Sunday, December 14, 2008

Can't wait to go home (for Christmas)!

Nothing beats Christmas at home, surrounded by family and friends!

This year I'm particularly looking forward to it not just because I stayed in Japan last year, but also because I'm so completely worn out!!

Once again lesson planning has kept me working until quite late recently. Of course this resurgence of work coincided with the time I decided I had enough free time to apply for a proofreading position with one of my favourite manga scanlation groups. *sigh* I'm excited to be contributing to the manga fan community, but I can only hope now that I won't regret taking on the responsibility...

But anyway, this is the last week of school before Christmas break!! I'm really looking forward to jishu gakushu (extra English) this week. My mom gave me a heckload of things to give to my students, but apart from the stickers I haven't really had a chance to distribute them, so I decided that this year I'm going to play the "present stealing" game. ^_^ And of course, I'm also continuing my annual tradition of baking Christmas cookies for the Kirita students and staff.

Unfortunately the problem with baking large quantities in Japan is the lack of a proper oven; all I've got is a regular-sized toaster oven. Just think: I can only bake about 9 cookies at a time; each batch takes about 11 minutes plus 2 minutes cooling (on the oven tray) time; I've baked about 150 cookies so far. Do the math: 150 cookies divided by 9 equals about 17 batches; 17 batches times 13 minutes per batch equals 221 minutes, or about 3 1/2 hours. Add the prep time for the batter (about one hour since I do everything by hand and creaming the sugar/butter together takes forever) and you get 5 1/2 hours I've spent (spread over 2 days) so far just baking cookies. And I'm only halfway done!! Not to mention, I still need to wrap all of them. @_@

Well, normally I wouldn't feel that tired from baking for just 3 hours, but today was a particularly long day. I spent 3 hours (round trip) on a bus going between Towada and Aomori City so I could spend 2 1/2 hours shopping for Christmas presents. But I guess it was worth it since I got the stuff my mom asked for (for my dad), plus presents for Nate, Jen & Syv, and for our small group present exchange.

(Digression: Had to put almost all of it on the credit card, though, since I messed up my budget this month and only have 6000 yen (in my wallet and bank account combined!) to last me until Friday, i.e. payday! Normally that'd be more than enough, except I'm supposed to go out for dinner with Tomabechi-sensei and Higashi-sensei this week, and I also need to mail some Christmas presents out tomorrow...)

The Aomori shopping trip wasn't the only thing I did before baking, however: I also went into the office for about 2 hours to make materials for tomorrow's classes. *sigh* This is about the third time in as many months that I've had to go into the office on the weekend. And it isn't as if I'm going in on the weekend because I neglected things I needed to get done during the week, either! When I go in on the weekend, it's almost always in addition to spending all my weeknights lesson planning/going to eikaiwa/going to dance class (i.e. valid obligations)!

I'm definitely going to be out like a log on the plane ride home.

Post Script: On a more random note, one of the small things I appreciate about Japan is how they package eggs in clear plastic cartons so you don't have to open the package and check for cracked eggs--you can just pick it up and look!

Post Post Script: I really miss everyone at home! It really made my day to get an email saying: "We want Melissa back for Christmas!"(Thanks, Alan!) I know it's my own fault that I've been too busy/broke lately to hang out much with the other ALTs, but it also seems like there've been things this year that all the other Towada ALTs went to that I simply didn't know about/wasn't invited to.

And I mean, it's not that I'm hurt or anything--I can totally understand how/why that would happen--it's just that I guess it shows that I haven't been a good enough friend to be remembered for certain social events. (And I'm also feeling really tired/stressed right now, so a lot of those emotions are probably what are speaking to me right now.) Well, I've always admitted to slight anti-social tendencies, so I really shouldn't be surprised that they (the anti-social tendencies) would affect how others treat me; I can't expect other people to always be making the effort to include me in things; I need to make an effort to maintain/develop relationships, too. (Difficult to do when I'm so busy with work, though...)

The old saying "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone" is really true. The longer I'm in Japan, the more I realize how integral (the MCBC) Christian community has been in my life and how impossible it is to replace it with other relationships. I want to truly know and be known by others, but developing that type of trust takes time and effort--particularly for "reserved" people like me.

Anyway, thank goodness I'm going home for Christmas this year, otherwise I might get homesick enough to change my mind about staying for a third year!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Easy recipe for people who can't cook

Moving to Japan and living on my own hasn't made me a better cook. Luckily, though, I have a high tolerance for repetition and very simple tastes, so I am able to keep myself reasonably well (and healthily) fed without having to eat out or buy ready made meals (microwaveable or supermarket bentos) every night.

If, like me you're not much of a cook but would like to save some money by cooking your own meals, here is a super easy and cheap recipe. Believe me, if I can make these dishes without any difficulty, anyone can!

Mabou Eggplant

- eggplant (350g - approx 1 1/2 - 2 regular sized ones)
- green peppers (40g - approx 2 small ones)
- carrot (50g - half a small sized one, or 1/4 of a medium sized one)
- ground pork (100g)
- cooking oil
- mabou eggplant sauce

Cooking time: ~20min

1. Heat oil in a large frying pan.

2. Stir fry eggplant until slightly brown over medium heat.

3.Reduce heat slightly and add carrots and green pepper. (Apparently reducing the heat helps to keep/make the eggplant juicy?!) Cook for a couple of minutes--until carrots/green peppers are slightly softened.

4. Put vegetables aside in a bowl. Cook the ground pork in the frying pan.

5. When the pork is cooked, add the sauce and vegetables.

6. Keep cooking (stirring frequently) until everything reaches your desired texture/consistency.

7. Serve over rice.

Usually the one dish can last me 3-4 days. This time, though, I only wanted it to last 2 days (since I knew I'd be eating out on the weekend) so I used one eggplant instead of the usual 1 1/2-2.
If you'd like, you can substitute fairly firm tofu (cut into largish cubes) for the ground pork. Instead of removing the vegetables (step 5), just add the sauce and add the tofu last. You don't want to cook it for too long once you've put in the tofu because it (the tofu) will start to disintegrate (also the reason you want to cut it into largish cubes rather than small ones). I did this (used tofu instead of ground pork) a lot before I learned which grocery store(s) (in Towada, Powers U) carry small portions of meat at good prices.
eggplant ~70 yen
carrot ~50 yen
green peppers ~50 yen
ground pork ~80 yen
mabou eggplant sauce ~150 yen
TOTAL: ~400 yen

[Edit: If you can't find/don't want to use packaged sauce, here's a recipe to make it from scratch:]

Friday, December 5, 2008

Putting my wallet where my mouth is

So after a year and a half in Japan, I finally got caught by the NHK man. (NHK--Nippon Housou Kyoukai a.k.a. the Japan Broadcasting Corporation--is Japan's television public broadcaster.) Actually, I saw him once before shortly after I moved in, but at the time I didn't have any money so I honestly told him "gomen, ima tarinai" (sorry, right now I don't have enough) and he just said he'd come back later.

This time, though, I did have enough money, and I also got the form to have the fees automatically deducted from my bank account. Looks like they've finally gotten wise to some of the tricks people use to avoid paying.

Before my doorbell rang, I heard my neighbour's bell being rung, so I pretty much knew it was the NHK guy without having to open the door. I honestly considered ignoring the bell, but then my principles kicked in. Even though I don't watch TV very often, I do have a TV and I do watch shows occasionally, so I should be paying the NHK fees.

I had another mini crisis of conscience when the NHK guy asked me if I have BS. I knew that if I just said no he would accept that, but I do have it, and the BS weather channel is one of the few channels I actually tune into fairly regularly, so I had to truthfully answer "yes"--thus increasing my bi-monthly fee from 2000-something yen to 4580 yen. ^^;;

But I believe in honesty, so I had to do it.

*sigh* Normally I wouldn't be too troubled by paying such a fee, but this month my budget is pretty tight because I sent money home before I remembered that I'd have to pay for my train tickets to Narita airport (to go home for Christmas). Usually I would just pay by credit card, but with the yen-dollar rate the way it is, it's not worth it to use a credit card. Unfortunately, I may have to pay for at least part of the ticket fee on credit card because I don't think I've got enough to pay in cash anymore. =( Hopefully I'll be able to do a split cash/credit payment so I won't get too badly dinged on the exchange rate.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Knockin' at the door

Before I came to Japan, I hoped that I would be able to learn what it means to be Christian apart from helping in church ministries.

A year and four months into my time here, and, well, I've got to admit I really haven't a clue.

My thoughts are really disjointed right now, but I thought I should at least share some of the things God's been doing to remind me that he is in my life, even if I'm not making much of an effort to spend time with him.

For a while (maybe three days?) I managed to get my act together to do some of the Disciple readings. It just so happened that where I left off was apt for my current situation: chapter 17, "A Time of Transition." For the chapter, I read Esther, and what really struck me was Esther's reaction when she found out that Mordecai was wearing sackcloth and ashes at the king's gate: she wanted him to put on clean clothes. It struck me as odd because throughout Biblical history, the donning of sackcloth and ashes has meant great suffering/mourning, or grief/repentance. But Esther didn't get it right away. She only asked Mordecai what was wrong after he refused the clothes. I wondered, too, if maybe she sent the clothes to Mordecai out of embarrassment over his actions.

We always have this vision of Biblical heroes as just that--God's chosen: larger than life and "holier-than-us"--but reading that, I wondered just how "set apart" Esther was at the time? I mean, she wasn't like Daniel, sticking to Jewish customs in opposition to the king's orders. I mean, she was the queen for how long without anyone realizing that she was Jewish? I've always thought that I needed to be "out there" with my faith, that it should somehow be more obvious to people who see me.

Maybe it's just that I was looking for justification for myself, but reading Esther made me think that maybe "being a Christian" doesn't always have to be something that is super obvious to others--like a giant cross tattoed on my foreheard--and that maybe it's ok to be subtly different. Of course I also thought that despite all the years of "blending in" and possibly losing track of some of her Jewish traditions/beliefs, Esther was nonetheless willing to answer to God's call when it came. And I don't know if, in the state I'm in now, I'd be able to hear a message from God, much less act on it.

When we were waiting to try our kimonos on before the big November dance performance, my dance partner (and dance teacher's niece), Maki, suddenly asked me if I was a Christian. I naturally answered yes, and she asked a bit about going to church and some Christian beliefs (like thoughts on Halloween). As usual, I was caught unawares and probably didn't give very good answers. She was particularly interested in church because many Japanese will say that they're Buddhist or Shinto without feeling the need to go to temples/shrines or to follow any religious practices at all (or if they do, it's more for tradition than any sort of religious piety). The entire time I was talking with her, I was thinking: "Heck, how can I talk about the importance of going to church to Christians when I haven't gone since April?"

And really, that's the bottom line, isn't it? I clearly don't believe in the importance of church enough to go out and find a church to attend regularly or to persevere in attending a church with an environment that makes me uncomfortable.

Then last week I was teaching a Christmas lesson with the ninensei at Sanbongi Elementary School. I gave a talk about some of the differences between Christmas in Japan and in Canada (fried chicken VS turkey, a couple holiday VS a family holiday, etc.) and one of the students asked (in Japanese, of course): "Why is Christmas so important to Canadians?" So there I was trying to explain in broken Japanese with some basic English (it was an English class, after all) that it's important because it's the birthday of Jesus Christ, God's son (and how that translates into a family holiday, well...).

Most recently (this past Tuesday, in fact), my dance teacher asked me if I'm Christian and if I knew the Nakanowatari's from church. Apparently she was speaking to one of them and it came out in the course of the conversation that I went to their church for a while. ^^;; I still feel a little guilty for the way I just stopped going to church and didn't get in contact with them after I moved from the old house, but not enough to do anything about it.

*sigh* Putting all these things down in writing forces me to face the fact that I'm really lazy, and a coward to boot. I know that I should be responding to these "signs" somehow, but instead I choose to absorb myself in my work and to prioritize anything and everything above spending time in real conversation with God to avoid the risk hearing something from him that I don't want to listen to/act upon.

And though I've never had doubts about my beliefs, good old James 2:17 has been haunting me recently (when I give myself time to think, that is): " by itself, if it is not accompanined by action, is dead."

Friday, November 28, 2008

School Trip: Day 1

This year I was extremely lucky--I'd even go so far as to say that it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance!--to be able to go on the school trip with the ninensei at Kirita JHS. Maybe it doesn't seem so amazing to others, but I imagine that if even one of the many factors that worked out in favour of my going had been different, I might not have been able to go:

1) my JTE (Japanese teacher of English) at Kirita, Tomabechi-sensei was one of the teachers responsible for the ninensei this year, so she was already scheduled to go on the school trip (the math teacher, Ikeda-sensei is their homeroom teacher, so of course she also went)

2) I get along extremely well with Tomabechi-sensei, so she was more than OK--happy even!--with the idea (of my going on the school trip) when I asked her in the summer

3) My Kocho-sensei (principal) and Kyoto-sensei (vice-principal) like me and therefore had no problem with me going

4) My Japanese is good enough (although still very broken) that I wasn't worried about creating extra work for the other teachers by going

5) I get along well with my office and I think they appreciate/respect the amount of work that I put into my teaching, so they were willing to let me take four days off for the trip in the middle of the busiest school term (last year I had pretty much all elementary visits while the students were on the school trip)

6) (Closely related to number 3 & 5) I'm a second-year ALT and I've put in the work to justify the privilege of going on the school trip

7) Since I didn't use much nenkyu (vacation days) last year, I could use the four days for the trip without having to sacrifice plans for going home this past summer (not ot mention this Christmas)

8) I don't have any debt/financial obligations back home, so I could afford to use what would normally be one month's savings from my paycheque to pay for the trip

So yeah, I feel super blessed to have been able to go on the trip!

Now, onto Day 1!

The thing that struck me the most on the first day was the amazing degree of organization for the trip. I mean, if I was in most of the planning meetings so I knew all the stuff that they had organized/scheduled, but it didn't really register until I saw all the planning in action. I mean, they had assigned seats not only for the train (which is a given), but also for the bus that took us to the Hachinohe JR Station and for the tour bus that picked us up from Ueno Station for our first day's excursions! Then too, on the train, we had scheduled snack and lunch times, and outside of those times, the students (and teachers) weren't supposed to eat on the train. Moreover, for their train snacks, everyone was only allowed to spend 500 yen and no one was allowed to buy anything from the in-train vendor cart.

Now, it's been a long time since I went on any sort of school trip/excursion, but I'm pretty sure it was anything goes as far as eating/spending money, so long as the appropriate opportunity presented itself.

Anyway, the ride to Tokyo went smoothly and the first place our tour bus took us was the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Even though I like history (Japanese in particular), I wasn't really expecting much from the place, but it turned out to be pretty fun. They had various displays that you could interact with (like a palanquin and a rickshaw to sit in) and since it's a big city museum, there were English translations! (I've gotten used to not being able to read all the display information here in Aomori.)

After the museum, we went to the Unicef House. Interestingly enough, it was near Shinagawa Station and the hotel (apparently quite well known within Tokyo) where Brenda, Cecilia, my parents stayed in April! Anyway, I've always kind of known what Unicef does (mostly from those trick-or-treating donation boxes we had in elementary school) , but it was something else to see and hear about the specifics of their work to improve early childcare, water & sanitation, education, nutrition, etc. in so many countries all over the world. It was also interesting to learn that Japan received Unicef aid immediately following World War II--and I suspect that the current school lunch program in Japan has at least some roots from that Unicef aid. I was further impressed that it was volunteers and not paid staff who led the tour; they were so knowledgeable!

(Side note: Kyoto-sensei's initial choice for our first day excursion was actually the Canadian Embassy--in my honour. Thankfully the arrangements didn't work out since I suspect that it would've been super boring! Also, I think it was really good for the students to get an idea of how fortunate they really are; living in a smaller city in Northern Japan, I think it's easy to get caught up in thinking about how "the grass is greener" in bigger (and particularly more Southern) cities.)

Following the Unicef House tour, we drove to Yokohama to check out the night view from Yamashita Park. It was really cold though, so we didn't spend too much time there (it was off the water) but just took a couple of group pictures before heading out to the Chinatown area where we had dinner reservations. We were quite early, so we wandered around the shops for a while; it was definitely the cleanest Chinatown I've seen yet! Our dinner was at a Chinese buffet. I've never been a particularly picky eater, but I've got to say, I think my trip to Hong Kong one month earlier had me spoiled. Even given that Chinese food in Missisauga/Toronto is pretty darn good, I'd say that before Hong Kong I would've described the char siu, siu mai and Peking duck I ate in Yokohama as "OK," but after Hong Kong, I felt like it was mediocre at best (although when asked, I actually said it was "futsuu" which is more like "average" or "normal"). I thought the veggies were pretty good, though. Since it was buffet-style, the boys really pigged out. They had a variety of ice cream flavours and puddings in small, individual size cups, and I think that between them, the boys (8 in total) ended up with some 50-60 cups stacked up on their table!

After dinner it was back to the hotel. Again, I was amazed by the level of organization for the trip when we--the teachers, tour guide and the student group leaders, a.k.a. hancho) had our end of the day meeting. All the group leaders had to fill out and bring health check forms for their group members (one student had the beginnings of a fever when we left the Unicef House, so we checked up on her). Then too, each hancho had to give a short report on what they thought went well during the day and what (behavioural) things they would work on for the next day--stuff like walking more closely together on the sidewalk so as not to block other people, or being punctual, etc.

Oh, and students weren't allowed to buy anything from vending machines, so each hancho was given enough drinks (Pocari Sweat on the first day, I believe) for their group members for the night.

Probably the most surprising thing was that the hancho also had to turn in the key for their room to one of the teachers staying on the same floor! Since they had autolock doors, this meant that students couldn't all party it up in one room and they also couldn't really sneak out late at night (unless they left one student behind in each room). Also, since the teachers had the keys, when they were doing the lights out check, they could (and I'm pretty sure they did) just open the door and look in without warning, rather than having to knock and wait for a response! Somehow I can't imagine a similar situation occurring on a school trip in Canada...

Anyway, following the hancho meeting, Kyoto-sensei, Tomabechi-sensei and I went out for a coffee (cocoa in my case) at Starbucks. =P Ikeda-sensei was feeling kind of tired, so she kindly volunteered to stay behind in case a student needed something. Kyoto-sensei treated us which was really nice, and when we were leaving, he told Tomabechi-sensei and I that we should feel free to wander around Akibahara (our hotel was very close to the area!) for a bit before going back to the hotel.

Most of the stores were already closed and I think a lot of the "otaku" (fanboys/fangirls) had already gone home, so it didn't have the atmosphere I was expecting, but it was still amusing to see the signs for maid cafes and to try to pick out the "otaku" among the people we saw walking by (stereotyping for sure, but oh well...). Tomabechi-sensei did ask if I wanted to try going into a store (with all the UFO catcher machines) or even a maid cafe, but we were both pretty tired, so I said thanks but no thanks. =P

And that was the end of our first day.

I've posted the link before, but again, you can see my Day 1 photos in this Facebook album.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


The school trip (four days in Tokyo with the ninensei from Kirita JHS) was awesome and I have a lot to talk about, but I'm still feeling too tired/lazy to write in detail about it, so for now, enjoy the pictures!

2008 Kirita School Trip Day 1: Edo-Tokyo Museum, Unicef House, Yokohama
Day 2: Tokyo Tower, Free Time

Day 3: Tokyo Disneyland!
Day 4 (Part 1): Sensoji Temple, National Museum of Science, Ueno Zoo
Day 4 (Part 2): Ueno Zoo (continued), Trip Home

P.S. - This is the one hundred and first post for this blog!! ^_^

Friday, November 7, 2008

A dancer I am not...

...but I feel that I at least carried myself credibly at the Towada Culture Festival this past Sunday (November 2nd).

Even though my (Japanese) dance performance lasted only 8 minutes, I spent pretty much the whole day at the Towada Bunka (Culture) Center in preparation. I arrived a little before 10:30am to get my hair done by a mother of one of the elementary students performing. It took 1.5 hrs, 2 elastics, 5 small rubber bands, 1 U-pin, 55 bobby pins and a lot of hairspray/mousse to get my hair done up properly for Japanese dance.

Then I had to get my make-up done (they whitened my face, neck, and arms). After the make-up, I had a short time to eat a bit (they ordered trays of maki rolls, mini croissants, fried chicken, etc. for everyone) before we all had to put on our rental kimonos.

I really learned from this experience how amazing and tireless Japanese mothers (okaasan) are. For the weeks leading up to the festival, the mothers were always at our rehearsals, often working on things (hair ornaments for the kids, flower bunches for their dance, etc.) for the performance.

The Saturday before the performance, the okaasan who was going to do my hair did a practice run that took an hour to do! Then, of course, she tirelessly worked on my hair for an hour and a half on the day of (she couldn't get it to stay the way she hoped/wanted it to, so she ended up changing the style a little from the practice run--hence the extra half an hour). While she was working on my hair, the other mothers were helping the kids get their make-up on and doing their hair. They set up and distributed all the food. They helped all the children get into their kimonos, etc. and made sure they were ready and in their proper places for their curtain calls. And of course they helped with the clean-up. Really, they were amazing and I only wish I could've expressed my admiration to them more fully on the day of!!

But back to my preparations...

There were seven of us wearing the rental kimonos, and it took about 20-30 minutes to put on each kimono, so we had to around 1pm to make our 3:45pm curtain call. Since my sensei (very thoughtfully) wanted me to be able to take pictures/have pictures taken of me in the kimono, Maki (my dance partner and I) were the first ones dressed.

Once I had the kimono on and was finished taking photos, it was just a matter of sitting around and waiting for our curtain call. Maki and I practiced a little, but we got a little hot/flushed, so we figured it was best to just sit and wait patiently.

When the time came for us to go on, I was super nervous. I was so nervous, I actually felt slightly nauseated; I always used to get that feeling before major tests/exams during high school and university, or before doing any sort of public speaking/performance, but it had been a long time since I’d last felt so nervous. Still, when the music started and we made our entrance, I slapped on a smile and tried to stay focused.

Luckily it was really dark in the theatre and the spotlights were really bright, so even if I’d wanted to look for familiar faces in the audience, I probably wouldn’t have been able to spot any. It wasn’t my best performance (I think that happened at our final rehearsal on the Wednesday before), but at least I didn’t make any major mistakes. ^_^

After the performance everyone (there were some 40-odd dancers for about 7 or 8 different pieces) took pictures before changing and cleaning up. Thankfully it didn’t take quite as long to get out of the kimono as it did to put it on, but still, getting everything put away/cleaned up took a fair bit of time.

Before I left, I was given the flowers my supervisor had thoughtfully sent for my performance. Given that she had been in Canada for almost a week before my performance, this was no small consideration on her part! Unfortunately I wasn't able to take a picture of myself in the kimono with the flowers, but I still had all the make-up on and my hair up when I got home, so I took a self-shot of just my face/head and the flowers to send to her in my thank you email.

After taking the photo, I had just enough time to get all the make-up off and to change to go to the Hanasuzukai (the dance group's name) enkai. I didn't have enough time to take out my hair (they'd put so much stuff into it, I would've needed to wash my hair as well as taking out all the pins, etc.), but that was OK.

I walked to the enkai since it was pretty close and it was an unusually warm night. I was expecting the enkai to last about two hours (the usual length), but it ended up going for five! They even had a nijikai (and I later heard about a sanjikai), but I skipped out on that and went home.

It was fun and there was quite a lot to eat. My conversational Japanese is still pretty horrendous, but there were a couple of people who had pretty good English, so that made things easier.

All in all, it was a good experience. Even though I was rather ambivalent at first, I'm glad now that I started taking the lessons. Next I just have to take the initiative to ask about joining taiko (which I've been wanting to do since last year's Aki Matsuri)!

(For more photos, see my Culture Festival Dance Performance Facebook album! I've also added an album with pictures from the 2008 Kirita Halloween Party.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Question of the Day

So the sannensei are currently studying the relative pronouns "who," "which" and "that." The example sentence that T-sensei wrote on the blackboard was: "This is the best book I've ever read." She then asked for a volunteer to read the sentence and to translate it.

No one volunteered, but one student raised her hand to ask a question (in Japanese): "Is "I've" a contraction for "I love" or "I have?"

As soon as she asked the question, she realized how absurd it was, but it was too late: the entire class burst into laughter. =P

On the topic of amusing questions students ask, I was at Towada JHS on Monday and it was my first time teaching the ninensei there, so we had the requisite self-intro "speech" followed by a Q&A time. Of course one of the students came up with "What do you think about him (points to a student named Miura)?" (he asked in Japanese and I translated for him). My answer: "He's probably a nice guy." The funny part was that when I was eating lunch with them, the teacher (not a JTE) asked students (by student number) to stand up and ask me a question. I got a lot of the usual--"Do you like Japanese food? What colour do you like?" etc.--but one of the last guys to go asked: "Do you love Miura?" The students found my answer of "Sorry, I don't know him well enough" extremely amusing; I suspect they only listened to the "Sorry, I don't" part. =P

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Honoured guest

As much as I love being considered "part of the family" at Kirita, sometimes it's nice to get "honoured guest" treatment. This Monday I happened to be teaching at Ofukanai (it's been about a year since my last visit!). I thought it was strange that they would want an ALT after the big JHS bunka sai (culture festival) weekend, but it turned out that they hadn't actually had their culture day yet.

Anyway, one of the activities for the ninensei to practice "if" clauses was to write the ALT (me) a fax to tell me about some news and to solicit a response of some sort (e.g. "Kumi broke her arm. If you are free, please come to the hospital with me."). It was good timing for such an activity since most students were able to tell me about the school festival and invite me to come. Even though they didn't actually give me the faxes (they handed them in to their teacher, of course), since I was duly informed about it, I decided I'd try to go if I could.

I found out from the JTE that the school festival would start at 9am. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of thinking the schedule would be similar to Kirita's (starting at 9am, but nothing really happening until the food things opened at 10am and performances, etc. going on in the afternoon), so I planned to go around 10am. Due to a very slow start to the morning, however, I ended up arriving around 10:45am.

As it turned out, I missed English speech recitations (well, I'd already heard them anyway!), sharing from the sannensei about the homestay in Canada (from when they were ninensei), and a music presentation by the sannensei. ^^;; Luckily I was in time to catch a good portion of the koma odori (horse dance).

At any rate, I got a very warm welcome when I entered the school. They gave me free food tickets (tempura udon and umeboshi onigiri) and when I went into the gym for the performance, they asked me to sit up front next to kocho-sensei! After the performance, kocho-sensei thanked me for coming and told me
(all in impecable English) to please enjoy the festival.

I got quite a number of cheerful "hello's" from students and teachers. While I was looking at the stuff in the ichinensei classroom, I got...I guess you could say "accosted" by several (Horanai) elementary school students whom I'd taught a few times recently. They pretty much took (dragged =P) me around the rest of the day.

One girl, Miki, gave me one of her takoyaki. I shared my udon with the boy, Sho (?) since he didn't have any food tickets on him. Miki's father bought all of us frankfurters (on sticks!).

Apart from having more fun seeing the festival with people, it worked out well that I ended up hanging out with the Horanai students since they really enjoyed playing with my camera. As a result, I ended up actually getting photos of myself at the festival!

Originally I was planning on just dropping by for an hour or so, but I saw on the program that there'd be a choral competition in the afternoon (starting at 2pm) so I ended up staying until the end of the festival.
All in all, I had a good time. If the festival turns out to be a different day from Kirita's again next year (assuming I'm still here), I think I'll try to visit again (making sure to come right from the start, though)!

For more pictures of the festival, see my Facebook album.

I've also updated/added some other photo albums:
Updated: Random Food (1 photo)
Updated: Japanese Kit Kat (1 photo)
New: Just Desserts

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Eventful Weekend

My weekend started off well with dinner with Bryan and Juliet and Julie and Taylor (ALTs living in Noheji). Even though my throat was still pretty bad at that time, it was nice to get out, eat a real meal, and talk with fellow English speakers. =P

The next day I was at Kirita before 8am to help prepare for the school Culture Festival. I helped make a heck load of tissue paper flowers to use for decorating the cafe (in the library). I also made random origami things (cranes, turtles, lilies) for the ninensei classroom.

It was funny watching the ninensei set-up the classroom because a number of students forgot to hand in the assignments that we were displaying: their English "My Summer Vacation" piece (5 sentences and a picture), and their baby photo with comments from themselves, their friends, and parents. For those students, Tomabechi-sensei made a sheet of paper that said "Tadaima shucchou chuu. Shousai wa kochira made (student's name)," basically "Currently away on business. The only details so far are: (student's name)." The students were embarrassed enough thinking their parents would see that sign that they actually handed in their assignments without further prompting. =P

I left school around 6pm and went home, ate dinner and relaxed. A friend had heard from Aaron that I was sick so she messaged me to ask if I was OK. I guess I wasn't convincing in my reply (that I was fine), so she very kindly made me a tofu/carrot/meat dish and brought it over for me. I'd already eaten, but I was able to have it for dinner the next night.

Sunday, of course, was the big day: the Kirita Junior High School Culture Festival. Again I was at school before 8am. We did cleaning and final preparations until about 9am. Then I had some time to walk around and look at all the classrooms before the cafe opened at 10am. Once the cafe opened, it was just work work work for me.

Maybe it's the Chinese/Protestant work ethic instilled in me, but I actually enjoyed working during the culture festival this year more than just walking around the culture festival last year. And it's not like the cafe was particularly hard work: taking drink orders, bringing drinks to people (apple juice or coffee), clearing/wiping tables and bringing dishes to the students washing them.

After all the food places (cafe upstairs, hot foods--udon/soba--downstairs) closed, we had the play (each grade performed one) and song presentations. Maybe it's because they found pre-made skits rather than writing their own, but I thought the plays were a lot better this year than last. The song performances, though...

Their singing was pretty decent, but watching their faces somewhat soured the performance. Most of them looked SO serious, and they were mostly looking up or to the sides--anywhere but the audience. Moreover, among the boys especially there were a couple of students who looked downright sullen! Well, I guess it didn't harm the performance that much for me because I chose to be amused at their expressions, but really, they didn't look like they were having fun at all! I know that when I was in choir, our conductor always insisted that we look at the audience and smile while singing, but maybe Japan doesn't have that culture for performances? Or maybe it has to do with the fact that my school choirs were voluntary (so presumably the people in them actually enjoyed singing) whereas singing for events is compulsary for my students. *shrug*

That was pretty much the end of the Culture Festival. After that, though, was the touyasai (like an after party--literally, "that night's festival"). I missed a bit of the beginning because I was still cleaning up a bit in the library, but it was pretty similar to last year in terms of types of performances--songs, song & dance, skits, quiz game--so I didn't miss much. Somehow, though, last year it seemed like the students enjoyed the touyasai more. Maybe it's just in my mind, but it felt like last year there were more performances, more students involved, and generally more energy from the students. But maybe part of that is because this year we didn't really have that much time to prepare for the festival, so the students were more tired this year than last. Then too, Eiken (the standardized English test) was right before the festival (the Friday before), so it was really stressful for the students taking the test--having to stay late to prepare for the festival but also having to make time to study for Eiken on top of their regular homework load.

But yeah, overall I had a good time at the Kirita School Festival and it was worth all the work/time I put in! Check out my Facebook album for pictures of the Festival: Part 1 & Part 2.

There was another event that occurred after I got home, however. When I pulled into my parking spot, I noticed that a light was on in the apartment next to me. I guess I was pretty brain dead from the festival, since my first thought was: "it's rather late for someone to be doing repairs, isn't it?" To be fair, though, there weren't any cars in the parking spaces next to mine, so I had reason to think that it wasn't a case of someone moving in.

But of course, it was indeed someone moving in. A short time after I came home, while I was sitting at the computer uploading pictures of the festival, my doorbell rang. It was my new neighbour, coming to greet me! He even gave me a small box of cakes!! (Have I mentioned before that this is (more traditional/older) Japanese culture? When you move into a house/apartment, you go to greet your neighbours and, particularly in apartments, bring a small (food) gift for them?)

Anyway, I was far more surprised than I should've been, so I really didn't know what to say. Plus I was really tired, so I couldn't think to do more than nod and say "yoroshiku onegaishimasu." Once he'd left and I'd sat back down, though, I felt like a complete idiot since I realized I hadn't even told him my own name in return!! @_@ I also looked into the box and saw that it wasn't just one piece of cake I'd received, but THREE! (Given that I'd received the giant cream puff and other assorted sweets from the festival, plus I'd bought some cakes for myself, I found myself with an excessive number of desserts! =P)

I was really happy and appreciative that my new neighbour had come to greet me, particularly since none of my previous neighbours had bothered with the courtesy! And I wanted to convey my thanks (not to mention tell my name) to my neighbour somehow. I asked my friend (the one who made me the tofu/carrot/meat dish) what would be appropriate, and she said it'd be fine if I just rang his doorbell and said "Thanks for the cake. My name is ~. I can't speak Japanese very well, but if we meet, I'd be happy if you greeted me (ohayo, konnichiwa, etc.)."

But I felt it'd be weird to ring his doorbell just to say that, so Monday I decided to bake cookies and bring some over. (No worries, I'd pretty much recovered from my sore throat/cold by this time, so I wasn't passing along anything extra with them. =P) Well, he wasn't actually at home when I tried ringing his doorbell that night, but I saw the light on in his apartment when I came home from dance practice on Tuesday night, so I screwed up my courage and rang his doorbell.

Even though I stuttered and left sentences incomplete a lot, I think I managed to convey my neighbourly good will well enough. We chatted a bit--he asked if I was a student; I told him I was an English teacher; he told me he was working at the Univers grocery store--and that was that. The only thing is that I had wanted to ask him his name again (since I was too surprised/tired to catch it when he'd introduced himself on Sunday night), but I was so nervous during my conversation that I completely forgot to ask. ^^;; Oh well, I doubt that we'll meet/see each other very often, so it probably won't be a problem that I don't know his name. If we ever get friendly enough that I feel I really need to know it, I can always use the trick of asking him to write the kanji for me. =P

So that was my eventful weekend!

Friday, October 17, 2008

A little cold

Even though I felt really refreshed after my trip to Hong Kong, it seems like the R&R time came a little too late since I've got the beginnings of a cold. (T_T) I guess I've been pushing my physical limits a little too much recently, so giving my body that chance to relax was probably the trigger for it.

I was totally fine all of Monday and all day Tuesday, but then Tuesday night my throat started to hurt--a LOT. Wednesday morning I woke up and the sore throat was even worse. It was bad enough that the glands along the inner sides of my neck were actually somewhat swollen and tender! Even though my throat hurt and I was hoarse, I was still pretty cheerful.

Thursday, though, was the worst day (physically) I've had in a while. Usually I'm able to be cheerful and energetic even if I've only had 2-3 hours of sleep, but Thursday I felt so bad that other teachers at Kirita actually told me I didn't look too good and should sit down and take a rest. ^^;;

Maybe I'm just dumb, but despite feeling sick Wednesday and Thursday, I still stayed at Kirita to help with their school festival preparations until almost 7pm. Moreover, I went to the office when I finished at Kirita (Wednesday to pick up lesson plans, Thursday to make materials)!

Today I was at an elementary school and I completely killed my throat. I know I should try to get quieter when I teach--if you try to talk over the kids, the noise level will spiral out of control, but if you get quieter, the kids will have to quiet down to hear you--but I naturally get louder when I try to be more genki.

As a result, I'm now VERY hoarse, and I'm coughing a lot more than I was yesterday. ^^;; I felt bad enough when I got home that I actually caved and took some Daytime Tylenol for Colds; I usually don't take medicine for anything less serious than bronchitis.

I've also been drinking a lot of lemon tea to try to soothe my throat.

AH!! I hate being sick! And this weekend is the Kirita school festival, so I really don't have time to relax. *sigh*

Anyway, I'll stop being whiney now.

In happier news, I uploaded more photos to Facebook this afternoon (since I was home early for once--Tomabechi-sensei specifically told me NOT to come to Kirita to help with school festival prep today):

Updated: Hong Kong (Day 2)
New: Kiri Chuu Sai Prep
New: Random Kirita Stuff!
New: Japanese Kit Kat

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hong Kong! (Day 2 - Sun., Oct. 12)

Sunday morning was dim sum again, but at a Kowloon restaurant this time. This restaurant had really good chicken feet and cheung fan. Along with Auntie Denise and Uncle Ed, there was also their niece, Vinci. Auntie Denise had asked her to take me shopping that day since she figured a young person closer to my age (in her last year of university) would know better the types of places I’d be interested in.

I ended up getting along real
ly well with Vinci, so the day was a lot of fun! For shopping purposes, it was also helpful that Vinci and I seemed to have very similar tastes (except that her favourite colour is pink, which I never wear since I don’t think it suits me). So yeah, first we went to the Ladies’ Market since I had asked about it. It was kind of like Temple Street (very touristy), so I only bought a T-shirt there.

While we were walking around the streets (not the Ladies’ Market, though), I checked out laptop prices. The prices were pretty reasonable, but they were mostly newer models and at the upper limit of my budget, so I decided against getting one.

The mall in Mong Kok, however, was right on target. We started off getting drinks from Happy Lemon there, then dove into the shopping! I bought three shirts, a watch, a stuffed hippo, and a Kenshin cell phone dangly (from a gacha machine). ^____^

After all the shopping, we were a bit hungry, so we grabbed some curry fish balls and some s
ort of Chinese sausage on sticks. (Didn’t think to take pictures, just gobbled it down!) We then moved onto dumplings, soy milk and imitation sharks’ fin soup at another place (with tables and seats). (Again, just ate, no pictures. =P)

We took the MRT to Tsim Sha Tsui for more shopping. First we stopped by a Duty Free Shop to get my omiyage. It was pretty funny. A sales guy came up while we were looking at various products and was “This is Hong Kong’s yume product. It’s very oishii.” Clearly he thought we were Japanese tourists. Well, I guess technically I was one, but Vinci was a local! She told me after we left the place that some of the staff were talking about how strange we were—“Japanese” girls speaking in English! =P

I had about 100 people on my omiyage list (Kirita students & teachers, my office, other ALTs, Japanese friends, my dance instructor, eikaiwa students, etc.), so I ended spending almost half of the money I brought with (admittedly not that much) on omiyage alone! It was a lot of stuff, so they gave me a bag with wheels! It would’ve been too embarrassing to cart it around shopping, though, so we left it with customer service for two hours while we walked around. (Thank goodness for that service!)

After buying the omiyage, we had yet another snack break. This time it was HK style tea and French toast with peanut butter! It was pure artery clogging deliciousness! =P (It also reminded me a bit of home, and Friday nights at Café Hollywood after fellowship!)

Then it was onto another mall to find a Heroic Re
ndezvous store! Heroic Rendezvous is a HK brand designed by Vanessa Chan. I first saw it when I went to Singapore, and I really liked the stuff but it was too expensive for me to buy more than a bag. By HK standards, Heroic Rendezvous is still relatively expensive, but it’s cheaper in HK than in Singapore, and still comparable to (less than, actually), say, Roots prices in Canada.

We went back to collect my omiyage and then went to meet Auntie Denise and Uncle Ed for dinner—stopping off at Uniqlo (graphic tee designs seem to be different in different countries) just long enough for me to buy a ¾ sleeve hooded tee.

We had beef da bin lo for dinner. It was yummy, but I couldn’t really eat that much; I’m not much of a dinner eater now anyway, and I was still a bit full from the French toast! Even though I ate quite a lot, I still had space (I almost always do =P) for dessert! They took me to this place that has awesome mango desserts, so I had sago with mango juice and extra mango. SO yummy!

Then it was back to the hotel room to pack. I had to unwrap almost all the omiyage boxes, and either take out the plastic trays inside and repack them in the boxes (bringing 8 boxes down to 5) or put them into a Ziploc bag.

It was heavy, but I did manage to stuff everything into my one duffel bag (maximum carry-on size) and small bag.

Monday morning I took a shuttle bus (booked and paid for on Saturday evening) to the airport and was on my way home!

See more pictures in my Facebook album!

Hong Kong! (Day 1 - Sat., Oct. 13)

Hong Kong was AWESOME!

I was a bit worried before going that the brevity combined with the distance would make it a tiring trip—and, given my school/work schedule, I need all the R&R I can get on weekends—but thankfully, I was wrong.

Guess it just goes to show the importance of getting away from everything for a while. I think that when I’m just bumming around the house on weekends, even if I’m not doing work, part of my brain is still occupied with it. But being in a different country, I had too many other things to do, see and think about to “worry” overmuch about work.

Plus, my family friends (Uncl
e Ed and Auntie Denise) really took care of everything for me—getting from the airport to the hotel, my daily itinerary, travel, food, etc. Independence is great and all, but sometimes it’s nice to be taken care of.

But anyway, about the trip itself:

Since I was in Aomori for the (A)JET Culture Day on Friday, I took a flight from Aomori Airport to Haneda Airport. Then I went from the Haneda Airport to Hong Kong. I was a bit worried since my flight was delayed twenty minutes, so I “only” had about an hour and forty minutes (instead of two full hours) before my flight. I had to take a shuttle bus from Terminal Two to the International Terminal and it took me a while to find the bus stop. Then it seemed to take the ANA staff a while to get my ticket (the JTB travel agent had booked through some other site/service and not directly with the airline, so I was paranoid something would be wrong with my ticket), so I was worried. There was no problem, though, and the walk from customs to the gates (there are only three!) in the International Terminal (at Haneda, remember) is super short, so I made it with plenty of time to spare. It was funny, though, because we actually got put on a bus from the gate and were driven up to the plane.

The flight was uneventful and I arrived in Hong Kong almost half an hour before scheduled. My family friends met me there and drove me to the hotel they had booked for me—which is actually something of a story itself. When I was planning the trip, my mom was going to book a hotel for me, but whe
n I talked to Auntie Denise about coming, it really sounded like she wanted me to come stay with them. So my mom and I decided I’d accept their offer instead of getting a hotel room. Some days before I left, however, she emailed me to say that they felt bad about letting me sleep on their floor, so they had booked me a room—in the same hotel my mother had been planning on booking! ^^;; I emailed back to ask if they could cancel the reservation, but… It was super nice of them, but… Plus they paid for the hotel room ahead of time, so I didn’t even have a chance to try to pay for the room (or even to see the actual cost).

Anyway, they picked me up at the hotel Saturday morning at 11am and we went for dim sum. I’m not exactly sure where the restaurant was (except that it was on the Hong Kong island side and not on Kowloon, where they live), but it was great. It had the best char siu (Chinese barbecued pork) I’ve ever had, and a unique type of char siu bao (barbecued pork bun): yellow and crunchy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside—very different from the typical white, steamed buns! Luckily I’m used to eating breakfast (8:30am latest) and a big school lunch (12:30pm), so I was able to eat a lot. =P

Then we went sightseeing. I hadn’t done much research before going to Hong Kong and I didn’t really have (m)any places in particular that I wanted to go, so I was thankful they were there to take me to all the “must-see” tourist spots: Stanley, Repulse Bay, The Peak, Temple Street, and Nathan Road. We didn’t really spend much time in any of the places, apart from The Peak, but at least I got to see them so if people talk/ask about them, I’ll be able to say I’ve been there (and I have the photos to prove it!).

For Stanley and Temple Street (and even the famed Ladies’ Market—though that was on Sunday), I didn’t really spend too long or buy anything there. It seems to be more touristy stuff, and I’m more into quirky/original things. But again, it was good for me to go there and experience Hong Kong markets. And thankfully I was with locals so they were able to bargain a bit for the few things I did buy.

The Peak was pretty cool. We took the tram up, which was a good experience. The beginning of the ride is impressively steep! If you take the tram, I recommend getting a seat by the back, on the right side (next to the window, if possible) for the best view!

We also went to the Madame Tussaud’s Museum, only because the line to buy Tram/Museum combo tickets was a heck of a lot shorter than the line for just the tram. =P I don’t think I’ll ever understand the appeal of life size wax models of people—even if they are celebrities. It’s SO CREEPY!!

Anyway, after Madame Tussaud’s, we had Hagen Daaz (mango passionfruit for me!) and then wandered around for bit. I found some weird key chain things and simply “had to” get two. Well, I planned on buying two, anyway, but Uncle Ed wanted to pay for them for me, so… ^^;; I thought they were cute, but Uncle Ed and Auntie Denise thought they were ugly. (Guess that’s the generation gap, huh? ^_~ )

After that, we had dinner. Unfortunately we couldn’t go the restaurant they wanted to take me to (it was next to my hotel) because it was occupied with a wedding banquet, so we ended up walking to another. The food was pretty good there, but the service was mediocre at best. (Definitely the dim sum place from the morning was a much better place in terms of both food and service!)

Next we went to Temple Street for some shopping. I bought a sporty, small and cute bag, but that was it. We walked up to Nathan Road (most of the stores were close to closing time, so it was just to see it) and then back to my hotel. They headed home and I decided to go back to my room rather than walking around some more. I did decide to venture out to the 7/11 just across the street, but it was mostly Japanese snacks, so I didn’t buy anything.

I stayed up watching TV for a bit though; it was SO nice to be able to watch English programs again! I caught part of a Discovery Channel special on alligators/crocodiles and watched a full episode of Amazing Race Asia before turning in for the night.

You can see all of my Hong Kong photos in my Facebook album.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The little things ^_^

You may have noticed from my re-contracting post that I've been feeling a little less...genki...about the job recently. Well, today was, happily, a day where the little things reminded me exactly why I love the job.

I usually prefer visiting small schools, but the one thing I love about big schools is walking through the halls in the time between classes. There are throngs of students and they almost all greet you as you walk by. That's my favourite thing. Usually they say "konnichiwa" and look shocked when I reply with a cheerful "hello!" but sometimes they actually recognize that I'm an English teacher and they say "hello!" right off the bat. In the latter case, they're usually really cheerful about it--as if it's a new game to be able to recognize the ALT and use the proper English greeting. Regardless of how the class went, or how tired I am after class, walking down the halls (particularly at the school I was at today, Sanbongi JHS) and greeting students never fails to bring a big smile (a grin, actually) to my face. ^_________^

Then too, today I ended off with a super genki (but not unmanageable) ichinensei class. Before class started, the students were talking to me and asking questions. One student asked if I went to Baskin Robbins (she thought she saw me there), and another asked how to say "hentai" in English. =D Of course, I didn't tell him right there, but I admit, I did tell him after class.

I guess it's kind of bad of me, but I really enjoy teaching students the "bad" words, if they ask, for example: "hentai," "geri," "unko," and "ji"--respectively, "pervert," "diarrhea," "poop," and "hemorrhoid."

In the same class, a student came up to the teacher to ask the difference between "a" and "the." (He's writing the Eiken test--a standardized English level placement test--the month, I gather.) I tried to help explain with broken Japanese, and he seemed to kind of get it. (Of course, it's difficult because there are a lot of different reasons why/cases where "the" should or should not be used.) It made me really happy to see a student taking initiative and asking for an explanation about a grammar point! ^_____^

So yeah, it was a good day. Since I recognize that I'm getting a little tired from teaching, I'm definitely going to have to make more of an effort to notice the little things that bring me happiness.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Do I smell bad or something?

On a completely random note, I am now completely neighbourless. The neighbour to my right moved out a while ago, but I don't know when the person(s) on the other side left. So much for my grand plans of saving money by borrowing heat from neighbouring apartments.

Oh well, I've still got much better insulation here than in the old (now Aaron's) house.

Despite being neighbourless, though, there are still always cars in the parking spots next to mine. I wonder how that works?


When the three of us (Towada municipal ALTs) went into the office the week before last, we found re-contracting information in our boxes. The first thing that popped into my head was: "It's so EARLY!" We don't actually have to make our decision until the end of January/beginning of February, but I guess since the deadline for those making requests for transfers (for health reasons, to join a spouse, etc.) is earlier, they had to get the info out sooner rather than later.

I remember last year when I was sitting around at home/at the office with nothing to do in my first few weeks in Japan, I skimmed through the JET General Information Handbook (GIH). One part that I read fairly carefully was the "To Re-contract or Not" section. Here's the section (pretty much the same as last year) from this year's GIH:

To Re-contract or Not...
Re-contracting deserves deep consideration and deliberation. Please double check the questions below in
order to be certain about your decision.
・What expectations of being a JET Programme participant did you hold before coming to Japan?
・How do those expectations compare to your actual life in Japan?
・Are you able to learn new things and challenge yourself in Japan?
・How will you use what you have learned in Japan after you leave?

Chances are when you joined the JET Programme you had expectations, preconceptions, and an idea of what the job was going to entail. In addition, you probably anticipated how you would use that work experience in your future. However, the job may not be what you had anticipated. This is the time to re-evaluate.

Realistic Reasons to Re-contract
・You are content with your position and work.
・You feel that you are making a contribution that has a positive effect on others.

When re-contracting, beware of deceptive rationalisations like, ―I‘ll save money next year‖ or ―I‘ll learn Japanese next year‖. The nature of the beast is to be lazy, and unless there is a radical change in your life (a change which re-contracting does not necessarily bring about), odds are that your life will not change dramatically in your second or third year.

Realistic Reasons Not to Re-contract
・Procrastination. Think long and hard about your life path. Do not re-contract only to delay a more
difficult decision.
・Money. Participating on the JET Programme for the sole purpose of money-making.
・Obligation. You feel pressure from those people in your community to re-contract with the JET Programme. (Your Contracting Organisation may resist your decision not to re-contract, however, the operations of your Contracting Organisation will not come to a stand still as the result of you not recontracting.)
・For no particular reason at all. You may like the foreigner-centred lifestyle, the kindness you receive from those around you, money in your pocket and time on your hands but, even if you do not tire of these things, they probably will not leave you with anything when they are gone. Your presence in Japan gives you many opportunities. If you are going to stay in Japan, stay for a reason. Do not waste the opportunity.

A Word of Caution
While in a foreign country a person undergoes many changes and mood swings. Do not make your decision overnight. Talk with friends, talk with your Supervisor, talk with your family. Think it through and make your decision with confidence.

At the time (as early as it was), I worried that I might decide to re-contract because of "procrastination." I mean, I applied for JET because I didn't know what I was going to do with my life if I wasn't going to be teaching, so it seemed probable that I might be tempted to stay a second year to put off that decision yet again.

As it turned out, however, I ended up (in a very short span of time) falling in love with my job, so it was a pretty easy decision to make. (It was two BIG check marks for both "Realistic Reasons to Re-Contract.")

This year, though, I think it's going to be a bit more difficult. When I re-contracted last year, I thought: "I'll probably stay for 3 years total." (So, another year after this one.) Up to the end of the summer, I'd have to say I was about 90-95% sure I'd be here for a third year (not to mention 50% in favour of staying for a full five!).

One month into nigakki (second term), though, and I feel like my certainty has dropped down to 80-85%. The problem is that I constantly feel tired. I mean, I still love the work, and when I'm actually in school, I get energy from the job and don't really feel fatigued, but once I get home...

Part of it is my own fault, since I stay up late downloading/reading manga, watching DVDs, reading books, surfing the net, etc. But then too, many nights I don't get home until 9pm becase I finish at school late, or I go to the office after school, and then have some sort of community class at night (eikaiwa, dance, etc.). When I finally get home, if I've got jishu gakushu (extra English class) or an elementary school visit that week, I usually spend an hour or two planning/preparing materials. And when faced with a choice between sleep or doing something to relax, I usually end up choosing the latter. ^^;;

So yeah, even though I think I'm as passionate about the job as before (maybe even more so now that I understand the Japanese school system a bit better), I'm worried that I might run out of energy partway through a third year. And I don't want to be here if I'm going to end up coasting.

Plus I'm a little worried about the possibility of "familiarity breeding contempt" at Kirita (with the students, at any rate). I've already had one jishu gakushu class where I felt like the ninensei were goofing off more so than usual because it was just me there. As much as I love the school (and hope that the feeling is reciprocated), I have to seriously consider that it might be better for the students to get a fresh face in.


Then too, I wonder if I made a mistake in going home for such a long time this summer? I didn't feel it when I first came back (to Japan), but recently I've been thinking a lot more about how much I miss everyone back home. I mean, I've made friends here, but the aspect of Christian fellowship is completely missing from my life here. Of course, part of that is my own fault for not making an effort to find (and stick with) a church. But then again, part of it is also my nature: I don't make (good) friends easily. I mean, I think I'm pretty easy to get along with, but I don't really let people in too far, y'know?

As for the possibility of staying for the full five years, well, the thought is still in the back of my mind, but the probability is probably down to 20-30% (from 50%). A big part of the drop is the fatigue which is making me reconsider even my third year, but there's also the fact that my mom has told me she and my dad would like me to come home after three years. (It's not just that they miss me, it's that my being away affects their ability to make their own life decisions...)

So yeah, I guess it's a good thing we got the re-contracting info so early, since it seems like I'll need all the time I can get to make my decision this year.

I just really hope that every ALT reads the GIH reasons "to re-contract or not." To me, the two "realistic reasons to re-contract" are really the only valid reasons to do so. Certainly people will have mixed motivations--I definitely enjoy the lifestyle here, and I would also like to save more money--but I think that if those two reasons aren't the primary reasons, I think there's the danger of turning into an ALT who coasts. And, as I've discussed a lot in previous posts (Attitudes/Goals & Reality; The "Internationalization" crutch), I think that ALTs who aren't focused on improving student learning or who don't pursue excellence in their work do a disservice to themselves, their students, their schools and the JET Programme as a whole.

My apologies for what probably sounds like a lot of "preaching" lately, but I think it's important that we, as Assistant Language Teachers remember that even if we don't have much experience or training, we've been given positions as teachers. And as teachers, part of our responsibility is to look out for the (educational) interests of our students. That's why the re-contracting decision shouldn't just be about "Am I happy with the job? Living in Japan?" etc., but should put a strong emphasis on considerations of "Am I doing a good job?" and "Will I be able to maintain my motivation to continue improving in my teaching for another year?"

One of my personal checks to see if I'm still appropriately engaged in the job is: "Can I answer "I'm happy/good/great" with full honesty when students ask me how I am every day?" Honestly, this term there've been a couple of times when "I'm fine" was as positive as I could get, and once or twice I had to honestly say I was only "so-so." But still, it's my goal to always be able to honestly answer "I'm happy" or "I'm good" or "I'm great" when students ask me how I am. If I can't do that, then I need to figure out why I'm not happy just to be in the class, because it's definitely a problem if I lose my passion for the job.

But yeah, guess I've got some hard thinking ahead of me in terms of re-contracting.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Attitude/Goals & Reality

Re: The "Internationalization" crutch

There are a lot of things we, as ALTs, cannot control. We can't choose where we get placed, what position we're assigned in our cities/towns/villages (elementary, junior high, senior high), how often we teach, whom we teach with, etc. etc.

The one thing we can control, however, is our attitude towards the job. And really, that's the thing that matters most.

I'm not sure where it's from, but a favourite saying of mine is: "If you reach for the moon, you can never fail to reach the stars."

And that saying is largely why I think it's so important to have the attitude/goal that the ALT's job is to help students learn English.

Even if we fall far short of the goal in reality (because circumstances constrain us), if we have learning as our goal, and have the attitude that we want to be teaching, we will make the most of every opportunity presented to us.

For example, if all our JTEs allow us to do is to pronounce words for students to repeat, we can use the opportunity to teach them the proper syllables to emphasize, or how to correctly pronounce certain sounds (like "L" vs "R.") I'm not saying it has to be a full blown, or even explicit lesson--it can accomplished simply by overexaggerating our facial expressions and stresses when pronouncing words (students will catch on!) .

Even if all we are doing is walking around the class and observing while a JTE is explaining English grammar points in Japanese (something I spend probably 70% or more of my time doing at my base school), if we have the attitude/goal of teaching, we can view the observation time as a chance to see where students have difficulty. Also, we can take it as an opportunity to learn the grammar in Japanese so we can better help students later on.

There will most likely be times when the only thing we actually manage to accomplish will be (so-called) "internationalization," but accepting that reality doesn't mean we have to lower our sights from the goal of teaching. (In fact, I think having "internationalization" as a goal would make the aforementioned situation even more aggravating and make an ALT feel even less useful.)

It's fine to be comforted by the fact that, if nothing else, we're helping with "internationalization," but if we are satisfied with only promoting "internationalization," we are doing a disservice to ourselves, our students, and the JET program as a whole. If we give up and believe ourselves limited to "internationalization," that belief will become a reality.

Perhaps I'm being idealistic, but I truly believe that if we work wholeheartedly towards the goal of helping students to learn English, even the most restrictive, constraining teachers will eventually acknowledge our efforts and allow us to do more. More importantly, I think the desire to teach will enable us to turn even mundane duties into teaching opportunities.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The "Internationalization" crutch

I'm pretty sure I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I think having "internationalization" as a stated aim of JET is a crock. I'm fine with it being a desired outcome, but as a goal, I think it's too easily used as an excuse or crutch for indifferent teaching.

When internationalization is there to fall back on, ALTs can tell themselves it's OK if they're not actually teaching students English, as long as the kids are having fun (interacting with a "foreigner").

Again, fun is great for an English class, but it's not the point. If fun was the main goal, teachers could play Bingo, karuta and fruits basket variations all the time and students would have tons of fun. But would they actually learn English?

I think the role of an ALT is to help students learn English. We do this, for the most part, through coming up with fun games and activities to reinforce learning. That's the key point here: learning.

Honestly, if all teachers needed was games, they could spend a lot less money and invest in Genki English or something. Why do they want us, as people from different countries, to help the Japanese English teachers (or homeroom teachers for elementary schools)? Because we were educated differently and thus bring a different perspective to English education. Besides, the Japanese teachers have other concerns (making sure students do their homework, pass tests, understand concepts, behave properly, etc.) whereas we, as assistant language teachers, are free to focus solely on engaging the students in learning. (And the advantage we have over curriculums/resources like Genki English--great as they may be--is that we can adapt and create new things to suit the needs of our classes.)

So yeah, even though it's difficult when you only see a school once a month or once or twice a term, I believe it is our responsibility to help kids learn English. This means diversifying our methods/games to appeal to different types of learners (bodily kinesthetic, verbal/linguistic, etc.), targeting games to develop specific skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing), and etc.

Basically, I think it means we need to start thinking of ourselves as actual teachers and not just "(international) circus performers." True, there is no teaching experience requirement to become a JET, but teaching is the job, so I think the expectation should be there that for ALTs to develop and carry themselves as teachers.

I think the fault here in not setting such expectations lies with the JET Programme as well as the individual ALTs, contracting organizations/school boards/teachers, etc. (Here's where I go back to my first point.) By leaving such a fuzzy crutch of a goal as "internationalization" in the mission statement of JET, the Programme is setting the wrong tone right from the get go. It's not surprising, then, that teachers, schools, and even ALTs don't necessarily expect ALTs to do more than "making interacting with people from different countries (using English) interesting and fun for students."

And I think that's doing a huge disservice to everyone involved:
- to the students who, at the end of the day, still need to pass the English portion of various entrance exams;
- to the teachers who have to accomodate ALTs periodically coming in and "disrupting" the usual flow of classes;
- and to the ALTs who are sometimes paid to do nothing more than sit around the office or to be human tape recorders in classes.

The responsibility for rectifying matters, I believe, must necessarily fall to the ALTs, who arguably have the most free time out of all parties involved.

I have seen the incredible results a little bit of initiative (and probably a lot of tact) from ALTs can create. Admittedly our city has had the advantage of a veteran (five year!) ALT and supportive supervisor/Board of Education, but I sincerely believe it's within the powers of all ALTs to effect changes, even if they are only small and slow in coming.

So yeah, at the end of my time on JET, I want to be able to look back and honestly say that I worked "isshokenmei" (with all my might) to leave the state of English education in Towada a little improved from when I started.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Voting overseas

Luckily I took some time earlier last week to catch up on friends' blogs, since I learned from one of them that the election was actually set. Since moving to Japan I've been pretty out of the loop in terms of news (Japanese, Canadian--everything, really). To my defense, I did know that there was probably going to be a federal election called soon, I just didn't know when specifically. But yeah, reading about prompted me to get on the ball and to find out what I needed to do be able to vote from Japan.

Thankfully the process for obtaining a special ballot to vote while overseas doesn't seem to be too difficult. The Elections Canada website has a convenient "Get the special ballot voting kit" page which took me through a quick survey to determine my eligibility for the special ballot and then led me to a page to download the registration form. Now that I've gotten and printed out the scans of my driver's license from home, all I have to do is mail the form and documents (making sure it arrives in Ottawa by 6pm local time on October 7th).

Other than going through the information available on the aforementioned site, however, I didn't really give much thought to how I would vote until I read another friend's post on "Who to vote for?" After reading about how she emailed the candidates in her riding to ask about their specific plans for poverty reduction and environmental sustainability, I decided I would at least check out the websites of the candidates in my riding (Mississauga-Erindale).

Maybe I'm just lazy, but simply doing that was enough for me to decide: I'm going to vote for Omar Alghabra (Liberal) again. I was impressed by the fact that it only took me a single click to find exactly the information I was looking for on his website: information about election issues and his plans for addressing them (in the "Your TOP Priorities" section). Admittedly it's a little lacking in details/specifics, but at least it shows that he is aware of more issues than health care (a perennial Canadian concern) and the environment. I was particularly reassured to see that he had immigration (and specifically the accreditation of foreign trained professionals) and affordable housing in his list of priorities. I wish I had seen something there about education, but I think I recall some things I read in his newsletters before...

At any rate, I think that if I spent just a little more time going through the website--reading past newsletters and press releases--I could probably find more detailed information about his policies.

When I looked at my Conservative candidate's webpage, however, the first thing I saw was stuff about Stephen Harper vs the Liberals which immediately gave me a bad impression. I mean, sure party stuff is important to consider in a federal election, but I'm voting for the candidate in my riding, not for a party. I don't need mudslinging propaganda-ish rhetoric: I want to know what the candidates think about specific issues and their plans/intentions to address them.

Along those lines, I couldn't find anything beyond the bio for the Green Party member, and nothing at all online for the NDP candidate. I suppose the Marxist-Leninist candidate could have a great website, but I decided it would probably be OK for me to just avoid researching that one altogether.

I guess I could be a bit more active and, like my friend, email the candidates to ask them their thoughts specifically, but I rather think that the type of information candidates make available, as well as how easily they make it available to the public says something about the character of the candidate and the type of relationship s/he intends to have with her/his constituents.

Just from spending 5 minutes on Alghabra's website, I felt like he actually cares about what his constituents think and that he tries to anticipate as well as address our concerns/needs. On the other hand, I felt mildly insulted (not to mention frustrated) that all I could find on the Conservative candidate's site was links to other Conservative websites and pro-Conservative, anti-Liberal propaganda.

I mean, if you want me to vote for you, could you at least tell me what YOU have been working on and what YOUR thoughts are on key issues? I'd like to think that I'm not completely biased against the Conversatives, but I admit that I don't think their policies are in line with what I want to see happening in Canada. So, it's not a good strategy to try to convince me to vote for you when the only real reason to do so that I can see from the website is that you're a Conservative candidate. I need to know why I should vote for you in spite of the fact that you're Conservative!

So yeah, maybe I'm not examining the different candidates' policies as closely as I should, but I nonetheless feel satisfied with my decision to vote for Alghabra (again).