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.

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