Thursday, May 30, 2013

Will Miss #23 - relationship with my students (reflection)

My teaching profile sheet from my last job at an eikaiwa (conversation school). 

Hands down, this is the one thing that I can say without reservation has gotten harder to bear over time. My relationship with my students was not one of friendship or scholarship, but more of a therapeutic one in which I largely functioned as a counselor and they as clients. The biggest part of good therapy is that you listen respectfully, attentively, and with empathy and get people to talk about themselves as much as possible. The biggest part of good conversation teaching is that you listen respectfully, attentively, and with empathy. There is a bond of trust that you build over time that cannot be easily replicated in any other relationship. From my point of view, the teacher and student relationship was better than that of a client and counselor because there was no expectation that I'd solve their problems, but only that I'd improve their English. The latter is a far easier task than the former, and with far less dire consequences if one fails.

The relationship I had with my students was close, deep, and authentic. I miss talking to them and knowing that I was helping them in multiple ways, and I doubt that will ever change no matter how many years pass since my departure from Japan.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Random Memories #35

All of the memories I have written about so far in this series relate to time spent in Japan, but the truth is that my relationship with it began shortly after it began with my boyfriend. A lot of the things that I use to talk about my memories pre-date my ever having set foot on Japanese soil. They are the souvenirs of things that he sent me as part of our correspondence and I learned a lot about Japan through him. 

During those early days, the information I received was taken with a spoonful of sweet sugar, but the strange-tasting pill of ethnocentrism. Sometimes it was sweet, sometimes bitter, and, much of the time, just weird. We didn't understand why things operated as they did nor could we see the value in some of those differences at that time. We only knew that the rules were different for inexplicable reasons.

In the early days of my friendship with my pen pal (and future boyfriend and now husband of nearly 25 years now), he would send me packages from California with comics from the newspaper that he enjoyed taped to the back. In particular, he liked to send Bloom County and Doonesbury for their acerbic humor and social commentary. It also did something toward dressing up the bland brown wrappers that a person who had a lot of pen pals (and I had a lot, 19 at one point in my life) received. It put personality on the outside as well as the inside.

After going to Japan, my boyfriend learned that one was not allowed to paste comics on the outside of international packages. For reasons he never learned, this was forbidden. I'm not sure if this restriction still applies in this day and age or if it applied to domestic mail, but it was curious. I do know that I sent Christmas cards and letters from Japan with festive or cute stickers on them without any sort of trouble from the postal service, so it may be something about how packages were handled. Since parcels, can and sometimes are, opened by customs inspectors, they may not have wanted to hear any complaints about mutilations of designs or decorations on packages or they may not have wanted to have to cut through them.

Customs inspectors generally did not open the parcels that we sent each other, but when they did, they were very much slowed down. While I'm pleased to say that they never lost a single package, card or letter among the hundreds we exchanged (yes, hundreds - I sent him mail 4-7 times a week over 11 months), I can say that they sometimes messed up and sent things by seamail instead of airmail and airmail instead of seamail (which was awesome as it was fast and cheap). I think one reason that they rarely opened up packages to check them was that we usually used what is called "small packet" rate. This was cheaper and had a relatively low weight restriction (up to 2 kg./4.4 lbs.) so we used it all of the time. I guess they think that anyone smuggling contraband goods in and out of Japan needs more than a couple of kilos, so they wouldn't bother to open them. Parcel post, on the other hand, frequently got snagged and held back for inspection.

As is often the case these days, most parcels were sent using a postage meter instead of stamps. The stamps you see here are rare ones from the time we were exchanging correspondence from 1987-88. I cut them off and kept them because he usually went the metered route or used the same stamp design again and again (the one above this paragraph) because they were what he was sold when he went to the post office and didn't specifically ask for special stamps. Also, most of the "pretty" stamps were designed for domestic mail and he'd have to paper too much of the front of a package to get enough total to send a parcel abroad.

This picture was taken in 1987 shortly after my boyfriend went to Japan. Here he is sending me a parcel at the Kitasenju post office, so I could see what he was doing early and often for my benefit. 
(Sorry for the censorship, but my husband's adorable visage, even an outdated one, cannot be revealed.)

Sometimes I think back on those days and remember just how important understanding all of the ins and outs of the postal service was for us and how hard it was for my boyfriend to negotiate them. I also think back on that time as a time when Japan was the same thing to me that it is to most people, a faraway place from which I got correspondence with interesting stamps and that I never expected to go to. Twenty-two-year-old me would never have believed that her future would include living there for 23 years. Life does take you places that you'd never expect to go. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Won't Miss #517 - no root beer

Wine candy? Sure. No root beer barrels, though.

Life is full of tiny little pleasures. In fact, if you can focus on those, you will be a much happier person in general since the small ones come along so often and the big ones so infrequently. Growing up, my family used to go to an A&W drive-in restaurant (now long out of business) and root beer is an old-fashioned pleasure. It's so associated with innocent American upbringing that the writers of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series made it the unofficial beverage of the United Federation of Planets. In some fictional future, root beer is the drink of choice among young cadets hoping to travel into space.

In Japan, my husband and I used to buy the occasional case of root beer from the Foreign Buyer's Club and on rare occasions, we'd share it with students. Universally, they felt it was the most vile thing ever. Sassafras is clearly an acquired taste, and the Japanese can't acquire what they have no experience with. There is nary a root beer barrel candy nor a can of root beer in sight in Japan unless it has been intentionally imported for the foreign market. I won't miss the fact that root beer is uncommon in Japan.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Will Miss #516 - less emphasis on money

One thing that I was aware of long before I left Japan was that the emphasis in America is largely on money. Your value as a person is determined by your ability to earn cash. Your value to the family is determined by what you bring to the bank account or what you take away. An acquaintance, whose family of origin is from a Middle Eastern culture, said that, there, family was most important, but in America, money is. Though that is not always true, I have seen plenty of families who value their material wealth more than their family relationships. While that can happen in many cultures, it happens more often here. It's not just about relationships though, people judge you by your job and how much they believe you are paid. Tell someone you are an engineer or a computer programmer and they respect you. Tell someone you are working in social services and they will not, even though you are working to help people in need. It's not about what you do. It's about how much you make.

Though Japan is also a consumerist culture, the core of the culture is not about earning potential. I miss the fact that there is less (don't read that as "no") emphasis on money in Japan than in the U.S.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Random Thoughts: Moving

This was our living room within days of our departure from Japan. Four suitcases were all we took back with us. We didn't ship anything. It was just 4 suitcases. Here is what it looked like before we started tearing it apart.

My husband and I lived in Tokyo for 23 years and we did not move once. It wasn't because we had a great landlord, though we did. It wasn't because we liked our apartment, though we did. It was mainly because of "location, location, location". More than ever, in Tokyo, where you live has an enormous impact on your quality of life and I don't mean living around a bunch of trees or near a park, at least not in our case.

One of the things that we were happy about living where we did in Asagaya was that it allowed for a very short commute to Shinjuku and both my husband and I spent the majority of our time in Japan working there. It was 12 minutes on the subway or 9 minutes on JR. Though we had to walk to the stations, the total commute time was never more than a half hour even with all of the walking. Very few people are blessed with such short commutes and it has an immense impact on quality of life. Time not spent being jostled about by strangers on a super crowded (and often super hot) train is time spent relaxing in the comfort of your own home.

Many of my students and coworkers endured extremely long commutes, sometimes as long as 90 minutes one way, in order to have a different lifestyle. Sometimes, they lived with their parents (generally in the case of office ladies) and sometimes with their families in houses they could only afford to buy if they lived in the outer suburbs (like Saitama).

While I didn't begrudge them these choices at all and certainly empathized with the economic realities, sometimes I felt that they would have been better off getting smaller places or paying a little more and living closer. That being said, the way that Japanese companies move around to different offices or shuttle employees out to different offices makes picking a location and living in it permanently very difficult. If you want to buy a house, you pretty much have to accept the high likelihood that you're going to end up commuting for a fair amount of your free time on weekdays sooner or later.

Moving has been much on my mind lately because I've done it 5 times over the last year after not having done it for an extremely long time. It has been one of the most exhausting and difficult experiences of my life and I don't even own that much stuff. Compared to most people, we live a spartan existence. We only own 7 pieces of furniture(kitchen table, desk, sofa bed, printer stand, corner shelf, rolling coffee table, dresser) and 4 chairs (2 office, 2 kitchen). Most of our packing involved kitchen implements and various necessities as well as what few mementos we brought back from Japan. Yet, even with so little, it's an arduous task moving around so often.

After all of the hassles of moving, my husband and I thought about what it would have been like had we decided to move in Japan. The truth is that things are done rather differently there. Most of the time, people just pay a service to come in and do everything for them, at least in the big cities. Here, we've borrowed a moving truck to put our furnishings in public storage while we reside in a furnished place for the next 3-4 months and done all of the work ourselves. We've also loaded up our small car and ran back and forth between places.

In Japan, this would never be done this way because most people don't own cars and it would be very hard to manage the logistics (parking, carrying furniture though narrow doors and corridors without taking out a door frame). Also, frankly, I'm not even sure if public storage exists for private individuals in Japan. It probably does, but not at the rates or at the same volume as it does here. I see public storage facilities all over the place in northern California. I don't know if everyone is moving most of their worldly possessions into temporary storage like us, but I doubt it. I think most people are storing the overflow of crap they can't keep in their cluttered homes into another space because it's relatively cheap and plentiful.

I didn't really need a reminder of how lifestyle is dictated by surroundings and economics rather than by true choice, but moving so much since we got here and moving so little in Japan gave me one anyway. You can have more here in America because it doesn't cost much to have more. You can move here more often because, though it is incredibly hard and exhausting, it doesn't require nearly as much money. That being said, I still miss my life and lifestyle in Japan and the ease and lower expense of certain experiences in here don't really make me miss it any less, but those are thoughts for another day.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Won't Miss #22 - pretty, but bland pastries (reflection)

As people get older, their taste buds are supposed to weaken such that they can't taste things as they could when they were younger. That's why they supposedly start to like strong-tasting food like Limburger cheese, brawnschweiger, raw onion, and mustard. I believe that, while it is true that people's taste buds change as they age, I also think that we build can obliterate the sensitivity of them by eating things which are too intense all of the time. There's an extremely inappropriate equivalency statement that I could make about women who use devices to pleasure themselves, but I won't state it outright. Those who are dirty-minded will get it, and I shall refrain from sullying the minds of those who are pure and clean of thought.

The thing I have realized since returning to the U.S. is that years of eating Japanese food have left my taste buds relatively sensitive to certain things. One of those things is sugar. I find it very hard to bear a lot of sweets in the U.S. because they are overbearingly sugary. Sugar and salt here obliterate the flavor depth of many of the packaged foods I might try. The truth is that, though I said I wouldn't miss them, I do miss those pretty, but bland pastries. They weren't very sweet, but at least I could taste the flavors that were in them because they weren't "flavor-blasted" out of existence. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Will Miss #22 - station shopping malls (reflection)

Some time late last year, my husband and I ventured to an area we hadn't been to before and he suggested we walk to the local train station to see what was happening around there. The answer was "nothing". Later, we went to another one that he had been to before and recalled had sold some souvenirs and whatnot. As we approached the building, I actually felt a little excited. Once inside, I discovered it was one little display of souvenirs and a sad little snack shop. At least where I am, there is pretty much nothing going on around train stations. They are dismal, isolated little spots which have no color or interest.

The essence of taking something for granted is that you don't really appreciate it until it is gone. Such is the case with the station shopping malls. Sure, I liked them. It was especially fun to spend part of my lunch hour when I was working wandering around to the myriad little shops that tended to occupy all of the spaces around and under the various JR (Japan Railway) stations.

I truly miss the variety and quantity of shops that I could easily find at most Tokyo stations.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Random Memories #34

A diagram of our apartment as it was in 1996. I drew it in some little drawing program made by Apple.

In Baye McNeil's book, "Hi, My Name is Loco and I am a Racist", he talks about his roommates thinking that he's doing something incredibly weird in his room because they detect an unusual odor emanating from it. In the end, they figured out that the aroma was not generated by Baye or anything he has done, but rather by the room itself. Such is the experience of going to a foreign country and not knowing that the smells are different, not only the sights. The experience of being in a Japanese apartment, at least for me, is indelibly linked to the smell of tatami, the odor that Baye's roommates found so oddly offensive.

My husband and I lived in the same apartment for 23 years and I didn't realize how unusual that was until I came home and found that those who do not buy tend to lead a fairly nomadic existence. Rent contracts are short, rates tend to go up when they run out, and people are always in the process of finding the next place, at least in the Bay Area in California. In fact, we are facing a move in the very near future and I am not looking forward to it.

Look at how tiny our T.V. was around 1990!

Though we did not move in Japan, our apartment did see many changes over time. I'd grown so used to the place by the time we left, that I had forgotten what it looked like when we started out. For instance, we started off with using Japanese rattan blinds (sudare). We moved on to noren, a covering often used in doorways of restaurants in Japan. Finally, we went for long dark curtains which were later changed over to long beige ones. I had forgotten about these changes until I found some ancient pictures from those times.

Sumo-themed "noren". This was probably around 1994-1996 as Akebono's portrait cannot be any earlier than 1993.

Our apartment wasn't just some place we kept our stuff in and crashed in. It was also a reflection of our proficiency and engagement with the culture during various points in time. We used sudare because they were cheap and close at hand. We didn't know where to find "proper" window treatments and we wanted privacy so we bought them. Later, when we became interested in sumo, we changed to the noren, but I had to put a large amount of white paper (taped together to form a solid cover) behind it in order to get more privacy.

October 2011, about 6 months before we left Japan.

There was also a distinct transition in terms of style and clutter as time went by. In the beginning, we tended to accumulate more eclectic pieces and cute stuff that was near at hand. I worked near Tokyu Hands in Ikebukuro during my first few years and tended to go to their floors with decorative items and pick up things that struck my fancy initially. When we entered our sumo loving phase, we started to buy souvenirs and decorate with those. Finally, this gave way to a cleaner, more simplistic look as I decided that I really would prefer a clearer space.

It wasn't all about making a decision to turn to a more simple way of living as the years went by. Technology was a great facilitator of such a change. The picture at left, which will look a little funky because it's three pictures joined together and they were not taken with that purpose in mind, shows just how much media we kept around in an age when the internet was made up largely of command-line interfaces and text.

We had an enormous shelf full of books, videotapes, CDs (in the drawers on the right), software and DATs (digital audio tapes). The books were largely study materials for learning Japanese, though some were for entertainment. This was before Amazon existed and the main resource for English language books was the over-priced and limited selection at Kinokuniya book shops.

The videos were a collection amassed over a long period of time and had been recorded from American T.V. by my husband's family and mailed over to us by surface mail. Cable T.V. was uncommon and had limited viewing options and YouTube was not even a concept, let alone a potential reality given the bandwidth and coding of the time.

DATs were actually a reflection of the rental CD market in Japan. This was before you could rip a disc on your computer. DATs allowed my husband to rent music he liked and then make higher quality recordings than the standard cassette tapes.

This sort of "warehousing" of media was the only way we had for many years of consuming English-language culture. By the time we'd left, gaining access to English culture was a simple matter of getting online. Over time, all of this ended up, unfortunately, as landfill. We tried to give such things away, but no one wanted them. They'd become anachronisms. Even the CDs had to be trashed and it gave us no pleasure to see things we'd spent a lot of money on go into the trash heap, but time does march on and things become obsolete.

And there were even more shelves with more books and stuff. The bottom shelf, as I recall clearly, is chock full of all of the back issues of "Sumo World" magazine that we had. We loved sumo so much that we bought all of the old issues as well as never missed a new one.

Our stockpiling of "stuff" in this way may see as though it was unusual, particularly in a tiny apartment, but the truth was that I incidentally saw many Japanese people's homes (through their open windows as I walked around the city in summer) which had similar stacks of stuff. In fact, theirs were often piled higher and less organized in appearance. Americans do the same thing, but they tend to have more space to put their crap in so they relegate their junk to attics, garages and closets more often than not.

Our old, enormous kitchen shelf with loads of boxes of cereal and imported food (on the top as well as inside). When we found such things, we stockpiled them, because we knew they wouldn't be around forever. This shelf was with us for 21 of our 23 years in Japan. By the time we disposed of it, all of those drawers had broken handles and I'd just thrown them out and used them as 4 other shelves. 

Looking back at these pictures, the place really feels like "home", even though Japan itself never felt like home. I can look at these pictures and see little details of items that saw much use, but were forgotten. The little black lamp on my bedside had a crane-like neck that allowed you to collapse it into a little capsule. I remember that eventually the joint go so loose that the lamp wouldn't stay up and that it was originally a bright blue that I did not like so I painted it black. I can see the silver base of a candlestick which my husband gave me for Christmas stored in the drawers next to our media shelf and recall that it was bent accidentally when I stored it under a sofa some years later (the sofa had storage in its base). These types of memories around well-used and cherished objects are part of what builds our concept of "home".

More videos and, yes, laserdiscs! Certainly a reflection of an era...

I made a little space for us in Tokyo which was a bubble against the outside culture, which was often hostile toward me and made me feel objectified when I was in it. The apartment was a haven in which English could be heard and spoken without judgment or consequences. It was the only place in which we didn't feel alien.

Very little of what we had came back with us to America because of the logistics and expense of doing so. Of what you see here, only the blue sumo noren and sumo tournament winner portraits made it across the Pacific with us. We took those things with us not because we couldn't part with our junk, but because they were a piece of the home that we had there for so very long. The hope was that transferring them would help us transfer our sense of security and comfort. I can't say that that hope has been fulfilled, but looking at those items and having them at hand does provide a sense of warmth and fond remembrance.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Won't Miss #516 - terrible organics

This guy was hanging in front of the organic food shop. See, he's not too happy with it either. ;-)

There was an organic food store near my local station when I lived in Asagaya in Tokyo. You can always tell a shop that sells food untouched by the brutal hand of pesticides by the fact that it has a bunch of brown, wilted, nasty-looking fruit and vegetables whereas all of the other shops have nearly perfect, clean and generally appealing looking produce. I can't say for sure why the organic food I saw in Tokyo always looked as it it had been driven around in the back of a truck on a hot day for a week, but it did. My speculation was that, without the chemicals that are sprayed on produce to keep it looking artificially nice, the long haul from wherever it was grown to the streets of the city was enough to cause it to degrade rather rapidly. Whatever the case, it was always very expensive and looked like it was not too far from heading to a compost heap where its main contribution would be to feed the growth cycle without feeding any people in between.

While I'm not obsessive about organic food, it is better to buy it for some particular types of food and I don't miss the miserable state in which organic food was sold in Tokyo. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Misc. Blog Stuff and Feedly

I've already posted about this on my other blog, the one about junk food, and I wanted to say a word here. Most bloggers, including me, are getting regular readership from people who subscribe using an RSS reader. Many of my readers are using Google Readers, as I did for quite a few years. The awesomeness of such readers is that they allow you to track when new content is available without daily visits to the site. 

Of course, I'm very happy to have people pop in by visiting everyday. In fact, I'd welcome you with a cup of tea and a green tea chocolate if I could. However, if you're the kind of person who follows a lot of blogs, it quickly becomes cumbersome to track them all and that's where RSS has your back.

For my readers, this equation isn't quite so tricky because I follow a pretty strict posting schedule on both blogs. On this one, I post every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. On the other one, I am currently posting every weekday. However, if you are using RSS, it's just that much easier to track new content rather than remember my particular posting schedule.

So, I am kindly asking readers to consider moving to a new RSS Reader when Google Reader reaches its inevitable demise (assuming you already use Google Reader). I decided to migrate early to allow myself to grow accustomed to a new interface and have chosen Feedly. So far, I've found it to be the least annoying. Woo-freaking-hoo? Actually, it's not a bad reader at all, but I'm well aware of the troublesome nature of mastering a new interface. However, you can use it to directly connect to Reader to import your old feeds and set the look to be roughly similar to the venerable reader. 

Thank you all for reading and I appreciate your continued attention and support. I think Google Reader goes dark on July 1, 2013, and I hope that I don't see a concomitant drop in my readership. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Will Miss #515 - reliability of utilities

I've lived in my apartment in California for only 6 months, and have already experienced one utility-based problem. The water was shut off for a period of two hours to do some sort of maintenance. I was given a 24-hour notice of this fact 19 hours before the shut-off occurred and it was actually off for closer to 2 1/2 hours. This isn't such a big deal except for the fact that when the water did return, it came out sputtering and brown. It took a lot of allowing it to run and nearly two hours of time before it cleared up, and even then I wasn't sure that it was safe to drink.

It has been my experience both from my upbringing and my short return that things like power outages and utility interruptions are far more common in the U.S. than in Japan. Part of the issue is that the lines often cover more space and are underground due to the widespread nature of homes and services. Another, in my opinion, is that Americans are less diligent about maintaining such things. In Japan, the utilities companies react relatively quickly to small problems, and, on the rare occasion that there is a disruption, you are smartly informed both of the moment it goes off and the moment it goes back on. 

In 23 years of living in Tokyo, power flickered briefly a couple of times, but never went off for any length of time and water was only ever stopped when I had a question about the cost of my bill and they needed to check for leaks. The utilities there were incredibly reliable and I miss that. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Random Memories #33

A business card from my husbands employer. The school has been defunct for a long time.

This is my last random memory related to working for Nova when I first moved to Japan. The other entries are here: first, second, third.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Nova had a bad reputation among teachers as a company that cheated employees. Given that fact, one may wonder why on earth I'd try to work there. The answer lay in the circumstances under which my brand new husband (married about a month before we went to Japan) and I found ourselves after moving to Tokyo.

He had secured a job first, but the company that had hired him, rather impressively named "The White House", had a policy of starting teachers out with a mere 25 hours a week of work. After an unspecified time of probation, they'd boost you to 35 hours. This was their way of limiting their losses in terms of damage to student relationships if they got a crummy teacher, but also it allowed them to call all of the shots for awhile. To that end, they pressured my husband to jaunt to Korea to do visa paperwork instead of allowing him to return to the U.S. and do it.

It's possible to do it in either country because you can do it anywhere outside of Japan that has a Japanese embassy, but one of their employees got it done in Korea in a few days and they were worried that it'd take as long as two months in the U.S. Because they had the carrot of an increase in paid time to 35 hours, he had to take the stick of going to Korea at not insignificant expense and with some nervousness. At that time, world travel was not what it is now and he had not prepared for such a trip back home. Resources in English letting one know what to expect were very thin in Tokyo, and the internet wasn't a thing then. It was, to say the least, more than a little intimidating, but he did it anyway.

This trip added to a pile of mounting start-up expenses during our transition from America to Japan. The entire business was going to cost 50,000 yen ($391 in 1989), and we were already on the hook for his plane flight and money he'd borrowed to travel and eat while he lived with his brother (who was already living and working in Asagaya in Tokyo). By the time we'd spent everything we needed to spend to get set up in Japan, we'd added nearly $8,000 to our debt pile. This was largely made up of the cost of getting an apartment which included a month's rent as "gift" money (aka extortion) for the landlord, another month to the real estate agency and the usual first, last and security deposit. The rent alone was a splash out of around $4,000 and we also needed to borrow enough to eat and live on until we started collecting our paychecks as well as minimally outfit the apartment to make it livable.

Considering this new debt as well as our mutual college debts, as neither of us came from families who could (in my case) or were willing to (in his case) pay our way through school, we needed to get a pretty decent income rolling between the two of us and his job wasn't going to give many hours up front. As I mentioned before, Nova had the benefit of paying pretty well fairly fast, and they were willing to take me despite my lack of experience. Because of the economic pressure, I took the job at Nova, and, as I'm sure was the case with many teachers, regretted it.

Though many who do not teach or never learned to teach well might dispute it, teaching is hard work. Being "on" and attentive to people for hours and hours without much of a break is draining. It is doubly hard when you've got three or four people peering at you intently as if they were inspecting some sort of bacterial sample under a microscope and they remain mute much of the time. Persuading students to do what they came there to do, that is, speak English, was often a Herculean task, and often a Sisyphean one as well. Whatever the case, intervention of some sort of Greek god would have been appreciated, but was never forthcoming.

One of the big problems working at Nova was that they had very few materials with which you were allowed to teach. Their core text was "American Streamline", a book which was actually fine in its own right, but did not address the needs of students who didn't have strong core capabilities very well. What was worse was that there were only 4 levels of that text and only 80 lessons in each book. Nova divided the lowest level students into 3 sub-levels, 7A, 7B, and 7C. Lower level students often made up a disproportionate number of the student body, and these students had these 80 lessons to complete to make it to the next level up (6) and start using the next textbook.

The problem was that doing these 80 lessons was not sufficient to boost students, especially the 7C ones who were at rock bottom, to the next level. You'd end up with people who had repeated the same lessons over and over again and still were not advancing. What was worse was that teachers didn't like doing some of the lessons in the book, especially those which were light on text and heavy on the teacher having to think of ways to practice grammatical structures, so you'd have the same lesson done 8 times and some that were never touched.

This left me as a teacher in a quandary most times. I could do as the lazy teachers had done and pick an easy lesson which allowed you to get students to read copious amounts of text to kill time, or I could do a lesson which was very taxing for me and required a lot of on the fly efforts to come up with ways to practice a structure. If I chose the former, the students who'd done such lessons again and again got irritated and frustrated because they were bored and knew they weren't advancing. If I chose the latter, I'd be worn out trying to pull teeth and having no respite from the text.

In the end, I generally decided to cover material least covered. This was because I cared more about the quality of what the student got than my own comfort or fatigue. In retrospect, I don't think it really mattered what I did because I'm sure not one student remembers that I gave them a lesson they hadn't had a dozen times before. It was mainly about self-respect and how I regarded myself as a teacher.

Beyond teaching from a limited range of books (they also used a pattern practice book for beginners called Side by Side, which many teachers also hated doing), there was the horror of the "Voice" room. This was a conversation lounge in which students sat around in more comfortable chairs to just "chat" with teachers. It was supposed to be more relaxing for all involved, but it was anything but for teachers. You were essentially stuck in a room with people who expected to be entertained and to do nothing to add to the conversation. If you got "lucky", you might get some windy businessman who felt that it was his right to hold the room entranced with stories of the minutiae of his business like precisely how many contracts he filled out and what exciting tidbits were entered into each field.

While teaching could be tiring, at least it had structure. Going into the Voice room was more loathsome to me than anything else about working at Nova. Unfortunately, students loved it because it was cheaper than paying for real lessons, and involved a fair amount of verbal wanking. It was all play and no work, and I often doubted that it really did anything to improve language skills. It was a pen in which the gaijin (foreigner) monkeys performed.

Working at Nova did do one thing for me and that was give me a whirlwind of experience in a short period of time. I taught so many people so fast that I got the hang of it within a short time. It was a sweatshop for language teachers, and by the time I'd quit two years down the road, it had given me something else, health issues. The stress and lies of working at Nova did a number on my body such that I developed gall stones. I was having attacks by the time I quit, and had to have surgery several months after leaving.

If I had to do it all over again, I would have taken a different job. I don't look back on my Nova experience with any fondness at all. While the experiences I had were of value, I think that they were not unique to Nova. Any school, including a better school that had a greater variety of teaching materials and a lighter workload with more preparation time, would have given me what Nova did, and it probably wouldn't have wrecked my health in the process.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Won't Miss #21 - cockroaches (reflection)

As I mentioned in my original post, there are roaches everywhere in the world, but the ones I encountered in Japan were bigger and more plentiful. Nothing in my experience since returning has changed that perception. In fact, since coming home, and living in three different places and two different states, I haven't seen one roach. Of course, I haven't hung out in many seedy dives or back alleys full of dumpsters, but there are dumpsters in my current apartment complex with nary a roach in sight. The fact that I have not seen roach motels or special roach killing spray prominently displayed in stores in the summer (which was always the case in Tokyo) supports the idea that it's just not that big a problem here.

The weather in Tokyo as well as the close proximity of people meant that roaches were something I was never going to escape no matter how clean I kept my place or how trash was managed. I absolutely am happy not to have to deal with them anymore. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Will Miss #21 - not carrying a purse (reflection)

This was something which I didn't think much about it when I was in Japan, and it did make sense when I speculated on it, but I've found that it is absolutely true that I didn't need a purse then, but I do need one now. The old backpack served me very well when I was dealing with public transportation and schlepping around Tokyo, but I find that I need a different type of gear here.

First of all, outside of a college campus, you look strange with a backpack in the U.S. This is because everyone has a car and they use it as a repository for their crap. Second, I seem to need a lot more incidental "stuff" here than I did in Tokyo. A big reason for this is that there were convenience stores pretty much everywhere. If I really wanted or needed something, I knew I could pop in and pick it up. There were also vending machines everywhere so I could get a drink if I was thirsty. Here, I have to keep everything on hand because it's a lot more trouble to find the right store, park the car, check out a single item (when everyone seems to be buying half the store when they're there), and drive away. Having the car not only makes the process take more time, but it also means that it's such a hassle that I'd just rather laden myself with every possible option than make the effort. There was a casualness to the lifestyle there which I cannot easily embrace here. 

I miss the way in which I was good to go with my backpack and "living off the land" in Tokyo. I have a small bag that I carry, but the truth is that I realized a long time ago that I need to procure a proper purse rather than keep stuffing that poor thing to the top (I've already lost things that fell out of it).

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Random Memories #32

Note: This is somewhat of a continuation of my two previous posts (here and here), though it is not necessary to have read them to follow this.

It has often been said that people get the government they deserve. I believe this is true. I also believe that, in the 80's in Japan, language schools got the types of teachers they deserved based on how they hired them and how they were treated. If a company concerned itself with the possible quality of instruction, experience, and personality of each teacher, it was going to get a better employee than one that cared only about how your paperwork could be processed at immigration, your age, and your physical appearance. Nova ICI, one of the biggest conversation schools in Japan for quite a long period of time, cared only about the latter in 1989, and the types of teachers it tended to attract reflected those priorities.

In terms of how Nova dealt with instructors, the superficial aspects looked pretty good. They promised steady hours and steady pay. A new teacher was to work 35 hours for 250,000 yen ($1,953 in 1989) up until their probation ended (3 months) and then their salary would increase to 290,000 yen ($2265 in 1989). That sounds all well and good, but after I started working at Nova, the rumors of how things really worked started to fly. 

One of the things that tended to happen at Nova was that they would permit some people who did not have a qualifying Bachelor's degree (which you must have to get a proper working visa) to work on their tourist visas when they got desperate for bums in seats. This explains to some extent the economics of the probationary pay. A tourist visa lasted 3 months so anyone who was doing a temporary gig would get the reduced pay and then walk away before the higher rate could kick in. 

If they wanted to take their chances, they would hop a boat to Korea or fly outside of Japan for a spell then come back for a fresh tourist visa and spend another three months. This worked for some, and not so well for most as the immigration folks at the airport could smell someone who was coming back to work on a shiny new tourist visa. Well, they couldn't so much smell it as work out that anyone who remained up until the cusp of their visa expiring and then left for a brief time was likely coming back to work illegally.

At any rate, the most pernicious rumor at Nova regarding teachers was that they would cheat you if you gave proper notice. That is if you said you were going in a month, they'd withhold and keep 2 weeks salary and not pay you what you were due. I don't know if this was true, but it was widely believed and teachers were constantly bugging out without notice based on this belief. If you bugged out at just the right moment, the most you could be cheated out of was a few days of pay. If you did the right thing, you would lose a great deal more.

In my school, we had two British folks who were working on tourist visas. One bugged out without notice when his three months were up. I remember the manager coming up to me and asking me if he was ever coming back and feeling uncomfortable admitting that I knew he was not. The other teacher had a craftier way of getting around the lack of a Bachelor's degree. She had worked at a professional printer back home in England and she flew back to make her own false document. For her, this worked, but I know other folks who tried this and failed. I guess the mail order ones didn't work as well as one that you custom-made with your own two hands. This fake served my former coworker well as she continued to work at various jobs in Japan on that fake diploma.

Nova was aware of and actually condoned the acquisition of such fake documentation at that time. My guess is that the current version of that company, which is ran by different management and likely has had its shady practices completely cleaned up, does not in any way support this. How do I know that they supported this in the distant past? There was a very popular Australian teacher who lacked a degree. He was very popular with the lower level students because he was a gas bag who could talk his way through the entire lesson without placing much in the way of demands on the students. He taught there for 6 months on a working holiday visa, a visa which allows people from certain countries to legally work in Japan, and it was coming to an end. Nova management wanted him to stay, so they encouraged him to go procure the false diploma to allow him to be sponsored. They even pointed him toward Hong Kong, which apparently was a good place to get a fake degree back in those days.

You might think that Nova's sloppy hiring practices and skirting the law in order to hire teachers is no big deal. So what if they don't ask about your teaching skills, experience or techniques? So what if they encourage people to buy diplomas to get around a requirement to have a Bachelor's degree? If you believe as many people do that foreigners who work in English conversation schools are little more than monkeys who are there to amuse bored housewives, school kids, and indifferent businessmen who are forced to study English, then none of that matters. A monkey with a diploma is little different than the chimp without one. They can all dance for the natives, right? Well... no.

I'm not going to try and convince you of the idea that a person who completes a college degree is somehow a different type of employee than one who does not. You're either going to buy that (most likely if you have a degree) or not (most likely if you don't). I can tell you that I spotted the liars who never finished a university degree long before they confessed or got caught. There is a difference, and it's not even about how intelligent they are, but that's not what I'm leading up to. What I'm leading up to is the fact that Nova's attitude toward teachers resulted in worse than monkeys with fake credentials.

This is a story I have told before, in a blog a long time ago and far away, but it belongs in this post so I'll tell it again. One day my British coworkers (the one who printed her own degree) and I were walking down the street in Ikebukuro. We reached a light and as we waited, a tall foreign man who seemed to be in his 30's or 40's approached us and stood with us. He started talking to us about how the Japanese hated foreigners and felt we were beneath them. He said they were like Nazis and had contempt for all of us. I knew from the look in his eye and the way he spoke that he was mentally ill. I'd worked and lived with people with an array of serious mental disorders, including schizophrenia, for two years and I know what that disease looks and sounds like. My friend was taken aback and simply responded to his rant by saying, "well, it's their country." The light changed and we walked on our merry way.

Two weeks later, I came into work at Nova and this man was there gathering up student files. They had hired him as a teacher. I was shocked, to say the least, and I felt that, given his opinions of the Japanese as he professed on the street, it would be bad to put him in a classroom with students. I went to the manager and told her that I strongly suspected that he was mentally ill and I told her the types of things he had told my coworker and me. She nodded and said, "mmm," and thanked me and did absolutely nothing. This was a good example of the type of thinking I came to expect in Japan. That is, they would worry about crossing that rickety old bridge only after it had collapsed and killed anyone walking across it. It didn't matter if an engineer guaranteed that it was going to go and go soon, they'd simply ignore it until it could no longer be ignored. 

Within the coming weeks, this man's mental illness started to manifest. He didn't bath and started to stink. During the lessons, he told students that his dead father was in the cubicle with him and was speaking to him during the class. He became increasingly erratic and sometimes shouted at students in the class. The students, being passive and not wanting to embarrass anyone, tolerated this for a little while, but even they couldn't bear it for long. The Japanese are patient people, but no one can stand being in a tiny little room with a smelly, mentally ill person for long and "gaman" (endure), particularly when they are paying for the indignity of it all. After about a month, Nova finally sacked this man who should never have been hired in the first place.

The reason this guy got hired was that Nova didn't care about who he was or what he was going to do in a class. They looked at his visa and determined they could legally get his ass into a seat. The potential damage of their hiring practices went beyond simply putting unqualified monkeys into seats or even losing business. Given his delusions about the Japanese hating on foreigners and judging them, it's hard to know what he could have been capable of. As it was, he was capable of verbally abusing the students and making them very upset by sharing his hallucinations in the class. It could have been very much worse and the attitude at Nova toward hiring foreigners was entirely to blame.