Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Mildly Different Era

Today was another magical day at shogakko, and I’d like to give at least partial credit to the hat Heke let me borrow. I had made a lesson plan yesterday before realizing it was my last lesson of the year at Small Elementary, and therefore ripe for “Christmas lesson”! I borrowed some kickass materials from her, including a sweet bell-toting Santa Hat which just made the kids freak out in my general presence.

I've gotten better at this as I've gone along. Not just at work. I feel like, about mid-November, something changed. I didn't want to say it was the "dawning of a new era," so I decided to note that week as "the beginning of a mildly different era." I'd known all along that no one really knows what my job is supposed to be. I began to recognize the reality that this means I can do almost anything I like, and should play to my strengths rather than try to fill some role that no one can make out anyway.

When I first arrived, I was kind of apologetic for my existence in Japan, sorry about being a foreigner, sorry about not speaking Japanese very well, sorry for not knowing this or that or for being in the way, or for not being as good at my job as I wanted to be yet. There was no real way around this, because these were all opinions I held of myself.

Around mid-late November, though, I started to shift out of that somewhat. I honestly think it was partly the mid-year conference they make us go to, which is largely a waste of time, but which contains tiny nuggets of inspiration for first years like myself. Maybe it was spending so much time with all my fabulous Shiso ladies, and maybe it was seeing JETs and JTEs in action, but I finally stopped trying to fill a role that no one really knows how to define and decided to just go with what comes naturally to me.

And somehow, recently, I’ve been getting more compliments on my Japanese. I don’t mean the kind that everyone gives you as soon as you say four syllables of su-mi-ma-sen, I mean I feel like they are legit. I don’t really feel like my Japanese has improved much, but rather that I’ve sort of recovered most of what I learned in college, and am a lot more comfortable using it than I have been up til now. In the car on the way to Monday night class, We’re-Not-Friends JET** and one of the Chinese students were talking about the recent Japanese language proficiency test (or JLPT for short) that We’re-Not-Friends took, and about how it’s changing next year, and stuff like that. At some point, WNF turned to me to explain, “We’re just talking about the test,” at which point I decided it would be kind of me to inform him that I knew that, I was following the conversation just fine (thank you very much). “Oh, your Japanese has really improved,” he said. I blinked at him (one of the reasons we’re not friends is that he thinks I am an idiot), and informed him that it was never really that bad, thankyouverymuch. “I never really hear you speak Japanese,” he said. When I said it was because with him I didn’t have to, he suggested that that “wasn’t a good attitude to have.”

“I don’t like speaking it with you,” I confessed, “because you kind of act like you know everything.” He was surprised, but the truth will out inevitably, especially in my case. Anyway, that’s not the point*, the point is, even though he said it, I took much better to it when Osaki-san (my Japanese teacher) said “I think you have a good grasp of the basics,” and when my Small-Elementary VP said it had improved. It’s not that it’s very good, it’s just that I don’t have to try quite as hard for it to be the same level of mediocre as it once was.

I’m gaining confidence in my precious abilities to exist in this country. We’re one-third in to this first year of mine, almost to the end of the first trimester of school. This is generally how I operate, so I’m glad to be here, at this point in my learning progress.

I began doing a lot of reflecting last night, annoyingly just as I was trying to fall asleep. Most of the JETs in my town are second-years, and most of them graduated at the same time I did. Their first year in Japan was my year in Kansas. I kept thinking about how strange and how important my Kansas year really is.

When I was in training to be a Kaplan teacher, we were evaluated on a bunch of different criteria. You had to get "excellent" in at least three to become a teacher for them, and have "good" in all the rest, or something. I had all "good" from the get-go, since I was also sub-teaching Latin at that time, and was finding ways to translate previous experience into my own teaching style. The last element I was able to raise was "speaks with authority" - the confidence one. Our instructor for training was kind to me.. he said that my knowledge and skill was not lacking, so I had every right to teach with confidence.

When WNF (who rides the same bus as me) found out about my major in school and my various potential future plans (Latin teacher, fiction editor, etc.), he asked why I would be doing something like JET. I could only stare at him for a moment, unable to form an explanation. Sometimes, a thing is so obvious to us that it can be baffling when another insists they do not see it.

I settled for, "Isn't it possible that I was born to do this?"

Yesterday, in the staff room, someone asked about the meanings of "BC" and "AD." My JTE, as many native English speakers actually tend to, began to want to use the A as "after." And yeah, I'm sure plenty of English speakers who took no Latin at all know what AD means, but it's a different feeling altogether to know /why/. Anno domini, in the year of our Lord. It's weird to say that to Japanese people, as most of them are not Christian.

Anyway, it is possible that if I was not born to do this, I was groomed for it (since childhood). It really does help that I’ll eat anything. It really is nice that I love nature and parks and trails, when my town is so full of them. It’s great that languages naturally interest me, because by golly, the only thing strong enough to prevent me from learning Japanese (if I weren’t so linguistically curious) would be my personal stubbornness. My understanding of English is greatly heightened by my study of Latin and Greek. My Japanese isn't really that bad, and I avoided the potential myopism of someone majoring in Japanese and East Asian studies.

There is recontracting paperwork on my desk. They gave me the first bits of it back in September. Because it's never too early to think about what you'll be doing next year. And though I can't ever say anything for sure, I would like to tentatively predict as I have predicted from my arrival, that I will be staying another year.

I feel almost every day like I'm living in an alternate universe, or a fairy tale world. This morning I stood at the bus stop and just watched the clouds book it over the mountain tops, underlit and a little pink with the sunrise. Last night I watched the mostly-full moon peek through the trees along the mountain ridges on the way to Salamander class.

When I watch the moonlight on the water of the Ibogawa river, I have to ask, is this my life? How did I end up here, and why is it so unbelievable? I have a much easier time rolling with situations and 'being flexible' than I do making lots of decisions. After last year, which was freedom at its freest (and scariest), I am quite content to do things more or less as I am told, safe in the knowledge that I have a support structure built around and beneath me.

And in retrospect, last year's catch-as-catch-can lifestyle, my hand-to-mouth money situation, they all seem a little dangerous, almost. But if I hadn't had that experience, would I really appreciate this one as much?


*It’s actually part of the point- the gaining confidence point. I tend to try to take responsibility for situations, but WNF and I.. just aren’t friends. And maybe it’s better to just be honest about the things we think, rather than apologetic for thinking them.

**This one time, he tried to tell me Latin is not a language, so I told him we can’t be friends. Hence the name.

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