A Letter to Myself (’14) from Myself (’13)

Today I was delighted and excited to see this letter in my mailbox from Oberlin Shansi.


I had written it almost exactly a year ago at the end of the intensive month-long ESL/Shansi training session at Oberlin. (Oh, memories of Shansi House come flooding back.) It is quite an experience to read such a personal message, a written time capsule, from someone who knows me more than anyone else. As cheesy as some of the words sound, I could not have been  more sincere at that time. I knew I’d be thrown into classes with unmotivated students, so I’d need 10x more of my usual energy, enthusiasm, and optimism to both impress them (or just keep their attention) and fight off any disillusionment. Now that I’m in my last few days of teaching for the semester, I can say that I kept surprisingly true to my goals that I set back then, though I certainly haven’t done enough dancing!

(I have written my reactions to the letter at the bottom of this post.)

Dear Cassie,

Hello!I hope your time in Japan has been wonderful so far. I hope you have made time to explore and make great friends, and if not, start working on that! (*1) Today is the last full day of the Shansi retreat, and I have many hopes,fears, dreams to fulfill.

I hope to become an official member of the professional world. I want to be treated with respect and admiration by my students and my co-workers. I want to be fair and consistent and well-prepared for each day. (*2) I want to be fearless (just like Oberlin’s motto) and try new things without being such a worrier. I want to be able to move forward constantly without feeling down or getting bogged down by small things. (*3) I want to be HAPPY and spread happiness to others. I want to INSPIRE and help create new dreams. (*4)

I hope to find taiko and play often. I want to find venues to go dancing. (*5) I want to travel to see the other Fellows whom I’ve come to love this past month. (*6) I hope that by now you are responsible re: $$!! Have you been sending Evelyn your receipts? Blogging for Shansi? Are you still into 沖縄?

I fear that I’ll become lonely and feel isolated. I fear that I won’t get through to students or be taken seriously. I fear feeling that after a year I will have lost my sense of purpose, achievement. But always remember that every day you are accomplishing so much by being there. Your Junior Fellow’s naivete will show you exactly how much you’ve learned and grown. (*7) It will be so nice to be able to watch someone else grow and solidify the tie between Oberlin and Oubirin!

Don’t forget how much your family has done for you. Don’t forget how Mom and Dad always supported you in everything you did, going above and beyond in everything possible. They love you so much, so be good and Skype often, make them proud. Skype with Christian too and this time listen to what he has to say. Don’t get caught up in your own  selfish world like last time (though of course, keep living it up!). Don’t forget Tita Agnes, T. Boy, Ate Alex, Ate Cris, and Ate Joy and how they all helped raise you and made you the woman you’ve become. They have taught you to respect yourself, make smart decisions, and stand up for what you think is right. (*8) Don’t forget about Oberlin, your home away from home, which has taught you to embody equality and justice. Right now, I am an idealistic college student. Despite what happens, always stay idealistic – never give up hope! (*9) Go out and live an amazing, fulfilling life ’til the end of your days.

Also, don’t forget about Ken and how much he meant to you at this time. He really loves you now (Jan ’13) and you are lucky to have loved him.

Stay vigilant. Keep up with the news and try reading when you can. Keep in touch with friends and family. Earn your respect. Go above and beyond. Do more than you thought you ever could.

I’m so excited to see who you’ll become. がんばれ!



Present day reactions:

1. The feelings of friendless-ness and isolation were painfully real during my first few months. Almost every day I would think to myself, “With this kind of job, and in this location, how exactly can I go about making more friends?”  Toward the middle of November I finally started meeting and hanging out with more people, therefore breaking out of my mostly-English-speaking bubble.

2. I can’t say that I was very consistent in my first few months of teaching. As I was still experimenting with various activities, methods, approaches, games, I was very “tekitou” (適当), often changing things to be more suitable to each class’s personality, and sometimes just barely pulling things together in time for class.

3. Anabel and Lissette can tell you that I am definitely still a worrier. In most cases.

4. I was most worried (ah, worrying again) about if I would have any impact at all on some of my students.. but some letters I received on my last day of Class 80 reassured me that somehow they “had a lot of fun”, “really liked [my] class”, “made a lot of friends”, and “learned a lot”. Some expressed that my stories about America and my latest visit to Australia made them want to go abroad. Perhaps my first essay topic, which asked them to describe a dream vacation in a foreign country* (that they had to research (Google) about) helped with that too.

5. Taiko was one of my first priorities since coming here, and I am now going every week to a class at the “Oedo Sukeroku Daiko Dojo” in Ochanomizu, Tokyo. I am definitely not doing enough dancing, but hope to start going to swing dancing events once in a while after my long spring break!

6. I’ll be getting to meet up with a ton of the other Shansi Fellows (both junior fellows from my year, and senior fellows)  in Indonesia (Feb 9~) and China (end of March)! I’m so excited!

7. This was basically taken from the Shansi Orientation handbook. Hehe, “naivete”.

8. Being away from family is one of the hardest parts about living and working in Japan. I have often thought about staying in Japan after Shansi, but this issue is one of the few things that gives me pause.

9. In this case, I was thinking about all the English teachers I have seen in Japan who are completely defeated by their students apathy and become completely apathetic themselves. I don’t know if it has worked this semester, but I want to be an English teacher these students remember, one who made them see the benefits of knowing two languages, or exposed them to parts of the world they hadn’t stopped to think about before.

From now on I’m just gonna keep working hard to get better at teaching. これからずっと頑張りたいと思っていおります。

But first, (once I’m finished with all my grading), I’m going to enjoy my super long vacation! 🙂


Task 3: the Future

More wise words from my students…


I want a lot of my baby child. I like kids very much. In particular I want boys. And I want to name him Mizuki! Maybe I will love him so much. Because he is my only child.

What kind of people will I marry? Nobody will understand it. Therefore life is interesting. Nobody knows the life what rises. I think to make an effort now to do it in the happy future. I believe that the bright future waits.


To be continued.

Writing Task 2: Comparing American and Japanese Movies

The prompt was to write a four-to-five paragraph essay comparing American and Japanese movies. Here are some highlights from my students’ essays….

  • Comparing Anpanman and Hancock (two quite different superheroes)

I think that another difference is about the  main character. The face of Anpanman is made of bean-jam buns. However, Hancock is a human being. I think that a bean-jam bun is more delicious than a human face. I want to eat a face of Anpanman sometime.

  • Comparing Doraemon and Terminator (two very different robots from the future)

    Doraemon and Terminator are very famous and interesting movies. Doraemon is Japanese animation. Almost all Japanese children watch it at Friday night. This animation’s main character is Nobita. He is lazy boy. Terminator is world famous  movie. The movie’s main character is terminators. They are robots. These movies have nothing in common with each other at a glance, but in reality, they have something in common.
    Doraemon and Terminator’s characters are both robot. This is the first commonality. They are robots for helping people. Nobita is helped by Doraemon. John Conner is Terminator’s character. He helped by Terminator. But almost terminators are bad characters.
    The second is they are both from the future. Doraemon comes from 2112, and Terminator comes from 2029. They came through a time slip. Why do they came past? Because they must help people. […]

  • Comparing Heroes and Spec (superhero dramas)

    Since I was seventeen years old, I have liked Heroes very much. Heroes is supernatural power’s people TV drama. IT is an American TV drama. IT was very popular TV drama in America. I have also liked spec since I was eighteen years old. Spec is supernatural power’s people too. Spec is a Japanese TV drama. IT is very popular TV drama in Japan. Both of them are popular supernatural power’s people TV dramas. I think that spec is more interesting than Heroes. Sometimes, Spec is laughed me. Spec has laughable scene. And, Heroes is more many characters than Spec. Heroes is more exciting than Spec.

  • Comparing Gundam and Transformers (two movies about giant fighting robots)

    American males don’t get wildly excited when they see TRANSFORMERS. But Japanese males get wildly excited when they see GUNDAM.

  • Comparing Action in Japanese and American movies:

The American movies are very powerful compared with the Japanese movies. The American movies use a lot of Computer Graphics, and the American movies use fires and a lot of bomb. The American movies perform the intense action. For example a person sometimes run on may cars, and a person sometimes fly in the sky on his own.
There are many comedy movies and many cartoon movies in the Japanese movies. The Japanese movies are small scale compared with the American movies. But there are many good points in the Japanese movies. For example The Japanese movies sometimes use a sword. By contrast, the American movies sometimes use guns. It represents the traditional Japan. Gun is not ordinary for the Japanese people. Therefore it is easy for me to understand a sword than a gun.

  • Toy Story vs. Crayon Shinchan


  • Alice in Wonderland vs. Spirited Away


  • The Ring vs. Ringu
  • One Missed Call vs. Chakushinari

They worked hard this semester. Very proud- and very amused. 😀

Snippets of my life in FB statuses…


This. In my living room!

写真: This. In my living room!

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


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


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~


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



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




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。





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.

“Continue the story…”

On the first week of classes, I had my level 2 writing students get into groups of four and trade off writing stories based around four prompts. Two of the prompts were:

  1.  One day I went to school and saw it was under attack by aliens!
  2. One day I decided to go running in a haunted forest.

Here are some examples of their writing at the beginning of the semester:

  • Aliens ate many students and teachers. But a person was left alone. He is a superman! He can fight aliens. Aliens bit his leg. He had damages. But he was boyscout. He treated himself. He put up a good fight. Aliens grew weak.
  • One day I went to school and saw it was under attack by aliens! (This was the prompt.) They said “We are aliens. We’re from space.” I was very surprised and afraid of them. But we ate stacks together. Because we must eat stacks. We’ll strong what eat stacks. My skin changed green. and my eyes changed big. I looks like aliens.
  • One day I decided to go running in a haunted forest. I saw a bear. Bear appeared my behind. Bear introduced self in English. Bear’s name is Toby. Toby is so big!! His tall is about two meters. He doesn’t eat human. Because I was relieved. I made friends with Toby.

Toward the very end of the semester if I would love to redo this activity for fun.

In the meantime we are writing short essays (4 paragraphs) on My Dream Vacation. 🙂 I asked my students to answer certain questions like: Where did you go? How long did you stay? How much money did you spend? What did you do? (3 things) What did you eat? (3 things) How did you feel?

In one class, students are writing about imaginary vacations to China, England, America (Las Vegas, Hawaii) France, Spain, Italy, India, and Kyoto. In another class students are writing about those countries plus Thailand, Tahiti, Korea, and New Caledonia (a place that I’d never heard of), a French collectivity on a small archipelago to the east of Australia that is said to be “heaven on Earth”. Because I know that many of my students have never gone abroad before, I advised them to write about a foreign country rather than a place inside Japan. Many students might have originally written about Hokkaido or Okinawa. (The Kyoto student is an exception because he was absent for the brainstorming class.) To increase diversity I also limited one country to two students, so not everyone could write about Hawaii. In the brainstorming stages I allowed them to use smartphones to look up foods, activities, and places specific to those sites.

In class I usually go over certain grammar points and common mistakes within writing (a vs. the, comma usage, missing words, incomplete sentences/clauses as sentences, spelling, etc.). Last week I worked on past tense verbs that might be used to describe a vacation, and this week I taught about adjectives (to describe hotel, food, activities, mood) and connecting shorter sentences to form longer ones. (“I went to America. I went with my family. I stayed for 3 weeks.” –> “I went to America with my family for three weeks.”) I also reviewed essay structure (Intro, Body paragraph A, Body paragraph B, Conclusion) and mentioned the indentations at the beginning of paragraphs. I’m impressed with the first drafts of some of my students, and look forward to seeing their improvement over the semester.

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.



            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!

相撲 The art of sumo (and a lame description by someone who knows little of it)

Here is a very rushed, casual letter I wrote to my best friend from home about an experience three weeks ago. At the time I knew very little about sumo, so I would recommend looking it up “properly” before or after reading my account! Hopefully soon I can do proper research and rewrite this to properly describe the glory that is the sumo tradition.

So sorry I didn’t get time to write anything to you until now… Hopefully you’ll see this before you leave, but if not you can read it after you arrive haha…
Yesterday all day I was out to watch a sumo tournament at the  Ryogoku Kokujikan, the largest sumo venue in Tokyo. It was amazing. Whenever I heard about it or saw it on TV or wherever in America, I always thought it was kind of funny, but it was absolutely amazing to see in person. These guys are enormous.. just walls of pure muscle. I’d probably pee my pants if I stood a foot away from a sumo wrestler in his (lack of) traditional garb.
Before each round, all of the wrestlers come out dressed from the waist down in what I can only describe as a small tapestry (not quite a robe) designed by their sponsors. They are always elaborately made and beautiful. They step into the ring as their names are called and walk around slowly. Then after they are all in the ring they do a short ritual of clapping together once, raising their arms, squatting, and lifting their tapestry/rug/skirt-things. Then they walk off, and the other group of opponents is introduced.

Before a bout, a man in traditional hakama (clothing) comes out to the middle of the ring and sings out their names– who has come from the East, and who comes from the West. It sounds like a traditional player. (sic haha.. I meant to say “prayer”. After 3 months in Japan Engrish is already setting in!)
Bouts themselves are super quick, lasting usually less than fifteen seconds. Sometimes they are over in as little as 3 seconds! If you lose your balance for half a second you will be pushed down into the floor or thrown around by your opponent.

Sometimes there is a lot of hand-action, with a flurry of palms to the face and upper chest area, and other times there is a lot of grappling. But always before the actual wrestling is a good few minutes of pomp and circumstance… a “show” in which the wrestlers basically exhibit their bodies and strength in all their glory by squatting, lifting one leg over their heads and stomping into the ground, by vigorously hitting their own faces, arms, legs, and chests, or by leaning far backwards and bringing their arms back to display their massive chests. Then they circle around… Throughout these shows they always throw huge handfuls of salt in high arcs over the ring. Then when they are told to begin (by a “ref” completely in traditional bright hakama and a tall hat and special fan), they finally rush at each other…. And it’s always kind of funny when the match is over in a few seconds, after such a long display of power.

The bigger guy doesn’t always win. You need not only power and weight, but also speed and dexterity.

After one is thrown down, the winner returns to his side of the ring and squats down while the “ref” faces him from the center and holds up the fan, then presents the winner with prize money. (We can tell how much money he won by the number of men who held up flags and walked around the ring before the match– each flag, with the design for each sponsor, represented a couple hundred of dollars, usually 30,000yen each). Then the players would present the next players small wooden cups of sacred water to drink before the next bout.

Overall it was a truly beautiful thing to watch, and I got to go completely for free because the Chancellor of JF Oberlin University (Obirin Daigaku, where I teach) gave the 3 Shansi Fellows these amazing tickets that included enormous, very beautiful bentos and a million other snacks. We got “souvenirs” too, 3 whole boxes each. Wow! (Note: These turned out to be two huge boxes of snacks of wafers in chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, and various salty senbei (crackers), and one box containing two small bowls!)
In other news, taught my first two classes on Friday!! I teach two classes, levels 1 and 2 so quite beginner. They aren’t as mature or hard-working as Oberlin students, or probably most American college students in general, but I had a lot of fun. My first class even clapped after we finished! :’) I guess they had fun too. (They seemed surprised that they were clapping.) I’m hoping to bring in music to my classes once in a while if I have time… maybe by printing out the lyrics to one song a class and doing some basic reading comprehension questions (“This song is about… A) Love  B) Revenge  C) Friendship” hahaha. My students seem to enjoy music very much, even if they can’t speak English well at all.

Hope to talk to you soon, and that your flight is great! I can’t wait to hear about your new life, and hopefully we see each other soon!!!