Thursday, December 15, 2011

End of the Year

I have been horribly naughty with not updating this blog recently and I could inundate you with the million excuses, but whatever. It has been great here in Japan. I really feel like I have grown so comfortable here and I really enjoy working with my students. Especially in the junior high. The students are really funny and I am actually pretty impressed by their level of English. We have numerous conversations regarding Arnold Schwarzenegger, whether we would rather be beautiful and stupid or ugly and a genius, and what the ideal age is for getting married. One day I asked them who their heroes are and everyone mentioned someone on the island and when I asked why they are the student`s hero, they always either said the person is handsome or strong. I enjoy the conversation class because we can just chat and speak in a casual manner.

Tomorrow, the students in the high school and I are making christmas cookies. It was my favorite lesson last year and I doubt it will disappoint this year. I turn on Christmas music, put up some decorations and the whole home ec room smells of delicious chocolate chip cookies from a recipe my mom has always had in the cupboard. They really seem to enjoy the break from the monotony of their studies, even if they don't really celebrate Christmas.

In Japan, Christmas is more like Valentine`s Day with cake. It`s a day for boyfriends and girlfriends to go on dates and families will eat Christmas cake. Other than that, there is nothing religious about it. A lot of my students told me they get a couple of Christmas presents but the big holiday for kids in Japan is New Years because that is when family members give them lots of money. The older you are, the more money you receive, until you graduate from high school. A lot of my students say they don't receive an allowance so this is the money they use to buy things they want during the rest of the year. I suppose it`s good. It teaches them budgeting skills early on.

I know that I have grown quite attached to this little island because I think of how I am going to Mozambique for a few weeks on Sunday and I get sad thinking that I won`t see them for a few weeks. And I will have a whole lot of omiyage to bring back. Omiyage is gift-giving and it's huge in Japan. It is polite to always bring back some kind of edible treat or nick-nack for your colleageus at your job. I have no idea what I could bring them back from Mozambique that is edible and legal to bring into Japan. But I am up to the challenge. I wish you all a very merry Christmas or Hannukah or whatever holiday you celebrate and a Happy New Year!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Ball Juggling and Arachnophobia

So I have been extremely MIA lately, but only because I have been juggling a lot of balls. I have a lot going on right now, which is a departure from before, when I could only focus on work. I have work, preparations for going to Mozambique in December (passport pages added + international driving permit = headache), and the grand kahuna - grad school applications. But I am doing everything piece by piece and I know that it will eventually get accomplished. I have this habit where when I want to procrastinate, I read the news. Maybe I am trying to kid myself and tell myself it doesn't feel like I am doing anything bad if I am informing myself on current events.

Hmmm, the latest news?

I killed the biggest spider I have ever seen this afternoon. I was returning from running errands after school when I saw a spider the size of my hand. My hand if I were doing jazz hands. Gigantic! And it was perched right above my door so I thought I could open and close the door fast enough to keep it outside. Au contraire. I was wrong. So it rushed inside and I gave chase. I feel like people who have severe paranoia about what's inside their shoes only live in countries with large insects. Before I ever put on my shoes, I shake them to make sure there aren't any spiders or centipedes in them. It's a valid concern as I now know two people who have been bitten by mukade centipedes in their shoes. (See below, probably the most informative video ever about mukades)

Anyhoosies, I eventually tracked the gigantic spider across my kitchen floor and vanquished it with my shoe. Super nasty. Kind of reminded me of the spider I killed in Moz that had babies inside it. It's a disturbing clean-up that often involves me looking away. I need to start considering living in places without spiders. Maybe antarctica.

I was going to go to the Yosakoi festival in Sasebo this weekend but the weather has turned out to be less than inviting, so I have decided to stay home. Nothing turns me off of a trip to the mainland like a rocking ferry and stomach. But Yosakoi is a dance festival that is held throughout Japan and is very entertaining to watch. Dance groups of up to 150 people parade through the streets, performing traditional and modern Japanese dances for crowds. They often wear costumes and have dramatic hair and make-up. Last year, it was pretty rad so I am disappointed that the weather isn't cooperating. Here is a video I found of a Yosakoi dance from 2009 (not from Sasebo, but from another part of Japan). The enthusiasm of the groups is very entertaining and I definitely recommend attending Yosakoi festivals.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Ken Burns' Prohibition

I really wish I was in the U.S. on Sunday, just to watch this documentary on PBS. I have been watching interviews with Ken Burns on Rachel Maddow and the Daily Show about his new documentary called "Prohibition," that talks about...prohibition in America and it looks fascinating.

My Japanese Jillian Michaels

It is finally getting colder here! I only sweat a little on the way to school but then I have to bundle up in a sweater when I am sitting at my desk at school. To some, this may seem like mundane news, but to those of us who have to deal with the extreme Japanese summer heat and humidity, it is a godsend. A fair part of my day is spent fielding "it`s hot, isn`t it?" or "it`s cold, isn`t it?" type comments.

I have been working with a student on her pronunciation of a text and then we recorded her reading the text when we felt like she was prepared. It is extremely difficult for the students here to understand the difference between "R" and "L." To them, those letters sound exactly the same. You could say "rock" and "lock" and they think you are saying "lock" every time. It`s because in Japanese, and also in many other languages, like Portuguese, there isn`t that hard "R" sound. Whenever I try to get the kids to make the R sound, I think they feel intimidated by how stupid they feel and kind of give up. It`s especially unfortunate when they think they are saying "I like to eat rice" and it sounds like "I like to eat lice." But this is definitely one of the things they struggle the most with.

The student I worked with never complained about having to give up part of her lunches to sit with me or about having to read the same text probably 200 times. What a trooper. And for only being 16 years old, I am very impressed with her level of English. Although I find that most of the students have a fair understanding of the English language, there are some real impressive ones mixed in every couple of years. She actually wants to study English in the future so I told her that I can sit and practice with her if she wants and she said yes and nodded. I hope she actually comes because I think that the best way for students to learn English won`t be with their books and studying grammar, but holding conversation with a native speaker.

I can`t believe October starts tomorrow! My second year in Ojika is already flying past. I still love this island. There is just something so peaceful about this place. I am still leading two adult English classes on Thursday nights. I am tired at the end of the day but I always enjoy working with the adults. They bring a whole different perspective to the table. We talk about the strangest things sometimes and it really spices up my teaching. We had an interesting conversation about plastic surgery last night. I asked an older lady if she would ever get plastic surgery and she automatically put her hands to her face and stretched her skin up and back and gave me the "ok" sign. I probably laugh more with these fun people than I do all week.

I was walking home from school on Monday when I saw the same woman getting on her moped to drive away on the main street. When she saw me, she got off her moped and went up to me and said "Erin, slim!" And pushed her cheeks in with her hands. I burst out laughing. I don't think she is even trying to be funny but she is. She cheers on my weight loss and has said the same thing several times to me now. I like to think of her as my own, personal, Japanese Jillian Michaels.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Out to the Ball Game

So we won our softball game last night and it was quite the upset. The high school teachers played the middle school and elementary school teachers team (who brought in outside players). In the elementary and junior high, there are a lot of female teachers and not many of them are willing to play softball it seems. Or from what I can tell because few of them have played in last year's season and this season. The entire league is in good fun though. We all had to line up while some guy gave a speech and the trophies were set on the tables. The trophies are pure photo op material. No one actually gets to keep them. A picture is taken for the Ojika newspaper and then it is put back in its box and stowed on the office shelf at the public gym until the next round of games.

I played first. After one pitcher tried to pitch and failed, I tried and failed. I just can`t pitch slow pitch from men`s distance. It just isn`t going to work. So finally, on our third try, it turned out that the biology teacher was the best pitcher. The other team was beating us pretty bad but in the last inning, the bases were loaded and my fellow English teacher hit a homerun to win the game. It was quite an exciting ending to a night of unimpressive dropping of balls, walking batters and general awkwardness. Our teams aren`t super competitive from the schools but it`s when you start playing teams with t-shirts they had made, that`s when you get into the people who take it a little too seriously.

Right before we had to play, everyone was practicing throwing and warming up. The biology teacher told me to play catch and so I started to play catch with the gym teacher. I don`t think he was expecting me to have an arm so he wasn`t really prepared to catch my first ball. No, I don't throw like a girl, buddy. Softball is very much a man`s sport in Japan so they are a little surprised to have a woman on the island who knows how to play and did so for about 12 years. The men are fun to watch though. I watched the game before ours and it seemed like after every time the defense got three outs and came in to bat, half of the players reached for their cigarettes and lit one up. Must be really stressful out there.

In other news, I am going to be returning to nossa terra gloriosa in December. That`s right. Mozambique. I have been talking to a student through email and I am raring to go. I am extremely excited to see my students and how they have grown up. When I have talked to a couple of them on the phone, it`s startling to hear how deep their voices are. When I started teaching them, they were in 8th grade and when I get there, they will be finishing 11th and moving onto their final year of high school. I will see them before they all scatter to the wind in different directions and convince them to stop calling my parents in the middle of the night. Maybe give a mini-lesson on time zones.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Good Grief

Wow, I really went AWOL. My apologies. Now that summer break is over, the students have been running around with the school sports festival. The sports festival isn`t actually about sports, just running and doing crazy games. The students in the high school and junior high are divided into three teams and they then battle it out for top honors. Each team has to plan a timed and choreographed dance, and they compete against each other in different categories throughout the day. Some of the students seem to take it very seriously, creating cheers and forcing team spirit with the reluctant junior high kids. When I was asked this week if we have sports day in America, they were surprised when I said no. I told them that if students don`t want to do something in America, they usually don`t have to. This was shocking. Here, there is definitely a "you say jump and I say how high" kind of mentality in schools. No questions asked.

Classes are going well. I find forcing conversation with the students to be the most enjoyable part of my job. They obviously never have to have conversations in English in their typical English classes so it obviously makes them extremely uncomfortable when I fix my sights on them. Their first reaction is "if I don`t look at her, she isn`t there." When they can no longer deny my existence, they look frantically around at their fellow students for a life raft. Then they look at the Japanese teacher, who puts her hands up and says "don`t look at me!" Finally, you start to see the cogs turning as they reconcile themselves to the fact that they will have to give a coherent response to "how was your summer vacation?" I feel like they really go through the stages of grief before they can answer my questions.

I have been exercising still in Ojika and the little older ladies at the grocery store ask me about it and pretend to jog in place. Nothing escapes people`s attention here, particularly at lunch. I have been eating raw vegetables at lunch for a long time now. I make my lunches because it`s cheaper than buying the bento lunches at school every day. Japanese people don't really eat raw vegetables and so when they hear a giant "CRUNCH!" and see me gnawing on a carrot, they always look shocked. "Erin-sensei, you can EAT that?!" I have found that cucumbers, carrots and green peppers are extremely crunchy and attract a lot of unwanted attention in the quiet teacher`s room. The last time I brought an entire apple to the elementary school to eat in front of the kids at lunch, they all looked at me like I was trying to milk a dog. The bento lunches in Japan are mostly composed of rice and then pieces of meat carefully separated into separate cupcake tins. There aren`t really any vegetables, except maybe a random tomato. Dessert is usually a slice of an apple or a strawberry. Every time I have eaten a bento lunch at school, I feel comatose for the rest of the afternoon. And as for making my own bento, it seems like a lot of effort for some meat and rice. Some bentos are put together nicely and look very beautiful (because there is a focus on not only preparation but presentation in Japan with food) but it`s just not feasible with time. I am not waking up at 5 am to make my lunch for an hour.

Softball league with the teachers starts tomorrow evening and goes for a month. What joy is mine. Everyone is intent on me pitching but can't seem to understand what kind of damage I could do if I hit someone while pitching and they aren't wearing any protective gear.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

RIP iPod

My, my, my. Someone`s been negligent about their blog again! Time to make amends.

On Monday, I was walking to school and got caught in a downpour. I had my umbrella and thought it would be enough but I was quickly overpowered by the wrath of the torrential downpour. I had to keep walking to school because I didn`t have another method of getting to school. My clothes were getting soaked and I was walking as fast as I could. A co-worker at the high school drove straight past me, completely ignoring my plight. Then, as I was near the high school, a mother who was going to drop off her student, splashed me with her car. Just when I thought the day couldn`t get any worse, I found that my iPod had been soaked in my bag and the screen looked like a shoddy lava lamp, with the water swishing around inside.

I didn`t open my mouth to speak to anyone all morning because I knew that I would have a level 5 meltdown if I did. So I talked to my sister online, watched some cute puppy youtube videos and was talked me down from my anger. I also ordered a new iPod nano from a very friendly Apple rep in Japan. Nagai, wherever you are, you are awesome. But people just never realize how much they depend on something and how great it is until it`s gone though. I use that iPod ALL the time. Especially when I work out (I have officially lost 41 lbs.!!! woohoo!!!). And that iPod has been with me through thick and thin - through Peace Corps and through my first year in Japan. Sweet sorrow at this parting. The iPod had battle scars and scratches from love and a memorable inscription on the back from my sister, who had given it to me as a present. "You owe me! Smooches, Kara" So until I receive the iPod today or tomorrow, I am stuck alone with my own thoughts and the cicadas during my walks, jogs and stair climbings on the island.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Woman's Worth

I can't express just how much Japanese women hate getting any form of a tan because of their fear of aging. A colleague explained to me that during high school and university, it's more accepted for a girl's skin to be exposed to the sun. However, once you are 22 or older, it`s time to go Edward Cullen and avoid sunlight. Whenever we have to be outside for school activities, it's kind of funny to see the female teachers. Every inch of their body is covered with clothing in the high temperatures and humidity. If they are wearing a t-shirt, the rest of their arms are covered with long fingerless sleeves. And even then, they wear gloves. They wear pants, rather than shorts and long-brimmed bucket hats.

When you ask a guy if he cares about his skin becoming tan, he says no. And he doesn`t. You will be hard pressed to find a guy frantically rubbing on SPF 50 and searching for his wide brimmed bucket hat on an overcast day. As in most countries, it is okay for the men to age normally but women are expected to try to not age because there is this idea that as soon as she ages, her value somehow diminishes. In my opinion, you can`t fight it. I don`t mean we should all run around, slathering Crisco on our skin and sitting in the sun, surrounded by shiny tin foil, but I do think that there should be more acceptance of aging for women. I can't help but wonder if the women ever miss the feel of the sun on their skin and the vitamin D.

I, however, got burned at the softball tournament on Tuesday at the high school. I got to play with the male teachers against the boys and they seemed to have no problem with it. I think I surprised a lot of my students when I played first base and was able to smack a few hits up the middle. I didn`t play with the girls because although they are amazing at tennis and badminton, they play softball like sissies. Softball is a man`s sport in Japan, so women usually sit on the sidelines and cheer. At the end of every trimester, there is a sports competition of some sort. In the summer, it`s softball. In the winter, it`s basketball. And in the spring, it`s volleyball and soccer. I was a fast-pitch softball pitcher in high school and the teachers know this. So of course they wanted me to pitch at the tournament. They seemed disappointed when I said no because the catcher wasn't wearing any protection and the students don't wear helmets when they bat. The last thing I wanted to do was give a student a concussion from a stray pitch or render the catcher incapable of producing children.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Summer of Unidentified Flying Objects

Life has been good lately. It has finally stopped raining. Apparently it was just a June thing. But now every day is sunny! The bad part is that my bicycle is still broken. There is a puncture in my tire and I`m going with a friend to the bicycle and motorbike shop today after school to ask them if they are able to repair it. I have been told that they are only capable of fixing cheap bicycles and since mine is a mountain bike, it may be more difficult. I hope that it`s just the tire that`s the problem because that seems like a very reparable problem. Another ALT (assistant language teacher) came to visit Ojika and his tire exploded on the road and when he went to the shop, they couldn`t fix it because they said his bicycle was too nice. So my fingers are crossed. Plus, I woke up at 5:00 this morning to wheel it to school and then go for a run on the high school field/dirt track. I just found it too embarassing to wheel a bike with such an obviously flat tire to school, like normal. I didn`t want to deal with any captain obvious comments of "you have a flat tire."

Exercise has been far more enjoyable with the beautiful weather. With a bicycle, I would be able to get out to the beaches easier. Also, since it isn`t raining anymore, I don@t have to worry about my umbrellas turning inside out in the gusts of wind. Now, I am still using the gym, going on walks/jogs, and doing random things. There is this beautiful park called Bandake that has a dam with a walkway around it. I stole the idea from someone else to walk or jog around the dam and it`s perfect. It`s beautiful and secluded, so I don`t feel self-conscious with all my sweating and gasping.

School is going well. The kids have their summer vacation starting next week and going until the end of August. In Japan, they get about five weeks of summer vacation, in comparison with the U.S.`s three months. I told my fifth grade students in the elementary school that Americans get three months of no school and they all gasped with envy. I really wanted to say "don`t worry, you`re ahead of us in most school subjects." I had read about how some schools in the states are cutting summer school, school hours, and the days of the week down to four to save money on the budget. It seems like they have all their priorities wrong if that is what they are cutting to meet budget restrictions.

The weather is once again unbearably warm. I bought a personal desk fan and I have upped the number of required sweat rags to two while at school. The teacher's room has AC but that's the only room in the high school where they turn it on. The students have to stay in their rooms and roast. I always have to bring a church fan to the classroom so I don' perspire too bad. Along with the heat and the humidity, comes mold. I have been wiping down my tatami but I went to school one day and by the time I returned home, there was mold on my tatami! And no amount of scrubbing with vinegar and water seems to remove it. Very futile and frustrating. And that isn't the only other living organism that has reared it`s ugly head. Hello mosquitos, cockroaches and other large unidentified flying objects. As soon as I see a bug in my apartment, I`m like Xena Warrior Princess with my sandal. Now I just need to learn the battle cry and creep my neighbor out.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Beats Playing the Recorder

So this school in Staten Island, New York has an amazing music teacher who has his chorus sing pop songs. When I was in elementary school, music class or chorus was NEVER this interesting. I remember being generally annoyed with choir in sixth grade and just walking up to the director and telling him I quit. But this guy has energy that shoots through the roof and you can tell he really cares about his students. If you look up this school, they do so many great songs! I am probably late in seeing this because I've been abroad. But wow, so good!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Beyonce and Mozambican Dance!

Here is a youtube video that Beyonce did about her creation of her latest album, 4. At about 2 minutes in, she goes tobagganing down the Great Wall of China, which Kara and I did in April! Definitely one of the best parts of Beijing.

But another great part of this video is the preparation of the dancing in the video for her single Run the World (Girls). She uses dancers from Mozambique because she saw a video of them dancing on youtube. At around 7 minutes in, she talks about incorporating their style and eventually brings the Mozambicans over to teach her dancers the moves and they are also in her Run the World video (below), starting at about 50 seconds! They are the two guys who dance with her. Viva Moçambique!

Strange Encounters of Three Kinds

I have had some interesting encounters with people lately. I was playing with the kids in the elementary school on Tuesday and I always have to play outside with them at recess. Since it is becoming ridiculously hot with the summer, I don't enjoy it as much. I think it confuses the kids when "Erin-Sensei" is always gravitating toward the shade of those pine trees rather than trying to save the "tag prisoners" at the jungle gym. The fourth graders are definitely the most scattered group to have recess with (and that is the grade with kancho girl). They rarely have any organized game planned and it usually involves just a lot of running around. So when their "game" had fallen apart for the last 10 minutes of recess, I was pushing some second graders on the swings and talking to a girl trying to walk on stilts. This little girl is super adorable and very intelligent. She saw that I was sweating and looked up at me and said "Are you okay?!" I was stunned. I don't even think that some high schools kids would be able to form that sentence. I heard that the little girl's mother makes her wake up at 5 in the morning every day to study. She is only seven years old so it makes me really sad to think how she is losing some of her childhood so quickly. Let her sleep longer or watch cartoons! Save the strict studying for high school.

I went to Sasebo on Saturday to go to a lady doctor appointment. I was really nervous because I don't know what it's like in Japan. I had been reading on the internet about different experiences and they ranged from the super invasive to "you feeling good? okay, great" types. Luckily, Sasebo is home to an American naval base so there is a doctor there who delivers about 5 American babies a month from the base. He speaks perfect English and his clinic is amazingly foreigner friendly. The staff spoke English and the inside was super swanky. There is a cafeteria and water aerobics for pregnant ladies. My sister and I were joking that people should just go do water aerobics there even if they aren't pregnant. ("Cannonball!") It turns out that this was the non-invasive type doctor visit. All I got was an ultrasound and the doctor said "your uterus looks very nice." It took every fiber of my being to not say "thank you." A friend of mine said I should have said "thank you, do you like the paint and new furniture?" And then that joke evolved into an idea for "Extreme Makeover: Uterus Edition." Sometimes, I just take it too far.

While waiting for the ferry to return to Ojika, I often sit and read or journal. I am just the journaling type. I like to document things and it's like a therapy for me. There is a guard who works at the ferry terminal and he enjoys approaching me and speaking to me in English. I don't mind speaking to people in English (because generally, that is what I do) but this guy drives me bonkers. I am obviously doing something and yet he forces his conversation on me. I never interrupt people if they look like they are vested in some other activity because I know how annoying it is. What does he do for the second time since I have been in Japan? He leaned over to try to read what I was writing! I was flabbergasted. He has little common sense obviously. At that point, I got up quickly and pretended that I needed to go somewhere with all my bags. I went outside and sat behind a pillar but he still found me. So maybe I am going to have to scope out bathroom stalls the next time I want to get some peace and quiet before sitting on a rocking ferry for two and a half hours.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Feeling Bearish

There seems to be an energy initiative in Japan this year. The teachers are much more careful about turning off lights and general use of electricity. There is also something about plugging and unplugging our computers during the day. The part where this gets unbearable is that they haven`t turned the air conditioning on yet. It`s very sticky and humid, and often, during the summer, the only respite in a school is the teacher`s room since that is the only air conditioned room in the building. I am all for saving energy, but within reason. I already show up to school panting like a little dog and awkwardly sweating through a tank top and a shirt. I have been asked on several occasions while fanning myself at my desk to cool down if I am okay or not. Yes, please poke this bear with that stick.

Otherwise, everything is going well here on the small island. I have been much busier at the elementary school and junior high than I have been at the high school, even though that is my main school. After a day with the elementary school kids, I definitely always need a nap. Kancho girl has been at it again - showing off for her friends by picking on the foreigner. I was walking to the gym the other day after school and kancho girl and her friends were walking home. Of course, to make her friends laugh, she charged up after me with her umbrella and walked extremely close. I was not in a good mood so a good glare and a swift "DAME!" (stop!) seemed to do the trick, even though I could hear her mimicking me to her friends and saying "dame! dame!" I think that girl gets teased at school and has pent-up aggression. She is an overweight child and in a grade of 10 boys and 5 girls, she becomes quiet as a mouse anytime we are in class. But none of that is an excuse for her poor behavior. Every time I have told anyone about this child and her intention of making a mockery of me, they simply laugh. It`s driving me bonkers.

In Mozambique, I took a much more straightforward approach. When I saw a gang of children throwing rocks into our yard at my dog, I went to the elementary school next door, where they all fled into a classroom. Trapped in the classroom, the students had no way of fleeing me and I easily apprehended one of the future shotput olympians and took her screaming and crying to the school office. Of course, the school did nothing to punish her because of their lack of organization, but it drove the point home for the girl and the students who saw her being taken to the office. Maybe next time, they would think before they tried to stone my dog. I could easily do that in Mozambique because confrontation was more common there. Here, there is no confrontation. If someone makes you angry, you are usually expected to grin and bear it. You accept another person`s bad actions and horrible personality with a smile, rather than telling them directly that they are wrong. (That is one reason why I sometimes don`t like the phrase "ganbare," which is used often here and basically means "fight through it" - sometimes, you shouldn`t have to fight through it. You should verbally smack the person down like the hand of God.)

I was reading a book about marriage in Japan and an American woman who had married a Japanese man said that she was at the embassy in Tokyo once, trying to get her paperwork in order. While she was waiting to speak to someone, she saw an embassy worker yelling at a woman for not having the correct paperwork and it actually made her smile and become nostalgic for good ol` American confrontation. You really do begin to crave direct interactions with people who aren`t easily offended and that`s where having other foreigner friends or a long phone call home can really make all the difference.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Maternal and Infant Health in Mozambique

My sister sent me this article from NPR about maternal and infant mortality in Mozambique. Written by Melissa Block, with NPR, the statistics are startling:

"In her lifetime, a Mozambican woman has a 1 in 37 chance of dying during pregnancy or within a short time after a pregnancy has ended. One in 10 children won't live past the first year. One in 7 dies before reaching the age of 5."

They talk about Monapo and Nacala, the area I used to live in while I was a teacher in Mozambique from 2007-2009. I went to the hospital in Monapo when I had a serious health problem. My throat was slowly swelling shut because of a bacterial abcess and a doctor and nurse took a look at me and just started laughing at the appearance of my abcess. The doctor then prescribed me a medicine I`m a allergic to. My experience was small peanuts in comparison to what these women must go through. I can`t even imagine what it must feel like to be a pregnant woman in such an environment.

The hospital is exactly how they describe it in the article. It seems like it`s forever stuck in the 1960`s or 70`s. There are mattresses on floors. Dirt is visible. The sanitation level is poor. Medical utensils and tools lay about. I remember sitting and waiting on a bench to see a doctor, and looking around, I saw an ancient rusted and unplugged refridgerator with an old label of "Blood Bank" written on it. It looked like it had been there when the Portuguese were still in Nampula - in 1974. There is no sense of urgency with staff. The pregnant women or women with babies seemed to sit for hours and hours, waiting for a doctor or nurse to speak with them.

There are not enough doctors to accomodate the population of Mozambique and many of them are overworked. If more nurses were trained in emergency surgical skills and techniques and there was more education about pregnancy and maternal health, the mortality rate would improve dramatically.

Here is also a documentary called Birth of a Surgeon, that follows a woman in the southern part of Mozambique as she struggles to help Mozambican women through midwifery and surgical skills.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Baby School

I went to Oshima, a smaller island near Ojika, to teach a couple of lessons on Tuesday and it went well. I like to call it my Baby School. The smaller island has a population of 60 people and many of them are older, so one day, I imagine that Oshima will become deserted. Ojika, on the other hand, has just under 3,000 people - also, with many elderly people. There may only be four students in the Oshima school but it`s one of my favorite parts of my job. There is a 1st grade girl, a 3rd grade boy and two 6th grade boys. After the sixth graders graduate to the junior high in April, I am thinking that the school will cease to exist. Very sad, considering there used to be 50-60 students in the school. There are three classrooms, a big gymnasium, playground equipment and two teachers and a principal at the school. It`s such a peaceful little place, where everyone gets along. If there was such a thing as a Utopic school, this would be it.

The newest student is the first grader at the baby school, a little girl with her front teeth missing. Every time she giggles, she hunches her shoulders up to the bottom of her ears. Super adorable kid. We were going over greetings with her and the third grade boy. The teacher was asking the boy about greetings and he just had a blank on his face, when, from out of nowhere, the little 1st grade girl goes "good morning!" She totally whooped him on greetings and numbers, even though she is two years younger. It was awesome. And I never thought I would get so much enjoyment out of playing janken (paper scissors rock) for twenty minutes but it was actually a lot of fun. We ended up doing it at the dock while we waited for the ferry to take me back to Ojika.

I also finally had my first lesson of the school year with the first and second grade students in Ojika. Those classes have around 10-15 students in each. I never thought that in our first lesson, there would be tears, a bloody nose and an impromptu nap in the corner. A little girl in class was extremely nervous when I asked her "how are you?" and I could see the tears forming in her eyes. Later, during the hello song, she finally lost it and started crying - the teacher directed her to a corner, where she promptly fell asleep. And then another little girl started to have blood pour out of her nose onto her clothes and hands. It was a war zone in there.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Buggin` and Bugs

I just had one of those mornings where you wake up on the wrong side of the bed - or in my case, wrong side of the floor (since that`s where I sleep). At 5:45, I was woken up by a loud television, 45 minutes before I usually wake up. So as my frustration spiraled into annoyed, homesick tears, I went online and my sister managed to cheer me up from misery. Living abroad, whether it`s fairly close or on the opposite ends of the earth, and for no matter how long or how much you enjoy your job, you still get stabs of homesickness every once in a while. You want people who understand you and what you are saying and why you react the way you do in situations. Sometimes, wouldn`t it be nice if we could all just escape for a couple of days back to our home country? Just a brief respite from being "different." For me, it helps talking to my sister and having her send me things like a link to Rep. Anthony Weiner`s apology written on the pictures of sad-looking dachsunds.

But everything is all good now. Nothing cures sadness like giggly games and trying to teach high school students how to differentiate their pronunciation of L`s and R`s. Also, on my walk to school, the previously mentioned student who refused to get out of his mother`s car went sprinting past me up the hill on the way to school. The hill is not fun to walk up so I was impressed by his ambition. Suddenly, his mother`s car pulled up alongside him and he jumped in (like I imagine bank robbers do with getaway cars) and drove on to school. It was bizarre. So I imagine that there was some form of "You can just walk to school then!!!" and a "Fine!" and slamming doors in their house this morning.

Since it has grown hotter and more humid outside, the bugs are making a comeback. More cockroaches and spiders of all sizes. Cleaning the gym last week, I was the bug-toucher. I had to pick up a what-I-hope-was-just-a-beetle-and-not-a-cockroach as I was cleaning the windows. And also I had to free spiders into the "wild" with a broom because no one else wanted to literally touch the insects with a 10 foot pole. We were taking an unofficial break from cleaning the tatami mats in the gym and lying down and looking up, we could see dead spiders the size of coasters in the light fixtures. Pretty nasty to think of all the places those suckers are hidden in the buildings here.

Some of you may be wondering what tatami is. And if you aren`t, too bad. It`s a woven straw mat that`s used as the flooring in traditional Japanese rooms. You are supposed to go barefoot in the room when there is tatami (but you do take off your shoes anyways in every Japanese home). Tatami is also used as the flooring during Japanese martial arts, such as Judo, because it is softer to land on tatami than on a slab of cement. Surprise, surprise.

And here`s an interesting fact. If the mats aren`t kept clean, they attract insects called Dani that bite you. We have adult conversation classes in a room with this problem and those stabs of homesickness aren`t the only stabs you may be feeling.

The End of an Amazing School

After having working with REDES (Raparigas em Desenvolvimento, Educacao e Saude - or Girls in Development, Education and Health) in Mozambique, I see even more how necessary this school in Michigan is. So many young pregnant girls around the world are often forced to or feel as though their only option is to drop out of school. They are made to feel ashamed or that their life is over. This school in Michigan has a program that teaches girls to be responsible for themselves and their child. The school offers childcare services to the young women, teaches them how to work on a farm and requires the application to financial aid and post-secondary education.

However, it has been decided that this school, along with many others, should be closed down, despite the obvious opportunities it provides the girls. Rachel Maddow talks about it here.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Merry Maids

School cleaning often involves a lot of confusion for me. An interesting thing to note about Japanese schools - they don`t have janitors. The janitors are the students. Every day, at 3:10, after they have finished their classes for the day, the students are then given the task of cleaning the school. This often involves sweeping and dusting and a lot of looking busy (at least, that is what I would do if I were a student). I help out in the teachers` room, with three or four girls who come in to sweep every day while I change the garbages.

While our prefecture is having their sports event this weekend, the only two groups left on the island are the band kids and the baseball boys. Both clubs were given the two-hour task of cleaning the gym. You may think that a task that simple would not require two hours. But you would be wrong. The following are some interesting methods of cleaning I have observed.

The gym floor - washed by hand, the students are required to line up and, holding the cloth down with their hands, they run to the other end of the gym in a straight line. I am pretty sure I have seen something comparable and just as torturous during the last chance workout on the Biggest Loser. I asked if there was a mop - but I got a blank look in return.

The windows - they are washed, then wiped dry...and then rubbed with newspaper. I asked what the purpose of the newspaper was and no one could give me an answer. It seemed to be a "that`s just how we do things" kind of answer with a shrug.

But hey, it could have been worse. We could have been with the baseball club members, who were sitting outside...picking grass off the field.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ode to Eikaiwa

I would just like to dedicate a post to my wonderful eikaiwa groups. Eikaiwa is a conversation class in Japan. I have both beginners and advanced eikaiwa groups that meet on Thursday nights at the city hall. My beginners group has a solid five people and my advanced has around seven or eight, depending on the availability of the members. My beginners group has a few housewives, an older woman with impressive English skills and a man who is also a member of my advanced group (he is extremely helpful with explaining English to the others when they are confused). The women have no problem laying down the law and telling someone when it is their turn to Go Fish. My advanced group has a few housewives, a nursery school teacher and a couple of shop owners - all with varying levels of English.

After a long day at school, when I feel tired and drained, I still go to eikaiwa and I find these people to be the most enjoyable company out of anyone I know on the island. Their sense of humor and their natural curiosity for learning is inspiring. I am constantly being asked questions like "what does 'I have a bun in the oven' mean?" Their comprehension is so good and they are dedicated to practicing the language so they don't lose it after they studied, traveled or worked abroad years ago. A few of them are the parents of my students as well, so it's fun to hear about the funny things their children say.

I was at my friend's clothing shop on Monday (I had to drop off my frozen burritos to put in her freezer because of a pesky fried circuit breaker - that's a whole 'nuther story) and the second grade students in the elementary school were told to walk around the main street area of Ojika to look at shops and ask the shop owners questions. So they all trudged around with clipboards hanging around their necks, like miniature mall surveyors. You know, the ones you avoid eye contact with. My friend's son is in the second grade and he came into the store while I was talking to his mother. After greeting us, the students in his group immediately began to write down on their clipboards what the shop sells. Apparently, having lived behind the shop his entire seven years, he found the topic boring and instead of writing "I went to the shop and saw socks, pants, shirts, shoes, etc.", he decided to only write "I went to my shop and I saw Erin-sensei." Concise and to the point.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


From Wikipedia : "Kancho (カンチョー, kanchō?)[1] is a prank often played in Japan; it is performed by clasping the hands together so the index fingers are pointing out and attempting to insert them sharply into someone's anal region when the victim is not looking.[2][3] It is similar to the wedgie or a goosing, although, as compared to kancho, the former mentioned acts do not involve physical contact which is quite as intimate or direct. A Kancho is often executed simultaneously as the offending party loudly emphasizes the second syllable of "Kan-CHO!".

I have seen both children and adults doing this to each other and I just don`t get it. In the United States, this would be seen as an assault. It`s not funny and why anyone would want to put their fingers in someone else`s private parts is completely beyond me. I had resolved that if anyone ever attempts to do that to me, they will have their fingers quickly and painfully broken.

Yesterday, I was outside playing soccer with the third and fourth grade students. There is one female student who is always loud and obnoxious toward me, which I can`t seem to figure out. But as we were playing the game, I noticed that she was walking closely behind me and her friends were laughing. I turned around quickly and realized that she was miming "kancho-ing" me. Remembering my sworn personal oath, I did what any sane, well-balanced adult would do in the same situation. I chased her around the playground until she was breathless and had learned her lesson. She is no marathon runner, so she was saying uncle by the time we neared the jungle gym.

I just find the whole idea of kancho bizarre and disgusting. Here is a Kancho survival guide.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I want it NOW!

I was witness to an interesting event this week. A student in the junior high refused to get out of his mother`s car to go to school. She and a group of teachers stood outside the car and appeared to strategize on how to extract the kid - acting as though the jaws of death couldn`t pry that adolescent from the grips of his seatbelt. Like the same feeling I have about petting the dog down the street - I`m fairly certain I`d pull back a bloody stump if I ever tried to pet the poorly socialized little feller. This kid is 13 years old and quite intelligent (he rocks at English), but obviously used to getting his way. When I asked others about it, they shook their heads and immediately claimed that it was a mental problem. After discussing it with another foreign friend, she astutely labeled it "a brat problem." So often, bad behavior is excused as a mental issue here. You live, you learn. When I was younger, there was never a question of whether or not I was going to school. I am convinced that my mother would have pulled me kicking and screaming from the vehicle, letting me land on the sidewalk and drive ahead to work. There were two litmus tests - have you thrown up? Or do you have a fever? No? Get your backpack. Sometimes (stress on sometimes) horrible colds and the flu were negotiable. Not that my mother is a cold human being or intent on opening the pandora`s box of runny noses - she is just not a push-over. I feel like 13 years old is a little ridiculous to be throwing a tantrum and being able to walk all over your parents - that should be reserved for younger ages, when you are well-prepared to throw yourself on the floor of the grocery store and scream for strawberry Twizzlers. You know, the worthy causes.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ah-ha! Moment

It has been a slow start to the school year thus far. Between the sweat and the occasional four-hour long work party, it has yet to pick up the pace. When I am not at school, I can usually be found sitting on the floor of my apartment, watching enough episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians to deplete my brain power by half or going to the gym and making the men very uncomfortable. When I was there on Saturday, I checked the log you have to sign in to when you begin. A guy had only been there ten minutes when I got there and he left shortly after. I am super selfish though in the gym and love having the machines to myself. Especially the treadmill, which is quickly becoming my favorite now that I have figured out how to turn it on.

I went running yesterday morning really early and as I slowed down for my cooldown walk and was breathing like a pug with blocked nasal cavities, an old man was walking to his field to look at his crops. He stopped me and asked me two specific questions. How old are you? Do you run here everyday? It took me a moment to respond - partially because I had to catch my breath and also because I was shocked. I understood what he was asking. I had a glorious moment in time where I understood everything a person was asking me in Japanese and responded in kind. My Oprah ah-ha moment. It took me a moment to respond because of the breathing and the shock, but also because, always the morbid skeptic, my initial thought was "Why do you want to know? Are you going to be hiding in that brush pile with a knife?"

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

It`s the Gosh Darn Humidity

Let me start by saying that yes, I did just reference Da Turdy Point Buck. I like to keep it classy. If you didn`t have the privilege of growing up in the upper midwest or being there during deer hunting season, this special song can be heard on the radio about once an hour. Thankfully, the point to which I refer is within the first 15 seconds.

The humidity has officially slammed into Japan. At least, on my island it has. Apparently it is worse here than on the mainland because it`s an island - i.e. it`s surrounded by water. On Sunday, when I had to work, I was walking to work and suddenly realized how much sweat I was producing. And so it begins. Walking to work and the rest of my co-workers driving -> me showing up dripping in sweat and having to change my shirt before school starts and them, foreheads dry, asking me if I`m okay. "No, I`m not having a heart attack. Thank you for the concern." My apartment has constant moisture in the air so I am looking into getting a dehumidifier to fight the damp. I will have to check out the place my sister refers to as Ojika`s Best Buy. You`d have to see the place to see how ridiculous that reference is.

I was teaching my sixth grade students yesterday and I turned to write some numbers on the board and they all went "WOW! SUGOI!" Sugoi means like "amazing!" or to express amazement. It didn`t take me long to realize they were talking about my sweat-covered back. I sweat through two layers. What!? I can`t help it! Later in the day, I walked to the gym to work out and my umbrella was pretty flimsy and turned itself inside out a few times with all the wind. After I was finished, I walked home drenched from my workout and the air was misty from the rain. I was checking out with my items and the owner of the shop said "don`t you have an umbrella?!" I wasn`t about to tell her "oh no, that`s just sweat," so I just told her my umbrella was super small.

My co-worker says they are predicting a hotter, stickier summer for Japan this year in comparison with the last. I`m going to need to save my yen to hire a personal attendant to fan me all day long.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

I'm not ASKING you who's on second!

I am in Osaka right now, taking in some sightseeing during Golden Week. Golden Week in Japan is when there are three consecutive holidays in the middle of a week so you can pretty much call the entire week a bust in regard to work. So I took advantage of the opportunity to come to Osaka. So far, I have gone to the Osaka Aquarium, rode the giant ferris wheel and visited Osaka Castle. The Aquarium was okay but super crowded with too many small children. Note to fellow travelers - don't go during GW. Also, while they had the expected fish, sharks and dolphins, it was still kind of depressing seeing their captivity. If you have seen The Cove, you will know what I am talking about. It made me question where those dolphins came from. I still think that Cape Town had the nicest aquarium I have ever been to - barring my dislike for animal captivity. It was impossible to enjoy it when you are trying not to get elbowed. They even spaced out the tourists so that the traffic would flow better but that didn't seem to help much. And parents, note to you: do not put your child up on your shoulders so they can see better!!! You are cutting off the views of the people behind you! When you have that mob mentality, it's survival of the fittest tourism and I prefer the laid back version.

The ferris wheel was fine and did everything it promised to do - that is, turn in a big circle and allow for a few photo ops. And then I headed to the castle, which is pretty but would probably be even more amazing during cherry blossom season, which just passed a few weeks ago.

I saw a Subway for lunch and became super excited for a healthy American-style lunch. I was in for a rude awakening. I ordered the #3 sandwich - a chicken and cheese 6 in. sub with the works on it. It was when I was about to pay, I realized that they had prepared three sandwiches for me! And the resulting conversation was like a bi-lingual version of Abbot and Costello's Who's on First?

Me: Sorry! Just one sandwich.
Sandwich Artist: You wanted three?
Me: No, I wanted one #3.
Sandwich Artist: So, you wanted three.
Me: No, I wanted one.
Sandwich Artist: One?
Me: Yes, I wanted one #3, the chicken and cheese.
Sandwich Artist: You want three?
Me: No, I want one.
Sandwich Artist: One?
Me: (Giving up on life) One.

I am sure that they thought I was an idiot. It is apparent that Japanese Subway shops do not pay attention to the numbers of sandwiches like its American brethren. But then again, why would they think I want three sandwiches? And why do they put a cheese paste on their subs rather than the real deal? So many unanswered questions.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

If You Lift It, They Will Come...With Cake

I went to the public gym yesterday and was lifting weights. The only other person in the weight room was the only girl on the track and field team, an 11th grader. She is an amazing runner. This is the same girl whose grandmother commented that her skin is too dark because she is always outside running. The girl obliterates her competition when she runs. We worked out in silence after greeting each other. The girl is strong - it`s impressive. I am convinced that if she was on the track for university, she could win a scholarship. I think she was pleased that there was another woman in there lifting weights. I imagine it can get lonely being the only girl on the track and field team.

Today at lunchtime, I was sitting at my desk, eating lunch when she came in with an apron on. She came bearing banana cake and tea for me she had made in home ec! Such a sweet thing to do. What a kind girl! She said "This is banana cake and this is tea! Here you are!" The kids on the island are conscientious, respectful and kind. A total anomaly in this day and age.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Head Nods

It seems like I am constantly tripping and falling on this island. I usually trip in front of other people or in front of cars driving past. And the first thing I do as I can feel gravity doing me wrong, is put my hands out and fling any precious items in my hands to the side (kindle, iPod). I don`t want to ruin them with my always-less-than-graceful landings. The second thing is to check my pants to make sure I didn`t rip them. The last thing usually involves a lot of swearing and muttering under my breath.

Classes are going well. I think I still intimidate some of the kids but you know you are making strides when they come to collect you for lunch by themselves in the junior high, rather than like a herd of gazelles - safety in numbers. Don`t worry, kids. I got my vampire teeth pulled out in the 4th grade before I got braces. I don`t bite. I am working with the junior class preparing to go to university in the high school. It involves a lot of reading texts and then going over vocabulary and comprehension. It`s a bit of a yawn factory but that`s what I have been asked to do and more interesting changes in activities to the lesson plan have been deemed unnecessary. So far, since I am unable to change the content of the lessons, the only thing that seems to keep their attention is me using my outdoor voice inside. Just talk like you`re enthusiastic and they`ll pay more attention. I know that reading about the fermentation of tea leaves hasn`t felt inspiring - although I did learn that all teas are actually made from the same tree. Fascinating. I really want to push the students but I am told that they can`t handle being pushed in their English skills. I am convinced that if they focus hard enough, they could hold a conversation with me or answer questions. If you start off a lesson by telling students it`s probably too difficult for them, they aren`t going to give it their all.

The weather in Ojika has been fabulous. It is the perfect temperature. It`s between the bone-chilling and windy cold and the dripping sweat stages. There are flowers in bloom all over the island and farmers have planted their rice and other vegetables. I am really looking forward to the summer! In the early mornings and late afternoons, of course. I will be too busy wallowing in my own sweat at all other times of the day. I`m hoping that getting into shape will cut down on misery come July.

When I go for my walks on the island, one thing that seems a bit much is all the nodding people expect you to do. A lot of drivers going past will nod and while I understand this as a courtesy in Japan, I also find it highly unnecessary. I get it. You are being respectful by acknowledging me - but I don`t need to be acknowledged. Just like I don`t need you to acknowledge that I fell back there on the sidewalk. I need to listen to my "Super Sassy Workout Mix" iTunes playlist and think about what I`m making for dinner or about my ten-year plan. I like to zone out during my walks and worrying about offending someone by not bowing with my head seems too much to bear. I have noticed that women are far more courteous toward me in car-bowing. The bus driver and the lone taxi driver in Ojika, however, are always willing to give a wave. It`s all very Mr. Roger`s neighborhood sometimes. I should do some kind of study on this.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Weighty Issues

I went to the gym the other day and I am going to go back again today. The gym in Ojika is definitely an interesting place. It costs 100 yen to work out and it`s usually pretty quiet, unless there are games or tournaments. For equipment, it kind of feels like you are stepping back twenty years. There are old-fashioned stair climbers and a stationary bike that have lost their resistance, one treadmill (where the belt seems unattached), and a rodeo seat. I don`t really understand the rodeo seat. Obviously the intention is that it`s like you are on a bucking bull, but it just makes grown men look ridiculous, sitting on this small seat that just seems to vibrate. I have yet to figure out the health benefits of the rodeo seat. Other than the machines that are seemingly worthless, there are some free weights and some other machines I`m a big fan of. Of course, there are never any women in there working with weights. Whenever I have asked men if women lift weights, they shake their heads and start laughing. The standard for Japanese women is to be slim - no muscles. Well, they are about to get schooled.

I have friends who have problems with the idea of female perfection here in Japan - getting comments on their size and skin color. I agree with them. While I find Japanese people on my island to be extremely polite and wonderful people, there are other cases where people are rude and passive aggressive to me because I am bigger than Japanese women. Living in Mozambique taught me to love my body no matter what I look like because every culture has a different perspective. In Mozambique, it was great to be a bigger person with hips and curves because that means you are healthy and successful. In Japan, curves are anything but the rage. So far, I have found Korea, China and Japan to be similar in their views on women and weight. There`s a lot of woman-against-woman criticism. Women are supposed to be slim, with white skin and people are quick to point out each others` "flaws." But I think that if you worry about everyone else`s opinions all the time, you will go crazy. It`s all in the confidence. Rock what you got.

I was in the teacher`s room last week when I was approached by an office staff, with a co-worker reluctantly translating, asking if I wanted to take leave for a mental exam. I said no and he kept insisting, saying that he recommended it. That made me question why he would ask me. Do I exude mental imbalance? Do I look like a fruit loop? He apparently didn`t ask everyone (just a few teachers) and I am super curious as to why he would think I need a mental exam. I consider myself a pretty happy, emotionally stable person. I guess in Japan it isn`t considered rude to tell people that you think it`s a good idea for them to be psychologically examined. I can see why my co-worker didn`t want to translate.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Brass Band Blitz

Just when I thought I was scot-free from brass band, I got roped in again, unwillingly. Last week, the students had an assembly for all the clubs and sports to talk about themselves to convince the new 10th graders to join. A student came to the teacher`s room to ask if I would play the trumpet with them. I turned to my co-worker and said that I was trying to think of a nice way to say no. She nodded and turned to speak with the student. The student nodded and left and then I asked her what she told the girl. "I told her you had some kind of appointment, so you should probably show up a little late." So I waited and waited, and when I thought it was safe, I went to the gym to catch a few of the presentations. Everyone stood up and talked about their groups and the badminton team even did a demonstration, which roped in a whopping new 5 members! Which is pretty considerable, considering they only had 4 before. But finally, it was the band`s turn and I was sitting on the ground, expecting just to listen when a teacher who works with the band comes running up to me seconds before with a trumpet in her hand. "Let`s play!" This was in front of the entire school so I couldn`t say no so I went up and pretended to play for the entire song. No more! Uncle!

Monday, April 11, 2011

You`re So Clever

My vacation went well for the most part. Be prepared for a super long post -`re welcome. Kara and I hung around my island for a few days, resulting in an untimely spraining of her ankle walking down the steps of an island cemetery. That`s what you get for trying to photograph the dead. I am still convinced she was pushed. She also got a bad cold from the plane, making me want to spray everything down with lysol. After expressing my concern for her well-being, of course. In Ojika, we had my co-workers car to drive around in and hit up all the hot spots - the pot hole, the schools, the museum, etc., and luckily, we had perfect weather.

After Ojika, we took a ferry to the mainland and hopped on a shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. The bullet train is pretty amazing. It only took about 3 hours to get to Kyoto from Fukuoka. Mind you that that is covering half of the entire nation of Japan in 3 hours. Kyoto was beautiful, even though the cherry blossoms hadn`t opened yet. We saw several temples and ate our way through Japanese cuisine. Okonomiyaki, ramen (not the crappy 49 cent kind), kaiten sushi (or conveyor belt sushi), sashimi, domburi, and the list goes on. Japan really does have some of the most amazing food and fresh fish. You rarely have to worry about food poisoning.

In Kyoto, one of the neatest experiences was sitting at a small local bar, drinking a beer (Kara had a water since she was heavily medicated) and watching the cook make okonomiyaki right in front of us at the bar. Okonomiyaki is like a delicious vegetable pancake. Also, on the outskirts of Kyoto is a place called Arashiyama Monkey Park and you climb this steep mountain and when you get to the top, you get to feed monkeys! It was super cool to put pieces of apple into their grubby little hands - they felt like little human hands. They also had a presentation where they played can-can music and fed the monkeys peanuts.

After Kyoto, we headed to Hiroshima for a somber look at the Peace Park in commemoration of the atomic bomb. It was really interesting and sad wrapped into one. Amazingly, there are still two buildings standing from the bombing and we even went in one of them. After much debate, Hiroshima decided to keep the buildings standing as a reminder of the events. In fact, the most amazing building is a public exhibition hall that the bomb was dropped directly over. You can still see a twisted spiral stair case and you can see the cracks in the wall where the city has fought the building from crumbling.

Interestingly enough, Kara and I were sitting in the park after going to the museum when we were approached by two women who conversed with us a bit. I should have been suspicious because Japanese people don`t tend to approach strangers to chat. In fact, as soon as they said "have you heard the good news?" any normal person would have felt that light bulb go off. But we instead said "no, what news?" They were missionaries of some kind, spreading the word of god. After we had our Oprah ah-ha moment and politely declined, the women gave up on converting the only white people in the park to whatever form of evangelicalism to which she subscribes. Kara turned to me and declared "that`s terrible news."

After Hiroshima, we returned to Fukuoka for a night and did some laundry and cherry blossom-viewing and boarded a morning flight to Beijing. As soon as we stepped off the plane in Beijing, you could definitely tell the air quality was far poorer. After settling in at the hostel and a night`s rest, we booked a trip that took us around to the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace. Note: never go on a planned tour to those places during a four-day public holiday unless you enjoy being pushed, crowded and just generally annoyed with the world. The Forbidden City was cool but it would have been more enjoyable had the crowd been smaller and less pushy.

The next day, we headed out to do some shopping. There was a gigantic computer center to get not-so-legit-but-probably-of-the-same-quality goods. They had everything and anything electronic in there and would call out as we walked past. "iPad?! Computer?!" They throw it out there expecting to get shut down so it was fun to see the looks on their faces when their calls actually caused us to turn into their stalls.

There is also a market called the Alien Street Market. When you enter, all the vendors are Chinese but almost all the customers are Russians. It`s strange to hear the Russian language at every turn. Russians make purchases in China, apparently, and then take the goods back to Russia to sell for a profit. Another market is the Silk Market, one of my favorite parts of the trip. At the Silk Market, they have everything - clothes, shoes, jewelry, and bags. We haggled and bargained with shop owners in the different stalls for a few hours - finding everything from "pearls" to odd-shaped cigarette lighters for friends (one was shaped like a chocolate bar, the other like a pack of marlboros).

I have a system when I bargain. I set the bar low, work up maybe a little and then when they don`t agree to my price, I act like that`s my final offer and pretend like I`m leaving. They then become desperate, grab my arm and beg me not to leave, giving it to me for my price. A girl was practically skiing across the floor as she held onto my arm to keep me from leaving. It really brought me back to the market in Mozambique and haggling over the used clothing markets and street jewelry. The workers were working hard at their trade, buttering up customers "OOOH! You`re so clever!" Kara, however, was horrible at bargaining. This was the discussion I overheard.

Silk Scarf Seller: I will give you for 1500 yuan.
Kara: That`s too much.
Silk Scarf Seller: Not too much.
Kara: That`s half my mortgage.
Silk Scarf Seller: (blank, confused face and pause) How much you want for?
Kara: Well, I would pay like 500 but I know that`s just way too low for you.

It was hard to keep myself from physically shaking my head in disappointment. It`s also hard to signal to another person what to do when the sellers speak such good English. I am convinced that some of those market sellers could get a much better job with the high level of English they have learned from hawking badminton birdie cigarette lighters in the Silk Market. But the women in the market were a lot of fun to talk to, bringing up their families and talking about their lives. Although they quote really high prices, I have a lot of respect for people with those jobs because they know how to turn on the charm. And Kara did slowly begin to improve her bargaining skills.

We also climbed on the Great Wall. Even the best workout video of Billy Blanks or Jillian doing upper cuts and high kicks couldn`t match the burn and sweat that results from walking along the Great Wall at Mutianyu. It was incredibly beautiful (minus the pollution-laden haze that settled above the mountains). The best part, besides pretending to be Jaden Smith in the Karate Kid in pictures, was tobaganing down from the hill. Yes, you get to ride a tobagan down! Best ride ever. I loved it so much I was willing to overlook getting a mouthful of a dirty "slow down!" flag hanging above the track in my mouth. And we also met a nice South African girl and discussed our love of various reality TV shows for an hour or so.

The next day was, by far, the most depressing part of Beijing. We went to Tiananmen Square. Setting aside the massacre of pro-democracy protestors there, as soon as you step into Tiananmen, you can feel the weight of communism - particularly as you are barked at to check your bags at the locker building across the street. You see old men wearing similar older navy blue clothes and hats buying flowers to set at the memorial of Mao. There are numerous security checks, regular and plain clothed police men and giant TV screens promoting the splendor of China like a Disney Epcot video. We went to see Mao mostly out of a desire to see the macabre display of his embalmed body in a glass case in a glass room with armed guards. His body is covered except for his face, which had a bright orange light shining on it. The man has been re-embalmed and re-made up every year since his death in 1976, resulting in a plastic looking exterior. And once in the memorial, in front of Mao, you are not allowed to talk or take pictures. It was one of the most bizarre experiences I have ever had.

Later in the day, we headed to the Olympic Stadium to look inside the Birds Nest and the Water Cube, even though I didn`t catch a minute of the 2008 Beijing Olympics because I was in Mozambique at the time. I don`t personally care much for the Olympics but Kara was excited to see it all.

We went to see the Aquarium and pandas at the Beijing Zoo. Now, mind you, the zoo itself is pretty depressing. The conditions of the animals is less than clean and spacious. The animals look miserable. The Aquarium is well-built and organized but they also appear to never clean their dolphin tanks or create the space needed for the animals to swim around. After the zoo and Kara bought her panda umbrella, we headed to a spa to get a facials and a foot rub. It was nice to be in a pleasant, clean space, getting my pores cleansed. I have never done it before and was suprised by the painful part where they dig into your skin so much that your face begins to feel like swiss cheese.

Chinese food in China is, surprisingly, not that impressive. A lot of peppers but not a lot of taste. What we ate is something you could easily find at a Chinese buffet anywhere in Wisconsin. We had given up on the food for intestinal and taste bud reasons, so after an excellent dinner of Belgian food, we headed to an acrobats show to see Chinese youth contorting their bodies and flipping in ways Americans could never accomplish. It was definitely worth the ticket to watch the performance despite the poor access to taxi cabs.

And now I am home again! It feels great to be back in quiet Ojika, with the new school year just starting. On Friday, all the students and teachers on the island are going on a hike - hopefully there are no stairs involved.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


The school year has officially ended today. We had a ceremony this morning that involved a lot of bowing and speeches made by teachers who are leaving Ojika. I just can`t get over the resemblance of Ojika school assemblies to church. And then I have to fight the urge to fall asleep because when I think of standing up, sitting down, bowing, I start to feel that same bored-to-death feeling I would get in church. The best part of church was hearing the tone-deaf lady in the front pew try to wail away at Amazing Grace, silently judging people`s fashion choices and mishaps with holy water (a kid put his gum in it, a lady dropped her purse in it, etc.)

My parents decided they were going to postpone their trip to Japan until later because of the disaster in Japan but my sister (who had a nonrefundable ticket and isn`t going through Tokyo) is going to arrive in Ojika tomorrow night. I am going to Sasebo to pick her up and make sure she was able to get from Fukuoka all right. It`s pretty much fool-proof but one can never be too certain. So I am basically spending 6 hours round trip on a ferry to go get her. But it will be nice to see her and hear about the family and actually be able to speak to someone in fast English again (Lynum fast). I went to Uku island to the north for a band concert a couple of weekends ago and I was talking with the ALT on the island and it felt so good to speak so fast with an American. I am probably going to make my sister wish she had brought ear plugs.

I am brass banded out! I can`t possibly attend or play in any more concerts. I have already played in three in the past couple of weeks and I`m finished. No more. Zero. Zilch. Zip. It`s always the same story – get there seven hours early to practice. We had a concert on Sunday that people were supposed to arrive to by 7 in the morning and we didn`t play until 2 pm. I, however, slept in and said a little white lie of being busy with an appointment – so I got to stall until 11.

Tonight is an enkai to say goodbye to the staff who are leaving the high school next week. There are five of them and we will be getting five new people the week after that. So everything will be kind of up in the air. It`s a stressful time for people working in education in Japan because chances are that their lives will be uprooted and they will be moved to a new school. I`m sad to see them go – especially the music teacher because she has an awesome sense of humor and she`s a great neighbor. But she`s going to the southern-most Goto island in the chain of islands so I am sure that she will be back to visit.

I am really looking forward to my vacation from school. I have two weeks off and I will be returning for the first day of school. My sister and I will be in Ojika for a few days and we`ll drive around the island and she can meet my friends here. After that, we are headed to Kyoto and Hiroshima for the rest of the week. And next, we will go to China! Beijing! I am excited to see the sites there and try different food! Mostly I will be glad to be getting out a bit. I am starting to feel kind of restless on the island! The sun is starting to come out though (cue the Annie music) so it`s nice to finally feel the sun on my face again.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tsunami and Earthquake to the North

I was sitting at my desk on Friday when a group of teachers called me over to the TV in the teachers` room. That was when I saw the tsunami washing over Japan up north. We watched as people drove along the roads, completely oblivious to the water closing in on them. Cars were swept away. People were abandoning their cars and sprinting for overpasses. People were huddled on the roof of an airport. There were balls of fire sweeping along with the water where there had been explosions. A news reporter wore a hard hat just in case another earthquake struck. The teachers all stood there, amazed and said “it`s like a movie.” And it was like a movie, reminding me of the movie 2012. They immediately began to make a mental list of former students who had moved to the eastern coast of Japan and made phone calls to make sure that the students and their own friends and family in the area were safe.

Here is a video of some of the news footage.

I am lucky because I couldn`t be further from where the devastation has occurred and is still taking place. I live here. We simply had a tsunami warning and the water levels that could have approached our island were first 50 cm and then a possible 2 meters, but our island remained unaffected, thankfully. There are reports that in the devastated areas, the tsunami reached a height of seven meters. Now, there is the possibility of a nuclear meltdown in Fukushima prefecture at a nuclear power plant.

Rachel Maddow did a great report on the possibility of a nuclear meltdown in Japan. Check it out.

Please consider donating to the Red Cross to help with the earthquake and tsunami relief efforts. You can donate here.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Half the Sky

So I just re-read this book written by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and I still feel like I can`t get enough of it. So as International Women`s Day has just passed, I felt like I would post about this amazing book and movement. The book is about the inequalities facing women in the world and how, if and when given the opportunities to grow and learn, these women make an incredibly positive impact on their communities across the world. The book talks about three different areas that impact women and those are maternal mortality, gender-based violence, and sex trafficking and prostitution. A must-read for anyone interested in women`s issues and the consequences of inequality. Below, I have posted an interview in two parts by Al Jazeera with the authors.

And here is the website for the movement spawned by the book.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Hello! See you!

I have vastly differing ideas as to when it is appropriate or necessary to turn on the gigantic kerosene heaters in the teacher`s room. When you turn them on or off, they let off noxious fumes and you have to open the windows in order to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. For safety reasons, I doubt these would ever be allowed within 10 feet of an American school. Being from Wisconsin, I can handle cold. If it`s not below freezing, I will be okay. Today it is a balmy 48 degrees outside and the sun is shining so it feels even warmer in the sunlight. For me, this is great. But the other teachers seem to think that this is still frozen tundra weather, judging by the way they swarm to the heater like mosquitos to a zapper in the summer time. Our body chemistries but be fine tuned to different levels because they are too cold in the winter and I am maybe a little chilled. But in the summer, when I roll up looking like I just dumped a gallon of water over my head, they arrive at school, dry as the Sahara (provided, they all drive to school).

The popular post-graduation activity in Japan seems to be to dye your hair once you are released from the clutches of secondary education. After having spent 18 years in an educational system that doesn`t allow makeup, dyed hair or any major variation in physical appearance that makes you stick out, these kids scream for rebellion - even if that rebellion is them all using the exact same color of hair dye. Rebels! No, you won`t see too many tongue rings or tattoos, since the latter is associated with gang activity. But the students do finally feel the freedom to change it up a bit with their black, close-cropped hair. I just find it humorous and ironic that everyone associates freedom with that same box of brownish-red Loreal hair dye. Some former students of the high school have come to the school to visit teachers since I arrived here and almost all the boys have tried to change their hair and colored it.

Here is how the Japanese education system is set up:
- Elementary - Grades 1-6
- Junior High - Grades 7-9
- High School - Grades 10-12

The new school year starts April 11th. That`s when the 9th graders move up to the high school, the 6th graders move to the junior high and I get to teach a whole new batch of first graders in the elementary who are moving up from the nursery school. The first graders are my favorite, despite one saying he thought I was 40 years old to the teacher - oh, from the mouths of babes. The teacher couldn`t stop laughing at that one. I`ll let it slide. I was walking home yesterday and I was passing the park and it seemed like the entire first grade posse was there and screamed my name as I walked past - even though they only know how to say "I am great!", "Hello!" and "See you!" It`s funny because as I`m approaching the park, I hear "HELLO!" and then as I continue passing the park, they yell "SEE YOU!" They give very fleeting greetings. "HELLO!...,,,SEE YOU!" And it`s hilarious every time.

This summer they are going to tear down the elementary school and begin construction on a new one because the building is in such rough shape. You can see mold on the ceiling, the floorboards are questionable and there was one time that I found unidentifiable animal scat on the floor by the English room. I don`t even use the English room anymore because it smells like something curled up in the walls and died. All of the elementary kids are going to be in the junior high school with the junior high kids so it will be a fuller school with a higher noise level. They are already kid-proofing the junior high, putting up barriers so students can`t slide down the stairway banisters and slip through the railings to fall to their deaths. Below, that is one banister I wouldn`t want to ride.

The junior high kids were in the high school yesterday taking the "entrance exam" for the high school. In Japan, all third year junior high school students take entrance exams to enter high school. While it may make more of an impact on the mainland, where the number of schools and options is greater, in all reality, these students won`t be denied entrance to the high school because it`s the only high school on the island, with a student population of less than 80. But they go through the motions anyway. I am looking forward to teaching those kids in the high school. They have a lot of energy and are surprisingly good at responding to my questions. Sometimes I question the high school students and their lack of enthusiasm/inability to respond to something as simple as "how are you?" I am definitely going to start challenging them more to use language without staring at the Japanese teacher for the answer. One of my JTEs (Japanese Teacher of English) always puts her hands up when they look at her to block their faces and says "don`t look at me!"

The teachers will be finding out by the middle of this month if they are staying or if they are leaving. Normally, a teacher is required to teach on the Goto Islands for five years so most of the teachers have an idea of what instructions they will get from the prefecture. The prefecture is the ultimate decision-maker in the placement of teachers and teachers have little influence over where they are placed - so there seems like there is a continuous uncertainty. I will be sad to see teachers leave. They have been a lot of fun and you can tell that they really care about the students. The new teachers will arrive at the end of this month, right before the new school year starts.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Tick Tock

I`m just going to continue putting it out there - it`s killing me not having a computer at my apartment. Although I am averaging a book a day and I`ve finally started to hunker down to re-study all that high school math that will be on the GRE, I am going bonkers. It`s so quiet! And I yearn to google and wikipedia things (I know, I know - don`t trust everything you wikipedia). The other day, I thought "I wonder if Japanese restaurants boil their fish to get it to taste so tender and juicy" and then sadly remembered that the answer was not at my fingertips. "I wonder what was on the Friday episode of the Rachel Maddow show?!" "What is happening in my home state with the Wisconsin protests and that power-hungry, union-busting governor, Scott Walker?" These were all pressing questions that had to wait until today when I could access my computer at work.

I love finding out that students passed major English exams. I worked with a 10th grader for a week, studying for an exam where he had to answer questions about a picture and then answer open-ended opinion questions. It was difficult at first but then he began to improve and he passed! Sadly, he is moving to Fukuoka next year so his family can be near his sister as she begins beauty school. He`s the best in his English class so I will miss having him as a student. A senior I have worked with several times who already has pretty amazing English wants to go to university to become an English teacher and she just passed her exams. I don`t know why she is at school again today. She appears to be the only senior at school studying. Give it a rest! Go enjoy the last days of your childhood and go on a road trip before university begins. The island is like 8 km around but hey, it you take every road and do a few laps, that could constitute a road trip. I can`t help but think about a bunch of kids in a really small car, listening to mixed tapes and whipping donuts in the parking lot of either the city hall or the public gym - the only two parking lots on the island conceivably large enough for whipping donuts.

I had a meeting at the elementary school last week, according to the schedule I received from them at the beginning of the term. Once I got there, I was waiting at the table to have lesson planning meetings with teachers and no one showed up intitially. A very kind woman who speaks English and works at the school approached me and asked me who I was waiting to meet. After I told her, she went and checked and then returned to inform me that the meeting was actually the next week. I said "oh, okay," slightly put out that I hadn`t been made aware of this but it wasn`t life altering. So I began to pack my things and stood up. She apologized and just stood there, looking at me. I find this happening a lot. I say something and people just stare at me awkwardly. I just chalk it up to Americans and Japanese having different ideas of conversation fillers and awkward silences. In the states, when a misunderstanding of a meeting time happens, we sincerely apologize and then drop it. We don`t wallow in the awkwardness. People on the island are super polite though and any misunderstandings of meetings or events is apologized for to the extent of beating a dead horse. I once received a profuse apology and a present of chocolates from a teacher because she forgot to show up to a lesson planning meeting.

I have been roped into joining the brass band for their string of end of the year concerts. One on the 12th, 13th and 19th each. One is on Uku island, the island just to the north of Ojika. I wasn`t going to do it because as I have expressed before, I have never actually enjoyed playing the trumpet. I started playing in the 3rd grade and I just kept doing it because A) my parents had purchased me a trumpet, B) it was my only social activity the two years I didn`t have friends after switching from Catholic school to public school and it only made sense to continue it because my friends were in it in high school and C) my senior year we were going to DisneyWorld. I would be lying if I said C wasn`t the main reason. I am doing it because I like the music teacher, she is my neighbor and she took the time to translate a letter to me in English, asking me to play with them. And signed it "my best regards." I can`t say no to that much effort. I was talking to my English teacher co-worker about band. She plays in the brass band when they ask her and she was a total band geek growing up - evidenced by her ability to play several songs on her flute without reading sheet music. When asked to play in a badminton tournament or any sports competition, you can see a part of her dying inside. She lacks what many would call athletic talent. I, however, have always enjoyed sports and the competition, and I would rather play tennis with the tennis club. So I had to describe to her that her badminton is like my brass band - the krytonite to our supermen. I think that really drove home my point of disliking band. I think the kids in it are great kids but I just can`t match their level of dedication. It`s like a part time job for them, logging at least 28 hours a week in practice.

For example, I was told that band practice would begin at nine o`clock on Saturday. So, despite having attended an enkai the night before, I peeled myself out of bed the morning of and went to practice. I got there a little before nine and realized that I had been Bat Girled. You may ask yourself what Bat Girl is. The Bat Girls was a softball team I occasionally played with during summers and winters in high school. It was this group of extremely dedicated softball players. And by dedicated, I mean, these girls were required to show up two hours before games to begin warm-up. It was borderline obsession and while I do credit the Bat Girls with keeping my pitching arm intact during the off-season, I felt a special kind of resentment to my teenage days of winter and summer freedom being eaten up by hours of batting practice and fielding grounders. I remember faking being sick one time so I could spend a lovely Sunday at home. Sorry, Mom. No matter how much I denied it, I was , in fact, faking it. I felt a tiny twinge of guilt about lying. However, as I sat back watching Meet the Press and reading the Sunday comics in my pajamas, much like the cheerios in my cereal bowl, the guilt faded.

But back to band practice, it turns out that nine o`clock is actually the time that everyone gets there to begin warming up but the actual rehearsal begins at 11. Two hours to warm up! You can imagine my dismay. I had been Bat Girled (two hours early to warm-up). I sat on the gym floor, reading my kindle, while people came and went and practiced their french horns and clarinets to the beat of metronomes. It sounded like that place with all the stashed clocks in the movie Hook (so Captain Hook wouldn`t be driven crazy by all the incessant ticking) when people took breathers. I stayed for practice and then when it was time for lunch, I hightailed it to the high school to use the internet. After lunch time, I went to the baseball game, just outside the gym. I was surprised to see that while a game was going on between the high school and junior high students, the french horn player was outside, still practicing! Her french horn was so loud but she seemed completely oblivious to the baseball game people were trying to focus on. I turned to a parent who is also a member of my adult English language group and asked her if people didn`t find that french horn annoying. She just started laughing and said "Maybe, yes." I know that in the states, we would have asked her to shut up but the people at the baseball game were too polite to ask for peace and quiet.

So I am destined to spend my after school time for the next week practicing with the band, waiting in the constant purgatory of wondering if the band director said "D" or "E" when saying where she wanted us to practice playing on the sheet music. It is great to see how much the kids enjoy band though and how it is their time to socialize with friends and goof around. But after band, I can`t help but looking forward to going home, enjoying my kindle while eating some chicken nuggets, and then re-maneuvering my way through those damn fractions.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Happy 50th

I am seriously enkai-ed out. I don`t think I can possibly commit another evening to going out and stuffing myself full of food and beer. There have been two in a row this week to celebrate graduation and it has been a good time but I need my beauty rest. Graduation went well. Apparently, graduations in Japan are more like funerals. Everyone wears suits, except for the mothers who wear traditional kimonos. By the end of the ceremony, all of the students were sobbing as they shook hands with each of the teachers. I have only been teaching these kids for 7 months but I found myself crying. Some people question the water works at other graduation ceremonies in Japan, where there are many students graduating at once. In Ojika, there are 28 of them and I think it`s different for them as island kids. Everyone knows everybody and they are sad that they are leaving their childhood behind and entering the adult world. The school is definitely much quieter now that an entire grade is missing. And now some of them have acquired drivers licenses in the city, so I have been cautioned to take heed while walking or riding in a car on the island until they leave for the mainland because their driving skills are still less than exemplary.

I have been averaging a book every couple of days now that my computer died. It`s driving me bonkers! I love reading and I do it a lot even with computers but I miss reading the news and chatting online. My main mode of communication at home has been cut off. I received a shipment yesterday of candy for student prizes from a COSTCO store and it had been shipped internationally from Hawaii. I saw that they had used a local Honolulu newspaper to stuff the box and I never felt so happy to read the news in English. It was quite pathetic but I enjoyed reading about a bank robbery and a father returning home from military deployment.

At the end of the graduation ceremony on Tuesday, the kids had a going away celebration for the seniors and they had different students come forward and say congratulations in different ways. One of the students did this horrible beatbox impression and then said “yo yo yo” and then congratulations. It was absolutely horrendous, but it gave me an idea. I am doing pronunciation with the 10th graders and I may just incorporate the sounds that beatboxers make into my attention-getter for tomorrow. If anything, I may look like a fool but hey, it`s worth a shot.

And finally, in other news, happy 50th anniversary to the Peace Corps! Here is an awesome video that Lauren, a dedicated PCV from my group of volunteers (Moz 12) in Mozambique made in celebration of the 50th anniversary.