I love Weird Al so much.
Two weeks ago I finally passed my driver’s exam. I began the process at the start of May and it took me until nearly the end of June to finish it.
Once my BOE hired a translator, we (myself, my translator, and my supervisor) went to the DMV. They refused to help me because I didn’t have an appointment. They weren’t at all busy, they could have helped me. But without an appointment, they refused to help me.
My supervisor asked me why I didn’t schedule an appointment.
Me: I wasn’t told I needed one.
I pulled out the sheet of paper with everything that I need for the DMV, nowhere does it say to make an appointment or even give a number to schedule one. Plus, I had been there the week before… they should have mentioned it when they told me to come back.
That caught my supervisor’s attention.
Supervisor: Why didn’t you tell him to schedule an appointment last week when he was here?
DMV: Everyone knows that they need an appointment.
Supervisor: Except for maybe the foreigner who has a hard time with the language? He was standing right here. You could have scheduled it for him then.
DMV: He didn’t ask.
So we scheduled an appointment and came back the following week. I took the written exam and missed three questions – good enough to pass.
Me: Sir, can you tell me which questions I got wrong?
Me: Why not?
DMV: It’s against policy.
Me: But, I’d like to know which ones I got wrong and know the right response.
DMV: Look it up in the driver’s manual.
Me: I can’t do that. If I don’t know which questions I got wrong, I can’t research them in the manual.
DMV: Just research all the questions from the exam.
Me: But… but… I didn’t memorize the questions…
DMV: : shrug of shoulders :
Me: Don’t you want me to be a good driver? Don’t you think it would make me a better driver to know which questions I got wrong so I can research the right answers?
DMV: It’s against policy.
Me: It’s against policy for the DMV to make prospective drivers safer for the road?? Clearly this whole process is not about safe driving but about ceremony. How nice of you to put procedure ahead of safety and efficiency.
At this point my translator grabbed me and gently pulled me away from the counter.
Translator: Daniel-kun, you have to think like the Japanese.
Me: And value ceremony over practicality – especially when it comes to something as significant as driving a car on the road??
I nearly corrected him on his calling me Daniel-kun. It’s Daniel-sensei. I didn’t go through grad school so someone call address me like a child. But I let it rest. It’s pointless. And apparently he picked up on it anyway because the rest of the time he worked with me, he called me Daniel-sensei.
But the insanity really hit the roof when they examined my passport. They went through and marked all my entrance and exit visas. As the employee did this, he noticed I often had entrance stamps to some countries but no exit stamps. Or no reentrance stamps to the U.S. I even had an instance of an exit stamp but no entrance.
He drilled me for nearly half an hour about this, wanting to know why I didn’t have these stamps.
Me: They refused. I asked them to stamp they said it wasn’t important.
DMV: You should have made them.
Me: How, exactly?
DMV: You tell them to stamp it. It’s their job. See, here you went to France, but there’s no exit stamp. How do I know you left France?
My supervisor nearly lost it. Japanese people don’t often get angry, but the sheer stupidity of that question truly revealed what a joke this whole thing.
Supervisor: He’s here, in front of you. Clearly he left France.
DMV: Yes, I suppose.
Then he saw my visa for Turkey – and that resulted in nearly 30 minutes of questioning about why I went there, where I visited, what I did, etc.
Me: You realize Turkey is NOT a Muslim nation, right? It’s a secular government with a majority Muslim population. It is not known for harboring terrorists and it has some of the most impressive Christian churches in the world.
DMV: So tell me again why you went sight-seeing in a Middle Eastern country.
Me: It’s NOT the Middle East! It’s part of Europe.
Finally they determined that I am not a potential terrorist and they scheduled me for the practical (behind the wheel) exam.
I took the practical 5 times.
First time, I stopped just barely over the stop line at the red light. In fact, the examiner had to get out and look to see if I had stopped over it or not. I was about an inch over. Automatic failure.
Second time the examiner told me that my turns need to be sharper.
Me: What? Sharp turns are dangerous. You make wide turns to decrease the chance of losing control of the car from turning too tightly.
DMV: In Japan, make sharper turns.
Me: But… but… physics.
Third time, I slowed down too much when coming to a blind intersection. Also, I drove the wrong way down part of the course. Allow me to explain, the course is sort of direction neutral in parts and depending on which set of directions I have for the day, I can drive in either direction on parts of the course. So I wasn’t just barreling down the course like a drunkard.
However, I wasn’t marked down for it. Just for the blind intersection.
DMV: You slowed down too much at the blind intersection.
Me: I can’t believe you think that’s bad. In the U.S. you STOP at a blind intersection and proceed forward slowly until you are sure it’s safe to proceed.
DMV: No, it is dangerous to go too slow on the road.
Me: And cross traffic just passes through me like a ghost then? Anyway, I went the wrong way down the course. So that was likely an automatic failure.
DMV: No. That was fine.
Me: I. Drove. The. Wrong. Way. Down. The. Course. That should fail me.
DMV: Happens all the time. It’s not a failure.
Fourth time I went in, the examiner told me, essentially, “Do this and this and this and you’ll pass today.” Implication, “This really is a sham, just do these three things correctly and we’ll pass you. We’ve collected enough money from you in fees.”
I drove the course perfectly – except that at the very end I ran the flashing red light. As I approached it, I began to slow. I saw it flash off, and thinking it was turning green (thus, forgetting it’s a flashing red / not a normal traffic light) I sped through.
Fifth time I passed. He barely even paid attention while I drove. Just made sure I didn’t break any major rules of the road.
Again, this whole this is not at all concerned with road safety. It’s a farce.
And the icing on the cake was the post exam video about not driving drunk, driving slowly during bad weather, etc.
But it was narrated by… I swear to heaven I am not making this up… a French mime.
Speaking of things French…
Many of my students want to go to France. The 6th year students recently wrote reports on where in the world they would like to visit. Nearly half wanted to travel to France – many of them listing the Mont Saint-Michel as a site they want to see. But they said it in a very stilted Japanese style:
Monto Sainto Michyuru.
So I taught them how to say it in French:
Mon Say Mee Shell
As they returned to working on their speeches, they began talking amongst themselves. The JTE and I were discussing what to do next in class when we heard something unusual. A group of girls kept saying, “Monster Michelle.”
I looked at the JTE and he at me. Then a light bulb over his head:
“Ah, they are practicing saying Mont Saint-Michel. You should go over and coach them a little more in French.”
I start nearly every class with the five basic ALT questions:
- What day is it?
- What month is it?
- What is the date?
- What time is it?
- How’s the weather?
I sometimes add a question about the students’ weekend, favorite color, etc. if I want to change things up.
In my third year Junior High Class, I have a student who, for the past three weeks, has volunteered to answer only the “A.M. or P.M.?” portion of this opening exercise. It started by accident, as I called on him two days in a row. But he’s made a very strong effort to be THE student who answers what is possibly the easier part of these questions.
Today, when I began teaching his class, I didn’t take volunteers.
“What day is it?”
“What day is it, Ishii-kun?”
“Uhhh – Thursday.”
“Good. And the month?”
Hands went up around the room. I stared at Ishii-kun.
“Excellent. Next, the date?”
“Great. What time is it?”
The students are starting to giggle. Many see what is coming next.
“Good. Now, who can tell me… A.M. or P.M.?”
Hands go up around the room.
“Class, together please.”
Ishii-kun was laughing pretty hard.
He’s a good a student. We practiced Kendo together as well, but since I have dropped Kendo to study for a new degree, he and I don’t get to spend much time together and he has felt a little hurt that I left class.
After my lesson, he came up to me and put his arm around me and said something to me in Japanese.
“I don’t understand, I’m sorry. You need to practice English more so you can talk to me.”
He shook his head… “No, you need to study Japanese more so you can talk to all the students.”
I nodded in agreement. We fist-bumped, bowed slightly, and went about our day.
As a coda, I was having dinner with a friend of mine earlier this week and I was discussing how horribly my Japanese is coming. I’ve been here a year and it’s getting worse and worse. I told her that my lack of ability with the language is an insult to my host country. But it is nearly impossible for me to use Japanese daily due to the remoteness of my location.
I have got to find a remedy for this problem.
…but the Japanese have perfected it.
When I lived and worked in France, I never got my residence card. I was eligible for one, but the regional (?) office would never approve my application. I had the wrong forms. I came back with the correct forms, but I had black and white photos and was told I needed color photos. I came back with color photos and was told I needed black and white. I came back with both black and white and color photos and was told I only needed color and would have to come back another day when I *only* had color photos.
This week I have started the process for getting my Japanese Driver’s License. I have read horror stories of people taking the test upwards of four times before being approved. So I have been studying the handbook and practicing driving very carefully.
But sadly, the test doesn’t really cover how well you drive. It tests how well you know the ceremony of driving. It has little to do with “do you drive safely?” and focuses more on “have you assimilated the Japanese culture.” And since you have to pay somewhere around 5000 yen (it might be less, I need to double check) each time you take the test, I suspect there’s some profiteering involved as well.
I went to the Driver’s License Center and asked to take the written test in English.
The worker replied to me in Japanese and I responded with “I’m sorry, I don’t understand, my Japanese is really bad.”
At that point he refused to speak to me. He did not refuse to help me. He simply stopped speaking and started writing… in English.
“Written or Practical?”
I pointed to written and said it at the same time.
He then started gesturing to me about the practical exam.
“Excuse me.” I said in Japanese, “I need the written exam in English.” I pointed to the word written.
He made an X with his arms.
“Nai?” I asked. “You don’t have the written exam in English.”
At this point, many more employees gathered around and all started gesturing. NO ONE would speak. Just gesture.
Finally, an American man and his Japanese wife came over to help.
He spoke with them and said, “They refuse to help you if you don’t have an interpreter.”
“Why? I just need the *written* exam. In English.”
“They need to know how you got your license, and how long you’ve been driving here in Japan and how you got your car.”
“Okay, please tell them…”
The gentleman cut me off. “I’m not an interpreter. They said that I don’t count.”
“What? I… What? You speak Japanese, right? And your wife does as well (she speaks both English and Japanese fluently)?”
“Yes, but it’s too late, you have to come back.”
“It’s 2:00 pm… are they closing?”
“No, they just refuse to help you until you come back with someone who speaks Japanese.”
“But YOU speak Japanese. And so does your wife!”
“Yes, but they want you to come back another time.”
The day wasn’t a total loss, I found out where to get a few other things taken care of (like getting my license translated to Japanese, getting my certificate of residence (which is different from my residence card – which was given to me the day I arrived in Japan. Are you reading this France??).
So, my BOE has to *hire* a translator to come with me every time I take the test… again, I may need to take it multiple times.
And why might I need to take it multiple times? Because there are two courses one might test on… and, as the test-taker, I have to MEMORIZE the course ahead of time to drive it.
I. Have. To. Memorize. It.
Why? I cannot find a reasonable excuse for having to MEMORIZE the driving course before I drive it.
I am tempted to forego this altogether and just drive on an expired license. Except that here, that’s punishable by jail time and massive fines.
The idiocy and inefficiency of this process astounds me to know end.
There are many threads to weave together for this entry, I’ll do my best to be clear and concise, but I make no promises that I’ll succeed.
Mid-Winter in Japan can be harsh. The nights are long, the days are cold, and often both the classroom and teacher’s room can be freezing. In fact, it is not unheard of for people to turn on fans and turn off the heaters in order to “circulate the warm air” even while it’s snowing outside. No amount of explanation can convince TPTB that this reasoning doesn’t pan out – though in fairness, this is also often done to get fresh air in the room since they use kerosene heaters.
This past Winter, while colder than I am used to, wasn’t overly bad. But it hit several of my friends rather hard and it brought me down a bit as well.
Some of my friends here in Japan (mostly ones for whom this was their first year) decided to leave Japan. Almost all are finishing their contract, but one left mid-contract to return to the U.S. It’s not all due to Winter weather, though. Some realized that they’ve gotten all they can out of Japan and need to return home. Others need to take a break so they can recharge and come back to Japan.
Whether they are leaving temporarily or permanently, I will miss them all terribly.
For me, though, I came to a different realization. While I’ve invested years into getting to Japan and being able to teach abroad, I’ve had to accept that long term this is not going to work out. My ability to save for retirement is severely hindered both in terms of pay and in ability to have tax deferred investments (one cannot contribute to an IRA with money that isn’t taxed in the U.S.).
It’s a hard realization, but my dream of being a globetrotting English teacher simply isn’t in the cards.
Accepting this, I’ve decided to go back to school. I’ve found a great online program through Colorado State University to get a B.S. in Information Technology. As it’s online, I’ll be able to stay here in Japan and teach while studying at home during the evenings. The program will take just a year and a half (longer if I decided to do a specialization). And, with any luck, I’ll be able to find a few online IT jobs that would allow me to remain abroad while still teaching.
I’ll stay in Japan as long as I can – I am not in a hurry to leave. With a little planning and luck, I might even be able to move to Italy to study Italian for a year before returning home to the U.S.
And to where will I return? Likely Florida. My parents are getting older and my father had massive heart surgery last year. My other brothers are married and have their own lives to lead. For them, uprooting and going to Florida would be difficult. For me, it would be as easy as a plane ticket and a new job.
It’s not ideal. I’ve loved teaching. There’s great joy to be had in coaching my students for exams, interviews, competitions, etc. But there’s a life after work… a life in retirement, and I need to plan for that as well.
Sadly, returning to university has meant dropping out of Kendo. This was extremely hard to do as I really enjoyed the class. Moreover, the sensei had put in a lot of work with me and in trying to communicate with me.
When I told him last night about my decision, I expected him to be upset. But I explained the situation and he said he understood and that it is important to prepare to take care of one’s family and one’s future. He gave me a shinai as a memento of my time in his class. We bowed, and then we hugged and said good-bye.
I was speaking with my mother about this yesterday. One thing we agreed on is that, no matter what, no matter what direction my life takes, studying I.T. online while living in Japan is pretty damn cool. There’s no real downside to it. And, if things change – I find a better job teaching, or some other changes come about – I’ll have an M.A. TESOL backed by multiple years teaching at different grade levels and a B.S. in I.T. backed by 14 years experience at Apple. That’s a damn fine safety net. I.T. market tanks? Move abroad to teach for a few years until the market improves. Get tired of living abroad? Return to the U.S. to work in I.T. And, as I wrote earlier, with some luck, I might be able to work abroad AND do I.T. work.
There’s something nagging at me in the back of my mind, though. I wonder if I’m going down the right path. In all honesty, if I could lead any lifestyle, I’d be studying Italian in Italy while working on my writing. I… I just don’t know that I have it in me to be that good of a writer. A Case of Do or Die was great to work on, and, had I not suddenly had the chance to come to Japan, I’d have loved to finish that story instead of abandoning it in its infancy. I have ideas for stories about an archaeologist and his robot sidekick, a father / daughter story about sacrifice set in a fantasy world, humans being exiled from Earth, and several other. I’d love to bring them all to life – but I’m stuck, wondering what is the better use of my time – I.T. or fictions writing.
Civilization: Beyond Earth
In 1999, Firaxis released a game called Alpha Centauri. It is likely one of the best games I have ever played. I’ve longed hoped for a sequel, but AC was tied up in legal wrangling over rights to the IP.
Last week, Firaxis announced a spiritual successor to AC called Civilization: Beyond Earth… and sweet lord it looks amazing. If you’re unfamiliar with this, check out YouTube for the game trailer.
Orphan Black: Watch it.
Lindsey Stirling: Listen to her.
StarTalk Podcast: Subscribe to it.
As stated in a previous post, while I was in graduate school and dealing with cancer, I kept a picture of cherry blossoms in Kyoto as a reminder of my goal to live in Japan.
Additionally, my Japanese professor had told me that Fall and Spring are the most beautiful times in Japan and that everyone should experience hanami (お花見 – cherry blossom viewing) in Kyoto at least once.
Thus, this past weekend in Kyoto fulfilled both a long time goal and a promise I made to my professor.
I arrived late Friday night. After checking in, I walked to Kiyomizudera for night viewing or illuminated cherry blossoms. During the day, cherry blossoms are bright and vibrant and bursting with color. At night, illuminated and backlit, the sakura have a ghostly and electric look, like neon halos.
The next day I headed to Heian Shrine for day time viewing. The shrine gardens had trees that were heavy with blossoms and sweeping branches, long and laden with flowers.
After, I took a boat ride through the Okazaki canal for a different perspective of Kyoto and it’s sakura.
It began raining heavily, so I headed back to my hotel and sadly had to cancel my plans for further viewings that night.
The next day I took a small side trip to Osaka. Den-den town has become a favourite area of Osaka to visit. It’s the electronics center of the city, and one can find old school games, anime, manga, toys, etc.
There’s a certain bit of joy to be had while walking around Den-den and hearing chip music pouring out of the shops.
The new academic year has started and this means a lot of shuffling teachers and staff. In Kibichuo, all four JHS were closed and consolidated to one new JHS. This new school is really nice with modern equipment and lots of natural light. There are for JTEs there, one of whom is my neighbor.
Oh, by the way, I have neighbors now.
One of the hardest aspects of living in Japan has been my immensely remote location – with a house so far out in the country side that I have no neighbors. However, my house is part of a small complex of houses, all of which have been empty (except for mine).
Last month, three new people moved in to the complex – and all of them are teachers at the new JHS. The new English teacher lives directly across the path from me, and the science and math teachers live about 40 meters from me.
Having neighbors means I can practice my Japanese. I’ve literally been getting worse at Japanese because I have so few chances to use it, but now I’ll have many more chances to practice – which I am excited about.
Additionally, I am going to Fukuoka in August for a two week intensive course. I’m extremely happy about that.
Moreover, one of my new schools is literally down the street from where I live – a very short walk (maybe five minutes?) and I am there.
Allow me to start this entry with a quote from John Stewart:
And a corollary to that: If you were technically telling the truth, you were purposely setting out to mislead.
I do my best to be honest and ethical, though I do fail from time to time, and likely more often than I’ll admit to.
Something happened yesterday that really put my ethical resolve to the test.
Long before I got the job in Japan, I had booked a flight to visit my brother and his wife. After I was accepted to the JET Program, I had to cancel that trip as it overlapped with mandatory training at the consulate in San Francisco. I called the airline and canceled the ticket and was told I had a small but decent credit to use towards a future flight.
I have a friend in Australia whom I haven’t seen since I was living in France. I have wanted to fly down to visit her and her family, but the airfare has been quite expensive. Last month I called my airline to see if I could use the credit I have to fly from Japan to New Zealand and then from NZ to Australia. They put me on hold and, after ten minutes, they hadn’t come back, so I hung up.
Yesterday while at work, I received an email from the airline saying that the changes had been made and my flights booked.
I called them to find out what was going on. There had been a glitch in the software. The agent never canceled my request, and the ticketing system, for some reason, just converted my ticket to the flights mentioned above… at no charge. I had the following conversation with the ticketing agent:
“So, the ticket is legit?”
“But, ethically, is it mine to use?”
“Well, no. But honestly there’s not much to do. It would actually be a lot of work to cancel this out, refund you the credit and not cost you another ticket change penalty.”
“So, I can use it. I can go to Tokyo, fly to NZ, and then on to Oz?”
“Yes, the ticket will work.”
“Can you run this by your supervisor? I don’t want you to lose your job just over my getting a nearly free flight.”
“Sure, hold please.”
He was gone for about ten minutes. When he returned.
“So, my supervisor is okay with this. Little glitches like this pop up all the time and we honor the tickets. So, please, enjoy your trip to NZ and Oz.”
Now this isn’t an entirely free trip. I had to pay a small sum last year for the original flight to visit my brother. And I have to get to Tokyo. And I have to pay for a flight back to Japan from Oz. But all in all, I’ve saved literally about 2/3rds of the cost of the entire trip.
Now, I have five days to kill in NZ. Whatever shall I do?
While in grad school, working on my MA TESOL, I had a teacher who made us write journals – and really, journaling as part of an MA program? Seriously?
I quickly grew tired of writing my thoughts on language acquisition, and, as I was diagnosed with cancer during this time, I started writing about my desire to move to Japan and what I wanted to do once I arrived. At the top of my list was hanami in Kyoto.
Right now I am in Kyoto fulfilling that dream. I’ll write more when I return.
The funnest part of teaching in Japan has been the monthly songs. Each month I choose a new song for the students and we sing it together at the start of class. We’ve sung The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Miley Cyrus, Avril Lavigne, and more.
Of all the songs though, I’ve most enjoyed Taylor Swift’s We Are Never Getting Back Together. It’s catchy and cute and fun. And when the class started taking “roles” in the song – some students singing lead and others doing backup vocals – I felt so proud of them and the effort they put into the class. But what is really kind of puzzling… I have no idea when they planned that out. It just happened one day.
Oh, and how many students asked me to explain “indie record”? – don’t ask.
The last song I did for the academic year was Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway. With the four junior highs merging into one for the new academic year (which starts this month), and the fact that there’s no high school in my town – thus many of the graduating students will be going to surrounding cities for their high school education – I thought that Breakaway seemed appropriate. It was my way of saying good-bye to the departing students. More than a few tears were shed by my students.
Japan… right in the heart.
The Hiroshima Peace Museum was completely different than I had expected. If there’s any place in the world that had a right to espouse anti-American sentiments, it’s Hiroshima (and Nagasaki). However, there was little to be found.
The museum is separated into three sections. The first details the history of Hiroshima before the dropping of Little Boy on Hiroshima. The second part of the museum describes how atomic / nuclear weapons work, how they are triggered, deployed, etc. And which countries in the world have nuclear weapons and their reported stockpiles. The final section details the effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and its citizens, the initial destruction and death tolls, the mid and long term effects on the population and, most disturbing, the effects on the people who didn’t die in the initial blast, but suffered for days or weeks before dying.
Interestingly, the gift shop for the museum is between the second and third parts of the museum.
The first section paints a very even handed and level picture of what lead to the bombing of Hiroshima. It was a joint education / military capitol for its region. It was the launching point for many attacks on China. The museum doesn’t shy away from Japan’s role as a military aggressor in World War 2, it’s sneak attacks on China and the U.S., its forced labor camps, etc. Nor does it gloss over the fact that Japan refused to surrender *before* the atomic bomb was dropped.
At the same time, it doesn’t ignore the Allied desire to demonstrate the might of the atomic bomb – especially as a deterrent to the Soviet Union’s expansion.
There were many things that lead to the bombing of Hiroshima, and there was enough blame to go around.
I spoke with my mother about this, how the decisions of those in power affected the lives of so many innocent people. She said it’s just further proof that those who decide to go to war are not the same people who have to fight the wars. They aren’t the ones putting their lives on the line, nor making sacrifices. The majority of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had little to do with the attacks on China or the U.S. But they are the ones who paid the price. And because of the nature of atomic weaponry, they continue to pay the price decades later.
One of the most overwhelming aspects of the museum was the display of all the letters of protest that Hiroshima has sent to nuclear powers around the world. Each time a nation conducts a nuclear weapons test, they send a letter of protest to the head of state for that country – 606 in all as of October 2013.
Hiroshima strives to be the peace capital of the world. It has a long, hard slog ahead of it.