Friday, May 28, 2010

Coming to you live from the future!

The time difference between Japan and my old home Texas is 14 hours (15 during daylight savings time). This is just about the most annoying time difference you can have between two places. You have to figure that a significant part of the day when you are awake, I am asleep, and vice versa. Once you factor in work and school into the time stream it doesn’t leave much time to talk to people.

Weekends are easier as one or both parties can stay up later and don’t have work to get in the way. But it’s still a difficult thing to actually be able to chat with someone real time.

And when I do, it’s always confusing as to when it is.

It’s not at all uncommon for someone to message me out of the blue and for us to talk for a bit until I realize that they are in fact awake at 3 in the morning where they are. Or for someone to message me right as I am about to shut down the computer and call it a night. Most conversations end with one of us wishing the other a good night and the other wishing a good day.

One thing I can tell you for sure is that I feel like I’m living in the future. Not because Japan is amazingly advanced or anything (I live in the inaka after all). Just because, technically, I am. Sometimes when I talk to people in the morning (for me) it takes me a bit to realize that it is still the previous night where they are. I’m already on Wednesday, but they are still on Tuesday night. It is about this time that the urge strikes me to say, “Fear not, for Wednesday will dawn. For I have seen it. I have lived it. Nothing of horrible note will occur between now and then, so rest your weary souls with peace this night.”

Of course, I don’t say this because a) it’s crazy and b) it doesn’t quite work that way. If giant space aliens from Hovering Squid World 8 show up to annihilate us all on what is to me Wednesday morning you will all still be destroyed Tuesday night (possibly in your sleep without knowing what was going on at all). Just because the Earth has turned enough for me to have a sunrise doesn’t mean we will make it to the point where the rest of you do.

But it still feels like I’m in the future. And as this may be as close to actual time travel as I ever get, I’ll take it.

Speaking of time travel, flying back to the states is always a bit of an exercise in time travel. Flying from Tokyo to Dallas I tend to land before I even took off. I may be sitting in the airport waiting for my connection going, “Wait…it’s 5 pm on Friday. I’ve already had a 5 pm today.” My internal clock doesn’t enjoy those moments. Coming back to the states you experience the longest day ever. But then when you fly to Japan you magically lose a day. That seriously throws me off, much as I imagine real time travel would.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Found in Translation

So I was teaching probably my favorite class at elementary school. It’s a very small school so my fifth and sixth grade classes are combined. This means we do half of the fifth grade textbook and half of the sixth grade textbook. It’s a little confusing, and with some of my other students it would never work, but these kids are amazing and it hardly seems to faze them. They are always super excited about English and it is just a joy to be in their class.

I have been incredibly lucky. Both years we have used the textbook at that school I have had amazing teachers who have really taken it upon themselves to teach English and not to just be in the class while I am teaching English. It is clear that they are studying English on their own so that they can be confident for the class. They don’t let English intimidate them like some of the other elementary teachers I have worked with. They work hard and show the kids that they can do it too. And that positive attitude from the teacher really makes a difference.

With elementary school we do virtually no reading or writing and focus instead on speaking and listening. The goal is to make the students comfortable studying English and to show them that English is fun so that when they get into junior high they don’t hate it. So we sing lots of songs and play lots of games. The current  lesson (each lesson goes about 4 classes) revolved around the topic of “I like”. In this class we were playing a game where the students asked me if I liked something and then they had to guess if I liked it or not. If they thought I liked it they went to the left side of the room and if they didn’t think I liked it they went to the right side of the room. In the book they suggest you have cards and use those as the sentence topics. But we have a small class of 12 so we decided to just skip the cards and be more creative.

We let the students powwow in the back and decide on something to ask me. Then they all lined up in a straight line in the middle of the room (so cute!) and asked me “Do you like whatever-the-thing-was?” I would then make a thinking face while they all ran to the side of their guess. Then they asked me again and I answered, “Yes, I do” or “No, I don’t” as appropriate. The kids who were correct celebrated and then we started again.

We told the kids that Japanese was okay, but if they knew the English word they used it. Then they asked, "Do you like hiyoko?"  I didn’t know what that was. I looked to the teacher and he tried to think about it and then the kids did something awesome. They started to explain what it was to me with other English words they knew. “Yellow bird!” one girl said making little wing motions. “Small bird. Baby bird!” another said. I was stuck thinking it might be a canary, so I asked if it was a pet. They said no and then they started to draw pictures on the board. Finally it all clicked in my brain that they were talking about chicks and I asked, “Baby chicken?” They were so excited that I understood. And so the game continued.

I was blown away by their positive attitudes. I have many junior high students who would not even think to do those things to try to be understood. And if they did they certainly wouldn’t have used English words to do so. For many of my students once communication hits a roadblock they shut down. They stop and look at the teacher if he is around hoping he will fill in the blanks for them. It’s a perfectly understandable thing; I’ve done the same in Japanese at times. Communicating can be really hard. But these fifth and sixth graders didn’t even hesitate. The whole class was on a mission to bridge the gap in understanding.

After class I realized that if I had perfectly understood their Japanese these kids would have missed out on a wonderful opportunity. Without meaning to, the lesson became not only about a simple grammar point, but about communication and understanding. Theoretically all lessons are about that, but normally it’s me using English (my native language) to try to get them to understand something and they are the ones trying to decipher meaning. This flipped the tables around and they were the ones with the information trying to pass it on. I really feel this was the most valuable part of that lesson. I hope that they can keep that energy and passion as they continue to study English. And I hope that they all had the same warm fuzzy feeling that I did when I finally understood what they were telling me.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Would you like some more whale?

When I went to Australia I ate kangaroo. I was a little surprised that kangaroo was indeed something you could eat. For anyone curious I didn’t much care for it. It’s apparently best served on the rare side or it gets stringy, but I like my meat well done.

I should have expected that there would be some unfamiliar meats here in Japan. Different countries eat different things. They eat dog in Thailand. They eat guinea pigs in South America. Some places eat rat. I knew all of this. But Japan still surprises me with some of the things I’m eating.

The specialty dish of Kumamoto prefecture is basashi. Which is raw horse meat. The story behind this comes from way back when the castle was under siege and they had nothing left to eat. So they did what they had to do to stay alive and ate their horses. And became famous for it. So now the area is known for this dish and you can get it at many restaurants.

I’ve had it and it isn’t bad. Like I said before, I normally like my meat very well done, but served raw isn’t quite the same as rare. It’s served with onions and a soy sauce for dipping. It’s alright but not something I want all the time. Most foreigners I know here like it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Amanda is Amanda!

Okay, I’m a linguist at heart, so you’ll have to bear with me as this post will be mostly my random observation and my lack of explanation for something entirely language related. Could this be learning in disguise?!? It’s like Transformers, but with fewer explosions.

So, I had seen in manga and anime where characters, normally young girls, refer to themselves in the third person. One of the most recent examples was in a one-shot in Shonen Jump where a young girl who had been raised by cat people introduced herself to a boy, saying, “Tama wa Tama da yo!” Which basically translates to “Tama is Tama!” (Tama is a common name for cats in Japan, like Fluffy in America or Rover or Spike are for dogs) It’s cute, and amusing to read, but I have now observed this is real life.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Attendance is (apparently) optional

After graduation last March I was at a party with all of my junior high teachers. I was discussing graduation with the English teacher and an interesting point came up.

I had noticed throughout the year that in my third grade class (American 9th grade) there was always one empty desk. It had a nametag on it. So it belonged to someone. There was also a cubby in the back where the students keep their bags that had the same name. And was always empty.

Now I just assumed that a student had transferred out of the school, or worst case scenario possibly died, during the first term of the school year and that the desk and such had been left to keep the records straight. All the students in a class are assigned numbers for the year. So I could kinda see how removing a student from the records for the year could be complicated. It made sense to me. Which of course means I was wrong.