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!