2014/12/14

5...4...3...2..

I'm counting down to vacation. I'm doing my best to lesson plan within a limited amount of time (because truly doing my best in an uncapped amount of time drives me up the wall; just the thought of it has got my blood pressure rising). My lesson plans are alright. My actual lessons fall short of what I plan for each day. But that's OK because I'm a first year teacher. Slow and steady. I'm getting my feet wet.

I'm counting down to vacation because my goal for this year was to survive. And I'm surviving. I'm in awe of my coworkers who say sweeping statements of their first years of teaching like "I would never have been able to do a hands-on project like this in my first two years of teaching--the students would have eaten me alive!" I'm in awe because I feel pressure to have such awesome lesson plans now, but I just can't manage it yet and apparently, I shouldn't be surprised if I can't properly manage it for the next year and a half. I feel so young and naïve. My coworkers and former teachers talk about how the years in teaching flew by--yet my days, hours, and periods tick... tick... tick... slower than I've ever felt time move.

At the same time, when I look at old journal entries from just a couple of months ago, I'm surprised at how much I have learned and progressed. Three months in, and I know I've barely scratched the surface of what it means to be a classroom teacher in an area like mine. It's sometimes daunting to think of how far I have to go before I become the teacher that I want to be. And, well, I may never be the teacher whom I want to be. For now, I'll have to settle with the fact that I am a teacher, for better or for worse. If I can't be a great teacher, I'll at least be a good teacher. If I can't be a good teacher, I'd still rather be a good-teacher-in-progress than not teaching at all.

One more week! Make it a good one. Or a decent one. Or just get through it.

2014/11/21

hey guys,

I did it. I made it to Thanksgiving break.

I have no words to describe how I feel right now, so I'm going to bust out the art supplies and sketch book.

Just came here to say: I made it.

<3
april

2014/11/17

2014: Have a Lot, Lot, Lot of Confidence


My New Year's Resolution for 2014 was one thing only: to have a lot, lot, lot of confidence. Not just a little confidence--not even just confidence--but a lot of it.

Going into 2014, I was nervous of all the uncertainty that the year held. Brian and I decided to end our contracts in Japan come spring, but we didn't know where we'd live and whether or not we'd have jobs. I had big plans for myself (become a full-time chemistry teacher), but I didn't know if anyone would give me a chance. I felt undeserving of a chance.

So I decided that my goal was not to get a job, not to plan things out to a T, and not to make sure everything worked out according to plan. My goal was to have a lot of confidence.

When I made the goal, I didn't know what it'd entail exactly. In practice, whenever I was faced with an opportunity to act bigger than I thought I was capable of (like climbing Kota Kinabalu by myself, traveling Australia by myself, and applying for jobs at international schools), I took the plunge, boots shaking and all. The outcome? Many job rejections, even more no-replies, a sore body for days, and many, many mishaps in the world down under. Also, better and better resumes and cover letters with each rejection, inspiration to climb a taller mountain, and the experience of coming across animals I once thought were make believe (dingos? wallaroos? wombats?).

My biggest "yo, self, have more confidence!" moments were in these past 4 months. Only now, mid-November, do I finally understand just what having lots and lots and lots of confidence entails.

Having confidence and acting--doing something--doesn't mean being sure that you're going to succeed. It doesn't mean being sure of the outcome. There was no way I could have known of any of the outcomes of my scary moments in this past year.

Instead, I needed to (and did) have the confidence to try. I showed up to every obstacle and tried, tried, tried. Some days, I failed. Some days, I didn't try as hard as others. Some days, I succeeded. Ever day, I tried.

I used to run away from my fears a lot. I used to be noncommittal and undependable. Now, I don't stress about outcomes. I take a deep breath, and try.

Thanks for the hurdles, 2014. And the opportunities, too.

-----
IMAGE: Son of Groucho

Here Comes 2015

11/17/14
Things I'm Looking Forward to in 2015
-Iceland
-Nikki's graduation and moving up to the Bay
-Completing my first year of teaching
-Saving up for my Emergency Fund
-Summer break

Things to Keep in Mind in 2015
-Minimalist living
-Actively deepen my spirituality

Check-in
6/19/15
Did nothing to deepen my spirituality. In fact, felt very disconnected... Especially because of not going to church. I haven't felt motivated to go to church lately. I've held some resentment because of the view of the Catholic Church about homosexuality.

I've needed something to get me through Andrew's death, too... I feel like something is formulating... Something...

Minimalist living: I've done a great job of not shopping much. I've bought more books than I can read. I got a lot of free clothes. I bought one sleeping bag and a few travel/camping items (jackets, sweater...). Otherwise, I haven't really added any possessions. I still need to get rid of some possessions.

Next goals:
-Save $10,000 by end of January
-Go somewhere epic for Thanksgiving
-Exercise weekly. At least twice a week!
-prepare for marathon!!!

2014/11/16

(I used to be a) Passion Planner

This post is titled after the Passion Planner, my sister's friend's friend's cool awesome inspiring idea. When she told me about the Passion Planner, its maker was working towards her $10,000 goal on a Kickstarter. Now, she's at $430,000.

When I saw the concept to the Passion Planner, I felt just as fired up and ready to go do! as I'm sure all of the Kickstarter backers felt when they watched the sales pitch. Many know that normally, I would be first in line for a planner like that--in fact, I was distraught that I hadn't thought of inventing the Passion Planner and marketing it because that's all I do! Plan! ...huge, ginormous, out-of-this-world goals!

But.

I haven't bought it. Yet? To be honest, I'm a bit afraid of it. It reminds me of my too-fired-up, all-wound-up, over-booked, over-stressed me. I still doodle and write notes to myself in my (dozens) of journals, but I've kept away from the Passion Planner.

I used to pride myself in being a passionate person. I care deeply about certain things, get very excited about many things, take failure hard, and cry and cry and cry a lot. Now, I'm wary of "passion". I think it's underrated. Caring deeply about something can light a fire beneath you or it can stress you the fuck out when all you want to do is go to sleep and be well-rested for the next day. Passion doesn't get you anywhere--hard work does. Commitment does. Patience does. I'm here in my job right now, taking it day by day and expecting nothing paramount of myself. Tell me, is this flawed thinking -- "Last time I poured my heart into my job, I failed. Now, I'm taking things little by little, and I'm surviving. Therefor, I shall not pour my heart into my job."

I don't really know how to feel. I think I'm a bad teacher right now. Well, I guess it's more fair to say that I'm not the teacher that I want to be right now. And I don't know how to feel about that.

Ho hum.

2014/11/13

Teacher Voices

Today, a teacher friend of mine mentioned this thing called 'writing workshops', where (in this case) teachers come together to read and talk about narratives written by teachers. The idea is to get more teacher voices out into the world of policy.

It reminded me that I need to record my thoughts, progress, and obstacles--if, for nothing else, for me to look on and (hopefully) see how much I've grown.

Today was a hard day. Normal hard. Which, for the record, is very hard. I get frustrated when things don't go according to plan or when students don't put away their damn cell phones. I get frustrated when students would rather do nothing than participate. I get frustrated when students talk back to me.

I'm still coming to school every day despite having little to no confidence in my lesson plans. I'm hoping that good lessons come later, with practice, by getting through these rough draft, "first year teacher" lesson plans. I try to connect with students--I greet every student by name, ask them about little personal things that I know about them, and congratulate them on doing well or on improving in class. I try to remember the fact my students are still learning about who they are by listening to what others say about them. So, when I say "thank you, Jason, you're such a helpful person", Jason starts thinking to himself "I'm the type of person who likes to help people".

I feel pretty beaten down right now for having what I feel was an unsuccessful lesson day, for being behind on grades, and for having no idea where I'm going with the content. I'll try to focus on some positives, though. Let's say, 3 positives. Here they go.

1.) I really like my students. Some of them are really funny, some are sweethearts, some are helpful, and others are really talkative and just want to tell me everything about their lives. They're awesome. I want to do a good job for them. I may not be doing a good job. But I do know that by the end of the year, I want to be there for them.
2.) It's mid-November. Soon it will be December. And then Spring. And then Summer and I'll have gotten through my first year of teaching.
3.) Weekends, holidays, and vacations. Looking forward to my upcoming trips!

2014/10/31

4 x 4


HEY GUYS! I made it to the end of October. I'm really proud of myself.

Not saying that everything is going to be smooth sailing from here, but I know that things will never be as difficult as it was in the first two months ever again for these reasons:

1.  I have a better idea of my "audience". After hours and hours with my students, I now know a bit more about what gets them excited, what encourages them, what discourages them, what distracts them, and what stresses them out.

After spending two years in foreign countries, my first day meeting my students and the weeks that followed felt like taking a plunge in dark, icy waters from a hovering rescue helicopter. I had no idea what to expect and I was scared out of my skin. Now, for as long as I teach in Oakland, I'll never have to relive that initial dive. I'm swimming in deep waters now.

2. I'm more comfortable being in front of my class of students and more comfortable talking to my students one-on-one in age- and cognitive-appropriate way to get through to most of them. I'll raise my voice when I have to, lower my voice when I really have to, use my motherly, it's-going-to-be-okay voice when I need to, and will crack a smile when I can't help but to. I'm really falling in love with these kids. Some of these kids.

3. I have some buy-in with some students--while I do want students to be self-motivated and be committed to doing well for themselves, for whatever reason, I also have students who want to do well in order to please me. They show off their work to me, they light up when I congratulate them for doing well and say things like "look at Ms. April all happy because we got the right answer!"

4. I've formed bonds with staff and students. I've had a student come check on me the two times I left the class crying (yes, two times.) and say to me "the class just doesn't listen to teachers... I remember this one teacher left in the middle of class because we just weren't listening to him. You need a break, Ms. April. You should stay home tomorrow, put your feet up, watch some T.V., and grade some papers or whatever it is that teachers do to relax." I thought that was really cool of her, and a good reminder that students help support teachers just as much as teachers support students. I feel invested in this school, in my work, in my coworkers, and in my students. I don't want to ever give up on them.

- - -

And finally, some takeaways from these past couple of months:

1. If things are too hard for me, make it easier. Even though I was taught to make a three- (or even four-) column lesson plan, I've learned to make a three- to five- point lesson plan. It usually looks like this:

  1. Opener
  2. Classwork
  3. Classwork 2 (if time)
  4. Closer
  5. Homework: unfinished classwork
I still remember a bit of advice given to me a few years back in my (even) earl(ier) years of teaching. Me: "I have to make a seating chart, grade these papers, call home, finish setting up my classroom... I don't know what to do first!" Her: "Do whatever you want. Do what makes you happy. And don't do anything else." 

I get it now. I cap myself at 2 hours of extra work outside of work, but sometimes I don't even do that. If I find myself reaching a point where I know I'm going to be bitter going into work the next day because I'm not rested enough, I cut myself off. Some days at school are harder than others and I have to compensate by that by having extra relaxing evenings. That's just how it goes. And the next day, life goes on. Nothing disastrous will happen. Nothing disastrous ever happens. 

2. Few, if any, students are critical of what and how I teach. The only one critical of my practice is me and the only ones rooting for my improvement are my coworkers. At best, students do the work I put out in front of them, retain some information, and regurgitate said information on a test. Every now and then, I challenge them to apply what we learned to come up with creative solutions or explanations to something or another. At worst, students revolt and show their disdain for school or for my class in particular by cutting class, running amuck, or some other shenanigans. Regardless, no students (or even other teachers, for that matter) have quick and easy answers for me on how I'm teaching correctly and how I'm royally f-ing things up. 

That's why I'm getting more comfortable with just having something for students to do every day. I'll get better one day. What I have now is not bad. As long as I have something and as long as I keep coming, I'm doing my job, and I'll continue to grow.

3. I'm doing some things right. I had a transformative moment yesterday. A student came up to me at the end of the period. I don't know too much about him--just that he's been absent lately, that he has a social worker, and that he'd been in and out of trouble before coming to our school and in the past week or so. I also remember that he had a cold once, and I pulled him aside and asked him if he was okay. That's it.

Anyway, yesterday, he asked me if we could talk. Before I could really asses what kind of 'talk' he needed, he started unloading all the stress he had been carrying around for the past year or more-- he told me about being out on the streets in the past few years, about how he started turning things around when he had his son last year, how he's just trying to make ends meet for his son, his girlfriend, and his mom, how he's been doing alright in sticking to his probation but fell off last week and is now getting sent to a group home... 

All I could do was listen. He didn't ask me any questions, he just talked and talked. He talked about how he's been so stressed and didn't know what to do. He talked about his new philosophy on life and how he decided that money shouldn't be used for anything else but bills and food and that nothing else is necessary in life. He talked about how everything he does now, he does for his son. He almost broke when he told me that he's stressed about leaving for this group home because he's going to miss his son's 1st birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and his own birthday with his don and that Thanksgiving will be especially hard because it's his favorite holiday. 


And then he told me that his therapist told him that if he's stressed, he should talk to someone who he trusts.

And he told me that he trusts me. What? Me? He said, "you're a really good teacher. You really care about us. I can see it in your eyes when you teach us, when you talk to us. I feel better already just talking this all out, I feel less stressed."

I teared up when he said that. What have I done to show that I care? I feel like I come to school every day thinking about nothing else but what I'm teaching, whether or not I'll be able to make all the copies I need, and whether or not an apple pie or hamburger will go flying across the room today (both have happened. In one class period.). I don't know, but that moment was a huge reminder to me for why I teach.

4. Growth and improvement doesn't have to mean reaching benchmarks. I'm learning to let go of set ideas of what a great teacher "should" do. I'm learning to stop looking forward to the day that I "finally" become a great teacher. I just show up every day, embrace who I am as I am right now as best I can, and every now and then, I try new things. In fact, I'm becoming more fearless in trying new things. The worst that can happen is that it doesn't work at all and then the class period is over. The second worst thing that can happen is that it doesn't work right away, but we keep working on it until it does work. The best thing that can happen is success. Either way, there's no harm in trying.

As eager as I was to show my supervisor my ability to learn and adapt and grow as quickly as possible, I admitted to her that right now, I don't want advice. I don't want tips on how I can do things better or tips on new things to try. "Great," she said,"you're staying the course."

She said that when she observes and coaches me, she's not going to give me advice. She's going to tell me what she sees that I'm doing well and act as a sort of mirror to my practice. She said that by nature of my wanting to even make my job easier for myself, I'm going to make adjustments as I see necessary and only as rapidly or as slowly as I can handle.

By allowing me to grow at my own pace and to try things out on my own or seek advice only on the things I want to work on, I'm able to grow more organically into a better teacher that I can't even visualize yet. I don't have to grow into a set, cookie-cutter mold of a stellar teacher. I can just keep trying to get better.

- - -

I'm tired, but satisfied with myself, the work that I've done, and my trajectory in this work. It's a pretty awesome feeling, one I've never had in a job before. My experiences in the last three years forced me to reflect on my mindset and how to be at peace with myself. Now, as cliché as it sounds, I'm learning what it feels like to have purpose. I believe that small acts of kindness have huge effects while my small missteps and mistakes largely go unnoticed.

That's pretty cool. I can live with that.

---

Photo Credit: Uwe Kils

2014/10/19

The Stress and Relief (but mostly stress) Cycle of a New Teacher

Thanks, WholeFoods.
Monday:
"&(^(^%*%(!." [Stress]

Tuesday:
"&*^(^@@@%*&^(!!!!." [More stress]

Wednesday:
"Damn, a lot of the stress I am facing is from pressure I'm putting on myself. I need to back off of myself." [Relief]

Thursday:
"I am an overly-anxious person. I am a naturally anxious person. I have unhealthy anxiety. Other people are more reasonable and more positive-thinking than me." [Stress]

Friday:
"This job is hard. I am not an overly-anxious person. Any sane person in my position would be just as stressed as I am right now. I am normal. Teaching is crazy." [Relief]

Saturday:
"Teaching? What teaching? What work? ha ha ha ha fun life is awesome."

Sunday:
"Oh, God, tomorrow's Monday." [Stress]

2014/10/12

The Dragons I Slay

Today I confided in someone about a demon I'm facing. As embarrassing as it already is that my sole goal for the year is to survive, my demon is that I'm just focused on making it through October. I have this fantasy that if I can fight my way through October, then everything will be OK. October is notorious for when teachers quit. I know of at least one who did. I'm just trying to make it through October--I don't expect it to be pretty. I'm not going to lean into this month. I'm going to coast. I'm going to let the powers of time run its course and carry me though the month. I'm going to make every day as easy for myself as possible. Even if it means cutting a LOT of corners. Snip snip snip.

Every week (maybe not every day), we step out our doors to slay dragons. We face multiple ones--small, baby ones; scaly ones; fiery ones; Medusa ones that keep sprouting heads every time you slice one off--and usually, few people have insight on the dragons that we face. We sometimes think that we're going at it alone.

In reality though, we're all fighting something.

The upside is, we've tamed some dragons and even have come to ride some mighty beasts. These dragons are the things we love doing, even if other people think we're crazy for doing it. My current dragon I'm riding is my upcoming trip to Iceland. I booked a one week, round-trip flight for 1. I really, really, really hope that I won't actually have to go alone, but if I do... I'll be ok. Traveling is my tamed dragon.

Good luck out there this week, folks!


2014/10/07

Indulge Day

Today, I:
-woke later than usual but early enough to enjoy a long stretch of a day ahead of me,
-gave myself a pedicure,
-finished a good book that I started weeks ago but hadn't had the time to continue,
-baked cookies
-blogged
-listened to my favorite podcasts (and learned a lot)

Later, I will:
-cook,
-do yoga,
-lesson plan and grade at a leisurely pace without the fatigue of an entire day of teaching

-----

Welp, I had a pretty good run with consecutive days of non-absences. That count has restarted. For the first time, I'm not sitting at home sick with guilt for being absent. The difference, this time, is I know I've done everything I can and I'm just so tired. In the past, I had led fear and an unwillingness to try out half-baked lessons keep me from school. This time, I'm just very, very tired.

At that, I still felt guilty because if I'm tired, what more of my coworkers and the administration? What right do I have to take a break? ...and then I realized, oh yeah, they've all taken at least once break already. And I'm the only first year teacher on staff. I'm at least as tired as everyone else--may be more so.

One lesson I'm ruminating over right now is that to go consecutive days without being absent as a teacher in, say, suburban San Diego is quite different from going without breaks at my school now. I'm allowed to take absences and I should take them because I don't want to burn out. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

I made it to 29 consecutive work days without. Glancing at the school calendar, there will never again be as long of a stretch of work without holiday. So in a way, I made it through the toughest stretch of work!

I downloaded an app so that I can have a few countdowns to look forward to. On the horizon: a Thanksgiving New England trip and a Christmas trip to Hawaii. I've been planning for those trips since June. Now that it's October (and despite the fact that these countdown trips have not yet taken place), I'm dreaming up my next trip in the Spring. I've narrowed it down to Central America or Iceland, though I'm still open to new nominations.

Right now, I'm in awe of the fact that I'm in my real first year as a full-time teacher where I am. In the rare moments that I give myself credit for what I do, I realize what an enormous task it is to try to step into this gap that society as a whole for hundreds of years has yet to close. At best, I'm working towards closing that gap, micometer by micrometer. At worst, we're all just sitting in this gap together with nothing changing. I don't think I'm in that worst case scenario though. I think I am making some kind of difference.

Next year, two years from now, and 10 years from now, I want to look back on today and on this past year and be like "damn. How did I do that?" Though I hear that second and third year are still really hard, for now, I'm telling myself that it doesn't get any harder than this. And I'm thriving. That fact is pretty awesome on my part, though it doesn't feel like that all the time.

It sometimes gets lonely as the only first-year teacher at my school. Furthermore, all of the other teachers from my teaching credential cohort are in their fourth year of teaching. They've all hit their stride. I'm glad that I have them (amongst many other people) to turn to for their wisdom and as an example of how I want to be a few years from now. At the same time... sometimes, I wish I had someone to empathize with me in real time. It's impossible to talk about my day-to-day with non-teacher friends. It's even harder to talk about my day-to-day with teacher friends who teach at very different schools from mine because these are people who really believe that they understand how I feel, but I don't think that they do.

Anyway, that's all for now. I feel cleansed after that blogging purge, as I always do. Time to indulge a bit more in my day before returning to work.

2014/09/24

Day by Day, Wednesday by Wednesday

Last weekend is but a distant memory.

It's Wednesday again, the day I dread most. It's the most difficult day for me to get into because by Wednesday, I feel like I've been going at it for a while (last weekend is now a distant memory) yet the end of the week is nowhere in sight.

I was mentally prepared for today to be difficult, but I didn't feel prepared for my lessons. Regardless, my secret/not-so-secret goal for the year is to, well, make it to the end of the year. Nothing fancy. Nothing stellar. I just gotta make it.

My secret goal for the short term is to go as many consecutive days as possible without being absent. So far, so good. I'm in the minority of teachers, actually, who hasn't missed a day yet. It's been one month. Do I feel like I deserve some kind of reward? Nope. The other teachers legitimately were sick or had pressing reasons that they couldn't be out of town. But I'm not even thinking of them. I'm in competition with my self--my lazy self, that is. Or rather, my cowardly self.

I'm focusing on not letting my fear of failure or my imperfect lessons keep me from school. I'm focusing on being at school. A crappy lesson by me, a teacher whom the students know, is better than a non-lesson by a substitute. On top of that, my role as a teacher doesn't end at my classroom door. I have a responsibility to help build and maintain the new and evolving school culture into something positive. That only happens when us regular teachers are there as near every day as possible.

Finally, part of being there means being forgiving to myself after school in the evenings. I work as much as I can until I don't want to anymore. And then I stop. Because if I keep going, it's going to make me not want to go to work the next day and that's just not worth it.

That's all for now--happy end-of-hump day <3

2014/09/17

All The Small Things



Ugh, it's Wednesday. Two Wednesdays in a row have been particularly hard days in no way in particular. So many feelings right now, good and bad. It's hard to focus and separate and comb out my tangle of thoughts and emotions.

There are so many big changes that I have to do in order to improve as a teacher, but I can't do everything all at once. I can't even make one big change happen at once. It takes time. Right now, I can only focus on the small things.

Small, do-able actions that have had big-ish effects:
-Smiling at students seems to have an unexplainable, magical effect: students who were sitting doing nothing ask me questions that show me that they were confused that whole time; students are nicer to me--friendlier, more helpful, more behaved; students calm down and I feel the tension between us melt just a little teensy bit...

-Sweeping the halls for wandering students during my prep and herding them into their classes makes me feel productive. It also gives me a chance to meet more students at the school--which in turn is good because I feel myself establishing my presence and permanence at this school.

-Walking around the class in a purposeful order (like following a walking path) gets more students on track during their Opener activity. It gives me an excuse to not try to attend to every student who's trying to get my attention ("I didn't do my homework, can I turn it in late?" "I need to use the bathroom" "I was absent yesterday, can I get the work?") all at once. This is important because then I'm able to take attendance, I'm able to tighten up on behavior issues and understanding issues during the Opener, and it gives all students a chance to have my attention when it's their turn.

-I can't deal with all the students who have been giving me attitude, but I can choose one or two at a time to address. I spoke to one student after my class when I saw her sitting in the hallway during her next class and I had a heart-to-heart with her. It was impossible to try talking to her earlier when she was telling me to leave her alone and when she wasn't doing her work because other students were watching our power struggle. When I had her one-on-one, I was able to tell her that I was surprised at her behavior because she had been doing so well up until today and that I was worried that there's something else going on in her life that's distracting her and putting her in a bad mood. I'm hoping she and I will have a better day with each other tomorrow. Another student has been throwing paper in my class and hasn't been staying after school when I tell him to stay after and clean up. I spoke with our school secretary and had her call his auntie (Spanish-speaking) and her auntie said that she will personally take him to me after school tomorrow and watch him pick up paper. YAY! There's so many other students who I can/should deal with as proactivity as I dealt with those two students today, but for now, I'll take the fact that I dealt with two students at all as a win.

-Chatting with students who aren't participating in P.E. I can't force anybody to do anything. I try to make activities engaging and I make participation a part of their grade, but ultimately, there are a few students who sit on the bench and choose not to do anything. When I know there's no hope in getting them to move, I just chat with them about their lives--like what they hope to do after graduating, what their hobbies are, if they have any siblings, and where they live. This is great for me because it gives me something to talk to them about later when I see them in the halls and it gives me a clearer picture of the maturity level of students. I'm getting better at making my lessons relevant to students whether they're 14 years old or 21 years old and I credit that to my getting to know them and having a better idea of my audience.

Here's to making it over the hump. Hip hip hooray!


--------

BTW, I found today's picture here.

2014/09/11

Hello, Oakland.


I'm back in what feels like "home"--California. Namely, the Bay. And I'm living the dream! How many people can honestly say they live where they've always dreamed of living and have a job doing what they trained for and have been wanting?

It's hard, man. I knew it would be hard... I wanted it to be hard... but damn, you sure don't know hard until you're truly in it.

My routine looks like this:

Get out of bed at 6:20 a.m.
On autopilot, turn on some happy music and groggily put the kettle on the stove and grind coffee beans.
Make coffee, have granola with a banana and honey in milk.
Drink coffee.
Poop.
Put on a slammin' professional-yet-young and hip outfit. And high heels.
Drive 10 minutes to work (whoo!).

Get to work between 7:30-7:40.
Prep until 8:30.
Teach back to back blocks of Chemistry.
Prep for one block.
Teach (run, play, herd kids, cheer kids on-aka get them to participate) P.E. for one block.
Eat free lunch in the lunch room.
Teach another block of P.E.
Teach another block of Chemistry.
(Mon/Tues) Tutor for an hour, teacher-y things until anywhere between 4:30-6:00
(Weds) Do teacher-y things until anywhere between 4:30-6:00
(Thurs) Meeting for an hour, teacher-y things until anywhere between 4:30-6:00
(Fri) Meeting for two hours, teacher-y things until 4:30 or so

Get home. Rest. Eat a delicious meal prepared by the boyfriend and/or my sister in our wonderful home.
Teacher-y things from 9:00pm-11:pm.
Sleep.

(Saturday) Actively block out thoughts of work.
(Sunday) Continue to actively block out thoughts of work until 4pm. Then work from 4pm-10pm.
----

And damn. Not only is that 12 hours of work each week day, but it's 12 hours of pretty hard work. It's hours of putting together the best lesson plans that I can given that I have no curriculum to follow and little to no science resources (70 chemistry students and only 7 chemistry textbooks. No glassware. No chemicals.), and only a couple hours to put something together each night. I'm doing kitchen chemistry with sand that I collected at the beach, glass vases and empty jars I found around the house, and random coins I collected in my travels from other countries. I keep my energy up to run and play games with students at P.E. and stretch my brain for activities to do with them with nothing but a small parking lot for play space, a box of chalk, 9 jump ropes, no balls, and a frisbee. Mind you, this is P.E. with high school students, not little, easily-amused children.

And then there are the students who are acting out of line, the daily battles, the power struggles, the individual cries for attention and help ("Miss April, is this right?" "I finished!" "Where do I put the homework?" "No, you ain't takin' my phone!" "What time does this class get out?" "I'm hot! I want water!" "No, I don't have to listen to you!").

And there's the emotional toll of working with Oakland youth. Knowing in the back of my mind that I see one tiny piece of my students' lives each day, but that after they leave my classroom and leave our school, some are dealing with very grown-up issues--like being the main breadwinner of their family, having to show up to court dates, homelessness, violence on their commute to school, turning their life around after substance abuse periods in their lives, repeating freshman year for the third time, being in foster care and transitioning to moving into their own apartment now that they're 18 years old...

Today was my 12th day with students. Of those days, I'd say 2 were rough days and 10 were overall good days. I've only had one almost-fight. And to tell the truth, nothing spectacularly bad happened in those rough 2 days--I just felt less ready for the usual craziness that is our school on those days.

I've heard that optimism is often confused as one's ability to remain content in all situations, but that it's actually one's ability to understand that everything is temporary. I get that. Everything is temporary--good and bad. That's why you gotta enjoy the good while it lasts and let the bad times pass.
"You are an imperfect and incomplete answer to your students' immediate needs." --unknown
More than being a "good" teacher to my students, I just want to be there for them. I want to be a constant in their lives while they are in high school. I hope that my being a caring, honest, hard-working person is enough. I'm trying my best to be a strong teacher, but that part will come later with experience.

Meanwhile, I'm thankful for many things in my life right now. I'm thankful for the opportunity to have gone to two good schools, UC Berkeley and Mills College. I'm thankful for my parents for... everything. I'm thankful for the lowest times in my life and the lessons I learned in my darkest hours. I'm thankful for the three years I took for myself to grow, explore, and nurture new relationships. I'm thankful for second chances. Most of all, right now, I'm thankful to have a job doing what I've always wanted to do and for an opportunity to try and be like the people who I look up to most.

2014/07/21

11 Life Lessons I've Learned in my 26th Year of Life

A jellyfish aquarium in Yamagata Prefecture, Japan. (website)


Happy Birthday to me! What better way to celebrate a birthday than by doing something I love--blogging!

I've always dreamed of one day coming up with a manifesto for my children's children's children or my friend's friend's friend to read. I thought of one day sitting down and penning the perfect compilation of lessons learned and tentative suggestions as to how the world could be a better place, perhaps as an old lady with a full head of snow-white hair writing in pen and ink on yellowed pages in a leather-bound, encyclopedia-sized book.

Then I realized, 1) why do I visualize my future as a scene from the 1600s and 2) by the time I'm old and gray (God-willing), I'll have forgotten all of the wisdom that I had wanted to bestow unto my future readers.

So here it is, present readers: a working manifesto, now, for my 26th birthday.

11 Life Lessons I've Learned in my 26th Year of Life (in no particular order)

1. Strive for a minimalist lifestyle to reduce stress. Back when I was a mere zero through twenty-five-year-old (an infant, really), I prided myself on my thirst for maximizing, ahem, EVVVERRYTHINGGG. I thought I was being extra-terrestially productive and living life to the fullest and MORE. In reality, I was often late for engagements, if not flaky altogether. I was scatterbrained and tired. I was directing 10% of my attention to ten different things at once. While in class, I was making appointments for evening meetings. While walking to meetings, I ate dinner on-the-go. At those meetings, I reviewed flashcards for the classes that I wasn't paying attention in earlier. Life was somehow too much while being not enough. 

Now, I make one engagement per evening at most. I carefully give myself plenty of time between meetings or tasks. In that time, I clear my brain and put everything that I was just doing on pause by reading, listening to jazz music, or purposely thinking about nothing while looking out the window or people-watching while on the bus or train. I use this time to forget of any stresses from earlier and to properly focus my attention toward the next upcoming task.

I also try to cut out distractions such as open tabs in the background of my internet browser, a phone out at dinnertime, and unnecessary clutter at my work space.

For more tips on how to lead a minimalist lifestyle its benefits, read "The Simple Guide to a Minimalist Life" by Leo Babauta (pdf).

2. Best friends aren't always needed for life's memorable moments. Choose something fun to do, invite one or two people, and let everyone invite whomever they like. When I moved to Japan, I thought that I was temporarily suspending any semblance of a wild social life. I anticipated making maybe one good friend and otherwise mostly spending time by myself, reading, writing, or doing little arts and crafts. I didn't expect to make a lot of friends and didn't even know how such a thing would be possible out in rural Japan.

Instead: I went on a road trip with 3 near-strangers to climb Mt. Fuji over night; I approached and introduced myself to a group of 20-something-year-old Muslim girls in a parking lot at a national park in Malaysia and ended up climbing Mt. Kinabalu with them; I attended a BBQ at a Japanese friend's family's house with a ragtag group of foreigners, have of whom I hadn't met before; I hiked the Great Wall of China with a couple of guys who I'd met a week or less prior; I, along with new friends and friends of friends and their friends, unofficially started "foreigner day" on Thursdays at our local bouldering gym by slowly inviting more and more friends to come climb with us; I watched the sun sink into the Indian ocean off the coast of Australia with a group of locals after a hearty dinner of fish and chips; I sand-surfed in the Great Outback of Australia with other foreigners and sand-surfer newbies.

Certainly, nothing can quite compare to, say, your group of six, tight-knit friends/roommates/couple who meet at a coffee shop in New York, have been friends since high school, and laugh and cry over one friend's latest impossible slip up, sexcapade, or break up. However, you definitely do not need to constantly stick by your lifelong friends in order to have a good time and enjoy great company. You just need an open mind for meeting people and trying fun things.

3. Send your childhood best friend a long, thoughtful email. Call your mom. Send your dad a postcard. Spend a Saturday doing nothing in particular with your roommate. One day, after years of no contact, a college friend of mine randomly sent me a "Happy half-birthday, April!". It actually was my half birthday at the time. To this day, I don't know how he realized that it was my half birthday at all. I was very touched that he found an excuse to send me a message. We caught up on all that we had been doing in life--jobs we'd worked, lost, and gained in the time since we last met, places we've been, and things that still hadn't changed over the years. We even sent each other postcards since then and, when the time came up that I was looking for a place to stay, he so happened to have an apartment available for sublease.

Similarly, being so far away from home, I make it a point to call my mom at least once a week. What we talk about isn't always important--what I had for lunch that day, how the weather's been, or one of my students' latest achievements. What's important is that she knows that I'm thinking of her and that I want her to continue being a part of my life in some way.

On the flip side, is there someone in your life whom you see every day, yet don't seem to spend any quality time with? As much as Brian and I see each other and as many adventures as we seek out together, what makes our relationship strong are the days that we set aside to just be together... Our favorite "nothing" things to do are having big, hearty, homemade meals, watching comedies or heartfelt movies, and spending hours upon hours recording one acoustic cover of an overplayed pop song.

All in all, I learned how important it is to proactively maintain your relationships. It was easier to do as a kid because you lived with your family and you saw your friends every day. Now, you have to actually reach out and do something to say hello and remind someone that you care about what's going on with them. The good news is, reaching out and contacting someone takes as little as a few seconds. So, go do it! Do it now!

4. Be the most YOU that you can be; keep the friends who stick around, forget the ones who don't. As a foreigner, I often did things and got things completely wrong when it came to my interactions with my Japanese coworkers and neighbors. I took for granted all of the social capital I had accumulated when I lived in the States--namely, how to appear friendly, professional, polite, and likable.

Here, I did my best to act appropriately according to each particular social situation. Despite this, I'm sure I dropped the ball a few times, whether I knew I was messing up or not. In the end, the best I could do was just try to be happy and content on the inside and let it show on the outside. Japanese are notorious for expecting citizens to act and carry themselves in a particular way in society--that particular way was not always clear to me. Because of this, I may have driven some people away by not being quiet enough, or polite enough, or dressed up enough, and on and on. Oh well. What's more important is that I made great friends who like how loud/quiet/talkative/not talkative/active/relaxed/(fill in the blank here) I am enough as is. That's an awesome feeling. Pursue that feeling. Be you, accept the love that you receive, and forget about the love that you don't.

5. Realize that a teacher is not only about setting and meeting goals, it's also about the little interactions you have with students every day. As much as I wanted to be organized and effective in my teaching by establishing learning goals, making the content accessible to students, and periodically assessing students progress... I had to throw all of that out the window when I became an "assistant language teacher" as a foreigner in Japan because I am an outsider, teaching and learning is done differently here, power structures and one's own agency and responsibility are completely different here than in the States, and I had too many students and too many schools to properly keep track of what students were learning and struggling with.

At first, this frustrated me. A lot. I lost confidence in myself, I questioned my decision to come to Japan, I questioned my ability as a teacher, I doubted the usefulness of any of my efforts or even presence at work.

Then, last week, all of my schools had some kind of grandiose goodbye ceremony for me. It was actually quite embarrassing to be made such a big deal of, particularly because lately I hadn't felt that I'd met any of my goals of being an effective English teacher to my students.

To my surprise, many students approached after these ceremonies and on their own time to tell me about a way that I helped them or a memorable moment that they had with me. Their messages ranged from thanking me for having lunch with them one time when they were having a bad day with their friends, excitedly recounting a time in class when they correctly answered a comprehension question I asked on a San Francisco presentation I had just given (she remembered the question, answer, and type of candy that I gave her as a reward!), thanking me for meeting with them once a week for 20 minutes to have simple conversations with them in English...

None of these things that students were grateful for were things that I had planned or worked towards. They were all things that just... happened. These are the small things that actually made up my students' experience with me--not necessarily the grammar points I taught or the pronunciation practice we did. If it weren't for my students pointing these things out to me, I would have thought of my two years here as an English as a failure. I would have thought "my students still can't say this or do that, no matter how many ways I tried to teach it". Instead, I can be proud of the fact that in some way, my presence and my effort made someone's day--even if just one day--better. In a small way, I've helped in shaping a young mind's view of the world, how it works, and what the world can be in the future.

6. Speak to others in broken English/Japanese/Tagalog/Spanish/French/whatever is their native language. Know that the goal is never to prove your skill in that language; it's to form some kind of relationship with that person as your coworker, neighbor, host, or new travel buddy or it's for you to improve at least a teensy tiny bit in that language.

My favorite moments with students was when they got creative with the English words that they did know in order to convey more complex ideas to me than "hello-how-are-you-I'm-fine-thank-you". My favorite moments when attempting to speak Japanese was when people patiently saw past my grammar mistakes and waited for me to recall more difficult words in order to carry my end of the conversation. Ultimately, I was able to bond with people across language barriers, which in turn made this little city feel more like home to me... not to mention, I was able to learn a new language from zero.


7. Count every penny, nickel, and dime to your name. Monitor your cash flow and opt for spending money on experiences rather than on things. This was my order of priorities for my monthly spending this past year:
    1. Rent, utilities, groceries, transportation
    2. Pay off debt
    3. "Fun" fund (travel and nice dinners)
    4. Save $______ per month in order to have saved $_____ by August 2014.
Of course, life doesn't always go according to plan. Other expenses come up that are more difficult to plan for--friends' birthday dinners, spontaneous treats to yourself after long, hard days, and so on. To accommodate for this, I did things like tricking myself into believing I had less money than I actually had (by rounding my monthly salary down), counting business expenditures as personal spending (so that reimbursements could later come in as "surprise" income), and budgeting for celebratory dinners towards that month's "Fun" fund.

Besides keeping track of and itemizing my cash flow, I also was frugal to a damn fault when it came to expenses on myself. I walked and biked to work instead of taking the bus. If I wasn't going out to dinner with friends, I cooked rather than eating out by myself. I then made extra for my lunch the next day. When possible, I opted for free fun activities, like hikes, BBQs, and beach outings. When traveling, I first researched a reasonable budget and kept to that budget; then, I spent hours thoroughly shopping around for budget airline flights and promotions, I opted for sleeping on people's couches, airport benches, and cheap hostels instead of hotels, and I opted for cheap local food and a paper map and personal walking tours of the city rather than fancy restaurants or expensive, comprehensive package tours.

What made saving and spending successful (in my eyes) for me was that I made it enjoyable for myself. Because I'm goal-driven, I made little goals, like "walk to or from work at least 3 times this week", "Pay XXX amount towards my student loans this month", and "end up with XXX in my bank account by next pay day" (each pay day is actually marked in my calendar and on the previous day, I've written in "have $xxx saved"). For those who are process-oriented, I recommend setting up habits like walking to work every Monday and Wednesday or putting a set amount of money into your savings account FIRST after pay day.


8. Keep your living space clean as much of the time as possible. This is important because you can have guests over at a moment's notice, your things are easier to find, and your home becomes more comfortable to relax in on the weekends and after work.

Keeping my place clean has required a bit of a mix of processes: doing small tasks daily (making my bed in the morning, picking up clutter after coming home from work, making sure that things at home are in their designated place (such as fruits in the fruit basked and not in the grocery bag on the counter)), jumping at free moments to take on bigger tasks (such as doing laundry, vacuuming, and wiping down surfaces for dust and grime), and forcing myself to deep-clean as soon just before something gets too dirty to tolerate (as opposed to tolerating soap scum or cooking grease for too long).


9. Keep up with evolving technology. I'm really lucky that I don't have your stereotypical tech-illiterate mom and dad. In fact, my dad's the one who's always bringing home new gadgets and teaching the family how to use them. My dad helped me get my first email account, taught me how to use my first smartphone, and taught me how to properly maintain my computers and online identity and personal information.

I learned to evolve the way that I consume media with technology. I love reading real, physical books as much as the next bibliophiliac, but owning a Kindle has allowed for me to read about 50 more books in two years that I've owned it than I probably would have without it. It's taught me to love reading more than loving books.

CDs and buying songs one by one on iTunes are out, in my opinion. I use music-streaming stations almost exclusively to not only enjoy music I love, but to learn about new music and try out other genres of music.

Journaling is great, beautiful, and fun, but typing up notes and entries on any computer or smart device and uploading it into a cloud is even better. There's no excuse to skip jotting down moments of inspiration because you don't have a pen or paper handy and your notes are never scattered or lost.

Don't pay for comprehensive cable packages if there's another way to get just the TV shows that you like. I use Netflix, networks own streaming websites, or own or rent series that have come out on DVD.

Whenever you have a question that no one around you can help you with, think first of how the internet can answer your question. Seriously. One of my aunties once told me in passing that she's always wanted to bake cookies, but doesn't know how. I Googled "Nestle Tollhouse Chocolate Chip Cookies Recipe" and sent that to her. I used Youtube and hobbyists blogs to learn how to maintain my garden. I research hiring manager advice and resume samples whenever I apply for a new job. For travel advice to remote countries and towns, I posted questions in online forums and as questions on travel blogs. I found plenty of books that I had wanted to read for free and in their entirety uploaded as ebooks and PDFs.

I remember in college, when the last in our group of friends got a smartphone. He said "from now on, no more questions. We only speak in statements." He was joking of course, but it reminded me that few facts need remained unchecked and few scientific curiosities need remained unanswered. When you want to learn about something or how to do something, assume first that the answer is at your fingertips until proven otherwise.


10. Be punctual and don't be flaky. I can't give any tips or shortcuts on how to be punctual or dependable short of saying "just do it". Be strict with yourself. Give yourself extra time in preparing to go out; plan for traffic or not being able to find a parking spot; don't try to squeeze too many tasks in before your planned time to meet someone. If you start to feel lazy to go out and honor an arrangement, kick yourself in the butt and meet them anyway. Make it a goal to have near 100% followed commitments rather than making it a goal to have as many planned social outings as possible. It's more important to say no to your friend for drinks on Friday night if it means being able to commit to your previously planned Saturday morning hike with your other friend than to try to do both and end up flaking on one of those friends. Also, in Japan, often the only excuse for cancelling plans or staying home from work is because someone has a fever. Don't have a fever? Don't have a sick child or grandmother with a fever? Then follow through with your commitment.


11. Iron your clothes, dress appropriately, comb your hair, and wash your face for work. Seeing as how I arrived in Japan at the earliest time in my working career, I don't know if all of the above is specific to Japan or of it's specific to appearing professional at work. All I know is, before coming to Japan, I almost never ironed, I wore my hair in pony tails, I rarely wore makeup, and I did not wear a skirt or slacks every day.

I quickly became very self-conscious of how everyone around me looked ready to teach and I looked ready to run out to the grocery store to grab milk before settling in on the couch in front of the TV with a bowl of cereal.

Back home in California, more people may try and even succeed in getting away with the T-shirt and rumpled jeans look, but why not dress up a little? Here, huge emphasis is placed on dressing appropriately and dressing well (when I asked students what they thought of the old adage "don't judge a book by its cover", many students disagreed, saying that appearance is very important for judging one's character). I don't believe that one should be judged by how professionally they are dressed and I don't think that Americans judge based on one's attire as frequently or as harshly as Japanese do. That being said, there's no harm in dressing up a little and keeping your appearance clean and tidy. I feel better, older, more experienced, composed, powerful, and attractive when I don my working-woman skirt, blouse, heels, and makeup.

---------------

Alright folks, that's all I got for ya. I was hoping hammer out a nice, rounded 26-Life-Lessons list for my 26th birthday, but the reality is, I'm not that wise yet.

Here's to many more years of big and little failures, epiphanies, great fun, and new and healthy relationships.

2014/06/21

In the Air

"Would you like an orange?" I asked the man seated next to me. These seats in economy class are so uncomfortably close together--uncomfortable for any other grown person except me, that is, being an average-for-a-Filipina, small-for-a-Westerner like me. That's me, I guess--comfortable in most situations, yet never quite looking like I belong there.

The man in question seated next to me was a 40-something-looking White guy. He had a buzzed haircut, like a military dude, but looked scruffy and disheveled in every other way. His khaki cargo pants were wrinkled and dirty, as was his red sweater, which was faded and looked slept-in. I offered him my orange out of habit: I was eating and someone in my immediate vicinity wasn't. My mama taught me all the right manners fitting for a properly behaved Filipina.

The man gratefully accepted my orange, to my surprise (for Filipinos, it may be customary to offer food, and it may be customary to eat morning, late morning, noon, afternoon, early evening, and evening--but it's also customary to refuse food AT LEAST the first time you're offered). 

It was the only orange I had. Luckily, I also had a Nutella sandwich in my backpack underneath the seat in front of me. I took that out and started eating half of my sticky (overflowing) sandwich.

"I haven't eaten since breakfast yesterday. I'm starving," the man said. He tore off the orange peel and started eating the orange in wedges of three and four. That is to say, he ate it in three bites.

I figured this stranger on my flight had no reason to lie about something like that, and I knew our flight would only serve us salted peanuts during our 1.5-hour flight to San Diego from Oakland. I offered him the other half of my sandwich.

"You will not believe the night that I had last night," the man said, after, of course, accepting my sandwich.

"Yeah?" I said. 

"I was in San Francisco, trying to figure out how to take BART to Oakland to catch this exact flight... YESTERDAY. I turned my back for just a moment to try to figure out how much the train ride would cost. When I turned around to get my bag, it was gone! Can you believe that?! My bag had my wallet, clothes... Everything."

He paused to chew, slower this time.

"I didn't know what to do. I walked around asking people if I could borrow their cellphone to call the airlines or for change for a pay phone. But you know, there are so many homeless people walking around San Francisco that no one believed me when I tried to explain my situation. 

Finally, I was able to get some change together. I memorized my ex-wife's phone number, because, well, she got the house and I remember my own home number. Former number," he seemed lost in another thought as he quickly corrected himself.

"I asked her to wire me some money so that I could buy a meal... I was hungry at that point. I remember that it was about lunch time when I finally managed to get ahold of her. She agreed to send me money. Then, when I went to Western Union to get the money, they wouldn't let me get my money because I didn't have 'proper identification'! 

I didn't know what to do at that point. I had already gone to the police earlier, right after my stuff was stolen. They filed a report, but they also told me that without an ID, they wouldn't be able to do much for me. An ID for crying out loud... If  I had seen the guy take my stuff, I wouldn't be in the situation that I was, now would I?" He shook his head.

At this point, I still hadn't strung two words together. I nodded and interjected with a "whaaaaat..." every now and then, but other than that, I must have been listening in that way that my roommate David tells me is attentive and encouraging--big-eyed with an unbroken stare. My other roommate Elaine calls it creepy. This guy seemed to be in agreement with David.

"I went back to the police station and asked them if I could stay there for the night. They said they couldn't do that. Something about there being dozens of others homeless people who they couldn't house... so for that reason, they couldn't house me either. 

So I just walked around in nothing but this hoodie. It got cold at night. I tried sleeping on a bench in the park, but there were all these homeless people there. And then I got in a fight with some bum. He wanted to fight me, I have no idea why. And you know, of course I fought back. I wasn't about to let myself get killed out there. That's when the police came. This time, because of the fight, they had a reason to bring me in. So I slept in jail for the rest of the night.

Then, by some miracle, the police found my bag based off of the description I gave 'em. A bum had it. My wallet was gone, but most everything else was there. The police gave me a lift to the airport. I explained my situation to the airlines people--they remembered me from when I had called in yesterday from the police station. And will you believe it, I had one piece of identification on me--" he pantomimed an object in the shape of a business card "my scuba license. They let me use that as an ID and let get on this flight. 

So here I am."

"Crazy," was all I said. I wasn't feigning interest, he just didn't seem to be asking for  my input on anything.

"So you're a student?" He asked me, nodding at my Berkeley sweater.

"Yeah. I'm studying Chemistry."

"Wow, you must keep pretty busy then. Don't keep your nose in those books though, you gotta have those extra-curricular activities, too." 

"I'm in a sorority," I said.

His eyebrows shot up in surprise. The image of the geeky pubescent-looking Asian girl seated next to him didn't seem to jive with his idea of a sorority girl.

"A sorority?" He asked, as though he wasn't sure I understood what the word meant. "I remember sororities. I was in a frat myself when I was in college." He supplied the Greek letter name of his fraternity. I shrugged.

"Those were some wild days. I drank and partied a lot. But I also made some good friends. Well, I met a lot of people, anyway. Important people, as it would turn out. I studied finance... When I was studying, that is. Ha ha." He smirked. "But it's all about WHO you know. I got a job right after college dealing with money. I still partied a lot. I got married to this BEAUTIFUL woman, I mean GORGEOUS... had kids.... But I didn't stop doing drugs."

This conversation, weird as it already was, was quickly formulating into another story. I sat quietly.

"And you know, the promotions, the money... It just kept coming. I bought a huge house in Northern San Diego County, had a garage full of expensive cars...

But it just wasn't enough for me. I moved on from alcohol and weed to... The harder stuff." He gave me a sideways look. I continued to listen in my way: naive, eyes wide open. I'd never met anyone who did hard drugs before.

"Cocaine." Not that he seemed to be holding back anything in any part of our 45-minute and counting conversation, but something seemed to unleash inside of him and anything that he DID have on reserve was let loose. 

"I couldn't quit the stuff. I'd be up late in my office getting high, then come home, barely talk to my wife and kids, lock myself up in my office at home and do more drugs.

I spent so much money on the stuff. I did lots of different kinds of drugs, but mostly cocaine. I was on the fast lane down a one-way tunnel to nowhere and nobody could stop me. I lost my wife, my kids, my house, my cars... I was a wreck. But I kept doing drugs.

Finally, my parents, brother, sister, and my best friends sat me down and gave me an intervention. But still, I didn't listen.

I kept doing drugs and being stupid, until... Well, I don't know. Something inside of me just said "enough is enough". I checked myself into rehab.

You know what surprised me about rehab? Nobody stops you from leaving. You can literally walk out of there any time you want. And I did. Twice. Because I'm an idiot. But the last time I was there, I stayed 'til the end. I've been clean ever since.

I lost everything I had because of my addiction, but I'm getting everything back on track now. I've been clean for five years." He concluded. 

The whole time he was telling his story, he had a faraway look in his eyes. The expression remained for two counts after he finished. Then his attention snapped back to me.

"I have no idea why I told you all that," he said. Suddenly, the man whose life I was a part of for the 15 darkest years of his life and the 24 hours of his previous day was was back to being a mere stranger on the plane.

"Oh, right, because of the sorority thing," he remembered. "Uhh... Don't do drugs. Ever. It'll fuck up your life." He became thoughtful.

"I guess I just really needed to tell someone all that," he said. And now I can say that I helped someone from my experiences. Don't do drugs." For a moment, he looked proud in a shy kind of way, like a young boy earning his first Cub Scout badge--or like a man who believed that he didn't deserve to feel genuinely proud of himself for anything.

"I'm glad you told me your story. Thank you," I said. I said nothing of the fact that I hardly ever drank, I never planned on touching even weed, or that my sorority wasn't a SOCIAL sorority, it was a SOCIAL JUSTICE sorority. God, I am a dork.

His nose turned red and his eyes became glassy. He looked away from me, blinking back tears, and stared straight ahead for the rest of the flight. After we landed, taxied, and deplaned, we still hadn't spoken. To be honest, I was exhausted from all the listening I had been doing.

My dad was waiting for me at baggage claim, early as usual. He hugged me tight and kissed me on the top of my head. He loves me way more than he knows how to express, and I him, which isn't saying much seeing as how emotionally mute we are to each other. My dad awkwardly busied himself with searching for my luggage on the carousel before either of us could get all weepy and sappy. Lord knows I'd had enough of that touchy-feely stuff on the plane.

After my dad and I collected my bags and started towards the exit, Mr. Don't-Do-Drugs crossed our path. "You raised a good daughter, sir," he said to my dad, without slowing his stride. He walked away and disappeared into the crowd.

"Who was that?" my dad asked.

I realized I didn't even catch the guy's name, which may have been intentional on his part.

"I have no idea," I told my dad. "Just some guy I met on the plane...

"...again," my dad added.



An American's Reflection on her time in Japan: made possible by asudden 1-week Stint back home

Things I took for granted (things I knew, but never appreciated)
-how loudly we speak
-how friendly strangers are
-how informal staff are
-how large drinks are


Things I learned (never realized about Americans)
-I thought I'd get back and be annoyed and overhearing (specifically, understanding) everyone's annoying conversation. Instead, in my hotel at breakfast, I understood not a single conversation around me: Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Arabic. At first I thought to myself "wow! we're the only family speaking English here!", but then I realized that my family was actually speaking a mix of English and Tagalog-- so our conversation was probably just as intelligible to an English-only speaking person
-"foreigners" (a phrase that once made my skin crawl, but one that I've gotten into the habit of using to self-identify) keep to their ways and language not only out of habit, but without choice
-politeness and rudeness is subjective, but so is the conscious effort to be either. When in a foreign country, it may feel easy to be polite, but it's impossible to control how you're being perceived. May as we'll loosen up, and master the fine art of balancing disregarded for how others see you and maintaining and openness to criticism/correction

-look, I have to say it: how much freedom we have. How many times have you tried to figure out just how much you could get away with? How many times have you deliberately defied social norm? How many times have you made a decision to improve something even though your way has never been done before?

-how important social capital is. In America, I was raised in a middle-class, suburban environment. Nearly all of my teachers were White and spoke (and taught me to speak) Standard English. I was taught specifically how to shake hands with strangers, how to make small-talk, how to conduct myself in an interview... Everything for how to get along (and rise) in American society was taught to me. I had it figured out. In japan, I didn't. I learned how it felt to not know how to act in a way that is considered professional for them. I learned how it felt to be, for all intents and purposes, socially illiterate. I learned how it felt to be in constant fog of not quite knowing 100% what was going on in a work meeting.

How I was forced to change my personality--
-I'm used to being a leader (or, as Brian says, being a big sister.... Or, as my sisters say, being bossy). In japan, you're the leader if you've put your years in or if you are actually, officially, by title, the leader. Otherwise, you are the masses. 
-I'm used to trying new ideas. In japan, you follow tradition and routine.
-I'm used to experimenting and adjusting plans along the way. In japan, you meticulously plan and then stick to the plan.

2014/04/10

Work Hard, But Not Too Hard, and Then Stop, and Then Do it Again the Next Day


"Give it your all!" they say. "Give it your 110%!" they demand.

Wat.

Why.

No.

Look, I've been there. I've done the sleep-every-other-night, eat-Cambell's-Soup-at-Hand--cold!--while-speed-walking-to-class, shower-every-third-day routine. I hustled and bustled to graduate this school in order to get accepted into that school, and then graduated that school to accepted into this other school to graduate and get a job as soon as I possibly could.

And yes, school is a nice, safe place to tell someone to give it their 100%, or 110%, or 300% or whatever adults are telling kids to do these days. In school, teachers can tell students what to do, students can follow it to a tee and walk out with gold stars, unicorn stickers, and big, red "100%!" stamps all over their homework assignments.

What follows after graduation is a different story. In particular, when you're a teacher, a runner, or a self-proclaimed writer (yes, I am talking about myself in this blog post and in every post in this blog for that matter, damnit), no one is going to tell you that you've given it your 100%, OK, Good Job, You Can Go Home Now.

I mean sure, with tasks it's easy enough to know if you've done something completely wrong: you're a sandwich maker at a cafe and your boss just yelled at you for cutting the cucumbers into quarter-inch slices when he specifically told you to cut them into quarter-sized slices are you trying to run him out of business with all the extra cucumber slices you're practically giving away to customers what is this a soup kitchen for the needy?!; you're a copy runner and you just ran off 80 copies of the first page of an 80-page report instead of one copy of the entire report (again); you live alone and haven't done the dishes in 6 days and have resorted to searching kitchen drunk drawers for lost stashes of takeout chopsticks (something I'm completely making up off the top of my head, what? I've never done this before ha ha ha ha ha).

Yes, it's possible to do tasks completely wrong. Endeavors, as they shall henceforth be referred, unlike tasks, do not come with checklists or cheerleaders or screaming bosses or soft-spoken career counselors that tell you, Yes, You're Doing it Right or No, Slice Those Cucumbers Thinner.

Wait, what are endeavors?

2014/04/01

Traveling Solo: Alert, Aware, and Less Alone and Than You Think

Due to scheduling conflicts, Brian and I parted ways in Malaysia, and I ended up climbing Mt. Kinabalu without my travel partner.
When Brian asked me which country of those I'd been was my favorite so far, I started rattling them of with considerable ease: Cuba... China... France... Malaysia... we both immediately noticed a pattern. "Those are all places you've gone without me" he accused me.

At first, I cold-heartedly brushed off his observation and innocent wist, insisting that it was a coincidence. After all, I couldn't explain why China was more interesting to me than Thailand, why Paris was more romantic to me than Cambodia, or why I was able to meet (and dance the night away with) so many friendly locals in Cuba. I reasoned that I wasn't trying to make him jealous--the fact that those countries were in many ways my favorites was just the way the cards fell.

But then again...

When I went to South Korea with a group of friends, we chattered non-stop on the subways and as we absent-mindedly window shopped down crowded boutique neighborhoods. I hardly noticed the bustling scenes as shop window after shop window after small cafe flew by. In Vietnam, I caught some kind of stomach parasite, so Brian was charged with building our itinerary, dragging me from one landmark to the next, and seeking out plain rice and bread for my meals while I stayed locked up in the hotel or sat with my head down at a picnic table. With someone to care for me, I let myself be led around around blindly. That trip still is a bit hazy to me. In Taiwan, Brian and I met up with one of Brian's Taiwanese friends and for 10 days, we all practically held hands as we stayed at parents' homes, were taken on truck rides by uncles and cousins, and were even told exactly what to eat in order to get the truest sense of the legendary Taiwanese cuisine. Going to Taiwan was like coming home, except without being able to understand anything.

These trips were great. They were memorable. It almost didn't even matter where I was because I was so engrossed and distracted by the warm company of my friends. I had fun, I relaxed, and I was safe.

On the other hand... when I think of Cuba (a country I'd gone to before Brian and I were a couple), I remember vividly the time that I walked through small neighborhoods, past cigar and trinket shops, through a small park with two skinny trees and a stray dog, and by the beach. I bought a cheap popsicle from a middle-aged man wearing a hat. I saw old men sitting at a park bench, smoking and talking. I saw little kids begging their parents for candy I had never seen or heard of before. I saw a stooped, wrinkly, old lady sitting on the front step of a doorway, staring off into the distance and puffing on a fat cigar. Oh, and this magical walk I had gone on? It last about 20 minutes. 30 minutes, tops. I remember meeting up with a group of Cuban friends with my own lose, new group of tourist friends, and making plans to meet up to on a trip to the beach the next day. I remember being proposed to three different times by three different guys--all of whom over 40 years old--when I went dancing at a rumba night club. I remember chatting politics for hours on end as the hours reached into the morning at calmer, quieter night clubs with groups of 20-something-year old Cuban friends.

2014/03/31

Gaijin Smash... In a Good Way.

Today is one of those days where I plaster a smile on my face but wish I could just be invisible and disappear. I wasn't ready for today.

I'm that foreigner who's dressed all wrong, but really can't put the blame on being a foreigner, I guess, I'm just out of the loop... I guess because I didn't ask; I didn't ask to be put into the loop, I didn't know the right questions to ask. But oh well. Gaijin smash. Think wrong things about me, OK, can't do anything about that...

But this morning's bus right to work was more interesting than usual. I hopped onto the bus, was thankful to grab an empty seat (because my legs are still pretty sore). By the time we reached that next stop, though, a (very) old man got onto the bus. I stood up to give him my seat because 1.) he's old and 2.) everyone single other person seated around me was hella old, too. No big deal.

So he sat down, and next thing you know, he and all the old people seated around him start clucking and twittering about how "mezurashii" (unique) I was for getting up for an elderly person. He insisted on carrying my backpack for me on his lap for the rest of the ride. They really just made the biggest deal out of me standing up for him. They asked me what stop I'd be getting off, asked if I'm a student, and so on... I explained that I am an American and an English teacher. "Wakaranakatta," one of the old ladies said. She didn't know I was a foreigner. That was oddly nice to hear, actually. I also hoped that it helped explain to her why I couldn't understand everything they were saying as they were clicking and clacking about me, though I doubt it did. They were crazy old.

And then I arrived at school and saw the same lady I see every day walking her dog. She said that she saw me eating ramen "near the station" the other day with a guy (Brian). Pretty crazy that this lady I don't really know recognizes me off the street like that. I greeted her dog and went the rest of the way to school.

Sigh, all these new people to meet today; my anxiety is abuzz with all the people who I want to make a good impression on.

I think my survival tactic will be to not care at all and just let them think whatever they want. And then hide at my desk and nestle myself in my little comfort nest.

2014/03/30

Hai, Daijoubu Desu


"Daijoubu?" Are you OK? a young, smartly woman asked me as I stepped out of a taxi in Tokyo. She must have seen that no more than 30 seconds earlier, I was just climbing into the same taxi and was now resentfully climbing back out.

"Hai, daijoubu desu." Yes, I'm OK, I replied. Though my backpack, American "style" of clothes (ahem, shorts, flip flops, a T-shirt, and a hoodie), and perhaps my face (depending on who you ask) may have given away my non-Japanese identity, I still tried to be as convincingly non-foreigner as possible. Given the Japanese practice of stoicism in the face of hardship, though, I was failing in my I'm-Japanese-enough fakery.

I started to cry.

She and her three guy friends took pity on me immediately. They surrounded me, asked me where I was trying to go, lamented at not being able to speak English (how did they know I speak English?), and immediately climbed into the taxi I was just in to confront the driver.

Moments earlier, I was tiredly asking that taxi driver to take me to a nearby capsule hotel (very, very nearby) and was showing him the address of where I needed to go. He took one look at me and claimed to not know of the hotel--quite forcefully, in fact. I kept pointing at the address on my reservation paper (written in Japanese), and spoke to him only in Japanese so as not to worry him about taking on a non-Japanese speaking foreigner. I eyed his GPS, but was too meek to demand that he use it to plug in the address and drive me the one kilometer that it took to get to this place. At last, he said something that I didn't catch. "Sumimasen... mou ichido itte kudasai..?" Sorry, can you say that again one more time? I asked. He looked at me, seemed to think something over to himself, repeated that he didn't know where this hostel was, and denied very firmly for the last time to take me there. He gestured for me to get out of the taxi. That's when the kind young woman and her friends found me.

2014/03/16

"See All of Sydney in One Weekend" Mission: Impossible



Day 1: Arrive Sydney International Airport at 6:30 A.M. Get picked up by my dad's high school best friend, my godfather, and his wife. They've lived in Sydney for over 20 years now.

We wind our way toward downtown; we stop at a hillside park to take a picture with the iconic Sydney Opera Theater from across the bay. Meanwhile, a flock of tagged cockatoos feast out on the grass.


2014/03/13

From Shanghai to Beijing and Around and Between

Day 1-2: Shanghai

Day 3: Hangzhou

Day 4, 5, 6: Beijing and the Great Wall

Day 7, 8: Suzhou 

Day 9: Shanghai

2014/03/12

Charm Story Challenge: The Letter

Now, after years of scraping by in high school in a drug-induced haze, getting yelled at and nagged by his mom who was already tired enough from her two part-time jobs and watching over his three younger brothers, nearly getting kicked out of college and getting thrown into jail twice for being drunk in public; after a pregnant scare with his high school sweetheart whom he's since stopped hearing from, three years of instant ramen noodles and coffee for dinner, 206 rejection letters, and only one drunken fight involving only one broken bottle with his childhood best friend, he didn't feel that he'd deserved this. He reread the opening sentence of the coffee-stained, crumpled letter in his hands a third time. "It would be our honor at The New Yorker to publish your submission entitled, '12 O'Clock Shadow' in our next..."

---
Charm Story Challenge posts are original works of fiction 3 sentences, 2 sentences, or 140 characters long. Got a submission? Share it with A Traveler's Charm! Tweet me @April_Isabel.

Charm Story Challenge: Red Telephone

Shaking, she picked up the shrieking red phone, her hands sweaty, expecting the worst. "Hello?" she managed between sobs; next to the telephone sat a framed photo of her with him at the beach cabin last summer, when they went to celebrate his last round of chemo. After a pause, the voice on the other end spoke: "We're sorry, we did all we could."

---
Charm Story Challenge posts are original works of fiction 3 sentences, 2 sentences, or 140 characters long. Got a submission? Share it with A Traveler's Charm! Tweet me @April_Isabel.

Charm Story Challenge: 21 Years Old

He loved the way she swayed when she walked, how she looked standing over the stove in the kitchen when he came home from work, the way she chewed thoughtfully on her hair when he told her about his stressful day at work, and the way her reddish hair framed her her wide, brown eyes. He'd loved her in the old-fashioned way: falling in love young--he, only 7, she, even younger--and remaining by her side two decades later, through her pain and suffering and eventual death at 21. Now, he stood over her shoe box coffin next to her tombstone that read: Rest in Peace Fluffy.

---
Charm Story Challenge posts are original works of fiction 3 sentences, 2 sentences, or 140 characters long. Got a submission? Share it with A Traveler's Charm! Tweet me @April_Isabel.

2014/03/11

A Peak Down Under: Western Australia


Day 1: Get settled in in Perth, Australia. Am met right away by an awesome new friend, Paddy. Paddy picks me up from the Perth International Airport. It's freaking hot out--it's February and summer is just winding down.

Drop off my things at a somewhat grungy hostel. I seem to be the only tourist; everyone else seem to be internationals on work holiday and on long-term stay at the hostel. The guy who met me at reception is a comically helpful, sweet, tiny bit creepy, pale, middle-aged, skinny, medium-height man with an Eastern European accent. He reminds of me of a well-meaning assistant of a villainous scientist in a dank laboratory.

Have dinner in Freemantle with Paddy, Caitlyn (his girlfriend, and a friend of a friend who has also lived in Iwaki!), and their friends (who have all also been to Iwaki...! The world just keeps getting smaller and smaller...).


(See more photos after the jump)

2014/03/10

Rottnest Island... Well, The Hope of Getting There, Anyway.

The beautiful streets of Perth, Western Australia.
I would like to just take a moment and recount the time that I was met by the trifecta of bad luck on my first morning traveling solo in Australia.

It was an early February morning, hot and sticky, as it was just nearing the end of summer. I woke on the top bunk (because I got last dibs on beds) of my dorm room in a hostel, a solid three hours before it was time to catch previously purchased ferry ride to a nearby island called Rottnest, off the coast of Western Australia.

I woke up early because I'm an early riser and I love morning adventures more than late nights and because I was ready to see some quokkas on Rottnest. I fiddled with my phone for a bit, got dressed, chatted with my roommate, had leftover french fries for breakfast, and, at 7:15, set off for the port where I needed to be by 8:30. It was supposed to be a 25 minute walk.

Supposed to be.

I stepped out the front gate of the backpackers hostel and turned right (...or was it left? whether I turned left or right would end up being very important later), paper map in hand. I walked and I walked and I walked. I searched for a familiar street name matching the street names on my previously uploaded city-wide Google map. Street signs were few and far between; whenever I did find a street name, said street name was then nowhere to be found on my freebie tourist map. I combed the fold-able map for a street corner or store that matched the ones around me. None. I 180'ed and walked some more. And then 180'ed and did it again. And then turned a corner. And maybe another corner. But mostly, I did the only thing that seemed right to do at the time: I walked and walked and walked.

After what felt like 6 hours (but was probably 6 minutes), I passed a snappy looking business man on the street. I approached him to ask for directions... but too late--he stepped onto a bus before I could reach him.

So I walked and walked and walked. Finally, I spotted a young guy wearing headphones, sunglasses, and a backpack walking towards me up ahead. I smiled, waved to get his attention, and gestured at my map. He took off his headphones.

2014/03/09

A Shoestring Traveler's Basic Arithmetic

When you're young and free (read: broke and on the road), this kind of math makes perfect sense to you:

-Spend $2 and 6 hours on a train (instead of $20 and two hour on a bus)
-Spend $30 and 4 hours on a local train (instead of $60 and 2.5 hours on a high speed train)
-Spend $400 on a 15-hour each way trip Tokyo <-> Kuala Lumpur <-> Perth, Australia (instead of twice the price for half the travel time)
-Spend ___ on a 12-hour each way overnight train Beijing <-> Shanghai (instead of ___ on a ____ highspeed train)
-Spend $600 on flights for a trip intended for Tokyo -> Bali -> Kota Kinabalu -> Tokyo (even though with transfers, it includes Tokyo -> Osaka -> Taipei -> Singapore -> Bali -> Jakarta -> Kuala Lumpur -> Kota Kinabalu -> Kuala Lumpur -> Tokyo, and 48 hours of that 1-week vacation is spent in an airplane, on a bus, or at an airport)
-Spend $100 on a 10-hour overnight bus to Kyoto instead of ___ on a highspeed and bullet train to Kyoto
-Spend 6 hours and $0 overnight at an airport (many, many times) to save on a hotel and catch that god-awful early bird flight
-Spend 5 hours researching blogs, travel sites, and tour agencies to save $200 on a trip up and down Mt. Kinabalu
-Spend ____ on public transportation and shared rides to see the Great Wall of China on your own instead of ___ with an organized tour 
-Spend $27 on a night sleeping like a vampire in its coffin in a capsule hotel instead of $50+ at a hotel
-Spend $2 on a meal on street food in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Singapore, or Korea instead of ___ at a restaurant.
-Spend $7-20 per night in a crowded, noisy, less-than-clean, hostel instead of $30+ in a hotel.