A day at school: Part 1

By 7:00 am on a school day I’ve pretty much showered, dressed and had a small breakfast. It’s about that time I put on  a podcast of CBC’s, World at Six and step out onto my small balcony with a coffee. Shortly thereafter I see the first of the students bicycling past the building on their way to school (my school; Daiichi).  When I arrive at Daiichi, also by bicycle, about 45 minutes later, there are dozens of students on the playing field playing the sport of the “Club” to which they belong. Most Clubs are of an athletic nature, baseball, volleyball, tennis etc., but there also clubs associated with various hobbies and arts.  Membership in a club is compulsory and activities are scheduled both before and after school hours.

Although the first class doesn’t start until 8:50 am, I like to be at my desk well before 8:00. I take off my shoes at the entrance of the school, put on my “indoor” shoes and go to class. Most teachers are already at their desks by the time I arrive. By the time they finish supervising after-school club activities, it may well be after 7:00 pm by the time they get home. Upon entering the office in the morning I address the staff  saying “Ohayo ga zai masu” (good morning) and bow. They reply in unison and also bow. I get a coffee, sit down and check my schedule of classes for the day.
There are six 50 minute classes per day plus a lunch break. On any day I have between three and five classes. There are three grades in Junior High and the age of the students is generally between about 12 an 14. There are also much smaller special needs classes that now have no more than three students.

Special Needs is my favorite class. We have a very talented artist who is autistic and popular with pretty much everyone in the school.  Last week we took these large, zucchini-shaped gourd-like plants, cut them into sections and boiled them in a very large pot. I had no idea what they were but it seemed pretty clear they were gross and clearly inedible. It was only after we’d cooked them, drained them in cold water and scraped out the flesh and seeds that I realized what they were. Loofahs! Once dried, identical to the ones you might buy in a bath shop. Apparently the flesh of the plant also has astringent cleaning properties.

The English teachers I work with are smart, articulate, and damned good at their profession. Except for the fact that, regardless of how well you know a learned language, you will never fully  grasp the nuances of pronunciation, cadence and things like the use of idioms and metaphors as well as a native-born English speaker; they would not need ALTs at all. They are certainly aware of this and, to a certain extent, are no doubt thinking, “This is MY class. What do I really need this gai-jin for?” The answer is simple: They need the ALT to be totally engaged in speaking to the class: That is really what it is all about. If you can stand in front of 30 kids, sing dumb songs and clearly articulate in English at the level the students are comfortable with, you will be ok. It is NOT a job for shy people. It is also very gratifying in the middle of a class to glance at the teacher and get that nod that says, “Yes, we are both on the same page here – you are doing ok”. (that happened to me on Friday and it was a very welcome validation).

Class begins with everyone standing to attention. The students bow (rei) and the teachers return the bow. I do a “warm up” asking the students how they are, what the weather is like, the date and the time. I then distribute a short English-learning game quiz that I’ve prepared that might focus on pronouns for example. I’ll read English from the lesson book and then assist the sensei (teacher) for the remainder of the class. It gets easier with each passing day but, I don’t mind admitting, it was pretty intimidating at first.

Lunches are big, nutritious and varied. On any given day we might have fish, chicken, soup or beef as an entree with a side dish of salad, dessert and a small bottle of milk. Everyone in the school gets a lunch and Wednesday is my designated day to “clean up”  for the office staff afterwards.

Clean up? At 3:30 pm, after the last class, I stand in front of  the computer classroom (my designated clean-up area), as the students line up in rows in front of me. A student says rei (bow), we bow and then clean the room. Kids with a damp cloths squat low, lean forward with the cloth on the floor and run from one end of the room to the other, thus cleaning the floor. Other kids sweep and wipe down the desks. As I am the only Sensei in the room, the mood is pretty casual and the is a lot of kidding around. It was in the clean-up that I initially established a rapport with some of the students.

Before leaving sometime after 4:00 pm, I stand, bow and apologize for leaving early. The teachers bow and thank me for my effort. I am almost always the first to leave.

Obviously much more goes on but that is a “bare bones” account of my working day. With that “framework” in place, I’ll try to be a little more casual and anecdotal in my next post






Random notes on living in Niimi

Two weeks ago all 14 of the ALTs went out for dinner and Karaoke which, I’ll freely admit, was more fun than I’d expected. When we all trooped into a 7/11- like convenience store I assumed everyone was just picking up snacks or something. Nope; everyone bought beer from the coolers, took off their shoes and went upstairs where there are sofa-lined individual rooms for parties of up to about 15 people. The ALTs refer to it as “convenioke”. Each room is equipped with a huge TV and a couple of “boxes” for choosing an impressively large number of songs. When one ALT chose “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, every person in the room (including the Americans ) spontaneously stood up, linked arms and sang. I’m not a particularly “sensitif” kinda guy but I must admit it was pretty moving!
I thought I’d take a bike ride through the Ginza District  (the oldest part of Niimi) the other day in search of a pub that ALTs have been frequenting now for some years. The Ginza is a large labyrinthian area chock-a-block with markets, shops, restaurants and pubs so finding it was a pretty long shot. All I knew of it was that it was known to play jazz and served Heineken. On a small lane I stopped when I noticed a Heineken sign in front of a small pub. I thought it might be the place but had no real intention of going in as it was only shortly after noon and most pubs don’t open until 7:00 pm in any case.  As I stood there a Japanese woman walked up from behind me and asked if my name was Terree?  Seems she had been told about me by one of the other ALTs. She invited me in. A John Coltrane cd was playing and there was a poster of him, and another of James Dean on the wall. Books lined the whole bar. Clearly my kind of place. There was no one else in the bar. She made me a great lunch and, using her translating app, told me she loved the movies of Stanely Kuberick, Marteen Shoresee and Daveed Leench. I couldn’t believe it – it was like a scene from a movie.
Niimi is stretched out along both sides of a river bank but there is little level ground between the mountains and the water. As a result there are places where the hills and impenetrably thick forest literally encroach into the town.From the supermarket, about a block from my place, you look up into the trees and stands of bamboo canes as thick as your arm, and hear this cacophonous sound of birds and cicadas – just like those old jungle movies you saw as a kid.
Shopping is interesting. People tend to grocery shop on a daily, rather than a weekly  basis so they use hand-held baskets rather than shopping carts. You place your basket of groceries, at a 90 degree angle to the immediate right of the cashier. She takes the items from your basket, scans them and places them in a second basket to her left and adds an empty plastic bag or two to the basket. You place your money in a small tray, she takes it and places your change in the same tray. You retrieve your change, bow, and take  the second basket about five feet to a counter where you bag the groceries. To western eyes this may seem like excessive deference but I find it appealing that respect for others and their personal space manifests itself in so many subtle ways. Regardless of where you are (restaurant, bar, or cafe)  people seldom directly hand over cash.  Interesting because it is a cash-based society – you just don’t see debit or credit cards and  it can make paying bills a bit awkward when you are not conversant in Japanese.
The Japanese tend to use a “hanko” rather than a signature. A hanko is a personalized stamp about three inches long with the circumference of a pencil that is used with an ink pad. It is required for almost any banking or legal transaction.
There are no garbage bins to be found on the streets because it is considered rude to eat outdoors. I heard a story, possibly apocryphal, about an ALT who was called into the principal’s office because a neighbor had reported her for eating while walking to school.
Japan is not as expensive as I’d been led to believe. Fruit however can very costly. $10:00 for a pound of grapes or $7:00 for a peach (in fairness though, for sheer essence of peach, pure “peachiness” if you will, absolutely nothing compares with an Okayama white peach. Not even close!
Fewer than 15% of Japanese have ever tasted turkey. Meat is sold sliced rather than as whole chickens or roasts. Many Japanese do not have ovens. Well-marbled thinly sliced meat is often served with fried onions on a leaf of lettuce with a great spicy sauce and then rolled up. Delicious.
Pubs almost invariably serve complimentary snacks and provide either a moist hot or cool towel.
Plots of rice (now being harvested ), are everywhere in Niimi. They are irrigated by channels of diverted river water that flow throughout the town. If one sound is ubiquitous in Niimi, it is the sound of flowing water. Concrete and metal “bridges”  link residential driveways to the roads everywhere.
Q: Why would the Japanese want to have a separate room for the toilet?
A: Why would you want a toilet in the same room you bathe.
When students wave and say hello I must discipline myself not to say hi, as it is pronounced the same as hai meaning yes.
Ta for now,

Email from Naomi

The following email from Naomi referring back to Terry’s early days in Niimi.   Also a copy of the blog from the Niimi International Exchange Association about the banquet (with photos of food!)

From: “杉 尚美” <naomi-sugi@city.niimi.okayama.jp>
Date: 6 September, 2013 2:21:29 AM PDT
To: “Robert McLure” <rmclure1@gmail.com>
Cc: “Terry Patten” <tpatten26@gmail.com>
Subject: Updates

Dear Bob-san,

My sincere apologies for taking such a long time to contact you again. But the busy days have past and now I’m getting more relaxed recently. We have had much rain recently, but today is very beautiful sunny day! I hope you enjoyed summer a lot.

Some updates after Terry’s arrival.
On 22nd of August, he visited mayor and deputy mayor of Niimi at Niimi City Office. Some local media reported this, and he appeared on the local news paper and local TV news. Terry got a DVD of the recorded news report and I’m sure he will send it to you in the future to share it with you! He gave Mayor Ishigaki the personal letter from Mayor Cross and Ms. Nicolls (and of course, I gave the translation to them).

After that, on 29th of August, Niimi International Exchange Association had a welcome party for Terry. We enjoyed nice Niimian dinner with a little bit( or much) of alcohol. Many of those who attended the party have been to Sidney, and we had a lot of fun. Here is the link to blog that one of the members wrote.
Also, I will send the phote taken at the party in a separate emial later.

From August 29th, Terry started working at Niimi Daiichi Junior High School which is one of the biggest JHS in Niimi and Niimi minami Junior High School which Akihiro-san works at as a principal. Although there are no classes due to Sports Day practice, I hope Terry is getting used to the new environment (new workplace, new coworkers and new students)!

Best wishes,

Niimi City has ALTs(assistant language teachers) to support teaching of English language in junior (and senior) high schools, and foreign language activities in elementary schools and kindergartens.

Terry Patten is the first ALT dispatched to Niimi through Sidney-Niimi Sister Cities Exchanges.

On August 29, we had a welcome party for him at Hakubi Japanese Restaurant.

Directors of Niimi International Exchange Association(NIEA), officials of Niimi City Office and members of Niimi Board of Education attended the party.

I was there as Vice Chairman of General Affairs Committee of NIEA.

We enjoyed meeting and getting to know Terry at the occasion.I was acting one of the interpreters at the party, but I was able to talk with him personally too. We had our pictures taken.

At the party we welcomed Terry san with local foods in Niimi. Sturgeon and caviar are relatively new products in Niimi. aviar sturgeon sashimi sturgeon tempura

We enjoyed sweet fish ayu and Chiya beef too.

We hope that Terry’s stay in Niimi will be a very fruitful one, and that he will be able to influence many students positively in Niimi.


Internet at Last!

I finally have an internet connection that is likely to be stable and consistent. Although much has happened since I arrived on August 20, for now I will focus on the events of the past week as it is only since then that I’ve been teaching in the classroom. There are no scheduled classes prior to September 8, as the students spend weeks preparing for Undokai (Sports Day). Without any classes to attend to, I spent most of the time at my desk in the teacher’s office trying to learn polite Japanese phrases, “crib” together a Power-point introduction to the students and attempt to put together some class “warm-up” exercises. Undokai is a huge event on the annual school calendar with massive preparations, parental attendance and even food-vending concession stands. Interestingly enough considering the scope of the event, it is entirely intramural with each junior high holding its own Undokai. Opening Ceremonies had the (very good) school band playing martial music  (including The Halls of Montezuma), while the entire student body deftly marched around the playing field. Emphasizing the importance of cooperation, and communal effort, virtually all of the events involve teamwork: The races for example are all relays. The students never gave less than a hundred percent and it was a very entertaining day. Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) as foreigners, are not as constrained as their Japanese teaching counterparts so my friend Andrew and myself spent the day walking about wearing Spiderman and Hulk masks. Andrew has been an ALT for four years now so I deferred to his judgment on that.

Because Undokai was on a Sunday, we had the following day off work. I spent the Monday with an impending sense of doom and dread knowing that I had no internet connection; was “on tap” the following day with three class introductions, three Power-point presentations and various other “front of the class” teaching responsibilities. My ace-in-the-hole was that fellow ALT  Andrew, had helped me with the Power-point and it might serve as a distraction from the sheer terror of standing alone in front of a class with virtually nothing to say (anyone remember Ralph Kramden?). Ooh, showing my age there eh?.

It worked. As I scrolled through the screens I found I could make a few self-effacing humorous comments, try to keep it interesting and hope that, when it was all over, I’d get a few questions (I dreaded the prospect of stony-faced silence). I even became quickly aware of the extent to which the Japanese English teachers were inclined to translate my comments. Some were prepared to “go” with the sense of humor and some were not.  When I suggested that a picture of an ax-wielding “lumberjack” was cliched there was clearly no forthcoming translation from one teacher.  On the other hand, in another class I got a great laugh when I cracked up at a student who thought the classic bottle of Canadian maple syrup was whiskey. If the teachers were prepared to freely translate my comments the students were terrific; if they were not, it was still ok. I was really moved when one of the older classes really cheered, pumped their fists in the air and chanted the school cheer when I finished. I could sense how the power-points were going and, for the most part they went well.

In any case, in just a week I have gone from being a curiosity, obliquely checked out in the hallways to someone who is getting high fives, fist bumps and back pats in the halls. The kids really are great! My only regret is that I cannot speak to them at greater length in their own language. That will change!

Now that I am connected to the internet I will be posting far more frequently. Niimi is a fascinating place and Japan is an amazing country. The  unfailing kindness and consideration of the people never ceases to amaze me. I will be writing about this in the very near future.

Ta for now!