To my friends back home

Louise finally got her box of books and sheet music…or what’s left of it. She shipped this box before she left, and a month later than it should have arrived, only 3 pieces of music and 2 books finally made it, and the rest are gone. We only have limited access to sheet music stores over here, and some of her music and books are also out of print, but I told her to compile a list, with the hopes that you all could help pull some things together for her out of your collections or from other places. So if you could…that’d definitely be appreciated, since they were (next to her violin) her most valuable possessions.

And speaking of which…

Louise and me, at a 7-11 in Inawashiro (where we were making copies of each other’s music), the morning I left. The woman behind the counter totally blinked and stared when I asked her, in Japanese, if she could take a photo. It took the guy next to her prompting her with, “Shashin, shashin” (“photo, photo” in Japanese) before she accepted my camera. I took very few photos this weekend, but this one is my favorite. (Followed closely by the photos of the Bandai volcanic system I snapped from her kitchen window.)

In other news, I totally have internet access! The Yahoo!BB pack came in and works like a dream. Lindsay has to look into getting a proper wireless setup for her Mac, though, but I’m sure she’ll get it working with no problem. I guess now I can’t put off responding to that mountain of e-mails anymore, huh?

At Friday’s begnners eikaiwa, the students asked me what kinds of food I like and eat regularly, and when I told them I usually make sandwiches for lunch because they’re quick and easy, one of my (male) students made a comment that caught me off-guard–something like, “Wow, if you only eat sandwiches, how is it that you came to be so big?” and waved his hands in front of his chest. (The man next to him sort of shoved him and went, “Shitsurei!” or, “You’re being rude!” But it was all meant as a joke.) Er…yeah. That was startling, because that class is full of people who are sweet enough that I almost have started to see them as grandfatherly figures. But it’s sort of socially acceptable for men to make those kinds of jokes here–which is a definite form of culture shock.

But at the intermediate class, which I sort of botched up because I challenged the ladies a bit too much, one woman invited me to her house to join the other ladies (they’re all this one big group of friends) for dinner. So I went and met them at 5 PM, figuring I’d be there for an hour, and I ended up staying till 9:30. The ALTs in our area were meeting up last night as well, though I’d told them I probably couldn’t make it…and in retrospect, I ended up having a much better time chatting with these wonderful Japanese women than I probably would have if I’d met up with the other ALTs that night. (And I’m not just saying that because several of them regularly read this journal!) I was just in need of some sit-down-and-really-talk time, and it helped that they’re almost motherly figures, since they have children my age or a little older, and the way they’ve made sure to take care of me and make sure I was well-fed and taken care of served to push that even more.

We had temakizushi, which I’d never made before (sushi that you hand-wrap, and it was fresh and absolutely delicious–they had a ton of veggie selections, and I even tried natto, these super-sticky and awful-looking fermented soybeans, and actually liked it…similarly, they tried veggie-only temakizushi for probably the first time, and really liked it as well), and everyone had some beer (they made sure to give me the biggest glass), and we just talked and talked and talked.

The biggest revelation of the night: the nearby Yoshinogawa (I’d type “River,” but that’s redundant because kawa/gawa means “river”) runs over the top of an active fault line. The riverbed is a freaking fault line! The geology geek in me got really excited at hearing that…well, excited, and then worried, because we apparently haven’t had any earthquakes here lately, so there’s pressure building up that has to give at some point…

I left with a big bushel of fresh basil, a bunch of chives, and three eggplants, all from Terumi-san’s garden. The next morning my apartment smelled of fresh basil…because I stupidly forgot to stick the basil in the fridge the night before, but it was still a wonderful scent that reminded me of a wonderful evening.

I’ve been asked to write more about my kids in my classes (hi, Michelle!)…I will in the next entry, and maybe I’ll post photos of my classes soon, since I’m doing Halloween parties in nearly all of them this week and will definitely be bringing my camera. I’m finally beginning to flesh out a few personalities in each of my classes. If you have any other requests for things you’d like me to address here, please e-mail or IM me, or just comment on this entry.

I don’t like trains very much

I’m online doing research for my upcoming elementary school lessons. I’m throwing Halloween parties in all my elementary schools (well, I hope to–all the ones I’ve talked to so far are okay with it, but there’s one I won’t get to go to again until the day after Halloween, so I don’t know), and it hit me that Diwali, the Indian festival of light, is around the same time. It turns out it’s on November 1st this year, so I think I may follow up the Halloween lesson by doing an intro to Diwali the following week. I’ll have to think about that (and do a lot of research, because I have a lot to learn, too).

But as the title says, yes, I really don’t like trains too much right now.

It all started a week ago, on my trip back from visiting Louise in Fukushima-ken (it was so nice to see her–plus, she literally lives at the foot of a dormant volcanic complex, Bandai-san…so awesome!). I had a day of daikyuu (essentially, vacation granted for doing overtime), so I decided to extend my stay and spend Tuesday heading home. After catching the train to Koriyama and the shinkansen to Sendai and the shuttle to the airport and the plane to Takamatsu and the shuttle to the train station (it apparently impresses people that I was able to coordinate all that–it just impresses me that my arms didn’t fall out of their sockets from lugging around a suitcase, shoulder bag, violin case, and bag of omiyage, and taking them up and down elevators and escalators and stairs and on and off trains and planes and keeping them intact), I boarded what I was told was a train that would get me back to my town, Ikeda.

I ended up having to switch twice. The first time I was ready for, because I knew there were few, if any, direct trains to Ikeda from Takamatsu (for whatever reason). I’d asked a couple of people, including the train conductor, who let me know that the train I needed was coming 15 minutes after we got to that specific stop. The second time, though, I had an hour-long layover before the express train to Ikeda got there. But it finally did, and I got on board.

When it got to Ikeda station, I got my bags together and started to head for the door. But then, two people got on and headed down the aisle towards me, blocking me from getting off and actually shoving me aside so they could get to their seats. Finally, feeling more than a little disgruntled, I got to the door to the platform, and reached my hand towards the handle…

…only to see the platform start to move and hear the door’s automatic lock click into place.

I ended up at the southwestern-most stop in Tokushima-ken, Ooboke.

(Though I’ll ruin the momentous feel that has and point out that Tokushima is much wider than it is tall, Ikeda’s in the northwest corner, and it was just a 15-minute train ride because it was an express train, as opposed to a slow train, which would have taken an hour to get there. The Iya Valley, where Ooboke is, is quite, quite isolated. At least it was a beautiful ride, though…but I sort of managed to overlook that because in my frustrated and exhausted and stressed state after realizing that I hadn’t gotten off the train in time, I returned to my seat and started crying, and the really nice guy across the aisle got up and came over to check on me to make sure I was doing okay…it was embarrassing as anything, but still a sweet gesture. When I did get off the train at Ooboke, he gave me a grin and a thumbs-up.)

After a few frantic keitai e-mails and phone calls (there are 2 ALTs in Iya, so as a worst-case scenario, I could have begged/bribed one of them into giving me a ride up to Ikeda), I realized (thanks to Lindsay) that there was another train heading for Ikeda in 15 minutes, so I waited it out and finally got home safely…after 10 hours of traveling, and a full hour after I would’ve made it home if I’d have gotten off the train in time.

That’s just the first story, though.

The second one happened on Sunday, when I was trying to catch a train to Tokushima-shi to do some shopping before catching a ride with Nate up to the gorgeous park in Naruto to play ultimate frisbee. I was catching an 11:16 express train. I got to the platform at 11:12 and saw an express already there, waiting. “Oh,” I thought, “It must have gotten here early.”

At 11:13, the train took off…and instead of heading east towards Tokushima, it headed north towards Okayama.

On the same track–the same track–there were 2 express trains within 3 minutes of each other. I was able to get off at the first stop and catch a train back to Ikeda, where I then caught a slow train that took almost 2 hours to get to the city (well, 3, if you count my detour) just in time to meet Nate, instead of the express that took just over 1. I swear, I’m never going to be early again. Look what it gets you!

Well, anyway.

Hannah’s base high school already brought up recontracting with her. It’s ridiculously early, since I don’t think we have to make a decision till February. It really shook her up–it’s something we think about every single day, and we’re constantly weighing the pros with the cons.

For me…I’d considered staying for a second year, but now I think I’m just staying for the one. I want to take my GREs as soon as I can and jump back into grad school (or if not that, then work relevant to my area of study)…one of the major disadvantages of this job is no intellectual stimulation. I love working with these kids, and they all seem to like me a lot, and I know that a year really isn’t long enough to get the true experience (we’re already 1/4 of the way through the year, and it’s flown by! We’re about a week away from my 3-month anniversary of being here), but in the long run it isn’t doing me a lot of good, unless I pursue a career involving Japanese or ESL; I wouldn’t say no to doing something involving the Japanese language, but only if it’s part of something related to my area.

I can already feel myself growing stagnant, and it makes me really, really uneasy. I’ve been out of school for 10 months–staying for 2 years will just be too long, since I’ll have already taken an almost 2-year break from academia by the time this year is up. People say that you aren’t as detached from your field as you feel, but media studies, especially as it pertains to the web, is constantly changing and updating as the web changes and updates…staying out of it for a long period of time and hoping to jump back in easily is almost dangerous.

But at the same time, a lot can happen in 3 1/2 to 4 months. I’ve made a decision for now, but I’m not making a true decision until it comes time to actually make it in an official sense. There’s always that “what if” lingering in the back of my mind, but I’m sure it’s the same for all ALTs…everyone’s thinking about what’s happening next. It’s strange sometimes, being part of something this ephemeral.

My eikaiwa classes have presented me with a new and unprecedented source of discomfort: now, it seems inevitable that if I ask my students what they did in the last week, they’ll tell me they went to one or more funerals of friends.

For the past several weeks, there seem to have been quite a few deaths among the friends and acquaintances of my eikaiwa students. Some of the funerals made my students miss class, and other times they would tell me about it while recapping the week’s events. The majority of my students are at least 50 years old, with quite a few in their 60s and even their 70s, so I guess they’re reaching The Age where this starts happening to people in their lives on a regular basis. The most awkward part, though, happened in my intermediate class, where several of the women are pretty much inseparable friends. One of them attended a funeral of a person she and another student were friends with–and that second student hadn’t heard this person had passed away until the first student brought it up in class. She had to dig out her handkerchief and wipe at her eyes and silently compose herself for a moment.

And I don’t really know how to handle it…of course I’m sympathetic and I offer my condolences, but when it’s a class setting (albeit a loose one, but still, I’m the teacher and they’re my students, despite being older than my parents for the most part) and not just a group of people talking casually, what do I do? How can I gracefully and tactfully move on with the class?

My classes are sort of falling into place…sort of. For now I’m sort of depending on the fact that my JTE at my junior high has her own lesson plan she incorporates me into, because it frees me up to concentrate on how to make my elementary school and eikaiwa lessons work. I’ve wanted to write more about how my classes actually go, but it’s tough to just summarize them without just parroting back the basic lesson plan, because every class is very different. Each group of students, whether 8 or 58, has its own very distinct dynamic. I have elementary classes which are really happy to see me, and others which are shy and harboring on unenthusiastic. I have classes that I can share some real rapport with, classes that I can joke around with and that already share inside jokes of a sort with me, and I have classes where I wonder why the kids won’t say anything and whether or not it’s something I’m doing to make them keep their distances.

All my classes are at different points, too…there are of course the 3 grades of junior high kids, and each grade has 2 homerooms, and though I’m only there one day a week while they learn English daily, I can already see that some classes are pushing ahead a bit while others are falling behind. And I have some super-genki (and, dare I say it, loud…I wonder how my JTE doesn’t lose her voice trying to shout over those kids) kids and others who stare blankly at me and then exchange knowingly helpless grins with their friends.

And among my elementaries, due to the differing schedules and the staggered start times while the term was lurching to a start, I have one school that’s 3 weeks ahead of some of the others. I have another school that won’t meet at all for the month of October, but I only go there every other week anyway. It takes a lot of effort and energy to keep them straight and to keep up with all of them. I have a day where I have 2 back-to-back elementary school lessons, and the first school’s a week ahead of the second, so it isn’t just as simple as repeating my lesson. I also have to tweak my lesson subtly for every class, and the students themselves will take the rules for my games (heh, “my”–more like ideas from Dave’s ESL Cafe,, and the Teamwork Tokushima writers of old, with some tweaking to suit my purposes) and interpret them a little differently in each class.

At the same time, when I use really vague terms like “a lot of effort” and “I plan lessons” without elaborating and giving details, I don’t know if that really helps any current or prospective JETs reading this. So for example, here are a couple of the games I’ve created/doctored:

  • Face Race: this was adapted from Dave’s ESL Cafe. I wrote eye, nose, mouth, chin, ear, and hair on separate slips of paper and put them into a little Zip-loc bag. The classes are already divided into teams, so I’d have the team members come up and janken (rock/paper/scissors–it’s huge here) to decide the order of the teams. I’d then have the teams compete against each other to draw a face on the board the most quickly. It gave the kids a chance to get really creative, and they did some really crazy and hilarious stuff.
  • Robot Game: after I ran the kids through the English words for directions (which many of my kids already knew to some degree, because my predecessor treated these English classes as real lessons and taught them a lot of stuff…but having someone ask you, “left wa nihongo de nan to iimasu ka?” is different than actually using it actively, which is my aim with all these games–to get them to use English in small and fun ways). I then had one person from each team come up, one at a time, and stand at the front of the room. Their team members would have to tell them, “go,” “stop,” “left,” “right,” “back,” and so on, and have them navigate around the room. Sometimes the teachers jumped in and made kids move back and forth and back and forth, which made all the kids start giggling. If there was a lot of time, I’d have each of the kids be the robot, and if there was still time, I’d jump in at the end and have all the students in the class take turns commanding me around the room.

Since it’s October and Halloween’s in a few weeks (and they do know Halloween–Universal Studios Japan had a huge fright-themed parade with lots of folks in costume parading around, and a lot of Halloween-themed decor as well), I want to start doing more season-themed activities for the next few weeks, and then having a fun Halloween Day either on the day of or the week before. I found a sheet of 16 Frankenstein-like figures in one of my Teamwork Tokushima packets (they’re seasonal publications put together by former JETs that are full of games for elementary, middle, high school, and special needs students, as well as English club and eikaiwa situations), with subtle differences between each face, and someone had come up with a game asking how many had hair, how many had big noses, and so on. So I did that yesterday, and then asked the kids to color the faces in and went around asking them to describe one of the faces, including what color the face was. For next week I want to come up with something else that progresses English while using a Halloween theme. I think about 3 or 4 of my schools are within a week of each other; the stragglers should still get at least 1 lesson before Halloween Day, where I want to have them make masks and jack-o-lanterns (on construction paper) and give them candy while talking to them about Halloween out west. I doubt they’d be at all interested that it used to be an old festival to ward off the spirits of the dead, so I won’t really bother with that.

I also really want to talk about more international/world-related things with my eikaiwa, since they’re very interested in me as an English-speaking person as well as a multicultural person. One of the students in my intermediate class is currently in Australia, so it would be cool to do a unit in there using some more advanced conversations, like a travel agent scenario. I’d also like to have them come back to me (beginner and intermediate) with several minutes of content prepared on different Japanese customs, and maybe we can have a food day, where I dig up a bunch of easy-to-make foreign snack foods and have everyone prepare something different.

I do have a lot of planning to do this week, to get that started…I’m out of town from Saturday through Tuesday. I’m very eager for this week to be done with so I can travel again, but to finish the week off I still have a lot to do.

Strange day

I got my first disparaging/insulting comment yesterday.

I was at one of my elementary schools–afternoon classes were canceled (due to the school having a Human Rights Day where parents could come in and watch their kids’ classes as the teachers talked about equal rights for everyone and being kind towards your fellow man and whatnot), but they’d forgotten to tell me since last Friday was a holiday, so I walked in and was met with confused-then-alarmed-then-apologetic looks. The teacher of the class I work with walked in and sat at his desk, looking thoroughly exhausted, and I said hello and gave him a polite smile and a bow, and he looked at me, blinked sluggishly, and went, “Eh?” It was cute. ;o)

Anyway, a little later, one of the teachers, one who spent some time in the US and speaks English, offered to take me around to see what all the classes were doing. I thought that was sweet of her, so I went along, and she explained what each class was talking about as we went, and talked a little bit about the differences between American and Japanese schools.

As we were walking down a hall to get to the last 2 of the 6 classrooms in the school, we passed some woman I’d never seen before, possibly a parent. She smiled at us and then said, in Japanese, “Sensei, it must be a burden on you to have to take care of this ___!” I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it was an insult describing me and pitying the teacher for having to babysit me, and essentially saying that because she assumed I was a foreigner and therefore knew nothing about Japan or its culture or language, it was a big nuisance for the teacher to deal with me.

But justice was at hand: the teacher immediately smiled back and replied, “Oh, no, no, it’s no problem at all! And she speaks Japanese very well!”

The smile on the woman’s face froze in place. And after a brief moment of silence as she and I stared at each other, she mumbled a quick “shitsurei shimasu” (excuse me, I’m intruding) and hurried off.

I’d almost forgotten that there were some people who really didn’t take kindly to foreigners, considering that I’d had an exceptionally warm reception thus far. I was able to brush off her comment quite easily, but it left me feeling fairly uneasy–I am a foreigner, in a country that’s literally 99% Japanese. It’s easy to forget that sometimes.

I also had to deal with a perpetually drunken guy who likes to go eikaiwa-hopping (like bar-hopping, except he goes to a different eikaiwa every week). His English was quite good, better than the ladies in my intermediate eikaiwa, but he said he really wanted to join my beginners class, or something…and one of the normally warm and sweet women in my intermediate class took a minute to talk to him in fairly icy tones, and I later found out that he’d come by before and my predecessor had told him to not come if he was going to come drunk. He behaved himself, and was fairly friendly, if a little odd, but he did interrupt several times with totally unrelated questions. But it’s weird–I was put into kind of a strange situation. These students all knew him, but it was on me to take the authoritative step. And later that day, I spent 50 minutes going back and forth with one of the women in the community center who was trying to tell me something about him, except I just couldn’t understand her…finally, though, with the help of Excite’s babelfish software, we figured it out, and essentially he isn’t allowed back because of a 10-person-maximum rule my predecessor had instated, and somebody had called to request the 10th slot in one of my classes the week before he came by the community center and invited himself over.

Other than that, things are going well…it’s just hard to keep up with all my elementary schools, because I think there’s one that’s now 3 or maybe 4 weeks behind the one that’s managed to convene every week since the start of term. My junior high’s okay–it’s a relief to not have to manage those classes and to follow my JTE’s lead. I also got a really cute hand-drawn thank-you card from my two speech contest girls–oh! They ended up not winning; both of Lindsay’s kids at Ikeda Chuugakkou won, which honestly surprised everybody, Lindsay included. Everyone did agree that my kids were the most natural of the bunch, though, but despite 2 of the 3 judges being past/present ALTs and agreeing that the contest should be decided on who seems to have the best grasp of how to use English, the contest was decided based on Japanese criteria: did they memorize everything and not pause or lose their place at all? We all think it’s pretty unfair, and rote memorization says nothing about how well you’ve mastered a language, but…well, oh well. My kids know they did well, and they’re doing just fine.

The one thing I’ve been lamenting is the lack of a classical music following here–but there’s a concert tomorrow with music arranged by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra that I’m going to with Yuri, the fiancee of a JET in Sadamitsu; and I’m taking my violin when I go visit Louise next weekend in Fukushima-ken, so we can play some duet music or something together; and the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra themselves are coming and doing a pops concert within the next couple of months; and there’s a romantic piano concert up in Takamatsu during midweek in early November. When it rains, it pours–except it’s raining classical music, which is totally fine with me!

The weather’s also started to chill a little bit–I had to wear my fleece several days last week. But just in time, my box from home arrived on Thursday, so I have all my winter clothes, DVDs, a few books, shoes, my stuffed hippo Crinkles that I’ve had since I was a little kid, and food (peanut butter, Velveeta Mac&Cheese, Thin Mints, Famous Amos chocolate-chip cookies, and vacuum-sealed Indian curries). It was like Christmas! So many goodies in one beat-up but resilient box. I may go make some macaroni now and then go and walk around for a while, so…till next time.