Meet Ross and Tom! These two were introduced to me through my friend, Joe, whom I met while living in Japan. Joe now lives in Osaka, and that’s how he met these two characters. Tom is studying human rights policy at Kanasi University and Ross is teaching through a special English program sponsored by Disney (which sounds really awesome).
Joe remembered that I was in Hanoi, and so when Tom and Ross mentioned their plans to travel to Vietnam, he put us in touch. The day after the boys arrived, I met them at Le Pub to show them a fun local joint and to also get an idea where they planned to travel. I wanted to make sure they knew which taxi’s to ride in, how to get train tickets, what the cost of some basic items are and what not to do.
We got acquainted over a “boozy lunch,” as Tom called it, and I sent some emails to Pete in Sapa, Viet in Hanoi and Onslo out in Halong Bay/Cat Ba Island. My new friends decided they would spend the majority of their time up in Sapa, as they wanted to get in a few good hikes and unique culture. Viet helped me secure their train tickets and also two motorbike drivers who would shuttle them around Hanoi so they could see the city.
I met with the guys tonight and was happy to hear they had a fantastic time in Vietnam. They loved Sapa, having signed up for a long, guided hike and a homestay. Even though they were met with some heavy rains, they made the most out of their time there. They also squeezed in some time in Halong Bay, even though they couldn’t make it over to Cat Ba island for some kayaking. They were happy to see this amazing wonder of the world. Halong Bay is magical, no matter how much time or money you spend to see it.
I’m super glad I could be here to meet and greet Ross and Tom. They are fabulous people, funny guys and my kind of traveler – open to new experiences and willing to just go with the flow. The summer months are coming to a close here in Vietnam. September – December is a wonderful time of the year to visit with mild temperatures, less humidity. Let me know if you plan a visit! Would love to meet up with you too!
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!
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.
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!
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!