Shansi Report – Taiko and Progress

I knew from the beginning that if I were to get Shansi, I would want to take classes at a taiko dojo in Tokyo. Since enrolling at the prestigious Oedo Sukeroku Taiko dojo in September last year, I have come a long way. For over half a year I was constantly scolded or criticized by Kobayashi Sensei, who is also the head of the school. It was difficult to fix all the “bad habits” of my playing style that were fine in OCT but not at the dojo. Because I joined halfway through the year, I was learning not only the style, but the song as well, and I felt embarrassed when the whole class would stop every two minutes so Sensei could correct my form, which deteriorated even more if I tried to focus on the melody. However, at some point within the past two months I began to finally feel comfortable at the drum. I was criticized less and given more advice on how to make my playing look sharper and cooler. I began to enjoy classes again, despite the long and tedious commute. I was then honored to perform in my first Japanese taiko performance on a large stage in Ikebukuro, Tokyo.

The members of the dojo rented out a large auditorium near Ikebukuro’s City Hall, paying a whopping 20,000yen each. Mostly all of the dojo’s 100+ monkasei or students were performing in their respective classes, and everyone invited their family and friends. My class is considered a beginner level class, and so to watch the senior members (who ranged from middle-schoolers to grandparents) was a humbling and inspiring experience. When it was almost my group’s turn to perform, I was nervous, as usual, and wiped the sweat off my palms countless times while taking deep, loud breaths. Once I got onto the stage, however, I was able to smile, kiai (vocally send energy to the others), and pull off the minute-and-a-half solo that I had practiced as smoothly as I could have hoped for. While I have had doubts about whether I would continue next year, taiko is something I have always loved, and so I want to continue and improve. Through my taiko performance and through teaching English I realized that I am now finally able to get over stage fright—as soon as I am on the stage. I also realized that despite all my doubts about taiko and teaching, I have been able to make immense progress in a year.

Over one year into my Fellowship at Obirin, I am amazed at how differently I feel now compared to this time last year. In December 2013, I was frustrated with many things: I felt inadequate at Japanese and at work, lonely without friends, and constantly stressed by my living situation. I was quite ready to take off for vacation. This year, I feel much more satisfied and comfortable with my classes, social life, and apartment.

On December 7, I took Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test for the second time. I attempted to take this test within my first semester at Obirin, but was wildly unprepared. At that time I had few situations that required me to listen and participate in a Japanese environment. I hardly used Japanese besides for shopping or going to restaurants. On the exam, I felt like I had guessed on every question of the test. This year I had a more positive attitude and began studying consistently and farther in advance. I was using and listening to Japanese a few times a week with Eisaa, taiko, and anime shows on my new laptop. I was going out with friends more. During this year’s exam I felt much more confident, and though I do not know if I have passed, my comprehension has improved immensely and I have at least a chance at passing. If I turn on the TV as background noise, I can understand almost everything without painfully concentrating. Reading no longer seems an intimidating struggle. In short, after over ten years of studying Japanese I feel as if though a towering, stone wall has finally been broken down.

Within the past year I have made many friends with students through Eisaa, Conversation Circle, as well as GLEE, which has changed from a club focused on theatre to a general English club with different fun activities every week. This semesters meetings have been quite successful, with a solid number of students coming each time. Some of our closest friends have come from GLEE, particularly the students who performed with us last year. Although we are not doing a play this year, we have met often for dinners, movies, and even a musical recording for a contest. They do not realize it, but I really overflow with joy every time they request to hang out with us.

Since moving into Erika Raberg’s old apartment all seasons have become more bearable. Fewer mosquitos and critters enter in the summer and the room is slightly warmer in the winter- though I still turn on two heaters and my new kotatsu (heated table). The neighboring dog’s barking, while still audible, is slightly farther away and no longer makes my ears throb every few hours. I now feel comfortable calling my room “home”.

After submitting my Fulbright application for a year in the Philippines, I have begun to think about teaching as a career. Just last week I volunteered to help another English teacher to give a demo lesson at a high school for a large group of about fifty-three students. I enjoyed interacting with these motivated students and was surprised again to realize that I am no longer as frightened of crowds as I used to be. I have really enjoyed teaching my own class and my funny students this year. I will be genuinely sad when the semester ends, but I hope that they will continue to be interested in English and foreign cultures through the games we have played and the creative writing assignments I have assigned. I know for a fact that they will continue to be friends, as they have created strong ties amongst themselves.

As always I am completely grateful to Shansi for this opportunity to live in Japan and as gain wonderful experiences as well as pursue my hobbies. I am happy to be working with the ELP at Obirin and with all of its fun teachers. I am thankful for the kind and generous Yukiko Ebara and Ikue Hatakeyama for always giving advice, taking care of us when we need help in our daily lives, or just hanging out with us. When my last semester at Obirin comes, it will be tremendously bittersweet.

Life in Japan and Summer Travels abroad- Sept. 30, 2014

In which I wrote about my life updates…

Quarterly Report

Summer Vacation

Since the start of my Fellowship I have tried to make the most out of my extended vacation times to travel to as many places as possible. This summer vacation I was lucky enough to travel to Okinawa, Taiwan, and Indonesia.

Okinawa

Gasshuku (training camp) with Obirin’s Eisaa group Oukaji Eisaa was just a bit different from what I expected. For some reason I had imagined one big beach party with lots of sightseeing and some practices sprinkled in between. It was actually a boot camp with days of intense practices with our sister group from Okinawa Kokusai Daigaku, Okinawa International University. For two evenings we went to see various performances at the enormous Okinawan All-Island Eisaa Festival. It was humbling to come from Tokyo and see so many amazing groups on their home turf. I felt insignificant compared to these awesome performers, who were sometimes as small as an elementary school boy.

I was amazed at how the senpai (senior members) of both Eisaa groups had organized every detail of this week-long trip, from major details like event scheduling and daily transportation to other important details like how our 45-person group could wash our stinking clothes and shower after evening practices. (Campus water shut off at 11pm.) While my body sometimes complained (I started developing muscles in interesting places characteristic to a real Eisaa performer), I developed a stronger foundation, became comfortable with our repertoire, and became better friends with the members of my group, including the dancers I had never gotten to talk to previously. I had an incredible time, all the while raining sweat in our greenhouse-like practice areas.

In my June narrative I wrote about the strange mix of feelings I had being all of a teacher, a foreigner, and a beginner. Being with this group for a full week, I felt like I had returned to my exchange student days. The only instance when I felt remotely authoritative was when I scolded students for staying up past two every night when we had early practices the next day, and some people’s alarms would ring too early, at six. (“Since you’re up so late now, definitely don’t wake Miss Cassie up tomorrow!”) There were a total of four Americans in the gasshuku, including three exchange students from Kansas, California, and Hawaii, and amazed by how gamanzuyoi the group was (they never seemed to complain), we used each other to whisper our little complaints: “Ahh my arms hurt!” “My legs hurt!” “What are we waiting around for?” “I was slipping in my own puddle of sweat.” After the summer the three girls returned back to the States, and for now I am the sole foreigner at practice. On one hand it is a bit lonely. On the other, I now know the Japanese members much better, so I am more comfortable than last semester.
Taiwan

After a few days recovering back in Japan, I went to Taiwan for about two weeks to travel, eat, and visit friends from Oberlin, my exchange student days at Kansai Gaidai, and elsewhere. Similarly to when I visited China in the spring, I had a fun time practicing speaking Mandarin. Unlike in China, I felt much more relaxed and at ease in Taiwan, which is clearly influenced by Chinese, Korean, and Japanese culture. People were also more likely than in China or even Japan to try to help me in English if I seemed to be struggling. A highlight of my trip was a spontaneous solo adventure to Tainan in the south, where I expected to be totally solitary for the three days and soon befriended a group of young people around my age from my hostel, including a girl from Hong Kong, three girls from Taiwan, a woman from Niigata, Japan, and a boy from Shibuya, Tokyo. With these people I walked all over Tainan, ate delicious things I might not have tried alone, and went to one of Taiwan’s largest night markets. I would definitely go back again some day if I could.

Indonesia

Going back to Indonesia and particularly Aceh after last year’s spectacular adventure was inevitable. Knowing what to expect, I was much more comfortable. It helped that we were constantly with a great group of people. Karl and Tino’s friends had become my own friends. It was exciting to meet Leila in her first few weeks in Aceh and first week of teaching.

Later Anabel and I went to Yogyakarta to visit Julie and meet Ruby. We were only there for a day and a half or so, but it was wonderful catching up with Julie, who is a truly inspiring person. Before leaving, we spent a long layover in Jakarta with Cory Rogers, who was kind enough to come out with us to dinner and lend his couch for a few hours. It was nice to see he was doing well and working in Indonesia even after Shansi. I didn’t like urban Jakarta as much as the other places; in contrast to tiny Aceh and nice-sized Yogya, it felt too huge and we were constantly overcharged by cab drivers. I’m sure if I had more time I would find parts of it to like.

Life Back in Japan

Classes at Obirin

Although a bit nervous about the first day of school, I was super relieved to be able to teach the same students as last year. It was not until after the first week that I read the evaluation comments they had written about me and my teaching style at the end of last semester, and was pleasantly surprised to see comments that were overflowing with positivity. Most said they looked forward to the fun classes. One student said they liked my “brightness” and enthusiasm. A few said they had worried about English but felt they improved in writing and reading. One said she learned to like English. One person even said she was “blessed” to have a fun teacher. I really felt that I had improved tremendously since my first semester, which I can most aptly summarize with the word “bumbling”. What is most important to me is that compared to my first semester, I feel I have created a stronger bond with most of my students.

Miscellaneous

In addition to Eisaa I am still continuing my taiko classes. I have been officially taking classes from my taiko dojo since last September. However, lately I have mixed feelings. It is a shame that I can only practice once a week and that there are so few occasions to perform. Because of our long spring break next year, I may halt classes and search for other venues to practice and perform.

Now that I am in my second year of Shansi, it seems time will fly quickly. I am already thinking about where to travel for my New Year and spring vacations. Before my fellowship ends, I want to travel all over Japan, as well as to Vietnam and perhaps India, the only site I have not been to. I am also thinking about next year. My strongest options now include finding more teaching work in Japan, a Fulbright in the Philippines, or returning to the States for graduate school or perhaps as the Returned Fellow. My interview with the Oberlin Fulbright committee is this Saturday. I’m nervous and excited to see how things will go in the next few months.

A haiku for my last night in Banda Aceh

By the way, I don’t know much about writing haikus.

Original version (or actually version 3, where I wrote by word count 5-7-5)

Midnight bathing in the sea-

Moonlit friends sing under stars by caves

Pushed and pulled by waves

Version 2 (or actually six, seven, and eight or so, where I struggled to go by syllable count)

Midnight sea bathing-

Moon and starlit song by caves

Pushed and pulled by waves

Sea bath at midnight-

Moon and stars light song by caves

Pushed and pulled by waves

Sea bath at midnight-

Song heard by moon, stars, and caves

Pushed and pulled by waves

Sea bath at midnight-

Moonlit friends sing by dark caves

Pushed and pulled by waves

Dedicated to the wonderful, vivacious friends who were there with me that late night before the Japan Fellows’ 6am flight to Yogyakarta. Thanks for making sure I lived it up til the very last moments. (No sleep for me.)

(Japan and Banda Aceh Fellows + 1 Obie)

(so worth the village spectacle we caused.)

Shrimp for Dinner with Lola Naty

It is now my spring break (end of January to beginning of April), and I have traveled from Tokyo to Osaka (where I was sick and bedridden for the last four days), spent two weeks visiting Shansi Fellows in Indonesia (Banda Aceh and Yogyakarta), and have now settled for three weeks in the Philippines.

Currently I am in the mountainous Baguio City staying at the house of my late grandmother’s sister, Lola Naty. (Nah-tee)

Pre-dinner:

We are watching a potful of live shrimp hop and pop, flailing in their last moments against the lid. I’ve witnessed the boiling of live crab before, but the beating of little shrimp bodies against the glass fills me with some pity.

Cassie: Oh noo, the poor little guys.

Lola Naty: Soon they will turn red. Then we will flip them over.

We watch as the frantic jumping begins to cease, one crustacean quieting after the other. The red pigment slowly spreads through their bodies, lighting them up from their dark grey, making them look a bit more vibrant than when they were alive. Before long there is stillness, apart from the bubbling, boiling water.

Lola Naty: See? Now we flip them over.

With her small, soft, wrinkly veined hands she takes hold of the spatula and turns over the shrimp with a graceful deftness that I could never wield over a cooking utensil.

Cassie, repeating: The poor shrimp!

She just laughs at me.

During Dinner:

Lola Naty peels the skin from the shrimp quickly, plowing through five for every one of mine. I ask her to teach me her technique.

Lola Naty: First, you start with the head.

She flicks up the shell from behind the head, but keeps it on.

Lola Naty: Then you peel from the bottom like this.

She peels off the shell up from the bottom by the legs and gets the whole thing off in less than two seconds. Then she proceeds to plop the de-shelled shrimp onto my plate.

Cassie: Okay! It’s my turn now, thank you!

I start practicing, but I am too slow, as she has already de-shelled and plopped one, two, three, four, onto my plate.

Cassie *stopping her*: Thanks Lola Naty! Now I have to practice for myself.

I eat all of the shrimp she has given me to be polite, but by the time I have done this three more are waiting for me.

Cassie *putting a hand out*: Thank you, Lola Naty, but no more! I want to do this by myself.

Lola Naty: Okay, last one.

As she plops one more onto my plate.

And then another.

And then another.

I keep eating the shrimp she is giving me, and by now there is a small mountain of shrimp heads on the corner of my plate. I didn’t plan to eat this much.

Cassie: No mooore please!

Lola Naty: Okay, last one.

And repeat.

Stereotypical perfomances and lack of critical thinking

Last week Katy Perry had a “Japanese”-inspired performance at the American Music Awards. (I won’t post a link to it here, but you can look it up for yourself on Youtube.) When a bunch of angry articles started appearing in my newsfeeds, I had to see it for myself.

While the over-the-top performance was admittedly visually stunning, it was completely stereotypical, offensive, and just wrong in soo many ways, from her sexy, cleavage-bearing skintight Halloween costume (a mutation from the kimono and Chinese cheongsam), to the strange, repeated un-Japanese bowing with hands together, to the non-Asian dancers shuffling around on stage, to the fake taiko-playing. It was the epitome of twisting of cultural “appreciation” into cultural “appropriation”. However, as an English teacher in Japan I of course had to ask some of my students. I showed the video to one of my four classes and to a group of students at English Conversation (lunchtime) Circle.

Surprisingly, yet maybe not so surprisingly, responses were a bit underwhelming. Perhaps it was because they were caught up in the flashiness of the performance rather than looking at certain details. One girl (who actually spent much of her life in New Zealand) even said that maybe it was a good thing that Katy Perry was raising interest in Japanese culture. My problem with this answer of course is that while many viewers might take the time and effort to learn about the real Japan, many more viewers will not, or even worse, think, “Wow, she really pulled that geisha thing off!”

Many Japanese college students and young people unthinkingly love flashy performers like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. One aspect that has bothered me about Japanese education is that it seems as if though students are hardly ever demanded to think critically, whether in English or their own language. (Essays and research papers aren’t often part of the curriculum, which is the complete opposite of my experience from middle school until I graduated from Oberlin. Our second essay task for my writing class was a comparison essay (Japanese and American movies), and even that seemed to produce a bit of confusion.) In any case, because so few students were willing to speak their opinions about the performance, I used it as a segue to an open discussion about cultural stereotypes.

Here are some American stereotypes my students came up with:

  • hotdogs, hamburgers, BBQ
  • scary
  • guns (everyone has them, walks around with them, or at least knows how to shoot them… “If you don’t have one you’ll be killed!” 7 students)
  • tattoos
  • fat/big (9 students)
  • hugs & kisses

Versus their stereotypes of their own country:

  • sushi
  • anime
  • kimono, geta (sandals)
  • old wooden, tatami-mat houses
  • always bowing
  • always on time
  • shaking hands (but not hugging)

I was amazed that I had to do it, but I had to explain to my students exactly why stereotypes and perpetuation of stereotypes can be so hurtful, why Katy Perry’s performance was so offensive to so many people, Asian-Americans like me in particular, and why they should take offense themselves be wary of these types of portrayals. Hopefully after my lesson they’ll think a little bit harder next time they watch any type of performance.

Snippets of my life in FB statuses…

10/6/13.

This. In my living room!

写真: This. In my living room!
10/8/13

Japan Shansi Fellows, sitting around watching Moulin Rouge and bawling at the ending.

10/8/13

Dear world: within two years Anabel Hirano and I will be an amazing harmonizing double bass-ukulele duo in Tokyo. Maybe.

10/9/13

Today I was scolding the rowdier boys in class while pulling down the giant projector screen. Bonked myself lightly on the head with a small surprised “ow”, and the whole class said in unison “kawaii!” Nooooo~

10/10/13

Thursday picnic. (Cool photos taken by Miss Anabel.)

写真写真写真

10/12/13

PATRICK IS IN TOWN!!! Reunited after over 1 year and 9 months. Now, 5 hours of karaoke!!!!

 

 

10/13/13

Just like old times… Karaoke followed by Toriki. 今回は二人で57 songs in five hours- もちろん日本語で。懐かしくて最高な一日だった。

写真写真

10/17/13

先はアメリカの歌をカバーしてみましたが、日本の歌もカバー出来るように頑張ります。弾き語りがうまくなるように練習しとこう。最初は阿部真央といきものがかり。

10/18/13

I can’t make this up. Rough translation: Playlist you want to listen to when your wife of one year finally farts in front of you.
写真: I can't make this up. Rough translation: Playlist you want to listen to when your wife of one year finally farts in front of you.

日本の交通機関: Trains and Buses… Japanese Transportation and my daily commute

A while back I mentioned the craziness of my morning commute into Tokyo, and now X weeks later I’m finally sitting down to detail it.

Japan is amazingly efficient in many aspects of society, but especially with public transportation. You’ll almost never encounter a delayed bus or train unless there’s an accident.  (Quite different from the US).

When I commuted from Fuchinobe (near Machida) to Shin-Okubo in the heart of Tokyo my daily commute was like this:

  • 7:24 Kanachu bus to Machida Bus Center (near Machida Station)
  • 7:53 or 7:59 Odakyu Line Express train to Shinjuku
  • JR Yamanote Line Local train toward Ikebukuro, get off at Shin-Okubo (1 stop)
  • Walk to Kai Language School, arrive approximately 8:55

The most “exciting” AKA most difficult and unbearable part of the ride was the ~45 minute Odakyu Express to Shinjuku, right in the heart of morning rush hour.

an Odakyu Express train to Odawara

not my photo, but you can imagine how PACKED the inside must be to have people almost hanging outside of the train.

If I was somewhere in here, you’d never know!

By the time I got onto the train I’d never be able to sit. Japanese people are amazingly proficient and filing themselves into spaces that you thought couldn’t possibly fit more. Sometimes there would be so many people that I’d be squashed uncomfortably between other passengers. In these cases I’d have to consciously take deep breaths and stop myself from wanting to fall down from heat exhaustion. (I wouldn’t have had space to fall down anyway.) Luckily there were also days where I’d have enough room to wiggle my elbows a bit. I spent every morning reviewing my 40 or so vocab words for the next quiz- and also hating every sitting passenger around me.

I only commuted for three weeks during summer vacation, so I have absolutely no idea how it could get more crowded with hundreds/thousands of students adding to the salarymen and women.

New Japanese trains are extremely convenient because not only are they always on time (signs will let you know if there has been a delay), they also tell you exactly where you are in electronic signs that alternate between Japanese and English. They switch from the name of the final stop on the line, to the upcoming station, to little moving depictions of the train from your current stop to the next. They also remind you if you are on a Local (blue), Express (red), or Rapid Express (my favorite because they stopped only 3 times before my destination- in orange). In the early hours of the morning, the first and last train cars are usually reserved for women to prevent incidents of sexual harassment during Rush Hour.

To pay for this I used a special one month bus pass programed specifically from my starting stop (Machida) to my ending stop (Shin-Okubo). This included the transfer from the Odakyu to JR Yamanote Lines. A nice part about having this pass was that once I paid (quite a bit of money…) for it, I was able to freely commute between any of the stops in between. This was great for the weekends when I wanted to go to various places in Tokyo!

Kanachu (short for Kanagawa-Chuo) buses were also a large part of my commute to and from school.

Something interesting about Japanese buses is that not only is there an automated voice telling you your current stop, your next stop, and attractions at the upcoming stop (if any), the bus driver is also constantly talking.

Bus: 発車いたします。ご注意ください。 The bus is departing. Please be careful.

Driver: *muttering* よしよし、発車しま~す。ご注意くださ~い。There, there, we’re “taking off” now. Be carefulll.

Driver: 右に曲がりま~す。捕まえてくださ~い。We are about to turn right. Turning right. Hold on tightly.

Bus: 次に止まります。 We will stop at the next stop.

Driver: は~い、次に止まります。 Yes, stopping at the next stop.

And so on.

I think this is an excellent opportunity for all bus drivers to show off their husky voices, though most of them mutter quietly in what sounds like “hushushush” sounds. They also get to act cool by pointing at each  of their mirrors with their white-gloved-fingers after every stop. Once they’ve checked and all is clear, they go forward purposefully as if they haven’t been driving the same routes all day every day for the past X years.

Usually in the morning I would be able to sit down and review grammar points that I’d be going over in class.

To pay for the bus I used a “Pasmo” card into which I had put in cash money. All I’d need to do was touch it to a sensor panel next to the driver, and this would save me the time and hassle of fishing out my 250 yen and also from seeing all the cash I was spending. (The machine tells you digitally how much you spent and also how much money you have left- if you choose to look.)

These passes also work for trains. Although my classes are finished now I continue to put money into them for convenience’s sake.

I’m glad to be done with  my long commute, but it was definitely an interesting and unforgettable experience.

Rush hour

from Japan Today.com

P.S. My college admissions essay was about a crowded rush hour train in Kyobashi, Osaka!

一級を目指す、日本語力の上達!: Studying for the JLPT1

IMG_6374

Friends and teachers from KAI Language School.

Friends and teachers from KAI Language School.

As I might have mentioned in my bio or in other posts, I started studying Japanese quite a long time ago. Between sixth and seventh grade I had the dilemma of choosing which foreign language to study (French, Spanish, Italian, or Japanese). I am an indecisive person in general, but I suppose at the time I knew that my foreign language selection might have a huge impact on my life. I enjoyed being exposed to all four of the languages in a “quarter” each of the school year, but was leaning toward Spanish for practical reasons. Yet, since I was 6 years old I’d been attracted to Japanese, the language of which seemed least practical out of the four. I turned in my selection sheet saying “Spanish” only to run back into my guidance counselor’s office to change my decision. Needless to say, that decision was one of the biggest ones in my life.

However, although I started at an early age I felt I was never able to improve as much as I’d hope to. One reason may be was that no matter when I was studying, middle school, high school, or even in college, my exposure to Japanese would be halted as soon as I exited the classroom. There were no Japanese families whom I knew of in my mostly-white (~82%) suburban hometown in New York. Even at Oberlin College I felt like I knew most of the international Japanese students who made up a small percentage of the already fairly small student body population.

Reading was by far my greatest weakness. Because I was never exposed to Japanese outside classes, just glancing for a few seconds at the Japan Times or the inside of a novel would get me frantically closing the browser or shutting the book. I was intimidated by all the unfamiliar kanji characters and discouraged by increasingly formal or complicated grammar. I just couldn’t get myself to read.

One of the great parts about being an Oberlin Shansi Fellow is that all Fellows are granted the opportunity to take summer language courses in the language of their site (Japanese, Mandarin, Hindi, or Indonesian). Some Fellows studied in intensive programs in the States, while others like me studied in their host countries. Our levels vary tremendously, but I especially admire my friends who are studying an entirely new language right before jumping in to teach for two years!

Because I hoped to travel around for fun before taking my course and because I have already experienced a year of study abroad in Japan, I looked for an intensive upper level course that was also a short period of time. At first I applied to a brand new, 3-week, upper-level intensive program by the Hokkaido International Foundation (HIF). Their popular 8-week program has been around for a while, and one of my Oberlin teachers has taught there in the past. Unfortunately, even after completing an application (with many recommendation letters and some essays in Japanese), the program was canceled because of lack of enrollment. (I’m thinking they just didn’t advertise it enough….)

After the time and effort I and my teachers put into that application, this cancellation was a bummer. (So was not getting back my application fee.)

BUT it was also a blessing in disguise because after more searching I found the Kai Japanese Language School and their three-week JLPT Preparation Course.

Me and my friend from Belgium. He loves writing in Japanese and his kanji/vocab skills are amazing!

Me and my friend from Belgium. He loves writing in Japanese and his kanji/vocab skills are amazing!

According to the JLPT official website:

The Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) has been offered by the Japan Foundation and Japan Educational Exchanges and Services (formerly Association of International Education, Japan) since 1984 as a reliable means of evaluating and certifying the Japanese proficiency of non-native speakers. At the beginning, there were approximately 7,000 examinees worldwide. In 2011, there were as many as 610,000 examinees around the globe, making JLPT the largest-scale Japanese-language test in the world.

Over time, test applicants have become more diverse, and use of JLPT results has expanded from skill measurement to include employment screening and evaluation for promotions and pay raises as well as use as a form of qualification.

N1 is the most difficult level.

Although I passed N2 (by a super small margin) in 2011, I wasn’t feeling very confident when I enrolled for the N1 course. I was completely terrified on the first day. However, the energetic and enthusiastic teachers plus the fun students made me feel I was in the right place.

There were only 8 students in my class: 2 from the USA (including me), 1 from England, 1 from Italy, 1 from Latvia, 1 from Iran, 1 from Belgium, and 1 from Australia (in that seat order). Everyone was super motivated, and that was inspiring.

Our class was small and intimate.

Our class was small and intimate.

Like the actual exam, class was broken up into segments: 文字語彙moji goi, 文法bunpou, 読解 dokkai, and 聴解choukai (Vocabulary and kanji, grammar, reading comprehension, listening comprehension).

Every segment was tremendous help for me, but the best part that I was forced to READ.
Four hours straight, twenty hours a week of strategy lessons and practice questions forced me to get over my inhibitions, looking for the meanings of the passages rather than the reading of every single unfamiliar character. The course really changed my outlook on Japanese, and hard work paid off because the first and final practice exams revealed that my reading comprehension score rose by 42%!!! (Albeit you can imagine it was miserable to begin with.)

As a student of Japanese and as a Shansi Fellow, my time at KAI was really an invaluable experience. Now I have new friends from AND I can read without freaking out! (Still need to use dictionaries though.)

Sadly after one week I’m already beginning to forget some of the difficult grammar patterns and words that appear mostly in written works… Luckily I have a classmate, friend, and study partner in Tokyo! Even though I’ll start teaching English soon, I’ll try my best to keep up my studies and pass the N1 in December! これからも、私なりに頑張って生きていきます。

IMG_6373

The small but proud JLPT N1 class. :)

The small but proud JLPT N1 class. 🙂

Now the daily rush-hour commute into Tokyo, THAT was another “interesting” experience…

「縁があるんだよ」: Two stories of “fated” encounters

Before I talk about my summer experiences with Japanese transportation as well as my language course, I want to take this time to talk about an important and amazing Japanese word: 縁, or en.

「縁がある」、en ga aru, or “to have en” is to have a destined connection with someone. Be it coincidence or fate, an unintended meeting has resulted in a special or 大切な relationship.

The first time I encountered this experience and the word en was when I studied at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka in 2011:

The summer between my semesters abroad, I decided to invite a Japanese friend to go see a taiko happyokai (taiko recital or concert) with performances by various classes in Kyoto’s “Taiko Center” school. At that happyokai I saw my first eisaa performance. エイサー、or Eisaa is a traditional Okinawan performance art, including dance, music, and Okinawan handheld taiko, and is the Okinawan equivalent to mainland Japan’s Bon-Odori, or “dance of Obon”. Obon is the Japanese festival of the dead, and likewise Eisaa was traditionally performed to honor the dead. Obon in Japan just ended yesterday, August 16th.

This is a sidetrack! I saw my first eisaa taiko performance, fell in love, and went on to study eisaa in Japan until after returning to Oberlin. Then for the rest of my college career I studied the Okinawan conflict with the Japanese and American governments over the US military bases and aircraft that occupy the island today. (My senior Capstone paper was on this subject!)

Still sidetracked. After seeing this concert and becoming interested in Eisaa, one day I was biking from Gaidai to my sharehouse (dorm-like apartment) and passed by a group of five or six people doing eisaa in front of Hirakata Station. Although they did not have much of an audience, I decided to double back and watch. After they finished, I decided to ask them about their activities. Long story short, from then on I befriended the members of the group, and through the leader, elementary school teacher Honda-san, met another important friend Matsumura-san, a sanshin (3-stringed snake-skinned banjo type instrument, the Okinawan shamisen) teacher who has never been seen in anything other than traditional yukata and geta (sandals). Throughout the rest of that semester Matsumura-san taught me much about Japan, Japanese language, about Okinawa, about people, and about life. He was the one who taught me about en, or a fated relationship.

If I hadn’t doubled around to speak with Honda-san and her eisaa companions, I never would have met Matsumura-san, and I would never have been able to proceed with my Okinawan research as far as I did.

Honda-san's students performing in the Hirakata City Eisaa Festival.

Honda-san’s students performing in the Hirakata City Eisaa Festival.

Matsumura-san invited me to his sanshin class. He also taught me in a tiny Okinawan restaurant near Gaidai.

Matsumura-san invited me to his sanshin class. He also taught me in a tiny Okinawan restaurant near Gaidai.

And now for my second story. Coincidentally, it takes place around the time of Obon.

As you read in my last post, I had a rough first week in my apartment. One night after meeting a friend in Tokyo for a farewell lunch (she just finished one year of teaching for JET in Aomori), I caught the end of the Fuchinobe (town) Obon festival just to realize that the free Obirin shuttle I usually took home was no longer running. Unsure of where the public buses ran and unwilling to pay for a taxi, I decided to walk home. I’d never done it before, and was told by Lissette that it would take about 30 minutes. I was dead tired from a long day and lack of sleep (caused by trauma from the first cockroach). I wanted to fall into a bed (or some hole) rather than walk even ten minutes home.

As I was walking home feeling exhausted and lonely, I’d reached the halfway point when I heard the sound of taiko in the distance.

I was drawn to the sound of taiko like the giant, dumb bugs outside are drawn to my building’s lamps. (Cute, right?) I followed the sound down a narrow road and was shocked when it opened up to not just a temple, but an entire Obon festival with men, women, and children in yukata.

Imagining stumbling from a deserted road onto a scene like this.

Imagining stumbling from a deserted road onto a scene like this.

I honestly thought the police were coming to stop the party and the noise. They actually came to join in the last dances.

I honestly thought the police were coming to stop the party and the noise. They actually came to join in the last dances.

These kids had a fun time running around before joining the dance.

These kids had a fun time running around before joining the dance.

Emotionally I’d been completely revived. I was happy and excited. Although a dancing, yukata-clad obaasan (older woman) gestured for me to join the dance, bone-deep exhaustion led me to politely decline with a wave of a hand and an apologetic bow of my head. After the very last dance (they seemed to have a “last dance” about three times), I approached the man playing the taiko to ask him about where and with whom he played. After telling him I would be teaching at Obirin for two years, he told me he had to leave but introduced me to a man who lived in the neighborhood, Suzuki-san.

After talking excitedly for a while and introducing me to others in the neighborhood (as almost everyone but me was from the neighborhood), Suzuki-san introduced me to his daughter Satomi who studied and worked in the US for about 10 years- and had also been standing right near me the entire time I was there. (I almost tried approaching her beforehand, but was too tired.) Turns out she teaches shime-daiko (small taiko) to young children every Sunday.

The Suzuki family then brought me to their house for tea and traditional snacks. I was taken in like a stray cat. Usually you should never ever go home with people you just met, but I had a sense that these two people were special, and realized I was right when I saw their beautiful and enormous traditional house, with a large yard and garden. The warm and genki Suzuki-san says he’s seventy, but looks so youthful that it’s impossible to believe. He is a retired teacher (or professor?) and likes to grow his own vegetables. His wife, Satomi-san’s mother, passed away a few years ago from illness. She was an amazing woman and a social worker who was so influential she won an award of recognition from the Japanese Minister of Welfare. They set up a small Buddhist shrine to her in their traditional Japanese tatami room, complete with a large picture, offerings, and incense. After fun conversation and feeding me yatai stand yakisoba (fried noodles), traditional snacks, and tea, they drove me home with a full bag of home-grown vegetables.

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I ate the cucumbers raw, without cutting them up or anything. The bag of popcorn was plopped into my hands by the festival’s popcorn seller without me even asking for any.

Today I visited them again and once again was filled with tea and snacks. They had a total of six different guests come in and out throughout my stay to pay respects to Satomi’s mother and to give post-Obon gifts. They took time to help me figure out my internet situation in my apartment, then sent me home with another bag of goods:  This time, canned peaches, a Madeleine cake, mini tomatoes, and an apple.

If I hadn’t missed my bus, decided to walk home, stumbled into the temple celebration, and called out to the taiko player, I wouldn’t have met and befriended such amazing people. Like two years ago, this could just have been a series of great coincidences, or it could be because of my love for taiko. Or maybe en really exists.

日本での新しい生活: The start of a new life in Japan

一人暮らし生活、スタート!

The past two weeks have been exciting because I moved into my own apartment on August 1. In my first week I ran a ton of errands: doing paperwork to change my visa, going to the immigration office in Shinagawa and waiting three hours or so to change it, buying a month-long train pass to commute to my 3-week language program, buying a pass for the train for the commute, as well as buying a ton of things for the (mostly furnished) apartment to make it as home-y as I possibly can. Needless to say my wallet has been very busy. Luckily I can withdraw from my US account using a 7-11 ATM. Thanks, 7-11!

My first few nights in the new apartment were both exciting and traumatizing. This is the first time I’ve ever lived alone. My apprehensions were not at all eased by a series of malfunctions and unpleasant surprises.

  1. 1 broken gas burner
  2. Mysterious black dots in the cupboards under the kitchen sink…??
  3. 1 broken bathroom (toilet) light (which I of course discovered at night…)
  4. 1 broken water heater (would go back-and-forth from cold to burning hot without me touching anything)
  5. 1 leaking shower
  6. COCKROACH. (So THAT’S what those dots came from…)

As you can see, while I could deal with most of the items on this list, the sixth item was my least favorite surprise. Because it got away I was so traumatized I couldn’t sleep at all on my first night. (My dust allergies also acted up, which indicated a need for cleaning. I had a field day vacuuming every inch of floor and curtains.)

Actually my (“Pepto Bismol”-colored) building is quite old. Therefore, the fact that some things might not be working should not have been too surprising. However, I was told that the apartment was checked soon before I arrived so that it would be ready for me to move in. This must not have been the case, or at least they did a poor job. Luckily, my burner, water heater, shower head, and bathroom light have been fixed by now thanks to my Obirin work contact Ebara-san, though the first week was pretty rough… I’ve also spread out a handful of insect traps under my sinks and near the bathroom, so if I see one more roach then I KNOW something is up!

One even had the nerve to show itself while Lissette, my friend Britta and I celebrated my 22nd birthday (on the 11th) by making s’mores. (We used chopsticks for sticks, saltines for graham crackers, and candles for a bonfire. It was pretty wonderful and would’ve been a perfect night had it not come out to crash the party!)

Some Bday/Housewarming Party pics:

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Britta and Lissette like their marshmallows really burnt…

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Improvising for s’mores.. with my new pillow!

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The only good side to the roach problem is that I’ve been forced to be super clean- vacuuming floors often, washing dishes right away, and closing my garbage bags every night. But still…

ANYWAY, I fell asleep on my couch for the first time last night, which must mean that I’m finally beginning to feel really at home! Also, because of the chamomile-scented insect repellent I bought, it smells really nice in here. 🙂

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My futon blanket is currently thrown on top of my suitcase for now because it’s too warm to use in this hot summer weather.

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Thank you Ken, for the fancy mirror glass toaster!

washing machine left, toilet front, shower/bathtub right

washing machine left, toilet front, shower/bathtub right

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My toilet (room) was really drab and scary, so I brightened it up! ❤

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My Oberlin blanket and my Koala’s March pillow! The pillow’s probably my favorite thing in the whole house. Thanks, Lissette!

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my low table and an assortment of Japanese books I hope to read. Oh, and a cookbook that I’ll hopefully eventually use!

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The apartment came with a ton of dishes! Some are really cute.

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So nice to have a washing machine that I don’t need to pay for! I need to hang dry my clothes though.

At this point I must say that I’m super grateful to my senpai, senior Shansi fellow Lissette for helping me move in, saving me from the giant bugs outside (and inside), and being amazing!

In the meantime, I’m commuting an hour and a half from Machida to Shin-Okubo every day for my advanced  Japanese class at KAI Language School. I’ll save that for the next post!