Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Our own private piece of heaven...

First off, happy birthday to me! I turned a sleek 28 this year and it was one of the best birthdays, ever. I spent it lounging on a beach in a bikini and learning to swim with the help of my trusty (and oh so handsome) instructor/buoy, Dave, and I faced my fear of water. But I'm getting ahead of myself. (Unfortunately, due to some problems I'm uploading some pics, this will be a largely photo-less post. Gomenai - a thousand apologies.)

I had booked the birthday tickets to Okinawa in March, long before I had been informed that May is the rainy season for the south of Japan. I paid attention to the weather reports for about two weeks before we were scheduled to leave and I was dismayed to learn that the cloudy and rainy pictographs far exceeded the sunny ones. Like 5 to 1. In the few days before our depature date, a typhoon hit. Rain, rain, go away. But I decided that I would go to the beach no matter what.

Dave and I left his place in the early morning of May 20th. The sky was gray and foreboding, but Dave was still sweetly optimistic. He was right to be. When we touched down in Naha, we were welcomed with hot weather, a blazing sun and sky as blue as a Crayola creation. It was gorgeous. It was everything I've wanted and needed, and the fact that it was my birthday weekend made it all the more sweet.

We walked around Naha for a few hours while we waited until we could take the ferry to a tiny island further south called Tokashiki. Let me just say this about Naha: It can be inarguably described as eastern Hawaii. You know that America still has a stronghold on this city. From signs welcoming service men/women, to the presence of the American flag, to Army surplus stores and the omnipotence of Taco restaurants, this place was super Americanized. But what they lacked in a Japanese atmosphere, they sure made up for in shops and oh-so-oishii so restaurants. Dave and I picked a good looking one and feasted on marvelous food. I don't really remember what I ate, but he chose a pork soba and it was so scrumptious. The meat literally fell off the bone. I suppose I should mention that the speciality in Okinawa is not fish but pig. Honest to goodness pig. I shit you not, it was hog heaven.

After going a little wild on the omiyage (I also bought myself a killer sarong - yellow and red), we headed to the port to catch the ferry. There was a wedding going on so we stopped and observed, totally encroaching on the sacred ocassion, but I couldn't give a fack. As usual, the bride was wearing a Japanese take on the western wedding dress and as usual, it was gaudy as hell. I think Japanese wedding dress designers try to make their dresses to look like the it came out of the 1980's, circa the late, great Dynasty era. But I bitchily digress.

We boarded the very nice, very fast ferry and in 35 minutes we were in Tokashiki being picked up by the hotel van. We got to the Sunflower Hotel, dumped our too heavy bags and headed to the beach. White sand. Clear water. Deserted. It was getting late so we walked about half the length of it, went out for dinner and headed back to the hotel , thoughts of swimming in the clear water dancing in our head.

The next day, my bday, we had breakfast and went straight to the beach. I had my first lesson with the sexy swim instructor and I thought I made excellent progress. It wasn't until the next day when we went to a different beach that I really applied everything I had learned. Let me put this in caps: I SWAM IN THE FREAKING OCEAN. I DIDN'T DOGGIE PADDLE, I DIDN'T WALK AND "SWIM" WITH MY ARMS. I SWAM FAR INTO THE OCEAN. I DIDN'T TOUCH THE BOTTOM. I SAW FISH. I actually snorkled, for the first time ever and I immensley enjoyed it. Thanks to the help of Dave, I learned how to swim properly, I learned how to tread water, I got to snorkle and for that I will be forever grateful. I felt red and hot and tingly inside. I have never been more proud of myself than learning how to swim on my 28th birtday.

To wrap up, Dave and I had an awesome time, I was actually nice in the morning, I got a tan while Dave burned, we ate amazingly well (A LOT of pork and some fried tacos - actually quite good), we didn't kill one other and found that we got along very well just the two of us and I will remember this birthday for the rest of my life.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Okay, I lied...

the last blog wasn't the last one before Okinawa because I wanted to post some reviews.

Firstly, I have a couple of web sites I wanted to share. The first is This blog is written by a 23 year old Aussie who is currently working and living in London. The site chronicles her time travelling to different Europeon countries, living in a different (yet quite similar) culture and basically having a great time. She writes well, she has loads of great links and resources and her posts leave me a little breathless each time I read them. I have another year here in Japan, but I'm certainly getting ideas for what I should do later.

The second web site that I check quite often, especially when I need to cackle at someone else's expense is Fugly is fucking-ugly combined and this site basically rips to shreds the sometimes dubious wardrobe choices stars and their assistants make when going outside in public. The writing is superb and sometimes as black as tar (their Tom Cruise rips slay me). So if you're a celebrity junky/fashion watcher like me, go ahead and indulge in some bitchiness. It can be oh so fun.

Secondly, I wanted to report on a movie that I saw this past weekend: V for Vendetta. Oh. My. God. Go see this film. Take someone smart with you. Discuss the film at length after it's over. Natalie Portman is fantastic in this film. You seriously might consider taking up acting because she is so good in this role. You never see Hugo Weaving's face but if like Shakespearean soliloquy, you will be tickled. I'm not going to get into the particulars of this film, but if you like smart, fast paced, violent, challenging-the-status-quo films that are set in somewhere other than America, THEN GO SEE THIS FILM.

Thirdly, I have to rant about Aveda Sap Moss shampoo and conditioner. After chopping off my hair, and before leaving Montreal to return to Japan, I bought a lot of hair products. Given that I wouldn't have a whole lot of options here, let's just say I stocked up on a variety of products. I was particularly excited about the Aveda products as I heard good things about them. After consulting other African-Americans/Canadians, and speaking at length with the African-Canadian Aveda salesperson who had recently cut off her natural locks and had a short do, I bought the very expensive shampoo and conditioner. Now, I was pretty happy with my Pantene Relaxed and Natural products, but decided to try out the Aveda. Well, it sucked. It sucked ass. It made my hair dry, brittle, crunchy, tangled - I couldn't detangle my hair and there was absolutely no mositure in it after it was dry. I gave Aveda a good shot - 3 washes, but it was obvious to me yesterday when I pulled out several knots out of my hair that this would have to go. I went back to Pantene this morning.

Lastly, I went to a hip hop dance class this past Sunday. Hip hop dance class, you ask? But you're black (ref?). I just wanted to dance around and feel good. I could do that for free at home but there is something to be said for joining an activity and getting out of your apartment. I had a great time. The music was bangin' (Cut Chemist, exsqueeze me??), the instructor was really good (even with his one rolled up pant leg) and everyone was really inviting. I met a really sweet high school student named Marnie who spoke excellent English and I expect to become friends with her. Good times.

I am also contemplating joining the kendo club. The three new members, all first grade girls, have really inspired me and I kicked ass today, so I might commit to it. Still mulling it over.

That's it for now. Probably.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

"Importing Diversity"...

I just finished reading a very interesting book that has helped me to accept my role here in the Japan education system. It's entitled Importing Diversity: Inside Japan's JET Program by David L. McConnell. I fully recommend this book to everyone involved with the JET Program: applicants, participants, alumni, and also those interested in cultural studies. It was truly eye- opening for me, especially since I was struggling in reconciling my expectations of TESL with the day-to-day reality of teaching people who are not truly interested in learning conversational English.

There were several interesting conclusions I came to after reading this book. Firstly, the JET Program wasn't conceived and implemented with the goal of revolutionizing the way English was taught in Japanese schools. Rather, the JET Program was implemented because the Japanese bowed to foreign ( mostlyAmerican) pressure to open up it's borders and become more international. Like most things in this world, this pressure was bestowed at a time where America realized that Japan was a formidable capitalist/consumerist entity, one that was growing but was insulated from the hegemony of American culture. "Western countries [had] protested with growing vigor what they perceive[d] as the closed nature of Japanese society and Japan's refusal to play be the rules of the international liberal trading order." (pg. 14) In an effort to demonstrate that Japan was willing to play in the international arena and refute the common opinion that they were intolerant of the "other" in their homogenous society, the government realized that they would have to effectively "import diversity" . And they figured that the best way to this would be to invite foreigners into the classroom. Up until then, a few prefectures had assistant language teachers in senior high schools, but the powers to be decided that it's goal would be to have a foreigner teaching in every senior high school, and then junior high schools (and eventually, elementary schools). And with this, the JET Program was born in 1989. Therefore, it became abundantly clear to me that I, along with all my fellow JET participants, am not here to help with the goal of teaching kids English. We are here due to the government's plan to show the world that Japan is not an insular, xenophobic society, but rather a country open to new ideas, new cultures, and new people. Just as long as they are here for 1 -3 years. Effectively, we are all pawns to be used (and to use).

The study of English was, is, and most likely, forever will be taught in a way to ensure success on high school and university entrance exams. Though the JET program was instituted in an attempt for Japanese schoolchildren to learn "living English", i.e. conversation, the reality is ALTs are to used for proper pronounciation, grammar usage and harnassing the native accent, ergo to be the oft-called "human tape recorder". On top of this, the ALT is expected to act as an cultural ambassador of his or her country and to paint a nation of millions with one wide brush. From me, my students have learned that Canadians can eat with chopsticks, Canadians like to travel a lot, Canadians are used to a lot of snow, and Canadians can speak at least 2 languages. Of course, those are grotestque generalizations but so is the nature of the beast. When we are put up in front of the class to answer questions from kids, we are unknowingly or unwillingly stereotyping our nations, for better or for worse. The second thing I learned from Importing Diversity is the nature of my role here. I am not here to teach the kids how to be able to hold conversations with native speakers or how to say and remember the basics of English conversation. I am here to fulfill the above listed expectations while bringing something different to the lives of my kids. They live in rural Japan and will probably have precious few encounters with an African-Canadian woman with natural hair and have the opportunity to touch her, talk to her, play with her and learn from her. Before coming here, I thought I had no expectations, but deep down I guess I did. And the fact that they weren't being realized killed me, but everything has been a lot clearer and a lot better after realizing my true place here.

A third thing I realized was that ALTs have the whole world in their palm yet can screw it up by being too greedy, too expectant, too unrealistic, and too unwilling to adapt. Here we are, in Japan, where we have access to the side of the world we'd probably never have a chance to see otherwise. We are paid well, have a lot of free time and freedom, 20 days + of vacation and are given a lot of leeway. But we tend to not be satisfied because we are perpetually culture shocked and may see our situation as "disadvantageous". So we complain about our schools, our students, our teachers when there really isn't much to complain about because this is just how it is. It was this way before the JET Program and it will forever be this way after we leave. I look at my co-workers and think that this is their life. This is what they have chosen and they get the crap times 100. They have to deal with that shitty kid EVERY FREAKING DAY. I should be counting my stars that I just have 1 hell class a week, and it's for 45 minutes!!! That teacher is losing the war everyday, 7 hours a day. I admit that I have moaned and groaned and I don't regret it, but I have seen that I was blind to the reality of how good I've got it. I'm sure many ALTs have truly shitty situations and work in toxic environments, but I've been fortunate. Unfortunately, many ALTs are just brats who may not be ready for the work world or just don't realize how good they've got it, but luckily I realized this before it was too late.

Ok, I could go on and on about what I've learned from this book, but I'll stop here. I feel much calmer and more happy because everything makes sense. Though I will never fit in or belong to this society/culture, I'm accepted for being different and that's fine for me.


My bday is quickly approaching and so is my trip to Okinawa. I will probably not update before leave. Will post pics upon my return. I hear it's the rainy season so that's not great, but still, I'll be on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. Really can't complain! Ta.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The "week" that was golden...

I'm back in the grind after spending a brief holiday in Tokyo. Last week, Japan had renkyu, which means consective holidays, or more popularly known as Golden Week. However, this week is actually 3 days of holiday, though it is referred to as a week. Luckily, this year it fell at the end of the week giving us 5 days off. So on Wednesday, Dave and I hit the big capital and were set loose. Unfortunately, we didn't go all wild and crazy like a couple of frat boys. We explored a lot of Tokyo's more cultural sites, ate like fiends, walked around a whole bunch, rode A LOT of trains, got to know each other better and enjoyed what Japan has to offer. I can't remember what we did everyday so I'll pretty much summarize. Over 4 days, we visited Shinjuku, Shibuya, Aoyama, Harajuku, Ginza, Roppongi, Ikebukuro, Asakusa and nearby Kamakura. The picture at the top was taken in Roppongi where we strolled around at night. Roppongi is gaijin (foreigner) central and man, there sure were a lot of them. Too many. And there were so many varieties of restaurants, which was nice. We saw this fish tank and we don't know for sure if it was a sushi restaurant or something, but the fish were frightening, intimidating and lacked that Finding Nemo quality. And no, we didn't eat there. But we did eat at a fabulous Indian place. Like the previous night, we were accosted by a random man standing on the street handing out coupons for a restaurant. We eventually settled on eating there and dammit, it was delish. Like plate licking delicious. Happy happy joy joy. Nearly had stomach-gasms at the table. This was the second night in a row that we had Indian and we both just about died from happiness both times.

This pic of Dave and I was taken in Kamakura, about an hour away from Tokyo. We are standing in front of a Great Buddha, though I don't remember how tall it is. There were loads of people, but it didn't detract from its beauty. This was my second time seeing it and it was just as breathtaking as it was the first time.

These photos were taken at Hasedara Kannon (?) nearby the Buddha. The garden perfectly captured what Japan meant to me before I came to live here: tranquil water gardens, stunning flowers and greenery and beautiful parasols. It was even more impressive in person.

These photos show the Buddha in more detail and his slippers. I forgot the story behind it. Sorry, I wasn't taking notes!

These photos were taken in Asakusa, old school Japan in the middle of Tokyo. There is a huge lantern marking it's entrance and there were tons of kitschy souvenir shops and mercifully, I didn't succumb to buying useless shit. But Dave and I had some beer, yakitori and yakisoba in a tented restaurant. Then we were bumrushed by a gaijin-seeking Japanese man looking to practice his English. In a space of about 6 minutes, he told us everything he knew about Scotland, Montreal and Ghana, and as quickly as he came, he left. Bizarro.

This is the Asahi buidling we saw as our ferry was pulling in to Tokyo. Looks like one big giant, gold turd to me. I suppose it's a fitting symbol for a beer factory.

I was rather lazy with the camera during this trip to Tokyo. If you're aching for some photos of Tokyo and other places in Japan, you can check out Todd's Flickr album from his time here:

I will update shortly with school life and a brief summary of a fantastic book I read about the JET Programme. Until then, be well.

Monday, May 01, 2006

...May flowers...

It's May 1st and it's absoutely beautiful today. It's sunny, it's warm, and winter is turning into a memory. This month will be full of trips, will include a couple of birthdays (including yours truly's) and promises to be good. I can't wait, yo.

Last week was really good, memorable especially for Thursday and Saturday. After school on Thursday, I went for a run in the neighbourhood. I had on my iPod and enjoying the sounds of Johnny Cash in my ears. On my run back to the apartment, I was flagged down by a couple of my shogakuseis. I ended up doing sprints with them. Well, I was the only one sprinting, they were on bicycles. One of them, who is usually as quiet as a mouse just chatted my ears off. She introduced me to her mother, her grandmother, her dog, her cat, her cherry blossom tree, her house, Takumi's house, Ryou's house, and various other things. She insisted on touching my hair repeatedly, and at one point stood on a truck to touch it more. Apparently, not only does my body nioi ii (smells good), but so does my hair. In fact, the second thing her mom said to me after meeting me for the first time was "Momoka tells me you smell good." least I don't have a rep for being stinky. Anyway, I ended up spending about 45 minutes hanging out with this cute 8 year old girl, and managed to commuicate so well with her that she didn't want me to leave.

The fun continued on Saturday when I made my first road trip by myself. Well, it was relatively short, clocking in about 2.5 hours, but this was my first long distance drive in Japan. I went to Dave's place and arrived without incident. We decided on going on a picnic and we made cornbeef sandwiches and put together a really tasty spread. We didn't really plan on going anywhere particular; just drive and see where the wind would take us. We ended up in Tsumago, a really beautiful, old town in Nagano. It was our first time in Nagano, though Dave lives pretty close to it. It was a splendid, sunny day and we were totally charmed by the sights in this pretty place. We ate in a really nice, little park and walked for a good while. I forgot my camera at home but managed to get a few from Dave (will post later - having difficulties uploading).

This will be my last post for a while because I will be leaving for Tokyo on Wednesday, the start of the (in)famous Golden Week. Should be fun. I will update when I get back.

A bientot...