Harro!

So my life has taken a sudden uptick and I haven’t been able to devote as much time writing as I’d like to.

Just letting you all know I’m still alive and well – just busier than normal.

I’m hoping to be able to post more, but in the meantime I hope everyone is well! ❤

Remember, if you’re looking to apply to the JET Program and have any questions, feel free to ask me. I’ll try to do my best to answer them.

Likewise, anyone doing NaNoWriMo this year? Let’s hear about it!

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Futon

Right there, on the wall of my bedroom, was a cockroach.

I stared, frozen in disgust as it sat calmly on my wall – slightly camoflauged by the wooden perimeter that ran around the small room. Its spindly antennae moved back and forth inquisitively and I knew that it sensed my terror.

 

 

 

ゴキブリが大嫌い!!!

 

“Oh god oh god oh god oh god,” I repeated manically as if I had just found a dead body.

I took several deep breaths and tried to calm myself down. My revulsion at this intruder had rendered me nearly useless. I was revolted and hysterical but for some reason, I couldn’t take my eyes off the six-legged offender.

Composing myself slightly, I slowly made my way to the door of my bedroom. My bare feet pressed into the slippery surface of my tatami as I made my way out of my room. I hurriedly clomped down the stairs, causing a symphony of creaks and groans to fill the downstairs of my apartment.

I yanked the thin string of my ceiling light and it blinked slowly to life. A terrifying image came to my mind of a dozen cockroaches scattering across my floor, trying to escape the light. My friend Hermán’s words echoed in my head – “You know, I hear that if you see one cockroach in your house, it means there are about fifty more living there as well.”  How innocently he had relayed his little factoid – as if it were a piece of trivia we would hear and then file away for years.

Now, however, that was all I could think about. As I quickly made my way to the kitchen, I pictured an enormous family of cockroaches living in my walls. Zigzagging erratically across my floor when I wasn’t home. Having little cockroach pool parties in my mountain of unwashed dishes. Enjoying the cold air as they explored the inside of my wall-mounted air conditioning unit.

I held back a gag as I yanked open the cabinet under the sink. I kept a various array of cleaning supplies in here, along with my poison spray. I stared into the dark space with more than a bit of trepidation. If any place in my apartment was perfect for a huge family of cockroaches, I thought, it was most definitely this dark, cool space underneath my sink.

I snatched the can of poison spray and shut the door as quickly as I could. The design on the can was formidable looking and showed a red upside-down cockroach with a large X through it. The nozzle was apparently designed for heavy spraying which meant I would not have to be close to the offending insect.

When I got back to my room, I saw with a mixture of relief and dread that the bastard was still chilling on my wall, antennae swiveling back and forth on its gross, crispy head. I crept to the other end of the room and tugged my futon out of the way. I didn’t want to sleep in poison spray residue, after all.

Gripping the can in my shaking hand, I took a few more deep breaths. Your fear of bugs should not be this crippling, I chastised myself. It’s like four hundred times smaller than you are. And plus, you have poison. POISON.

As I psyched myself up, I began to feel an odd sort of remorse for killing the little guy. He’s only being himself, my emotional side chimed in. He’s probably cold. Maybe hungry or thirsty. And he just wandered in because he was trying to survive. Is that so wrong?

I stared at the cockroach again for a brief moment. Its black teardrop of a body was fairly large by cockroach standards. Its legs were jagged and almost hairy-looking. All the while, its incredibly long antennae wouldn’t stop moving.

I took a deep breath. It had to die. I wasn’t about to scoop it up nicely in a cup or with a piece of paper and kindly escort it out of my apartment. And I surely wasn’t going to let it roam free in the crevices of my place with the rest of its disgusting family. No, I decided firmly, this son of a bitch was going to have to be dealt with.

Readying myself, I tightened my grip on the can. My finger grazed the trigger and I steadied my aim. The cockroach’s antennae waved back and forth, paused for a bit and then continued to move alternately. I’m sure it sensed something was about to happen.

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Actual handrawn depiction of the events that transpired that evening

“Sorry, little dude,” I said, trying to sound simultaneously brave and apologetic. “You came into my house. I don’t wanna do this but you gave me no choice…”

I squeezed the trigger and a forceful spray shot out of the can. In the exact same instant, the cockroach leapt off the wall and flew toward my face. FLEW TOWARD MY FACE. Its wings made a sickening thump thump thump sound as they beat frantically against the air.

I let out a horrific shriek as I dove out of the way – something that must have sounded akin to a baby goat being attacked by a pterodactyl.

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Yes, my mouth really is that enormous

The newly-revealed flying cockroach made a sharp turn and crashed into the far wall of my bedroom. It fell on the wood perimeter of the room, safely off the tatami. Its spiky legs twitched, its body spasmed and, its (now obvious) wings flapped uselessly.

“YOU SON OF A BITCH!” I was now yelling. My finger was tight on the trigger, emptying far more of it onto the poor thing than was likely necessary.

It didn’t matter that it was now past midnight on a Tuesday. Or that the walls of my apartment allowed for every footstep, sneeze and snore of my elderly neighbors to be heard. Nor did it matter that said elderly neighbors and I had a fairly good relationship.

The only thing that mattered now was exacting revenge on this evolutionary freak of an insect that had taken me by surprise not once, but twice in the span of an hour.

After a few more seconds of adrenaline-fueled spraying and hysterical curse words, I released the trigger. The cockroach now lay glistening in a small lake of poison. Noxious fumes filled the area and I moved to crack open my window before I passed out.

Dramatically, I collapsed onto my tatami and covered my mouth and nose with my blanket. Nobody had told me cockroaches in Japan flew. I thought flying cockroaches were only a weird Floridian thing. What in the ever-loving christ was going on?

Before too long, I had a wad of far too many paper towels in my hand and I was standing over the insect again. Its angular legs kicked slowly against the air and my stomach turned in response.

Eventually, my heart rate slowed and my bedroom no longer reeked of insecticide. I had taken the cockroach in its massive tomb of paper towels and thrown it in the bag of perishable trash I kept in my freezer. I warily gave my apartment a final once-over before climbing the stairs to my bedroom again.

I don’t know what I would have done had I found another cockroach. Probably spend the night at a friend’s.

I verified that the walls, tatami and wooden perimeter of my bedroom were all bug-free before repositioning my futon. Shaking out the blankets diligently, I settled cautiously in to my futon, turned off the lights and tried not to think about where the cockroach had been before I found it.

 

*This is part of a larger story on my encounters with bugs in Japan. I hope to post more here sometime. Feedback is appreciated, as always! 😀 Do you hate bugs like I do? What’s your least favorite insect? Ugh.*

A year later: Bleeding Through

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about my life.

The Short Version: from 2010 to 2013, I lived in rural Japan. I taught English in local elementary and junior high schools. It was easily the most challenging, amazing, rewarding, frustrating and life-changing thing that has happened to me yet.

For this reason, I find myself still thinking about Japan quite often. I will talk about it to whoever will listen. I’m on the board of my city’s Japan-America Society. I try to practice my Japanese whenever I can. And I still keep up with and listen to a lot of Japanese music.

Whenever I find myself talking about Japan though, I can occasionally see something in my friends’ eyes for a split-second. An eye roll or a lift of the eyebrows that seems to say ‘oh jeez here he goes again’. As if I’m a veteran grandpa recounting his time in ‘Nam or something.

It just seems that I can’t let Japan go.

But…do I have to?

レリゴーレリゴー

レリゴーレリゴー

For me, living in Japan for three years was a serious life-changing event for many reasons: It was my first time living away from home, I was in a different country doing something that I had dreamed about doing for years. I was able to travel to several different countries as well as domestically in Japan. I also formed amazing relationships with my students, coworkers and other foreigners from all over the world. I was even featured on a radio program, a TV show and on the front page of a Kyushu-wide magazine!

These are extraordinary things to do in one’s early twenties and I recognize that I am incredibly fortunate to have been able to have the experience I had.

But now that I’m back, and as I look forward to the future, I find myself still wanting to hold on to my connection to Japan. It would be great to work someplace where I can use Japanese. I would love to go back and visit sometime – specifically Kumamoto. And I still want to practice the language as much as I can because, hey, I spent a lot of time learning it. I don’t want to forget it.

It’s difficult, however. I want to embrace and cherish the special relationship I have with this island country that’s seven thousand miles away. But at the same time, I don’t want to dwell on it so much that it turns in to this sort of conceived paradise that it never was – causing me to deem what I plan to do in the future as ‘not as cool as Japan’.

Even though I’ve been back in the US for almost a year. Things like dealing with reverse culture shock (which is a very real thing), shifting dynamics in friendships old and new, and the crumbling of a long-distance relationship have all been more challenging than I anticipated they would be.

These things caused me to reflect more fondly on the good times I had when I was living in Japan. Almost like an escape back in to the Good Old Days. I was even quite resentful for a short period after coming back to the states, feeling that I had plateaued in my life. I even began looking up ways to get back to Japan.

But this wouldn’t have solved anything.

A metaphor popped into my head the other day, though, that I feel aptly describes my feelings.

Imagine you have a blank journal. You write in said journal for a good number of years with pens of varying quality. Some of the pens may be blue or black or red. Some may have been running out of ink when you used them. Maybe you even wrote in pencil on a few occasions.

Then one day you obtain a new writing utensil: a marker. You continue to write with this marker for a good long while before you eventually lose it.

The next time you go to write in the journal again, you see that the words you’ve written on the previous pages have bled through to the next dozen pages or so. You can write over the splotchy words and exclamation marks that have bled through, but you’re still able to see them clearly.

 

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Japan was, for me, the time in my life that I wrote with the boldest, darkest marker I could. I painted the shit out of my journal with it. I doodled in all the margins, I took up every line on every page. I wrote so boldly that the ink bled through for pages and pages and pages.

Now, when I write more things in the journal of my life, it’s with the constant reminder of what I have done in the recent past. Instead of blank pages to start from, I’m forced to write over the inky shadows of exciting times that seemed like just yesterday.

It feels like the new words that I write are not eye-catching or impressive – especially when compared to the huge, fun strokes of what’s left over from before. It’s like they’re having to fight for space and attention on the page. Sometimes it almost feels too fresh to even attempt to write over.

What I’ve had to learn to do is to accept that these reminders of my time in Japan will always be there in my journal. They’re going to have bled through to a good number of pages. But as time goes on, the dark smudges and blotches will begin to lighten and fade as new pages are turned.

Part of me fears that I will never be able to recapture the gusto and passion from the time in my life that I wrote with that bold marker. But another part of me sees that as a challenge. Why wouldn’t I be able to have another experience like that? It’s up to me to make it happen.

Sometimes it’s definitely easier said than done, but I’m finding a nice balance now between my life that was and where I am currently. The wonderful thing about having a journal like this (or, life, as I call it) is that at any time, I can go back and relive all of these adventures. I can flip back a few years and lose myself in rumination about how great (or not so great) certain aspects were.

These moments are nostalgic and fun to look back on – especially with friends who were there too. But the truth is, there’s no hope of recreating them. And that is a painfully bittersweet thing to realize.

(noun) A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

Hiraeth: (noun) A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

 

I’ve seen discussions and articles from former JETs on ‘Breaking up with Japan’. I think this is a good way to put it, but it seems a bit…final. I guess for me, ’Archiving Japan’, is a better description of what I’m doing — writing about it, experiencing it again and storing it away in my memory.

And I know that every time I take it out and revisit it, I’ll see those bold-ass marker strokes and smile at what a great experience it was.

 

 For those ‘ex-expats’ who have left Japan (or anywhere) and have readjusted to their home countries, have you found you’ve gone through the same kind of challenge? Have you managed to strike a balance that’s put you at peace? Do you have any advice for others who are struggling? 

 

Rain and Rainbows, 雨と虹

 

ビショビショだね〜

ビショビショだね〜

 

As a child, June always began with a rush of excitement. School was on the brink of letting out for the summer, my birthday was right around the corner and the air seemed to buzz with the promise of adventures waiting to be had.

In Japan, however, I learned to my dismay that school was still in session during my birthday month. Schools in Kumamoto did not get out for summer vacation until mid-July or so. And even then, their summer break was only a couple of weeks long.

I remember the chorus of shocked “EHHHHHHH”s and resentful “IIIII NAAAAA”s when I told my sixth graders that Americans get three months off for summer vacation. The homeroom teacher threw me a scared look and then cast a wary glance at their class; I’m sure she feared an uprising of Japanese children who demanded a longer break from school.

“WHAT DO YOU DO FOR THREE MONTHS?!” they screamed incredulously.

“…forget EVERYTHING we learned.” I said, only half-joking.

The month of June, it seemed, was incredibly different in Japan. There, the air grew heavy with moisture and dark clouds covered the entire country. At night, the rice field directly behind my apartment came to life with hundreds of frogs croaking loudly from within.

Days later, as if responding to the amphibian rain orgy, the skies would open and torrential rain would begin to fall in sheets for days at a time. It was so unrelenting that the rice field would routinely flood and I would often find myself opening the curtain to lakefront property.

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Without fail, the calming pitter patter on my window would put me back to sleep so I always had to set at least four different alarms to make sure I got up. When I eventually rose, whatever motivation I had had for the day would sink down through my chest and disappear somewhere into my body.

I would make my way downstairs slowly and see my living room and kitchen bathed in gloomy gray light instead of brilliant sunshine. The intense humidity gave my walls a sheen of moisture, causing the posters to crinkle sadly. Sometimes they would simply give up and detach themselves from the rubber cement that held them in place.

I had to learn to consistently check for and clean up everyone’s least favorite guest during rainy season: mold. It sprouted everywhere, looking as if a tree sprite had run gaily through my apartment. During my first miserable rainy season, I was horrified to find it all over my floor. It stretched from my bathroom to the front door in a massive carpet. I hadn’t known that it was mold. I hadn’t even noticed that my floor had darkened.

Or maybe I had noticed and just didn’t care. Contrary to the feelings of excitement and opportunity that June gave me in the US, Rainy Season brought with it an overwhelming sense of melancholy and listlessness. I wanted to do things, but the onslaught of never-ending rain dampened any kind of desire I had.

Whenever I did venture outside my apartment, it was only to go to and from work. Wrapped in a poncho and rain pants that did little to keep me dry, I would hop on my wet bike seat, and ride to school – ignoring the rain that stung my eyes and blurred my vision.

This was my face most mornings.

This was my face most mornings.

When I finally arrived at school, I threw my soaked shoes in my cubby and padded barefoot through the hallway to the staffroom, leaving a wet trail behind me like a slug.

“Ohayou gozaimaaasu”, I would say as I entered. I always tried to be as cheerful as I could, but some days were harder than others. Especially during rainy season.

“Ohhh Ian Sensei,” a teacher would call out to me. “今日、自転車?” they would make an exaggerated bicycling motion and rock back and forth as they looked at me.

“Yes,” I would answer them in Japanese. “Today, bicycle. Every day, bicycle.”

After the fourth or fifth time of explaining to all of my teachers that my bicycle was indeed my only means of transportation, it got harder and harder to be patient with them.

“Ohhh,” they would say some mornings. “ビショビショだね〜”. You’re soaked, aren’t you?

“ちょっとだけ!” I would respond, my hair hanging in front of my face in wet spirals. Only a little! My sarcasm never translated well and they would always giggle innocently as I resisted the urge to wring my hair out over their desks.

ビショビショだね〜

ビショビショだね〜

Aside from the weather, another huge difference between June in Japan and June in the USA is the celebration of Pride.

Before I went to Japan, I never really saw Pride as something worth my time. I figured that it was just a bunch of drunk white people dancing around and sporting garish, risqué clothing while riding giant inflatable penises down the street.

I went to a Pride once when I was 17 or 18 in Las Vegas. I remember being underwhelmed and not really ‘getting’ it. Since then, I’ve never really had much of a desire to participate in or go to another one. Even though San Antonio Pride is a big deal, and even supported by the mayor, I’ve still never made the trek downtown for it.

This year will be different, though.

In Japan, the topic of being gay rarely came up – if ever. I would constantly be asked questions like ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ and ‘What’s your type?’ and ‘Do you like Japanese girls?’.

I would answer these questions vaguely – not giving any more information than I needed to. No, I definitely did not have a girlfriend. My type? Nice people (never stating a gender). Yes, I liked Japanese girls, they were very nice. I had several girl friends who were Japanese.

The longer this went on, the more frustrated I became. Coming from a country where I was out to everyone from my family to my coworkers and classmates, it was torture to dance around these issues and be so vague. I wanted nothing more than to answer honestly: that I didn’t have a girlfriend, but rather a boyfriend who was Japanese. I wanted to tell them how we’d been dating for two years and how he was great and how being gay is nothing like the ridiculous caricatures that are paraded across Japanese television.

But I didn’t. Instead, I kept my mouth shut, rolled my eyes and bit my tongue harder and harder as I answered the same questions again and again.

It was tough for me because as much as I wanted to be the cool openly gay American ALT in my city, I knew I wasn’t prepared to take on the responsibility of such an announcement. There were too many uncertainties – how would the students react? How would the teachers? My board of education? If a problem were to arise, CLAIR (the organization behind the JET Program) would surely have my back…but was that really something I wanted to dive in to?

The questions and constant assumptions of my heterosexuality were annoying and difficult to deal with some days, but it was the price of choosing what I did. I’ve known openly gay ALTs (GAyLTs, as I lovingly say) who have had great experiences and were completely accepted by everyone. For me, the risk of outing myself and possibly changing my entire experience in Japan was just not worth it.

Now that I’m back in the US, though, I’m reminded this June about what it means to be LGBT. With marriage bans being struck down left and right, the president officially declaring June as LGBT Pride Month and emerging conversations and education about trans* issues, it’s an exciting time to be in the United States.

 

Things that I had taken for granted before living in Japan are once again readily available to me: Being able to go to gay bars without having to go to a different city. Being around other openly LGBT people. The ability to bring up and discuss things like LGBT rights in public without feeling like I’m committing an enormous faux pas.

And, of course, the fact that it’s SUNNY.

As Pride events pop up throughout the city and I meet other people who share a common thread with me, I find myself feeling very different about Pride than I have in years past. I feel an appreciation for my local community, proud of how far the LGBT rights movement has come and optimism for its future. This must be what Pride feels like. And I’ve missed it.

While I miss Japan and the life that I had there every day, I am grateful to be back in the USA (for the time being) to experience this. This is my first June since coming back and I’m so happy to be experiencing more Rainbow than Rain.

Tackling the JET Program (Part 7): Placements!

 

Hey new JETs, it’s that time of year again! After what feels like months of agonizing silence, you’ve finally gotten your placement!

I love this time because the internet explodes with curiosity, excitement and uncertainty. New friendships are formed as leaving JETs get in contact with their successors and vice-versa. The staying JET community is flooded with excited gossip about who’s coming next, where they’re from and what they look like (Yes, I’m serious. I dare anyone to argue with me about this).

This is a super exciting time as it means that you’re one step closer to moving to Japan! Having an assigned prefecture/city/town/island makes it all the more real. Ahhh!

Here are some tips that I found helped me when I first got my placement in the wonderful Kumamoto prefecture.

 

 

  •  Reserve your judgmenet about how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ your placement is

When I googled Yatsushiro City, the only thing that came up was the depressingly barren Wikipedia page. I actually don’t think it’s changed at all since I last checked it three years ago. I learned about a giant pommelo fruit (banpeiyu) that is grown there, a festival in November…and the main shopping area that is ‘in decline’.

To be honest, I was a bit bummed. Where was this strange place that I was going to? All my other friends who had been accepted to JET were rejoicing in their placements that were only a couple of hours from Tokyo or Osaka. I felt as if I had kind of been exiled to Kyushu – far away from my friends and the big cities that I associated with being ‘REAL JAPAN’.

When I actually arrived in my city, however, I found it to be so much more than I ever expected. There were two giant malls, a gorgeous mountain range to the east and a port to the west. There were ample hiking opportunities, I was super close to a train station and they were actually building a shinkansen (bullet train) stop that was to be completed within the next year.

My point is: don’t put full faith in whatever you happen to scrape together about your placement on the internet. There’s really no way to know how much you’re going to like or hate it until you are actually there. Don’t be discouraged! It’s far too early!! 

 

  • Don’t compare yourself to other JETs and their placements.

I touched on this briefly in the last bullet point, but it’s important. Don’t compare yourself to other people. Especially those who think they know all about their placement. I had people at Tokyo Orientation practically bragging to me about being placed in X Y Z prefecture and how they were going to be so close to A B C and how they were going to do D E F every weekend.

Coming to Japan is exciting, it really is. I think that some people get so caught up in the excitement of it, though, that they start to fantasize they’re already living the life they’re dreaming about. It might sound great to be located only three hours from Tokyo. The reality, though, might be having to drive/take a bus 50 minutes through the mountains to get to the nearest train station in order to hop one of two daily trains that head that direction. Not quite as glamorous as it sounds.

If you compare yourself to other new JETs who are bragging about their placements before even getting there, you might start to feel unnecessarily bad about your own awesome placement. Pay them no mind. Just nod politely, maybe give them the ‘wow, cool!’ that they so desire…and then forget about it.

 

  • Start connecting with people ASAP!

I am a very social person. As such, I immediately began to scour Facebook and other social media when I received my placement. I discovered the AJET page for Kumamoto, joined it and announced myself. I was met with an incredibly warm welcome and instantly found myself put in contact with other JETs in my city or nearby. I then got to ask them all of my noob questions and, in the process, became even more excited about going.

I found in my time in Japan that, as a whole, the JET community is amazingly supportive and welcoming. Take advantage of this social network. In my experience, JETs in your prefecture are just as excited to meet you as you are them. Trust me 🙂

 

  • Reevaluate your expectations.

Surely, if you’re moving to Japan, you’re prepared for things to be different. But knowing your placement can solidify things you had been wondering about. Maybe you’re going to have to get a car and you didn’t think you would need one. Maybe you’re going to be a high school ALT and you really really wanted junior high/elementary. Maybe you’re going to be the only person in a village of 3,000.

I think that, applying to JET, many of us have expectations about what it could be like. When you get your placement, however, these expectations could shift slightly or be totally obliterated. If you were planning on being super close to Hiroshima because you studied there once…only to be found out that you were placed in Northern Hokkaido, you might have to reevaluate your expectations.

Like I said before, don’t get discouraged because things turned out different than you had expected/wanted. It’s important to keep an open mind and roll with the punches. Not only is it required almost every day as a JET, it’s quite possible that you will grow to love your placement more than you ever thought you could.

 

And that’s about all the advice I can think of at the moment! As I said, this is an exciting time and it’s a step closer to the reality of moving to Japan! Enjoy the time you have left while you prepare for your adventure!

If you’re a JET, where are you headed? If there’s anything else that I could maybe help with, feel free to leave a comment! And, if you’re headed to Kumamoto, congratulations!! 😀 

Ian Sensei’s Great Easter Egg Hunt

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It was the beginning of spring and I was going insane. 

The weather had given way from a miserably cold winter to brisk mornings and gorgeous sun-filled afternoons.  Outside, cherry blossom trees everywhere were in full bloom – their gorgeous pink displays lifting my spirits immeasurably.

As I zipped down the bike path that led to my school I was greeted with more smiles and ‘ohayou gozaimasu’s from obaachans than I had been in months. The hordes of biking students on their way to school also seemed much happier. They laughed  and even greeted me in English as they passed; a stark contrast to the winter in which we would both pass each other in frigid silence – cursing the weather and how difficult it made riding a bike. 

 It seemed that everyone in my city had collectively awoken from a grumpy winter hibernation. Like a caterpillar breaking out of its cocoon to reveal a smiling, colorful butterfly, spring had arrived and the ice from everyone’s psyche had melted.

 In Japan, the start of the school year happens in April. Students are mixed into new homeroom classes, able to choose what extracurricular activities they want to partake in, and former 6th graders don their spiffy new uniforms and prepare to venture forth into the intimidating world of Japanese junior high school. Because of this, the atmosphere at most schools is always abuzz with nervous, excited energy.

 During this time, students are not the only ones who experience change. Every year, a good portion of the faculty and staff are moved around as well. This can be as minimal as moving a fifth grade teacher to sixth grade or as drastic as removing them from the school altogether. Nobody is exempt from this shuffle – principals and vice-principals included.

 In my schools, about twenty teachers (give or take) were sent to different schools every new year. Sometimes they are sent to different schools in the city and sometimes they are sent to other parts of the prefecture (often with minimal time to prepare).

The reasoning behind this is baffling to me as an American; I can remember going back to see my second grade teacher when I was graduating sixth grade. She was still there, and hadn’t changed a bit. This rarely happens in Japan, however.

 I’m unclear as to exactly what the motive is for scrambling everything but I’ve heard it has something to do with keeping teachers and staff from stagnating in their current positions. Whatever the reason, it’s always a stressful time of year for everyone involved. 

For ALTs, it can be extremely stressful and a bit like playing Russian Roulette…but that’s a discussion for another time.

 With all of this excitement and change in the air, however, ALTs are usually forgotten amongst the hustle and bustle. At least I was at my school.

 During Spring Break, I came to work in the morning, sat at my desk and would literally do nothing all day. This torture was further compounded by the fact that I asked my supervisors, other teachers, and even the office staff if I could help with anything. I was politely told that no, they did not need any help but they appreciated my asking. 

 As such, I often tried to plan lessons but ultimately always ended up staring out the window of the staffroom and lamenting my boredom. 

 After the first few days of this cruel and unusual punishment, I could no longer take it. I would get up and walk around the school without any purpose or notice to anyone. The students, who were sometimes there for their club activities (yes, even during Spring Break!) were reluctant to talk to me. I realized how strange I must have looked, wandering the halls like some kind of foreign curly-haired specter. 

 Before long, I decided to do something. I had an English Board that I would meticulously decorate and update all the time. I would discuss American culture, holidays and the top songs on iTunes for the month. I would print out eye-catching pictures and write easy-to-understand descriptions for my students to read. It was largely ignored by both faculty and students alike.   

 Undeterred by the general lack of interest, I came up with a great idea. Since Easter was around the corner, I decided to get creative. I was going to do an Easter Egg Hunt. 

 Having wandered my school for a few days, I began to think of places I could hide my Easter Eggs. I began to come up with easy-to-understand English clues and, I soon had quite a list. The clues ranged in difficulty so that first years who may not have had great English ability had a chance to compete as well. 

 I procured several sheets of colorful construction paper from the office ladies (‘No we still don’t need help with anything but thanks for asking again…’) and cut out several ovals of varying sizes and colors. I numbered each from one to twenty four and labelled them simply ‘EASTER EGG!’. 

 My clues were transferred to a sheet of paper and included things like: “This is what you use if there is a fire.”, “This is where you learn to sing and play music.”, and “You go here when you feel sick.”. 

 Soon I was traversing the hallways excitedly, no longer plodding about like a zombie. Colorful eggs in one hand a tape dispenser in the other, I gleefully flitted from place to place hiding my eggs like a strange Easter bunny.

 Soon, the semester started and I, with my eggs all cleverly hidden could not wait.

 During the end of the opening assembly the next day, the vice principal asked if any of the teachers had any announcements. Everyone was a bit shocked when my hand shot up from where the teachers were sitting.

 “Er…yes, Ian Sensei, douzo…” he said as I padded across the slick wood floors of the gym in my socks.

 “Hello!” I said grabbing the mic and walking in front of eight hundred confused junior high schoolers. “In the United States, Easter is a big celebration in April.” 

 As I was explaining, my supervisor translated what I was saying. 

 “We do something called an Easter Egg Hunt!” I continued. “People hide colorful, hard-boiled eggs and children have to find them.” 

 “I thought that we could have our very own Easter Egg Hunt here!” I went on. The audience murmured excitedly as I told them how I had hidden 24 ‘eggs’ around the school. 

 “Read the clues on my English board and when you find an egg,” I said. “Bring it to me in the staffroom and I will give you a special prize!” 

 At the mention of ‘special prize’, the students broke into an excited clamor. What was this? Something fun being done at school? Was I going to give them money? 

 I thanked them, ended my speech and then sat back down as the crowd continued to buzz. The other teachers gave me confused stares and but I saw some grins among them. 

 An hour or two after the assembly had ended, a student opened the staffroom door and announced that he was there to see me. This hardly ever happened. Several teachers cocked their heads in confusion and watched as the boy approached me with an egg. 

 “Awesome!” I exclaimed as he handed me the red oval of construction paper. “Great job! Where was it?” 

 “Umm, under the bench,” he told me. It was the first clue that I had listed on my sheet: ‘Look under the bench in front of this English Board’ 

 “Ah,” I said. “Super easy, right?” He nodded in response. He was a fairly high level student.

 I had him write his name on the egg and then exchanged it for a pack of candy (Skittles) and a pencil. It may not seem like much, but in Japan, giving candy to students is sort of a no-no. I had neglected to tell any of the teachers this, because I knew I would be met with opposition. 

 Word got out that Ian Sensei was handing out candy and within a day, many of my students had turned in to mini-Sherlocks. I would see them roaming the school during lunch or looking behind pictures in the hallway on their way to their next class. 

 “IAN SENSEI HINT PLEASE!” they would shout to me if they saw me. I would just give them a grin and a shrug, thereby stressing them out more. 

Easter Egg Board

 During lunch, I would hang out at my English Board. I stapled the eggs that had been found to the board and crossed the number off of the hint list. If any students came by, I would help them with any hints that they were struggling with. It was great to see the spark of understanding in their eye before they dashed off down the stairs. 

 Some of the more challenging eggs were found quicker than I had expected. I had hidden them in clever places: under keyboards, behind paintings, in an English book in the library, taped to a fire extinguisher, folded into a metronome in the music room etc. I had also hidden one in each homeroom – taped behind the blackboard, tucked into a mounted fan, posted on a class bulletin board.

 Within three days, over half of the eggs had been found. I felt a bit like WIlly Wonka with his golden tickets. 

 Eventually the furor over Easter died down and the students returned to walking mindlessly through the hallways. I think that the grand total for ‘found’ eggs was about seventeen or eighteen – not too shabby. 

 As the school year continued to pick up, the excitement and energy faded away and everyone fell in to a routine. April came and went and I eventually had to pull off the Easter Eggs and make way for the next English board topic.
 
For many ALTs, this time of year is mind-numbingly tedious and unbearably slow. I was proud of myself for finding a fun way to beat the boredom, involve my students and introduce a (heavily edited) aspect of American culture all in one fun activity. I felt accomplished and it was a great way to start my final school year on JET.

 For any current or future ALTs reading this, sometimes the hardest part about teaching English in Japan is not doing anything at all. I definitely know the feeling of being ignored, overlooked and left to basically sit at a desk all day. It’s challenging to not give up and fall in to the ‘well FINE, I won’t do anything then!’ mentality. I myself am guilty of doing it many a day. 

 I think that during times like this, though, it can be invaluable to try and channel creativity in to something that can benefit your school and your students. Plus, it shows your colleagues that you really aren’t just an expensive office ornament.

In my experience from being an ALT, one has to be proactive and brave enough to just do something. If you ask if you can do something, most times you will be met with a teeth sucking noise (‘tsssss, chotto….’) and reluctance to try something new. But I’ve found if you just do something, you will often bypass all the beaurocratic fluff and bullshit. 

 The reason I wrote this was just because I was feeling nostalgic and Easter is coming up. I hope I’ve been able to entertain and inspire with this story. If you have any questions or comments, feedback is greatly appreciated! Let me know in the comments! 

3.11

Three years ago, I was teaching at Close Elementary (named for it being literally five minutes from my apartment). It was around the end of fifth period, I believe and I couldn’t tell you what I was teaching.

Suddenly the school’s PA system chimed its quick four-note arpeggio. This was rare during class and we all stopped in confusion. The principal’s voice said something that I didn’t understand and, before I knew it, the Homeroom Teacher and I were heading down the hallway toward the staffroom.

As it was my first year in Japan, my level of Japanese was pretty low. I had no idea what was going on as I entered the staffroom but, judging by the looks on teachers’ faces, I could tell it wasn’t good.

Over the next ten minutes, the principal explained something to everyone. Words like ‘Jishin’ and ‘Tohouku’ flew by me and I didn’t understand any of it. The school nurse, seeing my blank stare, asked if I understood what was going on. Thankfully, she spoke great English and filled me in: There had been a big earthquake and tsunami up in northern Japan. Although we were far from Tokyo, my city was put on Tsunami Watch (we were located next to the sea, after all).

I dutifully updated my Facebook status to let my friends and family – in particular my mother – know that I was fine.

After the principal was done with his briefing, he turned a TV on so everyone could monitor the situation. My eyes grew large as I saw an enormous wall of water sweep across an airport runway. Dozens of kanji that I did not understand scrolled below the images that were being displayed. Wow, I thought, this is terrible.

Soon after, my workday ended and I rode home and talked to the other ALTs. None of us really understood what had happened, but we knew that it was an earthquake, a tsunami and it was bad.

That night, a few friends and I rode in to Kumamoto City by train to see a DJ I loved. Upon getting to the club, however, a sign on the door informed us that due to the earthquake, she would not be attending tonight. She was from Tokyo and it appeared that transporation in an out of the metropolis had been ground to a halt. We had not realized just how bad this disaster actually was.

The next day, more and more images and news began to appear on the news. For the first time since I got to Japan, my TV was on and I was glued to the coverage, understanding the images I was seeing more than the words that were being spoken. Tokyo Tower had been bent by the quake, entire towns had been swept off the map, thousands of people were unaccounted for and the Tohoku region was a disaster area. My heart broke.

Kumamoto is over 1,000 kilometers (over 600 miles) away from Tokyo and even farther away from Tohoku. Being so far away from the crisis that was going on yet still in the same country felt very surreal.

 As I think is natural for humans, I immediately wanted to go help. I was prepared to train up north and assist in any way that I could. An email from the Prefectural Advisors, however, put a stop to that. They asked that, while difficult, we abstain from going to volunteer. They cited that eager, untrained volunteers could be more of a hindrance than help.

Instead, I donated $600 to the relief fund and continued to watch in horror as the news began to report about the Fukushima nuclear plants. After about a week of this, my friends and I decided to turn off the news and go a day without it. It was starting to drive us mad.

Around this time, my annoying aunt began messaging me on Facebook. It started out innocently enough; she asked if I was alright, I assured her that I was. Then she began asking me if I could go on a radio show that she was doing and ‘talk about my experiences’. Although I repeatedly told her about how far away I was from Tohoku and that I did not experience anything different, she was relentless. I eventually just ignored her. I was furious that she was trying to use me to speak on a tragedy that I had not experienced; just in order for her radio show to have a ‘scoop’.

Even now, I’ll have people ask if I was there during the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. When I tell them that I was, I see their eyes widen and they want to hear about my experiences. I am quick to tell them that I was far away and that it did not affect me. It pains me to be able to say this because I know that so many other people in Japan are not able to do so. I have met JETs from Ibaraki and Fukushima and I have the utmost respect and admiration for them. They stayed when things were almost unbearable and for that, they are amazing.

The Tohoku area is rebuilding but even after three years, there is a long way to go. If you are able, please consider a donation to the JET Alumni Association Fundraiser on Globalgiving.org. The website will MATCH whatever you donate.

Thanks for reading my rambling story. I felt like I needed to write about it.