher but something else I’m not too clear on. He was actually at the Narita training session, so he’d already met Kim before I did.

As dusk was setting, everyone was told to leave the grassy area and move to one end of the lake from where we could view the fireworks. I spent so much time trying to get good fireworks pictures that I forgot to enjoy the fireworks. The pictures I’m posting here are just a few of the many dozens I took, a waste of camera memory space.

The crowd just starting to assemble. Boom.

Fizzle. Ooh! Aah!

During the fireworks I also somehow managed to finish the chu-hai my former students had given me, which pushed me past that fine line between buzzed and drunk. That made the next part a ridiculously bizarre experience, as with everyone all bunched together I was bumping into students left and right, and my super-enthusiastic hellos must have been highly amusing to all of them. I’m pretty sure a bunch of students had heard I was there and were deliberately coming up to say hello, perhaps just for the fun of seeing me drunk.

I probably shouldn’t have felt too apprehensive about that in the first place. It doesn’t seem to matter at all. All the other ALTs were drunk and greeting students too. I found out later that getting drunk is expected at a hanami, just like it is at an enkai. I’ve interacted with teachers while drunk, and now students as well. No harm, really. All I did was say hello and try to remember their names.

One of about 20 pictures I don't remember taking. Ben invited us all back to his place for an after-party, and at that point I was extremely merry and just wanted the fun to continue, so while I really should have just gone home, eaten something, and drank tons of water before going to bed at a decent hour, I went to Ben’s place, drank my last chu-hai, and got embarrassingly drunk to the point where it wasn’t until the following afternoon that I was able to remember some of the things I did. Thank god my students didn’t see me in that state. I’m embarrassed enough that other drunken ALTs saw me that way too, but after apologizing to Ben through Facebook the next day he assured me it was okay, everyone was pretty sloppy at that point and his memory is pretty hazy too, but that getting sloshed is perfectly appropriate for a hanami.

Eventually I did stumble home and go to sleep, though I have no idea when. All I know is that the sleep I got wasn’t nearly enough. The alcohol would not wear off completely until the following afternoon. And of course, the following morning just happened to be the first day of the school-year.

To be continued…