Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Oh, here it gyoza-gain

I'm feeling a little depressed right now. But this is only because I've spent the last half hour reading about various genocides. I'll explain why.

This week I started at school six of six. It's the smallest school in my jurisdiction, and I've taken an instant shine to it. The students there are remarkably good at English, and I quickly worked out why. The main English teacher teaches harder than anyone I've ever seen. He's not an unreasonable slavedriver or anything, he just packs an incredible amount into a lesson. It's like a datablast. (That's a nerdy reference even by my standards.) He makes extensive use of music for speaking and listening practice - today I was singing Ob-la-di, ob-la-da (btw, I'm still not sure how The Offspring got away with this) and We will rock you, and as I was saying goodbye at the end of the day, some kids started singing Hello Goodbye unprompted.

He asks a lot of his students, and also of me. I'm absolutely not complaining though. I was kept busy all day today, at no point having to crack out my kanji cards to kill some time. That almost never happens. I've been doing lots of marking, which I've rarely had to do at other schools. If any Japanese teachers of English are reading this, please get your ALT to do marking! It's great to actually feel useful, and since the students write about their lives, it helps me to feel more connected to them. I now know what bands Japanese 14-year-olds are into! Having checked them out on youtube, I'm a little worried that I'll end up on some kind of register. Seriously, what is it with Japanese people and school uniforms?

So, since Christmas is almost upon us, yuletide-themed lessons are the order of the day. The aforementioned teacher asked me what my favourite Christmas song was, so he could use it for a lesson. Clearly, it's The Waitresses' Christmas Wrapping. We decided that five minutes of rapid-fire pseudo-rapping was probably a bit too tricky for the kids, though he did consider it - that's how good they are at English. "What's your second favorite Christmas song?" he asked (he speaks American English). Fairytale of New York, I said, but quickly pulled that suggestion when I remembered some of the colourful language it features. So I finally settled on Merry Xmas (War is over). Being a big Beatles fan, he seemed to approve, and I suspect he was secretly hoping I would say that, since he immediately launched into a lesson plan idea.

He is concerned that the students are not sufficiently grateful for having safe, comfortable lives. So, for Thursday I have to come up with a five minute presentation on the horrors of war as an introduction to learning the song. This is quite a delicate task - I want to have an impact but without actually traumatising any children. Wikipedia has plenty of harrowing images, some of which I'm sure are too disturbing. I'm just not sure where the cutoff should be. Also, do I mention Japan's less-than-spotless record on the atrocities front? I feel like I should, but I'm a little scared of causing some kind of diplomatic incident. It's still quite a sensitive topic.

Wow, another of my preambles has become huge. Nonetheless, I'm going to talk about my weekend now.

I was invited to an international exchange event in Kawanishi (a nearby town which aspires to having one horse) by a very friendly Korean woman who helps out at my Japanese class. I slightly resented having to get up for nine on a saturday, but I thought it would be rude to decline. Besides, promoting international understanding is part of my job description. So I went along, and I'm glad I did. The plan was to cook food of various nationalities, and then eat it. Since all the foreigners around here - with the exception of ALTs - are Asian, it was a kind of oriental fusion affair, with Japanese, Chinese and Korean food on the menu, as well as cream cakes for dessert, which I guess are French? I joined the gyoza (Chinese dumpling) group, because I love eating the things. I think I impressed by being a man and being able to cut up cabbage at a reasonable speed. (Though I did later cut my finger peeling an apple. I blame the Japanese apple peeling method, which is to use a big knife, hold the apple in your left hand, and cut towards yourself.)

The cooking was fun, even if my dumpling folding technique was rather shaky. The feast which followed was delicious and ample. Though it was only lunchtime, I was offered beer, which I accepted. Then an unexpected musical dimension to proceedings opened up. After some Chinese one-string violin, a fairly ad-hoc but capable band took the stage. Leader of said band, a kindly middle-aged Japanese guy, had gone to the trouble of printing out the lyrics to some English songs. As one of only three English speakers in the room, I didn't see any way out of getting hauled up for a singalong. With my two fellow ALTs (one of whom is Brazilian, so isn't even a native English speaker, the poor guy), we gave an absolutely dire performance of Scarborough Fair, and an only marginally better Amazing Grace. Embarrassing.

He then started taking requests. I temporarily took leave of my senses, and commented to my table that the band would know the tune to Auld Lang Syne, since it is a popular song over here, albeit with Japanese lyrics. (These are to do with a kid being so dedicated to his schoolwork that he studies by the light of fireflies when there is no other light available, which although crazy, does explain a level of We love katamari.) Of course, my table-mates didn't miss this opportunity to force me to sing. For some reason, the band leader told me to do it a capella. So there I was with a mic, singing Auld Lang Syne unaccompanied to a room full of people of various nationalities. I'd only had one beer. I still can't really believe I did that.

Present at this event was a little girl of four or five years old, who I think was related to someone organising the event. Now, I really really don't consider myself the kind of person who would relish an opportunity to play with pre-school children. But she was, and I can't believe I'm saying this, adorable. The way everything, from eating a strawberry, to pretending to be an insect by putting your fingers up to your face like mandibles, was a source of infinite fascination and delight to her was truly beautiful to watch. I ended up playing tig with her, and having a number of tickle fights.

I know, this blog is becoming a bit "who are you, and what have you done with Finlay?".

Closing bombshell: I had whale for school lunch today.


  1. Give it 10 years, married with kids I tell you..... In the meantime it is good you are practicing for being fun uncle Finlay :-)

  2. Well that's an improvement over creepy uncle Finlay which is probably what would have been the case a few years ago.

  3. It turns out my inability to judge Japanese women's ages extends to children. The girl is apparently 8.

  4. WHALE??!! How could you? Reminds me of that South Park episode where they convinced the Japanese that it was the cows who dropped the atomic bomb instead of whales...