Tuesday, December 30, 2008

She comes from the West

Happy wonderful joy, Gabby just arrived on Tuesday! My commute to the airport was easy enough, but definitely long. After she walked through the doors to where I could meet her it was almost surreal. The time has absolutely flown since I have been here, but now that someone from home has shown up in my East Asian life I can see how much time really has passed and how much time really is left. It's not sad, just a bit of a reality check I think.

I have a jam-packed couple weeks planned for us. She is going to be in shock and have a heavy dose of sensory overload, but I want to show her what my life is here. I am proud of what I am doing and proud of the life I have built here, and it is fun to show someone first hand. Not to mention I tend to have a lot of fun with Gabby, so we could probably be anywhere in the world and enjoy each others company. I am truly thankful she is here, for many reasons.

I will be posting pictures of her visit, so check it out!!!!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Wait, did you see what just whizzed by?

Yeah, it was Christmas. It ended up being a lovely day. There was very little evidence of the holiday around me, but the only thing I needed, I got. I was allowed to leave work early, so I went home, got a nap in and cleaned up my apartment a bit. I went to dinner with a couple friends from Koga and had some nice conversation. We are all from different countries, so we all celebrate the holidays differently. I always love hearing about cultural differences and comparing lifestyles of different people.

After dinner I came home, and did some really nice Skyping with my family. I got to be with them while they were opening Christmas gifts. It looked like a normal family Christmas and it made me really happy to be with them. I liked to see and hear their reactions as they were opening the gifts I got them and the gifts they got for one another. My parents are really great at the whole Christmas thing and I know I have always felt so lucky and really spoiled since I was a kid. And the highlight about being away from home this Christmas is that next Christmas is going to be completely wonderful sharing it with my family in person again.

There are a lot of things that I could have been depressed about, but I hold true that life brings only happiness and positive opportunities. Even when the situation looks bleakest, there is always happiness to be had. And the biggest mistake someone can make is to miss the happiness that abound in life because they are too busy complaining and dwelling on the silly things. I cannot, will not, let life pass me by while I am dwelling in a silly depression of my own making.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Over the past week I have reread this classic book. I found a fun little website run by the University of Pennsylvania and they put transcripts of classic books online for some easy reading. As with watching movies over and over again, every time I read this book it speaks to me in a different way. That is the joy of reading; because our lives are constantly changing, the stories we read change with us because we need them to.

If you have never read this book, please, please, pick it up. It is an easy read and I think you will find some surprises along the way as well - especially if you have only ever seen the movie. The premise is the same and Dorothy is simply trying to find her way back home to Kansas and in order to do so, she must venture through the land of Oz, meeting new friends and facing new obstacles along the way.

The friends she makes are sincere and loyal companions. She encounters people who do not like her, she encounters people who expect great things of her and she must find within herself the will to complete her journey. The story tells that great goals have great paths to follow and actions have consequences. It speaks of perseverance and dedication to a goal. Failure is part of life, but in the end success is the finish line. It also assures us that while we are away people will miss us, but life must always go on because we all have responsibilities. It is a beautiful marriage of a story of an individual struggle, but the effort of many in order to achieve big goals. And in the end we all must realize that not only can we always go back home, but there is no place like home in all the world (both real and imaginary).

End of the year = Partaaaay!

This week marks the beginning of the winter break for students here in Japan. That means that the teachers can let loose!! Every school has a party near the end of the calendar year called a Bon enkai; this just means end of the year party. Sanwa just had theirs on Monday night and there was great fun had by all.

As I have come to expect with these parties, there is always fantastic food of many varieties. I had some sashimi, sushi, cooked fish, beef, pork, pickled vegetables, onabe, and oranges for dessert. There was a nice array of non-alcoholic drinks there as well, so I spent the night sipping on some fizzy orange juice.

The most fun part was that every teacher at the school was there. It was great to see everyone out of the teacher's room, talking, laughing, having a good time. We played bingo with fun little Disney cards and I got some cool towels out of the grab bag. Everyone ended up winning something, so it was nice and communal and fair - very Japanese. After the bingo, people started breaking out the karaoke, and I was prompted to sing. I sang my go-to Japanese song (Ue o muite, aruko) and then at the end of the evening I sang The Christmas Song. I am a social person, and I enjoy being at a party with friends. I also like people watching, and this party provided for some prime entertainment!

Getting International in Koga

Last Sunday, I was invited to a Winter Festival in Koga. This is a rather low key event just honoring all the international residents of our little city. There were booths there from the most represented foreigners such as China, Korea, Brazil, Peru, and the Philippines. Each booth had fun foods and juices or coffees from their respective countries. Many people were dressed in traditional garb. In addition to the booths there were people there from many different places; I saw Kenya (my friend James), Australia (my friend Thomas), Indonesia, Mongolia, Thailand, and Russia.

Through the course of the afternoon, there was a Japanese speech contest in which foreigners can participate. Each person must prepare a three minute speech on their home country and experience in moving to Japan. It is so interesting to me to listen to these speeches because I can understand a lot of what is said and I can also tell how different the accent is! After this there were some cultural performances such as songs and dances from each of the different countries. I was especially excited about the performance from the Philippines because they did Tinikling!! I was sad because I was missing the annual Filipino-American holiday party at home, and being able to watch some Tinikling helped a lot!!

I was able to talk to so many nice people and I even got some information about a new Japanese language course I can start taking after the new year! I am glad James told me about this festival, because it would have been quite a shame to miss it!

What Christmas means to me

In my life, Christmas is not about the presents, but the thought that goes into them. I always feel so loved that the people in my life take the time to write me letters and send me presents. I will say though that when it comes to buying me anything, my Mom has got the game all figured out. She puts so much thought into her purchases, not only around the holidays, but anytime she is buying something for someone else. She loves the feeling and joy of gift giving and it shows in her purchases.

Christmas has become so commercialized (especially here in Japan), but the act of buying presents for someone else is not about the brand name or the price tag. It is about making the gift of love tangible. Love is a beautiful gift all its own, but sometimes seeing the physical embodiment of that love makes us see how special we all are and how much the people around us really care. I didn't get anything from Tiffany's or Burberry, but what has been sent to me is so much more tender to my heart. I have taken pictures, so you can check it out if you want. I got a lacquered box that was beautifully painted with West Virginia and our motto. She sent me something to hang on the wall, "Family is Forever"; my favorite flavors of tea and scents of candles.

Being away from home during this time of year is strange for me. I am not depressed or crying myself to sleep, but that is in large part because of the thoughtfulness and love of not only my wonderful family, but my dear, dear friends as well. I cannot send out enough warm wishes and thanks to everyone who has brightened my holiday season. I hope that you all are able to be surrounded by old friends, new friends, family or someone that can just say, "I'm glad you're here with me."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Teaching in a foreign, foreign land

I was invited to participate in a team-teaching seminar at Yachiyo Senior High School. If you have never heard me mention this school before, that is because it is not one of my schools, but that of a fellow ALT. However this ALT currently has visitors from The States, and I was invited to fill his position for this day.

I had to teach at my normal Thursday school in the morning (Koga 2nd) and then I got to leave early for my business trip. Because of my paranoia about getting lost while I am driving here, I gave myself plenty of time to get to Yachiyo. Turns out the drive is only about 40 minutes from Koga, but I gave myself and hour and a half...haha. I always rather be early than apologizing for being late.

When I arrived I was greeted warmly by the Principal (an ex-English teacher) and we had a delightful conversation. We discussed his past travels around the world and his love of golf. He told me about his nephew who works for Bearing Point here in Japan, but studied for his MBA in Ireland. As has become the norm when I meet new Japanese people, he asked about my politics and thoughts about the recent election. The secretary served us green tea and a small cookie.

When my teaching partner, Bob, arrived we launched into the lesson plan and some preparation. Bob is an American and has been living in Japan for about 20 years now. He is a professor at a prestigious teacher's college here in Ibaraki. He created the plan for the class and was just filling me in on the details of my role. Since neither Bob nor myself were familiar with the students at Yachiyo, we had no clue what their level or even their interest in English would be. The Japanese teachers who actually knew the students only said that their level was very low.

The first activity Bob planned was for us to play a board game in which the students would have to roll a die, move their pieces and when they landed on a space, they had to ask a question of someone to seek information. We split the 31 students class into 11 groups to make for faster game play. On the board there were questions they could ask each other, questions for the principal, Bob and myself. It was a lot of fun for me, because as they were playing, a student would shout my name from across the room to get my attention to ask me a question. They were all so eager to play and ask the questions; I was very impressed by them. After this game was over, we asked the students to write sentences about the facts they learned about one another during the game. They had to write these sentences from memory and had to write as many as they could to get a prize (homemade chocolate chip cookies!). Again, even with the more difficult task, the students excelled and jumped at the chance to try!

It was a really fun class and I would consider it to have been an extremely successful exhibition. After the class was finished the 7 English teachers in the school, Bob and myself had a debriefing session. Bob discussed his different techniques for teaching and practicing grammar with the students. I even got to discuss a newspaper activity I did at Koga 1st. It was neat that my opinions and lesson ideas were being considered by seasoned teachers. I was also happy to relay my successful experience with a lesson that I was trepidacious about doing with the students in the first place.

I am learning more and more that teaching is not the profession for me. But along the way I am having a lot of fun and really trying to connect with some of the students. I will figure out some way to work with kids in the future; probably through volunteer work. :)

Rockin' around the Christmas tree - and politics to boot

My dear friend Lauren had a lovely little Christmas party last week at her humble, yet beautifully decorated abode in Itako. She carries every domestic and female gene there is; she loves decorating and wrapping presents and cooking and playing hostess and dressing up and wearing make-up - the whole girlie game! It is fun to be part of her world a bit because I can help her out with her preparation and pretend I am uber domestic too!

I got to Itako about 4pm and one of our other friends, Erin, was already there cooking and decorating away. So I jumped right in the mix and started helping with food preparation. I helped to make some failed guacamole, but I refuse to take credit for the failure because the avocados were too green and not soft enough to mash up. Next I helped out with some cheese and crackers with a slice of pear on each. Let me tell you, all the little food creations Lauren thought up were delicious! Aside from the pears and cheese, we had prosciutto wrapped around asparagus and cheese, prosciutto wrapped around pears and cheese, pasta salad, bruschetta, salsa and chips, chicken and steak and then the guests helped out a bunch by bringing some awesome desserts too!

There was some lovely Christmas music, and we even got a little dressed up for the event. It was fun to put on a nice dress and do my hair a bit. Since I have been here, I haven't had a reason to really get dressed up, so when I was looking at the pictures of APOs Pinning I was a bit jealous. (Probably just because I miss APO and the people in Boston.)

It was so wonderful for me to be around friends and western traditions for a bit of the Christmas season. As we were all sitting around, eating food, drinking good wine, the intelligent people we are begin to discuss politics. Specifically because we were an international crowd, the Americans were trying to explain how the State system at home is not only a good idea, but necessary for America to function properly. I can understand that it is difficult for foreigners to understand that laws and regulations can vary wildly from state to state. Again because we are all intelligent people there are about 10 different opinions flying about, but we were able to discuss this (even a little passionately) and still remain in good spirits. We ended up learning a lot about one another and accepting each other's point of view.

We ended the night happy and friendly and the party was a great way to kick off the holidays!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lures by Sue Goyette

This book hit hard and fast and before I knew it, the story was over. The only problem is that I felt like it ended horribly with about a thousand questions and with none of the problems being resolved. She spends a ton of time at the beginning of the book giving insignificant details and concentrating on events that disappear later. For example, she gives the main character a part time job in the beginning and she has to start learning French, after the introduction of that job, it disappears and she never mentions the job or learning French again.

There were some exciting parts of the story, but right at the peak of the event, she leaves you hanging and then doesn't resolve the conflict later. Some parts are disturbing and some characters are infuriating and disgusting. There is a slight love story underlying the whole thing, but again you don't know what happens to the characters.

I did some research on the author, and found out she is a Canadian poet. I think this is where some of the continuity problems come in. Poems have subtext and vague meanings and never quite get to the point. This book began as a series of poems and my guess is she never figured out how to effectively change mediums. Interesting book, but if you read it be prepared to make up your own ending. Mine was happy - because I like happy in my life.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Stalkerbook? I beg to differ!

Maybe it makes me a stalker, maybe it just makes me an interested and invested friend, but I think Facebook is brilliant. I must tell you that I have not always been a fan, but I am one of the converted. This social networking tool, as they call it, brings every person I have ever met, and their incredibly interesting lives right to my computer screen! Of course many of my "friends" on Facebook are people I have met only once, or people whose names I vaguely knew in high school or college. On the flip side of that, there are many people who were close to me at different stages in my life, but for one reason or another we have grown apart and now lead very different lives.

I often receive requests from people who are not altogether familiar to me. Somethings that might help to cause this to happen are the many tools Facebook provides for its users to uncover all the people from their lives. Facebook will personally sift through your email address book and AIM buddies to help connect you to long lost friends. One tool I find particularly interesting is the "People You Might Know" application. Every time I sign onto my Facebook page, there is a box on the side suggesting three new people I may or may not know. I can even click a link to see another 20 or so suggestions for new friends.

That is where I think things start to get interesting. As of this moment, I have 724 friends on Facebook. I can sift through all of my friends and recognize every name; and given my nature and curiosity I sincerely want to know what path their individual lives have taken. I want to know about college and jobs and relationships and kids if they apply. As a society, we have a difficult time reviving friendships that have fallen by the wayside. There is an immense amount of discomfort in the reconnecting conversation that comes with seeing an old friend; however with a catalyst such as Facebook, those in-person meetings need never take place. You can catch up with one another consensually online and never speak a word.

Now to combat the creepiness that accompanies internet stalking, Facebook has gone to great lengths to protect its members and set up securities that can be turned on and off at each person's discretion. I enjoy Facebook more than most other social networking tools because of the structure, the intuitiveness of the site and the ease with which to find people by name.

Essentially what I am trying to say, is that I love to hear from random friends and people in my life. I wish you well in your life's endeavors and I thank you for letting me into your little world.

Playing with fire

This weekend I attended a lantern festival in Koga. It was great because this is the first festival Koga has had since I have lived here and it was so much fun. First, let me explain the main event of this festival and why it is so exciting. The fine citizens of Koga create their own six-man community teams and prepare for this festival for a few months prior. Each team makes their own paper lantern and practices maneuvering it back and forth in a straight line, while it is hoisted 35 meters above the ground on a large bamboo tripod of sorts. If it sounds complicated, that is because it is. I tried to get some good pictures, so check those out for a visual.

They create a huge corridor outside made of bamboo to serve as a track of sorts for the teams to travel up and down. There must have been about 30 teams or more participating, so they split all the teams into 3 rounds and then the top 3 winners from each round competed in the finals. So there are ten teams competing at once and the object is to walk from one end of the corridor to the other without letting your lantern be destroyed by another team. All of these are traditional lanterns mind you, so they are lighted by candles - with fire. If you saw the way those tripods worked, they are extremely wide, so that corridor starts off very crowded and it is insane watching those teams try and shuffle their way forward with a mass of people and bamboo in front of them. The most enjoyable part for the spectators however is watching the lanterns way up in the air. As the teams crash their poles into one another, lanterns are knocked from their stable positions, and it is common to see a lantern spontaneously burst into flames because the candle has been knocked off kilter. The whole crowd gets really excited and everyone is cheering for victory of their respective teams and hoping to see some fire!

While all the lantern excitement is happening, there are booths set up all along the street selling copious amounts of food. Everything is made right there before your eyes and you have your choice of okonomiyaki to freshly cooked whole squid on a stick! They have candied apples, and strawberries, plums and apricots. Also there are many street performers playing traditional Japanese drums and dancing in kimonos.

While walking through the festival I ran into many of my students from all my different schools. They all recognized me, and stopped to talk to me and see how I was enjoying my first festival. It was pretty cool, because they clearly didn't expect me to show up at their festival, but seemed pretty happy that I was there enjoying their culture so much. I also rand into Mr. and Mrs. Ishiki and Mio. They were also having a great time as a family and Mio was happy to see me.

The weather was freezing cold compounded about 100 times because the wind was so strong to boot. At one point I thought my hands were going to fall off, but I am happy to report that all is well and all my phalanges are intact. I am really happy to have gone to my first festival in my little Koga town and I am excited for the next one - but I have no clue when that will be.

Friday, December 5, 2008


What do you think of the existence of parallel universes? I think the cool thing about them is that they hold all the alternative outcomes to the events in our lives. For example, in a parallel universe, I did not move to Japan and I have a completely different life. Every choice and decision in our lives rips space and creates other parallel universes to take on every possible choice and live out the subsequent outcomes. Of course this is all science fiction and completely improbable, but to think about it is really cool - and sometimes it gives me piece of mind.

It is comforting to know that when things are disappointing in this string of time, that parallel to me it is all turned around, completely opposite, and not so disappointing. It is the same as the concept of, "there is always someone less fortunate than you." But the key difference is that is wipes out the envy and pity pieces, because in parallel universes the person that is better or worse off than you, is you! It makes decision making easier and takes the seriousness out of life sometimes which makes everything more bearable.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A hodge-podge

When I write in school I tend to leave some things out of my blog. I think it is the fact that my mind is going in 10 different directions and that there is so much to see around the teacher's room. But anyway, this is going to be a bit of a hodge-podge blog summing up some of the details I have left out of previous entries.

Firstly, I just received the good news today that Yuka passed her examination and can move ahead in her English study. If you don't remember, Yuka was the student with whom I was studying for the Eiken exam. She had tried to take the test three times before and failed and this was her final chance to pass in order to advance in her English studies. During lunch today, she came to see me and tell me the good news. She was so excited to tell me and thank me for her help. Really it was a joy to work with Yuka and help her prepare. I have said many times, but working with the students in small groups or one on one is the joy of my job.

Now, some more details about the wedding. It is customary that the bride and groom receive money from the guests attending the reception. Usually there are no toasters or blenders given at Japanese weddings. Seeing as I was invited to the third round of wedding festivities, I don't know first hand how the actual ceremony and first reception work. But, from what I have heard those two ceremonies are incredibly formal and a bit dry. The reception I went to was pretty enjoyable, but still there was no dancing, only some light background music (mostly Christmas). The majority of the time was filled with friends taking pictures with the bride and groom and listening to speeches. There was a light buffet and drinks. It was worlds different than any wedding reception in The States.

I was invited to go to the next outing of the first grade teachers at Sanwa. Whenever teachers invite me to their after hours social gatherings it always makes me feel special. I love talking to them and knowing what their thoughts are on America or English or anything at all. And earlier today I was invited to be in the photo shoot for the female English teachers at Koga Ni-ko. For Their Christmas party, they are taking pictures of all the teachers for a slide show to be played. The four English teachers posed like Sex and the City, and they thought to include me in this picture.

I have been gifted so much fruit lately, that I had to finally cut it all up yesterday and stick it in freezer bags in order to keep it so it wouldn't go bad. Now I have a freezer full of persimmons, kiwis and apples. I am pretty excited about this; maybe I'll bust out the blender and there will be smoothies in my future!

Hope you like the hodge-podge of my latent thoughts realized.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The art of the 3-part wedding

As with every new day here in Japan, (and should be the case with every new day anywhere) I get to experience something new. These things help me to examine the world in which I have created for myself and how the person I have become fits into the world in which I inhabit. On Sunday, I was invited to a Japanese wedding reception for one of my English teachers at Koga Ichi-ko. I have learned a lot about Japanese weddings since then, but there is still so much I will never fully understand because of the way they are structured.

First, there is the wedding ceremony. From what I have been told, the bride and groom usually wear traditional Japanese kimonos and the ceremony is performed in a shrine. I would imagine that a monk performs the ceremony, but I am not certain. At the wedding ceremony, only immediate family of the bride and groom are invited; there are no bridesmaids or groomsmen. Following the wedding ceremony is the first reception. This portion is for very close friends and extended family only. There is a meal and speeches are given; the whole event is very carefully planned and the schedule of events is followed to a T. Then comes the second reception for all of the bride and grooms extended friend network; I was invited to the second reception. Generally, there is no family invited to this last portion and it is just about friends and good times. There are some speeches and a bit of formality, but then what is a Japanese anything without formality and and speeches?

When I got there, all the guests were lined up at the door of the restaurant the couple had rented for the occasion. At a Japanese reception, all the guests pay for themselves, so there is always an admission fee. Shortly after 6:30pm, the bride and groom arrived and everyone cheered them in. Once they got there, things really got started and the two emcees kept everyone happy and laughing the whole night. I don't know what relation, if any, these emcees had to the couple, but it felt like I was watching some kind of performance or game show. There were door prizes complete with a raffle drawing and everything, there were formal speeches given by the bride and groom and a lot of bowing. The wedding planner even made a video to show all the guests about the planning of the wedding. After two hours of a show in which every detail was pre-planned, the whole thing ended as quickly as it had begun. There was no lingering, the place just cleared and everyone went their separate ways.

During the reception I did meet some very nice people (I always love meeting new people) and had some nice conversation. They asked about me, where I was from, why I was at the reception. They let me in on little jokes and secrets about the newlyweds (they had all gone to college together). As with most scenarios here, I felt immediately welcomed and thankful I wasn't standing awkwardly in a corner all by myself because. One of the guys I met had wonderful English, and the other girls let me practice my broken Japanese with them. One of the women is moving to New York later this month for her husbands' job and she is pretty nervous. When the reception ended, they bid me adieu and maybe I won't see them again, but I was so happy to have them that night!

In Japan, everything has its allotted time. Everything is planned to the point of exhaustion, and the Japanese can compartmentalize like champs! I like being a spectator in this world and using it to examine against my own.