Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Listen With Your Heart

Recently, I re-took in Disney’s jewel of intercultural eye-opening experiences, Pocahontas. And I’ve been thinking a bit about “cultural sensitivity.” What exactly is that, and what does it mean?

And I’d like to preface this with the (ironic?) disclaimer that these are just my own opinions and don’t represent the opinions of any group whatsoever. They’re just how I personally deal with the world and are not meant to imply that you should deal with the world in like fashion.

So I live in a country that is really far away from where I grew up. I mean that mostly just geographically. But culturally, too, this place is different. There are customs that just crop up, some of which I really like and can get behind, and some of which I feel make no sense at all.

Part of my job is to be a cultural representative of the US. I think it might even be in my contract. “Try to show Japan a good side of America.” right? God, I hate generalizations.

I had a mission once, before I even arrived probably. It might have won me the job, when my gung-ho spirit at the interview told them I wanted to be polite, be good in Japan, so that people would see that Americans can be polite, as well as whatever else they are seen as being.

But, um, I’m an American; I’m not America. I’m polite, it turns out, because that’s just how I roll. Because I’ve caught more flies with honey. Because trying to be charming always got me what I wanted. Not because it’s American, and not because it’s Japanese. I observe and imitate because I want to fit in. I enthusiastically join unfamiliar customs because I like to learn and try new things. And, because often enough, I really like the customs I am learning.

I’m not really doing it for them.

And to me, that’s a significant distinction. It’s important to me to feel like my actions and responses are fairly organic, that they are genuine because they arise out of a true desire to be or do something, not just to prove some point or provoke a certain response.

I’m not entirely comfortable with the assertion that the burden is always on me, who come from power and privilege, to make an extra effort to understand and adapt.

On the one hand, it’s a total no-brainer. Yeah I better adapt if I don’t want to starve or be restricted to the tiny world of foreigners and their imported food.

But to me, it’s not a burden. It’s an opportunity. I didn’t come here to not see a whole new country and experience a whole different thing.

Mostly, I have an issue with the classification of me being the privileged one. Okay, first let me assure you I actually am quite privileged. I was born into a wonderful family, I just ‘happened’ to live in a great public school district, I have the fortune of knowing a lot of great friends and having a lot of great opportunities available to me. I got to go to Vandy on the blessing of my dedication and brainpower. I got to go to Japan. I’m super-mega-rich, even if not in the fiscal sense. I’m cosmically spoiled.

And also, I was born into an English-speaking family; English just so happens to be in high demand right now. I know these things. I know that by accident of birth, I am sitting so pretty.

But I don’t think it’s being American than makes that so. I think that helps. But Americans live at and below the poverty line too. And some of my students are from families rolling in dough. Some kids in America don’t get attention from their families, don’t get nurtured. Are they privileged? I guess in some ways. But not in others.

I guess I just find it arrogant to insist that being from a powerful country makes me a powerful/privileged person. There are lots of kinds of power, influence, and value, and you can never assess the standing of a group without seeing it through your own personal (and cultural) bias. So to insist that Americans ought to be more culturally sensitive because they are the powerful ones actually relies on (and for me, underlines) the arrogant view that America is somehow superior.

Culturally speaking, no one is.

Romaji: Juu-nin to-iro
Literally: Ten people, ten colours
Meaning: Everyone has their own tastes; "Different strokes for different folks"

I expect something from myself, in Japan. I don’t owe it to anyone else and I end up just feeling resentment if anyone tries to tell me I do. I expect something from myself in Japan because I am addicted to learning, because I want people to like me, because I know there is much to see and hear and find and in order to do that you have to listen as you go. You can’t be so full of yourself and your own ideas that you overlook all the cool things around you. Or, I mean, you can, but I don’t want to.

In the end, some of the stuff I encounter I will incorporate into my life during my stay. Other things I will keep all my life. And some I will never understand (it’s possible that they really just don’t make sense..!). And that? Is okay.

I think it’s more respectful to be just a little bit demanding. I expect something of myself in Japan, but I expect something of the people I meet, too. I expect that kid in the second row to make a good faith effort to try to learn from me. Which is why I get frustrated when he doesn’t. I expect my co-workers to forgive me when I commit a faux pas at enaki, whether because of my ignorance or just because I am so freaking clumsy. I expect them to be sensitive to the fact that I am learning and want to learn.

Expecting something, demanding something, well that’s the opposite of being patronizing, isn’t it? It may come across as backward to some, but from me, expectation is a sign of deep respect. If I expect something from you, I demonstrate (not just state) my belief in your capacity to provide it.

So I think that JETs are in Japan partly so they can give, and partly so they can need something from the people around them. People are just people. Some stuff is just human. Other stuff is particular, personal. Cultural stuff is just whatever falls in between.

And just to return to Pocahontas for a second, I at first wanted to take major issue with the language thing. In one scene that chick “listens with her heart” and is able to understand what Smith is asking her. So she says “My name is Pocahontas.” And I know it’s just a movie, and they needed to skip over the whole problem of language, but there is no way.

Still, you do gotta listen with your heart.. you gotta want it. No amount of trying to prove anything will substitute.

Monday, March 29, 2010

All human affairs are like that of Saiou’s horse

If it weren’t for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college. –Lewis Black

But no, let’s focus on Saiou’s horse, okay?

I really, really like this. A friend included it at the end of a letter sent to me, written out in romaji: “ningen banji saiou ga uma.”


I was unable to make any sense of it alone, so I presented it to the teachers at small elementary (that’s where I was that day) to get them to translate it for me. But even that was a trip. Because it doesn’t mean anything on its literal face. What I ended up with was “we don’t know about our lives, what will be good or bad” from the teachers.


But it turns out there’s a story behind it, which explains everything and which I will now present.

Once upon a time there was an old man named Sai. He had this horse. The horse ran away. All the neighbors were like “Man, it sucks that your horse ran away!” but Sai was like, “Oh, I dunno…” very circumspect, right? The next day the horse returned leading a second horse. The neighbors all said “Wow, now you got this horse, for free! That’s so great!” But Sai, he was still shrugging it off. Later on, his son was riding the horse. Let’s say it’s the new one. And since he’s not used to it as much, he falls off and breaks his leg. Now the neighbors are back again and they’re crying out “Oh no! It is such misfortune! That poor young man!” but good old Sai, he’s not so sure it’s the worst thing ever.. and sure enough in a few days, the Emperor orders all able-bodied men to join his army so he can take over a neighboring land. But Sai’s son can’t go!

So are all earthly affairs like Saiou’s horse.

When things change from perception-good to bad and back again very quickly, I shake my head and say, I just keep thinking about that horse.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Spring Breeaaaaaaak!

Today is the second official day of spring break, and I have to admit to loving it. Although being in the office while there are no classes is bound to get old eventually, I personally am too good at inventing things for myself to do to be much bothered by it yet. I still want to (1) finish sewing that bag, (2) do a line of each of the first 15 kanji, (3) plan the first lesson of the school year for 5th and 6th graders, and (4) gather the necessary Japanese vocab I’ll want at tonight’s enkai. I’m also embroiled in (5) details of getting a Japanese driver’s license (although at the moment I have misplaced my Georgia license…?), (6) finding out what I should do about taxes, then there is always my blogroll (7) on which I am eternally behind, and of course writing here (8) about Kyoto and Tokyo and goodness knows what else. Beyond that of course there are letters and e-mails (9, 10), the state of my inbox (11), and researching Okinawa (12!).

I’ve been attentive to my Japanese studies since the break started, which just makes me feel like I’m very very in college. It wasn’t so long ago I was juggling reading dense volumes, pdf articles, translating Latin poetry, and completing thematically easy but linguistically difficult Japanese homework assignments. Here I am at my desk (which happens to be in an office instead of in my dorm room.. but it makes little difference except that there is a a tea dispenser in the office), bent over my own scribbled imitations of unfamiliar characters which represent words and ideas in some language not my native. Then it was Greek (well and Japanese, too), now it’s kanji.

I’m amazed in retrospect at the rapid rate at which we were learning kanji back at Vandy. We had quizzes fairly often and lots of new kanji per quiz. I remember drilling that crap into the ground; I retained a bit of it and I like to think it makes learning it easier the second time around. People here have asked me occasionally “how many kanji do you know?” because you learn them to levels, sort of. These people just wanted a ballpark of how much kanji I’d crammed into my poor collegiate brain over the years (a hundred? two thousand?), but I never could answer them with anything less vague than “Not enough..”

So far my kanji function has been mostly this:
1. I see a word in kanji.
2. I don’t quite know how to pronounce it, but I know the meaning of one of the characters in the set.
3. Of the other characters in the word, one looks vaguely familiar, like I must have learned it before, but I can’t remember anything about it.
4. One of the characters is completely foreign.
5. Result: I can’t read the word.

I kind of like this post on it, actually.. this is how I feel. And I decided at some point in the recent past that, gosh darnit, I so can learn thousands of kanji, because all that will take is hours and hours of me making random imaginative connections and writing them a billion times, followed by continued use of them in daily reading or writing activities. Or, to return us to the point of this digression, all that will take is me resuming my college state of mind.

Which I find is not so far from me after all.

There is a method I’m going to take on called the Heisig method, which asserts that learning kanji is pretty easy (though time-consuming) if you go about it the right way. And I am all about working steadily through a process to which the endgame is promised proficiency. Basically, before now I didn’t know how to begin, and now I do. I am also going to simultaneously be using the Clair kanji book because it’s here, and it’s another good review of the kanji I allegedly should know from my schoolin’ days. So basically, this might not be as easy to juggle once school starts again, but for now I am feeling pretty psyched.

I wasn’t the only one studying kanji today, as well. Two teachers brought their daughters to the office and they were adorably set up at desks with their own kanji practice booklets.

It's so cute because they each look a lot like the mothers who brought them in today. Other awesome things about this photo include the mug I like to use, "WE ARE PENGUIN" when it is available. And Mikan-sensei is featured, left, with Ou-sensei at right.

Anyway, with that I better get on one of my 12 items of business…

Friday, March 19, 2010

The View from Friday, or Because shit is worth doin’.

Well, it’s Friday again, and you know what that means!

Actually, with the way the end of the school year is changing all the schedules, it does not necessarily mean anything at all.

But, it’s bright and pretty warm, so the window is open. I’m dressed down in my KU fan gear because of NCAA stuff happening far away (Vandy.. I heard the tales.. I am saddened). I spent the first part of the morning cleaning my desk, wiping off all the dust and organizing the binders. The sum total effect is it feels like a college weekend, right now. In which I would be at my desk a lot, but pleasantly so.

I didn’t have any classes to teach today, and yesterday’s intro to a third of the incoming 6th graders (I’m heretofore assigning animals to the classes to differentiate them so I don’t have to keep saying ‘current whatever-years, about to be nantoka-years’), or FROGS class, went really well. Awesome-sensei had approached my desk on Wednesday to ask if I would teach English with him to elementary students. For just an instant I thought he was personally informing me that he had been transferred to one of my elementary schools in the end-of-year teacher swap, but I soon realized he meant just the one class on Thursday afternoon.

Which I planned and prepped and which went off more or less without a hitch..! I am absolutely floored by his ability to interact with a class, somehow simultaneously joking with them and putting them at ease, and not taking any crap from them, expecting nothing lower than his exacting standard. Although Awesome-sensei has been difficult for me to work with at times, doing this class with him reminded me that his nickname comes from somewhere.

But I’d been looking forward to today for a long time. My first class-free day, without plans for the next day or even next week? Sounds like time to clean my desk! And catch up on a lot of things I had put off.

One of those was “look into PEPY riiiide”.. because one day I innocently inquired when and where the Hyogo-ken charity bike event would be held, if you please, though I have little biking experience or knowhow, and ended up being asked if I wouldn’t like to organize it myself!

As of yesterday I was thinking, oh yeah right. And honestly, I don’t think I could do it by myself. My initial reaction upon reading a bit more about the event and thinking about doing it was to ask Big Brother JET if he wanted to co-lead with me, but that makes little to no sense, because he has a marathon on the weekend the ride is supposed to take place.

So I asked The Illustrator JET what he knew about it, since I knew he biked to Himeji from time to time, and Himeji would be a lovely city in which to hold this ride… were it to occur.

But he immediately was able to tell me about last year’s ride, in which he was a participant, and ways he thought we might be able to schedule and plan it. I know very little about Himeji and bike riding, but I’m more than willing to do some of the legwork. I’m not very good at research, but I am good at planning when I put my mind to it. Plus I’m at the stage of my Japanese language learning experience where I see trying to make bike rental reservations as a fun, potentially impossible challenge and not an impossible task. It’s been a while since I put together a group event, and on this sunny Friday afternoon, doing it seems like a very good thing.

I intend to evaluate the route and plan as we formulate it as though it were my personal ambitious afternoon.. Where would I want to stop, what would I want to see or visit? This is probably not a bad idea, since I personally am not in super-biking-shape, but I am eager to get out there and try it. All of this is going down (weather permitting) April 17th, maybe with room to push back a day or a week for weather reasons. I’ll write about it more as it comes together. Today’s brainstorm mostly only washed out a “yeah, let’s do this,” and notions of beginning near the station where there is a handily located bike rental place, and talk of Shosha-zan around lunchtime.

In other news, my weekend-event schedule was changed without warning yesterday when my Kyoto-sensei informed me that the Okayama enkai to which I so looked forward was not any longer an Okayama enkai, but a Shingu enkai. And rather than an overnight stay (see: mental visions of carousing and karaoke late into the night, inexplicable images of poker games in a smoky room), the women are all leaving that evening. And I was like, where the hell is Shingu? Who is this bag?! What about my plans to spend the rest of the weekend in Okayama City’s environs?

But the view from this Friday is? It’s going to be great anyway.

Coming weekends:

3/19 – Three day weekend Tokyooo!
3/26 – Non-Okayama enkai and subsequent Himeji-area/Shiso weekend
4/2 – Okinawaaaaaa (from the 1st to the 5th)
4/9 - (take a deep breath)
4/17 – PEPY riiiide!
4/24 – Pepy uberrain date; 25th Hanshin Tigers baseball if I can get off the waiting list and onto the ticketholders list…
4/28 – leave for Hong Kong, return 5/4.

Skit Results

A while back, the second-years performed their skits. I took videos of all of class 2’s skits, but when I had the kids vote, one skit swept all three awards (Easiest to Understand, Most Fun, and Overall Best Skit).. I don’t mean it just won all three, I mean no one else’s came close in any of the categories.

Yesterday, I gave them their Emi$ cash prizes. For your viewing pleasure, here is “Peach Tarou Gaiden.”

I am aware that there is no way this will be as entertaining for you as it was for me, so don’t feel obligated to watch it on my behalf.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Since Naked Man Festival happened in Okayama City, we were close enough to visit the cool town MiriJET was always talking about going to visit: Kurashiki.

This city also appears in my travel book, so I read a little about it before going. Because no one could explain to me the draw of Kurashiki.

Turns out, it’s all in the charm. Which you can’t explain so well, you just have to see it.

We didn’t spend as much time in the city strolling area as we did in the temple area on the hill up above it.

Is this called a Shisa? I forget. Anyway, this one is cool.

DaneJET explained that if you toss a rock up on top of the tori, you get your wish. So, we tried until we got it. The gods admire persistence, too.

You may not know this, but I love important rocks. I also love the way Japan treats them.

He explains that, as in the other case, if you can float a coin on the water, you get something nice.. good luck, or your wish granted, etc.

He did it!

Then I did too. (photo by Erik)

A peaceful spot for the dead.

Making udon. (photo by Erik)

In addition to hanging out in this sweet town, we are also models in peaceful bamboo forests. This is the coolest fence ever. (photo by Erik)

I could never be a photographer. My one edict is "look pensive."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It Might Have Been the Naked Men

Several weeks ago, when the weather got nice again, I vaguely wondered what power had pushed for the early spring. This is a retrospective post.

The Naked Man Festival, or Hadaka Matsuri, was February 20th at Saidaiji, a temple outside of Okayama City. The festival is held every year, but I think this year was the 500th..!

You, who know Aki Matsuri already, are seasoned veterans to the fundoshi, which is what participants in the Naked Man Festival wear (so, no, they are not fully naked.. they also wear tabi).

My fellow expats and I all kind of assumed “Naked Man Festival” was a culturally insensitive translation/interpretation of this rite in which dudes run around wearing so little.. but actually, we were informed that that’s what Hadaka Matsuri means in English. And the reason there is a "”naked” festival in February is just that—it’s February, and you gotta be a real badass to strip down in the mountains of Okayama (or anywhere in Japan, frankly) in February. Or, you have to be really drunk. I suspect both.

So the runners do runs through the streets near the temple, then gather on the main stage area to await the dropping of the “Lucky Stick.” They then scramble and fight for this (these, I think.. I don’t know how many sticks they drop, though) stick until someone gets it out of the designated area alive. He then becomes Lucky Man!

Women aren’t allowed to participate, and I couldn’t have, what with Jermaine and all (zannen). But I heard it can be a real bloodbath, especially if you lose your tabi. You take a beating either way, but you can say goodbye to the skin on the tops of your feet without those little socks. Also, at some point, participants all run through some water. Or are sprinkled with water that is perhaps holy. In February.

In order to make it out without someone taking the lucky stick from you, you kind of have to have teammates to block for you. It’s basically a big game of naked, drunk football. Or Spartan Madball, more like.

So for me, the festival meant stall food (which was regretted almost instantly.. but I think it was the om-soba, not my tako-on-a-stick) and plenty of bare asses, which is an automatic win for an evening out.

Fried octopus on a stick. It doesn’t get much better. Though the beef was pretty good…

Curse you om-sobaaaa…

Some foreigners, post-fest

The Lucky Man!!

And there he goes…

Though tattoos are banned (to prevent Yakuza participation I imagine), foreigners are welcome to participate. I’ve been told the first foreigner to hang on to a Lucky Stick was our very own JETHardJ:

stock photo

Dividing the Season

Setstubun is held in early February (2/3/10). This is a retrospective post.

I first learned about Setsubun from Nami-san, back in good ol’ McTyeire. It must have been one of our study breaks; I just remember being overjoyed that all we had to do was throw soybeans and yell “Oni wa soto!” (Demons get out!) and that didn’t take too long, and I could get back to my homework mountain.

Cool things about Setsubun:

  • It literally means dividing the season, and comes at the midpoint of winter (halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox). Which should mean that from that point on, it starts to get warmer gradually, as well at that the days are on their way to overtaking the night.
  • It’s actually based on the same idea as Groundhog Day. Now all that stuff about six more weeks of winter makes sense. I love how learning a new language informs your knowledge of your own.
  • You get special demon-repelling soybeans in your lunch.

    For eating, or throwing!

  • There’s a festival at the local shrines. Big Brother, MiriJET, and I all went up to Ichi to check out what was going on at Iwa Jinja.

    • We saw lots of my students there.

      Middle-schoolers, who helped me navigate the shrine stuff..

      Elementary too. And, why, yes, I am eating a chocolate banana.

  • I drew a lot there, and it was ‘tatsu,’ which according to my student, called for early spring.
  • If you say “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi,” you should get good luck to come into your house, and the demons to get out. Hopefully this holds for the whole year, and you don’t end up with mold or mukade come summer.


This is a retrospective post. Mostly, I just realized I’ve been tourist-ing in a few places lately and haven’t posted anything about them.

The Kobe Adventure is hard to describe, because that day was mostly strolling. The weather happened to be Effing Amazing for late January.

We checked out the Hanshin Earthquake memorial park area and wandered around Harborland. Turns out, Kobe is famous for being an international city. Specialties include baked goods and other European imported ideas.

This coffee is scared because it knows its fate at my hands…

Chinatown area, and its famous food shops…

Old Earthquake damage…


PirateShips (just kidding)

This pose is totally stolen from Brookie.

Sweet moving sound sculptures…

Parks that are closed for some reason.

Friday, March 12, 2010

In the style of LNF, only partial, and Japanese


This, my third enkai, and “Graduation Enkai,” was by far, for me, the best, even though we all had school the next day (and it was Wednesday night—which means the next day? Yeah, was one of those dreaded Thursdays).

The office was so quiet Thursday afternoon when I got back from Big Elementary, though. Everyone was a touch hungover. But I get ahead of myself.

After most big events, school staff groups will have enkai. So graduation could be no exception. Ours happened to be at the same venue where we had Bounenkai, so out in the far mountaintops of EvenMoreRural Japan at a sort of resort up on top of this mountain. I had thought to myself, back in December when I was first there, that when the weather got better (oh you know, maybe in like March or something?) I might go back and explore that area a bit more.

The weather was not better in March. There was in fact more snow.

This time, I also did not go enjoy the hot-bath facilities, which is too bad because it would have been really pretty at the outdoor bath with all that snow still falling like mad.

Anyway. I've learned a few things about enkai by now which help me better enjoy them.

One: shit starts on time. It's not like the kind of party I'm used to, where we say 6, and you get there at like 6:20, and hang around until everyone arrives, and start eating at maybe 7:15. This wasn't a problem because I got a ride directly from school to the venue, but I did really appreciate it, since I (we all did) had work the next day. Anyway, if you aren't there and seated at six, no one is going to wait for you, unless maybe you are the principal and held up by a major earthquake or something. And we don't mess around with 'water now, drinks in a bit,' no sir. Things are properly kicked off with a toast at 6:03, everyone drains their little cute glass of sweet plum wine, and then we start on the rest.

Two: it is your job to fill everyone else's glass. It is also your job to make sure there is space in your glass if someone wants to fill it for you. I decided I needed to get out of my shell a little and make rounds with beer pouring, which I have never done in such capacity. I used to look up, see that everyone had a full glass, and feel silly for not participating in the custom of (especially junior staff members) running around filling glasses. How did everyone else do it? Finally I just got up and started to make rounds. I noticed an awesome thing. Anytime I got to someone whose glass was full, they would notice me, make a sound of surprise, and then drink some of whatever they were drinking so I could give them a tiny refill.

This is excellent because I felt like such a pusher. Here I go, round the table, basically forcing everyone to drink more. Such power. People are generally surprised/delighted when I/any foreigner make an attempt to do something Japanese, also, so there was that extra level of good-job. The English speakers asked me about whether we do that in America and I was like, naw, you help yourself, or the bartender (my brother or mother) helps you, or the waitress is in charge of that mess.

But it's a pretty cool way to socialize, and you can talk to those you really want to, and just sort of be polite to those you don't, as you work your way around the table.

When I got to the principal, he took the lid off his miso-bowl and filled it with sake. And I drank it pretty fast, then filled it ("only a little!") for the VP, and then filled it for the principal, who drank it, and then I drank another one. Basically, I was comfortably drunk by 6:45. Which is good because enkai also end on time, I rightly assumed 9pm, which I appreciated so I could work the next day.

Whenever anyone came across me while doing their rounds, and asked me if I was drinking sake or beer, my reply was always, oh whatever, both are good. Because I am a team player, yes.

Three: there might be drinking games. And not like games where certain things happen and therefore you drink.. more like, you are drinking, so the game is more hilarious/difficult. The games this time were some more "which teacher are the students describing" kind, and a couple of memory games. The teams are always divided by year-level teachers, also desk clusters.. but even though I sit at the 1st-year desk cluster (in the office), I was on the 4th-year (extras) team for games.. so it was me, the principal, and VP, and we lost every game, but had a lot of fun. At some point, the non-English-speaking principal took up my habit of yelling "Waitwaitwaitwaitwait!" when we needed another moment to write our answer down.

Four: the food will be really good, and it will probably never stop coming. This was good, considering how terrible I'd been about dinner the night before. When I say 'comfortably drunk,' I mean on a full stomach and everything.

Other than these things, there were speeches by all the 3rd-year teacher block, one at a time throughout the night. It was weirdly reminiscent of the spirit of LNF (Last Night Fun.. the party after the kids leave GHP.. when the staff half-celebrates the success of the summer, half mourns and drowns the sorrow of the fact that it's over), in both tone and level of abandon. But, I dunno.. like, with adults instead.

I heard later from Big Brother JET that hardly anyone drank at his enkai, since they had work the next day. So, you know, so for them as for me.. it would have been responsible of me to attend, drink very little, and be ready for my classes the next day. But we laughed, and I really appreciate the "screw that idea" spirit of my school's staff. We were totally going to play as hard as we work. And I was ready for my classes the next day.. it was better to do enkai right than it would have been to do enkai wrong and resent my 5th graders the more for it.

VP and Kermit-sensei burst into song right at the end (I think it was enka music.. there was a karoke machine in the room, so..) and were way more epic singers than anyone predicted.

I caught the bus at 9 and went home to sleep. When I returned to the office Thursday afternoon, the VP asked if I were 'tired.' I thought he meant from dealing with 5th and 6th graders all morning (to which, why yes, I was tired). "You drank a lot of sake last night," he said. I laughed and said it was okay. But I imagined the staff meeting that morning being about as productive as the post-LNF breakfast meeting.

Graduation: Still Fighting It

Everybody knows, it sucks to grow up, but everybody does. ... The years go on and we're still fighting it. (Ben Folds, "Still Fighting It")

As promised.

So the day before graduation was, if you recall, The Worst Weather ever. Graduation day itself was a lot clearer, cloudy, cold as hell (for March, I mean), snow on the mountains and all, but it made for pretty photos I'm sure.

I wasn't very good at the ceremony. It takes effort for me to pay attention to people speaking a language that isn't English, and even when I apply that effort, I can only get some of the gist of what is being said. It takes a lot of guesswork, and I never like to assume that I am right. Still, it requires me to do that. So for that reason, the speeches by the various distinguished dudes? Had me fighting sleep.

The calling forward of the graduates' names was something to which I wish I'd been more attentive, though. I had watched them in practice a few times, but in actual ceremony, I wandered. It was cold, I was actually sitting down, I had a cough, whatever.

I really did sit up and take note when the new president came up to deliver what I think was a message to the graduates from their underclass peers. And when one of the graduating students gave what I think was a speech on behalf of the class.

Hmm... wonder what this is like.

I tried to sing along when everyone sang "Goodbye, goodbye, we won't forget you," and then I really started to choke up when the graduates got up to sing their graduate song. Because at that point I noticed that a lot of them were crying. And my brain went into sympathetic-mode.

Aw, don't make them sing, look at them, they don't want to sing... change is hard.. but they are so brave. Be brave, kids!

But it was kind of awesome to see my badass, really-huge-especially-for-Japan boys crying at their own graduation. I feel like, at the few graduations I've attended in the US, the prevailing mood is one of victory and escape, almost. Like you finally conquered and completed school, got what you came for, or something like that. And I had a hard time with that, at least personally.

It might be different here because the school system is different. For one thing, your grades and performance have very little (um, I think nothing?) to do with whether to advance to the next grade or not. You don't flunk/fail/get held back around here. So graduation? Maybe doesn't have to have that association to accomplishment. It was easy for me to identify with this, not because I was an underachiever, but because achieving in school was just what I did, and I didn't feel like it was a big deal to have accomplished what came naturally to me. Graduation was a lot more like being evicted from a lifestyle I had finally learned to appreciate.

So that is apparently expected at their graduation, a sort of simultaneous happy-sad, a kind of mourning for what is lost, but excitement for what comes next.

Anyway, I'm in a place in my life where I watch things like graduation with the understanding that, at least for some of us, change is pretty hard, but it's also pretty important, and so we have to just kind of be brave and go into it.

After that part, we went outside to see them off, but they didn't actually leave right then; they hung around taking pictures and talking to everyone and saying their sort of goodbyes. At one point, this lady was talking to our vice principal, thanking him for something, then all of a sudden she turned to me and said, "And Emily-sensei, thank you," (in Japanese) and continued to say how her son had talked about me teaching English to him, and had showed her the truck I gave him as a present.. at which point I realized I was talking to our special needs kid's mom, and had no idea what to say.

Because really, it never occurred to me that I had much of an impact on that student, even though we did have one-on-one-on-one (the VP, the student, and me) classes about once every week or two.. but like, we hardly ever did anything where I saw English progress, really.. mostly we watched YouTube videos of trucks, because the kid just likes trucks, is all. Sometimes we'd ask him what's this, or what color? And he always said "pink," and we always laughed and said, "Not pink! Green/blue/red/white/black/whatever!" And, especially because I have trouble understanding Japanese most especially if it is accented or in any way different from the standard stuff I learned in school, I basically had no idea what this kid was thinking, ever, except that I got the impression he was a generally happy kid who "talks a lot," as the VP always said.

So it was really cool, I guess, to find I'd been doing a different job than teaching English all along, and even more, I'd done it well. The VP always used to say "Why don't you find more videos of trucks, because he likes them," and occasionally I would wonder, what does it matter if I do it or someone else does it, it's not like I'm making any kind of impact over here English-wise. But in the end, I knew about YouTube, and I was patient and nice, and I also happen to be a foreigner, and so I guess that part of my job that is just "be foreign in Japan, but be a good foreigner," was what I was up to, those days.

Anyway, the students milled around, and I liked just sort of standing back watching it all. I saw my speech-contest girl and took a photo with her..

What up.

Took a few photos of groups that had gathered to pose. Got invited to be in a few. Then I sort of stood back and watched the chaos and love unfold, because I think it's kind of just cool.. I can see that these kids mean a lot to their teachers, their parents, and each other, whether I am part of it or not. I thought about crying because I really will miss the way Giant Student 1 talked both in the halls and in class (he has this way of repeating a word or phrase, including names, really fast over and over to get your attention or something), or how he always yelled "Good morning!" when it was afternoon. Or the way Giant Student 2 would say, "Oh, Emily!" and then give this I'm-too-cool kind of wave, and say "Hello." (not "Hello!".. there was definitely a graveness to it every time).. and when he was my dust-hockey partner for cleaning time.

Awesome-sensei and some of the boys.

And at that point, my speech-contest girl came back up to me and said "Emily! [something in fast Japanese I didn't understand]" So I just kind of stared at her and said "What." She stopped and thought for a second, then said super enthusiastically, "Don't! Forget!"

So I naturally burst into tears, because honestly I don't know what they think this is, but it's kind of sweet to think they're all making much deeper impressions on this ferner than they realize. I was bent over, laughing and crying at the same time, and I finally stood up and told her, "Don't worry." Then she said, "Don't cry?" in Japanese, and I laughed again and said that wasn't really something I could do for her. And then she hugged me and went away again.

I shook the hands of some of my favorite students that I'll miss the most, and I headed back inside because I knew then that I was done. Yesterday as I walked up to the school, it felt oddly empty just knowing that whole band of bright and boisterous students was not there. And today, it's Friday, and I used to eat lunch with them on Fridays. (They were always really excited to have me come to their class so they could be too shy to speak to me.. haha, but no.. that class was very good about giving it a shot, which is why I'll miss them.. they didn't take it seriously enough to worry about fucking up, which freed them up to try.)

Chaos and love at graduation

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Things Lately

So sometimes I pop on here to gush about how it's the Best Weather Ever and life is better than predicted and my kids are awesome, etc.

Lately, things have been busy, not because they actually are busy, but because we have graduation practice every day, which requires us to stand in the gym for two hours each day. And two hours isn't that long; considering that normally I am in class about 4 hours a day, having only one class and then two hours of grad practice gives me a net of one more hour to do random stuff at my desk.

But here's what we didn't reckon with: I hate grad practice. Well. Odi et amo, I suppose. It allows me to get all emotional and watch the graduates walk by and hear all their names called and hear the younger students sing "Goodbye, goodbye" to them. But I have absolutely no function at grad practice. And some days I am either so emotional or else so bitter about having to stand around doing nothing at all for two hours (NOT SIT, STAND) that I don't even help move chairs or anything. I did at the last one. But not the one before.. heh.

It just sucks to spend two hours actively doing nothing at all. When there is so much stuff you would have yourself doing, both work-related and non! I finally got some of the stuff done by Monday that I had planned to do Wednesday, and let me tell you that is great for your ego.

Then there was today. Two weeks ago, I had an elementary-stack day at Big Elementary. This was the day with the photos from recess. Because it was like 65 degrees, sunny, and awesome, so even though it was a stack-day (all six classes), it was still great. Today was also stacked, only instead of 1st, 3rd, and 4th, I had 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. And the weather?

This is my favorite part because this is where my life goes back to being a movie about extremes. The weather was perhaps the shittiest weather I have seen in Japan. Made worse for what came exactly two weeks before, you know, back in February, when it was spring or something?

I ran to the bus stop thinking my coat and umbrella were going to be enough. And for where I live, south amongst the mountains, it was enough. But as we traveled the whole 18 minutes northward, the windy chilly rain gave way to windy chilly snowy rainy winterskyvomit, which persisted all day. The worst part was that it all happened sideways, which meant that if you had an umbrella it was 1, useless, and 2, broken. I had a ball with the "how's the weather?" question today because the kids were throwing out everything from "cold" to "rain" to "snow" to "wind" and "cloudy" and beyond, and I had magnetic weather cards for all of that (my predecessor? was/is amazing and I will be in her debt until I pass her materials, assuming they survive, on to my successor).

For all that, the classes went pretty well. I tried to pull some alphabet games that were a bit tough on the firsties, but for the most part, kids were okay.

I took a photo just for kicks.

Why yes, that is snow on the mountain in the background, and frozen slush on the ground underfoot. The only reason their umbrellas work is because we just stepped outside for dismissal, just now. (Even so one of the kids came up just before this to borrow a new umbrella since his was mangled by the wind)

Because I could not imagine worse weather. It's like winter turned around to bitchslap me for doing a little happy dance that it was almost gone.

Oh and my house? Which I was going to clean.. or anything else I wanted to do today? I bet you can guess how done it is about now.

I was supposed to go to the doctor's again today, possibly for the last time..! On my last visit, he said I could "take a bath" with Jermaine now (since I had not, in like five weeks.. only showers with my leg all propped up on the side of my square tub), which to me meant all bets were off. I think Jermaine just didn't do anything at all in the cold. Once it was kinda warm, there was healing happening, or something. Today when I got home from work, I opted to take a bath, rationalizing that I had not yet, and maybe it was not safe to drive across town..?

Okay but really I ought to go and do something with my evening, like run a vacuum, a laundry cycle, or read a book.

I'll bitch about graduation more once it's over. ^_^

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Lunch with Sixth Graders

Yesterday, I was at Small Elementary. I laughed an evil laugh to see that I was eating lunch with the 6th graders again.

The last time I ate lunch with that class, the room was totally silent, and it terrified me. The girls in that class never participated, and to make it worse, that was back in the swine-flu scare of late 09, so they weren’t even sitting in desk clusters. I tried to make conversation after about fifteen terrible minutes by pointing to the nearest girl’s pencil case, which was sitting on her desk.

“Very cute,” I said. In general, people know the word “very” and they know the word “cute,” and I know these kids have had ALT training in their lives for a while now, and being a class of only like ten people, they totally get the attention they should want. So she understood the words I used, I am almost certain.

How did this kid respond to my attempts to bond over personal taste in school effects? She did not look at me, nor speak to me, but removed the pencil case and shoved it inside her desk, and continued eating.

Terror. Oh my GOD, get me out of here! She probably felt the same way. Eventually the boys (who do participate in class) asked if they could ask me questions and proceeded to do the whole stand-up-and-push-in-your-chair-to-address-a-teacher thing to ask me questions like “What countries have you been to?” .. which were a bright step up from my usual slew of “What’s your favorite color/animal/sport/food?” and “Can you eat ___?”

Aaaanyway, that was last time, so yesterday was round two, and this time I was ready and unafraid. I try to joke around with the students when possible. When I first got to the classroom, no one was there at all. Then, the girls arrived. They began to giggle and exchange glances, which I actually kind of hate. It makes you feel like you’re under glass or something. They won’t try to reach you, they’ll just talk about you and something that is hilarious to them from which you are excluded. I looked at them mournfully and said “Don’t be like that. You’re killin’ me!”

Then one of them asked me how old I was. Oh thank goodness, we are talking. I told her, and then she asked if I had a boyfriend. I was back on my joking bandwagon so I said “Oh yeah, I got three!” .. they did not seem impressed, so I went back to the standard answer which is, “No, no, no.”

I had used some Kansai-ben in class that day, when a kid asked me a question in Japanese I TOTALLY knew he could form in English if he tried, so I drawled out “Nihongo ga zenzen wakarahennnn..!” (I don't understand any Japanese!)

Anynway, next the girls were a little confusing, and they said something about Kansai-ben and then laughed a bit, then said Kansai-ben “Why?” and I wasn’t sure if they were just saying it to be Kansai or if they were still asking about the boyfriend thing, but right then the boys returned to class and were meccha excited to see that I was their lunch guest.

Once we got our food, this crowd of tiny kindergarteners came in to say thank you to their “big brothers and sisters” and present them with cookies of gratitude and congratulations for their coming graduation. It was possibly the cutest thing that has ever happened. I also somehow got cookies out of the deal, just for being in the room to witness this.

Once all that was done, they started doing the formal questions again. They were generally upper-elementary level of though provoking. “How big was your elementary school?” I did some math in my head and estimated it at 500. I don’t really know, though. I just figured, about five classes a grade, twenty kids a class, six grades. That came out to 600 and I figured that was way too high, but it’s probably about right. It’s still staggering to work in schools where the population does not swell, but actually tends to drop, with every incoming class. They were astonished to hear 500, though (their school having 60), and I tried to explain that it’s partly because kids can go to school by bus instead of walking. If we had to walk like the do in Japan, there would be smaller schools because there would be more of them.

Then one kid asked, “When you graduated, were you sad? Did you cry?” That one sort of startled me out of my fried-tofu-scarfing fest.

I’ve had several graduations.. the ones from elementary and middle school kind of not counting as much as the high school and college ones. I don’t even remember graduating from the lower schools because for the most part it was just moving myself and everyone I knew already into another building.

I wanted to give him an answer that was close to the question I thought he was asking; I wanted to go for the lower graduation so I settled for high school. And then I basically lied to a kid. I told him I didn’t cry. He said, “Not sad?” No, not not sad. I didn’t cry at graduation, but I was sad inside.

And I guess I was. I did cry, but not on graduation day. I was a lot of things, at that time. I was happy and excited (and I knew where I was going.. something I only half had at college graduation), and I was scared, and I was angry, too, about the actual graduation ceremony. I was frustrated with others, and with myself too I’m sure. I had a great graduation party at which I was happy, but also felt sick. Graduation is just hard. There’s just so much pride, loss, excitement, love, regret, happiness, promise, and uncertainty in it. College was worse. I brave-faced my way through the ceremony, hugged my friends, genuinely enjoyed those strawberries, and went to my dorm to bawl about it in the first free moment I could find.

And I know that I’m just in my own head on this one, but I do want to think that these 6th graders are interested.. maybe even the girls, who have (maybe??) just been intimidated by the outgoing presence of the boys.

Graduation Approaches

Today, my VP asked me to access this ridiculously obscure folder in the staffroom computer and write a message to the graduating class of third-years. “All in Japanese? Why don’t you try?”

Once I stopped laughing (internally only) at that suggestion, I told him I would give that a shot if he promised to read over it for me, because there is nothing worse than trying to be wise/philosophical/graduation-speechy and tripping over language you don’t know. I would expect you’d just come off sounding like a pedantic ass. It’s too easy to sound like that even in your own first language.

So, let’s challenge! I only feel like even thinking about doing such a thing today because the one class I thought I had was cancelled, so I’m totally up for some nigh-impossible school related task. Not that I have anything else to do (like keep hacking away at my inbox, try to catch up on blog reading, write about Naked Man Fest, finish February’s Japanese lessons already, etc.).

Anyway, I am not and have never been very good at graduation. Basically, I’m a stubborn personality and I like to just stick with something until I feel I am really doing it right. And then, well shit, I am doing it right, why would I want to quit? I don’t like change, even when I know it’s important. Even when I know a change is coming for the better, I resist it out of some weird nostalgia.

It is mostly because I want to have everything, and change or moving on requires leaving something behind in order to gain something new. I have not yet found the way to gain something new and KEEP all the old stuff. There just isn’t room.

I mean I am excited about the fact that as the new school year begins, I’m one teacher the incoming first-years will know. They will be my ex-6th-graders. I’m excited because some of my current-6th-graders are freaking champions at English, and I believe, however wrongly, that this will prevent them from being those kids that stare at me and won’t volunteer an answer for all the Emi-dollars in the world. (By the way, I don’t give dollars just for right answers. I give them for making a freakin’ attempt to answer. The behavior I am encouraging is not perfection, for goodness sake, kids, it is willingness to try..!)

And I’m looking forward to my current 2nd-years becoming 3rd years and ruling the school like seniors are supposed to do. When I first arrived, one of the teachers told me that the 3rd years (this year) are very “bright,” bright being a personality thing, like just very personable and outgoing. And the second years, not so much. I like the second year group though, because I’ve had good experiences with them in class and communication. I want to see what they’ll be like when given that sannen spotlight.

At the same time, I like goofing off with my third years. I hate teaching their class because it’s so stressful for me. I’m too proud to ask their regular teacher to help me and I’m still dying to impress him (by showing him how awesome a class I can do without his help), and impress the students who despite being seniors here are really just 9th-graders in age range… so I HAVE to do classes that are fun and engaging and interesting but OH GOD they have to be educational too, or their regular teacher will just look on my attempts as playful interruptions in the serious business of instructing them on English grammar.

…Anyway, I don’t want them to go, because they are bright, and they are hilarious, and the truth is, they are in large part very willing to try and even willing to make mistakes, which is something I value in my job increasingly every day. They are confident because they are older, and their confidence makes them fun.

So I am going to write them a message for the pamphlet. And I’ll even try to make it Japanese. Crap.

Graduation, though, is easier when it’s not my own.