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.

1 comment:

  1. I loved reading about your adventures. Thanks for sharing. Merry Christmas!!