I’ve had about three weeks of classes now, and everything has gone surprisingly smoothly. There was really no reason for me to worry. What a waste of time worrying is, hey? I now answer to ‘Ellen sensei’ or sometimes ‘Miss Ellen.’ (I have never been a big fan of my name and always wished it was just Ellen, so since coming to Japan I’ve been introducing myself that way. I figured it was a good time to take it for a test drive. Plus, Mary Ellen is too much of a mouthful for the Japanese to say easily.)
I am expected to attend five out of the six classes held every day, although sometimes it ends up being less than that. I spent my free period in the teachers room preparing for class, learning Japanese, or writing dis blog.. hehe.
The first few days at my Junior High School involved a lot of self-introduction classes. Each class requires that I introduce myself, so by this point I have probably done this about 30 times. I show the class the Powerpoint that I put together teaching them about Canada, my hobbies, my family and my favourite things. This is normally followed by a question period and sometimes a quiz to test their memory on what they had just learned. In my 9th grade classes, each student shook my hand and presented me with a business cards that they had decorated. I really enjoyed that part. Generally, the students were very intrigued by me and excited to meet me. I really enjoyed meeting them too. They asked me some strange and hilarious questions. Here are some examples:
-Do you have a boyfriend? (every single class asked this one)
-What is your ‘type’?
-Which country has more handsome boys? Japan or Canada?
-Do you like buzz cuts?
-How much did your watch cost?
-Who out of our class is the most your ‘type?’
-How much do you think our teacher weighs?
– Is your hair color real?
-What’s your phone number?
The expectations of me in Junior High aren’t what I expected at all. My role is not so much that of a teacher, but more of a helper to the JTE (Japanese teacher of English). All of the JTEs have studied English in University, so typically we don’t have much trouble understanding each other. And they’re able to translate what I’m saying into Japanese if the students can’t understand me (which they often don’t).
A typical class involves the teacher introducing a new grammar point, taken from that day’s page in the textbook. Yesterday, for example, the students were learning the phrase ‘whats this?’ and response ‘it’s an airplane’ or ‘it’s a dog’. The class then does an activity or worksheet of some sort and then there are often small presentations and vocabulary practice with flashcards. The JTE runs the show and uses my help with reading English aloud, doing demonstrations, correcting worksheets and doing rounds of the classroom to check work. Chief among my roles is to get the students familiar with how natural English should sound. Much to my relief, the teachers have not and will never ask me to create my own lesson plan or run the class on my own. That’s not my job. Somehow, I totally misunderstood this part going into it.
My first day at elementary school was awesome. It started off with my welcome assembly. The whole school gathered and the principal introduced me. I was then asked to step up to the podium to give my speech. Again, I felt no nerves what so ever.. a new kind of pre-speech sensation for me. I gave my speech and it was well received. Next, one of the sixth grade students joined me on stage to present me with a welcome speech, in English. It was seriously cute. After all of the general ‘welcome to our school’ business, he completely redirected and said (and I paraphrase) ‘my father grows okra on our farm. Now is a great time to eat okra. I love okra. Do you like okra Ellen sensei?’ The microphone was passed to me and I replied ‘I love okra.’ Everyone laughed.
At Elementary school, I work along side each class’s homeroom teacher. These are not Japanese Teachers of English, so they do not necessarily have training in the language and some may have no interest in it at all. A few of them can speak a decent amount, but generally the level is quite low. The language barrier has created a few challenging situations. For example, when the teacher explains an activity to the kids in Japanese, I can normally figure out how things work, since the activities are pretty straightforward. But sometimes, I can’t. So the teacher tries to explain it to me in Japanese, throwing in the English words that they know here and there. This can take a while.
Today in the staff room, I had forgotten my USB stick so I asked one of the teacher’s if I could borrow his. He gave it to me and came over to sit next to me and watch me use it. My computer is getting old, and was taking a really long time to transfer the file. I felt badly having him sit there waiting with me so I tried to explain that I’d bring it back to him when I was finished in five minutes. He didn’t understand so they called over another teacher and I explained again. She didn’t get it either. They concluded that what I was saying was ‘this isn’t working and I have to leave in five minutes.’ So they started trying to fix it and they were calling other people for help, and trying to find another USB. I kept trying to explain that it was ok, but they didn’t get it. This was stressful.
It seems most of the teachers at my schools haven’t fully grasped that I don’t understand Japanese, as they keep approaching me and saying full Japanese sentences, quickly and without any gestures. It’s a bit frustrating, but it’s also been forcing me to learn. I’ve noticed that I am able to pick up small words and phrases here and there. I’m definitely absorbing more than I realize.
There is a significant difference in the energy levels between the Junior High students and the Elementary students. The Elementary students, for example, were much more enthusiastic about my self-introduction Powerpoint. They would shriek with excitement upon revealing each photo to them. (I thought some of them might faint when I showed them Niagara falls.) And they were all super keen to get up and try a few yoga poses with me. They were soo into it. Classes in elementary are more interactive and we play a lot of games. There is a lot more yelling and moving around. It’s lots of fun but man, it’s tiring. I have a newfound respect for preschool and elementary school teachers.
The kids are SO cute, though. The first graders, especially…I just fell in love with them. They are tiny and they have to wear these bright yellow hats as a safety measure so they can be kept track of. They all want to hold my hand whenever possible. In my first grade class I was doing my presentation when all of a sudden a giant wasp comes in the window. Wasps here in Japan are huge and quite dangerous. It was about the size of a Cheeto (the puffy kind) just buzzing around. All the kids started screaming and freaking out. I really didn’t blame them, this thing was huge. And everyone looked to the poor teacher who was expected to deal with it. She eventually shooed him out the window, thank goodness. But it was mayhem for a few minutes there.
At my Junior High school I eat lunch at my desk in the teacher’s room but at elementary I eat with the students in their classroom, rotating classes every week. Lunchtime is an impressive operation. Everyone in the school eats the same thing, even the teachers. A few of the kids in each class are elected helpers and put on face masks, smocks, hair nets and serve the food to all of the other students, while classical music is playing over the PA. Seeing these tiny kids in their lunch-lady getups serving food is quite possibly the cutest thing ever.
No one eats until everyone has been served and we all sit down and say ‘Itadakimasu’ together. Lunches usually consist of some sort of soup, rice (always), veggies, and meat or fish. I didn’t order school lunches because of my food allergies, but on my first day at elementary they didn’t seem to understand this and insisted I ate what they ate. So I did. It was delicious, but sadly, there was definitely some hidden gluten in the soup broth, I think. So I got sick. But I’m glad I got to try it once, for the experience.
I’m sitting there eating my lunch that day and I look up and there are about 40 sets of eyes starring at me, watching my every move. I can hear students talking in Japanese about ‘Ellen sensei’ but I have no idea what they’re saying. There was fish that day and it was battered with breadcrumbs, so I made the mistake of trying to shimmy the fish out of it’s gluteney jacket and just eat the meat part. This wasn’t easy with chopsticks, but I managed to do it. It wasn’t long before all the kids sitting around me started doing it, too. And then the kids across the room figure out whats going on and they start doing it too. Oh boy…
After we ate, I went to the teacher’s room to take a little break, but a group of about seven kids came to the door and asked ‘Ellen sensei, will you come play soccer?’ In their best English, which they had been rehearsing. How could I say no to that? So I went outside and played. Which was exhausting and sweaty, but fun. (Side note.. these kids have access to unicycles and stilts during their recess! Like what? So cool.)
To add to the exhaustion, every single kid in the hall wants to stop and say hello to me. By the end of the second period my face was already aching from smiling. Similar to the teachers, the kids can’t quite seem to understand that I don’t understand Japanese. I’m assuming it’s because I do know some simple words and phrases in Japanese like ‘sit down’ ‘do you understand?’ ‘Good morning’ etc. So by hearing me say these things, I suppose they figure I can therefore speak Japanese. Because of this, they are constantly speaking to me in Japanese, or, in the case of the little ones, yelling to me in Japanese. I am forever saying ‘wakarimasen’ (I don’t understand) to which their response is often to yell it even louder or more slowly, as if that would help. Ha ha.
I had my first moment of feeling totally overwhelmed and on the verge of tears since coming here. It was lunchtime during my second week at Elementary school and I was already feeling drained, but the kids again came to the staff room to ask me to play with them. I didn’t feel up for it but I felt bad saying no, so I joined them outside in the 38-degree heat. A group of about 12 students were huddled around me trying to teach me the game they were playing, in Japanese. Everyone was speaking at the same time and a lot of them were yelling. I couldn’t seem to grasp what they were trying to say. My brain was too tired. I became overwhelmed and had to apologize and tell them I couldn’t play that day. I later had to tell my supervisor that I wouldn’t be able to play with the kids at lunchtime anymore, for now, at least. I felt badly about this, as I know the kids will be disappointed. But I have to honor what my body needs.
By the end of my days at elementary school, I am exhausted. Communicating with people in this way (when there is a language barrier) takes significantly more energy and focus, causing your brain to work overtime. Plus, keeping up with energetic kids is tough. I immediately went home and fell asleep afterwards. But still, I enjoyed myself. Everyone has been so friendly and welcoming towards me. And it’s nice to change things up and go to a different school one day a week.
Yesterday after work at my Junior High School, I decided to stop by the Fine Arts club, where thirty-eight students go to the art room every day after school from about 4:30-6:30pm. The fine arts teacher brought me around the room and showed me all of the supplies. I immediately noticed how I lit up upon entering that room. I felt more energized and enthusiastic right away. I loved looking at the other student’s artwork and browsing through their supplies.
Art club is generally quite relaxed. Students can work on whatever they’d like, most days, however sometimes they have specific things to do. In November, for example, we will be doing life drawing classes. Yesterday, I noticed some of the girls were making ‘paper stained glass’ by cutting out stencils with X-acto knives and then filing the holes with colored paper. I wanted IN, so a group of 7th grade girls helped me get my supplies together and showed me exactly what to do, mainly through actions and hand gesture. They were so stoked that I joined them.
The class was busy doing their own work but they would periodically come over to my desk and watch me do mine. Staring at my every move and commenting ‘kawaii’ (cute) and ‘sugoi’ (amazing). It was too cute. One gal came over and showed me the little paper stained glass bunny she made and then presented it to me as a gift. I later gave her my finished piece, too. Awh.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself in art club. I know that my passion lies in art because of the way I lit up when I entered the art room and because when I’m doing it, I lose track of time. I’m so enthralled with what I’m doing that I am absolutely present, and not thinking about other things or worrying about my phone. And before I know it, two hours has gone by. It’s wonderful. The next day the teacher came over to my desk to thank me for coming and told me how happy the students were to have me there. I went back a few days later, too. I reckon I will frequent the art club from now one.
Yesterday I discovered this huge, gorgeous park in Hondo, not far from where I live. I was ecstatic to have found it. Like, how did I not know about this until now?? It has ponds and trails and flowers and a playground and picnic areas. Right up my alley! I was moseying around by myself when I came to a gate in the woods before a huge flight of stairs. Naturally, I started hiking up the stairs, which were followed by another set of stairs and another and another. I had no idea where I was headed, but I figured it was bound to be good. Eventually, a very sweaty Mary Ellen reaches the top to discover she has found the ‘observation deck’ that she has heard about so many times before and has wanted to go to for weeks. Don’t’ you just love when that happens? Serendipity!
The view was delightful. There was a bench at the very top so I stood up on it. There was no one around so I figured, if there was ever a time to yell something, it was right then. So I yelled the first movie quote that came to my head ‘I’M NOT AFRAID ANYMORE! DID YOU HEAR THAT? I’m NOT AFRAID ANYMORE!’ (Home Alone..duh)
Later, as I continued exploring the park, an older man about 65 came running up to me, telling me something in Japanese. I told him I didn’t understand so he proceeded to act it out in actions and gestures, which ended up being hilarious because what he was trying to say was that there was a wild boar up ahead and not to go any further. Apparently this is a common occurrence here. And these boars will charge at you and hurt you. We both laughed at the hilarity of his wild boar gestures and ended up finishing our walk together. Somehow, we were able to converse, though he had almost no English. Our hand gestures and facial expressions were put to good use. And I figured out that he’ll be one of the people throwing water on my fellow runners and I at the half marathon.
On Friday evening I had the welcome ‘enkai’ (drinking party) for my Elementary school. Like my other enkai, it was all-you-can-eat and drink for three hours in a big room with long tables. Speeches were made to welcome me, and we did a big kanpai (cheers) and then ate. My school and the restaurant were so kind to consider my food allergies and had the dishes altered for my sake. I really appreciated that.
I was sitting near several people who couldn’t really speak English. I mean, they knew some, words but they have difficulty stringing a sentence together. They’re also quite shy. But as the alcohol flowed through everyone, their English abilities and confidence picked up. We were all able to enjoy each other’s company and got to know each other better. It’s amazing how much communication can be done with some language, actions and gestures, and the occasional electronic dictionary search. I think this is something I’m quite good at, actually…communicating in this way. Since I grew up living with exchange students in my home my whole life, it was something I had to do all of the time. By the end of the night, though, I was absolutely fried.
In my last blog post I showed a picture of the ‘Welcome board’ at my Elementary school, with my photos on it. The teachers had encouraged me to post a photo from my High School Prom since Japanese students don’t have prom. So I posted the photo of my prom date, Justin and I. At the enkai, a bunch of the teachers were dying to know who this mystery man was, as they thought he was so handsome. And I assured them that no, he was not my boyfriend. Since that photo was about six years old, they wanted to see a more current photo. This lead to some serious social media creeping. All of the teachers sitting nearby, both male and female were ooing and ahing over Justin, who is indeed very easy on the eyes. One of my colleagues went full school girl and could not stop giggling and shrieking. She started saying her first name next to his last name. Then someone yelled ‘Cheers to Justin!’ And so we all did. It was hilarious. Justin is now a bona fide idol at my Elementary school.
Paragliding.. er mer gerhd.
Remember in blog post #1 when I mentioned that I met two Canadians who offered to bring me paragliding? Well, I finally took them up on that. Saturday morning we got together and drove up a mountain, about half an hour from my house. I had been warned ‘no promises’ before heading up, as it’s difficult to say whether or not weather will permit takeoff until you actually get up there.
It was a tandem glide of course, so I was attached to my friend who has his paragliding license and utilizes it almost daily. Before taking off he told me exactly what was going to happen and what I needed to do for take off/landing/turning etc. He also warned me about all of the things that could go wrong. For example, there’s a possibility of flying into the trees, which is apparently a common occurrence (in which case, cross your legs and cover your face!).
He kept mentioning what beginners have the tendency to do and why not to do those things. During his explanations, I was listening carefully while at the same time envisioning everything going perfectly. I didn’t feel an ounce of worry because I believed whole-heartedly that everything would go smoothly.
I learned this technique from a book called ‘Advanced Psycho Cybernetics’ by Maxwell Malts (the updated edition). I listened to it as an audio book about a year ago and then again, more recently. Trust me, the title makes it sound way more complicated than it is. It falls into the ‘self help’ or ‘motivational’ genre and it teaches you how to change negative habits and cultivate positive self-image which will guide you to achieve success. It sounds a bit cheesy, maybe, but it’s really not. It was truly the most helpful book I’ve ever read, and was integral in helping me to change my negative core beliefs (which I mentioned in my last post) and habits. I’ve recommended it to many people in the past year, actually. And I guess I’m recommending it again right now. You won’t regret reading this book. (If you do read it, let me know. (And be sure to do the 21-day visualization exercise in Chapter 3. I did it and it was so effective.)
This book is also to thank for my not being nervous about standing before the whole school to give a speech. This is a big change from how I would have felt previously. My calmness actually really surprised me. In the past if I were to have gone paragliding, I would have imagined myself taking off and having everything go wrong, doing all the things I had been warned not to do. I would have been fretting and anxious the whole time. And if I believed that I was going to f*** up, my body would have followed suit, and as the law of attraction would have it, I would be increasing my likelihood of doing just that. Plus, feeling anxious and nervous would have clouded focus, adding to the likelihood of some sort of accident.
We took off and everything went perfectly. Now we could relax. It was so peaceful floating around overtop of all of the mountains and islands, with little houses and rice fields below. The view was breathtaking. It was such a joyous glide, too. I couldn’t stop laughing. Which is a tell-tale sign that I’m really enjoying myself. My friend said he could sense that I understood how things worked so he let me hang on to the steering straps, which we both pulled when it was time to turn. I felt right in my element. Landing time came and it also went perfectly, apparently. My friend was really impressed with the way I handled our glide, calling me a natural. I was proud of myself. Apparently my technique worked!
I enjoyed the glide so much. I told my friends I was interested in learning more about getting my license. (Which is a task that should not be taken lightly. It can take years). So they’re going to take me gliding a few more times so I can really get a feel for it and then potentially look into getting my license. EEE! (excited noise)
After paragliding, a few friends and I hopped in the car and drove for what should have been three hours but ended up being about about five and a half (since we got lost) to the beautiful land of Ashikita. There was a big JET beach party planned on the beach there so about sixty of us gathered for a night of shenanigans. We rented beach bungalows, which ended up being just beautiful houses. And everyone brought up a bunch of food to BBQ. We had a great time. Some Japanese folks were throwing a party at a neighboring bungalow, with a DJ and everything, so our whole gang ended up there, dancing for a good part of the night. The Japanese were so fascinated by us foreigners, dancing and partying. They were all just watching us in fascination. Later we had a good ol’ fashioned skinny dipping sesh at the beach. Twas good fun.
Baby’s first earthquake
A couple of weeks back I was laying in bed after having just woken up when everything, even the ground beneath me, started to shake and rattle. ‘ THIS IS AN EARTHQUAKE!’ I thought. It was a 4.7 on the Richter scale. This may sound insensitive, considering the tragic earthquake that hit Kumamoto back in April.. but it was totally cool and exciting. Apparently there has been one the night before that, too, of about the same magnitude. I didn’t even feel it that one, for whatever reason. I only knew because all the ALTs in the area have a group text chat and I received message asking ‘is everyone ok?’
So that was it, my first earthquake. I kinda loved it.
Typhoon my arse.
A couple weeks back, we had two ‘English Days’ that all the ALTs were scheduled to attend. English days are annual fairs where students can come to practice their English and learn more about different countries. Each Nationality present sets up a booth about their country and the students go around to each booth to learn. English day on Saturday went well. The kids seemed to enjoy themselves and I did too. Any event that involves hanging out with all the ALTs has been a lot of fun, so far. But they had to cancel Sunday’s English day because a typhoon was scheduled to hit Amakusa that night.
By the time English day was over on Saturday, it was pouring rain. I love it when it rains here. Any change from the typical everyday heat and humidity is a treat, if you ask me. Everyone was talking about this upcoming typhoon and sharing stories about what past typhoons have been like. The whole region felt a bit panicky. We were receiving emails about how to prepare and stay safe. My school had a meeting about how the schedule would change if school were to be cancelled on Monday. The evacuation shelters were opened, and we received instructions on how/when to go there. We went to our friend’s nearby hamburger stand and he was typhoon proofing it. I went to the grocery store, as I was advised to do to get some emergency goods, and the store was packed. Everyone was stocking up. Some of the shelves were totally empty. It was like that scene from Jumanji. (I will just assume you know the one I’m referring to).
So by this point, I’m so excited. I absolutely love any sort of extreme weather event; blizzard, hurricanes, typhoons, what ever. I think they’re so exciting. I mean, you’re not going to have a regular day when the weather is that intense. It will surely be more exciting. And you feel somehow more connected to everyone around you when you’re all preparing for something like that. It’s like you’re all in it together. I was actually hoping we’d all have to evacuate and gather together at the evacuation shelter. Wouldn’t that bean exciting experience? I think so. I also realise that I have some sort of perverse fantasy of losing everything in a disaster and having to start fresh, with no belongings. Lol.
But guess freakin’ what…. the typhoon ended up dying off. All we had was heavy rain and some thunder and lightening (which was admittedly still enjoyable). But sadly, there were no heavy winds, and no evacuation shelter parties.
I’m about to head away for vacation on Saturday to Okinawa, which is a set of Japanese islands off the southern coast, in the middle of the ocean. And guess what? There is another typhoon scheduled for this weekend and it’s apparently going to hit Okinawa right about the time that were headed there. But I’ve decided that I have lost faith in the weather man’s forecasts, so I’ll believe it when I see it.
This week, I’m grateful for these gals: my PEI soul sistahs.
I met them all through my friend and former roommate, Vinod. We have all spent short periods of time together here and there in the past year or so, but it was at Evolve (a music festival) this past July that we all had the chance to really connect. That goes down as one of the best weekends of my life, and it was thanks to these here gals. They are all fierce, independent, strong women..beautiful both inside and out. And they absolutely inspire me.
I was a little nervous about going to Evolve with a group of people I wasn’t super close with, but they welcomed me in to camp with open arms and I felt immediately at ease. I finished the weekend feeling like I had a new set of sisters, and not want to say goodbye to them. These gals taught me so much..more than they realize.
Because I’ve moved around so often in the past few years, it’s been hard to stay in touch with old friends and to form solid bonds with new ones. And admittedly, I missed having a group of girl friends. As the Sex & the City fanatic that I am, I believe good girl friends are all a woman really needs, and they should be cherished. These girls (who I always refer to in my head as ‘angels’) made me feel like I had that again.
They accept me wholeheartedly for who I am. And help me feel good about being myself. I recently stumbled upon an internet photo that said ‘The best kind of friendships are fierce lady friendships where you aggressively believe in each other, defend each other and think each other deserves the world’ That’s exactly how I feel about them, and vice versa.
The best part is, since moving to Japan, we’ve stayed in touch. Some more than others, of course, but It’s clear that our connection goes a lot deeper than just one weekend.
Hilary: I admire you so much. For your incredible self-awareness and emotional intelligence, your unapologetic approach to standing up for what you believe in and for your radical self-love, which you so commendably share with the world. You are nothing short of amazing. Mark my words, I’m gonna live with you for a year and tape record all of your fearless romantic endeavors and life advice and then write your book. And it’ll be a best seller. He he
Hannah: You beautiful soul, you. During that weekend at Evolve, if I ever needed anything, you were there to help me. Sometimes before I even realized I needed help. You have a heart of gold, Hannah. And you’re going to be an incredible mother one day.
Brit: I don’t know if I’ve ever connected with someone so deep and so fast before. Being with you is ‘soul food.’ He he. I think it’s because were going through a lot of the same things right now, so we really understand each other. You are just an absolute ray of sunshine, and I love being around you. I also think you’re one of the funniest people, ever. There is no doubt in my mind you will do amazing things in your lifetime. And the best part is, I have a solid hunch that some of them were going to do together.
Meg: You are a goddess, in every sense of the word. I liked you as soon as I met you. You have the ability to make people around you feel at ease, which is such a great quality to have. You just have the most beautiful soul. Plus you’re a ‘yes woman.’ Which is the best kind of person, if you ask me. The more Vinod tells me about you the more I love you.
Jenna: You are the baddest bitch I know. Your entire presence exudes feminine strength and disregard for what other people think.. something that I admire so much. You tell it like it is, which is so refreshing. You are so much fun to be around, too. I’m so stoked for you and your upcoming transition to England. You’re gonna kill it! Go gurl.
I am so lucky to know you guys. Anyone that knows you should consider themselves lucky. I think about you often, so I just wanted to write out how I feel.. so that you know.
P.S. Thanks to Vinod for introducing me to them 🙂 God love ya.