My Schools, Student Stories, and ALT Issues

In Itako, I work at two junior high schools, Itako 2nd Junior High School and Hinode Junior High School. Right now I’m at Hinode JU, and next month I’ll rotate over to Itako 2nd. I love both my schools. Itako 2nd wasn’t damaged very much by the earthquake, so by the time I got there everything was fixed.

Hinode JU has construction going on right now. Basically, Hinode is rice fields all around. When the earthquake happened on March 11th, the ground actually collapsed downward. Poles are still drooping left and right all over the place. Some sidewalks are nearly vertical. The roads are a mess, with pot holes and gravel all over the place. I have to be careful when I drive, too, because sometimes the roads suddenly have huge bumps that could be mistaken for hills. I can go air born if I’m not paying attention.

Even my school is still undergoing reconstruction. When I first arrived here, the entrance had a space from the floor level to the ground. That’s been covered up with asphalt. There’s luckily no structural damage done to the building. The gymnasium was unusable for a little bit. The gym had a massive crack up the side, like it was torn in half (and I suppose it kind of was). That’s all fixed up now. Slowly but surely, Hinode is recovering.

My kids are great. At Hinode JU I’ve got the more shy crowd than with Itako 2nd. Hinode students will take to me more often when I’m at the mall and at 7/11 than at school. I’ve started eating lunch with them so that they will speak more English.

Lunch at my school goes like so: Students don’t go to a cafeteria like in America. Instead, they eat in their classrooms. Some students in each class are selected to dish out the food. These students dress up in white uniforms that include hats, gloves, and face masks. They dish out the food onto other students’ trays. When that’s all done, the class says a big, “Itadakimasu!” (I humbly accept this meal!) And they eat. When they’re done, they say, “Gochisosama deshita!” (Thank you for the food!)

If you read manga or seen a single episode of a anime series set in high school, it will come as no surprise to you that Japanese students have to clean their schools. At Itako 2nd, students usually clean the school after lunch. At Hinode, students usually clean the school after all six periods are done.

It’s fun to watch them do it. Teachers supervise the students, making sure that they actually clean instead of play. Students wipe down windows, sweep, mop, and so on. When they have to sweep the gym, they’ll race each other to finish. They also like to janken (play rock, paper, scissors) for the tasks they hate. Loser, of course, has to do it.

I walk around when they’re cleaning sometimes and talk to them in English. I’m encouraged to talk to them in as much English as possible at my schools. From these conversations, I’ve gotten some pretty interesting questions. For example, one student asked me for my bust size in perfect English. I rewarded her with the correct answer and giggled for the rest of the day. I have boys asking me if I like them, which is adorable. Other students want to know if I’m eating KFC for Christmas (insert raging expletives here). And so and so forth.

I try out my Japanese on them sometimes, which makes them all kinds of surprised. I don’t use it that much with them because I want them to talk in English, but sometimes I can’t help myself. One time, I used an expression my friend, Nobuko, taught me on a boy. He was not looking at my eyes, so I said, “Anata sukebe ne?” Which basically means, “Oh, you’re a perv, huh?” And he shook his head and said “No! No! No! I am good! I am good!” I rewarded him with a sticker for the English and for suffering the shock of a lifetime.

Right now, we’ve got testing going on, so my schedule’s a little erratic. I can have anywhere from one class a day to five. The five class days are killer. I don’t know why, but it’s so draining. Just one class right after the other and talking to students at lunch, there’s barely anytime to go to the bathroom. When I have just one class, I try to use the time wisely by studying Japanese, but I might meander onto Cracked.com or Facebook when I get bored.

I’ve started staying after school to play some sports. I played volleyball yesterday, and tomorrow I’m going to play basketball. The students are happy to see me, and the coaches help to encourage them to do English when I’m there. I love sports, I really do, but I’m bad at them. My volleyball girls would giggle whenever I completely failed at a maneuver (which was often). One girl, Kanna, helped me out with the footwork by trying to tell me things in English. In the end, she would say the Japanese, and I would say the English, and then she would repeat the English. Close enough, right?

At one point yesterday, I had a ball just fly left and keep going. I said, “Sumimasen. Sorry.” And one girl smiled at me and said, “It’s ok! Ball likes to go!” I wish I could’ve given here like a thousand stickers in that moment, because that was awesome.

When I leave Itako 2nd, I go home by taxi service. No, it’s not because I’m that important, but instead because of this safety clause in my contract that states I can’t drive myself during school hours. When I’m at Hinode, I walk to school because I live so close. When I went to the elementary school, I would walk there, too.

I’ve only been to the elementary school once, but I want to go again really bad. They’re so adorable! Oh my god, I want a Japanese child! They kept asking me questions in Japanese, so I had the greatest test of my Japanese skills with them. I managed to make it through pretty well. Luckily, elementary Japanese is around my level of equivalency.

I got a lot of, “Are you married?” and “Boyfriendo?” questions that made me sigh. That question will never die. Unlike my junior high school kids, my elementary school kids really couldn’t believe it. They were so confused. I tried my best to explain, but I think I failed that part of the interview. Instead, I moved onto talking about MatsuJun and Arashi.

Most of my students and I get along pretty well. I have a couple of disruptions every once and awhile, but I’ve been figuring out ways to solve them as I go. In class, one of the best ways is for me to just move and stand close to a students that’s misbehaving. Out of class, I yell out in Japanese and startle my kids to cut it out. It’s the power of being a foreigner. People pay attention when you do anything. It’s a little unnerving at first, but I’ve started using it to my advantage at school.

I love my job. I love getting up and working everyday. However, there are a few issues. People who are interested in the JET program and teaching in Japan in general should know the job can be challenging. After all, even the best schools and best students won’t be perfect 100% of the time, so sometimes you’ll find yourself feeling like maybe you’re all alone with these problems, exacerbating the already kind of isolation you get by living abroad.

Some of the issues I’ve faced as an ALT in my schools include getting time to discuss future lessons with Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs).  I’m lucky with my placement. I can usually get time before class to discuss a lesson with the English teacher in charge. However, that’s not always the case, and many ALTs are not so lucky. It’s not unheard of for an ALT to get no information on a class at all before having to walk in and start teaching. Sometimes I’ve just had to wing it because the teacher’s been too busy with his or her other responsibilities to tell me the plan. After all, the teachers have to do so much. They have to plan out lessons, grade everything, keep the grades straight in the grade book, and so on. Also, most teachers aren’t just teachers. They’re also coaches, supervisors over school projects, members the Parent Teachers Association, and so on.

For times when you can’t grab a teacher to find out the plan, just give it your best guess and plan accordingly. Make two lessons, one which is grammar point oriented and another that’s much less difficult to do, just in case the JTE says, “Oh no, that’s too hard!” and you’re not left in stunned silence with nothing to do for that class.

One of the things that will be a little frustrating at first is trying to figure out the students English level. Students will know some words but not those words, and they will know this basic bit of grammar but something very similar is too difficult, oh and this cannot be said the way you usually say it because students get confused…You get the idea. It’ll be frustrating, but it’ll be alright. If you get a textbook and flip through it, you’ll get an idea of what the students know and don’t know. If all else fails, ask the JTE. They will probably tell you a lot at first, “Can you make it easier?” and you will probably think, “But it is easy…” but what they mean by “easier” is actually like shorter words and shorter sentences. Think less complex and more elementary school English.

Also, you will speak English too fast when you first get there. It’s just a fact. You will speak English too fast at first for students to understand. Your JTE will inform you that you have to slow down over and over again at the beginning, and you will think, “But I am talking slow.” Sorry, still too fast. Don’t worry though because after about a month you’ll develop Shatner-esque style of talking that will become your default mode for students. It’ll take a while before you can get it to feel a little less robotic, but you’ll make it work somehow.

In JET, there’s this saying that they use at orientation called E.S.I.D. (Every Situation is Different). Meaning every class is different and every student is different and every teacher is different. When it comes to conversing with Japanese Teachers of English and other Japanese co-workers, the task is daunting at first. At Hinode my teachers are a little more shy and nervous around me at first, but after while they’ve gotten used to me and ask me about my day. Itako 2nd embraced me wholeheartedly and it feels like they never stop talking to me. Since I’m shy around people at first and a natural introvert, I had to force myself to speak and interact, with can be terribly difficult with the language barriers.

Miscommunications can and will happen. That’s just part of it, but they can be hard to work through. For me, the miscommunications I have the most pertain to class and how to teach during class. There are some fundamental cultural differences between the Japanese style and the Western style of teaching. In Japan, it’s usually lecture style, with the teacher at the front telling students what to learn and no interruptions allowed. I tried when I first got here to ask questions when I was at the front to get a more discussion style class going, but that quickly died. Japanese students are really not trained like Western students to be active in class. It’s actually considered rude to interrupt or ask questions because that means the teacher didn’t do a “good enough” job teaching. My JTE at Itako 2nd actually sat me down to talk with me about it, and said even though the Japanese schools want a more Western classroom for English classes, it’s a going to be a while before it actually happens.

At the end of the day, I do my best to say goodbye to as many students as I can before I go home. I love my job, but I will say it’s draining some days. I try to remember my trump card: “I’m tired, but I’m tired IN JAPAN!” It still manages to perk me up. Also, when my students are shouting, “Goodbye!” and “I love you!” I feel a little proud that I’ve got such great kids.

And now, I’m going to go dive under my kotatsu.

TTYL!

 

Merry Kentucky Fried Christmas LIES!!! And Other Cultural Christmas Differences

Once upon a time, I’m innocently gallivanting through the Aeon Mall in Narita with my good friend, Ai. We’re checking out different stores, and I’m squealing like a ten year old at every little cute thing in the huge shopping area. Basically, I was squealing at everything. Japan is full of cuteness that makes me happy.

Anyway, just as we’re swinging through the last bit of mall, I catch sight of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in a food court. I remembered that I promised someone I would look at the price of their Christmas bundle of grease, so I walked over there with Ai to find it.

You see, in Japan people can’t get turkey. Turkey is hard to find, and if you find the bird it is really expensive. Instead of turkey, Kentucky Fried Chicken is used as a replacement.

Most foreigners find this tradition a little baffling, since Christmas usually also implies all the food is cooked by a grandmother or mother. Why would you want to eat fast food for Christmas? Honestly, it’s just a cultural thing. Why do Americans blow stuff up to celebrate the birth of America? Because we’re Americans and that’s what we do.

Anyway, I found a sign that looks like this:

Kentucky Fried Chicken Christmas Barrel

Yes, I do kind of want it.

I picked up a pamphlet and began to walk away.

But then, I discovered an atrocity.

There,  sitting on the table with all its disgusting merriness, was a Christmas plate. Did the plate say, “Merry Christmas!” No. No it didn’t. It said:

“Kentucky Christmas.”

Ai got to experience one of my rants that day. It’s been a long time since I just let one off out of blue, and I might have scared some poor Japanese people in my near vicinity.

I believe I said something along the lines of, “We don’t eat KFC for Christmas! For the thousandth time, we eat ham and turkey! HAM AND TURKEY! Not fried up  grease attached to dead poultry!”

Ai was laughing pretty hard, and she wished she had recorded it all to put up on YouTube. I’m really glad she didn’t. I do not want to be an overnight YouTube star.I do not want to go down in internet history as “The Kentucky Fried Lunatic.”

The thing is I wouldn’t care so much if not for the unfortunate problem that some Japanese people do believe that folks in Kentucky eat KFC all the time and must eat it at Christmas (for the plates tell them so). It makes me want to beat the marketing people senseless.

I’m resigned to the fact that people will forever and always associate my state with a gross fast food chain. However, Christmas is a sacred time of family, presents, and real food. For someone to dare tarnish the reputation of my beloved commercial holiday memories throws me into an irrational fury.

As Christmas draws near, the number of people asking me questions pertaining to my Kentucky heritage and my version of Christmas has increased. There’s the common question of, “Do you eat KFC on Christmas?” I respond, “No. No I don’t. Most of the people I know eat ham and turkey.” With a hundred side items and desserts, but I never get to that part.

People usually then respond, “Oh, really?” (I’ve come to recognize this phrase as something thrown at Japanese in English class, and I know this information because I’ve been wincing every time my students have to use it in class.) I usually respond with a small sigh and say, “Yes, really. And we have fruit cake.”

“What’s a fruit cake?”

A gross concoction  that looks like food. I’ve had very few good experiences with fruit cake. However, my mom just gave me a recipe for chocolate rum fruit cake. I’m kind of excited about that one, but I’m not ever excited about the prospect of fruit cake otherwise.

Picture brought to you by Badger Girl. No, I'm not kidding.

Japan has a decidedly better improvement. It’s called a Christmas Cake, and it looks delicious.

Yum yum!

I want to get one, but they’re apparently in really high demand. I don’t know if I will, but I’m going to try!

The other questions pertain to what I do on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I told my friends and JTEs about how Christmas Eve is usually reserved for getting together with family and friends. I have a family tradition with my Dad’s side of the family that involves invading my grandmother’s house so we can eat good food and open up presents together. Most families reserve the present opening until Christmas Day, and I open my presents from my mother and her side of the family on that day.

A couple of people have asked me if I’m going to spend Christmas with a boyfriend, to which I responded two different ways:

“Where’s this imaginary Japanese man that’s fallen madly in love with me and why haven’t I met him?”

and

“Why would I celebrate Christmas with a boyfriend?”

Apparently, Christmas time is couples’ time in Japan. Boyfriends apparently do romantic things for their sweethearts, like buy them a present or take them out somewhere nice. If they want to be really beloved by their girl, they will take her to Disney Land or Disney Sea (depending upon the age. Disney Sea has drinking.). I won’t lie, if I had a boyfriend, I would totally beg him to take me there. Do you know how cute that place is? Ridiculous I tell you!

Come on, you totally just went, "Awwww!

I explained that it’s really a big family time of the year, so I would not celebrate with a boyfriend on Christmas. I would celebrate on Christmas Eve with him before my Dad’s family time, but I don’t think I could’ve done it on Christmas. Dedicating the whole day to a boyfriend would get me disowned.

I’ve also discovered that Japanese parents have it tougher than American parents when it comes to sneaking the presents. American parents just have to sneak into the living room and put the presents under the tree and fill up the stockings. Japanese parents have to put presents beside their children’s beds at night. I couldn’t do it. I would wake up my child instantly due to some klutzy error.

Apparently, Santa Claus is pretty much the same jolly man in red. I’ve been asked if Colonel Sanders in Kentucky dresses up for Christmas, and I had to really think about it. I couldn’t remember our KFC even having a Colonel Sanders statue. I said I think so, but I honestly don’t remember. I know for a fact that Colonel Sanders does dress up as Santa Claus in Japan. It actually looks pretty neat.

No thanks, Colonel Santa.

Right now, I’m trying to avoid KFC, lest I fly off the handle again and cause an international incident. I’m sure I’ll eventually eat there (I do love the biscuits), but until the holidays are over it’s best to just stay clear.

I will say that some cultural things about Christmas are the same. It’s about being with the people you love and showing you care. Regardless of where the presents go or the thrice damned chicken, both Americans and Japanese jump through hoops to get those special gifts for their beloved people. Just as in America, parents have got it tough, and in the name of love for their children they will do anything to get that stupidly popular (insert item here).

Christmas cheer is everywhere, and I do mean everywhere. The Christmas music started earlier than America because there’s no Thanksgiving to hold it back, and oddly enough it’s mostly the same American choices for music. For example, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” plays all the time. I kind of like it, but I’ll be sick of it by the end of December.

There are Christmas trees, too. They’re a little smaller than the average American tree, but that’s to be expected since most Japanese homes are smaller than the average American home. I’m considering getting either a small tree or a poinsettia. I was surprised to find the poinsettias over here, but they’re apparently just as popular here as in America.

Alas, I will not be celebrating Christmas in Japan, however. I will be going back to Kentucky for Christmas, which means no KFC for me! Yay! Instead, I’ll be chowing down on ham and fudge and pie and burritos and tacos (because Mexican food is only found in all of two cities, and I live in neither of them) and more pie and cheeseburgers and…Well, you get the idea.

I’ll be back in Japan for New Years, so until then TTYL and Merry Christmas!

P.S. Here’s a link to Badger Girl and a recipe for fruit cake so you can make it for the unsuspecting person of your choosing:

http://learntocookbadgergirl.com/?p=1761