BLANKs (things that seem to have inexplicably never made it to Japan)

Random Events (things that made me go "WHAT?")

Fusses (self-explanatory)

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Brits win the tooth race (of 6 countries, except for Sweden)

Writing in "Communication Breakbown" about my embarrassing dentist experience in Japan got me a-thinking about teeth in Japan, as you do, so I thought I'd write a couple of my funny observations here...not that Japanese teeth are different to British teeth, but, you know, Japanese people and their teething escapades.

One thing I would say about when I went to the dentist in Japan is that I walked in, showed my little health insurance card (faded so much it was essentially just a piece of card) and I was immediately taken in for a check forms (well a tiny form with my name and stuff, but let's just say I found it easier to fill out the form in the JAPANESE dentist in JAPANESE than I did to fill out the re-registry one in my ENGLISH dentist in ENGLISH.) No waiting...certainly not true of British dentists where you often enter in broad daylight, just before lunch, and, in spite having an appointment that you were on time for, emerge from the light-deprived sterility to find that 6 hours have passed, it's dinnertime yet you can't eat, drink or speak. It was all relatviely fuss free for a hypochondriac country prone to fuss dealing with a foreigner. The biggest fuss was when I put my slippers on the dentist chair carpet (see Communication Breakbown).

Of course, I couldn't understand the dentistry terms in Japanese, but the lady had a book with English translations, as if she had been expecting a foreigner to waltz into her surgery, in the middle of a rice filed in Ita-where (drenched and bewildered as it was typhoon season and typhoon+bicycle is not a happy combo). She pointed wildly at her book which had many medical terms that I didn't understand in English anyway. One thing she did do was cover my mouth with purple dye, then ask me to brush my teeth. Then we looked in my mouth with the mirror thing and saw the bits that still had purple dye as they were the places I didn't brush. I thought that this was SUCH a clever idea and went on ranting and raving about how it had changed my life and how amazing and forward thinking everything in hypermodern Japan was, until finally telling a British friend of mine who said that she had had it done at school in the UK 20 years ago and couldn't believe I hadn't. May have taught quite a few teachers and children a slight mistruth about the UK there...naughty ALT, doing more harm than good.

Whilst in a primary school once in Japan, I went along to the assembly which was all about how to clean your teeth. It had all the bog-standard things you'd expect from such an assembly in the UK too...information about how often to clean your toothbrush, a power point presentation, 6 kids with the flag of a country each hung around their necks who ran around the hall a few times in a fake race to demonstrate which country's children had the least fillings and a prize giving at the end where every child with no fillings was made to stand up, recieve applause and then was rewarded with a piece of tinsel to drape around themselves. All the usual.

In this assembly, Japan came last of the 6 presumably random countries, with the most fillings. I think the UK came second after Mr. perfect Sweden, beating the USA. I've heard that Americans think the Brits have really bad teeth...well the flag-necklace-running-race in Ita-where PROVES otherwise. Actually, I've found this incredible confusing graph from Gapminder online, which, if I'm interpreting it correctly which I'm fairly sure I am not, also places the UK as having better teeth than Japan and the US, so HAHA!. Link to graph.

Actually, a few American friends seemed fairly shocked that I'd gone to the dentist in Japan, as they'd heard horror stories. Their horror stories were that you get SILVER FILLINGS instead of the perfect little white ones. I opened my mouth each time, including to relative stranger, because I was that offended, to show my two silver British fillings...not just Japan there. Maybe that's why Americans think we have bad teeth...because we are loud and proud with our fillings instead of being shallow and coy about them.

Another part of the assembly featured empty bottles of softdrink with sugarcubes inside them to demonstrate how much sugar there was in each bottle. That was a really great visual and I can honestly say that I drink a lot less Coca Cola since seeing it. There were 15 cubes I think in one 500ml bottle!! Pocari Sweat, my fave J-drink was much better with something like 8 (still disgusting though, not stopped me going to the Japan Centre in Picadilly and buying a couple of bottles since being back in London though!) These bottles are STILL on display in the school TROPHY CABINET (or they were in July, assembly was last year) and the assembly won some sort of prize and was in the local paper. I didnt' see any assembly judgers present, but I feel very priveleged to have experienced a prize-winner.

I did notice that very few children had braces in Japan. Quite how Japanese children have more fillings though, I am not sure. Firstly I thought, it's their awful sugary school lunch, but, then I thought, I used to drink Coca Cola for lunch every day after the age of 11 I reckon, which is not possible for kids in Japan - they only get milk until the age of 15. There were also vending machines at my secondary school with chocolate and crisps...not so in Japan, where, surprisingly seeing as you often feel that vending machines outnumber PEOPLE 2:1 in Japan, schools are a no-vend area. Also, all the teachers and students brush their teeth after lunch in Japan, which we don't do in England (they used to do it in my office in Paris when I worked there though, so it's not only Japan). My only conclusion on the reason why Japanese children have a lot of fillings is their good old trait for hypochondria and fuss which means they put them in just to be on the safe side, even if there is no cavity to be seen. Problem solved!

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Communication Breakbown

Something to amuse you as you hear how fully incompetent I am at communicating in my own country. I am bowing right, left and centre, then being embarrased that I've just bowed so bowing more in apology/embarrassment, my head nodding up and down like one of those annoying dogs that sit on the car's starting to look like I'm half way between having a seizure and starting a break dance or something as my bows get continuouly deeper and force my nose closer to the floor...I might learn break dancing so that I can just start styling it out into that - I think that would look more natural!

I have just come back from Vienna on holiday (I used to live in Vienna, it's amazing) - I went and asked a lady in the airport which U-Bahn line my desti-station (I've just made that word - why don't we have that word?) was on, in German - it was no problem when I prepared myself slightly, she answered, but I, unfortunately hadn't prepared myself to respond, and even the simplest "Danke" seemed to escape me, and I opted for athe next best thing: a big bow and an "arigatou gozaimasu" in the middle of Schwechat airport in was I supposed to explain that? "Oh sorry, that was Japanese, I'm not Japanese though, obviously, but I used to live in Japan, but you can hear I'm also not Austrian, I'm British, but I'm here on holiday and I can speak German because I used to live here and studied it at uni"...then how would she respond having just felt that she'd watched an episode of "This Is Your Life with sushi-less" and we'd both missed our trains. So, instead, I sort of yelped and leapt back at the same time and ran to the ticket machine, leaving a very confused Austrian in my still semi-bowing shadow...NOT GOOD.

I've become so used to getting it wrong and embarrassing myself, my new tactic is to just say nothing in reply to people, which is incredibly rude, but at least it saves me looking like I'm one of those chronically shy people that is on their first day out of the house in two years. It's so weird, because I seem almost fine when I'm with my mates, but the second I'm amongst actual general public, who have no idea that I've just been living in Japan for two years, I start getting everything wrong and looking like a crazy person!! Typical! One thing that I haven't got out of the habit of, even with my friends, is gesturing everything...this is not from my experience of talking in Japanese in Japan, but of speaking English to a bunch of kids who understood very little of what I said, meaning that I got into the habit (which I apparently can't shake) of gesturing everything possible, which means doing a little pencil gesture when I say "write", making a little book with my hands when I say "book" or "read" and pointing at people when I say "you". This means that I am treating my fully native English speaking 2o-something friends, as if they are 5-year-old Japanese children with no grasp of the English language. One such gesture is that every time I say "me" or "I", I point at myself....unfortunately in Japan you point at your nose not your chest when you say "watashi" (true story), so I keep pointing at my nose at the dinner table...beautiful. I'm also counting with my fingers in the Japanese way, which is getting a bit ridiculous now and getting many strange stares. You should be able to see them below: this is how a Japanese person gestures when you counting, and this is now how I now gesture when I people who don't need a gesture as they fully understand the words 1-10 of course. My worst gesture faux-pas so far was yesterday, when I shook my finger (wagged it, you know, like a patronising head teacher) at the girl in the chippy (fish and chip shop) when she asked me if I wanted salt and vinegar on my chips. She looked horrified, which I can understand - it was very sort of..."no little girl, of COURSE I don't want salt and vinegar." Must think harder next time...that or tie my hands behind my back when outside of the house.

Of course, I wish I could say that my problems here in the UK stem from the fact that I am an example of perfection in my communication style in Japan...not so. I recall not long from the end of my stay in Japan that in ONE DAY I managed to not contradict a man when he said his granddaughter was a bit slow, and instead agree, fall asleep in the waiting room at the dentist's, wear my special dentist surgery's slipper onto the MINISCULE piece of carpet situtated at the bit where you put your feet when you sit on the leany-backy-dentisty chair, put there surely only to catch out the gaijin, over-confident in outdoor shoe-indoor shoe-slipper-toilet slipper-bare foot CHAOS that is Japan's complicated shoe system...why that TINY piece of carpet just there that you had to be bare foot on...WHY?? And also I was in the school's announcement system room and managed to play some music on the loud broadcast outside the school when I thought it was only playing in the little room I was in...bit of the Norwegian Eurovision entry for the kids outside on the PE field. That was all in one day too!

So, what I am telling you is that I left Europe 2 years ago a fully competent member of British society and, I think, Austrian society, to being some kind of half-way-house, not fully competent anywhere and not to be trusted alone in public at any time...I might get myself a sign to go round my neck saying "WARNING: just been living in a strange country, high risk of social awkwardness and head nodding," or maybe I'll just give in and buy myself a Dunce's hat...embrace my new-found incompetence!

Friday, 9 September 2011

First Reverse Culture Shock....PUBLIC TRANSPORT

I am going to do my absolute best to not make all of my reverse culture shock negative things about how rubbish London is compared to the heavenly land of milk of honey (or sushi and udon) aka Japan, but one thing that is TRULY frustrating is the public transport in London, especially when you have just come from a country where they manage to make trains run on time and put out an apology (you can hear the bows in their voices) if it is even one minute late. No such luck in London town...I wonder if maybe they make an announcement when the trains arrive on time (Ryan Air styleeee), but I wouldn't know because I've never experienced a South Eastern train run on time. South Eastern are the overground service that go to Greater South East London and is the company I have to use, along with the rest of the damned. Today I was sitting on the 15.02 from Charing Cross, it was 15.04, still in Charing Cross. The little electric sign (no announcement) updated itself and said "expected at 15.05," which I was slightly sceptical of, more so as it hit 15.06 and I was still sitting there. It then updated itself to 15.09, eventually leaving at 15.11. As it left they have the cheek to announce "The train departing from platform 3 is the 15.02 to Dartford." No sorry, no explanation...not even a bloody acknowledgement, they just said it casually as if it was still 15.02...we do have watches you know!! Is there not some EU regulation against calling trains leaving at 15.11 15.02 trains? I bet Brussels's trains run on time. Lucky that I didn't have an important meeting or hospital appointment, but was in fact just going home to wallow in my current unemploydom. In Japan, you can use the fantastically amazing Hyperdia website and actually plan your schedule and life around the train times it gives...using the TFL (Transport for London) website is totally useless...I wonder why they put times on it to be honest! How can a train even be 9 minutes delayed when it's still at it's first station? My local train map in Japan (above) may have been bloody confusing, but it never failed me once!

Anyway, enough whinge, more of what my loyal readers prefer...self-depreciating stupid stories of stupid stupid things I do. We have the Oyster Card in London for paying train fares in advance, because the world is your Oyster (albeit it 9 minutes later that you were wanting it to be). I have no excuse for this as we had Oyster cards long before I left and they also have Passmo in Japan, but I just keep getting it wroooooong and feeling like a big tourist and wanting to cry, as I get it wrong, I bow at the man for being stupid and get more embarrassed and then want to cry some more - vicious circle line. Nearly had a full-blown row with the Waterloo East man the other day for treating me as if I had an IQ of about 25 just because I didn't know the ins and outs of the Oyster system...I was only asking where I need to check out!! I was already checked in!! I'm the good guy, I wanted to pay!! I say I nearly had a row...5 minutes later I was fuming and would have had a row with him, but my stupid indirect Japanesified self basically bowed and almost cried again. More bowing stories to follow believe me, I'm thrusting my head in people's genitals by accident right left and centre and it is SO mortifyingly embarrassing.

Reverse Culture Shock, Transport Chapter : Japan 1, UK 0

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Sayonara Nihon!

I am sorry (imagine me bowing many times), I am aware that I haven't updated my blog in an age. The sad reason for this is that I have left Japan. I made the decision way back in January not to sign for another year in baby Ita-where, and my contract expired at the end of July. What with a million goodbyes to say, gifts to buy (naturally), things to clean, pack, cancel and pay and a remaining box of sekihan to eat, my last couple of months didn't leave a lot of time for blogging I'm afraid. I was very upset to leave, and I received many lovely comments about my affect on the kids, the schools and the community from so many people (some obligated, some totally out of the blue), but, I knew that it was the right decision, as, I was sure that I couldn't live the rest of my life in Japan so that meant it wasn't wise to spend a third year making deeper connections and distancing myself further from my life in London. For ramblings on my final thoughts on Nihon, please see the articles for other websites section as I have written a piece for the Gunma JET blogzine.

I still had many articles that I was planning to write about Japan (I have a list) and there is so much that can be said about settling back into London after two years in the safe little bubble of Ita-where, so I am thinking of re-opening this blog under a new title soon, to post ridiculous stories of me bowing at people...I can sort of see London from the inside as a Londoner, but also from the outside as a foreigner now I think, so I'm sure there's something interesting to be this space.

In the meantime, as so much of this blog has revolved around the craziness that is the Japan gift-giving-omiyage custom, I thought you might be interested to know just what 2 years working (hard and with a big smile) can earn you in presents (and cost you in extra baggage)...I was very lucky to receive - 2 yukatas, 3 pairs of geta, 1 yukata pouch, 2 bags, 2 dvds, 2 posh green tea cups, 1 baumkuchen, 6 bouquets of flowers, 1 3,000 yen gift envelope (20 quid), 1 10,000 yen gift envelope (70 quid, all from one headteacher....WOW, couldn't bow lowly enough, my nose almost hit the floor), 21 packs of letters from kids (so happy with those...many a tear shed), 1 booklet of notes from teachers, 2 letter boards from teachers (sort of decorated piece of cardboard with teachers signatures, messages and photos), 3 letter boards from students, 1 letter board from a friend, 1 letter board from my taiko group, some home made sewed macaroons from the home ec teacher, some home-made sewed sushi by the home ec club, 7 fans
2 certificates saying how amazing I am in Japanese I can't read, 1 huge photo album with letters and photos from students, 2 special edition 500 yen coins, 5 sets of photos of things I have done whilst in Ita-where, 1 bottle of shochuu, 1 tub of hair gel (from my hairdresser...insane!), 1 bookmark, 3 straps (for mobile phones), 2 photo frames (1 with super-cool photo of my taikoing), 1 poetry book with Japanese and English translations, 5 paper aeroplanes from students...aaaawwwww, 2 posters/pictures from studetns, 1 notebook, 1 bag of homemade cookies, 2 tablecloths (!!), 2 taiko drumsticks signed by my group, 1 taiko drumstick carrier bag which I LOVE, 1 happi (google it), 1 taiko headdress that I don't know how to wear, 4 mini Japanese cloths, 1 homemade J-pop CD, 1 pack of stickers, 1 Mount Fuji paperweight (?), 1 pack of origami paper and 2 fairly creepy dolls that mean that I will find love...basically I have brought half of Japan home with me, so if you see on the news that Japan has no stuff, you will find it all in a house in South East London.

Like I say, I am likely to still write the odd bits and bobs on here about Japan and about London and my rediscovery of it...I'm scared! Anyway, please keep checking the website or "Follow" it. Japan, I will miss you so much, you have treated me very well! Everyone, please visit Japan! And, do not forget about the awful affects the tsunami and earthquake had on so many lives and the continued affects it has on people's lifestyles and the economy...please keep giving! Ganbatte Japan! I leave you with one last little piece of info...sushi-less was such a catchy title, I went with it, but, this blog is in fact based around a big lie! There is a gorrrrrgeous sushi restaurant in Ita-where, about a 5-minute-walk from my flat...sorry (big nose-hitting-floor bow).

Thursday, 30 June 2011

BLANK Of The Day 8

Mid-skit, where I was a shopkeeper and the teacher was a shop assistant, in front of a class of 40 and a few men in suits from a super-duper important office somwhere in the back of beyong who we were demonstrating too, my teacher says 'My Father would like something to eat'...'F***' I think. We are doing a skit about shopping for souvenirs to bring home from England and he is buying something for his Father to EAT in spite of me asking him roughly a thousand times to choose READ (matching my typically British Harry Potter flashcard) or LISTEN TO (matching my typically British Beatles CD flashcard) but he chose EAT, one that I had specifically asked him not to choose as I looked at the board to see that I had a choice of his three carefully prepared flashcards as options for souvenirs to take back for his Father from England....a bowl of curry and rice, and ebi fry (a deep fried prawn) on rice, and an omuraisu (an omelette filled with rice). What the hell am I supposed to do with that??? Offer him a Japanese dish of deep-fried prawn and rice to take back to Japan on a plane as a gift?? I said, how about chocolate, choosing to ignore flashcard situation and said jokingly 'omuraisu isn't not really omiyage (souvenirs) of England'...'It's FROZEN omuraisu,' he laughs and says to a class who don't understand the word frozen. I understand frozen but I don't understand the reason he said it. A whole big, fat portion of misunderstandings and rice is my souvenir of that lesson!

Fuss Of The Day 10

Calpis, the Japanese sort of milky and very sweet drink, named after its taste of bovine urine, have made a new product called "Calpis Cream" (カルピスクリーム) to spread in a cake or on a sandwich, giving it that lovely hint of cow's piss, that had always been missing from your sandwiches until its invention. We got TWO TINY samples (sort of half a McDonald's ketchup size) for a staffroom of almost forty people! It was like sekihan in to share two mini portions between four people. Fuss-o-rama (this was fuss number two, after the first overreaction (screaming, panting, orgasming) over the fact the new product in itself) broke out. I think it was still going on when I left to go home, but there was talk of someone bringing in some bread and trying to share it round us all this space. I'm sorry, but this was clearly someone at Calpis' marketing department having a laugh about how big a fuss they could cause in Ita-where's staffroom...FORTY people and TWO samples!!?? Evil, cow-piss-creaming bastard!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Fuss Of The Day 9

Wow! Do I have a big-fat-mama-sized fuss for you today or what? Yesterday was sekihan-gate. Sekihan is a sticky rice dish with red beans. The rice is soaked in the bean juice before it's cooked or something or nothing to turn it pink. Yesterday, there was no school lunch due to exams, meaning the kids go home early, which is enough to cause a bit of fuss anyway, so we were already in the mood for a big old overreaction.

We have bought a new rice cooker at school (another long, drawn out, fussy decision). I feel like this is a history lesson of sekihan-gate with the "Causes" and "Triggers." So...they decided to test the rice cooker (not sure why a new rice cooker wouldn't work) on exam day by making shit loads of sekihan, thereby hopefully ending both rice cooker fuss and the "what should the teachers do for lunch fuss?" simultaneously. Which I suppose it did, only to offset it with the biggest fuss I have experienced since being in Japan. The first huge box of sekihan arrived. 21 plastic boxes inside. Large plastic boxes, each one with enough sekihan to feed two people probably. Bear in mind that many staff take time off on exam day, so we are looking at about 25 staff and 21 boxes (42 portions) of sekihan. Then comes big box number two. That's 25 staff, 42 boxes and 84 portions of rice. Cue fuss. Dishing out lunch is fuss enough at the best of times. Mid-fuss, along comes big box number 3. That's right: 25 staff, 63 boxes, 126 portions of sekihan. Sekihan hysteria is breaking out. The secretary yells at the 20/25 staff who are for some reason ALL needed to give out the sekihan (I dont know why I'm criticising - I was one of them) "Still only start with one box per table, in case there's not enough for two." OK, Japan's culture might be different to many, but even here 63 boxes of rice go around 25 staff twice. Everyone is discussing how much they should eat, how many family members/neighbours/passers-by they can dish their sekihan out to and we just about settle down to there only being about 10 boxes (20 portions) left over, when, I kid you not, I yet out a yelp as BIG BOX NUMBER FOUR comes in. Keep in mind that it's the lady responsible for school lunch carting them up the stairs, so no-one can be rude, we all grin (if she can see us grinning behind the pile of sekihan boxes on our desks) and go "mmmm, loooovve sekihan, thank you!" until she leaves the room and we all burst into tears. We are now on 84 boxes, 168 portions of sekihan, and what's worse, we are down to about 18 staff as 7 others have taken holiday only for the afternoon and the selfish beggars have got away with only one box each.

It was at this point that I thought to myself...THIS is going on my blog as fuss of the f***ing year. Little did I know that it was only just beginning. I refused to take a third box of sekihan, saying that I lived alone, it wasn't fair. I've been told that it's freezable, so I have two portions eyeing me up from inside my freezer as we speak...I never want to see the stuff again, let alone eat it. ANYWAY, the fourth big box is sitting on the side being ignored and the fuss is dying down, when stupid stupid stupid me (full of one box, two portions of sekihan that I've wolfed down, because I didn't want to take 3 portions home) decide to throw myself right into the centre of the fuss. Why oh why I thought any more sekihan-related discussion, no matter how simple it would appear to be, could go down without a massive fuss, I do not know. I was thinking mid-original-fuss that we should have just rang the community centre across the road, or the town hall, or any other workplace in Ita-where the day before and mentioned that we were going to create a world's supply of sekihan and not to bother bringing lunch the following day...but that would have been too simple I suppose.

However, I thought (STUPIDLY), all is not lost. I was about to go to the Board of Education in the town hall for a meeting. I mumbled to the nurse next to me "maybe I could just take a few boxes with me to the Board of Education, seeing as I'm going anyway", thinking that it would just help to ease the problem. She said "good idea!" Let's ask the nutritionist, who had to ask the secretary, who had to ask the Deputy Head, who had to ask the Head (I'm late for my meeting already). We spent a long time discussing (all 6 of us, including the two most important people in the school (wages well spent)) who I should hand it to at the BOE, how much I should take, whether there would actually be any left over at the end of the day (!!!). I said "don't worry, don't worry, nobody's asked me for it, they aren't expecting it, it was just an idea." In face, I said that almost as many times as I'd been offered sekihan. I wanted the ground to swallow me up, even hell would be better than hearing the word sekihan again. I wish that I had never ever spoken, when will I learn??? "Do you think they want it?" chirped the head teacher. "Well WE clearly don't, the town hall has more than 18 staff in it, and we already have at least 4 portions each - the fact that I didn't want it didn't stop me being accosted with it" is what I thought. What I said was "sou desu ne." But I was in for the long haul now - I couldn't get out of it. The Head teacher wound up ringing them to warn them it was coming. (Mid-conversation by the way, another bowl of sekihan arrived, as there were no more plastic boxes). Then they remembered that I go around by bicycle. "You can't take it by bicycle!!!" The whole staff room starts wetting themselves. "Mark-chan" whimpers someone. I was like "I can." It's all in boxes, I have a basket and a backpack, I wasn't gonna take the whole 84 boxes, I was thinking about 10? "No, no, no." "muri muri (impossible)" We fussed it out for another 15 minutes (my meeting was supposed to have been over by now), and the final decision was that the poor school nurse, had to get signed out by the head teacher to make a special trip to the Board of Education just to deliver 10 boxes of sekihan that they didn't even want!! Let alone a blog post, I could write novel about this one sekihan episode.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Fuss Of The Day 8

茶毒蛾, chadokuga, which Wikipedia tells me is Tea Tussock Moth Caterpillar in English, although I'm sure you all knew that already were out and about in Ita-where a few weeks ago, and BOY, was it the talk of the town. If they get on you, you get a rash it seems. A rash in Japan, at least in my school, is often enough to get you sent home to rest (after the potentially 45-minute bike ride that is), so, you can IMAGINE the mega fuss that comes when somehow a boy gets a rash ON HIS FACE. An announcment was made in the staff room between lessons, saying that all teachers should tell students about it, and then, after a supplementary mini-fuss, it was decided that it would be better just to put an announcement over the tannoy for all students to beware of caterpillar-face related rash danger. Then, quite literally 15 minutes later, an exterminator-type man, just like the ones I've only ever seen on the films, because in the UK our biggest problem is probably woodlice or something, was in the school, spraying all of the trees. In a country where I am currently undertaking a 3-week-long discussion with no sign of ending about when/where/how/whether to throw away a virtually rotting kotatsu futon from my flat, how can these things be organised in 15 minutes??? Maybe if I told someone my kotatsu futon had given me a rash...can I cope with the fuss that would result though? Catch 22!

Random Event Of The Day 14

Whilst volunteering at an adult English conversation class in my town the Saturday before last (when I was originally asked I was told it would be mid-week...not too happy about the change in schedule there), I was given a list of "important phrases." We are going to focus on these at the start of each lesson, because if they are so important, I was told by the main teacher. We set about repeating after me, Japan's favourite learning method (there are literally about 80 of them, so it's taking half of the lesson every week it seems), starting with "hello." It's a beginners' class, but none of them are such beginners that they can't say "hello," especially as towards the end of the lesson, we have moved onto repeating a whole entire cabin crew aeroplane safety announcement after me, just in case they go abroad, the flight attendent faints, or gets stage fright, or loses her voice and one of the people in my English conversation class has to do the announcement for her. Anyway, one phrase that struck me as being particularly important, was the Japanese ハクション! In English : achoo. Yes, I had a room full of 50+ year-old Japanese farmers repeating how to sneeze in English after me...words fail me, they really do. 

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Random Event Of The Day 13

I've been eating lunch with the kids over the last couple of weeks and have taken some photos I've pinched from online of school dinners in the UK. One has an innocent little black boy in it, eating his lunch, blissfully unaware of the fact that not one, not two, but three of my students has looked at this page of 8 photos or so and immediately pointed at him and yelled "Obama!" and burst out laughing...casual racism alive and well in Japan. I asked them what they would think if a Brit thought they looked like Keisuke Honda, just because they were Japanese and all three went "Keisuke Honda's cool...yay" Point safely lost there. I have also been told that I look like Justin Bieber and Daniel Radcliffe this week (probably the only two famous young white men in Japan). My internationalisation work has clearly paid off.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Fuss Of The Day 7

Missing M-chan

About one minute after the bell for the start of third period went the other day, a teacher came running into the staff room, said something that I didn't really understand and, quick as a shot, every teacher in the room stands up and the fuss of the century breaks out. All the teachers started opening doors, going in and out of the toilets and stuff, evidently searching for something. I asked, and then followed suit, on finding out that they were searching for a boy (we'll call him M-chan) who was one minute late for class. It crossed my mind what would happen if a 13-year-old was one minute late for something in the UK, and just how long they would have to disappear to cause a scene of 10 teachers strutting around the school shouting at eachother "Have you checked here?" "Have you checked there?" etc. I actually think somebody would have to be missing overnight. It turned out that M-chan was wherever his PE kit was somewhere downstairs. What did they actually think could have happened to him in one minute anyway? Especially as this is a boy whose mind works about 10 minutes behind everyone else's anyway, testamented to by the fact that he is often referred to with the little girls' suffix -chan instead of -kun for boys. He's like a toddler trapped in a late 13-year-old M-chan body. Still, very dramatic fuss all round.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Random Event Of The Day 12

Video and DVD section in the library in the local community centre. Loads of awful Japanese TV series, some anime films and the odd Hollywood blockbuster. I just happened to glance at the videos for the first time other day to find a row of Rowan Atkinsons grinning at me. An ENTIRE SHELF of "Thin Blue Line" videos, a British policing sitcom from the 90s with Rowan Atkinson in it...what the hell is that doing forming about a third of my library's video section in Japan???

Random Event Of The Day 11

Me : "How are you?
Student : "I'm hard."
Me: "What?"
Student : "I'm hard." (and his mates weren't around so I don't think it was to make anyone laugh)
Me: "Ermm...hard isn't really a feeling, do you mean angry? strong? clever?
Student : "I'm....hard. Every day I'm hard."

Good Little ALT Post Script

Just another little project I've done recently (although receiving far less support from wanky useless teachers.) It revolved around the Eurovision Song Contest 2011. For those who don't know what it is, please Wikipedia it or something, because I have spent the last 3 weeks of my life trying to explain it in both Japanese and in English and I can't bring myself to type it. It's a very famous music competition that happens once every year and is broadcast around the whole of Europe is the bare bones of it. Anyway, I went around the classes and they pulled 3 countries flags out of a hat. Then, I gave them the flag and some information about the country to put up in their form rooms, like how to say hello in their language, where it was on a map etc. and they became the supporter of that country. It was great...quite a few classes really got behind it. I played clips of one of the songs each class was supporting after the lunch menu on the speaker system every day the week before the contest and announced the winner on the Monday after the event, with the winning class getting little presents that my Mum has kindly sent from the UK for me/them. Of course it was sod's law that this year's winner would be just about the least famous country in the whole competition, Azerbaijan! Quite the anti-climax...and it's barely in Europe, which was another explanation I was rather out of my euro-depth in. The Eurovision Song Contest is only well-known in Europe, of course (although I've heard that some Australians give a sneaky peek). Any road, as Peter Kay would say, Eurovision is naturally not known in Japan at all (I found online that a couple of Irish pubs or sports bars in Tokyo do screen it every year, not that I'm enough of a loser to be that desperate to watch it!). It was great to hear that some of the kids really liked some of the music, and could understand parts of the lyrics. Its that perfect cheesey pop with really simple cliche lyrics aimed at non-native speakers. Their favourites were Denmark and Norway, the same as me! Especially Norway's African-vibey "Haba Haba" went down really well! They were all running round saying "haba haba" (or things that sounded vaguely like it). Strange that it literally came right near the bottom even in the semi final when it was catchy enough to get my kids onto it after a 15-second clip. It was also nice to teach the kids about an event from abroad and for them to see just how many countries (many they'd never heard of before, quite understandably as there are a couple I know nothing more about than their Eurovision entry every year...Andorra anyone?), people and languages make up Europe. Foreign does not just equal English and it certainly does not just equal the United States of America. However, I don't think any of them will be booking a ticket to Azerbaijan, in fact, I doubt if any of them can remember how to say it in Japanese, let alone English!

Good Little ALT

Just allow me a couple of minutes of your time to boast about how brilliant I am at my job. One of the problems many ALTs in Japan find is that some schools just want you there to tick the box that they have a foreigner and can show you off to the parents on open day, but don't actually want your input for anything at all. I feel like that with regards to lessons at my junior high school I must say, so I contribute in other ways like the amazing person that I am by organising various things outside of lessons.

Don't worry, I won't go through everything I've ever done in 2 years in Japan as if I'm filling out an application form for a job, but, I want to tell you about one such project. In February, after months of asking for permission and fussing, Ita-where's Junior High school had its first (and possibly only as I'm leaving in August, but I will tell my replacement about it, so here's to hoping) English Week. It was fantastic for me, because, once it had the title of "English Week," it seemed that I had the permission to do a whole host of English related things, that I would never normally be able to do or would have to wait for months of permission discussions for, just because it was "English Week." Thanks for your love of categories Japan. The art club made me posters that were hanging up all around school to get the buzz going, and I put up a table in the entrance hall full of little bits and bobs from England, such as magazines, comics, newspapers, stamps, money, postcards, photos, food.... There's a very rubbish zoomed-in picture above there, because all of the decent pictures have my kids in them (not my babies, my students, but they feel like my kids, because I'm just so brilliant and loving and this is beginning to sound like one our lovely lovely ALT "training seminars" (aka listen to how great I am at my job and how much I know about Japan speeches). Anyway, there was a nice crowd of kids around it all week long, and it lead to many questions, which was cool. Very few of these kids have travelled, so they enjoy looking at foreign articles (came up in class today actually....only one out of forty students had a passport "Where have you been?" "Nowhere, I just had a passport.").

Also, we translated the lunch menu into English every day and broadcast it on the speaker system (in Japan the kyuushoku (school lunch) menu is broadcast every day so we just did it again in English after that. Then, I did a speech in English, with some Japanese for help about school lunch around the world and put posters about it up on my English White Board (see Norway there with one of the amazing art club posters too (there are no hot lunches in Norway by the way, everyone brings packed lunch is quite the institution (and fuss causer) in Japan, so Norway's lack of lead to mass hysteria fuss indeed in my school.)) Then we played some of the latest pop music from the UK (quietly so that the Head Teacher couldn't hear through the door, because he said it was ok as long as there were no guitars, electronic noises, rap or too many drums, before suggesting the national anthem of the UK for one day.....secret naughtiness there by me, but surely it was allowed, because, it was English Week after all!) To complement this, the amazingly lovely nutritionist (Japanese schools often have nutritionist who are there just to plan the school lunch menus combinations and calorie balance...mentalness really, especially when you see how odd/unhealthy some of ours are, but, that's not for here) arranged for us to have FISH AND CHIPS and a jam sandwich for lunch that (plus the not so British cabbage soup) with English Week making an appearance on the monthly mantra that is the school lunch menu handout!! It tasted of nothing but salt and I think I've given them all a bad impression of British food now, but, who has a good impression of British food anyway?

The most popular part of English week (apart from the for the school dinner ladies whose favourite part must have been shaking their salt shakers and getting carried away) was an orienteering type task where the kids had to find pieces of orange card hidden all around the school. There were 53 cards in total and each one had a reason for why it is worth studying English written on them in Japanese (it just had to be in Japanese or otherwise nobody would have was not an exercise for learning new English, but for motivation as to why they study it). It proved quite the talking point of the week, and even prompted some of the most button-lipped-I'm-petrified-of-that-foreigner-type teachers to talk to me. I sort of assumed when I arrived that everybody knew there were many reasons to study English in today's globalising world, yet, on being questioned, my students can only ever muster up "to talk to foreigners" as a response, which isn't particularly meaningful to them when they live in the countryside of Japan, not exactly abundant with foreigners. So, I wanted to introduce them to a few more.

My favourite part of the week was my English newsletter. I made various articles, either in English, or about English in Japanese. Through the various activities I took part in in order to create the newspaper, I learnt a lot about my kids and about Japan's attitude to English. I asked some of my friends and acquaintances (plus somehow a friend of a friend who is some amazingly important person at Nintendo apparently) from Ita-where, to write about why they are happy they can speak (some) English, even though they live in the countryside and might not have any foreigners to speak with. It was really nice to read the responses and to see how happy they are to be able to understand English and how interested they are in travel, international news, culture and media, in spite of the overriding impression I often feel in Japan of a general ambivalence to these things. I hope some of my kids took note. I also did a quiz about Christmas and asked my kids to fill it out, which taught (or confirmed for) me that they know absolutely nothing about it at all. I came home for Christmas in the UK and before that I gave all of my third graders (15) a piece of paper and asked them to write a question in English. I took the slips home and got my friends and family to write answers for them and I took them back in January. I printed some of the more interesting answers in the paper. They were so happy to get their little slips back, and, many kids who don't normally show much enthusiasm for English, were really trying hard to work out the meaning of the answers by asking their friends, the teacher and me for the meanings of words and hunting through dictionaries. It was really funny for me to see the reactions to people of other races too (I put photos with the answers). They couldn't believe that black people were English and they pointed at my friend who has Chinese parents and said "nihonjin (Japanese)" straight away. In spite of mild racism, thanks to all my friends for filling those out if you are reading this, they really appreciated it. Equally as interesting was a survey I did with the first grade. I asked them if I said to my friend in the UK "Japan," what would be the first things that would spring to mind? I will show you the top few answers of each class (I did it with four classes of first graders, 13-year-olds):

1-1 : sushi, samarai, Mount Fuji, big Buddha statues, harakiri (I believe it to be a traditional type of ritual suicide or something ??), kabuki (traditional Japanese theatre)

1-2 : AKB48 (J-pop band), Ichiro (Japanese baseball player), One Piece (Japanese manga), Sky Tree (a new skyscraper in Asakusa, Tokyo), Dragonball (manga), Anpanman (kids' character), Keisuke Honda (footballer)

1-3 : Sky Tree, AKB48, sushi, Mount Fuji, manga

1-4 : Sushi, Tokyo, Sky Tree, samurai, Kyoto, Pokemon

I asked my friends and family to name five things they think of when they think of Japan each and the actual top 10 went as follows:

1. Sushi

2= Geisha

2= Kimono

4. Noodles

5= Tokyo

5= Anime

7= Mount Fuji

7= Crazy Fashion (that word crazy popping up many times)

7= High techonology

7= Fans

I was surprised as to how many traditional things came up, and also how many people thought of Mount Fuji and of cherry blossoms (a bit further down the list), two things which I don't think I'd ever heard of before coming to Japan!!

I can't think of a nice ending to tie this up, but, if any ALTs are reading...try out an English Week!