This Christmas was a little strange at first, being the first time we've ever spent the holidays in another country. I mean, New Jersey felt a little bit like another country sometimes, but my sister was always there to give it that family feeling. Actually, Christmas in NJ was great, for the last few years we'd invited some of Nathan's actor friends over and we'd eat and play Rock Band into the wee hours. It was great! So I was a little perplexed as to what we were going to in Japan, as most of our friends were spending their holidays overseas in exotic locations.
We started off with Christmas Eve at the German Christmas festival being held for the last month in Odori Park. Ethan was really wanting a German apple pancake, and I was wanting some mulled wine. We both got what we wanted.
Christmas day starting bright and early, with Ethan getting us up at 8:30. It was a nice, simple present-opening, which I really enjoyed. I got Nate and new wallet (wallets with a pouch for change are essential in Japan), and he got me a nice new winter hat that I'd been hinting about for some time. Ethan loved everything he got, and at the last minute, we brought out our gift to him - an electric guitar.
I got a good deal on it from another JET who didn't have a use for it, and Ethan had been saying that he really wanted one to practice on, so I thought, why not? He loved it, as you can see.
It included a little amp with the purchase, which I'm sure our neighbors are going to love!
After our traditional Christmas breakfast, we went to meet our friends Arisa and Takumi to eat lunch and see Tron. I'm not sure they enjoyed Tron too much, they said it made their eyes hurt. After the movie we invited them over to our house for some Christmas cake (it's what they eat here). What happened next was a couple hours of dancing and video game playing.
It was a blast, but 11:00 rolled around and they had to catch the last subway back home. We stayed up a little longer, talking with our friend Mark, another ALT who wasn't doing anything for Christmas, so we decided to invite him to the par-tay.
Nathan was telling me that it's strange for us to be so sociable. We've been out and about to parties and get-togethers for the last 3 days, and frankly, being sociable is lots of work! We've always had a close group of friends, but I think we've alienated ourselves in years past because we're usually the only ones to have a kid. I think that makes us feel a little different, which in turn ends up with us just staying at home. As sappy as it sounds, I love the friends we've made here since moving to Japan. They don't replace the family I'm missing back home, but they sure do come pretty darn close.
I hope everyone - friends, family, and everyone in-between - has a wonderful Christmas and a fantastic New Year!!
We bought this little Christmas tree at a store across the street from our apartment. It's small, but it's the perfect size for our place. I didn't want to spend any money on ornaments, so we made all of them with stuff we already had around the house. Everything on the tree is either yarn or paper. And we now have a few more presents under the tree since I took this picture. Ethan was so worried that none of the presents from relatives would make it in time, but luckily they did, and Ethan's much happier now.
We went to a party hosted by Nate's boss yesterday, and we had a lot of fun. His boss, Mary, is Japanese, but was raised in Brazil, so she speaks Portuguese, English, and Japanese. She made tons of yummy Brazilian food, and after eating our fill, some of her friends got out the drums and guitars and started singing Bassanova music. Japanese singing Brazilian music - it was quite an international day! We also met a really great couple who live not far from where we live. He's Australian and she's Japanese, and they have a really cute son. It was nice to meet another young couple with a kid, and we plan to get together with them again some time.
It's hard to believe that it's Christmas tomorrow. We're planning to go watch Tron with some friends tomorrow, but I still need to figure out what I'm going to make for our traditional Christmas breakfast. Anyone know where I can find some bacon?
In an effort to make this blog more than my school experiences and more a part of my everyday life, I thought I'd share some music I've been listening to lately.
I've been a fan of Sufjan Stevens for several years, and was pleasantly surprised with his latest album, The Age of Adz. It's completely different direction from Illinois, but artists are allowed to grow and change, and I like the new sound. Check it out:
Harlem is a band that my friend Brandon turned me on to, and now I don't know where they've been all my life! They remind me of those bands me and my sister used to listen to in those seedy music venues in Amarillo (remember that Rachel?). Like music you'd hear coming from your friend's garage. Gotta love it.
I finished my elementary school tour this week, and honestly it was a little anti-climactic. I suppose I've been a little spoiled at my previous schools - the kids treat me like royalty and the administration and staff are always so interested in me. I guess it was inevitable that they weren't all going to be this way.
My first school of the week didn't have me speak in front of the staff like schools usually do. Instead, after a quick greeting to the principal, I was led to a room on the third floor being called the ALT Room. Obviously this room was not used in anticipation of an ALT's visit, as it was more like a closet. I was given a tray of drinks that I suppose were meant to last me for two days, and I was left to my own devices. A third grade teacher who speaks good English came and spoke with me about the day's lessons, but I never met the 5th and 6th grade teachers, who I would be teaching with, until I went into their classroom. I didn't spend much time in that room, since it was freezing and I would much rather visit classrooms. I especially enjoyed a science class I visited where the 3rd graders showed me how electricity works. Well, I think that's what they were trying to explain.
These two 5th grade boys were my groupies, and later on my last day professed their love for me. I told them I'm sorry, but I'm married and much too old for them. Maybe I should learn how to say that in Japanese.
My second and last school of the week was hard to find - it didn't even show up on the map on my phone. When I got off the bus, I decided I'd just follow the kids, as they seemed to be going in the direction of where I thought the school was. Luckily, the students did lead me to the correct school, and was again led to a special "ALT Room" and again didn't get to meet the teachers until the actual class. This school was especially challenging, as it was obvious that the 6th grade teachers were not that proficient in English, and the 6th graders just didn't seem interested. I guess it's good practice for Junior High, as I'm sure I'll come across that attitude more than once.
I did make a few friends, like this 1st grader who spoke pretty good English. And by pretty good English, I mean she could tell me, "I like fruit. Do you like fruit?" Kawaii!!! Notice her mask she took off for the picture. Yes, Japanese do actually wear the masks, but I have yet to try this out. I'd just rather take the sick day.
All in all I'm so happy I was given a chance to teach elementary school for 2 months. It was a great confidence booster and I hope I'll get an opportunity to teach some next year, even though our supervisor told us that most of the ES jobs are going to other independent companies next year.
So now it's time to get ready for Christmas! The holiday spirit hasn't quite hit me like it usually does this time of year. We do have a tree, with a few presents under there, but apparently not enough, as everyday Ethan says something like, "Is this all the presents this year? This is going to be the worst Christmas ever!" However, the relatives presents are en route, and he doesn't know the BIG present that's awaiting for him from us!
It's also strange to not be spending Christmas with my sister, who came to NJ for Christmas every year we were there. I miss you Rachel!!!!
The Robinson fam just got back from meeting up with our first, genuine, Japanese friends. Harada-sensei (I guess I can call her Arisa now), was my first JTE at Higashi Yonesato, and we promised to keep in touch once I left the school. It's been two months now, and we finally met up with her and her husband tonight at Jacksonville, our favorite burger joint. Arisa's English is pretty good, and I have a feeling her husband knows more than he lets on (as most Japanese do). We laughed and talked about school and learning English and Japanese. Her husband gave Ethan his old Kendo boken, and I'm pretty sure he's now Ethan's best friend. He was impressed with how much Ethan already knew about kendo (thanks Butch!) and Japanese history, and told him that he had "a Japanese soul". They told us that they'd take us out for ramen some time, and we're going to get together again on Christmas day. As much as I love my JET family, it feels really good to have Japanese friends. It really makes me want to learn Japanese, just to take the pressure off of them from having to speak English all the time. I've met many other wonderful people at elementary schools as well, and some of them I've swapped e-mails and fully intend to keep in contact with. And I can't forget my adopted Japanese family at our favorite gyoza restaurant - I love Junko-san!
So this week I only attended one school, since Thursday and Friday I attended our ALT mid-year workshop. The school was waaaaaaay up in northern Sapporo, and I had to leave our apartment at 6:50 to catch the bus out there. It's supposedly a "lower-performing" school, but the kids were just as eager about English as the other schools I've been to. And not just eager about English, but eager about me in every way. I had 6th grade boys telling me they loved me and girls asking me to hang out with them on the weekends.
They also asked me if I "liked" their teacher. I always get this question when the class has a male teacher. I always kid around by saying, "Yes, but I'm married!"
When I had to leave, the kids made this tunnel for me to walk through.
Such a sweet group of kids. Three days go by so quickly.
And boy, did the students at this school really lay on the presents!! Letters, cards, a soap dispenser (!), and about 8 straps! I was overwhelmed.
My favorite gift was the friendship bracelets given to me by a group of 6th grade girls who also wrote me the huge "Sara Book". And yes, that is an artistic rendition of me with giant blue eyes.
It's sad to think that I now have only 3 more schools this next week and my elementary school tour will be over. I think my visits to these schools are more than just helping the home room teacher with an English lesson or two. I feel like my visits have helped these students begin an interest in English that I hope will continue as they grow. And who knows, I may even see some of them again when they enter Junior High!!
Wow. I'm exhausted. The fifth week into my elementary tour, and I think it's finally starting to wear on me. Not in a bad way - I really enjoy teaching those kids - but being that high energy all day really takes a strain on you after a while. You think I'd be used to it, as I taught 6 or 7 high-energy classes every day back in the US. Despite the exhaustion, I've loved every school I've gone to, and I'm always sad to leave after the 2 or 3 days I'm there.
A statue in front of Shiseikan Elementary School. All bundled up for winter!
My first school of the week was in the heart of Susukino, the entertainment district of Sapporo. A young school - it was built only 7 years ago - it had a very modern feel, which I loved. The whole school had what they called open classrooms, which meant that there were no doors or hallways separating the classrooms, only walls. I think there was an elementary school in CISD that had this same concept. Was it Sundown Lane? Anyway, I thought it would be extremely distracting to the students, but they seemed to work with it quite well. As always, the students were friendly and eager to speak English with me. One group of 6th grade girls really took a liking to me, and asked me if I knew the song "Country Road". Of course I do! I sang it for them a few times in English, which impressed them so much! They even asked me to write it down in English for them. I asked a teacher why the interest in this song, and I was told that it's a song in their music class. The song was used in a Studio Ghibli film, Whispers of the Heart, and is apparently a very popular film with kids that age. Here we are singing it, you can mostly hear me, but they really are singing with me, I promise!
For my second school of the week, I would be staying for 3 days. I always like staying at schools for 3 days, I feel like I get to know the kids better. And these students were a delight! Every one of them so eager to speak English with me, even the cute 1st graders!
And this school was autograph crazy! Kids were literally running down the halls screaming, "Sarah, sign kudasai!!" I was signing notebooks, pencil cases, caps, hands. This is probably the closest I'l ever be to feeling like a celebrity.
Oh, and did I mention it snowed Monday? Big, beautiful, fluffy flakes. Ethan I enjoyed walking to school together in it.
Until the next day, when all that beautiful snow became packed down slippery ice. I had a few close calls, but never totally fell, thank goodness. I was taking the tiniest steps, it took me forever to reach the subway. And then it turned 50 degrees on Thursday night and all the ice was gone overnight. I'm sure there's more to come.
Last week was week four of my elementary school tour, with a day off thrown in on Tuesday for "Labor Thanksgiving", which I'm assuming is the Japanese version of Thanksgiving, with probably a lot less turkey.
My first school of the week was pretty far south, nestled in the mountains surrounding Sapporo. It was a very small school, as the classes only had about 17 students, when most classes have 30-40. I enjoyed the kids here, they were very nervous to speak with me, but slowly warmed up after a while. After lunch, they asked me to play "Onigakko" with them in the gym, which is basically Japanese tag. I ran more than I've run in a long time, and was actually sore the next day. The second day I was there, I had lunch with a charming class of fifth graders. One of the boys I sat next too proceeded to try to explain to me the conflict with North and South Korea, all through gestures. When he made the explosion sound, I got the gist of what he was saying. He asked me if I liked Kim Jong Il, and I said no I didn't. He said me too.
This was my little lunch group. I love how you can see each of their personalities in this picture. One of them asked me during lunch what type of man I like. I said tall. He looked disappointed. Can you guess which one?
When I left on my last day all the 5th and 6th grade came to see me off. It was very sweet.
My next school was up north, and a little more suburban. The 6th graders were super shy, the shyest I've experienced. The teacher wanted me to choose a few to speak to, and I thought I was going to give them heart attacks! But leave it to good ol' Sneaky Statues to get them warmed up and loving me by the end of the class. It was at this school that I signed more autographs than anywhere else. I felt like a celebrity - huge crowds of kids asking, "Sign please", as they handed me their notebooks, textbooks, and pencil cases. One boy asked for my autograph 6 times! Towards the end I was getting really creative - putting in hearts, stars, or smiley faces with my signature. One group of girls - and one boy - followed me around habitually. Feeling a little bit like a celebrity I called the boy my bodyguard. Maybe the fame was going to my head a bit.
Oh, and let's not forget about Thanksgiving! I wasn't off on Thursday, but we did get to have a Thanksgiving feast at a restaurant and bar called TK6. I was relieved that we got to eat a delicious dinner without having to cook, and it was nice to see other ALTs I haven't seen in months!
It was GOOD!!
So now everyone and everything is gearing up for Christmas. There's beautiful lights up in Odori Park (more on that later), we bought a Christmas tree, and the snow is falling! In fact, the snow's been falling all day - beautiful, fluffy flakes, the kind you don't mind walking in. Well, I didn't mind anyway. I'm just so thankful to have had this wonderful experience here and to have met the people I have. Life is good!!
I've been putting this off for a while, mainly because I kept telling myself the place is not quite finished yet. But I think it's about as finished as it's gonna be for a while. All the big furniture pieces were here when we arrived, and the only things I brought from the US was a calendar and my Camilla Engman canvas above our dining table. I wanted to keep things simple and basic, but still true to my design style. But I've been slowly accumulating cute home decor to liven to place up a bit. I have a feeling I'm going to be bring a lot more back with me to the States than when I got here!!
Our apartment complex. We live on the third floor.
It's been a fun challenge decorating this place. I made the garland above our bed and the yarn "art" above our "couch". You may have noticed the lack of bed in Ethan's room. Ethan sleeps on a Japanese futon, which we fold away in his closet during the day. It was supposed to be the alternative for him until we could buy him a bed, but he loves it. It's hard to believe that all my stuff is in a storage shed in Canyon, and how I really haven't missed all those things too much. It's actually been refreshing to live a little more simply.
With that said, these are things I still want to get: an afghan for our bed, some more potted plants, and a beanbag chair for Ethan's room.
And you know me, always keeping the place tidy, just in case company comes over!
These last 3 weeks of elementary schools have been some of the most exhausting and most fulfilling days I've had in a long time. I'm guess that since the school only gets you for two days, they're gonna make sure to get the most out of ya! When I'm not team-teaching classes I'm visiting other's classes. And just when I sit down in the teacher's room, a group of kids will usually knock at the door looking for me.
And man, have I been all over Sapporo! One day I'll be in the south near the mountains, and the next day I'll be amidst the factories in the east. I've taken buses, subways, and the tram (streetcar). And thank goodness for my iphone! The map on that thing has saved me so many times, I haven't gotten lost yet!!
A few of the teachers I've worked with have asked me if I have any American games to play with the students, so I've been testing out some of my old reliable theater games. They don't really have anything to do with learning English, but the kids have fun, and the shy ones definitely warm up to me after a game of Sneaky Statues (which I'm calling "Janitor" in Japan). I think the teachers love the game just as much as the students, and some of them even join in!
Nathan has a full-time job as well! He's working for an after-school English school (if that makes any sense). I met the owner of the school, Mary, yesterday at a staff party they had, and she's really great. She's half Japanese, half Brazilian, and speaks Portuguese, English, and Japanese. I think she's going to be a great person to work for, and I think Nathan feels better now that he has some consistent pay. Ethan's doing great in school - he's improving in math and has made some good friends. The other day he came home from playing with friends with an armful of long sticks. He told me that he and his friend were making spears for when the Earth floods in 2012. I'm just happy he's outside and playing with friends, even if they are preparing for disasters!
More observations of Japanese elementary schools:
During lunch, every student wears an apron and a bandana (for their hair). Most even have placemats.
Accordions are standard musical equipment. Here's the proof:
Each classroom has an aquarium which either contains gold fish or small lobsters.
ES students love to have your autograph. I signed at least 15 English textbooks today.
They also love to give you gifts. Here's a pile of origami I received from one school:
A few people have asked me why Japanese are always throwing up the peace signs for pictures. I have no idea, and I'm not sure if anyone knows. They could be doing worse gestures with their hands, so I'll take the peace signs!
My second week of the elementary tour is almost over, and I have now visited 4 schools. I'm really glad I have the opportunity to visit so many, as it gives me a chance to really experience the broad range of neighborhoods and kids that make up Sapporo. Every school and it's students have been different, but there are definitely some common denominators I've noticed with each visit. Here's my very scientific (ha!) observations thus far:
As a visiting ALT, you are seen as a rock star to the students. They oooh and ahhh over your eye and hair color, clap and cheer when you walk into the room, and watch you with awe as you say "hello". At my first school last week, I had a group that called themselves the "Sarah fan club". This group walked me to the bus stop on my last day, and ran beside the bus as it was driving away. It's a bit surreal.
The Sarah Fan Club.
The amount of work a Japanese elementary school teacher is required to do amazes me. Each Home Room Teacher is not only the teacher of your regular classes - math, science, Japanese - but also teaches music, art, calligraphy, sewing and cooking, etc. There are no specials teachers, so the HRT does it all. Oh yeah, and teach English. Phew!
When I eat lunch with the students, they enthralled with my ability to use chopsticks. I find this with the adults as well.
Accordions are one of the instruments used by students in music class.
Every Japanese student knows Texas and cowboys. And they think my parent's house is huge!
I've been called "beautiful" and "cute" more times than I can count. It's quite the ego boost.
Japanese 1st graders are about the cutest things I've ever seen. Especially when they try to talk English.
I have to say, it's so nice to be able to go to work with a huge smile on your face, and the kids don't ask you why you're so happy all the time (what my former US students used to tell me). Now when I smile, they smile back. I have a month and a half of elementary schools to go, and I can't wait to see what's ahead.
When I first moved here, I didn't cook for the longest time. Sure, there were lots of restaurants and socializing going on the first few weeks we arrived, but honestly, I was scared to cook. The Japanese kitchen was as foreign a place to me as Japan itself. The stove looked like a camping stove, with no honest oven in sight, but supposedly the microwave could be the oven ( I've barely used the oven even today, as I can't make out most of the kanji.) And let's not forget the grocery store! Aisles and aisles of things that, as David Sedaris would say, "All look like soy sauce". I realized that I was going to have to get over my fear of the grocery store and learn how to cook in a Japanese kitchen. So the first thing I did was buy a cookbook (in English of course), on Japanese cooking. Seriously, before this move, the most Asian meals I'd made were stir fries, and I knew there had to be more I could cook than that.
First the basics. Most Japanese dishes revolve around rice, and thank goodness we had a rice cooker. It's super easy to use, and luckily, the people who lived here before us, wrote the English translations for the buttons. Next, most Japanese dishes start with a base of dashi, which is what I would describe as a broth of fish and seaweed. Luckily, you can buy instant dashi at the grocery store, and once I figured out the hiragana, I was set.
Here's some of the dishes I've made so far: Soba in broth with Japanese pumpkin Uh, I think this was udon casserole Okonomi-yaki with edamame. Okonomi-yaki is a pancake-like dish that was cabbage and ground pork in it.
I've made more, but I don't always get out the camera. I try to make mostly Japanese meals for dinner, with at least one American dish or pasta during the week.
And the grocery store's not such a scary place anymore. In fact, I feel rather proud of myself when I can read the labels and descriptions. Itadakimasu!!!