Saturday, March 30, 2013

…And Still I Haven’t a Clue - June 2012


Ten years ago, my life as I knew it ended.  I lost almost everyone I cared about.  I lost the place that had been my second home for five years.  I lost work, play, and society.  I no longer had the right to free education; getting a job became an expectation rather than a suggestion; and learning became a means rather than an end.

Ten years ago, I graduated high school.

In the years since, I’ve gotten a university degree.  I’ve worked at a dozen different jobs, travelled abroad, and learned how to live on my own.  I’ve made acquaintances from all over the world and even a couple of friends.  In the last year or so I’ve even begun to think of myself as an adult.  I can look back at my teenaged self and see how limited my understanding was, and how many mistakes I made.  Yet, in many ways, I’m not that far removed from the the depressed, lonely, Hamlet-reading, Marvin-quoting kid I used to be.  I’m still not sure what to do with my life.  All I’ve ever wanted was a nice home, a loving family, and some form of employment that was both gainful and meaningful; yet somehow I find myself perennially hopping from country to country, like an inverse George Bailey.  I never learned to do things that most people take for granted, like drink, date, or dress stylishly; nor did I pick up the knack all adults seem to have of forming relationships easily and dropping them just as blithely.  And if I had to go back to grade thirteen and do it all over again, I’m not sure I wouldn’t make all the same mistakes.  It’s ten years later…

Okay, maybe I have a few clues, but it’s still not easy.


I got to see more of this spring’s sports competitions than any of the previous events.  On Saturday I was lucky enough that the volleyball was being held at my school.  I watched my team beat another in a nail-biting match, and cheered my lungs out as they faced their next competitor.  Sadly, it was not to be, and despite putting on a really good game, they were squarely defeated.  On Sunday I attended the baseball semi-finals.  This was a lot less exciting, but my team did manage to win the game, meaning that they got to play the finals the next day.  I turned up on Monday prepared to show as much enthusiasm for my baseball boys as I had for my volleyball girls, but the game ended up being incredibly dull.  Neither team scored a single run until the end of the last inning, and when they finally did I was so relieved that I barely cared that it was the other team!  At least they cancelled class for the rest of the day, so I had an excuse to go home early.

To make up for our weekend of sport we got a holiday on Thursday and Friday, which allowed me one more short trip: a weekend in Yokohama with my tea lady!  We took the bus down to Tokyo on Friday, and spent the afternoon seeing the sights.  We went to the Skytree first, Tokyo’s new tallest building.  It had been under construction for a while, and visible on all of my previous visits to the city.  It was finally open, but tickets to go up it were already sold out for weeks to come, so we only got to see it from the bottom.  We also paid a visit to the Tokyo Tower (now dwarfed by the Skytree, at only half its height), Shinjuku, and Kappabashi-dori.  The latter is famed for its plastic food stores.  No, I don’t mean food that tastes like plastic, like those cheap waxy Easter eggs, tasteless hot dog wieners, or gosh-awful processed cheese slices.  I mean food made of plastic, usually displayed in restaurant windows.  I’ve been a fan of plastic food ever since I first encountered it in Hong Kong and spent months believing it was the real thing!  I would have loved to buy some as a souvenir of my time in Asia, but even something as simple as an ice-cream would have cost me around $40, so in the end I settled for a miniature okonomiyaki fridge magnet.

When you think about it, Yokohama is probably the first Japanese city I ever heard of, and the Great Buddha of Kamakura one of the first Japanese icons.  So I was quite chuffed to be making the city the location of my last Japanese holiday, and the statue the destination of my first excursion in that city.  My tea lady and I went out to see it on Saturday, and in spite of the rain we visited many of the surrounding temples, window shopped the souvenir stores, and got some decent pictures of the Buddha itself.  In the evening we went out to Yokohama’s Chinatown, famous for being the largest in Japan.  It was nice to be surrounded by Chinese things again, and the place really did remind me of Hong Kong, but I was still woefully disappointed by the barbecued pork bun I tried.  Why do the Japanese have to fail at making Chinese-style barbecued pork buns??!!

Other than that this month’s been mostly about routines and leaving preparations.  I’ve finally booked my flight, which means I now know when I’ll be leaving Japan and when arriving in Australia.  I’ve started to sort through my stuff, deciding which things to take, which to leave, which to send home, and which to put in the bin.  Meanwhile, I still have singing practice one night a week, and Dungeons & Dragons another night.  I’m paying weekly visits to all the first- and third-year classes and to my elementary schools, and eating lunch with my students five days a week.  It’s busy and stressful, and as I enter my final month, it’s only going to get more so.


In the news this month, an especially gruesome story has been added to Canada’s surprisingly long list of grisly murders.  It started back in May, when the Conservative Party of Canada received a package containing a human foot.  Yes, that’s right, a foot!  This was followed by three more packages (addressed to the Liberal Party and two schools in Vancouver), a human torso in a suitcase, an apartment full of blood, an internet snuff video, and an international manhunt that ended with the arrest of the killer in Germany.  This is a level of disturbing that I don’t really think the words “WTF???” are adequate to deal with, so I’ll just say that I’m glad I’m not the person who opened any of those packages.  Or, obviously, the victim.

In other news, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury has died.  I know him as the author of Fahrenheit 451 and numerous short stories, and though far from an expert on him, I enjoyed and respected his work.  In Japan, the last fugitive members of Aum Shrinrikyo have finally been captured.  Aum (which is actually the Sanskrit word “om”, pronounced “ōmu” in Japanese) was the organisation that released Sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system in 1995; the arrests mean the end of a seventeen-year manhunt.  And in Australia, an inquest has definitively ruled that the 1980 death of Lindy Chamberlain’s baby was the result of a dingo attack, and not because of her or any other human’s interference.  I know nothing about this case other than what was in the movie A Cry in the Dark, but I gather it’s a big deal in Australia and that people there are glad to have this issue resolved.


Movies I’ve seen this month:

Rajio no Jikan – Clever Japanese comedy about the production of a radio drama and the impromptu revisions that get made in the process of airing it.  Full of bright humour and sharp satire, this is one movie that any fan of films about the media has to watch!  (Three and a half stars)

Books I’ve read this month:

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin – My first time re-reading this book since I was a child.  I had mixed feelings about it back then, and I’m still not sure what I think of it.  I respect the ways in which it deviates from standard fantasy motifs, but, while I enjoy some of the more horrifying elements, it seemed unnecessarily dark.  Oddly, I thought I understood the story, but now I’m not so sure, and I came away from my second reading even more confused than I went into it.  Might be a good idea to re-read the rest of the trilogy and check out the other Earthsea books too.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman – My first Neil Gaiman book, a kind of modern fairy tale about the intersection of Faerie and Victorian-era England.  Not an outstanding work of fantasy, but entertaining and good enough to make me consider reading more of Gaiman.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle – That’s right, I read it again!  It’s that good!  And it’s going on my list of favourite books of all time!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Embracing My Inner Geek - May 2012


I have three precious months left in Japan, and I’m making the most of them.  At school, I’m determined to enjoy my students while I still have them – particularly the first years!  To that end, I’ve enacted a plan I considered and dismissed many times in the past.  Instead of eating lunch in the principal’s office with my co-workers, I’ve started eating with my first-year students, going to a different class every day of the week.  Even though I’ll be leaving soon, the timing feels right: I ate lunch with these students last year when they were in elementary school; I’m just continuing the practice.  And with my tea lady gone, the principal’s office isn’t as inviting a place as it once was.

As I mentioned, the new textbook places slightly more emphasis on phonics than the previous ones.  To pick up on that, I’ve resolved to make it a daily feature of my lessons.  Sadly, Japanese schools do not pay much attention to phonics; the best most students learn is a kind of Romanised syllabary, which is useful for sounding out a word like “koala”, but doesn’t help much with “change”, and implies that “stretch” be rendered “sutoretochi”.  But these new kids are bright, and I’m convinced that their reading and pronunciation will both improve if I teach them proper phonics as anglophone children learn them.

I’m starting with the very basics: the alphabet.  I’ve made a set of cards featuring each letter and an “anchor word” drawn from the textbook.  Anchor words begin with the letter in question and typically model its most common pronunciation.  I’ve started drilling these words, kindergarten style: “A says ‘a’, ‘a’, ‘apple’.”  “B says ‘bh’, ‘bh’, ‘boat’.”  Etc.  I might not seem like much, but I’m planning a whole regimen to build on it: next I plan to teach start sounds, then end sounds, then vowels.  If the kids are as smart as I think they are, by the time I leave I’ll have them reading and spelling three letter words based on how they sound!  The big challenge will be to keep it fun, but so far the students seem to be enjoying the drills, and I plan to practise using Bingo and other games.

Unfortunately I won’t have time to tackle the interesting stuff: “Magic E”, diagraphs, blends.  All I can hope is that the teacher and/or my successor is inspired to pick up where I left off, or that, at the very least, I plant a seed in my students’ heads that inspires them to pursue a better understanding of English phonology.

In my third-year classes, I’ve been trying to make better use of an ALT-produced magazine.  The magazine, created and written by members of the ALT community, uses language specifically tailored to students, and aims to encourage English reading.  Since the textbook is rather short on reading material, and since students rarely read anything unless explicitly told to do so, I’ve been designing activities around the articles in the magazine.  Doing each activity forces the students to think about the content of the article, hopefully guiding them to an understanding of it, rather than simply an ability to listen and repeat it.  And it also gives me an excuse to hand out the magazine in class, where there’s at least an outside chance the students might glance at it.

The weather has finally gotten nice, and the leaves have started to return to the trees around my apartment.  May also means the first of our split monthly meetings.  From now on, there will be one ALT meeting for those of us staying in Sendai, and another for the ones going home.  They’ll be helping us through the myriad things we need to do in preparation for leaving the country.

Oddly enough, the tail end of my time in Japan is seeing me pick up some new hobbies.  Since March the singing group has reformed and has been practising a new set of songs.  Our aim is to perform them at a special ceremony where we present the money we raised to a support programme for orphans.  So far no one’s sure when this ceremony will be; for my part, I don’t care.  I’m happy just to have an excuse to sing!

The leader of our singing group is a teacher who works at the international school.  Recently, he’s managed to get me involved in another activity.  One night I heard him talking to another ALT about a game he was playing, something involving “halflings” and “paladins” and “encounters” and “alignments”.  It all sounded suspiciously familiar, so I asked him about it, and he explained that he was trying to recruit some gaijin for his Dungeons & Dragons group.  Like everyone else, I’ve heard of Dungeons & Dragons, and I even knew people who played it in high school, but I’d never played it myself.  “Want to join?” he asked.

So for the past couple of weeks I’ve been discovering the weird, fantastic, and highly derivative world of D&D.  It’s a steep learning curve for me.  I’ve never played anything like it, and it’s taking me a while to figure out all the different skills and moves and which dice to roll in which situation.  All the same, it’s been kind of fun.  I decided as a newbie I should play a character who was good at fighting and wouldn’t have to do a lot of thinking or decision making.  So I’ve made myself a female dwarf fighter with a battle axe, a throwing hammer, and a chip on her shoulder.  She’s an expert in smashing things, and she’s also built like a tank, so she’s happiest in the thick of the action.  The other players seem to like her, and as long as there are bad guys to kill, I quite enjoy playing her.

Only one other gaijin has joined the group so far, one of the South African ALTs.  He in turn has been introducing me to another geeky subculture: bronies.  A “brony” is an adult fan of the T.V. show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.  I of course remember My Little Pony from my childhood; at one time I owned several Little Ponies myself.  But until he told me about it I’d been all but unaware of the new T.V. show based on the franchise, and completely unaware of the adult fan following it has attracted.  He’s given me several of the episodes, and I’ve been watching through them, but so far I’m afraid his attempt at indoctrination has failed.  The show is cute and harmless enough, and I’d certainly let my children watch it if I had any.  But why it should generate so much enthusiasm among thirty-year-old males remains a mystery to me.

My tea lady invited me to a concert put on by one of Sendai’s more artistically-focused high schools.  It was really impressive; my students can play well enough, but I’ve never seen them march, dance, and play brass instruments all at the same time!  I also attended the international school’s annual musical at the invitation of our singing instructor.  Being put on by children aged between six and seventeen years, it wasn’t great, but as free entertainment goes it was quite satisfactory.

In the news, this month the world was treated to that most portentous of celestial phenomena: a solar eclipse.  I was particularly excited about it, as the event was clearly visible in Japan on Monday morning, at just about the time I was heading for work.  The eclipse was total in Tokyo, and while Sendai is a few degrees of latitude north of there, we were still close enough to witness the partial version.

Contrary to my expectations, a partial eclipse does not present itself as a disc of blackness visibly passing across the face of the sun.  For that, I would have needed the special glasses, and I was unable to find any.  Instead, what I noticed on my walk to work was a curious dimness, as though the sun, though clearly visible in the sky, was shining at only half power.  The effect lasted a surprisingly long time: an hour or more from start to finish.  Towards its end, just before the start of class, one of the science teachers lent me her eclipse glasses, and I was finally able to look directly at the sun and see the huge bite taken out of it.  Next time I’ll have to buy my own pair, so I can watch the whole thing properly.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Men in Black 3 – A completely unnecessary sequel to Men in Black.  Josh Brolin does a decent turn playing a young Tommy Lee Jones, and Will Smith irritates me far less than he used to.  I was also rather fond of the trans-dimensional alien character.  But the plot is unoriginal and full of holes and loose ends; the villain is more annoying than threatening; and the special effects are remarkably poor.  (Two stars)

Men in Black II – I decided I should probably round out my knowledge of this trilogy, and found part two much like part three: mildly entertaining at times, but on the whole forgettable.  (Two stars)

Books I’ve read this month:

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende – While I’m on my children’s classics kick, I decided I was past due to re-read my favourite novel of all time.  One of the most surprising things about doing so was how short it seems, and how quickly I can get through it now that I’m all grown up.  It’s still a brilliantly rich and imaginative story.  And the last few chapters hit me just as hard as when I was a teenager; it was all I could do to keep from crying several times.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle – A remarkably sombre and sorrowful fantasy tale utterly unsuitable for adaptation as a children’s film.  I’ve been familiar with the plot since early childhood, thanks to the cartoon version, but I was still blown away by the story and the writing.  To my surprise I enjoyed the second half of the book far more than the first, and was impressed with how real the characters felt in a world that is in other respects gleefully fantastic.  I think I may have to read it again!

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher – I think the Dresden Files may be past its prime.  Harry’s latest adventure has a plot that is almost incomprehensible and villains who are stupefyingly powerful in theory yet prove absurdly incompetent in practice.  There are too many characters that aren’t sufficiently developed, too many twists that aren’t adequately explained, too many intrigues that don’t make sense.  I’m also starting to notice cracks and inconsistencies in the mythology.  Butcher needs to reign in his style a bit, and focus more on writing well than writing a lot.

The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest by Stieg Larsson – The unintended conclusion to the inadvertently foreshortened Millennium series, this book nonetheless wraps up all the major story elements in a more or less satisfying way.  Over all, I’d say the Millennium trilogy is a worthwhile read, primarily thanks to its heroine.  I have to say, however, that I think Larsson goes overboard in his use of rape and misogyny as marks of villainy.  I was already an un-fan of the Straw Misogynist trope when Joss Whedon was abusing it, and its rise in popularity isn’t making me dislike it any less.