Sunday, August 31, 2008

Speeches and judgements and inspections, Oh My!

This morning was, as many of you know, my first day of school. I have always known that Japanese schools are fundamentally different from American schools, but for the first time I have begun to see these differences firsthand. I decided to get to school early this morning, which was a great idea because the teachers decided to start their morning meetings and activities early as well. When I got to school I received a phone call in the parking lot from one of the teachers asking me nervously when I was planning on coming to school. I heard the instant relief in his voice when I told him that I had just arrived and was in the parking lot.

Backtrack for just a moment, when I pulled into the gate at the school, there was a welcome party of about 10 students with welcome signs and banners welcoming all of the teachers and students back to school after summer vacation. I thought that was pretty interesting and they would all bow and wish you a good morning as you pulled in.

When I made my way into the school, I could see the frenzy immediately. Teachers were arriving, students were arriving and everyone was bustling about as though there were many things to accomplish before the opening bell. I was told that I would be giving a speech to the teachers at the morning meeting and to please be prepared. Luckily I wrote my speech last week, so I didn't feel too much pressure. At 8:30am sharp, I was hurried to the front of the teacher's room and ushered into a chair next to the Vice Principal's desk. Then began the meeting and I was first on the agenda to introduce myself. I made a very short speech in English and everyone clapped. After I spoke they proceeded to continue their meeting and discuss what the schedule was for the day. It was a very efficient meeting and they took care of the lunch menu and the agenda for the ceremony this morning.

After this meeting, many teachers hurried out of the room to go clean their classrooms with their students. One of the English teachers was still in the room and I asked her to help me prepare my speech for the students. I had written one in English and had begun to translate it into Japanese as best I could, but Hiromi really helped me to make a good speech. Sometimes my sentence structure in Japanese lacks, but that is something I will have to work on.

At 9:30am the ceremony began in the gym. All of the students were neatly aligned by grade, and then by homeroom, and then by gender. The teachers were flanking the students at the sides and back always checking for students who were sleeping or playing on a cell phone. Again, I was at the top of the agenda for this ceremony and the Principal introduced me. I think he wanted to impress upon the students how hard I was trying for them because he said (in Japanese), "Annelyse Sensei speaks English, she is from West Virginia, but today, she is going to speak to you all in Japanese. Do you understand, she is going to speak in Japanese!" It was kind of a nice intro, but it made me even more nervous, because I really didn't want to screw it up. But I went up and gave my little speech in Japanese. I told the students that I was very happy to be there and that I wanted them to talk to me. I told them to come find me in the teacher's room and I would be happy to talk to them anytime.

At the end of my speech I left the stage and Hiromi came up to me and told me I had done a perfect job! She was being nice, but I had spoken pretty well I guess. I watched a little more of the ceremony, and the teachers thought this was funny. They told me I could go back to the teacher's room because it might be a little boring for me to watch the ceremony in Japanese. But I stayed anyway because it was so interesting to me.

After me the Principal made a speech of his own. He welcomed the students back from summer vacation and talked about the Olympics some. He awarded some students with certificates of accomplishment in badminton and Kanji aptitude tests. Next, the guidance counselor came up and spoke to the students about finding jobs. She said that the Seniors needed to find jobs soon and that they should have used summer vacation for interviews and research. She commented that the teachers have been working hard to help their students find jobs all summer and the students should be thankful.

Next came a bit of a chiding speech about proper bicycle riding. The teacher making the speech spoke harshly to the students about not riding their bikes in the road. "The road is for cars," he said, "bikes should only be ridden on the left sidewalk." He made clear that riding in the road was dangerous and there had been reports of Sanwa students riding in the road. He also spoke to them about using umbrellas and cell phones while they ride. He said, "these activities are not only dangerous, but illegal." He said emailing and talking on the phone while riding a bike could cause you to hurt someone walking on the sidewalk. Then he launched into a speech about helmets. He said that not all of the students wear helmets when they ride bicycles and that is unacceptable. This teacher drew a little diagram on the chalkboard to illustrate his points about riding on the sidewalk, and not the road; and being aware of pedestrians.

After the bike lecture, the students all had to go through a thorough inspection of their attire and appearance. This part was the most interesting to me of the whole morning. They shifted the students around the gym and inspected each grade separately. The students would line up single file according to gender. There were no less than 6 teachers inspecting one student at a time. One teacher was recording all of the information and whether the student passed or received a punishment, another teacher was checking hemlines of pants and skirts, another was checking hair color and cut and product usage, a fourth teacher was checking length of fingernails, another was checking if skirts were being rolled up or if belts were being worn, and the last couple teachers were checking overall appearance and giving the okay. The girls cannot wear earrings, no student may dye their hair, socks must always be worn, pants may not go past the heal of the shoe, and skirts must be at least knee length. If finger nails are too long, they provide clippers and students stand in long lines waiting to cut them. This process takes a long time and inspections like this do not happen everywhere, but Sanwa is very strict.

I was just told that I do not start teaching today because it is a shortened day for students and there are no classes. I think things are starting well and I am excited about experiencing all of this.

Exhaustion as I have never experienced, and I'm kind of proud of myself

As some of you already know, I had big plans this weekend. I went with some of the other JETs in Ibaraki to go climb Mt. Fuji. The whole weekend, from start to finish has been long and very physically challenging and I am so glad I did not shy away from this difficult experience.

On Saturday morning I woke up at 7am and started getting ready for the climb. I packed my borrowed backpack with a waterproof jacket, gardening gloves with the gripies on them, extra layers of clothing, fruit, grilled chicken, rice crackers, a liter of water, my camera, and my wallet. A liter of water is incredibly heavy, but also very necessary for a climb up a mountain! After I packed my bag, I braided my hair and pinned my bangs back and got in my climbing garb that I had just purchased the week before. I left the house at 9:45am and walked my 20 minute walk to the train station and began my task of trying to find Moriya, the station where I was supposed to meet the bus with everyone else on it to take me to Fuji. I had to switch between public trains and private trains and I had 4 transfers, but $11.80 and 2 hours later I arrive in Moriya crazy early (about an hour) and to my delight they were having a little street fair! So I went and joined some of the festivities and bought my van a new little magnet cling. Soon the bus got there and I was on my way. We stopped a few times for stocking up on supplies and last minute food.

We arrived at Station 5 on Mt. Fuji at about 5:30pm. Other veteran JETs let us know that sunrise was scheduled at 5:15am and that the average climb time is about 8 hours. They told us not to start climbing too early because it only got colder as you got up the mountain and no one wants to sit up at the top for 3 hours freezing before the sun comes up. So around 6:45pm a group of us began starting the trek up the mountain. Initially the path is a very nice incline and quite wide. We were making good time and made it to Station 6 by about 8pm. We stopped briefly to drink some water and put on a new layer of clothing, and then pushed forward. At this point there were 8 of us traveling in a group. Because it was dark and we didn't want to lose anyone in our group we did this thing where we counted off. I was 1 and when I called out my number, everyone would shout their number in order. Instead of 8 yelling his number (Daryle), he shouted Keiai! and we all responded with Oshi! as loud as we could. This is a Japanese chant that means bring the energy to the center and work as a team; kind of wishing ourselves luck! As we trekked up the mountain all the Japanese people climbing around us would laugh and think it was cool that the foreigners were using Japanese chants.

Once we reached Station 7 it was pitch black. We all had flashlights so that we could see directly in front of us while we were climbing. At this point it was still walking really; there were some rocks, but it was really just walking uphill. We found out at Station 7 that we could have our walking sticks branded with the stamp of each of the stations and huts going all the way up the mountain. This began my collection of 7 stamps that I would eventually get while going up the mountain.

After Station 7 we plugged along, but some of us were clearly moving a bit more slowly than others. We didn't mind the slower pace because we knew that getting to the top too early would just be very cold and a bit miserable. We kept going up and up, stopping at every hut along the way for our stamps. The station at the top of the mountain was 10, and in between every station we came to, there would be huts. These huts would sell drinks, soup, candy bars, etc. Of course everything was crazy expensive and we were cursing how heavy our bags were, but glad that we didn't have to buy anything there. These huts were also mini motels, you could pay anywhere from $40 to $78 (depending on the hut) and sleep there for a few hours on a Japanese futon and recharge your batteries.

Pretty soon, about halfway between Station 7 and 8 I started to feel awful. There were many factors of course; 1. I have never done anything so physically strenuous for such a prolonged time in my life. 2. The altitude and lack of oxygen made it very hard for me to breathe, and started to make me dizzy and made my body feel very very heavy. I kept climbing though in a very slow pace. Our group split around this time because our slow pace was going to keep us from getting to the summit in time for the sunrise. I remained slow, mostly because I just couldn't operate at any other speed, but I didn't feel badly because I was in good and supportive company. The closer we got to Station 8, the worse I was feeling and this was all being compounded by fatigue and the fact that I had been climbing the mountain for 7 hours and had been awake for 18 hours. I knew that there was an "escape route" from Station 8, so I had made the decision for myself that I could not make it to the summit and I would stop at Station 8 and watch the sunrise from there.

I kept climbing, and luckily Lauren (my awesome friend here) stuck with me, even though I was going very slowly. We still stopped at each hut and now we were stopping at different points in the middle of the trail between huts. Every time I would stop for a break, I would begin to fall asleep within seconds. It got to the point where I had to push myself and stop as little as possible, because otherwise it was too hard to get myself going again. And I had to make it to Station 8 because that was the only point (other than going all the way to the top) where I could get back down the mountain come daybreak. This was physically the hardest thing I had ever done. I wanted to just stop and curl up in a ball and sleep - all I wanted/needed was sleep. And it doesn't help that somewhere between Station 7 and Station 8 the path turns from an uphill walking trail to literal climbing. This was climbing from rock to rock on all fours at some points, using my walking stick to post into a little dirt on the side while I hoisted myself up to the next level of rock.

I felt nauseated and dizzy for the last two hours I had to climb to get to Station 8. The was a very kind Japanese man who was passing me at one point that said, "You can do it! Good luck! Yay!" Another Japanese man behind me on a particularly tall rock lifted the weight of my backpack off my back for me so I could get up the momentum to hoist myself up to the next level. Lauren and I arrived at Station 8 at 3:30am. I sat on a bench outside of the little motel for about half an hour and was completely asleep, but shivering and freezing when Lauren decided that we needed to get futons at the motel, no matter what they cost. So $65 and about 5 minutes later we were in the hut sleeping with a futon and covers. At 5:10am Lauren woke me up to see the sunrise and we got pictures.

After our sunrise pictures, she and I went back into the hut, packed up our backpacks again and started to make our descent down the mountain. Now, because it was daylight, I could start to take pictures and it was incredible to me, looking down how far up she and I really had come. And then I looked up and realized it was a darn good thing I didn't try to get all the way up to the summit. I had truly tested myself both physically and mentally and I am very proud of what I was able to accomplish. I could never have done it without Lauren's help and encouragement during my last two hours of agony.

She and I started down the mountain and this was nearly as difficult as getting up the mountain. The trail going down is all a developed path, so there are no large rocks to climb over, only a red rock path all the way down. The slope is still quite steep and very painful for the knees and shins. Lauren and I made it down the mountain in 4 hours. After we arrived back at Station 5, we got some omiyage (souvenirs) and waited for the bus to pick us up again. In total from 7am on Saturday morning until 10pm Sunday night, I have climbed about 1000 meters of Mt. Fuji and gotten about 1 hour of sleep.

This was an incredible experience for me. I pushed myself to the point of breaking and did not allow myself to shy away from this challenge or give up when it got hard, or even miserable. Seeing the view this morning from Station 8 was incredible and something I can say I worked very hard to get a view like that. I usually work hard when it comes to thinking or feeling, but never physically. This is truly an accomplishment for me and something I will cherish forever as something I went way outside my comfort zone to do and succeeded in watching the sunrise from high upon Mt. Fuji.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Back to school, back to school, to go show Dad I'm not a fool!

School starts on Monday! They gave me the run down of what I am going to have to do everyday next week in each of 5 schools! They are going to first have a teachers' meeting in the morning where they will formally introduce me to all the teachers at the school, plus the office personnel. During this introduction I need to have a 5 minute speech prepared introducing myself - entirely in Japanese.

After the teachers' meeting there is going to be an assembly of all the students. They are going to formally introduce me to all the students of the school and then I am expected to give a different 5 minute speech to the students - entirely in Japanese. I have been working on the speeches since they told me and let me tell you, my Japanese translation skills are rusty! I am a little impressed though with how much I do remember. And I wrote the translation in Japanese characters instead of Roman characters because if I am speaking in Japanese, I need to be reading Japanese, otherwise I get all screwed up.

I am usually okay with public speaking - I secretly love it - but this is going to really test me. Either they will think I am awesome or a big dork who can't speak properly! haha It's okay, those speeches are going to be an hour tops for the whole week, I can deal with that! What I am really excited about is my smaller self-introduction in class. I have made this powerpoint that I am pretty proud of. I usually hate powerpoint, but I had plenty of time to perfect this thing! I have used a lot of pictures and I think it is going to be fun for the kids and me too!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Teacher-Lyse is 70 years young

Many things floating around in my mind currently, politics, religion, the meaning of life and all that. I'm not so sure this is the best venue to explore all those thoughts (really I just don't know the breadth of my readership and I don't have the guts to spill all). However I would like to talk a bit about something that everyone already knows about me - I am too old for my own good.

Maybe that's not entirely accurate. I am just plain old. It's not bad, just something that I think about from time to time, you know, when there are young people around me. I have made many new JET friends here and I have been trying to keep up with each of their respective blogs to know the kind of fun adventures they are all having. As I read I realize that they are all so YOUNG! They are out, going to bars, not working at their schools yet, traveling all around, receiving visitors - all in merely three weeks time. Now, don't get me wrong, I have some exciting things planned, like climbing Mt. Fuji and seeing the sunrise.

I think my real hang up is that I am a perpetual planner, especially if I am alone - I don't adventure solo. I would like to reiterate that this is not something I dislike about myself (i.e. you don't need to worry about the uber encouraging post telling me that I am really great fun girl and you love me, I love you too). I am just very impressed by the people I meet in my life who are fearless and live spontaneously everyday of their lives (Ariana!). And frankly when it is raining the way it has been around here, I'm not going anywhere except school and home!

Also I think I have gotten over the whole, "being in Japan is a once in a lifetime experience." This is my fifth time here; I have done the touristy stuff everyone is scrambling to do. I will come back here again. This is a special place in my life with huge significance and will always be a comfortable place for me to be. What's on my agenda now is to get settled, make this little apartment my own, and really be the best teacher/mentor/foreign influence I can for these kids. When it comes right down to it, I am a people person. I love to laugh and hear stories and tell stories and learn. I don't think I will be able to change the world through this job, but I may be able to touch lives and cultivate happy hearts and curious minds.

This is going to be an amazing year in my life, not because of all the places I'll see or the pictures I'll take, but because of the people I will meet and know and love. The students I get to know will influence my life the most I am certain. I always set out with the best intentions when I begin on an endeavor involving kids; but I always come out at the end having gotten the better end of the deal. I always learn more from the people I am trying to teach than they learn from me. I don't think that is my failing, I think it is their success.

I will always be the lucky one. The old lucky one. :)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Whirlwind couple days

Where to begin? On Tuesday I was whisked away from school early to go and visit another one of my schools, Koga 2nd. This was a bit of an odd experience, the two English teachers I met there spoke very little English actually. I was warned the students' level was going to be pretty low, but I wasn't expecting to have to struggle to speak to the teachers. Just another challenge to overcome. It was kind of a tiring day, so afterward I came home and wrote some letters, straightened up a little, and then I got a fun little phone call.

The lovely people who left the beautiful flowers called me and invited me to their club. Of course I said yes, and then inquired as to when; of course it was that evening! They called at 6:30pm and wanted to pick me up at 8:00pm. I am so glad that I went because I met some really fun ladies and some hilarious foreigners! This club is called Heartful English Conversation Club. I will be going to meet with these ladies every 3rd Tuesday. All I have to do is go and get everyone speaking; about anything! We talked about what we did on the weekend, the Olympics; one of the women is a competative Ballroom dancer! I am really going to love getting to know more about them and the exciting lives they lead! The other two foreigners that help out with the club are from Australia and Kenya and have each been here for many years. We ended up having a fantastic night, laughing a ton and I truly cannot wait to go back!

Today I visited yet another one of my schools, Sakai West. I will only be at this school until the end of January, but upon first meeting I wish I would be there all year. I met and spoke with one of the teachers with whom I'll be working. She was the most informative and helpful person I have met when it comes to knowing what I am really supposed to do when I teach. I saw some of the school and they have a really beautiful Japanese rock garden. This was a class gift from the 9th graduating class of the high school. They told me that the tradition of giving class gifts has since faded, but this has been a wonderful addition to their school. Sakai West is a very small school, only 187 students and they are planning to close it within the next two years. They are going to take the students from Sakai West and combine them with another, larger school not too far away.

After I was finished being shown around school, one of the other English teachers, Tanako, asked if she could take me to her parents' house for lunch. I said yes, of course (I mean what else have I got to do?) and we traveled the short car ride to the house. I met her father first, he is an old man of about 80 and when he spoke to me it was perfect English! I was really surprised; he told me that he had been practicing and wanted to speak to me in English.

We were actually going to have lunch at a small ramen shop just around the corner from their home. They later told me that this ramen shop was the oldest restaurant in all of Koga! The food was wonderful, and there was a TON of it! At lunch I met Tanako's mother and her daugther, Mio, as well. Her daughter is 8 years old and just started the second grade. After lunch we went back to the house and Mio showed me her drawing book. She is a really good artist and prides herself on making the eyes of all her characters really big! Tanako showed me some of Mio's school books and what she is learning, she also showed me the Home Economics text book for the senior high school. Home Ec is basically a cooking class in Japan; students learn everything from how to cook rice to the proper ettiquete for setting the table and how to seat guests at a dinner party (in both Japanese and Western fashions).

During my cooking lesson, Mio came bursting into the room wanting to play cards with me and Tanako. We played "Old Maid" and I lost! (of course) Then Mio showed me a solitare game that she likes to play; it's really similar to the Pyramid game I like to play, so that was fun. Mio also plays the piano and soon after our card fun we had to scoot because Mio was going to be late for her lesson. When Tanako and Mio dropped me off Mio asked her mother why I couldn't live next door to them and visit all the time!

I am so happy I have met them and cannot wait to lose at "Old Maid" again!

P.S. I put my pictures in a more convenient place, so make sure you check them out often because I am always trying to add new pictures to old albums!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Gift giving and the art of ambushing

Everyone here is always giving me little gifts, and usually it is some kind of food. I have gotten oranges, pears, plums, about 3 tons of rice, some chocolate, lemon gum, candy, and a lot of little rice crackers.

I have started to observe and I can now sense when it's coming. There will be 3 or 4 teachers huddled around, speaking in low voices and then they will look at me, smile - maybe giggle a little - and then run over to me, tap me on the shoulder and present me with some small token of friendship. I love the gestures and the thought put into it. They have to decide as a group if I will like what they are about to offer. And once they have given me the gift, they wait for me to try it just to make sure the foreigner isn't adverse to their offering. And every time, without fail they think it is amazing that I eat it, and like it and am so appreciative of their kindness.

I have been asked by every person I have met what my favorite Japanese food is. My response is always along the lines of, "I love all Japanese food! It is difficult to decide." This is a shocking response to them and almost becomes a challenge - what is the most odd looking weird food we can try to feed her? Luckily I will eat almost anything and can surprise them at every turn.

In addition to being excellent and thoughtful gift givers, the teachers here definitely know how to ambush a girl! Everyday within the 2 and a half hour time block of 11:30am and 2:00pm, the teachers here have lunch. I pack my lunch everyday, but I try to hold off and see what others are doing before I just go and eat at noon all by myself. I have been trying to pay attention and listen for familiar words, but my efforts are moot. I think their strategy is not employing a routine - I can't keep up because there is no pattern to it, no consistency to lunch time. I will be off my guard for five minutes and that is when they sneak up behind me, tap me on the shoulder and ask me to lunch. Of course because I am a delinquent teacher I am always in the middle of a conversation with someone online or in the middle of writing a blog post, so everything is put on hold while they whisk me off to lunch at the combini or down stairs to the Home Ec room where one of the teachers has prepared homemade curry and rice.

I wish I could better anticipate these ambushes, but I guess spontaneity is good for me and my obsessive planning and preparation.

Rain happens, but that is no excuse

for the horribly depressing and blah post I left on Friday afternoon. It has been raining here for over a week now and I let it get the better of my mood and emotions. Thanks for the really nice and happy comments you all left on my post. It was nice though because as soon as I made that post and left school on Friday, my whole day started to look up and things got a lot better.

To start, on my way home from school on Friday with one of the teachers here, I was invited to dinner. I have been wanting a social invitation for during the week for a while now, so I immediately said yes and had a really nice time! We went to a Japanese style restuarant that kind of resembles Dennys. It was great company and a nice conversation and I was immediately feeling better.

As though that highlight wasn't enough, when I returned to my apartment, I saw some bags hanging on my doorknob. At first glance, in the dark, I though they had returned my trash to me, but I was happily wrong. They were actually flowers and some oranges hanging there. These lovely gifts were from an Adult Education Engligh group that would like me to join them once a month. The flowers smelled so nice and now my whole sardine can smells nice! And the fruit was such a nice surprise because I have been wanting fruit, but it is too expensive for me to buy in the grocery store. I have already eaten two of them and they are sooo juicy!

Shortly after I arrived home, we had another earthquake. After thinking about how to describe it a little more it hit me! These small earthquakes feel like turbulence on a plane. That is the best description I can give!

On Saturday morning I went with one of my friends to Tochigi-ken and did some shopping and went to the movies. We went to see Sex and the City because it has just arrived in Japan. I loved the TV series and I really enjoy the movie, even if the critics say it is too long! When we walked into the theatre I smelled caramel popcorn that reminded me of Tokyo Disney land! I prefer caramel popcorn to regular popcorn anyway, so this was a great discovery! After the movies we went to the outlet.

Clothes are some of the most expensive things you can buy in Japan, and that thought was confirmed on Saturday. Good thing Thursday was a pay day! I am going to climb Mt. Fuji (insert laughter and mocking here) next weekend and I needed some appropriate clothing for this endeavor. I picked up a jacket from Columbia, some pants from Under Armour and some cheapy tennis shoes from a Pay-Less kind of store. It was a really fun day, inspite of the rain!

On Sunday morning I went to school, early, to meet with the car insurance salesman and get everything squared away with my car. The inspection is finally over (after 2 weeks) and I was able to drive my car home. Initially the teacher who picked me up from my apartment was a little nervous for me to drive home all by myself, but I politely told him that I could do it and that I would call him from my apartment when I arrived. He relented and thus began my first driving adventure!

It is amazing to me how much easier the whole manual driving thing is when you are actually driving on real roads and shifting out of second gear! I think practicing is a necessary step, but very difficult given the stop and go nature of the parking lot. It was also nice to be on my own, having to figure out everything on my own. I did notice that it started to sound blaringly quiet, so I am going to have to get a CD to put in my car pronto! This morning I drove myself to school, of course. I must report for your laughing pleasure that I drove the first 100 yards with my emergency brake on!!! I am a dummy. I don't know why I didn't remember it was on, I am a notorious e-brake user, even on flat ground on my automatic at home! But luckily I noticed that the car wasn't going above 10km/hr and I finally took the e-brake off. Hopefully that will be the last of my stupid faux paux's with the car, but I doubt it.

So the moral of my weekend is:
Just because it's raining does not entitle me to be crabby and crappy on my blog, because as soon as I go off and vent like that someone thinks of me and makes me feel special so my venting looks silly and petty! And always, always, always remember to take off the e-brake!!!

Now, I want everyone to be able to see the pictures I am taking, so I am hoping that my html skills from college (thanks Professor VanderClock!) pay off and the links I put below actually work! Please comment and let me know if I have screwed something up.

*Pictures have since moved, please look at the top right corner of the blog*

Friday, August 22, 2008


What do you write about when all the thoughts from your head are gone? I think I have checked Facebook about 5000 times today. I have read about 20 articles in the Washington Post online. I know more about the odor of skin cancer now and the IOC's refusal to launch an investigation into the actual ages of the female Chinese gymnasts. I read about McCain's 7 houses and just gained further contempt for the manner in which political races are petty and media driven. I have read again all of my own blog posts and the comments many of you have left. I took a walk today to the post office and the lady told me I need to be more careful about writing on only half of the postcard; and then she proceeded to charge me an extra 0.40 cents because I had gone over the invisible line. I watched the kyudo (archery) practice this morning where the students wanted to know how to say things in English like armpit hair. I have thought about missing Bentley and wishing I were back there every other minute since about 10:00am. I checked the exchange rate between the yen and the dollar. I have researched flights from Japan to Malaysia, Laos, Taiwan, Manila, Australia, Hong Kong and have been shocked by the expense. I have read some of my new book, which will remain unnamed until I am finished. I have thought more about coming home vs. staying in Japan for Christmas - no decision. I have desperately wanted to make phone calls, but know that I cannot. I wanted to buy a new book online, and then I wanted to buy a Zune, and then I decided not to. As the sky is getting dark and I am still at school I just wanted a brain dump. I wanted to ramble and you poor people are the subject of my mental attack. Have a nice weekend.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Music as an anchor in my life

Everyday when I get home from school I do a few things - they have become my routine. I turn on my air conditioner, I turn on my fan to blow the cool air from the air conditioner into other parts of the apartment, and I turn on my digital photo frame. This is a gift I received last July from the staff of HSD. I will probably post about my thoughts and reflections of that program later, but for now suffice it to say this was a really fantastic goodbye gift.

So digital photo frames seem to be all the rage these days, and I am beginning to understand why. While I was in the States I didn't use it that much because everyone I loved and needed in my life was right there within arms' or telephone's reach at all times. Being here a little bit more removed my frame has proven to be a saving grace; a kind of security blanket. I have learned how to use the frame pretty well and on it I have a constant slide show of about 250 pictures. These photos include my family, my close friends, pictures of my parents' house, my different apartments in college, and my previous travels to Japan and Europe. Along with this awesome slide show I have also included some music that is significant in my life to give a nice, sappy soundtrack. The music I have included has all been given to me/introduced to me by someone else. When people share music that is important to them with me I consider that one of the greatest gifts they could give.

Music has played an intensely significant role in my life. The music I have been given by others immediately reminds me of them and all of the wonderful reasons I cherish their friendship. I can also

sidenote **A small, terribly insignificant, but nevertheless real, earthquake just happened**

change the music and pictures on this frame whenever I choose, so I have been adding pictures as I find them on my computer and other various sources online. When it comes to pictures I am not so discriminatory, however the music I choose must have a certain amount of significance before I put it on the frame. Right now my frame includes songs from Joss Stone, Billy Joel, Lady Antebellum, Cake, Ingrid Michaelson, Sublime, and Corinne Bailey Rae.

Music is something so far-reaching, yet so private in each of our lives. The same song heard by 5 different people will evoke 20 different emotions from beginning to end. There is the touchstone of the common lyrics - something tangible that people can hold on to; but then when the melodies are heard no two people hear the same thing. I would venture to say that no one person hears the samething every time.

I know I have my own little soundtrack playing in my head all day. (Go ahead, call me crazy, I probably deserve it.) And if it were up to me, I would listen to music every second of every day of my life. Sometimes it makes me happy, sometimes sad, mad, confused, but every single time it fills in little pieces of my soul and personality that are impossible to know or express any other way.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Listening to static

Have you ever turned on your favorite radio station in your car, but all you heard was static? Or what's worse, you turn to your favorite radio station, and you can hear the music despite all the static? Without actually knowing Spanish, have you watched the Spanish channel on TV?

Last night, as I sat on my couch without legs, (hopefully I can get pictures up soon) watching highlights of the Olympics, I started to contemplate what it would be like to truly understand everything that was coming out of my TV. Because I am watching the Olympics, something so familiar to me - universal if you will, I am able to ignore the commentators and still enjoy the programming. All of the words coming from the TV sounds like static to me, but the image is appealing, so I don't turn it off. However, I don't turn down the sound due to the mere hope that they will say something I will comprehend. When that rarity happens and I comprehend the Japanese for a quick moment I think I am awesome! Very soon that feeling fades into hearing and understanding nothing but static again.

I have a new appreciation for people learning a foreign language. Yes, I was a formal student of Japanese many years ago, but at that time I was a wide-eyed high school student with an unquenchable desire to learn absolutely everything possible about the Japanese language and culture. I cannot take complete credit for this youthful motivation, the desire was really the direct result of having been the student of the most motivated and inspirational teacher I have ever met. I always wanted to know more and my sincere interest and desire to perform well for this teacher made learning the language, easy. My only saddness is that I was a student of his for merely two years.

How can a subject I once found so easy and exciting now overwhelm me with the ominous feeling of dread and failure? It is because this is where the tangible meets the intangible. The mere comprehension of words and phrases is not enough. Language is so much more than we tend to give it credit. A language relays information, but also is the verbalization, embodiment of a peoples' culture and tradition. Things like cliches are not born of literal situations, but of culturally accepted humor or philosophy. Intonation is an extremely delicate facet of language that can add new meaning (sometimes positive, sometimes negative) to an entire conversation; maybe even redefine the entire relationship of two people if used incorrectly.

These intangibilities are not something that can be taught in a classroom or from a book. They must learned through daily life and activities - suffered through by new students. I believe that learning a new language is more difficult for adults due to pride and ego. We all learn language beginning from the time we are infants. We are spoken to differently, we are given special consideration while we are learning. People speak around us, and we don't understand, but as children we lack the inhibitions that, as adults, keep us from trying. Adults are very capable, I would argue more capable than children, of learning anything, given their ability to reflect and reason.

They claim our brains are fully formed and learning new things becomes almost impossible because our brains are no longer expanding and growing. I believe this phenomenon is something less biological and more a learned state of being. As adults we are taught that change and growth is not necessary for us; it is acceptable to be stationary and we are freed from the "need" to adapt. And as adults we have a tendency to view people trying to teach us as disrespectful; especially if they are our peers or younger. In this sense we shut down our brains and almost refuse to learn something new, blaming it on our age or circumstance.

With this insight, I want to head off my own degredation into "stubborn" adulthood and relearn my Japanese in order to stop the static I hear all day. The JET Programme offers its participants free language courses complete with compulsory testing and evaluations. I have decided to challenge myself and instead of opting for the beginner course in Japanese I have decided to jump into the Intermediate course. This course requires that I know all the kana (hirigana and katakana), can recognize at least 100 kanji (of thousands!) and have a vocabulary of at least 800 "common" words. When I was in high school this would not have been a challenge for me in the least, but now it is something which makes me nervous. I am capable of learning this, and in the end I believe I will score well on my Japanese language aptitude test; I have decided that there is no other option for me.


I just need a moment and a space to vent quickly, I hope.

APO was my life in college! I gave everything I had to them and loved it. I miss APO like crazy, but I am more than happy to pass along the organization to some very capable hands.

HOWEVER, when it comes to the issue of Family Trees...I would like to clarify some things.

First, officially, as per a vote by the organization, I am Matt Rand's little.

Secondly, I think the people commenting about this situation on the Alumni Facebook group need to take a moment and reassess. We are all ALUMNI, that means that APO belongs to other people now and is merely a fond memory and the occasional reason to get together and drink, until that just becomes inappropriate. But let's face it, for some of them that behavior will always be acceptable.

Thirdly, Matt Rand is my Big first and foremost because he fulfilled the role that my Big was supposed to, but never did. He is to this day one of my best friends and mentors.

That is all I have to say about that. I just wish people would deal with themselves and move on with their lives.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Rediscovering the joy in reading, kind of...

So being here without much to do, I have started to read again. When I was a kid I would devour books, anything that was put in front of me, I would read in no time flat. I would often read two or three books at one time; juggling the stories was always fun for me. However high school hit and then college, and all reading for pleasure went right out the window. I even boycotted to the point (and I am somewhat ashamed to admit this) that I wouldn't even read textbooks or assigned reading for some classes. It got to the point that reading just was not an enjoyable thing for me to do any more. It was a struggle to get through books, even ones I liked! I think throughout all of college I actually read 4 books from start to finish; about attempted about 7 others that have just fallen by the wayside only half read.

But, much to my pleasant surprise, I had this huge desire to read once I got to Japan! And luckily, my apartment is filled with all kinds of books that have just accumulated over the years of JETs living in this apartment. So I was searching through the shelf and picked up American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. I have heard of it before and I know there is a movie that exists with Christian Bale as the lead actor. I had some inkling that it was kind of a dark story about a serial murderer. Really, I had no clue what I was getting myself into!

I read this book in fairly short order, about 6 days, which is nice because I am back to my old speeds. But I think it was the most difficult book I have ever pushed myself through. It is an understatement to call this book dark. It is deeply disturbing due to the extreme nature of its content. In places it is almost pornographic and then it quickly changes into the most detailed accounts of murder and mutilation. Honestly now, I never need to see the movie, EVER. And I would NOT recommend anyone to read this book. But if you do, or you already have at some point in your life, I would like to discuss it with you, so let me know.

Now I am on a reading kick and I really hope it stays this way for a while. I have a ton of books on my shelves at home, but if anyone has some good suggestions, I will totally try to track down some of them while I am in Japan! still delivers to me. :) As I read I will be giving mini reports about my thoughts and feelings; not that any of you want to read them, but I want to write them. Fun how since this is my blog I can write about whatever I want, even if it bores you....haha. But seriously if I am boring, let me know and I will find something more exciting to write about.

Writing letters to pass the time

At the suggestion of someone pretty fantastic, I just joined this network called It's a pretty awesome endeavor and essentially I am now going to have as many random penpals as I can handle from all over the world! Given the fact that I have been so into writing lately (letters, postcards, blog entries, my diary, etc.) this is going to be a blast.

My favorite pasttime as of late is to sit and write letter after letter. I think I have sent about 16 or so by now. And don't worry, if you haven't gotten one yet it is enroute....or you never gave me your mailing address and that is something you should do ASAP!!!

The best part I have discovered about letter writing is that, unlike a face to face conversation, you can take your time and really decide what it is you want to write. It also gives me a chance to reestablish contact with some people who I rarely speak to. Not all of the letters I have written have been happy and cheery and glowing. Of course I have my weak moments and some of the letters I have sent home have been sad, or a little depressing. If you have gotten or will be getting one of those letters, I'm sorry; I'll try to make the next one happier.

There is no pressure when you're writing a letter. At this point people are so excited to receive mail, myself included, that even some rambling is acceptable. Mail is also a sign that someone is thinking about you and thought you were important enough to take the time to write a little card or a letter. Letter writing is a genuinely sincere form of communication while others are still lacking. So the next time you are thinking of someone special, and you want them to know they are special, just write them a letter and it will speak volumes about how you feel about them!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Living in Japan

Being a foreigner and trying to set up residence in Japan can be a little tough. There is a ton of paperwork and verification; it means having obscene amounts of cash on you at all times for different payments and fees and no one takes credit cards. I have to get a foreigner identification card and they tell me I can’t do anything else until I have that. That card takes three weeks to get once I have applied for it; but I have some stealthy people helping me out, and I have been able to get a lot of things set up without it!

I have a cell phone now, which is really awesome because Japanese cell phones kick butt! I have a name stamp too, because the Japanese use these stamps instead of a signature. My school had one made for me the day I got here and they picked out a really pretty case for it too! I have gotten started on the process of setting up my internet, which takes a long time just because of sending modems back and forth and verification stuff. I am also in the process of having my car inspected and getting insurance. That is taking a while because my car is pretty old. I think the Japanese are just worried that the American, who is used to driving on the right side of the road is going to break herself, the car, and maybe other people! I’m glad they are taking their time with it, but I will be glad to have a bit more freedom and mobility once I am able to start driving. My health insurance card is on its way as well as my re-entry permit.

My re-entry permit is crazy important because if I were to leave Japan without it, my workers Visa would become void and I wouldn’t be let back into the country. So for just 6000 yen (about $60) I will be able to buy a permit that lets me come and go from Japan as I please. I am pretty excited about the traveling I will get to do while I am here. Once I go back home to the States, I will hit my comfort zone again, and it may be quite a while before I leave again, so I better just go crazy now! I am going to start a running list of places I want to visit this year. If anyone has any suggestions for good things to do, please, please let me know!!!

I think this is enough blogging for now. I hope I have given you all plenty to read!

School and my new teacher friends

I have been working at my school for about a week now and things are pretty simple so far. I come in, greet everyone, get online and work on my Self-Intro powerpoint. At noon or so I go to lunch with some of the teachers and then I go back to my desk until the end of the day. It’s nice here because different teachers come up to talk to me throughout the day. I have showed the photo album I brought from home. The teachers here are so genuinely kind and interested in me that it makes being in school really fun. Just think when students are thrown into the mix, it’s going to be a party all the time!

One of my favorite days so far was the day the science teacher, who doesn’t speak English, took me out to my van in the parking lot and helped me practice driving! She is young, maybe mid-thirties and has a great smile. She knows how to drive a manual transmission and said that when she was young, she didn’t have a choice between manual and automatic, so she had to learn! She knows the words for clutch, brake, accelerate and reverse. First, she had me watch her drive up and down the road a little bit. She was narrating as she drove, and then she prompted me to narrate for her, to make sure I was paying attention and understood what she was doing. When she was finished her demonstration, she let me drive some in the humongous parking lot of the school. I got in and she started giving me step-by-step directions for how to drive and start from a stopped position. I think the coolest part was that every instruction she gave, my Dad had also given in my crash course at home. It made me smile as she taught me little tricks to driving a manual car and the nuances she had that are universal. She was patient with me and congratulatory when I would do anything correctly. I really loved that day and our lesson.

Since then I have been out to lunch with her and showed her pictures. We had a discussion about the difference between American high schools and Japanese high schools. We have talked about crocheting and our families. It is really amazing the conversations people are so capable of having even without speaking the same language.

The apato

I arrived to my new abode one week ago. To call it a sardine can could seem derogatory to most, however when you are the size of the sardine (me) and the can actually suits you quite nicely it can just be a description of small. I have a kitchen, an office/closet room, and a living/bedroom. There is a bathroom too, but it almost feels like a port-a-john. It’s not dirty at all, just surprisingly tiny to have a bathtub and toilet in it at the same time. I have begun to decorate some with pictures and my digital photo frame.

The Japanese should be revered for their recycling intensity. Something that is totally stressing me out is my trash schedule. They have this really detailed schedule in my town about when different things are picked up and when I should throw away different items. They separate it into burnable items, plastic, plastic bottles, aluminum, steel, glass, and non-burnable items. I have to get the right trash out on the right day, otherwise, they bring it back to me. I have been so nervous to take out my trash that I have a rapid pile growing in my kitchen; I better wo-man up and take care of it soon!

There has also been a ton of stuff left in my apartment from previous JETs who have lived here. It almost felt like I was moving into someone else’s apartment. I have a ton of books to read and travel guides. I think I also found 4 suitcases that were not my own in the closet, which is also filled with hangers and pillows and sheets. I have some serious cleaning out to do. Also my fridge, there is some mustard, sauerkraut, ice, some sort of popsicle. I have been left with three bottles of wine, and about 7 beers in the fridge. There are tons of papers for teaching and lesson plans, which I will find SOOO useful when I start getting into all that. For now the extent of my preparation for school is my self-introduction which I finished today, so that means I am going to have to be finding something else to do for the rest of the week.

All in all I really like my apartment. It is going to be kind of fun going through everything and cleaning up and out. Given my summer, I have become an expert at such things and seeing as nothing in this apartment is mine, the difficult sentimental stuff won’t be there!

The prodigal blogger has returned

Back from sabbatical and I am ready to start blogging again! I have a few stories to relay so far, and I think I am going to do it by posting each story separately, for easy reading.

Arriving in Japan was different this time than it has been in the past. I think a large part of that is because I am not here for a short stay with an already wonderful group of friends as I have done in the past. On those occasions there has always been a lot of excitement and anticipation of what is to come and sharing it with someone else. At this point I have been living on my own in effect for three years and I am just coming here to live. I am happy to be here, I don’t feel upset or morose, but just normal. It’s comfortable and feels like I should be here.

I have been through three orientations at this point. Things are starting to get a little redundant, but I guess it would be irresponsible not to have them. I am in a bit of a different situation than most of the JETs I have encountered because I have actually studied the Japanese language, I have been here multiple times before, and I have spent the past six summers working with and teaching/learning from Japanese adults and students. I understand the subtleties in their style of communicating, I can speak to them in their own language (to an extent) and I like the food!

*Side note* I desperately need to learn to start cooking real food instead of just using the microwave oven. If anyone out there has some good recopies that are of the Asian persuasion, it would be uber helpful if you could send them to me!!!

I have met some nice people and I think there are some good friendships beginning to form here, so that is really great. This is going to be an important year for me and I really hope I walk away with some great friends and new contacts.

Friday, August 1, 2008

On sabbatical

My last night in the states and my last chance for internet for maybe a month. Ta ta for now, I will post again my first opportunity in Japan. You may get multiple posts all at once depending on how long I am without internet and how much I need to talk and get out my thoughts and feelings. Instead of multiple blog posts I may just write letters to those of you who I know (or hope) will reciprocate. ;) I hope everyone will be well.

I'm off...