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.

A Day in the Life

To remind everyone again, I am in Japan as part of the JET Program, which stands for the Japanese Exchange & Teaching Program. Its key objective is to promote cultural exchange between different nations and Japan, which in practice means: “yo, go teach some English.” So let’s walk you through an average day!

Morning (7:00 – 8:15 AM)

My day begins like any other: filled with a vague sense of dread and difficulty getting out of bed. Ahead of me is a brisk 5-mile bike ride, passing by rice paddies, farms, neighborhood vending machines, tiny Japanese cars, and also the Statue of Liberty. She welcomes the tired, the poor, and also the sweaty because it’s freaking 90 degrees every day and 70% humidity.

Arrival at School (8:15 AM)

I usually arrive 15 minutes early, as school starts at 8:30 AM. I change my shoes– you must wear a pair of indoors-only shoes to go inside the school. Same goes for the students, so despite the famed Japanese school uniform with loafers, they’re actually wearing indoor sandals when they’re in school.

Actual School (8:30 – 4:15 PM)

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Summer vacation is ending soon, so it will soon be a lot busier. I haven’t been given too much to do aside from a few menial tasks, so I spend most of my time doing nothing. Interestingly, you’re either supposed to look busy, or you can nap. What you cannot do is be obviously screwing around, like on your phone with your feet up. I’ve caught quite a few teachers sleeping at their desks, even in front of the vice-principal (who is in charge of the teachers and sits among us). Just the other day, I caught him napping too!

That isn’t to say I have done absolutely NOTHING. I’ve prepared my self-introduction lesson (a PowerPoint), made quizzes from some basic English books, corrected essays, and compiled a list of English-learning games to play in the class. But there is still a LOT of down-time, especially for a dude who’s an assistant teacher, rather than an actual teacher. Until school starts next week, I guess I’m just office eye candy.

A Marathon Return (4:15 ~ 5:15 PM)

The modern-day 26-mile marathon originates from a Greek messenger named Philippides, who ran 26 miles from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to deliver news of a Greek victory. He died from the physical exertion, but not before announcing with his last breath, “Joy to you, we’ve won!”

My bike ride home is exactly the same, if not worse, except I don’t usually die at the end. I once fell inside (bike and all) of a rice paddy, ruining two of my shirts for the rest of time. You’d think Philippides had it bad.

Doing Nothing: Home Edition (5:15 PM – ???)

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¥3980 is basically $39.80.

For lunch and breakfast, I mostly subsist on konbini (convenience store) food. For dinner, I try to cook most of the time, to mediocre results. Groceries can be almost comically expensive here. Oranges are $1 (100 yen) each. A bunch of grapes will set you back about $12. If you really want to live it up like the bourgeoisie, you could buy a $30 watermelon and have, I guess, a watermelon party while spitting on the poor. There’s even a game where you smash a watermelon like a pinata, which at one time went so far as to have officially-sanctioned rules. Cantaloupes are expensive too, to the point where you can buy one in a gift box. I know what I want for Christmas!

I go to sleep around 11 or 12, and a new weekday begins. And what about weekends? Stay tuned!

Pat Goes to Tokyo

So sorry for the lack of updates, dear readers. I wish I could’ve given you a play-by-play of my arduous journey to Tokyo (where I am now), but alas it’s been a whirlwind these past two days.

After a lot of packing, very little sleep, and actually not that much panic, I successfully boarded my flight to arrive in Tokyo at around 3 or 4pm local time on Sunday the 29th. This is for the initial orientation, which lasts until Wednesday.

My Japanese residence card. Hello Patrick-san!

Since then, I’ve gotten lost at the massive Shinjuku station, been to a rooftop DJ party at the Tokyo Intercontinental Bay, watched a katana demonstration by the guy who choreographed Kill Bill, and learned some non-zero amount about my duties and responsibilities as a JET participant. It’s been back-to-back workshops and lectures these past few days covering topics from our health insurance, to lesson plans, to special needs education.

On Wednesday, I’ll be making my way to my new home in Akashi in the Hyogo Prefecture. Until then, I get to worry about how I’m going to manage with only the cash in my wallet plus $14 in checking, and not having a freaking computer. Stay tuned!

Looks Like I’m Really, Really Dumb

I’ve made a huge mistake… with my blog! Googling Japanese stuff, in English, is not as easy as Googling American stuff in English, as anyone (except me) could guess.

I’ve given you wrong information, I’ve misled you all– I will NOT be living in, or even teaching in, the town of Harima. The school itself is still called Harima-Higashi High School, but it is in the town of Inami, which is north of the town called Harima, where Harima-Minami High School is. I hope you can see where the confusion came from, and forgive me. My fact-checking staff will be promptly dismissed and replaced come next month. Meanwhile, my apartment will be in the city of Akashi.

I’ll not go through the same schpiel that I did with Harima, not only because it seems disingenuous, but also because there is actually very little information I could find about my new town of Inami. All I can tell you is that it also has a small population, of 30,000. Take a page from the Harimans’* book, update your Wikipedia article, you crazy Inaminese*!

* I made up both of those just right now. Don’t call them this.

The Polaroid SX-70 (or, The Price of Beauty)

I know, I know– “where the HELL is that next blogpost? It’s the only reason I bother waking up in the morning anymore!” Me too, dear reader, me too. A small update; I have found out the exact address of my apartment, but until I have more information I will leave that for another post, where I’ll tell you everything I know about Japanese apartments (but not my address, sorry!).

In the meantime, let’s call this Man Behind the Myth: Part II, where I share with you one of my least lame hobbies: Polaroid photography.

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This is the Polaroid SX-70, one of my most prized possessions. It is a SLR (single-lens reflex) camera with manual focus, with an electronic eye that can slow shutter speed to over 10 seconds.

mucho bettero

One of its most unique features is that it freaking FOLDS, into a semi-portable 3-pound brick that’ll weigh down one side of my coat but look completely badass when I take it out. It was released in 1972, where rumor has it, Edwin Land, in a very Steve Jobs-ian flourish, had a special suit constructed with extra-large pockets in order to hold the thing, so that he was able to take it out of his jacket during a presentation and thus prove its portability to audience members.

The great thing about Polaroids is twofold: there is something very spontaneous/organic about it, and it makes everything look vintage-y, hiding my lack of actual photographic ability. And of course, you will always have the physical picture to hold. Sure, you can print out a digital picture, but it was not taken and printed in that very moment. And if you consider a digital printout (even if “instant”) the same as a Polaroid, then people like you will be rounded up and arrested when the day comes. I’m looking at you, Instax Square.

Cinderella Castle
Cinderella Castle at Tokyo Disneyland.

This is one camera of several that I own, the other three being a Polaroid 660, Polaroid SX-70 box-type (sometimes called the Land 1000), and though not a Polaroid, but still in instant format, a Fujifilm Instax mini90.

Hiraoka Shrine
Hiraoka Shrine, Japan. Fun fact: when going up or down a shrine’s steps, always walk on the sides, as the center is reserved for the gods.

The hobby comes at a high cost, working out to a whopping $3 per picture. It can even creep up to $4, as the SX-70 has no built in flash, so you have to buy disposable, one-time use exploding flashbulbs that cost $1 per flash. You could also buy an electronic re-usable one for $100. The reason for this is that the real Polaroid company went bankrupt in 2004. Another company took their place, but apparently lost all the chemical formulas to make the film, so their profits are basically funding R&D into figuring out how to make actual, authentic Polaroid film that works as it should (it still doesn’t quite; for example it still takes about 20 minutes to develop).

Larry's Party

But the price of beauty is worth it, because everyone and everything looks great within those white borders. Of course, you can get lots of duds too. I’ve thrown away more pictures than I can count, but sometimes imperfections can make the image all the more interesting– in the below picture, there’s a weird strip of light in the middle, and what looks like a chemical spill from improper development along the bottom. All in all, it’s an expensive, frustrating hobby, but being able to hold some of my best works in my hand, knowing that that particular moment is frozen in time, that its existence and the capture of it are intertwined, makes it all worth it.

Santa Monica Pier
Santa Monica Pier.

The Man Behind the Myth

You now know my exact location on Earth, down to the building. But maybe you don’t know who I even am, or why you should care. I can’t truly answer the second question for you, but the first question should be pretty easy, so here goes: my name is Patrick. I’m 24 years old (turning 25 this September), and I have no idea what I want to do with my life. In my quest to figure this out, I studied psychology and film at UCLA, and I have been working in the entertainment industry for a little over two years now. I applied to the JET program partially on a whim, and like most other things in life, I never thought I’d get this far. Either way, I’ve decided to seize this incredible opportunity, to fulfill a lifelong dream as well as escaping responsibility for at least another year.

Tell Me
A Polaroid I’ve titled “Tell Me,” taken after one of the most significant moments in my romantic life. I’ll leave that story for another post.

I’ve been fascinated with Japan ever since I was a kid, when my family and I would fly to Thailand every year to visit family. We almost always had a short layover at KIX, Kansai International Airport in Osaka. We never spent more than a few hours there; my memories of the airport itself were really just walking through it to change flights. We never had a meal there or even stopped by a shop, but something about it appealed to me, deep down to my very core. Even the air felt different, I swear! When we landed, the very first thing I’d do was look out the window, entranced by the men working on the runway in their jumpsuits and hardhats. It was very exotic, it was very foreign, and mundane as it may’ve been, there was something very attractive about it to me. The idea “I want to visit this place one day” was planted firmly in my mind, and it wouldn’t be until 2014 that I finally got to fulfill that wish.

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Click here to see a 1-second video diary of my 2014 trip to Japan!

I went to Osaka University in the summer of 2014, where I studied Japanese. I had the absolute time of my life. Japan lived up to everything I thought it would’ve been, and more– a beautiful country with such rich history and culture, and some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Food was great, fashion was great, everything was great! I could write pages more about how it felt, but this is a blog for entertainment (at least I like to think so), not a public diary. That’s also where I met the woman who would eventually become my girlfriend, the lovely Rika M—. I’ve been back several times since then, and to fast forward four years… here we go again!

Finally!

Higashi Harima
A Google Earth view of Higashi-Harima.

What better way to start a first post than with the title “Finally?” I was accepted into the JET program in late March 2018. Schools and boards of educations and contractors had a full THREE months, until June 21st, to notify their future employees where exactly they’d be working. And here I am, on the night of the 23rd. I finally got my placement: Harima-Higashi Senior High School!

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Here’s where I pretend to be an authority on Harima, even though everything I’m telling you is just from Wikipedia. To wit, it HAS a Wikipedia article; that’s a good start. It’s a small town, population of about 30,000. It’s on the south coast of the Hyogo Prefecture, which is also home to Kobe and Himeji Castle. Its sister cities are Heping, China (wow!) and Lima, Ohio (breathtaking!). It is known for its “cutlery and fabric,” the latter of which I admit I’m very much into– wearing it, at least. They don’t get snow because of mountains to the north protecting it, so they get “mild winters.” But when one’s idea of a mild winter is 70° (21° C), I eagerly look forward to my expectations being totally shattered. And I also eagerly look forward to a white Christmas. See Australia for how I handle temperature:

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I have some contracts and paperwork to sign, and I feel like my first post is already too long, so good night!

P.S. In case you’re wondering, -20° C is a picture of Otzi, a caveman mummy found in the Alps. Look him up, it’s pretty interesting!