It’s been nearly 14 months since I arrived in Japan, and the other day I was reflecting on just how far I have come in a year. It’s easy and it’s tempting to look at certain aspects of my life here and feel like I have miles yet to go…
…but on the other hand, looking back shows me just how far I’ve already come.
August/September 2015: Started from absolute zero. At this point, I was slowly memorizing hiragana (and I hadn’t reached katakana yet). My conversational ability only extended to the most basic phrases — good morning, thank you, it’s raining today, this is delicious, I’m sorry, it’s nice to meet you, 大丈夫ですか？ and ならほうどう！Visits to the grocery store flustered me, and whenever a cashier asked me a question (such as what I now know to be “Do you want this sandwich heated up?”), I could only stare back with a confused look — and the cashier would just do whatever he or she thought was best. As you can imagine, I wasn’t very fun to talk to in Japanese, and I pretty helpless in daily life.
August/September 2016: When my parents visited in August, we went to Tohoku region. Tohoku region is far enough off the beaten track for a lot of foreigners, though, that most people working in the area’s service industry don’t have a high level of English ability (unlike in Kyoto and Tokyo). So it was up to me to play translator as best I could. I checked us into hotels, translated menus, and asked all the silly questions that my parents forced me to ask, with a decent amount of success! Of course, my Japanese was far from perfect and I had to consult Google Translate more than a few times, but overall, I was pretty impressed with myself. I’d come a long way!
My best moment was at a tonkatsu restaurant in Akita — my parents and I walked in and all the staff freaked (because we look so foreign and they didn’t have an English menu). However, I managed to translate the menu just fine (thanks Google!) and I ordered all our food in Japanese, and from that moment on, the older woman who ran the shop kept stopping by our table to ask me friendly questions. It was also the first time that someone assumed I was actually living in Japan, and not just touring. (My parents, however, were assumed to be visiting, which of course they were). That lunch was a big confidence-boost for me, and I needed it, because when it comes to speaking, I know I’m usually pretty helpless here. Bank transfers are beyond me, and the long list of questions that they rattle off at the post office makes me wary to ever send a letter. And sometimes at work enkais, I just hear long stretches of white noise and I curse my infantile language skills.
I’ll never be fluent, but sometimes it’s good to remember that I’m not always helpless, either.
August/September 2015: My first few lessons were crap. I remember that I was literally shaking, and I was very uncomfortable with all eyes on me. I didn’t know how to respond to or how to really interact with students (luckily they forgave me). And I didn’t yet know the personalities or teaching styles of the colleagues whom I shared the classroom with, which makes a big difference during lessons. At my tech school, where I am 100% responsible for making all the lessons I teach, I floundered with a lack of ideas and rather poor execution. The first few months of teaching were stressful for me, with moments of hope and moments of disappointment.
August/September 2016: I’m not going to lie. I still get nervous sometimes (especially when I’m teaching a brand new lesson of my own design), and I still have classes that go rather terribly. Just last week, actually, I left one of my classes feeling pretty disappointed with how that lesson had gone. However, for the most part, I’m so much more at ease in the classroom than I was last year. Experience (and talking with other ALT friends) has given me a long list of activity ideas, and I know for the most part what will work, and what will fail. A really important factor to this is that I know my students and my classes better. I know what to expect. I know what they enjoy doing. And I know my colleagues better. We know what hats to wear in class; we critique lessons afterwards and try to fix any problems that arose for the next class. On top of all that, I’m actively trying to apply what I learn in my TEFL course to the classroom — I’ve been simplifying my instructions so students understand them better, I’ve learned how to speak slower than I used to (still a work-in-progress), and I think I’ve been organizing my lesson structures more effectively. Teaching in itself has such a big learning curve, and I’m finally on the upswing.
There have been so many days where I end the class bursting with happiness, and there are so many lessons that end in laughter. I really love what I’m doing here, and even the moments of failure have been worth it. I’m excited to see what kind of teacher-in-training I am by next year!
August/September 2015: On my first day of Kimono class, back in September of 2015, it took me the full two hours to tie my obi once — alongside everyone else, of course — even though the students started kimono class months prior, we were all tackling this new obi style together. In the following classes, I struggled to remember all the steps, and I messed up spectacularly. I was a little terrified to even handle the obi — I knew it was expensive, and I worried about tearing it. Then in October, Kimono-sensei brought out the actual kimonos for us to try on, and class got even more complicated. When Kimono-sensei started floating the idea that I should enter a competition, I thought it was a joke –I couldn’t even tie the obi properly after two months of practice!
August/September 2016: A year later, and I am pretty well-practiced in the art of kimono. I’m proud to say that I can tie my obi in three minutes flat, and I can fully dress and undress myself in kimono three or four times in a row each class. It’s hard work — harder than I ever thought it would be — but I’m amazed that over the months, I have turned what I thought was impossible — to fully dress myself in kimono and obi in under 10 minutes — into an accomplished reality — just a few weeks ago, I finally broke the 10:30 record I had been hovering at. I still make mistakes (sometimes one of the ties are visible, or my hem isn’t long enough, or the collar needs adjustment) but I’m much further than I ever expected to be.
And I’m so happy with how far I’ve come.