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sometimes, the kids are SO sweet

Here's an anecdote to warm any teacher's heart:

I have a couple of boys in 13HR who are impossible to control; on their "on" days, they're amazing. They pay attention & actively participate in a positive, proactive way. On their "off" days, they either talk to their friends or sleep at their desks. Nothing we do or talk about can get them to do the work, & it doesn't seem to be related at all to the content or structure of the class. It's purely based on their moods. I'm still trying to figure out if there's any way I can hope to control whether they're having an on or off day.

I've been sick for the past week with a minor chest cold, which makes it hard for me to shout the way I usually do to control the class. In general I try to have as much energy as possible, speaking in a loud, clear voice, joking with the students, moving around the room, being positive & fun; but when I'm sick it's hard to do. I still speak as loudly as I can, but I can't shout, & I just don't have the energy to be super "genki".

Today, we had 10 minutes left at the end of class, so Mai & I decided to give them a fun listening exercise: I described various school events in English, & they had to guess what I was talking about. "This event is in March. It's only for the third grade students. They get..." "--sotsugyou shiki!" (graduation ceremony). & so on.

Tatsuki & Kan really got into it. They listened intently & really seemed to enjoy guessing. I commented on that to Mai afterwards, & on how much fun the class is when those two have it in them to participate. She agreed, & said Tatsuki was concerned about me today. "He's worried about you. He said, 'Sally doesn't have her usual energy recently.'"

Awwwwwwwwwww. So he DOES pay attention to me! Now, if only I could figure out how to harness that interest & keep him as involved in class as he was today.

it's that time again: biannual update

Life in Japan is busy, I don't know where the time goes, I'm always exhausted, so happy with my life, blah blah blah. Let me just jump into the update.

It's hard to believe 2011 is almost over, & that the "newbies" have already been here for 4 months. In August, most of my close friends on the JET Program ended their contracts, & new people stepped in to replace them, quickly filling the void. While Kyle, Michelle, & Anna were some of my closest friends in Japan, & I absolutely loved having them around all of the time when I moved to Kakegawa, they were just as (or more) established than I was, & had their own extracurriculars filling their time, just as I have my taiko and conversation classes, so despite my expectation that living in the same apartment block would mean I'd see them regularly, we actually only got together somewhat rarely. But when Steve & Victoria arrived in August, Lauren & I eagerly took on the task of showing them the ropes & helping them get settled (along with the rest of the first years), & we quickly became a really tight-knit group. 4 months in, it's almost hard to remember what it was like before they arrived; they're my Senba family, & I don't know what I would do without them.

Mid-August, after running the orientation for Shizuoka new arrivals for my second year in a row (my 3rd year at the orientation, since I arrived myself 2 years ago), I took a 5-day trip to Okinawa with Lacey -- the best trip of my life. Between Tomoyuki & Naomi (extended family) welcoming us into their home & putting us in their bed while they slept on the couch (at their insistence, despite all of our protests), spending nearly every day on the beach, having all of our scheduling & planning come off without a hitch, & never at any point getting irritated with or tired of Lacey, the only thing I could've asked for is more time. Okinawa is such an amazing place; it's incredible how unlike Japan it feels, while still definitely being Japan. People are polite & helpful -- but not just that, they're warm & friendly. It's clean & neat, but also vibrant & easygoing. & while all of Japan is certainly lush in summer, the tropical vegetation in Okinawa is something else altogether. & all the foreigners! It's a whole different world down there, one that I can't wait to immerse myself in again.

When classes started up again in September, I was a bit apprehensive; it was weird going back to work after being off for a month (although it wasn't really a full month's break, what with the 3-day orientation thrown in there like that), but the students fell back into the routine as quickly as I did. I posted before about the dialogue speeches I've been having the students do, & they've gotten really good at memorizing their lines. They started out being allowed to read off of the paper; then I had them memorize a very short 2 lines each; & when they mastered that I upped the difficulty to 3 long lines each. This is what they're currently reciting:

A: What're you doing this weekend?
B: I was thinking of having a barbecue, but I dunno if the weather will be okay.
A: Oh, yeah. The weather forecast says it might rain.
B: Yeah. I really hope it doesn't. What're your plans?
A: I was gonna go hiking, but I can't if it rains. Maybe I'll go see a movie instead.
B: That sounds good. Can I join you?
A: Sure.

I'm not the only one that gets a kick out of teaching them colloquial phrases like "what're", "gonna", "dunno", and "yeah" -- Mai loves it, & a giggle ripples through the class each time a student utters the difficult words. It's having the desired effect, too; because they're so fun to say, the students are using them outside of class, too. Hah! Successful trickery! I've managed to make English FUN!

In October, I hopped on another plane, this time to Korea, with Kat, who'd visited when I was in Okinawa in August & gushed about it so much that I had to go visit -- along with her, since she couldn't wait to get back. It was my first time staying in a hostel outside of Japan, & while the bathroom wasn't spectacular, it wasn't awful, & everything else about it was great. Everything you hear about Korea is true. Okay, maybe not everything. It's ridiculously cheap, especially with the yen so strong. People can be rude, & openly stare, & push past you on the train or in the streets; but they can also be wonderfully kind & helpful, & most speak great English -- even those who don't are super helpful. One night, when we were trying in vain to find an out-of-the-way performance hall, we stepped into a cosmetics store in the neighborhood, & even though the ladies didn't speak English & didn't know where it was, they called the hall for us & drew us a map to show us the way. The food is delicious, & the art scene & fashion trends in the university neighborhood we spent most of our time in reminded me so much of Berkeley.

Halloween was on a school day, & I rearranged my lessons so that I could teach all 3 ichinensei classes on that day so they could all see me in costume. I borrowed a witch's dress from Yoshiko & bought a tall pointy hat, applied outrageous makeup & wore enormous earrings. The students went wild. Showing them photos of how Halloween is celebrated in American high schools (well, mine, at least) also proved wonderfully popular, & drew a lot of other teachers, as well. I think that was probably my most successful cultural lesson to date, especially because I was able to reach so many of my coworkers in addition to the students. I also took a cat-ear headband to school & made each of the teachers let me take a photo of them wearing it, which was absolutely hilarious. The photos are going to be used at the bonenkai (end of the year party) in some capacity; I can't wait to see how.

This month I've stayed grounded, but it's been no less eventful. I had two taiko concerts -- for one, the taiko team drove all the way to Nagoya (a 2.5 hour drive) to play in front of Inuyama Castle. Despite the light rain, we had good turnout & I think I played well. I've also started going to practice twice a week again, because I really want to improve. The Senba family, plus Kat, have all joined the team, too; & so has my school's exchange student, Jun.

She arrived in August, too, & since then I've been in charge of her Japanese study. (Can I point out the obvious here & say how much I absolutely LOVE that despite being an American here in Japan to teach English, I've been tasked with teaching a Korean exchange student Japanese? International exchange at its best, folks!) She expressed interest in taiko, & since she lives in Kakegawa (so do I), I drive her to practice with me every Wednesday & then drop her off at home. We usually have dinner together before taiko, sometimes with other ALTs, & chatting with her over dinner & for the drive home is so much fun. She feels more like a friend than a student, & often tells me that I seem more like a friend or big sister than a teacher. I enjoy giving her advice on her love life, and making sure that as a fellow foreigner here, she knows she can always reach out to me if she feels out of place in Japanese society. She's a brilliant young woman, though, & stronger than I am (or at least as strong, anyway), & I've never seen her without a smile on her face. I'm so glad she came to Kanaya, for her sake (in that studying abroad is an AMAZING experience, as I know firsthand), for mine (in that it's so nice to have another foreigner to talk about Japanese idiosyncracies with), & for the students' (in that they have someone their age, with similar interests, to open their eyes to another culture).

December promises to be just as busy: Final exams, holiday parties, farewell parties, Christmas with friends in Japan, & then the big one -- a trip to Singapore & Australia for the New Year holiday!

I've said it before, & I'll say it again: I'm so glad I came to Japan, & I can't believe how lucky I am to be here, at this awesome school, with these wonderful students, these amazing coworkers, & all of these fantastic friends. I am so loved, & my life is so full. I belong here. & that's why I'm definitely staying at least another year.

Recontracting paper: Signed.

proud of my kids

Watching my students grow up over the course of the past 2 & a half years has been amazing. It's crazy to look at my sannensei (3rd years; seniors) and think about what they were like when I first met them as terrified ichinensei. Not only do I know all 120 of them by name, but I know what their personalities are like; I know what their strengths & weaknesses are. I'm so lucky to have been able to teach them throughout their high school career; most ALTs only (or primarily) teach a certain grade level, but my schedule has changed every year. When I arrived, I only taught the ichinensei; my second year, I had ninsensei classes added to my schedule once a week (so I could still see my original ichinensei regularly); & now, in my third year, I have sannensei writing classes once a week as well.

My sannensei are my favorite class, by far. I think it's partly because I've been with them for all three years, but they also have the brightest personalities. My ninensei are all so quiet and shy; the sannensei are outgoing & confident. The ichinensei are chatty & cliquey and don't pay attention very well; the sannensei joke around but listen when I talk, & everyone gets along so well.

I hear a lot of ALTs, especially at high level schools, say they like their ninensei best; they don't have the shyness of the ichinensei, fresh out of junior high school & at the bottom of the high school food chain, but they don't have the stresses and pressures of the sannensei, who have to get ready for university entrance exams. I don't have so many students going to university; many of them just join the workforce (although many go to vocational colleges & some do go to uni), so they're actually the most relaxed, easygoing students at my school.

Seikatsu Eigo, or English for Daily Life, my sannensei elective class, is my favorite, hands-down. WIth Kousuke & Ayumi, my 2 highest level, most favorite students, & Kazuma, low-level but deeply interested in English; & Shota to teach alongside, we always have so much fun. I can speak at just about my normal clip, & they understand enough of it to get the gist of what I'm talking about -- which is my ultimate goal here: to get the students comfortable enough with my speaking patterns & pronunciation that even if they don't understand every word I'm saying, they can still figure out what I'm getting at based on the words they DO know.

I mean, that's what communication IS, right? I think most high schoolers, even in their native language, hear a lot of words they don't know, but don't let it stop them from plowing through the conversation. If you're doing things right, I think you'll continue to encounter new words in your native tongue for your whole life. You either figure it out from the context, or ask the meaning, or look it up. That's what I want my students to be able to do.

I don't think I'll be able to achieve that with all of them, & I wouldn't dare take all the credit for getting even just the accomplished students to that point (the JTEs here do the hard work of vocabulary & grammar education; plus they've had English classes in junior high, & many of them attend, or used to attend, eikaiwa (English conversation) schools). But I definitely think I play a big role in it, & I'm proud of that.

I still think three years is short for high school -- the four I spent in HS in the States felt just right -- but it's clear that even in 3 years the students grow up so much. Looking at my sannensei & thinking about how far they've come, compared to when they were ichinensei, makes me so proud. I didn't know last year's seniors very well, or the students the year before that, but I know these guys really well, & while they still have another couple of months of high school left, I already feel like they're ready to take on Japanese adult society. I'm really glad I've been able to play a role in preparing them for it.

Creative license

Normally 13HR (homeroom) drives me crazy because they talk the entire time, but the biggest instigator is currently suspended -- he's always walking around during class, talking, generally not doing the work; & even though in MY class he's generally a good-natured kid, evidently he threw something at a teacher, which was the straw that broke the camel's back & she quit.

Anyway when they suspended him, they had an assembly with the rest of the first years, explaining that he's not the only one who's always causing trouble, & they don't want to see that anymore. As a result, the class is a bit better behaved. They were much easier to handle yesterday, too.

In OC, their lessons are built around dialogues: we give them a dialogue on whatever topic we want to cover, have them practice it, then give them vocabulary, play games to check whether they've learned the vocab, & give them worksheets where they have to practice using the sentences & questions in the dialogues.

This semester we also started having them do presentations of the dialogues in pairs. Up until now they've been allowed to look at their paper & read off of it, so that we could get them used to presenting in front of the class; starting after the midterm, they'll have to memorize the dialogues & present them; & next semester, they'll have to write their own original dialogues & present those.

We haven't told them about next semester's escalation of the activity yet, but as we had an extra lesson with 13HR before the midterm, we decided to give them a test run of it. I wrote a couple of sample dialogues for groups of 4 based on the material we covered so far this semester, put them in groups, & told them to write their own. It could be based on the ones on the paper, or, for extra credit, they could make up something totally original.

And it went swimmingly. Some of the groups, sure enough, more or less copied the samples, swapping out changeable bits of information -- instead of “I went shopping,” they wrote “I went to Disneyland;” instead of “Did you see 'Arashi no Himitsu,'” they wrote “Did you see 'London Hearts?'” -- and that's fine. But a couple of the groups got creative. This one was my favorite:

Chisato: I want to tell you about my love.
Kira: Do you have a boyfriend?
Chisato: Yes, I have twenty boyfriends.
Kyosuke: Wow. I will only love one woman for the rest of my life.
Kazuhiro: Do you have a girlfriend?
Kyosokue: No. It's my dream.
Kira: How about me?
Kyosuke: Eeeeeeeeeeeehhhh??? (which brought lots of laughter from the class)
Chisato: You can be my twenty-first boyfriend.
Kazuhiro: Please let me be your twenty-second boyfriend.

Obviously, my JTE helped them with the English, but it was totally their original idea. I couldn't stop laughing. The wonderful thing is that even though it was presented all in English, the rest of the class laughed along with me -- & while I'm sure they didn't understand the entire dialogue, they got the gist of it.

I can't wait to see what they come up with next semester.

Taiko taiko taiko

Going to taiko has been really great. Wada-sensei said I've gotten a lot better, which is kind of funny considering I haven't played in so long. Last week when I went in on Wednesday, he invited me to an enkai (party) on Sunday & although I thought it a little weird that they were going all the way down to Omaezaki (40min or so from Kanaya) to drink at a hotel & not actually STAY there, I accepted because socializing is always nice.

It turned out to be a taiko convention for the prefectural taiko association, with representatives from teams all over the prefecture. At first I felt pretty awkward being there; I actually don't know most of the people on my own team, much less anyone from anywhere else, & everyone seemed to be old friends. It's pretty adorable seeing all these big, intimidating guys hugging & calling each other by cute nicknames; my beloved Kumeta-sensei, who's gotta be over 6 feet tall & BIG, & has a kind face but is still kinda scary considering he's a taiko player, is Kume-chan to everyone else.

So after that initial what-am-I-doing-here discomfort, Yuka, one of the girls I DO know from my team, started talking to me, & Kyoko, who I'd never met but who also plays on our team & who knows my name from seeing it up on the board of all our players' names, joined us, & I hung out with them for a little while.

Then the "conference" part began, & then I wondered all over again why on earth they'd invited me to join them. Nothing they were discussing had anything to do with me at all & I felt like an intruder listening to all this talk about finances and stuff. On top of that Wada-sensei hadn't been very clear in explaining what the event was so I didn't know if we were actually going to even play taiko or not (everyone was in street clothes instead of gym clothes or festival gear; there were a few guys in suits, even), & I heard people mention dinner so I knew we were eating, and I was pretty sure he had said enkai but still, drinking on a Sunday in this hard to reach corner of the prefecture seemed a bit strange.

And then the "conference" part ended & everyone moved to the banquet hall & it suddenly became clear. Our drums were on stage (we're the closest team & it doesn't make sense to have everyone bring their own drums from afar) & there were beer bottles set out on the tables. After the toast & a short introduction, they called our team up to the stage -- including me. And they put me in the front, alongside Steven & Oonagh, their other 2 foreigners (they're really excited about having us), who are WAY better than me.

It was pretty nerve-wracking to be up there in front of all these extremely talented people, who have probably all known each other through taiko for longer than I've even been playing, but either because from my few previous interactions with them I know them to be very kind people, or because I'd already had a drink (probably both) I wasn't actually all that nervous. And I didn't make many mistakes, which surprised me a little bit. In all honesty it was more than a little exhilarating, & moreover it was super fun to play in my Cal hoodie.

After our song we sat down & ate while each of the other teams was called up to the stage in succession. Some just played for 30 seconds; some played 2 or 3 full songs; some were totally drunk & put on more of a comedy show than a taiko performance; and a few just jammed, pulling up members from other teams to play with them.

One of my favorite parts was when one team called up one of the class clown-esque youngsters from another team, who seemed beyond delighted to play with them, & made funny faces the whole time he played -- including when he played so hard he snapped his bachi (drumstick) right in two.

I also loved when another team invited the handicapped kid from our "challenge team" up to the stage to play with them & he went without hesitation. At first he just mimed drumming, but they brought another drum & handed him drumsticks & he went to it, & despite not knowing the song or having played with them before he jumped right in & picked up the rhythm instantly. It was an incredibly moving & humbling moment; this kid has much better rhythm & charisma than I feel like I'll ever have, & he's clearly such an integrated part of their taiko community.

The final performance may have been my favorite; while each one up to that point was basically a single team (occasionally with a guest brought in) playing a song they already knew, at the end they called up all of the players who hadn't been on stage yet, & a few who had, all from different teams. & they just started playing, not any particular song; just a bunch of mostly old men who have clearly known each other for a long time jamming away & having so much fun with it. & once they fell into a synchronized rhythm, Wada-sensei started running around the audience pulling various other players up to play solos on the big drum. The atmosphere in the room was just so fun.

Watching the women from other teams play was really awesome & inspiring. (I like watching the women on my team, too, but I'm usually too absorbed with trying not to make mistakes to pay attention to them.) You can tell by how they play that they're really strong, & that they dedicate a lot of time & effort into improving their skill. Afterwards, when we were all walking out to the parking lot, I went up to one of the women who I'd been particularly impressed with -- she was the only woman playing with her team that night, & she was awesome -- to tell her how much I loved her team & especially her role in their performance, which she seemed really pleased to hear. I asked how long she'd been playing & she said just over a year, which I find unbelievable.

While I may have initially been a bit baffled as to why Wada-sensei invited me to the convention, by the end I was beyond happy that he did. It renewed my resolve to go to practice as often as I can -- 2 or 3 times a week whenever I can possibly manage it -- and to be as involved in the events as I can. I may not be as good as everyone else, but Wada-sensei said performing will make me improve, & regardless it's just so much fun to get together with everyone.

Sunday really brought home to me how much I love being a part of the community here. Not just taiko, but everything I'm a part of. The cha-matsuri (Tea Festival) I was in last year: going to dance practices & participating in the festival really made me feel like a part of Kanaya, my town. My school: planning for & participating in school events, or just sitting around talking to my coworkers in between classes, or my students being excited to say hi to me in the halls. My tea ceremony club: guiding them on how to perform all of the various parts of the ceremony, & then sitting around joking with them aftewards.

People here are so welcoming. The fact that I'm a foreigner makes me interesting to them, & makes them want to reach out; & then when they find out that I'm half-Japanese, & that I speak Japanese fluently, they seem to love me that much more. It's the best of both worlds -- for them and me. I can present them with a different perspective on things; I can tell them about how things are in the US. & I can learn all these aspects of Japanese culture: traditional & modern. & I've made a lot of really good friends through it all, too.

My life here is really full & I've never felt more blessed about that than recently.

Back in the swing of things

Things here are going well.

In February, while my mom & Kelly were still here, I moved to a new apartment a couple of towns over, to Kakegawa. I'm still teaching at the same school, but now my commute is a 20-minute drive instead of a 7-minute bike ride. I'm pretty much okay with that; the new place is really gorgeous. Once I got all of my belongings over there, though, I went to my friend Yoshiko's house & stayed with her; I didn't want to be alone, & she & her mom really took care of me.

At the end of March, I took a 2 week trip back to the US - 5 days in Tampa, 3 days in San Francisco, 1 day driving to LA, & then 4 days in LA. It was great to see all of our friends & family, & ended up being really cathartic. I feel like I really got the closure I needed.

Since coming back, I've officially moved in. The first night I was back, my friend Sayaka stayed with me, & since then I've been living there alone -- which is actually really great. At the old apartment there were no other ALTs (English teachers) anywhere nearby, really, & while I had a few friends in Kanaya they weren't really people I could just ring up & hang out with spontaneously. The teachers' housing complex I'm at in Kakegawa houses 5 other ALTs, of whom I'm good friends with 3, so I've been spending lots of time outside of work with my friends, which helps me to not feel lonely. Some of them are leaving in August so I'm trying to see them as much as possible before they do.

Classes at school started this week & it's really nice to be back in the classroom. I decided to stay at my school instead of applying to the Prefectural Advisor job at the Board of Education, & I'm really happy with this decision. I really love my students & my coworkers & I'm really really excited that I'll be here for another year, not just another 4 months. I made the decision to stay when I came back from the US; I walked into the staff room & was just SO happy to be back with all of these people who I really enjoy working with. & then I saw my students & the deal was clinched; I could no longer imagine being holed up in a dark, depressing office building instead of seeing my bright, happy, non-English speaking students.

Two weeks ago I started going to taiko (Japanese drumming) again, for the first time since November, & while I'm definitely out of shape, I haven't forgotten the rhythm & was totally able to keep up, which was really exciting. It feels great to be back at it. I've also been working out regularly, at home & in the training room at school. Nothing super strenuous just yet; things like pushups & crunches, & weight resistance exercises with low weight. I'm looking forward to building up my strength again & I'm hoping I can do a pretty good job of it before summer, because once summer hits I don't think I'll be able to stand working out in a non-air conditioned training room. Summer here is hot & humid & absolutely brutal.

It's funny seeing the reactions of teachers & students when they see me walking through the halls in my workout gear, & when I tell them I'm going to the training room to work out. I think it's a combination of the fact that I'm a girl, & girls don't usually do weight training, & the fact that everything I do that isn't teaching is a big surprise. People react more or less the same way (maybe not with QUITE as much surprise) when I tell them I do tea ceremony, or Japanese calligraphy; the reaction is more similar when I tell them I like taiko, but somehow the fact that that's musical seems to make up for the fact that it's strenuous exercise. In any case it's great to be back in the gym.

I've also started going to zumba classes at a local gym with a few of the girls (& a couple of the guys!) who live near me. They used to go regularly & I always wanted to join them but it was a bit far to make the trek, but now that I live closer (as in, in the actual city where the classes are) & can carpool with them, I'm hoping we can make a weekly habit of it. I'm also hoping that my friend Michelle will teach me yoga a few times a month, until she leaves in August. I've always wanted to try that, too, but never got into it pretty much just because I'm too lazy. Having Dave around encouraged my laziness, because he was super lazy, too, & it was easier to just sit around & hang out with him instead of putting in effort do do stuff. Now that I live alone I feel more motivated to get out & DO things. It's really nice, in a way.

I'm settling back into a routine in which I'm crazy busy, & I really like it. It was good to have a couple of months off, especially considering the circumstances, but that also makes it that much better to have a full schedule again.z

A recap

For those of you who haven't heard yet, Dave passed away last month. That's all I'm going to say about that.

The rest of this post is taken from an update email that I wrote to a relative.

Things got busy after my last post & while I kept meaning to update the blog I never got around to it. Let's see, what have I done since September... I continued to play taiko off & on; I went every week until mid-November, when I got sick & then stopped going. I haven't been since then & my arms feel weaker for it.

In mid-September I went to Taiwan by myself for a weekend to visit my dad (he lives there, teaching English & translation). The purpose of the trip was to attend a charity music festival that his friends had organized (in the past my dad also helped to organize it), but a typhoon rained it out. I still got to hear some live music & meet a lot of my dad's friends, which was really cool.

October 1st was my school's annual Sports Day (I suppose you could call it Track & Field Day) & as always it was tons of fun. Dave came & took lots of photos of my students, & some of them were brave enough to talk to him in English, too. The following weekend was Shimada's triennial Obi Matsuri. An obi is the sash/belt that wraps around a kimono. This festival is considered one of Japan's 3 great strange festivals; in it, men wearing feudal lord costumes with obis hanging from 2 swords strapped to their back parade down the street, along with other performers in period dress. It was really really interesting & I took a bunch of photos that I never got around to editing (this happens a lot...).

The last weekend in October I took a trip to Kanazawa with 2 of my friends. Kanazawa is a fairly large city on the northern coast of Japan, & is considered to be a sort of mini-Kyoto for all the cultural points of interest that it has. It was an absolutely beautiful city with sprawling gardens, a fascinating temple known as the "Ninja Temple" because of its secret passageways, lots of gold leaf-decorated items and gorgeous dishware. I really wanted to take Dave there with me sometime, maybe in the winter to see the city all draped in snow.

In mid-November 2 of my students did a dialogue speech contest. They didn't place at all, & the judges' comments really irked me. They said that they were looking for skits with a message for the audience -- but the informational sheet they sent to the schools said that it was supposed to be a *daily conversation dialogue*, not a *skit*, and said nothing about having a message. I was really upset with the discrepancy in information and am planning to write them a letter asking them to make this clear so that all of the students have an equal chance. My students practiced really well & their dialogue came out sounding really natural, but because they didn't act anything out or have some message like "save the environment" or "learn to respect yourself" they didn't stand a chance.

Thanksgiving was a very small affair; I made roasted chicken, broiled green beans & mashed potatoes. It really made me miss home.

In early December I took the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), and got my results back last month -- I didn't pass, but I did really well. I got 89/180 points, & 100 is passing. One of my friends whose Japanese is quite a bit better than mine failed for the THIRD time -- with 98 points! It's really really tough. I think I'm going to take it again this December (it's offered in July as well but I'm just going to be too busy to get any studying in before then) & study hard for it. If I pass it I stand a higher chance of getting a real job in Japan at a regular company (or even the American embassy) after my contract with the JET Program finishes.

For the New Year holiday Dave & I went to Osaka, as usual. But first, on Dec 30, we were invited to a fellow teacher's house to do mochi-tsuki -- making mochi, or pounded sweet rice cakes. I have some photos & videos of Dave & I doing it that I meant to put up online but never did; I still want to & will do it eventually. After spending the morning making mochi, Mr. Matsunaga (who teaches social studies at my school, & speaks AMAZING English, which he denies (in perfect English, of course)) drove us around Yaizu (his city), showing us around. He took us to the Yaizu Fish Center, which apparently draws customers even from out of the prefecture, especially at that time of year, & we picked up some high-grade tuna to take to Osaka with us. We spent 5 days in Osaka, cleaning my grandmother's liquor store, eating lots & lots & lots of food, hanging out with my family, & visiting my friends in Kyoto. It was an exhausting trip but a lot of fun.

I'm staying in Japan for at least another year. The maximum length of stay with JET is 5 years & I still plan to do all 5. Next month I'm going to apply for a job at the Board of Education, as Prefectural Advisor. If I get it, I'll be moving to Shizuoka City in August & won't be teaching anymore. Instead, I'll be coordinating the prefectural training seminars and conferences, compiling our publications, advising ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers -- like me now), doing translations... that sort of thing. You could consider it a kind of promotion, but it's rather competitive. If I don't get it I'll continue teaching all 5 years.

I've really come to love my school. Seeing my 3rd years (seniors) graduate this week (the graduation ceremony was on Tuesday) was really emotional for me -- & I only knew a handful of them. Next year if I'm still at Kanaya High School it'll be even harder, because I'll know every single one of the graduates. The new school year starts April 6 & I'm really looking forward to the incoming wave of students. Our school is shrinking; instead of 120 students, or 4 classes of 30, our first years (freshman/sophomore class) will only have about 100, or 3 classes of 35ish. But in a few months I'll know every single one of the students at my school & that really makes me happy.

Also, we're getting a foreign exchange student this year -- a girl from Korea. She'll be joining the second year class (sophomore/junior class) & I'm going to be in charge of her Japanese study! It's an added responsibility & will add to my work load considerably I think, but I'm super excited about it. I think foreign exchange is the best thing any student can do, & the teachers & I agree that as someone who's done foreign exchange (albeit in college), & as a fellow foreigner living in Japan, I'll be the best equipped person at the school to help our youngster adapt to life here.

So that's basically what we'd been doing over the past few months. Other than that I've been teaching & for the most part really enjoying my lessons. I'm looking forward to entering my 3rd school year, because I know it'll be my best year yet. I've gotten better at making my lessons run smoothly, & making them enjoyable for the students while still teaching them English. Now, if only I could figure out a way to make them REMEMBER things they learn for more than a week...

on fall, Taiwan, & the JLPT

Fall is already starting. I can hardly believe it. Summer felt like it lasted forever, with the sweltering heat that did more than just threaten to knock people over; everyone's been talking about how this was the hottest summer Shizuoka has seen in something like thirty years. Not just Shizuoka; the rate of admittances to hospitals for heatstroke skyrocketed this year nationwide.

Kanaya got it easy, I guess; I don't think we had a single student pass out at school. & despite having weather that in any other year would've kept me at the beach every weekend, I only managed to hit the beach once this summer. I was planning to go back this Thursday, but a nasty flu got the better of me & knocked me out for a good 2 or 3 days. At least it didn't hit in full force until my last day in Taiwan.

Yeah, last week I went to Taiwan to visit my dad. The visit was in honor of the annual Peace Fest, but just like last time I tried to go, it got typhooned out. Instead, I spent lots of time with my dad & his friends. One really cool thing about the trip was that we met up with a bunch of my dad's older Taiwanese friends who, because of Japanese occupation of Taiwan (& its aftereffects), spoke Japanese. Normally his younger friends speak English, but his older friends don't, so I always just sit awkwardly at the dinner table not knowing what to do when everyone's done eating, but thanks to this common language I was able to have conversations with just about everyone I met.

I was also really struck by just how many people DO speak English -- & I mean really speak it. & better yet, they're not shy to. Sure, I found a pharmacist in Kanaya who speaks English, but he spent 20 minutes talking to me in Japanese before he even let on that he understood any English. None of that in Taiwan.

One more thing I realized: even though I *know* my Japanese is good, I tend to forget how good it is. People call me fluent & I brush it off because I'm not satisfied with my language level yet. But this was my first time visiting Taiwan in 4 or 5 years -- so the first time since my Japanese really improved. But man, have I taken my Japanese for granted! It was really humbling to go to Taiwan & not be able to read the signs even though I can now recognize about 1500 Japanese kanji, & not be able to understand ANYTHING anyone was saying. I've decided that I really do want to learn Chinese -- at least to get a basic mastery of it. Worse than not understanding things people said was not being able to say anything more than "Do you have? Do you want? This is mine. Where's my dad? This is delicious!"

I haven't felt that frustration with a language in a long time; just goes to show how far I really have come with my Japanese study. I guess I really do deserve that 2-kyuu after all. Oh yes, didn't I mention? I passed the 2nd level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (日本語能力試験, JLPT). I'm signing up for level 1 in December, but it's a big jump & I'm quite sure I won't pass. I just need to get a feel for it -- and more importantly, motivate myself to study for it.

It's not really the tests that I'm concerned about. I mean, sure, it's great to get that validation, get that piece of paper that says "Congratulations! You're this good at Japanese!" But I know that exams only show you so much, & the real test is how well you can use the language. For me, these tests give me the motivation to actually study and improve my language skills. I'm a lazy person; if I don't have a reason to study I basically won't. But when I know there's a test coming up, that I'm paying $60 to take, then I will study for it.

I'm a lot more nervous about this one because when I signed up for 2-kyuu I knew I was roughly at that level. 1-kyuu is above my level for sure, but I think I can reach it in a year or so. Hopefully I can get myself to study hard enough so that I can pass it by next summer and not next winter.

& winter really is around the corner. I think we'll be hooking up our kotatsu soon.

Time to go get dressed & get ready for work. Today's outfit? Long pants & a turtleneck.

pen pals!

The letters finally came from Australia, so my students got to tear into them today. I think I was excited as they were to read these letters from a foreign land. They giggled at the little mistakes in Japanese; or places where the meaning was absolutely clear enough but in a cultural context was really strange. For example: "へんじに待っています。たくやさん、はやく書いてください。" (I'm waiting for your reply. Takuya, please write back quickly!) In Japanese, this comes across as rather strongly worded; almost an order. You'd never say something like this in a letter in Japanese. On the other hand, while it's not something that I'd *necessarily* say, it doesn't sound at all strange to me in English.

I decided that I'm not going to edit their letters too much -- if there's a really egregious mistake I'll fix it, but as a whole I want their voice to shine through. & if that means that there are spelling & grammar errors & some things sound kind of silly... that's okay. Hell, most high schoolers can't write all that well in their native language (reading the Aussies' English letters (they wrote in both English & Japanese) made me snicker sometimes; the over/misuse of commas will never cease to offend me), so I may as well leave some of those wonderful idiosyncrasies for their pen pals to enjoy. The girls are already planning to stick purikura to their letters, & I'm going to require that they include a regular photo as well. One of the girls jokingly said that she's going to ask her male pen pal to marry her. Why am I not surprised?

weekly update: camping & pen pals

There are so many things I want to do. No matter which one of them I'm doing, I'm thinking of one (or more) of the other things at the same time. Studying kanji, which I honestly love doing, makes me wish I could be playing video games. Hanging out with my students makes me think I should study Japanese grammar. Playing video games makes me think I should study vocabulary. Playing on Facebook, welcoming new JETs, makes me want to work on my reading comprehension. I want to go hiking with Ashley, watch scifi with Sarah & Kelly, go to a movie with Jenn, travel with Dave, plant a vegetable garden, ace the JLPT, discover new music, go to concerts, go camping.... Why couldn't there just be a few more hours in each day?

Last weekend, I went "camping" with a bunch of my friends. Yoshiko rented a cabin at this awesome hippie place called Heartland, in Asagiri (north of Fujinomiya, which is by the base of Mt. Fuji). It's funny; when I hear camping, I usually think a tent in the middle of nowhere in the woods or the desert, because that's the kind of camping I grew up with, but it feels like most people I know have a different sort of idea of camping. My senior year in college, I went camping with some friends. They rented a campground by the beach outside of San Jose. Said campground had not port-a-potties, but flushing toilets with running water & bars of soap in the sinks outside. There were also pay-showers. At least we did still use a tent & sleeping bags.

Heartland's much less hardcore. You rent a cabin, which has futons you can roll out on the tatami, or beds. We rented the 2nd floor of a cabin that had a balcony with a grill, & a cafe on the first floor. We arrived around 4:30pm & promptly set about preparing dinner: grilled seafood, meat, & vegetables, complete with beer, sake, whiskey, & chu-his for refreshment. When we'd stuffed ourselves silly, we made s'mores (but without graham crackers, because we weren't able to find them at the grocery store... so we used butter cookies instead). & then later we ate some MORE food.

The weather was unbelievably awesome -- super thick fog; we could see for about 3 meters in front of us. It made for a really gorgeous setting. As we grilled on the balcony, we gazed out at the grassy field that could go on for forever, or maybe just another meter; who knew? Yoshiko goes there every year & told us that you can see Mt. Fuji on a clear day, & that there was a little forest not far from the cabin, but we couldn't see any of that. All we could see was fog, some grass, & the cabin & stable next to our cabin.

Yes, stable. They had HORSES. I was dying to go horseback riding, especially after talking to the ladies in charge & discovering that they both spoke fluent English (the younger because she went to school in Ohio for a few years, I think). But, when I heard that it was Y3000 for a 20-minute "experience course" & that that entailed learning how to ride English style, I decided against it. I'll just wait till I can go home & have Heidi take me riding on the trail. Anyway, despite not riding, it was great to just gaze at the horses. They're such beautiful creatures...

On the school front, things have been mostly pretty good. My ichinensei classes are all moving at totally different speeds & all have utterly & completely different feels to them. I know you're not supposed to, but I have a class that's my clear favorite, above & beyond the others by a long shot (honestly, they're my favorite class that I teach, period). It's not just me; the JTE who I teach them with also says they're his absolute favorite. They're just always so energetic & happy to have class with me. I've got not just 2 or 3 students who actively participate (like it is with the others), but about half the class is always really really into it.

This week I showed my ninensei & sannensei elective classes "Mean Girls" & made a worksheet where they had to listen for a few specific words. It was way way way too hard for them, but they enjoyed the movie & at least tried to pay attention, so that's good. Next week, I'm hoping we'll receive the letters from the school in Australia that we've started a pen pal partnership with. We're all super excited to start this. My friend Sophie, a fellow ALT from Australia, put me in touch with a teacher from a highschool in New South Wales where they have a Japanese elective class. Regan's students will write to us in Japanese (with an English letter thrown in to cover things they wanna talk about but can't find the Japanese for), & my students will reply to them in English (with a Japanese letter thrown in). Students & teachers alike are absolutely thrilled.

I think that about covers recent news. Until next week!