Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The teaches of speeches

Or, 'Working 8 to 6, what a way to make a living'.

Nanyo City's 23rd annual Junior High School English Speech Contest has just happened. My outspoken comments of last year having been apparently disregarded, I once again found myself in the tricky role of both coach and judge. My services in the former capacity seemed to be very much in demand this time around, such that I've stayed for a couple of hours after school every working day since the start of term (plus one saturday afternoon shift). On top of that, I've been kept fairly busy with regular teaching; it seems that as I become more competent, the teachers are entrusting me with increased responsibility. This is gratifying in some ways, but also represents a somewhat perverse incentive scheme (especially when one considers that 5th year JET veterans (or JETerans) get paid the same as fresh-off-the-plane n00bs - less in fact, once you factor in their tax exemptions expiring). As well as all this working hard, I've been playing hard too, chalking up a respectable five days of boarding so far (more on that later). Consequently, there's been little time for other activities - both my blogging and Japanese study have ground to a halt.

But anyway, today was the big day. As with so many things here, it was easier the second time around as I knew what to expect. I wore my suit, I arrived punctually, I knelt and bowed at approximately the right times. I kept myself alert through the 25 speeches by downing the same dodgy-looking convenience store stimulants that got me through the JLPT, with the result that I briefly hallucinated an earthquake at one point. Though there were still a couple of disagreements, my judgements were more in line with the other two-thirds of the panel this year. One school ended up wiping the floor with the other two, which is a little unfortunate. I'm slightly concerned about what the teachers of the losing students will have to do to atone for the great dishonour they have brought upon their schools, themselves, their families, and the Emperor. But if you ask me, it all comes down to numbers: it's hardly surprising that the school with four full-time English teachers for eight contestants did better than the slightly larger school with one full- and two part-time teachers for 12.

Curiously enough, I wasn't asked to attend the debriefing meeting after the contest this time. It seemed very strange to get home around five, before the sun had fully set. I'm relishing the thought of working eight-hour days again; I think if the workload of the last few weeks (which, it is worth stressing, was still a good bit lighter than the average teacher's in Japan) were permanent, I would probably be seeking alternative employment after not too long.

I don't want to give the impression that it's all been bad though. It really is nice to feel valued, which I did as the contest drew closer and the schools' attempts to book my time became more and more frantic. And I do feel closer to the students lately. I had some golden lunchtime banter with some second graders the other day. It started a girl asking me the fairly standard question of what my favourite Japanese food was. Sushi, I said, and a conversation about our favourite types of sushi started. She was a fan of ikura (salmon roe), so the reasonably obvious gag "How much is ikura?" was made. You see, 'how much' is also ikura in Japanese (there's that maddening phonetic ambiguity again), so the question sounds weirdly tautological. I replied with "How much is hamachi?", because hamachi (young amberjack) sounds quite a lot like someone saying 'how much' in English with a bad Japanese accent. (Man, this is getting complicated; I need a whiteboard or something.) I thought this was rather clever, and the kids seemed to appreciate it. I then showed off my sushi knowledge by saying "Hamachi and buri are the same fish, right? Hamachi is the young and buri is the adult." They weren't sure about this, but one girl piped up (in Japanese) "He's right, hamachi... um.... evolves into buri," to which the class clown boy replied "'Evolves'? It's not a Pokemon, you know!". Comedy gold. I guess I was just stoked to actually understand why everyone was laughing for once.

Yesterday I was doing one of my (non-Santa) guest appearances at kindergarten, where one is always guaranteed some interesting lunchtime chat. In fact, the five-year-olds asked me the same Japanese food question, but then demanded to know my second favourite, and third, and so on down to my ninth, by which point I was really running out of ideas. But the most probing question of the day came when a girl, perhaps tired of me asking to repeat her question and speak slower, said "Why did you come to live in Japan if you can't understand Japanese?". As soon as I come up with a satisfactory answer, I'll let her know.

The snow has been relentless all month, to the extent that plowing the stuff out of the way no longer works, and they have to use a kind of combine harvester thing to slice through the mounds and cart the stuff away by the truckload. This process leaves visually striking two-metre vertical walls of compacted snow at the roadside. Of course, this continual dump has made for some tasty boarding conditions. I've taken quite a shine to the Yonezawa resort, which is nearer and cheaper than Zao. Naturally it's a fraction of the size, but it's got everything you need, from steep, powdery black runs to a decent little park. I've broken the habit of a lifetime and finally gone duck-foot, with my back foot currently at a jaunty -6deg. I wish I'd done it years ago; it really seems to make riding switch and nailing boardslides easier.

One of my New Year's resolutions was to be a more social snowboarder (the other one was to be less weirded out by people hugging me). None of my close-ish friends (I mean that both interpersonally and geographically - us ALTs are pretty spread out) seem to be boarders, so I've taken a protege under my wing in the form of a total beginner who's keen to learn. I've been up to Yonezawa with her twice, and I'm actually really enjoying being the sensei: giving her a lesson for an hour or so then going off and riding the mountain alone for a while. It's so much easier to teach things to people who understand English.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

When new year the sirens coming

(I wrote this on friday.)

Happy year of the rabbit! The Japanese seem to be quite into the Chinese years, but curiously celebrate them when the Western calendar rolls over.

I'm not sure whether I've just left home or returned home, but in any case, I'm back in Japan. I deftly surfed the timezones to completely avoid the onset of 2011, as I was in fact nowhere at midnight (local). Tokyo was a balmy 10 degrees and disappointingly bereft of snow, but as the shinkansen negotiated the mountain pass into Yamagata there were some sizable drifts in evidence, and I arrived in Akayu to find it under a good couple of feet of snow, a metre of the stuff having reportedly fallen on the 28th.

I was met at the station by my quasi-supervisor who, for reasons best known to himself, insisted on custody of my car and house keys while I was away. Waiting for me at home was a familiar-looking sake box. It was the one I had taken to Danny and Anna's Christmas roast, and Danny had sent it all the way back to its town of origin, containing - to use the description he'd written on the customs form - a "clay T-rex with walking stick". As after-dinner entertainment, we'd had a dinosaur modelling contest, and unbeknownst to me, Danny had taken it upon himself to fire and paint the sculptures and mail them to their respective creators. He went for a red and green colour scheme, which though festive, I feel probably lacks paleontological accuracy.

Marie had invited me round for New Year festivities on the evening of the 1st. At the time I expressed the view that this might not be such a good idea because I would be so tired, but she was having none of it. Sure enough, after spending 24 hours (and losing a further nine) in various airports, planes and trains, I wasn't exactly on sparkling form. My Japanese completely failed me, and Marie was having to translate embarrassingly basic things for me. We had a mini version of last year's oshougatsu (new year) party, with a selection of traditional lucky foods: beans, herring roe, mochi (sticky rice cake), and of course plenty of sake.

During my stay in the UK, jetlag had caused me to wake up inconveniently early every morning, regardless of how late I'd stayed up drinking the night before. Predictably, I now have the opposite problem, i.e. I can't get to sleep at the appropriate time. I'd say this is worse. Thankfully, I had an unexpected extra day to recover, as it turned out the 3rd was in fact a holiday.

I used this bonus holiday to open my boarding account for the season with a gentle half-day a Tengendai Kogen. You see, much as I love Zao, I've decided to eschew the 10 non-consecutive days pass I got last year, and explore some other places. Tengendai is a small resort (maybe 0.4 Cg, but with considerably better uplift facilities than you'd find in Scotland). It has a reputation for good snow; its posters make the very improbable claim '100% powder', which I would say wasn't really true on that particular day. The place was pretty decent, but with few runs and no freestyle facilities to speak of, I'm not sure it would hold my interest for a full day. I'm pleased to say that my new boots from Santa (via a delightful shop assistant that I took an oddly intense shine to) are excellent and fit like a glove.

It is now shinnenkai (new year party) season. I missed the first wave of festive piss-ups - the bounenkais (lit., 'forget the year party') - because of my trip, but I'm catching the second one. Last night I was out with the teachers of my current school, and tonight I do it again with the board of education. Fortunately, my Japanese problems turned out to be temporary; last night my randomised seat put me nowhere near any English speakers, but I was ok. If people talk to me slowly and deliberately, and are patient about getting responses, I can just about manage general chit-chat these days. Understanding people talking to each other naturally is still beyond me, but I feel (possibly incorrectly) that I'm getting close.

One final thing to round out this formless hodgepodge of a post: I had to buy new indoor shoes this week. If, like me, you have 28cm (UK size 10) feet (that's right, acting my age and shoe size are equivalent in Japan), you can get shoes here, but your selection is quite limited. I was particularly disappointed that the moccasins with a big marijuana leaf and 'The power of grass' written on them weren't available larger than a 27. Though drugs are very, very illegal in Japan, cannabis / Rastafarian imagery is weirdly popular, causing me to wonder whether people actually understand what the leaf is. Anyway, as amusing reasons to buy new shoes go, I think mine is pretty good: I left my old ones, along with my monogrammed chopsticks, in a condemned building that has subsequently been partially demolished.