Of lions and lambs

6 Mar

As a follow up to my last post, I want to preface this post with the fact that February into the beginning of March has historically been the worst part of the year for me in my adult life.  In college, this was often when the semester was getting into full swing and classes were becoming more and more stressful and time-consuming.  In Japan, this is the time of year when I’ve been a hermit in my freezing apartment, huddling under the kotatsu for three months, when the days are depressingly short, when I’m sick of wearing a huge coat to shield me from the Gunma winds all the time, when I’m busy with end-of-the-school-year preparations, when I’m dreading the loss of my graduating students, and when I’ve inevitably gotten the flu and been out of commission and miserable for at least a week.  All in all, February and early March is just a time when I feel the most worn out, anxious for spring and drained of positive energy (or really, the energy to do anything at all).  Still, despite experiences like my last post and bouts of frustration and depression, what I’ve learned over the years is that the best thing to do is try to keep it together, because undoubtedly, April will bring sunlight, warmth, and good things.  As they say in elementary school in America, March comes in like a lion, and out like a lamb, right?

So far, after the rampant big-cat attack that was February, so far, my first week of March has definitely been a mix of lions and lambs, but a spark of hope that spring might be coming came with my ALT Day, a type of event unique to Kiryu, in which several ALTs go to another ALT’s school and all run a fun English class with games or challenges for the kids.  I love ALT Days, and think that they’re a really great idea, because the kids get exposed to a variety of different teachers who have different backgrounds than the ALT they see every week, and because I (and all the other ALTs in my city) get to visit and interact with lots of different kids around the city.  Usually, we play English games, or do a sort of scavenger hunt type challenge where students put together clues in English to uncover the answer to the puzzle.  Generally, ALT Days are a lot of fun for both the teachers and the students, and I had been looking forward to mine, despite a bit of anxiety that something would go wrong.

Needless to say, nothing went wrong, and it seemed like the kids and the ALTs all had a great time, and I was pleased.  Once I had bid all the other ALTs goodbye, though, I figured that was the end of it, until my JTE asked me for photos of all the ALTs who’d come to the ALT Day.  She said she wanted to have the kids practice writing cards by writing thank you cards to the ALTs who’d come, and I thought it was a great idea, so I printed off a quick document with each of the ALT’s photos and names.  I didn’t think much about it after that until class the next day.

I should preface what comes next with a note about this particular JTE.  After spending three years trying her hardest to make English fun for the incredibly unruly and difficult class who graduated last year, she seems to have become jaded about English and about teaching in general.  We have a good working relationship, but she constantly remarks that English isn’t fun, or is too difficult, or that all the students hate it.  It makes me sad to hear, because I’ve seen the worksheets and games she used four years ago with her last class of incoming first years, and she used to have so many fun and interesting activities.  But since that class of kids basically trampled on her efforts to make class enjoyable, she seems to have (understandably) lost her will to try, and her belief that she can make a difference to the students.  Because of this, she seems to teach the class on autopilot a lot, and often forgets that I’m there and has the kids repeat after the CD, or forgets to tell me that the class schedule has been changed, leaving me scrambling to figure out what’s going on. I’ve come to realize that it’s not intentional or out of dislike, but I also don’t take for granted that she’ll always appreciate my presence.  She’s also commented to me before that I care too much, or that I’m too invested in trying to make sure the kids are having fun, like she saw me as young and naive, but soon I would become jaded like her.

So when I arrived in class the next day to discover that that she had added my name and the other ALT who works at my school’s name to the list I’d made earlier, I was surprised.  She told the class that they could of course write to us, too, but they ought to know what we look like by now (I’d hope!) so there was no picture included. I was touched and happy about that as it was, but then, I turned the paper to the other side to find that she’d made an example card for the students to look at:


Yes, that’s right.  She had written the example card to me, complete with an illustration of me in the outfit I’d worn on the ALT Day.  I was so touched that I made a noise of surprise and kept telling her how happy I was, and I really just didn’t know what else to say.  This teacher, who had always seemed so withdrawn and unhappy, actually seemed to have enjoyed and appreciated my ALT day.  Maybe it was just a one-time thing, I have no way of knowing.  But after trying really hard to make a difference, to show her that English could be fun and not a class that the kids hated, to support her as best I could and help her help student succeed… I was really happy to see even just this little sign of being appreciated.

So yeah, maybe March comes in like a lion. But maybe sometimes there are a few lambs thrown in the bag, too.


What doesn’t kill you…

4 Mar

ImageI’ve always been an advocate of the JET Programme.  While I’ve only been a JET for under two years now, all of my experiences, both bad and good, have been a learning experience, both as a means of cultural exchange and as a step towards becoming an independent person in the world.  While experiencing culture shock and crying in front of my coworkers (as mentioned in this post) wasn’t really fun, it was enlightening in terms of knowing myself, and every time I’ve made an embarrassing mistake or been turned down when I’ve asked to do an activity or game in class, it’s been a building block in my understanding of Japanese office culture.  JET is absolutely what you make of it, and because I’ve really enjoyed working with the kids and living life here in Gunma, I’ve tried to put a positive spin on everything, including my two bouts of influenza and every small rejection I’ve faced at work. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, they say, and even at times when I’ve wanted to (or actually have) cried, even at times when I’ve been frustrated, or hurt, or sick, I’ve done my best to tell myself that I was becoming a better ALT and a better person from it.  And besides, times like the speech contest have made it all worth it.  

But recently, I had an experience that, while mostly minor and probably forgettable in other situations, would probably be the first experience that I’d classify as a completely negative experience.  Many ALTs will complain that they get ignored or forgotten because they’re ALTs, but for the most part, I feel that this sort of thing happens because Japanese staff are unsure how much Japanese the ALT understands and forget that things that are common in Japanese schools are not common in foreign countries.  They don’t realize that the ALT didn’t understand an announcement in the morning meeting because it was relatively simple to them, or forget that ALTs might not be aware of Japanese national holidays.  While these are things that I obviously find frustrating, I also understand that I’m the person who doesn’t understand in a workplace full of people who do, and I’m the one who chose to take this job and come to Japan, and that in most cases, it’s my responsibility to make sure I ask my coworkers for their help when I need it.  But in this case, there was really no way around it; I was treated poorly.  

What happened is this: Gunma Prefecture, and all of the Kanto region recently experienced a snowstorm of a high enough magnitude that no one was prepared.  Yamanashi Prefecture became basically inaccessible for days; Tokyo’s ever-running trains were stopped.  In Gunma, it was the most snow we’ve gotten for over one hundred years, and as a result, after the snow fell on Saturday and Sunday, school for the following Monday was cancelled.  Every teacher in my school received a phone call informing them that the students would not be coming to school on Monday, and asking them to take care but try to get to school so that we could all work together to shovel the parking lot.  Every teacher, that is, but me and my fellow ALT.  

This might not seem like a big deal, but for a second, allow my to talk about my regular work day. On a regular work day, I wake up around 6:45 to get dressed, do my makeup and hair, eat breakfast, and leave my house at 8 to bike for 15 minutes and arrive at school at 8:15, before the teachers’ meeting at 8:20.  My breakfast usually consists of two pieces of bread with butter, or maybe a cheese bread from 7-11, just enough to hold me over until the huge portion of kyushoku we get at 12:45.  Usually, I wear a skirt and blouse or sweater, nice shoes, and tights to work, expecting to stand in a heated classroom or teachers’ room for a few hours.  

On Monday, expecting classes as normal, I woke up at 6:15 in order to leave my house early to make it to work on time.  I dressed in my usual fashion: a light sweater, a knee-length skirt, and stockings before putting on UGGs, my warmest shoes, and preparing for the trek to work.  I left my house around 7:30 and brought my bike, unsure of what the conditions would be like but knowing that if I wanted to get to school in time for the morning meeting (which it would be highly highly frowned upon for me to miss), I needed to bike as much as I could.  Upon attempting to make it even a few feet, it became clear that the iced-over snow banks were not idea for biking, and that basically, I would need to haul my bike by hand all the way to school.  For anyone who’s ever dragged a bike across icy snow banks, you will understand that this is not an easy task. After my bike slipping dragged me down a few times and the sheer force required to move the thing over the uneven, slippery ground, I finally arrived at school just around 8:20, gasping and sweating, my arms aching from the effort.  What I expected was to go happily into the teachers’ room, take a break, drink some coffee, and pull myself together before first period. What I did not expect was to be the tenth-or-so person to school (out of a 36-person staff) and find everyone outside, wearing waterproof boots, sweatpants, and windbreakers, shoveling snow.  

It was only then that I was informed that today was a snow day and I would be required to help clear out the school parking lot.  When I asked the vice-principal about why I wasn’t informed, I was told that “I decided it wasn’t relevant to ALTs, because teachers have to come to school anyway.” So apparently, it was relevant every other teacher in the school, but it wasn’t relevant to me.  It wasn’t relevant to tell me that I should dress warmly and wear waterproof shoes, it wasn’t relevant to warn me that I should eat a filling breakfast because I was doing manual labor, it wasn’t relevant to inform me that I could take as long as necessary to come to school rather than attempting to bike and falling over and injuring myself in the process.  Apparently, my safety, health, and general wellbeing were not good enough reasons to make one simple phone call that probably would have lasted all of two minutes.  

I was upset and aggravated enough about that as it was, but then the shoveling began.  As more and more teachers trickled in a half hour, an hour, two hours late, having taken their time to slowly come to school in the safest way, I was required to use a six-inch gardening hoe to crack through layers of ice and allow shoveling in the parking lot.  While I’m not a fan of manual labor, I understand that this is what everyone in the school was doing, and what was necessary to allow the students access to the school the next day.  However, while my coworkers were happily dressed in clothes appropriate for the task, I was struggling to keep my expensive clothing clean and dry.  In the end, it was a lost cause; my tights and skirt were splattered with muddy, dirty snow, and my shoes were soaked beyond repair; in the long run, they are now unwearable despite having cost me $150 and being only a year old.  I always was feeling dizzy and lightheaded after not having eaten a real breakfast, and my arms had already been aching and tired after dragging my bike to school… which I wouldn’t have done if I had known I didn’t need to be on time.  One phone call would have saved me a $150 pair of shoes and my personal health… but apparently, it wasn’t relevant enough for my vice-principal to care.  

I understand that calling ALTs can be intimidating for someone who doesn’t speak any English.  I understand that he might have been worried that if he was unclear, it might make me and my fellow ALT think that we didn’t need to work tomorrow, causing us to lose a vacation day unnecessarily.  I understand that he was overwhelmed after all that went into making the decision to close school for the day and then calling 24 other employees. But that is his job, and I don’t think that those things justify the really unpleasant situation that my fellow ALT and I went through.  Because it isn’t just the fact that we suffered physically.  It’s the fact that there was no apology, and, in fact, insult was added to injury when we were told, essentially, that our health was not relevant to the people in charge at the school.  

There are plenty of ways that the vice principal could have contacted us.  He could have called one of the English teachers and asked them to contact us– under normal circumstances on the phone tree, it is the head of English’s responsibility, anyway.  He could have contacted my direct supervisor at the Board of Education, who has my phone number and email address, and asked for non-verbal contact information for me, so that it would be less stressful for him, or even asked my boss, who is directly responsible for me, to contact me.  I understand his (probable) concerns, but I don’t think that it’s an excuse.  This was not just a matter of personal inconvenience.  This was a matter of my wellbeing, and I got the message loud and clear that it was not relevant.  

I know this post sounds angry, but in some ways, I still am.  From people who I have trusted and so far had a good relationship, I find this behaviour shocking and hurtful.  And it wasn’t just me– the other female teachers at the school who I work with agreed, and kept saying that my situation was “pitiful” and sympathizing with me.  So clearly, it’s not just a cultural thing; clearly, something was amiss here.  

I’m not retracting my positive review of the JET Programme, or even my positive view of my situation.  I am lucky to have been placed in a town where English is a priority and we have a great supervisor who looks out for us. I am fortunate to have been placed in a school that I can access easily by bike, and where there are teachers who I can trust and talk to, and where my JTEs all have quite good English, and where I at least have some students in every grade who are enthusiastic about learning English.  But I am admitting that sometimes, as an ALT, really crappy things just happen, and there’s really no way to see them in a positive light.  I know that this has been a learning experience, and I’m going to become stronger from it and move on, but at the same time, I’m just going to accept that while it didn’t kill me, it did really suck a lot. 

About the JET Programme Interview!

3 Feb

It’s been two years since my JET interview, so I honestly can’t say that I remember it perfectly.  But I do have a lot of friends who interviewed for JET from a variety of backgrounds, so I’ve tried to compile everything I’ve heard into this little summary.  It’s a bit long, but I hope it’s helpful!  A lot of the reasoning I give for things here is my own hypothesis or else things I’ve heard for others, and I absolutely don’t mean to say that if someone got a certain type of question, it necessarily reflects one way or another on them.  I just want to help out anyone looking for a sort-of walkthrough of the JET interview. I can only speak from my own experience, which I know doesn’t necessarily match up with the experiences of others based on their consulate, home country, or even just the people interviewing them, but I hope that this is helpful nonetheless to a variety of aspiring JETs preparing for their interviews!

First, about a month beforehand, you’ll either receive or make an appointment with the consulate by email.  I know in past years some consulates have let you choose, but I didn’t have that choice in New York since it’s one of the two busiest in the country.  I was assigned my time and told I had to be there at that time, so I needed to make arrangements with professors and stuff.  I stayed with a friend in New York; if you’re doing your interview more than a few hours’ car ride, I’d advise staying overnight.  It takes a lot of stress out of making sure you get there on time and looking nice.  I’ve heard so many horror stories about not having time to change or inclement weather making people late, and I’m definitely glad I stayed over.

Most people will tell you to wear a black or dark grey or navy suit, but I wore a grey skirt and a muted green jacket (from the same line of separates, so they matched but weren’t the same colour) because my body is a weird shape (petit but curvy) and finding a nice suit that would fit me well would have been difficult, time consuming, and pricy, so I had to shop the sale racks.  But in the long run, I actually got complimented by the consulate staff and the JET alumni who were there on having a “bit of colour” despite still looking business-ready, so I don’t think you need to be panicking if your suit is a little outside the black/grey/navy range.  I wouldn’t, however, wear anything that’s too bright, or a suit that’s too light (like khaki) because that will really be completely different from everyone else.  I would advise that you wear a button up shirt rather than a regular blouse or high-cut cami, because despite the fact that those are 100% okay as a part of your suit for basically everything else (including orientations and graduation and stuff once you’re on JET), if I recall correctly, almost everyone was wearing collared button ups at the interview.  Obviously this goes without saying, but no cleavage and no short skirts. I wore stilettos because they were the only black pumps I had and I was fine, but I wouldn’t wear anything outside of black, brown, navy, or beige shoes.  People will try to tell you that you should wear a skirt, but I think pants suits are 100% fine.  In my experience, the embassy staff wear an embassy uniform (similar to desk attendants in Japanese businesses, with a vest, a hat, and a cutesy tie), the professors/otherwise established Japanese community members wore suits, and the JET alums tended to have the least formal dress, wearing upscale business casual (a blazer and slacks and a colourful blouse for the girls, a blazer and slacks and a light coloured shirt with a colourful tie for the guys).  The atmosphere won’t be so stifling that you’ll stand out if you’re even wearing one speck of colour.  I borrowed a professional-looking handbag from a friend; some people carried briefcases.  As long as your bag is a muted tone and looks business-like, don’t worry about it.  At the New York consulate, I could leave it in the lobby and the JET alums there will watch it.

I know it’s obvious to get there early, but you can arrive seriously early and it will be fine; don’t worry about it being awkward.  There’s a place to wait, so even if you show up more than an hour in advance, they’ll accommodate you and you can sit in the waiting room and chat with the JET alums and ask them any questions. Getting into the consulate might be a bit terrifying, but they’re pretty good about placing guides along the way to get you to the right place.

They’ll call you back to your interview room when it’s time.  Your interview panel will very likely consist of three people: a JET alum, a Japanese college professor or some other esteemed member of the community, and a consulate employee.  I’ve heard people have had various good cop/bad cop experiences, but for me, the JET alum and the professor were both very friendly, while the consulate employee was more strictly professional.

The interviewers will all have your application and statement of purpose in front of them.  The questions they ask you will be based on how high your application scored in the original screening process, as well as what they felt was strong and/or weak about your application.  I’ve heard that people who scored lower on the application step will be asked harder questions (if they’re nervous about how you’ll handle the pressure of standing in front of a classroom or if they think you might be a flight risk or something) while people who scored higher are asked more general questions.  There are a few categories of questions that they’ll ask from, and most people get at least one question out of most of these categories.

Category One: About your application
(I’m sure everyone gets these)

They asked me:
✓ “You have here that you’d like to be placed in a city.  How would you feel if you were places in a small town, instead?”

✓ “You lived in Tokyo for a semester during study abroad, is that correct?  What would you say your biggest challenge was in Japan?”

✓ “I see you’ve had teaching experience teaching ballet to children.  How do you think this will help you on JET? How do you think your JET experience will differ, and what will you do to make up for that difference?”

Question my friends got:
✓ “I see you requested the Kanto region.  Why was that your top choice?” 

✓ “I see you don’t have any teaching experience.  How to you plan to handle standing in front of a class of kids?”

Category Two: Why?
(I don’t recall getting these but I know lots of people get them)

✓ “Why did you choose the JET programme?”

✓ “Why do you want to live in Japan?”

✓ “I see here your major in college was Japanese language. Why did you choose to study Japanese?”

※ People always say you shouldn’t talk about anime, dramas, pop culture, j-pop, etc here, but I think it’s really fine as long as you make it clear that you care more about the job itself than going to Japan to meet Kyari Pamyu Pamyu or something. What I think is really important here is that your interest in Japan and JET is more than just esoteric interest or blind fascination in Japanese culture.  I find more often that the hole academics from good universities who studied Japanese in college fall into is trying to seem too ~academically interested in Japan.  What the program people obviously care about is that you’re interested in working with kids and that you’re adaptable to anything– being in the middle of a metropolitan area in Osaka or being in the tiniest village in the northernmost point of Hokkaido.  If you give them the impression that you have interest and a passion for teaching/education/cultural exchange without seeming like you have huge expectations of Japan, I think that would be your best bet.  I’m not saying that I think people go in trying to seem inflexible, but rather that I feel like people often make the mistake of trying to seem cultured and educated and end up seeming like they missed the point

Category 3: The Mock Lesson 
(There’s almost no chance that you won’t get a question from this category)

They asked me:
✓ “Please do an example of a short self introduction you could give a class when you taught them for the first time.”

Questions my friends got:
✓ “Please give an example lesson showcasing a holiday in your country.”

✓ “I see you’re a _______ major.  Please give an example of how you’d try to explain a _______ concept to your students.”

✓ “Please give us an example of how you’re explain a grammar point in simple English to your students.”

※ This section seems to be primarily to see two things: 1) how fast you act on your feet, 2) how you present to a room of people.  I’ve heard that the panel will give you various degrees of trouble pretending to be kids in the class if they’re unsure about how you’ll work under pressure.  For example, during my friend’s interview, someone on the panel raised her hand and asked (completely unrelated to the lesson) if all Americans have guns.  They do seem to shape their question based on what they want to see from you; for example, my friends who got asked to explain their major, the focus seemed more to get them to project/present to the class and see their teaching style and how they would explain more than to catch them off guard since it was a topic they knew well.  The grammar lesson or holiday lesson seem to be aimed more at people who they want to see both how they work under pressure and how they explain things.  I really have no idea what the point of my question was.  All I can guess is that they wanted to see if I could be animated and make something mundane seem interesting to the kids?  I offered to do a ballet dance for them since I studied ballet for 18 years, and managed to do it in a pencil skirt and 4-inch heels, and that seems to have won me some points.

Category 4: The Big Overarching Questions
(I imagine everyone gets these in some way or another.)

They asked me:
✓ “We can see that you love living in Japan and are anxious to work there.  But what will you give back to the community?”

Questions my friends got:
✓ “What do you hope to get from your experience in Japan? What do you hope to give back?”

✓ “What goals do you have for your time in Japan?”

✓ “How do you hope to promote cultural exchange while in Japan?”

Category 5: The Hypothetical Situations and Trick Questions 
(I didn’t get any of these, but I’ve heard that they can be anywhere from simple questions about potential situations in Japan to what seems like a trick question with no answer.)

✓ “What would you do if you were walking down the street and an elderly Japanese person started yelling racial slurs at you?

✓ “What would you answer if an elementary school student asked you what the Americans bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”

✓ “What would you do if your principal started making sexual comments to you or touching you inappropriately at a work drinking party?”

✓ “How would you react if you were told as a female teacher that you were expected to serve tea to the male teachers?”

✓ “How would you handle being sexually harassed in a public place, like on a train?”

✓ “What would you do in a situation where the Japanese English Teacher doesn’t show up for class and you’re alone in the classroom?”

✓ “What would you do if a student suddenly had a violent outburst?”

✓ “What would you do if the Japanese English Teacher started criticizing your English in front of the class?”

Category 6: The Quiz Questions
(I didn’t get any of these either, but I’ve heard that people who scored lower on their paper application or who seem like good teaching candidates but the interviewers are worried they don’t know anything about Japan get asked these questions.  Alternately, they might ask questions about the culture of your home country if they’re afraid you’re not on the right page about cultural exchange.) 

✓ “Name three important Japanese historical figures and explain briefly why they’re important.”

✓ “Name five Japanese prefectures.”

✓ “Who is the current Prime Minister of Japan, and what party is he from?”

✓ “What do you know about the Japanese education system?”

✓ “Please name three important Japanese historical events.”

✓ “Please explain the government system in your home country.”

✓ “Please explain the three most important historical events in your home country.”

✓ “Please tell us about your favourite famous person/music artist/movie/TV series/aspect of your home country’s pop culture.”

✓ “Please tell us about your favourite American president/British king or queen/historical figure, etc.

Category 7: The Japanese Portion

※ The Japanese portion is possibly the most unpredictable portion of the whole interview.  Because there’s no Japanese language requirement for the programme, this section only serves to 1) make sure you didn’t lie or misrepresent yourself on your paper application and 2) check your level so that you can be placed accordingly.  Many placements request specific Japanese levels (my city requests people with intermediate to advanced Japanese, for example) and different schools require different Japanese abilities (with elementary school requiring the most and high school requiring the least usually), so they try to gauge your level.  Sometimes, they ask questions that are actually involved in the content of the interview, like “what do you hope to give back to the community?”  Sometimes they ask random questions.  Sometimes they ask you to give a self introduction or talk about yourself freely.  I don’t really know much about what they might ask, so I’ll just summarize my experience below.

✓ “I see here your major in college was East Asian Studies.  What, specifically, did you study?”

(I responded that I studied Japanese art and literary history for the most part, and that my area of interest was art and literary history in the Edo Period.  I mentioned that I was currently writing my thesis on “The Great Mirror of Male Love” by Ihara Saikaku, and was finding it very interesting.)

✓ “Wow, that’s interesting.  How did you get interested in Ihara Saikaku?”

(I responded that I studied samurai fiction during my time abroad and that his works, and in general, the topic of pop culture and popular fiction in the Edo period had caught my interest.

✓ “I see on your application that you’re interested in graduate work in this area of study.  How do you plan to continue your research?”

(I responded that I was interested in comparing current Japanese popular literature and pop culture with Edo period popular culture and literature, for example, the idea of fan goods, doujinshi, and BL being comparable to a lot of Edo pop culture surrounding kabuki.  The interviewer laughed at my mention of BL, but seemed interested.  I mentioned I’d read an article in Japanese class about how anime fan culture mimics Edo period artisan culture, and thought that there was some merit in pursuing the idea.  At this point, it seemed like the interviewer, a Japanese professor from Columbia University, wanted to keep chatting, but the consulate employee said that we were almost out of time and needed to move on.)

Category 8: Miscellaneous
(I don’t know what categories these go in, but they’re things I’ve heard of/experienced coming up in the interview)

They asked me:
✓ “How do you feel about moving to Japan after the earthquake in Fukushima?  How does your family feel?  Are they against your decision, or worried about your safety?”

✓ “What do you plan to do next year should you not be accepted into the JET programme?”

Questions I’ve heard being asked:
✓ “I see you have a tattoo.  Are you aware of the social implications of tattoos in Japan?  How do you plan to explain it to your coworkers and students?  What would you do if you were required to keep it covered at all times?”

✓ “I see from your transcript that you’ve failed some classes/gotten some poor grades/did poorly in school.  Do you want to say a few words about that?”

Lastly, they’ll ask you if you have any questions for your interviewers.  You probably won’t have too much time, but try to think of one or two questions beforehand so that you have something to say to show you’re giving the job significant thought.

After the interview, they’ll shake your hand and let you back out to the waiting room.  In my experience, the JET alums there will probably ask you how it was and tell you good job and otsukare and stuff like that.  And then you’re done!

My advice would be to not fixate on the interview or get too stressed.  I wouldn’t think of it as something you have to “study” for or anything like that.  As long as you know your own application and yourself and have thought through why you want to do JET, you should be fine.  I think that I benefitted from doing a mock interview with a friend specifically for JET and also a mock job interview with my college’s career center.  I got really helpful feedback from the interviewer (who did interviews for an extracurricular leadership program for kids from lower socio-economic level areas, so it wasn’t 100% irrelevant), and I got a feel of how I could best express myself doing the JET-specific questions with a friend.

There’s really no way to know exactly what sort of thinking goes into what questions someone gets asked in the interview, but what I have here is based on what I’ve gathered from friends and JET coworkers.  I think, generally, the interview does reflect what they thought of the applicant’s paper application and statement of purpose, and they definitely will refer to them while interviewing, but as long as you stay calm and know what you wrote, you should be fine.

Good luck!

see no evil… only lots of beautiful shrines and temples

11 Dec

ImageLast weekend, friend CT came to visit me, and she likes visiting temples and historical sites just as much as me, and so we headed out to one of the most popular tourist destinations in eastern Japan, which just happens to be about two hours by train away from me, Nikko.  Nikko is the temple/shrine/mausoleum where Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who unified Japan and started the Edo period of peace and prosperity in 1603, is enshrined as a Buddhist diety in the form of a Shinto kami… in other words, it’s a great example of the historical co-existence of Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan, as well as a beautiful place for sightseeing, as both the mountains and nature around Nikko are stunning.  The view off the mountains going to and from the Nikko shrine/temple site is really breathtaking, and while I didn’t get a chance to go, there’s also a famous waterfall at Nikko.  The buildings themselves host visually stunning relief sculptures in amazing detail, as well as beautiful colours and use of gold foil, and also is the home of two iconic images in Japanese culture, the three wise monkeys and the sleeping cat.

ImageEven most Americans have heard of the three wise monkeys whose poses teach us to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” but a much fewer amount of people are aware of their origin.  While the moral involved was not completely new at the construction of Nikko, the use of monkeys (a play on words: in 1600s Japanese, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” was said, “mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru” and “saru” or “zaru” means “monkey”!) was popularized by the sculpture at Nikko.  The three wise monkeys are part of a longer relief sculpture that goes around the top of the building, and each monkey represents an idea or stage of life, but for some reason, only those three monkeys got popular!  In the photo, the monkeys are the second panel from the left; click on the photo to enlarge it.

ImageUnlike the three wise monkeys, the sleeping cat is less popular in the West, possibly because it has less moral significance, but… come on, who doesn’t like a cute sleeping cat?  The carving of the sleeping cat (nemuri neko in Japanese) is a little hard to spot, in a rather obscure ledge over a doorway, but it’s one of the most popular sights at the temple.  It was carved by legendary Edo period artist Hidari Jingoro, who loved cats and whose work influenced the depiction of animals in Japanese sculpture at the time.  No one is exactly sure if the cat has a specific symbolic meaning, but I’ve heard it hypothesized that it might have been meant to represent the Tokugawa regime; peaceful (as shown by the sleeping) but ready to strike at any time (you can’t see it in the picture, but the cats front paws are tense).  Perhaps this isn’t the real meaning, but either way, Japanese tourists and foreign tourists alike seem to love this cute cat~

After our visit to the temples and shrines, we headed back into town and got a snack at the famous Meiji no Yakata coffee shop!  Meiji no Yakata is a famous historical restaurant located very close to Nikko’s Rinnoji temple, housed in a Western-style mansion that was formerly a vacation home for an American diplomat.  It’s famous enough for its cakes and pastries, however, that it also has another location, a small coffee shop with cheesecake, scones, and other treats right by Tobu Nikko Station.  Their cheesecake was really delicious, covered in a thin layer of what seemed to be lemon meringue, and the coffee also lived up to the store’s reputation!  It was a bit pricy, but well worth it for the scenic location and delicious food.

All in all, I had a great time at Nikko, but there was still a lot that I didn’t get to see, so I predict that I’ll be back sometime in the near future!


19 Nov

ImageI guess I’d better get out my Swiffer duster (hah! How I wish I had one in Japan) and clear off this blog.  In other words: I’m sorry for letting this go so long without posting.  Like many people, I don’t feel that my life is that interesting, and worry that it would be a waste of people’s time to read my blog.  But hey, this is the internet!  There’s millions of blogs out there.  If people don’t like mine, they just won’t read it.  So I’m going to do my best to keep this up from now on, even if that means posting more about the little things that I do with my life, like fashion and idols and food, and less posting about Japanese culture and work.  There are tons of people out there who blog about Japanese culture and being an English teacher in Japan, right?  No matter what I post about though, I’m going to do my best to keep it thought-provoking and interesting!

In the three months since I last posted, one major thing that’s happened in my life is that my student participated in the city-wide English speech contest.  For this contest, the participating student must write her own speech in English and then deliver it without reading at the competition.  This can be challenging for many reasons (the students aren’t taught much about composition in their English classes at school since composition isn’t on the high school entrance exams and often have a very limited vocabulary; the students tend to be timid and poor at projecting to an audience; the students often are shy and afraid to use gestures or facial expressions to emphasize their speeches, to name a few), but they do usually have the help of an ALT, and so I saw it as my job to try to make up for any deficiencies in my student’s English education so far.

This year’s contest meant a lot to me in particular because of my experience with last year’s city-wide speech contest.  When I first arrived in Japan last year, I was tossed headlong into the English speech contest– it falls at a really unfortunate time any time an ALT leaves, because the speech contest student is generally without guidance from when they start practicing at the beginning of August until the second or third week of August when the new ALT starts coming to work. And even then, the new ALT has little idea of what she’s doing, which makes it a little hard to advise. I remember feeling jetlagged, lost, and unsure of what my duties as a teacher would be, and then on top of it all, I was supposed to be helping a student individually with something important.  It was scary and overwhelming, and I didn’t know what I was doing.

Last year, my student was really good at English. She wrote her whole speech with very little help, and practiced it on her own. She was able to give it with very little accent and memorized it without any assistance from me.  Because I felt timid and unsure in my new environment at the time, I gave her a few comments and corrections, but I had no idea what I was doing and didn’t want to give her the wrong advice.  Still, I felt that she was talented and hoped that she could do well even despite my lack of guidance.

Unfortunately, she didn’t place at the contest. She cried the entire way back to school afterwards, and I felt like it was all my fault. I felt like this was a premonition for my job as an ALT.  I had failed her by not helping, and now, despite the fact that it wasn’t her fault, she had lost.  I tried to put the whole thing out of my mind and put my best foot forward for my job, which was filled with ups and downs (as shown on my blog throughout 2012 and early 2013), but in the back of my mind I was worried that I would fail my student again the next year.

And so this year, I was determined to do my best to help and support whatever student was chosen.  The speech contest is in early September, and so as summer drew near, I began holding my breath, until finally, I was informed that my absolute favourite student would be the student competing. This student worked harder than any other at English, tried her best to say her Rs and Ls correctly, spoke with confidence, and did everything in her power to improve her English abilities in class. More than anything, I wanted for her to succeed.

And so I poured myself into the speech contest practices. Despite the fact that again, with only one year of speech contest experience under my belt, I felt lost and awash, grasping for good coaching techniques, I did whatever I could.   I spent hours helping her translate her Japanese speech into English, practicing the speech until she memorized it, and teaching her all the tricks I’d used in my youth to memorize speeches for school. I recorded myself reading the speech so that she could copy my tone and inflection, I guided her through translating it back into Japanese so she really understood each word despite how the wording slightly changed in the translation process. I added gestures. I told her where to slow down, where to speed up. I taught her emphasis. And all the while, despite how difficult it was for her, despite how different from Japanese it was, despite everything, she tried so hard to be perfect. And by the end, she was.

And I was happy. As long as she did her best, I was happy, and I knew that if she felt like she did her best, she would be happy, too. But in my experience, when we do our best and some arbitrary authority tells us it wasn’t good enough, that’s the hardest of all, and so I was terrified of the judging. I wrote her a letter wishing her good luck and telling her she’d always be number one to me, but in the end, I knew my opinion didn’t matter nearly as much as that of the omnipotent judges (who have been known in the past to give make judgements that I personally don’t agree with).

I was a nervous wreck on the day of the speech contest. I almost threw up at lunch, and my hands shook as I taught my morning classes. I was so invested in seeing her succeed, in not seeing her crushed the way my student was last year, that I was making myself ill. But despite all my worrying, she delivered her speech beautifully. She didn’t falter once, and she spoke with more passion than I ever could have expected from a middle school student who was speaking a language she had only barely come to understand over the past three years. I cried at the end of her performance, and I was prouder than I’ve ever been in my life, but the worst was yet to come. Knowing that she’d done her absolute best, I couldn’t handle it if she wasn’t rewarded. Last year, I hadn’t known what I was doing. This year, if I’d done everything I could with my year’s experience as an ALT and still failed her, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself.

At the end of the contest, they announced the results from sixth place to first. I could barely breathe. With each name that was announced, my hopes dwindled.  Last year, I’d been confident in my student and she hadn’t even placed, so this year, it was hard to believe, even despite the difference in my involvement and understanding. When second place was announced and it wasn’t her, I began to cry; I thought it was all over. There was no possibility in my mind that she had won first place.

And then she did.

I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my entire life, or at least, not in the same way. I felt like as a teacher I was really able to help one of my students succeed, and that’s been the best feeling so far.  Even if sometimes, the job is frustrating, or confusing, or scary, or lonely, and even if sometimes I disagree with what my students learn in class and how English is taught here, knowing I was really able to help one of my students learn, grow, improve, and overcome an obstacle really makes me happy.

…now I just have to keep this up for next year’s contest!

Gunma Orientation, round two!

18 Aug

ImageLast year, I was a first-year JET participant, and as a result, was required to go to the prefectural orientation at Gunma’s prefectural office in the capital city, Maebashi.  This year, however, I went back again as a volunteer, helping to organize the orientation as a member of the Gunma Orientation Committee.  This means I helped to organize the schedule, give informational presentations, answer any questions the new JETs had, generally show them around, set up, and clean up the orientation.  It was a lot of work and was absolutely exhausting, but it was also a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed helping the new people and trying to make the orientation as useful and not-overwhelming as possible… and hey, I got to see Gunma’s prefectural mascot, Gunma-chan, too!

ImageBasically, the orientation was a series of presentations
on the first day, followed by Q&A from an anonymous box and then a “party” in the evening in the prefectural office basement cafeteria hosted by the education division.  There was food and drinks, as well as a few speeches and an opportunity to sign up for Gunma tourism emails and talk to various Japanese workers in the prefectural education division.  Afterwards, the JET association hosted karaoke parties, but I was far too exhausted after a day of moving things, running around the prefectural office building, and giving presentations.

ImageThe second day was a few more presentations, followed by a series of workshops.  The new JETs could be pick two between options like “Fun in Gunma” and “Special Dietary Needs.”  I presented on “Modern Pop Culture” and while sadly, there wasn’t a large turnout, I had a really good time talking about the things that I enjoy!  I hope that maybe I can be involved in the committee again next year, and that I can do a better job advertising it so that more people will choose to come.

ImageAfter the workshops was lunch, and then after that, there were cultural workshops! I was an assistant for the karate workshop, so I got to watch the karate classes, as well as the demonstrations that the teachers did.  They broke a lot of boards, which was really impressive, and did some sets of karate movements, as well.  To me, that was almost more impressive, because you could see how much technique and practice was involved in their precise movements.  They also taught the JETs to punch a hole in a newspaper, among other things, and it was fun to watch them learn and succeed.

ImageAfter the cultural workshops, there were some meetings between regional
representatives and the new JETs living in those areas, and then more Q&A from the box.  And then that was the end! We sent the new JETs on their way before cleaning up all the posters and decorations.  I was exhausted by the time we were done, but it was a really rewarding experience, and I hope that I can be involved again next year!

A festive(al) occasion

7 Aug

ImageDespite spending the end of the JET-contract-year doing essentially nothing, it’s come to be that time of the year again for Kiryu’s annual Kiryu Yagibushi Matsuri! I wrote about this once before on my blog, but just as I thought, it was much more enjoyable this year, now that I’m familiar with my town, my students and the other JETs in my area. Also, this year was the 50th anniversary of the matsuri, so it was especially festive and crowded!  I saw tons of my students, got to eat tons of delicious fried foods, spent time with my fellow ALTs, and even tried a little dancing!

ImageI don’t think I explained this before, but the main focus of Kiryu’s annual matsuri (festival) is the local traditional
dance.  While the stalls lining the streets offering foods and games for kids such as fish-catching and target-shooting, the people dressed in yukata (Japanese cotton summer kimono), and the lanterns lining the streets are common practice for matsuri, the special element of Kiryu’s matsuri is the groups of people doing the Yagibushi dance together in the main square.  ImageAround town, there are large platforms decorated with lanterns on which musicians and singers stand make music, and many of these feature various forms of trained traditional dancers or performers.  However, in the main square, the musicians are there to provide musical accompaniment for the main attraction.  Volunteers dressed up for the matsuri (including, this year, my hairdresser!) stay and do the Yagibushi dance around this main platform, but the majority of the dancers are not trained performers but regular visitors to the matsuri who join in the yagibushi dance.
Last year, I was brand new to Kiryu, still in a daze of jetlag, completely unaware of my surroundings, and generally lost in the crowd and excitement of the matsuri. This year, however, I was much better prepared.  Decked out in my yukata, I was ready to take on the matsuri after a year of getting to know Kiryu and its inhabitants, and so when many of the other ALTs decided to try dancing, I decided to be adventurous went along.  After 18 years of classical ballet training, I’m pretty good at picking up dance steps on the fly, and so after a few fumbling attempts, I began to get the hang of the dance. I’m sure I did it like a ballerina and not at all like I knew the correct form, but half the people around me were drunk, so I don’t think I stood out too much!  It was really great to participate in a tradition unique to my town after a year of settling in.
ImageI did enjoy some of the things I had enjoyed last year, as well, however.  The decorations this year seemed even more extravagant and colorful this year than they did last year, and I was impressed by how much work seemed to have gone into preparing them.  Additionally, I highly enjoyed the wide variety of unhealthy foods for sale, and indulged in karaage (small bits of fried chicken), kakigoori (crushed ice with flavored syrup), french fries, and nikumaki onigiri, a delicious invention that I discovered last year which is essentially a ball of rice wrapped in bacon and covered in sauce and a topping of  choice (options included cheese, Japanese chives, sesame seeds, and kimchi).  I tried some of my friends’ foods, as well, and even got handed a free chocobanana (banana dipped in chocolate) at the end of the night by someone trying to get rid of the food they had left over!
ImageThere were also a variety of performances throughout the evening, though sadly, since I didn’t know when and where things were happening, I missed most of them.  Apparently, there’s always a big fancy parade on Sunday afternoon, so I hope to check that out next year! There were also dance performances by various groups, including a group of workers from city hall (where I go for my monthly  meetings and such; I’m technically employed by the city), classes from a local culture center, and more!  Now that I know how many performances there are to see, next year, hopefully I can try to catch more of them next year!
However, despite all the sights and foods, the matsuri ended on a bit of a sad note for me. Since ALTs change in the summer, any ALTs from the previous year who had decided not to renew their contracts were leaving after the matsuri ended. I’m happy that I got to spend time with them at the matsuri, but it’s sad to know that we only had one short year together, and now they’re leaving. I’m going to miss them, but I’m wishing them well in all their future endeavors! Two of the four leaving JETs have gotten jobs in Tokyo, so I hope that this isn’t goodbye.
And the matsuri wasn’t all about partings. Three of the new ALTs came as well, so I got a first chance to meet the new people with whom I’ll be working for the next year. I’m looking forward to getting to know them better. Additionally, I ran into various of my students, many of whom greeted me happily and excitedly. It was really great to see them and to know they were happy to see me, and some of them even complimented my yukata! I hope that next year’s matsuri will bring as many smiling faces as this one.