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)