Thursday, April 29, 2010

Pearls and Wisdom on an Endlessly Looping String

As is the usual, so much has happened in the two short days since I've directly talked about my life here that it seems like a week at least! Okay, maybe not that long, but still, it's been busy and fun!

First, on the teaching front, I spent Wednesday at Kosema Elementary, by far my easiest school (as of now) as they have a crazy organized curriculum, require nothing from me by way of lesson planning, and have two other English teachers in training assisting with each class, as well as the HRT and me. In short, this school is a dream! (alas, they only need me every other week...but still, it's made of fun!). They outsource their curriculum and lesson plans to at least two other local schools as well, and are basically a living model of an ideal of English education for Japanese Public Elementary Schools. Or they should be at least. I really can't wax positively enough in this regard.

As an additional bonus, on Wednesday, there was a special observer/adviser, Kawaki-sensei (川木 – she explained the Kanji of her name to me as River Tree, so that should be right!)She was a retired teacher and Principal who now does this part time consulting gig. She observed our classes and gave huge tons of great advice. And her English was GREAT, so I actually understood her advice! I clearly have a lot to work on in regards to discipline and organization (though in my defense, the lesson that we gave was not one I planned. A lot of her advice had to do with improving the lesson plan, something I deeply appreciated because many of the faults she saw in the lesson plan that she critiqued were faults and problems in my own lesson planning as well). A lot of her advice we also received in varying forms in training, but in this sense, she was directly critiquing my performance as I had just performed it, so I was able to more easily process her advice and thoughts and directly apply them to my future work here (I hope!).

She also gave a good sample idea of lesson flow that I'm going to share here (largely for my own benefit. It's better to have a record of these things). Again, much of this was covered in some form in our training, but we've had so much information given to us through training (three so far—very happy about this and the training Altia provides: this is in no way a critique). But sometimes I'm not able to sort out from our training what is the most important or applicable in each situation (information overload: I need google in my brain), so this was great for offering a more focused perspective.

(an aside on brain chips: it was very exciting to hear at one of the recent Cafe Science lectures on neuroscience that as a possible future treatment for Alzheimer's patients, we are making some progress with imprinting memories onto chips installed on the brain surface and then having them be accessible to the brain. From there, it's a short jump to chipped encyclopedias, chipped languages, the internal internet connection, and etc. Actually, I have no idea if it's a short step or not (and all of those things I just listed are quite different in regards to brain usage), but I want to think it is a short step because time is marching onwards into that darkness. I'm already 31, and just last year I finally got my electronic book that connects to the internet that I've wanted since I was nine or eleven (time...what is time?) and found out through someone else's imagination in print that such things could exist (yay Kindle!). Hopefully by the time I'm 80, I'll be able to download into the internet. (And what is the mind anyway? A collection of data? I'm sure it's more than that, some quantum mechanical effects strung like pearls on an infinitely looping string (ie: quantum mechanics, the words that those of us who don't really understand quantum mechanics wave when we really want to say, “oh, it's some magical thing I don't really understand,” ...wait—is that just me (?) (and what's up with the weirdo parenthetical (par(enthet)ical) thought loop anyway ((?)) okay) this) is) getting) ridiculous) end of aside.))))

Sample Lesson Flow:
Topic: Greetings: (IE: more than just “I'm fine thank you and how are you?” See the last entry for my thoughts on this)
  • Start with flashcards, repetition with LARGE GESTURES.
  • Move towards having students guess the emotion from the gesture associated with it.
  • Teach conversational structure: Listening/repetition.
  • Split class in half. One half asks question (eg: How are you today?) Other half responds in full sentence, after looking at teacher giving gesture to figure out answer. For the class that is asking the question, pronunciation and the like can be checked. The other half of the class has to think about associating meaning to word. After all vocabulary has been covered, switch teams.
  • Game/Activity: Pass the ball: person receiving answers question, person passing asks it. (don't let little kids throw the ball! I made this mistake)
  • Game possibility: fruits basket (like we played in class)
  • Pair work: Kids have to get through all of the question/answers quickly and sit down. Fastest group pairs win.
  • Last: teacher asks about real feelings to students individually.

Of course, aspects of this lesson model (as Kawaki-sensei readily stated) will not work when you're the only teacher in the classroom (or if it's just you and one other teacher), but it was great to see the tiny steps and transitions broken down, to get a better feel for how learning takes place on the micro-level. Also, it's a testament to how seriously Kosema takes their English education that they brought in an adviser who was so detailed and critical of the lessons, which in my perspective are some of the most successful ones I've been a part of at any of my schools. Kawaki-sensei also consults with other schools, a huge privilege and advantage considering how helpful she was to me.

Moving on from work, last night Mie and I went to see Alice and Wonderland in 3D, dubbed into Japanese. It was super fun, and because I know the Alice in Wonderland story quite well, I was easily able to follow along with the film even without understanding every bit of the dialogue. Mie really enjoyed the movie too. Afterwards, we went to Gasto, a family restaurant that resembled Denny's but had much better food. It was cheap and we hung out talking and hanging out until after 1 AM. Mie is such an awesome friend! (we're going clubbing tomorrow).

For some reason, I didn't go to bed last night until close to 4am, so I ended up actually sleeping in this morning until after 10am. Good thing I woke up, because I had to meet Ryuichi for lunch at 12 noon! It was great to catch up (and get to know him better). Ryuichi is visiting Japan for the next two weeks, seeing family, getting paperwork sorted out and hanging out with folks. I can't imagine how hard it must be to be visiting home for such a short time after having been away for over a year. (he also used this trip to meet his in-laws, who he hadn't met before he married his wife—I couldn't believe it!) It was clear Ryuichi has a zillion people and places to see, and I was very glad we got to hang out for so long. Ryuichi is made of awesome! We also had a great lunch at Sazakiya (I know I've got this name wrong), an Italian style restaurant that is dirt cheap and delicious. I actually had escargot for under $5.00 US. As I have so much food in my house, I really only eat out with other people, so it was great to have this opportunity as well.

After lunch, Ryuichi had to move onto his next event (though we are going to touch base again before he leaves), so since it was stunning weather, I stopped by my house, picked up some snacks, dressed a bit more warmly and set out for a day of random biking. I picked a new direction from my house and just biked. (occasionally snapping pictures—I really have to get the last week uploaded...if facebook keeps being obnoxious, I'm going to have to go back to Photobucket I think.) I quickly got lost, but eventually I saw an Oiden bus heading for Toyotashi Station (I'm so glad I'm placed right next to the train makes my life so much easier!) so I just followed the busline for a while until I saw the Toyota Stadium in the distance.

Knowing I was close enough to home, I decided to divert towards a park and walked and biked around a bit more, until the sun looked like it was beginning to get low. In the process, I found a fantastic shrine and Umetsubo! Everytime I take the train towards Josui, I see the Umetsubo station and area and think “wow, that looks cool, sometime I should go there!” and today, totally at random, I did! I was also very proud of myself for finding my way out of Umetsubo (again, as I was biking at random I saw a bus stop, realized it was on the route heading for Toyota-shi, and followed it until I saw the Makurazakaya which let me know I had arrived at Toyota station).

My evening was less exciting. I cooked potatoes, onions, garlic and carrots in olive oil on a slow saute (with cinnamon, light sugar and nutmeg...couldn't decide what I wanted to do with this dish) as well as my usual stir fried veggies with miso this time. The potatoes turned out at first just okay but not stunning, but they became great when I added butter and salt! And the stir fried veggies were as always good, but it was a weird food combination. I also caught up on House MD online and chatted with friends with chat programs. Wildly exciting stuff, I know.

So now we're caught up. Tomorrow, more fun stuff on the docket, possibly even a trip to Nagoya Castle! We'll see!


Though I've only been here in Japan for a short time, like many ALTs and other foreign English teachers here in Japan, I've developed my own rather complex relationship with the “How are you today?” “I'm fine thank you and you,” conversational dynamic that EVERY Japanese school child has drilled into them from the moment they step into any kind of English class. This statement is so reflexive among children and adults, when asked the question “How are you?” they often blurt out the response without thinking, and then at the end of the statement stand blinking, eyes a little bit glazed like they just ran a really short sprint. This is especially true of adults. Kind of like if someone walked up to you and asked: “What is the numerical value of Pi” and you were well into 3.14159 before you even realized you'd started talking. And then you stop, gaze expectantly at the questioner, not 100% sure if you got it right but hopeful at least.

There are pluses and minuses to this. I admit, when I first arrived in Japan, and I'd say hello to some random school aged child as I wandered about, I found it charming and a bit comforting to know at least that I could have some kind of English conversation with somebody. But as I started teaching, greeting students by the tens and hundreds, the weaknesses of this drilled conversation pattern also became obvious. Like when I'd say “hello” or “good morning” to a student and they'd respond with “I'm fine thank you and you?” Or “I'mfinethankyou” or “HelloI'mfinethankyouandyou?” it became painfully obvious that as a rule, this response has very little meaning to my students beyond “it's what you say after hello, well, at some point after hello, yeah.”

I think this is complicated for a number of reasons. The first is that in Japan, from my experience, there isn't an equivalent phrase that holds the same weight. I'll occasionally ask someone if they're Genki? (“Ogenki desu ka?” or “Genki?”) and while I do get a response, it's not a standard greeting. “Genki,” in this usage, seems to read more to me like “So, are you in good spirits, with good energy and ready to conquer your day?!” Not quite the same thing. There's also “choushi wa dou desu ka?” which I think is closer in meaning to “how are you?” but it's not a standard greeting by any means, at least not in regards to how people talk to me.

So already we're having some cross cultural confusion (and as an aside, a confusion that doesn't exist in Chinese, as Chinese has Ni hao ma?” which appears to be quite similar in usage to “how are you?” at least from the Mandarin class I took.) And now, after participating in a number of classes where this construction has been taught and reinforced, I've noticed some interesting interpretations of “fine” that have lent me some insight into why it's so prevalent.

The first and most obvious is that “I'm fine thank you,” is about the most innocuous possible way to answer this question. You're not going to offend someone or confuse them in any way with “I'm fine thank you and you.” So in that sense, it's a good answer to start with. Like in the same way that when we start learning Japanese, we're generally taught the ~masu forms first. In my opinion, this does us (gaikokujin) as budding Japanese speakers a far greater disservice than “I'm fine thank you and you,” will ever do to budding English speakers, as learning the ~masu forms as our primary gateway into verb conjugation gives us an unnatural relationship with the Japanese verb. Even with the massive amount of studying I've tried to do working from the plain form of the verb, (and I started early on this) because I learned many of the basic verbs as~masu first, under stress I drop back into them, (or I don't recognize the plain form when I hear it) which is unfortunate in regards to natural speaking and comprehension. But it is what it is, and the imperative not to make an ass out of yourself in another country is of huge importance.

The second reason that I've noticed is a bit more subtle, and maybe related to the fact that there really isn't an expression like “How are you?” that holds the same weight and usage here (in my experience, which is limited and narrow, so take this as you will). In multiple classes, I've seen the word “fine” translated by teachers as “genki!” This is often accompanied by a muscle flexing “strong” gesture and a huge smile. In short, in Japan “fine” (seems like it) equals “genki,” that is “in good spirits, with good energy and ready to conquer your day!”

Of course, “fine” doesn't really have that same undercurrent of meaning. It's right around “can't complain” on the scale of general life happiness, that is “yeah, I'm alive. Nothing's particularly wrong. Nothing's particularly right. Gonna try and get some stuff done today I guess. Yeah.” This is a subtle but rather important distinction in my mind, and one explanation for why teachers and the school system here are so intense about getting this phrase into the kids early on. And in defense of it, as a default, it's not a bad choice. I mean, if we taught the kids “I'm feeling awesome, in good cheer and ready to face my day!” that would be a bit much.

The thing to do in regards to this is to really get students to think of “how are you?” as a question, as opposed to a general greeting. This is a bit problematic because to a large degree “how are you” is used as a general greeting in English. Truthfully, how many of us are really looking for an in depth answer to this question, most of the time? As we move more to colloquial speech, the answer to this becomes obviously NO. For example, there's the Philly conversational staple:
Question: “Hey, hiya doin'?”
Response: “Yeah, hiya doin?” which serves the same function as “hello”.
As an aside, if I'm not thinking about it, I drift into “Hiya doin'” which is always met here with a blank stare. In the States, I never ask “How are you?” as an exact phrase, unless I think something is actually going wrong with one of my friends. Which does actually dovetail back to the original problem of what does “How are you? “ actually mean? And maybe lend some insight into the general ALT's instinctual movement towards adding variety and nuance to this conversational dynamic. Regionally speaking, we have two “how are you”s , the general greeting (which “I'm fine thank you” is as good as any neutral answer) and then the “How are you?” as a request for information, which ultimately is a lot more common (as other regional phrasings seem to replace the more formal “how are you” as a general greeting.)

In schools, there is a solid movement towards teaching students IN THE LESSON about other responses, what they mean, pronunciation, etc. But if asked the question, the teacher always as a default pushes the kids right back to “fine thank you and you.” It's a generational ingrained reflex. What can you do? I've been trying out a variety of solutions. This week my approach has been to work within the fine dynamic and add other words, to show that there are gradations of fine. So this week, I've been saying “I'm SUPER fine!” with a huge thumbs up and a vaguely 70's tone. I also (as a rule) make sure to teach "great, good, and okay" (or reinforce it) in every greetings related class. Probably I use “great” the most. For me, it's the closest to “genki” and I feel “genki” most of the time here. I've also tried to teach other physical responses “I'm stinky” “I'm hungry” etc. As I said before, the schools are really working at this too. At least the ones I work at.

Ultimately, the distinction of what does “How are you?” mean in what context, and how upbeat the response needs to be (in Japan, it's important to be Genki; in the States, it's important to be plugging along without complaint, it seems to me). So while “I'm fine” doesn't mean “genki” to me, it does mean “normal, alright, no worries,” which carries the same conversational weight as “genki”, if not the exact same meaning related weight.

I'm sure as time advances and I learn more, I'll have other, probably opposing thoughts on this subject. But here is a snapshot of my current thought process. How am I? I'm fine, okay, good, great, in good cheer and ready to conquer my dreams! Literally. That is, to bed.

Tomorrow: back to our regularly schedule daily summaries.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Looking Up!

Today was not a perfect day by any means, but as an overall trend, it's definitely looking up. I woke up this morning tired and sluggish (unusual for me in Japan) and then inched my way out of bed to make breakfast. Today was an easy breakfast: I'd boiled an egg last night, and with an Onigiri I'd picked up at the grocery store plus of course my usual bran flakes and juice made for a relatively light but filling meal. It was supposed to be raining today, so I left my house with the intention of biking to the bus, but as I approached the bus station, that plan was nixed for two very important reasons: 1. I was running late and 2. I only had ichiman in cash (that's like a $100 bill). In Japan, it's not unusual to just drop a $100 and most places will take it and change it without even blinking (I eventually changed it this evening at the Post Office, having made less than 500 yen ($5) in purchases. Still, getting ichiman changed on a bus seemed like a stretch, and it wasn't really raining anyway (and I needed the exercise), so I decided to bike it instead.

It's a testament to how tired I was that simply biking didn't immediately energize me and lighten my mood. I wasn't grumpy when I got to school, but I wasn't exactly my usual bouncing off the walls self either. The kids brightened me up quite a bit though, and unlike last week where I had nothing planned or conceived for this school, this week I'd constructed two lesson plans around the same theme of months, spent the night before constructing paper dice for the board game that we were playing (came with my teaching materials to enlarge...have I mentioned how thrilled I am with my company's teaching materials?! Seriously, in this regard, the company is absolutely top notch.

When I arrived, my Tanto Sensei ran to me and handed me an enlarged monthly schedule for May for me to look over. It wasn't the most detailed thing in the world, but at least I have an idea of topics, and much more of it was in English, which does make lesson planning a good deal easier. Also, I was able to talk to her about taking a look at the CD Rom my company had given the school so that she would have some idea of the materials I come to the table with, as well as some sample lesson plans for various topics in Japanese that I also have copied in my materials in English. I made sure to emphasize how much easier this would make lesson planning for her and her teachers, and she seemed receptive, which was a huge relief and joy!

My first lesson was a disaster: mainly because I had misjudged how much of the material (the months) the students had understood from this week and last week, so as a result, when game-time came around, they were totally lost. The game I'd had planned “Stereo Game” which was suggested in our Eigo-Note teaching materials, was in one (Japanese) word: taihen. This game basically involved 12 volunteer students choosing one of the months flashcards, keeping it secret from the rest of the class, and then with the class prompted question “What month is this” all were supposed to simultaneously respond “It's _______________ (month).

Yeah. No.

That didn't even begin to happen. .Only three or four of my children had any idea what month they were holding, the sample question flopped like a decomposing fish, and it was pain all around. I tried to rework the game into a drill exercise with minimal success, then had them repeat through the months again before moving onto the second game (the board game) which was moderately more successful, possibly because they only had five minutes ot play. I hadn't had a chance to talk with any of my HRTs before class today either, so they had no idea what we were doing. That added an additional level of pain.

That said, I was grateful to all of my HRTs today, who really took what I had and ran with it. I'm learning so much about how to teach with this age group just by watching their techniques. I also have to change my way of interpreting blank expressions and lackluster response from the students from “oh, they're bored. We should do something more interesting.” to “Oh, they're confused, we should do more drilling and repetition.” As the day advanced, I got a better feel for what an appropriate level of repetition and drilling was and when and how to start setting up the games. All in all, a win.

At the end of the day, my last two classes (fifth graders) were canceled as the students were preparing for the school's Undokai (Sports Festival, a HUGE deal in Japan) so I ended up reading stories and playing games with the first graders. They were oodles of fun! They kept pointing at colors and saying the names of them, and we did an animal names lesson which they all jumped right in for. I had them hopping around saying “rabbit!” and doing the elephant trunk while saying “elephant” etc. At the end of class, they all piled on me, clinging and chattering. It was sooo cute! Also, my buddy who loves Michael Jackson and I spent some time wandering around the building as the day ended. He was looking for his brother, and somehow our path had some likelihood of leading to finding him; I have no idea how or why but better that than sitting in the staff room I say.

(also, as an aside, I'm going to get to be at the May 22nd Sports Festival at Higashiyama. This not only means I get to see this very important festival, but also that I get the following Monday off. Score!)

Today I was very aware of how little I understand on all fronts. I'm amazed at the amount of communication I've been able to manage, don't get me wrong, but the finer points of even basic conversation are still lost on me. And my brain attempting to process everything has definitely lead to fatigue and periods of not being able to think well. This is frustrating, but I'm assuming part of the process. I feel in some way like I've hit a plateau and I'm not sure how to scale it. That may just be the tired talking though.

And on that note, I'm going to hit the sack. The tired is as the tired does.

Night to all!

Chicken Dancing and Blowing Bubbles Under a Perfect Toyota Sun

Though I'd best be asleep soon, my day doesn't feel complete unless I write out my blog. So I'm sitting here, hot cocoa and crackers with cream cheese and jelly at my side, speeding through the memories of my day. First, beautiful weather. Sunny and about 68 degrees, My day at Toyota Yogo began with a cheerful greeting to my fellow teachers and then to the students (in English) as they entered the school. Now that I've made this my personal job, I'm beginning to get to know (at least by face and wave) some of the students I'm not teaching directly, which is fun! After the last student had been greeted, I headed over to the Elementary School area and hung out with the kids as they went through their morning routines. I lucked out today; one of the teachers had me hanging out with a particular student (Sarie) who was bright and talkative and pretty much up for anything.

While I'm mainly there for the students, the teacher are always having lots of questions, so I spend a fair amount of time talking with them as I'm with the students (especially in these morning visits, as I'm not technically teaching anything). So today, as I was showing Sarie the chicken outside (there are four chickens at this school, as well as a rabbit and a duck. They are in various pens...not food, just ambiance). So I explained that the “niwatori” (chicken in Japanese, literally means 'garden bird') outside was “chicken” in English, and one of the teachers asked what we called the meat, to which I replied “chicken.” (and then we did the Chicken Dance a little)

The word chicken got me and one of the teachers into a discussion about beef vs. cow, pork vs. pig, etc. But chicken has no meat word; it's just chicken. This reminded me of the Teaching Company's History of the English Language I had been listening to before I left, and as it sprang to mind, I barreled ahead with an attempt to explain the reason why some foods have different words for the cooked meat than the animal (many languages do not make this distinction, as ours doesn't when it comes to chicken).

My Japanese was not up to the Norman Invasion of England, though I did write 1066 on the board and started with “back in history, in 1066, in England, the French battled and took over so all the cooked meat words are from French.” This is vastly oversimplified and vague, but I managed to get enough across that the HRT understood what I was saying (maybe she'd learned it in history class or something) so it felt like a huge win. It's amazing the amount of communication one can have at random points even with minimal language skills.

The day also included such high points as blowing bubbles outside in the warm spring sun with the Elementary School kids; teaching a high school English self introduction lesson where I got to explain that my birthday is the shortest day of the year, while my best friend's birthday is on the longest. (a mix of Japanese and English on that one, but once one person gets it, they usually fill the others in), a wonderful song period where I got to hear and start to practice the Toyota Yogo School song (I snuck in for that class during one of my free periods); and of course, saying goodbye to everyone as they left. I also got a good start on another of my personal projects: teaching the high schoolers the "what's up?" "nothing much, just chillin'" conversational dynamic and meaning. One of my students, Takeshi, has got the words down, and I think I was able to convey the versatility of 'just chillin,' as it can mean, relaxed, happy, okay, hanging out with friends, having a good conversation, and more...

Sadly, Etsushi and Shion both weren't in school today...maybe they don't come on Mondays but I'm hoping they are well. (this was the only way in which my day felt a little incomplete; well that and we had Natto. It's not horrible, but it's not my favorite thing, and I thought it only came up once a month. Apparently Toyota Yogo is on a different food schedule than my other schools, but oh well).

I also picked up a fantastic pair of dresses off of the 999 yen rack (about $10 US) on my way to grocery shopping at the Josui supercomplex (this is actually my favorite grocery store I've found here...even beats Jusco). I didn't expect either to fit either dress but both did and they both looked so awesome I had to buy them. Now I have clothes for clubbing, and a nice spring dress; I'm feeling like I'm really settling in now! If only I could get some more WOC conditioner; I've been using it sparingly, but there's an obvious difference when I use the proper conditioner as opposed to just the regular Pantene for damaged hair. My hair needs extra moisture, but it's not damaged (just mixed), so while the damaged hair products are better than nothing, they still leave my hair a fuzzy mess.

Tonight's dinner was a bento sushi box (for less than 500 yen, I got a bento box that would have been twice that easily in Philly, and oh so tasty), the standard stir fried veggies (with bok choy), a potato-carrot patty and chocolate covered strawberries with chocolate wafers. The food here is so good, I just keep eating and eating. Luckily I'm getting a lot of exercise too! Hopefully enough to offset this great home cooking.

Now, to bed!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Of Baskets, Compact Discs and Frilly Skirts

Today I woke at 8:15am--major sleeping in for me here--feeling 95% better than last night! I decided to move along at a nice, slow pace, having nothing major planned besides a trip to Jusco to buy eggs and pancake syrup (I'm making french toast tomorrow for breakfast...yay!), to wash a few clothes, and as it was sunny and beautiful, to get on my bike, take off in a direction, and see where the wind and wandering took me.

What an excellent day! Before I even left my house, Steph and I miraculously were near the computer's Skype at the same time, so we got to talk for a long time as her Saturday ended and my Sunday began. We caught up on each other's lives (the little things that can't be understood entirely through blogging (no matter how thorough one might try to be), and just generally touched base. I wasn't 100%, alas, but 95% was a heck-ton better than yesterday!

Also, as a total aside, since I've arrived in Japan, I've found it difficult to sleep through the night without getting up at least once (usually to use the bathroom...I'm wondering if the tea intake is getting to me) for some reason or another. I think the environment is just so different from what my mind and body is used to (even now). For one thing, it's WAY quieter here! In Philadelphia, my room is at the back of the house, so I'm not as thoroughly inundated as my poor mother with the music of the city (ambulances, cars, buses, screaming people, etc) but even the relative quiet of the rear of a Philadelphia house is a perpetual boom box in comparison to the peace and quiet here. I think in the back of my mind, the silence is warning my backbrain that something must be terribly wrong, and so I'm up every few hours checking in to make sure the world hasn't ended. (You'd think after a month...but no)

Also, Japan doesn't go on daylight savings time, so this time of year the sun rises here sometime between 4:45 and 5am every morning. Even with the curtain drawn, some sunlight peeks through, and so every morning (if I'm working) I wake up in a state of mild terror, convinced I've overslept. I'm up at 5am, 5:30, 6am, etc. So unlike in the States, here in Japan, I'm an early riser. (though I refuse to let myself wake up before 6am. I'm still tired, even if my brain wants me out and about like an Army of one.) It's really weird.

So when I finally left my house (second set of laundry churning, first set hanging,) I started out in the direction of the Toyota Art Museum. I followed the running path by the art museum (there are some lovely pictures and videos of this path a few weeks ago during Sakura time that you can check out on facebook) then hung a left and aimed myself in the general direction of Jusco. I figured I'd go on past it and continue biking towards the mountains. Actually this city is surrounded by mountains, so I just aimed myself for the closest set and shebang!

On my way, I stopped at the Conbini and paid my gas bill (gas here is very expensive, which solve the mystery of why next to nowhere has the option for you to use hot water after washing your hands in the bathroom.) I also showed them the 100 yen ticket I'd gotten last week and asked them if they knew where I could pay it (with the vague hope that I could just do it there). As with everyone in Japan, they went way out of their way to help me (which makes you feel a little guilty actually), reading the ticket, looking up in the phone book the location of where to pay it and writing down the phone number for me. So now at least I have somewhere to call about this ticket. Not being able to read SUCKS!

Then I hung another left, (though the streets here are winding, so that doesn't mean that I was heading in the direction of two lefts, even though I had taken two lefts) and seeing distant mountains in front of me, peddled onwards. It was a crisp, beatiful day and I really had a wonderful time biking through the fantastic landscape, glancing at stores and resturaunts and other things as I peddled onwards. I did make one stop though that is worth noting, at a CD, Video Game, and book shop. This stop is worth noting in large part because of their used CD section. They were selling CDs as cheap as 50 yen a piece (that's about fifty cents), which is amazing especially considering how expensive CDs are here in Japan especially. I picked up about eight or nine CDs for 850 yen total (about $9, I bought one 100 and one 300 yen CD, splurging I know). The first one, by a band called Chemistry (I'm pretty sure I have one or two of their songs already, but this CD is different and it rocks!), is quite good (and it works). So this was a huge find for me! I also picked up a manga with furigana for kicks.

Eventually, I started coughing and feeling hungry, so I ate my Onigiri from the Conbini and then decided to head back. I'd seen a Jusco tower while biking, as well as the Stadium in the distance, so I figured that I'd retrace my steps, look for the Jusco tower again and then (assuming it was the other Jusco that's near Higashiyama) continue on further down the road, over the bridge and back towards my target Jusco. But actually, in about two hours of being out biking (and CD buying), I hadn't ventured as far afield as I'd thought...the Jusco tower was for “my” Jusco! So I went in, back to where I'd originally bought my bike, picked up a basket for the back rack (which the salesman installed, OMG thank you!), paid to have it registered with the police, picked up a U-lock (a small aluminum one that also is put through the wheel but is much thicker and more secure than my current wheel lock. One less thing to worry about.

Then after my bike purchases were complete, I wandered around for a little bit, and lacking shopping discipline, finally broke down and bought what I'd originally thought was one of those frilly skirts that I see everyone in, but turned out to be a pair of shorts that resembled the skirts (not quite a Squirt, but close). Considering how short these skirts are, I was much happier with the shorts, which go with the frilly shirt (both actually) that I bought last week, as well as my other t-shirts (yes, it's all black...awesome!). I almost bought a second skirt (that was actually a skirt) but I'm not made of money. I did pick up an adorable half price long sleeved shirt that I couldn't resist. (I'm turning into such a girl here!)

Lastly, I hit the grocery store where, as-per the usual, my 5 item shopping list turned into a full cart of goodies. I even found instant beef curry (with veggies I think), good for four meals, as well as a ton of other great food! I also bought some horrid processed Kraft cheddar cheese, which with the super processed shredded mozzarella I bought last week and a lot of strawberry jam, made a decent cheese toast. Tonight's dinner was an odd mix of American and Japanese: cheese toast with jelly, cocoa (with cinnamon...thanks Shveta; and generic brand Pocky...thanks Japan), stir fried veggies in special sauce and gyoza.

Now as I prepare for tomorrow, the beginning of another week of teaching, I feel excited, relaxed and happy. Also, thanks to the schedule change, I'm starting the week with Toyota Yogo, which means sweats and t-shirt to work. Yay

Howl's Moving Nagoya

Of course, I got lost finding the building for training. It was one of those mornings. First, I ran out of my house with everything I didn't need for my day, and next to nothing I needed. Then, in trying for my train, I go to the Shin Toyota Station instead of the Toyota Station (they are literally a block apart connected by an overpass, and I'm always getting mixed up which train leaves from which station) so by the time I get back to the proper station, I've just missed the early train. Now I'm stuck taking the Meitetsu to Chiryu (the one which will get me there on time if I don't have any Japan, land navigation is ALWAYS problems for me). This set of trains is a trip that I've only done once, in the opposite direction on the day I came to Toyota, where afterwards I spent almost an hour wandering around the city trying to find my apartment. This is not fortuitous.

Worse, as the train is leaving Toyota Station, I reach into my bag to refresh my memory on the map and directions to the meeting place. Nothing. That's right. I forgot the MOST IMPORTANT thing – my printout of name and address of and the map to the venue where training is being held. Two words. Totally Frakked!

I managed to go online with my (super expensive and confusing) cell phone, check my email and get the basic information, directions, etc. (Lord knows how much that cost) to the training, as well as my supervisor's phone number which for some bizarre reason I hadn't entered into my cell...stupid! I also texted another ALT friend in the company to see if he knew the training venue. All of these things counted for naught though as, when following the instructions, I left the train station via the WRONG EXIT. Japan is a bit like Howl's Moving Castle: if you go out the wrong exit, you end up in an entirely different place than you planned with no way back to the proper place without entering the Castle again—a debatable process.

So I'm outside looking for a Koban (police box), seeing nothing (though in my defense I'm not 100% sure what a Koban looks like anyway) so I ask a guy if he sees a Koban. Nope. Then somehow in the process of asking for further directions, he tells me that I'm at the wrong train station and that I should go back to Kanayama. Next, I call my supervisor and but he doesn't pick up his phone. Now, the smart thing to do at that point would have been to go back into the Nagoya Train Station, find the Visitor's Center and ask them for (yet another) English Map and directions.

But I was tired, stressed out and still a bit sick from this cold that I've been barely staving off since since Wednesday--it's been like waiting for a sneeze: I have a cold, no I don't, yes I do, no I don't...FRAK! Just sneeze already! So instead of doing the smart thing, I did the stupid thing, which was run back to the Subway and start back for Kanayama. What I'm going to do after that is a mystery to me. At the transfer station, my brain kicks back in again, so I go back online--luckily my phone plan-- think-cuts my internet fees at around 4 Sen (about $40/month) but that maybe with a different EZ Plan, so who the hell knows how much money I'm spending looking this crap up online anyway. I'm thinking of going to the cell phone company and asking as a part of my today plan.

And yes, my directions did say Nagoya Station, so now, a half hour later, I'm on my way back to Nagoya Station (where I started). There I find the Visitor's Center, find out that my mistake was going out the wrong exit, and five minutes later (English map in hand), I'm at training.

Training, (the parts I was there for) was quite excellent. We gained more teaching tools and learned more about planning dynamic lessons. I really liked the demonstration and practice on incorporating skits into your lessons, as well as how to use the Karaoke tracks of our teaching songs to create your own teaching songs based on different topics. Also, I got some good personal advice on how to be more effective using flashcards to setup students for activities, producing grammar, etc. All good stuff. It was also great to catch up with the folks from orientation! I also had an amazing lunch, for less than 1 sen (under $10) I had an amazing beef and onion dish with salad and rice. It was so delicious, writing about it, I'm having mouth watering flashbacks!

After training, a group of us went out for a night on the town! That is, hours of Karaoke with Nomihoudai (all you can drink). We were pretty bombed three hours later when the Karaoke place told us that we had to go (there was a line). Towards the end Mie joined us. Afterwards, most everyone went their own ways. I hung out further with Eric, Mie, Ben, Pam and others as we went back to the Nagoya station for food (for me and others) and for the train (as three of our party had to catch the Shinkansen to go home). At this point, I was hungry and definitely working my way to really sick, so while I'd have loved to have stayed out longer, I decided to hitch a ride home with Mie. Eric stayed on, with directions to some clubs and the Manga Cafe, so he could party all night. (I'd have loved to have done this too, but I was too sick. Today, after a night at home, I'm feeling worlds better though).

In short, rough start to the day, but good on the followthrough!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Ibo, Black Socks and MORE CATS!

This is going to be a short entry because I have to be up early tomorrow to go to Nagoya for more followup training. But I wanted to say a few words about my experience today at Ibo Elementary, mainly because it was soooo much fun! I am really going to enjoy teaching here. The kids aren't shy at all; they are very forthcoming with questions and jump right in for lessons. The younger kids got a huge kick out of my cat's names and “MORE CATS!” (I always ask “how many cats do I have” and have the kids guess, starting at one and going up to five, with each raise in number of cats getting the kids to say MORE CATS!)

The sixth graders especially loved it when I pulled my hair out of my scrunchie and headbanged a bit with my PHI LA DEL PHI A chant! (where we clap on each syllable). You never know how kids are going to take the crazy, but this group just loved it so we had an excellent time. The HRT was also in stitches. And with the older kids (5th and 6th grade), I usually have an explicit question and answer time (the younger kids sometimes ask questions, which I on the spot answer, but they get shy if asked to produce questions on their own as a part of the lesson, so I tend to leave that for the older kids). Sometimes they ask in Japanese, sometimes in English. I answer in English, if I can translating their question into English and having them repeat it to me in English before answering. (I get a lot of the same questions, so this isn't as hard as it sounds). If the question is beyond my Japanese, often the HRT will translate for me, which is hugely helpful.

Today I got the usual “What are your cats' names” which leads me into a lesson on SKINNY and FAT as well as translating their names, which are all thankfully character or physical traits. (Littlecat is LITTLE plus CAT, etc). It's a painless way to teach vocabulary. Usually the names get lost in the shuffle, but Skinny and Fat sticks. I always draw pictures of my cats, starting with two normal looking ones and then having them get progressively fatter (larger circles for the body) until I get to Boo Boo (who actually is a skinny cat now, but it's better for the lesson to use him as the fattest) where I draw a giant circle for the body with a tiny head. This has the kids in stitches (from grades 1-6 that I've used it for). I've found this lesson only works though if the kids ask me about my cats first. If I just try to bring it up, the kids are bored (I only tried this once).

Today, I also had the privilege of working with the Special Needs class at the school (three adorable children who seem to have learning disabilities and some degree of mental retardation) This was a last minute addition to the schedule, I think a direct result of my conversation with the Kyoto sensei where I mentioned that I was also working at Toyota Yogo. I made an attempt at my Jikoshoukai lesson, but it wasn't flying at all, so we broke that off and ended up just doing songs. I started with Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes which was a huge hit, and then moved onto Row, Row, Row Your Boat, did a brief sting of “Doing the Butt, Sexy Sexy” since Nagomi-chan really wanted to bump butts during Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.

Then, still having 15 minutes, started dredging back through my memory for Camp Songs. I was wearing black socks, so I took one off and said “this is a song about Black Socks,” showing the socks, pointing to the childrens' socks etc. Then I somehow managed a passable translation of the songs' lyrics as I was singing them a verse at a time: “Black socks, they never get dirty, the longer you wear them the stronger they get...” I had to impromptu the gestures (the kids adored all of my gestures and imitated quite well, especially Yuna-chan, who became my great friend for the day). Next part: “...sometimes, I think I should launder them, but something keeps telling me, don't wash them yet, not yet, not yet...” This song is meant to be sung in a round, but that wasn't happening today. Still it was great fun for all!

To wrap up, we did the first part of “So Long, Farewell, Avidazane, Goodbye” complete with dramatic goodbye gestures. As I was doing my songs with the kids, the Kyoto-sensei (Vice Principal - I noticed him in the middle of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” was standing at the window to the classroom, imitating the gestures and trying to learn the words. It was clear this lesson was a hit for all concerned (and I made sure to talk extra loud with my explanations). Later on, when I joined Yuna-chan for Souji time (while we were waiting for brooms I started doing Head Shoulders Knees and Toes with her again, and she just lit up and immediately joined in. I also was talking to some of the other kids in our cleaning group about the Karate Kid: wax on, wax off. I can't believe that movie is so old now!

Oh yeah, and for Kyuushoku lunch we had a dessert crepe: Strawberry! (we never get dessert, so this was very exciting for me! I'm also still waiting in breathless anticipation of the Chocolate Milk, as I was chatting about with one of my HRTs today in the staff room, much to her amusement.) I ate lunch with the first graders, who were sooo talking my ear off and showering me with questions. Someone had taught them the names of a bunch of fruits in English, so they were gleefully relaying this information to me, as well as asking me how to say this and that in English. One girl asked about something in the soup, and I was like "Mezurashii" (no's brand new to me). That was laughter all around!

In short, I had a great time at Ibo, and while my cold is getting worse, it's been a good day all around. Now to go to bed so I'm well enough to do training and the all night party that follows.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


My new morning routine at Toyota Yogo of greeting the students and chatting with as many as I can individually has absolutely been a success! Not only am I much happier, but it's a joy to see the smiling faces of my students. Of course, like all Japanese kids, when asked how they're doing, they are drilled with the “I'm fine thank you and you.” all pushed out as though it were only one word. Occasionally, especially in the class before school lunch, I'll get “I'm hungry,” or “I'm tired” but “I'm fine thank you and you,” is definitely the standard. So it was a joy today at school lunch when Tommy (that's not his real name, but he asked me to call him that) came over and asked, “What's up?” (clearly the last ALT had taught him and at least one of the other boys that phrase. We all do our part to break the conversational chains of “I'm fine thank you and you” in our own ways.)

Tommy delivered the “what's up” so perfectly (and it was such a surprise), that I immediately responded in the natural way, “Nothing much, just chillin' chillin.” to which he stared somewhat blankly at me. So now I know what I'm going to be teaching my Toyota Yogo High Schoolers next week. It's so great to have such a variety of ages of students at Toyota Yogo. I have kids from ages 6 to 17; it provides a huge amount of great variety! Today at school lunch, I was sitting next to Shinobu, a middle school girl (one of a pair of twins) who after a little bit began to (very quietly) start chattering away at me (in Japanese) about music. I didn't understand most of it. That's in part because she was a little shy and thus quiet. But we still had a good time.

I had to leave early today for the monthly meeting of our company's Toyota City ALTs. This meant I could only stay for about five minutes of the High School class, which was a shame because that's my favorite class. We were talking about hobbies, so first I had to read the dialogue from the textbook between Aki and Tom, who were talking about their various hobbies. This was a huge step up from “Whose Wedding? from last class, which featured a woman tricking her longtime boyfriend into marrying her by planning their wedding behind his back (telling him that it was his friend's and getting his friend involved as well) so he didn't know he was getting married until he got there. Anyone else taking bets for how long it's going to be before these two are on Dr. Phil?

So the hobbies dialogue was a major improvement. I made sure to deliver the male and female voices with suitable over the top drama (and clarity), and had them repeat the lines of dialogue with gusto (in appropriate voices). My sensei was cracking up, and the kids seemed engaged (I did make sure to correct their pronunciation also if it was doesn't meal lax, lol). Then I had to run for the train. Here I lucked out again, because as I was leaving the parking lot, one of the HRTs was driving Shion (one of my two first graders from last week's class) and her grandmother home. She offered me a ride to the train station (it was raining all day) and I gleefully took it. This also gave me a chance to chat with Shion (she's so adorable) all the way back to the train station.

After only a very minor period of lostness finding the right room in the right City Hall building (there are two of them connected by a bridge), I made it our monthly meeting. I'm incredibly glad we have this monthly gathering. It gives us additional training, ideas, and a chance to talk with each other about what's going on at our schools. It was reassuring to know I wasn't the only one having problems with scheduling and lesson plans (though from the rather shocked expressions of others around the table, I was definitely on the higher end of initial startup problems). It also gave me some perspective into why things at these schools are starting out so rough. First, all of the schools are preparing for the upcoming Sports Festival (a huge deal at Japanese schools) and also the HRTs are doing home visits to parents. In short, they're overwhelmed. As a result, little things like ME are getting wholly lost in the shuffle. This doesn't make my life any easier, but it does give me perspective, which is good.

That said, it seems I'm supposed to have over a week to prepare lessons, as well as be given very specific guidelines through these faxes about what we're doing in class. I'd really be happy to see this happen soon. Even one day of notice would be most excellent.

I am feeling much better though about my company and the big picture about how things work (and why at points I'm getting the short end of the stick). The people at my company clearly are working very hard and trying their best as are the people at my schools, both of whom work crazy hours. I thought I was a hard worker, but the Japanese work ethic puts me to shame. You can recognize this by the huge number of people you see passed out on the trains and buses at the end of the day; clearly worked to exhaustion. (I'm not advocating this...just an observation). But in the Japanese school system, there are just some systemic things that seem designed to make life as difficult as possible. It sucks, but there you are. I'm just glad to know that most of these issues are (a) not the usual and (b) going to be resolved.

This Saturday, we have followup training in Nagoya. While I'd like a full weekend sometime, I'm happy to be going to Nagoya for the training. It gives me a chance to touch base with the people that I met in Orientation, hopefully get some new job related skills, and of course party all night and spend another early morning passed out in a Manga Cafe! There will be drinking and Karaoke and maybe some clubbing! Mie has also said she wants to join in for the insanity! (Mie is the total bomb! I'm so glad I met her!) I'm going to check in with a couple of the other younger teachers that I've met over the past few weeks and see if other are going to be in the area and down for a night of partying as well. I'd probably have been to cheap to go to Nagoya for the second weekend in a row, but since our transit is reimbursed, I figure, let's make it count!

Dinner at Vash's: Vegetable Stir Fry (onion, bean sprouts, sweet red pepper, and carrots) over noodles with Shrimp and Pork in delicious wok sauce I picked up at the grocery store. Side of avocado and sliced tomato. Drink: Mix of mango, orange and lychee juice with whole lychee inside. Dessert: Strawberries rolled in chocolate (homemade sauce) with side of buttered chocolate bread with strawberry jam.

Cooking at home is negating all of the good exercise I'm doing in the maintaining my waistline department, but ohhh, it's so tasty! And today at the foreign goods store, I found a loaf of wheat bread! I'm soooo happy about this! Now I just need to buy cinnamon, nutmeg and syrup so I can make a good french toast (already have the vanilla extract and milk). And maybe some vanilla yogurt or sour cream for dipping... (I also have everything I need to make hummus except the blender. Shveta gave me a hand blender which should be arriving from the USA sometime soon, I hope)

There was only one down point to my day: I had a major scare this evening when I thought I had lost my camera. Thankfully, it was hiding in with some of my teaching materials. I'm so glad! Phew!

Another great day in Toyota! Tomorrow, back to the beginning at another new to me school: Ibo Elementary.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

More Than Just April

Today at Higashiyama had it's own series of ups and downs. More downs than I would like (all in relationship to giving me the right information in order to plan an effective lesson!). On Monday, when I was totally unprepared, I spoke with the head English teacher and let her know that I needed some ide a of what to teach for my lessons, since I hadn't received said fax. She gave me some fairly specific information, stating that I was supposed to be teaching the same topic (and class) to the 5th and 6th grade classes today, pointing me to specific pages in the Eigo-note textbook and telling me exactly what exercises I should be doing. Seems simple enough, right?

Except that the fifth graders aren't using that book yet, and they aren't supposed to be learning dates so the “When's your birthday? My birthday is...” schema doesn't work, They barely know months of the year. Also, they can't really write well in English yet (something that my lesson assumed they could do, solely because the exercises that the head English teacher gave me required writing. So my first fifth grade class was a disaster (not as much of a disaster as my first Monday class, but still, quite painful). The kids didn't have the knowledge base to understand my lesson, and I kept having to shift things around and backtrack in order to get them to be able to participate at all. And so the kids and I were quite frustrated. I did my best not to let my frustration show (of course). This wasn't their fault!

This lesson and these concepts aren't even in the Eigo-Note curriculum for fifth graders, at least according to the teaching materials that my company gave me, which I looked up at the end of the day, after my last class, when I realized fully how little of my lesson the kids were actually understanding. (my last HRT was a real dream, but all of the teachers today were helpful. We were all just caught under the same bus of misinformation.)

Then, to put the cherry on the Sundae of disorganization and confusion, I found out when I apologized again to one of my fifth grade HRTs about the class (and told him that I didn't really know what the students here knew and didn't know, to which he responded that they hadn't really learned months yet (though we'd done some of that work in class) and that the birthday lesson (with ordinal numbers) was just too difficult for them. I walked him over to the calendar for me, posted on the wall) which included my topics for each day, and he squinted at it and said that the lessons were out of order.

The next lesson “what month is this,” should actually have come before the “when's your birthday?” lesson. Which makes a heck of a lot more sense! So now I'm in an awful position for the next class too. The lesson will be way too easy for the sixth graders, who already know what month it is and also know ordinal numbers (though I will review that), and it will also be a step back for the fifth graders, who also now know the months. I can make it work for the fifth graders (because they need the review considering how things were dumped on them), but the sixth graders are going to need some new material.

This week does not fill me with confidence in regards to my future lesson planning at this school, even if I do get this mythical fax with instructions about what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm trying to have some general, nonspecific conversations with my HRTs directly (as best as can be done within the context of our contract) about the general trend of the curriculum, so I can at least not be so wildly off base about what we're supposed to be doing, but, as I said, the results so far are not filling me with the happy. It's incredibly frustrating to try and construct lesson plans when you (a) don't know what the kids know and (b) aren't given accurate information about what the kids are supposed to be doing. I am grateful to the majority of my HRTs there, who today really did their best to have my back.

That said, there were some solid victories and fun moments for me today. First, it was 75 degrees today and sunny, so I decided to skip the bus and make the long bike ride to school again. What a great decision! The weather and exercise put me in a good mood for the morning, and after school I was able to bike around Toyota, get lost, and eventually reorient myself to find my way home...a huge accomplishment in Japan. Also in regards to life in school, there were some shining moments. First, I stopped at the convenience store before school and picked up some candies for all of the teachers (just on a whim). I gave these out after the students got home, and they were very well received. In fact, so well received that I was given permission to partake of the ice-cream bars that the principal had put in the freezer for the staff...wahoo!

Also, after school, there were two boys whose mom was coming to get them but who was running late. The boys came over and chatted with me. They barely spoke English, and I barely speak Japanese, but the younger one Naoshi (I think) wanted to show me his award (for something I didn't understand but I congratulated him profusely—he looked like he was about seven) and his older brother (whose name didn't catch) LOVED Michael Jackson. He started out just randomly chattering and then asked me if I liked Michael Jackson. When I said yes and started singing a little bit of Thriller with a poor attempt at a moonwalk in slippers, he got so excited, he started mimicking Michael Jackson moves and then did a really solid rendition of the chorus of “Billie Jean.” He looked to be about ten.

We had a great time! He asked if there were really blue eyed people in America, and I said yes we had blue eyed people, and green eyed people, but my eyes were brown. Then we had an in depth sharing of our various birthmarks) and some discussion about how there weren't any pink or purple eyed people in America, and that the only red eyed people I knew of were albinos (which I don't think made it across...that was a difficult concept).

I was sad to see them go. It was certainly my most productive conversation and teaching moment of the day. Also, this entire conversation was happening in the staff room, under the amused gazes of the other teachers; they kept thanking me and I kept saying it had been no problem and fun. I wish those two kids would come back and talk to me again. I had an hour and a half at the end of the day with, of course, nothing to do. Singing Michael Jackson with kids was a far more productive use of my time than banging my head against the “what month is it” lesson planning strategy.

After biking for an hour and a half around Toyota, taking the long way home, I found my way to VITS and did a couple of hours of Karaoke. The staff there all knows me, and the one guy was very excited that I'd bought a cell phone. I was able to chat with him for a bit. I'm not sure if they find me amusing or pathetic in my 1-3x/week Karaoke alone evenings, but it's fun for me and I'm happy to be remembered for whatever reason. I really love going through the menus, trying out new songs and old favorites and just generally singing. Karaoke with friends is GREAT! But there's also something to Karaoke by oneself. It's relaxing, low stress, and ultimately an act of discovery. Especially since my reading speed is at the point that I can try out new songs at random that seem interesting to me (provided they are not TOO fast).

I also tried making a new vegetable stir fry today: Chinese sprouts (the kind you throw on Pho), onions, these really cool thin and tiny Japanese mushrooms, pork with a special sauce I bought at the grocery store. It turned out great! So all in all, while there were some rocks in the road of my day, it was ultimately a good one.

Small Victories, Small Defeats

This is the day I escaped the staff room of the Toyota Yogo school, a small victory in the typing, but a large victory in the enjoyment of my day. The first period hit the last straw with me, when I was in the staff room and EVERYONE left, leaving the lights a flickering dim and me all by myself. I figured, I didn't care what anyone said about where I was supposed to spend my “free” time, I was going to get out of this room and do something, ANYTHING. So I wandered down the hall and down the steps to where the students were just wrapping up their entering of the building. There I waved and said “Good Morning” to the entering students, who cheerfully responded in whatever manner they could.

Eventually that ran out, and realizing that nobody else was there to greet, I decided to wander around and see if just by being around, if something to do might present itself. I wandered left and ended up with the Elementary School kids. In addition to running into Etsushi and Shion from my first grade Jikoshoukai lesson of last week (both of whom instantly recognized me), I also talked and played with a bunch of other kids. The teachers didn't appear to mind. Apparently, this is the point of the day where the kids use the bathroom (a big deal for about 60 total kids with major physical disabilities, many requiring wheelchairs) and fool around before their first class.

After it began to look like the classes were getting in gear, I waved goodbye to all of the kids and continued back down the hall towards the Entrance Area. There I saw a pair of women moving wheelchairs around and sweeping. I instantly asked if I could help, and helped move wheelchairs and sweep for a little bit, as the two women engaged me in conversation about where I was from, my life in Japan, what I thought of teaching etc. In that interchange, I really began to feel like I was having natural, conversational Japanese. My grammar still needs work, and I'm lacking crazy in the vocabulary department, but I was able to hold up my end of the conversation, and even crack jokes about how the school lunches are continually delicious yet surprising. I shared my french fries with eyes story with much laughter around. They were also impressed that I had eaten my entire plate of Natto (I had my camera, so I showed them that along with pictures of my kids from Ohata), and that I knew how to cook with Soy Sauce. In short, it was a regular conversation. Not too much on the awkward pauses and I FELT comfortable having it. This was another victory for me, and I was happy for it.

When the bell rang, I had to hurry to my first class “Asobi” (which means Playtime). This was super great! There was an indoor seasaw and something called a “branko” which is like a seasaw but shaped like a boat. I got to demonstrate with the Branko first, and then helped some of the other kids while they rode. Like many things in Japanese schools, the riding was accompanied by song, which is fun and educational for all involved (especially me!) I learned some new vocabulary (tree branch) and had a great time singing as we all took our imaginary journeys on the school rides.

After Asobi was another Songs class. During that, I got to demonstrate some English by doing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” while the kids either moved or were manipulated into the appropriate positions. The morning Songs class has some quite disabled children, so many have to be moved around (and there's lots of physical contact) but they seem to have fun.
Next was another free period. I tried to recreate my morning, wandering around to see if I could put myself in the path of work, but the day was in motion so this was not successful. After lunch, my next two classes were filled though, so I counted this one as a loss and went back to the Staff Room and studied Japanese. I don't (at all) mind having some free time, just not hours with nothing to do.

Next class was Afternoon Songs. This is my favorite Songs class because the kids are actually learning a full song, very slowly, with meaning interpretations, which means I get to learn a full song too with the meanings interpreted. I think the teacher knows I'm really using this as a study aid, because she'll often ask how things are said in English, or give me an English translation of certain less obvious words. The song we're learning “Arukou” (let's walk) is a really fun and whimsical song about moving through life as a day of walking. Or at least that's how I see it. At every class, we've all gone “walking” (though most of the students are in wheelchairs which seems strange on the surface), holding hands or pushing kids in chairs (whatever their preference). It's fun, and I am able to slowly get a better idea of these student's abilities.

The first week, I was a little overwhelmed with the sheer variety of problems and needs, and really had no idea of what these kids (especially the non-vocal ones) were capable of doing. But they continually surprise me. Especially the high schoolers, many of whom are actually quite bright. One of my students, especially, has excellent English skills. Last class, we were involved in a pretty complex discussion of anime conventions, manga artists etc. The conversation was mostly in English, though I did try to translate/reinforce some stuff with Japanese if it seemed obscure. As I was leaving, I heard him explaining what I'd said to another girl in the class in rapidfire Japanese. I'm thinking of printing out some webcomics for him; any advice on which would be good are greatly appreciated.

Insert pithy wrap up statement here.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

French Fries with Eyes and Other Surprises at Higashiyama

Kyuushoku (School Lunch) is always an adventure here in Japan. It's been consistently tasty (or at least edible, which is good enough for me), and significantly better than the lunchroom food I remember from my childhood days in the USA. But with that said, thanks to the school lunch system (less than $3/day for an amazingly well rounded and filling meal) I've been eating some pretty weird stuff by American standards. And sometimes, as happened yesterday, my brain trying to render the food items as something familiar has led to some pretty sharp surprises. So as it was being dished out onto my plate, I was confident that the small, long fried things approximately the size and color of a potato skin french fry, was indeed a potato skin included french fry. Until I picked it up with my chopstick, and about five inches from my mouth, realized my french fry was looking at me.

It wasn't my first experience here with this mental mirage effect. Your brain, not knowing what something is, naturally assumes that if it looks like something familiar, it must be that something familiar. In Japan so far, usually the brain is wrong. (which is why I always ask what a food item is when looking at pictures in restaurants...I've been burned by this too many times). Like my first day when at school lunch when I thought I was getting Spaghetti O's and instead bit into squid salad. But this was probably the most shocking one to date. These fish were about the size of your pinky, fried whole and meant to be eaten that way. Around me, all the sixth graders were busily popping their fish-fries into their mouths, so I averted my gaze from the tiny, black eyes of the fish and popped it down.

It tasted like a slightly fishy french fry. My fear of having bones crunching in my teeth or the eyes oozing between my teeth did not come to pass. (the eyes were really small, like a pair of black beads like the ones you use in needlework. So I finished the rest of my fishes as quickly as I could, making sure to eat them tail first (that way they weren't looking at me). Truthfully, this was a bit more mentally challenging as far as Japanese meals go...way tougher than the Natto.

My beginning of the day surprises were much less pleasant. First, I had thought my bus came at 7:40, ut it actually came at 7:30 (six schools, you get confused). Knowing that if I caught the later bus, I'd be Giri-Giri (just on time, which is the same thing as being LATE in Japan), I figured I'd bike it instead. The school was about 3.5 km in a straight line on a major street—and as I biked about 4 miles to Temple everyday in Grad School, I figured I'd make it in plenty of time.

Not so easy. The major difference insofar as terrain goes (aside from the fact that streets are a rabbit warren of confusion) between Toyota City and Philly are the hills. Hills are not only tiring, but they also make you slower. So a bike ride that would have taken me 20 minutes in Philly (or less) took closer to 40 minutes. I did make it to the school at about 8:20, a bit Giri-Giri but barely okay. Of course this was the day I'd agreed to do exercise after school with some of the other teachers, so now I'd have to make the long bike home in the dark after over an hour of aerobics. I also hadn't dressed warmly enough because you never know the weather in Toyota until you're in it for a while. But such is life.

When I arrived at school, prepared with all of my materials for my Jikoshoukai lesson, I found out that I had also been scheduled to teach an entirely unrelated lesson on “When's your birthday?” “My birthday is...” to two classes of sixth graders. I had NO MATERIALS, had done NO PREPARATION and basically had NOTHING to teach this class with. The way our contract works is that the school is supposed to fax a general idea of what they want us to prepare a lesson on to my company, who then emails it to me. I got no fax, as I explained to the main English teacher, who then rapidly waved a copy of the textbook in front of me and said “Eigo-noto, do you understand? Page 32. 'When's your birthday? My birthday is....' It's 35 minutes. You're okay. Okay. Okay.” She said all of this in Japanese except the target phrases, and then took off to do something else.

Now to step back for a moment: I'm an ASSISTANT language teacher, which means that I'm supposed to be team teaching with my Homeroom Teacher (HRT). Not so at this school, where at least half of the teachers (more actually) just throw the class at me, stand in the back and step in only if asked specifically to do something. I had assumed, when I let the head English teacher know that I had no materials or preparation that unlike last week with my Self Intro lesson, I'd be stepping more into an assistant role. What was all of that “you'll be okay/daijoubu about anyway?” I did my best to try and think on the fly of something, but to be honest, I really didn't have a great plan when I stepped into the classroom less than fifteen minutes later.

At which point, the HRT said, “let's get started” and dumped the class on me.

I was SO pissed off. I ended up writing the months of the year on the board, going through them, and then asking each kid when their birthday was and mutilating the spelling and pronunciation of their names while writing them on the board next to their birthmonth. This was an about 25-30 minutes of this hellish waste of time for everyone involved; yes I figured out this was a bad idea about one and a half minutes into it, but once the train is zooming along the track, it's going where it's going and you're speeding (or in my case inching) along towards that cliff. After that, I split the class into two teams, gave them each fly swatters, and asked a random kid to say his or her birthday, while the kids with fly swatters raced to see who could slap the month of their kid's birthday. In my HRTs defense, he did try to keep the class on task from the back, and he did help me out rewriting the months of the year on the board after the first exercise totally mutilated them. Then the bell rang and thankfully my next class was Self Intro, which I had prepared for.

After that was a recess period. I went to the head English teacher and told her much more forcefully that I HAD NOTHING prepared for this class and that I had not received any information and thus had no lesson plan. She said, oh, “Eigo-noto, you're alright (daijoubu) though.” (in Japanese) and I said “NO! Daijoubu JANAI (not alright!)!” and continuing along in Japanese explained that I had NO LESSON PLAN, NO MATERIALS, and that the last class had been not daijoubu but TAIHEN (a disaster!) I asked if there were any flashcards or something with the months of the year on them and if I could have a look at the textbook. And what specifically in this textbook did she want me to teach? (I've found a lot of teachers here in Japan seem to verbally wave the words “Eigo-noto” at you and if you say you've heard of it, they think that solves all problems. It's really annoying.)

The second time through I must have made my point, because she did apologize, show me the box of Eigo-note materials and let me borrow her Eigonote textbook with a brief explanation of what pages they were learning from. As a result, I was able to put together a reasonably competent lesson plan for the second class. Also, my HRT for that class was really involved, and even had the Eigo-note CD which had the Happy Birthday song, which we had the kids sing.

Your HRT really matters! My second sensei and I were consulting at points throughout the class on what to do next (what she thought would be best with her class, based on the lesson plan I had thrown together) and she stepped in with some great on the spot ideas. While I can't say it was the worlds most shiny lesson, it at least was a lesson, and the kids went through months of the year (it seems they already knew the months...something else I hadn't been aware of due to having no information previously) and learned ordinal numbers. I'm using the template from our lesson to teach tomorrow's four classes on the same topic, with some additions from my teaching materials at home.

After that, the kids went home and the head English Teacher showed me a calendar on the wall which had a brief description (1-2 sentences) for the topics of what I'm going to be teaching for the next month, as well as showing me in the Eigo-note textbook approximately where the kids would be. The fax is supposed to offer more detail, but this is good enough for me to plan some kind of lesson. So good enough. I never want to have another class like that first one.

The rest of the day went smoothly and was fun! After school last week, Miho-san (my desk neighbor) had let me know that on Mondays many of the teachers after school did aerobics in the classroom gym. She asked if I wanted to come. At the time, I was dressed in a suit and nice shoes, so I couldn't, but I said this week that I'd come with a change of clothes and shoes for exercise. This was a very pleasant surprise. I had a chance to get to know five of my fellow teachers better, and Miho-san brought her mom (who was running circles around me, as was everyone).

In regards to aerobics, it was exciting because the routine had a lot of dance components (with very 80's and 90's American and Latin dance music). It was a complicated and strenuous routine, but the instructor (another teacher) worked very hard to cross translate and I was able to just follow along. I can say with confidence, I didn't do any worse at this than I would have in English, and it was a lot of fun! By the end, I was shaking a bit from hunger (our last meal had been about six and a half hours prior) so next time I'm going to sneak in a snack. But I'm very glad to be involved with this group. Good, welcoming group of people.

I stopped at Mos Burgers (a burger joint—hamburger is very popular here, though the patties are smaller and they often put weird things on them so one must be sure to ask even if something looks familiar—brain mirage again). I also had Tiramisu for dessert (which gives solid insight into the difference between Japanese and American fast food). And they had ketchup! A nice bonus!

I was dog tired last night, so after sending off an email to my supervisor about the difficulties of the morning (so they could be resolved), I talked to my mother some and then went to bed. Today I woke up with the beginnings of a cold that I've been treating with EmergenC, so it's an early night tonight as well. I'll briefly blog on Toyota Yogo at some point tomorrow. But the short story is it was a fun day, and I've figured out the most effective way to get out and stay out of the staff room (at least for the beginning of the day when I have that 50 minutes of nothing before my first class)! I'm also getting to know my kids there better. What a great group!

In spite of these hiccups, I'm having a great time here in Toyota. I'm feeling positive that things are going to settle in as time goes on.

Now, to bed!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Manga-cafe, Tokugawa Museum and Sundry:

So at 4am, Mie and I decided to leave the club (where the party was still going strong) and find some place to crash. Mie had suggested that we could either spend the night at a Karaoke hall or at a Manga Cafe, but since it was so late, we'd probably sleep better at the Manga Cafe. So we went. The Manga Cafe was an over ten story building with places to read Manga, small rooms that you could rent by the hour to watch DVDs, surf the internet, read manga, use Playstation and most of the people were doing when we got there. For about $18/person, for seven hours, Mie and I rented a cubicle that was just large enough for both of us to stretch out across the floor and sleep. The floor was padded (more comfortable than my futon actually in regards to padding, and the room had two beanbag chairs which made great pillows.

We had free run of the Manga Cafe too, including being able to read from the huge manga library, watch DVDs, use the internet, or just hang out if we wanted. The Manga-cafe also had cup-o-noodles style (but better) ramen you could buy and free soda and tea as well. This was a great place! Perfect place to go to crash overnight from clubbing (as was obvious by the split of how people were dressed: Otaku vs. Women (and men) in full club gear. I'll definitely crash here again. Also, since the Manga cafe gets regular TV stations, and there is one about 3 minutes from my house, I know how I'm watching my Japanese doramas (without having to wait for them to come up on the Internet), so it was a win.

In the DVD/Sleeping Areas, the Manga-cafe played a form of background music that was like an elevator remix of popular and obscure songs from musicals, anime, US ballads, and TV themes done in the one note style that sounds like a crime drama or Lifetime movie. I fell asleep and had this incredibly weird dream that I was teaching a class, constantly having to leave because I had to pee, and then coming back with the assured terror that while I was gone, SOMETHING HORRIBLE was happening to the children I had been teaching. And that SOMETHING HORRIBLE had something to with them being shoved into shoeboxes.

I woke in a state of terror, heart pounding, and really having to pee, so I got up. I was thinking about my dream (and a bit scared that when I went back to sleep it would pick up where it had left off, as dreams sometimes do), unsure why I was so frightened and listening to the canned music when I realized why what was probably restful for the Japanese people there (the music was clearly designed to be pleasant) was scaring the crap out of me.

Soon I figured it out: If you ever watch a crime drama, Lifetime movie, or police procedural, you'll notice whenever SOMETHING HORRIBLE is happening to a child (usually a murder, or if it's Lifetime, a rape) the music is done in the exact same style. That sort of tinny music box simplification of what is ordinarily a cheerful song. Then the color leaches from the scene, or the lights dim, and it's bad things.

Figuring this out made me more easily able to sleep (and my nightmare didn't come back...phew...), though I kept waking up at random points through the night because I'd recognize a song and the recognition would jog me awake. The most surprising music choice for me was the music box rendition of “I'll Give My Life For You” from Miss Saigon. That's the song where Kim is basically telling her son that she'll kill herself in order to see that he has a better life in America. That's a real winner for restful sleep. There were also slowed down renditions of eighties one hit wonders, Beatles' hits, and music from random movies (but not A Beautiful Mind, which would have actually been the perfect choice. Maybe I missed it). I think for people who aren't familiar with the music (or American Crime Dramas), it's probably just random background noise. For me though, the associations kept returning me to the land of the awake.

That said, I LOVED the Manga Cafe! It was soooo much fun! And my awakeness allowed me the chance to wander around, look at people, and start (when I say 'start' I mean peruse the first 1-2 pages) of two manga: the first issue of Full Metal Alchemist (Hagane no Renkinjutsushi) and a manga that was unfamiliar to me “Tegami Nochi” (don't quote me on the last word, I'm not sure I'm remembering it correctly). The second one took place on another planet and had something to do with delivering letters. That's as far as I got, but I did start making vocabulary cards from the words I'd looked up from it, which was helpful in regards to improving my weak Japanese vocabulary. When next clubbing, I'm totally going to make the Manga Cafe my crashplace. With earplugs this time.

Mie and I parted ways after the Manga Cafe: I was meeting up with Hatsue-san to go to a museum and have lunch and Mie had to go home to her family. Still, we had an amazing time, and we're totally going back to either that club or another one, so yay!

There was some confusion in regards to where in Kanayama Station Hatsue and I were going to meet up, but it was soon resolved. Since my breakfast had been a handfull of Koala Bear snacks (made of can find these in Chinatown in Philly. They are in a small green cardboard tube that is shaped like a pentagon. Try them; you won't regret!) that I'd picked up at the Conbini the night before, I was pretty hungry. So we stopped at a dirt cheap but filling and delicious corner dive at the Kanayama Station. I tried Akamiso (red miso, very sweet!) sauce chicken Katsu (fried chicken patty cut up basically) over rice with salad and scraped my plate clean. Then we were off to the Tokugawa museum and garden. All things inside related directly to the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Both were amazing. The garden was beautiful, full of peony flowers (in Japan they are called Boaton: pronounced like button but the first part more like “Boat”)., huge, stunning koi fish and lovely, planned waterfalls. Also a tea house (for tea ceremony, display, no real tea there) Many pictures were taken. For a while, Hatsue and I just sat by the side of the small pond, watched the Koi and talked. Then we went into the museum and saw artifacts (including armor and arrows) as old as the 12th century. Chinese, Japanese and Korean art was represented. My favorite piece of art was a screen of the four scenes by Kano Tan'yu (sample of his work:,.2) (note Sample does not do the artist justice, but I wasn't able to get pictures in the museum so it will have to do). It was stunning how much detail, beauty and sheer depth of space could and was captured in so few brush strokes.

Hatsue-san and I made plans to meet again at some soon point, exchanged Keitai information (now that I have one) and I'm totally looking forward to seeing her again. After the museum, I was flagging in energy. I made my way back to Toyota City, puttered aimlessly around my apartment and then passed out. An uneventful end to a highly charged weekend of fun!

Photos: Facebook Album

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Classroom Antics, Cell Phone Blues, & Reggaeton

Wow was this a packed day! I went to bed after Izakaya at around 1AM after having been plied with more Nihonshu (Sake) than I needed (or particularly wanted but I wasn't trying to be rude). I woke up again at 2am, then at 5am, then at 5:30am, then at 6am, then at 6:20am, which I figured was close enough to 6:30 that I'd best suck it up and face my day. I think I'd been so nervous about not waking up that I really couldn't sleep well. That and my small bladder. But I wasn't feeling particularly tired when I left my apartment and made my way by train and foot back to Ohata. I had two morning lessons and then the wildly intimidating PTA assembly.

My first class of second graders was observed by their mothers who sat in the back of the room and seemed entertained through the entire process. I had a few mild screwups through the lesson, the two major ones both being solved with relative aplomb. First, I had a CD for a “Good Morning” song that was given to us in our teaching materials (excellent) and I had planned to have me and the HRT teach the song to the second graders and then perform it with the CD. The problem was that after the song had been taught, the CD's pace was faster than I'd thought, and the kids were less than successful with doing the song (and looking a little frustrated). So in a quick flash of insight, I had us drop the CD again and perform the song “more slowly.” At this point, I started doing the song (with gestures) like a mega slow motion camera. The kids immediately got a kick out of it, and after a few seconds everyone was having a great time! After another runthrough of the song accapella (with gestures) the kids were able to do the song masterfully with the CD, and life was good.

The second mess up of the class was related to time management...again. For some reason, all of the activities and things to learn were done in a half hour, leaving another fifteen minutes to fill. I didn't have anymore flashcards or materials, so I ended up writing down more feeling associated words (we were doing “how are you today) on the board and teaching them. The kids weren't wildly into that, but after they had a basic handle on the vocabulary (which took 3 minutes) we then did a whisper down the lane game which ended with the kids in the front of the line running to the board and whacking the appropriate vocabulary with fly swatters. Luckily, any excuse to whack things with fly swatters can turn a dead lesson on it's end, so things went well and learning and fun were had by all. We ended with the song again, and the parents and children appeared happy, so it felt like a win to me.

My next class was unobserved, an adorable group of first graders who were really quick learners. Most of the time when I do my self introduction lesson, I can count on all of my students being from Japan, but twice I've gotten a child from somewhere else. This really adds a lot of fun to the lessons for me. I find their home country on the map, put a magnet there, and incorporate their country into the lesson as well. My first non-Japanese origin student was from Brazil (last Monday...I added a Brazil flashcard to my repertoire but have had to use it yet. For my second class, one of the little girls was from Bangladesh. She also clearly had learned a great deal of English at home, because when I said “I like cats” she popped right back with “what is your cat's name?” That gave me a chance to do my “I have two skinny cats and three fat cats,” lesson aside, which thinks to my cats all having names that indicate some aspect of personality or visual, allows me to teach a lot of vocabulary in a painless way. I didn't expect the first graders to remember much of it, but they surprised me, understanding and accurately responding with things like “No, three fat cats” and “Oddball = hen na neko. (weird cat). These kids were so much fun and so bright, it was a joy (even on a Saturday).

After classes, we had the PTA ritual. This is where we presented ourselves to the PTA and parents. This presentation was done in the school gym, where the PTA members sat behind boardroom style desks and looked dreadfully serious while the parents sat in the center as an audience, also looking serious. All of the teachers lined up in order of importance and gave a brief, not at all humorous self introduction. There was bowing, and humble language, and all that good stuff. I kept mine very brief, not wanting to screw it up (my name is Vashti Bandy and I am the new ALT, yoroshiku onegai Japanese, that was the basic gist of things). Then we bowed and left. As soon as we left, all of the teachers were talking about how nervewracking the experience was and how glad they were it was over. So was I. After that, Kyoto-sensei and Kouchou-sensei sent me home early. I was back in Toyota proper by 1pm, even with accidentally getting on the train going in the wrong direction and then having to come back.

With all of my extra time, I decided to go home and scramble some eggs and bacon (but the bacon had gone bad, so it was eggs and hashbrowns) talk to my mom for a bit, and then figure out how to pay my electric bill. During this process, I got a buzz at my door: my bank cashcard had arrived. It had a similar font and design to the envelope as the random piece of paper I'd gotten in my mailbox about four days before (that I couldn't read), so I figured, why not take that to the Post Office and see if they had my bank passbook?

If that didn't work, it was back to the Visitor's Center to see if the fine folks there could read it for me. But luckily, it was my bank passbook, and passbook plus cashcard meant “I can get a Ketiai!” (cellphone). So after a brief stop at the Convenience Store (Conbini) to pay my electric bill, I was off to AU to buy my cellphone. I'm not kidding about the convenience store either, that's how you do it here. You just go to the register, hand them your bill, and you pay it, they give you a receipt and boom...your bill is PAID. You even get a receipt. In fact, you can do practically EVERYTHING at the Conbibi! Make color copies, fax stuff, buy hot and cold food/drink, pay your bills (I paid for my reentry permit, guess where, the Conbini?!) Then I figured I had over two hours before I had to leave to meet Mie in Sakae (for clubbing), why not go buy the cell phone?

My Japanese has been slowly and steadily improving, but it was not up to the task of choosing a cell-phone plan in Japan. I mean, I guess to an extent it was as I have a cell phone, but my God was that complicated. I had some indication that this might be difficult because the last time I tried to buy a cell phone, I didn't have enough documents so while I couldn't get the phone at the time, I was given a large catalog in about four languages illustrating the cell phone plans available. I read it twice and still didn't have a great grip on what it was I wanted (or what the eighteen different plans meant in regards to my needs, which were BASIC). This is in large part because Japanese cellphones (keitai) have sooooo many features and options. What I wanted was a portable phone that did email (because in Japan that's the equivalent of text messaging). If it had a GPS that was a major bonus. That's it.
There were two areas of difficulty in regards to getting my cell phone. First, I'm a foreigner. So I had to show my passport with Visa, two forms from City Hall saying that I had applied for my Alien Registration Card and that it was being processed, my Toyota City address, and my Philadelphia address, (I gave them my paid electric bill too for good measure), and my company's phone number.

After gathering the documents (and searching the internet for my company's phone number), the man who was seeing me had to call somebody and have a conference with them about if it was okay to sell me the phone since I had all of this evidence (of what, that I hadn't stolen my own identity and had the real Vashti Bandy locked in a trunk somewhere...and what this had to do with my buying a cell phone anyway...?). And then things got weird. After the conference call, he asked me where I was born. I was like what...the hospital? You really need to know where I was BORN to sell me a cellphone? (I didn't say that out loud, but it was probably written on my face) No, he just wanted the city, so I said, yes I was born in Philadelphia. As an aside, in Japan, the concept of States doesn't translate, so he kept asking me what Pennsylvania was, a city...? I said it was a State, like a prefecture (which they have in Japan: I live in Aichi Prefecture), but that didn't really go over clearly. Then I said it was a state, and my city was Philadelphia.

Then it was another conference call, and I was approved to be sold a cell phone. Yay! First hurtle, crossed. Next came the harder part. I said I wanted a cheap phone that would allow me to make calls and send email (this is the Japanese equivalent of texting). And that I was only in Japan for one year. He handed me about eight different phones to choose from, all with different features, etc. I asked which ones had an English display, and he said all of them (phew). Then he asked if I was returning to the U.S. After I finished in Japan, and I explained that I was planning to travel around Asia and Europe. Then out came the color coded maps: some of these phones could be made to work in some countries but not others. Now the logical thing would have just been to say “I don't care, as long as it works in Japan.” I have Skype, I'm not planning to gallivant around the world with my cellphone from Japan. And also, when I get back to the U.S., I'm going back to my old cell phone plan. But because we were in question and answer mode, I ended up spending a huge amount of time trying to understand these charts and maps, etc. So now the phone I have will work in every country I'm planning to go to except Korea. And I doubt strongly I'm going to use it in any besides Japan, as it will be too damn expensive anyway.

Then came the cell phone plans. There was the EZ plan E, EZ Plan SS, and about four other EZ plans (if they have to tell you it's EZ, it's not), all with different features, different attachments, different prices, sometimes monthly, sometimes per data unit (whatever that is?), sometimes depending on who you were calling, etc. There was a two year plan that cut your monthly fees in half, a one year plan, a no year plan, etc. And that's not even talking about email, which varied in cost depending on plan, usage etc. There was the internet, television, GPS, etc. And then the cell phone promotions. Because I wanted to get my phone for free, I had to get six different options which are free for the next two months, but can only be canceled in May (I don't even want to tell you how long it took for us to figure this out).

To give you an example of how this buying process went, one question he asked me (discussing a feature) started out with “If your homepage is a bad homepage?” And I was like “Homepage, huh? Do you have to make a homepage for your cell phone and how much does that cost because I don't need it,” and he was like “No, if you have a bad homepage,” and I was like “What's a bad homepage? Is that like Hentai?” (porn) “because I'm not going to do that,” and he averted his eyes and said “no, no, of course not....” And I said asked, “then what's a bad homepage?” and he was like, “if you have a bad homepage, like, if you accidentally have a bad homepage on the internet” and I was like, “So if I accidentally go to a hentai site does that cost more, is that what you're saying?” and he was like, “No, no, it doesn't cost more, but if you don't want a bad homepage on the phone then you can do XKLJOIAHO” and I was like “What kind of bad homepage?”..and he was like “If you don't want to see it on your phone,” and suddenly, in the middle of this conversation I realized he was asking me if I wanted parental controls on my phone. And I said “I'm an adult. I don't need that.” and our conversation moved forwards again.

This guy was amazingly patient, considering I understood (as a high estimate) about 30% of what he was talking about. Some of this was language misunderstanding and some of this was just general misunderstanding because I some of the features/products and methods of payment are just things that don't exist in the USA. After 2/5 hours, I was the proud owner of a Keitai and running about 40 minutes late to meet with Mie. I called her on my cell and also sent her a mail to let her know I'd be late, and booked it.

I had the best time with Mie! In Nagoya, we did Yakiniku for dinner (cooked our own meat with BBQ style sauces) and then went to the Raggaeton party. Reggaeton is like fast paced Reggae that is highly influenced by the Spanish speaking world (it's mainly in Spanish). It was super fun! Mie and I did our part to get the party moving, getting out and dancing because everyone else was too embarrassed. Soon the dance floor was packed and Mie and I didn't leave until 4am. There was a DJ, live music from four different performers, alcohol and great new friends! I am so grateful and happy that Mie and I met because she's a super fun person! We said we'd go back again, so hopefully soon!

I have more to write about my day, but I'm going to cut it here because if I don't sleep soon, it will be tragic. So tomorrow's entry will discuss sleeping in the Manga Cafe, the Tokugawa museum, and other things.