Little things

Never listen to my predictions of what post is next, I can’t plan my life like that. I’m not going to talk about special events. I’m going to just make a list of little tiny daily moments that I love.

The second-year from the rowdiest class who, while cleaning the board after a particularly uncooperative class period, quietly asked “Do you have another class after this?” and when I said yes, told me “Ganbatte kudasai.” (“Please do your best”, but almost with a connotation of “have strength”.)

The girl from the special needs class who opened up to me when I complimented her haircut, and the way she waves at me every time she sees me now and gets a huge smile on her face when I wave back.

The problem boy of the rowdy class, who follows me during break asking for my iPod–going so far as to use three different English phrasings in addition to Japanese–because I let him play a game on it once, but groans and accepts it when I tell him I need it as a dictionary.

The bright-faced third-year who almost leans forward in his seat when I’m talking and always knows the answer.

The first-year who shyly asked me to check his paper while giving a disclaimer about the sentence he thought was probably totally wrong, and then apologized quietly when I spelled out words for him.

The lunch lady, who commends me excitedly for finishing my lunch ever since I asked for smaller portions when I got here, and sometimes slips me lunch leftovers to take home.

The school nurse who gave me some of the persimmons she had just bought because I had never tried them before.

The elementary kids who ran up to me in the bookstore to see what I was buying and to show me their haul.

The fifth grader who’s so enchanted by English that he sighed “how cool” when his teacher said my friends and I sit around just speaking English to each other because it’s our language.

The way the class had to think for a minute about the teacher’s statement that, to me, they’re the foreigners.

The other fifth grader who, instead of staring at the textbook while we go through the alphabet, watches and copies my ASL finger spelling with a fascinated half-smile on his face.

The sixth graders who seemed uninterested during class but then decided to count to 60 in English and recite the alphabet at lunch just because I was there.

The way junior highers slur the syllables of their names when they introduce themselves at the office door.

The chorus of elementary schoolers yelling goodbye from the hallway when they leave school.

The pastor’s wife, who talks to me like I’ve always been her friend instead of like I’m a foreigner who can’t speak her language.

The church pianist with four kids who thanks me for taking the trouble to hold her baby, when in fact that’s my favorite part of Sunday.

The way the lady at the burger joint recognizes my little study group and says “for here, right?” when we order.

The sudden appearance of almost-native phrasing or pronunciation; all the effort students have made to get to where they are with the language, whether 7th grade or 70 years old; and just the sound of English, even so accented that I know my friends wouldn’t recognize it, coming from the mouths of people who are trying their best to communicate.

Looks like I lied again–they aren’t even moments so much as people. Oops. That’s how teaching is, I guess. Or that’s how life is. I don’t think I can be a teacher forever, but while it lasts I’m going to soak up as much of these moments (people?) as I can.

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Settling in

It’s been three months since I got to Japan–two since I started teaching–and I think the routine has pretty much become routine.

As you may remember, I go to three schools a week. At my junior high, I arrive at school and sit at my desk until the English teachers decide which classes they want me to go to. They may or may not tell me ahead of time (“ahead of time” meaning “the day of, but before someone stops and my desk and says ‘let’s go'”), and I rarely have to prepare anything. I’m mostly there to pronounce things and help with English questions the students have.

At my elementary schools, things are a bit different. I teach 5th and 6th grade every week, and 3rd and 4th once a month or less. At both of my schools the 5th grade teachers plan the lessons from the textbook, and I help out by planning a game or by just being part of the lesson. My 6th grade teachers, on the other hand, leave the entire class to me. This freaked me out a great deal at first, and I still hyperventilate a bit before lessons, but I’m getting the hang of it. I’ve found some helpful websites, and so far I’ve managed to correctly estimate how much I can fit into a class period. And since the textbook is the same at both schools, I only have to plan the lesson once (with minor adjustments for class size).

The lower grades are more of a case-by-case thing since they don’t have a textbook. One teacher plans and teaches the lesson himself; one follows that same plan but depends on me to remember how it was done; one tells me what topic he wants to cover and then leaves it all up to me; and one says “What are you teaching today?” So that’s a little less structured than I prefer, but we haven’t had a total disaster yet.

then there's kindergarten, where we play in recycled-trash forts
then there’s kindergarten, where we play in recycled-trash forts

After school, I have my evenings free… to some extent. Tuesday nights are Japanese class with a few other ALTs–a local English-speaking man takes time out of his week to teach us. Wednesday nights (two a month) are eikaiwa, where I help teach beginning English for an hour and then participate in advanced English discussion for another hour. Thursdays are a little more relaxed: I meet with three women at the local burger joint, and we eat together and read English news articles. Some interesting things come up on Thursdays–like last week’s “But the harsh reality… makes that optimism questionable, if not naive.” I had never considered that grammatical construction before… and coupled with four unfamiliar words, it was a mental stretch for all of us. We may or may not have conquered it in the end. And of course, Sundays are church. (And I’ve become the orchestra for the Christmas choir number.)

Anyway, like I said, settling in. I’ve obtained a point card at the grocery store in my neighborhood; I got my car inspected without having to call my supervisor; my kids notice when I don’t wear my glasses. It’s going well. Maybe next time I’ll tell you about special school activities that cause me to work on Saturdays. (Don’t worry, then I get Monday off.) Until then, let me be a reminder to you that apparently even the most impossible things can become doable if you give them time. 😀

A birthday away… and church

I kind of expected, having come alone to a foreign country, that my birthday would go largely unnoticed. Thus I myself mostly forgot about it as well. I was excited to have a series of national holidays starting on my birthday that would let me travel for almost a week, but I didn’t expect any special treatment.

Well. Wrong expectation.

My birthday was on Saturday. On Thursday, my fifth grade students stood up to give the beginning-of-class greeting… but instead they started singing. Happy Birthday. In English. I initially thought, “Oh man, they think it’s my birthday. I won’t tell them it’s not for another few months.” Then I realized my birthday was in fact two days away and they were not mistaken. And then several of the kids gave me handmade cards with messages inside from everyone. (I almost died of cuteness.)

the aforementioned cards
the aforementioned cards

On Friday afternoon I traveled down to a friend’s place in the Tokyo area. She, of course, knew it was my birthday, and made me an actual–and very delicious–cake. (I didn’t expect to get that here in Japan.)

see this lovely cake?
see this lovely cake?

When I got back to my island, one of my co-teachers pulled me aside and gave me a birthday gift in the office.

And a week after the fact, I got a text from my neighbor ALT asking if I wanted to come down to watch something and go out for donuts. It was kind of dark in her apartment. I found out why when I stepped into her room and poppers exploded around me and I saw the other ALTs sitting there wearing party hats and holding a donut with candles in it. So yeah, I had a surprise party and then got to go to karaoke with everyone for free.

So that was my birthday. But going back to the travel thing, let’s talk about church. (I know, you didn’t realize the travel involved church. Well it did.)

The friend I visited took me with her on a church retreat in the mountains. For me, more than the scenery it was the people that made it relaxing. Moving to Japan has been my first time not being surrounded by friends with the same foundational beliefs. And it’s not that I dislike having the other perspectives; but I haven’t been able to naturally settle into a long discussion of real things with a like-minded person in a while. So that was my favorite part of that.

the onsen and my favorite song, both from the retreat
the onsen (women’s side) and my favorite japanese hymn, both from the retreat

The other church news is, I found a church. 😀 The first church I visited on the island (yeah, I was surprised that there’s more than one too) confused me. I didn’t want to go back but decided that I would if there were no other options. The second church, though, had a service with an identifiably biblical message, and the people welcomed me cheerfully. They’ve remembered my name. And I’m to the point where I’m actually disappointed that I won’t be with them next week when I head to Tokyo again. So that’s an answer to prayer–and I think a good place to end this super-long blog post.

Mona becomes a teacher

Wednesday, August 26, was the first day of school.

Kids were around during the summer doing club activities and such, but there were of course no classes, and I was only interacting with other teachers. But Wednesday. Wednesday there were children walking down the street as I drove to school, and girls in pleated skirts and knee socks ascending the hill as I arrived, and voices in the hallway as I put on my inside shoes.

students!
students! (also look how beautifully situated this school is.)

I gave a short speech (in Japanese) at the opening ceremony, and was given a short speech (in English) by a student in return. And then was my first lesson.

Now, for those of you who were wondering about last post’s things-have-changed-so-we’re-winging-it moment, allow me to explain. My JTE and I had planned to use a TV to show photos while I introduced myself–we even practiced the process ahead of time. However, when class time came, the TV room was locked and the key was MIA. So I switched up my plan as I walked into class, and drew some fetching chalk pictures on the board instead. (Family, you look great as stick figures.) And, in case you thought my nickname was an American phenomenon, even some of my Japanese kids heard my name as Mona Lisa.

It turns out the chalkboard thing was good practice. Neither of my elementary schools was prepared to use technology to introduce me, so out of the seventeen times I’ve introduced myself to a class, over half of them have involved chalkboard drawings. Now, though, I’ve mostly moved on to actual classes–which are more of a challenge. Elementary teachers here aren’t trained to teach English. As a result, many of them would prefer to leave the entire class to me… who am not trained to teach at all. But everyone has been willing to help when I expressed uncertainty, and I think I may be getting the hang of things.

The teachers have been great–talking to me in the office, showing me around, and even calling another school to make sure I’ll have lunch the next day. But of course, the best part is the kids. I’m having to get used to hearing “sensei” attached to all three of my names (and responding to all of them), but I love it. I have elementary kids who grab my hand in the hallway and junior highers who call out that I’m cute as I walk by (in English no less). I’ve had height contests, played tag, and run a relay with students, and at my elementary schools I eat lunch with them every day too. And I’m starting to feel the burden of loving too many people to ever be able to personally know them all.

In conclusion, my usual day: Arrive at school by 8:30. Teach (assist with) maybe one or maybe four classes, quite possibly all in a row. Spend most rest hours sitting in the office planning lessons or recording events. Go home sometime after 4:00 and fail to go to bed early enough to avoid nodding off the next day. Repeat.

So yep. I’m on my way to becoming a teacher. And now that I’ve experienced it… well, there’s a chance it could get lodged in my heart somewhere.

A girl walks into a new school–what happens next will surprise you!

I thought I’d take advantage of the sensational-title-with-average-content trend. There’s really nothing surprising in this post.

Two weeks ago I visited my base school (junior high) for the first time, to meet the teachers and see where things were and such. Though I was quite dashing in my suit, I did not feel confident. But there was a colorful welcome note on my desk and lockers, and my teachers crowded around during the tour to talk to me, and they told me I could start work immediately if I was free—though at that point we still had a week of island activities planned. So I was overwhelmed, but also flattered when I compared this reception to my neighbor’s rather sleepy welcome (where her locker was still labeled with someone else’s name).

yay school. you can see the ocean from this parking lot.
yay school. you can see the ocean from this parking lot.

Despite all this, I spent the night before my first official day at school questioning all my life choices. After all, teaching is one of the more terrifying jobs I can think of. And not knowing what I’m doing is one of the more stressful feelings for me. So, combine the two . . . (There was also the small matter of having found a baby mukade in a friend’s apartment that may or may not have added to my trouble sleeping.)

But I got up Monday morning and drove to school. And you know what? It wasn’t bad. I arrived early just to be safe, and I stayed late just to be safe, and I attended a two-hour staff meeting in Japanese, and I enjoyed being there. I received my first omiyage (food gifts from coworkers’ vacations) and gave out my own (Tootsie Rolls . . .). And I ventured into the hall and was greeted by a group of students for the first time—in English. Turns out that’s really all the motivation I need. It’s the kids this is all about, after all.

the teachers' room during summer break
the teachers’ room during summer break

Besides the base school stuff, I met the teachers at both my elementary schools, met the leaders of my eikaiwa (English conversation class, if you don’t remember), and by a happy scheduling accident found out where my kindergarten is a month before I was supposed to. And now I’m excited about . . . well, almost everything.

You’ll get to hear about the actual job next post—because today I taught my first lesson (and had my first things-have-changed-so-we’re-winging-it moment), and tomorrow and Friday are my first official days at my elementary schools. I’ll group them all together for you next time. Wait for it!

Island dweller

Two weeks ago, I boarded a bullet train in Tokyo, met my supervisor in Niigata, and took a ferry to my island home. Here are two things you should know about Sado in the summer. One: It’s hot. And no one here knows what I look like with straight hair, because it’s super-humid too. Two: It’s beautiful. If this whole thing were based solely on the appearance of my environment, I’d live here forever.

my gorgeous island
my gorgeous island

Life has been a whirlwind ever since we got here. When we stepped off the ferry, we walked straight to the Board of Education to pick up our luggage and fill out paperwork. After that it was a quick stop at our apartments–for more paperwork. In fact, the entire week was filled with paperwork and trips around to furnish apartments and get bank accounts, phones (I have no idea what I signed up for, to be honest), and cars. Not to mention evening dance practices so we would look good in the local festival parade as city employees.

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my spacious room

Speaking of the festival, you should have seen us. We foreigners danced the Sado Okesa and the Ryotsu Jinku quite beautifully in our borrowed yukata. And I survived possibly the tightest obi ever–I imagine that’s what a corset would be like too, digging into my hips just slightly with no room for my ribs to expand when I tried to breathe. And we were out there dancing down the summer evening street for two hours. But don’t get me wrong, it was worth it. And anyway, I’m getting used to the feeling of a nearly perpetual sheen of sweat.

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my dance debut

Last week, I drove in Japan for the first time. And aside from a minor incident with a bush when I reached my destination (when my supervisor wasn’t looking, thank goodness), it was all good. (For those of you who don’t know, Japan drives on the left side of the road.) I think I’m used to it now, though I still have to learn the roads. Luckily, this is Sado, so there aren’t too many roads to learn.

my car :D
my darling car

For this post, I’ll end with mentioning the people I’ve spent nearly every waking moment with (and a lot of sleeping moments too). There are ten of us ALTs on the island, I believe. I’ve probably met them all now, and I think I’m going to enjoy hanging out. Three of us are new this year–we and our RA (regional advisor) especially have been together A LOT. She’s let us stay over at her house as often as not, in addition to driving us literally everywhere we went before we got our cars. Even now that we all have vehicles, we’re with her pretty much all day every day. I’m hoping next weekend I’ll finally have a chance to check out a church on the island; but in the meantime I haven’t been lacking in community.

The next post could either be about Sado tourism or about my actual job at schools. So . . . look forward to it! And don’t let the uncertainty of what I’ll write next keep you up at night–I promise it will involve the island!

Status: resident of Japan

Well, everybody, lots to catch up on. I ate out with and said goodbye to everyone under the sun, went to my last church service and last lifegroup, and drove down to Atlanta with my mother (again). I attended a pre-departure meeting and buffet, hung out with other Atlanta JETs in the hotel hallway halfway through the night, and carted four pieces of luggage to the airport. I endured a fourteen-hour flight, made it to the hotel, and met a Japan team friend in the lobby. I’ve been through two long days of meetings, suits, and new people. And tomorrow I head to my new home.

So, here are some things.

One: Before I left, my lifegroup took the time to each pray for me out loud. I don’t have the right words to say how I feel about that except maybe honored, which doesn’t exactly cover it. Also, lifegroupers (lifegroupies?), I recorded most of y’all so I can have you with me here and be reminded that God’s got this, so don’t be too creeped out by that.

Two: Check out this swanky hotel though. There are like 1100 JETs here right now, and apparently this is the only hotel here that can handle all of us and our conferences.

a small part of the lobby and some light fixtures
a small part of the lobby and some light fixtures
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two halves of this huge room–opening ceremony and welcome reception

Three: It’s been very interesting to see, for the first time, what it’s like to hang out with people who aren’t from the same background as me. They’re a great group–thinkers, kind, driven. We’re all around the same age and share a lot of interests, and I’ve been amazed at how quickly we Atlanta JETs latched on to each other as “our people” in a sea of new faces. But we don’t share the same foundation, and that’s really affected how I think about the possibilities of close relationships with them. And on a less spiritual note, I’ve met people from South Africa, Ireland, and Australia here where we’re all foreigners, and . . . it’s hard to describe. I thought I was so culturally sensitive or whatever before I left the States, but now it’s like my world is opening up. The American way of doing things might not be the absolute right way after all! Not that I ever consciously thought it was, but I guess in America I expect that you’ll do things the American way even if it’s weird to you. Here, though, I’m a foreigner too. And when everyone’s a foreigner, everyone’s custom has basically equal weight (or lack thereof). Also, accents are cool.

Four: My occupation is now “instructor” instead of “editor”. It’s going to take a long time to get used to that. (And speaking of editors, yes, I put the punctuation outside the quotation marks on purpose. It’s a personal style choice.)

In conclusion, I have just moved to Japan. It keeps hitting me like, “yes, I think you did just do that”–especially when I look at my RESIDENCE CARD. (I’m very excited about that card.) Tomorrow morning I head out with the rest of my prefecture to my new home. I don’t know the wifi situation at my apartment, so you might not hear from me for a few days. (Or, heaven forbid, a few weeks. But you’re probably used to that–I know I don’t update very often.) But I’m sure the next update will be even more exciting! Or, at least, the events that prompt it will have been. No promises on the writing style. Until then, this has been a new foreigner! Over and out!