Monday, December 20, 2010

A South Korean Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone! I thought I would write a preemptive blog, since I will be traveling for the holiday. Tomorrow, I am heading to Fukuoka, the biggest city in Kyushu (the southern most island of Japan's four), and then Wednesday evening, I fly to Seoul with a friend who is a teacher in Nagasaki City. So, a South Korean Christmas it is. I can't wait, despite North Korea's threats. I will be in South Korea for a week, hitting up the Seoul area for 5 days and then 2 days in Busan. Two of my friends from Peace Corps Mozambique live around the Seoul area and I am beyond excited to see a couple of familiar faces at Christmas. Our Peace Corps group of about 64 people is a pretty tight-knit group and there is a planned New Years party in Florida that I will obviously be unable to attend, so it will be great to connect with a couple and have our own mini, Asian version of a reunion. After Seoul, I will travel by train to Busan to visit with a friend from high school. She and I have taken similar post-university paths. She did Peace Corps Morocco and is now a teacher in Busan. She has a great blog and you can check it out at

The worst part about a trip is planning for the trip and packing. I am trying to pack like Japanese people do. If you are on a ferry or any other public transportation, you look around and wonder where everyone's luggage is. But a handbag is usually all they need. I am going to be walking around one of Japan's biggest cities for a few hours so I would rather not be wheeling a gigantic Sampsonite suitcase behind me and knocking things over. It's way too bull in a china shop for my liking. Tonight is like the season finale of American idol in my apartment - which articles of clothing has what it takes to make the cut. I also gave my fish (Chikamaru-kun) to a friend to fishsit while I am gone. In order to do so, I had carry my fish tank through the streets of Ojika to her shop. That was no easy feat, seeing as it was all downhill on uneven cobblestone streets. I had to dump out about a third of the water in his/her tank while I was walking (on purpose and not). Chikamaru-kun, you are going on a diet when I get home. I am pretty sure that seven people now think I'm crazy. Like the lady riding her moped who called out "What is it? A goldfish" over traffic. Always excited to understand anything anyone says, I shouted "HAI!" back with fish water dripping from my sweatshirt cuffs.

I did my Christmas lesson as a baking party for three of my high school classes. We made chocolate chip cookies and it was by far, one of my most enjoyable/hectic classes thus far. I wanted to make it fail-proof so I prepped, labeled and pre-measured all of the ingredients, besides handing them each a recipe in English. It basically went like this: "OKAY! (shouting) BUTTER, SUGAR, BROWN SUGAR! (dumping motion with my hands) MIX MIX MIX!" It got the point across and there were zero burned cookies. All the kids sat on the floor to watch the cookies bake and they got to divide them up and keep a plateful to take home. I even decorated the home ec room where we baked in a Christmas winter wonderland theme. Snowflakes on the windows and cool table settings. Sandra Lee from Semi-Homemade on the Food Network would have been proud.

I have noticed that the kids love it when I blaspheme. I almost burned myself on a cookie sheet and said "Jesus!" and the kids burst out laughing. "Erin-sensei, what is Jesus?" I just shrugged and brushed off the deep question that most Christians spend their lives trying to figure out. It's like "Oh no!" Around Halloween, the senior boys made a haunted house and they told me to go through a tunnel on a test run and then proceeded to drop a swinging decapitated head and I yelled "Oh my god!" and all of the undead in the haunted house were laughing. I know my mother is frowning at this paragraph. Sorry, Mom. It just slips out.

I did what felt like about a billion Christmas parties in the elementary school. And nothing says Christmas like a forced Christmas card to the teacher. The entire 4th grade class presented me with colored Christmas cards. I was pretty impressed by some. The kids had written to me in Romaji, which I appreciated. Romaji is the romanization of Japanese characters - so it's all spelled out, rather than written in characters. A few were unenthusiastic, run-of-the-mill Santas but the rest were pretty vibrant, complete with an extra portrait of myself wearing a Santa hat or of anime or cartoons. I passed out candy later and the ones who drew me skinny got the best flavor.

Christmas is never easy away from my family but it's not as sad when I have friends to celebrate with. I hope that wherever you are in this crazy world, you have a wonderful Christmas!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman

The other day I went to the post office to mail Christmas presents to my family. I thought it would be a fairly simple transaction but I made the mistake of asking the question of what the price and delivery time differences were between express and regular. And by question, I mean, one word at a time in Japanese with a vocal question mark. “Price?” (making the money sign, rubbing my fingers together – still not entirely sure if that’s a legitimate hand gesture in Japan) “How long?” (pointing at my wrist like a watch). Sometimes my life just seems like a giant game of charades. But my questions sent the post office into a frenzy. The clerk hurried around, looking for a book and uttering “America, America, America” like a crazy. Another came to the cash register and spent about 10 minutes trying to find it in the system. And another clerk came over to serve as a spectator and to occasionally gesture back at me. It was like we were battling; a gesture-off, if you will. It all eventually worked out.

Then just the other day, I received a notice in the mail from my internet company. Of course, it’s all in Japanese. So I took it to school and my wonderful co-worker told me that it was a bill and that I hadn’t paid my internet in the last two months and the deadline is tomorrow. You can imagine my horror at the possibility of having my internet cut off. I have also always been one of those people who is careful about paying bills on time. My co-worker explained to me how to pay the bill at the post office. You can do so much at the post offices and convenience stores here, just at their ATMs. I took the bill to the post office and put on my lost puppy face and a friendly clerk helped show me how to pay bills through the ATM. It’s magical. You just slide the bill in and there is a barcode that gets scanned and you insert your cash. Voila, paid. I was relieved to take care of that and I am sure the post office workers were relieved to learn that I wasn’t there to send any more packages.

My next hurdle is figuring out the hours at the post office. There are few things I hate more than receiving an “undeliverable package” notice (i.e., I wasn’t home to receive it) and spending the evening knowing that something wonderful from home is only a block away and I have to wait until the next day to receive it. But anyways, apparently you can’t pay for more than one bill at a time (?) at the ATM and have to pay more in the actual post office. And when I wanted to do that, they said that the post office doesn’t do bill transactions after 4, yet they are open until 5. I had a Mozambique moment where I felt exasperated by the whole system. I had so many tantrums/meltdowns at the bank in Monapo. I hate things that don’t make sense. And the clerk just laughed nervously as he explained it and then slowly stepped away while facing me, like I was a Grizzly bear he didn’t want to agitate. So I had to walk there today during my 45 minute lunch to do so. It takes 15 minutes to walk there from school so the whole thing ate up half an hour. Then I had to shove my lunch down and go to class. Needless to say, it was exhausting. Especially since there were hills involved with the walking.

I am teaching three classes of 10th graders this week and they are a lot of fun. There are 27 of them and it’s an oral communications class. Oral communications class = just have fun. I am totally down with that. Today we played the Lifeboat game, where you pretend like everyone has to get on a “lifeboat.” When I would shout “five people in a lifeboat!” students had to find four other people to link arms with to make their lifeboat. Whoever didn’t find four other people, died a terrible death and was out of the game. It got pretty rowdy with shouting and flailing on the floor. It was funny because the boys and the girls refuse to create lifeboats together until absolutely necessary. People were grabbing each other and trying to force them onto their lifeboat. Tomorrow, we are playing the “mustache game.” I made mustaches out of colorful origami paper and wrote the names of famous people or cartoons on them. Each student, without seeing the name of the person or cartoon, has their mustache taped on and has to ask everyone questions to find out who they are. It should be pretty ridiculous. Can’t wait. I did a similar game with the 11th graders and one student had a really hard time guessing Beyonce. My co-worker even sang part of a Beyonce song to him (complete with jazz hands) and he still couldn’t figure it out. Once he finally did, I ordered him to look her up on youtube. It’s always a sad day when someone doesn’t know who she is.

My adult English classes are going great. I have two groups: beginners and advanced. It’s fun sometimes to just sit there and chat. As the “teacher,” sometimes it takes a bit to keep the conversation running. Plus, if I don’t, then they will all sit and stare at me. Sometimes I feel like a nervous date who has written talking points down so I don’t run out of them or like Sarah Palin and her hand during interviews. My English groups have great senses of humor. I asked one student, a housewife and shop owner in her 60s, “what do you say when your husband doesn’t like your cooking?” She thought about it for a moment and then turned to me. “Shut up.” She’s the same one who had to finish the sentence “I am…” and she said “I am a beautiful madam.” I gave her applause for originality and sassiness. She also brought a catalog to my house today so I could look at heaters her shop sells. Anyone who can offer relief from the cold and a small shipping and handling fee is my new best friend.

One thing that has been irking me lately has been some of the students in the elementary school and their fascination with poking me in the stomach. Now, I’m no Barbie but I don’t have a ridiculously large stomach. Some of them seem to have taken to me like their personal Pillsbury dough girl and it’s driving me up the wall. I am just generally against random people touching me (borderline mild obsessive compulsive), so when I greet a student in the hall with a wave and they walk up behind me and grab at my stomach, I start to feel a little bitter. The next time it happens, I am going to give them a serious “stop it” in Japanese. Sometimes when class begins and I am greeting the students, the teacher has me shake every kid’s hand as I ask them how they are. I’d like to keep the colds or flus to a minimum this winter season and I haven’t counted out carrying a latex glove with me each time I visit. Or maybe whipping out a bottle of Purell after each handshake would send the right message.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Everyone Could Use a Good Outburst

Let`s see. What`s new? Thanksgiving was good but uneventful. I didn`t do much. In fact, it was like any other day. I was going to make a one-person thanksgiving dinner but then decided it was too much work when I got home from school and just made a chicken stir-fry. Living in Mozambique for two years kind of dulled the ache I feel for American holidays. I do love both Thanksgiving and Christmas, but if you aren`t reminded of family get-togethers and all the jazz that comes along with the holidays, you tend to treat those days like any other.

In good news, I bought my ticket to fly to South Korea for Christmas. I am planning to spend a week there, splitting my time between Seoul and Busan. I am traveling with a friend from here and I`m hoping to visit some Peace Corps friends and a high school classmate while I`m there. I am hoping that the whole situation with North Korea calms down beforehand. It`s really bad timing. It`s like the time in college when I was days from my trip to Italy and the pope died. True story. People flocked to Rome and it resulted in ridiculously long lines. Somehow, I think that I would be facing the opposite problem in South Korea.

School is going well. It feels like I am constantly at the elementary school - which might explain how I caught a horrible cold. It wasn’t your typical “ah-choo” cold. It was one of those long, drawn-out colds with night sweats, fever, sore throat and other unseemly issues. All those children and their germs. I wore a sars mask for the first time at school and it was pretty magical. People wear masks here when they are sick or are afraid they are going to get sick. No one could see my face. Of course, everyone asked "you have a cold?" And then they wanted to know my symptoms and told me I should go to the hospital. Japanese people, much like Mozambicans, go to the hospital for the smallest cold. So they seemed kind of shocked when I said no to their recommendation and said I didn`t need to visit the hospital. It would be a waste of time, in my opinion, when I could just self-diagnose. And it would just cause extra stress because I don`t speak Japanese well and when I am sick, I lose my ambition to mime with my hands.

In sad news, one of the tires on my bike is punctured and I have to walk everywhere. I don`t mind this so much as it gives me exercise, but it`s definitely more time-consuming. I get my cardio in on the way to the gym rather than at the gym, I suppose. Glass half full. I visited Ojika`s public gym for the first time once last week and it is actually a cute little gym. Some of the equipment is outdated and may have been proven at some point to be ineffective in the quality of exercise it offers. I half expected to see that slimming belt machine that women stood there, wearing around their hips in the 1950`s, thinking it was providing a workout with the smallest contribution of standing there on their part. But I used the weights. I do this because I am a wuss. I`m not a wuss because I lifted the weights at the gym. It`s because I could lift weights for free at the high school but there are always students and a couple of male teachers in there and women don`t lift weights in Japan. At least not on my island. I would rather not get gawked at and no one uses the public gym weight room that often. So, I am planning to go a couple times a week probably. I bought a more powerful flashlight if I have to walk home in the dark. I was pretty excited about that flashlight when I bought it at the 100 yen shop. Maybe it`s because I like to put batteries in things. It gives me a sense of accomplishment.

So I have decided that I am going to write about a couple of things that drive me bonkers. First and most importantly, there is no insulation in Japanese housing. If you want heat, you have to buy a space heater, a heated blanket, a kotatsu table (a table with a built-in heater) or start packing. I have none of those and so far, wearing a hat, socks three shirts, a pair of pants and a long dress over all of that to bed has been working for me. But it will get colder so I imagine I will have to break down eventually and buy a space heater that I will become paranoid about whether I turned it off or not once I am school. It`s like my bad relationship with curling irons in high school. I probably put several miles on my old Dodge Shadow turning around to run home quick before school to make sure I had unplugged the curling iron – a paranoia that eventually expanded to the toaster and oven burners. One might have called it mild obsessive compulsive. But it`s not like I had to switch the light on and off an even amount of times before leaving the house.

Next, formality. I know. I know. I am not really that surprised by how formal everyone is in Japan, especially after coming from Moz and having to call everyone “o excellisimo senhor director, etc., etc.” But people in Moz were also far more blunt. If they didn’t like something, they would tell you. In the states, we obviously don’t have a problem with expressing our opinions either. But in Japan, what is said always errs on the side of politeness rather than the truth. In some ways this is good because people avoid confrontation and angry outbursts. But I am of the opinion that confrontation and outbursts are sometimes exactly what the doctor ordered. Who hasn`t screamed into a pillow at least once in their life, right?

And sometimes, I realize that I should put my foot in my mouth after the matter. For example, I have learned not to ask people if they went on a vacation. I asked a person this after being gone for several days and it was extremely awkward. To me, as an American, going on a vacation is great and everyone should use their vacation time to travel, have some much-needed fun and relax a couple times a year. Asking about how a trip went is just a polite courtesy. In Japan, there is this inclination to always appear busy and to work yourself into the ground. People will often spend 14 hour days at the office and this seriously impacts their family relationships and home lives. Much of the time, it is men working the long hours, leaving women to be the main caretakers of the children. I have been reading articles on Japanese society and the effects of such long days at the office. People are marrying and having fewer children at an older age. Some people can`t cope with the demanding work and withdraw from society to become “hikikomori” or people who don`t leave their homes and isolate themselves from society. And many younger people, referred to as “parasite singles,” live with their parents into their late 20`s or early 30`s because it is just easier and more comfortable. In my opinion, a healthier balance needs to be found between work and home.

Next, I still get flustered whenever people stare. I grew used to it while I was in the Peace Corps but it still can get bothersome. I always walk up a hill to school and there is always a group of guys standing outside in front of what appears to be a burning barrel, having a morning meeting before they all get in their trucks to go fishing or whatever their profession is. They always see me coming up the road and then stare when I am not that far from them. I guess I could say that innocent curiosity is fine when a person stares but when you have seen me before and realize that I probably won`t be gnashing my teeth and speaking in tongues anytime soon, it becomes rude to stare and it makes me fight the urge to go all Portuguese Erin on them.

One thing I have noticed with languages is that I am a totally different person in each. In Japanese, I am far more reserved and quiet because I can`t speak or understand the language that well yet. Portuguese Erin is a totally different story. She`s kind of a Sasha Fierce. This was the Erin that wouldn’t think twice about insulting someone if they were being rude. I never realized how aggressive I was until my sister came to visit me in Moz and a guy was being rude near the market and I made fun of his stutter right to his face. It just came out and I don`t know where it comes from. All I remember was my sister pausing and saying “did you just make fun of that man`s stutter?” I think that may be my survival of the fittest language. English is my normal self – a reasonable portion of everything. And I can crack jokes. I miss having someone around who has a similar sense of humor and finds the funny in the same things I do. I am definitely excited for my family to come visit in the spring.

Christmas is in a few weeks! My only decoration is a red and green tablecloth that some other ALT left behind in Ojika. I don`t really see a point in making or buying a bunch of decorations if the only person who is there to appreciate it is me. I am just fine with keeping the decorations at a minimum and randomly listening to the five Christmas songs I have on my iPod. I might make Christmas cookies. Key word there is might. A lot of these kids have grown up with ALTs telling them about Christmas, so I think that shoving it down their throats anymore would be tiresome. I will try to do some kind of activity or game with them at school. Last week, I had 4th, 5th and 6th grade and we all played Christmas bingo. Tomorrow, I have 1st, 2nd and 3rd and take one guess as to what game the Japanese teachers want us to play. I curse the invention of the game.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Sewing Machine Snatching, Wannabe Rapping

The school festival was a lot of fun, but a long day. We started at 8:45 and finished around 5 pm. The kids put a lot of work into the festival though and I was impressed. All the grades made videos that were funny and creative. The tenth graders (everyone calls them the “first graders” – which makes me laugh every time. Kind of like how an elementary school teacher writes “crap your hands” instead of “clap your hands” on lesson plans) made a video where the boys impersonated the male teachers at the high school. They were spot on! The female teachers must be either off-limits for mockery or lack mock-able qualities. The students also sang, gave speeches, played in rock bands, made udon (noodles) and created games and activities.

Each classroom made a theme for their room. There was the flea market, the haunted house, an art room, a giant board game and a “soda-can castle.” I think the “first graders” just walked around in Halloween hats and black clothes to sell soda and have people play “paper, scissors, rock” for candy. Once again, paper, scissors, rock reigns supreme in Japan. I have paper, scissors, rock tournaments with the second graders and it gets pretty crazy. Anyways, they had to take the can castle down at the end of the day and they filled up the entire back of a pick-up truck. The haunted house was super messy as well, filling up bags and bags of straw and cardboard. But it was a hit. There was a line up and down the hall, waiting to enter. While eating my lunch in the parking lot, I could hear screams coming from the third floor. About 20 students played in the rock bands. The last rock band to play was by the senior boys and after one of the songs, a singer made an announcement, addressing another student who was emotional because he couldn’t play with the band because he had to study for the college entrance exam, saying “pass the exam and then we will play in the band together.” If that’s not adorable, I don’t know what is.

After the festival, the teachers had an enkai at a local restaurant. The lady who owns the restaurant gave me a persimmon to eat at the beginning of the week when I ate there with a co-worker and I pretended to like it so as not to offend her. Well, now she thinks I love persimmons and gave me another one. I am going to have to figure out a way to smuggle it into my purse in the future. After the enkai, we went to karaoke, where I sang a couple of songs to be a dork, one of them being "Wannabe" by the Spice Girls. After I finished, the school nurse told me "Erin, you are good at rapping!" The words Spice Girls and rapping really should never belong in the same sentence.

Speaking of adorable, the Halloween parade with the pre-school kids was just that. There was a Winnie the Pooh, a dinosaur, several princesses, pumpkins and random Halloween garb. It was incredible. I think this island understands the concept of Halloween and the organizer told me that it’s getting bigger and bigger every year. There were probably about 25 kids there with their parents and we walked down the main street and the shop owners came out and handed out candy. The kids couldn’t even fit all their candy in their bags. I should tell them about using pillowcases for next year. A guy walked beside the kids with a stereo on a cart playing songs like “It’s a Small World After All” and the Mickey Mouse song. So, Ojika amazes and astounds once again.

A sore point with me the past couple days has been finding out through a student in the town where I was a volunteer in Mozambique that the two sewing machines I managed to get for my girls group were stolen from a volunteer’s home. I cried when I heard that. It makes me so sad and angry to know how some people are stunting the development of that beautiful country for personal gain. The thieves had to have known that the machines were used for girls to learn how to sew. I put hours and hours of work into writing a grant, obtaining the materials and planning for the group to learn how to sew on those machines. But it’s not my own effort that bothers me so much as the fact that a successful, unified group that once had 14 members has been reduced to two. The girls were a tight group and could chat and have their own space and time to just be girls and have fun. Now, that has fallen apart. Something I have learned is that you can give people knowledge and resources, but you can’t guide them the whole way. They have to have the motivation and courage, despite obstacles, to keep creating that path that separates them from poverty - the whole leading the horse to water concept. I can only hope they gained something from the time we spent together.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Give me your finest bowl cut.

The school festival is on Sunday. I am still not entirely sure what that entails. I know that students sing and perform, prepare skits and decorate their classrooms, there is a flea market, we eat noodles, and there is a big teacher enkai that night. The brass band has been practicing every day after school and I have been going. I still just pretend to play half the time. The one trumpet player is very serious about her role in the band and I feel like she is judging me whenever I don`t hit a note. I saw her getting reamed out by a teacher in the teacher`s room because she failed an exam. Apparently, there are serious consequences to failing an exam as a band member - i.e. your practice time is cut down because you are forced to study more. It was strange to me to be in the same room as a teacher yelling at a crying student. Like I was witnessing an emotional flogging.

But anyway, we are going to play five songs. The first song begins with all the brass band members in their seats in the audience and then standing up and playing their way to the front. I don`t play during that song so I will just stand there like an awkward panda. One song involves wearing anime masks and another song involves standing up and dancing. I am really only going to seriously play two of the songs. Otherwise, I am totally pretending and they are okay with that. There are about 12 members in the band but they make a pretty powerful noise. They are pretty accomplished musicians because that is their sport and hobby. Many of the students even play two instruments to make up for the lack of members in the band. The seniors in the band who aren`t going to college technically "retired" after the first trimester, so they don`t normally play with the band anymore, but they are allowed during the school festival.

I`m impressed because one of the boys in the senior class of students not going to university is going to hair design school. He plays in the band and I made a point of asking him about it and it turns out, his English is pretty good. The students are constantly surprising the Japanese English teachers when I ask them a question and they understand and respond without a problem. I told him that he has nice hair and he said "you too!" and then I said that he should cut my hair one day and he said "yes!" I only trust hair stylists with nice hair and he has the most stylish hair out of all the students, even the girls. I am getting nervous because I do need to get my hair trimmed eventually and I`m scared of the language barrier. Because maybe "please use scissors" will be mistakenly translated to "razor blade." "A light trim" to "give me your finest bowl cut."

But anyways, the seniors who are studying to take the university entrance exams don`t get to participate too much in the festival. It`s kind of sad because they are still teenagers but all they do is study. One student speaks amazing English, but she is very timid and too modest. If you compliment a lot of Japanese people, they will often say "oh no, no, no!" Good god, just accept my compliment! She was watching a video of herself speaking English and she was literally rocking back and forth in what looked like physical pain because she was embarassed to be watching herself on the television. She went to the elementary school yesterday and we taught the second grade students movements together, like jump, clap, nod, turn... We then played a game of Simon Says and teaching with her made me realize just how loud I am and how loud and outgoing you have to be in order to teach elementary school students. Maybe that`s why I am exhausted after three classes in the elementary school. I have no problem yelling/borderline screaming "okay! are you ready! simon says jump!..." When I handed the reins over to the high school student, her voice was so timid that I could barely hear her over the dull roar of the second graders. You could see all the second graders leaning forward to be able to hear her. Super cute.

I played badminton last night with an english and biology teacher in a tournament. There are about 15 badminton teams of three players each. Most of the teams consist of men but there are a few teams with women on them from the junior and senior highs. We won all three games. I would like to say that it was because we are good but it is really because the biology teacher is amazing. He is the head coach for the girls badminton team and he has been the coordinator for the prefectural high school badminton championships. This guy is like lightning on that court. You think he won`t make the shot but you are wrong about 90% of the time. It amazes me that someone can have that fast of reflexes. So the games mostly consist of me and the other English teacher hitting what we can and then just getting the hell out of the way to let him take care of the rest. I hear that he is the best badminton player on the island and there is an expectation that we will win. Maybe us English teachers were meant to be his handicap to bring him down to the level of fellow islanders. If so, I am okay with that. We have our last games tonight and then we are going out for dinner and drinks.

It is fun to see all the islanders get together for events though. There was the island sports festival, where all the neighborhoods competed against each other for beer. There are buddhist festivals. And there are small sports tournaments, like softball and badminton. It`s a pretty united little island, with events and celebrations all the time. And the teachers usually participate and have such a good vibe together. I am pretty lucky to be at this school because everyone likes each other and there are always teacher parties. I`m averaging about one dinner or party every week - which is great because that is how you get to know your co-workers and learn some Japanese. There are some ALTs (assistant language teachers) who have upwards of seven or eight schools to visit so they never really get to know their teachers and co-workers at their base schools because they aren`t there very often.

When we first got to Japan, we were fed the typical culture shock graph. We got the same thing when I studied abroad in Ireland and when I entered the Peace Corps. When you first get here, you are supposed to go through a "honeymoon" period, where everything is new and fresh and you love it. Then you are supposed to enter a stage where you absolutely hate it and are frustrated. And then you start to adjust and "integrate." I feel like I have gone from honeymoon straight into adjustment. Maybe after Mozambique, I see nothing to hate. Sure, there are some frustrating aspects of life but there are no overwhelming hardships that feel impossible to overcome. I definitely went through a bitter, annoyed period in Mozambique, but life was more stressful and it was my first time having a job in a foreign, underdeveloped country. I find myself comparing Japan to Mozambique and I need to stop because they are both so different and awesome in their own ways. It`s strange because I find myself comparing Mozambique with Japan more than I compare the U.S. with Japan. If I get frustrated now, I usually just go home, make dinner and watch Weeds or Dexter.

All right, I need to get some work and studying done. By study, I mean studying Japanese characters and phrases. I have managed to memorize all of the katakana symbols! That`s exciting. I have stayed fairly disciplined, studying by myself. Once in a while, I have a question and another English teacher helps me. I can now write my name in Katakana! Now I just have to memorize hiragana and about a billion Kanji symbols. One step at a time though. I was super excited on Tuesday because I recognized "Africa" in Katakana. A-fu-ri-ka! What a fitting first word!

Okay, I need to pick up the feathers from my orange and black boas from my elementary school Halloween parties off my desk and floor space. It looks like backstage in Vegas up in here. Everyone have a happy and safe Halloween! I won`t be wearing a costume but as usual, I will be enkai-ing it up that night. Kanpai to Halloween!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Kickball - Not for the Weak of Heart or Skills

This is where I try to make up for being a horrible blogger over the past month.

I went to Sasebo this weekend for the Yosakoi dance festival. It`s this festival where dance groups come from all over the country to participate and dance in the streets. Step Up 4: Yosakoi. It was pretty neat. The groups can get pretty large. I saw one that probably had about 100 people in it. But there were also smaller groups as well. They dress up in costumes and face paint and crazy hair and dance the crap out of music. It was a lot of fun to watch and I will make sure to post some pictures on here soon. I shot a few videos too. They had so much energy when they danced. It was like a far better version of the DisneyWorld block party.

I also did some shopping. You know you are getting older when you get excited about buying new curtains. The old curtains I had were an ugly yellow and I was always paranoid that you could see through them at night when I had the light on and was getting changed. So I sprang for the black curtains that were on sale. Thankfully, they fit my window. I never measured and just winged it, based on my own height. They make my living room really dark but they look a lot nicer. The yellow ones are already in the trash. Good riddance. And speaking of curtains, I was sitting at my computer in my living room the other night and a cat started to walk through my balcony doors and into my living room. I freaked out and hissed at it. I am not sure if that was the appropriate response but it did the trick and ran off. The last thing I need is a cat traipsing through my living room when I am allergic.

I also bought a lot, and I mean a lot, of Halloween stuff in the city. In Japan, they have these 100 yen shops - where amazingly, everything in the shop costs 100 yen. It`s like the dollar store. But I guess with the exchange rate, you could call these $1.20 stores. But you can get anything at these shops. There are cleaning supplies, food, tupperware...yadda yadda yadda. There is one 100 yen shop that`s my favorite. It has TWO floors to it. I still don`t know exactly what I am going to do with everything I bought at the store. I don`t really have a set plan for a Halloween celebration.

October 31st is not only Halloween but also my school`s school festival - which means I have to be on the island on Sunday. There is a Halloween party on the 30th on the mainland with other ALTs (assistant language teachers) but I won`t be able to go because of the ferry schedule. It`s kind of a bummer but there is also an enkai (party) for the teachers that night so that should be fun. I am considering making candy bags for everyone in the spirit of Halloween. As for the students, I am not sure what`s going to happen. I might just give out candy. We`ll see what happens. I would like to see what kind of costumes they can come up with.

On Thursday and Friday this week, I agreed to play badmitton with the teachers for a couple of games. I haven`t played badmitton since I was little and played barefoot against my sister and parents in the yard. I wouldn`t call these games a league because it`s only for two days and I wouldn`t call it a tournament because I doubt anyone cares that much. But I was put on a team with the badmitton coach (who is REALLY good at badmitton) and the other female English teacher. I like that he paired me with her because she and I are friends and crack jokes and she has been super helpful at explaining and translating things when necessary. She said she can`t hit the birdie. I think he may regret putting the two of us with him on a team.

That same English teacher will also be going with me to the Nagasaki city mid-year conference in a couple of weeks. That should be fun. I am going out to dinner with her one night and another night with an ALT I know in the city. I am looking forward to going to Nagasaki again. It`s a nice city and this time, I want to hit up the peace park memorial for the atomic bomb. Plus, there is a supermarket that sells Peter Pan crunchy peanut butter! It`s kind of sad that I`m excited about that peanut butter but the quality is much better than this brand with Snoopy on the jar, that I`m fairly certain is some form of copyright infringement, here on the island.

I got to witness a Mariah Carey-like diva meltdown by fourth graders while playing kickball. There is this one student who insists on being loud and obnoxious. I would ask a question in class and he literally would shoot his hand in the air and yell "me! me! me! me!" And he always shouts. He never just talks. Well, I was on his team for kickball and we were getting schooled and he went off the deep-end. He was yelling at his teammates, stomping his feet and I think I saw tears. This was recess kickball, mind you. Another student gets frustrated and upset easily and the obnoxious kid was yelling at him, resulting in two total meltdowns. He stood there with his head down, tears in his eyes, body tense and his fists balled. These kids need to take a chill pill and relax when it comes to recess leisure sports. I will refuse to play dodgeball with the fourth graders if ever invited.

The second graders, on the other hand, are super chill and really enjoy playing rolling dodgeball. It was super easy with one ball but two balls gets trickier. I totally let myself get hit so I could just go stand on the outside of the circle. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I`m lazy. The second graders kept poking me and I made the mistake of pretending to chase them. At one point, my arm was bright red because a kid had been trying to give me a snake bite and was pinching me. Someone has some anger issues. It`s always the boys having the meltdowns here. The girls are content to run around the school yard, play on the jungle gym and ride unicycles all over the place.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Please fight.

Sumimasen! I have been MIA for over a month now. Life just got crazier. Between schools, lesson planning, extracurricular activities and my adult English language group, my dance card fills up quickly!

I can’t believe how much easier lesson planning is when you have the internet. You want to figure out how to teach past perfect? Google it and you can come up with a million different games. And it helps that I have a general idea of what kids like to do because of the games I played in Mozambique. In the high school, I teach the first year students (the sophomores) and the two classes of second and third year students who aren’t planning on going to universities. 16 of the kids in my senior class are going straight into jobs, 2 are going to hair stylist school (is that what you call it?) and 2 more are going to art design and mechanic school. So while their focus is still on learning English and doing well, it is a less stressful atmosphere because the teacher doesn’t have to worry so much about teaching to the college entrance exam. Those kids study more than normal people work anyways. The seniors going to college get to school at 7:30 and study until 7:00 pm. And then when they get home, they probably study some more. It amazes me.

My seniors class consists of mostly boys. 19 boys and 1 girl to be exact. They seem to get restless just sitting in their desks and studying grammar so a teacher and I took them outside on Monday to practice directions. I had them pair up and blindfold each other and lead each other around the school grounds. It was highly entertaining. The person who wasn’t blindfolded had to use only English to guide their partner around without them crashing into walls or tripping downstairs. Admittedly, there were a few boys who found great pleasure in ramming their partner into another blindfolded student or a wall, but overall, their ability to avoid an accident would make OSHA proud. I admit that I was kind of nervous on the stairs – so I walked in front of them. Then I had them do the human knot using only English. It’s where you stand in a circle and grab hands with someone who is not next to you. You then have to untangle yourselves back into a circle formation while still holding hands. You never realize how immature 18-year olds are until you are surrounded by them for 50 minutes three times a week. I have seen them punch each other in inappropriate places. Slap each other. I have seen them spit water on each other. I have seen one boy walk up behind another boy and lick his neck. Strange island children.

In my class of juniors, I had the students make nametags so I could remember their names easier. Well, thankfully the Japanese English teacher was there because they were making nametags that were not their names and she stopped them. One called himself “monkey” and another “eyebrow,” all written in Japanese romaji. Romaji is Japanese words spelled out with the English alphabet. It would have been supremely embarrassing to have the students come to the teachers room to talk to me and have me call them monkey or eyebrow in front of all the Japanese teachers. They drew pictures of themselves that were supremely unflattering too. The one who calls himself a monkey drew a picture of a monkey and the other student drew comically large eyebrows and buck-teeth. But hey, they are making themselves memorable. It is never really a dull day with the high school students. I might just be serving as a human tape recorder sometimes, reading and repeating a sentence for the students to listen to and correcting the grammar, but the kids are spunky.

I went to teach at the elementary school on Tuesday and the first grade teacher forgot that they had English so I went to their class to get them and walked into the room from the back door. The kids all turned around, saw me and started screaming “erin-sensei!” and they all stood up and ran to get their nametags. Now that would melt even the coldest heart. The first graders are my favorite. They are so happy all the time. I see them on my way home from school a lot and I am always asked to push them on the merry-go-round. I have a ritual on my way home now. It’s A) stop to push the kids on the merry-go-round, B) go to the shop down the street and C) pet a neighborhood dog. There’s a dog that lives close to me that is ALWAYS chained up outside and never seems to get any exercise. It is just tied up all the time and sits and watches the playground across the street. Must be a pretty drab existence. So I make a point to pet it every time I see it. And he knows me well. Every time he sees me, his tail starts wagging fast and he dances with his front paws because he’s so excited. I have seen him howl and bark at other people but he likes me. So, I may not speak much Japanese, but dogs and children like me.

I did a Halloween party at another island school last week. There are only five students in the entire school (and I’m embarrassed to admit, but I can only remember three of the students’ names). For the Halloween party, I had them have a mummy-wrapping contest with rolls of toilet paper and bobbing for apples. The school was prepared and had them make “jack-o-lanterns” out of peppers. It worked out surprisingly well. I had never heard of that before. The students also went “trick-or-treating.” I brought them a ridiculous amount of candy and hopefully their parents don’t hate me now for probably making their children sick with sugar.

I received some books in the mail from the JET program this week to help learn Japanese and I am going to study those every day. Hopefully they make a big difference. I am trying to learn about 15 different new symbols every day. It’s very difficult to learn the Japanese symbols because they must be written a certain way and the slightest change can change the meaning of the symbol and an entire sentence or phrase. There are three different types of symbols to learn as well. I am starting with Katakana – symbols usually used to write words that aren’t originally Japanese. For example, the school uses Katakana to write my name because my name is foreign. There is Hiragana – which is the main Japanese symbol. And there is Kanji – Chinese symbols. So, Kanji is usually used for nouns, adjectives, and verbs. And Hiragana is used for sentence particles. It sounds complicated…and it is. At least it is for now, when I am learning the ropes. Until I get the hang of it, I am at least providing entertainment for my fellow teachers who walk past my desk and see me writing words that a pre-school student knows better than I do. They like to see the effort and I am excited to eventually be able to hold an intelligent conversation that isn’t just an exchange of “konnichiwa!” I have been getting a lot of encouragement from teachers. “Ganbatte!” Which means “fight!” in an encouraging way. My favorite saying in Japanese is “Ganbatte, kudasai!” Fight, please. It’s very dramatic and polite wrapped into one.

Friday, September 17, 2010

My Right Arm`s Babysitter

Last night was better than expected but still not phenomenal. One of the other teachers is the head baseball coach and I was playing catch with him before the game. That, of course, caused the other team to start laughing when they saw that there was a girl playing with their opponents and that she knew how to throw a ball. And they really started laughing when they saw me start to practice pitching. I was the only woman on the team and the rest were male staff. The female teachers continued their tradition of cheering on the sidelines.

I hit and walked several batters and struck out a few. I didn`t make it all the way through the game because my arm was getting tired. It was nothing to write home about in terms of my performance but I think the teachers were impressed that I had the background of playing, what is considered in Japan, a male sport. I got to bat one time and got thrown out at first. The other female teachers did bat at the end. It is more for the fun of it though rather than being competitive. Most of the female teachers just tried to bunt because they were too scared of the ball.

My arm feels like Jello. It`s not very strong right now because the poor thing went through so much last night. I am sure my muscles would be screaming "Erin! We thought you were finished with us!" if they were capable of independent thought. I rode my bicycle home from the game last night and I had a very difficult time lifting it up the steps to my front door. My left arm has become my right arm`s babysitter. Shampooing my hair, brushing my teeth, and reaching up to the school cubby to get my inside shoes out.

The whole shoe thing in Japan still is awkward for me. Japanese people make a seamless transition from outside shoes to indoor shoes when they walk into a building. I, however, still awkwardly fumble with my indoor shoes. Slip-on flats are the best option. I rarely wear lace-up shoes to school because they are too time-consuming. A lot of teachers wear sandals at school, which I think is a brilliant idea. My clothing vanity, however, forbids me from making a great outfit look horrid with a pair of open-toed sandals and bright red socks.

This weekend will be full of small activities. One of the previous JETs on the island is coming back to visit with her husband. I also need to clean my apartment because hell hath no fury like an apartment not given the proper attention. And I will probably try and practice with the brass band. Playing the trumpet isn`t one of my favorite things to do but if I have been invited, I am not going to turn the request down. The part I look forward to the most is sleeping in. I have discovered something crazy. If you go to bed at 9 pm, you are not tired the next day. Amazing.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Knowing My Limits

So I was randomly told on Tuesday that the teachers have a softball game and that I should come. I went to the game, thinking they were going to make me play. Thankfully, the sports gods smiled on me, and I found out that women don`t play softball usually. I played catch with the music teacher and even though I threw the ball softly, she screamed and turned her face away every time the ball came her way. "Not the face! Not the face!" She didn`t say that but I imagine that was what she was thinking. So the female teachers, the school nurse and I stood behind the bench and did the wave - which is hilarious, by the way. But no one else`s team had a cheer squad do the wave for them. All of the male teachers and office staff played in the field and we ended up winning against the middle school and elementary school teachers. I don`t know the score but it felt like a bloodbath because there is no fence and there were several homeruns.

After the game, we had an enkai, which is a teacher drinking and eating party. So we were at the party, sitting there getting our food and drink on, and they asked me if I know how to play softball. Me and my stupid mouth. I said yes and that our team won state in high school. And that I was the pitcher. That resulted in an immediate announcement that I will be pitching in the game on Thursday (tonight). They were like "why didn`t you tell us!?!" The gym teacher thought it was hilarious that I had sat by the female teachers the whole time. I had no reason to tell them. But I am super nervous now because I haven`t pitched in eight years. I have my limits. If I do pitch, my arm is going to feel like it is falling off tomorrow and I won`t be able to write on the chalkboard. So, I`m hoping to possibly beam a couple of batters and then be asked to go pick weeds in the outfield. I don`t mind batting, but I`m already stared at a lot in public and I could do without any extra amount of that. So yeah, I will definitely be writing about how that went after I crash and burn.

I have been practicing my Japanese. The tennis girls have been teaching me some words and phrases every day. They have me repeat words and then laugh really hard, so I think they might be having me repeat bad words or they think my pronunciation is horrible. Whatevs. I was talking to a student in Mozambique the other week on the phone and when I meant to say "sim," I said "hai." So that must mean that I`m changing languages. :) So far, I can understand about a third of what a 3-year old says. Impressive, right?

I taught the first, second and third-graders on Tuesday. And they are the most adorable creatures in the world. I ate lunch and had recess with the first graders. Two little girls came to the English room, holding hands, to get me for lunch. So cute! They all watched me eat and turned to say things to their teacher about my food and what I was eating. I kind of felt like a gorilla in the zoo, behind a wall of glass. One of the first graders is the son of one of my adult english class students. She told me that he told her he could tell that I am a foreigner because of the food I ate - but mentioned nothing about me being white or not speaking Japanese. Haha! Oh, children. The first graders were very innocent and fun. I was standing at the window in the high school, hole-punching a sheet of paper and the first-graders were walking home from school and they saw me and yelled "ERIN-SENSEI!!" and waved. They are at their cutest when it is raining and they wear rain ponchos that look like ducks.

The third graders, on the other hand, were a bunch of hellions. I have never seen the Hello Song go so horribly wrong. It was basically 18 children running around the room, yelling at each other and the boys tackling each other. And there is some random first or second grader who must have a phobia of public bathrooms because I have now seen him run outside by the window of the English room to pee outside two times. And when he is finished, he giggles loudly and runs back inside. Makes me feel like I`m in Mozambique again. And makes me think what he`s going to do once he gets to high school. I have seen a goat too! I`m not exactly sure what purpose it serves because it is tied up by a bunch of boats. At first, I thought it was a dog and almost crashed my bike when I recognized it as an entirely different and familiar species.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

My Extracurricular Druthers

What do I do in my spare time? A lot of ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) say that they have too much time on their hands. It seems like the opposite with me, like my dance card always gets full because I try to say yes to every invite and request. I have started teaching at the elementary school, junior high and high school all in the same week. And it involves a bit of running around. In a couple of weeks, I will go to Oshima elementary, a school on another smaller island, for lessons in the morning. There are 5 students at the school, all boys. Two in sixth grade, two in fifth grade and one in second grade. I will take a ferry over in the morning and then return to Ojika after lunch. So my school days are filled with lesson planning for every class. I also have started extracurricular activities!

I am playing tennis after school with the girls tennis team. There are about 12 girls and it’s a lot of fun. I am proud of myself because yesterday, I managed to memorize all of the girls’ names. They asked me if I like Michael Jackson and when I said that he is okay but not my favorite, there was an audible cry of disappointment. But then I asked them if they knew how to moonwalk and there was a lot of hilarious walking backward movement. Their tennis practices are just drilling by hitting back and forth. When I was in high school, we had a lot of games and certain drills to practice. Plus, we had music. It’s so quiet during their practices! And before the girls hit the ball, they need to call out “onegai-shimasu!” and afterward, “arigato gozaimashita!” – which is like greeting and thanking the other player for hitting with them. And after practice, they all line up on the court to practice bowing to the other team. It’s the most polite tennis I have ever seen. But the girls can really wail on the ball and they are impressive players. The ball is a soft tennis ball, not the hard tennis balls we play with in the states. You might compare it to a stress ball. Squishy and not as bouncy, it’s a lot different to hit so it is going to take me some time to adjust. It doesn’t bounce very high, no matter how hard you hit it – so you have to take that into account when you are returning a volley.

In Japan, you can only join one club because all the clubs tend to meet at the same time of day. Rachel from Glee would be super disappointed. At my school, there is tennis, baseball, badminton and brass band. The seniors taking the college entrance exams had to quit before summer break to focus on their studies. Boo! I told the brass band club that I would play a song with them at the end of October but I haven’t gone to a practice yet. I don’t want to hurt their feelings, but I prefer to listen to music rather than play it. So I will practice with them for this one band event, but my druthers include sports and moving around. The song involves some super high notes that I don’t think I have ever hit in my trumpet-playing career. When I was in high school, if I couldn’t hit a note, I would just pretend to play and let everyone else cover for me (the truth comes out!). The band teacher has agreed to let me play an octave lower though because I confessed my high note habit.

Thursday nights I have eikaiwa, or adult English conversation club. There are four to six dedicated adults and we play English games, practice a grammar point and practice speaking in English. I am learning quite a bit about Japan from them and one of the members is going to help me with my Japanese, which is in sore need of improvement. I really need to hunker down and set aside time every day to study. I was talking to a predecessor on Ojika and she said that a lot of people tend to think they can just “pick up” Japanese but it’s not true at all. I totally agree. So besides teaching, tennis, random band practice, eikaiwa and a social life, I need to set aside time to study. I haven’t been to the island library yet but apparently they like for the ALT to read to the kids in English. That’s on my to-do list as well. I love being busy and productive though! Life is such a far cry from what it was two months ago!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I am a fish person.

So I have been a bad person and not updated for a bit. It’s a combination of being busy and not having a solid internet connection. At my apartment, I am still picking up on a weak wireless signal. If I stand on my right leg, with one arm in the air, in the corner, I can get a “low” signal, rather than a “very low” signal. I will be getting internet (supposedly) September 27th. Let’s hope that works out. Seeing as the instructions for installing the modem and internet are all in Japanese, I foresee some problems and possibly some cursing.

Let’s see, let’s see, let’s see. Since I last wrote, I have accomplished quite a bit. I have taught everything except elementary school. That’s tomorrow. I teach 1st through 6th grade. I am pretty excited about working with the young kids. I get recess again at the age of 26! I hope it’s not too hot or I will have to tell those kids to push themselves on the swings while I sit in the shade, fanning myself.

I also got a cell phone, a new bicycle and a tennis racquet! The cell phone confuses me still. It’s pretty nice. Japanese cell phones have all the bells and whistles. And if there is one thing I don’t understand, it’s technological bells and whistles. And the Japanese language. And the last episode of Lost. I am learning some words and phrases here and there but it’s a whole other ballgame in comparison to Portuguese. Still, people love it when you use Japanese and I would like to be able to communicate with my co-workers who don’t speak any English. I feel so proud when I say goodbye properly, leaving the teacher’s room every afternoon.

I have a fish! His name is Chikamaru-fish. Like the previously mentioned boy dressed up as a deer. He may not be snuggly like a dog but he sure gets excited when I feed him in the morning. I can’t read Japanese and I just assume that I am feeding him enough. Hopefully not over or under. But he has stayed alive for almost a month now, so that must mean something. I really wish I could get a dog but I don’t know how long I will be here AND I live in an apartment.

I got Chikamaru-fish at the Obon festival on Ojika. It was an impressive little festival. It’s a Buddhist celebration of ancestors and many people return to their home city or town to pray to their ancestors. The festival was put on by the shops in Ojika and there was a performance by a taiko (drumming) group and a Beatles cover band. There was even a stage production for the children that involved Chikamaru-kun and his girlfriend, Hana-chan (actual costumes!) being kidnapped by some evil guy and the power rangers coming to their rescue. I got so excited when I saw Chikamaru-kun, that I spilled my strawberry shaved ice all over my lap. I am happy to report that I wore black pants.

I think there may be mold in my apartment building. I am fine during the day, and then once I get to my apartment, my nose starts running and my eyes sometimes get itchy. So I will eventually talk to the school about the problem and see what they say. My apartment is fine otherwise. I would hate to move because my neighbors are all the female teachers and it’s great to have them there. They have been very helpful. And where else would I attribute odd noises while watching horror movies in my living room.

We had sports day on Sunday, where the junior high and senior high students split into three teams and compete in some normal and some abnormal races. They have some games that Americans would consider dangerous and cruel. They had a dizzy bat (where you spin around with your head at the top of a bat) and then the student had to finish a race. Hilarious. And a competition with the boys was holding onto a pole and climbing and shoving their way to the top of the opposing team’s pole to grab a flag. It was very entertaining, to say the least. All the students participated too. American children would have said no and asked to speak to their lawyer. At the end, all of the teams and certain groups danced too. That was my favorite part and I have videos of it that I will try and post on here after the arrival of my internet. After the sports day festivities finished, the students and teachers did the takedown in the pouring rain. The kids are so helpful and work hard. I was and am impressed.

That night, the teachers from the junior high and high school had an “enkai,” which is a teacher drinking party. There is some great food at the party. I have developed a liking for sashimi, or raw fish, with soy sauce and wasabi. If I could have that for every meal, I would. There is also tempura, which is seafood battered and fried. And there was also what can only be described as fried cheese sticks. And in the stick, they include a minty leaf that improves the cheese stick, in my humble Wisconsin-born opinion. I have ideas for when I return to visit Wisconsin and my sister and I run to Culver’s to ask for their second largest cheese curds. But enough about cheese sticks. Enkais are great. There is a lot of good food, good company (despite not being able to understand about 75% of what is going on) and a pinch of alcohol mixed in. I drank sake for the first time and my first instinct was to mix juice with it to make it taste better, which I don`t think is normal.

The Japanese teachers work really hard during the week. They are mostly in their late 20’s to mid-30’s. They get to school around 8 am and are often there until 8 pm. I have a hard time staying past five if I am sitting at my desk. I also don’t have motorized transportation, so I am not fond of the idea of peddling home in the dark. It’s not that I’m scared of people but of vehicles that might not see me. Ojika has a zero crime rate. I walk past the police station every day and they always look bored. I went and registered my information with them and I think that was the most thrilling event they had seen that week.

My bicycle has been great. I have taken it all over the island and heaved it up hills when I am panting at an embarrassing volume. It has a basket and I take my camera with me and take pictures. My new favorite thing is to visit this public park by the public gymnasium and feed the giant fish pieces of bread. I don’t know if it’s good for them, but they seem to like it and it doesn’t seem like I’m the first person to ever do it. They see you standing there and swarm to catch the bread first. It has happened. I have become a fish person. I would pet the dogs that live on my road if I thought I would get my hand back. So yeah, if those fish end up belly up in the pond, I didn’t do it.

I have taught with the high school teachers to a couple of classes. One is a shy junior class of 9 students. Today, I showed them a point card that looks like a board game. I stamp a space each time they raise their hand and participate. Once they reach the “prize” space, I give them something. I am not sure what yet. It worked well with the shy class. Hands were shooting up like popcorn. My other class I co-teach with is a senior class of 19 boys and 1 girl. I feel bad for her. She is very quiet and timid. Hopefully, me being female and everything, I can get her to speak up. But the senior boys are loud as loud can be. Every time I walk past them in the hallway, I hear “HELLLLO!!!!!” and sometimes, a salute. They are an energetic group to teach and should have no problem filling up their point cards with stamps. I am a big fan of the junior high kids too. They are very lively and interested in what I have to say. The non-jaded, if you will.

It’s amazing the difference that having the internet makes. When I was a teacher in Mozambique, I had to think of games and activities on my own, with my own ideas and my roommate’s ideas. Here, I have a lot more resources and I have the internet to help me get ideas from what has worked for other teachers in games dealing with grammar and vocab. If I am at a loss for an activity, I just jump on google and within minutes, I have an idea of the shape of the lesson’s game. I mostly play games and activities with the kids. The Japanese teachers tend to focus on the rules and the grammar and I am the “game player” and I have no problem with that. It’s like getting to play Santa Clause every day.

And no, I have not seen the pothole yet. That`s my goal for the month of September.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Pothole - The Great Natural Miracle

Island life is great thus far. Everything has gone smoothly, with the exception of several expected cases of language problems. I am in the process of waiting for my alien registration card. Without this card, I can’t get a cell phone. So I’m ready to be an alien. It should take another week and a half or so to get this and then I take a ferry to Sasebo to get a phone. It might just end up being toward the end of August anyway because I will have to go to Sasebo and then take a bus to Nagasaki for a prefectural orientation. So for now, I am just relaxing in Ojika.

All stores are closed except for one or two on Sundays. I tried to go to one of the two stores during the week but had an awkward encounter with the sliding door (i.e., it wouldn’t open) and I quickly walked away and hoped no one saw. Something tells me I won’t be frequenting that store. Or at least I will loiter by the door until someone exits or enters. A lot of things like that happen that just make me laugh to myself and probably lead people to think I’m a few crayons short of a full box. I was riding my bike home from school last week and I was going to walk up a hill and I had to get off the bike. Well, I was wearing a skirt and was trying to figure out the most ladylike way to dismount and just ended up flopping over onto some gravel. And just my luck, a guy was walking past. I just nodded and smiled at him, dusted myself off and checked for rips or blood, then started walking up the hill. Halfway up the hill, I started laughing to myself and thought that it was something my sister would have appreciated witnessing. We share a similar grace. In fact, right now she has to use crutches for two weeks because she stepped into a hole at a dog park. Hi Kara.

Anyways, school is going well. I have just been looking up different activities that I might be able to do with the students online and then putting together visual aides and stuff like that. My colleagues seem so busy that I kind of feel like a kindergartener, sitting there cutting out hearts with scissors. If my teacher’s room had a Thanksgiving meal, I would be sitting at the kid table. I figured out that I’m actually one of the youngest teachers. There is the home ec teacher who is 23 and then myself and another teacher follow at 26. Most of the teachers are 28 and up. Everyone looks so young to me though. I am and always have been a horrible judge of age.

On Monday, I gave a speech for Day of Peace. August 9th is the anniversary of the atomic bomb dropping on Nagasaki, so they have a special ceremony to talk about the importance of peace and to talk about conflicts in the world. I introduced myself and made a speech they had asked me to prepare at the wrong time. I ended up just saying the speech again, but with the PowerPoint presentation the social studies teacher had made. The island loudspeakers rang at the exact time the bomb was dropped and there was a minute of silence. As an American, it definitely felt strange to be at a ceremony held in memory of the deaths of 70,000 people as a result of actions taken by my own country.

I am learning a lot in Japan though. I am trying to figure out when to bow and how low to bow. There is the informal 15º bow, the more important 45º and the deepest and most respectful 90º bow. I never realized that. Men bow with their hands at their sides. Women bow with their hands in front of them. Before meetings or classes, there is the tradition of standing and bowing. That was something I learned when I went to band practice. That’s right. Band practice. I played trumpet for a couple hours with the Ojika Bass Brand. It’s a happening club. Eight students and they play a mean “Star Fantasy,” which is like a fancier Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with a Star Wars tune at the end. I found myself doing the same thing I did in high school. When there was a high note I couldn’t hit, I just pretended to play. I think they probably noticed. I’m sorry, but after eight years, I should not be expected to hit a high F. They’re lucky I reached a C. When they moved onto a song with higher notes, I excused myself and said I had something to go do.

The band teacher is awesome. She is actually my next door neighbor in the apartment building and she’s so energetic. You can tell she is popular with the students. She thinks she speaks English horribly and after I played trumpet with her band, she gave me a note in English to thank me and the note said that I should come and play with them more and that her English is horrible. I spoke in English with her later and it’s not bad. I think she was just nervous to use English with me in front of the teachers in the teacher room. From their reputation and culture, Japanese people are extremely modest. I compliment people on their English and they put their hands up. “No! No! No!” I will have to remember to disagree when people compliment me even though the American in me just wants to say “thank you.”

I really like my co-workers. They have all been really nice and helpful so far. One of the guys who works in the office was nice enough to take me to the bank two or three times in one day last week. Just today, the band teacher, a Japanese teacher and the school nurse drove me around the island with a map to show me some of the scenery. We stopped at the ferry terminal and got this awesome map of the island that has all the landmarks mapped out. I found out there is an island mascot. It’s this cartoon of a little person dressed up in a deer outfit. His name is Chikamaru-Kun. A nearby island, Nozaki Island has a lot of deer. Chikamaru-Kun is very cutesy. Cutesy things are super popular here. Anyways, Nozaki Island is the island that used to be inhabited but when a storm came through several years ago, people just left their homes and never returned. The school on the island has been converted to a camping area for when people come to visit the island. I haven’t visited it yet because it was too rainy and windy when we went around the island, but there is a place on Madara Island called “The Pothole.” The brochure refers to it as follows: “This is a natural miracle. It is the largest sea-made stone ball in Japan.” The picture on the brochure is creepy because it looks like a monster’s eye. I just love that it's referred to as "the pothole." I must see it.

So the reason I couldn’t go to the other island to see the Pothole yet is because the island is experiencing a typhoon right now. So it’s on my to-do list. It would take me about 45 minutes to walk to Madara from my apartment (because there is a long bridge that connects the two islands). I plan to do that on a day when it’s sunny out and I wouldn’t fly over the edge of the bridge. That’s also the part of the island that is supposed to get hit more by the storm. As I write this, it’s pretty windy and rainy out. I don’t work for the next few days because the school wanted me to take a few days of summer vacation that is offered so I randomly picked these next few days. The ferries and all boats to and from the mainland are canceled, so everyone is staying on the island for the time-being. During school, when the waves are too high, the students who live on nearby islands don’t come to school. Hopefully the storm dies down quickly so I can walk around or ride my death trap of a bicycle around during my time off.

I have met three members of the adult English conversation club and they are amazing. Their level of English is very good. We met at a coffee shop and we had a lot to talk about. They are looking forward to continuing English lessons. There are about 8 people in the group right now and we are thinking of eventually splitting the group up into two groups: beginner and advanced. One of the members made notes and is going to submit a notice to the island newspaper (that is only published once a month) to advertise the group and to invite more people to join. So I think those meetings will be on Wednesday and Thursday nights. I look forward to those meetings. Judging by the people I have already met, I think they will be a lively crowd.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Sweatiest of Them All?

So I am seriously overdue for a blog post! Pure and simple, I love this island! I live on Ojika, an island off of Nagasaki prefecture in southwestern Japan. The island only has about 3,000 people on it and it covers about 35 square km. So, fairly small. The people are amazingly friendly and kind. An English teacher from the school met me at the Nagasaki airport and took me back by bus and ferry to Ojika. Traveling by airplane, bus and ferry in one day was a new one for me. I was a zombie when I stepped off the ferry but to my surprise, school staff and some students were standing on the dock with a sign that said Welcome to Ojika for me. One student even read a welcome message. It was a great way to start life on the island. After dropping my stuff off at my apartment and a quick shower, I headed over to my welcome party at a local restaurant with the other teachers. I had a great time even though I didn’t know half of what I was eating.

My co-workers are awesome. My Japanese is limited so there have been more than a few times where they have whipped out their electronic translators to help me figure something out. I am trying to set aside time to study Japanese every day and then practice it on people when I’m at school or in the shops. I have to be patient with Japanese though. Portuguese was easier because it is so similar to Spanish. Japanese is a whole other ball game.

My neighbors in my apartment building are all single female teachers. The building is owned by the prefecture so my landlord is the school. It will be nice because they will deduct my rent and utilities directly from my pay. But my neighbors are wonderful! They have been so friendly and took me to a bbq and the beach this past weekend. I want to have them over for dinner some time when I can figure out something I am good at cooking. Too bad there is no such thing as a frozen pizza on the island.

My school is quite large. There are four levels to the building, a gym, an athletic field, tennis courts and the junior high down the road has the swimming pool. I will be at all three schools on the island during the week but I am based at the high school and all three schools are next to each other on the same road. Also, I will be going to another smaller island once or twice a month to give a lesson. It will be an adventure for sure. In the high school, I will be working with 1st year students’ oral communication and 2nd and 3rd year students with their writing. I have already begun working with a student on her English skills and she has impressive English comprehension. She wants to go to university for English and I really hope that happens for her. I gave her a random topic to write about, like “What are two problems facing Japanese youth today? Why are they problems and how can they be solved?” And she understood the question and formed eight near-perfect complete sentences in response! I was impressed. Now obviously not all the students are going to be like that and she’s apparently at the top of her class in English, but seeing her paying attention and responding to me really made me excited to start teaching again. I have already made up a bulletin board in the student entry way. My notebook is full of ideas for activities and games.

I was walking but now I ride a bike to school today. The phrase “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” must have been coined on Ojika island. A lot of things just feel damp because of the sea. I have to air things out once in a while to keep everything fresh. But with the heat and the humidity of summer, I show up everywhere I go completely and irreversibly drenched. I bring a bandana with me to mop up the sweat but to no avail. A bandana is no match for the amount of sweat I can produce. I am riding a rusty old bike with questionable brakes (just don’t ride too fast down hills and I walk up them), which has cut down on my time out in the heat. I hope to buy a new bike to explore the island more in the future but this bike will do for now until I have saved some money. If the teacher’s room at school didn’t have air conditioning, I’m fairly certain I would just wear a swimming suit to school. But thankfully they keep the room fairly icy all day. On my bike ride home from work today, I saw the sea, the landscape and smelled the sea. It was one of those moments where I stopped and thought how lucky I am to be in such a beautiful place.

Hmmm, my apartment. My apartment is small but cozy. I have a large room that serves as both a living room and a bedroom. Off the living room are sliding doors with space for storage and other sliding doors that lead to a small balcony where I can hang my laundry. I also have a good size kitchen with a microwave, gas burners, a fridge and a rice cooker. Running water! Then I have a small shower and/or bath (so many options!), a room with the washer and the sink and another room for the toilet. It’s all a perfect size. I am pretty smitten with it but I have yet to figure out how to decorate it. And there is something that I’m mildly allergic to but hopefully that will change soon. Dust, maybe. I have an entry-way where I take off my shoes and I have a stoop! My very own stoop! And once a day I can find some large bug or cockroach lingering nearby, like it wants to come in. There are crazy big bugs that make loud noises here. Thankfully, they have all been outside of my apartment so far.

Okay, time to go make dinner! I have so much to talk about that it’s hard to focus on one thing. I WILL update this at least once a week! I have the technology this time and I’m not afraid to use it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Mais Uma Aventura

Konichiwa! I found out that I am going to Nagasaki prefecture in the southern-most island of Kyushu in Japan. I have yet to find out exactly where in Nagasaki prefecture and which grade I will be teaching, but it seems like every week is full of news and emails. I have already bought my plane ticket to fly to Chicago on July 23rd. From Chicago, we fly to Tokyo. The flight to Chicago will be on a little baby planelet, which is an extremely scary mode of transportation. I took a flight from Eau Claire to Minneapolis once about five years ago and told myself that would be the last time. Well, that was a pack of lies.

Anyways, this time, through the gate, I feel like I have a better start than when I left for the Peace Corps. JET has meetings where the new JETs can gather and discuss issues that are important before leaving for Japan and there is even a pre-departure picnic for Minnesota JETs. They are extremely organized and quick to answer questions. In the spirit of Microsoft Excel and my passion for organization and spreadsheets, I have already begun to make a binder of classroom ice-breakers, activities and lesson plans that I hope to find beneficial when I begin to serve as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) to a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE). That’s right. Another organization, a whole new set of acronyms.

I have been staying in contact with my Mozambican host family and some former students. It’s difficult at times because I want to help them out but I am not financially capable. Often, to send packages, the contents cost less than the shipping itself. Overall, you spend at least $80 on a package and that not even guaranteeing that the person you send it to will receive it because of the iffy mail system in Mozambique. Before I left Monapo, I gave one of the kids I was friends with of my laptops. Not long after I had left, his brother passed away. He wanted to help out his parents by selling CDs of burned music. Well, the computer was older and wasn’t capable of burning CDs. I talked with him today and he said “senhora professora, I am asking for help. I would like to know if you would send me another computer because I want to help my parents by selling music CDs.” It was a difficult conversation because in his eyes, I am a rich foreigner and this is a simple request. But he doesn’t see the reality that I have very little money and influence.

Also, in the same phone call, I spoke with another student from Monapo and he said “senhora professora, how come you wrote Teresa and Fabiao letters but you didn’t send me a letter?” You want to talk to everyone and try your best to stay in contact. It’s just not possible to make everyone happy and I appreciate the people who understand that, often, the most I have to offer is a phone call. I wish I could talk to them more often too. Word must have spread quickly that I spoke with those two because about an hour later, I received a phone call from one of my students to tell me his new phone number and to call him. So word must have traveled quickly over there: Senhora Professora Iren is calling people. I have called one of my favorite students and member of my REDES group a few times and each time she was begging for something from me. Namely she wanted me to send her my phone from Mozambique (which I still have for when I eventually return to Africa – my goal). I haven’t called her much since because it’s kind of a drag when half of the conversation is spent begging.

But, onto the next chapter. I will bring my kids’ phone numbers with me to Japan and figure out how to call them from there. I have already started making a packing list of what I want to bring. I am trying to be as conservative in my packing as possible but then I usually need to take that and cut it in half. After having lived abroad for two years, I have a good idea of what things I miss the most and what helps me miss things at home less. I am also bringing gifts for colleagues and officials at the school and I’m torn between a few options. Plus, there is the usual teaching fanfare: my lesson plan ideas, stickers, stamps, etc. I am excited to dive into teaching and get involved with my school. Plus, I get to move into and decorate my own apartment! SO much to look forward to! 31 days and counting!

Monday, May 10, 2010

And...I'm Back

I sent in my application and paperwork to the Japan Exchange and Teaching program (JET)the same day I got home from the Peace Corps. Trust me. It was a mad dash to the post office to get that in on time since I needed a few documents from Mozambique in order to apply. I have heard back and I am happy to announce that i will be an assistant language teacher in Japan starting in late July! I am pretty excited about this opportunity. Japan has such a history and beauty. I can't wait to experience a new culture, language and educational system. I imagine that it will be quite different than what I experienced in Mozambique. As an assistant language teacher I will be paired up with a Japanese teacher of English and we will work together to create lesson plans and activities to engage students in learning English. I'm not sure yet as to the age group or what school but I will find that out toward the end of May. Almost every afternoon, I am like a vulture scavenging through my parents' mailbox at the end of the driveway (in case it doesn't arrive electronically.)

It has been nice being back in the United States and being with my family and friends, but I miss Mozambique (respect to nossa terra gloriosa), the friends I made there (Peace Corps friends and Mozambican friends), my independence and having a steady job and endless flow of projects. I miss having a purpose. I love being busy and I'm definitely at a standstill at home. The job market is horrible here, as many people can relate. I am back in Eau Claire and my interests have changed and developed. There is nothing worse than feeling like you are moving backward rather than forward.

I have already started learning some Japanese and it has proven to be far more challenging than Portuguese. I still use Portuguese for phone calls I make to friends and former students in Mozambique, sometimes I speak to the dogs in Portuguese and I read the news online so as to keep the language fresh in my mind. Because it is true that if you don't use it, you lose it. And there is no way I'm losing it after spending that much time and effort trying to learn it. Before I went to Mozambique, I dabbled a bit in Portuguese but never really put the pedal to the metal in terms of learning it. I remember wishing I had really put my best foot forward. So I am taking that experience to heart and hoping to learn as much Japanese as possible because if you are living in a country, you don't want to be that ugly foreigner who just expects everyone to speak English. That's not how you get to know your community.

The JET contract is for a year and if everyone (the JET teacher and school) is happy in the situation, participants are able to extend for up to three years. My master plan after Japan is to go to graduate school on the east coast. I have been researching some schools and have a found a few on the east coast that appeal to me. Working abroad has really peaked my interest in international development and the different areas under that umbrella. Specifically, I am interested in international education and development work concerning women.

Other than my master plan for the future, life in the present has been good to me. I have my family, friends, health and food on my plate. Not all those are on my plate. Literally. Just food. I just thought that I would update to say that I haven't fallen off the grid and that I will continue using this blog in the future to tell you about life in Japan. Now excuse me. I have to go practice using chopsticks that don't have a rubber band around them. You know the type. The kind they give kids to use in restaurants.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Pictures from the Peace Corps

The cutting of the ribbon at the grand re-opening of the renovated library. The ribbon was cut by a local official and at first, he seemed put out by having to be there but then he seemed to really enjoy himself.

This was our administrativo, Senhora Amelia. She was a really nice woman. And it's not too often that you find a woman in a position of power like that.

Teachers dancing at the teacher's day celebration in October.

Teacher's day celebration

The organized bookshelves in the library. Hoping they stay that way.

Eulalia and Anifo before the fashion show in the library

The beautiful beach at Chocas, about 50-60 km from where I lived, but on a very bad road.

The girls soccer team in Monapo. Hilarious and tough wrapped into one.

Chaulana at the sewing machine

Me and an honorary member of our REDES group, Benicia's niece

Benicia after school one day

The girls prepping vegetables at our end of the year festa

Abiba, walking the runway for our end of the year fashion show.

The girls in their REDES capulanas before the fashion show began in front of the library.

The secondary school library, a finished product.

A couple of girls from my REDES group and their friends. They have a dance group and this was after a performance on our front veranda.

The kids lined up under the tree. This is where they lined up every day before school to sing the national anthem and to hear announcements.

A pedagogical director's wife and children. They are adorable. One of his daughters was in my REDES group.

Efigenia, Joaquina and Eulalia at the Fortaleza on Ilha de Mocambique. I love this picture of them on the top of the fort. This fort was once inhabited by the Portuguese and was a port for the slave trade. It was closed for renovation when we were there but we were able to get in and walk around.