the nikku

reflecting on ESL/EFL and its relation to faith

Monday, March 23, 2009

English Camp went well

Just a quick note to let you know that English camp went well. I fine tuned lessons that I'd done last year, but the kids were great too. They were the real reasons camp was so enjoyable. :)

A quick look from the school website:



Spring break has suddenly started, and I'm off to Tokyo for a conference. More later.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Senator Charles Grassley sticks his foot in his mouth

Today Mr. Grassley stuck his foot in his mouth here saying that members of AIG should do the humble Japanese thing and commit suicide before apologizing.

That defiantly made the news in Japan this morning. And although no one had ever heard of Tom Grassley or my home state before. They have now.

Yes, it's true the AIG bonuses are horrendous. And Japanese people are famous the world over for committing suicide. But there's no reason to put the two of them together right now.

UPDATE: on the drive home with my co-worker Senator Grassley was on the TV again. My co-worker laughed. He wasn't offended at all. He said, "It's funny because Japanese people aren't crazy like that any more (i.e. samurai style harakiri or WW2 kamikaze type suicide)."

I feel like I'm not important

I feel like I'm not important at school...

  • When I am asked to change grades for students simply because they are "advanced course or 特進 students".

  • When other teachers teach a class called Oral English without me once a week, which actually has no speaking or communicative English. It is all grammar from the regular textbook. It is just a quick fix to cover up a requirement by the Ministry of Education that requires us to teach Oral English twice a week.

  • When no one listens to me or takes the time to explain things to me.

  • When I get a three word explanation in English of a fifteen minute long discussion that was in Japanese.

All of these happened at department meetings this week.  And then there's one more meeting at 2 o'clock today.  This is one of the real contributing reasons to why I am leaving.  But it's difficult to explain to staff whose whole career has involved making these kinds of compromises at school.

Friday, March 13, 2009

I've been baptized!

This morning only junior high students have class.  And with only the junior high students in the chapel, the high school chaplain delivered perhaps the most personal sermon I've heard her give.  It went like this:

"Today is the anniversary of my baptism.  I was baptized in high school.  This marks a time when I realized Jesus Christ was not just a person, I realized He is my Lord.  I went to church for many years, and then I got baptized.  

And I'm not the only person who has been baptized.  The people who came here long ago from America to start this school were also baptized, and so were the Japanese teachers who helped to found this school.

For many of you, this school is your first experience with Christianity and Jesus Christ.  You might wonder why people get baptized.  I even wonder that sometimes myself.  But actually the truth is that God calls us to baptizism.  You might think that you chose this school, but in fact, Jesus chose you.  I encourage you all to think about baptism."

The largest critism of Christian schools in Japan is that they are Christian "in name only" (形だけ). And despite how dangerously close this sermon came to that reality, I told the chaplain after the service that I really enjoyed hearing about her story and her Christian life, and I'm sure the students did too.

It's not much, but it's a start だんだんでね? Maybe it's because the stress of final tests is finished.  Who knows.  Things are looking slightly up.  

Thursday, March 12, 2009

an invitation

The other day during her coffee break, the high school chaplain invited me out for "rotating sushi" someday.  But not right now because she has the shaken 車検 (mandatory car exam) coming up and might not have money left after that.  In fact, she has NEVER been to rotating sushi in town during the TWENTY years she has lived here. 

There is an English teacher in my office who seems to be friends with the chaplain.  They go around at the school festival together.  They went bar hopping 二次会 after the office party together.  They eat lunch together, etc.  However, the chaplain didn't invite that English teacher (although she was even involved in the conversation). 

Although the chaplain speaks some English, she invited a different English teacher (who was not involved in the conversation) to come with us.  This got me thinking.  She's single, and if this one English teacher isn't her friend.  Then she really doesn't have many friends.  This could be the cause or the effect of her personality.

And although I really don't want to go with her (because of her personality).  Because she is the chaplain and I want a chance to talk with her - get her to think about what she is doing here - I'll accept.  I probably should have done this before, but she's always been so unapproachable and cantankerous that I never tried.  I'm still a little scared.

So we'll go out for sushi.  Some day, after final grading, after junior high English camp, after the conference, right around the time I'll start seriously getting into my grad school apps, we'll go out for sushi then.

PS - I also just got an invitation to a co-worker's wedding that I'm really looking forward to.  It'll be my first wedding in Japan!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

excerpt from the mail part 2

Actually it's refreshing to have someone truly interested in life here.  Most people just ask "So, how's Japan?" Like I can tell them in five minutes or less! :)  That's actually where I got the new subtitle for my blog.  I think after a week of being home and talking with Mom she understood "how things are going" here. 

Or perhaps everyone wants to know, but no one has the time.  That's what the blog is for. :)

I speak in chapel every month except for March because March is almost entirely spring break.  The school year starts in April here (with the cherry blossoms, and the fiscal year), so actually spring break is one of the larger breaks here.  Spring, summer and winter vacation are each about a month long. 

Since few of my students are Christians, I usually talk about salvation and personal belief in Jesus Christ.  However, I also talk about aspects of the Christian life, like reading the Bible, praying, loving one another, etc. and how those have changed my life as well.  I often use stories from high school or college that I think the students can relate to.

I speak in English, and I try to keep it simple.  Every time I speak there is a paper made for each of the students.  It has:
    1)   the hymn in English
    2)   the Bible passage in Japanese and English
    3)   my sermon word for word in both English and Japanese

The bilingual sections are side by side so students can quickly find the meaning.  Most hymns in Japan are translations of German or English, so we sing only English hymns they already sing in regular chapel, and by the tune they have a basic what they are saying - the corresponding hymn number is also printed on the paper if they want to look it up. 

The eight Japanese English teachers take turns translating my message every month.  I'm very grateful for their help.

I find it amazing that the school continues to have chapel everyday, and Bible readings everyday.  Even though very few of them believe.  In fact, I'm most surprised by the teachers who adimately deny faith in anything, but still stand up for having chapel everyday.

...the principal considers chapel a 15 minute waste of time in the morning, and a chance for disciplinary problems to occur while all the students are sitting together. 

Japan has a history of not trusting outsiders.  This is another topic I could talk about forever, and there is plenty of history there as well.  In my city of 180,000 there are less than 100 Caucasian foreigners - apparently in the 70's there were about 10.  There are many more Asian foreigners in town, however, these foreigners tend to blend in.  Some even go so far as to change their full names to a Japanese name.  America is known for being a melting pot.  Japan is known for being "homogeneous".  For now suffice it to say that I am the only foreigner at my school. 

All my students are Japanese.  Living here it is very difficult to explain the difference between ethnicity and nationality.  In the Japanese mind they are one and the same.  In fact, I once taught a lesson on describing people.  It started by describing hair and eye color.  I had to use color pictures because, of course, none of my students had blond, brown or red hair.  (What did you do for props before the internet?)  One student raised her hand and said, "NB.  We all have black hair and black eyes.  We will NEVER use this."  I said, "Perhaps you'll leave the country, or meet a foreigner on the street in town someday."

The same is generally true for church goers.  Christianity still has a reputation as a foreign religion.  Sometimes I meet host families who bring their host child to church - even though neither have ever been to church!  However, foreign Christians do tend to seek out churches, and I have met Christians from Brazil, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, South Korea and Africa at church.  Most of these were exchange students from the local public university. 

As you might know, the Korean church is particularly strong.  And I have co-workers in Tokyo who are Korean and sent here through a Korean denomination.  One of the pastors at a church on the south side of town is also related to a Korean family and he and his wife usually help out the Korean students who come to town. 

Although there are a few students who come here for Christian teaching - these students usually come from Evangelical churches and are usually disappointed to find only "Christian information" here. 

There are also students who come here because their parents came here.  Two of my best students are a brother and sister who are children of a single mother who was a student here 20 or 30 years ago.  Families who have a lineage of coming here are usually proud of that.

However, the fact is that most come here because they have no other option.  Of course we are more expensive, and in the current economy, parents and students usually choose the cheaper and better funded public schools.  (Japan hadn't quite recovered from the "Asian market crash" yet either before this came)  And being in the "rural northeast" funds are especially tight. 

Starting in junior high, there is a complicated entrance exam system in Japan.  I liken this system to a college scholarship award program.  There are standardized tests, essays, and even interviews.  The days and procedures are outlined by the government.  Students can try one public school and one private school.  Basically, most of our students take our test as a backup in case they fail the public test.  We are well aware we were most of our students' second choice.

I believe our tuition is still affordable.  In fact in a last ditch effort last year, we lowered both teacher salary and tuition 20%, and our enrollment just about broke even. 

Because of the entrance exam system, schools don't consolidate, they generally just close.  We recruit some students from neighboring prefectures for sports - they generally live in dormitories and go home on the weekends.  And it's not uncommon for some of my students to have an hour to 90 minute commute on the train and bus one way from neighboring towns. 

With school uniforms, economic mix is hard to gauge, but I gather we have students from both poor and wealthy families.  Once in my third year elective English class we were talking about globalization and wealth.  Two boys were talking to each other.

"Your wealth is a PSP.  My wealth is this chocolate bar."

"A PSP is not wealth."

"Yes it is!  NB!  Is a PSP wealth?"

I had to agree that a PSP was an indication of wealth.  Although these two boys were friends outside class, I get the feeling that students are well aware of the income gaps between their families.

(sorry for the spasm of topics)

excerpts from a mail to my aunt

Actually, you picked a great time to write.  It's actually Saturday here.  We have an orientation for new students this morning, so I'm quasai-working this morning.

About China and Japan.  I think the major differences are:
    1) size, both in area and population.  Japan is an island, China is a continent.
    2) Japan modernized/industrialized first so the changes haven't been as rapid in Japan (but still faster than in the USA)
    3) China was a British colony
    4) Japan tried to colonize Asia during World War II. 

I think all major differences stem off from there.  Do you know much about Asian culture and history?  I have to admit when I first came here I didn't know much.

About being a missionary teacher.  That is still something I am struggling to define.  All members involved seem hesitant to define my position. 

The basic guidelines I have been given:
from my school:     1) you will teach 14-18 English conversation classes a week
                          2) you will speak in chapel once a month

from the UCCJ:   be an "active" member of a church. 

(After I had been here two years I received a "pre-arrival packet" that had a bilingual introduction and a bilingual "ways I am willing to help at church" check list that I could have used at church)

from the RCA:   be a "Christian presence".

Almost everything else is up to my discretion.  Which is kind of nice in some ways (I have friends at other schools who are slightly more restricted by all their requirements), but frustrating in others. 

Let's start with the school.  The irony is that we are a Christian school whose current administration is not at all Christian.  In fact even among the teachers there are only a few Christians (about 4 believers, and 8 church goers out of 60 teachers). 

As for lessons on the Bible and Christianity, we have both a junior high and a senior high chaplain who teach those lessons.  I teach only English conversation lessons, however, the junior high chaplain and I are trying to plan an "after school bible study club" for next year - any students would be welcome to join.

Oh, and my salary is paid 100% by my school.  So I'm very low over head for both the RCA and the UCCJ. 

Interesting bit of history: from the 1800's until about 1970, the school itself was half funded by the Methodist Church and the UCCJ.  Remember that up until that point Japan had been considered a small poor country in the West.  Many of the main line denominations were here on "social justice" missions.  However, in the 1970's Japan appeared to have become an economic power and many of the mainline denominations began to withdraw their funds and staff.  Which brings us to today where they get no funds.

About grad school.  I have filled out my FAFSA, but my grad school apps are pending.  I have my top five schools list, and applications for them in hand.  However, this week is final tests, and then junior high english camp, and then my spring break begins.  I hope to get my grad school apps done then.  But first I have grading to finish here.

I'd like to go to grad school in California because there seems to be plenty of English work then, and there are many opportunities to work with Asians there.  Both the Japanese and Korean churches are strong on the West Coast.  In order I'm looking at
    1) BIOLA in LA,
    2) Azusa Pacific in LA,
    3) Multonamah in Portland
    4) Uni of St. Cloud in MN
    5) Uni of IA

And if all of those fail I'm also looking at ESL certificate programs in Chicago and Denver as backup. 

Like I said, I'd love to go to school on the West Coast, but with the economy, I'm worried about whether I can swing it.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Chain of command story #2

Story #2:  I was out to eat with some friends Saturday night my European friend was saying how she can't understand why no one else ever stands up to her rude and always yelling boss - except for her.  When being yelled at she simply says:

Yeah, I understand.     はい!わかりました。

I'm doing my best.      がんばります。

It's just fine.              もういいです。

We asked our Japanese friends if they would ever talk back to their boss.  One doesn't currently have a job, and the other says her boss is great.  So this was a "what if" conversation.  Both of of our friends emphatically said no - they would never talk back to their boss. 

Well then what would you do?

"I'd just take it.  Endure it."

For how long?

"Until whenever."

Would you look for a different job?

"Not really, no."

Why not talk back? 

やっぱり、喧嘩が面倒だから。 yappari, kenka ga mendou dakara.    "Because fighting back is a pain."

But don't you feel like crap when they yell at you for no reason and don't listen to what you say? or harass you?

"Well yeah, but... まだ喧嘩より我慢の法がいい (mada kenka yori gaman hou ga ii) it's still better to put up with it than fight."

As westerners, it's simply inconceivable to think would talk like this about a work situation, but it happens all the time here - and it was like this when the economy was good too

chain of command (立って社会)

I learned a new word this week.  It's tatte shakai (立って社会).  It means the cultural chain of command, the pecking order, the totem pole.  In Japan it's very important. 

Today, case in point: today, tomorrow and Wednesday are all final test days.   Students have tests first through fourth periods, and then they can go home for lunch and take the afternoon off.  For teachers there are usually administrative and department meetings until about 2 or 3 pm.  After the meetings are finished, the principal calls all the teacher's offices and gives them permission to go home early.

However, today the principal is at a meeting in Aomori City, and won't be back to make the call.  Apparently last week after the graduation the principal saw some teachers going home early without his permission (even though there was nothing to do and it wasn't exactly a school day).  Apparently the principal got mad about this and yelled at the teacher(s) and their supervisors.

So today, even though all the meetings were finished by 2:30, and there is nothing to do but grade tests until Friday, everyone is waiting around the end of the work day (technically 4:30).  My supervisor realizes this is BS, but he doesn't want to fight.  So today at lunch he announced that he was taking paid leave for the afternoon and he would be happy to fill out the paperwork for anyone else who would like to - two other teachers joined him. 

I find it absurd sometimes how knit-picky the pecking order is here.  Like I've said before, micro-management seems to be a desirable thing here in Japan, but I can't fathom why anyone would want it that way.

Friday, March 06, 2009

a good laugh

Yesterday after lunch, a student came running into the office saying, "There are cigarette butts in the toilet!"   This isn't the firs time this has happened at school, but this was in the main hallway right next to the offices.  Who could be so presumptuous to smoke right next to the teachers' office?

As you can imagine, a few teachers went into inspect it.  The student discipline office was called, the vice principal was notified.  One of the gym teachers took some disposable chopsticks (this is another use for them) and fished the cigarette butts out of the toilet. 

"These are awfully hard," she said. 

But it turns out they weren't cigarette butts.  They were pieces of Toppo (a small long candy stick made of chocolate covered in waffer). 

The vice principal was renotified that the problem was actually Toppo not tobacco.

in Japanese:
もしもし?すみません、先生。問題はタバコではなくお菓子です。トッポです。 はい!そうでう。すみません!しつれします。

and we all had a good laugh about it in the office. 

Today's good laugh: an English student wrote, "...and I have many chances to speak English with our Native American teacher NB."

(The student meant "American" and/or "native English speaker")

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

this one takes the cake

This afternoon, at four thirty on a Wednesday afternoon, the high school chaplain comes in and says "coffee, coffee!  I need some coffee for my hangover!" 

Her conversation with me starts like this:

"NB, have you ever had a hangover?"

"Yeah, but just a headache.  Nothing too serious."

"Well, I have a hangover today!"

"It's Wednesday isn't it?"

"Yeah, well after the graduation ceremony, I went out with some of the other teachers..."

This hangover was evidently so bad that in the morning she didn't drive herself to school. 

After she had finished her coffee, she went into the neighboring office, made more coffee, and retold the same story.  Is this just a cry for attention?

If she was drinking with other teachers, I'm sure they had hangovers too.  But none of them felt obliged to spend their afternoon telling the rest of the staff about it.  And those teachers are not the chaplain or the head of the religion department either.

I've said it before: why is someone who should be one of the best examples one of the worst?  ugh.