Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tadaima: I'm back

I have been called out for totally neglecting my blog. I apologize to those of you left hanging.
So much inactivity in my work life, considering that the students are on summer vacation, has led to me spending way too much time in front of my computer; day after day. My cousin Caitlin and I often refer to the nauseas feeling that comes from staring at one’s computer excessively as carsickness. Just as childhood trips to the beach with my family once left me queasy, summer in Japan, similarly, makes me carsick.

Luckily my laptop is broken so my vegetation time is limited to my work computer, so, come 3:45, I am able to unbuckle my seatbelt after a long journey and finally enjoy my destination.

Since returning to Japan after a three week trip to the US this summer, I have learned the following:
-Festivals in Japan are only meaningful when you hike up a mountain to partake in them.
-If you say you like cheesecake someone might bake you cheesecake and secretly give it to you the next day.
-Japanese toilets are very dangerous.
-Teaching English to Japanese adults is just as fun as teaching English to Japanese children.
-I am 85% happy, according to a test given to me by my ceramics instructor.
-I have a landlord.

Okay, I would elaborate or write more but then I would have to roll the window down and throw up.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Takuma Road Trip

I have a confession. I have come to love where I live.

I am usually quite fickle in emotions, so making such a bold statement on something as official as a blog should warrant hesitation, however, I cannot seem to hold the words in my mouth, or rather my fingers. This is not a new feeling of butterflies to be confused with infatuation. Rather, I have been working up to this realization for months now, and as the weeks come and go, my feelings only seem to grow stronger.

Yesterday solidified my romance with Kagawa when I went on a day-long adventure throughout my town, guided by a new friend who lives in the mountains near an elementary school where I teach.

We began at a hidden, delicious, cafe just minutes behind the gym I frequent.

After we licked our plates, we headed out in search of a local garden maintained by the various elementary schools that I visit.
A small path led us from the field of flowers to the sea
where we soaked our feet and collected washed-up sea glass.

With shoes full of sand, we got back into my friend's car to continue our journey towards the top of Takuma's most famous mountain. The steep and curvy mountain roads would most certainly be deemed one-way in the US, however, cars came from the opposite direction, causing my friend Jocelyn to burst into tears of laughter and freight, which ultimately led to the unanimous decision to save the the summit for another day. My friend Chihiro suggested that we drive to her house where could walk around the beach across the street.

Along the way we stopped to soak up the view and chat with men on motorcycles.

When we reached Chihiro's house we were greeted by her mother who is an elementary school teacher at one of the schools that I frequent. Her brother joined us as we walked to the beach, where we were inspired by the warmth of the water to jump in for an impromptu swim.

We dried off and piled into Chihiro's dad's car for another windy drive, this time, in search of food. We grilled our own meat as we chatted in broken Japanese and English, forming a bond that ended in promises of future home stays and beach barbecues.

I was not upset about missing the Stanley Cup celebrations. There is no where else I would have rather been.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Way to go, girls.

Last summer I lived in Pittsburgh with three wonderful friends.
On our last morning together before Ellen drove off to Cincinatti in her twenty-something-year-old Volvo station wagon, hoping that it would make the five hour trip, the four us sat down for a final breakfast at a diner around the corner from my apartment.

Soon after I, too, left Pittsburgh, leaving Jocelyn and Mallory behind. A month later they both left the city where they were born and headed out on separate adventures, one of which unexpectedly led Jocelyn to Japan.
Yesterday I received two separate emails from Mallory and Ellen informing me that they both got teaching jobs in Nashville, and that they will be moving there, together, in a mere ten days.
Somehow, even though they are still thousands of miles away, the fact that they are together makes them seem that much closer. Jocelyn and I are in Japan, and they will be making lives for themselves in Nashville. Our friendships are still long distance, but at least we are only split in half.
This makes me feel incredibly lucky and optimistic about moving back to the US sometime in the future, where although my friends are still scattered across the country, two of them will be together in a place where I can go without feeling like I am moving back home.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Incredibly Kind

These are some things that I have received from various people since Monday.

My favorite, however, is a four-leaf clover that was given to me today by a second grader. I remember the childhood pursuit of such a prize. Today it came easily to me.

This afternoon I helped 6th year elementary school students address envelopes to foreigners who they met on their class trip to the Kansai region of Japan. In Kyoto, the students approached foreigners and then asked if they could take a picture together. They then asked them to write their address down on a piece of paper. It had become my job to de-code the sloppy handwriting from around the globe into legible letters and numbers that the students would then be able to copy themselves. Among the addresses from Switzerland, Canada, Germany, and England, there were a few from the US. One group showed me their address and I was stunned to see that it was from Pittsburgh. Shock set in as I read the street name. The woman whose picture had been taken by my students in Kyoto lives on Shady Ave, the street directly behind my own. The students who showed me this particular address held up the paper as if it were some sort of a golden ticket.

I hope the people who receive the photos in the mail cherish them and realize the incredibly kind gesture that these students are making. If nothing else, maybe they, like I, can feel that the world is that much smaller.

Friday, May 15, 2009

How to be Cool

Exhausted from a beautiful trip to Hong Kong with pleasant memories of ripe mangos and bubble tea still fresh in my mind, I woke up extra early Tuesday morning for a class field trip that I was invited to partake in. I had been told to dress appropriately for the hike that we would take on the nearby mountain, and I was reminded to bring a bottle of water because I would be very hot. So that morning I put on a t-shirt and jean shorts, and I made sure that I had some cash in my purse for one of the many vending machines that I would find on the island where we would be hiking.

When I arrived at school the first thing I noticed was that all of the teachers were wearing jogging suits (normal attire for Japanese teachers) and big floppy hats to protect their faces from the sun. Everyone had a backpack where they stored their bento (lunch box) and bottle of water. The bento that I was given did not fit into my red over the shoulder purse, and various teachers warned me that I would get sunburned. Already I felt that they regretted inviting me along, because, of course, I had no idea of how to properly prepare for a hike up a sunny mountain.

Along with the hundred or so students, I boarded a ferry down the street from my Junior High School. Ten minutes later we arrived on the island that, somehow, I did not know existed.

After lots of sitting around and chatting with the teachers as the students had to find their way through a walking course, I ate my bento that another teacher had so kindly held in his backpack for me, followed by the commencement of the afternoon hike.

After ten minutes of walking up this I was exhausted, but I kept going amid the "we can do it" chants from my students.

When we reached the top of the mountain I looked down at the water and my town. I asked the students where our Junior High School was, and like me, they were unsure of its location.
On the walk down my students took turns wearing my sunglasses.

We took the ferry back to the mainlaind and returned to school sweaty from our adventure.

The next day I woke up sunburned and ashamed to show my reddened face to my co-workers. Despite my faults it was all worth it because now I know that I can escape to that island for an afternoon and that all it takes to be cool is a good pair of sunglasses.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I barely even noticed the cherry blossoms

When I was approached on the train by a weird middle-aged man recently, I politely looked at the picture he showed me of himself pressed up against a Russian stripper whose name I cannot remember. I agreed in saying that she was pretty, and shook his hand after it had combed through his long, graying locks. As he walked away I only felt slightly relieved, barely bothered by the encounter.

After living in Japan for roughly eight months I have to come to realize that very little unsettles me. The most ridiculous of scenarios occur on a regular basis, and awkwardness has become expected, if not comfortable.
The most trying thing that has recently taken place would be, at any other time in my life, considered completely normal. This being some quality time spent with my mom, dad, and big brother.

The two weeks they were in Japan were filled with day trips and long train rides; slurping on udon and eating raw fish while claiming that every meal was more delicious than the last. My family met my new friends, some of whom speak very little English, and I watched on as my co-workers, students, and a trainer at the gym looked at my relatives in awe, especially my brother who in no way fit in with the restrictive Japanese ways.

Having my family in Japan was a little bit tiring,
much needed,
induced bonding,
and led me to the realization that my dad is a really, really good person.
After they left, my life resumed as normal. Which consists of Saturday nights that look like this
followed by sleepy Sundays and Monday mornings where I am expected to sing, dance, and sometimes speak Russian.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

itsumo arigato gozaimasu: Thank You, Always

There is a bakery cart that sometimes shows up in front of the bookstore across the street from my apartment. The brownies are amazing, and I recently discovered that the cheesecake, too, is out of this world. Although I never know exactly when the cart will show up, Monday evenings seem to be a safe bet. Jocelyn, who has been living with me for over a month, has grown to love the little cakes even more that I do; which has caused her her to dash out the door upon hearing the cart’s music, like a small child running after an ice cream truck.

Today, at 9 am, a surge of teachers grabbed their wallets and began running out of the staff room. One woman who barely speaks English saw that I made no effort to follow the others outside. She came over to my desk and said “bakery, come.” Although I was not hungry and have honestly been trying to cut back, I decided to take a break from my computer to see what this was all about.

Right outside of the Junior High School I found my favorite bakery cart filled with an abundance of unpicked-over goods. As I reached for my favorite brownie, I noticed that the teachers around me were loading trays full of breads, cookies, and cakes. These civilized people who quietly sip on green tea had suddenly become ravenous children. Motivated by the hype, I ended up buying three things. When it was my turn to pay the clerk who knows me well, and knows Jocelyn better, he said “itsumo arigato gozaimasu". He then told me that my friend loves the baked goods, and I told him that I was aware.
I walked away from the situation feeling like an experienced bakery shopper; as if I could have impressed my coworkers by saying “I’ll have the regular”.

Hopefully I can resist eating the two brownies and piece of cheesecake long enough to save some for Jocelyn. Maybe my coworkers were on to something... I should have bought more.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

My Vice Principal let me do it.

An hour of cleaning with this

is a lot more fun if one is permitted to blast Kelly Clarkson in the staff room.

Zannen: Too Bad

Last Friday night, after the graduation ceremony at my Junior High School, I joined my coworkers for the proper Japanese work party that is infamously known as an enkai. We drank together, laughed together, sang karaoke and huddled under umbrellas while walking through the rain. I teased my young male coworkers for drinking ZIMA as I sipped on whisky and coke, and I challenged them to try to spell my name correctly. Among the attempts, “Rear” was my favorite.

This morning, everyone is quietly sitting at their desks as usual, and the man who sits across from me is dozed off with his hands neatly folded on his lap and his head slightly tilted to one side. The teacher who invited me over to ride his white pony has yet to say good morning, and another teacher who invited me to a baseball game after bonding over mutual reasons for being interested in teaching, literally ran away from me this morning as I tried to make small talk.

I suppose when people say what happens at an enkai stays at an enkai, this includes not only the inappropriate behavior but the bonding as well.

Zannen. I was really looking forward to meeting that pony.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Maybe it is because his name sounds Japanese?

I know that Japanese people love Obama--a lot. I often use this knowledge to my advantage when lesson planning.

Is Obama scary or handsome?

Think of a great person. For example, Obama.

Me: “You can do it!”
Students: “eeeh?.”
Me: “Yes we can!”
Students: “YES WE CAN!”

Today over lunch with first graders, a little boy asked me if I was a foreigner. I told him that I was. He then asked where I was from. I told him that I was from America. He seemed confused, as if he had never heard of the country. I then said, “Obama.” Immediately his face lit up to show his recognition. I asked the boy who Obama was. He answered "daitoriyo" (president). On a whim, I asked a follow up question. "Who is the Prime Minister of Japan?" Neither he nor the crowd of on-lookers knew the answer.

I suppose with his approval rate lingering around 13%, Taro Aso does not really enter the radar of a seven-year-old.

Obama, however, has somehow achieved Pokemon status.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Tabesugimashita: I Ate too Much

This is my friend Naohiro and his lovely fiancee. Following four years of dating, they are getting married this April and then heading off to Italy for their honeymoon. I am sure they had a lovely Valentine's day filled with romance and admiration for each other.

All that is left of my original plan for the weekend is the whited out marking in my agenda book.
In this country where Western men are generally on the prowl for Japanese women, and Japanese men are generally too shy to merely make small talk with exotic women such as myself, us American ladies find ourselves leading very single, celibate lives. On Friday night, my friend had a few girls over for a clothing swap and sleepover. Two girls who came have lived in Japan for four and five years respectively, and both of them have remained completely unattached throughout the duration of their stay. We indulged in cupcakes, wine, and their fantasies of entering the dating pool come July when they finally leave Japan.

Last night on Valentine's day, my friend Marty and I went to her teacher's house where we played with her three girls, who are all my students, and ate delicious food over good conversation. Following a game of Uno, dinner, singing, dancing and playing the piano, we finally sat down to dig into the delicious dessert that Marty brought over.
In Japan on Valentine's day girls are supposed to give chocolate to boys, not the other way around. Marty and I, over chocolate cake, asked the three little girls if they bought any chocolate for boys. They all answered that they had, for their father--their first love.
An hour or so later Marty's teacher drove us home and dropped me off in front of the video store near my apartment. It was around 9:00, so the night was still young and I considered going inside to rent a movie. I asked Marty if she thought my students would think I was pathetic if they ran into me at the video store at 9 pm on Valentine's day. She reminded me that Valentine's day does not hold the same significance in this country, and that renting a movie on a Saturday night is a perfectly acceptable activity. So, I concluded the holiday with a romantic comedy followed by a long talk with Mallory, my friend teaching in Costa Rica.

Today I have a blind date with a Japanese woman who apparently wants to be my friend. We are going to my favorite cafe where we will sip on coffee and eat cake in an effort to get to know each other.

Although I will most likely remain single throughout my stay in Japan, I can always count on blossoming friendships, DVD rentals, and delicious cake. Seriously, who needs to be doted on by a man when I have hundreds of blushing students who want to hold my hand?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Adorenorin: Endorphins

They say that February is the coldest month in Kagawa. This past week has been the most gorgeous weather since November.

They say that you do not know what you have until it is gone. I think you cannot understand the importance of what you have until you realize you will not have it forever.

Today I took advantage of the clear sky and crisp air. With my newfound appreciation for Japan, stemming from my decision to leave this country within a matter of months, I did something I have not done since those temperate days of November. I went for a run.

The sounds coming from my headphones, paired with friendly nods from farmers encouraging my exploration, allowed me to step out of my winter slump a month earlier than expected.

Japan, maybe I had to make the decision to leave you to begin to appreciate you.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I must decide by Friday.

I could have been doing this:

But instead I was doing this:

Should I stay another year?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Yasumi: Holiday

I am sitting in my highly disheveled tatami room. My non-functioning kotatsu*, demoted to a coffee table, is carrying the weight of my laptop, a watched DVD, lotion and nail polish remover, muffins, a kiwi, a glass of water, an empty can of a vitamin C drink, a permanent marker, my notebook with important phone numbers, and a few dirty tissues.
This is evidence that I have not left my apartment in two days.

Let me back up a bit.

On Tuesday I went to the hospital where I was diagnosed with the flu (which according to my nurse came from China--nothing is Japan's fault), given an iv as my concerned teacher talked to me about Obama, and was told that I was not to return to work until the following Monday. My teacher then insisted on driving me the three blocks back to my apartment. I explained that I needed to return a video and pick up my laundry (both along the way). She followed me into the video store insisting that I did not rent another movie because I needed to sleep, and then looked on as I stuffed my clean underwear and sweatpants into my laundry basket.

The following morning she called to check in on me and voiced the concern that my co-workers (including the principal) had for my health and recovery. I assured her that I would be fine.
I am under strict orders to not leave my apartment until I am fever free for three days. This is what I have been up to:
-I watched the game that led Heinz Field to break out into Pittsburgh's favorite song.
-I video chatted with my mom's side of the family when I could not be with them in person.
-I watched Obama's inaugural address--duh
-I fixed my broken TV because stopped working. It is amazing how technologically savvy I can become under such dire circumstances.
-I downloaded vuze, an application that allows me to watch new releases, and just as my friend suggested, I was blown away by Slumdog Millionaire.
-I inevitably ran out of food. The fear of infecting others instilled in me by the doctor caused me to ask a friend to go grocery shopping for me. My bizarre food requests led to a series of picture text messages from my confused friend unfamiliar with my tofu, sashimi, and nabe** sauce preferences.
Is this the right tofu in a bag, she asked.

Throughout all of this I have learned a lot about myself.
-I can spend disgusting amounts of time on the internet and be okay with it.
-I believe that video chatting is just as good as face-to-face communication.
-I can go four days in Japan without drinking coffee.
And most importantly...
-Whenever again I have the flu, I will expect to be given a week off from work and ridiculous amounts of sympathy.

If you would like to send me get well soon cards or flowers it would be much appreciated.

*A kotatsu is a table with a built-in a heater. If you do not understand why one would need a table with a built-in heater, you have obviously never been to Japan.
**Nabe is a traditional Japanese winter dish that literally means "pot".

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sumimasen: Excuse me/I'm sorry

The ping pong table that I grew up with was moved aside years ago to make room for my dad’s putting green. It is rolled into its prior spot in the basement once or twice a year to host a beer pong or flip cup match when both my brother and I have all of our friends over—usually on New Year’s Eve or for my birthday.

I always liked playing ping pong with my brother and dad. I seldom won against them, but I could kill any of my friends. My mom, however, never even tried to play with us. I was lucky to have inherited functioning eye-hand coordination genes from my dad’s side of the family.

Today, for the second time in Japan, I put those years of practice to use when I joined the table tennis after-school club at my Junior High. I played a boy who paused to say sumimasen every time he hit a shot that I could not return. He really felt bad about it. In an effort to step up the competition, I suggested that we play a game. He agreed, and I told him not to take it easy on me. The sumimasens continued as I hit the ball into the net, and I could not help but think back to the brawls that my brother and I would get into when arguing over the score, or when I accused him of taking cheap shots. The game against my student lost its vigor as I could see he had no interest in beating (thus embarrassing) me. I was all warmed up though. Ready for a real match; ready to feel my heart race towards a win. Anti-climatically the student said that it was break time and rested his paddle on the table. That was that.

The coach offered to play me next, and again hoping for a good match I consented. He was more interested in seeing how many times we could hit the ball back and forth (147—he kept count) than trying to hit a winning shot. I even found myself saying sumimasen when I hit the ball too hard.

I guess club activities in Japan are not about winning or losing. I will just have to get used to playing for fun.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia (possibly in that order)

On my last day of work before winter vacation I tried to write a really reflective blog entry on everything I learned about teaching middle school students over the past four months. I wrote a draft that referenced various educational philosophers and how my idealist expectations were squashed by the paradigm of English education in Japan. However, I could not capture the resiliently optimistic tone that I was going for, so I watched the letters fade from the computer screen as I held down the backspace key in frustration.

I spent that evening filling a simple black backpack with everything I would need for the next two weeks in Borneo--a huge accomplishment in not overpacking.

Then I went to Malaysia to meet my cousins Annie and Caitlin, Caitlin's friend Brad, and Jocelyn, who came a week into our stay.
First Caitlin got sick, then Annie, then me. Brad fell asleep to the sounds of vomit crashing against the toilet bowl and Annie's hallucinations of rats crawling in her brain.
We lived off of room service for a week.
After we were well enough to escape the waterfront Hyatt, Caitlin, Brad and Annie took on Mt. Kinabalu, as Jocelyn and I did this
and this and saw the biggest flower in the world,
and made friends wherever we went.
On January 1st, Jocelyn and I went to the gorgeous islands one last time. We were supposed to catch the 5:00 boat back to the city along with all of the other tourists, but with a flirtatious boat driver's number in my sandy purse, I made a call that alloted us three extra hours on the island. After watching the magnificent sunset, darkness settled over us, and our driver appeared in a rickety boat with his brother. Apprehensively, but with little choice, Jocelyn and I boarded the boat with the strange men that took us across the South China Sea. We held onto each other as we gazed at the breathtaking sky full of stars. Upon exiting the boat we thanked the two men, wished them a happy new year, and then parted ways all the more faithful in the good in mankind.

This brings me back to the beginning of this post--keeping the faith as a teacher.

Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh sums up my world philosophy in two simple sentences: "When you grow a tree, if it does not grow well, you don't blame the tree. You look into the reasons it is not doing well."
My students just need a little bit of water and sunshine. Hopefully I brought enough back from Malaysia.