Masayo was THE first Japanese person I met, outside of work, who really spoke English. My Scottish friend Eilidh knew her and planned an enkai at the beginning of December of 2002 with a great group of Japanese people who were learning English from Masayo. Masayo is completely fluent, having lived in Canada for a few years.
I remember that party very well, because it was the within the first four months of living in Japan. At that point, I was eager to make Japanese friends outside of school, and expand my horizons a bit beyond the world of JET. I instantly liked Masayo when we met. She’s one of the few Japanese people I know who understand a sarcastic sense of humor.
Masayo was there for me on so many occasions. She helped me get settled in Fuji city and in Japan and introduced me to some really great people. It was tough to leave Fuji City after one year, mostly because of her and my group of friends there.
But our friendship was much stronger than convenience and I often traveled to Fuji so we could all get together. When I was leaving Japan, I told her “You are my heart.” This is a phrase she later told me she loved so much and had learned from me. And that phrase for me is so spot on when it comes to her. Masayo became a sister to me, my family, part of me, and her friendship is one I will cherish my whole life.
Aside from the group party, we did get some time for just the two of us. It was good to get caught up! Like so many of my other friends, she wondered if I would ever consider coming back to Japan. That led to our conversation about the husband material in Japan and she actually, as she always has, taught me some interesting tidbits on how to find a good man! She recently started dating someone and strongly believes that I would easily catch a good guy.
I’ve often said that the sign of a good friend is how you feel when you see them after a long absence. If you feel awkward or find it difficult to talk, you probably weren’t such good friends. If it seems like you just saw them yesterday (even though it’s been three years, then they are definitely a good and true friend. I hated leaving Masayo at the train station, but I know that we’ll see each other again soon!
Of course it was wonderful to see everyone and get caught up, but I was particularly delighted to meet Haruka. She is the four-month-old daughter of my friends Tamaki and Aze-kun. And they are two of the first friends I met in Japan. They are also the friends I enjoyed Hatsuhinode with, and other awesome hiking trips. They are also 100% responsible for my love of the Japanese band called Rip Slyme. I’ve missed them so much and was sooooo excited to see them.
Haruka is a tiny little thing, so cute and cuddly, and a very content baby. Of course she tested her vocal powers a few times, which was essentially an ear-piercing scream. But how fun to hold her and squeeze her and meet my friends’ daughter.
I wish I could have spent more time with them all. It was a least fun to hang out for a bit and get caught up. I took a lot of photos when we all visited. My favorite is HERE. Too cute!
I miss you Tamaki and Aze-kun! Give that little angel some kisses and a few squeezes from Auntie Shanna!
One of my favorite things about life in Japan is enkai. Enkai is roughly translated to mean a party. Work enkai are very common. There is always an end-of-the-year party and sometimes even one at the start of the year. In the field of education, there are two in the spring; one for teachers who get transferred out and one for those who get transferred in. Sometimes there are impromptu parties in summer time or if there is a weekend work retreat, or in the case of my farewell.
So on the occasion of my visiting Japan, I got to enjoy several enkai. Usually they are held in restaurants who specialize in large group events. The room is long, the one, long table low to the ground. Everyone takes their shoes off and sits on the ground. Most often, sashimi and other dishes good for sharing are served. Sometimes you get individual portions. With the constant flow of beer, the enkai becomes more lively and loud. I always love enkai!
While I enjoyed seeing my former colleagues at all my enkai, I was particularly happy with one in Fujieda. I was really touched by the attendance of a few teachers…unexpected and so very nice. It made me feel really special, and that’s always a good thing.
This is a photo of the sashimi dish and the nama biru (draft beer) served at one of the enkai. It’s not an enkai if you don’t see this!
I have an idea. I think that we should create a global counsel of fifth graders. This counsel should be elected not by adults, but by the fifth graders of every country. This counsel would be in charge of solving all of the world’s problems and disasters. The enthusiasm for which this counsel would attack the globe’s challenges, the creative solutions for which they would dream up and the smiles on their faces when they deliver their decisions would simply make Earth a much, much better place to live!
In addition to seeing my former students, I was scheduled to teach at Fujioka Elementary School during my vacation. Many teachers expressed regret for scheduling “work” during my visit. I must say that teaching English never felt like work to me, so I was delighted to have the chance to go back to the classroom again! I first taught a sixth grade class, and since they have just started their sixth grade year, they are still sweet and young and cute. But when those fifth graders marched in, I was in heaven! They are just bundles of positive energy, full of jokes, smiles, laughter and a rare eagerness to express themselves in English. (See the video below to catch a big of their spirit!)
I taught with Okamura Sensei who was a homeroom teacher during our elementary English program. She’s a lovely lady who really inspires her students to learn English. She put together a very simple lesson plan, one which provided the class with plenty of opportunity for one-on-one time with the special guest (me!). Boys and girls who raised their hands high shouting, “Me, please” “Yes, me” would quickly turn shy once they reached the front of the class and looked at my blue eyes. Their voices would soften, and many of their tiny little hands were wet with perspiration. It’s important to remember how few chances these kids have to speak directly with a foreigner. It’s a big deal for them, and I am always sensitive to how nervous they get. And I’m always so proud when they make it through the conversation!
After we practiced self-introductions and had some q&a time (mostly “Do you like ~” because that was easiest for them to remember), we played Simon Says. Usually this game is used for practicing the names of body parts. But students at this age are so competitive. If I said “Touch your ears,” any student who did so would have to sit down and they would be “out” of the game. Very cut throat! The last five students standing got a prize…wither a colorful folder or my business card. You’d be surprised how many chose the business card!
I’m so passionate about 11 year olds. What an amazing age group! They are so positive and peppy and they are SO MUCH FUN!!! I wish I could do that everyday of my life!!! It was refreshing to re-live it for a brief moment!
These are a few super cute 5th grade girls who were very eager to chat and shake hands and give hugs. They were so sweet and adorable!
When I taught these students as 5th and 6th graders, they would run into the English room, sit with me and chat before class, laugh a lot, enthusiastically raise their hands and take every chance to practice and improve their English.
One of the regular activities we did in class was “Talk with Three People.” This was a great way to review the English from the previous lesson. The only rules were to remember to smile, use a big voice, make eye contact and gesture. That and “boy and girls mix please.” Of the three people they spoke to, one had to be the opposite sex. It is only once the students got toward the end of their 6th grade year that they started to dread the whole mixing part.
If any of us remember junior high, we remember that it was probably the most awkward time in our lives. Same for Japanese kids. They are clearly aware of their bodies, of the opposite sex and are in the mind frame to relentlessly tease each other about anything that is not normal, out of the ordinary or different. When I spoke with my students, I was incredibly disappointed by how much their conversational skills have slipped. This is the big problem in Japan, though. The focus is to learn English to pass exams, not to actually converse. That’s why our conversation-only program in elementary school was such a point of interest – it was practically revolutionary!
It pained me to see students who used to have super sharp listening and speaking skills sit quietly in class and be afraid to raise their hand or open their mouth. I could understand all of what they said to each other in Japanese…they were trying hard to remember some key phrases. And they kept picking on the few students who still actually liked and excelled at English to be the spokesperson for the class. That broke my heart too. Many students had fallen out of love with English. It’s such a shame!
This photo I’ve shared with you sums up where these kids are in their lives. (That and a good example of why this ENglish teacher sucks, but that’s a totally different blog entry!) All the girls are on one side (even me), and all the boys on another. Kids who would have been fighting to get their face in the frame are even turned away from the camera. Only the girls are throwing the peace sign, and with 50% enthusiasm, at that. They just want to look cute. The boys want to remain cool. No one wants to appear to be too excited.
As much as I loved seeing my babes, I was tremendously disappointed in their level of English. In just three years, without the constant interaction of a foreign teacher, they’ve lost that tremendous skill they were once so praised for. I anticipated (ok, I dreamed) that I would come back to them and be able to have real conversations with them. But sadly, they’ve become typical Japanese students who can understand everything they read and write, and who may be able to understand what you say, but who – due to a lack of practice – are incapable of conversation. That was tough for me to see. And it drives my desire to return and whip my kids into shape! I want so badly for them to enjoy English again!
The Great Divide – Notice anything in this photo? Girls to the left, boys to the right. Not a chance in the world that my kids, now teenagers, would mingle! Gotta love teenagers!
When I first met Hideto, he was in third grade. He was one of three boys who were inseparable in elementary school. Hideto was the smart, science loving kid. His chosen sport was swimming. Masaki was the cutest and most personable. And Yuta would spend every waking moment playing soccer if he could. Hideto and Yuta lived near one another, and so everyday they walked to and from school together.
When I started teaching at Takasu Elementary twice a week, I could always count on these three boys to come to the teachers room after lunch and ask me to join them at lunch recess, most often for a game of dodgeball. But occasionally, only Hideto would come to the teacher’s room to attempt his English, chat in Japanese or rummage through my teaching supplies and prizes. It was clear he had a big crush on me, and I adored him quite the same. He was a good and sweet kid.
One of the most anticipated moments of my whole Japan vacation was that of my visit to the junior high where all of my favorite kids are now in their third and final year of junior high. When I left them, most of them were 11 years old. Now they are 14 going on 15, and any parent to teenagers know what a significant age difference this is. Any teacher knows what a tender age junior high school students are experiencing.
What amazed me about “my” kids is that all of their faces – the ones which used to smile so big and laugh in class and sing songs and enthusiastically raise hands to answer questions – were exactly the same. I remembered many of their names, but for sure could recognize all of their faces. They were taller, lanky, some a bit fat, a few pimple-faced and highly aware of their changing bodies, thus awkward in their body language and severely shy to show any bit of excitement to see me. The Principal had told me, though, that all of my babes were asking for three days, “Is Shanna coming today?” “When is Shanna coming?” “I will get to see Shanna?” It was reassuring to hear that they were just as eager for the reunion.
It was everything I could do not to burst into happy tears when I saw all of them. The wave of memories and happy times sweeping over me. We shared some good days together in that English room. My beautiful girls and my cool boys. And there they were before me, still youthful, but teenagers. I told them all when I left that I felt so attached to them and adored them as I would my own. My sentiments remain the same. I don’t care if it make me sappy, I was on cloud 9, seeing these youngsters!!!
I was standing in the back of one class when I saw a head pop up in the back door window. And then the boy returned and stared. It was Hideto. His face lit up and he gave me a very quick wave. I smiled at waved back at him, but he took off to catch up with his friends who had walked ahead. After that class was over, he returned to the room and we were able to chat. He and Yuta still walk to and from school together. And Masaki is still the #3 of the group. Hideto is a bit taller, his hair longer and “cool” but he is still that sweet little boy who had a crush on his teacher. We had only time for a brief chat and a photo, before I was whisked off to the next class, but I was elated that I got to see him.
I don’t know if when these kids are 20 or 35 or 50 that they will remember our days spent in the English room, or if those lessons will remain with them enough that they pursue a career involving English, but I do know that I will always hold those kids dear in my heart. While I’ve seen them as 14 year olds, they’ll probably always remain those amazingly energetic 5th graders in my memory. My students. My kids.
How cute is he? – This is Hideto Suzuki, now. It was so good to see him!
Soon after I returned from Japan in 2007, 13 of my Japanese friend came to visit California on what we called the Tomodachi Tour. Tomodachi means friend, and so the term fit perfectly. For my first party in Japan, I reunited with the friends who joined me on this tour.
We met up at a kushiyaki restaurant. I call this “stick food,” because everything, whether it is fried, grilled or fresh, is served on a stick. We had a party at this restaurant before…it’s actually one of my favorites. As always, the beer was fresh and the food delicious.
The members of the Tomodachi Tour were not only eager to see me, but they were happy to have an excuse to get together themselves and catch up. Most everyone brought their photo albums. We all enjoyed reliving the trip, the funny moments, the favorite places and special events. Hands-down, the favorite part of the trip was the BBQ at my parents house. I’m so delighted I could give them that opportunity. I remember how tiny little Noriko and Tomomi ate everything…the hamburgers, the hot dogs, the chicken, the salads…they had to have a taste of it all. And Yomamura listed this as his #1 memory in his album.
Their favorite city was also San Diego. We visited San Diego, Los Angeles, and with half the group, Las Vegas. Yomamura, with the most wonderfully designed photo album, kept a bottle of sand he took from Coronado. A prized possession.
As we chatted through the evening and caught up with one another, I fell back into a rhythm which suits me so well. I was surprised how easily my Japanese returned to me. How even though I was the only foreigner in the group, I was one of them. That’s how I always felt with my Japanese friends. I never felt different. I always felt I belonged.
As the beer went down and the happy times relived, we began talking about a second tour. We decided we would once again visit San Diego, but then also San Francisco and Seattle. We could call it the cities which start with S tour, but instead, we landed on TOMO II. And Tomomi, who has decided she wants to get married at my parents house, particularly like the name, because if the tour becomes her wedding TOMO covers her name and II (2) represents her and her future husband. So there we have it. TOMO II is in the works!
The photo above was taken at the end of the evening. I loved seeing this group of friends and having this be the kick off enkai for my stay! TOMODACHI are good!!!
This photo was taken during the Tomodachi tour in 2007. Disneyland was a must!!!