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.