Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Poetry Corner

So in the junior high third grade (9th grade) textbook, there is an assignment to write a poem. The structure of the poem is similar to the type of poem I wrote long ago in elementary school and goes like this: one word topic, two words that add to it, three words of description, four words of feeling, and one word of summary. So my example would go something like this:

Flightless birds
Black and white
Flying in the sea

So now, please sit back and enjoy the poetic musings of my students. I’ve left the mistakes they made because some of their made up words and Engrish are pretty awesome. Tell me your favorites!

It’s beautiful
Many living thing
Many life live in

Glass bowl
Transparent beautiful water
It is comfortably swimming

Very beautiful
Many faces carry
It’s not clors express

Very large
Sunny rain cloudy
It show many faces

In summer
The Milky Way
We have many wishes

Quiet night
Dark and cold
The stars are twinkling

Blue canvas
A white cloud
Look up the sky

Very big
Many the weather
Sunny rain snow cloudy

Tall tree
Cherry cedar bamboo
Tree make oxygen

Baseball team
Strongest of all
I like very much

White man
Cold, big, cool
Snowman is gone away

Beautiful scenery
Sky turns red
Sky is very shy

World cup
Honda Endo Turio
They are very great

My family
Parents sister grandmother
My family very gentle

Sad faces
Colding paining trifling
Time passes so long

Very nice
Hot tepid cold
Height is very high

Grow vegetable
Green yellow red
What do you like?

Calm wave
I like sea
The sea is calm

Photochemical smog
Dirty sky
Stinking smoking darking
The sky is dangerousing

Sky blue
Birds are flying
The sky looks threatening

Very big
It very fear
I feel like crying

What’s this?
Sweet bitter smooth
Keep on loving pudding

When eat?
Breakfast Lunch Supper
It’s cheer the source

Half full
A crescent
They are different in

Very fun
I love music
Music makes me happy

It’s handy
I love it
Can’t live without iPod

It’s natto
Smell, bad, dirty
Isn’t good to eat

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

May I take your order?

Service in Japanese restaurants is very different than in America. And in most ways, I think I prefer the Japanese system.

When you enter a restaurant, your waiter or waitress will take you to your table. They give you menus and disappear. They will often return with water and small towels for you to clean your hands with before eating. And then they are gone again. You have all the time in the world to look over the menu. They will never come back to ask if you are ready yet. Once you decide what it is you want, you simply raise your hand and say “Sumimasen,” in a loud voice, which means “excuse me” (in this context at least. It can also mean I’m sorry or thank you, but that’s a topic for another article).

Then, and only then, they return to take your order. After this is completed they will not return again until bringing your food. Usually they bring your bill with your food and leave it at the end of the table so that when you are ready to leave you can simply take it to the cash register in the front and pay. And then again they are gone. They will never come by to ask, “Is everything all right here?” They won’t pop up when you have your mouth full asking if there is anything else they can get you. If you need something, such as a water refill, you simply raise your hand and summon them again.

In larger places, especially those with odd layouts or busy places that cater to large, loud (drinking) parties, you don’t even have to call for them yourself. There are buttons located on the table. When you need something, you press this button and someone will come to find out what you need and bring it to you. I believe at the first party I went to with many other foreigners, this button was dubbed the “Magical Beer Button” when it was discovered that all that was required to get a refill at this all-you-could-drink party was a press of the button.

I like not being constantly bothered by the employees of a restaurant. You don’t have to worry about them interrupting a conversation or constantly asking if they can help you. When you need something, you let them know.

I know many Americans have trouble in Japanese restaurants because they don’t like calling out for the waiter across the room. It seems rude. So they say “Sumimasen” too quietly or just wait, hoping the waiter will eventually come to them (there is actually a humorous story in my junior high third grade [9th grade] text book about this problem and problems Japanese people have in other counties). I’m sure many of them think service in Japanese restaurants is terrible as their water glasses go unrefilled and they are never checked on. If they watched others around them though, they would quickly learn the secret to getting great service. You just have to ask.

I understand why this system largely wouldn’t work in America. The biggest reason is that in Japan, you never have to tip. Everything, including tax and tip, is already included in the listed prices. So you never, ever tip (not cabs, not hairdressers, not hotel staff, and not waiters and waitresses). I know this is going to be a problem when I return to the states and mistakenly jip someone because I forget I have to tip. I really like not having to determine how “good” my service was (should I give a 15% tip, 20%?). I like not having to feel guilted into leaving someone a tip even when the service wasn’t so great, but I know the restaurant is really busy and they are depending on tips. And I like that the staff doesn’t have to be overly helpful or fake polite to earn as much as they can. I like that a group of college age kids will get the same level of service as someone who looks like they have a much larger expendable income and is probably more likely to leave a large tip. I’m not saying that wait-staff shouldn’t be well paid or rewarded for doing their job well. I just like that I don’t have to determine it.

And don’t get me wrong, the staff in Japanese restaurants is still really helpful and polite all the time. Somehow it feels more genuine to me, because I know they aren’t just trying to get a higher tip. They are just doing their job with a smile and trying to treat the customers right so that we might return to the establishment again. And it just really works for me.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

This is Amanda, graduating class of 2008. May I bother you by starting this blog?

Japan is a country that still is very deep in tradition and ritual. Some things are done because, well, they’ve always been done that way. Along with ritual and ceremony is politeness. You must always be polite.

An interesting example of this politeness comes whenever one of my students wants to enter the Teacher’s room. For anyone new here, in Japan, the students have stationary classrooms that they take most classes in. The teachers move around to them throughout the day, but the kids stay with their classmates in the same room. There are exceptions for things like science and music where they go to rooms that are specifically for those classes. But even then, none of the teachers have desks set up there. Teachers spend most of their time (when they are not teaching) in the Teacher’s Room where we all have desks. A point of note is that the Teacher’s Room is the only room in the school aside from the computer lab to have air conditioning or heat. Which makes it sort of like heaven. When they decide to turn it on…

So, when a student wants to find a teacher, they come to the Teacher’s Room. They open the door, or if it is open they stand at the entrance but never step inside. You see, there is a magical force field there. A force field that can only be passed through if given permission by the teachers. And to get the teacher’s permission you must say a rather complicated password.

This “password” consists of a self introduction as well as the purpose of your desired intrusion. It must include your name, class year, who you want to see and why you want to see them. Then you must nicely ask if you can come in. Translated into English, it goes something like this: “This is second grader Mika Yamamoto. I have brought the workbooks for Mr. Koeji. May I come in?” Once this is finished they must wait for the teachers to confirm that they may enter. But there is one final step. Before they cross the threshold they must say what translates literally to “I’m being rude,” and give a little bow. Then they can come in. And once they are finished with whatever they were doing and are leaving, they must turn at the door, facing back into the room, give another little bow, and say, “I was rude.”

Now “I’m being rude” is a really direct translation. It’s probably best translated in this situation as “Pardon my intrusion” or some other very polite form of “Excuse me” or “Sorry to disturb you.” People often use this phrase when they are going to hang up the phone before the other person as a way to say, “I apologize for being the first to end our very pleasant conversation,” instead of just “goodbye”. Like so many things in Japanese, it says far more than the actual words themselves. It’s a shorthand of sorts for conveying many thoughts and feelings that are appropriate for politeness in that given situation. And is therefore difficult to translate.

But it’s not just used by the kids. If some adult who does not work at the school comes for some reason or another, they will skip the whole introduction thing, but will still apologize for the fact that they are being rude by entering our teacher’s room. And most of them will also be stopped by said magical force field until they have been seen and greeted by someone inside. Because you would not want to intrude uninvited.

Now imagine how busy this gets during the passing periods. All students who need things must go through this process. Luckily it doesn’t have to be individually. If 4 of you are there to ask the music teacher a question you can simply begin by having each person say their name in the intro and let one person say the rest and then all be allowed in together.

But they aren’t always invited in. If the teacher you are looking for isn’t there, you don’t get to enter. Sometimes the teacher might just come to you at the doorway to answer a quick question or give you something or talk to you in the hall. This is especially common when the air conditioning is on.

My very small elementary students like to play a game called “Push your friend across the threshold when he hasn’t asked for permission to see if he gets in trouble.” It’s not really called that. Just so you know. But that is what they do. They will be standing there, waiting for someone to bring them something or talking to a teacher and one of them will get this sly little grin on his face and give the one nearest to the door a little push. It is amazing how quickly they react against this action, stiffening up, grabbing at the door frame, and trying to keep themselves from toppling over off balance into the room. Sometimes a kid will try really hard to get his friend inside while the other tries equally hard to stand his ground.

And before you think the teachers are horrible monsters, no, the kids don’t really get in trouble if one of their feet suddenly crossed that mystical boundary without permission. They are far more likely to get in trouble for the ruckus they are making in the hallway.

But if a kid does it wrong, they will correct him. If he doesn’t say he’s being rude they tell him to go back to the door and say it. If he doesn’t introduce himself or doesn’t speak clearly he has to do it over before they will let him in. At the beginning of a new school year it is amusing how many kids have to start over because they get their grade level wrong. But it’s not just the teachers doing the correcting. If a student hears another one say the wrong grade, they will immediately point it out. This may just be because its kinda funny. Although to be fair they have like a week break between the terms that start a new grade (school year ends in March and starts back up in April), so it’s an honest mistake.

With the tiny elementary school first graders who are brand new to school, a teacher will often come with them to walk them through the process of how to properly ask for permission to enter the Teacher’s Room. And they will often come in little groups to help each other remember and speak in adorable unison.

There are amusing moments that pop up from time to time where a kid comes to the door and goes through their spiel and then we both realize I’m the only one in the Teacher’s Room. Now this whole exchange is done at a pretty quick speed because everyone already knows what you’re going to say more or less. I kinda half follow them when I’m actually listening, but I tend to miss a lot of why they are actually there. You know, the only important part. So once we both realize that I’m the only one there, and they don’t run away because they were looking for a specific teacher who is not me, I allow them in without knowing what they actually need. It’s almost always to get something like the flag or pushpins or something a teacher left on his desk. But I’m always slightly worried that it’s all a scheme to get or do something they wouldn’t normally be allowed. It’s very slightly though.

One last thought on the usage of the “I’m being rude” bit. I have noticed that anytime someone needs to get something from inside someone else’s desk they will speak this phrase. This interests me, because if you are apologizing to the person who’s stuff you are about to go through…well, they aren’t there to hear it (which is why you are in their desk in the first place). Is it possible that you are apologizing to the desk? The most interesting idea I have come up with to explain this is that you are, in fact, informing EVERYONE ELSE in earshot that you are about to go through stuff that isn’t yours. A way to say, I’m not being sneaky, you all see me and I’m not going to mess anything up or steal anything. However to prove this one I would have to observe someone actually trying to be sneaky and not saying this phrase…

I apologize for rudely wasting your time on my meaningless prattle and thank you for taking the time to read it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

And now for something completely different....

So I was in Kumamoto City for my friend's Bachelorette Party and we were walking to a convenience store at around 11:15.  Suddenly we heard this dull roar.  We came around the corner and saw this.

So of course I yanked out my camera to capture the moment, because, you know, no one was going to believe it otherwise.  I wasn't even sure I believed it.  They were all chanting some generic cheer thing.  And you know, wearing only loincloths.

As you can see they were all rather keen on having their pictures taken, hamming it up for the camera.

They just keep coming... There were probably like 75 guys or so in all.

This became extra funny the following day when I was explaining to someone why I was in the City.  When I told them it was a Bachelorette Party they jokingly asked if we had any male strippers.  I started to say no, but then remembered these guys.  The timing really could not have been better. 

I still have no idea what this was all about, but it makes for a great memory.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Best lunch EVER!

So today I had lunch with my tiny new first graders at elementary school. Honestly, I had been slightly dreading this day. The younger they are the crazier the lunch period is. Last week, for reasons that will forever remain a mystery, I had a second grade boy put his face right down into his plate of rice, which of course stuck all over his face. I was trying not to laugh at that, since it’s probably not behavior we want to encourage, but the teacher didn’t even say anything to him! There was no lead up really, he just said “Amanda-sensei! Mitte! (Look)” and then his face was in his rice. And then he spent the next five minutes trying to get it all off his face.

So I was expecting today to be about that level of crazy. After all, this would be the first lunch I had had with these kids. But then an amazing thing happened. Instead of making groups with their desks, this class still eats with their desks separated (I’m assuming to discourage extra talking and fooling around so they eat a little faster). I ate at the front of the room with the teacher. She told the students they could ask me questions, but they had to raise their hands and wait to be called on. This way they weren’t all talking at once. Then she helped me with the questions I couldn’t understand. She spoke very good English, although she was very nervous about it. But through her English and my Japanese we made it through.

One little girl, named Miyu, has been coming by the teacher’s room for the past few weeks just to say “hello” to me in English. She also managed “My name is Miyu!” once, which tells me she must be going to cram school already. She would jump up and down saying hello over and over and my heart would just melt from the cuteness overload. So during the questions she raised her hand and said, “Amanda-sensei daisuki!” That isn’t a question. It just means “I love Amanda-sensei!” Words cannot express how that made me feel.

Questions included what food do you like, what do you like to drink, what’s your favorite animal, what’s your favorite color, what’s your favorite fruit, what’s your favorite vegetable, are you married, where is your fiancĂ©, what is your fiancĂ©’s name, do you have kids, how old are you, when’s your birthday, what’s your Chinese zodiac sign, what’s your blood type, where are you from, what languages do you speak, are you good at English (seriously), do you like studying, and did you have fun when you were an elementary school student.

But it was amazing. The kids never got out of hand. Everyone who wanted to ask a question got a chance and not just those sitting next to me. And I was able to understand and answer almost all of their questions with the teacher’s help. They were well behaved and adorable. Overall it was just a lot of fun and I was happy to have been there.

Two more random notes: One, I have a girl in that class named Ruru which I think is just about the most adorable name EVER. And two, I noticed that while the kids were getting lunch ready the teacher had to apply some ointment looking stuff to two students. And after lunch one girl got some eye drops. The teacher had a box on her desk that had all of these medicines in it, and they were all prescription. I thought it was interesting that this was the teacher’s responsibility and not, say, the school nurse’s.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Yes, we can!!

If you say the name Obama in this country, it is almost a guarantee, in my experiences with children at the very least, that the next three words you will hear will be “Yes, we can!” When I first got to Japan and the election hadn’t even happened yet they were already spouting this catchphrase. Even (especially?) the kids who didn’t know what it meant. My junior high first graders (and often those who were the worst students) would blank on something to say to me in English and so would revert to the easily remembered, “Yes, we can!” I would look at them and think, “I read your textbook. You haven’t learned the potential form yet and won’t for another month…you don’t even know what that means.” But that has never stopped them before.

I taught my elementary sixth grade class about “can.” The book uses penguins as an example, so it’s one of my favorite lessons so far. Here is the chant for the lesson: “Penguin, penguin, can you sing? No, I can’t. Can you fly? No, I can’t. What can you do? I can swim! I can swim! I can swim very well!” So I had lunch with that class, and while hanging out during recess one of my girls was dancing around saying, “Yes, we can!” with a big grin on her face. While this could be just another example of randomly repeating English, the timing of it makes me think she put two and two together and figured out what it meant. Or that the teacher explained it to the class after I left. Either way, it made me very happy.

A slightly sadder story comes to mind if I’m talking about Obama. This story comes from another ALT and takes place shortly after the election. The Japanese English Teacher was talking to her class about Obama. She said, “Isn’t it great? In America, anyone can become president! Too bad it doesn’t work that way in Japan…” And all the kids just kind of nodded. They know they will never be in politics. Why? Because they are not members of the richer elite. They have not gone to the special private schools since kindergarten, the ones that are on an elevator program that virtually guarantees acceptance into the colleges that produce politicians. I guess that’s when it hit me how “American” the American dream is.

When I was a child, if I had told my parents (and I’m sure I probably did at some point) that I wanted to be President one day, I would have been told that that was great, but it would take a lot of hard work and determination. I grew up with the idea that I could achieve anything, so long as I was willing to work for it. I’m not sure that my students have that same view of what they can do.

I live in a village that is mostly made up of fishermen. I often wonder how many of my students will eventually be fishermen themselves. There is nothing wrong with being a fisherman. I just wonder if it’s what my kids WANT to do. Or if they are stuck in this idea that that is the only option (or one of very few) available to them.

One final, happier (or at least more amusing) Obama note. There is a city here in Japan called Obama (which means “little beach” in Japanese). They produce tee-shirts and buttons and towels and whatnot all with Obama’s face that read “I  Obama.” When Obama won the election they had a party that included hula dancing to celebrate Obama’s home state. Tourism is apparently booming.  Some Japanese people must say, “Hey, let’s go to that town with the same name as the American president!” Are they hoping it will promote international tourism, such as Americans wishing to go because of its convenient name? If it’s the latter they’d better start some sort of advertising campaign. The name of their city may be a household name, but most people probably don’t know it exists! Did any of you stateside know there was a Japanese town called Obama before this entry? For all I know there was national news coverage of the city with the name of the American president!

In Obama they make manju, which are a traditional Japanese confectionary filled with sweet bean paste. These too now spot Obama’s face, leading one of my kids to write the sentence, “I’m excited to eat Obama.” At least that’s what I’ll assume she meant anyway. I’m 95% sure she was trying to be funny. So can we eat Obama? Yes, we can!