Monday, 31 May 2010

Raining on my martyrdom

I had a class cancelled yesterday which was added to today's schedule according to the sheet given out yesterday afternoon. That would have made my total number of classes today a round five, giving me only one free period. However, for whatever reason (seriously, though, wtf) the schedule was changed again by this morning, so that the class from yesterday was moved into a period I already had a class, and since I don't have a time turner, I couldn't be in both places at once. I was all ready to cry about how tough it was to be me today, but since I was back to the regular Tuesday's four classes, added to that the fact they were only 40 minutes, not 50 as usual, left me little to bemoan. Still, I had first to fourth periods, which meant I had no free time until lunch time, which was mentally exhausting, as in each class we did almost exactly the same thing.

Not looking forward to tomorrow...

My 206 class was moved to tomorrow, which means I have 5 out of 6 classes tomorrow - 1st-4th, then 5th free, then 6th. I don't remember ever having that many classes in one day before. Fortunately, tomorrow's schedule is special (big surprise) so the classes are only 40 minutes. Small mercies.

Also, after school I have what could be my last tattoo appointment (haven't decided yet). I might want to make the colour a bit darker, but if I don't I still need to fill in a few gaps that crop up as part of the process.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Silty toilet paper

OC Frustration

I mentioned before that I teach Oral Communication (OC) at Tokusho using the textbook. Now, I don't believe any high school textbook I have thus far encountered has been stellar (case in point - hamburgers and Mimes in Lingua-Land) but the textbook Tokusho uses for OC (appropriately titled "Voice") frustrates me in so many ways that I decided to write a bit about it.

There are a few things wrong with the content of the textbook itself. It uses weird or outdated expressions, some of which I had never heard before. Instead of "sci-fi", it refers to "SF movies" (that's pronounced ess-eff movies). In the "word mine" at the back of the book it uses the word "druggist" before putting "pharmacist" after it in brackets, as if pharmacist is the word used less frequently. I'd never heard the word "druggist" before, but it sounds like it should mean something between a person who advocates drug use and a drug addict . Instead of using the word "fisherman" it has simply, "fisher". My dictionary describes this use as "archaic", and indeed the only place I've heard this word used before is in the "fishers of men" bit in the Bible.

However, my main gripe with textbook is not the thing itself, but the audio that comes with it on a set of CDs. There are four voice actors - two male and two female, and they are all American. Fair enough so far - American English is the standard form taught here. Now, to make the textbook relevant and interesting for high school students (as if they ever put that much effort into that) the actors are most often playing high school students themselves, though with some exceptions. The girl who does Maki (one of the most frequently recurring characters, and is Japanese) sounds like a muppet. Kind of like a female Kermit - she has the same weird way of separating each word in the sentence. The girl who does Kate (exchange student from San Francisco) has the most irritating, simpering spoilt-sounding voice imaginable. The guy who does Takuya (at first) actually has quite a pleasant voice. The most annoying voice is that of the guy who originally appears as John Wang, the Chinese-Australian English-language teacher. Aside from the voice itself (which sounds like a reserved TV continuity announcer) the characters he's used for come off as horribly inappopriate. As John Wang, (Australian, but with an American accent for some reason) he can't even pronounce "Brisbane" - the town his parents supposedly live in - correctly (he pronounces it "Bris-bain"). But then for some reason in lesson 7, for no apparent reason this guy starts doing the voice of Takuya, when Takuya goes to America for a homestay. The old voice of Takuya becomes Takuya's host-brother. Now, Takuya is supposed to be a high school student, and the John Wang guy sounds about 40. Perfect for John Wang, slightly creepy for Takuya. And he doesn't sound remotely like a Japanese boy learning English, which the other guy pulls off quite well. I can only assume John Wang knocked the real Takuya out after class one day and stole his identity so he could go on holiday to America. I say this, because towards the end of the textbook the voices switch back again to their original actors.

Hopefully the real Takuya will get his revenge in the sequel.

Something wicked this way comes

The Seedy (but soft) Underbelly

Last night, we went to Ingrid's.
Ingrid's is a karaoke bar, and the place that most of the foreigner community in Tokushima visits at one time or another. There was a time when I would come here almost every weekend, sometimes two nights in a row, though I don't go out as much as I used to. Ingrid's is run by a lady called Ingrid (surprise!) and has no cover charge or fee for using the karaoke machine. Hooray!

Em and I went for something safe to sing:
 You can never go wrong with Gaga.

Ingrid's is located in Sakae-machi, which is one of the most atmospheric and alive places in Tokushima city. It's a series of narrow alleys off Akita-machi, and along with that street houses the majority of the drinking establishments in town. When the sun sets, these streets begin to come to life. They fill with students and other young people going for drinks with their friends, with salary-men and other professionals having after work drinks and "nijikais" ("second parties" after official work functions), with hosts and hostesses soliciting on street corners, yakuza types going about their secret business, and the occasional drunk vomiting or urinating up against a building. Tis truly a magical place.
What sets this kind of district in Japan apart from similar places elsewhere is a strange illusion of sincerity that exists between the proprietors of these establishments and their customers. In Japan, customer service is number one, and when most of the bars in town are very small and therefore rather similar in layout, this is very important. When a so-called 'Snack Bar' charges 2000-3000 yen just for seating, they have to be offering more than just a place to sit. Whether it's the kindly ear of the barman, the companionship of a beautiful young lady or the missing half of your karaoke duet, it's up to the staff to make you feel comfortable and at home - so that you'll stay and keep drinking, and, more importantly, so that you'll come back next time. These bar people are not your friends, and if you ask them out on a date they will probably be busy, but while you're under their care they will treat you like family. As long as you have the cash.

Walking down Sakae-machi late at night you see this dance playing out all the time. You see snack bar girls come outside as a customer is leaving, lamenting his early departure and ensuring his return in the not-too-distant future. The customer, who may have a wife at home, says goodbye, fawning over the lady and not caring about the 10,000 yen un-itemised bill he just paid that has taken advantage of his inability to remember how much he actually drank. Some say this kind of thing is the result of a lack of communication between spouses and friends, and fills that particular void in the Japanese lifestyle. I find it fascinating, but also a little frightening.

While we're on the subject of the seedy, there's this:
This is Marie De Medicis, the Love Hotel down the road from my apartment. Love Hotels are a novel invention that provide couples with a discreet place for a hook-up. I say discreet, despite the glaring neon signs and often ridiculous exterior design that are the hallmark of the Love Hotel, because it's often unnecessary to see members of staff face-to-face to get a room. In the case of this particular Love Hotel, they have an underground parking area so no one has to be seen entering or leaving the premises. I find the whole concept ingenious.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Health scares and mystery pants

This schedule was disrupted at Tokusho today (normal schedules are probably actually rarer than disrupted ones) , which I think was to allow time for the Japanese equivalent of a pep rally, as a number of interschool sports tournaments are about to start. The only thing of note to happen today was that the school cafeteria was closed due to them finding some kind of bacteria there after a routine weekly test. There were several announcements made over the school PA system about the matter. During my second and final class of the day, just before lunch, which was the class with Mr Pizza (mentioned in an earlier post), the JTE left to go get the students' tests from the staff room to give back. While he was away there was an announcement telling specific students to go down to the nurse's room. Immediately, Mr Pizza and some of his rowdy friends jumped on this opportunity to leave the class. Now, I didn't believe for one second that he was among the students asked for, but I had no way of proving it, so I let him go, along with the two female students who actually were supposed to leave. It didn't matter in the end, because they were soon after frog-marched back into the classroom by the JTE who must have been on his way back up the stairs. A later announcement told students who had already bought onigiri (riceballs) that morning not to eat them, and return them at lunchtime. At lunchtime the students who relied on the cafeteria were allowed to leave the school grounds (usually a no-no) to get food nearby. Their names were checked off by a posse of teachers at the main gate. Some went to McDonald's, and others were surprised to see me in supermarket Kyoei, where I went to pick up some stuff to take home.

Being in Mr Pizza's class reminded me of the existence of pizza and the fact that I hadn't had it in a while. Not that he dwelt on the pizza thing this time. He only asked me once to say it ten times. Mr Elbow was absent today, so maybe that's why. Anyway, I decided to get pizza at the next available opportunity.

When I went home today, a mysterious sight presented itself. What looked like a small hanger for drying clothes was suspended from a pole outside the building, complete with assorted pants. My first thought was that it had fallen down from above. However, there are no balconies on this side of the building, which is the side that everyone's front doors are on. Here are the pants in close-up and in context:
There are no other nearby buildings the pants could have fallen from. It's all a bit of a mystery, really. Added to that, the pants and hanger were gone when I passed by later.

Anyways, it's pizza time. I got Emily on board. She'll say yes to anything that doesn't involve olives. Hooray!

Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Good Things

I got a hug from a student today. We were playing the aforementioned bingo game, the JTE wanted to switch to another activity for the last five minutes, but the students were in the throes of candy fever and wanted to continue. I said I didn't mind continuing the game and the JTE translated this to the students as me pushing for continuing the game so they would have another chance to win. The class cheered, one student got up and shook my hand, and another manhugged me. It was a good class.

This year's first-year at Kagikou is great. So much better than my classes last year. The atmosphere is more like it was at Higashi in my first and second years here. Makes me almost regret my decision to leave, but you can't second guess yourself. And it's time to move on, as I said before.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Lingua-Land English Course I, Lesson 4 - The Mime in the Street

Tomoko and Ted are taking a walk.
Tomoko: Oh, look! Is that a person?
Ted: She's a mime.
Tomoko: Hey, she moved.

Tomoko wants to talk to her.
Tomoko: Your job seems tough. Do you enjoy it?
Mime: Yes, of course. I like to watch people. Many people pass in front of me every day. Some look sad and lonely. I hope to heal their hearts and ease their troubles.
Tomoko: That's great!
Mime: There are many jobs, but I think this is the best job for me. It's important to have your own dream. Do you want to do anything in your life? You make your own future. Don't give up on yourself.
Tomoko and Ted: Thank you very much.
Tomoko: She's beautiful, because she lives her life to the fullest.
Ted: I think so, too.

Soft cream, confusion, novelty

Emily and I went to get soft cream after school yesterday. We went to this shop that was basically a small wooden shack (a nice-looking one) on the street beside the prefectural government building. Soft cream is one of the best things about summer in Japan, because it's so readily available once you know where its sold. You're rarely more than a few minutes' bike ride from soft cream in Tokushima city.

I should clarify. Soft cream is what the Japanese call a particular type of ice cream, the kind that gets squeezed out of a machine in a hopefully pretty spirally pattern. It's called soft-serve in America. Back home I want to say it's called Mr Whippie (a brand-name, probably) but I'm not 100% sure. I'm left thinking, is it actually "Mr Whipple" or something like that. This sort of characterises a feeling I get every now and then here where I wonder, "is that a thing, or did I just make it up?" I had the thought when I used the expression "off the deep end" in a previous post and had to do a google search to confirm. I mean, it doesn't really make sense, does it? Surely if you're "off" the deep end you're either in the shallow end or you got out of the pool. Please feel free to correct me.

Anyway, last year Circle K was selling mint choc chip soft cream, which was great. Mint isn't really seen as a dessert flavour here - you don't often find mint chocolate or mint ice cream, and when you do it tends to taste a bit chou-mazui (extremely disgusting). One of my teachers asked me to bring her back a mint Kit-Kat when I was last home, mostly for the novelty value. The Japanese are all about novelty value. A lot of prefectures have at least one unique kit-kat brand based on their local produce. This JTE (Japanese Teacher of English...this is JET Programme abbreviation) had a box of Wasabi Kit-Kats. I politely declined to take one.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Back to school

Okay, so I've not actually been away from school, and neither have the students, but today was my first day of regular classes since two Tuesdays ago. Or, it would have been, if one of the English teachers I would usually be teaching with in the 6th period hadn't taken nenkyuu (paid leave) today. She's the teacher who's taken holidays more than any other I've known, but I think it's because she has young children who get ill. So I just had the one class today.

Today's lesson was a very simple but usually effective bingo game (I know, bingo - so painfully ALT cliche, but what do you do, eh?) that tests the students knowledge of verb forms. They have a set of sentences with two possible forms of a verb to choose to complete them - like "Brad Pitt wants [to eat/eating] hamburgers". Each sentence in numbered, and there are more sentences than there are spaces in the bingo sheet. The students fill the blanks in the bingo sheet with the number and the correct verb form for that sentence, then when that number is called only students who chose the correct answer can cross off that square. I bought a large quantity of small candies ("nodoame" in J-hongo) to give to students who got a line of correct answers on their sheet.

If no classes are cancelled (and if that teacher is back at school) I'll have to do this four times tomorrow. Fun!

What am I going to watch now?

To say the atmosphere at school yesterday, on the last day of mid-terms, was sedate would be an understatement. Sedated fits the bill. At one point the English teacher who sits beside me, after marking yet another class-load of answer sheets, put her head down on the table and switched off for half an hour. Other teachers sat chatting with each other, or disappeared off in their cars to grab lunch and perhaps some shopping.

As for myself, aside from my usual pattern of alternately checking BBC news, facebook, chiisai sudachi (the Tokushima JET forum) and my email account, I actually sat down at my desk and started thinking about this story that I want to write. The problem is, while the overall plot structure is sound in my head, there are countless hurdles to overcome in the form of questions that must be answered before I can reconcile myself with the thing, and actually get writing. So I took a notepad I'd originally bought to scribble down lesson ideas (ha!) and doodled, and thought, and doodled some more, and wrote down a solution to the first problem that presented itself. Now, the solution has problems itself, but I wont know if they can be overcome until I think it through fully. But it was a start.

As Monday night was about the Lost finale, Tuesday was about the 24 finale. While it wasn't as epic in scale, I thought the 24 boys did a respectable job in closing a season (and the series itself) that was a vast improvement over the last three seasons. While the story didn't maintain it's thrilling off-the-deep-end flavour in the last episode, the ending was respectful to the characters as we know them, and sets things up for the movie that is apparently going to be made at some point.

Monday, 24 May 2010

LOST but not Forgotten (no spoilers)

Just back to reality after watching the final finale of Lost. Say what you like about the often slow and disappointing mid-season episodes of this series, the writers and producers really know how to pull off a finale. Inspirational stuff. I wanted to cry at the end. I can't say I'm completely satisfied with how things ended up on the island, what with so many questions left unanswered, but the conclusion to the sideways-flashes was perfect. The more I reflect on it the more perfect it seems. And perhaps it's even a good thing that there are still questions about the island. The best stories are often the ones you complete in your head.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Ever since I realised I was most likely returning home after ending my JET contract, I've started thinking about going back to my original dream, which was writing. More significantly, I've gone back and started considering seriously the idea for a story that I've had in my head since high school, which has been alternately brewing and cooling off in my head over the last eight years. Yesterday, on the bus back from Osaka with Em, I suddenly, out of nowhere, pictured a scene in my head that got me properly excited about the whole thing for the first time in ages. If I'm going to give writing a go, there are about a million issues with the overall idea that need to be sorted out, but for the meanwhile I'm optimistic. I think reading RTD and Benjamin Cook's (ah...Ben...) Writer's Tale (updated edition) has been inspirational.

Tonight, however, it's all about Lost: The Finale. Me and Em will make ridiculous quantities of tacos to celebrate the event.

Dancing through life

 So, as I said before, this weekend was Wicked-in-Osaka weekend. It was also supposed to be Emily's first time to USJ, but with heavy rain and warnings of strong wind for Sunday, we decided to abort and come back another time.

Osaka is Japan's second-biggest city, the commercial centre of Kansai (Western Honshu (the main island)) and is known as the 'tenka no shokudo' - "world's dining room" - for its vast number of restaurants, bars and cafes.

Here's one famous image of Osaka:
The Glico 'Running Man' is a large neon sign, a mascot for a confectionary company and popular landmark to have one's photo taken against. Personally, I'm more of a fan of this Running Man:
...but there's no accounting for taste.

Wicked was performed by the Gekidanshiki - the "Four Seasons Theatre Group" at the Osaka Shiki theatre near Osaka station:
These ladies were not in the cast for our particular performance. Possibly these two are from the earlier Tokyo production.

The set was pretty amazing. It included a dragon animatronic/puppet placed above the station for apparently atmospheric purposes:
In fairness, I took this picture before they announced that photography and recording were strictly forbidden in the Land of Oz.

Anyways, I enjoyed the performance immensely, as did my friends. I was surprised at how much of the Japanese I was able to understand, and I didn't have any trouble following the plot. The rest of the audience were similarly impressed - there were at least five curtain calls. The cast almost looked embarrassed to be so appreciated, and Elphaba and Glinda had to keep gesturing everyone else back on stage every time the curtain went up. I've never seen Japanese people so enthusiastic about something before, and actually I had wondered if they were enjoying it at all because the reception seemed a little cool during the performance. Maybe that's was just typical Japanese reserve, and they held their composure until the appropriate time.

Anyway, I showed my own appreciation through purchase, like a good consumer:
Actually, I hate the Wizard of Oz, but I'm willing to forgive it for creating a world that could be used by others.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Sailor Saturn

No classes today. First day of exams at Tokusho. Lovely weather, though.

One of the ALTs who works at the General Education Centre for the prefecture advertised a viewing of the planet Saturn, so we went this evening to look through their giant roof-telescope:
First we stopped off on the third floor to look at the moon through some smaller telescopes they had set up. It's odd how unreal things look up close. Because they wind up looking too real, if that makes sense. The moon looks like it has a skin condition.

Then we went to the roof observatory, and lined up behind a bunch of excitable children for a peek through the telescope. It was impressive, and it was unimpressive. It looked like the Saturn we all know and love (albeit with the rings appearing vertically rather than horizontally), which was great, but at the same time it was just a tiny image in a magical pole full of lenses. Goodness, I hope those kids don't grow up to be as jaded as I am.

Tomorrow we're going to Osaka to see Wicked, then Em and I are going to meet up with some former Tokushima JETs before going to USJ (Universal Studios Japan) on Sunday. It'll be my third time. They got rid of Japanese-talking Spielberg (the E.T. Adventure ride was replaced with some Hanna-Barbera crap). Will give a full report on my return.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Mushi mushi

It has begun. The trademark uncomfortable humidity of Japanese summer is upon us.

I have such strong physical associations with spring and summer in Japan - much stronger than any I have back home where the weather is fairly mild all year round. When spring comes here, the air smells different. It feels different, especially when the humidity rises, and you're dressed in shorts and t-shirt (in sharp contrast to most of the Japanese) and freeze when you step into a convenience store or an ATM vestibule because of the aircon. Every summer I'm reminded so strongly of what it felt like to have just arrived here - not knowing where any other JETs lived, not knowing how to get anywhere other than school and the supermarket, not knowing quite what to do with myself. And then hot summer nights, where you never feel cold and you need the aircon on just to get to sleep, and I'm reminded of night-time matsuri (festivals), and dancing Awa Odori for the first time. The physical sensation of summer is so strongly entwined with the memory of it that I'm made to look back without really intending to, and now, on the verge of the end of my time here, so it's a little sad.

But I've said goodbye to so many friends already, that it only makes sense to graduate from this weird JET/ALT world.

But before I do, let's look at a few more snapshots from my life.
This is Kagikou, my Wednesday-Thursday school. Forgive the dreary sky in this shot compared with the pictures I took of the other schools. It only partially conveys how I feel about working here...
Peeking through to the school's archery range - friggin' ARCHERY, Ishizu! If they'd had this at my school maybe I would have been interested in extra-curricular activities. Now, this isn't to be confused with kyuudou, which is Japanese archery and uses a longer and straighter (I believe) bow than western archery.
And this...THIS is from the English textbook they use with with Kagikou first years. I think it serves both as a grammar and an OC (Oral Communication) textbook. You see what I'm up against? Who wrote this thing? Who the hell says, "Well, I'll do so." in response to anything? I don't believe for one second that a native English speaker was anywhere in the vicinity when this dialogue was conceived. It sounds like a couple of robots talking. (Now imagining Tom as Glados from Portal).

Exams started at Kagikou yesterday, so there was no chance of me having anything to do. Today was similar, and faced with hours of emptiness I actually looked forward to be able to leave and go for an appointment with my tattoo artist:
It says something about the level of boredom when you would rather spend two hours being stabbed in the back by a motorised needle. Still, worth it. The art is almost complete.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

On life as a JET (2)

I thought I should say something about my weekly teaching schedule, since I said this blog would be about my time on JET as well as my time after.

As I said before, I teach at two high schools. On Monday, Tuesday and Friday I teach at Tokushima Commercial High School (Tokusho). Since last April I have taught only second year Oral Communication classes. Oral Communication is one of the components of high school English and is considered separate (it's tested separately) from English I and English II (which are mainly grammar courses). I go through the textbook with the students, and for each lesson in the textbook I also make a handout that includes a communication activity. There are eight classes in each grade at Tokusho, and between 32 and 39 students in each class. I see each class once a week, and classes are 50 minutes long (or 45 minutes on Monday) with ten minute breaks in between. Unlike back home where the students move between classrooms for different subjects, most lessons in Japan are taught in the homeroom class. At Tokusho, when the students go into second year they enter one of about six different business courses. Often certain courses will have higher levels of English than others, though of course every student is different and there may be high level students in typically low level classes, and vice versa.

The same is true at Tokushima Prefectural High School of Science and Technology (Tokushima Kagaku Gijutsu Koukou, or "Kagikou" for short). It's a brand-spanking new school that opened in April 2009 (I must be one of a select few ALTs who've attended a school-opening ceremony) when three other Tokushima High Schools were merged - Tokushima Technical High School (which was located at the site of the new school, and of which some buildings remain), Tokushima East Technical High School (where I used to work) and Tokushima Prefectural Fisheries High School. Unlike Tokusho, students are already divided into courses from first year, though will also change classes in second year depending on their specialisation (for example, first year science students may choose information science or environmental science in second year). There are eleven classes in each grade, though the classes are smaller than Tokusho - on average between 25 and 33 students per class, though in the marine department there are two classes - one with twenty students and the other with ten. I'm one of two ALTs at this school (the other being the ALT from the old technical high). We teach only first year since the school opened. Last year, the other ALT had six classes and I had five, and this year it was swapped round. Between Tokusho and Kagiko, and excluding any disruptions to the schedule (which are in fact ridiculously common) I should have fourteen classes a week.

Okay, that's the boring background down. Next time I might say something remotely interesting.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Supreme Ultimate Fist of Failure

So for the past five weeks or so I've been attending some classes at my gym on Saturday evenings. There's a Chinese teacher who does a half hour beginners Tai Chi class (taikyokuken in Japanese...the characters used are the same in both languages and translate roughly to "Supreme Ultimate Fist") followed by a half hour 'Kung Fu' class. It was a nice change of pace to do a class where no English is spoken, and though I find the coordination a little difficult, I thought it was something I could get into.

Tonight I went to the hour-long non-beginner class. Oh dear.

To start off, it was fine. We did exactly the same sets (I don't know what they're called in English, Japanese or Chinese) as we do in Saturday classes to start off with. I can't do them perfectly, and I have to keep looking round at the teacher to check I'm doing the right thing, but basically it's fine - the music we do it to is slow, gentle and relaxing. Then we take a short break, and the teacher instructs us to grab a fan from a box. Now, these are big, cloth folding fans, not the small practical kind often made of paper. They aren't bound together tightly like most fans, so you can easily flip them open with a flick of the wrist. Fan in hand, we assume the usual starting position, but there's something unsettling about the music this time - instead of the gentle "mountain hamlet in JRPG background music", a much faster, stronger beat starts up. The kind of thing you expect to hear play during a martial arts display when men are putting their heads through bricks. After a couple simple opening movements the set descended into a fast-paced dance of precise poses, full-body turns (so you're no longer facing the teacher and, if you're me, have no idea what you're doing) and quick fan openings and closings.

I was lost pretty much from start to finish. The whole thing looked pretty spectacular, however, especially the syncronisation of the teacher and the other students (mostly elderly women and all of them light years ahead of me....we'll, they've probably been doing this for ages). My experience of tai chi up to that point had been as a very sedate, slow martial art. I so wanted to be able to do that.

The thing about this class, though, is that there's not much focus on teaching, at least not in a step-by-step way. Or maybe it is and I'm just a Johnny-come-lately. We did two or three other fan-less sets afterwards, which were more difficult than the beginner stuff, but much slower and easier than the fan one. The fan one. Ah, to be able to do that. Jealousy.
This video demonstrates the basic idea:

Monday, 17 May 2010

Short legs and elbows

Three classes today, so I don't have so much free time to fill, but let me tell you about a few interactions I've had with students recently.

Firstly, there's a girl in one of my 2nd year classes who was talking to the teacher who sits next to me in the staffroom a couple of weeks ago. She clearly wanted to interact with me and was fascinated by my blueish eyes, and complimented me on my height. She said I had "long legs" and pointed to herself in comparison but I think she couldn't find the word she was looking for. I came out with "tansoku" - a word meaning "short legs" which is how the Japanese describe their own most common body type. The girl thought it was hilarious that I knew this word (most of the new 2nd years don't know I speak a fair amount of Japanese), and now she mentions it whenever she sees me around the school. I saw today her as I was going into the classroom beside her's, and she came over and pointed at herself excitedly and said, "Tansoku tansoku tansoku tansoku tansoku!". I just nodded in agreement.

In another 2nd year class, there's one slightly rowdy boy who for the last two classes has tried to persuade me to say "pizza" ten times. Or rather, he asked me to say "piza", which is the most common Japanese pronunciation. I refused, fearing I was being tricked into calling myself an idiot or something, but he would inevitably say it himself before pointing at his elbow and asking, "What's this?". After the first class where this happened, I decided to do some research on the internet. I found my way to 2-channel, a popular Japanese message board, and discovered that the pizza thing seemed to be a rather innocent game where you trick the other person into confusing their knee and elbow. In Japanese, "knee" is "hiza" and "elbow" is "niji". After saying "piza" ten times, when the person points at their elbow, your mind is supposed to be tricked into saying "hiza" instead of "niji".

Anyway, the second class where it happened I refused to do it again, because...well...I'm like that. But this time, every time the boy, who sits at the front, would get to the, "What's this?" stage, another boy further towards the back would shout out, "Elbow" (this is all in English, by the way). At one point, the boy at the front tried to trick me into doing it by writing "piza" ten times in his textbook and asking me to read it. Again it failed, again he did it instead - but this time he said it really quietly, and added, "What's this?" in a whisper. Out of nowhere, the boy towards the back, who had been engaging in the communication activity that the students were supposed to be doing at that point, shouted out, "Elbow". It was like a reflect. I burst out laughing.

Anyway, I had a similar experience today as I came back from a class on the same floor as the "piza" boys class. He was hanging around the stairwell (the other boy wasn't in sight at this point) and tried to get me to do it AGAIN as I went past. Exactly the same process played out, and when he said, "What's this?", again out of nowhere, the other boy popped into the corridor and piped in, "Elbow!".

How can I leave this madness behind?

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Day in the life of a JET with no classes

The mid-term "tsume-komi" (cramming) period still active, I once again am left with no classes to teach. But that doesn't mean there's not fun to be had!

This morning, for example, I got a chest X-ray. Isn't that RAD? As in "iation". They was checking for TB, in this day and age. Then I got my picture taken for the school's records. Not sure if I really needed to since I could be leaving in less than two months, but I decided just to follow the photo man when he came to my desk.

After lunch, I marked an English exchange diary of one of my students. It's a way for students to freely practice their English writing outside of regular teaching. The entries:
May 9, Sun
It was a birthday of a favorite person today.
I made a cake but, there was no strawberry.
Another fruit was reluctantly put.
It failed a little.
I all ate it alone.

May 10, Mon
I made a cake again.
This time, a lot of strawberries were put.
This time, it succeeded.
I all ate it alone again.

In the afternoon, one of the vice-principals came over to ask me for an English translation to the Japanese expression of boredom and frustration, "mendoukusai". After going through a few options including "What a pain in the ass!" he started asking me about the meanings of "bitch" and "fuck". Though Japan does have rude words, I think a lot of "cursing" in Japanese is less about the words themselves than it is about the way you say them. I don't think the idea of words themselves sounding bad regardless of context really translates over here, so the vice principal didn't realise how much I had to suppress my giggles at him asking about these words so earnestly.

Check the moon

The moon was doing amazing things tonight and I'm sad I don't have a camera that's properly able to capture things like that, and I tried a close-up but my zoom wasn't really up to it, so I'm putting up this instead (click for larger version):
With the naked eye you could see both the crescent of the moon and the darker shaded area of the rest of the moon. The white dot above is Venus, my barber reliably informed me.

My domain

As I said before, I live on the Eastern side of Tokushima. There's only one other ALT who lives on this side, but he's married and has a family so he doesn't really involve himself in the JET Programme. To all intents and purposes, it's my domain. Let's take a gander.

This view, looking west from my apartment building, shows the north end of the Suehiro Ohashi (Great Suehiro Bridge) crossing the Shinmachi river, with Mt Bizan in the background. There's a movie called Bizan set in Tokushima.

This picture was taken along Minato Koen (Harbour Park) heading West. It's a nice little walkway with grass and trees on one side that follows the river until it reaches the main 'island' of Tokushima (the rivers split the city into several of these islands).

 Head north and you can find this place - the former premises of Tokushima East Technical High School, where I used to teach two days a week. The school closed in March 2009 to merge with the main technical high school, which is where I now work. I really miss this place. The atmosphere was bright and friendly and the teachers didn't have to stress so much about the students' results or future careers. The students themselves were really friendly and usually worked hard in classes despite their difficulty with English. The sign in the window says, "Tokushima East Technical High School is closed. We thank you for your all your support."

North of there is my other school - my base school, Tokushima Commercial High School, where I work three days a week. It's called Tokusho colloquially, which is short for "Tokushima Shougyou". If you click on the picture you should be able to see a blue sign, which congratulates former student Kawakami Kenshin on making it to major league baseball in the US. Apparently he pitches for the Atlanta Braves.

Remember what I was saying about the state of English in Japan?

This is a great name for a laundramat. It would also be a great name for an Aryan Republic. Thank goodness we're in Japan.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Immediate surroundings and turtle fences

Here's the view from my balcony.

I live right on the edge of Tokushima City, not far from the east coast of the island. My apartment building looks out over docklands. Though I'm terrible at swimming and generally afraid of large bodies of water, I quite like living here. This photo, and my balcony, faces south, and I get a lot of light. I think I'm quite lucky with my apartment situation.

Now, if ever there was a good way to convey the state of English in Japan, it would be this:
That's the top of my apartment building, and yes, the name is "Human Space II". Sounds like the habitation wing of a space station. Seriously, I don't know what the guy was thinking when he used it. It used to be named after the guy who owned the building. I'm pretty sure it doesn't sound any better in Japanese. I wonder where Human Space I is.

And here's something new, something I only just noticed last night on my way home from WINNING THE AJET PUB QUIZ (with my noble team-mates Robin, Thomas, Nikolina and Nikolina's-friend):
Isn't that adorable? It's just a roadside bush, it doesn't belong to anyone, but someone's turned it into a dog. It made Emily and I think about guerilla topiary. Imagine sneaking into people's gardens at night and transforming their bushes into giraffes and kittens and walruses. Awesome.

Speaking of Emily, when I left my apartment to take these pictures, I found my door in this state:
The girl is insane, but you have to give her kudos. I should have known introducing her to Auto-tune the news would come back to haunt me. Ah well, keeps life exciting.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Mid-term panic

At times, when you're an ALT looking over the months until the next school vacation period, the thought of all the lesson plans you're going to have to come up with before the break can be quite daunting. But (for high school ALTs, at least) when you break the year down into the terms, the number of regular uninterrupted teaching weeks can turn out to be quite low.

Case in point - the first term started around the 9th of April, and will end around the 20th of July. At the start of the school year there are various ceremonies and necessities to be taken care of that disrupt the schedule, including class photographs and health check-ups. Then there's often short school trips - first years go camping in what is called in Japanese the "nature experience" trip. The end of April/start of May brings Golden Week, a series of national holidays grouped together, and a couple of weeks after that come the mid-term tests. Each subject tests the students on what little they had a chance to learn in the brief time when they actually had lessons since the start of term.

I find it faintly ridiculous. At one school I've seen the students at most four times each, and at the other only three. Right before the mid-terms the teachers start to panic about the marks the students will get, and often cancel team-teaching classes with me so they can finish the textbook pages or do revision. The onus seems to be on the teachers, rather than the students themselves, to ensure success in the test. That should give you an idea about the Japanese sense of responsibility, and why customer service is so good in this country. And so yesterday I had two classes cancelled (tests start next Friday, folks!) and today, similarly. This means I now have no classes today. None. Whatsoever. And it's only 10am. This would be a good time to catch up on my correspondence.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

On Life as a JET (1)

Since I've centred this blog around the idea of life after JET, I suppose it makes sense to write a bit about what my life as a JET entails.

(Boring factual paragraph to follow, please skip when narcolepsy sets in)

So I'm an ALT - that is, Assistant Language Teacher, and I work for the Prefectural Board of Education in Tokushima, Japan. Tokushima is one of the four prefectures on the smallest (and least populated) of the four main islands of Japan - Shikoku (literally "four countries"). Japan is divided into (roughly) 47 prefectures which have a level of autonomy of government, and each prefecture is also divided into smaller local authorities. Some ALTs work for local town and city Boards of Education (BoEs). These are usually Junior High School and Elementary School ALTs who also sometimes teach adult classes. However, I'm a high school ALT, and am employed by the Prefectural BoE, as (almost) all high schools are governed by the prefecture rather than the local body.

I work at two high schools in Tokushima City, the capital of the prefecture. The city is the only really densely populated part of the prefecture, whose other population centres spread out to the west towards Ikeda, and to the south towards Mugi, in a sort of L-shape, straddling the large mountainous area in the centre.
Other areas called "City" in the Japanese name are usually much smaller than what we would consider to be cities in the west, and are often the result of several small towns merging.

Anyway, as I was saying, I work at two high schools. High school in Japan is neither compulsory nor free, but somewhere near 97% of young people attend high school in one form or another. Junior High students have to take some rigorous and no-doubt stressful tests to get into their chosen schools, which vary in prestige and academic level. At the top-tier there are so-called academic schools, where the focus is squarely on getting the students into university at the end of the three years. The next stage down is probably "commercial" schools, where the students specialise in subjects related to business, and while many still go on to university, there is more focus on finding employment. Next is probably technical schools, which teach a variety of subjects related to technology, science, construction etc. and aims to get students into technical colleges and universities, or into work in industry. Finally there are agricultural and fishery schools, which teach the theory and practice of farming and fishing. In all of these kinds of schools, English is compulsory for all three years, but the number of English lessons a week they have varies from school to school.

I teach at a Commercial School and a Technical School. I would say that I teach mid- and low- level students. Sometimes I'm jealous of my friends who have higher level students, but I'm also glad I don't have any really really awful classes. I get the impression there are more bad Junior Highs than there are Senior Highs, since high school tends to be stricter about discipline.

Okay, I've given a long and boring introduction to my position here. Here endeth the lesson.

So it begins...

I first thought about starting this blog a while back to document my inevitable rise to greatness after finishing my tenure on the JET Programme. Nothing came of the idea until I was horribly REJECTED for a job I applied for through the programme - rejected at the first stage where all you give them is an application form and a recommendation letter from your supervisor.

So now I'm staring at the abyss that is my future, waiting with bated breath for whatever it may hold.

I plan to post my musings about the future, as well as discuss what my last few months as an ALT are like.

We'll see how it goes.