Sunday, December 23, 2007

attack of the munchkins: elementary school visits

I spent last week goofing with manchickens at elementary schools. It was delightful.

At the first school I had a chaperon assigned to me, who spent the entire two days not five feet away from me. He led me into every room, sat me down for coffee breaks (repeatedly grabbing me coffees because I told him I'm a big coffee drinker), and even walked me to the toilet when he felt it was in order (and basically waited outside the door for me)! He was an incredibly kind man, and I felt so spoiled by the teachers and kids at this school (I didn't think too much about the fact that, partially, they were scared as heck of what a crazy foreigner might do at any moment).

I walked into my first class not really sure what I was going to say about myself, but my limited Canada memorabilia provided a smooth flowing introduction that the kids were able to understand without needing any translation.

I showed them the flag, sang a bit of "Oh Canada" in response to their singing "KimiGaYo", told them about my favourite sports and my hobby - very unpracticed juggling. I was quite chuffed that I every time I showed them the picture of Vancouver a round of 'oo' and 'aa' emerged.

After my introduction (which varied in complexity for each grade), each class consisted of an english vocabulary game as well as some general mucking around games - head and shoulders, simon says, hockey pockey, basketball-basketball-cake (a variation on Duck-Duck-Goose). I haven't stood up in front of a group of little children since being a counsellor at Outdoor School in highschool. It comes to you pretty naturally though, when the kids are so well behaved and staring up expectantly for whatever it is you might do next. They were pretty enthralled, AND i didn't make anybody cry, so I think it was a big success.

Each class had a song or dance to thank me with. I've never actually enjoyed a recorder performance before! One class did this cool Japanese dance which looked a mix between traditional dance and modern aerobic workout. It was awesome, and I didn't have to try to keep the grin plastered on my face.

There are so many little memories from these four days that I couldn't capture them all. The first day at the second school I got totally beat up at recess. The kids were expert snowball throwers and, once I was down, made a massive dogpile on top of me. Other fun games included tag and dodgeball in the school gym. Oh, and reading a children's story (I"ll Always Love You) to a group of tiny and adorable ichinensei (first graders). They had read a direct translation in Japanese already, and it was such a cool feeling to watch their faces light up as they understood my reading through the pictures and their previous preparation. Also cool was getting walked to the subway station by a group of kids, thrilled to show off their knowledge of the neighbourhood. This will probably be the only time in my life where I have throngs of people (or mini-people) asking for my autograph. The kids are fascinated by the way we write (just as kanji fascinates us), though I don't think my signature is anything special. Basically every moment held a good memory!
Most of the teachers were visibly on edge the entire time I was in class, scared that they would have to come in with their unconfidant english skills, or just scared that I would do something crazy. Nonetheless, together we managed to mash each class out and I don't think I did anything too crazy.
Needless to say, I had an amazing time and I really hope to get the chance to go again next year. I should also mention, however, that every single day was exhausting to a G. I got off a little bit early each day and the use to which I put this extra time was going straight home and passing out for an hour or two, dead to the world. By the last day, Thursday, I was pretty beat to begin with, and we had managed to squeeze a couple extra hours of interaction into my schedule, so by the end of the 8 hour day I was pretty much a dead man walking (though still grinning!). As I expected, my voice started to go Thursday afternoon. My throat started to get sore Friday morning. My sinuses started to plug Friday afternoon. Friday afternoon it took a whole pot of coffee to keep me awake for the bonenkai, my junior elemntary school's year-end party. By Saturday evening my head was no longer attached to my body.
I figured I would catch something from the combination of exhaustion, constant touching (face included) by the kids, and the new germs of new schools in different neighbourhoods.
It's ok. It was worth it!

(As long as I'm healthy by the time we leave for Thailand!)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

blast of positives

Some random postives:

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.

relaxed drive to learn

As I slowly sense some improvement in my Japanese abilities, I am somewhat lacking in motivation to continue learning (I'm writing in a good mood, so this won't be too self-deprecating or pessimistic).

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

job description

Randomata: Subtle status hierarchy. Upon entering the school, students remove their shoes and place them in shelves of cubby holes in the entrance room. A teacher stands outside this room greeting students as they enter the school proper. After the bell, the teacher walks among the shelves and makes sure that all the shoes are facing the back of the cubby (cause it's rude to point your shoes at people) and are not sticking out too much or sitting messily. This is a testament to the importance of appearance surrounding entering people's homes or buildings.

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.

Job Description:

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.
-that's all

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

clearly I like the outdoors

Randomata: Public baths. I love 'em. Sento are local public baths in the middle of the neighbourhood. Onsen are usually a bit more touristy, often drawing from hot springs and using mineral water with supposed health benefits. Rotemburo are outdoor baths, ideally with a clear view of a lake or a mountain or some gloried scene of nature to absorb your mind as the water absorbs your weariness. I think I've said before, but men and women are separated in the far majority of baths. Oh, and you don't actually bathe in the bath with everybody else. There is a row of low stools and shower heads on one side of the big room, where you soap up and clean yourself off before getting in the water. Maybe it seems odd, the idea of lathering and scrubbing with your naked neighbour only a foot away, and then sitting around in the water shoulder to shoulder, fully exposed. But you get over that after about five minutes. Already I can't imagine why any society wouldn't have them. Aside from the relaxing qualities, getting naked with a bunch of other people some how goes a long way toward making you more comfortable with your body. After all, every body is funny looking. And it even helps strengthen relationships, removing one more barrier (meaning the pyschological defence that clothing provides) between two friends or family members. I thoroughly enjoyed the skinship onsen bonding with my father when he was here visiting me.

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

slight hodepodge of thoughts

Randomatta 1: Tobacco oozes from my pores, and I don't even smoke! Problem is, smoking is allowed in all restaurants and bars, so even if you just go grab a quick cup of coffee, you get a nicotine fix to go with the shot of caffeine. I've been spoiled by Vancouver's fresh air/anti-freedom initiatives over the last few years that have relegated smoking to fewer and fewer public places, so that eventually it seems the only place left will be your john at home. I don't mind smoke or smokers all that much, in fact I'm sure I knew a nice smoker once, and I do feel a little bit bad for them in that the government of British Columbia is telling them how to live their life. On the other hand, I don't enjoy the desire to burn my clothes and scrape off a layer of skin every time I go out somewhere. Two places that stand out in my mind as particularly displeasing are: the changing room of a sento (public bath) and small, closed in karaoke rooms. After feeling relaxed and clean from the bath, some people are apparently eager to reapply the familiar coating stench. When enjoying a night of singing, apparently some people are eager to burn their lungs and vocal chords to crap. I don't mean to sound bitter - I swear I have nothing against smokers - it's just that I stink and my clothes stink and now my house even stinks a bit. It's almost enough to make me take up smoking, just so I don't notice the smell any more.
Randomata 2: Did I mention the importance of 'rock-paper-scissors' here? It's called jan-ken (spelling?), and school kids and young adults use it to solve nearly any dispute or make any group decision, or just for fun. It's quite a sight to see most of a classroom stand in a circle and play in one big group game, everybody showing at the same time, losers ducking out faster than I can keep track of, people reloading before I've even seen their hand, as small pairs of people do mini-battles to figure out rankings and what not. They play with lightning speed, and all decisions are final.
I don't think I talked about dinner at _____-sensei's house? He had a beautiful house and a beautiful family to fill it, two kids and a wife. I played with the kids for three or four hours, sort of trading my energy and English for the incredible dinner his wife made. I don't know if she always cooks that well, but if so, then I understand how Japanese marriages last despite workaholics' hardly being at home. The strange thing about the night was being treated as the guest of honor, expected to enter first, gift first, sit in the lounge first, sit at the head of the table, asked again and again if the food was good enough, thanked for my playing with the kids as if it was a gift I was giving. I was very honoured to be invited at all, but I wish I could have switched spots with one of the other teachers who came - I didn't deserve it at all! (P.S. I hope it's ok to have the picture up... as long as no names are attached... By the way, allllll Japanese kids are incredibly adorable.)
Don't think I talked about a little trip down to Kutchan near Niseko (bout 2hr train southwest of Sapporo) to visit friend Ali and see her nice little town.
Beside the fun party she threw, generally good company, and finding ten dollar skies, a definite highlight was getting a peak at Mt Yotei, Fuji of the North, which dominates the skyline.

I went to another Consadole's soccer game with a few friends, through means of tickets kindly given to me by my Vice Principal! It was an important game with only two left in the season. You'll notice the sea of red in the background. Most people have paraphenalia and jersey's with the number 12 on the back - the official Fan number, which emphasizes that the team depends on its supporters to strive together toward victory.
Here, the fans hold cards to mimic the stripes of a jersey, further enhancing the sense that everybody is part of the team. It was a game with perhaps too much interference by the referee, including two penalty shot goals. Sapporo had the lead until the last minute, when the opponents equalized. Luckily, the next game, the last of the season, Sapporo won and so next year will move up a division to the J1 league, the top soccer league in the country.

What else have I not noted in terms of diary keeping?

Held another fantasy writer's group at my apartment today. I can't write particularly well, but I've always been fascinated with it, so it is good to have some external motivation to work on it a little bit here and there. I sometimes wonder why I am in a writer's group here when I wasn't in one at home, and neither does it help me to learn about this new place I'm in (insofar as the writer's group is composed of gai-jin writing stories that have nothing to do with Japan).
Growing in my mind is the realisation that simply being here doesn't offer a new 'Me' to live with. I've got a lot of the same interests as back home (and flaws), and a lot of the personal growth that happens here won't be of a particularly "Japanese" character, it will just be growth, period. So, it is still personally rewarding to practice writing, even if it's not in Japanese or about Japan - though it would be nice to be able to write SOMEthing in Japanese...
Likewise, it was very fun to play some Futsal (indoor soccer) last week, even though there's nothing specifically 'Japanese' about Futsal or the way I played it. But, after playing soccer the least I ever have in the last half year of my life, it was awweeeeesssooommmeeeee!!!! I don't seem too sluggish on the ball yet, so that's a relief!

I am seeking more specifically 'Japanese' knowledge and experiences, meaning high/traditional cultural experiences like art or theatre. For example, I just bought a couple books on Japanese fairy tales and stories, because many of the myths that raised this nation have a different history from the myths that I know.
Yet, the truth is every day life here is modernized and globalized, at a glance sharing much with life back home. So, in that, the differences may be more specific, like the way people greet each other, or how much they play jan-ken. And, partly, I think the similarities in life - like working a 9-5 - cover up the fact that the way people live that life here, and what components of it mean to them, is different in many ways. Learning the similarities and differences in how people here think about life will take a long time.