Friday, November 03, 2006

Benkyo Benkyo Benkyo

I've been spending a lot of time studying Japanese recently.

Sundays, I go to a community center where many foriegners gather and some Japanese volunteers teach Japanese. My friend and I are the only native English speakers there. Most of the others are Chinese or Philipino. Last Sunday we had a Japanese BBQ instead of class and we sang some songs and made food all afternoon. I spent most of the time playing with 2 adorable kids. One is 4 years old and 1 is in first grade (probably around 6). The 4 year old spoke to me in Chinese as if I understood everything and the 1st grader spoke to me in Japanese. Kids that age are so cute!

Tuesdays my friend and I go to this elderly lady's house and she and her friend give us one on one lessons for an hour and a half. After that we all drink tea and chat for a little while. This is where I learn the most out of all my lessons, because she prepares conversations for me that we read aloud and she uses expressions and idioms I otherwise wouldn't be able to pick up very easily.

Thursdays a couple other foreigners and I go to another community center where some more volunteers teach. This lesson is much smaller but pretty fun. After this we usually grab a beer and chill (I'm usually exhasted by Thursday and completely worn out on Friday). I finally got my first monthly pay check. It was about the size of the paycheck I was getting in the US after taxes.... every 2 weeks. But this paycheck is gonna furnish my apartment so I can get my home theater system back up and running.

Before telling this next story let me explain the Japanese alphabets a little.

First there is hiragana. Hiragana has a letter for each sound you can make in Japanese. There are 5 vowels (a i e o u) pronounced as in Spanish and there are about 9 consonants. Making roughly 46 letters. Hiragana is used for all the Japanese grammatical aspects such as verb endings, particles, and more. Here is Hiragana in Hiragana: ひらがな

Next there is katakana. For every hiragana, there is a katakana equivilant. Some of them look simliar, like ka (hiragana か, katakana カ) but some are completely different like su (hiragana す, katakana ス). Notice how katakana is much more angular and hiragana is smooth and pretty. Katakana is used for foreign words and names. For example, orange -> orenji -> オレンジ. Here is katakana in katakana: カタカナ.

Last but not least is Kanji. Kanji means chinese character and as you may have guessed, comes from China. There are thousands of characters used for names and all kinds of words and verb stems. Kanji are sometimes very simple, such as one (ichi) 一, or person (hito), 人, but they can get really complicated, such as the character for love 愛. Here is Kanji in Kanji: 漢字.

Here is an example sentence: 今日はマイケルの誕生日です。 This sentence means 'Today is Michael's birthday.' 今日, pronounced kyou, means today. The kanji separately mean Now or This (今) and Day or Sun (日). Then comes the hiragana topic marker は, pronounced wa. This marks 'Today' as the topic. Then comes the foreign name Michael (actually said maikeru マイケル). Then comes the hiragana particle の, pronounced no, meaning possession (like the 's in English). After that comes 誕生日, pronounced tanjoubi, meaning birthday (notice the day kanji again, but with a different pronunciation). Lastly is です, the verb meaning is. This is pronounced desu technically, but usually it sounds more like des.

Okay lesson over. So this Thursday I taught 1st and 2nd graders the numbers 1-20.. after 2nd period, about 20 students mobbed me in the hallway asking for my signature. They all had their little booklets and pencils and they lined up nicely for me to sign each one. One girl asked me to write my name in hiragana (the Japanese alphabet) but I said no, I should write it in Katakana. The concept of katakana's use for foreign names was yet unknown to her, though, so she thought that meant I only knew katakana (being a first grader she had just learned katakana recently herself). So about 10 minutes later after I had finished the signatures, she came back with a little folded piece of paper, handed it to me and ran off.


This is the note she gave me. She wrote the whole thing in katakana (the other teachers thought that was hilarious). It says at the top, 'to Michael sensei <3' and at the bottom left it has her name and 1-2 (grade one class two). The face is a picture of me. The note on the right says 'Michael sensei, thank you for the signature. I am very happy. Bye bye.' Hahaha so cute! I'm not sure who the flying thing is but other people drew it on notes to me too. The note by it says 'shinamon' which might be cinnamon, but who knows. Anyway, thats life here, and thats all for now.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Typhoons Blow

Today was my first Typhoon. It's too windy to carry an umbrella on a bike, so I had to walk 40 minutes in the rain to school. School was good today though. I only taught 3 classes, it was 1st and 2nd grade, and I got to leave early because of the rain.

On Monday I got in a minor bike accident. Right after leaving school around 5:30, I was on one of the tiny bike paths (as usual) and I saw a woman coming towards me. She was heading on a collision course so I pulled as far right as possible and slowed down, but she ran right into me at full speed. Her left handle hit my left hand and gashed up my finger (see the pretty picture). She and her child in the back seat fell over, and I was in shock for a few seconds before I remembered to speak Japanese, not English. But she must have been more shocked because she got up and left fast as if I was some terrifying monster. I went back to the school I was working at and had the nurse take care of my hand. I almost passed out from the loss of blood and a sugar crash, but I managed to communicate my need for something sweet and some water before it was too late.

The cutest thing happened today in my 2nd grade class. After class ended a cute little girl came up to me and asked what happened to my finger. I knelt down and explained in poor Japanese that I got hit while biking by another bike. She reached up and grabbed my cheeks and said 'be careful ok?' in Japanese. So cute! (Note that even after kneeling down these kids have to reach up to touch my face.. haha.. I'm a freakin' giant).

Japanese shopping carts kick butt. Check these bad boys out. You can take just the hand basket, or you can take the rolly thing and put the hand basket on it, or you can take the rolly thing and put a hand basket on the top and another one on the bottom. They roll perfectly in all directions unlike American shopping carts. Simply amazing. Japanese people shop for food almost every day, rather than stocking. I think this is because of the lack of space, or because fish just tastes better fresh (20% of the store is fish). I usually eat yakisoba (noodles) with tofu. 3 packs of noodles cost under 1 dollar, but it takes 2 to fill me up. A packet of tofu runs abour 25 cents (dollar fifty in the US). I eat peanut butter and jelly for breakfast (sad.. I know) even though the peanut butter is expensive and tiny. Going out for food costs around 5-10 bucks for a filling dinner. Going out for drinks usually runs 30-50 bucks. Most Japanese people (in my limited experience) hit 2-3 places a night when drinking. Each one is 20-30 bucks. This adds up fast.


This is my bike. It came with a basket, a rack on the back, a pedal-powered light, a lock, and covered chains to prevent rusting. All this for like 60 bucks. Not bad huh? This is the granny-bike, as they call it. This means that it is the cheapest most common bike you'll see here, and while the lock is weak and easily broken, no one really steals them. People do steel the cooler bikes though. They make bikes that fold in half so you can take them on the train, but I didn't want to shell out the extra 40 bucks and have no basket.

Well, sorry for the randomness of this post. I am tired from a long week and hungry. When it stops raining (yeah, right) I'll take some more pictures.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

School Life

Elementary schools here are so much better than in the states. Let me list a few reasons.
  1. Lunch. Everyone at the school eats the same lunch. This includes teachers and other staff. The reason this is so good is that it maintains quality of food (since teachers have to eat it too) and I'm sure it keeps the cost down. My lunch costs about 2 dollars, I think. The lunch is different everyday and is quite healthy. I always finish my meal and seconds before the kids finish theirs. Lunch preparation is done by the kids. They lay out the food in a row and create their own assembly line. The ones dishing out the food wear masks and cook clothing and the other kids get their food for them to save time. It really is cute.
  2. Clean up. Everyday after lunch the kids clean their classrooms and the hallways. They are organized and efficient. Often times they are self directed and the teachers can even leave the room. They move the desks to the back first. Then 2-3 of them sweep up the from half while 3 or 4 of them wipe it with rags afterwards. Then they move the desks to the front and repeat. Meahwhile other students are cleaning the hallways, bathrooms and stairs. In middle school, students clean the teachers room, too. I always try to help whenever I can, but I end up slowing things down usually because the kids always talk to me.
  3. Teachers. These teachers are dedicated. All the teachers get there around 8-8:30 and the principal and vice principal are already there. I am allowed to leave at 5, but because I spend time talking and I need to get work done I end up staying to around 5:30 each day. When I leave I am always one of the first ones. The teachers vary in age from 23 and up, and there are sometimes volunteers from college.
  4. School events. I don't remember much about Elementary school events, but I'm pretty sure there weren't many (or any?). Every school here has the September 運動会 (undoukai, or sports festival). Literally it means exercise meet. There are events like races, dances, and all kinds of competitions. My favorite was definately the 玉出 (tamaide) or ball tossing event. The 1st and 2nd graders gather into 2 teams and each team forms a circle around a basket held up by an upperclassmen. There are little sacks or balls lying around the basket for each team. When the music starts playing they all dance in the circle (very cute). Then the music switches to a faster tune which reminds me of a road runner song. They frantically try to make as many balls into the basket as they can while getting rained down on by the other side (since it's a circle). Then the music will switch back and they run to the circle and dance again. Words do not accurately describe the cuteness. After a few repetitions, the number of balls are counted and a winner is determined.

Ok that is all for now. Later!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Chop chop

I had my first haircut in Japan today. It was quite an adventure. Getting my hair cut in the US is a big chore and I have a hard time saying what I want. I finally learned that I like a 3 on the sides and about and inch and a half on top... then I came here and none of that means a thing. After an hour long session and some funny conversations I got my hair cut. They did a full scissor cut (instead of buzzing the sides) and they do a shampoo afterwards. It cost me about 35 bucks. Oh and for those who don't know, you do not tip in Japan. If you were to tip they'd probably chase after you to give you the money back.

On Sunday I met a new friend named Misuzu and we went to Tokyo. She took me around to see a couple temples and we went to a Japanese style restaurant for Okonomiyaki お好み焼き. Basically, they give you the ingredients and you make it yourself on a hot table. She was pretty good and it turned out delicious. I can't really describe it, but if you know someone who can cook Japanese food, tell them to hook you up. It is my favorite food in Japan.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

First week of school

The first week of school has finally finished. I must say, this job is really easy. The children call me superman, the teachers are all nice and helpful, and I get paid to speak English and play games. The most difficult part of elementary school is the upper classmen. They aren't quite as impressed by my every word as the 1-3rd graders, but with a little practice I'm sure I'll figure out what games they like and don't like. My first class was 60 5th graders (two classes together) and I was out of material with 10 minutes left.

Friday night I went out for drinks with 7 other foreigners teaching English here in my town. 2 of us are new (me and the guy I already knew), and the rest are all veterans. 3 of them are taking the Japanese level 2 proficiency exam and 1 of them is taking the level 1. This exam has 4 levels, If I studied I could pass level 4. Japanese people would need to study a lot to pass level 1. You apparently need level 1 to be a translator, which is silly because it is almost all grammar and kanji.

Yesterday 2 of the other gaijins took the other newbie and I around town showing us important shops and things. Turns out there is a dollar store a block from me. We had the best ramen in town and they showed us how to get our phones when I get my foreigners card.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Home sweet home.

Disclaimer* This is a public blog, and as such I am not posting personal details. Please refrain from doing so in the comments or they will be deleted. Thanks.

I finally found an Internet Cafe. I have started to settle in to my new apartment and job. I am teaching at 4 schools: Junior high on Monday, and 3 Elementary schools throughout the week. School started last Friday, so I have only had 2 days of class. So far it is a lot of fun.

Over the weekend, a fellow ALT in my town and I decided to take a train to a nearby bigger town for a night out after the first day of school. While wandering the streets looking for a bar, we were having little luck and decided to start asking people. Right then we were approached by a Korean girl speaking English. We ended up walking with her to check out some temples and stuff in the area. Then we went with her to Tokyo to meet her friend and the 4 of us went clubbing until 5 in the morning (The trains stop from 1~5, and we didnt get to Tokyo till midnight... so once you're there you might as well go all out). My friend had drinks with a couple of Yakuza like guys (Japanese Mafia, notoriously friendly to foreigners) and they bought him about 8 beers at 500 yen a pop (over 4 bucks). I got home at about 2 and slept till 5, had dinner, and passed out until the next morning.

Today was easy. I basically just introduced myself and helped kids read out of a book. Then I went to the English club meeting after school.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

First observations

Here are some things I noticed right away that I didn't quite anticipate.
  1. It is super humid. Don't get me wrong, I knew it would be humid, but if you live in Davis or Sacramento, you probably don't know what humidity is. The humidity doesn't stop at night. Jeans are unwearable and I've never sweated so much in my life.
  2. There is no trash in Tokyo. This by itself didn't really suprise me until I bought a drink from a vending machine. I couldn't find a garbage can! I wandered around for hours my first night here but had little luck. Eventually I realized that the only garbage cans are by the actual vending machines. They're small and only for bottles and cans.
  3. The cicada of Japan. These loud bugs are found in every tree I've seen so far. They make a never ending loud surge of noise like crickets on steroids. I already knew about these bugs from watching Japanese shows and movies, but I didn't realize they'd be this loud. They area also invisible like crickets. I haven't seen one yet.
I'll buy a camera when I get a chance, but I am going to wait a little while.

いってきます!

I'm writing this at the airport and I'll post it when I get a chance. The last few days have been the most hectic of my life. I've had to go through every single thing I own and divide it into 4 catagories:
  1. Things I will take with me to Japan
  2. Things I will keep but leave in the US
  3. Things I will throw away
  4. Things I will give away or sell
The mistake I made was making group 1 way too big. I had to divide it into
  • Things that fit in my suitcases
  • Things that I will have sent to me later
This made things easier knowing my mom can send me some things. I had no room for shoes or very many pairs of pants. I brought no sweaters and I couldn't bring my flease. All in all it wasn't what I was expecting and I really have learned something from all this.
When moving out of the country, allow a full week to prepare!
I hope everyone follows this advice. Don't make plans to meet with every friend you have for every meal until you leave. Don't overestimate the size of your bags. And don't be afraid to throw out old clothes.

I have been especially stressed recently because of the work visa application. I thought I would have to go to the Japanese consulate in San Francisco with the certificate of eligability, but I never got it in the mail. It turns out you can enter Japan with a tourist visa and switch to a work visa without leaving the country. When you go through immigration, put down 'traveling/waiting for work visa' as your purpose for visiting. I really wish the recruiters had told me this before hand to save me some stress, but I found out in time to be semi-relaxed when I was on my way to the airport.

The plane boards in one hour! Next stop: Narita.

* Edit. The post title is ittekimasu, or 「いってきます」, which has no direct translation, but kinda means I'm off or Here I go. The double t creates a pause, marked by a small tsu 「っ」. If you do not see the Japanese, you need to install the language packs on your computer.. or buy a Mac.