the nikku

reflecting on ESL/EFL and its relation to faith

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Flavor of the Week

Here's my new dream this week: 1) move to Seattle, 2) get job teaching
English to Japanese or Asian students part-time, and 3) work on an ESL
degree or certificate. All this would happen after my two years here are

I've already spent too much dreamy time today Googling programs at U Dub
(the University of Washington) and the Seattle Times. Any other ideas on
how to make it happen? Leave a comment or mail me!

Also this week I decided to start studying for the JPLT (Japanese
Language Proficiency Test). I still think it's a worthless test, but I
need to learn the practical kanji on there for work and life in general.
So I'm lying to myself, so that I will study Japanese harder. The test
is in early Decemeber. I want to have levels 3 & 4 down pat by then. :)
Half my life in Japan will be over by then! Agh!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas and New Years

I saw this cartoon today in the Japan Times, and I thought this is a good time to note: in Japan - in fact in most of Asia - Christmas is a commercialized time for lovers. New Year's is the big traditional holiday.

Another interesting Japan fact, traditionally Japanese people don't celebrate individual birthdays. But New Year's is the day when the birthdays of all people are celebrated. I read that in a book, but I'm not sure it's still true in contemporary Japan.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Over Christmasing

Two nights ago I went out to eat at an Izakaya where I know the master.
I was eating alone at the bar and a family came in. A father, a mother
and a son with a red Power Ranger toy. The son sat between the parents.

The master asked if the Power Ranger was a Christmas present. The small
boy replied with, "What?". The father explained that he didn't want the
boy learning about Christmas. He didn't want him to "like shopping too

It sounds kind of odd when translated literally, but it's really sad
when you speak Japanese. So here's a little language lesson so you can
understand it.

"kaimono sugi" = like shopping too much
"tabe sugi" = over eat
"nomi sugi" = alcoholic or hang over (depending on context)

Basically the father said he doesn't want the boy to develop bad habits
of consumerism.

It was really sad for me to have Christmas, the birth of my Savior, put
on the same level as alcoholism. But I understand his concern. Christmas
is purely consumer centered here (thank you multi-national corporations
and big business). And I respect that father, a lot

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Ultimate Question

So, students in Japan spend a lot of time reading and writing English,
but not much time speaking English. And it's hard to get native English
speakers to teach speaking courses. Especially out here in the rural
parts of Japan.

Recently a co-worker of mine was lamenting that he had never had a
native English teacher. However, his spoken English is actually quite
good (like I've said before personality and gumption more than make up
for a lack of skill / intelligence / education). And I started to ask
myself this question, "Why don't Japanese teachers teach speaking
courses?" Here are my answers:

1) Most obviously, Japanese teachers usually don't pronounce English
well either. And Japanese teachers teaching speaking classes would only
compound the pronunciation problem.

2) Learning English is important. So of course there is a huge
standardized test to judge English ability - the STEP test (among
others, think the ACT for English). On this test, there are three
sections: Reading, Writing, and Speaking. In that order. Only if you
pass the first section can you move on to the second section. So student
actually take this test on three separate days - after their passing of
the previous section has been confirmed. So in teaching for this test,
spoken English becomes the least important aspect of learning English.

3) Japanese teachers are generally shy in their ability, and don't feel
qualified to teach a speaking class. But honestly, I don't feel
qualified either! And I have plenty of English speaking experience!

More thoughts later. Now is lunch. I used to just get an obento because
I couldn't read the menu. But this week I decided that's BS. I need to
get off my bum and do something. So today I'm off to learn the rice
section of the lunch menu from the lunch ladies (Yesterday I learned the
ramen section). Wish me luck!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Genius and Insanity

The line between genius and insanity is often paper thin.

I had a Christmas lesson for my first year students this week. It
involved acting out the story of St. Nicholas and the Three Maidens,
passing presents around the room and chanting sentences, and ended with
singing "We wish you a Merry Christmas". If you've been reading, this
last month has been crazy for me. So I was trying something new.

But this morning, one of my supervising teachers gave me this
complement. "I and the other first year teachers were inspired by your
lesson and creativity this week," she said. That's funny, because if I
had commented on my lesson I would have called it crazy and desperate.
But like I said, insanity is near genius.

And you never get a real complement in Japanese. This is only my third
real compliment in four months. You get plenty of superficial
complements like, "You look great!", "What a beautiful cell phone!", but
real complements are few and far between.

So I thanked her very much. And I'll see if I can come up with some more
insanely creative lessons for after the break.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

My First Christmas Cake and the Shy Student

First a note: the last few weeks have been crappy, and I don't know why.
I just felt tired and sad for no reason. But I spent the better part of
last week trying to figure out why I was sad and lonely, and I couldn't
come up with any reason. Things here are going just as well as ever. If
anything I'm just a little better in touch with the reality of school here.

But Monday went much better.

The Christmas Cake

In Japan "Christmas Cake" refers to a loosely defined set of seasonal
cakes people buy for each other at Christmas. My elective classes are
having a party and Christmas cake this week, so I went out to buy some.

I asked one of my classes where I should buy Christmas cake, and as it
turns out, one of my students works at a cake shop not far from school.
So tonight I went there to buy a Christmas cake.

When she got out the selection of Christmas cakes, they were really
expensive - but amazingly delicious. And I almost bought a couple real
Christmas cakes until I realized that two would cost me almost 8000 yen
(about $80). And my student had a look on her face like this would be
embarrassing to have at school, and my wallet was hurting.

So we switched and bought a few cheap - let large and delicious - roll
cakes that are not "Christmas cakes". But they are cakes bought to be
consumed at Christmas time.

The Shy Student

While I was there I had a decent conversation with my student. She's
really shy in class and I have to ask a few questions to get a good
sentence out of her, but she can do it. But while I was at the cake shop
I realized she can speak well. It just takes her about 15 minutes to get
over being shy, and even then, the conversation is still slow and she
speaks quietly.

But this is the deal, my student can hold a conversation well. She's
just slow, and quiet. So basically she's getting a bad grade in my class
because she is shy and quiet. And realistically, I don't have time in my
45 minute class to wait 15 minutes for her to wake up. So she can do
everything I want her to do in class, but she can't do it well in my class.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

My Brain is Tired

I don't know if it's the season, or culture shock, or the fact that it's
finals grading week, or because I've just been busy, but my brain has
been tired for nearly a month now. And I'm really looking forward to
Christmas break.

Teaching in a language classroom demands a lot of split second decisions
and redirections. "Did the student understand?" "Should I rephrase,
repeat, gesture, draw on the board, give them time, or maybe all of the
above?" And I've quit making what I think is the best decision, and I
just make a decision. My brain is too tired to really consider the options.

N said her sister H in Tokyo says the same thing. And H has been here a
couple of years now. N wonders if it's something dietary that we're not
getting (way to use that biology degree!). And if I had a dime for
everyone who was worried about what I'm eating....

I heard that there was a teacher here who stayed for six years. Six
years! But during this culture shock swing, I'm not sure I'll stay here
longer than two years.

Anyway, I'm really looking forward to Christmas. And I'm hoping to come
back to school refreshed.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Japanese Culture

One of the lesser known parts of Japanese culture is winter residential life. This is a kerosene powered space heater that comes with a tea pot. So you can boil the water for your tea while you heat the room. This particular heater is in the teacher's office.

Also, yesterday, I tried to visit a friend in a rural village. I was going to try and navigate this train map and schedule to get there. I thought I'd be fashionably late. I also thought that the train would leave at least every ten minutes.

But I was very wrong. I came to find out the second to last train had already left at about 7:30 PM, and the next train to this village would be leaving at 9:10 PM. This train was also the last train. Which means I couldn't get back home on the same night. :(

Friday, December 08, 2006

American Culture

As Americans - especially white Americans - we tend to think of
ourselves as having no culture, no heritage, no ethnicity. But this is a

My seniors only have five weeks of school left! So last week I asked
them what they wanted to learn. Three of my students bluntly replied,
"We want American culture!" I said, "What do you mean?" "We want slang,
phrases, idioms! American food! stories!" This had me a bit dumb founded.

It was a shock to me that my students were actually interested in me,
and not my language. But really, I should have thought of this a while
ago. At first I tried, "Well, we don't really have much..." "Whatever!",
they replied. (sometimes I regret teaching them that word) And I found I
had to swallow my pride, and admit that I do have some culture.

So next week I am cooking Macaroni and Cheese for them (it was
originally intended as a gift for my neighbors, but they have either
been absent, or declined). We've watched some sitcoms the previous
teacher left, and talked about those. And we're also going to talk about
what I usually do for Christmas, driving in the USA, baseball.

But the Japanese already have many American things, so I am worried
about overlap and boring my students. But it should be fun!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Happy Birthday at JR

Last night one of my friends told me you can get a birthday discount - fifty percent! - from Japan Railways (JR) if you are traveling on or near your birthday. For those of you living in Japan, this is really useful information.

Now the question is, where do I want to go for Valentine's Day? :)


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

College Entrance

Maybe I said this a while ago, but when O-sensei's student failed
college entrance, she cried. And O-sensei had a bad day. I'm not sure
the parents really cared. When the student got into another college, the
entire office rejoiced.

The college process is more complicated here, applications interviews,
recommendations. The school recommendation actually forms some sort of
relational bond between the college and the high school. And the high
school can only recommend one student to one college at a time.

So a student only gets one recommendation. And if they are denied
college entry, they have to wait until after they have failed, then get
a new recommendation from the high school, and then reapply somewhere
else. I'm just a foreigner, and maybe the system actually makes sense,
but it looks like a hassle to me.

Today another student got into college. I didn't recognize the name, and
they're not in a homeroom I teach, so I don't really care. But again the
entire office erupted into shouts of joy. "Hoorah! Amazing! Great! Oh
good job! Good job!" Teachers are running around smiling. Huddling
around the acceptance letter. And the student isn't even here! Final
tests ended earlier this afternoon.

But then again, it'd be nice to know that my teachers were that proud of me.

*** This also happens with smaller things:
I say, "I got a new cell phone."
EVERYONE says,"Oh, amazing! Cute! Beautiful! Cool!"

I say, "I got a new scarf (muffler in Japan)."
EVERYONE says,"Oh, amazing! Cute! Beautiful! Cool!"

Another rant: attendance

So the end of the term is approaching (it's in two days). I have a brown
grading book, and there is also a big blue attendance book in every homeroom

For the first week I didn't know what the big blue book was, so I left
it alone and recorded attendance in my grading book. The next week I
learned that I have to write attendance in the big blue book. Out of
habit, I keep attendance in my grading book as well until midterm.

Now, at the end of the term I learn that along with grades, I have to
report absences for my classes. And this the burning question: "If I
write it once in the big blue book, why do I have to report it AGAIN at
the end of the term?!?"

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Love those persimmons

There is a teacher here that I am having a hard time loving. She is so
strange, and sometimes slightly insulting.

This morning she came to my desk and said, "N-sensei, did you enjoy the
persimmons? They are high in Vitamin C. Very good for a hangover." Big

Do I look like I have a hangover?!? I realize I still look lost
sometimes here, and for good reason. I still can't understand what
people say at the meetings here! But I'm not drunk. Nor was I drunk last
night! In fact, I rarely have a hangover on Saturday morning. And it's
Tuesday! Who gets drunk on Monday night?!?!

Other insulting incidents from this teacher include interrupting me in
the middle of class to tell me to use colored chalk instead of white
chalk - to make my point clearer. That in itself was a good idea. But
stopping class while I am in the middle of teaching students, and
insisting that I use colored chalk at that very second?!? To the point
of putting the colored chalk in my hand!

Good idea, wrong presentation.

I know I am the missionary / teacher at a private Christian school. And
I am supposed to love everyone. But it is so hard to just be kind to
her! Argh! She is intolerable!

Okay, that's enough ranting. I'm feeling better already.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The snow!

Well, I'd been hearing rumors about the snow. And today it is here. On Saturday H was your normal slightly rainy Asian town. But on Sunday the place turned into Buffalo, NY!

This is A, B, and A-chan walking back from church with me. A is trying to record a video to send back to her parents. Good idea. Maybe I'll do that someday.

See the umbrella? You use it to keep the snow from piling up on you as you walk. And I was only out in the stuff for five minutes! It does not snow like this in the Midwest.

My friend Brown told me once it snows, "it never stops". I'm hoping he'll be wrong, but it has snowed for the last 16 hours here. Crazy.

Mom and Dad the package with my winter clothes arrived just in time. And I actually used those big boots.

Sorry I haven't posted here in a while. I still have a lot of news, and I'll get around to posting it here someday. But with speech contests, finals, and visits from K-chan, the RCA, and Michael, I've been a little busy. Is November over already? My third year students will be graduating soon! Aghh!