Ok, so maybe 300 is a hyperbole, but this “first day of school” is definitely among many, although it is my first day of school in a foreign country!
I started at my school (aka work) last week, but yesterday marked the first day of second term for the students. Japan starts and ends their school year in March, so us JETs (really ALTs: assistant language teachers, my official job title) begin after the school year has already commenced. Regardless, there is still some Japanese pomp and circumstance that comes with the new term. An Opening Ceremony was held in the school gym, where I had the fortunate (sarcasm) opportunity to make a short speech to my new students and coworkers. On the bright side, I was prepared for this (I had many reminders so I’m guessing that previous ALTs were not so lucky) and asked to use simple English to ensure that the students (and teachers) could understand. After watching the Kōchō-sensei (principal) and other staff make what seemed to be serious speeches full of words I don’t understand, and noting all the necessary moments to bow (there are countless bows), I got up and spoke in an entirely different language (read: English) making gestures for my hobbies and other words that filled my brief speech. I felt like a clown, smiling and miming my way through, and receiving approximately zero facial feedback throughout (Japanese stoicism is real!) I chickened out of relaying my speech in Japanese (my flight or fight response chose flight) and felt guilty and foolish for doing so. As I proceeded to melt (literally I was the sweaty foreigner) in the gymnasium while typhoon wind, rain, thunder and lightening roared outside, I wondered just what the hell I was doing. I was so upset with myself for not having at least tried to say some Japanese (other than Ohayō gozaimasu and yoroshiku onegaishimasu) especially after Kōchō-sensei had introduced me with some English. Not to mention having to stand for 2 hours on an ankle that is less than healthy. I was pretty much done in those moments.
As I tried to reassure myself and take the attitude of “there’s nothing I can do now, just move on” and “I’m sure I care about a million more times than anyone else does” I tried to just take in the moment. Noticing the little things that make Japanese culture so different from what I’m used to (the lines the students stood in were the straightest I’ve ever seen!) and trying to settle into the awe of the moment rather that the “awh shit” of it. I had mostly talked myself into at least denial of my mistake as the ceremony closed and we proceeded out of the gym. It was then that I was approached by various teachers, with varying levels of English ability, to tell me I had made a great speech and (believe it or not) showing excitement in their faces as they told me they understood all I had said. Part of me felt (feels) that they were just being kind and making me feel better, but hey, it worked! Although I would go back and fight my way through my bad Japanese just to show effort, I was happy that I had said things in English in a way that I could be understood, especially in a place where I have felt very little of that lately.
The students had a half day, so there was not much to be done on my part after the ceremony. (It is noteworthy that when school started, before the ceremony, music began playing throughout the school- very pleasant classical tunes rung throughout the school building. I thought “how nice”, and then was instructed as my Kyōtō-sendei: vice principal, came in with a broom and informed me it was cleaning time. Japanese schools have a designated time for cleaning- they do not have janitors and everyone in the school chips in to clean. A brilliant idea I think, and likely contributes to how this country stays so dang clean!) After lunch my JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) told me there was an all staff meeting and that I could attend, that my predecessor sometimes attended, but that I really didn’t have to. I said I would go- that I wanted to go. While I knew I would understand about 2% of what was being said, I just felt it was important to show my face and be present. I am part of the staff after all so if they have to sit through an all staff meeting I should too! I didn’t fully know what I was in for but I was still game just the same. (See my next post- “The 5 Stages of Grief: a Japanese School Staff meeting”.)
While I am still unbelievably grateful to be here and thrilled that I am, in fact, here living in Japan, I have already had many frustrating moments. I feel trapped in some ways- I know I am capable and good even at working with kids, I know I am at least decent at English, I know I am social, and I know I have something to offer here, but I am trapped in the body of an illiterate. I cannot engage with my coworkers how I want because I have no idea what they’re talking about. I don’t know the customs and I’m still learning the expectations and hierarchy and I don’t want to over step or accidentally insult anyone along the way. But it seems that I may be bound to. I know I will have to fall in order to learn, that I will make mistakes and push cultural limits unknowingly. I know I will have to “fall down seven times and stand up eight”. But it isn’t easy to take that leap when I feel so lost. I know I will stumble feeling my way through the dark that is this land and culture, but it’s not so easy to knowingly do so in such a structured, hierarchical and foreign place. So here’s to finding my way to the light! Kampai (Cheers) to a new school year (at least for me!)