Sunday, October 26, 2008

We Need to Hold Each Other Tight: Talking Politics with my Teachers

I arrived in Japan in late July. I spent a couple blurry days of orientation with hundreds of other ALTs learning about our upcoming year. Then I went to my prefecture to be further oriented for a day and a half. After that, we all met our supervisors and left to see what would be home for at least a year.

After stops to the City Office to apply for my "Alien Registration Card," the home store "Daiki" to pick out essentials like a frying pan and laundry detergent, and my new house to sign some papers, my supervisors took me to the Board of Education of my town to meet the higher-ups. Over oolong tea we shared pleasantries, translated by my supervisor. One of the first questions I was asked was:

"Who will be the next President of America?"

It is undeniable that much of the world is wondering about it, too. As the world superpower, many eyes are on us. What we do, and don't do, as a nation echoes throughout the world. And as much as I wanted to tell those eager men at the BOE that I sincerely hoped Obama would win I shrugged off the question saying the race was close. While I can guess which candidate they supported (hint: not the guy from the same party as Bush) I was so used to keeping politics out of pleasant conversation in America that my initial reaction to such a question was automatic and noncommittal.

I have had not as much luck staying neutral with the teachers at school. The day a few came over to set up my internet in early August they saw my "Obama '08" sticker I got from Soon after that the social science teacher and head of the second year teachers asked me about my opinion on the election. I decided to commit a little and tell the truth. I didn't really have the luxury of worrying about what constitutes pleasant conversation as conversation period was in meager supply during that first month. If he wants to talk politics I'll talk politics, I thought, just so long as he's--anybody,really--talking to me.

My own perspective on this election has benefited from hearing from my very liberal friends, conversations with my mother--a woman of great spiritual conviction struggling with party lines and moral absolutes, and an excellent documentary by PBS Frontline called "The Choice 2008." All these have enlightened and challenged my own perspective.

What I wasn't expecting was to have my political perspective influenced by a middle-aged teacher of social science. A small man with a big heart and a smile that stretches from ear to ear. Over enthusiastic to a fault and endearing all the more for it, this man has little command of English but a great desire to communicate with me, especially after he found out I regularly read the New York Times online.

He said he read in the paper, something he does everyday at lunch, that America was experiencing a home loan crisis and the report he was reading highlighted problems in the Midwest. He asked if my family was okay. What a caring question. Our conversation, as they all inevitably have, ended quickly after that. After some consulting with his online Japanese/English dictionary he spoke again.

"There is a big crash in America. Like 1929. The Great Depression"
"Yes, it is a big problem now," I said.
"In 1929 it was a big problem too. Many countries had many troubles," he said.
I nodded in agreement, waiting for his main point.
"Germany. Japan. Very poor, many people so hungry. Then a bad war."
Oh dear, we're not going to talk about WWII, are we? I thought.
"This time we must..." he paused trying to find the right words but then just gestured what he meant: his two arms outstretched, his hands grasping invisible ones.
"Issho ni, Together," he remembered what word we was looking for. "We must--all the countries--hold each other tight."
"Yes, me must. Together, issho ni," I agreed.

Can we learn from the past? Is that something humans can do, have we ever done it? I'm not sure. But I think if I thought about the world with this kind of perspective I would be well on my way to helping create a more just one. To see this current economic crisis as a way for the countries of the world to come together, to hold each other tight, is not something I've heard many people say. I love it's idealism, it's simplicity, and ultimately it's truth. We are in this together whether we act like it or not.

So let's hold each other tight. Through this crisis, through the election, and after. And then together let's find ways to hold those in Darfur and the Congo tight. Let's hold our soldiers and the Iraqi people tight. Let's hold tight the homeless that sleep on our streets (1 in 4 homeless men are veterans). Let's hold tight women making tough decisions about their unborn children. Let's hold tight the rescue workers of 9/11 who need health care, who need help now just as they gave so much on that awful day. Let's hold tight the strangers we pass by everyday, the people who serve us our coffee and bag our groceries.

Together, issho ni.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Simple Things: Making Friendships

Simple things, not great adventures, have kept me from this for awhile. Doing daily things like cleaning (not much, I won't lie), catching up on politics and friends' lives, and settling in have taken up most of my time. I've also just begun my Japanese correspondence course as well as the once a week conversation class I take. I am much less busy than when I was a student and yet I'm finding myself very protective of my time. So, despite the amount of free time I have in comparison to my college life, I also have a new perspective, a new expectation of free time. And so, time seems to evaporate just as quickly as it did a year ago!

I've been here long enough to begin experiencing the joys of friendship, however slight, with the other teachers. Last Friday, my school had it's annual chorus competition (a week after it's annual cultural festival and only a month after the annual sports day). I grew up singing because grew up going to church. That being said, I also grew up being made fun of for my utter inability to sing. This trait, or lack of one, has not improved with age. As with everything at my school, what the students do, the teachers do. We are one. And my policy since day one has been to say yes to anything (within a small measure of reason) that can get me involved in life here. So when one the teachers asked if I would sing with them I said, "Yes."

Wait, what? Sing? Yeah, me sing. To top it all off it was "We Are the World." In English. So not only was I singing but I was also the go-to person when it came to pronunciation and intonation. What this translated to was me not only spending an hour after school to practice singing with the teachers but also to often be the only one singing so they could hear how they ought to be pronouncing the words. The bright side was that they were best students I have ever had.

After practice we'd walk back to the staff room and go over certain words or lines. We'd talk about America and Japan, reflecting on differences and similarities. The other teachers would ask me about my school days, especially compared to this school. Some of the English teachers have never been abroad so I hoping that one day, once I'm back home, they'll come and see the sights and eat the food of my hometown. (I'll have to think long and hard before I can come up with something as terrible as natto to subject them to).

After the chorus competition--the students' classes were competing, the teachers and I just sang for fun--I mulled around the office for a as long as I could but ended up cutting out before I usually do. I saw all the sports teams practicing as I was leaving and decided to take a look. On our one dirt-covered field: soccer, track & field, and baseball practice was going on. The coordination of this fact was a sight to behold. A P.E. teacher and the running coach saw me watching and walked over to me to briefly chat. He's always been one of the most friendly but also one of the most reluctant to use any English with me. His recent efforts at communicating have been very heart-warming and encourage me to keep studying Japanese. He told me, "I sing very well today. I can't speak English but I practice very hard to sing. English is important." I agreed that he did a great job and congratulated him on his efforts. He smiled and then walked away, some of his runners were slowing their pace and that just wouldn't do.

This is a small start, just a little exchange. It would be very forgettable back home. But here, this exchange was only possible because both of us stepped outside of our comfort zones for no practical reason. Just to be friendly, just to share something.

And I think that's great. Small, but great.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The "Hockey Mom" in Me

Got my absentee ballot in the mail! I love voting. I love being a citizen of a country that wants to know who I think ought to be President of the US. I really, really like that. Plus, I can navigate the Post Office by myself which gives my otherwise bewildered self a boost of confidence. All in all, voting this year is going to rock.

Living abroad has it's perks. For example, I ride a bike to work. It's a 10 minute bike ride. Pretty perky, eh? Also, there is a bakery in the department store that's about 5 minutes from my house. After work every Friday I stop by and get some sort of tasty treat, Japanese style.

Last week I got a pizza-like bread roll with melty cheese and green peppers. Very perky. But one of the biggest perks is the automatic media filter that living abroad is. If I want to stay abreast of latest campaign controversy, it's just a click away. However, If I had no fingers or toes I could count on my hands and feet how many political ads I have seen this election year. That's right, I have been able to completely miss the serious-voiced ads, with their misleading quotes and overt manipulation of the voters. Completely miss, I mean I haven't seen a one.

I stay informed however, and have watched both the first presidential debate and the vice-presidential debate as well as any and all media that comes across my desk (okay, there's my Palin jab, I confess). I usually catch some commentary in the wake of the debates, to find out what everyone else is paying attention to. More often than not, though, I find myself not just "paying attention to" what the media is covering but I also I find myself adopting the criticisms and observations of the media. In the presidential debate I really liked the way Obama would agree with McCain when he could. I saw that as him living out his beliefs of coming together as a nation, his beliefs about bipartisan politics. By the time I was finished watching and reading commentary on the debates I started thinking that maybe Obama was too soft, maybe he should have attacked McCain more. I didn't notice that McCain never looked Obama in the eyes. And yet, after enough New York Times pieces I began thinking that, hey, that must be indicative of something...weakness, timidity, contempt? I don't know yet, but it's got to be important if it's getting so much coverage.

So decided that after watching the VP debate I would take a moment and process my impression before being told what to think about each candidate. This is particularly difficult for me because I am 100% for the Obama/Biden ticket so my impressions are naturally biased. However, I want to disagree with McCain/Palin for my own reasons and not because of what Countdown's Keith Olbermann has so say. Here's a list of some of the things that struck me as I watched the debate:
  1. Palin used the rallying cry "Never again" to refer to our economic meltdown. This, to me, was incredibly creepy given that this same cry was heard after the Holocaust and yet genocide has been a constant in our modern times, from Bosnia to Rwanda to Darfur to the Congo.
  2. Speaking of the Holocaust, it was incredibly tacky of Palin to repeatedly say that we needed to be vigilant against Iran lest we allow, by our lack of vigilance, "a second Holocaust." As mentioned above, our world is rife with genocide, to single out the Holocaust seems to send a clear message that Africa matters less.
  3. Okay, I obviously agree that intervention is needed in Darfur, Sundan. But "boots on the ground," as the moderator suggested, was a tactic not questioned by either candidate. I appreciated Palin's discussion about Alaskan divestment and Biden's comments about his work in the Senate. What about international pressure, though? What about peacekeeping efforts? What about effective sanctions? What about China's interests in the region? Noisy silence was what I got from both candidates.
  4. Other Palin problems: suggesting that her position as a mother (not parent) put her in a special position to identify with the American public that's worried about their kids' futures (I'm glad Biden called her out on this gender stereotype, citing his experience as a single parent); her excessive use of the word "maverick" detached from any real meaning and in the face of facts contradicting it's applicability; rephrasing "inexperience" as being a "Washington outsider" as if it's a good thing our country could be run by someone who has no knowledge of/experience in national politics.

But really, that's all I that stuck out to me. Our hands off policy surrounding genocide is something that is concerning to me, so I picked up on that. Also, I think words--even coming from the mouths of politicians--have meaning and it upsets me when for the sake of manipulation or catering to a demographic words are divorced from their meanings. But Palin's winking or "Joe Sixpack" comments didn't really make an impression on me. I also didn't notice Palin avoiding questions as much as the media has highlighted.

So maybe I'm just a gullible everyday "Hockey Mom" who doesn't notice the details and elects people into office who are unfit to run. Or maybe I'm a voter, who just cares about the issues she cares about, interested to hear from the candidates an honest statement, a clear position. While the media frenzy works out which candidate was most likable and SNL works out their next sketch I'll still be here hoping our economy doesn't collapse and that when I come back home I'll be able to get affordable health care.

An average American "Hockey Mom" (minus being a mom, or liking hockey) praying it's not too late for honesty from the White House.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

My New Hobby: Figuring out What "Teacher" Means in Japan

Happy fall (weather)! The cool breeze and lack of humidity has been real cheery here. I am thankful for the changing of the seasons.

While preparing to leave for Japan over two months ago I remember being prepped on two things over and over again: 1). teachers are really busy in Japan, and 2). make sure you have a hobby, that you do things you enjoy regularly. It turns out these two things are very related. You see, upon being placed in my town the only people I knew were the teachers at my school. They are all very wonderful and I have enjoyed working with and among them. However they are, just I was endless told, busy. Really busy. So, if coming over here I had the idea that me and the other teachers would be hanging out all the time, well, I'd have been in for a bit of a shock. I sit at my desk, they sit at their desks and we work. They run here and there (I'm not being poetically vague here, I really have no idea where they are going most of time and I have no idea why they must run). I usually have two or three free periods a day. They usually have, well, negative free periods as there are things to be done well before the first bell rings and well after the last one.

While still in the States I became a little dismayed when I realized I didn't actually have a hobby. I don't sew or paint or exercise. I don't collect anything anymore (I was young, Tweety Bird was cool then, give me a break). I read and I write. I've always done that, my childhood is a blur of softball practices and long hours by myself reading or playing with my beloved Barbies. Is reading a hobby, though? Is writing? Probably. And since they're all I've got I'm holding onto them. And yet, upon arriving on this island, I decided I should pick up a hobby. Ya know, just in case.

Here's why I don't have a hobby: I find few things more important than getting to know people or ideas so given the option of doing something or just shootin' the breeze with someone I'll always choose the latter. And so, I sit a lot at work. I prepare worksheets, activities, or lesson plans and, yes, I do teach. But when I'm not doing those things I sit. Sometimes I study Japanese (I learned 5 kanji characters last week, only 1,995 to go until I can read a newspaper). Besides the teaching part, though, everything else I do involves sitting: studying while sitting, writing lesson plans while sitting, and so on.

It was during one of these periods of sitting that I discovered my new hobby. You see, in those first weeks that I was here I was very curious, I wanted to understand the way Japanese schools are run. My curiosity hasn't waned since then, but I longer hold any futile notion of understanding how things operate over here. Back when I was trying to figure out what kept the teachers so busy I would ask them, periodically, what they were doing. I was especially curious during summer "vacation." During that time especially I was usually the only one in the office, the other teachers busy. Running here and there.

So as I saw a teacher getting ready for, well, something I'd ask what they were off to do. Ya know, maybe I could help. In the summer I had no lessons to plan, no worksheets to make, and no stamina to study for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. I thought I'd try and make myself available. So I asked one of the teachers what she off to do and she replied "I do the accounting for the first grade so I need to make some calls." And there my new hobby was born.

In a school system where the school clerks cut the hedges and school teachers do the accounting I knew I wasn't going to "get it" anytime soon. But I keep asking because I hope this answer will top the one before it. Most recently the I got this answer: "I need to go gather the aluminum cans." Teacher/accountant. Teacher/janitor. The fun never ends!

Forget reading, writing, or dusting off my Tweety Bird collection (kidding, it's back home...wait...I mean I gave it away) my new hobby is keeping a record of the answers I get to "What will you do now?"