Sayonara, Japan

Oh, hi. I’m back—in America that is. Home—North Carolina—is such a great place to have some down time and simply enjoy life. I’ve been working on the farm, spending time with family, taking trips with friends, eating a lot of bacon and wheat bread, applying for jobs and doing just about anything to put off writing this final post. I’ve also been readjusting: bowing to people while jogging; marveling at the concept of free refills; excusing myself upon entering and exiting rooms; gawking at the size of grocery carts—and removing my shoes prior to entering my room.

I do love being back. However, I feel as if leaving my life in Japan is similar to that feeling you get when reading a great book—a book that you’re so enthralled in and charmed by—that you neither want to put it down nor finish it. Anxious that, after reading that final sentence, you will feel empty or sad—like you just wanted a little more—and you’re just not ready to start reading a new book.

But, on my twenty-fifth birthday (after two years of birthday celebrations in Japan), a little surprise arrived to North Carolina in the mail—a collection of birthday messages and pictures compiled by my “family” in Fukuyama. It reminded me that the life and the friends that I made in Japan will not simply be closed and eventually forgotten—but it (and they) will continue to live with me and be influential in whichever book I choose to read next.

For two years, my friends, students and coworkers in Hiroshima prefecture truly were like my home-away-from-home family. Living in my little mansion was the first time I’ve ever lived alone. Usually, during my morning commute, my students’ smiley good mornings were the first interactions of my day—and sometimes, their goodnights my last. On other days, I stayed out late chatting with friends or coworkers and laughing at one of the few restaurants or bars in our town. On weekends, I would play basketball, go on adventures or just relax with whomever felt like lounging. On my last day at school, my students made me feel more than special–and on my last night in Japan, my family of friends gave me the sweetest farewell party I could have ever imagined.

I know the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program always reminds participants that every situation is different, and I am so fortunate that my situation was such an ideal fit for me. But, that being said, I believe that happiness is a choice—a choice we must make when things are both difficult and easy. My life in Fukuyama was so wonderfully colorful. I met some of the most extraordinary people and saw some of the most extraordinary places—but, contrary to what many people may think, my daily routine also seemed very ordinary (but in the best of ways).

Japan may be far away, but I’m sure that no matter where life takes me, my experiences and friendships will continually be with me. I hope that my life becomes as extraordinary and ordinary as it was in my beloved little Fukuyama. I’ll always love you and be thankful for you, 福山, 広島, and as a whole, 日本. I’ll certainly come see you again.

C U NXT Year ; -)

When it comes to spelling and grammar, I am usually a snob. I turn my nose up when “over” and “more than” are used incorrectly, and I die ever so slightly if I read, “there” when I should be reading, “their.” Further, if a friend texts me, “THX UR AWSUM,” or, “UR A QT,” the relationship is immediately over.

However, with my students, I value understanding and enthusiasm more than grammatical ability. As a result, I did the unthinkable. For my last lesson with the first-year students, I taught them obnoxious cell phone lingo. OMG. I KNO. IM SRY : -( PLS forgive me.

When I arrived in Japan, I soon learned that a new realm of emoticons exists. From “simple” happy and sad faces—(^o^) and (-_-)—to more elaborate faces such as (*^◯^*) or even impossible faces such as ☆*:.。. o(≧▽≦)o .。.:*☆, I was not only illiterate when it came to words, but also emotions. For my students, “English” emoticons such as : -), =0 and : *( were equally novel. After teaching abbreviations such as “GR8,” “ASAP,” “@” and “WKND,” they played a matching game using the new words and faces.

Some students even started writing slightly inappropriate texts for their friends. For example, “let’s XOXO ASAP” and “CU soon to XOXO,” but—whatever—it’s English communication, right? Finally, every group wrote me a farewell text. The messages were absolutely FAB. Check them out for yourself and you will realize why I LUV these students.

Obama’s left hand

After studying vocabulary to describe physical appearances, my students wrote speeches about their favorite celebrities. Although most chose Lady Gaga, Ichiro Suzuki or Justin Bieber, Kayo described Barack Obama.

Therefore, in honor of the 57th presidential inauguration on Monday, I want to share her speech:

Obama 1

“My favorite celebrity is Barack Obama. He is the president of the United States of America. He is brack. He has short hair. He is tall and smart. He was elected president again in last week. He is left-handed. It is said that the president will be successful left-handed. I want to become a good president.”

As the speech prompt instructed, Kayo notes three physical characteristics. Obama is black, has short hair and is tall. Then, she moves on to Obama’s handedness and predicts that because he is left-handed, he will be successful. Obama has also encouraged her to do the impossible–become a good president. Thus, without getting all political, like Kayo, I hope you have a faith in Obama’s left hand and optimism for the next four years.

School’s out for English camp

In early June, the average American high school student can’t manage to get to school before the bell rings. When she does arrive, she can’t sit through the remaining periods because there are mere days separating her and two months of lazy, crazy, hazy summer vacation days.

The concept of summer vacation is slightly different in Japan. Rather than spending two months on summer getaways, my students spent the first two weeks of summer vacation in summer lessons. Because my school has an athletic focus, the last two weeks are spent training for matches, meets and games. To those of of us who spent our summer days picking strawberries, scooping ice cream and procrastinating our summer reading assignments, such a concept seems daunting. However, my students seem to enjoy spending their short summer vacation at school with their teammates.

While my athletically-gifted students spent hours practicing their swings, kicks, spikes and shots, I volunteered to to be a counselor at two English camps. Although none of my students applied to attend, I am determined to convince them to take two days off of soccer and baseball practice and do so next year. I’ve already convinced them that speaking English will help them if when they make it to the Major and Premier Leagues.

During the camps, I worked with students from all over the prefecture who have a passion for learning English. I also had the pleasure of working alongside some of the most inspiring and friendly ALTs. With our students, we played games, did scavenger hunts, made skits and took a break from our daily school routines.

I enjoyed working with both the students and my fellow English-teaching friends in a more relaxed atmosphere. One of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts about teaching in Japan is seeing students express their personalities in English. Having confidence, a sense of humor and courage is hard enough for any 15- or 16-year-old, however, when asked to display these traits in a foreign language, the task could seem completely impossible. But, not for these kids. Their eagerness, curiosity and happiness was contagious and made me remember what a joy it is to be living and teaching English in Japan.

Everyone has favorites

I have never studied proper teaching behavior. But, from careful observation during the last 18 years of my life, I have learned a lot about teachers. Among traits such as motivational and encouraging, teachers should also be fair. However, teachers are only human. So, sometimes, they may deviate from this path of expected behavior and choose a favorite student. Or two.

I am no exception. I am young. I am impressionable. As a result, if a student brings me “omiyage” (a souvenir) from her spring break trip or gives me chocolate on White Day, I will most likely add him or her to my mental list of favorite students. Having your name on this list usually ensures that I will remember your name and give you an extra big smile when passing you in the hallway. Clearly, being nice to me pays off.

Other than souvenirs and sweets, I also like compliments. Therefore, if you would like to be added to the aforementioned list, please refer to the following speech and do your best to replicate it. You also may need to change your nationality, forget English and enroll in a Japanese high school. Or, I could create another mental list for my favorite people in general. I’ll see what I can do.

Compliments such as “Ms. Kaity is interesting and cute,” “Ms. Kaity looked to smile is fun,” and “English is oat,” are irrefutable methods of winning my heart. Also, it helps that this student struggles with English, but always has a positive attitude and enjoys learning. His extra effort was a simple and humorous reminder of the joys of teaching in Japan.

So, get to writing people. I expect 40 words of flattery and you will forever be on my list of favorites.

It’s English, not Engrish

Other than planning lessons and being an overly cheerful and approachable speaker of the English language (which, albeit I do enjoy), another one of my responsibilities involves coaching students for speech contests. Most prefecture-wide speech contests are held in the fall. Therefore, when I first arrived to Japan, I got some practice on how-to-be-a-speech-contest-coach. Unfortunately, it was nothing like my only other coaching experience involving 6- and 7-year-olds, YMCA soccer and the official team name, The Green Beans.

Even so, last fall, I somehow managed to fake competency, but I certainly did not feel 100 percent comfortable with the task. However, now, after my school’s school-wide speech contest, I think I may finally have the hang of it (or at least some sort of grasp).

During the month of February, I coached 14 students—seven first- and seven second-year students. Of course, we practiced pronunciation and memorization, but my absolute favorite aspect of coaching was seeing the students lighten up and have fun. When I think of speeches I love, I usually admire not only the message, but also the persona of the speaker. As a result of the language barrier, discovering the students’ true personalities is difficult in and of itself, but giving them the courage to express their personalities in English is a completely different hurdle.

On contest-day, with several forgotten transitions aside, the students performed remarkably well. They gave their speeches in front of the student body and the staff. As one of the seven judges, I got a front row seat from which I could watch my students rock their English thing. Now, I finally have a slight glimmer of the anxiety that parents probably feel on a regular basis. Although not exactly comparable, I was certainly a proud eigo no sensei that day.

You’re wearing that?

There are some things in life that absolutely no one grows out of: an addiction to cherry-coke ICEEs, the joy of catching and putting lightning bugs in a jar, the confidence to occasionally rock pigtails, a dangerous passion for those spinning things on old playgrounds, and an ardent enthusiasm for playing dress-up.

Recognizing these steadfast rules of life, I adapted that last one for a warm-up activity in my classes. My students’ sidekick of a textbook had chosen to highlight vocabulary for describing clothing and physical attributes. Don’t ask me why adjectives such as plaid, checkered and striped are essential vocabulary, but they certainly make for an exciting activity.

Basically, I divided the students into teams. Each team selected one member to be the “model.” Another student drew vocabulary words out of a hat. A third student searched for the items in a massive pile of clothes and the final student dressed her team’s model.

There you have it ladies and gentlemen–a simple, yet epic dress-up battle.

Prior to this activity, I could have never fathomed the enthusiasm 15- and 16-year-old boys would display when asked to wear skinnies or a dress. I also did not anticipate that all my 15- and 16-year-old girls would adore cowgirl boots and aviators. However, needless to say, my students approve of my wardrobe–and, to top it all off–they can name and describe each accessory and article of clothing.