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!