Saturday, February 25, 2012

February Happenings

Thank you for answering my poll last post, but unfortunately many of you failed!  Three people specified something specific they would like to hear about (none of whcih were in agreement), and four others said they want to hear about anything and/or everything.  Since this means it was a tie, here is an account of what's been going on this month (including food, school, and Chrsitianity -- the three winners)

Some things going on in February:

On (Monday) February 6th Jared and I hosted a Superbowl party for some American friends that are also in Japan.  The Superbowl was replayed in Japan at 6:00 Monday night, so we were able to watch it on television (unfortunately without commercials).  We enjoyed some good American company and entertainment, which was really nice.  Unfortuntately we didn't have the American Superbowl food, but I guess two out of three isn't bad!

Mexican Party
That same week Jared and I also hosted a Mexican party for some students he studies the with at Ibaraki Christian University.  Mexican food is rare in Japan, and Jared and I, as well as students who have visited OC really crave it.  Jared spent the majority of the day cooking and made enchiladas, homemade queso sauce (without velveeta), tacos/burritos, quesadillas, and sopapilla cheesecake.  Everyone ate a lot, and we definitely went over our calorie count, but we had a lot of fun!  Afterwards, we had fellowship and a Bible study, and then some aerobic dance to work off the food.  The party lasted until about 2:00 in the morning.  It was draining, but so much fun!

IC PartyA week later the long term exhange students that came to OC from IC last year invited Jared and I to a dinner reunion they were having.  We had a private room in a traditional Japanese restaurant, and the food was really good!  We had four or five courses, including a salad, two varieties of fish, and a pasta with a sauce made of fish eggs, as well as lots of time to just visit.  Some of the students I knew well, but a few I didn't and it was really good to have a chance to get to know them better, as well as to catch up with the students I was close to while at OC.  Two of the girls, Yuuki and Noriko were my little sisters in club and came to my house for a weekend, so they asked about my family and we talked about things that have happened since OC.  I was also able to practice my Japanese a little, which I really enjoyed as I am not able to use it at work.  It was a lot of fun to have a cultural experience with both old and new friends!

Starbucks class
While at the Mexican party, everyone talked about wanting to be able to study and fellowship more over the upcoming weeks as IC is on their spring break.  (Spring break here is the break between school years and for college students lasts about two months.  The school year runs from April to March.)  We decided to have a study the following Saturday at Starbucks.  With various weekend events going on there were only four people able to come, but many others mentioned they would love for us to have one again.  We spent about two hours fellowshipping and talking about the Bible, then went to lunch together and spent some time in Mito.  The two girls that came were both Japanese, one of whom is a Christian, and one of whom isn't, but who has been very involved with the church.  We had a good time and some really good discussion.  Studying with others is so encouraging!  It was a great way to refresh and prepare for the upcoming week.

That evening an LST (Let's Start Talking) team arrived in Tomobe (the city where I go to church) where they will hold free individual English Bible studies with people for a month.  It's marketed as a way to practice English for free with native English speakers, which gains a lot of interest, but the material works its way through one of the gospels and teaches the reader about Jesus and his life.  It's a wonderful opportunity because few people in Japan are familiar with Christianity.  Most people are a combination of Shinto and Buddhist, but its primarily cultural rather than religious.  They often don't realize why they go to a shrine for a birth and a Buddhist temple for a death, or have shrines honoring ancestors in their houses other than that it's because they are Japanese and that's what they do.  If they are familiar with Christianity, its often associated with Jehovah's Witness members who are very persistent here, or with weddings (Japanese young people really like the grandeur of a Christian wedding).  Few people have heard much about the Bible or about Jesus and his life and sacrifice, and the forgiveness he offers.  They don't know that its possible to have a personal and loving relationship with a God who is interested in his creation.  It is very hard for Japanese people to become Christians though, because the other religions are so integrated into their lives that they don't understand committing to one religion.  Some families also will shun their children if they convert to Christianity.  It's a very complex situation, and conversion takes a very long time, but definitely something that you can see how a seed is planted and it grows over time.  The LST team consists of three people (two from Argentina and one from New Mexico) who spend their days holding Bible studies.  They also host weekly parties and will help around the church during their time here.

Friday nights we usually have a youth group event, which generally consists of me, Jared, and a Japanese boy who will begin attending OC in June to become a preacher.  Occasionally one or two others are able to come, but the group is rarely larger than six.  The activities alternate between renting a movie and doing an activity, such as bowling.  Last night our event was karaoke, and the LST team came along, which made our group 8. If you are unfamiliar with karaoke in Japan, it is definitely a cultural experience.  Rather than a large room (or a bar) where one individual performs a song, Japan has companies that specialize in karaoke and rent out rooms.  You can rent a room by the hour that has all of the equipment (and even tamborines and moraccas).  This way it is only you and your friends that can hear the singing, and you can sing as many songs as you like.  They also serve food and drinks.  This is a popular passtime in Japan, even though it can be fairly expensive.  They have songs in Japanese, English, and as we found last night, in Spanish.  I would like to see America start a similar version of karaoke!

Today is the one Saturday each month that I have to work, and my school is holding an exhibition.  For the past two or three months the students have been preparing, and today all of their work is on display, as well as various performances and presentations.  Each class presents for about 45 minutes to their parents and has a display in the gym or cafeteria.  In English, they have created both a presentation and a display.  It varies by grade, and I am very proud of the work the students have done.

1st Grade: "Teddy Bear Song" (including solos of "I am a teddy bear", "teddy bear wake up", and "teddy bear jump!" among others)

2nd Grade: "Hokey Pokey"

3rd Grade:  Each student was assigned a part of the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see? that they read all together

4th Grade: Speeches about a family member, telling the family member's name, occupation, two things they like, and a character trait.  The speeches were illustrated, memorized, and presented formally.

5th Grade:  Go Dog, Go!, read as a group with individual 'solos'.  The students also created eight-page mini books that six students read and presented.

6th Grade:  Three paragraphs of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream", as well as speeches they wrote (in both English and cursive) and memorized about what they want to be when they grow up, why, and what they plan to do.

I was extremely impressed with the student's level, and all of the performances went very well. It has been an exhausting couple of weeks preparing, but the hard work paid off and they have done extremely well.

Sorry for the lack of pictures in the last two posts.  Hopefully I'll be able to get more up soon.  Several have been posted to Facebook, so you can check there to see some photos of what has been going on.  Hope you are well!


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Beginning the New Year, Japanese Style

Okay, okay.  I know that I have not posted in FOREVER.  I know that you are anxiously awaiting an update.  I apologize.  Things are back in full swing for the new year, and I haven't had a chance to sit down and blog!  I will try to catch you up, or at least touch the highlights.

There are several New Year's customs in Japan, and my school has accomodated most of them.  One of the first is making mochi.  Mochi is a type of food that is traditionally made and eaten at the start of the year, I believe similar to eating black eyed peas.  Mochi is made by cooking white rice and and then beating it with a mallet until it is extremely sticky and you can no longer see the grains.  At this point it doesn't even resemble rice.  It is then made into balls and cooked in a soup.  Shortly after school resumed, the students were gathered in the parking lot about an hour before lunch.  There were three groups, each group with a hollowed out stump (serving as a 'bowl'), and two large wooden mallets.  Some of the mallets were pretty heavy.  The teachers started out by beating the rice, each time to a loud cry of "Raisha!" (my best guess at translation is that its something like oomph!) until it was mostly beat.  Then the students each got a turn, as well, cheered on by the others saying Raisha.  When the mochi was completely beat, the cooks whisked it away and served it to us at lunch time, about an hour later.  The students were all eager for me to try my hand, so I took a turn in each group using the mallet.  They were quite impressed.  Who knew I could put my farm girl skills to work cooking Japanese food!?

The second week of January, the teachers took an evening for a New Year's party.  We met at a hotel for dinner, ceremony, and games.  It cost about $75, but the school covered half of it.  The dinner lasted for 2-3 hours, with around seven courses of very fancy Japanese food.  Most of it was pretty good!  They recognized new teachers (including me), talked about some other things that I couldn't translate, and played a trivia/guessing game, a game that combined pictionary and telephone, and of course, Bingo.  I have discovered that Bingo is very popular in Japan.  The bingo continued until every one had a Bingo, and all of the teachers received a gift.  It was a good way to experience the culture of a celebration, and I had a good time, as well!

The entire time I've been here, the students have been training to run a 'marathon'.  I believe it was closer to 1500 meters, but that is still far for elementary students.  The marathon was held last week, on what was probably one of the coldest days so far.  It lasted for three hours, as each class ran two heats.  First there was warm up, then a ceremony, and finally the marathon started.  There was a total of 12 heats, and then a ceremony at the end.  I believe it was around 25 degrees ferenheit.  I asked why they chose to run when it was cold instead of after things warmed up a bit, and I learned that it is traditional for marathons to be run at the first of the year.  Most students did well, but everyone was cold and some students were crying towards the end of their heats, either from pain, cold, or disappointment.  It was very competitive.  I'm not sure I could run that far!

The final New Year's event that takes place was February 3rd.  It is customary to throw beans inside on this day to bring in good luck, and to throw beans outside to cast out devils.  Children especially have a really fun time with it.  I was invited to participate with a second grade class, and had a lot of fun.  The children (and adults) yell "oni wa soto!" (devils out!) as they throw beans at each other as they're running around.  Sometimes one person will wear a devil mask and everyone tries to throw beans at it.  It was a lot of fun to participate.
Something that corresponds with the American January is that this week the sixth grade students have been performing three paragraphs of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech.  They have been studying it since before I arrived in December, but were tested over the material this year.  About half of the students memorized all three paragraphs, and the majority of students had memorized at least part of the speech.  I was very impressed, as I know of very few American students that have memorized past 'I have a dream'!

January was very cold here, one of the coldest that anyone seems to remember.  The highs were generally in the low forties at best, and it would get in the twenties or lower at night.  Although it gets this cold in America, Americans have a different way of dealing with the heat.  In Japan, there is no central heat.  You turn on a heater mounted on the wall when you enter the room and turn it off when you leave it.  It is not uncommon for there to be only one heater per floor (such as in my apartment).  The school is the same way; heaters are not left on overnight.  There is no heater in the bathroom, and now the heated toilet seats make much more sense.  In America, the toilet is at least heated to the temperature of the room, but here it is fairly common for the air in the bathroom to be below freezing!  Additionally, many people walk quite a ways in the cold.  For example, the walk to my bus stop is about ten minutes, and the walk to the train station is around twenty.  It's not uncommon for me to be walking at least an hour a day, and that makes it seem even colder.  I got in the habit of wearing 3-4 layers of clothes regularly.  Fortunately, it has started to warm up a little, and although it is still cold I can feel that spring is around the corner.

This week was Valentine's Day, and we made valentines in the first grade classes.  We explained to them about Valentine's Day in America, because although it is celebrated here it is celebrated differently.  For Japanese Valentine's Day, girls give boys chocolates. That seems to be the extent of the holiday (no other special celebration, dinner, or gifts), and my first graders were appalled when they heard that in America boys gave gifts to girls!  There is another holiday next month called White Day, that as far as I can tell is when the boys treat the girls.  The first grade students then colored four valentines cards and gave one to their family and three to teachers at the school.  We taught them to say "Happy Valentine's Day!  I love you! Thank you!" as they gave the valentines.  Some students remembered, and some didn't, but the goal was for them to say Happy Valentine's Day rather than just shoving the valentine at the teacher.  One boy came up to me and shoved the card at me, so I cupped my ear with my hand for him to say Happy Valentine's Day.  He looked confused, mumbled "I love you" and ran away.  It was so cute!!
Jared and I celebrated an American Valentine's Day.  I gave him chocolate (in the spirit of the culture) and other small gifts, and we took a taxi to an authentic Italian restaurant by the ocean.  He had surprised me with a purse as an early Valentine's Day present a few weeks ago because mine was about to break, and at dinner told me that he felt bad he had nothing for me, but I had already gotten my gift.  I didn't mind because I understood and didn't expect anything else.  When we were leaving the restaurant to walk (in the rain) back to the train station, he surprised me by opening the back door to a car for me, where there was a card, chocolates, and red roses.  I was so surprised!  He had arranged for one of his friends to take us to the station and to hide the gifts until then.  I was caught completely off guard and very surprised.  It was a wonderful Valentine's Day!  :)

I'd like to take a minute to thank those of you who sent me cards and gifts for Christmas.  To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement, as I didn't expect to receive anything.  You are so supportive and I really appreciate it.  It was a little difficult to have Christmas so far from home, but you sent Christmas to me and I am so grateful.  God has blessed me with the most incredible friends and family I could ask for.  You're amazing!

I'm sorry this post is so long, and that it was so long coming.  I hope to blog more regularly, but it takes a certain chunk of time to update, and I hate leaving anything out because I know you are very interested in knowing about the culture, differences, and what I am doing.  I am going to try something new for the next post and ask YOU what you want me to blog about.  Comment on this blog or my facebook with one of the options below and I will blog about the winning option next post (hopefully in the next week or two).  I hope that this way I can focus more on what you want to know about and keep the post a little shorter (and more doable).  Of course, I'll still share with you any other special things that are going on!  So, your options are:

  1. Food
  2. Work/School
  3. Weather (including earthquakes)
  4. Church

Let me know your choice by commenting here or on my Facebook post!

I hope you are well and that you have had an enjoyable new year thus far.  I've heard that the winter is fairly mild at home, and I hope that has brought some relief.  Please continue to pray for me and the people I encounter while I'm here.  I haven't been able to help with the recovery efforts from the earthquake yet, as most groups have been going for the entire weekend and Sundays are one of my busiest days.  I hope to be able to make a trip in the spring, and will let you know as soon as I know.  Thank you again for your love and encouragement!