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.