Monday Chilly Blues, Japanese Lessons, and Indian Curry

Sakurako and Momoko passed out after a long day of school, dinner, language lessons, and entertaining Brian and me.

I've somehow neglected to update on my day-to-day in Japan, so here's an attempt at it.

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014. I'm bundled up in a heat-tech long-sleeved shirt, a fleece sweater, and a fleece blanket-hybrid-poncho, pajama (or pyjama) pants, and wooly socks. I'm sitting in mine and Brian's cluttered living room, soaking in the winter sunlight. I'm home because I'm sick--some classes at some of my school were actually shut down because the flu and noro virus is going around. No signs of diarrhea for me yet--I may have lucked out and only have the flu instead of the notorious 'noro'.

Today's not a very typical day, so I'll write about yesterday.

It was a drag to wake up and get ready yesterday, Monday morning, partly because the apartment was hovering above freezing temperatures and partly because we had gotten in late the night before after a full weekend in Tokyo.

Nonetheless, ever since the string of teachers leaving at one of my high schools where I work, I've felt a greater sense of responsibility to my students as one of their few English teachers left. I mustered up a sprinkling of will power to get my morning momentum going: jump out from under the layers of thick blankets, slip on my slippers, pull on a sweater, brush my teeth, make coffee, eat cereal. Get dressed (settle for somewhat presentable office attire), shove a plastic bag containing odds and ends of leftover foods to for a junk-food ridden lunch into my backpack, grab my phone and charger, frantically lace up my shoes, kiss Brian goodbye, run out the door, and dash down four stories of staircases toward my bus stop to catch my bus.

So goes the "morning rush" in my household.

I try to ride my bike to work as much as possible... though "try" is a term I grant myself generously. When I was back home, I mentioned to my uncle my bike commute (without including how often--er, seldom--I actually do so). "Wow!" he said. "I always wished that I could bike to work and experience what it's like." That sent me for a guilt trip real quick.

Rather than dwell on the guilt of not taking advantage of my healthy and cost-saving opportunity to bike to work, though, I want to use his statement as a reminder for an important lesson: that sometimes, the things that we complain about or don't want to do, are what others out there are wishing they could do.

My uncle also dreams of one day being able to teach English abroad. When I'm not feeling challenged, when I think about all the other jobs I "could" have, the money I "could" be making, or the other places where I "could" live, I start to lose perspective on what a great opportunity I do have, how much disposable income I do have, and all the places I've been. I'm beginning to outgrow this new experience--this challenge--of moving to Japan to teach English, but I can't lose sight of how thankful I am to have had this opportunity to come to such a challenge and learn so much so fast that now, almost two years later, I'm ready to move on.

I arrived at school a few minutes early and cheerily greeted the few teachers in my secondary staff room (the staff room for the part-time teachers, non-homeroom teachers, and assistant teachers) who were already there, ready to start the day. About 8 seconds after I entered and sat down, one of the teachers with whom I'm closest to entered the room.

"Have you heard the emergency?" he seemed to be addressing the whole staff room, but after half a second, I realized he was speaking English so he could only be talking to me.

"No, what's up?" I always speak to him much more casually than I would speak to any of my other coworkers. He lived in America from the time he was 10 years old until he was 16 years old. He speaks English fluently but confided to me that the English part of his mind and mouth is that of a 16-year-old boy. Based on his love for "Pulp Fiction" and his constant swearing, I take his self-observation to be accurate.

"The other English teacher's daughter is got the flu, so she has to stay home to take care of her. She asked me to assist you with teaching second period."

"Oh, OK. Thanks! There's not much to do, we're just practicing for their interview test."

This seemed to put him at ease. As a "san-nensei" (high school third grade, thus, graduating students) teacher, he's overworked with preparing the students he's worked with since they entered high school three years ago for high school graduation, university, and the rest of their lives. The last thing he really needed on his plate was to be sitting in on my "ichi-nensei" (first grade) English class.

My teaching schedule is different every single day. I'm supposed to have a somewhat stable class schedule for the school year--some students have my class for 50 minutes once a week, others once a month, others once in the school year. However, with teachers getting sick, test schedules, students getting sick, and everything else that happens in life, I usually have to make do with showing up at a different school each morning, finding out what grade and and which classes I'm teaching, and stringing together a set of English-related, culture-related, or holiday-related activities. My classes are sometimes as small as 6 students. Today, on a day when every other high school first grade English classroom teacher was out sick, I was in charge of teaching a class of 120 students (three classes combined) in the lecture hall.

If you're a teacher from back home, or even ever attended public school back home, you would know that 120 students plus one assistant teacher plus one substitute teacher is a surefire recipe for disaster. Add to that the fact that the students haven't had a stable English teacher all year. And of course, add in the fact that I hardly speak Japanese... Perhaps you get the picture.

First period was a prep period, so I did my best to prepare for the unexpected.

Eventually, that bell for second period rang, and so came the expected unexpected. We couldn't find the computer that we usually use for PowerPoint slides, only one of the three classes of students who were supposed to show up to the lecture hall showed up at first; one students ran out to grab one of the other classes, and the third and final class of 40 students finally showed up 15 minutes into the class period. The projector wasn't working, students forgot to bring their handouts from last class, students were roaming the lecture hall not knowing where to sit...

But, luckily, that all was the worst of it. One valuable lesson I've learned from teaching in Japan is that classes and --most importantly--classroom cultures come in all shapes and sizes. These group of students are like a mob of mini, over-achieving university students. More than 90% of students turn in all their homework more than 90% of the time. More often than not and, frankly, to my dismay, classes are pin-drop-silent, despite it being a communication class.

All this in mind, do I have textbook-perfect lessons each day? Are my students' tests scores anything to brag about and reason for patting myself on the back, finally resting assured that I, too, did my homework, knowing that with perfect conditions I am, indeed, the perfect teacher?

No, no, no, no, no. And no.

It's teaching me in the gentlest way possible that I only am who I am and I can only teach as well as I can try regardless of how calm or crazy, motivated or not, a classroom is. One fifty minute lesson comes and goes, as does the school day, as does the school year, as does a child's high school life. It comes and goes. I do my best. And then we all go home.

Is that depressing? I hope not. It's not depressing to me... downplaying (or seeing for what it really is..?) the impact of a teacher helps lighten the stress load for me. It helps me do my best without taking small things too seriously.

Back to my second period: I physically went through and got the students through all the activities that I had planned: conversation demonstrations, practice conversations, student conversation demonstrations; interview practice structure, interview practice time, interview performance feedback. Could the day have gone better? Yes. Could it have been worse? Yes. In the end, no one got hurt, and all is well.

Because my classes were consolidated all into one, I had no classes to teach for the rest of the day. As it is, I usually am only given 3 periods out of 6 periods in the day to teach. This is surprisingly quite typical for teachers in Japan; the idea is that there are plenty of teachers at the school, so teachers only seem to teach about half as much as teachers back home. The remaining periods are for teachers to meet with each other, lesson plan, and mark papers. Pretty sweet deal, right? In practice, each teacher has a very different life from other teachers. Some oversee sports and club activities, which keeps them at school until as late as 9 or 10 o'clock at night and either at school or at tournaments all day Saturday and sometimes multiple weekend and weekdays in a row, staying overnight at hotels with student club members. In my humble, outsider opinion, it's not fair that there aren't practices in place to ensure that a teacher won't go for three months straight without a free weekend and without monetary compensation for overtime. Some argue, though, that these teachers entered the public school teaching world knowing what they were getting themselves into and if they don't like it, they should have chosen another profession. At the same time, around here, the school is one of the (if not only) centers of society and daily life. Perhaps teachers who put in countless harrowing extra hours are simply living their life in as fulfilling as they can.

From third period on, I was charged with marking some students' diary entries and meeting with students individually to practice English conversation, writing, and debate. All of this has turned into great fun for me--it's nice to have a few anchor students in my life: students who names I actually know, who find me helpful, and whose paths I feel I can make a decent contribution to as they work towards what they want to be in life.

On the side at my desk, besides lesson planning for one of the other three high schools where I teach, I'm now also in the process of making the necessary preparations for life after--well, this. I sent out my fourth job application yesterday. So far, I've heard back from one. All of the jobs are (very, very, very) long shots, but I'm trying to focus on the quantity and quality of my applications as I send them our more so than the likelihood of any given application actually amounting to something. I'm just reminding myself to be patient and let change take the time that it needs to take in order for it to be good change.

After school, I ran errands--I walked to the bank in the center of town to withdraw a huge sum of cash, as is the norm in Japan. With high prices for, admittedly, high quality transportation (...and the frequency of which I travel...), the lack of open ATMs outside of regular business hours, and low theft crime rate here, it's no wonder than we're comfortable walking around with $200-$500 in our back pocket. Today was another such day for my pocket.

Afterwards, I walked to the train station. I made a reservation to take a bus to Tokyo in two weeks (!!!!) from today for my trip to Australia (!!!). I bought a ticket book for four highway bus trips to Tokyo, which cost ~$110. Soon, they'll be raising those prices, so I'll probably stock up on these tickets and buy another ticket book. It's expensive, but those tickets fly out of your hand fast. In two months, I'll have made four round trips to Tokyo. Sometimes, you just gotta fork over the cash and not dwell on it when you're trying to have adventures of a lifetime.

From there, I bundled up and braved the chilly Iwaki winds and walked one block down to the city library. I returned a library book which I started and finished with 24 hours. I've been devouring books like a madwoman lately; it's become more habitual than writing and as habitual as brushing my teeth. Today, I returned A World to Come by Dara Horn. I was sad to drop it in the return chute; I wished I could keep it to flip through and reread a lyrical and poetic allegory every now and then. Alas. Goodbye, book, and thanks for being awesome.

I was starving by this time, so I ducked into Mister Donuts for a quick snack (meat and noodle soup (niku soba) and a custard-filled, strawberry-cream, chocolate doughnut. I was not looking forward to running into students at the doughnut shop, considering I was by myself on a week day evening having what seemed to be a pitiful dinner all by myself. And then I remembered that I'm not a high school student any more and that they as shy high school students are more embarrassed to be seen by me than I am to be by them. So there. I walked into the shop and sure enough was greeted by a chorus of "Oh! Ei-pu-ri-ru! Harro!" I said hello back and then retreated to my inward, solitary world. The meal was delicious.

Amidst all these errands, I ran into a total of a dozen to two dozen more of my students passing by on their way home or out with their friends. Many of them called out to me to greet me. Eventually, I started to appreciate the feeling of being at home, "where everybody knows your name...".

As the sun set and the chill settled in, I set off for my last errand of the evening. I walked a few more blocks away from the city center to meet a coworker for some work things. I'm choosing not to get into this too much right here right now. Maybe another time.

At 5:40, I walked back to the train station to meet my Japanese teacher. I was 10 minutes late. We do this to each other a bit though, which is actually quite nice for me after months and months of rigid punctuality in Japan after a lifetime of being 30 minutes or more late to meet friends.

In the car on the way to her house, I caught up with Takahashi-san and her daughter. I spoke to her daughter in English so that she could practice English, and spoke Japanese with Takahashi, for my practice. Conversation was running relatively smoothly as I recapped my weekend in Tokyo (met up with Adrienne, a friend from California, watched a sumo tournament, visited a neighborhood dedicated entirely to used book shops, wandered Harajuku, stopped in at a Calbee store, found a hole-in-the-wall, gourmet coffee shop and ordered a $5 shot of Bailey's espresso). Somehow, we got into a discussion of the technicalities of a sumo match, the fact that the previous yokozuna moved on to politics in Mongolia, and Arnold Shwarzenegger's own stint in politics. Such topics in Japanese were really stretching my mind to its limits, but I'm thankful for these instances.

This evening, Takahashi brought me to the bookstore and helped me pick out a new study book. I always get starry eyed and excited when talking about books or when I'm in a bookstore--a feeling that Takahashi-san knows all too well. She guided me through the elementary 3rd and 4th grade level Japanese books and recommended titles for me to practice Japanese. It turned out that she had all these books at home (which actually is no surprise, considering that she has shelves upon shelves of about 600 picture books, comic books, and novels at her house), and she was willing to lend me all the books I want to read. I was elated.

We got back to her house and studied Japanese for an hour. Brian joined us after word and studied, too. When Sakurako, Takahashi -san's other daughter came home from school, she took over the lesson while Takahashi-san prepared dinner (Indian curries, chicken tandoori, salad, tumeric rice, naan, and salad!). In total, I spent the usual 5 hours with Takahashi-san last night. It's always so much fun getting to know their family, exchanging stories in Japanese and in English, eating all kinds of amazing food, and feeling at-home in a warm, cozy, real, home away from home.

And, well, that brings me to today. This morning, I found out that I passed my Japanese proficiency test with flying colors! I'm extra motivated to study, study, study, and practice, practice, practice in time for the next Japanese proficiency test date. I don't know if all this studying is leading up to something grand, knowing Japanese and learning a little more is helpful for me right now, every day, so why not? We don't always have to know what we're working towards in order to work hard.

Lastly, just a reminder for myself, as a lover of writing who puts off the daily responsibility of writing in hopes for a grand, love-at-first-sight, type of inspiration to get my pen moving or keyboard clicking: your manifesto will not come on its own in middle of the night, ready and waiting for you when you wake up in the morning. Life is enormous as is; all we can do is try and keep up. So write, write, write; whether it's good or not, let others decide. Til then, just write, write, write.