Posted in flashback friday, Jobs in Japan

Flashback Friday: When It’s All Mundane

As the months rolled on from summer into fall of 2011, I found myself unable to write about my life. It wasn’t for lack of wanting to, but I found that everything was becoming a new standard of “normal.” I wasn’t running off to go on adventures every weekend, I wasn’t living in an anime, I had a real life with a real job I needed to do. The days passed by with little to nothing noteworthy, so I ended up posting only two things the entire month of November.

I decided to stick with the old phrase, “Write about what you know.”


MY DAILY ROUTINE

People have asked me what I do during the day, so I’ll talk a little bit about that. It’s pretty simple. I arrive at 8:15 at my school and work until 4:00 in the afternoon. When I arrive I say, “Ohayo gozaimasu!” My teachers will either say, “Ohayo gozaimasu!” back or “Good morning!”I can have two to five class periods per day. During free periods, I try to work on worksheets, projects, Japanese (reading and writing), and I won’t lie sometimes I just go onto Facebook. Sometimes I eat with the students for lunch and speak in English to them. Other times, especially lately, I eat with the teachers and try out both my Japanese and English skills.


Each ALT will have a different opinion on whether or not they should or shouldn’t eat school lunches with the kids. Some people don’t get a choice and have to regardless, but for me I was given the option. Some days I could force myself to be genki and try to initiate broken conversations. Other times, I couldn’t bear the thought of forcing words out and making lunch into yet another class to teach.

The argument for them goes like so: Students need more conversation practice and more time with the foreign teacher(s). But the counter argument to that is some people would like to eat in privacy and not get stressed out over eating. I took it day by day.


My kids are great. I’ve got a couple of punks that are too cool for school, but that’s normal I think. Some kids are also really shy, but I’ll keep trying to get them to talk. They love to tell me about what they like and don’t like. The boys are hilarious. They’re not looking at my eyes, if you catch my drift, but they’re talking to me in English so it’s all good.


I felt really bad for most of my junior high school students, actually. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that their English levels were perhaps American grade level forth graders, if that. It was around this time I realized that Itako was much like the decade ago version of Paducah: most of those kids would become farmers, they would drop out of high school, they’d get married, and they might never even leave Japan.

That’s not to say of course that many of them didn’t go into good high schools to eventually perform well at university (I actually met up with one or two recently in Yokohama!). At the same time, the majority were still just products of their upbringing and conservative environment. The schools are improving every year though, and I watched as our scores rose higher and higher while I was there. Yet I would also watch as the “punk” kids struggled to understand the basics of anything and wouldn’t even bother trying because they figured they knew exactly how their lives would turn out.


My Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs for short) are awesome. I love working with them. They are so accommodating with my crazy English. Sometimes, it can be hard to communicate some things, but I’m lucky to have them for JTEs. Some people have issues with their teachers and supervisors in ways that horrify me. I’m so glad my JTEs are nice, respectful, and willing to teach me.


While it’s true that my JTE’s were pretty great as people, I still couldn’t believe their English skills were so hit and miss.  Considering that most of them came from the era of Japanese education where English was only reading and writing? It was pretty good. In terms of fluency? High intermediate level on average. They could run circles around me on explaining grammar, but they’d get stumped over simple language conversation usage.

I will still remain forever grateful that most of most stayed with me for all three years. I got that stability of knowing what each of them wanted and not having to worry about brand new people every year. And yes, none of these people gave me horror stories.

Many ALT’s will have THAT ONE ASSHOLE. He/She is the JTE who didn’t bother to do anything ever, blamed the ALT if scores were low, made disparaging comments about foreigners/ALTs/racist other things, sabotages demo lessons in front of other teachers and parents, ruins perfectly good worksheets, behaves like a seudo-yankee and threatens the ALT for coming to class, the list goes on and on.

I only ever had a problem with Mr. Igime (name changed into a pun). He was with me for only six months, and he was just lazy. He’d go into class, use me as a tape recorder, and then just have the students read the books over and over again. He would attempt to bully me, but I’m one of those people who can dish it right back. He learned pretty quickly that I’m not his slave and I’m not going to call him senpai or whatever. The only time he caught me off guard was when he complained in front of the students in Japanese how it wasn’t fair I was making “so much more money” than him. Huge dick move, but jokes on him because I went straight to the Principal after class and filed a complaint. He didn’t come back the following year.


The only downside, I’ll be honest, is the textbooks. The textbooks are awful. Whenever my fellow JET Setters and I get together at a meeting, this topic will invariably come up. Immediately, everybody has something to say in terms of what it does wrong. It ranges from everything to bad grammar, misspellings, archaic language, and then (my biggest issue) the huge lack of English culture in the book.

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I could cite the many pages throughout the New Horizon and Sunshine texts that use incorrect examples of grammar and what have you, but that would take up too much time and effort. Instead, I’ll just give a couple of examples and move on.

“My favorite was Kinkaku-ji.”

First off, it should be Kinkaku Temple, not Kinkaku-ji. Also, favorite what? Your favorite place? Your favorite sight?

“Where shall we meet?”and “Pardon?”

Shall? Really? The last time I used “shall” was a sarcastic response to my mother when she asked me, “Are you going to clean your room?” And I responded in my most obnoxiously polite voice, “Yes, mother, I shall.” Nobody uses shall. It’s polite, but it’s ridiculously polite. And the last person I hear use the word, “Pardon?” was an old lady. Nobody, that I know of, uses the word pardon in everyday language. Instead, I always hear, “I’m sorry, what?” or “Huh?” or “Wha?” or “What?” and on occasion “Darlin’, I didn’ah understand uh word ya jus said.” I miss Kentucky accents. Anyway, they’re teaching the kids these words and I have to stifle the urge to giggle every time.

“I got a letter from Canada. But I can’t read it.”

GAHHHHH! WHAT?! Every single American, British, and Australian will tell you that when writing sentences, you do not put conjugation at the beginning of a sentence if you can help it. The textbook could just as easy say, “I got a letter from Canada, but I can’t read it.” They have other sentences like that in the book. Why the wrong version?! It’s so confusing and inconsistent. Sometimes, I will correct a sentence and a JTE might say, “Oh, but that’s in the textbook!” I clench my fists while I smile and say, “Well, I’m afraid the textbook is wrong. I will let it count, but it’s not correct.” It makes me want to scream just a little bit.

Alright, so you get the idea. Now, it may seem nit picky with these examples, but they’re all over the textbooks. It would be a different story if there were only a few problems, but it doesn’t stop at just a sentence here or there.


Every single ALT I know agrees that the MEXT textbooks are garbage, but they’re government issued garbage so we have to just use them anyway. Three years down the road when I realized that I knew those textbooks inside and out, and I asked myself, “Can I really teach these same lessons for one more year?” I realized the answer was an emphatic NO, and decided it was time to go.

However, this is part of the reason why ALT’s exist. We come into the classroom with Native English (or equivalent) under our belt so that we can point out these mistakes and then teach the students the better way to do it. I spent a lot of classes explaining things like, “Well, even though the textbook says this is natural, we actually say _____ more often.” or “Sometimes it’s okay to do this when you’re writing, but when you’re speaking please be careful not to say it like that.” and visa versa.


I might have been able to let sleeping dogs lie if not for the fact that the textbook teaches little to nothing about foreign culture.

Very briefly at one point the textbook students visit Canada, but then they go back to Japan four pages or so later. So often, the textbooks talk about things in Japan, things the students already know. To me, the implied message is, “Hey, kids! English is awesome for vacations and for a homestay, but really you don’t need to know a single thing about a culture other than your own!” Way to teach a language in a vacuum, MEXT.


Here is another reason ALT’s are necessary, we have the cultural background and understanding of our respective countries that we can bring into the classroom. I talked about Kentucky’s cultural traditions around the holidays-the top three being Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. In addition to that I would make English Boards, posters that would get placed on a wall that discussed other countries traditions.

While I still think the textbooks could try and teach a little more about other places, there is something to be said for taking the reigns and proving your worth as vital part of the school. If you notice something that you think is lacking, do something about it.


There is little to no hope for change in the system. The textbooks stay the same because of the standardized tests, and the standardized tests stay the same because of the textbooks. It’s a vicious cycle.

I get through these moments by telling myself that the activities will make up for the loss. However, it’s hard to build up from a poor foundation. It’s very easy for the students to get confused with one little change in the script. For example, I was doing a “Where is…?” assignment. When I asked the students, “Where is your pen?” they all just sat and stared at me in confusion. Eventually they figured it out, but the fact is they couldn’t grasp that “Where is…?” applied not just to, “Where is the store?” but also other things and places. The textbooks make it seem like the scripts are just that, scripts.


Because there is little to no hope for change in the system, it’s really important for teachers to take the initiative to fight for proper English and cultural exchange. Of course, you’ve always got to pick and choose your battles, but make an effort to show that there’s more than just some lines in a book or something to memorize for a test.

Then, what past me doesn’t know yet is that there are ways to make the scripts more memorable and flexible, such as layering. Whenever you move forward, try to bring a little bit back from the previous lesson and layer it on top of new material. Keep it fresh in the students’ minds. Also, bringing in pop culture can always help make it more memorable while being fun at the same time.


For the most part, I’ve been lucky enough when it comes to activities that I haven’t had to work from nothing at all. Lauren left me a huge amount of worksheets and activity books so that I could make my lessons without much hassle. Also, I use a website called Englipedia if I need help with a grammar point activity or if I need something right before class. I love using Englipedia because it’s got the lessons organized by textbook and even by each section. For me it’s one of the most convenient resources online for ALTs.

Usually, I spend at least one free hour planning out the lessons for the next day or next couple of days, depending on what the JTE wants. Sometimes it’s hard to get a hold of them to find out what exactly they want from me, so I leave notes on their desks or a Lesson Plan Form that I fill out for them to look over and return to me. I try to catch them to talk face to face as often as possible, but sometimes they’re just too busy.


I still can’t recommend Englipedia enough as an ALT site. It’s got everything you need to make your lessons great. That being said, sometimes my JTE’s would get so picky about they wanted and I’ve have to redo a worksheet five to ten times to make it look just so or include this vocab word, or something. After all that, I sometimes didn’t even get to use the activities because of some scheduling thing or another! So frustrating, but that’s a part of the job.


Everyday when I leave, I say, “Otsukaresamadeshita!” and the teachers in the staff room will either say, “Otsukaresamadeshita!” in return or “See you!” The English makes me smile every single time.


I think in my next Japanese Conversation Tip post I’m going to talk about all the different goodbyes that are possible in a Japanese workplace environment versus friends and such. When I first got there it was a bit confusing as to which one I was supposed to use, but nowadays I’m pretty confident on which I should and shouldn’t so I’ll pass that knowledge along.

The rest of the post is talking about my pet spider, which I’d actually like to save for next Friday. I’m going to take that opportunity to educate everyone on all the creepy crawlies that live in the inaka parts of Japan. You’d be surprised what you can find! Until then everyone, sayonara and see you later.

Posted in flashback friday, Uncategorized

Flashback Friday: First Post In Japan!

When I first got to Japan, it took me over a month to actually get the courage to write a blog. Most people think it’s easy to just throw words out there and see what happens, but I was scaredWhat if nobody likes it?! What if I suck at this? Shoud I even bother?

But with the encouragement of my family and friends, I did in fact put it out there for the world to see. Honestly, it didn’t really go into a lot of details, because I was so scared of hurting someone’s feelings or making someone angry if I mentioned something about them in the post. Now that I know these people, I don’t think they’d be too upset about me telling a few additional things here.


WELCOME TO JAPAN!

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Ibaraki Prefecture: Group A

I’ve heard it so many times and it never gets old. I’m still so excited to be here! Everyone in my city is so nice and helpful. I’m glad I ended up in a place that’s more rural than urban. I’m not a fan of big cities. I like looking out onto the rice fields and just feeling so relaxed. I couldn’t have ended up at a better place for me.


Oh boy, Itako-shi was a great city, don’t get me wrong but past me couldn’t have known that it would also begin to feel really isolated after about the fifth month mark. I didn’t really have a lot of people around me who I just, ya know, really clicked with. The few people I did lived far away, so I’d have to either go up to Mito to see them or Tsukuba or something. It wasn’t as perfect as I made it out to be, but I suppose I just didn’t really know anything else to compare it to.

To just add on a few things I failed to mention the first time around, Group A was a fantastic group. I’m still in contact with most of these people, even though many of them left Japan and returned to their homelands. We had a mixed bag of a photography major, a chemistry major (who I think was still getting her masters at that time?), philosophy, and so on. Two of my friends, I’ll call them J and C, still live in Japan and I meet up with them sometimes. You can really make long lasting and strong connections with your group, and then it got even better with the following groups B & C. Get to know them at the JET training conference, because you’ll be seeing them a lot and also because you’ll want to make an ex-pat social life circle starting from there.

There’s this rumor that circulates around about the JET Programme that you need Japanese to get a leg up on the competition, but that’s just not true. I hold these guys and gals don’t get angry with me for saying so, but only three people in that first picture could speak Japanese (at first, I mean). Later on we would all learn and study Japanese in Japan.


Lauren Parker
From left to right: Ikeda-san, me, and Lauren

And I couldn’t have lucked out with a better predecessor. Lauren Parker lived in Itako for three years before I came along, and she got the apartment all prepared for me. She even put up pictures and things so the walls didn’t seem so bare. Since she and the Board of Education furnished the apartment, I didn’t have to buy anything when I arrived. Many of the other ALTs did, poor things, but I didn’t!


Lauren was an amazing pred. She set up so much for me, took me to a bunch of social gatherings so I’d make connections, she introduced me to my schools. Yet, that whole experience was overwhelming. I was getting shuttled here, then there, getting this contract signed, and then having to go meet a whole bunch of new people every night, and I ended up having a huge migraine one day, and the night the picture below was taken I balled my eyes out in a mini-breakdown on the car ride home. It wasn’t her fault, not at all, just be aware that going abroad just on its own can be stressful and then all the prep work to live there will compound that stress. I survived, and looking back there really isn’t much I’d change, because all of that was imporant to do.

Also, I was really lucky with my apartment set-up. The city paid for the rent, so I just paid utilities. Many JETs got subsidized housing, but not completely paid for kind of places. It was a pretty spacious 2DK with a full kitchen, which meant having people over for dinner and spending the night was no big deal.

However, the place was old, as in it needed new tatami, it needed new work done on the walls, someone should’ve come in to insulate the windows better, it was just kind of always grungy no matter how much I cleaned and cleaned it. So I, honestly, gave up one year into it and started putting carpets over the floor and covered the walls with pictures and posters to just make it look less so.


 

Cultural Festival with Lauren
I also met my Japanese teacher, Yamada-sensei! She’s between Lauren and me. 

The teachers I’ll be working with at Hinode and Itako 2nd Junior High School seem pretty cool. They’ve asked me to help out with activities during the summer, and I’m glad. I don’t know what I would do with myself if I didn’t help out. I find that I spend my free time just kind of being lonesome in my apartment, and that can’t be healthy. I’ve tried to be more outgoing after school, but it’s hard. I don’t know who to call, when it’s okay to call, or what the proper etiquette is over here. I don’t know. Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill.


Just for future reference to future JET and incoming to Japan people, if you get a number and someone tells you to call them “anytime,” they generally mean it. Go ahead and call, the worst thing that can happen is they’ll say no. Making new friends in a new environment is important, and just getting to know the area is good too. If you’re finding yourself “lonesome,” then go take a walk. Get familiar with your surroundings. Be proactive when you’re abroad!


Settling in has been pretty easy, all things considered. My shipped box came in earlier than I thought it would with everything intact. The apartment’s really starting to feel more like home. I want to add more things, like more bookshelves, but I have to wait and get a car first. I need a car for where I live. It’s just too spread out for me to bike everywhere. I enjoy biking, but the convenience of a car is nice, not to mention safer than biking on these broken roads.

The area specifically where I live in Hinode got hit hard by the earthquake. Hinode Junior High School, one of the two junior high schools where I will work for Monday through Friday, actually had the ground around it drop a few feet. The roads used to be smooth and flat, but now they’re bumpy and out of alignment. When I bike I have to be careful of the cracks and crevices, and also spiders. There are lots of spiders here and they are not afraid of putting their webs right a human face distance from the ground, unfortunately.


My shipped box was basically a bunch of shoes and jeans that I’m ever so glad arrived when it did, because dear Jesus my shoe size doesn’t exist here. I’m a female with 10 and a half wide feet. Yeah, it’s a nightmare shopping for shoes in America, and hell in Japan with all the woman having the daintiest tiny feet!!!

Also, poor younger me, those jeans weren’t going to fit in only six months. I lost A LOT of weight shortly after those pictures were taken, and it wasn’t until I went back home in December that I got clothes that fit me again. This is a fairly common thing for ex-pats that come to Japan, they generally loose about 5 pounds in one year, but I lost about 9 in six months. I had to keep wearing them regardless because the clothing stores here aren’t kind to busty bodies.

I really confused as to why I didn’t put up a picture of the earthquake damage. I mean, I had pictures but I guess I must’ve just forgot to put them in, so here:

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I also neglected to mention that when I first moved in, there was still a water advisory for the area to not drink the tap water. I would have to either buy water from a convenience store down the street or bike all the way to grocery store and back for free water. I asked my teachers if it was safe if I just boiled the tap water, but they shook their heads and told me no. For some reason, showering in it was fine? I don’t know. Long story short, I ended up biking at least once a week (if not two or three) which is probably the main reason I lost weight.

By the way, I ended up having a pet spider named Bob, but he’s in another post.


I’ve had communication issues. I came over with only the basic Japanese skills, enough to basically be an annoying tourist. When it comes to reading and writing, I know Hiragana and Katakana. It’s useful, but Kanji exists. Kanji and I are not friends. I want to learn all the characters so bad, but I can’t seem to keep anything in my head since I came over. I think I might just be out of practice, but it’s also probably got something to do with stress. I’m hoping that when I get more of a routine down things will start to stick.

Still, I think the language barrier is aptly named. Sometimes, not very often but often enough to make me feel dumb, this invisible wall comes up between me and other people. Nothing is getting through and I really need to say something important, but I can’t get the message sent out and then received. It sucks! I hate feeling helpless, and a language barrier can definitely make me feel very much so. It only lasts maybe about two minutes in a conversation, but it leaves a bad kind of aftertaste in my mouth, like the words I couldn’t say are bitter. I really hope that as my language skills increase, the barriers will decrease.


Oh my God, Kanji and I still aren’t friends! How little has changed in that regard. I, of course, can read and write a lot more now than then, but it’s not easier to study in the slightest for me. I have a tough time with it, which just makes me all the more determined to learn it, though.

Also, younger me won’t realize until later that the language barrier can be greatly overcome with gestures. I talk more with my hands now than ever before, because it really helps both me and the people I’m talking to understand what I’m saying. If all else fails, getting a picture of the thing I want on my phone is also fine, or drawing it when I’m desperate. It can feel really hard when people don’t understand you, but don’t be afraid to use something other than just words to get your point across.


I don’t think the small town celebrity status will ever change. It’s odd to walk around and feel trapped in my own skin. I mean, I don’t want to change or anything, it’s just I’m really aware of the fact now that I’m Caucasian. When I get on the train, I hear the whispers of, “Gaijin!” and I see people pointing and staring at me as if I really am an alien. Also, I’ve never been winked at by so many guys until I came over here. I swear! I’m not that attractive, but apparently that doesn’t matter. It’s kind of nice, I mean, I’m flattered. But I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I’m here to work, not date.


Hahahahahahaha! Alright, so if you’re not someone who lives in Japan, this might seem really arrogant and dumb. You might be thinking, “How can you know they were talking about you?!” And the answer to that is, I’d be the only foreigner in my shopping mall, on my street, on the trains, all the time! Eyes followed me everywhere! But then at some point my town did in fact kind of accept me as a strange part in their background and stopped commenting all the time. Every time I move, though, the same thing happens. I get “small celebrity” status for about six months, and then everyone doesn’t care so much anymore.

Younger me was also not aware that the guys were just excited to see one young and single woman in the area, because most of Itako is made for married people with kids. Singles aren’t numberous, and ironically enough, it’s one of the reasons I ended up leaving. When I finally wanted to date, I couldn’t, so I decided to move somewhere that I could.


Although, I’ve got to admit I love the Japanese business men. Not the shady ones, but you know the black suit with the black tie. I think it’s hot. I don’t know why, I just kind of do. Speaking of hot Japanese men, I’m apparently a fan of Jun Matsumoto. I really liked Shin Sawada in the drama Gokusen. For some reason, it never occurred to me that Matsumoto Jun is Matsu Jun from Arashi. I’ll go ahead and admit I’m not a huge Arashi fan or JPOP fan in general. Arashi is okay, but I really don’t love the music. I’ll listen to them, but they’re not my favorite. Still, I’ve got to admit I can see why girls just lose themselves over Jun-kun. He’s quite attractive (and a pretty good actor, in my opinion). So, yeah, something I discovered about myself I didn’t know. I’m apparently Team Jun.

Anyway, I think I’ve run out of steam. It’s my first blog post in a really long time. This time I hope I keep it up. I’m not very good at keeping blogs updated, so we’ll see how it goes. Hope you all enjoyed my ramblings!

TTYL!


I stand by all my words about the attractiveness of both men in business suits and MatsuJun. Don’t even play with me on the man, he’s my future fantasy husband.

Hold up, what game are you playing younger self? “My first blog post in a really long time?” I must’ve either meant my long defunct Live Journal or MySpace “blogs,” but either way, that’s hilarious. I also really, really thought TTYL was gonna be my like sign off catchphrase thing, but no just no.

This has been the first ever Flashback Friday article! I’ll be doing these every Friday until I run out of old posts from the old blog…although by then I might do flashbacks from this site instead, I don’t know we’ll see how this goes. Until next week!