All work and no frisbee makes Smitha a grumpy girl

Seventh straight day of doing something work-related, with three and a half more ahead.

Yesterday we had Human Rights Day (pfft, like it actually does anything). I had no class and didn’t think to go watch any of the demo lessons so I just sort of sat around all day, chatting with my neighboring teachers and checking out the caterpillar the science teacher was keeping in a box (the latest of the critters he likes to bring in and show us–I think he’s happy to have a science-friendly ALT as his neighbor) until the big assembly at the end of the day. I caught about 40-50% of what was said, but the guy was a good and enthusiastic speaker, and I was watching the kids from my vantage point in the back and none were dozing off, a very admirable thing considering how stuffy the gym was (freezing in the winter, sweltering in the summer…goody).

The reason why I don’t believe in Human Rights Day is because they’ve obviously been having these for quite a while, and yet the bullying and foreigner-relations issues still exist, almost worse than before, at least as far as bullying/ijime is concerned (it’s like it’s all talk, and the people make no connection between these talks and the real world).

(I should add that I’ve spent about 20 minutes trying to think of the word that describes that lack of connection between the concept and its real-world application, and I’m coming up frustratingly blank. My vocabulary has rotted considerably since moving here. Math? No problem; any time I fork over a note of any kind at the grocery store, I always calculate my change mentally, and there are so many other opportunities where I can keep up my mental math. But keeping up my university-level English is really rough in a country where I:
1. don’t speak English as my primary language,
2. seek to constantly simplify my English, and
3. teach and use a really strange and almost antiquated/archaic form (“Shall we enjoy some tea?” or “How do you go to school?”/”I go by bus.” as well as words like “difficult” and “very”).)

Oh, and another reason I’m bitter about Human Rights Day? It was in October 2005 that I received my first and worst “gaijin” comment in my entire time in Japan, at an elementary school whose HRD I attended inadvertently when the school forgot to let me know classes were canceled. I’ve told this story–the “Sensei, it must be such a burden on you to have to take care of this gaijin!” one–so many times since then, and it still makes people’s jaws drop. The sheer irony of the situation still amazes me to this day. Human rights, indeed.

Well, anyway, that was yesterday. (I wanted to play frisbee afterwards, to get out and enjoy the gorgeous weather, but everyone was busy and I was exhausted from my sixth full day straight of going in to work.)

Today I had a two-hour volunteer eikaiwa–an adult student of Brian’s has started a club for area teachers who want area ALTs to do occasional 2-hour elementary school English activity sessions, and my day was today. I guess it went well, though there were only three teachers present, one of whom is the former JTE who’s now a teacher at one of my shougakkous.

I tried to get people together for frisbee together, but it was threatening to rain (ARGH! I’ve been trying for weeks to get a group together, but Japan seems to be conspiring to not let me play again while I’m here…), and Kiet was the only one who was free anyway. We met up in Wakimachi, trying to figure out what to do, and he had the idea to go check out the (evidently internationally renowned) Dochu Sand Pillars in Awa. They were less than impressive–we figured the impressive part must have been in how they were formed, or something. Finally, having killed enough time, we headed to Yoma’s for the weekly Ugly Men dinner.

The Ugly Men are a rock group (they aren’t all men, and they certainly aren’t ugly) that get together on Sundays to practice and then invite ALTs over for dinner. I’ve written about them before; they’ve had a few concerts and open mics where they’ve invited ALTs to play their own music and to front the band and sing along. Genna and Ange persuaded me to finally come out this week. They had to make me a slightly separate set of food, even from the other regular vegetarian(s?) present (they were actually pescatarians), which I felt really guilty about and which was why I’d avoided coming before (plus, Waki’s 45 minutes from Ikeda, and it’s mainly the ALTs within a 20- or 30-minute radius who make it out). But it was fun–I really would like to go again, but I feel really bad about making people go out of their way to prepare food for me. It’s actually the same reason I haven’t been invited to many teachers’/Japanese friends’ houses for meals; some have admitted recently that they had no idea what kinds of food they could prepare for me. It’s a shame, but the last thing I want to do is inconvenience anyone–though it would’ve been cool if they’d told me earlier in my JET tenure, so I could have suggested we turn those events into joint cooking nights so I could show them vegetarian cuisine firsthand! Oh, well.

So that’s been my weekend. I called home a couple of times this week, to wish my mom a happy birthday this past week, and to wish my dad a happy Father’s Day today. I have a class tomorrow morning, and then I get to spend the rest of the day at the Board of Education, prepping for the week, getting the last of my trip info together, and calling around inquiring about rates from Seoul to Osaka for a friend who’s hoping to come over and isn’t having any luck finding cheap rates on his own. It would be cool to see him–it’s actually been about 8 years since we saw each other last.

As the clouds roll through

I taught a few of my 3rd-year kids how to say “hi” and “hey” instead of “hello” during school cleaning time this afternoon. I love how amused they get with this sort of stuff, especially trying to emulate my cadences and my nonregional American accent.

It’s crazy to think that I’m going to Kyushu in just over a week…I need to book hotels (I booked a ryokan in Unzen (and I’m going to go onsen…I think I’m going to reserve the family one all for myself for an hour), but I still need to find places and I’ve booked business hotel rooms in Kumamoto and Beppu) and borrow a backpack from someone, but I haven’t decided if I want to take everything in a big backpack and pack light, or take my duffel and put a small backpack in there so I can just take out the backpack and stuff the duffel in coin lockers when I’m going around. The latter sounds convenient, except that I don’t want to have all the weight on one shoulder, since carrying too much weight has done something to my left shoulder, and the former would distribute the weight evenly through my torso, but it’d be a lot to lug around all the time. I just hope the weather, which is listed as rainy and then cloudy through this time next week, will be a lot more favorable and that I can actually make it to the edge of the Naka-dake crater in Aso this time.

Tomorrow afternoon is the Tokushima returners’ conference. I sent Caitlin another mammoth e-mail today after reading over the kinds of things Lindsay sent me around this time 2 years ago, and I’m going to be shipping my first box home in the next couple of days. After this week, I’m realizing that I’m coming around to admitting–very slowly and grudgingly–that I think I’m ready to leave. I’m not ready to leave the people here, and there’s a lot I know it’ll be hard to let go of, but my time as a longtime Japanese resident is definitely coming to an end at the right time.

Augmenting my year-round tan

(Ouch…I think yesterday’s entry gave my reader at the Ikeda Town Office pause, because s/he visited three separate times today.)

Like I said, tomorrow is another day–and today indeed was. I felt much better, though still a little worn out, and I kind of talked to my JTE briefly about exactly why I was so down yesterday, telling her that I was just emotionally tired (not sure how else to describe burnout in Japanese) and trying to explain how it’s sometimes tough for foreigners over here, how we have bad days that are just part of the culture shock cycle, and…yeah. I knew she didn’t really have anything to say, since it’s a little different for a Japanese person to stay in a melting-pot country like England or the US or Canada than it is for one of us to stay in a country as homogenous as Japan, but her sympathy did make me feel better.

Today was a 3-hour sports test for all the students. I’d dressed appropriately, in a t-shirt and sports capris, but I assumed there’d be a tent for the teachers–and I assumed wrong, so I spent 3 hours in the sun (with breaks in the shade) without a hat, sunglasses, or sunscreen. I definitely have a tan and my face is a little pink–I’ll be prepared next time. It was tiring just standing out there in that searing heat, and I’ll bet the poor students are exhausted, though they did still have fun with their friends out there.

One of the boys was attempting to do a 160-cm high jump and was unable to; I think 155 was his record, which is still incredibly impressive. My JTE told me about a boy from two years ago who could jump as high as 180 (that’s roughly 6 feet) and who won the prefectural high-jump competition…unfortunately, he didn’t get into the high school with the track-and-field program he wanted to join, and he’s since dropped out of high school. She was obviously disappointed and regretful that things didn’t turn out better for him, considering what an amazing talent he has.

After work and a brief stop at home, I headed east to hang out with Genna. The original plan was that we were going to play frisbee at Bamboo Park in Yamakawa, but Victor (who would have given Genna a ride) got a late start, so we three just hung out, made pasta, and watched silly stuff on YouTube. I got home about 30-40 minutes ago, and now it’s time to get to bed, to rest up for tomorrow.

Breaking point

I’ve been pretty tired all day, physically and emotionally–I hit burnout about a week ago and haven’t had a chance to properly work it off. I dragged myself through my morning shougakkou and just had no energy the rest of the day and barely said a word to anyone at my junior high. Both my classes were canceled today, which meant that I just…sat there, feeling tired and down. I had the idea of asking the art teacher if I could go sit in on one of her afternoon classes, but she must have gone straight from lunch into class because I didn’t see her until the day was over.

After work, I changed and walked quickly to make it to the travel agency before it closed, to pick up my ferry tickets to and from Kyushu for next week. I endured many stares on the way and I avoided glancing at my reflection in the windows I passed because I’m really not happy with how much weight I’ve gained, and when you’re down, everything about yourself that you perceive as negative becomes greatly magnified. After finishing up there, I went to the grocery store–many more stares. This, combined with the “off” day I’d been having, just made what poise I had left start crumbling. In the grocery store, the massive amounts of fish and meat, and the sight of a pair of people bowing and bowing and bowing to each other like yo-yos, upwards of five or six times each (well past the Japanese cultural norm), made me cringe.

I passed a henro (religious pilgrim) outside the entrance to Daily Mart–and to be honest, as a side effect of growing up in a big city with a high crime rate like Atlanta, I’ve developed a kneejerk reaction of just looking straight ahead when I see people asking for money; additionally, I’ve developed a mistrust of people soliciting funds for various causes on the street because of how many crooks only pretending to represent just causes there are out there. I feel pretty guilty about that, now that I’m putting it in writing, and about passing the henro by.

An old woman came up to me just after I’d crossed the street and started chattering away in Awa-ben. All I could understand was that she was repeating the word, “Henro,” but I couldn’t get anything past that–she looked slightly agitated, though, and probably was telling me that I should have given him some money. I just kept telling her in Japanese that I couldn’t understand, but she kept persistently trying to get her message across, to no avail because her accent was so, so thick. My bag of milk, orange juice, bananas, and apples was getting mighty heavy, and the communication barrier and her persistence were really making me feel worse, so I excused myself as quickly as I could and continued down the street.

It felt like the longest 10-minute walk ever. Kids and adults alike kept staring; of all the days to notice the gaijin, they had to do it today. This one guy eyed me from head to toe and then muttered something under his breath. It was then that I realized that if anyone else stared or did anything like that, I just knew I was going to snap and start screaming at him/her–I really was that worn down. Luckily, though, nobody else did.

I don’t mean to say that this phenomenon of staring is new–not at all. I know all too well that people will stare, and that, despite having lived here for nearly 2 years, plenty of people have never seen me before or are still startled at the sight of a foreigner–but that doesn’t justify it. That doesn’t make it okay. When we as foreigners living in Japan have downward moodswings like this, the last thing we want is to feel even more ostracized and isolated than we already do, because that staring can feel downright hostile so many times, and there are only so many times I can take the initiative to smile and bow in the hopes that the staring people will smile back, because even my being pleasant is no guarantee. Even with two other ALTs in my building, it’s very easy to feel all alone out here.

Anyway, I’m doing better now. I chatted a bit with Ashley earlier and am treating myself to (healthy) comfort foods to lift my spirits tonight, and I may be hanging out with Genna tomorrow. I just remember Julia saying last year that she thought it was refreshing that I wrote about the bad days I had as well as the good, and if this is supposed to be an accurate reflection of my time in Japan, I couldn’t in good conscience paint it as some perfect, worry-free experience. It can be as stressful as it can be inspiring, and that’s something important to remember, as is the fact that tomorrow is another day.

Wrapping up and looking ahead

Yesterday evening was the musical DVD viewing at Root Down in the city. Most of the cast could be there, as well as a few local ALTs and some Japanese friends; it was a good crowd and a fun gathering. Pinocchio really was a lot of fun, and I really have grown very attached to it. (The shark got a lot of cheers, which was nice!)

Afterwards, we went to Cassanova’s, an Ingrid’s-type karaoke/bar combination run by a Japanese guy. I sat down next to Chris (Pickles) to split the mic with him on “Unchained Melody,” and we had our arms around each other’s shoulders, and afterwards, slightly drunken him told me that he would really miss me next year and that I’m truly a pillar in the community–which I’m not, but it was a really sweet sentiment and I almost teared up at it. (Sally then asked him, “Hey, Chris, where’s my goodbye? Am I a pillar?” and Chris went, “Time will tell!” which I took as my cue to leave.)

Chris (Riedl) requested “Rocket Man” by Elton John for the departing ALTs, and I did cry. Sarah ended up our time there by requesting “Faith” by George Michael, in that we should have faith that we find jobs and make it work after we leave Japan; the song worked in theory, but I’m thinking the “Well, I guess it would be nice / If I could touch your body / I know not everybody / Has got a body like yours” part wasn’t quite what she intended.

Today was pretty low-key. Ashley and I went on an hourlong walk around Ikeda, and then I decided to drive out to check out Kanonji, #69 on the pilgrimage, in southwestern Kagawa-ken. It turns out that Kanonji and Jinnein, #68, made up a kind of dual-temple, so I was able to visit both. I drove around a bit more and discovered #70, Motoyamaji, not too far away. #67 was also close by, but I’ll save that for another time. I took the local roads over to Kawanoe in northeastern Ehime, browsed shirts at Uniqlo (another reason to do the pilgrimage: lose some serious weight) and went grocery shopping at Jusco, and here I am.

I put together a map with the list of the temples I’ve visited so far. I actually haven’t been to many–my interest in visiting them has been a more recent thing, I guess. It definitely would’ve been easy to do a sweep of all the temples in and around Tokushima City…well, oh well. The one I know I want to visit before I leave Japan is Ryozenji in Naruto, so I can stock up on pilgrimage information. I really am not joking when I say that the 1400-km pigrimage is something I want to do–and yes, on foot, though maybe in two or three trips–in my lifetime.

Fire leaps from dark to dark, fear and anger leap to meet it

(The title is a Riverdance reference.)

After the long entry I’d posted in here Thursday, yesterday afternoon really felt like the best and most fitting way to end the week. I spend Friday afternoons and all of Thursdays at this one elementary school where I teach 4 grades now. It’s still a fairly new thing for me, and though the teachers on the whole have been very welcoming (especially the principal, vice-principal, and several of the teachers I work with), but it’s still tough to sort of break the ice sometimes, and I tend to be pretty quiet there.

Well, yesterday, the principal came over and we were chatting for a bit about various things related to the different school systems of Japan and the US and the strengths and weaknesses of the kids (yesterday we particularly focused on their creativity; the kids in Japan are very detail-oriented and methodical about painting pictures as accurately as possible, whereas kids in the US tend to be less precise but more creative. I didn’t tell her straight-out that I think it’s because Japanese kids aren’t really taught to think out of the box and are used to just following directions to the letter (hence a kid asking me if it was okay to use white-out on an ink smudge on some fun activity in class once)…that’s just my view, though.

Anyway, kids and teachers were in and out of the staffroom while we were talking, and somehow three other teachers got involved and we started talking about general educational and social issues and language barriers and the like for the better part of an hour. It was just really, really cool. Even when the conversation dissipated, the small talk the teachers near me and I made with each other felt a lot warmer and more natural. I left with a smile on my face yesterday.

I headed out to Genna’s last night, over an hour each way, because her sister and friend are visiting. Victor, Ange, Kam, Lou, and Eric were also out. We went to an izakaya known for their honey-glazed mochi cheese balls…really horribly awful for you but they taste amazing. Afterwards, with lightning flashing overhead, we went to a nearby onsen for their ice cream and then back to Genna’s, where we watched really shocking humor videos like the one of guys getting paddled for laughing at a video of a comedian screwing up his English (Waratte wa Ikenai) and the library game.

Outside, the rain had started to pour. The others were saying they’d had some bad weather earlier in the day, which was crazy because we had nothing in the west. We were just hanging out for a bit after we finished up with those, feeling the evening out and seeing how tired we felt, and Ange and I both decided we needed to leave soon when it suddenly started hailing. And not just typical hail–it was coming down in waves with a huge downpour of rain, it was beating against the windows, and lightning was flashing every several seconds. Water started seeping under Genna’s front door, and then the doorbell rang several times. The hail was ringing the doorbell. The power went out for a while, and we brought the laptop into the open area in the middle of her apartment to light our way as we waited it out. It was the worst inclement weather I’ve been in in years–Genna and her sister and friend were just surprised it got this bad here, since they’re from Kansas, where they definitely have worse weather than we do in Atlanta.

It finally let up, or at least the hail stopped, though the rain was still coming down. Kam/Lou/Eric ran out and I wasn’t far behind them (they all wished me luck with my drive home, since I by far had the longest drive ahead of me), and the drive ended up being okay, with the weather getting better the further west I went–I made good time and made it home in about an hour.

Therapy over coffee

So there’s some kind of cold going around that’s wiped Ashley out and has kept me sneezing, and my face is like a volcano–it just keeps erupting. (Oh, me and my volcano references…) I haven’t had acne this bad in years. I wash my face several times a day while at my different schools, but to no avail–every day I wake up and it’s worse than it was the day before.

I’m finding it a bit tough to keep Caitlin posted, just because I think she has really limited internet and can only manage to send me quick e-mails/IMs, and it’d be a lot easier for me to figure out what to tell her and how to sum this all up in a way that’s cohesive and concise and not overwhelming. I think getting the package from Tokushima with the welcome flyer will help.

This afternoon I got to be witness to the opening ceremony marking the start of the kids being able to swim at this particular shougakkou (and yes, there was an actual ceremony for this–speeches, bowing, and everything!). It was really nice, though, getting out of the building for almost an hour and dipping my feet into the water and having kids swim by and shriek, “SUMISA-SENSEEEEIIII!” and high-five me from the water. I’ll be sure to bring a more outdoorsy change of clothes with me on Thursdays from now on.

Tonight was my first chance this week to hang out with English speakers. I started feeling pretty burned out last week, after breaking up a potentially ugly fight between two shougakkou kids when the homeroom teacher wasn’t present and keeping the class occupied simultaneously, and haven’t really had a good rein on my classes since then. Ange decided she needed a break, so she decided to come out to Paparagi, and Ashley, Brian, and Julie came out for varying amounts of time as well. Eventually, Ange and I were the only ones left, and we chatted for about an hour.

Our meetup tonight was…really therapeutic. I think this is just that time in the JET “cycle,” where ALTs feel the culture shock and frustration in a very real way. It ended up being a nice impromptu group therapy session, with talking about frustrations with managing unruly kids and with occasionally being singled out as “The Foreigner” in some staffrooms, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes in more blatant and offensive ways (not me so much, though I definitely am getting sick of being asked, “Can you use chopsticks?” enough times to more than make up for never getting that during my first year) and being seen as a special guest instead of as an integrated member of the staff, which we would really love. We don’t want to be singled out or treated differently or be spoken to in mocking English when we’re putting forth so much effort to speak good Japanese and integrate ourselves into Japanese society! All of these schools have had enough ALTs that they should be able to just accept us as regular fixtures by now…in theory, anyway.

And again, I really am fortunate–while I do feel frustrations the same way every single ALT does, my situations are very mild in comparison to others’. Both my JTE and my boss have traveled abroad fairly recently, and I know my JTE understands culture shock and various international lifestyles firsthand, after having spent 2 months in England last summer through MEXT’s exchange program. My boss is just sympathetic, period, and ended up being the one trying to console me when I would be depressed to the point of tears on numerous occasions at my board of education last spring. But still, having people to talk to doesn’t mean it’s easy to find solutions to these issues.

Anyway, the weekend is almost here. I just need to muddle through 2 eikaiwa classes and 1 elementary school English class, and then I’m home free for the weekend. Genna’s getting a small group together tomorrow night while her sister and friend are in town, and Saturday’s the musical viewing party. There may be frisbee or a trip to Kanonji Temple Sunday, too. And interspersed in all that is applying to jobs and packing, always.

Wavy hair and glasses

I’m listening to Angela Aki now, a half-Japanese, half-American singer/pianist who hails from Tokushima, is fluent in English and Japanese, and has hit it really big in the last year or so, though she’s been around for a few years. Her sound sometimes reminds me a bit of Mika Nakashima’s laid-back lounge sound, but I really like it.

I’d been meaning to listen to her for a while, but I’d forgotten about it until my kids at today’s shougakkou told me that I, with my glasses and wavy black hair, look like her–and one girl, my personal favorite in the class, told me I was prettier! (Now I remember why I like those kids. (Kidding, kidding… (Not really…)))

This was a bit of a crazy weekend. On Friday, I left shortly after work and picked up Sally and Kirsten, and we headed out to the Fuji Grand at Kitajima, where we met up with Julie and Ashley (who’d just gotten their Japanese driver’s licenses that day! Congrats, guys!) and had dinner at Capricciosa and went to see Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End. No spoilers…but I’d like my ¥1000 back. It was better than Dead Man’s Chest, but none of us could make any sense of anything until the final resolution–too many overlapping and interlinked motivations and plot twists, several of which were gratuitous and entirely unnecessary, and it was just impossible for us to keep up with it, especially for three hours. If I find myself watching it again, I’m going to bring a notebook. I’m not joking.

We decided that night to have a mid-/westie girls’ night out in Ikeda on Saturday; it’s funny how this has really become The Place To Be in recent weeks. Sally, Gilly, Kirsten, Brian (our one honorary girl), Julie, and Mika came out to join Ashley and me for dinner. (I actually ran into my boss and her husband at the first izakaya we tried!) Brian/Julie/Mika headed home after that (boo!), and we headed to Bar G, where Ange and two of Ashley’s soccer guys met up with us. It was a lot (especially for people who’d had more than a couple of drinks) and I found myself in charge of sorting out the mess with the ambiguous bar tab. We all came back to my place and hung out for a while, until Ashley, Ange, and Ashley’s two soccer guys retreated downstairs around 3 AM to crash, and the rest of us finally fell asleep close to 4. We woke up at 10, took our time getting up, and went out to Autobahn for a lazy brunch. I love the westie girls.

Sunday was just disjointed as a result of that, and I had a kind of weird evening, but I had some jasmine tea and watched The Incredibles and it was all good. Today, it was just the normal routine (though all our classes are shortened from 50 minutes to 45 for the month of June; I didn’t get to ask why)–but I really need to see an optometrist because my eyes are pretty weak now, and I got another eyestrain headache. My glasses aren’t strong enough anymore; my eyes have extremely differing powers, and I realized today that when I closed my left eye, everything was a bit blurry when just using my right eye, which is far, far weaker than my left. I need a stronger prescription.

I did start working out the logistics of another long-weekend trip back to Kyushu in 3 weeks, to revisit Aso and Unzen. Unfortunately, the only overnight ferry I can catch (Matsuyama-Kokura) requires several hours of train travel till I arrive at Aso, and the more direct ferries I was hoping to catch (Matsuyama to Beppu or Oita) would require that I use more vacation time. Trains are always the easiest option but they’re also the most expensive, and highway buses take too long. I may just catch trains to Fukuoka and on to Unzen from there and work my way east and then back to Shikoku–but we’ll see.