With the best of intentions, and the worst motivation, I’ve been meaning to write more about life in Japan as the days pass quickly by. As we near the end of November, Kailem and I bring the first third of our second year, or two thirds of our total time in Japan to a close. While at times the 8 months left in our contract seems incredibly long, I’m certain it’ll be over before we know it, and I’ll be wishing I’d jotted down at least a few memories.
A friend of mine, who keeps a great blog, started writing “The Lost Blogs” as she relives her first adventures in Japan. What a great idea! I thought to myself, I should do that! and promptly forgot. Not today, though! Today, I have ample free time at work as my students enter the gauntlet of final exams. Today, I have my laptop and wireless. Today, I have a cause. And that cause, gentle reader, is the Promotion of International Recognition of Terry Fox.
If you’re reading this from the cold, wintry confines of the Canadian borders, you are lucky enough to know Terry Fox as a national hero. You may have run a few Terry Fox Runs in your elementary school career, and perhaps you are under the impression, as I was, that Terry Fox is beloved not only by Canadians, but by the world at large. Brace yourself: you’d be mistaken.
About a year ago, after we’d been living in Japan for several months, we were at our friends Heather and Travis’ apartment drinking wine and playing Things with a group of friends. During a particularly heated round of the party game, one of the three Canadians in attendance wrote “Terry Fox” as their answer and after the round had been played, the two Americans wondered at who this Terry Fox was. “You don’t know who Terry Fox is?!” the three Canadians replied, indignant. They hadn’t a clue. We asked our Kiwi friend. Surely, our Commonwealth friend could help us out. To our horror, he couldn’t. We spent the next hour telling the story of Terry Fox (with a little help from Wikipedia - hey! Do you know where he started and where he ended his journey?), and divulging about some of our other great Canadian icons, like The Littlest Hobo.
After this harrowing event, we asked a number of our non-Canadian friends if they had heard of Terry Fox. We asked our British friends, our Australian friends, our Brazilian friends, our South African friends,. Not a single one had. Travis continued the humiliation by asking all of his friends at home in Philadelphia about Terry Fox. It became quickly evident that nobody outside of Canada, not even our good neighbours to the south, had ever heard the name of one of our most beloved, if not our most iconic Canadian figure. It couldn’t be. It wouldn’t be. Something had to be done, and I was going to do it.
How, you’re asking yourself, was I planning to spread the word of Terry Fox’s legacy? Well, sweet reader, you’ll have to wait until the next entry for that story. Court’s done about all she can for one day.
“Russian architect, Alexander Remizov, is the mastermind behind the project, he believes that his floating “slinky,” which can hold up to 10,000 people can have multiple uses, including a safe house for disaster relief. The prototype’s main materials are timber, steel ,and high-strength ETFE plastic and it is built to handle land and/or water.”
I usually rail on fanciful architect schemes, but this looks awesome. Firstly, it’ll actually float and be stable (heat storing water ballast!) but also, if you can wire it right, on top of potential water source thermal heating and cooling and extensive PV will be evapotranspirative cooling.
It looks like a well thought-through nugget of future.
This is amazing!
By now, almost every ear will have heard and many eyes seen the devastation in Japan at the hands of Mother Nature in the form of earthquake and tsunami. It’s all we can do to stand with our eyes glued to the news, slowly taking in the depth and vastness of the chaos, frozen in place.
But how long can we watch in awe, jaw dropped, at the chilling images? When is it okay to move again? What is appropriate, what is inappropriate? Can we celebrate amidst the sadness and terror felt by so many? And how do we go about life as usual, with the knowledge of this disaster and the tragedies of so many looming? I can’t count how many times I’ve told friends and family This is absolutely surreal, and this surrealism comes from the point at which this life-changing, country-defining disaster clashes with the mundane. Although this huge, intense thing has happened, we still have to eat, and sleep, and shit. We still have conversations, although few, unrelated to Friday’s earthquake. The incredible nearness, and yet significant distance from the area affected by the earthquake makes that line between staying put and moving in an even stranger place.
I was talking about this with a friend, and she put it in beautiful way: as human beings, it is in our very nature to remain unstuck, to be unable to stay in one time. We are movers, pushed along by time. That’s not to say that some people do not get stuck, do not live in that one moment forever, in their own minds. Time overtakes them, though and forces life to maintain momentum.
Since Friday afternoon, I’ve been feeling waves of consciousness and understanding, building up and tearing back down. At the time the earthquake hit, I was on the third floor of my high school, practicing with the brass band for an upcoming concert. We felt the quake, building swaying, feeling dizzy, but it was slow, and gentle, and long. The notes we played fell to the floor and we fell silent. After a few moments, we remarked at the oddness, and kept playing. We had no knowledge of anything beyond the band room door. After another hour of practicing, I returned to the staff room to see the TVs on and all eyes pointed towards the news. Although it seems silly to me now, it took me a while to shake the thought of This can’t be what we felt – this must be different. The two didn’t feel connected – the gentle quake here and the intense destruction in the north. I left work in a daze, and at home quickly sent a message to family and friends at home to let them know that we are okay.
Kailem had gone to Hamamatsu for the day, so I tried to call him to see if he had felt the quake and had heard all of the news. I would soon discover, though that the phone lines were down due to an overload and couldn’t get through to him. I jumped on Facebook and sent him a message and soon after heard back – we were able to stay in touch only through social networking and the iPhone he had with him. The trains were down by this point, so I drove to the station to pick him up. I spent the rest of the night driving to friends’ homes to pick them up and heading together to a friend’s home in a nearby city. Together, we talked about how we couldn’t believe what was happening, our worries, what to do, and we laughed, too.
The next day, I spent some time alone watching the massive amounts of footage of the earthquake and tsunami. The shock slightly less, emotion now flooded in I was glad for the privacy to cry in.
The support and concern of family and friends back home was overwhelming. Those close to me and those I hadn’t talked to in years sent messages, emails, and phone calls to make sure of our safety.
The powerlessness that came with watching the footage urged me to find something to do. And it wasn’t hard to find. Many of my fellow foreigner friends were ahead of me: a quick peruse through my Facebook News Feed led me to a series of links offering to facilitate donating to the relief efforts. Although it couldn’t take away the sense of despair for those in the north, it was something, and even something small was important now. I am continually looking for other things we can do as time marches slowly forward.
On Monday, personal accounts of how the tsunami had affected individuals in the affected areas had started to come out. Although I thought I’d seen all I could see and felt hollowed out, the story of a man looking for his daughter, first by car and when that ran out of gas, running through the water and debris, crumbled me to a weepy mess. I read a series of tweets sent from Japan during the earthquake and tsunami (found here:http://prayforjapan.jp/message/?lang=en) and along with this article on Japan’s preparedness (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/asia-pacific/japans-response-to-quake-offers-lessons-to-the-world/article1938830/?from=sec385), felt an incredible sense of endearment towards Japan.
In Mikkabi, life goes on largely unaffected today. We come to work, we sit at our desks, we go home to our families. That odd sense of focusing on what we can do to help, without being consumed by the tragedy, while at the same time going about the mundane and continuing to live is ever-present. I am constantly reminded, and especially now about the strength and beautiful character of the Japanese people. There really are so many lessons to be learned from Japan in this time.
When I was in High School and College, the sports teams had strict rule about maintaining grades. Only if you were above a certain GPA were you allowed to play on the team. When your grades fell below, it was obviously a sign you weren’t spending enough time on your studies – and you were cut. In Japan, as far as I know, no such rule exists. At least not at Mikkabi High School. A good number of the baseball boys failed both the midterm and the final, and yet they’re on the field nearly every day until 8 or 9. It’s interesting to see the different values of these education systems coming out: in Canada, studies come first and clubs second, but in Japan club life is arguably the most important part of school.
As a new teacher coming into the Japanese education system, I thought it’d be fun to give club life a go. So, my recent forays into club life included brass band club and teacher’s volleyball. The first I felt moderately confident about; I had played in my high school’s band, but hadn’t done much with the flute beyond that. I had, however, been involved in something musical since about the age of 5. It was a steep re-learning curve, but soon my fingers knew where to put themselves in order to get a decent scale out. And it’s been uphill from there! A few weekends ago, we had our big year-end concert. You can watch a highlight above.
The teacher’s volleyball has been another kind of adventure. I haven’t played sports (beyond attempting to be invisible on a dodgeball court to raise money for charity) since high school, and I haven’t played volleyball since it was mandatory in Junior High School. I begrudgingly went to my first practice the day before the teacher’s volleyball tournament in Hamamatsu, cursing myself for agreeing to this torture. It turned out to be quite fun, despite my mediocre skills. We ended up playing a game of teachers vs. baseball boys. I came away with bruises all up and down my arms, but the baseball team was all smiles. After the tournament the next day (at which we were sorely beaten), we had an after-party and I ended up at Karaoke with two guys about my parents age, eating all-you-can-eat ice cream and belting out Lady Gaga (which has subsequently become my nickname, because all enkais end in Lady Gaga Karaoke now).
Who knows, if I can unlearn the association I now have with volley balls and pain, maybe I’ll give it another go one of these days!
This morning, like virtually every morning in Japan, began the same. I ate breakfast and sipped my morning coffee as I watched the morning news. I like having a morning routine and being able to take my time. It’s a lovely way to start the day! I’ve even found my favorite morning news station. I guess slow mornings is one of the luxuries I’m afforded, living right across the street from my school. Seeing as the intimate proximity to my workplace has also had its downsides - from students biking behind me to watch me walk home to the school telling me to cut my grass - I’ll take any small benefit I can get.
Usually, this favorite morning broadcast of mine runs a feature called “Somo Somo,” where the station introduces a question and a super genki host runs around Japan polling people on the answer. Some are really very interesting - for instance, one morning the super genki host was polling people on whether they knew certain kanji or not, and then went on to describe the origins of said kanji. Some are kind of enlightening, like the one where they polled gaikokujin (foreigners) on their favorite Japanese food, which ended up being ramen, and then their favorite ramen flavours. Some give me the giggles, like the poll on which candy is most popular among obaasans (grannies!) and most likely to be found in their purses.
But I digress. Back to this morning, which began like any other morning. But as I waited for my morning Somo Somo, I would be disappointed to find out it wasn’t airing today. Instead, they were showing a news story about a man. A bald man with a red eye. With my little Japanese, I gathered that this man was some kind of celebrity. And he was making a public apology. The news feature showed him at a press conference, where he first gave a long, low bow and then proceeded to answer questions. Obviously he’d done something very bad. Then they started showing footage of his wedding. So, what had he done that warranted this attention? Had he murdered his wife? Maybe he cheated? The bow - it was just so long. He spoke in a very serious voice and the newscasters discussing it afterwards all spoke in low tones. I was dying of curiosity, but sadly had to leave to make my morning meeting. I resolved to check it out when I had a free moment at work. And when that free moment came, this is what I found:
He’s a kabuki star! And he got into a bad barfight. And because of that, his shows were canceled and he had to hold a press conference and give a public apology. I couldn’t believe it! That doesn’t seem so bad, right?
America, take note! Maybe a little severity would go a long way. Maybe Hollywood stars would stop embarrassing themselves, because correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this basically every weekend for Lindsay Lohan?
Well, well! I sure have been slacking at the blogging thing! Whoops… But here I am, to make amends. So we’ve officially been in Japan for about two and a half months. It’s been insane to think of how quickly time is going. Kailem and I have been debating recently about how long we’d like to stay in Japan – I lean towards two years, while he leans towards one, although we both flip-flop a lot. If we do decide to stay one year, that means the adventure is already 1/6 over! We would only be here ten more months. Crazy!
A lot has happened since I last posted over a month ago. In general, our weeks have become pretty routine. I work until 4, then I am usually practicing with the brass band until 6, after which I go out for dinner with other JETs, attend Japanese lessons, go the gym with a friend in Arai, a nearby town, or enjoy a little down-time at home. Kailem is usually at work by the time I get home, and works until 9:30 most evenings. It’s been a little tough to have such conflicting schedules, but we’re making it work.
In general, I like the teaching job. There are times when I feel on top of the world – being able to motivate students makes you feel like a million bucks! – and there are other times when I feel unfulfilled. JET’s motto, which I’ve heard repeatedly since Orientation back in Canada, is “Every Situation Is Different” which is true, and I’ve realized this applies to my classes as well. I have some Japanese teachers whom I teach with who want me to basically be the “human tape recorder” – repeating dialogues out of a textbook, essentially. Others have me plan the review activities, which can be a lot of fun – the kids really get into anything competitive! And still others have me plan basically everything. While the class which I run by myself has been the most challenging – it takes a lot of work and if it fails, it’s all on me! Eeep! – it has also been the most rewarding. I feel that I am finding my stride more and more in that class, and the kids and I are warming up to each other. In the more Japanese teacher-run classes where I’m given a smaller role, it’s harder to feel relationships deepening with the students and it’s not very challenging, either. It takes little prep and gives little reward. So it’s been a really varied experience, but positive overall.
Kailem has had his own challenges and rewards at the Conversation School at which he teaches. He’s got a big age range, and he says his experience has taught him one thing for sure – he’s more suited to teaching older kids. He has more trouble with the younger students, in that they can be more difficult to control and it’s harder to have a conversation with them. He finds the junior high and high school classes the most rewarding.
The weekends have been great interruptions to our fairly quiet weekday existence in the Japanese countryside. We haven’t spent much time at home yet, as we’re trying to get out and see as much as possible. We’ve made trips to Nagoya (probably our favourite city so far), Shizuoka to visit a friend, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara, and another countryside village for their annual festival. It doesn’t look like it’s going to let up any time soon, either! We have trips planned for Nagoya to enjoy their cultural festival and 400th anniversary celebration of the city, to Shizuoka for the annual tea festival, to Fujikawa for White Water Rafting, and to Yokosuka for a home-stay. I think Kailem and I are both starting to itch for a relaxing weekend at home – we will have to take a weekend off soon! There are just so many awesome things to experience in Japan, it’s hard to slow down sometimes!
No pain, no gain: this is something one of the Japanese English teachers wrote on the blackboard of her homeroom class as midterms approach for the students next week. I really got a kick out of it, but it is a good thing to keep in mind, too. I am certainly reminding myself of it both as I study Japanese and strive to become a better teacher. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but the reward will be great! Wish us luck as we continue to build a life here. We love and miss everyone!
I am now standing on the other side of my first week of teaching and I’ve got to say, the view is pretty great from here! Any experience is more than I had before, so it’s nice to have a week under my belt.
My first class was… interesting. Ha! I wouldn’t say it was a bomb, but I was nervous so I spoke more quickly than I normally do, which is about ten times too fast for my students. I imagine there are some experienced teachers who can relate, thinking back on their first classes. I flew through my lesson and ended up having a bunch of extra time on my hands, but luckily I’d prepared many a back-up plan to fill the time should this very thing happen! For the most part, the class enjoyed it, although I’m afraid they probably understood a small fraction of what came out of my mouth.
My second class was much better. I slowed it right down and taught this class with a teacher I have a really good relationship with, which also made a big difference. My third class was even better than the last, and from there on, they kept getting better and better!
I’m getting to know my classes more, as well as my students. I’m learning what works in which classes and trying to adapt the lessons to suit those classes. I’ve had snoozers, chatters, cheaters, and overachievers, and I’m quickly learning how to deal with them all. Many of students are still very shy, but they’re all quite curious and eager to chat in the little English we can exchange. My second-year students made welcome cards for me before summer break and presented them to me in our second class. They were amazing! They explained all about food and drink and baseball and everything that makes Japan awesome. One of the students made origami for me and another one drew me a Japanese flag, which he was very excited about (not that hard really, if you can recall what the Japanese flag is).
One thing that’s been challenging for me is trying to mesh the high energy level I’d like to bring to class with the slow pace at which I have to speak. Normally, the more excited and energetic I am, the faster I speak, but now I’ve got to slow down, tremendously, beyond what is comfortable and natural, and still be really excited. It’s hard, but I’m slowly getting used to it.
I also joined the brass band at school! I will be playing the flute (which I haven’t done since I was myself in high school, so I’ll have to get my practice on hardcore!) and we have a recital coming up soon. Pretty stoked about that!
That’s about it for the first week. I must say, I am pretty happy that I will never have a first week of teaching again. Standing on this side of that first week is pretty sweet.