Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Some days you have to just stop and admire the view. Today was one of those days.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Is nothing sacred?

This morning I was lounging around in my pajamas, drinking some tea, and watching Grey's Anatomy when I heard some voices outside my door and then a knock. I was semi-expecting someone at some point this weekend, so decided to bravely answer the door. The two Japanese ladies on the other side got the shock of their life when my white face opened the door. One of them regained her composure after a quick gasp and a "OH!" and said in broken English that they were Jehovah's Witnesses. Ah! Is nowhere safe?! She rummaged through her bag and handed me a couple of pamphlets, but thankfully, the language barrier proved to be too much for them to handle and they retreated without inviting themselves in to partake in tea and McDreamy with me. On second thought, that would have been something! A missed opportunity! Come back, crazy ladies!

Maybe if I had one of these that barked loudly, the door knockers would steer clear ---

That's Izzy with her sister Roxie. Kawaii desu ne?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

I "dig" it!

Do you often have nightmares about the formative high school years? Specifically, the dreaded "Physical Education?"

In my personal nightmare, we are participating in a volleyball unit. Well, some of us are participating. Others are standing around and sticking their arm straight out if the ball comes within three feet of them. Boys are taunting each other and egos are getting built up and bruised simultaneously. The ball is ricocheting off the ceiling, bleachers, and the teacher is beginning to get angry. And there I am, suddenly reeling from a well-placed senior spike to my very freshman nose and feeling the uncontrollable reflex of tears making their way to be viewed by everyone. Why do they have to be the senior boys? And then to hear, "Rachel! Get it next time!" and groans on my team at the lost point. I can't even get into the whiffleball trauma I experienced... It's too much too soon.

Why does any of this matter now that I've been out of high school for three years? (Just seeing how closely you're reading...) Because I just experienced a "Farewell to the Third-year Students of Chatan High School Volleyball Extravaganza Competition Tournament!" That might be a bit of a loose translation, but when I heard the opening and closing speeches, the title had to be that long to warrant standing around for 25 minutes. I know that I complain a lot about my school and students. Today, though, I found some amazingly positive attributes that have given me hope in my students again.

How the day worked--- We all went to the Koza Athletic Park gym center where there were three volleyball courts set up. Students participated in their homeroom classes with their special T-shirts they designed last April. Attendance was taken and everyone was required to participate. Gradually the competition was narrowed down to one champion. Simple.

Now imagine trying to do this in the United States. First of all, most students wouldn't make a special trip out to the park and would just not show up for the day. There would be numerous students who would absolutely refuse to participate. Having some freedom during the day would open the door for all sorts of mischief - big and small. My students were given free reign of the building, although attendance was taken and there were teachers posted outside with megaphones to prevent students from leaving. And at the end of the day when the classes reconvened for the awards ceremony, there were few, if any students, who had slipped out during the festivities.

And then there were the actual games. And this is what truly amazed me. The girls played against each other first and then the boys took over for the second match. There was absolutely no yelling, no giving blame for lost points, no taunting of the other team. The boys supported their girl counterparts and everyone had a smile on their face. That isn't to say that the competition wasn't fierce. In fact, the level of play was impressive, especially considering that very few have committed to playing with the actual school team. I remember boys in high school just kind of scooping up the ball with their hands, spiking into each other, and complaining that volleyball is a "girl sport." Here, though, the boys were just as good and did the whole "bump, set, spike" routine with great skill. I was also completely thrown by how the laziest/girliest/least interested students tried very hard on the court. There were the "I'm in a band and too cool for anything" sorts, "I just need to pluck my eyebrows while you explain the activity" girls (and boys), and the geeky ones too. No one just stood there looking tortured and no one --- absolutely no one--- got picked on. Each court had a student officiating and students pretty much followed standard rules. There were some controversial moments and both teams would jokingly yell to get the call to go their way, but once the decision was made, the game continued with no arguments or angry outbursts. And of course teams had to lose. Instead of hard feelings, kicking bleachers, and throwing temper tantrums, students laughed it off and cheered anyway. I don't know why all of this was so striking to me, but as I watched these young students handle themselves in a competitive situation, I realized that something in the raising of Japanese children at home and at school is working. Frankly, I was inspired.

The senseis were also given a chance to showcase our fantastic v-ball skills. Actually, the men were quite good and beat their competition, but our opponents rallied and beat us by one point. All in good fun, though. Of course. It's Japan!

And I truly am going to miss those third-years...

p.s. Hey, Regan, remember that hockey puck to the mouth?!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Painting the world pink

This weekend I journeyed up to the northern part of the island to see the "Sakura Matsuri" or "Cherry Blossom Festival" in Motobu. I was warned in advance that the actual trees haven't come to full bloom on Mt. Yaedake, but thankfully there were enough blooms and a break in the rainy weather to enjoy the famous tress that line the road to the top of the mountain. There is a windy road that travels up the mountain and hundreds of tourists park their cars and wander around the road with their cell phone cameras, as well as extremely professional gear to capture the best shots of the trees. The road is very narrow with low-hanging limbs and the addition of small children running away from their parents, random dogs, and larger-than-normal cars making the journey a bit chaotic, yet very Japanese.

Thankfully, the Motobu folks thought ahead and realized that people are coming to see trees in bloom and made a room full of pictures from last year. So, although, it's kind of lame, here are some stolen shots from people with excellent cameras.

The best parts of the festival were the stands of oishii fair food, carnival games, and a performance tent. The Okinawan "carnies" are much more approachable than those of the States and suckered us into playing numerous games. I managed to conquer the dart-throwing stand, and the group left with our arms full of novelty pencils, swords, guns, Hello Kitty paraphenalia, and full stomachs thanks to corn dogs ("American dogs"), fresh strawberry mochi, and cherry blossom ice cream.

And what goes better with the serene cherry blossoms of Mt. Yaedake than some rocking music with a local band, Afromania. (They were actually quite decent... I *think* that's their name). We were also treated to some high school break-dancers spinning on their heads for well over thirty minutes.

The festival brought out the kids in all of us. Here are my travel companians for the weekend, Dave, Juhi, and Paul, who carted me around and let me hog the Ninetendo Wii for awhile to try to bring out my inner Roger Federer in a friendly little tennis match.

Of course, nothing compares with actual children enjoying a festival.

The Block One Crew of the north are great people to hang out with and next weekend is the Cherry Blossom Festival of Nago. The trees should be blooming more by that time, and the pull of fried fair food and eisa drumming might be too much for me to resist. Plus, Juhi's "I-can-sleep-til-noon-and-I-will" futon and yummy waffles for breakfast are out of this world!

As Paul, Juhi, and I are not going to be in Okinawa next year, there is a sense of "we have to do this! and that!" before July. Just like the cherry blossoms, our time on the island is limited.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Who wants to wrap my ankle?

As I was working out yesterday, with my iPod in my ears, I was repeatedly brought out of my world of the "Bright Eyes" by random shouts mixed with laughter coming from the man on the treadmill next to me. Was he suffering from a spell of mental instability? Maybe. Or he was just reacting to the sumo wrestling tournament on the TV? Intrigued, I began watching these very very large men in loincloths doing various rituals before a 10 second match which would end with one of them painfully hitting the dirt. And then the defeated wrestler would (I think) offer water to his opponent before bowing and leaving the stadium. In one particular match, a defeated giant of a man was crying as he walked to the locker room. I am sure this says a lot about Japanese character and that there have been numerous sociological studies done with sumo wrestling and the national psyche, but I am not going to focus on that just yet. Instead, I realized that I had become accustomed to such behavior after three months of working out the in the gym and the next day I would definitely make mental notes of every bizarre thing that I saw during my time on the treadmill. This post is dedicated to the man perched on the stationery bike with his legs on the bar and his shirt pulled up on one side and stuck on a roll of fat, watching the wrestling with rapt attention and head cocked to one side like Forrest Gump.

First. The fashions. I personally dig these weight-loss suits designed to maximize your sweating during a grueling walk on the treadmill. I am positive that if I were to don one of these outfits, within ten minutes I would be passed out. The gym is kept at a boiling temperature (also, presumably, to aid in sweating), and my face turns red before I even start my workout. Within ten minutes, it looks like Frosty the Snowman melted beneath me. Today, this younger fellow who always shows up at 5:15 was wearing a new plastic suit in black instead of his characteristic navy blue. Must have been a Christmas present. You will also see more shorts of the spandex variety in my Okinawan gym, as well as two-piece leotards complete with unmatching, teal, spotted leggings.

Long ago, the medical community realized that simply shaking your body doesn't really burn fat and make you a lean, mean, workout machine. Apparently, my gym and gym-goers never got the memo because on any given day you will see a man or woman strapped into a contraption like that above, getting their back, butt, stomach, legs, thrown to and fro. And it isn't pretty. Even someone with a very low body fat percentage would still have the jiggles with this machine. Now imagine slightly overweight folks in unflattering gym clothes having their fat shaking like --- cliche as it is --- jello. That's what it looks like. And the machine was only allowed to rest five minutes today by my calculations. Where does the line form?

Remember these massagers that came in and out of style about ten years ago? I am happy to report that the gym does not have a shelf full of such massagers. However, they do have a machine that has many wooden balls that rotate quickly. I would watch people sitting there for fifteen minutes at a time and wonder whether this foot and calf massage was really "that great." One day when it was finally free, I braved the foot roller. And it tickled. Tremendously. It was a bit too much, but a few days later, I tried again and absolutely loved it. In fact, once your feet have had all the kinks rolled out of them, you can slouch down in the chair, throw your head back with the iPod on a relaxing song, and get your calves, thighs, and if you are really limber, your butt too. I can sit there all day. Some people cross to the other side of the machine and put their back against it, but I could just see my hair getting tangled with all of the rolling mechanisms. That would be something. As I walked into the gym today, there was a lady bent over the machine getting her stomach kinks worked out...rump in the air. Then she turned and sat in order to properly massage her behind.

And what sweaty gym experience would be complete without the ultimate accessory? A mug of tea. Forget Gatorade.

All of these things must work in some way, though, because Okinawa has the most centenarians in the world. That's the over-100 age range for you. And that is something to be proud of.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

My, what lovely bloomers you have

Yesterday I finally got to take care of some important business at school. First, I turned in my "I am not recontracting" form, which I don't think was too much of a shake-up for the office. And I brought up the anti-base race politely and said that I wasn't really told the details when I initially signed up and having thought about it, decided I was not comfortable participating. Simple as that. I am spending the rest of the week working my way through a behemoth of a book and having long discussions over caramel macchiatos. Wow. Next year I am going to have actual responsibilities. I better soak this up.

This weekend is the Motobu Cherry Blossom Festival in the northern part of the island. Cherry blossoms are a huge deal throughout Japan and a source of pride for the country. While Okinawa's blooms are appearing already (and for a very short time...hence the festival this weekend), the rest of Japan won't see their trees blossoming until the end of March/early April. A fellow teacher told me that the progress of the blooms on the mainland is tracked on the news. A bit was lost in the translation of how the blooms spread across the islands, but I think it has something to do with pollination. I am hoping to visit mainland Japan around that time and will be able to compare cherry blossom seasons. Okinawan cherry blossoms are quite pink, unlike the traditional white/light pink varieties. Anyways, I cannot wait to sit under some blooming trees, compose some haikus, drink some green tea, and contemplate life. Anyone care to join me? (We can exchange some red wine for green tea if that will persuade you...)

Monday, January 15, 2007

Someone page Tom Hayden. Or just find his page and give him a message.

Most of you know that one of the main reasons I was incredibly disappointed at being placed in Okinawa was because of the presence of military bases. I assumed that everything would be "American." Well, as usual, I was right. (Ha!) But, with that said, I have grown accustomed to fighter jets landing on my roof and falling asleep to the sound of loud rap music being blared out of a car window. And I honestly do not hold anything personal against these young men and women who have been placed in Okinawa. I think my free AFN TV/propaganda is getting to me!

So, here's the dilemma for you:

I was approached last week to run in some sort of race on January 27th. I was told that I only have to run 0.9 km, but was given no other details besides that. I didn't give it much thought, until I had coffee with another ALT yesterday and she said that she was signed up to run 2.4 km at the end of the month. I told her I was signed up for the same thing, to which she said, "Can you believe why we're supposed to run?!" And I told her I was completely in the dark. Apparently, it is an "anti-base" run done each year by the teachers to protest the presence of military bases in Okinawa. This other ALT said her teachers couldn't really explain why they wanted the bases gone in the first place and what their economy would do without all of the American money flowing into their shops. They told her it is mostly to have fun. We discussed how expecting an American ALT to run around their own base in protest is completely unreasonable. It also explains why the event was not given to me in great detail.

Today, I decide to ask my favorite and most American-minded teacher about the event. I told her that I had been signed up to run on the 27th and wasn't sure if I was supposed to be raising money or where it was or anything. She sort of paused as she began to explain that it is run by the Okinawan Teacher Union and that many schools participate. In fact, almost all schools will run in the race. She said a bus would be here at school in the morning and that it would drive me to the race and then bring me back when I was done. And then, after much beating around the bush, I got it out of her that it is to take place at Kadena Air Force Base. I asked why and she explained that it is used to protest American military bases. I didn't really force the issue, but did get out of her that translated, the name of the race means, "Against War," and that they have been doing it for 30-40 years. She said that today most people don't know why they run it, it is mostly just to have fun and have a big party afterwards. I don't know her reasons, but she told me she does not participate and seemed a bit embarrassed by the topic.

I find it fundamentally wrong to be signed up to run laps around a military base even if other ALTs participate. Like I said, I am not the most gung-ho military person and have made plenty of comments about Okinawa and its bases, but, in truth, they are driving this economy. Plus, the Okinawan people don't have a unified vision of what they will do if the military does leave, why they want them to go in the first place, etc. So, I will be taking part in an event that 20-year-old Americans are going to be watching from inside the base and that is really "just to have fun." I don't agree with the idea that a teacher union should be representing such an opinion publicly. I think that most American teachers realize that they have to present both sides of the story, whether they agree or not. In fact, a teacher protesting anything would probably ruffle quite a few feathers.

Do I participate? That is the question. I don't mind the running bit (although I was a bit insulted that I was only asked to run .9 km when there are longer legs assigned to other teachers...) I've always wanted to take part in a protest (thanks for those genetics, Mom), but this protest just doesn't fit into my personal agenda. I think I will tell my supervisor (as I hand in my "I'm leaving this summer" form), that I am considering not participating because it makes me uncomfortable. Completely reasonable. No need to bring out the banners and Chicago Seven. Just a simply stated refusal.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

"Your cookie looks like a samurai!"

How do you sum up an amazing Christmas vacation? Photos!

I was counting down the days until my flight to Chicago. Since October. There were great expectations tied up with the flight home. Everyone knows that great expectations usually lead to a feeling of disappointment. Did my Christmas fulfill my images of sugarplums dancing in my head? Yes. And more. You can even throw in a Red Ryder BB Gun.

I left Okinawa on the 22nd and arrived in the arms of my parents on the 22nd. I love gaining a day! We took a white stretch limo from the airport to the hotel where they had dropped off the car. I wish I had a picture of my jet-lagged self relaxing in style, but unfortunately, all of my hydration techniques on the plane caught up with me, and I was darting into the Hampton Inn to use their facilities. After a few initial reactions to being home (“Wow, everyone is so big here!”), I was lugging my bags into my familiar and Christmasy home. And is there a better way to start a vacation than this?

That’s Izzy in all her full-grown puppyness. She is adorable and was the source of much amusement over break.

I had arranged to have a cookie making day with the family and it became a hilarious marathon of rolling, baking, and decorating. Everyone got into the action, including my Aunt Carol, and Izzy tried to step in a few times as well. (We took out the ones she licked.) My sister, Brooke, showed an amazing flair for making the most absolutely atrocious cookies and as much as the rest of the family tried to compete, we couldn’t top her creations. These are some of our more presentable cookies (without the bloody amputated ones)…

Christmas Eve was spent with my dad’s side of the family with Christmas gift opening, Eagle Brand pudding being consumed, and a rousing game of “Deal or No Deal” on DVD. There were more gifts to be had on Christmas Day and we took off to LaSalle to celebrate the day with Mom’s side. The highlight of the 25th? Counting Santa Claus pictures, statues, and any other Santa paraphenalia at Aunt Chris and Uncle Jack's house. Of course, the Dorsey competition noses were out for a kill and after Brooke and I strategically counted together and estimated how many we missed, I walked away with a victory and a cute Santa for the road. (The answer? 70 Santas. Really, Aunt Chris...) We also snapped some family pictures with my cousins, Tarah and Matt, and Grandpa Brown. Plus, I got the Dorsey crew to bring out their inner Japanese and pose accordingly.

To continue an American tradition, Brooke and I fought the crowds at the mall to score some big bargains the day after Christmas. Somehow, we ended up with numerous matching clothes and had to take a picture of one of our outfits.

After a couple of days of recover, the Dorsey clan took off for a big night in the city. We took the train to Chicago and spent the day enjoying the amenities of Tarah and Bret’s home, including their roaring fire and hot tub. It was a rough night of wine, delicious food, and games. The following morning was spent exploring Millennium Park and the famous “Bean” and ice skating.

My adventures in Chicago weren’t over yet, though. I took the train back downtown the next day to meet some of my Valpo friends for a day of lunch and wandering. Tammy, Kelli, and Laura were able to meet me and we continued a tradition of lunch at Bennigan’s before hitting some of the shops on the Magnificent Mile. We lucked out and the weather was tolerable for a wintery day in Chicago. The crowds were incredible and to console ourselves for being pushed around in shops, we enjoyed some Frango pie at the old Marshall Fields building.

The next day was New Year’s Eve and I hoofed it up to Schaumburg to see some more VU friends, including Laura, Carly, Kimi, and Jenny, plus their respective spouses and babies (in the tummy still). It was a night of delicious pizza, too many snacks, the Bears/Packer game, some Wii, and knitting. Yes, knitting.

On the first of January, I headed back south to visit Ken’s family. His entire family made an appearance and it was great to see them again! I gave Cole a bit of a sugar buzz with Japanese candy and was amazed at how big McKenna has become. She had just started proper crawling a few days before and was eager to show off.

The next day I drove my way up to Valpo to visit Tammy for the day. I visited the old haunts on campus, bought an obligatory sweatshirt, and got to eat Panera. Ah, those were the days. (By the way, it’s my 5th year reunion this year. How did that happen!?)

I finally had a few days to just relax and do nothing. Thankfully, my sister also had nothing to do and we teamed up on Izzy for three days while watching a VH1 “America’s Next Top Model” marathon… all three days. It was very relaxing to sit around on the couch in my comfy clothes and play with the dog. I also made a guest appearance in my mom’s second grade class and taught a few Japanese phrases and passed around some Pocky. They had some excellent questions and I realized that I talk strangely when teaching now, thanks to trying to be understood by my students here.

On Friday, I headed back to Josh and Laura’s for a yummy meal and then made my way to the Momence basketball game to catch up with some friends who I hadn’t been able to see yet. I forgot as I entered that I am a semi-celebrity among students there and when I walked in the gym, a dozen students stood up and yelled, “MS. DORSEY!!!!” It was cute and I appreciated being remembered. I spent the entire game gabbing with my friend, Amy, and left at half-time to meet Josh, Laura, Zack, Krystal, and Kevin out for some drinks and revelry. We stayed out late and it seemed like I had never left, except for the occasional moments when people said, “Wow! You’re sitting here!”

And then my vacation was almost over. I spent Saturday running errands and buying last minute items and then trying to shove said items into my luggage. On Sunday, my parents took me up to Regan and Kent’s house in Berwyn. Regan volunteered to drive me to the airport on Monday morning, which was much-appreciated. We enjoyed some Chinese take-out and a yummy brownie/cake for my birthday (notice how 27 candles would have taken down the whole house). Before I knew it, I was being dropped off at O’Hare and working my way through security lines and general pandemonium.

My flight was decent, measured mostly by the fact that the seat belt sign was turned off the entire time. It’s been a long time since I've had a smooth flight. I landed in Osaka with tons of military sorts who were also transferring to an Okinawa flight. It is still strange to board a plane in Japan and be surrounded by all Americans. And then to look at everyone waiting for arrivals and realize that they are all Americans too. Where am I?

Oh, right. Okinawa. And now I’m back to my old tricks of writing emails and blog entries at school. Where would I most like to be right now? Well, let’s just say, these pictures of Izzy are making me sad. And wouldn't you miss a family who enjoyed spending hours making photos such as these?

As some pangs of homesickness set in, I am consoling myself with the fact that once I break free from Okinawa in July, good times will be had again. And I will have a real bed... and a couch... and real cheese... Ritz Crisps... thousands of television choices... and of course, family and friends.