The daily journal of a Fukushima
JET. Read the day to day adventures of an ALT,
Assistant Language Teacher (Automatic Language Tape-player)
living in Fukushima Prefecture, or Northeastern Japan.
Sunday December 5th, 2004
It's been a busy few days since my last entry. November 30th I went to the hospital school and had a great time as usual. I was a tad sick so they wouldn't let me do the hospital walk through and talk to the bed-ridden kids. Wednesday I had no classes at my base school, Higashi (East). Thursday, for some reason, I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown. I don't know what caused it really. I just didn't want to be there. That is not so unusual, but I didn't want to be anywhere. It was a mixture of depression, nervousness, stress, and panic almost. I didn't want to be at school, at home, in Japan, in the US, in Thailand, anywhere. It was really odd. I actually had 4 classes, which really helped pass the time too, but I still felt like crap the whole day.
At least I had Friday to look forward to. During the day I went back to the Fireman's school for the last time ever. That was a little sad I guess, knowing that you will never be there again. I mean when/if I leave Japan, I can come back to visit my town and maybe school, but there is no reason for me ever to visit the fireman's school again. They served us lunch after we gave our Emergency English test. Friday night, a Minister in the Ministry of Fun, planned an event in Sendai at this hotel with a strange name. It was called Sendai Lala Green Green. I don't know why, but that was the name. It was a pretty cool idea, though it seemed to be a bit run down and out of the way. It was up in the mountains and there wasn't much traffic around it. The idea was to have a big hotel and people could go to it and stay entertained inside all night. There was a 4 hour all you can eat and drink buffet, that was really huge. It had tons of sushi, crab legs, lasagna, and other stuff. Then there was a bowling alley and an arcade, massages and an onsen. In the morning there was a big breakfast buffet. I took some pictures and I will upload them later.
I came back Saturday morning and hung out in Sendai a bit. I finally made it back to Fukushima in the early afternoon. Liz and I decided to see a movie and have dinner somewhere Saturday night (as friends). We saw "The Incredibles", which was entertaining though predictable. Before that we had Chinese food at a popular place in town. So popular in fact that we had to sit at this awkward bar section right by the cashier because it was so full. We thought they were putting us there until a table opened up, but then one opened and they sat other people there, even though I clearly said "we will wait for a table here" in Japanese. I must have forgotten foreigners can't speak Japanese.
Today I did nothing much except watch TV, which is really productive, and lie (or lay) around the house. I dare say that I am not sure which one to say, lie or lay, because I might be attacked in my guestbook by the all knowing English oracle. I'm pretty sure it is lie. I think someone lies down or lays something down.
Tomorrow I know I have 4 classes, which will pass the time rather fast. I don't like having classes back to back since there is no time to prepare or get focused, but I can't complain about having classes and complain about not having classes. I would much rather have too many classes than no classes. Oh something that really helped to bum me out on Thursday as well, I brought candy for the class that helped me film that video in June or July. Only 6 months late, not so terrible. But I bought two bags assuming there were 20 pieces in each bag. There were 17 and this class had 42 people. I felt so bad when I realized I was short. Their eyes lit up when I said I brought candy and then I had to be short to a few kids. Things like that make me sad. I will have to take two pieces tomorrow to that row of kids that didn't get any.
Tuesday I go to Kawamata which becoming my favorite school. I only go to the same four classes every time I go so I can really get to know the students. I much prefer that to the crap school I go to. It's not a crap school really, they just don't need an ALT. It's a technical school and everyone will get some job that involves no English. Ergo, no one wants to learn English. It would be a little different if the teachers were strict and made them learn or at least participate, but the teachers don't want to be there either so classes are hell. Actual hell. That's what my version of hell would be. They talk full volume and the teachers just ignore the students. You can't ignore half a class talking full volume to each other.
So I go there Friday, which means I will only be at Higashi three times this week and hopefully I will have classes each of those three days. We'll see. Next week is a short week since I leave for Thailand on the 16th, a Thursday. I still haven't told my school that I am leaving that early, but I don't care. They have wasted my time enough by making me sit around doing nothing and that proves to me that I am not needed or important here. I have heard that some of the elementary school teachers work 5 classes a day. If I did that all the time, I would feel like crap for taking time off. Also, at some schools they get the summer and winter vacation off since there are no students. If I had a school do that then I wouldn't take much vacation time either. But that's not my situation, and in my situation alone, they have proven I am not needed.
Why do I stay then? There's this silly argument that if someone renews in the program then they can't complain. That's stupid. I enjoy my life and my friends and Japan, but not my job. I think I could enjoy my job if some basic changes were made, but they aren't and they won't. They seem like common sense to me, but this is a different culture and things are different here. I don't want this to be like America, I want it to be Japan, but I also want things to make a little sense occasionally. There is a difference in accepting and learning the difference and quirks of a new culture, and the different culture just being stupid in some regards. The US has some good points and bad points, the same with Japan. I compare them together only because the US is my only point of reference. I've never lived in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa so I can't compare Japan to them. Some say you should compare the cultures, but you must have a point of reference. An origin point. Otherwise everything would be new and strange, whereas now it's just strange.
I don't think that made sense when I wrote it. I'll leave it and think about it more and come back to that. The point was, there are good and bad points about Japanese culture, as there are in all cultures. The thing I don't like is that some of the bad things are really stupid and usually unnecessary. But Japan does function as a country, so I guess things do work. Though walking from Seattle to Miami would also work, and that would be seen as inefficient.
Well I am tired so I will hit the sack, hit the hay. I can't think of any other idioms. I think I am going to actually make an effort to get better at Japanese faster. It would be beneficial to me to be able to speak better. Plus it would be really sad to say I lived in Japan for 3 years and didn't get much better than I am. Oh the plight of teaching English in Japan.
Monday, December 13th, 2004
Had a slow weekend which I really needed. Somehow I slept al day on Saturday as well as Friday night. I went to eat at the Country & Western place with Liz since she works at the night school on Friday and it's near my place. We had some good wanna-be Mexican food. Then she left and I returned home to watch something on video. I took my cough medicine and the other thing that makes me go to sleep. And so I did. I slept all night and woke up around 10am on Saturday. Then I watched another video and had lunch and suddenly became coma-like tired. I woke up again around 5:30 and saw that Tracie had called, who was having a Christmas dinner with some people.
Whenever she has a party I am always torn. I enjoy her and the people that go to these parties, but they all smoke like chimneys. I am highly reactive to smoke. I usually say allergic, but you can technically only be allergic to proteins and there are none in smoke. But whatever the terminology, my eyes burn and water, my nose closes, my head hurts, and my throat itches. I hate it. I can deal with people smoking, but when it is a small non-ventilated room it kills me. I had to leave several times and either stand outside or in the kitchen by the open window. There's nothing I can say or do, it's her place and she smokes. I can either go and get over it or stay home and be a hermit.
I often wonder about smokers. For instance, that night each person smoked about 4-6 cigarettes each. Actually it was more than that because I got there around 7, left around 1am and they were either eating or smoking. What I wonder about is how smokers survive in situations where they can't smoke for 12 hours, like on a flight. I couldn't imagine flying for 12 hours on a smoking flight. That would be my own personal hell. That would be unreal for me. It would honestly be like a prison. I wouldn't be able to breathe for 12 hours. I doubt the planes were well ventilated.
You know the odd thing is if I were to go somewhere public and spray fart spray, people would freak out. It would be considered rude. But to me there is really no difference. It smells the same as some smoke and it would make my clothes smell equally as bad. I could reach for it every few minutes, then panic if I ran out. "Gotta go make a fart run, be right back". I could act all cool and spray a puff right up in the air. I could occasionally let some slip out like they do when the cigs are blowing right in people's faces. It would be funny to me at least. No one else would see the humor since smokers have some inalienable rights to do as they wish regardless of how it affects others.
Enough venting on that subject. What else is new? Oh I see I haven't made an update in a while so I will do that now.
My supervisor told me the BoE above our school (not physically) said my sick time was rejected and some days would be used as vacation time. He couldn't understand that in the US, we don't take vacation time for days that are not vacations. They offer us sick time and then reject it when we use it. I even had a receipt. He said that rule has changed and now if I want to use sick time I have to get a doctor's note. That means I have to pay about $50-60 for the doctor to write an official note that says I am sick. That actually works out better for me. Apart from the money, it means I get more time off. The rule is/was if you are sick and go to a doctor and show a receipt you can stay out 3 days. If you are out longer you need a doctor's note. So I told him if I have to get a doctor's note every time I am sick why should I not stay out a full week? So next time I am sick I will just stay out a week and fully recover.
You know this would be totally different if I were used and knew I was important. Everyday, like today for example, I come in and get slapped in the face. As I type this my supervisor is sitting beside me trying to find the right part of the CD to play in class. I gave up my life, my family, my friends to come all the way to Japan to sit in the teacher's room? It's insulting really.
Last week I had two days of classes. It was quite odd to have a full load, but it felt good. The teacher took a CD player into class and we listened to that as I stood there watching it. We did this for two of the classes, then in the third one the CD player wouldn't play. At first I thought the CD player picked up on the sheer stupidity of the situation, having a foreign native English speaker standing 10 feet from this recording of native English. Anyway, it wouldn't play so the teacher panicked. We delayed class for about 10 minutes while he played with it. I knew what he was doing, but decided not to say anything. For some reason, after lunch he became stupid. He would press play, then fast forward to the track, then press stop rather than pause. Over and over again. Finally he turned to me and said in a sweat, "What are we going to do, the CD player won't work". Please understand the CD was only a recording of the actual text. Nothing special. The text I have in my hand. So the only logical thing for me to say in return was " it won't work? I don't know what we can do". This went on for about 5 more minutes until one of the bright students, or rather one of the students who would actually speak in class, spoke up and said "Ryan sensei could read the text". Finally the teacher looked at me and then the CD and then at me again and asked politely. I said "I will try, I'm not very good at reading and speaking English, I have only been doing it for 30 something years". He looked confused so I started reading. That's like asking a motivational speaker to come to your job and then playing a DVD of them rather than having them actually speak.
Several of my friends work 4-6 periods a day and plan their own lessons. They even write and grade their own tests. I barely help plan a lesson, really I just agree with what they have already done and try to figure out what I am supposed do in class. I have nothing to do with testing or grading. If I planned lessons and graded tests and knew that it was important that I be there everyday I would feel awful about missing class. I would feel terrible about taking sick leave or vacation time during class. But as it is now, if I am not here, the only thing I will miss is sitting at my desk doing nothing. I brought my computer in today for the purpose of passing time. I am typing this now and will upload it later. I have several videos on the computer that I am going to watch full screen later with headphones on. I would love a situation where I had to get here early and leave late because I was so busy. As it is now, I rush out at 4:15 and go home and do nothing.
I really want to teach Elementary school next year. I have had a few experiences with it and it was a blast. It was high energy and I know it will be a ton of work. Not only planning a new activity each day, but also having to be "on" in class everyday. I have heard some Elementary teachers have five out of 6 classes a day. I know that would be a huge difference, but it would be so much more rewarding that teaching past participle to students who care about nothing except passing the difficult college entrance exam.
I honestly think my school has a contract with a paper company. If I ever try to do something efficiently I get laughed at. My teachers rarely copy things front and back and there is always too much paperwork for whatever I do. For the mid year conference I went to recently, I had to fill out 3 forms before I went and 3 when I returned. The first three were me asking the BoE if I could please possibly attend this mandatory meeting. The post-three were me thanking them for letting me go as well as telling them what I did. When I get to school there is always at least 10 sheets on my desk. For a while I would try to read them, but then it became absurd. Some would say "the soccer team won this weekend" and nothing else. Why couldn't a teacher stand up and say that? Oh wait, they do. They stand up and say that and have us refer to that sheet in case there are any questions, although that sheet says nothing but "the soccer team won this weekend". Other papers would show the day's schedule, although it would be the same as any other day. Today I had a list of what all the teachers were doing during the winter vacation. Most were working of course. Another sheet shows who will be in charge of cleaning the teacher's room until April of 2005. Another shows how many absences there were last week. Just on and on nonsense. But if we didn't have all this paper on our desk, we might fall dangerously below the paper quota.
Last week on Wednesday and Thursday I had no classes because it was sports day. I watched the kids play all sorts of games all around the school. I don't complain about having no classes on those days, because there are no classes. Some other ALTs are allowed to come in late and leave early on those days, but not at my school. Only I can sit and stare properly at our school, so I feel special. The good thing about no classes for two days is I managed to get a lot of programming done. I am changing from Cold Fusion to PHP & MySQL, which is far more popular and much more free. Cold Fusion requires a special server and software, whereas most all Linux servers are running PHP & MySQL as a free service. So anyway, I am learning those two and I spent a good 8 hours between the two days working on that. I actually got a decent online script to work, so now I can move on to harder things. I should rig up my laptop so I can practice on that and just upload the scripts when I finish since the school computers are slow. I can make good use of having free time, although it still bugs me I came all the way to Japan to have free time. I'm going to start working on two big projects soon. One for AJET and the other for me, an online Japanese verbs conjugator. That's not a word, but you get the idea.
Ok, enough for now.
Wednesday December 15th, 2004
Well I guess I can make another update since I am actually at school on a Wednesday and the only thing we have to do today is have the closing ceremony. It should take about 30 minutes, but due to traditions and procedures, it always takes 2-3 hours. It's a bit funny actually. We start out by having someone open the opening ceremony of the closing ceremony. Then someone talks for a minute about the future. Then someone closes the opening ceremony (of the closing ceremony). Then the principal talks for 30 minutes about something serious and everyone has their head down. Then the lead teacher talks about something, then the student-teacher liaison talks about dress code and how it's important to always be dressed nicely, even around town. The students wear their uniforms everywhere, but they often have things unbuttoned or unattached. The girls often roll their skirts up to an inappropriate level. Finally someone opens the closing ceremony of the closing ceremony and then someone else talks about something. Finally someone closes the closing ceremony (of the closing ceremony) and it's over.
This time there will be something added though, and I wish I brought my video camera. The soccer team is going to the National Finals in Tokyo for the 3rd year in a row (coincidentally each year I have been here spreading my English powers). During the closing ceremony (the actual entire thing) at some point the cheering group will come out and force all the students to cheer. In my high school cheering meant actual cheering, like a pep rally, which is what we called it. Here it is something held over from Samurai wars I think. Three guys walk out barefoot with arms crossed and a look of total disappointment on their faces. Like they have to tell an Admiral his entire force was wiped out. They walk to the front and do this Tai Chi type grunt chant movement. They are screaming something in Japanese. Then they make everyone do this weird clapping thing. This goes on for about 10 minutes then they leave in the same manner as they came in. At some point a guy with a huge flag enters the gym. It honestly comes about 5 feet from touching the roof of the gym. He walks around carrying this flag by himself then leaves with them as well. They are the cheering group. Cheering is a little bit different here.
It's 9am now and I am glad I brought my computer. I have a few more episodes of Star Trek to watch, full screen, since I have nothing else to do. Some of my friends love reading, but I can't read constantly. I have to change things up. If I have a good book I can read for a few hours, or more if I am on a flight, but I can't come to school for an entire month and read for 8 hours a day. I just can't. My attention span is too short and my mind wanders. I don't want to watch videos at school, I would much rather be in the classroom or with the students, but for some reason, CDs of native English are preferred to an actual native speaker they paid to cross the Pacific and sit here.
I can honestly say my third year at this school was a mistake. But I really wanted to teach Elementary school and at the time, the only way to do that was by applying for a 4th year. Now I have learned I can possibly become a private ALT in a nearby town. The best part is the town and the program are really smart. They really take care of their foreign teachers and the result is the ALTs take care of them. If I was in a situation where my supervisors were aware of the existing cultural differences and made efforts to work with them, I would be much more motivated. For instance the private program doesn't make their ALTs come in during summer or winter vacation when there are no students. They get the time off free and clear. If I were in that situation I would never take vacation time if it interfered with classes. They are saying that the ALTs are important and they don't want to waste their time. At my current situation they daily show me I am unimportant. But I made a commitment to fulfill my contract so I am not going to just quit during the year.
I am still packing and things are not fitting. I really should have sent my bags to the airport via that convenient service Japan has called Takkyubin (tah Q Ben). But I didn't so what can I do. At least I took steps to have someone take care of our bags while we are in Cambodia. I guess I can write out our itinerary so you can follow it (if you want) as we journey through SE Asia.
Thursday - 16th leave Japan and arrive in Bangkok stay the night on Khao San Road.
Friday - 1 7th meet my Thai friend and drop off our bags. Go to the airport (that we just arrived at) and fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia. It's a one hour flight. Check into our hotel which is also a crocodile farm. Seriously. The airport in Siem Reap is near Angkor Wat and you can supposedly see the shrines from the plane.
Saturday 18th - check out Angkor Wat and the other shrines. At night go to the hospital to see a Swiss Doctor play cello and talk about his experiences in Cambodia and around the World.
Sunday 19th - Possibly catch sunrise at Angkor Wat depending on when the sun rises. Spend more time at Angkor Wat. Wat means temple. At some point we plan to take a helicopter ride over Angkor Wat, although it is $50 a person for a 7 minute flight. Still I think it would be amazing.
Monday 20th - See some of the other temples since the whole area has several. There is even one that is bigger than Angkor Wat.
Tuesday 21st - Sleep late possibly. Have free breakfast at hotel. Leave for airport by 9:30am for 11:30am flight. Land in Bangkok at 12:30pm. Get back to hotel and maybe see a few sights.
Wednesday 22nd - Go to Grand Palace in the morning and something else at night.
Thursday 23rd - Volunteer team starts gathering at designated meeting place. We have dinner together. Around 10pm I go to the airport to pick up one last volunteer.
Friday 24th - At 8am we leave for the orphanage by means of two rental vans and drivers. For the next week we will be living in a hut near Burma. Oh. That's probably where Burmese Pythons come from? Eck. Not a snake fan. On the way to our snake malaria hut, we will stop at the Bridge over the River Kwai and the Hellfire Pass.
Monday 27th - There is a big Christmas festival for the two orphanages and the town. We have to get on stage and dress like Santa and generally entertain people.
Thursday 30th - We leave the orphanage bound for Bangkok. We probably have to take a bus on our own or find the train.
Friday 31st - More sightseeing and some New Year's party or something.
Saturday 1st - Fly out at 10pm, arrive next morning in Tokyo at 6am.
Sunday 2nd - Go straight to the Emperor's Palace. On the 23rd and 2nd of each year he opens his palace and let's nearly 400,000 people come into the gardens where he comes out and waves for about 5 minutes. The Japanese people go completely crazy since he still has some divinity to him. Go home at some point after this.
The above schedule is assuming no one gets dysentery or malaria, preferably not me, though I would most certainly lose 50 pounds overnight with dysentery. Then I could market the new guaranteed surefire "lose weight overnight" diet.
It will really be a relief when all this is over since I am planning everything. I have all the details and arrangements on my shoulders and it's not like I've ever been to the orphanage before, so that part will be new. I've prepared as best I can I think, but still there are always unexpected surprises. I think Cambodia will be alright, and I have over-planned most any thing that involves a deadline or a time limit. I guess it's good that I worry, it keeps me on my feet. It would be nice to take a tour or a trip that I wasn't planning.
My next adventure will be in February when I am taking 29 people to Sapporo. That will be more fun since I am in charge of money too and people have already asked about backing out. If they back out it will cause problems, but people don't seem to care about that. That will be the last thing I mass-plan for a while. At least I was smart enough to get a non-refundable deposit from everyone. I was thinking about planning a Fuji hike in the early summer. I would rent a bus and driver and we would all be driven down to the starting point and then climb it and descend it and be back at the bus. I don't know how much that would cost, but divided by 40 people it shouldn't be bad. It costs $50 to go to Tokyo on a bus, and if we chartered the bus and filled it up with 40 people, I would think it would be at most the same cost if not less. Oh well, I will worry about that later, or maybe I won't.
I just went to the grocery store and had lunch. When I came back I was printing pictures of some places I want the drivers to stop on the way to the orphanage. They don't speak English and we don't speak Thai. The places we want to see on the way are all related to the Japanese occupation of Thailand. Specifically where the Japanese held several thousand POWs and forced them to build the Bangkok-Burma railroad. Thousands of POWs were killed and tortured while the Japanese were trying to build a railroad to Rangong or whatever the capital of Burma (Myanmar) is.
A teacher came over and saw me and asked what the printouts were. I explained them and she said that all the stories about that area were lies. I assumed she meant they were greatly exaggerated, but she meant, and truly believed, they never happened and were completely made up. I probed further to learn she, as well as other teachers, honestly believe the Japanese never invaded that area and never took hostages. I'm no historian, but I think it's pretty well documented that it happened. I couldn't help but chuckle a little at the way Japanese portray themselves as the victims of the evil American empire who bombed them without provocation. Granted there is more to the story of the atomic bombs than we are taught, but the Japanese are ignoring that little situation at Pearl Harbor. They refuse to acknowledge anything that makes them look bad. Pearl Harbor and Thailand definitely fit that category. It's honestly humorous asking direct questions and listening to run-around answers.
The weather is still crazy. Last year it snowed on our way to Thailand, but this year I could wear shorts outside and only be slightly cold. Some days around 2 or 3 it's actually hot. Hot as in I am sweating and have to step outside. I really hope it's a mild winter, but I am afraid it will just drop off soon. In the morning it's usually cool or cold, but by afternoon it's way too warm for mid-December. It will be interesting to see the weather when I return from Thailand, where it gets no colder than about 68 degrees year round. Summer's are nasty humid, like Japan, but there are no winters. That would be nice. That and the ultra-cheap economy are reasons why so many people retire there.
I just had a near problem, but it was avoided. My supervisor asked me if I was going to my two traveling schools next week. He said I had better go. I asked him if he knew I would be in Thailand tomorrow. He suddenly remembered my vacation time form and made the connection that I would be in Thailand and not here. Then I told him I had already told my two schools I would be gone and he was relieved. I was expecting him to say I HAD to go or something to which I would have to reply, under no way shape or form would I be there. These tickets are non-refundable and I wouldn't have any classes at the schools anyway, they've already told me that.
Well the ceremony is over and it was as boring as expected. For about an hour I stood there listening to too fast native Japanese. Then finally I got tired and sat down against the wall. I actually dozed off for a bit, about 20 minutes I think. I kept waking up last night due to Sleep Apnea which I have found is weight related. So when I return from Thailand I am going to make my primary New Year's Goal to lose weight. It's now actually affecting my health in ways that are really annoying so I must make the commitment. Argh.
Thursday December 16th, 2004
There won't be an update for a few weeks because I will be in Thailand and Cambodia. However, when I return there should be a massive update. MASSIVE. El massivo. Esta muy largo.
I'll stop now.
I am alive and safe. I was no where near the tsunami in Thailand.
For the trip update please see January, though it will take a while to complete.