Apple Country

Stories of rural life as an ALT in a northern Japanese fishing town.


Hakodate Take 2

Every year after the Skills Development Conference in Aomori City, a group of JETs jump on a ferry and head to Hakodate, a city on the southernmost tip of Hokkaido, just a four-hour journey away.  It’s known for its delicious seafood, beautiful scenic views, kitsch burger chain Lucky Pierrot, and more recently as the place where I broke my arm in an unfortunate piggy-back accident.

Despite the many hilarious jokes about broken bones thrown in my direction, I decided to try again and accomplish what I couldn’t last year.  In Japanese this is called リベンジ (ribenji i.e. revenge): a classic case of Japanglish where it’s just… not quite.  Another example of this, which I came across the other week, was when I asked my friend how I could say “repetitive” in Japanese, and he suggested ワンパターン (wanpataan i.e. one pattern).  “This song is catchy but so one pattern!”  Hmmmm maybe not.

I find it interesting how English words make it into the Japanese vocabulary, and I get where they’re coming from but it probably wouldn’t directly be translated like that.  I wonder if we use foreign words like that and don’t realise that’s not how they’re used by native speakers??  Anyway, I digress…

This time in Hakodate I didn’t break anything and I got to see all the sights I wanted and eat everything I came for, including market seafood breakfast, Hokkaido curry, teriyaki burgers, miso curry milk ramen, gyoza, ice cream and crepes.  Parts of Hakodate made me feel like I was walking around Disneyland: the cobbled streets, the tram system, the pink winter sky at sunset, the pretty pastel facades and red brick warehouses, the tinsel hanging from old-fashioned street lamps, the bustle of people by the port… it felt Western but in a weird, nostalgic, not-quite-genuine way.  It’s probably something to do with how 150 years ago, Japan’s 220 years of isolation was ended when Hakodate became the first port to be opened to the public, which brought over many Western influences.  The pale blue and yellow paneling of the old British Consulate in particular felt like a Disneyland attraction.

One night before going on the ropeway to see the night view, we walked around a hilly district called Motomachi, which was full of churches.  We came up to the Russian Orthodox church just as mass was beginning, and we got to hear the bells ring.  They weren’t like any church bells I’ve heard before, and with the clouds lit up by the moon like smoke and the trees with their spindly branches looming over us, it made the atmosphere really eerie!  Alexander and I ruined it though by projecting shadow puppets onto the side of the church.

Highlights of the trip were my 2000 yen (£11) seafood breakfast in the market  which I had twice! (freshly caught sea urchin, cod roe, scallop, squid and crab on a bowl of rice), strolling around the waterfront at night, having Japanified afternoon tea at the British Consulate, doing karaoke in a tiny bar, having an evening of games, drinking and eating in our rented apartment, seeing the night view of Hakodate, and generally being with great friends and getting to know new ones.  I’m glad this time things worked out in my favour!!

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How I almost became a secondary school teacher

For the past few months, I have been playing with the idea of doing a PGCE and training to be a secondary teacher in the UK when I return in August.  Before, I had never wanted to enter a teaching career because I didn’t want to teach my subject, music, and you’re supposed to teach the subject your degree is in.  It’s not that I didn’t want to teach it because I don’t enjoy it; I absolutely love sharing my appreciation for it with others, and teaching piano is the best job I’ve ever had!  However, music is not for everyone, and I remember feeling horrible for my music teachers at school who couldn’t keep control of the class because the kids just weren’t interested.  When my teachers started their training, they probably thought they would inspire new minds and unleash the creativity in those kids that didn’t know they had it etc etc.  But when there are X number of hoops to jump through, school inspections and targets to meet, it’s difficult to allow them that much freedom.  The other reason I didn’t want to teach it, is because I’m not good at explaining theory.  I’m not good at theory full-stop, so I wouldn’t have a chance teaching it at higher levels.  I get music, but I understand it as if it’s a story made up of patterns rather than some kind of mathsy formula.  Some people can look at a chord and tell you it’s an augmented 6th in D minor in root position, but my brain doesn’t work like that!  And unfortunately you’re supposed to know how to do stuff like that in order to pass exams.

What I am good at explaining though, is languages.  I find it easy to understand how language structure works and what components are needed for a particular grammar point.  Teaching English and learning Japanese at the same time means I’ve improved at analysing both languages, becoming able to recognise interesting similarities and stark contrasts that make it stick in my brain.  I thought if I had to teach something at school, it would definitely be a language.  Why not Japanese?  By the time I leave in August, my ability should be around degree level.  Only half of MFL teaching positions are being filled in the UK, so they are desperately trying to employ more teachers.  After doing some research, it turns out there are a few hundred schools teaching Japanese as part of the curriculum, and maybe four or five universities that said they would take me on to do a PGCE when I emailed them.  Maybe they are desperate to let me on even without a Japanese degree!  My shot in the dark was actually looking more and more promising.
Then I started researching secondary teachers’ experiences… it was a huge reality check.  Normally I’m wary of reading personal stories on the internet because I’ve found that people usually only speak up when they have something bad to say, and the good is often left ignored.  I knew that teaching wasn’t an easy profession, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how stressful people claimed it to be.  Every single story I read talked about how long and draining the work is.  Evenings and weekends are sacrificed in the name of lesson-planning and marking, and even those long holidays that are seemingly a perk of the job are spent getting ready for the next term.  This is the deal breaker for me; I love my hobbies and downtime, and if I have to come home after a long day only to continue working into the night and even give up a day of my weekend to do it, then I’m out.  On top of that, there’s the coping with inspections, trying to meet increasingly high targets and dealing with misbehaviour.  Is it any wonder teachers across the UK are dropping out of school like flies?  I read so many blogs where they said they couldn’t take the stress anymore, and had to stop for the sake of their wellbeing.  “Don’t do it unless you feel like you were born to,” one of them said.  They had lost the inspiration and enthusiasm they had when they entered the profession.  They thought they would continue to enjoy their job because they loved teaching children, despite being fully aware of how stressful it would be.  If this is what being a teacher is really like, then I don’t want to do it.
Does it sound selfish?  Of course I want to help children and be one of the people that shapes their futures in some way.  I would love to get them interested in Japanese and get that buzz like I did when I started learning it (it’s still fun now… sort of).  But I’m not prepared to sacrifice my work/life balance for it.  I think it’s completely off that Japanese work culture means staying late just to make it look like you’re working hard, but when a teacher has to do so much extra work that it affects their health because they don’t have a choice, there’s something wrong.
Surely teaching never used to be like this.  I’m pretty certain my parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with all of this, and they turned out alright!  Why is this generation the one that has to have the bar raised so high?  There is too much unnecessary pressure being put on teachers and students alike.  There is more to life than working and studying, and it becomes ineffective anyway if you can’t find time to do the things you enjoy (unless you REALLY love working).  If everyone took two steps back, we might be able to find a good balance.
I haven’t banished the idea of being a teacher completely.  I can still imagine myself in my classroom decorated with cherry blossoms and kanji and Studio Ghibli posters, getting choked up when my first students learn how to count to ten.  Many people go into teaching later for a change of pace and to find work that’s more fulfilling.  But until the government reduces the pressure on schools and teachers, I won’t be one of them.