Sunday, September 29, 2013

Week 2 Recap

Monday was a holiday in Japan, and my roommate went away for the long weekend. Though I remembered how to use the washing machine—success!—the air conditioner was another story. After pressing random buttons on the remote control for a while, I eventually admitted defeat and Googled air conditioner kanji. Judging by the number of results that popped up, I’m not the only one who has had that problem.

I’m embarrassed to say that solving the great air conditioner mystery was pretty much the only thing I did all day. After being out late for the welcome party Saturday and staying out late watching movies with two other teachers on Sunday, I was pretty exhausted. I had originally planned to do a little wandering and explore some stores in the area; once I remembered it was a holiday and things would be closed, I just stayed in.

After part teaching classes in my first week, I moved on to full teaching in week two. This meant that I was quite nervous going in to work on Tuesday, maybe moreso than I had been on my first day. Despite being scheduled to come in an hour early for training, I went in another hour before that to double check all my lesson plans for the day. I ended up staying late after work to do some more planning, so it ended up being a 12-hour day. Happily, it was also a good day. I only have four classes on Tuesdays, which were split evenly between full teaching and part teaching, and they all went very well! It was a great start to the week.

At lunch, I tried a small dessert called mochi. Mochi is a sweet rice cake made from glutinous rice, but it’s nothing like you’d get in America if you looked for a rice cake. The taste was similar to sugar cookie dough, it had the consistency of firm bread dough, and it came in small round cakes like sausage patties. The filling was Anko or Red Bean Paste, a paste made from mashing mineral-rich Azuki beans and mixing them with sugar. The Mochi was so rich I could barely handle the three bites it took to finish one cake, but it was very good!

Since Wednesday is my day at the satellite school, I again went early to make sure I’d be packed up and ready to leave on time. My first class was a kindergarten class, which was a little nerve-wracking because of the age itself and because sometimes the moms come into class with the kids at that age. Unlike at the main branch of the school, there is also a big window between the lobby and the classroom for parents to watch the class, so I was very nervous. Again, my nerves proved to be unnecessary and the class went very well! The most important thing my trainer told me here is that you never know what will happen with kids this age and it’s okay when unexpected things happen, because they’re babies. The moms seem very nice and very understanding of the fact that if a kid suddenly runs off during an activity, it’s because he’s three, not because I can’t control my class.

My next class was part teaching with a different teacher. I had observed the class in my first week, so I knew going in that they were a rather rambunctious group, and my co-teacher warned me of this again during our planning time. However, the class went well and my co-teacher gave me good feedback. Shortly after that, I had a lesson with the junior high comedians from last week, and that class also went well. One of the boys’ moms brought my trainer and me each a small bag of homemade sweets as a thank you and welcome gift, respectively. It was such a sweet, unexpected gesture that I was in a good mood for the rest of the day.

The last class of the day was an adult class—two men and one woman—for which I was quite nervous. They are a very nice group and rather high-level, but it seems strange for me—a 22-year old with little life experience—to be teaching three people who are older than me. Case in point: one of these students missed last week’s class because he was on a business trip… to Spain… to give a presentation in English. I think it will be a good class, but it’s a bit surreal at the moment. At the end of class, the woman brought out a homemade goodbye cake for my trainer, and we had a little party. It was very nice and just goes to show how lovely my students are.

I ended up staying very late Wednesday night. This will in no way be a normal routine for me; I was just feeling very behind. For the duration of my training period, what will ordinarily be my planning periods were mostly spent observing other teachers’ classes. Add this to the fact that I’m still quite slow at planning, and the result is staying late. My trainer, the other new teacher, and her trainer were also all there late, so I think we were probably feeding off each others’ energy. I ended up getting stuck on how to explain a tough grammar point for one of my advanced classes (present perfect tense, I’m looking at you!), which made planning that class take longer than the all the others combined. However, I also got some serious organizing done and went home feeling accomplished.

Side note: I love how safe Japan is. This night was probably the fourth or fifth night that I’ve walked home by myself after dark. I love that I can work until 3 AM and not have to bother somebody else with walking me home. Awesome.

Before work on Thursday, the other new teacher and I went with our boss to the ward office. Because we are foreigners who will be living in Japan, we had to take our passports and our foreign ID cards from the federal government to register with the local government. We had two weeks to do this from our date of entry, so we made it with a couple days to spare.

Back at work, I was supposed to full teach a class for a different teacher. By this point, I had logged a lot of hours working with my trainer and had a good handle on her teaching style, as well as copious notes on all of her classes. By comparison, I had spent half an hour working with this other teacher and had only seen him teach once. This made me very nervous, as did the fact that we didn’t have planning time until the day of the class. Because of this, I had sketched out a lesson during my planning marathon Wednesday night, but he still had to approve it before class.

The class ended up going fine for the most part and the teacher gave me good feedback, but I felt really unbalanced and stressed out about it because I ran out of time for some things. I ended up getting out of that class late, which meant I was rushing around for the next one. I’m ashamed to say that this mindset stayed with me and I carried some of it into the next class, which was totally unfair to that student. My trainer gave me good feedback on the class and apparently didn’t know I was feeling the pressure until I told her, but I didn’t come out of that class feeling good about it either.

My trainer was sympathetic but didn’t linger on the subject and told me to shake it off, which is probably what I needed to hear. The last classes of the day went well and helped put the bad ones in perspective. I was very tired from Wednesday’s 15 ½-hour day, so I knew logically that things were probably not as a bad as they seemed. I also felt a bit guilty when I remembered that the other teacher I worked with that day had been sick as a dog on Tuesday and Wednesday. I had been so focused on me and my nerves that I didn’t even remember to ask him how he felt. This made me realize that it is a small, close-knit office, and I need to work on being less selfish.

When I got out of work, it was only 20 degrees (yes, I speak some metric now)! The weather has actually been very nice since I got here—a bit warm for my tastes but with no humidity—but this week it has started to turn to fall. Very happy, I walked to Seiyu, where I promptly almost got locked upstairs. Though Seiyu is 24-hours, sections of it close off at 10 PM, including the entire upper floor. I was quietly browsing the housewares section when the lights went off. I scurried over to the escalator, where the gate was just hitting the ground. The man operating it was very surprised when he turned around and saw me, and he quickly opened another gate to let me downstairs.

It was at this point that I had my first real frustration over my limited Japanese abilities. It is my understanding that things from the upper level have to be paid for on that level, but I had no way of communicating that I hadn’t paid for my things yet, or even of confirming that I needed to. He was very nice and eventually led me to the registers downstairs, but it was still a moment of pure frustration at myself. Things didn’t improve when I got to the aisle of feminine products and found myself facing shelf upon shelf of brightly colored packages covered in gibberish. Despite having researched this particular item before coming, I still had to guess in the end. Hopefully, I’ll have time to study Kanji and start my Japanese lessons soon.

Friday morning I full taught a kindergarten class with another teacher before training, which made for another early day. That class went very well and I got good feedback. In retrospect, my other classes for the day went pretty well, too, but I was still feeling the effects of the day before. This wasn’t helped when I made one of the students in an elementary class cry. Looking through my notes afterwards, I saw that my trainer had specifically told me that this student tends to be sensitive and needs to be treated very carefully. He got over it quickly and was fine for the rest of class, but I was very frustrated with myself for not remembering this or bothering to look over the notes beforehand. I shook it off as best I could to be fair to my later classes.

All in all, this day was kind of rough for me. My feedback forms were still quite positive, but I felt that my presentation lacked polish. I was also struggling to balance my class time, mostly because I don’t know the students well enough to know how much time we need to spend on one activity versus another. However, I recognize that this will take some time, and I felt better about it after a night to calm down.

That night, my roommate and I tried to go out for drinks, but the bar was very crowded. We ended up going to the mini mart, and I found 102 proof alcohol that comes in juice box form. Oh, Japan.

Classes start earlier on Saturdays, meaning I was back at school Saturday morning about twelve hours after I left on Friday. The morning and early afternoon classes went quite well. I was still feeling a bit behind in my planning, so I was a little relieved when both students in one class were absent and I got extra planning time.

My second-to-last class on Saturdays is the second of my two adult classes. This one also has three students—two women and one man. Like the Wednesday group, this bunch is very nice, and I felt a little less awkward than I had with my class earlier in the week. One of the women in this class took a trip to Okinawa and brought back treats for our class—cookies and sweet potato jam. I was skeptical about the jam, but it was very good! She also invited my trainer, her classmates, and me over to her house for a goodbye/welcome party. Have I mentioned lately how nice my students are?

The last class of the week is an elementary class with five kids. Though the max class size at my school is six, most of my classes are three or four, so this class seemed extra crazy to me. Luckily for me, they are very good students despite being a little rowdy, and the class went well.

In any non-adult class, the parents have the option to come in for the last few minutes of class and then get a rundown of what we did that day. This doesn’t happen in most of my classes, but it does in this one. What’s more, in this class, both parents often come in, not just one; by the end of class last night, there were eight adults watching me teach. Scary! They were very nice, though, and most of them brought thank you gifts for my trainer, which I thought was very sweet.

When this class ended, my trainer was officially finished at the school. When we got back up to the office, all the other teachers were waiting for us, even the ones that don’t teach on Saturdays. If I hadn’t been told about it in advance, I probably would have cried. We gave my trainer and the other departing teacher their goodbye presents from us and took pictures with everyone. Then our boss’s wife came, bringing with her their three young children and a small cake for each of the trainers. It was sweet and sad, though not as much as it would have been had one of the little girls not insisted on lifting her dress up to show her underwear.

After a short shower-and-change break, we walked over to the mall to cram ourselves into a photo booth and take pictures. Then we walked to the bar to cram ourselves into a different kind of booth. I ended up sitting between my desk partner and one of the Japanese staff members, which proved to be a convenient setup; my desk partner taught me how to drink beer properly and the Japanese staff member translated the menu for me. It was also really nice sitting next to her because I hadn’t had the chance to really chat with her before.

We were at the bar for at least a couple hours, during which time a lot of eating, drinking, seat swapping, and random behavior went on. At one point, there was a competition going at our table to see who had the creepiest double-jointed abilities (I think my desk partner won with his Frankenstein hands). Later, we got a game of Uno going, played with Sesame Street cards that looked like they were printed in the 70s. After dinner, we went to karaoke and stayed until about 3 AM.

Earlier today, I went to Seiyu and had my first experience really feeling my foreignness. The school where I work has been around for a long time now, which means that people in my neighborhood are used to seeing foreigners. It’s a similar situation at the satellite school, where there is also an international school nearby. Because of this, prior to today, I haven’t really experienced the everyone-stares-at-you thing that people warned me about before coming. Tonight, however, Seiyu was packed with people doing their shopping for the week, and it felt like everyone was watching me. Literally every time I turned around, there was someone staring me. It was very surreal, and equally unexpected after being treated normally for two weeks.

It is almost 11 PM now, and my trainer and I just got back from the goodbye/welcome party with our adult students. After being invited, I had checked with the Japanese staff at the school to see what would be an appropriate hostess gift, as gift giving is very big in Japan and I didn’t want to show up empty-handed. I was very glad I didn’t, as the two other students and my trainer also showed up bearing bags of goodies.

The first thing you encounter when you walk into a Japanese home is the genkan, a small entry area where you remove your shoes before stepping up into the house. Our hostess had slippers waiting for us, which we wore to walk the ten steps into the dining room and promptly removed before stepping onto the thick rug underneath the table.

We had appetizers of edamame, which I love, and then built and rolled our own sushi, which was much easier than I thought it would be! The hostess had set out trays of nori (seaweed wrappers), lettuce leaves, spring onions, different kinds of sashimi (sliced raw fish), roe (fish eggs), and long, thin slices of crab meat, cucumbers, egg, and pork. I’ve been eating sushi every day for lunch since I got here, and I knew before I even came that I love crab meat, so I ate quite a lot of that. I also rolled some sushi with maguro (raw tuna), which was very tasty.

We also had tempura, which is a dish of battered, deep-fried chunks of vegetables or meat. The tempura had a very interesting texture, because the batter (water and flour) is only mixed very lightly, leaving chunks in the batter. Because it isn’t stirred vigorously, the gluten isn’t activated, which keeps it from getting crispy and chewy in the fryer. It’s difficult to describe the taste, but it was very good. I had sweet potato and mushroom tempuras, but the chicken tempura was my favorite.

This is literally what the table looked like. It was so beautifully presented that if I didn't know better, I would think this was an advertisement!
After our meal, we ate cupcakes, drank tea, took pictures, and played with the hostess’s pets. It was a really lovely evening, and I’m very glad I got the chance to spend time with some of my more mature students.

Weekend Reflections
All in all, it was a good week peppered with some rough spots. Looking back, a lot of these moments were normal new-job moments that seemed huge because I was so exhausted. My trainer is now officially finished, which means both that the classes are all mine and that I move into my new apartment tomorrow! While the coming week will undoubtedly bring new challenges, I’m excited to settle in to a less chaotic routine and get organized. Hopefully, I’ll also find some time to explore Nagoya!

People keep asking me if I’m homesick, and I’m honestly not yet. I’ve been too busy to be homesick! Perhaps more than that, it just doesn’t feel like I’m halfway around the world. Nagoya is a beautiful city, but I don’t know that it feels exotic—it has streets, cars, parks, restaurants, convenience stores, and departments stores just like any city does. I don’t speak the local language, but everyone I work with speaks English, so I don’t feel isolated. Most importantly, Skype, Facebook, and the ability to text over wifi (iPhone-to-iPhone texting, for the win!) has kept me from feeling disconnected from everyone back home.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Week 1 Recap

Despite being exhausted, I was awoken at 6 AM by the dulcet tones of a typhoon. Being from Michigan, I’ve never experienced a tropical storm before. It was strange to me how nonchalant everyone was about the fact that the view outside looked like footage from a disaster movie.

 By early afternoon, the weather had cleared up and I met up with some of the other teachers to go into downtown Nagoya. One of the women in this group was another new teacher who had only flown in one night before me, so meeting her before training was really nice.

To start, we walked to a small mall a couple blocks away from our apartments and explored a little. It was pretty standard for a mall, just a bit cleaner and more brightly colored than you’d find in America. I managed to buy something despite not speaking Japanese or having really looked over the Yen denominations. I was quite proud of myself until we took a bathroom break and I saw the wall of the stall had a control panel to rival the Starship Enterprise. Personal care and comfort is big in Japan, so there were a myriad of buttons offering a multi-pressure bidet, a flushing sound (to cover your bodily sounds without wasting the water of an actual flush), and some other form of nether-region wash that is similar to a bidet but somehow different. Unlike the ones in the airport, this toilet didn’t have a flush handle and the buttons didn’t have labels in English. Ashamed, I had to ask one of the other teachers how to flush the toilet.

After that mall, we walked to the subway station, where I got my first-ever metro card. The subway was very easy to navigate because, as in the airport, everything written in Kanji also had an English translation. The different lines throughout the city are also color-coded, just in case you need something really idiot-proof. Though I have very little experience with American cities, I am certain none of them are as clean as the subway and city streets of Nagoya. If I had closed my eyes, I wouldn’t have been able to tell from the air that I was in a city. There was even hardly any noise pollution. Also noteworthy: like the flow of street traffic, the flow of foot traffic in Japan is the opposite of what you’d find in America. Even after a week, walking down the left side of a store aisle or sidewalk throws me for a loop.

Our destination was a giant department store called Loft. It had six or seven floors and, like the mall in our neighborhood, was very bright and clean. We spent some time on every floor and saw everything from makeup to luggage to bicycles. After the other new girl and I both got temporarily separated from the group, one of the other teachers wrote down my address, subway line, and subway stop for me, just in case. I felt like a little kid getting my parents’ phone number written on my hand.

After Loft, we went to dinner and had omurice (omelet rice). Traditionally, omurice is a thin omelet stuffed with chicken rice and topped with ketchup. The place we went specialized in omelet rice and had many different sauces and add-ons.

My omurice with a sweet marsala sauce--SO good and beautifully presented

After dinner, we stopped by a bookstore. They had a couple shelves of English-language books, including some magazines about Japanese pop-culture written in English. I resisted the urge to buy one, though now I kind of wish I had. One of the other teachers—the next-newest one, who has been here for a month—had been throwing me tidbits about Japanese culture and customs all day, one of which was useful in this store. In Japan, if you bump into someone or find yourself in their way and say, Sumimasen (excuse me), they reply with iie, which literally means ‘no’, but in this context means something more like ‘no problem’. This happened to me in the bookstore, and I found it irrationally exciting.

This bookstore was also quiet, eerily so. I think we were the only people in the entire store who were talking, or at least talking at a normal volume. Looking back, it was also that way in the restaurant, on the subway, and even in the airport terminal, which was freakishly quiet for a room with so many people. This is another interesting facet of Japanese culture, though I don’t quite know what it means. My best guess is that, being a rather hive-minded society, they are considerate enough to be quiet in places where speaking could potentially disturb others.

After the bookstore, we wandered around the city for a while. It was only around 7 PM, but it was already fully dark (Japan’s time zone is a little strange in that the sun rises around 5:30 AM and sets before 6 PM). Earlier in the day, since the typhoon had blown all the humidity away, the weather had been comfortable despite being quite warm. Now that the sun was down, the air was pleasantly cool, and the residual typhoon winds funneling through the streets were almost strong enough to blow us around. We walked aimlessly for a while, just taking in the sights and sounds of the city.

The subway home was much more crowded than on the way in, and I got my first experience of standing and holding a dangling handle during the ride. Even though it was after 8 PM by the time we reached our stop, the train was crowded with people in suits just coming home from work. This is another example of the for-the-good-of-the-whole culture of Japan. It is not uncommon for workers to work late—without filing overtime—and then go out with their coworkers to foster camaraderie, all in the name of a strong job performance and a good workplace environment.

We ended a day exploring Japan with a stop at Baskin Robbins.

After getting home on Monday, I started getting very nervous about my job for the first time. After staying up late ironing my suitcase-wrinkled clothes, I woke up early Tuesday morning and couldn’t go back to sleep. Since I didn’t have to be at work until noon (I work a later shift, 1-9 PM), I walked the two blocks to Seiyu, the Walmart of Japan. I picked up a bright yellow basket from the end of a checkout line (more on this later) and took the time to wander every aisle so I’d have an idea of where to find things in the future. When I got to the shampoo aisle, I was reminded of something I had noticed in Loft—there seems to be a big fascination with France in Japan. A lot of the items in Loft and Seiyu both had French writing on the packaging or were decorated with French icons like the Eiffel Tower. I don’t really know why that is, but it helped me out; I ended up choosing a French shampoo because it was the only package I could actually read. Another interesting note: most shampoos (and conditions, bodywashes, etc…) here come in pouches instead of bottles. I attribute this to Japan’s eco-mindedness.

Walmart actually bought out Seiyu not that long ago, so every once in a while in the groceries section, a random Great Value item popped up on the shelf. Most of the labels, though, were in Kanji, which meant I could read maybe 2% of the information. I ended up sticking to things I could tell by sight—fruit and veggies, spices, etc.—though I was both attracted to and repelled by a small package of squid in which the tentacles were suckered to the cellophane wrapping.

It was also in the grocery section that my bright yellow basket came into play. I was perusing the refrigerated section when an employee scurried over, smiling and bowing, and launched into a lot of Japanese in a very short amount of time. I just stood there, not sure what to do, mouth moving wordlessly as I failed to remember any Japanese that could be helpful. Eventually, she scurried off. I didn’t know if I was supposed to follow her, so I did for a while before I lost her in the aisles (she was quick!). When I got back to the refrigerated foods, she was waiting for me with a gray basket like what other shoppers were carrying. I transferred my things over and surrendered the yellow basket, still not knowing why.

I wandered the store for another hour, and the answer became clear when I got to the checkout. At the end of each checkout lane was a separate, self-bagging area. After taking your items from the gray basket and checking them out, the cashier puts them in a yellow basket for you to take over to the bagging area. As I creeped on other shoppers from the checkout line, I was alarmed to see that there were no bags in the bagging area (again, it’s an eco-friendly country). There were small plastic bags (think sandwich-bag size) for separating out smaller items, but every one of those housewives doing her shopping pulled a foldable, reusable shopping bag out of her purse for the bigger stuff. Suddenly grateful I had exercised restraint in my shopping, I stuffed most of my stuff in my over-large purse and set off down the streets of Nagoya, a bag of apples in one hand and a box of tissues in the other.

I had just enough time after getting home to get ready and get to work. My temporary apartment is just down the street from my job—I can literally see the school from my front door—so finding my way there wasn’t a problem. I had training early and then the weekly staff meeting, where the other new teacher and I introduced ourselves to the others. After the meeting, I got ready to observe my first classes. One of the Japanese staff members came in at the beginning of each class I was in to explain who I was and why I was there to the students. Hearing Kathleen-sensei for the first time was quite a thrill. I also talked quite a bit with my trainer about our classes, since I was scheduled to jump right in and part-teach them that day! It was horribly nerve-wracking, but it went very well. My trainer is a wonderful teacher, and her clearly students adore her. They’re just the sweetest things.

After work, we went to the bar to celebrate my roommate’s birthday. I was quite tired, both because I hadn’t slept well the night before and because I was on information-overload from my first day at school, but I’m so glad I went. It was a lot of fun getting to see my coworkers outside of work and get to know them a little, and I now know of a place close by that has English-speaking staff. Plus, I found my new favorite drink! It was a really long, really good day all around.

Wednesdays will be my day to teach at our satellite school. It’s a short drive away, only 15-20 minutes, and hopefully I will never have to actually drive there! The satellite school turned out to be a lot like the main school—very clean and inviting, and filled to bursting with games and other teaching materials. I had my first kindergarten class that day AND my first adult class, so it was another day of stuffing my brain full of information. The kindergarten class was pretty wary of me at first (I have a different affect on every class I attend), but by the end they were running over in the middle of a flashcard game to show me what they’d drawn. Again, my trainer has fantastic students (I have a sneaking suspicion she made them that way), and I am so excited to teach them!

Between the kids and adults, I had a pair of junior high boys who were quite the comedians. One of them introduced himself as Leonardo da Vinci and gave dramatic readings out of the textbook. During the conversation segment, when they were practicing asking and answering different questions, they had the following conversation:

“What have you never done?”
“I have.”

After reading a portion of a story:
“What do we know about this character?”
“She’s a FOOL!”

I can already tell they’re going to be one of my favorite classes.

My lunch every day this week--sushi and rice wrapped in fried tofu. So tasty!
Thursday & Friday
By Thursday, I was feeling less overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information coming at me, but I was still quite busy. I was not only part-teaching the classes that will be mine but also sitting in on—and, in some cases, part-teaching—other teachers’ classes. After one particularly young class that I helped teach, I had to come back down from the office to get something I’d left in the classroom. One of the girls was still in the lobby, and she ran right up to me, followed me to the classroom to see what I was doing, and shook her finger at me when I pulled my forgotten file out of the desk. It was adorable. Later, when I told her regular teacher about the encounter, he said she had also drawn a picture of me. I’ve never understood why people would voluntarily teach such young, energetic kids, but I’m starting to get it!

My weekend here will be Sunday and Monday, so I worked on Saturday, too. A lot of my students have trouble with my name because Japanese doesn’t have the ‘th’ sound. There are also very few consonants in Japanese that aren’t separated by a vowel sound, so they have a tendency to turn Kath-leen into Kath-a-leen. When one of my young classes tried to say it, I got Kafrene-sensei, Kafarene-sensei, Katrine-sensei, and—my personal favorite—Kathaleen-sensei-san.

After work on Saturday was the welcome party in honor of the other new teacher and myself. We walked as a group for about half an hour to the restaurant I’d visited my first night. I ended up next to my boss, who was ordering in Japanese for the whole table and kept ordering things just because I wanted to try them. The food came in small portions (e.g. maybe three skewers with four bites of chicken each), so we were able to have quite a variety. I especially liked cheese-stuffed chicken, bacon-wrapped spring onions, edamame (immature soybeans cooked in the pod), tonkatsu (fried pork on a stick), and cabbage leaves with some kind of tangy dressing. The most exotic thing I tried was chicken hearts, which were okay, but some of the Japanese staff ordered raw horsemeat. A lot of the other teachers tried it, but that’s where I drew the line.

After dinner, we walked back to our neighborhood and some of us went to karaoke. I live very close to the place we went and, before going inside, I honestly thought it was a hotel or a fancy restaurant. This was no karaoke night in a smoky bar; inside, it definitely had the big, pretty lobby and hallways of a nicer hotel.

Karaoke in Japan is very different from karaoke in America. Here, you and your friends rent a small room with your own table, padded benches, screen, microphones, and phone for ordering food and drinks from the kitchen. You only have to sing in front of people you know, and—at least the way we did it—popular opinion kept us from sitting through too many crappy songs. Karaoke in Japan is not so much a sit-and-listen-to-someone-else-sing activity as it is a come-and-have-a-massive-sing-along activity. It was a lot of fun; I definitely plan to go back.

All in all, it was an exhausting, exhilarating, educational, wonderful first week. I am loving my life here!

Traveling Tails: The Journey to Japan

6:45 AM
Arrived at Grand Rapids airport.
After getting my bags checked, my mom and my sister sat with me for a while by the security line. Nothing terribly poignant was said here; we mostly chatted about the ungodly hour and where they would get coffee after I left. After about half an hour of steeling myself, I forbade them to say anything sweet that would make me cry and said goodbye. I still cried, but only a little. They waited to wave goodbye when I got through security, but I didn’t turn around. With 24 hours of traveling ahead of me, I couldn’t afford to fall apart before it even started.

7:55 AM
Boarded Flight 1: Grand Rapids to Denver
This flight was on a very small, cramped plane with barely enough room to think. I had the window seat, and the person in the aisle seat was a middle aged man who smelled nice (score!). This flight was a little less than three hours and it seemed to last forever.

10:45 AM
Arrived in Denver.
I’ve been in the Denver airport before, so I found my way around pretty easily. My second boarding pass didn’t have a gate assigned yet, but a particularly clever boarding agent gave me the number of the gate she thought it would be. I kicked off my shoes and camped out in the vast section of nearly empty seats.

11:27 AM
I distinctly remember having this thought: “I must be at the right gate; Japanese people are filing in.”

11:45 AM
Boarded Flight 2: Denver to Tokyo.
The plane was gargantuan, with the coach cabin housing rows of nine seats segmented by two aisles. I had an aisle seat in the middle section. The Japanese woman next to me was about 500 years old and—based on how much her traveling companion translated for her—spoke no English.

This flight could have easily been a nightmare (twelve hours stuck on an airplane is never going to be fun), but it was as wonderful as any modern air travel could hope to be. I watched copious amounts of The Big Bang Theory, first by choice, and then because the touch screen on my seat-back computer rebelled and refused to leave the TV comedies. They fed us three whole meals on that flight—which is pretty astounding in and of itself—and they were all actually good! What was great about that is that every time I got really antsy and started to lose my mind from boredom, the flight attendants came through with the cart and gave me something to do with my hands. Well played, United Airlines. Well played. Meanwhile, Milady Methuselah in the next seat openly stared and watched me eat when I chose chopsticks instead of a fork.

Somewhere along this flight, as I was watching us curve up over the Pacific on the plane screen, this quote from The Fellowship of the Ring came unbidden to mind: “If I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.”

2:15 AM (3:15 PM Japan time)
Arrived at Tokyo’s Narita Airport.
Luck was on my side when my flight from Denver pulled into the gate. The guys in front of me were American and—I learned through some skillful eavesdropping—were transferring to a domestic flight like me. I followed them like a bad stalker to immigration, which is where it got a little interesting. Anything more than one flight in a day makes my ears plug up past the point of resolution. Even after using pressurized ear plugs, I could still barely hear upon landing in Tokyo. This made immigration extra-special because I couldn’t hear what the immigration personnel said to me. It was so bad I honestly don’t know if they were speaking English or Japanese. I assume I did what they told me to, because no one tackled me on the way to baggage claim.

Walking off my chilly Denver-Tokyo flight into the non-air conditioned airport was akin to walking into a wall of hot, humid air, and I was a sweaty mess by the time I wrestled a backpack, duffle bag, and two large suitcases through customs. The customs agent did speak English, but the poor man had to repeat himself three or four times before I heard what he wanted me to do. Nevertheless, I got through customs with no problem, managed to get my money changed over, and followed the signs to recheck my baggage for my last flight. I really appreciate Japan’s willingness to cater to people like me and put English on their signs. I was nervous about navigating an international airport, but it couldn’t have been easier.

3:15 AM (4:15 PM Japan time)
Arrived at the gate for my final flight to Nagoya.
I had been awake for about 20 hours when I walked into the smaller wing of the terminal that housed the five or six gates reserved for domestic flights. Between the lack of sleep, the inability to hear, and the general surrealism of airports, I lived this last segment in a sort of dreamlike state. The perfectly-coiffed boarding agents were making announcements in both Japanese and English, but they spoke so quietly I had no idea what they said in either language. I was one of maybe five foreigners in a room of at least 500 people, and I was a sweaty, hearing-impaired mess. America, represent!

Side note: when I took a quick trip to the bathroom, I initially walked into a stall with a Japanese squat toilet and—being the coward that I am—walked right back out. Google it.

When it was time to board, my boarding pass scanned and produced a buzzer instead of a beep, throwing the doll-like boarding agents into a flurry. They rushed around to print me a new one while I imagined half a plane’s-worth of passengers in line behind me standing on their tiptoes to see the troublemaking foreigner. My new boarding pass had the same information as my old one, so I can only assume the Japanese scanner didn’t want to read my American barcodes. #RACISM #FirstWorldProblems

After a quick shuttle out to the plane (where we actually boarded via stairs from the tarmac), we proceeded to sit… and sit… and sit for nearly an hour. I was in the middle seat between two Japanese businessmen, and it was a very long, very silent delay.

6:40 AM (7:40 PM Japan time)
Arrived in Nagoya.
After retrieving my baggage and resolving (futilely, I’m sure) that next time I will pack lighter, I found my new boss and my predecessor/trainer waiting for me. They were lovely and helped me with my luggage, despite the fact that they tried to kill time on the observation deck while waiting for my delayed flight and ended up getting soaked. I was only semi-lucid for the hour-long drive to my new home, but I did my best to hold up my end of the conversation. We drove in the left lane. I was not in Kansas anymore.

8:00 AM (9:00 PM Japan time)
Arrived in Midori.
I dumped my stuff and met my roommate-for-the-next-two-weeks, who is energy incarnate. I thought I was ready to collapse, but my stomach won the argument with my brain and Roomie and Trainer took me out to eat. We took the school car—with permission, of course—and drove to a small, casual place where we were the only foreigners and the menu was entirely in Japanese. I let my companions—who have been in Japan for a combined four years—order for me, and we ate a ridiculous amount of delicious fried things on sticks.

9:23 AM (10:23 PM Japan time)
I collapsed (luckily, in my bed).

All in all, I traveled about 7,000 miles in one day, so there was a lot of space for something to go wrong. However, things went very smoothly and I was very, very lucky.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Waiting Game, Part 2 (AKA Welcome to Limbo)

The time between my Feb. 21st JET interview and the U.S. results being released was just over a month, but it felt like a year. I knew at this point that my future with JET was entirely out of my hands, and that month of helplessness was hard to handle.

That being said, there was a bright spot in the middle of March—shout out to my friend, Trish, who got pulled for early departure! She had just a few weeks between her notification and departure, and she has been living her dream in Japan since early April. (She also got an unbelievable placement right near both the ocean and an onsen. She’d be the kind of person you’d love to hate if she wasn’t so nice).

I hadn’t applied for early departure, so I knew I would have to wait for the regular results.

I got my interview results on April 2nd—alternate status. I really wasn’t sure how to feel about that; I went back and forth between heartbroken disappointment and cautious optimism. Officially, alternate status means that you have all the desired qualities for an ALT and you have a decent chance of getting upgraded if someone else drops out. Unofficially, it means you’re stuck in limbo until the absolute last chance for an upgrade comes and goes in December. I swallowed my disappointment, submitted the alternate acceptance documents, and settled in for a wait.

Though an upgrade can technically come at any time, there are generally three large waves of upgrades between the release of the interview results and the August 1st new JET departure. The first of these waves happens in the first couple weeks of May, when the deadline for replies has come and gone. Due to people declining their offered positions or missing the reply deadline, positions open up and a lot of upgrades happen quickly. I let myself wait until that first round of upgrades was over. (Side note: I had a minor heart attack when my phone had an accident (i.e. fell in the toilet) and I was without my primary contact method for the first few days of that week).

When that first wave came and went without a call, I started seriously looking at my back ups. One option was Interac, a dispatch company with which I’d be doing the same job as JET—going into the public schools as an assistant English teacher. There are a lot of differences between JET and Interac (government-run vs. private company, salary differences, different pay schedules, etc…), but I figured I could be happy with Interac and submitted an application.

Shortly after that, I was scheduled for an “interview.” I say “interview” in the very loosest sense of the word, because it consisted of a 5-minute phone call. The man calling verified some basic information from my application, asked if I had any questions, and then invited me to a seminar (Interac’s hybrid information session/interview/videotaped demonstration lesson). The next seminars weren’t until the fall, meaning the soonest potential hiring period for me would have been early 2014. I kept Interac on the backburner and looked for other alternatives.

In Japan, there are two main categories of fulltime English teachers—ALTs and Eikaiwa employees. As previously explained, ALTs work in the public schools as assistant teachers underneath a Japanese teacher. As an ALT, you work with the public school curriculum, which focuses on a lot of written grammar and repetition. Eikaiwas, on the other hand, are private schools focusing on English conversation. Students ranging in age from preschool to adults pay for weekly classes focusing exclusively on spoken English. Outside of JET, Interac, and a couple other dispatch companies, the ESL/EFL teaching options are mostly at eikaiwas.

Using Dave’s ESL CafĂ©, Google reviews, and my minor obsession with spreadsheets, I narrowed a myriad of options down to a few that really interested me.

I sent out some emails, fielded some positive responses, and had a couple phone or email interviews. Somewhere in here, I got a notification that my fingerprints for my JET background check were rejected for poor quality and I’d have to have them redone. With Interac on the backburner and a couple other potential jobs in my inbox, this was about the time that I officially gave up on JET. I stayed on the alternate list, but I stopped letting it define my future. One way or another, with or without JET, I was going to teach in Japan.

Shortly after I made this decision, I got an email from an eikaiwa in which I was particularly interested. It was in Nagoya—as opposed to the others, which were mostly in Tokyo—and the head teacher wanted to interview me. I sent a jubilant email back and, because of the time difference, dragged myself out of bed for a 7 a.m. phone interview. Like the JET interview, the questions were mostly what I expected and I wasn’t all that nervous. My interviewer was very nice and, based on her accent, British, which I wasn’t expecting. I felt like it went pretty smoothly, with a couple minor hiccups when asked about grammar nuances I hadn’t studied since middle school. She also asked me if I had any questions about the school and promised I’d hear something within a week or two.

Not long after, I got word the director of the school wanted to interview me! This time the interview was at 9:30 p.m. my time. The director was Japanese, and I was a bit nervous about understanding him through his accent. Though we had some technical difficulties, I didn’t have any trouble understanding him, which was a relief. He even used a fair amount of slang, so I could tell he works with native English speakers! Again, the questions were pretty much what I was expecting and, again, he offered to answer any questions I had about the school. I flubbed a bit when he asked how my answers would differ on a specific question from children or adults, but he was very nice when he corrected me and took the time to explain what he was looking for. All of this—the openness about working conditions, the gentle corrections, the friendly manner of the both interviewers, and the wealth of detailed information on the website—convinced me that this was really where I wanted to be. The interview again ended with a promise I’d hear something soon.

On June 9, I woke up to an offer of employment in my inbox! Having gone through all of the paperwork and jumped through all the hoops, I am now less than two weeks from departure! In addition to talking with the director for the last few months, I’ve also been emailing back and forth with my predecessor, and she has been lovely about answering my millions of questions. I can honestly say I am ecstatic. Though I think I would have been happy with JET, I am VERY excited about my new job. I can’t wait to start the next chapter of my life!