Apple Country

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


Cultural challenges

Occasionally I’ll come across misspelled gems when I’m marking students’ work or looking over their shoulders in the classroom during a writing task.  This week has been particularly amusing, starting with Monday when I was marking writing exercises using the passive tense.  Conjugating verbs into the passive is a pain in the arse for anyone learning English thanks to all the irregularities, so I sympathise.   I asked the students to think of a person or object and write three hints about it so others could guess what or who it is.  I’m glad I put my coffee down when I read the last one from my pile of papers, which said, “He was boned by my mother.”  It took a while until my JTE and I realised he was trying to say “borned by”.  The logic was there at least.  やっぱり英語って難しいな~。

Yesterday we were making sentences like “I (do ~ ) when I’m happy/sad/bored etc”.  One student wrote “I crap when I’m happy.”  Of course I never actually laugh at the students, but I can’t help having a quiet giggle to myself.  I feel for them though, R and L are really hard to distinguish from a Japanese perspective.

There’s one 2nd grader (13 years old?) who is hilarious and will always beckon me over for a chat when I’m walking around the classroom making sure people are getting on ok with the task.  He is so determined to speak English even though most of what he says is one word questions or mostly gestures, but despite this we end up having some pretty interesting conversations that usually just result in him asking in Japanese and me replying in English, so at least he can use his listening skills.  Yesterday he asked me what surprised me most about Japan when I first got here, and I said the level of customer service.  Japanese shop assistants treat you like a VIP, from the precise way they handle your money to the honorific language that they use.  In contrast, I told him that shop assistants in the UK might have a little chat with you and ask about your day or even compliment you on something you’re wearing.  Both countries have their negatives though; in Japan I feel like I’m being served by robots because everyone says the same few set phrases, and in the UK sometimes I just get completely ignored throughout the whole transaction.

I love these little exchanges of culture because it makes me appreciate both sides instead of just taking one for granted.  It still makes me sad though how most Japanese people I’ve met, including the students, have never left the country or just have no interest in going abroad.  We actually did a lesson on opinions the other week, and one question was “Do you think English is important?”.  I was a little disappointed to see that over half the class wrote that they didn’t think so.  The majority of the reasons were along the lines of just not wanting to go abroad, but one student simply wrote 日本人だから。 (because I’m Japanese.)  Cue eye roll.   This lack of open-mindedness does make me realise why foreigners get such bizarre treatment a lot of the time in Japan.  Yes, Japan is a special country full of interesting food and culture, but internationalisation is a thing, even if it happens more in other countries than here.  One thing that stands out is the NEVER ENDING COMMENTS about how amazing it is that foreigners can use chopsticks or eat sushi.  One of my principals spent half the evening at a teacher’s gathering asking me if I could eat such and such Japanese food, then practically wetting himself when I said yes.  He couldn’t believe it when I said we could easily buy soy sauce, noodles and tofu in UK supermarkets.  He leaned over to the other teachers and exclaimed how miraculous it was that I could eat rice.  He brought a bowl of a variety of spinach to school once, slapped me on the shoulder instead of using my name and told me to try it.  He stood behind me as I ate, saying “How crazy is it that foreigners can eat this stuff?!  She probably won’t like it.” while the teacher next to me said, “Actually, I’ve never tried it either.”

Of course not everyone is like this, and this is probably a more extreme case of alienifying foreigners, but even in a subtler form it puts me off staying here long-term.  I love my life here, but I’ll be relieved to be back home when I can blend into the crowd again and not feel like a special snowflake.

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Bunkasai – school culture festival

All my junior high schools had their culture festivals the other week, which is a chance for them to proudly display their recent work around school and put on a variety of performances on stage for their family and friends to see.  Every year a theme is chosen, and the students and teachers transform the school with decorations accordingly.  Each classroom has a different display.  The pictures below are of the display to find out about your personality.  I did my best to translate the description for people who like green i.e. me.  If you know me well, I wonder if you agree with it!  I thought it was pretty accurate…

“Find out your personality and psychology based on your favourite colour”

“People who like green: Fundamentally calm and has a steady way of doing things. Is also very patient. Strong endurance, kind personality, dislikes fighting and seeks ordinary calmness. Behaves properly and doesn’t cross others’ paths. Wants to cooperate with people, so lacks self-assertion. “

Last year one of my schools chose “Frozen” as their theme, and even though I can’t stand that film it was pretty cool to see the classrooms covered in paper snowflakes and icicles.  This year, the schools’ themes included “Grow up” (with Alice in Wonderland decorations) and “Infinity”.  Motivational expressions are a thing in Japan so they usually go with something like that.  My favourite school had the “Infinity” theme, and began their opening ceremony with a white canvas lying flat on the middle of the floor, with only the symbol for infinity painted on it in red.  The music started (One Direction, of course) and a group of students dunked their hands in some paint and started making prints all over it.  Another student wrote the Japanese for infinity 無限 (literally “no limit”) inside the symbol.  She used what looked exactly like a mop, but I’m sure it was much more sophisticated than that…

Then the music changed and the Vice-Principal entered from the back, in this badass blue hakama, carrying a long red sash.  I really liked the song they chose because it sounded like the beginning of Bittersweet Symphony by the Verve, and I looked it up later and it was One Direction, AGAIN.  I don’t like it anymore.  Anyway, the VP knelt down at the edge of the canvas, tied one part of the sash underneath his arms and around his shoulders, then tied the other part around his head.  He then proceeded to elaborately write calligraphy from the top to the bottom of the canvas like a true expert.  It was one of the most kakko-ii things I have ever seen.  I just asked the lovely janitor at my school what the sash is called and why they wear it, cos I wasn’t having any luck with Google… but it doesn’t have a special name, just the Japanese equivalent of “sash”.  She said people wear them to keep the sleeves out of their way when they do stuff like cleaning and calligraphy.  If you’ve seen Spirited Away, it’s like what the bath house cleaners wear with their pink overalls.

He tied it sort of like this...

He tied it sort of like this…

I was asked to help judge the chorus performances in the morning, and got free tickets to get noodles and a chocolate banana from the canteen room.  After I ate with the students, I was challenged to an arm-wrestling match by a sumo-loving first grader.  She looked pretty strong so I didn’t hold back, but she lost to the surprise of her friends.  Then the third grade boys wanted to have a go, and the competitive side in me came out… I beat them all until I taught them a few techniques and the tables drastically turned!!  It’s because my arm was tired, ok?

Being part of the chorus is compulsory, which is a shame because it means the quality of the singing is compromised… but at least it gives them a chance to try it out.  All students sang the same song at the beginning, then each class took it in turns to sing the song again, followed by another song that they’d chosen.  I wanted the first years to win, but it seems like the third years just won by default from being the most senior year.  My opinion was denied (even though we agreed 1A was better than 2A in the beginning) and the music teacher changed her mind, putting 3A in first place, then 2A, then 1A.  She agreed that 1A were very good for first years, but it was the “team effort” that counted.  Fair point, but that doesn’t make 2A better singers…

When I arrived at school on Tuesday,  bags and bags of stripped-down decorations lined the corridor, waiting to be thrown away.  It made me kind of sad that they didn’t keep them up longer, but it seems that’s the way with most celebrations in Japan.  Even at Christmas, come the 26th December, there isn’t a strand of tinsel in sight.  At least it means you don’t get those weirdos who leave their Christmas trees up until March.