The End of a Journey Marks the Beginning of Another

The title says it all.

For me, JET only ends today because I will start my next job, tomorrow. During the past month, I had been dealing with post-Japan reverse culture shock, endless self-questioning-denial-self-questioning turmoil. Physically, I am back in Singapore but sometimes, it really felt that a part of me is still left in Japan. It had been an emotional roller-coaster ride but there was never a moment whereby I regretted abandoning almost everything 2 years ago, to live in a sub-urban town and be humbled, time and again, as the lowest one in the workplace power food-chain (if I were ever part of it, in the first place).   

Perhaps my biggest regret is not writing more when I was still in Japan. When I boarded the plane, I thought I would catch up with my writing here after I got home since I had so much time in my hands for the first time in my life. I was so wrong. Life moves on, it goes forward and one thing leads to another. And then, my life hiatus ended and I am going to be in the race again, undecided about what to feel. This time round, I’m not cycling/biking to work. I have to wear proper office attire and deal with people who will have no patience with me because we are both equally fluent in a common language.

I still feel this slight, fleeting pain when I think about things like my apartment, the weather, my students, Japanese civility,…. there are so many things I miss about Japan.  However, I am really grateful that my life is moving forward. After all, the inertia was the biggest reason why I decided to end the journey. 

It is scary how fast memories fade away until you wonder if things ever happened at the beginning. At least, I will have this place to reminisce when I am in a nostalgia mood someday. 

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Last lesson with the 5th graders

I had my last lesson with the 5th graders just now. The lesson went so well with them erupting with genkiness on a Friday afternoon. This class of 33 kids is the most genki class I ever had. No matter what I do with them, they are always so enthusiastic and fun-loving.

I had not told any student in my elementary school about my departure because I am not sure how the little ones can take it. I wanted to keep it a secret until the  last week. After the lesson ended, few kids came up and surrounded the teacher’s desk as usual. Then Nobuchi asked if we would do the same game next lesson after the summer vacation. ”今度またやりますね?”

I gave an ambiguous answer, “今度は今度。Next lesson is next lesson”

And then the homeroom teacher asked them to return to their seats. I waved a goodbye and left the classroom, almost crying.

 

 

 

 

Tashirojima Cat Island 田代島

Cats in a basket

Cats in a basket

With less than 80 days left before my departure, I am currently in  a frantic dash to finish all the items on my “Things to do in Japan” checklist. Tashirojima 田代島 is one of them. The island is in Miyagi and not very accessible.  I first heard about this place years ago as an island whereby the cat population is bigger than the human population. How can any decent self-professed cat-lover not make a pilgrimage to this holy site at least once in his/her lifetime?

I finally made the trip last weekend, avoiding the GW crowd intentionally because I did not want to share the cats with others. It was a long, long trip which includes spending a night on a bus and then another one-hour long bus trip, a taxi and finally a ferry to reach my destination.  All this plus 20000 yen just to spend 8 hours on an isolated island.  The trip is a litmus test to show how much I love the feline species.

 

There was something very elegant about this cat which I couldn't pinpoint but it was mesmerizing.

There was something very elegant about this cat which I couldn’t pinpoint but it was mesmerizing.

A house by the sea which is shaped like the face of a cat. The manga artist who taught of this idea is a genius.

A house by the sea which is shaped like the face of a cat.If I knew  the manga artist who taught of this idea, he would most probably be my BFF.

Cat shrine. I spent almost one hour with the cat, undisturbed by other visitors and I would remember that hour for a long time to come.

The infamous cat shrine. I spent almost one hour with the cat, undisturbed by other visitors and I would remember that hour for a long time to come.

When people asked me how the trip was, I told them that I felt sad more than anything. I love the cats, I love the nature and I love the peace. Yet, I left the island feeling kind of depressed. I worry about the health conditions of the cats as it seemed that many of them have eye infections. I worry about how the island will be in a few years’ time with so little people. The tsunami hit the island pretty hard 3 years ago and  signs of the disaster are everywhere.

Sad reality of on an island with more cats than human beings

Sad reality of on an island with more cats than human beings

Only shop left on the island and it wasn't even open.

The only shop left on the island and it wasn’t even open on a Saturday.

 

Japan has an aging population but it is only when I go to places like this island  that I can strongly feel how scary it is to live in an under-populated country. Is Tashirojima a prediction of how most of the rural areas in Japan will look like in 20-30 years’ time?

Spring! And finally a new post!

So, my last post was more than a month ago. Oops.

It would not be truthful if I said I had been too busy. The better explanation would be I found motivation and a larger sense of commitment to study my Japanese after paying 5500 yen for JLPT N1 in July. Not a very positive form of motivation but the money works like gym membership and is making me hit the books more than usual.

Anyway, spring is finally here!!! After spending two winters, I know for sure now that winter is something that I would never get used to.

I would post a longer post some time later. For now, some photos of spring (= sakura)!

Old couple in a boat

Old couple in a boat

 

Sakura shower shot!

Sakura shower shot!

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It's a plane and sakura!

It’s a plane and sakura!

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We waited for more than half an hour to get on a boat but it was worth it.

We waited for more than half an hour to get on a boat but it was worth it.

Sky Tree

Tokyo Tower? Sky Tree? Sadly, I still cannot tell them apart in the day.

There were sakura matsuris everywhere in April. It's amazing to me how a flower could make people come out and celebrate.

There were sakura matsuris everywhere in April. It’s amazing to me how a flower could make people come out and celebrate.

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Japanese funerals

Kinpun: the  envelope used to put condolence money. The money itself  is called koden.

Kinpun: the envelope used to put condolence money. The money itself is called koden.

Although my stay in Japan is less than two years, unfortunately, I have already attended two funerals in this period of time. The older I get, the more funerals I have been to, the more I sense the fragility of life. In both funerals, I said farewell to people who left unexpectedly, both to themselves and the people around them.

The wife of a teacher in the office passed away last week and I attended her funeral this morning. Although I have never met her, her death really saddened me. The teacher himself is a very kind, gentle person. And she left behind a 6 year-old daughter who will be entering her first year in elementary school this spring.

The atmosphere in Japanese funerals is very heavy and sombre. Funerals are never a happy event in Singapore, but I find the atmosphere here to be especially emotional. People rarely talked even before the ceremony. When a family representative gave a speech, people were sniffing and trying so hard to control their emotions.

Another very interesting difference is that representatives from the company that the deceased worked in are given priority front row seats. Someone will also give a speech to describe how the deceased was as an employee. For example, during the funeral that I attended to this morning, a representative from the board of education gave the first speech and he talked about how the deceased was as a teacher. I guess this shows how inseparable work is from private life in Japan.

A gift is given to people who comes to the funeral.

A gift is given to people who comes to the funeral.

Funerals are very powerful rituals as they help the beloved ones of the deceased to accept reality and move on. In a place like Japan where everything must begin and end with a ritual, funerals bear significant meaning.

A thank you card is also given to people who came to the funeral.

A thank you card is also given to people who came to the funeral.

I guess everyone would want to be remembered positively by people when we die. When I pass away, I would also want people who attend my funeral to show the same amount of respect and remembrance that Japanese show.

Takasaki Haruna Ume Marathon

Go!

Ganbare!

One of my new year resolutions for 2014 is to join at least 3 marathons this year. It’s already March and while many people might have shamefully forgotten about theirs, I joined my first marathon for the year in Japan last week. Proud!

The marathon I joined is called the Takasaki Haruna Ume Marathon. Takasaki is a city in Gunma. Haruna is one of the three famous mountains in Gunma and ume means plum blossoms. Supposedly, the marathon route was to be lined up with pretty plum blossom trees but the timing of the marathon was too early. In the end, all I could see along the way were bare trees.

However, the weather was perfect!! After enduring four gloomy and freezing winter months, Gunma is finally coming alive again with the arrival of spring! It was a sunny but cool morning and I could not be more than grateful for that.

Some interesting observations about the marathon:

  1. There was a taiko drum group to cheer participants on as they finished one cycle. This will only happen in Japan. Taiko drumbeats are the best cheerleaders. I seriously felt myself picking up speed when I passed by the group.
  2. There were food stalls and people brought their mats with them to sit on the ground. It almost looked like a hanami picnic.  There was even amazake on free flow. Amazake is a sweet rice wine that Japanese drink in winter to keep warm. The alcohol content is very low but I would never had thought of drinking it in a marathon before this.

    It's a marathon, not a picnic!

    It’s a marathon, not a picnic!

  3. And since this is Gunma, konnyaku was on sale too!
  4. People lined up along the route when we ran, shouting “ganbare!” (meaning “go for it!”)
  5. Japanese are not shy when it comes to putting on costumes during events. I saw people putting on Gunma-chan head gear. My favorite was this guy who had a Taiyaki fish-shaped head gear. I almost wanted to ask him where he got it. In fact, there is another very famous marathon in Gunma, the Annaka Marathon whereby participants run a FULL marathon in costumes. I gave up. I admit I don’t have the guts to do that. I might go there in May to take photos though.Annaka Marathon = Cosplay+Marathon

More details and photos about the amazing Annaka marathon can be found here.

All in all, it was a good run and I finished the 10km marathon with a personal best. The weather and the down slopes did helped a lot. Next up will be a run around the Emperor’s Palace in Tokyo. And hopefully, I will have more chances to explore Japan by foot before I leave!

Last lesson with 6th graders at elementary school

Posters made by my 6th graders for their final English speech

Posters made by my 6th graders for their final English speech

It’s graduation season now in Japan. My junior high school had it yesterday and my elementary school will have it one week later. Today I had my last lesson with my 6th graders.

I had taught this batch of 6th graders for a year and 8 months. Things were great when they were in 5th grade and I looked forward to having lessons with them each week. Then, for some reason, things took a 180 degree turn when they became 6th graders and we had some very unhappy classroom experiences. Some days, I dreaded to enter the classroom as no matter how nice I tried to be, I would be greeted by expressionless faces and my motivation naturally fell to a low.

Up till now, I still have not managed to figure out why things turned out this way. How could these angels turned to be so heartless in a year? Perhaps the best explanation is because the hormones in them have won over my good intentions and they are just defiant for the sake of being so, no matter who is in front of them.

Things only got better after December but I still feel a gap between me and them. Hence, I entered the classroom with mixed emotions  this morning. The first class was still as uncooperative as ever and I did not even want to initiate to have a photo taken with them. The second class went better somehow and I managed to sum up enough confidence to ask for a group photo.

No matter what, I still like my students a lot. They are each special in their own way and I will remember them differently.

My favorite boy, Matsumoto, made my day when he came up to me at the end of the last lesson and thanked me for teaching him for the past 1.5 year before turning away shyly. He is not your regular Japanese student, always questioning the teacher and arguing for his rights.  The teachers were shocked when I said I would miss Matsumoto very much. One even said she was glad to hear that comment from me. Well, no education system is perfect and I guess some kids would be more valued if they were educated in another way.

Then, there is Tamura who is always alone in his own world but I know he has a heart of gold. He is always the first one to help me pack stuff after lessons without me having to ask. And while all the rest ignored me when I walked along the corridor, he would come up to me and give me a little push, his way of saying ” Hi”. When we did the final English speech , he kept saying that it was impossible but in the end, he went up to present, just like the others. I was really proud.

I don’t believe that every child can study two languages at the same time and Morida is one of them.  Although he is loud and brash in class,  I know that this is a student who just needs individual attention which public schooling can’t provide. No matter how noisy he is, he quiets down whenever I squat beside him to explain. At least he won’t directly shove me away like some other kids.

Lastly, my dear Hideyoshi, who was such a troublemaker during the first half year. Things somehow changed after school reopened in January and I commented him on his hair shave when I met him. He started playing the games properly and smiling more. Yesterday, we met outside the mall and even had a short chat. He used to ignore my presence when he saw me outside school. The form teacher told me that when he asked Hideyoshi what is the class goal today (They have to set a goal everyday and the student on duty is in charge.), he suggested to work hard for English class today. I guess we are somehow friends now.

And before I left the school today, I went back to the classroom to get some stuff down from the boards. Yokosaka and Kobayashi (who was absent from school for weeks until recently) were in the classroom. I tried to start up a conversation regarding their new junior high school. They said that the school campus is really big and pretty but then with the suicide case last year, the music room is scary. That’s why I prefer talking to Japanese kids more than adults sometimes. They say whatever they want.  Before I walked down the stairs, I waved to them and they waved back. It was a nice way of saying goodbye.

I am not sure if I would ever get to see these kids again and if they would remember me 6 months down the road. They might not be thankful to me (But then again, teaching is a thankless job most of the time), but I am very thankful for having the chance to teach them. I learned from them that teaching requires lots of patience and you just have to keep on trying. If you believe in your students, they will eventually know your good intentions for them one day.

Things that surprise me in Japanese schools: The Pencil

How many words can a pencil write?

How many words can a pencil write?

I decided to start a series on things that surprise me in Japanese schools. Few months ago, one of my third graders asked me during an interview about what surprised me the most in Japanese schools. I actually had to stop for a few minutes to think of an answer. Now, that was surprising. The fact that I had to pause to look for an answer. It shows that I have become so used to the environment here that everything that I had originally deemed as strange has become normal. In fact, it is kind of scary. It is like forgetting where your roots are and losing some part of your identity unknowingly.

And so before I start to lose it all, I have to start documenting.

The first thing I want to write is about students using pencils to write here. In Singapore, students are made to write in pen sometime after elementary school Grade 3. Being able to use the pen symbolized a cool transition to me at that time. It meant that I was moving on to the next stage of my academic life, wherever it was. And I no longer had to worry about sharpening my pencils. What I really do not like about pencils is that once you drop them, the inner lead breaks and when you try to sharpen them, the tiny piece of lead gets stuck in the sharpener. I personally find writing with a pencil with a sharp tip to be very satisfying. It is the few simple things in life that I am in total control and when I can’t, I get irritated naturally.

Anyway, back to the usage of pencils in Japanese schools. I remembered the shock that I got when I stepped into the classroom for the first time and saw everyone writing in pencil. If I ever used pencils to write my assignments in Singapore, my teachers would have asked me to redo it.

And what is even more surprising is that they write their answers in pencil during examinations too. When I was teaching in Singapore, every now and then, a sneaky student would try to amend the answer on the exam paper after it was graded by adding an additional stroke or something using a pen. Hence, when I mark, I had to make sure that my red ink crosses the wrong answer or circle it to prevent any amendment from being possible. And yet, they write their answers in pencil here during exams! It’s like fairyland!

You really must give it to the Japanese students for their integrity. And maybe that is aligned to the purpose of education. Students don’t cheat because they know it is wrong and not because they can’t.

And after being in Japan for months, I found myself using the pencil more often in school. When I make a mistake, I can easily erase it and it still looks so neat.

Last night, my favorite TV show 珍百景, there was a special on a kid who collected eraser residue over the years and made it into one big ball the size of a tennis ball.

Apparently, it took the boy  a few years to accumulate this much eraser residue. He became so obsessed with it that it becamehis motivation to study.

Apparently, it took the boy a few years to accumulate this much eraser residue. Apparently, he became so obsessed with it that it became his motivation to study.

The weird yet strangely attractive things that you get to see on Japanese TV.

What is the problem?

I haven’t posted anything for a while but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. It’s just that I need more time to organize my thoughts.

This week, I had my second breakdown in my school. It doesn’t mean that I had a nervous breakdown and started screaming and shouting at my teachers. It means that I was so pissed off by how I was treated as an ALT who is trying very hard to contribute but kept being given the cold shoulder by the teachers I work with. So much so that I could no longer put up a nice front anymore and told them VERY directly how I felt. Japanese don’t take it very well when you are direct with them. They get intimidated and sometimes it backfires and they don’t talk to you anymore. I know what I did surely hurt relationships but if some positive change will come in return of this, I think it was still a very worthwhile thing to do.

The first time I had a direct confrontation with my teachers was last year when I had to work with Ms F-the-Pretender,  a relief teacher who suffered from some very severe self-denial issues, now that I can see things in perspective. This time, I was so fed up with being bored in the staff room for many days straight only to be told by Ms. S-Too-Timid (the second relief teacher I had to work with in two years) that the third graders were going to do a speech at the end of the week without any discussion with me beforehand. (Don’t ask me to go to a class which was set to fail!) Although things became better at the end of the week, I felt really tired of taking my work  (perhaps too) seriously.

Today, Ms I-Oh-So-Kind asked me what was the thing I couldn’t stand the most in the school. I was surprised by myself when I realized I didn’t have an answer ready.  Perhaps it is the lack of leadership from my Japanese teachers who are supposed to lead the classes and the way English is being taught in the school. Yes, this is the problem.  School leadership, be it the principal or the middle managers, can make or break the school. Yet, leadership in Japan is usually based on seniority and not ability. And even if you are in the leader position, you might not dare to lead because you are young.

I always thought that my Japanese teachers are very responsible. However, now I changed my thinking. If they were truly responsible, they would be more efficient teachers who know how to delegate work and use resources. Being a responsible teacher means making things work for you and not just you alone working all the time. It means you will spend time to think of what to do to benefit your students the most. It means prioritizing and focusing on the critical 20% to make the 80% work.

The Once-in-a-century Snowstorm

A photo taken in my neighnorhood.

Last weekend, my little suburban town made it to the news for breaking a 120-year snowfall record with  73cm level of snow depth. Maebashi was even mentioned on CNN this morning! Now, this is history.

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A before and after comparison of how my front door looked like on Saturday afternoon.

Coming from a tropical country, snowy weather is something that I had never dealt with. Although the snow storm has created many disruptions, it is definitely one of the most memorable experiences I had in Japan.

It started snowing on Friday and my elementary school had to declare an early day off for the safety of the students. I was still very naively excited as my elementary school was transformed into a magical land with snow covering all corners.

How my elementary school looked liked.

How my elementary school looked liked.

On Saturday afternoon, the snow turned to rain and I was startled a few times by the sound of snow chunks falling off from the roof and shaking the whole building. After the rain has ceased,  I decided to get out of the apartment to assess the situation. There was also a snowfall two weekends before and a pile of snow had accumulated in front of my apartment door overnight. To my horror, this time round, the pile was so high that I couldn’t open the door. Fortunately, my neighbor, a fellow ALT who lived downstairs, came to help me scoop the snow away.

How the main road in front of our place looked like after the snow storm.

How the main road in front of our place looked like after the snow storm.

The snow storm caught everyone by surprise and my tiny city government was obviously unprepared for it. Snow ploughs borrowed from Niigata only arrived today, three days after the snow fall, to remove snow on the roads. The roads were jammed with cars stuck and being abandoned. The food supply chain was disrupted and empty shelves were seen in supermarkets with long queues at the cashiers.

After yesterday's shoveling, I am so good at shoveling snow now!

After yesterday, I am so good at shoveling snow now!

School was suspended for two days. Yesterday, I walked 1.5hr to get to school and spent the whole day shoveling snow with the teachers.

And after all that shoveling, it was a 1.5 hr walk back home again.

This is the icy path that I took to go home. All I can say is that the pair of boots that I found while tidying the attic last year saved my life. I could never had made it home in one piece those boots.

This is the icy path that I took to go home. All I can say is that the pair of boots that I found while tidying the attic last year saved my life. I could never had made it home in one piece without those boots.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from this snow storm is about the importance of good government and leadership in crisis management.

The Japanese government had been criticized for unsatisfactory crisis management during the 3/11 disasters and I felt it first-hand during this snow storm. For one, I am still very perplexed and annoyed by the fact that I had to report to work on Monday when snow depth level was still as high as 40cm. I was told that I could take paid leave and stay at home if it was too dangerous to commute. Taking paid leave to protect myself from getting killed on the way to work? How does that sound?

Gunma has the highest car ownership in Japan and almost everyone drives to work. Cars are pretty affordable and car pooling is not a widespread practice here. Yesterday morning, all I saw on the roads are cars with one driver and it was a long jam on the national route. Most of my teachers took hours to reach the school and it was a total waste of manpower and energy to me. My teachers were angry about reporting to work on Monday but they had to show up for work because they would be guilty for not helping out. Although the logic of this thinking totally doesn’t make sense to me, this is a manifestation of the Japanese work ethic. A young teacher who told me he was sick during the weekend even cycled to work as he felt bad if he didn’t come since he is one of the youngest in the office. 90 percent of the staff showed up even though they had enough paid leave and could had used it to absent themselves. I am still very undecided if I should be impressed by this or think otherwise.

The city government appealed for residents to stay at home and yet people were still reporting to work on Monday as if it was a usual workday because they were obliged to, not because they wanted to. I understand that you need teachers to shovel snow for the students and a whole day of rest would mean huge economic losses for the prefecture. However,  It was obvious that the road conditions on Monday were definitely not safe for driving and the sidewalks were too slippery to walk on. Would all this be justified if someone, even if it was only one person had died on the way due to an accident?

That being said, I did see the good side of Japanese unity on Sunday when almost everyone in the neighborhood all came out with their shovels to make way for vehicles to pass through. That was also the only time that I saw all my neighbors talking to each other. I even talked to a few neighbors for the first time. A kind obasan even offered to lend me her shovel when she knew I didn’t had one. Instead of waiting for the government to response, many were shoveling snow outside their houses yesterday for vehicles and commuters to pass through. However, when I offered to help the obasan in return, she declined and told me to take care of my own area instead. And the young couple who stayed beside me didn’t offered to help at all when they saw me and my neighbor scooping snow with our small pails. Well, I guess during a crisis, personal responsibility is the ruling principle.