Non-management: Baby, it’s cold outside… no, it really is cold outside. It’s really freaking cold inside too. It’s cold in Japan now. I mean, it’s probably not as cold here compared to other places in the world. It’s probably not as cold here compared to other places in Japan. I think that it’s cold though, and because of that, I’m thankful for my kotatsu. And I guess I’m grateful for other things too.
Gratitude. Thankfulness. I was asked in the waning days in the year at my junior high school to talk about Christmas in America. I decided to center my presentations around the things that people are grateful toward, the folks that people are thankful for. Looking at it one way, what I said may have been a little disingenuous. I didn’t talk about the rampant commercialism of the season. I didn’t talk about the religious origins of the holiday. I did talk about the food, trees, presents, cards, gatherings… simple things. I talked about how those things brought friends and family together. I talked about why friends and family are important on Christmas. I mentioned the coming winter. I mused about the enveloping darkness, the food scarcity, the biting cold. I made my case: amidst difficult times, Christmas was about being thankful to those who love and support you. I… think that only half of my students got what I was saying.
So there have been some ups and downs with living and teaching in Japan so far. My Japanese language abilities are still quite limited in a couple of respects. I’m still shit at understanding what people say in Japanese. I’m still shit at reading Japanese kanji. I have my share of embarrassing misunderstandings with people on a somewhat everyday basis, some days being more intense than others. Sometimes my understandings turn out to be less embarrassing and more serious, like that time when I didn’t realize I needed to pay my electric bill manually and had the power to my apartment cut off for a day. I’m still trying to sort out payment issues with my local bank and the phone company. I’m having a better time communicating directions to students in Japanese and English, but I still have plenty of trouble when they ask me something open-ended or unrelated.
On that note, I think many ALTs on the JET Program will agree with me when I say that the current state of English education in Japan is pretty rough. It’s getting better from what I hear, the lesson plans are getting more comprehensive and rigorous, but I wouldn’t characterize the average Japanese student’s grasp of English in generous terms, official expectations by the government aside. In some ways, some Japanese students fit their stereotype. Some of them will not volunteer or speak up unless prompted to multiple times, undermining the practical purpose of learning the language. In other ways, Japanese students are like kids everywhere. Some of them are disruptive and easily distractable, undermining others’ efforts at learning the language. That’s not to say that the students are totally to blame. Some of my teaching colleagues aren’t used to teaching English either. I’m not used to teaching in general, and the whole endeavor of team-teaching has been, for many teachers and I, a process of trial and error, of making mistakes and negotiating past them.
That’s not to say that living in Japan or teaching in Japan has been without its rewards. For all its current coldness, Japan is a gorgeous country. I have to navigate rivers and mountains to get to work, and the drive to my schools is almost always been a feast for the eyes. The trees dotting the mountaintops are hues of greens and yellow-browns , and the rivers glisten with smiles of twinkling white and yellow. I’ve been eager to see what Japan looks like in spring, but Japan in fall is still quite beautiful. It’s as beautiful as the toothy smiles made by its children. There’s obviously work to do with some kids in English, and some kids probably won’t ever take to the language. But for those students who sincerely want to learn, when they get it, their faces are something to witness. Their mouths crack smiles of twinkling white and yellow, like the glistening rivers of Naruto-shi, like the shape an orphan baby makes after seeing her new bear from Santa. I had the privilege of witnessing both of these experiences in Japan. I am grateful. I am thankful.
Everything hasn’t been peaches and roses in Japan these past months, and I’m not just saying that because it’s really freaking cold here. I’ve made my share of embarrassing mistakes and dumb blunders. I’ve been criticized for things I’ve done and didn’t fully understand. I’ve learned to make peace with my mistakes and blunders. I’ve learned to accept the criticism and grow from it. I’ve learned to be thankful for what I have, grateful for where I am now. I still recognize and acknowledge the negatives of everything as usual, but I’ve tried to not let it envelope me and darken my mood. I mean, yeah, Japan may be freezing right now, but I’m living in freaking Japan. Japan is beautiful, teaching kids can be rewarding, I’m not an orphan, I’m going to Tokyo again with friends for Christmas and New Year’s, and it’s going to be even colder up there than down here… ah shit.