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Part XIII   the daily grind

November 6, 1998

I have had several requests to describe not only the weird and wacky of Japan, but also what the hell it is that I do everyday.  As you will see, however, these two objectives are not mutually exclusive.

But first, I have to briefly describe my second haircut.  I was pretty confident going in, because the first one had been better than expected.  And when I got there, I was even more excited, because they had a sheet on me -- apparently, they keep records of peoples' preferences.  However, since there was a written record, anything I said was summarily ignored.  They did smile at me a lot while I talked, though.  That's how things work in Japan -- once something is written, it is so.  When I tried to say "a little more," they redefined "little" to mean none, smiling all the time and ghost-cutting around my head without actually touching a single hair.  OK, he might have gotten one hair that one time.  So, it was not as good as the first time I went.  Does this mean I should go to a different place every time?

Anyway, this time I went in for the full treatment, including a shave.  This, of course, with a straight razor.  So, I got the hot towel on the face treatment, which is great, and then he proceeded to apply the shaving cream to my cheeks, chin, upper lip, and forehead.  Forehead?  Do people really shave their foreheads?  I quickly assured him that this was not necessary in my case.  I was a little afraid -- I mean, I have a high enough forehead without him helping.  He looked confused, but eventually complied.  This was one of those guys who spoke absolutely no English and was convinced that he would not understand me.  Even when I spoke Japanese.  I had to call another guy over, talk to him in Japanese, and had him repeat what I said to the first guy, who then understood.  And believe me, it's not my accent.  It was just pig-headedness.  The guy with the knife had just decided that he would not understand me, no matter what.  This is not the first example of this phenomenon I have encountered.  Anyway, I was extremely unimpressed with the final results.  I regularly give myself closer shaves with safety razors, and with less pain.  I don't know whether my face is shaped differently from Japanese men's faces, or whether this guy just sucked, but this is one very unsatisfied customer.  No major cuts or anything, but certainly not a quality shave.  The moral of the story:  don't let strange men rake razor-sharp implements across your face and neck.  That should have been obvious, but, well, live and learn.

Onto the meat of this episode.  I'll start by describing how I get to and from school everyday.  You might think a bike ride would be a boring story.  Clearly, you have never ridden a bike in Japan.  For the most part, there are no sidewalks in Japan, and the streets are very narrow, so you have to hug the curb as cars try to pass you.   However, this is sometimes preferable to riding on the sidewalks, when they do exist, because at least the cars acknowledge your presence.  Pedestrians, on the other hand, do their best to ignore you.  During any given ten minutes of riding, I can usually count on at least three people stepping directly into my path, without looking or even seeming to care that they are in mortal peril.  You see, I am much bigger than they are, and I ride pretty fast.  If we ever collided, I would win.  Handily.

So, I learned to ride with a firm grasp on the brakes.  Luckily, brakes in Japan are make to be squeaky, on purpose, so that when you do have slow suddenly the errant pedestrian will usually hear the screech and get out of the way.  Usually.

Another obstacle is that the traffic laws concerning which side of the street bikes are supposed to use are not observed, if they even exist.  This is especially true in the case of high school students, many of whom ride to and from school.  In the mornings, they are all going one way, on both sides of the street.  In the afternoons, they are all going the other way.  Guess which way I am going.  This gets fairly exciting, because often I am happily riding along with the flow of traffic when suddenly 23 high school students round the corner and come straight at me, on my side of the street.  Recall what I said above about the dearth of sidewalks.  So, usually I am forced into the middle of the lane to avoid being swarmed under by these fools, which in turn forces some car to slow down behind me until I pass the wolf pack and can resume curb hugging.

Luckily, I soon caught onto the phrase "Mite, yo!" (pronounced mee-te, yo), which is the equivalent of "watch out" or "watch where the hell youíre going," but which translates directly as "look, yo!"  You wouldn't think "yo" was a cognate, but it is.  And it is by far the coolest I have found.  It means exactly the same thing in Japanese as it does in English -- that is, it adds emphasis to whatever precedes it.  As in, check out those mad skillz, yo.  I guess it is more of a cognate between Japanese and Ebonics than Japanese and English, but, you know, I picked up tha phat talk from all that hangin' in the Swarthmore hood, yo.

In the interests of keeping my mother from worrying (hi Ima), I will also add now that I have never been in an accident, nor have I really been close.  However, that has been through sheer vigilance and the fact that I am big scary foreigner out of whose way people tend to get.  And that includes people in cars.

Once I am at school, which is at about 8:30 every morning, I have about 15-20 minutes to chill before first period.  There are six periods in each day, four before lunch and two after, and on the vast majority of the days I teach four classes.  However, my schedule is different everyday.  This is partly due to the fact that I teach at four different schools, so during my 1-2 week stay at a given school they want me to visit each class the same number of times, to spread the wealth as it were.

There are three grades in junior high school, correlating with sixth, seventh, and eighth grades in America.  Either that or seventh, eighth, and ninth.  Through sheer lack of effort I have never gotten a conclusive answer to that question.   In any event, there is no continuous counting of grades here as there is in the States (as in, from 1 to 12), so the grades in junior high school are known simply as first, second, and third.  When you need to be specific, you must say ìfirst grade junior high school.î

In my four schools I teach with a total of ten JTE's, or Japanese Teachers of English.  Again, I am an ALT, or Assistant Language Teacher.  You think the army is big on acronyms?  Come to Japan.  Each teacher teaches slightly differently, so it's hard to describe what I do "everyday" in class.  Therefore, please take the following generalizations with a grain of salt.  Actually, with two grains of salt, since as everyone kept on telling us before we came over here, "everyone's situation is different."  In other words, this is the general case for me, but every other ALT in Japan has a different story to tell.  I hope y'all like your stuff salty.

Unlike in my junior high school in the US, in junior high schools here the students stay in one place and the teachers move.  So, your classmates are the same in every class, like in elementary school in the States.  When the teacher enters the room at the beginning of each 50 minute period, the students stand up to greet them.  The following witty banter ensues:

Rafi:  Good Morning, class!
Class: (raggedly) Good Morning Rafi.
JTE: Good Morning everyone!
Class: (less raggedly) Good Morning Mr./Mrs. naninani
(naninani means "whatever" and is currently my favorite Japanese word)
Rafi: How are you?
Class: (really raggedly) I'm fine, thank you.  And you?
(with variations, such as "I'm great.  How about you?")
Rafi: I'm hungry (or something just as side-splitting).

Then the kids sit down.  The same thing happens in every class.  This is very exciting only during the first week.  Well, the first day.  OK, the first time.

A basic lesson starts with a dialogue between the JTE and myself.  Usually, this is a review lesson, since the basic grammar points are introduced when I am not there.  The dialogue contains something that they just learned, such as comparisons (bigger than, etc.), infinitives (I like to read, I like to sleep, etc.), or some such nonsense.  The kids rarely if ever understand this dialogue, so we then pass out copies to each student and have them follow along.  Often, the students' copy has words missing and they fill in the blanks.  Then, after reading the dialogue 3-4 times, we (the JTE and myself) go over it line by line with the students to make sure they understand it and to make sure that they filled in the blanks correctly.   Then, I act like a tape recorder and the kids repeat the dialogue after me, line by line, as if this actually helps their pronunciation.  If anything, it hurts mine, since I have to talk very slow and over-enunciate everything to get them to come close to the real sounds.

The problem of improving English pronunciation is not one likely to be solved by me, or by anyone anytime soon.  There are just too many sounds, both vowel and consonant, that don't exist in Japanese.  The name David, for instance, has four sounds that don't exist in Japanese -- the "a" as in David, the "v" as in David, the "i" as in David, and the consonant at the end of the word, like the final "d" in David. (Recall that the Japanese alphabet is actually a syllabary, where every sound is a consonant followed by a vowel, with the single exception of a final "n," as in Nihon or shogun.)  But I digress.

Then, the fun begins.  The rest of the period is usually devoted to some activity involving the grammar point in the dialogue or even the dialogue itself.  For instance, in one class the dialogue was about going on vacation, so we split the class into pairs and had them alter the dialogue, filling in the places that they would want to go.  Then, we had them recite this "new" dialogue in front of the class.  Another popular game is the interview game, where students have to go around and ask their classmates for information.  For example, in one first-grade class we introduced the months and seasons.  The activity was to ask as many other students as possible in what month and season their birthday was in.  The dialogue was something like this:

A: Hello.
B: Hi.  My birthday is in the month of _____ . How about you?
A: Oh, my birthday is in the month of _____ (too).
B: Really? What season is your birthday in?
A: It's in the _____ .
B: That's interesting.  My birthday is in the _____ (too).
A: Oh.  Thank you.
B: Not at all.

Variations on this include giving half the class one set of information and the other half another set of information and making them ask each other questions to glean the missing information.  This is sometimes called "information gap."  One possible pitfall with this type of activity is that sometimes the kids just copy off of each others' papers without actually saying anything in English.  The little twerps.

Of course there are many more types of lesson; this is just a basic example.  Games like bingo are also very popular, and I have used the telephone game and even hangman before.

Because I move around so much and work with so many different teachers, I don't have much of an opportunity to plan many lessons myself.  I have planned a few, and I think I will plan more as I settle into the job and the teachers get to know and trust me a bit more.  I have some ALT friends who were asked to plan their first lesson of the year, when they arrived at the school the first day.  Thatís too much pressure.  Basically I got lucky in that respect.

Anyway, third period ends at 3:35 or so, and then I sit at my desk until I go home at 4:15.  I also sit at my desk during my free periods.  This time is rarely well-used.  Since I am not planning lessons much, I don't have too much to do yet.  I can always study Japanese, of course, which I do sometimes.  Other times I read the newspaper (which I get every morning) or a novel.   If one of my teachers has a free period at the same time that I do, we might go over our next lesson together or something like that.  Sometimes, if the teacher sees that I have nothing to do, they will ask me to help plan, which is cool.

Finally, at 4:15, I brave the streets of Kiryu once again for the death-defying ride home.  Although this doesn't sound like a stressful day, for some reason I am always tired at the end of it.  In any event, I hope this has helped shed some light on what it is I am getting paid so much to do over here.

Keep on truckin'.