Saturday, December 19, 2009

Friday Never Ennnnnds

It is now Friday evening, for kind of the second time thanks to the time travel that is Pacific transit. I'm in the Denver airport awaiting my third and final plane ride of the day. Spent the last one sitting amongst a family of Australians who played Boggle with me.

I am tired. Where I'm coming from, it's 9:26am (Saturday), and I've not done more than nap. I also did not do a single page of my Japanese homework book. Mostly I just read The Egyptologist, which is affecting my blogging style. (Much of that book is written in journal form, but by the character of a sort of.. how to say.. pompous ass?)

Also, I realized that spending four months in Asia gives me a whole new reaction to white people. "I think I know that guy." Because in Shiso, if you see a white person, you probably do know that guy. And if you don't, well, you probably should.

But imagine a whole airport full of white people who speak English. Information overload. I must know all these people... does not compute... mental shutdown. Ooh, cute things in a vending machine.. am I still in Japan?

My seat on the long flight was E. Like, the dead center of the plane. I picked the seat though, online. I stared at my boarding pass and had to ask myself what the hell that was about.. until I found myself on the front row just behind a bulkhead. Extra legroom, ftw. Sure I'll take the middle seat.

Have just discovered that my flight from Denver is one hour earlier than I had thought. All travel is going to be completed within the calendar day of December 18th. Awesome.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I suppose one of the prerogatives of my blogging endeavor is honesty, so it's not really fair if I only write about the sunshine-and-roses days. There are those, of course, where everything goes really well, and I'm on top of my game. There are also those where those little brats will not oh-my-God-shut-up and just play the game right, which requires at least pretending to listen to what I say despite the fact that I am speaking English.

So it's kind of funny to me that I was using basically the same lesson plan this day:
Seriously. Feel the joyful sweetness of that golden-leaf sunshine and those cute kids.

as I was yesterday, when my smile was actually plastered tightly to my face only by the grinding of my teeth.

But is it possible, dear reader, that children who are always little angels, serving daily to enchant and delight me with their happy antics, had turned into disobedient little wretched creatures for the entirety of yesterday? Or, is it more likely that they are always cutting up, and usually I am in good humor and it makes me laugh, while yesterday I was at the end of this thing they call patience, and that shit was not. funny.

Patience require endurance, of course, in good times and in bad. I'm sure we all come to moments where we look up and wonder just why the hell we tolerate certain things. I sort of feel like I've been on the edge of punching someone in the face with the boxing glove of the Awful Truth [, as I know it] for the last week or so. Just waiting for someone to ask "why" to any of my choices. And I may yet. It's not a bad thing to demand what you're worth from those who maybe are just forgetting to pay.

But you've got to pick your battles, and you're never going to make a roomful of unceasingly noisy third graders understand (especially within the space of 45 minutes) that you need them to shut up and listen to you because what you offer them is valuable. So you're going to have to grind your teeth into a smile instead and play "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" one more time. And take your value issues elsewhere.

Oh, yasumi.

Monday, December 14, 2009

An Assortment of Random Information

Questions about bonenkai to which the answer is no:

Did you do karaoke? Did you have to give a speech? Did you sit quietly while all those around you talked to each other instead of you?

Questions about bonenkai to which the answer is yes:

Was there a ton of delicious food? Were some of your coworkers rocking some mad 'Asian flush'? Were there games and did you win a cute prize? Was there an onsen? Does that mean you got naked with some of your coworkers?! Did they gossip about the male teachers? And did you pass out long before anyone else in your room?

One of the topics of conversation was how my main JTE (Mikan-sensei) is overworked. I totally agree. At first I thought he would naturally have been assigned to me because he is both the newest and therefore not likely to be shipped off to another school in the near future, and because he has the least other bunch of crap to handle. But the latter's not really true. On top of the regular classload that basically everyone has, he also is more than just nominally involved with his after school club-- that is, he is their coach and teacher, and not just partially in charge on paper. He also has a homeroom class, and unfortunately his class contains two of the three most badly behaved students in the school. They're mostly harmless, just cut-up a lot and get out of line, and he has to deal with them all the time. The patience and good humor with which he does so is sometimes astonishing; sometimes these kids can get on my last nerve.

There are a few students in the 3rd year who really need my help when we do worksheets in that class, which we'd been doing a lot lately. At first I liked that, because it meant I didn't have to plan anything. But I've begun to not like it much.. it makes me feel pretty useless. But, like I said, there are a few kids who can use my help as we go through these grammar things. There are two that come to mind first, and they couldn't be more opposite. One kid like, basically tries not to let me look at his paper even though he should know by now I'm basically going to ensure he gets the right answer. He scooches as far from me as he can and will. not. look at me. And seems entirely uninterested in getting an answer at all, much less the right one. It's frustrating. His opposite is in the other class, a girl who actually looks for me and raises her hand when I walk by so she can ask if the answer she's written down is right. It rarely is, but she always smiles at me and gets me to help her, and goes along with my coaxing toward the correct answer, which soothes my sense of ethics (I don't actually just give her the answer, although I do lead her right into it). And generally makes my day helping with worksheets not a waste.

Anyway, back from that tangent... Now, today, all of the woman who stayed in my room at enkai (there were five total) are keeping an eye on each other, because one of our number is out sick with OMGSWINEFLU. And another just took her temperature, and has been sniffling all morning. And they are like, "Are you okay? No omgswineflu?" (so maybe that was a loose translation..)

No, but it does continue to affect my life. The teacher who is out is the math teacher, and usually English classes are half normal class size because we split them with math. This means that on a normal day at middle school, I teach each grade in four sections, though there are two 'classes' of students per grade. Each of the sections I teach is about 15 or so students, rather than the 'class' size of around 30. Today, though, I'm only teaching two sections of 1st years, and they'll be full rooms. I've only ever done this once before, with the 2nd years and Mikan-sensei, but the chaos that day was a lot of fun.

The windows are almost entirely fogged over because our warm snap ended last night. I accidentally bought 47 New Year cards instead of like 20 (even the saleslady was like "That's a lot, isn't it!"). But when I made a list of all the families and friends I haven't seen for a while, to whom I should send assurances that I am still alive and well (the once-upon-a-time reason for these cards), I hit the 47 mark easily. That's what you get for having a huge family I guess.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Bounenkai impending: let's forget!

An enkai is basically just a work drinking party. I've been excited about the prospect of going to one ever since I arrived, because I'd love to see what the other teachers are like outside of school. Basically everyone else has had two or at least one enkai since I arrived in August (one after Sports Day, the other after Culture Festival), but my school has either had none or hasn't invited me along. I joked to my fellow JETs that I was simply being secretly excluded, and while that was an actual theory of mine for a day or so, I don't think it's the case. We had this typhoon back in August, like three days after I arrived, and that was the reason Sports Day enkai didn't happen (I asked Mikan-sensei). By Culture Festival, I'd given up.

But a few weeks ago, I heard the teacher who sits next to me on the phone. I heard the word enkai, and a number of people, and December 11th. I heard a price. And I filed away that little bit of information by promptly sharing it on gchat with a fellow JET. If they didn't invite me to this one, I would certainly know about it!

I talked to my fellow ALTs about it, and they speculated that it was maybe the "Bonenkai" or 'the big one' which happens at the end of the year (as in, even if they skipped the Sports Day and CultureFest enkais, they would still definitely have Bonenkai).

Then on Monday as I was frantically downloading Christmas songs and trying to get a CD burned for elementary classes, one earbud in my ear, the other dangling into my lap, totally not paying attention to anything going on around me, the teacher next to me (who is actually pretty cool.. he's an older-ish guy, a math teacher, and an artist) was having a conversation with some of the others in our desk cluster.. he said "[Ah, Emily-sensei too]!" and I looked up like "Wah?"

They try to speak English to me. I forget this every time. But it still seems sort of sweet when random teachers with whom I've had very little interaction go out of their normal habits to say "Good morning," or "Have a good weekend."

So he said, "[December eleventh!] Big year end festival party!" and I just blinked and said "Bonenkai?" and everyone laughed and I was invited.

Now to me, who is a disciple of Latin and Latinate language, "bon" means 'good' quite literally. Not that I actually believed the Japanese have a party called "good party" every December, but it was hard for me to divorce the image of the year-end party from Christmas parties and the word "good." I found out while I was on the Dino-Weekend trip from another JET that Bonenkai literally comes out to "Forget-the-year-gathering." I laughed when I learned this, since it's a drinking party, and forgetting is fairly likely.

But the more I thought about it, the more I really liked that idea. First of all, I like when parties have themes; it gives me something to focus on. If it's a birthday, I can focus on a person, and other times and places, I can focus on an idea. Also, what better way to prepare to welcome a new year than to have a party dedicated to forgetting all the "unfortunate events" of the last? Because all that shit is gone now. The good too, when you get down to it... so whether this year was good or not, you still don't get to keep it. I personally can always do with a little more letting-go. And I can really get behind a culture wherein this concept is a yearly phenomenon.

Tonight is bounenaki, and I've toted some PJs and a toothbrush to work with me. I really don't know what to expect. I don't even know if I need to pay, or if the coffee-and-other-stuff-fund I've been paying into all semester takes care of it. It would be far easier to enumerate the things I do know rather than those I don't, so:
1. It will be in Haga, just northwest of where I work (which is just north of where I live).
2. It will be a spend-the-night, though there will be the option of going back early, I think.
3. There will be beer.
4. Everyone else will be Japanese.

I've been excited about enkai for so long, but now I'm kind of meh with it hanging right over me. It's a rainy, chilly day, and I am a bit tired. I had four classes today, but didn't actually do anything almost at all in any of them. Some days, it feels easy to try speaking Japanese, and some days it's a lot of work. Some days, you feel really "on." Some days, you don't. And today is a better curl-up-with-Harry-Potter-5 day than a let's-getting-drunk-with-non-English-speaking-coworkers day. I may be asked to make a speech. I was going to prepare something.. crap. My back is a bit sore still from kendo. Despite my hesitation to get naked with coworkers, I'll do it in a second if there's a hot spring where we're going.

Maybe my speech can be something silly like, "I had a great speech but.. I forgot."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

…But “Rice-Cake Ranger” has a nice ring to it

Today’s lesson is cool for me, but I’m also a bit worried about it. Around Thanksgiving, just at the beginning of my mildly different era, I typed up a long page describing a skit activity I would like to do with all the middle school classes. I did it mostly because the idea was pestering me, and I wanted to make it available to the school.

I find that the most demanding aspect of any learning experience is usually production. You can’t really produce anything of quality until you can first recognize and then comprehend.

We had to write and perform skits each year in Japanese class at Vandy. I did not really enjoy this activity, but I do recognize that it was valuable to both my learning and to my life. My first skit partner was Ex-Roommate, and I think working on the skit together is what sort of forced us to be friends in the first place (the first thing, not the only or necessarily most important thing).

It was a total drag to try to create a skit in the first year, when the only Japanese verbs we knew were to-be verbs, but somehow we all pulled it off. The idea has been sort of haunting me, so I made a write-up. I didn’t really expect we would have time to do this, so I didn’t really expect any of my co-teachers to go for it, but to my surprise, first the 1-nen teacher and then the 2-nen teacher both asked me to kick it off this week. Here’s the write-up:

Skit Activity

This is something that can be modified for all three levels, and this outline can be changed in any way the teachers want.

Students will write a skit as a group. It can be about anything, but they should include three of the grammar points they have learned this semester. They will underline their skit's use of the grammar point in the skit printout itself when they turn it in, and label it (and also submit a list of what three points they chose).

The skit should be three to five minutes in length. Every person in the skit must have at least two lines. Props are encouraged.

Students will write a first draft using dictionaries, which the ALT will review. She will write comments. Students will meet with the ALT to make sure they understand/are understood.

Students should practice together to memorize their lines and make their skits fun and interesting for other students.

They will make a list of vocabulary words (a handout for their classmates) if they are using any words their classmates do not know. But, they should try to use mostly words the others have also learned.

There may be appointments to rehearse with ALT.

On the day of performance, students will present their skits. They will be evaluated based on a rubric. Those not presenting will be making notes and comments (in Japanese). They will write one thing they really liked (a good point) about the skit, and one suggestion for making a better skit next time. They will rank the other groups, deciding which they think is the best.

Within the group, members will also grade their fellows' contributions to the skit, and make a list of what everyone did; they will turn this in after performance day. They will do this in Japanese, so JTE will use this in evaluation process.

If we do a skit soon, the topic can be Christmas, or winter, or something like that. It might help to give the students some direction and limits, but I do want them to be as creative as they can.


  • Clarity of meaning - can the ALT understand? Can the other students understand?
  • Energy - Do the students do their best at acting and presenting? Is the skit enjoyable to watch?
  • Pronunciation and intonation - Does their English sound pretty good?
  • Memorization (if we choose to have this; maybe for the first skit, students can look at notes, but I do not want them to stare at a paper and read instead of perform)
  • Use of three grammar points - at least three of the grammar points from the textbook are used and underlined.
  • Time - at least three minutes, not more than five (or whatever is decided by the JTE and ALT for that class)

Today, the 2-nen started working on theirs, and it sounded like they were having fun. I heard what may have been some good ideas, too. I felt strange because I wasn’t really doing anything but walking around looking over their shoulders, but I did want this activity to be student-driven. I think one of the strong points is that it is easily a student-driven project. I emphasized that I want their skits understandable and fun. We didn’t give them any topic limits other than that. Today I just asked them to come up with their topic, setting, and characters. This is often, in my experience, the hardest part.

So I’m happy that my teachers want to use my idea, but a little worried because I don’t know if it’s asking too much, or if it will take too long, or if they will enjoy it, or if I will. The problem with adapting activities from your own college experience is.. well, you were in college, and these kids are not. But the result, a funny skit in (easy) target language, might be attainable nonetheless?

The title comes from one of the groups who, while thinking of their main idea (mochi-ranger!), asked Mikan-sensei what “mochi” is in English. He said “rice cake," but just “mochi” is also okay. I threw in my two cents—while Mochi Ranger is cool, there’s a pretty sweet ring to Rice Cake Ranger. (I give them comments in English all the time.. they basically never understand them and have learned to just ignore it)

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.