Education

Dancin’ at Kindergarten

If you’ve never seen a five-year-old do the twist, get on it. It’s one of the cuter things you’re likely to witness in this life.

Now imagine 20 five-year old Japanese children all shaking their little hips as best as their uncoordinated bodies will let them and you get an impression of my morning. I spent the morning at Gembi Kindergarten and doing an impression of Vincent Vega with the kids is an image I hope I never lose from my mental imagery file.

Visiting a kindergarten is actually pretty easy. The instructional component of each class is minimal (even more so than elementary school). For the most part, I just play games with the little tykes. In today’s case, I spent half the time dancing with the budding Baryshnikovs. Okay Baryshnikovs is a stretch, but you get the idea.

Any difficulties are addressed (mostly) by the Japanese teachers I work with. Shy or undisciplined students are given hugs or glares respectively and not too much trouble ensues. Really, the only concern I had was for my health. If they weren’t trying to shake my hand with their snot-encrusted fingers, they were plotting ways to get close to my butt to either grab it or poke it. Not that a four year old can do much damage to my butt, (in fact, my butt can probably do more damage to a four your old’), but you can never be too careful. Not to mention, you don’t want to set a bad precedent – bum poking now turns into the infamous kancho later.

I didn’t fear for my safety while being tackled by a hoarde of three years olds. You could probably pile a couple dozen on top of me before I would be unable to burst forth like He-Man in a swarm of enemies. No, the tackling was good fun and the kids made no effort to exploit my vulnerable position.

Instead, the only time any harm came my way was while playing London Bridge. In this harmless game, it’s pretty hard to get injured in any way, but one kid managed to help me to that end. While filing into line, one boy ahead of me decided that giving me an upward-motion karate chop to the groin. He landed a direct hit. But again, he was only four. So, while such a blow delivered by an adult would have landed me in a heap on the floor, this was only mildly surprising.

Though it wasn’t painful, it was, however, a little disappointing. I had managed to make it ten months in Japan without any of my students hitting, groping, poking, pinching, slapping, fondling, kicking, head-butting, elbowing, biting, setting fire to, or otherwise making obviously intentional and inappropriate contact with my genitals.

Sure, at every second urinal where I have a neighbour, I find them trying to sneak a peak at my gaijin endowments (I swear, one day, I’m just going to pee on someone), but no one has really tried to do any damage there before. Fortunately for me, his attempt to render me infertile was unsuccessful (at least, I assume so – we’ll have to wait for the test results).

So aside from the testicle punching and germ-ridden hands, kindergarten is actually a good time. But next time, maybe I’ll wear a cup.


Recent Memories

I want to share all these thoughts, memories and experiences with you, but the days are too short.

I want to tell you about chest bumping with my students and being hurled halfway down the hall when one of them, with the build of a junior sumo wrestler, bumped me and sent me flying. His low centre of gravity and pudgy frame makes him into an immovable object and me into an off-balance, stumbling clown. He is the chest bump champion.

I want to tell you about how I utter miniature prayers for deliverance every time I walk to Yasakae Junior High. There is a stretch of road where the sidewalk ends and I have to walk on the street while 18-wheelers carrying crushed cars, agricultural equipment, or toxic waste scream past. Their unstoppable frames push me aside with their currents and each time I hear them approaching from behind, my brain whispers, “Please don’t kill me.”

I want to tell you about the low-flying clouds and the light and shadow they cast over these rural hills. I want to stop and set up a tripod, but instead I have to continue on from the bus stop to the school to do my job. But these clouds, you would just have to climb a low hill and you would be able to jump up and touch them. I had never understood how enormous Calgary’s skies were until I left them.

I want to tell you about teaching my students to call me “handsome sensei” and hearing them giggle endlessly through class.

I want to tell you about the girl at in grade four Ichinoseki elementary who speaks better English than any of my other students at any level. When I told her that her English was great, she matter-of-factly told me, “I’m half.” I later learned she has lived in America. But every time I see her, I am so thrilled because I get to interact with one of my students in a more meaningful way. We can actually understand each other. The language barrier doesn’t exist and it is so freeing.

The other day, I was playing basketball with her and some other students when one of my shots bounced off the back of the rim, over the backboard and got stuck between the backboard and railing above it. Already giddy from playing with the kids, I laughed, “I don’t think I could do that again if I tried!” She understood perfectly and said, “I don’t think you could either!”

Now, I don’t know if I can communicate to you just how significant this is. As I have often said, my Japanese is terrible. And I must now say the awful truth here: these kids, their English is terrible. It’s an unfortunate fact that I am trying to change, but for now, it’s a fact. Yes, we can communicate with each other, but it’s only through considerable effort on everyone’s part and the messages are always simple.

But with this girl, I can actually converse with her. In the middle of English class with me, while learning such simple phrases as, “I like baseball,” she occasionally turns to me and blurts out, “This is too easy!” I think I might make her teach the class next time.

I want to tell you about every moment of my recent tour of Japan and how I felt so alive behind the camera. My feet ached after 15 hours of walking in a day, but the only reason I went to bed was so that I wouldn’t get sick and prevent myself from seeing more. If I could have, I would have shot and explored all night.

I want to tell you about every soccer goal I’ve scored and every basket I’ve made. And I want to tell you about every shot scored against me and every basket scored by the opposing teams. I’m competitive enough with myself that I still get excited when I score a basket – even if it’s against a bunch of 12 year olds. But, I love these kids enough that when their efforts against me yield success, I am just as happy.

Sometimes, I actually impress myself. At one of my schools, the basketball games sometimes resemble rugby more than basketball. The gym often gets full way past capacity and a hundred kids crowd a single court. At any given time, there may be three or four basketball games going on one court and dozens of other kids playing tag or twirling hula hoops or just running over to say hello. This turns the gym into a living obstacle course. When I impress myself is when I am capable of running the length of the floor without toppling over a tyke. Occasionally, I’m able to finish a play with some Jordan-esque reverse lay-up or a dunk on their less-than-regulation height baskets. At those moments, I truly am the best basketball player in Iwate.

But then, they come back at me. They get near the basket and start their passing. I’ll get in front of one determined to take a shot and he or she will pump fake. I’ll jump into the air and while soaring above a body I already dwarfed, the young star will step around me and deftly flip the ball in for two points. And I yell in mock frustration at my defeat, then in praise and celebration of their skill. We all smile together, then run the other way so I can try to get a pass to a teammate to score.

I want to tell you about the caretaker at Yasakae Junior High and how, if I were staying in Japan for longer, would probably turn into a very good friend. He’s my age and likes video games, snowboarding and punk rock. He’s a kid like me and that’s hard to find in Japan. Something seems to happen to people here when they go to university and enter the workforce. They each emerge from that cocoon as a worker any and only let loose at the occasional enkai.

But not Sato-san. He chest bumps the students with me. He plays soccer and basketball with the kids and me. He takes every chance he can get to ask me about the Rocky Mountains because he would love nothing more than to carve trails through endless powder on his snowboard.

I want to tell you all these things. I want to empty the contents of my brain into a bucket from which you could drink. I want to let you see through my eyes and hear with my ears – hear not only the world around me, but also the din in my head.

But I can’t tell you all these things. There is no time to express everything I feel and think. I am greedy. I want more of these experiences. And I don’t want to miss anything because I was taking too much time to write about yesterday.


Graduation at Hagishou

Yesterday, I was privileged enough to attend the graduation ceremonies at Hagishou Junior High, one of my favourite schools. Donning my tie for the first time in a long time, I cycled in the ever-improving spring weather to the 200-strong school South of Ichinoseki.

I didn’t really know what to expect from the ceremony. Graduations are a significant affair here in Japan and each transition to a new school level is rewarded with a graduation event. I don’t recall any such formal events marking my exit from elementary or junior high school, but here, they’re the norm.

Red and white fabric hung from the walls of the gymnasium while the heaters roared their warmth into the normally chilly space. The first and second-years of the school sang as the graduating third-years stoically filed into their seats. Speeches, songs and parchment presentations filled the schedule until all of the graduating class was positioned in tiers at the front of the gym with girls on the left and boys on the right.

There, the somber stoicism continued as the entire class recited a speech with each student completing a new line. And then the crying began’

As soon as one girl stumbled through her line as she began to sob, a trend was set. Few of the girls retained their composure and the graduation started to feel more like a funeral.

Next on the schedule was for all of these now sobbing children to sing together. Thus far, each of the songs echoing in the gym had been flowery, sentimental melodies laden with melodrama. You could easily visualize the videos that would play behind the text at karaoke for these tunes:

A young Japanese couple wistfully strolls through a park in autumn. Hand in hand, they gaze longingly at each other. They reach the edge of the park. The girl must continue one to leave the boy standing alone. Cut to a shot of their hands separating. Cut to a shot of the distance between the two figures increasing as the girl can’t help looking back on her forlorn former love. Cut to a shot the last leaf falling from a tree branch. Fade to black’

Of course these students are going to weep during such schmaltzy songs. Japanese kids eat this stuff up. So, while trying to sing what was undoubtedly some anthem for change and rebirth, the girls sniffed and sobbed forming a background noise like the hisses and pops of a dusty record.

The weeping youth eventually departed the gym, again ushered out by emotive melodies. The ceremony had finished and left me wondering when they actually got to celebrate this period in their lives.

Fortunately, a short time later, all of the kids were back in the gym for photos and their glassy eyes were now shining. Friends hugged and cameras flashed while parents posed with happy graduates. A good number of my students paid me the compliment of asking me to pose with them for photos and I flashed the peace sign with the best of ‘em.

Of course, Toshie, the girl with the crush, was ecstatic to see me. All of her friends lined to get a shot of us together: Toshie and her future husband’

I mingled with the kids and even did a couple celebratory chest bumps. That doesn’t compare with Josh, however, he told me in an email later that day that his students managed to pick him up and toss him in the air. An impressive feat considering Josh’s respectable height.

The students continued their mingling outside as they bid farewell to their school and their teachers. More handshaking, hugs and photos ensued and waves goodbye with jovial chants of ‘See you!’ punctuated the day’s events.

What a gift to watch these people grow. These third-years have been some of my favourite students to meet. They’re an outgoing group and always made a great effort to communicate with me in English as well as teach me Japanese. I have so many great memories with them and I wish them all the best.


The Phantom Kancho

10:30 am

My guess is that the most remarkable thing that will happen here at the office today has already occurred. At the end of this minor catastrophe, Michiko-san’s desk was covered in coffee. Her miniature computer, calculator, papers and cell-phone all received a liberal dousing and now reek of something resembling barf.

I have no idea what prompted it, but it must have been a spectacular twitch to set so much coffee flying. My theory is that a Japanese elementary student was running loose in the Board of Education offices and snuck up behind Michiko-san to deliver a tragically on-target Kancho. If you don’t know what a Kancho is, you have obviously never taught at the elementary level in Japan’

Basically, Kancho is a bizarre ‘game’ the kids play where they clasp their hands together with their index fingers pointing upwards. Well, those two little index fingers need someplace to poke. What better place to put them than in someone’s unsuspecting ass. Yup, it’s a bum-poking game.

What strikes me as particularly odd about this game is that there really are no winners. Obviously, anyone who ends up with two fingers in their rear is on the wrong end of invasive tomfoolery. But, really, can the proprietor of those two fingers truly be called a winner? I mean, your fingers were just in someone else’s ass crack for Buddha’s sake. No hero cookie for you my friend’

Now, I haven’t exactly done a lot of research on the subject, but someone mentioned to me that there is actually a Kancho video game in Korea where you guide those same pointed fingers towards the posteriors of unsuspecting, bent-over animated characters on the screen. The more accurate you are with your penetrating prod, the more surprised the character will be and the greater reaction you will receive.

So, to the Kancho ninja who so stealthily maneuvered behind Michiko-san and prompted the coffee explosion. Congrats dude, I think you just got a high score.


A Crush (Part II)

1:40 pm

My Hagishou girlfriend has struck again. At lunch time, two of dear Toshie’s friends entered the teacher’s room with a Hello-Kitty-adorned gift bag in hand and presented it to me. They stammered out, ‘From Toshie,’ and giggled when I reacted to the cuteness of her crush.

As they laughed and left the room, I opened the package to find one heart-shaped chocolate wrapped in pink foil, a bag filled with incredibly delicious soft chocolates (I want more of these, they really were wonderful) and a letter from Toshie. Her note reads as follows:

‘This is a little days late valentine’s chocolate. I heard you come today. So I made it yesterday. Be my valentine! I love you.

I will graduate from Hagishou junior high school soon. So let’s keep in touch. Let’s exchange letters.

Please write me back if you have time.

Lots of love,

Toshie’

She neatly transcribed her address in both Japanese and English and also provided her email. I can’t really think of too many reasons not to give her my email. The only concern I would have is that it might get passed around among the students resulting in a few unsolicited messages, but that probably wouldn’t be a big deal. I could tell her it was secret too. She’d probably like that.


I Wear My Sunglasses…

I’m sure I must look like a bit of a curiosity right now. I’m melting in my chair from exhaustion and wearing sunglasses inside the teachers’ room at Hagishou Junior High. The teachers all now seem to know of my eye’s condition, but any student that sees me today is just going to think I’m hungover or something. If only there was an equal part of pleasure to go with this pain’

I have had my one and only class today and managed to stumble through it without too much trouble. If I didn’t have Prednisone coursing through my veins at present, I would be feeling chipper and playing basketball in gym class with the kids right now. That’s a bit more fun than chronicling this dreary disease afflicting me.


Metamorphosis of a Cyclops

I seem to have forgotten that I like writing. Actually, for the last few days, I’ve been a little preoccupied. I’ve had some health trouble. My left eye is now an inflated disk of blurry evil. So, I was also a little worried about looking at the bright, blank, white page that comes with each startup of Word.

But, it’s not so bright that I want to scream. And a little writing might keep me occupied until my next set of eye drops (which, considering I have to put them in every hour, won’t be long).

In truth, I expect I won’t be returning to this text anytime soon. These are not days upon which I will look fondly in the future. Monday may have been my worst day here in Japan and I spent a good portion of it in tears. I can only talk about this now because I believe the worst is over and the worst never got as bad as it could have.

It began on February 12th. After taking a trip out to Geibikei Gorge with Sarah to meet up with some slightly more Northern Iwateans, we ventured back to Sarah’s for dinner and a movie. While viewing the film, I grew fairly fatigued and when it was over I was ready for bed right away. I had also had a headache centered around my left eye. Nothing too spectacular, but enough for me to reach for a couple pills to dull the ache.

As I was leaving and turning to say goodbye to Sarah, I got a shot of pain in my eye as I turned from the dark exterior of her apartment to the brightly lit kitchen. She also noticed that I had a rather bloodshot left eye. I suspected it was just yet another symptom of my chronic fatigue of the last few months, so I went home to rest and, hopefully, take care of the problem.

The next morning, however, did not bring the relief I desired. Prying open my left eye revealed a world of fog. A photographic trick for achieving a certain kind of blur is to smudge some Vaseline onto a filter in front of the lens. That’s how the world appeared to me.

I hoped that the feeling would pass, but while I went through my morning rituals, the improvement was minimal. I called Sarah and she, in turn, called her friend Sayumi who happens to be a pharmacist. The Sayumi cavalry arrived with multiple eye drops in hand and a recommendation for an eye clinic on Monday.

Never having been a fan of inserting anything into my eye, the drops proved to be a bit of a challenge at first. I treated myself and hoped this was a one-day freak occurrence.

St. Valentine brought no love for my fuzzy vision. I woke and saw no improvement in my condition. I prepared to make my first visit to a Japanese health care-professional. I had hoped to avoid the experience, but that was not in the cards.

To try to break down the inevitable communication barrier, I first stopped at the Board of Education and got Aya to write down my symptoms so that I would be able to tell the doctor what was wrong with me.

I trudged over to the clinic, handed them the sheet of my problems and hoped this wouldn’t be too much of an ordeal.

They patiently dealt with me and my horrendous Japanese while administering basic eye check tests. Soon, I was in the doctor’s room where he did some more checks on the culprit eye. Routine checks with lights pointed into my eye were no problem, but then, I was asked to keep my head and chin pressed against a support. Slowly, some kind of instrument approached my reluctant eye and they told me to look down.

A gooey lens of some sort was being pressed up against my cornea. Not having a clue what was going on combined with my eye phobia and I became a little bit panicked. My eyelids kept pushing the instrument out from its intended target and I had to fall away from the test to relax.

They calmed me down and I eventually completed the test. I’ve later learned that it was a fairly routine way of checking the pressure in my eye, but considering the circumstances, I think my apprehension was completely understandable.

Aya was kind enough to write down her phone number on the sheet of symptoms and the clinic was quick to call her to try to relay information to me. They wanted to put drops in my eyes that would make it difficult for me to see, so they wanted someone to come to the clinic so that I would be able to safely return home. Thankfully, Aya was able to join me at the clinic and serve as a translator for the rest of my time there.

After administering eye drops a plenty, the doctor went in to inspect more eye issues. Eventually, he diagnosed me with Acute Anterior Uveitis (AAU). Of course, I didn’t really know what that meant, but he tried to explain what was going on. Essentially, my iris and parts of my eye near the iris had become inflamed. He said that it can happen when a patient suffers a trauma to the eye (which I hadn’t) or when the patient has recently battled an infection (again, I hadn’t).

So, the cause was a mystery, but his prescription was three drops I had to take four times a day. They were to take down the inflammation and things should get back to normal. I would see him in a few days and we would check my progress then,

Thursday rolls around and it feels as though my eye has improved. I go back to the clinic and he affirms my self-diagnosis. The iris was still inflamed, but not as badly as before. He showed me photos he had taken of my eye on each doctors visit and in the first photo, there was a streak of white cells in the cornea that were no longer present in the newer version. My vision was getting better, so I was pleased that things were going smoothly.

I continue along on the same course of medication and I am scheduled to return to the clinic in a week.

Up until Sunday, I believe I was progressing. My vision continued to improve ever so slightly, so I was content to continue on the same path. But then, Sunday rolls around and I open my eye a sheath of impenetrable murk. I could hardly make out any shapes at all. This was not good. This was scary. Why wasn’t this getting any better?

I start doing some more research on this affliction of mine and learn something startling. The AAU plaguing me is most likely caused by another condition from which I suffer: ankylosing spondylitis (AS). Now, AS affects my back and hip. I never thought it could somehow be related to an eye problem, but apparently, 30% of people who suffer from AS end up suffering AAU. In fact, many people are diagnosed with AS when they are first attacked by AAU.

I started looking up more information about AS and learned more about what causes it and the effects it can produce. I won’t go into a bunch of medical jargon that I don’t really understand anyway, but the easiest way to put it is that I got blessed with an unlucky gene that makes a naturally-occurring bacteria in my digestive system do nasty things to me.

One of the weird things about this particular bacteria is that it feeds off starch. So, one of the means of combating the symptoms of AS is to go on a no-starch diet (NSD). Often, this is preceded by a three-day cleanse diet during which the menu features nothing but apples. The apple thing seemed pretty extreme to me and the NSD is nigh impossible for a vegetarian living in Japan (not to mention my total incompetence in the kitchen).

But I was getting desperate. Instead of my favourite food, pizza, Sunday night’s dinner would be a salad-oriented affair.

The next morning, my vision had not improved, so I became even more desperate and decided I might give the apple diet a try. Two apples for breakfast later and I was off to city hall to get further translation work done by Aya. I wanted to be able to tell the doctor that I suffered from AS and perhaps this would help in guiding my treatment. Aya, however, was able to join me in my visit to the doctor and Michiko-san tagged along as the third member of team Darby.

After the initial tests, I went back into the doctor’s office and he began taking more photos of my eye. Well, I was no longer making progress. Just the opposite, actually. The inflammation had gone up and I was now hosting some disgusting looking white fluid at the base of my iris called hypopyon. I believe it is actually an accumulation of white blood cells that drifts down from the middle of my cornea. When he showed me the picture, I was shocked and terrified. ‘What is that? Please tell me what that is,’ was all I could stammer out and he couldn’t really explain it to me fully.

And the panic came back. I started to get really worried about the state of my eye and if I was going to be okay. Also, I detected a hint of desperation in his voice that didn’t exactly inspire confidence in me. I got the impression that things were not exactly going well here.

He wanted me to go to the hospital to get a complete physical to better determine what was going on. I started to get terribly worried and one glance at the disgusting photo of my eye up on his computer screen was enough to drive me to tears.

The doctor wrote down all of his findings and we were sent off to the hospital. After a series of maneuvers through the hospital’s bureaucracy that would have baffled me completely without Aya’s help, I was eventually admitted to the eye unit. There, the same tests repeated themselves and I was again administered some slow-acting eye drops.

Lunchtime was rolling around and my two-apple breakfast was hardly sustaining me. We went downstairs to the snack shop where we were accosted by a bizarre English speaker who thought I would really want to chat with him in the middle of my hospital visit. Since that wasn’t exactly the case, we diverted our course to the nearby convenience store where my search for apples to continue my cleansing diet was fruitless (sorry for the pun).

A few snacks later, we wandered back to the eye ward where I was promptly ushered to the doctor’s desk. Here’s where it gets a bit ugly.

After blazing what felt like concentrated sunlight into my eye, he started giving me the bad news. I was in danger of losing my eyesight. With an inflamed iris, fluid from behind the iris cannot escape to the front of the eye. Thus, pressure can build up inside the eye creating strain on the ocular nerve and eventually damaging it leading to glaucoma. A cataract was also a possibility.

Now, if the pressure got really bad, I would likely feel a sharp pain in my eye or a bad headache or severe nausea. If this occurred, I was to return to the hospital with all speed and I would be given emergency surgery that involved blowing a hole through my iris to relieve the pressure.

Not eager to face that prospect, he told me one of the steps that might be necessary to halt the inflammation and pressure before it got to such a critical stage: I would have to get an injection of steroids into my eye. Yes, into my eye. Not around it. In it.

This qualifies as, literally, one of my worst nightmares. Now, I’m an incredible coward when it comes to needles in the first place. I’ve passed out from blood tests and vaccinations and yes, during my tattoo session. It’s not a pain issue. I’ve felt pain far worse than any needle I’ve experienced and came out conscious. It’s psychological. I can’t really explain it, but I simply cannot relax properly when it comes to needles.

I already told you how awful I was when it came to eye problems, so just imagine how petrified I became at combining these two phobias. I asked if it was going to be possible to knock me out for such an endeavour and the answer was no. He told me that a local anesthetic would be dropped into my eye and then the injection would follow. I didn’t even understand how this could be possible. In all seriousness, I couldn’t see a way for me to allow this procedure to be done to me. I would freak out, perhaps punch someone and run screaming from the hospital bed. Huge doses of Valium or something were going to be required.

Needless to say, when informed of this horrendous prospect, I was back in tears. My fright got the best of me.

With my adrenaline still pumping like mad, he gave me orders to double my eye drop dosage and to take steroid pills. If the eye hadn’t improved in 24 hours, I was to have the injection.

I went home in terror and spent much of the afternoon in a panic. Calmed ever so slightly by friendly visitors and phone calls, I was able to get some sleep. Sarah was kind enough to remain at my house in case of emergency and as soon as I finish writing this, I’m going to have to burn a CD thank you gift for her.

I woke the next morning with the most minor improvement from the previous day and set out to arm myself with as much knowledge as possible. My research suggested that I was actually being under-medicated (possibly a first in Japan). I took it upon myself to up my dosage of steroid drops that morning.

A couple hours later, my vision seemed to have improved a little and I was feeling a bit more relaxed. While I was feeling more confident, that relaxation didn’t last long when I arrived at the doctor’s office in the afternoon. A few tests preceded my trip to his darkened desk where he peered into my afflicted eye once more.

No injection! I can’t express how relieved I was. The pressure was down. The inflammation was down. My pupil was wide open and the fluid from the back of my eye was properly draining. I actually raised my fists in triumph and yelled a celebratory Japanese ‘Sugoi!’ in the doctor’s office, which prompted giggling from the members of team Darby.

Things were looking better. He decided to keep me on the raised dosage of steroid drops and I also got him to give me a nighttime ointment for my eye that was recommended to me. Also, I was to keep up the steroid regimen. He said I would be able to go back to work as well. In my excitement, I said I would try to go to work the next day – I was feeling great at the time, so why not?

I felt great when I got home. I talked with Sarah who was now suffering from a bad headache, so I figured I would repay her previous night’s kindness by fetching something from the grocery store for her. I quickly experienced one of the side effects of the steroids: fatigue. By the time I had purchased the milk and shuffled to Sarah’s I was exhausted.

Today, my vision seems to still be improving by small degrees, but when I woke, I felt quite exhausted. I told the office I didn’t think I would be able to teach today. Aya responded that when I said I would be able to work the previous day, the schedule at the school had been changed to accommodate me and making all the changes was difficult for them, so could I please go and teach the classes?

I conceded and grumpily prepared to amble through the snow. Unfortunately, the previous night’s fatigue promptly invaded and the walk to school left me spent. Ready to collapse, I entered the teacher’s room at Yamanome elementary school and tried to prepare myself for a couple hours of teaching.

All the present teachers, however, saw my wretched state and quickly cancelled my visits to class. I was driven home with a bit of an ‘I told you so’ attitude being projected in the general direction of the Board of Education.


A Crush

One of my students has a crush on me. No doubt, this is a common occurrence and hardly noteworthy in circles occupied by teachers, but it’s new to me, and thus, good fun.

Her name is Toshie and she is one of my grade nine students. Each time I have been at her school, my presence around her has induced giggles and blushing a plenty, but this most recent sojourn to Hagishou Jr. High has seen her step up her level of involvement.

Last week, while engaging in snow-based combat with my students after lunch, a sing-song yell of ‘I love you Darby-sensei!’ chimed from the school balcony over the battle cries and sounds of snowballs slapping exposed heads. Ok. Well, I guess I can play along with a harmless crush, ‘I love you too!’ Screams and delighted giggles followed.

Yesterday, in her class, I was asking questions to each student such as ‘Where do you live?’ and ‘What are you going to do next Sunday?’ All these questions are from a set list and I was randomly choosing questions for each student.

When I reached Toshie, I randomly chose, ‘Do you want to go abroad?’ She happily responded with the canned answer of ‘Yes, I do.’ Now, this question comes with a couple of follow up questions. Next on the list is, ‘Where do you want to go?’ Her face beginning to flush, she answered, ‘I want to go to Canada.’

Before I asked the third question, I naively thought to myself, ‘Cool, she wants to go to my home country. I wonder why.’ And so I asked the follow-up, ‘Why do you want to go there?’

Before finishing, my naivet’ had faded and I already knew the answer to her question. I couldn’t stifle my laughter and neither could the rest of the class. By this point, Toshie was as red as the bars of the Canadian flag. Her classmates giggled at her and she slapped back at them while laughing at her predicament.

But, brave girl that she is, she managed to regain her composure long enough to ignore the hilarity surrounding her and blurt out her reply, ‘To meet Darby-sensei!’ Laughter and applause erupted in the classroom while the red-faced girl re-took her seat. My belly ached from laughing with all the kids.

The next morning, in between classes, Toshie appeared in the teachers’ room and stopped me as I passed her. She handed me a miniature envelope sealed with a sticker featuring the faces of her and a friend while adequately delivering a, ‘This is for you.’ She also passed me a small, hand-stitched Hello Kitty head with a little, green bowtie. In her other hand she held another of these most-beloved Japanese icons with a pink bow-tie. She pointed to the one she had just given, ‘This is you’ and at her own feline friend, ‘This is me.’

Before I could finish expressing my gratitude, she had giggled her way out the door.

In the Hello Kitty envelope written on Hello Kitty paper was a note that read as follows:

‘Dear Darby

Thank you very much for everything. You are so cool, so I am in love with you. We can’t meet some days. I’ll miss you. I’m looking forward to seeing you again. Do come back to see us.

Lots of love,

Toshie’

Not only is that that the cutest thing in the world, but the English is pretty good too!

So, to Toshie, I want to thank you for providing the most memorable and uplifting moments of an otherwise grey week.


Here Kitty!

Yesterday, while riding my bike to Ichinoseki elementary school, I almost ran over a dead cat.

While crossing a small bridge and nearing the last block of my journey, I was confidently peddling along the street. Up ahead, in a quick glance, I noticed what I thought was a discarded plastic bag resting about a foot away from the curb. I thought little of it. I would steer between the curb and the bag and if I should happen to navigate poorly, I would err on the side of the bag. So what if I run over an empty plastic bag, right?

Still confidently riding along, I approached the gap and glanced down again to plan my trajectory when an alarm when off. The alarm sounded something like my voice rising in shock at the sight fast approaching my front wheel, ‘Whaaaaaagh!’ Yeah, something like that.

Someone’s poor, little, white cat had suffered some mortal injury and was now sprawled on the pavement. Really, it looked like it was just resting comfortably, but I know for a fact that this was indeed a dearly departed feline – no living cat would allow a cyclist to pass within inches of its ears without darting away let alone not blinking.

So, little Fluffy would have had the shock of a lifetime, had her life not already been over. And I had a good fright too. I was surprised enough by the discovery that while my cry of shock was still escaping my lips, I veered away from the corpse. The sound of my pedal scraping along the curb awoke me to the fact that there really wasn’t any place to veer to. Grating along the concrete, I poured all of my willpower into not hitting the cat and not toppling over the curb.

I narrowly escaped both of those fates and came through with little more than a racing heart. If luck were more cruel to me, however, I could have easily noticed the cat’s presence earlier, veered into the curb, lost my balance and face-planted into the body of the former pet. Not only would that have been a traumatizing memory worth of at least a couple therapy sessions, but it would have given me the allergic reaction of a lifetime. It might have made this story more interesting, but I’m damn happy it didn’t turn out that way.


Here Comes November

I’ve been going through a bit of a slump lately. I think a few things are catching up with me. My lack of sleep is running me down and the cold I’ve had keeps lingering. Combine that with the increasingly short daylight hours, the increasingly intense work hours and what I think might be the onset of culture shock and you have a boy struggling to stay smiling.

The good news is that step one to solving these difficulties is now complete. I’ve identified them. So, let’s move on to potential solutions.

Tomorrow, I’m planning on tracking down an alarm clock. A loud one. It has to be loud because I’m going to start wearing earplugs to bed. The loading dock, the ravens, the baby next door – their cries will all fall on my deaf, plugged ears.

That should help with the cold and that should be on its way out anyway. To prevent this from happening again, some serious hand washing has become a part of my school routine. Those kids are going to have to put their boogers directly in my mouth for me to get sick from them. And if they try that, it will be their health that’s in jeopardy.

The daylight hours thing is tricky. This bothers me at home too. November is always a problematic month for me and frequently sees me pining for some equatorial region when the sun’s hours are constant and where I won’t have to worry about these long nights. I think one thing that’s important for me is to make sure I get outside at least a little bit each day. A lunchtime walk or something will keep me a bit more sane. This might be difficult depending on which school seeks my services, but the more I see of the friendly ball of fusion up high in the sky, the happier I will be.

The work hours seem to be slowing down a little and I’m starting to learn how to deal with the long weeks. I’ve had a couple quite challenging ones and I took the second one much more in stride than the first, so hopefully, I can continue that trend.

And lastly, the culture shock. This one’s a bit trickier because I haven’t exactly been in circumstances like this before. Sure, my time in Ghana gave me my share of fits, but this is a whole new situation. (And I still blame the Larium for much of my African instability.) But, I do have a number of coping strategies to try out and some thinking to do. I’ll manage.

But for now, I think the lack of sleep is catching up with me. Keeping my eyes open is getting rather difficult. I best stop typing lest I faceplant into my PowerBook.


Catch-up

Again, I am way too behind on things. I think I will have to resort to the horror that is point form catch-up.

August 31:

  • My first real typhoon rattles my windows and keeps me awake most of the night. After a series of changes to my schedule, I am supposed to go to city hall, then I will get driven to school. I ploughed through the driving rain on foot and emerged soaked at city hall. Soon after arriving, I am told my first day of school is cancelled. I have nothing to do all day at city hall except read and try not to fall asleep.
  • At 11:30, clear skies have rolled in and I can only ask, ‘Typhoon wa doku desu ka?’
  • September 1
    My first day of school at Hagishou. It’s a great building and the people there are very helpful and friendly. The kids are jubilant and inquisitive as could be. One boy, Kenta followed me around and tried to teach me some Japanese while also trying to absorb some English.
  • Takahashi-sensei and Koiwa-sensei are both good English speakers and did a good job of translating my many self-introductions.
  • The introductions went well and all the students introduced themselves back to me. A couple girls went so far as to ask me if I liked them. I went with the politically correct answer of saying that I liked them all.
  • I tutored Misuki after school with her Freddie the Leaf speech, or in her ever-so-cute case, Fweddie the Leaf.

September 2:

  • Back to Hagishou. They held a morning assembly to welcome me, the highlight of which was probably the welcome yelling/clapping/drumming.
  • The kids call Koiwa sensei ago-sensei. He has a strong jaw and they try to make fun of his chin. He, in turn, wrestles with them and shuts them up ever so briefly.
  • Kenta learned a couple English phrases to try to say to me like, ‘This is a present for you,’ At which point he would look around for anything he could hand to me.
  • I had lunch with Koiwa-sensei’s class where we talked about Canadian ways of doing things, Poland (Koiwa sensei spent three years there) and my ability to use chopsticks.
  • After lunch, I had my first real class with Takahashi-sensei. We taught the students the usage of ‘How many?’ then played a game where they had to janken (rock, paper, sciscors), then ask questions to their classmates.
  • I tutored after school again. Both Mizuki and Momo (her name means peach, how cool). Mizuki was doing okay, but Momo needed to memorize her speech more.

September 3:

  • A day spent at the BOE bugging Sarah until she went home sick. Guess I bugged her too much.
    That night was the Mizusawa party. Sarah wasn’t going to go since she was ill, but I twisted her rubber arm and she joined Jo, Brent, Alice and I for the ride North.
  • The dinner was great and there was a ton of vegetarian food for me to sample. And they had pineapple juice. Lots of it. I dreamed of South America.
  • Met a few of the second years, most notably Alicia and Jerry who live in Mizusawa.
    Had a good time joking around with everyone and continuing to build up a little social circle here.
  • Went back to Ichinoseki and hung out at Sarah’s until 3:00 am.

September 4:

  • Thanet woke me up at 9:00 am, as she was supposed to. I was supposed to go visit her and watch her in the festival in Shiwa, but she said it would be fairly dull for anyone not participating in it, so I stayed in Ichinoseki.
  • I tried to sleep more to no avail.
  • I got up and visited Sarah to take her some flowers and a bit of food for her weak stomach.
  • I then headed of to Gembikei Gorge on my bike for some photos and exploration.
    As I was hitching up my bike and pulling out my camera, a man with a horse and carriage came over to me and we eventually communicated with each other that he was offering me a free ride. I climbed aboard and he cranked up his stereo so that it was blaring themes from Western movies while the horses carted us past the gorge. Allergies aside, I was a lovely, hilarious ride.
  • I explored one small portion of the gorge and took a few photos, then I wandered in the direction of the flying dango. A woman who spoke good English befriended me and gave me some of her dango to sample. Not bad, but not necessarily worth the trip to the gorge for only some fancily-delivered rice paste.
  • I cycled back and met up with Sarah and Rachael. Again, we had to persuade Sarah, but we all ended up going to Kurt’s band’s show at the bunka centre. Their dramatic singer belted out some rock ditties while Kurt donned his rock star sunglasses to pound out the beats.
  • The next act was a group of 17-year-old high school students called The Joes playing three-chord punk rock. The singer was so full of energy. Just wicked. They sang Blitzkrieg Bop and made my night.
  • After the show, Rachael and Sarah made some yummy stir fry at Sarah’s. Kurt joined us and we watched my goofy movies from the Internet then watched Signs – Sarah squealed.

September 5:

  • I woke early to get to the train station where Gemma and her friend Homiko (damn if I could ever remember a Japanese name – I’m sure that’s wrong) picked Josh and I up to drive to Sendai.
  • First stop was the glorious Yodobashi electronics store. Good thing they don’t have one in Ichinoseki or I’d be broke.
  • Our whole day consisted of shopping, shopping, shopping. We checked out a number of book stores and some clothing stores. And anything else cool we could find. We embarked on a quest for the elusive domo-kun and at last we found him. My life is now complete.
  • I should mention the drag queen we saw in the underpass. Incredibly tall wearing a pink boa and a bikini, face painted white and eyes painted black. I was too intimidated to ask for a photo.
  • The domo-kun was found in a mall outside of Sendai’s downtown core. There we also hunted for Engrish shirts for Josh, but without much success.

September 6:

Monday and back to work. My first day of elementary school. I went to Yamanome Elementary school which isn’t all that far from city hall. One teacher there spoke very good English and served as a translator for the whole day, especially during my introductions to the kids. Predictably, the kids were cute as could be and they all loved the photos I brought from Calgary. I was interviewed by a few kids for the school paper. So cute. I ate lunch with them and while we didn’t talk much, due to the language barrier, I think they still liked having me there.

September 7:

  • Spent the morning at the BOE then took the bus out to Hondera Elementary school and all of its 38 students.
  • Karihara sensei guided me there with some photos he had taken earlier and I was able to make it to the bus stop without a problem.
  • I sat with some of the staff for a while and we tried to communicate, then I was ushered to the gym where we held our class.
  • I did a self-intro, then they introduced themselves very briefly. They were cute as could be. We played a game where they all got some miniature Canadian flags at the end of it (which were later attached to chopsticks and waved feverishly in my direction).
  • They then sang their school song that was just beautiful and nearly brought a tear to my eye.
  • Again I sat with some of the staff and then I was taken home by someone whose English was as bad as my Japanese. We attempted to converse while I had my nose buried in my phrasebook.

September 8:

  • Had fun with Sarah all day. She is great.
  • Well, yes, Sarah did write that, but she’s right too.
  • Anyway, yesterday was the speech contest so Sarah and I took the bus to the school and met up with Kurt, Josh and another ALT from Hiraizumi, Sean.
  • Tried not to fall asleep through all of the speeches, though some of them were quite entertaining, it was just that there were so many.
  • Sarah was quite pleased because all the students from Maikawa did rather well. A first for Kyoko, a first for Daichi and a second place finish in the original speech contest for Yusuke.
  • Josh walked home with us and we watched some BBC and Simpsons then we headed over to an enkai organized by the teachers’ association at La Marengo (a Japanese version of a French restaurant). Good times, good food.

Yay! I caught up. Mind you, reading all that would be pretty dull, but at least I’m no longer committed to transcribing some past events that I feel compelled to record for some reason. I’m free to write anything I like’


Leady, Set, Go!

Today, I became a teacher. Well, okay, I’ve taught before and sometimes for money too. How about this: Today, I became an English teacher. No, not quite. I feel like I was an English teacher to a few people at the Gauntlet. An English teacher in Japan? That works, but it’s rather specific. Oh well, that will have to do.

A teacher from one of our schools brought in two boys who were competing in the local speech contest and needed tutoring. I’ve already forgotten their names – I’m going to be great in the class: ‘Hey you, can you say forgetful Canadian teacher?’ A few dozen Japanese names per class for me to remember is going to be more than my brain can handle. My neural pathways will get overwritten too quickly and mistakes are bound to happen – I’ll probably end up believing I’m an Egyptian camel with a fondness for bratwurst then collapse to the ground with my formerly-capable brain liquified and spilling from my ears. Or not.

The point of all this is that I did manage to do a capable job with these two teenage lads whose R’s and L’s become indistinguishable without some guidance. I was working with them to improve their pronunciation with English sounds and they genuinely had improved by the time we parted. A slightly satisfying event. I mean, I could actually tell the difference between when they said ‘very’ and when they said ‘berry.’ At the start of the lesson, we could only speak of the tasty little fruits that sometimes are a good addition to pies. Mmm… pie.

It felt like it was just endless repetition, but it seemed to be working. I didn’t want to bore them too much, so I tried to joke with them a little bit making motorcycle sounds for them to remember what an R sounds like. It’s looking like I’ll have to be doing this a fair amount in the near future, so I hope all my students are able to show progress like this. Honestly, I don’t know enough alternate techniques to try with them if things aren’t working, so it could be a challenge if their development is dawdling.

After work, I went straight to the area that made me crash my bike a few days ago to take some photos. There, I found a lovely hilltop temple circled by tall trees and small statues. I think I need a guide to Japanese culture though since I don’t know much about the significance of each item at the temple’s site. For example, behind the main temple was a small set of steps leading up to a small shrine surrounded by a complex of tiny stone buildings no more than a foot high. On the other side of the shrine was a series of four marked stones that resembled gravestones. Rookie to Japan that I am, the significance of each symbol was lost on me (but it was fun to take the photos nonetheless).

I then wandered over to a complex that stood as an entryway to a cemetery. Grand buildings at the entry suggested they were the main attraction, but behind them was a condensed graveyard where the plants and tombs were tightly intermingled. I climbed to the top and watched as the sun started creating patterns in the early sunset sky. I couldn’t find a good position to take advantage of the textures above so I headed back down through the plants, bugs, trees, and stones.

Without a doubt, I will return there with more time and light on my hands. The area was so jumbled, it was difficult to distill its image down to anything simple enough for a photo. It will take some time to explore it fully and pinpoint the best tiny Buddha statues to frame.