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.