Sunday, December 23, 2007
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Last week a small group of teachers had a nomikai (two-hour drink + eat party) which I was very glad to be invited to. I was relaxed and chatty right off the bat, using whatever grammar forms I'd picked up most recently in Japanese class. I wasn't the centre of attention, nor was I just a novelty of foreigness (as I most definitely have been previously), but we did chat pleasantly. It was nice that they were comfortable to chat without worrying about me, but also happy to occasionally slow down to include me (with the help of the English teachers). By the end of the night (and the bottom of the keg) we were all joking and laughing together, and I only declind the nijikai (second party) because I had agreed to go meet friends. Basically, I think the Japanese have the right idea about drinking parties being an essential part of work-group cohesion, because so far that's when I've fit in most. Eating (and drinking) is one thing I do know how to do.
I had an awesome moment at work the other day. It was the end of the day and I had to take off to go to a meeting, but I was making my rounds of the hallway to say goodbye. I sat down with the boys' baseball club on the floor and chatted with a couple members. They do a workout in the hallway, so that was an easy conversation starter. We exchanged some vocab on push-ups and crunches and abs, etc (none of which I can remember), and then started talking about other random stuff - like the fact that snowmen here have only two sections, as opposed to the classic three-ball snow-man that I was familiar with. Suddenly I looked around and realised that the entire club was sitting in a circle around us, listening to the conversation and chipping in when possible. I tried to ignore the increased pressure to act up or clown around, and tried to just keep a conversation going. Although there was an arm wrestle or two, mostly we just sat on the cold floor of the hallway and talked - with no compulsion for any of them to listen, let alone all twenty or so. I'm not saying I take it as a compliment, or anything like that. I'm just saying it felt great to connect with them in such a relaxed and communicative way.
Due to a miscommuncation error, I am now spending the next four days at two elementary schools! I have wanted a change of pace, and I really wanted to see the crazy adorable kids that I've heard so much about. I am nervous, no question. I've realised I really don't have much to say about myself or my country, or many games to bring to the table myself - but that's a whole new line of thought I've yet to explore. I'm counting on my strangeness to generate their excitement which will keep the momentum of the class. Indeed, every friend who has gone to elementary school has assured me this is the case. I kinda banged my knee up skiing today, so I hope I can keep up with the little man-chickens!
Oh yeah, I went skiing again today!!! Man, oh man, was that snow amazing. There was about 115 centimetres of snow up the mountain, most of which felt like fresh powder. I actually couldn't control myself worth a damn in the bumps and crazy soft snow, but the feeling of flowing through that powder was still incredible, and I didn't mind the spectacular twisting and flailing crashes into the banks of cushioning snow. As I gained speed and lost control on a too-steep moderate run, I managed to get some air off two bumps, thus increasing my skill set to failing, falling, and occasional jumping.We went to Kiroro, the same place as last weekend, and so enjoyed another soothing onsen at the end of the day. The 1.5 hour bus ride out of the city provides a nice somniatic liminal transition to the fantasy world of snow and ski. It's only slightly hard to have to face reality again afterward.
Next Friday is my last scheduled day of work this term, though there will be some pseudo-work days the following week as well, and Christmas itself isn't actually a scheduled holiday. We're supposed to go into the office and sit and do nothing all day! The elementary schools should be incredibly entertaining and exhausting, so I should have a content conclusion to the school term, before shifting into holiday mode. Less than a week later, after all, we're off to Thailand for two weeks of sun and hopefully adventure.
I just found out a friend will be coming to stay and enjoy the Snow Festival in February. One more motivated JET actually secured us a spot in the festival, so a group of us ALT's will be part of the huge show, for better or worse sticking our names on a carving we have to somehow create. The festival draws tons of people from all over the country, all cramming into our little city (three cramming into my little apartment). Should be a good time.
Of all the many great ALT's in Sapporo, I have a few close enough friends to satisfy my needs for companionship; and the group as the whole provides enough of a social network to make me feel connected (to provide a party or dinner on the weekend whenever desired). I tend to have a couple friends who I stick to a lot, and I'm not so good at being part of a 'crew', but being here has let me work on both a bit.
As a result, I'm not desperate to make new friends. Rather, I'm lazy and take the easy route through my native language to friendship. A little bit of loneliness would be a good motivator to make new friends!
In terms of functioning here, well, I've already survived four and a half months with no major mishaps. I've settled into a comfortable apathy a lot of the time at work, with enough small-exchanges with coworkers to show that they are accepting of my contracted existence.
When I have to interact with people who don't speak much English, they are usually understanding about the lack of communcation, and we get by with a mix of the two languages and much flailing of the arms and face. As friend Alice points out, you don't need the language to connect with someone, you just need the intention and willingness, a little bit of personality, and, of course, the flailing. Also random conversations with people tend to start up because they are happy to practice their English, not because they want to see if you can speak Japanese.
So, it's hard to pinpoint any external motivator for learning Japanese. The internal motivators are the enjoyment I get from the sense of learning, the interesting nature of Japanese, and the kick I do get out of talking to people in tidbits of nihongo.
Over all, I've relaxed a little bit about the whole thing. I've realised that the learning isn't something I can force upon myself, or guilt myself into. It's not a chore for me to do here - at least, I haven't committed myself enough to it to make it a firm accomplishment I need to acheive.
Instead, I have started to accept more that it is the being here and being happy that are important, and if I commit to being here - instead of focussing on life back home, or life after, or things that take my mind away from this place and this life - then I will learn as I go, and have no reason not to be pleased with my time here.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Also, I've just realised that the person who most often volunteers for this duty is the teacher with the lowest status/seniority. Previously, this was a young teacher with a temporary position at the school. Now, a returning teacher, fresh off maternity leave, who has not spent much time at the school takes the post more often than any other. I don't think this is imposed upon her externally, nor do I expect it will last more than a few weeks or a month, until she has slightly solidified her position.
"I wish I could give the students more time to talk to you, but we can't." - JTE to ALT, the closest I've heard any of the teachers at my school come to commenting on the education system or my role here.
I understand her comment. The teachers have to teach a very specific grammar and textbook based curriculum, and they must teach it in its entirety. The students will write a standardized test taken directly from that curriculum, so any deviation from that course will actually harm the students' performance. A test at the end of junior highschool determines students' eligibility and placement for high school. This test is said to be the single most important test in life, since choice of highschool supposedly has a huge and lasting effect on reputation and employability. What this means is that learning the textbook is more important than practicing conversations with a native English speaker who happens to be in the school at that very moment. Hence, the central contradiction of my position. The government pays for me to be here but enforces a curriculum prohibitively strict and dense enough to limit my use. That's why I said my most useful time is simply wandering in the hallways, attempting to stimulate natural conversation with the students. Briefly, hopefully, this strange thing forced upon the students by their teachers becomes a fun and active and real tool.
I don't mean to disparage the grammatical focus (as opposed to a more conversational approach). In fact, I struggle with the thought that I'm not able to teach the kids in the hall much new information - perhaps a word or two here or there. It's hard to pick up language that will stick in the memory just from casual conversations like that. The grammar needs to be taught, usually in the learner's natural language. So, our conversations are more a reinforcing of speech patterns they've already learned than an attempt to expand their competence. We rely on the grammar taught in class, through which they find their only means of understanding me. Their vocabulary needs fleshing out, but the grammar does provide a frame, without which we would at best exchange one or two word spurts of communication. So, not so much as teaching English, my role here is more to be there to show it is worthwhile for the students to learn the English that their senseis have been trying to teach them.
So, (it feels, perhaps overly pessimistically) I'm here not to create or originate knowledge, but to initiate conversation and instill a sense of purpose to learning the knowledge taught by others. I do this by means of existing.
Self-Discovery: I don't like too easy a job. I don't necessarily need a job to pour my whole identity into, and I definitely don't want a job that I have to take home with me every day. However, I do want a job where I am leaving at the end of each day happy with what I have accomplished.
Average 2.5 classes/day.
-With breaks and classes and lunch, maybe 4.5 hours/day spent with or around the kids (on a good day).
-3-4 hours/day with no expectations, no tasks, no smallwork (thankfuly), but also no real reason for you to be there.
-Please come to class and speak on command.
-Please roam the halls and strike up random conversation.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Sunday evening I had one of the most content moments in my life.
Sadly I have no pictures; I think I'll have to buy a compact digital camera after all my wishwashing. Though visibility was a bit low, suffice it to say that the sight of so much snow and the massive course-covered mountain set my eyes aglow all day.
Sure, it was a little bit hard to get up at 6am on a Sunday to be on a bus out of the city by 8. But that meant we arrived at Kiroro Ski Mountain at 930am, with the whole day before us to play. Over the last few weeks, I have been amassing a collection of recycle shop treasures, the last of which I acquired the night before: by Sunday I had every piece of gear required, including $10 skis. I emerged from the change room an ugly mix of old and new, orange and red and black and blue - and caring very little about my appearance whatsoever. I was nervous and extremely excited to hit the slopes for just the second time in my life. When I told a Japanese person this, they asked me, "Are you a real Canadian?"
The bunny slope only seemed like a giant hill for about ten minutes, and I only fell on my butt once. We skiied all day, all the 'green' runs - maybe even a 'red' run or two (sure as hell no 'black' runs). There was plenty to keep me entertained, even though there were quite a few runs not even open yet. My ad hoc outfit held up all day, and my ten or so year old skiis (according to ski-bud Alice) still functioned enough to slip me down the slope. I even managed to get some air off a jump. So, basically I'm achieving things all my friends did about 10 to 15 years ago. That's ok, in this and many other things I know I still have lots of catching up and growing up to do.
For example, I never went through a punkish teenager phase, so maybe it's not surprising that for about two weeks there I was enjoying the Japanese punk rock/pop recommended to me by my 15 year old students. Someday I hope not to feel like a lame 65 year old nor limited 12 year old trapped in this body of mine. Maybe by the time I'm 30 I'll feel 22.
Another highlight was when we found a short section deep in untouched powder. Gliding through that powder provided me with a sensation never felt before, and for the first time I began to sense how people can fall in love with frozen water.
Lunch excepted we skiied all day until 4pm. Already absolutely content with the day, this is where the bliss comes in. Our skiing package included use of the resort's onsen. The rotemburo was deliciously hot compared to the freezing cold air and through the falling snow provided a vista of the ski range. I soaked my satisfied muscles in the soothing waters and let my mind soar, completely and utterly content.
Still on cloud nine, I was not phased in the least when I got back to my apartment door in the city, and realized that I had left my jacket - cell phone and house keys included - way back at the mountain.
It was no problem to climb the balcony to let myself in: I felt weightless anyways.
Sunday, December 2, 2007
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Last year in Japan, according to a newspaper article in the Japan Times, suicide was the leading cause of death for people aged 20 to 39. A staggering 32,155 people killed themselves in Japan last year. Suicide has a long and powerful history in the country, with an ongoing resonance in modern culture. Hanging is the most common form of suicide, but jumping from high places is also among the leading methods. One friend told me that she lives near the cliff in Hokkaido where people might go for a dramatic suicide.
I don't know what happened to that man on the mountain. Perhaps a bit of discomfort and cold were helping him clear his thoughts in some way. Perhaps he came down after another ten minutes or so (though no car awaited him in the parking lot). Our fear was not entirely groundless, even though I hope it was unwarranted in this case.
Because I don't want to follow those thoughts with the trivial happenings of my day, I'll offer another observation instead.
Randomata 2: It's Friday night, 930pm, and you're heading out for the night. It's -3.5 celcius. On the way to the subway station, you hear the familiar clanging of hammers, and realise that the crew is still hard at work in that new apartment they are building. The building is completely enclosed by scaffolding and shrouded in a green netting, as all building construction sites seem to be, perhaps in order to prevent half-completed work from being witnessed by passersby. The shroud certainly adds no warmth, though, and the men must be feeling the biting cold, somewhere near the end of a ten hour shift. On top of that, it is a Friday night, almost 10pm now - you'd think they could call it a night early, maybe just once a week.
It's 3am, and you're leaving the bar to head home (earlier than most of the partiers). You hear a muffled jarring: the sound of concrete being broken up. Then you see the flood lights and cones redirecting traffic and the ubiquitous traffic control baton-weilders, as you walk by blocks of road repaving or tunnel construction. It's -5 celcius, there's a layer of snow, and it's 3am on a Friday night/Saturday morning. They will work from the evening and into the night - all night. That way, they minimize traffic disruption during the day, as they attempt to finish the job as fast as possible. You just wish they could have a night off, maybe just once a week.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
So this week was a little better than last. On Sunday night I decided I would make another effortful week. I suggested a warm-up that didn't go particularly well; I made some worksheets without being asked, none of which were particularly helpful; I found a relevant newspaper article and made a summary and photocopies for the student's interest, which nobody seemed too keen on. None of the middling successes got me down though. I could tell myself that I put an effort in, so I didn't feel like any uselessness was my own fault.
I put longer hours in this week, again not that I was asked. I found something too look forward to every day in the form of the table tennis club (one thing that gives me a sense of improvement every day). I made appearances at the English club without worrying about invitations, but I only stayed as long as I could, and I left without feeling bad. I relaxed way more with the students, didn't worry about speaking a little more Japanese with them, made more of a fool of myself with them, joking around, playing some ridiculous piano in front of them - all to good effect. When teachers came to one class to watch our team teaching method, I didn't give one thought to them or what they thought. I went to the discussion meetings about all the observed classes, and made a contributing comment, even though I had no idea what everybody else was saying. I stayed late for the closing discussion, even though that made it three straight hours of a stream of Japanese I couldn't discern. Every day this week I spent between four and seven hours either teaching or just hanging out with students, however slightly productive that time might have been for them. After all the meetings today, I made a circuit of the office and said goodbye to more teachers, since I was heading home on a holiday long weekend. I held the door open for one of the teachers who usually won't even look me in the eye in the hallway, said goodnight, and got a friendly farewell in return.
I don't know if the teachers or students noticed any difference this week. Like I said, some of my targeted, more academic efforts kinda fell flat. But it didn't matter. I had more time with the students, and I feel like I connected with them a little bit better than the week before. I was more relaxed with the teachers, and had a better time whenever I chatted with somebody. I put a bit more (but not TOO much) time and effort in, and I felt better about myself for it. Overall, it still is just an ongoing matter of accepting that I get paid to exist, which is surprisingly hard to accept considering how many times I wished for it before this job. Maybe I do simply have to exist, but their are many different ways of simply existing.
(Other considerations: I got 34 hours of sleep over last Fri-Sun. I feel less sick. I've been taking some vitamins. I saw friends. It's snowing. Who knows what really accounts for our good moods.)
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
As the temperature dropped to about -5 last night, I gave up trying to make my heaters turn on and crawled into my futon around 12:30. There was a slight frost outside, perhaps the hint of snow already fallen.
After snoozing two alarm clocks on asyncopated 5 and 7 minute snooze cycles for an hour, I woke up with a muted gasp and slowly jumped out of futon. I dozily ran around, tossing my lunch and misc into my bag, scarfed down two toast 'n jams, yanked pants and shirt up and down respectively and ran out the door.
Of course, it was like a blizzard outside with a couple inches of snow covering every surface and more gusting down in the still -5 winds (or so they felt to my exposed face). I realised, with this first strong hint of the winter to come, that I was unprepared.
I quickly donned another sweater, toque and gloves and a rainjacket. The road was slippery but there was hope if I hurried; I could still make it to work on time!
At Odori station where I change trains, the platform was already full, with a constant stream of commuters continuing to cram in. Two subs going the wrong way came and went. The lines going my way grew. As a third wrongway train pulled to a stop, finally one came my way. There was subdued mayhem as hundreds of people from both trains let out onto the already crammed platform, everybody milling around pathetically like the people in those ridiculous jumpsuits on that overpopulated planet in that episode of Star Trek whose name eludes me.
As the train depleted, people hurriedly waddled into the empty car. The mob pressed people further and further into the car, until their faces squished up against the glass opposite. I was driven toward the doors from behind, but I basically had to move my nose out of the way of the closing doors as the train departed without the rest of us.
The next train was equally packed - except (of course) the courtesy seats, which remained empty despite the people threatening to fall into them because of the press, but refusing to because of the taboo.
Unsurprisingly I missed my bus, and the next wasn't for another half hour. I was fairly excited about the snow, so I didn't mind walking the 15 or 20 to my school.
I stepped outside into hellcold wind and rain blowing down from the sky and slurpeecold slush splashing up from the street. Ice and slush made every step slower, so the pleasant jaunt was extended to a half hour of fearing death, though laughing at myself the whole time. The cars driving by sent a steady spew of slush up onto the sidewalk, sufficiently soaking any parts of my lower half that might have otherwise stayed dry.
So I was a little late getting to work, and I was too wet to actually go upstairs to the office. No problem. I changed into my gym shorts and proceeded to try and dry my pants with a hairdryer. After ten minutes, I'm sure several molecules of water evaporated, but the effect was less than miraculous.
After jogging to the office half-dressed and soaking wet, I enlisted the aid of friendly coworkers. I borrowed some clothing, tossed my stuff in a random clothes drier, and sipped some ocha to warm up.
By the time next period started, I was dressed and ready for class, mostly dry.
Friday, November 16, 2007
The quotidian without pretense of progress is painfully pointless.
I'll be honest, I've been a bit down. (This post is probably overly personal, but at least I'm not shouting it in your ear in transit somewhere.)
That's why I haven't written regularly over the past two weeks: I've been living with my eyes half-open. I've been low on energy and settling. Settling: it's no good.
What I mean by 'settling' is that, in my dampened mood, I've been accepting my life exactly as it is right now, without focussing on what I want to focus on more in the day to day, without focussing on the areas that I want to develop.
For example, I've felt somewhat aimless and hopeless about the whole learning Japanese thing. Let me run through a negative rationalization of ignorance in that regard.
1. I'm already surviving with whatever limited abilities I have.
2. I don't talk to that many Japanese people, and how many Japanese friends am I going to make anyway?
3. I'm here to teach English, and most people here are eager to practice their English.
4. What do I need Japanese for after I leave this place?
So, you see, there's no point in learning Japanese.
And it is easy for this viral negativity to affect my greater perception. Now I am accustomed to my neighbourhood. I know where to get my groceries. I can cook the same foods week after week, eating out to spice it up. I have that ready-made network of ALT's to turn to for social contact. I can get to and from work in a half-conscious state just like the rest of the commuters, just like I could back home. I can enter this routine and basically let the next 40 years of my life go by until it's time to retire.
AH!!!! What's the point in moving to a new place? If there's nothing to learn at home and I don't care to learn here... (and the thoughts spiral downward)... What's the point in living?
Ok, so I'm exaggerating my own negativity just to convey its nature. The point is - as demonstrated by the lack of things to say in blogpost, and the lack of things to photograph, and the lack of things to thrill my eyes and ears - I've been settling.
I think, and this is why all this might interest others if they ever read this post, that my mood and that settling is an unsurprising product of my circumstances. Now that the thrill/fear of moving to a new and uknown place has worn off, one must start 'settling' into regularity. I am no longer on the move somewhere new: I'm there, and it's getting un-new. People in my position might deal with this fact in different (hopefully positive) ways, but it's the reality of being human: we quickly learn enough to survive in a new situation. This leads to the crossroads of settling, accepting mediocrity and the mundane, or striving for something more.
What am I suggesting? That I have to move somewhere new every three months to keep life interesting? Not exactly - hopefully that's not necessary.
What's sad about dull acceptance is that there is still so much to see, to learn, to explore, to develop - in short to interest and excite - in the context that immediatly surrounds me. I don't have to run off just yet, there's more to do here. I have miles to go before I am a productive contributor in the school environment. To be honest, the fact that I am not essential at work quickly drains me of spirit. When I'm in a good mood, I know that the simple presence of a native English speaker has a huge effect in the school. In a bad mood, I know I could not show up on any given day and it would hardly affect the lessons any of the teachers give. And the only thing worse than doing a fairly straightforward 9-5 is feeling like you make no difference to the people around you in those hours. I should take this as a challenge, though, and not just let it bring me down. Even if I don't want to be a teacher for 40 years, there is so much I can gain from my experience here, and hopefully a lot I can bring to help the people around me while I am here. I don't feel like I'm as big a waste of space as my existence at work seems to indicate.
And then there's that whole language thing. Learning a new language is fascinating. I love it, and so I should, even if I can't pinpoint a more ultimate motivator for that learning. The proximate motivators and rewards are huge and clearly evident every time I try talking to someone in Japanese. Whether we end up laughing at my mistakes or they understand me and respond, it's a huge thrill. When I feel like I am actually getting to know someone, and (fate willing) start to make friends here, the thrill and personal reward is only greater.
Someday I'll know enough Japanese so that all that regular conversation is, well, regular, and then I'll have to choose my direction at the crossroads of bored acceptance and challenging myself with something new. But certainly I am far from that point. How could I even THINK of not trying to learn some Japanese while I'm here? Thoughts like that are a lame acceptance of mediocrity, a lame acceptance of mere survival.
I don't want to pin the point of my existence on future travels to Thailand, or Tokyo, or on skiiing in the winter, or on drinking at parties every weekend, or on life after JET. I want, however flimsy, the feeling like I'm doing something worthwhile and challenging this month, this week, this day. Today.
The quotidian is a necessary evil of life. Boredom is a necessary result of being human with the ability to learn. But if it seems like there's nothing interesting around me, only the quotidian and that lifeless wall of comfortable acceptance, then I've got to open my damned eyes before my time here is up.
(Caveat: this focusses entirely on my emotional state as a product of intellectual processes, and ignores other factors such as health, biochemistry, recent events and the barometer. After all, I've been fighting off a stupid cold for weeks now, I'm low on iron, I had nothing to do all week at school because the teachers were writing a test, and then the students were writing it, and there's no more sun to cheer me up as the winter clouds close in.)
Sunday, November 11, 2007
On Saturday morning, four of us biked to the highway that heads south out of town, and picked a hitch-hiking spot.
Hitch-hiking is not illegal and, as soon as they get you in their car, people are extremely polite and friendly and talkative, happy to converse in broken Janglish. They will often go out of their way to drop you right at your destination, like when we were driven off the highway straight to the door of an onsen the other week. Or like when my friend had someone drive him to a small town called Tomakomai: it was only an hour out of the driver's way, after all.
In any case, Saturday morning, one friend and I were picked up after approximately a minute. The driver was very friendly and chatty the whole 45 minutes.
At the trailhead for Eniwa-dake, my well-prepared friend Ito brewed some tea while we waited for our friends. For whatever reason, they weren't so lucky and after about an hour they still hadn't hitched. We had to hike without them.
(It turned out Okay for them though, because they ended up going to Jozankei and having a nice soak in an onsen.)
The forest was a barren and pained brown and the sky a churning grey, but the hike on the way up still afforded us a beautiful view of this lake Shikotsuko.
As we climbed, the temperature dropped and we entered a thick cloud hugging the top of the mountain. It was blustery and cold. But we both had big smiles on our faces to see our first snow of a season that promises much more to come.
Though it was chilly and the view was obstructed, the peak still provided a heightened sense of grandeur, peace, and connectedness to nature.
After the hike, we walked a few kilometres to a beautiful onsen with an outdoor bath that immediately overlooked the lake. The air was quiet, the setting spectacular, and the water just the right temperature to please the muscles and warm a chilled body. You have to go to one of these little onsens to really appreciate them. Maybe when I come back to Canada I will try start an onsen craze - though people might not take too kindly to me showing up naked randomly in their hot tubs.
After the onsen, despite it being dark and rainy, we were picked up by a car in no more than five or ten minutes. The driver was cheerful and more than happy to chat with us for the drive back to town. He was just returning from a Soba Festival, which is a hobby of his when he's not busy being a salary-man, so he wrapped some fresh soba noodles up and gave us each a gift! Did I mention how many incredibly kind people there are here?
We got back in town and had dinner at a 'gaijin' bar, owned and populated by foreigners. I don't know how to say this without seeming racist, but I can't say I miss being surrounded by caucasians. People's faces are like any other scenery around us, beautiful when varied, and I am thoroughly enjoying the change of scenery since I came to Japan.
After dinner we went to a fellow ALT's birthday party, which just about brought the house down, before heading out to a techno-house mix-typish music bar (i know nothing about music) with fricken laser beams shooting around people's heads.
The bars here don't seem to close, but we caught a taxi home around 4 or so, thus ending a jam-packed but well-balanced Saturday.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
Randomata: In my class of 12 year olds, on the desk to my right, a student's pencil bag displays a cheerful and happy Minney Mouse. On the desk to my left, a black case features a playboy bunny with the word "PLAY" written simply beneath it. Over that way, a boy's notebook displays a green piece sign; the boy next to him has chosen a marijuana leaf - though I suppose these aren't all that different.
These borrowed symbols - the playboy bunny in particular, but many others as well - are quite popular here, adorning clothing and children's stationary supplies alike. Of course, that these symbols have the same meaning here is questionable. If I asked the boy what the marijuana leaf signified, it's a toss up if he'd know or not.
In a similar vein, the two most prized English four letter profanities are occasionally used by teachers and students alike, without quite the same intensity or intention. They know these are slightly inappropriate, but don't necessarily understand that "F*ck You" is suggestive of and contributes to an antagonism between two people - to put it politely - which is most undesired in the classroom.
I was a little more surprised when we watched part of an old Kevin Costner movie in class, "A Perfect World," which involved violence, blood, and death. Blood is understood in all languages, so in this case it's not simply that the significance was lost in translation. Perhaps because the violence is tied up in western symbols in the movie, it is considered both worthy of observation and yet distant from the students. Students can not reach through the symbol of a gun in American culture and pull the trigger in reality - there simply aren't guns in every house here. Playboy might slap the sticker on its merchandise, but the students only borrow the symbol for its western origins, not because they wish to advocate pornography.
Where have I thought, and what have I been?
I have talked to friends a little bit, and discovered that I am not all that unique. What I mean is, many ALT's feel varying degrees of the contemplative depression surrounding our work roles here. We each have our own ideas of how to improve our immediate teaching situation, as well as the english education system of Japan on the whole - and this after only two months of teaching! Apparently, we're very precocious novices. No, of course we don't necessarily know better than the scores of intellectuals who crafted the curriculum, or the multitude of bureaucrats who formulated the JET Programme. We are, I suppose, just venting random thoughts created by our first impressions here. For example, a couple people have suggested that it might be more worthwhile for the government to send English teachers abroad as part of their formal education, because those who have lived abroad are much more comfortable with the language, and more likely to convey it's utility and reality - meaning it is a real language that will help you speak to real people in real situations, and not just lines of a strange script to be memorised from a textbook.
I do think JET's are spoiled, in terms of our reimbursement and status here, as well as under-used in the school environment, where we may act as human tape-recorders for a whole series of classes, adding nothing but chirped vocab from the textbook. This does not seem to convince the students that English is any more real, alive, or relevant than the dead words on the page suggest, when it seems to me that exactly that should be the role of a JET Programme ALT.
I sound overly negative and critical at the moment. In truth, I'm pretty chipper and relaxed. Moreover, I am extremely, extremely thankful for my position here, and the opportunity I have been given. I live in relative luxury: I work less, I'm paid more, and I have more living space (which I pay less for) than many other teachers in Japan. When you add the already high standard of living here, compared to people in many places in the world, I live in extreme luxury. I am not completely naive of this fact, and I try to appreciate it as much as possible. Perhaps I should keep this imbalance to myself, but I prefer honesty and proclaimed gratitude.
So, I am not complaining about the JET Programme. Far from it, I simply wish I could be worth my weight in Yen. And, since I am part of the educational institution here, my mind can't help but evaluate how well we achieve our goals; even though I know I am fairly ignorant and inexperienced when it comes to something of that scale. Even though I have questioned in blogpost the ethics of trying to accelerate the spread and use of English here, my analytical mind can't help but think of ways to do it better.
Though they didn't reference statistics (as most people don't in casual conversation), and I'm not sure where this information comes from, friends inform me that average scores on English Proficiency tests are actually in decline here, despite the government's continuing expansion of mandatory English in the curriculum. Starting next year, English classes extend further, this time into elementary schools. Perhaps it is not only the subjective first impressions of us ALT's that indicate the system could use some tweaking.
Monday, October 29, 2007
When the bamboo thins, or clears temporarily, you look as far as the eye can see from the mountain ridge you are traversing. Hills and mountains extend to the misty horizon. You keep walking.
All around silent birch trees reach out of the brush, the last of their leaves shed for the season, their white bark gleaming in the sun. They thrive in this climate, and at this elevation, but their sparse branches and characteristic shredding bark make the silent scene seem more like a graveyard where the dead don't lie down, but stand and watch you passively, season after season.
After a gruelling ascent that allowed no glimpse of its summit, you emerge onto a clear peak, with a full panorama to reward your eyes, now sick of swimming through sasa. In the distant, Mt. Fuji's smaller twin, Yote, Fuji of the North, climbs up from its cloudy foundations, an impossible trapezoid reaching into the sky. Undulating hills and thrusting peaks surround a meandering valley that opens onto the Ishikara plain, where Sapporo sprawls. Looking around you know that the only place you have to be, is right here.
We started the hike Saturday morning, crossing just 6km's the first day, to find an amazing little hideway. An incredible two-floor wood cabin nestles in the bush, on the edge of a pristine little pond. Expecting a ten-foot shack which we would share with the squirrels, we were surprised to discover that a caretaker was keeping the cabin warm with a fire. My two friends and I passed the evening talking, having tea, doing some yoga, and most of all enjoying the stunning colours and thick silence of the forest - broken only later that evening by the caretaker's radio announcing the Fighter's win. It is baseball playoffs, after all.
The next morning, at 630 - when he heard us stirring - the caretaker came up from downstairs carrying a breakfast of mizo soup and hardboiled eggs for the three of us. This is in a little cabin in the woods where people can just pop in randomly and stay the night. This is Japanese hospitality.
Sunday was the real trek. On and off for around 23km's that day, with our big hiking backpacks in tow, we were swimming through that bamboo and crossing a slanting trail across the hilly ridge that was more slippery for the mud, decaying leaves, and bamboo stalks that made every step slightly precarious. My friend came out of it bruised and bleeding slightly from a dozen scratches across her legs. Luck and my hairy legs protected me, and I was left only with the wondrous feeling of trusting that the path I followed would lead me through the obscuring and enclosing brush.
At a hut near the other end of the trail, we stopped to chat with the caretaker. He was just heading home at the end of the weekend, so he offered us a ride - without us even asking, or saying where we were going yet. We hiked the remainder of the trail with him, and the three of us piled into his little sedan with our giant bags taking up ay available space.
He dropped us off in Jozankei - the closest onsen town to Sapporo - and we were quick to hop in the hot water in the bowels of a ritzy hotel. Hot water never felt so good, as when I stretched my legs out and gazed up at the brightening stars, and chatted with my friend about living in Japan.
Back in Sapporo later that evening, the three of us had tastey soba and tempura, and a nice cup of tea, at a quaint restaurant near our building, before saying farewell for the night.
Sunday night is my weekly scheduled phone chat with my mom, but I was just too tired to talk. I was exhausted from head to toe.
It felt great.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
I'm going to just summarize my week, cause it's been a pretty good one.
Monday after work I went to a used CD shop and asked for advice finding some music I would like. I got some Japanese folkish rock from the 1970's and some more recent softish rock: both not bad. The man was happy to try and find some good music, even if we only had so many words that we both could understand.
Then I went into a little cafe where I go every Monday, and I am forcing the owner to accept me as a regular. I have a spot where I sit and study, and we chat in a mix of english and japanese. Last week she kindly made me some vegetarian spaghetti for dinner.
Then I went to my weekly japanese lesson. I am excited, because I think the lessons are just about to get useful. They have been very slow moving so far, but I am starting to increase my vocabulary and the grammar we learn is starting to get more complex, so that slowly I am able to actually formulate sentences in regular conversation, though they make sense far less than half the time.
Tuesday was a short work day because we had a district-wide meeting of english teachers, observing a class and discussing its merrits. I had no idea what was said over the course of the meeting, but when my turn to contribute came around, I managed to say the correct formalities and surprise everybody by thanking the presenters for their teaching. Woot. I only had a little bit of trouble staying awake over the two hour meeting. So far, in most meetings, I have been one of the few people who DOES stay awake through the entire meeting. I figure that's fair, the rookie has to stay awake and the vets have earned the right for a little snooze here and there.
Even better, that night 6 teachers and 2 ALT's went to a classy Japanese restaurant for drinks and dinner. It was the perfect mix, because they knew lots of English, and yet were still kind enough to be amused by our incoherent efforts in Japanese. We ate some sashimi and sushi, and tomago yori, umaboshi, tofu habe, and susumi, or something, as well as other stuff. Multiple courses and samplings are the norm here. I can't remember what all the names were, and what everything was, but it was good!
Wednesday I left the office at 330 and went out to the soccer field. I kicked the soccer ball around for an hour by myself, doing some drills, and just goofing around. I get so sick of not having anything to do, but I've been there the whole time, and if they had something I could do for them, all they had to do was ask. So, I figure I might as well go and kick the ball around. When the kids came out at 430, I played with them for 530, just passing the ball and not worrying about speaking English, or speaking at all. It was nice.
Wednesday night was the only night this week I spent any time at home.
Thursday I saw two friends, and we chatted for a couple hours about fantasy books and american politics. Basically, they inform me, Terry Pratchet is amazing, and Bush is a scary dictator. There are so many ALT's here, it is easy to let time slip by and not see an individual for a while. It is great to have such an accessible network of basically instant friends, but the tricky part is maintaining ties with people as individuals, respecting them and putting the time into seeing them, and not just taking their presence here for granted.
Friday was a good day. My school's Chorus Contest was Friday morning, held at a beautiful music hall, Kitara, in the beautiful Nakagima-Koen. The music teacher says it is the fifth best music hall in the world, and I wouldn't presume to argue. I can't quite describe the whole event of the music contest, only: did I mention these kids are amazing? Every class has its own song, student conducted with four-part harmonies, accompanied by a student on piano. For the most part, practice was self-directed and corrected by the students, with occasional check-ups by teachers. Every day for a month or so, the kids have been working before and after school on their songs. On Friday morning, before filing into the theatre, after practicing their songs one last time, each class did a group huddle and a rev-up cheer. Again, the teachers just stood back and watched the kids at work. Every single student of the 750 got up on the stage, in front of maybe 1100 people in the audience, and contributed to their class song. They all tried as hard as they could to sing in harmony with the others. Each grade chose increasingly difficult songs, with the grade 9's involving changes of rhythm, solos, difficult harmonies, accapella, discordant harmonies, if there's such a thing, and lots of other technically hard stuff that I don't even understand. They performed incredibly. When the winners of the 9th grade were announced, a class that is always exceedingly friendly and chatty with me, I couldn't help but be touched by their shouts of joys and excited hugging and jumping. They work so hard, these kids, and they do some amazing things.
That evening, the teachers had an enkai to celebrate. I was so happy to see them all so bubbly and energetic. They could barely contain their happiness, it seem. Again I tried a bunch of things I've never eaten before, and it was all tasty. They were finally relaxed enough, it seemed, to have a few laughs at my expense, which really helped me feel included. They also assisted me with some new Japanese and were ever so congratulatory when I made anything resembling a sentence. My favourite quote was when I said (again) that I am from Vancouver, and the music teacher said "Oompaloompa?" I talked to many teachers, and it was so nice to share ever so slightly in their joy and triumph after the chorus contest.
After dinner, I joined a smaller group of teachers for the nijikai - the second party. Ten of us went to a little jazz bar in a basement somewhere, with a baby grand piano and an awesome middle-aged singer who sang jazzed versions of thirty and forty year old english songs. I learned more important vocabulary, like how to say 'drunk', and enjoyed every single time the teachers laughed at me or with me.
Saturday and Sunday were so amazing, I have to save them for a next post. I'm exhuasted and I need a snack before getting to bed early.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
(Disclaimer: This is an 'in the moment' rant written at work. The emotions expressed herein are indicative of a continued development in my life, yes, but they are not all-consuming of my life or thoughts or energies. If you don't want to hear me rant about my mood and perception of uselessness, then please don't read this post. On the other hand, I think it's written pretty well, so please read this post.)
It’s only slightly frustrating being a deadweight.
I got to work this morning actually excited to start my day. On Friday and the weekend, I had made the worksheet activity for my first class Monday morning, the same lesson to be repeated about 5 times throughout the next several school days. I was excited because I had a hint of the feeling that I could be an active participant in this whole ‘being an educator’ thing.
I made one worksheet last week that didn’t teach the grammar-point perfectly due to over-complexity and several formatting errors. It didn’t matter too much to me, though, because the kids had a fun time. Whether the activity today worked perfectly or not wouldn’t have mattered, either. What matters to me, after the kids having a bit of fun, is that I can learn to make lessons and activities that do work: I want to learn to contribute, learn to teach. Otherwise I will continue to feel as I have largely felt so far: like deadweight that the other teachers drag to class with them.
Well, I rushed to work this morning so I would have time to photocopy the worksheet. My shirt was still wrinkled and wet from yesterday’s wash. My rice and veggies were still cooking in the rice cooker, so I didn’t bring a lunch with me. I stuffed my stuff in my bag and walked out the door.
After my usual walk, subway, bus routine, by the time I was walking into the office, I had gotten over my nervousness and was only excited to try out the worksheet. However, as I opened the office door, an exiting teacher informed me hurriedly that my co-teacher for the class was ill and absent today. Another teacher would direct the class to work on preassigned materials and – unequivocally – there would be no need to team-teach the class.
Though I sidestepped personal offence at being so irrefutably dismissed, I wasn’t able to avoid the disappointment that followed my sudden uselessness. Suddenly, I had only one class scheduled for the day, in which I might speak five or ten sentences to the class. When I offered another teacher to help, on anything whatsoever, she politely and unhesitatingly declined. Just like last Thursday, when I knew the teachers would be there till 7 or 8pm marking English tests, and they still declined my offer to help, as I walked out the door at 5. Things like that make me feel moderately useless and unwanted, deadweight.
Now, I don’t define the worth of my whole existence on whether or not I can help mark tests, or whether I have one or two or three classes. And I don’t greatly desire remaining at work every day until 7 (or 8 or 10pm). Yet, a large part of my time every week is taken up pretending to be a teacher, and if you are what you do that creates an obvious potential for me to define my identity at least partly by that role. And so there is a tremor of cognitive dissonance when I am trying to define myself as a teacher, and all I feel like is a deadweight foreign-speaking clown who sits in the office and works on his meagre nihongo memorization every day.
As trivial as it might sound, and though friends who disdain work might disdain the following comment, I think I would be more at ease at work and happier with myself if I had a steady 3 or 4 classes a day. I think I would be happier if I was asked to contribute an activity or lesson idea with some regularity.
Life truly is unnerving for a public servant who is not serving. I think this is something you can only understand after coming to work for two months, having only one or two hours of constructive work each day, not being asked to help or contribute to anything else going on, and, what makes it all the harder, not being able to communicate at will with coworkers and alleviate these frustrations.
I have expressed that I would like to help more, learn to contribute more, and I am willing to work more. Usually they politely thank me, and we move on in the same fashion. It would be inappropriate to speak to them of my frustration, or even convey by my words or intonation or body language much negative emotion at all. This is hard, because I tend to function normally with my frustrations just behind the lines on my face and subtly worked into the stitching on my sleeve.
Now, my ‘constructive’ time is not entirely limited to the classroom. Before and after school, and in between classes, I roam the halls and chat with the kids. This might sound like, well, roaming, the opposite of hard work. Believe me, it is work. It takes not a small amount of creativity to think of something that will interest the kids, and make the effort of communicating worthwhile. And it truly is an effort. Sustained communication with such varying levels of comprehension can be extremely taxing and energy sapping. At times, I love it. And when we manage to successfully communicate on any topic at all, I am thrilled. Still, it is definitely tiring.
As I might have mentioned, I also eat lunch with the kids every day. I try to engage with the kids, but I definitely don’t demand that they talk. I feel this is a productive time even if we only manage to fit in five mutually intelligible sentences.
Other than that, the kids are in class or busy with activities every minute of the day, which means my raison d’etre ici, engaging with the kids, is unrealised for the vast majority of the minutes of the day.
I just don’t feel like I am worth the yen thrown my way, if this is all I do. More importantly, I don’t feel I am learning or being challenged as much as possible (or sometimes, at all). If I have a couple classes one day, and also chat with kids between every class, I will probably be exhausted by the end of the day. Even then, I’ll only feel fulfilled if I can actively contribute to the classes and feel useful to the other teachers, as well as engaging with the kids. If I have one class, and don’t see the kids that much, and feel like a deadweight carried by the staff, well, I just don’t feel like there’s much good in me being here.
Ok, I know: Patience!! I have told myself before that it takes time to become part of a team, especially when you don’t speak the same language. And I know it is my first teaching job, so I have to learn how to fit in with other teachers, and learn how to make useful and enjoyable lesson plans. And friends have wisely counselled me to shift my mindset, and enjoy the opportunity I have been given here. I get paid to interact with kids of a different culture, possibly expanding their purview as well as learning from them myself. And, even better, I get paid to spend a good amount of time each day working on my own interests, and refreshing my energy in my breaks. Said like that, it sounds like a pretty good deal. So, as overworked ALT friends at other schools have suggested, I should just enjoy the free time I’ve got while I’ve got it.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Why am I here?
I am here to help influence Japanese school students into learning English; to help them practice what they've learned so far and push them to learn more so they can talk to the big, strange man in the hallway who doesn't speak their language. Hopefully, as they get older, their English abilities help them to thrive in an increasingly globalized world where English continues to be the main language of international business.
Their parents' generation experienced interactions with the rest of the world to a degree never before seen in Japan. English became more and more important. However, many of that generation were not educated in English so intensively. And, by adulthood, many likely found that English didn't actually help in day to day life. Only certain industries and a certain level in the hierarchy of employment required English conversational ability. This will most certainly be less true for the current generation.
Japanese culture right now is in a fascinating flux. I definitely don't have the intellectual capacity to sum up Western influences on culture here. Most obviously, English is everywhere you look. Advertising and signage is awash with English, whether correctly spelled or not, and everyday language is chalk full of borrowed words. When words are borrowed into Japanese, they are translated into katakana, so the sound always changes to suit the Japanese syllabary. Sometimes the sound and meaning changes effectively constitute a new word. Sometimes, they are fairly obvious. For example, 'elevator' becomes essentially 'erebaita,' because the tongue-flap 'r' doesn't appear at the end of words, and the sounds 'l' and 'v' as used in English are not part of the Japanese phonemic (like lexicon, but for phonemes: don't know if phonemic is a word, but that's ok).
I recently read a news article pointing out some Japanese concepts and words of the past that are no longer used, and are now most closely referenced in a borrowed word. In fact, the writer points out that even the Prime Minister used borrowed words as parts of speeches calling for a greater devotion to and protection of Japanese culture. Japanese, in other words, is increasingly being diluted by foreign words. Of course, this isn't the first time this fear has emerged in Japan, or elsewhere. Some people in all cultures forecast the future demise of their cultures, as attested to by current changes in the language.
Yet in Japan, there is some validity to the fear, in the sense that foreign influence will only deepen with future joint economic and political ventures, and because less people are being born to repopulate the Japanese culture and language, thanks to a low birth rate. (This is a very real and immediate phenomenon, meaning a couple thousand or so less Japanese people exist each year). As Indian and Chinese speakers of English jump by the tens of millions over the next 20 years, English will probably gain more prominence in the global economic sphere. Of course, India and China have massive populations to maintain their indigenous languages, even if Western consumer-culture hegemony is unstoppable. Japan's declining population of around 130 million might not provide a sufficiently hermetic stronghold.
And, despite some conservative calls to that effect, neither can Japan seek to defend its language at the cost of its economy. In "The World is Flat," Thomas Friedman points out that developing economies are wise to invest in mass English education programs. If only because the biggest economy in the world is (for now) the U.S.A., English is conducive to business. And that is why the government of Japan - and government sanctioned curriculum- eagerly and actively advocate popular English acquisition. And because of the government's efforts toward that end, I was able to get a job with the JET Programme.
I am contributing - on however small a scale - to the increased use of foreign language in place of traditional Japanese. Simply by living during this time, Japanese people are witnessing and participating in that process. I am getting paid to contribute to it.
How do I feel about that?
Yes, cultural change is inevitable, and I don't think language can ever be a set or static thing - at least, not for very long.
Yet... something still seems sad about the whole thing.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
This entry is a quick recount of my weekend, which may not interest you in the least. I promise I'll try to talk about more deliberative and expansive issues next post. But, if you want to hear what I sound like in a good mood, read on.
I am content and bubbly.
I had an awesome weekend, well-balanced in all the key areas, most importantly:
I FINALLY went for a hike. I've been itching and bitching to hit the hills for weeks and weeks and Saturday finally saw the fulfillment of that wish. I managed to keep the day free and tag along with some friends to hike up Kamui-Dake, just south of Sapporo and north of Jozankei. It was a 6 or 7 hour hike, with two peaks along the way. The views were spectacular; my eyes never tire of the contours of Hokkaido's volcanically and tectonically formed topography, rolling and jagged in turns.
Moreover, the dense and endless green of the forests is increasingly giving way to breath-taking reds and yellows that shout for your vision's attention. My friend said the scenery was middle of the road for what he's seen here so far. That means there is a lot more I have to get out and see.
Out of best hiking form, I hustled to keep up with my fit friends over the 14 or 15 km trek. It was worth every drop of sweat. It was worth the freezing cold wind near the summit that had froze the rivulets around us.
By the end of the day I was starting to feel the energy drain and muscle strain throughout my body. That was soon relieved. After hitch-hiking a short ride to Jozankei, we took in a lovely little rotemburo (outdoor onsen) with water at the perfect muscle-soothing temperature, picturesque landscaping, and an unobstructed view of the clear, star-filled sky. This is the primary reason I am so content this weekend.
But, balance is the key to everything, and my entire weekend was not filled with healthy and challenging treks through soul-filling nature. Friday was a fruitful (wine) and fermented (beer) evening for 'catching up with friends,' which meant Saturday's hike was done after a slight shortfall of sleep. This, in turn, meant Sunday morning was a write-off, good only for catching up on sleep. This is another reason I am so content: I took the entire morning - and then some of the afternoon - to get my beauty rest.
Everything went well this weekend. This evening, I chose a particularly friendly teller at the grocery store; he has blown me away with his friendliness before. I was so thrilled when he remembered me, seemed happy to see me, and proceeded to double check that the pasta sauce I bought was vegetarian! I think I was even able to tell him in Japanese that he's a really nice guy.
The big shop and money blow was so I could follow my parents' example and cram my fridge as full of food as possible, to enable better and more creative a diet, and preclude the annoyance of multiple trips the store. Consequently, for dinner, I made a tasty tofu dish for the first time, meaning I also worked on my personal goal of improving my abysmal cooking abilities.
Then, I studied Japanese for an hour, before corresponding with some people back home.
My spirit is elated, and my legs have been deliciously sore all day. And, incredibly, I don't mind the thought of waking up at 6:30am for work tomorrow.