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Monday, September 29, 2014

A Japanese School Festival, Part 1: The Lengthy Opening Ceremony

This past Friday was the annual school festival at the junior high school where I have taught at for the last year. Last year (at a different school) was my first time experiencing this aspect of Japanese culture, and it was a very interesting insight into the differences between Japanese and American junior high school life.

For nearly the entire month of September students have been preparing for this festival. From students designing and submitting their own "symbol marks" (a logo to represent the year's festival) to spending hours after school and during preparing decorations for the classrooms, there isn't a student that doesn't have a hand in helping this event come together.

My current school's festival differed in a number of ways from my last, so each school clearly has their own take on the event. Talking with friends who also teach in junior high verified this, in that some schools have festivals lasting multiple days whereas both of the ones I attended only lasted one. Some don't even include some of the same components as the two I went to, and others add other activities. Universally, it is a time for the students to show off their artistic and creative abilities over a variety of different media outlets.

From last year's school festival
The week prior to the festival I stayed late helping students make decorations for their classroom. I painted a few doors, glued some eggshells, and helped make a house. It was such a nice way to spend some of the final days at this school. It is rare that I get to talk with students in such a relaxed fashion, and seeing their personalities outside of the classroom is something that I always enjoy. The day prior to the festival was spend solely in preparation so I was given the day off of work. It was awesome to come to school the day of and see everything finished. The kids were also very excited, so their energy was better than any coffee for a morning pick-me-up.

The festival itself begins in the gym. Every grade will give a performance of a play their class had written. Each class would have submitted a play and then the best one from each grade is chosen to perform. Another (first year) class is then given control of the opening ceremony.

Japan loves ceremonies. I have been to countless of them now and I am always impressed at just how much effort goes into them, even if the reason for having it seems rather simple or mundane to me. Walking into the gym all of the classes are sitting in the center; boys to the left, girls to the right. The constant separation of genders in this country is something that I'm still not completely used to. There is a huge white tarp covering the 3 square meter "symbol mark", which is to be seen by everyone during the opening ceremony for the first time. Scattered around are exactly 65 chairs for parents, guests, and teachers to sit in. Most of these will be filled by PTA moms and  maybe three fathers or grandfathers. The lack of parental involvement in these school functions is something that always makes me feel a bit sad, but these activities are done for the students, not their mothers and/or fathers.

The "symbol mark"
The ceremony began with a brief history of the school's "symbol marks" at past festivals and I was left feeling a little perplexed at the importance of it. To me, it's just a logo, but to the students it is something more. Something I'll never understand as I am not a Japanese student. After the slideshow there is a countdown to the reveal of the "symbol mark". A  few students cut the strings holding up the tarp, which falls down to reveal what, I must admit, to be a really impressive banner with an amazingly done 3D symbol. After everyone cheers and fawns over how great the logo looks, the creator of the "symbol mark" is called to the stage to accept a certificate from the student body president and give a speech about her inspiration behind creating the logo.

There is then a slideshow of the various classes preparing for the festival which, I would learn later, is the Song-Of-The-Festival. I cannot tell you what it was, but I am pretty sure I heard it fifty times over the course of the day in both standard and music box varieties. Finally, the class who prepared the opening ceremony sings a song and does a dance that involves a lot of organized clapping (which the rest of the school hilariously tries to clap along with). It was equal parts cute, strange and emotionless. But, I guess I really can't expect much else from seven graders.

Once the song is finished the attention is directed towards the Super Smash Bros party ball (くす玉 Kusudama, or medicine ball) hanging over the students which then opens and a huge banner that says "begin the school festival" unfurls from inside and the kids are showered in confetti. There is cheering and everyone is excited for it to finally begin. Even though we've all been sitting in the gym for thirty minutes and will continue to sit there for the next two plus hours watching performances.

Due to the length this has gotten, I've decided to split this blog post into two parts. Part two will include a brief summary of the performances and my thoughts on them, the way in which the schools were decorated, the band performance and the not-nearly-as-long-as-the-opening-ceremony closing ceremony.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

[Picture Post] Winter 2011: Kobe, Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto

My first winter living in Japan I took a trip to the Kansai area with two of my friends from my company. The two guys, Joe and Ben, who I traveled with worked for the same company as me and we had training together. As they lived in Kyushu and I in Yamaguchi we met up in Kobe and had a little adventure for a couple of weeks. Here are a few pictures from that trip nearly three years ago.

If you're curious as to where I went and what I did during this vacation, let me know and I'll see about making a post about what I can remember. It was a while ago, so I can't promise much!

I hope you all enjoyed these pictures! Have a wonderful day!

Monday, September 22, 2014

3 Things That Surprised Me About Japan

Whenever I meet a Japanese person for the first time the conversation usually includes the following questions:

"Where are you from?" ("America.")
"Are you a student?" ("No, English teacher.")
"Oh! Where?" ("In junior high school.")
"How long have you been in Japan?" ("Three years.")
"What surprised you about Japan?" ("Uh... umm... well.. o.o.")

Usually that question is followed by me awkwardly standing there trying to think of something insightful and interesting. Which usually ends with me resorting to my fall back of, "Japan is really clean..." While that is true (and even surprising given the lack of garbage cans in public areas) it isn't something that really made me feel shocked or something I needed to adjust to; which is the angle of "surprised" the Japanese people asking are going for in most cases.

Since I have been asked this question on a semi-regular basis I have given it a fair amount of thought. And since I have thought about it a lot, I have come up with a few things that actually threw me when I first moved to Japan.

1. They don't have conversations with cashiers.

I think that this one will mainly apply to Americans, especially those of us who are from the South. Having worked at various establishments where I have had to act as a cashier I got used to making small talk with customers I would ring up.

"Did you find everything okay?"
"How are you doing today?"
"The weather has been strange today, hasn't it?"
"Did you see the (insert random sports team) game last night?"

Therefore, my first few trips out shopping in Japan I spent the majority of the time trying to think of small things to say in Japanese to the cashier so that I didn't appear cold or rude. By the time I had finished gathering what I needed from the shop my head would be full of various Japanese phrases that I could potentially use to sound  polite. However, since I am "Kaley", my nerves would get the better of me and I would stand there in awkward silence after mumbling a meager "konnichiwa".

The more I shopped, though, the more I noticed that no one talked to the cashiers. I also began to notice that no matter where I was, I would likely be asked the same exact string of questions and any sort of deviation from this norm would completely throw the person working and make things exponentially more awkward than if I were to have just stood there silently while they finished ringing up my goods.

2. They don't really do "doggy-bags" or take-away from restaurants.

I have a horrible habit of ordering far too much food at restaurants. Anyone who has ever gone out to eat with me can attest to how annoying I am about this. Thankfully in America the practice of taking a doggy-bag home is very common so my leftovers rarely ever go to waste.

The one time I asked for a takeout box, it was presented like this.
Japan, on the other hand, does not believe in this sort of take-out culture. Leaving any sort of food behind is thought of to be somewhat rude. During lunch at school I have seen children brought to tears over  being made to finish everything that they had been given, even if they don't like it or are full. While it may seem harsh, as someone who was raised in the exact opposite manner and thus had a difficult time as my mind refused any new "weird" foods (i.e. anything that wasn't pizza, macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, or grilled cheese) I can see the value in forcing children to power through foods that they don't enjoy.

This mindset sticks with Japanese into adulthood and I have seen many friends nearly make themselves sick while trying to finish everything at a restaurant. It is such a foreign concept to me as an American, because generally if you are too full to finish everything on your plate you just get the leftover food boxed up and take it back home with you to eat later. More often than not, I would go out to eat with the intent of ordering enough to eat for lunch the next day.

When I started to eat out in Japan and learned that taking leftovers home wasn't common I had to adjust the entire way I view eating at a restaurant. To this day, I can still rarely ever finish all of the food I am given and I am overcome with that shame of "not doing the right thing" that Japan is very good at delivering.

3. All-in-one stores are very hard to find.

Recently, I made some (freaking amazing) Irish Car Bomb cupcakes for a friend's birthday. On the Saturday before the picnic I went out armed with the following items on a shopping list: bittersweet chocolate, powdered sugar, sour cream, butter, Guinness, Irish whiskey, Bailey's, and heavy cream. You would think by looking at that list that I could easily pop into (at most) two stores. A grocery store and, if the grocery store didn't sell booze, the liquor store next door. The trip should take an hour and a half and that's if the lines are long and the grocery store is far away.

This is the cupcake. It is amazing.
To get all of those ingredients, living as central as you can get in Sapporo, it took me hours. Hours. Why? Because I had to walk a ten block radius of a circle and stop by four different stores to get everything. First, I headed to the nearest foreign food shop to get the bittersweet chocolate. Next, I went off to the Don Quijote (DonKi) to get the alcohol. Third stop was the nearby grocery store to get everything else. The grocery store didn't have sour cream, so I replaced that with plain yogurt. It also didn't carry powdered sugar, which is where my fourth stop at the discount grocery came from. Not to mention that I also made a fifth stop at the 100 yen shop to get containers to put the finished cupcakes in.

As you can see, there are no Wal-Marts or Targets in Japan where you can easily pick up everything you could ever need in one fell swoop. While Wal-Mart does have large supermarkets here in Japan, they are a far cry from the store in America that carry home goods, clothes, hardware, electronics and clothes as well as a supermarket. Not to mention that this large supermarkets (Seiyu and AEON namely) are usually far away from city centers and most times require a car to access conveniently.

So much of my time in Japan is spent planning which store to go to on which day as it is inconvenient to just go to whichever store I may need to visit. While much of this inconvenience is brought on by no having a car, even when I did have a car here it was driving from one side of town to another versus walking around a ten block radius.

Thankfully, all of these issues are pretty minor and rather easy to adjust to. As far as life in another country is concerned, Japan (and Japanese people) make it very easy and relatively stress free. Store clerks are always very friendly and helpful, signs have English on them more often than not, and standard protocols are followed to the letter all of the time.

I would love to hear what sort of things surprised people while living or traveling abroad, so feel free to share any thoughts or stories you may have on the subject! Here are what some of my friends said when I asked them what surprised them about Japan:

"How mental the women are. Not all. But 99%."
"Porn in the convenience store."
"How clean it is and how rare trash cans are." "Yeah, no rubbish bins is mental."
"Cost of fruit. 1,200 yen for 1/3 of a watermelon. No thanks."
"If you'er vegetarian you'd pretty much starve."
"I can drink in public and it's not weird to get drunk with my boss."
"Having a small face is beautiful."

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Teacher

Since I've had over a dozen schools, I have had the chance to interact with many different kinds of teachers. Some of them have been a pleasure to teach with; giving me control during class and just having a great attitude towards me being in the classroom. They essentially become students themselves, especially if they are elementary school teachers as they almost always don't know any English. On the other hand some can bit a bit difficult to work with, mainly in the sense that they have problems trusting that the students will understand what it is I am trying to teach them which leads to issues giving up control.

Thankfully, I've never had huge issues with a teacher and very few teachers actually fall into that latter type above. I have had, however, one teacher that turned me into a puerile school girl.

He taught at one of my first schools as a third grade elementary school teacher. I was twenty-two years old and he was likely well into his thirties. He was handsome, with a smile that you knew was genuine. His hair was utterly fantastic and he always dressed really, really well (which is rare for elementary school teachers). He also really loved being a teacher. Every time I taught his class he would join in the games with the same enthusiasm as his students. Seeing him interact with them just turned me into a huge pile of goo. I was putty in his hands.

Me, roughly third grade. Maybe.
I never seriously thought about pursuing anything with this teacher. The conflict of interest alone was too much for me to handle. But boy, did my heart flutter every time I saw his name on an upcoming schedule.

There were a couple of instances that I still remember of him just capturing that thirteen-year-old-girl part of me. I had shown up to school with my hair tied up in a bun atop my head. At that point I was still in the habit of really caring about how I looked at school. Not that I don't care currently, I was just more concerned with looking cute than being comfortable during the day. That meant wearing my hair down almost daily regardless of the fact that I would spend just as much time pushing my curls from my face as I would spend teaching. But I was cute doing it, and that’s all that had mattered. Now, my hair almost always sits in a messy bun on my head while I am teaching. But I am comfortable and that, truly, is all that matters; especially when the teacher's room is nearly thirty degrees Celsius.

So, it was a rare day of me wearing my hair up. I can't really remember having a reason for it, just that for that day I had decided to wear it up. The third grade teacher walked in during break time and just stopped and looked at me. His English was worse than my Japanese so our communication was always a little awkward. After a few seconds of silence he finally said, "You hair," while using his hands to simulate stroking an invisible ponytail resting on his shoulder, "it's nice…like," then pretending to push all of the imagined hair onto the top of his head. Clearly, he was trying to say that my hair looked good when it was up in a bun. This, in my mind, was the equivalent of the popular boy at school giving my glasses-wearing, braces-having, frizzy-hair-sporting thirteen-year-old self a compliment.

I am pretty sure I just smiled awkwardly and said, "Thanks," in English.

And then he walked off silently.

After that he stepped up his "game". In class he would always say how the students really looked forward to my lessons. He would consistently look up phrases in English so that he could communicate with me and even started to tote around a Japanese-English dictionary. Every time I went to that school my crush on him would grow and grow. I'd never had a guy act in such a way around me. I still don't think I have ever been treated in such a fashion by another guy.

It all climaxed when I had lunch in his classroom for the last time. Eating with students is always a mixed bag. Sometimes it is fantastic, the kids are excited and try to engage with you in conversation and you become closer with the students. On the other hand, you can get put with students who just sit there in awkward silence, scared to even look at you or speak in Japanese. This third grade class was always fantastic thankfully.

I had crammed myself into one of their tiny, third-grader-sized desks with my knees out to the side and bent up taller than the desk itself. The kids are all lively and talking with me, clearly excited that I am there to eat lunch with them. They all finish their food rather quickly and sit down.


The teacher pulls out a piece of paper and reads, "We have made you a present." Then he pulls out a guitar.

Yes, a guitar.

He starts playing it and the entire class bursts into a very well-rehearsed song. I just sit there grinning like an idiot. There is really nothing else you can do in that situation, is there? What the song was, I'll never know. It was all in Japanese and the tune was vaguely similar to a Beatles song. I honestly have zero idea what it was they were singing about.

The goodbye pizza gifts
Nothing ever happened with that teacher and I can't even remember his name anymore. The time before my last visit to that school he came over with his memo pad that I had grown to recognize and read, "What is your favorite food?" from the pages.

This time I didn't turn into a teen aged girl and simply replied, "Pizza," which he wrote down in the notepad and walked off.

On my last day at that school he came over to be just before I left and handed me a bag. Inside were various snacks, all of them flavored "pizza".

Friday, September 5, 2014

First Days

As a child the First Day of School always did a number on my nerves. All through elementary and middle school I would spend that first morning hanging my head in a toilet bowl. I didn't really have a reason to be anxious; I loved school. I never got bad grades, I had plenty of friends, and I was never bullied outside of standard teasing. Yet for some reason that first day always go to me. It was a ritual.

After moving to Japan I found that First Day Anxiety didn't disappear just because the student had become the teacher. During the past three years I've had 13 First Days and the anxiety still gets to me. Thankfully, I no longer spend the morning with my toilet, but I don't sleep and I go throughout the day light-headed thanks to an ever-racing heart.

Driving into the town
When I moved to Japan to teach English in public schools I had absolutely zero experience in teaching. Unless you count a very brief stint as a math tutor in high school as "teaching". I'd gotten my degree in International Affairs and made Japanese culture my main focus so. culturally speaking. I was pretty well prepared for my life abroad.

Honestly, the teaching isn't that difficult. I don't plan a curriculum nor do I hand out grades. My main role is to just play games and speak English with the students. I am a glorified clown that helps Japanese students get adjusted to the idea of "foreigners" in a very homogeneous society. I had less than a week of training before I was sent to my first small Japanese city that was nestled on the coast of Western Honshu; and a lot of that time wasn't even spent focusing on how to teach but rather how to live in Japan and company related information.

In that first city I had seven schools; five elementary and two junior high. That meant I had seven different First Days over the course of about a month. That first First Day, however, will always stick out in my mind for various reasons, both good and bad. But mainly good.

I was 22 years old, living on my own means for the first time. I'd just graduated from college four months prior so the "grown-up" life was still something I wasn't used to. My first school was small, The entire elementary school consisted of exactly twenty-five kids. The school itself was located high in the mountains of Yamaguchi Prefecture. As a girl who had lived her entire life up to that point in the flat-lands of Florida, the drive alone filled me with a since of awe and wonder and left me feeling very small.

After a fifteen minute drive up winding mountain roads the trees cleared and I found myself looking down on something that I had only seen in movies: rice fields nearing full bloom stretched out before me, dotted with houses covered in beautiful tiled roofs of royal blue and emerald green all split with tiny, one-lane roads. Any sense of anxiety I had was briefly forgotten because it was just really, really pretty.

New Years cards from the second grade class
The school itself had only three classes of students. There was a second grade class, a third and fourth grade class, and a fifth and sixth grade class. On each of my visits to the school I would see each one of them. Much to my surprise, the second grade teacher spoke English really well, which wasn't something I expected in a small mountain town. All of the teachers were extremely nice to me. At the time, my Japanese wasn't that great. I had studied it for two years in college, but my listening skills were seriously lacking. Yet, their kindness made it so I never felt alienated. There would be a cup of coffee siting on my desk in the morning, and they would always offer me fresh vegetables from the garden the school grew or fruit they had just picked from a tree outside.

My company had emailed me the lesson plans for my First Day a few days before, and I had spent a few hours at home the previous week preparing everything. I was to teach each class in ascending order, so the second graders were to be my first ever class in Japan.

The class consisted of five students; three boys and two girls. They sat in a tiny classroom, in a row of tiny desks, wearing tearing uniforms, and I had a tiny platform to stand on in front of the blackboard. There was a large TV in the corner next to a fish tank. The back wall of the classroom was lined with cubbies that hinted at a time when there were far more than twenty-five students enrolled at the school. Pictures hung over the cubbies pinned into a cork-board that stretched the length of the entire back wall. Every classroom I would teach in would have a similar appearance.

I gave a brief introduction of myself after the class began, thrown slightly off-balance by the standard way in which a Japanese class starts. One student calls for attention, informing the students of what class and/or period it is, then the student instructs the students to bow and give a greeting to the teacher. The string of fast-paced Japanese was nearly incomprehensible to me and it took me months to discern the meaning of it because I was too embarrassed to ask.

Once I'd finished my introduction I began the actual lesson. The students were enthusiastic and tried their best. There is one part, however, that I will always remember.

One of the boys had a bit of a problem. I assume he was given a lot of power at home and rarely heard the word "no". As the class progressed this boy slowly started moving his desk back towards the cubbies. He wanted nothing to do with English class. The homeroom teacher (HRT) handled it well. After he had gone back as far as he could she knelt beside him, whispering something I couldn't hear into his ear. Regardless of her efforts he just sat in the back glowering at me. It was a little unnerving.

Goodbye present from the second graders
My second class started in the same fashion as the first. This class was a bit larger at about twelve students, and each of the students were great. The entire lesson went over without a hitch. It wasn't until I had returned to the teachers' room to prepare for my final lesson of the day that I had learned that I'd actually done the lesson intended for the fifth and sixth graders. I don't believe anyone ever brought up the mistake to me or my company.

The fifth and sixth grade class was also great. Their HRT loved to teach them English and each student stood up and gave me an introduction of themselves. At the end of the day my anxiety had almost entirely disappeared and I realized that these lessons were quite low-pressure and even if I do mess up or have difficult students, as long as the students enjoyed my lessons no one seemed to care.

As far as First Days are concerned, I honestly couldn't ha
ve asked for much more. Event he little second grade boy who spent the entire first lesson trying to get as far away as possible from me would change over the course of the following seven months. When his class would come to get me from the teachers' room he went from standing silent against the back wall of the hallway to being the first to open the door and shout my name and would talk with me the entire walk to his classroom. During class he went from being dead silent to volunteering more than any of the other four students. Watching his attitude change over the months I taught him was probably the most impactful thing that has happened as I've been a teacher, for it showed me the influence my being in the classroom could have and the good things that I could bring to Japan.