Friday, March 27, 2009

The Good News, Open Secrets and Poor Communication Skills.

Good news. It's really been a while since I've had a lot of good news. I mean, daily life is generally pretty incredible, and that's good news. But it's been a while since I've gotten good news from my employers. It seems like the very few times where my employers have actually contacted me to tell me something, it was always a change in my job that made things more frustrating or difficult. So, it's extremely pleasant to get some information that makes things a little easier.

I had resigned myself to the horrors of the elementary school - possibly every day until my return to America. Really, I'd just much prefer to have it sparsely distributed through my workweek/month. And it's not that I can't stand going at all. But, much like Bartleby the Scrivener, I'd prefer not.

So, imagine my surprise after hearing the news from the elementary school meeting (that, again, I wasn't invited to attend), and found that they had decided to eliminate the month-long blocks of elementary school. Instead, both Nigel and I will be pulling two-week stints of
Monday: Jr. High
Tuesday: School 1 (me), School 4 (Nigel)
Wednesday: School 2 (me), School 5 (Nigel)
Thursday: School 3 (me), School 6 (Nigel)
Friday: Jr. High.
Which is nice, right? I only have three days in a row at any time, and I can relax over the weekend, and not get rushed back into elementary school. It makes me feel much better about the coming months, knowing that I won't be dealing with the youngest students on a constant basis. And, it's only from May-June! So, April and July, I can enjoy my regular schedule at the Jr. High. So, I'm pleased. Very pleased.

Now, onto something that might strike you as odd. In Japan, not only does the school year stretch from April to March, but at the start of every year, 1/10th of the teachers perform the new school shuffle. That is, due to some unknown Japanese laws, teachers must switch schools every few years, with no less than 10 percent of school staff (including secretaries and tea-ladies) being exchanged with other schools. In the abstract, I suppose this makes sense. For instance, if there's a great teacher, they'll be spread around the different schools to teach a much broader base of students. That way, the school system doesn't have strong single schools, but strong regions, within which the exchanges occur.

But in reality, it doesn't always seem to play out that well. Take for instance Table-tennis Sensei (who is, incidentally, awesome at table-tennis). He teaches the special students at the Jr. High, and the kids have really grown to be totally dependent on him. At school events, one of the students always seeks him out for cues on behavior, and when the student begins to misbehave, Table-tennis Sensei just needs to speak to him. None of the other teachers seem to be able to calm the students down as well as Table-tennis sensei. But, his years are up, and now he'll be going to a new school. And the disabled students will just be left to deal with his replacement, though I'm not sure a few of them will be able to understand why he left in the first place.

One of the most frustrating things about these new assignments (at least to this gaijin), is that they are supposed to be a secret, despite the fact that the teachers are told a month ahead of time. But the very process of informing the teachers that they'll need to move, and the associated packing and everything, makes it totally obvious who is leaving and who is staying, with very few surprises. Despite this open knowledge, everyone has to pretend that they don't know who's leaving in April. And even the teachers who know their leaving can't tell anyone at school! Not their students (who will come back in April expecting to see their teachers, and instead be told that they're now working two towns away), not their fellow teachers, nobody.

It seems like this bizarre policy of open secrets is pretty widespread through the Japanese school system. And possibly, a lot of the communication issues I've had with my BOE stem from these same types of open secrets. Perhaps because the previous schedule change was so well known in their office, when I was actually informed about it, it was old news that nobody wanted to think about any more. Or, take for instance, Nigel's case. He wants to stay and teach in our town, and has been waiting for six months to hear a positive or negative reply from the man in charge. At this point, the BOE certainly has to know what course of action they'll be persuing come next August, but for whatever reason, there's an obvious hesitation to communicate it to Nigel. Which is a shame, because Nigel's waiting to know what he'll need to be doing in the fall; find a new job, find a new place to live in another town, go back to England, etc.

In short, it seems like many of the issues plaguing the ALT experience stem from these types of cultural differences in communication practices that don't seem to make any sense from a western perspective. Only, it isn't just us who are confused! Many of the teachers are extremely frustrated to have to move to new schools at the drop of a every few years. The main difference between us and them is that they're much less willing to voice their opposition.

Anyway, many teachers are leaving, and we're getting a new principal. I hope the environment doesn't alter too much for the worse. We'll see.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ninja Bar, etc.

Oh my God, you guys. Oh my God. I went to a ninja bar. A bar. Run. By. Ninjas. (note: Please realize that this marks the culmination of my childhood dreams regarding hanging out with ninjas. I understand that I'm getting to be a grown man, and that I should have overcome my juvenile fascinations with ninjas. But, chill.)

Okay,, they're obviously not real ninjas. Actually, the ninja bar was kind of a bizarre, Disney-fied theme park. It was excellent, when taken with 1 part wide-eyed amazement and 1 part sense of humor about the whole thing. In fact, the ninjas especially provided humor. For instance, we got an appetizer that was shuriken-shaped crackers on a little model tree. One of the people I was with jokingly asked if they could eat the tree, to which a female ninja somberly responded in Japanese "....You need more practice." There was even a card-trick ninja, which isn't the most fear-inducing ninja spectacle. It was really surreal to walk inside from busy, downtown Tokyo, and find a dark artificial ninja-village.

But, hey, I got drunk with "ninja" and got to hang out with some good friends. I'll be putting up photos shortly, so be sure to click the photobucket link on the left-hand side of the blog, when you have a little time, okay?

I have many things to blog about, but I don't want to jumble this poor old entry with more than she can handle. So, I'll keep it to a short non-sequitor. I had my first experience with the Japanese Healthcare System. Which was incredibly painless. It's a remarkable testament to precisely why it will be so difficult for me to leave Japan and return to America. Everyone was curteous. The waiting room was clean and full of respectful people. I was in an out in THIRTY MINUTES, after paying only 65 dollars for a Hepatitis A shot. It's a far cry from my memories of waiting in Amerian hospitals for hours to get rushed into and out of a room as quickly as possible before getting stuck with an incredible bill. What a wonderful place Japan is. Really!

This Friday, I'm headed to the dentist. I've had a bit of an ache in one of my front teeth, and I figure I'd better get a check-up while I'm in Japan. I am a little bit leery, though. Some Japanese people have some pretty jacked-up grills. Mostly, though, they're older people. But, I'm a little worried that through some bad translations, I'll come out with a mouth full of metal. On the plus side, though, if all of my teeth are replaced with metal fascimiles, I just need a stylish suit and I could be a Bond villian. And all for pennies on the dollar, compared to American healthcare! It's a win-win situation.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mullets and Milestones

Do you remember the mulleted bad boys mentioned in the blog post about Cultural Notes (sorry, I would've included a link, but apparently my grandfather and I share more than similar genetic code. ...By which I mean I can't figure out the goddamn internet)? Of course you do! If you don't, you can always just go back to February and click on it, and refresh yourself.

Well, the hilarious-looking mischief-makers have revived an old school tradition; pranking the school by pulling the fire alarm. Don't worry. I won't even attempt to bore you with a "boy who cried wolf" analogy. I've heard many stories from Nigel (again, you remember Nigel, don't you? He's a very British gentlemen, who likes to tell me all about the rules of and positions on the cricket field) about what the Jr. High was like five years ago, when he first arrived. Apparently, it was one of the worst Jr. Highs in the whole of my prefecture, with police visiting almost every day to attempt to intimidate unruly kids into better behavior. The arrival of police was, as many things tend to be in Japan, purely symbolic. There are no punitive measures that can be taken, either by the school administration or the police for mild mischief-making.

In any case, after a few classes graduated, the school cleaned up quite a bit, and this last year I didn't see any remnants of the rebellious behavior. ...That is, until around graduation time. Apparently, some of the alumni from previous years have been using their sempai (social superior) influence on the younger mullet-heads, to incite them to cause as much trouble as they did, back in their glory days (ie; pulling the fire alarm three times a day).

So, I've had to deal with ear-piercing sirens for twenty minutes a day, over the last week or so. Good job, you rebellious little scamps. At least you're, you know, standing for something. Like minor inconveniences and loud noises. Behold, America; I present the face of the coming Japanese revolution, and it looks a little like Whitney Houston from the 80's.

Moving on ... today, there was another meeting about my job, regarding the elementary school visits (which are increasingly becoming less like "visits" and more like the meat and potatoes of my job). And surprise, surprise, neither Nigel nor I was invited. I am becoming increasingly frustrated with my "supervisor" in Japan. Basically, there is no communication between our Board of Education, where he works, and the ALTs. I can't imagine what my life would be like without S-Lan or Nigel helping me out, all the time, because the people who's job it is to help me through the transition to a new culture haven't attempted to make me feel at home, or check in on me since October.

The work at the elementary school is fine, but I just wish that they would be a little more appreciative of the fact that I can't really communicate well with anyone, and their cultural standards are literally foreign to me. All the other ALTs I know have a much more helpful and cooperative BOE, with some actually forming bonds with their employers by going out to dinner, or having a monthly meeting about their position, or what-have-you. And I'm not saying that they have to make me teach only one class a day, but they should at least remember that I'm not just a "worker," but I'm also something of a cultural ambassador. As such, I need a little more slack than the average school employee.

It seems to me that what these people want is someone (preferably white!) who is fluent in Japanese and English, knows all about (and complies with) Japanese social customs, with an actual license to teach (they insist that I am a teacher, but I've never had any training, and signed a contract listing me as an "Assistant Teacher"), who works for half of what the other teachers make, and cheerfully takes on more classes than any other teacher, while traveling all over town by bicycle to do so. Which...basically means a real try-hard Japanese person, who's willing to serve as an over-achieving intern indefinitely. ...Which isn't what an international ALT is for. At all.

Well, the worst development from the incompetents running the show was revealed to me today, while in conversation with Nigel. The kindly S-Lan (the insanely wonderful polar-opposite to the dreaded L-San) has been my single life-line in all matters Japanese, despite the fact that it is in no way her job or responsibility. While she was having a conversation with her friend, who works in close contact with the BOE, the subject of my and Nigel's departure came up between them. When S-Lan asked what the BOE was planning to do with the two fresh foreign faces, with presumably no Japanese ability or long-term ALT to show them around, the woman just said "Well, you'll take care of them," as if it were a stupid question for S-Lan to ask.

And that pisses me off so much. The fact that the grand-plan of my employer, to greet and settle and communicate with my replacement (who will likely receive the same poor treatment that I did), is to assume that our personal friend will volunteer to do their job for them is just ... utterly nonsensical. I just can't understand where these people come from, that they think they can just exact so much from everyone around them, without any of the basic human decencies, such as ...oh, I don't know, asking (in S-Lan's case), or communicating with their employees (which I would be appreciative of).

I just can't believe the incompetence. I really can't.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Official Graduation

Last week was a six-day week for me, because I had to go in Saturday morning for the third grade graduation. I wore my suit for the first day in Japan. I packed it up before heading out here, and proceeded to be terrified to wear it until graduation. Of course, all the English-speaking teachers made jokes and compliments ("Oh, I didn't know you owned a tie!," "Why don't you dress so well every day?," etc.).

As I've said before, Japanese people seem to have a penchant for ritual and ceremony. Both were paid painful attention to for the entire graduation. The ceremony opened with the Japanese national anthem, Kimi ga yo, which is a bit of a topic in Japan. It was written about the emperor at the height of war-time, imperial Japan, and as such brings up many bad feelings and memories for the more modern and pro-democratic population. Basically, it seems like old people still like it, because they grew up with it, and perhaps miss the pre-war days. And young and middle-aged people hate it, but because of the pressure to respect their elders, they submit to the aged. Interestingly, I was very touched to hear it sung by a gymnasium full of people. It really is a beautiful song, even if it has questionable content.

Moving on, it seemed like the first 30 minutes of the ceremony were touching for me. I was watching all the graduating students walk in with their class, bow and take their seats as a class for the last time. Immediately after this, I became so bored that I could hardly believe it. Speech after speech from god-knows-who. And before every speech, the announcer called out "Shakuin, kiritsu, rei, chaku seki," (or, "employees, stand at attention, bow, take your seat,"). ...And after every speech. ...For over an hour. It was pretty hard going.

The end of the ceremony was the heart-wrencher. The students were called by class, to stand up, bow, and walk out together. One by one, they got up, shouted "arigatou gozaimasu!" together and filed out into the rainy, hazey day. Every single arigatou gozaimasu pressed a wave of tears into my eyes, though I succeeded in maintaining my composure. It was still a moment I won't easily forget.

After saying their goodbyes and making their preparations, after the students all readied themselves for the trip home, they filed through the gauntlet of teachers and parents, shouting "Good job!", "Good luck!", "Try hard, okay!?" etc. I made a point of seeking out some of my favorite students. It does bother me to think that I may never see these kids again, because they'll be so busy getting into their new highschools over the next few months that I won't have much of a chance to run into them, and I'm leaving at the end of July.

There was one student in particular that I wanted to give a heartfelt goodbye to. Remember School Sports Day, back in October? Before that day, I felt so alone in Japan. I felt like the students and I just couldn't connect, and couldn't find a common language to express ourselves. But, the leader of my color team helped me and cheered with me, and showed me how to participate in all of the events. He really helped me get over the initial barrier of loneliness that I found in Japan.
So, when I saw him leaving the school, I called him over to me. He began to cry immediately, which didn't exactly make me feel wonderful. But, I told him that I would miss him and never forget him, and that he was the first friend I ever made in Japan, and that I couldn't thank him enough for being so kind. ...And he lost it. His English is very good, so he could follow what I told him, and he began to weep. Even though hugging is viewed very strangely in Japan, we just hugged and he cried for a while.

I wanted to talk more about this, but I'm not sure what else to say. I've met a few amazing kids, and I'm really genuinely proud to have helped them with their studies and gain confidence in their speaking. But, this specific boy will always be my friend, and I'll always remember his kindness. And, although I knew this about myself, I suppose I just discovered that maybe he felt the same way toward me. Maybe those tears were his recognition that I gave him something worth keeping. In any case, it almost feels too private to discuss in any more length. Until next time.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Out With the Old, in With the Crazy

Today was a little brutal, in a "Jesus-Christ-I-am-bored-so-stiff-I can't-believe-that-my-body-hasn't-rebelled-against-my-mind-and-cut-off-my-oxygen-supply" kind of a way. I realize that this statement needs a little clarification. But, where to start?

In Japan, the school year is not the same as America. Shocking, yes. It begins in April and continues through until March. So, that means that the third grade at the Jr. High will be graduating to their various new highschools around the area. Good for them!

But, if there's one thing Japanese institutions really love, it's ritual and ceremony. Which means that, despite the fact that I can barely follow what's going on around me, I had to sit in a freezing cold gymnasium and watch the entire school have a 2 and a half hour run practice for a three hour graduation. It's bad enough that the graduation date falls on a Saturday, giving me a six-day workweek, but to sit through the whole boring spectacle today as well? It ruined any sense of spontaneity, for one. That just means that the entire three-hour show is pre-mapped in my mind, so I can constantly know exactly how long I have left to go.

Man, I sound really bitter. Really, despite the stifling abject boredom, it's not so bad. Better than a few hours in the acid mines, really. And, it does impact my deeply, even if I joke about it. I can't help but remember back in October, during the sports festival, how I connected with a few special boys in the third grade on my team. For a few hours that day, I finally felt like a part of a group, even if we got last place (we totally bombed), and I couldn't speak to any of my team. And all those cool kids are off, and going to schools far away, and I might never see them again. It does make me aware of how little time I have left. By my count, this is almost 2/3rds of the way home. Which... I'm beginning to become more afraid of. There's still so much I want to do.

I'm also a little afraid of this graduation because it will herald a huge change in my job. The principal is retiring, and we'll get a new one. And he may or may not be as cool as the current guy (who, for the record, is awesome). The current guy looks almost exactly like Piston Honda from Mike Tyson's Punch Out! ...which is pretty excellent. And, at all the work parties, he always gets wasted and says really funny things. I'll miss you, Piston Honda. I truly will.

Supposedly, the guy who is going to replace him is a bit of a weirdo. I heard a brief anecdote from Nigel about him, from when he was the Vice Principal at our school a few years ago. At lunch, he declared that he would like to "personally reenact Pearl Harbor" by flying into American ships. I'm a little worried about what it'll be like with him in control. I really hope he doesn't force me to clean the bathroom floor with a toothbrush as an act of retribution for winning WWII. ...Man, that'd be lame.

Ah! I nearly forgot. It's not just the Principal that's leaving. In fact, all Japanese teachers are forced to change the school that they work in every few years. It seems pretty insane to me, really, because it's so different from back home. But, 1/4 of the teachers at each of the schools I teach at will change for different schools around the area, including every single one of the cool, young teachers. So, it's all new personas, all new rules, all new everything. I would be a lot more worried if I was staying here for two years. Since I'm coming home in the summer, I couldn't be too bothered to freak out too much. Time'll tell how cool/horrible things will get.

Poor post, but it had to be done. Lately, I just haven't been feeling the update. Man, this is a bad post, but I'm just gonna post it, and try to make a better one later. Sorry.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

When They Invade...

Allow me to illustrate a sometimes frustrating, sometimes endearing aspect of my life in a small town. This certainly isn't particular to only my town in all of Japan, but it's surely not the case in Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto.

Every single day, including weekends and holidays, at 3.30, 4.00 and 4.30 there is a valley-wide announcement about the end of school. It's basically just a brief message to say "Good Evening, citizens of (name omitted for legal reasons)-Town. Please remember that our students are on their way home, and be careful. Let's make sure that they all get home safe, okay?" I, for one, was absolutely charmed at such a nice message. It's nice to know that they have their priorities straight, and they care about the students of this town.

But, let me repeat that they play it every day. Saturday. Sunday. Holidays. Every single day of the year. Every day of Spring Break. Even in August, when students are allowed an entire month away from school. You would think that on the days that school was canceled, there would be a way to avoid the city-wide announcements. But, apparently, the engineer who set up the speakers all over town never intended for the message to take a break, and so my leisurely afternoon naps are interrupted three times to remind me (while I'm asleep) to be careful.

But, it is important for kids to be safe. I totally understand that. But, there's one other thing. ...I just wish it weren't so creepy! So, after school, I'll often hear the announcement on my way home from school, usually when I'm right in the middle of a rice field. Because of my placement, I can hear the message played from 5 or 6 different sets of speakers around town, only distorted or slowed down because of the wind and the time it takes for the sound to reach me.

It's kind of like...a combination of 5 or 6 different old children's 7 inch records, like the kind you can buy from a Goodwill store played simultaneously. It sounds like it's played with a strange, out of tune toy piano and a children's xylophone, and overtop a mishmash of voices all speaking in tongues (because, hey, it's Japanese, and I'm getting each broadcast at a slightly different moment).

It sounds like what I imagine aliens would play, to lull humanity into a false sense of safety before the invasion. The alien reasoning goes as follows:

First alien: "The human-children love this music. It calms them before the horrors of embracing the unconscious sleep-state. Therefore, if we combine many of these recordings, the effects will multiply, and we can reduce the human population into a more manageably docile state before the invasion."
Second alien: "Tight."

And maybe they would've been right. ...If only it just wasn't so...creepy.