Monday, February 28, 2011

Church Giggles

Tis the season for those tax forms to make an appearance. When I was in the Peace Corps, my income was never very complicated. I was paid by the U.S. government and I made a pittance as a volunteer. Now that I am in Japan, it`s a whole different ballgame trying to figure out which forms to fill out and which extensions to file. Ah, the agony of growing older and having to take responsibility for your finances.

My home computer had been having some issues lately and it finally went dead. I haven`t purchased a new computer since 2002. That`s nine years and I`d say that`s a pretty good run. I never buy electronics just because I feel like it but because the previous ones have lived their full lives. I left my very first computer purchase in Monapo with a student and hopefully it`s not being used as just a paperweight now. Without a computer, my apartment seems so quiet and empty. I read a lot and I kind of feel like I am back in the Peace Corps. However, I ordered a Macbook Pro online today and can`t wait to get my paws on it. It will be my first mac and it has a hot pink cover! I am happy to join the ranks of mac users because macs are less susceptible to viruses and they have a solid reputation. Plus, I bought the protection plan that is good for parts and service for three years around the world.

Today is the practice for the graduation. In the morning, we had a ceremony with all the elementary, junior high and high school students in the gymnasium. After practicing standing up and sitting down for about ten minutes and holding a bow for three counts(ichi, ni, joke), we finally did the ceremony. Watching a Japanese official ceremony is kind of like being in church. You stand up and sit. You bow. The speakers bow before they approach the microphone. It is a very religious experience but with a bonzai tree on the stage. Also, I have no idea what they are saying half the time so one could argue that the experiences are one in the same. All I need now is my mother to pinch my leg if I fall asleep or to play paper, scissors, rock with my sister. I still remember when I was younger and I was wearing umbro shorts to church in the middle of summer. When I tried to stand up, my shorts had suctioned themselves to the pew and made the most obnoxious noise. I remember thinking that was hilarious and giggling with my sister and Lord knows, once you get the giggles in church, you are done for. Particularly when it`s during confession and there is complete silence.

When I was in middle school, we had a couple of mice in our basement and my mother set out sticky traps to catch them. Sticky traps are those traps that once they catch a spider`s leg or a mouse`s foot, the adhesive is so strong that you need the jaws of life to detach you. My mom set one out in the kitchen and we went to bed. In the morning, my mother, sister and I went to church and in the middle of the service, my mom got a serious case of the church giggles. For the life of me, I couldn`t figure out why she was laughing so hard. After church, she finally told us that in the middle of the night, my dad had gone into the kitchen and hadn`t turned on the light. He had forgotten about the mouse trap and had stepped right onto the sticky trap. I remember him saying "I thought, oh God, there had better not be a mouse on this trap." So he turned on the light and there it was - a comrade who had also fallen prey to the trap - a mouse stuck to the sticky trap.

There are so many awesome church stories. Walking around, unknowingly, with powdered sugar all over my black jeans during a church social. A child sticking his gum in the holy water. That time at Easter Vigil when everyone was blessed by the priest by the spray of holy water with a palm leave. But instead of just a sprinkling, it was a downpour. People were taking off their glasses and wiping them down. The Knights of Columbus at church and their pirate costumes. Okay, they weren`t supposed to look like pirates but they did. They even had swords. My confirmation ceremony with my sister as my sponsor and accidentally dumping money out of the collection plate rather than putting it in. I remember studying abroad in Ireland and going to Easter mass and having a man ask me to say the rosary out loud. I just shook my head no. How was he to know that I wasn`t that devout of a Catholic.

But back to the graduation ceremony. The gym is decorated like a big candy cane for graduation - red and white draped against every wall. It kind of looks like an American election is about to take place. When they were setting up for the ceremony, they actually measure the distance between the chairs! That`s right. They pulled out a measuring tape. I was astounded. Now that`s thorough. On the stage, they have the flags for Japan and Nagasaki prefecture. And in front of the lecturn, they have rows of potted flowers. I was told that there is a plan on how to set up, measured out completely, and they follow those same instructions every year.

There are more ceremonies this afternoon and a graduation run-through practice. Tomorrow is the big day when the students and their families come to graduation. Three of the students haven`t found out yet if they have passed their exams and they won`t find out until March 6th - which I`m sure to them feels like a lifetime away. And if they don`t pass that, they have to take another examination a week later (at least from what I understand from talking to a co-worker). But they are definitely more relaxed now than they have been all year and it`s nice to see that they can now enjoy themselves.

I am sad to see the 12th graders go but there is always the next batch of kids. After talking with a co-worker, it seems that they want me to lead more classes only in English next year and I think that will be great. So many English classes are led in Japanese right now and speaking in English will make more of an impact on their English comprehension. Maybe I can get rid of that deer in the headlights, oh-my-god-the-foreigner-is-talking-to-me look I get every time I speak to some of them.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

10,000 Girls Project

This project is amazing! It`s called the 10,000 Girls project. It was started by an American woman in Senegal to help give girls an education, real life skills (sewing, cooking, etc.) and business lessons. So often, in the developing world, girls and women are forced to leave school early in order to care for their families, because there is no money or for other reasons. The goal is for the school to be self-sufficient by their entrepreneurship program, not counting on foreign aid or charity. Take a look!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

In Praise of Libraries and Japanese Food

I would just like to take a moment to sing the praises of one of my most treasured valuables: my Kindle. What an amazing electronic! No matter where you are or what time of day, you have access to a library of books. Mind you, the books aren't free but some are, including classics. Long gone are the days when if you wanted to travel abroad with books, half of your luggage space was taken up. I will acknowledge that sometimes it's nice to hold a book in your hands and be able to dog-ear and smell those pages but for convenience's sake, the kindle is a go-to for travelers and anyone who has no access to an English library.

After Mozambique, I really realized how much I took libraries for granted in the states. You get to read or order any book you want...for free! Well, kind of for free since you are paying taxes for the luxury. But in many countries of the world, this system is nonexistent, therefore it's something we should never take for granted. A system like that would never work in Mozambique, for example, because of the sad but true likelihood that the books would be stolen and/or ruined. In Monapo's high school library, students couldn't take the books out and on the occasions in the past when they had, the books were then stolen and sold for a profit. An example of the few ruining it for the majority but out of desperation for money.

So I say that Americans are pretty lucky to have that convenient access to knowledge. There are libraries in Japan of course but I have only ever frequented our island library to read to the kids in English, which I haven't done for a few months. All of the books are in English except for a small section of English children's books. But the library is very quiet and organized and it seems like a great place to bring your children on the island. Often, after school I see the students from the elementary school and junior high stopping at the library on their way home. Half of them are actually going behind the library to run around and tackle each other but the other half actually go in the library and check out books. One of my adult language group members has a son in the first grade and when I visited their house recently I saw that there was a huge bag of library books on the floor. I remember being young and being excited to take out books from the library and even when I returned from the Peace Corps, I made biweekly trips to the library to check out books and movies.

My nostalgia spilleth over for libraries right now just because I think they are amazing. And the closest thing I have to a library now is my kindle, a Christmas present for which I am forever grateful. The Japanese, while the king of the electronics industry, has yet to come out with an equivalent as far as I know for the Japanese people. Every time someone sees my Kindle, they ask if it's a computer. I imagine it won't be too long until they do. Most of my students here enjoy reading Manga, Anime and comic books - books that have colored illustrations.

On a different note, we lost our game last night in the badminton tournament but I had a wonderful time at an enkai afterward. There was some great food and beer. The food included, baby squid in soy sauce dressing, fried chicken, fried what I think were sardines, kimchi (which I actually like more than the stuff I ate in the country that prides itself on its creation of kimchi - sorry Korea!), sashimi (raw fish - see picture below), battered and fried pork and cheese with ketchup, and cabbage with a mayo dressing. Before I came to Japan, so many people commented on how they thought the food in Japan isn't very good but it's delicious! And not always healthy, judging by all the fried foods on that list, but it is yet another reason why I love my island and living in Japan.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Tumbleweeds and Trips

I have this habit of agreeing to things that I decide I didn`t want to do in the first place – but then once I go to it, it`s actually a lot of fun. If that makes any sense. My latest example is my second island badminton tournament. I am playing with the biology teacher again, so we will probably win just because he`s the best player on the island. I was watching him play with another one of our teammates, an office worker, while sitting and talking with my co-worker, another English teacher. This biology can bob and weave and can pretty much dominate the court on his own. The office worker, on the other hand, was flailing around like a dead fish with a badminton racquet and shrieking. My co-worker said “it`s like he is playing against three opponents” – he being the biology teacher. The tournament prize is Kleenex and beer again. And they pull out an old trophy from a box, your team takes a picture with it for the island newspaper and then they pack it away again. It kind of reminds me of those old western style photographs you can take with your family at amusement parks.

The weather has been gorgeous this week in Ojika. I think that Japan is making up for the rainy, dreary weather that we were subjected to last week. The sun is out and it actually smells like spring again! I love the smell of the sea!

I am gearing up for the family to come to Ojika. It should be a good time and I look forward to showing them the sites. On the list are the pothole (a decidedly underwhelming sea-made stone ball), Madara Island (a smaller, beautiful island connected to Ojika by a bridge) and maybe Nozaki Island. Nozaki Island is an island close to Ojika and used to have quite the population. However, everyone eventually left the island in or around the 1970`s or 80`s when fishing declined and now there is no one there but old buildings, deer and a maintenance man. You can go camping on the island in the old school and go hiking. There is the only church in Ojika on Nozaki but it`s no longer used except for special occasions. Now that I write it, it kind of sounds like something straight out of a horror movie - isolated island with a ghost town and no one but a caretaker living there. I doubt there are tumbleweeds.

Graduation is on Tuesday. So everyone has to work on Sunday and Monday to prepare for it. As far as I can see, the preparations involve practicing the school song and maybe setting up chairs? I don`t really know but I am intrigued by this graduation ceremony. I have heard it`s pretty serious, formal occasion – a far cry from my graduating class and people doing cartwheels on the stage and handing the principal a roll of toilet paper in commemoration of some of the members of our class being the best at TPing the school. I remember graduating from high school and arguing with my mother over which shoes I should wear with my graduation robe. A lot of the people I have graduated with now have children and/or spouses but I still feel like I am light years away from that stage in my life. I get varied reactions with that – some people talk up the joys of marriage and having children and how they wouldn`t have it any other way and I have other friends who are also single and focusing on their careers or school. I like having that balance of friends.

Some people in my graduating class could choose to remain in the same city and that`s a difference between Japan and the states. In Japan, when you are going straight from high school into a job, everything is prepared for you and you go straight to your new life and job directly from your childhood. In the states, you have the freedom of choosing your job and if you want to stay in your area, you can choose to do so. That umbilical cord isn`t cut as swiftly. I don`t know of many students even staying in Kyushu – the lowest of the four islands that compose Japan and the one where Ojika rests off the coast. They are all relocating to the central region of the country and starting fresh with completely new friends and responsibilities. I think that it would be scarier to be a Japanese graduate because your ties are almost entirely cut with your community and family, except for phone calls and the occasional holiday visit home. I have gotten to see the students going to university relax now that they are finished studying – which is nice because for the past several months I have seen them walking around with worried expressions and wearing masks so as to avoid getting sick. I honestly didn`t recognize their faces at badminton when they played in the tournament last night.

I just signed up to take the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) in Osaka in May. I am extremely excited and nervous to begin the process of taking the exam and begin applying to graduate schools. So begins the next step to continuing my education! And I am also thrilled to get to travel to Osaka and look around a bit on my own. My sister has advised me that Anthony Bourdain had a good time in Osaka, so clearly I will too.

Friday, February 18, 2011

My Vulcan Death Grip

So I turn 27 on Sunday! My, how time flies. It feels like just yesterday I was graduating from high school or college. I still feel like the same person and I have yet to find a gray hair. That`s the bonus of having what my mother jokingly refers to as "mousy brown" hair. I believe another phrase is "dishwater blonde." I have yet to hear a lot of positive terms for my hair color. Anyways, I will spend my birthday in Ojika, relaxing and having lunch with some friends. I never do anything crazy on my birthday and when I was in Wisconsin, it feels like I was always sick for my birthday. I remember my junior year of university when I studied abroad in Ireland. I had a bad cold AND I was turning 21, a typically exciting birthday in America, in a country where the legal drinking age is 18. Very anti-climatic. My best birthday in recent memory would have to be the one I had my second year in Mozambique, sleeping on the beach with friends, sand fleas and a bottle of wine.

Life in Ojika is running on as normal. I have spent most of my time this week at the elementary school and those kids have been endlessly entertaining. Every time I am walking to school, I pass the window of the first grade students. As soon as they see me, they all run to the window and scream "Erin-sensei!" and wave to me. They are adorable and have been some of my favorite students based on their enthusiasm. They aren`t shy like some of the older students. When we sing the hello song and bounce around the room, I have to shake hands with them to introduce myself. There is always a student who rushes up to me to shake hands with me. It`s totally different with the third graders. I practically have to tackle them with a vulcan death grip to get them to shake my hand.

I was in the fourth grade classroom yesterday and in the middle of class, a boy plugging his nose said "Erin-sensei! Gas-u!" and pointed at the boy in front of him. Now one would think that someone who is about to turn 27 wouldn`t find flatulence humorous but the kids were dying in that corner of the room so I couldn`t stop laughing. It was pretty pungent. Finally, he who dealt it got up and fanned out that sector of the room, trying to push it out the classroom door like he was exorcising a demon. The student who did it is so loud to begin with that he completely owned up to it and didn`t seem embarassed. It`s difficult to continue on as normal with a lesson after that.

One area that I vow to improve in at the high school is cleaning time. Japanese schools don`t have janitors. They have the students clean all the rooms except for the bathrooms. Every day for about 20 minutes, the students have a scheduled time to clean a designated space in the school. My space is the teachers room and I always feel like I don`t know what I`m supposed to do. We remove the garbage and cardboard and sweep or wash the floor almost every day. I do this with the first year students in the high school and I just feel like I am in the way more than anything. Also, washing the floor down every day on your hands and knees seems a bit excessive to me. Students asked me "do you clean your high schools in America?" and I said there were jobs for that. They said "America is rich." That was the same reaction I got when I said that Americans heat their classrooms in the winter. You call it rich, I call it sane. I prefer to not feel like I`m practicing present continuous in a workhouse in a Charles Dickens novel.

On another note, I have been helping a student practice for an oral exam he has this weekend. One of the questions I asked him was "some people say that Japanese students don`t study enough. What do you think about that?" He agreed and said that Japanese students don`t study enough. I almost guffawed out loud. In my opinion, Japanese students study extremely hard - at least in their senior year of high school if they are planning to go to university. After our practice time yesterday, we were walking down the hall and my co-worker pointed out an article on the window that said how Chinese students are very intelligent, study hard and get the highest test scores. Japan and China are too competitive. I guess that from my point of view, the time and stress put into high test scores and bragging rights don`t necessarily equal happiness.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

In the Gutter

Last night I had an enkai (party) for work that lasted for a few hours. If you know me at all, you know that I have a limit when it comes to sitting on the floor with nothing to lean against for an extended period of time. I hail from a chair-loving culture. The enkai was on a Monday night so there was obviously work the next day. I barely drank anything but I was super tired today from a night that varied from my normal routine.

I had a fairly good start to the day, mustering up the energy and enthusiasm to teach rowdy classes of first, second and third graders. Half of them have masks on so I cringe every time I have to shake hands with any of the plague-makers during the Hello Song. It was between four and 4:30 this afternoon that it all came to a screeching, half humorous, half mortifying head.

I was walking to the elementary school for a meeting and the sidewalks here are uneven because they are made of brick. So of course, when I am walking near two high school students and five elementary school students, I trip and fall. This wasn't a "fall on your knees" kind of graceful fall. This was a slow-mo, books go flying, sprawled out over the gutter kind of fall. I hate it when you can feel it happening and can do nothing to stop it. Resistance is futile. So I laid there for a few seconds and laughed like a crazy person. My hands were stinging from grinding into the gravel in a failed attempt to save my money-maker from hitting the pavement. The students helped me pick my books up and I continued on my way while feeling their eyes burning into my back. I just feel fortunate that nothing ripped.

Once I made it to the elementary school, I meet with teachers to go over lesson plans and prepare for the next few classes. The teachers are always a little late because they send kids on their way at the end of the school day. It's okay because I sit there and look at lesson plans or at the schedule until they come. Today, during a meeting, a teacher was trying to make small-talk with me and asked the one super insulting question that one should never ask another human being - I don't care what country or culture you are from or what language you speak. "Oh, you got your hair cut. Did you cut it yourself?" Zing. It was a completely innocent question and I know they weren't trying to be insulting but I automatically added up my great gutter fall of 2011 with the hair cut comment, counted my losses and then headed home after school for some secluded American R&R - watching Modern Family and Glee and eating tacos.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Skin You`re In

I went to Sasebo on Friday morning and the ferry ride wasn`t too horrible. Everyone and their brother was leaving Ojika for the extended weekend. I helped a kid with his English homework on the trip so one would call the trip productive. I had to create a cereal box barrier with my bags while I slept though because the family next to me had a first grade student and her little brother and he kept staring at me. I can`t fall asleep with people watching me. It`s just too much pressure and I`m afraid that my mouth will fall open and I will start to snore - becoming a part of the latest tidal wave of gossip on a tiny island.

I got to Sasebo and sat at a Seattle`s Best coffee shop and read Three Cups of Tea (highly recommend it!) until my appointment. My stomach was in knots over this hair appointment. I`m usually only ever this nervous for certain doctor`s appointments. Anyway, I showed up at the hair place and immediately knocked over the umbrella stand with my backpack. The receptionist, who also ended up being my hairdresser, was also a bit awkward so we were a match made in beautician heaven. He was super nice though and he spoke a fair amount of English. Turns out they get a lot of Navy wives there since there is a U.S. naval base in the city.

One thing I love about living and traveling in other countries is how blatantly honest people are. They are naturally curious about you as much as you are about them and you can strike up some great conversations. Another woman came over and started speaking to me in English that was pretty impressive. She had a bit of an American accent and said that when she isn`t working at the salon, she is studying English. As they were blowdrying my hair, she asked me if I knew about karate. I said I know what it is and she pointed to my hairdresser and said that he used to be a champion at karate. When I asked if he does karate now, she shook her head and said "oh no!" And then she blew out her cheeks like a blowfish and pointed at her stomach.

I am considered huge in Japan. Women in Japan are super tiny - which is surprising considering how many carbs and fried foods are consumed here. But people are obsessed with losing weight and staying tiny. You can often see ads for weight loss pills or doo-dads that will make you lose weight or give the illusion that you have lost weight. A male student came into the teacher`s room and some teachers were giving him a hard time about having gained weight. I don`t blame him. All the kid does and is expected to do is study. You aren`t exactly doing wind sprints when studying calculus or English irregular verbs so I said "you look fine. Don`t worry." That seemed to get a shocked look from one of the teachers. In my opinion, the kid has enough to worry about without people picking on his physical appearance.

Some kind of weight loss belt.

A weight loss bath....mhmmmm. It appears that you take a bath in a plastic bag.

There I go, off on a tangent. The hair cut ended up going quite well. I will probably return for my next cut. After that, I wandered around and bought some things I needed for the apartment and I went and sat and read at Starbucks. That`s right. I hit up all the western coffee shops in Sasebo in the span of four hours. It`s just relaxing to sit there and drink a latte while reading my kindle. I bought a few other things - stickers for my students, a hairdryer, and moisturizing cream. Now normally I don`t care to mention something as small as moisturizing cream on my blog but I just want to point out something about creams in Japan. Most facial moisturizers in Japan have a whitening agent added to them because women are obsessed with having "pure" white complexions. In the summer, you will be the only woman wearing a tank top. It could be over 100 degrees and you will still see women wearing long sleeve shirts and pants, wearing hats that are the closest relatives to the sombrero they can find.

No one seems to buy into the idea that your skin color is beautiful the way it is. So every time you buy a cream in Japan, you have to be careful that you don`t buy the skin moisturizing equivalent of Crest White Strips. Unless you enjoy looking like a mime in order to achieve someone else`s idea of beauty and lining the pockets of beauty product companies forever telling you that you aren`t good enough until you are buying what they`re selling. I remember in Mozambique, some women wanted to have lighter skin because they thought it was more beautiful. Some of the most beautiful women in the world were willing to bleach (and sometimes irreparably damage) their gorgeous, dark skin to meet other people`s warped definition of beauty. So sad.

I had such a difficult time picking out creams because A) it`s all in Japanese and B) it seems like there are even more choices in facial products in Japan. I thought America was thorough enough in their skin care until I watched a Japanese friend go through her beauty regimen before bed one night when I was visiting her. It was more complicated than and took about as long as a ProActiv infomercial. It took about twenty minutes, from cleansing and scrubbing, to applying syrum, and a special formula to treat the T-zone and then moisturizing. Long gone are the days of rubbing some Irish Spring soap on and splashing it off before bedtime.

I was at an enkai (party) last week and was sitting next to an older woman. Toward the end of the evening, she held her arm up next to mine and seemed disappointed that my skin was whiter than hers - not taking into account that genetically, I should be lighter than her. This was the same woman who laments over her athletic granddaughter`s skin being "too brown." Hopefully, this idea of desirable skin color being only white changes in the next generation or two.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Snip, Puncture, Marinate

I have a three day weekend and my only plan so far is just to get my hair cut in the city. I am tired of looking like I just descended from a three month Everest expedition. I have to go to my haircut prepared though with everything but pie charts and graphs. I am going to ask my co-worker if she can write in Japanese my instructions for my haircut and how I want it to look. Either way, I guess it doesn`t matter too much because it`s hair and it will eventually grow back.

The three day weekend is attributed to "National Foundation Day" tomorrow. I didn`t really know what it is until I googled it and discovered that it is celebrating the founding of Japan. In other words, I am going to sleep a lot and relax. Japan has a lot of holidays that mesh into three day weekends it seems - that is not a complaint. That`s a deeply rooted appreciation on my part.

School has been far more quiet now that most of the senior boys are gone until graduation day. They are all on the mainland getting their driver`s licenses. I now assistant teach two less classes a week since their classes ended. They graduate at the beginning of March and then they head off to their jobs across Japan. Many of them are moving to big cities, which I think will be a sort of shock to their small island systems. I was talking to a teacher about them leaving and she said "They all go to the ferry terminal. Say goodbye. Many tears." If I grew up sheltered on a very traditional, country island, I wouldn`t know how to behave in the cramped city of Tokyo or other large cities in Japan. My senior class basically took an exam and got offered jobs while the other seniors are still studying for their exams. The university kids will be at school all weekend, living and breathing the fear of university exams.

I have started to wake up early to go running/dragging myself around the high school sports field. I am sure that if you happened upon my running in the dark, you would be frightened by all the wheezing and gagging. I go four laps or about one mile and then walk the rest. I don`t want to overdo myself right away. Last year I experienced the scorching, sticky summer that is Japan and want to be more comfortable this time around, rather than rolling up to school drenched in my sweat and out of shape. You could water a ficus with all the sweat I would produce in one day. Plus, in April, I am climbing the Great Wall in Beijing. I hear there are a lot of stairs.

My bicycle has a punctured tire still and I haven`t ridden it in a while. I will take care of it eventually but getting it fixed requires walking it to school and then taking it to the mechanics after school to try to communicate with them. People are constantly asking about my bicycle and why I don`t ride it to school. I try to explain that walking up that hill to school isn`t easy either way so I might as well just walk. Otherwise, I am just heaving a bicycle up a hill. I am the only teacher who walks to school - even though it only takes about 10-15 minutes to get there by foot from most points in the town part of Ojika where the teachers live.

One thing that is driving me bonkers is nervous giggling. I will be trying to talk to some people and they just start giggling for no good reason. They are simply just nervous with my presence and speaking English. I know someone who can`t go a full sentence without giggling and putting her hand over her mouth. It`s super awkward because I obviously am just waiting for her to respond and she catches a serious case of the giggles.

Her: Do you (giggle, giggle) like (giggle, giggle) Ojika(giggle, giggle)?
Me: Yes, I love Ojika. Have you traveled outside Japan?
Her: I (giggle, giggle) visited (giggle, giggle) California (giggle, giggle) for three or four months (giggle, giggle).

In the junior high, the teacher has me ask the students questions and they are visibly relieved once they finish answering my questions and can sit down. I also eat lunch with the kids and I will ask them a question and they will immediately turn to someone for a translation with a deer in the headlights look. You can`t phone a friend in a conversation, kiddos. You just have to let it marinate in an uncomfortable silence.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Keep Your Rice and Nuts to Yourself

So apparently today is the celebration of Setsubun in the schools on the island. At least in the elementary school. At first I was extremely confused to have students throw peanuts at me but it kinda sorta made sense after the teacher explained why. Setsubun is a Japanese tradition on the first day of spring when you throw beans or nuts at each other as a way of chasing away bad luck. Apparently people shout "get out demons!" and "come in happiness!" while throwing the beans or nuts at each other. I thought it was an interesting tradition. The kids were super excited to get to eat their peanuts at lunch, occasionally stealing some from a classmate`s desk. In my opinion, the pilfering of peanuts completely negated the good luck they were supposed to instill.

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I am generally against throwing small objects at people. Who knows what could happen. I remember when I was in Girl Scouts and we were learning about Juliette Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts. And in her story, at her wedding, as people were throwing rice, a grain of it got lodged in her ear and when it was removed, her ear drum was punctured and got infected. She lost hearing in that ear for the rest of her life. Now that is what could go horribly wrong. That may be the only thing I learned in Girl Scouts but let it be a warning to us all. Keep your rice and nuts to yourself.

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I have one student in that class who whispers everything. Everything. I have never heard this kid raise his voice above a whisper. His name actually means "quiet." I don`t understand if he`s taking his name super literally or what. But he seems to have taken a vow of making it difficult for people to hear him. Every time he talks, I have to pull my hair back and lean in. And he is always wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Seriously? Your mother can make you an intricate bento lunch with specially formed eggs, hot dogs and rice but she can`t make you wear pants to school when it`s a crisp 30 degrees outside?

Every time I go to the elementary school to teach, I eat lunch with the kids and then am assigned a class to play with at recess. I used to be such a recess person when I was little - playing four square and kickball. Now it seems more like a chore and I watch the outside clock as it slowly works its way around to 1:45. The kids just have so much energy and seven times out of ten, the game involves being chased around the playground. It can get pretty tiresome, so by the time 1:30 rolls around, I am usually hiding peacefully behind a tree or disguising myself behind a jungle gym somewhere and just letting the time run out for the last fifteen minutes.

It looks like I am officially re-contracted and I`m looking forward to my second year on the island. I turned in my paperwork the other week and I received my "tentative reappointment notification" today. So there is plenty of time still to throw peanuts at people and learn how to properly camoflauge myself with leaves, mud and other natural earth materials during recess.

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Give Me a High C, This Time with Mittens

First of all, I would like to offer my sincere apologies for being MIA. It has been cold and almost miserable, weather-wise. And when the sun isn`t shining, I have little desire to leave my little heater and venture out of my apartment. In fact, after school every day, I have been going home and planting myself in front of the heater while studying for the GRE. I agreed to play with the brass band in March but I`m feeling reluctant to go practice because spending two hours in a freezing band room, playing the trumpet, isn`t my definition of a good time. One should never be able to see their own breath in a classroom. And something tells me it would be difficult to play the trumpet with mittens on.

All of the teachers continue to be in charge of their extra-curriculars at the end of the work day: tennis, badminton, baseball, track and field and brass band. They stay at school often until 8 o`clock doing this but I feel like that is highly unnecessary. No one should stay at a job for a full 12 hours. You can stay for 20 hours if you want, but time isn`t always an indicator of quality work or dedication. That`s just my opinion. In Japan, people spend hours upon extra hours in their jobs in order to create a favorable impression. As an American, I guess I see more importance in showing that you can use your time wisely during the regular work day, rather than missing out on time with your family or friends in the evening or on the weekends. How can you learn how to bother the crap out of each other if you are never home!?!

I was talking to someone who said that during their first year at a job, they wouldn`t take vacation days. I asked why not and they said that it`s because it`s their first year and that it looks bad to take a vacation. When I said that Americans take their vacations because it gives them time to relax or spend time with their families, he seemed surprised. I tried to explain that often, when people are given this time to relax, it makes them better workers because they are less stressed.

Stress is such a problem in Japan when there really is no need for it. People work extremely hard - even more than many Americans. But at what cost? There is a lot of pressure to succeed, less family bonding, and a higher rate of suicide. Japanese people, like Americans, have so much to be thankful for. They have jobs, their physical health and a comfortable lifestyle. But in terms of happiness, they seem far less happy than people I knew in Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Related to stress is this website, entitled "The 25 Most Ridiculous Stress Relief Products." I don`t doubt for a second that people actually use these.

But there are obviously many good things about Japan as well. A good point is that I am working in the junior high more now. I really enjoy going there. My students are all so respectful and enjoy having fun (I can`t generalize on that because according to other teachers, the island kids are totally different than mainland kids). The junior high students are at that perfect in-between stage where they aren`t super immature children but not bored and jaded high schoolers. They are always happy to see me and excited when I sit down to have lunch with them at school. I had a lesson with them yesterday and we played a game at the end where they were up and moving around. I talked to the home ec teacher later and she said she taught them after me and she asked them "why are you so happy?" and they said "because of English." Awww. I also like teaching with the junior high teacher. He is a good teacher and you can tell the students are comfortable around him. I also appreciate the fact that he uses the phrase "that sucks."

We are doing this thing during class where I ask them questions and they have to figure out what I`m asking. It puts each student on the spot. Some of them freeze, nervous to be spoken to by a foreigner, but some of them thrive under the pressure. One student who is going to be in high school next year is amazing at his English. And extremely formal. He bows after giving every response. I feel like I should curtsy or something to level the playing field.

In other news, my parents and my sister are coming to Japan next month! (Side note: shout out to my sister who will be taking the bar exam toward the end of February and will be in desperate need of a vacation. She just graduated from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul and I`m so proud of her for all her hard work!) First, I will show them Ojika and then we will head back to the mainland to visit Hiroshima (to see the atomic bomb memorial) and Kyoto (for cherry blossom viewing and the traditional fanfare). It should be a good time and I look forward to seeing my family after what will be eight months apart. My parents are staying for a week and then my sister and I are traveling to Beijing for an extra week. I am super excited to see the Great Wall and Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City. It is obvious that I cherish my days off and will happily use them all. Carpe diem, people.

I spoke with my mom and she told me all the Japanese she is learning. Apparently her and my dad have been practicing eating food with chopsticks. So far, that list of food includes scrambled eggs and tuna helper. Oh, if only the dogs had opposable thumbs to take a picture of that for me.