Archive for July, 2007

Solo Travel

Tuesday, July 17th, 2007 by Steph

Score! A second travelogue has been accepted for publication at bootsnall.  Check out our more of our adventures in Central Java here:

Hooray for Handy Phones!

Tuesday, July 17th, 2007 by Steph

Every semester, the teachers here are required to hold demonstration lessons. I’m not sure if the classes are being rigorously assessed, or if it’s just a general structured exchange of ideas, but the teachers can get really nervous about these lessons. As a JET, I’m kind of exempt from promotions and the like, so I’m usually pretty immune to the hysteria. At the most I catch second-hand jitters from my co-teacher. Last week, we had a team teaching demonstration for 8th graders, using a shiny projector and everything.

The goal for this lesson was to use the infinitive. We played a game where we gave the students 3 sentences about an object, after which they had to guess what we were talking about. For example: It’s in a house. It’s a room. We use the room to cook. What is it? We put the students in groups and armed them with dictionaries. The activity went smoothly, and the lesson was, as far as I could tell, a success.

But the most amazing development happened two days later, when I visited my other junior high. One of my teachers there had attended the class, and decided to do the same activity. Transferring the lesson between schools was easy, because everyone uses the same government approved textbook, and is on roughly the same schedule. Serendipity struck when my co-teacher forgot to gather together dictionaries for the students.

The 8th graders are only at the beginning of their second year of English study, and some of the words we were using in the lesson, like refrigerator and cell phone, haven’t been officially introduced yet. This means that they were at a loss when asked to come up with English words for these items.

A lot of Japanese schooling, and English teaching in particular, comes down to memorization and repetition, which can be an uninspiring method. Many students, if they don’t know the exact spelling, or the exact word they need just give up because they aren’t encouraged to problem solve in a foreign language. Death seems preferable to hazarding a guess in class and risking a wrong answer. That’s why I was so amazed with what happened next.

When confronted with translating “reizouko” (refrigerator) into English, one student wrote down “cold box”. I was so proud of this student for attempting to communicate even though he didn’t know the exact right thing to say. We made a big point of it in class… I told them how I have to make up words all the time in Japan, like when I use “fish zoo” as a proxy for “aquarium” because I don’t have the most expansive vocabulary. This kind of improvisation is essential if you actually have to communicate in a foreign language.

Preparing to teach the same lesson next period, my co-teacher was about to hurry off to collect dictionaries for the word game. Wait, wait, wait, what if we didn’t bring them again on purpose? How crazy would that be? She looked a little hesitant, but we agreed to forgo the dictionary crutch.

As the next class begain, we explained right off the bat that they may have to do some creative guesswork. The students, to my delight, rose to the challenge. When confronted with translating keitai (cell phone), the class en masse started writing down things like “handy phone”, “pocket phon” and “small telefon”. If I could understand what they were getting at, everyone got points for this kind of guesswork. I left school that day deliriously happy, relieved that there’s some room for creative thinking and problem solving in the English curriculum. My only hope is that this one lesson planted some small seed of innovation that the students continue to take with them for their next 4 years of English study.


Monday, July 16th, 2007 by Steph

Just a quick note to say that a travel story I wrote has been published at the Bootsnall travel site.  Check it out if you’ve got a moment to hear about our hijinks in Indonesia last winter:

Niigata Earthquake

Monday, July 16th, 2007 by Chris

Niigata was hit by a big earthquake a couple hours ago.  I felt it sitting here at the computer, a slow swaying motion that went on for quite awhile and reminded me of being on a boat.  I just wanted to write this quick post to say everything’s all right up here.

Earthquake 2007-07-16

Eat Your Words

Saturday, July 14th, 2007 by Steph

Ok, ok. I’m totally guilty. I admit it. I leave stuff to the last minute. And as an ALT, this is a really easy trap to fall into. Most of my last minute lesson plans have actually gone pretty well, which only encourages my sloth. This is especially true at the elementary schools, where I am pretty much given free reign to plan lessons. Because I only visit each school once or twice a year, I am usually asked to pull the same 3 or 4 tricks out of my bag. This combined with frequent schedule changes and a language barrier means that, more often than not, I just show up with a few general ideas for what I’m going to do until I see what curve ball I’m thrown.

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t know the Left/Right Mouse game or the Weather Song. Can you explain them to me? You don’t know them either? Instead you want the Hokey-Pokey followed by Fruit Basket? And you have no chairs and would like me to throw in something about animals. No problem…”

Eikaiwa, on the other hand, is the one place I have complete control over the lesson, and thus preparation would not go to waste. I decided to go wild and try it.

As part of my contract, I teach several extra-curricular English lessons for adults in the evening, succinctly called eikaiwa in Japanese. I’m currently going through my second round of such lessons this year, and I wanted to see what would happen if I actually poured my everything into it. Maybe it was the fact that the course length was only 6 2-hour lessons. Maybe it was coming back from a yearly teaching conference that stoked my idealism, inspired me to Make A Difference. Whatever the reason, I have been preparing.

Last night in class we went over the restaurant scenario. In addition to going over catch phrases and the like, I explained how eating out in America is different than eating out in Japan. In Japan, you usually get up and take your bill to a cash register. In America, if you don’t pay for the bill at your table, you’re tackled for trying to eat and run. In Japan, you cut through the din of the restaurant and call the server over with a loud “Excuse me” when you’re ready to order. At home, you just kind of have to sit around and wait until your server gets to you.

The last time I taught this lesson in the fall, we did a little role playing, where I seated the students, gave everyone a menu (in Japan, only 1 menu per table) and took their imaginary orders. We went over tipping, and I gave each table a bill. In the intervening months, I spoke to a friend who did this same type of lesson, but brought some actual food and made a mystery menu, so that students ordering A would get a cookie and students ordering B got kimchee. I decided to steal this creative idea for this summer’s class and make my own International Cafe.

I don’t know what possessed me to cook four entire dishes for my students. Maybe it’s the lack of international food in Noshiro. Maybe I want my students to understand that salad doesn’t always have to consist of cabbage. Maybe I want them to appreciate that spice comes in other flavors besides wasabi. Whatever the reason, here’s how the class went down: I made up a spiffy menu, with treats from Ghana, Greece, America, and Thailand. In the background is a world map with each these four places marked with a star:


Students have to order something from the menu. If they want to know anything about what they’re getting, they have to ask me what’s in each of the dishes and what I recommend. Then… we eat! Behind the scenes, I made up plates of fried bananas, spinach salad, spicy sweet noodles, and pesto pasta. While they were waiting for me to assemble everyone’s dishes, students had to practice small talk at their tables, a skill we’d practiced in the first half of class. On a side note, this lesson also taught me that Japanese people consider raw mushrooms to be death incarnate. Oops! Watch out for the tiny slices of oblivion in the spinach salad, everyone!

After class, I ran armfuls of dirty bowls and utensils out to my car in the rain. My kitchen was a disaster area. I was exhausted. Actually preparing for class? Not a bad idea. I might even do it again. But for now, I’m off to attack the mountain of dishes in my sink.

Heaven help me, I miss the DMV

Monday, July 9th, 2007 by Chris

Normally I would start with some kind of clever lead-in, but frankly I’m not in the mood today. I’ll just say it: today Steph and I both failed the driver’s license test. For the third time.

This is an unholy tradition for Americans spending more than one year in Japan. International driver’s permits are only good for one year, after which you’re required to convert your home driver’s license into a Japanese license. Most civilized countries have agreements in place with the Japanese government so that all they have to do is fill out some forms, take the easy eye test, and go on their way. Apparently this isn’t sufficient for Americans until all 50 states fill out some questionnaire and submit a bunch of statistics so that the Japanese govt can verify that they meet all the guidelines, etc, etc. At the end of the day, these governmental relationship “irreconcilable differences” mean that normal people like us have to go through this extremely annoying ritual at least once.

The first annoyance of the whole thing is that foreigners can only conduct this process at the prefectural capital’s licensing office, which is more than an hour’s drive from Noshiro. At least we don’t have it as bad as some other places in the ken that have to drive 2-3 hours for the privilege.

Once you get there, the Japanese bureaucracy is a wonder to behold. First of all, the licensing process stretches over two days. The first day you have to show up and be interviewed to determine if your driving history is good enough to even be considered for a license. Our wonderful and long-suffering friend Yumeko accompanied us on this trip as a translator. Of course, before you can start your interview you need to fill out all the forms. And they need to photocopy your home driver’s license. And the blank back of it. And again at a larger size. And all the stamps in your passport. Somehow this photocopying process always takes more than an hour. (We had been warned by friends to bring something to read.) Finally it came time for the interview, which wasn’t all that bad. The only particularly absurd question was “Do you have confidence in your driving?” I suppose an incredibly honest and timid person might say no, but I can’t imagine why they think it’s necessary to ask that.

So that’s the first day. But then the fun really begins. Your next visit gets to the meat of things. You show up at 8:30 in the morning, fill out some more forms, then wait around for an hour until the written test. That test consists of ten of the easiest true-false questions I have ever seen. Of course it takes them over an hour to tell you whether you passed, even though we were the only people taking the English test that day and we finished it in three minutes. Then it’s time for the eye test, which is done in a minute and a half and takes some more time for them to think about. Then you get some time for lunch, but you spend that memorizing the course.

Oh, the course. No real-world driving test here. Instead you have a maze of loopy streets on a course behind the license office, complete with stop lights, railroad crossings, and unworldly S and L curves that are a bit wider than the chunky taxi-like car that they provide you. Each day they post a different route through the course, which you have an hour to memorize before driving it at your appointed time.

The course really isn’t that bad. Yes, the S and L curves are annoying and arbitrary (and certainly unlike anything you’ll actually encounter on the road) and caused us both to fail once. But the real pisser is the arbitrary nature of the final judgment. Unlike American DMVs, there is no point system for keeping track of what you passed and failed; the ultimate decision is based on the whims of the instructor. Each instructor has his own (sometimes contradictory) hangups and obsessions, and you never know which instructor you’re going to get. Fortunately the instructor at least tells you what you did wrong so that you can fix it next time. But sometimes even this won’t help you. Last week there was another American guy taking the test with us, and he told us that he had failed his first time because he went too fast through an intersection, and then failed the second time (with a different instructor) for going too slow through the same intersection.

So that brings us to today. We were both feeling good coming out, agreeing that we couldn’t have done any better. Our previous screwups were nowhere to be seen. The instructor had criticized each of us for a rather silly lane-change technicality that we had never heard of in our studying of the drivers’ handbook. But we weren’t particularly worried about that, because we had heard from friends that even if you do it perfectly, they will find something to nag you about just for good measure. We had also studied many former JETs’ experiences on their reasons for failing and we had never heard of this one.

Well, too bad. To our amazement and humiliation, we failed once again. To add insult to injury, we watched another guy walk away with a license after not even looking at the course and making a couple of wrong turns along the way. Just to be sure and properly righteous, I looked at the handbook when we got home, and lo and behold, the “rule” that we we had been failed on was nowhere to be seen.

The absurdity of the whole system is that thanks to the international permit, each time we fail the test, we climb into our car and drive, legally but obviously unsafely, the hour and a half back to Noshiro.

Sumo, Spiderman and The Swallows

Sunday, July 8th, 2007 by Steph

Last Saturday was my school festival, which was really just “Let’s Celebrate our Unanimous and Inexplicable Love for Johnny Depp” day in disguise. This is quite possibly the best way to earn my keep for a day as an English teacher. I wandered the halls, I was seduced by tasty festival treats: cotton candy, hot dogs, and fried chicken bowls. I went from room to decorated room in a fascinated daze. They were like classroom sized dioramas of whatever struck the students’ fancy. One room was dedicated to Depp himself, and was a kind of Willy Wonka goes pirate kind of theme, complete with pirate ship, booty, candy covered walkways and golden chocolate bars. Down the hall, they were showing “Pirates of the Carribean” on a loop all day. The adjacent classroom displayed a showdown between good and evil Spiderman, with the webbed men hanging from the ceiling, strands of web streaming through the air. The final classroom recreated a very convincing Japanese shrine out of cardboard, including the huge red torii gate, the stone lions which flank shrines (here they were cute cats made out of layered styrofoam) and ema, which you could write on and hang on the wall. Other rooms were filled with class newspapers, which were painstakingly detailed by hand, with kanji characters flowing down the page, and elaborate designs behind them.

No school event (not my school, anyway) is complete without some combination of male nudity and an uncomfortable homoerotic skit. Odd but true. The boys’ baseball team jogged in in their skivvies, and kissed each other on the lips on stage so everyone could laugh at them, and began a spirited dance routine. I have no idea what that was all about, but something similar seems to happen at every school function.

Immediately after the festival, we drove as fast as possible to Akita city, where we joined several other JETs from around the ken for an honest to God baseball game, Tokyo Swallows vs. the Nagoya (Nagano?) dragons. Despite their oddly un-intimidating mascot, the Swallows kicked ass. Meanwhile, I was blissfully discovering that the snack stands contained not just yakitori and ricke crackers, but also churros! No Mexican food available for hundreds of miles, but for baseball, churros? Why? For the remainder of the evening I did what I do at every baseball game… hang out and drink beer and schmooze with my friends and watch very little of the actual sport itself.

The next day was GAIJIN SUMOOOOOOO, a yearly event we do in our prefecture for charity. Twenty-four non-Japanese English teachers volunteered to wrestle each other after a quick lesson in the finer points of sumo. We’re hard core here, so they wore naught but the traditional sumo mawashi (diaper) for the fight. This year’s fight was in an actual sumo ring, and at the end, the winner went head to head with an actual sumo fighter. It was a pretty intense and amazing event… videos of some of the fights can be seen here. There were some pretty amazing upsets, and lots of scraped up toes, backs, and buttcheeks by the end of the day. Chris would not yield to my pestering, and didn’t compete this year, but after seeing the glory that comes from battle he has promised to participate next year. Here’s a little taste of the ringside action:

We then RAN home from sumo to join my adult English conversation class for an early Fourth of July blowout on the beach. This event was masquerading as an English class event, but really it was just an excuse to cook food I have been craving for a bunch of friends. I was adamant that we have buns to go with the burgers and dogs, and adamant that these burgers be cooked on a grill, components which are all too often missing in the Japanese version. Chris mixed up some patties with a little recipe magic from mom (thanks, mom!). They were received well.

I was worried about making enough food to feed 20 people, but my eikaiwa class saved the day; piles of yakisoba, watermelon, and corn braised in soy sauce were waiting for us when we arrived (despite my protests that soy sauce for the 4th is a bit non-traditional). We made sure to adhere to watermelon-eating protocol by having a seed spitting contest. And of course, no 4th is complete without some fireworks, readily available during the summer in this wet wet country.

Amazingly enough, everyone who said they’d be there was there, including our beloved Brits (a must for the 4th, don’t you think?), and some Canadians from down south. They were kind enough to inform us that not only were we celebrating the 4th early, not only were we celebrating Claire’s birthday (July 1st), but we were also celebrating Canada Day (also July 1st. Hooray!). Lucky for us that celebrating Canada Day is an awful lot like celebrating the 4th (minus the pancake breakfast). What a nexus of celebratory goodness.