Monday, June 6, 2011

Gambarimasu!* - September 2010

Summer break ended at the end of August, and I finally got my first taste of teaching in Japan. All of the English teachers allowed me to take an entire class for a self-introduction lesson, and I basically gave the same lesson to every class. First I showed the students a bunch of pictures and asked them to guess what they were of: me, my family, my friends, cities I’d visited, and things I liked. Then I had all of them write letters to me, in which they could give me similar information about themselves. I think it went reasonably well. The first-year students were really shy, and barely wanted to say anything. Surprisingly, the third-years were also pretty quiet. My favourite classes were the second-years. Since the classes get split in half for English lessons, they’re relatively small, which seems to generate a more relaxed atmosphere.

Since then I haven’t spent much time in the classroom. The students are writing tests, and the teachers have been focusing on review and correction. Sitting at my desk all day has gotten a bit boring, but at least I’ve had things to do. I got lots of letters from my students, and I’ve spent long hours reading them and writing responses. Most of them are very basic, even those from the third-year students, so I know I’ll have to keep my lessons simple.

At the beginning of September my school had its annual Culture Festival. It was on a Saturday, but we all got a day off in compensation. I set up a table on Canada featuring all the tourist material I had brought from home. The day also featured some traditional drumming, a traditional Japanese dance, and boys doing synchronised swimming. In the evening I attended my first work party, which was both an after-party and a welcome party for me.

While I haven’t been teaching much at my home school, I have started making elementary school visits. I visit two schools, one on Thursdays, and one on Fridays. I was really nervous about the prospect of having to teach elementary school students, but I’m actually enjoying it a lot. The lessons come pre-planned, so I don’t have to make any activities. I just model pronunciation and play games with the kids. It’s boring and repetitive, but the students are worth it, especially the first- and second-years. They’re so cute, and they all love me, just because I’m tall and I talk funny!

As part of our training, all of the new ALTs also had to deliver two model lessons at an elementary school. My American partner and I gave a lesson on Canadian and American culture. Unfortunately, the students at the school were much higher-level than the students we were used to, so we ran out of material early and had to improvise. We were better prepared for our second lesson, where we taught emotions.

Two of my students participated in Sendai’s speech competition. One of them read a story from a book; the other wrote an original speech. My predecessor had worked with them a lot before she left, but I helped with their training in the last few weeks leading up to the competition, and I also went to watch them. The first half was fairly repetitive, with several students delivering the same speech, but the second half was interesting because we got to hear them give their thoughts on various subjects. One of my students was one of five third-place winners in her category; the other came in first! I was very excited and proud of them, even though I know I didn’t have much of a hand in their success. The girl who won got to go on to the prefecture-wide competition. I helped her practise her speech more in the intervening weeks. Sadly, when the day came, she didn’t end up winning anything. She handled it well, though. I was proud of her.

This month I began taking Japanese classes. They go for two hours every Tuesday night. Several other ALTs are also in the class, as well as a few other foreigners. Although I am immersed in the language, I figure I won’t improve very quickly without some formal education. The JET Programme’s correspondence course doesn’t start until November, and it’s nice to have speaking practice with other beginners.

This would probably be a good time to make some comparisons between Chinese and Japanese. Although I know very little about Chinese, I’ve learned enough about it to recognise some differences and similarities. As most people know, Japan imported its writing system from China, along with several words. The languages also share some grammar patterns, such as the tendency to put modifiers before nouns, the absence of count-nouns, and the use of “counters”.

That being said, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered two more different-sounding languages. Chinese pronunciation is as complex as English, and completely different. Besides unfamiliar consonant sounds, it has many vowel sounds that are entirely unlike English vowels, as well as the alien concept of tones. Because of this, Chinese is a very difficult language to pick up. When I was in Hong Kong, I was terrified of saying anything, for fear that I would use the wrong vowel, or the wrong tone, and accidentally say something obscene. Japanese, in contrast, may have the single easiest pronunciation on the planet. It has fourteen consonant sounds and five vowel sounds, most of which have English approximants. With a few exceptions, every syllable consists of no more than one consonant and one vowel. The trade-off is that there are only about a hundred possible syllables that can be used to make words. Chinese pronunciation may be difficult, but you have to give it credit for allowing a lot of information to be compressed into a single syllable. Japanese words, in contrast, combine many syllables and tend to be quite long. Compare the Japanese, “Watashi wa anata o aishiteru,” with the Cantonese, “Ngo oi nei,” or the English, “I love you.” Another unfortunate result is that while it’s relatively easy for English-speakers to pick up Japanese pronunciation, the reverse does not hold true. Japanese-speakers learning English have to cope with unfamiliar vowels and many more consonants than they’re used to, and trying to fit a large number of consonant sounds together without any vowels between them presents a real challenge. To see this, all you have to do is look at transliterations between the two languages. Every sound in Japanese can be represented in the Roman alphabet, with letters to spare. Conversely, in katakana, the English “r” and “l” look the same, “s” and “z” double for the soft and hard “th” sounds, and the same vowel gets used to represent the short “a” and “u” sounds, as well as the schwa. Moreover, a single syllable of English that contains several consonants can get stretched out to something much longer, which is why “straw” comes out as “sutoroo”, and “ice-cream” is “aisu kuriimu”. I’m beginning to get an idea of what it must be like for Chinese-speakers to see Chinese words transliterated into English.

In terms of learning the language, the simplicity of the pronunciation is a big help. Now that I’ve learned both the hiragana and katakana alphabets, I can read a lot of things, particularly all the Japanese words that are really borrowed from English. It feels a lot like I’m learning to read all over again; I have to sound every word out slowly, and often say it to myself several times before I figure out what it is. I spent long minutes in an aisle of the supermarket sounding out the names of spices, and was very pleased to discover that they had everything I needed to make curry. Structurally, Japanese is very different from English; as often as not in Japanese it feels like you’re saying everything backwards. But though it’s unfamiliar, I do admire Japanese for the coherence of its structure. Subjects, objects, and indirect objects are all clearly marked with particles, and verbs always come at the end of the sentence. In fact the structure seems quite similar to Latin, not that I’ve ever studied that language either.

The night class has been a valuable opportunity for speaking practice. In most other situations, my Japanese is so weak that it’s best to speak in English or not at all. At school, I rarely speak to any of the teachers. When I first arrived, I was able to speak to many of them under the pretext of interviewing them for a presentation, but that only generated very short conversations, and, apart from the English teachers, few of them seem interested in flexing their English skills or dumbing down their Japanese enough to chat with me. There is one surprising exception: my school’s tea lady has been really friendly since I got here. Even though her English is quite poor, she does have enough vocabulary to express many ideas. Moreover, unlike many of the people I’ve met here, she has mastered the art of talking to allophones. Whenever she talks to me, she speaks slowly, with several pauses to check my comprehension. If she knows the English word, she’ll use it. If she doesn’t know the English word and I don’t know the Japanese word, she’ll try to think of a different word, or use gestures to explain what she means. She’s also quite patient with me and my feeble attempts to speak Japanese to her, and I’m grateful to have someone I can practise on.

I was warned before I arrived here that it could take about a month to get internet, and it did indeed prove to be a lengthy process. Fortunately, I have my own computer with a connection at work. Unfortunately, there are no internet cafés near my house, which means I had to take a train into downtown Sendai if I wanted to send personal e-mails. I found a nice one that’s quite comfortable and provides free drinks, but, like most public establishments here, it allows smoking, and even though I sat in the non-smoking section the smoke would usually start to get to me after a couple of hours.

Different people suggested different providers I could go with, but I was also warned that some plans wouldn’t work as well for me because of my location. In the end, I just got in touch with my predecessor and asked her what plan she had used. I printed out the information, found the appropriate counter in the electronics store, and told them, “This is what I want.” They were nice enough to call in someone from another department who spoke English so we could get the details sorted out, and I signed the contract that day. That was at the end of August. The following week they called me to set up a time to connect me. Of course the call was in Japanese, so I had to hand the phone off to my head teacher. What followed was a long series of calls back and forth between my head teacher and the internet company. I have no idea what they talked about, and she only came to me a few times with questions or information, but eventually they set up a date for someone to come and install my internet. In the week that followed, I received several packages containing passwords, installation software, and my modem. Finally on Saturday a man came to install the modem. Everything seemed to go well, and the modem worked properly, but when he tried to install the software that went with it, it wouldn’t run. Neither of us understood what the problem was, and we couldn’t communicate with each other without a common language. Finally, I resorted to calling Sendai’s Information Support Hotline. It’s a free translation service for foreigners in Japan, which is extremely helpful. I’d resisted calling them before because I didn’t want to clutter up their phone lines with trivial matters, but the situation seemed to merit it. After a lot of back and forth they explained that the software couldn’t be installed because my computer was running on a foreign operating system. Note that Windows itself wasn’t the problem; most Japanese P.C.s run on Windows. The problem was that I had the wrong version of Windows. So I had a modem, but still no internet. I again got my head teacher to help me out. She called the company back, and arranged a time when they could send a technician to fix the problem. She ended up coming along too, just to make sure everything went smoothly. In the end, the technician didn’t even install any software on my computer; he just did something to the modem, and all of a sudden my internet worked fine. I had to pay $80 for this additional consideration, but by that time I was happy just to be connected. If they want to make foreigners pay extra just for being foreign, I guess there isn’t much I can do about it.

So now I have internet, which should make it easier to keep in touch with people. It also means I can listen to the radio from foreign countries, although unfortunately it seems none of the video sights I normally use will work here. So I have The Current, but no Doctor Who.

In the middle of September we had a long weekend, and I joined a group of Sendai and Miyagi ALTs for a trip to Bandai-Asahi National Park in Fukushima. Mount Bandai is a now inactive volcano that blew its top in 1888. The eruption caused the creation of hundreds of lakes in the surrounding area. We stayed for two nights in cabins on the shore of one of the lakes, exploring the area by day, and enjoying barbecue and s’mores by night. On the day of our arrival I took a walk around the “Five Coloured Lakes”, each of which has a different colour thanks to mineral deposits.

On the second day we climbed Mount Bandai itself. I thought I was pretty tough, having mastered the Grouse Grind three times, but this proved to be the most gruelling hike of my life! The guys who lead the hike claimed that the whole thing would take about five hours, but I’m clearly not as fast a climber as they are. It took about three and a half hours to reach the summit. The really brutal part was the climb down. Grouse Mountain had in no way prepared me for that; I’d always taken the cable car down the mountain, having been warned that the downward climbs are far more strenuous than upward ones. I now know why. After a stop at a small café near the top for a rest and some hot ramen, we began the two-and-a-half-hour descent. The path was steep and slippery, and it’s a wonder that I managed not once to fall. It was hardest of all on my toes, which bore the brunt of each downward step. You wouldn’t think it, but banging one’s toes against the front of one’s shoes repeatedly over the course of several hours has the same cumulative effect as stubbing them hard once. After the first hour or so every step became painful, and I was amazed when I eventually took my shoes off that my toes hadn’t turned purple. By the time we got back to the camp site it was dark. Every part of my legs ached: my thighs, my calves, my heels, and especially my toes, which felt like they must have been broken. I guess I feel a sense of accomplishment having completed the hike, but I never want to do another one like it again. I never bought an “I Survived the Grouse Grind” T-shirt, but had they been available I would definitely have bought an “I Survived Mount Bandai” one. Incidentally, the couple who run the café apparently have to do the hike every day, both ways, with supplies on their backs. Incredible!

On the last day I visited a nearby museum famed for its collection of works by Salvador Dalí. I’m not a fan of Dalí; I find his work unsettling, and during my visit I was suitably unsettled. It was definitely an impressive collection, though, and well worth the trip.

My Japanese neighbours invited me over one night for the Autumn festival. This seems to be the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, but doesn’t seem to be as big an event here. I also went to a Japanese sound concert, which featured musicians playing various traditional Japanese instruments, predominantly the koto.

I’m settling down a bit more into Sendai and into my apartment. I gave my microwave away to one ALT, and got a coffee maker from another. It’s still too warm for hot coffee in the morning, but I’ll appreciate it when the weather gets colder. I’ve also figured out how my toilet’s supposed to work! Apparently the reason that there’s no sink in the room with the toilet is that the toilet itself doubles as a sink: when it’s flushed, water flows through a tap into the toilet tank, and one’s supposed to wash one’s hands in the water as the tank fills up. Now that I realise that, I think it’s actually a very smart and efficient system.

At school, we’ve started getting school lunch every day. They deduct $50 from our paycheques every month for it, which seems cheaper than bringing my own lunch would be, and I figure it’s an opportunity to see what kind of food is popular in Japan. As you might guess, rice is a staple; every meal includes a bowl of white rice, except once a week when they substitute bread. I’m not a huge fan of the rice, which is usually served and eaten plain. To my mind, plain white rice is about as interesting as… well, I really don’t know what to compare it to; plain white rice is pretty much my definition of “bland”. But my co-workers made fun of me when I tried mixing it with other things. There are exceptions, though. The curry is really good, and can be eaten with rice. I’m also learning to like more unusual things like konyaku (a tasteless jelly-like substance used to add bulk to dishes) and little dried fish (a popular snack food). Unfortunately, the meals are not vegetarian-friendly; every one contains at least one form of meat, and often two or three. Every meal also comes with a small carton of whole milk, which tastes good but probably isn’t that healthy. The one thing I truly dislike is the battered fish: whole fish chock full of mealy white eggs with no meat to speak of on their little bones. Yuck!

I’m not putting much effort into vegetarianism here. Vegetarian options are unusual in Japanese restaurants, and between eating out and school lunch, meat is a major part of my daily diet. I have been impressed, however, to learn that there are a few vegetarian ALTs in Sendai, and that they plan to stay vegetarian during their stay here. One of them organised a vegetarian dinner at the beginning of the month, and introduced the newbies to a nice Indian restaurant. Although I plan to sample to full range of Japanese cuisine, it’s nice to know I can get a vegetarian meals if I want to, and most of my cooking is still vegetarian.

I don’t eat out often, but I thought it might be worth it to try some of the restaurants in the area. My predecessor recommended the ramen shop across the street, and I’ve taken to eating there on nights when I have class. The staff there are very friendly, and always eager to chat with me, despite my language difficulties.

In the news this month, Canada has a new Governor General. There’s also been a lot of talk about the census, and whether completion of the long-form version should be mandatory. I’ll certainly acknowledge that making the census mandatory greatly increases the chance of the results being accurate. On the other hand, it’s debatable whether we really need accurate statistics on all the things surveyed therein. I’d have to look at the form to know. For my part, it doesn’t concern me, as I’m out of the country. Instead, I participated in the Japanese census!

* “Gambarimasu!”: A Japanese expression meaning, roughly, “I’ll do my best!”