Wednesday, August 10, 2011

29th March, farewell ceremony and party for teachers


Farewell ceremony. Everyone lined up in the gym and we clapped them out to the school song. There were more tears. I was sick, so they all soaked into my mask. Hawt.

We also had the farewell party for the leaving staff tonight. There were many sad speeches, but I was generally okay because a. I don’t understand much Japanese and b. I was wearing makeup and determined not to taint it.

At every enkai there is seating assigned by lottery. For the first few enkais I was automatically placed next to whatever English teacher I walked in with, but now that I have drank successfully with a few of the teachers I’m pretty much left to fend for myself. This time I got placed right next to the teacher who always yells in Japanese that we are “special” friends. Although we barely understand each other, we manage to communicate fairly well because he’s not terrified of my big bad English and doesn’t mind putting a conversation on hold for us both to whip out our dictionaries and just point at words. I do unfortunately go bright red every time we talk though. Fortunately for us I and every Japanese person also go bright red when we drink, so it went unnoticed.

After the speeches my Kendo sensei came and sat next to me, smiling and talking in Japanese. I didn’t understand any of it but a JTE near me said “He wants to know why you don’t come to Kendo anymore (remember at this stage I’d had a couple months off for my calf) and wants you to start again in April. He and the club miss you.” AW.

I said okay, because my calf was pretty well healed by now, but warned him I would be unfit. He waved his hand in front of his face (doesn’t matter) then mimed frantically looking through a book while speaking in Japanese.

“He says he used to study English before each club but now you don’t go anymore.”

I think this was the moment I realised I wasn’t just doing Kendo for a couple months to see what it was like, I was actually in it for the long haul, for better or worse. I could have said no and had a year and half of spare time to my name, but I couldn’t do it. I’m addicted.

We then chatted about his daughter and he said he had asked her about me but she didn’t know me. (Understandable, she’s at an elementary school – although you’d be surprised who sees me on my bike or says hello to me out and about and then goes home and tells their parents about it.) I showed him that I had “5 Rings” (A book by Miyamoto Musashi, arguably one of the best swordsmen who ever lived) in my handbag for reading on trains and he was happy. The science teacher I origionally was next to mourned the blisters on my hands, whereby my kendo teacher proudly told him my feet were even worse. He teacher then said “anytime you want to talk or drink, let him know.” Kendo teacher – “Zenzen (completely) let us know.” The heart swells.

Having it made it successfully through dinner and drinks (with one small moment where toilet slippers were pointed out as being still on my feet) without tears, I thought I was doing well at this event. But then. Some teachers hustled away and then came back in in procession, to give their closest leaving teachers a present each. We were witnessing the parting of best workplace friends – a sure tearjerker. The uppity little man who always tells the students I’m trying to distract to get back to their appointed cleaning, and bustles around with a notebook for Kocho Sensei, was a total wreck as he handed his flowers over. That was it for me. But there was more. We then formed a line of arches toward the door, where all the leaving teachers walked through sobbing openly and shaking hands. Of course me being me I would settle for no less than hugs from my favourites, and my JTE on seeing ME crying did a legitimate WAIL before falling into my arms.

We then all met back up outside the room (of course the parting was just symbolic, we still had second drinking party to go to) dried our eyes, and hopped on the bus to Obi together.

Nijikai (second drinking party) almost deserves an entire entry on its own. We had an entire upstairs room of a bar to ourselves, with drink choices being the standard beer or rice whiskey and water. I sat next to probably the funniest teacher I have met, who calls himself the “Sexual Harassment Promotion Committee”. It was our last night to hangout, and he was determined to make the most of it. I think this has been my favourite enkai so far, because there is a sense of recklessness in the leaving teachers, of not having to deal with consequences, and of course in us a desire to make their last night a great one/ create our final fond memories.

This teacher was determined that we drink to everything. An example. “Your happiness!” (cheers, drink.) “My happiness!” (repeat) “Kawatani Sensei’s happiness!” and so on. He told me this “Kawatani Sensei is silent but very strong spirit. Japanese beauty is not in face but in heart.” I told him his english was good and he said “I think many girls say a thing to be nice but not really mean it.” Haha. Wise guy. We talked about our mutual desire to know English/Japanese better, and how I want to talk to everyone but it’s hard because of wakarimasen. (I don’t understand.) I think it’s easy for them to forget that most of the time I have no idea what’s going on. It’s an odd situation to be getting used to. Our motto became “hanashite wakarimasen. Demo, kimochi, wakarimasu.” (I don’t understand the conversation but the feeling.)

He then pretended to fall on me, going “oh! Oh my god! Sexual Harassment!”

Kocho Sensei came and sat next to me at one point, gestured to all the teachers, his own staff, and said in English, “Animals. Wild animals.” We both cracked up. He then pointed out the “song thief” to me, who is a normally uppity member of staff who follows people with the microphone and joins in their songs, gradually taking over. He did it with about 5 songs in a row and couldn’t figure out why we were laughing so hard. Then Kocho sensei had a turn and busted out the best male enka voice I have heard. It was so good!

I then talked to Kimiyo Sensei for awhile, who was leaving my school for John’s in Takanabe. She mimed calling him on the phone, “John! Get out of bed. Come to school. – I will train him.” Haha.

I also walked in on my Kendo sensei in the toilet. I was talking to another teacher, and opened the wrong door. Squeaked and ran out. He strode out after, pointed at the door, said loudly, “GENTLEMEN” (one of 3 words he has ever spoken to me in English) and carried on up the stairs.

When we left we all stood out on the street saying our goodbyes, my friend from upstairs hugged me amidst yelling from all the other staff, then tried to kiss me to uproarious laughter. My Kendo teacher started berating him in Japanese (jokingly) and we all parted ways. I will miss these people, but I’m glad of the times they have given me.

25th-28th March, work and a birthday

25th March

Had a school visit today from the new teachers who will be starting in April. My supervisor introduced one of them to me totally deadpan as follows. “This is ________ san. New mathematics teacher. A little chubby but very energetic.” The teacher, who understood none of this except his own name, smiled and bobbed enthusiastically. I graciously bowed in return.

Travelled to Miyakonojo tonight for Jon’s birthday. Jon and Sarah are a couple in Miyakonojo who I love visiting. It began quite chilled out at an upstairs bar, but descended into madness, as nights with these two often do. I played darts with Chris and while loudly proclaiming my superior skill and why it was unnecessary for us to even have a game to prove it, I turned toward the board, unexpectedly tipped to the right, regained my balance, flung the dart, and scored a bulls eye. No-one saw and the game hadn’t started yet so it didn’t count.

Proceeded to get loud, meet some Australians, get louder, sing Bohemian Rhapsody. Why, every time, why.

Travelled home with Sara and a sore throat, stopping for the mandatory 7/11 piece of chicken on the way. We then ate Jon’s birthday cake and looked at wedding photos until 4am.


Sara and Jon cooked me breakfast which was ultra lovely, and then we hungout for most of the morning. They pulled out an activities box for me to do on the floor, which was hilarious and cute. This box included hand games, old magazines, books, and even a gameboy. Looking through the magazines (from the 50s) I was astounded at how much advertising has changed. Of course from study I am destined to always notice advertising as timepieces. Although we had a difference of opinion, (ie. I thought I should be able to afford food, Wellington did not) I must admit the university there was boss.

The three of us went on a lovely walk in the sun by the river, haltered only by the abundance of junk shoved into it, got some McD’s, and said our goodbyes at the station. (They’re moving further away.) This was sad, I miss these guys.

From here instead of heading home (although I felt a creeping illness returning) I carried on inland to Kobayashi to visit Jordy. It was nice to have a chill night with wine and tacos. We watched paranormal activity 1 and 2, two movies of which I thought I would never see. The only thing that really made it doable (aside from wine, of course) was the idea that there was a something out there too scary for me to watch, which was scarier in itself than any possible movie-generated fear.

A lovely sleepovery chat, then a sleep in a REAL bed which made me feel like I was sinking through the floor (I believe I have become accustomed to discomfort.)


Sweet coffee and brekky out in the sun. Train ride home with Tracey which was wonderful! Spent an hour in the city looking at books, then finally homeward.


Received a letter on behalf of Christchurch from my students today. It was SO SWEET. Unfortunately we sent it off to Shirley Boy’s before I thought to get a copy, along with the funds and 1000 cranes, to which we never got a reply.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Swedish conversation and thoughts of war (got your attention)


Acted as a translator for a Skype conversation to Sweden. When I say translator I mean, from Swedish high school English to Japanese high school English. It really showed me how far I’ve come in learning to communicate in Japan. It’s not enough to just speak in English, you have to get a feel for the ebb and flow of conversation (particularly the ebb), the level of your students awkwardness, emotion, timing, know what words they are familiar with and what ones they aren’t or are too ambiguous (e.g. “difficult” vs. “hard”) -all things I had no idea about at first but have become second nature. I now know how much of a pause to give a kid to think, vs. the pause that occurs when they know the answer but are terrified, vs. the pause that means they just have no idea what you are talking about. These pauses can seem to go on forever, but it always astounds me when, after a good amount of time, the answer comes. Anyway, I’m getting off-topic. Basically what happened was the students in Sweden asked questions, I translated them into very simple English, and the students replied. Except that it turned into a shitshow. I wrote a big email about this to a friend, which I have entirely misplaced, so I can’t say everything that I wanted to say about it. But I’ll give you the basic rundown as I can remember it, 5 months later.

Firstly I was given a list of questions in English from the students in Sweden. Their English was much better than ours (I include myself for convenience) and they seemed a lot smarter in terms of worldview/experience, etc. Now, my kids are smart. They know a lot more about maths and science and Kanji than I do. But (and I think this is the same all over Japan) they have no idea of the outside world. Not only history or current world events or conflicts, but even that day to day life might be different. For some reason I have to try really hard to help my students imagine, well, anything. This isn’t something I hold against any one person in Japan, or even the government, or anything. I think it’s almost like Japan has been too successful against invasion, so that there is nothing in the education or media that would show the possibility of another culture’s life from the ground up. This sounds terribly nationalist of me, like THE PROBLEM IS THEY HAVEN’T BEEN TAKEN OVER, but, I don’t know, I’m just trying to imagine the country in 100 years and if anything I can see it becoming MORE isolated, not less. Or, if not more isolated, at least being totally uncomfortable with the world. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m not in the manufacturing business and/or living in Tokyo where I’m sure there is a lot of internationalisation. Along with becoming more isolated, there will be less people. A ghostland of sorts. I don’t know. Compared with the Japan we have heard about in history, Japan is seeming less fierce, more empty, losing itself through the very isolation that was meant to preserve.

Anyway, off topic again. These questions, they were really intense. (NB. This is a special brainy school in Sweden, so it’s American students as well as Swedish ones, etc.) They were like “What impact do you think this event will have on Japan’s economy?” “What do you think of nuclear power?” And probably the worst, “Do you think the government handled the disaster well?” Implying, of course, that it hadn’t.

These were a lot of the sorts of questions I encountered in America, on my exchange. It took me a good six months to realize that these aren’t people just trying to criticize, it’s people trying to have real conversations about real things. In this they feel they are being honest, drawing out your real opinions, sharing. I get it. Well, I do now. And I can see how they become frustrated, when in generously offering to listen to our ACTUAL thoughts, we give what we think is the kindest answer, the vague watering down and clich├ęd sentiments, so as not to waste their time. In the states it’s polite to invite someone to share their personality. In Japan it’s polite to put it away. Of course there will be problems.

I think I’m lucky being from NZ in that I can see why these sorts of questions make Japanese people so uncomfortable. We don’t talk about these things until we have talked about everything else. We talk about them in such a way as to come to an answer together, or ruminate on theories, to never have to actually –ask- the question but know implicitly that we tried to understand it together. To be asked directly, one person staring at you, is like an accusation. YOU must have the answer. No wonder we falter. I did my best to answer these questions in a positive light, to soften them while really finding out what people were thinking. But, call me vague, call me frustrating, call me coddling, I agree with my JTE when she said, “We do not talk about the economy now. Many people are sad. Why make it worse?” To ask these people that have lost so much, about what they will continue to lose in the future, is to pick apart their dwindling reasons to survive.

So I went into this conversation already feeling a little defensive. The students picked for the conversation had written out little replies, how much they loved Japan, hoped it would be okay, how happy they were to talk to Sweden. They had even made a little felt Swedish flag for the background. I was actually utilized more than I thought I would be, because the connection kept failing and I had to be the one to check contact, because the teacher was all like “plug this and check this mainframe and electronics bla bla bla” which of course no-one understood.

Anyway, we finally got contact, like a couple minutes toward the end of their lecture, and these two people just asked these really horrible questions that I can’t remember which sucks but I remember them being so accusatory and insensitive that one of them I didn’t even translate into simple English. It was something along the lines of like “just out of curiosity do Japanese people even feel anything about this” or “do they even know about the rest of the world” or something like that. It was awful. Maybe I’ve gotten sensitive, not from a living in Japan perspective, but a protective matronly one over my little brood of sweet little students. I’d keep them over what those students probably congratulated themselves on as “hard hitting journalism” or “getting to the truth” any day.

Thankfully the connection failed and we didn’t try again.

I remember thinking about this for a couple days afterward, like of course my role is to smooth transactions like this (and god knows how translators do it – I can imagine they must completely recreate sentiments in order not to offend either party) but also, how can I ever prepare my students for a world like that? Which brings me back to what I origionally got off topic with, like now, without any reason to be fierce, the unyielding nature of Japan seems to be wilting on the vine. No-one wants to leave, their international experiences are limited to a sightseeing trip on their honeymoons, (no shit I just did a lesson on the 7 wonders and my JTE told the class “maybe you can go there on your honeymoon.”) and they are so sweet and thoughtful that they will get chewed up and spat back into Japan, where they will complete the prevailing notion that the outside world is one place not worth putting yourself through.

I don’t have an answer for this. I can’t tell everyone to be nice to Asians. I can’t tell Japanese people to become coarser or take what they want from life with a sense of entitlement. All I can do is include in my lessons things like “people may yell at each other and sometimes at you in other countries. But they don’t mean it – it’s just how they communicate.” And I must hope that blanket statements like that in simple English will at least do –something to ease the transition. And also raise Samurai children with a ferocity behind their sweetness which can deal with anything.

Are we seeing Japan being “wasted by peace”? (See Ruskin, Bushido for full quote)

March 18th to 23rd, Sports, St Patty's and Sickness


Today I feel like a parent going along to my kids soccer games. It’s ball game day, so I’m snugged in a rug on a chair watching my girls play basketball and boys play baseball. The rug isn’t mine, one of the girls insisted I use it. I feel close, like I have actual connections and love here. Despite it being a rough month, I feel fine. You never know how good, how resilient you can be, until you are so for other people.

I spend the rest of the day up the top of the gym, chatting away to second year students. I have never taught these students, but because I clean the staff room with them (remember we all clean the school everyday) they feel comfortable gossiping with me. They ask me why I want to learn Japanese (many Japanese people assume their language is so difficult that they are astounded that you would even try) and when I say I want to make more Japanese friends, they all point at each other and holler “Japanese friend! Japanese friend!”

We share some Pocky (chocolate pretzel sticks that are everywhere in Japan.) and Rina, who I have Kendo with, introduces me to some other students as a “very important member of Kendo club.” I’m stoked just to be considered a member.

It’s sometimes hard to walk the line of my role here, because the students sometimes tell me what they think of other teachers. I want to be casual and it would be fine in NZ, but I don’t want to be unprofessional by these standards. Even if I secretly agree with them. -I’ve said it before but these kids are much more observant and perceptive than we give them credit for.


Went to the St. Patty’s party in Miyakonojo. Travelled with Julian and Naho, so we stopped for lunch/afternoon tea at a fantastic burger place. One GIANT burger later, (sorry to talk so much about food but good burgers are rare) we went to the venue, only to be met with platters of MORE food. Not to worry. It was green so it didn’t count.

A somewhat chill night dancing slightly outrageously, laughing somewhat uproariously, and a three person spoon in a hotel room. *Note for parents – a “spoon” is a sideways snug line of people - from 2 to infinity. And no you cannot get pregnant from it.


In my notes I have only “awesome lunch” so I can assume it was awesome, but cannot tell you why. Sorry. A lovely van ride homeward with Micah and Matt that makes me think of home and friendship ships. Unfortunately hangovers do not make me quiet so much as giddy with my continued existence, so every grateful drop out of consciousness on their part was probably met with a “so what do you guys think of harnesses for rabbits?” or something of equal gravity.

We now also have plans to visit one another’s countries. Yatta!

Got back to Nichinan, and was expected one stop further south so didn’t even get off the train, just carried on down. Met everyone at a bar for Shin’s birthday, where we heard his and Miyuki’s huge news of marriage and babies! Had a drink but was having trouble breathing so I floundered for a kid’s amusement (he was held by Holly and threw stuff at me while I pretended I was dying – pretty good at that) for awhile and then took my leave.


SICK. So sick. My fever is 39C and so persistent that I thought that someone had been using my butter. In my apartment. I live alone?

Had to keep stopping for rests while just generally looking after myself, I even fell asleep while I was hanging my own washing. Don’t remember much else from this day.


Feeling much better? Am I really this robust? There was a time not so long ago where a common cold would have me laid up for two weeks. I guess there is something to this “fitness” thing, after all.

Went out for a drink with the English department, to welcome our new teacher. He seems super nice which is cool. A little bit terrified of talking to me but who isn’t in the beginning? Still not feeling the greatest, and it’s hard to keep in a conversation when you only understand about 10% of it. Can’t complain, because I am the visitor, so I should be the one making an effort in the home language. Still, there was a lot of incoherent nodding and laughing when other people did, and eating so as to avoid looking like a piece of furniture.