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.