Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Mini-break from mini-work

I want to wish you all a very happy Vernal Equinox Day!!! I think you are supposed to be eating some traditional foods, visiting with your long-lost stepaunt, and toasting the changing seasons. Get to it!

While you do that, I am going to relay how I celebrated my day off school. You're going to be jealous.

It all started a long time ago when I mentioned to Taiko-sensei that I wanted to visit a resort and was wondering if they ever have off-peak rates. The next day she hands me a coupon that her husband had received for the Kariyushi ("Happiness") Ocean Spa Resort in Onna Village. Essentially four people could stay for only about $25 each, plus discounts on the hotel amenities. Amazing deal! Since the weekends were booked for the time given, I grabbed up the 20th thanks to another pointless Japanese national holiday. Before I knew it, I was traveling up Rt. 58 with Bridgit after skipping out of school early and meeting up with two Nago-ites, Amy and Juhi.

We had a lovely time. Bridgit started off the festivities with an in-room massage and then we found ourselves sitting outside in the hot tub for over an hour. A typically overpriced hotel meal was consumed and then samples were devoured in one of the many hotel gift shops to serve as dessert. (Yes, we are "those" people.) After a couple of drinks in the room and inhibitions gone (for the most part), I led the brigade to the public bath house where once again, everyone got naked. This time it was unbelievably busy, but there were numerous hot tubs to soak in after our showers. I believe despite the initial "Am I really doing this?" moment, everyone enjoyed the time to just relax surrounded by mothers/daughters, friends, grandmother-types with all sorts of conversations going on around us. I am becoming a bit of an addict to this stuff, I must admit. I'll devote more to why some other time.

This morning we checked out of the resort and grabbed some food before parting ways. Bridgit and I headed to Cape Zanpa since it was a beautiful day. There wasn't much to do or see there, but as always, a pretty nice view.

I have my last class of the school year tomorrow and will be spending my time packing up my desk. Sometime next week our teacher room will be relocated to the "barracks" and our school will be invaded by 20-something newbies. The times they are a-changin' at CHS.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Pounding the Pavement

I was just asked if my head is okay. It's a perfectly acceptable question on this Monday morning as the entire school attempts to recover from a weekend of running, eating, and drinking the infamous Okinawan alcohol called awamori. Mind you, the teacher who asked me this is retiring and I witnessed her jogging up a steep hill as well as punishing the "bad kids" at our afterhours party with Saltines coated in wasabi paste. I should ask if her head is okay.

Only in Okinawa would you see various folks from retirees to young children running along Rt. 58 donning pink sashes. And I definitely cannot envision American teachers taking joy in running 60 kilometers to celebrate the end of the school year. But this is Japan. And the Japanese have strange ideas of fun. Although, I must admit that after participating in the event, it does make for a great day. So why did we make the run from Chatan to Nago? This is the last week of school in Japan and over twenty teachers will be departing our high school to go to new jobs and we have two teachers retiring. Hence, the running shoes and track suits were dusted off and put to good use.

The event began with teachers who weren't making the entire journey and their children kicking off the day by carrying a banner for the 2007 race. The journey was memorable and I will always see our Principal's little grey head bouncing around in the back of the lead van.

The course was divided into manageable segments of about 1 km each, basically ending each bit at a bus stop. Vans and cars would go ahead and the next runners would get ready to have the pink sash handed off to them. But no one ran alone. This is a community event and there were usually at least four people running at any given time, plus someone following on a bike. It took awhile for me to get worked into the rotation, but ultimately, I did my part and actually did three legs in a row because one segment seemed too easy. Mind you, my attempt was nothing compared to our famous professional marathon runner who just kept going and going without breaking a sweat. He is phenomenal to watch in action.

I drove along with Miyako-sensei, the only female English teacher, and we popped candy all day and ran various errands along the way because she was in charge of the event. We had Ryan Seacrest's Top 40 on the radio and enjoyed various visitors to the van along the way. Some teachers decided to finally try out their English and gestures with me and it was quite enjoyable. There was the obligatory soba stop along the way and some serious shopping for the party later in the evening.

Finally we approached Nago after seven hours of stopping alongside the road. We were all to do the last 4 kms together, so extra cars were driven in advance to the hotel. And we discovered that these last four kilometers were straight up a hill/mountain. I didn't see how we were going to make it up within four hours. But, like always, this had been planned for and as we congregated at the bottom of the hill, I was informed that we were going to do a sprint relay race. Essentially it was a giant game of leap frog, using two vans and people jumping out of the vehicle to take the sash and sprint for 200 meters or so to the next person and so on. It was incredibly dangerous on the curving road, and we almost lost a couple people falling out of the packed vans on the tight turns, but we made it up in record time and with lots of laughing along the way ... and then in a slightly moving moment, the banners were brought out and everyone sort of half-jogged, huffed and puffed, up the final hill to the hotel together with cheering and the retirees leading the way.

At the hotel that overlooks the ocean, we were divided into our respective rooms and I was given a space with Miyako and three other young teachers. We had a tatami room where we would later pull out five futons and sleep on the floor. Unfortunately, we only had one hour before dinner and five people to get showered. But, as always, the Japanese have a solution. Giant public baths. It's basically an onsen and there is one at my gym as well. I figured that since it was just Miyako, showering in public wouldn't be that bad. It wasn't until I was stark naked that I realized that almost every female teacher had the same idea to use the giant bath. Let's just say that it was one of my bravest moments and I feel stronger for it.

After getting cleaned up, we headed to an elaborate meal and some presentations. Of course there were speeches and then we were given a performance by some of the leaving teachers. This song is incredibly famous and I hear it quite a lot. I have no clue what is being said, of course.

Then the party moved to a suite and the fun began. I am pretty sure that one of my roommates came back to the room around 7:30 am. My favorite quote of the night came from another teacher, Sato, who said, "Rachel! I love you! I am going to call you Rach! I love "Friends" and they call Rachel "Rach!" So you are Rach!" I then called her Monica and then we were best friends. I felt very included the entire night and many teachers, emboldened by the awamori, decided to have some meaningful conversations with me. Maybe not meaningful, but amusing for sure.

After a night on the hard floor (I wonder why they even bothered with the futons), I enjoyed a relaxing breakfast and was soon on the road again with Miyako. Despite the massive amounts of alcohol consumed, no one looked to be struggling in the least. They have a talent for hiding hangovers, that's for sure.

Although I think that it must be difficult to form lasting relationships when you switch schools every three to five years, I admire the community spirit found among these teachers. And I can only hope that when it is my turn to retire, I will still be able to jog up a hill.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Reunion 2007

Coming soon...

"Lost in Transportation"

What Bill Murray really said... "Hey, ScarJo, you're great and all, but I really wish the McElroys were here instead."

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Just can't resist those puppy dog eyes

I met Max yesterday. He's perfect. Well-behaved, beautiful eyes, lovely hair, and an eagerness to please. Also he hardly barks and is well-behaved on a leash. Oh, Max, how little time we got to spend together.

Bridgit is a cat fanatic. I think I can say that and she won't be too angry. (Right, Bridgit?!) And she has a heart for animals and has been involved with an organization called OAARS (Okinawan-American Animal Rescue Society - motto "Leave No One behind") through emails for quite some time. Yesterday she finally had a free day to actually go and help at the doggie shelter down in Nishihara and asked me to come along. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

We drove down the coast to find this puppy shelter in the rain. We knew that we would be walking dogs in the mud, but we had no idea how messy things would get. After turning down a dirt road, we found ourselves looking at a dilapidated greenhouse and no one else was to be found except a Japanese man walking a couple of dogs. The barking could be heard from down the road. We walked in, smelling raw animal odors, and looked at all of the dogs begging and barking for attention in their cages. And then I met Max. He was looking out of his kennel with big black lab eyes and I teared up a bit as I thought of Endicott. I'll admit it.

The other volunteers arrived and soon buckets of bleach, doggy doo shovels, and brooms were handed out. Everyone got a job and with tons of rambunctious dogs, almost every moment was entertaining. I rolled up my jeans and after one lap with my dog, Fuzzy, my shoes weighed an extra five pounds with sticky orange mud (and probably poo). I got pulled through puddles, dragged over hills, and was praying that the ominous clouds wouldn't deliver their goods until we were done. I walked a few dogs and almost fought to get the chance to take Max out. He was such a good dog. Apparently he was just found and didn't have a name, so I christened him Max on the spot. Someone left him at a Hot Spar all day and after watching to see if anyone would come back for him, he was turned over to the shelter. This is a beautiful dog, most likely purebred and trained. I tried not to get too attached. My apartment doesn't allow for dogs, and bringing him back to the States would be impossible. Fluffy and her son were left by a military family who had to PCS. Another dog I walked had a crooked leg as a result of a bad break. If you can't take care of a dog, don't get one!

Meanwhile, the crazy Japanese man is yelling at people to do this/do that all in Japanese. The lady in charge said she was glad she can't tell what he says. The most important fact about this guy is that he LIVES in the greenhouse. He has his own set of dogs that roam about in the middle with their own doggy houses. He lives there. In the middle of the sugarcane field. With thirty barking dogs and no humans. He has a BED in between the kennels with blankets, lamps, cooking supplies. Did I mention that this place smells like thirty dogs live there?!

The fact is, Bridgit did an excellent job of scooping poop and cleaning up the puppy pen, and I fell in love with a dog. At the end of the day, we were both covered in various colors of mud, hair crazy from the wind/rain, and exhausted.

Here's the OAARS site. The good news is that quite a few of the dogs listed weren't at the shelter and have found homes. I am hoping Max will enjoy a happy ending to his Hot Spar saga.

It smells like Cheez-Its at school today. Hmm.

Friday, March 09, 2007

"I like Snoopy because he acts like he doesn't know he's a dog."

Perhaps you have seen the Michael Jackson-comes-to-Tokyo news. One of my teachers told me a few days ago that there was going to be a concert and people paid 400,000 yen ($3500) to see the elusive MJ. Today I read about how 400 people showed up, ate a dinner, watched some Japanese Michael Jackson impersonators, listened to a short thank you note, and took some photos. No concert. No singing. No dancing. That's some expensive sashimi. I asked Miyako-sensei if she would buy a ticket and she laughed. However, she still thinks he is absolutely genius and knew nothing of all the scandals surrounding him. She said she didn't think he had any plastic surgery, but maybe was trying to be too "white." She thinks he is still handsome (refusing to admit there is something off with his nose) and admitted that sometimes being a genius brings a" little bit of crazy" with it. She wanted to know why he comes to Japan so often and I tried to explain that because to people like her, he is still an idol here. He doesn't have the "freak show" quotient. He is still a talented musician and they can overlook Neverland Ranch. It was an interesting conversation and I tried to politely explain his scandals without too much detail. I have my standards and didn't want to completely shatter her world... especially on a Friday. I told her that I also used to love Michael Jackson back in the "Thriller" days and there is video evidence of the two Dorsey gals tearing up some pea green carpet with our moonwalking moves back in the day. I think that made her feel a bit better about what kind of teacher she is sharing her desk space with.

And this then led into us researching her favorite cartoon, "Peanuts" and the creator Charles Schulz. She loves Peppermint Patty and wants to own all of the comic strips. We looked up how many books she would have to buy, and I was also impressed by the sheer number of years that Snoopy and Charlie Brown ran daily. There were about fifty years of drawings and Miyako was contemplating buying the first few books in the set that is gradually being released until about 2030. She wanted to know if Peanuts was like Doraemon and on TV in motion. I showed her pictures of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!" and we oohed and aahed a bit. Which led us into Dreamworks vs. Pixar and explaining American corporate lingo, including parent companies, patents, CEOs, mergers, etc. It was all very confusing and by then end we just ended on, "Yes. Tom Hanks has a lot of neck fat." (Don't ask.)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Tokyo will be reeling.

Anyone ever hear of Scantron in this place?

I was blessed this week to have two days of classes. And three days next week. And then three whole days the week after. And then none. That's my month in a nutshell. Things are winding down at school and the last two days have involved 240 future ichi-nensei invading their soon-to-be school to take their entrance examinations. From the five tests, they will be put into their respective homerooms that will essentially determine whether they will be college-bound, vocational school-bound, or McDonald's-bound.

I was invited to help grade papers and all of the double and triple checking that is involved in deciding their fates. It was typically Japanese. Precise and time-wasting, but at the same time a bit admirable for the attention to detail. Each test was split into nine question sections. There were three tables and at each table someone took a section to check with a red pen and a system of circles, slashes, and Xs. There were many signatures added to sheets and then after every test was graded at one table, we rotated the tests, double checking with a black pen. Then rotated again and checked with a red pen again. Then there was the counting of correct answers...three times. Plus lots of yelling of numbers that still needed to be checked. "Yon-ban!" "Ni-ban!" I sort of enjoyed that part.

I got the hang of grading although was a bit overwhelmed at first due to this chart:

But thankfully I was given the easiest/non-Japanese needing parts and ripped through my tests.

I was going to write a detailed blog about the "tracking" system of Japan, but think I will give it a miss for now. Essentially there are different levels of high schools (Chatan is in the lower middle tier of schools in Okinawa) and then within each school some students are on different tracks...Liberal Arts, Science/Mathematics, Technology, McDonalds (my 1-3 class). Students are supposed to know whether they want to go to college or not before entering high school, which determines which school they attend (can decide between schools in their area) and then which type of homeroom they will be in. It's all very complicated and based on these exam scores, interview results, etc. the students will soon know if they will be 1-1, 1-4, 1-8, etc. I am really curious where the student who got 1 right on the math section...only answering 1... is going to be put. Some real winning scores! And listening to Bridgit talk about how well her students did on the English test makes it apparent how she is a higher-middle tier school, quickly approaching top school status. My students were great if they wrote, "School clubs should be required because.... sport is happy."

We graded our tests in the shodo (calligraphy) room. I was looking at all of the displayed scrolls and pointed out the one in the middle to Taiko-sensei and made a comment about how shaky it was. She said, "Oh, yes. That one." Her tone made it sound like I had just picked out one done by a student who couldn't help the shaking. But then she said that it was actually a style of calligraphy and is supposed to look like that. Then she pointed out some other differences and all of the teachers said they couldn't read all the kanji/understand the meanings. Interesting.

Most teachers kept saying, "tsukareta" (tired) and this poor guy took advantage of a brief break in the action. He also happens to be the second place finisher in the Naha and Okinawa City marathons. Must be the training.

Friday, March 02, 2007

"Dangerous" times at CHS

Apparently my blog resembles a "Spam Blog," but the kinks have been worked out and now I am able to post freely! As Carly hypothesized... maybe the Japanese have infiltrated Blogger. Or maybe it was my continuous mentions of Spam itself that drew attention to my modest little blog. I wonder if I was on a "Wanted List" at any time. I love feeling like a renegade.

Ok -- Graduation Day 2007 continues...

(A girl who studied in the States made this poster. I was impressed with her use of the "t" in congratulations, and didn't have the heart to tell her to add the "s.")

The san-nensei threw a party the night of their graduation ceremony at the community center which is conveniently a block away from my apartment... and the weekly meeting spot for a Bridgit/Starbucks run. Generally, the students invite the teachers but don't really want them to show up. However, this class was a bit unusual and really seemed to want a sensei presence. I couldn't let them down! And I was really curious about the whole thing because teachers were already expressing concern about how much skin was going to be shown by the newly free graduates. And I had heard that immediately after the ceremony, students dye their hair since it isn't allowed during the school year. (In fact, one girl dyed her hair "blonde" before the ceremony and wore a wig during the day.)

I showed up and was welcomed by these sweet girls who looked quite pretty and very different from their uniformed selves. The boys lingering around looked quite dashing and there was that bit of tension and awkwardness found before every mixed-gender social event.

As we filed into the banquet hall, all the girls ran around exclaiming at their winter ball-esque dresses and high heels/hair. Actually, for the most part I found them to look quite adorable. I love how some of the Japanese fashions look and even bubble skirts look cute on them. In fact, in some ways it looked like tons of little Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsens running around/tottering around with knock-knees and high heels. We ate our provided meal and waited for the "dangerous" girls to show up. That's what the teachers call them. "Dangerous." There were already at least a few scandalous dresses (one of which had me asking the teachers if anyone thought she had underwear on and another that looked like it went through a paper shredder and only three inches of the skirt remained) and I couldn't wait to see what the "dangerous" girls would come up with. Around 8:30, they showed up (the party began at 6...dangerous girls are always late). And actually, one girl looked great in a polka-dot dress that had a Audrey Hepburn sophistication about it. But then there was another one. Wow. I actually said, "HOW did I miss that one when she came in?!?!" Besides being shockingly short and with spaghetti straps, plus the obligatory six inch heels, she also had on fishnets and her entire bra was showing in the back. I don't even think I ever even saw these kids in class. Maybe because they were the ones who were constantly asleep and I only know them by the back of their heads.

Meanwhile, I was discussing prom with the teachers and all of the dresses that are popular in the States when suddenly the difference between these dressers and their American counterparts became shockingly obvious. Although the dresses were "sexy," every single girl (except Dangerous Bra Girl) had a shawl or little coat covering their shoulders/chest region. There were no bare shoulders or backs in the place. A strange observation, but somehow it made me feel better as I was beginning to become unsettled that something was just "different."

I posed for pictures with a couple of students, including two students who were foreign exchange students last year, Risa and Ryoko. I will miss these two for sure, although they always spoiled my games because they mopped up every time.

And then there was a slightly awkward moment when these four very very very shy and smart boys asked to take their picture with me. I love the stiff poses in this shot. It makes me laugh. I felt honored though. Sweet kids.

Oh, and the hairstyles. There were so many new highlights in all the colors of the rainbow, extreme haircuts (boys and girls) and other not-so-subtle changes. I could hardly recognize some of the students. This is my favorite. When I said, "It looks like an animal died on his head!" The other women senseis almost peed themselves. I didn't think it was that creative and actually it also looks like one of those umbrella hats that attaches to someone's (NOT MINE) head.

That picture really does not do it justice. There were literally two hair lengths with an obvious level change. He won "Best Dressed" because it was so shocking. Wow. I am still laughing.

So the evening was mostly spent snapping photos of these scandalous and dangerous girls. Games were played that were amusing and some robotic dancers and skanky girls performed. I spent about fifteen minutes trying to explain the subtle differences between "geek" and "nerd," plus the not-so-subtle difference of "freaks." (I was going to post a video for why this conversation was necessary, but in case that kid is a Japanese blogger lurker, I will resist. Poor kid.)

It was a nice evening and I was actually saddened a bit that I will never see these students again. Plus it provided some excellent conversation points over some hot chocolate at the Bucks.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Turning them loose...

Friendship songs. Speeches aplenty. Confetti showers. March 1st is Graduation Day in Japan and Chatan High School passed its third year students into the brutal world of minimum wage work and overdue bills with the best of them.

Thanks to Taiko-sensei, I actually had a very good idea of what was going on throughout the ceremony. The three hour ceremony. The students walked in to a rousing rendition of a song in the Okinawan dialect called "Thank You, Mom," parading under balloon arches. (Although Taiko and I hummed "Pomp and Circumstance" a bit) Some of their little legs could barely keep pace with their classmates, but eventually all classes were seated in their rows, although 3-5 was struggling a bit with figuring out their seating arrangements.

So, without futher ado (and because it is next to impossible to package three hours of pure joy into a small little blog entry), here is a list of the highlights.

1) You would have thought we were at the Louvre. With dramatic James Horner music playing, the curtain to the stage was gradually raised to reveal the Class of 2007's wall art. Last year showcased a rainbow thing that had stayed up all year and it was nice enough. But (and I'm not being sarcastic here) this effort truly is a work of art. Here's a picture in all its glory. Pretty impressive.

2) Then it was time for the National Anthem. It should be relatively easy for a foreigner to get the hang of standing up out of respect (remembering those Thailand movies and standing to the anthem before the feature film). Thankfully, though, I was properly warned in advance that in Japan the Teacher's Union is refusing to stand for the national anthem because it is nationalistic to the empereror and was used during those bleak days that were WWII. It reminds them of the darker times and so while everyone else in the gym stood up, we all remained in our seats. Taiko-sensei told me I could stand if I wanted. I politely declined social suicide and rebelled with the rest. Apparently this has been going on for years. You can check out a small article here.

3) The songs were another highlight of the day. The faculty and students struggled through the school song. I believe it was the first time they had ever heard it. Based on how teachers have recently begged me to take them away from Chatan in my suitcase, I can imagine the lyrics must touch their heart and spirit. There was a song from the first and second-years dedicated to the graduates called "SMAP" by Orange and apparently the only part known of that song was the refrain. Same with the graduate song of "Best Friend." Both songs sort of went mumble mumble mumblemumblemumblemuble... pause... Besto furendo. I couldn't even hear the choir sitting directly behind me.

4) I imagine I showed a distinct look of panic when my translating teacher went through the list of speeches for the "official" ceremony. There were at least nine, but each speaker must have been told to keep it under 5. Taiko translated the student speeches and one in particular was quite good. There is a boy who is going to university next year, always says hello, is ultra-polite, and is just one of those kids who you can tell will be successful. He gave a speech to the teachers and mentioned his homeroom teacher his first year who passed away last year. He got teary saying that you should always express gratitude when you feel it before it is too late. And he wishes he would have told this teacher "thank you." Amazingly done. However, as a note, all the speeches were pre-printed in the bulletin given to everyone. At least I could try to guess where we were and how much longer until it was over.

5) The awarding of diplomas took up the bulk of the time and involved the homeroom teachers calling out the names of students. The women teachers were wearing kimonos and the principal handed each student gigantic certificates (suitable for framing). Each student had to bow at least four times and they apparently have not embraced the bowing as much as the elders because they were pretty sad attempts and some of them seemed downright disrespectful. One student had to pause before his certificate was given to him for an announcement. I asked later why he was so surprised. He was announced to be the 10,000 Chatan graduate. I hope he won a free dinner at Sizzler for that.

And that was the first ceremony. Yes, there were two. The second was run by the Student Union and was casual (and shorter).

1) The young man who spoke of his homeroom teacher had been spending tremendous amounts of time in the teacher room working on a video for this part of graduation. And once again, like at the stage festival, it showed ingenuity, humor (which I could tell even without knowing exactly what was being said), and general creativity. The twenty minutes passed quickly and soon it was time for the candle ceremony.

2) The homeorom teachers each lit a candle from a giant kanji character on the stage that can mean either heart or mind. They passed the flame to the first students who passed it back and so on. All of this was done to rather awful versions of "Ave Maria" (felt like I was at Midnight Vespers) and "Con Te Partido." If you know Con Te Partido, you know how it has a huge crescendo at the end. At this point in the song, students all raised their candles towards the center. It was slightly moving, but would have been more effective with Andrea Bocelli singing and not this lame chick they picked.

3) Two of the crazier boys in the class then decided to start a new tradition of throwing jackets in the air on the count of three. Thankfully, I still had room on my memory disc to capture the 1st Annual Coat Toss.

And then - finally - it was time for students to parade out. As I walked out of the gym, I noticed many white faces/families in the crowd, which still strikes me as bizarre. Did I mention that by now it's 1 and I still haven't had anything to eat except my morning toast? And everyone knows how I get when I start to get hungry...

Everyone was standing around outside waiting for the graduates to emerge and are loaded down with candy chains and flowers. Some of them almost became targets for my ravenous appetite.

After at least thirty minutes, the graduate emerged to some music and a downpour of confetti thrown off the balconies. It was much more fun to watch the kids on the balcony chucking confetti and having it catch in the wind back into their face.

I walked into the office thinking, "YES. LUNCH!" but was then informed that there were at least 45 minutes of cleaning and then food would be brought around 2:30 or 3:00. I slumped in my desk, moaning about my low blood sugar, and attempted to keep busy until our group lunch/dinner/snack/prison meal. I am exaggerating. It wasn't that bad. The food was decent, although I didn't each much in anticipation of my other free meal (see upcoming blog entry). Graduation Day 2007 wasn't quite over for me...

Passport Control isn't prepared for them...