Sunday, June 25, 2017

Endings

When I first started at the Japanese-language preschool about two years ago, it took me a while to get used to being around such small children. I hadn't taken any Early Childhood Education classes and the only exposure I had to toddlers were the sons and daughters of my cousins, all of whom are now in or beyond elementary school, and I'd only see at our family functions. I wasn't sure if I should talk to and act with preschoolers the same way I did with my elementary school and junior high students in Japan, especially since I had to help them with things like using the toilet and blowing their noses. I eventually grew to love working with the smaller ones, which made me keep an eye out for other jobs working with younger children and start taking ECE classes. I now have 6 of the 12 ECE units required to become a preschool teacher in California and am currently working towards 9.

A few months ago, the school's director told me that she'd be closing the school due to her poor health. It definitely takes a lot of physical strength and energy to work with preschoolers, and she didn't want to supply inadequate care to the new 3 year olds who'd be entering the school in September. Most of the children at the school were due to graduate this year and enter kindergarten in the fall anyway, so while it's sad, it was just time for everyone to move on. The other day was the graduation ceremony for the five remaining students, and they performed the songs and sign language we've been practicing over the past few months in front of their families. They also shared their graduation photo albums, which included photos of them from birth to now and small snippets about themselves that they came up with and wrote down. After the ceremony, they surprised us teachers by performing a song they'd been practicing on their own with their parents, and a father even accompanied their singing on the guitar. It was a bittersweet day that I won't forget, and I'm so thankful for this job that introduced me to the joy of working with preschoolers.

To be continued.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (turn and face the strange)

I was admittedly in a bit of a rut for the past few months. Maybe "crossroad" is a better term. In any case, I was definitely lost, but I'm happy to say that I'm much less so than I was before.

A huge part of me longed to be back in the classroom after the Japanese-American summer camp gig ended last summer. Even though I knew I'd be returning this year (and I did!), I kept an eye out for interesting-looking teaching jobs, and was super lucky in finding employment at a Japanese-language preschool back in January as an assistant teacher. The students aren't allowed to speak in English, and I have to correct them and tell them the Japanese equivalents of the words when they do. At first, I wasn't used to working with such small children, but I've grown to really love it, and recently quit my bookstore job to be an after school teacher for kindergarteners and first graders while continuing at the preschool on the side. I've also moved out of my dad's place and into one of my own with a wonderful roommate and her adorable cat. August has been a month of moving and changes and I've been quite busy with it all, but being back in the classroom and living on my own again have been nourishing for my spirit.

Much earlier on in the year, I was rejected by the only grad school I bothered applying to for a Master's in TESOL. It's not hyperbole to say that I was reaching for the stars; my top pick was an Ivy League school. But what appealed to me about the program was that I could simultaneously earn a degree in TESOL and a K-12 teaching certificate. The charm of going to a school all the way on the other side of the country was another reason why I applied as well, and even though I figured from the very beginning that I wouldn't be accepted, I couldn't help feeling at least a bit hopeful. However, getting that preschool job back in January made me realize that I really do enjoy working with kids, especially young ones. So perhaps this is the universe's way of telling me that I should start down the path of Early Childhood Education instead of ESL, at least for now.

I've grown to become the kind of person who doesn't like to rush, so I think I'll give it a go and apply for my top pick grad school again next year. For the time being, I'll be plenty occupied with my two teaching jobs, taking ECE classes at a local community college, assisting at my old ballet school every now and again, translating in my spare time, and possibly being a Japanese and English tutor. Oh, and Pokémon Go :] (go Team Instinct!)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

帰る場所 - Place of Return

Some of you already know, but I went back to Japan last month for a ten day visit. I hadn't planned on returning so soon after coming back to California in the spring, but my favorite Japanese band played two live shows in their hometown of Osaka, which is something they rarely do, so I decided to splurge and go for it. And it was totally worth it. They played songs I had never heard live before, and I was closer to the stage than I had ever been in the previous 7 times I had seen them perform.

Of course, I also took the opportunity to see my friends and visit with my relatives. I even made a brief trip to the junior high I taught at, and it was so nice seeing everyone again, even though it took my former students and coworkers a few glances to recognize me, hehe. Guess a hairstyle really can change someone's appearance. In all, it was an amazing but short trip back, and I can't wait to visit again.

I know that many other returnees have a difficult time adjusting to life back in their home countries, but I've been very lucky in that my transition hasn't been very hard at all. I have access to many things Japanese thanks to living in a culturally rich and diverse area. I began working at a Japanese bookstore in June, so I get to use the language with my coworkers and customers. And it's even located in a historically Japanese-American area where my grandmother used to live, which gives me a taste of the life I was used to across the sea.

But above everything, I think it's mostly thanks to the fact that my day-to-day life back here hasn't changed much compared to the life I had over there. Yes, I live with my dad again, and at first, I was afraid that not having a place of my own would drive me crazy. But our schedules are so different that I don't see him as often as I thought I would. I had friends in Japan and of course I have friends here, but my introverted lifestyle makes it so that I don't really feel lonely when I decide to stay home instead of go out (which happens a lot). And when I first got back, there were a few things that irked me about the way things are done in this country, but I think I've gotten used to the differences relatively quickly since I had made several trips back over my four year stint in Japan.

I'm very blessed and thankful that I have two places on opposite sides of the world that I can call home.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Godzilla vs King Kong

I was given the wonderful chance to work at a Japanese-American summer camp for a month as a head teacher for a small class of elementary school students. I've been out of teaching for a few months now, but the moment I stepped into my classroom three weeks ago, I felt like I was back home again. It was a long road to get to this point and I still have a long way to go, but I know for sure that teaching is my calling. It's not a walk in the park and there will always be difficulties trying to block my way, but I have never felt the joy I feel in the classroom in any other job I've dabbled with in the past.

Before living in Japan, I had very little teaching experience. I assisted my cousin with her 5th grade class in Hawaii for about a week when I was 16, and I helped to "herd" a group of little girls for a few days during their ballet lessons right after I finished college. I've always liked kids and have several young nieces and nephews I love playing with whenever I see them, but I guess I never really noticed the difference between Japanese kids and American kids until I started working as a head teacher back here in my home country. Most, if not all, of my students at the camp have some sort of Japanese blood running through them, but the environment they're being brought up in is definitely American more than it is Japanese, even with their Japanese parents or grandparents being a direct influence in their lives.

Kids here need a lot more adult supervision and guidance. One thing I could never get used to in Japan is how the students are expected to behave even when the teacher isn't around. I'd often go to a classroom to eat lunch with the younger kids, and the homeroom teacher wasn't necessarily even in the classroom when I arrived. Junior high school students often have club activities before and after school that are not always supervised by an adult. And everyone walks to school without an adult ringleader. I do think a part part of this "trust" is due to the generally safe environment of Japan (I've seen kindergarteners ride the train alone!), but it's definitely a cultural thing as well. Kids in Japan are pretty democratic and can solve most minor issues without an older person's interference. They usually resort to janken (rock, paper, scissors) to determine a tiebreaker or settle an argument, and they greatly respect their senpai, or upperclassmen, maybe even more than their actual teachers. The camp I teach at has a super fun and positive environment, but we can't ever leave the students alone. They even have to go to the bathroom with a student assistant, but more than having respect for those older kids as guiding senpai, my students seem to view them as big brothers and sisters to play and joke around with. And I always have to act as the middleman if they get in a silly argument over who won the round of a game we played.

American kids are extremely vocal and opinionated. Maybe it stems from Japan's strong militaristic history, but uniformity is still a huge thing there even today. Most of the kids I worked with during my time there would usually willingly agree with their friends' thoughts and ideas, and if they didn't understand something, they wouldn't necessarily ask for help, as it was too embarrassing to admit their ignorance and stand out like a sore thumb. My students in the U.S., however, eagerly voice what's on their minds and aren't shy to admit that they don't get something either. They'll even start to argue with me if they don't like the decision I make as a middleman. I do live in a former-hippie-and-still-super-liberal area of California so I can't speak for the whole country, but from what I hear from my other teacher friends and have seen on TV programs, kids here love to take full advantage of their right to free speech, haha.

Finally, it's an unfortunate truth of our failing education system, but American kids are not as musically or artistically gifted as their Japanese counterparts. The school system in Japan has never cut music or art classes because of budget reasons, but those are some of the first classes to go here in the U.S. I never even really had art classes at my elementary school as a student, and I went to a private school! If you want to excel in those areas, most kids here take (or are forced by their parents to take :P) extra-curricular classes outside of regular school. I don't mean to say that American kids lack creativity...actually, I think they tend to be a lot more creative and imaginative than Japanese kids since they are encouraged to speak their minds. And several of my current students are incredibly artistically talented. But on the whole, from what I've seen in both countries, since Japanese kids receive the proper education to sing, play instruments, and learn how to draw, they are much stronger in those fields than kids their same age in the U.S. The first time I heard my Japanese sixth graders sing, I was nearly speechless. Not only were all 120 students singing in tune, but they were even harmonizing at times! I wish I could have learned to have done that as a kid! I have a strong artistic background, but sometimes I wonder if I would have gone through with graphic design after all had I had proper, mandatory art classes from first to eighth grade.

There are a few more things I'd like to write about, but this post has gotten a lot longer than I intended it to be, so I'll end it for now. Thanks for reading! I'd love to hear your thoughts if you are a teacher as well or have taught abroad in a foreign country.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Part Deux

I've been back in California for over a month now, and even though my several trips home over the years may have lessened my reverse culture shock this time around, it's still a bit unreal to be back. My suitcase and boxes are not even close to being unpacked, and I have so much sorting and throwing out to do in my old room to make space for everything I brought back with me that the mere thought has been overwhelming me. I think a part of me also doesn't really want to face the reality that my life in Japan has ended. I find myself already yearning for the simple life I had over there.

Before coming back, I traveled throughout Asia for the month of April. It was really interesting to see how similar and different the four countries I visited were compared to Japan, and it got me excited into traveling again sometime soon. It also reinforced the Japanisms I gained and Americanisms I lost during my life in Japan, and I thought I'd add to the list I made previously since I thought of a few more.

4) Silence is golden
I never liked small talk, especially with strangers I'll never meet again. If you're just starting to get to know someone, especially with the intention of dating that person, small talk is an unfortunate and awkward stage that I'm always super glad to get over with. But talking to random people in the street or even store clerks and salespeople I've always found super vexsome. Does my waitress really care how my day is going? I doubt it. Yeah, we've had nice weather recently, random old man...I have eyes, you know. I like my shoes too, overly friendly lady next to me on the bus...that's why I bought them. Maybe it's because of my Asian appearance that I rarely got talked to by strangers in the street in Japan, (my more "foreign-looking" foreign friends would complain about getting random English words thrown at them) but I feel like I got way too used to people respecting my personal bubble while in public. Once, and only once, the cashier at a convenience store I would frequent commented on my unusual coin purse, and it threw me so off guard that I nearly didn't know how to respond. Now that I'm back in the U.S., I get bombarded with comments and questions constantly by strangers everywhere, and it drives me bonkers. I have my earphones in for a reason, guys!

5) There's a time and a place for everything
My students in Japan would often ask me if people in America really are "free." I would always respond in the affirmative, and luckily I was never asked why. I wouldn't have known how to answer why myself. But after spending time in both countries, I think I finally have the answer. Japan has a cultural phenomenon called honne and tatemae. People have facades that they put on while in public and a "true self" that exists in their private lives. It is not unique to Japan, however I don't think there are singular words to describe this in any other language besides Japanese. Those who know me know that I'm goofy and like to joke around and laugh. The person I present in the workplace, however, is pretty serious and hardworking. As a teacher, of course I have a "professional" playful side, but that's reserved especially for the classroom. People in Japan often go to nomikai, literally drinking parties, with their co-workers, and there are many throughout the year that are more official and held to celebrate something important. The ones I went to with my schools showed a side of my co-workers I had never seen before. I mean, a bit of their inner personalities would show through at work, but they tended to let all loose after a few sips of beer. Elsewhere in the world, everyone has a sense of professionalism in the workplace, but I feel it's a lot freer. The bus driver of the bus I was on the other day was munching on strawberries while driving. Store clerks in Bangkok were visibly napping or playing with their cellphones when the number of customers went down. The ticket vendor in Shanghai rolled her eyes and sighed at my friend and I when we asked her to recharge our subway cards. Geez fellas...aren't you getting paid to do your job right?

6) Tipping is not a city in China Japan
I worked at a coffee shop for two years and loved getting tips. Working there made me more aware of the importance of tipping in the service industry, especially if you received particularly outstanding service. This practice is virtually nonexistent in Japan, and the only exception I ever witnessed was at Cold Stone Creamery, where the workers still sing to you if you throw a little something in the tip jar. Omotenashi has kind of killed my expectations of service and hospitality in the U.S. Customer service workers treat you like a god in Japan, even without expecting a monetary reward in return. To get the special treatment here, however, a tip is supposed to take you a long way. But that's not even always the case! Gratuity is tacked on at most restaurants if you go with a large group, which is totally understandable, but if your service is crap, you can't get out of it. Even if you don't have a large group and get bad service, you are still expected to leave a little something. I get that the practice started because waiters and other service workers once didn't earn enough to support themselves, but now in the 21st century, people should be paid the proper amount for the work that they do and always treat you the way they want to be treated.

My new-old life back in the States is just beginning, so maybe I'll think differently down the road. I'd still like to think that whatever mannerisms I picked up across the sea have changed me for the better.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Turning Japanese?

There was an interesting article I read a while back written by an American girl about American habits she lost when she moved to Germany. There are other similar articles on the same site including one by another girl who lost certain Americanisms while in Japan, but I honestly thought they were poorly written and not as interesting as the Germany one :P The time I've spent living in Japan is relatively short and already coming to an end in a little over a month now (eep!) but I thought I'd try my hand at writing something similar.

1) Good things come to those who wait
A friend once joked that the national pastime in Japan in waiting in line. While he said it mostly in jest, what makes it even funnier is that it's basically true. Obviously you have to line up and wait your turn for a lot of things here just like everywhere else, but it really seems as if the Japanese people actually like doing it. They spot a line and are drawn to it like moths to a flame. Maybe it's reflective of the herd mentality ingrained in the culture here. "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down," is a well-known Japanese proverb that I think represents how uniformity and doing what everyone else around you is doing is valuable in this country. Chicago's famous Garrett Popcorn has a shop in Harajuku and every time I'm there, the line is ridiiiiculously long. And it grows even longer the longer it grows. All that for popcorn? Well, I suppose if you want something enough, what's a 3-hour wait gonna hurt? I have to admit that even before coming to Japan I've lined up 9+ hours in advance for my favorite band to secure a front row spot, and as a hardcore fan it was totally worth it. But now after living here for several years, lining up for banal things or just for the hell of it doesn't bother me so much anymore. Heck, the same friend mentioned earlier and I went to a concert last year and we lined up in some random food line just to kill some time before the show. We ended up not buying anything in the end even after getting to the front, haha.

2) The naked truth
Back in the States, I always changed clothes in the shower stalls at the gym. In college when I had roommates, I'd make sure to change in privacy too. Being in my underwear in front of other people wasn't an issue, but being buck naked was. It made me feel shameful, vulnerable, and defenseless. But after being in Japan, I've grown a lot more comfortable being in my birthday suit among other people, including strangers and friends. I've been to several public bathhouses and onsen, both of which require no clothing. It's considered extremely rude to wear a swimsuit in either, unless it's a co-ed one. That said, I still don't think I'd be fully comfortable in a completely nude, co-ed bathhouse or spa. I didn't even bother stepping foot in the "clothing optional" section of a spa I went to in San Francisco over winter break. But I feel I could easily do First Rain at my alma mater now.

3) Fatigue is the best pillow
I love sleep. I would marry my bed if I could. I used to sleep for 12 or more hours when I was a teenager (I blame hormones and teen angst). While my sleeping patterns have improved immensely over the years, thanks to my time in Japan, I've acquired the superpower of being able to sleep just about anywhere. Kitchen floor the only space open at a friend's house after a party? No problem. Worn out from all night karaoke even though your buddies are still going strong at 3AM? Not an issue. Train packed to the brim with barely enough room to stand? The passengers around you will prevent you from falling over. Ooh, you grabbed a seat? The lady's shoulder next to you will make an excellent cushion! Japanese people have this amazing ability to make any place their bed. I've seen so many drunk business men knocked out on park benches or even sidewalks. Teachers at my schools take naps at their desks in the staff room with absolutely no shame. My own personal favorite bed-away-from-my-real-bed is the train. There's just something very comforting about the gentle rocking motion as it moves from station to station. Maybe it's a bit like being back in the womb. I almost always pass out upon grabbing a seat. The only unfortunate drawback to my superpower is that I still cannot for the life of me sleep on a damn airplane.

There are plenty more "habits" I've developed and lost while here, so perhaps I'll write a follow-up post later on. Thanks for stopping by!

Friday, January 30, 2015

It's just time to say goodbye

I've thought about it long and hard, and after four years in Japan, I've decided to head back to the States this upcoming April. I've had a few hardships here and there, but overall my life here is very happy and comfortable. I feel that it's just time to say goodbye. Although I really enjoy my job, I can't be an ALT forever. It's more of a part-time job than it is a profession, and I will never get a salary raise or advance to a higher position if I continue to stick with it. That's the sad reality of the situation. I've met veteran ALTs who have been in this country for much longer than I have, and the majority of them are extremely jaded and fed up with their lives. That's not who I want to become. I want to leave Japan loving it as much as I did when I first got here so I can look back on my memories fondly and look forward to visiting again someday.

So what's my plan now? For the longest time, I thought I was going to become a graphic designer. Art has been a huge part of my life ever since I was a kid, and my B.A. is even in photography. I had planned to go back to grad school for graphic design after spending a few years in Japan, but thinking about making art for people, having to change things to suit their preferences, and sitting in front of a computer screen all day made me realize that I can't do it. I thought about studying translation and becoming a Japanese-English translator, but that was never my strong point when I took Japanese classes, plus I find no pleasure in doing it. And since I grew to love teaching so much, I thought about earning a teacher's license to teach elementary students, but as much as I love kids, I can't be around them all day long and I'm no good at math, science, and history.

I'm going to go back to school to study TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). I discovered recently that it's not just teaching, but it's teaching English that I really love. However, I have no background in syntax or linguistics, so it's always difficult for me to answer structure or grammar-related questions that my students have. My teaching methods have been praised quite often even with no official training or license, but I feel that I have a lot of growing to do as an English teacher that I won't be able to do as an ALT in Japan. There are several schools I'm looking into at the moment, so I will spend about a year living at home in California to finish up my applications, work part-time, and reconnect with my family and friends in the Golden State before going back to school. After I graduate, I want to work at a community college or university in Hawaii and teach English to primarily Japanese students. And if I miss it enough, maybe I'll even come back to live in Japan again.

Thank you for accepting me and helping me become a better person. Thank you for bringing me amazing friends, food, and experiences. Thank you for being constantly weird and quirky and always surprising me in new ways. It makes me so sad when I think that my time with you is finally coming to an end, but it's not sayonara forever. I'll be back, and I can't wait to be reunited with you again.