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Happy Birthday Pete!!!

I’m blogging from Sapa today, as I am up here to celebrate Pete’s 40th birthday!  Woo hoo!!!!  We’ll be having lunch soon and then head over to his new project, Hmong Mountain Retreat. We’ll have a party tonight and head back to Hanoi on the overnight train on Thursday.

Of all of the things I’ve gained in Vietnam (experience, weight, patience, etc.) one of my favorites is my dear friend Pete.  We met when I traveled here in 2008 and have had frequent visits since I moved here.   One of my favorite people in the world, I’m so delighted to escape the heat of Hanoi and celebrate this milestone with my amazing friend.

Love you Pete!  Happy Birthday!!!

Practically family

The group of friends in this picture is the group I used to teach on Wednesday nights.  I only taught them for one year, but we became so close and traveled often.  It was with this group that I took a lot of road trips in Japan.  They even teased me on this visit how I don’t fall asleep in the car, but have wide eyes and look out the window (little do they know I’ve been that way all my life – ask my parents!).

With them, I saw the amazing thatched roof houses in Shirokawa, a much more rural part of Kyoto, went tonbodama hunting in Osaka and visited the old postal towns of Tsumago and Magome. We also had a cooking exchange; they loved the Mexican food I made for them!

With a jam-packed schedule for this visit, we had just one evening together.  We organized a home party at Katsumi and Setsuko’s, the place where we used to gather for our class.  I made guacamole, or as the Japanese love to call it, “avocado food.”  Everyone made tasty dishes and Katsumi made sure there was plenty of beer!

I was, again, pretty surprised how much Japanese I remembered.  They had lots of questions about my work and life in Vietnam.  And for whatever I couldn’t say in Japanese (I can’t get too technical about what I do in Sales & Marketing….my Japanese definitely doesn’t cover that!), I used the white board.  You would be amazed how pictures, even poorly drawn ones, help in getting your point across.

The next day, they drove me to the train station, and I’ll tell ya, all these terrific visits made it so hard to say ‘mata ne’ again.  This is a special group of friends and I have missed them very much.  It was wonderful to see them again!



Kanpai! – Katsumi, Michi, Setsuko, Machi, Emiko and Yuko.  I love them!


The Crazies in Fukuroi

My group of friends in Fukuroi are super special to me.  I taught at their school only for two terms, but created such a close bond with them.  They are such a fun group, and it was because of them that I became such a devoted soccer fan (we went to many games together).  It was also because if them that I met my crush, the goalie Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi.

Little Rieko is the teacher who was my partner in the classroom, and she is, by far, one of the most energetic people I know.  She’s so small, but has the personality as big as 10 people!  WIth her help, I was able to meet my Fukuroi friends, as well as my former and fabulous boss, Suzuki Sensei.  Ozawa Sensei, one of my favorite and funny friends, also came along.  Both Suzuki and Ozawa live and work now near Fukuroi.  So glad we were able to coordinate it all!

Koyama Sensei is the former school principal of the elementary school I taught at.  He is the one who pushed for me to meet the soccer star and also the organizer of our Fukuroi Fireworks party.  He’s now retired.  He’s also a light drinker.  He has one beer, gets a little sleepy and then drinks cola for the rest of the night.  We all have no shame and tease him endlessly for not being a strong drinker.  He is such a good sport!

You can see some of my friends in Fukuroi, starting with this picture HERE.  What a great night it was, and like all my other groups of friends, so fun to see them!



A few of my Fukuroi friends. – I only worked with these teachers for a school year, but remained good friends and went to many soccer games together.


New additions

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!

For the love of enkai

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!

3 years later…

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!


Hello Hideto!

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!


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