Saturday, July 21, 2007


I saw this on national television the other night.
"Oshirikajirimushi" means "butt-biting bug."

Edit 2007-09-13: Dumb NHK had it pulled. (-_-)*

Edit 2008-02-02: I took down the ugly non-functional YouTube screen. To hear the song, you can visit the website for the upcoming Nintendo DS game.

Edit 2009-02-03: Dailymotion is hosting the video now:
Hooray for subtitles!

Monday, July 16, 2007

What I can't tell you

I wanted to tell you that when I came here, I was on a large ship full of strangers in the middle of the ocean. But over time I realized they were my family, and it had just taken me some time to recognize them.

And then the people I loved held a small ceremony, disowned me, set me on a raft and pushed me away, out to the empty sea, where the dark, hungry waters stretched beyond my comprehension. I wished I'd gone to heaven with the rest of them, and I wished they'd go to hell for leaving me.

I made a horrible mistake in thinking that you were my sister.

But I can't tell you that.

Monday, June 25, 2007

A month ago

I'm not sure why I said she'd stumbled blindly. The truth is, her face was buried in her hand, but she walked in a straight line toward the exit, moving quickly, crying quietly, determined to get out of the godforsaken building where nonsense had exploded in her hands, her face, her heart. The teachers all ran to the window to watch her leave, and later to watch her older brother leave. I wanted so much to join them, gaping at whatever sight there was to see, but the whole thing felt so intensely private, and the thought of watching it so voyeuristic, that I couldn't bring myself to leave my desk. What that means is that two of my students have suffered, and are suffering, one of the most traumatic things life can crack over your head, and I don't even know who they are.

They told them separately. I was so angry about that. With the principal, the vice-principal, and their respective homeroom teachers, they were completely alone when they each learned that their father was not only dead, but had wanted to die, and hadn't cared enough about them to stay alive. The younger girl, I heard her shrieking sob through the closed door, from the opposite end of the staff room. Couldn't she have had her brother with her?

The other teachers were back to business as usual after a couple of hours. I suppose it had to be that way. I was jealous that they had things to distract themselves with. I could only stare at the origami on my desk. There was actually a moment, when I returned home that evening, when I thought I'd just imagined the whole thing, the way my morbid brain cooks up so many other crazy stories, because believing that it really happened forces me to... I don't know. Accept that it really happened.

What now. Mom, who survived her younger brother's suicide, says I should find those students and tell them that I care about them, because they need to know that what their father chose to do wasn't their fault. My friend Kay, who survived her close friend's suicide, says I shouldn't treat them any differently than before, because the worst thing they can do is to dwell on it. And I, who hope never to have to survive the suicide of someone I love, don't know what I should do.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

An hour and a half ago

An hour and a half ago the father of two of my students killed himself.

Right now I don't give a damn about what sort of distress he was in when he did it. All I can think of is a twelve-year old girl, face buried in hand, sobbing as she stumbled blindly past the open door.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Story of My Life

I'll just post this video to my blog, and then I'll be ready.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


Board of Education
Junior High School
Assistant Language Teacher
JET Program
JET Programme

There. That about covers all the search terms I can think of.
I mean, it worked last year.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


It often helps, when I'm confronted with something in Japan that I find silly or stupid or insane, if I can think of its American correlation. Like, when I heard that the national weather bureau tries to predict when the sakura (cherry blossoms) will bloom in different areas across the country, and tracks the sakura front across the country from south to north each year, I thought that was kind of obsessive. And then I remembered that the meteorologists in Syracuse also include a fall foliage map in their TV reports when the leaves begin to turn, and recommend areas to visit to see the trees at their peak color.

Sometimes the whole "group mentality" still boggles this mind, but maybe a year ago I remembered something from sixth grade.

We were doing a group writing assignment, maybe a dozen of us together. One person started off a story with one or two sentences. The next person added to the story however they wanted, the next person added more, and so on, until we'd all contributed and finished the story. I'd done stories like this at my old school in the gifted class I'd attended, and they were great fun. Our stories were really crazy and entertaining. This story, though, seemed kind of bland in comparison, so when it was my turn I threw in something wild... I think it was martians. Some of the kids thought it was odd, but nobody really complained, and we continued. A couple minutes later my mom came to pick me up for a dentist appointment, so I had to leave the class before the story was finished.

The next day my teacher approached me, looking guilty. "After you left yesterday... we decided to change your part. We hope you don't feel bad—everyone was really worried about hurting your feelings—but we all thought your part was just too weird."

I. Couldn't. Think. Clearly. Everyone had waited until I left, and then formed a coup against my contribution to the story? They hadn't had the guts to tell me in person that they didn't like my part. My teacher hadn't had the guts to support me in my absence. Nobody had had the sense of humor to appreciate something the slightest bit nonsensical, nor the creativity to move on with the story whether they liked it or not. And the rewrite—oh heavens, the abomination that causes desolation! No more martian intervention; now the grizzly bear just decides of its own volition not to eat the old man. I think I'm more upset about this now than I was then, but I definitely knew that a cardinal rule of Group Story had been broken.

America: Land of the free, home of the brave, amen.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

This Is My Four-Leaf Clover

Augh! I've completely missed the month of April! My archives will be incomplete! Quick, what's something I was thinking about blogging in April but didn't?

Ah, here we go:

If you click on the photo, you can see that I actually took this photo on April 24th. Good enough for me! Change post date, doot do-doo, and done.

While running laps with the track and field team after school, I passed a couple of girls who were supposed to be practicing baton-passing. Instead they were crouched on the ground over one of the early patches of clover poking through the dirt track. I was about to tease them for goofing off, when they saw me and called me over. Between the two of them, they'd found three four-leaf clovers. All kidding forgot, I joined them and in less than thirty seconds found an almost four-leaf clover: it had four stems, but two of the leaves hadn't properly separated. Another two minutes of searching produced the clover above, and I ran to my jacket to hide my new prize. In the time it took me to run another lap and return to where the girls were still searching, they'd found two more. That patch was the motherlode!

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Departing

Yesterday at lunch I said to New Sensei, "Today the students will find out which teachers are leaving?"
"Yes, that's right."
"Why is it a secret?"
He thought a few moments before a lightbulb went on. "Ah. It's because if the students find out before then, maybe they will be confused, and ask the teachers many questions."
"That's a bad thing?"
"Mmm.... I don't know," he smiled uncertainly.
"I'm leaving in July. Should I keep it a secret from the students?"
He wasn't sure, and said he'd have to ask the principal. Okay.

This morning I attended the closing ceremony for the school year, and the farewell ceremony for the teachers at Nita Junior High School who will be leaving. Tonight I'll go to the farewell enkai for the Yokota Junior High School teachers. A list of all the teachers in the prefecture who are transfering has been published in the newspaper. The teachers here at Nita JHS keep returning to the coffee table to peruse the list.

I have a much shorter list.

Kawasumi-sensei: She's been the special ed. teacher at Nita JHS for six years, from the time her son was born. He just graduated from the kindergarten that I visit—he's tall just like his mom. She's being transfered to Akagi JHS, where she'll be a gym teacher (which she is also qualified to do). Signe told me about it first. Akagi is Kawasumi-sensei's hometown, which is convenient, cos she can crash at her parents' house if she goes to an enkai in town. She will continue to live in Nita, though, and make the two-hour round-trip commute each day to Akagi. I like her because she talks to me. (Seriously, that's all it takes.)

Tatebayashi-sensei: The home ec. teacher at Nita JHS, she got married a few months ago and changed her name from Ishihara-sensei. She's a few months older than Ms. Chipmunk, and popular with the students. (She was voted "Cutest female teacher" by the third-year students at last fall's culture festival. Ms. Chipmunk was second-cutest, and I came in third. The competition was stiff, and I feel no shame in placing after them.) She's being transfered to Yasugi First JHS, which is much closer to where she lives now with her husband in Yonago. I like her because she talks to me, too.

Yoshida-sensei: He's one of the gym teachers at Yokota JHS, and is being transfered to Kamo JHS. When I first started doing "Emily Corner" (my twice-monthly lunchtime music broadcast... thing), I had no feedback for a while, except from Toothpaste Maniac, saying that I oughtn't begin doing student interviews by interviewing the most popular girl in the school. ("I only asked her cos I knew she'd say yes!") But about three months into the routine, Yoshida-sensei caught me after Emily Corner. "Nice DJ," he said, and smiled. I was so relieved.
He also suggested that several teachers, myself included, get together at some beer garden in his hometown of Daito—he also said we should invite the junior high school ALT in Daito. Nothing ever became of that, to my knowledge, but it's the thought that counts, right?

Hamaoka-sensei: A kind, quiet fellow, the art teacher at Yokota JHS, he's being transfered to Daito JHS. When I returned to school after summer vacation in September 2005, I thought I saw a heavy cloud about him. I found out a few days later that his kindergarten-aged son had died that summer after a lengthy illness.
That winter I attended the year-end party with the Yokota JHS teachers. We played some games—mostly variations on Bingo—but the categories got too difficult for me to keep up. (Japanese War Generals?!) I was frustrated and feeling ignored. But Hamaoka-sensei spoke up and said, "These games are too difficult for Emily; she can't enjoy them with us." He talked them into changing the next category from "Japanese Prefectural Capitals" to "US States." In that moment, I loved him.
At the following year-end party (just a few months ago) he was in charge of preparing the games, and they were all games I could participate in. Well, not the beer-tasting one—I had to drive home—but I got to watch my teammates as they got every single beer wrong. I should write more about that enkai later; it was the best one I ever attended.

Moriyama-sensei: The other gym teacher at Yokota JHS, he's being transfered to Nichahara JHS in Tsuwano, which is about as far as you can get from Yokota and still be in Shimane. Also known as Kool-Aid Man, he has a gift for self-deprecating humor. He's one of those powerful personalities who can change the very air of the room just by being there. His desk was next to mine for my first two years, and he was a good neighbor. In the spring of my first year, he was absent from school one day. I recognized the kanji for his name on the chalkboard in the staff room (mori means forest, yama means mountain; they're both simple kanji). I asked one of the other teachers why he wasn't in school. "His wife is having a baby," she said.
"What? I didn't know his wife was pregnant."
That afternoon he stopped by the school. His wife had delivered a healthy baby boy, and Moriyama-sensei was the most peaced-out man on Earth. Sunshine and calm radiated from his face as he showed us the photos he'd taken with his cell phone. He returned to his old Kool-Aid Man self a couple weeks later, but I'll never forget seeing him that day.

Satoh-sensei: One of the science teachers at Yokota JHS, she's moving to Matsue Fourth JHS. She became my new staff room neighbor after the desks got shuffled around last April. I hadn't really talked with her much before then, but she struck me as being fun and down-to-earth. We used to live in the same apartment building, when I lived in Nita during my first year. By the time I left that apartment, her son (in sixth grade at the time) had learned to recognize the sound of my car, which I parked near their door. He'd often poke his head out the door when I arrived or left, and say "Konnichiwa." When I told Satoh-sensei, she laughed and laughed.
I'd learned enough Japanese by the time Satoh-sensei's desk got moved next to mine, that I could make simple conversation with her. I found out that her family had moved to Matsue, and her son (whom I'd expected to see at Nita JHS that spring) was going to school there instead. Sometimes I'd ask her questions about a kanji, or to remind me of the name of that teacher over there. The language barrier was still very present, but we talked about normal stuff, not "What Japanese food do you like?" or, "Do you own a gun?" She treated me not like a foreigner, but like a woman, like a human being. I'll never forget her kindness.

Ikeda-sensei: Toothpaste Maniac is being transfered to Izumo Second JHS. One of my JTEs at Yokota JHS, I thought she was kind of stiff and formal when I first met her. It wasn't three weeks later when she confessed to me that, when she was living in England, she accidentally bought a can of dog food in an effort to find some variety in her diet. (She hated her host mother's cooking.)
I really like her sense of humor. When I found out when her birthday was, I e-mailed her the day before to invite her to dinner the following evening. I knew she was always busy, so I said, "If you say, 'I don't have time,' I will say, 'Well, everyone needs to eat. We can have a short dinner.' If you say, 'I have a date with Johnny Depp,' I will say, 'Okay, that's a good excuse. When is a better time?'"
She replied, "My darling, Johnny Depp is waiting! I want to say it like that, but the reality is so severe." There was to be a PTA meeting the following evening, which made dinner out impossible. But she was very happy that I'd invited her to dinner, and we made a rain check for a couple of weeks later.
We had dinner at each other's homes a few times during those first two years. She encouraged me to stop thinking that everyone only thought the worst of me, and I really felt that I'd found in her someone who understood what I was going through, as a foreign woman in a foreign country. This last year she's been so busy with all the responsibilities of a homeroom teacher of a third-year class—supervising their internships around town, helping them apply to the senior high schools they want to go to, making sure they're prepared for the entrance exams (and I don't know what else, but it's universally accepted that third-year homeroom teachers have the hardest job)—we've not had a proper conversation in ages. I tried to be patient, to allow this year to finish so that she'd have more time again... but now she's leaving. And it's breaking my heart.


Saturday, March 17, 2007


Friday was a really bittersweet day.
It started on Wednesday, when I found out that five of my favorite teachers from Yokota JHS are being transfered to other schools at the end of the month. Worst of all, Toothpaste Maniac is one of them. I was at the post-graduation enkai Wednesday night, sitting next to the school nurse, when Kool-Aid Man came by, and the nurse got him to tell her which teachers were leaving. It was still very hush-hush at the time, but some of the teachers talk, apparently. I half-listened to him list the names, and when TM's name came up, my heart froze and cracked. She's been at Yokota JHS for three years, so she's fair game for a transfer, but three years is the minimum; I'd been hoping she'd still be here when I left in July.

When Kool-Aid Man left, I asked the nurse to tell me what she'd been told, in case I'd misheard. But I hadn't. After she subtly pointed out to me the departing teachers around the room, she made me pinky-swear to keep my newfound knowledge a secret. What exactly she meant by secret, I don't know. (I shouldn't tell anyone who didn't already know? Or I shouldn't tell anyone that I knew anything at all?) Right after that, we watched a powerpoint quiz/presentation in honor of the teachers who'd taught the third-years this year, which lasted at least a half an hour. I didn't really understand it, and my heart just wasn't in it. As soon as it was over, I went over to TM's table, sat down across from her, and poured her some tea.

"Where are you going?" I asked.
The room was noisy, and she didn't hear me completely. "Going? What do you mean? When? What?"
"WHERE are you going?" I repeated.
She paused. "Who told you?"
"Kool-Aid Man thinks my Japanese is worse than it really is. He didn't know I understood him." I didn't tell her about the nurse.
"You overheard."
"Yes. Where are you going?"
"To Izumo."
"Izumo!" I cried. Izumo is over an hour's drive from Yokota. The only good answer would have been, "To Nita Junior High School," but I knew that was unlikely.
"It's not so far away. And I think you're leaving in July, right?"
"Yeah... but I wanted you to be at my farewell party."
"Mmm. What about you?" she asked in what was probably an attempt to distract me. "What will you do when you return to America?"
"Sou desu ne? I'm not really sure, but I'm thinking about going back to school to study Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages."
"Where will you teach?"
"Well, presumably America, but if I want to teach in Japan I have to learn to speak Japanese very well. My Japanese must be better than your English! I'll have to talk with parents and attend meetings in Japanese."

We chatted a little longer. She said she'd hoped to stay at Yokota JHS for six years. "Two cycles," she explained. During the three years she's been here, she's been a homeroom teacher for the first-years, second-years, and third-years, in that order. I said she'd probably be happier in Izumo, since she doesn't really like the rural life. "But you live in Shimane-ken. Zannen!" My half-hearted attempt at cheer.

I sat forlornly opposite her for several more minutes, as the principal came by and talked with TM and the teacher next to her, Kalamazoo (I'll explain the nickname later). When the principal left, TM waved her hand in front of my face to stir me from my reverie. "Don't be so serious," she laughed. I smiled miserably. I didn't know what else to say, and there were other teachers who wanted to talk to her, so I returned to my seat.

These five teachers have been at Yokota JHS since I first went to the school in August 2004. I've gotten to know them, they've gotten to know me, and there's no longer any of that cross-cultural proselyzation between us. We're cool. When I think about them leaving, which is all the time now, I feel sick to my stomach, and so cold and lonely inside, like I'll never have friends again. Friends, "friends," and they all ... leave.

Friday morning TM was off at some area high schools, picking up the entrance exam results for the third-year students who had taken the exams there. I asked W-sensei if I had any classes with her. "No, I don't think so. I didn't prepare anything," she said with a guilty smile.
Kalamazoo overheard me. "Can you come to my class second period?"
"Oh! I didn't know you had any classes today. Of course!"
The first-year students are memorizing the months of the year, and ordinal numbers used in dates, so Kalamazoo had prepared an activity that involved asking other people about their birthdays. She used me as an example before we started the activity. "What's the date today?"
"It's March 16th."
"Emily, when's your birthday?"
"It's March 16th."
We smiled at the students, but most of them were either thoroughly unimpressed that it was my birthday that day, or hadn't understood us (I couldn't be sure which), though a couple kids looked puzzled, like they thought they'd understood, but weren't sure. So Kalamazoo asked again, "When's your birthday?" I repeated my answer, and this time the lightbulbs flickered on over a few more heads. "Emily no tanjoubi? (Emily's birthday?)" one asked. And then they all applauded politely and wished me a "happi baasudei."

Back in the staff room after class, W-sensei handed me a small stack of spelling tests to correct. "Oh, a birthday present?" I said. "Thank you!" She's used to hearing me wish her a merry Christmas when I hand her a stack of corrected papers, but this one caught her off guard.
"Hm? When's your birthday?"
"Oh! Happy birthday!" A couple other teachers nearby also wished me a happy birthday. And later, while I was helping the nurse serve lunch in the staff room, Kool-Aid Man (one of the five) caught wind of the birthday news, and made a small announcement, shouting, "Mina-san, kyou wa Emily no tanjoubi! (Everybody, today's Emily's birthday!)" I tried to shush him, but everyone was clapping by then, so I stopped trying, and just acted embarrassed. But really I was happy.

The afternoon was hard. I've recently learned how to make origami roses, and they're kind of complicated, so the teachers I think were genuinely impressed that I could make them (instead of being fake impressed, like they are with my mad chopstick skillz). I made a couple roses. I used my one metallic gold sheet and made a rose for the science teacher who sits next to me (another of the five). She thanked me, and thought briefly about where to display it. I had a massive headache from trying to keep my eyes from watering. Friday was my last day of the school year at Yokota JHS. I cleaned up my desktop somewhat, throwing away old newspapers instead of giving them to the art teacher (another of the five), cos, what's he gonna use them for now? He won't want all that paper to bring with him to his next school. When I left at 4:40, the staff room was maybe half full. Forcing myself to speak through the huge lump in my throat, I managed to eek out an "osaki ni shitsureishimasu," for the last time to the teachers who will be leaving, and they replied "otsukaresama deshita" for the last time to me, and I hurried out of the room, down the hall, and down the stairs to the entryway, where I couldn't hold back the tears any longer. I cried all the way home, keeping my head down so passers-by wouldn't wonder.

I couldn't just stay home and lie in bed like I wanted to, though; I'd already told my supervisor that I would attend a retirement party for Cheeky Supervisor (the First), who had become the Big Cheese last year. I seriously wanted to call and say I wasn't feeling well and wouldn't be able to go to the enkai, but I do like CS, and didn't want to miss this opportunity to say goodbye. I tried to cool my eyes with a wet washcloth, but they were too red and puffy, so I just went to the Board of Education as I was. Jo (formerly New Girl) noticed, but I couldn't tell her then why I was upset without getting upset again. CS noticed, too, but I started talking before he could say anything. "I heard you will become a Buddhist priest."
"I'm becoming a Buddhist priest," he corrected me.
"Oh really? I'm surprised. You're such a silly guy."
"Silly guy? What?" He sounded genuinely shocked. I thought he'd known!

The enkai was held in the Tamatsukuri Onsen area outside of Matsue. Jo and I rode up together with my former supervisor, and spent most of the time at the enkai talking with each other. About halfway through, I saw out of the corner of my eye someone pull a cake out of a box. Cakes are not typical enkai fare, so I got suspicious, but ignored it in case I was misunderstanding its purpose. But a minute later, New Cheeky Supervisor (the Second) got up and made a short announcement, which went roughly like, "This is a retirement party, but there's another event today, too." People were like, huh? NCS continued: "Today is Emily's birthday." Everyone was impressed and sang Happy Birthday to me, and the designated photo guy even got a shot of me blowing out the candles—all in one puff. It turned out that Jo had told NCS that it was my birthday, and NCS took it upon himself to arrange for a cake. It was really sweet of him, and I was glad I hadn't backed out of the enkai.

Three hours later, when I was back home and away from everyone again, without distractions, I just as miserable as I'd been when I'd left.

I know that this is not the end of all happiness in my life, and that this pain that's so raw will heal. But right now I don't give a damn about the future unseen. I just care about what I'm losing.

Friday, February 23, 2007


Note: I'm kind of cheating by pre-dating this post, but this has been a work-in-progress for the last few weeks. So if you're thinking, Wait, this post wasn't here a few days ago, that's because it wasn't.

The last two times I had to do it, deciding to recontract was an easy decision. "I'll stay!" This year I agonized over it. I was completely split down the middle. On the one hand, I've learned so much about Japanese culture (I hate this term now, "Japanese culture," but that's the most succinct way to say what I mean), about my students and the teachers I work with, the people I know in town and outside of town. Very little of my time now is spent tackling WTF?! questions, and I want to live in this knowledge, enjoy knowing what's going on sometimes instead of never knowing what's happening. People have gotten to know me, too. It takes so long to get to know people here—the national temperament seems to tend toward the introverted—that I feel like to leave now would be to lose everything I've worked for. Like I've worked really hard to create something, and now I'm just gonna walk away.

I've moved three times in the last two and a half years, and I finally have an apartment I like, and I've spent a lot of money getting it just the way I like it. But that's a lie, because the vast majority of my boxes are still sitting around, perhaps scrounged through, but never unpacked. (It's true, though, that I've spent a lot of money in the hope that I'll finally do something with all this stuff. I don't know how much I've spent, but it's been too much. I was buying things right up until last month....)

I also like to tell myself that I'll finally study Japanese if I stay another year... but that's almost definitely wishful thinking.

When I think about the job itself, though, oh the ennui! because even after two and a half years, my responsibilities are very few, and I still haven't learned to teach. The job isn't set up that way. Toothpaste Maniac told me, back in October, that she hoped I could teach a class once in a while. (This, after I asked her directly, "What can I do to be a better ALT?" which was shortly after I found out that the rules had changed--that I could recontract for a fourth and fifth year at the same schools--and I was beginning the process of making that decision.) The prospect of teaching an entire class excited me--finally a goal! A challenge! A chance to improve myself!

But then I had almost no classes with TM, due to exams or her busy-ness. Since October I've had, seriously, about five classes with her. Certainly no more than ten. (For comparison' sake, at my other junior high I teach roughly five or six classes each week with each JTE--that's 10 to 12 classes per week on average.) In the few classes I've had with TM, she'd already prepared everything, and then taught most of it by herself. It's been really confusing for me. Am I a crap ALT? I mean, why else would she say, "Please teach some classes," and then change her mind and not give me the chance for the next five months? It's been really discouraging.

The situation isn't exactly much better at my other school, though. Even though I spend more time physically present in the classroom, I still don't do much. Ms. Chipmunk is better at asking me to do various things in different classes (like last year when we arm-wrestled, which was so awesome), but New Sensei has pretty much the exact same pattern for all his classes, and that pattern is pretty bland. (It's not the fact that he uses a pattern that I take issue with—patterns can be helpful—it's just his patterns.) (And maybe one of these days I'll get around to thinking up a proper nickname for New Sensei, since he's new only to my school and not to the teaching profession... or maybe I won't.) Beckham, who was transfered to another school last year, used to come to me, maybe a day or a couple hours before a lesson, and say, "Our next lesson together will be about blahbitty blah. Could you prepare some materials?" And that was great. But most of the time when I ask one of my JTEs if there's something I can do to prepare for the next lesson, they're like, "Nope, I'm cool."

I used to wish I could find a low-stress job. But now I realize that "low-stress" doesn't mean "very little work," because this feeling of uselessness has been really stressful. Even when I've had the opportunity to plan a lesson, TM's always found something wrong with it. And the worst part is, her concerns are usually justified.

As for anecdotes, there is this:
TM actually did ask me to plan a lesson for the second-years' elective English class last month. She gave me carte blanche, provided the lesson reviewed material they'd already learned that semester. As a warm-up, I prepared a worksheet with six sentences using 'can,' 'have to,' and 'must' (like "I can run fast," or, "She must getting up early"). The students would have to correct the ones that were wrong, and recognize which sentences were right. Next, my idea was that the kids (seven girls) would break into groups, invent a simple game, and then teach me how to play their games using the same target words. To emphasize how simple the games should be, I invented one of my own: Roll up a piece of paper into a ball, lean your head back and set the ball between your eyes, then walk around the classroom without letting the ball fall. Winner is the person who can do this the most quickly.

It was the day before the class was to be held that I thought of this, and I ran the plan past TM that afternoon. The worksheet was okay, but the game activity....
"It's too hard for them to make a game."
"They don't have to make a complicated game, just a simple one. I thought of my game in two minutes."
"But all they will think about is the game; they won't think about the English!"
"So, should they explain, like, basketball to me?"
She shook her head, and then got W-sensei's attention and explained my idea to her. W-sensei agreed that it wouldn't work well, and then they came up with a different idea. "The students can explain some Japanese games to you."

I think I visibly bristled at this suggestion. The very last thing I wanted was to be The Foreigner, proselytized to about Japanese Culture once again.
"How is that different from them explaining basketball to me?"
"You already know how to play basketball. There's no need to explain the rules to you. The students know these Japanese games, but maybe you don't know them."
I grudgingly agreed to rely on TM's judgment to decide what Japanese games I didn't yet know*, when I realized what had just happened: TM was planning the activity as if I hadn't done anything. I hadn't saved her any work. I hadn't done anything more than type up a worksheet that would take 10 minutes to complete. I felt like such an idiot. And fine, you know, sometimes these things happen and I can learn from them. The problem is that these discussions over the appropriateness of various classroom activities happen so rarely, it's difficult for me to make any use of them.
*She was 2 for 3; I was pleasantly surprised.

The frustrations I felt before—adjusting to life, the universe, and everything—they've come and gone as various difficulties have presented themselves to me. But the frustration I feel in knowing that I'm basically useless has only grown since I've been here, and I see no way to overcome it in my capacity as an ALT. Not only is the situation intrinsically frustrating, but I also have way too much time to sit around and think about how frustrated I am. (I try not to, but it's like trying to hold water in my cupped hands.) It's gotten to the point now where some days I walk out of the school building ready to cry, and even the kids who wave and shout goodbye to me on my way down the driveway can't do much to lift me out of my despondency.

So it's time to go.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A wealth of words is not eloquence.

Several weeks ago there was an assembly at Yokota Junior High. I had been told that the assembly was about human rights, and was the first of its kind at this school. The students and staff all gathered in the gym, listened to one of the teachers give a speech, and then did a couple of activities. In the first activity, the students wrote down their birthdays on small sheets of paper, and then stood in a large circle around the gym in order of their birthdays. It took a bit of doing, cos most of the kids didn’t want to stand apart from their friends, and seemed more or less mortified to have to stand next to kids they didn’t know or didn’t like. I took my place in middle March, and heartily greeted the kids to my left and right, but they were having none of it. And that was the end of the first activity. In the next activity, the students gathered in one of the corners of the gym, depending on their blood type: A, B, AB, and O. I joined the O group. (I’m O, right Mom? Cos that’s what I keep telling everybody.) This activity was better received, cos they could hang out with at least a few of their friends, or people whose presence they tolerated. And that was it, and then the kids were lining back up according to their class (in typical assembly form) and being lectured to again. Thinking I’d missed some important information in Japanese, I found W-sensei and said, “So... what's the point?”
She thought a moment. “Mmm.... Mmm... yes,” she smiled, as a faintly puzzled look crossed her face. “What's the point?”

W-sensei is one of my JTEs, and has been since I arrived in Japan. I didn’t know what to make of her at first. Her English isn’t too good, and since she’s at the same school as Toothpaste Maniac, well, I usually went to TM when I had a question about something. But the more I get to know her, the more I like her. She went to school to be a math teacher, and depending on what school she’s been assigned to (Japanese public school teachers are shuffled around to different schools in the prefecture every few years) she sometimes teaches math instead of English. Her English is good enough to teach junior high school students, and quite good when I think of the other math teachers I know here. She has three young kids—twin daughters in the fourth grade (whom I used to teach when I visited their elementary school), and a son in kindergarten—and her classroom management skills are great. She’s teaching a couple of first-year classes this year, and these younger kids can get out of hand. She lets them have fun, but stops them before they get too crazy. I enjoy those first-year classes I have with her. And once in a while, when we both have the time, we’ll have a really interesting conversation. Though she’s too young for the part, she sometimes reminds me of my own mom.

I’ve been reluctant for most of my life to give the title of "friend" to a lot of the people in my life whom others might think I ought to call friends. A college friend (a real one) once told me about a two-hour conversation she had with a fellow she’d just met over lunch. “We became good friends,” she said. I thought she’d used the word too loosely, and I think many Americans do, but I also worried that I was adhering to too strict a definition of friendship. It’s always taken me a long time to get to know people and feel comfortable around them.

I’ve realized that the cultural reticence of the Japanese is more like my own personal introversion spread out across a nation. It seems much more common for a Japanese person to withhold the title of “friend” from an acquaintance for as long as I might prefer to... and I kind of like that. In the States, introversion is seen as a character flaw. Not by everyone, of course, but by enough people to have made my childhood kind of miserable at times. I don’t mean to say that there are no charismatic personalities among the Japanese, or that people here aren’t drawn to those who are friendly and energetic, just that it’s okay not to be that way, too. The longer I’ve lived here, the more I’ve gotten to know the people I’ve worked with for the last two and a half years—and, perhaps more importantly, they’ve gotten to know me better.

W-sensei is one of the reasons why I’m glad I’ve stayed this long.