Carl / Mass Mail #2

 From: Carl
 To: Family, Friends, & Some in the Hey! Stack


Good tidings of Mass Email to All from the Land of the Rising Sun!

It's hot and muggy here in Takaoka City, Toyama Prefecture, Japan, though I've been told the temperature is just 35º (Celsius, of course). It seems even Japanese temperatures are smaller and more efficient.

It's hard to believe that it was just one week ago that I landed at Narita, Tokyo and began the orientation process for teaching English in the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program. The JET program takes English speakers from around the world and puts them into classrooms in Japanese schools around the nation with native teachers in order to teach English to the elementary, middle school, and high school students of Japan. All JETs must be college graduates. My alma mater, Furman University, managed to send five graduates, and Kansai Gaidai, where I attended a Japanese exchange program two years ago, managed to send at least a dozen or more students. All together, there are probably five thousand JETs, most of them in their twenties and most of them without prior teaching experience and little ability to speak Japanese. Each JET must agree to sign on for at least one year. Halfway through the year, the option is given to renew one's contract for another year for up to three years total. After three years, you either have to move into management or find a new job.

I started the application last fall, and now I've been assigned to F* High School and the Takaoka School for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired. I don't really have any teaching experience, but that didn't seem to hurt my predecessor, who also didn't speak Japanese (more on him later). Personally, my Japanese is just barely conversational, and I have the reading and writing skills of an elementary student, but I couldn't imagine trying to negotiate Japan without it.

So, a week before Friday, I drove with my mother and girlfriend to Atlanta to attend a predeparture meeting. We stayed their for the night, though since I was on Japanese time already, I only slept a little. (As a result though, I haven't been noticeably jet lagged here, despite a 13 hour difference.) At 6 AM the next morning, I had to get on the shuttle to the airport. Hartsfield Airport was a predictably Kafkaesque experience (almost to the point of caricature), but everyone in our group eventually managed to get on an airplane headed for Detroit, where we made the connecting flight to Narita. We spent an entire day in transit before arriving in Japan. The experience at Narita was as organized as the experience at Atlanta was chaotic. The line at customs moved quickly and the JET program coordinators managed to field a veritable army of black T-shirted volunteers who pointed us to the appropriate places to put our bags and board the buses. From Narita, it was probably a two hour drive to the classy Shinjuku district of Tokyo, where our hotel, the Keio Plaza, was located.

At the Keio, we attended a whirlwind of meetings and were given an armload of books, then pronounced sufficiently trained to educate the youth of Japan. I had so much extra stuff (and my existing bags were already so full) that I found a cardboard box in the street and pressed it into service as a suitcase. I added a little bit of transparent duct tape, et viola!, a fully functional bag. Not all of the time was spent cramming our heads with knowledge, of course. I also got to see a number of my friends from my time at Kansai Gaidai, and we went out for a nostalgic session of karaoke one night. Also, though the JET coordinators managed to set up the internet in a hospitality suite, they neglected to provide a wireless connection for those of us who laptops supported it. Needless to say, I took it upon myself to connect my wireless hub, and then soaked up the glory that comes with being "that guy who's providing this wireless internet connection." That was fun. At any given time, there were probably a dozen or more people using the connection (although according to the documentation the Airport Express only supports ten users).

Tokyo was fun, but the stores were crammed with far too many shiny things for me to last much longer there without going broke. From the top floors of the Keio Hotel you could see that Tokyo stretches out in all directions endlessly with only a few breaks for vegetation or non-skyscraper forms of buildings. On the bus ride to the domestic Haneda airport, we also saw the Tokyo Tower, a Japanese replica of the Eiffel Tower that is completely swamped by its surroundings.

From Haneda, we flew past Mt. Fuji to Toyama City, Toyama Prefecture. There, hoards of teachers and students were waiting to pick up the new arrivals. I and my coworker, T---- were met by her predecessor and our supervisors. They took us to a Japanese Chinese restaurant (or is it Chinese Japanese?) and helped us familiarize ourselves with the situation. I work with T---- at F* four days a week, and on Wednesday go by myself to the School for the Deaf. My predecessor was a total slob, and pretty much everything in my apartment was dirty as a result. Further, my desks at school were jammed with unsorted piles of books, pens, handouts, etc. Among the things I received from my predecessor: a bike with a flat tire, mattresses that made me itch, a trophy and samurai helmet given to one of his predecessors, and a random assortment of small change from around the world.

Because my apartment was still being furiously cleaned that night, I stayed at the house of A-----sensei. A-----sensei has got to be the coolest teacher I've met. (No offense, M-----.) Like me, he's a Mac user, and he's even seen my favorite band, Buffalo Daughter, live in concert. We both like the writings of Haruki Murakami, though I've only read the translations, and he let me borrow an original. When he went to put on a CD after dinner, it was one I own (Cornelius' Point). He played Stereolab on the drive to work in the morning. And best of all, he let me speak my broken Japanese almost exclusively. Neither my predecessor nor his coworker spoke much Japanese, and it's kind of expected that while in front of the students we'll speak only English in order to improve their skills. F* is a "Super English" high school, and the students are fairly decent at it, given that though nearly every Japanese studies English, very few progress pass the level of an American high school Spanish student. A-----sensei kindly slowed down his Japanese to the point where we could communicate clearly, and we got along well. I really do want to become better at Japanese, while I'm here, so I really appreciated that. A-----sensei is also interested in making webpages, and we agree that it might be fun to launch a site to put up webpages by students and photos or whatnot. We'll see how that goes.

Since then, I've had two full days of work. During that time, we basically just introduced ourselves to the students and tried to get our desks into order. On Friday, the summer break began (though the students are still expected to come in, for some reason), so now we're expect to spend the month of August doing lesson planning and other odd tasks, despite the fact that we've never taught before. Also in August, I've been volunteered to write and deliver a speech in English and Japanese at the Toyama JET Orientation conference starting on the 19th. Writing that should be interesting. In September, the students will return, and the job will begin in earnest. My coworker, T----, is nice. She has a dry, English sense of humor, and though I thought her cold at first, I think that was just the Englishness. She's had a tough time, since her apartment still isn't ready for her, so she's had to be put up by a different teacher every night since she got to Toyama. Not speaking Japanese and not having a place to unpack one's bags must be really rough, but she's kept a fairly stiff upper lip and all that. I haven't had a full day at the deaf school yet, but I'm sure that it will be a very rewarding experience once I get settled in with the kids in September. (Although, for some reason I'm supposed to fill out paper work every time I go to the deaf school, even though I'll be there every week. Ah, the joy of Japanese bureaucracy.)

I don't mind public speaking and the kids at the school seem nice, so the actual job part of being a JET shouldn't be too bad. The tricky part of the job is the part where I have to live in Japan. I spent a good part of Friday morning writing a shopping list, and all of Friday night buying it. My apartment is right next to a department store called "Saty" and five minutes away from the Takaoka train station, which I have to take to school in the morning. You can hear the sounds of trains going by from inside my apartment, but I don't really notice it. Since everything in my apartment was dirty, I tried to start with the basics-- a spoon and bowl for cereal. Most of the existing cups and utensils in the apartment were filthy and had to be discarded. Then I moved on to more luxurious items, like soap and shampoo for the bath. Finally, there were complete indulgences like the little fake leather couch I bought to replace the tiny, stinky, stained couch of my predecessor.

Saturday, my host mother, Katsuyo, and her daughter, Kana, came up to Toyama from the Osaka region to help welcome me. I showed them my apartment, and they were shocked at the filthy of my predecessor. Now, I'm not an especially neat guy. Women tend to think I'm dirty. Men tend to think I'm a little too uptight. I try to keep a nice balance between clean and OCD. However, my predecessor was just a slob, there's no other word for it. They insisted that I throw out all his old sheets, and have laundered his coats and coach cover. I did little dissuade them, even though it was my own money being spent on the all new bedding material. Before, whenever I would move into a dorm, Mom would give me a double set of sheets to "help keep out the germs" from whoever had come before. Normally, I thought that to be a bit of an excess. With this bedding material, three sheets wouldn't be enough. Of course, now it's all deposited in the pink recycling bags and awaiting later disposal. Altogether, I ended up spending not an inconsiderable amount of yen on my new electric fan, bath mats, and insect killing sprays, but it's well worth it. They also vacuumed and showed me the proper method for doing laundry in my washing machine. (The surface of which was, naturally enough, dirty.) It was a very motherly thing of them to do, and I really appreciated it. It's good that even in Japan I have people willing to help me in that way.

That basically catches me up now. Toyama Prefecture is basically a lot like New Jersey, only with less crime. The cities are basically long expanses of two and three story buildings that halt at the foot of the mountains that surround us on all sides. There are numerous rivers of various sizes cutting through the cityscape, but no one seems to pay much attention to them. Tate-yama is the tallest mountain in Toyama Prefecture, and a popular name for companies here. The roof of my apartment building has a large sign for "Tate-yama Aluminum." The trains here only come by twice an hour, compared to every ten minutes in the Osaka region. Freight trains use the same tracks here as commuter trains, which is odd. The Japanese freight trains are, you guessed it, smaller and more efficient than their American counterparts. Roads in Japan being what they are, it can take a while to get from Toyama to Takaoka to F*, but their all basically close together. By train, it's about fifteen minutes from Takaoka to either of the others, but not until after you wait half an hour for the train to come. There are two big department stores in Takaoka, and I'm not even a full block from one, Saty. My apartment is nice now that it's clean and reasonably large by Japanese standards. There's basically a little entrance area that leads into a main kitchen/living room area, with my room boxed in on one side and the toilet and bathrooms along the other. I have a TV and air conditioning, the main necessities of modern life. My room has a paper door and paper window panel that looks into the living room (or would, were it not papered). The floor of my room is tatami, Japanese-style rushing mats. The living room has fake hardwood. One wall is concrete; the rest are wallpapered. My fridge is big for a dorm, but small for an apartment. Altogether, once I get the remaining expenses out of the way (commuter pass, deposit on my rent, electronic dictionary, etc.) I should still come out ahead after the first month's paycheck. I don't yet have the internet at my apartment, pending a mix up with the previous owner of my telephone number (don't ask). That should come by the end of the month at latest. Meanwhile, I can just write emails at home and send them at work, as I did here.

Japan is crazy, but I'm having fun.

Keep it classy America (et al.),

Carl Johnson, Professional Educator