Thursday, November 26, 2009

I have swine flu

I have swine flu. My temp is 103 degrees and I've been quarenteened at the nurse's house. Please pray for me!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I`m an aunt! And Yokohama Writer`s Conference

I have wonderful news! I`m an aunt! On Sunday November 15th at 8:00pm in Oklahoma City, my sister-in-law Emily gave birth to a 7 pound 7 ounces bundle of baby boy! They tell me he has black hair, and that both he and Emily are very healthy! As soon as I got the email, I jumped up and told everyone in the office. They were all very excited (which is saying something for Japanese) and wanted to see pictures as soon as I get them. I`m hoping to do better than that! I hope I will be able to skype Tony and Emily soon and see baby Hayden face to face (almost)!

Besides that, last weekend was very fun and productive in other ways too. I spent the first half of the week fretting about how to get to the Society of Children`s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in Yokohama (near Tokyo) from Nabari. The shinkansen or bullet train that I took to Nagasaki to visit Charlie would cost about $400 round trip to get to Yokohama and cuts a huge chunk (a total of six hours both ways, including getting to the shinkansen train station and back) out of the day. I heard from the woman running the conference that a good alternative was the night bus. I looked it up online and sure enough it was less that half the price, would get me there at 5:30 in the morning and not leave until 11:15 all night. I`d have the whole day in Yokohama and wouldn`t have to pay for a hotel or anything! The downside, of course, is that you have to sleep on the bus.

I decided to go with it and began researching routes online. It was very confusing with so many options, and I thought I would have to go through the bus terminals in Osaka or Nagoya, which aren`t exactly close, or fun to get to and from late at night on jam-packed trains. Fortunately, one of the other teachers asked me what I was doing, and when I told her, she laughed and said I could catch the bus right here in Nabari. She helped me set it up over the phone. How nice! (That`s why I made her the rice pudding I mentioned in my previous blog.) So I bought my round-trip ticket one day in advance, which cost around $130, got on the bus at 9:30 on Friday night at the bus station just across the street from my apartment, and arrived 5:30 on Saturday morning. How can you beat that? Here`s a picture of the bus:



It wasn`t terribly uncomfortable; the seats reclined about half way and the drivers turned off the lights about two hours after we started. But I`m not used to sleeping on buses, so I don`t think I slept a wink all the way there, though I had my eyes closed with my face mask on, so I sort of rested. Since I had five hours before the conference started, I had all sorts of things planned for when I arrived.

But I was in a surrealist, half-dream state when I got there, the sun just beginning to rise over the harbor, enshrouded in a light, misty rain, and the dew sparkling like tiny diamonds on the rose bushes in Americayama park as I stumbled toward Yokohama International School. So I just wandered until I found the conference site with the correct entrance, which took awhile. Then I waited around, hoping to meet the publisher, but she had manuscript critiques in another building (which I had been too late to sign up for because I just found out about the conference two weeks ago). So I decided to explore.

Yokohama has so many parks and gardens! After Japan finally gave up its closed-country policy in 1848, Yokohama was one of the first ports that opened up to foreigners, and quickly became the largest. (Some say it is still the largest.) So there were a lot of old fashioned, Western-style gardens and houses. Here`s a picture of a gorgeous rose garden along the road:



A lovely rose shot:



A fountain with flowers in Minato no Mieruoka Park:



A waterfall and gazebo:



A weeping willow tree and pond:



And a man-made waterfall with flowers:



About this time I came to the harbor view. Here is what the great Yokohama bridge and harbor look like:



I continued walking until I came to Yamashita Park, which is supposed to be the heart, both literally and figuratively, of Yokohama. It grew up naturally by itself, after a huge earthquake in the early 1900s. I didn`t find it particularly beautiful (maybe I missed the good parts), so I didn`t take any pictures, but I enjoyed walking among the trees and down the side of the slopping mountain overlooking the harbor. That`s where I met this not-so-little guy:



I walked all along Harbor View Park and saw some more roses until I finally decided it was time for me to head back to the conference. Only I promptly got lost. I ended up running into a Japanese woman who was also looking for it. She had a charming British accent because she was raised in the English-speaking world as a child, and together we found the conference, about fifteen minutes late.

The conference itself was very beneficial. For the first session, Ms. Ling described her own path to becoming a publisher, and how her father met and married her mother. “We both had very clear goals,” she said. “The most important thing to becoming a published writer is to have a goal, make a plan, network like crazy, and persist, persist, persist!”

The next session was about her day to day life as a children`s publisher. Turns out she spends most of her time in meetings with other editors, the marketing team, designers, illustrators, etc. Any free moment is spent checking and answering email, though she admits that she, like most publishers, is always 2-3 months behind on this. Most of the actual reading of manuscripts goes on at home, after hours. So in other words, she really loves her job, because it`s her life.

There are four major stages in “bringing a book to life” she said. Acquisitions, editorial, production, and marketing. In acquisitions, she reads the manuscript to see if she would be interested in taking on the project. She has to be really passionate about it, because it will take at least two years before the book is actually on the book shelves in Borders or Barnes and Nobel making money. Also, she has to come up with a publicity pitch for the production and marketing staff and the head publisher to make everyone excited about it. It`s sort of like bearing your soul, she said. She admitted that there were a few times she was really in love with a project but it was rejected by other employees in the house, and she actually went in the bathroom and cried. It was really reassuring to hear that publishers know what it`s like to be rejected too. That`s the sort of publisher you want, she said. One who will be so dedicated to your work that he/she will fight for your book. A lot of times she says she knows something is good, but she just doesn’t feel she`s passionate enough about it to be the right publisher for the project. From personal experience, it can take six months for the publisher to get back to you about whether he or she is personally interested or not. Then it can take another six months until they tell you whether the whole crew is on board or not.

The second stage is editorial, which usually take from 6 months-one year. She said that, contrary to popular opinion, editors do still edit. That doesn’t mean you should send in your first or even second draft. You want the book to be as good as you can make it, but then expect the editor to make massive revisions if he/she sees fit. (Sometimes the editor may even ask you to rearrange plot points, take out or add characters.) Does that mean you have to accept all his/her suggestions? No. If an editor agrees to a project, that means he/she believes in it, and is usually willing to make compromises. But don`t just dismiss what your editor says either. Editors are insiders to the business and know what will sell and what won`t. Their primary concern is making money, and the way they do that is by making the book as good as it can be.

The third stage is production. It costs a lot of time and money to produce a good book. And another “contrary to popular opinion” point, nearly all children`s books are assigned illustrators after the text is accepted by the publisher. Author/illustrator duos are very hard to break in. If the author is also an illustrator, that`s another story, but even then, for a new writer, publishers usually prefer to assign them a well-known illustrator. Sort of how a producer might package a new screenwriter with an experienced director.

There`s also design to consider. Little Brown`s head designer, Alison Impey, talked quite a bit about this stage throughout the conference. In addition to your typical illustrated children`s book for 2-8 year-olds, for middle grade novels (ages 10-14) the publisher might want half-page illustrations at the beginning or end of chapters, illustrated inserts with small text, ornamental lettering, maps or diagrams (especially for fantasy and mystery) a character bio page with pictures, an illustrated glossary, any number of things. This was really exciting to me, because I always pictured these sorts of things for my middle-grade novel Dargon, the Human Slayer that I`m submitting to Little Brown, but a lot of publishers don`t do that sort of thing for middle-grade novels anymore, especially in the older (12-14 year-old) range.

Last of all she talked about marketing. She said another common misconception is that publishers don`t do anything to promote their books anymore and leave it all up to the author. This is simply not true. There is a lot they do behind the scenes. At Little Brown they get it into all the major book stores, into the school catalogues and major libraries, book a few primary interviews and school visits, and get reviews. But alas, a lot of the publicity is up the author. She recommended doing school visits like crazy and charging for them, as this is how most professional children`s authors actually win their bread and butter. Only about 1 in 100 children`s authors make it on writing alone and even then most of them choose to do visits anyway to get more kids to read their books. I`ve had a number of old-time writer friends tell me that the best way to become a published author is to quit your job and do some decent starving. I hate to break it to you, but these days even if you were to sell a story the day you quit your job, you wouldn`t see that paycheck for at least six months. Even in the short story market, it`s not pretty. Of the ten on spec (submissions without commission) stories I have been paid for, I have never received a pay check sooner than four months after sending in the story, and in that one case, the publisher was less than a twenty-minute drive from my house. I receive my average paycheck about six months after I send in the story. Most “professional paying markets” only pay about one cent per word, so a three thousand word story gets you $30. Woohoo. You probably spent half that much on paper, ink, and postage just to get it to them and receive their response, not to mention the sample copy of the magazine or any hard copies you gave your friends to edit before you submitted the story. Ms. Ling said, and I quote, “Either find yourself a day job that leaves you plenty of time to write, be a paid speaker every weekend, or marry somebody rich.”

Not that I`m trying to preach doom and gloom or that it`s impossible to become a professional author. I`m just trying to emphasize that if you want to make a living at it, you have to be creative about marketing and publicity, not just your writing. Also, on a brighter note, commissioned work is much better. I`ve done two writing jobs on commission, three if you count a presentation on business writing that I wrote and presented myself. All of them paid me within a week after I turned in the final draft and, except for the fiction script, paid at least ten times as much as I`ve ever received simply sending stuff in on spec. Even the fiction script paid more than twice as much. So commissions are awesome! If you`re willing to give up a certain amount of artistic freedom, and know how/where to get them. That`s another topic entirely.

For lunch, I took my bento to the rose garden and ate in the gazebo. Then I walked along the harbor view again. On the way back, I passed by a shop titled in English “The Best Cheesecake Café.” I couldn`t resist. I went in and ordered some cookies and cream cheesecake with fruit garnish and whipped cream. It was expensive, but incredibly melt-in-you-mouth smooth and rich, and float-off-your-feet light. Other than my own cheesecake and perhaps that of the world-famous cheesecake factory, I would say it`s the best I`ve ever had. It was pretty small, though. Here`s a picture:



There were also lots of snacks at the conference. The Japanese chocolate wafers with green tea were simply delightful. I really do eat too many sweets. Oh, well.

In the next section Ms. Ling discussed the “good, the bad, and the ugly” of the publishing business. There were a lot of good pointers in this one. First of all, she said if you want a good publisher, you need a good agent, because most publishers these days don’t take unagented submissions. There is the small press route, but the chances of “hitting it big” with a small press are next to nil. They just don’t have the distribution and marketing. I also asked about self-publishing, e-publishing and vanity press, to which she replied with words along the lines of, if you want something for your friends and family to enjoy, those are great, but if you dream of the world reading and enjoying your book, your best bet is still large or mid-sized traditional presses. She said e-publishing has more than quadrupled in the last year at Little Brown, but still accounts for less than 1% of their sales. The same is true for most big houses.

She also mentioned that it’s better to have a small advance (money upfront) and a good royalty (percentage of profits after you earn out your advance). The last thing you want is to have a big advance and not earn it out. In the end, publishers` decisions are based on profit and loss charts, and if they paid you more than the book sold, they are not likely to work with you again. And neither is anyone else. A good advance is about $5,000, and a good royalty rate is about 6%. Of course, this varies from publisher to publisher. Ms. Ling said you know you’re doing well when a royalty check can pay the mortgage for that month.

After that session, Ms. Ling got together with Little Brown’s head designer, Alison Impey, to talk about how they pair books with illustrators and cover designers. It’s a really interesting process. They look at an illustrator’s style, themes, past projects, notoriety, and of course whether or not they have the time. Interestingly, Ms. Impey said she finds most of her illustrators through on-line forums and networking, not through submitted work. Also, the person who does the interior illustrations might not be the same person who does the cover, or other interior work such as text ornamentation or maps. Writers at Little Brown have some say in the cover, especially if they have an agent or a general idea such as “I want a dragon” or “could this be a collage?” But writers almost always go with what the publisher suggests.

We had Q&A from 4:00-5:00, but the only question that stuck out in my mind was “How long should you wait after querying an agent or publisher before you ask them about the status of your book?” She said four months. Sounds reasonable. She said if they don`t respond within a month to that question, you have every right to start submitting to other publishers, even if that publishers says “no simultaneous submissions.” Then if the first publisher gets back to you a year later with a yes that you haven`t gotten from anyone else, you can still follow up with them without feeling as if you acted unprofessionally. If you have gotten a yes from someone else, that`s when you seek out an agent in earnest, and they negotiate an auction. Auctions can be good or bad. Sometimes they make publishers competitive and they`ll bet as high as they can to get the book, other times they`ll back out of the competition. Overall, an auction is a good thing. If nothing else, it boosts your reputation and career, making it easier to get an agent and publisher in the future.

Personally, I feel that I gained a lot from the conference. I was afraid it might be a waste of time, because I`ve been to so many already, and there`s only so much that can be said about improving characters, plotting, editing, etc. But this conference was different, because it gave me a clear view of what exactly goes on in a publishing house, and what an editor does on a day-to-day basis. It was very encouraging. All writers need a reminder every once and awhile that editors are people too. They`re not out to rob you of your dreams. In fact, they really want you to succeed, because they love books.

At the end, Ms. Ling mentioned that there should be no reason why we can`t at least begin our published careers here in Japan. Later on it might put a damper of publicity and sales, but many English writers find creative ways around this, such as holding book signings at international schools, doing week-long tours twice a year in their home countries, and of course, lots of internet publicity. She said living in a foreign country does not effect a publisher`s decision to publish an author. We also received a list of resources such as online critique groups, publishing and writing conferences in Japan, support groups, and useful English market guides we can get in Japan. This was the most encouraging thing of all, because I was thinking I wouldn`t have the resources I needed to publish a book while in Japan. It`s going to happen. It`s just a matter of time…

Speaking of that, as with over 90% of publishers these days, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers is a closed house. They only take submissions that are represented by an agent, or ones that receive a recommendation from someone they trust. But for being at the conference, Ms. Ling gave us permission to query her through March 15th! She`s looking for middle-grade books (ages 10-14), so first I`m querying her about Dargon, the Human Slayer! If she dosn`t like that one, I`ll query Treasure Traitor. Wish me luck!

Here`s the group photo. Unfortunately, not everyone’s in it because some people had to leave early, but most of us are here. Ms. Ling is second from the left in front. Holly Thompson, the woman who organized the conference, is on her left. She`s president of the Society of Children`s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Tokyo chapter. The woman on Ms. Ling`s right is Alison Impey, senior designer at Little Brown.




After the conference, we all went to dinner in the Minato area. I was hoping we would eat in Chinatown, but I wasn`t about to pass up the opportunity for some more networking. Again, it was one of those annoying “everybody pays for everybody else,” arrangements, but fortunately they let me pay a little less, since I didn`t order any drinks. Everybody sort of ran out the door in a hurry around 8:00 to catch taxis to the airport or their hotel or home, so I was the last one left. There was a bit of food on the table still…so I stuffed it in my empty bento. Ate it for dinner the next night. Is that cheap or just thrifty?

After dinner, I went to Chinatown. It`s the largest Chinatown in Japan. Nowadays very few people actually live there, but the streets and lined with all kinds of shops and oddities. Here`s me standing in front of the Buddhist temple in the center of town:



Unfortunately, the Chinese museum was closed, and I was a little low on cash, so I didn`t eat any of the food from the over-priced vendors or do much shopping. But I definitely plan to go back, because the clothes were so cheap! You could buy a beautiful (imitation) silk dress for only ten dollars! There was so much I didn`t get to see in Yokohama, I`m definitely going back. Next time with a friend, maybe with my Japanese friend Kayoko who hasn`t been there or another JET (Japanese Exchange Teacher).

Speaking of Kayoko, I was planning on going to Akame waterfalls with her after I got back, but after two nights on the night bus, I was so exhausted that as soon as I got home on Sunday morning (7:00), I just crashed and slept until almost 2:00. I was really disappointed, mostly because I keep making plans to go to the waterfall with her but they keep falling through. But luckily she called me the next day, and told me she wanted to go to the Christian conference in Yanamakako National Park near Mt. Fuji! Yea! So we went together. But let`s save that for next week`s blog!

Prayer requests for this week: Thanksgiving! I am extremely thankful for all God`s blessings in my life. He`s provided very well for me here in Japan. We have a big Thanksgiving dinner coming up next week either on Thursday or Friday at my church; please pray it goes well and lots of people attend! Last week Thursday was my first “church class.” I only had three students, but that was one more than actually signed up! Maybe more will come? Hopefully. You got to start somewhere. Every soul is precious to God.

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,
Laura

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Day in the Life: My Routine, Job, and Students Part I

My apologies that this is coming so late. First I accidentally deleted my pictures and had to take them, download them, and sort them again, then the pictures wouldn`t download onto my blog, then blogger erased my draft. Hopefully, it works properly now.

Lots of people have been asking, "So you have all these crazy adventures in Japan. You`re involved in mission work. You write. But what exactly are you SUPPOSED to be doing? I mean, they hired you for a reason, right? What are you PAID to do?"

Ok, Ok, it`s not all fun and games. I just don`t find my school life to be worth writing about. Not that I don`t find it enjoyable, productive, and all that. It`s just that I`m a sci-fi/fantasy writer at heart. I look for the story that is unusual or special and write about that. But I think you`re absolutely right that I tend to neglect the every-day details, which often make a story come alive and feel more "real." So before I post about my amazing adventures in Yokohama this weekend, allow me to give you a "day in the life." A regular day, that is. Some of this may be a repeat, but here it is, in order, no cuts.

I usually wake up between 7:00-7:30AM. My hot water heater button is located on a box in my kitchen, so I have to remember to press it before I get in the shower, otherwise I end up draping myself in a towel and running into my 30 degree kitchen to press it. I have to set the temperature I want before I get in the shower, and of course it`s in Celsius. I like it around 37 degrees, which is about 98.6 degrees Farenheit. A good temperature to memorize, because if you ever find yourself sick in a foreign country, that`s the temperature your body is supposed to be at.

My shower drain plugs really easily, so I have to cover it with a plastic strainer thingy and clean it out often. I still have had no luck finding a way to tack my shower head to the wall, so I awkwardly hold it up over my head with one hand and try to wash my hair with the other. Not exactly effective, but no one`s complained that I smell yet. This is what my Japanese bathroom looks like. Note that the toilet is in another room, which is very convenient for when guests spend the night:



Traditionally, Japanese people wash before they get in the tub. There is a drain in the floor. Once they`re clean, they get into the tub and soak, then rinse off in the shower. They do this to keep from getting the bath tube dirty. Traditionally this was because everyone shared the same bath water, but I can see why they still do it today. For some reason, Japanese tubs get dirty really easy. I have to wash mine every time after I take a shower. I have yet to actually take a bath, however. My tube is very tiny. But if a Japanese person ever comes to your house, be sure to tell them to wash after they get in the tube, otherwise they`ll flood your floor. Believe me, it`s happened before.

After my shower, I eat breakfast (which usually consists of green tea and organic cereal with fruit and plain yogurt instead of milk because I`m allergic to straight milk), pack my “bento” or Japanese box lunch with leftovers from the night before, and head out the door around 8:00AM. If I have no leftovers, I make a sandwich or buy something from the bread ladies who come to school during lunch time, which is 12:45-1:15 for the students, anywhere from 12:00-1:30 for the teachers. I really love the bread ladies` chocolate pudding and custard stuffed buns. There is no cafeteria; students all bring bentos to eat in their rooms and I often join them. Here`s a picture of a “bento”:



On a nice day, I ride my bike. You`ve seen a picture of it; old but reliable. I call her "Trusty Rusty." It`s about two and a half miles to school, mostly uphill, and takes me about thirty minutes. It`s a hard ride, but the early morning air and exercise gets me energized for the day. The nice thing is that the way home is mostly downhill, so at the end of the day I get a nice, relaxing ride with beautiful mountain and leaf-changing scenery. Here`s two pictures of that:





In bad weather or when I`m just not feeling up to it (which is about 50% of the time) I take the train and then walk a mile from the station to the school. The train costs \150 one way, so \300 round trip, which is about $3.25. So it adds up. But I can get these buy ten, get one free tickets that are really nice and convenient, so I do that. There`s no expiration date and I don`t have to wait in line to buy a ticket each time. If I feel really awful or my umbrella has been broken by the rain and winds, I also take the bus, which is \160 yen and drops me off about a quarter mile from the school entrance. I rarely take the bus; I think less than 10 times.

I arrive at school at around 8:30. The first thing I do is change from my sneakers into a black slipper-shoe. The shoes I`m currently not wearing go into the metal shoe box with my name. Any time you find that you have to step up or step down somewhere in Japan, you have to change shoes. The idea is that your outside shoes are dirty and should not go on clean tatami (rice straw mat; traditional Japanese flooring), tile, wood, or anything else. The Japanese, as far as I`ve seen, never have carpet.

I also have to change into wooden “toilet shoes” when I go into the bathroom. All of the toilets in the school are “squatters” or simple porcelain holes in the floor. Except for one near the teacher`s room. That one`s mine. Here`s a picture of a “squatter.”:



Once inside the teacher`s room, I use my “inkan” or signature stamp to “sign” the employee book for that day. I have my very own page that shows when I was here and when I took ninque, or paid vacation time. Ninque is also used for sick days. I have a total of 25 ninque I can use throughout the year. Five of those days can only be used in the summer and the only time I get actual “sick leave” is if I`m in the hospital. Still, it`s pretty generous, I think.

Then there is a morning meeting conducted by the vice principal, and other teachers speak up as needed, mostly giving news about this or that. The band teacher might talk about a competition and how they did, the baseball coach might talk about a tournament, that sort of thing. The nurse almost always speaks about watching out for illness and proper “gargling” and all that. If any classes have been closed down because of the flu, that is mentioned. (It takes only two sick students to close down a class of thirty. Go figure.) The meeting usually lasts about five minutes and I understand very little of it. If there`s something important for me to know, like one of my classes being shut down, my supervisor, Nakayama sensei, lets me know.

From about 8:40-8:50 there is “morning reading” in the students` home rooms. Students are given a passage to read with questions. Sometimes the passage is in English, in which case, home room teachers will ask me to come to the class and read the passage aloud, with any new vocabulary, having the students repeat as necessary. This dosn`t happen very often. Usually I spend the time making sure I have everything I need, going over the lesson in my head, that sort of thing.

First period begins at around 8:55. Each class is about fifty-five minutes, except when there is “shortening” for an assembly, explanations, presentations, that sort of thing. This happens about once a week. Then each class is only forty-five minutes. Most students have seven classes, though some have only six, though I`m not sure why. I average at about two classes per day. Some days I have as many as four, some days none at all. So I`m really lucky.

In my slight defense, however, each class is a performance. Back in the states, I had high school teachers who for a lesson would tell us to read for twenty minutes, then answer questions at the end of a passage, and might talk for five minutes, and that`s it. For my lesson I spend the whole time either presenting, singing, dancing (or rather, doing motions to make what I`m saying more clear), demonstrating dialogues, and trying as hard as I can to understand their broken English/very fast Japanese and reply in a way they`ll actually understand. I have to be “on” and performing the whole time, and I have the whole thing scripted and then some in case the students catch on quick, plus I have to deal with things as they come up, and keep the teacher I`m team-teaching with feeling like she`s doing something, when in actuality she`s usually just standing there saying “eh…toe…” (Um…uh…” and keeping things from moving forward despite the fact that I gave her my lesson plans a week in advance and had two meetings with her beforehand. (OK, that`s a little mean. Only one of the teachers I work with is like that.) There are three main teachers I work with, besides four that I sometimes visit.

Here is a picture of my school, Kikyogaoka high school:

A Day in the Life: My Routine, Job, and Students Part II

So, now I`ll take you through a typical “bad” class and a typical “good” class. It really is about fifty/fifty, I get one good class a day and one bad class, typically. I think the best way to show you what a typical “bad class” is like is to take you through the one I just had.

I got into their room (remember, teachers move from room to room, not students) about 8:55. They were really excited to see me. I`m not sure it`s because they actually enjoy my classes (which I hope is the case) or because as a rule set by the powers above me I`m not allowed to give them any grades or assign them homework. So my class is sort of a “blow off” class. Realistically, I think it`s a combination of the two. Anyway, some of them greeted me as I came in with “Ghost Busters!” or “Mississippi!” funny-sounding words from our previous lessons. At least they remember something! I was hoping that today the “bad class” might be different. The biggest trouble maker bowed low to me and said something to the extent of “I am very honored that you have humbled yourself to teach our ignorant class today” in Japanese. Then the whole class, directed by the JTE (Japanese Teacher of English), stood as one and bowed.

“Good morning!” I greeted them.

No response. The act was over. Half of them had already fallen asleep. The “bad kid” yelled back “Good morning!” very loudly, and got a few laughs.

“What American holiday is coming?” I asked.

Blank stares.

“Dona Americano matsuri?” I asked in Japanese. I gestured toward my Thanksgiving Day poster and made an exaggerated pantomime of raising my hand.

More blank stares. One student raised his head, muttered, “Halloween,” and went back to sleep.

“Good guess. Halloween was two weeks ago. Next week is Thanksgiving!”

“Yea!” the bad boy cried. “Thanchusugivinu! Ghostbusters!”

“Thanksgiving means to “Give thanks” or say “thank you.” To our friends. To our family. To God.”

The bad boy repeated each phrase as I said it, half a second behind, with an awkward accent, sometimes inserting different words.

I ignored him. “So let`s start with a fun Thanksgiving Day poem. This poem talks about what we`re thankful for!” The previous week I had showed them the “Ghost Busters” song and they filled in the blanks, but that turned out to cost me a lot of money, because every time I pulled it up on I-tunes, my cell phone company charged me a dollar. I`m not doing that again! I found the poem free domain on the internet, so I didn`t have to pay for it. The students had to fill in the missing words using hints at the bottom of the page and the pictures I so painstakingly pasted in via clip art. I had spent quite a bit of time on it, making sure it would be easy enough but still a challenge. I had two versions, medium and easy. This class had easy. Their hints were in Japanese, which wasn`t exactly simple for me. In return, I expected them to at least try. Most of them laid their heads on their desks and promptly fell asleep.

I was expecting this, of course. So I went around to the sleeping students saying, “Okite kudasai” (wake up, please) and asking “wakarimaska?” (do you understand?) They all answered, “Wakarahen” which is the impolite way of saying “I don`t understand,” not quite as strong as “heck if I know” but somewhere along those lines. I then pointed to the directions and read them in Japanese, which they were already in. Most of them just waved me away, saying “bye, bye,” and laid down their heads again. Today I let most of them get away with it. Most days I`m insistent, but even then they just lay down their heads as soon as I walk away. I didn`t feel like fighting with them; there seemed to be a few students who genuinely wanted to work, so I helped them instead.

All during this time the bad boy was yelling and waving his hands in the air and just making a genuine JA of himself. I tried a few times to get him to quiet down, but that only encourages him. At least he didn`t scream obscenities at me this time.

So what`s the JTE during all this? Absolutely nothing. This is the bad class because it belongs to the teacher that just stands there saying, “eh…toe…” and looks at me with horrified eyes when I ask her to actually help with anything.

After ten minutes I came back in front and asked for volunteers to give their answers. Dead silence. Even the loud boy was instantly quiet. If there`s one word in English they know, it`s “volunteer” and I think they`ve assigned it the intrinsic meaning “utter embarrassment.”

“If you volunteer, you get a stamp!” I declare. My one and only means of motivating them. At the beginning of the year I gave them a “stamp card” with the names and flags of fifteen English-speaking countries. When they collect all the stamps, they get extra points on their final test. How much depends on their teacher. For the good students, this is a decent motivation. Not the bad kids. Most of them lost their stamp cards a long time ago. I tried candy once, which was a decent motivation, but then they were all screaming the answers over each other to get the candy. And that gets mighty expensive mighty fast.

But for some reason today, after about two minutes of utter silence, they decided to shout out the answers, candy or no candy. So I just ditched the stamp card. Let them yell out the answers, and I`ll write them on the board when they say the right one. Of course that means a lot of random, stupid wrong answers, like “kitty” “kill turkey, yum!” and “I am buffalo!” I have the strong suspicion they don`t learn anything from this type of question and answer, so I try to avoid it. Someone suggested to me that I have them all say the answer at once, like “one, two, three, turkey!” If you can get them to do that, you have more power than I do.

Then I went into my Thanksgiving Day explanation. Again, the bad boy repeated everything I said half a second after I said it. It was really distracting. I told him to stop of few times, but of course he only repeats me louder. Finally, I glared at him and shouted at the top of my lungs, “Kiite kudasai!” He stared at me, laughed, and continued. Though I think I`ve told that story before; that actually happened a few weeks ago. Today I actually told him to shut up. He did for about five seconds. All it takes is that one kid to ruin a whole class. And almost every class seems to have one.

Then we had a “making reservations” dialogue. One person was the restaurant staff, the other was the customer. They talked, all right. But none of it was in English.
As soon as the bell rang, they all perked up, smiled, and gave me high-fives as I left the room. As if to say, “didn`t we do a good job?” Ooooo…If only I had the power to grade these kids. I would be more than reasonable. If they try, they get an A. But if they don`t, their grade goes down. And if they keep others from learning, why should they pass at all?

So why are these students taking English? you may ask. Because they have to. It`s required until they`re a senior. Some schools offer other foreign languages, but whether they do or not (my school does not), English is always required. It is on the exam to get into most Japanese colleges. And believe me, the exam is tough; I`ve graded it. I see a huge improvement between the first year and third year students, I think because they suddenly realize that if they want make something of their life, they have to know English. And if having an Assistant Language Teacher who`s a native speaker on staff is not exactly a law, it`s certainly an unspoken requirement. Since high schools compete to get students, not having a native speaker when every other school does would put a school out of business. But I and a lot of other assistant language teachers feel that this is a grudging realization. We are not considered to be full-fledged teachers, and if they could, the teachers would avoid using us. I don`t think this is the case at my school, though. Everyone is very kind to me and I feel they try to use me as much as they can. Usually.

Here`s a picture of a typical class room. Sorry I can`t include pictures of my studnets. It`s against the law.

A Day in the Life: My Routine, Job, and Students Part III

The next class was much better. It`s a typical “good class.” I think their regular teacher makes a world of difference too. Ozawa sensei is a very sweet, understanding lady who speaks fluent English but knows how to keep students in line. They listen to her. Here`s what that class looked like.

I got in at the same time. They seemed happy to see me, but not overly so. They smiled, greeted me in English, and took their seats like civilized people. I passed out the Thanksgiving Day poem, explained it, and they set to work right away. Some of it was hard of them; they had the higher level sheet with instructions in English and six blanks instead of just four. But as I walked around from pair to pair, they asked me for help very politely, and I was able to dispel their confusion with just a few words. When it came time to say the answers, they raised their hands, gave the correct ones, and were very happy to receive their stamps.

During the dialogue practice, if I noticed they were struggling with something, I had enough control that I could pause the class and explain it, then have them continue. They still enjoyed themselves. Many of them laughed at funny-sounding words and played jun-ken-pon (paper-rock-scissors) to decide who would read which part of the dialogue. But I let them have fun, because they`re learning.

“Would you like to eat a Thanksgiving feast?” I asked at the end of class. “You can! On Thursdays, I teach a free English conversation class at a local church. Please come. Next week we will have a Thanksgiving feast! This is the phone number for the church.”

I wrote it on the board, and was surprised to see the student`s eyes widen, and immediately several boys started writing it down. No girls.

Ozawa sensei burst out laughing. “They think it`s your number. Kyokai no denwa bango,” she told them, explaining it was the church`s number. The boys sighed and erased it.

So they`re not perfect angels, but at least they want to learn.

Actually, those are the extremes. Most classes are probably somewhere in between. Some get very frustrated when the don`t understand, but I haven`t had anyone cry yet, which is probably a plus. I remember there was one day in Spanish class I burst into tears because I couldn`t understand what the teacher was saying and she was so insistent that I answer. Maybe that was during a test, though. I can`t really remember.

Here`s what an empty school hallway looks like. Notice how small their lockers are!



I have a small side-note on gender, since so many people have asked me about it. The girls tend to be better than the boys for some reason, though I`ve heard that is pretty typical in ever culture, since women`s brains tend to be more suited to verbal communication while men tend to be more mathematics minded. But the girls and boys have very little to do with each other. If you try to put them in pairs, most of them simply won`t work together. Japanese in general don`t understand the concept of “just being friends;” members of the opposite sex tend to avoid each other outside of work, family, and relationships/sex. Students are discouraged from having a boyfriend or girlfriend until after they graduate and the average marriage age for first marriage is 30 for men and 28 for women, and it is steadily getting higher. (The divorce rate is 27%, about half of what it is in the U.S.) So what are they doing in the mean time? As far as sexual promiscuity goes, it is rampant in Japan. Many girls have part time jobs at hostess clubs, “maid cafes,” porn magazines, dating services, etc, and the age of consent in Japan is 13, (though in some areas it is a little higher) so it`s all legal. Not that these places are intrinsically sex businesses, but it happens. A lot. There is a strong fetish for high school girls in their short school uniform skirts (at the love hotel I visited you could rent these costumes), and a lot of shady businesses advertise that they have these girls working for them. But at least the Japanese are very secretive about their personal lives, so if any of my students or the teachers I work with do that, I wouldn`t know about it, and I like it that way. I spent my first few months in Japan thinking all the things I kept hearing and reading about simply didn`t happen, or at least not so often and were exaggerations. But I`ve started paying more attention to things, and realize that the “rumors” are absolutely true. I have to stop being naïve, wake up, and be more cautious. Things I could do or say with a guy in America just don`t fly here in Japan.

As far as gender equality goes, I`ve heard women are discriminated against, but I haven`t seen it, unless you count the extreme sexualization I listed above. I certainly haven`t experienced it myself. I have noticed that women tend to withdrawal from the business world when they get married, they`ll spend twenty years at home just to raise one kid (the average is 1.2 children per couple) and they still refer to their husbands as “master.” But I don`t really judge those things. If they are happy with their lives, I`m not about to say they are being “discriminated” against. As someone who spent a year working for a feminist literary journal, I`ve come to the conclusion that it`s foolish for Western feminists to assume that every woman in every culture thinks and feels as they do.

So getting back on topic, what is the English level of my students? All of them can read English, at least sound-out the Roman letters, I mean. They`re supposed to have the vocabulary of about a four-year-old or five-year-old, (I know because I`ve administered some tests) but don`t know how to use it in complete sentences, or how to understand it in complete sentences. They`re much better readers and writers than they are listeners and speakers, which is to be expected. It`s easy to study English reading and writing on your own. We only have twenty-six letters compared to their 10,000 and something. But spoken English is very irregular, and of course I sound different from their teachers. Even when I speak extremely slowly, sometimes the teachers will have to repeat exactly what I say, in English, with a Japanese accent, for the students to understand. You know the stereotype that if you just add an “O” to something in English, it becomes Spanish? The same could be said for Japanified English. “Night” becomes “nighto.” “Appointment” becomes “appointo.” Japanese, as a rule, never ends in a hard consonant sound, so it`s really hard for them to say something without it. But we go over this every class, me saying words without the vowel and them repeating, so maybe after a year they will be inappropriate ending-vowel free!

Other than two main classes a day, I often visit another teacher`s class for fifteen minutes or so to give a quiz, talk about a cultural/historical point, or something of that nature. I help teachers understand college entrance exams and check them for students, explain any questions they have about grammar, etc, and correct papers for other teachers. I just finished correcting two hundred and fifty papers from the third year students. They just got back from their class trip in Okinawa. They were pretty funny. It was obvious the students used their English dictionaries on their keitai (cell phones), because some of it came out sounding…interesting. “Gama was scared for me.” (Gama is a place in Okinawa where people hid during WWII, so I think they meant “Gama scared me.”) Most of the mistakes consisted of the absence of “a” “an” and “the” or missing prepositions, like this personal favorite, “I enjoyed eating friends.”

I spend about two hours a day preparing lessons, meeting with teachers, revising lessons, and making copies and auditory/visual aids (posters, songs, etc). I also make a new English bulletin board each week with pictures, text, tongue twisters, and upcoming events for students and teachers to read. Cleaning time is from 3:30-3:45. During that time I help out where I can and converse with the students in English. Students and teachers are responsible for cleaning their own rooms, restrooms, etc, which is really good because it teaches them to respect school property. The only downside is that the bathrooms are never really clean, and smell awful. We do have a janitor who comes maybe once a week or so.

After all that, I still have about two hours a day where I have nothing to do but study Japanese, plan for weekend trips, email, and write these blogs. So it`s a pretty sweet job. Typically, I get off work around 4:15. Twice or three times a week I stay after school until about 5:00 or 5:30 to run English club or tutor a student. We`re supposed to have English club twice a week, but lately it`s only been once a week, because no one`s showing up. The teacher that usually runs it is about to have a baby, so it`s all up to me, and the fact that I speak very little Japanese intimidates most of the students into not coming, even though I plan games and activities that require little to no English instruction. I`m trying to set up a pen-pal exchange with my Japanese class from back in the states, but with only two girls coming regularly at the moment, this is really hard. We`ll see what happens.

Here`s what a typical English Club meeting is like. Around 4:00, two girls come to get me at the computer desk. (I have my own desk, but while all the other teachers are allowed to bring laptops to school, I am not, but I am allowed to use one of the two desktops.) On our way to the language lab, they pinch my sides and giggle.

“Smarto, smarto!” they say, meaning “thin.” I`ve learned just to smile and keep speaking English when they do this. To deny it or say thank you just encourages them to keep pinching. But on the way up the stairs, one of them grabs my bottom. I turn around and give her a stern look.

“That is inappropriate,” I tell her.

Inapotolate?” she attempts to mimic.

“Not nice,” I translate.

When we arrive at the lab, I`m disappointed to find no one else there. So it`s just me and the two girls, not enough to write letters back to my friends in the U.S. or play any of the games I prepared. But I have a back up plan, of course. I get out my pictures of my family. I ask them to tell me about their families. These girls are pretty studious, so they catch on to new vocabulary quickly and when they don`t know how to say something, they look it up and we piece together a sentence. We laugh and joke and have a good time, talking about our childhoods and what was “popular” then. At around 5:00 they say they have to go home. So I get up and one of the girls grabs my chest.

“Oh, big!” she says. “What your size?”

“Feel me!” the other one cries.

Ug. I just ignore them and walk downstairs, enduring their “You have boyfriend? He like you! Who that boy give you ride yesterday? He is handsome! You marry him? Have babies?” (They`re referring to a ride I got from a friend two weeks ago when I misplaced my bike. That`s what I mean by they don`t understand the concept of “just friends.”)

I don`t know if all Japanese girls are like this or if I just got stuck with a bunch of really annoying ones.

Okay, so I`m not complaining. Overall my job is pretty sweet. Other than a pretty decent salary, my perks include very good health insurance, unemployment insurance, free printing, free internet (at school) and the frequent Japanese snacks brought to the office. Whenever another teachers takes a vacation, they bring back snacks from wherever they went, as a way of saying, “thank you” to everyone else for taking on extra work while they were gone. Someone brings something about once a week. I wanted to say “thank you” to my supervisor and another teacher for helping me plan my trip to Yokohama last weekend so I made them rice pudding. I didn`t take ninque for it, I only went on a Saturday, so I didn`t think of making it for everyone. But they shared it with the whole office, and some people asked me, “Laura, why didn`t you make enough for everyone? Please make us all rice pudding!” Oops. My pastor did the same thing when I made something for him and his wife. He shared it with the whole church, even though there wasn`t enough. I have to remember that you can`t give a present to an individual Japanese person. They will always try to share it with the group.

I usually get home between 5:00-5:30, depending on if I have errands to run or not, then make dinner. I usually make two elaborate meals a week, such as clam pasta in butter/wine sauce, salmon soufflé, etc, with some type of desert like sweet potato pudding, custard, pumpkin pie without the crust, etc. which take about two hours to make, eat, and clean up. But they usually last me all week, and if they don`t, I just eat eggs or vegetables with rice or something else very basic.

My washing machine is very small, so I end up doing laundry at least twice a week, especially since it dosn`t seem able to get my clothes clean. They come out with the same dirt they went in with, and when I try to scrub it out with extra soap or bleach, I end up leaving a nasty white or blue stain that won`t come out at all. So I`ve just had to get in the habit of checking over my clothes when they come out of the wash, and if they`re still dirty, just stick them in again. I also don`t have a dryer, which means I hang everything to dry outside, and then the wind blows them off the line into the dirt, and I have to wash them again. Oh, well. I could hang them inside, but I hate having that stupid metal contraption in the middle of my tiny kitchen.

I try to study Japanese for at least half an hour every week day. Sometimes I don`t get it in so I`ll do an hour the next day. I`ve been pretty good about that, but I don’t feel like I`m making any progress. I also try to write or revise my fiction stuff for at least two hours a day. Usually I make it, sometimes not. I always read for about an hour before bed, lately Orson Scott Card`s Shadow series, and The Lord of the Rings. Then I fall asleep somewhere between 11:00 and 1:00am. I should probably get more sleep, but I don`t.

And that`s my life! When I`m not traveling to some strange and exotic locale or dealing with a major crisis. I love my life. Sometimes it`s really hard and frustrating, like this morning when the station manager refused to take my ticket, even though he couldn`t figure out what was wrong with it, and because he made me wait for him to ask three other people for five minutes, I missed the last two trains, and had to ride my bike in the freezing 35 degree (Fahrenheit) rain. Or when I made a list the other day of rejections I`ve gotten for my fiction work and realized I have close to one hundred. But that sort of thing happens to everybody. After all, I`ve also gotten ten acceptances, so that`s ten percent of the stuff I`ve sent out, which is pretty decent most writers say. So all in all, I don`t think I`d rather be anyone else but little old me.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Shinto Ceremony and Four Seasons Park

This past week was better than last week. Mostly. I was sick Monday and Tuesday. Monday my pastor and his wife took me to the doctor and apparently, somehow it got back to the school. Wednesday my supervisor sat down and had a “talk” with me, saying I need to be more responsible and learn to take care of myself. “You rely on other people too much,” she said. “I gave you information about finding an English doctor two weeks ago, but you did not look at it.”

I explained to her, in very humble Japanese, that I had indeed looked at the information but was unable to find an English-speaking doctor anywhere near my apartment. The local doctor insisted on having someone translate for me, which was why I called my pastor. I apologized for inconveniencing the school (though I couldn`t see how I could have possibly done that) and promised to do better in the future. She seemed satisfied, which is all that matters. “Saving face” and avoiding conflict is far more important in Japan than actually solving problems. It can be very irritating at times.

I felt pretty crummy for the rest of the week, so I canceled my adult class and my church class on Wednesday and Thursday nights. I went to school, went home, and slept. Friday I was invited to go to a “girly night” by my Irish friend Neve, but I decided it would be better not to go. At least I was able to skype a few of my friends for some human interaction. That`s always nice. I also started on the Japanese correspondence course. It`s so hard! I`m taking the intermediate because after two semesters of Japanese I was too proud to take basic, even though that`s what everyone suggested. I`m in way over my head! They say it gets better. We`ll just have to wait and see.

Saturday morning had such unusually gorgeous/warm weather for November that I decided to go for a short walk. I found a much quicker route to the local shrine, and happened to stumble upon a blessing ceremony for several girls and a little boy. Every November, Japanese people take their three and five-year-old boys and three and seven-year-old girls to the local Shinto shrine for the priest to bless. I felt a little funny about taking pictures and video of this rather private event, so I asked permission first and tried to stay hidden and unobtrusive. Here is what the shrine courtyard looks like:




And here are the little girls lining up for the ceremony:



This is a family sitting before the priest, getting a quick explanation of what to do:



This is a video of the priest chanting before the alter:

video

The priest beating a drum and singing:

video

Two families praying before the alter:

video

And the priest blessing the children. Notice the bell staff in his hand that he waves over the children. This is a common instrument in the Shinto religion, often held by actors portraying various gods or by musicians singing to gods. I assume it`s similar to the Jewish custom of sprinkling animal blood (or water symbolizing blood) over people as a form of purification and blessing.

video

Of course I asked my classic questions: Why are you doing this, who are you praying to? The answer was as expected. “We`re blessing our children. We aren`t praying to anyone.”

“Then who is doing the blessing? Why are you praying and bowing with your face to the ground before the alter?”

“It`s just something we…do.”

I wonder if the priest actually believes in what he`s doing. I didn`t get a chance to ask him. It`s hard for me to think that anyone could really believe in the Shinto gods anymore, of sun and fire and water and all that. And the thing is they don`t, so why do they continue this stuff? I can see why they want to bless their children, but why all the meaningless religious trappings? Why not just make it a secular ceremony? It really peeves me when people don`t understand or even want to understand why they do what they do or believe what they believe. We do the same thing in the U.S., even Christians, and that irks me even more.

Saturday in the late afternoon I went to a writers` meeting in Osaka. They hadn`t gotten a chance to read my story yet, which was OK. Hopefully at the Japanese Exchange Teaching Mid-Year conference they`ll be able to drum up some more interest and I`ll get even more critiques! I got to read another member`s story, and it was pretty good.

Sunday I went to church, then because it was such nice weather and I doubted I would have another chance (I have a conference scheduled when the other JETs plan to go), I decided to go to Akame waterfalls with some foreign friends. Unfortunately only Karen could come, and the person with the car bailed on us, so Karen and I went to Four Seasons Park instead. It was really beautiful! Here`s some pics:











The changing leaves were gorgeous! There were still some flowering trees and bushes too. Most of the hiking trails were closed, but we still had a good time. And best of all, it was completely free! Even the train fare there and back. We were in a hurry to catch the train there, so we figured we could purchase the ticket when we arrived. But there was no one at the ticket gate! We looked and called, but no one came, so we just went through and into the park. Then on the way back, I found a \260 train ticket lying on the ground. I used it and got through for free! Wow, talk about lucky! Or was it providence? Hmm…

I also took a picture of my bicycle, since so many people have asked what it looks like:



Next weekend I have a big writers` conference in Yokohama near Tokyo, and the weekend after that a Christian retreat in the same area. Life is swingin`!

Prayer requests for this week: Several classes have been shut down because of the flu. It`s interfering with everything. Even club activities like English Speaking Society (the club I`m in charge of) are on temporary hold. Please continue to pray for health for the students and teachers. And I have a slightly selfish request. Next week at the writers` conference, I`m going to be speaking with a major New York publisher from Little Brown Books about Dargon the Human Slayer. Pray that I make a good impression, and that, if it`s God`s wills, she publishes the book!

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,
L.J. Popp

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Sick of Being Sick!

Hey, guys, sorry this is so late but this past week was really lame. It was a four day weekend and I had big plans to go to Toba and see the aquarium and Dolphin Island where they have dolphin shows and go cruising around the islands at sunset and all that jazz. Well, I got sick. Friday I had to leave school early and I was stuck in bed for three days straight. Could be worse. I could have had swine flu. It was just a nasty cold.

But I learned my lesson. I should have gone to the doctor on Saturday. Because I just kept getting worse and worse until I gave in Monday morning and called Pastor Toshi. He and his wife took me to the local clinic and we waited two and a half hours to see the doctor. When he finally saw us, he did a swab test that lasted thirty seconds, then fifteen minutes later told me I didn't have the flu. Thanks. But seriously, he did give me this really strong Chinese herbal stuff. It tasted awful and I had to take it every three hours, but when I woke up the next morning I felt great. I decided I'd better not go anywhere, though, because I tend to jump the gun and I have to be really healthy for school tomorrow. I still had the sniffles and a headache.

Around 10:00 I got so board of lying in bed that I finally couldn't take it anymore. I got up and cleaned the apartment. The whole apartment. It took me all day. I get obsessive compulsive sometimes, and this was definitely one of those times. I scrubbed the floors and walls, cleaned behind the fridge, scrubbed the stains out all the stuff I've been too lazy (or rather busy) to wash, did the mountain of dishes and all the laundry. It was a long day. But everything's clean. Everything.

I'm about to go over to Junco's (one of my adult students) house for a "gyoza" or Chinese dumpling-making party. I probably should have declined. I'm still sick. But I neeeed to talk to somebody, I've been shut up in my apartment, alone, for four days! Besides, I'd have to cook something for myself anyway, might as well learn to make something new. Anyway, I should have pictures of at least that up in a few hours when I get back.

OK, here are the pictures I promised!
This is gyoza. It's really easy to make. You buy the wrapping at the store, stuff it with minced pork and onion and really anything else you want, then add water around the edges, and crinkle them like that and close it up. Then you fry them in canola oil for ten minutes and presto! You're done. No need to turn them or anything.



This is a very interesting ceramic plate Junco had. The brown swirls are actually cinnamon that was baked into the plate on purpose when it was originally fired (created). She got it in Turkey. You place the fresh bread on top and it obsorbs the cinnamon from the plate!



And this is simply a beautiful river/mountain landscape picture I took while I was in Ise for the English camp a few weeks ago.



Junco gave me plug for my kutatsu table, which is just about the most awesome thing the Japanese ever invented. Kutatsu are small, low-to-the-ground tables that have built in heaters. You put a blanket over them, plug in the plug, stick your legs under the blanket, and your legs and feet and lap stay warm! And thus, the rest of you! And there's no need to heat the rest of the house! (Of course, the Japanese don't have central heating or cooling.) Brilliant energy saver. Why don't these catch on in America?

Prayer requests for this week: I'm still sick. It won't go away! Pray that all the students and teachers stay healthy, because they've already had to shut down a couple of classes for having too many sick kids. Other than that, it's just bitterly cold, and the school isn't heated and there's no kutatsu tables. There are a few homeless people living in tents in the parks around Mie. It must be miserable for them. I don't know what I can do to help; I rarely actually see one of them, just the tent, and usually then they're sleeping. I did talk to one, but of course he didn't speak English and he seemed...not right in the head, so he couldn't understand my Japanese. Japan has such an effective job security system in place, I suspect all the homeless people are all mentally handicapped in some way. At least, that's what I've been told. They don't seem for want of food or warm clothes, though, which is a good thing.

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,
Laura