Thursday, December 18, 2008

Happy Holidays!

I'll be home for the holidays!

Have a good year!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Incident of the No Hot Water Blessing

Ugh. No hot water, no time for breakfast. That's how the morning began.

My already cold hands (it's about 35 degrees in the house in the mornings) got ice cold from washing my face in cold water. I fiddled with my water heater display box for a bit but no luck. No hot water. Fiddling took up more time than I realized and so I was rushing out the door, leaving my bowl of cereal milkless and uneaten.

Bad start.

On the ride to school I prayed that when I got home the hot water would work.

My principle let me out early. This week we have parent-teacher conferences 4th-6th period. That's right. That means I'm sitting at my desk, no classes to teach, from 4th-6th period. He saw me still at my desk at 4:00pm and told me to go home. "Dozo, dozo" he said, "Go ahead."

On the ride home a thought flashed through my mind that maybe it was good fortune to get off early in case my hot water still didn't work...

...I was right. I tried several more times, at several faucets but no hot water. I am prone to tears, it doesn't take much to get me welled up. So, invariably, I had a little sit down at my kitchen table and cried from frustration and more than a little bit of self-pity.

My supervisor is a home room teacher so she was still in meetings at 4:30pm, when I was ready to stop crying and, ya know, do something. I called another English teacher, the only one without a home room, and she was on it in no time.

She decided it was probably a gas problem (I have a gas stove and apparently that's what heats my water too). She called the gas company and they came to my house by 5:00pm. Hot water was running through my faucets by 5:15pm.

And that's when I realized the blessing of no hot water. In America, this would be just a brief annoyance. An inconvenience but not instructional in any way. I'd call the gas company myself, get things sorted out, and go about my day angry at the waste of time.

In Japan, this incident became another way to see my many blessings. I'm not alone here. No, I can't call the gas company myself and no, I still don't know what went wrong or how to prevent it from happening again. I do, however, have great coworkers who will help me with any problem, at any time (I called this same coworker at 7:00am on Saturday when I woke up to the fat lip I had this summer). They help without fanfare and without making me feel silly or like a burden.

Don't get me wrong, I look forward to eating breakfast tomorrow and washing my face with hot water. I am aware, though, that some things are more important than physical comforts.

Things like counting my blessings.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Japanese is Easy?

Okay, so no secret, Japanese can be real difficult. Besides the three alphabets--one with an endless number of characters--there is all the different ways say the same thing, with the added bonus that you can pick the wrong one. You can be so wrong, in fact, as to really offend someone.

The social hierarchy of Japan is reflected in it's language: "teineigo" is polite language that you use when speaking to your superiors and in formal situations. However, it's weird to use this among friends since it seems impersonal/cold. There are levels to "teineigo" as well. The informal way to say "to go" is "iku." A more polite way to say this is "ikimasu." The most polite way (students are supposed to use this form when talking to or about teachers) is "irrashaimasu."

There are aspects to the language, though, that are quite easy. Because of the emphasis on group harmony, there are a lot of set codes of conduct in Japan. Language mirrors this emphasis. Phrases that seemed pointless or obscure while I studied Japanese in college now make up at least 80% of my working knowledge of Japanese.

When I enter the staff room for the first time in them morning I'm to say "ohaio gozaimasu" or "good morning." When I leave for the day I say "osakini shitsureishimasu" which means "sorry for going ahead of you." The other teachers respond with "otsukarasamadeshita" which means "thanks for all your hard work." My school's a bit more informal so I drop the "osakini" when leaving and the teachers only respond with "otsukarasamadeshita" after a special event like Sport's Day. They all say something to me, though, as I leave whether it is in Japanese or English ("See you" is very popular with both the students and teachers).

When I first learned these phrases they seemed obscure not to mention hard to pronounce. However, they are of great comfort now. At least in these set phrases I can be confident I'm doing the right thing. I don't have to go through a list of phrases, struggling to pick out the right one for this context. All I have to do is say that one thing and everyone knows what I mean and what I'm doing. That's a great comfort.

What's challenging at time is coming up with English equivalents. The question "How do you say...." is a difficult one to answer. For example, Japanese people say "ittekimasu" when they leave somewhere to go somewhere else. This phrase combines the verbs "go" and "come" so you can kind of get the implication. My teachers say it when they leave a conversation with coworkers to get to their classes on time. One of English teachers asked me recently "what do you say in English for 'ittekimasu?'"


I was stumped. I couldn't think of anything, I drew a blank. After class I looked up the phrase in a couple dictionaries to see how other people translated it. "I'm off; see you later" was the most satisfying answer so I told her that one but then explained that there isn't one common phrase we use, that's it's different in different situations. For the really polite and apologetic, "I'm sorry. I hate to leave but I have to get somewhere now," or for the laughably slang, "Peace out."

Then another caveat, we usually don't just say "see you later" without explaining our leaving first. "I have to go meet a friend now. See you later." In this instance, Japanese is much easier. After saying "ittekimasu" you just head off, leaving the listener with the trouble of reasoning out where it is you're going and why.

English provides a lot of room for individual choice, though. Some conversational flare. This choice is both rewarding and overwhelming for the students in my classes who are used to a language and a culture where they know exactly what they ought to say/do at any given time.

So when I think about how hard Japanese is to learn, especially because it's cultural context is so different from my own, I must remember that the students I teach and the teachers I teach with are facing the same difficulty, just oppositely.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Simple Things at Kindergartens


November was a vapor.

It's getting cold in Japan these days. While my family is braving temperatures well below freezing I am bitter about it hitting 45 degrees. Of course, that was the temperature INSIDE my house; with no insulation and no central heating I am spared only the elements and the breeze when I step inside. But I imagine I'll survive. It's in the realm of possibilities at least.

I only have one junior high to work at so unlike most ALTs I don't have to think about juggling lesson plans or holiday schedules; I'm just here. There are two sides to every coin, though, and the convenience of one school has of course some downfalls. For example, when the students are in a testing period I don't visit my other school because I don't have one. I sit at my desk. All day.

The students just finished up term tests. Thankfully, part of my job is to visit kindergartens about once a month. The Board of Education has thoughtfully planned many of these visits for me around testing periods so at least one day I have something to do.

Not only are these visits a nice change of pace ("a change of environment" my supervisor said with a smile) but they are 100% encouraging.

Most of the teachers can speak only the most basic English and prefer not to. However, unlike most native speakers, these women spend most of their days talking to 3-5 year olds so it is not difficult for them to dumb down their Japanese for me. I have had two successful meetings with teachers where we've lesson Japanese! Of course, the plans usually go something like this: "We'll sing a song about fruit and then play a game. I'll teach them 'Hello!' and 'Goodbye!' and give them a sticker." Nonetheless, it's these little triumphs that provide immense amounts of motivation to keep up with the Japanese study.

In my most recent kindergarten visit (the little dude in the picture is a 3 year old from this school) they asked me to spend 2 hours out of a 3 1/2 hour visit playing with the kids. I was more than happy to do this--I have only held two jobs that didn't involve childcare--and yet I felt a little guilty. "I'm getting paid to teach kids English but here I am just goofing off with 3 and 4 year olds." I couldn't have been more wrong.

In the other kindergartens I've visited the kids are often very scared of me and warm up only as I'm about to leave. One little girl cried when she had to sit next to me. I didn't take it personally even though back home this kind of reaction would be devastating to me. Since she was only 3 years old, I reasoned, she had probably never seen a foreigner in real life. A white giant was in her school and to top it off she had to sit next to the monster! I get it.

But at the school where I played most of the day the kids immediately took hold of my hands, said "Let's play!" and dragged me into to the playground. I barely had time to throw off my indoor shoes and put on my outdoor ones. They spent the rest of the day dragging me here and there, exhausting every English word/phrase they knew ("I like mango" and "Look at me").

I believe in the importance of play. I had never, however, considered it in the realm of internationalization and language learning. Even the really shy kids asked me to count off how many jumps they could jump rope; none of these kids saw my foreignness as something to fear. I was just another adult to them, someone they could drag here and there, someone who was inherently interested in everything they did.

It's hard for me to be like those kids. To see all people as playmates, to say "let's play!" without asking questions, without weighing the risk. One day, when I grow up, I want to have a heart like those kindergartners. I want to hold your hand, drag you here and there with me. I want to laugh with you. At simple things that cross cultures and languages. Simple, important things.