Tag Archives: Survival Guide

Tales from the Gakkou

A chorus of pencils rhythmically tapping away, it sounds like rain drops. In the quiet of the classroom with a test in progress, this is the sound of Japanese students writing. Each student silently focuses on the task at hand, and the scratching of their pencils is somehow magical. I find an odd serenity in this moment.

Here are some random stories of working as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in Japan, straight from the classroom.

My students would often say, “Nice guy! You’re nice guy!” But when I’d respond, “Thanks, I think you’re nice too,” they would wave off the compliment and say, “No, no, not me. You are nice guy.” I thought the students couldn’t be assholes if they were calling me nice, but I wondered why they wouldn’t agree that they too were kind people. Could Japanese culture be so modest that one can’t even accept being called nice? As it turns out, this was really just a miscommunication.

One of the 3rd year JH students showed me a picture of Jonny Depp from one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. He pointed to Captain Jack Sparrow and said, “I like, very much. Nice guy.” At this point, it was clear to me that “nice guy” could not possibly have the same meaning for these kids that it did for me. I asked him how you say “nice guy” in Japanese and he said “kakkoii” (かっこいい ). The definition of kakkoii is more like “attractive, good-looking, or stylish”. So when describing a person directly, “nice” would be a mistranslation. That day I taught the students a new word: “Cool.”

In conversation, people will often ask me why I came to Japan. The real answer is a somewhat complicated tale that I usually simplify to: “I’ve always been fascinated by Japan”, or even simpler, to “Ninjas”. But lately I’ve decided that from now on, I will answer the question like this: “The FOOD.” For me, a big perk of teaching English in Japan is the kyuushoku (給食 – school lunch).

While I’ve heard some varying reports from other ALTs, the lunches in Shakotan have been consistently amazing; not only delicious, but seemingly nutritious as well. The average school lunch includes rice, miso soup, a protein-rich food (probably fish), and a vegetable dish. This varies from day to day, but the school district’s dietitian tries to balance every meal according to national guidelines. The aim is to include your carbohydrate, vegetable, and protein foods in each lunch, while keeping the total calorie count below some specific number. Amusingly, they also try to balance lunch foods by color, which means including something red, something yellow, and something green in every meal. Yet somehow, even with these challenging parameters in place, they manage to make lunch delicious day after day. And at ¥4900 a month for five meals a week, it’s a hell of a deal.

Occasionally lunch will consists of western-style foods, usually something using bread, and while this is a disappointment, it’s still of a high enough quality to surpass anything that I was fed in public schools in the States. (Although to be honest, that’s not saying much.) The school’s spaghetti and meat sauce, while not as good as its homemade counterpart, is actually pretty damn respectable. Still, it’s the Japanese food staples that I really love.

I recently discovered that the weekly school lunch follows a pattern for meal composition. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are rice days, meaning the carbohydrate dish will be your standard rice. Tuesday is noodle day, so this is the glorious time when we’ll have a big bowl of udon or ramen, or alternatively, the spaghetti might appear. Finally, Thursdays are bread days. On Thursday we might have hotdogs (which involve a bun), or perhaps we’ll have a baguette or dinner roll, along with a savory soup, like cream of corn or pumpkin. I’m not fan of bread in Japan, so this is usually the least impressive lunch for me.

Speaking of eating, I’ve noticed an interesting digestive phenomenon in Japan: stomach rumbling. If you’ve watched much anime then you’ve almost certainly witnessed a character’s stomach audibly signal that he was hungry with a loud, churning groan. While I’ve certainly heard stomachs make noise before, its prevalence in anime would lead one to believe that it happens every time someone is hungry, probably every day. In my experience, my stomach has rarely, if ever, been vocal. In Japan, however, my stomach really does rumble a lot, like maybe every time that I’m really hungry.

Why would that be the case? I don’t actually know, but started theorizing and came up with a few thoughts. 1) Maybe in America, we rarely let ourselves to get to a point where we’re so hungry that our stomach is trying to digest itself. 2) A diet high in rice provides a more filling, energy-sustaining fuel than a bread-based diet, for instance, but when it runs out, you’ve really got nothing and your body cries out for sustenance. 3) If the TV adverts are to be believed, then drinking the right brand of tea actually starts a blazing green fire in your stomach. This fire simultaneously gives you tremendous energy and makes you thin and attractive. Since I’m from the States, eat rice every day, and drink lots of green tea, I have yet to try isolating any one variable to test each theory’s validity.

When talking about my classes, the other teachers were usually very complimentary. However, I often heard the term “high tension” (ハイテンション) used, which surprised me. Did I appear nervous in front the kids? Were the students frightened to have me in class? What could be the source of the tense atmosphere everyone’s describing? Well as I discovered, in Japanese “high tension” doesn’t mean what you think.

High tension (ハイテンション) means excited or enthusiastic, and it’s a positive word. It’s basically like saying that there’s electricity in the air. I think maybe this phrase originated with high voltage electronics, but I’m not really sure. So when the teachers said that the class was “high tension”, and Yusuke (the English teacher) said it was because of me, he wasn’t blaming me, he was being complimentary. This was a good thing to figure out.

Students at my junior high are so tidy that they always collect the rubber shavings that remain after they’ve erased something. Apparently to just brush the eraser dust onto the floor is considered quite lazy and rude. Yusuke tells me that it’s only common practice in this particular school, and that most kids in Japan are not so meticulous.

After lunch there is a break of 10 or 15 minutes, during which time the students will usually play around in the gym or, weather permitting, play outside. Throughout the summer months I would always spend this time outside, playing soccer with the students, and usually also with Yusuke. Since I missed my soccer team in Seattle so dearly, playing with the kids was a great joy for me. Eventually though, it got to cold and too rainy to play outside, and by December the field was good and buried with snow. With soccer no longer an option, I’d play games with the students inside the gymnasium.

In the gym, groups of boys will often form two teams to play full-court basketball. Meanwhile, groups of girls will circle up to juggle a volleyball back and forth. Often times I’d start shooting around with the boys until they inevitably started a game, and then I’d play too. While it wasn’t soccer, it was still good fun.

Yoshimura-sensei, the social studies teacher, could usually be found playing volleyball with the girls, unless someone set up the badminton net, in which case he’d always be there. The first time I jumped in on the volleying, it was on his invitation. I did my best to keep the ball constantly juggling, but I’m not really that good at volleyball. At one point I instinctively headed the ball, soccer-style, directly at one of the girls. This proved quite amusing to all involved.

One of the teachers told me that I was smart (スマート), a compliment which I humbly accepted. Then she added, “…but muscular” (くきょう). It was then that I realized that she was using to word “smart” in a fashion context, describing me as slim. Here I thought someone was seeing me as more than just a hot body…

One day while eating lunch with the third year junior high school students, a girl commented that my skin was very white. I was wearing a short sleeved shirt at the time, and my arms were looking quite pale, somewhere between alabaster and ghostly transparent. I agreed with the girl and used the term hakujin (白人), which very literally means white person. This might have sounded a tad derogatory, but I was talking about myself, so I figured Japanese etiquette would approve.

The student pointed at me and said, “White person”, then to herself and said, “Yellow monkey.”  Indicating the other students nearby, she said, “Yellow monkey, yellow monkey, yellow monkey…” My jaw hit the floor.

“No, no, no,” I said, laughing a bit at something what sounded really offensive to my ears, but maybe not so bad to the students.  “That’s bad. Don’t say that.”

A little later the same student pointed to me and asked, “White monkey?”

“Yes,” I replied, “white monkey.”

There is a chapter in the junior high first year textbook that features a bonobo named Kanzi. Kanzi is quite an intelligent ape and can do many things; he can even understand about 500 English words. One of the dialogues talks about the different between bonobos and chimpanzees, using the word “chimp.” I wondered if this was a practical joke, since the word “chimpanzee” in pronounced nearly identically in both English and Japanese, but chimp sounds almost identical to chinpo (ちんぽ), the Japanese word for penis.

This is also why one should refrain from using the European “chin-chin” when making toasts in Japan. While it represents the sound of glasses clanging together, chinchin (ちんちん) is also a children’s term for penis, like saying “pee-pee” in Japanese. So when I said the word “chimp”, as one would expect, the classroom of 13 year olds burst into laughter.

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Overcoming Homesickness

Moving to Japan has been a great experience for me, but I’d be lying though if I said that there haven’t been times when I’ve felt utterly lost here. And I mean “lost” in the existential sense of the word, not just an inability to ascertain my whereabouts—although I’ve had plenty of those too. Especially in a rural area like Shakotan, it’s not always easy to find the human interaction necessary to combat soul-crushing loneliness. When depression began to takeover, I needed to take the time to really address the problem. Here’s what I did.

“The mind is its own place,

     and in itself

Can make a Heaven of Hell,

     a Hell of Heaven” – John Milton

Like a true glutton for punishment, I first turned to my old friend, the Internet. And wow, when you’re feeling down, Facebook can always drag you down to deeper level of hell. Even sites that have consistently amused me were unable to break my funk. When 9gag.com can’t bring a smile to your face, you have a serious problem. Then, like a light from the heavens it dawned on me; nothing can provide you with more hope than a good TED talk.

The first video that caught my eye was a TED talk by psychologist Paul Bloom called The origin of pleasure. His presentation was about how people’s beliefs about the origin of something like art or wine profoundly changes we experience it. Apparently our brains are hardwired to enjoy a painting more if we know the story of the artist, and wine will actually taste better if we believe it’s expensive. Interestingly, the same concept can be applied to pain, as well. Studies indicate that something hurts more if you think it was done to you on purpose. The interesting concepts were distracting me from my depression, but not yet curing it.

Then I came across an inspiring video that truly turned my mood around, a talk by writer/blogger Neil Pasricha called “The 3 A’s of awesome”.  The title immediately made me think of Neil Patrick Harris’s character, Barney Stinson, on the show How I Met Your Mother.

“When I get sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead. True Story.” – Barney Stinson

Neil Pasricha’s talk was like a young, hip self-help book. In fact, his blog 1000 Awesome Things has indeed been published as a book, The Book of Awesome. What’s weird is that his straightforward sediment really stuck me as being personally relevant. I will now spoil it for all of you that haven’t watched the video:

The 3 A’s of AWESOME

1) Attitude

2) Awareness

3) Authenticity

Pasricha’s talk, in a nutshell, is this; one needs to maintain a positive outlook, find enjoyment in the little things in life, and be true to oneself. This isn’t always easy though, as life never goes according to plan. Something surprising is always going to spring up, and life is going to hit you where it hurts. Pasricha’s message to keep moving forward may sound overly simplistic, but when combined with his advice to “embrace your inner three year old” and maintain an awareness of the tiny joys that make life sweet, it forms a personal philosophy that really gets you thinking about what you have, instead of what you don’t. It’s a good start.

The part that surprisingly struck a chord with me was his third A, Authenticity. Pasricha preached being authentic to yourself; to “be you and be cool with that.” This one made me take a good look in the mirror and consider what I really thought of myself. I rarely receive much criticism these days, so you’d think that I’d be feeling pretty confident, and yet here I was, wallowing in depression. Stopping to think about it, I wondered how much I could claim to be “cool with” being me these days.

You see, as Barney taught us, being awesome is really just a state of mind. If you’re happy with you, comfortable with who you are, then it’s infinitely easier to find contentment anywhere. It’s like The Beatles’ incredibly wise lyrics from All You Need Is Love:

“There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done…but you can learn how to be you in time… Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be. It’s easy.”

Well that’s all fine and good, but what about those times when something is bothering you, when negativity just lingers in your mind? It’s not always easy to bring yourself back around from a bad mood. The next video I watched gave me an interesting perspective on this. The talk on the habits of happiness was by an unusual Buddhist monk. Frenchman Matthieu Ricard apparently used to be a biochemist, and now he’s a monk, writer, and photographer. He has the Himalayan monk look down; robes, bald head and all. His talk was about the mind and emotions, and how we can train our minds to reach and maintain a sense of serenity. Here’s my favorite bit:

“Usually, when we feel annoyed, hatred or upset with someone, or obsessed with something, the mind goes again and again to that object. Each time it goes to the object, it reinforces that obsession or that annoyance. So then, it’s a self-perpetuating process. So what we need to look now is, instead of looking outward, we look inward. Look at anger itself; it looks very menacing, like a billowing monsoon cloud or thunder storm. But we think we could sit on the cloud, but if you go there, it’s just mist. Likewise, if you look at the thought of anger, it will vanish like frost under the morning sun. If you do this again and again, the propensity, the tendencies for anger to arise again will be less and less each time you dissolve it. And, at the end, although it may rise, it will just cross the mind, like a bird crossing the sky without leaving any track.” – Matthieu Ricard

I was already feeling a lot better when I watched statistician Nic Marks’ TED talk, entitled The Happy Planet Index. This presentation was about how we measure a nation’s progress based on outdated productivity measures like GDP that don’t directly reflect the happiness and wellbeing of its citizens. You see, being a wealthy nation doesn’t necessarily make you a happy nation. He suggests a new measure he calls the Happy Planet Index; weighing the wellbeing of a nation’s citizens against the amount of resources that nation uses. I had seen a few different videos with a similar theme in the past and I couldn’t agree more with his brilliant message.

What made Nic Marks’ talk special to me was that he actually provides a few steps anyone could take to be a happier, more contented individual. Referencing the UK’s Foresight Programme, an organization that tries to use science and technology to improve the way government and society works, he presented “5 ways to wellbeing”. To spoil the surprise—in case you haven’t seen the video—here they are:

Five ways to wellbeing:

1) Connect—keep building on social relationships

2) Be Active—the fastest way out of a bad mood; dance

3) Take Notice—be aware of what’s happening in the world

4) Keep Learning—maintain curiosity throughout your lifetime

5) Give—it’s more satisfying to spend money on others

You might take note that these steps don’t necessarily involve spending money, hence the idea that a nation’s economy isn’t the source of its people’s happiness. I was amused to discover that Nic Mark’s steps included “Take Notice” and Neil Pasricha’s list had touted “Awareness”. Clearly a mindfulness of the world around you was an important factor to one’s wellbeing. However, it was “Connect” that struck me as being critically relevant to a foreign national.

Connect; keep building upon your relationships. Humans are social creatures and we need our connections with friends and family to keep us sane. It’s not really a new concept, but one that is consistently proven true. It’s what made the movie Into the Wild so poignant when its protagonist reaches the epiphany; “Happiness only real when shared.

To keep from going crazy, a traveler may have to make new friends abroad; forge new connections with the people around him. But one must also keep in touch with old friends at home, and that is one area in which I have been failing. Despite the fact that a Skype conversation with my one of my brothers, or one of my Seattle friends would instantly lift my spirits; I had hardly managed to do it at all since I arrived in Japan. My record with writing letters is embarrassingly poor. Whether writing to my mom, or grandmother, or anyone that isn’t very email savvy, I’m very slow to get the ball rolling. It isn’t as if I didn’t have the time, I’ve just been neglecting to do it. And my own laziness has been slowly eroding my sense of wellbeing.

I realize now that maintaining your personal relationships is an important key to being happy. Physically staying close to loved ones is a one way to do it, but if you’re off on a solo adventure, you’ll need to improvise. Write letters, write emails, make Skype calls, or even make old-school phone calls if possible. Keep in touch with the people you care about, who care about you. This is the challenge of living far from home.

TED Conferences. (2011, July). “Paul Bloom: The origins of pleasure”   Retrieved 31 Oct, 2011, from <http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_bloom_the_origins_of_pleasure.html&gt;.

TED Conferences. (2011, Jan). “Neil Pasricha: The 3 A’s of awesome ”   Retrieved 31 Oct, 2011, from <http://www.ted.com/talks/neil_pasricha_the_3_a_s_of_awesome.html >.

TED Conferences. (2007, Nov). ” Matthieu Ricard on the habits of happiness”   Retrieved 31 Oct, 2011, from <http://www.ted.com/talks/matthieu_ricard_on_the_habits_of_happiness.html&gt;.

TED Conferences. (2010, Aug). ” Nic Marks: The Happy Planet Index”   Retrieved 31 Oct, 2011, from <http://www.ted.com/talks/nic_marks_the_happy_planet_index.html&gt;.

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