let’s enjoy trying

September 12, 2008

I’ve had a while to settle in now, and this means I’ve had more time to digest all the bizarre things that go on here in Japan. As I was telling a friend the other night, there are some things about this country that will forever remain beyond the realms of my comprehension. It’s such a wacky and nonsensical place in many ways, but at the same time, so ordered and simple. But I’ll embellish more on that some other time. I’m feeling more comfortable now that I’ve been here for six weeks, but by no means am I a natural. I mean, I was asked if I was wearing coloured contact lenses and if I had a perm in my hair. This week has been a bit of an anomaly in that I had my first day at my final school and my base school has been busy with exams. So that makes for a grand total of three high schools. Here’s a bit of a rundown:

Kohnan – This is my homebase. The people in charge of fitting out my apartment (ha!), making sure my bills get paid and generally holding my hand are all Kohnan staff. My supervisor, Kaori, is one of the English teachers and she’s really great. I’m not sure how old she is as you can never tell with the Japanese. So I think she would be thirty-five at the most. She is kinda tall for a Japanese woman and has the most perfect posture of anybody I have ever seen. Every move she makes is graceful and perfectly balanced. Her English is grammatically perfect but still sounds kinda stilted and occassionally straight-up humorous. She told me one day a couple of weeks ago that I had a “great sense of styling.” Kaori is so prim and proper that I find myself forever pushing the boundaries of acceptable Japanese office humour in an effort to expose her bad manners. Sometimes I get a real belly laugh out of her but usually not when I expect it. She has been so nice to me since I arrived and bought me some new linen as a welcome present. It was a good thing she did, too, cause the Board of Education didn’t deem it necessary to ‘splurge’ on bed sheets for me. Kaori has taken me all around town setting up my utilities and explaining things to me. I’m still pretty clueless and helpless when it comes to this whole Japan caper but if it weren’t for her I’d be in a whole heap of trouble.

The other staff are just as friendly as her. The guys in the office (not secretaries, just like general admin guys) helped me fixing the light and TV reception in my apartment. The vice-principals and principal are cool too except they don’t speak any English whatsoever so I have little reason to ever talk to them. The English teaching staff are all awesome. Including my supervisor and myself, there are seven of us, and four of them are attractive young females. Win! Nemoto-sensei is the best guy ever. He knows evrything about every subect. He’s an English teacher who has read Nabokov and is able to make witty metaphorical jokes in his second language. Every time I have some odd question about an obscure aspect of Japanese writing or grammar, the other teachers all say the same thing: ask Nemoto-sensei. He knows everything. Still, nobody  (Nemoto included) has been able to explain to my why the character はis written when it is わthat is pronounced. The classes themselves are still warming up so I’ll have more to report on those later.

The Kohnan students are all pretty rad, with the exception of a few of the older kids with bad attitudes. They always try to make me feel like I’m invading their territory, which is true to a degree, but I’m just another teacher really. The first-year students (ages 15-16) all get heaps excited when I come to their classes, even though most of them couldn’t talk their way out of a paper bag in English. There was one first-year kid who spotted me at the train station one Friday night though who came and spoke to me in decent English. I had never seen him before and I was so surprised at his ability I asked him if he’d been overseas and if he watched millions of English movies. He answered no to both questions – I still can’t believe it. He’s probably got the best English of any of the kids at this school. Anyway so the point is the standard of Engilsh isn’t winning any awards but most of the kids are pretty cool. 

After schools when I get restless I occassionally take my footy outside and look for kids to kick it to. Usually I just bomb it at them from a distance and they flip out with excitement – firstly, because the foreigner is coming, and secondly, cause they have no idea what is going on. Playing footy with Japanese kids is amazing fun because it makes me feel like I’m actually good at football and also because they have no idea what is meant by ‘contact sport’ so I can push and shove and bump them out of the way at will and I feel supremely muscular. 

I’m still trying to find a way to weasel my way into the music department. I’ve decided I will buy a guitar over here but so far haven’t and I have an itching to play. There are these four dudes with crazy manga hair who play ‘music’ together in a rock band after schools some days. I don’t think they have any songs; they all just stand somewhat near each other and play their own shit. To this day I haven’t heard them play more than 4 bars together in time. Maybe once I get more comfortable I will invade and try to actually play something with them.

The focus here definitely isn’t on university entrance and subsequent subway suicide, and I like it that way. Their baseball team is one of the best in the ken and they have a full-blown cheerleading squad. The students artwork that hangs around the corridors is all seriously good and their school bands are good too. I’m glad I’m not in charge of making sure these kids can study their way into some white-collar nightmare of a job.

Shirakawa Jitsugyo – This is a technical school in Shirakawa of all places. Takes me over and hour to commute there in the mornings and costs me about $10 each way on public transport. Hardly worth the effort for the amount of work I have to do when I’m there, but anyway. 

The kids here are at about the same standard as Kohnan. They offer various engineering and agricultural courses as well as the standard ‘home economics’ thing which is what all the girls do. I’ve only been there twice so far but they get super excited when they see me. One particular third-year class consists of forty girls – simultaneously frightening and awesome. One girl offered to take me to Tokyo Disney, at least two of them asked for me phone number and another offered to make me lunch. Fairly awesome but intimidating. The teachers here are so great. My supervisor at this school is another young girl who gets nervous before some of her all-boys classes. She was explaining to me that they are rude and loud and I was fearing the worst. But for the first time since been given my teacher’s badge of honour, I put my authoritarian boots on and kept them in line by regailing them with stories about Australian football and some mild teasing. One kid cheekily asked if I wanted to go swimming with him and I said only if he stays at the other end of the pool. He more or less shut up after that.

They have a staff meeting every morning where the two vice-principals make general announcements and it’s all very curt and and well-behaved. These two guys sit at the front of a huge long room which also houses about forty of us underlings. It doesn’t stop certain teachers sleeping at their desks between classes though. The main building of the school is a huge U-shaped structure which encloses a giant Japanese sand and rock garden, which is amazing. There are two ‘islands’ with huge boulders and windswept pine trees perched upon them, surrounded by a perfectly raked ocean of sand. It will look even better in winter.

I like going to Shirakawa cause it helps to break up my week and I feel a bit closer to civilisation, even though I have to get up at 6am to catch my train.

Nishigo Yogo – My third and final school which I visited for the first time this Monday. This is a special school for kids with disabilities located on the outskirts of Shirakawa. Takes even longer and costs even more to get there but it’s worth it for the experience. The kids here all have different levels of disabilities. Some of them just have severe ADHD, about a quarter of them are autistic (some quite mild, some who are likely to scream and shout at any given moment), some can’t read or write (dyslexic I suppose), some of them have emotional disturbances, but much to their endearing credit, they all seemed the least startled or excited by my presence there.

I think there are only about nintey students here, aged between 14 and about 20. During the day I wore the most fugly pair of boots and a hick’s straw hat and went bean pickin’ with the kids. It was good fun! Just to get to know some of the kids and staff and sit back and observe. Obviously there’s not much of an academic focus here so my class didn’t involve any actual teaching. I just showed a slide show of Australian animals and got the kids to try to bounce the football. As an aside, the kids at Nishigo are as good at doing this as any other Japanese people – they are all equally hopeless. It’s simple physics, guys – pointy end first so it bounces back to you. Apparently they don’t see the simple part though – I’m revered like a virtuoso every time I do it. I’m so glad I brought it with me – it has been such a great ice-breaker.

Anyway, each of the kids in my class at Nighigo came up to me and introduced themselves in English and told me their favourite fruit/vegetable/colour, which is more than I could say for the students at my other schools. I guess it does have something to do with their disabilities (lowered inhibitions, that kind of thing) but it was still pretty amazing.

I’ve only been there once so I don’t know too much about it. Unfortunately the Japanese love their public holidays and most of them fall on Mondays, which is when I’m supposed to be at Nishigo. So I’ll only get to go there maybe a dozen times in total. So I guess that is more than enough for now. I’ll have more specific anecdotes next time but since I don’t have the internet at home yet (being installed on the 25th) I haven’t really had time to sit down and write a decent blog.

On the weekend I went to a traditional-style tea ceremony with one of the teachers from my office and his daughter (I thought she was 21 but turns out she is 30 and married, mental). The tea ceremony was beautiful, so quaint and delicated. One of the other English teachers was participating so she was there all dolled up in her kimono and she looked absolutely stunning (and I told her so).

This afternoon I’m gonna tackle some more Japanese study before I heading over to the music department to help the choir pronouncing the lyrics to this hymn that they’re singing (again, all girls, totally frightening). After school I might pay a visit to the local swimming pool. It’s been heating up again this week and apart from riding my bike everywhere I’ve been feeling pretty lazy. As for my study, I’ve started learning some of the kanji (Chinese characters) and verb conjugations. Constructing sentences is still more or less beyond me though. I am able to understand the odd conversation that flies about my office but I’m still very much in the habit of speaking English. I’m gonna work hard on that over the next few weeks.

Tomorrow I’m heading down to Tokyo for the long weekend. On the agenda is wandering around Shibuya and going to some party, the details of which I have no idea about. The trip down there takes about 4 hours on the regular train and costs about $35 AU. On the shinkansen it’s more like $60 but only takes an hour and a half. Maybe once I make friends and no longer have to get a hotel room I’ll consider taking the shink but until then I’ve gotta stop splashing money around. Nevertheless, this weekend promises to be absolutely filthy and I’ll come back with lots of disgraceful photos.

Take care, friends.