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

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

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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!

Love,

Cassie

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. 😀

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.

Research featured in the Oberlin Alumni Magazine

I was recently contacted by Clyde Owan, Alice Takemoto, and my father to let me know that an article by Lisa Chiu about my research has finally been published in the summer edition of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine! How exciting! I don’t own a physical copy myself (it’d be great if someone sent me one!) but my father did send me some pictures. I’m very honored to have had the opportunity to research Japanese Americans at Oberlin during WWII, and I wish I could have continued! Perhaps in the future..

For now I guess I’ll need to watch what I post on this blog, as it may gather some new alumni visitors! (Hopefully everyone can appreciate the more lighthearted posts about Japanese playlists-you-want-to-listen-to-when-your-wife-of-a-year-finally-farts-in-front-of-you.)

For a summary of my research processes click here.

To read profiles of various students at Oberlin during the war click on my “Oberlin Nisei” or “Research” tabs on the Topics sidebar.

Thanks again for reading!

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the student files I painstakingly gathered over the semester.

with Ken Grossi on my last day of the job!

with Ken Grossi on my last day of the job!

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