Monday, June 23, 2014

8- and 9-Month Recap

The biggest news of the 8-and 9-month update is that my family visited for Golden Week! A friend drove me to the airport (thanks, Minori!) to get them right after work on a Saturday night. The trip from Grand Rapids to Nagoya is brutal, taking about 18-20 straight hours of travelling, and they were so tired they barely made it back to the apartment. Of course, thanks to the wonder of jet lag, I woke up at 6am the next day to find them eating Goldfish and Snickers in my bed. That first day was mostly a recovery day for them, so I just showed them the mundane everyday places around my neighborhood—they can now say they’ve seen a Japanese Wal*Mart—and introduced them to Japanese-style curry. For dinner, I took them to a Chinese restaurant that is practically my second home for gyoza (potstickers), ninikuchahan (garlic fried rice), and tontonmen (a kind of thick, spicy ramen).

I had planned to take them into the mountains to a beautiful sightseeing spot on Monday, but it rained and we decided not to go. After showing them around my school, my boss took us out for okonomiyaki (a kind of giant Japanese pancake loaded with veggies, meat, and pretty much anything else you can dream up). We were seated around a giant griddle and opted to cook our own (read: I made them try). I had had it before, but my mom and sister got to try it for the first time and liked it. The jet lag was hitting them hard again by the time we finished lunch and, after a nap break that went a bit long, we ended up just spending the evening around Midori. I took them to a secondhand store I enjoy and, because they were too tired for the karaoke plans we had with some friends, I introduced them to the wonder of conbini (convenience store) crunchy chicken.

On Tuesday, we hopped on the train (for the first time!) to do some actual sightseeing. The train ride to Inuyama is over an hour from Midori, but it was well worth it to show them one of the few original castles left in Japan. As a bonus, there were still some sakura lingering on the trees in the castle yard! On the way back to Midori, we stopped in Sakae and had tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) in the station.

Wednesday was supposed to be a very long, very busy sightseeing daytrip to Kyoto. Originally, we had planned to take a very early bus to Kyoto, sightsee all day, and then take a night bus back. By the time we hit Tuesday evening, we were all willing to shell out extra money for the Shinkansen (bullet train). I had actually never ridden the Shinkansen before either, and now I never want to travel any other way! Though it was expensive (about $60 each way, compared with $40 roundtrip on the bus), it was quiet, comfortable, relaxing, and oh-so-speedy. Upon reaching Kyoto, we set off to our first destination on foot, realized the city was big, and caught the subway back to Kyoto Station to have lunch (mom tried omurice!) and regroup.

Because I had never been to Kyoto before, I wasn’t much help in figuring out the best way to get around. We ended up buying all-day subway/bus passes, but it took so long to get everywhere that we weren’t able to do a lot (in terms of which city has subway stops near major sightseeing spots, Nagoya: 1, Kyoto: 0). We finally made it to Kinkakuji Temple, one of the most recognizable places in Japan for obvious reasons:

It was rather late in the afternoon by the time we hit a couple smaller temples and made it to Higashiyama, a preserved Samurai district in downtown Kyoto. It was really interesting to stroll around the cobblestone streets and literally walk through history, and I’m glad we made that spot a priority.

Getting back to Nagoya was a debacle from start to finish. The bus station map was all in Japanese, so we took a very long trek to the nearest subway station rather than risk it. The train lines at that station wouldn’t take our passes, so we finally boarded a different, very hot and slow-moving bus, not at all sure it was headed in the right direction (thankfully, it was). We got back on the Shinkansen and to Nagoya Station without incident, then somehow found ourselves still inside the train platform after scanning our tickets to get out and walking through some turnstiles. I got stuck with trying to explain that to the ticket man in Japanese and got as far as “we came from Kyoto, Sakura-dori” before tapping out. He finally took pity on us and let us through in spite of my abysmal attempts at telling him why he should.

On Thursday, we finally made it to sushi! I gorged on raw salmon while my family enjoyed vegetable rolls, karaage (fried chicken), and shrimp tempura (breaded and fried shrimp). I got them to try takoyaki (octopus bites in fried dough), but they both drew the line at anything raw. Next year… When we were finishing our meal, one of the staffers came over to chat with us. She asked about us and told us we were beautiful and that our mom couldn’t possibly be old enough to be our mom. For my part, it was a relief just to have a conversation that I (mostly) understood.

We souvenir shopped for most of Thursday, then took a quick taiko drumming break before hitting a Denny’s-like family restaurant for dinner (my sister was jonesing for American food). My mom took a video of me ordering in Japanese to show my grandparents. I'm sure they're very proud of my ability to say "tomato sauce spaghetti" with a Japanese accent.

On Friday, a good friend took over the host responsibilities and gave us an in-depth tour of Atsuta, one of the most important Shinto shrines in the world. It wasn’t as jaw-droppingly beautiful as I remembered, but it was still nice to get away from the city and escape into the woods for a while. We stopped by the tea house in Atsuta to drink matcha (green tea’s older, cooler brother), eat omochi (a chewy sweet made from sweet rice flour), and throw food to the koi fish in the tea house’s pond.  We visited Shirotori Garden, a lovely Japanese garden, and then had a lunch of udon (wide, flat noodles in broth). After that, we went to the Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium. We got there just in time for orca training, which reminded me of Seaworld, then wandered around for a while until it was time for the live dolphin performance in an outdoor arena. It was really cool! The dolphins were really well-trained and put on a great show.

We hit a big mall for souvenir shopping after the aquarium and then ate shabu shabu (double-sided Japanese fondue with vegetables, noodles, dumplings, and strips of meat sliced even more thinly that bacon). In one side of our divided pot, we decided to have sukiyaki, a traditional Japanese soup/stew with a base of soy sauce, sugar, and mirin (a kind of rice wine that’s used a LOT as a condiment here). I’d actually never had sukiyaki before either, and it was so good! Traditionally, you dip everything that comes out of that pot in raw beaten egg before eating, but my family wasn’t brave enough to try that. I did and instantly fell more in love with Japanese food.

Because my sister loves zoos and we’d been planning to visit one together for ages, we went to the Higashiyama Zoo on Saturday morning. It was both a weekend AND a holiday, and the place was PACKED. While we were queuing up for tickets, we ran into one of my students! He’s the youngest student I have—a very sweet 3-year old—and because I’d only had him for two classes before vacation, he didn’t really recognize me. His mother brought him over and said hello, though, and it was nice that my family got to meet at least one of my students.

Once we got inside, the zoo was a bit of a disappointment. Aside from being packed with people on an already hot day, it was a bit depressing. The cages were quite small and the animals looked even more sad and bored than the ones in zoos in Michigan. My sister was hoping for some unusual animals, but it was pretty much the standard fare. A little disheartened and worried we’d miss our next stop, we left after only a short time.

Luckily, our next stop at Nagoya Castle was better. An old man spotted us as we were getting off the train and was very insistent on showing us the way to the castle. He tried to talk to us as we walked, but he spoke very quick Japanese and I didn’t get most of it. When we got inside the castle grounds, we found him waiting for us next to an English-speaking guide. Though we had planned to show ourselves around, our guide was very nice and enthusiastic about the castle, and it was nice to be told some of the history that we couldn’t read off the signs.

Our first stop was seeing the Omotenashi Bushotai (samurai greeters) perform. This is a group of six men who portray important samurai from Japanese history—three great leaders and unifiers, three great soldiers. As it turned out, their performance was more for kids than adults—in a lot of ways, it reminded me of the renaissance faire—but it was still fun to watch. Standing around afterward, we accidentally found ourselves in line to take a photo with Maeda Keiji, who welcomed us in English and wished us a good day. Keiji is perhaps the least important of the six but is clearly the most photogenic.

The real Nagoya Castle was destroyed by American firebombing during World War II, and the reconstruction of it is largely a museum. Reading over the castle’s history and looking at old photographs of it ablaze was very uncomfortable for me. Even though everyone was perfectly nice, I felt like I shouldn’t be there, that it was wrong for me to share in this history that my countrymen had destroyed. It was also uncomfortably packed inside the castle, and I was happy to get back out onto the grounds.

On Sunday morning, it was time to say goodbye. True to form, we hit all the trains wrong and ended up taking two hours to get to the airport. It was easier to say goodbye this time, perhaps because I’ve now seen how easy it is to traverse the distance between us when I want to.

Though it was great being able to see my family, the vacation turned out to be a lot more stressful than I thought it would be. I’m not used to being the best Japanese speaker in any given group of people, so being in charge of all the navigating and communicating left me mentally exhausted most of the week. By the end of our long day in Kyoto, I hit a bus schedule that was only in Japanese and just wanted to cry. Because of jet lag, close quarters, and keeping strange hours, we were all very tired and a bit on edge most of the week. However, at the end of the day, I’m glad I got to show my family a little bit of my life here. Even those stressful days of forcing myself out of my comfort zone had the benefit of improving my Japanese by leaps and bounds. All in all, it was a very successful visit.

My family flew out in the early afternoon on Sunday, so I was a bit at a loss for what to do with myself for the rest of the day. I got on the train and found myself near City Hall. Our plans to visit the city archives had fallen through because of time constraints, so I spent the afternoon wandering around the old city hall, drinking in the history. Though there were more pictures of World War II destruction in some rooms, it was still a mostly positive experience. In one wing, I stumbled upon an art show completely by accident and ended up chatting with the six artists. One of them spoke some basic English, and together we were able to cobble together a short, fairly coherent conversation. They asked me about myself and told me I was charming—which I’m always pleased to hear—and expressed their gratitude that I had stopped in. Though I had actually already wandered through the whole display before the last artist called the others over to speak to me, I took my time going back through each room and asked questions as best I could. I’m not a huge art fan, but the pieces were lovely and the artists lovelier still.

After the archives, I walked the few blocks back to the castle and saw the samurai show again. Two of the three samurai were different this time around, but the show was essentially the same. After waiting in the shade for a while after the show, I stepped into the sun to join the photo line. The women at the end of the line tried to tell me something I didn’t understand, and they eventually very clandestinely let me in the line. I figured out later that they were trying to tell me the line was closed, and it’s still embarrassing to me that I unwittingly pulled the stupid foreigner card. I ended up taking a photo with Kato Kiyomasa, an important soldier and one of the chief architects of Nagoya Castle. He didn’t say much to me in any language, but looked at our picture together and declared it absolutely perfect.

The first Sunday after vacation was a school outing with our students. We met early in the morning and took a bus to go strawberry picking. As we entered the greenhouse, we were each given a small plastic tray for our stems and a small cup of condensed milk for dipping. This struck me as strange, but it was really good! Unlike fruit picking in Michigan, we were paying only for a set time eating strawberries in the greenhouse; we didn’t take any home with us.

After strawberry picking, we went to a park to have lunch and play. I spent most of the afternoon going down giant slides with two of my sweetest little girls and eating candy that other students insisted on giving me. Some of the upper elementary boys cornered the teachers one by and one and made them go down the giant slide backwards with them. I said no for a long time—they weren’t even my students!—but finally caved. It was terrifying but exhilarating and, though it was hot, it was a wonderful day.

A couple weeks ago, I went to a seaside barbecue with some friends. We paid a set price to get into a huge tent by the ocean and got a table next to our own cooking fire. There was a big buffet with every kind of raw seafood imaginable, some raw chicken and beef, and lots of other things you wouldn’t think to put on skewers outside of Japan. I actually ate a whole miniature squid! It was delicious. The weather was in the 90s that day, and with the heat from all the fires it felt like a furnace. Despite that, it was a great day.

I ate the tentacles.
Some random fun moments from the last couple months:
*After repeatedly saying “No Japanese” in an advanced beginner class of high school kids, one looked at me and said, in perfect English, “You need to study Japanese.”
*I put my bike in the subway parking and was able to pay and get it unlocked even though the machine was only in Japanese. Lest this victory go to my head, I later couldn’t figure out how to get my bike out of the mall parking until a nice man took pity on me and helped me out.
*I discovered a 5-floor fabric store only 20 minutes from my apartment. Pray for my soul. On the bright side, I managed to buy fabric while negotiating measurements in simultaneous metric AND Japanese.
*I went back to the castle for a visit, and an old man asked to take my picture. Foreigner.
*I cut bangs and then creeped on all the women on the subway to check out theirs.
*I’m friends with a woman who works in the information booth at the castle. Last time I was there, she asked me to proofread the English translation for a new display! She apologized for taking up my time, but I loved doing it, and I’m so excited to see the new display now.
*My subway card stopped working quite a while ago and I finally had a friend help me get it fixed. It turns out the problem was that I had scanned it going into a station back in February but never scanned it on the way out (I still have no idea how that’s possible). Because I couldn’t remember where I had gone that day (I can’t remember where I went last week), they weren’t sure how much to charge me and kept calling in reinforcements until five station employees were there discussing this serious issue. They eventually came to a consensus and solemnly charged me… 100 yen (c. $1).
*That same night, after clubbing with friends, we caught last train home. Last train on a Saturday night= being packed in like sardines in a can. I wanted to take a picture as proof but literally couldn’t get my arm free to raise it up, much less dig something out of my purse.

I’ve now been in Japan a little over 9 months. I could have grown a baby in this time! (So glad I didn’t!) I’m still enjoying my life here very much, and I’m planning to stay for a second year.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

7-Month Recap

I’ve been in Japan a little over seven months now, and it still seems like the time is flying. New classes have finally started settling down, which is really nice, and the weather has been beautiful the last few weeks. I’ve gotten used to a lot of things about Japan, but it always manages to surprise me just when I think I’m getting comfortable. Case in point:

After working late, one of the new teachers and I grabbed dinner together at a favorite little neighborhood restaurant. We were the only ones there save a table of two couples. The other table was drinking, and it wasn’t long before one of the women came over to talk to us. I was surprised by how much of her Japanese I understood, and her slightly more sober companions were able to translate some of the more difficult phrases. They were a lot of fun to talk to and they bought us karaage (Japanese fried chicken), which was incredibly nice. The woman told my friend he was handsome, told me I was cute, told us we were skilled at using chopsticks, and asked us questions about how long we had been in Japan and what we thought so far. The owner apologized to us after they left, but it hadn’t been a bother at all. I felt like a rock star.

A few weeks ago, I spent all day out in Sakae for a friend’s birthday. We had to wait a long time for a table at the little café we went to, but the food was well worth it. We wandered around for a bit after lunch and saw a temple, then went to karaoke. I had never been to karaoke during the day before (it is SO CHEAP!), nor had I ever had a karaoke room with a window, so it a new experience all around. After karaoke, we moved to a different café to chat and have tea. This café was in a fancy hotel that also happened to be hosting a wedding, and we got to watch the parade of guests leave. People get really dressed up for weddings in Japan; it was kind of like seeing a bunch of very stylish people going to prom. After tea, we hit a family restaurant for a quick dinner before going our separate ways. It was a nice relaxing girls’ day with friends both old and new.

That week, I had another rough day at work when I lost two more of my favorite students in the same day. I don’t think I will ever get used to saying goodbye to kids I’ve come to care so much about.

The big event of this month was cherry blossom season! Hanami (literally ‘flower viewing’ but usually used to mean cherry blossom viewing) is a HUGE event in Japan. The cherry blossom forecast is on the news. Stores everywhere stock the ubiquitous blue tarps used for hanami. Thousands upon thousands of people crowd into parks all over the country to sit under the cherry blossoms, drinking and eating. It’s surreal in its all-consuming intensity but having lived through it now, I can understand it. People gather to celebrate the beauty and brevity of the sakura (cherry blossoms), which stay only a week or two before continuing their journey north.

Midori-ku, where I live, literally means “green ward,” and the city tries to play that up with lots of trees and parks every few blocks. They have never succeeded more thoroughly or beautifully in living up to their name than when normal spring flowers meet cherry blossoms. The cherry blossoms in my area were actually more white than pink, but they were still lovely. Try as I might, it was difficult to do justice to the rows upon rows of sakura everywhere with photographs.

A couple Sundays ago, a group of us headed to Tsurumai Park for proper hanami. I got there first and was a little overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the event. The park itself was beautiful, but filled with hundreds—if not thousands—of revelers, creating a sea of blue tarps that covered every available inch of ground near the sakura. There were individual entertainers working the crowds, a main stage with live music, and food booths selling everything from takoyaki to cotton candy to grilled corn on the cob. It was chilly even in the sun that day, and the entire crowd of revelers would hunker down closer to the ground when the wind blew. It got cold fast after the sun set, and we left just as the lanterns hung in among the sakura came on.

Hands-down the most exciting news of the moment is that Golden Week—a long string of Japanese holidays in a row—will be here soon, and with it my mom and sister! I have a little over a week of vacation, and I will be showing them around Nagoya, Osaka, and Kyoto. I’m unbelievably excited to see them, and I can’t wait to share my life here with them. It will be a wonderful way to begin my eighth month in Japan!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

6-Month Recap

This post has been written sitting--unposted--on my computer for over a month now. Oops :)

Happy 6-month Japanniversary to me! I can’t believe my first year here is already half over, but it also feels like I’ve been here forever. As a good friend of mine would say, my life is flying by! I had a chat with my boss a couple weeks ago and, as it stands now, I am planning to stay for a second year. Though I miss my family and friends (but NOT Michigan winter!), I’m not nearly finished with Japan yet.

As in my last entry, work has been so busy that I haven’t done much besides sit on my couch in my time off. Having new teachers in the office reinvigorated me, and I’ve been putting in extra time making games and worksheets, trying to make sure my classes are really perfect. Once I started making a concentrated effort to be more engaged and encouraging in all my classes, I saw an immediate difference. My first class of the week was more focused than they had been in months. After my second class, one of my young girls drew a picture of me on the board.

Nailed it.

I think the strangest part of getting new teachers was having them observe my classes for two consecutive weeks. I got off pretty light with only two classes observed, one of them being my class of 3-year-olds. I’ve mentioned before that even small changes really throw them off, and they’ve never had a male teacher, so I was quite worried about how they’d react to having a man in the class. They went a bit crazy, though thankfully not as much so as they could have. The little boy in that class who doesn’t handle change well was, predictably, extra clingy, but I considered it a small victory that he called me by name for the first time. At that moment, “Kasaleen Sensei” was the cutest thing I’d ever heard.

The other class he observed was an elementary-aged beginner class that is always really well-behaved, which was a relief. As it is a class of four girls, they were a little embarrassed at first at having a man in the class, but they got used to him quickly. They also did quite well with the lesson that week, and I was glad they were able to be so confident in front of a stranger. Needless to say, I was very proud of them. When they were speaking Japanese together after class, I heard them saying my predecessor’s name, which caught my attention because they hadn’t mentioned her in a long time. It occurred to me that the last time they had had an observer in the class—me—it meant their old teacher was leaving, so they assumed it was happening again. I pulled in one of the Japanese staff to talk with them and found I had correctly guessed their train of thought. I’ve always felt rather close to that particular class, and it was gratifying to be able to understand them without understanding their words.

Much as they had with me, my students warmed to the observing teacher by the second week. Even my 3-year-olds weren’t frenzied by his presence, and I was quite proud of them for behaving. I felt the change, too, insofar as I was more comfortable taking notes and giving feedback on the observer’s teaching in that second round of classes.

The weeks of observation also coincided with the last weeks of our school year, which meant a big changeover in classes. For me, this meant saying goodbye to many of my favorite students. When I nearly cried after one of my kindergarten students hugged me goodbye, I knew I was in for a rough week. Some of the goodbyes were difficult but manageable, while others made my heart ache so much that my chest actually hurt. I don’t know how teachers do this year after year. One boy—my favorite student, if I’m being honest—was bouncing around the lobby when I came to his last class, so excited to give me a goodbye present. He had a class all by himself, and our tradition was to wave at each other through the window as he got in the car to leave. Waving goodbye to him for the last time… Suffice it to say, I am a sentimental creature.

I was quite nervous as I faced the beginning of new classes. Though I had had new students join existing classes, I had never before started from scratch, and I worried about training new kids in classroom behavior. Happily, the first week went as well as could be hoped for. I have a lot of new beginner classes with young kids, which wears me out but I think will be good in the long run. Because multiple classes are in the same boat, I’m quickly getting a feel for what works best with kids of that age and skill level, and I already feel like I’m improving. After class last week, one of my little girls told her mom in Japanese that she really likes her teacher. It was awesome as much because I understood her as because it was sweet and encouraging.

Also in the vein of new experiences, I survived my first earthquake earlier this week! I use the term ‘survived’ lightly because, though it was a 6.3 magnitude quake—categorized as strong—it happened hundreds of miles away, giving Nagoya only a few small residual shakes. It is a testament to Japan’s earthquake preparedness that even in the quake’s epicenter, only about a dozen people were injured. I’ve mentioned before that Japanese buildings are built to withstand earthquakes and typhoons, which means they tend to sway and shake at the slightest provocation but sustain little damage. Because of this, I spent half of the 2 a.m. shakes trying to decide if it was an earthquake or if a large truck was going by.

The distance between the earthquake and me
It just happened that I shared my 6-month anniversary with a coworker’s birthday, so a bunch of us went out on the town. We ate copious amounts of amazing Mexican food (though, to be fair, it was possibly middling Mexican food and it has just been too long since I’ve had cheese to know the difference) and then went out dancing. This was only the second time I’ve been to a club since coming to Japan, and it was SO much better than my first experience! Though the music was a bit repetitive, the club was small and the atmosphere was great. Interesting side note: there were so many people just standing awkwardly around the outer rim of the dance floor that it reminded me of a junior high dance. There were a few Japanese guys out dancing with my male coworkers, but the other foreign women and I were easily the only girls breaking it down. We just threw caution to the wind and had a great time anyway. I will say that there were a few skeevy guys milling about, but they were much rarer and less obtrusive than the ones in the first club. We just danced away from them and continued enjoying ourselves.

After the club, a few of us ran across the street to eat gyūdon (rice bowl topped with simmered beef and onions). We decided what we wanted at the door and bought tickets from a vending machine, then handed them to the waiter and waited for our food. I had never had gyuudon before, and it was delicious! It was also a wonderfully cheap meal, coming out to less than $3. Seriously, SO good.

Random fun moments from the last month:
*The self-checkout computer at Seiyu froze and restarted itself before giving me my change. I showed the attendant the screen and then pointed to my receipt, and she immediately gave me the $60 change due. Though there wasn’t really a good alternative available to her, I still can’t believe how trusting Japan is sometimes.
*At lunch with another teacher, a woman just sat down and started talking to us in Japanese. We didn’t get all of it, but we know that she thinks we’re beautiful, she thinks it’s great we’re teachers, and she was irrationally excited that I liked miso katsu (fried pork cutlet). Never mind that my friend was eating raw fish—it’s the foreigner eating deep fried meat that warranted surprise. Later that week, at lunch with a different friend in the same restaurant, a man told us we were good at using chopsticks.
*After getting caught out in the snow, I taught a Japanese friend the “If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gumdrops” song. It was a personal victory when I got her to walk down the street singing “Ah ah aah ah aah ah aah” with me.
*A group of junior high boys yelled hello to me as we passed each other on the street the other day. We had a very enlightened conversation that went something like this:


This continued for a while, with each boy taking his turn practicing an English greeting. When they hit the other end of the street, one yelled, “Sorry. See you!” Ah, Japan.
*I went into work on one of my days off last week and—in a sudden staffing confusion—ended up interviewing someone! I’m not sure what kind of impression I left, as I was in my exercise clothes, had no makeup on, and hadn’t even brushed my hair.

All in all, it has been a very busy, rather emotional month. Saying goodbye to some of my students was difficult but, thankfully, I’m already growing rather fond of some of my new ones. Next week promises to be insanely busy, as we have 2-month plans due AND extra work. The tradeoff for that extra work, though, was getting next Saturday off, so we’ll have a 3-day weekend! I’m more than ready for a little break, so it’s worth what is sure to be a week of long days. Here’s hoping it slows down again soon!

In any event, I can’t believe I have been here six months already. I’m having the time of my life, and I’m excited for what the next six months will bring.

Monday, February 17, 2014

5-Month Update

Saturday marked my fifth month in Japan, and I can’t believe it has already been a month since my last update. Time is flying by! It has been a crazy busy month at work (more on that later), so I haven’t seen or done much. Nevertheless, here are a few firsts of the last month:

*I got my first ever visit from Jehovah’s witnesses! They were visiting a neighbor when I got home from work and came over to talk to me. To be honest, I didn’t really realize who they were until they left—one was a Japanese woman whose English was decent and one was a Peruvian woman whose English was nonexistent. Needless to say, we had some communication difficulties.
*I got called a gaijin (foreigner) for the first time (to my face). This was surprising mostly because, before I came, the internet told me it would happen all the time and it hasn’t. In this instance, it was pretty harmless. We were practicing “My name is” and “Your name is” in class, and a student said jokingly, “My name is Nihonjin [Japanese]. Your name is Gaikokujin [foreigner].”
* I had my first experience with a public restroom with no toilet paper (not that they were out of toilet paper—that you were supposed to bring your own). Again, the internet told me that this would happen all the time, but this was the first time. It struck me as funny that this happened not in a small local place but in Nagoya Station, a huge transportation hub.
*I experienced my first snow in Japan! I woke up to an excited text from one of the other teachers (a southerner for whom snow is a big deal) saying, “It’s a winter wonderland outside!” I didn’t feel the need to frolic about in it like she did, but some of my students were excited about it that day. It was more slush than proper snow, and despite sleeting on and off all day, it was gone the next morning. It has actually snowed one more time since then, and my boss canceled classes for the day! The other teacher from Michigan laughed when I couldn’t understand why they were canceled over an inch of snow.

*Bonus not-first-time experience: this week, a random old man walked up to me at Seiyu (read: Japanese walmart), told me I was beauty [sic], asked where I was from, told me America is a great country, thanked me, and walked away. I’ve had a number of these brief, one-sided interchanges. I seem to attract harmless old men with limited English skills.
*I made chocolate from scratch for the first time! Giving chocolates for Valentine’s Day is a big tradition in Japan, and I decided to take on the challenge of making homemade chocolates for my friends and students. Most of my evenings last week were spent testing different, often frustrating chocolate recipes, but I finally created one that was perfect. I was ridiculously proud of myself for it!

Dark chocolate coating with two layers of milk chocolate truffle inside

Last weekend, I finally made it to the local library, which was small, bright, and so quiet I barely dared to breathe. I worked in my local library for four years before moving to Japan, so I was actually a little emotional about going. This library lacked Putnam’s historical feel, squeaky floors, and the smell of old books, but I wandered the shelves for a few minutes and it felt like home. The books were organized by the Dewey Decimal System, and it was nice to see those numbers again and pull up my mental card catalog. My friend helped me sign up for a card, and I checked out two children’s picture books in Japanese, one of which I returned because it was too difficult.

I went back to the library today and browsed the children’s books again. I stuck my head into the kids’ playroom for a minute and forgot to take my shoes off. I thought the two little boys inside were telling me off for that, but my friend told me they were saying I could come in. I also discovered a whole shelf of picture books in English. I considered (but ultimately passed on) Winnie the Pooh, but I steered my friend to Paddington Bear when she asked for a recommendation. Meanwhile, I was psyched to find this for myself:

After the library, we took a long walk along a riverside path that I had never gotten around to exploring. The river itself wasn’t very nice, but the surrounding area was interesting. It was quite beautiful even in winter, so I can’t wait to see it when the cherry blossoms are out. My friend showed me her old junior high school, which was along this route. Some girls were running laps around the school and they yelled hello to me—in English—because that’s apparently what you do when you see a white person. When we were out walking today, the same thing happened with some high school boys.

February in Nagoya

Visiting the library was the most exciting thing I’ve done all month, mostly because it has been crazy busy at work. At the end of January, we had student progress reports and 2-month plans due on the same day. Lesson planning proved rather frustrating this time around, because a lot of my students have finished their textbooks but can’t start a new one until new classes start in March. I’ve been putting in a lot of extra time making review worksheets and tests, and I can tell they’re getting anxious to move forward. New classes also means we have to write reports for any students transferring to another teacher’s class. I’m losing quite a few of my favorite students in the changeover, which is proving really difficult. I’m constantly surprised by how attached I am to them.

With new classes comes the departure of three teachers from the school and the entrance of three new ones. The new teachers started their training period on Friday, which was our snow day, so it was quite an easy first day for them. For their welcome party on Saturday night, we went to the same restaurant where we’d had my welcome dinner and gorged ourselves. I ended up at a table with two of the new teachers, so it was nice getting a chance to chat with them and get to know them.

Surprisingly good potato ice cream. Note the Thomas spoon; I was the only one at my table to get one.

After dinner, some of the veteran teachers (yes, I am no longer the newbie!) introduced the new teachers to karaoke. It was by far the craziest karaoke experience I’ve had to date, and I actually ended up leaving early because it was so loud and crowded in our little room. Nevertheless, I feel like our new coworkers were properly welcomed and initiated into the craziness that is Japan.

It hit me earlier this week that it has been almost exactly a year since my JET interview. Only a year. I can’t believe it has been only a year, because it feels like so long ago, almost like a different person ago. My class of three year olds got a new classmate a couple weeks ago, which really threw them for a loop. One of them is quite sensitive to change, and he has taken to following me around the classroom, climbing into my lap, pulling me over to sit next to him, and constantly saying, “Sensei” in such a sweet, unsure way that it breaks my heart. It struck me this week how amazing it is that this sensitive little boy—who still needs his mom to be in the classroom—now trusts me enough that I’m his comfort. It is little moments of realization like that that completely rock my world and make me remember the magnitude of everything that has happened since that interview a year ago. I can’t believe that my life is what it is right now, but I wouldn’t take back a single moment of it. [/end sappiness]

Monday, January 20, 2014

4-Month Update

This past Wednesday marked my fourth month in Japan, which seems crazy. I’m a third of the way through my first year in Japan!

The biggest event that happened since the last update was Christmas, starting with the last week of classes before Christmas break. Because I am my mother’s daughter, I took the time to make homemade treats for my students and coworkers. I was quite pleased with the way they turned out—my boss said they looked like I bought them—and my students’ excitement was well worth the effort.

That being said, the last week of work before break was a bit rough. All of us—teachers and students alike—were ready for the holiday, so some of the students were quite unruly. In my class of three year-olds, one actually got stuck in her chair and I had to call in another staff member to help. I tried to keep teaching through it, but the other kids were too distracted and it was a bit of a debacle. However, as usual, there were enough good moments to outweigh the bad. One of my young girls spent part of class singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town. She could only sing that one line in English, and the rest was in Japanese, which was adorable. Perhaps the best moment came at the very end of my week when I was talking with the mother of one of my young boys. Her son had given me a homemade Christmas card and an eraser at the Christmas party, which was very sweet in and of itself. When I thanked her for the card, she told me he had gotten a shot at the doctor and had chosen that eraser for me as his treat instead of getting something for himself. It broke my heart in the best way possible, and I’ve been sure to use that eraser during his class every week since.

That night, the school staff went out for our Bōnenkai, a traditional end of the year party at which you forget the troubles of the past year and look forward to the new one. We ended up at a place where we cooked our own meat over a fire at the table, ate a delicious rice soup that I can’t remember the name of, and—as seems to be the staple of Japanese social gatherings—drank a lot. We had walked 45 minutes to get there, but we all ended up piling into cabs on the way home. Most of the others chose to stay out when we got back, but I was too exhausted to do anything but go home and sleep it off.

I spent the next day preparing for the best Christmas present I will ever pull off—flying home to surprise my family! I had been laying the groundwork for months, telling them I was going to Cambodia over Christmas with some other teachers, getting them to delay mailing my presents, making a big deal over how much I was regretting not going home now that Christmas was almost here. I was so excited to be pulling this off—and to be going home for Christmas!—that I barely slept that night.

The next day, December 23rd, I left my apartment just before 8 with a suitcase and a smile and got to the airport at 9:40. I actually ran into my neighbor—who was also on his way to the airport—on the train, and it was nice to have somebody bid me goodbye as I left Japan for the first time. I got through security—where I got to keep my shoes ON—and immigration without any problems and was sitting at my gate when the clock hit 10. I changed my money, bought some duty free matcha Omochi to supplement my lack of souvenirs, and settled in for the two hours until boarding. Funny story: because my visa is a single-entry visa, I had to fill out a form saying I intended to come back and get a stamp saying I was out of the country with special re-entry permission. It seriously said that.

I had a direct flight from Nagoya to Detroit, cutting my flights down from three to two, which was a godsend. That flight was so uneventful that the most exciting note I wrote for the whole 11 ½ hours was, “They actually served peanuts!” However, I did keep some notes about the little bits of culture shock I got on the plane, in Detroit, and back at home.

Things that felt weird coming home:
*There were more white people on that flight than I had seen in my entire three months in Japan combined
*Eating Japanese food on the plane without chopsticks (they didn’t give us any)
*Saying thank you to the flight attendants instead of arigato. Later, it took a conscious effort to say excuse me in English. It seems my default settings have changed.
*Taking off my mask in Detroit. I was sick and, following the Japanese custom, I had been wearing a mask. Strike one, America.
*American money looks funny.
*Attractive immigration agent saying, “Welcome back.” It was a nice sentiment accompanied by a very strange mix of emotions.
*Seeing my first snow of the season in Detroit. My note says, I AM IRRATIONALLY EXCITED ABOUT THIS.
*Just throwing things away instead of sorting them for recycling. The first thing I picked up to throw away was a candy bar wrapper, and I mentally told myself, “Burnables,” then had to stop and figure it out when I got to the kitchen and there was only one trash can.

My brother-in-law, one of only a handful of people who knew my plans, picked me up from my final destination, the same airport I had flown out of three months before. Being back, walking that same path I had left in reverse, was a little surreal. I got back the day after a terrible ice storm in Michigan, so the drive back to my house was a winter wonderland of snow and glittering ice everywhere. It was beautiful, but the downed trees and power lines showed that that beauty came with destruction.

Even though I had been traveling for 20 hours by the time I reached my house, I was wide awake with excitement. My brother was the first one to see me through the window, but my mom got to me first when I got in the door. Her excited, “What are you doing here?” as she got to me made the cost, the hours of travel, and the three months of planning totally worth it. My brother was less effusive in his excitement—boys—but I ditched him to eat Christmas cookies in the kitchen and all was well.

The aforementioned ice storm had left thousands upon thousands of people in west Michigan without power, us among them. Because of this, the first few days of my 8 ½ days home actually went quite slowly. Though I was disappointed that the Christmas tree wasn’t lit up and we couldn’t watch our usual Christmas movies, I did get to fulfill my wish of spending Christmas Eve curled up in front of the fireplace (which was pretty much what I did for the first day and a half I was there because Michigan is COLD, especially when there’s no heat). Between running to the coolers in the garage for food and melting snow so we could flush the toilets, I definitely feel like I got the full Michigan experience while I was home. Because of these unexpected delights, Christmas Day was spent at my sister’s house, where there was power. It wasn’t quite the Christmas I envisioned, but it was spent with my family, so it was wonderful nonetheless.

The power came back on the afternoon of December 26th, after which time my visit seemed to fly by. On Saturday, my siblings and I headed to the family Christmas for our dad’s side of the family, which conveniently landed on the only weekend I was home. My stepmom—who was in on my plan—saw me first and smiled as only someone who is in-the-know can. I chose to walk in without any fanfare, and it took a second before the normal greetings changed to, “Wait, I thought you were in Japan.” When my dad got there later, my sister told him there was a surprise waiting for him in the living room. When I jumped out, it took him a minute to realize that I wasn’t supposed to be there. It’s nice to know that I’m such an accepted part of family gatherings that it’s not surprising when I show up, even if it’s a surprise visit from halfway around the world.

After the weekend, my last two days were over in the blink of an eye. On Monday, I went to the library where I had worked for four years and surprised my good friend and former boss. I also woke up the library cat to say hello, and I was very pleased that she seemed to recognize me and licked my hand instead of being angry that I disturbed her. I was able to squeeze in a visit with some friends that night as well, though it all seemed to go too quickly.

My mom broke the news of my surprise visit to my grandparents over the phone, and they and my second cousin made a trip down to see me on Tuesday. My grandpa—who spent some time in Japan when he was in the Air Force—said, “Konnichiwa” as soon as he walked in the door. I was so excited to get to share my pictures and stories with them. It was a very nice visit that felt just like old times, right down to asking my grandma to help with some mending while she was there (sorry, grandma). After they left, New Year’s Eve was spent packing and watching as many Christmas movies as we could fit in. My mom dozed on the couch while I tried valiantly to defy the laws of physics and fit everything in my suitcase. I finished packing in the last 20 minutes of 2013 (though it was strange to realize my Japanese friends were already fourteen hours into the new year). My mom and I watched the ball drop, said, “Happy new year,” and then went to bed. Some things never change.

Wednesday morning dawned far too early. We left the house at 5:50 am, got to the airport an hour before my flight left, and experienced the craziness of holiday travel for the first time. This made saying goodbye much easier since there was no time to linger. I was literally pulling my shoes back on after going through security when I heard the final boarding call for my flight. I got to my seat ten minutes before departure.

My 6 ½ hour layover in Detroit was long and uneventful. I had a brief conversation with an old man who had a thick accent that might have been Eastern European and helped him with his computer. I also had a faint suspicion that many of the Asians around me weren’t Japanese, though I questioned my ability to tell for sure; I was gratified to learn that our plane was continuing on to Guam after Nagoya. I have to admit to swearing under my breath when we boarded and I ended up sitting next to a woman with an infant, but that turned out to the be the least of our problems.

Initially, our departure was delayed for a couple minutes to let runners from late connecting fights make it on board. Then the pilots got an error message that would, reportedly, take 10 minutes to fix.

Two hours later, we finally pulled away from the gate and got in line to de-ice. During this delay, someone took pity on us and turned on the in-flight TV so we could have some entertainment. This was good in theory, but it quickly became rage-inducing when the playback was paused for a status update, then paused for the translation to Japanese, then paused for the translation to Tagalog. At 2 ½ hours past takeoff time, still sitting on the tarmac, I realized that we would have been a quarter of the way to Nagoya by then had we taken off as scheduled. Thankfully, we left shortly after that.

The flight was mostly uneventful. Due to my long layover and the delays, I was ready to be off the plane before we even hit the halfway point of the thirteen hour flight. I tried napping a bit (which I don’t recommend) and distracting myself with airplane food (which I REALLY don’t recommend, at least if you’re flying Delta). The baby, however, was amazing. She didn’t cry once, and since I couldn’t be shown up by an infant, I held it together, too.

Once on the ground, I admit I surreptitiously slipped my mask off before quarantine to avoid any problems. I had trouble speaking simple Japanese at immigration and struggled to switch back the language settings in my head. Apparently I succeeded, because when my customs officer asked if I spoke Japanese—in Japanese—I was able to understand him and respond. The only part of his next question that I caught was doko—where—so I took a guess and wound up answering wrong. Bless his heart, he repeated himself in English and I got through with no trouble.

I was officially on autopilot by the time I headed for the access plaza, so the hour-long train ride back to Midori and the walk home from the train station are pretty fuzzy. I do remember being pleasantly surprised at how warm Japan felt after Michigan winter. I also remember resetting the internet for my neighbor as soon as I got home and having his friend shout a thank you through the wall.

My winter wonderland in Michigan

Meanwhile, in Nagoya...

Overall, even considering the lack of power and the travel delays, and even though no one really liked my generous gift of strange Japanese sweets, it was a very good visit that I will never forget. (Incidentally, my waistline will not forget it any time soon either. When one of my students told me he gained 2 kg over the holidays, I wanted to laugh in his face. Amateur.)

A few highlights of the three weeks I’ve been back:
*Apparently, 10:00 on a Saturday night is sweatpants time at my favorite sushi place. I know how my Saturday nights will be spent for the next year
*I went to see Shobo Dezome-shiki (New Year parade of the fire brigades) in Nagoya Port last weekend. A friend saw one in Kanazawa where they were doing acrobatics and had a big choreographed display, but the one in Nagoyako turned out to be disappointingly reserved. There was a lot of talking (which I didn’t understand), a parade featuring the volunteer firefighters from every ward in Nagoya, and a brief rescue demonstration. There was a cool display with the fire hoses at the very end, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

*I went to a Chinese New Year festival later that day in Hisaya-Odori Koen, which was PACKED. I wondered aloud to my friend if this is what the population density in China is like. We ended up only staying for a few minutes, but we caught the end of a spectacular acrobatic dance and got to see the dancers getting ready for the dragon dance.

She is literally en pointe on his shoulder. Insanity.

*After that, we met up with some of my friends and had a second Bōnenkai with some Japanese firefighters that no one really knew. It was a very loud, fun night with lots of great food and even better people.
*I had my first experience running into a student outside of class. One of my five year-olds was having dinner with her parents at a place called Tsukushi when I walked in. She walked past my table and I waved, but she looked at me with no recognition. When her dad brought her over later to say hi, she was very shy and just stared at me like she couldn’t figure out what I was doing outside the school. At her class the next night, she was back to her usual hyperactive self, and she kept saying, “Tsukushi? Tsukushi.”

All in all, it has been a great fourth month in (and out of) Japan, and I am so thankful for the amazing memories I’ve made in the last month. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next one!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

3-Month Update

Yesterday marked three months since I stepped off the plane in Nagoya and started a new adventure here. In some ways, time is going so quickly! In other ways, it feels like I’ve been here forever. Here is a breakdown of the most important moments of the last month, arranged chronologically:

1. I saw a giant Japanese hornet for the first time. They are aptly named. Google it if you never want to sleep again. Even though I’d seen pictures, I was unprepared for how huge it was when it landed on my friend. We were screeching and flipping out while a nearby security guard laughed at us. Kathleen and Aileen: making a good name for foreigners since 2013.

2. I climbed a mountain in flip flops! I went to Jokoji with a friend for fall leaf viewing, and it was lovely. The colors weren’t quite out there yet, but it was still very scenic and beautiful. The train station was at the bottom of a mountain, so we climbed the mountain to see the town’s temple. All the signs were only in Japanese (in Nagoya, they’re usually in English, too), so we struggled to know which way to go. At one junction, I saw a sign with the Kanji for ‘temple’ pointing one way and a sign with the Kanji for ‘walk’ pointing the other. We opted for the road with the temple sign, which ended up being a very long, winding driving road. We had to turn back without finding the temple because it was so cold and the sun was going down, but I hope to go back and see it when it’s snowy. Next time, I’ll take the walking path.

3. The rest of the results from the Eiken (the big English-language proficiency test) came back, and all my students passed! This probably has less to do with me and more to do with my predecessor, since I had only been teaching them for a couple months when they took the test. Nevertheless, I was so proud of all of them!

4. I went out with one of the other female teachers after work on a Saturday night, and we went to a gaijin bar that actually wasn’t scary and creepy! It was an Australia-themed bar, which apparently means you can get greasy American food as long as you include ‘on the barbie’ in the description. When my friend decided to stay out longer and I was ready to head home, I ended up taking my first ever taxi ride! The driver, who was very sweet, had a question partway down the road and tried his best to speak English with me. We eventually understood each other, but it made me realize how easy I’ve had it and how ill-equipped I am to survive here outside of my safe bubble. I REALLY need to work on my language skills.

5. Because most of the teachers at the school are American, we had our own Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks ago. Some of the older teachers are friends with the owners of a local bar, and they agreed to shut down for the night and host our Thanksgiving as long as we all bought drinks from them. It was incredibly nice of them and we had a great turnout. A lot of former teachers made appearances with significant others and friends, as well as a couple adult students, so we ended up having at least 40 people. Because there were so many old teachers there that I didn’t know, I introduced myself all night as “the new Gabby” to put myself in context. It was crowded, chaotic, stuffed with food, and altogether very much like an American Thanksgiving.

6. A group of us went to Outback (yes, THAT Outback) for a friend’s birthday. It was very much like the Outbacks in America, with one notable exception—the steaks came in 7- or 10-oz options, not the giant American sizes. Yeah, we’re fat.

7. A couple weeks ago, I made the 2-hour trip to Korankei with a group of friends. Korankei is a very famous spot in Japan for viewing fall colors, and an entire network of shops, food stalls, and little restaurants have popped up at the foot of the mountain. At night, the leaves are lit from below to extend viewing hours and give them a completely different look. As we got closer, signs popped up in people’s yards offering parking spots for a fee. It was the last day of the fall festival, so it was quite crowded and many people we were opting to take those spots. It reminded me of Syrup Festival weekend back home.

The mountain itself was beautiful. Korankei is particularly known for its maple trees, so it was very much like fall at home. We got there in time to climb the mountain in the daylight, then we rested at the summit until the sun started going down. The lights started coming on as we descended, and the mountain was aglow with an other-worldly beauty. I literally stopped about every ten steps to take a picture because everything was so perfect it begged to be photographed. 

Korankei in daylight

Korankei as night was falling

As we reached the bottom, an announcement came on over the loudspeaker. I assumed it was something official marking the end of the viewing season. When I asked another teacher, I learned it was asking someone to move their car.

8. Last weekend, I went to Shabu Shabu with some other teachers, which is essentially Japanese fondue. In its purest form, Shabu Shabu is thinly sliced beef cooked in boiling water. However, it has evolved to include vegetables, sauces, and different kinds of meat. In our experience, it included two fondue pots, one with boiling water and one with a sauce of our choice (my table went with soy and cheese). The price we paid for dinner included six trays of meat (two each of thinly sliced beef, bacon, and a different kind of pork), unlimited vegetables, and access to the soft serve ice cream machine. The table of vegetables housed mostly Asian-style vegetables—shredded cabbages, mushrooms, julienned carrots—but also offered pineapple, dumplings, and tubes of raw chicken salad that you could toss in the pot to make meatballs. It was a huge, delicious meal for under 2,000 yen a person (roughly $20).

9. Also last weekend, I met up with a girl I met on Craigslist. Though she is Japanese, she only recently moved to Nagoya and hasn’t had much of a chance to make friends yet. She posted looking for native English speakers so she could keep up her language ability, and I answered. We ended up really hitting it off! We have a lot of similar interests, and her English ability is off the charts. It was really exciting to just go out and make a friend that wasn’t someone I know from work or met through a work friend.

Though we mostly just talked, we also did a little language exchange. Though her English is so good I doubt I can teach her anything, my Japanese definitely leaves a lot to be desired, and she taught me a few phrases that I proudly shared with the Japanese staff at work the next day. I’ve also gone out a couple times with one of the Japanese girls from work, and she has been helping me with my Japanese, too. I find sitting and chatting in (admittedly broken) Japanese to be much more fun than studying out of a book, so hopefully this will motivate me to improve my language skills.

10. Though I try to put a positive spin on things—and, indeed, most of my experiences here have been positive—there will always be bad days, and I had one of those this past week. It was made of a mix of things from here and some things going on back home, combined with the fact that Christmas is coming and that always makes me sentimental (read: emotionally unstable). For some reason, it all hit me at once and it was like running into a wall of depression face-first. I struggled to make it through the day and went on a bit of a bender that night.

The next morning was irresistibly blue-skied and beautiful, which improved my outlook from the get-go. It was still hard, but a manageable kind of hard, and I made it through the day with less trouble. Thankfully, I’m feeling much better now. Here’s hoping that it’s another three months before I see another day like that.

11. On Saturday night, I went out to karaoke with a couple friends, and it completely revitalized me. It sounds cheesy, but music has always been a huge part of my life. Though I’ve recently become comfortable enough here to start singing in the shower, I didn’t realize how much I missed just singing at the top of my lungs until I was in that karaoke booth. It was incredibly cathartic :)

12. Yesterday, we had Christmas parties with our students all day long. We had five parties throughout the day—four at the school with progressively older kids, then a short shower-and-change break before the evening party with our adult students. The first party was with our 3 year-olds, and I think this one may have been my favorite. I had two little boys come to that party, and they were both just bouncing off the walls with excitement. Our craft this year was making a gingerbread house, which at this age meant making the house for them and then helping them decorate. Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly for those who have seen me cook), I ended up with more frosting on me than they did!

After the craft, we sang We Wish You a Merry Christmas. I have to admit, I teared up a little bit during the song. There is something very special and contagious about a roomful of 3-year-olds filled to bursting with Christmas spirit. We read a Christmas story and then Santa made an appearance. When we heard the sleigh bells outside the door, one of my boys yelled, “Santa-san!”, covered his mouth with his hands, and squealed with excitement. Between the Christmas songs, the gingerbread houses, and wearing a Santa hat all day, it finally felt like Christmas here.

I had two students at the next party, too, which was for younger elementary kids, and it went very well. The third party was for mid-elementary students, and I had five kids come to that party. Luckily, three of those students were old enough to mostly build by themselves. Luckily (again), the younger two are friends and wanted to sit together, which made it much easier on me. One them had an allergy to the regular frosting, so I had to check my hands every time I switched between helping them. They had a good time, though, which made it worthwhile.

The last party was for upper elementary students, which meant the two students of mine who came could pretty much fend for themselves. I ended up playing the piano for We Wish You a Merry Christmas at this party, as our other pianist had to leave. It was a simple arrangement out of a kids’ book and, though I discovered I’m terribly out of practice, it was fine. The kids had fun despite a few wrong notes, which was the important thing. A few minutes later, the kids had even more fun pulling off Santa’s beard and hat when they recognized him as one of the teachers. Que sera, sera.

It was a busy day filled with multiple rounds of cleaning, setting up, tearing down, and partying. There were so many kids packed into the school that we started handing gingerbread houses out the windows to parents rather than let the kids try to navigate through the crowd with them. We joked about—and at some points may have seriously considered—handing kids out the window, too.

After putting the school back in order, we all had less than an hour to run home, de-frosting ourselves, get presentable, and get back to the school. We met some of our adult students there and took a bus to the fancy Chinese restaurant where we were having dinner. There was such a big turnout that we had to be divided between three tables. Three of my five adult students came, which I was quite pleased about. It was a fun, relaxing night compared with the chaos of the kids’ parties, and we all ate and drank quite a lot. My students—who were all from the same class and used to refer to themselves as Team Gabby—officially made the transition to Team Kathleen.

Team K (+2 honorary members)

When the bus got back to the school, a few of us—teachers and students both—went out to the bar where we’d had Thanksgiving. In addition to being a little more low-key than dinner, this was nice because I got to chat with other people’s students that I hadn’t had a chance to see yet. I learned from one of them that my table at dinner had been known as the loud, fun table, so I deemed Operation: Adult Party a success. It was also here, just a little before midnight, that I realized it was my 3-month anniversary in Japan. How fitting it was to spend an exhausting, fun-filled day with the people who help make Japan home.