Overtime

If you’ve questioned my existence in the past couple of months, don’t worry, I’m right there with you. Truth is I’ve got a backlog of drafts to posts because I have been doing a decent amount of adventuring. On top of that, however, I’ve also been working. Really, at this point it’s hardly working and more like living. And although for the longest while it was mostly like riding a storm, I think there’s finally a rainbow in the sky.

For the past 19 days I’ve gone into work. It started on June 6, a Monday, but an unusual Monday because I actually technically had the day off. The previous Friday all the students had gone either Kyoto, Tokyo, or a campground for school trips (while me, my co-American, the secretary, and vice principal were stuck all day in the school’s teacher’s office), and since the trip would overlap into Saturday, we got the consecutive school day off. I thought I’d go in to work on the blank bulletin board outside our language room. I did actually pump out a couple of posters (grammar mistakes aside), but I also signed on for a much bigger project.

As part of my job requirement, during the summer I’m put into two English day camps. Last summer my experience with these were mixed, by the end of the day I was comfortably enjoying my time, but completely exhausted and not at all thrilled at spending half the day sweating in a humid gym full of teenagers. Turns out this summer there was even more to dislike. One of the English teachers at my school had been designated as director of this year’s camp, which handles the duty of going organizing materials and meetings. I suspect this is usually an easy process of distributing the materials from last year, tweaking the cover page, and the endless supply of typos. In fact, going over a binder that was passed down to me from the lead ALT from last year I found out that in the past 7 years nothing has changed. From the crappy WordArt text to the even worse and borderline racist/sexist clipart, it seems the only thing that had been shuffled around were some of the games for one of the workshop. So really, the collective of schools coming to this meeting each just had to approve this ancient text of DIY 90s design and be on our merry way.

However, there’s a flaw in this design because although the Japanese teachers a liable for the camp, they rely almost solely on the dozen or so ALTs to take charge of the groups, motivate the activities, and make the day a success. The fact that we ALTs are almost entirely not of Japanese culture and thus don’t accord to Japanese bureaucracy also means we don’t sit idly. As an American I tend to question everything, and as a person I’m typically the worst when it comes to agreeing with anything neutral. So, hardly flipping through the poorly contrasted pages of this mono-colored document I knew this year would be different. Even outside of the fact that I’m a control freak who doesn’t work well with others, this f-ing camp hasn’t been changed in SEVEN years! On top of that, each year there are pages of feedback precisely listed out for each moment of the camp. It’s like they looked at it, nodded a bit, and said whelp we’ve already got the material so no need to change it.

Now, I’ll take a breath and admit to being a bit crass. These camps are always extra work for teachers who are already working enough, and I can see the full reason why they would just want to get it over with. Especially since ALTs are typically not expected to do any work with the planning of the camp. But really to think that over the past decade no one has been capable to come up with some improvements or just try something new seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to step in. Here’s where I’m also really glad that I’m so chill with my English teachers. They don’t have a problem asking for my assistance or advice, or the way I want to be involved with the school just like every other teacher. So on that Monday afternoon when I was at school even though I didn’t need to be (with practically half the other teachers) and I turned to my neighboring English teacher poured over papers on his desk like he was filing taxes to ask “What’re you working on?” his short reply of “Oh, just the summer seminar.” got me wrapped up in this biz that I’ve only temporarily levied.

Usually I make it to at 7:15, not the first person but usually in the first crowd. I need this time to unwind. At the start of spring I actually was the first person to arrive, overestimating my biking time, and just hung out on the grounds watching the sunrise until someone else arrived and unlocked the doors. This behavior wasn’t planned entirely. I’d just slowly gotten in the habit at going to bed at 9 o’clock, and as a result left me waking up at 5 the next morning. Eventually I started naturally moving the time even earlier, and instead of being cooped in a small apartment decided I needed to just start the day. For a while I was running, until one time I went a mile into a run and got soaked in the heaviest torrent of biting rain I’d least expected. When I made it home three miles later I found my kitchen turned into a pool and my mattress was a sponge. I rushed to shut the windows and whipped out my space heater and recently acquired fan while draping bed-sheets and towels across desktops and counter-space.

I’d finally nailed the average of waking up, making scrambled eggs while listening to MPR/All Things Considered, showering and shaving, making a PBJ sandwich, dressing, and eating said sandwich, heading out the door, and arriving to school at just the right time. From there I’ll pull up three tabs on my computer: WaniKani for quick studying, Lifehacker for general well-being, and Bloomberg currency rates to see just exactly how much (until recently) I’ll suffer when I send money home. Then we have a morning chat for about twenty minutes.Each morning one class gets split into ten groups of three students to talk with me or my co-ALT. Usually it’s great, but it’s quite monotonous and if I’m unlucky the three minutes we talk will be a grueling roll of fishing for answers. Hopefully when the first bell rings, I’m not going to class, and if I am I only pray I don’t have class back to back. Any planned class activities or even periods are regularly changed which leaves me with a heap of last moment adjustments and worksheet creations. If my version of Microsoft Office wasn’t entirely in Japanese, I would be a pro by now.

At 3:30 there’s a bit of respite: fifteen minutes for mokudou, a traditional style of of the regular “cleaning time” ripped from zen monasteries where the students wipe down the floors and walls of school silently. It’s a brief relief since after that and a sort of cool down meeting they all zip off to their club activities and I gather with the track team outside the school. That practice usually lasts over two hours, yet we still only manage to run between 5 to 7 miles every day. I forgot how easy I used to have it with running. Our fastest guy can run a 4:30 1500m but most of them are struggling to break 5.

At least when it wasn’t June, now would be the time I go home. Actually, I’d rally a bit of studying in, mope around on Flipboard to figure out what global events I’ve missed out on, stop by the grocery store and then make it home around 7. Lately I’d gotten into watching Japanese anime (as “listening practice” for my upcoming test) while waiting for the next season of Mr. Robot to come out, but I’d also been trying to sit down and make sure I write for at least an hour each day. Well, that was before I signed on for this summer camp.

Every night for a week I stayed past 10 o’clock, and always left earlier than at least one of my co-workers. Then the following Saturday after an awesome start to the day with track practice — something I’ll write about later — I wound up staying at school until 11 o’clock. For the next week that became my new norm, but I didn’t exactly mind. I found out a lot more about some of my co-workers who’d go in and out throughout the night. A majority of nights someone brought in ice cream treats or snacks from the nearest conbini, and over such a span the workload became manageable. Except that was for me, the boy who started packing his dinners, got to exercise halfway through the day, and didn’t really have any responsibilities waiting at home. I figured I’d really be wasting my time watching TV shows anyway, so I might as well stay and be productive. Most of my co-workers, though, have lives. This is especially true of the English teacher leading the seminar (the same free spirit that took me surfing in January). He has two young boys at home and can hardly get the chance to see them before they go to bed at night any given week day. Apart from last Tuesday, the final marathon where we both were the last to leave a few minutes after midnight, I’ve never seen him leave school before me. That is the aforementioned bureaucracy I’m trying to combat. The mindset of overworking is embedded in almost all job I’ve come across in Japan, but that is especially true of Junior High School teachers. They act like surrogate parents, but to the extreme that they are more responsible for a lot of things the students do. So they stay at school and work because working from home is still a milestone many parts in Japan have yet to reach. It’s actually such a problem that the prime minister is rapidly working to change the culture. My guess is he hopes if more people can go home early then maybe more people will start having babies and solve the current population conundrum between the generations.

But, it’s really easy to fall into. Without really meaning to I just fell into the system. I’ve had Rhinna’s “Work” running through my head for the past week, and it’s sort of a sadistic meditation. I was averaging 12 hour days, seven days a week and thinking that finally I would make a permanent change.

And then we had a meeting for the summer seminar.

As I mentioned, it’s rare that ALTs have any part in the planning of the seminar and so showing up to the meeting was probably an uncomfortable surprise for the other teachers. I remember in high school and college hearing the foreign language teachers talk together in non-English while going down the halls and thinking how awesome they were. Here those instances are fewer. Of course, whenever one of the ALTs are around at my school all the teachers are well equipped to discuss in English, but I feel like the majority default to Japanese. So the meeting went, with awkward exchanges as some of the teachers tried to encourage the use of only English, and other stuck strictly to Japanese. I get how intimidating it can be to sit in a room with an official meeting of important things surrounded by your peers who can immediately judge your skill by comparing it to their own, but both me and the other ALT at my school (both far below the level of Japanese used here) were present so the lack of any effort was a bit annoying.

Even more annoying was the inevitable fact that I didn’t want to back down from any of my ideas. I was extremely dismayed and bolstered at the shudder that went through the meeting room at the mention of change. Sure, I was biased toward my ideas, but some of the members were also biased against them. The part of the camp I was most critical towards was a moment were the students “travel the globe” and learn about other cultures. On the surface it’s not the worst idea, except this year 7.5 of the eight ALTs who can help with preparation are white Americans (myself included), while the remaining Jamaican — upon finding out she’d have to talk about her country’s culture — replied, “Oh, please don’t make me do that.” So the deepest concern is accurate representation. Especially from the current climate of American cultural politics ethnic stereotypes are something to avoid at all cost. When you combine that with a group of people who freely left their country for more than a year and add in the already abstruse diversity of American culture it’s really hard to figure out where to start.

In the end, the duel was worth more than the victory. I learned a lot about forming a compromise, how I could’ve approached my ideas more effectively, and accepting that maybe my ideas weren’t all that anyway. We did end up changing all the games to well rounded activities that focus on spontaneous uses of English in a group dynamic, and gave the student more freedom in creatively forming original ideas for a skit at the end. The cultural aspect remains, but I’ve given into an over-representation of part of my heritage can still be done respectably. I still have doubts about if teenagers from a country who’s 98.5% homogenized ethnicity can really grasp the fact that I’m Irish-Swedish-African-Native-American-and-some-big-unknown, but it helps that my area has a decent minority of Brazilian and Asian immigrants and even a few random ex-pats from Her Majesty’s colonies. If I really wanted to get into I’d point out how even that raises a problem because so often assumptions are made towards any given class of students as being entirely Japanese (like, “Let’s find out about another country’s culture.”), which even further alienates the ethnically mixed Filipino and Thai students in the bunch.

That meeting was the straw. Over the next week I amended the changes being made and my co-American ALT (who’d been gone over the weekends to meet her friends visiting from America) finally snapped me back to reality with a poignant, “Go home, man.” It was a bit of fun taking on the role of a true Japanese salariman, but also deeply disturbing that a significant portion of people live that way. Sure, I don’t really have any responsibilities in my life apart from work, but I certainly have better things to do.


So, with that I’m back. At least for now. I do have a couple of posts just waiting to be updated, and in the next couple of days I’m being visited by a friend from America and taking my first vacation days in order to show him around Kyoto and Osaka. If you’ll remember I foolishly let my camera get stolen which is why lately the posts are lacking in photos, but I’ll make a point of snapping some memories from now on. You still have yet to see my new haircut. Also I moved. Come to think of it, a lot has happened before I started this working streak. Look forward to it.

Graduation

My last couple posts have been looking towards the future, so I feel this will be the culmination of those thoughts. At least its my hope for a while. You see all this time flu stricken and looking forward towards what spring and summer will bring has in a way made me complacent toward the present. Hence the void that will be March. The lessons learned from February had me scared to spend any money this month, though, that also put me discouraged about the future. After sorting out all my bills I’ve become a bit of a hermit. In the spirit of Mac I did host a small night for beer tasting (Okinawan based Orion won the vote), and I haven’t refrained from going out once or twice, but the quest for anything thoughtful was quite subdued.

It all came down to reminiscing and saying goodbye.

I suppose it’s a fair point to say that most of this month was dedicated to work. We had stacks of homework to correct, lesson plans to compile, and even went to a superfluous seminar in the city. It seemed like every day I was saying goodbye to someone, trying to capture that last good memory. Way back in the fall I determined that the second years were my favorite crew, but by the end of the semester I definitely wasn’t ready to have the third years leave. Back when they first entered this school, there wasn’t a foreign person in my position, and then my predecessor didn’t come until a third part into their second year. There was a bit of adversity that remained in their character. The ones who tried still struggled with natural sounding sentences, and the ones who struggled really couldn’t be blamed too much. (With that I’m not trying to make my teachers sound bad because they aren’t. There’s a lot of factors that play into the Japanese system of English education, but the presence of a native speaker correlates to better learning.)

The third years could often surprise you with the amount their honesty. When they gave speeches about what they wanted to do for a career one boy on the track team confessed he wanted to be a hacker in order to take down the Pentagon. During morning conversations I learned more than a few would stay up until 3 o’clock in the morning watching dramas, anime, or Youtubers. It seems they are primed at that age of still captivating the impossible while threaded with immortality. The five guys who still showed up to track practice would be especially hard to miss. By this point they were included in the few people I talked to everyday, and also ranked high on the list of those who understood enough English to talk back.

Thus we fall to the ides of March, as fitting a day as any to have a graduation ceremony.

I biked to school with my suit bundled up over one shoulder. Despite the on-off weather of the changing seasons, the few clouds that started the day would soon scatter as the sun rose. It did feel like a normal day in many ways, and I think some of that has to do with the fact that school won’t be over tomorrow. We still have half a month until spring break, the real end of the school year, but even that only lasts for two weeks. Nonetheless, under it all there was a certain attitude permeating throughout it all.

In standard fashion, the homeroom teachers for the graduating class were dressed in kimono. Apart from the sidelines in Kyoto, it was the first time I’ve seen anyone so formal in Japan. Along with the awe it makes you wonder what time they got to school to get dressed. Maybe they had a party where they each did each other’s hair and make-up, and then wrapped the bow into their gown because I can hardly believe a person would have success doing it alone. This, of course, only applies to the women as men in almost all situations nowadays can get by with just wearing a suit (in which can I’m not too sure who’s luckier — overall badassery aside, you just garner more respect while wearing kimono).

We shuffled into the gym as the doors were let open for parental seating. I was kind of surprised to be recognized by more than one, but grateful I could remember who’s parents or grandparents I was saying hello to. I’ve been stopped before by someone greeting me, usually in the grocery store. One time a Brazilian-Japanese student’s father stopped me surprised with English. He’s Brazilian, but he introduced me to my student’s grandmother who is Japanese. Those moments are special because it helps to remind me that my students actually have an outside life. Throughout any given day it’s easy to gloss over them as only students who I have only to teach English — after all, they’re only teenagers, what more important things could they be doing — but when I figure out their hobbies, their family life, their struggles in other classes or with other students it gives me more reason to care about their future. Not to mention it gives me a subject to bring up when I talk to them that forces a more elaborate answer than a mumble.

As mentioned, I’ve been handling a cold quite ineffectively since Valentine’s Day and during the ceremony was no exception. When the parents were seated, the first and second years filed in and sat down behind rows of empty seats for the third years. Then a small collection of students with string instruments started playing, and everyone stood up and started clapping while the third years strode down the aisle  in individual lines.

Because this was only a junior high school festival, it was hard to become to moved by the event, but compared to American school the formality of it was risen a notch. One of the last memories of my junior high school was meeting on the grounds outside with all the other classes in order to pass around and sign yearbooks. Here they had practiced the days before to prepare for the severity of this ceremony. I was intrigued, but also struggling to swallow a cough as the third years found their places.

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There was some bowing some greetings, and finally as one group they sat down together. My coughing subsided, and the next great struggle was staying awake. I’m actually sure a teacher on the other side of me had already dozed off, and I don’t blame him. If I had to do this each year I think the effect would wear off quick. Not understanding anything doesn’t help much either. Each student’s name was called, they would go up to the stage to get their certificate, and then sit down in a direct fashion. After that there was some more stifled coughing (relieved to hear I wasn’t the only one), and then some speeches. All I remember from graduation is Al Franken came to speak (that being my high school graduation). I can’t tell you what he spoke about. Similarly, the president of an eastern European country spoke at my college graduate (though, I can’t recall which country). What I only took from that was Russia’s technological base was far inferior, and that I was screwed because I hadn’t gone into the field of computer science. So I feel these students will probably look back at these speeches with the same indifference.

When it was all finished and they were dismissed the band started playing and they left the way they came in. A few tears were shed, but I’m not sure if it was sadness or the final frenzies of coughing that caused mine. It was pretty strange as their seats started emptying when they filed out. Collectively, there were plenty of them that made up the parts of the school I liked. It kind of reminded me of my own inevitable departure from this school. I’m equally mortal here so the ceremony reeled in some focus on the whole future at my disposal.

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I had written letters in all out English to a handful of the best students, some of the track team or the ones who always talked with me. I figured they won’t understand everything now, but hopefully if they hang onto it, by the time they leave high school they can look back at it and feel accomplished at how much English they’ve learned. Out in the parking lot everyone was distributing their goodbyes and taking photos. I wonder how long I’ll remember their faces. Some of them will stick with me, but even now when I go for a run or am biking by and see some high-schoolers I’m never too sure that if the students I wave to were every actually mine.

The next couple of days were business as usual. The absence wasn’t as strong, maybe only in the lunch room, and I still had plenty of wrapping up to focus on in the other two years. All the third year classrooms are on the top two floors of the school, so there’s not really a reason to pass by their emptiness. With them gone, though, I was blasted with how many first and second year student’s names I still have to learn. Their faces are easy to pick out, but we hardly ever use names throughout 24 classes, and I’m just getting the knack of reading their name tags. It’ll be a bit of a pain when they mix into new classes and I’ve gotta relearn the patterns over again. Really, I think the old ones will stick with me for a while.

Soba

As I wrote in the last post Christmas time just wasn’t here in Japan. Maybe if I came from the west coast like the majority of my peers I would’ve been more used to it, but alas the heart of the country always offers snow, time with family, warm blankets, and good food.

I guess one out of four isn’t too bad.

I went to work on Christmas day, a mere two days into Winter Vacation looking forward to relaxing a bit without any classes. After all, the picture above is literally what I came home to so it’s not like I could complain about the weather. Remember I’m still walking to school every morning (uphill both ways if it rains).

It’s a bit weird because this was basically my first time experiencing a school break since in the summer I had only just arrived and didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Also during that time everyone was still around because of the Sports Festival, the Culture Festival, and just generally kids in this town don’t have too many other options as far as places to hang out. Now it’s a bit different because the end of the year happens to be a pretty big holiday in Japan with a decent amount of meaning attached to it so people tend to have better things to do than go to school. Unless you’re a teacher of course.

So there I was, without much direction, without even my American co-worker (who decided to go back to America), having the weirdest Christmas to date, sitting in the teacher’s room trying to plan what I’d be doing for the rest of the day when one of the teachers comes by and asks if I’d like to make soba.

“Right now?” I think at this point plenty of responses would’ve been appropriate, just cracking ten o’clock this did not seem like the right time to be making soba. But it’s not quite like I had anything else to do so, I followed him and a group of other teachers out and down to the home ec classroom.

They quickly unpacked all the good and I saw how much of operation they planned. One of the older teachers said that he usually made soda once a week, so I did my best not to look like a fool when he was teaching me the techniques.

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Up until now I haven’t really ever looked at the food that I was eating. Occasionally – especially when having yakisoba – I’ve tried to discern what exactly goes into the dish so that I can try and buy and make the foods myself. The biggest problem I’ve found is so many ingredients in Japan are misleading at first glance. Take for example daikon (in the picture above). It’s a unique Japanese vegetable whose name literally translates to “big root.” I’m not quite sure how to explain its flavor. It’s sweet and bitter like an onion with the texture of a potato but seems more like a radish on steroids.

The actual materials that go into soba noodles are equally as flummoxing. As far as I can tell soba is the literal word for buckweat, but otherwise it’s sometimes used to refer to any sort of thin noodle. (For me this was a huge revelation when I finally understood that yakisoba is not made with soba noodles.) And the actual process of making the noodles only included two ingredients: buckwheat flour and water (and you can hardly include water as an ingredient).

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Luckily the process of folding the dough and then rolling it out was as simple as the ingredients and coming from a family of bakers and cooks I think I got the gist out of it pretty quickly.

We also made a crap ton of dough. I wasn’t even sure what kind of time was passing because I was so focused on making the stuff. We were doing all this for some sort of holiday cafe. Obviously it was all on school time so we had to have some sort of focus for it. As we were going occasionally one teacher would peek in and ask if it was ready. Most of them were engaged in whatever sports club they were leading so they still had a lot of free time.

After rolling out the dough for the longest time, we folded it delicately in half three times and then brought out the biggest knives I’ve seen. In fact they could’ve easily been mistaken for butchering, but they were specifically made for the sole purpose of slicing these noodles.

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When they’re all chopped the cooking process doesn’t take any bit of time. I’d say they can’t being in the boiling water for over two minutes and I was taught to let the water get to boiling over at least twice before you knew they were ready. Noodles, I find, are such a particular thing. Some people prefer them firm, which I’ve never really noticed or understood, but if you don’t pay extreme attention to them then they’ll instantly become chewy pieces of goop. So I think I got the gist of how to cook them, but really I can’t really know if anyone else noticed.

Also an unusual thing we were doing, at the end, was dunking them in ice water. Because of all the flour, the noodles need to be washed vigorously. I haven’t really figured out how you would serve them hot, or even if this recipe produces that kind of soba, but all the well, our noodles would be served cold. Which before thinking about it might seem try, after trying it is unusually delicious. I can only compare them with a pasta salad, but coming from America all my pasta salads have been drenched in mayonnaise or salad dressing. Instead this was pretty fresh on its flavors.

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With the combined ingredients and a little bit of soy sauce to fill the bowl it was a tasty snack, a filling lunch, and definitely a new favorite. I’ve been told it gets to be a great refresher in the summer when you don’t want something hot. Although, without the materials I doubt I’ll ever be able to make it at home, at least this time I’ve got all the ingredients checked off so I can actually buy them and know what to do with them. If we could do this every holiday I think I’d be set. For now maybe I’ll just try to convince the Home Ec teacher to let to sit in on the classes where they cook food. I’ve seen the kids skewer and fry whole fish, so it’d probably be a good way to get over my queasiness of cooking with foods that have eyes still attached to them. After all, my hatred for the niboshi they serve in the school lunch has slowly diminished.

Anyway, a big hit and fulfilling Christmas. In the end I could do without the snow and warm blankets, and it was spent with what’s become a kind of family, at least the closest I can get within three thousand miles. Itadakimasu.

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Christmas

As you might expect from a country where only 1% of the 127 million people identify as Christians, the concept of Christmas isn’t really hashed out. In fact, if you presented my students with a picture of Jesus, Santa Claus, and Disney’s Olaf from Frozen I can tell you that they’d only be able to recognize two out of the three. With that said, a couple of my students are Christian which is pretty neat (though, they’re mostly Brazilian), and on a whole Christmas is still a pretty well known day. Of course, as many American conservatives would point out, the change in Christmas (is not a war but) stems from the fact that anything that can make a buck will.

The same hold true over here, as Christmas is mostly celebrated between young lovers going out and having a date, while some parents–especially those keen on Western cultlure–will break out a present for their kids. For me this hardly feels like Christmas time. I blame a lot of it on the lack of Christmas songs, though, my local grocery and convenient stores have an instrumental playlist going. I think the entirety of the issue probably stems from this:

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As someone who has literally never spent a Christmas Eve away from his Grandma’s house in snowy Minnesota, how the hell can I consider this appropriate winter weather?

*That picture was actually taken on Christmas day, meaning December 25.

So, weather wise it was such a lovely day, if  I learned anything from the Whos down in Whoville, it’s that the spirit of Christmas is all that matters. And with the last day of school the day before Christmas eve, it was hard for the mood in the teacher’s office not to be a bit festive.

This leads into what is probably the most formal celebrations any school has during the year: the bonenkai, or as I’ve been told in literal translation: the forget-the-year party.

After a pretty tiring day I quick walked back home to change after school and returned to school to make the bus up to the city. Not gonna lie in saying I was totally looking forward to the night. I was ready for the experience, but I was also extremely exhausted. I basically napped on the hour long bus ride up to the hotel where we got dropped off.

It felt kind of like going to a school dance. Some people where dressed up, and we shuffled into an elevator up to the banquet room. Our seating place were random, though I’m not sure I entirely believe that since I’ve been seated next to my adviser the past two times (not that that’s any bit a bad thing). It’s another time when I realized how lucky I usually am to have another ALT at my school. She sadly had to leave early to catch her plane back to America, but I was desperately wishing to have an English speaking friend go through this new experience with me. This time I got placed in the center table just a seat away from our kouchou-sensei, or the principal. While people were filing in, hardly anyone coming to our table, I figured I’d have to do my best to get into a conversation with him.

He’s actually a bomb guy. I’ve hardly had many interactions with him that don’t involve me being polite and letting him pass by me in the hall, or saying good morning, but I’ve heard enough fantastic stories. Even at the nationals race I went to in Yamaguchi, I met his wife who was a former English teacher and I think we mostly talked about him (and the fact that her somewhat British accent was some of the most fluent English I’d heard from a Japanese teacher). I knew that he was formerly an art teacher so I started off with that.

Lucky for me this topic of conversation hardly went beyond level 2 Japanese. It went something like this:

Me: So, I heard that you were an art teacher? My college major was art. What art do you do?

校長先生: Oh, really? I enjoy painting.

Me: Last year, I worked as a printmaker, but I enjoyed painting, who is you favorite?

校長先生: I really enjoy Pablo Picasso.

Me: (thinking about the only period of Picasso that I enjoy) Oh, me too. What is your favorite series?

校長先生: I have to say… his blue period.

Me: Fantastic! Me too (true story).

We then went on to talk about how–in about three months–he’ll be retiring. Completely new news to me, and even if I don’t get to see him all the time, pretty bummed to hear he won’t even be nearby. He’s got a motto around the school called “yaruki smile” (somewhere along the lines of shining smile) and he really lives up to it himself. He just seems like a completely jolly dude. He mentioned how after he retires he wants to get back into painting and visit Spain to see the art there. He’s been studying Spanish for a while now.

Me: Eh! Amazing! When I was in high school I spoke Spanish really well, but now, it’s just a bit. But I will try to practice with you if I can.

校長先生: por favor, un poco hablamos bien.

Off to a great start, and as my supervisor came and sat down next to me like clockwork the night started off with a highlight reel projected in the front of all the fun things that happened this year. A weird feeling to see how recently it was that a completely different person got to take care of all the students like I am doing with a completely different approach.

Then the servers brought in the beer, and like bees in a hive a rush of order beyond comprehension was occurring. We naturally had a moment to pause with filled glasses and say kampai lifting them in the air and clinging them against each other. But as I drank and sat back down, it’s like I entered the twilight zone.

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Eventually I looked over to my adviser and whispered, “Do I need to do anything?” He laughed looking around and said “No, I think it’s Ok, you’re kinda like a guest so you don’t need to worry.”

I was worrying because probably more than half the teachers were jumping around the seats and tables with bottles of beer cradled like a diamond in their arms stopping at anyone seated to fill, almost longingly, their drinks to the brim. Guess it’s a basic custom, not hard to figure out, where the lowlies and newbies serve the higher more respected. I felt kinda bad for kouchou-sensei because every time he took a drink he had to pause to have someone offer to fill his drink again. Usually it’s a good way of making sure everyone has a good time, but often also a very tenuous way to drink as well.

Anyway, once the drinks were thoroughly distributed our appetizers were served, and people got ready for the second year teacher committee who organized the night to perform their main act. It consisted of a somewhat racy and raunchy skit about how one of the teachers was looking for a boyfriend, and turned into a sort of Dating Game style act. I simultaneously wanted to understand everything they said and was thankful that I didn’t get all the jokes they were saying.

This was followed by games that even I was involved in, more drinking, more socializing, and all the while plates of delectable food placed in front of me.

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There were three forks, three knives, chopsticks and a spoon, so I’m thinking that’s what you call a four course meal.

While mingling for a couple more drinks we got organized to move onto the next event, whatever that was to mean. And then kouchou-sensei leaned over to make one last comment.

校長先生: (in English, with yaruki smile) I’ve never seen an ALT do what you’ve done… (he pauses to figure out from my adviser what words to use next) to join running club every day. You care about the students so much. When I saw you at Yamaguchi, I was so proud that you are at this school. You’re a good person, and I think you will do big things in Japan.

Honestly, I blame it on constantly having to have his glass filled, but by the time he finished I was practically rippling in tears of happiness. Like, the last time anyone has ever said such a great thing about me is lost in my recent memory. My adviser was totally loving it watching on the sides, too, because kouchou-sensei was probably on the verge of keeling over in drunken glee.

The rest of the night was similar to the night I spent in Yamaguchi after we’d gotten dinner at the Korean BBQ restaurant. I went into a group with about six other teachers, some of my favorites, and we headed out on the town, winding down an alley to a legitimate bar, literally the first I’ve been to here. We order more drinks, so food, and I felt again like I was the most interesting thing in the room, but more than happy to answer the questions shot at me and practice my Japanese. When it got to be a little after 11 o’clock I was hoping to stay out more–do karaoke, or bowling, or anything–but since I was forced to take the bus home, I had to call it early.

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All together, though, a great way to end the first phase of being here, start the winter vacation, and make up for not going home for the break. It might not look much like winter, but it’s not too far away from feeling like it.

 

Haikus

Trying to pass boredom and the lull as Winter Vacation approaches and also fulfill my half of the bulletin board decorations. I figured an appropriate and easy to understand activity would be creating some Haikus. Perhaps even more popular or parodied in American culture, these quintessentially Japanese poems a typically written to coincide with the season. It’s yet to feel quite like any winter I’ve experienced, so I created a couple to get in the festive mood.

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The instructions are quite simple–I even typed them out in Japanese–unfortunately, no one has come up with anything yet…

Winter Haikus / 冬の俳句

  • 3 sentences long / 3文です。
  • About nature / 自然についてです。
  • 5-7-5 syllables / 5-7-5音節です。

 

Elementary

Look, whatever follows, I’m not saying I don’t like little kids, I’m fine with taking care of them, they’re super cute and imaginative, but I will never again want to educate them, and I hardly think I can manage to believe they’re all anything but demons in disguise.

After meeting with a teacher from one of the two elementary schools I would visit in the coming week, I woke up around 5 o’clock to get a jump start on the day and make sure any final lesson plans I had were taken care of. I’m not exactly sure when we said to meet, some point around 9:45 I’m sure, which would normally mean I get to sleep in a little. Without having car, though, I didn’t want to risk underestimating the amount of time it would take to make the 5km walk to the school. So naturally I left before nine o’clock bag packed with scissors paper and crayons.

Early would underestimate how quickly I got there, and even though punctuality in Japan is stereotyped towards the ten minute beforehand  arrival, this was awkwardly coming in at over thirty minutes. The teacher I’d previously met greeted me at the door and brought me in and showed me to an empty desk in the teacher’s room. I felt pretty proud of myself for figuring out to introduce myself to the vice principal who then in turn showed me to the principal’s office, a stoic man who was a bit more intimidating than my vice principal which is like comparing Jack Nicholson to Robert Deniro.

Then I got to work cutting out the remaining props for my plan. They were to provide me with an oversized version of Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear. It’s kind of creepy to see my education finally come full circle where that book was being used back when I was in kindergarten and now I’m teaching it to kindergarteners.

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They weren’t much, but I must say (off the tail of my Batman outfit) that they’re little you can’t do with a couple of crafts from the dollar store. Finally the bell rang, the door to the teacher’s room opened and what can only be described as the most adorable interaction I’ve had thus far in Japan commenced.

Imagine yourself for a moment being six years old again. Probably hard to do, I was even struggling after today, but just think about how little you know about the world, how fun and exciting each experience is, the longing and jealousy to just be older like everyone else. Then, imagine you’re in a homogenized society where virtually everything you see conforms to a single cultural lifestyle (plus or minus a few) so that anything that is ever out of place is magnified disproportionately. OK, so you’ve got that situation, and you’ve got this tall (ginormous by their standards) (handsome) opposite skin color guy who doesn’t speak your language, and you’ve been commanded to fetch him from the teacher’s room and bring him to your classroom. Remember, you’re six so your grasp of anything let alone the language you speak is just barely becoming functional.

Thus I was put, as three kids waddled in through the aisle between the desk wearing their red track suits (gym uniforms) and boshi (caps) practically sucking their thumbs and stopping in front of my desk staring at the ground. The teacher accompanying them flapped her hands and whispered in broken English, “Please come with us.”

They rocked back and forth and then together in a squeaky accordion call repeated, “Please, com-mu, withsu, us.”

And then I stood up, and realized that if I wasn’t careful I would trample them. They barely made it past my knee.

Once we got out in the hall, their territory, they livened up a bit. One girl grabbed onto my pant leg while a boy instantly put his hand between mine. The questions were equally as flurried but I found them easy to answer. Finally a group of students on my level of Japanese. I made it to the classroom without stepping on anyone and my guts still in tact.

I guess now’s as good as anytime to mention that this first class I was teaching was special education. I had been told this beforehand, but really didn’t have much to compare it to apart from my own junior high school’s group of ten students. Really, it was nothing like what I expected. Along with the teacher who came with the students, five other teachers were in the room to greet me with a horseshoe of desks with a dozen students. That was almost one teacher for every two students! Seemed like incredible resources and certainly made the class more fun. I started by asking each student their name, and had them ask me questions. Pretty fun, pretty simple, and almost all of them were involved. Then we went over the characters of the book–going through names and colors. I read through it once, and then had them (attempt) at repeating me and take turns at guessing which character would be on the next page.

I realized about halfway that I had know clue how long the class period would go, and so while I stalled for time at the end I pulled out the always (but hardly) faithful “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” I don’t remember it being so simple, and really it’s a terrible song to captivate little kids for any amount of time. Or maybe it’s not, but I just felt like after three times, and then going slow and going fast, no time had passed at all and I was still on the clock for their attention. Luckily just as I stumbled for time, the bell rang, and they all jumped up to carry me back to the teacher’s room.

And that’s where the highlights of the day end.

I mean, not really, at least, at the time I didn’t feel that way.

So, I’m back in the teacher’s room where I started, and the bell rings, and another group of students slink into the teacher’s room and bashfully warm up to me as we walk to the next classroom. Only this time I enter a classroom with one teacher, who doesn’t speak English, and about thirty more of these shrilling minions.

I read somewhere online that kids are just tiny drunk adults, and that’s never been more clear to me before today.

Really, it’s more like their classroom was a rock show and I was Def Leppard. Probably even worse than fans at a Def Leppard concert, maybe Poison is more accurate.

I walked in to a literal rush of screams as the tiny devils leaned over their miniature desks with mouths blaring and eyes squinting together. Once I calmed them down the first time, anything I did or picture I showed would incite the squeals again like the tsunami after an earthquake. It got to the point where I looked down at one girl who was plugging her ears, while the girl behind her screaming full force also plugged her eyes then continued to scream louder. An hour of that happened, and I ran out of time again resorting to playful songs and handshakes. At least this time I took more questions and was able to understand and functionally answer in Japanese.

The time passes eventually, and I wind up with another ten minute break before I have to prep myself to do it all over again. The second time was with third graders and a bit more manageable. I made it through my introduction slideshow with my ears ringing, answered most of their questions successfully, and made it to the end of reading “Teacher, teacher what do you see?” just as the bell rang. So, overall not too bad. But now it was lunch time. And I was so confused.

A couple of students rushed out the classroom to come back donned in the most typical outfit of a white apron jacket and chef hat. The rest of the students either organized a table at the back of class or moved their desks together to form small groups. So, I supposed I had to find my place to sit. One of the boys waved me over to a open desk by the window, so when everyone was being directed to take their turns and get in line at the main prepped table, I decided to go and sit over there. Not exactly a perfect fit when a guy over six feet tall tries to cram into a desk chair made for pint sized devils. My back ended up bucked against the window, and there was little way I would’ve been able to chopstick my food to my mouth sitting parallel to the desk. Instead, I grabbed a chair and sat between the group of desks next to the little brother of one of my first years who is on the track team.

Anyone with experience with kids, puppies, or drunk adults will probably already understand why that was a terrible idea, and it wasn’t long before I looked back at the group of desks I’d left to see the defeated face and bubbling eyes of the boy I just left. Of course, as time goes on those bubbles bubble over his eyelids to be a steady stream of abandonment and betrayal and I was faced with the fact that out of many of the potential stumbles I made that day, the worst came unexpectedly and within the last half hour.

After lunch I tried reassuring the kid that it was not in fact him that made me move, I signed his textbook, I drew him a picture, I played with him at recess. Ever time the essence of a smile would creep up on his lips, though, his eyebrows would furrow and I’d be shut down. Oh well, win some lose some.

I did have one of the best moments of my time living here so far when the lunch bell rang and the students were getting ready to go out to the play ground and one of the students tugged on my hand and ask, “Ani, will you come and play with us?” using the Japanese term for older brother and in the cutest voice you could imagine a little kid using.

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So, they’re not all bad, but definitely not enough to get me to ever want to do it again.



Update: So, as it turns out it’s was only a week later that I had to go to another elementary school. This time it was with fifth and sixth graders so they’re energy was a bit more controlled and they were definitely used to being in the classroom. I made sure to have extra small games and activities in case I ran over time, but it never happened and their English was actually pretty impressive compared to my junior high first years. Most importantly I didn’t make anyone cry, but I did have to assist when during recess a kid got blasted with a soccer ball to the face. Seems like these visits will be a once or twice a semester thing, so I can only hope the next one takes its time…

 

Test

There are some things you forget in life. I’d give you a list but I can’t remember what to put on it. It seems like some of the most important parts or people I want to retain in my mind only now come across as a vague blur. Especially my fleeting youth. I remember being in eighth grade and thinking the six graders were babies, looking at freshman as a senior and high school and wondering how I could have been so little. The key being whenever I look back I didn’t feel so little. Still I cannot recall most of my early teenage years. How did it feel to finally enter high school? When did I start hanging out in other friends’ basements? How did I lose contact with some of the people closest to me? Why on earth did Steph ever agree to shave my legs?  These things I can’t come up with the answers to, despite trying my best at journal-ing. But it’s questions like that I’m confronted with so often when interacting with my students–especially the sannensei who are heading into their final semester. Will they choose the same high school as their friends from elementary school? Will they realize the implication of their choices? Will they remember me in three years? How much will English even matter to them? All these choices seem to fly by without time to decide. Some of the biggest points in our lives sort of just happen.

However, no matter how mundane and unimportant they could be, no matter how predictable and nonsensical the content, I think anyone in my generation would be able to remember taking a standardized test. The escort to some prearranged room, the handful of pre-sharpened #2 pencils and erases, the water bottle, snack, and bumblegum (because “studies show that chewing gum helps you take tests”), the snickering through instructions, the scantrons. Truly the scourge of President Cheney on the education system. Maybe it’s just a grudge I hold against the general education hierarchy, but I hoped at least in Japan with all their sports days, and home ec. classes, and emphasis on community, and just the overall perception of efficiency that somehow the testing system would be more reliable. Alas, it seems like there is no hope for students anywhere.

Thus begins my last night, staying at school until 10:30 (when the rest of the teachers stayed well into midnight). Huddled around a table with two tower heaters scanning the room, two of the English teacher, my fellow ALT and I delved into the pile of third year tests stacked in the center. We read and then reread the standards for grading, clicked our red pens open and started our marking. This was of course, the second out of three times we would be reviewing the students short (required 5 sentence, realistically 0-4.5 sentence) paragraphs. We knew what we were getting into, but with the addition of adding points the confusion started to grow. It didn’t help that I was under the impression (given the impression) that the tests were extremely important to their grade and affecting the aforementioned choices that Junior High students have no control in.

I started to see answers that–while not being entirely the most natural way to answer something–seemed perfectly reasonable, especially for an uproarious question that was even hard and confusing for many of the region’s ALTs to answer. I think the main difficulty was its combination of a asking about a Japanese concept while giving an English answer. The students could relate, but even with the right vocab I think it was hard to put in the right order.

Slowly, my spirits crumbled inside until finally a test was brought up for a round table discussion. By far the most creative answer, a full eight sentences, I thought it deserved full marks. We went over the spelling errors, OK, nothing to be done there, but then went back to content. I was only in giving him 5 points, with four and three also taking the board. Still, after reviewing the standard guidelines and erroneous requirements (sentences like “it’s very interesting” are OK, but others like “For example, if we do it the school will be shining” miss the mark) it was brought up that maybe the student should only get two points.

I basically was a balloon being filled with too much air. For every missed point here or there I thought it couldn’t be helped, after all the student only wrote four sentences to begin with, or maybe the way it was written was really too unnatural. But this student clearly knew what he was getting himself into. I wish I could tell you what he wrote (privacy law) because I’ve got it memorized. Sure it had a couple of problems, but compared to the pool they were menial. The steel was sharp, but finally, after realizing that mine was not the only bubbling pot on the stove, I gave in. My balloon deflated.

In a moment I decided that my job was wholly less important than the teachers. I thought about how inexperienced I was, that one student was not worth the grief of delaying the rest of the night. I was honestly tearing up over my failure to express why this kid deserved to keep half the total he was going to lose.

But then I realized that wasn’t it at all. That just because I’m getting paid less and have the role of assistant doesn’t mean to the students I can’t be just as important. Just because I’m inexperienced doesn’t mean I can’t strive to put out my ideas (and after working with young people on the autism spectrum for the past two years that way of thinking is overflowing). And I certainly wasn’t tearing up because I failed, but because I gave up on this student.

There are 684 students on the schools roster, and I probably couldn’t name more than eighty, but that certainly doesn’t mean they don’t deserve every amount of the same effort I can give them. I certainly look forward to favorite classes, and encourage the students I interact with more often, but I think I’ve been slacking in my job until now.

It’s so easy in this job to put together last moment powerpoints, and copy someone else’s worksheet, to correct worksheets on the fly word by word instead of rearranging entire phrases to sound more natural or use better grammar. That’s certainly what I’ve been doing until now. After doing this, though, looking through our third years test and seeing how often they make mistakes and utilize the simplest of phrases, I’m finished with being that kind of teacher. I’m blessed to have another person to split the workload with, and great English speaking teachers who respect us.

Only now I’ve realized that I have someone’s future in my hands. Even if it’s probably one of the least useful subjects in their education, it still has the power to change their lives. Maybe the most powerful aspect of this has come from ikujyoubu, running with the track & field team. One of the teachers told me a student wants to learn English more because I’m around, and I realize that I have the same feeling. Sure I want to be able to learn Japanese fluently, but better yet I want to learn more about the students: what do they like and hate, how do they spend their free time, what do they think of Japanese culture and their lives in the countryside. I want them to speak better English because I want them to know I’m listening.

staying late

So, I think that’s enough of a soapbox  for me to step off of. The above photo represents the amount of teachers still at school after we left at 10 o’clock.

Despite whatever I’ve said this moment was very critically in changing my perception, and it’s a feeling that’s hard to describe without experience. When I think back on my most favorite teachers: Mrs. Bramwell in 3rd grade; Mrs. Duff and Mrs. Stark getting me through Junior High; my high school savior Señorita Hudacek; my piano teacher/more-or-less guidance counselor; JRS, Richards, Ben Percy, and practically the entirety of the Asian Studies Department at St. Olaf who set me on the course I am today.

I’ll end with a new revelation. That it’s probably the above (and certain others) who have shown me the spirit I want to emulate, and the knowledge I need to imbibe to become a better teacher, so that one day–hopefully–these students can do the same thing.

 

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Ps. Sorry for the lack of posts coming this way, I’ll certainly be too busy with school to do anything fun, and I’ve got enough planned in  December to keep me offline for a while. Hopefully that means by the New Year I’ll be able to backtrack on the happenings as I wind down Winter Break. Stay Tuned.

Speech

For the past month I’ve been coaching a student everyday after school to give a five minute speech entirely in English about his robot contest. At the beginning it was quite simple, translating his speech, making sure it would all fit in the time, going over difficult words…

In the past two weeks, however, it ramped up to extreme levels. Particularly because my co-ALT also had a contestant who was working almost doubly as hard in his memorization and pronunciation, and through the properties of solidarity it meant that, even if my students standards were being met, we still had to stay as long. We even were asked by one of the other JTEs to come in on Sunday to work on it. It turned into such a glorious day and between my advising JTE and my student I think we were trying to work as quickly as possible. My JTE kept mentioning what a perfect surfing day it would be, so I really hope those days appear for at least the month. As a result, obviously, my blogging suffered, as well as my social time, running habits, sleep schedule, and overall enjoyment of life.

Don’t get me wrong, I now adore my student and all of his robot determinism, and even getting over the fact that he mixes up ‘r’s ‘l’s and ‘th’s should say something. But it came down to working almost ten hour days in what could’ve been done in eight that really got to me. The scary thing is I’m usually one of the first people out of the teacher’s rooms, even if I leave at 7 o’clock. To a lot of extent it just expected of teachers, and many workers in Japan, to stay working even after your salaried hours are filled, but I also think it’s due to the fact that on any given weekday night, myself included, there’s just not too much else to do. Especially when I didn’t have internet (btw, after hours of phone calls and a lot of help from my JTE I now have internet at my home), I was fine to stay later and use it to study Japanese and find out whatever news was going on back home (mostly, Donald Trump and the Presidential Race). Now as the days get dark earlier and I find myself with viable things to do–finish Dune, write my own stories, run, cook my dinner–getting the speech contest over with was the first thing on my mind.

Leading up to the contest, though, were some of the better times of all the work. As my student was saying his speech during practice I’d be mouthing along with him. Despite his “robots” occasionally being turned into “lobots” he had made such a huge transformation over the past month that I felt like I was teaching something a little bit more than English. When it came to intonation I taught him how to create a loud voice without shouting, and with posture I stopped him from slouching. The day before the speech contest was actually his fifteenth birthday, and so instead of having practice I went out and bought him a slice of cake (and cupcakes for the JTE and myself).

Then comes the morning of the contest and Coral and I drove early to the Cultural Center. Not only were our students going to be giving their speeches, but we also got the privilege of being the masters of ceremony along with another JTE. Complaints were minimal, but the whole time I was trying to figure out if I’d rather be in class teaching. Basically, with only two fifteen minute breaks, and lunch, we were sitting in the same spot for a good eight hours, introducing 58 speeches, each giving feedback for 29 of them. I must admit, it was pretty mind numbing, but only once did I zone out so much that by the time she finished and I realized I was the one who had to comment I completely forgot what her topic was about. As I struggled to grasp some blurred words in my memory I ended up saying, “Thank you for telling us about that struggle in your life, and I’m glad you were able to overcome it.”

I felt so bad, and it was a good enforcer of keeping me awake and paying attention to the remaining half, but also was a decent summary of every comment I could’ve given. There were some outstanding speeches and even better performances. We set it up so I could introduce my student and Coral hers, and I played it nonchalantly (while giving him a thumbs up), but I don’t think I could hide the bias in my voice after my speech. Granted, he wasn’t going to win, I think he knew that and at least had no expectations for himself. But his speech that day was far beyond the league of anything he’d done in practice. He said all the words–even those pesky ‘a’s and ‘from’s he was keen to forget. His pronunciation and intonation was on point. Best of all, he smiled through almost all of it, except for the part where he sold his acting skills by frowning and saying, “Actually, a week after this speech contest, I will compete in the robot contest…God help me.*

It garnered one of the few laughs from the audience of the day, and I could not have been more proud. Afterward I got to meet his mother, who explained she had no idea what he was talking about, but was so glad to see him up there. It really made all of the work worth it. Now, I’m realizing he was just about the first student that I met and it’s certainly sad to not get to interact with him as much every day. I guess I’m probably screwed once graduation comes in March and that feeling gets multiplied by two hundred.

Culture

Once again I find myself coming into school on a Saturday, but after getting a Monday off (and looking forward to another Monday free) it’s really just like having a five day work week. Also, including yesterday, the actual work among the teachers is pretty minimal as once again it’s mostly in the hands of the students to get everything done. Although, instead of finding myself outside working out on a bright sunny day, I found myself inside playing on a rainy humid day.

Yes, in fact, it was the antithesis to sports day. If last week was for the brawn, this would be for the brains. It was: Culture and Arts Day.

Again, I’m astonished, not quite this time at the amount of work the students have put in, but more at the amount of school time devoted to these events. Coming from a country where most public schools have been eliminating Arts and music courses across the board and even argue against recess, it’s relieving to see that at least some of the world’s youth get a chance.

It starts on Friday with about two hours in the morning where each class, of twenty-three total, received two canvases (about 3×5 feet) and in groups painted a mural. At first it seemed like such a short time, but as I wandered among the halls and classrooms checking out the classes, the students were well at recreating a smaller sketch they’d already decided on. I don’t know if there is some larger life symbolism because they made almost exact replicas of their tinier murals, but on a whole it seemed pretty simple work for them.

After that we had an assembly in the gym, where the student organizers took center stage and performed various skits. They even introduced some video where they pulled pranks on various teachers, and it was all interactive and pretty awesome. In the end, they even incorporated the skit with the main act of the day: a performance by a local singer, Seri Kana, who graduated from the school. It was all quite the production and pretty exciting, especially for the students, and it offered a different look at their behavior.

Seri Kana perfomance

The level after that basically continued all day, as lunch was served out of the classrooms pseudo county fair style. All the third year classes were responsible for transforming their classrooms into food-stall-cafe where students could order food via tickets they purchased. Early in the week to save money for the holiday (and overall scrounging) I decided not to buy any tickets and I was kind of regretting the choice now. I still got to share some bites offered from the kids, and it was just an experience to see it all happen on the bottom hallway of our school. I’ve been told these two weeks are the greatest of the year, and I can see why. This whole time I’ve felt like I did back in my summer daycare, some of the fondest nostalgia I can muster, where you’ve got the freedom of summer but the community of school. It’s really a happy feeling.

After that I grouped up with what can now be called my favorite class: a group of second years with a good amount of rowdiness, but enough English effort to make them admirable. Granted I’m not trying to get into favorites so early, I knew eventually it would happen, but it seems less of my favoring them and more them favoring me.

So, after teaming up with them during the talent show, I got dragged around to each classroom on the second floor where the first years were putting on various games and activities for the rest of the day. Imagine each room getting turned into a thirteen year old’s capacity for a Japanese game show using only cardboard and duct tape and your practically there. We had bowling with plastic bottles as pins, basketball shots with newspaper balls, and skee ball with super balls and paper cups (and those are just the easiest to describe).

dancing during the talent show

Altogether I’m not quite sure what this day was about, but maybe it was just a retainer for the amount of lackluster the following day would inhabit.

Not to say that Saturday was all bad. Although, imagine being a parent of a seventh grader (maybe you are), and then going to their school choir concert because after all you’re their parent and you sort of have to because it’s on a Saturday and you know, their cute when they’re up there because they’re terrible singers but they try anyway so you can sort of enjoy it. OK, you got that in your mind? Now imagine that, after you kid gets back from the front of the stage, another group goes up, and then another, and just for good measure imagine that they’re speaking in Swahili, a language that you really don’t understand but can chime in every time someone says Asante sana (but really, that only makes you think ‘squashed banana’ and then as you imagine Zazu singing that to Scar in the Lion King you realize that you’re supposed to be watching some school choir concert that you haven’t been paying attention to for the past half hour).

There was a slight intermission in which the school band set up shop in front of the stage and I with Coral, the other ALT, and several teachers got up and danced to a song that is known for its origins in parody and antics (for good measure, it’s called てぃてぃてぃてれっててれてぃてぃてぃ). We’d stayed until 7:30 the night before trying to learn the dance, and on my part it was a slight–but hilarious and thus successful–failure. Incredibly, once we left Friday night it seemed that we might even be some of the first to leave (that’s even including the students). At first I was eager to do it because I wanted to feel involved with the students, but after it really highlighted my involvement among the teachers. I got to talk with some I hadn’t met before, and really became friendlier with a couple I’d already favored.

dancing on stage during culture festival

Honestly, even with the silly dancing, one of the most amusing parts of the day was to be sitting on the sidelines and watch as the students (who brought their classroom chairs into the gym) slowly drooped their heads and closed their eyes and tried to keep their neck from dropping lest the nearest teacher slowly approach them and make sure their friends knew they were asleep in a bright red blush of embarrassment as they finally snapped back to attention only to repeat the process in another five minutes. It was quite the spectacle in spite of its subtlety.

That night, like last week, once everything was done and cleaned up, we had another work party within walking distance to the school at a Chinese restaurant. I’d consider this one even better, perhaps because the teachers weren’t fatigued from the sun and cheering of Sports day, or maybe just because I’d gotten a little more closer to each of them. Still, this time through a random process, I sat next to my advisor and Coral, which I didn’t mind too much despite wanting to get away for English. It wasn’t long before Coral got up and started commiserating, and my advisor got up in search of more beer. There’s this great, albeit dangerous, tradition in Japan that you don’t fill up your own drinking glass, and thus everyone around must tend to its fullness out of respect. It really helps drive everyone to drink, but also muddles with keeping track of how much you’ve actually had. Eventually I was probably buzzed, but I don’t think I had nearly enough to get tipsy. When it was time to leave, though, I still wanted to rally and enjoy the night. Even though it was closing on close to eleven, I remember getting back so early last time and wanting to go out.

A group of teachers, only one of which, another twenty-three year old guy, was an English teacher, decided to go out to nearby karaoke. (I put that in italics because the conditions of karaoke in Japan are pretty unique and they pronounce it ka (like car)- row (like had a row)-oh-kay.) In the end their were eight of us: the English teacher and me, a now devious duo, two teachers I’d yet to even hear speak (one of which sang metal), two teachers who I’d marked as the best dressed (one of which made me sing Bon Jovi and the other who loved Bill Withers), and the schools two music teachers (both of which trumped any other karaoke performance I’ve ever heard).

I got back to my place a little after one thanks to the graciousness of another English teacher who picked us up. Ready to start my weekend, and procrastinate on planning my Tokyo trip. I went to the bus station today thanks to another ALT and his Portuguese girlfriend who speaks native Japanese fluently, but they had already sold out of bus tickets (presumably because it was a special weekend) so I’m kind of in the zone to wing it. I guess we’ll see.

Sports

So it’s been a pretty unorthodox first week, but still to the level of excitement and to some extent excitement that I had on the first day. Like I mentioned in the last post, though, this week was not ordinary in that everyone was preparing for this amazing thing called Sports Day. I think it’d be safe to call this a national phenomenon, because I’ve never heard of an American track & field day going to such great lengths. I mean sure, we had the three legged races, the tug of war, but never to the extremes that these kids basically missed two days of actual classwork in order to participate in these activities. On top of that, you have to keep in mind they’ve probably created some of their team ideas (like the posters and group dances) over their summer vacation because they’ve only been in school for a week.

I really wish I could show you some of the pictures of the games they played, but hopefully I’ll do half as good in describing them. Of course, we started out on the field promptly at 8:00 in the morning. Remember this is a Saturday, and as the most important school day of the year, I’d already been awake for a good two hours. (Thankfully, I also had the time to make a great-fried-egg-hash-brown-jam-and-bread-yogurt-V8-breakfast.) Despite some questionable weather in the middle of the week from one of the recent typhoons, the day was clear sunshine and windy enough for that not to be a nagging annoyance. I quickly found the green team tent, on the edge by some shady trees, and watched as the group organized and made it through the opening ceremony.

Somewhere here I think I started to understand the awful reality of someone who takes up this job without speaking a lick of Japanese. I definitely felt it myself by the end with my limited vocabulary used up, but to be stuck out there the whole day trying to communicate purely in gestures in broken English would probably change my perspective on Sports Day. As it is, I thankfully retained enough Japanese to get by and was able to fulfill the boredom between games by learning about the day from another teacher or making jokes with the students.

Back to the point: imagine every fun camp game that you think would be fun to play at school, but would never be able to because it’s just a lawsuit waiting to happen, and that’s Sports Day. Each group had a section of each year represented, for the first and third years (read: seventh and ninth grade) it meant their entire class of thirty people, while second years got mixed with other seconds years from different classes. That way the games could not only be split between the eight teams, but sometimes involve just a certain grade or classes.

For the beginning we started off pretty tame, with a giant jump rope and crew of about 20 students trying to jump over it at the same time. Against my expectations and maybe misconceptions that all Japanese people are great at working with each other and would be super efficient at this game it actually proved to be quite the feat to get down. But once a group did get the right rhythm, boy could they go. One of the groups got over twenty times around before tripping up. Imagine it for a second: ten boys, ten girls, side by side in their purple and white gym uniforms, jumping in perfect sync for half a minute. To some extent downright mesmerizing.

From there the games only got more creative. The next was a sort of race, in fact, I think it could be classified as a relay, because even though there was only one runner about 15 people participated. It starts with four of them, crouching down to form a sort of stairway with their backs, while the runner–typically the smallest–runs up to the top step/back and the rest of the people start forming a pathway with their own backs. When the runner steps off whatever back their on, the person crouching over shuffles to the front of the line to continue the path. The person running, again a tiny and weightless first year, wears a helmet and has someone holding their hand to help, but still, their a good four feet off the ground, and certainly a couple fell more than once. They way they moved, though, really looked like a single person running over a fluorescent blur of centipede like human legs, and they made it fifty yards, around a cone, and back in under a minute.

Next up came a short bout of tug-o-war, a stranger version than what I think I’m used to, in which strategy (or what little there would be in tug-o-war) was completely given over to brute strength (or what little raw power there would be in an average Japanese junior high student). Fun, painful to watch, but all around less exciting.

I think they were just having a break to ramp up to the next activity: マジク・カーペト (the magic carpet). This was perhaps my favorite of the day. They laid out tatami mats and went in rounds of seven people (gender specific, like all the games), where one person would lay out on the tatami, while the other six would gather around and lift the mat. They then would carry them down around a gone and back as quickly as possible, and almost certainly dropping them one or more times. I saw some crazy stunts, The people bringing back the tatami would drop the tatami while the next person would jump in the air and slide onto it. Other riders would be brave enough to stand up and ride it like a surfboard. All the time, I don’t think anyone had reason to not be smiling.

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We had a short intermission for lunch and recovery before it was back on the field for the classic fun game which they were calling “Candy Crush.” Now, I’ve never played the digital game, but I wonder where the name comes for this version, because the candy part, if there was one, was minimal at best. It starts off with your classic person spinning around a baseball bat for however many times or seconds, and continues with the person being tied at the ankles with a partner and completing the well known three legged race. Where it deviates, however, is halfway down the stretch where the pair, along with another couple, has to dunk their head in a tray full of flour and search around with their mouths until they can procure the elusive “candy” piece, and then race to the finish with mouth, hair, and vision caked over to ghostly perfection. Quite inventive, if not a bit disgusting.

The next was perhaps the biggest moment of the day when each team got to perform their own original dance. If you don’t remember, this was a Saturday, and before you might’ve asked yourself why they would make everyone come in on a Saturday instead of just doing all of this over a Thursday/Friday sprint. Well, I briefly thought about it, but by one o’clock on this bright day I quickly understood through looking over at the packed tent set up on the side of the field designated specially for parents. Actually, more impressively was the mention by another teacher that plenty of elementary school teachers and vice-principals would also show up to cheer their former students on. I mean, what more could you want to say F-yeah to?

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Each dance had its own surprises and originality. While some got really serious and martial-like, others made a story and added bits of comedy. For example, pink in Japanese can come from the westernized ピンク or momo, which translates to peach. And if you were lucky enough to be an Asian-studies major at your private liberal arts college, you probably read Journey to the West (Monkey) at some point and would be able to understand why some of the students on the pink team dressed up like characters in the story. Sometimes it’s the little things that reassure me the various dollars in debt I have is well worth it…

After the dances came the pinnacle game in creativity: bakudan, which basically translates to bomb. Think foursquare and volleyball, and then instead of a ball think of the type of ball an Elephant might balance on at the circus. Granted, the balls we were using were filled with air, but still, size-wise I can only imagine four student probably fitting into one of the balls. The teams had to volley the balls into another teams area, over a net, without letting it fall onto their side. If it did, they were out, and the nets would move around to three, and then two courts. My team was pretty successful, making it to the second place for both boys and girls., but then again, one strategy that seemed to work was just try to avoid getting the other team to pass you the ball in the first time.

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They followed up with a class relay, a spin on tug-o-war where they raced to the ropes, and ending in a twenty-legged race of each class which would either end triumphantly or in disaster. All in all, the day seemed like it could go on forever–but in a not so bad way–and by the time four o’clock came round and we were lining up for closing ceremony I was sort of hoping it would. Following the ritual of lining up, accepting awards, and superfluous bowing the groups met back under their tents for closing remarks. The green team ended up getting the second place, not that the point count for anything, but you know, bragging rights and all.

For the third years, this would be their last time doing Sports Day with the junior high, and to some extent with the extreme childlike fun that divides Junior high from the later teenage years. Early on in the day I think I made a joke about how it’d be a time when all the girls would break down and cry and one of the other teachers, without catching my sarcasm, nodded in agreement at the sentimentality of it all. I wasn’t sure if I’d be stuck in begrudging the situation until our team leader, a boy with a knack for cheering and competition, got up and made his speech. Flanked by the other third year leaders, he made it only a bit into his speech before pausing. At first I didn’t catch on to what he was trying to do. It looked like he had to cough, or maybe was at a loss for words. In someways I guess both were true, but as soon as the others started cheering for him, “gambate,” it was pretty clear he was starting to tear up. This is when everyone else started breaking down, and I must say I was pretty moved by the scene. After all, I was part of the group, cheering at times with the loudest voice, and the exhaustion and effort of the whole day probably wore on everyone. At the end, they ended up encircling him and tossing him into the air a few times.

By now it should be no wonder why it is such a big deal among Japanese schools to have a positive Sports Day. I don’t think I ever allowed myself to have a truly loathsome attitude at coming to school on a Saturday (especially since we get Monday off), but at the end of the day it was really no question of how else I’d want to spend my weekend. When I got home I went for a run through the mountains behind my apartment (the so called “backyard”), and felt more energy coming back than I had leaving. Not to mention that we had an enkai later on in the evening, where I finally started to branch out and get to know (or at least talk to some of the other teachers at the school). I’m really starting to wonder if this is what they call the honeymoon period.

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