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Today, the word "cartoonist" came up in our second year reading, and we took a moment to explain the suffix "-ist", teaching it with the help of such other stellar examples as "artist", "guitarist", and "scientist". We didn't spend much time on it, just a minute or two, but I think the kids picked it up really well.

I now live in fear of the moment they encounter the word "sexist".


Jan. 25th, 2008 08:31 am
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I may never get used to the sheer eccentricity of the musical choices made by Japanese news programs. I'm not always sure they understand the lyrics, but even just choosing on sound, what prompts some of these picks?

This morning I saw a discussion of international immigration policy set to "We Built This City On Rock And Roll". There is in fact a strong favoring of 80's rock anthems by the Japanese news, as well as big blockbuster movie themes; I have watched a traffic jam report blaring the Star Wars theme, and seen hapless Japanese city boys learning to catch fish with their hands at summer camp to the inspirational fanfare of good old Indy Jones. And I don't even know how often I've switched on the news and heard the strains of Klaus Badelt's PotC soundtrack.

Anime and video game music makes the cut, too. I once saw a special about the mothering habits of marsupials that chose for its BGM that tender little Elric Family leitmotif from Fullmetal Alchemist. Last week I was watching a report on elephants at the zoo that used several assorted clips from Shadow of the Colossus. I especially liked the juxtaposition of the reverent temple music and a shot of a baby elephant wandering towards the camera.

The fact that a thread of bizarre logic runs through all these choices just makes them better. I'd love to know where they get their royalty rights, but I'd equally love to be on whatever board or team makes these matches...

Actually, here's a lark: if you comment, gimme three songs you'd pick for news clips if you had the seemingly unlimited song rights of the Japanese news. Say, for a human-interest special about a single mother in a wheelchair and her daughter...a short spotlight on students prepping for their entrance exams...and coverage of a nonfatal but spectacular traffic accident. :D
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When we all interviewed for JET...and when we got our first packets of informational literature...and when we arrived at the preliminary pre-departure orientation...and the main Tokyo orientation...and the regional orientation in Sapporo...again and again, we female JETs were warned:

Your coworkers and boss may expect you to perform menial tasks like making tea or filing papers. You will have to decide your own reactions to this. Be warned that this is a normal expectation for female office workers in Japan.

And here I am in Uryu, after six months of employment. The secretary at the middle school is an intensely efficient and always-jovial young lady who manages to get everything on her desk done in excellent time and still have time left over to chat. The secretary at the Board of Education is, incidentally, a boy, and just as good at what he does; and what he can't finish, Kakizaki-san or Izoe-san look after.

I have never once been asked to make tea or file other people's papers. And yet, every time I find myself sitting on my hands at work because of a lack of anything significant to do, I think wistfully of those warnings, and of what I wouldn't give to have somebody handing me his or her excess busywork. I would at least have something to do.

(For clarity's sake, this isn't to say that I'm jealous of those who have to deal with smothering sexism at work in Japan, or that I do nothing at work four days out of five. I just have the occasional free moment that stretches on a bit too long, and leaves me feeling a bit too much like a lazy college girl phoning in a part-time job for party money...)
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Today, Kinoshita-sensei hit us all up for the yearly submissions of a brief message per teacher to give to the graduating third years. They won't graduate until March, but obviously the literature needs to be put together before then. I got all the grammar on mine correct, first try, and I attempted to use a touch of English they could understand easily, and overall I'm rather proud of it, so for posterity's sake, here it is:

Well done, graduates! 皆さんおつかれさまでした!その25人の笑顔にGoodbyeと言うことは悲しいけど、新しい世界へ進んでることを見て、うれしくなります。この国際的な現在に成功するためにずっと英語の勉強をがんばってください。 Be brave! Be curious! Be kind!
Good luck, Class of 2008!

Translation of the Japanese: Everyone really did their best! Saying "Goodbye" to those twenty-five smiling faces is sad, but I'm happy to see you moving on into a new world. Please always work hard at your English studies, so that you can succeed in these international modern times.
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Today I picked up a little book in the Uryu Middle School library called 「アイヌのむかし話」, or Folktales of the Ainu, by Yotsuji Ichiro. For anybody who didn't know (it isn't exactly common knowledge), the Ainu were and still are the native tribes of Hokkaido, and they've been around since before colonization by the Japanese. The book is fascinating and at the perfect reading level to challenge me a bit while still allowing me to read for pleasure--I only have to look up one or two difficult words a sentence. Since it's interesting me so much, and since so few non-Japanese know anything about the Ainu, I thought I'd translate the first brief chapter here for you guys.

How Hokkaido was created, and a history of racial epithets made tidy at last. )

Holy Cow.

Jan. 18th, 2008 10:46 am
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I just had an actual brief conversation with one of my kids. A natural, comfortable conversation! With one of my normally nervous, double-checking middle schoolers!

"How are you?" "I'm hungry!" "Me, too. Today is chicken curry!" (I'd looked at the lunch schedule this morning. He went "Ah!" and ducked into the classroom to check.) "Great!" "Yeah, great! I love chicken curry!" "Me, too!" "Well, see you!" "See you!"

It's such a little thing. It took maybe half a minute. But it felt like a normal conversation, a simple fluent exchange. And with one of my first-years, no less. No stammering, no nerves, no terror of screwing up, no trying to flip through a dictionary or the day's worksheets or turning to a friend to giggle nervously and ask in Japanese if they know what I said.

I know it's random and had more to do with the kid's awesome confidence than my or Onodera-sensei's teaching, but I still feel so happy right now...
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Happy New Year, everybody! In honor of it being 2008 now and one of my resolutions being to write more, here is a short essay I banged out about how awesome a language Japanese is for screwing around with people!


Japanese is a fascinating and sometimes alarming language, because the verb always comes at the end of the sentence. You putter along making the setup, with subjects and objects and adjectives and adverbs and so forth, but you don't have to actually tell anybody what you did with all these things until the end. If it's a particularly long, involved sentence, you can get a lot of suspense going this way... )
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Or, The Tale of the Vanishing 7-11

Right, ladies and gents, this story is short, sweet, and makes me look incredibly absentminded and silly, all of which y'all love, I know. :D It goes like this:

Way back in July when I first got my JET placement packet, there was a charming little map of Uryu with, among other things, the convenience store locations clearly marked out. There was a Lawson's waaaaay down the road and out on the open highway about an hour's walk from my house. There was a Seicomart just a few handy-dandy minutes away, down the road and across the street. And there was a 7-11 (or, as the chain is officially called in Japan, "Seven and i-Holdings", though everyone still says 7-11), about ten minutes' walk away.

7-11s, for those of you not living in Hokkaido, are VERY USEFUL because they almost always have an ATM and the withdrawal fee is only 105yen. When the banks are closed, it is a godsend to have these places around.

I had, however, only needed to use the place once... )
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Arriving in Uryu this year, I quickly noticed it's standard etiquette to brightly say "ohayo gozaimasu!" (good morning!) when entering the teachers' office for the day. Everyone is bunched up in one spacious room, at little rafts of four desks pushed together, and everyone in the room at the time is supposed to chorus back your greeting to welcome you to the halls of learning for another day of nurturing young minds.

Now, anyone who claims there are no dipthungs in Japanese has clearly never experienced this ritual. Seriously, in nowhere but a strict totalitarian state would every one of a dozen people sit smartly up and ring out a clearly enunciated "ohayo gozaimasu!" in return. They are teachers. They are busy. Half of them are already scalp-deep in work, grading papers for their first period class that were put off because of that enkai party last night or what have you. And so you receive a shortened, mumbled version of the greeting.

Shortened, mumbled versions of Japanese greetings are something I'm very fond of, actually. Japanese society thrives on formal set phrases, and is at the same time only human in its execution of them, and so there are quite a lot of these charming variations. I did a speech on them during my year of exchange: the "Gaishmaaaaas" of the tissue-hander-outer in the shopping street, the "Shmasayyyy" of the bored store clerk as you enter (both meant to be onegaishimasu (if you please) and irrashaimase (welcome (to our establishment)). All classic artifacts, but the utter casualness of this assortment of morning office sounds, and its sheer variety, inspires me to new heights of study in naturally spoken Japanese.

There is the "Zaimaas", adhered to by the more dedicated or awake greeters. The simple "Ohayo", for those willing to sacrifice faux formality in favor of producing an actual word. And my personal favorite, there is the Random Vowelish Noise. Similar to the "Nng" that English speakers in a similar situation often reduce "Good morning" to, this is a randomly selected smush of two or three of the vowel sounds included in the original phrase. I'm particularly fond of the abbreviated "nyaw" produced by Toshima-sensei, my opposite deskmate. ♥

When I can master the Random Vowelish Noise, I shall consider myself a true master of casual office Japanese. Until such time, I am a mere apprentice--but a daily delighted one. ^_^
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Or, An Edifying and Highly Instructive Glimpse Into The Masterfully Organized Methods By Which Your Host the Esteemed Doctor Clark Memorizes and Retains Japanese Vocabulary

In case anyone reading this journal or otherwise acquainted with me was under the misapprehension that I'm some kind of linguistic genius, here's a typical anecdote from my quest for passable Japanese skills.

After literally years of attempting to remember what the Sam Hill it was called, I have finally retained the word "bedroom"! How did I manage this feat? )
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In the time since I last posted, I have learned two things:

I love Hokkaido snow. It's deep and fluffy and soft and it silences everything, especially at night. It piles up on roofs in glittering mattress-thick layers and slides off with muffled "shhhwwwhump"s; in the quiet of the evening it sounds like the houses around me are having a very solemn slow-motion pillow fight. It falls in little soft flakes that don't smack wet on your face, but land lightly, with the slightest sting of cold.

It's excellent for snowballs that leave a perfect explosion radius of snow on the target. It's not perfect for snowman-making so far (a little too powdery), but it can be done; I produced a pretty admirable one near my driveway before he was covered in a fresh layer of snow and then melted a bit, which rendered him a sort of screaming snow mutant like the unfortunate creations from Calvin and Hobbes. And it's not that difficult to walk in; I actually prefer walking on a few inches of Hokkaido snow to walking on a hard-packed, marble-smooth, slippery shoveled sidewalk.

Which brings me to point number two: I hate Hokkaido ice. Yesterday we had a warm day, and all the snow melted exuberantly and there were wads of slobbery half-slushed snow drowning in four inches of water everywhere...and tonight, it all froze.

This morning, my coworker who brings me to school in the mornings didn't come to school. And didn't contact me to let me know. So I waited until 8:15 to see if she would show up, then called in to explain, and then stumbled across the worst twenty minutes of lumpy, gnarled, horrifically slippery ice I've ever had the displeasure to walk on. Not only was it delightfully traction-free, but it was rarely actually smooth; instead it was composed of two-to-six-inch-high globules and crenellated heaps, rarely wider than a few finger-widths, left by the footprints of dozens of people walking through it while it was still mere slush. It was like walking on a frozen diorama of an inner intestinal tract, rich with lumps and polyps, only less disgusting and more likely to cause you to fall down and break your tailbone.

Can we have the snow back, please? I like the snow. I downright love the snow. Actually, it's snowing heavily as I type this, and I'm really hoping it packs into those globs and smooths them over. Because I have to walk home, too, and if it just affords them a clever cloak of ninja secrecy...I'm doomed.


Nov. 15th, 2007 10:45 am
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No, really. It's snowing at last. Here I sit, in the teacher's office, in an idle moment between classes, looking out at a low-hanging grayish cloud cover that seems to gradiate gently into air and onward to the earth, instead of ending cleanly several thousand feet up. There are white flakes falling just visible thanks to a tree trunk outside the window. And the whole ground is dusted with white.

I'm from Western Washington, okay? This is a big, amazing deal. I'm still expecting it not to stick, because it rained this morning, and where I come from, puddles on the pavement and water on the grass means no matter how much snow lamely drifts to the ground, it will melt on impact, the meteorological equivalent of one of those huge, disappointing meringues that turns out to be a vast pocket of air with about half a tablespoon of very thin shell.

And yet, except for the pavement, it appears to be sticking. The dirt piles by the baseball field have already been transformed into a pair of pristine miniature Alps. Slow but steady snow is winning the race. We had a light sprinkling during a cold snap last month, but this is the real deal. Hatsuyuki. First snow.

My coworkers and kids' reactions have been varied. Everybody seems amused at my naive glee (I couldn't stop grinning at first and going to look out the window), but the actual local opinion of snow is apparently diverse. I've seen a bit of mild delight (the Japanese teacher taking photos out the window with her cell phone, some of the kids running to the window to look out and exclaim), a lot of bland indifference or vague annoyance ("How am I getting home in this? I can't ride my bike," complained one of my second years), and a few reactions of dismay and horror right out of the scene in "All Summer In A Day" when the first raindrops fall. The Hokkaido winter is 'only' six months long, not seven years or whatever the Venusian rainy season was in Mr. Bradbury's story, but I suppose I can understand the sentiment.

As for my reaction? I'm still high on glee. Walking my bike home this afternoon might take the edge off a little, but I'm going to ride the enthusiasm/novelty wave while I can. After all, no point starting off grousing; it's going to be a long winter.
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Technically, autumn is winding down in Uryu. Most of the local plant life with detachable leaves is bare, ice is starting to feather its way in broad calligraphy sweeps across the pond in the school courtyard, and the grass is frosted in the mornings. There are a few splashes of orange foliage left on the mountains, but they seem to be rapidly flagging out. And I no longer leave the house without wearing two pairs of socks, or one pair and my long johns.

There seems to be a peculiar tradition hereabouts, for seeing off the autumn. In the last two weeks, at least a dozen people I work with regularly (students and teachers alike) have gotten new haircuts.

I'm not sure if this is a coincidence, if this is a Hokkaido thing, if this is a Japanese thing, if this is a normal human thing that I never noticed in America because I'm an airhead, or what. It seems a little weird, seeing as how winter here is downright Arctic and you'd think people would want all the skull insulation they could get... )
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So, on two out of the last three mornings, I have had dreams in which I was visited by a North American friend, resulting in my sleeping very late.

On Tuesday, I woke up to my alarm at six-thirty, rolled over, and dreamed that my friend Peter was standing in my bedroom, lecturing me on his opinion about a television show we both watch, despite the fact that I was still curled in a ball under my three layers of blankets. From this advantageous position, I kept trying to get a word in edgewise and not managing it very well.

In which our heroine receives a visit from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and...wait. )
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My third year students are studying an essay about Chris Moon out of their textbook at the moment. It's a very inspirational story about how he lost a leg and hand to a land mine when he was on duty in Cambodia, got a prosthetic, and went on to run in marathons to raise money for landmine removal. (Apparently a land mine costs $3 to make and up to $1000 to remove once it's been set. Ugh.)

Today Mr. Onodera was going through explaining some of the idioms in the Chris Moon essay on the blackboard. He got to the sentence, "He felt no pain, but when he looked down, his leg was gone." And, as he explained "--- was gone", several of the kids in my class started to giggle; and one of the girls in the right-hand row exclaimed, "Edowaado!"

Edward. I looked over at her, startled, and she grinned and elaborated (while Onodera-sensei looked on, clearly puzzled), "Hagane no Renkinjutsushi!"

I started to crack up, and made a comment about how it was too bad Chris Moon couldn't get automail, which stunned my kiddies in turn because they hadn't expected me to know what they were talking about. Then, since I had a free moment after class, I doodled a quick sketch on the back of my lesson sheet of the moment where lil' Edward looks down and realizes his leg is gone, and another one of Winry repairing his automail for good measure. They were received with cries of jubilation and amusement, and disbelief that a teacher is cool enough to read an Arakawa manga.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have come full circle. Now, where's my chalk?
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The other night, while I was chatting with my friend Steph over AIM, the subject of cultural naturalization happened to come up; specifically, the subject of bathroom slippers. She's been writing a (pretty dang funny) composition about the elaborate rituals of shoe-switching enforced by Japanese culture, and we got into a friendly discussion about our personal takes on the tradition.

I grew up in a house where I was encouraged, if not required, to ditch my shoes in a basket at the door, so adjusting to the No Shoes Indoors rule hasn't been difficult. The idea of kitchen slippers has never stuck with me--that's my slipper kryptonite, I guess, the one I always forget. I'm weak on the subject of taking them off before stepping on tatami mats, too, although living with the Hirois two years ago whipped me into slightly better shape on that count. You know, what with my bedroom having a tatami floor and all. It tended to come up, and repetition fosters memorization. (Hence my trouble has altered from "remembering to take my slippers off in tatami rooms" to "remembering to take my slippers off in any tatami room besides that one", a clear and vast improvement.)

But the unfamiliar slipper rule that really stuck, with me, was the concept of toilet slippers. )

First Frost

Nov. 7th, 2007 10:13 am
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Winter is creeping steadily up on Uryu. The fall foliage has peaked in a blast of orange, patchworked over the mountains that surround the town, and faded out again--the leaves are falling rapidly now, and I'm enjoying crunching through heaps of them in the park near my house.

The people of Uryu are very conscientous about protecting their plant life from the snow--every plant small or delicate enough to be damaged by the impending weight of it is now sheltered under a skeleton teepee of poles or (depending on its size) logs, and every tree not mature enough to support its own limbs has them lashed up against its trunk with plastic straps, so that my ride to work in the mornings has begun to feel like a trek through an abandoned Indian camp out of a cheesy, historically questionable old Western, with tied-up and abandoned captives scattered left and right.

There's a great sense of waiting, hanging over everything. Uryu is ready for the snow, every inch of her loins girded. Now it's just the tense waiting before the snow decides to arrive.

I don't think it'll be long. Today, on my way to work, there was frost on the grass and the ground for the first time, and frozen edges to the rain puddles. My ears were as numb as a couple of flaps of leather by the end of the ten-minute bike ride. I'm going to have to invest in a set of earmuffs. And some extra underlayers of clothing. Wish me luck, guys.
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Today, on my way to work, I saw a hawk hovering shockingly low and close over the roof of a house just off the road, flapping laboriously to stay in one place. It was the closest I'd ever seen a wild raptor on the wing, and I slowed down my bike to watch.

It's a pretty windless day today, and I was just wondering if it was having trouble getting height, or just trying very methodically to land on the roof, when it carefully nosed in over the chimney pot with its wings at full spread, caught the rush of hot air, and popped instantly several feet higher in the air before gliding off again, height attained.

And people say raptors are pea-brained. :D
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My wonderful supervisor, Kakizaki-san, is dealing with a rough time right now. Her father passed away last week, very unexpectedly. (His funeral is tomorrow, and I find the idea of an actual Halloween funeral the only pleasant note among the tragedy, but I suppose as an older Japanese man the significance is rather lost.)

I don't know the details of his death, and I don't feel like stumbling around in awkward Japanese trying to pry; but she's been off work all week, and I haven't seen her since it happened, and I'm a bit worried about her. She's an incredibly kind woman, and she's taken very good care of me since I arrived in Uryu. She even keeps the occasional scribble I've given her displayed on her desk, like a mom or a preschool teacher, something I didn't notice until a few weeks ago. I really hope she's doing all right. So, yes, all you folks on my Flist, whatever faiths you follow, please send a little grace her way.

(I promise I'll have a real post, with photos, soon. I know I've been lax with this journal; sorry about that!)
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Today's grammar point was "It is (adjective) for (entity) to (verb)." The kids were given a fairly free-form worksheet in which they had to take adjectives from a list and fill them into the blanks left in example sentences. And bless Onodera-sensei's heart, because one of the sentences was "It is [ ] to love people."

The available adjectives were exciting, important, easy, fun, dangerous, interesting, hard, and boring...and EVERY ONE of them was filled in by at least one student. Ah, love, thou universal quandary.

(The majority verdict on love was "important", which I think nearly all of us can agree with.)

Other incidental or recurring winners among the sentences were:

"It is [ dangerous ] for [ (assorted friends' names) ] to sing a song." (This was very popular.)
"It is [ dangerous ] for me to cook curry and rice."
"[ It is dangerous for me to play baseball. ]" (That was a fill-it-all-in-yourself one.)
"It is boring for me to [ learn math ]." (Frequently misspelled "mas". This problem is as universal as love, it would seem.)
"It is boring for me to [ my life ]."

And, written inexplicably in a margin in block capitals, "SPOOT". I love my kids.

Edit: [12:37 pm] A huge thunderstorm just rolled over Uryu in the middle of our first-year English class. Pounding, window-obscuring rain, roaring thunder, lightning bright enough to see at midday, the whole shebang. The rain was so heavy it tore apart the broad leaves of the tree outside our window with the efficiency of a machine gun and soaked my hands and sleeve cuffs to dripping in the literal five seconds I ventured to stick them out the window (to the delight of our kids). I got to take a minute to write "lightning" and "thunder" on the board and explain them, which was brilliant, and the kids shrieked and giggled and looked at the window every time a bang went off. It's fading to a drizzle and an occasional distant rumble now, during lunch break, but the energy in this school is still absolutely zinging. Word to the wise: if you want your classroom energized and awake, order a thunderstorm. ;)
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