Thursday, 25 September 2008

Mr. ALT, *this* is your life.

It's been a while again, but this time I'm really gonna protest against being called lazy... I've genuinely been wanting to get into 'cyberspace', 'the blogosphere', 'the cloud'... whatever people are calling wherever this action (typing something that will eventually be made available on the Internet) places me... for a while now. I just haven't had much of anything to write about, and seeing as I'm not one of those people who likes linking news stories or youtube content and adding commentary (Because frankly, I just don't feel comfortable espousing a solution to the subprime mortgage crisis or the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict) it's left me somewhat short of content.

So... I figured I'd give you all (uhhh... all *what*? 5 of you?) a 'day in the life' type summary of what it's like to be me; the life of the quintessential ALT.

6:50AM- Wake up to J-Pop themed phone alarm, stumble blearily from luft-bed trying to avoid ankle sprains or other injury on the stairs. Open the curtains and curse loudly if it is raining again.

7:15AM- Post shower, shave and smacking head on bathroom door consume breakfast; possibly one or a combination of the following: bananas, toast made in the microwave, last nights sushi (retrieved from fridge), yogurt (or yogurt/jelly substance of unknown origin), orange juice, milk, anime-themed cereal.

7:30AM- Leave apartment, consider riding bike if dry otherwise resolutely pop umbrella and trek bravely into monsoonal conditions.

8:00- Arrive at Noko. Smile broadly and yell a combination of 'Ohayo Gazimasu!' and 'Good Morning!' at arriving staff and students to reaffirm 'happy/crazy foreigner' rep. Switch out outside shoes for indoor shoes in staff lobby.

The gates of Noko. The giant clock that greets latecomers with an analog representation of their failure in punctuality is a nice touch.

8:03- Arrive in staff room, continue to say 'Ohayo Gazimasu' constantly to fellow staff while weaving towards desk. Sign up for bento (lunch) on the sign up sheet, dig in wallet for business card when failing to remember how to write your name in katakana (AGAIN).

8:30- Morning staff meeting; stand, bow, sit. Listen to the Vice Principal and various other staff members make announcements and report news, nod attentively and pretend to at least partially understand, clap when appropriate.

8:40- Homeroom. You have no homeroom. Pour a cup of percolator coffee and drink slowly while reexamining the schedule you have memorised. Choose between making flashcards for Japanese study later in the day, reviewing flashcards you already made or reading a few more pages of 'Lonely Planet's guide to Hiking in Japan'.

9:00- First Period. Think about what classes you have tomorrow. Plan, make, and print necessary materials after discussion with the Japanese teacher in question. Alternatively, use the same activity you did yesterday/last week, print the necessary materials and debate with the geography teacher over which Michael Crichton novel is best.

10:00- Second Period. Go to class, nurse somewhat tender hand after high fiving every second student you cross paths with on the way. Greet class, and ask a random person 'how are you?' Appeal to Japanese teacher to explain why the answer 'rain' is not appropriate. Make class repeat key phrases and do a carefully planned activity. Try to keep a straight face when random students (boys and girls) respond with 'I love you!' to questions they don't understand.

11:00- Third Period. Return to the staff room, spend a few minutes studying/practicing Japanese, then make some tea and sit down with the newspaper and get up to date on all the ways the world is going to hell. Silently wonder if you are the only person on the planet who has never actually heard what Sarah Palin's voice sounds like.

12:00- Forth Period. Finish the newspaper cover to cover (even the Sumo news). Return to your desk and practice some more Japanese. When stomach noise becomes audible cave in to temptation and sit down with your bento box. Have fun guessing the identity of the various meat, fruits and vegetables you are eating, and indeed which are which. Briefly feel morally superior to your colleagues due to your use of non-disposable chopsticks, lose the feeling when you realise that you've been given disposables again and they're gonna get tossed anyway.

1:00- Lunchtime. Pour another cup of tea and sit down with staff, attempt to practice your Japanese by joining conversations about which students are most delinquent and whose mother-in-law the most intolerable. Tell the staff about your past and plans for the weekend. Field basic questions about the Western world as a whole.

2:00-Fifth Period. Teach again, assemble materials and go to class, 'help' the Japanese teacher by translating their readily understood Japanese instructions (open your books, stand up etc) into English that the students don't understand. Practice pronunciation and try to make students say 'clothes' instead of 'clothezez'. Have an activity, explain it, have the Japanese teacher explain it, model it and then heap praise on the 25% of students that perform it successfully, more praise on the 60% that try and fail and attempt to look disappointed at the 15% that use the worksheet as a fan as they talk to their friends.

3:00- Sixth Period. Go to locker room and change into PE gear. Go to gymnasium and join in whatever class happens to be in session. Watch kids giggle as you routinely fail to get the ball in the basket or whatever. Use your height to unfair advantage as much as possible and celebrate victory in a completely overblown fashion.

3:50- Cleaning time. Go out and supervise kids while they clean the school. Practice your Japanese by mocking them incessantly for failing to actually do any cleaning. Have basic conversations and teach kids ridiculous handshakes. Fend off girls attempting to solicit your phone number and/or organise coffee dates.

4:10- Seventh (extra) Period. Return to staff room and fill out daily work report. Clean up your desk and think about what you need to do when you get home. Make lists as necessary.

4:30- Say goodbye to colleagues and leave. Walk out yelling goodbye and waving to students as you do so. When clear of the school gates strategically loosen tie and tune into mp3 player.

5:10- Arrive back at apartment. Change into civilian clothes, fire up computer and munch a few cookies to revive flagging blood sugar levels. Sign into facebook, g-mail and blogspot and hammer out wordage as appropriate. Try to ignore the implications of cyber-dependence and thank god again that you don't have a World of Warcraft account to worry about.

6:00- Domestic time- washing, cleaning, ironing, tidying. Turn up the music and attempt to find satisfaction in sanitising your domestic realm. Fail again.

7:00- Shopping. Wander over to AEON, head straight to the sushi section and grab whatever's left now that it's late enough for it to all be half price. Do the same with the milk and whatever desert will hit its use by date in 2 days. Feel awesome about rorting 'the system'. Briefly feel morally superior about using eco-bags, but then lose the feeling when you see that every cookie in the bag is individually wrapped. If you encounter students pretend it is the most exciting thing that happened to you in months. Dodge hugs from schoolgirls by high-fiving when they approach with open arms.

7:30- Return to apartment. Make an enlightened choice between watching TV, DVDs or something on the Internet or perhaps even reading or playing a computer game. Eat and drink as you partake in such activity, try your hand at multitasking by managing more than one recreational activity at a time. Text-messaging, eating, watching TV and saving the planet from space aliens simultaneously will surely be a marketable skill someday.

More of the Shinkansen girl, here in her Autumn getup. I'm still waiting for a Pachinko machine to be made out of this ad series.

10:30- Get into bed and possibly read something deep and mentally nourishing... or whatever you can get your hands on that happens to be in English. It may end up being a bilingual pamphlet about trafficking in human sex-slaves.

And that's about it! Wash, rinse and repeat! Maybe next time I'll write something about the 'average' weekend. Right now though I'm off schedule; and those DVDs don't watch themselves ya know...

Ciao for niao!

Friday, 12 September 2008

New Friends, Childhood Dreams and the Shinkansen Girl.

I'm back! Not from the future... but from Fukuoka! (Yeesh, that's gotta be a candidate for 'worst play on words in the blogosphere' right?)

So Fukuoka was cool; the immigration stuff was boring as expected, but at least it went smoothly. I'm now no longer in danger of deportation. Yay fo' me. The rest of the weekend I hung out with Mina; walked around Fukuoka, went to some parks and shrines, ate some ice cream and drank some coffee (iced), did a little shopping for her sisters birthday (it's lucky I'm not embarrassed to be seen walking around metro areas with a giant seal-body pillow), then went back to her place for some cooking and summer night beers while looking over the skyline. Consider me content; it really is good to be back and relaxed.

This has actually been a good week in lotsa ways; aside from a three day workweek (I looooove the public service!) there's another public holiday next Monday! No karoshi for Shaun! I serendipitously ran into another one of the area ALTs at the mall the other day; Greg from Zimbabwe, who's really cool and seems to share my passion for eating and drinking things. He cemented a special place in my heart with many gifts- firstly a couch, the only problem with giving me a couch is that I have no car to move a couch; I got into the spirit of African tribeswomen and hauled it the 2km back to my apartment regardless... on. my. head. Luckily for me it's the type that doesn't have a frame, but still; I felt damn manly (read: sweaty) afterwards.

Shaun and Greg; approximately 50% of Nogatas foreign English teaching contingent, and approximately 50% of the towns sex-appeal in one convenient package.

Second, I am now the proud owner of a bicycle! Her name is 'Linda' (after her previous owner) and it looks like she's done some hard service carting teachers like me to the workplace and beyond for many years. In any case, the bus is on the way out, and excellent thighs and calves are on the way in. I only have one problem; I haven't actually attempted to even go near a bike in something like 18 years.

That phrase, "it's like riding a bike" is completely erroneous. I can't ride a bike, I've been going out to the parking lot behind my apartment and doing ovals while I try to recover whatever anemic cycling skill I possessed as a pre-teen. I'm not sure what the Japanese people who walk past think; probably that it's some bizarre gaijin custom to wobble around a parking lot going 'woah!' and almost tumbling off every few seconds late at night. Hell, they probably think I'm drunk.

In a piece of random news to finish up, I've developed an appalling crush, really, like the stupidest celebrity crush I've ever had (OK, maybe not quite as stupid as the one on Phillip Schofield). It's mainly stupid because it's a girl on a poster. A poster that advertises a train service. A train service that isn't completed. In any case, I've already almost walked straight into two people while staring at her image; I'm not even sure why, objectively I don't even think she's that pretty, but there's just something about her smile. Anyway take a look and judge for yourself; am I deviant?

The smiley gal who makes me want to ride the unfinished Kagoshima shinkansen without due cause, damn you vixen!

Monday, 8 September 2008

Sports Festival, First Year

In Australian High schools there's sports day; I remember it well, and even with a certain fondness- there's totally nothing wrong with no class and no homework when you're between the ages of 13 and 17. I admit I wasn't completely into the actual sports side of thing; running fast, jumping high and throwing far have never really been great aspirations of mine, but I remember liking the hair spray and talking all day with my friends.

In Japan there's sports festival and it's uhhh... different. Not that there aren't sports; it's just... different sports, and group displays. Yeah; LOTSA group displays. I've already mentioned the cheerleaders and coloured board displays that turn groups of people into sort of living LCD readouts, but the boys also do this thing with synchronised pole twirling, and then there were a ton of groups doing everything from traditional drill team stuff to these intense martial arts displays.

There was running too, but it was definitely a side-show next to the parts where people dressed in full Kendo gear competed with people carrying longbows to carry random objects around an oval, or the teams of 20+ people trying to race with their legs tied together, or the aforementioned Kibusen battles. Seriously, I sat in the teachers tent (in between rounds of tug of war and ball tossing anyway) with a fairly droopy jaw most of the day.

A massed display of students. I don't know what this gesture means, but I'm 100% sure it has nothing to do with Naziism... probably.

Anyway, upsides to sportsday include an excelent cardiovascular workout, an awesome tan (although seriously dramatic should you happen to see me shirtless... or watchless), and a free staff shirt. The biggest plus was the enkai (roughly translated as 'work party') after the event; we went to this seriously classy conference venue, ate a lot and drank a lot, then moved on to a kareoke bar and ate not much and drank a lot, then went to an isakia and ate a little and drank a lot. We also sang songs (both kareoke and otherwise) and I somehow managed to converse with people with virtually no functional command of English. I guess all that study time must be paying off. Seriously, any language learner will tell you your fluency goes through the roof after the first 2 beers.

This pic is for my parents; yes, this is a cafe for dogs and cats- It's on my walk to school. There are in fact small tables and menus of pet food and drinks. They have things for humans too, I had a coffee there the other day with a charming beagle.

Today I'm going to Fukuoka to a) become a legal worker and b) get in some quality girlfriend time. Can you guess which one I'm excited about? If you need a hint- I hate filling out paperwork in big, dull government offices.

So I have a train to catch, bye fo' now peeps!


Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Stubbing your toe on the language barrier.

I've had some time to settle in by now, and I'm pretty much found a groove (or 'rut' if you're feeling pessimistic) to life here in a new place. As I mentioned earlier, Nogata really is a lot more 'relaxed' than Sasebo; both in terms of the job, and the place itself.

That means I have time for a lot of things that all too often went by the wayside before; I peruse the newspaper every day, along with finding time to read actual books (I'm on 'The Island of Dr. Moreau' right now, it's really good!) I stroll home after work because I'm not in a hurry to be anywhere and I like the journey, and sometimes I just sit outside on a park bench near my apartment with a cold cola or beer and watch the clouds roll over the mountains. It's all very zen.

The clouds scrape the mountains near my apartment. I can only imagine how picturesque the scene would be without the power lines.

Of course Sasebo is still there if there's a desperate need for crazy parties; I went back for the past two weekends, and while I'd love to say the place has changed dramatically... well, it really hasn't. This is probably a good thing, since the people I knew and loved are still just as loveable as ever. I admit to even being slightly entranced by the continuing soap-opera-esque drama that seems to envelop the town; no details here ('cause I never kiss and type) but congratulations to those who hooked up, commiserations to the post-break up crowd (You're better off, trust me) and 'good luck' the the rest of the population just trying to stay out of the line of fire- you'll need it.

At work, sports-day preparations continue apace; with lots more marching, banging of drums, practicing of dancing, rope tugging and the like; I finally got assigned a 'block' today (it's like a 'house'... y'know, like Harry Potter) I'm on team 'white' (yeah... RACIST right?) :P Anyway, I immediately got drafted into the 'ball scramble' team on the basis of height alone. Better than being on the Kibusen team I guess; that just looks scary.

I had something of an attitude adjustment a few days back regarding my approach to Japanese language learning. During my previous time I really did take an 'osmotic' approach to the language, soaking up a little here and there when and where I deemed it particularly useful, interesting and/or hilarious. There really didn't seem much need to go beyond that, particularly when the population of foreigners had ensured widespread adoption of English, and the use of Japanese was outright forbidden at work.

Now however it's a different story; In a place that often lacks English signage, populated by people who are truly and overwhelmingly monolingual I find myself constantly forced into impromptu games of charades to get anything beyond the simplest thought or request across. While in English I'm a tertiary-level language major who eats discourse, commentary and criticism for breakfast, in Japanese I'm about as accomplished as a crack-head barely holding down a job in a grimy convenience store- you know the one, the guy who can answer 'yes' and 'no', count to ten and ask if you want your insta-burrito heated, but can only manage a 'huh?' when you ask him what he thinks the weather will be like this afternoon.

My shoe locker in the staff lobby at Noko; at least I can write my name (well, most of the time).

Frankly, it's frustrating; I'm sick of dragging the office secretary to the fax machine because I can't read what any of the buttons say, I'm sick of giving questioning looks to friendly staff members who are trying to ask me questions that any Japanese kindergarten kid would be able to answer and I'm sick of asking 'do you like karaoke?' because it's one thing I can say fluently. It's time to do what no person who's not actively enrolled in an educational institution should have to do-

It's time to study.

Tonight's 'strange Japanese product' award goes to this new variety of 'No Calorie' (known as 'Diet' elsewhere) Coca-Cola + (PLUS!) Vitamin. No telling *which* vitamin they put in there, but the stuff tastes the same to me.

And so, armed with two phrasebooks, a Japanese/English dictionary (thanks Taea!), some self-made flash cards and a buncha free time I'm gonna try and crack this thing open; I'm putting in a few hours and work and some extra at night. This, combined with the fact that I'm freakin' living in Japan hopefully means I should be able to muster some proficiency within a reasonable timeframe. I'm aiming to be as smart as a 1st grader within 6 months. I'm asking you to hold me to it people.

And with that, ja matte for now; I'm going to review my particles.