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.