Sunday, November 25, 2007

cold observations

Randomata 1: A couple weekends ago, I mentioned a hike where the top of the mountain was swallowed by thick clouds, harsh wind and the first snow of the year. I didn't mention a strange part of that experience. At the top of the hike, a man was sitting on the ground, with his sweater stretched down and his arms around his bent legs. He was unsuccessfully attempting to start a fire with some pages torn out of a book he was holding. He was shivering. My friend and I had a quick snack, both quite confused about this man's behaviour, and prepared to head back down. But first we tried talking to the man, offering him some food, asking if he was all right, asking if he wanted to come back down with us. He was fine, he said. He didn't need anything, he said. Over all, he was extremely underprepared for the conditions. Yet, we could see that he had a toque and winter gloves, but for some reason he wasn't wearing them. Something seemed wrong about the whole thing. Unsure what to do, after repeated dismissals, my friend and I left. We asked another group who had seen him if they could call the authorities and explain the strange situation. Our biggest concern was that this man was attempting to hurt himself by staying in the cold, or worse, once he was alone, planning to kill himself. We couldn't stay any longer though, because the cold was already seeping into us.
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

better mood to exist in

Randomata: In my schoolyears, when students misbehaved, the teacher either pulled them aside or pulled the ominous 'see me after class' half-threat. Problems and misbehaviour were an individual's secret, essentially. The other day, at the start of a class, the teacher called the class to attention and in a stern voice spoke the name of five students, who stood up at their desks. (I had no idea what was going on.) She proceeded to dish out a calm but ferocious tongue-lashing. The five were clearly abashed, but the rest of the class sat attentively and seemed to recoil slightly, as if partly receiving the reprimand. At the teacher's command, each of the five had to say something to the entire class, and then proceed to apologize (one by one, and then all together) to one student who they had been mistreating between classes. Then they had to apologize to the whole class. An individual misdeed, not even committed in class, was brought into the open and made an issue for the entire class to think about and resolve. It seems a far more overt way to treat misbehaviour and a far more inclusive solution than I saw growing up on the other side of the world.

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

first snow and a slow start

Randomata: In Japanese, adjectives conjugate!! Or inflect, or whatever it's called when they have different endings for tense and positive/negative. At least, a certain category of adjectives inflect. There are two overall categories, 'i' adjectives and 'na' adjectives. 'i' adjectives are made negative by dropping the final 'i' and adding kunai; 'na' adjectives are made negative by changing the copula (ie 'desu') to its negative, 'dewa arimasen/ja nai'. After 'na' adjectives and before a noun you insert 'na,' but not when the adjective is immediatly before a copula like 'desu'. Right. It's all coming together. ('uso' is Japanese for 'lie').

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

seniors, subways, unacceptable settling

Randomata: Did I mention that subways are the senior's sacred domain? Seniors basically own the subway train, in terms of their right to stare, glare or (in equal measure) smile at you. They also have right of way: no matter how far to the side of the aisle you stand, or how fast you board or disembark, they have shoving perogative at all times. If you are on your cell phone, beware a sneer, a "Dame!" ('it's forbidden!'), or even a tap on the arm from a sharp-eyed senior prowling the car. And you wouldn't even think of sitting in the Priority Seats, that distinct, blue section of bench that remains empty even on two-hour train rides out of the city, unless occupied by a rightful rump. I'm not complaining - far from it! I'm thankful that, together with the Politeness Police (transit officers who roam the transit system), seniors ensure the subways remain quiet, and free from the incessant chatter of unaccountably loud and always overly personal cell-phone conversations. I'm kinda like an old person myself, in that regard.

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

hitching and one last hike: the winter is coming!

Last weekend (Saturday November 9th), some fallen leaves didn't stop us from getting out for a smaller scale hike this weekend.

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

empty symbols and the education system

P.S. If you didn't read 'swimming through sasa,' it is very happy and entirely uncritical, and might be a pleasant change after this post.

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.