All Things Must Pass

IMG_3910My time in Taketa is coming to an end. It’s been an amazing three years here. Two weeks from today I will hand my apartment keys over to the landlord and get on a train headed for Oita City. Then early the next morning, I’ll be on a plane headed for Tokyo and my new life as an eikaiwa teacher in Shibuya.

It’s staggering when I think about the number of students I’ve taught in these three years. Between my 10 schools (three junior highs, six elementary schools, and a kindergarten) there are something like 600 students. When you include the students who graduated during my time here that brings the number up close to 1000. That’s a lot of young people!

I can only hope that I had a positive influence on them. I know that they did on me. I feel like I’ve really grown in these three years here. I leave Taketa a more centered person than when I arrived.

I’m sad about leaving Taketa but the hard part is having to leave the students. I’m still grieving about that, and probably will for some time. But like George Harrison said, all things must pass. And I’m definitely better for having met them.

This post marks the end of this blog. I’ll leave it up for anyone who happens to stumble on the site, or wants to know about life in Taketa as a JET.

Thank you for reading.

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Advice For New JETs

My tenure as a JET in Taketa is almost over. It’s been a wonderful three years. Of course, there have been some challenges along the way but nothing that ever made me want to stop being an ALT here. In fact, I’d stay longer if I could but Taketa only keeps its ALTs for a maximum of three years.

For people just coming into the JET Program, I’d like to offer some advice. Looking back now, these are the things that I wish I had done:

1. Spend more time with your students.

That’s it. Spend more time with your students. After you finish JET you may never see them again. I’m in the middle of saying goodbye to my schools and this knowledge is killing me. They really are remarkable people and it’s breaking my heart that I won’t get to laugh and joke and play with them again.

Do whatever you can to be around them when you have the chance. If you go to elementary schools, play with them at lunch and after school. Play tag and soccer and whatever they want to play. If you don’t know how they’ll show you. If you go to junior high, join in their club activities after school, or start an English conversation club at lunch. Whatever it takes.

Go to their sports days, even if it’s your day off. Go to their culture festivals, especially if it’s your day off. Talk to them when you see them in town on the weekends. Make the time for them, because you’re making the time for yourself too. Get to know them. Learn their names, their hobbies and dreams and favorite bands, and who their brothers and sisters are. You will miss them terribly when it’s over.

Of course, the relationships you make with adults are important too, but you can keep in touch with them online. Your students will retreat into the fog of the past and your heart will break. And should you one day meet them again, they will not be the same kids you remember. They will have grown up. That magic time you spent with them will be gone forever.

So spend more time with your students. For your sake as much as for theirs.

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The Year According To My Instagram Feed

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It’s OK To Be Tired

I teach elementary school and sometimes I play tag with the students at lunch. They being kids and I being a 42-year-old man, I will invariably tire out before they do. The first time this happened I was surprised when my request to take a break was met not with scorn or protestations but with cheerful acceptance. I was so ready to not be allowed to be tired that I had all sorts of excuses ready. But they weren’t needed because it’s OK to be tired in Japan.

I never even thought about the fact that you’re not really allowed to be tired in America. It’s not an acceptable excuse for passing on an event of activity. You’re supposed to suck it up and push past the tiredness. Have a cup of coffee or a 32 oz. energy drink and get to it. From childhood on, you’re just not supposed to succumb to fatigue.

Contrast this with Japan, where people say, “I’m tired,” after the slightest effort. Japanese people aren’t lazy, though. Far from it. They’re some of the hardest-working people I’ve ever seen. (Often to a fault, sticking with outdated labor-intensive practices long after other countries have switched to more efficient methods. But that’s a different story.) Perhaps because they’re so hard working they’ve allowed themselves the luxury of being tired.

It’s funny, you’ll even hear kids say it. Kids as young as 8 will plop down after P.E. and say, “Whew, I’m tired.” They also complain about their aching hips and sore shoulders, something I’ve never heard American kids do. But it’s possible they’re just aping their elders.

In America, it seems that being tired is associated with laziness. You’ll never amount to anything if you slack off and shirk your responsibilities, so suck it up and get back to work. This is, for the most part, inconceivable in Japan. Everyone works hard and so everyone is allowed to be tired. It’s nice to not have to feel guilty for experiencing the natural consequences of physical exertion.

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Sports Day

Sports day love.

Sports day love.

If it’s September it must be sports day practice. Every September, at the start of the school year’s second semester, my schools move into sports day mode. These few weeks of daily practice culminate in the big sports day, with all the parents coming out to see their kids in all their athletic glory. This happens at all my schools, from kindergarten on up, and I imagine it happens at the high schools too.

Although we tend to translate it as “sports day,” each school has its own name for it, and it can include words like “physical education” and “exercise.” Really, it has little to do with sports. There are no basketball matches, or volleyball. There’s no baseball or tennis or even sumo. No, the focus is on fun events, like three-legged races and tug of war. And yet this requires weeks of practice.

When I first came to Japan to teach English, I couldn’t fathom why this day—which they do every year without fail and which tends to always have the same events—required such intense practice. As a new ALT (assistant language teacher), I arrived expecting to teach but instead had to sit on the sidelines for weeks while my classes were cancelled in favor of what looked to me like unnecessary practice. Why the hell would anyone need to practice pulling on a rope?

OK, I got why the dance routine, human pyramid and entrance ceremony required some run-throughs, but bowing? These kids bow a hundred times a day. It seemed overkill to do rehearsals for all the guest speakers, bowing in time to theirs and going from standing at attention to at ease.

After three years, though, I finally get it. Yesterday one of the teachers asked me if we had sports day in America. I have been asked this question many times but this time she followed it up with, “So you don’t have a big event like this for the parents?” That’s the key to all the obsessive bowing and rope pulling and marching. They’re not practicing for sports day; they’re practicing for their parents and family members who will come to watch.

Practicing the three-legged race seems like it would suck all the fun out of it. But if this is a performance, then it all makes sense. Executing something difficult like the three-legged race displays the honed physical dexterity of the participants for those watching. Likewise synchronous bowing and marching.

From kindergarten on up, this is an event for the parents. It’s Japan’s version of the school play, except performed outside and with relays and human pyramids and folk dancing. Learning how to work as a group and execute motions perfectly in-sync really is that important to the culture here.

Of course, sports day is also about fun and having a good time. And, judging by the faces of the participants, this they certainly do.

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Take This Job And Love It

I have had a number of different jobs in my 42 years. I have worked in record stores and coffee shops, in a toy store in the mall, and in a shop that sold precious things that I considered junk. I have been a writer, a copy editor, and a managing editor. And I have taught English in Korea and Japan.

Some people know what job they want. They come out of school with a career goal and they do that one job until they stop working. My father was a dentist, my mother a teacher. I have taken many jobs but I never felt compelled to do just one. Even my job now, teaching English in Japan, is the means to being in Japan, the larger goal. I enjoy my job but I adore the students more than I like teaching, honestly. I like being around them. I don’t know anything about pedagogy or methods.

My future career goals are similarly oriented towards staying in Japan. I need a job that will support my lifestyle. I’d like to teach at a university in Japan because I like talking about Japan and I like being in Japan. The idea of being in a learning environment does appeal to me too, but it has very little to do with wanting to mold impressionable young minds. I guess I’m more selfish than that.

This morning I was thinking about jobs I might have liked to do sometime but I’m middle aged now and realistically they’re not going to happen. When you’re young you think you have all the time in the world to try different things. You don’t. It gets away from you.

I make music and I thought it would be fun to do that professionally. Before going back to school to study Japanese I considered learning how to be a studio engineer. But music makes a nice hobby. Maybe someday I’ll figure out how to make it pay for itself.

When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut because I liked space and Star Wars. In high school I decided I would be a psychologist because people felt at ease with me and wanted to tell me their problems. But I had too many problems of my own.

I will probably never be a professional novelist. Likewise a screenwriter, or surrealist, or soundtrack composer. Time is too short. These things, if they happen, are hobbies, personal challenges, Sunday morning dreams.

And that’s OK.

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Summertime

祭りだ!

祭りだ!

Summers are hard for me. I don’t do well in the heat. My ancestors come from northern Europe and have a genetic heritage honed during the Ice Age. In Japan, where summers are long and humid and very hot, my body has a very hard time. Every year it takes me a few weeks of horrible headaches and dizziness to get used to the change in the weather. But once I finally do, I find there are things about the summer that I really love.

Like with the other seasons in Japan, there are all kinds of special activities you really only find in the summer. I look forward to these as much as I do things like cherry blossom viewing in the spring, seeing the changing leaves in the fall, and drinking hot sake under the kotatsu in the winter. By far, my favorite thing about the summer is it’s festival season. Eat some festival food, drink some draft beer and enjoy the carnival-like atmosphere. The oppressive heat somehow just adds to it.

Japan is full of insects, great big things that sneak into your house god knows how and fall off your ceiling onto your face while you sleep, or jump out and say hello in the shower. Those bugs I can do without but there are some I actually like. Along with heat, summer days are full of the drone of cicadas. They start in before you wake and seem to go all night. The noise is incredibly loud too. Add to this the swarming clouds of dragonflies and giant praying mantises that hang out on your window screen and summer is just full of interesting insect life.

Summer is also the time in Japan for scary movies. In America it’s Halloween but in Japan, people traditionally told ghost stories in the summer to give people the chills. Also, Obon, the festival of the dead, is in the summer so it just makes sense. I always take the opportunity to watch classic Japanese ghost films in August.

Lastly, Japanese draft beer just tastes better when it’s hot outside. Japanese beer is pretty much all lager and dry and crisp so it’s especially suited for the season.

I’m anxiously awaiting the cooler temperatures of the fall but in the meantime I will make the best of the summer.

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