Apple Country

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


Floating on through July

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…


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.


Reflections and resolutions

As far as milestones go, 2014 has been an eventful year for me:

I turned 21, graduated university, moved to another country, started my first full-time job, and rather less fortunately broke my arm.  This year has been full of changes, and I feel like I have also changed quite a bit as a result.  Even though I’m permanently 16 in my head and I still think the 90s were ten years ago, the responsibilities that come with being a fully-fledged adult (technically) have made me realise that I’m actually in control of my life now.  Sadly I’ve also realised that independence comes with all the boring bits like sorting out bills and insurance (doesn’t help when it’s in another language) and I no longer have loving parents to whom I can thrust such baffling articles, with the assurance that they’ll be taken care of.

Over the past year, in particular the months I’ve spent in Japan, I’ve noticed slight changes in my behaviour and personality, which is a good thing I think!  I like looking back on my life in phases: I remember the music I was into, the kind of clothes I wore, the people I hung out with, the way I did my hair… but I can never pinpoint when one phase became another.  It reminds me of one of my favourite seminars I had at university about the watershed between musical periods.  Even though they all have specific dates for when they occurred, it wasn’t as if 1821 rolled around and everyone was like “Okay guys, Classical is out and Romantic is IN!”  There has to be an overlap, where the features that stand out start paving the way for whatever new ideas are being formed over time.  I feel like I’m also leaving behind the old parts of me that aren’t really relevant anymore, and creating new parts which I can develop and benefit from.

I can look back at my phases and see which features carried over to the next, and I enjoy reflecting on the good choices I made, like leaving bad friendship groups and getting rid of my block fringe.  Naturally my more regretful incidents make frequent appearances in my mind, and I automatically shake my head when I think about them as if that will somehow release the unwelcome memory into the air. Some features have never changed even though I want them to, and this is something I’ve gradually noticed and am trying to improve.  One of the biggest changes started at the end of last year when I suddenly realised I was in my final year of university and hadn’t been as socially active as I would’ve liked.  So I joined a load of societies, said “yes” more and spent time with people as often as I could instead of hiding away in the comfort of my bedroom watching Netflix.  My final semester was by far the best, as I’d made an effort to meet new people and try things I normally wouldn’t have.  I took this little lesson with me to Japan and have already made some close friends that I know I won’t let go of, something I found way easier to do here than when I was at university for some reason.

There is one thing about me which I really want to change, and although I’m trying, I still find it hard to open up to people easily and it’s like I always have my guard up.  I don’t know why I do it but it really annoys me!!  So I suppose the first step is realising my problem…  I feel like a recovering alcoholic or something.

Anyway, here are my 2015 resolutions:

  • Be at JLPT N2 level of Japanese by the end of the year
  • Cook actual recipes rather than throw anything I have into a pan and hope it works
  • Make more of an effort at my schools outside class, like set up a pen-pal club and put an English board up
  • Do my washing up straight away (this is my least favourite resolution)
  • Go somewhere new at least once a month

Yesterday I signed the contract to stay on for another year in Japan, seeing as I made up my mind a month ago and hadn’t had any second thoughts.  While two years does seem like a long time to be away from home, there is still so much I want to do while I’m here and I don’t think another 6 or 7 months will give me enough time.  One of the biggest factors was the thought of having to leave as soon as I’ve settled down, and then having to start again with another job.  After a year I’ll know what I’m doing and I’ll know my students and colleagues better, so I’ll be able to get more out of my job and not just feel like I’m constantly on this learning curve.  It’s not like I have any commitments to go back to and I won’t get this opportunity again, so England will just have to wait for me for a bit longer.  I hope I don’t regret my decision after I’ve experienced my first winter here!!  My apartment is so cold in the morning I can see my breath, then I get to work and it’s like being in the depths of hell they have the heaters turned up so high.  Only another 4 months to go until Spring…


I’m a quarter of the way through already?!

A few weeks ago my supervisor handed me the documents regarding my decision to accept or decline reappointment on JET.  I’d barely been here for two months and already I was having to start thinking about my future in Japan.  But now that I’ve done exactly a quarter of my year-long contract, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to come to a decision about staying or leaving.  I don’t have to decide until January at the very latest, so I still have some time to think, but I thought it’d be worth considering my experience so far and how it might change in the future.  Last week I was 80% sure I wanted to stay, and since my parents have been visiting that’s gone down to 50%!  Maybe they made me realise that I do miss home quite a lot (even if I don’t show it) and that there are other options I could choose instead of staying here another year.

Why I want to stay:

  • Japan is so completely different from anything I’ve ever experienced and I love the challenge of living here.
  • I’ve made some great friends already and I really love hanging out with the other ALTs.  Next year I’d get to meet even more new Aomori JETs!
  • I will never eat such amazing Japanese food for so little anywhere else.
  • There hasn’t been one day where I’ve seriously questioned my happiness here.
  • The job is not very demanding (see cons!)
  • I worked hard to get on this programme and it was such a long (and expensive) process I feel like I should make the most of it by staying.
  • I don’t want to go home, end up in a boring job and wish I hadn’t left Japan.  I’m worried that I’ll feel really comfortable here and then have to leave when I’m still having a good time.
  • I want to become a master of nihongo.

Why I want to leave:

  • I miss my family and friends and dog.  I know everyone I grew up with is moving on with their lives as well, but it’s hard knowing that it’s impossible for me to spend any time with them.
  • The minority of my time is actually spent teaching, and even then I’m not always used to my full potential. While I enjoy the job, because I’m only an assistant I have little control over what is taught and how.  2 days a week in an office with no atmosphere is also fairly dull.
  • Eventually I will have to move on and find a permanent job which I can grow in, so maybe the sooner the better?
  • This year has been fun because everything’s been a new experience.  Next year everything will seem normal and routine, which might make me lose my motivation.
  • Living in the middle of nowhere has its drawbacks!
  • Knowing this is only temporary makes it hard to settle in my apartment.  I want to make it as ‘me’ as possible but I know I’ll have to abandon it soon!
  • 5 months of living in an igloo.

So what do I do?? Someone decide for me please.  If only there was an extra 6 months option instead.  Honestly I’m kinda leaning towards leaving at the moment… but the main reason is because I don’t want to be bored next year and feel like I’m wasting my time.  However I will (most likely) never get this opportunity again…

Hopefully I can come up with something by January!

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Boredom threatens

With only an hour left before I go home, I have successfully wasted the majority of another day at the Board of Education.  While the novelty of being in Japan hasn’t quite yet lost its shine, the days where I have nothing to do at work are really starting to wear on me.  I am in the BOE two days a week, whereas nearly all other JETs either just have one day or none at all and spend the rest of their time teaching in schools.  At first, two days didn’t seem like a problem to me – I thought this would give me plenty of time to create fun activities and lesson plans, then spend the rest of the day studying Japanese when I’d finished.  However I have found myself with very little to do and because of this my motivation to do anything has completely vanished.

Only one of my schools gives me full control of planning the lessons and leading them, which is great because they actually trust me and don’t just use me as a human tape-recorder, so it gives me the opportunity to try things out and steer away from the unimaginative exercises in the textbooks.  However the other two schools are a little tricky – at one of them my JTE  plans the lessons herself and then quickly tells me what we’re doing on the way to the lesson, which I can cope with… and the other JTE told me he usually plans the lessons on the day.  I haven’t actually taught a proper lesson with this teacher yet but I’ve got a feeling he’s going to ask me to make a lesson plan off the top of my head, so I’ve printed off a load of general activities just in case!  I’ve spent the least amount of time at this school so I still need to get a better idea of how the lessons work there.  The first time I went there I was about to do my first introduction lesson but he went off to class without me, and when the bell rang I realised he wasn’t there, so I had to find the classroom by myself.  This made me a couple of minutes late, and when I eventually found the right room, I was greeted by applause from the teacher and the rest of the class.  It was a bit embarrassing… he was probably just trying to be funny but I think he felt bad after I told him I had no idea where he’d gone!

Anyway this leaves me with just one school where I actually know what the structure of the lesson is so I can prepare for it effectively.  This week there is a national holiday on the day I’m teaching there, and next week I’ll only be teaching one lesson.  So I basically have 3 whole days at the BOE to prepare materials for 45 minutes’ worth of teaching.  This doesn’t include the 5 extra hours per day I have at the other schools during my free periods.  To sum it up, I’M BORED.  I tried to study Japanese this morning but got fed up after trying to learn a grammar point which had 5 different uses and I couldn’t tell the difference.  There is only so much textbook studying I can do before my brain gets completely fried.  I have a meeting with my supervisor next week to discuss my personal aims while I’m on the JET Programme, so I’m going to ask if I can use one of the BOE days to alternate between the schools, as I really feel like I’m wasting my time here.  I do want to stay another year, because apart from this particular issue I’m having an amazing time and want to get the most out of living in another country as much as I can, but I may have to sacrifice some of this experience in the interest of my sanity!  I hate the feeling of knowing I’ve done nothing productive all day.  My aim from now on will be to create a list of at least 3 things I could do during the day so at least I’m not aimlessly looking things up on the internet and staring at the same page of my textbook for hours.

At least I have a day off tomorrow!  I’m going hiking up a mountain with Bridget (we’re leaving at 6am waaah) so it will be a good opportunity to take my mind off things and stretch my legs.  Apparently it takes 4 hours to get to the top, but we’re going to an onsen afterwards which should be an interesting experience seeing as it’s my first time!! Anyway it’s 16:30 now so I’m off to calligraphy class.  Hopefully I will reach zen if there aren’t too many kids running around the tables next to me!  You have to sit in seiza (kneeling) position the whole time, which is PAINFUL.  I promise my next blog post will be significantly more positive than this one!!