My First Shansi Report

My first report, summarizing briefly the important parts and events of my life thus far…

As I write this report, I have just finished my second full week of teaching at J.F. Oberlin University in Machida, Tokyo.

 

Settling into Life in Japan

After traveling around Japan during my summer break, I was excited and nervous about moving into my new apartment, the Obirin Co-po, at the beginning of August. Although this was my third time being in Japan, it was my first time living on my own. My first month, however, was filled with one challenge after the next.

My “new” apartment is actually a very old building. From the outside it looks pleasant enough; it is painted an astonishingly bright, borderline garish pink. My first night was rough. Despite having been cleaned and checked before my move in, my bedroom was quite dusty, and this agitated my acute dust allergies. I found tons of mysterious black dots under the kitchen sink. In the afternoon I realized that one of my gas burners was broken. That night I found that the bathroom light was broken. Later when I showered, the water alternated from burning hot to freezing cold. What really ruined my night, however, was when a cockroach scuttled out in front of my face as I reached for a cup at the bathroom mirror. Being alone and terrified of cockroaches, I was utterly helpless as it escaped, rendering me paralyzed in fear for the rest of the night. I knew that the next morning I had to be up at seven to commute to my 9AM Japanese class, but I was unable to sleep more than a restless, itchy three hours. I spent much of that first night looking up how to get rid of pests and dust bunnies.

Starting the next afternoon I cleaned fanatically and set up cockroach traps and baits everywhere. I slowly got used to being alone. I felt at ease as I started accumulating more household goods and then comforts. It took one month for everything broken to get fixed one-by-one, thanks to the help of former Shansi coordinator Yukiko Ebara-san. Only after my work visa finally arrived at the end of the month was I able to step out of limbo and open up a bank account, buy my first smart phone, apply for mandatory city health insurance, and feel like a functional human being, just in time for school to start. My apartment is now fully functional with the only problem being its thin walls: I am woken up at six every morning by either one neighbor’s barking dog or another’s screaming baby.

 

While I settled into the apartment I commuted during Tokyo’s insane rush hours to my Japanese test-prep program at the Kai Language School, where I studied four hours a day for the most difficult level (1) of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) in December. There were seven students in my class from six different countries. It was demanding, challenging, and draining, but my classmates were so motivated and teachers so engaging that I had a wonderful time studying. My classmates and I consistently spoke in Japanese long after we left school grounds to travel around Tokyo. In particular this course drastically raised my critical reading ability. Nowadays I study casually with a classmate in Tokyo.

 

Teaching at JFOU (Obirin)

Despite being someone who has sung in front of large groups of people throughout my life, I experience mild to extreme stage fright when I know I’ll be alone at the front of a room. After teaching for two weeks, however, I have become much more relaxed. I am becoming more comfortable with my own teaching style, and I am starting to understand and respond to the different dynamics of my four classes. I teach two level-one reading classes and two level-two writing classes. Each of these classes moves at a different pace, with some better behaved than others: Class 3 is a group of theatre majors, and many are visually artistic. Class 80 is the best at working quietly. Classes 35 and 72 can be chatty, but they are good kids. In addition to teaching these four classes, I facilitate lunchtime Conversation Circle one to two times a week and tutor one-on-one at the Writing Support Center on Mondays.

Before I began teaching I imagined that I would be very strict and speak completely in English. By now I have realized that in some cases Japanese is necessary, particularly when they cannot understand instructions. While I can explain one set of instructions in four different ways in English, sometimes using Japanese is much more time-efficient. My students quickly realized that I can understand everything they say, and they can’t get away with gossiping or talking about non-related subjects. With some exception, I teach almost completely in English and encourage questions in English.

 

Taiko

            Outside of the apartment and school duties, my priority after coming to Japan was to find a taiko dojo (school) to attend throughout my two years in Japan. After much searching, I took the recommendation of taiko teacher and performer Kenny Endo and checked out the very old and prestigious Oedo Sukeroku Daiko Dojo in Ochanomizu, Tokyo. The first time I went I got lost and fell immediately in love with the dojo when their trainee picked me up from the station. (Turns out it was so unexpectedly inconspicuous that I had walked right by it.) Now I commute a total of three hours every Thursday evening for a one and a half hour class, though I would go more often if I lived closer. The dojo was nice enough to let me join five months after the start of the term, and I get a lot of extra attention as I simultaneously adjust to an unfamiliar form and learn the dojo’s arrangement of the traditional “Bon Daiko” song. My class is very rigorous, and my new bachi (sticks) and blisters-turned-calluses have become my pride. My teacher who is also the master of the dojo is an impossibly strong and energetic older man who doesn’t let me get away with a single error. Sometimes he refers to himself as a “Spartan”, and jokingly brings out a bamboo kendo stick with which he might have wacked students in decades past. I am very lucky he does not do that anymore.  

 

Social Life

            One of the most surprisingly difficult parts of being in overly-populated Tokyo as an English teacher is finding opportunities to make friends. This was not an issue when I studied in Osaka in high school and college. Fortunately, I seem to have a knack of meeting wonderful people by accident. Some of my closest Japanese friends I met from complete coincidence, whether it was stumbling upon a local Obon festival and speaking to the taiko player, or approaching a girl my age after getting on and off a bus at the same stops. From now on I hope to keep finding these accidental friends. In the meantime, I am very grateful to be in the company of Senior Fellow Lissette and co-fellow Anabel. We have become very close and spend much of our time together, whether Lissette is giving us advice about teaching, Anabel is encouraging us to jog on the nearby nature path, or I am taking them to see a taiko concert. I look forward to the rest of my Shansi term in Machida and can’t wait to visit the other Fellows!

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