Friday, March 31, 2006

Last Thoughts on Gifu

In the last few weeks before I left Gifu, I was often asked, “Are you going to miss the place at all? Are you going to miss the people? Are you going to miss the job?”

I’m not going to miss the job. I was bored and tired at my job. That was no one’s fault but me. ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) isn’t a job you’re supposed to do for a long time. I simply stayed too long.

But actually the school did suck also. The kids were all right, but the school was just too big and I always had the image of so many kids being forced through the machine. The kids didn’t want to be there, and the apathy in the air was just depressing. The teachers didn’t want to be there either. And when I looked out the window I just saw factories and greyness.

I’m not going to miss the place. Bluntly speaking, Gifu was a dump. This isn’t just my opinion, but seems to be the opinion of most of the foreigners who live here, and even Japanese people who aren’t from the area.

Oita and Kyushu, where I spent three years, is a beautiful area. There were mountains, and rivers, and waterfalls everywhere. The countryside was filled with old Japanese style houses and rice fields carved into the mountain like steps leading up. There were rock formations made by prehistoric lakes, and in the spring and summer the thick green was gorgeous. Even after 3 years I never really got over how beautiful my daily drive out to school was. And just on the other side of the mountains was the blue ocean and palm trees.

My primary image of Gifu is the urban sprawl and factories. Just an ocean of pavement that seems to run forever. There were snow-covered mountains just on the edge of my town, and I could see them from my apartment on a clear day. But we had so very few clear days. Most of the time the air was thick with either smoke or fog or both. I remember Gifu as being just grey and depressing.

Gifu city, where I spent a lot of time, was dying fast when I left. Just as in America, the suburban sprawl in areas like Gifu is killing the downtown areas. Everyone goes in their cares to suburban shopping centers, and all the shops in Gifu were closing down left and right as I left. (Such as the local Starbucks, which was a popular hangout for foreigners). The Gifu city fathers had given up on the place, and were talking about either turning it into a bed-town for the nearby Nagoya city, or just making it into a really good town for old people.
(I’ve got nothing against old people, but my image of a really good town of old people is someplace warm and by the sea. Not cold, grey, smoky, landlocked Gifu. If the place is naturally good for old people, fine. If that’s the back up plan, then you know you’re town must really suck).

It’s the people I’m really going to miss. I felt like I really had a lot of good friends in Gifu. And in the end, it’s always the people who make the place, isn’t it? As a friend once said, “Gifu is a real dump at first, but once you get to know everyone it kind of grows on you. It’s like we’re all stuck in this together. Gifu is a dump, but it’s our dump, and you really feel close to the other people.”

Because of my reserved personality, I tend to make friends slowly. I usually have to be at a place for about 6 months or so before I have a good circle of friends. Gifu, just like every other place (High School, Calvin, Oita) was a rough start. But by the end I had a lot of good friends. In fact, given how long it took me to feel comfortable here, it seems like a waste to leave when I did. But it would have been stupid to stay for that reason alone. The turnover of foreigners is really high, and most of my Gifu friends will be moving on within the next year themselves. As for Japanese friends, there are only about 5 Japanese people in Gifu I’d consider really good friends.

I do feel especially bad about a handful of people I was just beginning to get to know, but that’s life, isn’t it? You never have enough time to form friendships with everyone, and always when you leave a place there are lots of cool people who it seems you could have been really good friends with if just given more time.

In the end, there are two things I feel really bad about. One is lying (or not mentioning) for the past year and a half about my girlfriend down in Kyushu. It’s hard to remember why I even did it. I never cheated on Shoko, although I guess I created plenty of opportunity too. Rather, I was just addicted to the “Charisma Man” type attention that a white single American male gets from Japanese females.
There were several times when I would have like to confess everything, but once you start that kind of lie you’re kind of stuck to it. Especially now that things between Shoko and I have gotten more serious, this now creates a gap between me and friends in Gifu.

The other thing I feel bad about was dropping out of the local Church I started attending. It wasn’t really something I planned out. There was just a series of Sundays when I was too busy. First last year I was back home for Christmas break. Than Shoko came up to visit me. Then some Japanese co-workers wanted to take me sight-seeing. Soon, it had been about two months since I was last at the church. And once you have two months, what’s another week? I kept thinking, “I’ll start going to church again, but not this week. This week I’ll sleep in.” And then 2 months turned into 3, 4, 5, 6 months, and pretty soon I thought, “If I go back now, I’ll have to make all sorts of excuses about where I’ve been the past 6 months.” So I just never went back.

Those of you who know me from Calvin, and remember the all the arguments perhaps, will remember that I don’t like Church anyway. I went through a phase when I wanted to give it another try, and I enjoyed the novelty of Church in Japanese, but after a while I found myself bored again, and I started remembering many of the reasons I had stopped attending in the first place. So I don’t feel bad about missing the church services, but it was a small congregation and they really fawned over me as the token foreigner. It was really rude to just abruptly stop coming with no explanation, and I’m sure I must have really confused them, and they must have wondered where I was.

Link of the Day
Pentagon block on move for safer water
The Pentagon stalled efforts to clean water supplies contaminated by a carcinogenic chemical despite evidence that it posed a significant health risk to millions of people, it was reported yesterday.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

What I'm Doing Next...

As I wrote once before, no matter what point we are at in our lives, we always seem to be answering the same few questions over and over again. The Past few months, everybody has been asking me over and over again: “So, almost finished with your job in Japan, huh? What are you going to do next?”

I have 3 different answers I’ve been using for this, depending on what mood I’m in. Sometimes I use all 3, and say I’m still weighing my options.

1. Vice-President of the United States. I’ve been using this joke for a long time now, ever since I was still in Ajimu.
2. Join the French Foreign Legion. I know this is the oldest joke in the world, and the very phrase evokes images of snoopy wondering if the French Foreign legion takes beagles, and a million other pop culture clichés. But in Japan the phrase doesn’t have the same cliché sound to it, so I’ve been able to use this quite successfully. According to the Japan Times there are actually a surprising number of Japanese people in the French Foreign legion, but apparently this hasn’t seeped down into the mainstream popular lexicon yet, because most Japanese people I talk to don’t even know what the “French Foreign Legion” is, even though I went through the trouble of learning the Japanese word for it (Furansu Gaijin Butai).
3. Just take a year off and do a lot of drugs. (I tried not to use this 3rd one too much when I was at the junior high school).

Seriously though, I have no clue what I am going to do when I get back home to the USA. I have a long list of things I don’t want to do, but have trouble thinking of something I want to do.

As I mentioned a few times in this blog, I’ve been thinking about going into graduate school for history. I still have a lot of doubts about that, but I guess until I can think of something else you might call this a tentative plan.

There are right now bouncing around in my head about a hundred reasons why I should go into graduate school, and a hundred reasons why I shouldn’t. For one thing I’m well aware that there are more people currently in academia than the market can support at the moment anyway. I know that it’s 4 years of school, and then no guarantee of a job at the end of it. I worry about my already excessive near-sightedness, and wonder if all that studying would really be good for me.

On the other hand, the past 5 years I’ve been out of school I seem to be addicted to history books anyway, so maybe I should just go ahead and get a degree out of it. I have a geekish fascination with primary sources and old books (provided it’s a subject I’m interested in). I’m much more comfortable reading and writing than I am talking to people. I’m absent minded, have limited social skills, and can’t do anything practical, all of which I think fits the criteria of people who usually go into academia….

As you can see I’m still sorting all of this out. But if you were to press me for a tentative plan, I guess the tentative plan would be to apply for graduate school over the next year while I work some mindless job. I hear it’s about a yearlong application process, and besides I need to learn some more languages to study history at the graduate level. So I could use that year to learn French or German or something anyway. Maybe take a couple classes at the community college or something.

Again, I stress this is all tentative. I’m just kind of thinking aloud on this weblog. I really don’t know what I want to do for certain.

Another complicating factor is that Shoko and I have decided to get married. (Actually that’s kind of a big announcement. Very devious of me to sneak that into the middle of the post just to see if you were paying attention, isn’t it?) I’m sure that will complicate the hell out of things, and may nix the possibility of graduate school, but we’ll see what happens.

There was no big dramatic moment when I proposed to Shoko. Rather it was something that just came about. We had been talking about it for a while. At one point I think we were lying in bed, and I said, “I’m not going to stay in Japan much longer, but I’d like to continue our relationship.”
And she said, “I’m not going to move to America unless we get married.”
And I said, “Yeah, that’s what I meant. I mean I assumed that.”
And she said, “Oh. Okay then.”

Or something like that. As Brett said in an e-mail to me, “What’s with Camelot Boys and nonchalant proposals?” So I guess I’m not the only one. (“Camelot” for those not in the know, is the name of the apartment complex where me and the boys spent our last year at Calvin College.)

International marriage is a huge headache of paper work and filling out forms, and I’d be lying if I said I knew what I was doing. I’m currently in the middle of seeking advice from friends who have already been through the process.

Shoko is worried, and probably with good cause, that her limited English will result in limited employment opportunities in the US. The job she has now pays very well, and once you leave a job in Japan, you can’t come back to it. So she wants to stay one more year at her current job to save up money. She’ll be eligible for an employee bonus in July of next summer, so she wants to stay until then. Afterwards she has agreed to quit and move to the US.

That’s a year and 4 months away, which is obviously a bit of a stress on the relationship. The past year and a half, things have already been long distance, because I was up in Gifu, and she was down in Oita. (Get out your maps if you need to.)

So, now that I’m finished with the job in Gifu, I’m staying at her place in Oita for the next month or so. That is, depending on how you look at it, an incredibly long amount of time or an incredibly short amount.

Considering we may be apart for a while after this, one month is obviously a short time. On the other hand, it’s a long time for me just to be hanging around doing nothing. I was very bored when I was here for the summer, and that was when I still had a car. Now that the job is over, and I’ve returned the car back, I’m pretty much stranded in Shoko’s apartment while she’s away at work. (I wrote before about what a mess public transport is in Oita).

So my goal is to spend the next month productively, and not waste most of it in front of the TV like I did last summer. In fact my goal is to not watch any TV or videos, and instead use my free time to crack down on my reading list. Watch for more book reviews on this site.

Other projects are to
*Get in shape (I’ve really let myself go the past couple months)
*Fill out all the forms necessary for pension refund and insurance refund
*Research this international marriage thing a bit more
*Buy a plane ticket home

One final note: I know I’m behind on e-mail again. Although I have a lot of time now, it’s not the amount of time that counts but the amount of internet time. I’m trying really hard not to spend a fortune on internet cafes this month. Obviously time I spend on this blog, and time I spend researching some of the above projects, is going to come out of e-mail time. I’ll do my best though. Should probably be home in about a month, so I’ll see you all then.

Link of the Day
Check out this cartoon from Guam's Website. I couldn't agree more.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Last Days In Gifu

I realize you wouldn’t know it from reading this blog, but the last couple weeks have actually been pretty hectic as I’ve been dealing with cleaning out my apartment, packing and saying good-bye to everyone. I’ll try and sum everything up here. Could be a long post, but I’ll try and rein myself in as much as possible.

Those of you who know me know that cleaning is not my strong suit. But before moving out I had to clean my apartment to get my cleaning deposit back.

Last month Shoko came up for 3 days to straighten the place up a little bit. I went to work in the day, she would clean the apartment up, and then I’d come home and she’d make dinner. These Japanese girls are really nice.

She intended to come up again at the end of March to help me with the final cleaning, but she got sick early in the month and used up all her leave. So, it was up to me to do the final cleaning. No Shoko. No Board of Education. Just me and cleaning.

And packing. A friend said to me, “You never realize how much junk you have until you move.” And boy is that ever true. I have way too much stuff. And since I can’t take it all back to America, I had to throw a lot of stuff out.

I got ride of tons of books. That was rather painless because I’m not the person who reads books twice anyway. When Shoko was up last month, she told me to throw out a lot of clothes, and I did under her direction. I probably have too many clothes, but I’m always afraid to throw clothes out because I figure they’re money in the bank. If I throw out excess clothes now, it means someday down the line I’ll have to buy new clothes when I’ve worn out what I’ve got.

I threw out a lot of gifts. I feel bad about this, but you just can’t take everything with you. Some of the gifts I got when leaving Ajimu two years ago has just sat in boxes in my apartment the past couple years, so I just threw it out. It was nice stuff some of it, but giving nice stuff to me is like giving pearls to swine. I just don’t appreciate it.

I got caught once. After the International Day at the elementary school (which I wrote about a couple weeks ago), the kids gave us foreigners all sorts of gifts. I went home and promptly threw it all out. It was nice stuff, pictures the kids had made and such, but I just didn’t have room to pack it. Then the next day the teacher at the elementary school said, “We want to get a picture of you with all of the children’s gifts. Could you bring them to school with you tomorrow?”
And what could I do at that point but confess? Fortunately the school seemed pretty understanding.

I’m not a complete monster. I do save personal letters and pictures. It’s just that the stuff from International Day was for all the visiting foreigners, so it was all generic pictures the kids had made for foreigners in general.

After all that giving and throwing stuff away, I still have too much stuff. But since I’m staying at Shoko’s place for the next month or so, I can sort through it later.

Good-Bye Parties
As I wrote two years ago, I don’t like a lot of good-bye parties. I think they’re depressing, emotional exhausting, and I’m not very good at saying good-bye to people anyway. I’d much rather sneak away in the middle of the night and not say good-bye to anyone. What do good-bye’s matter anyway? You still have all the memories even if you don’t get that last good-bye in.

When I left Ajimu I had a lot of good-bye parties. I did my best to avoid that this time around. I told all my friends, “I don’t want a big good-bye party. If you want to go out for dinner casually a few times before I leave, fine, but no big parties.”

A few weeks back, on Saint Patrick’s Day, some friends organized a little dinner party for me. The problem with having a small party, however, is that you end up doing several parties instead of one big one, because not everyone is included.

I was in the bar last week, and I was talking to a friend (who hadn’t been at the dinner party), and he said, “So you’re leaving next week, eh? We’ve got to have a big going away party?”

“No, no, no,” I said. “I don’t want a big going away party.”

“You were going to try and sneak away without a party, weren’t you?” he said. “Not going to happen. Not going to happen.” He arranged the date of the party, and then the following day this e-mail was sent out to the Gifu-JETs listserve:

Comrade Joel's Sayonara Party
Some of you may not be aware that our good friend Joel is leaving Gifu
nextTuesday not to return. He was trying to leave without a fuss,
but I don't think we can let him dothat, so if anyone is interested we are
having a little going away party for himon Friday night in Nishi
Gifu. Its kicking off around 7pm, and is BYO. Contact me
off list for directions. (etc)

(Comrade Joel is I think a reference to my e-mail address My philosophy is always use e-mail addresses that are easy for people to remember so you don’t have to be in the bar saying, “That’s K-R-A-Z-Z…No, two Z’s…”. was already taken, so I went with comradeswagman.)

The day before the big send off party I was busy packing and cleaning my apartment. Trying to take care of a number of things I probably should have done months ago (like getting that side rear-view mirror fixed on the car before I return it to the company). I was packing a lot of things off in boxes and shipping them off to Shoko’s place.

Somewhere in the middle of this I must have twisted my neck. I’m not sure where or how because there was no big moment of pain. About halfway through the day I realized my neck hurt a bit when I turned to the right. And it just got gradually worse and worse.

By night, I couldn’t move my neck to the right at all, and my head was tilted at an angle to the left. So, I went to a BBQ party that night with my head just stuck tilted to the left, looking like “Lurch” from the Adam’s Family or something like that.

Everyone there gave me conflicting medical advice and stories of their own, but the general consensus seemed to be that these things go away in a couple days. I left the party early because I wasn’t having a good time and was in a fair amount of pain because of my neck. The drive home was a bit dangerous because I couldn’t turn to the right to check for traffic, but I made it.

The next morning I couldn’t get up. I was lying on my futon, and I’d try and raise myself, and there would be shooting pain going through my neck, so I’d just lie back down on the futon. This went on for about 15 minutes, with myself continually trying to muster the willpower to get up, and continually giving into the pain. Then I got the idea to roll over and push myself up with my arms.

When you have a bad neck like that you can’t do anything. Even walking around the apartment was a bit painful. So I decided to go to the hospital. Thus far I’ve been fairly lucky in avoiding Japanese hospitals, but I was feeling bad enough that I wanted the neck checked out.

I called up my supervisor for advice on the hospitals and insurance. The big problem was that it was Sunday, and everything except emergency care was shut down. My supervisor told me I would have to go all the way into the big hospital in the city, and then probably spend all day waiting in the emergency room.

Which turned out to be an amazingly clear prediction. I was in the emergency room from 9 to 3. I was waiting for almost all of that time except for a 5-minute consultation with the doctor, and then 5 minutes for the x-rays. They took some X-rays, couldn’t find anything wrong, and so just told me to take it easy and not do any heavy lifting. It cost me about $120 (which I’m hoping to get back on the insurance claim form).

I left the hospital feeling just as bad as when I had come in. With all of Sunday wasted, I now had one day to pack and clean out my apartment, and I could barely move.

So, I called in favors. A bunch of people had offered to help me with my moving. I don’t think they really meant it. They just said it in the way we always say those kind of things to each other, as a form of politeness. But I called up everyone who had offered, and asked if they were serious about it.

I couldn’t make the good-bye party in my honor that night because of the bad neck. But I had several people come out to help me with my packing and cleaning, and I’m forever indebted to them for their kindness. A girl from Ireland, a guy from Britian, a New Zealander, and one fellow American; a real international team cleaning out my apartment. I’m sure I didn’t deserve it, but it’s nice to have good friends.

So, to make a long story short, the packing and cleaning all got done, I checked out of my apartment, and I’m back in Oita now, where I’ll be staying with Shoko for the next month before heading home. I’ll write more about all that next post or so. Neck is doing a lot better. Still slightly tilted to the left and still with limited movement, but it doesn’t hurt so much anymore, and I think probably will get completely better in a week or so.

Link of the Day
Bush Signs Statements to Bypass Torture Ban, Oversight Rules in Patriot Act

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Ceremony for Departing Teachers

Every March, 1/3rd of the faculty at any Japanese schools gets transferred around for various reasons. I’m told this custom originated with the civil servants to prevent bureaucrats who get entrenched in their little section and refuse to cooperate with anyone else. It was then extended to the school system, and applied to teachers as well. (I’ve written about all this before).

It has its good and bad points obviously. In a 3-year period, the faculty has almost completely changed over. Obviously the students are always changing every year as well. So there’s no sense of consistency or personality to the school. The school is just a building. There’s no one around who has a sense of the school history, no one can tell old stories, and there’s not really any point in alumni coming back to visit.

On the other hand, it does even out the educational system somewhat. The U.S. schools are too decentralized to implement this program, but if we could it would solve a lot of the controversy about education reform. You couldn’t blame the teachers for a consistently under-performing school district, because the teachers are always changing every year. And by the same token, under-performing teachers wouldn’t be able to simply blame their students.

Anyway…At the end of the year there is always a ceremony for departing teachers who are being transferred. Somehow I’ve made it almost 5 years in Japan without having to attend one of these things until this year. Last year I was baby-sitting the American students. When I was in Ajimu, I was at multiple schools so I wasn’t obligated to attend the ceremonies of any one school. My own departure from Ajimu was in August, not congruent with the Japanese school year, so I had my own separate farewell ceremonies.

So, this year was my first time attending, and this time I was one of the teachers who was leaving.

The assistant principal wrote down on the program where all the teachers were going next year. This was somewhat problematic in my case, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do for the next year. I had mentioned once in passing that I was thinking about graduate school someday, so he wrote that down on the program and asked me if it was okay.

“Um, It’s okay, but I’ve been telling all the students that I’m going to be vice-president,” I said. The assistant principal laughed, and made the appropriate corrections.

Before the ceremony, I waited outside the gym doors with all the other teachers. I was a bit nervous, but they were all really nervous also. Funny, you would think teachers would be used to standing in front of students and making speeches. But everyone was talking about how nervous they were. I guess maybe the formality of the ceremony adds a bit of extra weight.

“Why are you so nervous,” I asked the teacher next to me. “What do we have to do?”

“We have to go up to the front of the gym and receive flowers from the students,” she answered.

“That’s all?”

“And we have to make a short speech.”

“What do we have to say?” I asked.

“Just say Sayonara to the students for about one minute.”

“SaaaaaaaYooooooNaaaaaRaaaa,” I said.

That got a good laugh from the other teachers in the hallway, so I thought about recycling it for my actual speech. Something like, “So I was just standing outside a minute ago, and I asked Sudo Sensei what I should say for my speech, and she told me to just say Sayonara for one minute.” Clear throat. “SaaaaaYoooooNaaaaRaaaa.” Turn to the other teachers on stage. “Do I still have time left? I do? Well, it’s been a really great year, I’ve really enjoyed myself, etc, etc.”

Like all the other pointless ceremonies that go on in a Japanese school, they really take these things seriously, and humor isn’t often used in Japanese official speeches the way it would be in the West. So I figured either a bit of humor would come in like an unexpected relief, and I’d be a hero, or the thing would fall flat on its face. I debated for sometime whether to do it or not when I watched the other teachers up on the stage, and then finally decided to give it a try when my turn came.

Junior high school kids are usually a pretty easy audience, and it’s easy to make them laugh. This time though, the joke fell flat. Aside from all the cultural issues regarding humor, I think what really killed the joke was that it didn’t have the spontaneity it had out in the hallway. I had to set it up first, and that always kills a joke if you don’t know what you’re doing.

(Shoko thinks the whole joke was pretty lame to begin with, even with the set-up. "If a Japanese person just said GOOOOOOOOOOOODBYYYYYYYYEEEEE for one minute during their speech, would you think that was funny?" she asked. Actually I would, but maybe thats just me.)

So, anyway, it was a bit embarrassing. But fortunately I got a big laugh at the conclusion of the speech when I said I was going to become Vice-President of the United States.

Link of the Day
Phil has a post on the new immigration bill before congress. I know I link to a lot of crap, and many of you have trained your eyes to just skip over my links, but this is actually worth reading.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Dancing Pictures

More old pictures. These are from "Dancing in the Street". This is from the first night, the night we just talked to the Dancers. It's not from the night I joined in. Fortunately there's no pictures of that second night.

Day Of The Link
Family Guy FCC Song. Brilliant satire, absolutely brilliant

Tristram Shandy (abridged) by Laurence Sterne

 (Book Review)

I had never heard of this book before, and I don’t think I would have ever have read it except:
A) A friend loaned it to me
B) It was on audio Disc.
The friend who loaned it to me was British, and I from other conversations I’ve had with other Brits out here, I think this work might be much more well known in Britain than in the States. Or than again maybe it’s just me. So I’ll throw it out to the blogosphere. Have any of you heard of/ read “Tristram Shandy” before?

Ordinarily I tend to avoid abridged works like the plague. Even if a work needs abridging, I can’t stand the idea that someone else is making the cuts and I don’t know what I’m missing. So, for example, with a book like “Les Miserables” which contains many long and pointless digressions, I am much happier to have the complete novel in my hands, and then I can decide for myself which parts I want to skim over.

However with audio books sometimes it can’t be helped. I found the following description from the jacket notes pretty interesting:

“Sterne’s visual tricks posed a challenge for the creators of this audio book version. ‘Tristram Shandy’ is after all a typesetter’s worst nightmare: one page is black, another marbled, a third left blank, to give the reader the opportunity to draw the image of his fantasy woman. (Sterne here anticipated the interactive meida of our era, in more senses than one!) Several pages set out an elaborate Latin curse and a parallel English translation. There are a number of wonderfully expressive squiggles too. We have attempted to provide aural equivalents for most of these playful tricks.
It is astonishing that so avante-garde a work should have been published so early in the history of the newly emergent English novel. Contemporary readers were amazed; subsequent students of literature no less so.” [“Tristram Shandy” was published between 1760 and 1767].

I must count myself among those who were so amazed. Reading this book reminded me a lot of my Shakespeare class I took at Calvin. At first it was like reading a foreign language. But then you got used to the words, and pretty soon you were able to read it just like any other book (well, almost anyway).
And then you were like, “Hey, that’s actually pretty funny. I didn’t know people could be that funny back then!” (Assuming you’re reading a comedy of course). “I mean, update the wording a little bit, and these jokes could be part of my favorite prime time sitcom.

At least that’s how Shakespeare was for me. And “Tristram Shandy” progressed much the same way. The first disc I didn’t have a clue what he was going on about. Once I got used to it though, I found it really funny and surprisingly bawdy. After I finished it, I went back and re-listened to the first disc, and enjoyed it much more the second time.

There’s a lot of sexual humor and innuendos, as well as a lot of black humor. Much of the humor seems derived from people acting irrelevant in very tragic situations. The funniest part of the whole book is when his brother dies, and the father is furious because the son didn’t have permission. It reminded me a lot of “Monty Python”.

Link of the Day
The militarization of America's youth is the U.S. military's strategic device for recruitment into the armed forces.

Through authorization by the Supreme Court the military engages youth in middle schools and high schools through the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC). A spokesperson for the Committee Against the Militarization of Youth (CAMY) reports that the Middle School Cadet Corps program proliferates a culture of militarization because it "…indoctrinates boys and girls (ages 11 - 14) to use rifles and play video games." As a result, the program is a discipline of teaching kids violence.
(link of the Day)

Video Version

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Spanish Class Pictures

old pictures from the Saturday morning Spanish class I mentioned a while back. That class is now over, and I promptly forgot what little I learned. God knows why we took so many pictures on the last day. Perhaps you can see my growing irritation in the pictures.

Link of the Day
The New Corporate Agenda for Central America

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Correspondance with My Successor Part 2

How time flies. Just two years ago I was writing up a job description for my predecessor in Ajimu. Now I'm doing the same thing here in Godo.

As with the last time, I'm not sure if this is of any interest to anyone but me and him, but I'm posting it just for the hell of it. And, as with last time, this is slighted edited for the internet.

I should probably start by saying a little bit about myself, because the expectations upon you and the school atmosphere is always heavily influenced by what the previous person was like.

I’m 27, and have been at this position for about a year and a half. Previously I was an ALT on the JET program for 3 years in a different part of Japan way down in Kyushu. I started this position in September 2004. Ordinarily the company contracts start in April of course, but this was a new position, so it was a special case. I am the first company ALT in this school. Previously the town contracted ALTs independently.

Off the record, just between the two of us, I’m one of those people who has stayed in Japan for too long. What qualifies as too long differs for everybody, but for me it’s been 5 years. In retrospect I think signing on for this last year was a mistake, and my motivation for this job has really just tapered off. I’ve spent most of this past year trying to get by with as little effort as possible.

I show up on time, I’m pretty easy going, I don’t complain when asked to do something, and I smile a lot when talking to students or Japanese Teachers of English (JTE’s). And all of that counts for a lot in Japan, and so it’s been pretty smooth sailing. But I don’t volunteer for much, I don’t help out with the lesson planning unless I’m specifically asked to, and I don’t stay longer than my required hours unless I’m asked to.

This is probably good news for you, in that the expectations should be pretty low, and it will be easy to please. If you want to be lazy, the groundwork has already been laid. If you want to go the extra mile, they will absolutely love you and think you are “Super ALT”. The only problem I can possibly see is that some JTE’s are a little protective of their lessons, and they are used to me not interfering, but if you want to get more involved just try things out and test the waters as you go.

Japanese level wise, I passed the 3rd level on the proficiency test a couple years ago. I’d like to think that I could get the 2nd with a few months of hard study, but since I’m on my way out of Japan I’ve lost motivation. I talk to pretty much all of the staff in Japanese, and sometimes even the JTEs. (English level is low, so some of the JTEs are more comfortable using Japanese).

Lesson Planning and Teaching
Communication has been somewhat of a headache for me because of two separate teachers’ rooms. If a teacher’s desk is in the same room as me, it’s easy to catch them between classes. But if they are in the other room, it can be a pain to find them when they are free.

Ideally I like to go over all the lesson plans a day in advance. This can be a bit of a headache since it is hard to catch the teachers in the opposite teachers’ room. And usually the only free time they have to talk is after school, when I’m getting ready to leave anyway. So, since lately all they’ve had me do is be the human tape recorder anyway, I’ve been a bit lax on communication, and will often only talk with a teacher 5 minutes before the class begins. I don’t recommend this; I’m just being honest. Ideally you want to plan things out at least a day ahead of time.

The first year I was here I was more involved in lesson planning than I am now. But coordinating stuff with the JTE can sometimes be a huge headache. Because of their limited English, many of them don’t want to do any pre-discussion. Instead they’ll tell me to present them with an idea in writing, and then they’ll think about it. So I’ll spend time preparing it, and invariably they’ll never like it. If it’s a speaking activity, they complain that there is no writing component. If it’s a writing activity, they’ll complain that there’s no speaking component. If the activity incorporates both, they’ll say it takes too much time or it is too complicated for the students. So, after spending all day sitting at my desk doing nothing, I have to stay late after school to negotiate and re-work the activity with them. Really they’re never happy with anything unless it’s something they thought of themselves. Much of the time is spent trying to read the mind of the JTE, since they never tell you clearly what they want.
And then, often after all that time preparing an activity, it will get cut because some student didn’t stand up right for the morning greeting, and the JTE will spend15 minutes lecturing the student. Or something stupid like that.

I’m being slightly unfair because the teachers I’m thinking about who gave me so much of a headache my first year were all transferred out by my second year, so you won’t have to deal with them. Nevertheless, when the JTEs stopped asking for activities during the second year, I was happy to stop suggesting them. Ever since then I’ve been nothing but a human tape recorder, but I was happy to be lazy, and they seemed happy to have me be lazy, and so it was a nice fit. I enjoyed the free time at my desk to get reading or studying done. Maybe you’ll have more luck at team teaching than I have.

Selective English
The one exception to this is the “Elective English Classes”, which have more or less been left up solely to me.

These classes are a bit dangerous, because you might be thinking to yourself, “Elective English classes? Classes were the students actually elect to study English? Great!”

In reality, these classes are students who needed something to fill up their elective hour, and thought English might be easier than math. They don’t want to study, and they know they don’t get graded on the Elective course, so you don’t have a lot of ways to make them study. The only way you can succeed in this class is to create an activity so exciting that they’ll actually want to do it instead of talk with their friends.

But this is easier said than done. And especially to perform this miracle on a weekly basis. So here is some back up advice: Listening activities usually aren’t a good idea, because if the kids don’t want to listen you can’t make them, and it’s a long 50 minutes if you have to yell over them the whole time. Games they can play by themselves in groups are a better idea. They still might not do it, but at least it’s less stress on your voice. Also it’s a good idea to have some sort of solitary writing activity as a back up in case things get out of hand. I always try and bring some sort of work sheet with me just in case the class can’t handle the game. Most of these elective classes are titled something like, “Conversational English”, but don’t be afraid to use written English as a back up if you need to.

The past year I’ve been doing a pen-pal exchange with a class in Israel, which I inherited from the previous ALT. It works good in either the 8th or 9th grade elective English classes, and the kids have reacted very well to that. I’ll forward you the necessary contact information if you’re interested in continuing that.

Also be aware that many of the JTEs practice the “sink or swim” approach when team teaching with the ALT. If the class gets out of your control, they’ll do very little to help.

Kihon Classes
Kihon is another area where the lesson planning is left up more or less to the ALT. Kihon is the word for the mentally handicapped/special needs kids.

This is a very small class, but the ability level between students can differ widely. My advice is to aim for the bottom level, and generally figure no activity is too easy for this class. I usually use lessons from the Altia Elementary school curriculum.

The kids like games they are familiar with, so I usually use the same 3 or 4 games every class. Gradually throughout the year I add new games to this original 3 or 4, and slowly increase the number of games I cycle through. Many of the games take a long time to introduce, but once the kids are familiar with them you can do most of them in 10 or 15 minutes, so you can do several games in a lesson.

There are also what is known as “Sodan” classes. I’m not really sure what this means, and how it is different than Kihon. I think “Sodan” kids are more challenged from a social or emotionally perspective.
At any rate, it really doesn’t matter because I almost never go to these classes. They’re written on my schedule, but almost every week the Sodan teacher will tell me they don’t have time for English this week. I’ve stopped even asking now, and just assume the class is cancelled every week.

The JTEs
As you’re probably aware, many Japanese schools will have various research programs or pilot programs. Godo town is currently doing a research program on the English curriculum. Apparently the point of the program is to try and coordinate English education between the Junior high and Elementary schools, but I haven’t seen a lot of coordinating going on. The whole thing seems like a lot of pointless meetings and a waste of everyone’s time and energy to me, but that’s just me.

At various times throughout the year, there will be a lot of visiting teachers and education professionals who will come to the school to watch your English lesson. It’s always intimidating to be teaching in front of a crowd of people taking notes, but the good news is that they’re not there to evaluate you. They’re evaluating the JTE. You’re just an assistant, a tape-recorder, window decorations as far as they’re concerned. And so far they’ve never asked me to come to a post-lesson evaluation meeting yet.

Presumably because of this program, the English department is going to be the same next year as it is this year. Ordinarily everyone gets transferred around at the end of March, but in this case you’ll be teaching with the same JTEs I’ve been working with over the past year. So here’s a head’s up on them.

Mr. H: For my money, Mr. H is the coolest JTE you could possibly ask for. He’s young, and he’s a good person to have fun with outside of school. Like all Japanese teachers, he’s busy as hell most of the time, but if you can catch him on a free night he’s a great person to go bowling with, or drinking, or whatever. I really appreciated his friendliness the first few months I was here especially.

As far as in class: he’s a little bit too buddy-buddy with a lot of the kids, and it interferes with his classroom control, but he knows this and he’s working on it. My only complaint is that he has the bad habit of sometimes saying: “We have a class in five minutes. Do you have any activities we can do?” My advice is to keep an activity in your desk drawer all ready to go with the photocopies already made and the cards already cut out, etc, so if Mr. H springs this on you, you can just reach into your desk drawer and grab it.

Ms. O: She’s her early 30s, has a young kid at home, and has a way of seeming to be perpetually stressed out. Occasionally she dumps some of her marking and grading off on me, which is fair enough I guess considering how little work I do otherwise. If you want to make a good impression, volunteer ahead of time for this and she will absolutely love you. She might also be a good person to suggest activities to if you want to get more involved in lesson planning. She strikes me as someone who would love for you to take some of the stress off of her.

The kids have long ago learned that if they don’t want to do what she says, she doesn’t have a lot of ways of forcing them to. As a result, they usually walk all over her, and this can create some stressful classes. The only time I intervened was when a student was doing her physical violence.

Ms. I: A bit older than the rest, and fairly typical of JTE’s of her generation. I.e., nothing creative, by the book grammar lessons and reading practice, etc. Really a very kind person once you get to know her though. Often she’s the only one who takes the trouble to make sure I know what’s going on if the regular schedule gets re-arranged for one reason or another.

Mr. M: Ah, yes. Mr. M….
Mr. M has been at this school a long time, and has a long history of not getting along with the various ALTs he has worked with. It’s rumored that he’s not a big fan of the ALT program, and doesn’t particularly like foreigners in general.

You won’t be friends with Mr. M. You’ll probably notice that he’s one of the chattiest people in the teacher’s lounge, but he suddenly turns silent and gives short answers when you try and talk with him.

However you can have a working professional relationship with him (for the most part). He’ll stay out of your way if you stay out of his. During the mid-year evaluation with the company, he gave me a very generous appraisal, much better than I’m sure I actually deserved.

The first year I team taught with Mr. M, and that went largely without incident. He didn’t involve me in the lesson planning at all, but he would always tell me what we were doing before hand and go over the schedule with me if I asked.

The second year he designed the schedule, and all of his lessons suddenly had no ALT, with the exception of the Elective English class. In that class, he usually just sat in the back and didn’t interfere with what I was doing. Assuming this happens again, the classes you’ll teach with Mr. M will probably be limited.

The main concern is that Mr. M has an anger management problem. In my opinion he’s just over-stressed. Like all Japanese teachers, he’s worked too hard. Plus he’s taking graduate University classes on the weekends. He can often be seen in the hallways muttering in an angry way to himself. Often he explodes at the kids with little or not provocation. Occasionally he explodes at the ALT.

I had him explode at me once when he didn’t like the activity I was doing. And I mean full on explode; jumping out of his chair and yelling at me. Apparently he did the same thing two years ago when the previous ALT lost his place in the textbook. That ALT responded by threatening to throw Mr. M out the window. I just smiled and moved onto the next activity. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t throw my rhythm off a bit, but I did my best to just move on smoothly.

Since this only happened once in a year and a half, you may well make it through your contract without incident. If it does happen, however, you’re free to handle it however you like, but I tend to recommend my way over the previous ALT. Remember that if he explodes, he is the one who looks unprofessional, not you. If you handle it in a calm manner, you can keep your professionalism even if he doesn’t. Ultimately if he has a problem with ALTs, that’s his problem and you don’t need to take it personally and make it into your problem. (Also, give him detailed lesson plans before hand so that there are no surprises.)

One final thought on Mr. M:
I’ll say this in his favor, he is the only one of the bunch who has any classroom control. The kids do not fuck around in his class. The elective English class I taught with him was the only one where I didn’t have to shout over the kids the whole time. There was a tension in the room that I wish wasn’t there, but he had the kids under control.

Ms. M: Mainly she teaches Kihon. Occasionally they give her another English class to teach, but mainly she is just the Kihon teacher.
She’s one of those people who is very confidante and in control in her own classroom, but can be very shy in other situations. At first I interpreted this shyness as coldness, but if you initiate conversation you’ll find she’s actually very kind.

School lunch
I get my lunch in the stock room with all the other teachers. No one actively encourages me to eat with the students, but it’s always appreciated if I do. All of this is on the ALT’s own initiative however. No one will tell you where to eat lunch or with which class. The first year I made a chart of which classrooms I had visited for lunch and which ones I hadn’t and kept track of it that way. The second year I just went through the classrooms in order. If you’re feeling tired or don’t feel like dealing with the students, no one will say anything bad if you eat your lunch in the stock room with the rest of the teachers. Lately I’ve probably been doing this last option more than I should, but I’m a burnt out ALT. Don’t follow my example.

Cleaning Time
This can be difficult to figure out, and it always changes depending on which teachers are on rotation. Some teachers make a big deal about silent cleaning, and don’t want you around because you’ll excite the kids. Other teachers will encourage you to clean with the kids. Just feel it out. If you don’t feel welcome anywhere, you can always help clean up the teacher’s lounge. They usually need help with that.

Other stuff: Lunch break is very short, but if I’m not teaching anything 5th hour I usually go out and try and play with the kids. Also, usually the kids leave before me, so I try and go out and say good-bye to them as they leave.
After school Sports Clubs are another thing you can get involved in. Personally I didn’t do this too much. So, you could go either way. If you don’t care for it, just follow my example because they’re already used to the ALT not participating. If you want to get involved, I think they’ll love it.

Special Events: There are the usual sports Days and chorus festivals. You’ll probably familiar with this already in your previous ALT experiences.

This school has an exchange with a middle school in Salinas California. Every year they send a group of students to California for a couple weeks during summer vacation, and once every two years Salinas students come here at the end of March. The Salinas students were here last year, so they won’t be back until March 2007.

You won’t be invited on the Salinas exchange (which is good, because it is happening during your summer break), but you’ll probably be asked to help out with after school English lessons preparing the Japanese students to go. Usually this happens above and beyond your contracted hours, which is a bit of a pain, but I do so little work otherwise I felt I couldn’t complain.

When the Salinas students come to visit here, you’ll be asked to help out as well. My experience last year was that between the chaperones from Salinas and the Japanese staff here, they’ve got everything covered already, but they just want the ALT there just for the sake of having him there. Again, this is above and beyond contracted hours, but for the most part it’s a lot of fun and a good change of pace to host these American kids.

Elementary School: Because of the additional ALT in Godo, it sounds like things are going to be shuffled around a bit, and you might not be teaching at the same Elementary school that I did. So I’ll hold off for now on writing about it. Let me know when you get you’re elementary assignment. Depending on which elementary school they give you, you might need to ask John (the other Godo ALT) instead of me. But regardless, the elementary school should be a day and a half out of the week. The rest of the time is Junior High school. Elementary school is usually a bit more work, but I think you’ll find it’s a nice change of pace.

Link of the Day
FBI names Austin Indymedia, Food Not Bombs and “Anarchists” to Domestic Terrorist Watch List

Saturday, March 18, 2006

I Cross The Line Again

A few months ago I posted: “I Get In Trouble For Talking About Samson Too Much During Cleaning Time.” A couple of you e-mailed to say you liked the story and thought it was pretty cute.

This story is kind of similar, but you might not find it so cute.

Anyone, or any foreigner at least, who has taught at a Japanese high school or junior high school can vouch that there are two popular ways that the boys like to interact with the local foreigner.

One is to teach the foreigner all sorts of dirty Japanese words, and try and get the foreigner to repeat them.

The other way is to use their limited English to ask the foreigner embarrassing questions.

Based on the experiences of the other Assistant English Teachers that I’ve talked to, this seems to be something that is true all over Japan in every junior high and high school. It is something that the female foreigners have to deal with just as much as the male foreigners (in fact often it’s worse for the female foreigners). The Japanese teachers are notorious for turning a blind eye to it. (No doubt partly due to the fact that Japanese people aren’t as shy about sex as we in the West are, but it still seems unprofessional to me).

For my part, questions about the size of my penis are pretty frequent, as well as some sort of variation on “Did you play sex last night?”

There are various ways to deal with this, and over the 5 years I’ve been in Japan I’ve pretty much tried all of them. One is just to pretend you didn’t understand, and send the student running back to his dictionary to make sure he got all the words right. This is only a temporary solution for the more persistent students, who will try and rephrase themselves until they get an answer.

Another tactic is to just give a straight foreword honest answer. “Last night? No, I can honestly say I didn’t have sex last night.” Again, this is usually temporary, because invariably follow up questions will ensue. “This month? This past year?”

One response is just to refuse to answer, or claim it as personal. But then the students really have one over you because they know they’ve made you feel uncomfortable.

Recently I’ve taken to responding, “Yes I did. With your mother.”

Now of course this is the oldest joke in the world, but it seems to have a bit of renewed currency in Japan. Also there is a delay due to the language barrier that makes it even funnier.

The students usually don’t understand at first, and simply repeat it to themselves as they huddle into a group trying to figure it out. “Wissu youa moda? Wissu youa moda?” And then finally some kid near the back will yell out, “Omae no Okasan no koto” (He’s talking about your mother). And then will come the sound of them chuckling in a “I can’t believe the teacher just said that. He really showed us” kind of way.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “That is absolutely appalling. I can’t believe you say that. That is so unprofessional.”
And you’re right. I probably shouldn’t be saying that and I guess it is pretty unprofessional. But the way I look at it, what’s really unprofessional is for the Japanese teachers to let the kids get away with harassing the foreigner like that in the first place. And it’s the only way I can stay one up on the kids.

Anyway, the other day, I was in class, and the students were supposed to be taking notes and I was going around answering questions, and one boy asked me, Did you play sex last night,” and I answered him as usual, and then as I walked away I could hear the students going into the usual huddle to figure out what I meant, and eventually heard the usual laughter.

The problem is that for 9 out of 10 kids that response shuts them right up, but there’s always that 10th kid who gets real excited and wants to continue the repartee. Even when the Japanese teacher was trying to lecture, he was laughing and shouting out, “Really? Really? Should I call you father then?” I tried to discreetly indicate to him to be quiet and listen to the lecture.

After class he came up to me and tried to continue the conversation. He even tried to get the Japanese teacher to translate for him. “Joel Sensei said he has sex with my mother.”

“I’m sure Joel Sensei didn’t say that,” she answered.

“Yes he did.”

“No he didn’t. You must have heard him wrong.”

At which point he just stood there with a puzzled look on his face. I tried to look around the room innocently. Then, after the Japanese teacher left, I pointed at his chest and said, “Gotcha!” and then walked out of the classroom.

Link of the Day
The news on Monday that an Austrian court has sentenced crackpot British historian David Irving to three years' imprisonment for having denied the Holocaust seventeen years ago should have alarmed free speech advocates -- particularly at a time when Muslim fundamentalists are being lectured as to the freedom of expression that should be afforded cartoonists. In the event, however, a lack of noticeable outcry has exposed a longstanding double standard in the West about who is entitled to free speech and why.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Lake Biwa Pictures

Old Pictures. These are pictures from the Lake Biwa trip, both the first trip and the second one.

Link of the Day
A person idly watching Fox News all day, for example, has an excellent chance of glancing at the screen and seeing some partial nudity or a male Fox News personality hitting on a female colleague on the air. Scantily clad women and on-air sexual harassment are the orders of the day over at Fox News Channel.

The Iron Heel by Jack London

(Book Review)
Did you ever have a book was on your list of books you wanted to get around to reading eventually, but you kept putting it off? And then, when you finally get around to reading it, you discover that it is a real pleasure to read, and you wonder why you never read it years ago?

For me, last year that book was “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, which I had been putting off for a long time, and then discovered that it was one of the most interesting and well-written books I’ve ever read.

This month, I’ve just finished “The Iron Heel”, which I had also been delaying and delaying, and now I discover it’s actually a really good read.

I’ve wanted to get around to reading “The Iron Heel” for years now, because its dystopian view of the future is rumored to have influenced George Orwell’s “1984”, and because the fictional Chicago Commune in “The Iron Heel” is modeled on the historical Paris Commune.

God knows why I put it off for so long. I guess I just assumed because it was one of London’s more political novels, and one of his lesser known novels, that it would be packed with thick prose and hard to get through.

It’s actually a really easy read. It’s no great work of literature (I’ll come to its thematic flaws presently) but it is really easy to get through. Since in my youth I was a big fan of Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”, I guess I should have expected that this book as well would be clear and easy prose.

The first half of the book is essentially a socialist manifesto masquerading as a novel. The main character Ernest Everhard debates the question of socialism against his various critics, and always emerges from the debate victoriously. Part of the reason Everhard always trounces his critics is because London is putting a lot of strawmen arguments into the mouths of the priests, capitalists, and small bourgeois. This is coupled with repeated descriptions of how handsome and appealing Everhard is. All of this almost varies on self-parody. I almost expected one of the priests to say something like, “Blast these Socialists! Their intellectual cunning is matched only by their stunning good looks.”

And yet at the same time, it’s highly readable. Some of Marx’s economic theories are explained in very simple English, such as why capitalism is doomed to destruction because of over-production. If “Das-Kapital” ever left you with your head spinning, you might try this book instead.

The second half of the book contains a dark vision of a possible future that London foresaw from 1908. According to London, things get worse before they get better. To forestall the Socialist Revolution, the capitalists band together and form an Oligarchic government called “The Iron Heel”. The socialist rebellion in the Chicago Commune is brutally put down brutally put down, and the book ends on a depressing note, however the reader is left with the knowledge that the socialist revolution does eventually take place. The entire book is written as a dairy by Everhard’s wife, and is annotated by a historian 7 centuries in the future, after the socialist revolution eventually took place. The fictional historian will often write comments such as, “This appears to be a reference to something called ‘stealing’, which was rampant in the days when people still had public property”. (I’m paraphrasing slightly, but not by much.)

Some of what London predicts at times seems a little bit extreme, but he uses the footnotes to constantly compare things in his imaginary future with what was happening in his own time. In this way he keeps at least one foot in reality. For example, he compares his fictional Chicago Commune with the actual Haymarket Massacre.

From the standpoint of 2006, it is interesting to see what London got right and what he got wrong. He was quite prescient in forecasting the rise of fascism and the idea that, contrary to what many socialists at the time thought, things might get worse before they got better.
(Incidentally Marx also predicted fascism. Marx wrote that in the last stages before the revolution, the bourgeois would form an alliance with the lumpen proletariat to forestall the rise of the working class.)

Also like Marx, London predicted World War I. Although apparently this wasn’t that hard to do. According to a recent book I read, anyone who was at all aware of world events at the time realized Europe was essentially a powder keg awaiting a match.

London thought that international solidarity among the socialists would be able to prevent World War I, and he was obviously wrong about this, although it was a common sentiment of the time. No one expected the socialists to side with their respective countries and abandon internationalism, as unfortunately most of them did in 1914. As Emma Goldman mentions in her biography, even some anarchists like Peter Kropotkin were caught up in the drumbeat and supported the war.

London predicted the great depression caused by the overproduction of capitalism, the anti-colonial movements, and even the rise of fascism in Japan, and the fact that Japan would try and further its own Imperial ambitions under the guise of pan-Asianism.

Finally, London realized that the labor movement in the United States could be defeated if certain unions were co-opted by the bourgeois and given a stake in the capitalist system. The remaining proletariat would not be able to organize rebellion if its leaders were constantly co-opted.

Link of the Day
Anarchy And The FBI

Video Version

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Bowling Pictures

More old pics. I think I've mentioned bowling a few times before on this blog. This is from no night in particular, just an average bowling night.

Link of the Day
Two highly classified intelligence reports delivered directly to President Bush before the Iraq war cast doubt on key public assertions made by the president, Vice President Cheney, and other administration officials as justifications for invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein, according to records and knowledgeable sources
(Complete article here)

Monday, March 13, 2006

International Day

The elementary school that I teach at held an international Day last week.

This obviously isn’t the kind of thing you would have back home. We Americans are kind of international in our everyday life. You may not think you are, but just think of all the different kinds of people you interact with on a regular basis. Whether born in the US or not, the people you know can trace their ancestry to all different parts of the world.

Japan is different. It’s an island country with a history of being closed off from its neighbors. Many of them still regard foreigners as strange exotic creatures.

They are making efforts though. My job is part of that. Now many Japanese schools have a token foreign Assistant English Teacher.

Another thing a lot of schools will do to encourage internationalism is have an “International Day”, in which different foreigners are invited to come and interact with the students.

The International Day was planned out by my school, and I had very little to do with it. They wanted me to recruit as many foreigners as possible, but that was hard to do because most of my friends had teaching commitments at their own schools during the weekdays. It is possible to get around some of this with a few phone calls and a few forms signed, but we Assistant English Teachers tend to be a lazy bunch. Most of my friends didn’t feel like it was worth the trouble, and to be honest I would have done the same thing had the roles been reversed.

In the end I was only able to recruit one friend: another American named Mary. My school had to find the rest of the foreigners themselves.

The school did most of the contact work. I was only responsible for giving directions to Mary. And I really dropped the ball on that. “I still know nothing about what’s going on,” Mary complained to me the week before.
“I’ll get the information to you soon,” I promised.
Later in the week, I got an e-mail from Mary saying, “There is a fine line between being lazy and being inconsiderate, and you’re ass is walking the line buster.”
I met her that weekend, and promised to get the information to her soon. Monday night I got another e-mail saying, “I still have no idea what is going on tomorrow.” And a few hours later she e-mailed me to say, “I h8 u”. Eventually I e-mailed her directions.

“I know you’re not being malicious,” she told me later, “You’re just the laziest person I know. I can totally picture you in your apartment thinking, ‘Yeah, I should probably e-mail Mary soon. Ah, I’ll just do it later.’”

But I wasn’t the only one being lazy. 16 eighth grade students from the Junior high school were recruited to help with the festivities. A couple of them were volunteered to act as MC.
You’ll note my use of the passive tense in the above sentence. They really didn’t want to do it. The Japanese teacher wanted me to help them practice their English sentences, but they were so eager to get out of school that they complained the whole time and eventually the Japanese teacher gave in and let them go early.

That night I said to a friend, “I can understand that they don’t want to do it, because I wouldn’t want to do it if I was in Junior high school either. But once they get dragged into it, you would think they would at least want help learning the English sentences, because they’re going to have to speak in front of a lot of people. They’re going to have to get up in front of the whole school tomorrow, and they’re really going to suck.” After I thought about it a bit, I added, “Actually I’m kind of looking forward to it. It should be kind of funny.”

“Just make sure you don’t boo them yourself,” my friend said. “Throwing rotten vegetables at them would definitely be taking things a step too far.”

Everyone assembled at the school at 1 O’clock. The other AET from the town was of course asked to come. And our company promised to send a couple people out from the office. An agreement was made with the neighboring town to borrow their AET for the day. Finally 3 Chinese students, and one Sri Lankan family were recruited from the local university.

A while back, I wrote that at my Potluck dinner it was very awkward because no one knew each other, and I had to play host to everyone. That plus the language barrier.

This was ten times worse. Since it was my school, I was half host and half guest at the same time. I had to try and balance myself between friends I knew well, and people I didn’t even know at all, and the local Japanese staff. Plus, two of my supervisors came from the company officers. They’re both really cool people, but at the end of the day they are still supervisors, and I can’t shake the feeling that everything I do is being subtly evaluated.

At 1:30, we were all led into the gymnasium to the applause of the children, and the music of “It’s a Small World After All.” We were each asked to introduce ourselves and say hello in our own language.

This was pretty silly because over half of us were English speakers, and so we all had 7 people right in a row saying, “In my country we say ‘Hello’.”

Also, I was asked to introduce myself to my own students, despite the fact that I had been teaching them for the past year, because the school thought it would be strange to just skip over me. I thought that was a little funny as well.

After that we all split up and went to different classrooms. I and a Canadian girl went to the second grade class room for an “Arm Wrestling Tournament.”

The second grad students are always high energy, but they were just off the walls that day. The excitement of seeing so many foreigners had really riled them up.

The students got into little sub groups for the arm wrestling tournament. The winner would get to arm wrestle either me or the Canadian girl. The runner up could go against one of the Junior high school students.

I was debating whether or not to let a few of the kids beat me just to be sporting about it. But when I realized that both the Junior high school students and the Canadian girl occasionally would lose to one of the second grade students, I decided to just play up my role as “The American behemoth” and I just won all my matches. I did do my best to win nicely and gently though.

The kids were so excited about the arm wrestling that during the match they would all gather around and scream, many of them right in my ear. And I mean right in my frickin’ ear, bub. When I was on my knees, my ear was right at the level of some of their mouths. Working in the elementary school is hazardous to your hearing.

After that we reassembled in the gym for closing ceremonies. Thank you speech from the principal, thank you speech from the students, speech from the foreigners, etc. Japanese people love ceremonies and they love speeches. You can’t do anything in Japan with out a lot of ceremonies and speeches.

At the end, we went back to the meeting room, and the principal gave everyone money to thank them for coming. (I didn’t get any extra money because it was my base school). I thought the differing reactions of people was pretty funny. The Chinese students took the money calmly. The Japanese women fell all over themselves bowing and thanking the principal. Then the Americans tried to make an effort of imitating the Japanese.

The Chinese students, for better or for worse, did not get a lot of attention from the kids. I guess as foreigners they just weren’t as interesting as the rest of us. I felt a little sorry for them, but I also envied them a little bit.

Link of the Day
In the Name of the War on Terror: Bolivian Human Rights Leader Barred from Entering the U.S.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

A few more pictures

Still working my way through the back log of old pictures. This one corresponds with a blog post from last June: Another Night Out.

Link of the Day
Citing new safety assurances, the Environmental Protection Agency has dropped objections to a plan to treat chemical weapon wastewater at a DuPont Co. plant and discharge it into the Delaware River. (Complete article Here)

Friday, March 10, 2006

Thoughts on Non-Violence

Recently Media Mouse published on their site a book review of “How Nonviolence Strengthens the State” by Peter Gelderloos (their review here).

In the book Gerlderloos argues that “nonviolence requires considerable privilege and that this privilege means that most advocates of pacifism are white…. pacifists encourage pacifism for oppressed people of color because pacifists realize that they benefit from the current system and therefore do not want to overthrow the existing system…pacifism fits into the state’s accommodation of dissent, [and] it’s proponents frequently impose their ideology on others [thus ultimately strengthening the state].

Ever since I read the review it has been sticking in the back of my mind, and I've finally written a few thoughts in response to it.

This post probably falls under the category of “Intellectual Masturbation”. Most people are already in my corner on this already, and Gelderloos is in the minority. Furthermore I don’t think too many people read the Media Mouse book review sections, so writing long posts in response is certainly a waste of energy. I've not read Gelderloos’s actual book, only a review of it, so by all rights I’m not qualified to respond. Gelderloos’s book aside, there is over a century of literature on this topic, and I have not made a thorough study of that either. I probably have nothing new to add to the topic that hasn't already been said a hundred times.

And yet in spite of all those reasons, I couldn't hold myself back from writing this. I just kept thinking of all the things I wanted to say in response to the book review. I waited a couple days to see if the urge would blow over, and then just ended up writing this all one night when I couldn't sleep. I don’t know, something about the way I’m wired I guess. My compulsive blogging or the need to insert my two cents into absolutely everything.

All those disclaimers aside, if anyone wants to take the trouble to read this, I would appreciate any feedback or thoughts you might have. I've sent Media Mouse a copy of this as well, but I don't know what they'll do with it. (Update: they posted it here.)

Thoughts on Non-Violence

This is in response to the posted book review: “How Nonviolence Strengthens the State.”

Like the reviewer, I’m somewhat worried by the lack of concrete alternatives being discussed. If, as the reviewer feels, non-violence is defined too narrowly, than it would appear that Gelderloos is defining violence too broadly.

If we are to abandon the moral ground, and discuss violence purely in terms of its tactical merit, than we need to have an idea of what kind of violence is being discussed, and what are the concrete tactical benefits that we hope to achieve by it.

Does the violence Gelderloos advocate refer simply to an expanded definition of non-violence to include acts of vandalism? Does it refer to street fighting with police? Is it symbolic violence with the intent to educate (or “propaganda of the deed”)? Or is the intent to physically disable the state? Are the targets to be carefully chosen, or, as with the Madrid bombings that Gelderloos cites, acts of broad terrorism against civilian populations.

Or is Gelderloos under the impression that it is still 1848, and that with a few strategic barricades and a few days of street fighting the central government can be overthrown?

Allow me to suggest that the time of this revolution has already come and gone. Even if the United States possessed enough class solidarity for this kind of insurrection (which, I don’t need to point out, it doesn't) the force of the entire military industrial complex arrayed against the any possible proletarian insurrection would be overwhelming.

If the United States were to posses sufficient class consciousness for an organized proletarian revolt, the idea of a general strike would be a much more effective weapon. By simple non-participation the entire capitalist machine could be ground to a halt in a single day. The war in Iraq could be stopped tomorrow if there was enough class solidarity to pull off a general strike, without a single act of violence necessary.

Of course this is still a long way away in the United States, but there are plenty of other examples in 20th century history where a general strike was able to facilitate a revolution. Germany in 1919 and many of the former soviet bloc in 1989, to cite but two examples.

One might also look at France in May 1968 for a counter-example. Only when the workers joined the student strike did revolution seem imminent. When the French government was able to co-opt the workers, the remaining street fighting and student barricades did not prove a serious threat to the power of the state.
Until the United States possesses enough class solidarity to organize either a general strike or a general revolution, isolated acts of violence are either worthless or worse than worthless.

Ultimately one comes back to Lenin’s famous dictum: “A terrorist is a liberal with a bomb.” The liberal thinks he can influence bourgeois government by parliamentary pressure tactics or petitioning. The terrorist is of the same mindset, except the terrorist thinks he can substitute violence as the pressure tactic. Neither the terrorist nor the liberal will be able to influence the government in any more than superficial ways, and neither tactic seeks to take control of the state machinery.

Violent tactics must not be seen as a short cut to old-fashioned education and organization. “Propaganda by the deed” can only succeed among those who are sympathetic to the goals of the movement.

An excellent analysis of this can be read in Emma Goldman’s autobiography. In the autobiography Goldman recounts her and Alexander Berkman's attempted assassination of the capitalist Frick as an act of “propaganda by the deed”, as well as the assassination 8 years later of the President of the United States by a nominal anarchist.

The autobiography shows Goldman’s intellectual progression, and her eventual conclusion that these acts hurt the movement more than helped it. Although similar assassinations in Europe appeared to give strength to the anarchist movement, the United States was unique in that the illusion of freedom was so strong that symbolic assassinations failed to bring people to the anarchist cause. In fact, quite the opposite, the assassinations caused much harm to the anarchist movement in the United States, because the necessary work of education had not been done, and people could not understand the anarchist actions. The only concrete accomplishment of these assassinations was a series of repressive government laws against anarchists, with the full support of the general population. In other words, the state was strengthened, not weakened, by these tactics.

A century later, similar conclusions were reached by members of the Weather Underground. Mark Rudd now believes that their actions actually hurt the cause they were fighting for. He claims that the majority of American people have had it ingrained into them that the only legitimate use of violence is by the state, and that this indoctrination is so strong that the response to even acts of symbolic violence is revulsion.

The mistake of the Weather Underground was that they substituted revolutionary bravado for organizing. If one was not already against the Vietnam War, the acts of the Weather Underground did not serve to convince anyone. And as their actions largely did not rise above symbolic violence, one would be hard pressed to say that they inconvenienced the state in any meaningful way.

Even Bill Ayers, who represents the unrepentant wing of the former Weather Underground, writes in his autobiography about participating in a meeting between anti-war activists and Vietcong representatives. The Vietcong were much more interested in how the students were planning to convert their republican parents than about the students’ commitment to die for the cause. Ayers regrets he did not pay more attention to it at the time.

If an equivalent of the Madrid bombing had occurred in the United States, it would not have had the same effect as it did in Spain. Rather it would have been a gift to the pro-war and pro state forces, just as the first terrorist attack was used to justify two wars and new repressive measures by the state. In this respect I think it can be argued that it is in fact violence, not nonviolence, which strengthens the State.

Of course a case can be made for strategic vandalism. And this would fall within the definitions of expanded non-violence. Pete Seeger has a famous story he often tells. During the 1960s he visited a college campus which the students had taken over until the administrators agreed to negotiate wages in good faith with the black janitorial staff. Many of the students had lost their scholarships in this actions, so Seeger inquired why he hadn't heard about this protest before. The students responded that they had informed the local media, but the media neglected to run any stories on it. Instead the media had said, “give us a call if there’s any violence, and we’ll send someone out.” Seeger said that from that day on he always carries a rock in his pocket, in case a window needs to be broken to get media attention.

While I would agree that the violence in Seattle contributed to the media coverage, and helped to bring the anti-globalization movement to the forefront of the mainstream political dialogue, I would ask which violence was responsible. As in Chicago in 1968, Seattle in 1999 was overwhelmingly police violence. The participation of the activists in this violence was largely just to get their heads cracked.

In this respect, the anarchists of Seattle may find themselves closer to King’s philosophy than they realize. King’s philosophy of non-violence was always based on the violent reaction of the police. This is a detail that has frequently been overlooked, but a close reading of civil rights movement in the 1960s reveals that even the non-violent demonstrations were deliberately designed to provoke violent reactions of the police, which was then captured by the media and broadcast to the nation. King himself was frequently criticized by moderate clergy who, rightly, realized that his philosophy of non-violent confrontation was in fact based on violence. This was why King’s demonstrations were a tactical success in the South, but was a failure in Chicago when Mayor Dailey went out of his way to be accommodating to King.

The strength of King’s movement was that it was disciplined. The evening news showed the demonstrators as only the recipients of police violence, and produced overwhelming sympathy for the civil rights cause.
In Seattle, and subsequent anti-globalization protests, this formula has been turned on its head. The Police inflict violence on demonstrators, the media captures this but then blames the violence on the demonstrators themselves, and where ever possible footage shows footage of anarchists violently resisting police. Even if one is aware, as the resulting news reports made clear, that the violence was overwhelmingly from the police, the sympathy for the demonstrators is not as strong if a fraction of them can be shown to have participated in the violence themselves.

So, if non-violent confrontation is more effective as an educational tool, the question then becomes, what is the purpose of the violent action? I think one would be hard pressed to make the case that the capitalist state was hurt, or even seriously inconvenienced by the petty vandalism and sporadic street fighting. The recipients of this violence were not the capitalists who had perpetrated the atrocities of the WTO, but rather the police, who are simply another side of the proletariat. Even assuming one accepts the police as legitimate targets, anyone who was been to a protest and seen the police in full riot gear can attest to the fact that when confrontation between activists occurs, the result is always one-sided. There are never a lot of police in the hospital after a protest.

Ultimately I am not against a “diversity of tactics” per se, but the non-violent form of protest needs to be respected. A demonstration cannot be both violent and non-violent at the same time. I have personally seen in Windsor, Quebec, Washington DC, and Philadelphia violent activists using non-violent activists as a shield. In Quebec for example I was participating in a non-violent sit in, when black bloc activists threw Molotov cocktails at the police from behind the rows of sitting peaceful demonstrators, and then ran away, leaving the non-violent activists to deal with the resulting police tear gas and pepper spray (which the media then blamed the activists for).

If one is truly talking about a diversity of tactics, than non-violent tactics need to be preserved as well. Those wishing to participate in other forms of protest should stay far away from activists engaged in non-violent civil disobedience. They should choose a different date or a different location for violent activities. If they cannot do this, talk of “a diversity of tactics” is hollow. It is also undemocratic.

(Another Update: Apparently I'm not the only one who reacted to this review. Here are more thoughts in reaction to the Media Mouse Review from another blogger. )

Link of the Day
In writing this, I was somewhat reminded of Chomsky's 1971 critique of the Student movement, which, ironically was titled "In Defense of the Student Movement". It's not the same thing, and yet I think some of the issues overlap. Here's an excerpt:

"Scientists can organize to refuse cooperation with such projects, and they can also try to organize and to take part in the mass politics that provides the only hope in the long run for countering and ultimately dispelling the nightmare that they are creating. I think that if an organization of scientists to refuse military work develops on any significant scale, then precisely because of the role that this work plays in maintaining the so-called "health" of the society, they may find themselves involved in very serious political action. I wouldn't be surprised if they find themselves involved in what is called an "illegal conspiracy," in a kind of resistance. In general, I think one can expect that effective politics – by that I mean politics that really strikes at entrenched interests, that really tries to bring about significant social change – is very likely to lead to repression, hence to confrontation.

There is a corollary to this Observation: The search for confrontation clearly indicates intellectual bankruptcy. It indicates that one has not developed an effective politics that by virtue of the way it relates to the social realities, calls forth an attempt to defend established interests and perhaps attempts at repression. One who takes his rhetoric at all seriously will work towards serious reforms, perhaps even reforms that have ultimately revolutionary content, and will try to delay confrontations as long as possible, at least until he has some chance of succeeding."

But that excerpt doesn't do it justice. Read the whole thing here.

Related video on Emma Goldman