Thursday, 7 February 2008

February Update

Spring is just around the corner and life is as busy as ever! In Japan, the end of the school year comes in March, rather than June, so this is one of the busiest times of the year for teachers and students as they draw this school year to an end and prepare for new students.

I already have big ambitions for this new school year ahead; especially as I am now familiar with everyone and with the system; and am slightly more confident in my language skills (I have also gotten really good at gesturing!)

The 3rd year students (Grade 9) are rearing to enter high school and leave their young frivolous Junior High days behind. Entering high school is a big deal here, maybe even more than back home. The students practice testing for months in order to complete “high school entrance exams.” Those who fail have the privilege of studying for months and months again in order to re-test. Each school, too, has its own form of examination, especially with regards to English. Students vying for one of the better English programs in the city have to work twice as hard.

Last week was the dreaded day. I have never seen students so wrought in all my life! I had an interesting experience though, last week, in attending the kids to the shrine where they prayed to the exam god for success.

“Is there an exam god?” I asked a teacher, surprised despite myself.
“Oh yes,” she answered. “There is a god for everything. The kitchen, the hallway; for spring and for summer; there is a god for testing and there are gods for babies. There are over 8 million Shinto gods. Because they are in everything we see, and in everything we do.”

The Shinto religion is the most prevalent in my region. There are festivals throughout the year celebrating harvest and planting, spring and fall, Coming-of-Age Day and Respect-for-the-aged Day. Unlike Christians who attend a regular service, however, it is more of a casual affair (or a really big Celebratory affair!), which is why I was so surprised when I joined my students at the shrine.

It was the first formal Shinto “service” I have been to. I watched somewhat shyly as they entered the grounds of the shrine, washed their hands (first the left and then the right) and then took a drink of purification (from their hand, which is important, because so many foreigners are unsure as to whether they should drink from the cup or not) and put salt on their tongue (also a step I have never observed before). They bowed once, hands together, and then found their seat for the conclave (boys on one side, girls on the other- which I am not sure is a regular assembly, or simply my school’s archaic notion of sexual segregation).

The ceremony was not long but it was really interesting to watch, despite my not understanding most of what was said (chanted rather). The students presented mocha (a heavy pounded rice bread) and sake and these were “mediated” over. After naming each of the students and asking for a “blessing” on their exams they were each tapped a string of bells and the ceremony was concluded.

It was quite a somber affair upon arrival, but as we left my students were back to their jovial selves, showing me things around the shrine and teaching me the names of everything.

It was one of the most profound experiences I have had here in Japan. It made me realize, more than anything, what a privilege it is to be involved in the school system, which is the epitome of opportunities for cultural experiences. After all, most of these kids are learning right alongside me!

It is in the midst of all this cultural immersion that I have been asked to stay on another year. It was a really difficult decision this year round. My feelings were that although I wanted to stay I have things to get started/finish back home. After weeks of restless nights and heaps of consultations from friends and family though I have decided to accept the contract for another year!

YEAH!! (this is where you are excited!!!)

I am looking forward to these next 18 months ahead. I feel as though this past year and a half have laid the groundwork for this next year, and know that I will be able to really enjoy the relationships and the experiences I have only just begun.

… Japan had a distinct way of getting hold of you and not letting go. It is a place that is easy to fall in love with, and because the Japanese are so friendly and welcoming, it makes it all the easier.

On hearing my news yesterday, my friend Jonathan said “you know, the longer you stay here, the harder it is to leave.” Which is ironic considering that Japan considers itself to be an “enclosed” society that does not easily accept foreigners (geijin).

I will return!!

I am actually really excited to use this time ahead to prepare for the rest of my Uni education for when I come back. After teaching in the elementary school and Junior High’s here in Japan, I am really set on working towards a Senior high/ Junior high Education degree in English with a concentration in Social Studies. (more cheering!!)

I will be returning to Victoria for three weeks in April/May for two weddings (Joel’s and Kristy’s… not to each other!), and hope to have the chance to catch up with everyone while I am there! I will send an email with dates as soon as possible.

So! Life is busy and exciting and looking to be a great year ahead!!

I will be attending the Akiba festival this weekend, and the following marks the beginning of rehearsals for the Japanese Musical, so more busy times ahead!! I will write again soon and try to keep my blog updates (sorry I have been so negligent!!!)

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