Friday, September 13, 2013

Saying "Sayonara" to my School

Though my time in Japan wrapped up over a month ago, there are still stories and experiences swirling around in my head that I was unable to put down in writing in my frantic final days. And honestly, since coming home, I haven't wanted to think about Japan too much just yet. But there are stories that I want to remember, and if I don't write them down, I'm afraid of them slowly fading into something barely recognizable.

One thing I still can't get over is how ceremonious the whole goodbye process is in Japan. It's draining when you're the one saying goodbye. But, as someone who likes things to come full circle, and who likes to be aware of transitions and "last" experiences, I appreciate the time that is devoted to these things. My final big goodbye, to my junior high school, especially stands out in this regard.

I remember when my students first found out I was leaving. It was sometime in June. I was eating lunch with a second-grade class (grade 8 in Canada), and the other teacher in the room came over to my table.

"Did you know that Katie sensei is going back to Canada this summer? She will be leaving Masuda," he said, conversationally.

The kids, at first, appeared nonplussed, or as if they hadn't understood. Then they began talking with each other in Japanese, and I realized they were trying to figure out how to respond when one of them asked the others, "how do you say "sad" in English??"

One of the girls looked at me for a long time. "Katie sensei...why? Why?"
I explained that I would be going back to school in the fall.
"Oh. Very sad."
More group discussion and translation ensued, before one of the boys said, slowly and carefully, "please, don't go."

Fast forward a month and a half. My final goodbye lessons came, and passed by just as swiftly. I don't usually get to lead entire class periods by myself, so it was great to get to do so, and to see the kids having fun while doing it. We played a Jeopardy-style Canadian quiz game, and I gave a talk encouraging them to learn about foreign cultures and to remember that every country is DIFFERENT from Japan and that DIFFERENCE is good -- though I'm not sure how much of it they understood. I even managed to play them a song on guitar -- I was worried that I would choke up, but somehow I managed to make it through. Several students came up to chat at the end of each class, asking more about what I would be doing in Canada or the Green Day song I had just played for them; some of them told me they would email me, and some of them did. And just like that, my classes were over, done, and finished.

But as I said, goodbyes are a big, drawn-out deal in Japan, so of course it wasn't all over just yet. The following week I wrapped up my elementary visits, and then it was time for the official last day of school and my goodbye ceremony. Time to drag my suit out of the closet for one last formal occasion, prepare a 3 minute speech in Japanese, and make sure I remembered when to bow and when to stand and sit. Fortunately, I did remember, and the speech even went okay. The students were shocked to hear so much Japanese come out of my mouth at once, and one of my speech contest students in turn gave a touching English speech to me, while others presented me with flowers and books filled with personal thank-you notes from every kid in the school.

I couldn't seem to get this picture up without it being sideways. Anyway, this boy wrote "good luck" on the back and that he's cheering for me :) "FIGHTO!!"

A whirl of formalities, and the ceremony was over. The rest of the day was spent playing sports and having fun, with students traipsing into the staff room throughout the day to hand me notes and pictures and handmade hair scrunchies.

A note from the two special needs students, in which Yasuhiko tells me that at first, he liked me "just a little", and asks me to please come and watch him play basketball in the All-Yokote tournament when he's in his final year.
After school the teachers met for my goodbye/end-of-term enkai (work party), and I had the most fun that I think I've ever had at an enkai in Japan. I had a chance to talk to almost every single one of the teachers, and didn't feel my usual awkwardness when it was officially time to mingle and move around the room. The teachers presented me with a yukata (a beautiful kimono-style robe worn to festivals in the summer), something I had always loved but never thought to purchase for myself. I even got to joke around with the principal, and had a lengthy discussion with the young school librarian about his favourite books, which eventually turned into him just listing English fictional characters -- "Gandalf! Bilbo Baggins!!!"

I was ready for this to be my final day at Masuda, to make the goodbye official. But I still had to go in one more time the following week, after a slew of days off to clean my apartment, pack, and move out. In the end, I'm glad I got to go back one last time, because it was magical. Truly magical. Get ready for a story of Disney-family-film proportions.

I spent the morning calmly cleaning my desk and chatting to teachers. Watarai sensei even taught me how to play a traditional Japanese card game. When it was time for me to leave, I got up slowly, not really sure what to do. I said a hesitant "well, I guess I'll be going" to one of my JTEs, and before I knew it, the entire staff room was on its feet. A few seconds later, and -- I have no idea how -- it seemed all the other teachers had trickled into the room from around the school. With everyone assembled in what seemed like some sort of prearranged spectacle (but which was really just a standard Japanese farewell procedure), the principal and vice principal came forward to say official bowing goodbyes. Eventually, after spending much time bowing and saying "sayonara" and looking around the room at everyone, there was nothing else to do but start toward the door. And everyone followed me.

This was the first time the emotions of it all began to hit me. I was walking down the hall, down the stairs and to the entryway, as I had at the end of the day for two years. Only this time I wouldn't be coming back. And every teacher in the school was behind me. Soon an announcement came over the intercom that Katie sensei was leaving the building. Once again, it took only seconds before the entire school was crammed into the tiny foyer to watch as I put my shoes on and struggled not to cry. Students filled the hall and all the way up the stairs. I was sure the tears were going to hit, when Watarai sensei started singing "It's Time to Say Goodbye" by Andrea Bocelli; then I just laughed. With one final unified chant, the students all thanked me - "arigatou gozaimashita!!!!!!" I lingered just long enough to soak up the moment, then walked outside.

All of the teams who were practicing halted their drills to stand side-by-side, bow, and say goodbye. "Thank you!" "See you!" "I love you!!!!" Just when I thought things couldn't be more picture-perfect, someone shouted my name from overhead. I looked up, and there were another four dozen students, leaning out of classroom windows all around the courtyard, smiling, waving, and calling my name. That image is burned into my mind, of the school building and all of those kids waving in the sun. I don't even think it was actually a sunny day, but my memory has made it sunny. The last group to say goodbye was the tennis team -- the genkiest all-girls club in the school. Ami came straight up to me and just stopped, forcing her face into a pout. "Very, very, very...sad!!!"

And then it was time to leave.

I'm gonna miss those kids.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Taiko farewell party: drumming and drinks

Goodbyes in Japan are serious business. Like a formal ritual, it is important that goodbyes are given the proper amount of time, care, pomp, and fanfare. The whole process took about a month from when it began, in the form of parties and ceremonies and gift-giving and remarks that I would be missed - "samishiiiiiii" (literally, "loneliness") was intoned over and over by co-workers, students and people I barely knew.

My first farewell event turned out to be one of my most special and cherished experiences of this wonderful and warm aspect of Japanese culture. For the past year and a half, I've spent almost every Friday night at a shed out in the rice fields practicing taiko, the art of traditional Japanese drumming. This has been one of my most memorable experiences in Japan, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to join the group. Myojin Daiko is made up of mostly elementary school kids, their moms, and three of us foreign girls. When they found out that Nikki and I were leaving, they insisted on throwing a party for us, one which was elaborately and carefully planned over several weeks. All we knew was that two of the teenagers in our group, Rina and Tasuku, were in charge of planning the whole thing - it was their special project.

When we arrived at the banquet hall that evening, I was surprised to see that nearly all of the children, mothers, and the rest of their families were in attendance. I hadn't felt that we had been such a big part of the group, but we were special enough to warrant a large gathering for them to all have a chance to say goodbye to us. Rina and Tasuku opened the night with a special performance, joined "spontaneously" by Masashi, one of the instructors. The grade five and six kids in the group read a speech to us, which Rina had cleverly translated into English. Nikki and I gave speeches ourselves, my first of many Japanese speeches in the weeks to come. Finally, our group played the piece we had been working on for most of the past year, and when it came time for an encore, all the kids and moms came up and we played some of the more traditional festival pieces.

During a particularly upbeat number, one of the little boys started dancing around at the front. A group of children gathered, and soon they were jumping everywhere. Everyone in the crowd got into it, and suddenly I noticed that even the banquet hall staff had joined in - one of the servers was banging away on the drums himself, quite skilfully I might add, tuxedo and all.

Food and drink was in abundance. At one point, Masashi made an announcement that Katie and Nikki should drink lots, so the kids were supposed to go to us and top up our beverages. A moment later, all of the children, from four years old to twelve, were lined up around us, awkwardly clutching beer bottles, filling our glasses to the brim before we even had time to sip what had just been poured for us. All the while offering words of thanks and goodbye. That's an experience I can't imagine having anywhere other than Japan.

The kids in the group are adorable. At some points during the meal, I really wanted nothing more than to put down my food and drink and run around the hall and play with them, making faces and silly noises as we so often did during breaks on Friday nights. The kids were all over the place that night. Every now and then I even spotted a fluttering of tablecloth and a little face peeking out from underneath.

Gifts were given - photos! flowers! drums! more than I had room for in my suitcase! - and that night wasn't the end of it. The following week Masashi and Yumi had a huge framed photo of our group to give me, and on our last day in Yokote, Yumi met us once more to give us t-shirts emblazoned with our group's name on the front. Gift-giving knows no bounds in Japan! Eventually, the evening wrapped up and the kids went home, but several of the adults moved on to the after-party - the nijikai. We spent another hour over food and drinks chatting in Japanese (with bits of English) about our home countries, Japanese festivals, and local Akita dialect. The whole event made me appreciate my taiko experience even more; I wish I could have had this kind of awareness before I was leaving, while I still had time left to enjoy more lessons with them. Although I felt like we hadn't made much of a impression on the group as a whole, their warm and thoughtful remembrance of us was enough to leave a definite impression on me.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Elementary School: Cuteness Overload

Today was quite the day. While running into school in the rain, my umbrella broke. Thinking I'd fix it later, I left it by the door and went inside for the morning meeting. When I came out again to go to an elementary visit, someone had already cleared and disposed of my broken umbrella pieces. Oh those Japanese and their intense work ethic.

Little did I know that, not only was I in for a rain-soaked day, I was also in for a delightfully emotional one.

As part of my job, I work at my junior high school half-time and visit elementary schools the other half. This has been one of my favourite aspects of my work setup, as trips to elementary schools always give me more than a few things to smile about. One particularly memorable visit included teaching a grade one class how to count from 1-10. Four tiny children, accompanied by their teacher, picked me up from the staff room and shyly walked me to the gym where the class was to be held. The kids watched me, curious and wide-eyed, then ran ahead to alert their peers to my approach. As I neared the gym, I could hear a growing din, made up of about fifty squeaky voices, cheering and shouting and emitting whatever sort of noise their excitement prompted. When I finally walked through the door, the room erupted. I felt like I was at concert, where I was the main act these wild fans had been waiting for.

Strange as the sensation was, it was one of the most amusing things I've seen in Japan, watching them shake and bounce and wave their arms and reach out to touch mine in uncontrollable excitement. I started by introducing myself and showing them a few pictures from Canada. Every single photo brought a deafening chorus of "iiiiiiiiiii naaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!" (wow!! awesome!!!!!.) and a round of applause. By the end they were no longer uttering recognizable words, but simply a round of unintelligible, excited noise.

Being one of four ALTs in Yokote who regularly does elementary visits, and having current and past ALTs with names like Katie, Kathie, KK, Connie, Kahlila and MacKenzie (notice a "/k/" pattern?), it's not often that the kids don't confuse me with one of the other elementary ALTs. So it was especially touching to visit the same school a few weeks later, and have the grade one students not only recognize me but remember me by the correct name. Much hand-holding, arm-stroking and jumping up and down ensued (from the kids, of course).

Another time, at a different school, I found myself playing Fruit Basket with some third graders. Usually the kids all race to sit down and don't want to be the last one standing, but this particular class was full of spotlight-loving clowns. By the end of the game, none of the kids wanted to sit down - they would slowly meander around the circle, dramatically gesturing to offer the chairs to their friends while they tried so hard to be the last one standing. At one point, one boy was dancing his way through the hubbub, another was twirling round and round and round, and yet another was purely running in circles waiting for all the other chairs to be taken. That was by far my most exciting and hilarious game of Fruit Basket yet.

One more recent adorable memory was teaching a grade two class about different kinds of fruit. The kids simply could not contain their excitement. Every time I showed them a picture and tried to get them to repeat the word, the teacher had to step in and quiet them down so they could hear me in the first place. Kids were bouncing and rolling around on the floor and flailing their arms in glee. One girl started crawling around my feet in a circle, looking up at me with huge puppy-dog eyes and, I swear, panting.
Impossible to get a clear photo because they just couldn't stop moving!

This brings me back to today. It was my last visit to one of my favourite elementary schools. The kids there are energetic, fun, and extremely sweet. I usually wander around during lunch break chatting to the students until one group of first graders or another whisks me off to play oni (a version of tag), or clusters around me for high fives and arm-strokes (seriously, it's like they have this need to touch people, and just don't know how to handle it). One time a little girl would not stop stroking my hand, saying it was "kawaii" (cute).

I've always enjoyed the grade five class at this particular school, as the kids love just about any activity we do and the teacher routinely asks for my input and creative game ideas, something that most of the schools don't do - I often just get a lesson plan the day before, and show up. Today was my last day, so we played one of their favourite games I had introduced to them, and at the end of class the teacher explained to them that I would be going back to Canada, and asked me to share a few words with them. I gave them each a Canada pencil as a present, and they all went crazy. Then a few students stood up to share their reflections about English class. Hearing them say that they hadn't known much English before, but now they remembered a lot, was pretty awesome to hear.

After the lesson, the teacher returned to the staff room to tell me that the students enjoyed the lesson.
"But, children...they say they don't use pencil..."
"Ohhh..." I remembered that the kids often use mechanical pencils; perhaps I gave them a useless gift?
"They say...very special, very important gift...they don't use...they keep, forever."
Here's where I started to tear up. After I composed myself, a few of the students came to the staff room to personally deliver their reflection cards for me to sign. They told me (in Japanese) not to forget them, and that they had always enjoyed English class.
Spitting image.

I began to read their reflection cards, which were full of comments about how much fun they had had, how they had learned a lot of English and been able to remember many things during our lessons, hoping we would meet again someday, and wishing me good luck back in Canada. Again, it was hard not to cry.
roughly translated: "I look forward to seeing Katie sensei again someday. Thank you very much."

"After her year of studying at college, I want the English teacher to come back again."

During lunch, a teacher made an announcement that it was my last day, and later several kids asked me why I was going back to Canada. One of the fifth grade girls asked to take a picture with me. Of course, a bunch of others jumped into the photo as soon as they saw it was happening.
Photo-bombed by a flying peace sign

I left school with soggy shoes, a damp schoolbag and no umbrella, but having had one of my most memorable days in a long time.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sensei no more

I like being called sensei.

I know that probably sounds arrogant, but I don't mean that I like the perception of power or authority or importance or any of the other things that such a title might conjure up. It's in that mysterious and mystical quality I associate with Japan and its ninjas and samurais and culture of honour and impeccable discipline. Something of that sort floats into my mind every time I heard the word sensei, and it's a subtle reminder of the vastly different culture I find myself surrounded by and working within.

But alas, in just a few short months, I will no longer be Katie sensei.

It's strange finding myself suddenly face to face with life on the other side of this experience. I've spent hours and days and weeks and months contemplating what my next step might be, where I might find myself after I leave Akita, what I want to "do with my life". As if today and now isn't already a part of it. As if every day doesn't count towards what I build my dreams and hopes around. In fact, it is, and it does. Of course. But now, instead of casting around mere speculations about how The Other Side might feel, I have to come to terms with the knowledge that, in about the same amount of time that has elapsed since spring vacation, I will be stepping off a plane back in Toronto for good.

Putting it that way startles me a bit.

I could say it scares me, but that's not quite true. It just startles me. It makes me feel all kinds of things. I look forward to returning home and being surrounded by what was once familiar, but I am jarred by how little I have left of the different-ness of Japan. I can't wait to sit down and chat with my family at the kitchen table, but my emotions rise at the thought of all the people I will have said goodbye to by the time I have the chance to do so.

One thing is certain: the future is uncertain, and I'm finally feeling prepared to step up to the challenge of facing it with patience, trust, joy, and even excitement. In the meantime, I'm going to get every last drop of enjoyment and wisdom I can from this whole Japan thing, and go out with a bang.