Thursday, December 17, 2009

Kate's Day

You know, probably the hardest thing about living in Japan is that you don't have access to your own culture whenever you want it. You have to depend on others to give you that connection to your own home.

Although there are ups and downs, and living abroad is an adventure well worth the sacrifice, there is one time of year when I want that connection more, and people are less willing to give it.

You might be saying, 'Well, who would do such a terrible thing? I would never shut you out. I would support you.' But take a moment and think of your schedule for November and December, and try and work in time to meet with someone online who has a 15 hour time difference. Not so easy is it?

I was more prepared for it this year, but it still sneaks up on you. I came out of the high of the English Speech Competition, winning 5th at state, and then got sick, and then the Christmas season was dumped on me.

But my Christmas season doesn't include the eternal Christmas music at the mall. Or the 800 sq ft houses with 3000 lights. Or the long lines and shopping craziness at the grocery store. When Christmas dumps on me, I just don't see anyone online to talk to.

Although emails still make it my way, it's not the same. Can you see my face right now? Do you know how I stressed the words 'not' and 'same'? Could you tell that my voice isn't angry, just a little sad? Of course you couldn't. Emails and writing can easily be misinterpreted. How many of you have misread an email, in content or tone, and upon confronting the person realized there was simply a miscommunication?

So with something so easily misconstrued, and wanting a stronger connection to home, can you see how limiting emails can be?

My parents have been really good about keeping in touch, and keeping me sane (as much as they can at any rate). Dad and I chat before he goes to work at least a couple times a week. Mom stays up late on Friday nights so that we can catch up. Sometimes she's really tired though so Dad and I watch Mom sleep.

Joe, you've also been good about making time to talk to me. You've got a lot going on, but you fit me in. Thank you.

Like I said before, it's not that people aren't communicating with me. It's a double edged problem: I want more at the busiest time for everyone. At a time we spend with family.

Last year I didn't know many of my fellow ALTs. I was pretty isolated. This year I had speech competition practice followed by a month of illness. It's just hard to email everyone and be so happy or excited about coming home when I kinda feel marginalized.

I guess it just comes down to what you're up to and what you're about in your life. It is a distance, but a lot of the issues are in your head. When I lived in the US, I never made it down to visit my friend Audrey in NC. It was only a couple hundred dollars, but I just couldn't make it happen. When she got married this October, I didn't think twice: just when and where. Audrey was really happy and surprised I came. I guess I don't see it as such an amazing thing. It wasn't that hard. It just always seemed hard before. I'm probably closer to Audrey now than I have since she moved.

I sat down tonight to tell you about my fabulous day. It was magnificent. And yet this is what came out of my fingers. Please don't misinterpret: I'm not angry, or accusing. I'm mostly thoughtful, and a bit nostalgic.

It just seems to me that I know a little bit how Grandma Gladys felt for all those years. She told me once, 'I'm ready for a trip. It's been so long since I've been anywhere.' For her, I was her connection to the outside world. I didn't understand it then. I think I do a little now.

But you know, it's not that people have done this to me and I'm so angry/sad/forgotten. It's just a fact of life here. It's something to deal with. And although sometimes I'm sad about it, sometimes it's not a problem. I guess I wanted to give everyone a little piece of what I face here. It's not always great news. And a lot of it I can't explain. There are lots of challenges. Hehehe. So when I come home for Christmas, please keep this in mind when you want to put my life here on a pedestal. It's just as tough as your life (though not any tougher). It's different but the same.

Half the challenges I face here are from culture, half are from life. And I'm not sure where they fit in, but some of the challenges are from living in a small town. When I lived in Osaka I didn't lack for the big Christmas hoo-ha. Only big difference from America was that they didn't know Christmas was about Jesus (or who Jesus is).

I'm gonna stop now and go to bed. My great day today. I awoke to snow. I showed my kids Christmas movies. My principle watched one of my classes and he liked the movie too. I got to the electronic store and found all the Final Fantasy 13 games were sold out, only to discover that they still had the collector PS3 system + game sets. Came home to cc cookie dough I made yesterday. Going to bed early.

Good night.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Miracle #2

I wasn't really sure I'd be able to top my last post so soon.

Near the end of October, I wrote about my students winning at the Tamana County English Recitation and Short Speech Contest. My students all placed. My 1st years (7th graders) won first place for their recitation from the text book dialogues - Chapter 4. My 2nd years took second, and my 3rd years took second. My 2nd year student, Motoki won first place for his short speech.

Every student I trained won. My principle cried. Everyone was shocked.

On the statue for the 1st years there are ribbons from each year's winner. Nankan had one other ribbon on the statue.
From 23 years ago.
Before any foreigner had lived and taught in Nankan on the JET Program.

One of my 1st year students had come down with the H1N1 influenza the night before the competition. Her mother drove her to the contest and then after to the doctor.
After the competition, I didn't see her or several of my other students for about a week.

So we had a week of celebration. Practices were finished, everyone was happy. Fabulous.

Then it set in for me. The 1st years had won first place. The 1st years had won FIRST place. They were going to preform at the State Recitation Contest in three weeks! My practice wasn't over at all!

The next week we went back to basics. I started all over. I had two kids out for a couple days due to illness and sports practice, so I worked with the two boys on pronunciation. I treated it like we hadn't won the county competition. I pretended that we were starting anew. And when you start new, you start with memorization and pronunciation.

There were some words I didn't work on for the county level because sometimes the kids pronunciation isn't bad, but it could be better. However, once you try to teach them, they forget how to say it the way they originally did. And if you don't have the time to address it, you end up with them trying to sound out the word, or remember how to move their tongue rather than just doing it. They focus too much and they can't get it.

But now I didn't have four groups to train. I had one. [Unfortunately they don't have a short speech competition at the state level. I think Motoki would have taken whomever he was up against. And then I could have continued to watch Shi-chan yell at and hit him whenever they practiced.] I was able to focus on one team. We spent more time practicing than we had before, but since I only had one group I got to go home earlier! It was a bit harder for them at first :)

However, after practicing the same material for two months, it starts to get old. So I had the students do a funny version at least once a day. I told them to all talk in high pitched voices. I told them to say it as fast as they could (or as slow as they could). I had them say each other's lines. I told them to do something strange - whatever they wanted. Two of the students always played a jan-ken game in the middle of the skit for this one.

We also changed up some of the gestures and actions the students did. We added some comical elements. And it payed off. The day of the state competition, we were ready. We drove into Kumamoto city.

There were 17 schools at the competition. I found out later that many of the counties had many more schools than Taman did (30 or more). And the competition to get to state in those areas was really intense. We watched the 2nd year students preform and I could tell there was a big difference in ability level.

Once the 1st years started, I was really nervous. I had to focus on each group and take notes just to keep from noticing how close my students were to presenting. Then they were up; and I wasn't ready. I wanted them to stop so I could have a moment to adjust and be mentally prepared. The students did a good job. After, I found that I was just as nervous. I didn't know how they did yet.

We had to sit through lunch, the 3rd years, a couple of speeches, and finally I found out. They started announcing from the first year students. I wasn't really listening; I was still in time delay from translating all the rules they had announced. All of a sudden, I hear 'Nankan-machi'. I turned to Ms Kawakami and said 'What?!' She answered, 'Nankan won 5th place!'. From there on I didn't hear much more except to write circle the winners on the schedule (I had taken notes about each group so that I'd know what the judges were looking for when I train next year).

We got to send a student into the winners circle on stage to receive the plaque and certificates for our students. Then they gave us the judges comments and scores, we took a couple pictures and went home.

In 2009, Nankan's 1st year students did something no one had ever done before in this town. They won at the State English Recitation Contest. I'm so proud of them. I'm glad I recorded one of their practices.

There's a wall in one of the hallways at Nankan Jr High School that has old pictures of students and sports teams hanging above plaques. They take the pictures so that everyone will know just who it was who won that award years later. I heard the teachers talking the other day about putting a picture of the 1st years up there with the plaque they won at state.

I'd heard from another ALT in Tamana County that the inner city schools always win at the state level. I wondered why. Once I saw the 3rd years preform, I knew. Half of the 'groups' for the 3rd year students were just one student. One student, to memorize 5 pages of material? It became apparent that those students' parents paid for an English tutor. The more students, the more time you have to work on teaching the same pronunciation.

We were the only school from Tamana County to place.

But this competition is about more than just winning. If anything, my students probably had too much fun during practice. And they still did the impossible. They proved that you can do it, even though it's never been done before.
You just need an ALT with no life ;)