Could I be anymore embarrassed? … Probably

Things that you never really think you will ever talk about in front of 75% of the staff at your school, how to give a urine sample.

In a few weeks all of the ALTs in my town will have to have medical checkups. It is a standard part of being employed here. So much so that everyone is very blasé about it. But of course, guess who has never had the experience of having a proper physical checkup in Japan? Why the silly foreigner, who half understands Japanese at the best of times.

My vice principal walked over to my desk with some paper work and instead of doing the usual “let’s see if she understands when I give her the paperwork”, he decided that it was ultimately easier to rope my poor English teacher into the fray. Giving me the paperwork and what appeared to be a little plastic bottle, he told my teacher to explain to me how to use it.

And of course I heard the words, medical checkup and was like oh no. Poor English teacher comes round to my desk and crouches down, muttering through a chuckle how is he going to say what he wants to say. At this point I was completely confused but all of the other teachers were listening and watching very carefully so I had a feeling this was going to be bad.

My English teacher proceeded to tell me how to make a little box out of the bits of cardboard and that I needed to pee in it, then use the little bottle to suck some of it up and bring it to my assessment at the start of August. Needless to say as he started to tell me I was turning a fantastic colour of red and giggling in an enormous amount of embarrassment, he got a little stuck on some of the more technical words and the other teachers started to tease him. He started laughing and could barely talk, which made me laugh more. Then all hell broke loose, everyone was laughing and calling out things only making everyone laugh even more. I eventually shrank down in my chair and hid my laughing red face against my desk.

The young male maths teacher even quipped in English, which was surprising on a few levels, “nice Japanese culture” in relational to my natural response to cover my face with my hands; which is a normal response to embarrassment, I think???? Especially when the teachers call out the English teacher to then make poses to demonstrate even though I said that I understood and that he didn’t have to. They knew I understood but wanted to make him make the poses for a laugh.

So while I die in the staffroom from the heat and the humidity of the Japanese summer, I will also be dying from embarrassment too. Although it’s days like these that I am reminded that even though I am from a different country, people all over the world are pretty much the same. Sure, they have different upbringings, beliefs and personal situations but deep down we are all the same, we’d all mock and tease someone who had to give the poor young foreigner advice on how to pee into a cardboard box. 🙂

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The infamous desk shuffle!

If you think that working in a Japanese staff room isn’t difficult enough and you want a challenge in your life then I suggest going away for over a week during the spring break at the end of the school year. You’ll leave at the end of the 3rd term and come back to the start of the new school year with a whole new layout to deal with. New students. New teachers. New dress code for spring. New everything.

I had heard rumors about the April desk and teacher shuffle. I had heard the legends passed down by those who have been here longer than a year. Fortunately for me, only two of my teachers transferred and neither were my English teachers.

Before I went on holiday I was actually allowed to go to the staff meeting for a change! Which was where my Principal announced who was transferring. Now my Japanese ability is shaky at the best of times but sometimes I manage to understand what’s going on. And this was almost one of those times.

I understood that…

  • Science-sensei was leaving to go to Takeno JHS,
  • New Social studies-sensei is coming from Takeno JHS
  • New science-sensei is coming from Morimoto JHS
  • Social studies-sensei was leaving

And that’s where I lost it. I missed poor old Social studies-senseis announcement, I got that he was leaving but wasn’t sure where he was going. So I repeated the announcements one by one in English to the English teacher I sat next to, and when I got to Social studies-sensei I asked where he was going and my English teacher flat out said “He’s dead.” I repeated that back to him as a question and he nodded and said again, “He’s dead” with a smile on his face.

I was so confused and still am. Obviously he’s not dead, or dying, or sick. In fact on my trip home from my holiday I saw him coming home from a holiday to Kyoto and he looked fine, even gave him a little present from Okinawa. I didn’t have enough time to ask him where he was transferring to as I had to catch a connecting train but he legitimately looked like he was happy and healthy. Gonna just put this down to one of those things that I will never understand. I think he must be retiring?

Before teacher shuffle – total teachers 9, Principal, Vice Principal, school nurse, admin lady, grounds keeper and myself.

There was also a teacher who only came on Fridays, Friday Sensei, who was a calligraphy teacher and the school counselor who visited once every three weeks. So in total at my school there were 16 staff members officially. (I don’t think Friday Sensei was officially part of our staff, he wasn’t on the staff list, I can add for the record I know it should be 17 technically)

Breaking it down further …

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1st year homeroom teachers – Music, Social studies and Maths teachers

2nd year homeroom teachers – One of the two English teachers, PE teacher and the History teacher

3rd year homeroom teachers – The other Maths teacher, the other English teacher and the science teacher

Obviously the teachers taught all year levels but they are separated into desk groups based on homeroom teacher groups. Last year (until March) I sat next to one of the English teachers in the 2nd year desk group.

After teacher shuffle…

The science and social studies teachers transferred to other schools and we got two next teachers. I also think according to the new staff list that was on my desk we have a new school counselor. Apart from that everyone stayed. The one thing I was dreading was that I was going to lose my Vice Principal, who just might be the best person I’ve ever met. He’s so lovely and always trying to help me. He took me to a fish market and auction late last year, across the river from school. (Where I live is famous for snow crab and the season starts in winter) which as strange as that sounds was really cool.  My predecessor here warned me that he was going to retire this year but he’s still here and boy am I glad.

So now the homeroom teachers are…
20150424_1400191st year homeroom teachers – Both of the Maths teachers and a English teacher.

2nd year homeroom teachers – New science teacher, new social studies teacher and the music teacher.

3rd year homeroom teachers – PE teacher, English teacher that I used to sit next to and the History teacher

Now I sit with the 1st year homeroom teachers and the nurse. It’s not a whole lot of change but it’s enough to get slightly confused every time I leave the staff room. I feel rather sad for some of my friends here who lost all of their English teachers and Principals that would be a big adjustment. Almost like starting from scratch again.

However with all the changes and the new students to deal with, there is a weird atmosphere in the staffroom. While being an ALT is a really good job and I love it to pieces, I would kill to take on a more serious role in this workplace. I want to help more.

Even if I was fluent in Japanese there would still be this invisible wall between us. They all studied to be teachers, I didn’t. I’m realizing lately that I want more than sitting at my desk and having not a lot to do. At my old job I worked crazy hours, and was constantly busy. And I did that for almost 5 years. So coming here I was ready for having a break and doing not a lot. I kind of felt that I was ready for a break, but I think this is too much. I need to be busy and useful, not just be a foreign shaped paper weight that stops my chair from freely roaming the staffroom.

I wonder if this means I want to be a teacher. Oh god I hope not. That’s a whole another degree and nightmare going back to university.

Graduation ceremony – 卒業式

The view of the schools front field covered in snow

The view of the schools front field covered in snow

Tuesday March 10th was a sad day for me. It was the day that my favourite students here at Minato Junior High School graduated. It was my first time experiencing a Japanese graduation ceremony so I didn’t really know what to expect. I had attended a couple of the practices the week before but nothing really prepares you for the day.

I arrived at school a bit earlier than normal, dressed in a black skirt, white blouse and my black blazer. I had asked what to wear and was told a white shirt would be fine, however the other female staff members were wearing black blouses or black dresses or traditional Japanese Hakama (a type of kimono).

Photos of the 3rd years throughout the past year

Photos of the 3rd years throughout the past year

It wasn’t a big deal but for the next one I will probably wear black on black. Surprisingly enough after not having any snow for around a month, it decided today was a good day to snow. This meant that the gym was extra cold and even with the extra heaters it was still a bit chilly in the gym.

Anyway we had a brief morning meeting, everyone looked super formal in their suits. My Principal was even wearing a tail coat. He looked so fancy, I felt very under dressed. After the meeting, I popped upstairs to take some photos of the 3rd years in their class before the ceremony.

The Gym being prepped the day before. The teachers table is on the left

The Gym being prepped the day before. The teachers table is on the left. On graduation day there were more flowers everywhere

At around 8.45am the teachers who weren’t with the students in their classrooms went to the gym, where the parents had already been seated. We took our places at the teachers table to the left of the main stage. The 3rd years sat in front of us, with the 1st and then 2nd years behind them.

 

Empty 3rd year classroom before the students arrived on Tuesday

Empty 3rd year classroom before the students arrived on Tuesday

At 9am the 3rd years walked into the gym in pairs lead by Mrs H. who was wearing hakama. Every one clapped as the 3rd years took their seats. The Vice Principal introduced one by one the special guests, members of the PTA, the Principals from the two local Elementary schools, some officials from the City Board of education, some policemen and so on.

Then my Principal gave a short welcome speech. After that it was straight into the certificate ceremony. Mrs H. called the students names one by one and they marched in well-rehearsed formations to get to the stage. The Principal would then congratulate the student and hand over their certificate in a special folder. The students walked down the central steps of the stage and returned to their seats. There were only 24 students in the 3rd year class.

Countdown in the 3rd years room that made me sad every time I had class with them

Countdown in the 3rd years room that made me sad every time I had class with them

After receiving their certificates there were proper speeches. There were about four speeches given by some of the special guests. I sat directly opposite the head of the PTA Mr. Tanaka, who was pretty much crying and slapping his face to calm down the whole way though the ceremony. Later on we made eye contact as we both bawled our eyes out at the student speeches.

After the guest speeches was a song that the whole school sang, called さよなら友よ or Goodbye friends. Teared up when the 3rd years sang a verse to the 1st and 2nd years.

Final day of the countdown :(

Final day of the countdown 😦

Next was what really made me lose control and break out into crying. I had held it together for the ceremony so far, for about an hour but I completely lost it when the new School council President, a 2nd year girl, gave a speech thanking the 3rd years. She told stories of how they had helped the 2nd years ever since they started Elementary school.

She talked about how they would never forget them. Tears were rolling down my face. Thinking it couldn’t get any worse her speech ended, then the class rep for the 3rd years gave her speech and that was me gone. I was sobbing uncontrollably by the end. It was so heartfelt and earnest, it still makes me sad thinking about it. So while I was trying to cry and sob quietly the 3rd years did their goodbye song. They stood and faced the school and sang, most of the 3rd year girls were unable to sing as they were crying almost as much as me. Good old Mr. Tanaka across the gym was a mess too. I couldn’t look at the 3rd years while they sang I was crying too much. It was so heart-breaking. They sat back down and I calmed down a little, enough to see that a lot of the students throughout the gym were crying. Even some of the tough, often misbehaving, 2nd years boys, which was surprising to see… they would later tease me in class the next day and I teased them right back.

Messages from the 2nd years to the 3rd years outside the 3rd year homeroom

Messages from the 2nd years to the 3rd years outside the 3rd year homeroom

After the song the ceremony was closing, the 3rd years left in pairs again and disappeared back to their homeroom for one last class meeting with the homeroom teachers and their parents. This was supposed to take 20 minutes but an hour and a half later they were still in the classroom. They didn’t want to leave.

Since it was still snowing the kids were unable to do the parade out of the school grounds so they walked down the main corridor to the student entrance area. The 1st and 2nd years lined the corridor and held wire arches decorated with paper flowers. As the 3rd years walked down the corridor they were given message boards from the 1st and 2nd year students, each student having written a message for each of the 3rd years.

The teachers and parents lined up too. Lead by Mrs H. again they made their way to the entrance. Yet again they didn’t want to leave. They were supposed to grab their outside shoes and leave with their parents but an hour later they were still in the entrance way. Taking photos with each other, talking, and crying. I hung around in the entrance until they had all left. I took as many photos as I could with them and gave out my contact information in case they wanted to contact me. And that was it. 2pm and they were gone, never to come back. But I am grateful they stayed later, they were supposed to leave at 11.40am.

Special graduation lunch, lots of treats and green tea

Special graduation lunch, lots of treats and green tea

We had a late staff lunch in the library/meeting room. Everyone thanked the three 3rd year homeroom teachers and talked about the ceremony. We had a special lunch set that I ate most of but was not game for the tiny octopus. The teachers made mention of my crying that started at the student speeches and were surprised that I understood even though they know that I can understand Japanese, they just tend to forget until I do something that shows understanding.

The boys doing gymnastics at the sports day in September

The boys doing gymnastics at the sports day in September

Because my school is so small (there were only 80 students this year, from April there will be around 75), I have one class per year level, it means that I was able to teach these kids four times a week. When I first got to Japan, the moment I walked into the 3rd year class I knew that I would have trouble seeing them graduate. Literally the first day with them I was dreading March.

They were so friendly and welcoming. They were the kids who would just flash me a smile in the corridor. Talk to me outside of class. Laugh with me at the Japanese teachers jokes. Wave to me when they saw me on my bike going to get groceries.

Dodge-ball tournament in December 2014

Dodge-ball tournament in December. This is 80% of my school.

Karuta Tournament in January

Karuta Tournament in January

I have so many fond memories with them, sports day relays, dancing yosakoi with the girls, seeing them perform at the cultural festival, watching them destroy the 1st and 2nd years at dodge-ball, playing karuta (a Japanese card game) with them, many strange conversations in class like about time travel in space and seeing that they were all obsessed with a windmill building man in the textbook called William Kamkwamba.

William Kamkwmaba and his windmill

William Kamkwamba and his windmill

Moving to a foreign country is tough. It’s really, really hard. At times it seems like it might not be worth the hassle. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. They were the class that really made me sure that coming here wasn’t a mistake, they were the reason that I decided to stay for another year at the least. They are the reason I try to improve my Japanese every day.

Long story short, a big thank you to all of the graduating 3rd years. Good luck for the future and at Senior High, I’ll never forget you all!

English Boards….

And other things to keep my mind off the upcoming departure of my favourite students. Each day I see the 3rd years, I’m reminded that this time next week they’ll be gone.

But onto other things. Here are the various English boards I’ve made in the last couple of months. I have two English boards, one in the main corridor by the staff room and the other one is in a spare classroom that gets used three-four times a week for the first years English classes. I accidentally always put less effort into the second board and it shows. Onto the pictures!

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First and second English boards. Which one is in the corridor by the staff room hmmm?? 😛

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Ah January. Making that sheep was surprisingly infuriating. January also welcomed the arrival of Paper Sarah

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Februarys boards were a bit of a rush job as I got sick during the first week. Definitely need to up my game on the green board. That tree looks very pathetic …

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And finally the board I put up this week. After an emotional last lesson on Tuesday I updated Paper Sarah, giving her clothes not just a scarf. The small note has a drawing and just expands on how much I will miss them all and telling them to email me or add me on Facebook (I have small hope that some might but not really that much)

And finally as I was churning through the JET Japanese course in January… this popped up as the vocab. Forgot about it until now. Spelling mistakes aside, thanks for the not so subtle hint about taking the Japanese Proficient Exam…

無題

I am a bad blogger and various updates

Ok, so I have been a little bit slack on the blog front. I figure it’s about time that I make a little update. It’s been over 6 months since my last post… funny how time flies and you forget things. Text heavy and no photos this time because I’m writing this from work.

September

Start of school. It’s difficult to remember how things actually played out but the first week of September was rehearsals for the Sports Festival at the end of the week. I was lucky enough to be asked to dance with the girls in the Yosakoi Dance. My body however was less thrilled to be forced to dance for hours every afternoon in hot, non-air-conditioned classrooms on the third floor of the main building.

After what felt like weeks Saturday came and so did the Sports Festival. The boys made rather high human pyramids, the girls did their dance, each year level did various races and games (tug of war, something that resembled a three-legged race and giant games of rope skipping). Because my school has more boys than girls, when they did the folk dance after lunch they needed a few of the female teachers to make the numbers even. The crowd was so into it that we did three encores, meaning that I danced with every boy in the school, to the rest of the staff’s amusement and my embarrassment. My body managed to hold out until the festival had finished, but my ankle was what really suffered. In the end it was worth it and the day went off without a hitch.

There was an enaki or a work party, later that night where I learned; the dangerous of all you can drink, that sweet fruit Japanese cocktails can easily be confused with soda and of course how bizarre Japanese food really can be. I would later need to relearn these lessons at the next two enkais.

I visited the Tottori sand dunes which is just under two hours away from my town. Honestly, it was like being in an actual desert. Being that I have spent most of my life in New Zealand, I had never really had a chance to experience true desert heat. I have to say, that hiking up and down giant sand dunes in bare feet with a sprained ankle was not the best idea. The view of the dunes and the breeze that greeted me at the top, made the short climb worth it.

I also lived a dream of mine that I’ve had for over 10 years. I finally got to see a Japanese baseball game live (even though I normally am not interested in baseball at all). It was so much fun, the atmosphere was indescribable. I’d love to see more games in 2015.

October

I had a pretty quiet October. The temperature began to noticeably drop from swelteringly hot to a lovely warm temperature. There was a short two-day conference on Awaji Island, that I had to attend along with all of the other Assistant Language Teachers from the whole of the Hyogo Prefecture. I think there were around 500 of us in total, plus the Japanese Teachers of English who decided to come along too. It was very busy and ultimately very eye-opening in the way that I became more aware of how rural I truly am. Awaji Island is a really nice place, I would like to spend more time on the Island one day.

November

Just before the end of October I started to sort out hiring a car from a local dealer called Wataki Motors. I highly recommend them. So as November came around, I found myself with the freedom of having a car again. Biking everywhere was fun and healthy, but biking to the train station in the heat and then catching the train into Toyooka  or Osaka… no matter where I went I would be gross and sweaty for most of the day. When it gets warmer in March I hope to start biking around Kehi again.

I went down to Okayama City in Okayama Prefecture to visit a friend of mine from New Zealand, who is a new ALT like me. It was really good to see a familiar face and to see a little more of Japan. The first day I was there we explored around Kurashiki and Okayama City. The gardens, near Okayama castle were beautiful. It rained the second day so we weren’t able to see a whole lot, I hope to visit again when the weathers a bit better.

Then came something that I would never have expected. While driving into Toyooka, along the riverside, a motorbike slid across the centerline and collided with my car, hitting the driver side. It was a total shock and I am still rather apprehensive about driving anywhere. The biker was unhurt, which to this day surprises me and I suffered bruising along my collarbone and severe whiplash. Her bike was destroyed and my car was damaged a lot. I spent about 4 hours with the Japanese police on the side of the road, creating a massive traffic jam, going over the details of the crash. Luckily I had been going slower than the speed limit, around 10km under, so the impact wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

The staff at Wataki motors are a godsend and as soon as the police had been called I called them and they came to help me. I am eternally grateful for that as I might not have been able to attempt to talk to the police in Japanese as I was in shock. Fortunately for me, the police concluded that the biker was responsible for the crash and her insurance covered the repairs. Or so I thought. Turns out my car needed to be written off, as it was more expensive to repair it than the car was worth. In the end I had to get a new car that was slightly more expensive to rent than my old car.

December

Trying to put the crash behind me, I set my sights on a white Christmas. The first snowfall was around the 17th and the white Christmas seemed to be on track. It was heavy and learning to drive in the snow after having a crash was a huge adjustment.

On the evening of the 22nd, my school had its bouenkai or end of year party at a place just down the coast, about a 40 minute drive from Kehi. Around half of the teachers stayed the night there as I did, it turned out to be a really fun night. Although yet again it made think about my Japanese ability. It has improved but I really need to work on it more.

The next day was a public holiday so I met up with a friend who lives in Muraoka and went skiing at Ojiro Ski field for the first time in perhaps 12 years( I think?). It was so much fun although going up the gondola with a slight hangover was not the best idea. We were so high up in the mountains, the view was breathtaking. No injuries too, so that was awesome.

The school had its closing ceremony on the 24th, so there was a brief assembly in the gym… a brief freezing assembly. Then everyone cleaned the school for around half an hour, the kids then disappeared home before lunch to start the two weeks of holidays that I know they deserve. Unsurprisingly Christmas isn’t a holiday here, so while I could have taken the day off, it would have been to stay at home. Most people around Toyooka had either gone back to their home countries, gone overseas or had family visiting. So I worked the whole week like normal. Except without any classes. There was a small amount of snow on the ground but it was mostly melted. No white Christmas.

From the 27th I had a week off, all of the teachers did. Work started again on January 5th. For New Years Eve, I went with another local ALT, also from NZ, to Kobe. About a 2.5 hour drive from Toyooka. We saw the last Hobbit movie, in English with Japanese subtitles and then walked around Kobe Habourland waiting for midnight. After it stopped being 2014 and started being 2015, we drove back up to Toyooka. Protip for the future – road tolls are much cheaper after midnight. I dropped my friend off at her house in south Toyooka and continued on home(still around 40 minutes away). Slowly battling the snow-covered roads as the heaviest snow so far hit hard.

The roads were thick with snow and there were no cars around because it was around 3am, I drove slowly in the centre of the road. Mostly to avoid sliding into the deep ditches on the sides of the road or as everyone calls them “gaijin (foreigner) traps”. Arriving at Kinosaki, about 5km from my house, there were variously abandoned cars covered in deep snow along the sides of the road with skid marks all over the road. I lost control a couple of times, but was only going around 5kmph so I wasn’t in any danger of sliding off the road or hitting anything. Definitely learned a lot that night.

January

The holiday ended quickly and soon I was back at work. Bring on term three. I went skiing a couple more times at different ski fields. It turns out I rather enjoy going dangerously fast down the mountain. Also tried night skiing for the first time ever too. It started out a nightmare as the snow had iced over and the course was steeper than I thought it was but after the ploughs went down the course, the snow was much easier to ski on. This was also the night where one of my friends became much more confident in her skiing ability, she hadn’t skied before coming to Japan and now wants to ski every weekend. Towards the end of the month I went with a small group of JETs to Osaka for the day. We visited the waterfall in the South Gate Building of Umeda station, an Owl café, the Osaka Pokémon centre and Shinsaibashi. It was a good trip, I really need to spend more than a day in Osaka.

February

I experienced my first proper illness in Japan this month. I woke early in the morning on a Saturday and couldn’t stop vomiting for around 12 hours. I spent the whole weekend resting and managed to pull myself together for work on Monday. However when I told one of the teachers that I work with that I had spent the whole weekend sick, that’s when things got intense. They wrapped me in a blanket, made me wear a mask and increased my water intake by about 50 times. Even though I was feeling better, I had a fever that was fluctuating so I was off to the doctor. Escorted by the school nurse and one of my Japanese teachers of English, we made the short trip across the river to the doctors near one of my Elementary schools. After being poked, prodded and generally manhandled a bit, I was given a drip of medicine, plopped in front of a heater, wrapped in another blanket and left alone for 40 minutes in a comfy chair. After that my teachers came and picked me up, we got my prescription for the strangest medicine that I have ever seen and back to school we went. Strange as the medicine was, I was feeling almost completely normal again the next day.

I had a quick day trip to Kyoto on the 11th and visited a couple of places. Unfortunately, Kiyomizu Dera, a famous temple on the hillside that over looks Kyoto city was being restored(apparently it will be for the next few years). It had scaffolding around parts of the buildings, a little bit disappointing. But I enjoyed the visit.

And that’s most of what has happened in the last couple of months. Hopefully it won’t take me as long to update in the future, but then again I’m lazy and unreliable. Good luck to those who had interviews for JET this month, hopefully April rolls around quick and you find out if you got in 🙂

A big thank you to everyone who is still reading or has commented on this blog so far. I promise I will be better at responding to comments in the future 🙂