Wednesday, October 24, 2007

One of my schools,

one of my classes,

and one of my students.
The following are poems written by my third-year students. I especially enjoy how they often take two seemingly unrelated ideas or things and create a connection between them that we have, perhaps, not seen before. For instance, before reading them I had not yet pondered the relation of meat and peace.

Boiled meat
That smells good
Looks delicious

High jump
He is a destroyer
He has a red cap

Happy place
Very beautiful here
Time passes so slowly

*That last one reminds me of the Talking Heads song about the bar called heaven where nothing, nothing ever happens.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

How much Peach is too much?

The Japanese enjoy repetition. This is apparant in oh so many ways. From language and food to the life of a junior high school student, this delight in similitude is everywhere, defending against the visscitudes of life.
You can see it in the speech patterns-one of the reasons simple spoken-japanese is quite easy to pick up is so much of what is said in normal conversations is said over and over, every day, with little variation. A glaring example of this unwavering use of the same words or phrases can be seen at Hanabi (fireworks) festivals where, while being dazzled by the fantastic colors and patterns above, you can also marvel at the echoes of "sugoi!" that surround you. The japanese all-purpose word "sugoi" meaning "great, big," or "cool," is practically the only exclamation inspired by the exploding sky. Picture yourself on the Fourth of July with people of all ages, everyone exclaiming only, "wow."
And, while japanese cuisine is certainly possessed of many flavors and styles it may be said that it all has a certain quality of subtlety and simplicity. There are no extremes in the food of japan, spice and flavor are mild and harmonious and, concordingly, the foreign food that can be found has been re-imagined in the japanese style and retains little of its original character.
This spirit of homogeneity naturally forms school life as well. The most obvious example is of course the uniforms worn by all students from Junior High on. Then there is the well-known group-oriented approach to everything that manifests itself in sports day events including the quite impressive 40-student simultaneous jump-rope competition whose execution would be laughable in many other countries or the general distaste for being singled out in any way. There are also not so commonly known examples. Let me relate what it is like to eat lunch at my school as a glimpse into one of these manifestations which strikes me as interesting in its unremarkability.
I have taken to eating lunch in the tiny windowed room adjacent to the PA room where all the announcements are made. It gets me out of the teachers room and I get to talk with the students who deliver the daily announcements. From this room I can clearly hear everything being projected through the schools speakers. A typical luncy period goes something like this (approximately):
12:35- Greeting: Good afternoon honorable everyone. Please, lets enjoy today's lunch together. It is rice, milk, fish, soup, and slice of apple. Please it it with gusto. Today we will be attending clubs and also will have time to practice each class's songs for the chorus festival. Thank you.
12:36- The song "Peach" by Otsuka Ai is played.
(note: "Peach" is a horrible song. Imagine if the backstreet boys were a girl and they teamed up with the creators of My Little Pony to write a theme song for Claire's mall jewlery store. It's like that but poppier.)
12:37- I note outloud and with an air of inevitability that we are listening to "Peach" again today.
12:40- The student in charge of the song rushes from her chair to the audio room.
12:41- "Peach" is restarted. (apparantly there is no replay option)
12:45- Same as 12:40's action.
12:46- We listen to "Peach" yet again.
12:50- See 12:45.
12:51 - Any guesses?

And thus lunch period is passed, everyday, without incident where surely, anyplace else where the students were not so accustomed to repetition the PA system would be quickly and systematically destroyed within days. Clearly then, it can be said that the Japanese admiration of predictability is pervasive and, occasionally, painful.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Cardboard Phones

It was another day spent predominantly in the classroom. Unlike much of my previous time working in Japanese schools I have been busy lately. Most days I have had at least four classes and during the remaining free periods rather than reading The Red Badge of Courage on Wikipedia's online library I have been planning and scheming for future lessons. Not surprisingly I have also found school much more entertaining and, in a strange twist, more relaxing. Today was exemplifying this new spirit quite perfectly until I came to one of the ni-nen (8th grade) classes where I attempted one of the new lesson plans I had been working on. You can never tell what will work and what will leave you with 30 Japanese kids dressed as 20th century british sailors staring at you, heads cocked to one side, completely willing to spend the rest of the hour silently not learning a damn thing. As entertaining as that may sound it loses its novelty rapidly and I could see today's lesson headed in this direction. The target language was basic phone etiquette, which seemed an easy sell but I took a wrong turn somewhere and they were getting bogged down. When a gust of wind blew the large curtain out against a student seated next to the window the rest of them tittered, glad for a distraction. When I began the final activity, wherein the students would use oversized cardboard phones to call each other up and ask one another to accompany them somewhere, I had pretty low expectations. Fortunately the first student I gave the phone to, Sho-Kun, called up his friend Ryota and together they brought the class back. Their conversation followed the prescribed pattern at first, "Hello."
"Is this Ryota?"
"Yes, what's up?" And then, incorporating his outside research into the final bit, Sho said to Ryota, "I will go to Hell...why don't you come?" He couldn't of done the role-play better and as Suguri-senseii and I laughed I watched the mood of the classroom change completely in seconds.