Sunday, March 1, 2015

12. Backstage at School (aka Ping Pong and Smashing Pumpkins)

My blog may give the impression that I am freely wandering around Japan and taking pictures of weird products all the time.  In fact, five days a week, I go to schools in Tamba and teach English to children who, for the most part, could care less.  I thought I'd take the time to fill you guys in on the less glamorous side of my time in Japan.

Here are some things that are also not glamorous:

This is a sandwich with the crusts cut off and
the sides pushed together.  In this case, the
inside is filled with salsa.
This is the name of the building, not the menu.

I go to middle school on Monday through Thursday, and generally I just think up some activities for the students to do during the first part of class.  The teacher in charge of the class teaches the next part of class, and calls on me to repeat words with my soothing and masculine voice every once in a while.  Every so often, I feel like a cult leader that is brainwashing my minions with repetitive chants ("I am a Korean girl.  I like listening to J-pop better than K-pop. Arashi is my favorite J-pop band.").  Unfortunately, we go on less field trips than most cults.

I did get to fly kites with these elementary school children, though!
In one class, the teacher decided that I should read them a story.  It started out innocently enough, with a tree standing by a road.  Then an atomic bomb went off in the nearby city of Hiroshima, and a young boy and girl took shelter underneath the tree after the blast.  The girl sang to the boy through the night as he died, and then she died just before morning.  The teacher told me that the last foreign teacher that he made read that out loud started crying too much to continue (thanks for having me read it too, then!).  He then asked the students if they loved America despite this event.  About half raised their hands.  In reality though, everyone seems to have forgiven America completely, which is pretty astounding if you consider how long Asian countries hold grudges against each other.

In certain classes, the students don't repeat that many words, so I am forced to stand in a corner or resort to other activities.  If some students are being disruptive or asleep, I usually step in.  Some students have figured out that they don't actually have to do anything, though.  There is no detention, calling parents, or even getting held back a grade if you choose not to participate.  There's even one student who says his back hurts too much to sit in a chair, so he doesn't have to go to the majority of his classes (except the ones he likes, of course).  I occasionally am told to go play basketball with him in the gym, which is better than sitting around.

Or crouching around.  When the other teacher pictured saw this,
his reaction was:  "I need to stop wearing blue and white together."
Speaking of sitting around, most teachers here only teach 3-4 periods a day.  They have 22 teachers for 140 students at the middle school I work at, and the class sizes are still about thirty students to a class, because each class has 2-3 teachers in it always (even though only one really does anything most of the time).  This doesn't mean that they're not busy though.  The teachers assign worksheets and other gradable assignments to the students at an alarmingly high rate, and teaching club activities is practically mandatory.  Most teachers are at school from 7am to 7pm.  Fortunately, I get to leave at 3:45, which is very good compared to a lot of other foreign English teachers in my position.

Sometimes I try to bond with the kids, but mostly they don't want to talk to me.  In order to help this situation, I have done various things, including arm-wrestling every middle school boy and playing ping-pong against the middle school girls.  While I would generally lose most arm-wrestling matches I entered, and win most ping-pong matches, the result was the opposite here.  The coach had me play all the girls from worst to best, and I won the first ping-pong match handily, won the second after a heated deuce, and lost the next 20 without the girls breaking a sweat.

This was in my dreams for weeks.
I also made this, to encourage students who hate talking (everyone) to write to me:

My first letter: "Dear Nate, please correct my English. SDFLS DF KJF
BDFEI VNZ QOI EI FNV.  Thank you, Tsubasa."

In school, there are a few noticeable differences that still get me.  For example, the students stay in one class, and the teachers change classrooms.  Also, I need to change my shoes constantly.  I have a pair that I come to work in, a separate pair for inside the building, a pair that I use if I want to run around outside with the kids, a pair that I use for any event in the gym, and I have to change into the provided slippers when I use the bathroom.  Also the bathroom is a squat toilet, which I still have trouble pooping in.

I still haven't run into a situation where I would need to use the ones on the left.
The relationships within the staffroom can be strange as well.  The youngest teacher in the staffroom is forced to do all the work that no one else wants to do, so he is always working late.  Once, he was told by a co-worker: "You know on Tuesday when you left (after tennis practice and grading papers) at 7:45?  I was making copies for my class on Wednesday.  You should have offered to help me."  I would probably not do well in his position.

When my power got turned off because I failed to recognize my bill in the mail, I turned to one teacher and said, "now, I don't want everyone to know, but my power got turned off..." at this point I was interrupted as she shouted, "Nate's power got turned off!  Does anyone know what to do?"  The principal then called the board of education, the power company, and my landlord and angrily conferred with each one.

People try to do what they can to help me, to the best of their ability.  One teacher will always make sure I know what's going on, because despite studying Japanese constantly, I still have no idea what they are saying at the morning meeting every day.  Another teacher always tries to make conversation despite my limited ability to reply intelligently.  One day she asked me, "Do you like pumpkins?"  I replied that I did, and when I came back from the next class I was teaching, a large and green pumpkin was sitting on my desk.  I had never cooked a pumpkin before, but it was a good day to learn.

Speaking of pumpkins, I did attend a halloween party, a holiday which is not widely celebrated in Japan.  I came with no costume, and was gifted various items of cloth which were pinned to me by a helpful old lady.
Yes, we have racist costumes here in Japan too.
As fall wound down, the squash and pumpkins that lined the halls as decorations needed to be smashed and composted, and one day I found myself hacking pumpkins to pieces with the help of a pickaxe and the autistic kid at school (which each helped me in different ways).  He was incredibly excited but didn't quite understand what we were doing, and although I left with my work clothes covered in pumpkin flesh and sweat, it was one of my favorite random things that has happened to me at school.

This guy with autism is one of my favorite students at school.  He is always happy, no matter what happens, and always greets me with:

 "Hello. How are you?"
Me: "I'm great.  How about you?"
Him: "Why thank you!"

I eventually started changing my answer to "I'm great.  You look good today!" so that his answer would make more sense as a reply.  He always finds me wherever I am so that we can walk into the lunchroom together.  When his grade is signaled, he either holds my hand or wraps his arm around me and we proudly walk in to the lunchroom as a team.

On one fateful day though, we were late to lunch and he changed his grip right as we were walking through the door.  This caused me to look down and forget to duck under the door.  As all the other students had already sat down, the resounding THUD! that my head made on the doorframe drew quite a bit of attention and "are you alright?"-type-responses from everyone.  Although it wasn't the most comfortable moment, I walked away with my ego bruised more than my forehead.  Now this guy makes sure to duck along with me whenever we go in.

I feel like this is a great time to randomly insert a commercial for my favorite Japanese face-muscle-strengthening beauty product.

On that note...

Here's some quotes from students in their journals about winter break:
-I ate crab together.  A lot of bodies were jam-packed and were very delicious.

-I had a three day soccer expedition for winter vacation.  I did my best more than before.  The result was not good.

-I went to the house of the grandmother today.  At first I informed everyone of the New Year when I arrived.

-I went skating with a friend.  I fell with all one's might, but was fun only once.

-It is very happy this winter vacation.  Winter vacation of good-bye me.

-The older brother gets railroad work.  I have a crush on my older brother.  So I want to become a station employee.

-December.  My family was cake.

That about sums up my December as well.  T shirt and I'm out!

Huuuum indeed. Huuuum indeed.
If you write them down, your goals are more likely to happen.

Ping-pong photo credit:

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