Sunday, August 21, 2011

I Have Books! - January 2011

Having been deprived of reading material for so long, I’ve been borrowing books and consuming them like a thirsty man who’s found water.  I got my library card at the downtown branch, which has a couple of bookcases of English books, but there’s also a smaller branch a forty-minute walk from my house, and I decided to see what their English collection was like.  It consists of only three shelves, which can basically be described as Children’s/Fantasy, Mystery/Thriller, and Japan and Japanese.  Though a small collection, it contains plenty to interest me.  The top shelf includes the complete Narnia series, the Alice books, Pooh, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings.  It looks like my bookshelf back home!  I actually ran into one of my co-workers while I was there, and I think she was rather perplexed by how excited I got over that meagre selection, but it should keep me in reading material for at least the next year.

I didn’t do anything for New Year’s Eve, but one of my Japanese neighbours invited me over to her house on New Year’s Day.  We ate soba noodles, a New Year’s tradition that’s supposed to bring good luck.  I also went to her house for a New Year’s dinner the following day.

My first week back at school was short, and contained no classes.  I only worked for three days, during which I pulled down my Christmas English board and put up a new one, the subject of which is books.  Once regular classes resumed, I was able to enact an idea I’d had in the works for a while.  As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been quite frustrated with the teaching style here, particularly the lack of authentic speaking and listening practice the students get.  Back in the fall, I came up with a zany scheme to combat this: start a swing dancing club!  It had occurred to me before coming here that I’d attended enough swing lessons that I could probably teach one.  And except for the party in December I hadn’t had any opportunity to dance since I got here.  But my biggest reason was that I wanted to do something with the students that was fun and in English.  The level of English wasn’t important, but I desperately wanted to put the students into some kind of immersion environment, a situation where they would have to listen to what I was saying and try to understand, without getting everything translated into Japanese.  And it had to be enjoyable, because I wanted the students to associate English with fun, unlike in most of their classes where it seems to be associated with frustration, boredom, and pain.

Those were my optimistic and noble goals at the outset.  I spent several of my idle hours creating a proposal, a lesson plan, promotional material, and all the teaching aids I thought I would need.  At the beginning of January I put up posters and went around the school handing out little cards and inviting the students to come.  I asked all the teachers to mention it in their homeroom classes.  Finally, the day of my first swing dancing class arrived.  It was a mitigated disaster.  No one came.  For the first forty-five minutes.  And then, quite unexpectedly, four students showed up!  We had a short, informal lesson, and when it was done they promised to come back next week with their friends.  A shaky start, to be sure, but I’m going to stay optimistic.  The students seemed to enjoy the class, and what’s more, I enjoyed it!

At the end of the month my elementary school held that Canadian food lunch I mentioned before.  I usually eat lunch at my junior high school, but I got invited to attend this lunch and eat with the grade twos.  They served everyone small amounts of pea soup and macaroni and cheese, along with some maple syrup, Japanese salad and the required bread and milk.  It was funny watching everyone trying to shovel pea soup into their mouths with chopsticks, and I was a little confused about how the maple syrup was meant to be eaten, but the kids didn’t seem to mind.  Many of them had nice things to say about both the pea soup and the macaroni.

In January we also had our annual mid-year conference for Sendai and Miyagi ALTs.  This two-day event consisted mostly of a series of workshops, and was mandatory for both ALTs and at least one teacher from each school.  I attended seminars on team teaching, extra-curricular English, phonics, pronunciation, and creative writing.  There was a lot of stuff I’d already heard, or didn’t think I’d be able to use, but I did come away with at least a few new ideas.

My social life has taken an interesting new turn.  I’ve already mentioned my school’s tea lady, and how friendly and helpful she’s been.  A wile back, she came to me and asked how I would feel about coming over for dinner sometimes and tutoring her nieces in English.  Her nieces are in elementary school, and frankly the idea of spending an hour trying to teach them petrified me.  But I agreed to give it a try, and for the last few weeks I’ve been spending every Saturday evening at her house.  So far it hasn’t been so bad.  Her nieces speak almost no English, and have fairly short attention spans, but as long as I don’t expect too much of them I can usually make the hour reasonably fun and instructive.  There are also a lot of benefits.  One is the home-cooked Japanese meal I get every time; the family seems keen on exposing me to a range of different dishes.  Better by far has been the speaking practice it’s afforded me.  Since the tea lady’s English is quite low, and the rest of her family’s almost non-existent, I’ve been forced to stretch my Japanese skills a lot with them.  Hopefully practising on them will help me consolidate the Japanese I learn and improve my fluency.  I may not be getting paid (paid work outside of my regular job would be a violation of my contract), but I think I’m being adequately compensated.

The end of January marked the end of my first six months in Japan, and also brought about a crucial decision: whether to leave at the end of July, or to renew my contract and stay another year.  Right from my arrival in Sendai, before I’d even done so much as a day’s work, I had people pressuring me to re-contract.  Having joined the JET Programme with the firm intention of spending only a year, I was initially resistant to stay longer, but since then various factors have acted to change my mind.  The biggest factor, to be honest, is money.  I came to Japan with a relatively high savings goal, and though the pay here is good, it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to meet that goal by the end of the year.  At the same time, I’m feeling more and more strongly the desire to go back to school, and knowing how expensive that will be, I find myself increasingly concerned about money.  Staying an extra year may delay my other pursuits, but it will be worth it if it makes those pursuits easier.

Another factor is travel.  Hong Kong is only one city with a relatively small area, and nine months were plenty to get around and see it.  Japan is much bigger, and so far the only place I’ve visited is Nikko.  Getting to all the other cities I want to see will take time, not to mention more money.  Another year would also give me more time to improve my Japanese language skills, which so far are still pretty pathetic.  Given that even maintaining (let alone improving) my Japanese after I leave Japan is going to be difficult, I think it’s best I learn as much as I can while I have the opportunity.  Besides all that there’s the fact that I quite like it here.  My students and co-workers are nice; I’ve made connections with people in the community; and given how long it took me to get settled in, I’m not relishing the idea of having to pack up and move again within another few months.

The upshot is that I’ve decided to renew.  So far, I don’t anticipate staying for more than two years.  Although there would be lots of benefits to staying even longer, the rule in Sendai is that everyone has to change schools after two years, and I’m not too keen on moving.  I know I’m going to get homesick, especially since I have no plans to come to go back to Canada during that time, but hopefully the life, language, and travel experience I gain while I’m here will be worth it.

In the news, there was a shooting at a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona, in which a senator was shot and several bystanders killed or injured.  Meanwhile parts of Australia have been hit with major flooding, forcing people out of their homes.  Both of these stories hit me a bit harder than usual, because I happen to know people in the affected areas: my Japanese acquaintance is currently living in Tucson, and one of my church buddies from Hong Kong now lives in Brisbane.  Fortunately both of them are alright.  I don’t know if I should see it as serendipitous that disaster seems to be striking near people I know, or just as a reflection of how international my social circle has become.

Books I’ve read this month:

Eragon by Christopher Paolini – Surprisingly bad for an international best-seller.  The story is interesting enough, if highly derivative: think the plot of Star Wars set in Middle-earth.  But the writing style is so poor that I was never able to engage with the action or care about the characters.  Given that I probably couldn’t do any better, I honestly don’t know if I find that depressing or encouraging.

Botchan by Natsume Sōseki – My first Japanese novel, though read in English, of course.  I actually had a choice of two translations, and chose the one that seemed more modern and less awkward.  In consequence, I found it quite readable, but I have no idea if my impression of the writing style really reflects that of the original.  Botchan is supposed to be a Japanese classic.  I don’t see myself what is so wonderful about it, but perhaps that’s because I know nothing of the socio-historical context in which it was written.  From my perspective it’s a mildly entertaining story with a dim-witted but endearing protagonist who would have felt at home in a P. G. Wodehouse novel.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Spreading the Christmas Spirit - December 2010

December was a fairly busy month, thanks to all the Christmas stuff going on.  Christmas isn’t nearly as big an event here as it is in the west, but people do still know about it, and of course the stores all try to capitalise off it.

I have a new English board this month that’s all about Christmas.  It has Christmas-related pictures (both religious and secular), images from famous Christmas movies and books, and even the lyrics to a few Christmas songs.  The teachers have all been really great about letting me run Christmas activities in class; all of them let me take an entire period for my Christmas lesson.  With the first-year students, I talked about Santa Claus, and had them all fill out a template letter to him.  I played the third-year students the song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and had them do various listening activities with it.  The song is actually a good one for E.S.L.: it’s repetitive, makes good use of some common grammatical structures, and has a much easier vocabulary than a lot of traditional Christmas carols.  The second-years wrote Christmas cards to each other.  I printed out a bunch of card templates, and let the students colour or decorate them as they liked.  I also gave them a template of Christmas greetings they could write inside.  At the end of the class, I collected the cards.  I didn’t mark them, but if they contained any Japanese they got returned for correction.  On the last day of school I went in early and put the cards in the students’ foot-lockers (where they keep their shoes).  I don’t know if they were pleased to receive surprise Christmas cards, but I hope they were.

Outside of work, some of the other ALTs decided to put together a carolling group.  Despite my poor singing skills, I’ve always loved singing, and Christmas carols are fairly easy, so I decided to join.  We performed for several nights in the Ichi-ban Chou, the popular shopping arcade in downtown Sendai.  The purpose was partly to spread the Christmas spirit, but also to raise awareness and money for a charity event in March.  Apparently, we ended up raising over $1000.  And I got my picture in the paper again.

There was an ALT Christmas party held at a popular Indian restaurant.  My school’s Christmas party was held at a hotel.  There was dinner and games and prizes afterwards.  As often happens at these events, I felt a little excluded by the language barrier, but over-all I had a good time.  I also discovered that the music teacher is a fantastic singer!

There was one other Christmas event that was especially cool for me.  A couple of ALTs told me about a Christmas swing dancing party!  I hadn’t been swing dancing once since I’d arrived here, so of course I jumped at the chance to go.  I was a bit rusty, and not everyone there did the same kind of swing dancing as I did, but it was still fun and it made me realise how much I miss dancing.  There were a couple of groups playing live music, including a singer doing Elvis numbers.  He actually did a pretty good impersonation, and most of the lyrics he sang were actually correct – though not necessarily in the correct order: “You’ll be doing arranged on the green Christmas tree; but I’m have a blue, blue Christmas.”

There’s no Christmas holiday per se here, but we did get a few days leave for New Year, so I took three days of paid leave to turn it into a proper Christmas break.  My Japanese acquaintance was back in Japan, and he came up from Tokyo to visit me.  He was only here for a few days, but since he arrived on Christmas Eve and left on Boxing Day, it meant I didn’t have to be alone on Christmas, so that was really nice of him.  We didn’t get up to much.  Right before Christmas, it started snowing, and by the time he arrived the ground was thick with fresh white snow that looked beautiful, but made it difficult to get around.  On Christmas Eve he came with me to my Church’s service.  Then on Christmas Day we took the Loople bus around downtown Sendai, and I showed him what I could of the city.  We eventually wound up at the central library, where he helped me to get a library card, which means I can finally take books out to read!  Given that I’ve been kind of starved for reading material since coming here, I considered that a really nice Christmas present.

The rest of the time we stayed inside, trying to keep warm as best we could.  One of the first things he commented on when he arrived was how cold my flat was, and it was really nice to hear a Japanese person say that, and to know I’m not the only one who thinks my walls are ridiculously thin.  He made good use of my kotatsu while he was here.

Keeping warm has continued to be a challenge.  The snow gave me an excuse to break out my winter coat and winter boots, so walking around outside isn’t much of a problem.  But when I’m inside, it’s hard to keep even one room heated.  I have three space heaters, plus my kotatsu, plus my air conditioner, which in theory should be plenty.  Unfortunately, I’ve discovered there’s a problem with running too many heaters at once: it trips my circuit breaker.  So unless I want to be stuck fumbling for a flashlight in the dark, I’m stuck using only two of those at a time.  I miss central heating.

I did actually have one work day just after Christmas, which came out of a misunderstanding at my elementary school.  One of the teachers there asked me when I was free to come into the school.  By “free”, I assumed she meant not working, so I suggested coming in during one of my holidays.  My vice principal laughed at me later as she explained that of course going to my elementary school counted as work, and of course I didn’t need to take leave for it.

The reason I had to go to my elementary school was this: several weeks earlier, the teacher had come to me and explained that the school was having an international day in January.  She said that she wanted to serve the students Canadian food for lunch and asked if I could suggest any recipes.  My reaction was the same as it always is when people ask me about “Canadian food”: blind panic.  Doesn’t everyone know there’s no such thing as Canadian food?  That we all subsist on air, sunlight, and maple syrup, like… cannibalistic trees?

Eventually, I hit on macaroni and cheese and pea soup, the former being a North American staple, the latter being one of the few dishes that can actually be considered Canadian.  The teacher was familiar with the idea of mac’ and cheese; surprisingly, it was the pea soup that gave created the problems.  The first problem was explaining “peas”.  Then, specifically, “yellow split peas”.  My standard translation strategy – finding the relevant Wikipedia article and then going to the Japanese translation – failed me in this instance; there is no Japanese entry for “pea soup” or “yellow split peas”.  Eventually I managed to convince her that the things existed; the next problem was where to find them.  I actually managed to locate them at the foreign food store downtown; they’re called “ieroo supuritto”.  She ended up ordering them online.

My visit to the school was for a practice cooking demonstration.  I was a bit nervous about it as it had been a while since I’d made pea soup, and I’d never made it with ham before, but both dishes came out quite well.  The one unexpected problem was that Japanese measurements are apparently different from North American measurements; a “cup” in Japan is actually only 200 mL.  Fortunately the only upshot of this miscommunication was extra-cheesy macaroni!

We made enough food for the school staff, and at lunch time the other teachers came in to try the food.  Many of them said nice things about it, and it was the first time for any of them to try pea soup.  It was nice to be able to genuinely share some of my culture.  I hope the students enjoy it!

Books I’ve read this month:

Easy Avenue by Brian Doyle – Well, I said I would re-read it when I got homesick, and now I have.  It’s a good thing I’ve got a library card now, otherwise I’d be fresh out of English reading material.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Special Extended Edition) – Okay, so I’d seen all three of these movies before, but never in their longer, re-edited state, and I felt that it would be worth it to write new reviews of them.  When I saw the theatrical versions, I disliked the first two movies but loved the last one.  In the intervening seven years I forgot a lot of details about them, but I still recognised many brand-new scenes in the extended editions.  In the case of The Fellowship of the Ring the result is vastly superior.  My biggest complaint with the theatrical cut was the pacing: the story felt too rushed and the action too hectic.  Putting a lot of the slower, more character-focused scenes back in gives the plot some much-needed breathing room.  A couple of charming sequences in Hobbiton help to introduce the setting and develop dramatic tension.  The Lothlórien interlude, which I found very rushed in the earlier version, has also been extended, including the gift-giving sequence and leaving a more favourable impression of the forest.  I always liked the characterisation of Boromir in this film, and a couple of extra scenes add to that.  And although this was also true in the original version, I just want to say that Ian McKellen is perfectly cast as Gandalf, and I can’t imagine anyone better for the role.  In summary, while I came down against the theatrical version of this movie, I’m coming down in favour of the extended edition.  (Four stars)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Special Extended Edition) – Whereas my big complaint with the first movie was that it was too fast, my problem with this one has always been that it’s too slow.  Unfortunately, adding a whole bunch of extra footage does nothing to alleviate that problem, meaning that this movie remains the dullest of the trilogy.  (In fairness, it’s also based on the dullest volume of the book.)  Nonetheless, I do like many of the new scenes, and am glad they’ve been put back in.  I’m especially fond of a flash-back sequence that lets us see the ruling family of Gondor all together.  I’m also glad they put so many Ent sequences back in, since the Ents felt under-used in the original version.  This cut gives them their due in screen-time, although they still come off as a bit hasty.  In spite of this, I still feel that a disproportionate amount of time is spent with the human characters, and not enough with the hobbits, and I would love to see a re-edit that trims down the scenes with the Rohirrim while preserving the footage from Fangorn and Ithilien.  In terms of the performances, I think I’ve decided that I actually like movie-Aragorn better than his literary counterpart, and I know I’m not the first to say this, but Gollum is very well done.  (Three stars)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Special Extended Edition) – If the first movie was too fast and the second too slow, I thought the pacing on the final one was quite good – in the theatrical cut.  Although the extended edition is still pretty good, the addition of new sequences slows it down a bit, to its detriment.  Not that I regret all of them: I’m very glad that Saruman’s death sequence has been put back in, closing a huge plot-hole from the theatrical version.  I was also surprised and pleased by how closely the scene mirrors events in the book, despite the obvious changes.  However, other sequences slow down the story and drag an already long movie out to the positively freakish length of four hours and ten minutes – quite possibly the longest single film I have ever seen in my life!  And while many of the added scenes are interesting, I actually rather dislike some of them and wish they had been left out.  Over-all, I still come down in favour of this film, which does a great job of dramatising the most important and emotionally intense chapters of the story.  Special credit goes to Billy Boyd, who is fiendishly loveable as Pippin, and also to Sean Astin’s pitch-perfect performance as Sam.  (Three and a half stars)

In summary, although I’m still fiercely devoted to the book, I’ve grown to like the movies too.  Having not read the novel in ten years, I think I’m better able to enjoy the films in their own right, and to appreciate their many strengths and forgive their few weaknesses.  I’ve even decided that the elevation of Arwen, which I was always sceptical about, more or less works.  Most importantly, I’ve come to terms with the fact that the movies will probably supplant the book, and that generations will grow up with the films as their first – and perhaps only – contact with Middle Earth.  I’m not saying I’m happy about that.  There are many ways in which I like the book better, not least because of the ending, which is actually sadder in the film than in the book.  As novel-to-screen adaptations go, I've seen a lot worse, though.  I mean, seriously, a lot worse.