Wednesday, August 10, 2011

goodbye #1: my apartment

All packed up and ready to turn in the keys :(

If you asked me what my first week in Japan was like back when I arrived in Tokyo in August 2009, I wouldn't be able to describe it at all; it was all a blur, a whirlwind of new information, sights, sounds, and faces. It was as if the fast forward button on the remote control of my life was stuck. My first clear memory of being in Japan was the first night I spent alone in my apartment, after the craziness of orientations had subsided. I sat there on my living room floor in sort of a daze, blankly staring at my opened suitcase, listening to the crickets chirping outside my window. My family had each written a letter and hid it in my suitcase; letters filled with memories, encouraging words, advice, and prayers. It was enough to get the waterworks running.

Oh my gosh, what the heck have I done? There's no going back now. Oh my gosh, where the heck am I? Oh my gosh...oh my gosh.

Enter 2-inch, black cockroach. (I think they make it a tradition to welcome the new ALT to their new home on their first night in Oshima.) As I screamed and climbed to the highest peak of the apartment (my couch) analyzing the situation and my distance from said cockroach, reality hit me like a ton of bricks. For as long as I lived in Japan, I was on my own. Washing dishes, doing laundry, buying food, cooking the food, paying bills, and yes...killing bugs...I was going to be responsible for everything. EVERYTHING.

Fast forward two years, and there I was again, sitting on my living room floor, packing my last remaining suitcase for the trip home. The last of the boxes had been packed and shipped. My closets and drawers had been cleaned out and a bleach/windex smell lingered throughout the apartment. I checked and double-checked that every possible area had been cleaned. I looked out my window one last time. I closed my eyes and envisioned past shadows of cooking my first (and unsuccessful) batch of frozen gyoza on rice my first night, successfully capturing an enormous spider from my living room and setting it free outside (while yelling, "I saved your life! Don't you ever come back! And tell your friends to stay out too!"), huddling in front of my heater as I changed my clothes for work in the freezing winter mornings, and setting down bedding for the many friends who came for an Oshima sleepover.

This had been my first experience living on my own. This was my first apartment. This is where I learned independence.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

my kids :)

I want to write about how amazing my kids are. I have over 600 of them and each one is special. Each one has a personality, a story, a favorite hobby, and a food that they despise. Some are super energetic, others sleep during class. Some are tall and sporty while others prefer to chill in the music room during lunch recess. Getting to know all of these different personalities and life stories has been such a blessing during my time here in Japan.

I've made connections with a number of students here; I've watched them grow up right before my eyes. The cute little 4th graders in elementary school that I met when I first came to Japan two years ago are now the "big dogs" on campus. My original elementary 6th graders are now 2nd graders in junior high school. And finally, the little 1st graders in junior high school are now the kings and queens of the school, the almighty 3rd graders. I can hardly wrap my head around everything.

Saying goodbye to these many schools that I've seen grow and change, fill and empty, has been quite the emotional roller coaster. It all had to end someday. For me, the realization that it IS ending, came as a bit of a shock. The end came out of nowhere. And yet, here I am, saying goodbye to the very kids who welcomed me to Oshima on my first day on the job.

I wanted to write about how amazing my kids are, but rather, I'll show you.

I came home one night to find these handpicked flowers outside my apartment door. They were from one of my JHS 1st graders, Hinata. The next day, I went to her school for the last time. After class, I asked her when she came to my place. She stopped to think and then replied, "At 7:00pm. And then at 8:30pm." Poor girl came twice just in case I was home :( That really touched me.

After a class of rushed interview tests, I came into the class to find the chalkboard filled with messages and pictures for me. The JHS 2nd graders had been working on it the entire 50-min period while I was out. An amazing class, one of my favorites :)

Yuta is a JHS 2nd grade boy who loves English and making the class laugh. I was so touched to receive a letter from him on my last day at his school. An awesome kid indeed.

This card just about sums up my feelings right at this very second. A JHS 2nd grade girl, Suzuka, whom I had become friends with during the Suo-oshima English camp back in August, had written a letter for me. She is one of the bubbliest people I know. I will miss her terribly.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

a place to think

This is my thinking place. I picked it because (1) it reminded me of the final scene of "Free Willy", (2) it is about a 10 min walk from my apartment alongside a beautiful beach called 'Katazoegahama', and (3) it is the most serene and magical of all places in Japan. I often stop here to think during my weekly (sometimes bimonthly) running routine. I've done some pretty good thinking here, too. On some days, I would try to figure out just how I came to be here on this tiny island of Suo-oshima. I'd think about the future. When I was homesick I would think about my family and friends back home. At the end of my first year in JET, I would stare out at sea and wonder how I would last another year without my friends who had just left.

Today, I gazed at the late-afternoon scenery as a video montage played in my head. I sat there, breeze to my back, and reminisced about the past 2 years in JET. It's almost over. I can't believe it's almost here. Starting tomorrow, I will be visiting schools for the very last time. Every week, from now until I leave Japan, there will be at least one goodbye. I'm not good with goodbyes, as cliche as that may sound. The thought of saying goodbye to a group of people that I may never see again makes my heart drop.

I needed today to mentally prepare myself for such upcoming events. I sat there at my thinking spot, pondered if a killer whale really could jump over the dock, and smiled. I had found my peace. The past 2 years here in Suo-oshima really have been nothing short of amazing :)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

the shishamo CHALLENGE!!!

School lunch in Japan has always been quite the adventure for me. I've seen it all: dried squid head, natto, fried blowfish, iriko (tiny fish they put in the salad)...the list goes on. I'm sad to say I've probably eaten whale meat too without knowing it. (I don't usually ask about what I'm eating. I just down the hatch.)

I've never been much of a seafood eater. Back home, the only seafood I touched was shrimp, crab, fish sticks, and kamaboko (the pink & white stuff in bentos and saimin.) I NEVER ate fish. NEVER. My family is more of a chicken-eating clan ;) That being said, to be able to say that I now eat sashimi, sushi, and the previously stated seafood dishes is quite an accomplishment for me.

Today during school lunch, the unimaginable (for me) appeared. *dun dun dun* SHISHAMO. It wasn't the first time I've met this aquatic opponent. I had been served many of his relatives at other schools over the past 2 years here in Japan. Usually, I would swiftly hand it off to a hungry-looking boy next to me without anyone noticing. Today, however, I had no opportunity as I was seated in the front of the class, with everyone...EVERYONE...watching me.

It was time for the SHISHAMO CHALLENGE!!!

Alongside the shishamo was a bowl of rice, a small plate of crunchy spinach, a banana, a bottle of milk, and a bowl of soup filled with mushrooms, carrots, and fish meatballs.

I looked at him. He stared back at me. "All?" I asked a student as I scanned my finger from his tail to his mouth. The boy nodded with a smile. "Delicious?" Another happy nod. The other kids were just chowing down on the meal as if it were a slice of pizza. I've never been a big fan of eating things that were staring back at me. His mouth open, as if calling out to me saying "Please don't eat me Tiffany sensei!"

After about a 5 min mental battle with myself, I proceeded to the first bite. I could feel the texture of his open mouth on my tongue so I quickly added some rice. I looked down on my plate and realized that the fish's stomach was FILLED WITH EGGS! It wasn't a HE afterall! It was a SHE!

My stomach began to churn and I could feel my gag reflex kicking in. No Tiff, you can't throw up here! Don't do it! That would not be good! Just chew....chew...chew...chew...think about something else...oh, cute! That kid has a Pokemon pencil case!...chew...chew...chew...

With the aid of some milk and soup, I eventually got the entire fish (head and all!) down. Although I finished the entire meal about 10 min after everyone else, I was able to claim victory over the shishamo challenge. Never again folks...never again. Praise the Lord there was only one ;)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

congrats young skywalker!

I was given the amazing opportunity to return to Hawaii for just 5 days and see my brother graduate from the University of Hawaii. I'm so very proud of him :) He's worked so hard on his bachelor degree; hours and hours of studying, writing up papers, undertaking internships, all while having a part time job and fulfilling scholarship obligations. Did you know he had over a 3.8 GPA!? That trumps mine for sure! A brilliant young man with a bright future ahead of him, an incredible computer and video game expert, and the greatest brother I could ever ask for. CONGRATS LUKE!!! :D

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

sapporo revisited

Meet Shimo (means "frosty" in Japanese), my very first snowman! :)

Nestled in the cold winter weeks of Japan is a wonderful 3-day holiday, perfectly situated as to let people visit Sapporo for the annual Snow Festival. I had been looking forward to this weekend for quite some time, ever since the previous year’s trip. Hostels were reserved in November, plane tickets were booked in December, and plans were finalized months before the actual event. Sapporo, here we come ;)

For me, February in Yamaguchi was spent curled up in front of a heater cursing the essence of winter while movies like Blue Crush and Lilo and Stitch played in the background. Fast-forward to our Sapporo trip, where thousands of people joined together in celebrating the beauty and wonderment of winter. A very different spirit indeed.

Who knew cold could be so much fun? At the many festival sites were assortments of ice sculptures resembling that of beloved cartoon characters and famous buildings. We also tried our hand at snow tubing –a not-so-popular pastime in Hawaii ;) There was even a snowman building booth at one of the snow sites, where I aided the Canadian in the construction of my very first legitimate snowman. His name came to be Shimo (“shimo” means “snowball” in Japanese). The Canadian was pleased :)

There was so much fun to be had. A dinner buffet every night (the first being crab, the second being mutton), snowboarding at the magnificent Teine Ski Resort, a trip to the Sapporo Beer Museum (well…to the tasting section at least), soup curry with friends, and the most amazing display of snow and ice artwork I have ever seen…an amazing time indeed.

Monday, April 4, 2011

a wake-up call

It's been a relaxing couple of weeks here in Yamaguchi. Between March and April, time goes into a sort of limbo: the school year ends and a new one awaits, teachers are shuffled and reassigned to different schools throughout the prefecture, and winter slowly fades into spring. I've found myself relaxing at home, watching movies, and saving up for the vacations to follow in May.

In the spirit of money-saving, Kyle and a Japanese friend of ours decided to go out for bowling and drinks Saturday night. Bowling was a great success, 1,050 yen (about $12) for 3 games. I racked up a whopping 144 total of the 3 games :P Feeling good and realizing it was only 10:30pm, we head to a favorite bar spot in Kudamatsu. The bar is a small, intimate 15-person space, where customers sit together on 2 benches cornering the bartending area. Customers will sit and drink together as ABBA soundtracks and cigarette smoke fill the air.

The perfect setting for a relaxing Satuday night, right?

The only problem with having such an intimate setting is when all the people just don't fit right. My friend is Japanese-born and raised-but moved to Europe for many years. His English is amazing. After hearing our English conversations, one of the drunken barmates kept asking him things like, "Are you really Japanese?" and "You're not Japanese! Where are you from?" I began to wonder if things like that bothered him. To be told such a thing. The drunken barmate continued his interrogation, asking him where he worked. I coud tell he was uncomfortable and quickly stepped in to change the subject.

We were just about to leave when the drunken barmate offered to buy us drinks. In Japan it's considered an insult if you refuse someone's offer, and since the man was clearly drunk, we stayed for one more. Finally, the drunken barmate's friend walks in and sits down. He notices Kyle, as his friend pushes him to speak the English he knows.

And then, the wake-up call. He says in Japanese, "We're in Japan, (I order you to) speak Japanese!" He's clearly speaking to Kyle, as I'm always assumed to be a local. The thing is, I'm just as foreign in Japan as Kyle is. I can't speak fluent Japanese. I don't know all of the Japanese customs. I'm not Japanese. What the man had said really bothered me, so much that I couldn't stop thinking about it all the way home. We're in Japan, (I order you to) speak Japanese! Those words rocked me to my core. It was the ugliest thing I had ever heard in my life. Are there really people who still think like this? There was nothing I could do about it. Even if I had wanted to give him a piece of my mind, I couldn't; one, because my Japanese language skills aren't good enough and two, because it wouldn't have change anything.

It was truly a wake-up call for me, that hate exists in the world. All I can do is positively influence the future generation of Japan, one student at a time.