Sunday, September 21, 2014

8. It's raining men! (aka sports and alcohol)

      My last two weeks at school have consisted of a lot of sitting around combined with awkwardly trying to find some way to be helpful.  There were no classes the second week of school, which meant that the students practiced for sports festival about 9 hours a day.  The majority of this time was actually spent practicing how to march out to each event in a coordinated manner.  This was especially evident in the introduction to the event, when 130 middle school kids marched in step around a track, then formed up in a very militaristic marching pattern in the center carrying four flags (one for each team, one for the school, and one for Japan).

     Most of my time during this week I alternately sat in the bleachers watching the kids practice, or I moved around equipment that for some reason was stored in high places that nobody else could reach.  I occasionally got to fire the gun to start races.  My favorite was watching the kids practice, because I got to see them try the games before they were any good at them.  Here are some of my favorite events:

Centipede racing
This is where 6 kids line up as if they're in a chain gang and have their ankles tied together with bicycle innertubes.  They then get in a conga line and race each other.  People didn't actually fall down as much as I would have liked, but when they did it was spectacular.  I can't post pictures of my students, but here is an image that I shamelessly stole from the internet.
Nobody actually got hurt too badly from this at my school so I'm not a terrible person.
17 person 3-legged race
This was probably my second favorite.  It's exactly what it sounds like.  17 girls line up side-by-side, tied together tightly at the ankles, and then try to navigate a slalom course at high speeds.  This never goes well.  They have to count in to start, which involves all of them jumping up and down and chanting, which is funny in itself.  Then if one girl hesitates a little, or if they have slightly different ideas on how far each leg will step, the whole chain has to stop.  If they stop at different times, then everyone falls over.  It's hilarious.  Then they have to shuffle to get back in position, which usually means that other people will fall down in the process.  It can take several minutes for a hundred meter course with a few difficult turns.

35 person jump rope
This is just lining a ton of people up and getting them to jump in unison over a giant jump rope.  The teachers have to coach the kids here, because they've seen this year after year and they know what works and what doesn't.  The rest of the festival is run by the kids.  Each class has to jump over the rope as many times as they can in 2 minutes.  The first years have never done this before, and they have 35 people in their class.  They got 3 times in two minutes.

Tamaire (ball toss?)
In this, you take a basket, and put it on a pole that is about 20 feet tall, then you give the teams of about 65 students a ton of soft(ish) balls and a 2 minute time limit.  This consists of a storm of balls being tossed not very skillfully (and often not even high enough) and landing on the faces of the people on the other side of the pole, who are also tossing balls into the basket.  I held the pole up on the actual day of the event for the parents round (twice as many people - two parents per kid), and I am still traumatized from how many times I got hit in the head and shoulders.
imagine this but with 65 students per basket, and a way larger supply of balls.  It looks like confetti from far away.
 Human Pyramid
  This is far and away my favorite.  Human pyramids in the US, I realize, are insanely boring and safe.  I've never done one higher than three people high.  They do have a section where they do three people high pyramids, but they jump into them in less than a second from everyone lying down or crouching.  Our human pyramids are also very limited in that they are two dimensional.  The students at my school did have some two dimensional pyramids, and they got up to five people high, which takes 15 people.  The secret there was climbing up from the side rather than the back, and being very organized so the pyramid could be built quickly.

But wait, you say.  Don't the kids get hurt and fall down?

Yes.  All the time.  So many kids fell down from the top I felt that it was raining men during pyramid practice (hallelujah!).  However, they actually never got hurt from that.  One kid did somehow manage to dislocate his shoulder from being on the bottom for too long.  Of course they never considered stopping.  There was a five high human pyramid built in a circle with the top three levels standing up, which was crazy.  The finale was a 7 person high pyramid with a triangle base.
This looks almost exactly like the one at my school, except they were all boys and wearing blue shorts.
On Friday after school, I was told many of the teachers would go to "take a bath" together, so I decide to join them.  We have a staff party planned for Saturday, but I thought it couldn't hurt to get to know some of the teachers beforehand.  So us males go to a Japanese public bath, and wash ourselves together for way longer than I thought necessary.  We go into a hot tub, sit for a while, and then come out and take a sitting-down shower next to each other.  As one of the teachers makes sure to point out, we all have penises.  We also go into another bath with flavored tea water, which apparently is invigorating for my pores.
     After the bath, we go to a traditional Japanese restaurant where I am again caught in a no-chair situation.  I only have about 40 minutes of cross-legged sitting in me, and stretching my legs out under the table causes me to accidentally get to know my coworkers a little too well.  Halfway through the dinner, my coworkers decide that I should "sit between the beautiful women."  Thinking they were joking, I laugh, however I was eventually told by everyone again to please stand up and go over there.  So I did.  Everyone's always looking out for my best interests here I suppose.  I drove to this event, so I am not drinking because in Japan it is illegal to have even one beer and then drive.  However, some of the other teachers are getting quite sloshed.

A sloshed teacher in his natural habitat.
After we leave the restaurant, somehow everyone decides that it is a good idea to pick up some beer at a convenience store and go back to the middle school to drink it.  We then proceed to sit at the same desks we are all at during work, and finish the beer that we bought.  The vice principal is even sitting at his position at the head of all the desks, so it feels vaguely like a morning meeting, except that one of the teachers just threw up in the students' bathroom.  He decides to sleep in the teacher's lounge, and is ready to roll for Sports Festival the next morning at 7:00.  Way to hold it together, teaching staff.

When actual Sports Day comes, everything pretty much goes as planned.  Blue team wins, probably because they have this excellent banner:
It looks surprisingly angry considering its wings are made of rainbows.
 After the sports day, we have another staff party, which it turns out involves another bath.  I am so clean.  This is an expensive event, and the dinner that we eat is served on two million plates, each with one slice of pickled vegetable on it.  We are being served by women wearing the traditional yukata (what we think of as a kimono - I'll try to keep the pretentious italics to a minimum).  One thing that I think is pretty cool is this basket.  It has a flame underneath it, and when the flame runs out, that means that it is done cooking.  Unfortunately, its contents turn out to be one mushroom.
It was a good mushroom.
     During the dinner, everyone gives a speech about how they thought the Sports Festival went.  Unfortunately everyone sits in Japanese tea ceremony style (sitting on your ankles) during these toasts.  After the first two, I am told by the guy next to me that if I have to make that face when I sit like that, then I should find a different way to sit.  Also unfortunately, this toast thing includes me.  After a few sentences in attempted Japanese, I am informed that I should just speak in English, and the English teacher will translate.

     After the dinner, I am about to get a ride home with the one of the older teachers, when someone runs out and pulls me out of the car, and informs me that I am not done drinking yet.  The younger teachers and I go out for beer and dumplings, which turns out to be delicious.  I have a great time, and I desperately wish I could speak better Japanese to be able to fit in and understand even basic questions directed at me.  I am definitely going to enjoy working with these people.

As a closing note, these are some bathroom slippers I saw at the staff party:
Greenpeace isn't my favorite NGO, but I wouldn't make a slipper about it.

Picture Credits:

Darrell McIndoe, Flickr (someone who had my same job, but didn't feel an obligation to comply with rules about posting pictures of students)

Saturday, September 6, 2014

7. Stand! Ready! Bow! (aka my first week at school)

This past week marked the start of my work at the middle school I'll be at for the next 6 months. It was pretty wild and I'm super exhausted! Ok I'll spare you the whining.  The other teachers said my main challenge would be staving off boredom, which has not been an issue at all so far.  I'm not allowed to post pictures from work, so here's some completely unrelated pictures to satisfy those of you who can't read:
Actually it's alright, but it's hard to get over the name.  Please note the slogan on the yellow bottle to the right as well.
These are statues of Buddhas or something (Hindu gods? That doesn't make sense.  They do have a lot of arms though)

They're all standing or sitting.  Except this guy, who really needs his beauty rest.
Day 1

As I arrive at school, I am introduced to my desk and to a very enthusiastic woman in front of me who immediately says all the English words she knows in a row (hello! Thank you! Goodbye!  My! name! is! Kishimoto! Nicetomeetyou!).  Certain teachers who speak English come over and say hi, including the principal.  In the morning meeting, the principal says a few facts about me and asks me to introduce myself with my prepared Japanese speech.  In his introduction of me, he has just told everybody about 3/4 of what I was going to say.  I forge ahead blindly! Before lunch, I am told the students clean their classrooms.  I offer to help, thinking it will help me bond with the students.  I get to the class just in time to see them start. They all get in position, move all the desks all to one side, and sweep the other.  Then a few of them push towels while they run across the floor instead of mopping.  Then they change sides and repeat.  It seems very efficient.  Little do I realize that this will be the most coordinated version of this I will ever see.  Usually it's three kids working and the rest standing and giggling.

I am told there is no school lunch today and I immediately panic.  Fortunately, the other English teachers decide to take me out to lunch at a very traditional Japanese restaurant.  Unfortunately this means that there are no chairs, but it's cool.  I've sat on my butt before.  On the drive over, this conversation happens in English:
"Mr. Hirota, tell me about your trip to Poland to visit your girlfriend" (they call each other Mr. all the time)
"Ok.  We went to a good museum and I learned about fish"
"No Mr. Hirota!  That is boring!  I want to hear interesting things. So does Nate."
"Ok.  I met her parents for the first time.  They are nice.  She has a good family."
"Sure, Mr. Hirota, sure.  Please tell us the interesting part!"

Unfortunately, neither I or Mr. Hirota knew what that meant (or at least we weren't willing to guess).
 All in all, a good first day.
This was on the outside of my car when I left for school, and on the inside when I got there. After growing up watching a lot of nature documentaries, I knew not to mate with it cause it might bite my head off.

Day 2

 I mostly spend the second day grading summer homework. Many girls wrote about their favorite band, which was usually this:
This is a band formed by a corporation that auditioned members considering the "sexiness of men" according to wikipedia.  Members range from age 14 to 20 years old.  There are more suggestive pictures of them, but I thought I'd spare you.
The homework has a multitude of fun English moments in it, some of which I will recreate now. This was probably my favorite snippet:

"I saw a movie.  The title is Transformers.  It was very moving."   (was it really?)
"abusive language may sometimes be vomited to a friend."

Many of the students had to write about their plans for the future.  A lot of the resulting sentences sounded quite profound.  Here are a few of those sentences put back to back as if they were an overly artistic poem.
 I exist a lot now in the world
that is an animal.  I play baseball in hot middle inevitable
death. There are a lot of future.  But
after hurry the future,
just I die.

Blindness in one eye is improvement
in crime prevention consciousness.
The words of transformation
are both
a shield protecting a person
and a pike making a lifetime wound.
It is no use: I never split open
even when I play the piano.
I have my first school lunch with the students today.  It's probably more awkward than my first lunch period in high school.  Here is my attempt at conversation:
[giggles with friend]
"do you play sports?"
[talks to friends to confirm what I say.  Her friend translates what I said.  First student looks at me, then looks down and resumes eating]
"What is your favorite movie?"
[no response]

I come away from lunch with a strong desire for connection in some way with the students, since I will be eating with them all year. Later this will influence my decision to tell the students that my favorite band is One Direction.  I should probably listen to at least one song of theirs.

Day 3

The third day, I have my first class that I "teach." For the first week, I just give 50 minute long presentations about myself.  I have thrown in some juggling, music, and magic tricks into these presentations because I don't want to be boring.  Hopefully they won't catch the sexual innuendo in the lyrics of the song I'm playing.  Turns out not even the teachers have a hope of understanding much wordplay in English.

I'm not sure if this happens every class, but every time I am present, the class starts with "Stand! Ready! Bow!" and all the students bow, which is weird to me. The presentation goes fairly decently, but when I go to lunch with the students, it is just as awkward as the day before.

One thing I forgot to mention is the structure of lunch.  All the students wait (relatively quietly) outside the cafeteria while the lunch ladies set out a lunch tray for everyone.  Then someone announces: "first years, please proceed quietly."  Etc with all the students.  Everyone brings their own chopsticks and spoon, and when lunch ends, everyone breaks down and cleans out their own milk carton.  Then they sort the dishes into different piles (they are required to eat every last bit of food that they have on their plates).  They put the plastic straws into their original wrappers and put them all in a designated container.  It's very methodical.

These are my utensils.  Chopsticks are still the biggest obstacle to me getting enough to eat here.
Day 4

I have presentations all day (5 total, 50 minutes each).  I think the English teachers are tired of hearing about my life.  Today the students are much more responsive.  Apparently it was just the third year class from yesterday (15 years old) that think they are too cool for me.  The one handicapped student in the school asks to have lunch with me today, so I sit at his table and have a great conversation in English.  He tells me he wants to be an English teacher, but they won't let him study abroad (at least right now) because he's in a wheelchair.  He also tells me that he is on the tennis team, which is super cool.

In the evening, I meet a guy who plays South American wood flute and panpipes and a guy who plays guitar.  They seem keen to play music together at some point so we'll see if that 'pans' out (ok that was dumb, sorry).  It turns out  I need to buy more clothes for work.  I head to the store and get some short sleeve "cool biz" shirts (that's what the summer dress code is called).  While I'm there, I pick up this gem as well.
Note the "since 1879" and the picture of the Volkswagen bus.

Day 5

Today I go to elementary school in the morning.  I am a celebrity because of my height and willingness to make sound effects and funny faces.  Immediately after my first presentation, I am swarmed by small children who literally drag me out to the field and do a complicated eeny-meeny-miny-moe to pick teams.  Then we play the extent of soccer that 6-year-olds can play.  After a few more presentations, I go back to the middle school and have a great, conversational lunch with teachers and students.  One of the male teachers likes to tell me often that I am a handsome guy and that I should come to basketball club sometime.  We'll see how that goes.  I am terrible at basketball, despite my height and apparent attractiveness to the middle-age Japanese male math teacher demographic.

OMG SPORTS FESTIVAL PRACTICE!  In the afternoon, they begin practice for sports festival, which involves no team sports of the conventional kind.  They do partner acrobatics, human pyramids, and some kind of thing which involves throwing yourself on the ground creatively whenever the PE teacher blows the whistle.  It actually looks pretty cool.   They also do this thing where they all wear black coats with white on the inside, and sit on bleachers.  Then they chant and beat drums.  On certain beats, certain children open the coats as if they were flashing the audience (they are wearing clothes obviously) which makes certain letters and shapes appear in black and white.  They change shapes/letters every beat - it is very cool, if you can understand at all what I'm saying there.

A great first week.  I am excited for the next, and for the sports festival and ensuing staff party.

Here are some random pictures:
Hmmm.  These remind me of something, but I can't put my finger in it.

The worst part is that this actually describes perfectly what is in the package and I'm a terrible person for laughing at it.

You too should be part of "Association of ProtectNature" if you aren't already.