Certified Country Girl: Enjoying the Longest Golden Week in Japan

It’s one of the longest Golden Weeks I’ve had while staying here in Japan, and possibly the longest in the country, thanks to ascension of a new Emperor. I heard that some people are not happy about it, what with the lack of childcare and the reduced salary of some. But I’m not complaining.

It feels like the longest vacation I’ve had in years, and I’ve long been waiting for a real vacation. Even though I had high hopes for last year’s summer vacation, I ended up working almost everyday, coaching for the speech contest and participating in summer events. Winter vacation was no different as I had more than a dozen visitors.

But this time was different. I had my apartment all to myself and I almost had zero appointments, except for the occasional meeting with friends. I played tennis with friends on the first day of vacation.

Tried to play is probably more accurate. The wind was blowing so strongly that before long, we decided to quit. We decided to go to karaoke right then and there, and we didn’t regret it. I got to try singing some of the newest Japanese songs I’ve heard, as well as some English, Tagalog, and Korean favorites.

My friends enjoyed rocking to their kind of songs, most of them Japanese and I too thought it was interesting to learn what kind of music they appreciate. For a moment, I asked myself why I decided to schedule something the first day of vacation because normally when I have a chance to rest, my first priority is to get some alone time. This might sound weird to some but I’m an introvert after all (believe it or not!) and whenever I say I have to visit 21 preschools until the start of summer, they understand.

I’m in the countryside where people normally assume things are more laid-back but in my almost five years here, I never felt that way, except perhaps during my first summer here. But then, I ended up visiting a family friend and boredom was quickly replaced by new experiences and additional acquaintances.

Most of the people I know have some sort of plan for this Golden Week – a trip, a family outing, going back to their hometown, etc. I didn’t have one. I figured I didn’t want to expect a lot and add even more to the traffic on the road and to the crowd on the trains.

I didn’t go out for three days starting Sunday. I slept in, and organized papers and documents that I put off doing for the last few years. I didn’t realize it would be a lot of work. By the third day, I figured I should schedule something, anything that would require me to go outside the apartment.

That is why I found myself in one of my favorite hang outs – Dotonbori in Osaka. It seems I and my family never get tired of going there. A number of Americans have told me they don’t like it much because it seems to lack culture compared to Kyoto and other places. But for me, the hustle and bustle in this strip is somewhat comforting. It’s a tad different from where I live in the countryside and yet familiar because you can see different kinds of people, including Filipinos and Chinese, which reminds me of Manila.

It would probably be nicer to go there when it’s not a holiday, though there weren’t as many people as I expected. Still, after one hour in Osaka, I was raring to get home. I felt a sense of relief that I have a different place to go back to where there are fields nearby and there aren’t nearly as many people. I felt thankful that I can walk to work most days of the week and that getting to work and going back home isn’t like the battle it was like when I was staying in Manila. I guess I’m a country girl after all.

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住めば都 [Sumeba Miyako] Home is Where You Make It

A Japanese teacher I’ve worked with over the past year told me about this phrase and explained this is a principle a lot of Japanese live by as many of them are ready to be assigned anywhere, including abroad or in a different city.

I thought it encapsulates one of the ways I’ve employed to survive living in two different countries or in other cities.

As our world gets smaller and smaller due to opportunities opening up to anyone wherever he is in the world, it has become even more important to find a stabilizing force in your life – something that you consider “home.” In my case, I carry home everywhere I go.

What does home mean, anyway, and how do you carry it with you? Home for me is finding people I can be myself with without fear of being judged or lied to. It’s also being in an environment that gives you the proper tools and allows you to practice your creativity and problem-solving skills in order to come up with the best solutions for problems. Home is the atmosphere that reassures you that when something is right, as long as you are sincere and open-minded, you can speak up and suggest ways to improve things. Most importantly, home is where there’s peace, joy, and contentment that doesn’t depend on your circumstances. It’s the sort of thing that you bring with you wherever you go, and one that attracts people you interact with. I’m blessed beyond belief to have found this, thanks to Christ. It’s hard for me to imagine how to live in worry, fear, jealousy, and all of those negative emotions. Unfortunately, no amount of renovation or no distance could ever fix that.

Over the past year, the ability to carry home with me was proven more useful and my ability to do so was tested to the max. During the first half of the year, I was assigned to a junior high school and two elementary schools. Normally, assignments are given for a whole year but since a teacher quit on short notice, they were obliged to have someone take over quickly. My original assignment was to make rounds on preschools all over Ise City.

I was assigned to a pilot project where English will be taught to preschoolers. I started doing it on the second half of the year. In such a short period, I have visited 22 preschools and have taught two elementary schools every week. One of them is the biggest elementary school in the city.

Imagine the stress of making a good impression on new co-workers and bosses and multiply that by 25 – the total number of schools I visited this year. Wait, make that 26 because I stay at the city’s Board of Education (BOE) office to prepare for preschool lessons.

If you think there’s extra pressure when you’re starting a new work anywhere, you’re right. But the Japanese take it to a different level. There’s a Vice Principal who followed me wherever I go for the first few weeks, and another one who would regularly asked me to enumerate what classes I’m having – what level and what period, even though the schedule is posted on the bulletin where everyone can see.

I had to introduce myself to 26 sets of people and learn about the hierarchy at the BOE by asking questions. No one introduced me and explained who is who. I had to find someone to explain so that I would be able to give the proper respect and deference to whomever I owe it to and to know who to go to for different things. As a rule, though, I think it’s important to give everyone, no matter what the position, the respect due to him.

When it seems like everyday, you’re meeting a lot of new people and trying to impress them, it’s crucial to find something constant. No matter where I go, I try to identify at least one good thing about the teachers or school staff I meet. For example, one Principal is so good at cleaning and organizing that her office deserves to be featured in an interior design or Housekeeping magazine. One preschool teacher is able to discipline her big class so much that I smile to myself thinking how in the world can 30 preschoolers sit quietly and intently.

Of course, I encounter some teachers and staff who may not be as friendly or as helpful but that happens everywhere.

With the physical nature of the job as well as the pressure to make a good impression, there were times when I had to visit the doctor’s office. I’m just thankful to have a boss who genuinely cares for her subordinates and who provides the right tools so I could do my job well.

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Another thing I’m grateful to have experienced last year is when our friends – a team from the US visited Japan and participated in some classes I previously handled in the junior high school, as well as observed and met the students, teachers, and school officials at Obata Elementary School, the biggest one in our city.

 

Looking back, I wonder how I could have managed to organize and participate in all those activities on top of going to 24 new places. But the answer is not very far from home. It’s actually home.

 

I found home in this team as well, and so did the people that met them. In an environment where a lot of teachers are trying to outdo each other and comparing themselves to one another and killing themselves by working so much, it was a breath of fresh air to have people who came to connect and make friends. No, they didn’t want to sell anything or force you to do or believe anything. They gave their precious time and resources because they believe that they have received so much love and grace that it’s but natural to give back.

I am far from from where I want to be and this year, I felt frustrated about myself so many times. I wish I were more patient, nicer even when tired and hungry, and slow to react to things that could be upsetting. I learned that life can throw you so many curve balls and that there are enough things, hurtful words, and people that hurt people that I don’t need to add to that.

No matter how far I stray, though, or how I mess up, I am comforted by the fact that the moment I feel lost, home is within reach.

Life Lessons from the Tamaru ES Staff Dinner Party

It’s been more than four years since our last dinner party and it struck me how many things can remain the same and at the same time how much can change.

This dinner party that has become tradition was started by our then Principal at Tamaru Elementary School. I saw it as his way to reach out to the people he works with and encourage bonding among teachers and staff both Japanese and foreign ones.

It was nice being invited and I felt excited about the possibility of gaining friends or at the very least, enjoying the food and chitchat. I remember how difficult it was to make friends in Ise on my first year. I suspect it might be the same for most areas in the Japanese countryside.

There seems to be a general rule in Japan to not talk to strangers. It seemed impossible to find a friend without first being introduced by another Japanese to one of his.

Our recent gathering in late January reminded me of how much my life has changed in Japan and how much my feelings about Ise and living in it has. From struggling to find an apartment to suffering during winters not knowing how to properly dress for it and to heat the apartment, I now think of this place as home and recognize that when I go back to my hometown in the Philippines, it would only be for a short time and pretty soon, I would be back to my daily work routine here in Ise.

Don’t get me wrong. I still feel cold and I still long for the warmth and friendliness and people and co-workers back home. I have just come to accept the way of life here and the general attitude of the Japanese people I interact with daily. They have a lot of good things going for them too, something that I have mentioned in previous posts and in other SNS outlets.

This dinner party brought back a lot of memories and it was like looking through your photo album over the years and updating it with the freshest one. Along with it came a lot of realizations about life, people, and work.

Here are some of them:

1. No matter how difficult or unfair your current situation is, focus on giving it your best and putting your best foot forward. You can never go wrong when you do good even if only bad things seem to be happening to you. You never know who’s watching. When you slack off work and try to get even when you seem to be taken advantage of, people will see that and what do you think they’ll think of you? You can never choose your situation but you can always choose how you respond to it.

2. In difficult times, we’re tempted to take drastic measures but there is a special blessing for people who can endure and wait for God’s timing. I’m reminded of this verse:

“For there is a right time and procedure for every purpose, though a man’s misery weighs heavily upon him.” – Ecclesiastes 8:6

Some people take desperate measures to end their misery. Unfortunately, some wouldn’t have a chance to know what they’ve missed out on. Some people think that they don’t deserve to be in such a bad situation or they don’t deserve to be treated like that by someone.

My closest friends would know how much trouble and difficulty I’ve endured in my life here and even during my teenage years. It was normal to be tempted to take the easy way out and accept solutions that might cast a doubt on your integrity but when you know that nothing is secret to your Creator and He will repay each person according to what he has done, good or bad, you’ll be reminded to choose accordingly.

3. Circumstances change. Sometimes, it may seem like forever, esp. when you’re going through adversity. Sometimes, it could happen in an instant.

Many of the attendees of the gathering have been reassigned to new schools. Some of them now belong to a Board of Education (BOE) in a different town or city. Our then Principal, the mastermind of the gatherings is now the head of the BOE in the town where I used to work for. It was only upon asking him why he said he’s so busy nowadays (which was weird to me since he retired on my last year) that I found out.

Before coming to Japan, I also taught Business English, training Amazon and Microsoft customer service agents. I remember some fellow trainers and the supervisor saying they’ve had their share of crazy bosses but they outlasted each one. Again I’m reminded of the story of Mom’s acquaintance. She had an impossible boss but instead of wishing him evil, she prayed that he would be promoted and so he was. Gone was the crazy boss!

My point is, it’s human nature to dislike pain and avoid suffering. But when you recognize that while it may not be pleasant, it can lead to developing a stronger, more God-like character, you learn to wait until it has done its work on you.

4. One of life’s joys is enjoying the present and building good memories. Many of us have been trained by our parents and authorities to always strive for the next goal. While it’s important to keep on improving, as Michelle Obama writes on her autobiography, it’s also just as important to recognize that today is a gift and we can never get it back so we might as well enjoy it.

I must admit there were a lot of times in my teenage years and up until recently that I was too focused on paying off debts and all of those problems that I think need to be solved. If I could go back in time and talk to the younger me, I would advise her to lighten up and smell the flowers.

5. It’s a small world and don’t make it smaller. Sometimes we think that there’s not a chance we would see or meet a co-worker again so we don’t care much about the impression we leave. But the truth is, it’s hard to tell. Most industries are small enough so that people keep on getting reshuffled and moving somewhere else. It always helps to be seen as a person of integrity and not be left out of a job or a project because you’ve proven yourself unworthy before.

6. “Leave people better than you’ve found them.” Marvin J. Ashton said this. We don’t know what other people are going through. We only see how they treat us and unfortunately, when someone offends us or does something bad, it’s hard not to react negatively. But I think you’ll agree that everyone has his own pain and disappointments. Instead of adding to it, why not be the one to build them up?

It was humbling to come up with these realizations as I enjoyed good food with my former colleagues. I can only hope that God will give me the wisdom and fortitude to apply these lessons in my life.

Thank You for Four Years, Tamaki!

 

Before I came to live and work in Japan, I’ve never heard of Ise, much less Tamaki, the small town where I was to teach for four years.  Barely had I gotten used to the usual demands of my job when I first desired to be reassigned somewhere – Tokyo or Osaka maybe, just not in this small town where it was so hard to make friends.

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Cherry Blossoms at the Tamaki Junior High School.

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Playground of Tamaru Elementary School.

For some reason, my boss wasn’t really enthusiastic about moving me somewhere and I also have been praying for a sign so I decided to stick it out.  Before I knew it, I met a true friend and some more.  They reminded me that I would rather live somewhere slow and predictable than to move in a big city where people could be snobbish and indifferent.

Fast forward to four years and I’m still here with no plan to leave anytime soon.  After staying put, I was reminded that I’m not really a city girl.  I was born and raised in Bataan, which is somewhat like Ise, Toba, and Shima.  We had beaches and mountains aplenty.  While I lived in Manila for about six years to study and work, I stayed mosty because the best opportunities for learning and working were there.  Other than that, I didn’t get excited at the thought of frequenting the malls that so many Filipinos like.  I couldn’t see the point of finding delight in a huge box that people go into.  I would much rather walk around my campus that are full of nature.

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Traffic in Manila is even more tiring than a full workday. Photo from iMoney Ph.

I hated commuting in Manila.  If you weren’t worrying about making it in time because of the traffic, you were wary if there were any dangers awaiting you.  Somehow when you out, there’s the risk of losing your belongings.  That doesn’t mean there’s none if you stay home.  I didn’t particularly look forward to falling in line for half an hour just to get into the MRT and escape road traffic.  Getting anywhere is already one arduous task.

So when things calmed down and I felt more comfortable at work, I realized all of the good things that Ise had to offer.  It has most of the conveniences of a city without the many hassles.  Ok, so there’s no decent Mexican or Thai restaurant.  But with the ingredients, it’s not impossible to try to whip out international cuisine yourself.  Plus, Nagoya is less than two hours away and Osaka a bit more.  It feels great to be able to have these big cities within reach and not to live there everyday.

I could go for opportunities in Tokyo or Osaka but now I’m choosing to stay here because I felt like I’ve been chasing something since high school.  For once, I just want to move slowly, run steadily so as not to over exert myself and get tired way too early.

I’m thankful that on my last year in Tamaki, my Dad and two visitors from the US who love intercultural communication and connecting to Japanese people were able to pay my class a visit, learn more about Japanese culture and the small town we work at courtesy of my diligent students and teachers who practiced and prepared, and share more about themselves, their work, and lives.

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They were overwhelmed by the warm welcome extended to them by my Principal, Vice Principal, teachers, and the students themselves.  They said they never expected that the kids would be that sweet and welcoming to them.  Even I was impressed.  We have been conducting classes as usual weeks before my visitors came and they were able to hide the fact that they were practicing for a short presentation about the school and about Tamaki for that special day.

It felt great that somehow, the kids could meet people from a totally different background.  It felt even better that my Dad and friends could see and understand what it is about Tamaki and its people that made me fall in love with the place.

Before the special visit, the English head delivered the good news that the Principal agreed for my visitors to come and interact with the kids.  After that, she asked me why I chose their school when there are three other schools in Tamaki that I regularly go to.  Without hesitation, I told her, “because I trust you and respect you.”  I have known and worked with this teacher for four years.  Even as a newbie, she treated me with respect, explaining things for me when I could barely speak Japanese (not sure though if much has changed), being enthusiastic in our classes together, and most importantly, giving me the benefit of the doubt and not judging me when others could have.

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Almost a year has passed since then and I now have a different set of challenges at a different place (more on that later), but every time I remember that special school visit or see pictures of it, my heart swells and I’m reminded why all four years of my stay in Tamaki is so worth it.

This Year (2018), Let’s Learn Better

We only have a few hours before 2017 ends.  Before long, we’ll find ourselves welcoming the new year and with it comes challenges, joys, disappointments, failures, and great opportunities to learn.

This past year, I’ve learned so much from one of the most popular online courses on Coursera entitled “Learning How to Learn.”  Did I mention it’s free?  I think it’s great to study and apply principles from the course so we can all take advantage of every learning opportunity that comes our way.

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This course was based on Dr. Terrence Sejnowski’s discoveries in the field of neurology (study of how the brain works) and Professor Barbara Oakley’s book “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra)”. From the very first pages of the book, I was captivated because I felt like I was that girl she was talking about.  I love languages and communication but I detested advanced Math.  I’ve had for more than a decade. I’ve come to believe that there are just certain things we’re gifted at and others we should forget about. But this book convinced me that learning difficult things could be fun and worth the journey.  While it’s true that we’re better off spending more time on harnessing our strengths, it’s also important to make an effort to learn other things that we need to have a good working knowledge of in order to manage areas of our lives like our finances and to learn skills that would help us in our careers and personal lives.

Don’t let the title of the book fool you.  The principles there are applicable even for the Math wizards or for anyone, for that matter.  It encourages us to open our minds and to practice some things that would help us learn anything.

The course is comprised of several short videos where the two professors explain how the brain works, how it processes information, and what is involved in retaining it, and how understanding these things can help us learn everything, no matter what the topic, so much better. along with several other expert learners in different fields.

Let me share with you what I’ve learned about learning more effectively:
Here are some key points

  1. Use the two modes of thinking to learn anything effectively.

These are the two modes of thinking:

a. Focused Mode – This is the kind of thinking  we do when we concentrate on something.   Think of it as a route that has specific turns and if you make one wrong turn, you won’t get to desired result.  It doesn’t allow for much leeway. This kind of thinking is done when you have learned the basics of the subject well.  It’s also the reason why people who have mastered one area like Math would have difficulty understanding a different one like language.

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Screenshot from Brian’s Notes

b. Diffuse Mode – This is what most would consider freestyle learning.  You can use this while you’re doing other things like cooking, running, or just about anything else.  You don’t have to make much effort to exercise this mode of thinking.  You can turn it on just by leaving what you’re working on and doing something else to take your mind off it.

This has led to many discoveries in the field of science and masterpieces in art.

  1. To learn anything from the very beginning, it’s best to use the diffuse mode of thinking for that’s when we entertain all possibilities and absorb any information and pattern.  Think of it as writing on a blank canvas.  Only when we have learned the basics of the topic are we better off using the focus mode often.  Using the focus mode when we’re learning something new is almost like trying to make a ball fit perfectly in a rectangular box.
  2. Most of the time, procrastination is what prevents us from effectively learning the basics of a subject and progressing in our knowledge of it. For many of us, studying a topic that we think we do poorly at is such a painful process, it almost feels like torture.  What prevents us from making a breakthrough is focusing on the product and not the process.  Most of us think the most important thing is whether they are good at something or if we know a lot about it.  This is one example of how success in one area can work against learning another field.  We somehow expect that another subject will come to us as easily as the one we excel in and we are willing to put the same amount of effort but when we don’t seem to be making as much progress, we give up.

    For subjects that come difficult for us, we often do so poorly that we no longer want to subject ourselves to further disappointments by continuing to study it.  But I learned from this course that we should stop looking at the end result right away but learn to enjoy the process and at least bear with it from the beginning, with the help of –

  3. The Pomodoro Technique – It’s named after the tomato-shaped timer that the inventor used.  This technique makes it easier for us to just start working on or studying something.  It prevents us from getting overwhelmed by how much work we need to do as each task would only last for 25 minutes. This is a technique that helps in doing any task, esp. one that you feel like putting off, such as writing a post (much like this one).
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    -as seen on the Microsoft blogInstead of feeling pressured, you can just go ahead set the timer and focus on the task at hand.  You don’t even have to decide whether you like it or not, you just do it.  Do this several times and it can lead to mastery.
  4. Review the lessons intermittently.  This is called spatial repetition.  I do this in my classes to make sure that students don’t forget what we have previously learned.
    Since our memories are connected, the brain needs time to consolidate them, which happens in our sleep.  This explains why it’s better to study something for 15 minutes each week over a few months than to do it for an hour in one day.
  5. Our working memory is limited – it can only hold about four things, so it’s better to avoid burdening our brains unnecessarily by writing down information that you want to remember.

    One thing that memory juggernauts make use of is the memory palace technique.  They place memorable images in a scene familiar to them.  This way, they can group seemingly different things together, which makes it easier for the brain to access them quickly.  This is how many medical students remember things.  For example, for the cranial bones, they use “Old People from Texas Eat Spiders.”
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  6. Exercising enhances our brains.  It helps the neurons (the cells that send and receive electro-chemical signals to and from the brain and nervous system) make better connection.  Neurons help us learn new things but they die when we don’t use them.  Exercise helps them survive.

These are just some of the important points I remember from the course.  I’ll probably add some more at a later time.  You might be wondering why I’m making such an effort to share all this? From the same course, I learned that a good way to master a subject is to be able to explain it or teach it well.  More importantly, I might have loved and excelled at Math (or another subject difficult to me) if only I knew these things years before.  It is my hope that others would learn from my experience, though I’m still in the process of rediscovering topics I once disliked or avoided.  The point is: you can learn anything, and it’s never too late.  It’s only a matter of determining what is worth learning.

Teaching English in the Japanese Countryside

Last March was the culmination of Mie Prefecture‘s three-year English program experiment.  This was the main reason I got hired as an English teacher in Tamaki.  For years, Tamaki has only had one ALT that they hire through the JET program.  Since the experiment would require more English classes even for the younger kids, they decided to hire another English teacher – that’s me.

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I didn’t get a city placement but I was somewhat happy to be assigned in Tamaki (Ise) where there are lots of greeneries and it’s not too crowded.

So what was this program about?  Essentially, it’s like a test drive of the new system of English language education in Japan that will start in 2018.  The Mie Board of Education (BOE) decided to do this in preparation for the major change taking place in the English language education in Japan come 2020.  This is largely influenced by the fact that Japan will host the 2020 Olympics, which is expected to bring in a lot of visitors from foreign countries.  This is a good opportunity for Japan  to impress the guests and prove that the country is globally competitive.  Part of that is being able to speak in English.

Three municipalities in Mie – Tsu City, Suzuka City, and Tamaki signed up for this.  Interestingly, the first two are major cities in the prefecture while Tamaki, the small town I teach in is in the heart of the countryside.  In Suzuka, you can visit the Suzuka Circuit, one of the oldest tracks of the Formula One World Championship.

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The Suzuka Circuit. Credit: Travelblog

There are also many fun activities you can do there with friends or family, since there’s a theme park as well.  In Tsu, you’ll find the main offices of government agencies like the Mie Prefectural Driver’s License Center.  The headquarters of Mie Board of Education is also located there.

As you can see, Tamaki is quite different from these two cities.  In fact, one common similarity of the elementary schools where I teach is they’re surrounded by rice fields.

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This is the view from the inside the school buildings in Tamaki.

There are about 15,000 people living in Tamaki and unlike many places in Japan, kids comprise a significant part of the town’s population.  The then-director of Tamaki’s local Board of Education volunteered for Tamaki to be included in the special English program.  He said “I want people to see that even if we live in the countryside, we can excel in English.”  I strongly approve.

In the current English education system in elementary schools, only the fifth and sixth graders are required to have English class and even then, the subject is not graded so most students don’t really take it seriously since it won’t affect their grades.  Some teachers doubt the importance of learning English for the kids who could find work even without being able to speak or understand English.

With the lackluster attitude about learning English, it’s not a surprise that Japan is ranked #35 out of 72 countries in English Proficiency.  This is why many have high expectations for the upcoming change in the English education in Japan.  While critics says it’s too little too late, it’s still better than leaving the current system as it is.  It’s also encouraging to see small towns like Tamaki are showing interest in learning English.

For three years, all grade levels in the town’s elementary schools had English classes.  During the first year, I taught all grade levels but focused on the third and fourth grade.  It was quite demanding in terms of energy, patience, and creativity.

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Art Work Time. Kids love to see pictures so I spent a considerable amount of time drawing and making materials for class.

Most of the teachers didn’t have experience teaching English since it was the first time first through fourth graders had regular English classes.  When I first came, I only spoke a little Japanese, even though I learned how to read Hiragana and Katakana, and some kanji (their writing system derived from Chinese characters).  I didn’t really worry about this much because I assumed surely the teachers would know basic English words about classroom English.  But I guess I overestimated their English ability.

My initial meetings with the teachers were quite challenging because I only knew how to speak a few Japanese sentences and most teachers could barely understand simple English sentences.  There were only two or three teachers who could speak English comfortably. Suffice to say, gestures and a weird form of sign language became my friends.  Many times, I had to do all the teaching in class as requested by teachers so they could get an idea how to teach English to each grade level.  Since they also didn’t have much prior training in teaching English, I had to teach them several games and activities that would encourage kids to participate.

My co-worker mostly taught the fifth and sixth graders.  For the duration of the three-year English program, the Mie BOE asked us to administer a Phonics test to the sixth graders before the start of the school year and before its end.  It consisted of three parts – listening, reading simple words, and a bonus part that mostly involves reading.

We also received seven boxes of Lego sets to be used for English classes.

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Kids brighten up when they see me carrying several boxes of this to class.

At first, the teachers were apprehensive about it as they weren’t sure how to make use of the Lego blocks.  Among ourselves, we thought of how to better use the blocks so the kids would find learning English more enjoyable.

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Before the Fun Begins. Me explaining the Lego rules to the kids and what they’re about to build. [Apologies for the grainy picture. This poster was attached to the glass door entrance of the BOE.]

Some of the things we came up with were:

  1. Having them count the number of blocks they used to build a particular set.
  2. Asking them what color(s) their creation was.
  3. Having an “English Only” rule while they’re building things.
  4. Using the key English phrases (for example, What vehicle is this?) we’ve learned in class, with the builder asking questions and a volunteer answering.
  5. Setting up a competition by asking kids to build the biggest structure.  This works well for teaching superlatives.
  6. Asking kids to create and compare two similar things.  (Which is smaller: A or B?)
  7. Telling a story or a fairy tale in English with the Lego blocks as visual aide.

It took a while for many teachers to gain the confidence to lead the class so for the most part, I had to do the teaching by myself while some teachers focused on disciplining the kids and explaining things when they seemed clueless.

Compared to fifth and sixth graders, third and fourth graders have a shorter attention span so I often had to be have several activities in reserve just in case one or two didn’t work.  Having practiced this for more than three years, it has become easier to determine which sets of activities will work well for any of the 20-30 classes I could teach in any given week.

From the first year, up to the last month of the final year of the program, we’ve had countless class observations where top Board of Education and school officials and teachers from all over the prefecture visited our classes.  Most of the time, they carried video cameras, and regular cameras to document the event.

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A Write Up About Our Special English Class in Tamaki. A Japanese co-teacher gave me this newspaper clipping where my class was featured.

Every single time I would attend a meeting with other foreign English teachers, my fellow teachers would find it hard to believe I teach elementary school students everyday.  They would be sympathetic, saying it must be very tiring for me.  Most of them teach junior high or high school students most days where they don’t have to do much planning since the Japanese teacher takes care of most things.  A new co-worker who goes to junior high school everyday and visits elementary schools once or twice a month said that when the elementary school teachers asked her to teach, she almost died.

Thank God for school breaks!  However, not all of us spend all our vacation traveling or resting.  For two straight years, I’ve been part of the pioneering team of the Mie English Winter Camp that several students from elementary, junior high, and high schools all over Mie joined.

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My First English Winter Camp as a Head Teacher – Junior High School Level. Can you find me? [Only the high school students are here since the junior high and elementary students finished early].

It was a totally different from our regular classes because students had a chance to talk to us as if we’re peers.  Everyone, from the students to the Japanese teachers had to speak English.

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Don’t laugh. Here we are showing the kids how to do the chicken dance.

Aside from that, together with a friend, we were able to start the first community class in Tamaki for (adult) beginners in English.

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Never a dull moment with this bunch. Adult Class for beginners in Tamaki.

Before coming to Japan, I wanted to be assigned to Tokyo or Osaka for the simple reason that I have more friends in those two cities and there won’t be a shortage of things to do in both.  However, I got assigned to Ise.  While I contemplated moving to a bigger city, every time I would pray, the signs would point to staying in Ise.  As I stayed, I discovered that it’s easy to come to love Ise.

Honestly, I’ve never heard of this city before coming to Japan.  But I must admit that the fact that the 2016 G7 Summit was held in Shima, which is part of Mie Prefecture and is about an hour away from Ise, has become one of our bragging rights.

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The Ise Shima Landscape. Photo courtesy of Rakuten Travel

If you had asked me on my first year, I never would have thought I’d stay here for three years.  I’m on my fourth year now, and at the start of this school year, we had one more teacher join us.

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Me & My American Co-workers

So many things have happened over the past three years.  It gives me great joy to see the kids grow up and be able to communicate in English better, and with more confidence.  I’ve met dozens of teachers, Vice Principals, and Principals.  Some of them have taught me a lot about what it means to lead and to serve.

I may never fully understand why God allowed me to work here for this long.  Imagine what I would have missed had I decided to leave too early.

My First Surgery in Japan

For the first time in my more than three years of living in Japan, I finally had the courage to visit the dentist.  You would think that it’s silly and a bit reckless to not have my teeth checked that long.

You’re probably right, esp. since the dentist told me that I have to get some teeth treated for cavities.  I’m just thankful the dentists and the staff didn’t give me the scolding that I deserved.

In my defense, between the struggle to find a place to live, survive winter, and to make ends meet during the many vacations in a year where we don’t get paid, I couldn’t find the energy to deal with yet another challenge.  Sure, visiting a dentist at home doesn’t require much.  But when you’re in another country where they have a totally different alphabet and learning the characters takes years, even the simple act of ordering food in a restaurant or buying items from the supermarket may seem like a job interview.

If many of the teachers I work with couldn’t understand me when I tried to explain the activities I planned for class in the simplest way possible I could, I feared for my teeth and gums just thinking about how I would communicate with the dentist and staff.

Thankfully, I had a chance to meet the owner and head dentist of the #1 dental clinic in Ise, Dr. Noboru Katayama.  Let’s just call him Mr. K for short.  His easygoing demeanor is somewhat reassuring.  That was helpful because if I had a chance to internalize what procedures would be done to my teeth, I would have let this summer pass just to prepare myself mentally.  Yes, I’m one of those people who are brave in most other areas of life.  Just don’t ask me to go to the dentist or have my blood taken, and all that jazz.

It started quite harmlessly.  Mr. K had me undergo teeth x-ray upon examining my teeth. He went on to explain that I have to have some teeth treated for cavities and I have to have a wisdom tooth extracted in order to avoid extreme pain in the coming months, and to avoid cavities as well since the protracted wisdom tooth is making it difficult to clean the good tooth next to it.

The truth is I knew even when I was in the Philippines that I needed to have that wisdom tooth extracted but I kept putting it off, hoping that the problem would just go away.  But, thank you for reminding me, Mr. K! 😀  Back home in the Philippines, dental care is quite expensive because insurance coverage is very limited, almost non-existent.   I think Japanese people are very lucky because the healthcare system here is one of the best in the world.  Medical coverage is extensive and the government pays for 70% of the cost.

When I asked the receptionist what sort of limitations I should prepare for when I undergo the tooth extraction, she said “no food 30 minutes after the procedure.”  I thought that’s easy.  I think I can deal with that.  But when three days passed and I still couldn’t eat normal food, I thought “this is certainly longer than 30 minutes.”  That lady was smart.  If she told me this would happen, I might have backed out.  So it was for the best.

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Before and After. The X-ray showing the impacted wisdom tooth & the latter (below) finally removed.

The operation itself was smooth.  The kind dental assistant, whom I teach, asked me if I was nervous.  When I said yes, she held my hand and reassured me that everything was going to be alright and that the dentist who will do the operation is really an expert in extracting wisdom teeth.  In fact, their head dentist learned from her.

That helped a lot.  I never would have imagined undergoing an operation like this in Japan.  Minus the language barrier, it’s quite stressful to undergo an operation where everything is unfamiliar to you and where no family member or friend is likely to come to aid in the event that something goes awry.

But there I was clasping my hands together while praying that I wouldn’t have to endure much pain.  I think everyone who knows me well knows that while I seem tough in many areas, I have a low tolerance for pain.  At that moment, I started sympathizing more with people undergoing major operations.  I thought that if I felt that nervous and concerned for something like this, how much more do people who would have to go under the knife because of cancer or some serious disease.  Silently, I prayed for them.

Thankfully, I understood the dentist’s simple commands in Japanese.  I was still bracing myself for what I thought would be the most painful part before the tooth totally got extracted when the assistant started putting away the tools and instructed me to rinse my mouth.  That was it?  I felt relieved and thankful that what I anticipated to be the most painful part of the operation never came.  I felt silly for praying so hard so that I didn’t have to endure a lot of pain.  But it’s reassuring to know that through this experience, I’ve seen how God cares even about our smallest concerns.  In fact, the most pain I endured was the few seconds when anesthesia was administered to the area surrounding the wisdom tooth.

While the dental assistant took some time researching some words and checking her English dictionary, you can’t imagine how thankful I am that there’s someone who gave instructions and explained things to me in English.  I appreciated her willingness to try to communicate in English and to be patient enough to search for the words she doesn’t know.

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Look Ma, no swelling! Me with the dentist and the kind dental assistant.

I can’t tell you how many times some teachers, students, and even store clerks refuse to understand me even when I speak Japanese just because they know I’m a foreigner.  You can’t help but think that sometimes it’s all in the mind.

It reminds me of a story that my fellow ALT shared while she was teaching in pre-school. One time, she gave them an activity and explained what they would do in Japanese.  My co-worker, who is blonde and has blue eyes (she obviously looks like a foreigner to them) has been studying Japanese since she was 12 and she speaks it fluently.  After her detailed explanation, one preschooler raised her hand and asked in Japanese, “why can’t you just explain it in Japanese?”  The whole class had their mouths open in shock and one student told her “but she just explained everything in Japanese!”

Everything went well with my operation, except for the fact that I didn’t take the time to understand what I could and couldn’t do after the procedure.  Because of my failure to fully understand the aftermath, there I was having to hold five classes with my tooth slightly bleeding.  Never have I drunk that much blood in my life!

I know that choosing to undergo the operation during summer vacation where I didn’t have to go to school was a good decision.  The dentist even told me that if I didn’t have it removed, it would have caused me severe pain a few months from now.  In spite of the triumphant operation, I still felt a little sad as I couldn’t eat normal food for about a week.  I started dreaming about eating hamburgers and all types of meat!

But shortly after this, a friend invited me to Moku Moku Farm where we made sausages and took them home to eat.  I can truly say that those are some of the best sausages I’ve ever eaten.  Then came another barbecue party in a very relaxing place with dear friends.  I feel like I haven’t been to one in two years!  It was like I’ve never had surgery at all.  If you’ll excuse me, I still have a lot of eating to do..