Tag Archives: Japan

What Clark (school) taught me.

It’s time to stop whining about not having the time to write and just make this time. It’s time to stop worrying so much about not being in good shape (was I, ever?..) for a long, thoughtful and well thought through piece of writing. It’s a perfect night for nighttime paragraph blogging, and maybe I can be back in the saddle.

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It’ll be a month in a few days since I’ve been working in a university in Tokyo, which, when I come to think of it, is exactly the kind of job I aspired to do in Japan in the first place. Actually, this job so far looks even better than what I could expect, but that could be too soon to say, or an entirely different post anyway. This paragraph is about what a year in a Japanese high school taught me, and here goes:

  1. I shouldn’t expect myself to miraculously connect with the students in a different country/culture simply because I seem to do so quite easily back home. It took me around four months to establish and feel their trust. In those first months I was desperate, angry, frustrated, and scared. I couldn’t adjust my teaching style so easily, I had to let go of some of my beliefs, I had to open up myself and be sincere.
  2. I realized instructions matter. I think I no longer mumble and ramble over what’s got to be done, expecting students to “be smart and get it”.
  3. I realized students do not necessarily understand whatever it is I am saying. It can be unfair to assume they should easily all do so.
  4. Working true Japanese style, namely doing morning, evening, and 3-hour monthly meetings, requires stamina annd patience. I seem to have those. But then I don’t have the energy to read the blogs, or write myself. I feel drained.
  5. No matter how wildly you may believe that TOEIC and other exam scores focus is detrimental to learning, students will stay aimed at those. They will ask for practice and exercises and more worksheets, and it’s not their fault. That’s not even what they believe to be right, but rather the system they have to get through.
  6. Working with people requires soft skills that I found out I need to have developed. It’s not an easy ride even with the best of intentions.
  7.  I possess character traits that I am ot proud of. I can get too forceful with my opinions, too direct, snappy, or even careless with my remarks. While I’m trying to hold these off and watch my act, it’s both painful and good to recognize my flaws. I think with this increased awareness, I am getting better at communicating. It is a process though, and I’m sorry for the times I might’ve hurt people on the way.
  8. I remember a conversation I had with my friend Kevin Stein a while ago, before I moved to Japan. He’d been a high school teacher for some time and I’d been a university teacher for 5 years. We discussed how different these jobs are in terms of emotional connection to students they offer. My students only saw me maximum twice a week, and most often for one semester only. No matter how much we enjoyed our classes, it seems like we all knew I’m just another teacher, one out of dozens they get to meet through their years at the uni. It seemed to have struck Kevin that the bond between me and my students, due to the very nature of a university class, was  so weak. And I could not picture what kind of other bond he meant. Now I do. I cried when my high school kids went on stage to get their graduation diplomas. I cried and felt terrible to tell other students that I’d not be teaching them anymore. Being around these kids every single day just flipped the whole teaching experience for me, turning it into one of extreme emotional vulnerabilty as it approached the imminent logical ending.
  9. Cultural differences play such a big role in a classroom, and I have to get familiar with them as much as possible before I go and teach. An example off the top of my head is silence in response to my questions, or the challenge that spelling poses.

There certainly are more, many more things that Clark (school) taught me, but this blog post is already too long. Thanks for reading and I hope to give you a reason to return here soon.

I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to whatever is in charge of all the good luck I’ve had for giving me a most amazing boss in my school. Were it not for Peter, his constant assistance, understanding and great attitude, I might be less positive about all the things Clark (school) taught me. Thank you, Peter, you will never be forgotten. =)

 

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A day that felt different

What does it take to feel warm, welcome, belonging, excited about your job being a teacher in a high school? I am feeling just that right now and it’s a sudden overwhelming emotion that needs to be outpoured. Hence this impulsive paragraph blog post. So what did it take this time? Over a hundered teenagers gathered in a room; three university undergads (Japanese studying abroad) sharing their experiences, highlights, concerns and tips about studies overseas – from making this choice and preparing applications to managing your life all by yourself, enjoying college life and facing racism. I’m once again reminded that nothing leaves a more powerful impression than a personal story shared from your heart.

It takes leaving that obnoxious teacher’s platform and taking students’ side, that is, sitting on the floor next to them.

It takes talking to them naturally even knowing their English is low and they most likely struggle to understand what you’re saying. They do make it out, though, even if I can use that level prejudice as a barrier and thus limit my own communication with them.

It takes smiles which are more sincere than morning greeting requires.

It takes a hearty laugh about something together.

It takes months, too, but this moment and these bubbles inside feel special and precious.

 

Also, on a more material/ physical note, today I guess I got closer to the Japanese culture in that I “touched” students (well, rubbed a few shoulders wishing well and expressing appreciation) for the first time, and was “touched”, too. I shared (or created?) some personal moments with students, just by being myself, showing interest, asking simple questions and showing care – because I do care. Finally, today it felt natural to express it.

 

Thanks for reading. I am happy today, or right now, and I wish you the same. 🙂

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37 days of my new life

It’s a fact tried and true that time can fly past fast. You can only experience once the anxiety, frustration, liberation and thrill of moving into a different country to start a new life of your own from scratch. While I am contemplating whether I’m through with this period or not quite yet, here are the 37 notes I’ve made in these 37 days of my new life. In no particular order they cover my observations, musings, questions, experiences, assumptions and whatnots. Enjoy.

 

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1. I enjoy my walk to work and part of it is through a narrow street along the train tracks. The little street is all bars on top of karaoke places squeezed between restaurants offering Japanese, American, Indian, Turkish, Burmese and other types of food. On Monday it is easy to say where a bar is as there’s vomit next to an entrance on the road.

2. On with the theme of parties, I am amazed at how abruptly the Japanese stop to have fun, be loud, clink glasses and laugh when hanging out. When it happened at the official school welcoming party, I was taken aback – a round of clapping following the Japanese tradition, and we suddenly, very responsibly were done with the fun and gone. What takes Russians literally hours and drags them into the early hours no matter what day next day is, is efficiently a matter of 5 minutes here.

3 The Japanese people are organized and disciplined, there’s a minute-to-minute instruction and guidance for any type of action. Any event is scheduled to the minute.

4. Patterns of social interaction here are amazing to me, in how radically behaviour changes depending on the situation and people involved in it.

5. I love train tracks up there with the view of the roofs. The feeling of space and sky is more tangible in Seoul if I were to compare, but even in Tokyo it is still true and still breathtaking for me.

6. I can’t brush off the feeling that the Japanese are easily thrown off their emotional balance (or easier than me?..). Examples are due here, in later posts.

7. From what I’ve seen so far, these people seem to be great at managing people, with announcements, directions and instructions.

8. It’s been over a month since the school year started and we haven’t yet begun proper classes. It was new and somewhat baffling to me at first, but now I see the point of spending the first month in activities, home rooms, meetings, events, school trips and such. Getting students interact outside their natural little groups, in and between grades seems like a wise thing to do for these teenagers. And, to be honest, for freshly recruited teachers.

9. I still don’t know why on out-of-school-campus events students are not allowed to go to convenience stores or buy water from vending machines.

10. Kids wave to (or almost at) you saying hello and goodbye. That could very well be from the modest distance of 1 meter away from you. By “you” I might actually mean foreign teachers…

11. This must be a silly thing to be excited about and devote a whole point in my culture notes to, but the fact that change at supermarket registers comes out of the machine automatically after the cashier drops your money into a hole was pretty fascinating to me.

12. Thank you for waiting. Please wait for a while. So said the announcement on the train from the airoport to my station last Wednesday, the last evening of the Golden Week. An unexpected problem… Cause: passenger injury. I hadn’t experienced it on my way yet and I didn’t know then that “a while” would take two hours. To my amazement, there was absolutely no, positively zero sighing, swearing or grumbling from my fellow travellers.

13. I must confess there’s no great love for cooking in me, expect for cases when I want to try out an interesting (and simple!) dish or treat my family and friends. Other than that, I never thought of myself as of the cooking type. However, this past month I did manage to learn and enjoy cooking udon soup, yakiudon, chicken curry, fried squid, omuraisu, mentaiko spaghetti and some dish with tofu and Japanese spinach that I don’t know the name of. I’m getting a fresh perspective on my culinary abilities (and thanking friends, Google and absence of my mother in this apartment).=)

14. I have experienced the Silent Classroom.

15. With a few prominent exceptions, the voices of my students when in a class and speaking are so quiet that I find it hard to make out what they are saying even when I’m bending over them or kneeling beside. That adds to my general embarrassment and confusion when adjusting to the Japanese pronunciation of English sounds.

16. Linguistic landscapes being the recent buzz and my personal long-time interest, here are a few of the images I’ve taken around Tokyo.

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17. Whether you are at work or in a shop or hanging out, cuteness is never too far. Kawaii is the word that applies (or, more accurately, is applied) to nearly any imaginable thing, person or action. This part of the world is cute.

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18. I have long stopped paying special attention to people wearing masks, but I still have an urge to ask my students, when and if the rapport is good, why exactly they would wear them in a language class. I have heard a view that many teenagers stick to their masks as they are embarrassed about their faces.

19. It’s the first time in my whole 9 years in this profession that I actually spend 8 hours a day 5 days a week with colleagues. The learning for me exceeds the teaching so far.

20. At the end of April I had a unique opportunity that my job offers – a full day of training with John Fanselow. I have just finished my third online course with him through iTDi (speak of addiction..), and that face-to-face time was truly special. There’s still a blog post to be put together from the many pages of my hand-written notes… Some day then.

21. I’ll never regret getting emotional on a beach in South Korea on a nice October day in 2014, which led me to writing this post. The beaches in Osaka and Kobe took my breath away in an almost similar way. They reminded me of where my heart wants me to be.

22. The little time spent with friends in Kansai area took my breath away just as much and reminded me that I am not alone, even if I often feel like I am.

23. I whined in my previous post about the language frustrations that brought me down in the first week here in Tokyo. Truth be told, I’m still affected by that undoubtedly exaggerated shock I got in a bank, and it manifests itself in that I resort to the simplest words and phrases I already know again and again. My learning has been sparse and unworthy of mention. I find comfort in making excuses of the first month being the hard adjustment period. Sad as it is, there is truth to the fact that language and culture immersion do not equal language learning. But I already knew that)

24. In November of this year I’ll be presenting for the third time at JALT conference in Shizuoka! This is exciting because JALT is more than just a regular conference for me, it is anything but regular. It is one of the reasons why I am here where I am. 

25. Ueno Zoo is a wonderful zoo and I’ll be visiting it over and over.

26. One Saturday I went grocery shopping in my neighbourhood. As I was on my way home, loaded with 5 heavy bags and leek sticking out happily from one of them, a few elderly Japanese ladies came up to me and asked (in Japanese) what I assumed to be “Where’s the bus stop here?”. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders, they smiled,excused themselves and asked a Japanese lady standing at the traffic lights next to me. The moral of this story is that grocery shopping makes you look like a knowledgeable local, even if you’re so obviously a gaijin as I happen to be.

27. For the first time in my life I faced a classroom of 40 teenagers.

28. No public wifi is still depressing to me. A few times I’ve tried, in what I take to be a Russian way, to guess the password to a network at a place, but failed were my attempts.

29. I wish I could get myself a Snoopy credit card.

30. Working from 8.30 to 5 is, as I mentioned above, new and challenging. I know I can and will make it, as so many people around the world in this and other jobs do, but I admit it is hard.

31. One of the exciting things at work I’ve done so far is suggesting writing journals to some of the students. Three girls have already shown interest and handed in their *cute* notebooks with first letters to me! I’m going to spread this initiative around to other groups of students.

32. One of the two special courses that I’ll be teaching at my school is Culture Studies course. Originally designed to focus at the Russian and Japanese cultural phenomena, it now looks more appealing to me to open it up and include any cultures outside Japan. We’ll be looking for partners to do cultural exchange projects on the blog that is yet to be created, so if you teach teenagers and think this experience could be up your/ their alley – please let me know!

33. The other one is the Social Media course centered around privacy and safety issues, so critical in Japan. A short pre-course activity showed to me the startling truth that ALL students feel insecure in social networks (all being 99 out of 100), but all the same use them extensively. I only hope I’ll do a good job and by the end of the year the percentage will be different.

34. Messages that I regularly recieve from my family, friends and former students from back home are heart-warming. Thank you, it means a lot to me especially now.

35. Belorussian restaurant “Minsk” in Roppongi is run by lovely and friendly Belorussian ladies. I’m going to buy frozen (Belo)Russian food there (they promised pelmeni and cabbage rolls aka golubtsy soon!).

36. I like my new life and I’m working on adjusting to what’s new and unusual. I have found myself to be flexble enough.

37. I wish I had the energy back to write more often… It makes me happy to put my thought and heart in this post, finish it now and publish.

 

Thanks for reading.

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On the courage of losing sight of the shore (or lack of such)

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So I’ve moved to Japan, like I dreamed to, like I made it my Goal to, like I planned to. Yes dreams do come true once you stop thinking of them as of dreams. Now it’s time to find out how it feels to have made your dream come true, how to live that dream. That’s what they don’t prepare you for. How to remember why you aspired for this in the first place.

And if you can ever get close to regretting your choice of dream.

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Inspirational quotes tell us in powerful phrasing to be strong and aim high, yet they don’t mention how many tears there would be shed after you’ve made it. Because that’s where and when you’re most fragile. Having a goal you believe in and smashing everything on your way towards it (or taking each and every step with care and due precision) is like running your distance. As you cross that long-awaited finish line, you’re thrilled but out of breath and your heart aches. Well mine does.

It’s all good to have the courage to lose sight of the shore, yet in order to actually cross that ocean you need more than just that. You need all that courage to keep going all the way you have so bravely planned, plus a whole lot of other supplies.

 

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The following part of the post was typed at various times during my first days in Japan – in the street, on the metro, at my workplace (more about that in future posts).

 

***** First day things *****

As soon as I’m out in the street or even better on the subway, I start smiling involuntarily. That’s when I remember what I loved about this country in the first place and why I’ve come here at all.
Everything around me so far seems right and close to heart, like I got to know it and knew it to be. Streets, neat houses, pavements, cleanliness, small private businesses, trains with their warm seats that make you drowsy any time of day, people who I’m not afraid to address for help, shop windows, little details I pay attention to, like a bronze owl placed on top of a very ordinary tiled column at a metro station. The language that I want so much to learn as soon as possible so that I could belong to this place more. Because I want to.
It is now more home-like in my apartment thanks to the things I brought from home, but it’s cold and lonely.
***** First week frustrations *****
When the initial shock of being away and alone wore off a bit and with the day spent at school, for a couple of days life got down to almost normal. However, Friday brought me back to tears in a new way. Frustrations that came out were about me not being able to communicate in Japanese. For the first time out of all my time in Japan I felt an alien, clearly an outcast.
In a nutshell, I went to a bank to open an account but the lady refused to deal with me because I could not speak the language. She kept repeating the same thing over and over again and it just did not help – besides, I got stuck, paralyzed and couldn’t utter a word in Japanese, or English, or even Russian. My face must have looked dumb and eyes welled up with tears. When I was out in the fresh air and about 3 minutes passed, I knew it was all fair. I am a foreigner, they don’t have to speak English, I should have taken care of this communication issue myself as opening a bank account means you need to discuss important points and security. I felt low for the rest of the day and it even rubbed off on my English as I felt unconfident while talking with colleagues.
This unpleasant situation made me feel sorry for students who struggle understanding English in class if it’s the only language spoken by teacher. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it in my future posts, as soon as I get into an actual classroom and lessons begin.
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I would like to thank all those people who have wished me luck, supported me and keep doing so with their good words in public comments or private messages. I appreciate it ever so much. I would like to give a mostly useless but 100% sincere digital hug to the people who tell me they know it must be a hard time. It is.
Bottomline: a week and many tears past, I don’t regret my choice of dream yet.
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Thanks for reading.
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