Tag Archives: Kiryu

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.



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!

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.

all good things come to an end

26 Mar

Last Friday was the 84th and final graduation ceremony at one of my elementary schools, Showa Elementary.  Because the population of Japan is decreasing and the population of non-metropolitan cities is decreasing even more steeply, the number of students in the school was dropping (Japanese classes average between 30-40 students in a class, and my first grade class had 12 students) and the decision was made to merge it with another public elementary school in the district.  It’s a little sad for the students, who naturally are fond of their elementary school, but I think it’s more sad for the teachers, who will be scattered to different schools next year.  The teachers at this particular elementary school were really great, kind, and enthusiastic about teaching; they were always invested in creating fun English lessons for the kids (rather than sitting back and just letting me do all the work) and were really helpful and welcoming to me when I was first getting situated in Japan.  This is the school where, when I had culture shock and was afraid everyone might hate me, everyone came together and told me that they loved me.  I’ve gone out to food and drinks with the teachers from this school multiple times, and when I was sick, one of my coworkers there brought me medicine and supplies.  When I gave my leaving speech on my last day, I made the principal cry, and she said that I had brightened everyone’s lives and made the school a better place.  So, needless to say, I was really, really sad to see it closing.

I may have cried through the whole ceremony, but even so, it was interesting to experience a Japanese public school graduation.  I went to public school for elementary school, and while we had an assembly where the leaving class (in my case, 4th grade) were given awards like perfect attendance and straight As, it was definitely not called a graduation, and we weren’t given diplomas or anything of the like.  But in Japan, every level of school from pre-school/kindergarten (in Japan the two are basically the same thing; 幼稚園, yochien, is pre-school day school which has a class for 3, 4, and 5 year olds) to elementary, junior high, high school, college, and on have graduation ceremonies with formal proceedings, suits, ties, lots of singing, and speeches from everyone and their mother (literally– there was a speech from a parent representative thanking the teachers for their hard work at both my elementary and junior high graduation ceremonies).

ImageOne interesting thing about the ceremony was that while in junior high, a graduating student and an underclassman had each given a speech, one reflecting on her junior high school experience and the other thanking the graduating students for their leadership and wishing them well in high school, in elementary school, the interaction between younger students and graduating students was much more performative.  The graduating students and the underclassmen faced on another in groups, and first, the underclassmen wished the graduating students well in a sort of composition where each student said a phrase or a sentence, coming together to create a speech of sorts.  Then, the underclassmen sang a song together.  Afterwards, the graduating students responded in a similar way, as well as reflecting on their elementary school experience, and each student got to speak at least once.  Then, the graduating students also sang.  It was very touching, and needless to say, I cried.

One more interesting point of graduation in my town (if not more places) is that it seems to always be accompanied by cherry blossom tea.  However, from now on, I think I’ll stick to looking at cherry blossoms, rather than drinking them.


15 Mar

Wednesday was the day of the graduation ceremony for my junior high school, and let me tell you, it was a Big Deal.  In my experience in America, public junior high school graduations aren’t usually extravagant; mine wasn’t even called a graduation, but a “finale” or something of the like, I guess to signify to our parents that they shouldn’t get too excited; we weren’t going to get a diploma or anything like that.  I’ve heard similar stories from friends; while there was a little something to celebrate the accomplishment of finishing three years of schooling, it wasn’t a formal graduation ceremony.  

However, here, where pretty much everything is formal, junior high school graduation is a very important occasion.  I was told to wear a formal suit, which I dutifully did, wearing my hair and makeup much the same as I do every day.  However I arrived at school to find that everyone had done the same– which is hugely different from normal, when usually I’m the only person in the school who dresses up.  My coworkers, who usually wear track suits or slouchy sweaters and their hair in ponytails or, for the guys, barely having been brushed after waking up, were dressed to the nines in fancy suits with pearls and extravagant updos for the women and clearly styled hair and silk ties for the men.  I was glad I always dress up, since I fit right in with the crowd by and large, but the real surprise was the one female third-year (the graduating class) teacher, who was dressed in a full formal graduation kimono.  

The kids, who are usually allowed to wear school-issue sweatsuits to class (presumably to allow them to study more comfortably) were also dressed up in their formal uniforms, and the third year students all had flowers for their lapels in their class colour.  They filed into the gym to classical music, did sharp military turns at every corner, and all stood and sat in unison.  They were required to stand, bow, sit, and then immediately stand up again multiple times throughout the ceremony, and did so as if they had been trained by a drill sergeant– no wonder they had been practicing for graduation for the past few weeks, I realized!  

The ceremony was long and included each student having her or his name called before receiving her or his diploma, a speech from the principal, speeches from various PTA and school board people, a speech from a representative from the parents of the graduating students, a speech from a second year (remaining student) and a speech from a third year (graduating student).  There was a bunch of ceremonial walking around and receiving and giving of gifts, and at the end, the first and second year remaining students and the third years both sang songs.  It was much like an American graduation in that it was long and boring, but it all was made worse by the fact that we were sitting stiff as boards in the freezing school gymnasium.  

Probably the most exciting part of the ceremony was the fact that three students fainted over the course of the morning.  I was very alarmed at the time when students started suddenly falling out of their chairs, but I learned later from other friends in the area that this is in fact normal.  I’ve heard it theorized that it’s because of how rigidly the students are forced to sit during class, but whatever the reason, in my town, it’s common for students to simply faint in the middle of graduation.  Who would have guessed.  

This year’s graduation wasn’t so sad for me… because of entrance exams and because my third years have behavioral issues, I didn’t teach them this year.  But next year, when this year’s second years graduate, I’m sure I’ll be very sad… I guess I’ll just have to enjoy my last year with them to the fullest!

Snow days!

18 Jan

ImageI’ve been told about a million times since coming to Kiryu that the winters are cold and windy but there isn’t much snow.  This has mostly held true (much like Delaware, minus the winds, since Delaware is relatively flat)… up until last weekend, when I woke up and was alarmed to find that everything outside my window was white.  Once I got past the shock (and annoyance that I would have to go out in the snow to run errands), the view was actually quite nice.  The mountains were completely obscured from view by the snow, but watching it fall on the buildings and things around me was quite pleasant.  

ImageOf course, as I learned having a car in college, snow is a huge pain in the rear, and while now, I don’t have a car to have to shovel out, like Delaware, Kiryu has an ice problem. Usually, after it snows, the weather is warm enough that the snow partially melts, and then at night, it freezes again, freezing the roads and sidewalks in a layer of ice.  This makes it basically impossible to bike anywhere without skidding and wiping out on the sidewalk, so on Tuesday morning, I was forced to walk my bike the majority of the way to school.  Additionally, salting the roads doesn’t seem to happen very thoroughly here, so all in all, the snow was, as always, a pain.  But at least it looked nice while it lasted. 

Call the doctor

15 Dec

I’ve had a bit of a cold for the past week or so.  Not a huge deal… or so I thought.  Sure, I’d been having trouble sleeping because coughing and other cold-grossness was keeping me up, and maybe by Friday I was feeling pretty gross.  But I thought, there’s no harm in asking the school nurse if she had any cold medicine that might help me get some sleep.  NyQuil is illegal here, and I’m not familiar enough with Japanese brands to be able to know what just type of cold medicine to get.  So I figured the school nurse at one of my elementaries, with whom I’m pretty close, would know what to give me. 

Instead, I found out that 1) nurses’s offices in Japan don’t give medicine out to kids, and 2) if you mention being sick in a Japanese work setting, all your coworkers might force you to go to the hospital. 

So instead of getting some drugs quick and easy, I was instead shepherded into the nurse’s car and taken the the closes hospital– or rather, clinic.  You see, in Japanese, it turns out, hospitals aren’t just hospitals.  Hospital is a catch-all word for any size medical facility, and most Japanese “hospitals” are a cross between what we would consider a doctor’s office and a clinic in the United States.  As far as I’m told, small hospitals don’t take appointments, which makes them have the feel of a walk-in clinic.  I was assured by all my coworkers that they weren’t usually crowded and that it wouldn’t take more than an hour… yet when we got there, the place was packed with old people and we were told that there would be a bit of a wait.  It was a Friday, which, my coworker explained, meant that tomorrow, the hospital would be closed.  

WHAT? you might be thinking, but it’s a true fact that many Japanese hospitals are closed on weekends.  Larger hospitals (ones that you would call a hospital in America) are open on weekends, but not smaller clinic-like hospitals.  So I was forced to wait 3 hours to be seen, and ended up missing two of the classes I was supposed to teach.  This, to say the least, quite vexing to me, since I had really wanted to teach fun Christmas lessons to the kids today, and my coworkers assured me when they forced me to the hospital that I wouldn’t miss my classes.  But there was nothing to be done, and so I finally got to see the doctor… who briefly examined my nose, throat, and the sound of my breathing before pulling up a cute program on his computer that seemed to be the doctor version of Kid Pix and using a blank template of the throat and what appeared to be the “inflammation” brush to show me what my throat looked like.  He pointed out a variety of pills, at the end of which I was expecting him to say “which seems like it best applies to your symptoms?” or something of the like… but instead he prescribed all four to me.  And then said I was also getting a shot.  

This all seemed a bit like overkill for a common cold, but I didn’t really have much choice, so I got my shot, and then headed to the pharmacy to get my drugs as well.  But on the bright side, with my national health insurance, the whole thing only cost me less than ¥3,000 out of pocket.  Yup, that’s right.  Four prescription drugs, a shot, and ~15 minutes of the doctor’s time all for about 40 US dollars.  Cool.  

So I did end up missing two of my classes.  But on the bright side, I also got to sleep through the night last night.