My First Shansi Report

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

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

 

Settling into Life in Japan

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

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

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

 

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

 

Teaching at JFOU (Obirin)

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

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

 

Taiko

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

 

Social Life

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

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

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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。

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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…