17 December 2007

Japan is starting to make sense.

AKA: A Proper Update

It's been a little while since I've written an update, so ... here goes.

29 November - Midyear ALT Meeting
We have a lot of meetings, we JETs. They're a lot of fun, though, because it's a great chance to meet up with a lot of people I met during orientation in Tokyo, as well as hang out with other ALTs from my town. So that was fun.
What wasn't fun was popping the tire on the back wheel of my bike on the way to said meeting. Oops.

30 November - Parent Visitation Day
My teachers wanted to know how to say the above in English, and I told them that there was no such thing. This was like an Open House, but on a regular day of school - thus, teachers had to perform for both students and parents. The PTA here wields a lot of pressure/power, so it was a tense day for the teachers. Still, things went well and my parents seemed to enjoy the lesson I had prepared.

1 December - Kiryuu's Flea Market
Kiryuu is a town near Ota that is famous for its textile industry. On the first Saturday of every month, they have a flea market where various antiques and fabrics are sold. Caitlin and I spent several hours and lots of money there. I ended up buying a gift for my dad and a beautiful silk kimono (for, I later found out, about a third or a fifth of their normal price). Afterwards, we rode a cute little diesel train to visit Garrett and Natasha, with whom we had a delicious Italian dinner.

2 December - Guitar and Mandolin Concert
One of my teachers invited me (in October or early November - wow!) to see her in a concert. Her daughters picked me up and we went to lunch, where we talked about lots of things and the food was delicious. I only found out when we arrived at the concert hall that my teacher played the mandolin, and that this was a guitar and mandolin concert. It was a lot of fun, as I've only heard a mandolin played once or twice, and only one. Hearing a concert featuring half mandolins and half guitars was a real treat. We also explored a large library, which was awesome. I'll have to make my way back there sometime.

7 December - Goodbye, Tea Lady / Brazilian what now?
The Tea Lady at my middle school had to quit her job to be able to better take care of a sick child. Tea is an important part of the daily life here, being fixed at least three times a day for all of the teachers. Even in summer, the first drink of the working day is a cup of hot, green tea. Anyway, I was really sad, as she was a wonderful lady. I had been making her a Christmas present (an English Conversation notebook, as she said she wanted to learn more English), so I rushed it and gave it to her before she left. She seemed happy to receive it.

I don't remember if I had mentioned it before, but there's a large diaspora of Brazilians in my town. It's somewhat bizarre, to me at least, that I am more often thought to be Brazilian than anything else in this town. Anyway, I went out with a bunch of people on Friday night to eat at a Brazilian restaurant, which was delicious and a lot of fun. I spoke a little Japanese, and was complimented for my accent. :D

12 December - Early Christmas
I went to Ota proper with Caitlin on Wednesday evening to do some shopping. We first went to Yamada Denki (Yamada Electronics), a fun little place where a 4 year-old girl's voice randomly yells "Yamada DEN-KI!" every few minutes and where one can find anything that requires a plug or a battery. Here I bought myself an early Christmas present - a 160 GB iPod. Merry Christmas to me!
After this, we went into J-Plaza (a sort of mall), where I was looking for the rest of the pieces to go with the kimono I bought at the Kiryuu flea market. I ended up not buying anything for it, as all of the accessories (I was told) would cost me around 10 times what I paid for the kimono itself. I couldn't bring myself to do it, so I'll be at the flea market again next month, looking for as many of the parts as I can get there.

15 December - Love and Peace Party
Some of my friends here invited me to a Love and Peace (international) party. $12 for the ticket got me all the food I could eat and all I wanted to drink, as well as a full face of Brazilian T and A.

Garrett and Natasha went with, as well as their friend Dave, and we had a lot of fun.
Afterwards, we went into Don Quixote (a Wal*mart of sorts here), where I found the love of my life: a sewing machine for $27. It's a pretty simple machine, but it gets the job done.
As we were heading back to the trains, we ran into a few other ALTs who were heading to a party. Dave and I joined them for an hour before heading back to the station and making our way home.
I was sitting on the train, waiting for it to take off (sometimes the trains will sit at a station for 10 minutes or so, for various reasons) and enjoying my iPod, when a yellow blur suddenly plopped down right beside me. Now, this train was less than full, and the Japanese are pretty good about not sitting remotely near anyone if they don't have to, so I was decently surprised/alarmed. Luckily for me, it was David, another ALT in my town, and the rest of the time on the train was spent in fun conversation with him.

Yesterday - Crafts 'R' Us
I went nuts with my sewing machine...I shouldn't be allowed to have things that make crafting so easy. Anyway, here's the before (gotta love the tank-top being so long from under it 'cause it was too short):
and the after:

I wore the re-made sweater to school today, and it was a big hit. The teachers went nuts when they found out I made it. :D (Even better - I originally bought the sweater at a Salvation Army for $3. Sweet!) Also, our new tea lady arrived, and she seems nice. It's fun to see her learn the ropes; it gives me a chance to learn what a tea lady does, other than making tea.

And, to close, a quote from one of my classes (I've been teaching about Christmas):
Me: "So, 'Saint Nicholas' is Santa's real name."
Student: (in Japanese) "So, Nicholas Cage is 'Santa Cage'?"


26 November 2007


I wrote my family this email to update them on my Thanksgiving, and it occurred to me that it is a fairly thorough account of my Turkey Day going-ons. So, for your enjoyment, my email to my family!

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Dear family,

As Thanksgiving is a family holiday, I thought I would email y'all to update you on my holiday and on my life here. (I've been very bad about doing this for most of you, I know. For those of you who are inclined, check out my blog at http://furrst.blogspot.com. I update it about once a week with various anecdotes.)

After three months of being here, I can finally say that I am starting to feel confident enough to go out and about on my own without too many worries. This past weekend, for example, I traveled by myself some three hours (a bit by bike, much more by train) to visit a friend in the northern part of my prefecture for a Thanksgiving dinner. She is another WashU graduate who was very good friends with one of my suite-mates sophomore year, and lived with my freshman/sophomore year roommate for a summer. In short, she was someone of whom I knew, but with whom I never really was friends before now.

All of the Americans lucked out - Japan has a national holiday on the Friday after Thanksgiving (their version of Labor Day), so we were able to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends, albeit a day late. Amy's Thanksgiving dinner was impressively close to one we could have had state-side, featuring a turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, dressing (not cornbread-based, sadly, though we did have cornbread), and even pumpkin pies. There were eight of us there all together, which made for a very nice gathering. Amy, as hostess, was head chef, but her mind was occupied with cooking the stuffing, which is, as many of the Forrests know, an engrossing task. Amusingly enough, I became the secondary chef for the whole affair, most likely because I came to the party armed with the spices Del Ray [my godmother] gave me. (They were a huuuuge hit, Del! Thank you again!) This left me to make the mashed potatoes (of which Brian [my uncle] would have been immensely proud), make the salad, and assign tasks to anyone with idle hands. The whole thing went off well, despite their being too many cooks for the small kitchen, and we had a great dinner.
As a side note, Japan *did* make a few contributions to our meal - the stuffing featured shitake mushrooms, and many of us were eating our dinners with chopsticks.

Things became a little tougher for the ride home. I have had a cold for the past week, which has mostly shown itself in the form of sinus congestion. On Saturday, however, I awoke to find that I had no voice whatsoever. Most of the time, I lose my voice enough to where I can't speak *well*, but I can still speak. I was not so fortunate this time: my voice was *completely* gone. That made traveling back a little harder, though I managed it without too much trouble.

My final bit of Thanksgiving celebration involved, of course, shopping. It wasn't exactly a Black Friday experience, though the nearby mall was very crowded. I bought a few new clothing items from Honey's, which reminds me quite a bit of the clothing store I worked in a few summers ago. It's trendy and fairly inexpensive, both of which suit me. My fashion style here has gone nuts, as I can wear just about anything and have it praised as an interesting, "American" style. Japanese styles, also, are a bit crazy, as having matching colors doesn't seem to be a requirement of fashion here. As far as fitting goes, I'm considered a large here (I've gotten over the "...I'm a WHAT?!" reaction by now), and most pants are too short for me, but I'm fine for shirts, skirts, and jackets. The current fashion here features very high lines and often no waist-distinction, which reminds me every time of Audrey Hepburn-esque styles. (There is a jacket here that I want desperately, not because it is something I can actually wear, but because I'm positive I've seen it in a Hepburn movie.) I'm amused to find that I'm a little too busty for some of these fashions, which has never happened to me in my life. In any case, I still find things that are wonderfully flattering, and I'm really enjoying being able to commit some of my expendable funds on my wardrobe.

As a random aside, I have started crocheting an afghan. It gets dark here at 4:15 or 4:30, and, as I only have a bike for transportation, I have a lot of sitting-at-home-bored time. I'm making it from red-and-black granny squares, to match my decor, and I can't help but think of Grandmother (Anne Forrest) when I do so, especially because I finally realized that she used this same stitching technique for piecing together the Pill (a blanket from Granddad's old socks for his stump*). As Thanksgiving is a holiday that, for the Forrests, evokes many a memory of Grandmother, I can't help but feel that this reminder of her is very timely. I'll be sure to take pictures of the blanket when I'm finished, though that might be some time next winter. :P

Now, I fear, I must leave off this email and do some real work. Today is the first day of final exams, so I have the whole day to myself. I'm doing my best to be productive, though my cold isn't helping my concentration very much. Lots of love to everyone, and I hope you're
doing well!

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* My grandfather has a false leg, having lost his right leg below the knee in the second World War. He used to have to wear heavy, cotton socks on it to protect it from this false leg, but when he "upgraded" his leg and no longer needed the socks, my grandmother made them into the best blanket in the world. We call it "The Pill" because its heavy weight and wonderful warmth are guaranteed to put you to sleep, just like a sleeping pill.

21 November 2007

How I Study Japanese

AKA: Much more random and much less planned than Leslie's usual entries.

The one thing I desperately want to get out of this job is a passing ability in Japanese. I know I learn best in an immersion setting, so I'm trying to make the most of it.

I like to think I'm tackling Japanese on all fronts.

1. Most obviously, through listening. Listening to people around me, listening to television, listening to the radio...basically, drowning myself in sounds. It's my best way of learning, so I do a lot of it. This leads to some negative side effects, like saying things like a middle schooler instead of in a mature, adult way, but oh well.

2. Through formal studying. JET has a pretty decent, correspondence-based textbook for Japanese. It's a little scatterbrained in order, but I'm glad to have it. (Plus, it's free!)

3. Through email. I get a kanji emailed to me every day, and I write it down in my kanji notebook. (Kanji = some 3,000 Chinese characters that have been adopted into the Japanese writing system. They have multiple pronunciations [the character for "small," for example, can be pronounced "shou" or "o"] and are hella complex to draw.) It's great for showing off to my teachers/students, even if I don't learn them all as well as I should.

4. Through manga (comic books). While I read everything I run across, just to prove to myself that I can (even if I can't), it doesn't get me a whole lot of sentence structuring. (Most of the time it's stuff like "Ramen!" or "Curry!") My best reading practice is through my slow progress through Japanese comic books. I don't always know the vocab, but the pictures help a lot, and keep me from being too discouraged. Also, the sentences tend to be dialogues and fairly short, which is easier for me to understand than a novel would be. Plus, a lot of comic books have furigana (phonetic-alphabet spellings of the kanji pronunciation), so I can learn more about kanji this way, too.

5. Through forced communication. Many of my teachers and my students don't know enough English to communicate well. I force my students to listen to my English, even if they can't say what they want to ask me in English. I force my teachers to suffer my attempts at Japanese, 'cause it's good practice, and, well, it's the only way I get to talk to anyone at my elementary school. ^_^

6. Through writing whatever I can in Japanese. In my teaching planner, I write my teachers' names in kanji instead of roman characters. I even write the class numbers using kanji, even though the only place I've seen those used instead of the roman ones has been in traditional-style restaurants. It's awesome practice, despite the fact that I'm sure it looks worse than a 1st grader's scribble to my teachers.
I really do try to use kanji as often as possible, as that's one of the most difficult aspects of Japanese. I may never know all of their pronunciations or be able to write them well, but at least I'll be able to get meaning out of what I see.

7. In class. When my teachers explain an English grammar point to the students, it's often in Japanese, so I can glean Japanese grammar by listening and taking notes. My teachers find this hilarious, but it's really helpful. (Plus, it keeps me from being bored during what would otherwise be ALT downtime.)

That's all I can think of right now. I spent most of my day learning Japanese (I went through three days' worth of lessons in my Japanese textbook), and I picked up a few new manga, so learning Japanese has been on my mind a lot today. o ^_^ o

17 November 2007

Marathon Race

Physical education is no joke in Japan. Now, most children participate in some sport or another after school...some 90% or more in most middle schools. These club sports will have practice every day of the week - weekends included - and are more intense than many of the middle school sports I remember from my past. Outside of this, though, they have P.E. classes that involve everything from baseball and softball to gymnastics and dance. There is a great emphasis on being physically sound, and the population here is much trimmer and healthier, from what I have seen, than that of America's population. Granted, this may be in part because of their genetic make-up, but the amount of exercise the kids do on a regular basis doesn't hurt.

Thursday was a good example of the emphasis on physical education. The whole morning at my elementary school was dedicated to "the Marathon Races." In short, everyone in every grade had to run anywhere from 800 to 1500 meters, depending on their grade. This isn't too different from what could be found at an American school; the big difference came from the way the races were treated. No one had classes; parents, grandparents, and even the nearby nursery school came to cheer on students. It was more like a festival or a game than it was a part of the daily grind.

As there weren't any classes for me to teach today, I was instead encouraged to watch the races and cheer on the students. I did this with great energy, as the students are ABSOLUTELY ADORABLE. Thankfully, I had my camera with me today - I took over 150 pictures of these kids. (A selection are up here for your enjoyment.)

And yet, my day was made even better by the presence of some of my middle school students. Thursday was a "realistic work experience" day for my 2nd years - they are all visiting various work places to get a feel for that (randomly selected) job. What that meant for me was that a number of my students were here, either helping with the elementary school or the aforementioned nursery school that came to cheer on the students. It was a great way of seeing them outside of a classroom, letting them see me interacting with people who weren't there classmates...in short, reaffirming the fact that I am, in fact, a real person who exists outside of the middle school. (Plus, I got some adorable pictures of them with the nursery and elementary school kids; can't beat that!)

All of this makes me feel guilty, though, as I have been more than just "remiss" in making an exercise routine that is actually routine. Ah well. At the very least, it was a very awesome day.

08 November 2007

The Chorus Contest

AKA: "Oh my goodness, child, there is no reason to be this excited."

For weeks, my students had been singing during recess, during cleaning time, and in the hallways. At last, on the 30th of October, the long-awaited Chorus Contest began.

Note the word "contest." In Japanese schools, all students take art and chorus. As I have mentioned before, students spend the entire day with the same group of people, their "gumi [goo-me]" or "class." This allows for things like competitions within the same grade, which is hard to do in American schools. Thus, what I originally took to be a chorus concert was, in fact, a competition between gumis.

This was a big affair. I should have realized what I was in for when the whole day was cleared for the contest. The students all met at the middle school and then rode their bikes to Airys Hall, home to a theater hall, a gym, and other useful venues. The teachers had to be stationed at different points along the way to ensure that the 300 some odd kids who were riding along the same road at approximately the same time were not blocking too much traffic. (Seeing these kids head out was one of the highlights of my day.)

Once everyone arrived and were arranged, the contest began. First, the whole grade would sing one song together, giving the judges (aka: the teachers) an idea of what the song sounded like. Then, they would split into their classes and sing two songs - one that every class sang and one piece the class picked. Repeat with the next grade.

Now, the most interesting part of all of this was that the piano accompaniment and the conducting were ALSO done by students. The piano accompaniment was sometimes done by two people, each contributing one hand to the arrangement, as neither could play both parts. The conducting, however, was by far the most interesting student contribution, as most of my kids seemed to like the full-body conducting style. I don't often see conductors bend down to the ground to signal their crescendos, but these kids were in full swing. It was ... hilarious and amazing.

The singing, too, was amazingly good. I am of the opinion that being tone-deaf is a nurture thing rather than a nature one, but that doesn't make everyone a good singer by any means. Despite this, these kids did a wonderful job. One song sung by the third years had multiple teachers in tears; I'm sure I would've been in their number had I been able to understand the words.

Soon, the classes were done singing, and the extra music groups came out to perform. There was a sweet rendition of a song by a group of second year girls, and an amusingly flamboyant version of "We Are the Children" by the third years and a particularly out-there teacher. The brass band, an after-school club, joined in with a medley of songs by Pink Lady, a very popular duet from the 1970s. And that's when things got interesting.

Flashback: Monday, the day before the contest.
One of my teachers told me that a student from the brass band wanted to ask a favor of me. "Do you know the group 'Pink Lady'?"
Do I ever! I went to a Japanese language camp for two weeks the summer after 8th grade, and there learned a dance to a song called "UFO," sung by Pink Lady. It was the best part of camp, and everybody did it...and loved it. After that, I got a tape of Pink Lady songs, and I had that sucker fairly well memorized.
So, back to Monday. I found out that the favor was ... dun dun DUN! ... doing a dance to a Pink Lady song.
End flashback.

The brass band played the medley once through, to everyone's enjoyment. Then, immediately thereafter, the music teacher announced that "there was still more" and invited the "Ikushina Middle School Dance Team" out to the stage. I ran out with all the other teachers asked to dance, and we made fair fools of ourselves, to the student's general enjoyment.

Awards were presented to the best classes of each grade, and the day was suddenly over. Amusingly, I had parents and teachers complimenting my ability to dance for the rest of the time I was at Airys. A flurry of pictures were taken, and everyone went home.

All in all, it was a wonderfully fun day. And hey, any day I get to publicly embarrass myself must be a good day! :D

Oh, and as a little treat: a picture of two classes (aka: half of one grade) as they were about to head out. This is one of my favorite pictures...uh...ever.

03 November 2007

A Day in the Life

I've been going to classes long enough that I think I can accurately assess my daily routine. So, for your reading pleasure - a day in Leslie's life.
Note - this describes a normal day at my junior high school. Elementary school is somewhat different, but I won't go into that just yet.

My alarm goes off, though I'm not likely to actually get out of bed until 6:50 or 7. I shower (if I didn't take one the night before), get dressed, eat breakfast, and potentially talk on Skype for a half hour or so. I try to leave the apartment around 8:05 for my 5 minute ride/10 minute walk to Ikushina Jr. High.

I arrive at school. This means changing my shoes at the door and saying "hello" or "good morning" to every student I see and "ohayo gozaimasu" ("good morning") to every teacher. (I have a strong policy of using English as often and as consistently as possible with my students, a stance that I do not take toward my teachers). I enter the staff room from the door as far away from my desk as possible so as to be sure to greet as many teachers as possible. Apparently, my "ohayo gozaimasu" is continually surprising to my coworkers, as I "sound exactly like a Japanese person." Many of the teachers have, thankfully, stopped doing double-takes when they look at me to respond to my greeting.

The staff meeting begins. There is a serious art to these daily meetings. A different teacher hosts the meeting every day, acting as an arbiter of sorts. This "host" asks for any announcements from the teachers, then asks the kyoto-sensei (vice-principle) and the kouchou-sensei (principle) for their announcements. They then call on the head teachers of each year to hold their own, year-specific meetings. If all goes well, we are done in time for the teachers to head to their classrooms for homeroom at 8:30...though this is rarely the case.

The day starts in earnest. There are 6 classes a day, and I teach up to 4 every day (by which I mean "I'm seriously surprised when I have fewer than 4 classes." This is, apparently, an unusually hard workload for ALTs). Classes are 50 minutes long, with a 10 minute break in between. I teach 4 classes of 1st years (34-ish students in each), 8 classes of 2nd years (18-20 students each), and 8 classes of 3rd years (18-20 students each). I usually see each class once a week. Unlike American schools, the students stay in one room and the teachers move from class to class, but for the split classes (2nd and 3rd years), half of the class stays in their normal room while the other half move to a special, English classroom.

I pretty much spend these 50 minute lessons acting as goofy and extroverted as possible. I'm here to make English fun and to inspire the students, which I find is best done by making them laugh. I turn into an exaggerated version of myself around my students for this reason, often being much goofier and much more upbeat than I have ever found myself in America (barring instances involving sleep deprivation and/or high intakes of caffeine). I'll talk about more of this in a later entry, I'm sure, but let it suffice for now that I will probably be much more extroverted upon my return stateside because of this constant exaggeration of my usual persona.

A day or so before each lesson, I meet with the teachers and ask what they would like me to prepare for that particular class. I usually try to come up with a game of some sort, as my class time is supposed to be the "fun, don't worry about grades and realize that English is communication, not just another subject" time of the week. Sometimes, though, I slide back onto a worksheet, especially for the 1st years, who generally spend my classes repeating their vocabulary words and textbook dialogues after me to acquire a good accent.

During my two free periods, I either plan for other lessons or study Japanese. I usually find myself skipping the Japanese studying, which is a bad habit, in order to prepare for a lesson, make some new bulletin board, or some other, student-oriented activity. I hope to rid myself of this bad habit in the near future.

Lunch-time! Lunch starts just after 4th period and lasts until 1.30 (if you include recess). There's no cafeteria in the school (or in many Japanese schools, for that matter), so the students eat in their classrooms and the teachers eat in the staff room. Students flow in and out of staff room (saying "shitsureshimasu" [excuse me!] every time they enter and "shitsureshimashita" [I've excused myself! (I think)] every time they leave), disappearing into the broadcasting room to play music during the break. The funniest part of lunch, for me, is once the meal is offer and all the teachers instantly pull out toothbrushes and start brushing their teeth. I still find this extremely amusing for no real reason.

Two more periods and then it's 3:30 - cleaning time. Each class is given a section of the school to clean for 15 or 20 minutes, though I have come to find that another ALT was very accurate in describing this time as "ritual moving of dirt" rather than actual cleaning. I have joined a group of first years who sweep leaves and dirt off of the paths around the front of the school. It's a good chance to interact with the students outside of class in a low-key, "no one's gonna hear you make mistakes" way. It's also great because I'm outside, and thus very visible - it's rare that I don't get a "LESLIE!!!" from a student who's cleaning in the building. :D

I technically get off of work at 4.15, but I often stay later, till around 5:00 or so, either finishing up lessons or doing some sort of school-oriented work. Part of this is because it earns me brownie points with the other teachers, who have to stay much later than I do on a regular basis. Part of this is also to make myself more available to my Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs), as they are usually horrendously busy and may not be able to plan the next lesson with me before 4.15. I consider it a show of goodwill towards the other teachers.

I excuse myself from the staff room with the ritual "I'm leaving" declaration, "osakini shitsureshimasu" ("please forgive me for leaving before you."), and earn myself the ritual response, "otsukaresama deshita" ("you must be tired").
Point of interest - neither of these are sarcastic in any way, as the Japanese don't seem to understand sarcasm in the slightest. I find this amazing of a culture that relies greatly on subtlety in communication, but hey, whatever. :D

A change of shoes sees me outside and within the next 5 or 10 minutes I find myself comfortably at home again. At this point I decide either to go to the local mall for groceries/other errands or to stay at home and veg out, read a book, clean up the apartment, etc. I tend to stay in, mostly because I'm so tired from my full day at school, though going to the local mall is always a treat.

The sun sets. No lie. I find this inconvenient for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that my bike is my only mode of transportation other than my own two feet, neither of which is exactly the safest-feeling way to get around after dark.

I go to bed. Again, no lie. The girl who used to have a hard time going to bed before 12 or 1 in the morning now finds herself yawning at 9. Part of this is because, as I realized around a year ago, a full night's sleep for me is 9.5 hours, while most people are fine with 8. Part of this, too, is the fact that it gets dark so early - it's easy to feel like you've been up a long time when it's been dark for 4 or 5 hours, which just so happens to be at 9 or 10 for me.


01 November 2007

Three, Three, Three Entries in One!

AKA: Short, Blog-worthy Stories

The past few weeks have shown me several things that are worth blogging about, but maybe not for full entries. Thus, I give you - three entries for the price of one.

1. Imayasu-sensei's Warm Invitation
A few weeks back, Imayasu-sensei (one of the part-time English teachers) invited me over to her house for dinner. This is a really big deal - Japanese people, on the whole, don't entertain at home. I happily accepted and met her later that evening. It was a rather spontaneous affair, as Imayasu-sensei had only decided that day to invite me over, but it was absolutely wonderful. This was especially true because 1) Imayasu-sensei and her daughter, who was also at dinner, both speak wonderful English (having lived in the America for a few years), and 2) the real gossip goes on outside of the staff room. I heard a LOT about my predecessor that was ... hehehe. Anyway. The best part by far was toward the end, when Imayasu-sensei's husband came home. She wasn't expecting him till late, as he was going out to dinner with office people, but he ended up arriving just as I was leaving. Imayasu-sensei introduced me as "the new ALT at the middle school; she's very popular with the staff." :D

2. The Incredible, Amazing, Lovely Leslie!
I seem to have the ability to amaze the staff at my schools with little to no effort. Granted, I'm a crafts person (if I don't have a craft project, I tend to go a little mad), so some of the things I take for granted as being easy, like crocheting, is not taken as such by the general populace. Still, I seem to be able to amaze my coworkers just by living. I'm amazed they haven't complimented me on my ability to breathe.

Some of this is because the Japanese, on the whole, seem amazed that anyone who isn't Japanese could do anything that the Japanese do, like eat rice or take out the trash. I take this as honest curiosity rather than a blatant insult, which seems to be the predominant other reaction by gaijin ("foreigners"). Some of it, too, stems from the fact that my predecessor was not the overachiever that I am.

Still, the Japanese method of accepting compliments is to not accept them. A common response to a compliment on someone's ability is to say "I'm really not that good, but it's a hobby I enjoy despite the fact that I'm bad at it." In English, however, it's polite to say "thank you" and maybe downplay one's abilities, but not nearly to the extent shown in Japanese. I know how to say "that's not true" in Japanese, which is my default for when I am complimented, but I run into a hard time when I am complimented in English, especially by my students. I want them to know that we say "thank you" in English, but I don't want them to think I'm full of myself.

So yeah, compliments continue to be a stressful ordeal. :P

3. Halloween
As the token foreigner, and the first American to work at Ikushina Jr. High in at least 5 years, I had to be really upbeat about Halloween. The best part of this was that, after decorating one of the classrooms, my teachers were so pleased with my work that they let me pick a bulletin board to use as an English board and decorate it for the holiday as well. (I get to keep it; yay!) I got a lot of compliments for these decorations, and the kids really seemed to like it.

On Halloween proper, I dressed up as a witch (although I was hat-less...the kids seemed to get it, though) and taught special, Halloween-oriented lessons. I also gave out stickers to any of the students that came to me and said "trick or treat," which was a really big hit. (Some of my kids, after getting stickers from me, went trick-or-treating around the staff room, to little avail. ^_^) The kids seemed to really enjoy it, and I got to dress up and put on extreme makeup, which is always a blast.

There you have it - three stories for the price of one blog entry. :D

26 October 2007

My Middle School Mutiny

Most of the people with whom I talk about my life at school are of the opinion that Japanese children are some of the smartest, most attentive, and most respectful students one can find. It is a "truism" regarding most any student of Asian descent. However, social psychology teaches us that there are similar, "common sense" statements to cover most any sentiment. In this case, it would be the following:
Kids are the same everywhere.
I have to agree with the latter. My students aren't awful, but they aren't the angels many would have had me believe before I came here.

The past few weeks have been stressful in this regard. As I have mentioned before, the second years are generally thought to be little demons here. Now, I teach 8 classes of 18 second year students, and I can fairly well say that there are maybe one or two true troublemakers in each of those classes. There are a few others others who, because they are the cool kids, laugh at the antics of the troublemakers, or talk in class, or ignore the teachers. However, all of this I see as being fairly normal for any middle school setting. (It's one of the reasons why, when I was considering being a teacher in America [waaay back when], I decided I would never teach in a middle school. [I followed that decision ever so well...]) The last two weeks, however, have shown me quite a few things I wasn't expecting.

All of the worst second years hang out together, and they have adopted a first year into their midst. A few of them came into school last week with vicious cigarette burns on the back of their hands. I asked one of my English teachers who had done it to them, and she gave me the strange look I'm growing ever-so-accustomed to that means I'm missing some obvious point. The answer: "They did it to themselves."
It made a little sense, once I got over the instinctive horror at it. In Japan, the gangsters (yakuza) wear signs of pain as badges of strength, covering everything from having massive amounts of tattooing to missing fingers. As these kids are the ones who most admire the "screw you" sentiment gangsters hold toward authority figures, it's not surprising that they'd mimic their manners of showing strength.

After that, two of the (male) troublesome students showed up at school wearing earrings. This is clearly against the rules, and yet both refused to remove them. This caused a commotion amongst the staff, because one of the two, the adopted first year of the group, disappeared, and his whereabouts were unknown until well after dark. My teachers considered this a very serious issue, especially for his homeroom teacher, Tanaka-sensei, who is my supervising English teacher at the middle school. Tanaka-sensei had yelled at the kid after he refused to remove the earring, and the student's disappearance was blamed to this strongly negative response. That evening, there was a teacher's meeting until 6:30 to discuss what had been done and what should have been done ... and it started at 4:30. (I, thankfully, had left by that time and didn't have to take part.)

Since then, there have been more attempts at playing hookey, more battles over earrings, destruction of school property, and, to top it all of, parents being called into the school to discuss the behavior of their children. One of these parents started yelling at the vice-principal about the whole affair, insisting that there be infinite justification for every school rule her son had broken. The idea of yelling at the vice-principal makes my entire insides cringe in a way I can only associate with someone scraping their nails down a blackboard. (One of my teachers reacted by saying the mother "must be a little crazy.") More meetings have been had, and these trouble students have been a fairly constant presence in the staff room. As a first year is involved, my "island" of desks is often taking part in these difficult moments.

Now, all of this being said, I'm not directly involved myself. In the first place, my position as an ALT is one that is explicitly defined as one "not taking part in any disciplinary actions," as it hurts our ability to associate with the students. We aren't teachers - we are there to inspire multilingualism, and we do that in being friends with the students, not by being disciplinarians. On top of this, there's little I could do, were these rules regarding my position not in place. My utter lack of Japanese, as well as my smaller physical size and strength, make me a poor player in the discipline role. To a certain extent, I'm thrilled by this excuse - it lets me turn a blind eye to things with which I have little ability to deal. On the other hand, however, I feel all the stress of my coworkers, and I feel guilty that I cannot help minimize their stress. Again, my lack of Japanese makes me unable to even understand what needs to be done, much less offer to do it in any tactful way.

On top of this ... I don't know that I feel the way the teachers are handling this situation is the best way. For example, the Japanese thought that "all students should have an equal chance at learning" means that students must always be in the classroom. This means that troublemakers cannot be "sent to the principal" for discipline; they must, at all times, remain in the classroom in order to have a chance at learning, even though this means they are hurting the potential learning of others. So, whenever the aforementioned students played hookey, the teachers went on a full-out manhunt. Two teachers making three or more phone calls each because three students left school after lunch...it still seems extreme to me. I can't help but feel that, were these kids allowed to miss class every once in a while, they would get some of their rebelliousness out of the way. So it's hard for me to see a kid get yelled at, forced to sit in the staffroom and eat his lunch, when I can't help but feel that this is exactly why he's trying so hard to run away from it all. It's not my place to voice these opinions, especially when I don't have a solution of my own, but it does add to the stress I feel regarding the situation.

I decided last night that I would try to start doing nice things for the teachers in my own way, as I am of little direct help in this situation. I'm going to give a try at making some sort of nice treat this weekend to bring in on Monday, and I'm working on other ways to give my teachers a smile. It's all I can do, at it may help my levels of stress a little, even if it isn't a help in the situation.

All being said, though, it's an interesting time to be at Ikushina Chuugakkou.

25 October 2007

My Coworkers, My Family

AKA: …I think I’ve been adopted.

The day of the Speech contest, I was fortunate enough to be able to eat an early lunch with my two contest students. I say this because there is little as revealing, or as entertaining, as the open conversation of two middle school girls. My favorite topic, though, was “which of the teachers would be which family member in your family?”

In Japan, the students stay in one room and the teachers move from class to class. The teachers’ roost, then, is the staff room. We have a meeting for 10 minutes every morning, most teachers have at least two free periods a day, and most teachers are required to stay around school for at least an hour after classes are over, so there are plenty of opportunities to get to know one’s coworkers. Add to this the fact that I’m the youngest staff member here by a decade at least, and a foreigner to boot, and it’s very clear that I have been adopted.

So, my new family.

Kouchou-sensei (“kouchou” means “principal” – his name is Kamiyama, but no one ever calls him by this, using his title instead as a sign of respect) is most assuredly a grandfather figure in my new family. He’s always smiling and laughing, and everyone here really loves him. He used to be an English teacher, so we communicate well, and he has a little of the “bumbling older man” type to him, which only makes him more endearing.

On the other side, Imayasu-sensei is clearly a grandmother figure. She is one of the part-time English teachers here, and she takes care of me in a way none of the other teachers do. She is quick to compliment, but will push me to learn as well. For example, she helped me to get my kotatsu (a table with a space heater built into it; you put a quilt over it and just sit in wonderful warmth) and forced me to ask the store clerk for it myself instead of doing it for me. She’s great, and I love her warmth and her easy laugh.

I’ve talked about Saito-sensei already; he’s tough to categorize. I think the best I can say is that he is like a dad, but a dad who clearly knows that his child is now an adult and has thus toned down the parenting shtick. He really watches over me, he brags about me to other teachers, he laughs at my jokes (even if they’re only funny because I used a word in Japanese instead of English). In short, he’s an awesome person to have sitting next to me in the office.

Kuwako-sensei and Takayanagi-sensei are easy. The former is one of the office managers; the latter is a part-time English teacher who has wonderful English, both spoken and written. Both of them are clearly my older sisters. I couldn't ask for better, especially as they are usually the ones updating me on the office gossip.

Kumaki-sensei is another teacher I have mentioned before. She qualifies as the fun aunt, the one who says “hey, let's go drink!” and always compliments my fashion sense. She's been having a rough time of it as of late, thanks to some student problems, but she always manages to give me a nice smile or compliment my projects.

I'm going to stop here, though I feel I'm slighting a lot of my teachers by not mentioning them. Rest assured that my family has an older brother, several cousins, several uncles, and even a few neighbors. My general point is that, after being here for just shy of three months and not being able to speak much Japanese, I have been so well accepted, a point which continually astounds me. As my students would say, “Rukii!” (the Japanese way to pronounce “lucky”).

Oh yes, of course I have to mention the results of the speech contest. My students did really well! Only one placed (my “lived in the States for 5 years” student won 3rd place out of 14 “I lived abroad in an English-speaking country” students), but both of them had wonderful speeches and gave them flawlessly. I'm so proud, but even more so I'm glad that the whole ordeal of the contests is finally over. Cheers to that!!

10 October 2007

Ikushina Shougakou

AKA: Where Cute Comes to Stay

Today marks the end of my first day of classes at the elementary school. I taught the special education class (one child - shy, but very willing to play games, etc) and three classes of 2nd graders.

Diagnosis: SO. FREAKING. CUTE.

As soon as all of the students were in the classroom and sitting down, I said hello to everyone. I said it to the group, I said it to individuals ... they were all giggling by the time I was done. After a long string of "hello"s, I suddenly switched to "goodbye"...and left the classroom. My first class of 2nd graders nearly died. A loud "EEEHHHHH????" came from the room, and lots of laughing when I re-entered with a loud "hello!"

After that, we practiced the vocabulary I had decided on - fruit. The noteworthy part of this was what I'm going to start call "Emotion Repetition," something I got from another ALT here. I drew four faces on the board: happy, sad, angry, and surprised. The kids were already getting wound up as I was drawing, yelling out "Oooh! It's crying! How sad!" or "Oh!! That one's angry!" in Japanese. We then practiced saying the names of the fruits with that emotion. I had a hard time not laughing after every single one of the repetitions. Kids are such great mimics, so I kept hearing my exact inflection being thrown back at me (something that doesn't happen at all in the middle school). Add to this the fact that they really, REALLY loved the "angry" repetition, and, well... you don't know cute until you have a room of 30 kids growling "WATERMELON!" at you.

After I was pretty confident of their abilities to identify the fruits, we played a game called "Fruit Basket." It's a Japanese game that's sort of like a mix of duck-duck-goose and musical chairs. I gave everyone a card with a fruit on it and then stood in the middle and said the name of one of the fruits we had studied. Everyone with that fruit on their card had to switch places, while I took someone's seat. Thus, there was a new person in the middle who had a yell a fruit, and so forth. The trump card was yelling "fruit basket!" at which everyone had to change places. It was incredibly fun and cute. We ran around like crazy people. Kids wiped out trying to sit down first. There was utter chaos. But we played this game for some 25 minutes, an impressive feat for 8 year olds, and they LOVED it. I had another activity planned, but the kids were having so much fun that I just made them change cards and let the game continue.

My face hurts from smiling and laughing. It was incredible. Kids are not allowed to be that cute.

I also ate lunch with one of the classes, which was insanely adorable. After much debate as to where I would sit, I ate at the front of the classroom so everyone could see me. They were asking me a bunch of questions the entire time ("How old are you? EEHHH?? 22!!"; "What is your favorite fruit?"; "What is your favorite vegetable?"; "What is your favorite sport?"; "How do you write your name? EHHH!! It's so long!!"; "Do you have a boyfriend?"; "What is your favorite bug?"; "Can you speak Japanese?"). One kid kept running up to my desk and babbling at me in Japanese; he even started reading to me out of a book at one point. I don't think he managed to eat half of his food because he was too busy chattering at me. Other kids in the class kept coming up and either steering him back to his desk or physically picking him up and moving him there, which would last for some three seconds before he was back at the desk and chattering away. It was hilarious. The teacher told me later that he usually hates English class, but he enjoyed class today so much that he got excited when he saw me at lunch, too.

What do we call that? We call that "the BEST COMPLIMENT EVER."

This experience is completely different from what I have gotten from my middle school. The kids there are so jaded by studying and school that they can't be bothered with games and fun. On the other hand, the kids here are almost too excited by the foreigner making a fool of herself at the front of the class. It was a tiring but wonderful experience, and I can tell it will always be the highlight of my week.

07 October 2007

Exercise or Exorcise?

AKA: "I gotta devil in the back wheel, back wheel, back wheel..."

In my adult class a couple of weeks ago, I had to explain the phrase “one hell of a _______.” God must’ve been planning ahead in his providence, ‘cause the only way to describe this week is by starting off with “well, everyone, it’s been one hell of a week.”

My bike is one that Pete, my predecessor, got me from one of his friends. I don’t know how old it is or how its previous owner used it, but I’m pretty sure that whatever they did made the back wheel an especially appealing living space for demons. It's the only explanation. For example, the back tire went flat one day; I can accept that this was likely because I was being an idiot and rode over a rock or somesuch. I went to get it fixed on a Friday and it was completely flat fewer than 24 hours later and for no apparent reason. Even better – when I found that it was completely flat was not when I was at home, but when I was at a train station and needed to ride this bike some 20 minutes in order to *get* home. (That was fun...) But I was unsuspecting of the demonic nature of this wheel, so I swallowed the $35 cost of fixing the same wheel twice in one weekend and figured I had to be more careful.

Zip forward to this past Monday morning. I was late leaving the house, and was hurrying on my bike to school. This of course meant that the lights were against me the whole way. Good news: there’s only one light to be against me between my apartment and the school. Bad news: the demon in my back wheel decided that my short stop at the light was clearly a time to wreak havoc. The light changed, I moved forward...and my bike decidedly did not. I thought the chain had fallen off (which has happened before on this bike), or something had gotten stuck in the back gear (again, has happened before). Investigation proved my theories wrong and offered no other solution, so I ended up carrying my bike the rest of the way to school – a good 5 minutes of walking. This, of course, made me late. Normally I wouldn’t care, but being late is a big deal around here, especially for foreigners; we're stereotyped as being so uncaring of the time of others that we're habitually late. At least my Kyoto-sensei (vice-principal; the one who cares if I’m late) got a kick out of my sob story about the bike and the fact that I was sprinting in to school once I got my bike locked inside the school gates, so I wasn’t in trouble.

What was the problem? The spokes on the wheel were broken. Thus, the wheel had collapsed on itself and bent the frame of the wheel, making the tire scrape against the bike frame in such a way that the wheel could not move forward or backward without great force.

The groundskeeper drove me and my bike to the local bike store to see how much it would cost to get this problem fixed. Answer? A whopping $75.
Know how much a new bike costs? One that was pretty much the exact same as the one I have?

If I learned anything from all of this, it's that my kouchou-sensei (principal) and my supervisor are really great. Both of them offered me used bikes that were at the school/Board of Education to use instead of fixing my current bike. But, having strong evidence that used bikes equate to homes for damned spirits, I decided to spend the extra money to get a new bike. It's pretty, shiny, and I actually like its add-ons better than the ones my old bike had, so ... hurray! Although it was a pretty crappy scenario (one of many from this past week, I hate to say), it all turned out well enough in the end that I can smile, laugh, and feel pretty good about it in the end.

In conclusion:

Fixing two flat tires: $35.
Buying a new bike entirely: $95.
Getting a few laughs out of the grounds keeper by saying “this tire is a DEMON!” in Japanese: Priceless.

20 September 2007

"So, How Is Japan?"

AKA: Leslie really isn't as dumb as she sounds in most of this post.

Several people have asked me over the weekend about how I am adjusting to being in Japan. Since I haven't answered this directly in any of my posts, I thought I'd go on ahead and do so now.

The other day, I was walking to the local mall ("Joyful Honda") and thinking about the fact that I am, in fact, living in Japan. As stupid as it sounds, I honestly forget this fact most of the time. The only time when I truly remember that I am living abroad is when I am walking somewhere and see the roofs of the buildings around me, or the grave sites, or the rice fields. It's just a little hard to ignore those blatant differences.

So, I was walking to Joyful Honda and thinking about the fact that I only rarely remember that I'm in Japan. My train of thought went a little something like this: "I mean, it's not all that different here, really. I don't usually notice the language difference when I'm at school because I tend to be working on something in the staff room and tune out the talking of the people around me. Plus, after years of watching anime, the sound of Japanese isn't too unusual to me. Yeah, there are a lot more Asians around than I'm used to seeing at once, but it's not like I've never been around a group of Asians before. And it's not like being surrounded by strangers is all that unusual, as I rarely ran into someone I knew when I was out shopping or whatever at home. [At this point, I was almost entering the mall itself, and getting a lot of stares because I'm a foreigner.] I guess I could get stared at in America, too..." And this is when I realized that everything I had been thinking was utter crap.

I honestly don't know why I feel so at home here. When I think about the differences in food, social norms, language, and the way I live my life here (no car, almost completely illiterate, a teacher, and so on), I barely see anything that resembles my life stateside. Despite these differences, I truly feel at home here. In fact, since I moved into my apartment in Ota, I haven't had a single moment of "oh my goodness gracious, why did I think coming to Japan was a good idea?" worrying. While I have been, and to a certain extent am still, anticipating some sort of breakdown in October, after I've had a month of classes and whatnot, I have to admit that there are only two weeks left in September and I'm doing really well.

I am more upbeat and happy here, on a consistent basis, than I have ever been in my life. A good part of this is because I am almost constantly "on display." As I'm a foreigner, I attract a lot of attention when I'm out and about - let's face it, I stick out like a sore thumb here! Foreigners are usually treated with a little distance, either through shyness or through some preconceived (negative) notion, so I try to look happy and friendly whenever I'm out to battle these thoughts. In addition, the best way to keep the attention of my students is to be as upbeat, energetic, and goofy as possible. It's hard to act energetic, happy, and friendly all the time without actually becoming energetic, happy, and friendly. That being said, I do not have any reason to be sad while having a million reasons to be happy. My interactions with people here almost always take a positive note, and I say "almost always" because I was taught to avoid absolutes if possible. There are also a bunch of Assistant Language Teachers in my town (around 20, total), and Caitlin, another JET that I have been hanging out with since I arrived in Japan, is only a 25 minute bike ride away - if I am really in need of a native English speaker, it's not too hard to find one.

In short, things in Japan are great! Things may change once it gets cold (it's easy to be despondent when you're freezing your butt off), but until then, I'm pretty sure that I will love every day I spend here.

18 September 2007

The Speech Contest

AKA: Leslie suddenly turns into "one of those" mothers.

Ever since I arrived at Ikushina Jr. High, I have been working with four girls in preparation for a city-wide English speech contest. I have been there from the writing of the speeches (correcting them was one of the first things I did when I arrived) to the practicing of gestures. These girls truly have been wonderful, and I loved the time I spent with them on these speeches.

The speech contest itself was last Friday, and I was allowed to miss half a day of school to go see it. There were two categories - the regular, main category, and the "I lived in an English-speaking country for a while" category, called the "returnee category." Three of my girls were in the former and one was in the latter - the maximum allowed for each. The regular category had two rounds - a preliminary round, with 42 contestants separated into three rooms, and a final round, for which only 9 of the 42 students (the top 3 of each room) were selected. The returnee category had only one round, as there were only five students in it.

It was amazing to see my kids in action. They all did wonderfully - none of them had to be prompted with the lines of their speech, and all of them spoke loudly, clearly, and slowly, using wonderful gestures. I took a million pictures of them while they were talking, becoming "one of those" parents (though I wasn't a parent at all). I couldn't have been more proud of them.

Or so I thought! Two of my students made it into the final round of the regular category, one of whom ultimately won second place, while my returnee student ended up winning first place in her category. The two that placed will be going on to compete in the prefectural contest, and the winner from that contest gets a free trip to America for a year. Talk about the icing on the cake! I was grinning from ear to ear LONG after the contest was over. I couldn't calm down, even when I was riding back from the contest with my principal. I spent all weekend bragging about them to various people (I'm sorry if you had to suffer this!), and now, I'm ready to work hard with the two prize-winners toward their next contest. As the Japanese say, "Ganbatte!" (which translates to everything from "good luck" to "work hard" to "fight!!")

13 September 2007

A Bear in the Tree

AKA: My Time as a Doll

One of my favorite people in Ikushina Jr. High is Kumaki-sensei. She is about 5-foot-nothing, and is 45 years old, though I honestly thought she was joking when she said so; she looks at least ten years younger, and rarely acts older than 25. She is self-depricating in a way that I, as a Southern woman, fully appreciate, but is in no way jaded - she takes delight in everything, from the electronic dictionary "game" for my Nintendo DS to the fact that I drink beer (a "vice" that she shares, unlike many of the female teachers at Ikushina). She gives me a big smile when I am heading off to class, which always gives me an extra boost. In short, she feels just like many of my mother's friends, being older than me, wiser than me, and an absolute blast.

Kumaki-sensei is a long-term substitute teacher; she's been filling in since January for an art teacher on maternity leave, and will be leaving Ikushina after December. Despite her temporary status, she's clearly qualified for the job. All I can say of her art is that it's beautiful, and I am secretly hoping that one day she will give me one of her pieces. On top of that, she's one of the hardest working teachers at Ikushina (in my opinion), as she's the only art teacher in the school, and thus teaches all three years by herself. (That's some 9 classes, fyi.)

One day, Kumaki-sensei asked me if I'd be willing to help her daughter, a third year in junior high, with her English speech contest material. I was glad to, as Kumaki-sensei had already won me over, and the next Sunday found me at her house with her daughter, Fumiko, working on her speech. At least, that was the original reason - in truth, I think Kumaki-sensei wanted an excuse to have me at her mercy. Of the four or five hours I was at her house, I probably spent 45 minutes working on the speech with her daughter. The rest of the time, I was looking at photos of her family, enjoying her food, having my picture taken around her house with her or her daughter, and, best of all, getting dressed up in a yukata (summer kimono) of her daughter's. She brought it out and said she HAD to see it on me, that she thought it would be so cute, and spent ten minutes clucking over me as she worked me into it. I couldn't help but feel like a doll at the hands of an overly excited six-year-old...and yet, I loved every minute of it. I couldn't stop smiling the whole time I was there.

After all of this, Kumaki-sensei drove me back to my apartment, having given me print-outs of the photos she took and several peaches as "souvenirs." Once we arrived, she asked me (ever so adorably) if she and Fumiko could see my apartment. It was absolutely adorable to see her "ooh" and "ahh" over my apartment and the things I had. In fact, most of the things I have bought for my apartment since then, while necessary, have been bought with Kumaki-sensei in mind. ("Won't Kumaki-sensei enjoy seeing this when she visits me next!") She also offered to teach me how to cook Japanese dishes, which makes me horrendously excited. I can only hope that I will get to experience this pleasure sometime soon. After nearly dying from laughter when I called my predecessor "a bit messy," she and Fumiko left to go back home...only for most of this to become her topic of conversation at school for the next week.

And that, my friends, was the time I spent as a Japanese doll. With all luck, I'll get to have this experience many more times!

Oh, and the title - the kanji (Chinese characters) for Kumaki-sensei's name are "bear" and "tree," something that came up when I was explaining that "Forrest" probably comes from "forest" and is just one of those little misspelled things that sticks around. I hope to sometime soon make something for her along the lines of a bear in a tree, but haven't quite decided how I'm going to do this yet. Maybe I'll sew something together...

11 September 2007

My New Life


As of Monday, I have taught at least two classes in every grade at the middle school. It has been an experience. Most of this is summed up in classroom behavior.

When it comes to English class, the main thing that defines how a student will behave is their level of motivation to learn English:

- The third years, who have their (horrendously scary) entrance exams coming upare very motivated to learn English, as it is a significant part of their exam. For them, the main problem is staying awake in class – as they are usually attending juku, or cram school, after class and studying late into the night, they are often unable to stay awake in class. If I act goofy, they wake up a bit, and it’s easier for everyone. For example, my teacher asked the students in a third year class if they had any questions for me. When no one said anything, I looked at the ground, shuffled my feet, and acted very sad in general. My teacher belted out, “She looks so sad!!” and I instantly got three questions. Lesson learned: be entertaining for the third years.

- The first years are just hyper. They have a hard time paying attention because they are 13 years old and crammed into a classroom with 32 of their peers. The fact that a boring teacher is in the front of the class does not stop them from chatting with everyone around them. But, if you give them an outlet for their energy, they pay attention fairly well. We played a game called “Typhoon” for my self introduction. Basically, you answer questions for points, which equate into houses in your team’s “village.” To make this fun, you can occasionally get a TYPHOON card, which lets you select another team’s “village” to wipe out with a typhoon. The team with the most houses at the end wins. One of my students really won my heart because he was SO INTO this game. He would lean over to other teams and telling them wrong answers. He would JUMP out of his seat whenever it was his team’s turn to answer a question. In fact, he went nuts when he found out we were going to be playing Typhoon, pumping a thumbs-up in the air. He’s not even that good at English – he’s just excitable. (He went nuts when I said I liked Orange Range and Avril Lavigne [this last one being an outright lie, but hey, I need the bonus points with these kids and she’s really popular].) So, again – be entertaining and they will be motivated to learn.

- The second years…well, around the staff room, there is a general consensus that they are Satan’s Little Helpers. The problem is that they have no motivation to learn English (or any other subject, for that matter). They are bored with it, annoyed that they have to study it, and are starting to wonder why it is required when they don’t see a need to use it … ever. “My dad doesn’t know how to speak English – why should I?” This makes them the most difficult group with which I must work. To give you a better idea, this is what happened in one of my 2nd year classes on Friday: three kids were asleep the entire class, despite being woken up by the teacher at least once. One kid was reading a comic book in class, and tried to steal it back from the teacher after it was confiscated. And then, of course, there was the Bad Kid – he spent the entire class mocking whatever I or the other teacher said, throwing things at other students, getting up and walking around, and so forth. (It was…fun.) Still, “every obstacle is an opportunity in disguise.” Because I am not the primary teacher, I can be friends with my students, which will earn me a lot of leeway. The fortunate thing is that my main goal is not to win over everyone, but the worst kid in the class – usually he or she will be the ‘leader’ of all of the bad kids, so winning one will win a number of them.

In short, it’s been a challenging week. I have learned that there are many things I have to do, and it’s hard to be energetic all of the time, especially if you’re getting negative results.

Still, the hard times are severely outnumbered by the fun ones.

1. I had a hard time discussing a class with my team-teacher when we are walking back to the staff room because so many students are saying “hello” to me.

2. One girl watched me with a dreamy look when I sang “Georgia On My Mind” (something I do to get the attention of the 2nd years in my self-introduction lesson), which was better than all of the verbal comments about my singing made to date.

3. Two of my teachers were telling me yesterday that I was so nice and friendly, and that everyone thinks I must have a wonderful family to be such a nice person.

4. One teacher told me she was surprised at how polite I was, because I bow when I say “thank you.”

5. As I was leaving school yesterday, the whole soccer team stopped their cool-down stretch to say “goodbye” to me.

The good moments always seem to outnumber the bad, and that’s really all I need to survive, and even thrive, in this environment.

… And, of course, a lot of caffeine.

03 September 2007

Memorizing Japanese Leads to Dreams of Hot Bodz.

(Proven Fact.)

Maybe a week or so ago, my principle mentioned that he would like me to give a speech at the opening ceremony for the school (today). On further pressing, I found out that it should be a couple of minutes long and preferably (aka: no choice) in Japanese.

In a way, this was good - I have a couple of students who are going to be in an English speech contest soon, and they enjoyed playing teacher and correcting my grammar and pronunciation in retaliation for my "attacks" on their speeches. But, in another way, this was bad, in that I had to give a speech in Japanese for two freakin' minutes.

I still had half of the speech to memorize last night. I studied so furiously that I had a dream in which Brad Pitt and Ed Norton came to visit "WashU" (which looked suspiciously like my house in Gainesville) and Brad Pitt started speaking in Japanese.
I wish I were joking.

This morning, I repeated the speech over and over again on the way to school. I repeated it again and again during the ceremony. And, suddenly, I found myself on stage, in front of several hundred students who were looking very, VERY confused.

Here's what I said:

"Good morning! (I had to repeat this, because I didn't get enough of a 'good morning' from the students the first time around. ^_~) [then, in Japanese] My name is Leslie Forrest. Please call me 'Miss Leslie.' I am from Atlanta, Georgia in America. Georgia is in the south-east of America. Atlanta is famous for Coca-Cola and the 1996 Olympics. 'Georgia Coffee' [a popular drink here] is NOT from Georgia!
My major in college was Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology. I like German and Italian.
This is my first time in Japan. I am happy to be teaching at Ikushina Junior High and in Ota. Please talk to me anytime, anywhere. Japanese is still a little hard for me, so I'll keep trying! Thank you very much."

Amazingly enough, I did not have to think about what I was going to say before I said it. Either I was so nervous that I went on auto-pilot, and was thankfully accurate, or I managed to transcend the mental repetition and just go straight to saying it. Either way, it went without a hitch, though I was still thankful to be off of the stage.

Afterwards, several of the teachers told me they were amazed that I memorized such a long speech in Japanese. Apparently, that either wasn't required or wasn't expected. (Thanks for letting me know! -_-;;) But hey, at least it's over.

...until I have to give it again to the elementary school! Ahahhahahahahaha. Ha.

31 August 2007

Saito-sensei and the Bento Box

AKA: "No, this isn't the 8th Harry Potter book."

One of the hardest things about Japan, for me, is preparing my own food. This is for two reasons:

1. It’s often hard to know what I’ve bought at the store, or how to prepare it.
I’m lazy.

What this usually means is that I cook something in the morning for lunch, run out of time to do things like put on make-up and eat breakfast, and then eat the leftovers from my cooking in the morning for dinner. This is less than conducive toward my presentation abilities, which, in Japan, is a pretty major failing of my lunches.

Japanese food presentation is an art. It is expected that the food will look as delicious as it tastes, if not more so. When it comes to lunches brought from home, called ‘bento,’ this is no exception. I recently heard a Japanese teacher confess that she got up at 4:00 every morning to prepare her daughter’s lunch. That is about 2.5 or 3 hours devoted to cooking one (rather compact) meal. Add to this that the aesthetic of the bento box, or lunch box, itself is almost as important as the presentation of the food inside of it, and you begin to realize how time consuming the venture of making a lunch can be. (And to think, all I got for years on end was PB&J and celery sticks in a paper bag…)

Because I am a foreigner, I am not held to the same standards in my bento-making as a Japanese person would be. The art of food presentation isn’t in my blood; I can’t help my inabilities. Thus, the mere fact that I cook my own food amazes my fellow teachers. Plus, I am doing my best to make Japanese foods, as the materials are cheaper to buy at the store, making the total level of surprise at my bento jump dramatically. My rushed cooking and presentation, then, does not really matter.

Enter Saito-sensei, stage right. Saito-sensei sits next to me in the staff room. This must be strategic fate, as he is very paternal in nature and goes out of his way to take care of me. For instance, he found out that I liked an anime called “Cardcaptor Sakura,” and within a few days he brought me the entire set of the Cardcaptor Sakura comic books as gift. (His daughter had the series, but no longer read them, so ‘she’ gave them to me.) I have many stories like this, but let it suffice to say that Saito-sensei is one of my favorites.

Now, back to bento. Saito-sensei thinks, like many of the other teachers, that the fact that I make my lunch is amazing. Unlike the other teachers, however, he makes sure to get a good look at my lunch every day. He usually will then brag about it to the other teachers: “Hey [so-and-so]-sensei! Did you see that Leslie brought udon to school today?”

I won’t lie; at first, this really irked me. “Yes, I can make stir-fry. Yes, I eat rice. Gasp! … GET OVER IT.” were my general thoughts at his regular interest. Since the first few days, however, Saito-sensei has become the inspiration for my lunch-creation schemes. His interest is a challenge to me to cook something interesting. Once I get a better feel for cooking Japanese food (more on this to follow), I hope to churn out better bentos. And, when I become a world-class lunch-creation queen, and my children’s lunches are the envy of all the other children, I’ll be sure to send a postcard Saito-sensei’s way.

10 August 2007

Settling in...

みさしぶり! (Long time, no see!) Yes, I'm still alive and doing well. It's been an intense (almost) 2 weeks since I arrived in Japan.

... was intense. I didn't get to see much of the city because I was constantly in meetings during the day, and too tired to venture out at night. The few times I did go out, however, impressed me with one thing: Tokyo is a big and scary city. Everything is of concrete, everything is packed in as tight as possible...it is the epitome of the Japanese stereotype. I'm glad to no longer be there.

We left Tokyo on the Wednesday before last (the 1st of August) and were sent out to our prefectures. Some thirty of us were going to Gunma, my prefecture, so the bus ride was interestingly enjoyable. There was a short ceremony to introduce us to our supervisors, and then we were off to our individual towns.

I am one of three new JETs to be arriving in Ota; one has yet to arrive, and another arrived with me. That being said, there are many ALTs (assistant language teachers) here...about 20. These others are privately contracted, and apparently think that the JETs are stuck up brats. I'm going to do my best to change this opinion of us... Nevertheless, what this effectively means is that I'm not the only English speaker around, though I am still very much in the constant presence of Japanese people. I hope to learn Japanese quickly, and think it very possible.

Ota is a fairly large city, as far as things go - it's the third largest in the prefecture. I feel very much at home here. I sometimes forget that I am in Japan, as my surroundings are very comfortable. Then again, as of late, I've been treading the same path again and again: to school, to the store, and back home. It's easy to feel comfortable when your world is that small.

I'm already going to school on a daily basis. Teachers do not get breaks when the students do, so the fact that the students will not be starting class again until September does not prevent us from coming in. I rather like being at school, however, if only because the staff room is air conditioned (unlike the rest of my school), which is a great luxury for the teachers and, more importantly, for me, as it is cool air that I don't have to pay for. A/C is mostly provided through a window unit here, as the idea of central air is a complete novelty, and is rather expensive. This not only means that my apartment is always hot, but that the rooms are not connected by vents in any way. If a room is closed, it is CLOSED.
So, Georgia-esque heat and humidity and a general inability to run the A/C? Of COURSE I want to be at school!
If the fact that this is a break does not prevent the teachers from being at school at all hours, it most certainly does not prevent the students from being here, either. There is a big emphasis on sports teams here, with nearly all students being involved in some sport, so they are always here for practice. Also, the school is cleaned by the students, so every morning has a troope of students coming through the staff room and taking out the trash, vacuuming, etc. It's wonderfully adorable. (Especially when they walk past the windows to the staff room, or come in to talk to a sensei, and freak out at seeing me instead of a redheaded guy.)

That's already a lot of information, and my lunch break is almost over, so I need to get back to work. More after this weekend!

30 July 2007

In Japan!

It's almost 5 in the morning here, and thanks to a combination of jet lag and my roommate's impressive capacity for snoring, I find myself awake.


We arrived in the Narita airport around 5:30 last night after a 13 hour flight, and then enjoyed a two-hour bus ride to our hotel in Tokyo proper. After a flurry of "go this way"s and "pick up these"s, I found myself on the streets of Tokyo with a couple of acquaintances I made in Hartsfield. We had an amazing curry dinner, which was very fun to order - the ordering and paying process went through an elaborate vending machine. Still, a large plate of curry (the "small" size), a bowl of miso soup, and a 17 ounce beer for approx. $4? I think I'm in love.

It's a beautiful morning thus far - Tokyo is apparently always misty in the mornings, and today is no exception. As my roommate's snores are lessening and I find myself tiring, I'll leave you with another photo - the view of Tokyo from my hotel window.

17 June 2007

I'm going back to middle school...*sob*

I've heard from my predecessor (finally!), which means I now know a little about my job assignment in Ota. I'll be teaching mainly at Ikushina Junior High School, as well as spending one day a week at a local elementary school.

Now, putting aside the fact that I don't even want to THINK about being in middle school again, I'm horrendously excited. I love the idea of getting to teach at an elementary school as well as a middle school, and I'm beginning to think of things I want to try out with them (in very broad terms). Also, look at this:

Those are some of the elementary school kids with my predecessor.
(And yes, every picture he has taken of his kids has them doing peace signs.)

Outside of that, I don't have much more information. I sent Pete (predecessor) a ton of questions, and will hopefully get my answers soon. I bought an external hard drive recently,and just received my copy of the Blair Handbook, a grammar reference recommended by Rafael. Woohoo for some light, bedtime reading. O_o

And...that's pretty much it. More for y'all when there's more for me. :D

21 May 2007

Placement (plus)!

I've received word about my placement in Japan! It's in Ota city, in the Gunma prefecture (kinda like a state), which puts me around 1.5 hours outside of Tokyo by train. (See Wikipedia and the town's official site for more information, if you're curious.)

In essence, this is all perfect for me. The town is by no means small - my hometown is just around a tenth of Ota's size - but it's certainly smaller than Tokyo! There are a bunch of schools, so it's likely that I'll be teaching at a couple of them; that's exciting, because I'm becoming more and more excited about that aspect of the program. And there are going to be a few other JETs in the prefecture, so if I'm really needing someone to understand what I'm going through, I've got a couple within a short distance. So, hurray!

I've graduated, which is frightening, to say the least. All of last week, I felt as if I would explode if I had to suffer through another "oh, how we love the Class of 2007!" event. Now... well, it's more that I'm starting to realize just how unlikely it is I will run into some of the wonderful people I got to know at WashU. I had to cancel plans I had with Jeff yesterday because I was sobbing in my room because I don't know that I will ever get to live with hannah again. There won't be that boost to my self esteem I would get from seeing someone I know in Whispers nearly every time I go there. To quote King Mongkut, "Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera." It's enough to make a girl cry, and damn it, I inherited my crying genes from my mother (who is infamous for having cried at a McDonald's commercial).

But hey, whatever, 'cause it's an inevitable part of life. I did it for GHP (granted, it was 6 weeks instead of 4 years), and I'll do it again for Japan, not to mention the other things I do in my life. And hey, at least I've got das Internet to keep me in touch with these people.

(That is, if any of them read my blog. :P)

11 May 2007

"Snarky" is a fun word.

One thing for which I'm thankful from this semester is the amount of walking I've done. Due to a combination of laziness in several arenas and the rising price of gas, I've been walking as much as possible, and I think this will put me in good stead for being in Japan and walking/riding a bike a lot.

Random segue.

I'm starting to dislike many of the other JETs I'm getting to know via the email groups I am on. When a question has been answered several times, in several different places, stop asking the question. Someone recently asked when we were going to hear about placements - we've been told "late May" for months. The man in charge of the Chicago-area JETs, which includes me, made the absolute best response to this worthless question (it almost made me want to drive to Chicago to give him a hug):
"Hopefully within the next few weeks.
I haven't finished making up the
'Placement Dartboard' yet, in which I
attach slips of paper with your names
on them to darts and then throw them
at a wall-map of Japan. I always aim
at Kyoto and Tokyo, but I also drink
more and more beer as I go down the
list, so it's not unheard of for late
upgraded alternates to end up with
placements on buoys in the middle of
the Sea of Japan or, like last year, in
(Gotta love people with snarky senses of humor.)

My new laptop was ordered on Monday and is scheduled to arrive tomorrow. It's a Mac, which makes me feel unclean in a way that soap and water won't solve. That being said, I'm still very excited at the prospect of getting a new shiny with which to play. I'm in the process of shopping for accessories (laptop bag, external hard drive, etc) - always fun.

I've joined a rewards program in an effort to not spend money on accessories for my shiny, and it's a pretty nice deal. You write reviews for restaurants, stores, and the like, and then get points for said reviews. The points then can be redeemed for gift cards to restaurants, stores, or prizes. Plus, the points-to-dollars conversion is pretty high; it's about a dollar per review.
AKA: Let me know if you're interested in joining, and I'll send you an email for it. :D

01 May 2007

The Latest

I submitted my acceptance of the JET position on Saturday. In short, it's official - barring horrible circumstance in the next three months, I'm going to Japan. Huzzah! Now all I have to do is buy a new laptop, buy a bunch of books, read a bunch of books, graduate, learn hirigana and katakana, compress my life into two suitcases, and somehow manage to not die in the process. @_@

Introduction and F.A.Q.s

This blog is dedicated to the one I love the year, possibly more, that I will be spending in Japan through the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program.

Since my LiveJournal is friends only, I thought I would make a more accessible journal for those not of the LJ persuasion - granted, that does mean it will be (somewhat) edited for mass consumption. [Read: fewer touchy-feely moments.] Also, I'll be cross-posting all of these to my LJ, for all of those who enjoy the "friends page" way of reading posts.


Here are the answers to a few questions I keep hearing as of late.

Where will you be in Japan?
I don't know yet. (RAWRZ.) I'll find out sometime in late May, but I'm expecting to be placed in a small town out in the middle of nowhere. Huzzah!

What are you doing, again?
The position title is "Assistant Language Teacher;" in short, I'm there to be a "native expert" in English and help my partner teacher as much as he/she feels is needed.
Read: Anything goes.

What age range will you be teaching?
Yet another thing I don't know! :D I'll get that info along with my placement in late May.

Do you know any Japanese?
Not really. Most of my Japanese is from Anime. What that means is that, should I need to tell someone to die in the command form, I'm set; if I need to get milk in the grocery store, I'm kind of screwed. So the first few months will be fun.