Monday, August 6, 2012

The Half-Way Point - February 2012

February is the beginning of my last six months in Japan.  I anticipate it being a stressful and busy time, similar to my first six months, as I transition from my time on the JET Programme to the next stage of my life.  It’s a good thing I stayed two years, and not just the one!  But now I’m half-way through my second year, which feels at once like a short and a long time.  On the one hand, I’m far closer to leaving Japan than to arriving, and I only have a few months left to experience the country.  But as things are currently shaping up, it looks like I’m still only half-way through my time abroad.  You see…


It actually only took me a few days to hear back from the Australian embassy with the news that my visa application had been accepted.  In the event, it seems that all talk about having to send in my passport to get the visa attached was bunk; Australia has embraced the computer age and is issuing its visas electronically.  Now I have to start making other preparations, such as picking a point of entry, booking a plane ticket, and perhaps looking for a job.  Since I know very little about Australia, I don’t have much preference for which city I go to, but I have an acquaintance in Brisbane and another in Melbourne, and I think it would be sensible to start in a place where I have at least one contact.  Looking at a map of Australia, I found that the two cities mark off the country’s comparatively urbanised south-eastern coastline, with Sydney pretty much smack in the middle.  At first I thought that would make travel between them fairly easy, rather like travelling between Ottawa and Toronto, or Sendai and Tokyo.  Then I remembered that Australia is a continent.  Ha!  I’ve been spoiled by living in a small country.  It turns out it’s more like the distance between Ottawa and Fredericton or Sendai and Osaka!  And that’s just between Sydney and one of the other two.  That means that wherever I go, I’m unlikely to be making any weekend trips to other cities, so I’d better pick somewhere nice.

How long I’m going to stay is still a matter of some uncertainty.  My visa will last for a year from the moment I enter the country, but whether I actually stay that long will depend on my ability to find work.  There is also a possibility of staying longer, since the visa can be renewed once, but at this point I don’t anticipate wanting to do that.  The most likely scenario, therefore, is that I’ll be in the country for a year, bringing my time away from home to a total of three years, or thirty-six months.  Eighteen down…

Apart from my weekend in Tokyo, the only excursion I made this month was to Zao in Yamagata.  I went there to see the Juhyo, which I had missed out on last year.  Juhyo, or “Snow Monsters”, are trees covered with snow and ice.  That doesn’t sound too special in and of itself, but apparently there are unique conditions on Zao’s ski slopes that cause the snow and ice to form in unusual shapes, creating the illusion of limbs and faces.  Think “snow-Ents”, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the result.

It was my first time in Zao in the winter.  We got there in the early afternoon, and enjoyed a soak in the sulphurous hot-spring before venturing up the mountain.  Temperatures at the resort were about average for winter here: minus single digits.  I’d been warned, however, that temperatures on the slopes were very cold, and bundled up accordingly.  It’s a good think I did!  The temperature at the top of the mountain was apparently -15°C, but it felt more like -30.  I’d forgotten what a proper wind-chill was like.  We’re talking physically painful exposed-skin-will-freeze-within-two-minutes kind of cold!  I was dressed for it, but just barely, and I only stayed outside for a few minutes before running indoors again to thaw my face and defrost my fingers.

Actually, indoors proved to be a much better place to take pictures from, though the change in temperature was so dramatic that my camera lens fogged up and I had to hold it next to a heater for several minutes before it was clear again.  In the end I was able to get some good shots, though.  It's hard to say whether the monsters were really worth the time and expense that went into seeing them, but they were pretty unique, and did indeed look as spooky, monstrous, and goblin-like as one could hope.

The school year will be ending soon, and I’ve already paid my last visit of the year to one of my elementary schools.  I haven’t talked about elementary school this year, so I’m going to do so now.  This year has been marked by an increased emphasis on English education at the primary school level, especially in grades five and six.  That means that, whereas last year I divided up my visits between all the different grades, this year most of my time has been spent with the fifth- and sixth-year students, with only occasional visits to the lower grades.  I much prefer this new arrangement for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, visiting the same classes consistently has allowed me to get to know one group of students well, and develop rapport with them and their teachers.  It means that I’ve been working with a graduated curriculum where the students study several different topics over the course of the year.  And because the students are getting regular English exposure, they’re able to absorb more complex language than simply practising the same “How are you?” greetings week in and week out.

The second reason is much more remarkable: I like the students!  If you remember grades five and six, you probably remember it as the age when kids were at their most obnoxious, rebellious, and disrespectful; when they made life hell for their teachers and classmates; when they’d figured out that adults weren’t infallible, but hadn’t yet realised that they weren’t either.  Japanese kids go through the same phase.  I’ve heard horror stories from other ALTs about how unruly their students are, and it sounds exactly like how I would expect kids their age to act.  But here’s the amazing thing: my kids aren’t like that!  I don’t know why.  I can’t explain it.  It’s most unnatural.  But they’re lovely.  Attentive, disciplined, good at absorbing information.  But not in the mindless, robotic way (unfairly) associated with Japanese schools.  They’re genuinely enthusiastic, cheerful, and eager to learn.  Teaching them over the past year has been a real pleasure, and now that our time together is finally ending, I find I’m really going to miss them.

It’s a mark of how much time I spent with those kids that the teachers apparently thought it would be good to plan special activities for my last day.  In all of my fifth-year classes, therefore, the students put together a special programme.  In two of them they ran games, and I participated.  But in the class before lunch, they went all-out.  That class is my favourite – for which I give full credit to the teacher.  He’s a really fun guy who clearly has a good relationship with his students and has created a relaxed atmosphere in his classroom.  The result is the most enthusiastic class of English learners I’ve ever encountered.  Because every lesson is a game, the kids aren’t nervous about using English; they even seem to enjoy it.  But the class isn’t utterly frivolous, either.  The teacher drills his students, and makes sure they get things right.  He regularly sets aside time at the beginning of each lesson for the students to ask me questions (which I like partly because it gratifies my ego, but also because it’s a chance for the students to have meaningful interaction with someone from another culture), and defers to me when questions of grammar and pronunciation come up.  I even know the students’ names – or, at least, ten of them, but that’s still ten more than in any of my other classes!

For the farewell class the students put on a talent-show.  There was piano-playing, a recorder performance, dancing, and even magic tricks.  Then the students and I asked each other questions.  They asked me in Japanese, of course, and I did my best to understand without translation, though for their sake as well as mine I answered in English.  Some of the questions: “What music do you like?” (One boy told me he liked Aerosmith and the Spice Girls.  I told him, truthfully, that I love Aerosmith, and suggested that we do karaoke some time.); “Have you eaten pizza?” (Yes, I’ve eaten pizza many times, but I’ve never eaten Japanese pizza.); “What’s your favourite Japanese phrase?” (“Sooo desu ka…?”  I had to say it twice before they got that that was the answer.)

In the sixth-year classes, we finished up with “The Big Turnip”, now my favourite lesson from the elementary school textbook.  It’s a simple story of a group of people working together to pull a turnip out of the ground.  At my other elementary school they just had the students listen to the story and say the accompanying chant, but at this school they actually had them perform the dialogue as a play.  As I watched them rehearse it over a period of weeks, I came to realise that it was a really good play for English learners.  Firstly, it got the students pushing their personal boundaries by forcing them to get up and act silly in front of each other.  I’ve been told that the main goal of foreign language elementary school education is not to teach language but interpersonal skills, and I can see how performing a play together could be the logical culmination of that curriculum.  It also gives the students a lot of practice with simple vocabulary and language structures, hopefully with the effect of ingraining it in their brains for future use.

In one of the classes, only a few groups performed, but in the last class of the day (my favourite of the two) every group performed a part of the play, and I judged the best one.  Then I took a picture with all the students.  During the standard greeting, when they asked me how I was, I pretended to cry and answered, truthfully, “I’m sad.”  Then they told me that all but two of them would be going to my junior high school next year, and that cheered me right up!

In the news this month, singer Whitney Houston has died.  I only knew her for a few songs and a couple of movies, but I remember her having a great voice, and I’m sorry to see her go so young.

Books I’ve read this month:

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson – Known outside North America as Down Under, this tale of the author’s travels in Australia was of particular interest to me as I hope to make it my next destination.  As in A Walk in the Woods, Bryson is mostly concerned with what’s out to kill you – in this case, everything, though he’s particularly focused on crocodiles.  I found it a somewhat useful introduction to the continent, and hope to retain some of the information in it for future use.  I was disappointed, however, that he never made it to Brisbane.

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher – Book two of the “Dresden Files”.  So far I’ve got mixed feelings about this series.  On the one hand, I like the author’s sense of humour and the self-deprecating tone and mix of cultural references with which his hero narrates.  I also like the fact that the magic is actually explained in a way that makes sense.  I couldn’t help thinking that if there were real wizards in the world, this is how they would operate.  On the other hand, I found the relentlessness of the action wearisome.  I don’t think a good story needs quite so much violence, and I wonder, if there’s this much blood-shed and trauma so early in the series, what are things going to be like in the later books!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!* - January 2012

You know what I hate?  Visa applications.  As I approach the middle of my last year in Japan, I’ve had to make a decision about what I want to do next year.  I’ve had it in my head for a long time that I’d like to see more of the Pacific rim before I go home, particularly Australia and New Zealand.  After all, it’s unlikely that I’ll be visiting this region again any time soon, nor be this footloose when I’m older.  And it doesn’t make much sense in terms of time, money, or environmentalism to travel all the way home and all the way back.  I’m kind of homesick, but I think I could stand another year abroad, and I’ve saved enough money that I think I can afford some travelling.

So I’ve decided to apply for an Australian working holiday visa, which allows one to live and work in Australia for up to one year.  If I get it, I’ll be travelling there in the summer and staying till the visa expires or I run out of money.  I’ve had to obtain work visas for foreign countries before, but on previous occasions the process was handled by an employer or agency.  This is my first time applying for a visa on my own, and so far I’m not enjoying it.  First of all, there are all those questions that aren’t answered in the instructions, for which you have to call the Australian Embassy, which is conveniently open from 9:00-noon, Monday to Friday.  (I knew there had to be an up-side to getting influenza!)  The good news is that I can lodge my application through the embassy in Tokyo; I was terrified that they’d force me to do everything via my home country.  Asking about payment methods was a bit more complicated.

Me: “How do I pay the fee if I file a paper application?”
Friendly Representative of the Australian Government: ”Oh, you don’t need to file a paper application.  You can file on line and pay by credit card.”
Me: ”But I don’t want to file on line.”
FRAG: ”But the on-line application is much easier and quicker than the paper one.”
Me: ”No, really.  I prefer to do the paper one.  So how do I pay for it?”
FRAG: ”Well, if you do it on line you can pay by credit card.”
Me: ”But I don’t have a credit card.”
Awkward silence.

Okay, first of all, you have to love – and by “love”, I mean “be infuriated by” – the helpless confusion that sets in when you tell people you don’t have a credit card.  Admittedly I do have a credit card, and my frequent claims to the contrary are largely about being contrary, but for me it’s a point of principle.  It’s a pet peeve of mine how many services these days are only available by credit card.  What about all the people in the world who don’t have credit cards and can’t get them because they’re poor, homeless, or unemployed, or simply have lousy credit history?  How are they supposed to pay for things?  Are they to be denied access to airline tickets, video store memberships, and the contents of the Amazon catalogue just because of their socio-economic status?!

I admit that I’m ranting, and that this is an issue about which I know almost nothing.  But it just bugs me on an intuitive level.  Not to mention that there are all sorts of other downsides to credit cards.  I mean, seriously, you’d think in this day and age we’d have come up with a better way of paying for things than by punching in a sixteen-digit number (which can be stolen by a good enough computer hacker or anyone who gets a glance inside your purse) linked to a line of credit (which may have a limit way beyond anything you’d actually want to spend) that you then have to pay off every month (you know, with real money that you actually have) or risk paying compound interest on (‘cause debt is everyone’s favourite gift with purchase!)  I’m just saying…

Me: (Some time later.) “Oh, you mean you do still accept post at the Australian Embassy?  And you’ll know what to do with a money order if you get one?  Sweet.  Guess I might be coming to visit your country after all!”

Completing the application itself wasn’t actually such a big deal, but I ran into problems again when I realised that I needed to include a certified copy of my passport.  The web site didn’t give me any more helpful information on how to do this than to say that it would depend on the country I was in.  Great!  So, supposing I was in Japan…  I tried asking around about where I could find a notary public or someone else qualified to certify a photocopy, but no one seemed able to help me.  So I was back to calling the embassy again.

Me: “Where can I get a photocopy of my passport certified?”
Helpful Representative of the Australian Government: “You can get it certified at any of our offices.”
Me: “Wait, you mean I have to take the photocopy to the embassy to get it certified?”
HRAG: “Yes.”
Me: “I can’t get it stamped by a lawyer or something?”
HRAG: “No.”
Me: “Well where are your offices?”
HRAG: “We have offices in Sapporo, Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka.”
Me: “None in Sendai?”
HRAG: “I’m afraid not.”
Me: “So, let me get this straight.  To complete this application I’m going to have to travel five hours to Tokyo and five hours back, arriving sometime during embassy working hours, so that you can look at my passport and make a photocopy of it?”
HRAG: “Or you could mail us the original.”
Me: “Mail you the original.”
HRAG: “Yes.”
Me: “You want me to mail you my passport.”
HRAG: “Yes.”
Me: “For an application.”
HRAG: “Yes.”
Long, awkward silence.
Me: “Are those the only options?”
HRAG: “I’m afraid so.  Well, unless you want to send us a clear photocopy of every page of your passport.  We’ll have to see the original eventually, though.”
Me: “I can do that?”
HRAG: “Yes.”
Me: “Just a regular photocopy?”
HRAG: “Of every page.”
Me: “And you didn’t think it would be worthwhile to supply this information at any earlier point in the conversation?”
HRAG: “If your application is accepted you will have to send us your original passport so we can affix the visa to it.”
Me: “Thanks.  I have actually travelled to foreign countries before.  Would you believe I’m doing it as we speak?”

I’d been told that the application process typically took about two months, so I was surprised when, less than a week after mailing the form in, I received an e-mail telling me that to complete the application I’d have to undergo a medical assessment.  As usual, this couldn’t be done just anywhere; it had to be at an embassy-approved travel clinic, the nearest of which was in Tokyo.  And it had to be done within twenty-eight days – not exactly the most convenient time frame for scheduling a doctor’s appointment in Tokyo when you a) live in Sendai, b) have a job, and c) are female.  Fortunately they weren’t too anal about it; I wrote back asking for an extension, and they readily granted me one.

Actually, I would have made the deadline anyway.  I scheduled my appointment for the first weekend in February, taking a bus there on Friday night and getting another one home on Sunday.  I could have made the visit shorter, but as long as I was going all that way I figured I might as well make the most of the trip.

My appointment was early Saturday morning, and took less than half an hour, leaving me the rest of the day for exploring Tokyo.  First I decided to walk around and look at some embassies.  Living in Ottawa, I’ve made an occasional hobby of embassy-spotting, but I’d yet to try it out in the Japanese capital.  I found the German, French, and Chinese embassies, and completely failed to locate the Korean one.  However I soon realised that the biggest embassies tended to be obscured by high walls, and that the most interesting and photogenic ones were the smaller buildings that weren’t too fussed about security.

After lunch I returned to Ueno for yet another visit to the Science Museum.  It took me three trips, but I’ve finally been able to complete my tour of the exhibit!  If you’re ever in Tokyo, I recommend it.  It’s quite good and has interactive guides in English, Chinese, and Korean.  Afterwards, I checked out Ameyoko (a popular shopping street), which wasn’t very interesting, and went to Harajuku to look for cosplayers (I only saw a couple).  I got the bus home the next morning.

Now it’s just a matter of seeing how my medical results turn out.  The cost of my visa application so far?  $220 for the application itself, $210 for the medical exam, $70 for a return bus ticket to Tokyo, and $30 for one night in a hostel (the other one was elective) comes to $530.  And that’s assuming one-hundred yen to the dollar.  The truth is Japan’s currency is actually worth rather more than that; putting the true cost at closer to $700.  Australia had better be worth it, is all I can say!

You know what else I hate?  The skills-development conference.  That’s what they’re calling the annual ALT conference this year; last year it was the mid-year conference.  Whatever you want to call it, I hate it.  Or rather, what I hated was having to prepare for it.  Last year I was a first-year ALT and didn’t have to do anything but attend and bring a poster.  This year I’m a veteran, which means I had to present about something.  In theory I was supposed to do the presentation along with my head teacher.  In practice, she deferred to me for most of the planning and decision-making.  I don’t think she would have contributed anything at all if I hadn’t specifically drawn up an outline designating time for her to talk and specifying what I wanted her to talk about.  That accounted for about five minutes; it was up to me to fill the other sixty-five.

Okay, here’s why I hated the skills-development conference.  It wasn’t just the question of having to do work (which is reasonable), nor of having to become an expert in some element of English education (which is a bit more intimidating).  It was the lack of support we got throughout the whole process.  There was no information session, no instructions on how to structure our presentation, no suggestions of topics they wanted covered.  All the information I got was delivered in Japanese, and came to me via my head teacher, who expected me to explain it to her.  The work of assigning topics was carried out by having each ALT pick their three favourites out of five broad categories, and then assign one to each of them.  Within that category, we were allowed to present on anything we wanted, ideally sharing as much (or as little) as we knew.

I chose to present on technical aspects of English, with an eye to focusing on pronunciation.  It was one of the few elements of English I could claim to know something about, having spent a good part of last year learning the the I.P.A. and trying to teach myself various British accents.  (What?  I have a lot of time on my hands.)  Afraid that wouldn’t be enough, I threw everything I had into the presentation that had to do with pronunciation, reading, listening, and language-arts, only to discover that it would have taken me twice the allotted time to present it all.  Feeling a lot better, I trimmed it down, made a slide-show and a handout to go with it, and got it into a state that was more or less presentable.

In the event the presentation went really well.  I assigned several blocks of time for group discussion, which seemed reasonably productive.  My audience was polite, asked good questions, volunteered answers to my questions, and even gave me good feedback at the end.

The rest of the conference was a mixed bag.  One consequence of all the disorganisation was that we had effectively no say in which seminars we attended.  We’d been given a form to fill out, with the names of all the proposed seminars but no details on their content.  I filled it out, but I could discern no correlation between my choices and what I actually ended up attending.  For instance I somehow ended up in a seminar on elective English classes.  But my school doesn’t have an elective English programme…

There is one good thing about the skills-development conference: it’s over.  And since I’ve already made up my mind that this is going to be my last year in Japan, I know I’ll never have to do it ever again!

Back at work, five of my students ended up writing reply letters to the students from Canada.  There were others who’d expressed interest but never got around to doing it.  The ones who did finish, however, put a lot of effort in.  Not only were the letters so long that I was sure they must have gotten help with them, but most of them wrote them on nice paper and decorated them with pictures.  They brought rough drafts (often themselves very nice-looking) for me to check, and I corrected them only enough to ensure that the recipients would understand them.  I sent them all off in a big envelope along with a letter of my own and a picture of the School Festival display I’d made.  I know I’m sending them ten months after the original earthquake, and that the Canadian students will all have moved up a grade in the mean time.  I also don’t expect I’ll ever hear back from them or learn how the letters were received.  But hopefully a late reply will be better than none.  Especially when it’s coming all the way from Japan.

I mentioned that this fall didn’t seem a cold as last year’s but the temperature seems finally to have dropped, and I’m once more miserable in my apartment.  I’m coping by practically living under my kotatsu, from which I barely move all evening.

In the middle of the month there was a festival called Dontosai, which is apparently a Miyagi specialty.  It includes a half-naked pilgrimage, where the participants run through the streets wearing only shorts, a headband, and sandals (plus a vest for the girls).  I have enough trouble dealing with freezing cold on a regular basis; getting naked in it really isn’t my thing.  So I didn’t participate in it last year or this year.  I did go out with my tea lady to see it, though.  We ate some festival food, saw the big bonfire for ritual burning, and even ran into the group of ALTs who were participating and my school principal, who was also doing the pilgrimage.  They looked cold but brave, and I respected them for it, but I wouldn’t want to be them!

* “Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!”: Japanese for “Happy New Year!”

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Mix and Mingle - December 2011

December was a busy month again this year, thanks largely to the reestablishment of the ALT carolling group.  We met for weekly rehearsals throughout October and November, and began performing at the beginning of December.  Our first performance was for sick children at a hospital, which we actually got permission to take time off work for.  When we did our signature number, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with actions, we got the kids to join in with us.  Afterwards, we joined them for a card-making activity.  We did another performance as part of a YMCA Christmas party.

One of our bigger events was a weekend trip to Kesenuma, one of the tsunami-hit towns.  We visited temporary housing camps for people who had lost their homes, most of them established on school grounds.  One of the ALTs had gotten donations for Christmas presents, and he dressed in a Santa Claus outfit and handed them out to the children there.  We did six performances in all, with better turnout for some than for others, but the people who came seemed to enjoy them, and some of them even joined in with the singing and gestures.

Our singing instructor works at Sendai’s international school, and at the end of the month we joined him for his school concert.  It’s a marker of how small Sendai’s international community is that I ran into several people I knew at the concert, including some of my former classmates from Japanese class, and the missionary family from my church.  At the invitation of one of our members, we went to sing for some orphans, and some of us (though not me) also sang at Donald McDonald (sic, don’t ask) House for Sick Kids.  Finally, we sang and collected donations in the Ichi-ban Chou.  This year the money is going to go to the tsunami victims.

I had a lot of fun with all the events.  It reminded me of being back in my high school choir.  It’s one element of school life I really miss.

The ALT Christmas party was held at the same Indian restaurant as last time, and my school’s end-of-year party was once again held at a hotel.  At school I did the same Christmas lessons as last year, plus a lesson for my special needs class.  All my lessons went as well as or better than last year.  The only disappointing things was that I was unable to deliver the second-year students’ Christmas cards to them personally, because I spent the last three days of the year out with the flu.

I swear, every year I start out with all sorts of good intentions about getting the flu shot, and every year I completely fail to do it.  Usually I manage to avoid it anyway, but eventually my luck had to run out, especially given the line of work I’m in.

It started over the weekend with a sore throat and the loss of my singing voice.  On Monday I went to school feeling lousy, and stumbled through three periods before finally begging for time off to go see the doctor.  He berated me for not getting vaccinated (I was meaning to do it, honest!  I’ve just been busy…) then gave me a flu test.  Have you ever been tested for the flu?  It’s not pleasant; you lean back and they stick a swab up your nose till it almost touches your brain!  The test came back positive, so he gave me some medication and told me I’d have to stay home for the rest of the week.  So that, effectively, was the start of my Christmas vacation.

The medicine must have worked, because I felt much better the next day and my temperature had returned to normal.  I still had to stay home to avoid infecting anyone else, though.  That evening my tea lady came over with loads of food, evidently worried that I wouldn’t be able to get out to do any grocery shopping.  I’d actually stocked up the previous day, but her concern touched me, and made me feel even guiltier than I was already about spending the entire day under my kotatsu reading Television Without Pity recaps.

I had a very relaxed Christmas holiday, though I did shape up and start doing slightly more useful things, like working on my blog.  I went to the Christmas Eve service at my church, and afterwards joined the youth in some door-to-door carolling.  Since Christmas Day was a Sunday, I went to the morning service and also stayed for the Christmas lunch and youth party, where we had chocolate fondue.

I didn’t get up to much for the rest of the holiday, until New Year’s, which my tea lady invited me to spend at her place.  I went on New Year’s Eve and stayed for two days.  Her elder sister was visiting with her two sons and daughter – who are considerably cuter than her younger sister’s kids (the ones I’ve been tutoring).  She also had an uncle there, and with her and her parents it was quite a crowd.  She and her sister spoke only a little English, and everyone else spoke almost none.  In spite of that, I had a surprisingly warm and friendly time there.  It was nice to be spending the holiday with family, even if the family wasn’t mine.

On New Year’s Eve we watched the New Year show on T.V. and ate traditional foods, like soba.  As a “thank you” for the food she had given me, I gifted her family with what I consider to be traditional western holiday snacks: cheese and crackers, mixed nuts, shortbread, and a big Toblerone bar.  On New Year’s Day we tried to go to Jogi-san, but there was so much traffic on the road that we forewent the traditional New Year’s temple visit in favour of an onsen.  We did go to a smaller temple the next day, and then spent the afternoon doing “hatsu-uri” (New Year’s shopping).

In the news this month, to the dismay of millions and the surprise of no one, Canada announced its intention to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.  You know, when I was growing up (still not such a very long time ago) we were taught that Canada’s commitment to environmentalism was a source of national pride.  So I can’t say I’m exactly thrilled to have one fewer reason to be proud of my country.  In international news, everyone’s favourite North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Il, is dead.  I’d say this was good news if I thought things were going to improve under his successor, but losing one Big Brother figure doesn’t mean anything if he’s simply replaced with another.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – Wow!  The Harry Potter films have finally grown up!  Obviously this is the point at which the books start getting more adult, but it’s more than that: this is the first film of the series that works as a movie in its own right, and not just as a dramatisation of the novel.  At the same time, it remains largely faithful to the source material.  Remarkably, given the length of the book, it manages to get all the major plot elements in without feeling rushed.  Several subplots had to be trimmed, of course, but the cuts are so seamless I barely noticed them.  The child actors have even grown into their roles and stopped grating on my nerves.  As for the adults, I was rather amused by the number of familiar faces among the new cast; I had to keep reminding myself that the movie came out before the Twilight series or the second season of Doctor Who.  Ralph Fiennes without hair or a nose is a bit of a novelty, but so far I’m willing to buy him as Lord Voldemort.  The only sour note for me was Dumbledore, who comes off as oddly grouchy and ineffectual – quite unlike his portrayal in the book.  (Four stars)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – This one was more of a disappointment.  To be fair it is based on my favourite book of the series, and thus had more to live up to.  Much like Prisoner of Azkaban, it feels like so much exposition has been left out that the story barely makes sense.  I also didn’t feel it did justice to the nastiest moments in the story.  Umbridge wasn’t how I pictured her, nor did I like her as much as her literary incarnation, which was especially sad for me as she’s my favourite villain by far.  On the bright side I’m still liking the younger actors and I thought Luna was well-cast.  (Three stars)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – Only the second film of the series that feels like it can stand on its own.  The story had to be compressed and isn’t as well-developed as that of the book, but it still makes sense, and I was impressed by how many quiet, character-focused scenes the film made room for.  Unfortunately the film has the same weaknesses as the book, in that it is merely set-up for the conclusion., and leaves many storylines unresolved.  (Three and a half stars)

T.V. shows I’ve seen this month:

Being Erica (Season 2) – I didn’t like this season quite as much as the previous one, although I’m not sure whether that was due to changes in the show itself, or simply the premise feeling less fresh and original than it once did.  There seem to be a lot more episodes focusing on sex and romance this season, at the expense of other kinds of stories.  I did end up liking one of the major sub-arcs involving a new character, which didn’t go in the direction I was dreading it would.  I also liked the episodes focusing on Dr Tom.

Books I’ve read this month:

The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong – Biography of Vietnamese napalm-victim Kim Phuc.  Now I remember why my Political Science teacher told us to read biographies: I think I learned more about the Vietnam war from this one book than from everything I’d read or seen about it previously.  Also, war is disgusting.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher – The first book in the “Dresden Files” series of pulp urban fantasy novels.  Not a great story, but interesting for the way it presents magic and the interaction between the fantastic and mundane worlds.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

And Nobody Knows (Tiddely Pom) - November 2011

This month I was finally able to share the letters from Canada with my students.  The third-year teacher generously let me devote an entire class to them.  First I showed the students some Canadian maps demonstrating where the school was.  Then I told them that the kids at the school had heard about the earthquake and tsunami and had felt moved to write letters to Japan.  I read them the cover letter that the Canadian teacher had written, and my teacher translated it for them.  Then I put them in groups and gave each group two letters to share.  Each student got a question sheet and a glossary.  The former was to give their reading some direction; the latter was to help them with difficult words and phrases.

For the most part, I was impressed with the response.  Not all of the students took an interest in the letters, but a surprising number did.  Even students who struggled with the regular class readings worked hard to understand them and find the answers.  It was a welcome change to see them actually engaging with a reading, rather than simply doing the mindless repetition and translation work they’ve been trained in.  I think they appreciated that they were holding real letters written by real people, and that made them much more meaningful.  Most gratifying of all, a few of the students even asked if they could write responses.  Of course I told them they could, and offered to give them any help they needed.

In my second-year classes, the teacher has finally started implementing her idea about having the students do short English speeches.  So far the the students have complied reluctantly, and most of them have been doing only the bare minimum, but my hope is that they will warm up to the idea once they get used to it.

Fall is officially underway here.  The trees have changed colour and the temperature has dropped.  I seem to be dealing with the cold better this year than last, though I’m not sure whether that’s because I’m acclimatised or because this November is simply milder.  One thing that’s certain is that my toes are freezing!  Cold digits are a fact of life for me, and in past years I haven’t worried too much about frozen toes – after all, I can think of way worse things than not being able to feel part of your body.  But last year I actually got an infection that took weeks and a lot of medication to cure.  I want to avoid that happening again this year, so I’ve been wearing warm socks and also bundling up, drinking hot beverages, and making liberal use of my kotatsu.  Still, it’s hard to keep my extremities warm when I’m outdoors, and with no central heating indoors can be pretty cold, too.  I wish I lived in Korea; I hear they have heated floors!

At the beginning of the month the English teacher at my church put on a “harvest party” to share some traditional American cooking with the locals.  I went and brought my tea lady along with me.  The traditional dishes we ate were chilli and cornbread.  I was especially fond of the latter; I haven’t had cornbread in ages!  The event was the closest I came to celebrating Thanksgiving this year.

The fall colours haven’t been as brilliant in my area as I remember them being last year, but I have been making the most of them with a few different excursions.  My tea lady and school nurse invited me to go with them to Matsushima to see the evening light-up of the trees.  I went with my church to an onsen in Akiu, where we got to admire the leaves.  I also finally made my own trip to Yama-dera, which my buddy from Korea had visited the previous month.  Yama-dera (literally “mountain temple”) is built into a mountainside, and it’s a steep climb to get to the top.  From there we had a nice view of the surrounding countryside with its multi-coloured hills.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – The only adaptation of the Harry Potter books I’d previously seen.  It succeeds in covering most of the plot of the novel, but does so in such a flat and unimaginative way that it hardly seems worth the effort.  Part of the problem is that it there is so much exposition and it feels rushed and charmless.  The biggest fun to be had is from seeing which actors are playing which characters.  Maggie Smith seems well-cast as McGonagall; I’m less sanguine about Alan Rickman as Snape.  More important to the film are the child actors playing the main characters.  Sadly, none of them has the talent needed to carry a whole movie.  Of the pint-sized cast the one I found myself warming to the most was Draco Malfoy.  (Two and a half stars)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – This film holds together better than the previous one, having less exposition to get through and more time to focus on the plot.  Unfortunately, I had all the same problems with it that I did with the book: the adults are useless, the kids are dumb, and I can’t stand Dobby.  Kenneth Branagh feels reasonably fitting, if a bit wasted, as Gilderoy Lockhart.  I’m still not big on the child actors.  (Three stars)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Three stars) – In contrast to the slavish fidelity of the first two films, this one is willing to get a bit creative with some plot elements.  The result is a somewhat more enjoyable movie; I especially liked the climactic sequences.  On the down side, a lot of exposition gets left out, to the extent that the story wouldn’t make sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book.  (Notably, one could get through the entire film without a clue that the Marauders ever got up to anything besides map-making.)  Lupin isn’t how I pictured him, but I think I like him, and Gary Oldman seems to work as Sirius, though he doesn’t get much screen time.  (Three stars)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Yoku Naru yo* - October 2011

Peter: Hey, it gets better!
Claire: What?
Peter: Life after high school.  It gets a lot better.
  - Heroes, “Homecoming”

This year I decided to be proactive about the city-wide sports competitions.  Since nobody told me what was going on or invited me to any of the events, I took matters into my own hands and actually asked which competitions I could attend.  The teachers seemed surprised at this, as though they couldn’t imagine why I would want to watch my students play sports when I could spend the whole weekend sitting at my desk twiddling my thumbs.  They asked me what events I was interested in, and I suggested volleyball, which turned out to be at a school just a few train stops east of me.

My students played well, and I enjoyed watching them a lot.  Unfortunately, they got beaten hard in the first match, and even though they rallied well late in the second match they still lost that one too and were unable to advance in the competition.  I stuck around and watched some of the other games, but they weren’t as much fun without someone to root for.  I asked about going to see some of the other sports, but there weren’t any others I could get to easily, so I spent the rest of the weekend bored at school.

In the middle of the month a buddy of mine from university came to visit me.  She’s been teaching English in Korea for the last couple of years, and since we were comparatively close to each other, we thought it would be a good opportunity to hook up.  As with my sister in June, I decided the best course of action would be to meet in Tokyo, spend a few days there, and then go back to Sendai together.  So on Saturday morning I got an early bus for my third trip to the world’s largest city.

I arrived in the early afternoon and checked into the hostel, where my buddy had arrived a few hours earlier.  It was my first time seeing her since graduation five years earlier.  We’d been reasonably good about maintaining e-mail contact, but hadn’t met since the fall of 2006.  I was afraid reconnecting would be awkward, but we were actually able to pick up quite naturally, and had a very nice holiday together.  It helped that she came with her own travel guide and loads of suggestions for things we could do in the city.  That took some of the pressure off me as tour guide, though I was still the language expert.

We caught up over lunch at the okonomiyaki place, trading notes on life in Japan versus Korea.  The first sight we went to see was the Tokyo Tower.  Built as an orange and white version of the Eiffel Tower, it’s one of Tokyo’s most recognisable buildings.  It was my first time to visit it.  We contemplated going up to the top viewing level and also visiting the aquarium we’d heard was inside, but the queue to get to the top was too long, and the aquarium was closed.  Instead we took the elevator half-way up the tower for our night view of Tokyo.  Then we went to visit some of the other attractions inside the tower.  One was a wax museum with likenesses of various famous people and characters.  I recognised many of them, but I wouldn’t say they were very good.  The other was a gallery of optical illusions where we had good fun taking silly photographs.

My buddy had heard that on Sundays one could go cycling around the Imperial Palace, so the next morning we went and did just that.  The bikes were being lent out for free and the streets were blocked off for cyclists, although the route didn’t extend all the way around the grounds.  As I’ve already mentioned, last month was my first bike-riding experience in years.  I was slightly steadier this time, though grateful to have a multi-lane road to practise in.  I’ll have to try to find more opportunities to do that.

After the bike ride we took a walk around the East Garden and then explored Ginza.  We tried to go to a baseball game at the Tokyo Dome, but when we got there the tickets were sold out, so we settled for an unspectacular ride on the Ferris wheel.  The trip wasn’t a total waste, though, because there were lots of young people in costumes hanging around the stadium, affording us a much better view of Japanese cosplay than we had at any other point during the trip.

In the evening we went to dinner at a “Ninja” restaurant in Akasaka.  It was gimmicky in a quintessentially Japanese fashion.  When we arrived a man in a ninja costume escorted us through a series of dark tunnels to our table.  The dining area was fashioned after an Edo-era street with each party dining in a separate room.  Everything was black: black houses, black tables, black chairs, black chopsticks – heck, my drink even came with a black skewer in it.  All the staff were “ninjas”, and were of course dressed in black, though the ominousness of the effect was rather offset by our waitress’s friendly attitude and Hello Kitty pen.  The bathrooms were subterranean caves.

The meal was expensive.  We tried to save money by ordering things à la carte and sharing, but we still ended up dropping about $60 each.  The place wasn’t over-priced, though; the food was genuinely good.  The portions may have been smaller than we could have wished, but we couldn’t complain of the quality.  There was also the added thrill of live entertainment.  Our waitress prepared a couple of the dishes right in front of our eyes, and at the end of the meal another “ninja” came to show us some “ninja magic” – basically your run-of-the-mill magic tricks, but still entertaining.  If you’ve got a good sense of fun, a willingness to suspend your disbelief, and up to $100 to blow, I heartily recommend the place.  It would make an especially good date restaurant.

On Monday I took my buddy to see the Meiji Shrine.  We took our time walking around Yoyogi Park, including a visit to the Treasure House Annex, where the exhibit had changed from kimonos to scrolls.  I got us hopelessly lost walking around the Harajuku district, but we found our way back to our train station eventually, and went up to Shinjuku for some architectural exploration.  According to my buddy’s guidebook, Shinjuku was the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s designs for the movie Bladerunner.  I wasn’t the least bit surprised, although upon reflection I realised that most of the buildings we were looking at must have been built after that movie came out.  We went to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building for the view, but Tokyo at dusk is not nearly as impressive as Tokyo by night.  We also went inside some of the buildings, discovering that they had interesting internal architecture, too.

In the evening we went to Ikebukuro to visit the Aquarium at the top of the Sunshine 60 building.  I like aquaria as a rule, but this was one of the least impressive ones I’ve seen.  I thought the bird habitats were especially disappointing; they looked really small and I couldn’t help thinking that the birds must feel awfully cramped in them.

On Tuesday we went to the Tokyo National Museum.  It was a repeat for me, but some of the exhibits had changed, so the trip was worthwhile.  We also stopped in at the National Museum of Western Art, which contains a good collection of renaissance and later painting as well as several bronzes by Rodin.  In the evening we went to Akihabara.  First we checked out an “anime museum”, which was disappointing; then we went to a maid café.  If you haven’t heard of maid cafés, they’re places where all the waitresses are dressed up in cute maid costumes.  It seemed like one of those odd and uniquely Japanese things we should check out at least once.  The place was very cute, decorated with bright colours and stuffed animals.  Despite the premise, it didn’t feel sleazy so much as gimmicky and over-priced.  We did notice that there weren’t a lot of other female customers, though.  We had dessert and my buddy got her picture taken with a maid.  We spent the last part of the evening walking around Akihabara.

On our last morning we went back to Ueno Park to see some more of the park itself, and then to Shinjuku for our bus home.  We got into Sendai in the early evening, and stopped there for a gyu-tan dinner before heading back to my place.

I had to work on Thursday and Friday.  They’re my elementary school days, and I didn’t think I could ask in good conscience for more time off from them than I’d already taken that year.  My buddy was thus left to amuse herself for two days, which she did pretty well.  On Thursday one of my Japanese neighbours took her to Yama-dera, a nearby temple.  In the evening we went over to her house for tempura and fun bilingual conversation.  On Friday she made her own way up to Matsushima.  Then we met up with a Japanese acquaintance from church who took us to a yakiniku restaurant and then a karaoke place.  We were an oddly disparate singing group.  Not only did the Japanese girl not know many of the songs we sang and sing a lot of Japanese songs that we in turn didn’t know, but even my Canadian buddy and I found ourselves drawn to different kinds of music.  It didn’t help that we have different vocal ranges, though we tried to make that work for us on some of the duets.  Still, it was a fitting conclusion to a Japanese adventure.

We only had one noticeable earthquake during our time in Sendai.  It was in the early morning hours when we were still in bed, and I just ignored it, but she was impressed.  Despite its proximity, Korea apparently doesn’t get many earthquakes.

Since I’ve now been there three times, it might be a good time for another unsolicited advertisement.  Every time I’ve visited Tokyo I’ve stayed at the Sakura Hostel in Asakusa.  It’s clean, friendly, and convenient.  It’s located right next to Senso-ji Temple, and a few subway stops down from Ueno.  The prices are generally good, though they vary with the time of year.  My only complaints are that there isn’t wireless internet in the rooms (There are computers and wi-fi available in the lounge, but that tends to get really crowded in the evenings); and the breakfast isn’t very good (Unless you like making a meal of white toast.  Here’s a tip: bring your own peanut butter!)  I can’t compare it to other hostels in Tokyo, not having stayed at any, but I’ll happily recommend it.

After seeing my buddy off I met up with some of my co-workers for a day trip to Yamagata.  We were going with a tour group that took us first to a rusk cookie factory.  Rusk cookies seem to be really popular here, though to me they just taste like stale bread with a sprinkling of sugar – a silly thing to pay for.  Then we had lunch at a konnyaku place.  Konnyaku is a tasteless jelly-like substance made from devil’s tongue, and at the restaurant we had an entire meal made almost entirely out of it.  They’d made it into imitation sushi, imitation yakitori, imitation soba, etc.  It was certainly a novel experience, but given that konnyaku is an almost calorie-free food, it wasn’t very satisfying.  I’ve also had much better imitation meat in Hong Kong.  They’d promised us a temple and a foot spa in the afternoon, but they got cancelled because of the rain, so the rest of the day was a bust.

In the news this month, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is dead.  It’s unfortunate that he wasn’t captured alive and can’t be put on trial, but at least his dictatorial rule is now definitively over.  The country also has a new flag, replacing the old uniformly green number.  Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, is also dead.  The Commonwealth has agreed to change the rules governing who can accede to the throne of England: succession will now be decided solely by birth order, regardless of gender.  People around the United States and Canada are participating in something called the “Occupy” movement.  It started in New York, with “Occupy Wall Street”, and spread from there.  Evidently the people involved are fed up with the current financial system, but beyond that I’m not sure what their purpose is.

There have also been several stories recently (at least on the news I listen to) about bullying and teen suicide, especially of gay kids.  For some reason these stories have gotten under my skin, probably because I got teased a lot growing up.  One thing that’s come up a lot in the stories is the “It Gets Better” Project, a video project intended to encourage gay youth and prevent gay teen suicide.  Its message: life may suck now, and people may bully you, but hang in there; once you leave school life is going to get better and people are going to get nicer to you.  I first heard about the project a year ago, when I saw Dan Savage’s original “It Gets Better” video.  The video touched me because, as I knew from first-hand experience, its message was true.

My life in elementary school sucked.  I have gone so far as to describe it as hell.  On the plus side, I didn’t get beaten up or suffer much in the way of physical abuse.  On the down side nobody was nice to me, I had no friends, and I got teased every day.  It was an incredibly lonely way to spend seven years.

I never knew why I got picked on.  I went to four elementary schools, and with each change the problem seemed to get worse.  Clearly I inspired the same kind of antipathy everywhere, though whether it was because I was dislikeable or simply made a convenient target I couldn’t say.  In retrospect, much of it may have been my fault; I probably said and did a lot of things that put people off, and I didn’t know how to stand up for myself.  The one thing I’m certain of is that it had little to do with discrimination.  I don’t belong to any minority demographics, and I didn’t see a lot of kids expressing prejudiced attitudes in any case.  I got picked on for being me, not for belonging to a group.

I got called “fag” or “faggot” a lot when I was twelve, but I didn’t even know what the word meant, and I suspect the kids who used it probably didn’t either.  I mean, I also got called “paedophile” a lot.  When I was twelve.  At other times it was “Chinese”, “lesbian”, “retard”, or my personal un-favourite, “loser”.  The words weren’t hurtful because I resented the meaning.  They were hurtful because they were meant to be hurtful.  Heck, one of the most enduring ones was to simply call me by my initials.  There’s nothing wrong with initialising someone’s name, but to this day I dread to hear it done to my own.  Kids have a way of throwing around whatever words they can to hurt each other, and the actual meaning doesn’t matter half so much as the malicious intention behind them.

For me, things got better when I entered high school.  Maybe my high school was just exceptionally good (I’ve been told repeatedly that it was), but most of the students there seemed to have matured out of the bullying phase.  There was one student in grade nine who made a profession out of being obnoxious to people, and nobody liked him.  While still lonely, I was at least spared the constant barrage of name-calling I’d grown used to.  I went through some rough periods and endured a lot of heartache, but it was still an improvement, and since graduating my life has been on a steady up-swing.

Looking back on my childhood, I remember believing that I was doomed to misery for life.  I would love to be able to go back and tell that child the truth: that from a low point around grade five or six, my life gradually got better.  That’s why the “It Gets Better” Project speaks to me.  In fact, if I have one issue with the project, it’s that its focus is too narrow.  It’s not that I don’t see the need to target gay teenagers, but life gets better whether you’re bullied for being gay or for other reasons.

It’s hard for me to know, not being LGB or T myself, but just as the world has become a friendlier place the older I get, so I think it’s also become a more gay-tolerant place.  I’m pretty sure my high school was a comparatively queer-friendly environment.  I didn’t see a lot of gay-bashing going on, and I knew lots of people who were openly gay or bisexual.  I can only recall one homophobic incident in my entire time there, and I think it was the exception that proved the rule.  A male acquaintance of mine had a picture up in his locker of two male anime characters in a suggestive pose.  Another student saw the picture and started attacking it as sick and disgusting.  Now, I wasn’t in total disagreement with him.  I didn’t like the picture and I didn’t think it was appropriate for a school.  But the way he pointed it out wasn’t diplomatic; it felt like a personal attack.  And then he got nasty.

“You’re gay!” he said.

And I thought (but did not say): “Yeah, and your point would be…?”

It was the only time I can recall from my high school days hearing the word used as a personal insult.  And although it was an unfortunate incident, its uniqueness underscores the fact that the school was, by and large, a fairly open and un-homophobic place.  Most of the students I knew didn’t throw around words like that, and I bet everyone who heard it was thinking the same thing: So what if he is gay.  What’s it to you?

Since graduating high school I’ve seen almost none of that kind of thing.  Adults, whatever their personal beliefs may be, tend to know better than to insult people to their faces.  In the real world homophobia is considered highly un-cool, and nobody likes a bully.  You still meet jerks sometimes, but you can usually walk away from them, and the older you get the less you care what other people do.  That’s the message the “It Gets Better” videos are trying to get across.

A lot of celebrities have been jumping onto the bandwagon.  Lady Gaga’s been especially vocal about the issue.  Rick Mercer made a video calling on gay public figures to out themselves so that gay kids could have more role models to look up to.  In the same spirit, I read that actor Zachary Quinto recently decided to come out.  That surprised me, not because I wouldn’t have thought Zachary Quinto was gay, but because I couldn’t imagine why an actor of his calibre (this is the guy who’s best known for playing a serial killer with a brain fetish and a half-alien space-traveller) would have felt the need to be in the closet in the first place.  Apparently it wasn’t so much that he was in the closet before as that he didn’t think it was anyone’s business.  Which I completely sympathise with.  We could all stand to know less about our favourite celebrities’ dating-lives.  I guess in a perfect world no one would care about a celebrity’s sexuality except as a point of curiosity, and people would feel free to talk about their orientation or not as they chose.  But we’re not quite there yet.  Incidentally, I also learned that Rick Mercer is gay.  Don’t know if I didn’t know that because it wasn’t common knowledge, or because I’m just ignorant.

There are plenty of other celebrity videos out there, made by gay and straight people alike.  Heck, even the president of the United States made one.  (Nice work, Mr Obama!)  I’ve seen a few, but I think the more interesting ones are probably the ones made by ordinary people, chronicling personal stories of hardship.

That isn’t to say that I don’t have some reservations about the project and some of the other ideas floating around.  Sharing experiences of bullying and personal growth may be cathartic for the adults who make the videos and others who watch them, but I do wonder how effective they are in practice.  After all, when I was a child I heard the same message.  As early as grade one I remember my teacher telling me about how she was teased as a child.  I found it incredible that any well-adjusted and normal-looking adult could ever have suffered the kind of cruelty I did at the hands of my classmates.  For the rest of my elementary school life I heard similar messages: lots of kids get bullied; it’s a normal part of school life; many of the adults who seem so happy today were bullied as children; this too shall pass.  I always met these reassurances with the same juvenile scepticism.  Other kids might be the victims of teasing, but even the kids who got teased teased me!  The adults who talked about being bullied in the past couldn’t possibly have had it as bad as I did.  And what kind of reassurance is it, when you’re ten, to be told that a decade from now your life will be happy and good?  Do you know how long a decade is from the perspective of a ten year old?!

I also can’t help wondering if giving so much media attention to the issue of teen suicide might actually be backfiring and having the opposite effect from the one intended.  What if covering these suicides and giving names and faces to the kids involved actually makes other children more likely to do the same thing?  What if kids who think they have no reason to live decide to kill themselves in the hope of becoming martyrs?  I’ve heard that theory proposed for the rash of school shootings that happened back in the nineties, and it seems like the same could be true of suicide.  After all, the impression I get is that there’s been an upsurge in the teen suicide rate lately, and that can’t be because of increased levels of bullying or homophobia.  Bullying has been a problem from time immemorial, and homophobia should, if anything be on the decline.  So while I think it’s important to acknowledge the problem and reach out to teenagers, I’d be careful not to crucify them.  We don’t need any more dead kids.

Another thing I’m concerned about is the response to bullying.  In their desire to put an end to it, I’ve heard adults advocate tougher anti-bullying laws and harsher punishments for bullies.  Bullying should definitely be taken seriously, and acts of violence disciplined.  But focusing too much on punishment might well end up doing more harm than good.  As we know from real life, stiffer penalties aren’t terribly effective at reducing crime, and sending people to prison often just makes them into more hardened criminals.  Moreover, kids do stupid things.  How many times have you looked back on your childhood and thought, Did really do that?, Was I really that dumb?, or, I sure was an obnoxious brat, wasn’t I?  I’ve no doubt that a lot of bullies go through the same thing.  Sure, some of them probably turn into obnoxious adults, but most of them grow up to become, well, grown ups.

A while back I was on Facebook and I saw some people I used to know having a discussion about this topic.  Interestingly, one of the people involved was my former elementary school classmate.  It was strange but heartening to see one of the kids who used to torment me as a child acknowledging the problem of bullying.  At one point he mentioned using homophobic insults as a child, and I thought, Yeah, I was one of the people you used them against!  I had a mini-catharsis realising that both of us had come a long way from those miserable elementary school days, that we’re both now very different people from our childhood selves, and that any animosity we may have once felt for each other is now buried in the past.

As a child I could be unkind too.  I’ve said hurtful things to others that I regret and wish I could take back.  I’ll never have the chance to apologise for most of them, but I hope anyone I hurt has forgiven me.  In the same way I forgive everyone who was mean to me in my childhood.  I know they were only children too, doing stupid things as children do.  I don’t hate them or want to see them punished.  The worst I hope is that they now regret their childish behaviour, and have grown into thoughtful and compassionate adults who do their best to instil their children with a degree of empathy.

Bullying is a problem as much for its perpetrators as its victims.  It’s a sickness, and needs treatment more than punishment.  Kids don’t just bully each other because they’re bad.  They do it because they feel insecure, because they’ve been bullied themselves, have abusive parents, want to impress their friends, or have low self-esteem.  Punishing their behaviour alone isn’t going to solve those problems.  And criminalising it may simply turn relatively normal kids into criminals.  It isn’t enough to treat bullying symptomatically; the root causes have to be addressed.  And it isn’t enough to say that bullying is bad; kids have to learn positive alternatives.

One concrete suggestion has been legislation to protect gay student rights and target homophobia specifically.  Protecting gay students and eliminating their systematic bullying is a worthy goal.  However, as an anti-bullying strategy I don’t think it’s terribly well-directed.  It may take some of the pressure off gay students, but it does nothing to address the problem of bullying per se.  The reasoning behind it seems to go like this: Some kids bully others with homophobic insults; if we eliminate homophobia, we can eliminate bullying.  Which is nonsense.  Homophobia isn’t the reason for bullying, it’s an excuse; and bullies don’t bully gay kids because they are homophobic, they bully them because they are bullies!

You don’t have to be gay to get bullied.  You don’t have to be gay to get bullied for being gay.  Nor is being gay the only reason gay kids get bullied, nor a guarantee that someone won’t himself bully others.  All different kinds of kids are bullies, and all different kinds are victims: gay kids, straight kids, black kids, white kids, religious, non-religious, pretty, ugly, fat, skinny, able-bodied, disabled, mentally average, mentally handicapped.  Some kids just like to pick on people, and they’ll target anyone they and their friends can agree is “other”.

I was pondering all this over lunch one day when my tea lady snapped me out of my stupor to ask me what I was thinking about.  “Ee… muzukashii desu…”, “Uh… it’s difficult…”, I tried to explain.  Like, seriously, what’s the Japanese for “gay teen suicide”?  Fortunately Wikipedia does have a Japanese entry on the “It Gets Better” Project, and between that and Google Translate I was able to explain the situation to her.  It was nice to be able to talk to someone about it.

I don’t have much optimism that bullying can ever be eliminated.  The targets may shift, the means vary, but I think it will always be a part of school life.  There’ll always be the kid who gets picked on, teased, beaten up, ostracised.  Who has his shoes stolen or his glasses broken or his lip split.  Who gets called a “fag”, “retard”, “loser”, or worse.

But it gets better.  It really does.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Mamma Mia! – Ostensibly about a girl’s search for her “real” father, this silly musical comedy is really just an excuse to string a bunch of Abba songs together.  The results are mixed, but the movie’s almost worth it for the fun of seeing respectable actors like Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, and Colin Firth dancing around and behaving like teenagers.  (Three stars)

T.V. shows I’ve seen this month:

Heroes (Season 1) – I freely admit that this is a deeply goofy show.  It has insufferable narration (“You do not choose your destiny; it chooses you.”), idiot characters (Um, Peter, you think you might want to pick a shorter building to test your “I’m telling you, I think I can fly!” hypothesis?), bizarre plot-twists (How many times a day does Claire die?), and absurd coincidences (What are the chances that of all the patrons at the Fly By Night Diner, the only one who notices the man landing in the parking lot is the one who can “bendo space ando time”?)  The climax to the last episode makes no sense to me.  And did I mention that the villain is a cute, affable, nerdy, whingeing, creepy, megalomaniacal, vicious, brain-eating sociopath?

I wanted to say that as a sort of disclaimer before I make the following rather embarrassing confession: I love Heroes!  As I’ve said before, about 50% of its charm comes from sheer campiness.  How can you not love a show with characters whose nicknames include “Man with Horned-Rimmed Glasses”, “Mystery Sock”, “Flying Man”, and “Super Hiro”; dialogue like “Save the cheerleader, save the world”, “Future-me scares me”, “This is usually the part when people start screaming”, or “Yatta!!!”; Star Trek references every other  episode; or a season finale entitled “How to Stop an Exploding Man”???

But there is another 50% that’s actually genuinely good.  This isn’t a show that was slapped together one episode at a time; the season has a well-constructed, intriguing, and unified story-line.  Or rather, several, for it weaves its story together from many disparate threads.  Watching these threads gradually come together is a big part of the fun.  The characters come from a variety of backgrounds and lifestyles, and struggle in interesting ways to integrate their new-found powers.  Many of them are actually relatively well-developed and surprisingly well-acted (considering that half the cast look like they were pulled from hair-care ads).  Most of them are sympathetic, making the conflicts between them that much more interesting.  And there are always fresh surprises to keep things engaging.

There’s a part of me that’s seriously tempted to go and rent Season 2 now.  Having fallen in love with the series, I want to see where it goes next.  But the overwhelming consensus seems to be that the subsequent seasons all suck.  And I really don’t need to add to my list of once brilliant T.V. shows I’ve watched descend into garbage.  I’ve done it too many times already; I don’t need the pain.  So although I’d love to learn more about the characters and the shadowy forces controlling their lives, I think I’m better off leaving the show where it is, remembering the good parts and sparing myself the bad parts.

Books I’ve read this month:

Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson – That’s it!  When I grow up, I want to be Bill Bryson.  Not only does the guy get paid for going on backpacking trips, but he also writes books about fascinating topics like, in this case, the English language.  The result is one of those painfully interesting books that make me long to go back to school and study its subject in real depth.  Given that I’m on the road to making English my career anyway, I may just end up doing that!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling – The final book in the Harry Potter saga.  Both the story and characters have clearly matured.  I like a lot of the themes that get brought in, such as death, loss, and regret, and I don’t think I’ve ever come closer to liking Harry as a character.  On the down side, the book has some boring bits and isn’t as unified as one could wish.  Much of the story builds on the previous books, but there are some new elements that feel contrived.  The ending is surprisingly sudden.  For a series with a huge cast of characters and numerous sub-plots, and in contrast to all of the previous books, it contains very little dénouement.  It’s almost as though Rowling was trying to avoid the long drawn out conclusion of a book like The Lord of the Rings, and ended up swinging too far in the other direction.  I’m not seriously bothered by all the lose ends, but that may change once I’ve had a chance to think about the series more.  The climactic sequence is reasonably exciting, though I wish to Elbereth that Rowling had killed one or two fewer characters in the process.  The main storylines are resolved in more-or-less satisfying ways, and she even vindicates the vain hope I was holding out at the end of the previous book.  Over all it makes for a decent conclusion, and I’ve decided that I do indeed like the Harry Potter series.

* “Yoku Naru yo”: Japanese for “It gets better.”

Monday, March 12, 2012

Karaoke, Bike-Riding, and Other Discoveries - September 2011

By a strange coincidence, September 11, 2011 was the anniversary of the two most personally significant news events of my life.  Firstly, it was the ten-year anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks in New York City.  While the attacks and their aftermath didn’t affect my life directly, their global ramifications were so sweeping that I can’t help but think of them as among the most important events I’ve lived through.  From the first time I heard of them (one week into grade thirteen, walking into my law classroom and seeing an image of smoking towers on the television screen), I knew that I was witnessing a major story that would change the world as we knew it.  Ten years later the world is still dealing with the fallout from that day.

The other event had much less global impact but affected me much more directly.  September 11 was also the six-month anniversary of what has become known as the Great East Japan Earthquake.  I’ve already written at great length about that experience.  Six months on you can barely see any damage from the earthquake itself, but the clean-up from the tsunami feels like a never-ending task.  The story has faded from the international news and the aftershocks have more or less ceased (the current level of seismic activity is pretty much what it was this time last year), but there is still a massive amount of rebuilding to be done and the newspapers continue to print daily updates on the numbers of dead and missing.

Oddly I didn’t do anything to commemorate either of those events.  I suspect that had I been in North America the World Trade Center attacks would have been spotlighted, but they received much less attention here in Japan.  Nor was I aware of any special events to commemorate the earthquake.  So the date passed mostly unhallowed by me, though not unnoticed.

Classes resumed at the end of August.  I’ve made a new English board for the teacher profiles, and I’ve been adding them at a rate of one per day.  That should get me through the whole staff in just over a month.  Back in the classroom, I’ve noticed that my first-year teacher hasn’t been bringing me to class very often.  To some extent I don’t mind very much, since I much prefer teaching the higher grades, but I do worry that the students are missing out.  On the plus side, from what I’ve seen so far, the first-year teacher is pretty good.  He has a good relationship with his students, and they in turn seem more relaxed and comfortable using English than the other classes I work with.  Still, at the least I’m losing some important bonding time with them.

School Festival was at the beginning of the month.  My contribution to it largely consisted of spending a lot of time in the accountant’s office cutting half-inch pieces of origami paper.  The students were all making mosaics, and, hey, those little coloured squares have to come from somewhere.  But the event also gave me my first opportunity to do something with the letters I’d received from the JET Programme.  I made a big bulletin-board display about them.  It included all the letters, an explanation in Japanese and English, definitions of difficult words, a map showing the town the letters came from, and even some Wordle word art.  I doubt many of the students got to look at it, but I hope that the parents who came saw it and got something out of it.

After the festival we had an after-party, and after that a group of us went out to karaoke together.  It was only my second time at karaoke since coming to Japan, and my first time going with my co-workers.  Clearly I was at a bit of a disadvantage because I couldn’t sing along with any of the Japanese songs, but on the plus side I was invited to join in every time a teacher chose an English song to sing.  So I lent my questionable singing talent and unquestionable English expertise to such songs as “This Love”, “Without You”, and “Bring It All Back”.  When it was my turn to pick I chose “Shine” by Collective Soul, which I think I did a decent job on.  I also invited one of the male teachers to a duet of “All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow, which ended up largely turning into a solo for me.  In retrospect I chose a pretty difficult song, but we still had fun with it.  Just before I left, the art teacher led us all in singing the Totoro theme, the one Japanese song I could at least join in on the chorus of.  It was a really good time; I wish we did that sort of thing more often.  At $30 each I could see it being an expensive hobby, though.

The biggest priority for me at the start of the new term was to get my kids ready for the speech competition.  I didn’t actually see as much of them as I’d hoped to over the summer holiday, but when they came back to school it was clear they’d put a lot of work into their speeches.  One of them wrote her speech; the other did a recitation of a short story.  I wasn’t a fan of the story she chose, but her delivery was excellent, so I think it was a good choice for her.  As last year, I much preferred listening to the students’ own speeches than to the recitations.  I was surprised (though in retrospect I don’t know why) by how many students talked about the earthquake this year.  Even speeches ostensibly about other things worked their way around to it eventually, as though the students felt obliged to mention it.  I can see that it was an important event in the lives of the students, but after about a dozen speeches the theme got old, and every time I heard the words, “On March 11, Japan suffered a terrible earthquake,” I found myself thinking: Yeah, I know.  We all know.  We were there.  I was very glad that my student was one of the very few who didn’t mention it at all.  Unfortunately, she didn’t win anything.  The student who did the recitation got third prize, not enough to advance to the prefectural level.  So that’s it for speech competitions this year.

There’s been a surprising development with my putative swing dancing club: one day, the mother of one of my students called the school and asked if she might join.  Since I barely had any students anyway I figured there was no harm in letting her come for what turned out to be a private lesson.  She’s now become my one regular club member, and has even brought friends along.  At first I was reluctant to hold the class only for adults; after all, the whole idea of the club was to do something fun with the students, not their parents.  But the thing is, I enjoy it; it’s the only opportunity I ever have to dance, and I’ve realised I’m not too bad at the teaching, either.  So I suppose I’ll keep it going for as long as I can with whoever wants to come.

The ALT fellowship group hasn’t met again, but I did learn from some of the members about a church they go to down town, and I decided one Sunday to check it out.  Unlike my church, the congregation is at least half made up of English-speaking foreigners, including ALTs and other English teachers from a private school.  I really enjoyed going to church in an anglophone-friendly environment, and I’d like to go back there, but at the same time I like the church that I have.  I’ll probably keep going to my regular church, but I may also visit the new one from time to time.

Another thing that came out of the fellowship group was a suggestion by one of the ALTs that we go up to Ishinomaki for the weekend to do some volunteer work.  As it turned out, we weren’t able to get organised for a weekend trip, so instead a couple of us joined a local group and spent a day volunteering in one of Sendai’s coastal neighbourhoods.  We met at a church downtown and rode bicycles out to the work location.  It was my first time riding a bicycle in years.  I know they say you never forget how, but there’s a big gap between being able to stay upright on a bike and actually being able to ride it well.  On the plus side, I really liked the bikes we had.  They were quite comfortable and easy to ride, and came with a motor attached.  I’d never ridden a bike with a motor before.  I set mine to “echo” mode, which means that the motor only kicks in when the rider is actually pedalling.

I was pretty unsteady at first, weaving back and forth in my attempts to remain stable.  One of my pet peeves since getting here has been the fact that cyclists ride on the sidewalk rather than the street – especially annoying if you live in a neighbourhood like mine where the “sidewalk” is a two-foot wide covered gutter – but I was grateful for it now, because I would have gotten myself killed riding in traffic.  I steadied out a bit after a while, and as the muscle memory started to return I discovered that I actually enjoyed it.  I did reasonably well for speed; I kept the motor off most of the time, and only turned it on for help going uphill.  I still had wobbly moments, though, and found starting and stopping difficult.  Shortly before we reached our destination – and just as I started to think I was getting the hang of it – some of the other volunteers pulled up in a van and said they’d drive me the rest of the way.  And so my cycling experiment was brought to a sudden end.

As I settle into my second year in Japan, I’ve made a surprising and gratifying discovery: I speak Japanese!  Not well, admittedly.  Or fluently.  Or intelligently.  Actually, I probably have the grammatical level of a two-year-old, and a vocabulary somewhat worse than that.  But I have reached the point where I can at least carry on a low-level conversation with a Japanese person.  And since that was one of my goals when I arrived here, I feel pretty good about that.  I’m still hopeless at a lot of things, but now, where I used to just shake my head and smile helplessly, I ask people to repeat things and reach for my dictionary, and sometimes I can even figure out what they’re saying!

The point has been brought home to me by my recent interactions with other teachers.  When doing the staff interviews I noticed that it was much easier this time around.  The Japanese phrases I’d had to memorise last year now came much more naturally to me, and I understood the responses better.  I also noticed improvement at the School Festival after-party.  Whereas last year I was seated between two of the English-speaking teachers and spent most of my time talking to them, this year I was happy to sit at a table with mostly Japanese speakers and muddle through conversation as best I could.  I was quite successful, too, managing lengthy conversations with the teachers to my left and right, neither of whom spoke more than a few words of English.  I may not have been the most scintillating conversationalist there (Am I ever?) but I could hold my own, and I felt good about that.

This achievement is especially important to me because this month my Japanese language classes came to an end.  There aren’t any higher-level courses offered in the evenings, so this will probably be the end of my formal Japanese study.  I’m going to look into getting a tutor, though.  While I get plenty of conversation practice at school and also outside of school (Special thanks goes to my tea lady for that!), I still have almost no reading ability.  I’d like to work on improving that for a while.

In the news this month, the U.S. has repealed its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military.  Prior to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, gays were forbidden from serving in the military, period.  The policy liberalised the army somewhat, allowing gays to serve but only if they weren’t open about their sexuality.  Repealing it means that now gays and bisexuals can serve in the military and do so openly.  That sounds like progress to me.

Books I’ve read this month:

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury – Loosely connected series of short stories chronicling the settlement of Mars.  More intelligent than some sci-fi stories I’ve read.  The story called “Usher II” is especially good fun, if not great science fiction.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling – In the words of Xander Harris, “Stop this crazy whirligig of fun; I’m dizzy!”  Instalment five in the Harry Potter series is a downer from start to finish – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  I like the fact that Rowling has started subverting some of her more obnoxious tropes.  And this book has the coolest villain so far; in fact, I think Dolores Umbridge is now my favourite character of the series!  Actually, I liked pretty much all of this book, except for the romantic sub-plot.  That made my skin crawl.  I’m still not sure how I feel about the ending.  I’d say it was good if I thought Harry was going to grow from the experience, but so far the only result of bad things happening to Harry seems to be to turn him into more of a jerk.  Which brings me to a chronic problem I seem to be having with this series: I don’t much like Harry Potter.  I don’t mean I dislike him, just that I don’t find him especially engaging.  I can only hope that he matures a bit before the end of the series.  And also that things lighten up at some point!

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling – Thankfully this book does indeed hearken back a bit to the lighter tone of the earlier instalments – at least until the last few chapters.  Unfortunately, though the story is interesting, it isn’t resolved as satisfyingly as those of the other books.  Instead, it mostly serves as setup for the final novel.  As for the ending, I’m in denial about that.  Rowling’s done one of the things I was most hoping she wouldn’t do.  I’m still holding out hope that it will come out alright in the last book, but it’s hard to see how.

Friday, February 24, 2012

…And the Living’s Easy - August 2011

My second year in Japan begins, as did my first, with a month of summer holiday, except that this time there is no orientation, just a holiday.  The heat is oppressive and there’s a steady drone from the cicadas.  Every so often a lone insect will start up a solo nearby.  Though you might not think it, a hundred cicadas going at once are fairly innocuous, but a single one just outside your window will kick up the most ungodly racket – especially if it’s doing it at five in the morning.  The spiders are also busy.  I see way more spiders here in Japan than I do back home.  Not indoors, fortunately, but outside they’re ubiquitous.  They’re much bigger than what I’m used to, and they’re constantly spinning their webs: in trees, against lamp posts, across sidewalks, and over my front door.  I’m always cautious when entering or exiting my flat, in case some spider decides to drop on my head.

I’m really glad I decided to stay.  Now that I’m settled and not suffering culture shock any more, I feel I’m much better able to appreciate summer in Japan.  The trees are green; the rice paddies are yellow; my students wave at me when they see me on the street.  It’s things like that that could make you think life is worth living, and other such delusional notions.

Since it’s the summer holiday now, work is slow and boring, but I’ve been able to break up my weeks with a few excursions.  In the first week of the month, a group from Taiwan came to visit my church.  They consisted of an American missionary who’s been living in Taiwan and a half-dozen American-born Chinese teenagers.  They came to volunteer in Ishinomaki, one of the coastal towns that had been hard-hit by the tsunami.  The group stayed at the church and drove up to the town every day, along with anyone else who wanted to volunteer.  Since I had plenty of free time and hadn’t been volunteering for a while, I figured it was a perfect opportunity for me.  Even better, my school let me take “volunteer leave”, meaning that I didn’t have to use up any of my annual vacation days on the trip.

I actually only went on two days, Wednesday and Thursday.  It made a nice change to get away from my desk and do some physical labour.  It also made a really nice change to be hanging out with other Anglophones, even if they were teenagers.  On both days I helped work in a field that various people had apparently been working on for some weeks!  The field had been right next to a cell phone factory, and the tsunami had washed all sorts of cell phone parts and other débris into it.  Our task was to sift through it and remove all the parts and other garbage we could find.

It was reasonably mindless and straightforward work, though unexpectedly taxing.  On the first day I neglected to warm up before hand, and in the evening discovered that my arm muscles ached quite painfully.  The next day I was much more conscientious about stretching.  Most of the junk we recovered was fairly uninteresting, but we did find a teapot and a couple of cups that may or may not have been salvageable.  On the second day I also hit on a mother-load of sludge (earth mixed with petrol), which all had to be dug up and carted away.  Clearly the person who owned the field needed a lot of help if he was to get it in shape for planting again.

In the afternoon of the first day the person who’d brought me took me for a drive around the neighbourhood.  Although lots of people had been working on it for months, there was still a stunning amount of visible damage.  Some houses clearly hadn’t been touched since the tsunami.  There were still cars and the occasional boat piled up in strange places.  It was a sobering reminder of how many people have been affected by the disaster.

In the middle of the month I took my three days of summer vacation and used them to make a second trip to Tokyo.   This time I decided to save money by taking the bus.  The shinkansen may only take a couple of hours, but it costs a hundred dollars each way, whereas you can get a return bus ticket for about seventy.  I got the bus on Wednesday evening after work.  The trip took five hours, about the same as a bus ride between Ottawa and Toronto, and got me into Tokyo around 11:00 p.m.  I checked into the same hostel I’d stayed at in June, having liked it and seeing no reason to search for a different one.

The next morning I met up with my acquaintance from Tokyo, the one who had come to visit me at Christmas.  He took me to O-Daiba, an island in Tokyo Bay.  First we went to the Museum of Maritime Science.  It was bigger than Osaka’s Maritime Museum, and rather entertainingly shaped like a giant ship, but I wasn’t quite as impressed with it somehow.  My favourite exhibit was the ships in the bay next to the museum, which one could walk around and have a look at.

Next we went to the “Miraikan”, Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.  This was evidently the place to see the latest in Japan’s famed advanced technology.  We arrived just at the end of the robot show, where Honda’s ASIMO was on display.  The rest of the museum dealt largely with science and technology in general, but there was an area specifically devoted to the latest technological advancements, and it was pretty interesting, even if I didn’t fully understand everything in it.

We ended up at Decks Tokyo Beach, where we had dinner and window shopped a bit.  We bought ramune, a classic Japanese soft drink that I’d never tried before, and sat outside drinking it and looking out at Tokyo bay.  From where we were we could see the Rainbow Bridge leading back to the mainland and a replica Statue of Liberty adorning the shoreline.  That’s the second replica Statue of Liberty I’ve seen here in Japan; the other was the one in Ishinomaki.  I wonder what the fascination is.

On Friday we went to the Science Museum, where I annoyed my companion by looking at everything and being fascinated by it.  The first section we visited was about the history of Japan and Japanese science, and from there we moved on to prehistoric mammals and hominids.  I could probably have stayed there all day, but we decided to take a break for lunch, after which we went to the Edo-Tokyo Museum.  This museum deals with Tokyo history.  Unlike the Tokyo National Museum, which consists mostly of artefacts in glass cases, this museum included reconstructed houses and neighbourhoods, allowing one to walk through historical Tokyo and see its evolution up to the present day.

My Tokyo buddy left me on my own the next day, but I had unexpected company.  The ALT I know from Fukushima happened to be in the city, along with her uncle, who was visiting her from Canada.  She invited me to come along, so I spent the day hanging out with the two of them.  We walked around the Imperial Palace grounds, then went to Ikebukuro for dinner and some shopping.  We went up to the top of the Sunshine 60 building, and I saw Tokyo by night for only the second time since coming to Japan.  It’s quite a sight.  Admittedly, I don’t have many other night time city views to compare it to, but I found it breathtaking on both occasions.  It felt like looking down on a galaxy, the lights spread out in all directions like a sea of stars.  If you ever go to Tokyo, make a point of seeing it like that at least once.

We got together again the next day for some browsing in the Senso-ji market, then lunch at the okonomiyaki place my sister and I had gone to.  I left them in the afternoon to meet my Japanese acquaintance.  He took me to see a temple and a church, then we wandered around west Shinjuku, where I took pictures of all the buildings that had fascinated me on my arrival in Japan.  Then he helped me fulfil one of my chief shopping goals: to purchase a Japanese copy of The Hobbit.  I collect the book in different languages, my sister and I buying copies when we visit foreign countries.  The Japanese edition brings the number of translations I own to five, the others being French, German, Italian, and traditional Chinese.  The book is far to difficult for me to read and understand, but being so familiar with it I can still pick out passages I like and see how they appear in translation.

Though the heat was brutal, I enjoyed my second trip to Tokyo.  There’s a lot to see there, and much of it I still haven’t gotten to yet.  The subway system continued to frustrate me, but I’m beginning to understand it at least a bit better.  One complicating factor, I’ve realised, and the thing that gave me such a headache early on, is that there are very few hub stations.  Tokyo Metro alone has over a dozen lines, but even at the bigger stations no more than three of four will converge.  The one exception is Shinjuku, where everything converges, making it so huge it’s really best avoided if possible.  The city makes up for this by being quite thoroughly – even redundantly – interconnected.  No matter where you’re starting from, you can get to pretty much any place in downtown in just two train rides – though remarkably few in just one.  And in place of one big station, the busier areas are often serviced by multiple small station.  Case in point: if you want to go to Ginza, there are about five subway lines that will take you straight there.  These lines go to three different stations that, at their most proximate exits, are barely two blocks from each other.  As I mentioned in my last Tokyo post, I’ve had to do more walking than that within a station!  The prices are reasonable, as long as you stay within the Tokyo Metro system.  Unfortunately the most convenient line in the city, the Yamanote Line, is part of the JR system, which one pays separately for.

Back at school, I’ve kept myself from going crazy by making a lot of work for myself.  One thing I’ve been working on is a project I started last summer but never completed.  I went around and interviewed each of the teachers with the intention of posting mini-profiles of them on my English board.  Unfortunately once the school year started most of the teachers were busy, and I never got around to finishing the interviews.  Since everyone has a lot of free time these days, I’ve started them up again.  The interviews are really simple, partly because my Japanese is so limited, and partly because I want the results to be easy enough for the students to understand.  I’ll try to start posting them next month.

I got some sad news about one of my students.  Apparently a fifth-year girl at one of my elementary schools was killed in a car accident.  I know the class she was in; I’ve visited it many times.  I even saw a picture of her, but I still couldn’t place her or recall any memory attached to her.  It’s sad though, for her family and her classmates.  Oddly, I didn’t get the news from my school, but from the pastor’s wife at my church.  I don’t know why the school wouldn’t tell me something like that.  Maybe they thought I wouldn’t know how to react – to be fair, they’d be right.  I feel as though I should say something to the class when I see them next.  But then, what would I say?  It would be awkward enough trying to express condolences in English; in Japanese I think I’d just fumble the whole thing hopelessly.  So maybe it’s better that I not say anything.

There seem to be a lot of festivals in Sendai during the summer, all of them involving fireworks.  I actually went out with my tea lady on three separate occasions to see them, which gave me an excuse to get some more use out of my new yukata.  There was also a big fireworks show in downtown Sendai that I’d missed last year but that I got to see this time around.  I’ve seen a lot of fireworks shows: in Hong Kong, in Vancouver, and in Ottawa.  But Japan can definitely hold its own in the fireworks department.

One of the other ALTs is trying to start up a prayer/fellowship group for some of the Christians here.  She held the first meeting at the end of the month.  It was nice to hang out with some of the ALTs in a different kind of context and to share fellowship with English-speaking Christians for a change.  I don’t know when the next meeting will be, but I hope it becomes a regular thing.

In the news this month, London has exploded in riots.  The United States is in a state of financial crisis and President Obama’s not having an easy time dealing with it.  Japan has a new prime minister.  His name is… hang on a second… Noda Yoshihiko.  I know I should take more of an interest, but given that Japan changes prime ministers as often as it changes calendars, it’s kind of a pain to keep up with them all.  The last P.M., Kan Naoto, was actually in office for over a year – since before I came to Japan.  I wonder if this one will still be in power when I leave, or if I’ll have to learn another name before I’m done here.

Finally, Jack Layton, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, is dead.  It’s official: I hate 2011.  I was never exactly a fan of Jack Layton.  I’ve always found him a bit smug and obnoxious.  And I wouldn’t consider myself an N.D.P. supporter, any more than I’d align myself with any of Canada’s major parties.  But it’s still a sad loss.  The timing seems especially cruel.  He died less than four months after leading his party to its biggest victory ever, never getting a chance to assume his role as leader of the opposition, and leaving the party leaderless as it faces a whole set of new challenges.  Interestingly the other two major opposition parties are also going through leadership crises.  I guess the silver lining is that since our current government will probably be around for a while, they all have plenty of time to sort themselves out before the next election.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Up – This movie has a fun premise (a grumpy old man uses helium balloons to turn his house into his own private zeppelin) and a heart-warming story (the relationship between said old man and a lonely young boy).  I liked the main characters and most of the supporting cast too.  But man alive does Disney need better villains!  (Three stars)

Books I’ve read this month:

A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson – My second Bill Bryson book, this one is set in his native U.S.A. and is about hiking the Appalachian trail.   It was nice to read a hiking book by someone who wasn’t an expert hiker – in other words, someone whose hiking experience would probably be similar to my own.  And I enjoyed the anecdotes with which Bryson supplements his story and the combination of awe, wonder, and horror with which he approaches the natural world.  As Dana Scully once said: “Respect Nature, ‘cause it has no respect for you.”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling – It’s hard to say where the story is going for most of this book.  Most of it deals with a competition called the Triwizard Tournament – a frankly goofy-sounding event that Harry gets sucked into.  It all feels pretty inconsequential – until near the end when the plot suddenly takes a dramatic left-hand turn into Darker and Edgier territory.  Over all, I think Rowling handles this very well, even if it is necessary to follow it up with about a hundred pages of dénouement.   I do, however, wonder if the bad guys couldn’t have come up with simpler plan to achieve their evil ends.