Getting out of town

I went to Kyoto on Sunday. This was my first big trip out of town if you don't include my brief coffee rendezvous in Kobe with the friend of friend. I just got my first paycheck on Thursday, so now I was free to travel at my leisure. I have to say that the first substantial paycheck in two years feels pretty good. Now I can go shopping at the grocery store and not have to rack my noggin for 5 minutes on which jar of peanut butter has a lower cost/ounce because I'm nickel and diming my way through grad school. So anywhoo, I hop on an early train because I'm trying to make it to the Christian Science Society in Kyoto by 10. I catch an express train in Osaka to Kyoto. I'm thinking, "oh, express. Great this will get me there lickety split." Little did I know that there are like 4 levels of express on the Hankyu line. Express, rapid express, limited express, and super express. So my express is pretty much the local one. By the time I get to Kyoto, church has already started. I take the subway there and arrive 1/2 way through the service. It was nice to meet some Christian Scientists in the area, that spiritual support when one is away from home is important.

After the service, I walked down to the Imperial Gardens. The Imperial Palace is closed on weekends, so I just walked around. You actually need to apply in advance with a passport for some of the buildings on the grounds, so I'll have to work on that.

Now I haven't splurged all my money from my paycheck yet, but I have bought a few essential things that I've been doing without for the past month. Keitai, or cell phones, have a lot of features over here. Seeing as though I am basically illiterate to text message in Kanji and don't have too many people to chat with for hours on end, I decided to go for the basic pre-paid keitai. I'm telling this because I used the camera feature to take some pictures of the Imperial Gardens and Nijo-jo (castle) on my trip. But, I still haven't figured out how to send the pictures from my phone to my computer. So you'll have to use your imagination or the link at the top to get an idea of where I went.

Tonight I had Japanese class. We studied adjectives tonight. Fortunately, our teacher is tri-lingual (Japanese, Chinese, and English) and most of the class is either from China or speaks English. But still, our class is mostly in Japanese. Our teachers uses big and simple pictures to teach new vocabulary. I'm scrambling to write in hiragana and pop my head up to get the new words. By the end of class I have a page and a half full of new vocab to memorize for next week. I'm trying to make use of my commute time (by foot, 10 minutes) to read some flashcards. I honed my skill in reading while I walk during high school, so I'm pretty much the best walk reader that I know of. (echos of Napolean Dynamite there. Thanks Gilda.)

Things at school are going well. This weekend we have English camp for the first year students. Just 24 hours. I'm not sure we'll have any breakthroughs, but at least introduce them to the environment of being surrounded by another language. Our school has two exchanges with schools in India and California each year. The Indian students are coming next week. Perhaps that will be the topic of next week's blog. Thanks for your comments, conversation is the best way to tell a story for me anyway. Ja mata ne! (See you later!)


A little taste of home

This week's blog is about getting more settled in around here. I am
starting to establish a routine for leaving for work, bedtime, and
when to do certain errands. Perhaps that sounds to wimpy for a world
traveller to have a routine, but it does simplify some things in life
while others are still very complex and not yet understood. I feel
like I've passed the honeymoon phase of cultural adjustment and the
long-term contact with Japan is setting in. The Japanese classes have
helped because I need the confidence that langauge instruction
provides for trying new things with the language. I don't speak too
much Japanese at school because my students expect me to speak
English, most of the faculty speaks enough English to convey important
information, and the Japanese English teachers enjoy the practice. So
that leaves my personal time to get outside of the house and practice

The apartment unit that I have here is spacious even by American
standards. Granted its a one-bedroom, but I haven't lived in one so
big before. So, I don't need to get out of the house to overcome
clostrophobia or anything. But I should. Yet there's the written
language barrier that I reach every time. Perhaps you know that
there's 3 writing systems in Japanese: Hiragana and Katakana
(syllabaries, one for Japanese words the former for foreign words) and
Kanji (ideagraphs of Chinese origin that are much more complex to
write). To make it even harder, each Kanji has one word for its
pronunciation and another word for its meaning. Are you confused yet?
Now you know how I feel! Now don't get me wrong, I think the Japanese
have got a great thing going here. It condenses the information into a
smaller package so one can write a lot more to the page. But the
buy-in for new learners is costly.

I think the most challenging thing with Kanji is that there is no 1-1
relationship with English words or a way of alphabetizing the Kanji
characters so one can use a bilingual dictionary to look up the
unknown Kanji. I think various people have tried to systematize Kanji
into a dictionary, but they all weigh 15 pounds so its hard to put it
in the pocket for easy reference on the street. After all this, I
certainly have more empathy for illiterate people in America who have
to verbalize everything to understand what's going on as well as hope
that nothing out of the ordinary happens that one would need to read
to set it straight again.

But I digress from the homey feeling theme of this blog entry. So
after Japanese class tonight I fould an oasis: Mister Donut. Back in
California I didn't belly-up to Winchel's or Dunkin' Donut on a daily
basis with the Po-lice. But I do enjoy the occaisional indulgence in a
donut as my dad can vouch from our evening Krispy Kreme runs. "The
light is on!" So there's a Mister Donut in the mall where my Japanese
classes take place. I went there after class with my Indonesian
classmate. Donuts are about 100 Yen a piece and we had hot tea with
ours. I don't think the USA's Mr. Donuts (the only one I knew was in
Alton, IL during college) has complete tea sets at their
establishments, but in Japan its the basic level of service. I enjoyed
the familiar taste as I fumbled with an unfamiliar lingua franca in
order to communicate with my Indonesian friend.

The moral of this blog is: the more I get out, the more I find a taste
of home. I think I'm still hungry though...


Kidnapped. Sort of.

I slept in because it was Saturday and did some tidying up. I knew I had to get to school at some point during the day and figured that noon would be a good time to get out of the house by. So I'm walking to school and all of a sudden a friend of mine from Japanese class honks her horn and pulls over. Get in she says. Ok, well I figure she wants to talk to me about the dinner she invited me over for today. We start driving. Oh, she's gonna give me a ride to school a few blocks away. We turn around. Uh, what's going on? I ask her what time exactly dinner was. 12 o'clock she says in Japanese. Oh, that would explain why she's taking me away from school. Remember I told you that I'd pick you up at school, she says. Oh yea. That was in my email from her after class on Thursday. Yea, should have read that a little more carefully.

But I'm glad that my intuition served me well enough to avoid missing her party. So now I'm in the car, going someplace I don't know and didn't plan on. I guess you could call that kidnapped. But I just forgot about this social event. We talk in Japanese and broken English has we go back to her house. My Indonesian friend from Japanese class married a Japanese man about 13 years ago, she has two children and lives in a nice house on a hill overlooking the whole town of Nishinomiya. I play with her kids as she makes some Indonesian food. She prepares some shishkabobs and tells her daughters to fan the charcoal on the grill. We get the coals pretty hot and put the grill on. A little too hot. We burned about half of the shishkabobs. I learned the Japanese word for bitter, "negai" or something like that. But the rice noodles were delicious.

More friends come over. 5. They're Indonesians from Kyoto, Nara, Osaka. I thought they all knew my friend from class but only one of them did. The rest knew one other person but they all were talking and joking like old friends. One of them spoke some English so he interpreted every once in a while. We talked about Indonesian geography, history, our impressions of Japan. I tried to be polite, felt a little stiff because I took seriously the joking and flirting that they were kidding about. But chalked up this experience to observation of culture.

I got a ride home when some of the guests had to catch their train home. Phew. I got to school and was seen by a few teachers, so I didn't get thought of as avoiding school. Next time, I'll check the details and bring them with me!


A Clarification

I got a nice comment from an anonymous visitor "Sarah" who wanted to
know what I meant by this quote from my Sept 10 blog:

We talked about the bad rap that English teachers get in Japan from
those who have no empathy or clue about cross-cultural differences.

I think the last part of the sentence was ambiguous. Sorry. What I
meant was that some English teachers who teach in Japan aren't very
sensitive to the fact that there are cultural differences in the
classroom and on the street betweeen Americans and Japanese. This
frustrates the insensitive English teachers and they may act on this
frustration in inappropriate ways. Instead of seeing behaviours, such
as hesitancy to speak in class or ask a question of the teacher during
class, as wrong, they should see them as different. That way, the
visitor to Japan can begin to see that culture is like an iceberg: you
only see 10% of its mass on the surface, the majority of the cultural
force behind a surface behavior is deep below.

I know that adjusting to a new culture can be frustrating for anyone.
I don't want to judge those whom I am stereotyping at the moment. I
just want to encourage those who are planning to or currently live
abroad to hone their cross-cultural skills to the point where his/her
awareness of cultural issues may trigger the hunch that, "maybe
something cultural is going on here and I shouldn't take offense to
the behavior until I learn more about it."

From my experience so far (2.5 weeks!) of living in Japan, I find that
well-educated English teachers are paid well and the country has many
technological and infrastructural features that match or surpass the
USA. But just to come here for the bucks or the gadgets would be like
going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, not giving a donation
for admission in order to save $, use the cloth towels and touchless
faucets in the restroom, and leave. This country is rich in cultural
artifacts, behavior, and language; I intend to get beneath its surface
before I leave here, whenever that is.


First day of teaching

My first day of teaching at KG (short for Kwansei Gakuin) was a great
introduction to a Japanese junior high classroom. Because our school
is a private school, I'm assuming that we have a bit more funding and
freedom to design classrooms with more technology. I taught
conversation with my co-teacher, Ms. Thrasher (or Thrasher-sensei as I
may throw in with my Jenglish at times). So we conduct class in the
AVLL (audio-visual language lab) which has typical headsets,
microphones, and control panels at each desk. I say typical because I
used a similar system in college, but nothing remotely close to this
in JH. And atypical, to my experience at least, is TV monitors for
every two students that are close-circuited to a device that takes a
picture of your handout. Sort of like an OHP display for each table.
There were all sorts of buttons that I didn't want to touch for fear
of discombobulating the entire system.
Today's goal was to introduce my role in the class, facilitating one
on one conversations. Yes, I will conduct approximately 190 2-minute
interviews with all the 9th grade boys. The junior high contains three
grades, 7-9. But today I was just introducing the idea. I created a
detailed handout about the procedure, format, grading criteria, and
success tips for the conversations. My master's degree has informed me
of a lot of issues for testing students, so I think I wanted to be
forthright and fair with the students, even if they aren't aware of
all these things.
As for the actual procedure of friday's class, Ms. Thrasher (a
bilingual, bicultural teacher with American father and Japanese
mother) had a well-organized system of randomly assigning a new
seating chart. The students were trying Survivor tactics (outsmart,
outplay) to predict where their number tag would show up on the
seating chart so they could plan to sit by a friend. All were
disappointed. But they laughed anyway.
Then it was my turn to go over the handout. In retrospect maybe a
more creative approach would have kept their attention, but I
proceeded to just read along with them on the handout. I dramatized a
few points where difficult words were. I planned 15 minutes for this
event, it took 30. I asked if there were any questions. Blank faces.
After the third class, I chose to elongate my "wait time" so much that
it was uncomfortable for the students as they fidgeted in their seats.
I gave them an out of asking questions after class. I've known for 2
years that Japanese students rarely ask questions of their teacher
during class. Hence, my teaching style is still conditioned for an
American classroom. This will take time to work out.
Finally, Ms. Thrasher played a spelling game with the students. The
first word "necklace" really confounded all 4 classes. What's cool is
that students "buzz in" using their control panel at their desk, so
the teacher can play Jeopardy! style games to see the order of who
buzzed in when. That could come in handy.
After school, I had the English club. Yes, from 4-5:30 on a Friday I
stayed at school to have a club meeting. I suppose that sports coaches
at JH and HS do this all the time too, but usually I'm familiar with
Americans who purposefully get off work early on Friday to get a head
start on the weekend. Not so in Japan. But that's fine with me to stay
late. At the moment I have no money to spend and no friends to spend
it with, so staying at a familiar place in an unfamiliar country is
fine with me for now. And I know that being dedicated to work
community is part of the culture here so I'm trying to find value in
this by toeing the party line.
So there's 3 boys in the English club. Fortunately, I have a
repertoire of short English games from Concordia Language Villages so
I wasn't at a loss for what to do with them. They're a polite,
fun-loving bunch. I think I'll enjoy this weekly respite from large
classes to have some comfortable and fun English learning with
motivated boys.
Well, the school day ends there but my teaching experience doesn't.
I'd made plans to meet with a JET colleague of my girlfriend Gilda's
at Starbucks in Kobe. Please toss out any issues you may have with me
patronizing this juggernaut American establishment when i should have
been searching out the local Japanese alternative. I was the only
Gaijin in there as I waited for Leon and the 70/30 post/pre-recycled,
unbleached napkin that I used to wipe my face was made in Japan. How's
that for social responsibility and local employment? Anywho, Leon has
stayed in Japan after 3 years in JET and teaches at the Cram (evening)
school upstairs from Starbucks. We talked about the bad rap that
English teachers get in Japan from those who have no empathy or clue
about cross-cultural differences. We talked about some case-studies of
pre-literate Japanese kids learning English at Leon school.
Interesting hypothesis that the writing system restricts older
students' pronunciation because the vowel systems, codified by the
writing, limit the pronunciation of Japanese people speaking English
because English has certain sounds that Japanse doesn't. For example,
there is no soft "c" sound in Japanese like in the English word "sea".
So for the letter "c" Japanese may pronounce it like the Kana "shi".
My trip to Kobe to meet Leon at the Starbucks was another adventure
story. The short of it was that I left my map at home but didn't know
how to negotiate the 3 private and 1 public railway between
Nishinomiya and Kobe. Yes, 4 seperate train lines. Most American
cities struggle to fill one public line, but Kansai area of Japan has
3 companies making a profit on public transport. Very efficient. The
end of the short story is that I obviously made it to my destination
and returned safely home near midnight. I walked the quiet streets
alone and didn't feel vigilant for thieves at all. This is certainly a
different experience than USA or my last life abroad in Jamaica. Ja
mata ne (see you later)!


Music: the universal language

We had a choral workshop for the entire junior high school today. What
that meant was that 600 7-9th grade boys filled the chapel and
received some instruction from a professional a cappella quartet from
Tokyo. Like the other teachers, I sat in the back and observed. When
the quartet started to sing, i couldn't help but get a little
misty-eyed. I could understand the performers on a very deep level not
because I knew the Japanese words that they were saying, but because
the principles of music transcend human language and culture. Harmony
works the same way in English and in USA as it does in Japanese and
Japan. For two weeks I've been struggling to find my bearings in a
country with roots of civilizations almost seperate from my own. I
hesitate to draw many conclusions as I write this blog because I know
that on the surface it may look one way, but beneath it, like an
iceberg, the culture has deeper reasons for exhibiting the behavior
that it does.

Anyway, back to the music. These singers were real pros. They sang a
few songs in English at beginning and end. In the middle, they led the
boys in singing the school songs and a few hymns (its a Christian
school). Each member of the quartet (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) did
something with voice, breathing, annunciation, etc. as the boys
giggled nervously and tried to imitate. When the quartet performed a
jingled they had recorded for a popular TV show, the boys erupted with
applause louder than what they gave for the operatic duet, Mozart
piece, or Jazz song. That's plugged into culture the boys are at the
moment. That's fine.

Well, tomorrow is my first day in front of these students as a
teacher. Stay tuned for all the details tomorrow!


The Staff Retreat

First of all I want to give a shout to Larry Lawson. He is a devoted
fan of my blog, always comments and is about to travel to Ukraine in 3
weeks with his wife to begin teaching English with the Peace Corps.
You can check out their <a
href="http://klukraine.blogspot.com/">awesome blog</a>, too. I'm also
thinking of Larry (or Rarry as we would say in Japan because the
interdental "l" does not exist) everyday because a ubiquitous
convenient store here is named "Lawson". So when Larry and Karen come
to visit me in Japan on their hefty PC travel stiped, they will
instantly be i-doru (idols) here.

Our entire Junior High School faculty and administrative staff went
into the countryside for a retreat this thursday and friday. The
agenda was to talk about the impact on our school of the Kwansei
Gakuin corporation adding an elementary school to the portfolio of
institutions. They are doing this to be competitive with other schools
in the area. Once students are admitted to a school, they can remain
in it through university. Kwansei Gakuin is a prestigous school for
the Kansai (west Japan) area, so many parents will want this for their
children. The trouble is that the elementary school will be co-ed. The
Jr and Sr highs right now are only boys.

Did I mention that this will only affect our school in 2012? Talk
about advance planning! I have been very impressed by the amount of
forethought that the principal and staff are giving to this issue. We
talked about home economics class for 45 minutes. Did I mention that
all these deliberations were in Japanese and I had to be present for
every minute of them? Wakarimasen (I don't understand)! But I showed
my unity and read a book while everyone talked. Hey, I've just been
here a week, so I've no stake to share my opinion. Plus, I will be
long gone from here when the major change begins.

Nevertheless, we did have some nice socializing and Japanese style
bath. Its different from American baths in that you don't rinse, wash,
and rinse in the same water. You sit on a little stool, rinse and wash
and rinse with a hand-held shower head. Then, you get in the steaming
hot bath to relax for a few minutes. I stayed in the super hot water
too long and got a little light headed. Oh, and these baths are
public. Meaning that there were others around to. The Japanese use a
washcloth sized towel to cover their private parts when transferring
from one area to another. Its a very considerate way to bath in public
without having to show everyone "the full monty".

Now I'm at an ATE neighbor's house bumming her wireless internet while
I get mine installed in a few weeks. Then, I'll be a regular blogger
again. Heck, you can even webcam chat with me if you like. Stay linked
for more updates!

Countries I have visited

Where I've been in the USA