Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Last Worst Day

Yesterday I declared to myself that today would be the worst day of the year, as much as one can predict such things. Here's why:

The marathon is in four weeks and today is the longest remaining run on a school morning. When asked, I tell people that I usually wake up between 4:30am and 5:30am for my daily runs. But occasionally, when my training plan calls for 20k+ runs, I have to wake up at 4am. Today I had to do 22k. It could have been worse, though, as it didn't rain until I finished.

[I woke up, stepped outside, ran a half-marathon, then took this flattering picture.]

I arrived at the boat at 7:41am to find the inside seats all taken. It was raining so the outside seats were not feasible. But it's okay, knowing that today was The Last Worst Day of the year, I expected to have to stand.

Not long after arriving on Aka I realized I'd left my pens (P-500's) at home. My pens are as important to me as a cell phone is to a 17-year-old. I don't go anywhere without them.

At Aka, another predictable downer. Five classes in five periods, three of which were elementary (solo teaching = 100% lesson-planning). But it did make the day go by quickly.

At lunch, a surprise. I had a peanutty-flavored salady side-dish that was tasty. I got a second helping and was questioned by the staff in a surprising manner. They shouldn't have done it, but they told me what it was. Pigs' ears. Pigs' ears? What? It looked like.. well... the more I looked, the more it resembled the insides of the ears of deer and elk I have cleaned. A rarity for me: I stopped eating. My half of the cafeteria got a kick out of my sudden loss of appetite. I was not amused.

Tomorrow qualifies as bad day potential since I have to run 20k, but I only have three classes!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Aka School

This week I am on Aka Island. I aim to leave my house by 7:35am, but usually get out around 7:39am for the 4-minute walk to the port. The speedboat leaves Zamami at 7:45am and arrives at Aka about 12 minutes later. There are two other women on the boat almost every day - one who works for the Aka fishing cooperative and another who is a nurse. There are usually some other miscellaneous passengers, including occasional tourists in the summer.

I arrive at Aka and then walk five minutes to the school, just a couple minutes before the morning cleaning session ends. Then there is a 45-minute(?) break before first period begins. Elementary class periods last 45 minutes with a 15-minute break and junior high class periods last 50 minutes with a 10-minute break. The first four periods end before lunch with the last two periods coming afterwards.

Aka has 13 junior high students, 25 elementary students, and eight pre-schoolers. For an unknown reason, I teach first and second grades separately (three and six students). I teach 3/4 together as well as 5/6. My JTE (Japanese Teacher of English), Jay, stacks the junior high classes heavy during the week I am at Aka, so I usually have 14-16 total classes in a week.

All of the ninth grade students are interviewing in Naha this week for next year's high school. Unlike the U.S, high school isn't technically required here. Also, many of the high schools offer specialties. So there's a school that excels at sports, one specifically good for badminton, one for English, another for international culture (whatever that means?), and others that rank as simply 'the best' or 'second best'. It's kinda like college.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Engrish Shirt #5

This is perhaps my favorite so far.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A "Photoessay" of Zamami School

Photoessay is in quotations because photoessays are supposed to be pretty. These are just photos. Scroll down and click to enlarge to see Zamami school, teaching, the teachers' room, and the cafeteria.

Zamami school from near the entrance, looking over our 200 meter track.

A closer view of the school. The teachers' room, offices, and gym are the buildings to the right.

This is my first/second grade English class during a game (which my sister might recognize - thanks Kristin!).

Junior high English is a bit more sterile. Shizuko-sensei is teaching 7th grade here.

The teachers' room. I have a desk but no computer, which is understandable since I am here only one of every three weeks.

The students fix the plates of food for each other and the teachers eat with their students.

I eat with the fifth grade.

A very typical lunch. There was fish, rice, and milk, but don't ask me what the rest was.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

An Intro To My Schools

Over the next three weeks I'm going to mix in some posts about each of the three schools I teach at: Zamami, Aka, and Geruma. On all three islands, the schools contain junior high (the American equivalent of 7th-9th grade), elementary (1st-6th), and kindergarten/pre-school. All island students, upon graduation from 9th grade, move to Naha for high school. Most live with relatives, but I hear that some live in boarding schools or even in their own apartment.

[The entire Zamami student body at today's lesson on how to
defend against a violent man (I attempted the futile conversation
about a violent woman).]

This week I am on Zamami, the largest of the three schools. There are 35 junior high students, 49 elementary students, and 31 in kindergarten/pre-school. I teach elementary 1/2, 3/4, and 5/6 together (that's three different, combined classes). I don't know many of the 2nd-6th grade students' names yet, so that makes the connection outside the classroom difficult. There are only five first-graders and they are some of my favorite students of all three schools. I hang out with/get in trouble with them every day at lunch while their teacher takes a much-needed break in the teachers' room. (Yesterday I was swinging one boy around when a girl got too close and had her legs taken out from beneath her. She went down face first and came up bleeding from the mouth, her upper baby teeth freshly loosened. Am I old enough to know better?)

I just started teaching the kindergarten class two [three-week] cycles ago. That class is very intimidating because neither the teachers nor the students speak any English. This is no different than Aka or Geruma, except Zamami has 31 students! By a factor of two, this is my largest class. Fortunately I found a website that offers games in English with a Japanese translation. For now, we're working more on just getting through the 45 minutes rather than teaching English. Yesterday we played a game that had me, the shark, chasing them, the fish. It was so fast and tiring that with five minutes left, they all (ALL) just collapsed and lay on the gym floor. Success!

[Zamami junior high students electing next year's officers. Note the segregation of boys and girls.]

Junior high has some of my favorite and least favorite students. It combines the awkwardness of 7th grade (nobody is cool in 7th grade) and the blossoming maturity of 9th grade. Plus, the 9th grade class is a unique compilation of personalities that have become a team of friends. As witness to what a special class they are, my predecessor, Nick, is returning to Zamami from law school for their March graduation.

In junior high I teach alongside my JTE (Japanese Teacher of English), Shizuko-sensei. She prepares the lessons and usually I read lists of words or stories from the textbook while the students repeat after me. Often the students will have to come read a passage to me, as well. I am thankful for this one-on-one interaction as it prevents anyone from slipping through the cracks.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

An Aerial Map of the Kerama Islands

I live in the Kerama Islands, a chain about 20 miles west of the Okinawan mainland. Only four of the islands are inhabited: Zamami, Aka, Geruma, and Tokashiki. While Tokashiki is in the Kerama chain, it might as well be mainland Japan (except I can see it). They have their own ferry system and Zamami respects them so much, they leave Tokashiki off their own Kerama Islands' maps.

Though there are claims of 22-some islands in the chain, I think half of those are small enough to be of questionable consideration. But it is a chain and the islands offer some weather protection to the inside waters, which help keep the dive industry afloat year-round.

Here is a quote I found about the Keramas:

"Despite outside interests the locals have resisted commercial development and life has been maintained in much the same way that it did centuries ago. The locals, proudly protective of their environment, pay greatest heed to the rise and fall of the sun in this untouched paradise that remains a peaceful eco-tourism destination."

Friday, January 18, 2008

Muchi and Mochi

Yesterday on Geruma we made Muchi and Mochi. I think. I was tired and didn't ask a lot of questions or get much explained during the two-hour school activity, so the content here is a little thin.

But the students grated some stuff (picture one) and mixed soy sauce with brown sugar (making a close relative to what we Americans know as teriyaki sauce) while the adults steamed already cooked rice. Then, over at the community center there was some pounding of rice with mallets (picture two) until it became a sticky, gummy substance. Then that was wrapped around something else that was sweetish (picture three). Sometimes the rice was pounded with potatoes or something else green. The kindergartners made the muchi, which was a pre-made sticky substance that I preferred. It was wrapped in leaves and then steamed? It tasted kinda like tea. I don't know what became of the grated stuff or the teriyaki sauce.

The night before was stretched late with basketball practice and it was an early morning with a long run, so I put all of my 'staying awake' efforts into photographing. I got 200 pictures and I'm pretty happy with a few, considering the harsh indoor lighting. Don't you like them?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

My House (Outside)

A bonus of living on a small island is that I can have my own house. I think this is mostly cost prohibitive in any urban region of Japan. I pay 35,000 yen/month rent for this house and the surrounding property. Depending on the exchange rate, this runs about $320. It's not too bad, considering some apartments on Zamami run up to 50,000 yen and some 30,000 yen apartments are single rooms.

[From the road at the SW corner of the lot]

I am located near the center of the village, with a 2-4 minute walk to any edge. There is a single lane road (all roads within the village perimeter are single lane) in front of my house and a river/stream beyond that. I have a corner lot and the north/south road to my east takes me right to the school. To my west is a house with a woman who loves cats. She has at least 25 of them and they like to use my yard for their toilet. I like to use them as target practice.

[From the SE corner of the lot]

If I were ambitious I would try gardening with all my ground, but the brother of the house's owner (who lives in Naha) has promised me he will undertake that effort. The soil is terrible, so I have begun my own garden in 'planter' boxes with dirt I gather from the hills. I've been harvesting a steady crop of spinach for two months and my carrots and cabbage just sprouted (that's right, in January!).

[From the NW corner in the backyard]

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The "You're Twenty-Years-Old This Year" Party

[This picture is a great example of why I mostly photograph women/girls.]

I finally ironed my suit and was very glad I did as not a single person in attendance at today's Seizin Shiki party was dressed in less than professional attire. The party is to celebrate the 'coming of age' of these five people who are of Zamami descent. Today was the first time I have seen women wearing kimonos in Japan (except performances)!

Shortly after arriving a older gentleman who speaks English approached to introduce himself and tell me I was to give a speech about Jesus Christ. (Panic button!) This ceremony was obviously formal and his page of notes indicated he was serious. He had some bible passages written in English and he proceeded to translate them into Japanese for me while translating some Japanese text on the page into English. I paid close attention, trying to assess what he wanted out of me. When he appeared finished I asked "What do you want me to say?" He corrected the misunderstanding and said he only needed me to make sure the English in his notes was proper. Whew.

The afternoon was filled with traditional mainland Japanese and Okinawan dances and drumming, hula, and many humorous mockery dances.

When I mentioned in my JET interview a year ago that I was interested in observing gender roles in Japan, I never expected that I would encounter discrimination against me. But today for the second time, I have had to pay more for an event because I am male. I think the assumption is that I am going to eat or drink more than a woman. Eating more is probably a safe bet. Today I paid 1500 yen while women paid just 1000 yen, but everybody was given one canned beverage and had access to the same trays of hors d'oeuvres on the tables.

I often get a little internally angry/frustrated at the treatment of women in this society, but I was internally furious at this blatant and meritless discrimination.

As long as I continue being charged more than women for my food, I will continue to argue that men should get paid more than women for the same job. Perhaps I'll write a letter to JET about that - I'm sure they'd be receptive!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Calligraphy [at Aka school]

[Minus a few students lost in the corners of the photo,
this is the entire Aka elementary and junior high.]

We used third and fourth period as a school-wide calligraphy practice in the gym. I studied [Roman] calligraphy for two years in college, so I was pretty excited about this. I got a chance to use a student's brush and ink to learn to write my name correctly (though it still comes out pronounced as Debeedo). I was prepared to sit down and amaze them with my secret calligraphy skills, but I was shown up by the brush, a much harder writing instrument than pen and nib.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Hazy Sunrise

I took this picture during my boat ride to work an hour ago.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

And His Sweetie, Too!

As an insurance measure, I reset the trap last night. But I forgot about it until happening into the storage room mid-afternoon today. What a pleasant surprise!
The bait for the first mouse was fish and a cranberry. This time just a cranberry.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

A Death In the Family

After terrorizing my food supply, my nemesis the mouse has succumbed to his superior.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Fresh Sashimi

[I know the picture quality is showing up terribly in this and recent posts. I'm working on it, but until then please click on the pictures to link to a larger, better image.]

Through a series of unfortunate and fortunate events, I managed to miss almost all New Year's celebrations on Zamami. But the fruits of my absence include a plethora of American food from a military base (thanks to Meaghan and, more importantly, her visiting sister who has 'dependent' privileges), a pretty new $57 fishing lure (perhaps too expensive to fish with), and a fresh yellowfin tuna in my refrigerator.

Yesterday there was a party for people who built new houses (?) this past year on Zamami. In the afternoon there were many cultural performances at the community center to celebrate. But two days ago, I was invited to go tuna fishing yesterday. And since fishing trumps everything but my job, it was an obligation and not a decision.

[Notice this small yellowfin is hooked through the forehead.]

I showed up at the boat at 7am and we took off shortly thereafter. The cabin was smoke-filled and crowded, so I opted to stand outside, which was similar to a themepark ride. Two hours later we pulled up to a FAD (Fish Attractant Device), which is essentially a big buoy attached to a cable that goes all the way to the ocean floor. In Palau they were in 2000' of water. The cable (and sometimes an attached net) grows algae which attracts small fish which attract bigger fish. Yesterday's experience didn't fail to amaze me at the sheer number of fish (and fishermen) that congregate at FADs. Two guys used electric reels and big weights to sink their bait to 50m while I just fished with a spinning reel and one three-inch bait fish on the surface. I caught about 7-8 fish of our total 39. The fuel for this trip was probably expensive (gas = $4.94/gallon) so I just took one small yellowfin home and left the rest for the boat's owner to sell.

[One of these girls spent most of the trip suppressing her stomach contents, the other willingly fetched me bait fish. The second picture is a sashimi creation to be given as a birthday present.]

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Another Day, Another Year

A year ago my JET application was in the hands of the Japan Embassy while I readied myself for a third year (one too many) working with high schoolers in DC. My future was uncertain, which is the most comfortable place for me.

Last night I hung out with two lesbians in a surprise "we're all crashing our friend Laura's apartment while she's in Bali" coincidence that led to spontaneous decision-making inspired by a later-than-usual bedtime. We wandered over to Kokusai Dori, which is the "International Street," or the place where the lights and tourists stay up late. It became apparent after we stole a few minutes at the Starbucks bathroom that everybody on Kokusai was headed in the same direction. We arrived at the major intersection two minutes ahead of the countdown and were fortunate to witness naked people, rowdy military, people-watching high school girls (awed and embarrassed by the lesbians kissing), and people who had enough alcohol consumption to make standing up difficult.

2007 was the year of floss for me. That was my New Year's resolution and I succeeded when the dentist told me in August there was nothing more I could do to improve the health of my teeth. 2008: learn Japanese.