When people have asked me how I feel about leaving Japan soon, this was a phrase I quickly learned – a tto iu ma – “a blink of time” or literally, “the time it takes to say ‘Ah!'”
Two years feels especially short when I think about how other JETs have stayed as long as five years. But as I wrote in my last post, the longer I stay here, the harder it will be to return home. I guess I chose to sacrifice the short term for the long term. I said goodbye to all my schools last week, and I was surprised how appreciated the students made me feel. I never thought only seeing them each once a week would have that much of an impact, but when some students gave me lovely personal messages, drawings of me and even asked for my UK address so they could write to me, I realised how close we had actually got during that time and how much I’ll miss them.
On Monday night, the shock of leaving hit me really hard and I couldn’t sleep at all, thinking about how difficult it will be to see the friends I made here again. It will be relatively easy to see my Japanese friends as I know they’ll always be here, but sooner or later, my JET friends will all move on with their lives and end up scattered around the world. However this does mean I have a good excuse to go travelling and see them! When I’d finally managed to get to sleep, about two hours later, the man living across from me decided 5am was a good time to start hammering away at something in his shed for an hour. I stuck my head out the window and yelled at him, because I didn’t care about being a nice neighbour anymore with only a week left, but he didn’t hear me anyway.
Clearing out my apartment is really tedious and I hate it. Especially when it’s hot and humid and all I want to do is lie on my sofa and eat watermelon. I’ve also amazed myself at how much crap I managed to acquire in two years, and the CARDBOARD, oh the cardboard. But it must be done, and I tell myself everything will come together in the end, because it always does!
Last Saturday we had a taiko performance and then a party afterwards which one of the group leaders organised for me. I nicknamed him Boss a while ago and he was so chuffed that now he makes everyone call him that. We decided that the guy who sort of oversees us as a group, but doesn’t really play with us, needed a nickname too, so I suggested Chief, which also turned out to be a big hit. We got very drunk and I was serenaded at karaoke with a powerful rendition of Queen’s I Was Born To Love You featuring some hilarious backing dancers.They are all such a fun group of people, I’m sad I only got to know them proplerly in the last six months. I could see us hanging out together more often outside practice, but obviously that won’t be happening 😦 But I’m glad I did have those six months! I remember how hard it was to feel like I had a place in the Japanese community, as I just didn’t click with anyone in my own town. I’ve been so lucky to have Lauren in the next town, who’s not only been an amazing friend to have, but without her I wouldn’t have had met the taiko group and made such good memories.
I met up with my friend in Aomori city on Monday, as I had to change my visa so I can use the JR Pass to go travelling. We went to the fish market where you buy 10 stamps and can choose whatever seafood you like to put in your ricebowl. I got all my favourites, including ikura, unagi and a huuuuuuge juicy raw scallop. Then she took me to an old-fashioned looking ice cream sundae place where she used to go as a teenager. I had a “B.B.” which was apparently a “big black” sundae, with big scoops of chocolate ice cream, an oreo, chocolate covered cornflakes and sliced banana. I couldn’t finish it though… We looked at the UK guidebooks she’d rented from the library because she wants to visit during spring next year. Looking at all the nice photos of English gardens and pretty shop fronts in London actually made me feel a bit better about coming home, and even more so at the prospect of showing it around to a friend.
There are currently five abandoned blog posts sitting in my drafts. Every time I try to write something, my thoughts start drifting in a completely different direction and I can’t focus on what it is I’m trying to say. I feel bad because I have hardly posted anything in the past few months, and now that the realisation that I have such little time left in Japan is finally hitting me, I’m cycling through feelings of excitement, sadness, relief and regret. It’s also because I’ve run out of free space for photos, which is a bit boring.
In some ways I wish I had posted more about the little things that happen every day. Like today when the student who’s a bit of a troublemaker and hates English told me I was good at drawing, in Tsugaru-ben, I replied also in Tsugaru-ben she got really excited and proceeded to teach me more phrases in the dialect. Or how I tried on a yukata in a shop two months ago and didn’t like it because it was a bit drab and old-fashioned (like the rest of the patterns there) so I didn’t buy it despite the sales assistant really going for the hard sell, then asking me for my phone number and address “just in case I changed my mind”. Since then she has sent me handwritten letters asking me to come to the store and get a yukata, along with promotional leaflets, and she’s even called me twice asking me if I’m free to come into the store. Seriously? I couldn’t believe she was being so persistent. I was polite the first time she called, and told her I wasn’t interested and not free that weekend anyway so I couldn’t go to the store. Then I got another call tonight and as soon as she started talking about her effing yukatas I told her to stop harrassing me and calling my personal number, and then hung up. I actually got a yukata the day after I first went there at a different shop. It’s cerulean blue, printed pink all over with big slices of oranges, and I got a yellow obi to match! I may have got the least Japanesey type pattern just to spite annoying Yukata Woman… but I actually got it because it’s so goddamn funky fresh.
When I was finishing university, all the good stuff seemed to happen at once just as my final year was coming to an end, and it feels the same way this time, except a million times better. I’ve built some amazing friendships here and finally got to the point where I feel like I have a place in the Japanese community and enjoy hanging out with Japanese people instead of just other JETs all the time. I love the social life I have here, and the fact that there is always some kind of event going on in Aomori that I can go to or join if I want. I feel like I’m getting better and better at Japanese, still far from fluent, but to the point where I can spend six hours drinking with people from my taiko group and chatting about anything and everything with no struggle, then not being able to sleep because my drunk brain won’t shut up thinking in Japanese. I am going to miss everyone so badly, and sometimes wonder if I made the right decision to leave when all my friends are staying for another year. Then I remind myself why I did, and realise that it all comes down to making compromises.
Firstly, I CAN’T HAVE EVERYTHING. This has been my mantra for the past few days. I had legitimate reasons to leave, and when I think about them, I know a third year here would have dragged. I’m ready to move on from being an assistant teacher and I’m ready to leave the remoteness of where I live, even if it is ridiculously beautiful and I’ll never get to live with this kind of scenery again. I am also extremely ready for a winter where I get to live somewhere with actual insulation and I don’t spend half the year worrying that I’m going to crash my car in the snow. (How’s that for first world problems?) Even if it makes me sound like a wuss, I’m looking forward to snuggling with my dog in front of a toasty fire again.
Maintaining friendships from the other side of the world is hard, too. Tecnology has been amazing for keeping in touch, but it’s not the same and I miss my friends from school. I know another year away would put a bigger strain on that, and even though most people have moved away from home now, I can’t wait to see everyone again. At some point my friends in Japan will have to move on too, and it would be just as hard, if not harder, for me to say goodbye a year from now.
Two years doesn’t feel like a long time until I think back to what I did when I first got here, and suddenly it seems like I’ve been here a decade. I feel like I’ve done a lot during my time here, and sorry for getting a bit clichéed, but I also feel like I’ve changed a lot as a person and really discovered what I’m capable of. I’m singing and playing bass in a one-off show with three friends tomorrow in a bar… I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have done that two years ago. I moved halfway across the world at the age of 21 and survived – thrived – for this long. I admire the ALTs who stay longer, even up to five years, but for me the work would feel stagnant way before then. I love who I have become and I’m excited to see where my new-found confidence and fresh perspective of the world (I have learned just as much about other cultures as I have Japan, thanks to 99% of my friends here being non-Brits!) takes me. University was a bit of a disappointment socially; I didn’t make any lasting friendships and I regretted not joining more societies and clubs sooner. Maybe that’s why I knew I had to make the most of it this time, because I didn’t want to close myself off to good opportunities again.
Next week is my last week at school, so I have to give a farewell speech in front of everyone. I’m nervous because I hate giving speeches and I’ll probably get a bit teary-eyed, but I have some fun things planned for my final classes and I’m going to make lemon drizzle cake for the teachers. One teacher has been particularly kind to me since I’ve been here, and hinted that she wanted me to draw a picture of her dog, so I’m going to do that for her too. She took me to do a glass-blowing workshop with some other teachers, and they paid for me! I chose to make a small vase with blue and white colouring. I don’t get to see how mine turned out yet, because she’s making it into a “which teacher made which item?” quiz at my leaving party.
It will be hard to say goodbye, but I still have some more drinking parties, Nebuta matsuri, then two weeks of travelling and Summer Sonic to look forward to. I have to keep reminding myself that I won’t be able to go home until I’ve seen Radiohead, and that makes me feel a lot better. Plus, I might even bump into them at the airport the next day…
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.
I looked at my blog history the other day and realised I posted at least once a week when I first starting living in Japan. Now it’s more like once a fortnight, and just because things have stopped being new and shiny doesn’t mean I don’t have stuff to say! I’m just lazy. I’m thinking about making this blog less focused on my personal experiences (I’ll still post them though) and more about general life and my thoughts on living in Japan. I also want to start making comics about little things that happen here or that make me laugh.
I can’t really believe I’ve nearly been here a year already. I’ve made so many great friends and it saddens me that some of them are getting ready to go back to their home countries in August. I’m so glad I decided to recontract after all, as I would probably have gone into a deep depression if I had to leave in 6 weeks!! I can honestly say this year has been the best of my life. I have never had so many moments where I’ve just been walking down the street, or had someone smile at me for no reason, or been driving along the coast in the sunshine and getting this overwhelming feeling of happiness. I know that some people on JET think that a lot of other JETs sugarcoat their experiences and just brush all the crap that happens under the carpet, but that’s not what I’m trying to do here. Everyone glamorises their lives a little bit (some more than others, thanks to social media and overuse of #blessed) and it’s hard not to compare lifestyles with other people who won’t shut up about how great theirs is. I could write a whole post about that but I might save it for another time as I can feel a ramble coming on. I genuinely love my life here, and yes living in Japan and being on JET definitely has its flaws, but I have found ways to either confront them and improve the situation, accepted that that’s just the way it is and move on, or learn to cope with them differently. Some examples would be:
Having too much time at the BOE. Two full days a week was unnecessary and taking its toll on my sanity, so I finally managed to get my supervisor to change it after asking him five or six times. He said the two ALTs before me didn’t seem to mind (not true, Bridget told me they both hated it) but they didn’t do anything about it. However if I’m going to be here another year, I’d rather not be wasting my time in a dreary office when I could be chatting to my teachers and students at school. So now instead of going to the BOE every Monday and Thursday, I get to go to my favourite school on two Thursdays a month, an elementary school one Thursday, and only on the fourth Thursday do I have to go to the BOE again. Persistence pays off!
Living far away from society has its disadvantages, but I actually think it’s made me more adventurous. I’ve got used to driving long distances and no longer mind spending two or three hours travelling to social events. The roads here are beautifully easy to drive which is a plus, and with all that nature thrown in for me to look at, it’s not too bad really.
Dealing with new JTEs is always a bit awkward as you have to learn how they work and what they expect from you, and in my experience all my JTEs work differently. When I first arrived, one of my JTEs acted cold towards me and didn’t want me to do anything in the lesson. I was nice to her though even though we didn’t like each other, then one day I found that my desk had been moved opposite hers and she was super friendly from then on. I spent ages making a Mario Kart game for another school and brought it every week JUST IN CASE she asked me to do something. One day she said she had no idea what to do for the third years, and bam, I whipped out my awesome little Mario Kart characters and whiteboards and she was sold. I also had a new JTE this year who was kinda distant with me, but last week I tried out some new ideas in my lessons which got rave reviews from the students and my JTE. I brought in real British money, some hats, scarves and sunglasses to set up a ‘shop’ for a shopping dialogue lesson. The students were in hysterics as one of the boys posed in my woolly bobble hat and asked the class how it looked. Relationship with JTE (and students) magically improved!
I know other JETs have had way worse experiences, like not being used at all in school, having to find an apartment and furnish it from scratch by themselves, having a useless supervisor etc. I’m certain your future on JET is half due to luck and half what you make of it. I’m lucky that I live in a beautiful prefecture with an awesome JET community. I’m lucky that my apartment is in good condition and my shower doesn’t have pipes that are prone to bursting in the winter. I’m also very lucky that I get a free car and gas. Being closer to Tokyo would be great just for the convenience of travelling to other places, but I honestly don’t think I’d want to live anywhere else, given the chance. I’m so excited to begin my second year in Japan. I don’t feel like I really made any lasting friendships at university, and the experience didn’t live up to the “this will be the best time of your life” expectations that I had when I went. I came to Japan with fewer expectations as I knew the JET experience was very hit or miss, so I knew I had to make it work for myself. So far I think I’ve done okay, but could do more while I’m here. If I left now, I’d feel like I’d only done half the things I wanted to do. I really want to make more friends in the Japanese community, but it’s hard when 80% of my town’s population is over the age of 50 and spend their days working in the rice fields. I want to learn the koto, so I’m going to find myself a teacher. I want to travel around Japan more. I want to speak more Japanese to my teachers instead of relying on their English. I want to get my language skills to a point where it would be possible to get a Japanese-speaking job. I’m taking the JLPT N3 in two weeks so if that goes well, I’ll know I’m on my way!
This morning, I was called into the principal’s office at one of my schools. I could just imagine all the teachers in the staffroom turning their heads and ooooh-ing at me as I walked out the door, but we are all adults here. He’d come to watch my lesson earlier, so I had to assume it was something about that. I brought my diary with me anyway just for something to hold on to.
We sat facing each other on the fancy brown leather sofas and he explained the situation: my British accent is confusing the students, who are learning from a curriculum based on American English, and therefore it would be better if I spoke with an American accent. I expected they would be more familiar with American English as I only teach them once a week anyway, but this request took me by suprise. He said he had spoken with the students about it and they agreed that my accent is indeed quite different when compared to the recordings they listen to during class. I told him I understand and that I always make an effort to use American spellings and words during the lesson instead of British English (which already pains me to do), but it would be difficult for me to speak with an American accent.
“But don’t you have American friends?” he said. Yes… but that doesn’t mean I can talk like them! Your school’s English teachers are fluent (well… almost) in English but still retain their Japanese accents, so go figure. And do you really think I’m going to be able to keep that accent up for a whole hour?!
I told him again that I wasn’t really comfortable with the idea. “Just try,” he said. I suggested that if they didn’t understand a word, then I could try saying it the American way. He said that two different pronunciations would only confuse them more. By this point I was completely flummoxed by the whole situation and said I would do my best, as it didn’t seem like I was going to get him to see it from my point of view and I wanted to go back to my coffee.
I posted what happened on Facebook to get some opinions from other ALTs. As I was writing, I realised that it’s just another example of jumping through the hoops of the Japanese education system. Asking me to speak with another accent not only completely misses the point of representing my cultural identity, but considerably limits students’ understanding of English as an international language. American is not the only accent in the world. In reality, you do occasionally meet English speakers from other countries. What then? “Sorry, I don’t understand you. Please can you speak like an American?” A friend suggested that I should start speaking in a Southern drawl and see how they like that accent.
I’ve witnessed many examples of the unwillingness to bend the rules in Japanese society, but this one caught me by surprise. Exam results are important, but languages require a little more freedom. A huge part of the JET Programme is about international culturalisation. How can I do that when I can’t even represent m own country properly? I would’ve explained this to him, but our whole conversation was in Japanese and these thoughts would’ve taken me a little longer to compose! Going to see what my supervisor thinks about it. What confuses me more is that my town actually asked for a British ALT…
Have any other ALTs out there had anything like this?
March is the end of the school year in Japan, and unlike in the UK, graduation ceremonies are a really big deal. I had three days in a row of JHS graduation ceremonies, which was probably enough. One of my teacher’s asked me if I was going to wear hakama, which is a kimono with a dark skirt worn over the bottom half. Hakama are worn by teachers instead of normal kimono so that they don’t draw attention away from the students’ jazzy-looking mothers. I said I’d think about it, but I don’t think she expected me to actually wear one.
Wrestling with my giant foreign feet
Luckily I know a lovely lady from my English conversation class who used to dress people in kimono for a living, so I asked her if she would kindly lend me one for one of the ceremonies. She was more than happy to oblige! She has a room in her house dedicated to her kimonos, and kept saying how much fun she was going to have dressing me as she never gets the chance anymore, and has all these kimonos with no one to wear them. She and her husband spent about an hour showing me all their old photo albums and telling me about their family, who’ve moved to other parts of Japan so they don’t see them very often. After I tried on a kimono, they gave me tea and fed me and said they wanted to be my adoptive Japanese grandparents! She had to buy zori especially for me as my feet are so big, and even then it took a good deal of effort to get them on. I made her some scones as an apology/thank you.
I tried to get a video of my Japanese granny dressing me up, but it was a bit difficult and this is all I could manage in between her turning me this way and that, and giggling as she gleefully slapped my stomach with some force after putting the different belts on. I loved the whispery sound the silk fabrics made as she expertly folded, tightened, pulled and wrapped it around me, muttering to herself in Japanese.
It wasn’t easy to breathe once I had everything on, and I suddenly felt great sympathy for women who had (or still have) to wear these every day, especially in the hot Japanese summer. It slackened a bit and didn’t feel too bad until I tried to eat lunch later on!! I imagine wearing a corset is even more uncomfortable. I absolutely loved wearing hakama though!
It was just me and another teacher wearing hakama for graduation, as everyone else wore business suits, but they seemed to really enjoy seeing me in traditional Japanese clothing! Japanese ceremonies are very formal and polished so even the way the students march, turn and bow has been rehearsed to perfection. When the teachers asked me what I thought of the ceremonies, I told them I thought they were very serious, and they were a bit shocked when I said we don’t really have graduation ceremonies for school in the UK. Then I was shocked when I asked the students if they were going to a party to celebrate, but they said they weren’t doing anything, except one girl who was going to practise table tennis. We may have not had a ceremony when I graduated, but getting all dressed up for prom and dancing away the last evening with all my classmates was so much fun. The ceremonies were very emotional and pretty much all the students were crying as they moved down the line of teachers to shake our hands. I was just thinking… you’ve still got three more years of school!! But they really are like one big family to each other, so it was sad to think they’re all splitting up to go to different high schools.
The school year is nearly over, so my JTE and I thought we could give the kids a break by doing a cooking class. He wanted me to teach them to make something traditionally British, as long as it wasn’t rice pudding. Another ALT made rice pudding at school once and it didn’t go down well at all; rice for dessert is a huge no in Japan! It’s something that I actually find quite confusing because they have loads of sweets made of rice, although it’s usually pounded and not cooked like normal rice. So I opted for scones as they’re really easy and exceptionally British and I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like scones.
Baking is not a thing in Japan at all. I realised this when shopping for ingredients and found that self-raising flour and caster sugar don’t exist. There is not nearly as much variety in cake decorating things either… no jelly diamonds or silver balls?! What on earth. Managed to get my hands on some baking powder though so my scones still had a future.
They faced another hurdle however due to Japan’s minimal baking habits: ovens. I think the majority of Japanese homes are equipped without them, and instead people buy toaster ovens for heating things like pizza and bread. I actually bought a small conventional oven when I got here and it’s awful but at least I have the option to cook things without frying or boiling them.
Because there aren’t any ovens in school (only a micro-combi one) my JTE asked me to bring mine, and he’d bring one too. I got to school and he’d brought a toaster oven. “How many scones do you think we can cook in it? Ten? Twelve?” he asked hopefully. The tray was big enough for two slices of bread, so we decided to make the scones a little smaller than normal. The second and third years gathered in the home economics room, and we got started. The easiest part was just mixing everything together, and I had fun showing them how to make the flour and butter into breadcrumbs using their hands. They were very unsure at first but once they got stuck in, they did a good job! However when we started putting the scones onto the trays, they started rolling doughballs in their hands to make neat little spheres. I quickly explained that you can just tear a bit off and plop it on the tray and they were amazed that such little effort went into its presentation.
The actual baking was the most stressful part; we ran over time as I expected, so for the next hour I ran back and forth between 3 “ovens” located at different ends of the school (I have no idea why we couldn’t have just moved them to the same place) making sure that the scones didn’t burn while the kids were in class. Only being able to cook a few at a time was a pain as the baking trays were so small. But we did it! The toaster oven was a bit precarious though and I wouldn’t recommend one for baking! I heated up the top and bottom bulbs but the top one got hot VERY quickly and the baking paper (and scones and possibly the school) would’ve died a terrible death if I hadn’t been watching it.
The students came back just as I was setting up the tea table. I put cream and jam out but the cream wasn’t quite what I thought it would be when I bought it. It looked a bit like clotted cream, as it was kind of solid but soft enough to spread, and it had “milk cream” written on the lid. I tried a bit off the spoon and it was overwhelmingly sweet and more like buttercream than anything else, but the kids didn’t seem to mind!
Some of them tried their tea the English way as everyone drinks it black here, but they weren’t exactly overwhelmed by it and I don’t think they’ll be converting anytime soon. Probably because I used Japanese “breakfast” teabags and (unintentionally) low-fat milk… Not quite the proper cuppa.
I was just glad they enjoyed them! I told them to slice the scones lengthways and spread the cream and jam on each slice (I didn’t say in which order as I’ve heard convincing theories that support both). Some ate them like a sandwich. I’d occasionally seen scones in bakeries in the bigger cities but they didn’t look the same as English ones. I don’t know what they tasted like because the buggers didn’t even save me one! I had a burnt one earlier, which didn’t actually taste too bad, so hopefully the non-burnt ones were okay. They ate them all too, which can only be a good sign. As I was clearing up, one boy took the jam dish before I could and tipped the remains into his mouth. Ugh.
But hurray for baking success! Next time I’ll probably just make flapjacks though…
I’ve spent a lot of time blogging about life in Japan and my experiences with cultural differences, but I realised that I haven’t really written about what I actually do when I’m at school. I’ve heard many JETs complain about how being an ALT isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. While I agree that the JET Programme could really do with some improvements regarding how ALTs are utilised at school, on the whole my teaching experience has been a positive one. In this post I’m going to give you a little insight into what happens at my three junior high schools.
My Tuesday school is the closest to home, a five-minute drive away. The first years are my favourite class, whom I teach in the morning, and I go to class a little early so that we can chat together. They’re all really adorable and friendly, and one of the few classes whose students actually come to the front to talk to me before we start the lesson! One of the boys loves talking about eating meat and tries to use it in an answer wherever possible, which always makes me laugh. Sometimes I bring in my Mudkip toy (known in Japan as Mizugoro) to throw at the kids to get them to answer questions. Every morning they run to my desk to see if I’ve brought him!
I get free rein to do whatever activities I like at this school, as long as they correspond with the grammar they’re currently learning in the textbook. The 2nd and 3rd years finished their books weeks ago, so I’ve been experimenting with different games for general English review. I’m trying to be more ambitious with my activities, so I made a Mario Kart game which we played last week. I cut out Mario characters for each team to choose, and made a variety of cards using items from the video game like Red Mushroom, Blue Shell and Banana Peel. The teams who wrote the right answer on their whiteboards had to janken (rock paper scissors) for a special card. It was a lot of fun, and refreshing to do something that didn’t involve worksheets for a change. The last round ended in the most intense Mexican standoff game of janken I’d ever witnessed, with the remaining boys screaming ROCK PAPER SCISSORS at each other and launching their fists into the ring like they were cracking whips. It ended with the leading team scoring a Red Mushroom (least desirable special card) and getting one extra roll of the dice, which only gave them a 1. The game finished with them landing on the last space before the finish line which had the whole class in hysterics. Definitely one of my best lessons!!
My Wednesday school is an hour’s drive away and the smallest with a total of 38 students. The students here are by far my favourites! The classes are so tiny and the whole school is like a family. In fact all my schools are like that; seeing such tightly-knit school communities is really lovely. There is absolutely no bullying and everyone is friends with everyone. Coming from a big high school where random kids would insult each other as they crossed in the corridors, it really amazes me how the size of a school can impact student relationships. Even the low-level kids don’t get picked on like they would’ve been at my school. But my Wednesday kids are my favourites just because they’re all hilarious and really energetic. They get to work on my activities with such enthusiasm and always laugh at my stupid jokes and drawings. One of the 3rd years is seriously amazing at English. He is one of my regular letter-writers (I have a box at each school) and the other day he wrote something along the lines of “…I wanted to ask you something but I forgot. Sorry, I’m getting all confused.” And I was like… where did he learn that?! Everyone else can just about say which sport they like best. I also like these kids because even though they live in the middle of nowhere and don’t have a lot of entertainment available to them, they have awesome personalities and ambitions.
I like the teachers at my Friday school the most. I sit next to a teacher who’s about my age and has similar interests to me, so she’s really fun to talk to. I feel more like I’m part of the gang at this school, as I’ve been to more social events with the teachers here and I feel like I know them quite well. One of the teachers invited me to her wedding reception dinner (not the ceremony, which happened a few months earlier) and asked me to play the piano. Even though I didn’t actually play on the day because they all thought my arm was still bad and didn’t bring a proper keyboard, she asked me to play for her after school the next week. Some other teachers and students came to watch too, so I was rather nervous… the music teacher made me come out of a little side door like it was a proper performance, which I hadn’t done since my recitals at university!
My Friday JTE used to be my least favourite, as we got off on the wrong foot on my first day when I wore a pencil skirt that was too businessy and not schooly enough, and she was pretty cold to me for a while. But since then I’ve managed to win her over and I have a better relationship with her than my other JTEs. Back in November she did a lesson on Skype with my dad, which I couldn’t actually do because I’d broken my arm the day before and was sitting in hospital haha. I took some pictures of the students’ work though which is really sweet/hilarious/scarily realistic/a bit Walter White.
“We talked to Ms. Ellen’s father who’s in the UK!”
I really enjoy teaching at these schools and although it’s not something I want to do as a career, I can see why so many people want to be teachers. For me there are two things that make this job special: the first is when a student calls my name for help. The feeling of being wanted, of sharing your knowledge even if it’s just how to spell a word, of hearing someone tell you that they understand now because you helped them is a deeply satisfying thing. The second is the letters that I receive from students. When I get 30 letters at once all asking me if I know about some kind of video game, I know the teacher has asked them to write to me. I enjoy reading them, but replying with almost the same answer 30 times in a row gets a bit boring… The ones from students who send them because they actually want to talk to me are the best ones. Even though they’re usually all in Japanese, I always reply in English. I’ve had a few portraits done too!!
I covered all my letter boxes in old Beano comics. On this one I made sure the Bash Street Kids were on the front!
*AOL voice* “You’ve got mail!”
School lunches (kyuushoku) here aren’t bad either. Most Japanese schools don’t have a canteen, so all the students eat their lunch in their homeroom classroom. Lunch typically consists of some kind of soup, a bowl of rice, some vegetables or salad, fish or meat and a carton of milk (which I never drink). 90% of the time it’s really good! 10% of the time I might get something pretty horrible like a gristly slice of pork covered in oil, or soggy takoyaki.
Standard Kyuushoku (not my photo)
I’m never deprived of snacks either. Once or twice a week, I’ll be presented with some kind of Japanese sweet as a souvenir of another teacher’s travels. I like this tradition of bringing tasty local delicacies to the office until I go travelling and it’s my turn to haul numerous boxes of them back for the teachers.
So these are the best things about teaching in Japan. Of course there are plenty of negatives, many of which I agree with. I used to find having so many free hours boring, but since I’ve really got into studying Japanese again and putting extra effort into making fun lesson plans, the days go by at an alarming rate! I’ve heard quite a few stories of why JET is a waste of time, and it may not be something I want to do forever, but I’m only going to focus on the positives for the rest of my time here. Sometimes it’s far easier to complain about things than appreciate what’s good, and complaining about something only makes me hate it more. Nearly seven months have passed now and I’m well out of the settling-in phase, so for the next year and a half I’m going to make everything I do count! With this in mind, I went for a walk during my lunch break in the beautiful sunshine, posted some letters, and finally visited the little cake shop I’ve passed so many times. The lady only stared at me at first as I browsed the selection of madeleines and manju, but then she smiled warmly and we struck up a conversation. I’ve made a new resolution to visit more of the little shops and restaurants in my town, even if I am terrified of eating alone and getting stared at by a load of fisherman. I’m used to it now…