Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Being Taught about Learning

Despite my wealth of resources to learn Japanese (dictionaries in book form and on my DS, flashcards in the shape of a friendly lion, textbooks and cute notebooks bought at the 100 yen shop) most days I find myself in short supply of motivation to study. And though I'd like to use the excuse that I am too tired from my busy days at school that's not the deciding factor in my scholastic apathy. Or I could say that Japanese is difficult, I can't learn it. But difficult is not impossible. But besides, after I go back home it's not like I'll need to know Japanese, right?

Now let's move out of my living room (where I am busy arranging my study materials for a photo shoot instead of...well...studying) and into my classrooms. The third year students (8th graders) are by far the least enthusiastic though they know the most English. Half the time if I say "Hello" to them as we're eating lunch together they'll look at me as if I just said "Jxvryklg" and then mutter something like "muri" (meaning "impossible").

The first year students (6th graders) are almost the polar opposite. Though no one really likes to have crazy foreigners interrupt their lunch periods the these kids are great sports. I get a chorus of "Hellos!" upon entering their classroom where they're eating. Even the terribly shy ones try to ask me about what I like or don't like on my plate. (Today I learned that "kinoko" is "mushroom" because one of the students hates them. I feel her pain). Besides saying that "It's sunny/cloudy/rainy today," likes and dislikes are pretty much all the first year students can say and yet they are the most eager to talk to me. By the end of this year they will have an exhaustive list of what I really feel about school lunch. And the third years will memorize all the scratches and stains on their shoes/desks since they spend most of their lunch looking down, trying to avoid eye contact and the horrible possibility of saying "Hello" to me.

The third year students' attitude depressed me a little. They know so much yet are using so little of it. I understand if they are shy (I was a very shy student) and if they'd rather just keep to themselves (I felt the same way for much of my education). I don't expect them all to be outgoing or talk to me every second because I wouldn't have done that as a student but it would be nice to see a little more effort on their part. Obviously there are exceptions to this general rule of apathy but by in large the third year students either feel like they are too busy to bother studying, that English is too hard to learn, or that they won't need to know English once they're done with school so what's the point.

And all of a sudden it came to me: in relation to learning Japanese I am just like my third year students. The first year I studied Japanese in college my roommate and I hosted a Japanese exchange students for two weeks. Before her arrival my Japanese professor helped us think of things we could say to the exchange student in Japanese. And as we went through helpful expressions like "from what time to what time will you be gone" or "do you like hamburgers." I got so excited as I realized that I could actually communicate with her in Japanese. For the next three years I studied Japanese and my roommate and I hosted exchange students. I spoke Japanese the most to the first student. The last one we hosted I spoke no Japanese to. As I continued learning Japanese, my focus turned from what I could say to all I couldn't say and the more I learned the more I realized how little I knew. All it takes is a couple pompous people making fun of your pronunciation and then it's game over. I didn't need it for daily life so I studied, spoke in class, and then promptly forgot anything Japanese until next class.

And it's the same now. I think to myself, Sure I can say "What time is the meeting" but what's the big deal, 5-year-olds know how to say that so why even try and besides, I'll probably pronounce it wrong. I can try to learn 5 kanji characters a week but I'll never be able to read an office memo so is it even worth it? And so for the first couple weeks that I was here I just gave up. I didn't open my textbook, I didn't speak to anyone in Japanese.

However, once I realized I was getting frustrated at the students for acting just like I was I decided it was probably time to be more mature than a 14 year old. Also, little friendships have made me reconsider my position on not bothering with speaking Japanese.

One of the teachers who sits next to me in the staffroom can speak only a little English but is very intent on asking me how I am and how I liked the lunch on any given day. From him I'm secretly learning the words for all the stuff I really don't like. During lunch last week one of the third year boys said "Sensei, shaberu!" ("Teacher, let's chat!") When I said I didn't know what "shaberu" meant he asked me to "please study Japanese." I followed quickly by asking him to please study English and the students within earshot all laughed.

I am here to teach English. But I'm finding it more and more difficult to excuse my lack of effort in studying Japanese if I expect the students to work hard at their English studies.

And if we both try a little harder, one day soon we'll "shaberu" during lunch, giving me a convenient excuse to leave half of my fish and unidentifiable vegetables untouched.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What Does Christian Love Look Like in Japan?

Winter of this year one of my friends of old lent me a book called The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne, a founding member of The Simple Way. Here is a guy, and a community, desiring to live like Jesus in ways that our world (secular and religious) just doesn't get.

Winter of this year I began to see a hard truth: though I was well-versed in theology and had biting criticism for much of evangelical Christianity in America I was not intentionally living out my faith. I was really good at talking and thinking but maybe not so great at being love, which is what Jesus has asked of me. And so began my investment in living love, in focusing less on developing sharp criticism and more on developing ways to live my faith through love. I don't want to paint an inaccurate picture: I have plenty of harsh criticisms, just mention Sarah Palin I will be decidedly outed. However, I am becoming more and more convinced that poverty, racial inequality, and war (to name only a few) will not end if all we do is argue (regardless of how funny the argument may be).

Eight months later, I'm in Japan. And still the greatest commandments are loving God and loving people. (Matthew 22:36-40) But as I silently sat in the teachers' staffroom this summer, watching busy teachers bustle around doing busy things I became a bit dismayed. How do I love my neighbors in Japan? Since Jesus' call is not conditional but essential to my faith, how then do I live it? What does love look like when you're the one being served? If always receiving from others how do you give, and what? I am dependent on the other teachers to communicate important information to me, dependent on them to help me with daily living stuff like paying bills and mailing packages. I have nothing to give them, I am lost in a culture and a language different from my own. Yet, Jesus' words are clear. Love most be more than favors and words then, for I am to love my neighbors in Japan even though I have nothing to give them and can communicate little. What does that kind of love look like? For me, what does Christian love look like in Japan?

If I believe what I claim to believe, that God so loved the world and now I'm to love it, then love should cross borders and cultures. And that makes sense. But what does it look like?

I don't know, but I pray, tie my shoes, and keep walking on. In faith. In love.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

We Run Together: Sports Day in Japan

Well, this has been a busy couple weeks for my school. The teachers and students were logging in extra hours of sweat-filled practices in preparation for Sports Day, which we had the 14th.

This event is a huge deal. A full day of class competitions and exhibitions that is months in the making.

I am not a Japanese teacher nor student and so my love for event comes from the outside. I'm not the one who needs to stay at school until around 9:00pm and then turn around the next day and be there at 7:00am. I don't have to spend summer vacation making signs for the event. If the students fall asleep in classes I'm helping teach because they are exhausted it doesn't bother me too much. I don't need to worry about them passing their exams or being prepared for high school entrance exams. So, I can understand if some are critical of the vast amount of time and energy that is put into this one day event. I, however, loved every minute of it.

It's a day full of races and performances. It's a competition between the classes, with winners and losers, but it's also a community affair.

The Lion's Club comes to cheer the kids on, parents pack into tents and crowd the sidelines. Teachers are cheerleaders, coaches, participants, photographers, and nurses. Everyone participates, even if they aren't great. Students are fiercely loyal to their classes, pushing each other and encouraging each other along. The special ed. students participate right along with the other students. Students are the MCs of the event and during each lap of the relay races they announce who's in first, who's gaining ground, and then who's in last. But they don't say the Japanese equivalent of "bringing up the rear is..." they say "Gambette kudasai" meaning "Please try your hardest." When asked if I would run in the teachers race I said yes but followed that quickly by explaining that I was a slow runner. The teacher who had asked said, "No problem," with a smile. And it wasn't, about half of the younger teachers were faster than me and about half were slower than me. It was a day about participating, not just winning. My team finished second to last in our race (against junior high students) and as we staggered back to the tent, breathless and pouring sweat, we were greeted with cheers from the other teachers and some students.

It was a day full of pageantry and formalities. Some of the marching could be characterized as like a military, but then so could marching bands back home I suppose. It was terribly hot but they marched on, some suffering from heat exhaustion. Dangerous? Perhaps. But I think sometimes it's good to push your limits. Especially if the school nurse is right there to sit with you under the tent. And the rest of your team is eagerly awaiting for you to rejoin them. Com'on, the jump rope contest starts in 5 minutes!!!

And that's what I loved. Simply, you belonged because you were part of the team, not because you were really fast (though that would be a plus) or not because they were all your friends (though a lot of them are).

During my first season of softball when I was 9 years old my coach joked that I ran like I had a piano on my back. I stuck with softball and loved it but from that point on I never tried to get faster. I was slow and that was it. No one encouraged me to "do your best" because my best wasn't good enough and that was the bottom line. Organized sports at school in Japan are just as tough as my first coach, I know. And yet, on Sports Day, all the students--slow and fast--head to the finish line and do their best.

Because, on Sports Day, we run together.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

An Insider's Guide to Surviving School Lunch or Tales from the Fishfront or Thank God for Mushrooms

I like shellfish (Unfortunately, I am allergic as the photo clearly illustrates).

I do not like fish.

I believe this distaste is due to two major factors: fish rarely was a part of meals as I was growing up and more importantly I spent the better part of my first 10 years of life washing tuna fish salad-smeared dishes. That's enough to turn anyone off to fish.

Now, however, I live on a island. Though I have yet to wash any dishes reeking of fish I have spent an entire week at school eating fish for lunch.

In my school there is no cafeteria, the students eat in their home rooms with their teacher. Teachers that do not have a homeroom eat in the staffroom. The lunch supplies are delivered each day and everyone dons aprons and hair nets, setting up lunch. Junior high school students are trusted--everyday of every year--with setting up one another's lunch. Though the meals are portioned well, the students are a bit on the slow side. The teachers get lunch served and we're all eating with about 25 minutes until the next period. The students usually only have about 10-15 minutes.

Despite this, I have opted to eat with the students. Why? For one, I want to discover their secret for consuming 500 calories in rice in under 10 minutes. This also provides me an opportunity to learn 6 names of the nearly 500 I'm expected to learn. And while force feeding myself fish will never be ideal, I have found ways to survive school lunch in all it's fishy glory.

My first two school lunches were also fish-free (a nasty trick to play I would like to note!) which made me feel that all my worrying was for nothing. "What's the big deal," I said to myself on the third day of school lunch and then I smelled it. The odor was unmistakable. It was the odor of the shore of Lake Michigan when hundreds of fish get stranded on the sand, dying a slow and smelly death in the summer sun. And there I sat, with my plate of smelly fish, facing 6 junior high school students who though terribly shy were equally curious about a foreigner who eats Japanese food. (My predecessor did not eat Japanese food and always brought his lunch from home). I had an idea about how to handle this situation, and though it was untested I had a good feeling about it based on the mechanics behind drinking a shot of hard liquor.

Milk. Milk is my saving grace in school lunch. My routine is as follows: take a bite or two of the mystery soup which usually contains 90% mushrooms, 5% tofu/seaweed, and 5% broth; move onto the bowl of rice, taking several hearty bites in order to keep up with the 12-year-olds; and then go into the fish routine: take a tiny bite, chew once and then take a sip of milk, swallowing the bite of fish without ever tasting a thing. I have just enough milk to finish about 3/4 of the fish. I began to think of myself as a real champ about school lunch.

The other day, though, I they threw a monkey-wrench into my fish routine. They put tiny fish in my rice. That day I could only eat half my rice and half my fish because my bottle of milk had to be split between two offensive dishes instead of just the one.

Also, my mind can render the powers of milk useless.

Example 1: on a seemingly ordinary Tuesday I was in for a great surprise in the form of two fish, eye balls and gaping mouths intact, for lunch. Already I knew the head was out. There was just no way I would be able to eat eyeballs without gagging. And the tail was out too. Imaging the feeling of the charbroiled tail poking the roof of my mouth made me queasy. But I was going to do it, I was going to eat at least one of fishes' bodies. Just one fish, I told myself as I took the first bite of the worst thing I have ever put into my mouth. (Things I have put into my mouth that were not as gross as that bite of fish: play-dough, dirt, sand, grass and ear wax.) Then I made the fatal error that would end my career as a "real champ" of school lunch. I looked into the fish body, at what I was eating. I was eating a pregnant fish, with eggs in it's belly. Eyeball fish: 1 Me: 0.

Example 2: I never ask what I'm eating for school lunch, never. It will only give my mind something to fix on and then I will not be able to take another bite, no matter how tiny. But yesterday I asked. I had to. I just took a bite of something white-ish in color and shellfishy in texture. During an unfortunate episode a couple weeks ago I discovered my allergy to shellfish (see above photo of puffy lip). Scared that what I had just put into my mouth could give my puffy lip #2 I asked the teacher what I was eating. It hadn't tasted bad and I was happy, thinking I would be able to eat it all. Then the teacher said: squid, fried in egg. And I was down for the count. I managed two bites after hearing the dreadful news and then silently admitted defeat to the squid/egg combo. Simply, it was too weird to eat.

Two months ago, back in the States, I would not have touched a dish with mushrooms in it. On squid day, I gleefully discovered that my soup was swarming with little mushrooms, perfectly identifiable as mushrooms.

Mmm. Thank God for mushrooms.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Celebrating the Small Things

Hi friends.

It's time to talk of many things!

I have been in Japan for a little over a month. I have been assisting English education in the classroom for a little over a week. Before that I was doing any or all of the following: calling home, sight-seeing, second-guessing my decision to live abroad, killing cockroaches, being oriented, getting to know new friends, being stared at by my neighbors, and reading books.

Though I am living in the country that many consider to be the technology capital of the world, it took about 3 weeks to get Internet hooked up in my house. Those were very lonely three weeks. I suspect that if I had Internet they would still have been lonely. Though I am an independent person and have rarely suffered from homesickness (not even away at summer camp when I was a wee one), I was drenched in it those first weeks. Sweat and homesickness were my constant companions. Japan is hot in the summer. Japan is also very far away from America, in any season.

I am by no means cured of my homesickness but because of it I have begun to undergo a fundamental shift in my expectations. I am a goal-setter, it brings me comfort and motivation to know what I'm aiming for. In this country, where I have the vocabulary of a primary school student, I have had to shift those goals since touching down in Tokyo over a month ago.

Though I may not become fluent in Japanese and I won't get to know all 500 students and they won't all love studying English and I won't always love teaching them, the year isn't hopeless. In the midst of loneliness and overwhelming confusion, I have begun to celebrate the small things.

Here is a list of some small things:

1. After a week of silence, one of the boys I clean the staff room with asked me if I thought Japan was hot. I told him that yes, I thought Japan was hot. He smiled, I smiled and then I said my usual farewell of "see you!" He was the only student to voluntarily speak to me that day.

2. There are electric chalkboard eraser cleaners at my school. They operate much like a vacuum cleaner but they are stationary. Anytime I'm feeling blue I look at that gadget and perk right up. In a school that has no janitors (the students clean) and no landscapers (the office ladies trim the bushes) and no maintenance staff (the administrators do the heavy lifting) they have deemed clapping out chalk dust to be too much work and so use an electric cleaner.

3. The other teachers often say "OK desu." "Desu" is a form of the "to be" verb and so "OK desu" is Japanglish for "that's ok/I understand." It peppers conversations throughout the day, even between people with only a slight command of English. I don't think I could get away with saying it to my coworkers or fellow foreigners but in my head as I say "OK" I always add "desu."

4. After telling a class of 2nd year students (7th graders) that I like baseball, one student called me over and pulled a key chain out of his pencil case (everyone in Japan has a pencil case, not just nerds or people with severe organization disorders) and pointed to the picture on it saying, "Fukudome." I gave him a thumbs-up. He smiled briefly and went back to his worksheet.

5. Today's school lunch contained no fish.

Until next time,
love & smiles & prayers