A Japanese Disaster Drill

A massive earthquake has struck Akashi. Or perhaps, a tsunami. Evacuate! To your nearest disaster center! And this area’s happens to be my very own Higashi-Harima High School. Today* was a mass disaster drill, where students gathered in the gym and practiced things like using blankets as stretchers, getting a taste of hinanshoku, or disaster food, and how to make platforms out of boxes, I guess. Green-jumpsuited members of the Nihon Bousaishi (Japan Disaster Prevention) Society were also present to look cool and show us the proper way to do things.

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“Everyone’s dead, hooray!”

 

It started in the morning, with all the kids running onto the school field to line up and take attendance. The atmosphere was very lively, kids were chatty and laughing, and we even had a few photographers there as if this were a really exciting, commemorable event. Everyone was in their athletic clothes, except for me in a shirt and tie. Opening ceremony was supposed to be the same day but it got cancelled for some reason.

After that, we went onward to the gym. Several members of the community had also shown up, mostly the elderly since this was a weekday morning. The good Bousaishi people (whose logo is the photo atop this post) gave us a peppy lecture about proper disaster practices. I couldn’t pick up much, sorry to say, so far all I know they could’ve been saying “cleanse the sinners with tsunamis” or “ALTs should jump into earthquakes” and I would just be nodding vigorously.

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Despite this being a drill, we were still given real disaster rations and encouraged to consume them. It was a bottle of “Postonic Water,” basically like unflavored Gatorade, and some incredibly bland fried rice. I think there was some chicken, vegetables, mushrooms? But almost no flavor at all. Even plain Japanese rice has more flavor– the Bousaishi people explained that disaster food should be easy to digest and as inoffensive as possible. Looks like the only disaster that day was the food, haha! Really, I appreciated it, of course. It was homemade by volunteer moms, and they had to have made hundreds of these for all the students and community members attending.

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After the distribution of blankets to each row of kids, the bousaishi members demonstrated how to make them into improvised stretchers– lay a kid in the middle, and roll it up on both sides towards them. Wow!

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Then, how to make platforms from cardboard boxes. Put together, they are surprisingly capable of supporting several schoolgirls, or schoolboys. Perhaps it’s for an impromptu hospital bed. Whoaaaa!

Anyways, that’s pretty much it. Stay safe out there!

* This actually took place a month ago, but I hadn’t published it till now.

Undotaikai: Japanese Sports Day II

Read about last year’s Sports Day here!

Since I’m here a second year, I also got to experience my second undōtaikai, or Sports Day, which, by far, has been my favorite Japanese high school tradition I’ve experienced. From the students marching in to military cadence, to 40-student dance routines choreographed completely amongst themselves, it’s an entire day filled with spectacle, fun, aesthetic, and of course sports. I’m also glad that I can finally give it proper justice, as ours occurred just less than a week ago while last year’s post had been written nearly two weeks after the fact.

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Clockwise from top left: red team, yellow, white, and blue.

Sports Day kicks off around 9 AM with the student council members marching onto the track with the flags of Japan, of Hyogo prefecture, and of the school itself. The entire school is divided into four teams– for us, it was red, yellow, white, and blue, and each team is made up of at least one or two classes from each of the three grades. They all, of course, sport matching bandanas and flags made by the classes themselves. Everyone lines up in formation, and the principal opens the event with a speech. We all rise for the national anthem as the same three flags from earlier are raised on their poles.

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Note: the color on the back of their PE shirts indicate their years, not teams. First-years are red, second-years green, and third-years blue.

Following that is rajio taisō, or radio calisthenics, all done in unison. It’s to this exact track and this exact sequence, of a man counting with some classical-sounding piano music in the background. You’ll find that military discipline will be a common theme running throughout the event– and speaking of running, there will be a LOT of relay races throughout the day. I still have no idea whatsoever how the brackets work, how points are calculated, or in fact, anything at all about this event that I’m supposed to be explaining to you. I just know there’s a lot of moving around involved.

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I’m the black blur passing all the pathetically slow tiny schoolgirls.

The first few events are regular baton-passing relay races. There’s also mixed relay where for the first 50 meters, they have to skip rope while running, for the next crawl under a net, carry a heavy sandbag, and finally link up with five other students for an epic six-legged race finale. There’s also teachers versus students, which I got to run 50 meters in. I was told that it would be at 3 PM, but when I went to the bathroom around 2ish PM a teacher came running up to me to tell me that the schedule has suddenly changed and I have to run NOW. I was passed the baton pretty much as soon as I got to the track– it sums up what it’s like to be a JET/ALT pretty well, in that last-minute changes and heads-ups will be the bane of your professional life. In fact, the official motto of the Japanese school-ALT relations is “Haha WHOOPS!”

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Before lunch is the dance competition, for which the third-years from each team has prepared their own choreographies to their own chosen playlists, performed in their own chosen matching outfits. I thought red was the clear winner, and naturally I was so mesmerized I didn’t take any pictures or videos of it. The music is usually a mix of J-pop and American pop, though re: Western music I feel like Japan is just around a decade behind. Bruno Mars’s “Marry You” showed up twice. And nightclubs here still play “Shots” by LMFAO really often.

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Anyways, now it’s lunch time. On special school-wide event days like this, the school will have bento lunches delivered to the office. So here’s what a typical, but also slightly fancier, school lunch looks like. Tempura and rice, just arranged more aesthetically than usual.

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After lunch, each of the club activities (sports) teams march onto the track in their uniform, from aikido to basketball to kendo to table tennis. The sports teams also competed against each other in relays, in uniform. Track & field obviously won, although soccer did sometimes come close. The worst runners were the martial artists, but that was mostly due to their uniforms. Since they were so clearly last in every race, they would put on a little demonstration after each lap, like flipping their teammate over with a judo throw as a way of passing off the baton. Pretty cool.

After putting to rest the age-old debate of whether track & field kids really can run fast, the students then change back to their regular PE clothes and now the non-relay stuff (interspersed with more relays) begin!

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Tug-of-war with ship’s rope. The team that manages to knock the flag down toward their side is the winner. This one’s one of the few co-ed events.

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For some reason a girls’-only event, it’s the return of tug-of-pole. Nine large metal poles lie in the middle of the field. When the starting pistol fires, two teams run onto the field and fight each other over them. Once a pole is taken past their own team’s side/endzone, the people who won that pole are free to run back onto the field to help with the stealing of another. This would have been even more badass if they somehow combined it with kendo, or maybe incorporating land mines and robots in some way.

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Kiba-sen (cavalry fight), which I had mentioned before, but now I have slightly better pictures. Three boys form a horse, one sits atop as a rider, and he either wants to knock his opponent off his horse, push his horse out of bounds, or snatch his opponent’s hat off inside a very small (maybe 6 feet/2 meters across) circular ring. Teachers stand all around to catch anyone in case they fall. Besides running in the teacher’s relay, it was the only other time I felt like I was actually part of the event. Everything looks so fun you can’t help but want to participate in all of it.

There is no grand finale, really. The final event is the final relay race. But again, I have no idea how the heck the whole thing works. Every team participated in every event; it didn’t look like there was any elimination, and I noticed the same students doing multiple events regardless of whether they had won or lost the previous ones. During the ending ceremony, during which all teams line up again in formation, and sit on the field, the student council announced the team winner of each single individual event. There were so many winner announcements that I really, truly, have no idea who actually won overall. I know, this is not Sports’ Day’s fault. I just don’t speak Japanese. It probably is an accumulated-points system. Either way, I asked the next day and it turns out white team won. Nice!

 

 

The Higashi-Harima Culture Festival

Oh, how time flies! I can hardly imagine a more idyllic lifestyle than that of a high schooler in the Japanese countryside. For better or for worse, your school becomes your life– from so-called “club activities” that practice till sundown, through vacations and holidays but never rain; sports days of mass competition; school festivals complete with food booths and massive banners nearly 20 feet tall; to finally, random days where students don’t have classes at all and can just have fun, be it a school-wide dodgeball tournament or spending some time playing an ancient poetry card-matching game.

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This last Thursday, June 6th, was Higashi-Harima’s bunkasai, or culture festival. It’s the equivalent of an American school fair, but with a little more school spirit and performances instead of rides. It’s important to preface that each grade, from first years to third, are divided into “homerooms” of about 30 students each, and from the very beginning of their school life they are encouraged to stick together and be the best 1-1, 2-6, etc. they can be. Within the first week of being a freshman at Higashi Harima, you are thrust into a school spirit battle with your fellow homeroom classmates, where new students spend a whole day learning how to sing the school’s alma mater, how to march in unison, and discovering how many times your entire class can skip a massive jump rope.

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On this same day, classes also chose which modern Japanese era (a brief explanation of eras can be found in my blog post here) they wanted to represent, anywhere from the Meiji period of the 1860s to the current Reiwa period. Based on this, classes created massive mosaics to be displayed in front of the school, probably measuring 20 feet tall and made up of many individual little paper squares. Classes also made their own flags for display in the gym during the other festivities, of which they could pick any theme they want, which is the picture at the top of this post.

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Not sure which Japanese era dinosaurs are from.

As for the performances, they of course took place in the gym, with appearances from broadcasting club, who emcees every school event, to drama and band, to my very own English club! English Speaking Society (ESS) is an extra responsibility nearly everyone on the JET Program takes on, and naturally they must perform at every year’s bunkasai. What exactly they do is up to the ALT in charge. Last year, my predecessor and they put on a production of The Little Prince, and this year I decided with my rudimentary editing skills to do a live dubbing of famous anime scenes. I removed all sound, added new music, sound effects, and Foley, while the students read their prepared translations as the characters on screen. So, imagine your favorite anime, translated by real Japanese people, read by real Japanese people, but in English, and devoid of any emotion whatsoever. That is to say, even if kids who joined English club are presumably interested in English, it’s still not enough to get them to say a line like “Ow, that hurt” with any kind of verisimilitude or effort whatsoever.

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Also co-starring me as Blueno, a villain from One Piece.

By the way, another worthy thing to mention, the quintessential Japanese experience of being miserable in the summer. Like the rest of the school, the gym has no A/C. The only way to cool it at all is to just open the windows. Performances have to take place with the lights down so you can see the stage lighting, so all the doors and windows must be shut up. It couldn’t have been more than 80 F (26.6 C) that day at the hottest, but with humidity also in the 80s, it felt like a broken sauna. The this-sucks-so-much-it’s-funny part was waiting for them to fix technical issues with showing the ending video, so we got to bake in a dark, humid gymnasium for 20 minutes just watching the staff unplug cables and slowly troubleshoot their Windows 7 laptops at the front of the gym. Despite this, students I have asked overwhelmingly prefer summer over winter.

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Students also set up booths selling standard festival food fare, from A to churro and yakisoba. It was a fun day, and you can tell that, at least for that day, everyone was loving their lives. Myself included!

Japanese High School Graduation (and Uniforms)

The end of February? Sailor uniforms? Bowing 800 times? Yes, this is a Japanese high school graduation ceremony.

The Japanese school year starts in April, for some reason. Kids still get a block of summer vacation too, so they come to school for two months and then they’re gone for a month. Weird!

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This picture was not from the rehearsal, but as you can see it’s not my first time being taught bowing.

Anyways, because of that, high schoolers graduate at the end of February instead. Ours was on February 28, preceded by rehearsals the day before, because as my teacher put it, “practicing is very Japanese.” In said rehearsals, students were made to scream, jump up and down while singing the school’s alma mater, and practice standing up and sitting down at the right speed over and over. We teachers got to watch, but we also had to practice how to bow properly (hot tip: it’s a 40° tilt and 3-count).

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Flags left to right are: Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, school emblem.

Actual graduation was a very serious, somber affair. It was punctuated with speeches from many different adults, from the principal to the board of education chair to the head of the PTA association. These were all, at least from the sound of them, very dry, and often read straight off a paper. There definitely weren’t any jokes, or even snappy pop culture references. It’s probably better that way.

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Clockwise from left: boy’s uniform winter version, girl’s uniform winter version, summer version. The boy’s summer uniform is just a white shirt and dark khakis.

The students just wear their regular school uniform for graduation, without any pomp or circumstance. My school’s uniform is pretty much the most archetypal Japanese uniform you can get, the classic gakuran for boys and serafuku (sailor uniforms) for girls, whose names you may not know but will recognize immediately upon seeing them. Accessories include a Roman numeral pin attached to your collar (for men) or neckerchief (for women) to indicate your year. Buttons are engraved with the school crest. To me, they’re pretty stylish. To the kids, they’re not fans and they want the same uniforms as other high schools in the area, with blazers and sweaters and ties. Between early 20th-century sailor uniforms or the mid-20th century Ivy look, it really is a win-win.

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Back to graduation, a play-by-play: everyone files in, sans third-years (high school is only three years). We stand and sing the Japanese national anthem, “Kimi Ga Yo.” The principal gives a speech. Each time someone new comes on stage, everyone is to stand, bow for 3 counts, and sit down. The third years enter and take their seats in the front rows, to the tune of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” A little unfitting, if you ask me, but hey, I’m just a foreigner observing. The rest was a blur of speeches and bowing. The students don’t physically receive any diplomas. At least, not during the ceremony. Instead, their names are called one by one, they yell “hai” and stand up. The underclassmen representative gives a thank-you speech from the rest of the school. More speeches from more people, as mentioned before, and well, that’s it. We also sing the school’s alma matter and few other select songs. No graduating student goes up on stage. No laughter, no applause. Not until the very end as they exit (to “Sotsugyo Shashin”; Graduation Picture), and yes, there are at least tears. Now the audience and teachers will be clapping, for maybe four or five minutes straight. And… the end! These brave men and women are now out and about in the world, some to college, some to technical schools, others home to study for more entrance exams, and oh, the places they’ll go!

What About the Children?: Japanese Club Activities

In America, some kids play on their Nintendos. Others smash mailboxes and hang out at the local malt shop. Japanese kids, on the other hand, belong to various clubs, that often suck up all their free time. Sports usually practice daily, even on weekends and during summer vacation!!! Teachers may also coach sports as part of their jobs, meaning they don’t leave school till after sunset, and as far as I know, it’s thankless, unpaid extra work. Your club activities become your life, to the point where a good 80% of essays for “What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done?” was answered with “club activities.” And, well, despite the time-suck, they are pretty cool. Here are some I found especially interesting:

Tea Ceremony Club

It would not be a Japanese high school without a club devoted to one of the most Japanese things ever– the tea ceremony.

Flower Arrangement (Ikebana) Club

It would also not be a Japanese high school without another club devoted to another one of the most Japanese things ever– traditional flower arrangement.

Kendo

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Let’s not forget who does the killing to put flowers on the table– the hard-working swordsman! It’s both a PE activity and a club.

Shodo (Calligraphy) Club 

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The Japanese writing system was pretty much adapted from Chinese, so the art of writing beautiful kanji is just as appreciated here as it is in China. I tried my hand at writing riku, the closest Japanese equivalent of my name.

Koto Club

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Traditional Japanese floor harps.

Aikido/Judo

If it was invented in Japan, you bet your buttocks that it’d be a thing in high schools.

Broadcasting Club

Members learn how to be professional announcers, like on the radio or commentating sports events. There is a very particular tone, rhythm, and cadence to it. They’re basically learning how to talk like train announcements (NOT MY VIDEO), except all the time. Broadcasting Club are usually the ones who preside over such public events as Sports Day, giving the play-by-play over loudspeaker. The club at our school is particularly good, having been to the national finals at NHK (Japan’s BBC) in Tokyo. There is a LOT more to it than just speaking slowly, and it’s tough to explain what makes it so special, but think about how professional recordings sound, and how difficult it actually is to emulate that.

Baseball

If you didn’t already know this, you might find it interesting that baseball is actually the #1 most popular sport in Japan. It is so popular, that some of my coworkers were actually surprised that baseball is also a favorite in America. They thought they were the only ones.  It also has a surprisingly long history– for example, the local baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers, has been around since 1935.

Japanese Sports Day

This last-last Thursday (13th) was Sports Day, where the entire school comes together to kick each other’s asses at various activities and… sports. It’s a national tradition practiced from elementary to high school, basically a random (but meticulously well-planned) opportunity for kids to relax and have fun. At my school, this repertoire of revelry ranged from relay races, to dance competitions, to my first time witnessing the Japanese game called kibasen (cavalry fight).

The entire school was divided into four different teams, in this case into colors. Sports Day begins with these teams marching onto the high school track, wearing matching headbands and waving flags made by the students themselves. When I say marching, they really are marching– high knees to a military-esque anthem played by the band. The Japanese, prefecture’s, and school’s flag were raised on the flagpole, and then each sports team marched onto the track, dressed in their appropriate equipment and uniform. It was INCREDIBLY aesthetic, like something out of The Great Escape but without the Nazis.

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I can’t tell you why it took me two weeks to get around to posting, so since I already forgot half of what happened, here’s the highlights:

Kibasen (“cavalry fight”)

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Blue manages a last minute hat-snatch, clinching the victory!

Three people under you serve as the horse, carrying you on their shoulders as the cavalryman. It’s basically chicken fight, but with a cooler name and even higher stakes. The match takes place inside a small circular ring, and the goal is to either push your opponent out or to snatch the bandanna off their head. For safety, both fighters are surrounded by teachers to spot and catch anyone that may fall off their “horse.”

Tug-of-Pole

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Left: poles won. Center and right, teams fighting over poles.

Two teams stand across the field from each other. In the middle, several long metal poles. The starting pistol fires, and the teams do battle to try to pick up and retrieve as many poles as possible. Once they cross their own line with a pole, it’s theirs. They are rather large, so you need several people to pick one up and maneuver it.

Mass Calisthenics

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Another moment that makes you go, “damn, Japan is aesthetic,” the entire school did exercise in unison to music. It was mesmerizing to watch.

Relay Races

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No sports day would be complete without a relay race. There were several events, from good old-fashioned relay sprints, to jump-rope running, tire dragging, three-legged races, to the much anticipated teachers vs. students. I ran 100 meters in the relay myself, but sorry to say the teachers were no match for the best of the track-and-field kids.

Tug of War

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Another classic, it’s no-frills, honest-to-God tug of war.

Besides these, there was also a dance competition, where each team performed their own choreography, mass jump-rope to see how many the whole team could skip without messing up, and even an awards ceremony at the very end. It was a great day, a great spectacle to watch, and we got to enjoy a day of no class to boot.

I regret to report that I have no idea which team won.

 

Well, What’s It Like?: Academic Edition

This week, I finally started teaching. School officially began on Monday the 3rd with the opening ceremony, where I gave a speech in both Japanese and English to the entire school, i.e. hundreds of students and dozens of teachers. That was the first time in my life speaking to so many people at once, but it actually went better than I imagined it would.

Typhoon 21 (aka Typhoon Jebi) hit on Tuesday and threw a wrench into the school schedule. It did nothing to the Hyogo prefecture where I live, but unfortunately, it absolutely devastated Osaka to our east, tearing roofs off buildings, throwing a tanker ship into a bridge and shutting down KIX Airport, flipping over trucks, spinning Ferris wheels, and smashing rubble into power lines.

Wednesday was my first day of class. It started horribly, with me losing my shirt on the way to school. Incredibly luckily, I have the nicest vice-principal on Earth and he let me borrow one of his spares, lest this disgustingly underdressed man be allowed to teach young, impressionable Japanese youth. I taught two periods, and also led my first of ESS Club’s (English Speaking Society) weekly meetings. My only task was to introduce myself, so I prepared a PowerPoint presentation about myself that was also a game.

The kids at my school are very shy (at least when it comes to English), but they are also very friendly and at least somewhat enthusiastic about me. As is the culture, I was almost always given a respectful bow and konnichiwa whenever a student passed by me. After the opening ceremony where I introduced myself, however, in addition to konnichiwas I am now getting hellos, usually accompanied by giggling if they’re girls. Anyways, like my previous post about things I’ve noticed, here’s some things I’ve noticed about school culture specifically:

  1. Students clean the classrooms and teacher’s rooms. It’s done around 3 PM every day at my school, presumably before the last period starts. Look anywhere and you’ll see kids pushing around brooms and armed with washcloths.
  2. Kids have VERY long days. The school was active even during summer vacation, because club activities and sports practices still run in summer. When school’s in, extracurriculars are Monday to Saturday for them. Students may even sleep at 1AM regularly, because they have club activities, after-school programs, and then homework.IMG-1006
  3. Every single door in the school is a sliding door. Whether a classroom, the staffroom, bathroom, or someone’s office, it’s all fusuma, baby! Hey, it saves space, after all.IMG-1004
  4. You wear indoors-only shoes when inside the school. I know I already mentioned this, but c’mon, nobody reads all of my posts. We have guest slippers with the school name in gold lettering for any visitors. I have my own shoe locker at the entrance and change every time I arrive.
  5. Napping at your desk is allowed. It’s not celebrated, but when even the vice-principal is napping at his desk, you bet that your beauty sleep will be left undisturbed.
  6. You use special office language. When you arrive, you say good morning to everyone as is the norm. When you leave, you say osaki ni shitsureishimasu (sorry to be leaving before you), to which the standard response is otsukare sama deshita (lit: “you must be tired”, but figuratively it means “hard work today!”). It’s actually not awful banter, it’s polite and respectful language that is standard in Japanese offices.
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    The left seal is my name in Japanese, which I use for most things, and the right seal is in English, which I use for things like letters and postcards.
  7. You use a seal (stamp) instead of your signature. Instead of signing on official documents, you use a stamp of your name. It may have an intricate design so it’s not easily copied, and you may own different ones for different purposes: perhaps one for casual things, and another for super-official things like getting a mortgage or signing contracts. Every day you come in, you are to stamp your seal in a sign-in book so your school knows you showed up that day.
  8. No one says bless you. This is not unique to Japan– it just isn’t done in Asian societies. Sneezes are followed by silence. The lack of blessings may eventually lead to death.
  9. Technology is an eclectic mix of old and new. This is unique neither to the countryside nor to schools. Most schools still have chalkboards in the classroom. We have chalkboards in the teacher staffroom. Our computers are on Windows 7, everyone is on Internet Explorer and Yahoo!, and we still use fax machines. But then again, we also have HDTVs in the hallways. A lot of things still done on paper, which leads me to…
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    I have been there for one month. Since then, I have received 33 handouts and 3 booklets.
  10. PAPERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The amount of paperwork is ludicrous. You still get the class schedule for the week on paper, announcements on paper, warnings about flu season on paper, the school newsletter on paper, and so on and so on. If you want to do anything administrative-related at all, you better believe there’s a form for it. Basically, imagine if every single email in your work inbox was instead individual pieces of paper.
  11. No AC or heating in the classrooms and hallways. It comes partially from the mentality of conservation. Although for some reason, during winter, kids aren’t allowed to wear gloves and scarves inside either.
  12. You can’t drink or eat while walking through the hallways. This includes water.