Let’s Enjoy This Together!

I decided to title this post based on a phrase I hear my Japanese English Teachers say when they approve or excited about an activity for class. Last week was incredible. I am not sure where I should begin. I’ll just start with the day I can recall the best.

Thursday was a big day for me. It was the day I delivered my first speech as a keynote speaker.  I woke up feeling great. After having to completely change my speech  three days before the event, I wasn’ t too excited about talking at the Rotary Club meeting. I was upset because I worked really hard on the first speech–pulling out quotes and researching Japanese idioms– I was sad to see that hard work go to waste. They weren’t clear about what they wanted me to talk about. All I knew was that it had to be something about English and intercultural understanding. Because I didn’t want to praise English, the anthropologist side of me made a general speech about language and culture ( this was the first speech). Cheese like a chest cat because I finished my speech a week before the date, Katrina presented my speech to my boss. He didn’t approve. He said I needed to provide a more Kazuno specific speech about the English program and my experience. ( pretty much say how awesome it is) If you read my previous posts, you know how I feel about Japan’s English Education Program– so this was not going to be an easy task.  How do I give an honest account about my experiences in Kazuno without offending anyone? The Rotarians seemed like they wanted a speech that praised the English Program, but I had very little praise for it. I didn’t want people leaving my speech feeling negative or upset about what I had to say, BUT I know that I just couldn’t flat out lie. So, how  do I give an honest account of my experience and pretty much ‘stroke the egos’ ( not literally because I didn’t feel any of them had an ego) of these Rotarians. After knocking out the speech in 3-4 hours, I thought my speech was horrible ( only because I became attached to the first one). I didn’t look over my speech until Wednesday. I began reading over it and practicing for the next day. After looking over it a couple of times, I felt proud about what I had to say. The speech captured everything I wanted to say without hurting anyone’s feelings. It gave an honest description of my teaching experience in Japan while offering powerful insight. It captured my passion about Japan’s English Education program and it left hope for those that were listening. It was a subtle call for change.  As I shook off the butterflies in my stomach that Thursday afternoon, I said a pray. I asked God to make sure my seed ( speech) fell on good soil… that my words wouldn’t just wither away but impact someone in the room. After taking part in the traditional Rotorary club opening ceremony and partaking in a delicious meal, it was my turn to go up. I took a deep breath, smiled, and kindly accepted my invitation to the podium. Here is what I said…. ( please excuse punctuation — 🙂 — still working on that part of my writing)— this speech was translated in Japanese by the other ALT– yay!

“As the spread of  political ideas, religious beliefs,  popular music and literature slowly begin the process of creating a world without borders—where cultural exchange becomes a part of people’s everyday lives—learning a new language becomes that much more important.  By establishing an  English Education Program in schools, Japan recognizes the impact a new language has on an individual’s growth and understanding of themselves and the world around them. Learning English serves as one method for Japanese students to reflect on their own culture while gaining new knowledge about cultures outside of their own.

Before arriving to Japan, I didn’t know how I’d use English for the purpose of intercultural exchange.  I hadn’t studied English since High School and  I had absolutely  no idea how to teach English. I couldn’t possibly use English to promote intercultural understanding. Well, I was wrong. Every day, I’ve taught my students something about the United States, sometimes, without even knowing it. For example, a teacher at Towada Elementary School asked me to do an activity with the students.  I automatically came up with a game called Hokey Pokey. When I was younger, my sisters and I always played this game. With the intent to teach the students a fun game about the body parts, at the end of the game, I noticed that I provided the students with that and more. I taught them a game that was extremely popular in the 90s among little children their age.  Teaching English not only allowed me to share pieces of North American culture with my students, but it caused me to reflect on my own values and beliefs. After about, what felt like, 100 self introductions, I learned how much Latin American culture influenced the music I listen to and the food I  like. I found myself giving a whole lesson on quesadillas and tacos, Mexican food, when describing popular restaurants in my neighborhood. So, while learning English serves as a tool for Japanese students to discover a new culture, teaching English, for me, serves as a way to reflect on my cultural beliefs and values that have shaped me into the person I am today. 

Self evaluation of my cultural identity and intercultural understanding isn’t the only thing I’ve gained from teaching English.  I’ve also  learned a great deal about Japan’s English Education program. After attending my first class at Towada Junior High School, I was impressed with how much grammar the students knew.  They were reciting phrases and forming complete sentences. Feeling positive about my first classroom experience and my student’s English, I looked forward to engaging in conversation with my students outside of the class.  Since I planned on eating with my students for lunch, I thought lunch would be the perfect time.  At 12:30 we ate lunch. There was music playing on the intercom—I think it was AKB48.  Since I wasn’t sure, I asked my students, “ Who is singing? What music is this?” I received blank stares. I asked a few other simple questions and realized that my students—the same ones that were reciting perfect grammatical phrases in class, did not know how to communicate in English.  I was surprised . In class, they appeared to know English, yet outside of class, it was a completely different story.

            After experiencing the same situation in the six other schools, I asked myself why is this happening? The students have wonderful grammatical skills and know the text book perfectly, but they don’t know how to communicate in English.  The Japanese English education program focuses heavily on passing exams.  While test and exams are very important, developing communicative skills is also important.  The ability to communicate in a language becomes the breeding ground for intercultural understanding.  Through interactive activities, class presentations, and authentic dialog, students can hone in on their English communication skills. While the basic methods of  preparing Japanese students for the test have been quite successful, we have to consider our students futures as well. We have to prepare them to be successful in our globalized society where  ideas, languages, and music are spreading and a shared language is needed to interact. It appears that English is slowly becoming that shared language that connects people from all walks of life; thus, it’s essential to equip our students with English communication abilities. Finding a balance between exam preparation and English communication/speaking abilities allows students and teachers to confidentially engage in conversations outside of the written textbook and  move closer towards an intercultural understanding.  A famous American writer said, “Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”  The quote simply means that the key to gaining an understanding of another person’s culture is through language.  So, the lack of communication ability denies access into another person’s culture, which in turn,  limits  the process of intercultural exchange. In time, I truly believe that Japan’s English Education program is capable of finding that balance. I’ve already witnessed changes in a few of my classes. With the combination of exam preparation and English speaking skills, students will become masters of English – using this  skill to navigate and become more successful in this global society.”

Here are pictures from the big day— I will talk about the other events from last week in my next post ready to knock em dead My coworker showing me the sign that annouces the meeting beautiful garden at hotel-- we had to wait because we were a bit early  a little nervous but really excited--- Katrina translated my speech--- she's awesome!  moment of truth-- how exciting  with the President and Vice President the delicious meal  the speech :)  a few other people from the Rotary Club


Q: “Are your students learning English?” A: ” They have some great memories.”

I’ve been very hesitant to speak about the Japanese English Education Program. I’ve pranced around it a bit and even expressed my frustration with one of the classes in my previous post. First, I’d like to make this very clear. I am not a promoter of the ‘American way’. Never will be because I was taught to understand a culture on it’s own terms. However, I am a promoter of a method that works. Whatever that method is, if it works, then everything is gravy.  If it doesn’t work then maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Within the first few weeks of teaching English in Japan, I quickly learned that these students do not know English. The teachers in class ask them to “buzz read” – an activity that requires them to read the passage as fast as they can and as many time as the teacher tells them, “recite” -the students have to memorize the text and then come to me and see how much they have remembered, “reflect” – this usually is the teacher giving the a format ( pretty much all the ‘hard’ stuff ins written and they have to fill in the endings with nouns), and “repeat” – repeat vocabulary words, phrases, passages after me sometimes three times.  The class is mostly taught in Japanese. I would say a little under half of the class is in English. The  students are dependent on the Japanese explanation of things.  Everything in the class is by the textbook–no deviation.  So, when I ask a student outside of the class “What did you do this weekend?”, I often receive a confused look and a tilted head, or something like ” I like soccer”. This response has absolutely nothing to do with the question. Or, when I instruct the students, with very exaggerated expressions, to “move your desk and make a circle” or “raise your hand when you have the answer” , a few students appear to understand but no one moves. At first, I thought maybe this was only true for this school. After teaching at all seven of my schools, this observations holds true across the board.

The Japanese English Program does not teach students English.

It teaches students how to memorize phrases from the book and prepare for the big test. Why is this a problem? Well, this means that the students are deprived of an opportunity to be creative and test the waters with English. Because of the limited approach to English, students believe that they can only use words/phrases based off of the one structure learned in class to form sentences and present an idea. This means that students aren’t encouraged to challenge themselves because they only have to follow the book; when that’s confusing, they know the teacher will revert back to Japanese to explain. The application of the language is missing in the Japanese English Education Program. When you ask a student about a topic they just learned in class using the same words but a slightly different structure and their response is a blank stare….It’s a problem. It means that the students really don’t know English, they just know how to memorize and recite.  It’s really sad and disappointing when you think about it.  I leave the class everyday knowing that what I’ve just taught probably won’t be remember or will be watered down to the text book version. I’m encouraged to stick with the structure of the book . Sometimes when I present ideas for activities, the teacher is hesitant. Thank God they still let me try it out and it works! But, I know after my two weeks of visiting the school, the teacher will go back to the same model.  So the problem I’m left to solve is, how, as a foreigner, can I influence the way English is taught in my schools?  I don’t have an answer. No, this doesn’t mean I’m throwing the towel in on these students. Some days, I bring ideas to the table and do activities in the class that I feel will be different and help them remember what they are learning. So, I try— BUT, is that enough?

The saddest thing happened to me last month. I was teaching at an elementary school that day. As I mentioned before, elementary English teachers are not trained to teach English. It’s a pretty recent requirement for elementary students to learn English. Recognizing this, I realize the teachers aren’t very confident in their own teaching abilities. As a result, they have very low expectations for their students. While yes, no teacher wants their students to fail , but they are less inclined to push them a little if they feel  they aren’t capable. This particular day, I ask the teacher ( in so many gestures and pictures) about an activity I wanted to try in class. They were learning about shape, colors, and numbers. I decided to plan an activity called the tshirt factory. There would be student store owners and customers. The store owner would have to ask  questions like ” What color do you like? ” What shape for you like” “How many shapes would you like”  and the customers would have to say the correct response based on vocab they learned.  It was a great way to get the students thinking on their own without reciting after a chant on the computer. This activity worked perfectly at the other school. Once I explained the activity, the teacher said it was be too difficult.  But, if you know me, I’m persistent. I don’t give up on the first try. So, I pulled out my handy-dandy translator and told her to have a little faith in her students. “It’s challenging but I know that they can do it.”  Guess you are wondering how the activity went, wellllll… the first class it was very very tough to get them to understand, but they finally caught on. After we evaluated what went wrong in the first class, the activity went a little more smoothly in the second class. I would say it was a success. The students got to go home with cute little shirts that they made for each other and learned something new would stick.   It made me sad that this teacher didn’t have much faith in her students’ learning abilities. She was nervous to challenge them because English is even hard for her.  I find this mindset in many other teachers too. They say , ” oh, might be too difficult” or something similar, but you never know until you try. It’s ok to deviate sometimes.

So why do write this post? Hmm, I guess because I’ve finally calmed down enough to really analyze what’s wrong with the system. And,  because I learned that my speech for the Rotary club now  HAS to be about how good Japanese English Education Program is in Kazuno– I have to brag :/ Tough topic when you truly believe that it has a lot of room improvement.

Gift Giving – Nope, it’s not Christmas.

On countless occasions, I’ve come home from a long day of work to my neighbor running out of her apartment to hand me a bag of green peppers, cucumbers, or apples from her garden.  Unsure of why I’m presented with these gifts, especially since we’ve never met; I accept them with a huge smile and a grateful heart. Prior ro Japan, I was told to bring gifts from home ( omiyage) to present to my schools once I arrived. I skimmed a few books about Japanese culture and read a small paragraph about gift giving ,but I didn’t realize how important it is in Japanese culture until being showered with gifts on a weekly basis.  Every Japanese home I’ve visited, I’ve always left with a bag of fruits, noodles, or sweets. My hands are never empty. If it’s not a gift, I’m presented with a tasty meal. Gift giving doesn’t end in the home. When people in the office leave for business trips, they come back with sweets for everyone in the office. It’s a part of  Japanese culture that I really admire – having an attitude of giving. Not to receive something in return but to give because you want to see the person happy. I’ve mentioned this to a few of my friends back home and they always say,” Now in America, you know that wouldn’t happen!” As much as I want to ‘root’ for America, I have to agree 100% that this doesn’t happen.  People would probably look at you crazy if you handed them a bag of sugar before they left your house.   Realizing this, it causes me to reevaluate  gift giving in American. Yes, we have people who set up charity funds, donate money to organizations, etc , but if we examine what’s presented to us in the media – music, commercials, radio, reflect on America’s historical beginnings/history, politics, and the workplace, I’d say we can do a lot better– including myself. Experiencing gift giving in Japan has been one of the most humbling experiences I’ve had.  It has encouraged me to adopt this attitude when I’m home. I even tried here by giving my neighbor a bag of potatoes.  I was hoping she didn’t feel like she had to give me something back BUT she gave me some apples. At times, I feel guilt being mostly  on the receiving end of gift giving, but I recognize the cultural importance of the gesture. It’s not to make you feel guilty about receiving gifts, but to make you  feel honored and appreciated by the person giving ( honor and respect are extremely importance values in Japan). When I return to the States, I hope to adopt this culture of honor through gift giving and bless others just because. However, I will be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m  a little apprehensive because folks are trifling and  could try to take advantage of my kindness. Nonetheless, I will TRY it out. Oh random , but I came back from class and saw two bags of goodies on my desk from someone in the office :)— guess someone went on a business trip again!

Woooo Sahh!!

As we transitioned to start the next activity the teacher says ” Big  circle one, big circle one”.  I say, ” One big circle everyone” about two times and the teacher still doesn’t catch that her instructions are incorrect. Japanese English teacher mispronouncing words in the classroom  isn’t anything new for to me and most of the time, I’m pretty understanding.  But today, not so much. I’m not sure why this saying had me on the edge and ready scream… hmm maybe it was because of the events that occurred before this moment.  I was already having an off day. I forgot my earrings, I forgot to put olive oil in my hair for my wash and go, and when I arrived to the school, I realized that left my lunch. Confident that I’d have the morning to myself to relax and mentally prepare for my class in the afternoon, I learned that I misread my schedule and had a class first period. Just great, I thought.  The teacher for the class gave me another last-minute explanation of how the class will run. I’m used to this happening, so I just nodded my head and was happy we were on the same page for class. As I walked up three flights of stairs, I said a prayer asking for strength and praised God for this wonderful day. I needed something to be happy and smile about. Well, that happiness quickly rubbed off once I entered the class. I was glad I finally understood the schedule of the school and arrived to the class on time without a student having to come to the office get me. The teacher took about 10 minutes to prepare for the class and asked me to sit with the students until she was ready. That was cool, tested my patience, but, I think I passed that test.  Finally, time to start class. We did the normal class greeting and everyone was ready to begin. This is where it went downhill.  Before class the teacher said we’d teach the phrases ” I want to go t0 ( fill in the blank with random country). Where do you want to go?  I was pretty familiar with this page because I’ve done the lesson about 10 times last month. She explained how we’d go about teaching by doing a little music game and then tossing the ball. This is what I understood from our previous conversations… WELL, I guess she decided to tweak it a bit at the last-minute. Soon after the class greeting, I’m presented with the task of translating from Japanese to English the names of about 15-20 countries. Pause. First of all, I do not know how to read Katakana. Yes, I have practiced and know them when I study them but it takes some time for me to remember. Second, some countries in Japanese do not sound like their names in English. There were a few I could get, but there were others I had no idea. So, I was internally upset! I thought to myself, ‘ is she serious right now!?” As we painfully pushed through these countries, we get to one I have absolutely no idea what it was. The picture on the front of the book was of random white people dressed in normally clothing.  I tell her I’m not sure what it is and she proceeds to repeat the word in Japanese as if that changes the fact that I have absolutely no idea what she is saying. She then turns to a pages in the book and shows me a picture of a landmark ( NOT one of the 7 wonders just a random one) and hopes that I’m going to get it. I wanted to say.. Ma’am just stop. But, I kindly ( at least I thought I was being kind but many of you know I wear my emotions on my face sometimes) gave a smile and said ” I’m sorry, I don’t know this.” She puts the book down and continues with the others. Then, I noticed as we were going through these countries THERE WERE NO COUNTRIES FROM AFRICA REPRESENTED HERE.  We had countries from South America, Europe, Asia, and North America. I looked at the rest of the books on the table to see if I saw any black faces… NOPE. I was thoroughly ticked off. I dont’ have any direct ties to Africa BUT the continent is still important to me as I am 100% positive that my ancestors came from there.  And, if you are going to study/teach countries, you need to cover all continents. They weren’t  just hitting on the well-known big westerns countries. Finland, Spain, Indonesia, Cuba, Poland,Thailand etc was all in the bunch too. Once I noticed that there weren’t any countries from Africa, I just became disenchanted with the entire lesson. I really didn’t want to continue the lesson and I was tempted to ‘misread’ one of those books and say a random country in Africa but… I didn’t. After the little Katakana book reading, she finally wants to go with the original game  plan… so we clapped out hands and chanted ” Where do you want to go?” ” I want to go to America” ( phrases like that).  This was a call and response game which I’d like to note that this type of ‘music’ , call and response, originated in AFRICA, the continent that was disregarded in this lesson. Anyways, that whole activity was unorganized and the teacher had no idea what she wanted from the activity.  In most Japanese English classes, the students are not encouraged to think for themselves. They just repeat phrases after the foreigner in the class.  Sorry, I refuse to let that happen in my classes. I try to do activities where the students have to think about what they are saying. So, I tweaked the activity a bit ( well, tried to at least). I had the students do the calling instead of me calling out the phrases the whole time. This meant that they had to think about what the question meant and how to answer correctly with the given sentence structure. Well, the teacher had no idea what I was trying to do but she nodded like she understood. Finally, I scrapped that and came up with a quick back up. IT WORKED! Felt a little accomplished but my blood was still boiling about that whole class. Thankfully, I have some time to chill and calm down before my next class.

Japanese Night Life

Random guys that hopped in the picture

Sooooooooo, this weekend I decided to try going to a Japanese club. Earlier this week, I read an article about Japanese hip hop culture and globalization in Tokyo. According to cultural anthropologist, Ian Cody, Japanese people have reinterpreted hip hop to fit into the Japanese context. Codry challenges the way people think about globalization. He provides a different interpretation of globalization concluding that globalization  does not create homogenous forms of thinking; however, it produces hybrid forms/new forms of whatever idea is being transmitted and molds them to fit their own social context.  I was a little curious about just how the hip hop culture has been reinterpreted in Japan.

My friend from the UK invited me to a club in Hirosaki ( about an hour and a half away). I started asking more questions about the club. How is it, what type of music do they play because based on the clubs I’ve gone to abroad, they are nothing like home. Most of the time it’s outdated hip hop and pop music and people looking funny and awkward on the dance floor.  She told me it was really cool and they played good music but I needed to see it to believe it. I didn’t feel as bad about it because it was FREE!!  I asked what they wore  and she explained that the women are pretty extravagant and not very conservative. It was more of a Halloween party where people approach their club attire as an excuse to impersonate a whole different person. When she said that, I struggled with what to wear. I pretty much was lazy and just threw on a cute skirt and flats and a called it a day.  After our long drive to Hirosaki ( we got lost so that drive became about a 2 hr drive), we were there and ready to party.

First, I noticed that the club had Htown on the sign. I automatically got hype because Htown ( Houston) that’s my city.–I soon learned that it meant ‘H’ for Hirosaki so I wasn’t that excited about it anymore. . I tried to take a picture ALONE with that sign and then these random Japanese men hopped in the picture haha. They love pictures here… well at least at this club.  IT WAS TIME FOR THE MOMENT OF TRUTH. We walked up the steps, it almost felt like I was walking the plank because I had no idea what was in store.  We got closer to the music and my eyes automatically shot wide open out of surprise and shock! They were playing “Tony Montana”– for you older folks reading this post, this is a very popular and recent hip hop song. It is played a lot in the clubs/parties back at home. I looked to my left and there was a tatoo area. I thought, what!!  folks here getting tatted up and all… this is crazy!!  I walked on to the dance floor and ummm… not the type of dancing we’d see at home but folks were all grooving. This was definitely different from my first Japanese party experience where everyone was just standing around like it was a middle school party.  At the club, there was a DJ on the stage rocking and hyping up the crowd– Sometimes hyping up the crowd way too much.  He ruined  a few songs (well ruined it for me at least haha) He’d yelled random stuff in English and Japanese ( sometimes yelling the lyrics in a strong Japanese accent) messing up the best verse in the song.  There were a few people dressed up like it was Halloween (I don’t think that this is how they thought about it but this is the easiest way to explain it). I saw a guy with an Afro and flowers in his head, a girl with bunny ears, and another guy walking around with a chain and a grill in his mouth. The most shocking moment for me was when people in the club starting hitting some signature dance moves. I’m not talking about the electric slide or Michael Jackson. I’m talking about dances that only certain regions know. I.e. The stanky leg, bird walk, lean with rock with it, and John Wall ( seasoned folk youtube these dances if you are curious). Though they played American songs, I still didn’t feel like I was in a club in the States. I felt a different vibe there. In the States, most clubs are pretty much like the game of cat and mouse.. Where men, the cats, chase the women, the mice, to get access to the cheese. ( however you interpret what cheese is).  In the States, women can’t really look fly and be left alone, the men hound em down and vis versa .. women aren’t excluded.  Well, in this club everyone was to themselves. You had folks dancing with each other but I didn’t get a vibe that they were chasing down folks. Who knows, they might have but I don’t speak Japanese to know haha.   It was mostly the foreigners who were doing the chasing. Not sure how lucky they were…  Overall, it was a pretty fun experience BUT I probably won’t do it again because the smoke is no joke!! I left with a scratchy throat like I smoked a whole pack of cigarettes. I refuse to return to the States with lung cancer from second-hand smoke.

As I write this post, I am still trying to figure out how this club experience revealed the ways Japanese people reinterpreted hip hop culture and adapted it to their own social context.  So far, I only have one.  In Japan, when people celebrate anniversaries of companies etc, they bring flowers. ( I think this is what I understood from what they other JET was explaining). In the club, there was a bunch of flowers in the corner and the Afro dude had flowers in his head. That night, the club was celebrating 3 years and I assume that people brought flowers to the club to congratulate the owner on making 3 years.

Pictures from that night