Apple Country

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


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Japanese School Life as an ALT

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!

“Mizugoro”

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.

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“We talked to Ms. Ellen’s father who’s in the UK!”

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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!!

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I covered all my letter boxes in old Beano comics.  On this one I made sure the Bash Street Kids were on the front!

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*AOL voice* “You’ve got mail!”

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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…


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Life in another prefecture..?

I just read 24 Things That Will Make You Re-Consider Your Entire Existence, and while I do love killing my brain with impossible questions about the universe and beyond, questioning my own actions from the past is far more tortuous.  I know how simple it would’ve been to say something different or choose the other option, but I’ll never know how that would’ve turned out.  (Prime example: not saying “Let’s try again!” back in November when the first piggyback didn’t work…)

Last week the cold Aomorian weather got me contemplating what life would be like further south of the country.  What if I hadn’t decided to put Aomori as my preference as I had done right at the last minute?  At one point I’d been considering Shimane, which is completely the other side of Japan, right at the southern tip of Honshu.  I made the mistake of looking at their JET website just now – beaches, islands, surfing, snorkeling… Sometimes it’s hard not to feel bitter about living where I do and compare it to other JETs’ lives and experiences around the country.  But then again, most people only shout about the things worth shouting about.  And in a way, I do the same thing – I take photos of beautiful scenery and anything that I think people back home might be interested in looking at, because I doubt anyone wants to see photos of the inside of an office.

How do I know somewhere like Shimane hasn’t got half of what Aomori’s got?  They’re both two of the most rural prefectures in Japan, so the lifestyle probably wouldn’t be that much different.  Living in a big city like Tokyo would be fun and I’d never be short of things to do, but would the cost of living hold me back from doing them?  Maybe I wouldn’t feel like I had a place there. Fukaura’s not exactly the most glamorous place, but it can be remarkably beautiful.

Saw Mt. Iwaki looking especially fine on my Sunday stroll last week

Mt. Iwaki was looking especially fine on my Sunday stroll last week

Living in a small town means I get a lot of attention, and even though I get tired of being stared at and pointed at, sometimes people express their curiosity in a way that reminds me how some people here might never have travelled even as far as Tokyo in their whole lives.  Part of the reason I’m here is to reduce the stigma towards foreigners in Japan, so the locals are bound to be interested when they see me roaming the streets with my ridiculous hair as I take photos of their jumbled up front gardens and the mountains they’ve seen every day of their lives.

Fukaura definitely scores points for incredible scenery and I’ll never live anywhere like it again, but its isolation does make me appreciate more where I grew up; I’ve been spoiled my whole life by living so close to the buzz of London, and just as easily being able to retreat into the countryside, but only now do I realise how lucky I was.  I was close to so many things and didn’t take full advantage of them.  Not just places near my house, but other parts of the UK and Europe.  Driving 15 minutes to a friend’s house used to seem like effort, but now I’ll drive over an hour to see someone without thinking about it.  A train to central London took 40 minutes, and the nearest city to me here takes 2 hours by train, even though it’s actually more like going to Kingston.  A 3-hour drive to university was only considered worth doing twice a year, but now if there’s an event on the other side of the prefecture, I’ll happily drive that far in one day!  Ain’t no mountain high enough…  I imagine in most cases of “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”, it’s too late or too difficult to go back to what you had.  But as this is only temporary and I hopefully didn’t break Surrey’s heart too badly by leaving, I can go back and see it through the eyes of an old Japanese fisherwoman with the vitality of a 23 year old, so I can do ALL the things.

However I’m trying not to miss home too much, as the two years I’ll be in Japan is nothing compared to the rest of my life in the UK (unless its course changes dramatically and I go to Australia, marry a surfer with freckles and tousled hair and spend the rest of my days hanging by the beach, which I’d actually be quite happy with).

So anyway, I may have the occasional rant about where I am, but to tell the truth I do actually like it here!!  I’m even starting to enjoy winter… I’ve realised that wishing it away won’t help so I’m embracing the next two months of snow.  I was going to write about my coping methods in this post, but it’s getting quite long now.  I’ve had this one as a draft for about two weeks but keep having more to add, so I’m gonna try more frequent but shorter posts from now on.  またね!