Dana Goes to Japan


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Thursday, July 24, 2003

Around the World
Where's Dana now? Click to find out.

Things I Will Miss About Japan
convenience stores
snack foods
the subway
riding the shinkansen early in the morning
kids riding double on their friends’ bikes
pretty yen bills
feeling tall
everything seeming new and interesting, all the time
incense wafting through the air as I walk past a temple and graveyard
the Date Masamune statue in Sendai Station
cell phones
the world’s friendliest and most earnest customer service
all the people I met here

So long, and thanks for all the fish! So ends my saga in Japan...

There It Goes
Well, that’s about it. At 4:20 this afternoon, a very nice Australian man called me to tell me the moving truck was on its way to my house to pick all my stuff for sea mail shipping. He said it sounded like I was very organized and ready to go, after ascertaining that I had already written out the packing lists, labeled all the boxes, and dealt with labeling my suitcase appropriately as well. If I was well organized, I wonder what other people are usually doing when the moving truck arrives. Still packing? None of the boxes are closed yet? They can’t read instructions on how to label things? Yeesh. Here I was worried I had missed something important.

Anyway, about 10 minutes after Craig called, saying the truck was 15-30 minutes away, the truck arrived. Gotta love the Japanese sense of “on time.” If it’s not 5 minutes early, it’s late. There was only one man, and we had a lovely little confused conversation about whether there were breakables or electronics in the various boxes. He then hauled it all, small boxes, heavy book boxes (yes, two of them, I wouldn’t want to be inconsistent about my reading habits in a foreign country), and then the huge box and the monster purple suitcase, down my narrow little stairs without seeming to have much problem. I applauded him.

Now all that remains is to pack what will be going on the plane with me, possibly mail myself some extra stuff by regular mail, get through one more day of work, and then I’m off to Germany and France for 10 days before I hit US soil again. I was even clever and called to confirm my flight. I’m looking forward to my flight on Malaysian Air, as all reports make it out to be excellent, and it sure as heck has got to beat Delta. I think I am becoming a somewhat jaded airline traveler.

Tomorrow afternoon, I turn my trusty phone over to Kamiyama-sensei, who will see if the new ALT wants to take over its contract. This means that tomorrow at school is my last chance for internet access, and therefore blog updating, so consider this the penultimate entry.

It’s been fun, y’all.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Grinnell PSA
We interrupt the regular Japan content of this blog to bring other Grinnellians this important announcement.

Please go sign the Plans petition here.

Thank you.

(If you did not go to Grinnell College and have no idea what Plans are, you may ignore this.)
The Horror
It finally happened. I was almost through my whole 12 months in Japan without once going to a karaoke palace, and I was happy with that. But no, it was not to be. Last night, my perfect record was ruined as I was dragged off to a “second party” following my farewell dinner with teachers from Mukaiyama.

Let me start with the dinner. It was the more pleasant part of the evening, the part I would prefer to remember. Kamiyama-sensei had arranged everything, when I said I had no real preference or specific ideas about where to go. It turned out to be a very nice traditional Japanese restaurant, and the party was fairly small. It was mostly just the English department and a few of the teachers who have been especially nice to me, like tiny little Ms. Handa, who sat across from me last academic year, and the current 1-5 homeroom teacher, who always likes to talk to me from the end of our row of desks. Ms. Kokuta wanted to come, but had to stay at school overnight with the girls’ volleyball and basketball teams. She gave me a present of two more Kitty-chan phone danglies, because she remembered me buying the one in Fukushima. Also, the kyoto-sensei wanted to come, but he had to go visit another teacher in the hospital. I found out later that the restaurant was one of his favorites, so I think he suggested it.

The dinner was a procession of about 7 courses, all meticulously arranged. My favorite was the long, skinny rectangular plates of three little bite-sized arrangements of fish and meat, with a flying fish fin standing as the decoration in the middle. I also liked the tower of tempura squares, with one tempura-ed asparagus shoot leaning on the tower at an angle. Additionally, I wasn’t the only one not drinking alcohol, which made everything that much less awkward when dealing with ordering drinks.

I was sitting across from Kamiyama-sensei, and in between Mr. Yokota and Mr. Kasahara. No Japanese party, particularly a farewell party, is complete without speeches, so each person had to take a turn in addition to the opening, closing, and toast speeches. Mr. Yokota, who was my supervisor last year, gave his speech after a number of beers, and spent much of the time asking me if I remembered my first day in Sendai, when he had come to pick me up from the BOE after the arrival ceremony. This brought up the story of how they decided on the kanji characters for my hanko with Mr. Yamagata, so my hanko had to be passed around and inspected. Mr. Kasahara’s speech was actually very quiet and serious, surprising many of the other teachers as being rather out of character.

But then Mr. Kasahara needed to go home to his children, and Ms. Chiba needed to go home to study, since she was taking the test to become a full-time teacher today, so the first party broke up. I would have been just as happy to go home then, but I was informed that Mr. Kikuchi had given money when he found out he couldn’t come, (due to having to visit the parents of a student being disciplined), and we simply had to use it to go sing karaoke. And wouldn’t you know, there was a karaoke palace just around the corner! Oh, goody!

There were only 5 of us who went, me, Mr. Yokota, Mr. Kamiyama, and two other teachers. All of them were men at least twice my age, and when they declined the nomihodai (all you can drink) option for the karaoke package, it set a kind of tame mood. Thank goodness. Most of the songs chosen were the ever popular Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, or the Eagles. There was some Celine Dion and Louis Armstrong thrown in for good measure. When Eric Clapton’s “Change the World” came up, you could definitely tell it was a group of nerdy English teachers, because in between verses, the comment was, “Hey, look, it’s all in the subjunctive!”

The funniest thing was the video playing behind the words. Because most of the songs chosen were oldies from before the era of music videos, the karaoke company just had random scenery from various large cities around the world, most notably London, Rome, San Francisco, and New York. Except all the footage was from the 80s, so the Twin Towers still existed and ugly cars figured prominently in street scenes. Only the two Japanese songs seemed to have videos that tried to match the songs. When Puff the Magic Dragon came up, the video was not the world scenery, but instead this incredibly 80s-chic Japanese woman walking around looking pensive outdoors, at one point artistically pouring bottled water out artistically so she could watch it fall.

I sort of sang two songs. Fortunately for me, the microphone didn’t pick up my voice almost at all. I have noticed that many Japanese people have amazing mastery of handheld microphones, such as students at the school festival and whatnot, and now I know why. Because they’re all obsessed with karaoke. Maybe I wasn’t holding the microphone right, or whatever, but I’m grateful for small favors. Also, I think Kamiyama-sensei was right when he said later that no one pays attention when other people are singing anyway, since they’re all looking for the next song they want to sing in the book. Perhaps that is also out of self-defense, since I also noticed that there is something about karaoke that makes everyone try to sing in a really stupid falsetto.

So I survived karaoke. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. It is also not something I would willingly subject myself to ever again. But now I’ve done it, so my Japanese experience is complete. Guess there’s nothing to do now but go home, right?

Monday, July 21, 2003

Roaming Culture
You know, the nice thing about living in Japan is that I don’t have to do anything in order to have an interesting life. It just happens. Sometimes, it even comes right to me. I can be totally lazy, and still fulfill my duty to you, my loving audience. Amazing.

Yesterday, I was sitting in my apartment, pondering how much I did not want to be packing all my stuff and trying to think of a good reason to procrastinate, when I heard drumming in the street. There have been flags up all over the neighborhood, advertising the upcoming festival for Atago Jinja, the shrine on the hill behind my house, and the temple at the other end of the street is all fixed up, too, so I went to the window to see what was going on. As it turned out, it was the procession carrying the Atago Jinja portable shrine. First was a very slow-moving truck carrying the taiko drum, with a man walking behind it to beat it. Then there were three priests, two banner carriers, and the little shrine, with about 20 men supporting it, and a crowd of relief carriers or otherwise hangers-on. I was the only person who came out on the street to see it, so the procession spent about as much time looking at me, the strange gaijin girl, as I did looking at them. I had my camera, though, so I think I win the gawking contest.

When I say it was a portable shrine, I really do mean a perfect tiny replica of a very ornate shrine building. Little steps with railings, lots of gold scrollwork, dangly bits hanging from the ends of the rafters, and a big metal phoenix at the apex of the roof. All Shinto shrines have one. The end of July and beginning of August is matsuri season, or festival season, when it seems like all shrines and temples have events.

In the afternoon, I went downtown to do some final shopping on Ichi-ban-cho, and this was conclusively demonstrated by a much larger procession of not one, but three, larger and ever more ornate shrines from the area around downtown. The first one had a tiny woman up on the front of the shrine carrying base, holding onto the corner post and waving a fan back and forth in time to chanting bearers. Luckily, I had my camera there, too, so hopefully my pictures will come out well when I get back to the US. It is too bad that I’m going to miss Tanabata this year, though.

Plea for Entertainment
I don’t like packing my entire apartment. I need to take breaks every few hours. If you love me, you will send me email, so when I obsessively check, I will not just sit in front of the computer pointlessly combing the internet for random entertainment. Pretty please? I’m not allowed to go outside anymore until I’m done, so it’s up to you to keep me sane.

Saturday, July 19, 2003

Sukiyaki Party
Last night, my landlords invited me to their apartment for dinner. About a month ago, before they took their vacation to Russia, I had been over to their office for tea, and it was determined that I had not had sukiyaki. This would not do. I had to have it before I left Japan. Thus, my farewell party.

At 7:00, I went across the street, bearing NC taffy in a tin I had cleverly covered in origami paper so it didn’t say it was oatmeal anymore. It’s amazing what one can do in 5 minutes with paper, scissors, and tape when attempting to be creative. Presentation is half the gift in Japan, and unfortunately, the original box had gotten rather squished. Apparently, I chose well, because my landlady seemed to like it.

When I came in, she did the modest housewife thing, which must be scripted the world over. “I’m sorry, it’s very small, not much to look at, please come in.” Really, their apartment is very nice. My estimation of “small” has become somewhat different after living in my apartment all year. I mean, they have a whole actual kitchen! Amazing. The living room is full of displays of things they’ve picked up in their travels around the world, but unlike many Japanese homes, it manages to not seem overly cluttered.

On the coffee table/kotatsu in the middle of the room, a feast was set up. Sukiyaki is made in a kind of cross between an electric frying pan and a crock pot. First, Mrs. Watanabe greased the bottom of the pan, then added soy sauce and sake. When it had heated a bit, she started adding the main raw ingredients set up on a platter on the side; cabbage, about 4 kinds of mushrooms, konyaku noodles, tofu cubes, and very thinly sliced beef. She then cracked a raw egg in each of 3 small bowls, set them at our places, and bade us dig in. Everyone just took what they wanted from the pot in the middle with their own hashi (chopsticks), dipped it hot into the egg, and ate. I was kind of wary of the egg, but I swear Japanese eggs taste far less strong than eggs in the US, so it was good. I also haven’t died yet, so I don’t think I got salmonella either, despite the horror stories of my childhood.

But wait! There’s more! In addition to the huge amount of food cut up for the sukiyaki, which was quite filling on its own, there was also preparations for homemade sushi rolls. Each of us had a plate with small squares of nori (seaweed paper). There was a large bowl of sticky rice, and then various sushi toppings. Or middles, I guess, since it got rolled up. You can figure it out. There was cucumber, miso pickles, salmon, tuna (“sea chicken”), caviar, eggplant, umeboshi (pickled plums), and natto (weird sticky fermented beans). We spread rice on the nori, added whatever else we wanted, rolled it up, and ate. Very good. Do you see now why I want a Japanese wife? Really, I want a private Japanese chef.

During the course of the evening, we talked about all sorts of things. We compared the US and Japanese high school educational system and determined that the Japanese do math really well, whereas the US does far and away better with foreign language. I don’t really know about any of the other classes. We talked about their trip to Russia. The brought back 5 sets of the little nesting dolls, and told me to pick the one I liked best to have as a gift. My landlady won their bet about which one I would pick, when I chose the green one with white flowers. My landlord’s favorite was the natural wood one with gold painting. Their pictures are still being developed, so there isn’t an amazing scrapbook yet, so we had to make do with the picture calendars they got. They had traveled the Golden Ring, which they said was beautiful, but did not find the Russian people to be as friendly to lost tourists as people in other countries. My landlady then found the set of Japanese traditional prints she had been looking for last time I was in their office, and told me to pick out two. They give each ALT they get to know their choice. They were all lovely, but eventually I chose one of a woman combing her hair, and one of two women by the ocean.

For dessert, Mrs. Watanabe and I had red tea from one of their Middle East trips, grapes, and cookies from Hokkaido. Mr. Watanabe declined his cookie and most of his grapes, because he was drinking alcohol. We decided that I would eat his cookie for him, because he was drinking my alcohol for me. Then we got into a discussion about the food in America and in Japan, particularly serving sizes. The Japanese interpretation of American steaks is that they are as thick as mattresses, and nearly as big. I said that many people in the US get too big because they eat too much, and I liked Japanese portions better. But I added that Mark eats and eats, and stays really skinny. My landlady said, “Ah, he gets (consult electronic dictionary) very bad mileage. Like an American car. Much fuel, few miles.” I laughed a lot. It’s probably the most original, and accurate, way of putting it I’ve ever heard. I, on the other hand, am like a Japanese car, small and able to run on little food.

When they tried the taffy, they thought it was good. They said when they were growing up, there was no candy in Japan, except what the US soldiers gave out to children. Now, children in Japan just think candy is normal. Then Mrs. Watanabe made me little boxes of rice and sushi toppings, plus some nori, and gave me instructions on what to refrigerate and what not to. I made myself a little feast for dinner tonight, too. Yum, yum, yum.

Friday, July 18, 2003

See You!
Today was quite a day. In fact, I’m having to split it into two parts, it was so full. Tonight, I shall tell you about the work part of my day. It was rather full. I got to teach two classes in the morning and give a speech in English and Japanese both at each school in the afternoon. But let’s start at the beginning.

This morning, I went to Minami as usual. Because they were having the closing ceremony for summer vacation in the afternoon, the schedule was all different. Not that such an occurrence is at all unusual. Once I figured out my schedule, I found out I had classes back-to-back in the second and third periods, just before lunch. The first class was with Ms. Shiokai, and since she is now the head English teacher, or at least the head first-year teacher, the principal had asked if he could visit one of her classes. This is the man who lived in New York for 5 years, working at the Manhattan branch of the Japanese 77 Bank. His English is very good, and I’m not really sure why he decided to become a principal. Anyway, about halfway through the lesson, he came and amazed all the students. His English is really better than most of the English teachers. Today’s lesson was about introducing one’s family, so he talked a bit about his daughters. One of them in working for MTV in New York now, which of course was very impressive. Ms. Shiokai had also planned a game where she asked the students multiple choice questions about me and Mr. Sato. Things like, “What is Dana-sensei’s favorite kanji of these three?” and, “What is kocho-sensei’s dream?” Oh, and, “How many centimeters taller than Dana is kocho-sensei?” Mr. Sato also revealed his weight to the class, but I declined. Not really because I care, but because I haven’t got a clue what I weigh in kilograms. I emphasized to the class that he is tall in both Japan and the US, since he is 6’1”.

Then I taught my last class with Mr. Takisawa, the cute part-time teacher who sits next to me. The lesson in that class was about looking sad or happy, and giving the reason why, so I wandered around the class a lot embarrassing students who thought they had finished talking to their partners for the assignment and could then speak in Japanese or sleep. Nothing like seeing that look of panic as the teacher is all of a sudden standing over your desk, asking, “And you? Are you happy or sad today? Oh, really? What happened?” That aside, I think they actually had fun. It was a pretty easy lesson. And they did all look sad when I told them I was leaving and they should be nice to the new ALT. After class, I found out that Mr. Takisawa was on his way to Nagoya for a job interview at another school. He taught at a private school before, but quit so he could go to grad school full time. Now, though, he’s almost done with that, and doesn’t want to be a part time teacher after this school year is over. I hope he did well on his English exams. He kept asking me for help and clarification while he was studying for them.

In the afternoon, both school’s were having closing ceremonies. Today was the last day of school before the month-long August vacation. (I only mean vacation loosely, of course, because most of the students will still come to school for club activities nearly all day, every day.) There had been much discussion between my two schools about how to coordinate my attendance at each ceremony, because it was also to be my farewell ceremony. At Minami, my farewell started the whole thing. Mr. Sato gave a speech thanking me and talking about what I would be doing next year, all in English. He gave me a signed copy of it, as well. Then I gave a short speech in English (“I had fun teaching you, I hope you will continue to study English, blah, blah.”) and then in Japanese, (trans. “Everyone, my year in Japan was wonderful. It was a good experience. Truly, thank you very much,”). After I was done, a student representative brought me a huge bouquet of flowers. It was very sweet. Apparently, the International Communication Club had planned to give me a party after school, too, but I had to go to Mukaiyama right after my speech, so one of them gave me a letter from her before I left.

Then, after my speech, I went and got my bag, walked to the office with all my stuff, and got picked up by Miwa-sensei to go to Mukaiyama. There, my farewell was at the end of the ceremony. I got to listen to the principal admonish the students not to have part-time jobs, to study, and to read enlightening books, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in translation, over the summer. Somehow, I’m not convinced they are going to take his advice. Two other teachers gave little advice speeches, too, and then the principal introduced me. This principal does not speak English, and in truth, I have no idea what he said, other than he mentioned America a lot. I gave my little speech, no one gave me flowers, and the ceremony was over. But then I went back to the staff room, where I attempted to put my desk in some sort of order, and all of the second-year classes sent representatives to me with cards signed by the whole class. I also got a letter from the girl in Kamiyama-sensei’s homeroom who is going on an 11-month exchange program to Ohio and Wisconsin, leaving next week, who came to ask me questions about America during lunch yesterday. And yesterday, both of Ms. Chiba’s first year classes gave me crane chains with messages written on the birds’ wings. I feel loved. Yay! My favorite comments were the ones saying, “I didn’t like English, but now I do,” or, “I don’t like English, but I like your class.”

Thursday, July 17, 2003

As I mentioned, I asked Mr. Kamiyama what the difference between a vigil and a funeral was, but he said he didn’t know. Today, he asked Mr. Nagane, who in addition to being young, just married, and a social studies teacher, also turns out to be a trained Buddhist priest. He said that a Buddhist funeral is actually an entrance ceremony for the person’s spirit into the next world. The person, who is no longer mortal, is given a new name, usually much longer and written completely in kanji characters, to start their new life. The vigil, on the other hand, is really just a ceremony at which friends and acquaintances can demonstrate their sympathy toward the remaining family members.

Last week, I was walking home from the subway station. It was night, after dinner, about 9:00. As I walked past the Buddhist temple, three men were working by the light of a lantern in the small shrine outside the main temple, repainting the tiny portable shrine house inside with equally tiny brushes. I looked up at the large hill across the bridge, where my giant cell tower lives, and saw that the misty clouds stood so low, they were touching the tops of the hills. The tower had completely disappeared, it’s mellow floodlights unable to pierce the mist to light even the base. There were no cars on either my small bridge or the larger one also spanning the river just a block’s distance away as I paused to listen to the water running in the Hirose-gawa, the leaves rustling on the vines growing on the steep banks, and the insects chirping in the dark. The street lights reflected in the water, making the ripples sparkle. All this was mine.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Apparently, the color of hydrangeas is affected by the acidity of the soil. I found this out this weekend. Right now, all the hydrangeas in Sendai are blooming, and they look quite startling. I’m used to the plain white snowball bushes, or the very light blue ones. In Japan, they show up in deep Carolina blue, brilliant fuchsia, and purple, sometimes all on the same bush. On my way home from Mukaiyama, there is a daycare center playground at the bottom of a steep hillside. The hillside is covered with hydrangea bushes, and once they started blooming, the hill looked dotted with bright balls of blue and pink amidst all the usual tangled green. It makes me smile every day I walk past. On the way to Minami, there is a house with windows facing the sidewalk beside the river. The windows are covered with shoji screens patterned with birds made of wood, and when if the person inside were to open the screens, they would be looking at the trunk of a large cherry tree and the blue-and-purple blooms of the big hydrangea growing at the tree’s base. I wish I lived in that room.

On my walk home this afternoon, there was inexplicably a little convention of 5 police officers at the corner in front of the Milky Way, right where I needed to cross the big road to be on my street. I really have no idea why they were there. It was most unfortunate for one of my students that they were there, though. I don’t know what he did, maybe ride his bike too fast on the sidewalk, or go across the street while the crosswalk light was red, or something, but whatever it was, one of the policemen stepped out with his little wand, stopped him, and gave him a ticket. My student needed to go past me to continue on his way, and he was so embarrassed. He came to a stop next to me, but was looking down and away, too ashamed to look at me. When I asked him what had happened, he tried to explain what he had done wrong, but all I caught was, “[Something] is bad. You’re not supposed to [do it].” Poor kid. Getting caught is bad enough, but to have it happen in front of a teacher must be a Japanese student’s worst nightmare, given how much responsibility teachers in Japan are given for basically raising their students. Good thing I’m not his homeroom teacher. He’d wish the ground had swallowed him instead.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

This past Saturday, Mr. Yamagata, the ex-principal of Mukaiyama who retired in March, died suddenly of what I was told was an "aneurysm of the aorta." This was very unexpected. His parents are still alive, both in their 90s, as well as his wife and three grown daughters. Mr. Kamiyama told me that even though he had been a principal for many years, and at many schools, he did not like it as much because he could no longer teach classes. After retiring, he got a part-time job as a world history teacher again at one of the private high schools in Sendai, and was eagerly looking forward to teaching in the classroom again. He actually had Mr. Kasahara as one of his students, back before he became a principal.

Mr. Kamiyama sent me an email to tell me the news yesterday while I was at Minami. He said that since the funeral will be held during the day later this week, many of the teachers could not go and were planning to go to the vigil this evening. I asked if I could go as well. Mr. Yamagata was a very kind man, who always took time to speak to me in his very minimal English. He was the one who, last fall (October 24, 2002), took me for tea at a traditional teahouse and told me all about his family and growing up in Sendai. When he retired, he had a friend who is a potter make custom tea mugs for everyone on the staff.

Because he had been a principal at so many schools, taught many people, and worked at the kencho for 3 years as well, his vigil was completely full. After school this afternoon, I went with Mr. Kamiyama to the funeral hall. When we came in, we signed the guest registry and handed the attendants special funerary envelopes with ¥3000 inside. Then the attendants, most of them teachers from Mukaiyama, gave each person a token bag, which apparently has green tea and some other kind of small gift inside, as well as a card with the death announcement on it.

The vigil was held in an auditorium. Almost all of the regular seats were full when we arrived, so the ushers were trying to fill in the empty seats. There ended up being two empty in the front row of the left section, and we were put there. Mr. Kamiyama was rather uncomfortable, because those seats are usually for people very close to the deceased, but it did afford me an unobstructed view of everything. After we had come in, they brought in extra chairs and filled in all of the area in the back of the auditorium, in between the tables that had been set up with food for people who were staying afterward.

At exactly 6:00pm, the vigil began with the raising of the thin curtain on the stage at the front. There was a display covering the wall of a model temple as the background for a center display of white orchids surrounding the portrait of Mr. Yamagata, smiling and happy, more casual than he ever was at work. On the tier below this were hundreds of unopened white chrysanthemums arranged on ferns, which gradually grew to palm fronds and unopened white day lilies at the sides of the display. From the back of the room, a bell began to ring, and three priests proceeded to the stage. The bell ringer, dressed in purple and tan robes, took his place on the right side of the stage, on the chair in front of the two gongs, one large and one small, shaped like bowls. The priest carrying a tall stick of incense, dressed in light green and saffron, took the chair at the right, in front of the carved wooden drum. The head priest, in burgundy with gold embroidery, took the central seat, facing the display, in front of an incense bowl. They all began to chant, with gong ringing from the right, rhythmic rubbing of the head priest’s prayer beads, and putting more incense into the bowl at certain intervals. The chanting had a constant underlying drone because at least one of them was always keeping it going, even when the others had stopped to draw breath. I’m not actually sure they were all chanting the same parts in unison anyway. At times it seemed more like a round. Since I’ve never seen a Buddhist chanting ritual before, I don’t really know.

After about 20 minutes, the gong ringer began to ring the smaller gong more often, the head priest rubbed his prayer beads for longer, and then the large gong was struck with finality, bringing the impressive chanting to an end. The gong ringer began another chant on his own, while the priest on the left picked up his stick and began to beat the carved drum in front of him. The announcer at the microphone on one side of the auditorium stepped forward and announced that Mr. Yamagata’s wife and perhaps his brother would now light the first incense at the 10 or so boxes at the edge of the stage for that purpose. Then his children and parents came forward and did so. Then everyone else in the auditorium did the same. The boxes held loose grain incense on one side, in a separate compartment, and on the other side of the divider was a bed with a piece of hot charcoal in it to sprinkle the incense over. As the last people were coming forward to do this, Mr. Kamiyama motioned to me to move with them to the back of the auditorium so we wouldn’t be in the front row anymore.

After everyone was back in their seats again, either Mr. Yamagata’s wife or one of his daughters, I could no longer see, made a short speech, and everyone bowed. Then the priests recessed out, ringing the hand bell, and everyone made their way out. Mr. Kamiyama said this was much shorter than an actual funeral service would be, since it was only half an hour, but he couldn’t really explain what would be done differently at a full funeral service. He did say, however, that is required by law in Japan that all bodies be cremated.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Free Talk
Today I taught two of my very last classes at Minami. Friday is my last day there, and it’s the same day as the closing ceremony for summer vacation for all high schools. This does mean that my Friday is going to be kind of busy, since I have to be there for the ceremony to give a farewell speech at both schools, but I’ll get to that later this week.

My first class this morning was with one of Ms. Shiokai’s classes, with one boy on the front row who always knows the answer and is always talking, except you can’t get mad at him, because he’s usually translating the more difficult English words for the people around him, or answering the question meant for someone else, correctly. One of the girls from the International Communication club is also in that class. The lesson for them was on introducing family members, and the last activity was to draw a picture of their family and use it to introduce the people. Japanese students are such good artists. I liked walking around seeing all their drawings, and they were good at telling me who the drawing was. I really hope I’ve prepared them enough to feel pretty comfortable with the new ALT. This year’s first year students at both schools have been much more willing to speak in oral communication class, and I’d hate it if they got all shy about talking to the new girl.

The next class, though, was the really good one. Mr. Endo had no lesson plan, because he didn’t want two of his three classes to get a lesson ahead of the other one just before summer vacation, so he said today was “free talk” for my last class. I started by talking about why I was going back to the US. I astounded them all by writing the kanji for “linguistics” on the board, since they definitely didn’t know what that word meant. Even though I spoke only in English, and there was no script in the textbook or anything to look at, they understood almost all that I said without Mr. Endo having to translate much. This is one of Minami’s all-girl classes, and when Mr. Endo told them they could ask me questions, they had lots of things to ask me. There was the usual “Do you like sushi?” and “Can you use chopsticks?” but also “Is there a Tanabata Festival in the US? Do you like Tanabata in Japan or there best?,” “What is your favorite traditional Japanese thing?,” “Do you like Japanese language?,” “What was the most surprising thing about Japan?,” and a bunch of other ones. The girls asked them all in English, with relatively little help from the teacher, too.

When they seemed to be running out of questions, I told them about my successor. I asked if anyone was in the brass band, and the two girls who were (percussion and clarinet) looked very happy when I said she played the flute and they should talk to her about music. Then I told them that she speaks Ukrainian with her mother and grandmother at home in England. One of the girls asked if Russian and Ukrainian were very similar to English, so I drew them a language family chart on the board, and they understood it. Then someone asked if they could take a picture, and three of them turned out to have disposable cameras in their bags, so the entire class gathered at the front of the room and we took a group picture, complete with peace signs. As Mr. Endo and I were walking up the stairs to go back to the staff room after class, two girls holding hands for mutual support caught me to ask one last question, the ever fascinating, “Will you marry with your boyfriend?” I’m sad to leave that class, and really, a lot of my students.

Bugger Off Brai
Yesterday, Sunday, Danola had organized what she called the “Bugger Off Brai” as a farewell party for those of us in the Shiogama clan who are leaving. “Brai” is Afrikaans for “barbecue” or “cookout.” Of course, it didn’t quite work that way, because it turns out there are lots of regulations about having an open flame except in certain designated places, so it ended up being more of a picnic. What’s more, Danola didn’t even come, because she had gone off to climb Mt. Fuji with some other group of JETs, and her shinkansen didn’t get back to Sendai until about halfway through the party. Some hostess she is.

What we did end up doing was meeting Alex at Tagajo train station and following him to the Tagajo Green Space. “We” in this case was me, John, and Oliver from Sendai; Sharon, Kristel, Laura, Alex, and his girlfriend Kayoko from Tagajo/Shiogama; and one science teacher from Alex and Sharon’s school. Richard was supposed to come, too, but cancelled due to a migraine. The Green Space was quite a walk from the station, but the walk was very nice, all along the side of the river there, with many fish jumping in the water, and actually pleasant temperatures under a sky that never actually rained on us.

The Green Space was very pretty. There were some sports fields at the end we came in on, then a very interesting fountain in the middle, with lots of sort of torch shapes making a little water spout forest, and then the grassy area with lots of little trees where we spread out our picnic things. Being a Japanese picnic, we were of course prepared with ground covers, and everyone took off their shoes before sitting down. Kristel had gotten very much into the spirit of things and probably brought more than half the food, including pasta salad, watermelon, and grapes. Alex, the strict vegetarian, had brought potato salad spiced up with totally fake bacon bits. I brought little individual stick slices of cheesecake on a kind of baklava base, because they just remodeled the part of Sendai Station next to the ticket machines and evilly put in a cheesecake shop. Danola was with me when I noticed it, and drooled over the prospect of cheesecake, but since she wasn’t there, she didn’t get any. Neener, neener. I’ll be seeing her before I leave, anyway.

Out of the group there, Alex and I turned out to be the only ones really leaving Japan. Sharon isn’t on the JET program anymore, either, so the school she shares with Alex will get two new ALTs next year. She’s going to be a receptionist at one of the private language schools in Sendai, and will actually be moving to Itsutsubashi, which is the neighborhood just 5 minutes north of me, towards Sendai Station. She is very sad that I’m leaving, but she can still visit Richard easily from there, too, and my successor will be in my apartment. On the walk to the Green Space, Alex and I had fun discussing a fantastic fantasy series that his brother had loaned him, and then he loaned to me, actually before he had read them himself, and he wanted to clarify some of the points he didn’t feel like he’d really understood, since I’ve actually read more of the books than he has now. Me being me, I would have happily discussed that for the rest of the time, but strangely, not everyone else seemed as fascinated. When we got to the picnic spot, we all started talking about various things we liked about Japan and our home countries, why students giggle when they hear ALTs say things in Japanese, and Sharon discovered that the name of one of her favorite Japanese foods is also a slang word for certain bits of male anatomy, kind of like ordering eggs in Mexico. She was horribly embarrassed.

After we decimated the food, we played a very pitiful game of soccer with a ball Kristel had discovered in one of the cupboards of her apartment. This is what it’s like to be in a predecessor-apartment. You can find all sorts of strange and bizarre things, even nearly a year after you move in. My own apartment was pretty bare in that regard, but Danola and Kristel are both still finding things tucked away in random little corners. The game ended in a tie, after my team demanded that we switch goals, because our trees were much farther apart than the opposing team’s goal trees.

After that, people were feeling tired, so we packed up and began the walk back. Kayoko took all the Tagajo/Shiogama people in her car, and John, Oliver, and I walked back to the train station. The party had started at 1:30, and we didn’t get back to Sendai until 7. Saying good-bye to people at Kayoko’s car took a long time, as some of us realized we really wouldn’t be seeing each other again. This group is notorious for not being able to leave parties in a timely fashion, and this time was even worse. I’m sure I’ll be hearing from them all again, though. The internet is a wonderful thing.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Let’s Do Lunch
Friday was, as I mentioned, the second day of the sports festival at Minami. Sure enough, when I got to school, the enthusiastic English teacher was there, waiting for me. He took me to see his third-year homeroom class compete in the very first events of the day, since they had done well the day before. It seems that on Minami’s first day, they played all the preliminary basketball and soccer games, but it seems like most of the volleyball was left for the second day. This teacher’s class, 3-4, had done well in boy’s soccer and basketball. They were finalists for soccer, playing against another third year class, none of whom I have taught at all, since I only teach first year students at this school. Even with the year change, I only know students in the first two years there. At Mukaiyama, I know all the students.

The final soccer match started at 9am, under glaring overcast skies, on a very wet and muddy field. The sponges they had put down in front of the goals had done all they could to soak up the water, but could only do so much. For all that, it was a lot of fun to watch. I thought it was especially funny to watch the boys suddenly start running really carefully on the one corner of the field with sparse grass on it, because it became extra slippery over there. The referees all immediately opted to go barefoot. Unlike Mukaiyama, there is no rule that club members can’t participate in their own sport, so there were some very good players on the field, much to the misfortune of the goalie from the basketball team, since in the end, the game came down to a PK sudden death match.

After that, and several changes of shoes, we went in to see the 3-4 boys play basketball. They won, with a lot of help from the one star boy who rarely missed a shot. As the teacher said, “He’s on the basketball team, so I feel kind of bad [for the other team].” I kind of wish all basketball games were like the sports festival ones, only 15 minutes long. I can actually stay interested for that long.

Then the teacher bought me ice cream in the cafeteria, since the sun actually came out and suddenly the temperature rose about 10 degrees for the first time in a week, and we went back to the staff room, where yes, I admit it, I did read my book. But then I got up and wandered around outside with my camera, watching the girls practicing for their volleyball matches in the afternoon. I found one team of girls that I taught last year. Several of them I remembered as being very eager to participate in class, and they waved and smiled when they saw me watching them. One of them got the boy acting as their team manager to take a picture of us together. Another of them is the girl I pass every day on my way to Mukaiyama, who after many months of seeing me, actually smiles at me spontaneously when we pass each other. I was amused to note that she was playing volleyball with perfectly manicured nails.

While I was watching them, the social studies teacher I made friends with at the beginning of the year invited me to go out to lunch with him and another social studies teacher. I said I wanted to wait to see the girls play, since it was very soon, and he told me to find him afterward. I did indeed watch the girls play, as well as several other teams before them, but they lost in the end. It was still fun to see them play, since even in the course of a rather short game, they got measurably better.

Then I did go find Itami-sensei. He got permission from the kyoto-sensei for us to leave, and we went outside and met his friend, who was going to drive us to the restaurant. It turned out to be in either extreme suburbs of Sendai or an entirely different town, with lots of large, modern, single-family homes. This is apparently where the other teacher lived, and a restaurant that he goes to a lot, because after he placed his order, he went over to his house to shower and change clothes, and was back before the entrée was delivered. It was a very nice, small, airy Italian restaurant, owned by an Italian man married to a Japanese woman. I think they live in Italy most of the time, but whenever they come to Japan, they import clothes and jewelry as well, and have a small boutique next to the restaurant. If I understood correctly, there is an Italian woman who is the chef in the kitchen.

Mr. Itami ordered a whole set course for me, as well as himself, and it was all so good. Japanese people take their Italian cuisine very seriously. Perhaps they identify with another culture that seems to be very into lots of courses during a meal. I’m sure the Japanese version of Italian food involves much smaller portions than what one might actually get in Italy, but that’s all fine with me. I think it’s going to be a shock to go back to Western-sized meals again in just two short weeks. Mr. Itami and I discussed European culture, books, and art for a while, which is his real love, and when his friend returned, talk turned to that man’s major in college, philosophy. Because I mostly know philosophers related to educational theory, such as John Dewey, we started talking about my area of linguistics and why it is good to learn a foreign language. I think that talking to these teachers makes it more clear that the philosophy behind teaching English in all the high schools in Japan is not so much to turn out fluent speakers, but instead to expose the students to alternative ways of thinking and much different culture, as well as gaining more appreciation for their own language. These are very good things, and it’s really the same theory underlying the foreign language requirement in US high schools and universities as well, but I still think they have separated the living parts of foreign language study from the technical (grammatical) bits entirely too much.

After the meal, the other teacher, labeled the “fighting philosopher” by Mr. Itami, took us around the neighborhood so we could see his house. He had a large yellow lab in the front yard, named Lopez after a Spanish soccer star. We got back to school just as the closing ceremony was beginning, both of them very much having enjoyed using my “farewell party” as an excuse to get out of school for nearly two whole hours in the middle of the day. I certainly didn’t object either. That’s one of the fastest days I’ve ever had at that school, and a lot more socialization than I usually get, especially from students and non-English teachers.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Minami Farewell
Tonight was the night of the farewell enkai for me and the student teachers at Minami. It was at “The Wine Bar,” so I wasn’t holding out much hope for the evening. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was just the English department. What’s more, I think I paved the way for one of the student teachers to declare more comfortably that he didn’t drink alcohol either. I’m glad if I did; it’s easier for me to declare it because I’m both foreign and a woman, so I can just let them think whatever they want. Plus, this was the poor student teacher who had to team-teach with me on Monday, all on his own, and he was so nervous.

While there was lots of alcohol present, including, yes, 3 kinds of wine, as well as beer and a choice of mixed drinks, there was also, blessedly, food. I spent the beginning of the evening talking to Ms. Shiokai and Mr. Endo. Eventually, Ms. Shiokai switched places with me because Mr. Endo and I had started talking about Izumi high school and its English camp, since he just got transferred from there and was the teacher in charge of the camp when I helped with it in February. He said he went to Izumi for some event last weekend, and the students who had been at the camp knew he now works with me, so they spent most of the time asking him how I was. Awwww.

Apparently, 5 years ago, he was chosen by the Ministry of Education to spend 6 months at UC Davis, studying American schooling and living with a host family to get a truly American experience. He was very surprised to learn that different cultures use different conversational styles. Just so you know, the Japanese way is like bowling; each person step up, says their piece, everyone watches until its done, and then the next person steps up. American conversations are like basketball, with everyone passing the topic back and forth and jumping in the middle. Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian conversations are like rugby, with lots of close proximity, physical contact, and energetic shouting. He said this greatly deepened his understanding of foreign experiences.

Then I got embroiled in a discussion of foreign travel with some other teacher that I’ve never taught with, but his desk is near mine. I’ve never heard him speak that much English before. He really likes to travel and had lots of fun telling me all about his adventures traveling in Europe. He’s very happy that his children will be old enough next year to take them. He’s been waiting for 10 years for them to be big enough to make traveling worthwhile. I sure hope his kids appreciate having a dad who wants to take them all over Europe. When I said I would be going to Germany and France on my home, he had many suggestions of museums to see in Paris.

And then, then I got abandoned. All the nice people I had been talking to either had to go home or got involved in other conversations, and I was left to the mercies of the very bizarre teacher who only barely sort of speaks English. Listening to him takes a lot of concentration. It doesn’t help that he becomes somewhat, um, expansive when drunk. And chain smokes. He really, really wanted me to play volleyball tomorrow at Minami’s sports day. I think I told him about 5 times that I’d be happy to just watch, since I didn’t think telling him that I despise playing volleyball would be very diplomatic. He was concerned that I would read a book the whole time. While this is actually a somewhat valid observation, I wouldn’t do that on sports day, since there are actually things to see.

I was relieved when Mr. Yamauchi came over to join us, even though he’s not my favorite teacher, because at least his English is better and he was willing to talk about other things. He turned the conversation to whether or not I am a typical American. I said, no, probably not, because I’m very quiet and calm. The smoking teacher said that this is an important function in a social group, “kind of like a priest.” Mr. Yamauchi decided that I was more Japanese than American, but then amended it by saying that since more Japanese young people are starting to have conversations like Americans, I must be like an old Japanese woman. So I’m an old Japanese woman priest. Who would have thought?

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Sports Day Gossip Update
Today I ate lunch in the cafeteria with the school nurse, and got all the gossip. The boy with the broken leg will be in the hospital for a month, so there goes his summer vacation. He was from the winning class, though, so it was not all in vain, and the whole class went to visit him in the hospital yesterday after school. The boy who collapsed at the relay race is now fine. Mr. Ogata is reported to be a very able and skilled assistant, as well. So now you know.

Sports Festival
These past two days have the been the school sports festival at Mukaiyama. If you want a US context to put it in, it’s kind of like elementary school field day, only more competitive and more organized. Each class competes against all the others, all three grades mixed, and at the end of the second day, the classes’ points are totaled from all the various events to see who wins the school-wide prize, which is a very impressive trophy with lots of ribbons and a large box of… something. I assume snacks.

The first day opened with the t-shirt contest. Each class designed its own t-shirt for everyone to wear. Kamiyama-sensei got an extra one for me, so I was officially part of class 2-1. Its design features a cartoon llama or something in the shape of the 2. The back says “ONE” in large English letters, with the kanji characters for “Xanadu” underneath, (no one knows why.) Other classes were better, if not necessarily more explicable. I think my favorite was the one that came in second, a black shirt with a bright yellow cartoon frog on the front, and “We are stars!” on the back, with all the students’ names. There was a class that substituted their homeroom teacher’s name in the McDonald’s golden arches on a bright red shirt; a class that parodied the Puma athletic brand with their Mr. Kumagai’s name; and a tribute to Mr. Nagane’s new wife (Mr. Nagane’s name wasn’t actually on the shirt, only his wife’s). The class that won, though, had a headshot of one of their classmates surrounded by all of their names on a bright orange shirt. While it was certainly the most colorful shirt, it won solely on the merits of its presentation. They got their homeroom teacher, the new gym teacher, to skip down to the stage holding a giant Pooh bear also dressed in the shirt, where he then proceeded to put the Pooh on his head and spin in a circle singing a popular commercial jingle until he fell down. My theory is that he lost a bet.

After the shirt presentations, everyone got warmed up to start the actual sports events. The leader of the warm up was revealed as the curtains for the stage opened. He was holding a theatrical pose, one arm up in the air, the other hand on his hip… in a bright orange speed skater’s full bodysuit. Accompanied by a student playing a medley of soothing classical tunes that managed to fit the routine perfectly, he took everyone through the traditional Japanese sports warm up in high style. Everyone thought it was very funny, and the students warmed up with more enthusiasm than they did the day of the Long Walk, even though it was the same exercises.

The rest of the first day was dedicated to the preliminary elimination rounds of the main sporting events, basketball, volleyball, soccer, and table tennis. These were, of course, modified short matches so they could actually have all the classes compete in a timely fashion, and no student who played on that sport’s team as his or her club activity was allowed to participate in that particular activity, just to make it fair. 2-1 did pretty well in the preliminaries for all the events. I saw the girls’ team win a volleyball game and then a basketball game. I haven’t seen basketball quite like that since my brother was in the pee-wee league at 5 years old. Not a lot of skill involved, but at least they did manage to score twice, and that was all it took in a 20-minute mini-game. I didn’t see any of the soccer or table tennis, but Mukaiyama always has its sports day during the rainy season, so I’m sure the soccer players were quite a sight to behold. The playing field is only dirt, after all, not grass, so it turns into a nice big mud flat. Mr. Ogata, who sits next to me, said he didn’t get to see any of the soccer either, even though he’s the soccer coach, because he was assisting in the infirmary and was too busy. Nearly 50 students went through there to get taped or bandaged.

This morning was dedicated to the final rounds of the four main events. Apparently, one of the third year classes won both men’s and women’s soccer, so they must be really good. I don’t think 2-1 won any of the finals. After the basketball finals, the teachers challenged the winning boys’ team to a game, and were resoundingly beaten. Mr. Ogata reported that one student broke his leg playing soccer and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance, but that was the only severe injury.

The afternoon was dedicated to “fun games,” and that’s when I found out what all the kids had been practicing for by running up and down the hallways in all their free time for the past two days. This was, in my opinion, the most fun part of the whole two days. These were all the silly games. There was a scavenger hunt for things the audience had, like someone’s smelly shoe, a necklace, a PHS mobile phone, another class’s sports day shirt, 3 people with glasses, etc. There was also, of course, tug-of-war. There was team jump rope, with 10 people jumping. This involved a lot of variation as teams had tried to determine what the best configuration of people was, 10 strung out, or 5 pairs, all facing one direction or both, how long the rope should be, all for one minute of jumping. The key was to find your rhythm early, otherwise you’d never get very many jumps.

Then came the best events, the ones they’d all been practicing for. For two days there have been students running past the staff room with their hands on each others’ shoulders, saying “one, two, one, two.” It was for the 100-Leg race. 10 students in a row had their legs tied together with judo belts, forming a long centipede tethered at the ankles. They had to run down the length of the gym, take a turn around the person standing at the end as a marker, and get back to the starting point. 2-1 was one of the fastest classes, and had put some thought into it. They had chosen a group of all girls, to keep the height variation to a minimum, and they were all barefoot. They had also tied their tethers better than some groups, who had to keep stopping to retie them. None of them fell down either.

As if that wasn’t amusing enough, the next event was even better, in a totally bizarre way. The classes were divided by even-odd room numbers into two teams. Then each of the classes provided two teams of first girls, then boys later, to make a kind of horse and rider pyramid. 3 students formed the horse by having on student in front with their hands held back on either side to form part of the stirrups. Then there were two students behind that one who put their inside arms on the front person’s shoulders to make the seat, and their outside hands held the front person’s to make the other half of the stirrups. The rider was wearing either a red or white cloth hat, depending on which team they were on. The object was for the rider to first, protect his or her hat, and second, to grab as many of the opposing team’s hats as possible. It was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen. The worst part is that I didn’t get a picture, because I was out of film.

The last event was a relay race. This had to be held outside on the mud field. The teams that were serious about winning all had either bare feet or cleats to avoid slipping. I think the fastest class was the Kumas. They got a huge lead right from the beginning and never gave it up. All the teachers were very impressed. One of the third year boys serving as the last leg collapsed after he got across the finish line from hyperventilation and cramps. His entire class gathered around him and cheered for him until he could sit up, and then two of them helped him get up. They were going to carry him, but he said he wanted to walk. When he tried, though, even with his arm around one of his friends, his legs collapsed, so his friend just shifted him over into a piggyback and carried him across the field to the infirmary.

The day ended with the closing awards ceremony. 3-1 class, with the yellow frog t-shirts, won the grand prize, but 2-1 was in 4th place, which was still respectable. The gym teacher who had done the Pooh dance got a gag prize, and came out to claim it with Pooh strapped to his back and a huge gold bow tie bigger than his own head. The emcee ended up conducting most of the ceremony through a handheld loudspeaker because the microphone died, but he still managed to be extremely enthusiastic, as he had been for the whole two days.

Monday, July 07, 2003

Brass Band
I met Danola on Saturday, ostensibly for lunch, but actually ended up going to see her high school’s brass band performance much later in the afternoon. I really wish I’d gotten to go to Mukaiyama’s now, since their band usually makes it to national competition, but they just had to perform the day I left for my vacation in May. Oh, well.

Anyway, Tagajo SHS might not be quite on par with Mukaiyama, but they were still very good. Kristel was with us, and said that compared to the junior high school performances she’s sat through, it was professional quality. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it was impressive. It was divided into two halves, the first half being what the band director had chosen to showcase their skills, and the second half being student-chosen, as well as student-conducted.

In the first half, the band was wearing their uniforms of black pants and green blazers, very Japanese high school. The interesting thing to me was how many of the members were girls. The boys were by far in the minority. The entire timpani section was female, and they were a lot of fun to watch. The second piece, which I didn’t like very much overall musically speaking, was very entertaining from the technical aspect. The percussionists got out bass bows and ran them up and down the sides of the xylophone keys and one of the cymbals, and the trumpet and trombone sections put down their instruments and played glasses of water at one point.

The second half, though, was where the students showed off their creativity. For the first several pieces, each successive row of the seating had on a different rainbow colored top, and the lighting was done with a rainbow theme as well. There were also some cheerleaders with pom-poms, American style, who ran onto the stage at various times. I’m not really sure why, but hey, it was entertaining. To give you an idea of what the students chose to play, there was a medley of spy theme songs, such as Mission: Impossible, as well as some more seriously musical numbers.

Then there was a break as some smaller groups, such as the flute ensemble, and three members of the sax section, among others, came out and did group solos (including the Beatles, of course). During that time, everyone else was changing clothes and then assembling in their places behind the starry curtain some of the erstwhile cheerleaders were holding up. When the main stage lights came back up, the band struck up a medley from Disney’s Aladdin, complete with band members acting out scenes. There were three thieves chasing Aladdin at first, (and he looked very embarrassed to not have on an actual shirt, just his little vest,) and then Jasmine appeared (who looked even more embarrassed about appearing in what amounted to a shiny blue bra and harem trousers; she kept trying to cover her stomach). When Aladdin and Jasmine finally eluded the thieves and the romance theme started, an actual magic carpet appeared… in the form of a cargo trolley draped with a carpet, being pushed inconspicuously by the former thieves. The audience thought it was great.

Then the starry night curtain was removed, Aladdin, Jasmine, and the thieves got to return to their instruments, and the rest of the band was revealed to all be wearing a motley collection of vaguely Disney-themed costumes. They ranged everywhere from Mickey and Minnie Mouse, to Peter Pan, to a sparkly Tinkerbell ball gown, to a boy in an Afro wig, to several female basketball punks. Most of the timpani section opted for a tropical theme to go with their maracas. The best part, in my opinion, was when the sparkly ball-gowned percussionist had to take the place of the person at the drum set from her more usual position with the bells and xylophones, and had to hike up her glittery, cloudy blue skirts to use all the foot pedals properly. They all looked like they had a great time, and the audience obviously loved it too.

Like all Japanese cultural performances, we were also given comment sheets and pencils. Danola got to vote for songs she wanted to hear next year. She rather dated herself by requesting Wham. Who knows, maybe they’ll take her request, given the way retro music tastes run here. She might have had more luck with David Bowie, though. Kristel and Danola both had quite a time navigating the lobby to get out, since many of the students Kristel had last year graduated and went on to Danola’s high school. I, on the other hand, was just another gaijin. Ah, conspicuous anonymity.

Fourth of July
This was quite possibly the lamest 4th of July ever. It’s something like the fourth or fifth year that I haven’t gotten to go to Nags Head, which is what I’m traditionally supposed to do, or at the very least, go to a beach. This year, I wasn’t even on vacation. Not only did I spend the whole day at work, there were also no other Americans around at all, so no one would even recognize complaining as legitimate for the day. It was all terribly depressing. Rainy season in Japan was not meant for reminiscing about American summer holidays.

When I saw Kristel and Danola the next day, Kristel said that now that her parents have a house in Florida, she’s been in the US several times for the 4th and found it very surreal. When her parents first spent a summer there, they had no idea why everything seemed to shut down and no one was around to do anything. Now, they have enough American friends in the neighborhood that they get invited to cookouts and stuff, but before, they had no idea what was going on. That made me feel a bit better.

So, since I don’t have a good Japanese 4th of July story, I’ll tell you about my other foreign holiday adventure, from two years ago when I lived in Chile. That day happened to be the first day of our trip to Peru. The semester was over, it was “exam period,” which none of the professors actually used to give exams, and we were set to leave for the US in two weeks, so those of us on the program who didn’t decide to go home early (the weenies) decided to travel as much as we could.

Early in the morning, Jessica and I met up with some of the other gringas in our group of 8 and got on the plane in Santiago to fly to Arica, the northern-most city in Chile. It was winter in Chile, so when we left Santiago is was chilly and gray, but Arica is desert country, and it was bright, sunny, and warm when we got there. We spent the day wandering around town while waiting for the last two people in our group to get in on a later flight. The sky was brilliant blue, there were flowers blooming in the square outside the famous church designed by Eiffel, and then we walked over to the ocean. I took a “patriotic” picture of a statue of the liberator of Chile, Bernardo O’Higgins (Yes, O’Higgins. He was half-Irish. I’m not kidding.), on a horse, of course, in front of the big historic cliff that the Chilean army had to scale to recapture the land from Peru, with a Chilean flag at the top.

Later that afternoon, when everyone had gotten there, we took a taxi across the border, just 45 minutes, to Tacna, Peru, and from there set off on our Peruvian adventure. I want to go back to the Andes now. Sigh.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Flying Solo
Yesterday I taught class all on my own, without a co-teacher. I didn’t mind that much, since it was a class I was supposed to teach with one of the more stressfully clueless teachers. When I came in by myself and announced that the other teacher wouldn’t be there, the students all applauded. What am I going to do next year when I’m not a celebrity anymore? I might actually be expected to teach my English classes at MSU based on something other than my exotic foreigner status. What a shock.

I was worried that I would have enough to do with them, but it turned out that we needed to finish 2 lessons, instead of just one, so that was no problem. I started out with a version of team “Telephone,” where they pass a sentence to the back of their row and the last person in each row has to write it on the board, the object being to get all 10 words correct and therefore keep all 10 of their points. It’s a successful game at both of my schools. Then we covered 2 lessons worth of material, with listening comprehension and pair work.

And I did everything in English. Everything. I did not speak any Japanese to the students at all, and they seemed to understand almost everything the first time. For the complicated instructions for the game, I asked for a volunteer from the class to translate, and that was it.

It’s kind of depressing to me to think about, actually. If these students had teachers who consistently spoke English to them in English class, they would be so much further ahead now. If more Japanese teachers would assume that their students could actually understand them and not baby them with simple sentences and immediate Japanese translation, they’d actually learn things! An amazing concept, I know. I suppose I should be glad that I’m getting all these valuable insights into what not to do when I’m responsible for teaching on my own. In the meantime, the Japanese schools are a long way from turning out fluent English speakers.

Why don’t people just ask me? The world would run a lot more smoothly.