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