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.