Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Adorable little monsters

I've had 2 weeks of elementary school now, four days of teaching little Japanese kids. It's not nearly as bad or difficult as I thought it would be. The kids are elated to have me there, so I'm constantly surrounded by little ones peppering me with questions (in Japanese, of course, which makes for good practice for me). The 4th graders were the liveliest. The liked to run and jump around me, trying to get their heads level with mine. A couple more adventurous ones decided I was a good jungle gym and tried to scale me. It's definitely a good idea to wear my heavy jeans, as a few have decided the best thing to do to an international teacher is try to shove their fingers into my backside. Fortunately, they have neither the arm strength or finger rigidity to actually pose any danger, and they have no concept of anatomy because they're far more likely to poke me in the thigh. Then there was the 9 year-old who decided instead to just punch me in the groin. Yeah, jeans don't protect against that.

The 2nd-graders were far more gentle. I'm assigned to have lunch with one of the classes I teach that day at elementary school. Yesterday I taught 2nd-grade, so I had lunch with a bunch of 7 year-olds. They would ramble on with random and inane stories. One girl spent five minutes telling me a story about her sister, and the only thing I could catch was that she had one. After lunch, two kids decided the best place to digest their lunch was in my lap, so they climbed up on me, while another half dozen surrounded me and petted me like a cat. They were especially fond of my arm hair and chin stubble. Guess that's what I get for not shaving that morning. Overall, they were very cute and adorable, especially when coughing in my face.

Which brings me to being sick. I guess the whole not sleeping and stressing about the new job caught up with me, because I woke up Saturday morning with the telltale cough and tight chest. Predictably, it's moved up into my sinuses and I'm doing my best to get to bed early and drink lots of tea, juice and water, but giving my vocal cords a workout for an hour at a stretch through the day isn't conducive to staying hydrated and resting my throat. Which means I'll probably be worse by this weekend.

And this weekend won't help much. Friday's a welcome party for the other junior high school and Saturday and Sunday are scheduled for seeing friends. At least Monday kicks off Golden Week, so I can rest that day. I want to be better by next weekend. It'll be 3 days off and I might be doing some camping again. Definitely looking forward to that.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Starting School (again)

These past two weeks have ben rather hectic. Between getting over jet lag and starting a new job, not to mention various social obligations, I haven’t had much time for just relaxing. I feel a bit overwhelmed at the new job. There’s a lot more responsibility associated with this position which, combined with not having really used my brain much over the past couple years, has left me playing catch-up. They say if you don’t use a muscle, it atrophies. I think that’s happened with my brain, as well as any organizational skills I might’ve had once. But this is what I wanted, something where I could plan my own lessons and have a bit more freedom. Plus, I’m not working through a contractor anymore, which means no more writing monthly reports or having the vice principal stamp a paper every day to prove I was there (as if people wouldn’t notice if I didn’t show up to teach – there’d be an uproar).

The teachers at these schools are all lovely. They’ve been nothing but friendly and helpful. At some schools I’ve been to there is an underlying tension that makes the mood heavy and sullen. Even people not involved in whatever’s going on have a depressed look about them. One school is somewhat known as a party school, they definitely seem to have a more lively and carefree feeling than the other school, which is a bit more serious. It may also have something to do with the economic disparity between the two areas the schools serve, the Party School families are more well-off and the school looks newer. The Country School is more worn-looking and slightly dingy. Of course, it probably doesn’t help that it’s rained heavily all three days I’ve been there, so everything’s damp.

Part of starting a new job in Japan is going to welcome parties. The Party School, of course, had theirs first, last week. They look for any reason to go drinking, and it’s a common topic in the teachers’ room. The morning meeting one day consisted of, “OK everyone, please do your best today. I know it’s been a busy week, but it’s Friday and we can all go drinking soon.” I wasn’t able to make it to that one, but I’m not concerned. There’ll be another one soon. I did, however, make it to the Board of Education welcome party last night. It was held at the local Prince Hotel, a very nice establishment indeed. As it has every day this week, it was raining steadily, so I showed up in wet jeans and soaked shoes while everyone else had dark suits since they’d just finished work. And of course, as a new person I had to give a speech, on a stage, in front of everyone. At least I went last, when the guests were all bored of hearing speeches and had gotten good and liquored up. On the upside, the food was excellent. There were six or so courses, though the portions were divided between the eight people at the table. Each platter was placed on the biggest lazy susan I’d ever seen and rotated around so everyone got a chance. I stuffed myself with the uneaten sushi, and the guy next to me kept my glass full of beer, a full-time job for him. I had it easy, as he couldn’t drink more than a glass without getting red-faced and sick.

The ride home was not terribly fun. The bus that took us dropped everyone off at the train station, so I was left to walk back to the town hall and get my bike, then ride home. The wind on the way back made using an umbrella nigh impossible, so I ditched it and just rode back in the blustery wind and driving rain. My raincoat managed to cover my upper body but in doing so insulated me so much I arrived home damp from sweat anyway. It completely failed to help my lower body, so my shoes and jean are still drying out.

I was very excited to be able to ride my bike to work, and in fact when the weather’s good it’s a very pleasant ride. Not to mention I can leave at 8am instead of 7:20. The Party School’s a quite pleasant ride, either along the river lined with blossoming cherry trees, or an easier ride skirting the mountain that pops up between home and work. The Country School’s a bit more of a workout. The time’s only a few minutes longer, and it’s following the same road, but that road goes up and over a very steep hill and it’s frequented by large trucks. I was nearly run off the road this morning, and I’ve learned that my bright idea of using a poncho doesn’t work well when riding against the wind, nor when cars going by send spray up from underneath. I’m already working up a sweat, I hate to think of how it’ll be when it’s summer and the humidity’s 80% and pushing 30C.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Home and back again

Well, I'm sitting here in Hiratsuka again, with a bad case of jet lag/insomnia. The trip back was decidedly unpleasant. Because of the start of spring break for Americans, I had to make two connections. The first was a short, inevitable layover in Chicago, and the second was one in Seattle. I didn't mind too much, because it broke up the flights and meant that instead of a 14-hour flight, I had a 4-hour flight, a 2-hour break where I got a final Qdoba burrito (mmm, Mexican) and a Starbucks Seattle coffee mug, then took off across the ocean to Japan.

My trip home was great, but there certainly wasn't enough time to see everyone. I was able to make a couple out-of-Indy visits: one to Purdue to see some old ballroom friends plus Sam, and the second to Columbus, OH, where my aunt lives. I stayed in her house which lies just outside the historic German Village district. Granted, the houses are too expensive for me to ever afford, but if I had to return to the Midwest to live, I'd try to find an area similar to that. It had restaurants, bars, a grocery store, and a city park, all withing walking distance. Not to mention that the downtown area was only a 30 minute stroll. It'd take only 10 minutes by bicycle, which is about how long it took me to drive and find parking. The trip was slightly disappointing, however. I was able to meet Amanda and her fiance, a really cool guy named Ish (at least, I think that's how it's spelled). We hit a famous German (what else, it's the German Village!) restaurant called Schmidt's. The sausage was tasty, the sauerkraut sour, and the beer came in ginormous steins. The sad part was that I wasn't able to visit my high school friend Meredith, she's pregnant with her second child and has been having some difficulties, so she was in the hospital getting needed nutrition. Her husband said it's not serious, just really bad morning sickness. I hope she gets well and produces another healthy, happy Healy.

Back in Indy, my time was mainly divided between family, my high school friends, and Ana and Damien, who are currently living in the Fountain Square district downtown. It was really nice to see people, though I didn't get to see everyone I'd hoped to. I did get to have lunch with my friend Chris, a lady I worked with a long time ago during a summer job at a bad insurance company.

Overall, it was good to be back, though I was disappointed by some things. I'd gone back with a hankering for the foods I'd enjoyed before I left that aren't available in Japan, namely buffalo wings. But they just left a bad feeling in my stomach, as did a few other dishes. Unfortunately, social obligations kept me from eating at home with my parents. Despite these complaints, I did have some very good culinary experiences. There's a really good restaurant on Main Street in downtown Zionsville, called Plum's Upper House. Since there's not microwave or freezer, everything's made fresh and served as quickly as possible - even the bread dough is made on premises daily. A bit pricey for lunch ($15-20 for entree, drink and dessert), but it's tasty and will fill you up. Another was
a diner in Fountain Square I went to with Ana and Damien. It looks like a short-order diner, but the food that comes out is well-made and delicious.

Another surprising thing was the size of drinks in the States. I went to Starbucks and ordered a coffee. The smallest available size was equal to the medium size at a Japanese Starbucks, though both were priced about the same. I guess it's a thing about value, and I could have just drunk only half of it, but that would be wasteful. It's a perversion of the adage "waste not, want not." One of the reasons Americans are so big is that we eat (and drink - beverages nowadays have as many calories as some meals) so much. In my opinion, the American mindset is one of, 'look how much I can get, it's so cheap,' rather than one of 'how good is the quality, and do I really need that much of it.' I'm the first to admit I get caught in this trap quite frequently and don't realize it until I'm bursting at the seams.

Speaking of which, I went to the gym on Sunday, the day after I arrived back in Japan. I weighed myself after the workout (which was awfully painful. No exercise and excessive eating/drinking left my normally robust legs shaking by the end) and found I'd gained 4.2 kg above my weight before leaving, which itself was a couple kilos above what I was last year. When I started working out I was in the mid-70 kilo range and over time as my muscles built up I slowly gained until the fall when I was about 78 kg. I think the winter padding I gained plus my 0n-again-off-again workout schedule bumped me up to 80 kg as of the beginning of March this year.

All this means that I'm very glad I went clothes shopping at the beginning of my trip, when I was still the same shape. The last time I bought work clothes, in Vietnam while travelling, they were cut to the shape I was while backpacking, i.e, skinny with no muscles, as opposed to how I am in Japan (skinny with big upper legs from cycling around everywhere).

So that's my trip in a nutshell. I'll try to flesh out a few of the points made in this post and maybe, if I don't get overwhelmed with work, I'll post about the beers and wines I had on vacation.

Today's my first day of work, but it won't be strenuous. It's just the contract-signing ceremony (your guess is as good as mine) and introductions to the schools. Tracey's a bit worried about how we're going to prepare the curriculum for the elementary schools, so hopefully we should get a better idea of how many classes we need to plan for and what grades they'll be, and we can get it done this week.

Great, it's now 7:30am. I've been writing this post on and off since 2:30am when I woke up. Jet lag's a bitch. Bollocks.