Wednesday, June 29, 2005

A Mother's Lullaby

The last couple of days I've killed time at school by reading the new English textbooks. Every few years the textbooks are changed, and the major textbook companies submit their revised books; each prefecture then decides which set they'll use for the next few years. Shimane uses the New Horizon English textbooks for the junior high schools.

One of the more memorable stories the 3rd year textbook is called "A Mother's Lullaby." The pace at which each class goes through the book varies, but it seems most classes get to "A Mother's Lullaby" right about the beginning of the second trimester, just in time to clobber the new ALTs over the head.
A Mother's Lullaby

A big, old tree stands by a road near the city of Hiroshima. Through the years, it has seen many things.
One summer night the tree heard a lullaby. A mother was singing to her little girl under the tree. They looked happy, and the song sounded sweet. But the tree remembered something sad.
"Yes, it was some sixty years ago. I heard a lullaby that night, too."

On the morning of that day, a big bomb fell on the city of Hiroshima. Many people lost their lives, and many others were injured. They had burns all over their bodies. I was very sad when I saw those people.
It was a very hot day. Some of the people fell down near me. I said to them, "Come and rest in my shade. You'll be all right soon."

Night came. Some people were already dead. I heard a weak voice. It was a lullaby. A young girl was singing to a little boy.
"Mommy! Mommy!" the boy cried.
"Don't cry," the girl said. "Mommy is here." Then she began to sing again.
She was very weak, but she tried to be a good mother to the poor little boy. She held him in her arms like a real mother.

"Mommy," the boy was still crying.
"Be a good boy," said the girl. "You'll be all right." She held the boy more tightly and began to sing again.
After a while the boy stopped crying and quietly died. But the little mother did not stop singing. It was a sad lullaby. The girl's voice became weaker and weaker.
Morning came and the sun rose, but the girl never moved again.
I was blindsided by this story shortly after arriving. Sitting at my desk in the teachers' room, I really struggled to control myself. Everything about everything was new and exciting and confusing, and this story reminded me of the more uncomfortable aspects of my living in Japan, the ones I don't like to think about.

The revised New Horizon textbooks retain this story, and update it with truly depressing artwork. The new Sunshine textbooks, written by a different company, have an even more depressing Hiroshima story, which I won't go into now—maybe later if Shimane ends up choosing that textbook.

So in case any new ALTs lurk around this blog, you have been warned.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

At the top of Kiyomizu Temple

At the top of Kiyomizu Temple

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

It worked!

A couple of months ago I changed the way my name displays on this blog. Before then, I was simply "Em." But I got tired of being so far down on Google searches for "Emily Watkins" (I mean any reference to me, not just to this blog), so I changed it.

And I'm proud to report that this blog is currently listed at No. 4 in a Google search for "Emily Watkins."

For a long time some viola-playing girl has had the No. 1 spot, though it appears she hasn't touched the site since 2001—a combination I find unconscionable. The next site down refers to an Emily Watkins who's been dead for almost 100 years (my name returns a lot of genealogy-type sites, especially when you stick my middle name in there). Third one down right now refers to a high school softball player; this page is pretty current, so I don't mind it. Every Emily Watkins deserves her day in the sun.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Hotaru, or firefly, was one of the first Japanese words I learned here—strangely enough it wasn't even during firefly season. It was on one of those days last year when Tane-sensei (JTE) and Kasuga-sensei (art teacher) from Nita JHS would come over and do a bit of language/culture exchange dialogue. Well, it was supposed to be them teaching me Japanese and me teaching them English, but most of the time I just taught them English colloquialisms, and we'd discuss cultural differences between Japan and the US. On this evening, somehow we got onto the topic of Christmas songs and their ubiquity during the holiday season. They asked me if we sing New Year's songs as well. "Not really," I said, "except for 'Auld Lang Syne.'" I sang a few bars and explained the meaning of the words. "We have a song like that," they said. It's called "Hotaru no Hikari" (Fireflies' Light). Tane sang a bit—sure enough, it's the same tune as "Auld Lang Syne." They said that "Hotaru no Hikari" is often played at school graduations. I'm not entirely sure what the lyrics mean, but I'll bet it has something to do with, um, little spots of light.

With the kids from Chicago in town (more on that some other time), one of the optional activities planned for them was a firefly viewing in Maki, a village in Yokota. Mabel and I were interested in seeing these fireflies, so I called Tanabe-san and got directions to Maki. He said we'd know the place by the cars parked alongside the street, and we shouldn't go past the traffic light. Something about the elementary school, too. And off we went, in search of Maki and the fireflies.

Well, we found Maki with no problem, but where the fireflies were was a mystery. We got to the traffic light, but saw no cars parked on the side of the road. Drove a bit past the light, turned back, then made another turn at the intersection toward what I hoped was Maki Elementary. Good guess: there it was. We pulled into the parking lot and stopped the car so I could give Tanabe-san another call. But just as I was fishing my phone from my purse, a man came out of the school.

"Konbanwa" (Good evening), he said.
"Konbanwa. Ehh... hotaru wa doko desu ka?" (Where are the fireflies?)
Doubtless he heard my accent, and responded in English, "Ah, just a moment."
He disappeared back into the school while Mabel and I had a good laugh mocking myself. "Where are the fireflies? Where are the fireflies? Most random question in the world."
The man came back out a few moments later, followed by another man, and good-naturedly asked, "Where are you from?"
A bit startled at this non-sequitur, I said, "Uhh... Nita." (Lately this is the answer I give when asked this question; I know it's usually not the answer people are looking for, but I've been here a year and have gotten a little tired of being The Outsider. Now I kinda know why Rohan, when I asked him where he was from, answered, "New York City." Of course the question I should have asked was, "Where did you get your lovely accent?" and the answer to that would be, "Jamaica.")
But right, I said, "Nita." Both of the men looked a little startled, and surprisingly didn't correct my "misunderstanding," so I said, "Chuugakkou no ALT desu" (I'm the junior high school ALT). Oh, they perked right up. "Hajimemashite!" (Nice to meet you!) they both greeted me. "Nihongo wa ii desu ka?" (Japanese is okay?)
"Nnn..." I shook my head, "sukoshi..." (a little).
They invited us into the school, and the first man introduced himself as the school's sixth-grade teacher. The other guy, I don't know, maybe he was the principal or vice-principal? So the sixth-grade teacher sits us down, sets us up with coffee (black and cold), and says something about good timing. He brings me a copy of a lesson plan. ?! What does this have to do with fireflies? The sixth graders will be taking a trip in September to Hiroshima City (this seems to be a popular destination for sixth graders in Shimane), and they will be encouraged to speak to foreigners and get their signatures. So this teacher wants me to teach the kids some basic introductory phrases, and stuff like, "Where are you from?" and, "Please sign." (I did something similar last year at Fuse Elementary.) Okay, sounds good. Then we have to decide on a Monday (I do my elementary visits on Mondays). Unfortunately there remain only two Mondays during Yokota weeks before the beginning of summer vacation: one has already been booked by Yakawa Elementary, and the other is a public holiday. I told him he should call my supervisor and/or the vice-principal at Yokota JHS to find out if I can visit during the week (Tuesday-Friday); sometimes they're okay with that.

But this still had nothing to do with fireflies! I was beginning to think that he'd forgotten, or that I hadn't made our goals clear; but once this more pressing matter was settled he turned his attention to my more pressing matter. Between his broken English, his dry erase marker, and Mabel's Japanese skills, he managed to communicate to us that there were no fireflies: we had come a week early. But the other guy, well he was a firefly expert according to the sixth-grade teacher (he had a few fireflies in a small terrarium), and he could show us where the firefly spot was. So after introducing Mabel and myself formally, we were on our way to find where the fireflies would be. Maybe one or two kilometers from Maki Elementary, he lead us to a bridge over a stream. There were indeed fireflies there, maybe a dozen on each side of the bridge, so it looked to me like we were right on time, but he told us that this show qualified only as "a few" fireflies.

The flash pattern of Japanese fireflies is different from those in Upstate NY. While the fireflies in Upstate NY make little blips every four or five seconds, Japanese fireflies stay lit for about one second, then go dark for two or three seconds. Mabel says they look like fairies. We agreed we have to come back next week. Hope they're photogenic.

Friday, June 17, 2005

supporting evidence?

Here's an article about a documentary on gymnasts in North Korea from the Washington Post (you'll need to subscribe to read it, but subscribing is free).

An excerpt from that article:
The film documents North Koreans' extraordinary devotion to Kim [Jong Il], who is viewed in the country as a semi-religious figure. He is kept at the center of national life through everything from propaganda cartoons for children to state radio broadcasts in every home. The film shows how the volume on radios in North Korea homes can be lowered but not turned off.
So a British filmmaker and an American reporter saw fit to mention this radio as characteristic of a highly propagandized household in a totalitarian regime, and I have one in my dining room.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

I could very well be sane.

Thanks to Mom for the subtle hint to update my blog. Yes, I'm an American living in Japan, and yes, most Westerners think of living in Japan as something quite exciting or exotic or strange, and yes, they'd be somewhat correct, but really most of that wears off after a few months and one's life quickly becomes ordinary. Our lives must become ordinary—our brains require it, I think, and without ordinary life we'd all become somewhat mentally ill.

The other day I came home at 8:30pm and thought to myself, Wow, I bet I could do TWO loads of laundry before ten o'clock. And I did. And it was good.
Such has become my life.

I've just returned home from eating out with Rebecca. We had dinner at Minari, a restaurant in Minari (they're not really the same name; they sound the same, but the kanji are different), which is the village in Nita where I live. I know the guy who owns the place (see the beginning of this post), and he gave us free ice cream at the end of our meal. It was funny, really: we'd finished eating and had decided we'd go to Poplar (the local convenience store) for ice cream when our dinner was half-digested, and after sitting around and talking for about an hour, we were just shifting our weight to get up when Ko-chan brought us two dishes of black sesame ice cream. Lucky!

The recontracters' conference in Kobe the other week was good. Those of use who live out in the sticks welcomed the opportunity to spend some time in a large city. It's different living in a city. You can ride the train for fifteen minutes, get off at a stop near the center of downtown, then think, How shall I entertain myself? Walk five or ten minutes, and entertain yourself, then walk another five or ten minutes and entertain yourself some other way. It's nice. Living in the sticks requires more planning than that.

The people who were at this conference were the same people we were with in Tokyo when we arrived (at one of the post-arrival orientations), but as Mabel pointed out, it was very different. At the recontracters' conference there was no mention of how weird Japan is or how scary it is to be living so far from home. Nothing about natto or whether Japanese toothpaste contains fluoride. In short, we've all sort of gotten the hang of it. And that's a nice feeling.