Time to Say Goodbye

Living in Ibaraki for three years, I felt like a bit of a traitor for leaving. Itako gave me some amazing experiences, and showed me how to become a better person through those experiences. I gained so much from teaching my students, and I hope that what I taught them will somehow stick in their heads despite what may come. I am proud of them, every single one.

I look back with critical eyes when it comes to my teaching methods. This class was better than this class. How much did I do wrong? God, I hope he/she/them get into the high school they want. I messed up more than a few lessons. Will that matter? Did I do something completely wrong? Please, I hope if nothing else, I can’t be the reason they don’t English.

Ms. Nesaki, the English teacher I worked with in Itako 2nd, told me once, “That’s how a good teacher thinks. You worry about the students. You care. Sometimes that enough, deshou?”

I want her to be right. If my kids can think of me fondly, that’s great, but I’d rather them have the knowledge I tried to cram into their heads over memories of me. If even one of them can remember present-past or how to do future tense, I’ll consider it a job well done.

I know I couldn’t have stayed there, not another year. It’s not the students, teachers, or schools’ fault either. I just got worn down from the curriculum, the constant battle between what I knew was correct English and what the textbook told me to teach. I didn’t want to keep doing the same thing every single year, like an endless loop of hodgepodge “English.”

I’m going to miss the people the most, and I just know it. The friendships and other relationships I cultivated over this three year period were usually hard-won, requiring that I try to communicate with them however I can, whether through language or exaggerated gestures. Some were easy, usually with people who could speak English fluently, but even with Japanese on my side it felt like it took so long to discover little gems hidden within my co-workers. Even just thinking about the lady at the 7 Eleven who I saw every other day, who I talked with about this and that but nothing important. I’m sad to think I won’t see her again.

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My awesome Itako crew!

I keep trying to tell myself I’m not leaving Japan, so it’s not the same. Yet, I know that even being two hours away will mean that I can’t see these people every weekend or even once a month. I’ll have to just try and go back when I can, and enjoy that time in the moment.

I’m going to miss the Ibaraki JETs, too. The Drunken Duck memories; the trips to Gunma, Hokkaido, and Tokyo; to even the JET Meetings in Mito once a month. I met so many awesome people in such a short amount of time on the program, and they’ll always mean so much to me.

Now, I’m moving onto a bigger city, called Machida.  My new  job is teaching adults instead of kids at COCO JUKU in Yokohama. I’m a little nervous about it, but I hope that since they’re giving me a full five days of training I’ll be able to figure it out fast. Still, it’s a whole new ballgame.

Thank you for everything Itako, JET, and friends. I hope to see you again somewhere, someday soon. Take care!

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Thanks for the great memories, everyone!

 

 

 

This Weekend Only! Special Events at the Itako Iris Park

This Saturday and Sunday (June 20th and 21st), Itako will hold two special events for the public at the Itako Iris Park.

One of the events is called the Milky Way Iris Bride Ceremony. At this event, hundreds of bright blue LED lights will be placed in the river alongside the iris park. The Iris Bride will then go down the river in the boat. The lights are really beautiful and cast a cool, aqua glow in the night. With these lights, the idea is to place the bride in a river reflecting the stars from the night sky, as if she’s floating through the heavenly sight herself.

Milky Way Iris Bride

Credit: msn.com

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The Milky Way Iris Bride send off will commence at 7:00 p.m. (19:00), but be sure to get there early because the crowd gets really big before the event.

Also, we will have a candlelight ceremony called the “Suigou no Akari,” which in English translate to “The Beautiful Riverside Illumination.”

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The park will be filled with hundreds of candles inside of cups that have pictures drawn on, wishes/ prayers written on, or people’s names and organizations written to show their support for the event. If you come during the daytime on Saturday, you can have a chance to make your own candle as well! This event will go from 5:30 – 9:00 p.m. (17:30-21:00).

If you are close and in the area, please head on down! I highly recommend these events for couples. This weekend is going to have a really romantic atmosphere, so if you have a special someone and want to do something nice together, Itako is the place to go!


Some Rules about the Park

The park is a no smoking area, but all the restaurants and bars around the park are smoking friendly. However, the City of Itako would like for people not to smoke near the iris flowers because if the flowers catch on fire it will be a big problem. If you do smoke, feel free to do so at one of the nearby establishments, thank you!

Please do not leave trash at the park! The litter is not just unsightly, it also damages the plants, so please take your garbage with you and throw it away. There is a nearby 7 Eleven where you can take your trash or you can take it to Itako Station where there are many trash bins.

Do not touch the Iris Princesses, Staff, or Characters (City Mascots)! We have had a few problems with people in the past inappropriately touching the Iris Princesses and female staff in the past, and so for protection touching us and the ladies is not allowed. If you have children, they are allowed to shake hands and play with Ayame-chan or the other characters at the park, but adults are asked to please not pat or tap on the heads because it can hurt the people inside.

Thank you for your time!

Only In Japan: Cute Construction Characters

 

Construction sites, while necessary, are some of the biggest annoyances on the road. They’re dirty, noisy, and cause a lot of trouble. Cars can get backed up for miles because of some city project or another, triggering road rage in even the most temperate driver. There’s nothing to be done about it, shoganai. We just have to resign ourselves to this irritating fate.

Unless you live in Japan, in which case there’s actually something to look forward to with construction. In many Japanese cities they have character road guides and blocks. In most cases the characters are animals or famous things associated with the city. For example, I often see the deer character in my city and in the city of Kashima. Kashima city’s character is the deer (shika). The city’s soccer team is even called the Kashima Antlers and they have a deer mascot.

The two characters seen in the picture below were taken at a construction site just outside my apartment. The deer is obviously from Kashima, but the giraffe was a new one. I asked a teacher why the giraffe and she told me that unusual or really famous cute characters, such as Doraemon or Stitch, are used to tell people that it’s a school zone or that there are children around in the area and to be careful.

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The giraffe on the right is to warn people “CHILDREN PLAY HERE.”

In Kamisu, there are dolphins and bunny characters. I only saw the dolphin character once in the three years I’ve been here, but I’ve seen the rabbits many times. The rabbits come in about three or four different colors. I’ve seen them in yellow, pink, and blue.

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Pink bunnies at a construction site near Kamisu City Hall

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Yellow bunnies seen in Tokyo near the Emperor’s Palace

The idea behind them is to kind of soften the look of the ugliness that we often associate with construction. Instead of getting as upset as we normally would, the characters are there to distract from the stress of the situation and to make people think of adorable things instead.

Also, the bright colors are meant to alert people in either the day or night time to use caution on the road. The big eyes are meant to sort of shock you, because when people see the eyes at night they might think it’s a child or some kind of animal for a split second, and so hopefully drivers slow down around the work in progress.

However, some people in Japan want them removed because they’re too distracting and may actually cause accidents. The argument they put forth is that these characters make it harder for drivers to just concentrate on the road and instead get their eyes fixed to the cute bunny or deer instead. And so then, the distracted drivers won’t be able to react to a situation going on in front of them.

Personally I love them. They do make the long stretches of stop and go traffic in the midst of construction more bearable in my mind, so I hope Japan decides to keep them. I hope to see more of them soon!

Third Time’s the Charm: An Iris Princess Again

The Itako Iris Festival is on from today (May 25th) to June 29th. I’m only there on Sundays, but I have the honor and pleasure of serving with 15 other Iris Princesses this year who will be there more often than me. The Iris Princesses are at the park on Saturdays and Sundays from 8-5.

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I am waaaaaaay in the back

Today was the perfect start to the festival. The weather was nice with the sun hitting the iris flowers just right, making them really vibrant. There are over one million of about 500 different kinds of purple, yellow, and white iris flowers at the park.

This festival has been around since 1952, when iris-lovers placed cut iris flowers in beer bottles as decorations in for the festival. Until 1955, the Itako area was built upon a system of canals. For that reason, when a new bride and/or her goods were to be transported to her new home (the husband’s family home) it was done using a Sappa boat. These traditional boats are still used in Itako as tourist attractions. People can ride in the boats and enjoy the beautiful scenery as they travel up and down the rivers.

And to this day, the Bridal Boat (Yome-iri Fune) wedding send of ceremony is performed with a bride at the Iris Park. After arriving at the ‘Itako Bride’ memorial, the bride will walk along the pathway to the boat with her matchmaker and the boatman, then the boat will set off. Often the groom will be waiting at the Wai-Wai Fantasy dock.

The other Iris Ladies and I spent all day posing for pictures and helping people find their way around our little town. I even helped out a few foreigners that came to the park, which has never happened on the first day before.

The park this year is selling some cute straps and plush goods, which they didn’t do last last year. I want them all!

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The mini Ayame-chan character strap

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The big plush Ayame-chan

On the weekends is the Iris Bride send off event. That’s at 11:00, 14:00, and 19:00 (but times are subject to change). There are several events during the festival, such as traditional Japanese dancing and mochi making. We’ve also got boat rides up and down the river that are quite fun.

 

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By the way, the park is (semi) famous! It was featured on a recent Japanese suspense/ thriller drama on Fuji TV. They actually came to the city and filmed parts of it right here in Itako. Isn’t that cool?! I got to watch it tonight. It was kind of awesome to watch it and go, “Oh my God! I’ve been there!” I thought it was particularly cool because someone was even murdered in a river that I’ve been to (television murder, not real life, obviously).

It’s easy to get to Itako via the Kashima-Orai Line from Mito or the Suigo-Itako Bus from Tokyo station. If you’ve got the time, please come on down!

The Hectic Days

I’m getting to that point in the year when I want to just come home and pass out after work. For the next two weeks, I’m looking at no days off and a whole lot of overtime. Interactive Forum requires that I train students until 5 or 5:30 p.m. Also, I went ahead and agreed to be an Iris Princess (Ayame Musume あやめ娘) to make this the third year I represent my Japan hometown. And lastly, I signed up for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) level N3 (a.k.a Conversational Level).

For Interactive Forum, I’m trying to increase the level of my students’ English abilities, but it can be difficult to do that and keep the training times fun. If the students aren’t having fun, the entire hour can become this awkward affair where no one wants to talk, and the whole point of it is to make students converse in English. As you can well imagine, it’s frustrating as all get out when they get into this strange funk.

Usually I can bring them out with what I like to call “Crazy English,” where I introduce myself as someone famous and pretend to be that person instead of myself. For example, “Hi! My name is Sailor Moon. I fight evil in my free time. I like sweets very much. Nice to meet you!” The students get a kick out of that. However, I’ve got to be careful to balance having fun and keeping them focused on the task at hand.

My third years, who are fourteen or fifteen years old, can really help me out with doing the harder parts. At both of my schools, I’ve designated a third year student as the sempai of the Interactive Forum group. If I’m not there for some reason then they’re in charge until I show up, and if I need a translation they will be the ones who do so to the other students. It’s actually very important, I think, for ALTs to utilize the sempai system set up in the Japanese classrooms. It can be a great tool to utilize when you want to get things done in class or clubs.

It is really rewarding to watch my students’ progress from simplistic sentences to having actual full conversations. To have a student go from answering “Do you like AKB48?” with just “Yes, I do.” to him/ her responding “Yes, I do! I like them very much. My favorite member is ______. Do you know her?” That’s just one of the most awesome experiences to have as an ALT, to know that you’ve been able to guide your students to that point where they can take what they’ve learned in class and actually use it.

Still, as rewarding as it is, I feel a little bit worn out from coaching sometimes. Last week turned out fine, but I can recall a few moments last year when I showed up and I knew from the get go the session was going to be a fight to speak. I’m anticipating that next week, when the Sports Day (undōkai 運動会) practices get rolling, the whole group will show up exhausted and not wanting to do anything. And it’s my job to make them, hooray!

That’s going to be a problem for me since I’ll probably be extremely tired as well. Last year, I worked for the Itako Iris Festival (Itako Ayame Matsuri 潮来市あやめ祭) on Saturdays and Sundays. I went with the wiser choice this year to work only on Sundays, since I know I’ll need one day devoted to planning on moving to Tokyo/ Chiba, depending upon where I’m placed for my new job. However, this weekend requires that I work both days since it’s the opening weekend. I’m glad to be doing it one last time, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not looking forward to not one single day that I can recharge my batteries.

This year the city wasn’t able to find another foreigner to be an Iris Princess, so I’m the only foreign woman working this year. As such, I’m probably going to be featured a little more for campaigns than in the previous two years. I feel torn about this possibility, because on the one hand I’ll be kind of given special treatment, but on the other hand the expectations for me are higher than previous years. I’m not sure how it’s all going to work out. I’m nervous about it.

I’m not so nervous about the JLPT, though. Honestly, I meant to take the test back in December, but I missed the deadline for registration. This time I was on the ball and got my application in on time. I’ve already been studying for it since before December, so I’m confident that I’ll at least pass. I’ve bought all the books and test materials for it.

But on top of everything else, I wonder if perhaps I jumped the gun a little bit.Two years ago I tried for the N4 (Upper Basic Level) but I didn’t pass. I did the same kind of schedule I’m going to do soon, wherein I work six or seven days a week along with studying for a test everyday. Back then I actually hurt myself from the stress. I couldn’t study kanji for a good month afterwards. My brain actually flat out refused to process any new Japanese, so I took a break. I feel like this time will be different, since I started studying way back months ago and because I know I will get Saturdays off, eventually.

With the 31st being Sports Day, it looks like the rest of the month of May is just one big block of WORK. And then in “free time” it’s actually “study time.” Next month looks like work unless it’s Saturday, but even then I’d imagine the Saturdays will be devoted to the very long list of “Things Jessica Must Do Before She Moves.” I’m praying that when all is said and done my students will have better English speaking abilities than before we started practice, I get through the Iris Festival in one piece, and I pass the JLPT with flying colors.

When It’s Time to Move On

February is the annual JET contract renewal decision month. My supervisor asked me with a hopeful smile on her face that I would stay another year. Actually, if I wouldn’t mind, they would allow me to stay the full possible five. She’s been telling me this since November, and since November I wrangled with my heart and mind over what to do.

Many former JETs told me when I got here, “Don’t wait too long to leave. If you feel it’s time to go, then go. Don’t stay where you are just because it’s comfortable. You will regret it.”

I always hated the vagueness of these words of wisdom. What does the feeling entail? What does too long even mean? How is comfort a negative thing? I asked these questions and more, but none of them could accurately tell me.

They just said, “You’ll know.”

From experience now I understand what they meant. The feeling isn’t just one feeling, it’s an accumulation of different feelings attached to certain things associated with working and living in one area.

I’ve lived in Itako for two and a half years now. If I let it sink in, that fact astounds me. Didn’t I just arrive yesterday? Where did the time go? Unbelievable, and yet true. I made a home in my 2DK apartment, putting up pictures of friends and family. I rearranged the entire place ten different times, added my own little touches here and there, tried to put my identity in a cozy space. I went on several amazing adventures with countless inspirational, caring, and beloved people. My Japanese skills improved with time, to the point I no longer need aid when it comes to complicated tasks like getting a new phone. I owe all of this happiness and warm memories to Itako.

What I didn’t expect was that the feeling can be a misnomer, because for me the big part of my decision came from a lack of feeling. I realized in December that the thought of not renewing my contract didn’t inspire feelings of panic or sadness at all. I felt excited at the prospect, and even started looking online at jobs in other areas. I knew on a cold December evening a few days before Christmas that I wanted to move to Tokyo.

Nostalgia goggles are tricky. I knew that come next year things that bothered me in the past wouldn’t change. On the weekends I’ll probably be left with few options for entertainment, probably opting to leave town to go to Kashima, Kamisu, Mito, or Tokyo to meet up with friends. Most likely, I’ll be watched, talked about, and monitored by everyone in my community. For dating, the options are limited in a country side area where there isn’t much dating material, and dating means “with intent to marry” and I don’t want to get married.

I now understand that staying too long means deciding to put your mental well being at risk of stagnancy instead of pushing for growth. I heard from many an ex-JET and ex-Interac how easy it can be to “get stuck” in the same place every year until it’s time to go. A routine is vital when living abroad. It gives stability when in all other situations we ex-pats feel out of control or lost. Going to work, teaching the same textbook year after year, I felt like I wasn’t in a routine anymore but instead getting into a rut. I tried to mix up the lesson plans, but even that didn’t make me feel like I was actually pushing my limits. I realized when I came back from winter break that staying and doing the same thing every single day for two more years could do more harm than good for me.

And that’s how I discovered how comfort can be a trap. The comfort of a routine, of daily activities and habits, means I can feel safe in the knowledge that I know what to expect. I see the same people every day, and I can usually predict how they’re going to behave. When I first arrived in Japan, I felt extremely unbalanced because I didn’t know what to expect for the first few months. The idea of starting all over again is scary, and that fear can be paralyzing. What if it doesn’t work out? What if my new situation is worse? What if I mess it all up? A thousand doubts pop up, but it’s easy for me now to say, “I did it once. I can do it again. I’ll make it work.”

I felt no urge to return to the United States. Even though I missed many people I love dearly, I couldn’t imagine going back home. Honestly, I can’t imagine leaving Japan for another couple of years at least, because in my heart still resides in Japan. I might return someday in the far future, but for now I’m not ready.

When I told my supervisor, she seemed disappointed, but she understood. Three years was a good run, after all, and she wished me luck. After she left, I felt guilty for leaving her with the chore of finding my replacement, but I knew I couldn’t say yes. I went back to work, determined to get things done.

In July, I will move on to a new life.

The Iris Festival Beings with American Iris Princesses

茨城県潮来市の水郷潮来あやめ園で18日開幕する「水郷潮来あやめまつり」。50種100万株が咲き誇る園内で来園者をもてなす「あやめ娘」に外国 人を採用して今年度で6年目を迎える。今回も米国人女性2人がおもてなしする予定で、市は「海外に日本の良さを知ってもらうきっかけになれば」と話してい る。

The 18th kicks off the “Itako Iris Festival” in the riverside district of the Ibaraki Prefecture in the Itako Iris Garden. With over 50 different species of 100 million iris flowers, guests can come into the park to see the “Iris Princesses.” The year marks the sixth year for Itako to have foreign entertainers. Two American women plan to host this time, and Itako city has said that, “this becomes an opportunity to get to know the goodness of Japan abroad.”

今年度の外国人あやめ娘は、ニュージャージー州出身のサマンサ・エイミー・ダッカスさん(24)と、ケンタッキー州出身のジェシカ・ゴードンさん(23)。2人は6月23日までの期間中の土日に日本人6人のあやめ娘とともに来園者の対応や観光案内を行う。

Samantha Amiee Dutkus (24) from New Jersey and Jessica Gordon (23) from Kentucky are the foreign Ayame Daughters of this year. These 2 people give tourists information and support the other six Japanese Ayame Daughters on Saturday and Sunday until June 23rd.

今年で62回目となるあやめまつりは、園内のアヤメを楽しめるほか、花嫁が舟に乗って新郎のもとへ向かう「嫁入り舟」なども行われる。日本文化に触れることができると、外国人も多く訪れているという。

Guests can enjoy the iris garden and the “marriage boat.”  This Iris Festival is the 62nd this year. If foreign visitors come, they can get a touch of Japanese culture

市は、海外からの来園者対応のため、平成20年度から外国人のあやめ娘採用を開始。市教委などを通じ、小中学校の英語の授業で教師を補助する「外国語指導助手」として来日している外国人に照会し、これまでに7人を採用した。

The city started hiring foreign Iris Princesses in 2008 for people traveling from abroad and coming to the garden. The two Americans are hired through the Itako Board of Education. They are to assist the teachers in English classes of elementary and junior high schools as “Assistant Language Teachers.”

市観光商工課は「海外からきた観光客の対応がスムーズになった。日本人の来園者にも人気があり、広くかわいがられている」と手応えを感じている。

A representative of the City Tourism Commerce Division feels the response “is also popular in people coming to the garden. Correspondence from Japanese tourists who came from all around have said they are widely loved.”
なかには2年連続で務める人もいて、実はダッカスさんとゴードンさんも昨年度から務め、「お客さんと話すのが楽しかった」と今年度も希望した。
Some people serve for a second year in a row. Some of them, in fact, are Ms. Gordon and Ms. Dutkus. They also served last year, and hope for this year to be “fun to talk with the audience.”
2人は外国人への対応のほか、日本人との触れ合いも楽しんでおり、ゴードンさんは「去年は日本語が難しかったけど、今は自信があるので楽しみ」と日本語ですらすらと話した。

In addition to responding to foreigners, these two also enjoy interacting with the Japanese people. Mr. Gordon spoke fluently in Japanese as she said, “Japanese was difficult last year, but I have confidence now.” 
園内での活躍のほか、ブログやフェイスブックなどを通じて海外にあやめまつりの情報を発信も。ダッカスさんは「潮来の歴史や文化を海外に広く知ってもらい、あやめまつりにたくさんの外国人にきてもらいたい」と期待している。

In addition to the activity in the park, Ayame Princesses also give out information about the iris festival overseas, such as through Facebook and blog. Dutkus’s hopes “to let you know widely overseas history and culture of Itako, I want a lot of foreigners to come to the Ayame Festival.”

Original Japanese Article link here: http://sankei.jp.msn.com/region/news/130518/ibr13051802080000-n2.htm

Ayame Matsuri (あやめ祭) 2013! START!

Once again, I’ve signed up to be an Iris Princess for the Iris Festival in Itako. The Iris Festival starts this weekend on May 18th and will go on until June 23rd.

It’s a beautifully romantic event, especially at night with the lantern lights and candles. During the day, there are boat tours available. They can be intimate rides with just you and your special someone, or they can be party boats for you and your friends. Nearby in Kashima, there’s the Kashima Soccer Stadium which features the Kashima Antlers soccer games.

Please come and enjoy!

もう一度、私は潮来市内のあやめ娘です。あやめ祭が5月18日から6月23日までです。

それはランタンライトとキャンドルで特に夜間美しくロマンチックなイベントです。日中は、使用可能なボートツアーがあります。彼らはあなたとあなたの特別な人だけとの親密な乗り物であることも、彼らはあなたとあなたの友人のためのパーティーボートすることができます。鹿島に近く、鹿島アントラーズサッカーゲームを提供しています鹿島サッカースタジアムがあります。

来て、楽しんでください!

Ayame chan 068 Ayame chan 070 Ayame chan 1764

Itako’s First Snow Fall!

Today, I opened my door to beautiful surprise. Snow covered everything as far as the eye could see. My mouth actually dropped open in surprise. My neighbors were outside, too, looking just as shocked as I was.

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My street’s trees covered in snow!

In Itako, it maybe snows about two times a year. Usually, it’s only a slight powder that quickly turns into this gross brown mush on the sidewalks and streets. It never gets to the point where it can actually affect anything.

And yet for some strange reason, Jack Frost decided to pay us a visit early this morning, giving Kashima City its first snow day in who knows how long. Where I live, the school decided to have a late start, at 11 a.m, with only three class periods today.

Hinode JHS

My base school’s entrance

Back in Kentucky, this snow fall wouldn’t even be considered for a snow day, but Itako doesn’t have any removal teams. There’s no snowplows that go through the streets, just sometimes poor, unfortunate teachers and/or volunteers that come out with gardening shovels to remove the white stuff. Sidewalk salt is available at the drug store, but nobody actually buys it (until today).

All snow removal done by Hinode JHS teachers.

My school’s front car entrance and street sidewalks.

I love it so much! I wouldn’t want it to last forever, but this kind of snow reminds me of home.  When I went back to the U.S. for Christmas, I got to have snow. When I came back to mainland Japan, I felt instantly a little homesick because of the lack of snow. Not that I’d want to live in Hokkaido, the supposedly ever snowing north lands that could rival the cold of The Wall from Game of Thrones, but I missed the sight of snowflakes falling on the wind. I also found that I missed good ol’ fashioned snowball fights.

Luckily, some of my students were more than happy to hit me with a snowball today. I ended up going outside to welcome the kids for our late start. Some students looked absolutely pissed about the fact they were cheated out of a real snow day. Most kids, however, chose to get in as many snowball fights as humanly possible before they absolutely had to go to class. When I asked students how they were, most said, “Happy!” Some students playfully threw snowballs at me, so I shocked them by retaliating. We ended up having a small fight before they had to leave for class. I felt so, so happy, right before I got a shovel and started helping out my fellow teachers make the sidewalks snow free.

I will look back fondly on this day, but I will admit I won’t be terribly upset to see it go. I’m thankful I got to have a little fun with my students, and that I got a small reminder of home at my second home. Still, I know that just like back home, I would get so sick of the stuff within a week.

So thanks for the lovely present, Jack, but you can go now.

"You're welcome!"

Rise of the Guardians is amazing, by the way. Go see it!

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!