Sunday, November 28, 2010

10 Favorite Experiences...So Far

(In no particular order)

1. Student Responses at School

What I am referring to is how students react when they see me.  Due to the absence of diversity and the abundance of American movies, I am a minority (albeit one that happens to look like a Hollywood actress in the students’ minds).  I make the Hollywood comparison because that’s how I cope with the exaggerated reactions that I often get from the students.  Because of the rarity of non-Japanese people in this area of Japan, I often get double-takes from those I walk by in the grocery store, but students are the most vocal. 

I learned “kawaii” (cute)  immediately because that’s the first thing students often say to me when they see me.  I’ve had at least five boys from various schools shout “I love you!” across the hallway, and in one class the girls don’t say goodbye when I leave, they say “love you!” to which I reply, “love you too!” and the class cracks up.  Last week, a few different classes asked me if I have a boyfriend, and when I said no, two different boys in different classes said, “I have a chance!” (which I was amazed mostly that they remembered the “a” in that sentence).  I’ve been told that I have a nice body, am beautiful, have gold hair, and (to quote a student’s written response) “Kimu cuter than Biyonse.”  Girls have lined up for hugs, I’ve been surrounded and stopped in the hallways between classes by excited students, I’ve been asked to take a picture with students on multiple occasions, and I always surprise students if it’s a situation where they turn around to see me there. 

Students recognize me everywhere, and since I’ve been to six different schools now and technically have met hundreds and hundreds of different students, I frequently do not recognize them.  I’ve got to be careful because it’s likely that a student of mine, or a parent of a student, works at almost every store that I visit, is in every club that I attend, or frequents the same restaurants and shops as me.  I stand out, so I can’t count on privacy if I make a mistake or have problems in public.  Sometimes, to cope, I just pretend that I’m a celebrity.  It doesn’t really bother me too much yet because I find their responses just too entertaining.  How can I get upset at being called cute or beautiful so often?

2. Japanese Wedding (September 11th – see Wedding blog post)

This was a blast, and definitely an interesting cultural experience that I was lucky enough to experience within my first month in Japan.  I talked about the wedding in a lot of detail in my post on the Japanese Wedding, but I can’t leave it out of the top 10 favorite experiences!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Books, Books, Books!

When I first moved into my apartment, I was bored a lot.  I would be allowed to leave work around noon – which was great because I had nothing to do at work either – and go home where I had very little on my to-do list. I had no phone, no car, and knew very few people.  To combat boredom, I attacked books.

Recently, I wondered just how much I have read since I arrived in Japan.  I sought recommendations for books from a few Augie professors and used their recommendations to get a few books for the journey.  In addition, friends and family gave me a few more books and, when I arrived in Kitami, I found others near me who also love to read and have been willing to loan and borrow books. 

Here’s a list of the books I’ve finished since July 22nd, 2010:

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (233 pages)

This novel is a reflection of O’Brien’s experiences in Vietnam and life after the war.  Very well written book that I would highly recommend, but it probably wasn’t the book to read at the time I did since I was the most homesick at this point and stories revolving around war aren't the best way of cheering oneself up.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

I am Mobile

It’s official: I have a car.  It’s a small, 1000cc 2001 Toyota Duet, wine red, and equipped with 4-wheel drive and a radio that only gets one station.  But it’s mine and I can drive it wherever and whenever I want!
I must admit that I’m quite proud of being a car owner.  This is the first time that I had anything to do with purchasing a car, and I did it in Japan.  I worked with the President of the used-car dealership who spoke only very basic English and that was it.  Between his basic English and my extremely beginner Japanese, we got everything sorted out. 

For the sake of education and cultural exchange, here’s the breakdown of (approximate) car costs:

80,000              Cost of the car
20,000              Road Tax paid through March
10,000              Paperwork and checking my parking space
40,000              Winter Tires
100,000           Shakkan
110,000           Year of insurance

Total Cost:360, 000

Using today’s exchange rate, it would be $4,480 but this is close to the worst exchange rate the U.S. dollar has had against the Yen ever.  During better times, the exchange rate would mean that the total cost was about 3,200 USD.  Luckily, when getting paid in Yen and purchasing the car in Yen, the exchange rate doesn’t matter.

My car!

Education in Japan

Education in Japan is a huge topic, so I’ll just chat about what I’ve noticed.  For the most part, the system is based off the U.S. school system with elementary schools, junior high schools, high schools, and college.  They offer school lunches at most younger schools, club activities after school, and give grades and tests just like at home.  However, there are some things that I think are interesting and worth sharing.

One of the biggest differences is probably the fact that all junior high school students (around the age of 15), take one huge, important exam to determine what level high school they can enter.  Personally, I don’t like the idea that one test determines a student’s high school, which often determines what university they get into, which generally determines what sort of career and income they can expect in life.  I know that academically I did much better in high school than junior high – but if I had been put into a lower level high school based on a junior high school test, would I have done as well?

I notice the different levels of high schools because I travel to a total of seven high schools this year.  One is considered the smart school and it’s the top high school in the area while another  two I go to are just “under” the top school.  Another one that I go to is probably a  middle-of-the-road school.  I also visit one that is very low on the totem pole, and another where students who can’t make it anywhere else go…the lowest level of all the Kitami high schools. 

Abashiri Road Trip!

I've been lucky to have a wonderful woman tutor me in Japanese once a week.  She has gone above and beyond her duties of tutoring to get me involved in local community activities and meet people.  Recently, she took me and two of her other students (Chi - a Chinese student who is learning Japanese, and Goro - a Japanese man learning English) to Abashiri to check out some of the museums and see the beautiful fall Hokkaido countryside.

Here are a few pictures from out trip. Enjoy!

The abandoned farm building, the grasses, and the lake remind me of South Dakota

The Drift Ice Museum

A Japanese Wedding

Last weekend, I was unusually fortunate and attended a Japanese wedding.  It’s rare for foreigners, even foreign people who live here for years, to get the chance to attend a wedding between two Japanese people.  I should give some credit to my predecessor because it was his “Japanese mother” who invited me (on only my second night in Kitami) to go to her nephew’s wedding.  Of course I said yes, but I thought that maybe she’d forget.  However, I ran into her again just a few weeks before the wedding and she confirmed my attendance.  I was so excited! But the big question remained: what would I wear?

That problem was solved the night before the wedding when the aunt, mother, and cousin of the groom stopped by my house to give me more information on the wedding.   I had three choices: red, black, or blue.  Instantly, the three of them said that I should wear the red dress.  Confident and excited about the wedding, I put together my outfit.

The next morning the aunt, uncle and cousin picked me up.  At the hotel, we went up to the groom’s family suite where they had snacks and drinks (non-alcoholic at this time) for the family.  Then, as a group, everyone headed over to the chapel across the street.

The chapel was beautiful!  But it’s a modern chapel and built specifically for weddings and serves no other purpose.  Japan has a small Christian population, but in general people are Buddhist, Shinto, or some form of agnostic.  However, for brides who want a Western wedding, this chapel is perfect, and when I mean perfect, it was so perfectly proportioned and the ceremony so perfectly timed that it felt a bit peculiar to me…almost unreal.  There were at least six non-family workers at the ceremony who were constantly scurrying around, timing things, telling people where to go and how, that it felt like a show more than a ceremony.  And everyone was so serious!  No one smiled during the ceremony, not even the bride and groom!  But, that seems to be the Japanese way—they take their ceremonies seriously.  In the end, it was probably as close to flawless as a wedding ceremony could get.  It probably helped that there weren’t any flower girls or ring boys.

My Latest Conquest!

When I first moved into my apartment, the most daunting task that laid before me came from unexpected places – my appliances.  I though you’d like to know that I am confident that I have now conquered each and every appliance.

The first day, my predecessor was around and showed me how to use everything.  The problem came after he left and I realized that I should have written down what he said! 

My Birthday & Sapporo

In Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture of Japan, Sapporo is the big city.  All the new ALTs of Hokkaido were required to make it to an orientation conference in Sapporo from August 15th  to the 17th so of course I was looking forward to a paid trip to hang out with other JETs from the area.  

I had the fortune to be able to hitch a ride with a few fellow Kitami-region people to go to Sapporo a day early so that meant I celebrated my birthday with a whole bunch of fellow ALTs!  The trip up was mostly uneventful – I mostly slept – and then spent some time with the people I came with shopping at COSTCO! Yes, Sapporo has a Costco and you can buy almost any American good – written in English – in bulk.  It kind of felt like entering a mini-America, especially after trying to navigate grocery stores that are entirely Japanese for the past few weeks.  One thing did stand out as being out of place, and that was in the jewelry section where I saw most expensive ring that I’ve ever seen – 28,000,000 yen (~$280,000)!

After Costco, Ben, Charley, Tomoko, and I went to Odori Park in Sapporo for a JET welcome party.  I got to hang out with a bunch of people – some that I’d met and many that I hadn’t yet – and enjoy a famous Sapporo beer.  It felt a bit weird because it’s legal to walk around with a beer and here we were drinking in the middle of a park with people all over the place, and we started at 4pm!

Girls going to the festival wearing the Japanese summer traditional costume.

Japanese English

It's very interesting being one of the few non-Japanese people living in Kitami.  I definitely feel like I stand out.  I'm not abnormally tall, but I am one of the tallest females almost anywhere I go.  I don't consider myself to be blonde, but I'm blonde by hair color standards here.  I don't have blue eyes, but my green eyes still stand out.  And I most definitely stand out when I go out by food or on my bike because I generally appear to be lost or aimless.

On the flip side, being a native English speaker, I can read things that are written in English and understand the different shades of meanings.  I guess what I'm getting at regards things that are written in English but are translated literally from Japanese.  Below I've posted two examples that I've found that make me laugh out loud.  However, being confused by the English or finding humor in the sentence structure is almost a daily occurance.

The one below is a sign of the local bakery shop's sign.  Yes, it appears their name is "Cake Angry" or "Angry Cake."  When I walked past this one I was walking alone through the neighborhood on a dreary day and had to restrain myself from laughing too hard.  I don't want to be remembered as the weird American girl!  As I walked by, the pastry shop appears to be a fine, happy little place with similing people inside, so why would they name their shop "Angry?"