Monday, May 02, 2005

It's all in my head

OK - I'll warn you up front that this post may ramble a bit - I'm in one of those moods.

And usually when I'm like this I watch a little wacky Japanese TV, have a Kit Kat and it fades - but this time I'm at my computer and blogging about it instead. Wise choice? Only time will tell...

Tomorrow thru Thursday are national holidays here in Japan, collectively known as Golden Week. Many JETs were able to get 10 days off in a row, just by taking two days of paid vacation. The programme allots most of us 20 days each contract year (July to July), but I used most of mine around Xmas and at Spring Break, so I worked today and will work again on Friday.
I'm also really poor right now, with barely enough to tide me over until payday on the 13th. (The 15th - normal payday - is a Sunday, so they bump it up to the preceeding Friday) It's no big secret that almost all JETs make about $2600 a month, give or take a little bit. Many JETs, and certainly all that I know, have few if any bills back home to worry about, thus leaving them with an inordinate amount of disposable income. Most travel or buy fun gadgets, or drink - ALOT - but some, like me, have to send a significant portion of our check home each month to take care of fiscal responsibilities that were in place before we ever set foot in Japan. I have credit card debt, school loans, storage costs, etc that I'm taking care of - and it impacts my ability to spend freely while I'm here. Am I a little jealous of my more free-spending colleagues? Yes. But it's no big deal - and truth be told I'm poor right now cuz my rent status changed on my apartment here and I had to pay double rent this month just this one time and I had to send some extra home to cover my recent trip home to San Diego - so I get to travel too. :)

Anyway - so the next three days will be fairly uneventful - some reading, some DVD watching, maybe some writing if I feel inspired - and hopefully my next piano lesson. I had my first lesson last Friday (which was also a national holiday). It went great! The woman who's agreed to teach me is named Yoko and she's really cool. She wants to continue working on her English, and in exchange she's taken on the daunting challenge of teaching me to play piano from scratch - meaning I've never played before and I can't read music. But by the end of our first lesson I was already plunking away at London Bridges with some confidence. She got me this cool beginner's book - designed for really young Japanese kids - which is perfect cuz it doesn't have hardly any Kanji, so I can read it - and the tunes are really simple - AND many of the songs are very famous Japanese songs - which is perfect because one of the main reasons I wanted to learn is so I can play songs for my Elementary kids to sing along with. While I want them to sing English songs, they'd be pretty impressed if I started knocking out some famous Japanese song as well - so it's all good. I'm grasping the concept of the notes and how they correspond to how you hit the keys and how often, but it remains to be seen if I have rhythm. I'll keep ya posted. :)

Today was an OK day at school - I only had two classes, and I skipped going to Kendo practice - wasn't in the mood. I did finish redecorating the Language Lab - kinda my own little classroom - which is used for the optional English class that should start in the next few weeks. And I must say it looks pretty cool. But then just today I found out that the 9th grade teachers at Taisha Chu decided that the 9th graders who choose to take more English by enrolling in the elective class have to be taught GRAMMAR at least half the time, so they'll be better prepared for their high school entrance exams. *SIGH* I understand that the teachers want the students adequately prepared for their tests - but my optional class hardly covers every kid in the 9th grade - so why punish them with a dictated course of grammar lessons, and instead let me make English fun and interesting and conversational, which is why I thought I was here in the first place. Hearing stuff like this today makes me doubtful that I'll decide to recontract for a third year. The bloom is assuredly off the rose by now, and I'm starting to see the faults in the system that so many JETs before me have complained about but until now I was mostly unaffected by.
First they took away my 8th grade optional class alltogether, without any explanation, and now they basically cut in half how often I get to design what happen in the 9th grade class. Another example of my frustration happened recently as well. The Daily Yomiuri, a major newspaper here that offers an English version, is sponsoring a translation contest that can be entered by Jr High students. The top prize is the equivalent of $500 in gift certificates and a trip to Tokyo - not bad for translating some English into Japanese or vice versa. So I made copies of the entry rules and the paragraphs to translate and then posted all the info on my English bulletin board outside the language lab. And I also went around to all four of my JTEs and gave them copies of the info and mentioned that maybe one or two of their students may want to enter. But I bet you dollars to donuts that none of them took the one minute in any of their classes to mention the contest or how to get more info about it. Maybe Moriyama sensei did, cuz she helped me write up a Japanese sign about the contest that I posted on my bulletin board next to the article, but I doubt it. The teachers here have one basic goal - teach the textbook and prepare the kids for their exams. Not unheard of, I know, but it can make for some boring and routine classes, and I want my kids to be excited about English. I'll continue to try and introduce fun and different approaches to the material and hope that they'll stray from the prescribed course from time to time.

Some days of course, it's tough to muster up the energy to be the smiling ambassador of EIGO that I usually am. Today was one of those days. Living here, isolated by the language barrier as I am, can be a very internal existence at times. I'm struggling to find a good analogy for it. I could say it's like being deaf, where I can see all the people around me talking but can't understand what they're saying - but that's not accurate. I am able to decipher much of what's said to me, even though I'm still only getting about every other word - I'm able to discern the meaning most of the time. I just can't respond with anything even approaching grammatically correct full sentences. It's frustrating as hell. And it's all on me - I realize that. I could spend all my time studying Japanese, and part of this problem would disappear, and I am studying a bit, but my progress is slow, despite the immersion.
So I end up inside my own head for most of the day - having little conversations with myself just to be able to speak English to someone, even if that person is myself. Hahahaha.
I end up thinking about all kinds of things with the time I have inside my own thoughts, and that can be good or bad. Too much self-reflection isn't necessarily a good thing. And it doesn't help that I live alone, and am the only non-Japanese person in my whole town. There are other JETs fairly close by, and I can always pick up the phone and call my sister or parents, but that doesn't cure the lonliness of my day-to-day existence at times.
See, I've always been a good talker - a fairly amiable guy who enjoys a good joke or good conversation. And here, I'm stripped of any social tools I had before - I can't really make jokes or witty comments, cuz nobody understands them, and I can't engage anybody I see on a daily basis in anything even remotely approaching a meaningful or insightful conversation - even my English teachers don't have the time or language skills necessary for that. Most of the staff at my Junior High merely tolerate my presence - if I'm there or not, makes little difference to them. And two of my English teachers I think would prefer if I wasn't there - leaving me two people at work who I can talk to. I'm sure there are some staff members who would like to chat if they could speak better English or I could speak better Japanese - but I'll perhaps never really know. That leaves my kids - the students - who are really great overall, but who, by and large, are unable to hold a conversation in English lasting more than 30 seconds. I guess if I had one expectation when I arrived, it would be that my students could speak some English - but for the most part they can't. They may be able to read and write a fair amount, but their ability to speak and converse is servely limited by their own innate shyness and a fear of failure. And hey, I relate to that more than they probably know - cuz learning Japanese is no easy task either.

So am I depressed or unhappy? Surprisingly, no. I actually enjoy living here, but I wish I could get out of my head more often, and interact with people a bit more. And I try - I attended a kendo tournament on Saturday from 7am until 4pm and other than chatting with the coach on the ride to and from the arena, I barely spoke to anyone the entire day. Maybe the kids have tired of trying to chat with me, as many of their questions are met with blank stares of misunderstanding on my part, but in truth the kendo members have never been a chatty bunch.

Anyway - it's 10pm now and ER is on TV - my one dose of English this whole day - so I'll be off.

Hope all is well with you.


1 comment:

Emily Watkins said...

I do most of my blogging when I'm in one of those moods. :) Maybe I should watch more television.

I worked myself into a terrible funk the other day. During cleaning time after lunch a couple of my students tried talking to me in the teachers room; they were curious about the English newspaper I was reading. I was so happy they'd approached me and wanted to speak in English! Then one of the teachers barked at them to get back to work, and they scurried off. This teacher continued to order the kids around, and I thought, He must despise me for distracting the students rather than working with them. I never know what to do during cleaning time. Most of the teachers simply disappear from the teachers room, and there just aren't enough brooms to go around; sometimes when I do score one, I sweep out the teachers' computer room, which no one else ever seems to do, but apart from that I just sit at my desk for fifteen minutes and try to look busy... or read the paper.

So that one thing set me off for the rest of the day. I was numb with boredom, as I'd had no classes that day and only a stack of 80+ mini-journals to grade, so my mind was a vast playground for my imagination. All the teachers must think I'm terribly lazy. I don't study Japanese enough. If I'd just study more Japanese, I'd know more than I do now. But even what I would learn wouldn't be enough. Conversation is so complicated! What useful things I'm taught, I don't remember. I don't understand the morning meetings, and no one tells me what was said, and I never find out about things until the last minute. Even if I stayed here for three years, I still wouldn't know enough Japanese to feel really comfortable. I wish I could take Japanese classes, but there's no school around here, there aren't tutors around here. Everyone just wants me to teach them English, and then everything ends up being about English. I'm just a crazy foreigner. Do they think of me as a real person, or just Emily the American? Where's the line between "internationalization" and "fitting in"? When should I stop accomodating the Japanese around me and start being myself? And how can I be myself, my American self, and not offend those around me? Or is a certain amount of offense warranted? My JTE is cool, but even she must get so tired of babysitting me, translating my mail, constantly answering my questions of "What's going on?" She's so busy as it is, I really shouldn't bother her. My whole day is spent in silence with no one to talk to. Ghaa, I'd better stop before I pull myself into another funk.

In all honesty, I don't really feel like I'm restraining myself too much in Japanese society; one of the advantages of being naturally introverted, I guess. But when I'm in a funk, anything adds fuel to the fire. The main source of my frustration is my complete ineptitude in the national language.

But just like the smallest things can make me feel like a grouch, the smallest things can also make me feel like sunshine. Last weekend I took my (aforementioned) JTE out for dinner, and then she took me out for coffee (I got chai tea (!)). It's one thing to talk to other JETs who are going through the same things that I am, but it's another to talk to a Japanese person who has experienced the thrills and pitfalls of living overseas for a non-trivial amount of time. It becomes less about "us against them," and more about discovery of the unknown. It was a fun time for us both, and highly theraputic for me.

This is also the same JTE who, when I showed her the Translation Challenge from the DY, looked it over, said, "This is wonderful!" and ran off to photocopy it herself. But I don't know how they'll take to it at Nita; I'll find out when I show them on Friday.