times they are a’changin’

A lot happened yesterday, but I think that the most important thing was at the very end: the long discussion Evan and I had about our future. We have both decided that I will not be re-contracting with the Japanese Exchange Teaching Program (JET) for a fifth year, and so we will be leaving Fukuoka in August 2018.

Right now I feel a little bit like a goldfish that’s become too big for it’s bowl, and I need more space to swim around in. My role as Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) is beginning to plateau. I don’t feel like there’s anything left for me to learn as an ALT. These days I simply pass the time and get through work until my next big trip abroad or new experience here in Japan. Now that all those places and experiences on my list have been getting crossed out though… What do I have to look forward to? And is there anything actually tying me to this place any more?

After close to three years of teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), Evan and I are both able to say that it is not where our passions lie. It isn’t that we don’t love the people or the kids, or that we’ve grown tired of Japan, and we aren’t jaded exactly. We’ve just both come to realize that we have more to give to the world, and that we want more in return as well. What do I mean by “more”? Neither of us are really sure.

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winter is here

Hey all. Winter is in full swing and it’s cold as hell. I can see my breath in the apartment, so layering up with multiple hoodies in the house along with the kotatsu in the living room and the electric blanket at bedtime have all been musts. This cold makes working out feel totally impossible too. Even though I know it’d feel good and I would warm up quick enough, getting out from under my layers and electric heaters feels like torture. So there goes my Hot Hiker Body Routine I planned to prep for Myanmar and Laos! Maybe I can get it in action post-trip…

Speaking of, there is just a little less than a week and a half before the trip! Evan, Kohji, Fiona and I have one more meeting on Sunday to collect all important paperwork and sort through details. On Saturday Evan and I are going to go shopping for last minute things, like travel toiletries, his hiking shoes, a set of hiking pants for me, a first aid kit and things of that nature. I am getting so excited to go adventuring and get out of the cold for a while! But I am also nervous about traveling with two people whom I have never traveled with like this before. I am sure we’ll get on just fine, I just want everyone to have a good time! Oh, and I am dreading packing lol I just never feel like I have everything I need, and then I get there and think “oh no I have too much” or “why the hell didn’t I bring blah blah?!” Anyway, that too shall pass.

Oh yeah, remember that painting I did recently? The one of my father-in-law in his band, with the flowers and patterns? Well, I did indeed submit it to that exhibit, and then a few days later I got a letter saying that it was rewarded a prize..! I was totally shocked. The awards ceremony is this Sunday, and Evan says I have to go so that he can photograph me with all the pomp and circumstance. I feel really embarrassed about it, and I think I will be really nervous, but I am sure I will treasure the photos he takes later haha. It is nice to be recognized, ya know? I went and saw the show the other day too, and there were a lot of lovely pieces there. To be honest though, it makes me wonder… Did I win this award on merit? Or did I win because I was the only foreigner who entered? I am only suspicious because I really do think there were loads of other pieces that were much more deserving of an award than mine was… but here I am, and no use worrying about it now, I suppose!

All right, I will leave you with two stories from today that really feel like they represent Japan for me in a lot of ways.

Story 1: The Ten Yen Coin

For months there has been a ten yen coin on a table in the ladies’ changing room at the high school where I work. I couldn’t even tell you how long it’s been there. But there it is, totally unmoving day after day. By this point it feels like a permanent installation. Every morning I go into the changing room, hang up my jacket, do my makeup and I can’t help but look over and think, “I can’t believe no one has taken that coin. Maybe today’s the day I will take it, just for the hell of it,” but I never do.

Anyhow, today I walked into the changing room, and by God the coin was gone! I was actually kind of relieved. Someone had finally taken it, no harm no foul. So I hung up my jacket and went to the mirror to do my makeup, and there on the mirror was a note on a post-it in Japanese. It read, “If you are looking for a ten yen coin, the one that was on the table, it is being held in the office for safekeeping. Please claim it anytime.” I was totally dumbfounded. Ten yen is roughly equivalent to a dime in the States. A dime, people! If someone took ten cents off the table, even if it wasn’t theirs, who cares?! Jeez Louise, this is absurd! I think I actually guffawed out loud.

And yet, after a moment of thinking about how this scenario would absolutely never happen in America, I realized that this sort of thing happening in Japan is really not shocking at all. The level of honesty and the sense of justice that I have seen while living here has rivaled anything I have seen anywhere else by far. So as silly as it seems to me, I think that it must be obvious to people living here that if a thing is not yours, however inconsequential, you must not and should not claim it as your own. Period. Not even a ten yen coin.

Now I am not saying that everyone in Japan is some pure-hearted saint and that shit doesn’t go “missing” and crimes don’t happen. But I do believe that this is just one example of the many small, kind and earnest acts I see on a day to day basis in Japan, and these kinds of acts are what make living here so lovely.

Story 2: Merry Christmas, Merry Funeral

I mentioned in a previous post that I was planning a Christmas-themed lesson. And indeed, I planned it and have executed said lesson seven times for seven different classes already. After practicing this lesson so many times, I can say without hesitation that I have it down, from my first greeting to the students to my summing up the homework and ushering them out the door. So today I had my eighth and final Christmas lesson, and I was excited for it, firstly because this class of kids is in some ways my favorite (not too clever, but really open, personable and attentive), and secondly because I could finally stop doing the same goddamned lesson day-in-day-out!

In the middle of the lesson I do this activity I call Quiz Quiz Pass. I won’t go into the details too much, but basically you go around the room asking people different questions in English. The questions change every time, so this time I had questions like, “Who will you be with on New Year’s day?” and “Can you tell me three things you like about winter, please?” The students really like this activity because they can walk around, talk to whomever they like, and the questions are all randomized so you never really know what you’ll be asked when. At the end of the activity I like to have everyone sit and then I choose two or three kids to answer a question in front of the class.

For this particular lesson, the single-out-a-couple-kids-and-ask-them-in-front-of-the-class part is really fun for me. First, I pick a sort of shy girl to say three things she likes about winter, and everyone is quiet and listening earnestly (I hope, anyway). Maybe she stumbles over some words, but I help her out and all is well. Everybody applauds. And then I pick a boy and ask him, “What will you do on Christmas Day?”

Now before I go any further I should let you in on a couple things. First, in Japan Christmas has more in common with American New Year’s Eve than American Christmas. By that I mean it isn’t really a family event at all. The more common image of Christmas in Japan is going on a date, holding hands and viewing Christmas lights in the snow with that special person, and exchanging romantic presents, or maybe having a gift exchange party with friends. Second, I know my students pretty well. I may not have memorized all 250 of their names, but when I am in a class I know which students hate being called on but love when I stop by their desk for a bit of a chat, I know which students typically know the answers and understand directions and don’t mind when I ask them to explain stuff to the class in Japanese, I know who the sleepers are, and most especially I know the outgoing kids, the ones who love to speak out, share their opinions, and can handle a bit of gentle teasing now and then.

All right, back to my story. So I pick a boy, a boy I know pretty well, who has a sense of humor and seems to enjoy being made a spectacle of in front of his classmates, and I ask him, “What will you do on Christmas day?” He immediately responds, “I want money for Christmas!” The people who catch his goof laugh a bit and I gently ask again, “What will you DO on Christmas day?” He realizes his mistake and starts again. “I will….” He pauses with a look of confusion and starts making gestures in the air. His classmates laugh at his struggle a bit. And then I go into the routine that I went through will all the other boys before him. “Oh, are you going on a date on Christmas Day?” I ask coyly. Everyone laughs. He smiles and shakes his head and I ask, “Will you be with your girlfriend on Christmas Day?” and receive another round of laughs.

I am telling you, this schtick is really effective with my classes. Everyone gets a kick out of it. Eventually, the guy either gives in and says, “Yes, I will go on a date,” which is met with oohs and ahhs and applause, or he firmly states his actual plan, which is met with a mixture of laughter or sympathy or whatever is appropriate. And then I move on to the next activity with everyone in high spirits.

This time though, my guy is taking a lot longer to answer. He is muttering to himself (stuff like, “what do you call it… how do you say…”) and finally bursts out a word in Japanese that I don’t know. Everyone goes still and somber. A bit perplexed, I look to my co-teacher. “What’d he say?” I ask, to which she replies, “He’s going to a funeral on Christmas day.”

And then I feel like a total ass. Here I am teasing him about girlfriends and dates, and he’s just lost someone, maybe even someone dear to him. I say that I am really sorry for putting him on the spot like that, and he smiles and waves it away like it’s no big deal. What’s so funny is that all his classmates seem to be looking at me with something like sympathy, like they could tell how embarrassed I was and they feel a bit bad for me as I awkwardly switch gears into the next activity. But in my head I was screaming, “Who the hell has a funeral on Christmas day?? This is unheard of! I would never in a million years have expected something like that!” But of course, Christmas isn’t even a real holiday in Japan, just a quirky sort of event vaguely known about and ever so slowly gaining popularity amongst young people as a chance for a bit of romance and a few presents.

Anyway, the class continued and all was well. Nobody brought it up again, and after class I went to that kid and apologized one more time for any embarrassment I caused. He seemed totally fine and unworried about it, then went about his day.  Indeed, I seemed to be the one most affected by the whole thing. I was left alone in the classroom thinking about how Christmas is an entirely different animal in Japan than in America, and how these days I have become nostalgic and have begun longing for the merriment, bustle, family and festivity surrounding Christmas back in the States, and I wondered when I would experience that again, and how much I am looking forward to it.

transitioning into winter

After getting back from Kyoto, all I thought about was slamming some content for classes together and, more importantly, studying for the JLPT test (which was on December 4, Sunday)! While Evan and I were roaming to, around and from Kyoto/Osaka I didn’t do nearly as much studying as I intended. And before then? I was memorizing some kanji using the White Rabbit flashcards I bought a while ago, and I also wrote down a collection of grammar points geared toward the N4 level and started using them in my own original sentences. After getting back from the trip, kanji and grammar are what I mainly crammed. The day before the test I tried out a couple vocabulary, reading, and grammar practice tests, and I am really glad I did. They really got my head in the game as far as how the test is formatted and what type of questions I would have to answer.

How’d the test itself go? It’s hard for me to say with certainty if I passed or not, but I feel much more confident and optimistic after finishing the test this time than last summer, that’s for sure. Last summer I felt like I frequently went up against questions that I couldn’t even make an educated guess about, but this time those popped up way less frequently. I felt good about the reading section this time around too. Last summer I felt very rushed (almost ran out of time, actually) and was often uncertain about the meanings of texts or even the questions themselves. This time I got through the reading part quickly with time to spare to check my answers, and I never felt stumped as to the meanings of both the texts and the questions. Last summer I felt pretty good about the listening part and it was by far my highest score. But this time? I’ll be honest, and I hope I am not making an ass out of myself when I say this, if I get less than 90% of the listening section correct, I will be really shocked. It felt like such a breeze. Every answer seemed really clear and obvious, and there was never any doubt in my mind while I filled in those little bubbles. God, I hope I wasn’t totally delusional or in some alternate dimension during that section of the test though… because if I get my results back next month and see I bombed the listening I will feel like such an idiot, hah.

Regardless of how I end up doing, so glad that test is over with! I am going to officially put studying Japanese on the back-burner until after winter vacation, and then I want to push really hard to memorize kanji like mad! But, like I said, let’s not continue this conversation until January rolls around.

In the meantime… so much stuff on the horizon! I am going to make myself a list of it all here and now, just so that I can see it in one place:

  • Start my newly-crafted Hot Hiker Body Routine (explanatory post to come) TONIGHT so that I don’t die while hiking and traveling over winter break
  • Get new glasses because the ones I have now are scratched to hell and the perscription is over two and a half years old
  • Go shopping for Christmas presents and ship them to the folks they belong to
  • Celebrate Fiona’s birthday with drinks and karaoke this coming Friday and/or Saturday
  • Double-booked bounenkai next week 12/16 Friday, oh no! I have to choose which one to go to… Ariake Shinsei High School’s party or the Miike English teachers’ party
  • At least one more preparations and logistics meeting with Fiona and Kohji to square away packing, money, documentation and day-of departure plans for the big trip
  • Get through two more weeks of classes with all my ichi-nensei (sophomores) and san-nensei (seniors), which means making some sort of Christmas lesson…. and I have no idea what to do yet, so I have to plan that!
  • Clean the apartment so that we don’t return to a total mess after 15 days of crazy filthy backpacking and planes rides
  • Actually pack for the trip!
  • Something small but sweet to celebrate Evan’s birthday on 12/24
  • Happy Day’s big all day Christmas Party on 12/25
  • And FINALLY on 12/26 take off for Myanmar and Laos with Evan, Fiona and Kohji!

Ya know, seeing it all in a simple list like this makes all this stuff seem much more manageable. Let’s hope I can actually get all of it done in a sensible and stress-free way though, shall we? Updates to come…

busy busy

Hello to the few people who read this blog! Long time, no update.

Things have been busy busy these days for me. There have been lots of strange middle of the week holidays and weekend workdays which result in replacement days off during the week which have been totally throwing my schedule off and giving me fits when it comes to trying to plan and reschedule my lessons with the five different teachers I work with between two different schools. Scheduling problems have led to me having to work late, work weekends, and even wake up at 5:30 to make up for lost time before school starts too. For all that the struggle though, I must admit that the lessons I have been making feel like they have been hitting the mark recently though. More and more often I have felt like my activities have gone (more or less) smoothly and that their goals have been precise and successful. Maybe things have been better because my relationship with my students has really improved over the course of the year, or maybe I am getting just a little better at this, or maybe a bit of both. Regardless, I hope this positive classroom momentum keeps up through Spring and into the new school year!

I recently did a lesson that was pretty fun. I wish I could take all the credit for it, but I got the idea from another blogger over on Tumblr called Readysetgaikokujin. It is basically Halloween Taboo. First I had a worksheet on which they had to match the picture with the corresponding vocabulary word. It takes them 3~5 minutes. Most of the words I chose were pretty easy, but that’s okay because for Taboo you have to talk around them anyway. While checking the answers I like to make sure everyone is on the same page about the lore of the monsters by seeing that they know the Japanese names for everything as well as some trivia. For example: Who is the most famous vampire? (Dracula.) Where do mummies come from? (Egypt.) What does R.I.P. mean? (Rest In Peace.) And etcetera. I also like to mention that some people are buried in America, and not always cremated. This always shocks students and is an interesting cultural point. Also, Japanese people really don’t know much about zombies, so I have had to explain what they are and what they eat, which is fun.

Next I break the room in half into the Werewolf Team and the Vampire Team. I give each team their worksheet (as seen below), and in pairs or as a team they think about words or phrases to describe each vocabulary word without using the ones mentioned on the sheet. They can also color the pictures if they want to help pass the time, as long as they are also picking out key words and making helpful hint phrases. I give them about 10~15 minutes, depending on how they are doing.img_5421-1Lastly, a Werewolf and a Vampire make a pair and finally play Taboo! The time can vary on this part pretty greatly, depending on your kids’ level of engagement and English ability. Generally it take between 10 and 20 minutes though. It is kind of funny, because they don’t suspect that each team could possibly have been given different vocab words on their worksheets, so when it dawns on them it’s a pretty laughable moment. The students are able to self-direct this activity by taking turns once their partner has guessed the word correctly, and I just sort of wander around giving small hints here and there as necessary. It really tests their English vocabulary and creative skills, which is great. And I get to draw really cute pictures for the worksheet, so it’s a win win!