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.

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