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!

1 comment:

  1. David and I are so excited for you! We hope your transition into your new home and job continues to go well! :)