So about “Genki…”

When I first arrived in Japan, I was told that being genki is a sign of a good teacher. Having no clue what that entailed, I asked an English teacher at an International Association Festival and he rolled his eyes and said, “It means they want the happy foreigner to always be happy.” His face showed anything but enthusiasm at the thought.

Nowadays, I can usually tell if a foreigner has lived in Japan for over a while if I say the word “genki” and their face gets this constipated look of suppressed disgust. The American man I met all those months ago was the first person to show me that face.  The thing is, “genki” does not just mean “energy, happiness, full of life.” Genki is also a way of life.

The American man went on to explain that in Japan it’s considered good manners to be genki. Worrying other people about your problems is seen as kind of a selfish thing to do. Instead, one should always think of others. Therefore, stay genki and smiling and happy looking so that you appear fine. If you’re in real danger, of course, seek help. However, if you’re tired or feeling burned out, you’re not supposed to show it.

In a vain attempt to try and explain the genki lifestyle, it’s kind of like pretending you’re happy when you’re not. If you’re having a bad day, don’t let people see it, especially at work. Most people in America who are over the age of twenty one and have held a job might say, “Oh, well that’s just being professional. The whole world doesn’t have to know you’re having a bad day. Just do your job and go home.” Well, alright, but here’s the thing. Imagine it’s not just for the boss. Imagine having to wear your masking smile that’s for your boss around all the co-workers, staff, your acquaintances, anybody who makes you angry ever, and possibly even your own good friends. This is an oversimplification, and I apologize that I can’t think of a good way to explain it better.

Some foreigners have issues with the genki lifestyle. For me, it’s hard to do something that kind of feels like lying all the time. I have been taught since I was a kid that it’s not only a good thing to express your emotions but that it’s also honesty. I know that logically I wouldn’t tell the whole world my business, but at the same time if I’m not feeling so good I don’t have to smile and laugh.

I got a small lecture from one of my JTEs when I was suffering from an illness one month. She essentially said that people were worried and maybe I should try to “not worry them.” I wanted to yell, “Well excuse me for being sick!”  But I shoved down that anger and just kept listening. I learned that the teachers and the students were upset that I wasn’t happy. They were thinking the worst case scenarios, and so that’s why she was asking for me to try being genki.

The problem is I’m not really a genki person. I’m just not built that way. I’m made to chill. Chill people don’t smile and talk and be all energized when there’s nothing to smile or talk or be energized about, you know? Still, I decided that since I’m in Japan, I might as well give it a try. Maybe there was some hidden genki in me I just didn’t know about yet?

Also, I didn’t want to worry anybody, so I did it. I made myself genki for the students and tried my best to be genki around teachers. It was exhausting, but for the rest of that month, I pretended my life was full of sunshine and daises. When I moved over to the other school, I tried on this genki thing and found myself breaking a little bit under the strain.

The thing is I have also gotten advice from other more experienced ALTs and English teachers to be careful about genki. I remember the American man in particular warned me, “They will try their best to make you as un-American as possible. Don’t let them do that. The genki thing is Japanese culture. Stay true to your American self.” At the time I thought he was just paranoid and full of bitterness, but now that I got into that situation, I could start to see his point.

After about a month into The Genki Experiment, I was in class and walking around students’ desks. I was smiling, but inside I was cursing up a storm. About five or six students didn’t bring their notebooks to class, and when I tried to ask about why, they just waved their hands and said, “Eigo wakaranai (I don’t understand English).” The notebook thing didn’t really get to me. Instead, it was the blatant rudeness that just made me kind of pissed. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t a big deal, that really I’m lucky to have students that weren’t rebellious and mean monsters like I’d heard about at other schools.

But the genki got to me. I stomped up to the front of the class, replaced my smile with a deep frown, placed myself in front of the board with my arms crossed and possibly fire shooting out of my eyes. My JTE looked at me funny since I’d never done something like this before. I said with a very calm voice, “Six students do not have their notebooks today.” Slowly, I informed them, “I am very disappointed.” My JTE gasped dramatically and translated for me.

After class, I fully expected to get another lecture. I was not genki. I was the opposite of genki. I was a dragon lady for a moment there. I braced myself as my JTE came over to talk to me.

To my amazement, she said, “Thank you so much! I think students needed to hear that.”

Say wha-?

Turns out that my non-genki self was just the thing she needed from me. I felt kind of thrown off kilter at that point.

I decided to try and figure out what exactly I was going to do about this genki business. Did I really want to put on a mask every single day? What was the line between professionalism and genki? Where did the responsibility to myself end and the responsibilities to others start? I did not like looking at the murky grey areas of multicultural living and wondering what made me American or Japanese.

In the end, I made my decision over coffee. I was in the teachers’ break area when a teacher came up to me with a small smile and asked me, “Genki desu ka (How are you)?” I looked at him for a moment before replying with a small smile, “Genki desu (I’m fine), but I’m tired and busy.”

“Oh!” He smiled back, “Me too!” And then we spent about ten minutes bitching about everything we had to get done before the end of the day.

I finally just came to the decision that genki wasn’t really for me. At the same time, I was going to do my own version of genki for my students. Basically, it involves appearing energized and getting all fired up for them. Yet, in the teachers’ room, I would be work with an expression that conveyed how I felt, and if they were worried, well they’d just have to deal. I think most people are actually happy to see me back to the older model. I think I was freaking out a couple of the other teachers who knew me better, anyway.

I’m not going to bash the genki lifestyle, though. If anything, I admire anyone with the ability to do it. I cannot muster enough energy to keep something like that up all the time. To the people who can not only do that but also make it an art art form, I tip my hat to you. It’s simply a cultural difference, and I accept that it’s one I simply can’t assimilate into my identity. To each their own.

It’s all good 🙂

Hanami Party

A Hanami Party is when a group gathers together under the sakura blossoms to drink and be merry. I went to my first one in March. A group of friends made an event on Facebook and we headed down to Yoyogi Park next to Harajuku Station in Tokyo. Unfortunately, on this day the sakura blossoms were not in bloom. That didn’t stop us from enjoying the wonderful weather.

Aren't we cute?

Potluck style!

We ate so much food! I brought pizza, Mike brought s’mores cheesecake (that’s right you’re jealous), Mari brought a lot of different Japanese style foods like onigiri, and of course everyone brought drinks. Vera surprised me with some delicious wine. With every new person, more food came. We also tossed a football around, played Monopoly and had a grand old time.

Of course, immediately following this party the sakura blossoms decided to pop up and make everything gorgeous. I won’t lie though, I felt a little slighted at mother nature for not bringing them out earlier.

Kirei!

When I would walk to class for the two weeks the sakura were in bloom, I felt so peaceful. I walked into school with a smile on my face and a pep in my step. Spring is here! Spring is here!

The nest weekend, I went to another hanami party in Tokyo. I went to Shinjuku-gyoen to meet up with volunteers and the planning committee for the Tokyo Rainbow Pride parade. On April 29th, people marched down the streets of Tokyo to support LGBTQ efforts in Japan. It was quite amazing, and unfortunately I forgot to bring my camera. Still, it was cool. Trust me.

God, I love Japan.

I can’t wait for the next spring!

Thrice Damned Flu Season, Hokkaido, and Valentines Day

February was an exciting month for me. I planned on starting it off with this epic adventure to Hokkaido. I’d been excited about this trip for months. I paid for it in December,  and I was all kinds of happy. I was going to be around JET friends I don’t get to see very often, ski and/or snowboard, eat crab, buy a whole bunch of souvenirs, and take too many pictures.

However, a few days before my quest began, my body decided that  was the perfect time to catch the flu. I will admit, the first day I was in complete denial. I went to work, struggling the whole way through, but I could claim it was “just a cold.” The next day, I wanted somebody to shoot me in the face, but I still went to work. My teachers were looking at me like I was insane and there were some polite suggestions about taking ninkyuu and going home. However, I forced myself to keep going.

On Friday, I’m fairly certain I was close to dying. My temperature got over 38 C at one point and I vaguely recall thinking I needed to go to the hospital. Instead of doing that, I went to the clinic and waited patiently for the doctor. Sure enough, I tested positive for the flu. He gave me some inhaling medicine I’d never seen before, and told me to drink fluids and rest. When I got home, I wondered how I could possibly turn this around. I did everything I could possibly do. I drank tea like crazy, took a crazy mixture of medicine that also should’ve probably killed me, and slept for about eleven hours.

The next day, I felt bad, but not awful. I figured that was close enough and I got on board with the vacation plan again. I met a couple of friends at the bus station and we headed off to the airport. I slept on the bus and on the airplane so that I could feel less of a zombie by the time we landed in Hokkaido.

I was all kinds of happy when I saw the vast acres of snow. I was surprised to realize how much I had missed the cold, white stuff. I’m not really a big fan, but I guess in my head it’s just not winter if there’s no snow. I took so many pictures of the landscape.

It's just like the ink paintings!

We went to Niseko, a ski resort. We split into groups and stayed at two cabins that were drowning in snow. It was so cool! Ha, get it? Yeah, I suck at humor. Deal with it.

There were so many bugs...

On arrival day, people went off to go buy stuff at the grocery store. I stayed in reading the Hunger Games (By the way, it was a good read and I recommend it to you all). The next day was spent running around with my friend Jason at various shopping places and discovering an Irish Bar (that I never got to drink in, and I still regret it). I found myself a new pair of boots that are awesome. That night we ate Genghis Khan, a lamb barbeque dish.

We checked out in the morning to move onto Sapporo. I finally got around to skiing. I went ahead and bought two hours with a skiing instructor. It was my first time so I know I wasn’t very good. I fell three times and felt really freakin’ tired by the end of my session. However, my teacher, Gordie, told me that I caught on fast and next time just go. No more instruction needed. I felt proud of myself, but I wonder if he was just being nice.

Gigantic “One Piece” sculptures

After my session, it was time to hop on the bus to Sapporo. At Sapporo, I saw the Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival, in English). Basically, it’s a huge event wherein people compete in a snow sculpting competition. These things can be huge!

There was a miniature size of this one around the corner.

And fantastic!

It’s a recreation of a temple done as an ice sculpture. They put lights in front and behind to create this effect with the ice.

I can’t remember if this was supposed to be Osaka Castle or the Emperor’s Castle, but I believe it was the later.

I really had a good time. However, by the end of it I was completely prepared to go back to Itako and get away from the snow. I can only take this stuff in small doses.

As luck would have it, the snow followed me home! Itako had its second snowfall for the winter when I got back. I grumbled about it, but I lived. Besides, it was time to work on Valentines Day! February 14th was just around the corner. I bought construction paper, pens, and stamps. I was determined to show my love and make a Valentines Day card for every single student at both of my schools.

By the time I was done with the Valentines Day cards, my hand hurt like hell, but I managed to complete my task. I made OVER 300 of those little things! I have vowed to never, ever pull this stunt ever again. Next time, I will buy them all or do something creative after I printed out the message. My hatred for the sight of red and pink has not wavered since that day.

The kids seemed to like them, but the boys kept shouting over and over again, “Why no choco?!” I explained, “That’s a Japanese tradition and I’m not Japanese.” Of course, that’s not entirely the reason. I kind of bought a lot of chocolates for them at Christmas time and that stuff was expensive. Also, I need special permission to bring in food to class. I just decided this time that I would just do cards, and maybe next year I’ll figure something out with my JTE and principal in advance.

I surprised the teachers at both my schools with small cards and Kit Kats. They seemed to like it, and now at random times I’ll find chocolates on my desk. It makes me so happy!

And that’s pretty much the big events of February. I’ll update again pretty soon.

TTYL!

A New Year Reflection: 3/11 and 9/11

It’s a test week, so I’ve been grading papers more than going to class.My students make the normal mistakes for kids their age, and I’ve got to admit I made the same kind of mistakes every so often back in the day.  When one of my Japanese English Teachers came over and gave me a stack of winter break assignments, I just assumed they’d be like all the rest. He told me, “Look for mistakes and correct. If they are right, circle. You know, yes?”

I smiled and nodded my head, “Hai. I know.” I took the papers from his hands. When I plopped them on the desk, they made a nice thunk! I got out my red pen and got comfortable on my rolling chair. As we would say back home, “This is gonna take awhile.”

I opened the stack and started reading. I paused when I realized these weren’t the normal variety of papers. They were essays, and the students were given different things to discuss over the year 2011. Of course, the Great East Japan Earthquake was a topic. Some students wrote about it. They said pretty much the same thing over and over again.

“The East Japan earthquake was on March 11th. I remember that day. I was in school when the earthquake happened. I was very fearful. Many people passed away and died. I will not forget that earthquake.”

I felt my heart break each time a student wrote about it. Some of them had family up near Fukushima and worried about them being so close to the radioactivity. More than one student mentioned the radiation levels getting high, and also about the earthquake damage in Itako. I wanted to find each and every one of them and hug them. Instead, I slash out grammar and spelling mistakes with a red pen. Beside an essay, I put a “Good job! :)” and possibly a comment.

Every time I saw the numbers 3/11, I couldn’t help but get flashbacks to 9/11. I remember that day very well. I could point out exactly where I was when the Twin Towers were attacked. I can remember how the hallways in middle school were full of people panicking. Teachers were talking to each other in hurried voices, trying to decide what to do I guess. I remember a friend running up to tell me, “Something really, really bad just happened. I don’t know what, but parents are coming to pick up their kids.” I remember turning to the science room and the TV was on. I saw something smoking and a tall building. At the time I had no idea, but it was the first tower struck by the airplane.

That memory remains like a deep scar. For the next week, kids at my school talked at the lunch table. Some were even talking about going away on vacation for a bit. We lived next to a uranium enrichment plant, and it was on the hit list of possible targets for terrorism. I remember wondering how long it would take to go up. The answer? I probably wouldn’t even had time to scream. I still have nightmares about that plant blowing up one day.

I remember where I was on 3/11, too. I woke up that night for some reason. I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I got on YouTube to watch some movies and relax. I saw the earthquake news an hour after it had happened. I was in denial about it, hoping against hope that the earthquake just did some damage and that was all. I found out at lunch about the tsunami. I cried when I saw the death toll numbers rising every ten minutes. I got on Facebook to message my friends and emailed my host families in Japan. When I left to go on Spring Break, I kept up with the news and watched the nuclear plant problems. When I got the news that everyone I knew was fine, I felt relieved, but the nuclear plant issues put a knot in my stomach. Thankfully, some very brave people saved Japan from yet another disaster.

The radiation remains an ongoing problem, but the recovery efforts will continue as well. Still, many people here won’t btuy foods or products if they have the Fukushima kanji on them. There’s a huge nuclear power distrust among my students. They say, “Abunai desu!” It’s dangerous. I don’t know what to tell them. I do understand how it feels to suddenly realize the danger of the world, that it can change so violently, and the paranoia that it could happen again. I wish I could find the right words to say, but I can’t.

At that moment when I sit at my desk I feel like I should do something. I don’t know what, but something. I feel like a failure, like I haven’t done enough to make thing better.

But then I remember how after 9/11 my teachers did their best to keep things normal. We talked about what happened from time to time, but usually we just tried to move on. I can see my students and teachers are trying to move on, too. I can still see the fear students have when a bigger earthquake happens. One student held my hand tightly when a earthquake hit a few months or so ago. I squeezed her hand and said, “Daijoubu desu.” It’s alright. I want to keep doing that. I want to help make everything alright again.

My students are definitely strong and moving forward. They didn’t just reflect on the earthquake. They also talked about the Tokyo Motor Show, the Japan Women’s Soccer Team winning the World Cup, and Arashi winning its various awards (MatsuJun, I love you!). Because of the Japan Women’s Soccer Team, many of my students felt inspired and so proud. They all talked about how the win brought them such joy. Thanks to them, I’ve got quite a few girls talking about being soccer stars when they grow up. I gave them smiley faces on their papers and told them to keep their dreams.

They’re already talking about spring vacation even though that’s quite a ways away. Valentines Day is also just around the corner. A few of my students have asked me if I’m giving away chocolates to a boy. Maybe someday, but not this time.

I hope this next year brings a whole lot of good things. I’m no hero and I know I can’t take the memory of 3/11 away, but I can be here to support my kids. I can’t get it back to the way it was. That’s impossible. Still, I can try to make them feel secure again. The ground can shake all it wants.

I’m not going anywhere.

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

My Daily Routine…and Something about Bob

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.

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.

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.

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.

The bane of my existence

The bane of my existence

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. 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.

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.

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.

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 love how people have gotten attached to Bob. It seems like everyone wants to know how he’s doing. “Wait, what about Bob? Your pet spider? How is he?” Seriously, guys? Bob? I go to Japan and you want to hear about a spider? Fine. I’ll talk a little bit about Bob again.

Well, he’s decided that the porch is his area and, by God, he will attempt to cover as much of it with his web as possible. I have arguments with him about it. The argument goes like so: I open my front door in the morning. I see Bob’s web in my way to the stairs. I glare at Bob. I get a big stick and destroy his web. Bob shimmies up onto the porch overhang and glares at me for destroying his fine work. I go off to teach.

When I get home at around 4:10, I look up to see if Bob is there. If I have to destroy his web again, I do. If not, I just say, “Hey, Bob.” and go into my apartment. I’ve been told it’s highly likely that Bob will disappear when the winter chill finally comes to stay. Apparently, yama onigumo like to go into trees because the trees can help keep them warm somehow (I’m assuming they nestle into the bark like I do with my kotatsu).

I have to wonder if Bob will go or not. The jerk seems determined to keep his spot. He even did an epic fight out with a few other spiders gettin’ in on his turf. He didn’t like that very much and put a stop to it.

Well, until it’s officially winter, I suppose our battle for the porch will continue.

TTYL!

 

Itako

I guess it only makes since to talk about the city I’ve been living in for about four months. It’s a very nice little town, it’s a quiet village. Everyday like the one before. Ok, an ode to Disney said and done. Seriously, people here are very welcoming and nice (Granted, I’ve yet to meet an openly hostile person in Japan yet).

Itako is situated near Kashima and Kamisu in Ibaraki Prefecture. Here’s a map:

The city’s biggest tourist season is in the summer. In June, they have an iris festival called the “Itako Ayame Matsuri” in Japanese. The pictures are gorgeous! I’m really looking forward to being here when the flowers are in bloom. Some of them were when I arrived, but apparently the iris park is something amazing to see.

This picture is brought to you by Wikipedia! The college student life saver.

As in it’s so ridiculously gorgeous!

There’s also boat rides! They’re kind of like the Venice boat rides, wherein people sit in them and get rowed around while looking at all the pretty sights around Itako. Every year, Itako chooses some young maidens to play the Ayame-hime, or Iris “Princesses,” for a big iris festival play. Out of the “Princesses,” an iris bride is chosen to “marry” an iris “prince.” My predecessor, Lauren Parker, was one of the iris maidens. Perhaps I will be one, too!

In the fall, there are other festivals. One of them I went to was pretty special. It was a candlelight vigil for the people lost in the big earthquake in March at the Itako Shrine. People’s names were written alongside the paper cups, and the cups had candles in them. Visitors to the shrine lit the candles in remembrance of all that was lost. It was beautiful. The entire place was alight, and the candles were put into formations. One was a heart with the kanji for, “Ganbare!” which means “do your best” or “fight”  or “hang in there.”My friend Nobuko took me, and I’m forever grateful she did. It was a wonderful, sad, yet uplifting experience.

Nobuko and I at the Candlelight Festival

Nobuko and I at the Candlelight Festival

I’m not entirely sure what goes on in the winter. From what I understand so far it’s get under the kotatsu and wait until spring. A kotatsu is the best damn piece of furniture ever invented. I’ve been living under this thing whenever it gets to 10 degrees C or below (my apartment has the same temperature as the outside).  Basically, it’s a low table that heats up. You throw a blanket over the top of the table, put the cover on the blanket, and the heat is trapped. I’ll go ahead and admit that I’ve fallen asleep under that thing more than once, which is really dangerous and if you own one you should never do that! Do as I say, not as I do.

Other things to do involve going next door to Kashima and going to an Antlers soccer game. I would suppose the Antlers are to Kashima what the Wildcats are to Kentucky. In other words, everybody keeps track of the games, traffic in Kashima is hell when a game is about to start (I finally realized that the sense of deja vu I felt was from the same experience in Lexington whenever Rupp Arena had something going on), and people will suddenly yell in the middle of a game while you’re at the mall (scaring you half to death and making you scream a little).

Kashima Stadium is huge! As in massive!

As to why the team is called the Antlers, I can only surmise that it comes from the mascot for Kashima, which is deer. See, Kashima is one of the oldest cities in Japan, and it’s home to one of the oldest shrines in Japan. Kashima Shrine (Kashima-jinju) has deer, because they’re considered connected to the god that touched down at the shrine thousands of years ago. Neat fact: the Nara deer came from the Kashima Shrine.

For some reason I never entirely understood, there’s also a story involving a warrior fighting with an underground catfish (yes, underground, and yes, catfish) because apparently fish cause earthquakes. There’s a statue and everything at the shrine. It’s really cool, and I highly recommend checking it out.

The Kashima Shrine is really something to see. It’s also a nature preserve and park. It’s beautiful in the summer time, and with the changing leaves right now it’s also really pretty. People come from all over to feed the deer and have a spiritual experience. I had fun going there with my Japanese teacher, Yamada-sensei, and her son, Aki. I really want to go back, but the kotatau beckons me!

I’ve been having a lot of fun exploring my town and nearby places. I’ve already found an awesome cafe thanks to Lauren. The chocolate croissants there are delicious! I showed the place to a few people. Samantha is one of them. She’s a new ALT in Kashima. She’s from New Jersey, and she’s a history buff. She and I have been hanging out and getting to know each other here lately. She’s got a sweet tooth and loves bunnies. She’s got blonde hair and blue eyes, so as you can imagine, people stop and stare.

That is something to report, I guess. People in Itako don’t gape at me anymore. I’m just the English teacher now. Instead, I’ve been getting parents stopping to say hi, and more and more people want to try talking to me in English. No one’s really surprised to see me walking around. Although, sudden ambushes by middle school students have happened. That’s always fun! I love my kids. They’re so cute.

Anyway, I also hang out with Mish. She’s my block leader. She’s from Hawaii and she’s all about Totoro. I don’t know if it’s possible to love Totoro as much as she does. I try. I bought a Totoro and he’s quite fuzzy and soft. Mish and Sam can play volleyball. I can pretend to play volleyball and hurt myself.

Well, that’s all for now. I’ll try to catch up on my bloggin’ as soon as I can. I had a free hour so I decided to crank this one out really fast. I hope you all enjoyed it!

TTYL!

The Other Kind of Neighbor

Most of my Japanese neighbors are pretty swell. The few times there’s been big earthquakes since I been here (meaning, the ones that just either keep going and going or the ones that actually make my stuff move around) we all run out to make sure everyone’s okay. When we’re all sure everyone’s alive, we proceed to go back to the tasks we were doing. A couple of my neighbors even invited me over for dinner and I had a good time.

Then, there’s the other kind of neighbor.

Meet Bob, everybody.

Spiders. I don’t particularly like them, but I don’t hate them either. However, I’ve got one small problem by the name of Bob. Bob is a spider. He’s apparently a pretty common Japanese spider that just likes to hang around, making webs, and helping to keep the evil mosquito population down. In other words, they’re my friendly neighborhood vampire killers, and I’m okay with letting them live.

I catch most spiders in my house and throw them outside. Usually, it’s not such a big deal. Also, they’re usually small enough that I can just scoop them up with a tissue and shake them out of said tissue. It’s quick, painless for both of us, and I get karma points for not killing a helpless creature.

But then, Bob happened. I was minding my own business one morning. Coffee in hand, I moved into the living room to open the curtain. I like nature lighting. I can stand fluorescent just fine, but I don’t like it. I slid back the curtain to find Bob. At first, I thought he was inside my house. One heart attack later, I figure out that he’s just outside the window. I breathed a sigh of relief and then glared at him.

He sits in his web and just dares me to do something. I sigh and just walk over to pick up a book. I think I was reading “Memoirs of a Geisha” at the time. I did my best to just ignore him and go on with life. After a few days, I kept opening the curtains to find him in the same place. I took pictures and then went to Google to find out if I should worry. Luckily, Bob proved to be a pretty boring find.

He’s just a common spider called Yama Onigumo, which translates to “barn spider.”  However, Bob’s big for his species. I measured him safely on the other side of the glass. He’s bigger than the average yama onigumo. I decided since he was sticking around and he wasn’t doing anything to bother me, I named him and started greeting him every morning.

We had a routine. I would wake up, eat breakfast, and then go open the curtains. He would scurry around on his web until he got to the middle. I would say, “Mornin’ Bob.” And then I’d either read a book or watch a movie. He wasn’t a bad cohabitant of the same approximate living space. He killed a good many bugs, and I saw that as keeping his keep. All was well.

One day I opened the curtain and Bob’s web was gone. I looked around for Bob, but he was nowhere to be seen. I surprised myself at how sad I felt. My eight legged little friend had gone and abandoned me. I continued on with my routine, but it didn’t feel right.

Later on that night, I saw Bob…in my apartment…making A GODDAMNED WEB OVER MY TV! I freaked out and screamed a little. I shouted, “Bob! You get down from there this instant!” Bob gave the equivalent of a spider giving me the finger. He proceeded to continue making his own mini-home in the corner where the walls meet the ceiling. I yelled out a few curses, felt violated beyond measure, and felt irrationally betrayed. At some point, I got around to grabbing a cup and a sheet of sketch paper.

The process of getting Bob down from the ceiling included me chasing the freaking spider along the walls. It would’ve been easier to kill him, but it felt wrong to kill him after I named him. I finally got him on the ceiling at a good place to slam the cup over him. I slid the paper, and Bob plopped into the glass.

I stared at him. He stared at me. I sighed. All the effort I’m going through to save him from a shoe and he just looked as content as ever. Jerk.

I walked over to the front door. Carefully, I set Bob near the stairs and said, “Okay, Bob. Stay out of my apartment.” I thought that was the end of it. Bob would scurry off into the night, and I’d never see him again.

The bastard made a web on my porch. He won’t leave. I’ve destroyed his webs several times, and even sprayed some bug spray around in the hopes of making him leave. All the other spiders got the hint and got the hell out of dodge. Bob just remade his webs and avoided the areas I’d sprayed.

After a certain point, I just gave up. I wasn’t going to kill him. I couldn’t do it. Stupid spider was determined to stay, and honestly he wasn’t inside my apartment. In my opinion, I have no right to kill him. He’s not bothering me. If his web strays just a little too much into the walk way, I just destroy it. Bob will have another one up before the sun rises.

I could complain, but oddly enough, Bob’s a part of my routine again. I find him comforting. The spider stands on constant guard for the other, more annoying, bugs. He even took down a cockroach once, which was pretty awesome. The cockroaches here are pretty big, and he made that one fly as far and fast as its wings could take it. I also take great pleasure in imagining a thief coming up the stairs, taking one look at Bob, and heading straight back down.

Every day, I walk up my steps and look up at Bob’s web. He’s usually just sitting in the middle, waiting for a meal. I nod my head and say, “Hey, Bob.” right before I enter my apartment. Bob doesn’t say anything back. I doubt he understands me, but I’m glad that he’s watching over me anyway. All in all, I guess Bob’s a pretty cool neighbor, even if he’s not human.

TTYL!

The Reason Why

I get asked this question so many times! “Why did you come to Japan? Did you know about the earthquake and the radiation? Weren’t you afraid?”

Here are the answers to such questions and more!

To answer the first question, I’ve wanted to go to Japan since I was eleven years old. Initially, my interest started by reading manga. My school’s social studies textbook really only discussed Japan when it came to World War II and that’s it. And so, I started reading about Japan’s history and culture on my own at the public library.  I became fascinated by a world that seemed so different from mine. It became my dream to go and learn about Japan first hand.

In 2010, I studied abroad in Japan because a friend told me about the JET Program. She recommended that I study abroad first to see if I would like Japan as it really was and not as I imagined it to be. She warned me that I would be disillusioned and most likely would find that the country’s differences would be irreconcilable with my own Western ideology.

When I studied abroad, I fell in love with Japan all over again. I try to explain why, but it’s so difficult for me. I had a hard time speaking in Japanese (and still do) but I liked the sound of it. I also discovered things about my own language and culture that unless I studied Japanese I would’ve never even thought about.

For example, I realized that English is a fast paced language. I never really noticed it’s made for quick conversation until I spoke in Japanese. For Japanese, the conversations are meant to take their time. Words are, usually, really crisp and clear and people take their time to get the message across with the best clarity possible. I hated it sometimes because I just wanted to know where the damn restroom was and the person I asked would take forever to tell me where to go! But when I was at home with my host family, I loved it.

I also just got to see the religious aspects of Japan first hand. I took a Buddhism class before I went over there. I liked the ideas of Buddhism and Shinto. I really liked how Japan simply takes in both religions and makes them into one. When I performed a prayer in front of a Shinto shrine, I felt so peaceful. The open sky made me feel more connected with God than any church ever did. Hearing the wind blow amongst the trees, I could sigh and just release all of my burdens. It was a wonderful experience for me.

Spirituality

At the Inari Shrine in Kyoto

I also liked the circular idea of time. Honestly, I never liked linear time. It made little sense to me when I knew that time worked in cycles. Eastern philosophy speaks to me. It basically just tells me things I believed in already but my Western world didn’t like. It was comforting. People would tell me that I was odd for thinking that way. I was glad to find a place that understood me in some small way.

I visited schools, too. An elementary school filled with adorable children made me really want to teach. I felt that just by being there I was influencing the students. Whether for good or ill, I can’t say, but I’m hoping for good! I talked with teachers who already worked in Japan, and they were adamant about really thinking it through. They warned me that although the one class seemed wonderful, that the challenges of living abroad and working abroad can be too much for some people.

I did feel some doubts, I won’t lie. I wondered if I was cut out for completely leaving America and everything familiar to come back. By this point, I was aware that Japan had some, in my eyes, negative aspects. For example, Japanese people are friendly, even when they hated your freaking guts. I grew up in the South, so I’m used to people talking behind my back. However, if you make someone mad, you might never know. Imagine an invisible bomb getting passed around and you can’t even guess when and where it will blow up. It’s that kind of fear and frustration. I was told that “someone” (my teacher wouldn’t say who) didn’t like how I was holding my chopsticks at a meal and thought I was being rude on purpose.

I will never know who that person was, and I will never know what I did in the first place to offend. Never. That’s just one example. There are other cultural differences that I couldn’t quite reconcile with the way I knew the world to work, so I was worried.

But then I visited Hiroshima. If you ever get the chance to visit the memorial, I highly recommend it. They’ve got English translations for everything. If you’re studying Japanese, like most of my study abroad group was, it’s a great opportunity to practice reading and listening skills. My heart broke from reading all the stories. I felt awful being an American at the sight of where my forefathers killed so many people. I’m well aware that Japan bombed Japan first, but that doesn’t change the fact that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are tragedies that must be prevented from happening again.

Hiroshima Memorial

Hiroshima Memorial

After that visit, I decided for sure that I wanted to come back and teach English. I wanted to be a part of an international community, a community I was already a part of but never bothered to participate. I wanted to actively engage in helping my country and Japan understand each other. It’s my hope that through understanding we lose fear of the unknown, and with that we can move one step closer to acceptance. Not tolerance, but full on acceptance of others different from us.

In the end, we’re all human.

Answering the second question, when the March 11th earthquake happened I wanted to go back. I felt that Japan was like a friend that had been hurt. I don’t abandon my friends when they need my help. I go and see what I can do to make them feel better. And so, I wanted to come back to Japan and help in any way I could. It was torture waiting to hear from JET. I was trying to think of ways to go back. I had applications for Fulbright and Red Cross at the ready if I didn’t get the job.

Luckily, I did get the ALT position. I felt so relieved that I was going back. My mom wasn’t worried. She saw where my city was on the map and basically said, “Oh, yeah, you’re fine.” My family’s been pretty supportive of the whole thing. I noticed that the radiation levels around my city were minimal, and even then, I would’ve gone had the nuclear incident spawned a massive Godzilla outbreak.

I wanted to help, no matter what I didn’t, and still don’t, want to be an ally in just name only. I want to be there for the country that stole my heart so long ago in good times and bad. I don’t want to just show up when it’s convenient. I want to be there for all of it. I want to be here when the earthquakes happen (and they do, almost every day or every other day, it’s no big deal). I want to be here when the typhoons hit (although the recent combination of typhoon and earthquake was terrifying, I wont lie). I want to be there when its boring, interesting, exciting, awful, miserable, great, amazing, just okay, and all the rest. I want to be there for Japan.

Now, I am living the dream! I want to continue to be a friend to Japan and to the people of Japan. I want to help those who want to understand my culture, and I want to learn about Japanese culture very much. Although I am a teacher, I still want to learn. I take any opportunity I can to have a cultural exchange, even though the language issues still pop up.

I am afraid sometimes, but not of radiation or earthquakes. I’m afraid that I’ll mess up and get sent back home. I’m afraid that one day I’ll wake up and it had all just been some weird dream. Losing this job would be my worst nightmare. I was homesick for a moment, but I don’t want to go back. Not really, not when there’s still so much to do. I try not to let the fear control me, because I want to be strong.

TTYL!

Determination

Ever have one of those days where everything  just seems to go right? It’s that kind of day for me. I’m sitting in the teacher’s room, and I feel like I just did my morning classes pretty well! I’m happy about it, and I’m hoping that my next period will also go awesome. I feel so much better than I did just a day ago. It’s an amazing feeling.

I think just writing about the issues I’m having made all the difference. I’ve been locking it all away in the effort to stay positive. I don’t like admitting that I sometimes can’t handle things.In addition to that, I also don’t like making mistakes, which is stupid because I’m human and I’m going to make mistakes. It’s inevitable. However, I feel like ever since I stepped off the plane that I was slipped a stupid pill. I feel off balance and unable to find solid ground. And then, I berate myself for the whole problem. Of course, that doesn’t help me at all. It just makes me mess up even more.

I need to learn to forgive myself for making mistakes. It’s not easy. I’ve been keeping a mental tally of all the things I’ve done wrong, and I really shouldn’t. It just haunts me and brings me down. I know I need to let go and move on. Learn from the mistakes and quit beating myself up over them. It’s so hard for me! I don’t know why.

I wish I could say that someone in my life gave me this complex, but that’s not the case here. My parents were never the rub your mistakes in your face parents, and I always loved them for that. Actually, my mom was always the one telling me to just relax. My dad always showed his faith in me. My brother would look at me funny and say something along the lines of, “Yeah, you’re a real failure. You got to Japan out of sheer luck. QUIT ANGSTING!” He’s not exactly subtle. In short, I can’t think of any family or friends that would throw my mistakes in my face.

As I’m sitting here, reflecting on all I’ve done up until this point, I’ve come to realize that really nothing I did was really that awful. Yes, I got lost on occasion. Yes, I was late to a couple of meetings. Yes, I screwed up that word royally. However, I didn’t quit. I just kept going. I rolled with the punches and kept moving. That’s got to count for something, right?

And man is today a good day! I’m going to make the best of it. I’m going to let go of my issues and just relax. I will smile, I will laugh, and I will not take my mistakes so seriously. I will go to the damn grocery store with head held high. They can look all they want. I’m not going anywhere. I will speak Japanese, even at the risk of sounding like an utter baka. I will put Halloween decorations on my porch and on my desk. Deal with it!

My determination got me this far, so I know it can take me farther. It’s almost the next class period, so I’ve got to get off the computer and go to class.

TTYL!