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.

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