Saturday, June 5, 2010

6 months!

The new leaves are starting to show in Tsuruta! The cherry blossoms have come and went, and I am nearing the 6-month mark for my time in Japan. Many things here are new to me, in winter everyone turns off their house's water and drains the pipes completely. Houses older than 30 years generally don't have insulation so pipes freeze overnight if there's water still in them, something I've experienced a few times. One of my best experiences here was giving an english crash course to a group of 17 middle school students headed towards Oregon. All the English teachers banded together and taught the students phrases and gestures that might be helpful during travel; we also played quite a few games letting them practice their new vocabulary. I would have liked to go back to Hood River with them, but their smiling faces and pictures showed that they didn't need me to guide them around Hood River, their host families helped them out a lot! One of the hardest parts of this job is the range of students, I teach from preschool up to 6th grade, sometimes on the same day! So I go from teaching the names of colors, food, etc to teaching phrases, meanings, and reading/writing in the course of a few hours. Also, I teach at 6 different elementary schools, the largest has about 58 students in each grade, while the smallest has about 50 students total! Along with the range, it's hard to remember everyone's names. At the elementary level, I work with 43 different teachers, and over 800 students! Factor in the considerably small number of sounds in the Japanese language, and it's easy to see why names can be a headache for any foreigner, regardless of experience with Japanese!
The change in lifestyle hasn't been as great as I expected; I came to Japan only a few months after graduating at University of Oregon, so I went from a life focused on classes and learning to one focusing on teaching. This is my first full-time job, so it's a little strange to be sitting at a desk 35 hours a week. The only break is one hour off at noon for lunch, but it seems like cigarette smokers can go to the smoking area (that's right, inside the building!) whenever they want. Also, there's no overtime pay. Luckily, workers in the Town Office have an even better system, known as "daikyuu": Instead of being paid more for working more, you are awarded time off that you can use whenever you want, at a 1-to-1 basis. For example, all the English teachers in town have a weekly conversation class for the area's adults, and we get one hour of daikyuu for this, so we could go home at 3 instead of at 4 on Fridays, or sleep in and come to work an hour late. The office atmosphere is also a new experience for me, in the mornings almost everyone is serious and focused only on work, but by the end of the day things start to feel more relaxed, people greet me with smiles, and start cracking jokes in the high-speed Tsugaru dialect that's near incomprehensible even to other native Japanese speakers, let alone me with my 3 and a half years of study in College. Every day I learn new things, and in my free time I am dedicating myself to learning in order to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Right now, according to my online study site, i know almost 1,000 characters, which puts me at the level of a middle schooler. Kind of frustrating, seeing that I just celebrated my 23rd birthday, but not bad for approximately 4 years of study!
I'm lucky in that I have a nisei (American-born child of Japanese emigrants) grandmother and I majored in Japanese at University of Oregon, so I've been prepared and warned in advance about many of the common cultural faux pas that first-time visitors encounter. Often in my classes, we would look at essays about Japanese customs for reading practice, so I came well versed in the manners and rituals regarding chopsticks, exchanging business cards, and greeting people (Japanese has several sets of verbs and words to address people, depending on your relative social/business standing). I've passed the gaijin charenji (foreigner challenge) with food, having grown up eating sushi and all sorts of Japanese food, learned a few Japanese recipes during my college years, and have grown accustomed to starting my day with a bowl of white rice topped with natto, fermented soybeans whose odor can be described as somewhere between "footy" and "ammonia", but I think the flavor is nutty, a little salty, and goes great with the little packets of soy sauce and mustard that usually come in the packaging! One of my favorite breakfast meals is natto sauteed with some chopped garlic, and then combined with scrambled eggs and cheese to make a cross-cultural breakfast sandwich!
Outside of work I have plenty of opportunity to relax, now that it's warming up I am starting to go for runs and work off some of this winter weight. My mom came to Japan for two weeks, so I went down to Tokyo for the weekend to meet her, which was a huge change from the slow-paced farmland life up north here. After that, we traveled around Aomori Prefecture; we saw the Japan Sea (between Japan and Korea), saw the cherry blossoms in Hirosaki (the most popular spot in all of Japan), visited Lake Towada (the largest caldera lake in Japan, three times the size of Crater Lake). She went back to Oregon on the 8th of May, and it seems like the sunny weather left with her. Now the constant gray skies, a common sight in both Oregon and Tsuruta, have returned.