Today was the beginning of my second week of 'teaching' here in Marugame. I teach at two high schools which differ hugely from one another. One school is a very academic school and most of the students do a study abroad term in their final year. The other school is an industrial school; most of the students are the sons and daughters of rice farmers, so most will follow in the footsteps of their parents, with just a handful going onto university. As the two schools are so different, there has been great disparity with regard to how my lessons have been received.
I found the first week of my new job to be the most unsettling and overwhelming experience. It seems also that my responsibilities somewhat belie my job description (that of an Assistant Language Teacher). Rather than assisting the Japanese teacher of English, it is my job to plan, prepare and lead all the lessons. Having had just five days of training, I feel terribly underqualified. What makes the situation more difficult is that the Japanese teachers seem to think that I am a teacher when in fact, I am just a few years older than most of the students at school.
Most of the lessons in week one have involved some sort of self introduction to my classes. I have only been at school for six days, yet I have given the self introduction lesson more than ten times. I know it inside out and now seem to be able to reel it off whilst my mind wanders elsewhere...
My first few classes were a disaster. My self introduction was met with no response at all. Most of the students sat with glazed looks on their faces and many put their heads down on the desk and fell asleep for the duration of the lesson. It was so disheartening to have put so much thought into the lesson, only for it to fail miserably. I am sure you can therefore imagine the painfully awkward'question and answer' session that followed my presentation....whenever I attempted to get one of the students to answer a question at the industrial school they would either a) look straight through me or b) look directly at me with frightened eyes and quivering lips.
There is a proverb here in Japan: ' The nail that sticks up, gets hammered down'. In other words, individuality is not encouraged. The students are all very reluctant to speak up so I have had to change my approach drastically. Every time I plan a lesson, I make sure that each and every activity is goup based. All quizzes, questions and presentations are done in teams. It is the only way that I can get any kind of response. Comedic competition seems to work well too. In my past three classes, we have done little other than draw funny pictures; I'm not sure that this is so good with regard to language acquisition and cultural exchange but the kids seem more at ease and the Japanese teachers spend most of the lesson nodding their heads in enthusiasm, so perhaps things are just fine for now.
Slowly but surely, the students at the academic high school are beginning to warm to me a little; there have been smiles and genuine laughter in the classroom and it makes me so happy to see. As I walk down the school corridoors, lots of the girls peep their heads out of classrooms and shout 'Kawaii desu!' (you're cute!). The boys on the other hand are very funny; the only topics that will make them communicate with me is my marital status and love life. Here are some of the questions that I have been asked by the boys:
'What are you doing on Saturday? It's date time with me!'
A response to my question 'What is fun to do in Marugame?' 'It is fun to come to my house and see me'
'Why are you so beautiful?'
After telling the students that my favourite man was Jonny Depp, one boy piped up 'Oh, Isabel-sensei, my father said that I look like Jonny Depp!'
Progress at the other school is painfully slow,,,
This weekend, I am going to the school festival at Marugame High School (the academic school). School festivals in Japan are enormous events and there is so much preparation taking place at school. When I take a cycle at around 8 or 9pm, so many students are still at school working on huge bamboo structures, playing instruments, singing, dancing and making bunting.
One of the things I am most excited to experience at the school festival is the tea ceremony. I have done Japanese tea ceremony once already since my arrival in Japan and it really is the most beautiful thing. Every single movement is so perfectly rehearsed and has such significance.
Here is a picture of Kayo and I doing tea ceremony at Ritsurin Koen. My knees were gone by this point and it was hard for me to ignore the pain, hence the grimace on my face.
Here is some green tea and a chestnut sweet. Both were so good and complimented each other perfectly.
I am beginning to develop a fondness for Japanese confectionary and an accompanying appreciation for its subtle tastes. These sweets are called sakura dango. They are cherry flavoured rice balls, eaten with red bean paste - delicious. :-)
Here I am looking very pleased with my Saturday treat at the park.
As for the teachers at my school...there are certainly some characters. My two favourites work at Marugame High School. In the staff room, I sit next to a teacher called Williams-sensei. She is married to an English man and perhaps because of this, she does not come across as very Japanese in her ways. First of all, she wears perfume, something that Japanese women don't tend to wear. Williams-sensei loves perfume and this has encouraged me to wear mine with renewed gusto! Today I applyed it on three separate occassions which was great, given my previous habit of very small and tentative sprays in the morning. Williams-sensei is the first Japanese person I have met who is skilled in the art of sarcasm. She rolls her eyes a lot at Ohmiya-sensei....
....who is my other favourite teacher. I get the impression that Ohmiya-sensei irritates a lot of the other teachers at school. I find him hilarious. He is the tiniest man but it is possible to hear him from all the way down the corridoor. Most of the teachers in the staffroom are very reserved....not Ohmiya-sensei. He bounds in yelling 'Today, I am going to teach the students about amusement parks woooooooooo!' When I gave the teachers my gift of Earl Gray tea and shortbread biscuits, he wouldn't stop shouting 'Earu Gurayu is laaaavely!' He is forever approaching me with his Japanese/English dictionary, (which is probably bigger than his head) asking me questions with a very quizzical facial expression. Today he asked me 'Isabel-sensei, what is the difference between a lot of traffic, and a traffic jam?'. I'm uncertain as to why Ohmiya-sensei would ever need to use those phrases in his daily vocabulary; there is never any traffic in Marugame.
The teachers at the other school are much quieter...and they all wear tracksuits. At first I thought that the school had a lot of P.E teachers but then found myself in a classroom with the Japanese teacher of English who was wearing tracksuits bottoms, a t-shirt and sandals with socks...
Another oddity I have noticed at school is that many people wear masks that cover their mouths due to their fear of influenza. I have yet to see what the headteacher at Marugame High School looks like as he has been wearing a mask since the day I started.
As for life here, I am finding it very difficult to balance lesson planning, making new friends, studying Japanese and trying to figure out how to live life. Consequently, I've experienced some days where I have wanted to just give up and come home to the familiar. Sometimes I feel uneasy at being so conspicious in my town. People stare all the time. I feel irritated and frustrated that I can't understand anything. It takes me so long to go food shopping for example, because I can't read anything. My mind feels so overwhelmed by all of these new things that the things I enjoyed doing back home seem to have been left by the wayside. I haven't sat down and read a book, written a long letter or made something silly for ages. I worry that I will lose all the creativity I possess. Perhaps there will be time to get back into my books and silly crafty things again when I have established more of a routine here.
The weekend before last, I met up with three other ALTs here; fellow Londoner Ed, Jared (from Chicago) and Sean (from New Jersey). We drove to the most beautiful waterfall up in the mountains and had fun swimming there, though we later discovered that the waterfall is a sacred Shinto place and people are not supposed to swim there. This explains the bemused looks we had been getting from passers by, oh dear. Here is a picture of the Shinto trespassers:
We then took a trip to the beach to take a look at this huge coin made of sand; it's over four hundred years old. It was incredible...
This evening, as I was cycling home from school, I noticed that there is a new arrival in the rice field opposite my apartment. I like that despite this scarecrow's frightening looking face, he still looks cute in his beribboned bonnet (there is always room for some cuteness in Japan)
Finally, here is a picture of Ed, a couple of other guys from training, two sweet Japanese girls and myself at a super cute photo booth station in Hiroshima. This is Japan...