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Archive for the ‘JET Program’ Category

Next up in the “Teaching in Asia” interview series is my friend Philip, who some of you may know as ToLokyo on YouTube. Philip graduated from university in 2003 with a degree in English Education – Secondary and a certification to teach grades 6-12 in Florida. During college, Philip did an internship abroad in Saipan. After graduating, he moved to South Korea in the summer of 2003 and started teaching English. Then, in mid-2005, Philip moved to Japan, where he made his living as a freelance English teacher until the summer of 2010. He is currently traveling around the world filming a YouTube video series called “Caught Doin’ Good,” that highlights individuals and organizations all over the world who are doing good things to build up the communities around them.. With seven years of experience living and teaching in both South Korea and Japan, Philip’s observations on living and working in Asia are extremely insightful and nuanced. Furthermore, as a formally-educated English teacher, his perspective on foreign-language teaching is much deeper than that of the average, run-of-the-mill ALT. He is also one of the most genuinely happy and fun-loving individuals that I have ever met; every time I see him, I am surprised by his positivity and enthusiasm. If you’d like to read more about Philip, his ‘Caught Doin’ Good’ project, or watch his YouTube videos, please follow these links:

Philip/ToLokyo’s website: http://www.locomote.org

Caught Doin’ Good homepage: http://www.cdg2010.org

ToLokyo on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/ToLokyo

Constantine: Why did you want to teach abroad?

Philip: When I graduated from university, I considered teaching around Asheville, NC in a high school.  I knew I’d had enough of South Carolina and Florida, and I was ready to start something new.  At that time, it was the beginning of the war in Iraq, and massive funds had been diverted from education programs all over the nation to be used in the war effort.  I heard horror stories from friends who graduated the year before of having to teach with no textbooks or resources.  In one fateful week, I randomly encountered about 5 teachers.  They all had the exact same advice: “RUN~!!!!  You’re young!  You can do something else!  You don’t have to be stuck in this hell of a job!  Get out while you still can~!!!!” I took the hint and decided to look into a website I had heard of a few years back called Dave’s ESL Cafe.

Constantine: What sparked your interest in Asia?

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Let's play 'Spot The Gaijin'

For the second installment of my interview series about teaching in Asia, I sat down with my friend Nino. Nino and I both attended Boston University and shared several Japanese classes with each other. Since I always thought he was much too cool and good-looking to talk to, I actually didn’t get to know him until the Spring semester of my Junior year. So, I am definitely glad that a fortuitously placed copy of Karl Friday’s Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Warrior Power in Early Japan led to a conversation with him – he is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met and his knowledge of Japanese history is astounding. I can honestly say that he knows far more about samurai history than I ever will. Nino graduated from BU in 2009 with a degree in East Asian Studies and a concentration in Japanese. He has been teaching English in Japan since January 2010, first in Ishinomaki and later in Sendai City.

Constantine: So, why did you want to teach abroad?

Nino: Sadly the answer to this is more for the selfish reason of pursuing my own interest in Japanese history than anything else. Though, I do find teaching to be a fulfilling job, especially when you notice how much the student has learned. But, initially my passion for Japanese history is what brought me here; considering there’s no better place to study the history of a country than in that country itself.

Constantine: What sparked your interest in Japanese history?

Nino: Damned if I know. I first became interested in middle school… I have always been quite the nerd. The answer I usually tell people is Shogun by James Clavell. But, as an academic, admitting Shogun was my inspiration is actually sort of embarrassing – considering it’s such a bastardization and romanticized version of history – even if it was written as fiction. But in any case, I read it in middle school and knowing it was based on history got me interested to learn the actual history. I had always been familiar with samurai just from the general fantasy genre (which might often blend Eastern and Western mythologies or histories together) but after reading Shogun, it was the first time I actually began to pursue an academic interest.

Constantine: Shogun was actually something that sparked my interest in Japan as well. I read it at around the same age you did.

Nino: Yeah, I hate admitting it, but that’s what did it.

Constantine: It’s better than Sailor Moon.

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Which one of these things is not like the other?

I was recently asked to answer a few questions for the new website iShare-Japan about my experiences since I have moved to Japan. As some of you know, I have lived in Japan for almost a year; my so-called ‘Japaniversary’ will be on August 3rd. That’s no where near long enough to have developed a deeply nuanced understanding of Japanese culture (years of research on the country notwithstanding). I found this the most difficult question to answer: “What are some of the worst things about living in Japan?”

My mood routinely fluctuates between obscene love for Japan, disbelief that I am actually living here, and irrational frustration towards everything Japanese. The truth of the matter, though, is that living in Japan is now my daily life. That makes it difficult to identify if the problems I encounter are unique to my geographical/cultural location or merely representations of the difficulties everyone encounters from continuing to breathe.

Upon closer examination, I realized that there is a very easy way to depict the challenges I have faced since coming to Japan.

I am going to tell you something about myself that is readily apparent to anyone with eyes: I have been lucky enough to live a privileged life (and continue to do so). I come from an upper-middle class background, I attended a respected private university in the East Coast, and I conform to nearly every societal beauty standard without much difficulty – I am not fat, I am tall, I maintain a decent standard of athleticism, I have blonde hair, blues eyes, and, above all, I AM WHITE. In truth, the only institutionalized difficulty I may have faced in America is that I am female. And let’s face it, gender is less of an obstacle in America than most places in the world. That said, I’d also like to point out that the rest of the blog will be draw from my personal experiences, which are influenced by my privileged background. I cannot speak for anyone but myself.

What I’m getting at is that I have come from a culture of white privilege. Feminist writer Peggy McIntosh has written about the subject of white privilege extensively, and I will draw from her essay on the subject throughout this blog. She accurately sums up my life in America as such;

I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a patter of assumptions that were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turn, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.

When I moved to Japan, the privilege that I unconsciously lived with for my entire life was thrown out the window. I moved from being a member of ‘the dominant cultural form’ to being a minority. This will happen to everyone who moves to Japan who is not Japanese. Most of the complaints I hear from foreigners about living in Japan are directly related to this.

Peggy McIntosh outlines a list of 50 Daily Effects of White Privilege. All of these will be reversed when you move to Japan. Let’s take a closer look at some of them:

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Phil and I rock climbing back in 2008

Phil and I rock climbing back in 2008

I sat down with my friend Phil to talk with him about his experiences teaching English in rural Henan, China.  Phil has been an English teacher at Xuchang University since October 2009. However, his experiences in China reach far back – from a brief month teaching in Xi’an, Shaan’xi during college to an abortive attempt to teach in Harbin. In 2007, Phil graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a BA in History, with a focus on China. He also spent two of those years ‘attempting’ to study Chinese, which in Phil’s case meant routinely getting drunk with our Taiwanese-American friend Benson. As a bit of a disclaimer, I’d like to say that Phil is one of the few truly unique people that I have met in my life. I like to describe his life philosophy as, “If this isn’t going to make an interesting story, then it’s not worth my time.” (A description that he, undoubtedly, would find not completely accurate) Needless to say, Phil lives his life with a certain reckless courage that most of us are too meek to attempt. This interview is just like Phil – colorful, off-beat, and controversial – and I’m sure some readers will disagree with it. But if you don’t keep things interesting, then what’s the point? You can read Phil’s blog here: http://kozepsovilag.blogspot.com

Constantine: Why did you want to teach abroad?

Henan, China - Phil's current location

Phil: Because I was tired of the life I had at home! [laughs] No, honestly, after a great deal of introspection provided by the copious free time of this job [teaching English], I’ve realized that I left Colorado because I was terrified of the ‘failure’ of mundane life. [pause] Seriously, though, Chinese girls have nice bodies.

Constantine: What sparked your interest in China?

Phil: It was Japan, really. After a rough adjustment period in American middle school following my family’s move from Bermuda to America, I found that in high school Japanese animation cartoons provided an interest for me that I could share with other people. So, for all of high school I had a decent enthusiasm for Japanese history and ancient culture, which was almost entirely transferred to China. This gave my interest in China almost a two-year head start.

Constantine: Why did your interest transfer to China?

Phil: In college, I had a course on the combined history of Korea, China, and Japan, that presented events in a concurrent manner, and I became convinced, by my admittedly Chinese professor, that a great deal of the Japanese culture that I had idealized in my high-school fashion had in fact originated from China. That, combined with the general impression that China was the next major ‘horse to bet on’ as far as World Powers were concerned, allowed me to develop an intense interest in China.

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Golden Week is over and so is Constantine’s Crazy Japan Traveling Extravaganza: Part Two. I now have more raw video footage to add to my already enormous backlog of videos that I need to edit together and post on YouTube. The editing will be slapdash and half-thought-out, as usual. =P So this upcoming month will definitely be the month of epic travel blogs/vlogs…I’m sure all of you readers are very excited.

And by ‘all’ I mean ‘none.’

I’m back home and back to dealing with the day-to-day triumphs and defeats (they aren’t really defeats, but ‘Triumphs and Defeats’ has a good ring to it, so I’m using it!) that have come to make up my life in Japan.

Triumph #1 – Successfully guiding both of my parents (separately, of course) on very aggressive trips through Japan and introducing them to the two Japanese people who I hope, someday, maybe, to call my parents-in-law. (Let’s not have this sentence mutate into a series of comments speculating on my relationship status. I can’t define it even to myself, so don’t expect me to be able to successfully articulate to any one else.)

Defeat #1 – My old, old car is back in the car shop, presumably with a rusty muffler. Hooray, I get to through more money down the black hole known as ‘car ownership.’ One of the Japanese teachers (who I will refer to as Kusaya Sensei) laughingly informed the mechanic how I had foolishly left the car parked near the harbor for a week (as if I had some sort of alternative). Of course it would rust, silly Gaijin!! Well, no, that isn’t all that obvious to me; I grew up in a mountainous region of Colorado with a terrain that is classified as ‘high desert.’ I don’t understand concepts like ‘humidity,’ ‘mold,’ and ‘rust’ very well. And besides, what other option did I have to get to the port other than driving myself and my mother there? Teleportation??

Triumph #2 – My English lesson on ‘Tastes and Smells’ that used various Kit-Kat flavors was a success with my students. Nothing like wasabi, satsumaimo-aji, melon, and corn flavored Kit-Kats to spark some English conversation. Or to trick my students into thinking I’m ‘cool.’ Mwahahaha…ah…yeah.

Defeat #2 – I brought back a HUGE amount of omiyage from my HUGE trip for the teachers – stuff from Nara, Kiyomizu-dera, Fushimi Inari Taisha, and Koyasan. It was entirely consumed in the space of one hour. Of course, no one came up to thank the gaijin for the snacks, even though said gaijin had left a polite note written in keigo explaining who it was from and that even though it was lowly, humble, ill-tasting food that the honorable teachers should honorably do me the honor of eating it, even though I am a lowly bottom-feeder. (And, yes, that is how I like to mentally translate keigo in my head.) If I can write a note in keigo, then I can probably understand a simple, ‘Arigatou, Constantine-san.’ But, nope, nada…even though I have heard some of the teachers referring to me as ‘Omiyage-chan’ when they think I can’t understand them. Oh well, I will continue to bring in omiyage in the vain hope that my clumsy attempts at conforming to Japanese culture will endear me in their hearts forever.

Triumph #3 – The new vice principal smiled and greeted me today. Now, this might not seem like a big deal to you normal, well-adjusted people. But I have silently been developing a complex about this guy and his military-style buzz cut in my head over the past month. I call him The General. Until today, he has never spoken a word to me (even when we pass each other in an empty hallway and I say Good Morning/Afternoon/etc. in Japanese). He also periodically looks in the direction of my desk and sternly frowns in a displeased way that I have chosen to interpret as his way of showing that he thinks ALTs are a useless waste of space and funding. (I am aware that he probably doesn’t feel this way and probably never even thinks about me, but like I said before I am NOT a normal, well-adjusted person.)

Defeat #3 – I was again creeped out by the intense, unfriendly staring of the slightly overweight girl in one of my English classes. I haven’t really figured out what her aggressive eye-contact really means (and I mean aggressive by American standards, by Japanese standards this must be the equivalent of the Death-Stare.) Is she just intrigued by me or does she hate me? And if she hates me, then why? For the love of god, WHY? I’m beginning to lead towards the ‘hate’ interpretation because every time I try to get her to participate in class she belligerently likes to say, “This-u is-u JA-PON.” (Her way of saying ‘Japan.’) She also likes to say things about my appearance to the other students in Japanese when I am within earshot like “Hana ga takai!” (Big nose!) Again, is this a compliment or an insult? I’ve had it used to me both ways; in a mean, insulting way and in a complimentary, cute way by Hidefumi. I’m trying to be fair here and not just call her a racist (because, honestly, what do I know?) but this is really starting to make me feel pretty uncomfortable.

Anyways, using the scoring method that my mother taught me years ago during one of my “What is the purpose of my life??” bouts of hysteria that I would get when I was a teenager, the positive things that you remember count for +5 points while the negative ones only count as -1 (because you remember more bad things than good), I am resting at a healthy +12.

Hopefully that math is correct. =P

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A New School Year…

I’m not going to lie to you, readers, and say that I didn’t have certain reservations about the new school year. I was utterly blindsided when I saw the amount of changes that occurred at my schools over haru yasumi (spring vacation). We’re talking new vice principals at BOTH schools, two new English teachers at one, and a whopping 13 teachers transferring and being replaced.

For those of you who don’t know the way Japanese schools work when it comes to teachers – teachers aren’t hired by the school, but by the Board of Education. In my prefecture, the BOE places teachers at a school for a three year term. As far as I know, the teachers don’t really have much say in where they are placed. At the end of those three years, the teacher can either request to stay at the school for another term or will be transferred to a new location. This means that there is a constantly cycling in and out of teachers every year.

I walked into the teacher’s room at the beginning of this month thinking that I was a seasoned ALT veteran who knew exactly what to expect and how things operated only to be bitch slapped back into my rightful role as wide-eyed gaijin newbie. Strangely enough, I think the hardest thing for me to psychologically comprehend was that my desk had been moved at both schools. This might seem silly, but desk placements in Japanese offices follow very visible hierarchical rules. At one school, I cheerfully walked into work to see that I had received a demotion. Before, my desk had (rightfully) been at the very lowest rung of the totem pole – but it was still connected to the rest of the other teachers’ desks, so I still felt included. Now, I’ve been quarantined at an isolated desk that is wedged into between the printers, public-use computer, and working timecards. I’m fairly certain that if a broom closet had been available they would have stuck me in there. Unfortunately, all the broom closets are being used, so they’re still going to need to see Whitey everyday (the worst part of this new desk placement is actually that I now have a very clear view of Spider Solitaire Sensei when he decides to play Spider Solitaire on the computer. The clicking, dear god, the clicking!). [Please read the above paragraph with a healthy edge of perky sarcasm, I’m not being mean here!]

Feeling pretty dejected about my demotion, I walked into the other school expecting the worst…only to see that at this school I had actually been promoted up a few rungs in the office desk hierarchy. I am now securely wedged in between another English teacher and the new music teacher. So, I guess the demotion and the promotion actually cancel each other out and I have the exact same standing that I enjoyed last year.

But, I can now officially say that I am absolutely stoked about the new school year. Not only are the ichinensei (first year students) that I had last year no longer afraid of me, but the new ichinensei in both schools are a group of extremely happy and fun kids who actually WANT to participate in English class! Even if they aren’t particularly thrilled about English, they are willing to put in some effort and have fun in class.

The one student who instantly earned my affection though is a young boy who jokingly told me that his nickname is Sukebe-kun (‘sukebe’ is the Japanese word for pervert or dirty old man, ‘kun’ is a suffix that is commonly used for guys by their friends or teachers). “Please call me Sukebe.” He was pretty shocked to discover that I actually know what that word means (his friends totally flipped and laughed at him) and he’s definitely earned a nickname that will stick.

The class that always blows me away and is always my favorite class is the sannensei (third year) Advanced English Communication Class. This class is offered as an elective, so the kids are in it on an entirely voluntary basis. Last year, there were only three boy students in the class, this year there are three boys and one girl. They are all super intelligent kids and have a serious determination to learn English. Two of the boys are members of the yakyuu-bu (baseball team) AKA The Coolest Boys in School. I’m going to write a separate post about Boys in the Yakyuu-bu, so right now I’ll just say that these boys have a certain air of confidence and bravado about them. Here on this blog, I’ll call these two boys Shaved Eyebrow-kun (because he shaves his eyebrows very thin, something that is very common among young Japanese guys) and Ikemen-kun (ikemen is the Japanese word for ‘hunk.’ During last year’s natsu matsuri (Summer Festival), I caught two Japanese housewives oogling this boy and calling him ikemen.)

During today’s jiko shoukai, Ikemen-kun informed me, “Shaved Eyebrow-kun is my teammate. But today he is being shy boy.”

Absolutely endearing, even though hearing the term ‘shy boy’ applied to anyone over the age of 5 makes me think of serial killers. =P

Ikemen-kun also told me that he wants to move to New York City and ‘be like Derek Jeter.’ That might not strike you as super interesting, but here in inaka-ville it’s highly unusual to meet someone who wants to move abroad. I’m sooo excited and lucky to get to teach in a class full of fantastic students like this!

Needless to say, I’m an unbelievably excited about the 2010-2011 school year! JET is definitely something that takes some getting used to. If you can learn how to adapt to the surprises that unexpectedly pop up during your time in Japan, JET is definitely one of those programs that keeps getting better the longer you do it.

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Every person why applies to the JET Program knows that they are going to be assisting in teaching English in some way during their time in Japan. The title ALT can mean anything from BigDaikon‘s infamous ‘glorified tape recorder’ to being given the responsibility of designing and teaching all of your classes (which is my situation…lots of work and a steep learning curve, let me tell you!). But something that I definitely DID NOT expect to find myself doing was giving JAPANESE LESSONS.

One of my schools has a heavy ‘international’ focus. Part of this involves the school not only sending students to study abroad (in places like Switzerland as well as the US). It also means that every year a new international student is brought to study at the school and live with the Japanese students in the dorm. Last year’s student was an extremely smart Korean girl who not only spoke fantastic Japanese but near-fluent English as well. She came to speak with me every day after school and I really loved listening to her whip out slang from episodes of Gossip Girl. Seriously, I had to start watching the TV series so that I could keep up with her…and to be able to field her many questions about American culture and teenagers. No, not all American teenagers are drug addicts. No, American teenagers do not leave school and head directly to the nearest swanky bar and knock back martinis. On a side note, this is probably the only time in my life that people will tell me that I look like Serena van der Woodsen.

But, I digress.

The new international student is an equally bright boy from Vietnam. Yesterday, my favorite English teacher came to my desk and asked me if I would help teach him Japanese every Wednesday after school. My initial reaction was something to the effect of:

“Are you joking? No one should ever learn Japanese from me!”

Sounds like a case of the blind leading the blind here…or more accurately, a retarded blind person (namely me) leading an unsuspecting victim off a cliff. The reason why this situation came about is because the new exchange student can’t speak any Japanese but CAN speak excellent English. So, the Japanese English teachers have taken him under their wing. Unfortunately, none of the English teachers have any experience teaching Japanese (or taking Japanese lessons, obviously). And thus they turn to me – the retarded blind person.

Now, before you go off criticizing the Japanese education system or the JET Program, I want to say that this isn’t really a bad idea. Not only do I have a large amount of Japanese language textbooks lined up of my bookshelf, I have also taken three years of Japanese lessons. More importantly, my role here is more to provide moral support and a break from his mandatory three hours of sitting in the library studying Japanese from a textbook every day. I know exactly how much fun sitting alone in a room with a Japanese textbook for hours can be…NONE. On top of this, these lessons take place after school on a purely volunteer basis. Today was our first Japanese class and I made it clear that, while I would be helping Sensei teach him Japanese, I would also take the role of a student in this class. I will be doing all of the homework and tests alongside him.

I have to say, I have enormous respect for this kid and his determination. He can’t speak any Japanese. At all. Other than two months of studying from a textbook, he hasn’t taken any Japanese classes. He can read hiragana, some katakana, and no kanji. And yet he was brave enough to come to Japan and study abroad in a Japanese school for a year. When I was his age, just going to my private Japanese tutor’s house every Sunday was enough to make me a nervous wreck. AND, when it comes to our Wednesday classes, he is not only trying to learn Japanese from scratch but he is also having it explained to him in English, another foreign language! Writing this fills my head with terrifying images of me being taught Japanese in German. Terrifying, I say, absolutely terrifying!

We’re starting from Chapter 1 and 2 of the first volume of Genki, the textbook series that I used during my first two years of Japanese classes in university. This chapter covers the most elementary basics of Japanese grammar, like:

__X____Y__ です。 As in: 私はコンスタンティンです。

What really surprised me is that, halfway through an explanation about conjugating Japanese verbs, I realized that I’m not as inept as I thought I was when it comes to Japanese. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely inept – just not completely inept. I tend to think that I can’t speak Japanese until I open my mouth and Japanese pops out. Looks like this is another lesson in “Constantine needing to relax, stop worrying, and just do it.” That’s my life, a perpetual Nike advertisement.

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