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.