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Practice to Death.
Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

            JHS graduation is the 13th of this month so that means every single day for two or more class periods we have graduation practice. Today they spent both class periods learning how to bow. They’ve bowed a billion times in their life already, but this is a special ceremony where total conformance is demanded. Everyone must bow the exact same way at the exact same time. They probably bowed 1,000 times today alone. They practiced to such an excruciating degree that I wanted to die. Pretty much from here on out I will have either very few, or mist likely, no classes through the end of April. Luckily I have some back up things to work on, but still this is annoying. Though not unexpected for Japan since it’s not about actually teaching, just having a foreign teacher present.

            Yesterday I went to watch another Native Teacher do some observed classes. I learned some things and got some good ideas for future classes. Something she did that I plan to implement into nearly every class is showing a movie and then having the kids listen for certain words. She used a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, which was good since the kids knew it, but I thought bad since they were talking so fast. There was also a 3 minute part where they didn’t speak, they were sword fighting. She also played a game called the cockroach game that I plan to use, tomorrow actually, with the elementary school kids.

            I had two classes today, one with the seniors and we watched the end of Goonies. The second with the 5th graders and we played more of my games, one of which is really addictive. Then I sat around for a while. Then I went to watch the graduation…bowing rehearsal. Tomorrow I have 3 classes and then Thursday I have two, but the NT who was here before me is coming to visit. That will be fun although I have to drive into town to get her and take her back, but I don’t mind really. Also yesterday we had another great meeting about English camp. This time it was with the liaison between the AETs and the board of education. He had some good ideas and said the pre-planning we had done seemed all on track.

Farewell pt2.
Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

            The 6th graders are having their farewell party right now and I am not going. I have some things to do which could be done later, but I’m not in a mood to watch another scripted ceremony. Pep rallies and parties are more scripted than fun and that’s so odd (and uncomfortable) for me. At pep rallies I want to shout and clap and get people’s energy up, but here we just clap a certain number of times, then say some standard set-phrase cheers. At this farewell party for the 6th graders, there are the usual skits where the lower grades act stupid and then thank each individual 6th grader for the wisdom they have passed along during the year. They really haven’t passed anything along, but that’s what you do at these things. I’m just not in a mood to sit through another one right now. I’m still smoldering from the “no time for your presentation, but time for virtually anything else under the sun” incident last week.

            Another reason I am in a foul mood is I just had a class with the 1st year kids in the elementary school. It’s not that they are loud and don’t listen when I say be quiet 400 times, that’s a kid thing. The teacher has a clapping bit that gets them quiet after about a minute of clapping in sets of three. It’s that some are really advanced and some are really low. Today I was going to teach ABCs (even though I think that is a bit early). On the way to class I showed the kids in the hall that we were going to learn English letters. A few started reciting all the letters and could even recognize some near the end. Well that shot the first 10 minutes of my class so the whole thing ended up being too easy.

            [News Flash] All my kids that took the national English test passed. We just received the results. The big news is that one kid went for a really advanced level, the high school senior level and he is a junior high school senior. He passed which looks great for the school, even though the reason he passed was because his father runs the local cram school. Either way that looks great for me since it had been 5+ years before I got here that one other person had reached the level below this. Once I got to this school several people started reaching that level and I knew this kid would reach this level because all he ever does is watch baseball and study English. I’ll get more credit than I deserve for this, but my intensive interviews did help.

            March is always a tough time for me. The seniors are leaving which means 44 people I know and am close to will just disappear. I more or less won’t see them again. Occasionally a few will stop by the school to say high, but most feel going back to the JHS makes them feel like children again. I will see some around the 7-11 or in town. But for the most part they will all be gone. Then I start having no classes so I’m just sitting typing this. I’m a firm believer that we are special situations that have no reason to be at the school when there are no classes or no students. I’m not considered equal to the other teachers in so many ways, unless it is convenient to say I am equal. But if it regards paying me the bonus or a raise, then I back to not equal. Lastly, it’s the end of the year so all the kids are getting restless and want to be promoted a grade. It gets restless for me as well since I am burnout and need a rest or at least a change. Nothing will change until April 1st.

Just Like Old Times.
Thursday, March 6th, 2008

            The NT before me, Rebecca, came to Japan to give a presentation on coping with life when you return to your home country for the JETs that are leaving this year. Since she had a few extra days she came up to Koriyama and spent today here at her old school. She was here for a year and then left to go back to Atlanta. She told me though she makes more money now her expenses are through the roof. She said she misses her life in Japan sometimes.

            She walked around and said hello to the kids she knew three years before. Most were glad to see her, others were just going on with their daily business. I had two classes and she came to them and we played some games that involved asking her questions. Overall it was a good day and she got to see some kids who had grown since she left. I think whenever I leave I won’t come back for about 2-3 years. Any time before that would be like I just left. Plus I want to see the current 5th graders graduate JHS. If I were to leave next year when they graduate 6th grade and then become JHS kids, that would mean coming back in March of 2012 to see them graduate. Also in the gym would be the current 4th and 3rd graders and the current 2nd graders would be 6th graders. That would interesting to see. It would be good timing as well since the ancient Mayans predicted the world would end on December 21st 2012.

 

My Blood ROCKS.
Friday, March 5th, 2008

            I went back to the hospital today for a follow up blood test and the results were “very good” as the doctor wrote on my print out. They went from sky high (“you should be in a coma with these blood levels”) in January, to slightly high in February to right at the upper limits. A few more were within the normal limits this time, but those that weren’t were only slightly too high. Two in particular were 1 point too high, though one of those two was actually .1 too high. Next time it will be much better if not completely perfect. YAY! I even dropped two of my medicines so now I just have one that I take after eating.

            I got to the hospital at 7:40 and checked in at the desk. She said I need to turn in some form to another window that would open at 8. Fine, I waited and turned it in. Then that window said wait until they officially start at 8:30 for my blood test. Then precisely at 8:30 they began calling people back, even though they were ready 5-7 minutes earlier. When I had my blood test I was told the correct (“proper”) way to make a fist, which is to tuck the thumb inside the fingers. No other ways allowed blood to be collected properly. Then I was done at 8:40 and told the doctors would see people starting promptly at 9. I was called in around 9:10 and he showed me the great news. I’m still amazed at the level of precision by which the Japanese live.

            Speaking of which, yesterday when Rebecca was here we had lunch with the elementary school kids. One kid pointed out how inappropriate my tray was. It was inappropriate, because my rice and soup were on the wrong sides of the tray. The kid even told me that Japanese people cannot be different. Everything must be the exact same. He, and the few kids around him, had this gasp look on his face as if I had a severed head on my plate.

Hot.
Monday, March 10th, 2008

            It was so hot over the weekend. I don’t mean relative to the season, I mean it was like 60 degrees on Sunday. All of the snow in the road melted, which is great, and much of the snow around the area that wasn’t packed down or in some big mound also melted. Today it’s still warm, though in the 50’s I’d say and unfortunately it’s snowing. What do you call snow when it’s warm? Rain. It’s been raining all day and I would bet the farm that it will be negative Kelvin tonight and everything will freeze. Awesome, simply awesome. By awesome, I mean poo.

            I have no classes today, but I managed to beg my way into receiving the honor of sitting in a classroom while the kids took a test. When I returned I was praised for my hard work. I actually have grown quite good at sitting and doing nothing while in Japan, thanks to all the paid training I’ve had over the years. Other than that I have no classes today and a whopping 4 classes for the week, but one has already been cancelled. There is a meeting I will go to on Thursday afternoon about the English camp, but other than that it’s a week of getting a lot of administrative things done. I have several side projects I’ve been working on (on the side) and now I can work on them full time. They are all school related so I shouldn’t have said “side projects”, but then I couldn’t have used it again in the parentheses section.

            Apart from jokes about that song, I think I’m turning Japanese I’m really turning Japanese, I really think so. In Japan it’s considered rude to blow your nose in public or basically around anyone else. I’ve always thought this was dumb, or annoying at least, but I still tried to abide by it. Anyway, today there was this teacher who was blowing her nose at her desk. I didn’t mind at first, but then it was getting pretty heavy. She went through like 5 tissues (probably doubled up) and then kept going for more. I started getting mentally annoyed and wanted to yell “come on already step outside”. Maybe I’m just getting old or maybe I’m really turning Japanese. Finally she left the room when round 2 came around.

Congradulations.
Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

            It’s the day before graduation and all through the house, not a creature is stirring…I haven’t helped them set up for graduation since I don’t know what to do and they all instinctively know. Plus I can’t sit through a dozen practices and then the regular performance without going insane. It’s tomorrow and then I have a meeting to do more planning for English Camp.

            Today the kids got their yearbooks which cost something like $300 each. Apart from it being Japan and things don’t have to make sense, I have no idea why they costs that much. I will have to buy one next year if I can afford it. Now some kids are walking around the room having teachers sign their yearbooks. I hate these times because if I accidentally make eye contact then that kid feels compelled to have me write something. So I am just sitting here looking down typing this. A few kids have sought me out and asked me which always makes me feel good. There is one kid whose book I really want to write in. In whose book wanting to write I do. Become Yoda it seems I have.

            The meeting tomorrow is a follow up to several previous meetings we’ve had. This camp is going to be much better than previous one since there are so many new people with tons of energy and they aren’t burnt out on the camps (yet). Plus we’ve changed several activities and added some that will be more exciting. There are still some bumps, but overall it will be a great camp and I’m looking forward to it.

Forgetting.
Friday, March 14th, 2008

            I completely forgot how to write a Japanese letter today. Not even a kanji character, but a simple letter. I have written it hundreds of times, but I just couldn’t do it. Even when I looked it up I couldn’t remember how to write it. It was really strange. Sometimes I can feel my memory slipping more than usual. Sometimes I am really sharp on certain things, more often than not my brain slips a bit and I forget basic things. I can always just barely see what I want to say. It’s right in my peripheral vision, but when I look at it to read it and then say it, it darts away. I’m going to practice that letter a billion times now. It’s not even the one I have trouble remembering.

            I had a completely stupid Ryan Syndrome moment at the meeting to plan English Camp yesterday. I took some sound effects and planned to play them on my computer to demonstrate them for the group. I took my computer (huge hassle) and my speakers that plug into the headphone jack. I tested them at school and it all worked fine. I get to the meeting place and set everything up and finally plug in the speakers. Even though the volume was completely DOWN on them, they were screeching like feedback. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong since they wouldn’t stop screeching LOUD. I managed to resolve the situation by smashing them into the corner of the table. It made them stop screeching and me feel better, but I couldn’t play any of the sounds.

            Yesterday was graduation. Graduation is usually painful for me because of the degree to which they take the ceremonial flourish. I don’t remember any elementary or JHS graduation when I was a kid and my high school / college graduation was more of a “yea we did it” thing. I would have been fine with not even going. Here even the elementary school has such a rigidly ceremonial process. I’ll take you through it step by step for the junior high school:

1) They rehearse every small detail over and over for weeks before.

2) When it is time for the performance, first the local important people are led into the gym. They are invited to add credibility to it. If these people of these high ranks can make the time to attend this event, it must be worth it.

3) The important people are seated by rank. The teachers are also seated by rank. I was seated higher in rank than some women such as the school nurse and librarian.

4) Everyone stands and bows.

5) The graduating students enter the gym, one by one, and stand. When their whole class has entered they sit in unison. Both classes do this separately.

5a) The second highest ranked school official officially opens the ceremony by saying “I officially open the ceremony”.

6) We sing the national anthem.

7) We sing the school song.

8) The seniors are awarded their diplomas. Here is where it gets fun.

            a) They walk to a certain point and stop at precisely 10 cm away from a piece of tape.

            b) When their name is called they take exactly 7 steps to the stage.

                        *) The 8th step is on the step. The 9th is on the stage.

                        *) Girls take 8 steps to the stage, 9th on the step, 10th on the stage.

            c) The diploma is lifted from the case and handed to the principal.

            d) The principal reads the diploma and spins it 180 degrees by gripping one corner at a time and pinching with 2 fingers.

            e) It is extended toward the student.

            f) The student extends his/her left arm in a roundabout way, and then the right.

            g) He/she slowly pinches the closest left corner with a finger and thumb and then the right.

            h) He/she takes a step back with his/her left foot, then moves the right back as well.

            i) He/she brings both ends of the diploma together and holds it closed between the thumb and pointer finger of the left hand.

            j) it is then deposited in another tray near the parents.

9) The principal, who was just on the stage, has sat back down. He is immediately called back to the stage. He opens a piece of paper that has been folded into thirds. Inside it is another piece of paper folded similarly to a fan, but wider. This is his speech.

10) The students all stand in unison. They bow and then sit in unison. There is only one sound of butts hitting chairs.

11) He reads the speech, which must start with “Congratulations on your graduation” it, along with all others, must end with the date.

12) He finishes the speech and wraps it back in the folded paper and puts it in his pocket. He then sits back down.

13) The top three important people give speeches that all include the folded paper bit as well as the required intro and closing.

14) The important people are introduced. Starting with the MAN that runs the local government office (some branch of the city hall). Then there is a local congress-MAN. Then the PTA president, vice president, and secretary. The second row has some police-MEN, fire-MEN, the historian, and some others. A woman can be in the 3rd row. There were about 30 important people making this a very credible ceremony.

15) The 2nd year and elementary school representative give official thank you speeches that thank the seniors for all the wisdom they passed along. About 20 little references were cited. They were all things that kids do anyway, but in the speech the underlings officially recognized and thanked the seniors for these things.

16) They enter and leave the stage in perfect unison. Turning together like a marching band, as well as taking exactly the same number of steps at the same time.

17) Reps from the graduating seniors get up and acknowledge all the wisdom the teachers passed along and acknowledge they have learned what they were supposed to learn.

18) The outgoing student president gives a sobbing speech (that was actually funny with all the sobbing) that thanks everyone for everything that has ever happened to anyone.

19) The ceremony is officially closed by the vice principal saying “I officially close the ceremony”.

20) The important people are led out with the top person being first again. The students then file out one by one and receive a flower.

21) The last two students present the two homeroom teachers with a bouquet. The teachers act surprised to get it even though it always happens and they could see the students bringing them the whole way.

22) The parents are told to wait 1 minute, and yet they don’t, before going to join the kids get their pictures made. Then the teachers may leave last.

             All the kids that had not previously been admitted to a school and had to retake the entrance test came today and announced their status. If they were bouncing off the walls and holding an envelope they were accepted into the school of their choice. If they looked like someone ran over their dog and had no envelope, they didn’t pass the test. I don’t know why they have to come back and tell us (well apart from this still being their group), and more importantly I don’t know why they have to announce the status to the room of teachers. If they failed they have to stand in front of everyone and say basically “I failed, I will try again or go to another school”. There are so many things I hate about the Japanese education system, and yet they produce smart people.

Almost There.
Monday, March 17th, 2008

            This morning we had a whole school meeting to give some awards for something and announce there was a fire in a nearby part of the town yesterday. Then the usual year end “reflection” speeches by a representative from every other grade. They talked about their memories of the previous term. Then the usual “don’t be a moron” speech by the disciplinarian teacher. Usually we do some of that on the last day of the term, but this term it will be the elementary graduation and that will take up most of the day or morning at least.

            The other “almost there” thing is when I went to the gym I was at 100.8 kilos. My current benchmark goal is to break 100, which I will do shortly. That’s not my ideal weight, it’s just a marker that I am going from obese to slightly too fat. From here I guess my next goal would be 95, which is getting closer to my ideal weight, and then 90 which is still a bit too heavy. I wonder if this medicine is making me lose weight and I will gain it back when I stop, or worse, I will keep losing weight until I am skin and bones. What I think is happening is that it is flushing my liver and causing it to eat all the fat that it had previously stored around my belly. Belly is such a fun word. Jelly Belly. That’s it. So I think I will level off once I get to the correct weight. I hope my contract gets renewed for one more year for one reason only (several, but now just one), I want to go back to get my health check next year and have it be completely the opposite of what it was this year as well as previous years. Even if I were tested now it would be 1000% different, but by the time the next one rolls around it will be wowzers good.

            As I type this there is a teacher cutting his fingernails in the teacher’s room. I would have thought that was surely rude in some way in Japan. It’s not too personal for me, but it’s not something I wouldn't do in public. It’s the contradictions like that that make Japan great. It’s ok to have your phone set to loud on the ringer, but rude to type a message quietly at your desk. I can never figure out what is rude and what is not in Japan.

            So the dollar and yen are even. That’s like “what?!?!?!” and yet awesome for me. As long as they find the money to keep paying me, I would love it if it stayed like this or got worse. I usually lose 25% when I send money back and now I will make even money. That is unreal. I don’t think I can send too much more than usual back this time, but I will try. I couldn’t imagine if it went down so the yen was higher than the dollar and I made money in the transfer.

            At various times of the day two teachers will sit at the back table and double-verify the grades. One teacher will read them out and the other will confirm that those are the grades that are written in the log. Here’s how every single one has gone so far:

A-B-B-A-A-B-A-A-A-B-A-B-B-A-B-A-A-A-B-A-A-A-B

Did you see anything below a B in that list? Nope. You don’t pass or fail in Japan, you only receive different levels of passing. The genius who passed everything with honors gets a mark only slightly higher than the kid who doesn’t even speak a word of Japanese. The kids that don’t even come to school score the same as those that come in for extra classes during breaks. I have never heard of a kid failing or being held back. Nor has anyone I have ever asked in Japan. Some teachers here actually think it’s funny that students might have to repeat a grade because they didn’t pass or put out enough effort. That would disrupt the group. Hey, the principal makes more money than I do, how about if we balance that out as well? Asia cares more about personal relations with people than about doing things logically.

            I gave out grades my first year until a teacher had to pull me aside and just plainly tell me how things happen here. I was giving grades based on how they did and I was even fluffing them up a bit so it looked better. I tried to give one kid a C who was disruptive in class and that was the worst thing in the world I could have suggested. I was told point blank that kids receive either an A or a B. C’s are unheard of and the parents would come to the school and want to know why it was given. D and F grades are just not done. Furthermore, grades had to be consistent. If a kid received an A last year and then a B this year it would cause great concern. Basically once you receive your first A you will never score lower than that no matter how little you try.

            I don’t even know why they give grades in Japan apart from the fact that the students can walk around telling people they were A students. I do remember asking some Japanese exchange students about that in college and them saying they made A’s. I just thought the schools were so much better. I guess that’s why their grades don’t transfer when they go to American schools. They should just give marks that are like “on track” or “not on track”, but in Japan it would have to be "on track" versus  “still on track of course, but veering slightly to one side” since anything too direct is rude. The more vague you are in Japan usually means you are being really polite. When tests are graded the correct answers are circled and wrong answers are not Xed, but a triangle is drawn. This means "perhaps, if convenient and possible, and if it wouldn't be an issue, perhaps you could review this answer and think about some other ways of answering."

            The soon-to-graduate sixth graders had their farewell thank you party for the teachers. Though it was an hour and a half it went by quickly. They had a little skit where they imitated various teachers and we all laughed. Then there was a quiz time where each team could only draw one line for less than 15 seconds and we had to draw a pic that another member could recognize. That explanation was poo, but it was fun (the activity not the explanation). I seem to remember being annoyed at these in the past, but this year it was fun.

The Man.
Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

            I made a nice little jab at the man today. I fought the system in my own little way. “Little” being the key word. A student was standing by my desk talking to a teacher across the row. He asked her a question about the schedule and she didn’t know since she didn’t have one. I handed her mine and they talked. When it was over she asked whose schedule it was. By this time a few other teachers were around us. I said semi-loudly that it was my schedule and it was very important that I get it back so I could see which classes were going while I was sitting here all week. Then a teacher asked if I had no classes and I said just one. He said it showed two on the schedule and I said I had never been to the 6th grade class more than 5 times total in 3 years. It was like “yea, boom, in your face”. Take that. Yea you like that? You want more? You want a piece of me? I am saying the things that need to be said. Bring it on. Show me what you got…Then they all nodded in that “oh well” sort of way and went back to work. Well poo.

            The whole “nearing 100 kilograms” thing was a false hope. It’s ok since I am still descending in weight matters, but it was sad to be that close and lose it all. I am back to 101.3 today, which is fine, but the previous “real” weight was 102.5 so I am in fact still losing weight. The 100.something was because I hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch that day. So the real breaking 100 is projected for next week, even though I won’t be working out due to English camp. That will be some exercise with all the running around and stuff, but maybe I will take a dumbbell to use occasionally.

            I went to the gym yesterday, as the above paragraph implied, and worked out chest and triceps. It was the first time in a while that I was able to really burn out my muscles and workout until I was exhausted. There’s this one guy, this huge body builder, that works out around the same time I do. He’s a super nice guy and ironically his name is Hemi, which is also the name of big strong engines in trucks in the US. Search YouTube.com for Hemi Commercials if you don’t know about it. Anyway, whenever anyone walks in the weight room we all nod and grunt some greeting, but when Hemi walks in we all stop and bow and greet him. It’s like we are all chimps and he’s the silverback. He is the alpha male in the room of alpha males.

            After the gym I had a food slip-up slightly. I bought some salt and vinegar potato chips and then some chips and salsa. Then I had ramen for dinner. Not a huge slip-up really, but slightly. I found a place that has my favorite mango chunks for half of the previous place I went to. I bought some bran cereal and some other things. Of all the times to have a food weak point, that was the best since I had just worked out intensely and my metabolism was raging. Then I came home and worked on some more English Camp things. This year the camp is going to be crazy fun. We have redesigned it and made it nearly non-stop action.

            This year about 10 teachers are changing schools in April. If you don’t know already the school year goes from April to March and teachers stay at one school for about 3-4 years and are then involuntarily moved somewhere that they can’t really choose. I think they can express input on where they would prefer, but I think that goes as far as saying “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow”. Of the 10 teachers leaving there are only about 2 that I will really miss. Most either don’t like me (because I have a teacher’s license, but didn’t take the grueling test – and I am treated differently than the other teachers) or we just don’t talk much. So I won’t really miss them too much. I have grown to understand why they do this and see the good points of it, but overall I don’t like it. All the small bits of my relationships with these teachers will be gone. All the little things that the vice principal knows about me, I have to start over with the new guy. Maybe he will be nicer, maybe he will be meaner. Either way I have to figure all these things out over time. Imagine if all your coworkers left every few years and you had to completely start over with new people. Or you changed jobs after a few years and had to move to a new place and go back to being the lower new person. In the long run there are benefits of it, but I still don’t like it.

            I knew there was a reason for talking about the gym and I just remembered it. When I was working out they showed some prank videos on TV from around the world. The Japan segment was obviously fake, but everyone was laughing in the gym. They had some guy get in a taxi and then the driver drove really fast and hit a ramp so the car went up on two wheels or maybe they would drive through a fire wall. You could tell it was fake by their reactions. Then they showed somewhere in Europe and there was this cool skit where everyone was in a bar and they all passed out suddenly. One person was just sitting there wondering what happened. I want to try that in class sometime.

            Then they came to the US and even though I think they were mocking us, it was funny. They did a skit called “Kicked in the Nuts”. It was actually called that in English. Some guy with a huge orange afro would run around kicking people in the nuts. Then as they were getting mad he pointed to the camera and they all laughed. The funniest one was when he kicked two children who were playing catch in a park. Their father started chasing the man and hitting him like he was angry. Finally the host guy pointed at the camera and they all laughed. I “remembered” this when I was in the gym helping them set up for graduation and some kid ran over and said “kicked in the nuts” and then tried to kick me. We had a good laugh about it all.

            Speaking of graduation, the level of detail and exact precision is insane. It took us 2 hours to get the chairs lined up exactly right. There were so many tape measures and markers that it looked like we were laying the foundation for a high rise.

Farewell (for two weeks).
Friday, March 21st, 2008

            It’s time for another graduation. This time it will be the elementary 6th graders. It will be about as rigid as the junior high school ceremony, but there are only 26 kids. Either it will be shorter or they will stretch it out to make it longer by doing the same things over and over. I’m guessing it’s going to be shorter since the send off party thing is at 11:50 and they would have things to do between the ceremony and the send off. We are really just sending them off until April 7th when they come right back here. I bet they are all going to cry even though it will only be two weeks.

            This week the school nurse asked me to bring the results of my health check so she could update the school records. I don’t care about things like that, especially since the results are already so much better. But each time Japan does some form of blatant personal privacy invasion, I laugh inside. I can only imagine how long that plan would work in English speaking countries. “You want to make a record of my personal health info? Is that a pig flying through the air? I heard hell is getting colder these days…” But in Japan I am a public servant and my personal info is considered public info.

            Well it’s over now. It was torture since they chose the “stretch it out to add credibility” option rather than just have a short ceremony. They were called up one at a time, took the diploma in the rigid standard way, walked 6 steps to the right of the stage and presented it to all (as if it were not real and they had to prove it), went down the stage steps and took 6 steps to a point, then 9 to another point, then 18 back across the seating area, then however many to their row. A few times kids would be short and have to take giant steps to get to a place on time. Looking ridiculous is less important than following the directions precisely. You must not deviate. One kid forgot which foot to start on and nearly panicked.

            Hey look, we are already to number 7 of 8, it must be almost over…nope. Number 7 took longer than everything up to that point. The graduates turned their chairs to the back and each of the 26 shouted a message to the remaining 1-5 graders. After about 3 messages everyone shouted “arigatou gozaimasu” then they continued. Ok that’s over, great. Oh wait, the 1-5 graders have to shout messages back to the graduates, one for each graduate thanking him/her for all he/she has done over the years. Oh wow, another 26+ minutes of the same thing. Next the grads sing a song to the 1-5 graders and course they respond. Next the grads turn and thank each teacher for doing our jobs. Then they turn and thank the visiting dignitaries for being dignit or whatever they do. Ok, we are wrapping it up.

            Not even close. Now each kid stands and thanks their parents for all the parenting things that they did over the year. You can tell which parents belongs to which kid because their heads are down and they are bawling. Another 26+ minutes of each kid saying virtually the same thing. All this would be awesome if it were planned and expected, but when you know the kids are going to say these things it’s regimented. It’s like you can’t graduate until you say 100 “thank you’s” and receive 100 “congratulations”. That’s about how many times each were said. Usually they would be said 3 at a time with a gradual rise in volume until the kids were shouting at the top of their lungs.

            After the send off in the hallway, we came back to our desks to see out lunch waiting. We ordered a boxed lunch which is always hit or miss. Today it was closer to a miss. There were the usual side bits and the main course was rice wrapped in this dough type thing. They sell it at sushi shops as a filler, not as any delicacy. It would have been fine to have them in the lunch as a filler, but as the main course was a stretch. Luckily it was paid for by the teacher’s fund or something. I sat down and ate right away and then noticed that no one else was eating. I’m just not in that kind of mood today where I wait for the group to start all at once. I was hungry and …oops I accidentally took my medicine. The kind that has to be taken with food…well I guess I have to eat now.

            When I went with the juniors on their school trip last year to somewhere up north, we were given drinks as we got on the bus. Ok, great…we are allowed to drink on the bus. It was either going to be we were or weren’t allowed and I guess we are allowed. But nope, that would be too easy. We were allowed to drink after we passed some specific mile marker on the expressway. Then we had to stop drinking when we reached some other one. I can’t possibly think of anything more absurd than this. Tell us we can’t drink at all – ok, or we had better not litter – ok, or we can only have water or non-soft drinks – ok, but we can only drink between specific mile markers? That actually hurts my brain to try and figure out why. Things like that make it difficult to live here.

            Here’s another prime example (as if you aren’t getting sick of me whining). A friend of mine is a high school JET in Koriyama city. She wants to take 4 weeks of study time this summer. She wouldn’t miss a class since it would be during summer break. She would only miss sitting in the teacher’s room all summer doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. She told her school she would pay for everything and didn’t expect anything from them. All she wants is special study leave so she can go to this Japanese school near Osaka and intensely study Japanese which will directly help her with her job. The school said no unless she used vacation time, of which she doesn’t have enough nor would she want to use for something that is…….not a vacation.

            Another friend was injured at work and rushed to the hospital where he was told he had to stay for three days. His supervisor showed up and asked how he was doing and if he would be alright. He then gave my friend a vacation time form to fill out since he would not be at school for three days during spring break.

            They are so absurdly anal about physically being at work, regardless of what you are NOT doing. It’s so rigidly strict I just can’t understand it sometimes. There are some situations where I would understand it, but most times it’s just like a light switch. A switch is either on or off, there is nothing in between. In Japan you are either at work during work time, or you have taken personal vacation and there is nothing in between. No exceptions, no deviations. It’s really hard for people who come from cultures where we hear things like “you worked 900 hours this week, you can come in late on Friday and take off early today since you finished all your work”. My first year I worked tons of overtime helping a girl WIN the English speech contest and when I asked to leave 3 hours early on the last day of the term with no students at school it was like I asked to change the name of the school. It was an unheard of request.

               Just got back from the garage. It's going to cost $300 to fix my muffler. Guess how much extra I was planning to send back due to the low dollar? Awesome. This is the third time this has happened and it's always $300. It only happens when I say I am going to send back an extra $300.

Out of Place.
Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

            I went to the graduation party last night and I shouldn't have gone. Nothing bad happened, but I just didn't feel like going. When I got there we did the usual "draw a number from a bag for your seat" which by nature is hit or miss. This time it was a miss. I was seated in the far corner with two people near me that had things to talk about. To each other. I spent most of the party just staring around the room like the dork who stands in the corner trying to make eye contact at a party in which he doesn't belong. Then I moved seats and chatted with the English teacher a bit, but the 6th grade homeroom teacher came over and they started talking. Since he was the man of the hour, I was once again staring around the room nodding and laughing when the people around me were nodding and laughing. I would have left early, but in Japan you have to announce when you leave. I want to go to more of these, but I am occasionally reminded of all the walls of separation there are in Japan.

 

Finished, Sleep Time.
Thursday, March 27th, 2008

             I’m back from English Camp which is always a blast. Actually it’s a blast as far as dealing with kids that want to learn English, but the planning and performance is usually annoying. It’s annoying because I put certain things at the top of my priority list and most people don’t. I see small things that others miss. This year that part wasn’t as annoying because the guy leading it really made sure it was planned well. Some parts that were still annoying involved other people deciding to make changes during a performance. That’s one of my number one pet peeves. When we are in the middle of doing something and someone starts suggesting other ways to do it, especially if the way is really annoying.

            The biggest annoying thing was how we constantly had to do all sorts of absurd things related to Japanese culture that had no purpose and no reason whatsoever. I’ll list them here and explain why they were annoying:

1)     1) We told the board of education to tell the kids NOT to show up, or even bring their school uniforms since we would be running around and rolling on the ground. But what do you do in Japan when you go on some school function, you wear your uniform. They all showed up in their uniforms which caused an issue because…

2)     2) We had planned to take the students’ bags to their rooms like bellboys.  We got there at 12:30 and started setting up and finished around 1. We went to the lobby to grab the bags and take the kids to their room, but they couldn’t check in until 2. Why? Because that’s the time they set as when it would be possible to check in. There are about 20 hotel-like rooms in the place with 4 beds per room. This place is not used all the time and wasn’t used the day before the camp so hypothetically the rooms should already be cleaned right? Apparently not since it was a huge issue for us to ask the manager if there was some freakish way the kids could check in at 2. No, the earliest he could allow them (the empty clean rooms) to be used early would be 1:30. Ok, so now we had to find a place to have the kids change out of their uniforms since the first activity involved moving and rolling around and the girls were in skirts. So we started late which was not the end of the world, but still why can’t we check in before 2?

3)      3) Ok the day is done and it’s now 10. A chime goes off which means we must now be quiet. It doesn’t matter that there is no one in the building to disturb, 10pm means quiet time. We must leave the lobby area and be quiet.

4)     4)  Ok, so let’s go take a bath. Well they are Japanese style group bathrooms. That’s not too bad since there is an onsen and it feels great to soak in that after a long day. But we can only bath from 10:10 to 11pm. So the boys go from 9:10 to 10 and then the male teachers go from 10:10 to 11. Well I prefer morning showers, but oh well that’s out.

5)      5) Every year we get fussed at by the BoE rep because we never clean the bathroom properly. That’s probably because we foolishly assume that the manager of the place would have some job duties and those job duties might include cleaning the shower room. We have to move all the stools and soap trays to one area then cut out the lights and straighten the floor mats and stack all the baskets. Basically do EVERYTHING so the next people can come in fresh. The manager or cleaning person has nothing to do bath related. Hmmm.

6)     6) Ok, now we are back in our rooms and going to sleep. Breakfast starts at 7am right? Awesome, I will wake up around 6:50 and stroll down there. Snoozing. At 6am sharp there is a loud chime that forces us to wake up. WHY? Because everyone must do exactly the same thing at the same time. We all go back to sleep until 7 and then go to breakfast. We asked if it were possible for the chime to NOT go off at 6am. I think you know the answer.

7)      7) Hey it’s breakfast time, but the doors are locked. Maybe they aren’t ready yet. No, they are ready, but it’s not precisely 7am yet, it’s 6:58. I asked if we could go in now and the lady laughed. “Go in 2 minutes before starting time? Ha ha these foreigners can’t understand our advanced society”.

8)     8)  Ok, it’s the last day and time to go. Let’s clean our room. Nope, that’s not enough. We have to clean it completely and put all the sheets in a basket in the hall and fold our blankets in a precisely certain way. We have been fussed at for not folding them exactly the same in the past. Deviation is unacceptable. So the rooms are completely clean now. When we arrived we had to get our own sheets from a table in the hall. If we had to get our own sheets and then completely clean the rooms when we leave, WHY COULDN’T WE CHECK IN UNTIL 2? They said the rooms are being cleaned. Furthermore, what does the manager do other than play the chime at 6am?

9)      9) Then we had to be out of the building promptly at 8:15. It was a huge deal that we are completely out by then. We had to rush through some cleaning and some farewells while we were being shuffled out. I looked at the calendar and there was nothing scheduled today, so why the huge rush? Because that’s the time someone specified as leaving.

Other than all that rigid silly nonsense with the culture, it was a good camp. We came up with several new ideas and activities and most seemed to work well. Some need some adjustments, but most went well. We did the murder mystery (great pageantry), a quiz show, a foreign café, a big entrance rather than giving them a rules lecture first, a survey challenge, a “make a word using your body” challenge, and then they put on some skits that they made up.

After camp let out, promptly at 8:15am, I went around town and did some shopping. I went back to this awesome place, possibly my new favorite store, called Donkey Hote. Yes, that is like Don Quixote but spelled differently. Anyway, it’s like a massive Wal-Mart shoved into a store a quarter of the size, plus it has all sorts of things. Pretty much anything I could imagine. I found the boxer-brief underwear I prefer as well as so much else. Here are some shots of a some things I found:
 

 

That’s a stethoscope that can be used to listen to trees as shown in the photo. The other amazing thing they had was a “need a penny, take a penny” tray by the register. I have never seen that in Japan, never not once at all nowhere.  The other shot is a store called Atlanta Crepes. What? I’m from Atlanta, but we are not famous for crepes. Why is that...what…ugh. Last is a low rider truck that drove by as I was leaving. It was quite non-Japanese.

 After that I went to the 100 yen store and looked at buying some clip on ties, but they were too short. That would be so wicked convenient and I would wear them every day if I could get by with that. Technically I could since I wear that green pullover all the time. Then as I was driving back I came across a combination of two really annoying things about Japan driving. 1-pedestrians have absolute right of way to do whatever they want because they have complete right of way in all car-pedestrian situations.  2-Old people can do no wrong in any case since rank is so important in Japan. What happens when an old person is a pedestrian? They can ride wherever they want and be totally oblivious to everything around them. I thought about going to the gym, but there was no where to park, because old people can’t park and don’t have to worry about anyone saying something.

 Tomorrow I will go to school and clean my desk and then move it. It’s the last day for the outgoing teachers so we will have some form of ceremony or something. They had the farewell party on Tuesday, but I couldn’t go since I was at the camp. I found out some interesting news. I will now be attached to the 1st year students, the kids I don’t know. This means I won’t be able to go on the school trip with the seniors. It’s no loss since I knew I wasn’t going. When I would ask if I would be joining them I was told “hmmm, I don’t know.” This was as late as March and at some point the travel agent was going to have to book flight tickets and ask the teachers “so how many are going?” I knew I wasn’t going the whole time because I am learning to pick up on the vagueness of the Japanese. Then I found out about some of the new teachers who are coming. There are some women I think, but I don’t know why that would matter. They will be married of course. Then I found out who will be homeroom teachers. Some I agree with (which matters of course) and others I wish were different.

Loaded.
Friday, March 28th, 2008

            I got to school at the usual time to find everyone here. In Japan when they say “spring vacation” they really just mean no official classes, but nothing is different. I have a different vision of “vacation” in my head. One that involves nothing school related especially not coming to school everyday to sit. Today I won’t be sitting since we have farewells and then moving desks and cleaning. Anyway, I was sitting at my desk while the leaving teachers were meeting with the principal and the kids were preparing the expected and yearly “surprise” farewell party. A teacher came over and told me there was a problem with the teacher’s fund that we pay into each month. Great, how much do I owe…Oh, wow it’s a refund. Well maybe I will take the $20 and go to Jintei, the nice restaurant I eat at once a month. Oh, wow, I misunderstood him, it’s actually $200. BOOYA. Now I don’t know what to do with this. There are a few things I want to buy, but I could also save it.

            I want to buy a nice USB mixer so I can record my voice on my computer. The external mic input is garbage and records more static than voice. That’s $200. Hmmm, then there is the idea of putting it towards next year’s teacher’s fee and lunch fee since that is $100 per month. I could just pay ahead 2 months and then add in my own money to pay a few more months. Hmmm, or I could just put it in emergency savings here in Japan. I already have some in the US, but having access to it here would be faster. I have also been thinking about getting new speakers for my car since the ones I have now are worse than those in my grandmother’s car and I don’t even think she had an FM radio. I have an iPod, but I have been thinking about getting a bigger one or actually a completely different type of MP3 player. Or I could put it toward my fatty camera I have been thinking of getting which is $1,000. Or I could get a new color printer or put it towards a lap top I have been thinking about. Or, which I think I might do, I could just save it until next month in case I go over my budget.

            We had a meeting in the teacher’s room where all the leaving teachers said their goodbyes to us. Then we had another one in the big hall where the teachers said their goodbyes to all the students. The teachers were lined up by rank with the vice principals first and the janitor last. There was a point in which we had the back door open (leads into the hallway). All the kids were in the gym so there was no noise in the hall. There is noise when someone opens the door though and it’s a bit loud and disruptive. Twice I suggested we leave the door open since several teachers had to come and go and it was quite loud when they opened the door and ironically even louder when they tried to do it slowly. But in Japan you always close a door after you pass through it regardless of who is behind you so they kept closing the door. When I would try to keep it open a teacher nearby would think “door opened – must close” and come over to close it. I was using logic which I should have known better.

            After that all the kids lined up in the hallway and the teachers passed through while we shook their hands and gave them flowers. It’s a big production about saying farewell here since it is a member of a group leaving that group. Plus Japan is big on ceremonial flourish so we couldn’t just saying “thanks and see ya” and send them off.

            Then all the remaining kids moved the desks around between classrooms. Today is basically a regular full day which happens to be during spring break. I should be busy through 5 which is when I will leave. Later, after lunch I guess, we will clean and move our desks in the teacher’s room. I have a real poo placement. I am right by the printer and near the vice principal. I won’t have to get up to print things, but I’ll get to hear it and have people loitering around my desk all the time. I’m also far from the English teacher so I’m going to miss a lot of things.

            When the new teachers come on April 2nd, we always give them a little welcome card that is written in English. It’s always almost incorrect and they never ask me to look at it. That’s something I cannot understand. I know there is pride, but I would never write something in a foreign language to give out and not have some native speaker of that language check over it (I should get a native speaker to check this sentence). In Japan it’s not about correct English so much as just the appearance of having English or being able to write/read it. My job is not about teaching correct English, but more about teaching Japan’s version of English.

False Hope.
Monday, March 31st, 2008

            I woke up this morning and noticed the window seemed brighter than normal. Oh poo, it was raining last night as the temperature was going down so I assume there is…(opens window)…snow on the ground. I knew it was too good to be true, but I was hoping that El Nino had caused an early spring. March is really too early for spring in Konan, but I had fooled myself. Not completely actually, since I did expect it to snow again, but I had secretly hoped.

            The other false hope was about Japan making sense for a day. We had a huge farewell party for teachers on Friday where we all lined the halls and gave them flowers as they walked down the hall and then out the door. Then they drove home and had the weekend off until they start their new jobs on Tuesday. I had hoped that they would also have today off as just a day off to prepare for their new jobs tomorrow, but I had forgotten the cardinal rule in Japan. You must be at work all the time. It is irrelevant that they have absolutely nothing to do. You must be at work all the time. It is irrelevant that they are just sitting at their empty cleaned desks talking. You must be at work all the time. It is irrelevant that they should be taking a day off at home or preparing for tomorrow. You must be at work all the time. So they are back at work sitting and doing nothing because giving them a free day off is unheard of in Japan.

            My life and job aren’t wonderful, but not terrible either. Japan isn’t terrible nor is it wonderful. It is such a land of contradictions. It’s both great to live here and really difficult. I love several parts of the job, mainly the kids, and yet I hate several parts of the culture. Mainly the rigidity. I just want them to make a connection some time, just once really. When a teacher is holding a donation box to pass around the school and then tells me the box I am holding for my orphanage is not allowed because we can’t pass around a donation box, I just want them to say “oh I get it, only this charity is allowed”. But he stands there saying “we cannot pass around a donation box” while then saying “this is a donation box we are going to pass around”. Things are off or on there is no gray area. I can’t grasp this at all and it quite often feels like deception to me. Another teacher might tell me it is not acceptable to give kids chocolate at school as he stands on the patio smoking which I know is not allowed. When I ask if chocolate is like smoking at school he responds “yes smoking *puff puff* is not allowed at *puff* school”. Just make the connection please. Say “but I don’t care” or something, but put 1 and 1 together. ARGH.

            I’m really thinking about leaving next year. Some times I just don’t want to give up my comfort zone, but I know it will end at some point and I will have to leave. Even if they offered me this job forever, I doubt I could do the same repetitive thing over and over year to year. Just teaching in general is like that, but it’s much worse in Japan since everything they do is repeated over and over. Furthermore, I know the only way to control change is to create it, but sometimes it feels so right to be here. Other times it feels like I don’t belong at all. Hey another contradiction about Japan. There are so many walls of separation here. Just when I think I have torn one down and stepped a bit closer to the inner circle I see another wall that I couldn’t see before or I see one being built in front of me. Those times I want to run away, but then a kid will ask how long I will be at Konan and then she will say “I hope you are here forever”. It’s a daily struggle to decide. My worst fear is that I will leave and wake up one morning and realize I made a huge mistake and nothing feels right. It has always felt right for me to be here and I wonder if I will have a sign that it is time to move on.

            Well it seems not all the teachers who are leaving came back. Some do have the day off, but only within the parameters of my theory “either you are at work during work time, or you have taken vacation time.” Teachers take vacation time when they are sick and pretty much for no other reason. I’ve talked to teachers who have never used vacation time in 30 years. I can’t imagine why teachers who are leaving would have to take vacation time today. Well apart from the fact that things in Japan usually happen in a way that is opposite of what makes sense to me.

            I ordered a lockout buzzer to use at school. I almost ordered one last year for $200 that hooks to the computer, but I didn’t. That was good since I found a Japanese “toy” for $60 that does the same thing. There are six hit-buzzers and each has a 10 foot cable that goes to a series of six lights. The person who hits the buzzer first causes their respective light to light up. Only the first person’s light will illuminate. It’s much better than having them raise their hands since they all do at the same time and some even keep their hands raised. Anyway, I ordered it from Amazon.jp and it came Sunday sometime. I plan to use it early on and often in my classes. I think the quiz show style “test” is a good way to quiz the kids. It’s much more fun than a written test and I already have all the game show style music.

            By 2:30 the snow had already melted to the point that you couldn’t even tell it had snowed today. It’s back to being warm and I might go jogging tonight after school to really push my liver to clean up its act before my blood test on Friday. I don’t think this will be as good as the past since I have cheated a few times. When he took me off the 2 cholesterol meds I started getting the munchies again, even though they shouldn’t have anything to do with that. Oh well I guess we will see on Friday, won’t we.

2005-2007

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