Thursday, December 20, 2012

Girl Talk and Gossip: the Best Parts of my Job

There are days when it's hard to feel stimulated and meaningful at work. Days when I'm scheduled to go to English classes which include lengthy explanations of grammar, in Japanese, and only a brief vocabulary practice in which I pull out my best English pronunciation and flashcard-flipping techniques.

Thankfully, I am often kept busy at school, with few free periods spent in the staff room, though I find myself wishing I had a few less hours in the classroom and was able to spend my time planning more lessons and activities instead. But, I do work in a fantastically friendly and warm environment, with students who are exceptionally good-natured and fun to teach.

Sports day

I often find the most fulfilling parts of my job are the interactions I have with students. Especially now, in my second year, I'm having more and more "real" conversations beyond the simple "do you like ~?" exchanges that often characterize our communication. This really began to blossom during speech contest this summer, when I spent hours each day, often late into the evening, coaching four wonderful kids on their English pronunciation, intonation, expression and gestures. We found ways to understand each other as we talked about their speeches, but were also able to have lots of conversations about their summer "holidays", club activities, and things they found funny. I felt a lot of pride in my students - I was even a bit emotional when I heard their speeches on speech contest day, and Riho's telling of the story of Freddie the leaf nearly moved me to tears. Oh Freddie. It's a rather existential story of a leaf coming to terms with life and death, and when he finally falls from the tree, he is no longer scared of what is to come. Riho conveyed it so beautifully, and apparently the judges thought so too, as she placed first in the recitation category and was able to move on to the all-Akita round. And she's only a 2nd-year student!

My favourite picture of the bunch. No one quite seems to know what's going on...

Anyway. Lately I've clicked with a bunch of my 3rd-year junior high girls, and we talk about lots of things, from the kind of books we like to the 3-nensei's exclusive "club", Zadoru - a group that is "loud" and often does "girl talk", and the girls get love advice from Naoto, one of the boys who is their appointed leader. This probably all sounds a bit strange, which is because it also sounded strange to me when they first explained the concept of the club one day at lunch. The best part was that they invited me to join, and got excited when I said yes.

Since then, I've had the chance to learn quite a bit about student relationships at my junior high school. It started in one of my 3rd-year classes, when I asked them to guess what I wanted for Christmas. Immediately, Shoh's hand shot up. "It's...a...boyfriend-o!!" he declared confidently. The other boys in the class cracked up; they thought it was so funny that they tried to use the answer again when my JTE (co-teacher) asked them the same question. Through this, I ended up discovering that Shoh has a girlfriend from the other 3rd-year class, and was encouraged to guess who it might be.

"Is it Misato?" I asked my JTE on the way to the other class later that morning.
"No. But, Misato used to be Shoh's girlfriend."
"Ah. Hmm...Is it one of Misato's friends?"
"Is it Mutsumi?"
"No. But, Mutsumi too used to be Shoh's girlfriend."
Turns out the boy has had a lot of girlfriends.

I pondered this as we entered the room, with some speculations as to who his special someone could be. Pretty soon though, class was underway and I forgot about my desire to be in on student gossip.

Eventually, some of the "Zadoru" girls, Mutsumi and Rino, had finished their work, so they called me over and started asking about my Christmas plans, and whether or not I would eat Christmas cake. In Japan, on Christmas, there is a tradition of eating christmas cake, a white sponge cake with strawberries and whipped cream, as well as fried chicken (KFC being a particular favorite). I'm not sure if these are things they think westerners do, or just their own traditions that have somehow evolved, but my students were surprised to learn that we do not eat such "Christmas cake" in Canada, nor do we typically eat KFC. I told them that Christmas cookies are popular instead.

Somewhere in our conversation, to their excitement, they found out that I have a boyfriend. Naoto was sitting behind me, listening in as well, and reacting with overly dramatic interest to every word I said. Perhaps he was just brimming with potential love advice to share. After class, Mutsumi and Rino came up to me and started telling me about their boyfriends.

"My boyfriend is shy!" said Rino.
"My boyfriend is...interesting!" said Mutsumi.

I then remembered my earlier musings. Hmm. "Who are your boyfriends?" I asked.

"My boyfriend is Fuma," said Mutsumi.
"My boyfriend is Shoh," said Rino.
Shoh!! I knew it. Mystery solved.
"Shoh's smile is...very very nice!!" Rino gushed. "But he is crazy!"
"My boyfriend is also crazy. He is silly," I said.
"Is he cool? Is he cute?"
"Yes, of course!"

I stayed and chatted with them until I realized I was going to be late for lunch - with their class. I told them I had to run off and grab my tray, but I would be back. As I was hurrying through the school, food in hand, they came to meet me in the hall - "oh, Katie! Let's go, lunch! Are you hungry?" Yes, of course!

And that made for one of the best days of the week, and possibly the whole month.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

How Not to Study for the JLPT

JLPT: Japanese Language Proficiency Test.
Consists of levels 5 through 1, with level 1 being fluent, and level 5 meaning you have approximately the communicative competency of a 5-year-old.

Someone I know (*ahem*) happens to have decided to take the level 4 test the first weekend in December. She has adopted some really effective study strategies, and thought it prudent to share them.

(1) Assess your current level of Japanese proficiency. You think you're somewhere around level 5? Good. Sign up for the test that is a level *challenge* yourself.

(2) Before you can begin to "properly" study, invest in some good coloured pens so you can write impressive colour-coded study notes. This not only feels more productive, it looks more productive!

(3) Order study materials that are designed to take you three solid months to get through. But be sure to order them with just over two months until the test. Wait two weeks before cracking open these books, and once you've done so, only open them a few times for the first week or two.

(4) In the time you have left, try to learn about 150 new kanji. At least they aren't all entirely "new"; you're already "familiar" with a lot of them, but definitely don't have all of the various readings memorized. Ganbatte ne!

(5) Feel awesome about the amount of Japanese you are learning - listen to the teachers in the staff room when they express how impressed they are with your studies. Because they are most definitely genuinely impressed! Way to go you!! You can pat yourself on the back. Immediately after, feel deflated when they flip through your textbooks and comment that, Wow, you are learning the kanji of a fourth grader!

She may be feeling overwhelmed at the sheer volume of material to go through and study and review and review again, but at least the looming test date is giving her ample motivation to study Japanese, and studying Japanese more intensely gives her a feeling of satisfaction. All good things, even if the outcome is a "Fail".

Monday, November 5, 2012

Of Hippies, Music and Broken Tents

Back in August, I went to this great music festival for the second year in a row, and I wrote this story about it for akitaculture, our ALT online blog/magazine. 


It’s just after dark in a secluded mountain forest. The hum of guitars and various percussion instruments carries through the muggy air. All of the tents in the clearing beyond the stage have been pitched – except ours.
Apparently we’ve come camping with tent poles that are actually just pieces of poles, the elastic string that once connected them missing. We have finally succeeded in carefully sliding the rods together and slowly raising the tent, when one of our fragile constructions pops apart. It is then that we realize we are still several rods short.
Some drunken Japanese guys from Akita city try to help us. Their laughter indicates that they are just as amused as we are. In fact, the situation gets funnier the longer their boisterous conversation lingers.
“Where are you from?”
“America! Canada!"
“Canadaaaa…Yukon river! Gold rush!” (Um, yes. I have never even been to the Yukon before.) “When I was young, I play…ice hockey!!”
“Ahhh cool! Jouzu desu ka?
He ponders for a moment. “No. Fuhhh-cking no!"
And this is just the start of the night. Some mellow folk tunes can be heard from the small stage, set in the middle of what looks like a backcountry hippie village – a series of makeshift tents under which brightly coloured cloth, crafts made of stones and clay and wood, candles, tie-dyed clothing and beer are being sold. There are only about fifty people in attendance, most of them taking part in the performances. Some are sprawled on the grass, sleeping. Others are gathered around the beer tents, or dancing and swaying by themselves. This is Midori Matsuri, or what I affectionately refer to as “The Hippie Festival In The Woods”.

The atmosphere couldn’t be earthier. Camping in the woods and listening to folk and world-inspired music, playing guitar and djembe drums by the lake, frogs singing you to sleep and cicadas waking you in the morning. Most of the musicians and vendors are local; start frequenting live music events in southern Akita, and you’ll begin to see a lot of familiar faces.

During a set that has inspired some form of conga-line, we are approached by Kin-chan, a local musician and organizer of the event. “At the end of the night, everyone will come onstage,” he tells us.  “We will all sing ‘Imagine’ together. Please join.” As the set finishes and the crowd begins to assemble, we wonder if we should actually go up to sing. “Let’s just wait and see what happens,” someone suggests. Good idea. We watch as a dozen free spirits grab guitars, tambourines and microphones and launch into Lennon’s tune in Japanese.
Suddenly, a young shirtless man, sporting bright red pants and dreadlocks, lays eyes on the foreigners clustered together near the front, and his eyes light up. Before we even know what’s going down, we’re being dragged by the wrist to the stage, front and centre, and a microphone is shoved in our faces. Clearly, the gaijin will know all the lyrics!
The problem is, we don’t.
The guitar intro finishes, expectant faces turn toward us, and…nothing. Thinking maybe we just missed our cue, Red Pants Man counts us in a second time. But again, nothing. I look blankly at Jessie, who shakes her head cluelessly in return. Finally, two Japanese girls take over, and everyone is swept away by their lovely duet. That is, until the next verse, when Red Pants Man remembers us and pushes us into the mic once again.
Somehow, we all get through the song together: Japanese, Americans, Canadians, Lennon fans, and even us sub-par Lennon fans. This is the kind of music festival where everyone participates, and surprise performances, dance parties and drum circles are the norm. I may be gone by the time the festival rolls around next year, but it's a bit tempting to stay just long enough to experience it one more time.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Summer (or, How I Rediscovered my Love for Akita)

I woke up one morning a couple weeks ago, cold in my bed. Noteworthy, because the pressing sweaty heat of a Japanese summer had somehow made all memories of a frigid winter and the possibility of a future cold season seem inconceivable. I honestly could barely believe that the weather would one day change. Thankfully, fall has finally hit Akita, the “autumn rice field”of Japan, and with it comes some relief from the sweltering summer.

To be honest, though I detest the constant muggy air in summer, especially when sitting at work all day with no A/C in 34+ degree heat, I love summer here. I love its busyness and the loud buzz of cicadas around quiet shrines and the frogs that echo on back country roads and around the rice fields after dark. Those sounds, to me, characterize summer in my corner of rural, northern Japan.

This summer was a bit chaotic, from Japan to Canada and back again. Somewhere in there, I managed to rediscover my love for life in this community as well as my reasons for staying a second year, and happily reconnect with the people, places and food I've missed the most while away from home. All in all, a pretty wonderful season, I'd say.

My summer kicked off with my first (but not last) climb of Mt. Chokai, our token Big Volcano – our “Akita Fuji”. I am convinced that Mt. Chokai must be one of the most gorgeous hikes in Japan. After almost a year of gazing at its peak looming in the distance on clear days, I was eager to conquer it and gaze back at my town from the top. There was still a lot of snow,which made the scenery even more striking, in my opinion. White patches against vivid green, with rocky ridges and ledges and paths all the way to the pile of rocks at the top, the view stretching out over the sea. Mt. Chokai, for me, marked a turning point in my experience of Japan. I was left with a vivid impression of the beauty and thrills of Akita, and after a few months of apathetic drifting I felt myself falling in love with the place again (cliche, but true).

Sometimes, you get stuck in the snow. Avoid this if you can.
Soon after, I felt the year come full-circle as I drove my car up the mountain to the Sanboen cabin for the Akita ALT goodbye party. The last time I had been there was for the welcome party only a month after arriving, so it was an interesting way to get some perspective on the place I found myself in now compared to ten months ago. On the whole, I feel a lot more at ease, more independent and more self-confident after a year of forging my own way in a foreign country. Perhaps these sound like obvious reflections to be having after a year of living on my own in a strange place, but actually feeling the difference it's made is pleasantly surprising. 

We strung together a new “superband” to play some jams, which was a blast but a bit messy as always.

Kneeling at the keys lasted for all of 10 minutes. Not comfortable.

The next month was a blur of goodbyes, hikes, getting dressed in yukata for a small local festival (the“All-Japan Sparkler Festival”), barbecues and picnics on the beach and at the lake, my first slightly-disastrous camping experience in Japan, and more goodbyes.

Cozy and warm after setting up the tent and futons in the dark

Sleep-deprived and chilled after abandoning said tent during a midnight thunderstorm, which blew off the tent fly and soaked the futons.

Yamadera, Yamagata

But literally, I was saying sayonara one day, and then suddenly welcoming the new Yokote ALTs the next. New Yokote is awesome, by the way...

Arts and crafts time at the Board of Education; we've become quite good at drawing Akita's mascot, Sugichi.

One more day and I was on and off a night bus and on and off a plane and walking out of Pearson's Airport in Toronto, eating Subway and drinking chocolate milk. Coming home was a distinct marker between Japan, pt. 1 and Japan, pt. 2. It made things that happened before the trip home seem like they belong to adifferent time and era in my experience. The feeling I had upon returning to Japan was so much more comforting than what I had experienced when arriving for the first time. Riding the shinkansen back from Tokyo to Akita, I remember searching through my jet-lagged grogginess to see if I could find any trace of wistful longing to be still back in Canada. There was none. Not that I don't dearly love Canada and all of the people and places it represents; instead, I had enjoyed my time but felt like I was coming back to what I am really a part of at this point in my life. It felt natural. It was reassuring to be so certain I had made the right decision in re-signing my contract, as there were weeks and months this spring where I wasn't so sure.

I wasn't just resigned to the fact that I was back; I was excited for it. Nikki picked me up at the station, and it felt so good to see a familiar “Japan” face, and to hear about all of the new things that had been going on. Walking into my apartment, I finally had that feeling of “coming home” that so many JETs had told me they experienced when returning from vacations, that moment where they realized that their corner of Japan was not just a place they happened to be stuck in for a time but actually felt like home. This was My Home, My Apartment, My Bed, with My Pictures of all the wonderful people in my life from back home surrounding me on the wall. Time to hit the ground running, and I've barely stopped since.