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.

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.

 

Yamaguchi

Maybe I’ve said this before, but even if I have it bears repeating:

It’s sometimes unbelievable how much a constant running has been throughout my life.

Out of so many other sports, clubs, interests, religions, hobbies, and places I’ve gone in life, it’s the only thing that’s stayed there. It’s responsible for some of my closest friends, my biggest achievements, and quite entirely my college experience.

So ever before coming to Japan I was doing research on what the running scene was like. My expectations for a low interest and slow field were pretty wiped when I found out that there’s a decent crew of fast runners throughout the nation (though mostly central, like America’s heartland of talent). Especially with the Olympics approaching, the government is encouraging and funding even more programs specifically towards younger people to do well in sports. (For example, this 16 year old track star will likely podium for Japan in Tokyo 2020.)

I was pretty happy to be put in Fukui just out of the fact that it’s got some nature to make long runs through. I’ve been holding off talking about my own running experience for the proper post, but I’ll just add that this is the first time in a while I’ve been running without a direct goal.

Even last year, my first seasons out of college running I still looked forward to my alumni races or the season in the fall. Unfortunately here, the season is less year round and more marathon focused. And I am one to swear against any sort of marathon in the foreseeable future (though Tokyo was tempting).

After busting my foot for a month and then working my way back for another, I was pretty set come October (when it finally started getting cold after I left work) to join the track team at school. It let me do something other than crushing my mind against correcting pages for the last hour of work and deleted the excuses I’d later come up with to convince me not to run. I’d been told how great the school’s track team was, and looked forward to running with a team again. Turns out the rumors were pretty true, or I was just really out of shape (and probably a bit of both). After a 3000 meter time trial where the top time was around 9:40 I decided that at least three of them could be faster than me (the equivalent of an American ninth grader). It intrigued me to find out how fast the actual elite were, and I immediately vocalized my interest in going to the national race at the end of the season.

So, the days go by, and the time I enjoy at school grows exponentially simply because I recognize more students and know more about their lives. I’d been thinking about my counterpart back home, Kelson, who’d signed up for his second season of coaching and get why he enjoys it. At the least it keeps me from getting fat, at the most it keeps me young.

And finally it the week of the race, and I’m psyched. I came in to the teacher’s room after practice on a dark December night to see some of my co-workers huddled in the end of a discussion. “So,” one of the teachers says, “it’ll be about 1 mansen yen, is that OK? That’ll cover everything, transportation and hotel.”

I shrugged, not quite expecting it to be that much, but really can you put a price to anything nowadays. “Sure.”

And we’re off. The end of the week there was no practice because over ten kids were going to this race in Yamaguchi, which included all the long distance side of the team and even a couple soccer players. There was a lot of nostalgia on my part, remembering packing up the St. Olaf vans for the rides to Regionals and Nationals. Thus was the feeling that came to me as I got picked up a little after the afternoon on Saturday to make the eight hour ride to the end of honshu Japan.

Now, a long time ago, I wasn’t really considering how long it would take to get to Yamaguchi. When accounting for the less than three hour trips in each direction to get to Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, and Nagano, I’d always had this skewed image that Japan as an island couldn’t take any time to get to any important point on the map. But whatever, I was committed with a notebook and Clive Cussler novel and ready for the trip.

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As much as I love to go into the menial details, I’ll skip over the drive to wind up the night sitting at the end of a table full of raw meet and drinks. By the time I was at number two, everyone else was telling me it was number three, but the food was delicious so I didn’t care. It was my first time eating this kind of Korean bbq, and I topped off the meal with bibimbop thinking of Stef in San Francisco. One great common thing when getting meals with a group of people in Japan is the evenly split bill at the end of the night. It’s pretty nice for everyone just to take responsibility for the whole, and encourages a pretty good time. It can get a bit awkward if you’re sure someone has been hogging the drinks or food, but then you just deal with it through a bit of moral superior karma. Of course, the 5000 yen bill at the end kind of hurt, but at that point in the month I still had time to live wealthy.

Of course, that wasn’t the end to the night by far, and as we left I quickly got a small glimpse of Japanese social (gender) expectations, as the women of the group headed of in one direction (presumably to the hotel, but I’d have to guess that’s strictly a presumption) while the men stroll in the other direction. I ended up in another bar, somewhat izakaya style, while we brought up another chair to a table and ordered a nomihoudai. It’s times like these, only a few so far I’ve had, that make me feel like I fit in exactly how I should. Even in the presence of two other English teachers, I was shooting out Japanese back at the questions asked to me.

Not too much excitement for the night, but enough contentment for me.

(And I got to sleep in a bed! Always a good time, compared to the futon that I roll out on my floor every night. I hardly feel uncomfortable sleeping on the floor, but sleeping in an actually bed still comes off like a luxury.)

Thus, it came that I woke up within ten minutes of check-out time–luckily before my co-workers messaged me to ask if I was ready to go–as I rushed to put on some athletic clothes and shove the rest of my stuff into my backpack. I scanned the room with the inevitable feeling I was forgetting something, and went to the lobby sheepishly ready to start the day.

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It was beyond impressive to see the extent of how the race was set up. It’s basically in a state park, but the park from what I gleaned is set-up specifically to hold outdoor running events. Now, I know we’ve got shoe companies in America that host these races–this one was sponsored by Mizuno–but even at my college level I never saw such support built in for running teams, let alone for junior high school level. The tents alone were a little over fifty teams, each with a tent the size of my apartment and a decent amount of people there to watch. (Also, take into account that only 6 of the dozen students they brought were racing, but all of them rode the shinkansen and hosted up in a hotel for three nights. Quite frickin’ awesomely unbelieveable.)

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We waited around for a good couple of hours. I took a chance to walk around. It’s weird because back home, I never feel too far out because plenty of my students are mixed race, not to mention a decent amount of my neighbors are Brazilian. Now, at this pretty specific Japanese event, I was quite certain I was not only the only non-Japanese person, but the only dark skinned human over six feet tall. I mean, I certainly have that constant look over your shoulder in America, but here’s it’s a similar feeling for a completely different reason.

Anyway, I ended up running into a couple of my students heading down to the merchandise stall. They helped me in choosing a sweater, and I ended up meeting some of their parents. It was weird because I could hear them talk about me before I turned around to them, and even though I’d never met them, they already clearly knew who I was. Later on, one of the third year’s mothers thanked me so much for joining the team and even a little sister from one of my elementary school visits recognized me with a surprised, “Dillon-sensei?!” We’re talking first graders here that I taught for one hour two weeks ago remembering me by name. It was a crazy realization just to point out how connected I was to the community without even doing anything–or much, at least.

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The boys race went off after the girls, and anxiously I crowded around to saw a mass pile through the first curve of the track hardly distinguishable from one another until they passed beyond the treeline to the 3km trail. Basically over the next hour it was me running back and forth trying to cheer at all the good spots, take times and pictures, and keep warm. The weather started decent, but actually got a bit shady and chilled during the middle. An hour went by, and well, the lead team was dominating and my team, well, was not. We weren’t in last, or too near it, but we definitely weren’t towards the front or, maybe even in a standard deviation of the middle. Oh well, it was inspiring to see everyone try and think about pushing them through the winter to make a better performance for next year.189188

And just like that we were back on the road, literally as the students were bowing in the traditional appreciative thanks my group was shuffling back to our van to make the eight hour return trip. Can’t say it was as much fun as the way up there, but I was satiated on a well spent weekend full of nostalgia and inspiration. As I start to expect snow any time soon I can already say I can’t wait for the spring. I know I’ll keep up running, but really it’s just awful compared to the rest of the year. Luckily I’ve still got a great team to keep me motivated.

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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Work

It’s the first week of work! Honestly, it’s been so long since I’ve had to dress up and wanted to do it. I mean sure, I had to wear cool biz attire all through orientation, but I really didn’t want to be dressed up all that time and there wasn’t really anyone for me to try and impress. This was a whole new game.

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Still wearing the vans because I didn’t want to drop the money on ridiculously fancy shoes yet. I suppose that’s an inevitable, but hopefully once I’ve gotten a few paychecks. Plus, in Japan society you’re always sliding in and out of shoes that I was going to slip into my “indoor shoes” soon enough. Just when I though orientation was over, I completely forgot about the first day at work. It wasn’t very rough, but there were still plenty of things to try and remember. It was a little bizarre since a lot of the ALTs living around us weren’t required to go into school, and it seemed like we didn’t have too much to do. It would’ve been so much better to spend the day finally moving into my apartment and getting everything I needed in order (but I guess we did that eventually).

We went over the basics for the rest of the summer, and reviewed the lesson plans, cleaning out the desks giving to us. Then our supervisor took me to get everything sorted out at the housing agency so I could move in and another Japanese teacher took Coral, my ALT partner in English crime fighting, went to pick up her phone. We only had a half day, though, because we had a meeting half an hour by train in Fukui City for an overnight camp taking place the next two days.

It was such a dulling schedule to what would have otherwise been a day of excitement over finally being able to move in. Granted I did overcompensate that night with a couple of the other ALTs, but that is a story for another place. Otherwise, I literally opened the door, had the gas guy turn on my stove, and then locked the doors to an empty apartment for the rest of the day (because I still didn’t have a bed I’d be sleeping at Grace’s again). Not to mention the next two nights because I’d be gone on this summer camp–which was actually one of the better things I’ve done in a while.

At first I was a little skeptical. My group consisted of six junior high girls, which from my initial impression meant plenty of shyness and little skylarking. True, Tuesday morning the first gathering of the group was koi and had little interaction. Once on the bus my partner ALT for the camp and I started talking to them and I made the potential mistake of telling them I didn’t mind of they talked in Japanese as long as tried their best at the English activities. Then they took off with a race of what I could only guess to be introductions, likes and dislikes, and jokes. The whole first half of the day was a challenge for me to try and remember what they were wearing and how to associate that with their names, but I think by lunch I figured it out. Then after a bunch of pseudo-English related activities we finally settled down to the main portion of the day which was speech writing. We all scrunched together all the tatami mat in between their bunk beds and went to work around a tiny table in the center. For a while, it was silent with them all focused and then occasionally one would look to me or my partner to get advice or find the right word. It’s crazy how tranquil and close we’d become in just such a short time. In my opinion we were verging zen meditation. Then came dinner and questions about what I might be eating left unanswered. By that point all the stigmas I had about junior high girls had been obliterated, as my group was the first (and almost the only) to finish their meals and then scrounge around other tables for extra rice bowls and miso. It actually made me laugh and extremely happy that I’d be teaching junior high. It’s exactly what I wanted: old enough to think critically but young enough not to give a shit what other people think.

Anyway, at night all the ALTs had their first onsen experience since arriving, and it’s funny the moments in life where being on a college cross country team makes things that other American’s find unnerving completely comfortable. When everyone was done washing, we gathered in the top of an annexed building where the directors of the camp had surprised us with snacks and treats. It was a really good way to unwind, but the day seemed like it lasted forever and I was certainly ready to go to sleep. It was kinda weird because the room we were sleeping in looked so traditional, but the situation really didn’t feel so unlike being in a cabin at a summer camp.

IMG_1791Oh, and by this point you might be wondering why I haven’t posted any pictures of the camp or my adorable group, but that’s actually because it’s illegal to post pictures of kids online without permission (and actually, that might just go for anyone without permission). It might seem like a crazy law from an American perspective, but it’s also kind of ingenious and I think it can help shape a more conscious view of how the internet works.