Beautiful Moments

I love my job. I really do. Such amazing, hilarious, heart-warming, and beautiful things happen there.

In case you didn’t know, I used to be an ALT (assistant language teacher), but now I am a teacher at an all-English day care in Fukuoka, Japan. We take care of kids from the age of 3-9 (at the moment) and teach them about the world in English. I am currently running the Elementary class, but I help teach all levels. It is not an international school; most of our students are 100% Japanese. Some of our kids come from mixed backgrounds, but they still live their lives mostly in Japanese. The biggest difference between my workplace and the typical Japanese English school is that we also teach our students how to take care of themselves, how to function in society, what makes a good person, etc. We also run class with lots of games, praise, and encouragement.

If you have ever interacted with a small child in your life, you know that they have little to no filter and are usually naturally confident and unashamed. Combine that with an upbeat English environment, and you get some pretty funny situations. I used to write little posts about interesting moments I shared with my old students, and I thought I’d start doing that again. So here is is: Beautiful Moments this far.

1. The Kissing Epidemic

Last month’s theme was fairy tales and movies, so we taught the kids a lot of fantasy words like witch, knight, dragon, princess, blah, blah, blah. There is one particular fairy tale you may know involving a princess and a lucky little frog. There were flashcards for princess and frog and kiss, of course. The elementary school kids were not pleased with this one. One third-grade girl actually shrieked every time she saw the card. The funny thing is, when I asked her if there was anyone she wanted to kiss she said, “Ah, yes” very casually and calmly. She’s only selectively embarrassed I guess.

The preschool-aged group had an even better reaction. They all thought the kiss card was the funniest thing ever, and many of them started kissing each other randomly from the first time they saw it. Two boys, who are close friends, started kissing each other on the mouth a little too much, so we had to start making a bit of a social lesson out of it. I mean, it’s flu season people! Let’s keep our lips to ourselves! The smaller boy actually ended up getting the flu, so he really should have listened to me.

Some other 6-year-old boys also tried to kiss, but it was more like a weird comedy act than anything else. One would approach the other and pretend to kiss him, but the receiver of the kiss would always pull away and pretend to be disgusted. Everyone would laugh. I would tell them all to stop kissing each other, so they’d resort to kissing their own hands.

Just today the mother of the boy who got the flu warned him not to kiss any more people in front of all the other kids. The other kids told him in English to stop kissing. But he still says “YES! Kissing please!” so excitedly. More than a few of them have said to me, “Kissing teacher is good!!” They’re just too cute…really.

 

2. Genuine Smiles

When the parents come to pick up their kids, we do a mini presentation for them to show them what we’re teaching and help them see their kid’s progress. Yesterday I did one of these presentations for a second grader who is usually pretty rowdy but is getting so good at speaking English. I explained to his mom that we’re learning color theory this week, and the boy identified some of the flashcards. Then I asked him a few questions, and he answered them all perfectly. I, the school director, and another teacher all let out a huge “WHHHOOAAAA!” and the biggest smile cracked across his face. I almost started crying it was so beautiful. I told his mom he really is improving so much, in regards to English skill and behavior, and he just smiled even bigger. It is these exact moments when I know I’ve found my calling.

 

3. The more you mess up, the more you learn

Thursday is a small class day. In Elementary, we only have seven kids. This means we have a lot more time to get off topic and just talk to each other. Today, I read them a book about the solar system and asked them some questions about space. I had this pretty normal conversation with a 3rd-grade-girl:

“What is space??? In English please.”

“Sky. It’s black. Uh…many stars.”

“Yes! Good. Okay, so what are people who live on other planets called?”

“Um….space people!”

“Aliens. Nice try though. They definitely are space people.”

During free time, we were talking about superheros and villains, and she gave parts to everyone there. “He is villain. He is the police. He is superhero.” and so on.

“Okay, so who are you?”

“I’m so-so people.”

“So-so people?? What’s that?”

“futsu na hito. So-so people.” (NOTE: futsu means normal, so she meant an ordinary person, but futsu is also what you say to mean fine/okay/so so when someone asks how you are).

“OOOOOh, a normal person. Person!”

“Ah yes, person! I’m normal person!”

I’m telling you this story because this girl would not stop talking today. Every silent moment was an opportunity for her to tell a joke or ask a question or something, but I was so happy she did it. She keep saying she alone was “people”, but it opened up a chance for me to teach her about irregular plurals. More importantly than that though, it gave me a chance to bond more with her and for her to practice her conversation skills. She is an amazing student because she is never afraid to make mistakes.

I’ve honestly learned a lot from my students. The mess up and brush it off. Sure, the teachers always encourage them and praise them for trying alone, but they are so brave! I want to be childlike in that way. I want to not care at all about failing, because I know I’ll learn something and improve from it. That’s why this story is beautiful for me.

 

4. Caregivers

Little kids are so pure and kind. A lot of crying goes on at my school, but the little ones always look out for and comfort each other. We have one little boy who wears diapers, and the other little boy in his class always helps him get his diapers ready to go to the bathroom. If a little girl cries, there is always another little girl there patting her head and asking “Are you okay?” If I accidentally drop all the flashcards on the ground, there are at least five kids at my feet trying to pick them up. Way to go parents of these darling children.

 

5. I am a monkey.

Little kids are essentially monkeys. They climb you, run around with no direction, throw food, and other monkey-like things. However, it is I who has become the monkey of my school. I will do literally anything to make them smile and laugh, including act like a monkey. My favorite moment at work so far was during a kindergarten spelling lesson a few months ago. My work name is Teacher Koko. You need to know that. So during this particular spelling lesson, I decided to ask them how to spell monkey, because they love monkeys. One boy, without missing a single beat said, “K-O-K-O! HAHAHAHAHA!”

I died. I literally couldn’t finish the lesson. I just let them watch me double over in a fit of laughter for three minutes or so. It’s still funny.

 

 

Kids are amazing creatures. I used to hate the idea of ever birthing another human, but gradually I have come to really want a child of my own. Someday. I cry all the time at work. Mostly it’s because they are genuinely that funny and can make me laugh until my sides hurt. But sometimes it’s because my job is so beautiful and rewarding that I feel almost unworthy of it. I get paid to hang out with children and have fun all day. I am so lucky.

 

Where have you been?

I’ve been pretty MIA recently, and I apologize. I’ve been super busy. The old school year has finished and another has begun, so I’ve been wrapped up in planning new lessons for new classes and getting used to all the teacher changes. Let me say that I am very excited to start the non-ALT part of my life, because dealing with some of the teachers at my elementary schools is a nightmare. All but maybe two or three of them speak zero English, and yet half of them insist on controlling the lesson (but not their students) and I frankly can’t take it anymore. My junior high remains a very exciting and interesting place, and some of the new teachers seem really cool as well…so no complaints there. BUT ELEMENTARY SCHOOL! I love the kids though. In the next couple of days, I’ll definitely be posting about some of the crazy and cute things they say.

new school year opening ceremony

new school year opening ceremony

In addition to all that I’ve had a lot more social gatherings planned because of the beautiful change in weather. It’s like all the bears have come out of hibernation and are ready to go fishing. Everyone is doing something. I also can’t really complain about this; being busy with fun is never a bad thing. Although I wish I had a few more days to myself, it’s been great to see most of my local friends and catch up!

we wet to a rock festival at Sakurajima (volcano)

we went to a rock festival at Sakurajima (volcano)

sp 121

Tesla wa nakanai–pianist

sp 089 sp 092 sp 106

Tesla doesn't know how to cry's singer and the gang

Tesla doesn’t know how to cry’s singer and the gang

a little jazz concert in a temple

a little jazz concert in a temple

had an amazing friend date with one of my favorite people

had an amazing friend date with one of my favorite people

monthly international party in Shibushi

monthly international party in Shibushi

The biggest consumer of my time, though, has definitely been the band. We’ve been really focusing on polishing our original songs and getting ready for shows. We had one today at Kanoya Earth Day, and we should play at least one next month as well. I am so into this band, and I’m super excited to play live more. Creating music is definitely a challenge, especially when you’re writing personal lyrics and all that, but it is so rewarding when it all comes together. If we get some good videos or recordings done, I’ll be sure to share them on my other blog!

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the boys of Ashfall

the whole band and a friend

More adventures and pictures to come!

Advice for Newbies: General Tips

Before I came to Japan, I read EVERYTHING I could about this place. Everything. A lot of it was completely useless though. There are tons of regional and situational differences, people have different perspectives, and Japan is always changing. You may get here and realize that Japan is more than you’d ever dreamed it could be. Or you could feel like it does not live up to your expectations at all. To help you, I’ve decided to write this list of tips.

**Before we get started, let me tell you that I am a relatively small, white girl from America. For the most part, I speak Japanese. I don’t know what it’s like to be obese in Japan, or a man in Japan, or a person of color. I can probably help direct you to some different perspectives if you are interested, but for the most part I will be speaking from my experiences as someone who looks and behaves like I do. I hope it helps you in some way! Now, to answer your burning questions!

 

1. Should I learn Japanese?

My opinion on the matter is simple. It’s a big fat YES. Maybe you could get by not knowing anything past your rehearsed introduction. I could not. I’m neurotic and hate making mistakes. I hate relying on other people. I want to be part of the flow and understand the world around me as much as possible. Thus, I learned Japanese.

I know this is not plausible for everyone. Maybe you only want to stay a year an learning the language for that short amount of time is a waste of your time. Maybe you find learning languages later in life really difficult. It’s really not my place to tell you what you can and should do. All I’m saying is that speaking a little Japanese helps immensely! You can buy your own bus tickets and process your own traffic tickets. You can figure out when someone’s saying something bad about you. You can wiggle your way into real relationships with people here who don’t speak English. You can start to get a real sense of what Japan is actually like by having more opportunities to talk to natives. If you can learn Japanese, do it. Start now and never give up. People will certainly respect you for it.

 

2. What do I wear?!

Regardless of what you’ve heard about being an ALT, it is a professional job. To quote the American designer Tom Ford, “Dressing well is a kind of good manners…I find it’s a show of respect to put on your best face and look as good as you can.” It is true that a lot of elementary and even junior high school teachers wear track suits or jeans to school. Once you’ve settled in, you can probably do that to. But my ultimate advice is to look your professional best for a while until people form an opinion of you. For ladies, this means relatively conservative clothing. High necklines, long hem lines, etc. Use your best judgement. After a while, when your newness has worn off and the school year is in full swing, you can get a little more casual (if it’s acceptable). Throw in some bright colors too. The kids love that.

As far as casual, weekend clothes are concerned, people are probably going to think you dress “different” anyway.  I still live by that Tom Ford quote though.  Females tend to be more conservative on the top than their western counterparts, and a lot of them seem to live in heels. This means you can wear short shorts and dresses, but cleavage is a bit of a no-go. It seems more girls go with the cute look than the sexy look, but it’s a free country! It seems people put more effort into their style here, especially in cities. I’d say wear what you want! If you are confident wearing crop tops and sleeveless shirts, do it! In the summer, you’re going to want to anyway.

Guys can get away with almost anything it seems, but I haven’t seen many people here wearing the infamous flip-flops frequently. Geez, I hate those things.

 

3. CULTURE??

I have been told first-hand by many Japanese people that one of the things they admire most about their culture is the constant awareness of everything around them. The modern age as brought some rather flippant people, but the old school group really appreciates delicate and conscientious behavior. It is easy really, just pay attention. You are always reacting and influencing the space around you, so take the time to sit back and think about it occasionally.

Drinking party culture is also a big deal. You’ll likely be asked to numerous enkais (宴会) while you’re here. Just relax! If you don’t drink, your coworkers will probably understand. And if they don’t, lie and say you’re driving home or something. Just talk to everyone (English or Japanese…you’ll be surprised who can speak English under the influence), and keep their glasses full and you’ll be a hit!

Few people expect you to use chopsticks. I’ve found, though, that once you speak decent enough Japanese, they kind of stop asking you about it. I think it has something to do with your aura, ya know?

Old people can do whatever they want. I would advice against copying them. Pick the middle age crowd that’s still working and learn from their behavior.

Presents/souvenirs for your neighbors, bosses, teachers, etc. is definitely not necessary, but it’s a nice gesture and a good icebreaker!

What am I missing…I’ll update you later as I think of things!

 

4. How do I make friends?

If you are a JET coming with group A or B, this is easy. Talk to everyone at orientation and find out where they’re going.

Being an ALT, other ALTs will be around to talk to. They may be 30 or so kilometers away, but most ALTs seem to have a good inner support system so you’ll at least have acquaintances.

You may also “inherit” some local Japanese friends. This sounds weird, I know, but I’ve met a lot of really cool people who have been in the ALT/foreigner crowd for years. People who speak English, have traveled abroad extensively, or just have a general interest in the world can be found even in small towns! Get out there and talk to people. You might meet someone really interesting!

If you have the chance to do a short home-stay or a culture class of some sort, go for it! I did a short stay when I first arrived and I still hang out with my host family. My host “mom” is fairly young, and we get along great! It may be hard sometimes to find friends in your age group, but a friend is a friend, right?

Creating new opportunities for yourself and becoming a “yes” person helps. Join clubs, get involved, and just do what you enjoy. People will be attracted to you. If you speak Japanese, even better. This goes for dating as well. I find it’s best not to go searching for friends. Just live your life openly and the right people just kind of fall into your lap. It takes time, for sure, but if you’re looking for real, lasting friendships, it’s so worth it!

 

 

In general…

The best advice I can give you for your first few months in Japan is to always do more than what’s expected. Dress nicer, smile more, be more outgoing, try harder. All of this will build your reputation. And don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask your coworkers how to say certain things in Japanese, ask people you feel close to for help when you’re down, etc. A lot of ALTs claim that they’ll never fit in or be considered real teachers so there’s no point in acting like one, but that is completely the wrong attitude to have. If you do want to make lasting impressions and make an impact, always put your snazziest, most professional foot forward. The beginning is hard, but people will notice your efforts. I’m probably never leaving Japan, and so I’ve tried hard to fit into the working world here. Even the superintendent in my town talks to me on a regular basis. He constantly asks me how my schools are doing or  if I have any problems. He also knows I want to work in Japan and he supports me. Never lose who you are, but living in Japan is not like living in America or the UK or wherever; there are a different set of rules. Whether or not you notice these differences and how you react could make or break your experience here.

Good luck! If you have a questions, please leave a comment below! See you again soon.

Kissing, Christmas, and Kansai

December was a crazy month, which is my only excuse for being so late on this post. I don’t even know where to begin, so I guess I’ll start from the end.

Yesterday I arrived home from the best vacation I’ve ever had. I definitely need this weekend to recover from it. The best part of it being over, though, is that I was greeted by the most adorable New Years card from my host family! Mom sent me a super cute picture of Haru (the 2-year-old son) blowing me a kiss too, so I’d say 2013 is off to a good start. Oh yea, HAPPY NEW YEAR! How was your 2012? Because mine was awesome. I spent New Years in Kyoto with some great people, and instead of doing the traditional Japanese shrine visit, we partied in a club in the subway. It was called (and very appropriately so) Club Metro. When we got there, I think a few of us thought it was a gay bar because there was a fierce drag queen in the corner and the DJ was playing Gloria Gaynor or something. But a quick question to the guy behind us crushed that assumption. So we rang in the New Year with a bunch of sweaty, dancing fools and listened to some shockingly great DJs. Most of the clubs I’ve been to in Japan play US top 40 and talk over all the good parts. These DJs, on the other hand, played good music…good enough to make me punch some guy in the face during a mosh. Yea, you heard me.

gettin' his drag on.

2013!these guys...

So Kyoto, temples and shrines galore. I didn’t see a maiko, but I met at least four awesome people and had a great time taking pictures like these in front of World Heritage sites. I own this country.

伏見稲荷 凶!My love life is over...
銀閣寺

銀閣寺

Before Kyoto, we stayed in Osaka and did the whole eat-tons-of-fried-food-and-dance-all-night thing. We also ventured to Kobe one of those nights and got lost on a mountain in the dark. Well, we weren’t really lost, but the fear of losing your way in a dark forest makes the story more exciting, right? That mountain almost killed me, but it opened the door for a picture like this:

Kobe

Needless to say, I shopped quite a bit in Osaka. Namba is an awesome area to eat, host-watch, party, and shop. And party. There’s a pretty sweet club called Giraffe, and if you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend it. People might actually dance with you there! And they played BIG BANG, which makes a place instantly cool in my book. On the other end of the fun scale, Osaka is home to the insanely relaxing Spa World. I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown fond of being naked in front of Japanese strangers. And nothing beats sitting in 露天風呂 (rotenburo-open air bath) filled with herbal tea and talking to friends about how the people in the nearby hotel can probably see you naked. Ahh, it was probably the highlight of my trip.

takoyaki

We also made a necessary trip to Nara, to see the deer of course. Actually, I think everyone else went to see some temple…I don’t know, I think it’s famous. Todaiji? Or something.

look at how cute he is!

Just kidding, 東大寺 is pretty cool too, but I really was more concerned with the four-legged creatures that live around it. They are smelly and pushy and just generally not very nice, but I loved them. SO CUTE!

A Single Christmas

XMASI spent Christmas in a really weird, I’m-definitely-an-expat kind of way.

Christmas in Japan is sickening to anyone single, because it’s like Valentine’s Day on steroids. Every shop plays “All I Want for Christmas is You”, couples walk around and go to “illuminations” which are fancy Christmas light displays, and there’s that commercial, overly-produced smell of love in the air. I swear I’m not bitter. Besides, my Christmas Eve was way better because I went to a coffee shop with Rachel. We too went to the illumination, but after a while it got really awkward because I think the cute Japanese couples thought we were making fun of them. So yea, I’m bitter.
The next night, I went to Christmas dinner at a swanky hotel with my travel companions and we ate way too much food because that’s why everyone goes on vacation right? Then we took awesome photos with a real American Santa!

Merry Christmas

Before Osaka, and Nara, and Kobe, and Kyoto, I drove to Kagoshima city with a friend in order to go to Fukuoka. I had every intention of taking the Shinkansen to Fukuoka, taking it back to Kagoshima, and then flying with everyone else to Osaka, but we hit a road bump. A week prior, I took my car to get an oil change, and the shop attendant told me I should get new tires soon. All I could think was that I needed money for my trip and that I wouldn’t be driving my car for two weeks anyway. So of course, that tire popped on the way to the Kag, so we had to put the donut on in the middle of nowhere Japan with little knowledge of how to do it. We figured it out, but after that I was so upset that I decided to stay in Fukuoka an extra night and just take the Shikansen from there to Osaka. What an expensive accident.

At the end of it all, I took almost 10 forms of transportation to get there and back. It was expensive and tiring, but I had a wonderful time, got to know some awesome people, and learned a lot about, well a lot in the process. But that’s only the tail end of it. Earlier in the month I went to an end of the year party, or 忘年会 in Japanese. Actually, it sounds so much better in Japanese, because it  essentially means “a forget the year gathering.” This language is so poetic. Anyway, it was rather educational because I got to see all of my teachers totally sloshed. The second party was a karaoke extravaganza and some of the male teachers managed to do somersaults in that tiny room. Seriously, drunk people in this country rock.

I also ate しゃぶしゃぶ (Shabu shabu, read the wiki page, I’m lazy) for the first time. My host family is too good to me. We had a mini pre-Christmas and exchanged presents and ate Christmas cake and read stories. Haru has moved from cheek kisses to lip kisses and I don’t know why, but that makes me really happy. When I left their house, we had a ridiculously long goodbye. Haru kissed me and said “うれしい!” which means “I’m happy!” I’m happy too, Haru. So so happy.

Sometimes I have to step back and remember to enjoy these moments because they don’t feel real. I don’t how I got so lucky, but it feels like even though I am away from my family, I’m not far from the family feeling. I’m making my own little home in this country and it feels really really good. Oh, and I’m officially on for another year, so I’m not going anywhere any time soon. So far, I love you Japan. Let’s keep this going.