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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.

Reading Practice

June 26th, 2013 No comments

I was confronted with a bit of absurdness in the Japanese education system this past week. It started when W-sensei asked me to do a lesson for the first-graders just reviewing how to read the words from the first few chapters of the textbook in preparation for the upcoming exams. She’s been discouraged by the relatively few students who still can’t read English letters, and is holding back the rest of the students on their account.

I repeated a game I played a few weeks earlier to some success, in which I’d divide the class into two teams, put five words up on the blackboard (printed in large font and held up by magnets) and have one student at a time from each team compete to see who could touch the word I read first. Once I’d gone through all the important words from the first chapters of the book, I’d have them come up and try to read the words themselves, giving a chance to the other team if they couldn’t.

Most of the students were perfectly adept at this game, but there were a few who really struggled. Some students would just pick words at random during the listening portion, and make wild guesses based on the first letter of the word in the reading portion (like the word would be ‘and’ and they’d say ‘apple’). Some were really trying to sound the word out but just didn’t have the hang of it yet. And one girl just didn’t get it at all. She’d come to the board each time during the listening portion but not even try to touch the words I called, and during the reading portion she’d stand up and come to the front but just stood staring at the word in painful silence. I could see on her face that she was trying to work out the pronunciation in her mind and at times it looked like she was just about to give the answer, but she was too unsure of herself to try. All I could do was gently encourage her but eventually I’d have to give up and let the other student answer, and she’d go sit down looking crushed. But she never broke down and cried, and she continued to dutifully stand up and subject herself to the embarrassment every time it was her turn, and at least managed to successfully read the word ‘seven’ at the very end.

Afterwards I thought a lot about that game and the students who had trouble with it, and decided to see if I could offer to stay after school and help any students who might want extra practice with phonics and reading. The upcoming English exam is almost certainly a lost cause for them, but if they don’t learn to read now they’re doomed to fail every subsequent English test in the future. I in turn would feel like a failure as a teacher, even though I only get 50 minutes a week with them and there’s only so much I can do in that time, especially when I have to keep moving forward for the sake of the other students.

I told W-sensei my idea on Thursday, and she reacted with her typical skepticism that such a thing could be arranged, but she said she’d ask about it. I didn’t get the sense that she was going to make it a priority, but once I left it must have quickly dawned on her that having students who still can’t read at this point reflects poorly on her, so she should take any chance she gets to help them out. In less than a minute she approached S-sensei with my idea.

To me it seemed like the most obviously doable thing in the world, but apparently that’s just my background in American education. Students who need extra help with a particular subject can stay after school and get that help from teachers who are willing to help them. Such a thing is entirely ordinary in American schools, but apparently not in Japan. In Japan, club activities come first—or at least they’re a higher priority than English. S-sensei explained to me that all of the students have to go to their club after school. Apparently they can’t even stay an extra 20 minutes for study and be a little late to their club.

As if that weren’t ridiculous enough, it gets even more absurd. This week—the week of exams—all club activities are cancelled. The idea is that students should go directly home after school and study. There’s no guarantee that they will study, but it gives them more time to study if they choose to use it. So if students who have trouble reading want to study that, it would make perfect sense for them to have a chance to study reading with a native English speaker who can actually help them learn to pronounce the letters—something a textbook can’t do. But apparently this isn’t possible either. The rule is that the students go home directly after school, so that’s what they must do. Even though the whole reason for that is to give them a chance to study, they can’t study at the school.

The only thing that could be done was to use my “Kyle Shop” time for extra reading practice. Instead of having whichever students from a particular grade come and shop or play a game, we’d make Thursday, Monday, and Tuesday a “special lesson” for first-graders and W-sensei would send the students with the lowest reading scores to me during that 20-minute after-lunch break period.

So what in a rational world would have been a chance for students who really wanted to learn to read to come after school for as long as they wanted over the course of as much time as they needed ended up turning instead into three 20-minute after-lunch phonics cram-sessions for students forced to show up.

I tried to do the best I could under the circumstances. The after-lunch break-time is pretty hectic and disorganized, so students would trickle in at varying times. I’d never know how many would be coming altogether or when they’d show up. I’d start by practicing letter sounds with three students, then half-way through two more would come in and I’d go back and review from the beginning, then three more would come in when I was near the end and so on. It was between six and ten students each day, with only four students coming all three.

I had laminated cut-outs of every letter in lowercase, and I’d start by going over short vowel sounds, then sounds of letters with just one sound, letters with two or more sounds, then combination sounds, and finally how putting an ‘e’ at the end of a word changes the vowel to a long sound. I had to race through all that in less than 10 minutes. Then for 5 minutes I’d play a quick “game” in which I’d call out a simple word like ‘cat’ or ‘name’ and have the students try and find the correct letters to arrange the word, hopefully remembering the rules I’d just taught them. They’d almost never get it on the first try but with a few hints they’d always get it eventually. Finally, for the last few minutes I’d hold up the words I used in the reading game in the classroom and have the students try to read them, helping them sound it out if they couldn’t. They could get the easy words quickly enough but anything over 3 letters remained a challenge, especially when there were combination sounds or an ‘e’ at the end. Some things just need more time and practice to really sink in.

I found a website where you can point your mouse over letters and letter-combinations and hear the sounds they make, so I printed the URL and gave it to all the students. I also found a website that converts roman-letter words to Japanese katakana, always distorting the pronunciation but the best way I could think of to allow them to check if they could read a word. I made a list of all the words from the beginning of the textbook in one column and their katakana version on the right, so the students could fold it and check each word if they were serious about studying on their own.

Other than provide them those tools for self-study, I figured the most valuable thing I could actually do for them would just be to give them some encouragement. I wish I’d had O-sensei to help me figure out how to express what I wanted to say in Japanese, but I did the best I could with my limited vocabulary. Half-way through our second “lesson”, I paused and talked to the kids about how I’m actually a slow learner too, poking fun at myself for having lived here nearly two years and still not being able to speak Japanese without constantly making mistakes (which I’m certain I was doing as I talked to them) or understanding what people were saying when they talk to me. I told them how difficult it was for me to learn hiragana and katakana, that I had to sit and practice many times a day, but I eventually got it and if I could do it they could too. I’m not sure that sunk in but some of them seemed to appreciate it.

Before the third day I remembered a few things O-sensei had taught me to say when I was saying personal farewells to Togane Chu students. Near the end of that lesson I told the kids that I wished them success, and “If you believe in yourself, I know you can succeed.” They responded kindly.

At least one girl, a really sweet girl who loves my lessons in spite of her difficulty learning, definitely appreciated what I was doing. She came every day determined to learn, and always left with a sincere “thank you”. Most of the boys, unfortunately, were clearly only there because they’d been told to come and hardly put forth any effort, though at least two of them did try.

As for the girl who’d had the most difficulty with my reading game, I addressed her in particular at the end of our last lesson. I told her I know that she’s capable of reading English, and she quickly disagreed and said it was “muri” (impossible). I reiterated that it is possible, that I could see it in her eyes. I don’t know if her smile at that comment was one of amusement or appreciation, but it felt like a positive response. I even told her (to the best of my limited ability) that I saw how difficult my game in class had been for her but that I respected how she kept coming to the front and trying every time. I don’t know if my words had any effect at all, but they were sincere. I know a dumb student when I see one and she isn’t dumb—she just thinks she’s not smart enough to read English. If that’s a result of her never getting encouragement from parents or other teachers, then maybe my little bit of encouragement might go a long way.

Unfortunately I doubt it, but that’s just one of the biggest downsides of my current teaching-role. As the Assistant Language Teacher my opinion is not as valuable as that of a real teacher, my time with the students is not long enough to make a significant impression, and due to the language barrier I’m not really able to reach them on a truly meaningful level.

One day I’ll hopefully be able to make a real difference in students’ lives, but I’ve got a ways to go before I get there. At least this experience serves as something of an appetizer of what that might actually feel like. It must be a feeling that’s really worth living for.

Work Day

June 19th, 2013 No comments

My schedule at K-chu is even more sparse than usual this week due to exams. I had no lessons at all on Tuesday, so I was told I could come in if I want to or stay home. Let’s see—come to school and do absolutely nothing for eight hours or stay home and spend time in ways not limited to staring at my computer screen? Is that supposed to be some kind of decision? Yeah, I think I’ll stay home.

Interac lists these days as “Work Days” on your schedule, because the theory is that even if you’re not going to your own assigned school, hypothetically you should still be available to take a substitution assignment if one comes up. I’ve had quite a few of these Work Days and not once have I ever been called to sub, so the name always seemed the height of irony to me. “Work Day” in actuality seems to mean “Day Off”.

I got up at my normal time of 7:00 a.m. and went for a run. Normally if I want to run in the morning I’ve got to wake up an hour early but today I had the luxury of not needing the extra time to get ready. But when I got back from the jog I saw I had a missed call from Interac. Seriously? I’d missed the call by just two minutes, so I listened to the message and found that they were asking me if I’d be able to take a sub assignment for the day.

Let’s see—stay home and do the same things I can do every weekend or go off on an adventure to get a taste of a totally new school for a day? Is that supposed to be some kind of decision? I called Interac and told them I could do it, and they sent me the details in an e-mail shortly thereafter.

I’d be going to an elementary school in a town near Funabashi, about three-quarters of the way to Tokyo. I was surprised they were asking me to travel so far. Even if I could have caught the 8:36 train I wouldn’t have been able to get there until 10:30 due to all the train changes. Luckily the 9:12 train got me there at the same time, so I didn’t have to rush. They said the ALT for this school has been absent five times so they really needed someone to get there without delay. Absent five times this year already? It’s barely been three months. Made me wonder if there’s something about this school that saps the teacher’s motivation to go in.

So there was some trepidation on my part as I made my way there. This school was much farther from my location than any of the four I’ve been to. It’s not out in “the sticks” as many would refer to my area. Around here it’s little pockets of town surrounded by acres of rice fields and patches of woods. But get a little further into the mainland and you enter the gargantuan concrete sea of Tokyo-suburb-world, where there’s no distinguishing where one town ends and the next begins. Perhaps in these parts the students wouldn’t be as respectful, particularly to a substitute teacher. That might make for a particularly difficult day, but at least it would massively increase my appreciation for the schools I’m currently assigned to.

I found the school from the train station easily enough thanks to a little help from my iPhone and the satellites tracking it, but the entrance was a much trickier thing to find. The school was huge and mostly surrounded by high walls, parts of which were even topped by barbed wire (though I’m pretty sure those were not part of school property). I walked around the whole building as the kids were having their recess, immediately getting a sense of how massive the student body is. This was going to be an interesting change of pace indeed.

I couldn’t find anything that looked like a standard entrance to a school, but when I got to an open gate with some people who might have been teachers nearby, I asked them in Japanese if this was the elementary school and where the entrance was. The man gave me directions in English, slowly and cautiously as though dredging up information from English lessons long ago, and I thanked him in Japanese and walked towards where he directed me. I still found nothing that resembled a real entrance, but luckily a teacher looking out the window a few floors up spotted me and told me where to go in and that I should go to the second floor. I found the second floor but didn’t know where to go from there. A teacher walking by eyed me curiously until I asked him in Japanese where the Teacher’s Room was. For a split second he must have been wondering what this foreigner was doing just wandering into an elementary school.

At least when I got to the teacher’s room, the woman in charge of the ALT was there to greet me and tell me what I’d be doing. Apparently in this school every grade gets English lessons, though fourth-grade and under only gets them in short 20-minute bursts once a week. Tuesday is the day for second and fourth grade, so I’d be taking over those lessons. Because I’d missed the first two periods, they’d be combining four second-grade classes into two and I’d be teaching them first. The material was actions—things like “sit down”, “stand up”, “turn around”, “jump”, “spin”, etc—and they had flashcards prepared but said I was welcome to use my own games if I wanted. I explained that I’d never taught students below 5th-grade before, which she naturally found surprising. I asked if the students knew the numbers 1-10 because I’d brought my materials from the other elementary schools and they were learning numbers, but she said they didn’t. So apparently I’d just have to wing it.

I was brought down to the English room, a normal-sized classroom only completely devoid of desks and chairs. The teacher found the flashcards for the lessons I’d be teaching and showed them to me, as I read the Interac lesson-plan they’d printed out telling me in unclear and poorly-written directions how I was supposed to use them.

But before I could even begin to visualize it, the lesson time was starting. One full-size class of second-graders was led into the room followed by another. They sat down while the teacher who’d greeted me explained to the homeroom teachers that I hadn’t taught this before and she used what little English she had to try and explain the game I should play. That was as much preparation as I was going to get. She gestured to the students, indicating that it was time for me to begin.

So this is an interesting moment. I could have been on the couch watching old football games in the comfort of my apartment. Now here I am in front of more than 60 eight-year olds being prompted to conduct a lesson without a moment’s preparation, having no experience or even training with this kind of teaching. Well…nothing like diving straight into the deep end.

I greet the class with an enthusiastic “hello!” Instantly the intimidating sea of staring faces transforms into a beacon of warmth radiating at me as they return the greeting. I say “hello” again in a high pitched voice, and laughter accompanies the repetition. “Hello” in a low pitched voice, and they mimic the change in tone. Taking control of a classroom, it seems, is actually quite simple. “Hello hello,” I say. “Hello hello,” they repeat. “Hello hello hello,” I say. “Hello hello hello,” they repeat with a chuckle. “Hellohellohellohellohellohellohello,” I bellow while waving frantically, and they’re only too happy to mimic me.

So that’s the easy part. Next I have to do a brief self-introduction. Luckily I’ve done this many times and it doesn’t really matter what age the kids are. I tell them my name and have them guess where I’m from and how old I am. All the kids are wearing big name-tags so it’s easy to call on students, and when some kids guess ridiculous things like I’m from Brazil or Africa, or that I’m 13-years-old or 100-years-old, it keeps the students laughing.

Now I go to the flashcards, and find that this part teaches itself. Luckily this is just a review for the students, so they already know every card and the action it signifies. I get them to stand up, turn around, walk, run, jump, spin, and all that stuff, of course joining in and looking as silly as possible in the process. For “hands up” and “hands down” I have them do this with increased rapidity until we’re all flapping our arms, which they get a kick out of. And since one of the actions is “Be quiet” I come up with the idea of first making lots of noise and then suddenly shouting “Be quiet!” to bring everyone to silence as instantly as possible. There might be nothing more that young kids love than being prompted to start yelling and screaming wildly.

I think my best preparation for this wasn’t any kind of training, but my brief stint with improv comedy back in high school. While I’ve recognized before that I’m implementing many of the principles of improv into my teaching, nowhere was it as apparent as this. Throughout the day I’d be coming up with and trying out ideas on the spot constantly, then repeating what works in the next lesson and discarding or altering what doesn’t. One of the best ideas I came up with came in the second lesson, when after I finished the first round of actions with “sit down” I had us run through them all again, doing things like spinning and walking while sitting down.

The game itself was as simple as it gets. I’d show one row of students a flashcard and prompt them to make the gesture, then the rest of the students would guess it. I would never have done such a simple and mindless game on my own, but it was all I could do with a room of that many students and no time to come up with something better. But by that point the students were already having a great time and had an absolute blast even with the most basic, can-barely-be-called-a-game-at-all game ever. Once all the students had had a chance, if there was any time left I’d have half the students gesture for the other but show them three cards at a time, and later I came up with pitting one half of the class against the other by having a volunteer come and do three gestures for each side, which made it a bit more of a proper game only the students were all perfect so it ended in a tie every time.

In any case, those second-grade classes were an absolute blast for everyone involved, probably myself most of all. Being only twenty-minutes, they were over in a flash but I gave it my all every time and the teachers seemed to recognize this. I have no idea how their normal ALT does it, but the students’ reaction to me suggests it’s not quite as enthusiastically. A part of me felt a slight twinge of guilt that maybe I shouldn’t be doing such a good job as a substitute (after all that’s exactly what I was worried my sub would do when I was stuck in America) but I found that I just couldn’t turn it off or tune it down when I was in front of those kids. Their enthusiasm gave me energy and the more they responded the more I wanted to give. By the end of the third and final second-grade class period (which was just a single class so only about 30 students) I was already exhausted, but exhilarated as well. This was about a thousand times more fun than anything I’d have been doing at home, not to mention a massive learning experience.

Next there was to be one fourth-grade lesson, followed by lunch and the remaining 4 fourth-grade lessons afterwards. The physical difference between the 8 and 10-year-olds was noticeable, but the enthusiasm level was practically the same. The “hello hello” opening worked just as well, and the self-introduction just as smoothly. The material wasn’t much different either—just activities rather than actions. Things like “I wake up”, “I go to school”, “I brush my teeth”, “I watch TV” and so on. I’d have them say the activities on the flashcards and repeat a couple times using every funny voice at my disposal, then I’d play the same sort of gesture game only dividing each class in two and giving double-points to the first team to guess their team’s gesture. In the afternoon I experimented with other various things like having volunteers do gestures for the whole class first, letting the first person to guess do the next gesture. And in lieu of or in addition to the gesture game I’d have the students compete by drawing pictures of the activities on the blackboard. The entire experience was filled with laughter, cheers, and students enthusiastically raising their hands with more eagerness to be called on than I’ve ever seen before.

At lunch time, the teacher who originally greeted me came back to the English room to ask if I wanted to eat lunch there, in the Teacher’s Room, or in her classroom. Is that supposed to be some kind of decision? Well, it almost is, but as tired as I am I only get one day at this school so I might as well interact with as many students as possible. She was a 1st-grade teacher so her students were as young as it gets, most of whom still had missing teeth. I’ve actually eaten with 1st-graders once before at M-sho, where they have me cycle my lunch between all the grades and not just 5th and 6th, but there it was a combined 1st-and-2nd-grade class that still had only twelve students altogether while this was a full-on at-capacity 35-student classroom. At least a dozen of the kids were keen on talking to me, so I had to push my Japanese-chatting skills to the limit and still failed to understand much of what they were saying. But with kids that young non-verbal interaction is perfectly fine, as nothing more than a funny face can almost always generate a smile.

The normal ALT doesn’t order school lunch so I had to bring my own, nothing more than a little rice-and-seaweed snack from a train-station convenience stand, so I finished very quickly and watched the rest of them eat and play with their food the whole time. When the lunch period was over I headed back to the English room where I thought I’d get a few moments to myself.

A few moments was all I had, as a handful of students from earlier classes came in to hang out. There were a couple of strings with various flags from different countries hanging from the ceiling, so I played a simple game where I called the name of the country and the kids would have to jump up and touch the right flag, sometimes having to guess a few times before they got it right. Unfortunately I barely recognized a quarter of the flags myself, so this game was pretty limited.

After that it was cleaning time so I did get some relative peace as I did my Japanese flashcards on my laptop and the kids assigned to clean the English room did their thing.

The afternoon lessons started at 1:45 and lasted until about 3:00, twenty-minute lessons interspersed with five-minute breaks in which I’d reorganize the flashcards and see how many of the students’ names from the previous lesson I could remember. Over the course of the day I’d met with 10 classes total, and with about 30 students in each class that made for over 300 students I’d met and known for 20 minutes before saying goodbye forever. I must have made a minuscule impression on all of them, and quite a few of them made a minuscule impression on me. Some students just really stand out no matter what, always raising their hand to volunteer or get called on even if I’d already done so multiple times. I’d always try to call on as many different students as possible, constantly scanning for hands I hadn’t called on yet, but some students were so eager and excited that I couldn’t help but call on them multiple times. Occasionally I’d call on a student who’d make a mistake and embarrass themselves, and I’d always try to remember to give them another chance. One girl seemed absolutely devastated when she got an answer wrong but I made sure she got two more things right over the course of the lesson and by the end she was just as happy as everyone else. My only big regret was when one team lost the game and I let them leave feeling dejected. I made sure to give the next team that lost a nice happy cheer in spite of it at the end to let them leave feeling like they still had a good time.

When I’d finally finished my last lesson I headed back to the teacher’s room and was glad to find the 1st-grade teacher who’d invited me to lunch with her class there and ready to help me get the appropriate form and stamp I needed. I’ll submit the paper with my actual pay sheets at the end of the month but I don’t think I actually need to. It was pretty ironic to think I’d have been paid exactly the same for the day if I’d stayed home.

On my way out the teacher asked me where I was coming from and was shocked when she heard it was as far away as Togane. She told me she heard from other teachers that my Japanese was very good and I was a skilled teacher, which is always nice to hear. After that I bid her farewell and began the long journey home.

Overall, taking the sub assignment was clearly one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, as it wasn’t just incredibly fun but also a tremendous learning opportunity. I got to see what a truly large elementary school—982 students total as I found out—is like, and what it’s like to teach in a more urban area. I got a good impression of what teaching younger kids is like, and while it was undeniably fun I’m not sure I’d want to do it every single day. It’s no wonder the normal ALT—yet another girl from Jamaica as I found out—has called out so many times. It’s exhausting, and if you’re sick it’s got to be nearly impossible to keep up the energy.

But even so, a part of me thinks I might prefer it to my current assignment. The big problem with my current assignment is I’ve only got 10 classes spread across three schools, so most of my time isn’t spent teaching at all but merely preparing for lessons or just finding ways to keep busy. The full-time elementary assignment may be draining but at least you’re always busy, and most of the lessons are quick and simple enough that you barely need to prepare anyway. And while the 5th and 6th grade lessons are the full-period and would require preparation, there being five classes in each grade would allow you to work out all the kinks by the time you’re done. Now I only teach those lessons two or three times each, which isn’t really enough to perfect them.

All that aside, the warmth of the students is still the biggest factor in my thinking. I can’t yet say definitively because as of now I’ve still only set foot in 5 schools total, but it seems that the larger the class-size the better, as counter-intuitive as that may be. Smaller classes tend to be quieter and more subdued, which I’m sure makes for a better learning environment but not a more enthusiastic one. Classes at Togane Chu were all about 30 students and they varied in enthusiasm, but these days I’ve got classes as low as 16 students and those are all the most quiet and least enthusiastic, even the elementary schools. At Togane Chu the 2nd-graders were generally the least enthusiastic but the 2nd-grade class as K-chu is the biggest in the school at 30 students and the warmest class of all. The 5th-grade class at M-sho is only 17 students and extremely quiet, while the 5th-grade class at H-sho is my biggest group—35-students—and also the most enthusiastic by far. The 6th-grade classes at both M-sho and H-sho are 20 students each and all three are about as quiet as each other. The 35-student class at H-sho is my favorite class of all the schools, and almost every class at the school I subbed at yesterday was like that class.

In many ways, the hardest part of the day wasn’t figuring out how to do the lessons on-the-fly, but saying goodbye to the students when it was over. With groups that big, there are always about a dozen or so students who are super excited to meet you and anxious to rush up and shake hands or exchange high-fives at the end. Students wave and make faces at you as they say goodbye, laughing when you mimic them. You want to get to know them better, to exchange those priceless little moments all year long, but it’s a sub assignment and the odds of having a Work Day on the same day their teacher calls out again (and that it would be on a Tuesday) are infinitesimal.

One girl took both my hands before leaving the room and did a little dance with me, delighted when I played along. She kept waving goodbye and saying “See you!” as she walked away and finally “See you tomorrow!” before disappearing out of sight. It nearly broke my heart in half. I’m so sorry, you adorable precious little person, but you won’t see me tomorrow. You’ll never see me again for the rest of your life.

There wasn’t even that kind of finality when it came to this past years’ graduation—I at least still live in the same town as those kids and do in fact run into them all the time. But the kids from Funabashi aren’t likely to be going shopping in Togane any time soon.

One very real consequence of the day, however, is that I’ve now already pretty much made up my mind to request a change of assignments again next year. I’d been wondering whether or not I’d want to stay on in this situation since I started it. About three months in I can already state definitively that I preferred my assignment at Togane Chu. The school was bigger so the students were friendlier and the days were busier, and on top of that the teachers were more helpful. The only thing better about this year is I get the added variety of elementary-school teaching, but 4 of my 5 elementary classes are actually rather cold and dull when I look at them in comparison to the classes I taught yesterday. The only thing I’ll miss when transferring that I was looking forward to is seeing my current elementary school 6th-graders become middle-school 1st-graders. It’ll be tough to say goodbye to some of them, but in the end I’d rather move on to a completely new batch of students, and I’ll specifically request that it be a big school. I’ve already pondered the idea of specifically requesting the school I taught at yesterday if its current ALT switches next year, but I’m hoping to sub at a few more schools throughout the course of the year to get a better idea of where I’d be happiest. Hopefully I’ll get to try a high school or two as well.

This morning I sent an e-mail to Interac letting them know I enjoyed the sub assignment and I’d like to have more of them. I didn’t get a response but we’ll see what happens. I’d never been called to sub before but they sounded surprised when I agreed to, so now maybe they’ll move me up on the list of who to call when they’re in a pinch. I just need more Work Days.

I had my M-sho classes this morning, and I felt compelled to try and tell them about my experience yesterday. I did my best to explain in Japanese that I’d taught for one day at a school of a thousand students, that I taught over 300 students, twenty-minutes at a time, met them, taught them, then said goodbye forever. I tried to convey that I was happy to see them and glad that I had a whole year together with them, trying to express the same sort of message I did in my farewell speech to the Togane Chu students but now instead of waiting until the end of the year to let them know I appreciate them (even if they are rather quiet). I didn’t have O-sensei to help me translate so it was a struggle. Luckily the 5th-grade teacher was able to tell what I was getting at and helped me explain, and those kids at least got and appreciated my message and were perhaps a little warmer today because of it. But the 6th grade teacher was just confused and the whole thing fell flat. I tried one more time with a 1st-grade junior high class this afternoon and the benefit of practice helped me get my first points across but not the important stuff about appreciating the chance to get to know them. Of course I got no help from W-sensei (she seemed perplexed by the whole thing) but I think maybe a few students might have gotten some sense of what I was getting at. Still, the rest of the lesson was cold and almost completely devoid of excitement and a part of me couldn’t help but think that next school year can’t come fast enough.

It was quite an experience yesterday. To meet 300 people in batches of 35-70 each for just 20 minutes at a time, then say goodbye forever. Somehow it was enough that I know I’ll always remember some of them. I wonder if any of them will remember me.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

Hitting the Road

May 27th, 2013 No comments

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Well, it took two weeks after I got my license to actually get a car, but it arrived on Saturday and I drove it on Sunday. I took it to work this morning, making this the first day of the school-year in which I haven’t arrived all sweaty.

I had no say in the car Interac decided to get for me. I guess they have some kind of business arrangement with car dealers like they do with Leopalace. They told me on Friday that they could send someone from the dealership to drop off my car on Saturday afternoon, but I told them I wasn’t going to be home then so they just had the car parked in its designated place and the keys delivered through my mail slot.

I was a little surprised that Interac never asked me to send them a photo or a faxed copy of my driver’s license. I could have simply lied two months ago about passing the test, told them I got my license, and proceeded to drive illegally until passing the test (or getting caught). I wouldn’t have done that even if I had known, but it’s strange to think how easily I could have.

When I got back to my place on Saturday I’d already had a few drinks so I would not be taking it out for a spin, but I did take the keys and go check out my new vehicle. There are only three parking spaces outside my Leopalace and they’re apparently all taken, but there’s another Leopalace right down the road—literally a minute’s walk—with available spaces and my car was waiting there at number 3.

It’s a Suzuki WagonR, probably the single most common car in Japan. My first reaction was disappointment at how big it is—Japanese roads are horrendously narrow—but I knew it could be worse. At least it’s the color I would have chosen.

I went inside and checked out the interior, again disappointed that there’s no auxiliary audio port so I can’t play my iPod through its speakers, but it appeared that the CD player plays mp3 CDs which means I can burn CDs with much more content than a single 80-minute audio CD. I started the car and figured out how to un-retract the side-view mirrors, as nearly every car in Japan has retractable mirrors due to the narrowness of the roads. The transmission controls are on the front panel and all of my gauges are digital. Other than that (and the position of the wheel of course) it was no different from any other car I’ve ever driven.

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After finishing up a bunch of walking-distance errands on Sunday, I got ready for my first genuine drive in Japan. I burned up an mp3 CD made up of every Pink Floyd album and headed out to my car. I got inside, adjusted the seat and mirrors, started her up, and confirmed that the CD-player works. The music for my maiden voyage would be Dark Side of the Moon, the best album (as it widely acknowledged) for testing speakers. (The speakers were, like the car, not the least bit impressive).

I released the emergency break and pulled out into the real road for the first time ever in a country not called “the United States of America”. The first thing I did was engage my windshield wipers while attempting to signal left. Oh yeah, forgot about that. (I’d make the same mistake three or four more times throughout the drive).

I started out along the same route I take to get to work, taking it slowly and nervously. Every time a car was approaching from the opposite side I’d feel pangs of anxiety, wondering how both our vehicles could possibly pass each other without side-swiping on this ridiculously narrow road. I felt more at ease when I took my first turn onto a larger street with clear markings between the right and left lanes.

After about five minutes I’d relaxed enough to start the music, though the anxiety picked up again when I reached the long road to M-sho, my first destination. It’s a long narrow road through the hills with no center line, so any time a car approached I’d slow down and get as far left as possible without driving off the road. Thankfully, it’s not a particularly busy road so there were plenty of stretches where I could just relax and enjoy the drive. After ten minutes I was almost completely at ease.

I reached M-sho, confirmed that the time to get there was indeed about 20 minutes, turned around in the parking lot, and made the 15-minute drive to K-chu.

Now that I’d confirmed I know the routes for my Wednesday routine, I proceeded to use the car for actual errands. I took it back into town and drove to the shopping center I normally bike to every week but which I’ll now be driving to. It was a nice luxury to be able to shop without concern over whether I’d have enough room in my back-pack to fit everything.

Once that was done, I had one final task to complete as there was barely a quarter tank of gas and I knew I should take care of that a.s.a.p. This was going to be the most challenging part of the day, but I might as well figure it out now.

I took the long way back to the main road (the 126—the road with everything on it), driving along my jogging route. This included a tiny stretch of road through some rice fields, a road too narrow for two vehicles. Much to my great relief, no cars were coming the other way while I drove there. I’ll be avoiding those kinds of roads as much as humanly possible, but I had to drive on it this time to get myself positioned to turn onto the 126 on the same side as the only gas station I know of.

I got to the station and pulled in, noticing the English word “IN” taped in giant letters on the ground where I entered. A worker directed me to the pump he wanted me to take, and I pulled up and got situated. Gas stations in Japan are a mix of full service and self-service and I wasn’t sure which this one was, but when nobody came up to me right away I figured it must be as I feared—self-service.

There was a big complicated machine at the pump with Japanese writing all over. At least I can read katakana so I knew which pump was for “regyuraa”, and I removed that pump from the handle and put it in my tank, hoping I could just pump and pay at the end. Of course no gas came out.

Oh well, I guess I have to be the dumb gaijin who doesn’t know how to pump gas. I approached one of the workers there and asked for help, using the word “hajimete” which means “first time”. He understood and naturally poked no fun at me, maintaining the typical Japanese professional friendliness the whole time. He took me to the screen and showed me which buttons to press and where to insert my cash. I put in a 5000-yen bill (about $50), hoping that would cover the cost but not really knowing because a simultaneous dollar-to-yen / gallon-to-liter conversion is too much for my mathematically-challenged mind. Luckily, the tank was full when I got to 3500, so apparently it costs about $35-$40 to fill my tank in Japan. That’s not as bad as I’d feared, but I’ve yet to see what kind of mileage I get.

The worker showed me how to take the receipt and scan it to get my change, and I thanked him and went on my way. That wasn’t so bad, and now that obstacle is clear. I drove down the road a bit, made the first U-turn I could, and returned to my parking space to end the journey.

With that one run I cleared just about every first of driving in Japan that I needed to. The obvious ones of driving on the left, remembering where the blinker is, avoiding crashing into oncoming traffic on super-narrow roads, navigating parking-lots and parking properly, and most importantly filling my gas tank. The only two other hurdles to clear are highway driving (because of the tolls) and getting caught on a one-lane road when there’s an oncoming car.

I’ve done enough driving in my life that I imagine I’ll get used to the big differences pretty quickly. I thought the most difficult thing to adjust to would be driving on the left with the wheel on the right, but now I think the narrowness of the roads is actually going to be what takes the most time adjusting to. Hopefully once I get a better feel for how wide my car is and how much room on the roads I have to work with, the anxiety will dissipate.

So the next stage of my life in Japan begins. So far the only difference a car makes is getting to and from work quicker and not having to work up a sweat in the process, but the car does also open up a whole new world of possibilities. I’ll probably wait until I’m much more comfortable driving to take advantage of them.

Categories: Personal Tags: ,

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.

Driver’s License Chronicles, Part 5

May 12th, 2013 No comments

It had been almost a month since my last trip to the Menkyo center in Kaihinmakuhari to fail the practical driving test, but going there again on Friday still felt like routine. The only difference was I had work in the morning, whereas every other time I’d gone had been on a day off. I greatly preferred this circumstance, as the Menkyo center trip didn’t cost me a holiday but merely an afternoon sitting in the teacher’s room of K-chu doing nothing. Also, teaching a couple of successful lessons at H-sho in the morning made it a good day regardless of what would happen in the afternoon.

I woke up early and decided to go for a run in the morning so I wouldn’t have to bother with it in the afternoon. Success.

I taught a fifth-grade class “I’m from ~” and they greatly enjoyed the games and activities. Success.

In order to accommodate my need to get to the Menkyo center on time, H-sho combined both 20-student sixth-grade classes into one giant 40-student class so I could do my lesson for both and leave after third period. I had to alter the plan a bit, but it worked out well. Rather than having the class arrange the alphabet on the blackboard and then having them try to beat their own time, I pitted one class against the other and had them try to beat the other class’s time. One class won the uppercase battle, and the other won the lowercase. The students loved it. Success.

After third-period I had just enough time to ride home and drop off my computer and excess baggage so I wouldn’t have to lug it around with me all afternoon, stop at the 7/11 to pick up a snack for lunch, and get to the train station with time to spare. Success.

I made it to the Menkyo center with no trouble at all, as by now I know the train and bus routine so well as to be able to sleep-walk through the whole journey. Success.

So by the time I got there, I figured I’d already chalked up enough successes on the day that one little failure wouldn’t bother me too much. On top of that, I now know what the consequences of failure are, and they’re not bad at all. I have to work up a sweat on the way to work four days a week, but that’s no big deal. And on Wednesdays I have to pay for a taxi to M-sho and walk home from K-chu, but the cost of the cab-ride four days a month is less than a monthly lease of a car anyway and the walk home from K-chu is a doable 45 minutes. The worst consequence of another failure is simply having to bother with the whole annoying process of going to the Menkyo center and taking the test yet again.

I got there just as the booths were opening up after the lunch break, and immediately spotted my Tunisian friend at the front of the line. He asked me about why I failed last time and I told him about my left turns not being tight enough for our super-strict lady proctor. He agreed that she was definitely too strict and wished me better luck this time. I thought I’d see him again in the waiting room for the test-course but that was not to be. Apparently he was there for something else that day, or perhaps he’d taken the test in the morning and was still there for some reason. Who knows?

In the test-course waiting room I didn’t even bother going through the course in my head again like every other time. I just took out my Kindle and did some reading, just wanting to get this over with and go home. A Chinese guy sitting next to me attempted to talk with me about the test, but he spoke no English and I speak no Chinese so we could only use our limited Japanese to communicate. I found out it was also his fourth time, and we managed to explain to each other why we’d failed our previous tests.

Our proctor was the first to enter, and while I was immediately relieved that it wasn’t the woman, this guy seemed just as strict and no-nonsense as her. I was hoping for the guy I had the first time, who seemed the friendliest out of all of them and might very well have passed me had I not driven up on the curb in the S-curve. No such luck. This guy just told us the order we’d be going in, explained that the test was very difficult and recommended that we all go to driving school. He didn’t walk us through the course map and explain the rules about backing up in the crank and S-curve like the other proctors had. He was in and out in two minutes.

I finished the chapter I was reading, and very soon after the vehicles were brought around and I went outside. I was to go second again, so I’d be riding in the back while the first person took the test. This time it was a Filipino woman who was taking the test for the second time. We didn’t exchange many words before getting in the car, but I wished her luck.

I could tell she was going to fail pretty early on. She wasn’t staying nearly left enough as she drove around the course perimeter, and she almost missed the right-turn onto the center road. The proctor had to point it out to her as she was driving past it, so she had to come to an abrupt stop and make the turn well past the turn-marker. She did come to a full stop at the stop sign at the end of the road, but forgot to signal her left turns until she was already making them. I was surprised that he didn’t fail her before the crank, but he let her get to it. At first it seemed like she really knew what she was doing, as she made the sharp right-turn like a pro, doing it surprisingly quickly and not hitting the poles. But as soon as she got to the left turn I knew she’d miscalculated and the back wheel was going to hit the curb. Indeed, she not only hit the curb but drove right up over it. Instant fail. She took the car back to the dock and then it was my turn.

Here we go again. I check under the back and front of the car like every other time. Get seated, adjust the seat, the mirrors and all that. Same old routine. I feel like I’ve done this a hundred times already, not merely three. Of course as I take my foot off the break and start to pull out I realize I forgot to disengage the emergency break, but the proctor doesn’t write anything on my sheet so I assume it doesn’t matter.

I don’t bother verbalizing my actions this time. I just make all of my mirror-checks and head-turns as blatant as possible. All I say is “hai” to the proctor’s instructions, all of which I know before he says them. As I make my way around the perimeter I’m only half-focused on the course, thinking about this morning’s lessons and how well they went.

At the right-turn I make sure to get as close to the center lane as possible and make the turn without incident—no other vehicles are coming the other way. It’s not until I get to the series of left-turns before the crank that the proctor starts writing on my sheet. What could he possibly be writing? I’ve done everything perfectly so far. I suppose it’s still just not perfect enough.

At the entrance to the crank I move to the right to reduce my chances of hitting the curb on the way in like I had the second time, and I notice him writing something but I make it in without any trouble, do the right-turn perfectly, and make the left-turn only having to back up once. I’ve got the whole crank thing down.

More easy stuff, then it’s the S-curve. I move to the right again at the entrance to get in a good position to not hit the curb at I drive through it, and for the second time I make it through the S-curve without needing to back up at all, though I make sure to excessively check my mirrors like a paranoid schizophrenic throughout.

The proctor doesn’t tell me to head back to the dock before finishing the course, so that’s a good sign but I was able to finish the previous two times as well and still failed. As I make the final turn into the dock, my old instincts kick in and I accidentally engage the windshield wipers a second before remembering the blinker is on the other side. The proctor doesn’t write anything though, so either that’s not something you lose points for or I’ve already failed and it makes no difference. I park the car, the woman riding in the back gets out, and I prepare to accept my fate.

The proctor speaks in Japanese with a few English words thrown in here and there. “This time was okay” he says. “Okay?” I repeat. What does that mean? “Yes, it was okay,” he says making the OK hand-gesture. He says a few things in Japanese I don’t understand but assume it’s about how I drove well. Then he says, “demo” which means “but”. Of course.

He explains that at the entrance to the crank and S-curve I shouldn’t have moved to the right because there could have been bicyclists or something. I’d blatantly checked the right mirror before doing so for that very reason, but apparently it didn’t matter. I should have just taken the turn from where I was, even though that makes it much harder not to hit the curb. I accept his advice with humility, and wait for him to jot down that awful “fail” kanji (不) on my paper.

But he doesn’t hand me back my paper. He tells me to wait. Confused, I get out of the car and walk towards the other people there. “You passed?” the Filipino woman asks me. “I don’t know,” I say. He didn’t tell me I passed (at least I don’t think so—I’m not sure what ‘you passed’ is in Japanese) but he didn’t hand me back my paper and he’d told me to wait. The other test-takers tell me this probably means I passed, and they congratulate me. I realize that I probably had passed—otherwise he would have given me my paper so I could go make a new appointment—but I’m not quite ready to start celebrating. Not until I know for sure.

The Filipino woman is waiting behind for her friend—the woman going after me—to finish the test, and she asks me if I could give her any pointers on how to make it through the crank. I take her to the map and walk her through the procedure, and she’s surprised to learn that you’re allowed to back up three times. The proctor hadn’t explained that this time, much to her unfair disadvantage. But she was very grateful to me for telling her, and we got to chatting a bit as we waited for her friend to finish the test.

I get to know the other test-takers a bit better. All of them have been in Japan longer than me and have been driving with an international license. They only need a Japanese license because the rule has changed and you can only use an international license for a year. The only other American to go had been renewing her international license for years every time she goes back to Arizona, which you’re not supposed to do. It was also her fourth time on the test and she ended up failing because her left-turns weren’t tight enough, a frustration I told her I knew all too well.

After all of them had left, I sit in the waiting room and eventually the proctor enters and calls my name. He tells me what I now need to do to get the driver’s license, and it is thusly confirmed. Success.

All that remained was the long slow process of getting the actual license. I first had to go to Window 2 to pay for the license, which costs 2050 yen, just slightly less than the 2200 yen cost of taking the driving test. Then it was back to Window 10 to give them the stamps indicating I’d paid. Waited there for awhile, then was taken to another room to go to another window and fill out another form. Waited there for a long time, then was given a receipt for the license and told where to go next. Got my photo taken, then waited outside in the hallway for a very long time hoping I was in the right place and they hadn’t forgotten about me. While I waited, the woman proctor from my last two tests hurried by. I would have liked for her to stop and take note of the fact that I’d passed, but she didn’t acknowledge me. A short while later, a man came out from the back room with my license and a paper with instructions for how to renew it after a year. He explained a bunch of things in Japanese which I pretended to understand (I can find out anything I need to know through Interac), then he gave me my long-awaited license. I took a quick iPhone photo of it for Facebook, then inserted it into my wallet.

On my way back home I called Interac to let Takahashi-san know that I’d passed and got the license. She sounded happy for me, congratulated me, and told me she’d send me an e-mail about getting me a car as soon as possible.

I happened to be riding the train back to Togane at the same time as most high school students journey home, so I had the nice bonus of seeing some of my Togane Chu students who graduated last year. I ran into a lot of them at Togane Station and proudly showed off my new license.

I still haven’t got an e-mail from Takahashi-san, but I assume I’ll be taken somewhere by an independent contractor to get a car one afternoon this week, as I have no lessons on any afternoon. I have M-sho on Tuesday though, so if it doesn’t happen tomorrow I’ll have to cab it one more day. If it does, I’ll be driving to work in Japan for the first time ever in just two days. I’m a bit nervous about driving on these super-narrow windy roads, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it quickly enough.

I’m actually not nearly as happy about being able to drive as I am about not having to go back and take the driving test again. I still don’t really want a car, but I know I’ll be glad to have one to drive to work when it’s really hot and humid or when it rains. It’ll also be convenient in many other ways, some I probably don’t even realize yet. But the experience-factor is probably the best thing, as driving in a foreign country where they drive on the left side of the road is a pretty cool experience to have.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

Driver’s License Chronicles, Part 4

April 16th, 2013 No comments

Before I took the driving test the first time, the guy at the Interac Chiba office in charge of driver’s licenses told me on the phone that whether or not you pass largely depends on the proctor you get. The first time I took it, the proctor seemed very nice but I automatically failed for driving up on the curb in the S-curve. The second time I took it, the proctor was a young woman who seemed nice enough but who failed me for trivial, nit-picky reasons. I was hoping to get a proctor more like the first one on my third try.

I had to go in the morning this time because the afternoon slots were full. Now that I’m working again it’s hard to find a weekday in which I can go, but because there was school on Saturday (which I’ll write about in another entry) we had Monday off. It wasn’t quite “off” for me though, as these driving test days are pretty much just work days that I don’t get paid for. In fact I have to pay every time, about $15 for train transportation and $22 to take the test itself.

I had to catch the 7:08 train, the commuter line to Tokyo. I’ve never ridden a train during the morning rush-hour before—it gets so packed with people that everyone is squeezed up against each other, like a cattle-train full of businessmen and high school students. Even when you get off the train, it’s still a massive herd of people making their way to the station exits, and everywhere the streets look like a parade of suit- and uniform-clad Japanese people on their way to work or school. As I rode the bus to the Menkyo center I realized I’ve never actually been out in a city during this time of day. It’s like a different world.

When I got to the Menkyo Center and Window 10 opened up, I found myself lining up directly behind none other than my Middle Eastern friend from the first test. He recognized me and took off his headphones, and we exchanged stories about our second attempts, now having both failed twice. He got a nice proctor but hit the poles in the crank. I explained to him about the absurdly strict woman-proctor. We were both hoping it wouldn’t be her.

But of course, that’s who we got. As soon as she walked in to the waiting room I felt my hopes of finally passing this time drop significantly. The Middle-Eastern guy, whom I learned is actually from Tunisia, looked at me for confirmation and I nodded silently that yes, it was her. We’d drawn the short straw.

After she went through her explanation of the course, I found myself talking to the guy who’d be taking the test right after me and thus riding in the back of my car at the time. It was actually a Japanese guy, but he only had an American driver’s license because he’d been living there since high school. He’d actually been living in a town in Long Island close to Huntington of all places (it is a small world), though I forget the exact name of it. We chatted for awhile—turned out he’s a huge Billy Joel fan—and I gave him all the pointers I could about the driving course, as this was his first time and he hadn’t read anything about it beforehand. I figured he didn’t have a chance, especially with the woman proctor, but I wanted to help him as best I could.

I ended up riding in the back of the car with my Tunisian friend yet again. I was really pulling for him this time, and was pleased to see him making none of the egregious mistakes he’d made the first time. He stayed in the left lane, stopped for a full three-seconds at the stop sign, checked all his mirrors before every turn and so on. He made it to the crank, so it was the first time I got to ride in the back for that, and he seemed to do everything properly there as well. He had to back up three times, but that’s allowed, and it looked to me like he sufficiently checked his mirrors every time. But when he got out of it, the proctor told him that unfortunately he’d failed and to take the car back to the dock.

Needless to say, that did not bode well. I stepped out of the car as she gave him the explanation for his failure and I told the Japanese guy I had no idea what happened because it seemed to me like he’d done everything right. The explanation seemed to drag on forever, but when he finally emerged from the car, the Tunisian guy told me she said he hadn’t been checking his mirrors enough. Wow.

I wished him better luck next time and that’s the last I saw of him. I got in the car, went through the whole routine, and began the test.

This being the third time, I felt right at home there in the left-lane with my right-side steering wheel. As I made my way around the outside of the course, I felt like I knew every part of it intimately. I practically live on this driving course.

I made it around the whole course as easily as usual, and came to the first right-turn. I made sure to get close to the center lane because that’s why I failed last time, I did my four-point check and said “yosh” (all clear) and just started to make the turn when she said, “honto?” (really?) and I immediately stopped because there was actually a tractor and a bus coming towards us on the other side of the road. It hadn’t been “all clear” at all—I was just so focused on going through the motions of checking around me that I’d neglected to actually check.

At that moment I knew failure was a virtual certainty. I’d only gone a few centimeters into the turn, but it was clearly a mistake and one that no doubt cost me major points. Even if I hadn’t failed already, I’d have to do the rest of the course perfectly to have a prayer of passing.

But somehow I did. I got through the crank with the least amount of trouble ever, now having the mechanics of that obstacle pretty much down. I only had to back-up once, and I made sure to look around and check my mirrors every few seconds throughout as though I was worried some band of ninjas was going to pop out at any moment. I didn’t want to make the same mistake as my Tunisian friend. And when I got to the dreaded S-curve, I pulled into it at just the right angle to get me through the whole obstacle without having to back up even once.

My heart was pounding heavily as I made the right-turn out of the curve. She’d been marking things down on her paper the whole time for reasons I couldn’t fathom so I knew at any moment she might pronounce my failure. But I went through the whole rest of the course, a couple of intersections and one last right-turn before returning to dock.

When I parked the car and the Japanese guy got out, I looked over and didn’t see my paper with the fail kanji on it, but rather her map of the course. Was this a good sign?

She started talking and the only word I heard was “zannen”, which means “unfortunately”. Yep. That’s right. I failed again. The third time was not a charm.

Why did I fail this time? Well, I’d obviously lost a few points for my mistake on the first right-turn, but that hadn’t done me in. Two of my left turns were not tight enough—she drew a diagram showing how left-turns were supposed to look like 90-degree angles but mine were more like 100-degreees. And on two of my right turns I hadn’t gotten close enough to the center line. That final right-turn, the one after the S-curve, had taken away the last few points I’d needed to pass. Because of a few centimeters, I’ll have to come all the way back here and take this fucking test again.

She was acting sympathetic as she gave her explanation and even wished me good luck next time. All I could think was “the luckiest thing that could happen is not to get you as a proctor.” When I stepped out of the car, my Japanese Long Island-friend looked at me hopefully and I shook my head. “Are you serious?” he said in disbelief. That had seemed like a passing run to him too, but nope.

It’s beyond ridiculous. I can’t have a driver’s license because my left turns weren’t tight enough? Riiight, because every single Japanese driver always takes every left turn at perfect 90-degree angles every single time. I’ve actually been paying attention—Japanese drivers take wide left turns, don’t get close to the center lane when making right turns, barely watch where they’re going let alone check their mirrors all the time, and never even come to a complete stop at stop signs. Watching them drive these past few weeks has been like a constant rubbing it in my face.

The worst part of the ordeal is always going to schedule the next appointment. The line of driving test failures is always long, then you get to the window and they tell you the next available date is about a week and a half in the future. Unfortunately, now that I’m working I can’t just take the next available date. The only time of the week I never have any lessons is Friday afternoons, and because of upcoming national holidays the earliest Friday afternoon session available is the 10th of freaking May. So unless I can work something out with the school, I have to wait almost an entire month before I get my next chance.

I accept the date and take my new form, go pay my $22 to get it stamped, then return to the appointment line to find my Japanese Long Island-friend and ask him how it went. He failed because at one point he’d forgotten to drive on the left side of the road. Ironic for a Japanese person, but he’s only been driving in America his entire adult life. But at least that’s a legitimate reason to fail. I failed because my left turns were off by 10-degrees.

Needless to say, I was not too happy as I made my way home. The only positive thing I can say is that I feel much more confident about my chances next time. Hopefully I’ll get a different proctor, but even if I don’t I at least know exactly what this one is looking for. I’d thought my left turns were tight enough but I now I know to take them even tighter. And I certainly won’t forget to get close to the center-line for every single right-turn, as my mind had been on too many other things before. But most significantly, I now feel like I’ve got the two big course obstacles—the crank and the S-curve—pretty well figured out. The most nerve-wracking part of the test is knowing that no matter what you do otherwise, you can still fail instantly with just one slight mistake in either obstacle, but now I’ve got the technique figured out. The rest of the test is just not making the mistakes you made before, and since all of those mistakes are burned so deeply into my brain it’s unlikely I’ll forget.

In any case, the only daily-life consequence is having to continue to ride my bike to and from work four days a week, and to take a taxi on Wednesdays. I’ve got to pay for the taxi out to M-sho, but Interac will pay for the taxi from M-sho to K-chu. I’ll just walk home for K-chu—it’ll take awhile but it’s doable.

The most negative consequence is simply having to go back to that damned place and go through the whole damned ordeal yet again. I’m sick and tired of it. Hopefully the next episode of these Driver’s License Chronicles will be the last.

Categories: Personal Tags: ,

Elementary Debut

April 12th, 2013 No comments

I finally resumed teaching today. After nearly a month since my last lesson, it felt great to be back in front of a classroom full of kids. To make things even more interesting, these were the youngest kids I’ve ever taught.

My very first lesson of the new school-year was at H-sho, a self-introduction to a group of 35 fifth-graders, making them all about 10-years-old. This is of course significantly younger than I’m used to, and while they’re only two years behind first-year junior high school students, the difference was rather striking.

In elementary school, the homeroom teacher stays with the class for most of the day and teaches most of the subjects, so there were no teachers in the teacher’s room when I arrived. It was just me, the secretary, and the principal, with whom I had a brief exchange in Japanese before spending first period in near total solitude. One of the 6th-grade teachers came in during the break between periods to inform me that I should wait there until some students from 5-1 come to retrieve me for my first lesson.

A minute or so into second-period, two students—a boy and a girl—came to the teacher’s room to ask if I was there. I could hardly believe they were 5th-graders. Are they still that small at that age? Apparently so.

They led me to the classroom and I stepped inside, the eyes of thirty-five cute little kids upon me. The homeroom teacher, a man who looks about my age, introduced me, and the rest of the 45-minute period was all mine.

Having done this so many times before significantly reduced my nervousness to the point where I barely felt any at all. I knew my introduction-lesson goes over well with junior high school students, particularly the younger ones, so I figured if anything the elementary kids would like it even more. The only issue was their almost complete lack of experience with the English language. Fifth-grade is when they start learning English, so I was going to need to use a significant deal of Japanese if they were to understand me at all. The homeroom teachers might be able to help a little bit, but it’s not like they’re JTEs who are trained to teach English.

Despite my lack of nerves, I pretended to be really nervous and to blank on what I wanted to say. I made some funny faces, pounded my head as though trying to remember, then pretended I suddenly recalled the proper greeting is “hello!” This got a good deal of laughter and put me at ease right away. The students repeated the greeting, and then I asked, “How are you?” to see if the students even knew that much. Most of them just repeated “How are you?” so I guess they don’t even know that yet.

Then I said, “I’m going to introduce myself in English. After, we will play a memory challenge game.” No comprehension whatsoever. Of course I made sure I knew how to say this in Japanese beforehand, so I said it in Japanese and they understood.

I proceeded to launch into the same routine as my previous self-introduction lessons, seeing if they remembered the basic facts about me from the opening ceremony: my name, my age, and where I’m from. At least one student always does. I continued to talk about the places I’ve lived and my favorite hobbies and whatnot, with pictures and/or gestures for everything. Still, for many things I found I had to use Japanese or the students just weren’t going to understand, particularly when I opened up the floor for questions. I have no idea how some ALTs are sent to elementary schools fresh-off-the-plane. I can’t imagine attempting to teach elementary school students without knowing a significant amount of Japanese.

The Q&A session was easily the biggest difference between the elementary and junior high school classes. In junior high it’s always like pulling teeth to elicit questions. If you’re lucky you might get more than five, but sometimes it’s just two or three. The fifth-graders wouldn’t stop asking questions, all kinds of things like favorite foods, favorite animals, where I’d travelled in Tokyo, what do I think of Japanese-style clothing, what subjects do I like besides English, how many people are in my family, and on and on and on. I was worried there wouldn’t even be enough time for the memory-challenge game, so I stopped them at fifteen-minutes before the end and broke them into their six lunch groups.

This part always seems to go the same no matter what the age group. I explain that a team gets one point for everything they remember from my introduction. My name is a point, America is a point, sushi is a point, and so on. The first team has a hard time but I give them lots of time, only doing the five-second countdown when they’re clearly out of ideas. Each team (generally) does better than the last until the final team is shouting out answers so quickly I barely have time to mark the points on the board. In this way it gets more exciting as time goes on, and the last team almost always wins.

That game ended with just two minutes to spare in the period, so the homeroom teacher ended the lesson there and I left the class feeling awesome. If that wasn’t the most engaged, enthusiastic group of kids I’ve ever had, they certainly came close. I think I’m going to like this elementary school thing.

There’s only one fifth-grade class, but the sixth-graders are split into two homerooms of about twenty students each, so the next two classes were the smallest I’ve ever taught (not counting Germany). I was surprised to find them significantly less enthusiastic than the fifth-graders at first, but they still got really into it by the end. It was harder to elicit questions with them, but my trustee sad-Obama picture always comes in handy for that.

One question that inevitably gets asked in every Q&A session is whether or not I have a girlfriend. I used to just answer “no” but discovered last year it’s much funnier to say yes and throw out some absurdly high number. I told them I have 152 girlfriends and wrote that number on the board, which always generated uproarious laughter. In the recall-game, teams would remember that exact number.

6-1 is taught by another guy about my age, and 6-2 by a middle-aged woman. For both of those classes, the game ended with about 8-minutes to spare. To fill the remaining time I put all of my flashcards up on the board and had a student from each row come to the front. I’d say something in English like, “I’m from America” or “I like sushi” and the first student to touch the corresponding flashcard would get a point for their row. They’d go twice, then the next student would take their place. This is nice and simple, exciting, and perfect to fill up just a few minutes of time.

When 6-1 was over, a bunch of students followed me out into the hallway to ask me to sign their textbook. Some students even asked me for some of the pictures I’d used in my lesson, and I promised to bring them next week. One boy was particularly adamant that I bring him an Obama picture of his own.

The final part of the day was also a brand new experience, eating lunch with the students. It was 5-1 this week, and it will rotate each week. I wasn’t sure if I should wait in the teacher’s room to be brought there, so I went to the room first and was mobbed by the fifth-graders coming up to ask me more questions and teach me their names. When the homeroom teacher saw me he said I should go wait in the teacher’s room, but by the time I got there a girl was already waiting to escort me.

My lunch is prepared in the teacher’s room, then carried by whichever student is escorting me to the room. I felt bad because this poor girl was so nervous and walking so slowly so she wouldn’t spill the lunch tray, but I thought it might be rude to tell her I could carry it myself.

When we got to the room, the students were lining up to get their lunch-trays filled by fellow students. One would pour the soup, one scoop out the vegetables, one provide the dessert, and so on. My tray was placed at the table that had apparently won the game of janken (rock-paper-scissors) earlier, and I was offered a seat straddling two desks at the end of it.

Once every last student had their trays filled, a group of five kids stood in the front of the room and one girl read a little speech to formally commence their lunch-consumption. I couldn’t believe how formal this was, but found it quite fascinating. This was the first time I’d ever eaten lunch in a classroom, so I suppose that’s how it’s done all the way from elementary to high school. Such a gigantic difference from America where you line up in the cafeteria, go to your table, and dig in as soon as you sit down.

I must confess it felt rather awkward. This particular table was mostly shy students. One girl asked me a few questions as we ate, but most of the meal was in near silence, the students barely even talking to each other. I’d intended to try and learn all their names once the meal was finished, but there wasn’t enough time. I’ll know to try earlier next time.

Also of note was what gets done with extra food. If there are extra desserts, students play janken to determine who gets them. Also, if anyone doesn’t want something they can offer it up to janken winners as well. As the main dish today was a ham-sandwich, I couldn’t eat it. I put it back in the tray with the empty sandwich wrappers, and when it was discovered there un-eaten, janken ensued.

I was just starting to learn the names of the kids at my table when it was announced that lunch-time was over and the desks were put back in rows. I bid goodbye to the students and left, feeling like I need to put more thought into my lunch-time routine, almost as if it’s another lesson. It didn’t feel right to just be sitting there awkwardly after all the excitement I’d generated earlier. If the students are too shy to talk to me, I need to think of things I can ask them myself. As they don’t speak English, this is actually a wonderful opportunity for me to practice my Japanese.

There was practically nobody in the teacher’s room again when I got back, so I had to call Interac to figure out if I could just leave or if I needed to tell someone. After some back-and-forth calling between me, them, and the school, it was finally determined that I can leave immediately after school-lunch every Friday.

A five-minute bike ride later and I was back at K-chu for another long afternoon of nothing. I’ll finally get to do my first introductions here tomorrow, then hopefully these students will start warming up to me.

The elementary-school kids warmed up with astonishing rapidity, and I can’t wait to see them again next week. I also can’t wait to meet the M-sho students on Wednesday, as I’m curious to compare the two elementary schools. It’s great to be able to compare different schools, as it gives me much more insight into the Japanese education system as a whole. After this year I’ll have experienced two junior high schools and two elementary schools, and all of them seem like pretty great schools to experience. I miss Togane Chu dearly, but after this morning I’m more certain than ever that switching assignments was the right move.

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: , , , , ,