Summer program

Well, it has certainly been TOO long. I really didn’t mean to abandon this blog for so long, and I wanted to post in it so many times, especially this summer at Japanese school, but English was forbidden and considering how often I broke the rules on the weekends when out with my friends, I thought it would be best to at least be good with online stuff.

So, since the last time I posted, I had my last day at my editor job in June, went to the Pacific Northwest for a week to visit Lil (who I met in Japan when we did the same study abroad program, then we were roommates in LA for my second summer with TOKYOPOP) and we went to Canada (my first time there!), then I went to the north of the second-largest state in the US (I’m being careful since I don’t want to get listed in any search results) for the Japanese program.

The program! Oh… how to even express it. It was hands-down one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life, and I am so happy that I finally bit the bullet and went through with it. I had just the absolute best time, met so many great people, both fellow students and teachers alike, and it was an experience I’ll never forget, even if time dulls our bonds (as it has with most of my Japan study abroad friends). I regard it as nothing short of incredible luck and fortune that everything aligned to bring me together with those people in that place at that time. I’m serious. It was one of those times when you don’t feel any fear or worry about your life, because you know you’re doing exactly what you need to be doing and it’s directly accomplishing your goals. I don’t have that feeling very often, and I miss it already.

We lived in a dorm on a college campus and had our meals in the dining hall. Getting from the dorm to anywhere else always involved walking up and down steep hills; we said at the beginning we’d be used to it by the end but we never were! I was always happy when I could catch a ride with one of the bilingual language assistants (sort of like RAs) in their golf cart to the dining hall.

We had a few days to meet people and get used to things in English, and then the pledge came down and English was forbidden. Sometimes, I still can’t believe that for eight weeks, I communicated with other English speakers (well, and a good handful of exchange students at American universities whose first language wasn’t English) only in Japanese. There are people I met after the pledge began who I hadn’t spoken with in English until the very last day, after the pledge was lifted at our final banquet. It was such a strange feeling! There were people I liked better in English, and people I liked better in Japanese!!

Somehow I fell into a great group of friends. Our rooms were close to each other in the dorm so we originally met in the hallway before walking to get food together, but over time a core group of four emerged, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. I was the oldest at 26, and everyone was two years apart: 26, 24, 22, 20. All at different stages of life: one in college, still figuring out life and majors and careers; one just graduated and about to begin a master’s/PhD program through grant funding; one fresh from grad school and about to start job hunting; and me, just quit my job and about to move to Japan and try and start a new career. Pairs of us were in the same Japanese classes; the 24-year-old (Kris) grad school graduate and me were in upper intermediate, and the 22-year-old (Ai) and 20-year-old (Mon) were in upper beginning. We’re all different skin colors, which is hilarious and we’d always joke how photos of us looked like a college brochure. Ai is black, but her grandmother is Japanese, so that’s her connection, and she has a fabulous grant that will sponsor her studies. I am positive she’ll be incredibly powerful and successful someday. She’s also very athletic and competitive and got so hilariously upset about a girl who didn’t try hard enough on our sports day that just thinking about her righteous outrage brings a smile to my face today. Mon is half-Egyptian and wants to focus on Japanese in her future career, but she speaks Arabic too and kept getting distracted by the Arabic school students sharing our campus. She’s also hilarious and had us cracking up all the time. Kris is Korean by birth but adopted by a white family; she loves to send letters and packages and is so responsible and passionate about her academic/professional pursuits. After the summer ended she got a job as a high school Japanese teacher! Everyone is so beautiful, ambitious, and impressive. I was so happy we fell in together.

And, as I said, we’d escape on the weekends (Mon had a car) and as soon as we got in the car, the language pledge was forgotten. I sort of feel bad about this, and sort of don’t. My Japanese still progressed even with these regular breaks, and our Japanese levels were pretty different, so it was hard to fully express our thoughts and feelings to each other when restricted by the pledge. If we hadn’t had those breaks, we wouldn’t have gotten to know each other so well, and it would have been a real shame. I sort of assumed that everyone who went off campus was doing the same thing—forgetting the pledge—and a few people we knew were, mostly those who were in the complete beginner class, but all of our upper intermediate classmates were so dedicated to the pledge and even when they went out in groups into town, they’d still keep up Japanese. Amazing! I admire them, but that wasn’t for me. So we explored the cities around the college, we went to see fireworks on the Fourth of July together and had late-night doughnuts on our way back, we snuck out to go see The Dark Knight Rises, we had ice cream and dinner and shopped together.

On campus we met in our dorm hallway every morning to walk to breakfast together, and we’d have most meals together too (but as the summer wore on not everyone was present at everything together). Some of us would go to the gym or run together, and the more advanced students would help out the others with Japanese. Of course we all had friends outside of the core 4 who joined us sometimes too. I liked most people at the program, enough that if I went to a meal alone I could find a group to join and sit with (one weekend brunch I sat at a table for hours, leisurely chatting as friends came, ate, stayed, left, and were replaced by new people!), though there were many I couldn’t stand too. Let’s not talk about them; I’m already happily pretending they don’t exist now that I don’t have to interact with them anymore.

We would also have nights in on the weekends in the dorm, and we’d flagrantly flout the rules then too. One night we holed up in Mon’s room (it was during a Japanese program party—that we’d attended for about five minutes before deciding it wasn’t worth it—so no one was around to hear us) and drank and painted our nails and had the best time. Another weekend night we took over the dorm’s common room porch, closed the doors and windows, and kept a sharp eye out for passersby, ready to switch to Japanese if anyone came near. That was deliciously devilish and fun—it was like hiding in plain sight. In a lot of regards our tastes didn’t always align, but our equivalent of a pair of traveling pants was a brand of apple cider we found; everyone loved it, even those like Mon who usually found bitch beers too sweet. That night in the common room porch we worked our way through a pack of it, talking freely and honestly.

So I had the best friends, and I also had the best class. Except two people, I loved all my classmates, and I loved my teachers unabashedly. My class was ten people, and it was the perfect size. The Japanese level was also perfect for me; I’d hoped at the beginning for the very top level, advanced, but upper intermediate suited me well too. Sometimes I feel like after eight years studying this (damn) language I should have gotten past upper intermediate already, but sometimes I realize it’s impressive that four years after my last formal Japanese class, my level is still just as good as it was upon graduation, if not better. Kris was always impressed by that.

Oh, speaking of Kris, she had also applied to everything I’d applied to as well, the 10-month program in Japan, and she’d also gotten accepted and—get this—gotten the whole cost of the program paid for with scholarships! All she had left to take care of was the cost of living! But she still decided it was too expensive and had already rejected it by the time we met on campus! She’d gotten last-minute funding from the summer program only a couple weeks before it started, which made her decide hurriedly to attend, so that’s crazy that we almost could have missed her. Anyway, her decision about the 10-month program definitely affected mine. After thinking it over for a week or two, I ended up deciding to withdraw from it too, and go ahead on the teaching plan. I did get about $11,000 in scholarships in the second round of funding, but that’s only a fifth of the total cost, and I maybe only had another fifth in savings, which still left two-thirds up in the air with no way to fund it. I realized I hadn’t done as good of a job with my essays as I could have, and that it would probably be best to re-try for next year, and hope I got more funding then. It felt like the right decision, and honestly I didn’t have any other options. I’m still not thrilled to be teaching English, which I had really hoped to avoid one way or another, but I’m proving my dedication by moving to Japan anyway, and hopefully that will positively impact my applications for next year, which I’m beginning to prepare now. Of course, I’m still at a giant disadvantage because I’m not a grad student which makes me a very unattractive candidate (to scholarship committees) in comparison, and I still don’t know how I’m going to successfully convince them that I’m just as worthy of funding too (and that yeah, I might be a professional, but that does NOT mean I could pay for this out of my earnings!) but it looks like I’m going to try regardless and see what happens. I’m also going to try to get a non-teaching job starting in the spring, which I’m currently feeling pretty pessimistic about, but I have to try.

Back to Japanese school! My classmates and teachers. We really were the best class, and I think everyone knew it. Other classes (lower intermediate in particular) might have thought they were the best, but they weren’t. Class was every weekday for four hours/periods. For us, it was usually reading comprehension, grammar, conversation, and more reading comprehension, each subject ideally taught by a different teacher. We had four teachers, and I came to love all of them. Three of them were professors of Japanese at American universities during the rest of the year. My first favorite was T-sensei. She was outgoing, fun, and interested in all the students, so she was easy to love. I also liked I-sensei, an intern still in grad school who was Kris’s age; we both recognized her as the sort of person we would have become friends with during study abroad if we’d studied at her university, and at first we nurtured hopes of getting drunk with her and eliminating all the stiff boundaries we had to respect instead since she was our “sensei” (using polite Japanese and so on).

M-sensei and O-sensei, I was lukewarm-to-neutral on at first, because they weren’t immediately as interesting. Then I realized O-sensei had kind of a wry sense of humor, and I liked her better; at first she had seemed too rigid and her clothing style (she would usually wear shapeless dresses that resembled sacks of potatoes in shape and material; she looked like a straight-up Harry Potter professor) was off-putting. She also seemed like the world’s most typical, traditional Japanese woman, but later I learned she had left Japan in part to escape the glass ceiling of careers for women there, and thus shared my views on feminism and other such non-traditional concepts. In her words (translated), “I was coming to hate my own country, so I left it in order to come to love it more, from a distance.” Also, she was a big cat lover (on the first day she told us she liked the smell of cats, haha!) so I liked that about her too. I could always ask her about her cat to keep conversation going in the dining hall (the teachers ate meals with us).

M-sensei, I hadn’t thought much of until the halfway point of the program, and for the past four weeks I was totally all about him (platonically, of course; I also strongly suspect he’s gay). He’s been with this program for more than 20 years, and he’s also the assistant director (“vice principal” since we call the program director “principal”), so he was the first or second person to speak at orientation, when everything was still English. I had no idea he would be my teacher, and my first impression was: gay. This guy is gay. But since he’s also Japanese, I wasn’t 100% certain. (I’m still only 97% certain, and I have a lot more evidence now.)

Then I started having class with him, but I really didn’t take much notice of him or seek him out outside of class (except to repeat with Kris in an imitation of his voice, good-naturedly, some of his more amusing verbal tics, like 「じゃ~あ~あ」which never failed to make us crack up) until our summer festival. Then Kris and I noticed the perfectly festival-themed T-shirt he had chosen to wear, and I realized how he seemed to be hovering awkwardly around the edges of all the booths, unsure whether to join conversations or not. Then I realized: he’s socially awkward! And yet he’s been a teacher for so long, doing exactly what goes against his nature! And he’s a really good teacher, explains everything so well and makes it interesting. I was instantly impressed and charmed. Kris shared my feelings, and Ai and Mon also got their first taste of him too, and were just as enchanted and wanted to get to know him better, especially when we told them about 「じゃ~あ~あ」 and the other not-intentionally-funny things he’d say.

From that point on, Kris and I sought him out any chance we could get. Most of the time, our timing just wouldn’t match up and his table in the dining hall at lunch would fill up too fast or ours would, but every time we did manage it, the conversation was just so amusing and perfect and we found out so much good stuff. We got him to tell us about how he can see/sense ghosts and hear a few stories about his experiences (learning in the process how a lot of the Japanese teachers had felt a presence on campus and named it Michiko), we found out there had been a crossdress party at the Japanese school one year and he had participated (!), he talked about working as an interpreter in Canada, he was astounded that I don’t eat any seafood (“So no fish. What about shrimp? Eel?? Crab???”) and proceeded to make wry jokes about it later, we learned that he and a few other teachers jogged to the “scary” gas station outside campus some mornings to buy lotto tickets, etc. There was also the amusing revelation in class that as a kid, he’d thought the people on the Titanic died because before they went into the water, they didn’t do 準備運動, or warm-up stretching every Japanese person is conditioned to believe must be done before swimming or there will be dire consequences (including a heart attack). There was so much more I wish I could remember now, or had recorded!

In the first week or two of school, we had had a Japan-style sports day, and one game had been everyone vs. everyone, a sort of cross between the hokey pokey and rock-paper-scissors: music plays for the hokey pokey—in Japanese though, and with the moves not exactly the same—and when it stops, you play rock-paper-scissors against the person you’re facing. Whoever loses has to go stand behind the winner, holding onto his/her shoulders, and you have to do the dance steps together (there’s hopping involved). As the game went on, lines got longer and longer, and the number of champions at the head of lines (now competing as a line of people headed by one person versus another line) shrunk. Somehow… I kept winning! Along the way, I beat M-sensei, and then I just kept winning, and eventually won the entire thing!! It was so insane; it’s not like I’m particularly good at rock-paper-scissors or anything. To my surprise, I was then awarded a special prize: a meal of my choice cooked for me by the director/principal!

I was a mini-celebrity for a little while after winning it; it was mentioned in class, and teachers I didn’t know would mention it right off when we talked in the dining hall. They would always assure me that the director was a great cook. I soon talked with the person himself about this meal, and I asked him if I could invite my three friends, since my first instinct was to share it with them too. I also requested katsu curry as the meal pretty early on. He agreed to both requests!

We didn’t get around to actually scheduling the dinner until the second half of the program, and once we did, an idea occurred to me: we should invite M-sensei too. By that point, I’d realized the director and M-sensei were good friends (one of those friendships between a socially fluent, affable person and a shyer, more awkward person). I knew this because when the director visited our class when we had a guest once, and asked each of our teachers to tell us about their experiences on a theme, he almost referred to M-sensei by his first name. The first mora of M-sensei’s first name came out of his mouth before he corrected himself and called him M-san instead! I was dying inside. Anyway, that made me think M-sensei could attend our dinner too, so I asked the director if he could via email, and hadn’t heard back from him when finally M-sensei told me, looking adorably pleased/flattered that he had been specially requested, between class periods that he would be じゃまする-ing our dinner. Yes!!

Dinner was pretty fun, and definitely tasty, and it was a great opportunity for the director to get to know each of us, but the best thing was how much it felt like having dinner with a pair of gay uncles. Kris and I fell over each other cracking up as soon as we were out the door, giggling about how it had felt exactly like that. Of course, the director is married and M-sensei is also in a relationship of some kind (he wears a thick-banded ring, and he once brought banana bread to class made by someone he referred to as his 大事な人 or “important person”—which I’m pretty sure is code for “gay partner” because if not, why not just say “wife” or “girlfriend”?), but we just love how much they are bros. Once a classmate commented on it too, saying 「二人はbro」 — another thing we repeated, endlessly amused.

At our last karaoke party, all the classes had to prepare a song to sing. But what we didn’t know is that each class’s teachers had also prepared a song! And in our case, it was something unexpectedly hilarious and great, and ultimate proof of how our teachers and our class were the best. We watched and discussed (ad nauseum…) two movies over the summer, and we were halfway through our discussion of the second one when the party rolled around. One of the characters was a guitarist/songwriter, and his song figured prominently in the movie. They had taken the lyrics to that song, altered them to fit the school and our class, and made a video with their lyrics and the karaoke version of the song! Which they sang in front of everyone, wearing identical sunglasses. Oh god, I was dying, we were all dying, every new line was hilarious and fantastic. “What’s love? What’s life?” became things like “What’s a conclusion? What’s grammar?” And it just didn’t stop, it was all so perfect. Absolutely fantastic.

We also had a class party at M-sensei’s apartment, with food and alcohol, and it was so much fun. My favorite moment was when I tried the shochu the teachers had steeped in lemon all summer, and exclaimed how good it was, and M-sensei responded giddily “でしょでしょ!” (Right?!?).

On the last or second-to-last day of real class, one of the other students brought the teachers’ song from karaoke night full circle perfectly: faced with a sentence to read that started もうすぐに just like the beginning line of the lyrics they had re-written and sung, he recited the lyric line instead of the sentence, with a perfectly straight face. I-sensei was our teacher that class period, and she was so confused at first! Then we all burst out laughing. It was wonderful.

On the last day of class, we met one last time, just to chat and eat snacks and sort of say goodbye. The teachers were all late and the pledge had just been lifted the night before, so we had a lot of time to wait for everyone to arrive one by one and talk in English with each other, in many cases for the first time. Then we went into the classroom, arranged desks in a circle, and went around sharing our impressions of the class and our experience. (I had to break mine off early because I was on the verge of tears, and then interrupt someone else beginning to say the rest of what I wanted to say, haha. One girl, one of my closest friends in the class, did end up crying through hers.) Most of us students spoke English, or mostly/partially English, although all of the teachers except M-sensei refused to let us hear their English and spoke Japanese instead. I was so happy that M-sensei indulged us! We had all heard his English at orientation, but since I didn’t know who he was then, I barely remembered it. His English is of course very natural and good. He talked about how he knows he’s 不器用 (awkward) which was just even more charming.

Then our class broke out the thank-you gifts that Kris and I had made for the teachers (the other students contributed financially, and some sent us photos to use). We had printed out photos of the teachers, and photos of the teachers and us, and photos of the group of us taken throughout the summer, and placed snippets of the lyrics next to the photos. We had hoped for some waterworks when the gifts were received… but unfortunately, that did not happen. I think they were moved anyway though.

I also enjoyed exploring the college campus over the summer; I started jogging around, either with Kris or by myself, and got to know some of the scenic trails scattered around. I also visited the on-campus outdoor pool a couple times, and tried to make it to the fitness center once a week. By the end we were all sick of the cafeteria food, and complaining about it often.

I’ll say again that the best thing about the program was feeling like I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing: studying Japanese and watching my skills noticeably improve in every way. This was one of the best environments to progress your Japanese, even more than living in Japan. And the way everything aligned for me in terms of friendships, teacher relationships, and so forth just enhanced that, and made me convinced that even though I’d waited four years to finally do this program, it had all been worth it for me to eventually decide to go at that time if it meant I could meet those people and have that experience. It’s rare that you get to experience something that feels so right; I hadn’t felt like that since summer 2007 working in LA or study abroad in Japan fall 2006. I can say with no reservations at all that while there were stressful parts too, I truly had a blast.

In contrast to all the cheating I did with my friends, I was better in comparison about online stuff. Before this, I’d used my work day to write on-and-off, alternating spurts of work with reading articles on a series of favorite blogs, many of which I’d check daily if not weekly. Of course, all these were in English, so they had to go. It was hard to suddenly quit them cold turkey for two months when I’d gotten into such a habit, but I was able to do it. Well, mostly; I had a couple weekend moments of weakness where I just checked out the main page of some of them to see what was going on, but I never stayed long enough to get caught up. The midpoint of the program was also a period of leniency; as a much-deserved break/treat, I did more online browsing in English then than I’d done in a while.

I really didn’t do a lot of replacing this English media with Japanese media though. Japanese sites are so text-heavy, and most of them don’t show you a lot of articles on one page (my preference), you have to click on a title to read the full article, and faced with a long list of article titles, it’s just overwhelming. Even if you can read them if you try, which I can, it’s not very fun, and just not how I wanted to spend my free time. I also never found a good Japanese news site (I don’t think it exists, and it’s hard enough for me to read news in English—or watch it—so I might have to give up on this, much as it’s often cited to me as “what to do” when studying a language) so nothing replaced my previous regular reading of Japan Times articles to keep up with Japan news. What I did do successfully, however, was replacing my before bedtime reading with Japanese reading. I made some good progress on my book of Haruki Murakami short stories, and I also read and re-read a lot of the manga volumes I’d brought. Sometimes I would study from JLPT textbooks instead. I also thought maybe I’d watch anime, drama series, or movies, but I didn’t do any of that either. I was a lot more idealistic about how rigorous I’d be before the program began than after I got into it, but I was at least stricter about some things than other students were, like music: I did successfully only listen to Japanese music all summer. Well, unless I was out and about and it was playing somewhere, or in Mon’s car.

I feel like I received so much luck having such a great summer, it’s possible nothing may ever come close again. But it’s all right because I’m so happy with my experience. This really doesn’t happen often in my life, that I feel such undiluted happiness—no misgivings at all—about an experience. I will treasure it forever and I’m forever going to have a heart full of sheer gratefulness that I got to have it.

And now I’m living and working in Japan. I arrived here August 18, and it’s been a whirlwind since that’s only just calming down, finally, to my relief. More later.

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