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.